Dude, that’s not funny.
Honza made an expression of annoyance as he read Krystof’s message. What the hell was he talking about? He hadn’t even been home all day; he’d been busy discussing possible explanations for the Burger Fortress haunting with Lenka and Hana over a beer or two. Or three. He hadn’t really been counting. It had definitely been more than one.
He composed his reply on the metro and tried to send it twice before he realized he was deep underground with no signal. Finally, the train pulled into a station and he took the opportunity to send his message?
What are you talking about?
He had to wait for the next station to get Krystof’s answer.
I’m not buying it, asshole. Leaving hamburger wrappers all over the apartment isn’t going to make me believe your stupid hallucinations. Where did you even get them? I know there’s no way you ate them all.
Hamburger wrappers? Honza truly had no idea what Krystof was going on about. Sounded like the ghost (or ghosts) was (or were) up to something again. Before he could get his sluggish mind focused on composing an answer, Krystof sent another text.
And what the hell is Burger Fortress? I’ve never heard of it. What, did you make up a fictional fast food place and print the wrappers yourself? At least use real ones, you idiot. Who would buy this fake crap? And the ketchup all over the place? You’re really losing it, man. You’re going too far and it’s getting sad.
A terrible thought occurred to Honza. What if Krystof was in danger? One of the possibilities he and Lenka had mulled over over their fourth or fifth beers had been that the ghost, or ghosts, might be simply seeking validation, that they just wanted someone to recognize and admit that they existed and that what had happened to them was really messed up. Or maybe they needed help with something. And if Krystof was refusing to admit what he was seeing, what if they got upset and did something worse than making his apartment look and smell like a cheap fast food joint?
Okay, asshole, where the hell are you? I know you’re in here somewhere. You can pretend not to hear me all you want, but I can hear you whispering. If you think you can get to me by chanting weird fast food slogans at me endlessly from inside the walls or wherever the hell you’re hiding, you’re wrong. I’m not buying it, and you’re not going to trick me into spreading your ghost story crap.
He needed to talk to Krystof. His fingers weren’t doing well with the whole typing thing at the moment, for some reason, and it was taking too long. He finally reached his stop on the metro and got off the train. He still had a ten minute tram ride to get home, but at least he had a signal here. He tried to start a video call with his temporary roommate.
It rang for almost a full minute. Honza was ready to give up when at last Krystof’s large, bearded face appeared on the screen.
“Dude, this is bullshit. Where the hell are you? This isn’t funny anymore.”
“Krystof, I’m not home. Look at me. I’m at the metro station. You can see it with your own eyes.”
“Then where did you hide the recording? There’s a speaker somewhere or something. This isn’t funny, and I’m not buying it.” But his voice was quivering and his eyes were darting around nervously.
“Man, I’m telling you, I haven’t done anything. If you’re refusing to believe your own senses just because you’re afraid it’s all a prank and someone’s going to jump out and yell ‘gotcha’, then you seriously need to get your priorities in order. Now tell me what exactly is going on there. I’m on my way home but it’s going to be a bit longer.”
Krystof glared into his phone’s camera. “No way, dude. No way. You’re not getting me. I don’t buy it.” He fell silent, and Honza could hear a metallic sound in the background. “Okay, man, how are you doing that? That is some serious special effects, dude. Kudos for making this all happen and stuff, but—”
Another voice cut in, distant and hollow: If you’re not going to order anything, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.
Honza watched as the video image twisted and spun; Krystof’s phone had obviously fallen on the floor. He heard the metallic sound again, followed by some other sounds he couldn’t quite identify but which were entirely unpleasant to hear, and then the connection was broken.
Lenka was wrestling with her belt buckle. Normally it wasn’t a particularly challenging or complicated buckle, but tonight it seemed to be considerably more complicated than usual, and her fingers were having trouble figuring out how to open it so she could change into her pajamas and crawl into bed. She began to consider possibly simply crawling directly into bed without her pajamas, however out of character that might be for her, but something was nagging at the back of her mind. What could it be? It was a feeling, or a thought, and it was growing louder and more irritating.
Ah, that was it: her phone was ringing, and presumably had been for a while. But for how long? Had it really been a while, or was her brain just not processing time correctly? And if it had been a while, then why was it still ringing? Surely, most people would have hung up long before.
Maybe she should answer it. She didn’t really like talking on the phone, but if it was still ringing, she couldn’t think of any other way to stop it from bothering her. Anyway, maybe it was important.
Which button was it again? The green one, or the red one? They had slightly different pictures on them. Red for stop ringing? Or green for go ahead and talk?
She went with green. As she put it to her ear, it occurred to her that she should have checked who was calling.
“Lenka! Jesus, at last… I was worried something had happened to you.”
“Oh, no, no. I’m fine. Don’t worry. I’m just going to bed. I’ll see you later, Honza.”
“No! Wait!” His voice was a bit quieter, as Lenka had already pulled the phone a short ways from her ear, and he sounded like a tiny robot. She giggled, and continued holding the phone at that distance. “Lenka, you have to get over here. I need your help.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow? I’m very sleepy.”
“No! Come on, Leni, just get over here. Come over to my place. It’s important! Understand? Important?”
She thought it over for another minute. Yes, she did understand the word important. It was a fairly basic word. “Yes. I do understand.”
“Then get over here!”
She giggled again at his tiny robot voice, throwing herself off balance. She sat down on the edge of the bed. “I don’t even know where you are.”
“I just told you! I’m at my place. Come meet me outside the building. And please hurry…”
Well, his place wasn’t far, and she couldn’t stop imagining him as an angry little robot yelling into a phone on the sidewalk. “Alright, alright. I’m coming.”
“Thank you! I’ll be waiting right here. Hurry up! It’s really important!”
She nodded at the phone and hung up. She’d head over to help him very soon. Just as soon as she finished resting her eyes.
The night air was warm, but the hair on Honza’s arms was standing on end. He’d been waiting for Lenka for an hour. She only lived ten minutes from him by tram, and even this late at night, she should have been there ages ago. He’d tried calling her back, but there hadn’t been any answer. What had happened to her?
She was probably just passed out at home. She was clearly very drunk; she could never hold her alcohol, probably because she drank so rarely. And if he was having trouble keeping his thoughts straight, then what state was she in?
He kept telling himself that – she’s probably just asleep. But in his mind’s eye he couldn’t help but picture her drunkenly stumbling in front of the tram, or falling down the stairs, or being stabbed to death by a burger-flipping ghost.
He debated with himself, back and forth, about going over to her place to check on her. And to drag her back over to his place so he could go inside and see what had happened to Krystof.
It was probably a prank, Krystof messing with him and just being a jerk like he always was. Honza held on tight to that denial, doing his best to ignore the one overwhelming point that he couldn’t come up with an answer for: where had he heard of Burger Fortress?
He didn’t want to go in there alone. He was comfortable, as a man, with admitting that to himself. He wanted his intelligent, rational friend by his side, ready to tell him it was all going to be just fine, and maybe to tell him when to run for his life in case something snuck up behind him. But Lenka wasn’t there. Hana wasn’t there. Mirek wasn’t there. No one was there. He was on his own, and his friend might be inside and in need of help right this second.
There came a time when you just had to be brave. When what was necessary demanded more of you than you knew you were capable of. When you had to face your fears and push those panicked thoughts out of your mind and just do what you had to do.
Fortunately, there was a nonstop market just around the corner, and he had enough cash left over for two more cans of beer.
Somewhere around halfway through the second can of beer, Honza started to think about Scooby Doo. After all, there was no such thing as ghosts. If they could fake an apparition back in the old days with nothing more than a bright light and a piece of reflective glass, just think of what kinds of special effects people could create nowadays. I mean, 3D printers were a thing, and real-life holograms, and chess-playing robots, and all kinds of crap. If someone got it in their head to make a place look haunted, well, surely they could do a convincing job.
And there was only one person with full access to the whole building. Only one person, one creepy, unsettling person, who could set it all up and persuade everyone that the place was inhabited by the ghosts of incinerated minimum-wage workers.
He had even denied knowing about Burger Fortress without even having been asked about it. He was up to something. There was no doubt. It was so obvious, now that he thought about it. It was all a ploy. That twitchy old bastard was trying to scare his few tenants to death.
But, like, I don’t get it. Why would he do that? If this was Scooby Doo, then he was Shaggy. He needed Velma, and his Velma was (hopefully) passed out drunk, safe at home in her bed and far away from all this insanity.
It was up to him. He drained the last few sips of his beer, deposited the cans in the nearest trash can, waved off a homeless man who was looking for a drink of his own, unlocked the front door of his building, and strode inside, closing the heavy door behind him.
He stood in the entryway, his resolve strong, his will unstoppable, his cowardice drowned in a sea of cheap beer.
Mr. Hora’s office was directly ahead of him. His apartment was upstairs, and his friend might be lying dead on the floor in a pile of hamburger wrappers. Also, his landlord might have killed him, and might be waiting just inside his office with a sharpened spatula.
Now, where was he going to go?