From the author: Craig is stuck—in a small town, in a crappy fast-food job, and on the night shift. But at least he’s managed to make one work friend, a high school pothead named Tommy who repeats sick rumors and tells eerie ghost stories, and at least his new meds are keeping his hallucinations in check. Until the rustling begins.
After four months on Happinex, I got a job at Mr. Beefy's. Shut up: it was a job, and after years of unemployed misery, I was grateful to get anything at all. It meant these meds were working.
The Mr. Beefy's I worked at, store #9107, was near the highway and open until 2 a.m. Naturally, I was stuck on the night shift. The pay was dogshit and my coworkers were asshats, and I didn't like anyone except the 17-year-old pothead who liked to spit into the deep fryer to watch it pop. He was a good kid.
My shift supervisor was a sour old mummy shod in orthopedic shoes. She squeaked when she walked, and this I liked. It let me hear her coming, and it gave me time to hide whatever I'd been doing.
Tommy, the pothead, was the only one who ever caught me. I'd been there about two weeks. It was 11:00 p.m., and while the Mummy was squeaking up front by the registers, I was safe in a corner in the back, stacking up patties to see if I could fit a burger six patties thick into my mouth.
Tommy suddenly turned a corner. His eyes lit up when he saw my burger. "Ill!"
I flung the whole thing under the counter I was sitting at. "What?"
"Hey!" He looked under the countertop. "Why'd you do that?"
"I wasn't doing anything."
He grinned. "C'mon."
"Really." I said this deadpan as I kicked the mess further underneath. "You calling me a fucking liar?"
He looked at my nametag. "Craig. You wanna go smoke?"
What he meant was, 'I think I like you'. "I quit," I said, "but I'll stand outside with you."
We stepped out a side door, into the icy parking lot. Tommy rubbed his hands together and pulled out a joint. "You sure man?"
He lit up and sucked it, slow, then let the smoke out through his nose. "Hey, can I ask you something?"
"What are you, like 35?"
"Yeah? So why the fuck are you working here?"
"It's a job, isn't it?"
"I guess. Fuckin..." He groped for the perfect words. "Fuckin, when I'm 35, I'm not gonna be in fuckin Black Rock."
"Yeah. L.A. New York. Not here." He took another deep drag. "This town? It's fucked up. People are nuts. I heard we got the highest percentage of diagnosed psychos living right here. Like, in the country."
"That's fucked up." He leaned back against the brick. "And then there's the weird shit. All kinds of weird shit."
We went back inside. He pointed at the counter that hid the remains of my earlier six-patty amalgamate and looked straight at me. "I can do seven, you know," he said. "No shit."
"Yeah? Let's see."
Only then did we smile at each other.
I was soon glad that Tommy had caught me. With his input, I began to really enjoy my job. I did what I was supposed to do, which thank God wasn't that taxing, and Tommy and I still had plenty of time to unwind. We put stuff in the burgers. We used funny voices when talking to Janet the Screechy. We got into fake fights with each other in front of customers. I taught him to swear in German; he taught me how to upper deck a toilet. I was happy.
Of course, it didn't last.
Five weeks in, I was getting something from the freezer when I first heard the rustling. It sounded like someone unwrapping a burger, but I hadn't seen anyone take one. I crept out of the freezer to listen better; it was coming from the dry storage closet. I went over. The door opened into a slice of blackness.
I stuck my head in. The room was empty.
The sound wouldn't go away, but nothing in the room was moving. I switched on the light to be sure. I thought I saw a shimmer of gray move across the floor, but the rustling wouldn't stop. I swore, loud, and began to back out. I turned and ran the three steps to the freezer and slammed the door. I didn't want to go back to the storage closet, but I did anyway.
By then, the sound had stopped. I told myself it was a damaged ventilation duct, and I ignored the hot flutter under my ribs and the bad feeling that I was back again on that familiar road.
I assumed for as long as I could that the rustling was real: I looked for the source of it, I checked the ventilation ducts, I hunted for rat droppings. I also asked Tommy, repeatedly, if he heard it too.
I was at a register one night eight weeks in, Tommy working the second one, both of us dealing with a big group of kids. After about ten minutes, the rustling began. I'd never heard it so loud.
"And a Fishy Combo deal..." some girl was saying.
I turned to Tommy. "Goddamnit! Don't you hear that?"
"Excuse me," said the kid. She tapped an inhumanly long, pink talon on the counter. "Excuse me. I was ordering from you."
"No," said Tommy. "Ten, eleven, and sixty-two is your change. Your order is 113."
"I said ex-cuse me," said the girl. "Are you behind that counter? Do you work here? Yes? So how about you take my order?"
"I don't hear it," said Tommy. "Quit fucking around. Who's next please?"
I rang the girl up, but charged her separately for each item so it cost her extra. "Eight fifty-six." The girl grumbled and dug in her purse. "And I'm not fucking around. It's right in the back!"
"Hi. Four fried chickensplits and a Coke."
"Seven ninety-seven, please." Tommy waited while the kid counted out exact change. "It so isn't. Why do you keep trying to fuck with me? I don't believe in ghosts. I don't believe in any of that paranormal bullshit."
"Go back and check!"
"What are you, retarded? There's like fifteen people here." Tommy took the money and rang him up. "Your order's 114. You've been going on about this for weeks, okay, and I don't fucking hear anything, every time."
Hot despair rose through me. I left my register, the girl still digging in her purse. "Dammit, Craig!" shouted Tommy. I ran to the back. I threw open the door to the storage closet, but I knew I would see nothing.
In the center of the closet, bursting out of a Mr. Beefy's uniform, was the fattest man I'd ever seen. His stained shirt rode up over a hairy, gigantic gut that hung down to his knees. His chins glistened with grease and spit, and his pants had split open at the seams. He was concentrating, with the whole of his being, on reaching towards a wrapped, abandoned burger someone had left on a shelf. His fattened fingers would longingly touch the wrapping but sink straight into the burger, vanishing, with a rustle.
He was wholly translucent.
I roared. I couldn't believe it. I howled and grabbed the nearest something and flung it into the wall as hard as I could, and in seconds, the Mummy appeared in an avalanche of squeaks. "Craig!"
"Rats?" a kid in front shouted. "Did someone back there say rats?"
The Mummy's mouth shriveled into an outraged, wrinkled anus. I could hear the kids stampeding to the doors, someone laughing, someone saying, "I dare you to eat it!", someone asking, "C'mon, they all have rats, who cares? I'm starving!"
I pointed, like a fool, into the closet. The Mummy glared at me in silence, then turned with a vicious squeak and went to the front to help Tommy restore order. I stayed where I was. I stared into the obviously empty closet. This really was all I'd ever get: bumps in the night and bleeding myself dry for chemicals that did nothing.
Worse than nothing—before Happinex, I'd never had a vision so vivid and complete.
Tommy came back after a while. He glanced at me, then the empty closet. "Who cares. Whatever, it's just rats. Forget it."
I shook my head.
"Craig!" shouted the Mummy. "You get over here, I need to talk to you!"
That was it. I pushed past Tommy and went out the side door into the parking lot. Behind me, the door opened with a bang and Tommy jogged out. "Yo! Wait a sec!"
I ignored him and headed to my '97 Rustbucket. I unlocked the door and got in.
Tommy slapped his palms on the passenger window. "Hey! Craig!"
I gave him the finger and stuck my key into the ignition.
He pulled out a sandwich bag of weed from his pocket and pressed it, imploringly, against the glass.
I rolled my eyes, leaned over, and unlocked the door.
Tommy got in. He immediately pulled out some rolling papers and got to work. "This is why people shouldn't ever quit," he said. "Jesus. You need green more than anyone I know. You're fucking nuts, you know, and in a good way too. But you need to relax."
I stared through the windshield at the dirty neon and concrete splendor of the Mr. Beefy's. Beyond the parking lot, I could see the river of white lights that marked the highway. "Yeah."
"Everything okay man?"
"Just hang on, this'll be the size of a cigar when I'm done."
"You know, there was this girl who worked here before you," said Tommy. "She went to Matthews, I think. She was into some weird shit. Crystals and tarot and... I dunno... spells, I guess. You know her? Macy, or was it Mary? Long red hair? Kinda fat?"
I shook my head. Tommy continued. "Anyway, she thought this place was haunted too. She had all these stories about it."
"I saw rats."
"You're the worst liar I ever met."
"I saw some fucking rats, okay?"
Tommy shrugged. He held up his masterpiece and pulled out a lighter. "Here's to natural herbal supplements." He lit up, took a deep slow drag, and passed it to me. I accepted and followed suit. What does it matter, when the Happinex obviously stops working when I do follow the directions?
We smoked in leisurely silence.
Nine weeks in, my new hallucination started following me at work. At first it would only take a couple steps after me before disappearing, but by ten weeks, it would follow me for several minutes at a stretch, huffing and waddling under the weight of its translucent flab. If I was near food, it would try to eat it; it would reach out with its swollen fingers, mournfully, unable to touch the piles of hot fries or mounds of steaming chickensplits. It never spoke to me. It looked so sad.
I didn't fool around as much at work. Tommy and I spent the extra time smoking. I knew it was his limited way of offering support for a problem he didn't understand, and I was grateful.
Twelve weeks in, I asked him, "You know that girl you said was here before me?" We were out in the seating area, wiping down tables. There was a snowstorm outside and it had been dead for over half an hour. "Macy or Mary?"
Tommy ran his rag over the back of a chair. "Yeah."
"You said she'd tell you stories? About how this place was haunted?"
I looked into the back. Beyond a couple coworkers, June the Bitch and Bonnie the Bigger Bitch, my hallucination was trying to pick up a Beefy Burger from the designated spot on the rack. Its gigantic gut was in the way. It paused, picked it up, set the mass of blubber on the counter before it, and leaned further over. "It's a good night for ghost stories."
"Yeah, it's boring as fuck." Tommy moved to another chair. "I don't remember them too well. Her favorite was the one about the burgers being made of ground-up babies from the clinic in town."
"I think she was a vegetarian. The angry kind. And let's see, what else. She said this place was built on some sacred stone circle, but that's nothing special, because everything in Black Rock was stones before anything was built. And I guess the bathroom's haunted by a little girl who killed herself."
"I dunno. Drowned herself in the sink?" Tommy pulled off a cut-up leaf from one of the plastic plants. "She was pretty full of it. She also said there was this guy who used to work here who'd stay after closing to eat the leftovers, and he choked to death one night after the first bite, but how are you even supposed to know stuff like that? Only murders go on the news. Unless you're killed by a gun or a bomb, nobody cares how you die, and nobody hears about it."
I looked over at my hallucination, but he had disappeared.
"Yeah?" I said.
"Yeah. And other crap about her special tiny healing crystals she kept in a pouch on her neck. Whatever—I saw her filling it with salt once."
I stopped listening. I wanted to give in and believe. But what always happens when I do? I awaken in the hospital, or worse, jail. None of these things were ever real. My salvation, if I could ever find it, was not going to be in a convenient fairy tale.
I couldn't stand to go in to work for four days straight.
When I finally went to work, it was unbearable; my hallucination was there more times than not, still desperately trying to eat. I acted like he was real when nobody was looking: I'd unwrap a burger, set it on the counter, and watch him try to pick it up, so hopeful and so frustrated. I even spoke to him, though he never answered. I was exhausted from all this false hope. It was only a matter of time before I got fired; the Mummy had caught me talking to nobody, and she almost caught me smoking.
But I wasn't the one who wound up getting fired.
One night about thirteen weeks in, I was making fries in a near-hypnotic trance, lost in watching the sizzle and bubbles, when I heard Tommy say, "Oh, fuck."
I turned. I faced a powerful tableau. To the left and distant, darkening a doorway, was the Mummy. Her face was shriveled in triumphant contempt. To my right was Tommy, frozen in mid-stride, torso awkwardly twisted and looking behind him. On the floor by his sneaker was his sandwich bag of weed.
"Oh, fuck," repeated Tommy, as he bent to pick it up. He made a face and rubbed the bag on his jeans, as if to wipe it clean. "You know how expensive the tobacco from the Reservation is? Fuck, if I spilled any of this when I dropped it..."
"Nice try," said the Mummy.
My hallucination appeared. It waddled towards me and tried to scoop up the fries from the cooling mound. I ignored it. "What?" said Tommy. He held up the bag. "Oh, what, you think this is weed? The color's from all the different herbs. No, here, take a closer look."
The Mummy shook her head, turned, and squeaked away. "I have a phone call to make."
"Seriously!" said Tommy. He trotted after her, shaking his stash for emphasis. "Take a look!"
I numbly looked down and raised the fries from the grease. The Mummy started to shout. "I need to make a phone call, mister, and there's not a thing you can do about it."
I could only stand there and stare into the fries, listening to my hallucination fighting to grab ahold. I couldn't think. I had to, but I couldn't. I listened to the Mummy call the Sheriff. She raised her voice so the whole back could hear. Tommy did his best, denying it right up until the end, when he suddenly switched tactics and said he'd quit and never come back, if she would just hang up the fucking phone.
When the Mummy hung up, Tommy bolted. He ran by me like a bat out of Hell, flinging his stash at me and nodding once, tightly. The bag landed square atop the fries. He banged out the side door. The Mummy squealed by at top speed, screaming for his head, and didn't even notice the bag. I stared at it.
Pick it up. Pick it up.
Bonnie the Bigger Bitch rounded a corner, jaw slack, some of the others trailing behind her. They stared at the side door, waning shut and cutting off a glimpse of Tommy flying over the icy parking lot.
June the Bitch noticed Tommy's stash on top of the fries. "Well I'll be." She came over and plucked it from the pile. "I think I'll just give this to the Sheriff when he comes. That little shit. Serves him right."
I did nothing.
I didn't talk to the Sheriff when he came. I hid in the bathroom. Nobody came to get me; they probably thought I'd slipped out to find Tommy. I wish I had. But I didn't know where he lived, and I didn't have his number. My half-assed acquaintanceship with a high-school pothead who worked at Mr. Beefy's was the most real relationship I had in my life, and I'd fucked this up too.
It was this realization that kept me from coming out.
I must've stayed in there for hours; at some point, everything got very quiet. I took some time to collect myself, then peeked out into the hallway that lead into the seating area. Light spilled out from the bathroom behind me; the seating area was dark.
I heard a keening.
The sound was coming from the back. I crept through the deserted restaurant, tip-toeing, like I'd awaken something unbearable if I was too loud. I got behind the counter and went further.
My translucent hallucination was standing by a trash barrel, legs apart, hands gripping the rim. Someone had forgotten to empty it. The phantom was looking into the trash, trying to reach down into the refuse for the thrown-away leftovers, and sobbing its heart out.
I sat down on the floor, unable to look away. I thought of Sisyphus. I thought of my illness. I thought of all the ways that one can die.
What if Sisyphus just decided to say Fuck It, and let that boulder drop?
I got up and kicked over the trash. The hallucination whimpered and tried to get down on its hands and knees. I ran to the deep fryers to check out the grease.
I ran out to my car and got the spare can of gas in the back. I grabbed some matches. When I ran back inside, I opened the dry storage closet and got out everything paper—napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, tissue—and flung them anywhere and everywhere, especially corners of walls, beneath counters. I hefted up a fire extinguisher and smashed some windows, to up the air flow. The security alarm began to wail.
I soaked the back in grease and gasoline. My heart was beating hard enough for me to choke on it. The stench was overwhelming. My hallucination, oblivious, was crawling on the floor, trying to pick something, anything, up. The barrel had been packed full of nothing but leftover food. It was still unreachable.
I started lighting matches.
Then I ran.
I ran to my car. The sound behind me was indescribable. I gunned the engine, squealed out of the parking lot, fishtailed on ice, and shot onto the highway. Then I drove normally, like nothing was wrong. I didn't realize that I had forgotten something until I pulled onto my street, and once I did, I pulled over.
Hadn't I meant to stay inside when I lit those matches?
I went home and crawled into bed. I fuck up everything.
The next evening, I woke up on time to go to work—if there had been a work to go to. I decided to go anyway. If I showed up like I didn't know any better, I had a much better chance of getting away with it.
I drove to the Mr. Beefy's, or rather, to what remained behind the police tape. I'd done a hell of a job. A Mr. Beefy's is built to last through anything, so most of the walls were still standing, but the inside was a charred wasteland.
"Mother Fucker," said Tommy, appreciatively.
I started. He was standing next to me, out of uniform. We were on the far edge of the parking lot, away from a couple of other people who were shaking their heads and climbing back into their cars. "What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Coming back for my stash, duh. Can I have it?"
I coughed. "About that."
Tommy sighed. "They pinched you for it," he said, knowingly. "Didn't think it'd work. Well, no worries man. You got a record? I don't, and I hear they let you off easy the first time you get caught. We'll get a warning or something. But look at this. Holy shit. I mean, Goddamn. Everything in there got roasted. Destroyed."
I nodded. And I saw him.
My familiar phantom slid through the walls, out into the parking lot. He was waddling very slowly, and his massive gut hung even lower than usual.
In each hand, the ghost of a man held the ghost of a recently-incinerated burger.
He saw me. He grinned enormously. As I watched, he closed his eyes in bliss and stuffed the last two translucent burgers into his face.
"Yeah," said Tommy. "Anything that was in there before's a ghost for sure now." He added hastily, "Not that I believe in any of that paranormal bullshit."
I nodded. As I watched the grinning phantom deliquesce into whatever awaits us beyond, his unfinished business here complete at last, I finally let myself believe in ghosts.
And I felt a whole lot better.
Tommy shook his head at the ruins. "Anyway. That's all just fucking nuts."
I smiled and turned to him. "Fucking nuts—yeah. Hey, since we don't have work or anything, you wanna come over for a beer?"
This story originally appeared in FRIED! FAST FOOD, SLOW DEATHS.
From a mechanical forest that constructs itself to the streets of Kyoto 8,000 years hence, the sometimes whimsical, sometimes cutting short fiction of KJ Kabza has been dubbed “Delightful” (Locus Online) and “Very clever, indeed” (SFRevu). Collecting all of his work published before May 2011 (plus 5 new stories, notes on the stories, and an interview by Julia Rios), IN PIECES offers glimpses into other worlds—some not unlike your own.
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