by Steven Cuffari
Paul Kinneman was your typical upper management douchebag. That is, he was an overpaid windbag who never listened to anything but the sound of his own voice. He oversaw the sales operations of a nut-shelling business. He got paid to make sure other people did actual work. He was good at it. He knew how to add and subtract and wear suits that the rest of his staff couldn’t afford. Somehow, probably merely due to his bewilderingly charming personality and shit-eating smile, he received the respect of his underlings. At the same time, he screwed them out of as much pay and as many benefits as possible. Of course, without them knowing and to his own benefit. He always found reasons for not giving anyone (except for himself) a raise every year. Usually those reasons included the bad economy and the greater good of the company. As long as he kept the illusion going, things went smoothly.
So, every Friday morning, he came to work at whatever time suited him best, while his employees came in punctually at 8am and prepared for the weekly sales meeting. One such Friday, he came in as usual and went straight for the office kitchen.
He looked at his fancy expensive watch and flipped on the television to watch the news. He popped a frozen breakfast sandwich in the microwave and hit start.
The headlines were filled that day with stories surrounding yesterday’s terrorist bombing at a city-funded carnival at the park. The microwave beeped and he swung the door open, pulling out the sandwich and shoving it into his mouth. As he chewed and watched the never-ending replay of the bombing, he shook his head.
He began to feel his usual morning thirst for coffee. He had already had one in the taxi on the way to the office, but he had long since sucked it down. He finished chewing the last bit of his prefabbed food and went over to the coffee machine–the Barista 5.4. It was the best corporate coffee machine on the market. It made perfect espressos, americanos, and cappuccinos with foam designs. It made tea and infusions and even squeezed fresh juice. He fantasized that one day he would have a similar machine to replace some of his less-than-desirable employees. He pressed the sequence of buttons that commanded the high-tech beverage dispenser to spew out a double caffé-latte. He barely took his eyes off the television as he did so. Moments later, the machine pushed out a perfect coffee, complete with a plastic top. He grabbed it and was about to take a gulp when his most loyal lackey Ernesto arrived.
“Hey boss!” he shouted.
“Good morning, Ernie,” Paul said.
They stared at the TV together.
“Oh it’s a shame isn’t it?” Ernesto said. “All those people killed. So many more injured.”
“Yes, it’s a tragedy. Thank god none of our people were affected.”
“I know. I have a friend whose cousin was running the carousel. He was blown to pieces. He had a wife and five kids,” Ernesto said.
“That’s terrible. I can’t imagine supporting a family as a carnival worker,” Paul said.
“The worst part of it is that he had no life insurance,” Ernesto said.
“What a shame,” Paul said. “But life goes on somehow, doesn’t it?”
Ernesto sighed. “It sure does. With or without insurance.”
“Speaking of which, are you ready for our meeting?” Paul looked at his watch again. “5 minutes?”
“Yes sir, boss!” Ernesto said. “I’ll see you in there.” He left Paul staring at the television.
Poor bastards, Paul thought. He put the coffee cup to his mouth and tipped his head back. No coffee came out. Confused, he inspected the lid.
“Shit,” he said. The drink hole was defective, covered by an extra piece of plastic.
So he removed the lid and raised the cup again to his mouth. Just as he was about to take a long, refreshing, well-deserved sip, a face appeared on the coffee’s surface. It was red, with bushy eyebrows and widely-spaced teeth. At first, he stared at it in disbelief. But as the face began to emerge, its eyes bulged and Paul screamed. He dumped the coffee into the sink, throwing back the faucet lever and watched the malevolent liquid spiral and the bulging eyes slurp down the drain. Once it was all gone, he stood over the sink and tried to catch his breath.
“Mr. Kinneman, are you okay?” It was his secretary Charlotte.
“Oh Jesus!” he shouted, turning around quickly, startled by her entrance.
“What happened?” she asked, rushing toward his side.
Paul realized that he must look insane and calmed himself. He flipped the faucet lever down and straightened his shirt. “No, no, Charlotte. It’s nothing. I, uh, think that the coffee machine is on the fritz. I’m fine,” he said. “I’ll be in my office.” He gave her his million-dollar smile and walked out of the kitchen.
Charlotte watched him with a confused look on her face and peered into the sink.
Paul settled into the leather chair in his top floor corner office and stared out the window, which arguably had one of the best views in the city, contemplating what had just happened.
I must be going crazy, he thought. Or worse.
He tried hard to stop thinking about it, but the face in the coffee was stuck in his mind. He told himself that he had been working too hard, that he should schedule an appointment with his psychiatrist. He picked up the phone to call her when Charlotte came in unannounced.
“Here you go, sir,” she said rushing over to his desk with a large cup of coffee. “Just the way you like it. The machine’s fine!” she chirped. “See?” she said, taking a sip of her own coffee.
Paul stared at the cup before him and began to sweat with worry. It seemed that the world pulsed around it.
“I’ll let you get back to it, sir,” she said and slinked out.
He put down the phone and kept his eyes trained on the cup. He forgot all about calling his doctor. There was vapor coming out from the drink hole. He had a strong urge to drink it and satisfy his thirst for the milky beverage. But he had a stronger, darker, more dangerous urge to take off the lid and satisfy his curiosity.
This can’t turn out good. Taking off the lid would either prove that he was hallucinating, that he was crazy, or prove that there was something more to the world that he thought he knew so well.
It’s all in your head. He picked up the coffee, got out of his chair and went to the window. He held the cup up to his face and inhaled the aroma of the sweet nectar. It titillated his nostrils and they flared up. He smiled and closed his eyes wrapping his lips around it. Just as he tipped his head back to imbibe, he opened his eyes and stopped himself.
What am I thinking? I can’t drink this! He held the cup away from his face.
I have to know, he thought and gave in to his darker desire. It gave him the chills remembering the menacing face. Still, he peeled the lid off and peered underneath it, letting in only enough light to see the caramel-colored surface of the drink. There was nothing there. He smiled and took off the lid.
So I am going crazy. He sighed in relief surprised at how happy he was to learn he was losing his mind. However, he didn’t enjoy his blissful insanity for very long. Before he could take a sip, the coffee exploded from the cup onto his expensive suit, and he gasped.
“What the fuck!” he shouted.
He looked at the coffee, and the same freakish mug emerged, now much faster. This time it roared at him. It seemed as though it was trying to speak. Its voice was raspy and wet as if its vocal cords were still forming in its throat.
It was almost half-way out, head, chest and arms when Paul opened the window and tossed it with the entire cup. He watched frantically as it plummeted and the wind blew through his hair. Rattled, he shut the window, ran back to his desk and cowered behind it.
“What the fuck is going on?” he asked himself.
After a few moments, there was a light tapping, a knock at his door. He held his breath as the knob turned and the door slowly cracked open.
“Boss?” It was Ernesto. “Charlotte’s not at her desk, so I thought I should just come in. Sorry I’m late.”
“Oh it’s just you,” Paul exhaled. “Thank god.” He trembled behind his desk, suit covered in coffee, hair a mess.
“Yep, just me. Are you alright, sir?” Ernesto was holding a tray with two cups in it. He came closer to Paul and set it down.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s that?” Paul asked, holding his hands out in protest.
Ernesto looked at the cups and then back at Paul.
Paul looked at Ernesto and then back at the cups.
“It’s coffee, Boss.” Ernesto smiled and offered him one. “Just the way you like it.”
Ernesto frowned, confused. “I’ll just put it here. Where is everybody?” he asked.
Paul just continued to stare at the coffee.
Ernesto sat down and opened his folder. “Oops, it looks like I forgot something. I’ll be right back.”
Paul didn’t acknowledge him. He remained in his chair and rolled backwards away from the coffee. He wasn’t going to open a third one, now that he was sure of what the result would be.
“This can’t be happening,” he said to himself.
He got out of his comfortable corporate cushion of a chair and circled around to the other side of the desk. Afraid, he approached the coffee cautiously. He swallowed, rubbing his sweaty palms on the lapels of his suit, and taking a deep breath, he steadied himself. He reached out toward the tray, keeping his distance as much as possible. As he got closer, he tried not to blink and continued to sweat. Just as he was about to grab the tray, Ernesto burst in.
“I’ve got it!” he shouted, holding the files he had forgotten.
Paul was startled and he shrieked.
“Are you okay, boss?” he asked. “What are you doing?”
Paul was frozen, reaching toward the tray, stuck in an awkward pose. Before he could answer, the cups exploded, spraying coffee everywhere. Two demons leapt out. They roared and shouted in a strange language. One of them jumped onto Paul and ripped out his throat with a swift bite. Paul’s high-pitched cry turned into a gurgling and bubbling moan as his blood spewed from the gruesome wound.
Ernesto watched in horror. His files and his jaw dropped to the floor. When the demons were finished with Paul, licking his blood off their lips, they turned their gazes on Ernesto. He ran, and slammed the door shut behind him. His first instinct was to shout and warn the rest of the office, but there were demons swarming all over devouring his coworkers. While they were distracted, he ran straight for the stairwell and didn’t look back.
He circled the dizzying spiral of doors and floors. His heart pumped faster with each turn. He clung to the rail, fearing that a demon could jump out at any moment.
By the time he reached the ground floor and flew out into the alley, he was panting, and his standard corporate blue shirt was drenched in sweat. The door slammed shut behind him. He hunched over with his hands on his thighs, coughing and spitting. When he regained his breath, he made sure that the stairwell door was closed and leaned backward putting all his weight onto it.
What the fuck is happening? he thought. Outside, things seemed tranquil and he felt relatively safe. He watched a group of delivery people unloading boxes from a truck into the freight elevators of his building and the building across the way. They all wore hooded sweatshirts and baseball caps. Each of them had a name patch on their shirt next to the company logo. The sign on their truck said “All American Coffee.” He wanted to shout at them not to enter the building.
They’ll think I’m insane. He looked out into the adjacent street and watched throngs of people pass by, going about their business, oblivious. He wanted to join them, go back to how things were before and forget about what he had just been through.
Just go home. He pushed himself off of the door and straightened out his suit. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the truck driver getting out. Ernesto put his hands in his pockets and walked toward the street. He looked up into the morning sky, and the sun’s rays slipped in between the highrises. As he shielded his eyes from the bright light, he felt a hand on his shoulder. Startled, he turned around. It was the truck driver.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he said.
The driver lifted his head up in such a way that the sunlight illuminated his face. Ernesto gasped at the demonic visage before him. It was red, with bushy eyebrows and widely-spaced teeth. Before he could take a step to run, the thing wrapped its vicious teeth around his throat and ripped it out. His blood pumped out so quickly from his neck that his face turned white. His starched body fell to the ground and splashed into the pool of blood.
The driver licked his lips and wiped the blood off his face with his sleeve. He wiped the rest of it on his shirt next to his name patch that read “Edward, Executive Director.” He motioned to a pair of workers nearby and pointed at Ernesto’s corpse. They came over quickly, and he watched as they dragged it away.
Then Edward went to the stairwell door out from which Ernesto had come, and pulled it open in spite of it being locked. He calmly walked up to the top floor.
Inside, he stepped over a security guard facedown at his feet, face indistinguishable from the blood-black puddle in which he lay. A woman was collapsed over her gruesomely reddened keyboard. A man was sprawled out across the threshold of the office kitchen, his head connected to the rest of his body by only a strand of flesh. He passed by desk after desk, corpse after bloody corpse until he got to Paul’s former corner office. He pushed open the door, walked toward his body and nudged it a bit with his foot. He went to the window, which arguably had one of the best views in the city, and contemplated what had just happened. He looked out over the streets and watched the “All American Coffee” trucks unload their infernal cargo into office buildings all across the city.