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Coffee mugs clinked together as she pulled one off the shelf. Steam rose up from the poured hot coffee, fogging up the wire rim glasses balanced on her nose. She took the glasses off, wiped them against her icing stained apron and then returned them to her face, her hazel eyes magnified by the thick lenses. The spoon scraped the bottom of the sugar dish before she withdrew a heap of white crystals. The clock above her head ticked loudly, and the smell of fresh coffee choked the air of the small shop. She glanced over at the couch I sat on. I absently picked at the crumbling brown leather on the armrest. I watched her over the rim of my coffee mug. We briefly made eye contact before she dropped her attention back to the mug in her hands. She rested her elbows on the counter, still clutching the mug, her palms half covered by the sleeves of her black sweater. She moved her head to look out the window, the freckles on her pale cheeks were striking in the natural light.
It was unseasonably warm for autumn. The leaves had already turned colour and the warm sunlight intensified the orange and red leaves dangling from the tree in front. The light streamed in from the windows, casting streaks of light across the polished hardwood floor. I had no interest in enjoying the last of summer's warmth. I was content to be in here, watching her. I had been nursing the drink in my hands for half an hour, content to see her scrubbing down the dark wood countertops, shining the silver knobs of the coffee machines. She rested her coffee cup on the counter and disappeared behind a door near the back of the shop. I turned my attention towards the record player that was carefully balanced on top of milk crates. The soft drone of Jazz was emanating from the speakers underneath the neon sign that glared "The Drip" in bright red letters.
She returned in the time I spent watching the black vinyl spin lazily on the turntable. She scrubbed the showcase, removing the trays of fresh baked pastries to scrub the glass with Windex. The tip of her tongue was sticking out from her lips, concentrating on a large smudge of pink frosting on the inside. I had seen this routine for the last two weeks now.
I stood up and walked towards the counter. The chalkboards behind the cash register swirled with the delicately written menu. I placed my empty mug down on the wood and leaned over the counter.
"So, must be pretty boring working by yourself all of the time." I laughed as she glanced up startled. She dropped her washcloth on the ground in front of her yellow running shoes and bent down to pick it up, her long dark hair falling in front of her face. I caught the scent of her floral shampoo and inhaled deeply. The smell stirred memories of a steam-filled bathroom. The same scent filling the air as my mother wrapped her bright yellow bathrobe across her body. I flinched and anger pooled in my brain like the blood of a twin sized bed.
"Sorry, I didn't see you stand up. Did you want another coffee?" She smiled, revealing a small dimple in her left cheek.
"Can't stand the stuff, I only ever order hot chocolate," I replied. I clenched my fist, concealing the annoyance in my voice. She couldn't even be bothered to remember the simple order I got every day.
"Another hot chocolate then, on the house." She grabbed the mug and turned around to make the drink. She grabbed a large silver canister from a top shelf, pushing up on the counter to reach. She rested the container on the counter and the lid opened and a cloud of brown dust coated the air around the jar. She turned her head into her right arm and coughed. I noted the way her tiny frame shook with the force of air coming from her lungs.
She turned back around, clasping the mug tightly in her hands, walking carefully out from behind the counter so as not to spill the hot contents on herself. She walked towards the set of chairs surrounding the only table in the shop. She set the drink down and pulled out a chair at the table.
"Well, why don't you come to join me?" She gestured to the chair opposite her. I tugged at the collar of my blue dress shirt, suddenly feeling it was too tight. I hadn't built up the nerve to talk to her until now. She was smiling as she casually flipped a dark strand of silky hair behind her ear. A flash of dark luscious curls momentarily blurred my vision. The dark hair wound so tightly around my hand that my fingertips were turning purple. Dark blue eyes pleading for their life, searching for compassion until slowly losing focus. Only then the muscles in my neck slowly released tension. The blood pulsing in my ears returning to silence. I blinked away the image. The tension was returning and the pressure behind my skull was becoming unbearable. I focused my gaze on her. Willing my feet to move to the empty chair. I sat down and stared across at her. Her legs were crossed and her left foot anxiously tapped to an unknown rhythm, occasionally bumping my leg.
"So how come you're always alone here," I ask.
She fidgeted nervously at this question, as though she had only just noticed the emptiness of the shop."Well, I never went to school, so I took the money my parents had put aside for college and bought this place. It only officially opened last month and I haven't made enough yet to be able to afford to hire someone else."
"Why a coffee shop?"
"I don't know. I knew I wanted to start something. Didn't want to end up doing nothing with my life and the idea just sort of came to me." She got up, walked back over to the counter, and returned with the coffee she was sipping from earlier. "Enough about me though. Tell me about yourself."
I sat up straighter in my chair. "Not much to tell. Lived here my whole life. Lost my mom when I was young, so just me and my dad." She dropped her smile as I said this. That look of pity forced anger to bubble up my throat, burning my insides with hate. I pushed down the urge to yell, saying instead, "I just graduated with a degree in arts, and before you laugh, I only did it so my Dad would get off my back about going to school."
"Ah, A struggling artist," she chuckled. "What's your name?" She was smiling again and the dimple in her cheek was framed by growing blush on her face. I could see the warmth spread up her neck and inch towards he pale cheeks.
"Landon, and yourself?"
"Caroline," she replied. Her phone, balanced near the edge of the table began to vibrate. "Oh, it's my daughter's babysitter. I should probably take this, I'm so sorry." She smiled before getting up and shuffling towards the back of the shop. I heard her answer the phone, but her voice sounded like it was underwater over the pulse of hatred that rang in my ears.
I pictured Caroline as a mother and hoped she was a good mother, whatever that meant. Mother's are meant to love and protect their children. Provide them with advice and support them. I hoped Caroline was that kind of mother, not the mother who selfishly abandoned her child. Not the mother who left their decaying body sprawled across their son's Toy Story bedspread. Left her blood to seep into the quilted fabric, a gun held loosely in her hand for her 6-year-old to discover upon returning from a fishing trip with his grandfather.
"Oh God, let me grab some napkins," the sound of Caroline's voice broke my train of thought. I looked down noticing the hot chocolate seeping off the table, staining my khaki pants as it splashed across my thighs.
"I am so sorry, I have made such a mess." I shoved the bottom of my palms against my eyes until all I could see was the visual equivalent of white noise. I rubbed my eyes, scraping the image of the memory away.
She returned to the table with a roll of paper towel tucked under her elbow. "It's okay! Honestly I spill things on myself at least four times a day." She laughed and placed the roll in front of me before moving the stack of newspapers off the end of the table. Her eyes glanced over the front cover, her face twisting in disgust.
"Terrible things happening in the news lately huh?" She said quietly.
"What happened now?" I already knew what she was going to say. I knew more than the reporters.
"Another girl was found apparently. Same as the others. Shot in the head, wrapped in a blanket, and then tossed on the side of the road." She shivered and set the paper down again.
"Yeah, it really is an awful thing."
"Mhmm," she mumbled. You know they are saying that every girl has had a large chunk of hair cut off. Apparently, murderers keep a trophy like that. The whole thing just gives me the creeps. I hope they catch the guy soon."
"Hair, that's interesting. Wonder how close they are to actually catching the guy though. I mean he's barely left any evidence besides the bodies." I stopped blotting at the stain on my pants to look at her.
"Well according to the 11 o'clock news last night, the guy got messy on the last one. Left DNA on the body or something. I guess that means they should have someone in custody soon." She let out a long sigh. "And thank goodness for that!"
I laughed uncomfortably and nodded my head before standing up and walking back over to the armchair. I grabbed the black book bag I had left slumped beside the armrest.
"Well, I should really get going. Thanks for the hot chocolate." She smiled and took the pile of soggy paper towels from the table. I opened the door of the coffee shop hearing the soft ding of the bell. My gaze was focused on buckling up my book bag as a rough hand clamped down on my shoulder.
"Do you happen to know where the nearest gas station is?" I turned around to face a tall, muscular man in a crisp, blue uniform. My eyes wandered across his body, focusing on the black handle of the handgun clipped onto his belt. His thumbs were looped through the belt, looming closely to the gun. My hand twitched against the strap of my backpack. He knew. He knew everything I had done and was here to arrest me, not ask for the nearest gas station. My fingers went numb with panic and I felt like bugs were crawling across my skin as the hair on my arms stood up.
"No, I don't, sorry." I pulled the strap of the bag over my head so the bag crossed my body and then moved to step around the officer.
"Are you sure there aren't any around?"
He was stalling. Keeping me there until his back up could arrive. I clenched my fist and swung until it connected with the balding man's temple. His eyes widened before he collapsed on the ground. I heard the door to the shop open before she started yelling.
"Landon? You just knocked out a cop. Why would you do that? We have to call 9-1-1." She patted down her jean pockets, looking for her cell phone.
"No." My voice was emotionless and firm.
"Why not? Look, I don't know why you did that, but he's unconscious in my parking lot so I'm calling an ambulance."
"We can't do that."
"I know you probably don't want to get in trouble for this, but we have to get him help." She gestured to the man lying near her feet and then took a deep breath. "Was he harassing you? Because if that's why you punched him then I'm sure we can talk you out of this."
"No. I won't let you call the police. I need to get out of here before his back up arrives."
"You won't let me? Who do you think you are?" She flipped her hair to the side and placed her hands on her hips in annoyance. "And what do you mean back up? Why would he have backup coming?"
It was an act. She was feigning surprise at all of this. I realized she must have called the police there. My vision blurred and I was losing my ability to restrain my impulses again.
"Don't act surprised. It isn't very becoming of you."
"Landon, seriously, what are you talking about? I won't welcome you back in my shop if this is how you are going to behave."
"I know you called that police officer. You really shouldn't have done that."
"Why would I have called the cops? You're acting crazy." Her face crinkled with confusion and her voice was uneven and too loud. "I'm calling 9-1-1. We can't leave this man like this and you're scaring me."
I pulled the scrapbook from my bag and stepped towards her, shoving the book under her nose.
"You saw this. I know you did. You looked in my bag and saw this and then you knew everything."
"Landon, I have never seen that before. I wouldn't go through your stuff. I wouldn't have even had a chance to go through your stuff and I don't know what exactly I am supposed to know."
"You did. You looked. You looked and you knew and that's why you brought up those stories in the newspaper and the hair from my scrapbook," I yelled. Each word made her blink and my face was so close to hers, my breath was fogging her glasses like the freshly brewed coffee.
Panicked hazel eyes met mine. Her chest was rising and falling in a quick and uneven pattern. Her dark brown hair framed her pale face so perfectly. I pictured her hair tied in a bright yellow ribbon. The same ribbon mother used to pull back her hair while we made pancakes and sipped hot chocolate on Saturday morning. I snagged her by the wrist and pulled her towards my car. I saw her open her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. I smiled at her.
"Don't worry mom. Everything is going to be okay," I whispered as I opened the door and shoved her inside.