“Iced latte for Jimmy!” Caitlyn announced in something between a full-throated yell and a stage whisper.
“About time,” replied a severe-looking man in a gray business suit, snatching the cup.
“Sorry, sir,” Caitlyn replied without breaking eye contact or her customer service smile. “We’re short-staffed today.”
He sneered. “It’s because you all want to be paid twenty dollars an hour. Get an education if you want more money.”
Caitlyn continued to smile, thinking about the framed master’s degree in biology hanging in her bedroom. “You’re welcome sir,” she replied.
He snorted and stormed out of the coffee shop, the door handle rapping the glass on the outside wall.
Caitlyn allowed the smile to linger while she pulled a piece of yellow notebook paper out of her pocket. In neat cursive script, she wrote “Jimmy—asshole in a gray business suit,” then returned the paper to its nest, allowing her hand to linger in the pocket. She’d write his name in her notebook when she got home.
“How can you smile like that to those assholes?” a newer barista asked. Caitlyn had forgotten the girl’s name but was perfectly capable of reading her name badge, Lila.
“I realized a long time ago that I am under no obligation to forgive anyone. So I don’t.” Caitlyn rubbed the piece of paper between her thumb and forefinger inside her pocket pretending it was a shaman’s head-shrinking powder. She removed her hand and rubbed at the scar on her palm. It was a circle with a line slicing through it diagonally. A former friend had told her it was a Wiccan magic circle, but the truth was it came from picking up a metal broach off the hot summer blacktop when she was seven. It pulsed with an electric sensation and she pressed hard on it with her thumb.
“What good does that do? I mean, aren’t we supposed to let go of grudges? Forgive and forget, that sort of thing?”
“Yeah, but who’s policing forgiveness?” Caitlyn shrugged. “Whenever I start feeling bad, I go through my list and picture just how awful their lives are.”
“You keep a list?” The last half of this statement was drowned out as Lila started the blender.
Caitlyn nodded. The bell on the front door tinkled softly and she lifted her head to greet the new customer.
“Welcome to Chug-a-Mug. My name is Caitlyn, may I take your ord…”
The man who entered was likely tall, but he hunched in a way that put him at her eye level, dressed in tattered clothes that might have come from a dumpster. His scent radiated fresh garbage. Caitlyn wrinkled her nose.
“Listen, sir. We don’t have any handouts right now, but if you come back at closing, I can give you the bakery leftovers.”
“Caitlyn…” the man said, his voice a tenuous whisper.
Caitlyn cocked her head and bowed slightly to get a better look. The part of the man’s face that wasn’t covered with haphazard hair was slathered in dirt, as if the two factions were fighting for territory. He looked up and their eyes met. She gasped, taking an involuntary step backward.
“You remember,” he said, eyes hopeful.
She remembered—the lies, the late nights, the random pairs of unfamiliar panties found in the laundry or tucked into the foot of the bedsheets.
“What do you want?” Caitlyn crossed her arms and leaned back on one heel, momentarily forgetting that her ex-boyfriend wasn’t homeless and filthy the last time they’d talk—well—yelled.
“I need to talk with you,” Marlon said, reaching out a single, grubby hand that was missing the pinky and ring fingers.
Caitlyn recoiled. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “What happened?”
Marlon regarded the hand, holding it up. “Oh, this. It’s nothing. Accident, you see. I seem to be prone to them.”
Caitlyn sighed and looked at the clock on the register. “I’m taking a break, guys.”
The rest of the staff murmured but didn’t look up from their phones. Caitlyn loosened her apron and pointed to a table in the corner, where she hoped his scent would be masked by proximity to the fryers and the breeze through the open window.
Marlon’s gaze traveled around the upper reaches of the room as he sipped on a Frappuccino. His face was freshly scrubbed (in the bathroom, at Caitlyn’s insistence) as were his hands, though the nails still bore black crescent moons at their tips. “This is a nice coffee shop. You own it?”
Caitlyn shrugged, “Twenty-five percent owner. Sweat equity, mostly.” She looked again at Marlon’s right hand. “What happened to you?”
“Lost my job. Gained and lost a fiancée—”
“You cheat on her, too?” Disdain colored the edges of her voice.
“Yeah…” he admitted.
She tsked but felt guilty. “What happened to your hand?”
“Metal stamping machine at work.”
Caitlyn grimaced. “And… all this?” She gestured vaguely at the rest of him.
“Shop cut me loose because I couldn’t work as fast as I used to. Then no one else would hire me.”
“Dead. Car crash a few months after we broke up.”
Caitlyn’s shoulders slumped. She’d liked his parents. His dad used to tell the most terrible puns, but they had reminded her of her own father in a way that always made her grin.
“What are you smiling about?” Marlon’s brow was creased with worry lines, hedgerows of dirt deep enough to plant seedlings.
“I was just remembering your dad’s awful jokes,” she said. “I’m sorry. It sounds like you had a rough go after we broke up.”
Caitlyn leaned back in her chair, curiosity overtaking her empathy. “Marlon, why are you here?”
The furrows in Marlon’s forehead became canyons. “You, uh… you remember that list you used to keep? The notebook with all the names?”
“Vaguely,” Caitlyn said, one eyebrow raised.
“So there was, uh, this girl that we ran into outside the craft store. Hit your car. You remember that?”
Entry #325: blonde girl with purple streak in hair, laughed when hit my door with a shopping cart.
Marlon absentmindedly rubbed the spot where his missing fingers had once been. “About a month after we broke up, I saw her panhandling down near the homeless shelter. I bought her lunch and she told me how things had declined in the last few weeks. Lost her job, her brother, her house.”
Caitlyn straightened in her chair.
“After I lost my job, my parents, and my house, I found an old copy of your apartment key in one of my pockets and I… you know, I was just going to return it to you, maybe apologize, but when you didn’t answer the door I, uh…”
“Marlon, what did you do?”
“Marlon, what did you do?”
“I let myself in.”
Flames spread red-hot across Caitlyn’s cheeks.
“I know! I know! I’m sorry!” Marlon yelled, patting the air between them with one-and-a-half hands. “I didn’t take anything or grab pairs of your underwear or anything fucking creepy, I swear. I just… I just went in and took a look at your list and took a couple of pictures of it on my phone.”
Marlon reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a smartphone with a cracked screen. The battery indicator was red and the screen dim, but Caitlyn could make out images of her elementary school block handwriting on the cream-colored pages of a brown, leather-bound notebook.
“And?” Caitlyn asked, contempt taking the reins of conversation.
Marlon kept the screen mostly pointed at Caitlyn but flicked it with a finger so that it scrolled to the first page.
“Amanda Crab,” he said, like it was an explanation.
“What about her?”
Marlon turned the phone to himself and read aloud. “Amanda Crab pushed me off the swing at recess today. I hope her life is awful and she and her whole family die.”
Caitlyn crossed her arms. “So? What about her?”
Marlon reached into the inside pocket of his dirty, tattered jacket and pulled out a newspaper clipping. “I found this at the library.”
“March 30th, 2018. Twenty-seven year-old Amanda Crab, of Waukegan, IL, was found frozen to death atop her parents’ grave. Missing for the last twelve years following their demise in a car accident, she was presumed dead until she showed up at a homeless shelter a week earlier. She died despite attempts to resuscitate her at the scene. She has no known surviving family.”
“This doesn’t mean anyth—”
Marlon flipped the page on the phone again and produced another newspaper clipping,
placing it beside the first. “Rhianna Heinzemann,” he said, tapping the screen to enlarge the image.
Entry #123: Rhianna Heinzemann—gave Richie Morganthal a blowjob the night before prom, making him cancel with me and take her instead.
Caitlyn blushed but reached out a hand and pushed the phone lower so she could look into Marlon’s eyes.
“What happened with Rhianna?”
“Parents dead. Addicted to drugs. Overdosed.”
“Still,” Caitlyn said. “That doesn’t mean that my list was—”
“All of them. All of them I could find ended up the same way.” Marlon’s voice cracked.
“All. Of. Them,” Marlon reiterated. “Parents dead. Lives ruined. Then them. They’re all dead now. All of them except me, that is.”
“Are you…? Are you suggesting my list… that I did this to them?”
“Caitlyn, I’m not saying I understand, but what are the odds that literally every person on this list would meet the same fate?” Marlon flicked the pictures to the start. “Amanda’s entry is the only one that specifies what you wanted to happen to her. What if…” Marlon flexed the fingers of his truncated hand, reminding Caitlyn of a crab’s claw. “What if that curse followed all the rest?”
“But how could my list possibly have that sort of power? How could I have the sort of power to make that happen?” The tingle in her scar flared and she made a fist to silence it.
“I’m not saying you meant for an eight-year-old’s angry hex to come true,” Marlon interrupted. “But if there’s a chance it did, I need you to end it before it’s too late.” He didn’t add the words “to me,” but he didn’t have to.
“How do I do that?”
“Forgive me,” Marlon said. “I know you aren’t big on forgiveness, but maybe that’s the key?”
Caitlyn humphed and crossed her arms over her chest.
“I was a piece of shit, Caitlyn. I know that. I probably still am, but I always felt like shit for what I did to you. Honest-to-God.” He steepled his fingers in supplication. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
She turned and looked out the window, placing her chin in one palm and covering her mouth. She shook her head back and forth, up and down, as if debating both sides of an argument. One Caitlyn regarded Marlon with disgust. Another Caitlyn with pity. After a moment, she fixed Marlon with a resigned stare, both debaters having come to some sort of agreement.
“Marlon, I can’t forget what you did to me,” she said. “But I accept your apology. And… I forgive you.”
Marlon’s eyes watered and he mouthed the words “thank you.”
Eyeing the clock on the wall, Caitlyn stood and smoothed the creases in her clothes. “What will you do now?”
“I, uh… I don’t know,” Marlon admitted.
She looked at his threadbare clothing, his ragged dirty nails, and his haphazard mop of hair. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a hundred-dollar bill she’d reserved for groceries and looked at it, a little forlorn. “You think you could use a spatula with that hand?”
He drew in a breath, sniffling. “Yeah, I could do that.”
She handed him the bill. “Find a shelter and clean yourself up. Get a haircut and some clothes and be back in here the day after tomorrow, and I’ll see if I can find you a cook position.”
He took money from her hand as if it were a sacrament and nodded, eyes still misty. He gathered his things and began shuffling toward the door.
“Eight a.m., Marlon,” Caitlyn called after him.
The bells sang goodbye and he was gone.
Caitlyn gathered up her apron and tied the loops in place, noticing a small piece of yellow notebook paper by her foot. She leaned down and picked it up, then rolled it into a ball and wobbled it back and forth in her palm, feeling the electric tingle in her scar each time the ball rolled across it.
“And I forgive you, too,” she said, tossing it into the trash.
Robert Balentine, Jr. is an emergency room physician in the rural southern U.S., currently fighting against twin epidemics of COVID-19 and a general distrust of science by his neighbors.
His works have been featured most recently in The Colored Lens, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He can be found on the web at robbalentine.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “To Err Is Human, to Forgive Is Optional”:
An intriguing title starts this piece and makes us wonder how that title will play out. Author Robert Balentine, Jr. keeps us in suspense as he slowly weaves his plot while tossing in a couple more story questions and characters, plus a bit of foreshadowing.
It’s not until halfway through the story that we discover what’s really going on. But as with any well-crafted story, the author holds the reader’s attention by gradually dropping in tidbits that keep us interested before he reveals what’s really at stake.
Revealing a story’s stakes so late is somewhat unconventional (and inadvisable, some would say), but we argue that doing so any sooner in this piece would have spoiled the mystery. Moral of story writing: You can (and should) break the rules when it best serves the story to do so. And we applaud the author for understanding that.