Fiction: Weak and Lukewarm
By Joe Haward
Nigel stared at his Starbucks cup. Fuck, he hated his name. Why did his parents call him Nigel? It was the kind of name that made people instantly think you’re a dick. When the barista asked for his name, he hesitated, wondering if he should lie and spend five minutes out of his inconsequential life pretending he was called something that made people stop and tell you, “That’s such a cool name!”
Fucking hell. He could only think of X-Men characters.
“Nigel,” he’d said. She’d even raised her eyebrows when he’d said it.
The smell of burnt coffee and stupidity hung in the air as customers handed nameless faces millions of dollars for gimmicks and illusions. Nigel listened to the chatter of dulled people, bored by their own existence, fabricating the captivating whilst drinking cups of insipid manipulation. He wondered if 2 Girls 1 Cup was actually a profound analogy on the bullshit of coffee culture? Probably not, but if the cup fits . . .
He walked out of the coffee shop and made his way back home. The city hummed around him, lives seeping out into concrete, glass, and smoke; not that anyone really gave a shit. Life’s too busy to care about what you care about.
Quickening his steps, he went past the homeless guy who sat outside the abandoned Blockbuster store. The two of them went through the same piece of theatre a couple of times a week; Nigel would pat his pockets and apologise that he didn’t have any spare change, whilst the homeless guy would say thank you. And Nigel muttered to himself again that he’d buy the guy a coffee and sandwich from Starbucks tomorrow.
After masturbating in the shower with the kind of apathy that nearly made his cock give up, Nigel heated up a microwavable meal from the freezer and climbed into bed.
Opening his messages, he scrolled down to Eliza’s last text. They’d met a couple of weeks back at the local bar. He’d never been approached by a woman before, in all his thirty-three years. At first he thought she was taking the piss, but as seconds turned into minutes into the whole night, Nigel realised that she actually liked him.
They talked about family, how appalling his name was, dreams for the future. It quickly became apparent they were opposites in all kinds of ways, serving as a paradoxical attraction; she loved horror films, whereas Nigel had to sleep with the light on for a week after watching Event Horizon; Nigel thought dogs were the greatest animals on the planet, whilst Eliza wanted to own six cats; religion was largely good/the root of all evil, summer was the best/worst time of the year, and politicians were all fuckwits; they agreed on that.
At the end of the night Nigel felt something close to euphoria, the banality and weariness that dripped incessantly on his mind momentarily ceasing. They swapped numbers and Eliza kissed him on the cheek.
She’d sent him a text a few days later.
Hey Nigel I rly enjoyed the other nite shall we do it again soon? Xx
He’d studied the message for an unhealthy length of time, even convincing himself that her use of the word ‘soon’ actually meant ‘never’. As such he had lost all courage to reply, finding the idea of possible rejection far more manageable than confronting Eliza’s clarity around her lack of interest in him.
Then, this morning, she messaged him again.
Hi again hadnt heard back hoping I had the right number. Its Eliza from the other nite xx
So he’d messaged her back, straight away (which was highly uncharacteristic; messages from friends and family usually averaged three days for a reply).
Hi Eliza. Sorry for not getting back to you. I broke the screen on my phone. WOuld lovr to meet up again. Nigel
Great! Can I ring you 2nite? xx
Of course.. What time?
bout 8? xx
Ok speak later.
It was nearly eight. Nigel stretched his legs out on the bed, put his phone on his lap and watched the screen, waiting, resisting the urge to keep checking it was on loud.
Eliza’s name flashed up, requesting to FaceTime.
“Hi!” she said, her face beaming with a ready smile.
“Hey, Eliza. How are you?” Nigel didn’t know if he sounded awkward, but he felt awkward. There was something about video calling that reached down into his throat and strangled the joy out of him. A bit like Sadako from the Ring story.
“I’m okay. I’m glad we can finally talk. I really enjoyed the other night, but I thought you’d bailed out on me for a while there?”
“Really sorry about that.” Nigel felt his cheeks flushing. “Fucked the screen up on my phone.”
“I’d love to see you again.” Eliza was still smiling.
Nigel felt his cheeks overheating. “Me too.”
“How about now?”
“Let’s see each other tonight.” Her smile was infectious.
“Erm, I mean, we could. It’s quite late, though.”
“You’re not very impulsive, are you, Nigel?”
She’d said that to him on the night they met, same tone of voice, willing him to take a few more risks. Not condescending, but encouraging. A challenge to at least think about impulsivity. He smiled. He liked how she made him feel, elevating his desires above the daily monotony.
“Okay, go on then. Shall I come to you?”
She gave him her address and told him to come round the back, she’d leave the door open for him. She lived just outside the city, just a short taxi ride from his apartment.
“Bring some wine,” she said, and ended the call.
Nigel got dressed, attempted to make his thinning hair look half-respectable, and headed out of the door, anxiety and excitement making him a little lightheaded.
Picking up a six-pack and a bottle of wine, then returning to his apartment because he’d forgotten his phone, Nigel eventually arrived at Eliza’s just after nine. Her house was small and well kept, with a fresh coat of yellow paint which was illuminated by the street lamps. Walking round the neat front garden and through the gate, Nigel saw the side door into the kitchen was open.
He was just about to call out when he heard voices, muffled, coming from another room. Quietly going through the kitchen, he could see into the front room, the door slightly ajar, Eliza sitting on a chair, head down, shoulders shaking. Although hidden from Nigel’s view, a man’s voice rose up from the room, angry and aggressive.
“You think it’s as easy as telling me it’s over?”
Eliza shook her head and looked up, her face wet with tears. And afraid. “Please, Sam, just leave. I can’t keep doing this.”
Suddenly an arm appeared and Eliza’s head rocked back as she was punched in the face.
“Don’t you dare tell me what the fuck to do! If I want to be here, then that’s up to me!”
Eliza grabbed her nose with both hands, rocking back and forth with pain, mumbling sorry through tears and blood.
Nigel stood there, frozen. He watched, wide-eyed, as Sam slapped Eliza on the back of the head, berating her, calling her stupid, then kneeling down, holding her hands like he couldn’t understand why she was so upset.
Eliza looked up and then saw Nigel, standing immobile in her kitchen. She stared at him, and he saw the terror in her eyes, her face silently pleading for help. Nigel rapidly blinked, his chest burning with indecisiveness, his arms and legs heavy with fear and regret. Stepping backwards, and then turning around, Nigel fled, never looking back until he’d rounded the corner, quarter of a mile from Eliza’s house.
The next day Nigel went to Starbucks, noting, as he walked out, how nice the barista’s writing was. He patted his pockets whilst passing the homeless guy, apologising as he did so, and made his way back to his apartment.
Sitting in front of the TV, Nigel unboxed his new phone and sim card, sending all his contacts the new number. Except Eliza.
Joe Haward is the author of two nonfiction books that explore the intersection between humanity, faith, film, and culture. As a horror writer, poet, freelance journalist, and book reviewer, his work has appeared, and is upcoming across multiple sites, in various anthologies and publications, including Byline Times, Cinnabar Moth Publishing, Ghost Orchid Press, Horror Oasis, Cosmic Horror Monthly, and Outcast Press.