Jazz Hands

Not every story is a winner. While I was putting together Coping Mechanism, I decided the collection needed some more stories to round it out and get it to the length I wanted it to be. Out of the new stories I added, 2 did not make it into the final collection.

Before sending it out to beta readers “Rogue Truck Theory” was cut because it just didn’t fit in as well with the overall themes of the collection. Plus, I wanted to keep “Existential Crisis” as my silly story in the collection and I certainly didn’t need another piece of lighter fare. Thankfully, that gave me something to send out as the 2022 Holiday Gift.

After receiving beta reader feedback, it was clear another story had to be cut – “Jazz Hands”. Although thematically it fit in with the collection, the readers did not enjoy it. It fell flat compared to some of the harder hitting stories in Coping Mechanism, and some readers found it confusing. Through rounds of edits, I tried my best to salvage it but eventually decided the collection was better off without this story.

So here it is in all it’s glory (or lack thereof). I hope you enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at what doesn’t make it into a short story collection.

(CW: Sexual Assault)

“Don’t do it, Paul.”

“I’m gonna do it.”

“I said no, Paul.”

“I’m gonna do it,” he sang as his finger inched closer to the touch screen. His finger hovered there for a moment as he shot Annie an impish look.

“I swear to God, you’d better fucking not.”

“Too late!”

Annie’s hands clenched into fists and the world passed by in slow motion. The background noise of customers, espresso machines, and even the traffic outside became muffled the moment it reached her eardrums. All of her attention was focused on the tip of Paul’s finger as it connected with the screen.

The whine of a trumpet descended from the speakers as the jazz playlist infiltrated the small coffee shop.

“Slow jazz?” asked Kyle as he emerged from the back. “Better change it before Annie loses her shit.”

“Nope,” said Paul, grinning from ear to ear. “The slow jazz stays.”

Kyle looked back and forth between his co-workers. “Dude, you’re a dick.” But he just laughed as he walked out into the café to clean.

Annie glared at Paul, unblinking, shaking her head.

“Oh, come on. Lighten up.”

“I asked you not to,” she said between clenched teeth.

“Yeah, Paul, you know how much she hates the slow jazz playlist,” said Erica before passing off a latte to a customer.

“Whatever. Besides, I bet you secretly like it.”

Annie clenched her jaw and didn’t reply.

“Aw, don’t be like that,” said Paul as he shuffled over to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder.

“Don’t touch me,” she said in a low voice.

“Don’t be such a grump.”

“Do not touch me.”

Paul squeezed her shoulder. “Come on, you love me.”

“Get your hand off of me!”

Paul stumbled back. “Chill. I was just having fun. You don’t have to get so moody. It’s not like it’s a big deal, or anything. It’s just jazz. There’s playlists on here I don’t like either, but I don’t turn into a total psycho.”

Annie said nothing as the hum of a standing bass assaulted her eardrums.

“If you act like that every time that playlist gets picked, obviously people are going to pick it just to get a reaction from you. You’re practically asking for it.”

“He’s not wrong,” added Kyle as he walked by with a handful of dirty mugs.

Erica said nothing. She kept her attention on the espresso in front of her, content to let Paul and Annie work it out between themselves.

They did not.

For the next week, each of Annie’s shifts at the coffee shop was peppered with teasing jokes, whispered comments behind her back. They all knew of her hatred of the slow jazz playlist, and some found Paul’s boyish shenanigans hilarious. But there were others who felt that she had overreacted. Some told her to her face, and some did not. Even the shortest shifts became unbearable. The shifts she shared with Paul were painful.

She held it together as best she could, even though she was screaming inside.

By the time Annie worked a closing shift with Paul, that scream intensified until it shattered something inside her.

“Hey psycho, guess what?”

The first few notes from the piano filled the empty café before Annie even locked the front door. She turned slowly, feeling like she’d swallowed broken glass, and glared at Paul as he leaned over the espresso machine and blew her a kiss.

“Just for you.”

Annie’s jaw was clenched so tightly that a response was impossible. Not that she would have wanted to give him that kind of satisfaction anyway. Still, the look in her eye was enough for Paul.

“All right, all right. I’ll turn it off. But only because I want to go home soon. Oh, calm down. It’s off now. See?”

Annie stomped over to the pastry case and focused her attention on end of the night clean up.

“Okay, look, I’m going to make myself a latte for the road. I’ll make you one too, okay? Will you forgive me then? Huh? Okay, well I’ll make it anyway and then you’ll have to forgive me since I put in the work. I’ll even give you some fancy latte art.”

The hiss of steam from the espresso machine might as well have been coming from Annie’s ears. And as the espresso beans were ground, she was sure her teeth were making the same noise as they ground together in her mouth. As she distracted herself with cleaning, her hand settled on the knife they used to slice bagels. A long, serrated utensil with crumbs still stuck to the edges.

“Finally caved, did you?” Paul said into the lattes when he heard her come up behind him. His attempts at latte art were sinking into the foam faster than he could make them.

“The salted caramel’s for you ‘cause you’re one salty bi–”

With one hand buried in his hair, and the other gripping the handle of the knife, Annie leaned over Paul’s shoulder and whispered in his ear.

“When someone says ‘no’, they fucking mean it.”

And before he could respond, the serrated knife dragged across his throat. Annie held his head in place as the blood showered the counter in front of them and splashed onto the floor. The lattes were doused in the stuff until one of them overflowed. Her only regret was that she could not look in his eyes as the life drained out of him. She knew how to get coffee stains out of her clothes, but blood was another matter entirely.

When the blood was no more than a trickle, and Paul’s body was heavy in her hands, Annie released him and the knife, letting both tumble to the floor. She left them there while she finished the evening clean up.

Paul was still there, crumpled next to the bagel knife, when she emerged from the back with her coat and her bag. Keys in hand, she was just about to head out the door when she turned to look at the lattes.

The sides of the cups were stained with blood and coffee, and the one that had been complete was sitting in a puddle of those same two liquids. The other still had some foam on the top, although the beverage inside now had a reddish tint. Annie picked that one up and took a sip.

Good, it was still warm.

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