I can directly recall when the first Coffee Criminal broke into the town. They had many names—Black Bandit, Shady Figure, Cloaked Character, Stranger Danger, Don’t-You-Dare-Walk-Alone-In-The-Street-After-Sunset, or simply the Unsavory Individual, which I thought was the silliest because something that’s not savory must be sweet—but Coffee Criminals made the most sense because one would break into your house and traumatize you over the course of a few weeks until you would be gutted hollow and stare with dull, empty eyes into your coffee mug, searching for any reason to keep fighting the criminal at all. It was becoming an epidemic, the news said. Too many dull eyes peering at coffee. Too many surrenders. Too many to keep track of. Too many to count.
I remember the first death because it was my grandfather’s.
I know, I know, he was just a grandfather. I don’t understand why everybody keeps telling me that because I’m aware of familial lineage. I’m in high school, my goodness. I know he is—was—just a grandfather and at least he wasn’t my parents or siblings or whoever, grandfathers are bound to die, but I didn’t understand why nobody investigated his death further. By that logic, everybody is just living as the clock to their inevitable end ticks away like the drips of a torture machine. Why not try to figure out the specifics?
I went to the police and so kindly alerted them of the Coffee Criminal. They ignored me. I went again. They continued to ignore me. I pounded on their door and argued, “Good lord, there’s criminals on the loose; catch them like it’s your job!” and they responded by calling a Psychologist that they made my parents pay for. Worst expense ever. The psychologist proceeded to tell me what everybody else had been telling me: at least he wasn’t your parents or your siblings, blah blah blah.
At least he wasn’t, I reminded myself when we went to his house, finalizing the selling points. At least he wasn’t, I repeated when we unbolted the window boxes, the whitewashed walls looking bare without the bursts of fiery flowers. At least he wasn’t, I whispered when we threw out the dog bed even though he had never had a dog and donated the wine glasses even though he had never drunk wine. At least he wasn’t, I stated plainly in the bare attic, never again going to pretend to be a pirate or a witch or the most popular children’s book character of the moment. At least he wasn’t, echoed in my head as I wondered what more he had to have done to be considered a parent when he was the one my brother and I went to when our parents were shouting and throwing plates at each other, but not their heads because that would be a CPS red flag. At least he wasn’t here to observe the madness.
The psychologist, some clown from Minnesota, if that even counts as a state, learned I had a brother through my parents. He decided that I was “withholding the truth” and “acting unreliably” and an “emotional basket-case” and dropped me like a hot-potato quickly afterwards, but then the school got wind of it and required that I go to counseling with their administration, and the stupidest part of all of it was that they wanted to “hear about my feelings and inner-turmoil” but shut me right up at the earliest mention of the Coffee Criminal.
“I really think we’re under-reacting considering that I have been observing a literal criminal terrorizing my grandfather’s house resulting in his untimely death,” I recounted. It was impossible to forget the shadows I had seen flicking across his face, the clouded darkness looming over his house, his terrified nod at my asking, “Are you alright?”
“You can’t tell me something’s not wrong,” I argued. They told me exactly that. And when, two weeks later, the Coffee Criminal struck again, I reminded everybody that I had told them so.
I can directly recall when the tenth Coffee Criminal broke into the town. That was when I had finalized their name. That was when they had taken my brother, when he had started drinking coffee for the first time, initially loaded with sugar and whipped cream until exhaustion set in and he could barely lift the mug, let alone adorn it with toppings. Bitter black liquid, the same color as his eyes. I asked him if he was alright—it was becoming my anthem, questioning people’s sanity—and he told me to go to school, it would be better at school, there were people who loved me at school, which was the biggest lie, then boom, when I came back home he was dead.
“I think it’s a murder,” I said emptily. I didn’t cry. I didn’t want to cry and I wouldn’t cry because nobody could make me. “It’s obviously a murder; I can see it right now.”
The police told me no. The counselors told me no. My parents were too busy shouting to say much of anything. Because the town at large couldn’t “at least” my brother, they moved on to the next best thing: blaming me.
“You’re projecting,” they claimed. “There’s no criminal.”
Easy for them to say. They weren’t first-hand witnesses.
If you’ve been paying attention to the trend here, you’ll probably expect the Coffee Criminals to come after me. Ha. That would be funny. Surprisingly—which I need to keep reminding myself of—I do not actually matter that much. The Criminals found no benefit in bothering me; I was just a means to their end, whatever it was. When their familiar, shadowed representative showed up in my bedroom that night, I was in no position to resist. When the ghostly figure reminded me that I had most definitely lost it, I was in no place to argue. I might as well let them believe what they wished. When I was instructed to kill myself, I nearly complied. I nearly did.
Unfortunately, though, whichever Criminal had been sent to my case suffered from an awful logical defect. “You’ll see your grandfather and brother again,” they said. “You’ll like death better.”
Funny, that’s what everybody had been telling me about life. If life were so peachy yet here I was, why would I start trusting death? The Criminal got a firm “nope!” from me and I went on my merry—excuse me, not exactly merry, more lackluster—way.
Some unnaturally peppy guy came by our school just before I graduated. This was after the Criminals had taken early 50 lives and the town finally admitted it was a problem but instead of consulting me, a peak witness with personal experience, they hired somebody from New York City to give a little Broadway show about being happy.
“Depression will sneak up on you!” he sang. “Anxiety will sneak up on you! They’ll lurk in your dankest corners and strike when you’re weakest!”
Shocker. I wonder who had said exactly that earlier on in the year.
The man finished his theatrics with some jazz-hands, urging us to “invite sunshine into our soul” to “chase away the demons.” Sure, mister. I’ll get right on that.
Depression, or whatever the medical terminology was for the Coffee Criminals, held a nearly-unbeatable army, but sunlight was a renewable and caffeinated energy source. It took a few very tumultuous months for me to convince myself I was happy just enough to reach the threshold of not-upset-all-of-the-time and only a few more for everybody else to catch up. The Criminals left and my spirit remained, hollow, cavernous, and numb, weary of much of anything. Purely existing. That was my perpetual state. Not dying, not thriving, just existing, but that was probably all we could ask of life anyway.