“Melissa smirked. She was a famous restaurant critic, so she was always announced on TV, the radio, magazines, and social media. It was a tradition now. She loved being famous! But her smirk quickly changed. There was no one in the parking lot but one lonely SUV.”
“Where are you going tonight, honey?” Major Moe Momper asked his wife, taking a sip of coffee.
“I’m going to review this place called The Garlic,” Melissa Momper responded, taking a sip too, but quickly put it down. “I can’t drink too much coffee; I don’t want to fill up.”
“The Garlic? Isn’t that the last place your friend Cathy went before she vanished?” Moe Momper replied, raising his eyebrows.
“Yes,” Melissa answered sadly, “The Garlic’s owner, Jessie Goodwin, told the police Cathy mentioned the idea of moving to Peru. But she never said anything to me. I’m going to ask Jessie about her. I haven’t heard from her in a while.”
“She didn’t tell me anything either. Or anyone, apparently. Her sister, Lila, says she hasn’t heard from her the whole seven months she’s been gone! And what about Sarah and Robert Churchill? Didn’t they vanish after eating there too?” Moe Momper said.
“The police said they moved to Idaho. Everyone’s worried about them, too. No one’s heard a thing from them! Or Cathy, for that matter. That’s weird, actually,” Melissa replied. She paused, then looked at her watch. Her watch said 5:45 PM. “Time to go. Dinner starts at six. I’m all dressed. I’ll be back in no more than two hours, honey!”
Melissa walked out of the room, out of her house, and into her car. Every time she went to work, she would wear her usual: a blue sweater with a white undershirt, white jeans, and blue high heels.
“The restaurant The Garlic is being visited tonight by the famous Melissa Momper!” the radio man exclaimed.
Melissa smirked. She was a famous restaurant critic, so she was always announced on TV, the radio, magazines, and social media. It was a tradition now. She loved being famous! But her smirk quickly changed. There was no one in the parking lot but one lonely SUV. It was black, and the windows were tinted. “That’s funny,” she whispered. She maneuvered her car to a parking spot far away from the SUV.
Sighing nervously, Melissa walked through the doors. There’s probably just no one because I’m here, she thought to herself.
Melissa expected pictures of garlic and many tables with fancy silverware, glasses, and plates. But she was wrong.
It was pitch dark inside, except for one light in the middle of the room. Under that light was a single armchair. No one was sitting there. Melissa frowned.
“I should probably wait here,” Melissa said. “I don’t want to sit there if Jessie is.”
“Don’t worry — it’s all for you,” a slimy voice cooed, coming out from somewhere. “Please, sit.”
Out from the darkness emerged a short lady with short brown hair in a bun. She was wearing a pink dress with a white apron. But the strangest thing was her earrings. They were… vampires’ faces.
“Uh, no thanks! I just… ” Melissa got out her review notebook. “I guess hospitality — check?”
“Don’t worry,” the lady said. “I’m Jessie. Sit down, and I’ll get you some dinner. Chicken?”
“That’d be nice,” Melissa whispered uneasily. “Can it come out fast? I’m in a rush. Moe — my husband — is waiting for me.”
“Don’t be silly,” Jessie purred. “How can Melissa Momper be busy? Any good critic knows it’s one restaurant a night.”
“Yes, that is true,” Melissa mumbled. “Is this it? Is this what happens every night? Just one customer?”
“Oh, sometimes there are more,” Jessie replied. “But we wanted it to be extra special for Melissa Momper.”
“Um… I like your earrings,” Melissa tried, unsure of how to react. “I have similar earrings… clovers?”
Jessie snickered silently. “Sit. I’ll be back soon.” She was gone.
Melissa didn’t feel so sure about sitting, because it might be a trap. But she didn’t want to make Jessie feel bad — even though she wasn’t sure if she would. She daintily walked over and sat. In about twenty minutes of doing nothing (she had a watch), Jessie finally came out with a big, decorated platter with roasted chicken on it. Garlic was sprinkled over the chicken, and there was a lemon on the side of the plate. Mashed potatoes were on the side. It smelled like no other chicken, and just the smell made Melissa’s mouth water. The chicken looked perfect. Jessie placed it on Melissa’s lap.
“Thanks… ” Melissa said. “Looks yummy.” She took a big bite. She stopped chewing. It was the best chicken she’d ever had. It was as if one of the chefs from the show Moe always watched had made it. “This is awesome.” She quickly took another bite.
“Now, while you’re eating, may I tell you a story?” Jessie asked, sitting on an old wood chair that had not previously been there.
“Sure,” Melissa answered, “about what?”
“Do you know Cathy Banks?” Jessie started, and Melissa nodded.
“Yes,” Melissa said. “Do you know any more details about why she left? She was my best friend.”
Jessie ignored this. “Robert and Sarah Churchill?” Melissa nodded again. “They’ve all come here, but I think you should know one thing.”
“Cathy’s not in Peru. The Churchill’s are not in Idaho.” Jessie smiled, and she clasped her hands together.
“Where are they?” Melissa trembled.
“Why don’t you see for yourself?” Jessie asked and lifted the big platter off of Melissa. “Follow me.”
Melissa didn’t want to, but she knew it would be for the better. “Okay.”
Jessie led her to the kitchen, a set of swinging doors that were further back from the chair. Inside was a counter, an oven, a stove, and other appliances. Melissa relaxed.
“Back here, through this door,” Jessie went on, making Melissa tense again. She wanted this to be over with.
Jessie led her through the other door, and in here was a black room. Inside the room were three people sitting on the floor, but Melissa couldn’t tell who because it was dark. As if on cue, Jessie turned on the lights.
“Melissa Momper?” Robert Churchill asked. He stood up. The thing was, he and the two women looked healthy. They were playing cards. “I haven’t seen you in so long!”
“Robert and Sarah?” Melissa whispered. “Wow. Cathy? How have you been? Everyone was worried about you, and they didn’t know where you were and couldn’t contact you!” Melissa sat down with them.
Jessie looked nervous.
“I’ve been good! How have you been?” Cathy said. “Still in the critic business? Would you like to join us for a game of cards?”
“No, she was just eating here, and I was giving her a tour.” The four of them looked up to see Jessie. “Come on, Melissa.”
“Bye, guys!” Melissa reluctantly said, waving to her friends as Jessie pulled her out of the kitchen. And then she was out of the room. “Jessie — that was so weird!”
“I think you should leave now,” Jessie whispered. She had gotten quieter.
“But what are they doing there? I deserve an answer,” Melissa demanded. “Can I go speak to at least Cathy again?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jessie said and hustled Melissa out of the kitchen. “Why don’t you go write your review?”
“It won’t be a good one if you don’t tell me why they’re there,” Melissa murmured.
“You won’t tell anybody, though,” Jessie said. “You wouldn’t dare, would you?”
“Well, I might,” Melissa threatened, “if I don’t have an answer.”
All of a sudden, Jessie’s face turned bright red. “Why don’t you come with me, Melissa?”
“I think I better get home,” Melissa said, face turning red. “I won’t tell if you let me leave.”
“Just, before you leave, I might want to tell you one thing,” Jessie said, her face flushing now. “I locked you in.”
“What?” Melissa mouth widened. “Can you… unlock it? And why?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jessie mumbled. “You just have to take a test to get out. But it might be hard.”
“But why can’t you just unlock it?” Melissa asked.
“You’re the owner,” Melissa went on. “You own the place. Why can’t you unlock it?”
“I’m not the owner,” Jessie grumbled. “The owner — nevermind. Please. Just take the test.”
“What’s in the test?” Melissa was hyped up, her face getting redder and redder. “Jessie, I’m not a good test taker.”
“Sit here. I will come out with the first test,” Jessie ordered. “In the chair again.”
Out of breath, Melissa sat. A big frown took over her face. “Will this take long?”
“As long as you make it.” And then Jessie disappeared.
A few minutes later, the silence broke when Jessie came back, holding a deck of cards. “I just need you to be the victim of my magic trick.”
“Victim?” Melissa repeated.
Jesse ignored this. She spread out the cards. The backs looked like normal cards, red with a geometric design. “Pick a card — any card,” she demanded.
Melissa frown deepened, but she picked a card near the right end. “I pick this one.”
“Look at it, and follow the order,” Jessie instructed. “I will be back in ten minutes. The more tests you fail, the more you have to do. Oh! I almost forgot. I need your phone. No cheating.” Melissa reluctantly gave her phone to Jessie.
“Jessie? I don’t get it — ” Jessie was gone.
Melissa sighed and read the card.
Yay! You have selected me as your card. Your first challenge is to tie your shoes together and hop across the length of the room. Your time starts now! Good luck!
“But I don’t even have anything to tie my shoes!” Melissa cried. “I’m wearing high heels!”
She looked further down the card. There was a picture of rope, and under it said: Pick up the rope! Melissa was very confused. She put her fingers on either side of the tiny rope and pulled. All of a sudden, a real, long rope came out of the card.
“Okay,” Melissa whispered, “I’ll tie it around my ankles. Now where does the room begin?”
She walked to the door where she had come in. “This is so weird,” she said to herself.
She began hopping. This is not so bad, she thought. She had passed the armchair and near the kitchen door when she fell. She quickly got up. “It never said you had to start again at the beginning.” Soon she reached the kitchen door.
“Impressive,” Jessie said, suddenly appearing. “Almost record time. But sorry, you failed.”
“Why?” Melissa was still panting, out of breath. “Was it my fall? It never said anything against it.”
“No, that was fine,” Jessie replied. “You just put the rope around your ankles. It said shoes.”
“But that’s impossible!” Melissa yelled. “I’m wearing high heels! How do you think I’m going to do it? You’re a cheater!”
“Let’s move onto the next test.” Jessie spread out the cards again. “Pick another card.”
Melissa glared as she picked a card on the left side.
“I’ll be back,” Jessie cooed as she turned around and left into the darkness.
This card said:
Yipee! You picked me! My challenge is really hard. You have to stack cards, so the top card is a foot above the ground. You have ten minutes. Like always, your time starts now!
“Uh, where are the cards?” Melissa asked, then saw the drawing on the bottom of the card. She felt so weird that she was pulling a deck of cards out of a card. “Alright. I’m not that good at stacking. Maybe… ”
She made a teepee with the cards, carefully trying not to tip it over. After balancing a card horizontally on top of that, the teepee fell over.
“This is so hard,” Melissa groaned. She tried again, and it fell over. She wasn’t even close to a foot. She tried again, and again, and again, and again, but every time it still fell over. Finally, the ten minutes was up.
“Melissa, your time is up,” Jessie said. “This test wasn’t really about stacking the cards, but about finding the secret to it. You must have misunderstood the question. All you had to do was put them on top of each other. Even if you had found out the last second, I would’ve given it to you.”
“Well nothing,” Jessie said. “Pick another card. This will be your last chance.”
Melissa glared at Jessie as she picked a card right in the middle.
This card read:
I can’t believe it! Another read to add to my record. This is my tenth time being read! Anyway, my challenge to you is to sit still for five minutes straight without thinking about anything. The only thing you’re allowed to do is blink every minute and breathe every three seconds. Clear your mind! Your time starts now!
Melissa put down the card. “The only hard part about that is clearing your mind,” she smiled. “But it should be fun. After all, I was the president of the meditation club in college.”
She walked over to the armchair and sat. She took a big breath to start. Her mind cleared. She was aware of her breath patterns.
Five minutes later, Jessie came. “Good job — again, but sorry, you failed,” she informed.
“What?” Melissa shouted. “This is a joke. How? I should have passed! I followed all the rules! I’m going to leave now! If you keep me longer, you will not want to see your review!”
“Shh! Quiet down,” Jessie demanded. “There’s no need to be loud. You failed because of your breathing patterns. You didn’t follow the rules.”
“It’s impossible, then. You try!” Melissa stepped closer to Jessie as Jessie stepped away. “I was president of my meditation club. We did stuff like this all the time! And I got it right!”
“But that wasn’t a test, was it?” Jessie said, turning back to Melissa. “Time for the next test.”
“I don’t want to do another one,” Melissa said.
“Well then you can join Cathy and the Churchills,” Jessie responded. “I would be happy to take you there.”
So that’s how they got there, Melissa thought. “But why did they even come? How did you trick them? They’re smart. They wouldn’t fall for anything.”
“You did.” Jessie remained calm. “And I’d like to think that you’re smart. Do you?”
“You’re messing with my head,” Melissa told Jessie. “You didn’t trick me. It’s part of my job to come here, it’s not part of theirs.” She tightened.
“I told Cathy that there would be a cat convention there,” Jessie went on. “She loves cats. And the day before the Churchill’s anniversary, I told them it would be the perfect place for dinner.”
“How do you know Cathy likes cats?” Melissa pressed. “And the Churchill’s anniversary date? And they didn’t recognize you? And why would they believe it?”
“I told you I’m good at disguises,” Jessie reminded Melissa. “I dressed up like an elderly man and told them what they would like to hear. And I know things.”
“You know things? So do I,” Melissa stated. “But how did you know the little details that make a difference?”
“I know things,” Jessie repeated.
“I want you to go and tell those poor people what you did!”
“I’ll go over there with you,” Jessie responded. “But only one of us is coming back.”
Melissa huffed, but followed Jessie. “At least they’re happy,” she mumbled to herself. “Moe, I’ll try and be back soon.”
“Who’s Moe? Didn’t you say something about him earlier?” Jessie asked.
“Doesn’t matter.” It felt good for Melissa to finally tell Jessie it didn’t matter.
Once they got to the room, Jessie swiftly opened the door.
“Guys, Jessie would like to confess that she lied and tricked you into coming here,” Melissa said sincerely.
“Oh — but she told us,” Robert said, and the others didn’t look fazed. “We know that already.”
Melissa opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She turned to Jessie, but she was grinning.
“Now, will you go in? I have work to do.” Jessie smiled, closing the door on Melissa.
Melissa leaned against the door, but heard nothing except footsteps walking away. Suddenly, she realized something.
“Guys, have you ever tried to open the door?” Melissa asked.
“No; it’s locked,” Cathy said, frowning. “And we’re happy here, just playing cards all day.”
“And why would we want to leave? Jessie would be there,” Sarah agreed.
“But I want to find out what she does when we’re not there,” Robert chimed in. “Don’t you, girls?”
“I suppose,” Sarah said, and Cathy nodded.
“So would I,” added Melissa. “But don’t you realize that the door is unlocked? I didn’t hear anything lock after she walked away. Maybe she forgot.”
Melissa twisted the door knob, and it opened. She went on, whispering, “Let’s find out what she does all day!”
The three followed her out into the kitchen. No one was there. There was a window on the swinging kitchen doors, so they peeked through that. There was Jessie, sitting on the chair, talking to someone. They didn’t see the four.
“That must be the real boss,” Melissa said, and the others nodded. “I’m going to get a closer look.”
Moving angles, Melissa saw a slimy creature as big as her or her husband. The slime was dripping down him, onto the floor, leaving puddles, yet he never was completely out of slime. There were holes where his eyes, nose, and mouth would be, and when he moved his lips, you could clearly see that he was. He had the shape of a normal human body, with a face, arms, legs, and a chest.
“You did a good job today,” he said, his voice slimy. “Keep it up. I haven’t been here in a while, so this is a good welcome. I like this restaurant much better than that warehouse we were in for the past three months. Who are you going to trick next?”
“I don’t know,” Jessie admitted, “but I think someone named Vincent. I saw a picture of him on TV, and he looks like someone who would be quite gullible.”
“Where does he live?” this monster asked, his voice slurring. “He has to be close by.”
“He lives on Acorn Street,” Jessie answered.
Melissa tensed. “I live on Acorn Street,” she told the group. “He’s my neighbor.” She leaned in closer to hear better.
“How are you going to invite him?” the monster questioned, more slime still dripping.
“He apparently likes to bake, so I’m going to tell him that there is a baking contest,” Jessie replied.
“I’ll get to bake when I’m human,” the monster grumbled to himself. “I’ll make cookies.”
“What was that?” Jessie asked.
“Nothing. So back to this Melissa Momper,” the monster said. “What are you going to tell her business? Her family? For her there’s going to be a lot of questions.”
“I’m going to tell them that she decided to become a cook here, and she’s going to stay here,” Jessie responded.
“But won’t her husband come back and ask if she wants to bring clothes?” the monster pressed.
“Yes,” Jessie said. “He loves her and would be worried because of that.”
“I’ll get to feel that emotion when I’m human.”
“I can tell him to drop it off at the restaurant, and I’ll pick it up,” Jessie offered.
“We can’t have him here at the restaurant,” the monster pointed out. “He would suspect something. And wouldn’t he ask to see Melissa?”
“We can say she’s busy,” Jessie went on. “Or we could quickly let her out. I trust her. She seems too fragile to tell anything.”
“She might blab everything,” the monster accused. “And watch out what you say, or I might have your blood next!”
“We could monitor her,” Jessie suggested. “But oh — that would never work out. She could tell her husband. He could tell the police. But we can’t let her go.”
“No we can’t,” the monster agreed. “Oh, did you take the cars away so that they can’t escape?”
“Yes,” Jessie answered.
Melissa flushed. “Guys, have you ever thought that we could leave?” she asked. “They seem so distracted that they would never notice.”
“But what if we’re caught?” Cathy asked. “And they took the cars away.”
“Can we at least try?” Robert questioned.
Melissa smiled. Robert was always on her side. “Sarah? What do you think?”
“I say we give it a go,” she cheered, and Cathy playfully sighed, rolling her eyes.
“Okay,” Cathy gave in, but the other three could tell she was smiling.
“Great.” Slowly but quietly, Melissa cracked the door open. “Follow me.”
The three followed her. Melissa smiled. They were actually listening to her. That meant they believed in her. No one had ever done that before. It felt strange, but also felt nice.
They were lucky it was dark. They managed to stay in the shadows, and soon they passed Jessie in the chair. All was going well, and they were close to the doors, then:
“Do I smell humans?” the slime monster asked. “Jessie — go check on them. I can’t stand the smell.”
“Yes, Zorth,” Jessie replied.
“Zorth?” Melissa mouthed to the other three. “What kind of name is that?”
“We have to get out of here quickly,” Sarah whisper-shouted. “Jessie is coming!”
Melissa nodded. She led the others further.
“STOP!” a voice demanded. The voice was strict and harsh. Quick footsteps approached them. Melissa didn’t want to turn around. “How did you unlock the door? I always lock it!”
“Jesssssie,” Zorth said, stretching out the “s.”
“It was unlocked,” Melissa said, gaining confidence. “I guess you forgot to lock it.”
“But — how?” Jessie stammered, but made the mistake of stopping in shock.
“Go!” Cathy whispered to the others.
They scrambled out of the building. Melissa could hear Zorth the slime monster grumbling inside.
“At least the smell is gone,” he murmured. “When I’m human, I’m going to put on perfume.”
“Keep running,” Melissa panted, running fast with the others. “She could catch up.”
“It’s too bad we don’t have a car,” Robert said. “Then we could really get ahead of her.”
“I did.” Melissa slowed. “But where did they put it?”
In the parking lot where Melissa had parked her car (as far away from the black car with tinted windows as she could), there were no cars. Even the black car wasn’t there.
“Oh, well. But we know Jessie took them.”
“Keep running,” Sarah repeated, starting to jog again. “I think I hear Jessie behind us.”
Down the abandoned streets they ran. It was hard to make out things in the darkness, but soon their eyes adjusted. The cobblestones make echoing noises under their feet, and the trees loomed over them like that slime monster, Zorth.
Suddenly, a branch moved. The four all heard it. A head peaked out from among the other branches. “Hello,” the voice said. It was that same strict and harsh voice as before. Jessie.
“Ahh!” Melissa jumped back into Cathy, who fell into Sarah, who collapsed onto Robert.
“Guys, keep running!” Robert ordered, straightening up. “Keep going. Don’t stop!”
They ran for a while, Jessie behind them. How Jessie got there so fast, they didn’t know. Finally, they were completely out of breath and had to stop for a minute.
“Jessie is still coming, but I can’t run anymore,” Cathy whined, holding her chest. “I haven’t run this fast for a while!”
“Oh no! Jessie is about to be here! We’re doomed!” Melissa cried. “What are we going to do?”
“Hide?” Cathy guessed, and shrugged.
The four turned. “Moe?” Melissa said. “What are you doing here?”
They all got in the car, and Moe started driving away quickly. “I was looking for you,” he told them. “You were out so late, Melissa. It’s almost midnight. What were you doing? You were supposed to be back by eight at the latest. And Cathy, Sarah, Robert… I see you moved back.”
“We never moved anywhere,” Robert replied, confused.
Moe’s eyes widened. “Why were you running? Melissa, where’s your car?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I parked it in the parking lot, but it just… disappeared. I’m glad we have yours though.”
“So your solution was running home?” Moe asked, slightly laughing. “Why didn’t you call me?”
“I forgot I had my phone,” Melissa lied. She was glad Moe hadn’t noticed Jessie, because that would have been a whole another set of questions.
Melissa turned to look in the rear-view mirror, only to see Jessie, standing where they just were, seemingly smirking directly at Melissa. Melissa looked closer and realized Jessie was holding Melissa’s phone.