Fiction: The Mad Hatter Cafe
By Margaret King
The Mad Hatter Cafe in Fargo had given me a place to land–crash-land–and to hide. Who would come to North Dakota? Sure, it has a ton of wide open spaces, but that’s just called “hiding in plain sight.”
The Mad Hatter had walls painted red, old vinyl black booths, paintings of creepy clowns on the walls…and on Friday nights, local punk and metal bands. Every year, the owner hosted an Alice in Wonderland-themed Halloween party. Basically, it looked and had the feel of caffeinated macabre, which suited me and Fargo’s goth, emo, and punk scene perfectly. It was a place where the misfits and freaks could fit in, and it didn’t hurt that it was in a historic, near-abandoned, dilapidated fire station, with an alley where you could smoke. In other words, I didn’t stick out here.
I’d been running from the beast for a while now. The only problem with North Dakota is that the winds could howl across the fields and prairies, making me fear the beast had found me. I’d be pouring coffee one moment, and the next, jumping out of my skin. I’d think that the beast was howling outside the cafe door when it was just icy winter winds that had come down from the Arctic by way of the even bigger, vaster prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Then in summer came the whispers through the endless fields of long grass that began right at the western outskirts of Fargo. In the hot months, I’d look up from the counter, thinking the beast was whispering in my ear to hush before jumping for my throat.
It was midnight and time for me to close up the Mad Hatter. I peered under tables and then in the restroom before locking the front and back doors, just in case the beast had hidden until I was barricaded in for the night. I opened the door that led to the cellar beneath the old building, where I slept. My boss didn’t care that I was a drifter. She let me sleep at the cafe because I brought in so much extra business telling customers’ fortunes at the bottom of their cups–tea leaves, Turkish coffee grounds. It was part of the employment deal. It fit right in with the Dungeons-and-Dragons, tarot card, and crystal-loving customer base, which already had a propensity for the occult. I made extra tips; she paid me an illegally-low wage in exchange for “room and board.” It was a win/win.
My boss, however, thought I slept in a sleeping bag in one of the booths. She didn’t know that each night, I slept down in the cellar. Farther down than she knew, as far down as possible. It’s where I liked it. It was better protection, too.
That night, I carried the bulk bags of roasted beans down into the cellar with me, where the boss stored our weekly deliveries. With one huff, I lifted up the row of shelving along the furthest, darkest wall. It was heavy with cafe supplies and other miscellaneous human objects. It would’ve been too heavy for humans to move without a group effort and lots of exertion. For me, it was light as a feather. I gently set it down a few feet away next to my sleeping bag and pillow, which I never actually used.
Beneath the shelving was what I had sniffed out my first night in the cafe’s basement–an underground cistern, covered up with flooring, boarded up further with wood, and below that, sealed with concrete. Easy for me to pry off–like a human could pry off the lid of a sardine can. I gazed down into the water I’d pumped into it from the ancient well below. I observed with pleasure that my mask was firmly in place, even after a long and busy day of cafe work with humans. I untied the invisible strings behind my ears until the mask came off, shimmering in my hands. I smiled at my reflection in the water, and then dove in and slithered down as far as I could.
The next morning, it was Halloween and the buzz of excitement for tonight’s “Neverland” party was electric in the air, as was the caffeine and the burnt aroma of espresso.
“Did you get enough to eat this morning?” my boss asked. She let me take from the bakery case and kitchen within reason, and I snagged muffins and bananas here and there to humor her. I nodded enthusiastically in reply.
“Good!” she said. “We’re going to need enough energy to stay open ‘til 3 AM. I still don’t understand how you do it, working so late with so little sleep, and hardly eating. You have so much energy! Must be youth…I guess you can get away with stuff like that when you’re young.”
I shrugged and turned back to the espresso machine. My boss knew I didn’t like to say much, but that came with the territory of this place. You could get away with being sullen, moody, introverted, or just plain silent here. It was part of the mystique and aesthetic of the Mad Hatter. If you wanted chit-chat and sunshine, you could go across town to the Jolly Bean coffee shop, which hired blond people with big smiles and loud voices, and played pop hits the employees liked to sing along to. Now that was a place where secrets withered and died in the harsh light of day.
“Miss, a fortune, please?” A pleasant young man smiled at me across the counter, sliding an empty ceramic cup over. I smiled silkily back and slid the tip jar over in his direction. As I leaned over his cup and glanced down at the green tea leaves, I felt my mask start to slip and snapped my head back up in horror.
“Are you ok?” The young man seemed genuinely concerned, and I winked before looking up and the ceiling and shaking my head as if I were clearing away some simple morning brain fog. Hoping my mask was adjusted, I peered back down into the cup and felt a sense of vertigo. The room spun as I gripped the counter. I felt like the cup was pulling me in like a magnet, a strange attraction akin to the one I felt toward the water in the underground cistern below.
I glanced back up toward the young man but he was gone. In my tip jar were a crisp $100 bill and a blank piece of pure white paper.
“We’re all mad here” and “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” banners hung from the ceiling. Music blared as Alices, the Queen of Hearts, White Rabbits, and Cheshire Cats danced or milled about. Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” music video looped on a projector screen.
“My fortune, Miss?” A man dressed as Hatter himself sashayed up to me with my boss. Looking at his face, I saw it was the young man from earlier this today. He had notes pinned to his coat that said, “Eat me” and “Lick me.” He carried a mushroom in one hand and a bottle of liquid in the other. “Very clever,” I said as he proffered them to me.
The feeling of vertigo spiraled again, and I felt my mask slipping. I clutched at my face as Hatter began chuckling. Reaching up, I tore at his face, which came off in my hands as my boss gasped. Underneath the young man’s friendly face was another, exactly identical to the first. I tore off mask after mask, each one disappearing with a shimmer into the air.
“You’ve gone soft. You’re losing your senses,” the beast said through the young man’s face. “You thought you’d be able to smell me or hear me 200 miles off. Working among…humans,” he smirked, “has lowered your guard.”
“I didn’t think a human skin would be able to cover up your stink,” I retorted.
“That’s why I had to put on so many layers of it,” the beast replied.
I turned and bolted to the cellar door, tearing down the staircase toward the cistern.
“There’s a human song for this,” the beast said as he clomped down after me. “As there is a human song for so many things. It’s called ‘You & I’ by Wilco.”
“Awesome.” Sarcasm dripped from my voice.
“The deepest well I’ve ever fallen into….”
I was at the edge of the cistern and calculating how deep into the earth the well that fed it might go.
The beast gestured, “Well, time to go down the proverbial rabbit hole, I suppose.”
I could hear my boss calling my fake name, trying to make her way down the steep, treacherous staircase in her Alice platform shoes.
“You look ridiculous as a human, by the way,” I said, trying to buy time. The beast always was vain.
“Really, you’ve made this too easy, my dear. Remember that cute galaxy we played in last time? When we were meteorites? Now that was fun. I’m beginning to think we should give all this up. Stick around our current environs for a while.”
“Yes, yes,” I begged. “I like this gig. I actually love working at this cafe. I could see staying here for a few eons. I think I might even be entering what the humans call a ‘dark night of the soul.’ I could use some time to figure out the meaning of life, explore the reason for my existence. Let’s, I don’t know…maybe try seeing other people for a while or something? Stop playing this game, and make room for some new possibilities in the universe. Something more…constructive perhaps? I’m kind of tired of trying to destroy you, actually, and constantly running for my life.”
The beast paused for a moment as if thinking, but I suspected it was sleight of hand.
“Um…no,” he said, lunging at my throat. I shed my mask, morphing into shimmering scales, a fluid body, and a long tail, diving into the cistern. I swam down, down, wriggling in a reptilian motion, hoping beyond hope that the spring led into some other dimension, some alternate universe…a Neverland.
Margaret King's recent work has appeared in Nightingale & Sparrow, Brave Voices Magazine, The Writing Disorder, andRoi Faineant. She teaches tai chi in Wisconsin.