The sun hit him squarely in the face, despite Joe doing his best to avoid it.
With a heavy sigh, he moved – ponderously – sitting up in bed, rubbing his face with his hands. Letting one of his fingers stray to have an exploratory dig at his ear, he simultaneously lurched towards the curtains and drew them. The room wasn’t exactly plunged into darkness, but it had become dim enough for his only-just-awake eyes to tolerate.
Joe yawned as his brain took a couple of seconds to register what the bedside clock said to him.
He had just over an hour before he had to be at Uni, and he felt really, really sluggish this morning …
… and he wasn’t sure why.
It hadn’t been a particularly late night, last night. And he hadn’t been drinking. Sure, there was a dull ache which kept moving around his head that he just couldn’t nail down … but that was normal after Thursday night. Work did that to him.
And work was a necessary evil.
Turning his mind from his part-time job, he found absolutely no solace whatsoever in thoughts of what he had to look forward to that morning. The concept of sitting through another of Professor Wheatley’s interminable Art History lectures didn’t motivate him in the slightest. In fact, this morning was almost one of those rare times when he thought, “Bugger it”, upon which he’d stay at home and read the texts.
Still, he’d never been able to see the sense in paying all that money for Uni (rather, all the money he’d be paying over the next decade or so to repay his HECS loan), then missing out on the experience it could offer him – even if it was the experience of a coma-inducing presentation.
Thus … he needed a jolt to wake himself up.
Reaching for his packet of cigarettes and box of matches, Joe made his way to the kitchen. He refrained from lighting up on the way – he wasn’t one of those people who could puff away first thing in the morning: A swig of coffee before a smoke was a prerequisite.
“Smokes are best with coffee”, he thought, “ … just as coffee is best with smokes”.
He frowned at himself for the half-awake ramblings of his mind.
In a dull stupor, while boiling the jug, Joe scooped two spoonfuls of generic coffee (he was a Uni student, after all – it was all he could afford) into his cup, then mated it with four sugars in a move which would surely make coffee snobs stare icily at him with disdain. He mixed his dry ingredients liberally with a dash of milk, and – when the jug had boiled – added the water. From there, he went out onto the back steps … and drank.
“Gah … bad coffee!”
The reaction pushed itself out under Joe’s breath as the coffee hit his tongue, causing an involuntary tremor in the skin over his skull. The coffee really was bad – but at least it had jolted him awake. Joe always figured that it was the ‘shock’ from the strong taste that woke people up when they really needed a strong cup of coffee, and not the caffeine at all.
He had a hurried smoke, slugged down the rest of his coffee, then rushed off inside to get ready for the day, briefly noticing the state of his flat and realizing that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d given it a good clean.
There were even spider webs in places, for God’s sake! True, they were only dotted here and there in dusty strands on the ceiling. But still … !
He figured he’d have to do something about it when he got back that night.
Approximately forty-five minutes later, Joe arrived at C-Block.
He hiked over to Room 4, where his Art History lectures took place. As usual, a few people were already lounging around there, and he greeted the friends he saw with a feeble wave and a grunt. The good thing, however, was that Wheatley was nowhere to be seen, which meant that he had time to head for the coffee urn in the corner of the room.
The way he was feeling … he seriously needed it.
Too bad there wasn’t time for a smoke with it, he thought.
“Damn”, he muttered, noticing that there wasn’t any sugar in the bowl where it usually was. A few stray crystals sat feebly in the bottom of it as Joe looked around for a new packet to fill it with. The spoon in the sugar bowl had been used countless times to stir quickly-made coffees, and bore the stains of this stoically, yet – despite Joe staring at it blankly for a few seconds – it didn’t miraculously leap up and help him find more sugar.
Just then, Wheatley walked into the room, methodically placing his briefcase near his lectern and ordering his notes. Joe knew that he wouldn’t have time to check out if any of the other rooms in C-Block had sugar with their coffee-nooks that he could … appropriate.
“Damn”, he said again, resigning himself to the fact that – sugar or not – he simply could not endure this lecture without coffee.
He tried to add a bit of extra milk – just to take the edge off – then found a seat and took a sip.
As the coffee juddered wickedly over his tongue, his unconscious reaction echoed throughout the room.
“Gah … bad coffee!”
It was so bad that he wasn’t sure that he could actually finish it.
Nevertheless … he was awake.
Strong coffee, that.
Bad … but strong.
Despite the coffee, Joe nearly found himself nodding off several times, the Professor’s monotone also a wicked blend.
Morning break finally dragged itself around, and – by the time he found himself shuffling along to the cafeteria – Joe realized that he seriously needed more Java.
His weary steps having chewed up more of his time, Joe quickly grabbed an iced coffee from the caf, then headed for his next lecture. He dragged himself to G-Block and into Room 9, then checked off what he’d need. Notebook, pen, overview of the lecture he could tick off as each section was completed.
Last, but not least – coffee!
Joe gratefully opened the caf’s cardboard carton, taking a big swig …
… which he nearly spat back out before he realized that he was – essentially – in public, and quietly allowed the foul liquid to plop and trickle back into the carton with as much decorum as he could muster.
“Gah … bad coffee!”
Joe quickly dug out his handkerchief to wipe away the remaining ‘liquid’ clinging to his mouth and dribbling from his chin. The coffee was absolutely disgusting.
Joe realized that his nose had picked up that information before he’d drunk, but his fatigued brain hadn’t been in any position to pay attention to such signals, let alone stop him from taking a swig.
Seeking confirmation, Joe looked at the side of the carton.
“Damn”, he muttered.
“Past the use-by date”.
Joe had no choice but to sit and stare evilly at the loathsome beverage as it sat in its carton throughout the remainder of the lecture.
He couldn’t toss it into the bin in the corner (in case it leaked out, and flagged him as being responsible for the sour stench, which would surely waft throughout the room).
He also couldn’t leave once the lecture had started – the room was packed out, and the thought of inching his way past people with a carton of rancid coffee in his hand didn’t thrill him in the slightest.
Thus, he had no choice but to leave the little carton of horror on his desk for the entirety of the lecture, hoping that it wouldn’t kick up too much of a stink. On the occasions when he thought it might do so, Joe pulled a stapler from his bag and helped it stay shut.
Afterwards, Joe headed for the cafeteria, both to give them a piece of his mind, and to grab some gum to rid himself of the repulsive pit his mouth had become due to his impetuous swig.
To top it all off – he was more tired than ever.
However, when he got there, he found that it had inexplicably closed early …
Somewhat irritated, Joe decided to head home. He had a lot of work to do – lecture notes to write up, study to be done, assignments to work on – and, of course – some house-cleaning to be done.
However, to treat himself (and to try to make-up for the uniformly shitty caffeine he’d been subjected to throughout the day), Joe decided to stop off at the corner shop on the way home and grab some decent coffee – bugger the expense.
Not too much later, and with better (and more expensive) product in hand, Joe arrived at his sanctuary.
He took his time making this coffee, lingering over the anticipation of finally having a chance to have a decent cup.
Moving to the back steps, Joe savoured every sip (mixed, as it was, with the tobacco from his cigarette). The coffee was smooth and rich, the heady aroma filling his head, simultaneously soothing and invigorating.
Joe felt as if it was the best cup of coffee he’d had in a long time.
“Gah … bad coffee”, he said under his breath, with a liberal dose of irony and a smile on his face.
Coming inside and setting the TV to ‘blare’ for the sake of background-noise, Joe commenced the work ahead of him. Studying and writing, turning pages and shuffling notes. Typing, tearing and collating.
The more he did this, though, the more tired he became – and the more his eyes blurred and mind wandered.
The more this occurred, the more irritated Joe became.
This irritation increased when something akin to a strand of hair wafted onto his face, tickling his nose.
Joe rubbed and brushed at said face, finding the culprit to be a strand of what looked like spider web. No spider – just the web, which had probably wafted down from the ceiling. As he peeled it off his skin, Joe found himself staring around his flat, shaking his head in disbelief that he’d allowed it to become so messy that there were actually spider webs draped forlornly here and there.
Irritated – both with himself for the condition of his living space, and the soreness around the edges of his eyes caused by how tired he’d become – Joe made himself another coffee.
Figuring to have a break and then get into the cleaning up, Joe made his way to the lounge room and sat back on his threadbare sofa-bed, kicking aside a pile of newspapers, magazines, clothes and other assorted clutter to get there, stirring up dust …
… among other things.
Sitting back and pressing his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose with one hand, Joe set his coffee on the small table beside him with the other, closed his eyes and relaxed for a few minutes. Eyes still closed, he reached out again to grab his coffee, anticipating the jolt he’d soon get from the cup.
God knew – he needed something to shock him awake.
He drank …
… and something shocked him awake.
Something sharp had attacked him …
A lump of something bad had jammed itself at the back of his throat, the pain lancing from there to the tip of his tongue and back again as though someone were threading a needle through his mouth.
Somehow, he resisted the urge to inhale sharply with the attack – instead, coughing out whatever it was that he’d nearly swallowed.
The thing flew out of his mouth – something that felt odd and hairy, with terrible, barbed edges to it.
The pain bit and chewed at his throat, and Joe gasped in desperation as panic set in. His throat was closing up, swelling with the injury caused by whatever it was that had been lodged there …
… whatever it was that had been in his coffee!
Joe fell to his knees, mind racing, wondering what to do, trying to think past the pain which clawed its way up into the rest of his head and began affecting his vision. His vision – though fading – was yet clear enough that – through a half-strangled gasp – he saw it.
Planted amid a spray of coffee where he’d spat it out onto the carpet sat a small black ball about the size of a marble. Covered in mucous and coffee, curled up as it was, Joe nevertheless saw the fine hairs of the thing …
… and the eight little stick-like things as they unfurled …
In blind panic, Joe lurched to his feet, his heart feeling as though someone had grabbed it and yanked on it, again and again, each drag sending a shock through his body in rhythm with the pain that was now spreading to his lungs.
His throat continued to close as he desperately tried to force air through it, the huge shuddering gasps pulling only tiny gulps through his rapidly-shrinking bronchi.
The spider had somehow gotten into his coffee, and – when he’d drunk it – had bitten him in the throat.
Through the terror of these thoughts, acting solely on instinct, Joe scrambled for the phone, somehow managing to dial 000.
Not knowing how – past his agonized throat – he managed to croak out the word, “Ambulance” to the operator’s request for, “Which service, please?”
The operator put him through to the medical call-centre, which would (Joe frantically hoped) send an ambulance to help him.
The single ring of the phone before it was answered seemed to take an eternity in Joe’s mind as he felt his throat ballooning and pushing in against itself.
Barely able to breathe let alone talk – his words strained out through heaving attempts to drag oxygen into his starving lungs – Joe’s thoughts blurred alongside his eyesight, and he wasn’t sure if he was thinking or speaking as the room grew dark.
He fell and the world fell with him. At least, the phone did, as his dead weight pulled it from the wall, severing the connection.
Seemingly a world away from the scene of Joe’s horror, the medical call-centre operative’s face showed puzzlement and concern. He put his hand to the earphone and adjusted his mouthpiece.
“Hello? Hello … ?”
The screen in front of him showed that the line had died. And – for some unknown reason – it wasn’t registering the name, number and address of the caller.
His supervisor walked up.
“What is it … ?”
“Someone just called in with something really … ”
“ … really what … ?”
“Their info hasn’t come up on the screen. But, there was something more than that … ”
“What was it?”
“Well, they just said, ‘Gah … bad coffee’, and hung up” .
Copyright © 2007 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
This short story is a work of fiction. Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.
Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might – you never can tell).