I saw him for the first time in the freezer. It was late on a Friday night, really Saturday morning, and I was moving food to the cooler for the morning crew. I pulled a box from the shelf and turned, and there, right there by the door, he was standing. A dark shape — no, a dim shape, fuzzy in those few seconds of vision, my eyes not quite certain if they were focusing on the freezer door or this thing in front of it. Pale arms outstretched and raised towards me. Hollow eyes black against a pallid face, and a mouth that opened as if to speak. I heard the click and slide of tongue on teeth, underneath the low wheeze of the freezer fan. And he was gone.
I stood staring at the door for a moment, heavy box of frozen food in my hands. I wasn't sure what I had seen, or if I had seen anything. My heart rate was up, and I was sweating lightly, even in the chill. I blinked a few times, and looked around, even though I knew the freezer was too small to contain another person. I pushed open the door, and looked outside. Nothing. I cautiously opened the cooler door. Still nothing. I put the frozen box inside, and shut the door.
I had been working at a chain pizza place for a year or so. I had a car, a valid license, and a good memory for roads, and I was always available to work, so the manager soon let me pick my own shifts. I would usually work open to close on the weekends. I made great money, but had no social life. There was not a lot of people willing to hang out after two in the morning, so my friend circle diminished to include only the manager of the pizza shack and a few other drivers and cooks who worked the late weekend shifts.
I woke up thinking about him the next morning, thinking about those black eyes. I shook off the thought, showered, and went to work. The days passed quickly, and as memories of circumstances that don't fit in with normal experience often do, the memory faded.
A few weeks later, we were in Saturday night rush, doing two hundred pies an hour, my car packed with pizzas destined for games and parties. It slowed down by about nine, so I started cleaning the front. The phone rang at about nine fifteen, and I answered it: "Donkeynose Pizza, will this be for delivery or carryout?"
"Delivery." Great. A kid.
"What's your address and telephone number?"
"217 Maple Street. 593-3309."
"And your order?"
"I want a large pizza with pepperoni and onions."
"Ok, that'll be $10.50. It'll be out in half an hour."
I hung up the phone, and turned to Susan, the manager. "The Maple Street Kid again."
"Do you want me to make the pizza?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said. "I like pepperoni and onions." Susan laughed. "Really, go ahead and make it. I'm gonna deliver it this time, because you know he's just going to call until we yell at him or until I drive out there."
The Maple Street Kid was one of a few regular pranksters that we dealt with. He was fairly consistent, always ordering a large pizza of some sort, and always ordering it to the same address, 217 Maple Street. The problem was, there was no 217 Maple Street. It was a short-block street, amongst a forest of other tree-named streets, close to the downtown section of our small town. The house numbers started on the right-hand side at 201, then 211, then jumped to 221, and ended at 231. There was nothing between 211 and 221 save for 211's driveway. I knew that because every newby delivery driver got sent out to 217 at the first opportunity. The owners of 211 and 221 (and 220, across the street) were quite used to lost delivery drivers tromping through their back yards, pizza hotbag in hand, looking for 217.
Our theory was that the kid lived in one of the houses on or near Maple Street, and would peek out his window to watch the victims of his prank. All of the delivery drivers had tried desperately to catch a glimpse of a twitching curtain or hear a kid laughing behind some shrubbery, but as far as I knew, nobody had ever caught him.
Fifteen minutes after the call, I was on the road, pizza in the hotbag, new KMFDM cassette blaring from the tape player, windows rolled down to let in the moist summer night air. I crossed the train tracks, and turned onto Maple Street. Heat lightning flashed in the distance, dim and purple, with a low rumble that could have been thunder, or a train, or a distant jet. I slowed down to a crawl at the beginning of Maple Street, looking at each window for the pale peeking face of the kid. I passed 201, then 211, and slammed on my brakes.
There, just past 211, was 217 Maple Street.
I stared for a moment. Bad industrial music blasted out of the tinny second-hand speakers I'd installed into the doors of my '81 Datsun, echoing hollowly off the sides of the houses along Maple Street. 211 Maple Street looked the same, a 1950s brick bungalow with a gravel driveway on the side. 221 Maple Street also matched memory, another 50s bungalow, with ugly green shutters and terrible lawn art. Between the two, where there should have been nothing asides from a narrow old fence, stood a narrow white farmhouse. It looked bland and boring, with black shutters, a green tin roof, and a porch swing. Painted on the curb, and in matching numbers on a support column, were the numbers '217'. The porch light was on.
I jerked the parking brake and got out of my car, carrying the pizza with me. I wasn't terribly concerned for my own safety; I was wearing heavy steel-toed Doc Martens and packing a 9mm in my belt pouch (totally against Donkeynose Pizza's regs, of course, but after a coworker got jumped in Oakhurst Estates I was taking no chances). I stomped my big clunky boots down the short concrete walkway, and up the steps. Rang the bell. Heard footsteps on hardwood floors, and the dry clicking of fingers against a chain lock.
The door swung open, and a kid stepped out into the porchlight. I flipped open the hotbag, and pulled out the pizza. "That'll be $10.50," I said. He thrust a wad of bills at me. I took them, counted thirteen dollars. Made as if to hand him back two dollars.
"No, keep it. Thanks," the kid said. He took the pizza, turned around and went back inside, pulling the door shut. I heard the bolt click and the scrabbling sound of the chain lock.
I clomped back to my car, and looked back at the house. It was still there. The porch light flicked off. I put the car in gear, and drove to the end of the road. Sighed. Turned around, and drove back to 217. It was still there, porchlight off, old white paint green in the glow of the streetlights. I sighed again, and drove back to the store.
"You're shitting me," Susan said, as she cleaned the counter with a cloth. Susan was about forty, stocky, and married to her job. Everyone thought she was a lesbian until that vampire movie came out, the one with Brad Pitt, then all she would do was talk about how hot Brad Pitt was, and the various things she would do to him if she ever got him alone. It was not the best mental picture, and we 'assisted' her by plastering her office with little Brad heads.
"I swear to God I'm not!" I said. "Seriously, I really wanted that pizza! Now I'm hungry!" I washed my hands and began making my own pizza.
"So, you actually delivered a pizza to 217 Maple Street? A house that doesn't exist, and hasn't ever existed? I've driven out there a dozen times trying to catch that little fucker, and I know damn good and well that there's no 217. The numbers skip right over it. Every street has skipped numbers — there's a lot more numbers than houses in this town," Susan said. She was clearly expecting some elaborate prank on my part, like the time when someone put the condom over her tailpipe, or the the time when someone plastic-wrapped her truck. If she didn't see it, I didn't do it.
"Fine, I'll watch the store and you go look for yourself," I said.
"No, I'm not going anywhere. For one, I can't leave the store. For two, I'm sure you're lying, and you're waiting for me to leave so you can do something horrible to my office, or something."
"Let's go over there after we close. I'll drive. I'll bet you ten bucks it's there," I said. That seemed to appease her.
"Okay, what did The kid look like?" she asked.
"That's funny, I didn't really think about it. He looked normal. A little fat. He was wearing a striped shirt. Dark hair," I said. "He looked like a normal kid. The house looked normal too." It wasn't until later, washing dishes in the back, that I realized why The kid had looked so normal, so familiar to me. I had seen him before, in our freezer.
We got busy again, as usual, around 11 P.M. I took quite a few runs, some all the way out to Red Apple, and didn't get back to the store until nearly 1:30 A.M. Susan sent the other driver home, and all I had left was to wash a few dishes and wait for her to finish her count the register totals. I was arm-deep in soapy water, scouring a stubborn pan, when I heard something *SLAM!* behind me. I spun around, only to see Susan standing there, grinning.
"Time to lose ten bucks, kiddo," she said. "You're opening tomorrow, so leave that pan for the morning. Let's go!"
We left in Susan's truck. She had a thing about riding with her drivers, saying that she "knew how we drove." The truck bounced across the railroad tracks, then lurched onto Maple Street. The wind had picked up, and the first fat drops of rain began to splat against the truck's windows. The heat lightning I had seen earlier was turning into a full summer storm. Susan stopped the truck in the middle of the street.
"No. Fucking. Way."
Lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating the plain pallid face of 217 Maple Street. Susan's mouth hung open. A hand stole up to pull at one of the curls of her hair, mousy-brown going prematurely grey. She did this when she was stressed, or worried. "This isn't possible."
She turned to me. "Mark, I've lived in this town my whole life. I know it like the back of my hand. Give me any address in our delivery area, any one, and I can tell you the color of the shutters, what they normally order, and if they tip. This house can't be here. There's no goddamn 217 Maple Street."
"Right, now pay up," I said, sticking my hand out. She swatted it away.
"Later. I have to see this place up close. This is bullshit." She pulled the truck up to the curb and parked it. She got out of the truck, and began walking down the concrete walkway to the house.
"Susan!" I hissed. "Susan! Stop it! It's two in the morning. They're gonna call the cops!" She waved her hand at me, motioning for me to shut up. I got out of the truck as she climbed the stairs of the porch.
"The door is wide open," Susan said.
"Don't go in there!" I yelled, as she stepped across the threshold into the house. The door, as I knew it would, as I knew it would for days and weeks and certainly from the moment I saw the house that night, slammed shut behind her.
"Fuck," I said. I ran up the stairs onto the porch, and tried opening the door. No joy. It was stuck fast, and the knob was so cold it burned. I released it, hissing, cradling my stinging palm. I ran down off the porch, and around the back of the house. The rain was coming down harder, the wind whipping it into stinging missiles against my skin. I hauled open a wooden gate and ran into the backyard. It was pitch black, lit sporadically by the flashes of lightning. I climbed a short wooden staircase to the backdoor, and hammered on it.
"Susan! Can you hear me? Come back out of there!" I beat the door with my fist, only stopping when a sharp spike of pain made me pull back. I had cracked a small pane of glass in the door. My blood looked black in the dim light. I kicked the door out of frustration, then ran back down the stairs. I shoved the gate open, and skidded to a stop. There, in front of me, was the small dark figure of The Maple Street kid.
"Why did you come back here?" he asked, walking towards me. "What do you want?" In the green streetlight, his face looked gray, eyes hollow pits and mouth full of blackness. Thunder rumbled, and I heard a thin scream come from inside the house.
"Susan!" I yelled, turning towards the house.
The kid looked at the house, then back to me, features twisting into anguished horror. "Oh no. Oh no oh no. You let someone go inside?" He plunged his hands into his black hair, wringing and pulling it. "Oh no. You weren't supposed to be here. You weren't supposed to come back!" His figure shifted, shimmered in the flashbulb lighting of the storm. "You need to get out of here! You need to run NOW!" With that last shout, his mouth opened hugely, showing nothing inside — no teeth, no tongue, only a blackened pit dark as pitch and yawning wide as the night.
I ran. I ran without a thought in my mind until I stumbled and nearly fell over the railroad tracks. I stood there for a moment, in the sheeting torrents of freezing rain, and then I ran back to Maple Street.
Susan's truck was gone. I could see where it should have been from the corner, and it was clearly missing. As was 217 Maple Street.
I walked the two miles back to the store, and climbed into my car. I changed out of my sodden uniform into my regular clothes, and dried off with a towel I kept in the car to manually de-fog the windows. I drove back to Maple Street, just in case.
Two-seventeen was still missing. Between 211 and 221 stood only a weatherbeaten wooden fence. There was no sign of Susan, or her truck. Suddenly, I was immensely tired, and needed to go home.
The cops didn't question my story very much. I told them we closed the store as usual, and we parted ways. The owner, Brian, was more suspicious. Normally, managers made night deposits after they closed, and they had a driver follow them to the bank. Susan hadn't made hers, and I couldn't explain why she hadn't asked me to follow her to the bank that night. Everyone — and Brian, in particular — assumed that Susan had stolen the night deposit and ran. Nobody questioned why someone as dedicated as Susan would do something like that. Nobody questioned where someone would go with a measly five thousand dollars, much less why. Brian took over Susan's shifts for a while, until he promoted one of the shift leads to her position.
Susan's family posted a reward for any information about her whereabouts, but nobody came forth. I knew what happened, but I couldn't tell anyone. I knew that, at best, they would think I was crazy, or on drugs. At worst, the cops would decide it was a homicide, with me as suspect number one.
Besides, I knew where she was. A month after Susan disappeared, on a Saturday night, one of the new kids took an order for delivery. It was 217 Maple Street, for a ham and pineapple pizza. Susan's favorite.