Welcome to the New Normal

Monday Morning Grind

A talk with Miriam; Paper kittens start to move...

A Denny McCloud Story

Monday, 05 Apr 2027
McCloud Residence
Alamy Falls
0700 hrs

Denny woke before her alarm could blare and she slapped the button to off. Something rustled next to her ear and turning around she found two beady green eyes staring right back at her.

No, really. Beady eyes. Miyuki Triangle beads, to be exact. 11-aught, olivine gold lined if you wanna get detailed about it. She’d glued them onto the grey origami cat she’d made the night before and it was now on her other pillow looking back at her with that serene enigmatic expression she’d drawn on it with her .001 Sakura Pigma pen.

Oh no …

Adrenaline spiked through her gut and shoved her heart up her throat. Denny snatched the animal—careful, don’t hurt the poor kitty!—and looked under her bed where her stash was to check it. Closed up tight.

What the hell?

Three years ago her mother had swept her room clean of everything she’d made and taken it out back and burned it. Too much art, not enough study she said as Denny had stared, stricken, at the blackened ashes in the family barbeque grill. So one weekend while her parents were out, Denny had borrowed her father’s power tools and using one of her books on home repairs, cut through the bead board paneling and the drywall and made herself a secret stash. Everything she made after that went in there. It was sized to fit, or it just didn’t get made. Denny had matched the cuts with the seams of the beaded paneling and the faceplate of the electric outlet kept the panel in place. Taking it off would allow her to remove the panel and get to her stash. Since it was at floor level under her bed, Denny was pretty sure her mother hadn’t found it yet.

She straightened up, looked out her window, and then at the clock. 0705hrs. Not too late. Thank God for military time. For a while there, 7AM and 7PM looked the same. Earlier in the year, Denny had suffered a few virtual heart attacks thinking she’d slept the day right through to evening based on the level of light outside. Missing a test, much less a day of school, wasn’t something her mother would let slide. She spent ten precious minutes dressing, making her bed, and putting everything to rights but paused over Grey Kitty. Crawling under her bed with her screwdriver would be risky. She’d caught the sounds of her mother moving around getting breakfast on the table. Any minute now she’d be poking her head into Denny’s room to announce it was time to get up and eat. The last thing she wanted was to be caught red-handed at her stash. She had three years worth of small treasures in it and damned if she’d have her mom burn those too. Denny slipped Grey Kitty into her shirt pocket and patted it, checking in her dresser mirror to see it didn’t show. Her mom had eyes like a hawk.

She packed her messenger bag with her beloved gear, grabbed one of her caps off the hook on her door, and clattered down the stairs to telegraph to her mother she was coming.

“Hi Mom! Bye Mom!” Denny zipped right past the table and snagged an apple from the counter on her way out the back door. “Meeting my study group. Got an exam coming. See ya!”

The screen door didn’t quite slam on the way out. She grinned as she heard her mother squawk in protest but she was already on her bike and off the driveway. She sketched a wave over her shoulder and took the quickest route to the coffee shop. On the way to UCAF, she habitually spent the morning there before going on to her 11AM calc class. Never enamored of mathematics—save one glorious year when she’d aced Geometry with her eyes closed—Denny refused to sit down for calc insufficiently caffeinated. It being the day before she actually had an exam, study group made a good enough cover story. In reality, Denny just couldn’t bear the thought of staying in the house under her mother’s scrutiny for another goddamned minute. Not if what she suspected was true.

Which kinda sucks, really. Cuz, dude. Your mom is supposed to be above that sort of thing, you know?

Denny ground to a halt outside the Cosy Coffee and locked her bike up and breezed on in. She made straight back to the rear corner table that she liked, the one that let her keep an eye on the floor. No telling when one of her mom’s friends or friends of friends might walk in and see her there and report back to her. Especially today when she was so totally not at study group like she said.

Miriam Linville watched Denny McCloud bolt into her typical table and smiled a slow, easy smile. Denny was usually one of the first regular customers in the place. The faculty that were the primary frequenters of the establishment did not do a lot of early rising. And there was no competing against the Starbucks when it came to quick headed-to-work coffee.

She started to make Denny her first coffee the way she liked it (plain and black) but as she was reaching down to get a cup, a bit of a questioning look crossed her face and she paused and tilted her head a little to the left and looked at Denny. The pause only lasted a single beat before Miriam shook her head loosely and went back about the business of making coffee. When she had Denny’s cup nearly filled to the brim (but not all the way, that might cause problems), Miriam gracefully came out from behind the counter and put the cup down in front of the girl, who wasn’t paying Miriam any mind at all. Focused on her work. As she ought to be.

“Denny, here’s your coffee. I’ll start your weekly tab running.” As she said it, Miriam casually, without asking, sat down next to the young girl. “And how goes the artistic endeavor?”

“Ooohhhhh, thank you, Miriam,” Denny crooned in appreciation before gingergly sipping her coffee. Perfect. She took another sip and leaned back. Damn if she couldn’t already feel the caffeine kicking in. A third sip and she put the coffee aside to cool. Three piping hots were her limit. "Bitter as betrayal and black as sin. You know exactly how I like it. As for the rest … " She minimized her drawing and opened up another image. It was a thumbnail sheet of digital collages culled from various sources and embellished by work of her own. “Have you thought of having a line of cards done? All Occasion. Blank. Birthday. That sort of thing? I ran a few ideas up over the weekend.” Denny turned her tablet around so Miriam could see the pictures properly and shoved her hands deep into her pockets, suddenly shy. “It’s the least I could do, considering you let me camp out here and run up a tab every week. I know where I could get you a really good deal on the printing and they’d include envelopes and we could hand sign them on the flap to make them extra special and… well, um … yeah.”

Shut up. Let her look. The art will sell itself if you just stay quiet.

Miriam focused in on the pictures, her finger quickly out and hovering over the screen without quite touching it. She pointed to two, one in the top row and one in the fourth row. "I like these, Denny, " she commented in a business like tone, “and if you write me up a business plan, I’d be willing to put them up for sale.” She looked back over to her counter, clearly thinking about where she might place a line of cards. “You would also, of course, have to detail how what your cut would be.”

She turned back around, looking over Denny’s face, as if looking for something specific. “But you know very well that those weren’t what I was interested in seeing.”

Denny’s fingers went still on her stylus and realizing she’d just given herself away by it, she weighed the consequences of showing Miriam the journal page she’d been working on when the woman sat down. She’s on to you. You show her something different, she’ll know you’re lying. And lying wasn’t something she wanted to do to Miriam. The woman had been consistently kind to her since the day Denny had walked in on a lark at the start of the school year. By the end of the week Denny had become a regular customer and as time passed, she realized it wasn’t for the coffee (which was awesome, cuz Miriam never burned the coffee when she roasted it) or the food (bliss!), but for the woman who ran the shop. Miriam wasn’t the fakey-fakey friendly that Denny could spot a mile off and she didn’t try to upsell her or give her pointed looks during the rush to make her get up and leave so she could use the table for other customers. Miriam simply and quietly befriended her in little ways: always saying hello whenever Denny walked in, offering her extra cream and sugar on subsequent cups of coffee, reminding her of the hour when Denny fell into her work and forgot to watch the clock, trading the low-down on books and movies, letting her go out the door with a day-old from the case that was good enough to eat but wasn’t selling as brisk as Miriam liked, even a couple of times giving her a silent warning about some customers coming in that she might not want to get involved in, running her coffee tab … Nothing too overt, definitely not flashy. Just … comfortable, undemanding. Something she wished she could get more of at home. And yet, Denny didn’t feel right telling Miriam what had happened just that morning. It was too weird. Even so …

So show her the others, just not the one.

Denny slid the tablet back to her side of the table and opened up a template doc she’d saved a week earlier. She full-screened it and explained, “It’s a digital journal. Like a diary, you know? Only the kind where I can draw, write, paint, scrapbook—the whole nine yards. Hell, maybe embed a video or two. It’s digital. Should be able to do it. Just not sure if I wanna. And I know I said diary but it’s not gonna have any of that schmoopy crap. If you wanna bodice-ripper, you can get that online, thanks. No need for me to make more. And I was trying to decide how … you know, personal to make it. Trying to find that schmoop boundary and like, not cross it.”

Denny tapped another file to life on the screen and a page she’d done on Friday came up. It was a deeply layered and textured wallpaper, with clock faces, cogwheels, damask tapestry, floral swashes, and a sheer rectangle slightly off-centered, obviously meant for inserting text.

“Right now I can’t decide which theme to go with. This one’s kinda steampunky but I also like a more formal, atelier theme too.” And up came another one, this time a collage of Italian Renaissance sculptures, frescos, and a blank canvas on an easel providing the space for the text. “Maybe I can make different themes as the mood strikes me, you know? That way I won’t get bored with it. I’m working up to one a day. Right now, though, I’m getting maybe two or three done a week. Still …,” Denny shrugged, tapping a few more blank pages up to show Miriam her range. “I’m sorry if I seemed cagey,” she added with genuine contrition. “I wasn’t quite ready to show them to anyone yet. They’re still kinda raw around the edges. Like that one. It’s a new project yet. I’m not sure it has legs. I can see myself spending all my time trawling the free image sites online and never sleeping again.”

And maybe that’s what I need to do. Pull an all-nighter and see who’s messing with my stash. Or … wait. If I’m awake, they won’t go near it. Fake’em out, maybe?

“Everyone has their secrets, of course,” Miriam said, rubbing Denny’s shoulder in a comforting motion as she looked over Denny’s wallpapers. “But don’t let them keep you up at night. You’re in college. Your sleep is important.”

The soft chime at the door rang and an older man in a lightweight cardigan and crisp tan pants walked in. Miriam leaned over to Denny and said, “My extra help is only in on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I have to take this.” Then she stood up and walked over to the man, who she greeted with a familiar greeting as she led him over to the counter.

With all the stuff that’s been happening to me lately, how the hell can I sleep? Denny thought but managed not to say. Instead, she ducked with a self-deprecating grimace and said, “I’ll try. Thanks, Miriam, I don’t wanna keep ya.” She watched her friend rise and greet the new arrival in her unhurried cordial way and take his order. Coffee, of course, with one of the croissants from the case.

Denny spent a moment observing the man, noting his general height and build and drawing him in her head, wondering if she could recreate the knit texture of his cardigan and also whether the tan pants were chinos or dress slacks. It was an old game she played with herself, training her eye to note the details to include in her artwork later. You never knew just when or where they’d come in handy. It made for a fun distraction, trying to see how many things she could observe before the man turned and she had to look away. Miriam smiled and rang him up and Denny pulled up the journal page she’d been working on before she could be caught looking. She read again the note she’d scribbled on the artwork, the words glowing in virtual red ink on her tablet screen, the sole reason she hid it from Miriam.

It struck her that everything she did on the tablet got loaded and stored on the cloud. But what if someone managed to get the password to her account? They’d see everything—her nascent journal, her art, everything. Dude, with my weird-shit-o-meter pinging off the charts, do I really wanna risk getting hacked? If word gets out that I’m going crazy, they’ll lock me up for sure. If they do that, Mom’ll kill me. I need to save to something a little more secure. Til then, maybe I shouldn’t spill my guts on anything hackable. Her stylus hovered over the delete icon. The cat she’d drawn on the page stared at her from the screen and Denny had no trouble imagining it begging her not to kill it. It wasn’t real, but the expression in its eyes was still evocative. Of their own volition, her fingers fished out the origami cat from her pocket, a paper model of the drawing in front of her.

With two sets of eyes staring at her like that there was no deleting anything. It’s totally too damned cruel. Denny saved the page and pushed her tablet away to remove the temptation to change her mind. The origami cat crinkled in her fingers and she tenderly smoothed back one of its ears. Carrying it in her pocket had creased it.

“I’m sorry, kitty.” Denny whispered. She smoothed the left ear again and kissed it. “Poor girl. You deserve better than living inside a wall or getting stuffed in a pocket.” Patting it with a finger tip as if it were a real cat, she perched it on the table and angled it so it could see the coffee shop. “There. Much better, yeah?”

Grey Kitty said nothing. It seemed happier to be out of her pocket, though, but it could have just been the lamps in the coffee shop making its eyes twinkle. Denny gave the cat one last pat and groaning, pulled her tablet over again and opened up her calc book on it. If she didn’t goof off, she’d be able to finish that last set of equations before biking in to class.

One down, nineteen more to go

This is what Denny drew at the coffee shop that she didn’t want Miriam to see – 05 May 2027


Malificent taimdala

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