Fresh Coffee By J.D. Strunk

Paul opened the door to the break room and froze: a neon-blue eye stared back at him. The unblinking cyclopean orb belonged to a new coffeemaker. Paul felt his stomach hit his toes. He’d been dreading this day for years. The old coffeemaker had been grimy and scuffed, but it had also been reliable. What’s more, he knew how to use it.

Paul approached the new machine with trepidation. It felt too futuristic to be a coffeemaker. Why did everything need to be so futuristic? The word “streamlined” shot through Paul’s mind as he examined it. While it was true that the old machine had too many buttons, it concerned Paul that the new one didn’t seem to have any. Still, he desperately needed his morning mugful. He was beginning to feel panicked when Emelia from accounting came into the break room. 

“Pretty fancy, eh?” said Emelia with a smile. Emelia was younger than Paul by twenty years, and sometimes Paul felt intimidated by her casual beauty.

“I feel like I landed in the future,” said Paul nervously.

“Oh, it’s not too bad. Let me show you.”

An appreciative Paul watched as Emelia quickly filled the machine with water—but how had she opened that compartment?—and slipped a small metal pod into a narrow aperture—wait, which way had the pod gone?—and hit ‘BREW.’ 

Five minutes later Paul was sitting at his desk, coffee in hand. While grateful for the coffee, he was still anxious about the new coffeemaker. He had tried to pay attention to Emelia’s hands as lids were opened, compartments filled, and sides popped out, loaded, and snapped back into place, but it was all too much. Why did everything always have to be upgraded? Why couldn’t good be good eno—

A series of distant popping sounds caught Paul’s attention. He stood up at his desk. All around him heads rose over cubicle walls like nervous gazelles at a watering hole. Once again there was a series of staccato bursts, this time louder. The entire floor was deathly quiet now, with a head appearing above every cubicle; fifty cubicles, fifty heads. Just as Paul was about to sit back down, the door to their department burst open, and a man wearing a black balaclava walked in. The man held an M16 semiautomatic, and within seconds of his arrival, the muzzle was flashing orange as it sprayed bullets through the cubicles. Across from Paul, Dale took a bullet to the chest. Emelia, coffee mug still in hand, fell to a double shot to her back. 

Screams, cries, chaos.

The gunshots continued, and the bodies continued to fall. Paul’s cubicle was near the door, and after an initial bout of paralysis, he found himself performing a military-crawl toward the exit. It was all instinct—he’d never have done it if he’d thought about it. But his instincts served him well: he was quickly away from the bloodshed and able to sprint to the stairwell and down to the first floor. Exiting the building, he saw dozens of police officers, paramedics, firemen. Paul ran past them all and didn’t look back. He ran a full ten blocks, finding himself in Freedom Square Park, next to City Hall. He collapsed onto a metal bench, breathing hard. 

The day was overcast, but in a way that made rain seem unlikely. It was early autumn, mid-sixties.

“It’s almost as though they enjoy torturing us,” thought Paul, finally breathing normally again. “Always with the new printers, the new phones, the new computer programs. They call it ‘progress.’ But in what way are these things better? Each ‘improvement’ seems only to complicate life even more.”

Paul spotted Jim jogging into the park. Jim worked upstairs in payroll. For years Paul and Jim had talked about getting a beer, but it had never happened. Why not? Why did nothing ever happen? Paul used to have friends… didn’t he? Yes, he did. He was sure of it. 

Paul had just gotten up to go over and say hello when a torrent of gunfire hissed through the shrubbery to Paul’s right. Moments later, a pipe bomb exploded at the base of the statue of George Washington that towered over the square, and fine pieces of cast iron fell like bladed rain throughout the park. Paul threw himself to the pavement, hands over his neck. Luckily, he was far enough from the statue that none of the shrapnel hit him. Across the park, now littered with detritus, Jim crouched too—Paul could still see him through the crook of his elbow. Tomorrow, Paul would walk up to the fourth floor and invite Jim to grab a beer.

Even as Paul watched, a bullet tore through Jim’s chest. He fell forward, unmoving.

Paul looked toward the remnants of the statue of George Washington. The shooter was there, pacing before the spiny remains of Washington’s ruined legs. Paul could tell by the shooter’s attire that it was a different man than from the office. This shooter’s pants were camouflage, not the plain black of the office shooter, and there had not been time for a change of clothes. Plus the gun was different—an AN-94, or some variant thereof. 

Paul was planning his escape from the park when the shooter grabbed his chest and collapsed. A man now approached the shooter where he lay on the ground, bleeding out. The beneficent stranger was pointing a handgun at the shooter’s head. As Paul continued to watch, a handful of people from around the park rose from their cowering and came up to the man with the handgun and patted him on the back.

“I think I’m going to take the rest of the day off,” thought Paul.

Paul stood up, brushed loose gravel off his khakis. By happenstance, he was a block from the downtown Kroger. “Well, I do need milk,” he thought.

On the way to the store, Paul took out his phone. Is Sharon still looking for a job? he texted his wife. I think we’ll be hiring at the office.

Paul put his phone in his pocket and passed through the sliding doors of the grocery store. Once inside, he immediately felt calmer. Before him was order! To his right, row after row of carefully indexed, meticulously placed foodstuffs rose to the ceiling. To his left, water misted onto bins of unnaturally bright fruit and vegetables. Above him, fluorescent track lighting, and at his feet, polished white linoleum—the former reflected in the latter. All about him droned the low hum of some invisible mechanical equipment. What was the acronym? HVAC?

“This is how all the world should be,” thought Paul. “Fresh. Clean. Well-lighted.”

Paul made his way to the dairy aisle, but a person never buys just one thing at the grocery store, and so by the time he arrived at the milk, Paul was juggling no fewer than five items: two bright red apples, an orange, a box of Frosted Flakes, and a bottle of red wine vinaigrette (they were always running out at the most inopportune times). 

Paul scanned the varieties of milk. Paul preferred 1% milkfat, but his wife insisted on skim. As he always did, Paul considered getting two separate half-gallons. As always, he got only the skim.

Paul was making slow progress toward the checkout kiosks—now with eight items in hand (he’d added raisins and breakfast bars)—when a man in a gaudy blue tracksuit entered the store. Something about the man seemed suspicious to Paul and, sure enough, a look to his hands revealed the reason: he was carrying an Uzi. Unlike the first two shooters, this man was slightly overweight. “Uncommon,” mused Paul.

Paul fell to the floor. “Just the milk, then,” he thought. “The rest were impulse buys, anyway.”

Creeping across the linoleum—so much smoother than gravel!—Paul made his way to the produce section just in time to see a stack of cantaloupes explode in a volley of gunfire. Beside the cantaloupes stood a mother and daughter, apparently too dazed to react. The watermelon the mother was holding split open, followed by her head. Her daughter was hit in the neck, blood spurting like a geyser onto the white linoleum floor. An elderly woman slipped on the blood, before taking two bullets to her frail legs. A benevolent cowboy went for his concealed handgun but was picked off before he could say yippie ki-yay. As the shooter made his way deeper into the store, Paul stood and made a run for it. On his way out, he passed the store’s security guard. Blood seeped from the bullet hole between the guard’s eyes.

“I can’t believe it! I’m a thief!” opined Paul as he stood waiting for the M40 toward Uptown. He gazed down at the half-gallon of milk in his hand. “What I’ll do,” he thought, “I’ll go back tomorrow, get another half-gallon, and have the clerk scan it twice. That way I’ll be Even Steven. Maybe I’ll even get one percent milkfat! Or two percent! No, not two percent—that’s too rich.” After thinking this through, Paul felt better.

The bus was late. This was not unusual. Paul shifted back and forth on his feet as he waited. He had planter fasciitis in both feet, which was odd, given he was not overweight. “Need to stretch my feet more, I suppose,” thought Paul. 

Just then a man joined the crowd at the bus stop. He was a tall man, very thin, and he wore a long gray raincoat. Paul could not help but notice the muzzle of a Beretta AR70 poking out of the bottom of the coat. Despite his aching feet, Paul decided to walk home.

* * *

Paul got home around noon. He had texted his wife beforehand, and so she knew he was coming home early. She did not question the decision—she knew he worked hard; it was good for him to take an afternoon off. In the meantime, she had made him a peanut butter and banana sandwich. And Paul had the milk!

“How was work?” asked his wife, joining Paul at the kitchen table. “Anything interesting happen?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary,” said Paul, taking a bite of sandwich. The key was to get a bit of banana in every single bite. 

“Wait, what am I saying!” said Paul, putting the sandwich down. “We got a new coffeemaker!”

“Well, that’s exciting.”

“Kind of a hassle, really,” said Paul. “I’ll have to have one of the kids show me how to use the damn thing. Emelia just happened to be there today, but I didn’t internalize how she did it, and she’s dead now.”

“It’s a coffeemaker, dear. You’ll learn it in five minutes.”

Paul sighed. “I suppose so. It’s just, everything is so complicated, nowadays.”

Paul’s wife leaned in, kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll do fine.”

“Yeah,” said Paul, picking his sandwich back up. “I’ll do fine.”

But he was still worrying about it as he took another bite.

J.D. Strunk was born in Boston, Massachusetts, grew up in northern Ohio, and has a degree in English Literature from the University of Toledo. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Louisville Review, Palooka Magazine, The Bookends Review, Allium: A Journal of Poetry & Prose, Jimson Weed, New Plains Review, and elsewhere. In 2022 he was chosen as a finalist for The Bellingham Review‘s Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. He lives in Denver, Colorado. His novel Stuck Between Stars is available on Amazon. IG  @jdstrunkwriter