Updated: Apr 12
It was Friday night, and the coffee shop was finally closed. Maia was relieved; it had been a rough day. The crowd had started early that afternoon and barely stopped until an hour before they closed. She and her co-worker, Timmy, had been cleaning up for the past hour, and they were finally caught up. Now that they weren’t serving any more customers that night, she figured they could have everything completely clean and could leave within half an hour.
“I’m so glad we’re finally closed,” Maia said. “I thought people would never leave.”
“We got slammed, didn’t we?” Timmy agreed. “I swear, some of those people were so rude. It’s like if we didn’t get their coffee out fast enough, they’d turn into zombies or something.”
A few hundred yards away, a group of teenage girls sat by the fountain, laughing loudly. The coffee shop closed an hour before the mall; if they stayed until the normal closing time, their employees would never get home in time. Maia sighed as she looked at the girls. She had been a teenager like that, not too long ago. Technically, at two months away from turning nineteen, she still was. But her high school days of hanging out at the mall on Friday nights were long over.
A heavyset, middle-aged man came sauntering into the coffee shop. Maia wished they had some sort of gate to let down at closing time to prevent more customers from coming into the shop. Despite their lights being out and their hours posted on the entrance, the occasional customer would still come in after closing time.
“I need a cappuccino,” the man said, not looking either of them directly in the eye.
“I’m sorry sir,” Maia said. “We’re closed.”
The man wrinkled his nose. “What do you mean closed? The mall isn’t closed.”
“We close at nine, an hour before the mall.”
“Because we have so much to clean up.”
The man muttered a swear word under his breath. “I’m going to have a talk with your boss about this.” He walked out, muttering something about absurdity and ‘kids these days.’ Maia didn’t even try to follow what he was saying. She looked at Timmy and they exchanged a knowing glance before continuing with their tasks.
Less than five minutes later, a younger woman walked in. Maia recognized her; she had come in a couple of minutes before closing and ordered a rather complicated drink. The woman had seemed testy, so Maia had taken extra care to make her drink just right; still, she had cringed when she received it. She stood right at the bar, took a sip, and made a face. “That’s disgusting,” she had said.
“Do you want me to make it again?” Maia said, almost instinctively.
The woman sighed, apparently exasperated. “No, whatever. I’ll just keep it.”
Now, nearly ten minutes later, the woman came speed walking in, her high heels clicking loudly on the tiles. “I’m sorry, I just can’t drink this,” she said. “It’s terrible.” She slammed the nearly empty cup down on the counter. “Make it again.”
“I’m sorry, we’re closed,” Timmy said.
The woman scoffed. “I don’t care. Make my drink again!”
“We’ve already shut down the espresso machine,” Maia said. “We can’t make anything else. I can give you a refund, if you like. Or a coupon for a free drink next time you come in.”
The woman scowled and tapped her foot on the tiles. Finally she said, “Well, I really want my drink, and I don’t see why you can’t just make it again. But whatever. Give me my money back.” She held out a cupped palm and continued tapping her foot.
Maia opened the register and completed the transaction. She almost gave the woman an extra dollar bill; no way would she have been able to live with herself had she made that mistake. She handed the woman the money, who snatched it from her hands and left the drink on the counter.
They had customers like this occasionally, but people had been extra rude that particular day. The mall had been busier than usual; it was the weekend before Thanksgiving, and Maia knew it would only get worse with the upcoming holiday and, the day every retail employee dreads -- Black Friday.
“My God,” she said to Timmy, “Is everyone on their periods or something today?”
Timmy laughed so hard he almost dropped the pitcher he was holding. “They are being extra bitchy tonight, aren’t they?”
“I don’t get it,” she said. “We’re being as nice to them as possible but, you know, things happen when you get busy. And the nicer we are to them when something goes wrong, the meaner they get.”
“They probably want us to fight back,” Timmy said as he poured a pitcher of tea down the drain. “Then they can complain to the manager. Complaining is practically a hobby for some of these people.”
They worked in relative silence for another ten minutes or so. They finally finished most of their cleaning tasks and only had restocking left. Timmy headed to the stockroom to pull the things they would need to set out, and Maia started on the sink. The pitchers were clean, but the various teas and sauces they had poured down the drain had left it brown and greasy. She grabbed a scrub brush and got to work.
She had just finished one side when she heard the murmurs of a crowd behind her. The mall was closing in less than forty-five minutes; she had never understood why so many people came in so late, but they always seemed to. Unfortunately, she realized, they were headed straight for their shop. She was wrist deep in mocha sauce and didn’t feel like turning around, so she ignored them.
“Hey,” a man’s voice echoed behind her, “Can we get some coffee?”
Grunting, she propped herself up and turned to face the counter. “I’m sorry, we’re closed.”
The man slammed his hand on the counter. “We need some coffee. Now!”
“I’m sorry sir, I can’t help you. We’re already closed.”
The main pointed to his right. “See that there? What’s that?”
He jabbed his finger in the direction of the espresso machine. “That’s an espresso machine, right? So you should be able to make us some coffee.”
“I can’t, sir. Everything’s already shut down for the night.”
“Listen, lady. We need some coffee right now.” Behind him, two other men and a woman nodded their heads vigorously.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you. There’s another coffee shop about a mile and a half up the road. They’re open until eleven.”
“No, you don’t understand,” the woman said. “We need our coffee as soon as possible.”
“I can’t help you,” Maia said. She realized she was being repetitive, but wasn’t quite sure what else to say. How many different ways can you say ‘no’? She often felt like a parent, dealing with unreasonable children who thought that consistent begging would cause her to give in and let them have their way. But she wasn’t giving in tonight; not after the night she had.
The man growled, a deep, low throat noise. He sprawled his hands and arms over the counter, spreading the few drops of the woman’s cappuccino left from earlier. “I...need...my...coffee!”
Behind him, the lone woman of the group stumbled into the coffee display stand. She made some horrible noise, like a lion growling. She writhed and twisted on the floor.
“Are you guys okay?” Maia whimpered and stood frozen on the floor.
“I’m calling 911,” Timmy said, pulling out his phone. In front of them, the two other men’s eyes were white and glassy. Foam gathered at the corners of their mouths. At that moment, Maia forgot all about being polite.
The man in the front lunged toward them, growling. With barely any time to think, Maia stepped backwards, toward the area where the still warm coffee pots stood by the brewer. She grabbed a pitcher and turned the hot water on. It poured slowly into the pitcher.
The foaming man tripped over the coffee display. Timmy walked back out from the door by the stockroom, then saw the man and made a dash for Maia. He backed up slowly. The foaming man was now crawling, but his three companions weren’t far behind. They tripped over each other in their slow shambles, growling progressively louder.
Maia pulled a leg up and jumped onto the counter. “Come on Timmy!” she said, holding her hand out to him. He backed up slowly, but the man in front nearly grabbed his leg before he made it over the counter. They jumped onto the floor and ran out of the shop.
They ran through the sparsely populated mall, passed the tube top clad teenage girls casually walking through stores and the young mothers with screaming toddlers that were already up too late. Maia didn’t even think to say anything to them, to warn them or at least respond to them. She wasn’t even entirely sure where she was going; she simply followed Timmy to the security office on the opposite side of the mall.
Fortunately, a lone security guard sat at the desk, writing something on a sheet of paper and humming softly to himself. In any other circumstance, Maia probably would have presumed he was bored, or maybe even writing something like a song or poem. But right now, she didn’t care.
“Officer,” she said, “You’ll never believe what happened to us!”
The officer looked up, the pen still in his hand. “What’s going on? You kids all right?”
“We were attacked,” Timmy said, still out of breath. “These guys came in and got mad when we said we were closed and...” His voice trailed off.
“They attacked you because they were mad you were closed?”
“I don’t know, but it was more than that. They were growling and foaming at the mouth, like they had rabies or something.”
“Some guy with rabies attacked you?”
“I know it sounds crazy,” Maia said, “But we have to get out of here. Everyone in the mall is in danger.”
As if on cue, a scream echoed from down the hallway. The security guard shot up from his desk and darted past Maia and Timmy, who followed him out the door and down the hall. Sure enough, just beyond the end of the hall near the food court, a woman lay on the tiles, her head covered in blood. A man hunched over her, gnawing at the skin beneath her throat. Her screams soon stopped, and the man continued to gnaw.
The security guard moved toward them slowly, hands on his gun. “You kids stay back,” he whispered.
But Maia couldn’t ignore the sight in front of her, something she’d previously only seen in movies and on TV. Gripping Timmy’s arm, she crept down the hall, behind the security guard but angled so she could still see the man. The pool of blood on the floor gradually increased as they moved closer.
“Stand up, sir,” the security guard said, now just a few feet away. “You’re under arrest for murder.” The man didn’t even look up.
Timmy gasped and let go of Maia to nudge the security guard’s back. “Look over there!”
A crowd had gathered on the opposite side of the food court. It was the same crowd that had ambushed Maia and Timmy at the coffee shop. They moaned and held out their hands, swiping at the air like they were swatting away flies. They moved right toward the guard.
Beside them, the man looked up and snarled. The security guard pointed his gun at the man, then at the crowd. They had already cleared half the food court, jumping over tables and knocking down chairs — and each other. The lone man stood up, his gaze directly on the guard.
“Run!” Timmy said.
Maia took his advice and sped off, past the security hallway and movie theatre, toward the mall entrance a few hundred yards down. She heard Timmy’s feet on the tiles right behind her, and shots rang out from the food court, followed by the security guard’s screams. He must have tried to stop the lone man, but the horde caught up with him.
Maia turned her head back but Timmy said, “There’s nothing we can do for him. Run!”
They reached the parking lot, and Timmy veered to the left. “I’m parked over here,” he said. Maia made a beeline for Timmy’s red truck, but it seemed to take ages for him to pull the keys out of his pocket and unlock it. Finally, they were able to open the doors and climb inside. Timmy cranked the truck, nearly dinging the vehicles around them as he backed out, and they were off.
“Okay, what the hell were those things?” Maia said.
“I don’t know,” Timmy replied. “But we need to get as far away from here as possible.”
They were quiet for a moment, and Maia took in the silence she’d been craving all afternoon. But it wasn’t long before she heard stirring in the back of the truck.
“What was that?” she whispered.
The stirring increased, followed by growling. She timidly glanced in the rear view mirror and saw a stranger’s face staring back. The woman was in her late thirties, and her face was covered in blood.
“Timmy, pull over!” Maia screamed.
Timmy jerked the truck to the side of the road, nearly landing in the ditch. The woman lunged over the front seat, her hands gripping Timmy’s hair. Instinctively, Maia reached for the first thing she could — Timmy’s half full cup of stale coffee between them — and hurled it at the woman.
Immediately, the woman let go of Timmy’s hair. She sat back down in the backseat and folded her hands in her lap. The coffee dripped down her cheeks, but she didn’t wipe it off.
“Woah,” Maia and Timmy said in unison.
Slowly, Timmy reached behind them and open the back passenger door. He nodded to the woman, who seemed to get the hint and scooted to the doorway and stepped out. Timmy shut the door and drove off.
“Is that all they needed?” Maia said. “Just coffee? That will stop them?” Timmy shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what he had just seen. “Come on,” he said.
“Where are we going?”
“Back to my house. My parents should be asleep, but we’ll be really quiet. We’ll turn the coffee pot on and brew up as much of the stuff as we can.”
“Then what? Will we go after them?”
“I don’t know yet. But we need as much ammunition as possible, and we should be okay.” He snickered. “Imagine that. Homicidal maniacs who stop killing and eating people as long as they get their coffee!”