"In 1886, a woman was found dead in the late hours of the morning at the bottom of the hotel's main staircase. Despite there being a full staff on duty and multiple guests arriving the evening before, no one saw the accident in question. In fact, no disturbance was reported throughout the night. Investigators claim the woman's injuries were not consistent with that of a fall, but the force needed to inflict said injuries were highly unlikely to have come from a person. One officer was quoted to have been reminded of a hunting dog who had sustained similar damage from an encounter with a bear while roaming the Canadian wastes with his grandfather. Lastly, perhaps the strangest clue, was the woman herself. No identifying personal effects were found on the body and no one within the hotel was able to recall seeing her check in. The case remains to this day, unsolved."
Caleb leaned forward as far as his stool would allow without toppling over. His young features silhouetted against the large front windows of the casual Italian eatery, eyes bulging with excitement as he read further off the small screen in his hand.
"Forty years later, there was a triple murder in room 208. They found the killer next to the victims and he gave himself up without a fight. It says — ," he scrolled down and read ahead before practically shouting, " — he was just sitting on the floor saying, 'They're coming back' over and over again as they cuffed 'im."
I took another bite out of the deep-dish slice of pizza I had been working on and stared out the window at the squat three-story hotel across the street. It didn't look haunted. Really, it looked like everything else in the small Texas town: a building with a fresh coat of paint over a still noticeably shabby exterior. Exposed brick and terraces straight out of the French Quarter in New Orleans gave it some personality, but there weren't enough shops and restaurants on the short main street to make this a real tourist destination.
"Can we please go over there?" Caleb pleaded. "Please?"
"What do you think, Brian? Sound fun?" Mom smiled across the table at me, gauging my interest, but I knew Dad wasn't going to cave.
"We're already running late for the first showing," he said. "That's not why we came all the way out here." This was the same reply he'd given after the other hundred or so stops my brother begged us to make on the drive up.
Caleb fell back and the metal legs of his seat screeched across the cement floor. He was pouting, swiping at his phone and letting out overly loud sighs whenever he loaded a new page. Each one describing, what I'm sure, was another twisted legend about the town.
We took trips like this every couple of months. Not having enough money to take big vacations, my parents seemed to always be on the lookout for anything to distract us and make up for it. Sometimes it was a bizarre tourist trap or a national park that didn't charge too much for you to drive through. Things like that.
This one was different though. Dad hadn't run across the place on some website, or a "Top Ten Coolest Places to Visit in Texas" clickbait link; he had won tickets in a radio contest. A contest he didn't apply to, on a station that apparently didn't exist. The whole way up here, he'd been messing with the radio trying to find the channel. It should have been somewhere between public access and classic rock, but all he got was static and the occasional blip of AM gospel. Not being the type to go down without a fight, I knew he'd spend the rest of the drive — and probably the trip back — messing with the dial.
A busboy walked up to the host stand and started chatting up the girl standing watch over the deserted waiting area. They looked like they might be about to graduate high school, so a little older than me. I overheard something about a driving range where a few of the staff were meeting up after their shift. I think it had more to do with a loose drinking age policy than actually hitting a bucket of balls. I started to feel creepy and turned away just as our waiter brought us the check.
Driving out past the edge of downtown, the sun was disappearing behind the last few multi-story buildings. These were quickly replaced by old neighborhoods and the occasional gas station. Eventually, there wasn't even that. In the waning light, dark rolling hills and blinking lights atop giant wind turbines in the distance made me feel like I was riding in the Mystery Machine past the same background in an unending cartoonish loop.
I didn't want to come on this vacation. These excursions were getting old years ago and I was sick of my little brother and his constant stories about some lady trapped in a well who had drowned, or a college dorm room in Ohio supposedly haunted by a student who killed herself trying to practice witchcraft. I liked scary movies and books too, but with him, it never stopped.
"Is that it?" Mom said, pointing out the passenger window.
"Looks like it. Wow, I can't believe this is out here." Dad exclaimed.
I leaned over Caleb — who was still deep into research mode on his phone — and craned my neck to see out his window. Neon washed over the backseat as a massive rusting sign emerged, towering amidst the deep purple and gold clouds above.
"The Starland Drive-in Movie Theater. Amazing," Dad said.
Caleb shoved me back towards my seat. I punched him in the shoulder harder than I meant to and he dropped his phone.
"Hey!" he yelled as he unbuckled his seatbelt and went feeling along the floorboard.
No one in the front seat noticed, they were too busy arguing over some date they went on ages ago and pointing out the windows. We pulled up past the sign and joined a long line of cars stopping at a dilapidated ticketing booth ahead.
Mom turned around excitedly. "You are going to really enjoy this. We used to go to drive-ins to meet people from other schools or see horror movies that weren't playing anywhere else — "
" — And to make out," I said.
Dad snorted. Mom turned red and shot him a derisive look.
"Like you would know anything about that," Caleb said to me, rubbing his arm.
I punched him again.
It's not that I specifically had a problem with girls. I had a problem with people. Two years ago, our guidance counselor came to each of the freshman homerooms and talked to us about the hard transition into high school. Many people grew apart from old friendships and settled into closer, tighter circles. It didn't happen overnight, she said, but it was a normal part of getting older and forming bonds that could last years after we graduate. I didn't fit in anywhere at the time and things have only gotten worse with each semester. After a couple of awkward meetings up at the school, I just started to pretend I was making friends so that my parents wouldn't think I was some kind of freak. It meant a lot of hanging around parks after school or sitting on my phone in the empty bleachers of the gym after hours, but at least they stopped looking worried every time I walked into a room.
"Whatever," I lamely shot back way too late.
We pulled up to the ticket booth and I couldn't help but grimace.
I hope the rest of this place isn't going to be so run-down.
The small shed had a crooked overhanging roof that looked like one good push would do it in. Boards hung out at odd angles and long weeds pushed up from the base all around it. In almost as bad of shape was the old man running it. Long gray tufts of hair peeked out from each withered ear. They hung low off his liver-spotted temples. In fact, his entire face seemed to be hanging loosely from his skull, which gave him a shrunken head-like appearance. A wizened hand reached up and scratched at the angry razor burn along his jaw.
"That's fourteen fifty-two, sir," he said, the words coming out like he was trying to hold a handful of marbles behind his teeth.
"A piece?" Dad asked.
The man's scratching ceased, and he looked up and down the length of our sedan.
"For the car," the man explained. He coughed in a sputtering way and disappeared from view. I heard him clearing his throat and the wet slap of a loogie hitting the cement floor behind the glass.
"Wow, what a deal. And this is for both showings?"
The cash quickly passed out our window and into the old man's outstretched hand. His eyes fell on the back seat and I suddenly became very interested in the driver-side headrest. We pulled forward and I turned around to see the man taking money from another car, but he was still watching us as we pulled away.
We weaved in and out of different rows of cars facing a giant movie screen at the far end of the park. There were a lot of other sedans like ours, but some people came in pick-up trucks and had them backed into a spot so they could lie in a truck bed filled with comforters and pillows. Dad found a place towards the middle and eased up next to a window-high pole with exposed wiring sticking out of it. A small laminated sign on top read: "Tune your radio to 95.2 for sound. Thanks!" in faded block lettering.
"Isn't this great?" Dad asked no one in particular, dialing the tuning knob on the radio until the film's scratchy soundtrack warbled throughout the interior of the car.
The sun had finally truly set and I leaned forward to take in the bright thirty-foot high screen reflecting on the windshield. We weren't as late as we thought and the opening credits to the black and white film were still fading in and out. Or maybe they were just really long. The music was an eerie mixture of some kind of synth-string instrument with seemingly random piano notes jarringly interjected occasionally.
Finally, the last of the titles dissolved and a small two-room police station appeared. Cops in old-styled uniforms were lounging around smoking and playing cards when suddenly a disheveled man burst through the door. He was wearing a full suit, but his tie hung at an odd angle and he clearly ran there from God knows where. He started yelling about terrible things happening in so and so small town, USA and I began to lose interest pretty quick. Caleb's eyes were already glued back to his phone after only a minute or two. I didn't understand how people used to watch these old movies, let alone be scared by them. Crying during hokey scenes of romance or jumping at plastic UFOs on strings.
I didn't get it, but I kept watching anyway.
Mom leaned over to the driver's seat. "Wasn't he in that other movie with Raymond Burr?
"No, that was Heston." Dad said.
"I remember being terrified as a little girl. When they get trapped in the hospital and the bugs are crawling all over the windows — "
"Spoilers!" Caleb yelled from beside me without looking up.
Determined to give the movie a fair shake, I watched intently as the police grabbed the crazed man and started hauling him back towards an open holding pen.
Ten minutes later I'm woken up suddenly by my face sliding out of my hands and my neck bending unnaturally sideways. I rubbed the stretched muscle along my collar bone and glanced wincingly back up through the windshield at the movie. There were at least two new characters I didn't recognize.
A flash of color passed the window on my left and I recognized the phenomenon as several young kids running towards the back of the drive-in. They shouted and banged on car doors as they zig-zagged between vehicles, heading to a small playground we had passed on the way in. I turned completely around and peered through our car's small back window. A few older kids seemingly around my age were hanging near the same area, laughing and tossing rocks at the tall wooden fence. I ducked down when one of them looked towards our car.
"I think I'm going to walk around," I blurted out, door handle already in my grasp. I tried to be quick, but it wasn't fast enough.
"I want to go too!" Caleb said.
"Take your brother," Mom added without even turning around.
I shot him a dirty look, but he was smiling ear to ear.
Opening the car door, I slid out into fresh air. The massive screen loomed over us; reflecting over the hoods and fenders in the sea of vehicles all around.
I led the way through the park trying to look casual and shooting occasional glances at the kids by the fence. Passing different cars, I caught little private moments of people staring up wide-eyed at the movie with zombie-like expressions or dealing with restless children fighting in back seats. One couple camped in lawn chairs beside their beat-up minivan, had fallen asleep entirely. Their arms hung over the side of their chairs while a German Shepherd laid nearby dozing. It raised its head, sniffing in our direction as we passed.
"I want some popcorn!" Caleb whined next to me.
"You don't even like popcorn," I said.
"I like movie popcorn, I swear." he said, pulling my jacket sleeve in the direction of the snack booth.
Checking to make sure I had at least a little cash in my wallet, I reluctantly followed him over to the grubby shack bathed in the light of a half-lit yellowing sign that read 'CONCESSIONS'. At the counter, we got a closer look at was for sale: a few greasy bags of chips, burnt hot dogs turning perpetually on glistening rollers, and a half-full popcorn maker with butter-stained glass and chipped lettering on the outside.
"Are you sure you want something from here?" I said, turning my head and looking down at the now empty spot my brother had been a moment ago.
I whipped around the other direction. "Caleb!" I shouted louder.
The teenagers by the fence were looking in my direction, but I ignored them and scanned the playground for his blue jacket.
"Look, you going to order anything kid? We've got a line."
Turning back to the concessions, a bored-looking guy with a messy apron was motioning at the dimly illuminated menu. I broke away from the counter, starting to circle around the few small buildings that were clustered together nearby.
I thought about going back to the car, but I knew in a few minutes he'd lose interest in what caught his eye and plop down wherever he was to stare at his phone. I didn't like the idea of him being off by himself. Who knows what kind of hick weirdos live in a town like this? I pulled out my own phone, tapped his name, and listened as it rang endlessly.
I jogged past some kind of office building and ended up at the projection booth. An intense beam of light shot from the small window on the second floor, passing over the many vehicles and exploding onto the screen across the lot. Beetles and small moths knocked against the edges of the lit-up pane of glass. I moved around the corner just in time to see a glimpse of my brother's jacket disappearing through a big metal door at the top of a rotting wooden staircase.
"Caleb!" I hissed before losing sight of him completely. Taking the stairs two at a time, I hoped I could catch him before he got us all thrown out.
The metal door was heavy and I was surprised Caleb managed it by himself. I cracked it open and tried to see where he went in the room beyond. After a frustrating few minutes of squinting into the darkness, I gave up and yanked at the handle, creating a gap large enough for me to slip inside. My eyes struggled to adjust to what little light there was coming from the only two sources in the room: a gargantuan dual-reel projector and a bare tungsten light bulb hanging over a messy workbench.
"Brian, you have to check this out," Caleb whispered from somewhere up ahead. "This is so cool."
He was standing in a corner near the projector but was turned away from the spinning reels and flashing light. Instead, he was staring up at the walls.
That's when I noticed them too.
All around the room, covering every surface, were magazine covers with horrific drawings of monsters. Wolfmen, sea creatures, zombies, demons, mutants, aliens, giant flying dinosaurs, and countless other abominations that I can't even begin to name looked down on us. Every single copy had the same words emblazoned in a large yellow font across the top: Featured Creatures.
I walked up to one cover depicting a horrible pale face and bloody lips curled around two long fangs. The headlines promised 'Legendary director reveals how he makes you scream' and 'Breaking down the mask, latex or rubber?'
"Where did all these come from?" Caleb wondered.
"I don't know, but we should leave," I said, motioning for him to follow, but still looking around myself.
"Oh, come on boys, stay awhile."
I spun around. Caleb let out a little high-pitched shriek I'd never heard him make before and ran to me, cowering close enough behind that one of his tennis shoes kept scraping the back of my heel painfully.
A man stood up from underneath the strobing light. He had curly silver hair tucked behind his ears that fell all the way down to his shoulders and a small soul patch sprouting from his bottom lip that disappeared below his chin. A small stool sat near the projection window and I realized he had been in the shadow, hidden by the dazzling light bouncing everywhere but there.
"I'm re-really sorry, I know we're not supposed to be up here," I said, backing us towards the exit as quickly as I could.
"You're not in any trouble, I promise," he said. "Plus, there seems to be something wrong with my door."
I turned around and saw a blank stretch of wood where the entrance had been a moment ago. Caleb's hand found mine and nearly cut off my circulation.
"How do you like the movie so far?" The man asked.
Two things happened immediately and I'm not sure which came first. Caleb ran to another small moldy window and tried to pry it open. I went the opposite way and grabbed a mop leaning against the workbench and brandished it like a sword. I didn't feel very intimidating, but I had to do something and my brain was too busy trying to wrap itself around what was happening.
"Boys, boys! Let's take it down a notch. That may have been a little more dramatic than I was shooting for," the man said, raising his arms and gesturing that he was unarmed. "Look, all better."
Without taking my eyes completely off the man, I turned my head slightly and saw the door was back. Caleb ended his assault on the window and crossed the room faster than I've ever seen him move before. He stopped short of the doorway and turned his frightened face, not towards the man, but at me. Every voice in my head told me to get as far away as possible, but my legs didn't seem to follow orders at the moment.
The man walked back around the projector and grabbed his stool. He then strode right up to me and sat inches away from my still raised broom handle.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"My name is Eric Price. I work" — he looked around, appearing to admire the dingy room with what looked like a genuine smile on his face — "here. I have for a while."
"Brian, come on!" Caleb shouted behind me.
"I'm sorry about the door, I didn't mean to scare you kids. Really," he said.
Keeping my eyes on the projectionist, I walked backwards until I was within reach of the door. Caleb slipped through it and started down the stairs, but I reached out and grabbed the door itself, inspecting it. Just a door.
"How did I do it?" the man asked for me.
I stuck my head out the opening just as Caleb reached the bottom, waiting there for me to follow.
"I believed I could, simple as that," he continued. Reaching into his pocket, I saw a glint of silver before he held out his hand revealing a small coin.
"What year were you born?" he asked, staring down at the coin and pushing it to the edges of his palm with his other hand.
I was fairly sure this guy was responsible for more than a few kids on the side of milk cartons. "Sorry, no," I said and walked out through the doorway.
He pocketed the coin and turned back towards the projector.
"Your call," he replied, chuckling to himself as I lost sight of him.
I jumped the last step and joined Caleb. He was looking past me like he expected the man to chase us. The door stayed closed.
"I don't know what that was," I said. I gave one look over to the playground and saw that the teenagers were gone. "Come on, let's get you your popcorn."
We started to walk back around the edge of the building and — judging by Caleb's incredibly rare silence — I guessed he was trying to make sense of what just happened as much as I was.
Worrying about him and with my own thoughts swirling, I didn't even see the lady coming around the corner until we nearly crashed into each other.
"Oh! Sorry," I said.
"That's okay, kid," she replied. Her kind smile traveled all the way up to her eyes and I was reminded of my own mother. "You're having a rough night, I get it."
She walked away before I could reply.
"What was that about?" Caleb asked. "Why did she sound like that?"
When she had spoken, it was like another voice harmonized with hers. A man's voice. We started walking again, but the hairs on my neck were standing straight up.
Back at the concessions stand, we joined a short line that had formed. The guy in front of us blocked nearly our entire field of vision. He could have been an NFL linebacker, maybe gone to seed a little after a few years of retirement, but still, he towered over us. After the people ahead of him were served, he ordered an extra-large popcorn that looked like it might be a nice snack for someone his size. He paid and turned around, looking down at us before handing the popcorn to my brother.
"Here you go Caleb," the huge man said in the projectionist's voice.
I knocked the popcorn out of Caleb's hands as he just stood there, moving his mouth without any sound coming out.
"Why'd you do that?" the concessions stand teen said in the same voice, picking at a small pimple under his chin. "It's not like I'm a stranger."
I grabbed Caleb's arm and pulled him away, starting into a run. They were like ventriloquist dolls. They're mouths opened but the projectionist's voice came out.
This can't be possible.
"Oh, come on. Just give me a chance to explain," The teen continued.
"Seriously, you'll want to hear this," the big guy said, leaning over to pick up the bag of popcorn.
We ran down the first aisle of cars and I desperately looked around for the recognizable black roof of our old sedan. Car doors were opening as we passed them and I continued to hear that same voice shouting after us. Sliding around the bumper of a Jeep Wrangler, I felt Caleb's wrist leave my grasp. I slid in the gravel and circled around, ready to fight whoever had grabbed him.
He was alone. Just standing next to the Jeep and staring up at the colossal movie screen.
"I can do this all night, but it would really be easier if the two of you would just hear me out," said the giant projected twenty-foot black and white spider looking down at us.
I fell to the ground. Hard.
The spider nonchalantly pulled up a stop sign and threw it at a nearby bus. You could just barely see a silvery wire attached to each of its hairy legs as they moved around menacingly. A man came into the foreground, and without a worry to the oversized arachnid he shared the screen with, turned to look at us.
"This is supposed to lighten the mood. I'm honestly just trying to tell you something," he said. "Can we all calm down a bit?"
I looked around for someone who could help us. Through every windshield, people were just smiling up at me. A few even waved.
A young girl about Caleb's age popped her head up out of the back of the Jeep. She too spoke in the projectionist's raspy voice.
"Some people — a lot of people actually — can believe something so completely that it becomes real," she said, pigtails bobbing as she talked. "Most of the time, it's something small. They lose their keys and try to think back to where they left them only to then find them in that exact spot. I've seen people change the sizes of clothes they're shopping for, make a barista misspell the name on their latte cup because they were worried it would be wrong and even cause construction on the way to work when they're running late."
I slowly got back up on my feet and started to move towards Caleb who was listening intently to the girl's words.
"But like everyone else, I didn't notice these things as extra-ordinary until I did it myself," she continued. "I saw something impossible, right here in this drive-in, and as soon as I let my own imagination run away with an idea, it manifested itself into reality."
That's when I started yelling. At the girl, at the screen, at the insanity of everything around me. "Why are you telling us this? We just want to leave!"
A car door to our right popped open and there was the actual projectionist. His feet were up on the dash and he was flipping through one of the old Featured Creatures magazines. This one had Mothra and Godzilla on the front, but they were somehow moving and attacking each other as he brought the pages together and flipped through it.
"Look, you kids aren't special," he said. "Maybe I'm getting sentimental in my old age, but I just wanted to share what I've learned with someone else. Why not you two? I've had an amazing life thanks to this gift. I've traveled the world; done things you couldn't even imagine. I even met the love of my life because of these parlor tricks. Matilda."
He glanced our way and for a moment, he looked scared. Like we didn't believe him or weren't taking him seriously enough. He regained his composure almost immediately, but I thought of everything we'd seen tonight, maybe this was the one thing I imagined.
"Okay," I said. "We've seen what you can do. Can we go now?"
"I asked you boys before, but you didn't answer. What do you think of the movie?" he said.
"It's fine — "
"So boring," Caleb interrupted me.
"I love these old flicks," the projectionist said, setting down the magazine and looking up at the screen. "They don't have the most modern special effects — I mean, most of them aren't even in color — but it seems like they came from a time when we were just starting to learn who we were and what we cared about. As a country, you know? I'm not trying to say we need to go back to the values of the time — lord, no. But I do believe that behind every bad space alien costume, or cheesy line of dialogue, you could just make out the feelings of a group of filmmakers trying to figure out the big issues of the era in their own way."
On-screen, a man was now swinging a metal bar at the oversized marionette spider. The projectionist turned and saw the look on my face. He smiled politely.
"I know," he continued. "It doesn't look very serious, but that's the trick. You can say whatever you want about politics, race, death, religion, all of it; you just have to make people think they're going to see a dumb movie about atomic monsters or talking apes."
He hopped out of the car, walked over, and squatted down in front of us.
"They just have to buy the ticket."
We stood there in silence. I got the feeling he was finished and we were okay to leave. I reached out for Caleb's hand.
"I don't really like space stuff," I heard my brother say, ignoring me.
He was staring up at the screen and walking towards the sleeping couple in lawn chairs we had passed earlier. The dog at their feet again raised its head as Caleb drew nearer.
"I like scary stuff. Ghosts and unexplained crimes, you know? Someone jumps off a balcony and now you can hear them calling out their husband's name at midnight if you listen close enough. That's way better than stupid aliens and giant bugs," he went on.
I motioned for Caleb to shut up and turned back to see the projectionist's reaction, but he had disappeared. I thought maybe Caleb had offended him or something, but the man with the dog who had been sleeping opened his eyes and looked at Caleb. His wrinkled features were all scrunched up and he seemed to be struggling to say something.
"I know a story like that," he murmured in the projectionist's voice, lowering his head. His dog whined and stood up, beginning to pace back and forth as its owner leaned forward, folding his hands and now staring down at the gravel.
"Really?" Caleb asked.
"Yes," the man replied. "About this very place, in fact."
Caleb looked around like he was seeing the drive-in for the first time. Maybe he expected a ghost to suddenly burst out of the screen. I still just wanted to get away from all of it as soon as possible. None of this should be happening to us.
"In this drive-in's heyday, it wasn't like this," the geezer continued, gesturing around at the surrounding area. "Practically falling apart with a lot half-full, people showing up for the nostalgia of old movies. No, it was hip and vibrant and alive. If you weren't here on a Saturday night or cruisin' main street, nobody missed you anyway."
I could almost see it. Like the movie playing right now, with slicked-back hair and cars with rounded tire wells, minus the giant insects of course.
"One especially busy night, some kid left the flat top grill unattended and a grease fire started in the kitchen. They used to store oil and gas for the generator in a shed nearby and what should have been a small incident, turned into a disaster. Cars started crowding the single road to the exit while others were abandoned completely, trapping more inside. Hundreds of local residents unable to escape, blinded by smoke and headlights. When the screen caught fire and collapsed, you could hear the screaming of those underneath the heavy canvas; suffocating or burning, you couldn't tell the difference. All you could hear were the screams."
A terror-filled shriek caused Caleb and I to jump and grab onto each other.
The man nearly fell out of his lawn chair laughing.
On the screen behind us, a woman yelled a second time as giant pincers lifted her into the air. The projectionist appeared again, walking around the side of the minivan as everyone in the cars around us laughed hysterically. He himself was wiping tears from his eyes. "I'm sorry, I had to. As I said, I don't get a lot of visitors."
He crouched down again and looked Caleb straight in the eyes.
"Here, take this," he said and handed him the magazine he had been reading. The giant monsters on the cover had stopped moving. "Tell your friends about the haunted drive-in and come back yourself some time. Oh, and" — he stood up, reaching into his pocket and handing me a coin — "for the jukebox."
I moved the silver nickel between my fingers and noting the date (2004, the year I was born) slipped it into my jacket. I didn't understand what the point of all this had been, but it was impossible to just pretend that it wasn't kind of incredible. Not to mention, terrifying and breaking all sense of what was real to me for the foreseeable future. I nodded to the projectionist and finally pulled Caleb away, heading back towards what I hoped, was the direction of our car. After we were a bit further away, I glanced over my shoulder and Eric Price was completely out of sight.
We weaved through the vehicles and I noticed people inside were no longer watching us. Up ahead, I finally saw our car.
"How many people do you think died in that fire? The one he talked about," Caleb asked.
I ignored him. We were so close to being out of this nightmare. Snacks were long forgotten.
"I wonder what it was like. Can you imagine it? Being back there and stuck in a place like this with all that fire?" He yammered on. "I don't see why they wouldn't just jump the fence. Maybe it was bigger back then to keep people from watching free movies or something? Still, they had to have a back gate, right? I bet there have been ghost sightings or people feeling hot in certain places. That's always a sign. Man, I wish we could see what it was like when the drive-in was new."
Neon lights not sputtering out and shiny cars with green glass bottles of Coke sitting on the dashboard? I could practically see it too, but I was done with this place in any decade. The projectionist really freaked me out. No one should be able to do what he did and I didn't buy his explanation for a minute. There was something he wasn't telling us; the real reason for showing off whatever it was that he could do.
We got back to the car and I fell against my door in relief. Caleb ran around to his side as I grabbed the handle and yanked it open. Sitting in the back seat were two young teenagers practically on top of each other and kissing feverishly. They looked up at me shocked and quickly moved apart. I slammed the door back closed.
"Sorry, wrong car!" I shouted, averting my eyes to avoid their embarrassed looks.
I turned around.
Please God, no.
I was still in the drive-in. I was still hearing the same movie; still surrounded by cars and adults and teenagers and neon lights. But it was all wrong. The cars were a collection of classic roadsters and stubby hatchbacks. The people through the windshields stared back at me with flip haircuts and clothes I recognized from YouTube videos and ancient movies. They reminded me of my grandparents or someone in a retirement home, but seeing younger faces attached was incredibly jarring.
I ran to the other side of the car, but for the second time tonight, Caleb was gone. The couple in the car was definitely freaked out by me now, but I didn't care.
That's the only explanation I could think of. It had to be him. This was just one more way for him to mess with us. No way we coincidentally met someone who could change literal reality and ten minutes later I'm in a Syfy channel version of Back to the Future. But why?
I ran back between the cars and noticed a lot of small things while my brain tried not to think of the panic-inducing larger issues. The gravel underneath my high-tops felt looser and more varied in shape. The paint on the cars all around me looked more vibrant. Harsher colors and brighter chrome. Neon was everywhere now, more so than before. The whole place looked like a defunct fluorescent factory had an estate sale. Instead of a few shacks, there was now one large two-story building in the back with a curved glass front facade on the lower level. On the second floor, a small projection window and the kaleidoscope of light shining through. I went towards the light.
It was hard not to pause at every car. Look at every face. I knew I was experiencing something incredible, but all the joy had been sucked out of it. I was worried about Caleb, and more than that, I was terrified of what might have gotten us here. Was it just a matter of being in the wrong place or was there some underlying piece of the puzzle I was missing? We were brought here, not just the past, but to the drive-in itself. The projectionist had set all of this in motion and I was starting to have a confused idea of why that might be. This thought scared me more than anything else that had happened so far.
At the front door to the building — which I now saw was a kind of diner — a couple of teenagers were leaning up against the glass and passing a cigarette between them. They actually looked pretty modern to me. Jeans and a t-shirt for the guys and a couple of girls with longer skirts and sweater tops. One girl caught my eye as I blew past them. She was taking the cigarette from her friend, but her eyes met mine as I ripped open the door. Maybe if I wasn't losing my mind and it wasn't somehow forty years before I'd been born, I would have stopped and asked her name.
Bursting inside, I immediately started coughing. The place was filled with cigarette smoke. Booths took up most of the diner, but there were some pool tables along the back wall and extremely loud music coming from somewhere else. Again, I was taken aback by how it all looked a lot less like the movies and more normal than I was expecting. The hairstyles and some of the clothes looked like I imagined, and the staff was definitely decked out in the classic paper hats and striped uniforms, but I was still surprised by how unremarkable it all felt.
I made my way towards the kitchen window, but the room was so packed I could barely get through. I looked at every face I could hoping to see my little brother, but my main goal was to just get upstairs. It all came back to the projectionist. He could fix this and maybe Caleb wasn't even here to begin with.
I tried to cut through a small open dance floor in the middle of the room but ended up getting trapped at the edge attempting to avoid flying elbows and gyrating hips. Turning around, I couldn't see past anyone to make out which direction I should be heading.
"What kind of music do ya' like?" said a nearby voice, startling me.
It was the girl from outside. She had followed me all the way in here.
"Uh," I stammered. Sure, I had been transported through time and space, learned that everything I knew about physical existence was wrong, and also might never see my friends and family again, but somehow, impossibly, I was still nervous that a cute girl was talking to me.
"Let me take a guess," she said. "Got a nickel for the box?"
I jammed my hand into my jacket pocket and pulled out the coin. Of course, I did. I handed it to her and she crossed the room.
Wild thoughts flew through my head. Was I missing the bigger picture here? As far as I knew, I was the first time traveler in history. I could get rich playing the stock market. I could try to invent the internet. I could have a whole life here. I could ask this girl to dance.
The song that had been playing died down. A moment later, something slower started up. I saw the girl trying to make her way back through the crowd. Behind her, I finally spotted a door near the kitchen with an exit sign. Getting closer, her eyes found mine and a small smile crept across her face. I couldn't help feeling the warmth that spread across my own chest or the smile I returned.
I took a step forward and the music swelled.
You could have at least danced with her.
My nose wrinkled at the open trash cans behind the diner and I tried to steer my thoughts away from the disappointed look on the girl's face when I turned her down and bolted out the back. Light fell between the slats of a wooden staircase above me. I rushed around and followed the stairs up. Just like that, I was back in the projection booth.
"Where is he?" Caleb was yelling from across the room.
Relieved he was okay, I ran forward and put myself in-between him and the young guy he was yelling at.
"Brian!" shouted my brother in surprise.
I recognized the projectionist immediately. He had shorter hair and no chin scruff, but it was definitely still him, just fifty years younger. The room itself looked completely different. No magazines covered the walls, but there was a large poster of some attractive woman in a one-piece bathing suit and a couple of flyers with upcoming movie titles printed in a wavy font.
"Send us back." I said.
The guy looked exasperated and maybe a little stoned.
"Look, man, like I told the other kid, you're not allowed to be up here. Go back down the stairs before I get Roger to ban you and your parents for life," he said.
"Oh, now you're just some guy? No coin tricks or giant talking spiders or anything? We have to go back. We don't belong here," I said.
"Yeah!" Caleb added unhelpfully.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand this joke at all. Please, just go — "
A scream tore through the room from somewhere below and the music stopped. We all froze. A moment later, shrieks and yelling started to come from all around us.
I ran to the projection window and looked out.
"It's happening," I said.
Ever since I got here, I had been worried about the projectionist's story with the fire. Below, I could see a stream of people running out of the diner. The girl who asked me to dance jumped in a guy's open-engine drag racer and they gunned it for the exit. An old station wagon pulled out in front of them and sheet metal flew in every direction as the cars slammed into each other. Smoke was rising around the side of the building to my right and I could just make out orange and red flames spreading along the fence line.
"We have to get out of here. You're coming with us," I said, pointing at the young projectionist. He didn't argue and all three of us ran for the door.
I was first through the opening and had almost put my weight onto the second-floor landing when a boat-sized Pontiac lost control around the corner and sheared the entire staircase away in a splintery explosion. I started to fall into the blaze, but the projectionist grabbed my jacket and we both stumbled backwards to safety.
Caleb leaned his head out of the gaping hole.
"The car's on fire. Is there any other way out?" he asked.
The wooden floorboards felt warm on my back. It sounded like people were trapped in the diner below and trying to get out. I could make out some words here and there, but mostly it was just pure terror. I sat up and turned to the young guy next to me.
"You have to stop this. You need to try and put the fire out. Wish it away," I said.
He ignored me and leapt up, racing to where the door used to be. He stared helplessly at the rising smoke and whatever horror was below.
"I know how this sounds. I don't have any way to prove it to you, but you can stop this. I think that's why you sent us here. I'm going insane trying to figure it all out, but I know you're the only one who can stop this," I continued.
His sneakers squeaked as he rushed around the room, searching for another way out. At this point in time at least, I was starting to think the guy really was just some scared teenager. Caleb started crying.
I got to my feet and felt a stinging in my hip where it had hit the floor. Propping myself up on a small nearby table, I noticed the rolled-up copy of Featured Creatures sticking out of Caleb's back pocket. I could feel real heat now through the bottom of my shoes and the floorboards were starting to groan whenever I shifted my weight. I ran to him and grabbed the magazine, shoving it into the projectionist's hands.
"Look, it's like a movie. You watch and you watch until for just a moment, you forget what's real and what's made up. It's why you buy the ticket in the first place. It's a trick, like magic, but it's real. You told us this, you showed us what you can do. You have to try now!" I yelled in desperation.
The guy had a dumb look on his face and for a second, I thought he was actually going to do something. But he was looking past me. I turned around and felt the blood drain out of my face.
Through the window, high above the many cars trapped bumper to bumper, the nearly three-story movie screen was an inferno. There was a crack like thunder and the flaming surface toppled forward. I thought people were screaming before, but it was nothing compared to the cacophony of voices now. I couldn't handle this.
"Brian?" Caleb whispered from somewhere behind me.
I knew I should go to him. Be a good big brother. I selfishly closed my eyes instead and waited for the floor to collapse. It was going to happen any second. The heat was intense and it was getting harder and harder to draw each breath as smoke filled the room.
A roar of laughter suddenly drowned out all other noise and I burst into tears. It was the last thing I expected to hear….
I'm losing my mind.
I opened my eyes. The fire was gone.
I searched the small room until I found the projectionist. He was trembling in the corner with his eyes still closed. From beyond the window, another round of laughter echoed in the night as a woman on the suddenly upright movie screen tripped over a small dog, landing in a tall man's open arms.
"Brian, I did it!" Caleb yelled, grabbing me around the neck.
My barely four-foot little brother was bouncing up and down, with one small hand stretching the collar of my shirt and the other flapping around the magazine he had been given. His face was sheer joy.
I grabbed him back and pulled him into a hug. I felt ashamed that I didn't go to him when I thought we were going to die, but I was so happy to see him now.
"What did you say?" I managed to squeak out. My throat still felt raw from the dissipated smoke.
"I just did what you said," he explained, motioning to the projectionist who was starting to get up off the ground and shaking his head. "I thought if he could do it, why couldn't I? And I did it!"
Over Caleb's shoulder, the projectionist was running his hands along the walls and looking amazed. After a moment, he turned and stared at us like we were Martians about to zap him with hidden ray guns. I understood the feeling.
"I don't know what happened, but I think you guys saved me for real. I'm sorry I was such a jerk before. I don't get a lot of visitors," he said.
I started laughing now too. "Thanks," I said.
We left the booth without another word, walking out the door and down the intact wooden stairs. Making our way around the side of the building instead of going back through the diner, we were stopped by an unexpected chain link fence where the playground would eventually be built. I turned to Caleb.
"Can you try to get us back?" I asked.
He nodded and closed his eyes, squinting really hard. I thought he was going to burst a blood vessel in his temple.
Something hit me hard in the back. I fell to the ground and raised my arms not knowing where the next attack was going to come from.
A swing was flailing overhead and someone, a woman, was yelling angrily. Beside me, a little girl was lying on the ground crying. Kids stared down at me from the top of a nearby jungle gym. I leapt to my feet and apologized profusely to the mother who took the howling girl up into her arms.
Leaving the playground behind, I noticed Caleb a few feet away looking up at the moldy concessions stand. Flickering neon and chipped paint never looked so good to me. He had done it. He got us back.
"Hey, do you still want that popcorn?" I asked, walking up beside him.
Caleb glanced up at me. He was already holding a small paper bag overflowing with buttery popcorn.
"Did you — "
"Come on, I want to see Mom and Dad," he said, running off down the path towards the first line of, thankfully, modern-looking vehicles. I followed him.
We arrived safely back at our car and I took a deep breath as my fingers slid into the door handle. Pulling it open, I was greeted to a completely empty back seat. Caleb slid in on the other side and I climbed in, closing the door behind me. I relaxed for the first time in what felt like hours but couldn't stop the flood of questions running through my head.
Mom turned around and reached into Caleb's bag, popping a few kernels into her mouth.
"Did you have fun?" She asked, smiling at me.
Something suddenly triggered deep in my brain and every instinct I had told me to get out of the car and run as fast as I could away from there.
Mom had told us the story about how she chipped the corner of one of her front teeth when she was Caleb's age nearly a hundred times. She actually liked how it looked and you couldn't really notice it anyway unless you'd seen it every day of your life growing up. Her smile was now flawless.
"Caleb, you didn't," I said, turning to the seat next to me.
His eyes were shut tight and his face was turning a deep reddish color.
"Hey, what do you all think about heading back into town and checking out some of those hauntings?" Dad said suddenly, shifting the car into drive.
Caleb opened his completely bloodshot eyes and started gasping for breath like he just ran a mile.
"That sounds amazing!" Mom shouted, turning back around and pulling up the GPS on the car's dashboard screen.
Still breathing hard, Caleb whipped out his phone and began rattling off a list of destinations. You could hear the excitement in every word as he began to retell the lore behind each one.
I stayed silent, too scared to say anything, as we passed under the half-lit neon drive-in sign and turned out onto the road back into town.