By David Michael Newstead.
To watch it move was a waking nightmare. The creature could alternate between great speed and an unnatural alien slowness. Yet once it attacked, there was no escaping its grotesque jaws. In a matter of days, I had seen dozens suffer profoundly then perish. Now as the creature approached me, I feared the same fate – the gruesome death I’d witnessed so many times before.
Worse though was the way it selected its victims. I discovered the beast hid itself in the form of a decrepit old man – so kindly and frail as to disarm any suspicion. Because of that, it existed in plain sight, watching people without appearing to look at them at all. Each morning for months, it had arrived in front of me. It ordered a small cup of coffee, then shuffled off to a corner in the fast food shithole where I worked. There it remained for the entire day indistinguishable from other patrons: retirees, homeless people, hopeless passersby.
In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The restaurant was practically an intersection of death and despair. The neighborhood was bad. The addicts outside were plentiful. Staff turnover was constant. The creature had simply fixed its hollow gaze onto us and waited for an opportunity to strike. And if in that time a gang member died on the corner, if another drug user overdosed, or if a mentally ill person passed away in the alley, what great investigation really took place? I just didn’t notice it at first, but the creature must have been among us for some time.
I had worked at the Jiffy Burger for five years, long enough to see multiple generations of food service employees come and go: fry cooks, cashiers, managers. They would get fired or quit or stop showing up. No one cared. When Diego disappeared, for example, we all quietly assumed it was immigration enforcement. When Keisha stopped coming to work, we blamed the unseen boyfriend on the other end of her phone. And all those impatient looking customers in line registered even less to me. Most blurred together. A few were fixtures, using our Wi-Fi or our restrooms all day long. They were around for hours until they weren’t anymore. Then, of course, there were the old people with nothing better to do than to sit in a Jiffy Burger. Free coffee refills abounded despite the fact that our coffee was terrible. And if that geriatric hadn’t spilled her decaf one afternoon, I might not have ever suspected the truth.
“Clean up that mess,” Ronald the manager told me as he looked up from his clipboard.
For a moment, I just stared blankly at the growing puddle on the floor. The woman had ordered an extra-large, far too heavy for her arthritic hands. The whole episode was like watching a traffic accident in slow motion and I was the clean-up crew.
“Marcus!” Ronald said to me, breaking my concentration.
“Sure, Mr. Davis. I’ll get right on it,” I replied to that fat son of a bitch.
Seconds later, I was rummaging through the storage closet, pulling out a mop and bucket on wheels. It was the noises coming from the bathroom that day that first caught my attention. When I investigated, I found a shopping cart abandoned by its owner and some dirty clothes on the sink. One stall was occupied by two feeble legs in slacks with no one else around. Meanwhile, piles of cans and plastic bags filled every inch of that cart.
“Everything okay in here?” I called out, searching for a homeless person who was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, sure,” said the elderly man in the stall.
Perplexed, I closed the door behind me. I could hear Mr. Davis yelling again, so I grabbed the mop and went back to work.
At the time, this event was no great revelation, but once you see something unusual, a person’s senses become heightened to what else might be out of place. Later that night by the dumpsters, for instance, I assumed it was my imagination playing tricks on me. For a second, I swore I saw a shadowy mass of tentacles moving across the parking lot. But when I stopped to rub my eyes, it had vanished. Must be tired, I thought. Two bus transfers lay ahead of me that evening. Then, the whole ordeal would repeat itself again tomorrow at sunrise. I meditated on that fact for a minute with a Marlboro clutched between my fingers. Then, I resigned myself to finishing my shift.
Before I’d gone to take out the trash though, I’m sure there’d been one or two more customers still in Jiffy Burger. I hadn’t seen them leave, but they must have gone on their own, right? Some high school students left a complete mess in their booth and I went to wipe down the table as we were closing. Then in the corner of the restaurant, I saw those same rail-thin legs from earlier and the old man they belonged to.
“We’re locking up in ten minutes, sir,” I told him, trying to be both polite and forceful.
He nodded, gradually getting up from his chair and making his way to the exit.
“Have a good night,” I said before locking the door and continuing with my checklist of duties.
All cash must be properly counted, amounts recorded, and locked up for safe keeping at the end of the day’s shift. Check. All surfaces must be wiped down with disinfectant before closing for the night. Check. Be sure to thoroughly mop Jiffy Burger and have a Jiffy day! Check. But when I went to collect the coffee cup lingering where the man had been seated, I noticed that it was full and by then ice cold. Throughout the day, he hadn’t sipped any of it. Stranger still, after he went outside he walked past each window pane of the restaurant in slow motion until he disappeared into the darkness like an apparition.
That was the first time I became aware of him. Every morning after that, I realized he returned like clockwork, ordering his coffee and sitting there aimlessly. He barely moved throughout the day, had no visible emotions, drank nothing, and ate nothing. When I went outside to smoke, I sometimes worried that he was looking at me and I became anxious. What happened to this place, I wondered. Across the street were empty lots and abandoned homes, a wretched gas station, and a highway exit that no one ever took. How had five years gone by flipping fucking burgers? This was my daily ritual of self-loathing – the times I almost wished the old man was some kind of vampire. At least that would explain what had happened to this town that was slowly dying. Then again, maybe I was just being paranoid, I thought. Maybe my suspicions were unfounded.
Even still, I tried to keep my distance from him, it, the creature. One by one though this monstrosity came for everybody. It was increasingly brazen with each murder, showing more of itself. Out of the corner of my eye, I would see a dark pair of fangs or a pulsing thorax. Then when I turned around in panic, there was nothing – just shadows and discarded burger wrappers. And this made me ask myself – if I were somehow able to replay the last few years, would I recognize the beast’s handiwork this time? Would I see it tear people limb from limb right behind me? And would I be willing to acknowledge the bloodshed in my midst? Unfortunately, that question came too late and not just for me. In a matter of weeks, it ate Mr. Davis and the teenager who worked the drive-thru. It ate the morning shift and the night shift. It devoured all the customers and the loiterers and even the skateboarders in the parking lot. Then, it feasted on nearby pensioners and all the bus drivers making their stops. And by then, the last of the town was gone.
Not long after that, I woke up for work. I dressed. I waited for a bus that never came, then biked across a desolate expressway. There was no one on the sidewalk or in any store. I unlocked the Jiffy Burger and went through the opening checklist, unaware of the full extent of the slaughter. I was standing at the cash register as the old man appeared. Instinctively, I went to get him his morning cup of coffee, but he wouldn’t take it. That day, he stared through me, not at me, for several minutes. His body began to tremble in frightful spasms. The coffee spilled across the counter and I was paralyzed with terror. In shock, I watched the creature change into its natural form, while my senses betrayed me. The metamorphosis defied all reason. Its eyes were not its eyes! Its mouth was not its mouth! Its elderly face was just a façade. Completely vacant. Instead, all the meaningful parts of the beast resided in its human hands. Soon the old man’s paper thin skin ripped apart from the wrists to the fingertips, multiplying into a million outstretched spider’s legs. I screamed, but there was no one left to hear me. Soon, its true eyes revealed themselves from beneath what had once been its knuckles. Black and ravenous, those eyes glared at me. Its legs enveloped me and the creature’s fangs finally closed in.