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Peter had this obnoxious way of withholding important information.
He'd tell you half a story, give you some sliver of knowledge, then flash his wide-eyed, square-toothed grin and you knew what was coming next.
"It's no fun if I just TELL you!"
He had been doing this for as long as I'd known him. We met through a mutual friend who had actually warned me of this annoying personality trait. Don't ask Peter anything, because "That's how he gets you."
We grew close based on a mutual interest in horrible Sci-Fi B-Movies and a general inability to grow up and join everyone else in the great maze of cubicles they'd disappeared into.
Basically, we were nerdy bums.
Aside from his obsessive need to control conversations by leaving out important points, you'd never take him for a weirdo. Short, kind of husky, he'd barrel into the room with a warm "Hello" and a strong handshake. Nobody who met him didn't like him - at least until they actually got to know him. After a few separate conversations with Peter, folks would magically become too busy to hang out.
At one point, he actually seemed to have a chance with this young hairdresser. She was nuts. Short, crazy-colored hair, equally short fuse, and the need to tell everyone within earshot about her recent bathroom habits. The two of them seemed to be just damaged enough to work.
Then he told her about this new bar he had gone to, how he hung out there every night for a week and loved the place. When she asked why he stopped going... he grew that stupid grin... "It's no fun if I just TELL you!"
She checked the place out, essentially based on what seemed to be his recommendation. It turned out the management wasn't very on-the-ball when it came to health standards and she spent a good chunk of the following month with some gut-wracking supervirus.
Peter had gotten the same thing there. That's why he'd stopped going.
As you'd no doubt imagine, the relationship ended soon after.
By virtue of being the only person who could stand Pete, and only because I knew how to talk to him without being duped, he eventually seemed to calm down around me. I could hold entire conversations with him and, much to the surprise of anyone who had met him, he'd actually behave like a normal person.
That is, until the one time I slipped up.
I was about to set off on a road trip to meet this girl I'd met online. ... Sounds silly, I know, going to "meet" someone I'd "met". However, like with Peter and I, there was a variety of mutual interests we shared - and as far as I knew she wasn't a little fat guy. So there's that.
Peter had driven some of the same road I was taking, and was itching to tell me about this restaurant he'd found.
He'd "ooh" and "oh" and bite his lip, wanting to tell me how to find this place and about how awesome it was.
Eventually, I gave in and let him explain.
"It's called Honkers," he blurted out the second I gave the green light, "It's burger joint, but it's different from any place you've ever been! The food was great, the people were great, but the best part... OH! The BEST part is that everyone is wearing..."
I leaned forward expectantly, then immediately realized what was coming and put my face in my hands.
"Well, it's no fun if I just TELL you!"
I shoved him out of his chair, and he rolled around on the floor, laughing.
"Oh GOD!" he was gasping for air between laughs, "Oh GOD I GOT you. I finally, finally GOT you! Oh, oh, this is the best."
I leaned back in my own seat and smirked. Yeah, yeah, he got me.
"Seriously, though, I don't want to get sick at this place." I tried to get the conversation back on track.
"You won't, God I swear, you won't."
"Well what's the catch? What's going to go wrong?"
"Nothing! You'll be surprised, but it's a good surprise. I can tell you that. It's good, and you'll thank me for sending you there."
I wasn't really sure if I'd actually take the risk, but I jotted down the directions Peter gave me and assured him I'd check it out.
Up route 421, past the turn-off onto College Street, turn left onto Bridgestone Road. Four miles past the Sit N' Stay, look for the big red "HONKERS" sign.
For a moment, I considered at some point TELLING him I'd been there, just to see what he said. If he knew I hadn't been there just by virtue of being conscious and able to talk to him, that would be a strong clue about the surprise.
Over the course of the long drive, a lot of ideas like that came to mind.
It was a few hours, near nightfall, when my headlights caught the sign for Bridgestone Road. I only had a matter of seconds to finally decide if I was going to see what Peter had in store for me, and without actually giving it any real thought, I found myself signaling the turn.
I guess part of me wanted to find out if he valued our friendship. If he'd screw over his ONLY friend. If sticking by him this long didn't earn me a little respect and care for my well-being, then maybe he wasn't worth all that time, you know?
I referred to my note a few times. I found myself disoriented, as I never passed a Sit N' Stay... and as a matter of fact, I wasn't passing anything but overgrown vacant lots and untouched spans of forest.
In my mind, I was debating whether everything had closed down since Peter had been through here... or whether THIS was the surprise... an entirely fabricated restaurant in a make-believe town.
A short distance away, the large yellow and white sign loomed above the tree line.
Alright, so it was there... or at least the sign still was.
The road was empty, except for me, so I slowed down to a crawl just to see if the place was still there... and if it WAS there, I wanted to see if it looked like it was crappy and full of disease.
Much to my surprise, the Honkers restaurant looked new. Clean. Its vibrant yellow and white paint job appeared fresh, and it glistened in the moonlight. This was a really nice-looking place.
I pulled into the parking lot and looked the place over. The front of the building had a large fiberglass clown head, with its mouth formed around two entrance doors. The place seemed like a McDonald's ripoff, but in a lot of ways it looked better. More detail had gone into the construction, right down to circus lion "gargoyles" on the roof and a trash can made to resemble a performing seal.
I parked next to a beat-up old compact car, obviously someone else who had somehow found their way to this odd place. At least I knew it was open and, yes, other people dined here.
Walking through the front doors, I was greeted by the sound of peppy organ music rattling some speakers in the ceiling. It was just like walking into a circus tent.
There were tables and chairs in the center of the place, and several booths lined the walls. Behind the counter, made to resemble a series of large inflated balls with a wooden plank balanced ontop, several employees shouted a greeting to me.
"HONK-HONK! WELCOME TO HONKERS!"
They were all dressed as clowns, but not in the way you'd most expect. They wore yellow uniforms, just a standard shirt and slacks, along with white hats emblazoned with a cursive "H". Their faces were painted stark white, they wore red clown noses and white gloves, but other than that they could've passed for any slack-jawed teenagers slaving away for minimum wage.
I crossed the checkered floor and approached one of the cashiers. It seemed odd to have multiple people waiting to serve so few customers.
"It's a great night for the circus," the young girl chirped, "Would you like to try our Big Top Burger?"
She smiled wide. It was a friendly, open sort of smile that immediately had me doing the same. I could tell that, beneath the make-up, she was probably a real cutie... Other than a wandering eye, which is probably why she had found herself working in a place like this.
"What's on that?" I asked, looking up at the menu board behind her.
"Two ridiculously large patties, our special fun sauce, lettuce, pickles, onions, mushrooms, and great gooey gobs of glorious golden cheese."
I chuckled at the absurd length of the memorized statement. I studied her once again, she was on the short side, and her name tag read "FUN SIZE".
"I'm sorry, what's on that again?"
"Two ridiculously large patties, our special fun sauce, lettuce, pickles, onions, mushrooms, and great gooey gobs of glorious golden cheese."
Yes, even on the way to meet a girl I thought I was falling in love with, I still felt like flirting a little.
"Tworidiculouslylargepatties, ourspecialfunsauce, lettucepicklesonionsmushrooms, andgreatgooeygobsofgloriousgoldencheese."
She really knew her stuff!
As soon as I made the outlandish, incredibly rude demand, she obeyed. I don't really know exactly what came out of her mouth, but the strange backward-speak sounded pretty much like she was reciting the exact routine in reverse.
I shot her a look. That "you're kind of strange, and not in a good way" look.
A deep, booming voice echoed from the back of the restaurant. Immediately, I noticed the pale face of a large, less-than-jovial man looking out from a small window. It must've been where food was passed up front from the kitchen.
"Is there a problem?" the unhappy clown face asked.
Fun Size didn't turn to him, and instead kept smiling at me, one eye looking at me, the other over my shoulder.
"No, thanks." I replied.
The face from the kitchen, a stubbly, lantern-jawed face with red painted around his mouth and a miniature derby on his bald head, retracted from view.
"Sorry," I shrugged at the cashier and made a sheepish expression, "Yeah, I'll have a Big Top Burger and a Coke, I guess."
"Would you like Funny Fries with that?"
"Are they like regular fries?"
"Yes, but they're FUNNY!"
"Uhh, yeah okay."
"Can I silly-size that for you?"
Now I was getting kind of annoyed. This seemed like the transaction that refused to die.
"No, no thank you."
She mashed a few buttons on the cash register without looking down at it. As I looked her in the face, her stray eye seemed to attempt properly aligning itself, but soon gave up hope.
"That'll be five twenty-one."
I handed over the cash and stepped back from the counter. As I turned my attention to the other cashiers, I jumped a bit. They were all fixated on me, standing at their stations with heads turned. Each wearing an identical idiotically large smile.
I should have used the drive-thru.
Fun Size filled my soda and placed it on the counter for me.
The sounds from the kitchen were disconcerting. A lot of clattering pots and pans, chopping noises, and that angry-face clown back there, complaining away.
"Aw, God. Ah, FUCK. Jesus! Come on, you son of a- OH FOR GOD'S SAKE."
It seemed odd for him to be preparing anything NOW when fast food is usually already there when you walk in the door.
After a final groan of "I can't believe this shit." the guy in back... the cook, I guess... fell silent. All I could hear then was the occasional sound of paper being wrapped and fries being scooped out.
Before much longer, a little bag appeared in the window. Behind it, the angry clown seemed sweaty, his make-up smeared. A spatter of ketchup across his cheek seemed to be irritating his eye.
"Order up!" He growled.
The girl handed me the bag, and by force of habit I immediately looked inside. Eat at enough fast food places, and you learn to check these things before you leave. Either they leave something out, or you get the wrong sandwich, and so on.
The "Big Top Burger" seemed big. The "Funny Fries" didn't look that funny, which was good. There were two sad ketchup packets in the bottom of the bag.
"Can I get some extra ketchup?"
I smiled at the girl, whose expression finally changed. It dropped from the frozen grin to a perfect "O" of surprise.
"NO EXTRA KETCHUP." boomed the voice from the back.
"Really?" I laughed, "What, does it cost a few cents more, then?"
"NO EXTRA KETCHUP AT ALL." the voice grew more irate.
I leaned in to Fun Size and whispered.
"I won't tell anyone if you don't."
The angry clown face in the kitchen window appeared again. For the briefest moment, he studied me with a look of malice, his red-blotted mouth down-turned to its extreme limits.
He threw his head back, his eyes wide and pupils fixed directly on mine.
"DON'T GIVE HIM ANY FUCKING KETCHUP!!" He rapidly shook his head 'no' as spittle flew from his clown lips.
I could see this was going down a very bad road, so I raised my hands in surrender and, backing away, carried my soda and my meal to one of the booths.
Peter had been right. This was SOME place. I have no idea why he liked it so much, but maybe they had treated him a bit nicer. I didn't expect to get food poisoning, so this absurd, disturbing clown theme had to be the surprise he wanted me to experience.
As I bit into the heart-stoppingly greasy and thick burger, I noticed something. The other customer, whoever had come in that compact car, was nowhere to be seen.
For a fleeting moment, I considered the idea that the staff had killed him and used his body for ground beef.
Laughing to myself, I threw a few fries into my mouth.
"What's funny?" I heard the angry clown say. Even whispering, his heavy bass voice carried through the place.
Outside, I saw a large semi pull into the parking lot. The truck's cab was cherry red and in pristine condition. In stark comparison, the trailer looked weathered and beaten. I was just glad that I'd have company soon... even if it was just a trucker or two huddled at a table across the restaurant.
However, as I finished up the fries and gnawed on the dwindling sandwich, the truck just sat out there, idling.
While I was contemplating this disappointment, I bit into something hard in the burger. Nothing weird, just a small shard-like mass that felt like it nearly broke my tooth.
I cried out, and spat the offending barb into the wrapper.
"What now?" the voice from the kitchen demanded, "He better not complain about my cooking."
That was it. I'd 'better not'? Or what? Fucking clown.
"Oh, don't worry," I shouted, my voice echoing through the empty place, "I just bit into some razor-sharp piece of SHIT is all."
"Don't worry, I'm not going to SUE." I added.
The kitchen door flew open with a tremendous slam, splintering the door frame and leaving the wood hanging from its hinges.
"THAT'S IT!" came the loud reply.
All the clowns behind the counter threw their hands over their ears, closed their eyes tight, and with the same round "O" shape on their lips, shook their heads 'no' in perfect unison.
Out of the door... barely fitting THROUGH the door... came the cook. He was an impossible mass of blocky, squarish muscle, and had no neck to speak of. His apron was spattered with great masses of ketchup and unlike the other employees, he was wearing an actual frilled yellow clown suit beneath.
His shoes honked as he forced himself through the groaning doorway, but not in a cheerful way... the sound of each shoe was mismatched and sick-sounding, more like some wet animal bladder than classic horns.
Faced with this frothing, bulging, veiny ogre of a man, I quickly vacated my seat and headed to the front doors. I issued a litany of apologies to the cook... the massive clown-thing... as he stood at the counter like a snorting bull waiting to charge the matador. I'm not sure if it was just some trick of the mind or something coming from the kitchen behind him, but I could almost see the waves of heat coming off the top of his bald, white dome.
The cold night air burned my over-heated, red face as I moved quickly through the parking lot toward my car.
I was lost in thought for a moment as I tried to find the right key on my keyring. A gentle knocking sound brought me out of my own head.
I looked at the truck. On its side, previously beyond my range of view within the restaurant, was the word "HONKERS" followed by "REFRIGERATED MEAT TRANSPORT".
The sound... the knocking... was that of a small hand against metal.
I watched as the driver's side door of the truck cab opened. Out stepped a tremendous, fat trucker with scraggly beard, baseball cap, and a stark white face with red clown nose...
He regarded me only out of the corner of his eye as his obese frame slowly staggered to the side of the truck, where he gave the metal three sharp bangs.
The knocking within ceased.
Perplexed, just a bit awestruck by now, I cautiously and quietly followed the trucker to the back of his trailer. There, he threw open the rear door and hauled all of his flab into the opening.
I could see inside for only a moment before he tuned back, looked me square in the face, and slammed the door again.
The truck was full of children. Some in pajamas, others dressed for school or church, some naked and others wearing heavy clothing that was all wrong for that time of year. Some were moving, others appeared to be long dead and decaying, bone showing through greenish skin.
They were packed in there. Not standing shoulder to shoulder or sitting in a cluster, but PACKED. On top of each other. Floor to ceiling.
I returned to my car quickly, now. Inside the restaurant, all of the clowns, lead by their cook, were staring at me through the glass, faces pressed against the surface and mouths open wide as if in disbelief.
As I backed out of the parking lot and sped away, I thought about the compact car that had been there when I drove in.
There WAS no other customer.
The employees had all arrived in it together.
On the road, I repeatedly made sure I wasn't being followed by the truck or even just the cook on foot. I was speeding, hands shaking, so I had to gather my wits and slow down a bit before dialing the police.
"911, what is your emergency?"
"Hi, Uh, God... I, uh..."
"Sir, please calm down and tell me what's wrong."
"I just came from, uh, this, uh, restaurant... Honkers..."
"Sir, making prank calls to 911 is a crime."
"It's not a prank, I, uh..."
"Sir, this wasn't funny the first hundred times it was called in."
I held the silent phone to my ear for a few seconds longer, staring at the road ahead, before I finally brought myself to hang it up.
The first hundred times? A prank? None of it made sense.
As I reached the highway and rocketed toward home, the next number I dialed was Peter's. He had some serious explaining to do at this point, and I couldn't even fathom what to say or how to yell at him.
"Hello..?" He sounded groggy, like he had been sleeping.
"What the fuck, man? What the FUCK?"
"What? Huh? What's wrong?"
"HONKERS, man. What the FUCK?"
"What about it? You... you didn't like it?"
"Didn't LIKE it? I barely got out ALIVE!!"
"Whoa, slow down, I don't understand..."
"What kind of friend are you, Pete? What kind of friend sends someone out to a demented, fucked-up clown slaughterhouse?!"
"Clown... what? No..."
Peter seemed as confused as I was, he was quiet for a moment, probably searching his thoughts, then he continued in a meek and unsettled voice...
"Honkers is... it's... the staff are all hot girls. It's like Hooters, but they're topless. You know... 'Honkers'... I thought you'd get a kick out it because they all wear no shirts..."
My brakes protested with shrill squealing as I pulled over into a corn field.
"What?" I could scarcely believe Pete, but he sounded very serious, "No, Honkers is a clown restaurant. It was the only thing on Bridgestone Road."
"Stonebridge Road, you mean. There IS no Bridgestone."
The statement hit me in the stomach like a cannonball. My mind raced. Images of the events I'd experienced swirled in my head like a comedy troupe all scattered and frantic with no goal to speak of.
I sat alone in the dark, and all I could do was laugh uncontrollably... laugh, laugh, laugh... and I haven't been able to stop since.