It began with little things. The faint scent of pickles in the bathroom. The sound of patties sizzling just after he turned off the television. A voice, so soft he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just part of a dream, whispering in his ear as he woke up: Would you like fries with that?
Honza had gotten a great deal on the apartment. It was in one of the nicest parts of the city, overlooking a small park, and well-connected by public transportation. It was all freshly renovated, too: new floors, windows, kitchen appliances… It was missing a few furnishings, but nothing he couldn’t get cheaply at IKEA. It was true, he would have preferred an older building, one with the classic brick-type architecture rather than the concrete panels which made up this newer building, but he couldn’t complain about much else.
When he’d moved out of his ex’s place, he hadn’t imagined he’d find such a deal.
In fact, he could hardly believe his luck. How was it that no one had snatched this place up? In fact, half the building was empty. At first, he’d assumed it was just very new and hadn’t had time to fill up, but when he mentioned the find to his friend Lenka, she’d given him a confused look.
“That place? That’s been there for ages. I used to pass by it on my bike on the way to work. There was always a sign advertising apartments for rent. I always figured it must be a dump inside or something.”
“No way. It’s gorgeous in there. Everything is brand new. When I went to check it out, I brought Mirek along to check the wiring, plumbing, all that stuff, and he said it all looked great. No problems.”
“Good thinking. Mirek really saved me from that shady place in the center last year. To think I might have actually moved in there and had to deal with all that mold…”
“Yeah, he really knows his stuff. I’m telling you, the place seems too good to be true, but I can’t figure out what could possibly be wrong with it.”
Lenka went quiet for a few minutes, ducking into her own personal world of overthinking and analysis like she always did. Honza could see her eyes get distant. “Well, if it is, I’m sure you’ll find out eventually.”
Her words repeated themselves in his head once more as he squatted naked in the tub, the hot water still running out of the shower head in his hand and splashing onto the wall behind him, staring at the young man in a yellow and purple fast food uniform who had mysteriously appeared in his bathroom. He was mouthing something over and over again, but Honza couldn’t hear a single word. In fact, the kid was completely silent – even his footsteps didn’t make a sound. Honza stared at him, completely unsure of how to handle a situation like this, and watched his mouth moving. Suddenly, he understood what he was saying, as though the words had been beamed directly into his head:
For here or to go?
For here or to go?
For here or to go…
His hands shook as he accepted his Spirit Soother mint tea from the barista. Lenka sipped at her coffee in her chair next to him, a very worried look in her eyes. She didn’t believe him. He could tell. She thought he was crazy.
Maybe he was crazy.
“So… The fast food worker asked you if your order was for here or to go, and then…”
“I said, ‘to go’, and he disappeared.”
Lenka thought this over for a moment, a deep crease appearing in her brow as she processed the information. “Why did you say ‘to go’?”
“I didn’t know what else to do. I was naked, remember. I certainly wasn’t going to say ‘for here’ and risk him staying there.”
A man’s voice came from behind him. “Did you get fries with that?” The voice made Honza jump, spilling some of the searing hot tea on his lap before he realized it was just Krystof.
“You son of a bitch, you scared the hell out of me!”
Krystof burst out laughing. “Are you kidding me? Terrified of imaginary burger flippers now? Scared one of them will force you to eat their greasy corporate poison?” He waved his hands around and went Ooooooo for a moment before nearly choking on another laugh.
Honza didn’t think it was funny. “That’s not funny. Is it, Lenka.” He glanced over at his friend, who was clearly trying very hard not to laugh. Honza scowled and glared at his cup of tea.
Once she had regained her composure, Lenka asked as gently as she could, “Is it possible that you dozed off in the shower, sweetie? I mean, you did say you haven’t been sleeping well lately, and your subconscious can pull all kinds of crazy tricks on you when you’re not well-rested. Stress itself can even lead to mild hallucinations when—”
“I did not hallucinate a fast food worker in my bathroom!” The whole cafe went silent. That may have been a little loud, he admitted to himself, and looked back at the floor until the conversations around him began to pick up again.
A little softer, he repeated himself to the floor. “I did not hallucinate a fast food worker in my bathroom. It wasn’t a dream, and I’m not crazy.”
“It’s just your subconscious screwing with you,” insisted Krystof, still holding back laughter. “This is what happens when you quit eating processed food. Your body knows what’s best for it. It’s telling you to eat like a normal modern human.” He leaned in closer to Honza and gave him a nudge with his elbow. “Come on, man. Just eat a burger, and you’ll see. This will all go away.” He winked.
Honza shoved him away. “You’d believe me if…” His eyes lit up. A spectacular idea occurred to him. “You’d believe me if you saw it for yourself. If you’re so sure I’m just crazy, then why don’t you stay at my place for a week?”
Krystof raised one eyebrow. “Will you make me eat your vegetarian crap? Or can I have normal food?”
Honza rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Eat whatever you want. Just no fast food.”
“Damn.” Krystof mulled it over for a few moments. “Okay, one week. And if I don’t see any ghost burgers, you have to come with me to McDonald’s and get a happy meal. With meat. And eat all of it.” He reached out his hand.
Honza took it. “Agreed. You’ll see, you insufferable…” He bit his tongue and decided to hold back. He’d have to actually share a living space with that obnoxious idiot for an entire week. Better not to make it worse than it was already going to be. But it would be worth it when Krystof saw – and heard, and smelled – all the strange goings-on in his apartment.
“Kind of an odd thing, though,” muttered Lenka, who was staring off into her own universe again. “Haunted by fast food workers… You have to admit, that’s awfully specific. Just keep that in mind, Honza.” She looked at him directly now, the eyes of someone who actually cared about him and wanted to look out for him. “Occam’s Razor and all… It does seem more likely that this is related to your crusade against processed food than that you really have some kind of paranormal situation in your apartment building.”
But Honza had stopped listening. It was awfully specific. And he was determined to find out why.
He held his breath as he knocked on the landlord’s door. He wasn’t exactly the easiest person to have a conversation with – or, rather, he wasn’t the easiest person to get out of a conversation with. He could go on endlessly about anything, and most of it was nonsense. Literally: he was about eighty years old and seemed to be going slightly senile. Or maybe he’s just nuts from living in this building, thought Honza.
He had to wait nearly two full minutes before the door finally creaked open. Mr. Hora the landlord stood in the door, his face as sour and his eyes as wild as ever. “Yes? What do you need?” he asked gruffly. His eyes went very wide for a moment, and his mouth twisted as though he was making faces at his tenant. He did this every time. Honza had long assumed that he had some kind of neurological disorder, but sometimes he had to wonder if maybe Mr. Hora was just messing with him.
“Um, yes. Sorry to bother you, but—”
“Is there a problem with the heating? It was fixed before you moved in. Do you need me to call the repair man? I can do it, but it’s late, he won’t come until tomorrow, probably.”
“Uh, no. The heating is fine. It’s just—”
“That’s good. It’s a good heater. The old one was broken, but we put in a new one. So it’s warm enough in your place?”
“Yes, the temperature is fine. The heat is fine.” It was June. He hadn’t even shut the windows since he moved in. “I wanted to ask about something else.”
“I can’t make the rent any lower. It’s already very low.”
“Yes, I agree, thank you. I just have a question about the building.”
“It’s all up to code. The health inspector was here before you moved in. Everything is fine. You want to see the papers? Just wait a few minutes, I have to look for them.”
“No, no!” Honza just barely managed to call him back before he slipped back into his own apartment. “I don’t need to see the papers. It’s fine. I just wanted to ask if this building has any connections to fast food.” It wasn’t the way he had planned to phrase the question, but he had to get it out quickly before Mr. Hora started off on some other random idea.
For the first time, he saw his landlord go speechless. The old man stared hard at the floor for a moment, shaking his head from side to side a little too quickly. “No. There is nothing. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve never heard of Burger Fortress. Why are you asking me these strange questions?”
But Honza had his answer already.
“Okay, Mr. Hora. Sorry to have bothered you.”
The landlord, eyes and mouth twitching like crazy, just gave a curt nod and went back into his apartment, closing the door roughly behind him.
Krystof let out a mighty belch as he threw himself down onto the couch next to Honza, causing his new temporary roommate to cringe. “Do you have to do that every time you sit down?” He could smell hamburgers on his breath. Apparently the ass had eaten fast food right before coming home again, just to get under his skin. It had only been a day, and Honza was already going nuts.
“I’m just announcing my presence. I don’t want to startle you.”
Honza thought about pointing out that the sudden, loud, explosive noises coming out of his friend were plenty startling, but decided it would be easier to avoid the argument. He’s just trying to provoke me. I can’t let him get to me. He decided not to react any more than he already had, and returned his attention to his laptop.
“What are you looking at?” Krystof put his head right next to Honza’s and started breathing heavily.
This was such a mistake. “I’m just doing some research.”
“What’s Burger Fortress? Is that that new indie game?”
“No…” Why wouldn’t he just leave him in peace? Why did he have to behave like a child all the time? Probably because he still lives with his grandmother. “It was a fast food chain, or at least, it was supposed to be.”
Krystof was already reading over his shoulder, and trying to think of a good way to turn this into another jab at his oversensitive vegetarian friend. “And let me guess. The spirit of the chain restaurant is now haunting your apartment?”
Honza pointed at the screen. “The place burned down with all its employees trapped inside. It happened in the early nineties, when new businesses were popping up all over the city.”
Honza looked Krystof square in the eyes. “And this building was built right on top of it.”
Krystof’s jaw dropped in mock astonishment. “Ugh, close your mouth,” said Honza. “I can smell your nasty hamburgers.”
Now Krystof’s face changed to a rare expression of genuine befuddlement. “What hamburgers? I haven’t eaten a hamburger in two days.”
Honza jumped out of his seat (though not before carefully placing his laptop on the coffee table). “That’s it! Don’t you smell it?”
Krystof mockingly sniffed the air, and Honza saw the moment his friend caught the scent. His eyes widened in surprise, just for a moment, as the unexpected odor hit his nostrils. Nevertheless, he shook his head in denial. “I don’t smell anything.” Then he got up and stormed out of the room, a little too quickly.
“So you’re thinking it’s a poltergeist sort of thing? Indian burial ground, all that?” Lenka was still holding her e-reader, and kept sneaking glances at it when Honza wasn’t looking. She wanted to help him and all, but there was only so much discussion about burger ghosts a person could take.
“Well it is a sort of burial ground. Those people got burnt to ash. They never recovered any part of their bodies. See, the building used to be a cold storage facility, so everything was super insulated. The inside reached temperatures higher than what they use to cremate bodies.” He shoved his tablet into her eye line, directly in the way of her e-reader.
So much for trying to ignore it and hoping it would go away. Resignedly, she took the tablet from his hand and quickly skimmed through the article about the fire. It was badly formatted and all the images were broken. “Where did you even find this story?”
“It was in the archives for one of the newspapers. A while back they uploaded all their old articles to the web, hoping it would persuade people to continue buying subscriptions. They’re bankrupt now and the web site is gone, but luckily Google had the page cached.” And how lucky that had been; it had saved him a trip to the library and a conversation with the archivist about how kids these days didn’t know how to do real research.
Lenka was impressed by the story. And sure enough, the location was correct – the same address as Honza’s new apartment.
“So? Do you believe me now?”
Lenka tried hard to be rational, but honesty won out in the end. “Unfortunately, I think I do.”