It was four in the morning, and my friends and I were still awake after a night of drunken debauchery. A final hoorah before Brandon Jr. was born, and our friend (Brandon Sr.) would succumb to fatherhood. Even though we’d mostly sobered up by that point, we didn’t want the party to end. We’d been sitting on the couch for hours rehashing our favorite college stories. Brandon stretched out, yawned, and looked at his watch.
“I should probably head home,” he said. “Gotta get a few hours of sleep before work.”
Those were the words we’d been dreading for hours. We’d been carefully tip-toeing around any topic that would remind us we needed to return to our normal lives. Anything that would tell us the night was over.
Chris shook his head. “You’ll fall asleep at the wheel. Just crash here tonight.”
Brandon stared at the couch, eyes half-lidded. “I really need to get home. If I crash now, I might not wake up until noon.”
I hugged the cushion I was holding against my chest, and rested my chin against its soft surface. I was wide awake. I’d gotten my second wind around two in the morning, and I was still feeling it. Not yet, I thought. I didn’t want the night to end. There’d be time for sleep and responsibilities in the morning. This was our time. Our night.
Niles interrupted my train of thought. “Well, if you’re going to drive,” he said, waving his hand dismissively, “you should at least get coffee.”
“Better yet, let’s get breakfast at Denny’s,” replied Chris.
Brandon looked at his watch again. His lips thinned into a sly grin. “I mean, I guess there’s no point trying to sleep now, right? Might as well stay up all right. Yeah, okay. Let’s go for breakfast. But after, I really need to get going.”
“Good!” I chimed in, leaping off the couch. “I’m starving.”
It had gotten much colder outside since our last beer run around midnight. Dew coated the few blades of grass that had begun to sprout since spring had finally come. A small blanket of fog hung about a foot off the ground. Just enough to create an eerie atmosphere, but not enough to obscure anything from view. A sheet of ice covered the windows of Brandon’s car. We piled inside and cranked up the heat, waiting for it to melt before we could leave.
I’d forgotten how peaceful Indianapolis could be at night. The streets were empty and parking lots were barren. If not for the neon lights of a few convenience stores, the city would have looked like a ghost town. Brandon drove us through the deserted streets and to one of the few places open at that ungodly hour. As we pulled into the Denny’s, we saw a single car already parked there. Just a small black Toyota. It was inconspicuous, except for the fact that the back passenger door on the right side hung open, and there was no one in sight.
“Creepy,” muttered Brandon, as he parked several spots away from the car.
Niles snorted. “A drunk probably just forgot to close it.”
Since I was in that very seat, Chris peered at me and snickered. “Sounds like something you’d do.”
“Oh, shut up,” I replied.
I stepped out of the car and made it a point to close the door as theatrically as possible. It slammed shut with a loud thud that resonated in the empty lot.
We stepped inside and were greeted by an exhausted-looking older woman. ‘Sheryl’ was written on her name tag. “Table or booth?” She asked, her voice devoid of any enthusiasm. At 4:30 in the morning, I couldn’t blame her.
“Booth please,” answered Brandon.
She eyed him closely, grabbed a handful of menus, and escorted us to our seats. “Start you off with a drink?”
Brandon replied, “Nothing for me.”
Chris, Niles, and I asked for water.
Sheryl handed us the menus one by one. “I’ll give you a minute,” she said, before turning on her heels and walking into the kitchen.
From the corner of my eyes, I could see her staring at Chris. He never failed to attract the ladies, young or old. Something about his dimples, I’m sure.
I opened the menu and looked through the options. My stomach was in a weird state of hunger and unwillingness to eat. It wasn’t ready for breakfast, but at the same time, it hadn’t been fed anything but booze since supper, so it demanded to be filled. I picked something small, and waited for Sheryl to return. In the meantime, I chatted with the others.
“What’ll it be?” Sheryl asked suddenly.
I hadn’t even heard her come up.
Brandon smiled politely. “Whole grain banana waffles please.”
She scribbled down his order on a notepad. Her hand moving in quick, jagged motions.
“And could I have some coffee?” he added.
She stared at him coldly. “No.”
“No?” he replied.
“You didn’t want anything earlier when I asked, you’re not getting any now,” said Sheryl.
I couldn’t tell if she was serious or just playfully busting his balls. Brandon said nothing. I ordered my meal, and then Niles ordered as well. When it came Chris’ turn, Sheryl’s attitude clearly changed. Her gaze softened, her voice became lighter, and her scowl turned into a subtle smile.
“What can I get for you, dear?” she asked, in a sing-song voice.
He grinned. “Cheese omelette. And, if you don’t mind, I’ll have two coffees.” He winked.
Sheryl’s nose crinkled, and I heard her sneering as she looked at Brandon from the corner of her eyes. “Of course, dear,” she answered.
The clatter of her heels on the floor as she walked away made me wonder how she could have surprised me earlier. I must have been too distracted to hear her.
“I don’t think the server likes you very much,” I told Brandon.
He laughed and shrugged. “It’s because I keep making bedroom eyes at Chris. She sees me as a rival,” he joked.
Chris laughed. “Now, now. There’s enough of me to go around.”
Niles snorted. “She’s only being nice to you because you’re sitting next to me. She clearly likes me.”
“Yeaaaah, that’s what you said about Samantha, too. Remind me again who closed the deal with her?” taunted Chris.
Niles elbowed him. “Dick,” he mumbled.
Sheryl came back with two cups of coffee. She stretched her arms over the table and set them both in front of Chris. She then placed a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. “Here you go, dear,” she said before pulling away. “Your food will be out in a minute.”
Chris thanked her, then waited for her to be out of sight before handing Brandon the extra cup of coffee. Again, I wasn’t sure whether Sheryl was serious, or messing with us. Her curt behavior was either teeming with playful sarcasm, or genuine. Whichever it was, it was making me feel a little tense. I felt like I had to walk on eggshells around her. I wondered if she was treating her other customers the same way, but when I glanced over the booth and to the other tables, I remembered we were alone.
“She’s being weird, right?” I asked.
Niles shrugged. “It’s 4:30, she’s probably been here all night and wants to go home. Give her some slack. I mean, she works the night shift at Denny’s, for crying out loud. We’re lucky she hasn’t flipped us off and walked off yet.”
Brandon brought the cup of coffee to his face and inhaled the fumes. I could see a sparkle of glee twinkling in his eyes as he took a sip. It was exactly what he needed.
“Man,” he said, “I haven’t pulled an all-nighter since we graduated. When did we get to be so old and boring?”
“Around the time we started having to do our own taxes, I think,” I answered.
Chris groaned, “Ugh. Don’t remind me. I still need to get that done.”
“I don’t know what the big fuss is about,” said Niles, as he absent-mindedly played with a straw wrapper, “You just need to put a few numbers in a few boxes. Not the end of the world.”
“Until you make a mistake,” I replied, tapping my index finger against the table, “Then, the government owns your ass. All because you declared three dollars less than what you made.”
Niles laughed. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“That’s what they want you to think,” joked Brandon.
Out of the blue, Sheryl set my plate down in front of me. I jumped, startled by her stealthy approach.
“Thanks,” I whispered, flustered. I could feel my cheeks turning red.
She gave everyone their food, and let us eat in peace. From time to time, I spotted her looking at us from across the restaurant. There was something about the way she did it that made me nervous. She didn’t have the attentive gaze of someone checking up on us. No, there was something more aggressive about it. Something almost predatory. It gave me the creeps. I ended up wasting half of my meal, partially because I couldn’t stomach the food, and partially because of Sheryl’s prying eyes. I felt as though she’d jump me if I let my guard down.
Brandon pushed his empty plate away, and then cracked his back. “Ah, yeah! That’s just what I needed.”
The other two looked about done as well, so I set my utensils down and leaned away from my plate.
“Nothing like mediocre breakfast food before sunrise,” mused Chris. He turned to Brandon. “You mind if we stop by the grocery store before we go back to my place? I need to grab milk.”
Brandon shrugged. “Sure.”
There was a moment of silence as we all looked at one another, trying to gage whether or not we would extend our stay with another cup of coffee. This time, it was Niles who made the first move by slipping back into his coat. In turn, we did the same and then grabbed whatever we’d set on the table. Wallets, keys, gloves, we pocketed them all. We then wandered to the register and flagged Sheryl down.
“Leaving so soon dear?” she asked, making no effort to hide the fact that she was addressing Chris, and Chris alone.
He smiled. “Sorry honey. Wish we could stick around longer, but we need to beat rush hour traffic,” he joked.
She put her hand on his forearm, and smiled back at him. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again soon, dear.”
We left the Denny’s and walked into the parking lot. It was still as cold as when we left. That black car was still there, still empty, and with the door still hanging open. I couldn’t help feeling as though someone was going to jump out at us, but no one did. We got back in Brandon’s car and drove to an outdoor mall a few blocks away. The grocery store was at the very end of a row of blackened storefronts. Its lights were dim and there was no one inside, as though it was closed.
“Isn’t this place supposed to be open 24/7?” I asked.
Brandon put the car in park. “I thought so. Let me check.”
He got out and sprinted to the sliding doors. They remained closed. He peered inside, stretched his head out, shrugged, and then came back.
“There’s carts blocking the entrance. Guess they’re closed,” he said.
We didn’t think it was that weird. Not all grocery stores were open this early, but I was sure this one was supposed to be. Brandon started driving, and as we passed the entrance, I noticed a poster on the side.
“24/7,” I said, pointing to it.
Chris motioned to a second set of doors. “We probably have to get in through there.”
“Makes sense,” replied Brandon.
He parked the car and we cautiously headed over. I kept staring at the poster, expecting it to change. The store didn’t look like it was supposed to be open. But, despite my concerns, the automatic doors slid open when we approached. We got a cart and stepped into the produce section.
The grocery store was as eerie on the inside as it looked from the outside. No janitors, no stockers, no clerks in sight. With the dim lighting and the lack of music coming from the speakers, it felt like we were trespassing.
“Well, since we’re here,” mumbled Niles. He grabbed a few vegetables and placed them in the cart. “You guys need anything?”
I shook my head. “Nah, but take your time. I’m going to find a bathroom.”
I’d have gone when we were at Denny’s, but I’d been too eager to leave the restaurant. Now that I was in a half-lighted abandoned grocery store, I regretted my decision. I would have taken Sheryl’s stank eye over roaming the empty aisles in search of a toilet any day. Finally, I found a sign hanging above a doorframe along the back wall. Thick brown rubber strips hung from the top to obscure the back store from its customers. I’d always been a little paranoid about going there, afraid employees would think I was trying to steal from the stock room, but that fear was even worse knowing we were alone in the store. My bladder made the decision to proceed. Thankfully, there was no one back there to accuse me of trespassing. Just the stock room, and an open door to my right. I handled my business, and quickly ran out to try and rejoin my friends.
It was quiet. I couldn’t hear my buddies talking, which made it harder to find them. I had to walk from aisle to aisle, trying to locate them. When I reached the cereal aisle, I felt a twinge in my chest as I spotted a familiar form dart by on the other end. I couldn’t say for sure, but I could have sworn I’d seen Sheryl. She was still wearing her Denny’s uniform. I continued across to the next aisle trying to catch another glimpse of her, but I didn’t make it on time to see her emerge from the other side. I started running, but I was still too slow. Just as I was about to pass into the produce section, I bumped into Niles.
He and Brandon were standing in front of the milk display.
“Did you guys see Sherr-” I started, but stopped when I realized someone was missing. “Where’s Chris?”
“Said he dropped his wallet in the car,” answered Niles.
“He should be back any second now,” said Brandon. He backed up until he could see the car through the grocery store window. “Mm. I don’t see him. Gotta be in here somewhere.”
I felt my stomach twisting in knots. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. I wondered if it was just fatigue finally catching up to me. Sheryl must have been a figment of my imagination, or maybe I’d just fallen asleep for a microsecond and dreamt I’d seen her. Regardless, I was worried about Chris. I shot him a text message.
“Let’s just find Chris and get out of here, okay? This place gives me the creeps,” I said.
Niles laughed, “Yeah, I’ve got all I need. You?” He asked, looking at Brandon.
Brandon shrugged. “I was just along for the ride.”
The shopping cart whirred as we walked down the aisle and towards the front of the store. I kept hoping I’d hear my phone going off with a reply from Chris, but it remained silent. Brandon seemed perplexed as we reached the cash register.
“Weird, I thought he’d be here,” he said. He jogged down the main aisle, craning his head to peer into each section. From across the store, he called out, “Not over here!”
I caught a shape from the corner of my eye. I turned my head, expecting either Sheryl or Chris, but instead, I saw an employee.
“Ready to check out?” he asked.
Brandon, who was on his way back to us, shrugged. “Guess he’s outside.”
Niles placed the groceries on the counter. The clerk scanned the items one by one and carefully set them in plastic bags. I could feel myself becoming more nervous. It felt like the clerk was taking forever to do his job, but I was probably just too eager to find Chris. I alternated between looking out the window and staring at my watch. It was almost 5:30. I needed to sleep. Should have gotten coffee earlier. I could feel my eyelids dropping. My anxiety about Chris’ whereabouts was the only thing keeping me from falling asleep.
Brandon put a hand on my shoulder. “Buddy, we’re done.”
I rubbed my tired eyes and took one of the grocery bags. “Oh, good,” I whispered.
I was really hoping to find Chris standing outside waiting for us, but part of me already knew he wouldn’t be there. The sliding doors opened, we stepped into the parking lot, and we looked around. No sign of Chris. I turned to Brandon’s car. The passenger door where Chris had been sitting hung open. No one in sight. Nothing left behind.
That was three days ago.
No one has seen or heard from Chris since. He hasn’t responded to text messages or calls. The cops tried tracking his phone, but the last pings it sent were received from the cell tower nearest to the grocery store. The security footage only shows him exiting the store and looking as though he was talking to someone before it cut to static. There’s no way of knowing what happened for sure, but I know I saw Sheryl at the grocery store that night. I know she’s behind it. Problem is, Denny’s has no record of a ‘Sheryl’ on staff, and the waitress that was supposed to be working that night has also gone missing. She was last seen driving a black Toyota. It was found in the Denny’s parking lot the next day, her uniform folded and waiting for her on the back seat, on the right side of the car.