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Sugar Packets

For the third round of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction inspired by this photograph.

Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo
An open newspaper on a cafe table
Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo

You are everywhere I look these days. Everyone looks just like you. I'm at the coffee shop you went to just before you died. You used to write your name and phone number on sugar packets in coffee shops in those last few months. I don’t know why, you said. I can’t help it. Every day for weeks after you vanished, I went to coffee shops, a different one every day, looking for those packets and trying to gather them up. There are none left here anymore. I've sat at every table, I've found every one. I keep them in my pocket; I remember them like my keys. You had terrible handwriting, but on these packets it’s as precise as typewriting. I’m going now, you wrote on one of them. I try not to wear the paper with my fingers. The sugar will spill out if I'm not careful.

I am not surprised to see you walking by the window. You look a bit different, but not very. The last time I saw you, you were wearing that long black coat, the one you got from Monticello’s before it went out of business. It was flapping around you like dark wings and I thought how much you looked like a cheerful version of the reaper himself. You were still on your meds then, hadn’t yet been kicked out of your apartment, hadn’t taken mom’s car and crashed it in your first unsuccessful attempt. It would be months before you bought the gun.

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And yet here you are. Passing by in the cold, a bag slung over your shoulder. It's not yours, I think suddenly; you're stealing luggage again. I just take it straight from the carousel, you told me once. Nobody minds, you said. Nobody loses. I imagine you are going somewhere close by, where you will open the stranger's bag and spread out their things to decide what's good. Perhaps it is an elaborate hoax, your death. You are in fact still here in this very town. Still scamming and conning and stealing your way through the day. I shift forward on my stool until my breath laces the window pane. What if I got out of my chair right now and chased you down? Would it be you? Would it matter? I reach in my pocket and press a sugar packet between my thumb and forefinger. I can feel the granules through the paper, the grit of them. You're almost out of view now and I stare at that bag against your back. Let it be filled with jewels and money and watches, I think. Let it be filled with the favorites of your youth: pinwheel peppermints, pocketknives and Matchbox cars. Let it be filled with everything you've ever wanted.