352. A Little Love For Your Coffee

Alice draws a little heart shape in every cup she brews. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first thing in the morning, before the sun even rises; or in the dead of the night, as people amble by as they would watch TV: inattentive, detached, bored. In the center of every mug, atop a pool of golden-brown coffee, she draws a little heart shape in cream, frothy and light.

Everyone just needs a little love sometimes, she reasons.

She learned how to make it on her own, through a step-by-step tutorial she found on the internet, and then through trial and error. God knows there were many trials and errors.

She will always remember the day she made the perfect heart shape: a week and two days after she found the tutorial on the internet. On the surface of her morning coffee, she traces delicate lines with a toothpick, making a little groove from the top of the milk circle, then pulling the lower edge out so that it grew a tail. In the spur of the moment, Alice puts a little dot at the end of the heart, like a full stop. She admires her handiwork.

And then she takes a picture of it for Instagram.

One day a man walks into the shop. It is near closing time: the chairs are stacked upside-down on the tables and the floors are newly mopped. The lights are dimmed and a pop-rock track plays in the background. The last of the cups are being washed. The trash is being taken out. Then the man walks in, shoving the door aside violently. He sits in the corner, by the window, takes out a cigarette and begins to smoke.

No one quite knows what to do.

The man was big enough and looked don’t-mess-with-me enough that they leave him alone. Cleaning up tobacco ash was a 5-minute inconvenience. A black eye, or broken bones, would be an inconvenience lasting significantly longer than 5 minutes. But by 1am, the man is still there, and everyone is anxious to go home.

Alice knows just what to do. She goes into the back, whips up a fresh batch of coffee; and while it steams away on the countertop, she pours the milk in and draws a little heart shape on the surface. Nervously, she steps towards the man with the cup balanced on a ceramic saucer. She lays it down. The spoon makes a little tinkling sound against the ceramic as the saucer touches the table.

The man looks at the cup, and then up at Alice. He says, “You made this?”

“Yes sir,” she says. “It’s on the house.”

The man offers a smile that turns sour. “It’s shit,” he says, and flips the cup off the table. It shatters into a messy puddle of wasted coffee and ceramic shards. Without a word, he walks past her and out the store, into the night. Alice continues standing there, looking at the mess for a long time.

Her coworkers help her clean up, and despite her insistence that she is okay and has no need for anyone to worry for her, she cries inconsolably into the night, only finding the solace of sleep an hour before dawn breaks over the city. She wakes up that day two hours late for her first lecture and misses the second one because the bus would not wait for her.

At 5pm she goes into the shop. She offers a smile to anyone who asks her if she is okay. She stashes her bag in the back, changes into uniform, puts an apron on. When she emerges a minute later, there is a cup of coffee waiting to be delivered to a glum-faced fellow sitting alone near the magazines.

She picks up the milk jug and draws a little heart shape in the middle of the coffee. The fellow seems pleasantly surprised by it. She offers a smile for him, and he returns one.

Everyone just needs a little love sometimes.

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346. Troubled Time

-sentences.

Fred and Lloyd are twins. The identical sort. There’s no separating them, no matter how hard you tried. And if there is something they like more than anything in the world, it’s raising hell. Even better if you explicitly tell them not to.

They think alike. Like most twins. But unlike most twins, they are – how to say it – off sync. You would think there’s something wrong with one of them, but there isn’t. Just that one of them was born slightly disconnected from the space-time continuum.

It becomes a problem when they try to finish each other’s-

339. Tears Of My Enemies

Eugene never liked chemistry a lot.

While it was probable that chemistry probably didn’t like him a lot either, that was none of his concern. But the recipe called for a teaspoon of “the tears of your enemies”, whatever that was supposed to mean.

“What if it’s tear, like tearing paper,” Anita offered, “Not like teardrop? I mean, it could probably work just well.”

Eugene gave her a cold look. “Yes,” he said, “And what, pray tell, is a teaspoon of tear-as-in-tearing-paper?”

Anita sighed and sat down.

In retrospect, she should have stopped him from buying the tome at all. The gypsy shop looked dodgy to begin with – but the woman with the multicolored dress inside was one hell of a saleswoman. Before Anita realized what was happening, Eugene was already sold to the idea of a potion that will bring him victory in all his endeavors.

“If this is about your finals,” she had said, “I maintain that you should just sit down and study. You know, like the rest of us.”

He didn’t listen. He never did.

The other ingredients were easy to find: hair from a brown cat, a small pearl, mud from the battleground, a drop of blood… The last bit was where they got stuck. A little Google search made things further complicated when they found out that there were different types of tears for different types of emotions – and it wasn’t in the poetic way. Tears of joy and tears of grief literally had different chemical makeups.

They had argued back and forth about what kind of tears should an enemy shed; and after ruling out onion tears, joyful tears, and tears of humiliation, they finally agreed that the “tears of my enemy” should be tears of pain. A swift kick to the groin or a really hot chili would do.

“But who is my enemy?” Eugene piped up. “Does it have to be like, a sworn archnemesis, or something? Does he need to have tried to kill me? Or hate me, at least? What if I see him as an enemy, but he doesn’t feel the same way? Is he still my enemy?”

“Best to be safe on that one,” Anita said. “Would you happen to have any sworn archnemeses waiting around? Preferably within an hour’s drive and not too powerful or vengeful?”

“Nuts,” Eugene folded his arms. “Why does this have to be so difficult?”

“More difficult than just studying?”

“No.”

She sighed again. With the finals coming up in less than a week, you’d imagine that a reasonable person would put these silly things away and start being pragmatic. Here he was, lost in his fantasy, and he made fun of her for liking The Lord of the Rings.

The smack on the nose came hard and sudden. Lost in her pondering, Anita didn’t see Eugene walk around the table to where she sat, and now her nose was hot on the inside – it was going to bleed, for sure; and her vision was blurring up. She bent over, soundless more from shock than anything else.

“Hold that. Hold that,” Eugene’s voice came, and instead of an apology, something cold and metallic touched her face.

“Oh, you piece of shit,” she spat as he carried the teaspoon of her tears away, then mixing it in with the other ingredients. If directed hate was what qualified one as an enemy, he had just earned himself one, all right.

God, she hoped he failed.

332. Neil

Neil would have you believe that he is a perfectly ordinary, mostly harmless person. But that’s what the imp in his head would like you to think.

“Where do you get your ideas from?” you will ask him. With the twisting of knobs, the pushing of buttons, the calibration of instruments, and the pull of a lever after a short folk rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine”, all of which happens in the fraction of the time it takes to blink, you will hear Neil say:

“Where everybody gets their ideas from: sentient poodles working 18-hour workdays in a sweatshop operating out of the underground level of a cotton factory in Algeria. They send me letters every Wednesday.”

You will write all of this down, drafting your article in your head. Neil will look at you and offer a kind smile. The imp will laugh, and laugh, and laugh…

He will tell you that he writes his stories one word at a time. He won’t be lying. He only tells the truth, and you will hear what you want to hear.

He writes with a quill, a feather plucked from the tail of a phoenix that once resided in the office of the Grand Archmage Durwin, who lived in a castle on the Isle of Man in the 14th century. The phoenix gave the quill to him after he helped her escape so she could be reunited with her love, the constellation Aquila. He watched her dive into the sky, tracing an orange trail through the obsidian sky, joining Aquila among the stars that were really leaves on the world tree.

The quill writes in words of fire, telling tales of dreams and death, stopping only to ask for apple juice. It writes the stories it remembers, of kings and saints and ghosts and gods and of the world, the real world, not this flimsy imitation of reality that is as solid and as permanent as a veil, half-transparent and fluttering in the wind.

Sometimes, Neil tells it to write something different. “Write me a story about a discontented housewife,” he tells it, or, “Give me a story about forgetting.” And the quill writes.

Neil has only ever written two stories by his own hand, when Morpheus required it of him. He won’t tell you which.

When he isn’t freeing forgotten kingdoms from tyrannical sorcerers or having tea with the seasons beside Ymir’s bones, Neil likes to sing. He also likes to cook, but the milk does that a lot better, so he mostly sings. He sings into the void these days, because his songs have a tendency of running off to live their own lives. One of them is now a famous Hollywood star.

Death visits him often. She hasn’t forgotten that he died ten years ago; but if she took him into heaven or hell, she would never know how the Marquis got his coat back. Every last Friday of the month, they meet for tea and biscuits. She is still eager to know how Loki made the gypsy witch cast the curse meant for him on her own son. He will have to figure that out soon.

His clones do his shows and book signings and shopping for him. In the unlikely event that he needs more time, he simply asks for more, and the eternal timekeeper steps aside for Neil to do what he needs to do. The eternal timekeeper only does it for Neil, and, if she asked, Mary Poppins. But Mary Poppins never asks. Time stops to ask her if she needs anything, something to drink, maybe. Neil has never met Mary Poppins, but Mary Poppins has met Neil. She sometimes sings about him.

Sometimes his words come back to him, after having seen the world and spoken the tongues of men and tasted their power, sweet and burning like wine; and they sometimes return with other words that they have gathered from the corners of the earth. They return to his head as white hair.

Woe to you if you are one of those who would hurt or lie to lure children to their deaths. Woe to you if you would squash the imaginations of children and take away their right to read, to daydream, to ask questions, to be children. Woe to you, because his words will find you, and they will bring you back to him.

In his hands the holds the book that once belonged to Fate. You do not want to know how he will write the continuation of your story.

When you look into his eyes, and instead of an impish mischief, you find there waiting for you a fury that hell cannot contain… Pray, oh pray, to your gods – to Mary Poppins, if she would hear you – that the ending of your story involves a sweatshop operating out of the underground level of a cotton factory in Algeria. Pray that your eternity involves writing letters to be sent off on Wednesdays. Ask him; ask him if he knows of the things you have done in the dark; if he would really do all the things I have said he would do.

He will open his mouth and tell you the truth. And you will hear what you want to hear.

325. You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger

You will meet a tall, dark stranger. He will be where you wouldn’t think he is, and he will be everything you think he is… And some more.

He will like you, and you will like him. He will be sweet, sensitive, and have a penchant for witty jokes and diamond-shaped cufflinks. On your third meeting, they will be matching red hearts, like the ones on poker cards, and you will notice it, but not say anything about it, because you like a man who knows how to be subtle.

…What’s that? Will he be handsome? Heavens, how on earth would I know? Pay attention now.

You will invite him for dinner, and he will accept. He will show up five minutes before six, and you will tell him the dinner’s not until seven, and he will say, oh no, I must have mixed up the time. May I use the bathroom? And you will say that he can, and when he’s in the bathroom, you will hurry into the kitchen and turn up the oven temperature in hopes of getting the chicken done faster, and you will end up with a burnt chicken, a cut index finger – right below the second knuckle; it will be a shallow cut, but it will bleed nonetheless -, and tears when he comes into your kitchen to investigate the ringing sound that is the smoke alarm.

He will hug you and tell you that it is going to be okay, he’s there now. He will tell you that before he graduated from business school and started work in the investment bank, he was in a culinary course for two – you will say “ouch!” at this point, as he applies the iodine on the cut – years before deciding that he didn’t want to spend his life in some fancy hotel’s kitchen. In that moment, you will look into his deep, dark eyes, observe his stubbled jawline, and realize that you’re in love.

Yes? …No, I don’t know if you’ll end up eating home or going out. Why would you think I know that? Moving on.

You will ask about his family on the third time you go out. It will be over dinner at a bar and grill, and he will be halfway through his barbequed ribs. You will ask the question as you’re reaching for a french fry on his plate, and you will bite half of it off before you note his hesitation, and he will say that he doesn’t want to talk about it.

You will ask him why doesn’t he want to talk about it, and he will insist that he doesn’t want to talk about it, and he will ask to be excused, even though the tickets to the 8 o’clock show to A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder have already been bought, and are sitting in his breast pocket. The first thing that crosses your mind is that if he’s going to leave, will he at least leave the tickets so that you can go and watch it. He will leave after paying the bill, and before the apology finds its way to your lips.

He will not reply your texts or answer your calls. You will try and find him on Facebook, on Twitter, on Google Plus, even on Myspace, and you will not find him anywhere. You will drown your sorrows in wine and belch them out in song. You will wish you have never met him to begin with, and you will spend years moping over the one that got away.

Well, why not, I’m quite done here, anyway. What’s his name, you ask? Goodness, you’re a basket full of questions, aren’t you? I don’t know, I haven’t met him. You can’t expect me to know the name of a man I don’t know, can you? Run along now, and remember to tell your friends where they can get their fortunes read.

315. A Picnic For The Seasons

A long time ago, the seasons came together to talk. Deciding that no discussion was complete without food, they each agreed to bring a food item with them to the talk.

Spring was the worst cook among the four, because she was always overeager and impatient, and also because she insisted on dressing up the things that she made in every color imaginable. To Spring, the seasons assigned the task of bringing the appetizers. She decided that she would bring sandwiches, and it was good.

Summer was the biggest, and he knew not the meaning of subtlety. To him, they decided to assign the task of preparing a roasted bird. It made sense, because then Summer would know if he had overcooked and burned the bird, and also because Summer didn’t know the meaning of undercooked either. They reasoned that if Summer could roast a bird and didn’t overcook it, it should be just right.

Then there was Autumn, the temperamental one among the four, but who was also the vainest. She spent a great deal of time combing her copper-and-rust red hair, and also spent a great deal of time picking out her clothes. Her favorite one was a yellow-and-orange loose dress with thin straps for her shoulders. This was the dress that she wore for the talk. Autumn would not be told what to bring, and she came with a platter of stewed pork in the end. No one complained.

The last of them was Winter, and it went without saying that he would bring the dessert. No one said anything, and he did not agree to anything, but they simply understood. He showed up as he always did, with his skin as pale as death, dressed in a finely tailored dark suit. No one asked him where the desserts were, and neither did he tell them. But when the food was laid out, the trifle was there.

They laid out their mat on a grassy patch by the side of the mountain. A large tree grew at the end of the grassy patch, and the clouds floated past them. The bulk of the mountain beside them sheltered them from the sun as they ate.

There were no words when they were eating, because words had a tendency of changing the flavor of food. Sometimes it was for the better, and sometimes it made food taste so bad that no one has the appetite to eat any more. They all knew why they had come out here, and they all knew what the talk was about, and so they agreed to be silent for the eating.

When the last scoop of trifle had disappeared into Autumn’s mouth (she was the slowest eater), the rest of them watched and made sure that she had swallowed properly. Autumn raised her glass to his lips and took a sip of apple juice, and with that, the eating was done.

“Life is dead,” Summer said.

This they all already knew. Sometimes, ideas got ideas of their own; and though they cannot be killed the way mortals or gods are killed, they can be killed in the end. And the only way to kill an idea was with another idea.

“How?” Spring asked.

“He tried to become Fate,” Autumn explained, and was quick to add in her opinion of the matter: “Which, it goes without mentioning, was a terrible idea. He figured that if he became Fate, he could also guide all living things along their path after he had brought them to life.”

Summer shook his head. His hair was long and bright and golden, and every strand shone like the sun through the clouds. “He became Fate, even if it was for a little while,” he said. “He became she, and she married Time.”

Autumn clicked her tongue at this. Time was an enigma, and he was more of the dangerous sort rather than the mysterious sort. He was obsessively neat in the worst possible way, and to add to that, he suffered from a host of multiple personalities within himself, all of them as compulsive as the next.

“Time,” Spring shuddered at the sound of the name. “I heard that he murdered Baal because a strand of his own hair was sticking out at an odd angle.”

This was true. And Time had relished every cathartic moment of beating the divine life out of Baal.

“So Life, or Fate, as she now became,” Autumn continued, “Thought that she might give Time a little bit of advice on how the humans should be governed. He endured it for a little while, I imagine. He was never fond of being told what to do, but I’m amazed that he did not snap her neck the first time she tried. Eventually, though, Time decided that he has had enough of his wife.”

“I was there to see her, after it was done,” Summer said, a haunted expression on his face. “She was a tough thing to kill, which I think made it worse. He broke her in more ways than you can imagine. Lucifer would have cringed at the scene.”

“Yikes,” Spring said. She didn’t dare imagine what it might have looked like.

“So Life is dead,” Autumn said, “And we must find a replacement.”

They murmured their agreement, and then one by one, they told the stories of the people who could be Life. Spring told her story first, and Summer spoke next. The third story was Autumn’s, and though Winter did not speak, the story was clear enough.

And so their stories were told.

308. At Midnight

At midnight, the imps come out to play. They emerge through little holes in the soil, squeezing in through cracks in the wall, and zipping through the air like demented insects on steroids. A hundred million invisible little creatures, all armed with little pitchforks and donning their best pair of red horns on their bald heads, come out at midnight to wreck havoc.

In a time long ago they used to set fires to farms and, in the disguise of fairies, lead night travelers to their doom in deep ravines. They used to prod cattle and dogs and cats with their little pitchforks, causing them to moo and bark and meow all night long, depriving their masters of sleep. These days, with concrete and steel replacing wood and straw, setting fires proved to be a little more difficult; and with headlights and streetlamps replacing starlight and lanterns, leading travelers to their doom had also become quite the challenge.

In the absence of cattle, they continue to prod the dogs and cats anyhow.

They fly around, silent as shadows, around heads and houses. They find their ways into closets and sew all your clothes a little bit smaller so that they will feel just a little bit tighter when you put them on in the morning. They reach into cabinets and misplace the thing that you will need first thing in the morning so that you will spend panicked hours looking for it, missing breakfast in the process, and eventually find it right next to where you thought you had left it. They excel, especially, at hiding car keys and wallets and loosening the connection between the charging cable and your phone so that you will wake up to a phone with a dead battery.

They work their ways into your fridge and subtly rearrange the items in it, pushing the jar of lard to the back of the fridge, where you will forget about it until you begin to smell the stink of fermentation months down the road. “Who put this in here?” you will ask, perplexed, and no one will be able to answer you.

With a swish and a prod of their pitchforks, they steal sleep from those who need them and pass it on to the people who would really be better off without it. They snag ideas from busy heads and plant them into idle minds, so that the once-good idea will become only good for collecting dust and growing gray mold in the stillness that is a blank mind. They steal the imagination of the new morning and shuffle them into your dreams, so that you will dream that you have woken up and washed up and went to the office, only to wake up and realize that you need to wash up and go to the office, only to wake up and realize that you haven’t actually woken up or washed up, only to wake up and realize…

Then, in the hours just before dawn, after they have filled your mind with cotton and strange dreams that you will not, for the life of you, be able to recount for the rest of your life, they flee. They disappear into the cracks in the wall and holes in the soil; and if you hear a little scurrying sound just as you stir from sleep, you will only remind yourself to complain to the landlord about the mice problem. There will be nothing left behind to show that the imps had ever been there.

And you will spend the next hour cursing as you search up and down for that flash drive that you swear you had left right beside your computer before you went off to sleep.

Meanwhile, the manic laughter underground goes on… and on… and on…