by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in The Daily Grind, April 2019

“Doggonit. No pastries today. They were all possessed.”

Sunny reached for the strap of her ecto-pack, but before she could pull the bulky piece of technology out of the sedan’s hatchback, an imperious feline voice rang out from the driver’s seat:  “What do you think you’re doing?”

Sunny mumbled something about gearing up, but Ripley, the small white cat who was the de facto leader of the Ecto-Busters, cut the yellow lab off.  “You don’t need an ecto-pack to run into a cafe and pick up a quick snack.”

Sunny looked over at Audrey, a St. Bernard and the other dog on the team.  The two of them — yellow lab and St. Bernie — were in the back seat because Ripley always drove, and she always chose Brannon for shotgun.  The little cat claimed it was because the semi-mythological otter needed extra room for his big feathery wings, but Sunny thought Ripley was sweet on Brannon.

Audrey shrugged — a small shrug, but even a small shrug is pretty big on a St. Bernard’s large frame.  She was no help.  Though she did woof, “As long as you’re going in, could you pick me up a sticky bun?  Or cinnamon roll?  Any kind of pastry dripping with sugar sauce.”

“Sure thing,” Sunny woofed.

The yellow lab climbed out of the sedan, and as she swung the door shut, she heard Ripley meowing inside, “Hurry up, okay?  It’s not like that three-headed King Kong-sized chihuahua on the roof of the Great Dane Building will wait for us before it starts ripping Dogatham City apart.”

Sunny tucked her tail between her legs and felt her fur brush against the coarse fabric of her team jumpsuit.  Audrey was always hungry, but somehow Sunny was always the one to crack and beg Ripley to let them stop for lunch, dinner, breakfast, or just a snack, depending on the time of day and how urgent their current mission was.  Today, the mission was pretty urgent, and the time of day was ungodly early in the morning.

The ecto-buster team had been up all night fighting ghosts throughout the streets of Dogatham City.  Sunny needed a break — even if it was just to pick up a chai and sweet roll — before facing the hell spawn who’d summoned all these ghosts.

The streets were empty now, and Sunny hadn’t been able to believe her good luck when she’d spotted an open cafe.  It must have been one of those places where they baked the bread fresh early in the morning.  Mmm, fresh bread.  Sunny couldn’t wait.

The yellow Labrador went through a glass door, set in a wall of windows, and into the cafe.  She looked over the brightly lit glass shelves, showing off all the pretty pastries.  Her stomach gurgled, and her mouth watered, anticipating the sweet taste.  She didn’t know how Ripley and Brannon could fight ghosts all night and not work up an appetite.  Well…  That’s not true.  Ripley was such a small cat that she could probably live off nutrients gleaned from the air like some kind of baleen whale, and Sunny was pretty sure that Brannon kept all of his jumpsuit pockets stuffed full of fish jerky.  She wrinkled her nose remembering the smell.

Sunny found a bell on the cafe’s front counter and rang it.  There was no one visible anywhere in the shop, but the neon sign out front had said “open,” and all the lights were on.  The front door had been unlocked.  Sunny looked around, her muzzle straining into a nervous expression.  Someone had to be here.  Someone had to have opened the shop up for the morning crowd…

Except, there wasn’t likely to be much of a morning crowd today.  Not after the spectacular spook show that had filled the streets all night long.  “Spooktacular.”  Sunny chuckled at her own cleverness.  Then she jumped, startled, as a creature rose up behind the counter.

Not a dog.  Not a cat.  Not a ghost.  But… some sort of gloppy, unbaked golem of bread dough.  Shaped vaguely like a dog, maybe, but much droopier.  “Caaa-a-a-n I heee-e-e-lp yoooou?” the bread golem gurbled.

Sunny glanced over her shoulder to look back out the wall of windows at the ecto-buster sedan parked out front, waiting for her, where her ecto-pack was still stowed uselessly in the hatchback trunk.  Ripley was in the front seat, gripping the steering wheel so tight her claws had to be piercing the vinyl. She was glaring at Sunny with her little white ears flattened against her head.  She probably couldn’t see the barista was a bread dough golem.  Just that Sunny was still inside and keeping them from driving off toward the Great Dane Building.

Sunny made a judgment call and woofed, “Yeah, I’d like two of these cinnamon rolls–”  They were the kind with pretty spirals of white icing on top.  “–and the biggest to-go cup of chai that you’ve got.”

“Sweee-e-e-t or spiiii-i-icy chai?” the bread golem gurbled.

“Um, sweet,” Sunny woofed, trying not to feel too weirded out by the way the bread golem’s doughy face kept skewing sideways as it spoke.  It looked kind of like a yellow Labrador would if dogs could melt in the sun.

“Cooo-o-ominng rii-ight up.”  The bread golem glooped its way over to the glass cases and removed two cinnamon rolls.  Then it performed a bizarre balancing act, stretching out one of its doughy limbs far enough to reach the to-go boxes on top of the glass case without dropping the two cinnamon rolls in their paper wrappings from its remaining limb that grew smaller as the dough of its body flowed into the other limb.

Sunny let out a breath of relief as soon as her paws were on the little box of pastries.  All she needed now was her chai and to pay.  Then she could go.  But instead of bringing her a to-go cup of chai, the bread golem glooped its way through a door behind the counter into what must have been the kitchen.  Maybe they kept the sweetened condensed milk in a refrigerator in the back.

Impatiently, Sunny waited, swinging her tail in a jaunty rhythm to pass the time.  She pulled open the corner of the pastry box and stuck her paw in far enough to tear off a piece of one of the cinnamon rolls.  She was about to pop the piece of gooey confection in her mouth when a cinnamon scented cloud of green ecto-plasm swirled out of the opened corner of the pastry box.

“Oh, no,” Sunny woofed.

The cinnamon scented ghost was small — barely bigger than the pastry that had spawned it — but it was translucent green with glowing red eyes and a toothy maw most cinnamon rolls don’t have.  “Gnaw, naw, nom!” the cinnamon ghost howled with its toothy little maw.

Sunny shoved the bite of confection, untasted, back into the box.  She wasn’t going to eat a pastry that was actively possessed.  That didn’t seem like a good idea.  She did not need some sort of cinnamon roll ghost inhabiting her stomach like she was a weird old lamp and it was a parasitic genie.

Sunny took a closer look at the pastries still behind the glass, hoping she could switch out her possessed ones for pure ones.  She got her muzzle so close that her breath fogged up the glass, but before her view was completely obscured she saw faint green sparks of ecto-plasm fizzle electrically along the entire row of pastries — muffins, donuts, bear claws, and yes, each of the cinnamon rolls.  Doggonit.  No pastries today.  They were all possessed.

Sunny glanced nervously back at the ecto-sedan outside.  In the driver’s seat, the little white boss cat was gesturing at her wrist as if she were actually wearing a watch.  Ripley’s message was clear:  “Hurry up.”

Maybe this stop didn’t have to be a complete loss if Sunny could still get her chai.  Audrey would be disappointed.  So would Sunny’s tummy.  But some milky sweet tea might tide Sunny over long enough for them to face down against that three-headed chihuahua monster.  And if Audrey cared so much about getting a snack, maybe next time she could ask Ripley to ease up and give them a break.  At the very least, Audrey could have come into this haunted cafe with her instead of staying in the car listening to music while Ripley and Brannon low-key flirted.

Sunny called out toward the back of the cafe, “Hey, I’m kind of in a hurry?”  She leaned over the counter, trying to get a look at the kitchen.  Then it occurred to her that maybe there was an actual barista back there, a real dog or cat, being held hostage by the bread golem.  She’d better check it out.  Sunny jumped right over the counter and poked her head through the door into the kitchen.  “Hellooo?”

“Bee-e-e rii-i-ight wii-i-ith youuuu,” the bread golem gurbled.  It was messing about with a small refrigerator, while holding a carafe of dark tea and a small plastic carton of sweetened condensed milk.  There were slick spills of white milk and brown tea on the floor all around it.

Sunny rolled her eyes and gritted her teeth.  Even when demons were possessing unbaked bread dough instead of ripping the city apart, they still weren’t good for anything.  On the bright side, she didn’t see any dogs or cats wrapped up in bread dough like pie fillings, being tortured by the spirits inhabiting this cafe.  Probably the actual employees of the cafe had known better than to come in today, and the demonic spirits had decided to open up the shop on their own.

Sunny didn’t have her full ecto-pack on, and she didn’t want to go outside and admit to Ripley that she’d been trying to order chai and pastries from a bread golem rather than immediately trying to capture the ghost animating it.  However, she did have a protonic wand tucked into the cargo pants pocket of her jumpsuit.  The wand wouldn’t be powerful enough to entirely dissipate an aggressive, hostile spirit, and it didn’t have an ecto-reservoir for containing one.  However, the pastry spirits were quite small — they had to be to fit inside of pastries — and whatever spirit was animating the bread golem seemed mostly… friendly.

So, maybe the protonic wand would have enough power to jolt the cafe spirits back across the veil temporarily.  Then Sunny could fix the chai herself, drop some money on the counter, and get out of here.

The yellow lab pulled out her protonic wand, and the microphone-shaped object made electronic bleep-blooping noises as she waved it menacingly at the bread dough golem.  The pale pasty dough of the golem’s belly rippled in response to the ecto-waves, and the golem gurgled out a cry of horror, dropping both the carafe of tea and the carton of sweetened milk.

The glass carafe shattered, and the carton landed on its side.  Milk blubbed onto the floor, rippling into a white puddle.  Then the puddle sizzled with green ecto-plasm, bringing it to life, animated by yet another spirit.  The spilled tea sparkled greenly too.  Within moments, Sunny found herself facing not only a bread dough golem, but also a darkly transparent chai phantom and a smaller, pearly white, sweetened condensed milk ghost.  They both looked angry about having been spilled out on the floor.

“Chraaa!” the chai phantom cried, ripping its middle apart into a toothily-shaped mouth and stretching out vaguely-shaped proto-arms.  It rushed towards Sunny like a shadow, and the Labrador retriever yipped in surprise and tripped backward, paws sliding in the mess of milk and tea on the floor.  She dropped her protonic wand, and it rolled away from her, out of reach under a big chrome oven.

The chai phantom whooshed past Sunny.  The yellow lab sprawled awkwardly on the floor, and before she could get up, the sweetened condensed milk ghost swooped onto her and pressed against her muzzle like an unwanted kiss, sloppy and smelling of sour, spoiled dairy.

“Blech!” Sunny cried, wanting to scrub off her tongue with a sponge and stuff her face into a bouquet of wildflowers.  Instead she scrambled backward, trying to get away from the milk ghost until she banged her head on a set of shelves that toppled forward.

A dozen or so mugs clattered to the floor, several breaking, and a silver insulated pitcher of coffee fell.  Black liquid glugged out, steaming hot and sizzling with emerald sparks of ecto-plasm.

So much coffee; much more coffee than there’d been of the chai…  The spilt coffee barely touched the floor before the dark liquid pulled together into a sloshy, splooshy poltergeist.

The coffeegeist roared and shrieked through the small kitchen like a caffeine-powered tornado.  The mere touch of the coffeegeist brushing against Sunny’s golden fur — damp and clingy like fog on a gray morning — made the yellow lab’s heart race.  She didn’t think her heart was racing from fear; it felt more like the pounding of adrenaline caused by drinking too much chai.  Jittery and overcaffeinated.  This was why Sunny didn’t drink coffee.

There was a reason Sunny preferred chai — the yellow lab had a bouncy, buoyant enough personality without full-coffee levels of caffeine coursing through her veins.  Chai’s level of caffeine was enough to lift her up, make her feel a little more awake, and not leave her bouncing off the walls.  Like the coffeegeist was doing right now.

The translucent storm cloud of coffee zipped around the small kitchen, from one wall to the next, like an angry hornet trapped inside a car on a hot day.

Without her protonic wand or ecto-pack, all Sunny could do was watch in horror as the coffeegeist, milk ghost, and chai phantom came together, blending into one super-drink of a spirit.

Oh great, Sunny was being menaced by a giant, angry dirty chai.  She hated dirty chais.  If you want coffee, get coffee.  If you wanted chai, why would you ever put a shot of espresso in it?  The yellow lab shuddered.

During all of the chaos of animated liquids, Sunny had forgotten to pay attention to the bread golem who had started this all.  The doughy apparition picked up the empty milk carton and the glass handle from the broken tea carafe, and it burbled sadly over them.  “Ooo-oo-oh, nooo-oo-o!  Yo-ou-ur te-e-ea…!  I-i-i’m soo-o-o-orry-y-y!”

Sunny was having the weirdest day.  If she didn’t know better, she’d think she’d fallen asleep, leaned against the counter, waiting for her chai, and she was dreaming all of these tasty, scary ghosts.  She was pretty tired after a full night of chasing ghosts.

Come to think of it…  Sunny peeked out of the kitchen, back to the front of the cafe.  She didn’t see herself slumped against the counter, drooling and snoring.  But she did see Ripley in the driver’s seat of the ecto-sedan, ears fully flattened, and the car door partially open beside her.

From what Sunny could see, it looked like Brannon was trying to convince the cat to stay in the car and wait a little longer.  Bless his winged-otter heart.  But even so, Sunny’s time was running out.  She needed to get this ghost house in order and get back out to the ecto-sedan with snacks, pronto.  Stat.  Quick as a bee.  Bees are quick, right?

Sunny’s mouth watered, thinking about golden, gooey honey.  Then her stomach grumbled, and the vision turned sour in her imagination as the honey turned into a sticky ghost glomming onto her fur, joining the dirty chai ghost and the bread golem in tormenting her.

It was almost enough to put a dog off food entirely.  Almost.  Let’s be serious:  nothing could ever really put a hungry yellow lab off food.

Sunny needed to stop thinking with her stomach, and start thinking with her brain.  Without any of her technology at paw, she needed to resort to old-fashioned strategies.  And the first rule of subduing ghosts is:  understand what they want.  Honestly, that rule works for almost any situation, not just ghosts.

At this point, the bread golem was chasing the dirty chai ghost around the kitchen with a paper cup, burbling out the words, “Geee-e-e-t iii-i-in heee-e-ere!”

So the bread golem wanted to serve.  Whatever spirit was animating that unbaked dough wanted, more than anything, to be a good barista and serve chai to its one customer.  And that one customer was Sunny.  Good.  An ally.

And what did the coffee ghost want?  Sunny wasn’t sure.  So, she’d have to start by working with the bread golem.

“Hey, uh, my good barista,” Sunny stammered, not entirely sure what to call the golem.  “I’d, uh, like to change my order?”

The doughy golem stopped in its tracks, and its blobby shape settled, thickening around the bottom.  “Yee-e-es?”

Sunny eyed the oven.  The big chrome machine was already turned on and, according to the little red light on its control panel, preheated.  Extreme heat won’t destroy a ghost, but if the ghost is inhabiting a host that can feel pain, then the ghost might choose to disapperate back to its original dimension to avoid the pain.

The question was:  does bread dough feel pain when it gets baked?  Sunny hoped not, for the sake of all of the sandwiches she’d ever eaten.  But on the other paw, she needed a way to get rid of these unwanted spirits.  And the bread golem seemed eager enough to please (as a dog, Sunny knew a little bit about that) it might just jump in the oven if Sunny asked.  But while the oven might work for the bread golem, Sunny couldn’t picture trapping an angry cloud of animated coffee, milk, and tea inside an oven.  Unless the haunted liquids were absorbed by something else first.

“I’d like to order some… coffee cake,” Sunny said.

The bread golem glanced around the kitchen in growing horror.  “Wee-e-e doo-o-on’t haa-a-a-ve thaa-a-at!”

“Would you like me to tell you how to make it?” Sunny offered, feeling strangely sorry for the gloopy pile of dough.  It wanted so badly to be a good barista.

“Yee-e-es pleee-a-ase!”

“Well…”  She almost couldn’t do it.  But then Sunny thought about how Ripley would glare at her with those cat eyes if she messed up a simple snack stop.  Cat eyes glare better than dog eyes do.  It’s something about the way feline pupils can narrow down to mere slits, pointed like daggers.  Eye daggers.

“Look,” Sunny continued.  “You just need to take coffee, spices, and milk–”  She pointed with a dull claw at the storm of dirty chai swirling around the ceiling like an angry rain cloud.  “–like those and mix them into… well…”  She let her paw drop back to her side.  Then with a deep sigh, she raised her paw and pointed the dull claw at the bread dough golem.  “–a basic bread dough.  Like you.”

“Ooo-o-oh.”  The golem slumped.  For a moment it looked sad, and then it raised gloopy arms toward the ceiling and called out, “Coo-o-ome hee-e-re!  I-i-i-i nee-e-e-ed yoo-o-ou!”

“CHRAAAA!!!” the storm cloud of caffeination cried from all around.

Sunny was too hungry and tired for this nonsense.  Especially tired.  Then it struck her:  what would animated coffee want?  To energize.  She just needed to convince the beverage demon that being eaten by her, in the form of coffee cake, was in its own best interests.

“Look, I’ve been up chasing ghosts all night long,” Sunny barked at the swirling coffee cloud around her. “And I need to go chase some more ghosts around the Great Dane Building.  The elevator is probably broken, because it always seems to be the first thing you ghosts knock out in a building–”  Sunny’s voice rose as she spoke until she was barking her head off.  As her volume increased, the storm cloud around her seemed to calm.  “–so I’ll probably have to run up twenty flights of stairs.  AND I’M TIRED.  I just need some caffeine, and then I can get out of here!”

The air stilled.

The storm cloud of dirty chai settled from a twisty tornado into a translucent smear of eyes and mouths and grabby claw-hands hovering beneath the ceiling.  It was the kind of sight that could give a dog nightmares for years.

“Do you want us to haunt you???” the words gibbered from the air in a buzzing chorus like a whole hive of bees.

“That wasn’t quite what I had in mind…”  Sunny took a step backward, towards the door out of the kitchen.

“We’ll wake you up!!!” the gibbering mouths buzzed in slightly out-of-synch accord.

“Uh…”  Sunny kept backing away.

The cloud of dirty chai condensed, growing thick and chocolatey as it approached her — the pearly white of the milk ghost swirled with the richly roasted browns of the chai phantom and coffeegeist.  Its eyes glistened like tapioca pearls.  Several grabby hands reached out, and as their claws wetly scratched Sunny’s arm, passing right through the coarse cloth of her jumpsuit, she felt zips of static electricity in her fur, tiny shocks and jolts all over her pelt.

Sunny yipped in surprise.  “I don’t want to be possessed!”  She slipped and fell backwards again.  The horrendous dirty chai spirit descended on her, and Sunny turned her face away, eyes squinched shut.  She expected the beverage demon to soak its way through her jumpsuit and fill her body with hyperactive over-caffeinated energy.  Instead the air knocked out of her lungs as a heavy weight fell all along her body.  Instinctively, she rolled to the side to get out from under the squishy weight.

When Sunny opened her eyes, she found the bread dough golem beside her, squirming on the floor like invisible paws were kneading it.  The beverage demon’s eyes blinked frantically and its mouths shrieked like angry bees, but the bread dough golem kept twisting itself up and stretching itself out, inexorably mixing in the chocolatey brown ripples of dirty chai with its own pasty whiteness.  The eyes and mouths became buried inside the sticky mass of unbaked dough.

When the bread golem had attained a fairly uniform consistency — marbled now with lines of dirty chai, including the occasional glaring eye or snarling mouth smeared across its doughy body — it began wobbling its way toward the oven.  “Yo-oo-ou wi-i-ll haaa-aa-a-ve to-o-o taa-a-ake mee-e-e-e oou-ut bee-e-efore I-i-i buuu-u-u-u-urn,” the golem gurbled as it climbed into the oven.

“Wait, you need–”  It was too late.  The golem had climbed right into the oven without a pan or baking sheet or anything.  The dough dribbled between the metal bars of the rack, slicing into gloopy folds.  Sunny leapt to her paws, grabbed a baking sheet from the counter beside the oven, and shoved it inside the oven as quick as possible.  She caught most of the dough on the baking sheet and then put it back on the rack to bake.

Usually, a mass of dough of that size would take — well, Sunny wasn’t sure; she wasn’t much of a baker — but probably an hour or more to bake?  Instead the pasty dough sparkled green and then glowed red as the tiny mouths of the beverage demon shrieked in what sounded an awful lot like pain.  Sunny tried not to think about it too hard.  As the tiny eyes and mouths blipped out of normal space-time, disappearing with purple folds of the space-time veil, the angry red calmed into a toasty, mouth-watering golden brown.  Mere seconds had passed, but the odd lumpy loaf of coffee cake already looked done.

Sunny grabbed some oven mitts and pulled the baking sheet out of the oven and set it to the side.  She turned the oven off, sought out a big serrated knife, and with only a moment’s hesitation, sliced herself and Audrey each a large, aromatic piece of the weird loaf.  She wrapped them each in paper and headed for the door.  The kitchen was a mess, but she had more ghosts to chase and no more time to spare.  She’d leave an extra big tip, she decided.  So, she dropped a pile of coins and bills on the counter on her way out.

When Sunny reached the car, the sun was already rising.  She handed one of the paper-wrapped slices of coffee cake to Audrey before getting in.  As she strapped herself into her own seat, Ripley peeled the car away from the haunted cafe with a squeal of the tires.  “Took you long enough,” she meowed.

“Go easy on her,” Brannon said, shifting his wings against the car’s sudden acceleration.  “Dogs get hungry.”

But Audrey said, “Ooh, this coffee cake is still warm!”  She’d already eaten all but a few crumbs that she was still trying to lick off of the paper.  “And so good!”

Sunny had to agree.  She felt weird eating a coffee cake that had so recently been a barista — even a ghostly golem of a barista — but the chai spices on her tongue were rich and complex; the bread soft and creamy; and she tasted the buzz of the caffeinated coffee.  This snack would be perfect for giving her the energy to keep ghost-fighting all morning long.  And that was how the bread golem barista would have wanted it.

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