Coffee Shop

The pink shade of the eastern horizon was quite possibly the most welcome sight in Ethan's entire life. It had rained during the evening, removing the possibility of sleeping outside, so he had gone to a Denny's, stretching a bottomless coffee and an order of fries out until they asked him to leave at four in the morning. He felt guilty about not tipping, but there was no helping it, he needed the money. With the caffeine cut off, he lapsed into a zombie-like state, not quite sleeping or awake, but just shuffling around aimlessly.

As the night had passed he had felt himself growing steadily more paranoid, but was at the same time growing more powerless to fight it. He tried to focus on how Linden would have left him a message, but all he could think of was that he was being watched. If not by the policeman on the corner, then by the cameras in the stores. Sooner or later, one of those observers would recognize him, and the gig would be up.

Ethan found himself standing outside of Cup-a-Joe, squinting through the glass at the clock above the register. It said that it was 5:57. It was tragic, the cafe didn't open until six. Then the barista came around the corner and waved him in.

"I don't know if you need a shot of whiskey or espresso, but you look like shit," she said as she pulled the last of the chairs down from on top of the tables. "Which one is it?" It took Ethan a moment to puzzle through what she was asking and another to realize that she wasn't joking.

"Neither," he said. "I'm going to crash pretty soon here, caffeine will just keep me up, not really awake." He found himself thinking that she was kind of cute, with a soft face and tattoos extending from under her rolled-up sleeves to her wrists and the backs of her hands. She saw him looking at her, and her blush made him hate himself.

She smiled, working her way around the counter towards the register and the espresso machine. From a distance, it looked like something was wrong with her left eye, like she had pinkeye, but as she got closer, he could see that her left iris had been doped red. Usually people had both of them done, and why not, it was non-reversible after all, so the mismatch threw him off.

"You look like you need about a week's rest, man. How 'bout I get you something strong, five or six shots and some food?" she asked. "Trust me, a power nap will do you a world of good."

"Does that really work?"

"Like a charm," she said. "By the time the caffeine hits your system, you should be able to catch about twenty minutes. Muffin or scone?"

Ethan looked at the pastry case. The muffins were all chocolate chip, which were like the El Camino of pastries, sweet, but not sweet enough to justify all the parts of the muffin without any chips. That left the lemon-poppyseed scones. "I'll take a scone." He dug into his pocket, bringing out his remaining cash. "How much?"

"Don't worry about it, the pastries are yesterday's and coffee's cheap," she said. "You look like you need it."

Another time, another place, he would have insisted on paying, but given the circumstances he was just thankful. She put the scone on a plate and handed it to him before turning around to start on the espresso. He put a dollar and the coins into the tip jar before eating the scone. By the time he was finished, the espresso was ready.

"Thanks," he said.

"You might want to wait until you've tasted the mud before you say that," she said.

He took a sip, and mud was the correct name for it. It had been a long time since he had ordered anything without milk in it, and it tasted like coffee that had been boiling down for a week, washing away any satisfaction he had gotten from the scone and making his throat start to close up. The good news was that it tasted like it should have a potency on a level with cocaine.

"Nope, still thanks," he said. "If this doesn't kill me, I'm sure that it'll do the trick."

"Go lay down, I'll wake you up in twenty or so," she said.

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