I’m a people watcher; a hobby that lends itself to a barista such as me. The coffee shop I run looks out on main street, a typical urban carriageway; large glass windows frame the human traffic passing. It was from here that I watched a daily ritual performed by a regular customer, just a sweet bit of charity, but now I wish I hadn’t.
The man was in his fifties. He dressed smartly, sporting ironed shirts, with new blue jeans. His ensemble finished off with shiny black shoes.
He sat in a booth by the window. His laptop out in front of him, clicking furiously at the keys, his double espresso to his side. He always arrived late afternoon, and left at closing time. His habit was a formality, a tradition.
I watched as he left my building, stopping at the curb of the road, waiting for a break in the traffic. He crossed, while rummaging around in his pocket. He approached the small collection of homeless people, in particular, a little girl in an alcove of the building opposite mine. She sat cross legged, her bare legs weathered from nights of sleeping rough on the street. Red threadbare gloves tried their best to cover her hands as she held them in her lap.
The man crouched, put some small coins in her hands, and waited; waiting I guess for a response, some acknowledgment, but there were none. Shoulders deflated, he put his hands on his knees, pushed himself to his feet, and walked briskly away.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen him do this, I cannot say when that was exactly, but I remember feeling a sense of déjà vu, when seeing the man give money to the girl. It wasn’t until I saw him repeat it the day after that I studied him.
It was winter and the night had already fallen. A brisk chill grasped my face when I left the shop to lock up for the evening. My hands grew colder in the small amount of time it took to take out the key and secure the door. I plunged my hands into my pockets, while watching my breath freeze in front of me. The man performed his ritual with clockwork-like repetition.
With their work day over, as rush hour came to an end, the homeless people gathered their belongings and headed for the bridge to get warm in front of one of the many fires that would be burning beneath; the girl stayed. I moved in out of traffic, making my way to the brick windowless building they called home for half the day.
“Hey,” I said to the girl.
“Here you go,” leaning over to put the twenty dollar bill in her hands, “Make sure you go somewhere warm, tonight is going to be a killer.”
She must have been so cold, the breath that left her mouth failed to condense in front of her. I stood up. She mentally processed the money I gave her, rubbing the fibre between her fingers, examining its structure, as if she was trying to determine if it was real. She looked up at me, her pupils were black and wide, her whites barely visible, the street lights sparkled in them. Her porcelain skin, poked out from the tatty grey hoodie that covered her unkempt hair. She appeared to smile, but it could have been a grimace, it was hard to tell. She lowered her head and didn’t say a word.
Standing upright, I sighed. I wondered if my act of charity would be welcomed, or just forgotten like the dozens of others who would have felt pity and plied her with another dollar. That’s when I saw him for the last time; the man with the ritual, my regular.
He stood at the end of the street, staring in my direction, with a smile so wide, as if he’d seen his child walk for the first time; he seemed delighted. I tipped my head in acknowledgement and his smile dissolved. His posture became stiff, he turned and walked off purposefully into the night.
The morning rush was a barrage of customers wanting their caffeine fix. As I rang up one after another, my gaze returning to the window, waiting for my regular to arrive. He was never late, he was never not here. After noticing him and his routine, not noticing him was unnerving and ever so slightly disturbing.
The work-day ended, without so much as a problem. Locking up, I watched the homeless gang from afar, packing up their meagre possessions again. The girl looked up at me, but I averted my eyes and continued on my way to the car.
When I got in my car at the multi-storey, I waited as the gridlock outside bled into the building and clogged its arteries with more vehicles. A stop-start forty minutes elapsed before the traffic thinned and the scenery turned from the dirty urban environment to the more welcoming sight of my suburb. The unsalted roads slick under the tyres caused the car to slide, making me slow down and delay my arrival home even further.
A frost had developed on the concrete and grass outside my house. It crunched under my shoes as I got out the car. I jogged to the front of the house, impatient to get out of the cold. A few feet from my destination I stopped; the door was ajar.
Delicately, I pushed it open, straining to hear even the slightest noise; but nothing penetrated the late evening air. Creeping into the house, I ran my fingers up the wall, feeling for the switch.
Click, a warm incandescent light illuminated the lobby, calming my speeding heart.
“Hello, anybody there?” I shouted into the house.
I lent against the open door and slowly pushed it shut behind me, setting the safety latch, locking it securely.
I ventured into all the rooms, checking every nook and cranny for an intruder. By the time I entered the kitchen, I was sure the house was empty. On the middle of the dining table was a note, scribbled in what I would call, childish writing.
Where do you keep your toys?
The note, so wholesome in another context, sent icy chills through my veins as I flopped down in the chair left out for me to sit.
I stared at the note, then at the half-bottle of red wine and empty glass that sat in the middle of the table.
Did I leave that there?
I slumped back and felt the pressure relieve from my feet and for the first time noticed my clenched jaw. I massaged it as I reached for the bottle and poured the drink. Trying to relax, I downed the room temperature red.
I finished cleaning my teeth, ridding my mouth of the alcoholic fuzz that clung to my mouth. Back in my room, the bed was awash with the moonlight shining through the unconcealed windows. I approached the curtains, grasping them tightly in each hand, but something caught my eye, standing in the ice crusted grass. A little girl, staring up at me, holding onto my gaze.
She must be cold, I thought, but she didn’t shiver. She stood still, as if waiting for my acknowledgement. Her bedraggled clothes hung from her slim frame, her bare legs open to the elements. She stretched out an arm and opened her hand, facing her palm up at me. A chill snaked up my spine, like cold fingers caressing my back gently. I snapped the curtains shut, letting out a stuttering breath. Steeling myself, I again peeked through the drapes; the girl was gone. All that remained were the ghosts of footprints in the layer of frost.
A feeling of unease took up residence in my stomach, reminding, something wasn’t right.
Staring up at the ceiling, the bedcovers warmed me, gave me a sense of security that had been lacking in the preceding hours.
A knock, the sound of knuckles rapping on my front door. I froze, stiff in my bed, as the rhythmic rata-tat-tat sounded out again. My rational mind told me to stay where it’s safe, under the rugged fabric of my sheets, in the sanctuary of my chamber. But I couldn’t resist.
I could see the blood pulse in my eyes in the dimly lit hallway. I held onto the bannister, at the top of the stairs. I jumped at the sound of the knocks again, this time pounding, thumping on my front door. I let out a small gasp, a tangible wisp of my fear and dread.
I descended the flight, my sweaty palms squeaking on the handrail.
“Who’s there?” I asked, a wobble reverberating in my voice.
With my hand resting on the door, I unlocked the latch and gradually turned the handle. An ice cold breeze rushed past my face, escaping from the frigid air to melt away in the heat of the lobby.
Nothing there, just the night.
But, in the distance, by the gate. The gently swaying trees cast shadows on something next to my car. The outline of something real, but too far away to discern. I squinted in an attempt to get a better look, but it remained motionless.
Was it just a figment of my heightened imagination?
It walked; a slow, stuttering and twitching shuffle. It’s arms flicked with every step, an epileptic gait that lurched in each direction, silhouetted against the darkened night.
I slammed the door, aggressively turning the latch. Checking the spy-hole from the comfort of my heated house. There it stood, fixated on me through the oneway glass, black soulless eyes just inches from the door; I jumped.
Standing in the once warm, but now ice cold lobby, knowing what was on the other side, I waited in fear, a petrified statue shaking uncontrollably. I slid to the floor, the freezing flagstone chilling my body.
I couldn’t bare to look again.
I didn’t sleep for the rest of that night.
My hair was a state, my clothes not much better. Creases that were so impressive they looked purposeful, but I didn’t care. The workday passed as a blur, my customers mere apparitions, unacknowledged but served. All I could do was stare out of the window, at the homeless people, and at the girl.
At lunch I took the decision to eat a selection of cakes and chocolate, sending my blood-sugar level through the roof. To the point where I began to feel drowsy and was worried I’d fall asleep on the job.
In a glucose-comatose I saw him.
He strode past the building with a cocky swagger, in a world of his own. He wore immaculate clothes and sported a new haircut. We met gazes as he turned to look into the shop. Taking us both by surprise I jumped. The regular put his eyes back on the road, cursing himself that he’d been seen and accelerated off out of view. I ran to the door, tripping over a briefcase; I ignored the irritated Hey! its owner shouted as I left the building.
“Sir, sir? Wait up!” Shit, I don’t even know his name, “I need to speak to you.”
He looked panicked and rounded the corner before I could even leave the spot. If I hadn’t eaten so much sugar I would have gone after him, but today, that wasn’t going to happen.
Reentering the building, Briefcase-Man stared daggers at me.
“Sorry about that. Let me get you a free carrot cake,” I said feigning a smile.
“I don’t like carrot cake,” he responded, folding his arms.
Key in lock, click. I left the building behind and crossed the road. My heart raced as I saw the girl, sitting in the same cross-legged formation she had all week. I checked my wallet, there was only a dollar. I took out the sagging bill and threw it in her direction.
“I hope this is enough,” I said, not stopping to see if she picked it up.
Is guilt the right word? I don’t think it is, more pity? Why didn’t I mention her to the police? She could be a missing child. It was strange, as if her young years betrayed her, she appeared like she belonged where she was. It didn’t even occur to me to help her out, other than give her a couple of bucks. She scared me; there was something wrong with her.
I slept terrible again that night. The stress of the week contributed to my broken slumber. I dreamt about the girl.
It started with me locking up my building, but instead of crossing the road, I made a bee-line for the parking garage.
She stood at the end of my road, hand outstretched, waiting for me. Waiting for me to give her money. I ignore her and brush past.
I enter the car park and take the stairs. I hear coins fall and hit the bottom of the stairwell. Peering over the railing, I see her, she’s at the bottom, her hand thrusting forward. I panic, running the last few stairs.
Bursting through the door to my floor, I get in my car. It won’t start, just impotent revs. And she walks towards the car, arm extended; and I wake.
A cold sweat pours down my face, allowing me to taste the brackish liquid. A thump, quiet at first, echoes out from behind my bedroom door. The second is not mistaken, nor the third. It’s the rhythmic sound of heavy shoes on my landing. They come to a rest in front of the door.
In the low light of my bedroom I instinctively reach for my wallet on the nightstand. I take out a ten dollar bill, hidden behind a credit card. I approach the threshold of the room, trying carefully not to make a sound. The floorboards betray my position and squeak. I hear the sounds of shuffling outside my room.
It knows I’m here.
The amber light from the landing spreads into my room. The unmistakable shadows of legs are cast onto my floor. Shaking I lean over and put the money down, bathing it in the fluorescent glow. With trepidation I stay rooted to the spot, as dirty fingers slide under the door and lightly tug at the money; as I observe it slowly disappearing from view. The footsteps resume, moving away this time. One by one, I hear them descend the stairs.
A tear rolls down my cheek and my stomach churns.
Dead on my feet would not be an exaggeration. The lack of sleep, combined with the amount of extra customers the local carnival brought, took me to my knees. My stubbornness not to hire help comes back to bite me in the ass.
It was early afternoon when I screamed.
She stood on the pavement outside the coffee shop, staring through the glass panes, right into my soul. The eyes in the room fixate on me as I dropped a newly brewed pot of coffee. The scolding liquid gushed forth landing like a tsunami on a nearby table; its occupants act out disgusted protests, which brings me out of my shock.
“I’m so sorry sir, please bear with me,” I said furiously mopping up the mess with a towel, stealing one last glance outside, but she was gone.
Closing time came slowly. Leaving only a few customers dotting the shop. I didn’t rush them, I didn’t want the day to end. One by one, they finished their Lattes and Cappuccinos, leaving the building empty again. My heart thumped hard in my chest, the large open-plan room uninhabited and abandoned, leaving me to my own devices. I busied myself with menial tasks, keeping an eye on the homeless people, waiting for them to leave before I locked up.
Leaving the shop by the back door, I strode quickly, anxious to leave the back alleys and return to the main street. After two blocks, I returned to my normal route on the road, I looked back and saw her, she stood outside my shop, staring into the empty building. Anxiety flooded over me when she turned and looked in my direction; I ran for the car park.
I didn’t go home that night. I parked the car in behind a dive bar called Jeeves. It was the type of place people go when they don’t want to be found. It would seem conversation was “not on the list”, left to wait outside for normal people to engage with. The barman seem irked when I asked him for a drink.
Six shots steadied my nerves. Five more put out the lights.
I woke with the familiar taste of stale alcohol in my mouth and a thumping headache. I checked my watch, shit! I was late to open up. I sped the car through the streets of the city to get back to my shop.
Parking up, locals glowered at me, checking their own watches, loudly tutting.
Well fuck you then, I won’t open today, see how you like that! I thought, knowing I’d do nothing of the sort.
“Sorry, sorry. I had a bad night,” I said, slipping the key into the lock.
If I don’t look outside, she isn’t there. If I don’t look outside, she isn’t there. If I don’t look outside. She isn’t there.
That didn’t help.
Like a nervous twitch, I glanced out of the window at the girl regularly. She sat, the same way she always did, cross-legged, and sad. Even after what was happening to me, I couldn’t help but feel pity. I took a twenty dollar bill out of the cash register and pocketed it for later.
During the last twenty minutes before closing time, I watched her. Then something struck me, I never saw her eat, or drink. It made me wonder whether the others took her money or not. That made me feel angry. I bet they do, I bet they do other things too. The thought repulsed me. I promised myself I’d phone someone, whoever I needed to get the girl the care she needed.
Closing the door behind me, I prepared to cross the road when a little girl in a wooly hat appeared.
“Mommy, can we give this girl some money? She looks so sad.”
“Sure, let me see what I’ve got. Hmmmm,” the mother searched her purse, “Here you go, honey.”
The mother passed a small coin to the child.
“Have a happy day,” the girl said, “Don’t spend it all at once!”
I’d never seen someone else give the girl money, people ignored her, acted like she didn’t exist.
That’s when I remembered my regular’s smile when I stood up after giving her money; he was happy. An adrenaline shot to my heart.
She’s her problem now.
A smirk burst onto my face. I unlocked the shop and went back in. Behind the bar, I pulled out a bottle of whiskey and poured myself a shot.
I stared at her between gulps. Excited that it was over, she was going to be bothering them instead of me. I watched as she got up gingerly, and with that jerking, awkward movement she shambled into the road. Sluggishly she lifted her arms and reached out. Tears streamed down her pale face, her eyes looked lost.
In an instant, opaque red liquid sprayed over the front window, as an approaching truck obliterated the girl.
The police asked me if I knew her.
I said I didn’t, but I had given her some money.
They asked, why I didn’t report her, she was a missing person.
I said I was going to.
He shook his head.
They asked if I had seen anything that could help them reconstruct what happened.
I said, “She was in the road. Her hands reaching out. I had been giving her money,” I looked into the man’s eyes, “She was cold, and malnourished I was just trying to help. But, I think she started following me home, so I stopped.”
The officer took out a scrap of paper, “We found this on her, thought you may like it.”
I cried when I saw the picture.
Etched with a ballpoint pen, like it was drawn by a three year old.
It was of a smiling man, arms out wide as if ready to hug. Next to the man read the text:
I like the coffee man. He makes me feel happy.