As you enter the building, the sound of clinking silverware and the murmur of conversation washes over you. It is not overpowering, but warm and inviting, comfortable. You hand your jacket to the young lady waiting there. She trades you a ticket with which to retrieve it later. Smiling you head for the main room.
The remodeled room glistens. It did not look battered or unattractive previously but the new tile floor shines. The subtle light colors of the painted walls compliment the dark gleaming marble counters. Drapery, paintings, decorations, these all work together to create an ascetic you find appealing.
“So, what do you think?” The Keeper of the Tale is at your elbow. You express how impressed you are with the look. “I had some help in that regard. I just did all the work to change it over. Turns out watching all those handyman shows over the years paid off.” He guides you to an open seat at a table. Food and drink is quickly supplied. The Keeper of the Tale sits across the table. You feel privileged to be at what must be the head table.
“Bit chilly today,” notes a man with an impressively manicured mustache. It is thick, bushy, but very neat.
“At least this time of year tells you it will be growing colder and colder,” explains a pleasant looking young woman with long blonde hair. “Septembrr, Octobrr, Novermbrr, Decembrr.” She adds a shiver and a grin to her deliberate mispronunciations. While you can find the amusement in her words, you still feel the need to point out that the months of January, February, March, and even April can be quite cold but do not fit the naming convention she pointed out. “By January it should be as cold as it's going to get. Hopefully.”
You are considering your response to this when the Keeper of the Tale speaks up. “We are entering the decay of the year. Once the harvest is in, the material left in the field rots. The sun's influence on the land fades as darkness spreads, literally and figuratively.”
The mustache man snorts. “Why, whatever do you mean?”
The Keeper looks oddly serious, almost crazy, very unlike his normal jovial self. “I hear many stories in my position. Some are light and cheerful, others are dark and grim. With a chill wind blowing and night falling, it is a dark Tale that comes to mind. Indeed, it is a very Dark Brew.”
My name is Richard Leslie. I have every reason to believe I will soon be dead.
While existence is still mine, I will strive to explain what has led me to this moment as a warning. Heed my words, learn from my example, and spare yourself my fate. I will die alone, perhaps unmourned but if I can save you, my death may not be in vain.
I am no longer in full controls of my limbs. I shudder and quake. Every sound, down to the quietest creak, demands my fullest attention. Is that death approaching? This time it is but the wind. Next time, the sound may not be so innocent.
Yet, I am neglecting to explain, to warn. You must forgive me. My concentration is not what it once was.
It all began at Jack's Java Joint. When I say that I have been a customer of Jack's since the time before he owned the shop, I am not trying to brag, nor display my credentials for belonging. I seek only to state a fact. I was there the day that Jack took over. I am there nearly every day. Out of this repetition, if nothing else, he and I have a familiarity with one another, if not friends as such. This repetition led to other familiarities. These people I feel more comfortable referring to as my friends.
As I recall, it was a natural, organic process. We regularly bumped into each other, so that our faces became familiar. Eventually words were exchanged. We would get stuck together at the same table and 'forced' to speak to one another. Soon we were sitting together intentionally, solving the world's problems over coffee.
There was no official membership listing. Individuals would join us occasionally. Others were regular before moving away. The core of the group became Tony and Maria, Gerry, Rachel, and myself.
Tony and Maria were a married couple. They bickered with real affection. When they grumbled at each other, they did not do so looking for others to select sides or to help prove one side was right over the other. It was how they communicated with each other.
Gerry was an executive in the bank down the street. Tall, thin, and awkward, he resembled a stork in many ways. He was always friendly and down to earth despite his position. Some become affected when granted authority but I never felt Gerry put on airs.
Rachel... I was always fond of Rachel. Perhaps you would have found her too round of face or body but I was charmed by the gleam of her eyes and the glow of her smile. Her laughter at one of my jokes always brought me great joy. She came across as very sweet.
At the time, it was a day like other other day. Since then, I have dissected that day, reviewed it, revised it in my head. Had I the knowledge then that I have now, I could have changed all this, stopped it from occurring! I did not. We did not. Our ignorance led us here. That said, not knowing what we didn't know, we wouldn't have done anything differently.
As I recall, Tony had completed his opinion of the infield fly rule when Jack leaned up against the wall near our table. “Hey, you guys wanna do me a favor?” While he scratched at his stubble, we all exchanged a glance. This was an oddly general request. When we inquired for further detail, he willingly provided it. “I gotta sample of a new brew. It comes from deep in the Amazon forest, real hard to get out of where it grows. Hard to get up here. It's a bit pricey. I need an opinion to see if it's worth getting regular.” Free coffee? Really, how could we not assist? We were grateful to be deemed special enough to receive this privilege. Jack nodded and went off to brew this special coffee.
When it arrived, it did not appear to be anything terribly special. It was dark looking and rich in smell. It was normal for me to gravitate towards a dark roast so this was acceptable from my point of view. After a clinking of glasses, we coordinated our efforts so that we tried the coffee all at once.
While I am sure Jack's skill at his job had something to do with the liquid in the cup before me, it was a beautiful cup of coffee. The flavor was rich and strong without being overpowering. It was also smooth, without a bitter aftertaste. There was a something more, a hint of another flavor I couldn't readily identify. The only greater joy I had than drinking the coffee was the look of joy on Rachel's face. Seeing her enjoyment brought me joy. Our response was unanimous; it was quality. Jack nodded, thanked us, and went back to work.
Quickly, the coffee became our primary topic of conversation. No matter where the conversation may have drifted, it always steered back to the rich Amazonian brew. Didn't it taste wonderful? Hadn't it been smooth? When, oh when, would we be able to get more?
Finally came the day when the brew of brews appeared on the order board, available for all. When Jack had indicated it was expensive, he had not erred. The price per cup was equal to what I would expect to pay for multiple cups of coffee. I was inflated by its availability but then quickly deflated by the price. My budget for such sundries was limited. While buying a cup of this tasty beverage would not likely bust my budget, would I be able to stop at just one? It was so very smooth and relaxing. Better to not chance it, I had decided, and stick with my regular. A special occasion would surely arise, allowing to justify this purchase.
Having made this decision, I was soon joined in line by Rachel. She reacted positively to the arrival of the special brew and asked if I would be getting a cup. When I didn't immediately react in the positive, her expression grew noticeably downcast. Somewhat bashfully she explained how much she looked forward to seeing my happy reaction to drinking that coffee again. She said I looked very cute.
I bought the Amazonian coffee. Thankfully so did she. This provided me with the bonus of seeing her gleeful expression as well. We took turns drinking so the other could watch us react. It was a very pleasant moment.
Despite the price, demand for the coffee was quite high, ensuring Jack would be keeping it in stock. This made sure I would be able to continue to purchase it. After a day or two, the price of a cup was no longer a concern to me. It did not become significantly less expensive nor did I immediately seek to rearrange my expenses to accommodate this change. It wasn't even that the coffee made it easier to speak with Rachel, although I'm sure that must have helped to some degree. Looking back, I simply stopped caring about the price of this coffee.
At the time this did not distress me in the least. My change in attitude felt completely natural. Now, I can only see that change as a sign that I missed. It was big, yet small, subtle, obscured by the pretty face across from me.
The signs would get bigger yet just as easily dismissed. One day, Tony and Maria did not show up. This was not so unusual; people get sick or busy all the time. While we met regularly, we sometimes missed each other as well. When they didn't show up again the next day, those of us remaining still did not panic. By the third day, we should have been concerned but we were not. We should have called them, checked in on them, visited, something! We did not. We did nothing. We drank coffee and talked about other things, just as if all was still normal.
Gerry began to drink more and more coffee. He had the money to do so and would occasionally share this ability with Rachel and myself. We spoke at length about little until long into the evening. After all that coffee, sleep was less necessary.
I should have been more productive. I felt more productive. I accomplished less and less without fully realizing it at the time. The tasks I took on were useless in the long term. My work suffered. I was present but less engaged. My boss spoke to me about the change in my performance but it did me little good. I was increasingly blind to my faults.
I barely noticed when Gerry disappeared from our group. His lack of presence meant there was more time for me to speak with Rachel. By now, we were more comfortable with one another; no longer just familiar faces across a communal table but friends of an increasingly close nature. It was just she and me and coffee. The sight of her warmed my heart. Her laugh tickled my ears. The touch of her hand thrilled me. I'm sure she gave me every sign she could but I was as blind to that as I was the effects the coffee was having upon me. Rachel was wiser and bolder than I. No doubt seeing my oblivious warmth, she took the initiative. She had me walk her home and invited me in. In a rare moment of understanding, I figured out this was a Good Thing and agreed.
Her apartment was comfortable but I was not immediately so within it. I sat on the couch at her invitation and grew nervous as she readied another beverage for us. Where were we in our relationship? What should I do? How forward ought I be? I fidgeted slightly as she brought us coffee. She then sat so close to me that she might as well may have been on my lap. My concerns fled me. She leaned into me. I leaned into her. The moment manifested and we kissed.
The initial exhilaration associated with an event long anticipated soon faded enough that I was at least somewhat aware of my surroundings when it occurred. While there is still a feeling that I must have imagined or misinterpreted what I saw, at the same time I know the truth. I know it was no hallucination of a hormone addled brain. In a flash, my understanding of reality changed for me. Oh how I loathe this reality!
Rachel shivered as if cold. This caused a pause in our activities so that I could inquire as to her well-being. I fully expected it to be but a momentary pause but the shivering continued, intensified.
Then on the wall, her shadow grew, stretching for the ceiling. I gaped at this manifestation, unable to account for it. I whirled my gaze about the room, searching for a reason to explain the evidence of my eyes but saw nothing out of place, no light source to cause this change. My shadow was unaffected. Suddenly, the shadow leaped from the wall, disintegrating as it did so. Once the shadow disappeared, so did Rachel's shivers, along with all other motion. She flopped down on the couch, dead.
They were all dead, those friends of mine I couldn't be bothered to check on. Tony, Maria, Gerry, all of them. The coffee beans were the cause of it. When confronted with the mayhem, Jack probed into their source. They were grown on a section of reclaimed Amazonian rain forest. The dispossessed natives had cursed the land as they were removed from it. No one had taken any notice, until now.
As I pen these words, I am increasingly cold. As I watch my shadow fill the wall opposite me, watch my darkness manifest before me, I know it is finally time to join my friends.
A wicked grin manifests itself on the Keeper's face as he finishes his Tale. “Anyone for an after dinner coffee?” Politely, we all decline.