Take A Number
A gust of wind blows dead leaves across the pavement, their crisp rattle drifting in the open air. The dark, moonless sky provides no light, and clouds cover the twinkling of stars. A blue Toyota Corolla parks in the otherwise deserted lot, the engine ticking as it cools from the long drive.
“Are you sure this is it?” Shane shifts from foot to foot, his bright yellow Nikes barely visible in the shadows.
“Do you know any other abandoned diners?” Jay laughs, shaking his head. “This is the place. Come on.”
Laughing along, Shane hides his nerves behind a wide smile while pulling out his phone and turning on the flashlight. A golden halo shines on the building in front of them, highlighting the prefabricated steel box painted white. Red awnings hang over the windows, and a broken silver handle dangles from the bright crimson door. The diner is in good shape, though, considering it’s been closed for a few decades.
It started sometime in the 1960s as a roadside stop called The Hungry Valentine and evolved over the years before closing. A brief reopening in the early ’80s brought a face-lift and new name. Son of Sandwich captured the horror movie craze, embracing classics like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. Serving gourmet milkshakes and sandwiches named after serial killers, they offered delights such as the Boston Bahn Mi Strangler, Texas Meatball Massacre, and Jack the Reuben. Son of Sandwich shut its doors before the turn of the ’90s.
Jay leads them up the three steps and pauses in front of the entrance. “We go in, take a number, and sit at the stool. Then we wait to see if our number is called.”
“This is ridiculous. Who comes up with these things?” Shane asks.
“Doesn’t matter. But if we don’t come back with a numbered ticket, we’ll get hazed all week.” He turns, and the glare from his flashlight hits Shane in the eyes. “Our helmets will go missing, our pads will be mysteriously wet, and we’ll be invisible on the field.”
“Yeah, I know.” With the tip of his foot, Shane nudges the door, and they walk inside.
Black and white tile covers the floor, and retro silver shelves hang on the walls. A rolling metal door seals off the serving window and kitchen area, leaving the diner feeling quaint and cramped. Backless black leather stools stretch underneath the bar top, and on the counter sits a ticket machine.
It’s a simple device, round and red with white paper sticking out like a tongue. An attached sign reads, Please, take a number, and an arrow points down. Jay rips a ticket from the mouth and sits, spinning on the stool.
Shane licks his lips, his percussive heart playing a panicked drum solo. Something about this place amps his nerves. Memories of what used to be scar the atmosphere, a haunting echo of lives lived. An energy simmers below the abandoned façade and emanates a sinister vibe.
“Dude, take the ticket.” Jay’s overly loud voice startles Shane, and he jumps, pulling a stub from the machine.
A buzzing fills his eardrums, followed by an intermittent clicking. Red light filters in the diner, growing brighter as the ticking speeds up. A neon sign to the left of the serving window comes to life. Now Serving glows in heated letters, but no numbers appear below the words.
“I don’t like this.” Shane tucks his phone away now that the illuminated sign casts the diner in an eerie ruby blush.
“It’s just the team messing around.” Jay sends his stool for another spin. “I bet there’s a camera set up so they can watch.”
“You’re probably right.” His eyes scan the corners, searching for a recording device.
While the diner gives him the heebie-jeebies, the thought of cameras capturing his cowardice scares him more. After his mom walked away in his sixth-grade year, Shane became an outcast of sorts. A look but don’t touch kid who could spread Broken Family Disease to others. It wasn’t until this year, his final year of high school, that he made the football team, and his peers didn’t see him as an exile.
Shoving the nervous jitters into time-out, he takes a spot next to Jay. His jeans meet the leather seat, and he sends the stool for a spin, faking a casualness he doesn’t feel. He stops mid-turn when the neon sign clicks again.
Foreboding tightens his chest, and he tries to swallow the sawdust collecting in his throat. Below the fluorescent words, red lights blink in and out, three spots gradually heating up. The tick, tick, tick beats in time with his pulse. It starts by forming three 1’s, then three 5’s, then 666, until finally settling. Now Serving 013, the sign reads.
With trembling fingers, Shane grips his ticket, the paper gone soft from his sweaty palms. He turns it over to check what it says, 013. Of course, that’s his number. A wave of dizziness makes the digits swim in his vision, and he closes his eyes to take a breath. It’s just some hazing, he thinks. Stay calm.
Another click, this one behind him, and he looks over his shoulder. A spotlight shines down on a small table and two chairs. Has that always been there?
Jay’s laugh echoes in the empty room, and he stands, clapping his hands. “Man, they went all out on this prank.”
A far less enthusiastic noise ekes from Shane’s vocal cords. “I think we should get outta here. We have our tickets to prove we came.”
“Dude, don’t be a wuss. Let’s see how this goes.” The criticism stings but paired with the biting words is a piece of encouragement.
He said Let’s. Shane’s finally reaping the rewards of being a let’s. For the longest time, you described him better. You need to work harder. You are a piece of garbage. Your mom left because of you.
Straightening his spine and his resolve, he walks toward the spotlight, pulling out the wooden chair and sitting down. The smell of bleach lingers on the table, and he streaks his finger on it, a loud squeak verifying the cleanliness. Strange, for an abandoned diner. A big 50s style speaker, like something from a drive-in movie, perches in the middle of the table with a placard that says, order here.
Jay joins Shane and grabs two menus from the silver holder. “I guess we’re eating.”
Shane doesn’t even glance down. “Don’t you think this is weird? Really weird?” The word he wants to use is freaky, but he keeps the fear out of his voice and scans again for cameras. Which he doesn’t find.
“Are you scared?” Jay lifts an eyebrow and leans in. His lips curl slowly, a taunting grin to match his tone. “Do you need me to hold your hand? Wipe your tears?”
The let’s slips away as Shane falls back into you territory, a place he swore to avoid. “Nah, it’s all good. Let’s order some food,” he says, emphasis on the let’s.
Silence settles as they look over the menu. The top says, Son of Sandwich in bold letters formed to resemble dripping blood. Shane stares at the options, not really seeing them, and his leg bounces beneath the table.
Jay angles toward the speaker and talks into it. “I’ll take the Bundy BLT.” Placing the menu back in the holder, he faces Shane. “What about you?”
“Uhh…” He blinks the words into focus and says the first thing he reads. “The Jeff-Philly Dhamer, I guess.”
“Nice choice. Thought about that one myself.”
An old jukebox rattles against the wall and chugs to life. The Santo & Johnny instrumental classic Sleepwalk plays, and a high-pitched shriek from the steel guitar pierces the air like a scream. Shane jolts from his seat and moves to the machine. Someone or something must be controlling it, and he runs his hands along the smooth glass encasement. Nothing out of the ordinary on the surface, and he nudges the jukebox with his hip to try and make it stop.
A delicious aroma hits his nose, and he lifts his head. It smells like food. Good food. “Do you smell that?”
“I hope it’s my sandwich.” Jay folds his arms on the table, not a care in the world. There’s no worry about the lights turning on or the music playing. No tight shoulders, watery eyes, or gasping breaths that haunt Shane.
He flits his nostrils, using short inhales to track the scent. A thumping fear pounds and moves through his veins, a visible pulse beneath his skin. Swiping clammy hands on his jeans, he moves closer to the counter. The roaring in his ears quiets everything else, the jukebox and Jay camouflaged by the crashing waves. Like Jay suggested, this could be an elaborate prank, but Shane feels the dangerous pull of darkness rooting his feet to the black and white tile.
A clatter sounds from behind the rolling door blocking the kitchen, and he stares at the shiny metal. The distorted reflection of himself and the diner warps like a funhouse mirror. Suddenly, it slides open, and a thunderous rattle quakes his body as he bites his tongue. Blood trickles, the taste hot and tinny.
The kitchen is empty. The appliances cold and unused. There is nothing out of the ordinary for an abandoned diner aside from the two steaming sandwiches placed on the serving hatch.
“Food’s ready,” Jay shouts, grabbing their plates and carrying them to the table.
Dizzy with dread, Shane follows behind, a sense of foreboding making his skin tingle. His legs give out as he reaches the chair, and he slumps in the seat. This isn’t right. None of this is right. Jay digs in, his hands wrapping around the toasted sourdough. His loud chewing and animated grunts turn Shane’s stomach. And then he looks at the sandwich.
A finger plops from the bread to fall on the plate with a splat. Mayonnaise slathers the human appendage and the brittle nail points at Shane. His shocked gaze averts from the finger, did he really see that, and lands on his sandwich. The stares of a dozen eyeballs greet him, the hoagie roll filled with shades of brown, blue, and green hazed with a milky sheen. Vomit crawls up his throat, he covers his mouth, and jumps to his feet.
Forget the cameras! Shane sprints to the red door, jiggling the silver handle. When they arrived at the diner, he remembers the knob dangling. But now it’s attached and bolted closed, trapping him inside. The metal rattles as he doubles his efforts to get out, his panicked shouts reverberating in a screeching cadence.
“Looks like we’re locked in.” Jay hovers at his shoulder, his calm words close enough to breathe down his neck. “Let’s sit down and eat.”
Let’s. Shane’s always wanted to be a let’s. The haunting strains of the steel guitar blare, Sleepwalk playing on repeat in a never-ending loop. Ghostly whispers murmur to the tune, the chilling voices barely audible. Trapped, they sing. Forever, endless. Stay.
His hands press against the door, and he leans his forehead on the cold steel. Releasing his pent-up terror on a trembling breath, he steps away and follows Jay to the table. As if in a trance. As if the scars of the past carry him.
Photo by Ricky Singh on Unsplash