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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Coffee Pot

Jez Patterson is a British teacher and writer, currently based in Madrid.

"Don't you ever sleep?" she asked, and he shook his head.
No, she thought. He never will, and he's going to keep you here forever, in this soft white bed, like some fairy princess.
He was a thing of black moods, black shadows, black smudges. As if the thick, greasy coffee he brewed were seeping out of his skin like oil through cotton. It circled his eyes, had pulled sooty thumbs down his cheeks. He could have been camouflaged for a midnight raid.
He smoked thin cigars, wincing as if he were not really a smoker at all but was being punished by being forced to finish the packet. The cigars resembled sticks of licorice. Their ends didn't so much smolder as unravel with threads of the same mucky ingredients.
He scared her.
She kept the sheets held up to her chin whilst he sat at the foot of her bed, a small table beside him for his coffee cup and the glass ashtray full of tiny, spent butts.
"Aren't you tired?" she asked carefully, not wanting to antagonize him. He didn't answer, but the subtle re-creasing around his eyes told her that yes, he was so, so tired. That it was the coffee, the cigars alone that kept him awake, and that his willpower had long ago petered out.
If he sleeps, she thought, then I can get out of here.
She considered asking him why he was doing this, what she'd done to hurt or provoke him, and it wasn't just fear that stopped her. It was the fact that if his mind became occupied, if she engaged him in conversation, then he was even less likely to succumb to sleep's fingers-bending invitation to join it.
"All the time, trying to stay awake. Aren't your eyelids heavy? Can't you feel your shoulders hanging lower?" She chose soft, smooth, soothing tones to imitate the turn of a moonlit tide or the swell and swirl of the voice one heard in the womb. "I bet even your fingers and toes feel soft and drooping."
She pictured them like warmed wax and voiced the image to him. He listened, not interrupting, not resisting, and she watched the bruised eyelids slide halfway down so he looked dopey, drugged. The whites were bloodshot, the veins slowly filling the space between as if a child's pencil scribbled them in.
The current cigar and coffee were finished, so his hands were momentarily empty. Had they not been, the cup might have dropped, the cigar butt burned his fingers. It was the perfect time, and so she kept up her slow, deliberate litany.
"No..." he said. "Mustn't sleep. Got... to stay awake. For you."
"I'll be okay," she said, leaning up in the bed. His head rocked back, to the side, each time requiring more effort to wrench it upright again. It rolled in half circles now, the battle lost, like he was mimicking the slow churn before the plughole claimed him entirely.
"...don't... understand. You..."
No, she thought. You won't hold me here anymore.
His eyes closed entirely, snipping the elastic in his cheeks so they hung slack. She felt a tingle sink towards her toes as something effervescent spread up and down her body from a point in her midriff. She pulled a hand from under the covers and looked straight through its disappearing substance.
"No!" she said, but her voice was sand tipped from a shoe. "No. You've got to wake up, Keith. Wake up and keep me here. Open your eyes and see me. I can't stay if you sleep. I..."
The bed lay empty, the husband breathing raggedly but regularly in the chair.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Author Comments

I had this very clear image of someone in a darkened room, chain-smoking and drinking coffee, desperate not to fall asleep. I didn't know why, and so sat down and wrote the story to find out.

- Jez Patterson
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