“Ooooh,” his little sister Clara said. “Mom’s gonna be mad if she sees you playing that.”
“Shut up, tattle-tale.”
“I’m not a tattle-tale.”
“Yes you are!” Cody shouted, still not looking away from the screen. “Tattle-tale, tattle-tale!”
The six-year-old girl groaned, jumped away from the table, and said, “Mom! Cody called me a tattle-tale again!”
“Cody, be nice to your sister,” his mom said, as she grabbed at least twenty napkins and carried the tray of fast food over to the table farthest to the back of the McDonalds restaurant.
“OK, Mom,” the boy said condescendingly. “I’ll do that.”
She set the tray down and snapped her fingers loud right next to his face. He blinked for the first time in three minutes, but he still wouldn’t glance, not even for a second, at his mother. His eyes were glued on the iPhone game.
“Cody, look at me when I’m talking to you,” she said.
“Hold on,” he said. He was only nine years old, but he had already started making a habit of talking back to his mom, and not bowing down to her demands every single time she got upset at him over something.
“Cody,” she said, this time more stern, “is that what I think it is?”
She grabbed the cell phone and pulled it out of his hands. “How many freaking times do I have to tell you—”
“Mom!” Cody jumped away from the table and reached for the phone. “Give it back!”
“But I’m on the last level!”
She clicked the phone off and brought it down to her side. “First of all, Cody, it’s not your phone, it’s mine. I’m the one who paid for it. And secondly, I told you that you could only use it if you play age-appropriate games—”
“Zombies VS Vampires is totally age-appropriate!”
“Do you think I was born yesterday? Sit down and eat your burger.”
Cody didn’t budge. He looked ready to start screaming. They were making a pit-stop in Minden, Nevada, before heading over to Lake Tahoe for the weekend, and while this McDonalds was one of the emptiest this family of three had every stepped inside, Cody’s mom still didn’t want her kid throwing a tantrum for others to see.
“Did you hear me?”
“I heard you, Mom.”
“Don’t talk back to me. Sit down. Now!”
Cody turned back toward the table, but leaped toward his mom unexpectedly and grabbed the iPhone right out of her hand. He raced to the other side of the McDonalds and clicked back to the main menu of his monster fighting game. He hit RESUME and watched in dismay as the final big baddie—a tall, creepy vampire with a black hat—severed his character’s neck and started drinking his blood. YOU LOSE splattered across the screen in big red letters. It was done. He had lost.
“Nooooo!” Cody shouted. “Mom! You made me lose the game—”
His mother appeared behind him, snatched the phone back out of his hands, and grabbed him by his collared shirt. “Now you listen to me, Cody! I’ve had it up to here with you today. You just lost all privileges of playing video games for the whole next week. You hear me?”
“What? But Mom, you can’t!”
“I’m your mother! I can do anything I want!” Cody’s mom looked at the McDonald’s employees, who all stood behind the counter, bored out of their minds, clearly enjoying this little piece of family drama that was livening up their afternoon shifts. She turned her back to them and pushed her son toward the table. “Your food’s getting cold. Now sit down and eat your lunch—”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” he said, breaking away from his mother’s grasp.
“Cody, you need to eat first—”
“Can you let me pee, Mom?” Cody shouted way too loud for comfort. “Jeez.”
His mom sported a fake smile to the few patrons around her. “Hurry up,” she said to Cody.
Cody stopped in the hallway, in front of the men’s restroom, and looked at the other side of the fast food joint to see his mom sit down at the table—and hand his sister the iPhone. Clara smiled triumphantly and immediately started playing a game on the phone.
“It’s not fair,” Cody said, stepping into the restroom. “That’s so not fair!”
He stepped up to one of the two urinals, unzipped his pants, and started to pee. He shook his head in anger. He was only in the third grade—but Cody had rights!
“I’m your mother,” he whispered, imitating his mom. “Do as I say. Don’t play those violent games.”
The bathroom door opened, and somebody sauntered inside. Cody scooted closer to the tile wall and tried to hide his private parts. He was almost done, but he still hoped the man would pass him by and go into the stall. He didn’t. A second later a tall figure stood right next to him, whistling as he started to urinate with such high volume and pressure that he thought someone was spraying a fire hose.
“Good afternoon,” the figure said.
Something didn’t feel right. Cody didn’t even bother to shake before he zipped up his pants and walked over to the sink. He started washing his hands.
“What’s your name?” the man asked.
Cody was young, but he wasn’t that young; he knew not to talk to strangers.
“My name is Droz,” the man said, ignoring the kid’s silence. He coughed, then zipped up his pants, too. “You know I haven’t stepped foot in a McDonalds in sixty years? Back then it wasn’t called fast food. Back then it was called a restaurant.”
The boy slammed his fist against the hand dryer and ran his wet hands underneath. He tried to act natural, but when the figure approached the sink, his face masked by a black top hat, a painful chill ran up his spine.
“I hate that lore that says we don’t go to the bathroom, that we only drink blood, that we never even eat food. That’s just ridiculous. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a little cow meat! It needs to be raw, but still.”
Cody didn’t nod or acknowledge the figure’s presence. Before he could catch a glimpse of the man’s face, he raced out of the bathroom and down the hallway.
Everything went silent for a moment, slow-motion even, like he was in a scary dream he couldn’t wake up from. He looked at the back of the McDonalds to see his mother and sister still sitting at the table, his mom munching on a French fry, his sister not taking a bite of anything and instead obsessively focusing on her video game. He assumed Zombies vs Vampires it was not.
He was about to join the two of them, when another sight caught his eye to his left, outside the side door. He turned back toward the bathroom door, which was still closed, then exited the McDonalds. He wasn’t hungry anymore. Now he wanted answers.
“Whoa,” Cody said, stepping out into the cool sunny day, “what is that thing?”
He walked all the way to the edge of the sidewalk. The hearse was parked in the middle of the parking lot, too big to fit in any one spot. It was longer than a car, and closer to the length of a limousine. Cody had never seen anything like it.
One of the windows rolled down on the side of the hearse. The movement startled him, but he stayed put.
“Helllllllp!” The voice was loud and deep. A face appeared at the window, that of a young, pale man who looked no older than eighteen. “You have to help me! You have to get me out of here, please! It’s a matter of life and death!”
Cody had never been in a life and death situation before. He’d watched his uncle get his leg run over by a tractor once, but the man had survived. Plus, Cody was a virgo. He didn’t like confrontation.
“My name is Paul,” the teenager said from inside the hearse. “You need to get help. Call my friend, Brin. She’ll save me. She lives in Gris—”
A large, clammy hand slammed against his mouth and pushed him away from the window. Cody stood at the edge of the curb, scared and confused, not sure if he should help the man in the hearse, or go back inside the restaurant, or just start running in a direction of his choosing.
“Don’t mind him,” a chipper female voice said. Another face appeared, this one of a female who looked about forty-five. Her face was pale white; her lips, bright red; and her hair, raven black. “He’s just had a long day. My name’s Tessa. What’s your name, honey bunch?”
Another stranger wanted to know his name. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t, make himself say it. “I’m sorry, but—”
“Tell the pretty lady your name, child,” a deep, booming voice said from above him. “Don’t be rude now.”
Cody looked up to see the figure from the bathroom, except this time, his whole face. His eyes were black, and his face, like those in the hearse, was a chalky white. He was hunched over, awkwardly, and holding a heavy-looking McDonalds bag with his left hand. He grinned, eerily.
The boy started to shake. “Uhh… Cody… my name’s Cody.”
“Cody, so nice to meet you. Now apologize to the lady over there. She was just trying to make conversation.”
He looked back at the hearse, at the strange lady. “I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” she said, with an exaggerated smile that made her look not like she wanted to hug the boy, but like she wanted to eat him.
He looked back up at the tall figure, who said, “You are mighty tan, son. I wish I could be so dark. Even if I spend the entire summer outdoors, I’ll still be as white as a ghost.” The man looked at the hearse, then back down at the boy. He pulled the top hat off his head, revealing a child-like mop top of silver white hair. “How would you like to have this, boy? As a souvenir?”
Cody didn’t know what to say. Finally: “Really?”
“Sure thing. You’re a sweet kid. Plus, I’ve got a new one waiting for me back home. A better one that’s just been completed for my…” He looked at the hearse, at Tessa, and smiled. “…upcoming nuptials.”
He handed the boy the top hat. Cody accepted it and gazed fondly at the sides of it. “Oh. Uhh, thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “If your friends ask, tell them you got it from Droz, the greatest showman of the Underground there ever was. But don’t tell them I was a vampire. I hate being called a vampire.”
Cody’s mouth dropped open. “You’re a… you’re a vampire?”
He patted the boy on his shoulders and walked to the other side of the hearse.
The woman didn’t move away from the window. She just kept staring at Cody. “I’ll tell you one thing, boy,” she said. “If you do end up finding a girl named Brin…”
He pushed the top hat up against his chest. “Yes?”
“Tell her that her mother says hi.”
She rolled up the window, and the hearse started pulling forward, slowly at first, then faster and faster. The vehicle toppled over the garden at the front of the parking lot and zoomed down the 395 highway, around the corner and out of sight.
Cody still hadn’t moved from the curb. He just stood there, alone and contemplative. A gust of wind smacked against him by surprise, and he let go of the top hat. It rolled down the sidewalk and onto the black pavement. He watched as a car pulled into the lot and drove straight for the hat.
He was happy that the creepy man and his gang of pale family members had departed. But he wasn’t about to let that cool hat be destroyed.
“No you don’t!” he shouted and leaped for his hat, just in the nick of time.
Cody wandered back into the McDonalds, sporting his new, unique look.
“There you are,” his mother said, glancing at her son. “I was just about to go check on you. Are you feeling all right?”
The boy felt fine, but his mom didn’t need to know that. He shook his head and rubbed his belly. “I have a stomach ache,” he said.
“What? Poor baby, why didn’t you say so. Here, take a seat.”
He sat back down at the table and rested his head against the window. He wrapped his arms around his stomach. “Oww, it hurts,” he said, acting his heart out.
“You sure you don’t want to eat anything?”
“No. I’m sorry, Mom.”
Cody’s mother glanced at her daughter, who had only eaten one of her chicken nuggets. “Clara, can you give me the phone back?”
“What?” the little girl said. “But that’s not fair!”
She took it out of Clara’s hands, and handed it back to Cody. He smiled at his mom, and was laughing on the inside. His diabolical plan had worked.
“Thanks, Mom.” He tried to switch back over to his Zombies vs Vampires game, but before he did, he looked at what his little sister was playing: a magic show game that had the player extracting rabbits out of a—what else?
“Where’d you get that stupid hat?” the girl asked.
Cody smiled. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”