Short fiction

Rushing

I chose to write this because of my dependence on coffee. I’m addicted and I’m okay with it – it’s not illegal right? Well in this story I chose to make it so, and look at the chaos it would create. Coffee and all caffeine-related products are prohibited, prompting the formation of an underground ‘brown market’ for the new, purified and concentrated drug of the future: trimeth. I wanted to look at how making a substance illegal can just fuel how much the public wants it, and also the fact that dependence is inescapable – if people want something to be addicted to, they’ll find it.

*

Rushing

Amelia forced a smile through her chapped lips, attempting a façade of sobriety. James mimicked her chirpy demeanour; he hoped his false grin conveyed nonchalance rather than mania. Leaning against the doorframe, he was conscious of the hastily applied concealer under their eyes, silently praying the officer assumed their rake-thin frames were just genetic, jaundiced pallor merely a trick of the light.

“Unit 37D?” said the officer. “James and Amelia Hennessey?”

“Yes,” James managed. His eye twitched.

“I am here to conduct a random drug testing on both occupants of this residence, by authorisation of the State,” the officer recited with a slight quiver.

James scrutinised his uniform – navy double-breasted jacket, boat hat, precisely polished shoes. The State had clearly thought it fitting to clothe employees a la Prohibition; all official attire was 1920s inspired – probably some kind of elaborate inside joke. Regardless, it looked incongruous on this boy. Baby-faced, with spectacles held aloft by pudgy cheeks, he barely looked old enough to hold a driver’s license, let alone a MindDiffuser.

The officer’s cheeks began to flush – James realised he had been staring.

“Those are some…shiny…buttons…” he said distractedly, motioning towards the gleaming discs on the boy’s chest. He had become accustomed to the short attention span caused by the trimeth.

Amelia glanced at him sideways; he heard her voice in his head, harsh with admonishment: “Shiny buttons? Shiny buttons, James! I thought we agreed on ‘act normal’?” He mentally smacked his head against the door frame.

Thankfully, the officer seemed to ignore the comment.

“Sir, if you would grant me entrance to your residence to begin the testing, you can promptly continue with your day.”

His heart pounded fast against his ribs. Too fast. He must have overdone it this morning.

Shit, James thought, we can’t stall much longer. He’ll get suss.

And although the officer seemed timid, the bulbous purple point of his MindDiffuser did not look so friendly.

Obviously, they would both test positive. James couldn’t – wouldn’t – let them drag Amelia into a Facility; dealers and manufacturers received much worse punishment than average Rushers. He felt nauseous, bladder screaming in complaint.

He shakily took her hand. He could feel the drug rushing through him; combined with nerves, his fingertips, toes, even eyes seemed to vibrate.

Exchanging a sideways glance, hands still sweatily fused, they kicked the officer in the chest in beautiful synchronisation. He almost collided with them, ricocheting off the wall like a child’s rubber ball, as they sped towards the exit. Their atrophied legs moved with surprising agility.

~

Three months previously, James had sauntered into the kitchen on strong, muscular legs, wearing only regulation Y-fronts. He felt good. Actually, great. It was odd to not be hungover on a Sunday.

“Want some toast?” Amelia asked, back towards him. He surveyed her subtle curves for a moment before answering.

“Yeah, two pieces?”

“Wholemeal, or soy and quinoa?”

“Um, the soy.”

Their breadmaker sat lonely on the counter. He missed the smell of a freshly baked white loaf, but grains and flour had become unavailable everywhere.

“Sugar-free jam or fat-free butter?”

“Ugh, they’re just as bad as each other. The jam, I guess.”

The State’s new ‘clean living’ plan might be good for the waistline, but James missed grease and stodge, his tastebuds longing for the comfort of bacon and overcooked eggs.

“What happened to all the apples?” he asked, glumly surveying the empty fruit bowl.

“You ate the last two yesterday, remember? Our next fruit and veg ration won’t come till Tuesday.”

Dammit.

“Does Vaughn really think we can be bothered trying to make cider? Surely no one’s that desperate.”

First the grains and wheat, then grapes, corn, potatoes.  Now restricting apples per person – this was getting ridiculous.

At least he could pair his miserable breakfast with an espresso. A sales consultant (top sales consultant, he smiled) for a coffee machine company, James’ premium model was his baby, its product his lifeblood. His senses swelled, the bitter, rich aroma permeating his nostrils as liquid dripped silently into the cup.

He sipped as he pulled back the grey curtains, peaking outside. A group of joggers trudged past. Poor souls, he thought, silently thanking God his allocated exercise sessions did not include Sunday. Forget God, he corrected himself. I suppose I should be thanking Felicia Vaughn.

~

Sitting down to flaxseed meal porridge and herbal tea a month later, James didn’t harbour such pleasant feelings towards the State Leader.

Slumping, he glowered at the morning paper. She stared right back, smug in her power suit, skirt straining over her thighs. Doesn’t look like she’s been cutting back on the sugar, he thought. Vaughn posed next to a bin, helping a freckle-nosed child deposit a metal coffee tin.

Her legislation had already prohibited all number of life’s indulgences; alcohol, coke, speed, weed. Cigarettes, he remembered with a pang. Processed sugar, red food colouring, saturated fat – all gone. But he had seen the logic – they were illegal, or less-than-good for you. He had even embraced this hippy bullshit diet, trying super berries, unpronounceable grains and unpasteurised almond milk.

But this was going too far. Taking away his espresso was simply not right.

He and Amelia had watched it unfold from their generic flatpack couch, as in the wake of the prohibition legislation, citizens turned to the one remaining substance offering any pleasure. Coffee hysteria grew, with all stores selling out, café lines extending around blocks, and the desperate even diving over counters, drinking straight from machines. As the days progressed, they pressed closer together, each night bringing new horror stories of plunger-bashing, milk-frother burns, spoon stabbings; maddened addicts scrambling to fill the void.

James understood the emptiness. It had been two weeks since caffeine had entered his bloodstream. Two weeks since the State officers had almost broken down their door, demanding to survey the contents of the pantry. And two weeks of feeling like utter shit. He and Amelia had watched as the pile of contraband items grew on the linoleum. Coffee, tea, chocolate: anything with traces of caffeine was confiscated. ‘Eliminating the poison’ read the headlines. But what they were really eliminating was the pleasure.

His phone lit up – ‘Joel’. His best friend was a pharmacist – or used to be. Now he couldn’t even manufacture herbal tea without the State’s permission.

“My man!” James felt a twinge of annoyance – why the hell was he so cheery? “I’ve got a business proposition for you.”

~

James gingerly eased himself onto the chair. He had lost so much weight, even cushions were uncomfortable. He devoured a cinnamon muffin, but his metabolism sped through anything he fed it. Amelia, a former chef, could only stomach her trimeth baked into sweet treats – lucky for him.

He rose and began to pace, unable to be stationary. Despite another sleepless night, he was wide awake, pulsing with energy. But he felt as though he were carrying liquid mercury underneath his eyes.

Like so many manufacturers, Amelia and James had performed a few too many ‘quality control checks’ of their wares. Within a few days, they were captivated, Rushing at every chance. They knew their addictions had progressed too far; they recoiled from each other’s touch, skin hyper-sensitive, kidneys ached from inflammation, hearts continually raced. But James was somewhat comforted that the seizures, delirium or uncontrollable violence were yet to set in. And at least our hearts haven’t given out quite yet, he thought, measuring crystals into a ziplock bag. Just 10 grams could do that.

Peeling back the kitchen curtains, James could see neo-addicts much worse. On the park bench, a businessman swayed back and forth. He snorts it, James predicted. An emaciated woman muttered at his side, paranoid eyes on the lookout for patrolling officers. A calcoholic, he wondered. No. Probably an injector, like himself.

As a coffee connoisseur, James tolerated nothing less than the best, the strongest. This affection translated to his addiction – now he shot it straight and fast. But trimeth, he told Amelia, trimeth was warmer and sweeter than any Columbian brew or Java blend.

Those months before, it had seemed like an outrageously brilliant idea. All the drug dealers and producers had to funnel their entrepreneurial talents somewhere, and suddenly, a new market had popped up.

“They call it ‘trimeth’,” Joel had enthused. “You can extract trimethylxanthene, pure caffeine, from plants and beans, then purify it down. There’s a market for everyone – they’re  distilling ‘calcohol’, growing it in greenhouses for potheads, cooking it to powder that you can snort.”

“And I think I can do it too. I’ve got all the equipment.” He paused, and James could almost hear the cheeky twinkle in his eye. “I just need a big enough kitchen.”

Partly out of boredom (his company having gone into not-so-voluntary receivership), partly with a surge of rebellion, James agreed.

The next day, and every day after, Joel waltzed into their kitchen at 9.30 sharp. The forlorn breadmaker made way for a maze of gleaming paraphernalia. Joel showed James and Amelia how to purify the leaves, extract the chemical, and finally cook it down to sparkling crystal, all the while watching his pupils’ progress with a proud grin.

A month in, the clock hit 10.30, and Joel still wasn’t there. They began to worry – the State had well publicised that anyone found to be involved in the trimeth trade would be receive a mandatory Facility stay. If people were lucky enough to return, they were shells, their fire and rebellion replaced by State-love and sparkle. James had even heard rumours that in some outer suburbs, the punishment for manufacturers was a final taste of their own medicine. Strapped down in public spaces, a lethal dose was injected – straight into the eye – for all to witness.

James was distracted from his reminiscing by a loud rap on the door. He glanced at the clock: 9.30. Weird. He moved to the door quickly, but then hesitated, paranoid of a random State C-testing.

But as he opened the door, a familiar grin greeting him.

“Joel. Shit! It’s been three fucking weeks, didn’t you think to call?” He embraced his friend, but withdrew quickly, conscious of his ribs.

Joel looked fine – in fact, he was practically glowing.

“They took me to a Facility.”

Although his beard had been let grow, his dreadlocks were now shaped into neat cherubic curls; his skin was clear, cheeks ruddy. A model citizen.

“But…but…how did you get out?”

“I didn’t ‘get out’, James. They let me out. They’re fast tracking me into the State officer program. The police commissioner – he’s right under Vaughn – said I had real promise!”

Every inch of his skin itched. James needed some to calm him down.

“James, man, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. First, they put you on this diet – you know, macrobiotic dairy, high protein – then they put me to work in the sustainable grain fields. So cleansing, man…”

James forced himself to swallow, re-focus.

“But if you’re an officer,” James blurted, “…that means…what are Amelia and I going to do?”

“I don’t want to have to report you man, I really don’t,” Joel laced his fingers together. “I came here to ask you to turn yourselves in. Please. Look at you – I know Amelia must be the same. Do it for her sake.”

He tried to breathe.

“You’re sick, man. I bet you’re Rushing right now.” Joel extended one hand. “Come with me, we can do it together. Please, James, man…can I come in?”

“No you fucking can’t!”

James slammed the door in his best friend’s face, storming over to the kitchen table.

He picked up the needle and shoved it roughly into his vein, not even bothering with a tourniquet.

~

Amelia and James ducked around the corner, crashed down the stairs, adrenaline deliciously mingling with caffeine in their bloodstreams.

When they reached the exit door, James realised they were not even being pursued. But with no other option, they pushed it open. A wall of officers faced them, purple tips of MindDiffusers catching the afternoon rays. It had been organised; the baby-faced officer had wanted them to run.

Had Joel alerted the State, James wondered, out of bitterness, anger, or worse – pity? Not that it mattered now; they would be taken to a Facility regardless.

His loose singlet clung to the sweat on his back, savoury and acrid. Amelia’s chest rose and fell in short bursts at his side. Still drunk, she looked on the verge of losing her liquid breakfast. Again, his attention was drawn to the buttons of each officer; he could make out the State insignia. Was it the trimeth that brought this clarity, or the fear?

Amelia’s hand shook within his. Overdue to Rush, he knew the tremors would soon envelop him too. He squeezed her fingers, glancing sideways for the second time that morning; a miserable déjà vu. She shook her head, seeing straight through his bravado.

But they could not stand there forever, stalemated. The inertia was painful.  He had to – his conscience could not bear the alternative.

Amelia let out a cry as he flung himself towards the officers, half surrender and half heartbreak.

“Run!” James yelled, conscious of the situations ridiculous movie melodrama.

He flailed and punched and spat at as many as he could, distracting them as well as himself. He liked to think, if this really were a bad action film, that she looked back as she fled. Saw them beating him, a pathetic mess on the pavement. A solitary tear would roll down her cheek. And then she would run.

~

The Facilitators banged his gurney through innumerable sets of swinging doors, finally arriving at a corridor of rooms. Although straps held him tight, he could move his head a little.

Two sides of each box were glass, with solid partitioning walls, white as trimeth itself, to prevent occupants seeing each other’s miserable states.  The patients were in various stages of breakdown. Some sat in the centre of the carpet, dazed yet peaceful; others paced, like stir-crazy felines in zoos; the worst propelled themselves at the glass. Clinicians looked on, checking vitals and clipboards. Occasionally laughing.

Tired of jerking his neck, finally defeated by his situation, James rested his head on the right side of the pillow. One more set of doors to go.

The last room had only a small window facing the corridor. It was not suffocatingly white like the others, but decorated with fawn and gold wallpaper and varnished cherrywood chairs. With a jolt of recognition, he saw that Felicia Vaughn sat inside, flicking through a magazine and munching on a pastry. Looking down into a ceramic mug, she exhaled an exasperated sigh.

“My god,” he heard her say, “What does someone have to do around here to get a fucking cappuccino?”

As he was wheeled through the final doors, James began to laugh.

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