THE SMELL OF COOKING grease hung thick in the air in the way a blue whale might. The sponge-like cloud formed itself around Dominick Hanrahan like a malodorous cocoon, blocking out everything but the heat that wafted up off of the deep-fat fryers. He stared blankly into the four steaming vats of oil and tried to think back to happier times—to better days—but the stench of superheated vegetable oil made it more than a little difficult.
Dominick was idle and bored, as was wont to happen at this time in the morning at the Happy Hamburger Drive-In Restaurant. Between the breakfast and lunch rush there wasn’t much to do, other than clean, and that wasn’t a thought that appealed to him for the moment.
Instead, he clutched at a plastic salt shaker and wondered what might happen were he to plunge it into one of the fryers. He figured the plastic would melt, but what would happen to the salt within? He looked around the narrow cook aisle as he mulled the decision over in his mind.
On one side of the aisle sat a large grill with bun prep station and condiment bar. On the opposite side—where Dominick worked—lurked the four fryers, a french-fry scoop station located to the left, and an industrial freezer to the right. Everything had been done up in gleaming stainless steel because it was easier to clean.
The boss, Mr. Finkleton, was in the back taking his pre-lunch constitutional. He’d taken a book with him into the employee restroom, which meant he’d be a while. Melissa, the lady who manned (womaned?) the grill behind him, wouldn’t care if Dominick fried the salt shaker. If anything, Mel might egg him on, so why not?
In the end, he decided not to do it. While he was positive that Mel could get away with such shenanigans, Dominick knew for certain that he himself would be caught. He’d always had a knack of not getting away with things. When he’d been fifteen, he and a couple of fellas from school had gone out two nights before Christmas to wreak a little havoc in the neighborhood.
They had all met in the park three blocks from Dominick’s house. He, along with Mark Finks and Barry Sloan, crept among the nearby homes, all lit up with strings of colorful lights to celebrate the season, and destroyed everything they found. They popped inflatable snowmen, smashed blinking lights, and crushed plastic Santas. Dominick hadn’t wanted to, not at first. He hadn’t been aware that the other two boys had vandalism in mind when they’d invited him out that night. But looking back, he should’ve have known.
At the end of the night, as the three had completed their decoration decimation, as they’d walked up Acorn on their way back to the park, they were hit by the spinning red and blues of police lights. The three did what teens do in such situations.
One cop, three boys. The odds had been in his favor. He’d run all the way home, in the front door, straight to his room, and into bed.
Luck had not been with him that night. The officer had recognized him. Of the three, Dominick had been the only one the officer had known, but only because the cop had lived next door. Dominick hadn’t given the other two up. He’d claimed to be alone, which only brought more punishment down on him, but he was no rat.
He’d spent the following summer mowing lawns for free to pay back those families he’d taken from. Mark and Barry had gotten away with no punishment at all.
And now, as Dominick stared into the still, copper colored liquid of the fryer before him, he thought back on that night and realized that he hadn’t seen Mark or Barry in years. Not since graduation. He wondered what they were doing now? It wasn’t a big town, if they were still around he would have run into them now and again.
Suddenly, cutting through Dominick’s musings, a shrill beeping sounded from the computer up front, its insistent cries begging–nay, demanding–to be attended to. He panicked and shoved the salt shaker in his pants pocket.
Following the beeping was a loud clatter from the back of the store. More specifically, the employee restrooms.
“I’ll get it!” Mr. Finkleton called, bursting from the men’s room and buckling his belt as he hurtled up the cook aisle.
Dominick braced himself as the boss hurried past for fear of being pushed into one of the fryers. The narrow cook aisle inside the Happy Hamburger left little room for two average-sized human beings to stand back to back and Mr. Finkleton was larger than most string quartets.
Sweating, Mr. Finkleton arrived at the computer, pulled on a headset with microphone, and pushed a red button on the computer’s right side.
“Happy Hamburger, how may I help you?”
The computer was an overlarge piece of machinery that was made up of a monitor and keypad. The keypad wasn’t like the keyboard on your typical home computer. Each key on this pad had a picture of a hamburger, cheeseburger, or other product offering at the Happy Hamburger. Mr. Finkleton was punching keys furiously as the customer ordered from out in their car.
“Hanrahan!” Mr. Finkleton yelled, though Dominick was only feet away. “Fries! We need more fries!”
“Yes, Mr. Finkleton.” Dominick mumbled.
Dominick opened the freezer door to the right of the fryers and let out a sigh. He moved in the methodical, unhurried way of someone who was clearly just going through the motions.
Dominick placed a handful of frozen fries into a small, rectangular, steel mesh basket, and plunged the basket into the boiling vegetable oil. He stood, motionless, stoic, statuesque, gazing with feigned interest at the fries as they bubbled, popped, and hissed in the liquid fat.
He could sense the frenzied activity going on behind him as Mel created hamburgers at supersonic speed. Dominick just stood and waited on the fries. Wishing, no praying, that there was more to life than the Happy Hamburger.
He glanced up at the monitor above the fry station. Two single cheeseburgers, a double cheeseburger sandwich, and three medium fries.
“How long on those fries?” Mr. Finkleton cried as he wrapped the two cheeseburgers in grease proof paper and thrust them into a bag.
“Thirty seconds,” Dominick said, watching the timer on the front side of the fryer.
Fries took two minutes to cook. Onion rings took three; chicken patties took four and a half. Dominick knew all the times by heart. It was something he’d been proud of once, back when he was still a kid and this was just an after school job he’d taken to earn enough to keep gas in his car.
That was six years ago. He’d graduated high school with little thought for his future other than just getting out of his parent’s house.
College had never really been an option for Dominick Hanrahan. He’d never had the drive to keep his grades up beyond just squeaking through at a solid D average, he’d avoided all manner of sports like a zombie apocalypse, and he’d never been able to spell extracurricular activity, much less know what one was, so a scholarship was out of the question. His parents had always seemed to be between jobs which made a college fund something akin to Bigfoot, so paying his way had never been an option.
He’d been told by his high school counselor, on more than one occasion, about the various Federal Aid programs that might help pay for his post-secondary education, but in the end, Dominick just wasn’t interested in more school. He’d never had the kind of fond memories of his days at Eudora High that hearkened back to the fabled ‘Glory Days’. He’d always just been one those walking-the-halls teenagers who had generally tried to avoid getting beat up, a task he’d often found unsuccessful.
At twenty-two, he still felt like the same guy. But instead of classrooms, classmates, and lockers; he had walk-in freezers, coworkers, and fryers. He couldn’t imagine a life that would ever be much different.
The fryer beeped at him. The fries were done. He turned off the alarm, pulled the basket from the oil, shook the excess oil from the fries, and dumped them into the scoop station where he used the specialized fry scoop to fill a medium sized colorful box with the hot fries. He set the box of fries in the rack under the heat lamp then filled two more. They too waited in the rack next to the first. They wouldn’t go into the bag until the the last of the sandwiches did.
This was his life.
“Fries!” Mr. Finkleton stood beside the table at the front end of the cook aisle. The final station for orders. The big man hovered over an open brown bag and glared at Dominick. Mel must have bagged the double cheeseburger while he wasn’t paying attention. He sighed and took the fries to the table and placed them within the bag as Mr. Finkleton watched, practically dancing as he waited for the order.
“Order up!” The big man called out once the fries were in.
Then, Mr. Finkleton folded the bag and placed it on a tray next to three sodas.
Dominick watched as the carhop, Anabelle, took the tray and jogged out the front door to deliver the order to a customer who waited in their car out in the lot.
By that point the computer was beeping again. More orders. More fried food. More work.
Dominick didn’t mind. He rather liked it when it was busy. The busier they were, the quicker the day went.
Yet, as he turned from the front, as he turned back to the fry station to watch the orders come across the monitor, a motion from the back of the cook aisle caught his attention.
There, standing at the end of the cook aisle, the larger of the store’s seven trash cans towering above and behind it, stood a penguin.
The penguin gave him a wave.
Dominick blinked in disbelief.
The penguin blinked back.
Dominick gaped and shook his head.
The penguin gave Dominick a wink.
Dominick took a quick step back and almost stumbled into the fryers. He over corrected and ran into Mel, nearly pushing her onto the hot grill.
“What the crap, dude,” she said, pushing him away.
“Sorry,” Dominick said. “But—”
He was about to say something about the penguin, yet when he looked again, it was gone.
“But what?” She said, her face hard.
“I, uh.” It was all he could do to organize his thoughts.
“You okay?” Her face had softened.
“What?” His look went from her to the spot where the penguin had been standing, then back to her. “Yeah, fine. I’m fine. Just thought I saw—”
But he didn’t finish.
“Saw what?” She smiled. He could loose himself in that smile.
Dominick wasn’t sure what hand Mel had been dealt to wind up flipping burgers at the back end of of thirty-something, but he had to imagine that it hadn’t been her fault. While she wasn’t what society would call classically beautiful, there was something about her—the way she smiled, how she stood, moved, laughed, even sneezed—that drew his eye more and more throughout the day.
Beyond that, he’d never met someone who’s brain worked like hers. When it was slow, she’d talk to him about literature, science, philosophy, and history.
And then there were her eyes. He’d often made the mistake of meeting them when they talked, like now. At that point, it was all over. Nothing else existed.
“Dom!” She hit him on the shoulder, breaking him free from her spell.
“What?” He said. He’d been here before. Many times. And he could only imagine what he looked like. Mouth agape, eyes unfocused. What an idiot.
“What did you see, Dom?”
“See?” She was the only one who called him Dom.
“You said you thought you saw something.”
“Oh, yeah,” he shook his head, clearing whatever it was her eyes had placed there to dull his senses and turn him into a mooncalf. “It was nothing.” He laughed the laugh of the uncomfortable.
“Nothing?” She said, that smile making his heart beat really fast.
“Would I lie?” He laughed again.
She only looked at him with a wondering grin and then turned back to the grill.
Had he really seen a penguin? It had seemed so real, and yet so absurd at the same time.
“Hanrahan!” Mr. Finkleton called out from the computer. “What are you doing!? We got orders on the board and you’re standing around like some kinda idiot.”
Dominick sighed and got back to the business at hand.
OVER THE NEXT HOUR and forty-three minutes Dominick stayed busy frying up tater tots, onion rings, chicken patties, and, of course, french fries. On more than one occasion he’d had to walk back to the walk-in freezer to replenish his supplies, but he’d stayed caught up with Mel who was a burger making machine. Eventually he stopped thinking about the penguin as his brain focused in on the task of which order went into which bag, and by the time the lunch rush had ended, he’d forgotten about the thing entirely.
As the last of the orders were going out the door, Dominick grabbed up a broom to sweep out the cook aisle. During a frenzy of a typical lunch rush, food went everywhere. Pickles, onions, the occasional bun, fries, tots, even a chicken patty. All of it ended up on the ground at one point or another as the madness of lunch orders reigned. Dominick had it all up and in a trash can before Mr. Finkleton could tell him to sweep the floor.
Once that was out of the way and the occasional order dripped in as the long afternoon yawned out ahead of them, Dominick shut down one of the fryers.
As part of his daily duties, he would drain, and then scrub down the insides of the four fryers.
Each fryer had, located underneath, a metal box on wheels called a grease trap. Once the power was off, Dominick would pull a lever and all of the grease from the fryer would drain down into said trap. The grease trap, once full, was hot enough to melt wax, so Dominick had to loop a dish towel around the handle before he pulled it out from under the fryer, all the time being mindful of the scalding oil that jumped out of either side as the trap bounced forward on its tiny, plastic wheels.
The grease trap was, as stated earlier, a metal box on wheels, and two feet long, a foot wide, and a foot tall, the top while open to allow the oil to flow into it. At the top of the opening was a removable mesh basket, also metal, that was there to catch all of the crumbs and fry bits that had been floating about in the oil when it drained into the trap.
Dominick, again using dish towels, removed the basket and set it on top of the cooling fryer. He’d need to dump in into the trash once it had cooled down. If he did so now, it would only melt through the trash bag. He’d made that mistake once in his first week. Never again.
But what to do with the oil?
That went out to the main grease trap outside by the dumpster. The problem was that the small trap that came out of the bottom of the fryer was too hot to be lifted and carried outside. It had to be pulled along using the dishtowel looped around the handle. But, as it was so short, Dominick had to walk, backwards, stooped over, pulling the thing along over the bumpy asphalt lot to the dumpster area.
He took two more dish towels with him because, once there, he did need to lift the box so that he could dump the hot oil into the main trap by the dumpster. The main trap was painted green. It was about three by three by three feet, and it smelled like the place where fast food went to die. And, located as it was next to the dumpster, the odor that rolled off the grease trap only strengthened the stench that bubbled up from dumpster. It was Dominick’s least favorite place on earth, and so he didn’t dally.
Once empty, the mobile trap was safe to carry and Dominick did so as he rushed back across the lot to the back door of the Happy Hamburger. But once the door came into sight, Dominick stopped.
A man lay on the ground next to the back door. At first Dominick thought he was dead, but then he could see the man struggling against the door, trying with all his might to pull himself to his feet. The man was injured.
Dominick set the trap down and rushed across the lot to the man’s side.
“You okay, Mister?” As soon as it was out of his mouth, Dominick realized that yes, there was such a thing as a stupid question. The man was obviously not okay.
He had, in fact, passed out.
At first glance Dominick thought maybe the guy had been hit by a car, but it was hard to tell through all the chain mail.
The man was wearing chain mail. In fact, he wore the entire medieval ensemble. Tunic, leather pants, boots, he even had a sword belted at his hip. Maybe he was from the Renaissance Fair, though Dominick wasn’t aware of one going on. But no, that wasn’t right either. Even the most authentic costumes worn by folks from the Renaissance Fair looked fake. There was just something about those outfits that screamed COSTUME. But this guy… everything about him looked worn. Lived in. Real.
The tunic was ripped and stained. Was that blood? More than likely. Upon closer inspection the guy looked like he’d been swimming in a pool full of razors. His hair, long and dark, looked as it if hadn’t been washed in weeks. The man was, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess.
If he didn’t know any better, Dominick would swear that the guy had just been in one of those epic battles he’s read about over and over in the various sword and sorcery novels that fill his bookshelves.
Dominick shook his head. Something was wrong with him today. A tumor, maybe. It was the only explanation.
It’s only when Dominick is about to slap himself in the face, force himself out of this waking dream, that the man’s eye shoot open.
“The prison is cracked,” the man said. His voice, despite his appearance, is strong and clear. “It weakens with each day. Soon he will be free.”
The man’s eyes meets Dominick’s and he reaches out, taking Dominick by the forearm.
“You must take this,” the man said.
He held out a shaking fist. There, gripped so tightly his knuckles were white, hanging from his closed fist, hung a tiny sword on a leather cord. The sword was small enough that Dominick could have used it with one of his action figures, and it appeared to be carved from stone.
Dominick made no attempt to take it.
“Let me call someone,” Dominick said. “I can get an ambulance here quickly, just hang on.”
Yet, as Dominick turned to go, the man reached out with his other hand took Dominick by the arm, holding him fast.
“They must not get it,” the man said.
And suddenly, as if the words were some sort of trigger, Dominick’s forearm, beneath the man’s griping hand, burned. Dominick tried to pull away, but it was if he was held in stone.
“Hide it from them,” the man said. His eyes are pleading. “Don’t let them get it. They are coming for it.”
The burning grew in intensity. Dominick wondered why he couldn’t smell smoke, or charred flesh coming from the soft skin on the underside of his forearm as he struggled against the man’s steel-like hold.
“Let go,” Dominick shouted, tears forming in his eyes. “It burns!”
“Take the sword. They must not have it.”
“Fine!” Dominick opened up his hand and allowed the man to drop the tiny sword into his palm. “Now let me go!”
“Look out for penguins,” the man said.
Penguins? Did he hear that right? The penguin in the cook aisle earlier…
“The penguins are lost,” the man continued. “Remain steadfast. You are their only hope. Take the sword to Oklahoma.”
Oklahoma? This guy was crazy. There’s no way Dominick is going to Oklahoma.
“Take it to Oklahoma. He can help you.”
And with that, the man relaxed his grip, closed his eyes, and fell back onto the pavement.
Dominick’s first thought was to check his arm. He was afraid to look, fearing that he would find his skin blackened and blistered. But he had to look, had to know.
His arm looked no different than it had any other day. No burns, no blisters, nothing but a smudge of something black. Dirt, probably, or something from the dumpster area that had rubbed off on him. He didn’t have time to think about it. He needed to check on the strange man, the warrior from a fantasy novel.
The man didn’t appear to be breathing. Dominick checked his pulse. Nothing. But then, he wasn’t sure he was doing it right. His best option at this point, his only option, was to tell someone. Standard procedure for an employee of the Happy Hamburger when someone dies on company property was to report the incident to the manager on duty.
Dominick was inside and rushing up the cook aisle before he could change his mind. He could see Mel try to catch his eye as he flew past her, but he managed to avoid getting trapped.
Mr. Finkleton sat at his desk in the front corner of the restaurant. As the Happy Hamburger was a drive-in, there was no dining area for the customers inside. Because of that, the building was actually rather small with everything packed in tightly. It made Mr. Finkleton’s desk look out of place, but a manager had paperwork to do so a desk was needed.
“You fall asleep out there?” Finkleton said as Dominick arrived, panting. Dominick could see that he was working on next week’s schedule. The man never even looked up at him. “Where’s the grease trap?”
“There’s a man outside,” Dominick said. “Out back. He’s dead.”
Mr. Finkleton laughed, his head still deep in the work schedule.
“No, seriously,” Dominick said. “He’s right outside the back door.”
It was then that Mr. Finkleton looked up. Dominick watched as the man’s eyes transitioned from amused disbelief to fearful concern when he caught the look on Dominick’s face.
“Show me,” was all Mr. Finkleton said as he rose and straightened his tie.
Yet, when the two arrived outside, Mel in tow, the man was nowhere to be found.
“I don’t understand,” Dominick said.
“Where’s your dead man, Dominick?” Mr. Finkleton said.
“He was right here,” said Dominick. He pointed to the spot where he’d left the man. “Right here. He was bleeding and everything.”
“What’s that?” Mel stood behind Mr. Finkleton, pointing at the same spot.
There, on the concrete of the lot, what Dominick’s mind had dismissed as just another oil stain, was a pool of thick, dark red liquid the size of a diner plate.
Mr. Finkleton crouched. Not an easy task for a man his size. Dominick figured the crouching was the easy part, he couldn’t imagine, however, how his boss was going get back up.
“Sure looks like blood,” Mr. Finkleton said. “Maybe you weren’t making it up.”
“Of course I wasn’t making it up,” said Dominick. “Why would I make up something like that?”
Mr. Finkleton didn’t answer. Instead, he rose with seeming effortlessness.
“Okay,” he said. “Dominick, get out the cones to block this spot off, we don’t want anyone to drive through this blood. Could be evidence. I’ll call the police.”
“And then?” Dominick asked.
“And then you get your butt back to work.”
Dominick only stood there as Mr. Finkleton walked away, only then realizing that he still held the tiny sword in his fist. He held it up and studied it. The sword was black like coal. He scratched his head and shoved the sword into his pocket.
I’m certainly not going to Oklahoma, he thought before he went back inside the Happy Hamburger.
POLICE INVOLVEMENT WAS, THANKFULLY, minimal. One officer took Dominick’s statement, while another took a few pictures of the blood behind the restaurant. After all was said and done, the entire process took less than thirty minutes.
It had been the most excitement Dominick had had in a great long time.
After the police had gone, Dominick had brought out the lot sprayer and cleaned the blood from the lot. His final task for the day.
“Well, I’m out,” he told Mr. Finkleton who was back at his desk.
Dominick scratched absently at an itch on the underside of his right forearm.
“The blood gone?” Mr. Finkleton said without looking up. He was still banging away at next week’s schedule.
“Every drop,” Dominick said, still scratching.
“Good man. See you tomorrow then.”
Dominick gave Mel a wave as he passed down he cook aisle. It hadn’t been easy to do as he continued to scratch.
“Since when do you have a tattoo?” Mel said, stopping Dominick short.
“What? I don’t have a tattoo.”
“Then what’s that?” Mel pointed at his right arm.
There, on the underside of his forearm were three solid black lines running perpendicular to each other. The shortest of the three, the one in the center, was about two inches. The two outside lines were half an inch longer.
“That supposed to mean something?” Mel asked. “Or did you chicken out before they could finish?”
Dominick had no answer. As he stared at the three lines he realized that the itch that he’d been scratching was coming from the lines, from under them. He scratched at them without thinking. Then, just like that, the itching stop. It was if once he’d realized that there was an itch, once it was more than just a subconscious thought, once the thought rose to the surface, the itch went away.
“Dominick?” Mel asked. “You there?”
“What?” Dominick shook himself from his thoughts. “Sorry.”
“So what’s with the tattoo?”
“It’s not a tattoo,” he said, still looking at the three lines.
“Then what is it? You drawing on yourself?”
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Look, I gotta go.”
He left feeling drained but looking forward to his evening ahead. After all, it was Wednesday, and that meant new comics.
While there were two decent comic shops in Lawrence, Kansas, the town Dominick called home, he traveled the ten minutes and seven miles east into Eudora and the Comic Bank. It had the one thing he wanted from a comic book store, other than comics… a drive up window.
The Comic Bank, at one time, used to be a real bank. The owner and proprietor, Nicky Spencer, bought the building and had it converted into a comic book store, leaving the bank elements as they were, such as the drive up window.
Dominick was one of those comic fans that didn’t enjoy social interaction, even with those of his own kind, so the window option was, for him, a wholly genius idea. He’d been shopping at the Comic Bank for over two years now, and has never once stepped inside the store. On his very first visit, he pulled up to the window and gave Nicky the list of books he’d like to purchase each month and she created a pull list for him. Each week since, he’s been able to drive on through and pick up and pay his books without leaving the car.
It was great.
He also followed all the main comic book news sites on-line, and knew each week which books he could expect to get as well as what new books were coming out months in advance so that he could add those he found interesting to his list. It was all in his spreadsheets.
Currently, his list comprised of thirty-eight books. Mostly from the Big Two; DC and Marvel, but he picked up a good number of creator owned books each month as well. His back issues numbers in the hundreds and he had one shelf in his bedroom that held each of the statues and action figures of all his favorite characters.
When he pulled in next to the window, Nicky greeted him as she always did.
“You ever going to come inside?” Nicky’s voice crackled through the speaker.
“That’s why you have the window.” His usual reply. “You know how I feel about people.”
Despite his feelings towards others, Dominick had always found himself to be rather comfortable around Nicky. It probably had something to do with the thick layer of glass that always separated them, but still, she was easy to talk to and always made him laugh.
“You got a big stack today,” she said. “Give me just a moment.”
“I was born waiting,” said Dominick.
She smiled and moved away from the window as Dominick shifted his car into Park and let himself relax. He glanced at himself in the mirror and ran a hand through his hair. He could see a penguin in the mirror, standing out in the lot behind the car.
Dominick directed his gaze back to the Comic Bank window. Nicky should be back with his stack of comics any moment now. It was less than a second, just a fraction, from the time his eyes left the mirror and he turned to the window. But in that time a word slunk through his brain.
His eyes dart back to the mirror, and there it was. The penguin. It was looking at him. Watching him watching it.
Dominick turned in the seat to look out the back window, but the penguin was gone.
He could no longer see it in the mirror either.
Only one way to find out. He opened the door, but due the car’s close proximity to the building, he can’t clear more than three inches of space.
Reverse. Back up. That’s all he has to do. But then, as he’s about to shift into Reverse, a crackly voice pulls him back to reality like a bucket of ice water.
“You going somewhere?”
It was Nicky. She was back at the window, all smiles, with a small stack of books.
“What?” Dominick said. He shook his head, which suddenly felt thick and heavy.
Where was he going? He scratched absently at his right forearm.
“You want your books or what?” Nicky asked.
“Books?” Comic books. It was why he was here. A stack of books he could take home and spent the night getting lost in.
“You okay, Dominick?”
He laughed. Of course he wasn’t okay. A man died on him earlier, then disappeared. And he’s been seeing penguins. That can’t be normal.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he lied. “How much do I owe you?”
“Twenty one forty-two,” she said