From the author: It was just there one day. A pizza parlor, run by the mysterious Dr Fantastico. But what actually goes into his pizzas and who even is Fantastico?
It was just there one day.
On the Thursday we passed the overgrown spare lot on our way home from school. Broken bottles and bricks, the rusted frame of a bike, two dogs fucking in plain sight beside the biggest weed you’ve ever seen, a piss-stained mattress and pile of blankets where Stinky Joe the Hobo would sleep under a sheet of corrugated iron. There had been a small sweet shop there before, years ago. But it had closed down and been boarded up and it wasn’t long before the local teenagers burned it to the ground and time ground the rest of the bricks to dust.
My brother James and I threw stones at the dogs and laughed when they tried to uncouple but got stuck, and as the bitch tried to walk away the dog had to walk almost backwards on his front paws, his cock caught inside her. Eventually we got bored and headed home. It was getting dark anyway and the wind had picked up some of the chill of autumn as the light faded to grey.
By 7am the next morning we could smell the scent of freshly baked dough from down the street. Whiffs of melted cheese, the tang of the tomato sauce, a hint of pepper, the savoury scent of spicy sausage. We ate breakfast peering out the lounge room windows, watching curious passers-by wandering past, heading up the street towards the spare lot. We hurried to get dressed and practically ran out the door, hefting our schoolbags as my mother yelled goodbyes. The crowd had gathered and grown large. I could barely believe my eyes. The empty lot had vanished and, in its place, stood a brand-new restaurant with a brick façade, wide clear windows allowing us to catch a glimpse of plush red leather booths, and a chrome framed door with glass panelling, bold red and white lettering above it.
“Doctor Fantastico’s Make-a-Pizza Palace.” I said, reading the name out loud.
“What the hell?” said James. He was two years older than me, already a teenager, lanky and tall, with a thin wisp of hair on his top lip. “Where’s the lot? Where’s Stinky Joe?”
I’d already forgotten the old bum (even his rancid smell). I only had one thing on my mind.
“Can…can we eat here? Tonight?” I asked.
“Um…I dunno. Have to ask mom later.” He said.
I glanced around at the milling crowd. Excited faces peered at the new building, talking in hurried, hushed tones. There was something pinned to the door, a note written on a square of yellow card. I squeezed between the rather portly frames of Mr and Mrs Collins. Their twins, a few years younger than me, both with dark hair and large eyes, nestled under the arms of their father. Mrs Collins stank of lavender and her husband carried the musty tang of sweat and clearly ineffectual body spray. I popped out the other side disgusted, but otherwise untarnished and jostled with some of the other older kids to get a look at the sign.
Doctor Fantastico invites one and all to the grand opening of his newest restaurant. Tonight. 6pm. Don’t be late!
It was signed with a filigree, all large swirling letters and circles. The signature of an artist. Peering through the glass, which was now less than clean, having had the faces and noses and other body parts of half the town pressed up against it, I tried to make out the shape of things beyond that of the nearest booths. There was a counter which turned disappeared into the depths of the restaurant. I could make out a door at the far end, a window through to the kitchen, and an old-fashioned jukebox in the corner, a strange looking wall of openings with faucets or hoses coming out of them, but otherwise there was nothing of note to further tease the imagination. Just as I turned away I thought I could make out a shape, a shadow, wavering beyond the kitchen window, just out of sight. I pressed my face closer to the glass, putting my hands around the sides of my face to block out the mornings sunlight. Deep in the gloom of the darkened restaurant the shape moved again giggling back and forth and for a moment I thought I saw it raise an arm up into the air and swing it downwards.
I felt the slap of a heavy hand on my shoulder and I spun, startled. James grabbed me by the collar and hauled me away from the window.
“We’re gonna be late again. The Principal said if we were late one more time, then it was a phone call home to Ma, and you know what she’ll do to us if he makes that call.”
“James. I think I saw someone. Maybe him, Mister Fantastic?”
“Doctor Fantastico.” James tutted, checking his watch. “Shit. We got ten minutes, come on…” He took off running in his long stride. He made it look so easy. I looked back at Doctor Fantastico’s Make-A-Pizza Palace again. The crowd had begun to disperse, only a few stragglers left peering in through the windows. I thought about that shadow again. A shudder ran through me as I turned and ran to catch up with James.
The whole town was gathered outside the Pizza Palace by 5:30pm. The queue ran around the corner and down half the length of the street. The air crackled. The crowd buzzed. We were stuck somewhere in the middle of the queue, my father having arrived home from work late, and taking an age to get himself dressed between beers, my mother pacing back and forward, dressed in her fancy “going-out” coat, high heels clacking on the floorboards, wringing her hands over and over. We were dressed in our Sunday best, shirts clean and pressed, trousers pleated, shoes shined, hair combed.
“All this for dinner at a pizzeria?” my dad muttered as he came out of the bedroom doing up his tie.
“The whole town is going to be there. We never go out as it is. It’s nice to dress up for a change.” My mother’s hands shook, nicotine stained fingers now drumming her purse. My father pulled on his post-office coat, and we headed up the darkening street to join the rest of the town.
I peered past the bodies of the others, trying to catch a glimpse of the pizzeria. The Make-a-Pizza Palace was still dark and locked, the windows black, like obsidian. It looked dead. I wanted to see if the doors were opening, or if the lights had turned on, or even to catch a whiff of the dough baking. But there was nothing.
“James.” I whispered.
“What do you suppose happened to Stinky Joe? And those two dogs?”
“Who gives a shit.”
Maybe they’d just left, gone somewhere else. Maybe the cops had moved them to another spare piece of ground, taken joe’s cardboard house and his old mattress, and those two dogs, and put them in some other part of town? My stomach broke my reverie by emitting a loud growl.
“What time is it?” asked James. My dad rolled up his sleeve and peered at his watch, shifting his wrist, trying to catch the light.
“Well, it looks like it’s almost six o’clock, chief.” All eyes turned to the restaurant. The other people, restless and impatient before, suddenly fell quiet. It felt like the world held its breath for an eternity. Then somebody started a count-down.
“Five. Four. Three. Two…”
“One.” I said.
Nothing happened. The crowd let out a collective sigh of disappointment. Then quietly the sign above the door, in bold red letters, flickered on.
Doctor Fantastico’s Make-A-Pizza Palace.
The store lit up from inside, great yellow beams dazzling our eyes. There came the sound of music on the air and with it followed the scent of bread and cheese, meats and sauces. The smells sparked my appetite and my stomach growled, the stabbing pang of hunger gnawing at my innards. I felt the rush of saliva in my mouth. Somebody tried the door, pulling on the chrome handle. The door rattled but wouldn’t open. My mother began to complain.
“Christ. Come on. It’s getting cold out here. Justin, do something.” She poked my father on the arm with one of her long red fingernails.
“What can I do, honey?”
A shadow passed behind the door, the body of a large man in a white shirt and an apron tied around his waist. Somewhere nearby, it may even have been me, said –
“Here he comes.”
A ripple of excitement ran through the crowd, bristling the hair on my neck. The doors swung outwards dramatically. The music was like that of a carnival, or merry-go-round, organs and pipes, lilting on the air. Then, Doctor Fantastico himself stepped from the threshold, his arms held wide, a smile the size of the Grand Canyon on his fat, round, red face, which was buried beneath a thick black moustache.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome! I invite you all, to a man, to a child, to enter into Doctor Fantastico’s Make-A-Pizza Palace, the place where all your pizza dreams come true!”
He stepped back with the grace of a seasoned dancer and gestured for us to follow with a sweeping move of his grand arm. Everyone cheered. The crowd surged forward, pouring through the doors. The people around us began to move and before we knew it we were being swept along with the other bodies. A surge of fear shot through me as I careened out of control, my feet losing contact with the ground. I felt James grab my shoulder to keep me from being carried away, but instead he was pulled along with me and we burst through the doors of the pizzeria, the crowd flooding into the place. I fell to my knees on the black and white checked floor, James beside me. The crowd split and ran for tables, booths piling up with eager hungry patrons, slavering over the leather-bound menus. The light was eclipsed as Doctor Fantastico stepped into view, his large shadow falling over us.
“Boys, boys. There is no need to prostrate yourselves on my behalf. Rise, rise and enjoy the splendorous food I bestow.” And with that he slid away and glided between the round tables.
The glass counter ran the length of the wall to our left, filled with creamed cakes, pastries, an ice-cream freezer with dozens of flavours. The wall behind the till was beset with bottles from floor to ceiling, filled with liquids of various colours and hues. The counter ran to the far wall which held the window through to the kitchen where through a small slot, hot pizza bases, fresh and crispy, would slide out on metal trays. Next to it stood a swinging door with a frosted port-hole and a small piece of card that read ‘toilet’, and between the window and door hung a large cat clock, it’s bulging round eyes rocking back and forth in their sockets, keeping time with the cat’s pendulous tail. In the corner blared the Wurlitzer jukebox, it’s rack of vinyl records like black razor blades. The other wall was inset with half a dozen stations where at the pull of a lever, toppings would dispense in gluttonous servings, and at the end a soda fountain with half a dozen flavours of fizzing sugary drinks.
People already swarmed the stations like rabid gamblers playing slot-machines. I was almost overcome with the smells, of freshly baked bread, the tang of the tomato sauce, the savoury scent of bacon and hot sausage. Saliva ran in my mouth and my stomach complained its emptiness. James hauled me to my feet and we set to work. My parents had already secured a corner table near the swinging kitchen door and I immediately grabbed a pizza base and scurried off towards the topping stations. As I waited in line, the strange carnival music filing my head, I began to feel nervous. Turning I caught sight of Doctor Fantastico. He was huddling in the corner behind the till, his eyes wide, his face like stone, his mouth working silently. He had the look of a house cat watching a flock of sparrows at a feeder, that feral instinct rising inside it, confusing its domesticated brain.
“Are you using this? I mean, can I cut in line?” The Collins woman was dressed to the nines, and by that, I mean her outfit probably cost her a whole nine dollars. She’d had her hair cut short. She wore an oversized sweater with a picture of Snoopy on the front and a pair of ill-fitting track pants. She didn’t even wait for me to answer, her face slackening in anticipation, she lurched past me. I watched her lather the pizza base with red sauce, thick like jam. It ran over the sides of the tray and over her fingers. Then she quickly moved to pile on grated cheese till the plate was overflowing. From there she slid her mountainous concoction into one of the ovens beside the station and bent at the waist, watching the cheese bubble and run. I turned away and moved back to my parents table, my appetite suddenly vanished.
My father was gorging himself, as was my brother. My mother nibbled at a slice of pizza stacked with vegetables, ever the conscientious housewife, eager to appear pleasant to the neighbourhood.
“Not hungry, pal?” said my dad between bites.
I placed my blank bases on the table. “I don’t feel so good. Can we go?”
“Not yet, chief. Some of us are still eating.” He looked at James who was stuffing a whole slice into his mouth, cheeks bulging. James nodded in agreement.
“I don’t like this place.” I said.
“What’s wrong with it?” said my mother.
“We’ll leave when everyone is finished,” she said, smiling through her teeth. She glanced round at the other townsfolk. Everyone was feasting like pizza was going out of fashion, like they’d never eaten food before. She turned back to me, that smile still plastered on her face.
“The whole town is happy. When was the last time this place was happy? Can’t you just enjoy it and have a soda like a normal kid?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
She sneered at me. “Speak up.”
“Can I go to the bathroom? Please?”
“If you have to.” She turned away again and smiled angelically at the other patrons. My dad took another bite of pizza and patted my shoulder softly.
I pushed through the swinging chrome door. To the immediate left the kitchen, all steam and smoke and smells of baking bread. Ahead of me was a tiled corridor lit by several hanging bare bulbs. A door, inset at the far end, stood slightly ajar. I hadn’t had anything to drink since lunchtime and didn’t particularly need to pee. I’d only asked to get away from my mother and her monolithic stare, her sneering mouth, her vulpine flash of teeth. If I went back too early she’d know I was lying. So, to maintain an element of truth, I began the walk towards the bathroom. It was further than it should have been. The restaurant was small from the outside, yet this corridor seemed to stretch farther than the confines of the building. My shadow danced around me as I passed under each of the bulbs. I was almost at the door when I heard his voice.
He sounded different, crackly, lower in tone than before. Gone was the theatricality, the joy and the play, and in its place was something more like the growl of a hungry cat. I crept towards the opening and peered through the gap. Beyond the doorway was a vast room, or maybe it was a warehouse. The light only penetrated so far, and the gloom swallowed what meek illumination there was. Fantastico stood before a pair of boys roughly my age. I knew their faces from school, one was Frank Delaney’s cousin. His name was Tim, or Tom. They both looked dazed. Stuck in a trance. Fantastico waved his hands over their faces, his fingers casting shadows, their eyes following back and forth. With a click of his fingers they both closed their eyes and turned away from me and began to walk into the darkness and before I knew it I couldn’t see them anymore. Doctor Fantastico stood to his full height, seeming to stretch up, taller than he was before. It was like he was unravelling, uncoiling. He began to shake and shudder, his body erupting like lava. I spun away from the door and hurried back to the noise and relative safety of the restaurant. As I came through the door my father was helping my mother on with her jacket.
“Finally,” she said, “thought maybe you’d fell in and gotten stuck.”
“Come on, chief. Time to go,” my father said, smiling. My brother was already out the door and was stood in the lamp-lit street. I hurried out after him and we began to walk back down the road towards our house. On the way I saw Frank Delaney and his parents and his uncle and aunt. They walked slowly, deliberately. It was like they too were in a trance. The uncle and aunt seemed unaware that one of their children was not with them. I wanted to scream at them that their kid had been in that back room and was still there, somewhere. I looked up at my mother, her face like stone. I sucked in a breath and went for it.
“Hey. Frank, Frank Delaney.”
Frank stopped and glanced over to me. His eyes were like dark glass in the street-lights. Then he turned away and kept walking. I felt a whack on the back of my head, seeing stars, the pain shooting up past my ear. My mother glared down at me. I bit my lip and held back the tears as best I could.
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“I’m telling you what I saw. Did you see the Delaney boy with his family?”
James thought for a moment. “No. But that doesn’t mean anything. I didn’t see him in the restaurant either. I was too busy eatin’.” His hands went to his stomach. “Man, I could smash some of that pizza right now.”
“Doesn’t it seem weird to you that the pizzeria just popped up overnight?”
“I dunno. Maybe there was a sign or something, maybe we just didn’t see it?”
“That makes no sense, James. One day it’s spare ground where Stinky Joe hangs out and dogs hump and the next it’s a goddamned restaurant.”
“Watch your language. If mom hears you—”
“I don’t care what she thinks. I don’t care anymore.”
“Look, little man. Just try to get some sleep. Forget about it. It’s probably just your imagination playing up. You know how you get.”
“They’re still there, James. They gotta be.” James was quiet for a moment before he replied.
I rolled over and pulled the covers up to my ears. Much as I tried, I couldn’t get the picture of those two boys out of my head. That corridor, that room, that darkness. The way Fantastico stood up straight, taller than any man had any right to be and then began to change shape. The window sounded like a thousand tiny fingers were tapping it. It had begun to rain. Or at least I hoped that’s what it was. When James started snoring I slid out of bed and began to dress.
Trees swayed in the cold night breeze. I pulled my zipper up on my jacket, making sure to stay out of the spots of yellow streetlight that ran along the sidewalk. I turned the corner and made my way up the hill towards the bridge where the Pizza Palace now festered like an un-lanced boil. As I crept towards the window I could see my own reflection, pale and wide eyed, in the glass. The restaurant was dark inside, save for a sliver of light that slipped under the swing door and penetrated its porthole, like a beacon. Pressing my face to the glass I searched for signs of Fantastico. The pizzeria was still. Just as I made to turn a shadow passed the porthole, eclipsing the light there. I’d decided before-hand to find a back door, or maybe an open window to try to slide through to get inside, but I fully expected the place to be quiet and empty. If Fantastico was here, maybe…
Staring at the ‘open’ sign behind the glass I placed my hand on the door. It gave way silently and a waft of savoury air escaped. It was now or never. I could turn back now, head back to bed, and pretend I’d never seen anything. But then this place would still be here tomorrow, and maybe some more kids would disappear into that room. Maybe it would be my turn next?
Holding my breath, I slipped inside and let the door close behind me. Pushing through between the tables, sliding past the booths, I advanced on the swinging door. I peered through the porthole. The bulb lit corridor extended away from me, the door on the far end lying open to the gloomy expanse beyond it. To the left, the kitchen was brightly lit, the table tops and cupboards gleaming chrome. Everything was clean, pristine. Pots and pans hung overhead from slender hooks. Knives and other utensils sat in rows on the benches. The kitchen looked like it had never been used. I snuck a glance over my shoulder at the empty seating area before pushing through the swinging door.
The kitchen was empty. I slipped inside and made my way past the island bench to the rack of knives on the far wall. I grabbed a metal-handled butcher knife and weighed it in my hand. It felt heavy and was clearly sharp. I felt better for having it in my possession. I swung my arm in diagonal arcs in front of me, practicing slicing at imaginary enemies. Satisfied, with electricity in my veins, I exited the kitchen and turned down the corridor towards the back room.
The hallway was bathed in a yellow light, lending it a jaundiced pallor. My sneakers made very little sound, bar the odd squeak on the polished tiles. I tried to make my footsteps as light as possible, holding my breath as I did so, and letting it out in silent, slow puffs. I barely noticed that I was gripping the butcher knife so tight that it pushed the blood from my fingers. I only knew the door. It had become my entire world, and step by step it became larger and larger until it filled my vision. I was only a few feet from it when I heard his voice again. It wavered between the dramatic, operatic tenor, and that guttural animal rumble. It filled the space in my head like the blaring of a horn or the tolling of some immense bell. Peering round the edge of the door I saw Fantastico illuminated by brilliant white light. He stood before the swirling, smoky darkness of the great room, smiling that Cheshire cat smile again.
“At last, you have arrived, dear boy. Enter.” The door began to swing away from me, creaking quietly. I raised the knife before me, holding it out, hoping he would understand the threat. But he merely smiled.
“The two boys. Where are they?” I wanted my voice to stop trembling, but I couldn’t help it. It was like the world had become soft, malleable. The edges of it blurred. I wiped my eyes to clear them, but it only made things worse.
“Come, boy. You want to know where they went? Then witness...” He dipped slightly to the side and spun on his heels, arms held out, like he was a circus ring-master presenting his greatest act. He turned his head to the swirling smoke and bowed. I followed the angle of his arm. There were patterns in the smoke, swirling, round patterns that turned around and around in concentric circles, tighter and tighter, faster and faster. They turned in on themselves before they reversed direction. It was like a whirlwind, or a whirlpool, or a spinning top, I couldn’t remember but I’m sure my mother got me something for my birthday once, something that looked like this, maybe not maybe it was something else maybe it was a cloud or maybe there were stars or maybe there is something waving back and forth in front of me, something big, like a giant hand, or is there just black, just black, just black…black…
And somewhere far off I could hear a voice in the dark.
“Sleep, my boy. Time to sleep.”
And somewhere I could feel a hand on my shoulder, and long fingers like snakes running down my chest.
Was it my shoulder? My chest? My head swam, I wanted to sleep.
I forced my eyes open and I saw him there, unfurling. He flattened himself out, his body thick and gooey. He stretched up into the darkness. His chef’s uniform tore and beneath it I saw his body, slick and shiny, pulsing through the cloth. It hung like string to the floor. His skin was pitted with black circles like olives and his eyes had grown large and round like salami slices. He was so close to me I could almost touch him.
I raised my arm to swing the knife, but it had grown so heavy. My whole body felt soft. The knife clattered on the floor and I looked down at my hand which still held the knife. Somehow my arm had elongated, growing thin and rubbery. My skin had begun to melt, bubbling and running like hot cheese, the red sauce visible beneath. I tried to scream but my doughy mouth had folded over. The world went dark as my eyelids drooped over and began to slide down my cheeks. I felt myself come apart…
Hungry mouths slavered. The silver tray opened and out slid a fresh, warm pizza base. It was snatched up immediately by scrabbling fingers. The children laughed and ran for the topping stations. Sticky hands pumped tomato sauce from dispensers, which splattered on the still hot base. A torrent of cheese dropped from a dispenser. Into the oven it went. Little eyes watched the cheese melt and run. The jukebox clicked as a record changed and then carnival music filled the air.
James lifted the last slice of pizza and took a bite, feeling slightly queasy. He watched his mother fluff her hair and smile at the people at the next table. His father busied himself with his cell-phone. James was about to swallow but stopped for a second. A ghost of a memory darted into his mind, of a boy very much like him, but far more inquisitive. And for a moment he saw his brother in his mind’s eye and heard his brother’s voice in his head. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes, the sting of a long-forgotten memory. But it quickly dissolved as the carnival music filled his head and was soon lost among the smells and scents of fresh pizza, and James was back in the pizzeria with his parents. His father laughed at something on his phone and shook his head. James shivered, shaking the Déjà vu from his mind. He never had a brother. He was an only child. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and dropped it onto the plate as a large fat hand scooped the dish from the table.
Doctor Fantastico towered over James.
“Was that…satisfactory, young man?” James couldn’t see Fantastico’s lips move beneath his oversized moustache. His dad glanced up from his cell phone and beamed at Fantastico.
“Oh, it was great, just great. I don’t know what you put in these things, but I could eat a dozen of them in one sitting.”
Fantastico’s face tightened at the edges, like someone who never learned to smile properly. He placed a fat finger on his lips.
“Maybe I’ll show you sometime…” Fantastico stood straight and glanced around the pizzeria. For a moment it looked like his eyes were filled with pure light. Then he dipped his head to James and winked and then he was away sliding himself between tables.
“You having another pie, son? Coz I could sure go another one.”
James watched his dad stand and move off to get another pizza base. He barely registered Doctor Fantastico ushering the young Collins twins through the metal door to the kitchen.