The Ghost in my Coffee Cup
What can one woman really learn from a coffee-obsessed Ghost?
Author: Nicole Hebdon
Nicole Hebdon’s fiction has been published in The Kenyon Review, The Saranac Review, The New Ohio Review, The Antigonish Review, Joyland, Carve, and F(r)iction among other places. She received her MFA from SUNY Stony Brook, and her thesis was a runner-up in the 2017 Serendipity’s YA Discovery Contest. Since then, her short stories have been finalists or runner-ups in several contests including the 2022 St. Lawrence Book Award, and Chestnut Review’s 2021 novella contest.
Narrator: Hannah Knight
Hannah is a full-time homemaker and an Upbeat Tales fan community member, who volunteered her narration skills upon learning about this story. Thanks Hannah!
The ghost was small enough to fit in my coffee cup. In fact, that’s where I found him. I had cobbled together a latte from the powdered milk, instant coffee, and sugar-free sweeteners in the break room. I would have gone through the drive-thru and gotten an already-made-and-actually-tastes-good drink, but the day before, my manager had pointed to the Styrofoam cup in my hand and said, “Let me give you young people some advice. Be smart with your money and time. We have free coffee here.” He always talks like he is leading a meeting, even when I’m the only person within earshot.
I knew it was my money, and that I could do with it as I pleased, but I also didn’t want him to think I was wasteful, so I suffered the balls of undissolved sweetener and powdered milk scratching at my throat. Convinced I had somehow grown and was chewing on a stalactite, I looked down at the cup, and there was the ghost. He was like the ghosts you see on paper plates at Halloween parties, blobby and white with eyes the size of sharp pencil tips.
“Drink me,” he squeaked.
“Are you the ghost of my ambitions?” I asked and then chuckled at my own joke. The ghost rose up, so that he looked like whipped topping, and glanced about my cubicle.
“Drink me,” he said again.
“Why me?” I asked. “Why would you want to possess me?” I wasn’t worried about anyone hearing me because everyone else was at lunch. I was the only accountant that ever worked through the hour.
“Not everything is about you,” he responded.
“No, thank you,” I said, and set him aside. He may have kept demanding that I drink him, but he was so small that from just a few feet away, his voice was reduced to a chirp. It became kind of calming. “When the boys came back (that’s what my manager Todd calls everyone but me, the boys) I picked up my cup and headed to the break room with the intention of washing it. The mud-like smell of bad coffee was giving me a headache, and I wasn’t sure if ghosts could get sick, but I’m sure wallowing in cold liquid wasn’t doing him any favors.
“Natalie,” Todd called from one of his favorite leaning spots, the artificial fish tank in the lobby. The magnetic fish were slapping the glass, trying to get to something in his pocket. “Saving money, I see,” he said and motioned toward my cup. “Good for you.”
I lifted my cup at his compliment and without thinking, brought it to my lips.
The ghost was in.
He tasted, predictably, like a marshmallow. And then the sweetness burned away, leaving the chloric taste of off-brand painkillers. I kept him down. At home, I would have forced myself to puke. But not here. God knows what the boys would have said about that.
By the time I was back at my desk, where Wilson and Sam were waiting to accuse me of deleting a missing spreadsheet, I had forgotten I was possessed. And the ghost must have too, because he didn’t say a word all afternoon.
“Stop here,” he squeaked when I was on the thruway, heading to my two-bedroom.
“I can’t stop here. I’ll get rammed. Do you want me to die? Is that what you’re about?”
When he didn’t answer, I tapped my nails on the steering wheel impatiently and added, “Well?”
“Get off at the next exit,” he said.
“That’s more reasonable,” is what I said, but I had every intention of driving past the exit. I had a spreadsheet to recreate and no time to chauffeur a ghost who-knows-where. When he noticed I had missed the turn, I’d shrug and tell him I forgot. Shortly after starting at the firm, I discovered that most people don’t take that’s not my job for an answer, but if you tell them you simply forgot to come in for unpaid overtime, or forgot to clean up the cake Jerry spilled by your desk, or you forgot to water everyone’s plants, they make jokes about how badly you need a daily planner, but they do the task themselves.
A few yards from the exit, I felt myself nudge the turn signal on, and the car swayed in that direction. “I really need to get home,” I protested. The ghost stayed silent, but I felt him traveling throughout my body. He was in my fingers, turning the wheel. He was in my feet, marching them to a café so pink it seemed to pulsate. He felt kind of nice, like hot massage stones rolling down my bones. I didn’t want to complain, especially with my limbs feeling so good. Inside, he ordered for me. I don’t remember what the drink was, but it was longer than my full name and cost almost ten dollars.
“Drink it,” he said in his little voice, and I did. It tasted like a snow day home from school, like the smell of my mom’s hair when she was too cold to shower, like the feeling of a teddy bear left to warm in front of the wood stove, like the sound of tea boiling two rooms over. It tasted like I was eight years old and so content I was turning lethargic.
I set the cup down after the first sip. “It’s too much,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” he said, and while his voice was still squeaky, it had deepened from dog toy to little-brother-going-through-puberty. I reached for my phone, intending to calculate exactly where it fell on the too much scale with my calorie counter, but my hands thudded back on the table and dragged back to the cup. I downed it. My mouth tasted like caramel the entire way home, and the warmth in my fingertips didn’t fade away until I went to sleep.
After that, he ordered coffee for me every morning, and on my lunch, and sometimes, during my afternoon break. We never went through drive-thrus or to chain restaurants. He always knew where to find shops with words like “fairtrade” “organic” and “woman-owned” flashing in the windows. I drank coffee with foam flowers on top. I drank coffee swirled with holographic sugar. I drank coffee made from coffee beans that a fox had already digested (sometimes twice!). I got to know Styrofoam cups pretty well. All I had to see was the seam of the cup, and I could tell you where someone had bought their coffee and about how much they paid. At our weekly meeting, Todd shook his head at my cup and made a point to ask me how much I had spent as he clutched his own manly plaid cup (Marian’s Joe on Mechanic Street, which cost between four and seven dollars a cup).
I smiled at him politely.
I had to keep my mouth closed because I felt the ghost in my mouth, banging on my teeth, leaving sweet, slimy trails on my tongue, commanding me to snarl at Todd. “Show him your incisors,” he squeaked. “Intimidate him with your fangs. Tell him no. Tell him no. You will not participate in your own mockery.”
Other than that, I went along with the ghost. I let him control me without protest.
I discovered that I like cinnamon and pumpkin spice, and all those other flavors I had stayed away from because the advertisements for such drinks reminded me of ditzy teenage girls who drank wine coolers because they couldn’t stomach beer. I noticed nostrils twitch whenever I entered the conference room. “What’s that?” the boys asked, as if coffee couldn’t smell good or come in sparkly cups. For weeks, I thought my new habit was fine. Until I got my monthly bank statement and noticed that I had spent over a month’s rent on the drinks! I brought the statement close to my eyes, so the ghost could look out and see. This seemed to anger him. With no words exchanged, I was out of my office chair and skipping work. We went to every coffee shop in town, and then we headed toward the city. We spent all afternoon sampling. He didn’t stop, not even when my taste buds were burnt and unable to distinguish cappuccinos from macchiatos. Despite having deleted my calorie counting app the week before, he wouldn’t let me near my phone. I could hear the insistent ping of Todd’s texts.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I had a headache that left cloud bursting under my eyelids. I was shaking. I was sweating. My cramps were so bad that I could barely move. My throat felt like it was closing in. I imagined my whole body shrinking, until it was as small as the ghost, and my skin clung to his form like one of the rubber fingers I used when filing. I wanted water.
I didn’t complain though. Afterall, I was possessed. What did I expect? At least I wasn’t crawling up walls or ripping at my face like they do in the movies. I was grateful because it could have been a lot worse.
“Coffee,” he shouted at me as soon as my alarm went off. I jumped out of bed. I felt like I was melting, and I’m sure I would have fell over if he hadn’t been inside, pulling me up. “I know just the place,” he said. “It’s new. A coffee truck. All of the brews are named after literary puns.”
I grabbed onto the counter. I felt my rounded stomach push up against my skirt’s waistband and realized that I hadn’t gone to the bathroom in days. He moved down my arms and pried my fingers away, one by one. As we passed the closet, I threw myself inside and grabbed at the coats hanging above me. I piled them on top of myself, knowing I was too tired to lift them again.
“You’ve got to get coffee and go to work,” he said, forcing my legs to kick the coats off me. Loyalty punch cards fell around me. “You’re going to be late.”
“I want water,” I said out loud. “I don’t want any coffee.”
Without a moment of hesitation, the ghost said. “Okay. Bye.” And I felt the heat of him leave me.
I went to the bathroom. Afterwards, I looked at myself in the mirror. My teeth were yellowed, some even looked a little green at the cracks. The drooping skin under my eyes had turned blue. I turned to look at my profile. I had gained weight in those small flappy places you don’t notice right away: under my armpits, my chin, over my once prominent collar bones.
No time for makeup, I brushed my teeth, pulled on some jeggings, and headed to the office. For the first time since I accepted the job, my hair was up in a messy bun, and my face was naked. “Jesus,” one of the boys said as I sat down. “You look sick. You’re wearing yoga pants?”
“They’re jeggings,” I corrected him. “I didn’t want to squeeze into a skirt today.” I had the urge to go on, to tell him that I knew it wasn’t casual Friday. I wanted to apologize for not fitting comfortably in any of my pants. But I needed to keep my mouth shut if I wanted to keep him out. He nodded at me as if he understood, and then he threw a folder on my desk. “Retype this for me, okay?”
I slid the folder as far away from me as I could. “Don’t tell me what to do,” I hissed.
“What?” he asked.
“No,” I said. I thought for a moment that the ghost was back and I waited for his taste to spread across my mouth, but it didn’t. It was me. I had learned how to say no. “I don’t want to,” I went on. “I have better things to do.”
“Sorry,” he said timidly. He lingered for a few minutes, waiting for me to soften, but I didn’t. Eventually, he picked up the folder and left.