In the silence of the night
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
Edgar Allan Poe, THE BELLS
Helen’s mother was a ghost during her final years of life: creaking around the house at midnight, whispering unintelligibly, unable to articulate her needs and desires. When she went into hospice, it was somehow worse. Helen had grown used to the creaks in the dark, and had taken comfort in the disquiet night. The silence of the dispossessed and un-haunted house was unsettling. When mother finally died, Helen hoped she’d return to the house wearing her white robe, filling the dark hours with whispers and finally allowing Helen a good night’s sleep, but she never did.
Helen’s work began to suffer, so she took leave. Nothing helped. The house was too quiet and clean and empty. Helen couldn’t even feel her mother’s presence in her old hospice bedroom; she’d just disappeared, leaving a mother-shaped hole.
So Helen searched for a way to make contact with her mother’s spirit, to ask her to return and keep her company. After a lot of research, she bought some equipment: an Electromagnetic Field Detector with a built-in thermometer to detect cold spots, an Electronic Voice Phenomena recorder to hear any communication from beyond the grave, an Ultraviolet flashlight, and a Polaroid camera.
The nights she couldn’t sleep, she crept through the house with her equipment, EVP headphones on, listening for her mother. She trailed one hand along the smooth walls, slowly creeping through the house in the dark. The EMF never did anything more than stay bright green, the thermometer never dipped below the thermostat levels, and the recordings never revealed any eerie voices upon playback. Every Polaroid showed an ordinary room, with no orbs or robed figures to be seen.
Helen decided the problem was her lack of experience, so she started collecting ghost stories from her friends and acquaintances. She needed to know about haunted places, unexplained phenomena, strange visitations. She gathered a number of the usual suspects— the oldest hotel downtown, haunted by a Senator’s daughter; a literal ghost town, thirty miles east on the highway; a house managed by the historical society, where it was rumored you could feel strange cold spots and drafts. She visited them all, and they were all disappointingly mundane.
There was, however, another place that kept coming up in these conversations. She ignored it as long as she could. People kept telling her that the abandoned Taco Bell on Cameron Road was haunted. It was the kind of thing that would’ve made her mother snort and roll her eyes, before she was a ghost.
“Haunted how, exactly?” Helen would ask.
There was always hemming and hawing. Maybe someone died there, or someone was killed there? It certainly wasn’t open very long. Sometimes the storytellers’ eyes would dart downward, away from hers, when they dismissed it. Then they’d look up, and mention the downtown hotel, the ghost town, the old sanatorium.
That avoidance, more than anything, drew her interest. The way people would tell her about the Taco Bell, and then just as quickly change the subject. It was as if they knew there was something wrong with it, so they didn’t want to dwell. After a dozen of these encounters, Helen realized they weren’t even consciously avoiding the topic— their minds just recoiled, slid over it, looking for the next thing.
Helen had driven by the abandoned Taco Bell hundreds of times, and it never looked extraordinary. The signage was still there, increasingly sun-bleached, and the parking lot was always empty, although the Popeyes next door did brisk business. The Taco Bell’s windows and doors had been papered over from the inside, but there was no aura of anything foreboding— no St. Elmo’s fire shimmering within, no fog clinging to the surrounding shrubbery.
She couldn’t remember ever seeing it open. When she searched the internet, Helen came up empty-handed. GREENER GRASSES REALTY owned the property, but she couldn’t find anything about the company at all. The only evidence that it had ever been open was on the city’s Health Inspection website, and even then it was just a truncated entry with no details.
“Oh, yeah, the weird Taco Bell,” he said. “It’s kind of famous here in the office.”
As it turns out, all the Taco Bells in town— and most other fast-food chains— are serviced by the same inspector. Chains are faster and easier to inspect than other restaurants, because they all have internal training on passing inspections; plus, at many of them— “Taco Bell in particular,” according to the man on the phone— so little food is prepared onsite. It’s all dumped out of bags, heated, and assembled, rather than actually being cooked.
“That was Archie’s beat,” said the man. “He’d been here longer than anyone, had it down to an art. He could be in and out of a chain spot in an hour. That place, though. He scheduled an initial inspection, before it even opened. Should’ve been shorter than usual. But it took him three hours, and then he gave it a perfect score. When he got back to the office, we gave him a hard time.
“‘It was the damn smell,’ Archie said.”
“What smell?” asked Helen.
“Oh, sure,” said the man. “When you do this for a living, there are things you pick up. There’s a weird kind of drip ice machines make when there’s a big hunk of black slime in them. If there’s oily dust on top of a fridge, you’d better check all the hoods for blockages. And then there’s the roach smell. It’s like… it’s like dried rancid peanut oil, but nuttier. You smell that, and you smell trouble.
“Archie said he never smelled roach as strong as in that Taco Bell. They hadn’t even done much more than turn on the walk-in cooler, but Archie swore it smelled like a huge nest. So he scoured the place, but couldn’t find anything. Said he kept seeing the little bastards— pardon my French, ma’am— out of the corner of his eye, but then found nothing else. Eventually he gave up and came back. I reckon there’s no harm in telling you any of this. That place isn’t going to reopen any time soon. It was only open a week,” the man said.
Helen asked if she could talk to Archie, but he was long retired. To Oregon, if the man on the phone remembered correctly. “Thank you for your help,” Helen said, and that was that.
Mother would’ve cocked her head and clicked her tongue, asked her if she was planning to call information to get Archie’s number, never mind that she didn’t know his last name. “Just get the number of every Archie and Archibald in Oregon and work your way down the list!” Sure, ma.
Helen decided to go out to pick up dinner, and drive by the Taco Bell on the way. She was planning to just slow down as she drove past it, but once she got there she surprised herself by pulling in. The line around the Popeyes next door was eight cars deep. She steered through an empty expanse of asphalt and guided her car into the Taco Bell drive-thru, past the menu: faded and spattered, one of its triptych panels knocked loose and splayed askew by some unknown force.
Around the curve was more of the same. Cracked blacktop, yellowing October grasses straining upward in a way they wouldn’t dare if there had been any traffic. The first drive-thru window was papered from the inside just as the front was, faded stickers still clinging to the interior: the name and identifying number of the restaurant, which she took a picture of on her phone, and then advertising.
HOT. FIRE. DIABLO.
PLEASE PULL FORWARD TO NEXT WINDOW.
The second window looked like the first, but more worn, somehow. The glass was cloudier, the metal frames more scuffed. She rolled down her window to take a closer look, and immediately felt unsettled. It wasn’t just that she’d rolled down her window at an abandoned drive-thru, in a strange parody of the standard ordering process; she was in the presence of something else, something beyond natural. Her left arm went gooseflesh.
Maybe this was finally it. If she could figure out how this place attracted spirits, maybe she could get her mother’s ghost back. Maybe they could even talk about things this time.
There was a noise, or a near-noise, not quite audible: something below the floor of noise, like a subwoofer trying to play a bass note beneath the range of human hearing. It was an emptiness of the ear more than an actual sound, but it was there. And there was a smell. It was such a strange mélange that she just sat, sniffing, trying to identify its components. Ancient fry-grease gone bad; fresh-cut grass, incongruent in autumn; something oily, nutty— the roach smell, she thought; the sour vomitous tang of spoiled milk. Below it all, the coppery smell of blood.
She glanced up and saw the line of cars across the lot at the Popeyes drive-thru. As one, the drivers turned and looked at her. One of them gave her the finger. She realized she’d been leaning on the horn to drown out the absent sound. Helen slammed on the gas and screeched forward, cut right, and turned onto the street. She sped all the way back home, no longer hungry. She crawled into bed and shivered there.
Well after midnight, unable to sleep, she pulled up the Taco Bell website and looked for someone to talk to. There was nothing— it was a sheer impenetrable rock face of advertising, no hint of a human presence that could be communicated with. At the bottom, she clicked “Contact Us,” then put in her information. She included the restaurant number listed on the drive-thru window.
Three days went by.
On the third night, her phone rang, the screen reading ANONYMOUS CALLER. Normally she let those roll to voicemail, but not this time.
“Am I speaking with Helen Gahagan?”
“That’s me. Who’s this?”
“I can’t tell you,” the caller said. She sounded a little drunk. Slurry. “I work for Taco Bell. I’m calling about your nightmare restaurant. What do you want to know?”
“Anything,” said Helen.
There was a long sigh, and the clinking of ice cubes in a glass. “It was a shitshow.”
“Well. First off, because that crazy fucker David Shook wanted to spend so much on it. Taco Bells are cheap. You spend maybe a mil on the property, half a mil to build. Stucco, drywall, a sign, cheap stainless steel. But David Shook wanted to do everything in early-90s style. He wanted to make his brand new Taco Bell all pastels and geometric shapes. His budget was $3.5 million. Three point fucking five!”
“Who’s David Shook?”
“Oh, sorry. He was the franchisee. The one who opened the restaurant.”
“Oh, okay,” said Helen. “Go on.”
“Shook hired the guy who originally designed the 90s Taco Bell look, Stephen Ayers. It didn’t take much— that Memphis style, pastel colors and squiggles and loops, was everywhere— but he did a fine job, and the art department made it better. He originally had these weird designs that we switched to the standard squiggles and circles and triangles. He got all mad about it, but we paid him enough to shut up.
“The art department said he was a giant creep. He left his food out on his desk, attracted bugs, didn’t seem to give a shit. After he pissed and moaned over the design changes, he got promoted. Did more delegating than work after that, which was fine by us.
“Anyway, he jumped at the chance Shook gave him, to use his original designs. Worked like a fiend on it, went there personally to supervise construction.
“And after all that? People hated that restaurant. I mean, really fucking hated it. They walked in, took a few steps, turned around and left. One after the other. I heard Shook chased one of them out the door into the parking lot. Asked what was wrong. ‘Not hungry anymore,’ the guy said. Then he puked.”
“God,” whispered Helen.
“The store made like eighty bucks that first day, all of it from the drive-thru. Shook closed it after a week. Didn’t want to sell it. Didn’t even want to sell the property and let someone else have it. He failed at opening a Taco Bell and had to pay us even more for the early closure. And that neighborhood was crying out for fast food.”
“It’s surrounded now,” said Helen. “Popeyes, Long John Silver’s, A&W. There’s another Popeyes about a half mile away. A McDonald’s around the block.”
“Right. How do you screw that up? I blame Stephen Ayers.”
“The designer guy? Because of the bad design?”
“Because Ayers splattered the front door with his brains the night before opening.”
“What? Is that why it’s haunted?”
The anonymous caller hung up.
Outside the abandoned Taco Bell, the smell and the absent noise were pervasive. Helen slid her EVP headphones over her ears and turned the volume down, which helped. Her EMF meter was still. She could probably pry the drive-thru window open and slither in that way, if she needed to, but she checked the front door first. It was open.
It was better lit inside than she had expected. The paper over the windows served to diffuse the light from the parking lot, helping visibility while muting colors. The pastel pink became a sickly brown; the shadowed teal became corpse blue.
The dining room was in disarray, with dusty chairs and booths scattered everywhere. There was a cushioned plinth smack in the middle, with bizarre designs standing upright on top— not so far from the standard zigzags and circles, but different enough to be unsettling: a jagged spiral; a triangle with lines extending past the points; an X that was thin at the center, rounded on the outside, like some bizarre mutated goat’s eye. Helen ignored it, walked down the roped-off corridor past the dining area to the cashier counter, and through to the kitchen.
As Helen walked, a crumpled wrapper skittered across the floor in an eddy of stale air, and she nearly jumped backwards. She laughed out loud, the sound returning through her headphones as a tinny echo.
In the middle of the kitchen was a long tall stainless steel food prep table. Across one wall were the drive-thru windows, separated by a soda machine and a fryer. The wall opposite the drive-thru windows was covered with shelves: boxes of ingredients, cups, lids, wrappers; a gap in the shelves contained the open door to the walk-in refrigerator and freezer. The back wall had two doorways, one to a small manager’s office, another to a closet full of cleaning supplies. Helen waved her EMF back and forth. The meter lay still in her hand, its green light unblinking.
A deafening thrum filled her EVP headphones. She yanked at the device, tried to crank the volume down, but it was already set to the lowest setting. She batted the headphones off and sent them clattering to the floor. When she bent to retrieve them, she saw a flicker of movement beneath the food prep table in the corner of her eye, what looked like dozens of shiny red-black bugs. She turned her head to look, but saw only dust-bunnies and gathered detritus. She shook her head, stood, and stuffed the EVP device and headphones into her bag.
It was silent now, except for that peculiar absence of sound. Helen could hear the hum of the streetlights outside, the occasional car passing by, a light wind. Below all of that was a hole in the aural atmosphere, a jagged lack where there should’ve been something.
This must be the heart of the haunting.
Past the food prep table, Helen peered into the manager’s office; for a blink, the keyboard appeared to be teeming with tiny bugs. Helen flipped the lightswitch out of habit, but the room stayed dark. There were no bugs, just a chair, an old desktop computer, and stacks of paperwork.
The cleaning closet was covered with dust. A mop and bucket, shelves of cleaners. Helen stepped into the closet to peer up at the top shelves and felt something small and delicate crunch beneath her foot. She quickly stepped backward out of the closet, crunching with each step, but when she looked down at the floor, it was clear.
“Time to go,” she whispered.
Helen walked back through the kitchen, quickening her pace past the food prep table and the stretched black mouth of the walk-in. She packed her ghost hunting equipment back into her bag, walked through the dining area toward the exit, blinked mid-step—
and put her foot down with a crunch on the threshold of the doorway to the manager’s office.
Helen’s stomach lurched and she had to reach out a hand to the doorframe to steady herself. I walked into the dining room, she thought. Something put me back here.
The hole in the soundscape had gotten quieter, less pointed, but it was still there. The smell had lessened too. It had a colder quality, like something left to rot past the point of putrefaction and on to desiccation.
She shivered and started to walk back through the kitchen when something much larger than any roach moved in her peripheral vision. She froze, turned slowly, and saw nothing except the old wooden doorway to the walk-in freezer. But it looked different; hadn’t it been stainless steel? She hurried back through the kitchen. Halfway through the dining area, Helen blinked—
and was sitting in the chair in the manager’s office, feeling the same nausea and dizziness. It was a windowless bureaucratic closet. There was no source of illumination, but she could easily see the sheets tacked up on the walls: schedules, safety regulations, inspection data, OSHA, FMLA, design layouts.
This last caught her eye, and she rolled the chair over to take a closer look. It was the dining area blueprint. What she had taken for disarray was actually intentional: Ayers had laid out the dining room to match the spiral design resting atop the plinth, with the plinth itself dead center. The booths and tables formed the broken arms of the glyph, spinning out wildly. Helen blinked, and when she looked at the design again, it was different; she blinked again several times, staring at the blueprint. With every blink the design turned, as though riding a roiling current below the surface of the world.
Something in the kitchen hissed.
Helen silently stood, took a breath— the stench was getting stronger again— and walked into the kitchen.
The space around her skipped and shunted her forward to the other side of the counter, looking out on the dining area. She could feel a presence in the kitchen behind her, but couldn’t turn around. The smell made her eyes water, and she had to blink to clear them. With each blink, the booths and tables in the dining area changed. The furniture itself was constantly moving, in the spaces between perception, churning a great spiral around the plinth in the center. When her eyes were open, she could see the dust on the surfaces, on the floor, and then after a blink, the reconfiguration, with the same dust.
and was sitting in one of the booths nearest the center. She stood and hurried towards the edge of the spiral, but kept moving back between blinks; she strained to hold her eyes open and nearly made it out when the spiral itself sped up, with the horrible screech of chairs dragged on tile, and overtook her; she began to run, bumping her thighs and hips into the chairs and booths and tables, which swept past her. She twirled against her will as the furniture buffeted her backwards until she stumbled and fell against the plinth.
Helen slowly stood. As soon as she was upright, the swirling began again, pushing her against the cushions. Her arms and legs pressed back, her hair spread back behind her; she had time to think, like the Gravitron at the county fair, and then the floor vanished into a yawning black abyss. Pinned and spinning, she lost consciousness.
Helen woke up flat on the ground in a dark place, and she was starving. She licked her lips, and wondered at both her lack of fear and the peculiarity of her hunger. She pulled her UV flashlight from the bag, clicked it on, and looked around: she was in a small room, longer than it was wide, bordered by empty stainless steel shelving on the long sides. At the far end, a door was open, and she could see into the kitchen. She was in the walk-in. At the nearer end, another door was closed. This one was much older, made of rotting wood.
The beam of the flashlight revealed dozens of glistening insects on the floor, skittering all around her, glowing in the ultraviolet. This time, they remained when she blinked. They flowed beneath the frame of the rotten door and disappeared. The freezer. Fuck that.
She stood up and walked through the restaurant, avoiding the dining area, and shoved at the front door. It was locked. Helen took two steps back. She grabbed the back of a chair to hoist up and break the glass. It yanked itself out of her hand and stuttered several inches away.
How long had the spiral been tracing the same sigil across the floor of the abandoned Taco Bell, uninterrupted, imperceptible? It was a beseeching, this ritualized tracing, like the stations of the cross or a Buddhist prayer wheel, feeding something, paying into some dark source for years since it had been placed in whatever undying configuration Stephen Ayers had channeled and David Shook had paid for.
The Taco Bell clearly had no intention of releasing her. She’d have to figure out how to escape. And to do that, she’d need to eat. Christ, she was hungry. In her mind, Helen imagined her mother chiding her for undertaking an adventure without being properly fed. Her entire gullet was filled with a tingly itchiness, and her mouth was filling with saliva faster than she could swallow.
Back in the kitchen, she used her phone’s flashlight to scan the shelves and find a box of food, which she hauled down onto the counter and tore open. Inside were plastic bags full of dehydrated refried beans, little chunks that looked like shredded bits of tree bark. She ripped a bag open and started stuffing her mouth, crunching it up and swallowing it down. The beans were tangy and musty and acrid; they soaked up every drop of the voluminous spit in her mouth. She’d never tasted anything so delicious.
When she’d gorged herself, Helen turned and moved toward the walk-in.
Inside, hundreds of the gleaming blood-red insects congregated on the shelves, staring at her. As she approached, they turned, swarmed and skittered back, shimmering like the surface of a windswept pond as they slid under the ancient door at the back of the freezer. Helen followed and yanked the handle. When the door creaked open, she lifted the flashlight.
At first the walls looked black, but then Helen saw that they were completely covered with bugs. At the far side of the room was a robed figure, which slowly turned; she lifted the UV flashlight’s beam. Beneath the robe’s hood was something red-black and shiny, resembling the head of a malformed, fleshy praying mantis. It had too many eyes. Its face was bulbous and asymmetrical, the left half larger than the right and with extra mouths, a frenzy of chewing mouthparts. It held itself with a regal quality. The matriarch.
The queen kept turning, torturously slowly, until she faced Helen head-on. The robe was ragged and stained. Inside, what Helen had initially taken for a muscular frame was actually a stick-thin insectile body covered with thousands of the smaller creatures. They flowed in a steady stream, crawling onto the figure’s legs and coursing their way up its body, erupting over its face with exalted pealing chitters, showering it with kisses, then rapturously dying with grotesque spasms, falling one by one to the concrete floor with near-silent clicking noises. They were immediately eaten by their fellow revelers, who began the upward pilgrimage.
The queen gestured with a foreleg. Helen looked where it pointed and saw a kneeling corpse wearing a black polo shirt and khakis, its hands clasped in front of it in supplication. It was covered with years of dust, and on its breast it wore a Taco Bell nametag: MANAGER DAVID. The corpse had no head, just a desiccated stump, ragged with chew-marks. The center of its polo shirt was torn open from within, the visible remnants of its stomach a horrible black-red corona covered in bits of chitin.
The queen whispered a hiss and lifted her arm, looking for all the world like a parody of a saint. Helen fell to her knees involuntarily. She could feel the tickling of hundreds of spiny tarsi: up her arms, in her hair. Beneath the robe, the queen cocked its head and made a clicking noise. Helen struggled to hold still. The queen snorted; its eyes rolled. Helen brought her hands up to her chest. The queen clicked its mouthparts and cocked its head. Helen’s mouth fell open involuntarily to welcome her guests.
As Helen’s hands met above her heart, she realized that she was holding the Polaroid. The bugs were in her ears now, at her hairline, crawling up underneath her chin.
Helen pressed the button on the camera and the flash went off, illuminating the room. The insects hissed and stopped their progress. Helen forced her eyes and mouth closed, scrambled to her feet, turned and hit her head on a shelf; on all fours, crunching hundreds of tiny carapaces, she rushed out past the freezer door and slammed it behind her.
On her way through the kitchen, Helen bashed her hip against the food prep area and didn’t even pause, running flat-out toward a drive-thru window. She crossed her arms in front of her face and took a flying leap, bracing for the impact of the glass and steel, ready to break her arms, at least, on her way through, and maybe her neck. She might die, but dying this way would be better.
The Taco Bell let her pass through the window as if there was nothing there.
Helen landed hard on the asphalt outside, skinning both elbows and banging her shoulder against the curb. She lay curled for several minutes, certain this was just a brief respite before the bugs came for her.
They didn’t. She picked herself up and limped up the drive-thru lane to her car. The Taco Bell was still and silent and dark. The air was clear and smelled of fried chicken. Her bag, and its contents, was gone.
Why had it released her? Why let her go, after all that? Helen realized that it just didn’t care. It had let her go the same way you brush a particle of food off your leg and onto the floor rather than picking it up and eating it. She was insignificant. It was easier to release her than it would’ve been to fix a broken drive-thru window. If she’d remained, they would’ve been happy for the meal and the obeisance, but they paid her no more heed than she would’ve given an early spring onion in her garden before the harvest. Their work would continue.
Helen drove home and got into bed without even showering off the filth. Drifting off to sleep, she heard familiar noises: the creaking of the old wooden floors, unintelligible whispers in the shadows.
There were no dreams that night; those came later, especially on nights when the house was noisiest. Dreams of incessantly swirling furniture, dark rituals; dreams of endless symbols splashed across dark cement walls, glyphs that teased at the periphery of meaning.
From then on, she’d occasionally get an irresistible desire to eat at Taco Bell. She’d get in the car, visit a drive-thru, and hurry home. She always ate on the couch in the living room, leaving the dining room table and chairs to gather dust. Sometimes she’d take a bite and get a mouthful of acrid dust, the dry tang leaching all the moisture from her mouth; she’d feel something squirming on her tongue and hear a hiss, but only for a moment. She’d hitch a cough, pulling air into her lungs before being allowed to swallow. The next bite was always fine. It was just the price she had to pay.
Keef (he/him) is a writer living in Austin, TX. He’s had stories published in X-R-A-Y, The Cabinet of Heed, and Five on the Fifth. He’s on the web at horriblelittlefables.com and on twitter @keefdotorg.