“More coffee?” I ask loudly to the man on the other side of the counter. Still no response.
I see a couple of my regulars glance at me and shrug apologetically as if his behavior is their fault. The stranger with short-cropped black hair, thick-frame glasses, a large crucifix necklace, and a puffy, bright red coat, however, continues to stare at the checkered counter, intently watching his own fingers dance atop it.
He was already strange enough from his first step into the diner. I heard the bell on the door clank, cutting above the quiet conversations of the few customers, the soft Pop Top 50 on the radio, and the ever-present hum of fluorescent lights, and there he was in the doorway, wearing pitch-black sunglasses.
I’ve got the graveyard shift on Fridays, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.—terrible, but by far not the worst job I’ve had since dropping out of school. This shift is quiet, just me and the cook, Jonathan, and almost always the same handful of customers. The worst job, by far, was babysitting.
Before I can pursue that miserable train of thought, in walks this guy at 3 a.m., wearing sunglasses. I was four hours into a long shift, my feet aching and head blurring with boredom. The crankiness was definitely setting in. Ellen, I reprimanded myself, your mother didn’t raise you to be so judgemental. Maybe he’s blind. Then, he took off his sunglasses to reveal those other glasses underneath. He sat down, didn’t say a word, and only nodded when I asked if he wanted coffee. I started to feel uneasy.
Now, two hours later, I ask him about coffee again. The sun is starting to rise, bringing a few more solitary customers with it. He ignores my offer, so I suck in a sigh and simply work my way past him down the counter towards more pleasant customers. I take a few orders, passing them on to Jonathan, sliding back into my usual rhythm and almost forgetting about the stranger.
“Hey, Ellen,” pipes up one of my regulars, “you can just keep the coffee coming. Deal?”
I smile and nod, but a voice in the back of my head reminds me I’ve been making more than my fair share of deals recently.
When I finally remember to attempt to serve the stranger again, he’s reading the newspaper, entirely hiding his face behind it. The headline on the back of the paper flashes like fire to my weary eyes: “Family of Four Dead in Tragic Accident.” Next to it, there is a photo of a house I used to know very well, burnt beyond repair, a familiar-looking car crashed straight through the front wall.
My breath quickens and in a blink the man goes from casually reading to slamming the paper onto the counter, pointing at the headline with an accusatory finger.
I stumble back like the word itself pushed me, grateful for the counter between us. The aggression pours out of him in waves. I trip on a broom leaning against the wall behind me, spilling the coffee in my hand all over my apron in the process. It’s burning and burning, and the broom takes down a few dirty mugs with it, cracking and shattering all over the pristine white tile. A couple of patrons look over, startled, but I only see the man and his terrifying, electrocuting gaze. Like someone has held a magnifying glass in front of my eyes, I notice his lips moving almost imperceptibly, and while I can’t hear what he’s saying, I know deep in my soul that he has been whispering into the ear of the universe since he entered this diner. Burning, it’s burning.
It’s like he branded the photo of the house into my eyelids, that terrible house with the terrible family within. I babysat for them for one month and they worked me like a machine, made me do things I can’t bring myself to repeat aloud, and then spit me back out without so much as paying me for my trouble, with a threat to ruin my reputation if I ever spoke any ill against them.
After that, I had few options to make them pay.
“I- I’m just,” I try to focus, to clear my head enough to speak. The world is fogging before my eyes. “I’m going to go clean up, folks.”
I flee into the bathroom. The last thing I see is the man’s coat, the color of fresh blood.
Once inside the grimy door, I double over, unable to breathe. Every inhale is punctuated by a cough. I think—I can’t be sure—but I think there’s something coming out of me.
Swirling behind my eyes are thoughts of deals and bargains, dark smoke, and looking into things I shouldn’t have.
I cough and cough and cough in front of the sink, and there is a sensation that something grabbing my hand has let go, and when I finally look up at my reflection, it is in horror, because my neck is black and cracked and scorched. My eyes, too, are as colorless and unfeeling as the night sky.
“You,” he’d said.
Me. I wished that gruesome tragedy upon that family. Me.