I could tell there was something off about him right away. Who orders a latte with peanut butter and hot sauce? The same thing, every day, at the exact same time. Even the regulars would throw me a wrench from time to time. They’d add a muffin or switch to an iced coffee on a particularly hot day. But no, not him. The same exact thing, every day.
The first time I did a double take and had to verify what he said. I’d had some strange requests in my day, but this took the cake. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the peanut butter melts quite readily in the hot milk, so the drink was not as much of a pain to make as I thought it would be. On slow days I would start making it the moment I saw him walk through the door. Like with the other regulars, I would confirm sometimes with: "The Usual?" He would still tell me his order. Even if I had it ready to hand to him when he got to the counter, he still ordered it. Then he would pay and leave. He never stayed to sit at a table. He never interacted with the other customers. The same exact thing, every day.
Until one day it wasn’t. It was like a completely different person who looked exactly the same had come into the cafe instead. I had just pulled out the jar of peanut butter when he reached the register and ordered a latte. Once again I did a double take. "With peanut butter and hot sauce." It wasn’t a question; it was a statement. He looked at me like I had spontaneously sprouted a teapot from my head. He shook his head and repeated his order slowly as though explaining it to a toddler. "No, just a normal latte."
I turned back to the machine but my gaze lingered in his direction. I waited for him to exclaim his amusement and say that he was joking and I fell for it, but he had never said anything other than his order. Him making a joke would be just as strange as his different drink order. I started to sweat as he bantered with the other barista while he paid for his drink. Had I been imagining it the whole time?
I glanced at the clock. He was 20 minutes early. He was never early. He took his drink and sat at a corner table. He never stayed. Anxiety clouded my head and I wasn’t sure why. I gripped the counter for support and watched as he sat there drinking a perfectly normal drink and acting like a perfectly normal person.
What was happening?
I tried to shake it off, and was ready to chalk it up to a multiple personality disorder when a woman came up to the counter and I overheard her order a latte with peanut butter and hot sauce. I dropped the pitcher of milk and cringed as it clattered to the floor. The other barista seemed amused as she relayed the order to me. I quickly picked up the pitcher of milk and turned to the woman to apologize for the noise. I asked her to repeat her order. The woman stared at me blankly, much as the man used to, and repeated the order.
I backed away and looked around for a hidden camera. Surely, this was a joke. Another gentleman had joined the man in the corner, and they were talking animatedly. My hands shook as I turned the knob on the milk steamer and I gripped the pitcher with both hands in a vain attempt to stop them from shaking until the temperature of the metal got too hot to grip with my palms.
I glanced at my watch and noticed the time had just passed 9 a.m. The same time the guy used to order this drink. I handed her the cup and she left immediately.
The next day I broke into a cold sweat a few minutes before 9 a.m. The man had not shown up again. I wasn’t sure whom to expect, if anyone. Like clockwork, the woman strode through the door and got in line. I started the drink and handed it to her shortly after she paid.
Later that evening I called out sick for work the next day.
I was sure I looked completely inconspicuous with my head covered by a hat, sunglasses covering my eyes and my coat collar curled up to cover my mouth and cheeks. I pretended to fiddle with my bike lock across the street from the cafe just a few minutes before 9 a.m. I glanced up in time to see her enter the cafe and finished locking my bike. I stretched for a moment and pretended to be reading a street sign while I waited. She exited the cafe a few minutes after entering, a drink in her hand, and started to walk back the way she had come.
I walked as nonchalantly as possible across the street and followed her. After a couple of blocks she stopped walking and held the cup up to her lips. She gradually tilted it back and from the other side of the street I could see her throat convulse with each gulp of the drink. She finished the drink in one go, threw the cup in a nearby trashcan, then continued on her way. I made note of the trashcan, fully intending to fish the cup out of it later. Maybe I would dust it for prints or have it tested for hallucinogens. Or maybe this was all just a strange coincidence.
We walked for several miles before she turned into another coffee shop. I hurried in after her and got in line, feeling a little bit guilty about partaking in another cafe. I grabbed a bottle of water from the cold display and fell into place behind her. She got to the front of the line and ordered a latte with peanut butter and hot sauce. The kid at the counter did not seem surprised, and turned away to make the drink after taking her money.
"That’s some drink," I said to her, smiling.
She turned to look at me, said nothing, and turned back to wait for her drink. She left and I threw money at the clerk for my water and hurried after her. I had been keeping my distance, but I began to suspect nothing I did would actually attract her attention. I ran past her and stopped abruptly. I stood there doing nothing while I waited for her to catch up. At the last second I stuck my foot out in front of her. She stumbled, but continued on. A few blocks later she stopped and once again downed her drink before throwing the cup away.
The next cafe was no different.
When she stopped this time I was determined to get a reaction. I ran up and tried to grab the cup from her hand. In a flash, her other hand grabbed mine and pulled it out of reach with an unnatural amount of force. I couldn’t break free from her grasp. When she finished her drink, she let go of my hand and threw the cup away. She made no other acknowledgement of my presence.
I stood still and watched her move on. Tears welled in my eyes that were only partly bidden by the pain of her strong grasp. I moved to follow her again, from a respectable distance.
At the next cafe I got a sandwich and a protein bar and we continued on. After half a day of the same routine I began to tire and get bored. I realized we had walked a partial loop and were only a few blocks away from my cafe. I took note of the time and location and headed back to my bike. I was confident that on my next day off I’d be able to find her and continue my investigation.
When she came into the cafe the following day I had her drink ready to go, and made no attempt to engage her further.
My next day off I prepared a pack with plenty of water and snacks. I headed out on my bike to the street where I had left her a few days prior. I didn’t bother with my half-hearted disguise this time around. It was obvious that she paid me no mind.
As I followed her on my bike, it occurred to me that she might not be starting at my cafe. Most cafes opened by 6 A.M. or 7 A.M. on the weekends. Given her hourly cafe stop schedule, she could very easily be visiting two or three cafes before mine. I realized with disappointment that it would probably take several more days to reverse track her on the way to my cafe. Then I felt ashamed that this was how I was planning to spend my next few days off. I hated to admit that this had become an obsession. I rode to the end of the block and waited for her to catch up.
I was reminded of my niece, who was on a very strict feeding regimen every three hours a few months after she was born. Perhaps this woman was on some strange diet where she had to have peanut butter, hot sauce, milk and espresso every hour. People on diets often exhibited strange behavior. Unusually angry, aggressive behavior while they adjusted to depriving themselves of their favorite foods. Perhaps she also felt, as a barista, that I was beneath her notice. That I wasn’t worth the effort to be friendly or even talk to. My face flushed with anger as she passed by me and continued on. If I didn’t know any better, I could have sworn she looked in my direction as she passed.
Peanut butter was an obvious source of protein, and most people depended on caffeine to make it through their day. Milk helped temper the bitterness of espresso, but why hot sauce? To keep her bowels flowing? We were on hour six of her journey and she had not stopped to use the bathroom in any of the cafes. I pulled a small notebook out of my pack and made a note to research the health benefits of hot sauce.
I put the notebook back and thought about where she spent her night. I wasn’t prepared for an overnight watch, but if I could last until she reached her final destination for the day, then I could go there early in the morning and follow her instead of trying to reverse track her. I set off to pass her again with lifted spirits. I was certain I would figure out this mystery much sooner than I originally thought.
I stopped my bike at the end of the next block and pulled my notebook out again. "Why not make drinks at home?" I wrote. For the amount of money she was dumping into these lattes, she could easily purchase a machine and make them herself. Then she also wouldn’t have to spend her day walking from cafe to cafe. I supposed it was good exercise, and having that much peanut butter in a day might be sufficient to sustain someone.
There were so many questions that I wasn’t sure how I would find an answer to them. Well, I told myself, first things first. She crossed the street and I saw which cafe she was heading to. I started pedaling faster, intending on taking a bathroom break during the next stop. Just before I passed her, her arm shot out and clotheslined me. I screamed as I fell off my bike, and then coughed from the force of the air being knocked out of my chest where she hit me.
I had never been in a fight before, but the rage that filled me now left me no choice but to retaliate. She hadn’t stopped, and was already several dozen feet away from me. Ignoring the pain, I ran, building up as much speed as possible and slammed into the back of her. She staggered forward and fell to her knees. I stood there, my breath heaving with fury. She rose and turned to look at me. Her face was blank. I put my fists up awkwardly, unsure how to even throw a punch, but ready to make my best attempt. She smiled slightly, then turned back away and moved on.
I was dumbstruck. What just happened? I felt like I had just failed some sort of test. My hands fell and I felt a sharp pain in my elbow where I had landed in the street. My shirt was torn and blood was dripping from the hole. As I leaned over to gather my bike, I was aware of several spots on my body that hurt. I knew I should go home, but I was determined to continue with my mission. Wearily, I straddled my bike again and, giving her a wide berth, moved on to the cafe. I cleaned myself up as quickly as possible, trying to ignore the looks of concern from the baristas, and headed outside to track her down. I spotted her just before she turned down another block, a fresh cup of peanut butter, hot sauce latte in her hand.
I winced in pain as I mounted my bike and rode past her, just out of reach. I stopped a few yards ahead and turned to watch her pass. She ignored me yet again.
We were coming to the end of the day. Coffee shops would be closing soon. It was likely that last drink would be her last for the day. What would she do then? I followed her more closely but still kept my distance, remembering our last encounter. My energy rose as I realized a change in routine must have been approaching. I didn’t have to wait long. A few blocks later she turned into a convenience store. I watched from the street through the large windows as she walked around the store and gathered her items: a jar of peanut butter, a bottle of hot sauce, a carton of milk, and a bag of coffee beans. Again I wondered why she wasn’t just making the drink at her place. The clerk did not find this unusual, and completed her transaction without a word or hardly any notice.
She walked back out of the store with her same calm, determined stride and continued down the street. A few blocks later she made an abrupt left at the end of a fenced lot and walked down a narrow alley. The fence ended a short way along the block and we were sandwiched between two abandoned warehouses. She pulled open a makeshift wooden door and entered the building on the right. I dropped my bike by the stairs and followed her in.
It was dark inside, but I was able to make out a few things from the streetlights filtering in through broken windows. There were rows and rows of metal shelves that were mostly empty except for bits of broken glass and debris. I moved closer to a window, pulled out my notebook and quickly scribbled "research warehouse" by the dim light filtering in through the grimy glass.
I put the notebook away and walked cautiously down the row of shelving, emerging into a wide-open space. My attention was drawn to the corner where empty peanut butter jars sat haphazardly in a large pile. I was never very good at those games where you had to guess the number of objects in a jar, but I could tell it was more than fifty jars. I shook my head, thinking about the waste and wishing I could tell her about restaurant supply stores where she could find a single jar of peanut butter that would last for weeks. Maybe only days at her consumption rate, but it was still better than buying a new jar each night.
To my right was another pile of debris, not as large as the peanut butter one. I walked over and picked up an empty bottle of hot sauce. I shook my head again, and tossed the bottle back in the pile before I could stop myself. It jarred loose a bunch of other bottles and they slid down the mound, clattering onto the floor as I tried vainly to shush them.
I turned and jumped when I saw her standing right in front of me. My arm came up at the last second to block the blow to my head, but I only succeeded in knocking myself to the floor with a scream. I kicked at her as hard as I could and grabbed one of the empty hot sauce bottles to throw at her. I hoped it would break upon impact and cut her, but she flicked it away with her hand as she leaned over. Her next blow knocked me out.
I awoke in a fog. I was vaguely aware of where I was; the warehouse I had followed that strange woman to. I picked myself up off the floor, expecting pain from my ordeal, but I felt okay. Hungry, but okay. A few cuts sparsely adorned my arms. I assumed I got them from the broken bottles of hot sauce I had landed on. One spot on my hand looked like I had been bitten. I didn’t remember being bitten. Anger flared as I realized she must have continued to attack me after knocking me out. I rubbed at the scab and dried blood, but it didn’t hurt. I looked around, my eyes breezing over the piles of debris, but the woman was nowhere to be found. I realized I didn’t care about revenge anymore. I just felt weak and needed something to eat. I staggered past the empty jars and bottles and left the building.
The sun blazed in the sky. I had been hit hard enough to sleep through the night. I left my bike on the ground, preferring to walk and wake myself up a bit. I glanced at my watch, but it was broken. I assumed it had been smashed when I fell. The sun was high enough that I knew it was well into morning. I decided to go to my cafe and check in there. I was supposed to work today, but surely when they saw the state I was in they would forgive me for not showing up on time. At the very least I needed some food before getting to work.
I was tired and for a moment thought about walking back to collect my bike, but the thought passed and I strode forward with purpose. The cafe was only a few blocks from my current position. I could stop in, get something to eat and a cup of coffee, and then maybe head back for my bike.
When I got to the cafe I saw the woman again. She was sitting outside at a table, talking with someone. My mind knew something was wrong with this situation, but I was too hungry and tired to think about it more.
I walked into the cafe. It felt strange to be a customer here for once. I stood in line, waiting patiently for my turn and noticed the clock on the wall said it was nearly 9 a.m. I was very late for my shift. The barista gasped when she saw me. She began whispering to me about how I was going to be fired for not showing up for work or even calling in sick, and then expecting to be served like a customer. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain I wanted to protest and tell her that I was just having an off day. As I stood there trying to figure out how to word my protest, the desire passed and I heard myself say, "Latte with peanut butter and hot sauce."