A LONG TIME AGO, OVER COFFEE • by Michelle M. Denham

People can never imagine her a girl — as if she sprang full form from Hell, evil embodied in one small woman.

(And she is small. People don’t notice as she kills them. But she’s actually quite tiny. I’m taller than her by a head, and I’m slightly below average.)

So they never believed me when I said I grew up with the Red Queen, because they couldn’t believe she was ever young.

(She wasn’t the Red Queen then. She was Marie. No one believes me when I tell them that either.)

Except one autumnal afternoon, when she came to Sura, the Lantern City. She killed seven men before she saw me at my stall.

“Hello Ada,” she said. Her nails dripped the blood of seven men and her hair was mussed, but she still looked very much like Marie.

“Hello Marie,” I said.

“It’s been awhile.”

“It has,” I agreed.

Then she kicked the head of a man because his corpse was in her way. The head went pretty far.

“Would you like to get some coffee?” she asked.

I told her it was too late in the day for coffee, but I wouldn’t mind some tea.

So we went to a nearby coffee shop. She went to the bathroom to wash her hands and I bought both our drinks.

The café owner knew me — I was a regular. His name was Bill and he usually gave me a discount on my tea when he was at the register.

That day he looked at me like I was a plague-bringer. He took my money like he was too scared not to and I let him keep the change. I figured he deserved the tip.

I sat down and after awhile Marie joined me, looking tired but no longer bloody.

“How are you, Ada?” Marie asked.

She was always pale but now she seemed positively sickly.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Business is slow, but it’s paying the bills so far.”

Marie nodded along — like she knew all about paying bills.

I couldn’t quite bring myself to ask How are you? in return. Two weeks ago she’d attacked Reza, the Feather City. She burned it to the ground. Refugees were still pouring into Sura and we had precious few resources as it was.

“You look tired,” I said instead.

“I am,” she said. “I’m tired all the time. You have no idea how exhausted I’ve been. I envy you your simple life. I have so many things that plague me.”

I stifled a sigh. Same old Marie. “You should take better care of yourself.”

“I know,” Marie said. “It’s hard to find the time.”

“That’s true.”

She sipped her coffee. “Are you still with Quentin? How is he?”

“Still with Quentin. He’s fine.”

“Married yet?”

“Not yet.” The Red Queen went on a priest-killing spree a few years back, so there weren’t many religious men left to perform ceremonies. Quent and I didn’t mind it not being official, though.

“And you? Anyone special in your life?”

“I’m married, actually,” Marie said. “I wanted to invite you to the wedding, but it was a spur of the moment thing.”

“Congratulations,” I said. “And thanks for the thought. I probably couldn’t have made it anyway. Traveling has been impossible.”

“Has it?”

Very few people would risk leaving their cities. Marie’s armies targeted travelers with extreme prejudice.

“Hey, Ada, I was just wondering,” Marie began, as if the thought had just occurred to her. “Do you still talk to Beatrice?”

“I write her letters every now and then,” I said carefully. “Sometimes she writes back.”

“Even after what she did to you?” Marie asked.

I shrugged. “I forgave her a long time ago.”

Marie snorted. She didn’t look at me. Instead, she stared at the space just above my left shoulder. “That was always the absolute worst part of you, Ada. It’s contemptible.”

“Maybe,” I agreed.

***

A long time ago, over coffee, I tried to explain to Marie that forgiveness was a choice, not a weakness. Marie had demanded, “How can you still be her friend?”

“Beatrice is Beatrice,” I replied. “And I don’t want the kind of person she is to determine the kind of person I want to be.”

“That sounds like you,” Marie had said at the time. “Like who you’ve always been.”

To this day I have no idea what she meant by that. I only remember the way she looked, like something broke, and I was the one who broke it; her coffee cup still mostly full. She never drank the rest. She started murdering people shortly after and I never really got the chance to ask.

(I was always surprised she didn’t kill Beatrice. I would have figured Beatrice to be at the very top of Marie’s list of People Who Should Die. But the funny thing about Marie is, as far as I’m aware, she never killed anyone in our hometown. I don’t think this was because she was in any way sentimental.)

***

“You should come by for dinner sometime,” I said, pushing past memory, “Quentin would love to see you.” This was a lie. Quent had very little patience for any of my childhood friends.

“I might,” Marie said.

I was pretty sure this was a lie too.

Marie finished her coffee and stood up. “Hey, Ada. Do you hate me?”

“No, Marie. I don’t.”

She smiled at me. “Same old Ada. Thanks for the coffee.”

I watched her leave. So did everyone else in the café, who must have been too afraid to breathe this entire time.

“How do you know the Red Queen?” Bill asked me.

“We were girls together,” I replied.

Bill gaped at me. “When did she—you know—turn evil?”

I laughed. Like it came on with puberty, or something.

“Over coffee, I think,” I said. “A long time ago, over coffee.”


Michelle M. Denham lives and writes in the desert.


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