Barb hated the night shift. She figured that the only reason that management even kept the coffee shop open overnight was that it worked out to be cheaper to have an employee tidy up the place rather than hire dedicated cleaners. And while the front doors were locked from ten to five to minimize the risk of robbery, the drive-through remained open twenty four hours a day. That meant that she could be in the middle of mopping the floor when the little bell rang in her earpiece, signalling that a car had pulled up. She had started to hear the chiming of that bell even after she left at six in the morning. It crept into her dreams, made it impossible to ever feel fully rested.
But she had needed the money, and the owners kept hiring more and more college kids, who were less likely than longtime employees to complain about the low pay and lousy working conditions. She suspected, as well, that her reputation as an “agitator” had made it harder for her to get daytime shifts. It wasn’t like she was one of those union activists she heard whispered about sometimes, either — she had just asked for a little bit of a pay rise and slightly longer breaks. She’d been working at the chain too long, was on too good terms with the owners for management to fire her outright, so instead she just found herself getting “mistakenly” left off the schedule more and more.
She knew better than to try and fight them on it. So she had swallowed her pride and volunteered to transfer from the bustling but well-staffed location next to a public library to the tiny little outpost right off the highway onramp, and asked her mom if she could come stay and watch the kids a few nights a week while she picked up graveyard shifts. It wasn’t a long-term solution, but she couldn’t afford to lose the job. She figured a few months out here and she’d be back in the owners’ good graces. Maybe — she allowed herself to dream — she might even get a small raise. A couple months at a higher pay and she’d have enough to fix the car, which would mean she could quit the coffee shop and take that traveling sales job her old high school friend had said she could get her.
In the meantime, the arrangement was wearing on Barb. The face that looked back at her from the bathroom mirror as she twisted her dark hair and tucked it up into a hairnet looked old and tired. She was only in her late 30s, but the dark bags under her eyes and the lines around her mouth seemed to add another decade or so. She hadn’t been sleeping much, of course, and during the times when money had been particularly tight since Dan had died, she’d prioritized keeping the kids fed over filling her own belly. It had been over a year, and she hadn’t even considered trying to date again. Looking like this, who would want her? Adding the lack of career prospects and two kids into the picture, well, she had given up any hope of Prince Charming busting down her door anytime soon. Maybe she should try women, she thought, chuckling out loud at the idea as she pulled on her visor.
She heard the back door close — the evening worker leaving. That meant the store was now officially her responsibility. As always, she had a list of tasks to accomplish before reinforcements arrived at 5 AM, anticipating the morning rush of commuters driving through to pick up their sugar and cream-laden coffees for the drive into the big city. She knew them by heart at this point: mop the floors, clean the iced cappuccino machine, bag up the expired baked goods and toss them in the dumpster out back, refrigerate or dispose of the sandwich bar ingredients, empty the crumbs tray of the big conveyer belt-style toaster, clean the staff bathroom, spray down the windows and glass cases, and help bring in the new baked goods when the delivery truck arrived around 4 in the morning.
Throughout it all, she had to listen for that little bell in her ear and deal with any customers that might show up. They arrived with some regularity until midnight, one every few minutes or so, then tapered off until the hours when most people were waking up. There would sometimes be long windows of thirty minutes to an hour when nobody arrived at the drive-through at all, blessed periods of silence punctuated by the occasional college kids pulling an all-nighter or someone just passing through on a long drive to God knows where. She wondered about these people sometimes, the ones who would show up at two or three in the morning to order a coffee, maybe a doughnut or bagel. Sometimes she envied the freedom they seemed to enjoy. The world outside the store was endless and inviting when she was confined to its meager square footage, even in the dead of night.
The tone went off in her earpiece — a car pulling into the drive-through. She adjusted the microphone in front of her mouth, intoned the phrase she would repeat over and over throughout the night: “Welcome to Coffee Spot, may I take your order?” The driver ordered a couple of coffees, a jelly doughnut, a banana nut muffin. She filled the paper cups from the glass coffee pots, placed them into a cardboard cup holder, grabbed the baked goods from the shelves with wax paper and dropped them into little bags, then brought the whole array over to the window, opened it and accepted the cash, returning the change and handing over the order to the guy in the car outside.
His passenger — wife or girlfriend, maybe — grinned as she opened up the bag containing the doughnut and eagerly bit into it. Barb could see the thing oozing dark red jelly from within its core and she yearned to be in that woman’s place, to be tearing into life, tasting it, but then the car pulled away and she was left alone in the steel and glass box with its fluorescent lighting and the pervasive stink of cheap coffee grounds that clung to her no matter how hard she tried to scrub it out and a hollowed-out feeling overtook her. She wanted to collapse, to cry, but the silent eye of the security camera was always there, watching, ostensibly for her safety but also, she knew, to ensure that she was working even when there was no manager breathing down her neck.
So instead, she took a deep breath and began carrying out the night’s tasks. The cars came and went, and the hours slipped by until the time came to perform her most-despised duty: tossing out the old doughnuts, muffins, croissants, and other baked goods. She was supposed to throw them into a clear plastic bag, tie it off, and place it in the dumpster out back. It seemed such a horrible waste given that the food was still perfectly edible. She’d taken some home with her for the kids a few times when she first started, until the manager noticed the bag sitting in the back room and told her that taking food home was against policy, because it might embolden workers to start stealing unexpired goods, too. She’d asked if they couldn’t simply donate the food to a shelter, but the manager said that they didn’t want it. So with the exception of a couple of things snuck out here and there, Barb had to throw out a pound or two of food each shift.
The waste of it made her sick to her stomach as she slung the trash bag over her shoulder and pushed open the back door, propping it open with a garbage can and feeling the cool night air on her skin. It was quiet, with only the sounds of distant cars rumbling down the road dispelling the impression that she was utterly alone in the world. She lifted the lid of the dumpster and heaved the bag in with a sigh, then paused — something was watching her from the bushes surrounding the drive-through. Four beady little eyes glinted in the foliage, probably belonging to raccoons waiting for her to leave so they could raid the dumpster. But if they managed to get in and made a mess, she’d be in shit from her manager, so Barb tried to shoo them away, waving her arms and stomping her feet.
The eyes didn’t move, just continued to stare at her. She intensified her efforts, yelling at the raccoons to get going and moving a little closer in their direction, expecting them to bolt. Instead, she heard a sharp hiss emanate from the bushes. The sound filled her with dread, seeming to rattle her bones. For a moment she felt glued to spot, then summoned the will to begin slowly backing up and made her way back inside, keeping an eye on the bushes all the while. She didn’t get paid enough to deal with potentially-rabid wildlife. If they made a mess, she’d just have to clean it up later.
The contrast between the crisp openness of the outdoors and the stuffy, humid heat of the place felt physically depressing. Washing her hands, she poured herself a cup of coffee. She drank it black, to the surprise of her coworkers and pretty much everyone she knew. The stuff was widely acknowledged to be drinkable only with cream and sugar or at the very least milk, but she sipped the badly-roasted brew down without any adulterants. She’d set aside one of the old bagels, too, and ran it through the toaster before slathering some herb and garlic cream cheese on top and taking a bite out of one of the halves. It was already 2 AM, halfway through her shift. Things ought to be pretty quiet until the baker showed up, she thought with some relief.
The tone went off in her ear, as if mocking her. She greeted the customer and heard him begin to place his order, but he was interrupted by a loud, high-pitched sound that made her reflexively tear the headset off. It was somewhere between a hiss and a screech, a hideous noise that bounced around in her head. Some kind of feedback from the microphone outside, maybe? That was the last thing she needed tonight. She picked the headset up off the dark tiled floor and held it gingerly to her ear, noting that the sound had stopped.
“Sorry about that,” she said into the microphone, “I think there was an issue with our system. Could you please repeat your order?” There was no response. “Sorry, I said there was an issue with our system. If you could please repeat your order I’d be happy to take it.” Again, Barb heard nothing from the other end. She looked up at the black and white monitor displaying the feed from the camera mounted on the back of the building, and was surprised to see the car just sitting there in the lane. What were they doing? Had the intercom system broken down, and that squeal was its death rattle?
No, it was still active — she could hear a low static hum coming from the outdoor mic. And when she peered closer, she noticed something strange: there was nobody in the driver’s seat of the car. The window sat half-unrolled and the car was idling, but no one could be seen in or around the vicinity of the vehicle. What the hell had happened to the guy? More importantly, why had he left his car in the middle of the drive-through? She glanced around out her window but couldn’t see anyone nearby.
Who was she supposed to call? The manager would be asleep and wouldn’t react well to being woken up. She didn’t know the number of any tow companies. In something of a panic — more over the prospect of getting in trouble for the drive-through being blocked than the disappearing trick the driver had pulled — Barb decided to dial 9/11, trying to explain the situation. The dispatcher chewed her out for tying up the emergency line and put her through to the local police, who promised to send someone to check it out.
The time passed agonizingly slowly while she waited, Barb dreading the possibility that someone might try to pull in and be unable to. She supposed she could go out the back to hand-deliver them their order, but then she thought of the raccoons and the way they’d hissed at her and the idea seemed much less palatable. Besides, it was against policy, and she wasn’t sure if it was the kind of breach of rules that would be seen as daring initiative-taking or just plain reckless. The whole time, she could hear the quiet rustling of the tree branches and the sounds of cars on the road through her headset — with the car stuck on the sensor plate, the microphone outside wouldn’t shut off.
Blessedly, nobody else had shown up by the time the police finally arrived a little after 3, parking in the lot in front of the place and exiting their vehicle. There were two of them, a tall, thinner white guy and a stouter black woman, and they crossed towards the front of the place with bemused expressions on their faces. When they reached the front door, Barb shrugged and pointed to the rear of the building. She didn’t have the key to unlock the front door, even from the inside — another one of management’s semi-paranoid policies. She watched as the two officers sighed and disappeared around the side of the shop. Turning and making her way to the back door, she was about to push it open to let them in when she heard that horrible sound again, crashing through the headset and causing her to shriek as she tore it off her head. She fell backwards into the sink, the steel edge impacting her hip painfully. Barb howled as she toppled over, clutching at her side as the hiss receded in the headset next to her.
Her whole world seemed to be vibrating unpleasantly, her hands trembling and vision stuttering. She sat up, the sound still ringing in her ears, and stumbled over to the door, pushing it open slightly. The cops were nowhere to be seen. Barb cursed, letting the door close. She walked back out to the counter and noticed their car was still sitting in the parking lot. Where had they gone? And why was the damn speaker malfunctioning again? She thought about calling the police back, but what could she tell them? That the two officers had just vanished?
She paced the small confines of the store for a while, considering her options. Certainly she didn’t have the knowledge to fix or even diagnose whatever was wrong with the speaker, and waiting around seemed stupid — sooner or later, more customers would arrive. She had to take action. The owner of the car out back had left it running, she realized. Surely there would be no harm in moving it to the parking lot.
Propping the back door open with the trash can once again, Barb looked around warily — still no sign of the driver or the cops. The last thing she needed was either of them coming back and accusing her of trying to steal the car. She ducked into the vehicle, only dimly registering that the driver’s seatbelt was still buckled. Closing the door, she eased the car around the bend of the drive-through and brought it out into the lot, parking it a few spots down from the police cruiser. She considered leaving the keys in the ignition, but thought it more prudent to take them with her in case someone other than the owner happened upon it. Breathing a sigh of relief at having cleared the way, she walked back across the lot and behind the store, towards the open door, when she froze.
Something was staring at her, black little eyes fixed on her own. Those four eyes had given her the impression of two small creatures lurking in the bushes earlier, but now she could see that all four were arrayed horizontally across a broad, flat head attached to a short, furred body the size of a large raccoon with an indeterminate number of legs terminating in naked claws and a thin, bony tail. Barb glanced at the door — the thing was between her and it. She considered running out into the street, but then the creature began to hiss.
Agony exploded in her body as she dropped to her knees, her hands desperately clutched around her ears to try and block out the sound, but the thing only got louder, its hair standing up as its eyes began to glow an eerie crimson. It felt like her skin was rippling, her bones shaking apart into dust, her organs dissolving. Some small part of her recalled a high school science lesson on the concept of resonance, but that memory was quickly pushed out of her mind by the all-encompassing pain she could not even cry out against. All the while, the creature drew closer and closer.
The questions of how and why it was doing this were entirely academic. Barb tried to look around for anything which which to fend it off, but found that her head was now fixed forward, and that she couldn’t pull her hands away from her ears if she tried. Rooted to the spot by the paralyzing tone, she could only watch helplessly as the creature’s face split vertically down the middle, revealing what appeared to be a hollow black hole, somehow more horrible for its lack of obvious teeth.
There was another sound, then, a sort of howling coming from the void inside the creature’s open maw, and Barb felt her body tugged towards the thing as if it were an overpowered vacuum. She watched in horror as her visor fell from her head, tumbled towards the creature, and unspooled itself into a single line of thread that twisted and slipped through the air until it disappeared down the thing’s gullet. So that was what had happened to the driver, the cops. The hiss intensified again and she was certain that she was about to share their fate.
Through the onslaught, she thought of the kids. They’d already lost their father, and now they were going to lose her, too. It all seemed so terribly unfair. Blackness crept in around the edges of her vision and she wanted to curse the thing, to spit at it, to defy it in some way, but there was nothing she could do.
She saw a light then, a bright and beautiful beam emanating towards her. It would be over soon, she knew, and she felt some small hope that she might at least be reunited with Dan in the afterlife. The light drew nearer and nearer, silhouetting the creature, and then, with a squeal and a wet popping noise, the hissing stopped and Barb collapsed forward. She could just make out the thing’s mangled body beneath the tire of the delivery truck before exhaustion took hold and she passed out.
When Barb came to, she was sitting in a chair in the back of the store. Her manager — a stern woman in her fifties — was standing over her looking upset. Sounds of activity out in the front of the store signalled that it was after five and the other staff members had arrived to help with the morning rush.
“Barb, are you on drugs?” The manager barked at her as she returned to reality.
“What? No, there was-” She tried to reply.
“The bakery driver found you passed out in the middle of the drive-through.”
“You don’t understand, I-“
Her manager sighed. “Not only that, but I took a look at the CCTV tapes. I saw you get into a customer’s car and drive it away. There’s also a record of you dialing 911 from the store phone. And lastly,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “You’re not wearing your visor.”
Barb stammered, attempting to explain. “Look at the tapes, there was… there was something…” She trailed off, remembering that the camera didn’t record sound, only picture.
“Yes, I saw that mangy little raccoon that the delivery driver unfortunately hit. I’d ask you to clean that up, but I’m afraid I can’t trust you any more. Give me your name tag. You’re fired.”
Barb was too stunned to try and argue. She grasped at the tag pinned to the front of her shirt, fumbled with the latch, and handed it over to her manager. All that, all she’d gone through for the sake of the store, and they shitcanned her anyway. She couldn’t believe it.
In a daze, she grabbed her purse and wandered out into the morning, beginning the walk towards the bus stop. What was she going to do? She absent-mindedly slipped her hands into her pockets, feeling around for change for the bus, when she found something else — the keys to the car she’d moved. It was still sitting there in the parking lot, abandoned for all anyone knew. For the first time since her shift had started, she cracked a smile. She opened the car door and settled into the seat, starting the engine and pulling out of the lot before she could reconsider. Maybe she’d get that sales job after all.