2020
FLASH FICTION CONTEST
Honorable Mention
$25 Award

CAFFEINATED

by Ernie Sadashige

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

Frustrated, he rapped on the office manager’s plexiglass fortress. “Em, coffee’s out again.” 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 that?”

“Starbucks. ‘Round the corner.”

“They still have coffee?”

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

“You went outside?

“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 and 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 machine. 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 mutation. Shuttered shops and restaurants flanked trash-strewn promenades. Naïve messages spoke of a quaint time when scientists believed an effective vaccine was possible. We will persevere. Beat Covid-19. Hope.

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 song.

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.