I paused underneath a streetlight, grabbing Katherine’s arm.
“Shh,” I urged as her mouth opened. I cupped an ear and hoped she would understand the message.
Katherine’s head tilted, and her brow furrowed, lips pursed together. She stared at me as I listened.
Dropping my arms, I took a deep breath and held it, letting the sound of the wind and rustling leaves rush past. As my lungs began to burn, I heard what I’d hoped wouldn’t come. A twig snapped behind us, followed by several shuffling steps.
Katherine’s eyes darted toward the direction of the sounds, widening as they searched the empty street.
I shook my head and grabbed her arm again to move us forward, forcing my feet to move despite the molten lead that was spreading from my stomach through my limbs. I turned the corner at the next intersection and rushed us into the Taco Bell that was half a block out of our way. I wanted to be somewhere public, well lit, and hopefully with cameras. They might even let us use their phone if the situation becomes too dire.
“Okay, what the hell?” Katherine blurted out as soon as the door shut behind us.
The bored-looking woman behind the counter looked up from the register. Her mouth twitched, and she raised her eyebrow, although it was barely visible beneath her brightly colored visor and side-swept bangs.
My own face twisted into an apologetic look as I made eye contact with the employee, hoping she didn’t decide we were too big of a hassle. It didn’t feel like it would be enough. “Let’s get something to drink and go talk about it in a booth.”
Without waiting for a response, I closed the distance to the counter and ordered two large fountain drinks. I paid with my last $10 bill, and shoved the change chaotically back in my wallet, and zipped it up.
Once at a table across the room from the door, Katherine quickly grabbed one of the cups. “Okay, now can I ask what the hell is happening?”
“The footsteps?” I asked before I stuck my straw in my mouth.
“To start with. Then dragging me in here, and the soda at nine o’clock at night.” She took a long drink, clearly upset by the idea of late-night caffeine.
“I don’t know.” I shook my head and looked out the window. I’m not sure what I expected to see – some lanky shadow in a trench coat? A ghoulish clown come to collect a debt? One of our overprotective and snooping parents hoping to sneak a peak of us breaking the law?
I didn’t see anything unusual—a sidewalk, trees, and cars on the road where the lamps and headlights permitted. A faint voice in my head agreed with my friend and wondered if I hadn’t ruined the end of our night for no reason, but I shook it off. “I thought I heard footsteps shortly after we left the park, but I assumed it was my imagination. Until I couldn’t ignore it anymore.”
“It could have been anyone, Ell. What if we freaked out and detoured for nothing?” Katherine asked, annoyed, and looked at her watch pointedly.
“I promise it’s not for nothing, Katherine. You saw behind me. Was there anyone there?” I asked as I stared at my friend, trying not to look at the door behind or the windows next to us.
“No, and that’s the problem.” She leaned back in her seat, shoulders sliding down the booth as she settled in.
“We heard someone walking and didn’t see anyone? I’m sure if you were walking home by two teenage girls, you’d hide, right?” I pushed, waiting for her to get my point.
“No, I…” she cut herself off. Her mouth closed, lips pulling just to one side of her face in a slight frown.
“Exactly. It’s safer in here. Our parents will understand. You could go ask to call home if you’re that worried.”
She looked at me for a long moment and then slid off the booth seat.
“See if your mom can pick us up!” I added, wondering why the thought hadn’t even occurred to me previously.
Katherine didn’t look back or acknowledge my statement at all. Instead, she continued to the counter and talked to the woman who looked even more bored than she had when we entered. Her visor had slid to one side of her head, an elbow planted on peeling plastic next to the register.
I watched Katherine make hand gestures as she spoke, but only tiny bits of her conversation filtered over to me. There had been no phone call when she came back, but she did have a strange look on her face.
She sat down before lowering her chin toward her chest and speaking just above a whisper. “No on the phone, but how long has that weird dude been sitting behind you?”
I turned to look, but she reached across the table and grabbed one of my hands.
“No!” she whispered loudly. “Rule number 1? Don’t look at the person mentioned. Jesus.”
I straightened my neck, confused and frustrated at the return of my anxiety. I looked at the window instead, just able to get a glimpse of the reflection. The man was sitting on the far side of the table, staring at the back of my head. He wore an outdated bowler hat on his head, dusty on the rim that could have been in a black and white tv-show, in addition to a torn-up tie around his neck. He looked…
He looked *really* far away, and not in a good way. If a good way were even possible.
He turned his head toward the window, making eye contact in the reflection, and I felt a violent shiver roll down my back.
“We’ll walk.” With no way to contact our parents, I only saw two options. Sit in front of the leering man or get us home as quickly as possible.
“What?” Katherine said. Loudly.
“We will walk. Now.”
I couldn’t explain what made me change my mind at that moment about what would keep us safe, but I knew we weren’t going to be if we stayed at that table. The cashier wasn’t looking and hadn’t done anything to suggest she would move a muscle to help us. I couldn’t stop thinking about the man’s eyes — they saw straight through me in an awful, awful way.
I couldn’t spend another moment at that table. I stood, leaving behind my half-full cup. I hoped Katherine would follow and power-walked to the door. My hand bolted out, grabbing the silver handle, only to be with mountain-level resistance.
I tried again, and then again after that, but the door wouldn’t open.
“Ell?” Katherine asked from right behind me. I saw her hand grab the handle underneath mine, but the door still wouldn’t open.
I pushed, and pulled, and felt tears well in my eyes when the door next to it gave me the same treatment.
“Can we get some help?” I asked as I turned toward the register, but my words fell to the floor. The cashier was nowhere to be seen – no trace of her at all. My hand fell away from the door, and suddenly the lights went out.
Every single light in the Taco Bell — leaving the entire restaurant in total darkness.
I heard Katherine scream.
I heard laughter coming from near our table, a low, hazy laugh like my grandpa after his last cigarette of the day. The laughter moved closer. When it felt like it was on top of us, the lights flickered back on.
Not all at once, but in one corner, and then another. Then the menu, and then the sign on the door.
I felt a warm breath on my shoulder.
I tried to grab Katherine, but my hand couldn’t find her. I glanced at where she’d been, but couldn’t see her. Before I could call out to her, a voice hissed in my ear. “You’re one of us, now.”
It’s the last sound I remember making before I started my first shift at Taco Bell.
Not many people come in, but I’m almost always on shift with the bored, visored lady. I was bored, too, honestly.
And the strange man with the hat often appears at his table, but I never see him enter.
I also haven’t seen Katherine in a long time, but I hope she will stop by soon for a soda or something.
Alyson Tait lives in Maryland with her husband, daughter, and two gremlin animals. You can find more about her books and other published works at Alysontait.com