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Sad Suspense Fiction

cw: mental health, trauma


When I tell Doc about it, I tell her nothing dramatic or out of the ordinary happened that day. Nothing at all. One moment, I was sweeping the floor in front of the till during a lull. Next thing I knew, I was rocking back and forth on the ground, sobbing. I don’t remember why. I just remember Claude, holding me and rubbing my back, helping me calm down. I don’t think we even knew each other’s names. I remember his well now. I remember writing it in Sharpie on a white paper cup. Claude had walked in that day expecting a cappuccino. Instead, he found a girl having a psychotic break.


I know my mind has fallen apart. I can’t remember why, but I don’t think I want to either. That’s why I tell Doc that nothing really happened. I just broke. It's easier to pretend that's the answer.


I think of Claude every time the smell of coffee drifts down the hall to my room. It sends me back to that day — not to that moment, but to the memory of him. He smelled like freshly dried laundry, and his hug was just as warm.


I'm wrapped up in the memory of his warmth when the bell rings down the hall. Poppy knocks on my door, her picture-perfect smile in place, and calls me down for breakfast. Her hair is tied back in two french braids today. Like Pippy Longstocking. She walks with me and the others down to the mess hall. The whitewashed walls are a blank canvas on either side of us and we all wear matching blue uniforms. I feel like we're a sports team coming out of the dorms to get ready for a tournament. We sit down together on hard benches at long, marked-up tabletops. We each get a tray of the same meal. Except Juno. Juno can’t eat pork. I think it makes her sick because she won’t even look at the rest of us as we eat it.


The cup of coffee on my tray is all I taste and smell even as I shovel the rest of the meal into my mouth — hash browns, multi-grain toast, a small cup of fruit, some yogurt. A cup of pills sits next to my coffee. I use the bitter drink to wash them all down at once. I burn my tongue and the roof of my mouth in the process, but I don't say anything to Poppy. I don't want her to call me stupid again. She does that a lot.


"Stupid! You know that stuff is hot! See the steam?"


I look down the table. She’s scolding Tris today instead.


Before they can catch me staring, I dip my nose into the steam coming from my cup and breathe in the comforting smell. Black. No cream. No sugar.


God, what I wouldn't give for a cappuccino.


After breakfast, we play games. Tris and Athalie sit in front of the TV while I try to teach Morgan how to hold more than three cards at a time. A losing battle.


I can still see the mess tables from where I sit. I see them bring out the broom to sweep up a spill. I forget about Morgan and the cards in front of me. She has a straight flush, but I don’t think she knows it. I think I have two pair. I don't remember anything that happens after I start screaming.


###


They don't let me have visitors on days when I scream. Claude was supposed to come, but I couldn’t make the screaming stop. The sound of the broom bristles scraping against the concrete floor was like nails on a chalkboard inside my skull. I didn’t even quiet down after Poppy dragged me out of the room away from the others.


Claude's visit is switched to the next day. Before bed, Poppy has to remind me why three times before I begin to remember my meltdown in the games room. When Dr. Montaigne comes by that night to ask me about it, I say what I always say: that I don’t remember.


I make sure I’m good the next day. I take my pills without complaining. I take all my meals in my room. I only go out once to get a cup of coffee, and then I wait in bed for visiting time. For Claude. I lose myself in the smell of coffee beans, slightly burnt, and promise myself I won’t scream today — not until after I get to see Claude, at least.


Poppy takes me to the visiting room before lunch. Juno is there already. She’s sitting with an old lady that has her face, only a wrinkled version. Claude is waiting for me at a table on the other side of the room.


I sit down across from him. He looks at my uniform and smiles like he’s proud of me for keeping it clean. I smile too. I’m just happy to see him. His hair is longer now. It curls past his jawline and behind his ears in thick, dark waves. I want to get up and hug him. I know I’m not allowed, but I just want to know if he still smells like fresh laundry.


He leans into the side of the table and reaches for my hand. “Hey, Jean,” he says in his low, soft voice. His brown eyes sparkle with starlight. I know it’s just the fluorescent reflecting in his irises, but he’s so beautiful, I don’t care. I just keep smiling. I’m glad I was good today. I’m glad I didn’t scream about anything.


“Did you already have coffee?” he asks.


I nod my head slowly. I’m sure he did, too, before he came. A cappuccino.


He pulls something off the bench and slides it toward me across the table anyway: a white paper cup in a cardboard sleeve. The logo of the coffee shop where we met peeks out from underneath the cardboard — a crossed fork and knife. I beam at him, pick up the cup, and inhale the smell: a perfect cappuccino just for me.


I take a sip and scald my tongue. He laughs. He doesn’t call me stupid like Poppy would.


He asks me about my day. I tell him that Morgan picked up four cards today even though I know now that it happened yesterday, before the screaming. I just want something to talk about so that we can keep talking a little longer. A few more minutes. I know he’ll go once I’m finished my coffee. I don’t want him to leave.


Poppy comes back to fetch me. Claude lets me keep the coffee cup.


“I’ll see you next week,” he says, like always. He leans across the table and kisses my cheek.


I smile. I look back over my shoulder every three steps as Poppy takes me away. He doesn’t leave the table; just watches me go with a sad smile. It makes me wonder if he wants to stay and talk more, too.


I have lunch in the mess hall after the visit. Juno sits with me. She picks at her salad with the tines of her fork while I devour a stack of roast ham.


“He still wears that name tag,” I say through a mouthful of ham.


Juno wrinkles her nose but doesn’t look at me. “The Quiznos one?”


“Quinn,” I remind her.


“Weird name for a coffee shop,” she says. She shrugs and finishes her salad while I gobble up the rest of my mashed potatoes and corn. My lunch pills always make me tired, so once I’m done Poppy sends me to my room. 


I have one more thing I have to do. I open my closet and place the empty paper cup from Claude’s visit on the top of the stack of others. They’re all identical, down to the size of the cup and the logo stamp, except for the name printed underneath. I always throw away the cardboard sleeve and make sure the letters face out. Quinn is written on the cup in Sharpie. It looks like my handwriting.


I stop and stare at my tower of cups like I always do when Claude brings me another one. The logo and text are black ink on a white canvas. They remind me of the plain, white canvas of the walls of this home, waiting to be filled with ideas and dreams.


I stare at the cups for a long time, feeling the same as I always do: like I’m forgetting something. Like I missed something important and if I just wait a little longer, it will come back to me. Why is the handwriting so familiar? Why does Claude wear the coffee shop's name whenever he visits?


Poppy knocks on my door. “Lights out!” she calls, her voice muffled through the walls.


I still don’t move. My mind keeps snagging on a thread of thought and I hope that if I just stand there long enough, it will finally unravel.


I remember snippets like always — a freshly laundered uniform, blue and red lights flashing, the grating groan of the espresso machine, the blade of a serrated knife cutting through a blueberry scone…


I shake my head as a sound like broom bristles scrapes through my thoughts. Red fills my vision and the memories fade there, like always. I don’t like the colour red and I don’t like sharp knives.


I close the closet and curl up in bed, pulling the blanket well over my head. The smell of the clean sheets makes me think of Claude and that makes me forget about knives and reds and blues. Dr. Montaigne says that some things are better left buried and I agree with her again today. Besides: one more hour of sleep is one less hour before I get to see Claude again. Maybe the next paper cup will jog my memory, but for now, I hope I never remember. That way, Claude will keep bringing me coffee. And I'll never find out what it is I did with that serrated knife before everything turned red.


###


The paramedic shakes the doctor’s hand as he steps down off the steps onto the lawn in front of the facility. His uniform fits comfortably over his shoulders, freshly laundered.


“Does she still keep the coffee cups?” he asks.


The doctor nods. Her blonde curls are light and bouncy in the dry air. “In her closet.” She pushes her hands deep in the pockets of her white coat and stands away from him, as though afraid to touch now that they’ve shaken hands in farewell. “I think she’s close, but something keeps blocking her.”


He heaves a sigh and squints out over the peaceful grounds. Crab apple trees line the driveway, green with leaves and ripening fruit. “Any more ... episodes?”


“Yesterday was the first one in a while. A spill in the mess hall. I think she thought the ketchup was blood. When the orderly was sweeping up the glass, she just started screaming.”


The paramedic winces in sympathy. “She was sweeping up the glass when I found her.” 


He shakes his head. The doctor already knows this from his incident report, but the memory of how he found her still haunts him. He shudders. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she never comes back from this.”


Dr. Montaigne nods. “Her parents still think she killed that man, like everyone else. They don’t plan on visiting. I don’t think they can face her.”


“I'll keep coming,” he says. He sounds like he’s trying to convince someone. Maybe himself. But he doesn’t say anything else.


“We appreciate it, Quinn,” Dr. Montaigne says. “Your visits seem to calm her.”


He doesn’t know what to say to that, so he bids the doctor goodbye, gets into his car, and drives away. He doesn’t know much about Jean. He met her for the first time when he came onto the scene at the coffee shop after a 911 call about a homicide. She was trying to sweep up the shattered remains of the shop window when he got there. Her broom smeared the blood everywhere. When he walked in, she fell apart, and he held her until back-up came.


Everyone assumed she had shot the man, but police found the gun in an abandoned car three days later, miles away. Some said there was still a chance Jean did it, but the trail went cold. She was in no state to be tried in court anyway.


Jean asked for him every day after she was admitted to the psych ward until one of the staff figured out she was asking for the paramedic who held her during her breakdown — not a familiar member. Her family wouldn’t visit. Jean was never charged with anything, but they still wouldn’t come.


He visits in their stead. He hopes that one day her parents will come. Until they do, he’d come once a week. At first, he only did it so he could find the right moment to correct her: his name was Quinn, not Claude. Claude was the man she was accused of murdering. But he could never find the right moment. He didn't want to make her start screaming like she had that day. He never wants to hear her scream like that again.


So, every week, he brings her a coffee from her old workplace, hoping the familiarity will help her remember. It gives him something to do besides work. He has no family or friends nearby either, and Dr. Montaigne says that remembering might help Jean heal. Whenever Quinn visits, Jean smiles at him like they’ve known each other for years. She loves cappuccinos — they seem to make her happy — and anyway, at this point, it's easier just to pretend.

February 01, 2021 19:16

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8 comments

Amany Sayed
14:01 Feb 20, 2021

I knew SOMETHING was going to happen, but I didn't expect that. Well written and kept me guessing. The pov change was a little jarring, but a small price to pay for the twist. Keep writing!

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Elise Volkman
22:20 Feb 22, 2021

Thank you! :)

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H L Mc Quaid
13:47 Feb 02, 2021

Beautifully written, and a satisfying, slow reveal. Some lovely metaphors: He smelled like freshly dried laundry, and his hug was just as warm. And: The sound of the broom bristles scraping against the concrete floor was like nails on a chalkboard inside my skull. I didn't catch any typos or awkward sentences, so I'm scrambling for something constructive to say. Only a few (tiny) things. For some reason I wanted this sentence: She’s sitting with an old lady that has her face, only a wrinkled version. To be something like: She’s sitting...

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Elise Volkman
00:14 Feb 05, 2021

Heather, thank you again for your feedback and your attention to detail!

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K. Antonio
13:43 Feb 02, 2021

I think you do a great job at "showing" us what's happening in the beginning and in the middle. The last transition is a nice wrap up as we get another perspective of what actually happened. I love how you set the scene and how the coffee shop theme was laced into the story to provide descriptions and insight into the main character's mind. Really quick: In the last 2 paragraphs you use the term "every week" to start off both times. And in the second to last paragraph, I believe we already know he visits once a week because of previous ...

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Elise Volkman
00:14 Feb 05, 2021

Thank you so much, K! I appreciate your attention to detail in your response. Your feedback is a delight.

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A.G. Scott
02:50 Feb 03, 2021

There were several tense inconsistencies from Jean's perspective (confusion of past and present). 'Like I missed something important and if I just wait a little longer, it will come back to me.' - this is simple, but it communicates the fragility of her mental state very well. Overall well-written at least on a sentence-by-sentence level. I think the conversation between Quinn and Doc is a bit maid-and-butler-y. Which is to say, it feels like their lines are written to give us exposition. It doesn't feel like conversation. Finally, this ...

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Elise Volkman
00:17 Feb 05, 2021

Thank you! I appreciate the feedback. I have to agree with you on the conversation between Quinn and Doc - I was having a hard time getting through their scene without it coming across as an info-dump but I also wanted the details to be explicitly clear for this story.

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