This is another short story idea I had. Does it sound promising? I wasn’t sure about the inclusion of sci-fi elements, so those might get cut if I continue the story.
The smell of coffee and cinnamon drifted through the air, a spicy, warm back drop for the lively chatter that spilled out of the building in a flood of light every time the door swung open. It was something of a tradition to gather after classes in one of the various coffee houses that littered the surrounding city, and by five o’clock the places were all but vibrating with the collective energy of the chemically-alert clientele. This particular place–The Black Wire, often simply called, The Wire–was not one of the most well-known establishments, but it was popular enough with certain crowds to stay in business. Exactly what it was that this crowd did was uncertain, but it seemed to necessitate the wearing of dark suits, artfully rumpled and individualized through the creative use of socks, ties, and the occasional belt buckle. It also seemed to require that it’s members to be fully alert at all times, which would explain why they hung around the Wire: the place specialized in coffee (or tea, if you swung that way) dark enough to shame the Devil and strong enough to put him in his place if he ever tried to reclaim his honor. It was the promise of the unusually strong coffee, more than the crowd, that drew Benni towards it. She was currently lingering around the corner, debating on the likelihood that someone she knew would be there, and that they would want her to join them in their evening cup. Refusing would be rather rude, not to mention baffling to others. It was tradition, after all, to drink and chat with one’s acquaintances over a cup of caffeine-infused beverage.
Not that Benni had ever participated in this particular tradition, or given anyone any reason to think that she would want to join them. Benni did not, in fact, partake in hardly any traditions, save for the grand tradition of becoming educated. Other than this Benni kept to her studies and amused herself with mostly solitary pastimes. She didn’t see the point of going out like the people around her did, traipsing about in large groups doing nothing in particular or getting their eardrums blown out while making themselves sick and sweaty. Nor did she see the point in going out to chat for hours with people she only occasionally liked, and with whom she rarely had much in common. No, Benni liked to be at home or go to work–anything else seemed to be fruitless. Of course, both being at home and going to work seemed somewhat fruitless too. Everything seemed somewhat fruitless, but being at home and going to work (a designation that included classes, as the whole point of taking classes was to prepare to become a high caliber worker) were necessary, and so they were the fruitless activities that Benni deigned to participate in. She would be the first to admit that she was bored.
Unfortunately, Benni could hardly remember a time when she hadn’t been bored. Life plodded on around her, and she plodded with it, never really seeing the point but never having anything better to be doing, either. On more than one occasion she had found herself gazing off into the middle distance, wondering if praying to God to set off the Apocalypse might make life a little more interesting. Then she’d realize what she was thinking and start wondering what kind of person she was that she’d absently consider praying for such a thing. It’s not that she wanted the world to end, see would fret to herself, she just wanted to feel something.
These were the thoughts that were drifting through Benni’s mind this evening. Bothersome as they were, she had sought out a distraction to keep her mind from spinning its wheels on such useless, unkind thoughts, and the distraction she had come up with was The Black Wire. As she watched, the door swung open again and three people–two men and one person of uncertain gender–sauntered out, their loose, unhurried strides perfectly matching their loose, un-tightened ties and loose, untucked shirts. Benni plastered herself to the wall and tried to look uninteresting. She was astoundingly successful, although she rather suspected it had been wasted energy–Benni had noticed a strong, negative correlation between the looseness of a person’s tie and the degree of interest the person had in people like herself. (Exactly what people like herself were, she wasn’t sure, but she thought it sounded better than just saying, “herself.”). All three of these people had very loose ties. Unfortunately, even the loosest-tie-wearer will notice someone stepping out right in front of them, so Benni had to wait for the ambling company to pass before she could slip around the corner and into the café. Extreme measures, perhaps, but she was in a particularly bad mood and she did not trust herself to be civil with anyone right now, especially not with people who would surely inform her that she really needed to just “loosen up.”
Loosen up. The phrase tumbled around her head as she made her way to the counter, dancing on her toes to avoid all the waving hands and awkwardly placed chairs that came with impassioned conversation.
She needed to loosen up.
“Hello. What can I get for you this evening?” the barrista said. He was one she had seen before, quite frequently, in fact. He was unfailingly polite and exuded a subdued cheerfulness that always made Benni feel somewhat better. Truth be told, he was one of the reasons she liked coming here. Today, however, her mind was too crowded with dark thoughts, and she could not muster even a polite smile.
“I would like a small, wet cappuccino, please.” Loosen up. It was people saying things like that to her that made her want to set the world on fire. She did not understand why they (and by “they” she meant the children she had gone to school with, the students she had studied at university with, and all the authority figures who seemed to think it was their duty to not just teach knowledge, but also those aggravating things known as “life lessons”) thought it was any of their business how “loose” she was. What did that even mean? Benni had always felt she was quite laid-back. She did not yell, she rarely ranted, and she tried to be polite even when she was feeling less than gracious. Yet all and sundry told her to “loosen up,” to “have some fun once in a while.”
Benni was not really sure what the word meant, only that everyone wanted to do it rather than work, and it seemed to make everyone deliriously happy. Benni had never been deliriously anything. She knew she liked to write, and read, and, to a certain extent, study; but she was not sure she would call any of those pursuits “fun.” It seemed a useless word, describing useless, boring activities, yet people threw it at her in the same way they used “loosen up,” and so she did not like it. It all came back to people. Boring, irritating people. She scowled at herself, then, realizing that rather than halting the aggravating train her thoughts had been on, being in a public place was only making things worse; the Apocalypse loomed large in her mind.
“Small, wet cappuccino for Ms. Benadette.” The sound of her name startled Benni enough to halt the fiery mental imagery and sent a sharp lance of anxiety through her. She had been sure that no one who knew her was here, she had looked quite carefully as she had walked in. All strangers. Then the first part of the phrase registered, and her eyes landed on the drink on the counter. The cup was porcelain, the kind given to customers who liked to sit and enjoy their drink, and the thick foam had a bird drawn on top and covered with cinnamon feathers. “Bndt” was written on the side of the cup in black marker. Reaching for the cup, she opened her mouth to thank the barrista, but what came out was, “How did you know my name?”
“I’ve been asking you for it for months, every time I take your order. I figured that it hasn’t changed in the week since you were last here.” He said this without inflection, and with only a hint of a smile. Benni was not sure if he was teasing her or not, nor what her response should be. So she did what she always did when she found herself in a social situation without a script: she stared at him. He stared back. She put a tip in his jar, picked up her coffee, and walked to an empty table on the other side of the room, making sure to hold her head high as she was still not sure in what spirit he had made his comment. She wished people came with footnotes. However, she did not fail to notice that the interaction had effectively halted her downward mental spiral, although she was not sure she liked the alternative route her thoughts were now taking any better. Not dark, but much too complicated. Benni was never good at understanding those sorts of things. She frowned down at her cup, letting the steam fog up her glasses and breathing in the calming smell of coffee, warm milk, and cinnamon. She breathed out slowly and reached for calm, wrapping both hands around the cup and willing the warmth to soak up into her bones. Heat spiraled out from her throat and stomach and into her extremities as she took the first sip, and her mind settled slightly.
Coffee always calmed her, despite the coffee-sellers claims that it was supposed to do the exact opposite. Benni figured it had something to do with her emotional attachment to the drink: drinking a morning cup of coffee had been a ritual her parents had never failed to complete, she had adopted it sometime in her teens. A three o’clock pick-me-up was an equally cherished ritual that her parents had instilled in her, and most of her best conversations had been had over a bitter, hot, and foamy cup of espresso. The drink was warm, familiar, and riddled with good memories–not even the constant threat of insomnia kept her from seeking out a cup whenever she was feeling less than cheerful.
As she sipped, Benni glanced around the room. She felt comfortably removed from the subjects of her gaze, a distant, third-person observer watching the world with an impartial stare; this was how she preferred to operate. When she was agitated, she felt the isolation that such behavior engendered, but when she was calm, as she now was, it left her feeling as if she was in her own, safe bubble. No one could touch her, because she did not exist to them–she was simply the narrator. Pleased with her thoughts, she finished the last, luke-warm sip of her cappuccino with contented relish, tilting the cup up as far as she could to allow the final dregs of coffee to seep through the left-over foam. She set the cup down and licked off her new, frothy mustache, wondering what it was like to lick off a milk-mustache when you had an actual mustache, and if–
“Are you done with that, Miss?” Benni’s whole body jumped and a brief, improvised juggling show commenced as she attempted to keep the cup from crashing to the floor. It had jumped right along with her and then continued on up into the air (the thought that physics was really quite remarkable briefly slipped along the edges of her mind, the part that wasn’t shrieking in bewilderment and angst). This was the problem with behaving as if one is not a part of the world: the world doesn’t always get the memo. It does’t realize that there is a fourth wall that is not supposed to be broken unless the narrator pulls a rather tricky and clever stunt, and when it then breaks that fourth wall, without even the courtesy of giving fair warning, it can lead to rather unpleasant (and wretchedly unscripted) scenarios. Such as this one. Luckily, the mortifying possibility of being that one customer who breaks the dishes was averted, although the mortifying possibility of being that one customer who almost breaks the dishes and draws the unwanted attention of the whole establishment had come to pass. It was a quick mortification, at least, with people turning away almost as soon as she managed to stabilize the cup and assume the most unassuming posture possible. The barrista starred at her. She glared at him. He was, to her bafflement, unaffected*.
“Are you done with that, Miss?” He asked again, as if he had not, in fact, just caused a horrible incident, disturbing her Calm and ratcheting her irritation levels back up to through the roof.
“No,” she answered. Her voice was carefully devoid of any emotion and she promptly turned to stare in the other direction, silently but blatantly signaling that he should GO AWAY. When she looked up several seconds later, the barrista was once again behind the bar, polishing the old espresso machine so that the copper plating gleamed. It caught the last rays of the setting sun as they streamed low through the window, bouncing them onto the rows of syrups and liquors that sat next to it, and making starbursts on the walls. There was almost no one else around to see the light show, nor appreciate the amount of polishing that it must have taken to create it. Benni hadn’t realized how late it had become.
The Black Wire did not post hours. Ostensibly, it was open whenever it needed to be open. Benni, at least, had never seen it closed, nor ever been forcibly removed from it due to a fast approaching closing time. Still, as she watched the third-to-last group waltz out, arguing loudly about whether or not the separatist parties of the Outer colonies were gaining a foothold in the Lunar-Mars corridor, she wandered if she ought to leave. Surely the barrista wanted to go home (she was also not entirely sure she wanted to be alone in the shop with him–he had already tried to speak to her several times, what if he tried again and she couldn’t put him off?). But the image of her tiny apartment swam into her mind’s eye, cramped, cluttered with things she neither wanted nor needed, and utterly silent. Not the gentle quiet that lets you sleep peacefully, or read pleasurably, no, the silence that filled her rooms was suffocating, so absolute that its presence was as distracting as a sound-system cranked up to full volume. It screamed at her, making her restless and anxious, causing many a sleepless night and unproductive day. Benni quickly rose, picked up her cup and a five dollar bill, and strode over to the bar to ask for a refill.
*A brief not about The Glare of Benadette. Throughout most of school, Benni’s classmates were, to varying degrees, terrified of her. They claimed that she had a Death Glare, and a particularly potent one at that. It froze their hearts and made them sweat bullets if she so much as looked at them. Benni didn’t really understand this, as in her memory she had never given any of them a serious glare. Because of this she had to conclude that there was something about her face that made people think she was terrifically angry at them, and while inconvenient when trying to make friends, it did come in handy when ever she actually WAS angry at someone. Because if her look seemed like a Death Glare, she assumed that her glare must send the receiver into the fiery depths of their own personal Hell.
Time trickled by and so did the patrons. The second-to-last group walked out when Benni had drained her cup to the half-way point, and the only other person left now, besides herself and the barrista, was a older person of ambiguous gender. They were wearing a wide brimmed hat and a shapeless black cape, trimmed with yellow. A thick and nameless book was open on their table, and Benni briefly entertained the idea of asking what it was. Very briefly.
By the time Benni had gotten down to the dregs of her second cup, she had to admit that her excuses were running out and the barrista’s painfully polite glances (literally, Benni thought he must have practiced to be able to throw such a perfectly unoffensive glance with such violence) were becoming a bit too much even for her. However the be-hatted figure also remained. Perhaps she’d wait until they left? But when she looked up, the barrista managed to catch her eye and he gave her such an emotionless, unworried, so-sharp-you-didn’t-even-notice-you-were-bleeding look that she promptly gathered up her things and fled to the door. Honestly, and she had considered this barrista pleasant. Internally shrugging, Benni put it down to a bad day and mentally forgave him. She was hardly the poster-child of good social behavior, after all, and nobody liked to stay at work longer than they had to.
The last rays of the sun had vanished at least an hour ago, and what warmth there had been during the day was fast being swallowed up by the nightly chill. The Frost would soon begin. Benni shrugged her cape on, a long, black, all-weather affair with a deep hood, a buckled belt, and a flair for the dramatic. Her mother always said she should try to add some color to her wardrobe, but Benni liked black, and you didn’t have to wash it near so much. Besides, she thought as she walked away from the café, it made it easier to hide if she ran into trouble when she went out at night. As if mocking her smug defense, the street lamp that shone over the alley she had turned down flickered, gleamed brightly for approximately five seconds, and went out. There was not another for some ways, and Benni pulled the hood of her coat up with a scowl. She really ought to have left sooner. Sending up a prayer to the God she was never quite sure if she believed in, she set off, her rubber-soled boots silent despite her quick, loping strides. For all that she felt like a rabbit darting, wild-eyed, to the nearest bolt hole, her dark silhouette was that of a wolf–lone, proud, and potentially dangerous. There was a reason no one ever bothered Benni.
Ten minutes later, when she was almost back to her little apartment, the moon came out from behind a cloud and lit up the night, turning it into a silvery-blue dreamscape. Looking up, Benni could just make out the shadows of the Lunar colonies. They had been spreading across the moon’s visible face for some years, now. Benni would have given anything to be up there. She had long dreamed of exploring the Lunar cities and even of preparing for the longer journey to the Mars colonies. Occasionally she even pondered the journey to the ones beyond Mars. The ones that you couldn’t come back from. She knew most people were frightened of that fact when they heard it, even those who were really interested in what might be out there; the idea of a one-way trip to who-knows-where made them clutch their mother’s apron strings and plant a garden, hoping to ground themselves in good, solid earth, in things that were very real and very here and not going anywhere at all. Benni wasn’t afraid. She was bored, and if anything she was afraid she would die from it. Die without doing anything remotely interesting, anything that could even come close to being called a Good Story. It was a depressing thought, and Benni wondered why she never seemed able to think of things like rainbows or smiley faces or any of the other things that content people must populate their mindscapes with. In any case, she thought, looking at the sky would only serve to make her anxious and restless and depressed about her current life. With this thought she turned her face from the sky and looked determinedly ahead for the last leg of her journey, staring with false intensity at every silver-lit crack in the sidewalk.
Benni lived in an old building, as most of the buildings in the area were. Wedged between a structure that consisted of a house, stacked on top of a bookshop that fancied itself as a salon, stacked on top of bakery; and an ancient, semi-hydroponic and mostly vertical farm that was held together by little more than the iron will of the owner, a woman called Agnes who resembled an Amazonian warrior and was well-known for her expert technique with a frying pan (part of the reason Benni liked her location was the safety provided by Agnes’ reputation). There were seven apartments in the building, with the large bottom apartment occupied by the owner of the building. The face of the building was brick and small plants grew out of the many cracks, crevices, and crumbles. The Nature’s-taking-over feel was further enhanced by the fact that most of the residents, including Benni, kept small gardens on their balconies. By a stroke of magnificent luck, Benni had managed to obtain one of the two apartments in her building that had access to the roof. The other apartment that had access shared a wall with her, but she had never seen the occupant. The only reasons she knew someone actually lived there was the occasional strains of piano that drifted from beyond the wall, and the sound of soft footsteps darting down the stairs shortly before she left for classes in the morning, or darting up the stairs as she was reading in the evening. In her mind she fancied that she lived next door to the gatekeeper of another world, which had an entrance in the always-locked basement of the building. She knew this was likely false, but she figured it did not particularly matter whether or not she made up elaborate stories about her elusive neighbor. Of course, she could have made their acquaintance, instead, but such things rarely occurred to Benni. She had ever been a creature of solitude.
Entering the foyer, Benni quickly moved towards the stairs, went up two steps at a time, spent thirty seconds jiggling her key in her lock to get it to open, and slipped into the darkness of her rooms. She promptly tripped. A loud yowl accompanied her own shriek, and she cried out as she landed, hard, “Morpheeeuu~uuus!” Morpheus, a large, mostly white cat with a black splotch on his right ear, another on his left flank, and a third on the tip of his tail, did not respond in the way one guilty of transgression ought to respond. Indeed he seemed to be under the impression that it was he who had been wronged. This he communicated with a low, rumbling sound that could be classified neither as a meow or a growl. It was that unique sound that a disgruntled cat makes, the mrowl. Benni, who had a talent speaking cat (even though she was never quite sure what she was saying), growled right back and matched his glare. Although the gleaming, oil-slick-rainbow of his eyes created an eery effect, Benni won the stare-down and Morpheus slunk off into the dark to lick his tail in a show of wounded dignity. For her part, Benni decided to call it a night and began to prepare for bed.
Although for the past week the weather had been convinced that autumn was still arriving it seemed to have finally gotten with the seasonal program. The cold had crept up with lightning speed shortly after Benni had gotten in the night before, and by the time she had to get up again it had slipped through the cracks in the old building and settled deep into the floors. As she slowly approached consciousness, she could feel it lurking outside the warm wraps of her blankets. Waiting. She had suspected it would Frost last night, but this was ridiculous, she thought, peeking out at the ice-stars on her window. The day, unfortunately, would not wait. And so, grumbling and groaning, shivering at the very thought setting foot onto the freezing floors, Benni slowly, ponderously, rolled. Out of the bed. A dull thump followed and less than two seconds later Benni recalled why she had sworn, on many previous mornings, to stop performing that particular action: she bruised like a peach and her joints and hipbones had no fat to cushion them from the wood (all her fat was in un-useful places, like thighs; thighs never hit anything, but elbows, knees, and hips smacked into everything and hers were a constant, if varying, shade of purple). After lying on the floor for several moments to recover and breathing out a long, soft, “oooo~oowwwwoh,” Benni tucked up her sprawling limbs into a ball and rocked up onto her feet. She stepped, lurched sideways, and stumbled gracelessly out of her tiny bedroom, grabbing her heaviest robe as she passed. She stepped over Morpheus and plodded into the equally tiny kitchen. Squinting out of one eye*, she fumbled with the coffee pot, fingers already numbing with cold, and began the ritual she had been performing every morning since reaching puberty.
First, fill the pot with water. Second**, ground up the coffee beans. Benni hated the noise of the coffee grinder, how it shattered the soft stillness of the morning with its thunderous whirring and “skchz, skchz, skchz-ing,” but the whole beans stayed fresher, longer, and Benni loved the smell they released. Heaven was the smell of freshly ground coffee. The third and final step was putting it all together and pressing the “on” button. Going through this ritual as she always did, Benni pressed the “on” button and washed her favorite mug while she waited, with mild anticipation, for the machine’s gurgling to begin. It took longer than it ought to have, due to the fact that the machine was an ancient, behemoth of a thing whose shiny black surface was scratched and burned from countless years of service. It had belonged to her brother before her, and to her brother’s girlfriend before him, and she had gotten it second-hand from God-only-knows-where. With a cough, a splutter, and a belch of fragrant steam thick enough to fog up Benni’s glasses, the machine began to dribble out a dark trickle of coffee. The dribbling slowly speed up, stopped suddenly, then with a hiccup and a whine the machine started to produce a steady stream. As she watched, waited, and waited some more, Benni slowly slid down the side of the kitchen cabinets, wrapping her robe tight about herself. With each minute that past, she came closer to the point where her feet would be too far out from under her and she would drop, bruising her tailbone. Still, the pot continued to gurgle and she continued to slide, eyes closed and half-asleep. She was jerked into wakefulness right before she would have ended up having to put ice on her back by a loud, “MEEP MEEP MEEP!” The coffee was done. It was time to start the day.
Or at least open both eyes at once. Once this was achieved with the first cup, several others followed and Benni became progressively more awake. Such was the morning routine, and nothing happened to disturb it for about a week. Days bled into each other in a wretchedly wearisome fashion and passed out of thought and memory, having nothing interesting in their content that might hold them there–by the end of the week Benni’s thoughts had once again drifted in an apocalyptic direction.
“I am bored,” she told Morpheus one afternoon, flopping onto her bed with a sigh. Morpheus glanced at her once, then resumed licking between his legs. He obviously thought that she was, indeed, Bored, and no he would not like to meet her. Benni sighed again and turned her head towards the ceiling. She had painted glow-in-the-dark stars on it, with all the constellations placed as accurately as possible. “I wish I could go up there.” A dream that was unlikely to be realized, Benni knew. Only Very Special People were picked for the space missions, and all of her applications had been turned down. None of her talents were of the sort that the robber-barons who ran the space industry thought would be useful in a space colony, or as a crew member on a ship. Benni had even applied to be a janitor. They hadn’t even taken the time to send back a rejection letter. Lifting her had, Benni traced an imaginary line to the Alpha Centauri system–that was where the space industry planned to head to next. Alpha Centauri. A whole new solar system. A whole new place that know one had ever seen before. Brilliant, surely beautiful, if only–
Benni started and nearly fell off her bed. She stared at her wall, where the noise had come from. She waited. She chewed her lip. Was that the mystery neighbor? Were they okay? Should she go check? Should she ignore it? the noise had been very loud, and not the sort of Bam that one might make when doing something…intimate. It was the sort of Bam that occurred when you tripped and split your head open, or dropped a Very Large and Heavy Object on yourself. Or a bookcase fell on you. Or an Alpha Centauri bound star ship slammed into your house. And decided that you were excellent star-crew material after all and whisked you away to see the universe. Benni decided that investigating would really be the only decent thing to do, even if it was sure to be unbearably awkward if it turned out that no help was needed. Couldn’t let someone die beneath a fallen bookshelf just because she was shy. And certainly couldn’t refuse to help a star ship captain relaunch their vessel. Certainly not.
*When tired, Benni had a tendency to only look out of one eye. Rather like a flamingo stands on one leg to rest the other, she would only have one eye open at a time so that the other could indulge the urge to go back to sleep.
**There was actually a step between the first and second step, which was “go to the bathroom.” This was because the sound of running water always reminded her bladder that it had not been emptied for approximately eight hours.