Edie Donne had never spit in anyone’s coffee.
Not that she hadn’t been tempted. Anyone who’s ever worked in food service has had the urge at some point. Only a few actually ever do it, of course, and Edie was not one of those. That was more the purview of the summer workers and part-timers who didn’t have to care about their job at the little hole-in-the-wall café because they’d be heading back to high school or college in a few short months.
No such luck for Edie. She was entering year three of living the off-brand barista life and had nowhere to be except behind the counter, surrounded by the smell of scalded milk and burned coffee, with sugar and grounds crunching under the soles of her ash-colored, sensible-for-standing-all-day flats.
“Nonfat one-pump English toffee triple shot latte,” she called out for the second time, but the owner of the beverage didn’t look up from her smartphone. “Ma’am?” Nothing.
Only a half hour left until closing.
Edie chewed on the side of her tongue and shot a look toward the guy at the register, a narrow twenty-something with square, black rimmed glasses and a sad little hipster mustache. His name tag said Benji, but Edie secretly called him Square-Eyes—not out loud, obviously, just in her head—because she couldn’t force herself to call a mustachioed adult Benji. Which she suddenly realized was probably related to why she didn’t let anyone use her given name. Except her mother, obviously, because Edie had no say over anything her mother did or didn’t do, which is why Edie was always referred to as the formal Edith back home, as if she were a 95-year-old granny with yellow dentures and a collection of hat pins, while her “change of life” baby brother somehow got to be called RJ.
“Want me to take it over to her for you?” Square-Eyes offered when their gazes happened to cross paths. He nodded toward Smartphone, who was still leaning against the back of the worn faux leather couch that formed the unofficial divider between the customers who were at the café to meet up with friends and the ones who were there to stare at their laptops and not be bothered. It was the end of the evening—almost nine o’clock—so only a few remained on either side.
“Sorry, no. I’ll give her another minute. There’s no one else in line.” Edie set the wide ceramic mug on the counter and considered the sad attempt at milk foam art in the shape of a flower that disgraced the top of the froth. She could remember customers’ orders perfectly, executed the recipes for each coffee concoction with scientific precision, and was the one everyone in the café called when they needed to do any kind of calculation or get advice on a book. But the milk foam art? Outside of her abilities. And that’s what impressed the customers and earned the good tips.
A loudly cleared throat brought Edie back to the present. Smartphone had finally noticed that her latte was waiting for her, and her arched, pristinely-sculpted eyebrow looked displeased to have been kept waiting. In that moment, Edie had the passing, wistful thought that she could have planted a spittoon in that latte without anyone being the wiser, then she smiled meekly, apologized for the wait as she passed Smartphone the cup, wished her a good evening, and began the end-of-night checklist.
When they closed the café together, Square-Eyes always handled the garbage and the floors, even though Edie was supposed to do the mopping half of the time. He was nice. Cute too. Working two jobs while plugging away at his MBA. Not terrible taste in music or movies. She should really stop calling him Square-Eyes.
An hour later, Edie was finally almost home to her apartment and her streaming services with the macchiato she’d been thinking about for half the evening. If she hurried, she’d get to drink it while it was still hot. She could hardly wait to sit down and let today turn into tomorrow without another coherent thought in her head. There was a sort of brain atrophy from every day being exactly the same as the one just before and inevitably the one after. Everyone said she’d had such potential. But all that was gone now. If she disappeared, nothing would even change. No one would even notice.
Her apartment was a one-bedroom on the second floor of an unremarkable brick apartment building on the outskirts of West Philadelphia, situated on a block with two other similarly disappointing apartment complexes, an overgrown lot that was owned by an eternally “coming soon” big box discount store, and a strip mall that housed only one thriving business— some kind of Hooters knock-off bar with a logo that included a busty woman lounging in a martini glass with an olive inexplicably cradled in her arms like a newborn baby.
The apartment was exactly what she could afford on her barista salary, and it was… fine. She’d done well furnishing it with strategic trips to the Salvation Army thrift store, plus a few throw pillows and some vintage-y knick-knacks she’d scored at a little antiques flea market outside the city.
Holding her grocery bag and her coffee cup in one hand and clutching her car keys like a defensive wolverine claw in the other, she shut her sedan’s door with her hip and crossed the darkened parking lot, sticking as always to the areas illuminated by the overly yellow glow of the security lights. Somewhere nearby, an engine backfired and a car alarm blared, but Edie barely flinched. She did, however, hold her wolverine claw a little more aggressively, telling herself that it was done ironically. You can’t be too careful in this neighborhood—that’s what her dad told her anyway. In front of her parents, she had pretended not to be worried, even scoffing at the Tiffany blue pepper spray canister they’d included in her Christmas stocking last year, but there was nothing particularly comforting about walking alone in the dark in an admittedly more downtrodden and crime-heavy part of town than she’d grown up in.
Once she was safely in the lobby and the big wooden door was latched securely behind her, she tucked her keys halfway into the pocket of her khakis. Doubting for the hundredth time her decision to shove the adorable pepper spray into the back of the kitchen junk drawer, she collected her mail and headed for the stairwell. Perhaps because she’d seen Psycho too many times, stairs always made her nervous.
When Edie reached the second floor landing, she was shooting a glance over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t being followed by a deranged killer and as such didn’t see Tracksuit Lady and her two Pomeranians round the corner in time to keep from crashing directly into them, macchiato first. A wave of milk foam and espresso spattered her neighbor’s blue velour jacket on its way to the grungy tile floor, and Edie could feel her neighbor’s annoyance before she even looked up.
“I’m so sorry!” The apology tumbled out automatically, as it should from anyone with polite parents. Edie set her grocery bag down and scrambled awkwardly to retrieve her cup’s lid, which had rolled into the corner of the landing after the collision. The apology was needed in this case, but it was becoming a compulsion these days, like pretending not to be embarrassed about how the last three years had gone when her old college friends checked in to update her on their corporate ladder-climbing or their doctoral dissertations or whatever amazing thing they’d accomplished lately. Being friends with a horde of ultra-competitive over-achievers had made sense back when she was one too; now, the relationships seemed like the due penalty for being the lemon of the group.
Tracksuit made her usual disgruntled expression and snorted a little. “Always in a hurry, never paying attention.” She flicked a few drops of coffee from her hand onto the floor. The dogs strained at their leashes, and she gave them a sharp tug to keep them from lapping up the puddle that was inching along the blackened grout between the tiles.
Edie apologized again as she dug into the grocery bag for her café apron and felt around in its deep pocket for the packet of tissues she knew was there. “Here,” she said, when she’d found one, and offered it to her neighbor. “It’s clean.”
With a scowl, Tracksuit took the tissue and pressed it against the dark spot on her jacket, nostrils still flaring. “Come on now,” she said to the dogs, throwing another disgusted look in Edie’s direction, and then they disappeared down the stairs.
The lobby door creaked as it opened and then slammed shut, maybe harder than usual. Edie stared at the mess, mourning the loss of her coffee and wondering if there were any point in hoping that Tracksuit would help her clean up the mess after pottying the dogs.
Heaving a sigh as she pulled open the hall door, Edie crossed “coffee” off her mental to-do list for the evening and added “clean up the stairwell.” She could never leave a mess alone.
Finally safe inside her apartment, Edie draped her apron over the arm of the chair by the door. After plunking her grocery bag on the kitchen counter, she dropped her empty coffee cup into the trash and allowed her gaze to flit past the framed college diploma and high school valedictorian certificate that taunted her from their spot over the mismatched bookcases. Her parents had insisted on hanging them there when she moved in a few weeks after graduation. No tucking these symbols of who she used to be into a drawer and moving forward; those giant reminders of what should have been had to be front and center. Leaving them there was a bit of self-flagellation.
It had been months since she’d last seen her family in person even though they lived barely an hour away in West Chester, and they hadn’t been to her apartment since moving day. If not for RJ as incentive for both sides, she wasn’t sure if she’d see her parents at all anymore. RJ was six years old, adorable as an over-eager golden retriever puppy, and inordinately prepared to start first grade in the fall. He was the apple of her parents’ eyes. And every eye that ever landed on him—even Edie’s.
Her stomach rumbled.
Reaching past the prepackaged salad she’d ambitiously bought, Edie pulled the Oreos from the grocery bag and tore it open. Across the room, her cell phone’s ringtone began to blare from the pocket of her apron, still on the chair by the door. She retrieved it and glanced down at the flashing screen. It was her mother.
Edie’s chest tightened, and she turned her back to the diploma wall. “Nope,” she said aloud, sending the call to voicemail.
She talked to RJ a few times a week over video chat, but things were… different when it came to her mother and father. It seemed that Marian Donne only called her daughter to see if she had made any progress on “bettering” herself and to recommend new, inspiring ways to go about doing so. Her father had simply run out of small talk and now said nothing at all or inquired about the health of Edie’s goldfish.
Edie hadn’t intended to work at the café long term—she’d only planned to take a year off after earning her Bachelor’s to save up some extra money and then head to medical school. But after receiving “Thank you for your application, but, unfortunately,” letters from the each of the top-tier medical schools she’d applied to, her clear path to becoming a doctor evaporated, and she was too mortified to try again. She got the feeling that her parents were as embarrassed as she was. Maybe even more so. Things felt awkward these days in a way they never had before. But, then again, she’d never been a failure before, so perhaps none of them were quite sure what to do. The prospect of trying to “better” herself now felt positively oppressive.
Her cell phone chirped, indicating that her mother had left a voicemail message that Edie didn’t even have to listen to in order to know what it likely said.
“Hello, Edith,” Edie called toward the fish in the five-gallon aquarium across the room. “It’s your mother. I’m probably calling to tell you that some person you barely remember graduated from law school this week.”
She removed five Oreos from the package, stacking them on the counter next to her mail. With a slow breath, she flipped through the pile of envelopes—mostly credit card applications and discount grocery store ads—and paused to frown at a large, glossy brochure that settled in front of her. On the cover were three shiny, happy people in impossibly white lab coats.
Edie frowned at them. “On an unrelated note,” she continued, still narrating her mother’s voicemail message, “I wanted you to know that I signed you up on yet another second-rate med school’s mailing list without your permission.”
Stuffing a cookie into her mouth, Edie poured herself a glass of milk and turned back to the brochure. She flipped through its glossy pages, pretending not to feel her long-dormant ambitious side stir inside her.
She downed half the glass of milk and pushed the brochure away. It slipped off the counter and floated toward the ground, weirdly seeming too slow as it dropped. Edie stared.
It never hit the floor.
A loud squealing sound rose up, filling the room. Edie ducked her head. Covered her ears. Took a step backward. It was so shrill that her ears physically hurt. The air seemed to vibrate around her.
All her hair stood on end. The sound was impossibly loud—ear-splitting. And then even louder. One of the bookcases tipped forward against the arm of the couch, dumping in slow motion dozens of carefully alphabetized books into a pile on the carpet. Edie struggled toward the door, sluggish under the sudden weight of… something. The air felt thick, like she was trying to swim through cement as it hardened.
One of her flea market finds—an hourglass filled with pristine white sand—shattered in place, and a thousand tiny, glittering pieces of glass froze in the air. A flash of burning white heat spread over her, and Edie would have screamed in agony if she’d been able to make a sound. But she couldn’t even suck in a breath—there was no air left.
The floor fell away. For a moment she felt weightless, suspended in mid-air like the shards of glass, burning alive while everything glowed blood red.
There was a thunderous cracking sound.
Then a crushing darkness.
The phone was ringing again, but it sounded… strange.
It was RJ, calling to video chat before school like he always did. Edie was chewing something. Oh, yes! Breakfast. A cinnamon bagel. And coffee. She could almost smell it.
“Hey, lil’ bro,” she was saying. “How’s that new Star Wars book?” Her own voice sounded strange too. Muted and faraway, even to herself.
“I finished it already!” he exclaimed without a greeting. The video screen seemed to fill everything she could see, but still only part of his chin, his neck, and the top part of his dinosaur-patterned pajama shirt were visible.
This already happened.
What’s going on?
For the whole call, RJ’s face was never visible all at once. It was always little glimpses of him in between jerky motions as he carried the tablet around the room to show her the chapter book he’d read, the activity pages he’d finished, his drawing of a something futuristic and mechanical, and (unintentionally) directly up his nose.
“That’s a great drawing, bud,” she told him. The drawing—she couldn’t remember all of it now—but the amount of detail and level of precision hadn’t surprised her.
“It’s a space ship,” he’d said as she gulped down the last of her coffee. “Here’s the cockpit, and here and here are the warp engines. It gets power from quantum mechanics.” Edie had smiled at that.
“Quantum mechanics, huh?”
“Yeah!” He’d gone on then, angling the tablet toward the paper and indicating several intricate parts of his drawing. Some of what he’d said was missing—she hadn’t been listening closely enough. She felt bad about that now. “Mommy says that maybe I can go on an airplane soon and we could fly across the whole ocean.”
“That would be fun!” Edie had told him with a smile, thinking that it would be fun… as long as it were just the two of them. RJ had turned his tablet back around toward his face then, and Edie had only been able to see one sparkling eye and a thick lock of brown hair that curled around his ear and over his temple.
“You could come with us,” he’d said, eye wide and hopeful, “and you could sit next to me on the plane and draw a picture with me—you can share my markers—and then I could read a book to you and then we could drive some cars and see You-rup.” He’d said the last word almost as if it were a question.
“Europe?” Edie had repeated. “Did mom say that?”
“Yeah,” he’d answered. “She said maybe we’ll see You-rup.” He’d paused and then said it again, copying the way Edie had said it. “Europe.”
Then her phone had buzzed with her daily hurry-up-you’re-already-late alarm. “Hey, RJ? I have to go to work now, okay?” she’d told him. “We can talk more later.”
“Edie?” His whispered voice had drawn her back. His voice echoed a little in her mind, and things seemed fuzzy and dark around the edges.
Only his smooth, pale forehead and the tops of his eyes were visible now; he must have been leaning too close to his tablet’s camera lens. “What’s Europe?”
His voice trailed off, and the memory faded into a dark, tinny emptiness. Soon there was a warmth around her, and a pinkish glow rose up from the black along with a faint beeping sound.
Edie wrenched her eyes open, and her body lurched. A metal bowl seemed to magically appear in front of her as she vomited. When it was over, she fell back against the pillow behind her. Every inch of her skin tingled and itched like the second day after a terrible sunburn, and a dull ache radiated from her bones. The harsh smell of antiseptic and the acidity of the vomit burned her nose.
As her vision came together, she squinted into the semi-darkness of the room, trying to find something to satisfy the first of a dozen questions that swarmed in her mind. When she opened her mouth to speak, her tongue felt dry and stiff. Someone carefully pressed a damp, cool cloth against her lips, the sensation bringing her even closer to full awareness.
Am I sick? I’d remember being sick, wouldn’t I?
As if on cue, she retched again, her stomach painfully turning over inside her.
She tried to speak, but the sound that came out was scratchy, more like a cough or a moan than a word. Edie licked her lips, grimaced at the taste, and then tried again, squinting at the small amber globe lights that lined the room. “Where am I?” she forced out. “What happened?”
“You’re okay, Ms. Donne,” a woman said. “I’m here to help you.”
Edie squinted again and rubbed her eyes. She vomited a third time, this time gripping the sides of the metal bowl herself. “Do I have a concussion?” she rasped. “Where’s my mom? Is she here? Or my dad?” Something about being sick made her want them there like they were when she was a little girl, bedridden with food poisoning from the Chuck-E-Cheese ninth birthday party she’d begged incessantly for.
“No concussion,” the woman answered vaguely. “And, no, I’m sorry. Your parents aren’t here.”
“Where are they? What hospital is this? Did anyone call them?”
“Lie back and get some rest, Edith,” the woman said. “Now isn’t the time for all of that.” As she eased Edie back against the pillows, the nurse looked away and made several motions with her fingers. Edie followed the woman’s gaze but saw nothing there. Soon, she felt a coolness spread from an IV through her left arm.
“What’s… going… to happen?” she asked slowly as the medication pulled her away from consciousness. She thought she’d fade away before she got an answer, but, before darkness closed in, she thought she heard the woman reply.
“I wish I knew.”