They’re young, they’re motivated, and someday soon they all will SAVE THE WORLD. There are no problems for these college freshman, only OPPORTUNITIES TO CREATE SOLUTIONS. So with that said, what’s to be done about that restaurant? And why won’t anyone talk about it? And what’s wrong with it, exactly?
Is it the all-caps sign that’s off-putting?
Or the fact that the lettering’s blood-red?
Not major things, of course, but why are the letters five-feet tall? Does the neon need to flash day-in and day-out? And how can you feel it strobe in your fillings, like the buzz of a bee some insane dentist’s walled deep inside a molar? And is that buzzing getting louder? Can neon signs even get louder? And cause toothaches and headaches and blurred vision?
How is any of that possible?
The other campus food options are dining halls or one-off’s named after donors. Not that there’s much variety. “Smith?” goes the joke. “So we meet at Smith Grill, Smith Bagels, or Smith Wraps?” And the second part: “Does it matter? Because you know they all taste the same.”
And truly they do, with everything run by the same food service corporation and those same smiling zombies, the on-campus restaurant employees. They spend their days defrosting the same wilted patties, the same emaciated bagels, the same soggy wraps. And after two and a half minutes in the microwave—identical for each and every item—the food is ready for your enjoyment, plunked down on a Styrofoam plate.
They say eating it can’t hurt you.
But all of the choices taste GRAY.
“What’s this supposed to be?” someone asks. Usually it’s a student who was too rushed to bring a lunch. And there’s rarely, if ever, an answer.
BUT BACK TO FRESHMAN EATS. Which clearly is NOT cut from the same cloth. The aroma outside of the building is different, for starters. No, it attests to nothing specific—is FRESHMAN EATS a burger place? A burrito place? It’s hard to discern, and the back alley doesn’t smell of wet cardboard, the front not of disappointment and wasted meal points. Is that pizza in the air, with sausage? Soup, like a bisque, or a type of dessert? There’s a warmth to it all, but it’s less like the warmth of cocoa in winter and more like the inside of a witch’s gingerbread house.
Where the oven is always on, and always waiting.
The outside grounds are landscaped, with hedges cut into angular shapes and a lawn that’s kept short. The restaurant has windows, but without the off-white blinds you see in all the college classrooms, usually as sure a thing as the toilet paper in all the bathrooms being single-ply. And why can’t you see far inside? FRESHMAN EATS has tables, and… what else? Is it some trick of the glass, or tinting taken to the farthest extreme?
There aren’t many parking spaces, which makes sense for a joint in the middle of campus. But FRESHMAN EATS would be fine with none, a fact which illustrates the final oddity: there’s never ANY cars. FRESHMAN EATS doesn’t seem like it does enough business to sustain, well… business. Because barely anyone goes in. And NO ONE ever comes out.
And how, again, is that even possible?
There’s irony in the fact that a restaurant, positioned across from the main physics building, appears to violate the law of the conservation of mass. People joke that FRESHMAN EATS must have tunnels beneath it, for those people who scurry inside at odd and extremely rare hours, to use to escape. But why would a restaurant need tunnels? Or maybe the place is a disguise for unsightly electrical boxes, or cooling units? Or could FRESHMAN EATS be a teaching institute, like a test kitchen? Except the school doesn’t have a hospitality program. These are some of the theories, and none of them fit, so to appropriate a quote from the English Department, located a block to the east, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Despite the clean grounds, something is dirty.
Despite the square building, something is bent.
Despite the aromas… well, that one’s inexplicable.
Though beyond any doubt, FRESHMAN EATS stinks.
* * *
“It’s a TO SERVE MAN situation,” Tommy jokes. “It’s gotta be. It looks OK on the outside, but inside they’re cooking and plating and serving man. You know… SERVING MAN.” And the rest of the group has to admit, “FRESHMAN EATS” is a pretty weird name that is ripe for entendre. Yet—
This is a realistic world.
Restaurants don’t serve up people.
We are NOT living in a science fiction story.
These are the points they tell themselves in the dining hall while drinking off-brand sodas from white paper cups. In the center of the table is a pile of cookies. They get them every day, meaning the cookies are passable, though no one knows if they’re chocolate chip or raisin.
“Why can’t we tell? We should be able to tell!” Tommy exclaims, then he lists the ways chocolate chips and raisins are different. Yet still they eat them.
Because what undergraduate would ever turn down free food? They come with living on campus, anyway.
Tommy always talks about FRESHMAN EATS. He mentions things like “ambrosia plus” and “soylent green,” and works of literature like Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” They all listen because it’s a crack up, with Tommy’s arms blurring as he espouses his cannibalistic theories, his curly black hair shaking, his voice rising higher and higher in pitch, and his dark eyes going wide. But also, Tommy’s theories are just about the only thing that plausibly explains FRESHMAN EATS.
Once Ashley asked an upper-classman about it. “Don’t eat there," came the reply.
“But how come?” she wanted to know.
“Because FRESHMAN EATS eats up freshman like you.” And with that the upper-classman walked away.
Ashley was offended; she hadn’t realized her freshman-ness was so conspicuous. And after that, they all stopped asking questions about FRESHMAN EATS to people outside of their gang.
Tommy, Ashley, Jordan, and George are all in the same wing of Smith Residential Hall and they’re all interested, or perhaps even obsessed, with the enigmatic restaurant and its buzzing sign at the back of the quad. And why not be? They’re freshman after all.
And they do eat.
Plus there isn’t a lot to do after class if you don’t have money. Additionally the restaurant’s more stimulating than physics homework. It’s more enticing than British literature.
It’s more engaging than calculus, or musicology, or even intramural softball or drinking.
Because how can a business exist without a steady clientele?
Maybe it’s part of an elaborate study, put on by a psychology professor? Or maybe it’s just a money laundering front? After all, universities have done worse things. And again, how come no person ever comes out? The questions are maddening, and so is the fact that no one they know of is attempting to solve it. So they decide to have a stake-out.
Tommy in the bushes, on one side of the property.
Ashley to the left, under a group of pines.
Jordan in the back, hiding behind hydrants.
And George to the other side, observing from the Physics Building’s dumpsters. Truly he said he didn’t mind getting in there. And truly, that’s a freshman male for you.
They settle into their places at 6:00 pm sharp, which they figure is prime eating time. But after thirty minutes pass no one’s shown up for dinner. The front sign on FRESHMAN EATS just buzzes away, and before long Ashley, under the pines, is feeling it. Something about the sound and the deep red light reminds her of the family farm, and the slaughterhouse out back. By 6:40 her stomach is turning, and by 6:45 she’s done. For Jordan, in the back, what first smelled of some undetermined but real food now smells like her uncle’s mortuary. Not long after she’s retching, officially calling it quits at 6:50. And five minutes later George, in view of the main neon sign, feels a back tooth crack.
Can a neon sign do that?
Its buzzing break a tooth, and from across a street?
With tears running down his face George crawls out of the dumpsters and that’s the crew, all gone or departing, except Tommy. And Tommy wonders, is FRESHMAN EATS really that bad? He swears that tonight the air smells interesting, nay good, because for once the aroma is clear: that’s yeast and cinnamon, and icing, too. They never have sweet rolls in the dining hall, and with a lick of his lips Tommy decides to go in. Because dessert sounds perfect, if he doesn’t see what’s inside will they ever solve the mystery?
And it’s empty in FRESHMAN EATS, right?
So where’s the danger?
With a mix of curiosity and hunger, plus a bit of bravado thrown in for good measure, Tommy leaves his bushes.
He walks up to the restaurant’s revolving doors.
He hesitates just once, to look up at the neon, and Ashley, who has come back to check on Tommy, sees him from afar. She’ll later tell everyone that every detail of his face, bathed in the red light, was clear and visible except for his eyes. Those were hidden in shadow, like his body below. So the final image of Tommy in her mind is like that of a floating red skull, and Ashley swears that as he looked upwards the buzzing stopped. The sign shone steadily, and in fact grew in intensity until Tommy, like a churchgoer to communion, lowered his head and pushed forward, walking somberly into the crimson glare.
And that was the last they ever saw of him.
* * *
Senior year: Ashley and Jordan run inside a campus hotdog shop. They’ve driven in to get their graduation robes and honestly, they know the food won’t be the best. But they figure they’re in for a long night of celebrating and should get something into their stomachs first. Plus, George is off with his parents. He and Ashley are dating—they’ve been an item, actually, since Tommy left the picture. George is a vegetarian who doesn’t approve of meat. But what George doesn’t know won’t hurt him.
Plus, does a campus dog really count?
The girls think not.
They spend several minutes reading over their options. There are twenty types of “gourmet” hotdogs, though the pictures on the menu are all pretty similar. Then Ashley has a revelation—this is like their old joke, and it doesn’t matter which one she gets. Because, of course, all the dogs will taste the same. She tells this to Jordan, who agrees. So they pick two dogs at random, and later they’ll look at the menus and try and guess which ones were theirs.
They go to the back to wait, and now Jordan has a revelation: she hasn’t eaten on campus since freshman year. “Wow,” she says, “being here sure brings back memories.”
“Was this a hotdog shop then?” Ashley asks.
Jordan shrugs. “Maybe it served pitas?”
“Then it’s barely changed since!”
They laugh and laugh.
Then Jordan says, “Remember the Freshman Fifteen?”
“Thanks to too many places like this, I STILL know it well!” The response causes them to laugh even more.
Their server brings some plastic cutlery. “Your dogs will be right up,” he states. Then he shuffles off.
Once the server’s out of earshot, Ashley asks if Jordan thinks the server eats hotdogs every day. Jordan rolls her eyes, but yeah, her lack of response—and the fact that she turns to watch the man—shows that she thinks so. Across the room, he’s wiping a table, and his thick fingers look pretty similar to the plump pieces of meat, or “meat,” that he and his co-workers put inside buns all day. He makes small, wet circles as he works his way across the table and his dark eyes, staring out from an overstuffed brow, seem content. And Jordan remembers what they used to call the food service workers during their freshman year: zombies.
The pair are quiet until the server returns with their food. Something is bothering Jordan, and Ashley is about to ask what, but then a hotdog plops down on their table. Or at least that’s what she assumes is beneath the pile of gray relish.
“One for you,” the server hums.
“Thank you,” Ashley replies.
“And one for you.” Jordan’s hotdog is at least visible, though it’s thoroughly drenched in dayglow-yellow cheese.
Jordan expresses her appreciation, and the server asks if they need anything else. Both women respond in the negative.
“Well then, have a great day.”
And that does it. Now Jordan knows what’s been bothering her. It’s the voice, a voice she used to hear every day.
She leans over to Ashley once they’re alone. “Ash! Do you remember Tommy?” And Jordan doesn’t have to say another word. Ashley swings around to look to where the server is washing another table and she too is immediately certain.
Same curly black hair.
Same dark eyes.
He’s probably 150 pounds heavier, and he’s not even half as animated as before, but that’s Tommy. She’d know, too, because Ashley was the one who filed the missing person reports. She’s the one who talked to the police, who put up the signs, who tried for months to speak with the dean about the restaurant that, as crazy as it sounded, evidently swallowed Tommy up.
“What did they do to him?”
“What did WHO do to him?” Jordan asks.
“FRESHMAN EATS,” Ashley replies. And of course, it was FRESHMAN EATS. It was always FRESHMAN EATS.
For the rest of their meal they rehash, while stealing glances at the man who is could be Tommy, all those conversations from their first year of college. And they add to the theories. Perhaps FRESHMAN EATS wasn’t the place they thought it was. Malevolent, sure, but perhaps the restaurant that preyed on freshman didn’t eat them in the literal or science fiction sense. No, perhaps it just got them in the adult-sense. The real-world sense. THE CORPORATE SENSE. It enticed the curious, then gave them jobs and transformed their bodies not through magical means, but through heavily processed and ultimately irresistible free-meals-at-the-end-of-your-shift means. Then once they were hooked on all that fatty and preservative-rich goodness…?
“No one ever dreams of working in a campus dining hall,” Ashely says. “The weird building and sign were guerilla marketing at its finest!”
“But why accept the job?”
“Remember being desperate for money back then?”
“I’m desperate for money now!”
“Exactly. So maybe Tommy just needed the income.”
“And if the college knew FRESHMAN EATS was a recruitment tool, well that would explain the lack of concern.”
“Yes! They’re probably the ones who took down the posters.”
“And with no one ever coming out?”
“Probably just staying late with onboarding paperwork.”
“But why’d he cut us off? Why disappear?”
For this one Ashley doesn’t have a great answer. “Maybe he was embarrassed? Maybe after all the noise he made about FRESHMAN EATS, he didn’t want to tell us he became a sell-out?”
They finish eating in silence, pondering and playing out scenarios in their heads. The hotdogs are truly awful, but the women are excited to tell George and everyone else about their discovery, so it’s all been worth it. They clean off the table, and they paid when they came in, so there isn’t a need to talk to the server who would be Tommy. They’ll come back later, they decide, after they’ve figured out how to ask him tactfully if he’s their old friend, and after George and a few other people can give him a good look-over. So they walk to the door, though right as they open it and start outside would-be Tommy calls out.
“Hey. Hold up a second.”
Ashley and Jordan stop.
As would-be Tommy shuffles over, they recognize a familiar swinging of the arms, just at a much slower pace. And as would-be Tommy gets closer, Ashley and Jordan get excited.
HE’S GOING TO TELL US! they both think. HE’S GOING TO SAY “HI!” AND USE OUR NAMES AND HE’S GOING TO SAY “IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME!”
But when would-be Tommy stops in front of Ashley and Jordan he only hands Ashley a receipt. “I think you dropped this.”
And then he shuffles away.
“Huh,” says Ashley once he’s back to wiping tables.
“Yeah,” Jordan chimes in, “I really thought….”
With nothing else to say, they exit and walk towards the car. And Ashley starts to put the receipt in her pocket, but stops when she realizes that it’s slimy. She looks down.
Because there’s writing on the paper—on top of the characters that record her purchase there’s a message scrawled in ketchup. Now the question of whether or not that is Tommy in the shop is clear beyond all doubt, and yes, FRESHMAN EATS is an employment tool for food services. But what keeps the employees around? And why did Tommy have to communicate in secret? And how can Ashley and Jordan comply with his request? The message raises so many more questions than it answers, which is amazing since it’s really just two small words, smeared in ketchup on a slip of curled paper.