In the past couple months, I’ve started writing a novel. I’ve been chipping away at it in my spare time and am about nine chapters in so far. In the interest of motivating myself to continue, I’ll be releasing a couple teaser chapters here on this blog. These will be rough, unedited, first drafts, so I welcome any feedback you may have!
There is a little café two blocks south of Purring Lion Publishing called The Little Café. It is tightly nestled between a vintage consignment shop and a moderately priced apartment complex, with just enough space for the word “CAFE” to hang above its front window in white florescent lights. It is dimly lit inside and extends straight back like a hallway – only, a hallway that doesn’t lead anywhere. The long counter takes up half the narrow space, while too many tiny round tables and cozy booths are crowded in the remaining half. The lone barista is a burly man with the air of a tavern tapster. He deftly crafts delicate latte art from frothed milk, only to slam down and slide his drinks clear across the bar once he’s done.
In the booth farthest back from the café door, in a corner bathed in more shadow than light, Carri sat staring over one such drink. The cappuccino had been adorned with a latte art flower before the bearded barista slid it down the bar to her. The flower had shifted during the trip and was now squashed against one side of the cup, looking more like an obese starfish than a carnation. Carri cradled the cup in her hands and stared at the distorted design, tracing it with her eyes. She was considering how the starfish might be an accurate metaphor for her life thus far, or perhaps even the nature of life in general. Time and effort had gone into crafting its success, only to be squandered at the last. The result was a disappointing mess that she had overpaid for and was now letting grow cold on the table.
Carri sighed into her coffee, sending ripples across the dissolving foam. She slid the cup to one side and reached for her bag under the table. She dumped the contents out unceremoniously, curious as to what she had packed in her haste that morning. She had paid for the coffee with a crumpled five she’d found in her pants pocket, so she wasn’t even sure if she had her wallet on her. She hoped she did, as she’d need her Metropass to catch the subway home. On that note, she also hoped she had her keys so she could enter her home once she got there.
Keeping with the theme of the day, neither Carri’s wallet nor her keys tumbled out of her bag. Instead, she had a pack of unsharpened pencils, a tin of mints, the towel she had dried her hair with the night before, and her phone charger, lacking of phone. Atop the pile was a lightly ruffled stack of paper held by a large binder clip at its left corner. It was the manuscript she thought she’d be pitching to Jamie Dennon, that is, before she was informed that “today’s not the first.” It was the same manuscript that she’d been touting around publishing house after publishing house for the past four months. It was the manuscript that took up permanent residence in the back of her mind, looming over her by day, haunting her dreams by night.
Even now, the thing glared up at Carri accusingly from the table. She stared back, unflinching. After the morning she’d had, she refused to let this personified heap of wood pulp and ink bully her. Like lifelong nemeses that come to foster a fondness for each other, she and it had a love-hate relationship. More accurately, they were like lifelong friends who came to despise each other just a little. As you do.
At this point, they’d simply been together too long. Carri had originally adapted the manuscript from her bachelor’s thesis. She’d graduated with a double major in anthropology and psychology, minors in physics and biology, and a concentration in overachieving. She was of the generation encouraged to “follow their passion” rather than “just get a job and quit freeloading.” The trouble for Carri was that her passion ran off in a bunch of different directions, so the “following” strategy was difficult to implement. Like a sailor following the North Star, or a runner with one short leg, she just ended up going around in circles.
As graduation beckoned ever closer on the horizon, and her credit hours began adding up exponentially, she stumbled upon the impetus driving her studies. She hated herself for it, as hers was among the most pretentious of passions. It was the type of intellectual pursuit only pursued by members of affluent, first-world countries with no real problems to occupy their time. It was an interest for the self-actualized, those able to fill in Maslow’s pyramid as easily as a Paint By Numbers. Carri felt the same guilt in realizing this passion that one does eating their lunch in plain view of a homeless man. In becoming privy to this special brand of guilt, Carri did what any sensible person would.
She learned to ignore it.
And with that, Carri joined the league of ostentatious intellectuals bent on Defining Humanity. These people look on Humanity as only those far removed from most of it can. They ask questions like, “What defines humans as a species – alternatively, what is human nature? What enables consciousness – and indeed, what is consciousness in the first place? What makes Humanity (and therefore myself by inclusion) so darn special?” In studying anthropology, psychology, physics, and biology, Carri was in a prime position to ask these questions. In true collegiate fashion, she pondered them endlessly, holding discussions with equally privileged and pretentious peers late into the night.
When those peers were engaged in collegiate activities of another sort, she sought consult elsewhere. She visited her professors’ office hours, as well as those in the philosophy, chemistry, history, astronomy, political science, and arts departments. With the exception of the week before finals, most professors spend their office hours very much alone. Carri was welcome company, as she brought with her both a thirst for knowledge and ample fuel for the professors’ inflated egos.
Carri slowly became buried in her research and mounting college debt. With each conclusion she drew, she came up with ten more questions to answer. Though she persevered, her quest began to wear on her. Her friends that hadn’t dropped out had taken to experimentation in different fields. She had drained her professors of useful information, and even they were tiring of her visits. Her bedroom became cluttered with textbooks, piles of crumpled paper, filled spiral notebooks, and empty Cups O’ Noodles. Her mind was similarly cluttered, and she struggled to pull any coherent thought from the mess.
Then, one fateful night, one such thought arose to the surface of her mind. She had awoken with a start, finding herself in the library with sticky notes stuck to her face and a pencil in each hand. She could hardly see the table in front of her for all the paper and books. Atop the chaos lay the piece of paper she’d apparently fallen asleep on. A fraction of said paper had dissolved in a puddle of drool, but the message on it could still be read. Carri gasped aloud as she realized the topic for her thesis.
It was the Ultimate Solution. An answer for every one of Carri’s questions.
It was so simple – elegant in its conciseness.
It consisted of five words.
Just five words.
Carri suddenly snapped back to her corner booth at The Little Café. She found she was staring down at those same five words, the same Ultimate Solution, she had written in the library so long ago. Instead of being scribbled on a damp piece of notebook paper, though, they were printed front-and-center on the cover page of her manuscript.
Carri snorted softly to herself. She plucked up the manuscript, using its edge to sweep the rest of her things into her bag. She gave one last glance to the ugly starfish cappuccino before scooching out of her booth. She made the long walk past the barista, giving him a nod as she passed. He nodded back then returned to swabbing down the bar with a white rag.
Carri finally reached the door of The Little Café and used her free hand to push it open. With her other hand, she curtly chucked her manuscript in the nearest trashcan. She didn’t so much as pause before exiting the café, leaving it behind forever. Her five, simply elegant, Ultimate words stared at the café ceiling amid many an empty sugar packet and used napkin. These words once neatly answered her deepest questions, had helped her to Define Humanity. Now, their meaning had shifted. The words had become an accurate metaphor for her life thus far, or perhaps even the nature of life in general.
The barista stopped his swabbing and went to collect Carri’s cup from her table. On his way, he dumped the used coffee grounds from her cappuccino in the trashcan. They landed heavily on Carri’s manuscript, splattering over the cover page and staining it with deep brown blots. The sludge instantly obscured most of the text and was quick to saturate the rest beyond readability. Carri’s name was among the last words to become fatally steeped with espresso, followed only by five others:
Not so Special after All.