The Choice Is Ever Yours
Jessie should have left a long time ago.
It was almost closing time in the cafe. Beyond the window, the black wings of night had fully unfurled, blanketing the neighborhood into shadowy obscurity. Half the coffee shop’s lights no longer buzzed with electricity, and the bitter smell of brewing grounds barely registered anymore.
The glass before Jessie sat empty, grating quietly against the wooden tabletop as he spun it around and around in his fingers. It was trapped in his hands, just as he was trapped in his own life – a feeling he couldn’t shake no matter how hard he tried.
“No, no, no. That can’t be right.”
The sound reached Jessie as a whisper, no louder than the swish of the mop against the floor at the far end of the cafe. He didn’t even bother to look up this time. The man at the table in front of him had been whispering to himself for the past fifteen minutes, shooting surreptitious looks over his shoulder.
(Probably another of his parents’ employees, Jessie thought, not for the first time. Sent to keep an eye on me.)
And there it was again, the feeling of captivity; to birth, to will and whim, to chance. In all his twenty-three years, Jessie’s life had never felt like his own.
“Okay, maybe if… no, there it is again.”
The man before him cast another frantic glance over his shoulder before looking back at the loose sheaf of notes before him. He shuffled them like a magician with a deck of cards, the swishing sound sharp in the dimly lit cafe before subsiding into silence again. Okay, maybe it wasn’t one of his parents’ employees.
Jessie picked up his glass and drained the last drop of coffee from the bottom. It was time to go.
As he looked around the room the few lights that were left on blurred and shifted, a menagerie of dancing stars that seemed wholly out of place indoors. Everyone else seemed to have left.
The third time the man before him looked over his shoulder, Jessie lost his temper.
“What?” he snapped. “Can I help you in some way?”
Embarrassment – harsher than the coffee he had just finished – rose in his stomach immediately. His voice had sounded exactly like his father’s. Angry. Authoritative.
Jessie raised a hand in apology, ashamed of himself. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to shout.”
At his raised hand, the man flinched, his notes flying out from his hands. They fluttered to the floor like a flock of birds, landing gently on the wide plank flooring.
Both Jessie and the man got up to gather the dropped paper at the same time.
“Sorry, let me–”
“No, please,” the man said quickly. “Don’t touch them.”
But it was too late. Jessie already held one of the sheets in his hand. He looked down, surprised at its heaviness, fingers tingling where they came in contact with the paper. His eyes widened in surprise at what he saw.
“What the hell is this?”
He scanned the page, reading through an exact accounting of his entire day, typed out in standard font. What he’d had for breakfast, the car he’d driven, the errands he’d run, the address of his friends’ house, the exact time he’d arrived at the cafe. It was all there.
He flipped the page over. At the top, also typed out, were various thoughts that had run through his head recently. (Jessie looks at you, thinking you might have been hired by his parents.)
The man before him set the other pages down with shaking hands. He stared at Jessie with wide eyes.
“What is this?” Jessie demanded again.
“Nothing! It’s nothing. Please, give it to me.”
Jessie took the two steps back to his own table, piece of paper in hand, intending to grab his phone to call 9-1-1… and then what? Report a stalker who had somehow divined his thoughts?
He glanced down at the back of the paper again, his eyes flashing to the very bottom.
The final line was typed out in a slanting, grave font: ‘Jessie kills you.’
He blanched for a moment, his hands clenching. Sweat broke out of his forehead. Heat ran up and down his arms angrily, and his pulse jumped into his throat.
Looking down for his phone again, he saw that it was gone. In its place a dark object sat on the tabletop like an invitation, heavy as a black hole and just as deadly. Jessie reached toward it in fascination. Froze. Looked over at the trembling man before him.
The sheet in his hand began to shake. The words detailing everything he had done – and everything he was meant to do – vibrated into illegibility. It was a prison of correct predictions and demands, pushing him to reach toward the gun and pick it up.
(But why? Jessie asked himself. Because a piece of paper told me to?)
The madness of the moment reached such a stark and frightening level that Jessie thought he might go insane. He wanted so badly to pick up the gun, if only to make the turmoil in his head come to an end. But he couldn’t. He wouldn’t.
And so his hysteria could do nothing but break, a wave of lunacy crashing and shattering against solid rock.
“Screw this,” Jessie said, crumpling the paper in his hand and tossing it onto the table.
He cast a last look at the man one table over, wondering at the tingling familiarity he felt when staring into those shadowed features. He hoped never to see him again.
Then he walked out, his choice made, and embraced the crisp blackness of the night.
This one was kind of weird, I have to admit. It’s okay. I know it is.
No twist here – just a bit of character. I was sitting at the coffee shop yesterday when the person in front of me dropped a sheaf of loose paper, and I thought (after first thinking Who the hell carries around loose paper?): What if there was something crazy written there, something about me? What would I do?
And the questions only started piling up from there. What if there was something written on those papers that nobody else could possible know? Would it be frightening? Would it be freeing?
What if there was an ultimatum? What if those papers had power over the world – told us what was going to happen? What if I wanted to change the course of events? Would I be able to?
And that’s the story. A man at a loss, feeling like he has no control over his life, is presented with a situation where he is being told to do something crazy. Something that makes absolutely no sense. And in the end, if he doesn’t do it, does he take back a little agency for himself? Maybe it’ll lead to him taking more control and responsibility over other aspects of his life. Maybe it won’t. Maybe he’ll wake up in his bed in a minute.
And what was with that man – who was he, why did he seem familiar, was he another version of Jessie, there to snap him out of sleepwalking through his life and force him to wake up and take control? Or was did Jessie only see something familiar in him because he reminded him of himself?
Who knows!?!? (Well, I do, but I’m not telling).
Anyway, thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed the story.