by BENJAMIN REVERMANN
The halfway house is called “The Nuthatch”. On his first day, Doug is sent two blocks from the Nuthatch to “Connie’s Kitchen” to work. Given the choice between dishwasher and cook, he chooses dishwasher.
After two years in county lockup Doug has six month’s work release until his time is up. He has a sixteen month old daughter and a girlfriend waiting for him. To show how good he’ll be, he’s going to send them every penny he earns. Doug is twenty-one years old.
Connie stands four foot two. With the lunch rush about to start, she puts him to work right away. He’s paired with another ex-con named Derek and Connie tells him, “Derek is leaving us soon. He’ll show you all you need to know. You get ten dollars an hour. I have your keys to the diner in my office for later when we finish paperwork. I trust you.”
She checks on the cooks before checking on the wait staff. Every day Connie is the personal host to every person who eats there. Almost all of them are repeat customers.
Derek asks, “So Doug, what do you think of Connie?”
Doug says, “I’d call her a bitch but her telling me she trusts me kind of threw me off.”
Derek replies, “Yea, she does stuff like that. Listen, for today I’ll bus tables but tomorrow you’ll have to. I’m only here for a week and you’ll have to learn quick.”
Doug asks, “Where are you going when you’re done here?”
“Home, I’m gonna start working in my Dad’s garage.”
Connie interrupts, “DEREK, WE GOT DISHES STARTING!”
Derek grabs a tub and heads to the front. Doug gets to work, starting at eleven am. The steam from the silver dishwasher has him sweating the entire time. Connie’s Kitchen can seat a hundred and fifty people and they are non-stop full till two thirty.
At three in the afternoon one of the six cooks tells him, “break time”. Handing him a plate with a cheeseburger and some fries he points to the break room and says, “Don’t talk to the waitresses; there’re criminals just like us. Connie will fire you for that.”
Doug goes to the break room and finds a chair next to Derek. He can hear the waitresses talking, the ones also on break, but he ignores them. Derek, who’s watching him with a smile, asks, “Aren’t you going to eat?”
Doug almost asks, ‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’, when he sees all six of the cooks looking into the break room at him. They all have the same sinister smile that Derek has.
Doug says, “Derek, if one of those guys messed with my food I’ll break his nose.”
Derek laughs, “It’s not like that here. Just take a bite. See, I’m eating the same thing you are.” He proves his point by taking a bite of his own burger.
Although uncomfortable with everyone, including the waitresses staring at him, he picks up a French fry and takes a bite. He then gets the joke. Just to confirm his suspicion he takes a bite from his cheeseburger. It’s the best thing he has ever tasted.
Shoveling the food as fast as he can into his mouth he manages to ask Derek between bites, “Why does this taste so good?”
Derek looks around him to make sure no outsiders are listening and replies, “Trans saturated fats.”
Doug says, “I thought those were illegal.”
Derek tells him, “Yep, Connie got a whole warehouse full of the crap when they outlawed it. She uses it in secret and in six years not one of us jailbirds has ratted her out. For keeping it a secret she’ll feed you one meal a day for free. That, plus good pay keeps us all on her side.”
Finishing his lunch, Doug decides that her secret will be safe with him.
The dinner rush starts at three thirty and doesn’t stop till eight.
Around eight thirty Derek brings the last load of dishes back for Doug to wash and tells him, “I’ll help tonight but tomorrow you’re on your own. The dishes area is your area, every night you have to scrub and wash the floor. The mop buckets and scrubber are by the cook’s station, I’ll get the hose ready.”
Doug has trouble finding the mop buckets. He looks by the ovens and fryers and starts to double back when he sees a door that has a faded piece of notebook paper with the words, “STAY OUT” written in pencil and taped to it. Thinking it’s the mop station he grabs the knob.
One of the cooks yells, “NO” and smacks his hand off the knob. Doug is ready to fight. The cook instead backs off with his hands raised saying, “Sorry but don’t go in there.”
Doug tells him, “You touch me again and I’ll kick your ass.”
The cook, a tall black guy, smiles in a kind way. “I just don’t want you to go in there. I apologize for hitting you, but that’s off limits.” He then asks, “What are you looking for?”
Doug replies, “I need to clean the floors.”
The cook nods, “DEREK, I THOUGHT YOU WERE TRAINING THIS GUY IN!”
Derek comes running, “Sorry about that Doug, I thought you could find it on your own.”
Doug points at the door, “What’s in there?”
Derek shrugs, “I don’t know and I don’t wanna know. C’mon, let me show you where your cleaning tools are.” He starts to lead Doug away but he’s thwarted.
Doug insists, “What’s in there, I’ll just have a look.” He moves for the door.
The cook takes a step towards Doug and tells him “I’m a God fearing man. I don’t like violence, but if you try to open that door while I’m here, we will fight.”
Doug sees that he’s serious. Either it was the counseling in jail, or his desire to see his girlfriend and daughter, but Doug backs off and leaves the area with Derek.
Derek says, “It’s locked anyways but never go in there.”
Doug asks, “Why, is that where she has the trans fats?”
Derek smiles, “No, those are in back.” Finding the mop station he hands Doug what he needs and continues, “Look, I know it’s weird but you’re never to look in that room.”
“That’s stupid; I’ll look if I wanna.”
Derek reasons, “Connie’s been here for like, thirty years. She bought this place with her husband. When they started Connie’s kitchen they were told never to go in there. Connie was alright with it but her husband wasn’t. She caught him a bunch of times about to open it, so she put a pad lock on it and hid the key. Long story short ten years go by. He finally grabs a crow bar and pries the lock off. She finds him dead on the floor the next day, heart attack.”
Doug and Derek are scrubbing the floor as Derek tells him this. Doug stops and goes back to the cook’s station. The same cook is finishing up. Doug assures him he won’t open the door.
Upon closer inspection he sees screw holes for a pad lock. He can even see the marks from the crow bar.
The same cook comes up behind him and tells him, “If it bothers you so much ask Ralph about it tomorrow. He looked in there once.”
After closing up and heading out the door at around ten, Doug and Derek head back to the Nuthatch and to a full night’s rest.
Derek tells him as their walking to work, “When you get to the end of your time served Connie lets you go at eight at night for your last week. I won’t be staying till ten tonight. When I leave they’ll get a replacement dishwasher, you train in. This job can’t be done with just one person. It’s hard enough with two.”
Although the seven work day weeks do suck, Doug’s not upset. A little over time means more money for his girlfriend. Plus the food is good and maybe he can get a good reference.
At the end of the week he says goodbye to Derek and a new guy shows up. They strike up a deal and take turns busing tables and washing dishes. After a while he gets up the nerve to talk to Ralph after closing time.
Ralph sees him coming, “You want to ask about the door, right?”
Doug nods yes.
“I’m the only person Connie has kept after I served my sentence. She said I could stay because I liked the job and my family lives close by.”
Doug asks, “Did that door really kill Connie’s husband.”
Ralph answers, “The door didn’t, what’s on the other side did.”
“And you looked in there?”
“What’s in there?”
Ralph says, “I don’t talk about it, even to my wife. I will tell you I had nightmares for months after that.” He glances at the door.
Doug asks, “How can you work so close to something that scared you so badly?”
Ralph shrugs, “Don’t know how to explain it, sometimes the mind works in funny ways.”
Not to be deterred Doug continues, “So how come no one looks in there? I can’t be the only one who’s interested. What about the wires, electrical outlets, a fire inspector or health inspector.”
Ralph agrees, “People have looked in there, don’t get me wrong. If you did Connie wouldn’t fire you or anything. One time the inspectors insisted they look. They never have again. As far as I know it only killed Connie’s husband, but he was real old. The inspectors were fairly young and they went through the same thing I did.”
Doug insists, “So what’s in there, it can’t be that bad?”
“Trust me, you look in there and it’ll mess you up. Let it go. Everyone else has. That door’s locked for a reason.”
Doug presses, “Yeah, that looks like a pretty old door knob, why isn’t there a newer one.”
Ralph tells him, “In order to replace the old knob you’d have to open the door, I for one would never do that. I’m going home.”
Doug watches him leave and sees he’s the last one in the restaurant. Before shutting off the lights he hears how quiet the place is. He walks to the door.
Pressing his ear to it he listens and hears nothing. Grabbing the flashlight from the cook’s station, placed there in case of power outage, he lies on the floor. There’s a half inch gap between the door and the floor, he shines the flashlight into the dark space. He sees nothing.
The door itself is an older style, 1940’s Doug guesses, but he’s not an expert. The door lock requires a skeleton key and Doug knows that Connie has it hidden.
That night back at the Nuthatch, just to satisfy his curiosity he looks up online, ‘How to Pick a Skeleton Lock’ and goes to bed feeling better.
His six months pass quickly and he’s ready to be gone. His last week he gets to leave at eight o’clock every night, leaving the other dishwasher to clean up.
On his last night he tells the other guy he can leave early, “I want to work late tonight” Doug shrugs and tells him, “I need the money,” and he other guy eagerly heads home.
Once all the cooks and waitresses are gone Doug has the place to himself. He decides that he’ll reward himself by having a look at what’s on the other side of the door. Grabbing a set of tools from under the garbage disposal he heads to the door.
Doug doesn’t know it, but the latest guy to start at the Nuthatch had forgotten his wallet in the kitchen. While Doug is tinkering with the lock the cook is using his key to reenter the diner.
Doug is a quick study and it takes him no time at all to get the door open.
He will live to be a hundred and two years old and spend every day of his life regretting what he is about to do.
The new cook marvels at the fact that Connie gave him his own set of keys. After his first step into the restaurant it will take him exactly fifteen seconds to get back to the cooks station and retrieve his wallet.
At the same time the cook is entering the door front of the restaurant; the door in the back is slowly opening. Doug looks inside. The first thing he notices is that the tile from the kitchen matches the tile behind the door. After that, it takes Doug around six seconds to understand exactly what he sees.
Ben Revermann lives in southern Minnesota. He is still in college and slowly working towards his Bachelor's Degree. He has been published in the Aphelion-Webzine and the Sakatah Journal. He will soon be published in Used Gravitrons. Ben’s story, Doug Looks, appears in the August 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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