By Hannah Benaroch
The soft humming of fluorescent lights was the only sound in the Dunkin’ Donuts.
Janet popped her gum and checked the time on her cell phone. Graveyard shift. The only job she could get to pay her way through community college. The market was hard these days.
José had fallen asleep by the hot sandwich press. Janet considered waking him, but decided against it. The tacky floor made popping sounds when she shifted her weight, and the glow from the vending machine tinted the whole room blue.
Nobody came for coffee at three in the morning. Nobody. It was such a pointless position. Janet had complained to José about that, three months ago, her first night. And he’d just shaken his head and said that yes, it was pointless; but they were getting paid, after all. That she’d get used to doing nothing but standing still for four hours every night but Tuesdays.
Janet blew her stringy bangs out of her face. She’d had, what, two customers during her whole time here, coming for cold coffee and stale donuts?
José snored. Janet stared into space, at the poster advertising the Happy Holiday Donuts and Pumpkin Coffee, even though it was April.
And suddenly, the door swung open, crashing against the vending machine. Janet jumped and José jerked awake with a snort.
A man was standing in the doorway, looking around the tiny, sticky building with every sign of delight. He wore a heavy trenchcoat, huge boots, and a wide-brimmed hat. The man’s coffee-colored skin was stretched in a smile, and his dark eyes were wide, like a child’s.
The man saluted – saluted – Janet and José. “Hello, sir and madam! I am here to Enjoy a Sampling of your Delightful Hot Beverages!”
“Our what?” Janet managed to ask. José was still staring at the man, half-asleep and confused.
“I read that on your sign.” The man looked incredibly pleased, like a child who has done something right. “Enjoy a Sampling Of Our Delightful Hot Beverages!”
Janet nodded slowly. “So you want coffee?”
“Is this ‘coffee’ a Delightful Hot Beverage?” the man asked.
“Um, yes?” Janet rubbed the back of her neck and shifted her weight again. “Do you want a donut or something with that?”
“Why yes, I will partake of your pastries!” the man declared. Janet saw José doubled over, his face in his hands to muffle his laughter.
“So…what size coffee?” Just go away, please.
“Your largest Delightful Hot Beverage!” the man replied happily. “And one of your pastries, please!”
Janet looked over her shoulder. The only donuts left were the plain cake ones, but she doubted he’d care. “Anything else?”
“That will be all!” exclaimed the man.
José was still snickering as he started the coffee.
Janet turned to get the donut, and dropped it in the small paper bag. She could hear the man humming to himself behind her.
“This is an enthralling planet you possess!” the man was saying. “I could stay here for a full millennia, I could!”
Janet froze, then took a deep breath. This was just some random guy, probably a teenager, pulling a prank. She should stay calm. She turned back to the man and put the donut bag on the counter. José passed her the coffee and she entered the price, keeping one eye on the man, who was now examining the napkin dispenser on the nearest Formica-topped table.
“Sir, we have your…pastry. This will be three dollars.” Janet called, trying to keep her voice from shaking.
“Why thank you, madam!” The man lurched back over to them, and for the first time, Janet noticed he moved awkwardly, his knees lurching with every step. Like he hadn’t been walking for very long.
Janet shook her head and handed him his food as he passed her four bills. Janet placed the three one-dollar bills in the cash register, then stared at the last one. “Sir…this is a hundred dollars.”
“Why yes it is!” The man seemed quite happy with her for figuring out the amount. “Adequate tipping for excellent service!”
Janet hoped the man would leave, but he sat down at the nearest table and began drinking his coffee. At least he knew how to drink.
Janet glanced at the bill, then shoved it into the pocket of her jeans. It looked real enough. Meanwhile, the man appeared to have drained his large coffee and was shoving the donut into his mouth, chewing nervously. José had returned to his nap by the sandwich press.
The man finished off his donut, brushing the crumbs off his trench coat. As he got to his feet, he slipped on the tile and fell backwards.
Janet started forward, then stopped. The man’s hat had fallen to the floor. Where hair should have covered his scalp, the skin was transparent, revealing a swirling, blue mass of smoke.
Janet opened her mouth to scream, but she suddenly couldn’t move. Everything was frozen, except for the man.
“Oh, dear. This is unfortunate, isn’t it?” The man’s voice had lost its buoyant ignorance and cheerfulness. “We had hoped to be here and back without needing to do any altering. I will certainly have to answer to the boss about this. Ah well.”
Janet struggled against the invisible bonds holding her, but every muscle was frozen.
The man shook his bizarre head as he picked up the hat and replaced it. “We never can alter the cerebral region. A tragedy, seeing as our disguises are otherwise perfect.” He adjusted the brim. “I promise you, humans, that this won’t hurt a bit.”
He waved his hand, and the world filled with blue smoke.
Janet’s eyes jerked open. She was lying on the ground behind the counter, and José was squatting over her, slapping her face. “You okay?”
Janet groaned. “Ugh. What happened?”
“Dunno. You just kind of…fell over. Too much time on your feet.”
Janet frowned as she sat up. “I don’t remember that.”
Janet rubbed the back of her head as she got to her feet. She had swallowed her gum. Her hair was sticky from the floor, ugh. What time was it?
Janet dug her hand into her pocket, looking for her cell phone, but her hand met rough paper. She pulled it out. A hundred-dollar bill.
Where could that have possibly come from? Janet stared at the bill for another moment before tucking it back in her pocket and taking position at the cash register.
Another boring night.