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By Ava Stanski

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At 12:05 a.m., Samantha felt more than heard the door open. On a normal night, the small, rusted bell hanging above the glass doors of the Waffle House in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada, would chime a tone-deaf welcome to the latest customer. Three years ago, this wouldn’t have been a normal night. When Samantha first started bringing soggy waffles and lukewarm coffee to the patrons on their way to greener pastures, the fact that the bell hadn’t chimed would have been a bit disconcerting. Over the last three years, the silence of the bell had become a nightly occurrence, so when the tired waitress turned to face the second booth to the left of the door, it was no surprise that he was there.

The first thing Samantha had noticed about him was the way that he dressed. He wore a green suede jacket that was impractical for the weather and a dark purple stovepipe hat. When she had taken a closer look, she had noticed a delicate ribbon tied around his finger. He reminded her of a mix between the Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka. As a result, she had taken to calling him Candy Man, albeit only to herself. On some occasions, he came in carrying a cane, but it was obvious he didn’t need it; he often set it to the side only to forget about it completely when he left. Samantha had tried to return it to him a few times, but every time she went to pick it up, it was already gone.  Don, the cook, liked to joke—at least, Samantha assumed he had been joking— that they worked in their own little pocket dimension. Three years later, she would say that he wasn’t far off from the truth.

Samantha walked up to the counter and picked up the order that was ready from the second he walked in. She still remembered the amused look he had given her when she had trudged over to take his order. That first night, he had been the only patron left in the poorly-maintained establishment, so his shout signaling that an order was ready had taken her off guard. Don had simply shrugged.

“You get used to it.” He had said.

That much, at least, had proven true enough. The orders would occasionally change, but there were always two meals served with a glass of milk. Sometimes there were thick pancakes or waffles, other times a bowl of sliced fruit or a cheese omelet.  Samantha was momentarily tempted to ask who Candy Man was expecting that night, but shook the thought out of her head. He was sure to only give her a cryptic riddle of an answer or a thinly veiled threat. Once Samantha had placed one plate of waffles with whipped cream and strawberries in front of him and one plate of scrambled eggs with biscuits in front of the seat across from him, the bell signaled another arrival.

He was a sickly-looking man, more akin to a skeleton than a living, breathing person. He looked askance for a moment, then moved to sit across from Candy Man, who was sipping languidly at his tall glass of milk. He stopped when the Skeleton Man sat down in front of him.

“What can I do for you, friend?” His voice was smooth like a finely sharpened blade: no waver, but always an edge. Skeleton Man shifted momentarily in his seat, eyes flickering from Samantha to Don. Samantha busied herself with pretending to wipe down the counter. If you were to ask her if working at Waffle House had improved her hearing, she would have laughed, but not denied it.

“I’m sick. Doctors can’t help me. I hear that maybe you can.” His voice was raspy from disuse and he seemed disinclined to engage in lengthy conversation. Samantha found herself thinking that this one may actually have a chance.  

“A shame.” Candy Man nodded in Skeleton Man’s direction, “I think I may be able to help, Mr.-“ He trailed off, waiting to see if Skeleton Man would get his toes stuck in his bear trap.

“You can call me Clay.” Skele-Clay responded briefly. Samantha nodded in satisfaction. She always found herself rooting for his clients.

Her mother had always warned her about the power of names. “Don’t give just anyone your name, baby.” She had said, dark curly hair thrown up into a bun and emerald green eyes boring into her. “It’s a sacred thing, gives ‘em power over you. And never give it away for free. Everything has a price, and your name is far more valuable than you know.” She had always considered it superstitious nonsense. Well, until she started working here.

“Clay, then.” He ventured, as though testing the taste of the name on his tongue. He reached into one of the many pockets found on his coat, and removed a small vial  of red liquid, “Drink this tomorrow night, and you will begin to feel much better.”

Clay reached out, took the small vial with a preacher’s reverence, and prepared to get up.

“Please.” He raised a hand, gesturing to the meal set out before them, “Eat with me. It’d be a shame to waste it, don’t you think?” Samantha tensed, mentally urging Clay to just get up and get out dammit don’t sit down you’re so close come on just a few more steps.

Clay sat back down. The second he bit into the impossibly flaky biscuit, his appetite having no doubt returned for the first time in months, his face went completely blank. His hands dropped to his sides and the vial he had been holding like a life raft in his right hand clattered to the floor. Samantha sighed as she watched the daze set in. No matter who came in, no matter how sad their stories were, Candy Man always offered them a meal. Even after their business had concluded, eating with him was a death sentence. Or, at least she assumed it was. She wasn’t sure how he did it. Drugs, threats, maybe even magic; she couldn’t say. All she knew was that, once someone took the offering of eggs or pancakes, they walked out and never came back.

“Goodbye, Clay.” He spoke with an air of finality that Samantha had become all too familiar with. Without a word or so much as a glance back, Clay stood up and walked out the door. The bell didn’t ring with his departure, and Samantha could only watch with three-year-old horror that had boiled down to mild distaste as his shadow disappeared into the desert, off to God-knows-where.

Well, Samantha supposed that there was one person who knew where they all went, but far be it from her to ask him--ignorance is bliss and all that. The waitress came over to clear the plates, one of which hadn’t been touched, while the other had somehow been licked clean since she had last dared to glance at his latest venture. She knew she shouldn’t say anything, but whether the late nights were wearing on her risk-assessment, or he was taking measures to appear particularly unthreatening tonight, she did.

“Why couldn’t you just let him go?” She failed to hide the exasperation in her voice as she swept up the empty milk glass. “You’ve let people go before. People less witty than him have gotten what they wanted.”

He chuckled, thankfully more amused than insulted at her tone, but then grew unusually somber, taking the smile out of a pair of hazel eyes with a yellow tint a bit too bright for her to consider natural.  

“It was too late for him. The trip was too much for his body; it was going to give out in the middle of the highway on his way home. At least this way, he’ll pass without any pain. It will feel just like falling asleep.”

“Why not just tell him that?” This time, Samantha was more curious than frustrated, it wasn’t usually in his nature to try and be humane, or to explain his motives to her.

“In my experience--and, trust me, I have a lot of it--you humans don’t usually take kindly to being told that you’re going to die. It took either a lot of willpower or a lot of pride for that man to drive all the way here. I fear he wouldn’t have accepted what little I could give him if he had known.” He fiddled with the lacy ribbon tied around his little finger, and Samantha wasn’t sure whether he was paying attention to her anymore, so she left. Out of all the people that had come to him--scorned lovers, desperate students, frustrated spouses--this was perhaps the first time he had shown sympathy. Or his version of a heartfelt imitation of sympathy, at least. The twisted kind that involved putting down an animal because no one would be able to prove that you hadn’t tried to take it to the vet first.

Nevertheless, the next night, when the bell didn’t ring, she took care to avoid any eye contact or ask any questions. The guest was a portly older woman, coming to seek a way to guarantee the loyalty of her faithless husband. She gave him her name, and he asked her ever so politely to walk deep into the desert. Naturally, she got up, and Samantha knew she would not return.

As Samantha wiped down the tables that night, she came across a roll of cash left at his booth. For a second, she contemplated taking it home with her, but pushed the thought to the back of her mind and simply cleaned around the paper trap. When she had finished, she said goodnight to Don and left out the back door to walk to the small trailer park across the road. She stopped at the small aluminum trailer with the purple mailbox. The number was twenty five, but the two had come loose, and was now hanging upside down on a lone rusty screw that Samantha had promised to herself to replace about three months ago.

Don had even offered to fix it for her when she first arrived. “That’s okay, Don. I’m not going to be here for very long.” She had laughed, and Don had only raised an eyebrow. This little Nowhere town had been meant to be a quick pit stop on her road map to success. Three years later, though, Samantha had to admit that that road map was looking longer and longer by the day.

The door stuck halfway when she tried to open it, but she managed to squeeze through and wrench it back closed. She flipped the light switch above the counter and the light bulb flickered weakly to life. She would have to replace it soon. Samantha threw her apron across one of two plastic chairs at her plastic kitchen table with its plastic tablecloth, but froze when she heard something thud onto the floor. Her eyes scanned the floor, settling on a small roll of green paper that seemed to have fallen out of her apron pocket. She cursed as she picked it up, examining the thick roll of twenty-dollar bills tied together with a small lace ribbon. The waitress whipped her head around her small dwelling, searching for any sign of bright yellow eyes, or any way to get rid of the unwanted gift, but found nothing.

“Nothing’s ever free, baby,” she heard her mother’s words again. “The only reason anyone’s gonna give you anything is if they expect something in return.” The woman that read fortunes out of their living room hadn’t taught her much, but that pearl of wisdom was something that she would always live by. Around the Candy Man, that phrase was as good as any religion. True to her nickname, he promised sweet gifts, but always took more than they were worth in exchange. That is, if his clients even got to making a deal.

Samantha said nothing at work the next night, simply walked up to him and tossed the roll of cash onto the table before turning to gather his food for the night. When she returned, he called out to her before she could busy herself with avoiding him.

“It was a gift. No catch.” He insisted, brows quirked up in amusement.

“You don’t do gifts.” She was beyond caring if he was offended at this point; there was only so much she was willing to put up with.

“I do when friends are involved.”

Samantha scoffed, turning on her heel, but not before tossing one last ill-advised comment over her shoulder.

“I’m a curiosity at best for you.” Before he could respond, the bell announced the entrance of another guest. He greeted the newcomer in his booth, all business and steel smiles that had been heated over an ambitious fire. An idealistic grad student got the money to fund her own nonprofit, and in return, he got a small silver locket; a family heirloom.

“Let me guess,” Samantha drawled as the bell signaled her departure, “that little necklace is worth more money than you gave her.”

“You humans, always so focused on monetary value. Sometimes, the most value lies in an item’s history.”

“So are you going to sell it or not?” She asked somewhat exasperatedly.

“If you really think I do all this for money, you really don’t know me very well, my friend.” He laughed. Samantha groaned.

“I told you, I’m not your-“

The bell sounded one more discordant note as an older man limped in, leaning heavily on a cane. His hands and face were covered in dozens of thin white scars. No sooner had the newcomer set his sights on the long-term resident, than he had rushed forward, practically foaming at the mouth.

“You bastard!” The attacker hissed, wrapping his meaty hands around Candy Man’s throat and squeezing until his knuckles went white. Samantha swore she could smell burning flesh as she jumped up. Before she could so much as threaten to call the cops, however, he snapped his fingers and it was just the two of them in the restaurant, Don still cleaning the grill for the night.

“What the hell was that!” Samantha demanded, turning on him as he wheezed air back into his lungs.

“The bastard was wearing iron rings.” He said, rubbing at a pair of scorch marks that now branded his pale flesh. He turned his attention to her.

“Are you alright, my friend?”

“I’m fine, and we are still not friends. Why did he attack you? What did you do to him?”

“Why do you assume I did something?” He raised a hand to his heart in mock hurt, but quickly grinned at the waitress’ cold stare, and Samantha couldn’t help but notice that his canines were unusually long. “He may or may not have come to me seeking fame and fortune about five years ago. I may or may not have promised it to him in exchange for one teeny tiny favor to be discussed at a later date. Said favor may have involved transporting a box from California to the lovely state of Texas.” As he spoke, his smile turned colder. “I also may or may not have hypothetically told him not to look inside of said box. He then may or may not have hypothetically opened said box, which might have put a curse on him, resulting in a horrific accident, leaving him broke, alone, and possibly a little crazy.” He finished, looking towards Samantha as thought awaiting judgment.

It came slowly.

“You knew that he would open the box.” Three years ago, it might have been a question. His silence was the answer.

The silence was broken by the small, rusty bell, signaling Samantha’s departure. Don sighed, looking through the work schedule for that week to see if anyone was available to cover her shift tomorrow.

Samantha, meanwhile, was pacing her trailer, still attempting to process what had just happened. Candy Man wasn’t good, whatever he was, she was  aware of that much. He made unfair deals, oftentimes setting traps just for the hell of it, but she had never imagined him to be this cruel. No matter what she had seen, they had never come back. She saw them disappear into the desert, but she never knew what happened after that. Seeing that broken man, so angry and untethered that he was willing to throw himself at someone with, presumably, enough power to literally curse him, made something in her mind click. As far as she knew now, she could be an accessory to multiple murders, all because she had brought him his goddamned waffles and glasses of milk.

The next morning, the bell signaled Samantha’s return to Waffle House. This time, however, she wore a loose t-shirt and jeans instead of her work uniform. She walked up to Don.

“I have to admit, this place looks different in the morning.” Samantha mused.  Don chuckled lightly, but then the corners of his mouth pulled into a frown.

“I know last night probably freaked you out. Want to talk about it?”

“Not particularly, but I guess it would probably be a good idea. Have you ever seen anything like that before?” Don scratched at his chin, where his five o’clock shadow was turning into a patchy beard, for a moment before responding.

“Only once or twice, before you started working here. I was pretty shaken the first time, too, but after a while, I just kind of learned to get used to the way things work.”

“Why didn’t you leave? I can’t imagine you enjoy having to cater to someone like him.”

“I would have left, trust me,” The older man gave a bitter smile, “But, I haven’t got anywhere else to go. I have a job, a house, and I can make myself food whenever I want.”

“Is it worth it, though?” Samantha couldn’t help but pry. After everything that had happened, she had to know why her boss insisted on sticking around so long.

“Look around you,” He gestured to the empty floor of the Waffle House, “When was the last time we had any regulars, or even anyone that ate here more than once since your first day? How do you think we get paid regularly? How do you think we even manage to stay open?” Samantha’s blood ran cold at what he was implying.

“Are you saying that he keeps this place open?” She was half expecting Don to laugh and admit he was just messing with her, but she had learned a long time ago to suspend her sense of disbelief.

Don shrugged. “I’m not saying anything. All I know is that, every month, our books are balanced, and we have enough money to pay the bills and the employees. If that means I have to fork over some free waffles every night and overlook some strange, and admittedly suspicious, interactions, then that sounds like a fair trade to me.”  

“The price of a human soul is a Waffle House franchise, who would’ve guessed?” Samantha said with a bitter smile.

“Trust me, I know how it sounds.” Don admitted, “But growing up, I would have been willing to kill for a guaranteed meal every day and a roof over my head. I guess instead of taking a life, I just ended up giving my own to this place.”

“When you put it like that, I guess I can kind of understand. Why a Waffle House, though? Why not shoot for the stars and ask for a Wendy’s, or even a Subway?”

“What can I say? I’m a simple man.” Don chuckled.

“I wouldn’t call any of this job simple.” Samantha scoffed.

“Probably not. Speaking of, should I put you on the schedule for tonight?” Don asked. Samantha could tell that he already knew the answer.

“Actually, I don’t think I’ll be coming back. After last night, I can’t imagine working here with whatever he is.”

“Good.” Don gave one resolute nod, “You’re too good for this place. I’m honestly surprised that you stayed as long as you did.”

“Thanks, Don. Maybe I’ll see you again some day.”

“I wouldn’t count on it. Can I get you one last cup of coffee before you go?”

“That’d be nice, Don. Thanks.” Don nodded at her and turned to grab a mug from behind the counter.

As he prepared the coffee, Samantha couldn’t help but reflect on the day that she had applied for the job. Don had scrutinized her before asking perhaps one of the least expected questions in a job interview.

“What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you?” Samantha had blinked in surprise a few times before answering.

“Probably when my mom had me help her conduct a séance. The table started shaking and the lights kept flickering on and off.”

“Those things are usually scams, you know.”

Samantha chuckled. “That’s what I thought at first, too. When it was over though, I checked under the table and under the chair. There were no wires or floor pedals. Nothing. I still don’t know if I believe in all that stuff, but ever since that day, I figured there’s no harm in being careful.” The interview had ended then, with Don promising her the next night shift.

“I think you’ll fit in just fine here.” He had said.

The familiar smell of hot coffee pulled her from her thoughts. She took the mug from Don, thanking him before relishing the taste of the cheap, pre-ground beans one last time.

When Samantha had finished her coffee, she thanked Don before moving towards the door, the rusted bell signaling her departure for what may be the last time. She returned to her trailer, flipping the mattress off of her bed and unlocking the drawer that it concealed. Inside was all the money she had managed to save up over the years, about one hundred and fifty dollars, along with hand-written directions to the nearest bus station, an extra set of keys to her trailer, and a small pocketknife. She collected her belongings and threw whatever clothes she could fit into a small duffle bag, deciding to leave anything that wasn’t irreplaceable behind.

By the time she had finished packing, the sun was just beginning to fall, but Samantha refused to wait until tomorrow. The thought of even another hour in this place was enough for a hard pit of dread to form in her stomach as she started down the main road, hoping to find a car that wouldn’t mind picking up a hitchhiker.

“Where are you going?” A voice sounded from beside her, and she jumped, whipping around to see none other than the thing she had been praying to leave behind walking right next to her.

“I don’t care where I go, as long as it’s away from here.” Candy Man’s brows rose momentarily at her brashness, but he quickly responded, seeming to hope for another verbal sparring match.

“But why would you ever want to get away from me, friend? After everything we’ve been through together.”

“What the hell are you talking about? We haven’t been through anything. Our relationship, if you can even call it that, has consisted of you doing horrible things to people and me letting you do those horrible things to people.”

“Exactly!” He pranced in front of her, as though she had just solved a riddle he had given her, “We have a perfect setup! I get to conduct my business, and you have a guaranteed job! It’s practically symbiotic!” Samantha laughed bitterly.

“It’s not, though. Seeing those people wander off, I could handle as long as I didn’t know what happened to them. But that man that came in, you took everything from him, and you did it with a smile on your face. Seeing you conduct your ‘business’ everyday is one thing, but seeing the pain you cause first-hand is too much, and I want no part in it anymore.” She didn’t know how long she had been walking for, but she knew she should have hit the main road by now. She rounded on Candy Man, narrowing her eyes, “Why the hell are you still following me? Don’t you have some other poor soul to harass?” Candy Man shrugged.

“No one as interesting as you, my friend.” Samantha scoffed and started walking again, determined to at least find another living person so that, if she were to die of exposure tonight, she would have some more tolerable company.

“What’s so interesting about me, huh? I’m nothing special.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Your mother had connections, the not-completely-natural kind, and because of that, there’s no better person to see me conduct all of my business, and not bat an eye. After all, like mother, like daughter.” Samantha tried to ignore him, she really did, but bringing up her mother caught her off-guard.

“What the hell do you know about my mother? No, scratch that, what makes you even think you have the right to presume to know anything about me, or my family?”

“Nothing at all, I’m simply stating facts. Where do you think your mother got her special talents from?” He laughed, only succeeding in irritating Samantha even more. “You’re special, Samantha, and I refuse to let you leave me so soon!”

She rounded on him. “That’s not your decision to make! You always talk about making deals and giving people what they want, but all you do is give people the illusion of choice. Whether they get what they want or not, it always ends up blowing up in their faces. You think you know everything about everyone, even me, but you don’t know anything!” Her voice rose, and Candy Man looked at her in shock. If Samantha believed he could feel anything except cruelty, she might have said he looked a bit hurt.

“You really want to leave?” His voice was quiet, suddenly lacking the grandiose tone that seemed ever-present when he spoke. Samantha said nothing, only nodded. His features grew hard again, his face an unreadable mask of indifference.

“What’s it worth to you?”

Nothing’s ever free, baby.  

Samantha said nothing, only held out the keys to her trailer. Candy Man smirked back at her.

“Is that it?”

“It’s all I'm offering. Take it or leave it, I don’t care, but I will never work for or with you ever again.” He stared for a long while at her. Finally, he snatched the keys from her outstretched hand.

“Goodbye, my friend.” His voice was no longer warm as it usually was when he addressed her. It was cold, impersonal. She realized that, in his mind, she was now just another client.

“Goodbye, Candy Man.” As she spoke, she blinked, and then she was no longer surrounded by Nevada desert and scraggly bushes, but instead stood in the middle of a small town. She examined the buildings and found she was right in front of a bus station. He had delivered on his end, at least. She walked up to the window, behind which sat an elderly and very bored-looking woman, paging through a National Geographic magazine. Samantha tapped on the window once, twice, before the woman looked up.

“Where to?” Her voice was raspy, whether from disuse in the sparsely populated town or simply from age, Samantha couldn’t say.

“As far away as I can get.” The woman let loose a laugh that sounded more like choking.

“Fifty bucks.” Was all she said, extending a liver-spotted hand for the crumpled bills that Samantha handed, already feeling their absence in her pocket. The older woman slapped a ticket on the counter in front of her.

“One-way ticket to Seattle, Washington, enjoy your trip.” Samantha gripped it as though it was her lifeline and walked out to wait for the bus. She surveyed her surroundings one last time, and could have sworn she saw a man in a stovepipe hat leaning against one of the dilapidated buildings, but the bus pulled up, concealing him from her sight, and by the time she had boarded and looked out of the window facing the street, he was gone.    

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