Tuesday 11 July 2023

Dead Don't Care by Saskia Mann, a plain black coffee

 ‘I tell you, Emilie, working for a newspaper makes you want to die before you've even finished your first coffee,’ I say and Emilie laughs. Mind you, she doesn't laugh in the literal sense of the word - seeing as she's dead - but in my mind she reveals yellowed teeth and creases form around the corners of her eyes. The dead don't care about wrinkles.

            The wind blows through the trees, the permanent white noise of the cemetery. Leaves litter the ground with chestnut shells rotting in between. I place my coffee next to them. ‘Bio-degradable’, the sleeve on the cup promises, which I find amusing given the location. Dead bodies disintegrating. Organic matter. I'm not sure if the buried people would appreciate the humour, so I keep it to myself.

            I tell Emilie about today's news, an amalgam of violence, murder, and football. Two guys abused their roommate and made him clean up his own blood. ‘Were people this crazy back in your days?’ I ask and eye her gravestone. Emilie Bell. Born 1867, died 1894.

            People have always been cruel, she says.

            ‘I guess so. A baby was found floating in a pond. Dead, obviously.’           

            Was it murder?

            ‘No. It died of natural causes and was only dumped in afterward.’

            Well, thank God for that.

            ‘And the breaking news. A local is missing. She's only 14 years old, can you imagine? They are looking for her, but there's little hope. She probably ran away to meet up with someone she met online.’

            I store the phone in my pocket. My coffee is cold by now. ‘Of course, I could switch departments, but then I'd have to look at celebrity pregnancies and foot cream all day. I think I prefer the dead babies.’

            You lack ambition, Emily says.  You're never going to be a good writer.

            I sense malice in her voice. It hurts. Her words hurt me. She can be mean sometimes, but I know she doesn't mean it. A twist of words. I tell her and she laughs again.

            See, she says. That's why you'll never be a great writer. You like platitudes and puns too much.

The last sip of my coffee tastes grainy. ‘Most important info for last,’ I say and Emilie

leans forward, her brown hair covering one eye. She tucks it behind her ear, eager to

listen. ‘I've got a date tomorrow. His name is Kai and he just asked me out in the middle of the street. I couldn't say no because he seemed sincere about it.’

            I scratch my nail over the plastic lid – not biodegradable - and feel the tiny bumps.

            It's good for you to go out, Emilie says. Being in the real world. You haven't been on a date in a while.

            I nod because she's right.

            And even if it turns out to be a disaster, at least you've got a story to tell me.

            We say goodbye, and I head back to the entrance. The sound of someone panting alerts me. I step aside, watchful. Should I have brought pepper spray? When I turn around, a man jogs past me, a blur of white sneakers and a red tracksuit. Who goes for a run on a cemetery?


I am ten minutes early, hands buried in the pockets of my coat, so I look like I'm waiting and not lingering. It's a mild day and I enjoy the last rays of sunshine for the year. When Kai arrives, I wonder if I should meet him halfway or keep waiting while we both smile at each other, still too far away to say anything, but too close to pretend we haven't seen each other.

            ‘Have you been waiting long?’ he asks and I shake my head. He leans in for a hug and I make out a subtle scent of tangerine and pepper. I'm glad it's not one of those clinical-smelling aftershaves. This close, I notice the dark circles under his eyes. It gives him a romantic appearance as if he hasn't slept in weeks. I imagine him to be a poet, agonizing over the cadence of words like patchouli, serendipity, and petrichor, but my perception of artistry fades when he talks about his sense of work duty. He didn't stay up all night to find the right words, he was up thinking about imports and exports from China. ‘It's the future,’ he says.

            Before heading to the park, he buys us something to drink. We look for a place to sit and I'm disappointed when I see the empty metal bench, all rusty around the edges. Not the kind of wooden bench you would see in movies. Unaware, Kai sits down in the middle, giving me the option to sit on either side. Left or right, does it matter all that much? I decide that yes, it does matter since the left side of my face looks better. The metal is hard against my thighs.

Kai jumps up to swat away a bee and I watch him as he shields his Coke with one hand, the other waving furiously in the air. He looks panicked and people start watching us. I'm embarrassed for no good reason.

            ‘I didn't know there were any bees around in autumn,’ he says once he has won the battle. His elbow bumps against my shoulder. ‘Hey,’ he says and turns around. ‘I've read about this method, where people look into each other's eyes for four minutes and answer questions. What do you think about that?’

            ‘About what?’

            ‘The method. I don't know the exact question though, just something like ' What's your biggest fear?'’

            ‘Oh. I don't know.’

            ‘You don't know what?’

            I don't know, I think and almost say it out loud, but I have a feeling that he won't find it funny. I make a mental note to tell Emily later, how we already misunderstand each other.

            ‘It helps to establish a connection,’ he insists. The contours of my body solidify, and I feel my shoulders tense. I change the subject and ask him what TV shows he likes to watch.

            ‘I don't have time for that,’ he says and swirls the Coke in his can. He leans in closer as if to share a secret. ‘And I think it's quite a waste of time, to be honest.’

            My nose is wet. I wipe it with the sleeve of my coat. When he sees me shiver, he says ‘We can go to my apartment, you know.’ He inches closer and I hear the soda fizz. I clear my throat.

‘I'd rather not,’ I answer.

‘Why not?’ he teases. ‘What do you think is going to happen?’ He says it so nonchalantly, a good-natured quip, no need to be defensive about it. What do I think is going to happen? I see us on his couch with my shirt off and my hands on his bony chest. It's a still image, not a video, so I can't press play.

            ‘I don't know. Nothing.’

            He laughs as if we share an inside joke, one that only he understands, but his expression darkens. He had seemed so shy the day before. Maybe he doesn't mean to tease me at all, maybe he is simply flirting.

            Kai clears his throat, but before he can say anything, his phone rings. ‘Wait a second, sorry,’ he says and answers it. I look at my phone and find a push message from the newspaper. "Missing teen found dead: Police ask for witness statements". I click on the article, but there is not much information yet. The only words that stick out are ‘dead body’ and ‘lake’, the mix of them conjuring up an image of a woman, stiff as a marble statue with her hair floating on the surface of the water. I think about the baby in the pond – what is better, being dead in a lake or pond? - but then Kai slumps down next to me and my phone screen goes black.

            ‘They found the missing girl,’ I inform him. He rubs his hands against his knees. ‘That's a shame,’ he says, but I don't know if he has heard me. He takes the last sip of his Coke and crushes the can with one hand. My voice comes out like the trickling of a pond. ‘Yeah, it's a shame.’

            Suddenly, I can't bear to sit on the bench anymore. I straighten my legs and tighten the coat around me. ‘Let's take a walk,’ I say and hope that the movement will smooth out the stiffness in my limbs. Motion creates emotion, isn't that a saying?

            He follows me out of the park and towards a street bustling with noise and traffic. Cafés and restaurants are crowded with people. I ignore them and head for the crossroad, unsure of my destination. Before my mind can start spinning, the subtle touch of Kai's hand on my hip breaks the spell. He guides me around a corner littered with empty food containers.

            ‘Trade, it's the oldest of all jobs, isn't it? My brother's on board with the whole idea, he knows a thing or two about the business,’ Kai shouts against the cars. Fragments of his sentence – goods, shipping, handling – float around in my head, but nothing sticks. Instead, I'm amazed at how fast my prediction of motion-creating-emotion is proving to be true. I am feeling a lot of things right now.

            ‘My mom wants me to go back to university, but what for? She doesn't know anything. It's not like she has achieved much in her life,’ he continues with a bitterness in his voice I don't want to question.

            My heart is beating fast. When Kai steers me around another corner, the street looks unfamiliar. Then I spot a wall, old red bricks that stretch as far as I can see. The cemetery. I point towards the entrance. ‘We could take a walk,’ I say. ‘It's lovely in autumn.’

            Kai squints. ‘What's there?’

            ‘The cemetery.’

            A smile creeps across his face ‘The cemetery? Aren't you afraid?’

            ‘Of what?’

            ‘I don't know,’ he says, a mock version of me earlier. He laughs to indicate that it's a joke and I smile. My jaw hurts from the effort.

            ‘Come on,’ he says and steps behind me, his shoulder nudging me to move forward.

            It's not a threatening gesture.

            I'm glad there are three layers of fabric between us.

            An alleyway opens in front of us, narrow and deserted. I blink against the uprising feeling that the world is fake. Only one street at a time exists, the street on which I am at any given moment.

            ‘Where are we going?’

            ‘To my flat. It's cold and I need a jacket.’

Some remnants of life surge through me. There are cafés we could go to. An Italian restaurant. So many places that are warm and cosy and don't require a jacket. My mind is churning, everything is entangled and mixed up. All I can think of is that his apartment is non-existent, a black void. What kind of sofa does he own? Are his houseplants full of life or dried up and dead?

            ‘I'm going home,’ I whisper. Before he can answer, I slip out of sight. He yells something after me that sounds like an insult, but his voice is only water in my ears. I make my way back to the brick wall. When I reach Emilie, I sit down with my legs crossed. I want to tell her about Kai. Now that I'm alone, I feel foolish, maybe even cruel. There is no explanation for it other than I'm losing my mind.

            But I don't have to tell her anything. She knows. ‘I think I'm going to lie down for a while,’ I say. I place my hands under my head like a makeshift pillow and watch Emilie as she yawns and smiles sleepily. Something tugs on my legs, ivy tangling itself around my thighs. I close my eyes as the world dissolves into darkness. Maybe motion only creates motion sickness. I feel Emilie's breath on my face.

            ‘Just a while longer,’ I mumble.

            Yes, she says. Just a while longer.

About the author

 Saskia Mann is an aspiring writer from Germany. When not writing short stories, she works on the manuscript for her first novel. 
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