spatial jumpToday I'll greet this barista by name. Watch. He won't even see me coming.
The cafe's a franchise joint crushed between a bank and a chocolate shop. Greasy hands have made finger-paintings of the windows. I don't know who does it. I never see anyone touching the windows but the marks are new each time.
I stride inside. My eyes wander over the pastries in the display but really I'm checking behind the counter. He's not there. Well, I think, relaxing, there's a first time for everything—
'Hey, Randall,' he says behind me, and I nearly drop my shopping bags. He smiles from over a table as he attacks it with a rag. Did he see me coming?
'Hey,' I echo without thinking. Shit. Mission failure. Abort. He finishes wiping down the table and we exchange small talk as he swings around behind the counter and takes my order. You win this round, old friend.
Next week he's ready behind the till and as I walk over I jump my eyebrows at him in greeting. I start to speak but then I realise I've forgotten his name. The hello tapers off and I pretend that's all I meant to say. I don't think he notices. It's impossible to tell. His smile is rigid on his face like it was painted there. I read his name tag as he pulls my change from the till.
Week three he's chatting to someone as they hand over their rewards card. I get in line and I don't think he's seen me yet. Perfect. He hands them their change and their card and I'm stepping forward—
—when someone else calls my name. I freeze. There's someone manning the other till. The barista nods at me as my feet carry me past him. I nod back and turn to the saboteur beaming at me over the counter. 'Hi, Tracy,' I say, fuming behind my smile. 'How's it going?'
This time, though. Everything's in place this time. It's after lunch and I've caught him out in the open. No line, no second till. He's standing there like he was waiting for me, and as his head turns and he sees me coming I've got his name ringing clear in my head and there's triumph in my throat as the syllables well up: 'Hey—'
An explosion of metallic screeching smothers my voice. I look over; everyone does. I'll realise in a moment what my face is doing and clamp my mouth shut, but for now it's hanging dumbly open.
An ambulance is turned over on the road, cars bent around it like driftwood. A scrap of metal cracks into the finger-marked windows and angry fractures erupt where it hits. The glass holds. People yelp but don't scream. A body convulses horribly on the road, tossed by the impact into a position that looks almost like prayer. The chips of windscreen glass scattered over the asphalt make me think of salt. The ambulance howls its siren, petulant.
That's when I feel eyes settle on the back of my neck. In the shocked silence I turn to the barista. He is watching me. The painted-on smile is gone, but for a second I think I see something in his gaze I haven't before. Something glinting and eager. Almost daring.
The body on the road judders out a clothlike rasping sound, like a rag on a tabletop.
Whirling, thumping darkness. Flailing limbs, limp and hot and smothering. Something heavy on his face. There's a moment of panic and then a mental grasping, a whirring of cognitive gears until one of them catches and a thought coalesces. Run. Then: From what? But another thought barges stumbling over that one, loud and frantic. I can't.
He scratches and pries at the tumbling metal darkness, dizzy now and bruised, until one of the limbs flops off his face and he sees the portal of light right in front of him. A pair of chubby legs block some of the light. He beats on the window with his shoulder because it's too cramped to move his arm out from under him.
Something clicks. The darkness spins down and slumps to a stop. The legs outside bend forward, the portal opens, and the man climbs stiffly out of the drying machine. He steadies himself on an ironing board.
'Thanks,' he mumbles through his gas mask. He peels a sock out of his greying hair and hands it to the nurse, who is almost - almost - too baffled to scream. He jumps when she does, then stumbles back against the dryer as she starts beating at him with the sock. She shouts—
—in a language he doesn't understand. Sore feet beating bare on pavement. The sharp echoing rattle of guns down an alleyway elsewhere in the city. He stumbles over rubble, dives through a broken diner window, and scrambles behind the counter. Pattering feet come to a stop outside; there is hoarse conversation. He tries to quiet his breathing but his lungs are too air-starved from running. A metal cylinder flies over his head, cracks into the diner grill, and drops hissing to the floor. Thick gas spills from one end. He sees a body slumped against the fridge across from him, a gas mask loose on its face.
Shouts outside. Guns splutter, but not into the diner. The air is growing colder. Something growls out in the street and he feels it in his bones. The man wants to shut his eyes but knows that if he does he'll see a wide, yellow grin, the skin around it hanging loose and wrinkled like an ill-fitting suit. He crawls to the fridge, coughing as he tugs the gas mask on, and darts into the bathroom. He curls up in one of the booths until the gunfire goes quiet. By then the air is still and freezing.
Out in the diner he hears glass crunch. He always expects to hear breathing when it's this close, some low and hungrily expectant purr, but there is just an awful silence.
The bathroom door whines open. Outside his stall he hears the shuffle and rasp of fabric and of skin. The door closes. His lungs scream for air because he's been holding his breath since the glass crunched.
One of the stall doors whispers open. Then another, nearer. He can feel its grin, it's all he can see, his lips are dry and he blinks away tears.
The hairs on his arm stand on end. Nausea hits him all at once, and he grins under the mask. 'Too slow,' he breathes, and there is a tensing and a sudden rush of movement and his stall door swings open and he catches an instant's glimpse of wide smiling eyes before the world falls away and is replaced by whirling, by whirling, thumping darkness.
Vertigo hits as the memory rushes back. Soon, he knows, he'll recall the jump before that, and the one before that, and he realises with a pang of exhausted terror that he's lost count of how many there have been. Tearing off the gas mask he grabs the sock out of the nurse's hand and tries to drag her away from the dryer, but she pulls back and starts machine-gunning him with what sound like questions. 'Get out,' he rasps through parched lips, 'get everyone as far from here as you can.' But she talks right over him, and he's pretty sure she wouldn't listen even if she could understand him, and when he sees her words are condensing in the air he stops caring.
He lurches out of the laundry seconds before something gnarled and pale snakes its way out of the dryer. It slaps at the floor and the clothes sprawled there, then suckers down and braces itself. The dryer groans as a great weight is pulled forward, and as ice creeps along the tiles more shapes reach out of that darkness, things that look like tentacles or branches or arthritic hands or like none of those things, some writhing and unfurling, some sniffing, some quivering or turning coiled in the air as if listening, but all of them, all of them, searching.