by Ernie Sadashige
EMPTY. Kenzo punched the other buttons:
Mocha, Hazelnut, French Vanilla. EMPTY,

Frustrated, he rapped on the office manager’s
plexiglass fortress. “Em, coffee’s out
The HEPA downdraft filters sucked up his
breath before any moisture kissed plastic.

Emily looked up. “Colombia is on lockdown,
Ken. Coffee’s on backorder.”

“Need my java,” whined Kenzo. “My
presentation is due end of day.”

Emily opened her germicidal cubicle and
popped the lid on her thirty-ounce tumbler. A
delicious aroma overpowered the air filters.

Kenzo’s breath caught. “Where did you get

“Starbucks. ‘Round the corner.”

“They still have coffee?”

“Yup, they grow their own beans. Nothing
processed or irradiated.”

“You went

“It’s safe Ken.”

“But the latest mutation . . . my ex-girlfriend
Deirdre was Class 1 like us.”

“You’re paranoid. Didn’t she get the virus from
a transfusion? That would sicken even the
genetically resistant. It’s risker downtown than
in your suburban bubble, but do as I do: steer
clear of the genetically predisposed Class 2s
well clear of the infected Class 3s—
especially the vampires.”

“I dunno.” Kenzo wrung his hands.

Emily drank, eyes closed in rapture. “Mmm,
your choice.”

* * *

Noon. Kenzo felt like Sisyphus. Still forty
PowerPoint slides left. He could not focus on
anything but the aroma of Emily’s coffee. He
had pressed his nose against his plastic wall
several times, channelling “goldfish in a bowl,”
but the barrier and the HEPA filters eliminated
99.97% of smells—though not his longing for
caffeine. Kenzo swore the filters were exacting
revenge for allowing him to smell real coffee.
He had forgotten what the elixir tasted like. It
had been so long.

The final straw came when Wayland beat him
to the last energy drink in the vending
Scumbag isn’t even working on
anything time-sensitive,
he fumed.

Let’s do it. Kenzo swallowed a Xanax slightly
bigger than his courage and visualized going
outside to buy the most delicious cup of coffee
ever. Black.
I want to taste it raw. Despite his
visualization, his trembling fingers fumbled
with his work-issued N95 mask and face shield.

Down he descended, past the seventh floor
where the hermetically sealed monorail took
him to and from his suburban gated
community. Lower he plunged, past the
unfiltered Class 2 floors. Finally, the elevator
stopped. He tried to remember the last time he
had been to street level.
Not since the second
Shuttered shops and restaurants
flanked trash-strewn promenades. Naïve
messages spoke of a quaint time when
scientists believed an effective vaccine was
We will persevere. Beat Covid-19.

Building security, Class 2s in rumpled uniforms,
stared at his green Class 1 badge in disbelief
and envy.

Sunlight—actual sunlight—stung Kenzo’s eyes
as soon as he left the mantrap, blinding him
with a full spectrum of color. He coughed. The
air was thick, wet and foul. His brain struggled
to process natural daylight and unfiltered air.
His ears rebelled against the noise: voices,
blunt mechanical noises and softer electronic
buzzes. Discord compared to the scientifically
selected sounds that filled his office, maglev
train and home.

His sight adjusted, revealing a sidewalk filled of
heads, all cast downward, either in defeat or to
avoid stepping on infected panhandlers. Kenzo
thought about returning to his safe place, but
the lure of coffee was too strong. The
weathered Starbucks sign beckoned like a siren

Kenzo stepped into the crowd the way a man
who can’t swim tiptoes into the ocean—eyes
filled with fright. Most passersby gave him
broad leeway. Touching a Class 1 without
consent was a felony. Closer and closer he
came. Until he was there!

“Two Dark Roast coffees, please.”

“Venti, grande, tall, or short?”

“Um, the biggest.”

Kenzo put the first cup to his lips and almost
dropped it. Hot! He sipped slowly, savoring the
dark liquid. The rich odor of perfectly roasted
beans filled his nostrils. He could not remember
such happiness.

Concerns over Covid safety vanished as he
practically ran back toward the office.

“Ken.” Kenzo stopped midstride. Did someone
call his name? Impossible. Not out here.

“It’s Deirdre, baby,” called the skeleton. It took
him a moment to realize the bundle of rags was
his ex-girlfriend. “Please, Ken. I need medicine.”

Medicine, Kenzo thought. What addicts called
street plasma when talking to “nice people”
about the dirty stuff. Immunity disappeared
fast and fatalities were common because street
was cut with animal products. Pigs mainly.

Kenzo never thought he’d come face-to-face
with a vampire, much less a familiar one.

Deirdre’s eyes were red and mucus ran down
her nose. “I’m sorry I lied and stole, but I
needed plasma. My insurance ran out. Please
help me Ken.”

He held out a fifty-dollar bill. Their hands
lingered. In his haste to go outside, Kenzo had
neglected gloves. Deirdre’s hands were warm,
rough and real. He had forgotten the
connection of an ungloved touch. Something
pricked his wrist.

Deidre was gone almost before the portable
plasma extractor disappeared into her pocket.

* * *

I was terminated from my job upon testing
positive for Covid-19. The contact tracers said I
was infected through blood from a
contaminated extractor.

The company denied my sick pay because I
was on an unauthorized trip outside the green
zone. Funny Emily never mentioned that policy.

I am Class 3 now.

My feelings over what happened are like the
coffee I now enjoy each morning. I try and
avoid bitterness by starting fresh, never
allowing my memories to overbrew nor my
emotions to overboil. Most times it works.

I’ve learned to appreciate life’s small gifts. I
was surprised at first that people are making a
life for themselves outside the sanitized zones,
but the more I sit inside Starbucks, listening to
their voices, smelling their scents and feeling
their warmth, the more I realize that we are all
part of one big pot.

Sometimes Emily stops by, but she chooses not
to see me.

Ernie Sadashige, CPA, is an online community tax
expert. Prior to focusing solely on his practice, Ernie
worked full-time as a news photographer, writer, producer
and editor for local television stations and national news
networks. This is his first entry into a writing competition.
$25 Award