By D. Paul  Fonseca

Chapter One - The Buffet

        

       “Well, better than nothing,” he muttered to himself as he handed the key to the man. The bank teller pulled the long, steel safety deposit box out of the wall. The man waiting began tapping his toe impatiently. He wondered what could possibly be waiting for him inside. The box scraped along its track, protesting intrusion. “There you go, Mr. Patterson,” said the teller as he handed the box to him.

       "Please, call me Keith," he said.

Within the sterile compartment were the contents of his inheritance. It had taken many years to find out who he was and after finding out the truth all that was left of his family connections were the contents of this box. Keith let out a small sigh of relief, as though this were his own personal homecoming. But that feeling was short lived.

       Two hours later, the young man exhaled a thick plume of smoke from his cigarette, and blew it out the window of his Jaguar. Why? Why couldn’t there be something of cash value in that box? Wasn’t that the purpose of putting things in the bank? These questions dogged the man as he sped down the street, streetlights flickering by as he maintained a grip on the steering wheel. His car was pushing 200,000 miles and wasn’t going to hold together for much longer. He’d been able to make do for the past few years by learning how to do the majority of the maintenance himself. His dream of a new car lay crushed, courtesy of the empty deposit box. Well empty except for a yellowing envelope with a property deed in it, a deed with a not-to-sell stipulation, making him keep the property for a minimum of ten years before he could sell it. Besides the paper, two keys had been inside. “Deed my ass.” He grumbled. This piece of crap property better be worth something.

       He turned off the highway and went around the corner, navigating the one-way streets of Hillcrest, San Diego. The fading daylight illuminated the hood of his tattered, old XJ6 and when he had reached his destination…

“Son of a bitch!” was all he could say. He pulled up to a chain-locked gate, stopping in the narrow driveway before a deteriorating property. He shook his head as he got out and pulled large bolt cutters from his trunk and made short work of the lock. Then he drove into the small parking lot, alongside the abandoned building. It was “The Buffet.” A building which had been the eyesore of the community for the last thirty years glared at him from the lot with the same address as the paper in his fist.

       Stepping out of his car, he threw his cigarette to the black pavement and crushed it under foot. “You have got to be kidding me.” He fumed, taking small steps towards the building. “I’m the asshole who owns this monstrosity?”

A car horn blared behind him at the intersection of Sixth and University Avenue. When he turned to look, he was met with the dark, towering, rusted sign with the name of the old restaurant high above, “The Buffet.” The plastic sign had cracked and parts of it had fallen out, leaving the old broken fluorescent lamps exposed.  He could just make out a nest of pigeons tucking in for the night. The darkened lamps had turned rust red over the years and were unsightly as all heck. “Dang...”

       Keith fumbled with a key in his coat pocket. Taking it out, the key felt insignificant in his hand. He looked around and people walking past eyed him with suspicion. Nobody had seen anyone in the parking lot, for years, let alone seen the restaurant open. The doors had been sealed since 1984 when the owner suddenly and mysteriously locked up the building and put up a sign which simply read, “Closed.”

       Keith stood before the front door in his faded second hand blue suit. By day he sold shoes at a local department store. He hated his job. But it was all the work he could get at the time. He’d majored in psychology but still had trouble finding work that could give him food and rent. He was good with people, but not much else. It paid the bills, and he could afford an occasional six pack, but that was about it. Now this? What was this place going to cost him?

       About a year ago, he had called his attorney, the one who tracked down his birth parents and discovered his connection to the old Italian family who had built and owned this place, as well as many other restaurants in town. Why did Keith end up with this as opposed to anything else? Keith’s attorney, Marco, did not have the answers. There were few family members left and those who Marco had contacted refused to speak with him, or Keith and definitely did not want to discuss the family assets. As far as they were concerned, he was an outsider. Keith was lucky enough to have inherited anything at all.

       Keith pushed the large key into the stiff lock on the heavy wooden door. He turned it and a loud snapping and sucking sound washed over him as he pushed the door in. Years of grime and a gross lack of use had sealed the building up like a tomb. Inside, darkness looked back at him. An odor of age and disuse fell out through the opening.

       On second thought, let me get that flashlight, Keith said to himself. He retrieved a light from his car and came back. He shined it into the open maw of the beast, and once inside a foul odor blew from somewhere deep within. I really need to get the power turned on here. His mind explored the contents of his newly acquired property. This is going to be expensive. He shined the light inside and stepped forward. This is insane, he thought. The beam shined over a grim interior turned various shades of brown and grey with time. An empty hostess station greeted him and a dusty plastic Ficus tree leaned up against the countertop. Old menus lay scattered around the entryway. Their plastic covers had become an opaque ochre and several menus sat delaminating, with plastic curling up at the corners.

       “This is not pretty.” Keith stood there looking around with the light. Forget this, I need backup. He flipped open his cell phone and called an old friend. “Scott, yeah, Keith here.” Hey man, can you meet me in Hillcrest?”

       Scott lived about four blocks away. It was half past seven and he sounded as though he'd had at least two beers. He asked, “What’s up?”

       Keith spoke quickly and divulged only bits and pieces of what was happening, neglecting to tell him what property he had acquired. Then, he asked Scott to meet him at the Starbucks coffee shop on the corner nearby. Keith said, “Yeah, and I need to show you something.”

       Scott agreed. In less than twenty minutes, the lanky freckle faced young man walked up to the Starbucks holding his hand out. His old leather bomber jacket had a new patch on it which read, Prehab Junky and had the image of a skull in red over black.

       Keith shook his hand. He pulled a cigarette out of his coat pocket and lit it. As he took a long drag form it, he offered one to Scott, shaking the pack at him, teasing a smoke from the open end.

       “Thanks.” Scott took it and lit it with his own Zippo lighter. “So what's with all the cloak and dagger, buddy?”

       “Let's walk.” Keith turned and led Scott down the block. He stopped at the front of The Buffet. It didn't take long for Scott to take notice of the open parking lot gate and Keith’s car parked inside.

       “You're kidding me!” He looked up and down the street at the building, sizing it up, reappraising the structure.

       “Nope. I'm not kidding.” Keith smiled at his friend. “This crap is real.” And with that, he pulled the large weathered key from his pocket to hold it up in the light. “See.” He turned it in the lock with a loud click he said, “Open Sesame.” He pushed on the heavy door and it swung inward and malodorous warm air blew gently out of the entrance. Scott’s jaw sat agape. Together, in silence, both men stepped hesitantly inside. Keith took a drag on his cigarette. Inside, the darkness swallowed them up. A low, nearly inaudible hum penetrated the space they stood in, just inside the foyer. Their eyes took time adjusting to the pitch darkness, and the light in Keith’s hand gave them the only clear look at their surroundings.  

       "I wonder what that hum is?" Keith mumbled, almost as though talking to himself instead of Scott.

       "I dunno. Wind maybe," said Scott.

       "Doesn't feel like it." Keith said. The air was warm, stale, smelling of dust mildew. Scott dropped his cigarette on the ground, stamped it out without making a sound.

       The freckle-faced man began to giggle uncontrollably. “Dude, you inherited a serious fixer-upper.”

Keith didn’t say anything. He flicked the flashlight to the left, shining it into the dining area. “Let’s have a look.”

       “Nice.” Scott continued to laugh. “Let’s go.”

       They ambled slowly across the shadowy room. Against one wall, several stacks of chairs gathered dust and cobwebs. Throughout the space, dinner tables lay scattered all around the center of the room and tall-backed, red, leather booths surrounded the perimeter. Odd empty snack food packages and papers covered the floor. The detritus didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the room. Scott noticed and said, “I bet you this is from squatters in here. You think they’re still here?”

       “Damned if I know,” said Keith. If they are, they’d better be ready to get the hell out.”  He paused. “Or, I’ll kick their asses.”

       Scott laughed some more. He pulled out his lighter and flicked it on improvising with it as a torch, moving away from Keith towards a narrow swinging door. He wandered into what looked like the old kitchen. With one last look back, he grinned and pushed open the swinging door. Almost instantly a loud crash came from within.

       Keith hollered to him, “Hey, Scott, what’s going on in there?” He laughed. “You making yourself a snack?” Silence. Keith stopped laughing, his hubris replaced by a silent, tingly sensation across the tops of his forearms. No answer. Keith stood still, waiting for a reply. He pointed his light down and away from the kitchen door to see if he could see any light from the room Scott had gone in to. But there was no light.

       “Scott?” Keith finished his cigarette, dropped it and stamped out the glowing cherry end on the ugly red and yellow carpet. “Hey, you dork, quit messing around!” He fidgeted and began to slowly move towards the kitchen. Shit. Why did I ask this joker to come with me? He slowly eased the door open, shined the light into the kitchen and looked around.

       The kitchen was a large, massive space, nearly the same size as the dining area. A stainless-steel island in the middle of it held a multitude of steel cookware and other utensils piled carelessly and left to rust and a hanging pot rack, complete with pots of all sizes hung with a fray of dust from non-use. All around the room, buckets and cans of assorted sizes looked to be waiting for someone to open them. Keith couldn’t tell what they held, but from the way they were labeled with a faded decaying black ink on paper labels, he guessed they had to be some kind of food stuffs, very old, food.

       He stepped into the room, shining the light towards the furthest area, straining his vision to see where Scott had gone. His flashlight threw light around, casting shadows to jump left and right from the roaming beam.

       “Whah!” Scott yelled and lunged at Keith from the countertop, where he’d been hiding.

Keith hit him hard on the shoulder with the flashlight, yelling as he did so, “You punk!” He had nearly bitten his lip through when he jumped. “Knock that shit off, man. That’s not even funny.” 

       Scott wailed with laughter, louder and harder than he’d laughed in a long time. He fought to catch his breath. “Ha hah ha!” He struggled composing himself, breathing in gulps of air. “The look on your face….” He let himself fall against the center metal counter, which was on black rubber wheels. Pots and pans crashed down from the counter top to the floor as his weight pushed everything over to one side. Then he laughed some more.

       The white, ceramic-tiled kitchen floor only made it worse, echoing against the far walls. As dark as it was, the laughter broke the sensation of dread which had been building in Keith since he’d walked into the place. “Okay, fine. You got me. Now shut up.” He couldn’t help but smile. Scott was on his back on the dirty floor, getting dust bunnies in his long shaggy hair. His face had turned red with all the laughing. Tears fell down the side of his face through closed eyes.

The beam of the flashlight was on Scott’s face and Keith was gently kicking his shoes. “Come on man, let’s finish looking around.”  

The two men continued through the kitchen, poking their heads into dank cupboards and cabinets. Scott found the door to the walk-in freezer and reached for the handle. However, when he pulled it open, the stench was so great, he slammed it shut before either of them had even looked inside with the light.

“Damn, that’s disgusting.” Scott shook his head and retched, dry heaving, turning away from the large metal door.

       “Shit, is there a body in there?” Keith asked.

       “I dunno. Probably just the doorway to hell,” Scott gagged and giggled. “This place is looking more and more like whoever gave it up literally just walked out one day.” He said.

       “Let’s …” Keith’s words were cut off by a strong, cold wind that blew though the kitchen, scattering paper and debris from the floor in front of them. Keith shined his light around the room, wondering where the breeze had come from. He shined it into every corner looking for open doors and windows. Nothing. The room had nothing open, no doors, windows or even cupboards. Scott pointed up at the ceiling at a rusty grey ventilation register. It was difficult to tell if any air was coming from it. It was too high up.

       The men stood in the silence, listening. The wind stopped. Keith shivered, noticed a distinct change. The air in front of his face had grown so cold he could see his breath.

       Scott marveled at how quickly the cold had come. He searched the floor before him, where Keith shined the flashlight. It seemed odd, different. Scott knelt and marveled as the floor had grown so cold in the spot that he put could see crystalline frost growing, spreading over the area between them. It wasn’t very large of a space, no larger than a few inches. Then there were two spots. He put his finger against the first patch of frost.

       “Wow. This is ice…”

       Keith frowned. He thought to himself, this sucks. I wonder how much it will cost me to figure out why this is happening. He said, “There must be something wrong with the air in here. Maybe there is power on somewhere in here, turning the A/C on and off.”

       Scott stood up. “Man, you’re kinda stuck with this monster, aren’t you?” He looked at Keith, analyzing him. He could tell Keith was thinking about something along those lines, because he looked like he just realized this inherited property might cost him everything.

       “Dude,” said Keith, “I have to figure out how I can afford this.”

       “What? Can you sell it?”

       “No, the stipulation in the inheritance said I have to keep it for at least ten years before I sell it. My attorney said that there’s nothing I can do but keep it.  Maybe use it.”

       Scott looked down at the ground before him, where the two spots had frozen over. He cocked his head sideways. The two spots were not spots, but held the rough shape of two shoeprints. A cold, gut wrenching wave of nausea swept over him.

       Keith could see Scott backing up, away from him. He asked, “What? What is it?” He was shining the flashlight over Scott, but kept the light out of his friend’s eyes. And those eyes widened.  

       The air changed again, becoming warmer, softer. Just as fast as it had cooled, the chilly air was gone. A palpable warmth resumed around the two men. They could no longer see the clouds of breath come out of their mouths. The cold had gone, as though the breeze had simply walked through the room and left.

       “What was that?” Scott turned and asked Keith. The air had warmed to its pallid, stale state and the chill was gone. Suddenly, a low, gut wrenching sound permeated their surroundings. Something like a moan rumbled, made both men feel sick to their stomachs. Then, silence. The flashlight faded off, quickly winking out into darkness.

       “What the hell? Scott found himself afraid. The laughter of earlier had become such an alien feeling, he shuddered. “Dude, that's not funny. Turn the light back on.”

       The click-click of the spring-loaded rubber button on the long metal flashlight flicked up and down without success. “It's not me,” Keith said.

       For almost a minute, the two men stood still in total darkness for fear that there was something, or someone else in the room with them. They said nothing, and the quiet was deafening. Scott held his breath, forgetting he needed air to live. When he finally exhaled, Keith said, “I’m out of here.” They ran for the door, kicking papers and other things in their haste.

       Like terrified school children, they shot through the swinging door of the kitchen and back into the main dining area. Disoriented, Scott turned right, away from the front door and the exit. Immediately he ran into a table. He screamed out, “Damnit!” He fell over. Keith stopped and searched for his friend through the darkness.

       “Scott? What happened? Where are you going?” Keith grabbed at his pants and jacket pockets to look for his lighter. “Scott, where’s your Zippo? Flick it on.”

       But Scott didn't know where he had left his lighter. He patted his pockets while Keith did the same and neither one of them could find a light. Keith stood with the dead flashlight in his hand. He held it like a weapon, having given up on it for illumination.

       Scott stood up. He kicked the table he had tripped over. “I can't find my lighter,” he said. “I think I dropped it in the kitchen. Where’s yours?”

       “I can't find mine.” Keith sighed. “Go back in there and get yours.”

       “Forget that. You go get it.”

       “Dude, it’s your lighter. Just go get it. I'm sure it’s on the floor where you left it.” Keith grew impatient.

       “No. You go get it.” Scott said. “This is your restaurant. You can get it.”

       The absurdity of the situation frustrated Keith. He looked around the room. In the absence of any light from the men, the blacked-out windows revealed fragments of streetlight around the borders of the glass panes. Keith took a moment. “Dude, just go get it.”

       “No.”

       Keith raised the flashlight up in the air like he was going to strike Scott with it.

       “I can see you.”

       He lowered it. Then, pointing it between the two of them, Keith said, “Come on, man.  Just go and get the damned lighter.”

       Suddenly, the flashlight came on, blindingly bright. They both jumped again and yelped. They ran to the foyer and out the front door without looking back.

       Once on the sidewalk outside, Keith paced back and forth, between his car and the front doors. Scott stood hunched over, breathing heavily trying to catch his breath. It wasn't a long run but the fear had winded him.

       Keith stopped, turned towards the building and then looked all around him. Hillcrest surrounded him on all sides. The jubilant pedestrians walked about, cheerfully talking about everything one could imagine, taking the evening in stride. The mundane underbelly of humanity spread out before him. One man walked a white toy poodle while carrying a paper cup of coffee. His sunburnt face showing signs of age, with a tiny mustache scrawled across his upper lip in a way that only confident men of the nineteen seventies could pull off. The white cutoff shorts he wore gave him a casual carefree look.

       Across the street, a girl pumped gas into her Volkswagen Passat. She flipped the tank open and let the gas run while she got back in and sat in the driver’s seat. She didn't seem to see anything else around her, instead she manipulated something on her cell phone and then laughed

       Keith took all this in. The world around him gnawed at the frayed edges of his consciousness. The realization that he had allowed his fear to get the better of him struck him as funny. He tapped Scott on the shoulder. “Ha!” He said. He turned to the building he now owned. He laughed again, louder. And before he knew it, he was out of control, laughing so hard, Scott worried about him. Had he lost his mind?

       But after a minute, he took the key out of his coat and locked up the doors. He looked around, shook his head like he’d just heard the best joke ever. Keith grabbed Scott's shoulder and said, “Come on man. Let’s go get something to eat.”

       Scott smiled and said, “Okay…” as they walked to Keith's car. They then sat in the parking lot a minute. Scott grew concerned as Keith simply sat in the driver’s seat looking out the windshield. Then finally, Keith turned and said to Scott. “I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant. Did you know that?”

       Scott shook his head, trying desperately to follow along.

       “When my father, my adopted father, used to be in the Navy, he would be gone for months at a time. Then after he came back, he’d go on and on about the food in other countries, the ones he had visited. He learned to cook in the navy, but he wasn’t a cook for the navy. He was an airman, in fact, he worked on fighter planes. The food. He said it was the food which kept him sane. It made him feel connected to the places and people he otherwise would have felt detached from.”

       “Oh?” Scott fumbled around in his jacket looking for a cigarette.

       “Here, take one of mine.” Keith pulled his pack of Marlborough’s out of his coat pocket. He then pushed in the button cigarette lighter in the dash. He continued his story. “My dad always told me that he loved meeting the chef in all those places he ate at overseas. Often he was able to talk them into letting him come into their kitchens and show him a thing or two about the local popular dishes.”

       “And so, now you want to cook?”

       “My parents taught me how to cook. And I do alright on my own. I can make some darn good food, but I’ll still need some help.” He looked at Scott with a grin. 

       The shaggy haired young man pulled the lighter out of the dashboard and lit his cigarette, and then handed the lighter back to Keith. He asked, “And you want to open this place as a restaurant?” He chuckled, “What would you call it, The Haunted Biscuit? The Deviled Egg?”

       “Oh geez, you don’t believe in ghosts do you?” Keith took a long, deep drag on his cigarette. As he exhaled, the words came out in puffs of smoke, “That all had to be something simple, something with a real explanation. We were just scaring ourselves.”

       “Right.”

       Keith started the engine. “Come on, we can talk over some dinner. Chicken Pie Shop sound good to you?”

       "Oh hell yes!”

       Keith handled the Jaguar to turn around in the tight space as Scott fiddled with the radio. Soon, the car lurched up the street and the radio could be heard blaring the angry music of Stabbing Westward as they took off.

       The parking lot remained unlocked.  Before long, a pair of teenagers walked passed The Buffet. A boy and a girl stood for a moment looking at the unlocked gate. They knew that the lot had been locked since long before they were born. But something else caught their attention. The sound of footsteps thudded loudly against the floor inside the building. The noise came up to the front doors and the two teens waited to see who would come out. Nobody did.

       The two turned to walk away and had gotten a few steps beyond when they heard it, footsteps, behind them, following them.

       The girl looked at the boy without looking back. She asked him, “Why is it so cold?”

© 2019 Mayachrome Press & D. Paul Fonseca

Photo, courtesy of Pixabay.com 

First published Monday June 19, 2017.
Last modified Tuesday, June 20, 2017

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