by Jenny Lee Allen
Raymond Jones set his coffee on the table in the darkest corner of the cafe. He sat down in a chair facing the front door and leaned his head on the wall. He picked up the container of sugar in front of him and poured four spoonfuls into his coffee. Caffeine and sugar. He always thought they were better addictions than alcohol or coke. A newspaper lay at the far end of the table. Without moving his head from the wall, he reached over and grabbed the paper. The newly re-elected president's confident face leered at him from the front cover. The beady eyes bore into his own, taunting him. He was thirty and reasonably jaded, so he had given up reading the news. He knew the basic issues, where he stood on them and why, and that was as far as he would go. He threw the paper face down across the table. He found department store advertisements much easier to ignore than the voluntary downfall of his country.
It was early yet on a nasty December day. Everyone was eager to do what they had to do and get home. Raymond looked around as people began pouring into the shop. The mismatched furniture crammed into the tiny space, the chatting customers, the dim lighting, the people hurrying in from the cold, the overly-caffeinated guy behind the counter tapping anxiously on the espresso machine. He tried to tune out the voices of the other patrons. Their hushed and hurried tones made him nervous, guilty almost. He knew they were probably only talking about how they had to get home to walk the dog or about which movie to see that evening. But their tones. They were all so accusing, so protective of even the most insignificant details of their daily lives. He focused on the whirr of the espresso machine but it stopped as the kid working it pulled the metal container out, poured its contents into a mug, and topped it with whipped cream. Whipped cream and a sprinkle of red sugar crystals. Just one more glaring sign that the holidays were upon them. This meant more people rushing about than usual. More people, more voices, more uneasy looks. More accusations. The man called Raymond at the table in the corner lifted his head from the wall and brought it back with a soft thud.
He looked up at the ceiling, counting each tile with a tap of his foot. They never stopped. He began a chant in his head. Start the machine. Start it. Start the machine. Every few minutes it would start up again to make another drink but it always stopped. His chanting filled the moments between the whirring. Start the machine. Start it. Start - the - ma - chine. He knew anyone else would have just gotten up and left the shop. I'm just stressed. I should go home for a nap, they would tell themselves. But this was his life. He was the accused and they followed him everywhere he went. He didn't care about their corrupt lives. He just wanted to be left alone, for the judgment to stop. He stared at his reflection in his coffee but they still shot him anxious glances and spoke in their disapproving tones. He picked up the newspaper again and hid his face behind it. The whispers and glares tore through the pages, ripping the president's face to shreds. He dropped the remaining pieces. They shot straight at him now. Start the machine. START IT NOW. He ducked, resting his head on the table. Deterred momentarily, they swarmed just above his head and he was reminded of that old cliche. Out of sight, out of mind.
He pushed back in his chair, stood, and walked straight out of the shop. They followed him as he turned right from the shop door and walked two blocks up Main Street. Every person in the street condemned him, charged him with the same crime as he passed. But he was innocent and he kept walking. He took a right onto High Street and entered his apartment building. He climbed the two flights to the third floor and stopped midway down the hall. He reached into his pocket for his keys and opened door C13. It was a spotless apartment, furnished only with minimal necessities. Once inside, he opened the hall closet, grabbed a box from the top shelf, and carried it into the next room. Flicking on the light, he squinted as his eyes adjusted to the bright, sterile kitchen. He put the box on the counter and opened it. After examining the .38 caliber pistol for a moment, he picked it up. Raymond Jones put the gun to his right temple. The accused had served his sentence.