Rennie’s Burgers stands defiant of all architectural progress, on the corner of 35th and Gunther. It’s always been there, it seems, and perhaps it will always remain. In the way that things on the West Coast can have that odd in-between feeling of not modern, but not quite decrepit, maybe Rennie’s Burgers will withstand the test of time.
I pull into its shadow and slot my rusted red bike into the bike rack. I lock it up and wipe the beads of sweat that formed on my forehead in the seven-minute ride to get here. The searing heat of this city seems to assault you from above and below; the sun bears down with the hottest breath that seems to just bounce up from the asphalt, trapping you here, in the middle.
I slick my hair back as much as I can, checking my faint reflection in the glass of the restaurant window. Uncooperative, strands of my hair fray in obstinacy. Accepting the futility of it, I walk through the doors to the vestibule. I breathe in the cooler air. I always stop here for a moment in the vestibule – this wonderful little purgatory. I’m here, so I’m not late, but I’m not quite here yet. I step through to the dining room.
The white tables silently rest where they always are, along with the chairs and their decades-old painted metal backs. Green here, red there. Maybe a faded blue that has almost become turquoise from age.
There’s a couple seated in the far corner. I never understand why anyone chooses to sit there. I suppose it’s because that table is the farthest from the counter, therefore farthest from the teenage rattle going on in the kitchen. But the thing is, that table, in the farthest corner, is surrounded by glass. The western sun shines its final brilliance right there, as if the architect wanted to line it up with the brightest point of the summer sun. I would never sit there to eat my dinner in the summer. The sun isn’t just bright, it’s thick. Gold blasting you, wrapping all around you and filling the whole area with itself. One last intrusion, one last infusion of its light and heat.
But, there they are.
I walk through the employee door, which is easy to do considering it must be the original wooden door of this shoddy construction. It doesn’t close properly.
The light pours in through the top corner. The bottom has this Tim Burton-esque slant to it, so I half expect some anthropomorphic creature to walk through and take me to a different world.
At the small closet where we keep our things, I slough my corduroy backpack off my shoulder and let it drop into a plastic chair. The timeclock is there on the wall. Large, old, imposing. A disgusting dark pea-green, with chips all over it. It looks like it fell out of a pick up truck on the way here for a bad burger. I take out my slip and slide it under. Pressing the reluctant button, it smashes down onto the card with what must be hatred. I look at the card. 7:58pm.
I stare at the ink on the card, slightly slanted. It almost looks like a library card. Like this card I had when I was twelve, and I’d gotten these books that –
“Thank God, you’re here! I’m dying.” Natalie whines. I break my trance to meet her glance.
“Yeah, and two minutes early, too, so there you go.”
She chuckles. Her eyes resemble crushed emeralds glinting in the sun.
“Hey, man.” It’s Greg, the shift leader. “Natalie’s drawer’s balanced. Your till’s in register two, ready to go. I’m heading out. See you later.”
I suppose he meant that for the two of us, because he raised his hand for about half a second. Now, he’s already in the vestibule, on his way out. Soon I’ll hear the roar of his obnoxious muscle car, and I’ll hear him needlessly peel out. I just wonder if Natalie will watch him drive out on Gunther in the front of the store. I know he does that so we can see him.
But she doesn’t.
Natalie is just grabbing the last of her things and stuffing them into her backpack. Like me, she doesn’t have a car. Normally, at school, I see her mom drop her off. But to work, she takes the bus. I always want to offer her a ride home, but I don’t have a car with which to offer. I suppose I could offer to walk her home.
But then again, I’m here, working. So I’m not sure how I’d do that, either.
She slings the bag over her now exposed shoulder. I’m in awe of how perfect her skin is. We’re just looking at each other, and I cannot for the life of me think of anything to say.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say, and immediately regret it.
She looks down for a moment, hands on the strap of her bag, hair loosely askance. “Yeah, see you tomorrow. Have a good night, Andrew.”
A couple of hours later, I’m completely alone in the restaurant. I’m going to lock the doors to the dining room pretty soon. A burger place doesn’t typically do all that well throughout the night, but this particular one has a long history of remaining open all twenty-four hours. The owner, Rennie, doesn’t want to change that at this point.
It’s what built this place. Its spirit is service. Duty. Persistence, I hear him say in my mind.
I really shouldn’t complain. If he hadn’t had this shift open, then I’d have been out of a job. But I hate this shift. And I especially hate being here alone.
I’m not sure why I thought this would be a good idea. I am not a fearless jock. I’m actually a nervous wreck most of the time. I get here two minutes early to my shift, every single time. No earlier, no later. Exactly that time. And really, that’s a lie. I know exactly why I’m here.
I needed a job but couldn’t find one that I wanted. So, my stepdad, being the great guy he is, told me to come here, told me to apply, told me to interview. And when they offered me the job, he told me to take it.
So, I took it.
And so, I am here now.
I’m not the type of person that enjoys solitude. There’s too much happening in my mind. I wish I hadn’t taken the job. My stepdad tells me all the time that this is good, though. Really builds character. And discipline.
Both of which I need, I guess.
I wanted to get a job doing something creative. I’d have loved to have gotten a job at a theater or something. Maybe working for the art department, creating intricate backdrops for low -budget productions. Hell, even the damn ticket booth would have been better.
My back suddenly hurts. I’ve been slouching here too long, sulking. I look through the drive thru window. I don’t see anyone. And at 10:45 p.m., I don’t really expect anyone. I lean out and peek into the dining room. All the chairs are upside down on the tables, and the checkered tile is ready to be mopped.
The flooring makes me think of the tiny tiles in the school bathrooms. I always stare at them when I’m in the gym showers, imagining what it would be like if one of them were chipped, but I failed to see it. In this daydream, while I’m showering and moving around, I jam my moist and swollen toe on it, tearing into the pliable flesh. I don’t feel it right away, but I look down and see the smoky red mixing with the water, the deepest crimson spilling out of the split toe.
My foot begins to tingle inside of my shoe, bringing me back, and I look away from the tile. Closing my eyes, I try to think of something else. Anything else.
I walk to the closet and grab the mop. The bucket water clouds as I pour in some sort of solution. It almost smells fresh, but at the same time, somehow manages to smell old. Dingy. Almost like an ancient public restroom that was just wiped down.
I’m plunging the mop in and out of the water mindlessly. The water sloshes and mixes. I’m thinking of Natalie. Now, of course, so many things populate my mind. All these things would have been great conversation starters.
Hey, so how close are you to getting a car?
Oh, not close enough! She’d say. And she’d laugh, tossing her hair.
I’m going to get an old Firebird with a huge engine and race Greg, I’d joke, and this would of course make her laugh even more.
I roll the mop and bucket out to the dining room, the headset still on so I can hear if anyone shows up at the drive thru. I fling the mop out onto the miniature tiles. Outside, the dull glow of the streetlamp filters into the dining room. I glance over the counter to the drive thru window. It’s dark.
I continue to mop, thinking of Natalie, thinking of –
Shit. I forgot to lock the front doors.
I take my keys out and make my way to the front entrance. I force the key into the door and turn. It clatters roughly, resisting my hand, but eventually falls fully into place. I look out the glass of the door.
It is really dark tonight.
I search for the moon, but it must be a New Moon; it’s nearly black out there. I hardly see any stars, and they seem to be receding. Falling farther away and disappearing completely. It’s as if there are clouds, but maybe they’re so thick and full of dark rain that I just can’t really see them.
I turn around in the vestibule and make my way back to the mop.
I freeze. A chill brushes against my spine.
Every chair is out. Lined along the walls in an interlocking pattern. Some are right up against the glass. It’s darker outside now. Thick. And writhing.
Every muscle in my body seems rigid. I can hardly move, and even breathing takes effort. I don’t know exactly what I should do right now. Worse, I’m not even sure that I’m still sane.
No. it’s not real. I’m here by myself. It’s late. It’s empty, I repeat to myself with my eyes smashed shut. The chill that whispers up my spine turns to icy sweat beads, and my shirt sticks to my chest. I can see it moving with my breathing, which is rapidly becoming heaving.
I glance at the door, then look at my register, focus on it. I’m determined.
I wait, build up the courage, then sprint.
I run with wide strides, covering as much ground as I possibly can. I’m almost there, I’m so close, but –
I’m slipping on the tiles, still wet from my mop. My left foot loses the last bit of grip it has, and my weight shifts. I reach out my hand, but I’m quickly becoming horizontal. My right foot follows suit and before I know it, I’m on my back. My head radiates with pain, and I realize I must have hit it. I don’t lose consciousness, thank God, but I’m in pain. I clutch my head for a moment, trying to think clearly. Trying to see clearly.
I slowly get up, feeling like everything is vibrating. Beneath my feet, at the tips of my fingers. I rub my head and turn toward Gunther Street.
All of the chairs are back on their tables. Upturned, revealing the dry tile, yet to be mopped.
You fucking idiot.
I take a sharp inhale, expanding my lungs, relaxing the rest of my body. I exhale slowly and continue my internal mantra of, Everything is normal. It’s just my mind getting to me.
Although, the windows are still writhing.
Oh my God, I hadn’t noticed. But now I’m watching the billowing of whatever this blackness is. Complete absence of light plowing into the windows. The dull glow of the streetlamps is swallowed whole in this massive nothingness. This absence. Like a black hole’s mouth came down and swallowed the restaurant up whole, with me inside it.
Through the thin glass of the window, it looks like smoke, but deeper than the color black can convey. It’s billowing and swirling, dancing against the glass. Swallowing everything up. I can’t hear the traffic on the street, can’t see any light. I press my ear to the glass – frigid as ice – and I can’t hear a thing. Even through the thinness of this antique glass.
Oh God, what am I doing?
I jerk away from the glass. I stare intently through the window, as if my eyes are tied by rope to the window, and it’s trying to pull me out. Which is really how it feels. I am repulsed by this yet drawn to it with nearly irresistible curiosity.
I’m forgetting to breathe.
I inhale and close my eyes. But as soon as mine are closed, I feel a new set upon me. From behind the counter, behind me. I can feel them. Like marbles placed in the space between my shoulder blades. I shiver almost violently.
I swivel and open my eyes.
Small, squat, and square. A creature. A female of some kind. Patches of blond blurting from her cracked and bleeding skin, darkened with decay.
Oh God –
My stomach lurches, but I’ve nothing to vomit. I retch. My stomach is striving to vacate its very self, to turn inside out and leave my body altogether. I raise my head, but she’s gone. And I knew she would be. But she’s actually gone. I feel that she, or it, is gone . . . but that I’m still not alone.
Back at the window, new figures outline the smoke. The cloud. Whatever this black nothingness is that presses in on the old building. They’re tall, and gaunt. No color, and no real distinguishments. They’re just there, looking in. Or maybe It is there, just multiplied, all staring at me through nonexistent eyes. Sensing me. Feeling me. Knowing me.
The figures all seem to press in on the glass.
Something comes from my throat, I guess it’s a scream. Although at this point, I’m not sure if the sound is real or only in my mind. But now they step back, dissipating into the mass of black nothingness. The night fog. And it begins to move as one. Swirling. Rapidly.
I can’t help but wonder if there is some sort of eye above us forming. Perhaps unintentional. But an opening. I can’t keep pondering that though, because with the movement, I hear and feel the windows rattling in their places. They’re old, perhaps forty years at this point. I have no confidence whatsoever in them.
I decide to continue my sprint from before.
And almost telepathically, the smoke smashes into the windows, rattling them to the point that I can feel the vibration in my feet, through my shoes. The entire building seems to recoil at the assault.
I approach the counter and hurl my body over it. I land on my shoulder, hard, but I’ve arrived, and the pain seems much less than it ought to. My adrenaline is really carrying me.
Something within the great dark mass of amorphous cloud screeches. High pitched. Nearly pitiful, if I could ignore the pure rage in it.
I hadn’t noticed before, but I’m crying. And shaking.
What the hell am I doing here? What the fuck is this?
There is no time to contemplate this, as while these thoughts seem to be right here and now, I hear the doors violently shake. I freeze, the breath frozen in my lungs, suspending them in a painful expansion.
I exhale and jump to my feet. I sprint back to the doors to make sure this damned thing won’t get in here and… I don’t know, try to choke me or control me or just kill me for pleasure.
I arrive at the doors, and they’re shaking with the intensity of earthquakes. The very frames themselves violently convulse. I hold them tight, and look down at my hands, trying to ignore this living darkness. This cloud of hatred. Tears wrench themselves from my eyes and drench my hand. Movement outside of the window catches my eye.
The shaking stops as suddenly as it arrived. The street is dark and empty, the light reflecting on the late-night dew that hangs in the air. A clear night sky stretches above me. Every star shines individually and proudly.
Oh God, I’m fucking losing it.
I stop for a moment to breathe. I repeat my mantra.
I’m here alone. I’ve been alone all along. It’s late. I’m just seeing things.
I turn around and –
It’s there. By the counter. The figure. It’s not a female. Clearly dead. The tufts of hair sprouting are white with age and use. Its ancient hand is already clasped around my throat, oh God! I’d call it a monster if it didn’t look so human, so familiar…
It has no lips, and its teeth are long and gaunt and slanted in every way but straight. Its nails are long enough to sink into the back of my neck. It has me pressed against the glass, hard. I don’t know for certain if this is me – in some form or another – that I’m looking at, but I don’t care.
I raise my hands and bring them down, crashing as hard as I can against its forearms. The crack is loud and settles into my ears with a ringing. I feel the detachment, the disconnection in the grip of its hands around my throat. It reels back. Its hands of decaying flesh hang from my neck momentarily, while its body collapses about four feet away from me.
Scurrying past the heap of his handless body, I sprint back into the lobby. The headset is long gone, and I have no idea if anyone is in the drive thru. I run my hand through my cold, sweaty hair. I’m trying to think.
Spinning in place, I look around the lobby. The chairs are returned to the tables, statuesque. The windows are full of thick darkness again. Writhing with more anger, more intensity now.
Oh my God. Oh my God. Ohmygod!
My heart is blasting my rib cage with fear and anxiety. I don’t know what else to call it: there is an entity surrounding me – supposedly me, myself – and I cannot get away. I cannot reason with its animalistic instincts. It surrounds me. It pounds furiously against the windows now with formless hands. The entire building shudders under the ferocity of this blackness, this nothingness.
I crouch down and plug my ears. I’m crying. The floor vibrates ceaselessly.
Suddenly, I think of Natalie.
The craziest fucking thing happened to me last night, I’d say.
Yeah, I guess I fell asleep or something at the register, and I had this nightmare that this crazy cloud of like a demon or something fell over the whole building. It was trying to kill me. I even saw a version of myself, long dead. I don’t know what the hell it was all about, but it scared the shit out of me.
Holy shit, for real? Her eyes would widen here, full of disbelief, but also brimming with compassionate interest.
Yeah. But then I woke up, thank God. Anyway, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I wanted to see you so I thought I’d –
The floor shakes again, as if lightning struck just steps from the front entrance. I finally lift my head and uncover my ears.
Before me stands the dead version of me, again. Handless, lipless, bleeding.
I can’t scream. It’s inches from my face. Now I realize it’s eyeless, too. The blackness in the abnormally large holes seems so unreal that I can’t stop thinking, It must be fake. The absurdly long teeth grate together in what must be either hatred or fear.
Oh, shit. Fear.
I look at it, and it supposedly stares at me.
It fears me.
Its teeth part as if it would fain to say something, but being tongueless, it is incapable of speech. It just groans in a pitifully dark yaw. But I don’t need to hear anything: it’s trying to tell me to get the hell out of here while I still can.
I scramble to my feet, and the creature straightens as well.
Something crashes hard. In the kitchen. Pots, pans, cacophony; all seems to disassemble in a maelstrom of preternatural hatred.
I turn to look, faster than I have ever moved, toward the kitchen. The death doppelganger beside me fixes its visionless gaze ahead, over the counter and into the kitchen. All the while, a rumble begins to vibrate our feet, working its way up our ankles. It begins a silent sprint that only a corpse could accomplish, but is instantly impaled by a thick, writhing cloud of blackness and cold. Boxes of frozen food and dishes explode from the kitchen into the dining room in shards. Pieces lacerate my body and face painlessly.
The doppelganger hangs limp and is dropped. Its body shatters upon meeting the tile. A million fragments of whatever this thing was gather at my feet, like porcelain dropped from rooftops.
A figure emerges. Absence. Blackness, smoke. Nothingness. Nearly formless. Yet writhing, and multitudinous in its failing uniformity. It’s alive, it’s conscious.
“What do you want?” I scream at the mass.
It disassembles into a cloudlike shape and screams toward me, the screaming a complete inhuman and guttural sound. Something a fallen angel must sound like on its descent to hell. Agony. Pain. Regret.
I turn and sprint. The chairs are flinging from their tables and hurtling toward me. I dodge two and crouch beneath a third. Finally, I approach the glass.
It’s thin. Too thin. Four decades old.
I grab the fourth chair on its warpath toward me, and spin it around to redirect its inertia to the window. It impacts the window just as my body does. I fly through the shards. I can feel them elegantly pierce me. They imbed themselves. Deep. I have this oddly serene feeling of knowing that very important parts of my body are badly damaged instantaneously. I am flailing, and suddenly my body collides with asphalt. It pushes the more reluctant shards deeper into me.
More pieces of glass clatter and chime around me, bouncing off the cement. The sodium glow of the streetlamp refracts a million times around me, like glitter.
Rennie’s Burgers stands defiant of all architectural progress on the corner of 35th and Gunther. I pull into its shadow on my rusty old red bike. Slipping it into the bike rack. I attempt to fix my obstinate hair in the reflection of the glass…
But I can’t; the glass is shattered.
I rush to the vestibule and stop. I see Natalie through the doors, in the dining area, amid a mess of twisted colored metal and blood. She’s bawling. Greg stands there, arm around her, but his face betrays him. He’s frightened. I instinctively step through the doors through which I burst out of seemingly moments before. But suddenly, there are police everywhere, as if they’ve materialized.
I whirl every which way, but find myself out of place. I can’t sense anything right. I rush through the crowd of first responders, but they don’t notice me frantically shoving through.
Out on the sidewalk is a mangled mass of shredded flesh and cloth, matted together with congealed blood. And over the blazing curve of the setting sun, creeps the darkest plumes of absence.
Dylan Webster (he/him) lives and writes in the sweltering heat of Phoenix, AZ. He is the author of the poetry collection Dislocated (Quillkeepers Press, 2022), and his poetry and fiction have appeared, and are forthcoming in, anthologies by Quillkeepers Press and Neon Sunrise Publishing; as well as the journals The Dillydoun Review, Last Leaves, The Cannons Mouth by Cannon Poets Quarterly, and Amethyst Review.
Dylan has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as the Best of The Net.