by Zelda C. Thorne
Zelda C. Thorne is a British writer of science fiction and fantasy. Find out more at www.zeldacthorne.com
This story originally appeared on the Reedsy prompts website.
It all started when the illustrious Cassiopeia Café ran out of ketamine. My girlfriend, Tabitha and I were enjoying a day off together. We’d been shopping in the city, mostly at Kenzo, Gucci and 3D Warehouse, ordering an obscene amount of clothing to be delivered to our respective homes, before deciding to take a break on the café’s beautiful terrace.
It was mid-afternoon and sunny, a good time of day to be seen in Cassiopeia. Tabitha, being an online fashionista personality, knew such things in the same way I knew the marketing strategy behind every advert, slogan and by-line that flitted across our phone screens.
“What will you have?” she asked, placing one perfectly manicured hand on her hip. She turned her body; every move a deliberate pose.
“Not sure,” I said. My gaze wandered over the gleaming white cups, glassware and the coffee machine itself. In the transparent grinder, dark-chocolate beans hopped rhythmically, almost in time to the electro-punk background music. My mother always talked about how loud the grinders used to be, but she must have been exaggerating.
Tabitha waved her phone in front of the display counter and inspected the results as we moved forwards in the queue. I did the same; verifying MyNutrition for my narcotic allowance and dietary recommendations.
“I think I’ll have a warp-speed espresso and an opiate muffin,” she said.
I nodded, unsurprised by her ridiculous choice. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to either be stimulated or calmed, not some bizarre mixture of the two. And right then, I needed the latter.
Because everything was getting to me: the enforced serenity on my own face, the too-quiet peace of the clothing stores we had visited, the languid body language of every single person in the café, Tabitha’s tinkling laugh (that I’d listened to her practice in the bathroom, no doubt throwing her head back just so, analysing the precise angle that made her pearlescent teeth catch the light), even the luscious wide-fronded green plants bothered me (fake, obviously, just like everything else).
“OMG!” Tabitha whispered. “It’s Jasmin Seluscha!”
“Who?” I glanced in the direction she was indicating and—
“Why? Who is she?”
“Jasmin. Seluscha.” Her gold-flecked green eyes burrowed into mine. “She’s a really well-known reporter, Joshua. Started out in Whooz Dat? Got headhunted by Real People? First person to interview Axley Holt?”
I feigned realisation. “Oh! Her!”
Studying said woman in the mirrored glass to the left of the counter, I realised that I did recognise her. Angular features, shaggy blond hair, light-blue eyes. She oozed intelligence in a way that made me nervous and excited just being near her.
Everyone had seen the interview with Axley Holt: Hollywood’s hottest omnigendered pansexual star. I liked them, their portrayal of Tamaya Gomez in a dramatization of their life was sublime. And Jasmin Seluscha had done a great job probing Axley about their childhood, political opinions and sex-life without offending them. I was particularly intrigued that Axley shared my disillusionment over materialism and the societal indifference to drug use that decades of legalisation had spawned. She was an excellent reporter.
“Do you think I’ll ever get interviewed by her?” Tabitha asked wistfully.
Uh oh, danger.
This question – or more specifically my response – held potential to ruin the entire day. My muscles flexed beneath my 3D-print Armani casual city wear; the neck feeling tighter than it had that morning. Sweat would soon break out along the rivets of my spine, staining the inside lining of my jacket. The odour inexorably finding passage out into the open.
“If not,” I said, “it’ll be her loss.”
Tabitha smiled demurely and my insides relaxed. Her relentless perfection was grating on the inside of my skull, though I did my best to ignore it. After all, I needed her. I’d never have managed to achieve five-star customer status without her help, opening doors to all the best bars and restaurants in the city. Private clubs that only employed and served five-star citizens. Without her by association, I wouldn’t even have met my current employer.
A vein throbbed in my forehead, just above the right eye socket.
“Good afternoon.” A spotted youth behind the counter was smiling at us. His name badge said Thom. He looked about five. “What would you like?”
Tabitha made her order and stepped aside, smiling, checking her reflection in the cake-display glass. Or was she angling to see if the reporter was looking in her direction?
Did I care?
I made my order. “A decaf keta-cappuccino with potato milk, please.”
“Oh, uh,” Thom said, his eyes glazed over for a second. “I’m sorry, but I think we’re out of ketamine.”
“You ‘think’?” I couldn’t keep the irritation from my voice. Tabitha’s hand slipped into mine, squeezed. “Sorry,” I said quickly. “But could you check? Please?”
“Of course. I uh I’ll check.”
He darted off and Tabitha leant in close. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
“This is my favourite coffee house, Joshua.”
I nodded, clenched my buttocks, smoothed the lines of my face into a mask of contentedness.
While Thom disappeared to verify what he should have already known, I pondered the last time I’d had a straight coffee. I couldn’t remember. Had I ever?
The youth was back.
“Hey uh I’m sorry but I couldn’t find it. Pretty sure we’ve run out. I can still do you a decaf potato milk cappuccino… and you could have uh cannabis-sprinkles instead? They’re very popular.”
I couldn’t believe it. Sprinkles?
“Look, Thom.” Even I heard the appalling tone of my voice, but it was already too late. “‘Pretty sure’ isn’t good enough. You either have it or you don’t.”
The bones of my knuckles ground together beneath Tabitha’s grasp. I ignored her.
I raised my voice the tiniest bit. “You either have it… Or. You. Don’t.”
That was when I realised everyone within a four-meter radius had stopped talking. The jaunty music bopped along and saucers clinked, but the hubbub of voices had subsided. A woman of about my mother’s age with a suitably grave expression suddenly appeared by the boy’s right shoulder, her white hair poofed out in a flawless halo, radiating authority.
“Is there a problem here?” she asked, brown eyes wide with concern. “My name’s Abi, I’m the manager. May I help?”
“Thank you, Abi,” I said, slow, calm. “I would like a keta-cappuccino and this… young man… doesn’t know whether or not you have any.”
Thom turned to his boss. “I said we didn’t have—”
I opened my mouth to argue but Abi beat me to it. Her voice pacifying as she addressed me. “I’m afraid he is right. We don’t have it, sir.”
Thom smiled at me – a vicious twitch of the lips – and I imagined what it might feel like to punch him in the face.
Abi continued, “As I believe my colleague here suggested, we do have cannabis-sprinkles. Or, if that’s not to your taste, we have the more traditional chamomile tea, which is very relaxing.” Her gaze took on a ponderous quality that I did not appreciate. “We also have opiate muffins.”
“Oh, those are so lovely!” Tabitha chimed in, earning herself a sympathetic smile from Abi, whose warmth evaporated when she turned back to me. “What would you like?”
I forgave her the chamomile tea slur, but only because she reminded me of my mother. “I’ll have the cannabis-sprinkles and an opiate muffin, please.”
“Blueberry?” Thom asked, his shit-eating grin getting wider by the second.
“Yes,” I said. I paid and hesitated by the counter, Tabitha was already threading her way out to the terrace, but damage control was definitely required. A little desperate, I said, “I’m sorry if I was a little short with you there, Thom.”
“S’alright,” he said. “Enjoy your coffee.”
“Thank you very much.”
I found Tabitha in the shade of an artificial paradise palm tree, index finger flicking over her phone. Once I’d sat down, she sighed. “We need to talk.”
“I know, I know. I’ve been feeling a bit tense lately and work is—”
“A bit tense.” She made the words sound like individual slaps. “That,” she said, lifting her chin towards the counter, “was unacceptable.”
The drinks arrived, brought by a bubbly red-haired girl dressed in the café’s black star-studded uniform. I reached out to take the tray and knocked her off-balance. Half my cappuccino slopped over the edge and slid down to pool in the saucer. The waitress gasped, apologised, asked if I wanted another one. I said no and waved her away. Tabitha’s green eyes flashed. “What?”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“You’re not dumping me, are you?” I almost laughed, but then stopped. She stared, silent. “Are you?” I repeated.
“Don’t get me wrong, Joshua. It’s been great, but—”
“Hang on, we’ve been together three years. We’re a good couple, everyone thinks so.”
“LifeCoach says that if I want to get anywhere professionally, I need to take everything seriously. And that includes my love-life.”
“You’re breaking up with me because LifeCoach told you to?”
“It’s more than that. We’re not moving forward.”
“I seem to remember asking you to move in with me, but you didn’t want to.”
She clicked her tongue. “You’re bad at your job. Don’t look at me like that. You are. I got you that job, introduced you to the right people and I mean, you’re supposed to be a marketing executive, current social trends… and you don’t even know who Jasmin Seluscha is! It’s embarrassing. What story is top of your news feed? Hm?”
“What does it matter—”
“I bet it’s job adverts. Personality tests. Articles about how to land your dream career. Well? Am I warm?”
Hardly, the arctic had nothing on her. “OK, I admit I’m not in love with my job. It’s not a crime.” I leant forward, put my elbows on the table. “Do you ever think sometimes that what we do is a little… superfluous?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking that when I’m old and looking back on my life, I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something worthwhile, you know, like I’ve made a difference.”
“You’ve been reading poetry again.”
“Also not a crime.”
“You’re an emotion junkie,” she said. “And I can’t deal with it anymore. I’ve decided that I’m only going to associate with and date five-stars.”
“I am five-star.”
Tabitha rolled her eyes and held up her phone so the screen faced me. My profile was there. Joshua Hopper, 32, Customer Rating: 3.9
I shook my head. “There must be some mistake. It was 5.2 this morning.”
“Scroll down,” she said.
The screen began moving, displaying my most recent ratings. My mouth dried up. Three stars, another three, two (that was 3D Warehouse, they must have heard me commenting on their shipping fee) and finally, the nail in my ratings:
Cassiopeia Café gives Joshua Hopper – 1 star
Condescending, rude and borderline menacing #onestar #bekind #badratings
“One star?” I said it out loud, making Tabitha suck air through her teeth. “Come on. That isn’t fair… and how did you know so fast? Do you check my profile every five seconds?”
“I am a professional. I get alerted if any of my contacts fall below 4 star-status.”
She leant back, sipped her coffee and tapped her metallic nails upon the porcelain. The noise drummed directly into my brain. The surrounding tables had gone conspicuously quiet and the spot between my shoulder blades itched.
“This isn’t fair,” I said again.
Tabitha shrugged. “You could appeal, but plenty of people saw it.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
The waitress reappeared and deposited a small slice of golden cake with white icing in front of Tabitha, who slid it towards me. “Here,” she said. “Lemon drizzle with Prozac-infused icing. I’ve been told it takes the edge off rejection.”
I stared, fury boiling in my gut as Tabitha gazed up at the blue sky, the surrounding plant life, her coffee cup. She took another sip and still didn’t meet my eyes. I slammed my open palm on the table, making the saucers jump. She froze, eyes wide, the trace of a smile on her lips.
An enormous shadow fell over me. The darkness belonged to the doorman, his hand was up by his ear, triggering some alert that would put me on facial recognition for sure. “Sir. How are we doing today?”
“I’m good, thank you.”
“Excellent. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to ask you to leave. This way, please.”
I admired him his demeanour which was affable and sincerely apologetic. He was accustomed to getting rid of people, politely, without making a scene that would disrupt the beautiful ambiance of Cassiopeia Café.
“Of course,” I said, standing up.
I downed the coffee, gasping as it burnt my oesophagus, grabbed my opiate muffin – left the offensive lemon cake – and departed with an unexpected lightness in my step.
For the seed of an idea was already fulminating in my mind.
Over the following twelve months, the idea grew, sprouting hashtags and followers and media coverage at an exponential rate. It was near impossible for me to keep track of everything. Not that I tried very hard.
Article from the fourth page of Where Monthly: Controversial Supernova Café opens and for those who’ve been living under a rock, its USP is that it doesn’t rate its customers. At all. Critics give it three months.
Headline from The Star – “Who is Joshua Hopper and why should we care?”
Two months later, a paparazzi image of Axley Holt leaving Infinity Beyond with one arm slung over my shoulders threatened to break the internet.
I gave no comment.
Headline from Pentagonal News’ business column – “Supernova Café’s Joshua Hopper: Pioneer of a new sub-culture or deranged emotion junkie?”
Front Page of Real People – A monochrome photo of Mr. Hopper, delivering his trademark brooding stare. Full article on page 7.
Excerpt from said article:
Supernova Café, famously frequented by Axley Holt, solely employs one- and two-star citizens. Giving them a place to call home within society and in some cases, enabling them to achieve higher star statuses later in life. Former employees have described Mr. Hopper as benevolent, kind and in more than one case, their saviour.
Mr. Hopper #smileifyouwantto #badmood #whocaresnotme, recently nominated as the Sexiest Man Alive by Whooz Dat magazine, talks to Real People. Jasmin Seluscha has the exclusive.
“Mr. Hopper, you’re quite the oxymoron, instigator of #whocaresnotme and yet, you have a five-star rating.”
“Oh yes, but I’m sure most of those votes were made ironically.”
“Perhaps. So, do I have to be in a bad mood to visit Supernova Café?”
“No, not at all. My ethos is that you don’t have to pretend. We won’t rate you. You won’t get a one star from us because you weren’t smiling.”
“Doesn’t that encourage people to be unpleasant?”
“It happens, but less than you’d think. Most people get it. It’s a safe place. Wouldn’t you like to be able to go out for a drink or a meal without worrying about how you’ll be scored?”
“I can see the attraction. It is all about appearances these days.”
“Isn’t it always?”
“I have to ask. Is it true you have ‘anger-management cubicles’ complete with punching bags behind tinted glass?”
“You’ll have to come and see for yourself.”
“I may just do that.”
“Do you think your friendship with Axley Holt has helped your business?”
“Undoubtedly, Axley has been very supportive. They share my view of the star system.”
“That it should be abolished. We are nuanced, complicated individuals. I am much happier since I stopped paying attention to it.”
“And is there a romantic connection between yourself and Axley? It is one of our most frequently asked questions.”
“And I believe the most frequently asked question is whether or not that is an engagement ring in your left ear, Miss Seluscha.”
“I am interviewing you, Mr. Hopper.”
“Sorry, couldn’t resist. To answer your question, I don’t disclose my romantic relationships online.”
“But you do have relationships?”
“Oh yes, but I am… uh, how can I put this… romantically offline. No photos, no ratings. Only reality.”
It was exactly two days after the interview came out in Real People that Tabitha graced Supernova Café with her presence. I couldn’t quite believe she was on my dating history; she was so glossy. All her ex-partners had given her at least a four (I tried to give her a two, but she had it removed twenty seconds later).
“Good afternoon. What a pleasant surprise,” I said, not entirely sure if I meant it. “What can I get you?”
“Joshua.” She looked appraisingly at me. “You’re doing very well for yourself.”
“If you say so.”
“Jasmin Seluscha gave you five stars. Five! You’re front page of Whooz Dat. And you’re a hashtag.”
“Oh,” I said. “You saw that did you.”
“You’ve really changed it around.” She considered me for a moment with those cat’s eyes of hers, calculating. How did I ever find this woman attractive? “I’m impressed,” she continued. “Our relationship will now be beneficial to both of us.”
I coughed. “Our relationship?”
“Yes, as long as you behave, obviously. I’ll allow it.”
“Tabitha,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, but you’re not my type anymore.”
She laughed, a mirthless practiced falsetto, but then she saw my face and stopped. “You’re not serious.”
“Actually, I am. Now, what would you like? Warp-speed espresso was your thing, wasn’t it?”
She spluttered, incomprehensibly. “You’re turning me down?”
“I’m afraid so.” I gave her my finest sympathetic look and gestured towards the cake stand. “May I suggest a slice of Prozac-infused lemon drizzle? It can really take the edge off… or so I’ve been told.”