Photography by Heather Maxwell Hall
By John Christopher Nelson
Continuing our dark and spooky stories celebrating Halloween. This one will make you think twice before you go out on a blind date—and if you do go, listen to your instincts.
Beth sidesteps her suspicions during the call that follows the initial communication. She is new to online dating, having attempted it only at her friends’ urging, which bordered on harassment.
“It’s the only way to meet people now,” they say, and she realizes, too many years out of her graduate program, that yes, there is no place else to meet a partner organically. Her friends roll their eyes at Beth’s protests that the apps are “beneath her,” chiding, “You’re gonna have to get over it.”
There isn’t much to work with, though he is attractive in his profile photos. But, it’s a stock kind of attractiveness, like Hanes models in department store catalogs. Beth opens his profile again and wonders how she would describe him. Strong jawline, dark eyes, thick hair, possibly mixed-ancestry, but a mix of what? Why did it matter? Maybe there’s more to him than she first assessed. Still, he just looks like, well, a guy.
Something unsettles her and she can’t bed the fleeting doubt when she thinks, His name sounds fake. Reading it on the app, she’d thought little of it, but it tastes unnatural spoken aloud. She’s heard the name before, maybe, but not often. He doesn’t look like his name suggests he ought to, whatever that means, and Beth questions why she even has this thought, but saves the name next to a date, time, and location. She stares at the seven letters she’s typed in her Notes app, decides she’s overthinking it, and continues with her afternoon. In the neutral, uncommitted font assigned to the app, the name appears normal enough.
She doesn’t say the name again, even when they shake hands outside of the restaurant. She’d wondered earlier if she ought to attempt to hug him, but his already-extended hand feels like a warning against it. His palm and fingers are warm, dry, her hand suddenly enveloped.
The awareness doesn’t arrive when he’s detached at Garfitti’s, his mien in accordance with his vocal shade. Beth had driven or walked by the restaurant dozens of times during the years she’d lived in that suburb of Maryland, and had never felt compelled to step inside.
The interior is how she’d imagined it, the reason she’d never eaten there. Garish, with a film on all things stationary. Each time she considers asking what he likes about the place or why he suggested it, she can imagine a tone in her voice—in advance of questions—that suggests too much of how she really feels.
And the realization doesn’t show up when the server asks, “How would you like that cooked?” and, without a hint of humor, her date asks, “How rare are you allowed to serve it?” Beth imagines the server’s smile is reflexive, intended to mute their discomfort. “Rare, then?” the server confirms, glancing at Beth and making eye contact without meaning to. In that moment, there is something the server’s eyes intend to say, but it’s too brief an exchange for Beth to decode.
For the next four weeks, the server—whose name is Preston—wonders what happened with the couple, hopes the young woman made it home safe. But, eventually, Preston forgets, the way people forget, especially in the service industry, wherein four weeks translates to too many faces and names to keep track of, even the ones they pretend to remember. Eventually Beth and her wellbeing melt into noncount nothingness.
While they’re waiting for their food, the small talk is sparse and only at her pushes, but, even given the succinctness of his answers, there’s this incalculable charm that enlivens him. Beth doubts her eyes, assumes she may be too optimistic, that she must be imagining the careful smirks and subtle winks she half-sees from his side of the table. Perhaps she’s just giving him too much of a chance because of all the pressure from her friends to figure out what her deal is in life.
What is her deal?
When the steak arrives he finishes all of it, and does not stop for conversation. He cuts one piece of steak at a time, and his motions with the knife and fork are careful, calm.
The plan to go back to his place is not discussed as much as Beth discovers herself accompanying him to his automobile. The van is unusual, outdated, a sliding door on the side and panel doors with curtained windows at the rear. The curtains, Beth thinks, look handmade. The paint is olive green and might be the original coat from the early eighties. Or maybe late seventies? But this is not the moment when it happens.
That she’s even walking to his car with him was a subconscious decision that occurred earlier when she asked him how he felt about karaoke. To be clear, Beth did not enjoy karaoke, but it is one of a handful of questions she’d deliberately placed in her deck because she thinks the answer might tell her something relevant about a person. She hadn’t had many opportunities to ask it, but every time she did, she was overwhelmed by the fear that the other party would be especially enthusiastic about karaoke and she’d find herself drawn into an activity in which she had no real interest. That said, Beth was someone who planned ahead and had made it a lifelong goal—achieved—to memorize the words of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
He responds first with that deliberately soft smile, before speaking the longest sentence he offers her all night. “I find karaoke difficult. It doesn’t come to me, ah,” and he looks off at nothing, somewhere, “naturally. But I think that things that feel uncomfortable get easier the more you,” he dabs his lips with his napkin, “perform them.” And, something about the bizarre honesty he offers in this moment draws Beth in. It isn’t the calculated first-date answer she’s grown accustomed to.
She decides that if the evening ends well—which still seems possible—she’d be willing to forgive his financial situation and attend a second date. Beth wonders why he spent so much on dinner if he can’t afford a decent car. But it might not even be a matter of finances. Not everyone cared as much about their vehicles, or what a vehicle said about them to the world. She attempts to frame it a few different ways in her head, and none of the iterations of the question feel like they wouldn’t be in some way offensive.
Where did you come across this van?
What year is it?
Does your job require you to move things a lot? Seems good for that.
There were reasons for all things, and this question could wait.
Beth finds herself considering her own choice of automobile, and what the amount she was willing to spend reflects about her own values. She assumed practicality informed the stock she put into driving a vehicle that represented to the world around her a certain class-achievement. But she couldn’t articulate what it was she hoped to suggest or why it mattered to her if anyone else, stranger or familiar, cared or perceived the image she hoped to embody. She wonders what he would think of her car, sitting in her driveway, neglected, as Beth stepped into the backseat of a Lyft, headed toward their date. The Lexus that, because it remained in her driveway, would later cause a delay in anyone recognizing her absence.
It was Friday night, after all. It was the weekend. She could have been anywhere, with or without her car.
She is not tipped off by the discordant chorus of metal objects that rattle and ping around the rear-half of the van. She doesn’t turn to identify them, and imagines their rusted ochre as burnished chrome. In the images of the world Beth interprets, things are cleaner than their realities. Unless they are the booths or tabletops inside Garfitti’s.
Somewhere, liquid sloshes inside something plastic, a miniature imitation of restless tides. Beth is aware of a passing gurgle in her stomach, as her dinner shifts.
It’s not when he increases the radio volume after she notices him noticing her ears straining at the sounds behind her. The song is “End of the Line.” Beth recognizes more than one of the singers’ voices, even through their similarities, but can’t remember the band’s name. She remembers Roy Orbison, because his voice is the only one distinct among them. She knows the name of the group is something silly, but it eludes her. She thinks to ask but resists, determined to figure it out on her own.
The night will end without her arrival at the answer, but she realizes, glancing at the modest car-stereo, that the song is playing on a cassette tape, not the radio.
The realization does not come when she suppresses the flourishing urge to ask, How much further until your place? Each time she prepares the question, she apes casual, ready to pretend the answer doesn’t matter, never mind that the portion of the ride when she recognized her surroundings is long behind them. He hasn’t spoken much since paying their check. If Beth asks a question, he answers, but the answers are consistently avoidant, without explication. The shortest possible route to address what has been asked without detail, but too carefully managing not to seem rude.
“Do you have any siblings?”
“A younger sister. We don’t talk.”
“Did you go to trade school to become an electrician?”
“My father was one.”
Not really an answer to the question I asked, Beth wants to say.
“Have you gone on many dates like this?”
“Not for a while.”
Do you want to know anything about me? Beth almost asks, but decides it would be maybe out of line.
Beth excuses his silence as inborn shyness. A man could be quiet, it didn’t have to mean anything.
In fact, she tells herself, it’s kind of refreshing. At too many points in her life, Beth had nearly severed her tongue with her teeth while suffering well-meaning monologues by men who had something to teach her.
The outside of his house looks like his voice that first time on the phone, looks like the odor inside the van. The homes on either side are beyond a stone’s throw. The trees overshadow the possible number of people living out here and mark the structures as an afterthought.
Beth is startled out of scrutinizing the building’s façade when he shuts the driver-side, a plaintive creak abruptly introducing door to frame. This still, somehow, fails to pull the alarm. Beth has fallen too far into her own thoughts, petty distractions that, coupled with her disarming politeness, have kept her focus away from the reality of her situation. She’s almost there and doesn’t know it, the realization waiting behind the curtain, watching the other actors onstage, listening to their lines. Not too early. Not too late. Wait.
He opens the front door for her. She steps through the threshold. Her eyes hardly have time to understand what she is seeing, to make sense of the contents of the living room. She opens her mouth, not knowing what to say, not knowing what single object to focus on.
The moment occurs instantly—the gut-punch of adrenaline that accompanies falling through too-thin ice into a frozen lake, the body’s knowledge of impending doom before the mind can process it, before consciousness comprehends it—when Beth hears the deadbolt slide into place behind her and feels blanketed by an ambience she’s never known, yet instinctively recognizes as awe, horror, and decay.
John Christopher Nelson’s youth was split between ninety-four acres of chaparral in East County San Diego and a defunct mining town in the Nevada high desert. He has moved thirty times and currently lives in West Seattle. He earned his BA in American Literature from UCLA and is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. His work has appeared in The New Guard, Chiron Review, Able Muse, Necessary Fiction, Indicia, The Matador Review, and elsewhere.