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by Audrey Harper

I swirled the last mouthful of coffee around the bottom of my porcelain cup, my eyes unfocused as I thought about the taste of the drink. It was sweet, and clung to the side of my tongue like a film. I scratched my tongue against my teeth before taking the last sip.

The cafe around me was busy. There were tables filled to capacity with students from the local college studying for finals or chatting away. The workers behind the counter greeted every new customer with the kind of enthusiasm that only morning people can muster. Coupled with the whirring of blenders and the espresso machine, the sounds of humanity created what was normally the perfect white noise for work.

But I couldn’t focus on my work. Flitting at the edge of my vision were shadows, sometimes human shaped, sometimes not. Yet whenever I turned to see who was standing behind me, nothing was there. I shook my head and fixed my eyes on my computer screen. This article had to be written by midnight tonight, and I had procrastinated long enough.

“Another refill?”

I looked up at the barista standing beside my table. She was short in stature, and her long, dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail beneath her uniform hat. In her hand was a coffee pot, and she was gesturing it towards my empty cup. This would be my fifth refill, but I nodded anyways. The barista gave me a quick smile as she poured the coffee to the brim, and then drifted back towards the counter.

I lifted the fresh coffee to my lips, wincing violently as the heat struck my tongue. I lowered the cup and glanced around to make sure no one had witnessed me burn myself.

Then, I saw it. Some dark shape lurking in the alcove that lead to the cafe’s bathrooms. I sat as still as my caffeine-fueled body would allow, only tapping the tip of one finger against the corner of my computer and bouncing one leg. I stared at the shape, trying to discern features, limbs, anything that would tell me it was human. But I couldn’t be sure.

One of the students got up from her table and walked in the direction of the bathrooms. I wanted to call out and stop her. Did she not see the shadowy thing right there?

She passed by without a second thought, and I breathed out a shaky sigh of relief. No, it was fine. It was probably just some local tacking up a flyer on the bulletin boards that lined the alcove walls.

“Breathe,” I muttered to myself. “It’s just all the coffee making you this nervous.”

I decided that the next time the barista came over to fill my mug I would refuse. Maybe I would ask for a water instead.

After a few minutes of fruitless screen-staring, I glanced up to see that the shadow had eyes and that it was looking straight at me. That wasn’t a person. There was no way a human being could have glowing white eyes, swimming in the inky form of what could have been a face. My entire body went stiff with fear, even my tapping finger ceased movement. I could only stare into those eyes…

The figure moved closer to the edge of the alcove, and long, shadowing fingers curled around the corner, almost as if it were pulling itself closer to look at me better. The fingers were longer than entire hand, with pointed, dirty nails. Why was this the only shape I could make out of this creature? The fingers, no, the claws, scratched into the wall as the figure moved back down the alcove and out of sight.

A moment of relief swept over me as my body relaxed. I shook my head and glanced at my coffee cup, thinking that maybe I should order that water now. But with a start, I realized the student hadn’t come back from the bathroom, and if by some chance what I’d seen hadn’t been a figment of my imagination, that’s the direction the figure had gone.

I took a deep breath, got up, and started walking in the direction of the bathroom. Every step I took sent a shudder through me, muscle-made warning bells that convinced me that the moment I stepped into the alcove I’d be pounced upon. The coffee made my head move faster than the world around me, and it was almost like I was watching the other customers fix judgmental eyes on me in slow motion. Somehow, they all knew I’d seen something, and when I came back from the bathroom after realizing it was my imagination, they’d all laugh at me.

I shook my head again, trying to regain some balance, and turned into the alcove. My breathing went ragged, but there was no shadow monster waiting for me. Just an empty hallway. I stepped towards the lady’s room, my hand shaking before me as a reached for the door handle. I was being silly…when I walked in, all I would see is the three stalls, and the student’s feet in one of them. She was probably playing on her phone. Probably.

I pushed the door open and stepped into the bathroom, finding it…empty. All of the stall doors were open, and the sinks were just normal, dripping sinks. I swallowed, still feeling that sense that something was just waiting behind the corner to get me, and I slowly moved farther into the bathroom.

I turned the faucet a little to get the drips to stop making sound on the little metal stopper. Silence, besides the muffled sounds of humanity coming from the cafe, washed over me.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

I stared at the sinks. None of them were leaking anymore, so I whirled around, thinking that maybe there might be a pipe burst in the ceiling. Instead I found myself face to face with the college student from before.

Except she was dead.

And staked to the concrete wall with long, metal bars.

My body convulsed as I fought back the urge to vomit. The girl was staked high up enough that I hadn’t been able to see her feet, her body ripped open from clavicle to pelvis, ribs opened like butterfly wings to expose her innards.

I couldn’t fight the vomit back anymore, and ran into the next stall to hurl into the toilet. I couldn’t breathe. I had to find someone to call the police. Could I just run out into the crowded cafe, where the girl’s friends were, and shout about what happened? Or would it be better to try to subtly tell a barista?

I glanced down at my shoes, horrified to see that I was standing in a puddle of blood, where it had dripped down from the body. Screw it. Running out and screaming seemed like the best option. Especially if it meant I could get away from the dead student.

“Help!” I yelled, yanking the door open. “Someone call the police! There’s been a murder!”

Murderer. Monster. I wasn’t sure. The only thing I was certain of was the looks everyone gave me right before chaos broke out. People scrambled over each other in an attempt to vacate the crowded cafe.

In confusion, I looked to the baristas for help. Only one remained calm; the one who had brought me my refills. She looked me up and down, and I copied her gaze, finding myself holding a large, serrated knife. My clothes were sticky and stained with blood, even though I’d never touched the girl.

“Help me,” I pleaded. “I didn’t do this.”

“I know,” she replied, lifting a mug of coffee to her lips. She tapped her nails…her long, pointed, dirty nails against the porcelain, and gave me a smile that sent ice straight to my bones. She blinked, her eyes suddenly glowing white.

And winked.

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