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Over a Cup of Coffee

by Sean Hower

Margo stared at the smiling cow that curved across the surface of the coffee cup that her neighbor, Pauline, had set out on the dining room table. The drawing soothed Margo but it did nothing to calm her suspicions about the purity of the brew it held. She wondered if she should have invited Pauline to her house instead.

“It’s vanilla flavored from that shop over on Walker Avenue,” Pauline said. She settled into a chair across from Margo’s. Her posture, like her gray bouffant hair, summer dress, and flowered apron, were a meticulous image of a vintage fifties housewife. “A little pricey if you ask me, but what’s the point of retirement if you can’t splurge a little, right?”

Margo feigned a smile. She had lost interest in such mundane details of life. The creature that filled her body was a constant distraction and the quest to rid herself of it was all that mattered.

“You know, I don’t know the difference between a coffee bean and a pinto bean, but they were very helpful and very polite over there. It was refreshing, really. There are so many rude people in this world, don’t you think?” She leveled an expectant gaze on Margo.

Margo felt like a schoolgirl who had been called on to answer a question she didn’t understand. “I think people are just too busy.”

“Too busy for a little courtesy?” Pauline scoffed.

Margo grabbed her cup. A dull ache flared up in her arm and shoulder. It was the creature. Sudden movements hurt the creature’s rigid body, and though Margo and the creature had worked out a truce of sorts, it didn’t hesitate to pay her back for any pain she caused it. She struggled to keep a grip on the cup handle as she sipped. “They’re just being selfish, I suppose?” she said with mock frustration. She would say anything to keep the woman from getting mad.

“You bet they are,” Pauline nodded. “Always rushing here and there in their fancy cars, with their boom-boom-boom shaking my windows and hurting my ears. Only consolation is that they’ll be deaf in a few years and won’t be able to hear anything any more. Serves them right for making the rest of us suffer that nonsense they listen to.”

“Sure does,” Margo said from behind her cup. The pain was subsiding.

Pauline sighed. “Even neighbors don’t drop by for visits as often as they should.”

“I know,” Margo said. “I’m sorry. I should come over more often but I’ve been busy.”

“Too busy is why your husband went off with that hussy.”

Margo’s chest fluttered under the memory of that mundane detail. She set the cup down and folded her hands in her lap to steady herself. “Well, there’s nothing for it now.” She hoped that Pauline would be pleased with her composure.

“There’s always something for it. Everyone gets their comeuppance eventually, you know.”

Margo shivered at her neighbor’s grimness. “So, um, how have you been?”

“Oh, retirement’s been kind to me. I still see some of my regular clients, you know, but I’m not actively practicing. No need to, not with the investments I made back in the nineties. Got out just before the bubble burst. Didn’t the crash hurt you a bit?”

“I was...”

“Too busy?”

“Yes.” Another mundane detail. Margo felt embarrassed.

“With what, dear?” Pauline leaned forward and touched Margo’s hand with the tender care of an aunt. “What’s more important than living life?” she whispered.

Ridding myself of the thing that you put in me, Margo thought. “Forgiveness?” she offered instead.

Pauline soured. “Now, you know that’s all in the past.”

Margo struggled to keep herself from striking out at the woman. She needed to settle this without violence. “Then there is room for forgiveness?”

Pauline shook her head disapprovingly. “You have to live with the consequences of your actions, dear.”

“But it was just a tree. I’m still willing to buy a new one.”

“It wasn’t about the tree, dear. It was about your presumption, the sheer egregiousness of your conduct, and the supposition that you were in the right simply because you wanted to cut the tree down.”

Her calmness put Margo on edge. “We had the legal right. It was encroaching across our property line.”

“What’s the law to neighborliness? What’s the law to simple kindness. It’s nothing. That red maple was over a hundred years old. I planted it when I I was just a child. You can’t just steal that kind of history from someone.”

“But I’ve changed. I’m a good neighbor now. I turn my lights off at ten so that they don’t bother you. I keep my stereo turned low. I only do yard work on the weekends.”

“I know, dear.”

“Then why can’t you lift the curse?”

Pauline sighed with indulgent irritation. “Do you want a donut?”

Margo’s hope for a peaceful resolution burst. Her path was clear now. “Yes,” she said, defeated.

Pauline smiled. “Now that’s a good girl.” She went into the kitchen.

Margo pulled open her purse and dug out the lapel case she had packed before coming over. She opened the case and gingerly withdrew a silver sewing needle. She held the needle between her thumb and forefinger, marveling at it. She had spent years researching the curse. She had traveled to Europe and Asia a dozen times to track down the right people and to find the right materials. In the process, she had learned much about the craft that Pauline practiced. Margo’s quest had consumed her life as surely as the creature consumed her body. Doubt still nagged her over the simplicity of the cure, though. She prayed that her plan would work.

“I’ve got custard-filled and glazed.”

“Glazed is fine,” Margo said. She dropped the case back in her purse and put the purse away. She concealed the needle lengthwise between her forefinger and middle finger and rested her hand flat on the table. She was trembling but she told herself that this time was no different from the thousand times she had practiced it before. Inspired by a nature show about snakes, she had perfected the maneuver into a quick, fluid strike.

Still, she was scared. She would only have a few seconds before the creature would cause so much pain that she would pass out. If her strike missed, Pauline was sure to place another curse on her, one that would leave her with no other path but suicide.

Pauline came in from the kitchen carrying a donut on a saucer in each hand. She moved agonizingly slow. “Well, I like the custard ones myself,” she said. “There was a little place just outside of town that I used to stop by every morning. Haven’t had anything that good since the place burned down. You remember that?” She placed the saucer on the table in front of Margo. “Ruffians I suppose. Everyone’s just gotten meaner.”

Margo grabbed Pauline by the wrist. The sudden movement sent an electric shock through Margo’s body that numbed her senses. In a breath, she raised her hand, flipped the needle into a striking position, and stuck its point deep into Pauline’s thumb. A bead of red swelled up around the silver.

“You silly hussy,” Pauline gasped as she yanked her hand away. “What have you done?”

Nausea boiled up from Margo’s stomach and a sticky sweat broke across her body. The room swirled into a humming blur pressed flat by a roaring in her ears. With vague detachment, she watched Pauline’s body twist into an obscene arch. The woman collapsed to the floor, screaming with muted anger and despair. Then Margo fell into blackness.

She woke in confusion. When she saw Pauline on the floor, she went to the woman’s side and felt for a pulse. She found none.

Margo sat down on her knees and wondered if the curse was truly over. She raised her arm, waiting for the familiar ache to fill her. When it didn’t come, she slapped the floor. Still, there was nothing. Encouraged, she jumped to her feet. There was no pain.

The fear and despair of ten years evaporated under a shining freedom. She danced about Pauline’s house cursing the woman and giggling as though she had just had her first kiss.

She stopped short at one of the bedrooms. An army-surplus desk was in the center of the room with what looked like a high-school chemistry set, complete with burners, test tubes, and other glass implements, arranged on its surface. Prefabricated bookcases lined the walls. They were crammed with books, notepads, stacks of loose-leaf paper, candles of all colors, and rocks and gems of every shape. There were also dozens of clay and glass jars each filled with bits of plants or animals, some dried, some suspended in an array of liquids. She found the corpses of cats, dogs, and rats strung up in the closet.

Horrified, Margo ran back down stairs and collapsed into the chair in which Pauline had been sitting. She looked down at the body of her neighbor. The hate she had felt for so long was gone, her despair was sated, and her pain was cured. After ten years she was finally free.

As she thought about what she should do next an emptiness opened inside her. The mundane details of life were still mundane but now she had no focus. She had no purpose. Without the quest, she was meaningless.

“You still won,” Margo said to Pauline. “Why can’t I win? Why can’t I ever win?” She kicked Pauline’s body. “Everyone gets their comeuppance you said? You didn’t, not really. Alan and that slut of his sure haven’t. Who will make sure they get what they deserve?”

An idea struck Margo. She went back up stairs to the bedroom and started to thumb through the books for something, anything, that would be fitting for her ex-husband and his new wife. She had focus once again.

Copyright © 2006 by Sean Hower

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