On the eve of the First Wave, Kylie Linaker is enjoying a balmy Saturday night with her boyfriend, Jimmy Harris. Parked in her baby blue Camaro atop Make-Out Point, Kylie flips her ponytail and tells Jimmy that she’s finally ready to go all the way. Jimmy says nobody talks like that anymore, and Kylie says do you want to do it or not, playfully flicking the silver-wrapped Trojan Ultra-Thin at his face, where the serrated edge of the foil nicks Jimmy under his left eye. She kisses the mark.
The car rocks to their rhythm, side to side. Outside, something slithers out of the forest’s shadow. It shatters against the door. A metallic boom sounds in the cab.
Kylie stops and says what was that, and Jimmy says it was probably nothing, but she refuses to keep going until he goes outside to check it out, so he does.
* * *
Our blob makes the staff meeting agenda after it eats Megan. Fade-in on Tim, the manager of Milk and Honey Espresso Cafe, sitting with us in a circle of stools. He lets us know one of his weekday openers is now permanently out of service, due to being digested into a mucousy pile of flesh. He’d had to make the owner aware. Tim found her oozing out of the mop closet, the bloodsoaked leg of her thrifted jeans poking out from underneath the door, as if she were still trying to escape. He tells us an opener position is now available.
I get it over Will, which pisses him off. Shot reverse shot on me avoiding his glare.
Tim passes out liability waivers and pens. The new girl, Chloe, asks if we will be having a memorial. Otis asks about the dosing for the new single origin coffee, a natural Ethiopian which, he’s sure, demands a slightly-higher-than-usual 17:1 water-to-grounds ratio. The meeting goes on. Pan around the circle to me, speaking a little too passionately about our alternative milk backstock.
Truth be told, I’m a little guilty about the whole situation. Cleaning the closet drain is listed number nine on the Tuesday close duty deep-clean sheet, and Will and I have been systematically ignoring that number since we were hired together for the shift. Almost any other task—wiping baseboards, rinsing trash cans, even scraping curdled milk from under the rubber mats or sweeping mouse droppings from the stock shelves in the back—is more pleasant than getting on your hands and knees and spreading diluted blue cleaner around the floor basin with a grounds-stained rag, collecting chunks of black mold that then have to be broken up and shoved through the tiny drain holes with your fingers.
How were we supposed to know what would happen? The mop closet stunk like a mop closet. There wasn’t any ominous music to warn us. We didn’t notice the blob until it was there. When exactly that was, it’s hard to say. The lighting was dim.
* * *
Enter a lady in a pantsuit. She knocks twice on the bar. “Excuse me, but there’s a problem with your sink.”
Chloe says, “I’m sorry about that ma’am. What’s the issue?”
“It bit me.”
Sure enough, blood drips from the tip of her pointer finger.
Chloe’s small for a college student, but she’s got that sort of big-eyed waifishness that makes you believe she can keep a secret. That’s why she’s so good with customers. Still they sour, somewhere between the register and the end of the bar, in the orbit of me as I hide behind the machine.
I don’t mind the bad behavior as much as the excuses. Intercut me steaming milk and pulling shots between: “I just want what I paid for.” “I could have gone to Starbucks, you know.” “Sorry I’m grumpy, I haven’t had my coffee yet.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard the last one, but these people don’t tip. I keep a practiced smile.
Ms. Pantsuit sips a complimentary cup of drip coffee while I fumble through dry alcohol wipes and expired Neosporin. “That bathroom can’t be up to code.”
Finger cots spill into frame, a pile of tiny condoms on the counter. Chloe blushes. “We have a blob squad coming in the morning.”
“Shame, you were one of the last blob-free establishments in this town.” The woman looks back at her white collar associates, shaking her head, as the bloody finger moors in its pool. When she mumbles something about Yelp, we offer her another drink, any size. She has me remake her oat milk cappuccino twice.
All day a bit finger here, a strand of yanked hair there. I text Tim after each one. Eventually he lets me put an out of order sign on the bathroom door. He texts, the manager won’t let me close the shop, coffee is considered essential, followed by a shrugging emoji.
Chloe asks me questions between emergencies.
“How long have you been working in coffee?”
“What’s post-grad life like?”
“What do you do with a film degree anyway?”
She blinks her full lashes slowly at my answers. She’s the kind of girl you wanted to see working a counter: young, vibrant, in tune with the shop’s aesthetic. Interior, daytime: bright-white-and-dark-wood aesthetic, floor-to-ceiling windows bathing scuffed floors in the mid-morning light. The menu is a list of specialty roasts offered at market price, and the whole thing is manned by a sweet young thing with trendy tattoos. The name of the shop is written in all-caps typewriter font on reclaimed shiplap, just to drive it home.
She looks like she’ll laugh at your jokes and pour a swan in your latte. I look like the person hired to kill the mass in the pipes.
“So what’s Will’s deal?”
I think she’s talking about the balding guy who gets a frozen breakfast sandwich to go every weekday morning until I see her fingering her long black braid. “Is he single?”
“He has a girlfriend, I think.”
“Aw.” She pouts sweetly. “They serious?”
“Not really, they’re pretty off-and-on.” I had a good bead on Will’s relationship status when we were still closing together three nights a week. If things were good, Will would sing Holly’s praises all shift, and sometimes she’d visit him at work so they could hook up in the back. If they were on a break, he’d complain about her nonstop, really tear her down, and then after close, we’d hook up in the back.
“He seems really cool, like he knows a lot. He told me this theory, that the blob thing is actually the mutant spawn of our house blend and the Jamaican Blue Mountain we had last year.”
“Maybe we should roast it and see.”
Chloe laughs good-naturedly. “He says you know a lot, too. You’re the oldest employee here, besides Tim.”
This is true in both time at the shop and age. Most of the employees here are finishing up their degrees, and we’ve got seventeen-year-old Seth, the manager’s kid, still in high school. Years pass and only Tim and I remain.
“I know I just got trained on register, but Tim said you could start training me on machine when you think I’m ready.” She perks up. “I’m a fast learner.”
I smile and start the mid-shift machine clean. I don’t recite her character arc: after her two weeks of training she’ll pass the machine test with flying colors and get really into latte art for a few months, maybe even compete or help at the roastery. Then she’ll graduate and get a job in Kansas City or Tulsa right before she becomes so bitter about the service industry that she would have quit anyway. Either that or she’ll adopt my throughline, playing the straight person to a quirky ingenue, gunning for a promotion to shift lead or assistant manager before getting passed over for a coffee bro with a chemex tattoo.
Crossfade to me in the bathroom an hour before my shift ends, getting reacquainted with the blob.
It looked pink under the mop closet’s single bulb, but here it has a greenish tint, a deep forest color. Its surface is packed with dense, short cilia You could miss it if you weren’t looking, might just notice how the metal around the drain looks misshapen. Take the time to look closer and you’ll see it’s crawling up the side of the pipe from the inside, licking out a curious centimeter into the sink basin.
Zoom in on a pitcher of steaming water in my left hand. I pour a thin stream onto one side of the basin and it snakes over, curling into the blob’s side. It wilts a little, crusts over on the edge where the water makes contact. Then a hissing sound, like pressure being released, but higher, closer to a scream.
* * *
Emboldened by victory over the First Wave, many miss the telltale signs of the Second. It’s already brewing on Shady Lane, where the wind is whipping the neighborhood into the Halloween spirit, swirling tornadoes of crisp leaves and shuddering the bones of decorative skeletons hanging from porches. A herd of children just old enough to trick-or-treat by themselves run from a friendly old woman’s front gate, comparing hoards.
Frank Leitch almost trips again on the edge of his homemade ghost costume. He lifts the front half of the sheet with his fists and runs to catch up with his friends. Kitty DeClark taps the edge of the sheet with her fairy wand and asks Frank how he likes wearing a dress. The other kids laugh. Frank drops the sheet and shuffles along, a few feet behind.
As they pass Mean Old Mr. Henderson’s place, Buster the dog bounces alongside Frank from the inside of his fence, barking furiously at the pack of strange creatures. Frank shuffles faster, but the distance grows as his friends quicken their pace, disturbed by the change in temperament in the neighborhood children’s favorite dog.
Near the edge of the property, the barking halts in an ear-piercing yelp that causes Frank to drop his candy bucket. Fun-sized chocolate bars sink into a dark carpet of moss Frank is certain wasn’t there yesterday. As he stoops to collect his spoils, a dark shape flies over the fence and tackles Kitty, sending her wand skittering across the sidewalk.
* * *
Blob squads come brave and leave screaming as our blob grows along to an ironically cheery pop song. I come to work early, once or twice a week at first, then every shift, just to watch the blob’s strange little dance.
It’s most active in the early morning hours, the whole of its surface undulating, now covering most of the bathroom in a continuous ankle-deep mound. Every few minutes it vibrates even more violently, and right when it looks like it’s going to snap off of its thin white roots, it stops abruptly, releasing tiny spheres. The orbs, covered in an iridescent fuzz, roll across the floor into a corner or a rough place in the grout, where other balls are already flattening themselves along the surface.
There’s a new mound by the door, maturing into a deep, almost-black green. The original colony in the bathroom sink, which is now completely overtaken, seems to be directing more and more spores in the direction of the door, and the two mounds are nearly connected. This is how the blob gains ground: in waves of ambition and inertia.
Cocktails of undiluted dish soap and rubbing alcohol make the mass hiss and turn brown. Foaming cleaning tablets fizzle on its wet surface before crumbling and being consumed. Counterattacks come in the form of unique spores, almost purple in color and slicker than their procreative counterparts. The plastic stool I brought on my first excursion has been carpeted into a mossy dune. I quickly tire of pouring chemicals onto the creature. Mixing things without recipe or routine makes me nervous. I feel like this should be Tim’s job, and it is.
I stop wearing my rubber boots, gloves, and facemask. I even downgrade from a bread knife to a simple multitool. Aside from the whole eating-Megan thing, ours is a rather tranquil blob. If I stand perfectly still in the middle of the bathroom, abstaining from chemical weapons or physical violence, the spores will skitter around me, leaving a diamond of space clear. If I walk, it anticipates my next movement, each tiny ball breaking laws of motion to avoid my step.
Montage of me standing in place: it’s my best skill. All shift long I bounce from one leg to the other—to the right to steam milk, pump syrups and sauces, to the left to push finished drinks out on the bar and smile. I squat down to grab milk from the fridge under the counter, stand on tiptoe to reach the mugs on top of the machine. Every few minutes I lean my left hip on a milk jug to collapse it against the counter, flattening it as much as I can before tossing it into the trash. Then I squat to retrieve a new one. It’s these extra steps, this attention to detail that would make me a good manager. I can stand, perform a routine, take complaints and insults and the occasional thrown drink with a smile on my face, and if I can’t direct the shop, at least I can dream of directing other things.
* * *
Cross dissolve to Carolyn cranking the faucet in the dishwashing sink and taking a spore to the forearm. The blob has officially taken over every sink in the shop, but the espresso machine’s still running, so the owner won’t let us close.
Split screen of me, lying on my bed in the dark, and my phone’s screen. I open the group chat and scroll, looking for updates on Carolyn’s condition, seeing nothing. A new message pops up—it’s Will, texting from Otis’ phone, saying that he lost two fingers and needs someone to cover the end of his shift. I type a message saying I can do it, but Chloe’s message arrives seconds before mine, and Tim tells her to go in. My message gets ignored.
None of this surprises me. The last time we had a hire as pretty and nice as Chloe, Tim said she’d be ready to start manager training on her one-year workaversary, thanks to my excellent mentorship behind the bar. But she got a decent job, with a salary and benefits and nine-to-five hours, and we all signed a card with a crying grizzly on it that said We’ll Miss You Beary Much. A satisfying arc, just the right amount bittersweet and hopeful.
I think about shooting Chloe a text telling her to be careful not to let Will lean her against the bulk beans shelf, even though the bags are comfortable, because the burlap will give her crazy rugburn. But I delete it before I hit send, because it sounds bitter and possessive, which I’m really not, I just want her to learn from my mistakes.
* * *
It’s almost midnight and Professor Gilford is all out of eye drops. She’s been staring at the computer in her office for the past twelve hours, surrounded by perilous mountains of papers, typing furiously in a document titled The Blob Effect: Rights of Service Workers in the Face of Certain Annihilation FINAL FINAL DRAFT. This is the article, she asserts in an email to her department head, that’ll make Post-Second Wave Blob Studies truly interdisciplinary. They all want to see the looks on the faces of those jerks downstairs in chemistry when they find out they have to share that sweet government research funding. She clicks send on the email, copies data analyses and figures into the document and, after checking the clock, decides to leave citations and proofreading until tomorrow.
Albert, the night custodian, rolls a cleaning cart into the elevator and presses the button for the second floor. POV of something low to the ground rolling into the elevator with him.
On the second floor, the elevator dings. Albert scoots into the hallway and greets the professor. He’s not surprised to see her here this late—they’ve crossed paths almost every night for the past month, though she hasn’t said more than five words to him. She nods in his direction and jiggles her key in the lock to occupy a few seconds while he passes.
POV of the front-right wheel of the cleaning cart, rumbling toward the professor.
The professor looks up again and smiles bashfully. She says it’s a difficult lock.
Albert grins again. He knows it isn’t.
POV of something detaching from the cart and wedding itself to her sensible shoe.
* * *
The work group chat gets a text from the owner, which only happens when we’re all in big trouble or we hire someone new. Instead, it’s a surprise third option: a long text about how he values us, and he has always put us first, which is why he’s closing the shop indefinitely until we can get the blob situation figured out, which he hopes will be soon, thumbs-up emoji.
Seth leaves the chat. A couple of people ask if we still have jobs. I private message Tim to ask when our last paycheck will be. The group chat goes dead, but I get a private response from Tim to come in in the morning to do some closing duties. Visions of manager training dance in my head all night.
I show up fifteen minutes early, my wet hair almost freezing in the winter morning air. I unlock the back door and a gust of warm air thrusts the door open.
Contrazoom on the room.
Our trendy shop has been transformed into an alien jungle. Curtains of verdant blob roll along the walls, through the shelves and open holes in bags of beans and boxes of cups and sleeves, their contents spilled to the plush floor. White roots line the thermostat, which has been turned to a piping ninety-one degrees, and the air almost sizzles with moisture. Little balls of blob roll here and there like tiny armies, as if there’s anything left to conquer.
Each Edison bulb is draped in heavy vines, coloring everything sickly. Two men in homemade hazmat suits—fishing waders with dishwashing gloves, topped with beekeeper’s hats—try and fail to free a stool from the floor. The skinnier one sees me and waves before taking off his helmet. It’s Tim.
“Thanks for coming in on such short notice!” he says, squishing over to me. Each step releases a putrid puff of gas, made visible by yellow stink lines. I cover my nose with my shirt.
“Thanks for asking me,” I say. “I’m surprised you didn’t call Will or Otis or someone else.”
The other man grunts over to us. It’s not until he’s standing next to Tim that I can see the owner’s face. “Otis and Chloe quit,” he says, shaking his head. “Will is… out of commision.”
“And nobody else is machine trained. I mean, they’re not as experienced as you are.”
I nod slowly. A mixture of condensation and sweat drips down my back. “Is there a suit for me?”
They look at each other, surprised. “We didn’t think about that.”
“You shouldn’t be here long,” Tim rushes. “All you need to do is a standard deep clean of that guy.”
The place on the counter where the machine normally sits is covered in a thick mat of opaque blob. As I approach, bare spots of brushed metal glisten through the sparsest tangles of roots.
“I’m going to grab some gloves,” I say, heading for the mop closet. The owner mumbles something like a warning, but doesn’t move.
Tim stands behind me, a jug of chocolate sauce held aloft, as I open the door.
Limp against the wall sits a body, covered in pulsating orbs churning red into green. Strands of long black hair connected to chunks of scalp pepper the top of the mound. A piece falls to the ground silently. One huge eye stares at me, lidless.
An animal sound escapes my throat. Tim pulls me back at the same time that I lunge toward the corpse.
Clawing at his arms, I snarl, “I thought you said Chloe quit.”
Tim hushes me, “Might as well have.” He almost shuts the door on my outstretched hand.
Close-ups on Tim’s twitching left eye, his fumbling fingers, as he stands in between me and the back door, trying to look authoritative. Orbs on the wall beside him drip like rain, curving hungrily towards his plastic-covered flesh.
There are only two escape routes out of the shop, and both are effectively blocked by Tim and the owner. I consider taking the risk, throwing myself at Tim, but the bits of blob nibbling at my ankles assure me that if I fall to the ground, the show’s over. I have one option left.
I tread to my place behind the espresso machine, although it doesn’t look like mine anymore. Ghosts of the closet carnage float in my vision, superimposed on the machine in front of me. My neck grows hot with grief.
“I got you these,” Tim says, motioning to the cleaning powders and pitchers on the mossy counter. He pushes a couple of knives toward me. “I think you’ll need these, too.”
Up close, there are more bare spots on the machine than I thought. Both steam wands are operable, and the power switch is uncovered. I turn it on and the machine lights up like a UFO.
Two button pushes and the machine begins the warm-up cycle. It’s loud, but not so loud that I can’t hear Tim and the owner talking behind me, talking like I’m not even there, like I’m already dead too.
“If it’s still fully functional I can sell it for three grand.”
“The airpots are toast, but I salvaged the brewers.”
I glance around and sure enough, the brewers are gone. You can’t have a shop without brewers, or airpots, and definitely not without a machine.
I wonder how long it’ll be before the Third Wave is over. If coffee shops will still exist. If there will be any baristas left, and if not, who people like Tim and the owner will blame for all of this. I wonder how many more waves there will be.
The machine hums as it warms, water inside of it clicking and churning. The blob roots, so slowly you could almost miss it, push into the air vents. Only the camera and I see.
“Watch out!” Tim swats a spoon at a dial, turning the steam wand on full-force in the owner’s direction. He yelps, “What the hell are you doing?”
“I thought I saw it metastasizing,” Tim shrugs. The blob undulates where he punched it.
Orbs gather on the surface of the machine like sweat beads, dense over the dial. I let the steam wand spray.
Action on the dance sequence. I stand in one place and lean, to the right or left, directing the stream of orbs with my body. They spray hard like machine gun fire. Tim opens his mouth to scream and orbs fill it in seconds, sending him back against the wall, muffling the sounds of his choking. The owner turns to run and I hip check him, easy as a milk jug. He falls forward, and his outstretched hands are sucked deep and liquified almost instantly. He screams, but I can’t hear him over the finale song, the fierce throwback percussion of orbs hitting flesh and metal, floating around me in waves.
Mackenzie McGee is a writer and poet living in the Ozarks. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Porter House Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best Debut Short Stories, and elsewhere. Find her online at mackenziemcgee.com.