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Just Coffee, Every Morning

Caroline M. Yoachim is a prolific author of short stories, appearing in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed, among other places. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, and multiple Nebula Awards, and her stories have been reprinted in multiple year's best anthologies and translated into several languages. Yoachim's debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out in 2016.

I come home from work to find you still in your pajamas, sitting up in bed and staring at the side table. "You were so excited to finish that cityscape you were painting, what are you doing in bed? Are you feeling okay?"
"First coffee, then breakfast," you mumble, "but there isn't any coffee."
My heart sinks. "Sorry, love. I had an early meeting and I didn't make us coffee this morning."
"Just coffee," you remind me, part of our morning routine even though I know exactly how you like it. Strong and black, sludgy with the grounds that slip through the filter of the French press. Dark and gritty, like your paintings.
It is a natural part of the aging process for our minds to turn to stone, but I didn't expect it to start so soon. At least the kids are grown. Keeping to routine will be easier now that they've moved out.
I don't know what to do about the coffee. If you drink it this late at night, you'll never fall asleep and who knows what that will do to tomorrow? I pour water into your favorite mug and warm it in the microwave. I bring it over and set it on the side table.
The hot water is close enough to coffee to let you move past the fossilized moment.
"I'm only fifty-six." You sip the water and stare into the mug. There's no dark liquid to obscure the bottom, we can see all the way down. "I can't be stone, not yet."
I am only fifty-eight. You can't be stone, not yet.
The doctor confirms our suspicions. She recommends that we establish a simple routine, and cautions that over time you will have more points of inflexibility. She says we're lucky that the first thing is the morning coffee--that's easy enough to maintain.
We spend the day talking about what you want, and having difficult conversations with the kids. None of us says out loud that once your mind begins to turn your clock is ticking. You might have ten years left, or two, or only a few months, depending on the speed of the stone.
I bring you coffee and set it on the side table before I go to work. You are still sleeping, but it will be there when you wake. While I'm gone you'll work on your paintings, go to the grocery store, write blog entries or letters to the kids. We'll have wine with dinner, and watch old movie reruns in the evening.
You never used to paint people, but now that your mind is turning to stone you start painting portraits of me. They are raw and rough and full of emotion, and that makes them beautiful even though you've had far more practice with landscapes. Over time, they get more realistic, almost like photographs. Then you go in the other direction and make me abstract. Painting my portrait becomes part of your routine, etched in the stone of your mind. You want to be sure you will remember me; you've always believed in an afterlife of stone.
Months pass and then a year, and more of your day becomes fixed--the coffee, the portraits, the writing, the wine. We tire of movies, and you have barely enough flexibility left that we can switch to cooking shows instead.
Your stone is neither fast nor slow, it eats away your freedom at about the average pace, but after a couple years your head is heavy. There is nothing I can do to stop it. I do everything I can to keep you comfortable.
One morning my alarm does not go off. I stare at it for a long time. Why did it not go off? I am still staring at it when you wake, and with a great deal of effort you turn your head to look at the side table, confused. Coffee. I'm supposed to make coffee.
I force myself out of bed. "Good morning, love. I'll go start some coffee."
In the kitchen, far enough away that you won't hear, I set an alarm on my phone and it goes off a minute later, clearing away the turmoil in my brain. I reset it to go off at the same time every day, even on the weekends. I'm lucky, I tell myself. An alarm is an easy routine to maintain.
I come back with your coffee, steaming hot in your favorite mug.
"Thank you," you whisper, "for all these years."
You do not drink the coffee. I hold your hand until the end.
I'm farther into stone than I realized. The alarm on my phone wasn't the first subtle sign. I never got confused because I stuck so carefully to our routine, for you.
You took comfort in the idea of a second life, a stone afterlife that begins after we have turned. A lot of people do. I don't know what to believe--there isn't any proof and I've never been good at leaps of faith. It doesn't change what I must do though, one way or the other. I'll make coffee every morning in the French press, and pour it into your favorite mug.
Just coffee, black and gritty.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 25th, 2019
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