Chocolate Mint

The final shift of the final day of my summer job began like any other day. The Mountain Brew coffee shop was more like a cabin, nestled against a grove of redwoods on the UC Campus almost like an afterthought. Most students spent the summer semester slung across the tables like tanned hides, nerve-wracked over assignments and deadlines. I didn't even go to school there. I was just a tourist visiting family for the summer after a promising first year at distant Wellesley. I only sought some quick money before my flight back to Massachusetts, and the cafe job seemed ideal.

I gaze in the mirror now and I still flinch. I should have left it alone. I shouldn't have answered the phone. I should have stayed near the espresso machine and not helped anyone. It was my last day. What did I care?

On that final day, as a diagonal shade of early evening eclipsed the late afternoon sun along the walls of the cafe, the cafe's phone did ring, and I answered it, oblivious and happy.

"Good afternoon! Mountain Brew!" I exclaimed.

"Don't take that tone with me, young miss." a woman's low voice responded. 

"Excuse me?" I answered, puzzled. "What tone?"

"What, you know what. Don't get attitude with me." the woman's unwavering voice said. "You don't take that snippy tone with me." Was she crunching on toast? It was a strange sound that came to me, in tiny bursts, through the phone. I started to pull the receiver away from my ear - god, I should have just hung up - but I heard her voice again and it pulled my ear toward the receiver. I just had to hear what else she had to say. Her mouth sounded like it was full of peanut butter.

"Anyway," she murmured, still crunching. "What kind of Torani flavors you got? You got chocolate mint, little girl?"

"Wait, 'little girl?'... uh, do we have chocolate mint?" I answered. I felt rattled and uneasy. "I think we do."

"Can you check, please? I can wait. Go check in the back if you have to."

"Uh, yeah." I answered. "I was going to do that."

I stumbled over my words and felt dizzy. I might have just told her to fuck off, but the words wouldn't come. I felt hot-headed. I placed the phone down and wandered into the back storage room, dazed, as a warm and prickly anger rose up in me. I considered running back and hanging up the phone, but I was unable to muster the will to do it. 

I ran my fingers along the bottle labels... cacao, cream de menthe, peach, persimmon, vanilla, sugar free vanilla, strawberry, grape. No chocolate mint. Was that even a flavor? 

I went back to the phone and immediately said,

"We can mix cacao with creme de menthe, but we don't have chocolate mint."

"I want chocolate mint. I have a question for you. Are you stupid? Put someone else on." she retorted. "Put someone else on right now. I just want chocolate mint."

"I'm the only one here." I answered, the dizziness taking hold of me again. "I'm the shift manager, and I can tell you with certainty that we don't have chocolate mint Torani."

"Oh, 'with certainty?'" she mocked, giddy mirth in her voice. "What are you, a lawyer? Idiot girl. You're awful at your job." she said testily. "Do you know that? You are just terrible, young lady."

"I'm sorry I let you down." I replied. "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"Don't get sarcastic with me!" she snapped, her low voice rising up to a shriek. "You let yourself down. How are you going to forgive yourself after I come over there and fuck you up, young lady? How would you like me to scratch you up?! Don't have chocolate mint? We'll just see about that." 

With her final, last insidious whisper, I heard a click, and a dial tone, and was left all alone behind the counter as a long line formed at the register.  

Dave and Paula, my work-mates, both called to say they wouldn't make it in. I knew they were dating; they were both probably in the same bed, calling from the same phone. They thought they were so sneaky. I was supposed to go home after five and get my things packed for my flight. Now I'd work late and get no sleep. At least, with tips from that night, I could grab an extra large breakfast in the morning, and try to sleep on the six hour flight. First, though, I had the rest of the shift to work, and I wasn't looking forward to it.

For a while, I took orders, filled bags with beans, made drinks, kept dishes washed, filled the milk and sugar, rotated the music and found myself glancing at the door more than once. I thought about the call from earlier. Who was that weird lady? Why would someone threaten me like that over something as trivial as syrup?

By 9:30 pm, the last of the crowds slowed to a trickle and a few visitors remained, lying over their book bags or plugged into their laptops. I ducked down to place more clean glasses on top of the espresso machine, and when I stood up, I saw an old lady near the front door, near the wood paneling in the entryway. The bushes outside swirled in the evening's pre-storm gusts.

The lady was short with close cropped grey hair. She stood at the door and did not move. She wore big aviator sunglasses and a giant poncho type blouse and flowered bloomers. Her hands were cracked and grey but her nails were immaculate, and long, and sharp, and painted a pink-purple shade. A stained book bag hung across her shoulders. She kept her aviators on, though the sun had long set, and grinned at me across the room. It grew clear from her eerie smile that she was the lady I spoke to over the phone.

I pretended to ignore her at first, and started taking apart one of the grinders and putting up some more clean dishes. My heart was pounding a little. It shouldn't have been. I wasn't afraid of this lady. She could have been close to eighty or eighty-five. She reminded me of my third grade teacher, Miss Mackey, a lady who used to berate me in class for twirling my hair. Maybe that was why I was afraid. She reminded me of someone else. How ridiculous.

I took a few tea orders, and over the shoulders of the customers I spotted her walking slowly up near them. I got real dizzy again. I noticed that the old lady's upper lip was pursed and wrinkled. The eerie smile had faded from her face, which was suddenly fixed and serious. I handed the last tea to a group of students and faced the old lady.

"Chocolate mint." she said. "Give me it." She put out her hand and held it there, grasping crooked, spindly fingers at an invisible bottle I should have already given her. Her nails were like claws, whittled to points and the color of pepto bismol. She flicked them together and I heard the sound of sharpening knives.

"I told you over the phone," I said patiently, my voice shaking. "We don't have chocolate mint. I can mix cacao with creme de menthe." I had a tough time standing up straight. I leaned on the counter to steady myself.

"You lie." she spat. "Prove it. You told me. You said you did. Prove it." while she spoke, she pursed and pushed her upper lip out. "Bring me the bottle." she ordered.

I was unsteady and nauseous but starting to get angry. My mouth unhinged.

"You want proof we don't have it?" I shot back. "Wait here, you old bitch!"

As I stormed into the back, I heard her cackling loudly behind me. "Oh! You want call me bitch, do you? You'll pay for that! Hahaha!" She cackled some more as I started grabbing Torani bottles off the shelf. I re-emerged behind the counter and began placing them, side by side.

"See?" I said, my temper at last unleashed. "See, no chocolate mint! You want raspberry, or blueberry, or blackberry, or how about hazelnut? Huh? How about that?"

"I want chocolate mint." she said again.

She reached into her bag and pulled out a triangular slice of charred toast, and put it in her mouth. The crumbs danced around her wrinkly face and fell to the floor. She stood there, crunching, like it was all she was able to do, and when she was finished, she lifted up her hand and gestured with one talon for me to approach. Something had changed in the cafe. It was darker. The shadows had deepened.

I didn't want to move, but I did. I tried crying out, screaming, yelling for help, but my voice was gone. The cafe was empty, too. The students had all left. What time was it? Was it closing time?

"I locked the door, you superficial cunt." the old woman croaked. Her face retained a stern visage like a statue's. "Naughty, naughty girl." she said. "Come here, naughty girl."

The feeling was one of abject horror as I stepped against my will closer to the register. I managed to swipe my arm back and get a hold of a bottle, but by then, she was just a few feet from my face. I held my arms behind my back, straining not to drop the bottle. Once I got close enough to her, she swung out and sliced my cheek with a single nail from her pointer finger, then sliced it again. And again. And again. I couldn't raise my arms to defend myself. I winced each time she swiped. Adrenalin surged through me, but the energy went nowhere.

"You are an ugly, ugly little girl!" she hissed as she clawed my face. Warm blood tickled my cheeks and dripped along my jaw.

"Wait!" I cried, tears mingling with the blood. "Wait, wait! I found it! Ch-chocolate mint! W-we have it! Let me give it to you!!" It took every ounce of strength I had to grasp the bottle behind my back.

She stopped, and placed two talons on her chin thoughtfully. The edges of her nails were smeared with my blood. She smiled.

"Give me it." she said again, quickly and tersely. "Give me chocolate mint."

Whatever force that had paralyzed me released long enough for me to re-claim my grip on the bottle neck. Stores of pent-up adrenalin rushed over my body. As I swung, I screamed, and as I screamed, I felt the pain from the deep cuts lacing across my face.

"You want it? Here!" I cried, as the bottle connected with the spot just above her temple, and smashed apart over her face. I clamored over the counter and, still gripping the broken neck of the bottle, swung it again, and this time, it raked over her throat. She stumbled back, looking very much like an old woman whose walker had been jerked away, and landed on her backside. Her purse fell to the floor, and pieces of toast spread and tumbled out across the floor. She went to grab for one, but I leaned down, my face burning and wet with blood, and rolled her aggressively toward the door. I felt small slices on my arm as she tried to fend me off, but soon both her hands were at her own throat, just trying to stem the bleeding. Her movements grew slower, and I backed away.

From the register to the door, the floor was smeared with a wide dark brown stain. It should have been blood, but it wasn't. I caught the pungent iron tang of blood off my battered face, but this... this substance on the floor bore a sweeter scent. If I had been thinking clearly, had my eyes and nose not been clogged with blood, I'd have figured it out immediately. That old scent that the old woman bled, it was syrup. It was chocolate mint syrup.

Her voice barely sounded human any more. She choked and coughed and, holding one taloned, wrinkled hand over her bleeding gizzard, she reached up and yanked off her aviator glasses. Snake slits blinked there in place of eyes. She opened her mouth wide and said, "Gaaaaah!!!" in a final gasp, as the slits-for-eyes closed, and she fell back, steady pumps of syrup still pouring out from the gash in her neck.

Still shaking, I stumbled toward the door, and, confirming it was locked, headed into the cafe bathroom. My face was in tatters. Strips of skin had curled off like fancy ribbon and were hanging sadly off my face. I could see deep red muscle beneath. I was a monster. I would never have a future. My Welleslian classmates would shun me. My family would cut me off. I'd be put in prison for assaulting a... a what? What was the creature lying in the front of the cafe door? Why had she chosen me? I had to call campus security, and then the local cops.

When I came out from the bathroom, still shaking, I spied the blood on the counter near the register from where she'd attacked me. I looked toward the front door, to where I'd rolled the body, but nothing was there. Oh shit. She wasn't dead. I hunched behind the counter and made my way to the front, listening for sounds. Nothing.

I stood up and looked down. The cafe was entirely empty, save for a single bottle, its viscous contents spilled all over the tile. I looked over at the counter, then the tile, with the bottle, then thought about my face.

Oh god, oh no, I thought. There's no proof. They're going to think I did this to myself. They'll think I cut my own face with the bottle.

That wasn't me. There was no way I had imagined it. That old woman - or whatever she was - had threatened and maimed me. I needed proof, so I ran toward the door. No evidence of the wide smear or of the pool of syrup where she'd gone limp.

"What am I going to say?!" I cried aloud, speaking to no one, a panicked hysteria rising up in me. The winds outside had picked up and the fierceness whipped the trees up into a frenzy.

"You're not crazy, Anne." I said to myself. "You're not crazy. This happened."

My cheeks burned. No cops, I determined. Not yet. First, the hospital. I need them to fix me. I unlocked the door and stepped outside. The wind numbed my ruined face. It was like waking up. I was halfway to accepting what I'd done to myself when I stepped on something with a loud crunch. I stooped down for a closer look, and caught sight of a broken pair of large black aviator glasses. They lay on the pavement, covered in syrup.


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