Flash Fiction: A Cup of Coffee

I wrote this scene at the Lost Lake Writer’s Retreat in early October of 2017. I forget the writing prompt. Maybe “Where were you?”

I was standing in line at the cafe with foggy glasses and a too-warm coat. The air was humid and thick with the smell of coffee and hair product, and Torani syrup so potent that I could taste the drinks as people walked past me out the door.

From the corner, over the top of the low conversations came a loud “Where the hell have you been?” I looked around but couldn’t see anything. Everyone in line hunched their shoulders and focused more intently on their phones.

Behind me I heard a low “…shit.” The line moved forward and another cloud of Torani walked out the door.

“I’ve been here for half an hour. Waiting! We said three thirty!”

I took off my glasses so I could see. The dude behind me was a pale, sweaty blur. He shrugged, “The roads were…”

“I don‘t care about the roads! You’re late!”

All around us shoulder hunched and heads ducked and phones were fiddled with, fiercely. I squinted into the corner.

I could feel fierce attention land on me. “What the hell are you looking at?”

“I’m, uh, nothing!” I made a show of putting on my still-foggy glasses, and shrugged.

The line moved forward slowly. When I got my coffee I debated staying to watch the show, or leaving and enjoying the slush and salt spray of Lake Drive. The dude walked past me to the corner, a cup in each hand.

She started again. “Were you seeing Her?”

“I was working.”

“Work is five minutes from here. You’re half an hour late!”

“The roads…”

“I don’t care about the goddamn roads!”

All around us the vicarious dread had turned into morbid curiosity and everyone was staring into the corner.

He tried again. “I’m not seeing…”

“Half an hour! Where…”

“Hey! Indoor voice!” This was the barista. She was a singer in a local ska band and her voice could cut glass.

The dude shrugged helplessly, “We were just…”

“Pack it in, or take it outside!”

The woman snarled, “Fine!”

My glasses had finally cleared. I recognized the dude. He lived at the end of my street. I had seen his girlfriend around sometimes, and heard her more often, usually yelling at him. To be fair, she wasn’t the only woman I had seen at his house lately. I’d called the cops on them once after a particularly energetic argument. That was when I started spending time in the cafe.

I called across the room, “Hey Sean, is she talking about the blonde with the purple highlights or the one with the black mohawk? Or the one that’s still in high school?”

He flinched and glared at me. “What the hell dude? Mind your own business!”

“I came here to get away from you idiots. Keep your drama to yourself.”

His girlfriend blinked at me, then at him, and stood up. She brushed past him hard enough to spill his coffee and walked out the front door of the cafe. He glared at me for another moment, then followed her out the door.

Now everyone was looking at me. The barista smirked and gestured toward the door with her head.

I pulled a twenty from my wallet and dropped it in the tip jar. “Sorry about that.”

Outside the air was cold and clean and smelled like snow.

Flash Fiction: Luck, or Something Like It

“Luck, or Something Like It” is a flash fiction inspired by the prompt “Luck” from Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds. This scene immediately follows my previous story “Looking At Ourselves“.

Professor Smith dusted off his jacket and looked around. The room in which he suddenly found himself was huge, with no walls, and a suggestion of a ceiling far overhead, but that could also have been low cloud cover. The space was quite crowded. The floor was uneven and seemed to be made of stone, and he changed his assessment from “room” to “cave”.

“Smith!” he heard a voice yelling nearby. “Smith! Where are you?”

Smith smiled and waved. Professor Lin shouldered her way through a crowd of young people, who Smith vaguely recognized as his neighbors.

“Lin! Over here!” yelled Smith.

Lin made her way carefully to Smith, glancing down at the floor.

“Did we…” said Lin.

“I think so,” said Smith.

“Then we’re in…” said Lin

“Good question,” said Smith. “Not heaven certainly. I recognize some of my students.”

“And not hell,” said Lin. “I see my doorman, Jerry.”

“Good man, was he?” said Smith.

“One of the very best.” said Lin. “He died a little over a month ago.”

“Ahead of the crowd, as it were. So. Purgatory?”

“Perhaps,” said Lin, and raised a hand “Jerry! Halloo! Over here!”

And elderly man, with a bald head and bushy moustache, wandered over to join the two academics. Lin took one of his hands.

“Jerry! It is so good to see you again!”

“Doctor Lin! Likewise.” The corners of Jerry’s moustache drew up into a smile. “Kind of crowded here, all of a sudden.”

“The meteor hit,” said Smith, and offered a hand. “Smith. A pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” said Jerry. “Doctor Lin mentioned you from time to time.”

“Positively, I hope!” said Smith. “Lin tells me you’ve been here for a little while. Where is ‘here’, exactly?”

Jerry snorted. “The Bardo, they tell me. We’re all biding our time before we head back to the world. People popping in and out all over the place.”

Lin frowned. “The Bardo, eh? So we’re between lives?”

“Sounds about right,” said Jerry. “I’m Baptist myself, or I was. This whole reincarnation thing is taking a while to wrap my head around.”

“The Bardo! We’re in luck!” said Smith. “Another go at getting things right.”

Lin frowned. “Maybe not. If we are waiting here for our turn at reincarnation…”

Smith’s face fell. “And the world was just destroyed…”

“See, this is why I was happy being a Baptist,” said Jerry. “We only had to worry about our souls once.”

“And we’re sure this is the Bardo?” said Lin.

“Sure as I’m standing here.” said Jerry. “There’s some folks in yellow robes seem to have it all figured out. I never even heard of the place before my heart attack.”

“Er, what happens if we’re supposed to reincarnate and there are no, er, vessels?”

“Beats me,” said Jerry. “I don’t know who’s really in ch-” He abruptly vanished with a small “pop”.

Lin and Smith stared at the empty space, then at each other.

“Maybe he came back as a microbe?” said Smith.

“I’m not sure it works that way,” said Lin. “Maybe reincarnation isn’t bound to one planet.”

“You’re saying he just went back as an alien something?”

“Perhaps,” said Lin. “Buddhism is bound to one planet. That doesn’t mean that the thing Buddhism points toward is also bound to one planet.”

“Nonsense,” said Smith. “If that is the case, where are all the aliens? All I see are a lot of people.”

“Do you see any animals?” said Lin. “Any birds or insects or anything like that?”

Smith looked around. “No, now that you mention it.”

“Maybe they have their own room. Er, cave. Space?”

“Afterlife.”

“But it’s not really ‘after’,” said Lin.

“Intermission?”

“That works. Let’s walk around.”

Smith smiled and offered his arm. Lin hooked hers through his, and they set off through the crowd. After a while Smith said, “I don’t feel like we’re making progress.”

“And I’m not exactly sure how long we’ve been here. The Book of the Dead says forty days, but who is to say if time works here the way it works—worked—back home.”

“It makes sense that it doesn’t,” said Smith. “Space certainly doesn’t.”

“So we don’t know exactly when we’ll head off to the next place.”

“Interesting phrasing,” said Smith. “If space has come unbound, then perhaps time has too. Maybe we stay on the same planet, but we go back to, well, whenever. The 1800s. Or the time of the dinosaurs.”

“Or two billion years from now, when the planet reforms and life begins anew.”

“And wouldn’t that be strange,” said Smith. “No different from being on an alien planet.”

“So in the end we know where we came from, but not where we are—”

“The Bardo,” said Smith.

“But that doesn’t really explain anything,” said Lin. “As I was saying, we’re not sure where we are, and we certainly don’t know where we’re going.”

“So we just have to trust in a higher power?” said Smith.

“Or a lower one.” said Lin.

“That doesn’t sound encouraging,” said Smith. “Maybe Dante—”

“Not lower as in infernal,” snapped Lin. “Lower as in intrinsic. A more basic function of the universe. Not consciously directed by some external agent.”

“A deeper octave of a fractal?” said Smith.

“Yes!” said Lin, squeezing Smith’s arm. “The little details are reflected in the larger picture.”

“So at some level it is all determinism,” said Smith. He sighed and shook his head.

“At some level, perhaps.” said Lin. “But at this level, it could all be luck. Maybe it’s all down to timing. I died at a slightly different microsecond than you did. I come back as a furry critter new Alpha Centauri, or something, and you come back as a polyp in an ocean near Betelgeuse.”

“And there’s a line vessels in the universe waiting for a line of souls. Interesting idea!”

“Time and good behavior,” said Smith.

“Right place, right time, and the Eightfold Path.”

“Ten is a nice round number,” said Smith. “Am I imagining things, or is the crowd thinning out a bit?”

“Seems to be,” said Lin, “Though it could be Brownian motion distributing everyone more evenly in this space.”

Smith squinted into the distance. “No, people are definitely leaving. Seems to be picking up pace, too.”

“I guess this is goodbye again,” said Lin.

“And no terrible vodka this time,” said Smith.

Lin smiled. Smith vanished with a small pop. Lin closed her eyes as a wave of vertigo washed through her, and reopened them to something completely unexpected.

Flash Fiction: Looking At Ourselves

“Looking At Ourselves” is a flash fiction inspired by the prompt “New life” from Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds.

“That’s the fundamental issue,” said Doctor Smith. “Life is a continuum. Any divisions you make are simply arbitrary.”

“Be that as it may,” said Doctor Lin, “The momentum can be shifted. The life you live before having children is not the same as the life after children, for example.”

“The child’s life certainly changes.”

Lin snorted. “Well said! But from that point forward, whether the child has agency or no, it is all one life.”

“Swapping out universes might make it new,” said Smith. “An utter change in context, however similar the new universe might be.”

“Life as the interaction between the one living and the environment in which it lives,” mused Lin. “That is an interesting proposition. Quantum theory states that at any decision point the universe bifurcates, and the one with the alternate decision recedes into the multiversal distance.”

“I find that thought alienating,” said Smith. “That means the first time we make a decision we irrevocable lose the people who existed with us at the moment of our birth. All we are left with is close approximations.”

“That also raises a question,” said Lin. “Assume—and this I grant is an odd one—assume that somehow the choices at whatever level—quantum, nano, gross, and so forth—were structured in such a way that a population of people would stay in the same quantum reality for an extended period of time. Through sheer happenstance, of course, since how could we possibly do such a thing on purpose? Would we notice when the split finally occurred?”

“Interesting. We can’t perceive the universe at a level where such changes take place. Does that mean that we chart a path through the multiverse, or is it the multiverse which moves on a path through us.”

“The medium really is the message?” said Lin. “McLuhan must be jumping for joy in his grave.”

Smith frowned and stared at the bottle between them. “Through the bifurcations of the universe, no matter the location and cause of the incident of bifurcation, we exist. We have memory and agency.”

“Determinism says…” began Lin.

“Determinism is a fool’s game!” snapped Smith. “If we choose to believe in determinism it is no different than being predestined to believe in free will.”

Lin gave Smith a wounded look. “I was only going to say that determinism dictates that each state of the universe is predicated upon the preceding state.”

“And indeterminism says that, though A and B are fixed, there are myriad paths between the two.”

“Bringing James into the conversation?” said Lin. “I think we need more bourbon than this!”

Smith chuckled. “Apologies. The idea of a locked universe presupposes that we operate on a level where we can perceive the mechanism of the locking.”

“True,” said Lin. “But we do seem to have edged closer to that state every year.”

“And what a time of miracles and monsters that would have been,” said Smith, “When we could see the fundamental mechanisms of change. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, weaponized.”

The two were silent for a time, as the universe around them bifurcated furiously.

Eventually Lin ventured. “Narrative depends on causality, of a sort. In a very literal way, everything has precedent. If the universe is recreated in every instant then we are also recreated in every instant, along with the memories of everything which brought us to this moment.”

“Narrative is a tricky one to reconcile with the many universes. Consider the fact that no two people remember an event in precisely the same way.”

“Facets and viewpoints,” said Lin. “No two of us have charted the same path between A and B, so the angle at which we view the thing itself varies. A sort of cosmological parallax. The things closer to us move more quickly through our awareness.”

“So each of us has our own universe. Intriguing. The universe as self-awareness. With that as criteria the universe must be an endangered species on this planet.”

Professor Lin chuckled around a sip of bourbon. “Along with everything else. Still, no need to be cynical. Students are students in every universe. But it does raise the question of the existence of the universe without an observer.”

“Alan Watts said we are apertures through which the universe is exploring itself.” said Smith. “That puts us at the mercy of the whole. It moves the level at which agency inspires causality to the other end of the scale. Too big to comprehend, instead of too small.”

“I find that thought both disturbing and comforting,” said Lin. “It brings a sense of completeness, but at the cost of a sense of futility.”

“But,” said Smith, “It also frees us to chart our own course at the level at which we live, without worry of disrupting the pattern of the whole. Freedom, within the limits of our awareness.”

“Infinite and bounded, though we were beginning to test those boundaries. And the testing is the work of many lifetimes. It requires a narrative outside the temporal limits of human experience.”

“Well, this human experience, anyway.” said Smith. “But a good story, properly told, can change the course of the world.”

“Within the limits of causality, of course.”

“True. Even a meteor is not without precedent. It’s inevitable, really.”

This brought about a lull in the conversation. The bourbon was gone. Lin pulled from a small satchel a bottle of vodka. Smith eyed it warily.

“Artificially changing the efficacy of the observer will change nothing in the universe.”

“Maybe,” said Lin, “But there are some things which we might not want to observe too closely. How much time do we have?”

“Minutes at most,” said Smith.

“So much for a new life,” said Lin.

“You never know,” said Smith, “But you should probably pour that vodka quickly.”

Lin did so, and the two shared a toast.

“To new life,” said Lin. “May it fare better and longer than the stuff down here.”

“To good health,” said Smith. “May it last as long as your life.”

In the distance sirens sounded, and the light took on a reddish hue as the old friends drained their mugs.

Smith grimaced. “Is this the best you could do?”

“Regrettably, it was,” said Lin over a sudden roaring of wind. “I doubt we’re the only ones doing this.”

All around them, the universe blinked.