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Drama Fiction Mystery

4:02 am and my alarm goes off. 

I reach over lazily and hit aimlessly, hoping one of the attempts will be successful in shutting the beeping up.


4:11 am and I have made it out of my bed, by some miracle unbeknownst to me.

I am brushing my teeth, the little red light I have grown so used to blaring at me from the corner of the bathroom. I look away. 


4:16 am and I have just popped a slice of bread into the toaster.

A quick spread of avocado, a light sprinkle of sea salt and pepper, and voila, breakfast.

I shove it in my mouth as I crouch down to pull my socks on, then my shoes.


4:20 am and I am already out the door and a block away from my apartment.

The street is practically empty, not many early risers in this town.

The little red lights greet me on every block.

Good morning. Not nice to see you today.


4:27 am and I am unlocking the front door. 

The smell of coffee hits me as the front bell chimes a hello.

13 years in this business and you would think that by now the smell would be as familiar to me as my own skin, but it greets me each day as a stranger. 

I will never get used to its perfect aroma, such a simple and decadent pleasure for the senses.

Something worth waking up for.


I head to the back and hang my bag up in my locker, number 17.

I glance up at the clock.

4:31 am. We open in 29 minutes.

The red dot glows in the dark. 

I switch on the light. 


4:36 am and the bell by the front door rings.

Lacey shouts out, “Sorry I’m late!”

She’s never on time so I’m not sure how genuine her sorry is.

The best apology is changed behavior, so I have been told.

But Lacey has been with me for a little over 5 years now and loyalty means everything these days.


“No worries,” I say in reply. 

A small smile spreads across my face as I tie my apron.

Lacey rushes past me to the back emerging by my side in just a few minutes.


4:39 am. We open in 21 minutes.


“Anything I can do to help?” Lacey asks me, now tying her own apron on.


“If you can start a fresh pot of drip that would be great,” I say. 


Lacey squeezes past me and begins pouring spoonfuls of ground coffee beans into a filter.


I glance up as the front bell rings for the third time today, but definitely not the last.


“Morning,” says Carol, holding a delivery of freshly baked goods.

I can smell the blueberry muffins and my mouth begins to water.

The avocado toast was apparently a snack more than a meal.


“Let me help you with that,” I reply as I rush over and grab a tray from Carol’s arm.


“Mighty nice of you, Edith,” Carol says, setting the other tray down on the counter.


The smell of cinnamon rolls mingles with the fresh brewing pot of coffee.


Heaven. 


4:48 am. We open in 12 minutes.

There is a fresh pot of coffee ready to go.

The baked goods Carol dropped off are displayed in the front showcase.

Lacey is writing our special for the week on the chalkboard sign.

Caramel Mocha.


There is not much left to do, but the little red light glares at me. 

I wipe down the counter to make myself look busy.


4:53 am and Lacey has finished writing the special.

She picks up the chalkboard sign and sets it in front of the coffee shop.

I sweep the floor to look busy.


5:00 am and Lacey flips the sign.

We are now open.


Sam, as always, is the first customer.

He’s wearing his usual work uniform, a dark blue short-sleeved shirt with a collar and dark blue slacks to match. 

All government workers wear the same uniform.


“Morning, ladies,” he says as he pulls out his card.


“The usual?” I ask him as I reach for a small cup.


“Yes, ma’am,” he replies. 


“Sam, please don’t call me ma’am. You know it makes me feel old.” 


I scan his card.

The device flashes green.


“Your coffee should be out in just a minute.”


‘Thanks, Edith,” he says with a smile.


What a shame that I can’t rewatch the footage of him smiling at me like that in this same spot over the past few years. I might not mind being recorded so much if I could. 


I wonder who does get to see it. 

Do they even appreciate it or is it just another tape to them? 

Just another clip of another random person on a random date at a random time doing the same thing as always. 

Following protocol.


I try to push the thought from my head as I froth the milk for Sam’s drink.

A heavy squeeze of vanilla syrup, a dash of cinnamon, and a long pour of coffee.

I give it a good mix and then top it with a lid and slowly slide a sleeve over the outside.


I reach out to Sam with the cup in hand and he reaches back out to me.

And then he does something he never has before.

He grabs the coffee with one hand and with his other he grabs my wrist.

I’m slightly taken aback but try not to show it.


He takes the cup and moves his hand down to mine and begins to gently shake it. 

I shake back, not sure what exactly is going on, but containing my composure.


When he pulls his hand away I realize he has left a small piece of paper in mine.

I quickly ball it into a fist and flash a glance at the little red light.

Did it catch that?


I smile like everything is normal as Sam does the same.


“Thank you for the coffee, Edith,” he says. 

He lingers a moment at the door, then with a wave, he is gone.


My hand is still balled into a fist, the paper poking into my sweaty palms.

Paper. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt it. 

With everything going digital in 2031 in an attempt to save the trees, it must have been nearly 9 years now.

Funny thing though how the trees kept disappearing, but paper remained illegal.

To commoners anyway.


I try to act nonchalant.

The little red light looks brighter than normal, but surely I’m just being paranoid.

I put my hands in my apron pocket, discreetly dropping the paper to be read later in private, with no little red lights as my audience.


“He sure is handsome,” Lacey says.


“Not really my type,” I lie.


“Huh, I always thought you had a bit of a crush on him.”


“Nope.”


5:17 am and the time has never ticked by slower than it is today.


The day continues as it always does.

The bell rings, the customers order, and the coffee is poured.

All the while the little piece of paper feels like it’s burning a hole in my apron.


I am more aware of how I do things today than I usually am, the little red light feels more present than ever. 

I don’t bend over too far for fear that the paper will somehow slip out.

I am careful not to bump into anything just in case I crinkle the little slip and someone hears and wonders what that familiar sound is. Surely not paper? Nobody has paper anymore.


The hours pass by as slow as molasses and when the clock finally ticks 3:00 pm I rush to flip the sign.

Closed.


Lacey has already slipped into the back to grab her things.

She may be slow to arrive but she’s never slow to leave.

I could not care less today though as more important matters fog my brain.


I head to the back of the shop and begin untying my apron slowly.


Lacey has just finished zipping up her jacket and is now slamming her locker shut.

“See you tomorrow, E,” she says with a smile, and then she is gone, the sound of the front bell jingling as a reminder she was here just moments ago.


I open my locker and pull my apron over my head.

I hang it up on the hook inside next to my jacket.

Reaching into the apron I quickly pull out the note, slide it into the closest pocket of my jacket and then whip it out of my locker and swing it around my shoulders.

Sliding my arms into the sleeves I zip up the front and close my locker.

I shut the lights off.

The little red light shines back at me.


3:09 pm and I am locking up the shop.

I head back to my apartment.

My mind is racing. 

My pocket is screaming, but only I can hear it.


3:16 pm and I am unlocking my front door.

I set my bag down on the entry table.

I slide my jacket off and hang it up on my coat rack.

The little red light welcomes me home.

I look away and begin my usual after-work routine.


I walk into my kitchen and wash my hands, drying them on the towel hanging on the oven handle and then grab a lemon from the basket by the window.


I slice the lemon into several small wedges and grab a mug from my cabinet.

I put the kettle on and drop a tea bag into the mug along with a lemon wedge.

Opening my sugar jar and looking inside, I try to put on a good enough show for the little red light.

Darn, the jar is empty.

Or so I make it appear.


I give it a minute as I stand there trying to decide if it's worth going out to grab more sugar.

I decide it is and head for my front door, slipping back into my shoes and more importantly, my jacket.


Locking my front door I head for the Blind Spot, a well-kept secret place where there are no little red lights.


3:37 pm and I’m turning onto Danbury, right on the edge of town.

Not many people know, but the little red light on this corner doesn’t glow between 3 pm and 4 pm on weekdays.

It’s been this way for about a year now and has yet to be fixed, courtesy of Phil, the electrician overseeing this city quadrant and ensuring the little red lights never turn off.

Except for this one. 

I’ll have to repay Phil for the favor one day, but today is not that day.


I walk past the camera and quickly into the trees beyond.

The woods. Or what’s left of them.

They tried installing the little red lights here at the beginning of all of this, but they figured the odds of someone actually getting past the many other red lights to get out here was close to impossible.

They didn’t realize the motivation oppression held.

But I suppose the oppressor never truly does, do they?


3:41 pm and I only have 19 minutes to read this note and get back before the camera captures me.


I walk about 100 feet to be safe and reach into my pocket.

The paper is yellowed from years of not being used and crumpled from being passed between Sam and me.

With shaking hands, I stretch the note out and begin to read the message.

It’s a poem.


The blue jay sings each morning

At the same time each day

When it is pouring 

Is when it makes its way

But the same sun did not rise

On the blue jay today

And though it was pouring

It did not make its way

For the blue jay had flown

To spread its wings

In a land not yet known

In a search to be free

Free indeed


I read it a dozen more times, trying to memorize it, to lock it in my brain.


3:52 pm.


I pull a box of matches from my pocket and strike one on the side.

The flame dances as I hover the paper by it.

I read the poem once more for good measure then let the fire consume it, the paper ablaze in orange and red as the edges quickly turn black and disappear.


3:55 pm and I’m back at the edge of the woods.


3:57 pm and the little red light is still off when I step foot back on the city grounds.


3:59 pm and I remember I should grab sugar so I stop at a corner store and buy a small bag.


The blue jay sings each morning


4:18 pm and I am back in my apartment.

I set the sugar on my counter and put the kettle back on.


At the same time each day


My mug is where I left it, the tea bag and lemon wedge sitting patiently waiting.


When it is pouring


The kettle whistles.

I pour the boiling water into the mug.


Is when it makes its way


Mixing in a spoonful of sugar from the newly purchased bag I try to remember the rest.

I have to remember the rest.


But the same sun did not rise 

On the blue jay today


What does it mean?


In a land not yet known 

In a search to be free


I sip my tea.


Free indeed


I had heard rumors of “other lands”.

Places in the country that were like the “old days”.

Farms where you could eat from your garden instead of the corner store.

Rooms full of books you could learn from, real books made from real paper. Not the digital ones we had access to here. And nobody to tell you what you could and couldn’t read.

No government to control the everyday actions of the people. 

Just the people who voted and the government followed suit to serve them based on the collective.

Communities of people who lived in peace.

No little red lights in sight.

Freedom.


But nobody who had ever searched for these lands had come back to tell the tale.

They disappeared from society and became legends. 

Myths that were told as children’s tales and not to be believed as anything but fiction.


4:51 pm and my tea is gone.

My stomach rumbles so I hop up and fix myself a sandwich.


5:23 pm and I am already in bed staring at the ceiling.


I sleep for almost 11 hours.


4:02 am and my alarm goes off.


I reach over and slam my palm down on the button.

It shuts up.


4:07 am.

I’m brushing my teeth.

I don’t even bother looking at the little red light.

I know it’s there.

It’s always there.


4:12 am and I’m moving eggs around in the pan.

In a hurry, I don’t bother to plate the finished scramble.

I fork them directly from the pan into my mouth.


4:17 am and I’m pulling my shoes on.


4:21 am and I’m out the door and almost to the coffee shop.

The little red lights are exactly where they have been every day for the last decade.


4:24 am and my personal belongings are stowed away in my locker.

I’m tying my apron on.

We open in 36 minutes.

He should be here in about 40 minutes.


4:38 am and the front bell rings.

Lacey.

She greets me, hello and I smile.

Only 22 minutes until we open.

26 minutes until he arrives.


Lacey starts prepping the drip coffee without asking me.

I wait for Carol to arrive with the muffins and cinnamon rolls.

The bell announces her arrival at 4:42 am.

Baked goods in hand, she says hello and I help her just like yesterday.

And the day before that. 

And the day before that.


4:49 am and Lacey places the chalkboard sign out front.

The special today is Caramel Mocha. 

Just like yesterday.

And the day before that. 

And the day before that.


We open in 11 minutes.

He should be here in 15 minutes.


5:00 am and I flip the sign.

Open.

Only 4 minutes before the bell rings and he walks in.


5:04 am.

The bell does not ring.


5:05 am.

The bell does not ring.


5:06 am.

The bell does not ring.


5:07 am and my palms are sweating.


5:08 am and my stomach is churning.


5:09 am and no customers yet.


5:10 am.


“Sam’s late. He’s never late. Weird,” Lacey says voicing my internal thoughts.


I say nothing as I wipe down the windows and try to peek out into the street.

No Sam in sight. Just little red lights staring back at me.


For the blue jay had flown

To spread its wings

In a land not yet known

In a search to be free


The little red light in the corner continues to watch as it does every day.

I ignore it.


Free indeed


I hope so.


January 28, 2023 01:03

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2 comments

Wendy Kaminski
03:34 Feb 03, 2023

WOW, Lauren! The staccato tempo of this was an excellent choice to express the rhythm of a life lived in the constant repetition of days... particularly for a surveillant society where it is almost reminiscent of goose-stepping through the day. I loved the line "My pocket is screaming, but only I can hear it," so evocative of the klaxons which might sound if she's caught. I cannot say enough about that ending, what a wonderfully woven exit. It made me glad he got away, but sad that she remained. I love when stories provoke feeling and though...

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Lauren Rice
20:08 Feb 03, 2023

Thank you so much for reading it and for sharing your thoughts! I am touched reading your comments and grateful for your kind words and appreciation of the story.

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