It wasn’t my favorite place to be – honestly, I could think of dozens of places that I’d rather be – but considering it was well past three in the morning, my options were pretty limited.  The only restaurant still open at this hour would be swarming with drunks at this time of night, and all of the fast food places were either closed or drive-thru only.  I’m not sure why any bakery would be open twenty-four hours, but the donuts were good, and I guess if the employees have to be here to start baking, you don’t really lose much by never closing.

I’d stashed my work clothes in my car, but switching them out in favor of shorts and a t-shirt wasn’t enough to prevent me from reeking of taco meat and cleaning chemicals.  It was probably my hair, absorbing sweat throughout the night underneath my hat.  Well, hopefully it wasn’t as noticeable as I thought it was.  Normally I’m not very self-conscious about my appearance, but she’s here again tonight.

It’s been almost three weeks since I moved into town.  I’ve been able to talk to a few of my friends over email, but it’s not the same.  I was hoping to meet new people, but my coworkers are just… so unlikeable.  Sure, it’s fast food, so I don’t have high hopes, but usually there’s at least one or two people who are passable humans.  And maybe during the day, there are.  But Carroll’s got me working night shifts, and you can just feel the poverty and broken dreams weighing everyone else down.  Add in the part where I don’t watch sports, and you’ve got the perfect mixture of absolutely nothing in common.

My mother suggested that I get out of the apartment more.  And she’s not wrong, but it’s easier said than done when your sleeping hours take place during everyone else’s afternoons.  I tried the coffee shops for a while, all two of them that are open past midnight, but they’re filled with different sorts of crazy.  Maybe I’m being too picky.  The bakery hasn’t been too much better, except for her.

She wasn’t here two nights ago, but she did come in last night.  I tried hard not to stare awkwardly at her, but the way her hair framed her face was just… and her chest!  And I know what you’re thinking, but I promise I’m taking the whole package into consideration.  She was talking to her friends- who also seem like decent people, I might add- about current events.  It had been almost a week since my last intelligent conversation about politics, so don’t even try to blame me for eavesdropping.  I wanted so badly to join in, but I just couldn’t work up the courage.  Eventually I left, leaving the three of them to finish their discussion in peace.

I’m so glad she’s here.  Friday nights always took longer to close, I was worried that I had missed her.  As it was, I entered just in time to see her friends leaving.  She was finishing up a piece of cake, looking around the empty store as she ate.  We locked eyes almost instantly… I felt trapped.  Maybe it was for the best.  I took a deep breath, and walked forward.

“My name’s Lewis.  It’s… nice to meet you?” I said, trying to keep my hands in my pockets.  If I didn’t, they’d betray my nerves.  “I hope you don’t mind, it’s just… well, I’m new to the area, and it’s hard for me to meet new people, but…”

She smiled.  She smiled, and I completely lost my train of thought.  “It’s nice to meet you, too.  My name is Alice.  I know what you mean about meeting new people, but please forgive me.  I really can’t stay for much longer.  Maybe… maybe some other night.  Next month, perhaps.  But it’s just too late right now.  If you can talk to my friends, I think you saw them leave?  Dee and Tyra can tell you when I’m back in town.  Maybe they’ll be your friends, too.  But I can’t.  Please forgive me, Lewis, but I just can’t.”  Her chair shrieked against the floor as she pushed herself away from the table, her hair spinning with a flourish as she ran toward the back hallway.  Her fork dropped to the floor with a clatter as my tired mind tried to process what was happening.

“Alice, wait!” I yelled, running after her.  “Please, wait!”  I followed her down the hallway, easing past pallets of flour and sugar that were stored out in the open for want of a better place.  It was an old enough building that the bathrooms were hidden away in the rear- something that had caused me no end of confusion on my first visit.  Yet we ran further still, the aged linoleum transitioning into bare concrete as the drywall became less and less finished.  We couldn’t possibly still be in the bakery- we had been running for too long.  I hadn’t paid any attention to how many twists or turns there had been.  It had been hard enough just keeping up with her.

To my relief, she stopped in front of an old oak door.  I don’t know if I could have kept up for much longer, but by the sounds of her breathing neither could she.  The bare drywall was now some sort of stone material, and though it was hard to see in the darkness, I could have sworn the floor was now bare dirt.  I shook my head.  Everything about this was weird.  Best to focus on one thing at a time.  She had her hand on the doorknob, her head intentionally tilted away from me.

“Lewis, I… you don’t even know me.  And yet you’re the first person to ever follow me, and you… well, I don’t know if you’re trustworthy, but you certainly don’t seem evil.  You… do you really think you could be with me?  I’m not normal.  I’m a were-human.”

I paused, before the exact words clicked.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  “Right, right.  And you wouldn’t know it from looking at me, but I’m actually half-centaur.”

“This is why I ran,” she said, turning to face me head on so that she could glare at me.  “I’m not joking, Lewis.  I’m a were-human.  I become a human during the full moon, leaving me… exposed.  So I come here, partially to escape to a place where I’m not in constant danger without the ability to protect myself, but… I’ll be honest, partially to have social interaction.  It’s nice to have a conversation with someone who isn’t worried that you’ll…” she paused, shaking her head.

“You can come with me, if you want.  And after you become… like me, I could make you a were-human too.  And we could live together, on the other side of this door.  But I have to warn you, Lewis.  If we go through together, we’ll never be able to come back here.   I have to make sure you understand that.  I’m sure you’ve watched movies like this.  But this isn’t fiction, this is real life.  You’ve never met me before.  Do you really want to throw everything away for me?  There will be other worlds, but the door to this one will be closed forever.  You said you were new here.  It’d be easy for you to leave.  But can you really leave your family behind?  Are you really so wanting for friendship that you’d follow me?”

I could do nothing but stand there, the laughter dead from my lips.  There was something about her that… I knew she wasn’t joking.  She was telling the truth.

“I can’t wait any longer,” she said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.  “I’ll be leaving now.  The door will be left unlocked for a few minutes.  After that… well, I promise I won’t judge you if you don’t follow me, Lewis.”  The door opened on smoothly, the hinges clean and well-oiled despite all appearances.  When she pulled it shut behind her, I didn’t hear so much as a dull thud.

I never did see her again.  It’s probably for the best.

Neil Siemers grew up in Derby, Kansas, a comparatively small town south of Wichita. He moved to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas, and hasn't left since. Neil likes to pretend that he is a big shot full time writer, although it's probably closer to a hobby. Either way, it's funded by a full-time job in the insurance industry, where he happily works as a cog in the machine for The Man so that bills can be paid.

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