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Science Fiction

“Four scoops, rounded. Tapped twice to make sure all the grounds fall out into the filter, and not onto the dirt, between scoops. Water boiled and poured over the filter in a spiraling motion. Best enjoyed while looking out a sunlit window, with company.”

Marvin sets down the instructions Hannah wrote for him six years ago. This is his sixth attempt at pour-over coffee. He hasn’t become more confident with practice. His first attempt was the morning before their first date. It had been bitter, as he’d focused too much on the center of the filter. His second attempt was the morning after they’d broken up. It had been weak from too much attention on the edges of the filter. His third attempt, this past Tuesday, was passable.

Marvin had a French press until this past Sunday. He’s blaming the feral cats that keep coming into his home, but something in the back of his mind tells him he somehow threw it out with last week’s rubbish. But he doesn’t feel like walking down twenty-three floors of dark and empty tenements just to see if it didn’t shatter when he lobbed it out the window onto the street below.

            The fire in the clawfoot tub crackles and the gray light melts away in warm yellow daybreak as the tin mug of coffee between his gloves cools. His fogged breath stampedes over the steam. Marvin inhales and looks beyond the stacks of magazines that make up his bed. Through the scratchy panes of glass over his headboard made of encyclopedias, the last man on Earth watches a feral cat stand on the rooftop across the way, ears twitching side to side. The cat’s eyes are on him.

            “Give it back, Calico,” Marvin growls.

            The cat looks away.

“Bedsheets changed and washed every two weeks for cleanest, coziest results around day 10. Window open a crack for cool night air while snuggled close with company under the blankets to counteract the chill. Best enjoyed when living with a partner of approximately 24 months’ time.”

Marvin sets down the note Hannah wrote for him four years ago. He scoffs at the National Geographic layer on top of his bed and stands up, easing over to Jenga-like construction. He sets down his coffee on the brown Encyclopedia spanning from “Sonar” to “Tax Law” and peers out toward the cat. Calico has vanished into the detritus on the rooftop of the Cedar Banking Group’s Chicago offices.

“Maybe the top floor execs over there had a French press. Calico, do you mind doing me some recon?”

            Marvin pulls a handful of Smithsonian magazines from his backpack and arranges a new layer for his bed. He places the bright blue-eyed wolf cover photo toward the foot of his bed, so he doesn’t wake up to that scare. Neon-lit sign art on that cover looks nice next to the old map of the American West. His new pillow. He lifts his mug to his lips and stands up straight again.

            He sips his coffee and lets the steam warm his nose. He rubs it with his fingers and cups the steam in close to his face. It would smell good if it weren’t for his dirt-streaked glove.

Marvin walks over to the list on the kitchen counter and studies it. Nine items. If he adds the gloves, that’ll trigger a trip out into the city. He looks at the rising sun through the windows and tries to identify the clouds sliding in from the southwest. He sniffs his gloves and scrunches up his nose.

            “Well, shit.”

            Marvin adds the tenth item to his shopping list and tears it out of the notebook.

“Step inside and remove your shoes. Place them beside the coat rack. Hang your coat and hat to dry. If the day has been hard on you, take off your clothes and throw them in the laundry. Put on new, clean, and cozy ones to start your night. If the day has been good to you and you know I’m home, take off your clothes and come find me before you put anything else on. -M”

Hannah touches the note Marvin wrote for her two years ago, careful not to smudge the ink any worse than it already is. She takes off her out-in-the-hellscape boots and slips on her inside-the-nicer-hellscape boots. She keeps her coat on. None of the window frames have glass to block the wind anymore. She can’t very well go around naked in this urban winter wilderness. She scowls at the snowdrift filling her living room.

            “At least it’s too cold to melt and ruin the floorboards.”

            Hannah draws two knives from holsters sewn into her coat and she begins a room-by-room sweep for vermin. A wide glance around the living room reveals nothing twitching. She moves on down the hall and examines tripwires set at each doorway. The trap in the window of her dining room is empty. The peanut butter is gone, but the culprit isn’t inside. She decides this will be the last time she wastes the good stuff on a clever critter.

            The guest bedroom—her old bedroom—houses a bedframe and a dresser with no drawers. Hannah steps over the tripwire and creeps toward the closet. Four coats hang there. Four warm and inviting coats. She kicks the doorframe as she nears it and a squirrel rockets out of the sleeve of the blue leather coat. It’s fast. She’s faster.

“When doing the dishes, it’s best to keep the window open over the sink. Turn music up loud and dance along with every song. It makes it go faster. If a neighbor complains, remind them you could be making worse noises. Neighbors often close their windows in disgust at suggestions of this nature. When dancing, be sure to employ the full range of hip motion. -M”

Hannah wipes snow off the note Marvin wrote for her a year ago. She’d laughed at it at the time. But the longer she’d looked at it, the more it made her angry. She’d torn it off the wall and put it away in a box under her bed until eight months ago when she had no one to talk to but Marvin’s notes.

            She opens the cupboard, removes one of three plastic water bottles, and sets it on the counter. After removing the cap, Hannah pulls a knife out of the drawer next to the kitchen sink and she begins to clean and prepare the dead squirrel for her breakfast. She knows she is running out of time and resources. The park won’t continue providing everything she needs. She will have to go north, to the grocery stores that aren’t empty yet.

            “Well, south first,” she says to the grimy French press on the other end of the counter. “I’ll need to get some coffee to figure out how to use a thing like you again.”

            Hannah knows where she can find more coffee. She studies the obstacle notes on her wall map while idly turning a spit—with very slim pickings on it—over a bucket fire in her living room. She will have to find another home.

“Just do… fucking anything. Literally anything, Marv.”

These instructions hadn’t been written. They were the last words Hannah had spoken to him, just about a year ago. The few communications between them in the aftermath had been in text or emails, only.

            “I’m doing something now, Hannah. I’m getting more shit so I can keep my shit together,” Marvin grumbles. His stomach also grumbles. He looks across the street into the lobby windows of Cedar Banking Group. He knows he will not find any food left in there. He looks up to the second floor of the bank and sees Calico watching him from his perch next to a fake plant.

            “I have to go to the café because of you,” Marvin squints at the cat as his feet move down the street. “Hope you’re happy.”

            The third, fourth, fifth, and eighth items on his shopping list are all available within a three-block radius, about two miles north. The rest of the items might be near there, too. Marvin looks away from the bank and down the road. The El tracks obscure his view of the late morning sun for the next several blocks as he starts north toward his old stomping grounds.

            He hurries north, listening for coyotes.

“Not even if i was the last man on Earth?”

The last text Marvin had sent her. She hadn’t responded. She still remembers the bad grammar and the lowercase “I,” despite not having any charge left in her brick of a phone.

            Hannah spots a coyote lurking in front of the café in the late afternoon sun. It seems starved and acts like it smells food. She stops walking and slowly crouches behind a car nearby, obscuring her silhouette. The coyote yips as something clatters in the street. It sounds like metal being trampled.

            “What the hell made that noise?” Hannah whispers to herself and draws her knives from her coat for the who-knows-how-many-th time since she left her apartment. Her stomach grumbles. The coyote turns an ear toward her, but keeps its eyes on the cross-street, where something larger seems to be. Hannah can’t see around the corner store to her right. The canid to her left looks scared. Hannah is scared.

            She studies the feet of the coyote and tries to read which way it’ll run when it breaks off. It will break off. Anything that scares a coyote will never get close enough to one. But she worries it’ll run toward her, rather than away. Then the new creature will find her, too.

            The coyote tests a paw to the sidewalk with a tentative lean away from her end of the intersection. Hannah exhales. A crunch of metal on her right and a shout—a human shout—knock her off her feet. Scrambling paws scrape away into the distance until she can’t hear the coyote anymore. She can’t hear anything anymore. She hears her breath.

            And then she hears singing. She knows the song.

“Hi, welcome to Epic Brew. What can I pour for you today?”

Marvin remembers the first words she ever said to him as he reaches the boarded-up door of Epic Brew. Peering through three slats, he sees the register she once stood behind. He looks around for the rest of the coyotes he expects. He glances down the road toward the one he scared off. It seems to have ducked down another street.

Marvin sings, “Remember when you said you loved me? Remember when you said that it would all work out?”

The crowbar fits snug between the first slat of the barricade and the door itself. He works diligently and loudly, rocking his arms back and forth in time with his breathing. He focuses on the words of a Delta Rae song he learned on the other side of the door.

Marvin sings on, “We packed up and we left one morning…”

He pries through the last boards and throws them onto the pavement. With a crack, the locked bolt gives way. The door glides inward. Bells jingle overhead and startle him. He glances up and smiles, his heart racing. He looks around the dark café and his smile evaporates. Chairs are dusty. Dirty dishes are growing mold in the bin by the door. No song plays from the speakers. He remembers the next line in the song and sings louder in the closed space: “Everything you promised didn’t happen, and now I’m swirling softly…”

            “Drifting…” A quiet voice in the middle of the street. “Like the cream in your coffee…”

            Marvin spins on his heels and he can’t feel his hands, his legs, or his face.

            She sings on: “And you’re talking calmly… when I’m scared… to be on our own…”

            Marvin stares through the café door into the eyes of Hannah, who stands, shaking in the middle of the street, her hands wringing in front of her.

            “We’re caught between forever and nothing at all,” she chokes up.

            “And I’m sorry, I love you,” Marvin whispers the lyric and runs into Hannah’s arms.

“Eight and a half scoops, rounded… Best enjoyed while looking out a sunlit window, with company.”

May 01, 2020 20:59

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1 comment

Pranathi G
14:58 May 04, 2020

Nice story! Can you read my story and give me feedback on it? It's called, "THE TIME HAS COME." It's for the same contest. Thanks!


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