By Jade Gabriel
My once golden jalopy sputtered into silence as I pulled into the parking spot. I glanced briefly at my phone while I wiped away my morning tears. I was ahead of schedule. For once.
I slid the cracked mirror open on my dangling sun visor, and worried over my dark, puffy under-eyes. I ran my fingers through my raven tangles as I got out of the car. The wind strangled my sweater against my body in the space between my car and the coffee shop door. I reached to open it and caught my reflection glaring back at me with hollowed eyes that blinked out of synch with mine. I gazed at the emerging sharp-toothed, ghoulish smile until someone tapped my shoulder.
I knew it was a man by the way he smelled of cologne and the invasion of personal space. He gently pulled me backwards so he could open the door. I passed under his arm to get inside. The smell of roasting coffee threw its warmth into my nostrils. I forgot to say thank you.
“You’re welcome,” he said, chirping like a house finch. He stepped in front of me and tipped an imaginary hat that would have gone perfectly with his unbuttoned, almond colored overcoat, navy-blue shirt and obnoxious orange tie.
“I,” my word hedged as long twig-like fingers wrapped around my throat. Not now, I need to get to work!
“Yes, now,” said the ghoul. Its body spilled out of my pores in shadows that draped themselves across its’ rapidly forming skeleton.
I wanted to scream as the ghoul’s barbed palms dug into my shoulder. It breathed its strong, echoing voice into my ear.
“Hello, Cassidy, my how I’ve missed your body,” he chuckled. The rasp of it driving my shoulders into my ears. Please, I just want coffee. The ghoul allowed me to steer my body into line to order. Might as well take your time, there’s no way you’ll make it now, loser.
“I’m Hunter, by the way,” said the man from the doorway. He leaned over my shoulder like a nosey toddler. I followed the line forward without realizing. The ghoul’s breath chilled one shoulder, Hunter’s intruding face loomed over the other. I wanted to kill them both.
“Please, leave me alone.” I said to both man and ghoul without looking at them. My heart rhythm frantic in my stomach.
“Pardon?” The young faced barista blinked up at me. I shook my head, trying to ignore the rough caress of the ghoul as it wrapped its skeletal arms around my middle, and squeezed.
“I’ve got it, she’s a spacey one,” Hunter laughed, handing a debit card over my head to the barista. I looked down at the crumbled bills in my hand. When did I take this out of my pocket?
The ghoul squeezed me again, cackling as I fought the wave of nausea. Hunter nudged me gently out of line. He smiled at me when I looked up blurry-eyed. My hand was still opened with the crumpled bills wobbling on my palm. He closed my fingers around them.
“How are you today?’ He questioned. He lifted his hand as if he wanted to touch me again, but he stopped midair and shoved his hands into his overcoat pockets instead.
“None of your business!” I said. Hunter flinched at the bite in my voice. The ghoul had clamped both its hands around my throat. The imagined loss of air coupled with the pain from fighting the feeling, made me irritable.
“It was just a general question,” Hunter said, still smiling as if we were old friends.
“Iced Caramel Macchiato for Cassidy!” The barista’s pep talk voice flung itself at me. Her tone danced as she whispered, “enjoy honey,” my cheeks warmed as she glanced between Hunter and me.
I was frantic to get away from him and the thought that someone so aggressively handsome would be interested in anything other than humiliating me. The ghoul’s chortle confused my movements. I tripped over my own feet and sent myself sprawling backwards. A river of cold macchiato splashed down on me. Droplets of the drink’s promised sweetness landed on my lips and I was glad for my icy drink preference despite the season. I wouldn’t have to scar myself with scalding wake-up juice.
I struggled to sit up as the ghoul planted itself firmly on top of me. Its obsidian skin shifting over its’ skeletal body, exposing glaring, white bone with each wave of movement. Its sharp-toothed mouth opened over my face. Mine. The ghoul’s voice echoed in my head; its body twisted as if in pain when Hunter reached through its open mouth to pull me up by the elbows. He brushed coffee off my sweater. I could see his mouth moving but his words didn’t reach me as I turned away and ran.
Cursing, I yanked my car door open and hurried into the seat. I could feel the ghoul writhing around me, angrily forcing its way under my skin.
“All I wanted was flavored caffeine and to be on time!” I screamed in pain and panic as my morning tears sprinted back down my face. I picked up my cell phone, prepared to once again call out of work, possibly for the last time. The ping of several missed reminders flashed on the screen. Take your meds. I sighed. How many days had I missed? Is this why its back? I huffed against the ghoul’s total invasion. I wanted to slam my face into the steering wheel until my bone structure turned to fragments.
“Do it!” the ghoul’s voice thrummed beneath my skin, forcing every nerve to respond. Every thread of muscle aided in the motion. A warm, rough hand met my forehead where it should have hit the steering wheel. I burst into tears.
“I can’t let you do that,” Hunter crooned “, you should at least have your coffee first.”
I lifted my head to look at him, he was squatting and gazing up at me, a smile on his lips as he shook an iced caramel macchiato at me. I started to reach for it.
“It’s a trap,” the ghoul hissed, twisting my insides so that I double over. Hunter caught my retreating arm.
“Only for you,” he whispered, his voice turning hard. My arm burned where his fingers touched my skin. I could hear the ghoul screeching inside of me. Its body writhing inside of mine. All the pain and anger it felt rushed into me as I tried to pull away from him.
“Hang in there,” he said “, almost done.”
“Cassidy, you need me,’ the ghoul whimpered. Its final plea as its skeletal body melted though my skin, faded into shadowy smoke that turned into cold breath as it rose away from me.
I don’t remember getting up, but I remember Hunter’s arms wrapped around me. Shushing me as he rocked us and rubbed my back. I clung to him with my remaining strength.
“Don’t forget to take you meds okay?” He gently chided. I struggled to thank him.
“Who even are you?” I questioned; my voice was mumbled against his chest.
“Oh,” he laughed “, I’m just your average everyday hunter.”
Jade Gabriel has been writing most of her life. She is not currently published and continues to hone her craft while working on her first novel.