PLAYING REALITY • by Taylor Shepeard

Tension builds as the line grows, its tail of bodies winding around the wooden bar. Kaleb eyes the people entering, frenzied in their need to start the day with caffeine. Dreary-eyed, he’s tempted to take a long swig of the macchiato in his hand. He’d stayed up too late playing Diablo III, unable to power down the console every time he completed a mission and began a new one. Now, moving through reality like a zombie, he curses himself for getting immersed in a fantasy world of killing demons. Work is the real enemy.

Slapping a lid on the cup, he glances at the name.

“Greg,” he calls before setting it down. A middle-aged man rushes forward — his coat whipping about him — and snatches the beverage before disappearing through the door.

“You’re welcome,” Kaleb mutters, not actually expecting a “thank you” in the morning craze. The next drink is a flat white. After that a fat-free mocha, as if it were any better for you. Yawning, he sets to work: frothing milk, pouring ingredients, slapping on lids, and belting names. The people buzz in and out, ruffling their newspapers and making small talk, tapping their feet and checking watches. Kaleb continues preparing the energized drinks.

Beside him the new girl watches in panic as the line pulses, writhing like an impatient caterpillar ready to escape its suffocating cocoon. The manager, already red-faced, calls to the hyperventilating barista so she can grind coffee beans. As the machine whirs Kaleb inhales, letting the smell of fresh coffee act as a stimulant — kind of like a professional hotbox with caffeine instead of weed. Eventually, the smell fades and he moves to the next tactic of wakefulness.

Every cup he grabs he envisions as a new mission, every ingredient a level within the mission, and the victorious cry of every recipient’s name the completion of a mission. Sometimes he thinks of life in this way — a videogame at his disposal — full of animalistic enemies, fantastical allies, inventive settings, and daring adventures. To his relief, after an hour on the job, the morning crowd is dying down. The door swings open and closed as people file out with ant-like precision, rather than in like frantic rats.

Finishing a chai tea latte, Kaleb flicks his eyes to the name.


Slam cup down. Mission complete. Next drink.

Kaleb turns to fix another beverage, relieved to see only two cups lined up, grabbing the next one and examining the ticket. A gasp sounds behind him. He twists in time to see the latte plummet from the counter and disappear from sight. The young woman who had been grasping for it cringes, grimacing in a mixture of both pain and embarrassment, like a child caught stealing. Annoyed, he sets the cup down and shuffles to the counter, peering over the edge.

The latte is painted across the tile floor with winged splatters fanning out. It holds semblance to an edible, yet hardly sanitary, inkblot. The girl’s legs are covered and he refuses to think how that might add to the Rorschach Test. Pursing his lips, Kaleb calls for the new barista to grab a mop.

“I’m mortified. I can’t believe I did this again. Sorry! I’m so sorry,” the customer exclaims.

The hood of her windbreaker slips over a messy bun as she examines her ruined drink, picking the split cup up from the floor. Kaleb reaches out and takes the empty beverage from her, his tall and lanky body bending over a significant portion of the bar. He looks up as she rambles and grabs handfuls of napkins to wipe herself off. The temptation to roll his eyes is severe, but he consoles her instead, trashing the sticky nuisance in his hand.

“It’s fine. No harm done. I’ll get you a new one going.”

Turning away he starts the chai over, only to peek up at the stammering of the new barista. “Oh, no, it’s — it’s okay. I can do that, ma’am, you don’t need to.” With her hands awkwardly out in front of her, she looks at the latte-stained klutz, now in the process of mopping up her own mess.

“No, no! I made the puddle, I can mop it up. No harm done, right?” She glances up and smirks apologetically at Kaleb before handing the mop back to the barista, who scurries away.

“Sign,” Kaleb hollers to the barista, not wanting someone to slip and sue the café.

He finishes the drink for a second time and puts the lid on. Looking at the cup like he always does, he remembers it doesn’t have a name on it.

“Uh…” He flicks his eyes to the woman, catching a crooked smile.

“No need to call for me, I’m right here.” She blanches. “Not that you’d forgotten or anything.”

Her eyebrows furrow as her mouth snaps shut, swift as a fly swatter. Kaleb nods and sets the cup down. Three more people have joined the never-ending line by now. He fights the urge to groan as he picks up the next order.

“Nice ink.”

He turns his attention once more to the young woman, who gathers her belongings and retrieves the beverage from the counter with care. Nodding towards his inner bicep, where a red and faded wyvern lies coiled, she gives him a broad grin.

Dragon’s Dogma is my shit. Your tattoo reminds me of it.” She takes a sip of her drink. “Good latte, too. Thanks, and sorry about that. Next time I promise not to hold up your line.”

Lifting her cup in a sort of awkward goodbye salute, she turns and leaves, leaning backwards into the door then spinning out. Kaleb stares after her, considering if he had completed that mission or not. A small grin breaks over his lips as he prepares the other beverages. She wasn’t just a mission; she was a recurring character with a storyline of her own. He has never played Dragon’s Dogma. Perhaps he’ll look into it.

Taylor Shepeard is a recent graduate of Avila University and considers herself a coffee connoisseur. Her works have been published by A Story in 100 Words and Five:2:One. When she isn’t reading or writing, she enjoys going on long hikes with her rescue dog.

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