The Garden

There’s only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors. I always thought it was just a saying, a joke that people made about how every Olive Garden looked the same, but it’s not. It’s literally one, single restaurant. I found that out the hard way.

I was visiting my mom in Phoenix, and the noon sun was beating down on the parking lot as I followed my mom into the Olive Garden. It was her idea, I never really cared for Olive Garden, especially for lunch. It was just too heavy. Still, I agreed to it. I didn’t want to fight about something so small. There were always plenty of things for us to fight about as it was.

Predictably, one of those other things came to the surface while we were there. I was half way though a chicken parm when we got into the shouting match. I don’t even remember what it was about. Funny how those things seem so important at the time, though. I stormed away, fuming. My plan was to sit in the parking lot to cool down while she finished her meal. I stepped out the front door and took in a lungful of cool mountain air. I leaned against the building and- wait a minute, cool air? We were in Phoenix, it was 116 when we walked in. It was 70, max, when I walked out. There was no reality where it cooled down that much over half a dinner. I looked around. The parking lot was subtly different. Where there had been a Buffalo Wild Wings before, now there was a Chili’s. The faint imprint of mountains in the distance was gone. I don’t know where I was, but it wasn’t Phoenix.

I rushed back inside. It looked the same as it had before. I went to find my mom. Halfway to our table, I ran into her.

She shoved a to-go box in my face. “I’ve already payed,” she snapped. I’d already forgotten we were fighting. “Take the rest of your food and let’s get out of here.”

I let out a sigh of relief. If she was still here, obviously it was the same one we had gone into. It must’ve just been the stress of the fight that made me think I was somewhere else. I took the box from her and headed for the door. We had almost reached it when she caught sight of one of her friends. It happened every time we went out, but I was hoping it wouldn’t happen this time. They hugged and she waved me out the door.

“You go on, I’ll be out in a minute,” she said and turned back to her friend before I could respond.

I stepped out into the bustle of the middle of a huge city. There were people crushing in all around and enormous digital billboards advertising every possible thing on all the buildings. There was no mistaking it this time, I definitely wasn’t in Phoenix. In fact, it looked more like Times Square.

That was impossible. There was no way I could’ve traveled from Phoenix to New York in that little time, let alone without leaving the Olive Garden. I turned and let myself back in.

It was the same Olive Garden it was the last time, but my mom was nowhere to be seen. I grabbed a passing waitress.

“Excuse me, but have you seen the woman I was in with?” I asked.

She thought for a second, then said, “I think so. She left just a few minutes ago.”

I thanked her and exited the building, again. This time I walked out to the unmistakable ocean-tinted air of southern California. I tried three more times, each time failing to find Phoenix.

It occurred to me that if I wasn’t in the parking lot or car when my mom got there, she would come back in and look for me. It made more sense to just sit on one of the benches at the front, so that’s what I did.

The minutes passed by, and she didn’t come in. Then the hours started slipping by, and she still didn’t come in. As the hours wore on, things got a little… weird. I saw people leaving that I had never seen come in. I would look at a bench and it suddenly had a group on it that had never sat down, and just as suddenly they would be gone. Shadows flitted across the windows. The waiters and waitresses changed too. They moved different, some loping like big cats, some so still and stiff that they seemed to glide across the floor like they were being pushed. At one point, it became deathly quiet, all sound sucked from the room. There were still people talking and laughing, including the group that hadn’t sat down on the bench across from me, but I heard none of it.

I had to get out of there. I didn’t care if I ended up a thousand miles away with no way to get back, I just couldn’t stay in that place any longer. I opened the door and, nothing. It was pitch black beyond. Not just dark, but black. The light from the restaurant didn’t even penetrate past the threshold. Still, I had to get out, now. I took a step forward.

“Sir, the store is closed,” came a voice from behind me. I jumped ten feet in the air. I turned to find a waitress less than two feet from me. She had a smile that seemed to expose every tooth she had, but her eyes shone with fear. They were also looking past me, into the darkness beyond the door. “Please close the door, sir.” I closed the door slowly. The door clicked closed and the fear left her eyes. “Thank you.”

“What am I supposed to do all night,” I asked her, but she was gone, like she’d never been there at all.

I tried to open the door again, but it wouldn’t this time. There was no way I could stay in this place all night. Maybe there was another door. I made my way to the back. There had to be another way out. Wasn’t there usually some loading entrance in the kitchen? I ran into the kitchen before I could think better of it. I tried not to look at the wait staff or the dishes they were carrying, neither had been quite right for awhile. A cook attending to his pot turned and regarded me with dead eyes. He didn’t have a mouth. It wasn’t as if his mouth was wired shut or that he was missing a jaw, just that where his mouth should’ve been was completely blank. He turned back to his pot. I tried not to look in as I hurried by, but I did catch something that looked like a tooth swirling around in there. There was a door in the back. I was saved!

I threw the door open and stepped through before anyone could stop me. The door immediately slammed behind me. In front of me, there were trees, maybe ten rows down, arranged in a neat little square. They had what looked like olives hanging from them. The sky was bright and blue above. At the edges of the trees were walls in the same fake brick motif of Olive Garden. All sides closed in. No other doors that I saw. I turned and tried to open the door again. It wouldn’t budge.

“That door won’t open until they need more,” came a voice from behind me. I didn’t jump this time. I turned and saw a man standing there, in front of the trees. He wore a simple tee-shirt and jeans. All his limbs were in the normal places, and his face wasn’t missing anything. “They only need olives for the day shift, so that door won’t open for a few more hours.”

“I’m sorry, what?” This didn’t make any sense. “Who are you?”

“Oh, how rude of me,” he replied, holding out his hand. “I’m Bill. Welcome to The Olive Garden.”

I took his hand. “The Olive Garden? Like the restaurant?”

He chuckled. “Yeah. I provide all the food for the restaurant. I’ve been here since 1982 and I’m glad to have someone to help.”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry, but I’m getting out of here as soon as that door opens again.”

“No, that’s impossible. The only thing that goes back into the restaurant is food. Nothing else.”

“Bullshit,” I said. I tried the door again.

***

He was right, of course. It’s been three years and I’m still stuck in The Olive Garden. Every morning, one of the mouthless cooks opens the door and we give him the days harvest. At first, I tried to push past the cook back into the kitchen, but I could never get past.

I think there may still be a way to get back in, but I don’t think I want to try it. I know the things we give the cooks.

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