Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
I used to work the late shift at an old-fashioned cafe in my hometown. I lived in a relatively small town where everyone knows everyone and everything about everybody. Honestly, I really liked my job as a barista. I found pleasure in the constant smell of coffee, and in the looks on customers’ faces as caffeine leaked into their bloodstreams, slowly but surely causing smiles of relief to replace their formerly anxious expressions.
The last night I worked there was a Friday. I didn’t plan on leaving the way I did, but… I haven’t been back to that cafe yet.
My shift was from 5 to 10 0’clock. It’s weird for a cafe to be open that late, I know, but my boss – the owner of the cafe, that is – was an odd man who I didn’t seem to care that we rarely had customers after 8. My shift was usually slow, but never boring. I was the only barista working during those hours, and the only other person at the cafe with me was my boss, who opted to stay in his office behind closed doors.
That night my shift started out like it normally did, with a slow flow of people. The same people, the regulars with the same order as yesterday and the day before, like clockwork.
Then he walked in. Before I even looked at him, the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. His whole bald head was smeared with what appeared to be dark mud. In eerie contrast, he was wearing a dark black suit with no signs of dirt or grime, nor even a wrinkle to be seen. His hands and neck were so pale that he nearly blended into the sunlight shining through the front window of the cafe. It was hard to tell how tall he was, as he was slouched over as if had the spine of an old man, though clearly he was taller then me. I couldn’t get a read on his age either. I had no idea who he was.
He kept his gaze on the floor as he walked over to the two-seater table by the front window and sat down. His hands hung limply at his sides as he peered out the window and just… stared. He just looked out the window toward the street.
I was about to go over and check on him but some internal force held me back. Looking back now, it was probably the basic survival instincts. I felt as if my feet had been cemented to the floor. Besides, I had more customers coming in anyway. None of which, I noticed wearily, even glanced at the man.
I ignored the man for the moment and went back to work. My mind got caught up with making different coffees and I peeked up at the clock resting on the wall opposite me. 6:27. My head turned and I looked at the strange man. My heart lurched up to my throat. He was staring at me. His small back pupils appeared to look in me more than at me. He saw my surprised face and turned his head slowly back to the front window.
Drugs. He was high on something. Or really drunk, though he didn’t seem uncoordinated. At this point, I wanted to tell my boss, who was remained huddled up in his office, but there was still a continuous flow of customers coming and the man really hadn’t been there for that long, and I didn’t want to risk overreacting.
I continued to work for the next hour, every now and then stealing a glance at the man. He just kept staring out the window, hands hanging limp at his sides. Around 7:30 it was just me and the man alone in the room. I watched him as I walked around the counter to scrub tables near the back of the cafe. He didn’t seem to notice me as I turned my back to him and began washing the table in the other corner of the room.
I wiped off the table then spun back around only to nearly jump out of my skin. The man had stood up and turned around. He was staring at me. His expressionless face, smeared with dirt from who-knows-where, sent involuntary chills down my spine.
“Can… Can I help you?” I asked quietly.
He was standing right next to the chair he had been sitting in, but I’d have to go around him to get to the opposite side of the counter. It was too high for me to attempt to climb over.
I was trying to think of something to say, or a way to go around him, when he opened his mouth. I thought he was going to speak, but his jaw just hung open. Before I could react, a black substance – what I could only describe as sludge – began to leak from the corners of his mouth and down his chin.
That was it. I screamed.
The man audibly snapped his mouth shut as my boss came hurrying out of his office.
“What’s going on here….” his voices trailed off as he got a look at the stranger’s appearance. He paused for a moment to take the man in before snapping out of his stupor and yelling, “Hey! Get out of here!” There was no real force behind his words as he seemed at a loss for them, and the volume of his outburst seemed to startle him more than anyone else. He didn’t seem to know what to do.
The man continued staring at me. He waited a long moment after my boss had yelled before turning on his heels and taking short, quick steps out the front door and to the right. He stared ahead as he robotically paced back and forth outside the front window of the cafe. Not once did he look inside.
My boss seemed just as shocked as I was as his gaze followed the man, before jerking his head towards me as if he’d suddenly remembered I existed.
“Are you okay?” he asked quickly. I nodded, my eyes on the window. “Well… let me know if anything else happens, I guess,” he said awkwardly before shuffling back into the office. The soft click of the door latch confirmed my solitude.
My boss clearly didn’t know what to make of the man, and judging by his reaction, had never been in a situation like that. And that black sludge? What the hell was going on?
I sat down at the table I had washed just moments ago and rested my head in my shaking hands. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths, attempting to make sense of what had just happened. I stayed in that position for what seemed like mere seconds, trying to clear my head, when the bell indicating the front door had opened caused me to jump up so quickly that I knocked my chair over behind me.
A middle-school aged girl was standing there, watching me with wide eyes. I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding and laughed shakily. I walked awkwardly behind the counter as embarrassment set in.
“Umm… Are you… okay?” she asked, still observing me with wide, blue eyes.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just a bit tired. High school will do that to you,” I said, in a feeble attempt at a joke. She laughed nervously and looked away from my face.
“So, what can I get for you?” I asked in what I hoped sounded like a lighthearted tone. I took her order and went about making her coffee. I glanced at the clock as I made myself busy. 8:36 pm. I handed the girl her coffee. “That will be $2.78, please.” She reached into her Hello Kitty purse and pulled out a few crumpled dollar bills. What was a girl this young doing out at this time of night? The man was still out there, somewhere.
“What are you doing out this late at night?” I asked again in my artificially cheerful tone as I handed her change to her, fully aware of how creepy the question must have sounded.
“Oh, I’m just on my way home from shopping with my parents. They’re out in the car. I just asked if we could stop for coffee,” she said, smiling shyly while depositing the change into her purse.
I was relieved that she wouldn’t be outside alone. I watched as the girl left the cafe and walked across the street before hopping into the backseat of a car on the other side of the street and driving off. I took another deep breath and told myself not to let the stranger – who I was beginning to suspect was simply under the influence of drugs – get to me. But that black sludge… No. No, I wouldn’t think about that. I went back to cleaning tables, followed by the counter, before heading to the kitchen to wash the dishes. No other customers arrived.
Just as I had finished the dishes, my boss came out of his office with his coat on and car keys in hand. He didn’t look panicked or worried. In fact, he looked relieved. His shoulders were relaxed and his eyes held a soft look as he told me, “I’m heading home for the night. Lock up after your shift?” This wasn’t unusual. He often left me to lock up the place, and by then I was convinced the man that had appeared earlier was just an addict and that I had nothing to worry about. I checked the time on my phone. 9:13 pm. We closed at ten.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Great!” my boss said. “See you next week.” He walked past me, the bell chiming on his way out. I kept my eyes forward, lost in thought. People rarely came in this late. But I couldn’t help but imagine what I would do if the man returned.
I shook the thought off and made myself a cup of coffee. Employees aren’t supposed to make coffee for themselves, but considering the night I’ve had and the fact I was left in charge, I felt entitled to a latte Then the bell rang.
I turned, expecting to see my boss coming back in because he forgot his phone or something of the like.
I was wrong. Oh, how wrong I was.
It was the man, standing right by the door. Staring at me. Just staring at me.
I froze. My whole body, with the exception of my heart, locked in place. I stopped breathing. My blood ran cold and felt as if it had stopped dead in my veins. My heart pounded like a ticking time bomb. A bomb that was mere seconds away from painting the walls with my insides.
The man opened his mouth, slower then before, as if he was taking his time. More of the mysterious sludge poured out of his mouth and he began making a gurgling noise deep in his throat, as if he was drowning. His arms hung loosely at his sides, and his eyes remained wide and unblinking. No… more than that. His pupils dilated until his eyes were all black, studying my ghostly-pale face. No, on second thought, it wasn’t his pupils. It was the sludge, now seeping out of this eyes as well.
This thing was from Hell.
Then he moved. With rapid, shuffling footsteps he approached me. He was remarkably fast, and with each stomp his eyes somehow grew wider and wider. He let out a gurgling scream as the black sludge continued pouring like a fountain from his throat and eyes, as well as from his ears and nose.
He was just feet away from me when my body clicked into motion. I grabbed the coffee I was making from the counter beside me and flung it into his horrid black eyes. The scalding liquid hissed against his skin and his scream amplified. He attempted to bring his hands to his face, but could do nothing but flail his limp arms helplessly.
I bolted. I jumped to the side and ran around the creature, ducking under its long arms as I made a break for the door. I went as fast as I could in spite of the sludge-covered tile floor. Unsurprisingly, I slipped and fell forward, mere feet from the door. I didn’t look back as I staggered to my feet, but I could hear it behind me. A sound like nails on an underwater chalkboard filled the room and echoed through my skull. Was it… laughing?
I pushed open the door and ran to my car, which was parked on the same side of the street a few parking spaces away. I pulled on the door handle. Locked. In my haste, I had left my keys on the counter back in the cafe. Out of more sensible options, I ran down the street like a wild man, screaming at the top of my lungs, when suddenly two bright lights appeared from behind me. The next thing I knew, everything went dark.
I woke up in a hospital bed, with an IV in my arm. My parents were there, standing over me with terrified expressions on their faces. On the other side of the bed, there was a police officer who looked like he had better places to be. Then a lot of things happened at once. My parents hugged me and cried as a nurse adjusted my IV, and the officer attempted to gather my story. I told them everything that had happened, with as much detail as I could, right down to the consistency of the black sludge. Both my parents and the officer appeared skeptical.
“Ask my boss!” I cried, steadfast in my claims. “He was there! He saw that thing! He yelled at it and told it to get out when it first came in!” The officer exchanged a glance with my parents.
“Miss, I’m here to find out how you ended up in this hospital bed,” the officer began, “but I’m also here to talk to you about your boss. I regret to inform you that his body was discovered underneath an overpass early this morning.” Upon seeing the look on my face he added, “I’m sorry for your loss.” He continued, “However, his face was very dirty and his clothes didn’t have a speck of dirt on them. Not so much as a wrinkle. That’s strange, if it’s true that he had been at work all day. They were in perfect condition, except for the blood and that tear down the front…” He trailed off.
“What?” I whispered, reluctant to hear the answer.
The officer blushed as if realizing he shouldn’t have mentioned it. He sighed and continued, this time refusing to make eye contact. “He was cut open down the middle, from the tip of his chin all the way through his…” He glanced up at me. “…you know.”
My parents started to say something, but I couldn’t hear them. All I could hear was nails on a chalkboard hidden beneath the waves, ringing through my skull. Taunting me. Once again, everything faded to black.
I woke up the next day with a monstrous headache that lasted an entire week, and everything within that time was a blur. More testimonies to the police, more people looking at me like I was crazy. Maybe that’s why they kept me in the hospital for so long. Miraculously, my only injuries were some cracked ribs and a sprained wrist. The police never made an arrest. They never even identified a suspect, nor did they have any idea who “provoked me” – as they put it so condescendingly in their police report – and killed my boss.
I’m writing this to warn you. The police won’t listen. No one believes me. Someone has to listen. Maybe I’m doing this for my own sake, so that I don’t feel guilty when it happens again. Because it will happen again. In that event, at least you’ll know the truth. Though, in the end, does it really matter if you know what kills you? In the end, you’re all dead anyway.
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