As I drove past, I couldn’t miss that the old pizza place had had a makeover –fascia painted in zebra stripes and leopard spots, and ‘Wildwood Café’ plastered in fluorescent green letters across the window. With nothing inspiring in the freezer at home, I parked down the block and went in.
They hadn’t continued the wild-animal theme inside: faux-wood panels and old rock-concert posters. I was the only customer. A notice leaning against the espresso machine on the bar read, ‘Duty Manager: D. Vili.’
A waiter with acne showed me to a table, handed me a menu and a customer survey form. I scanned the form briefly: the usual questions, how did you hear of us, what was the food like, etc. I opened the menu – pizzas, burgers, wraps, standard evening café fare.
I turned to the Chef’s Specials, and my jaw dropped. The first item was ostrich burger. Tanya from work had been pestering me to go vegan, and I’d got as far as cutting out red meat. But ostriches were birds, so that was okay. I turned toward the counter and nodded.
The spotty waiter came over. ‘Are you ready to order, madam?’
‘I’ll have the ostrich burger,’ I told him. ‘It’s not something you often see on a café menu.’
‘We’re trialing it,’ he replied. ‘Chef says there’s a lot of meat on an ostrich, even if you only use the breast.’
‘Yes, they’re pretty big, as birds go. Have you seen a live one?’
‘Only at the zoo. Did you know they can rip open a man’s stomach with one kick? The ancient Romans put them in their circuses.’
‘Really? Do I need to know that when I’m ordering food?’
He apologized and disappeared toward the kitchen.
The burger arrived ten minutes later: a good thick patty in a seeded bun, fries and green salad on the side. I cut into it and took a mouthful: tender and tasty. I looked up at the Springsteen poster on the opposite wall, then down to my plate.
There was no plate there. I sat holding a knife and fork in mid-air, looking like a complete idiot.
I took a deep breath to calm myself, then called the waiter. ‘Did someone clear my plate away?’
‘Ah, no. N-no.’ His face radiated confusion.
‘Well, where is it?’
‘Er... I’ll get the manager.’
He fled as if I and my plate were possessed. Perhaps we were.
Mr. Vili – I presumed – tall and broad, came over.
‘How can I help you, madam?’
‘This’ll sound crazy, but my burger disappeared while I was looking the other way.’
He didn’t seem surprised, which was surprising in itself. ‘I’m very sorry. Can I offer you a complimentary meal?’
‘Ah – I don’t think so. I’ve had somewhat of a shock.’ I picked up my purse, ready to leave.
He apologized again and offered me a voucher for a free meal and drink, which I accepted. I drove home, puzzled and a little scared, and microwaved a frozen pizza. The cardboard box would probably have been tastier.
It was a couple of weeks before I went back for my freebie. This time, a couple sat in the far corner, engrossed in their smartphones while their meals cooled in front of them.
D. Vili was Duty Manager again, and he recognized me. ‘We found your plate in the laundry, of all places,’ he told me. ‘One of the waiters must have put it there, heaven knows why. Hope you enjoy your meal tonight.’
A plump, fortyish waitress served me. I wondered if my first waiter had been fired over the lost-burger incident.
I turned to the Specials. The first was llama steak. Another customer survey form dropped from between the pages.
I was feeling adventurous, and damn the no-red-meat rule. ‘I’ll have the llama.’
‘Certainly, madam – rare, medium or well-done?’
‘Medium, please, And a glass of house red.’
‘Llama’s not something I ever tried,’ I said, for the sake of conversation. ‘Did the ostrich sell well?’
Her brows converged in puzzlement.
‘Last time I was in here,’ I prompted.
‘Oh. Yes. It’s South America this month. We did Africa before that.’
I hoped I wouldn’t be offered sloth, or jaguar. I wouldn’t want to eat an endangered species. Kangaroo for Australia, I supposed, buffalo, maybe, for North America. Penguin for Antarctica?
The steak was plump and succulent. I wondered which part of the llama it came from. I was about half-way through it when the door banged. I turned to look – a party of eight or ten – then turned back.
My plate was gone, again.
I pushed back my chair and marched up to Mr. Vili. He looked at me like he knew exactly what was coming.
‘Is this some kind of joke?’ I demanded.
‘I can only apologize again. I’m sure there’s some rational explanation.’
I put my hands on my hips. ‘Have you any idea what a ‘rational explanation’ might look like? No, I thought not. I won’t be eating here again, and I’ll tell all my friends that. And I’ll post a really shitty online review. And if you show me another Customer Survey, I’ll scream.’
But it wasn’t Vili’s fault, and he didn’t deserve my rant. ‘Sorry about that,’ I said. ‘It’s a little unnerving when your food disappears mid-meal.’
‘I’m sure it is, madam. We’ll make every effort to get to the bottom of this. If you’d leave your contact details, we’ll get in touch as soon as we know something.’
He made it sound like the police. I gave him my business card and went home to another microwaved dinner.
Three days later, my phone rang at work. ‘Ms. Scott? Des Vili from Wildwood Café. I’m pleased to tell you you’ve won our weekly prize draw, a free dessert and coffee. Come in any time Monday to Thursday.’
I wasn’t aware I’d even entered, but gift horses and mouths came to mind. ‘Will it stay around long enough for me to eat it?’ I asked.
He laughed nervously. ‘I hope this will help make up for the inconvenience we’ve put you to.’
I went around to the Wildwood that evening and looked in the dessert cabinet. ‘That cheesecake looks good,’ I said, pointing. ‘What flavor is it?’.
‘Mango and passionfruit,’ Mr. Vili said.
‘No wild animals in it?’
‘No wild animals, I assure you. Or birds. It won’t fly away.’
I smiled tolerantly. He cut me a generous slice and squirted on aerosol cream.
It didn’t fly away, either. In fact, it was a damn good cheesecake. I finished every crumb.
He came and cleared the table himself. ‘How was the cheesecake?’
‘We have a pastrycook comes in, mornings.’
A squawk of outrage came from a nearby table. ‘What the...?’
The diner’s companion tried to pacify her, to no avail.
‘This pizza – this half-eaten pizza – just materialized in front of me! I don’t even like pepperoni!’
Mr Vili spun around and went to investigate, his soothing voice apologizing and offering free meals and drinks. This problem must be costing them a pretty penny. The customers stayed put.
He took the remains of the pepperoni pizza to the service hatch and came back to my table.
‘Ms. Scott, would you have a moment to talk about the, er, incidents?’
He led me to an office the size of a large broom cupboard, mostly taken up with computer hardware. Removing a pile of Customer Surveys from the better chair, he asked me to sit.
‘You seem keen on surveys,’ I said.
‘Yes, Ryan – the boss’s son – he’s a computer whizz, and he’s preparing an in-depth customer profile.’
‘You mean, what kind of exotic dishes they like?’
‘And other things. The llama didn’t go so well. People think of them as cuddly. They’re not, they smell and they spit. Good lean meat, though.’
What I got to eat of it before it vanished, I thought.
‘Now, Ms. Scott,’ he went on, ‘I want to thank you for being so patient with us. I’m glad to say we’re on the track of the problem.’
‘You don’t seem to be, what with that woman’s pizza.’
He winced. ‘I can’t give you any details yet, but I’ll let you know when we have something firm. And I’ll ask the owner to let you have a permanent discount when you order here. Thank you again for your patience.’
About a week later, he rang again. ‘Des Vili, Ms. Scott. Can you come into the café this evening to talk about you-know-what? Drinks on the house.’
After the first drink, he invited me into the office again. Most of the clutter had gone.
‘What happened to all the computer gear?’ I asked.
‘Ah, that’s part of the solution.’
I looked blank.
‘By the way, we found your second meal up in the roof space, with two others we didn’t know about, all growing mold,’ he went on.
‘Didn’t anyone else report their meal vanishing?’ I asked. ‘Did they just pay for it, leave a tip and go?’
‘It’s odd, isn’t it? But some people don’t like to complain.’ Which didn’t bode well for the survey responses.
‘How does the computer come to be part of the solution, as you put it? It didn’t sneak out into the café and steal my meal.’
He smiled, customer-friendly or humoring me. ‘I told you about Ryan, the computer guy. He had a sideline, mining bitcoins, and he worked out a way of optimizing the computer configuration to speed up processing. At least, he thought that’s what he’d done. What he really did was to set up what he calls a resonance with another dimension. And every so often, a plate’s been disappearing into the other dimension and re-appearing in this one, but in a different place.’
He thought a moment. ‘Of course, it might reappear in the same place, in which case no one would notice.’
Or roughly the same place. What if two diners suddenly found their meals switched over? That’d give them something to talk about.
Des took in my expression of incredulity. ‘I guess this sounds like science-fiction. Ryan asked his professor to come down from the university and explain it to us. He said it’d be quite safe to eat the meal, if you could find it in time. It’s a “localized fracture of the space-time continuum”, whatever that means. And it’ll dissipate in time. “The continuum is highly resilient,” that was what he said.’
‘It sounds unlikely to me. But if it’s true, it’s bad news for FedEx. Instantaneous delivery will always beat same-day.’
‘Except you can’t control where things go. It’s no use for anything except to keep students amused.’ He laughed. ‘Anyway, you’re a special customer now. If I’m not on duty, just tell the manager and you’ll be looked after properly.’
He kept me talking, and I began to suspect he had some ulterior motive. Not that I was that irresistible. But you could always tell when a man was undressing you with his eyes.
Des told me Ryan the Geek was persuaded – most people would say bribed – to stop his experiments with a return ticket to Europe and a generous allowance. But you can’t keep a good coder down. The last I heard, he was in Malta writing software for online casinos. I hoped his roulette wheels wouldn’t dematerialize in mid-spin.
The next time Des phoned me, he mumbled and hesitated, uncharacteristically. Then he got it out.
‘Ms. Scott – er, Christina – could I ask you for a date?’
‘Well...’. He seemed a nice enough guy, and quite good-looking, if a little overweight. All that café food, probably. ‘Okay. By the way, people call me Tina.’
We settled on Thursday, when he was off duty. We had a bite to eat at – guess where? – then took in a movie.
Midway through, I turned my head, and his seat was empty. Oh, no! Was this going to be the story of my life? Was I a Node, or whatever the connection was called? Localized, eh? And it hadn’t exactly dissipated, either. It had already reached the local movie theater, and graduated from dinner-plates to human beings. I gathered up my purse, ready to flee in case it was contagious.
Just to be certain, I looked again. A different face confronted me, one I’d seen before. The waiter with the skin problem, wearing a shell-shocked expression.
‘You!’ I cried, drawing a “Sssh!” from the woman behind me. ‘What the Devil are you doing here?’
‘I might ask you that. I was sitting at home playing Call of Duty, and things went kind of fuzzy. I’ve no idea what happened.’
‘I have. I’ll tell you over a big glass of wine, or something stronger. Let’s go to the Wildwood.’
If it hasn’t dematerialized, and if we don’t before we get there. I stood up. ‘Come on. I’m buying.’
About the author
Chris Morey was born at Cowes, Isle of Wight, and educated at University College London. He has done a wide range of jobs, many in the IT industry. He is widely-travelled, and enjoys performance art and reading. He has been writing creatively since 2015.
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