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Pulling her mane of coarse blonde curls back, Natalie clenched a bobby pin between her teeth. She fastened the stray dangling ringlets that hung about her ears tightly against her temples. Rolling her shoulders restlessly, she peered at the digital clock on her dresser, sighing irritably as seven o’clock loomed closer. Her attention once more centered on the mirror on the back of her door, she traced the edges of her gray eyes with liquid eyeliner. She didn’t bother with the usual dose of concealer, mascara, and lip-gloss. After all, who was looking when you worked at the Pizza Cellar?
Streetlights illuminating her path in the dim, late-October light, Natalie shivered and pulled her hooded sweatshirt closer to her body. Breath billowing in a whorl of steam and condensation, she mentally vowed to break out the winter coat tomorrow morning. Even the four-block walk to her job made the toes inside her tennis shoes numb. However, her trek was almost finished. Looming in front of her, the gloomy façade of the Mainstreeter café was even more menacing in the mid-evening glow.
Natalie trotted behind the old-fashioned building, pushing back her hood as she entered the back door. Pulled securely shut, the black metal grating barred her path to the upper restaurant, but that wasn’t her destination. Tracing her hand along the smooth wooden railing, she stepped down the stairs. Her pace quickened as she almost lunged to turn on the lights, the welcome friendliness of buttery fluorescence fighting back the pitch-black dark. A familiar sight greeted her as light filled the stone basement where she worked. Rough wooden benches and tables lent an almost log-cabin feel to the place, while the jagged stone walls gave the disturbing sensation of being in a dungeon. Impregnated in these very same walls was the overwhelming odor of oregano and tomato sauce.
“Natalie!” Her boss’s screech made her choke on the giant inhale she was taking, smiling sheepishly as she opened the door to Sue’s office.
“Yeah?” she replied, giggling as Sue’s “ferocious” pug puppy’s nails scrabbled against her jeans, little pink tongue lapping the air.
“I was just gonna let you know that Fifi and I are leaving early tonight,” the older woman’s scratchy voice intoned. She arthritically bent to her knees to scoop up her wriggling beast, catching Natalie’s hand to help her up.
“Sounds good,” said Natalie, inwardly rejoicing at the prospect of a free pizza without her boss’s sharp eyes on her. Sue’s mischievous grin, however, made Natalie’s exultation go down a couple notches.
“But remember…” she spookily crooned, “it’s Halloween… Make sure the ghost doesn’t get you!”
Natalie laughed in response, opening the door for the elderly woman as she trundled out, her purse in one hand, squirming mutt in the other. As Sue’s back receded down the stone hallway to the exit, Natalie turned to finish flicking on the lights, dropping her backpack on the counter. Turning the dial on the gargantuan pizza oven to the right temperature, she set out the various items needed in making a pizza: Ingredients, knife, paddle, ladle, and pizza-cutter… She filled the sinks and set out her order-pad and pen, balanced the cash register and filled out her time card. After slipping her apron over her head, Natalie promptly plopped down on her token bench and pulled out a book, settling to wait for the customers that most likely wouldn’t come to this hole-in-the-wall joint.
However, almost as soon as she cracked open her novel, the phone rang. An annoyed hiss of breath blowing through her nostrils, she sprang to catch the call.
“Pizza Cellar…” Natalie lilted in a singsong voice, unconsciously giving a dazzlingly polite smile. But there was no response on the other line. All she could hear was the static of feedback, and perhaps the wispy sound of someone breathing.
“Hello? Is anyone the-” but before she could finish, she was abruptly interrupted by a harsh, shouted word.
“BELIEVE!” The obvious click on the other end didn’t prompt a response. Natalie frowned as she hung the phone back on the wall, leaning against the warm surface of the oven, as her hands had suddenly gone ice-cold. It was just a silly Halloween prank, she said to herself, after all, everyone thinks the Pizza Cellar is haunted anyways… A deafening BANG disturbed her silent reverie, her panicky reach for the pizza-cutter frightening the bunch of trick-or-treaters that had somehow silently appeared at the counter. Their little eyes widening, they all turned and fled from the “crazy pizza-lady.”
“Okay, cool it, Natalie,” she whispered to herself out loud, making her way back to her bench. But Sue’s final words echoed in her head… Make sure the ghost doesn’t get you… Natalie half-heartedly scoffed as she picked up her book again, but her eyes just wouldn’t focus on the page in front of her. What if--? No. Natalie scowled and forced herself to read the next few sentences, but their meaning was lost on her as she heard the chilling sound of footsteps on the wooden floor above her. Goosebumps rising on her arms, Natalie forced herself to stand, automatically grabbing her sweatshirt as a comfort-item. Perhaps the trick-or-treaters had managed to force the iron grate open?
Compelling her legs to move, Natalie crept down the shadowy hall, her steps on the dark stone floor echoing loudly in her ears. Shoes squeaking on the stairs, she turned and saw what she had dreaded to find. The gate was securely padlocked, and it didn’t give an inch even when she desperately yanked on it.
“Hello?” she croaked, squinting to try and see past the looming shadow of the upstairs dining area. Without warning, a dark shape flashed across her vision, and she stumbled backwards, running back to her place in the kitchen—comforting in its shiny stainless steel surfaces and bleached white walls. It was a bat. Or something. Something had to have gotten in. Some sort of animal… Right? Hands splayed on the surface of the counter, her head bowed, Natalie took a deep breath and turned to make a pizza to calm down. Tearing a substantial chunk of squishy dough out of the bucket, she stretched it between her hands, slowly feeling her anxiety drain out of her. She had a task now.
Sprinkling a handful of flour on the surface of the dough-roller, she pounded her rounded chunk as flat as it would go, flicking a switch on the underside of the contraption. Without fail, the satisfying rattle seemed to shake the entire kitchen, and it drowned out any other sounds that might occur. Natalie sighed as the dough flattened even further, expertly sprinkling a grasp of cornmeal on the waiting palette. She settled the round plastic outline on the ready dough, the perfect circle she cut drawing a pleased smile to her lips. Superstitiously leaving the deafening roller on, Natalie ladled a healthy serving of spiced tomato sauce onto her pizza, adding handfuls of green peppers, onions, and mushrooms before layering an amount of mozzarella on top that would make Jenny Craig cringe.
Spinning neatly on the balls of her feet, she wrenched open the heavy door of the oven, her arm poised to shuffle the unfinished veggie-pizza into the heat. But that never happened.
Frozen in horror, she stared at a blackened human form curled in the back of the oven. Dear God… Natalie didn’t notice as the pizza-paddle fell out of her hand, crimson sauce splattering across the floor like blood. Who would do such a thing?! Natalie started to back away, her balance compromised on the slick surface of her once-perfect pizza. As she fell backwards, the corpse’s head sickeningly swiveled to look at her, bones crunching in its neck. The charred flesh of its cheeks stretched and cracked in sickening pink and yellow lines as it grinned and whispered, “Believe…” And then her head cracked on the counter behind her, and she saw no more.