So, I came back, ten days later. I conquered writer’s block and I’m proud of it.
“A serial killer is on the loose.”
There was a great change of atmosphere as shopping carts halted and murmurs replaced laughter. Faces turned towards the large screen mounted on the wall as the reporter continued his speech.
“The man, yet unidentified, is reported to have targeted cafés across the city. While experts cannot be entirely sure, their general opinion remains that all three deaths have been caused by poisoning. Authorities urge citizens to…”
Hassan tore his eyes off the screen. He couldn’t risk much on his first day of work. Eventually, others did the same, and the reporter moved on to discussing the rise of carrot prices. Hassan snorted. Serial killers. Carrots. Like they were cards on a table.
Near him, a family of four resumed their fight over which jam they should be buying for the weekends. Hassan unconsciously reached for the hem of his uniform, which was blue and had yellow smiley faces plastered all over it. It was painful to look at, more so to have it on. He tugged at it desperately. Apparently, getting to wear the right size was not the kind of privilege an average employee got to have.
A woman burst through the glass doors just as things were about to go back to normal. She looked lost for a second, but marched straight towards Hassan. By the time she reached him, she had her hands on her knees, panting like she had been running. Her stiff blue jeans weren’t exactly the best fit for that.
“Hi,” she said.
Hassan smiled back. “Hi. How may I help you?”
“Do I have to… uh, buy anything to ask directions to the nearest café?”
A café? “Did you see the news?”
Her eyes narrowed. The question obviously disturbed her. “Yes,” she said.
“Okay, well, there’s only one café in this town, and that’s five blocks from here.”
Hassan gestured towards the vague direction of the café. Without thanking him, the woman spun around and walked towards the doors.
“You’re welcome,” Hassan shouted at her.
She disappeared behind a display, a figure to be exact, the shape of a girl with cheap-looking sunglasses and an even cheaper black-and-white polka dot dress. Hassan had memorized its looks by now, having passed by the figure more times than he could count. Since he was born, he had never left the town for more than a week. It only made sense that his first job was in the middle of it, a store that had managed to stay in place for a solid decade.
Hassan shook his head. He needed to know what the woman wanted to do with the café. His brain screamed serial killer, and Hassan agreed with it for once. Without excusing himself, and without taking off his uniform, he too rushed towards the doors.
Did she already reach the café? Shit, he thought, then he heard a frantic voice around the corner. It was the woman. She had made a stop to call someone. He sneaked up to her as closely as he could, enough so that he could see her raised left arm and beige heels. He could just make out the man on the other end of the line.
“Please.” The woman was on the verge of breaking down. “You don’t have to do this. There are other ways—“
“The hell I don’t. You don’t understand.”
“I do, Luke.” She sniffled. “Look, all I’m saying is that you don’t have to be so extreme.”
“Extreme?” The man’s voice was dangerously low. The woman felt it, too. Her heels shuffled against the pavement. “Extreme is Marie rejecting me. Extreme is you about to do the same.”
“Nobody made you do this,” she whispered. “Not Marie. Not me.”
“Things aren’t going to change, Sarah. Either you accept, or another death becomes your fault tonight.”
“You proposed to Marie in that café.” It was not a question.
“I like to keep my memories alive. I also like to make room for revenge.”
No response. Sarah groaned. Hassan prayed that she not notice him as she emerged from the alleyway and dragged her feet towards the café. Someone was pulling her strings, but who it was, herself or Luke or somebody else, Hassan couldn’t quite be sure.
Hassan quickened his pace to keep up. When they reached the café, Hassan slipped through the doors right behind Sarah to be greeted by plenty of empty chairs, but also plenty of people lacking self-consciousness. They probably thought a serial killer wouldn’t bother visiting such a small town. They probably also didn’t realize that the very serial killer sat in the middle of the crowd, all by himself around a table meant for three. A small navy box sat in his hand. Was it diamond? Gold? Sarah seemed determined not to look behind her as she walked towards the counter. Trying not to get noticed, Hassan did the same. She ordered a green tea lemonade, and in no time it was Hassan’s turn.
He looked up at the employee, whose name tag treacherously held on to her green uniform. Rachel. “I would also like a green tea lemonade,” he blurted out.
The receipt took its time, and Rachel had no patience for it. She yanked it off the machine and handed it to Hassan, who crumpled it in his hand. He aimed for the bin, and would have loved if it went straight in, but it decided to bounce off the can instead. Rachel stared at him.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
Hassan looked around. To his relief, or rather dismay, Sarah was now sitting with Luke, both deep into a conversation that would seem unpleasant to most. Luke slid the unopened box across the small table. Sarah merely stared at it, her mouth firmly closed.
“Number 86, your green tea lemonade is ready.”
Hassan went ahead and grabbed it without thinking, soon realizing that it must have been for Sarah. Oh, well. Sarah was busy sorting things out with her unhinged boyfriend, anyway. He shoved the supposedly environmentally-friendly paper straw into the ironically plastic cup and started slurping up the lemonade. It was good. No poison, too. Maybe Sarah had finally said yes.
Rachel slammed another lemonade onto the counter, looking extremely bored as she called for order number 87. Hassan’s. After a few awkward minutes, Sarah turned around from her seat, and upon discovering the lemonade, rose from her seat to get it. Hassan didn’t bother to stop her. But maybe he should’ve, because after taking a sip or two, Sarah started to cough.
Luke looked up, his expression of confusion immediately replaced by horror.
”No!” he screamed, but it was too late. Sarah choked once more, and fell to her knees. Thump. Everyone immediately surrounded her. A bearded man in a green shirt called 911, others checked Sarah’s pulse, some ran out the door in panic, throwing their drinks left and right, yelling “serial killer!” and out of the corner of his eye, Hassan saw Luke pinning Rachel against the wall.
“What did I tell you?”
Sarah lay on her back, her eyes closed and arms splayed across the floor. Two young women, who seemed to be friends or either sisters, started to cry, and the bearded man in green shook his head. Shocked gasps soon followed, to which Luke let go of Rachel, who doubled over and grabbed her neck. Nobody paid attention to her. He forced his way through the small crowd, who collectively backed away from him like he was poison itself. He dropped to one knee. Not a single tear visible, eyes focused on the corpse of his second girlfriend, he calmly pulled out the box and opened it. It was diamond. A plain one for sure, but Luke clearly spent a considerable amount on it.
He smiled. A pure, almost adolescent smile. When he did, he was a different Luke, a Luke that would never hurt a soul. A Luke before he was damaged and shattered into a hundred pieces. His voice was steadier than ever as he said the standard words.
“Sarah, will you marry me?”