Originally published July 9, 2017.
Contains: long-term weight gain, supernatural encouraging.
HELLO FRIENDS! It’s been a while since I posted my last story, too long for my liking, really. But I had the bad luck of starting a new video game (Horizon Zero Dawn; it’s amazing and you should play it) around the same time I started a story that ended up a lot longer than I expected. If I’d known this was story was going to be so long, I probably would have written some quickies in the meantime to at least keep my output more consistent. But it is what it is, and I’m just glad to finally be getting this out.
This one is another birthday present for my good friend Xenobody, though not as late as the previous one, thankfully. Like the last one, he gave me an idea for a story that he’d had swirling in his head, and I ran with it, expanding upon it and bringing it to life. Which is an ironic turn of phrase for a story about a ghost. Also, thanks to Xenobody for coming up with the name of this story; he’s quite helpful in that regard.
Premise: Ben and Eric are ghost hunters who’ve just gotten their first big gig: investigating a hotel, where the ghost of a gluttonous guest, named Wallace Grace, has been messing with food service orders and orders in the restaurant. To their dismay, they’re unable to find evidence of Wallace anywhere in the hotel. All the while, Eric ends up taking full advantage of the hotel’s complimentary room service, blaming “diet fatigue” as the cause of his overeating. But once he grows significantly bigger, Ben suspects something more sinister is at play… at least, as sinister as a ghost who only messes with food orders can be.
Ben drove himself and Eric to the All Seasons hotel in their van, which had just been painted to read “B&E Paranormal Investigators”. It was conveniently timed that they’d finally made enough money from odd jobs to get their van properly painted with their logo before their first major gig. Ben could have done without the snarky comments from the painter when he’d picked up the van, but he was just thankful that their little ghost-hunting business could now look more legitimate.
“Why do we even need a van, anyway?” Eric asked. “We could have fit all that equipment in the trunk of one of our cars and used that money to buy more impressive gear.”
“Impressing is the name of the game,” Ben answered as he drove them down the highway. “How can we expect to be taken seriously as paranormal investigators if we don’t have an at least decently professional vehicle?”
“If you think that’ll help us get taken seriously, then by all means,” Eric answered with a perceptible amount of sarcasm, before he took a sip of his diet cola. Ben side-eyed him for as long as he could safely keep his eyes off the road, but he kept his, “What’s that supposed to mean?” to himself. Having worked with Eric since the start of their ghost-hunting venture, he knew exactly what it meant.
But he couldn’t hold his tongue entirely. “Do you take this seriously?”
A deep chuckle was not the response Ben expected, nor did he expect such a dismissive reaction to be followed with, “I’ve stayed with this business all this time, haven’t I? Even when you needed to borrow money from me to buy the most basic of equipment. Even when I’m pretty sure those first few clients paid us because they felt sorry for us. I’m just amazed we’ve lasted this long.”
“Chalk it up to lack of competition,” Ben interjected, looking to change the subject. “The people of Jackson County take matters of the paranormal very seriously. Most of them, anyway,” he asserted, looking at Eric through the side of his eyes again. “But in spite of that, no one has ever started a paranormal investigation business here. It’s a niche that needs to be filled.”
“That’s one way to refer to an opportunity ripe for the taking. Although I suppose your version makes us look better.”
“You still haven’t answered whether you take this seriously.”
Eric was silent for a while, taking a long drink from his diet cola and finishing it, before capping the bottle and tossing it on the van’s floor to join the two other bottles already there. “If I told you I do, would you believe me?” Ben met Eric’s silence with his own, not sure how to answer a question like that. “I imagine that’s the kind of thing I need to show you, not tell you.”
“You can start at any time.” Out of the corner of his eye, Ben thought he saw Eric smirk, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the road to be sure. Traffic was starting to accumulate as they got closer to the town center, where they would find the hotel.
“Alright. So what’s the job we’re up against today?”
“You didn’t read the emails I sent you?”
“I might have seen them and told myself to read them later, and then forgotten.”
Ben tried to keep his sigh internal, with minimal success. “Well, read it now. I might forget some of the details if I try to tell you about it.” Ben was thankful when Eric didn’t protest, pulling his phone out of his pocket to read his messages. While Ben didn’t want to risk leaving anything out, he still felt like he had a pretty good memory for the details of the case:
Wallace Grace had been a regular guest of the All Seasons since it opened in 1980. Even though he traveled to conduct business on behalf of a fairly big corporation, he was a man with a kind heart, whose personality lived up to his family name even when his impressive heft did not. He also had an impressive appetite, often ordering room service several times a day and following it up with a meal in the hotel’s restaurant, which was originally an all-you-can-eat buffet. Tragically, he’d died in his room just a few years after the hotel opened. He’d choked on his room service dinner, and since he always traveled alone, there was no one to save him.
Not long after his death, the hotel started receiving food-related complaints at a bizarre rate. Some guests complained of room service orders coming to their rooms with food missing. Other guests would have room service orders in their name in spite of insisting they’d never ordered anything. Once the buffet-style restaurant became a more traditional dining area with a standard menu system, dishes would come out of the kitchen with items missing, in spite of the chefs insisting they were there before. Items were also being added to the order slips the wait staff passed to the kitchen, though they insisted they hadn’t written them down.
The hotel blamed the staff at first, and established systems for double checking all food-related transactions. Yet even with all their extra diligence, food was still slipping through the cracks. Since the hotel had hired locally, it didn’t take long for the staff to suspect Wallace’s ghost was to blame. And with business still growing, the hotel couldn’t afford the time to double check all the food orders, leading to more strange happenings than ever.
It didn’t take much longer for news of the haunted hotel to spread around the area. With that kind of word of mouth, the locals tended to steer clear of the All Seasons. Perhaps the prospect of winning that business back was what made All Seasons call B&E as soon as word of mouth started spreading about a paranormal investigative team in Jackson County. But Ben suspected the staff were just as spooked by the ghost as the locals were, and wanted him gone for their own sake.
Ben went over all those details in his head, as if he might relay them to Eric, even though the two drove silently as they approached All Seasons. All Seasons was easy to spot, rising farther above the flat landscape than any other buildings near it. It was something of a local landmark, it’s highly-raised lit-up signs proving an easy way for people to find their bearings when they got lost. That it had been constructed at all was something of a miracle, as most hotel chains considered Jackson County too sparsely populated and out of the way to make it worth it to build a hotel as big as All Seasons. But being the only big-name hotel in the area meant the All Seasons sponged up all the business from travelers to the area who wanted something a bit more predictable than a mom-and-pop inn or a local motel, and either weren’t privy to the local ghost stories or didn’t care.
Soon the two pulled into the parking lot around the hotel. The lot was usually reserved for staff and VIP guests, with the rest of the guests parking in the garage, but the two had been promised that a space would be reserved for them. To Ben’s surprise, that space seemed to be the very first one after the handicapped spots, where the bellhop directed them to park. After hopping out, Ben and Eric grabbed the two sparsely packed duffel bags from the back of the van.
“We should have gotten matching uniforms,” Ben lamented as he looked at the two’s mismatched business casual attire. They both wore button-down shirts, while Eric wore jeans and Ben wore khaki pants. “We could have least gotten our logo put on some Polo shirts.”
“Maybe we should spend that money getting two duffel bags’ worth of gear, so we don’t have to split it between the two to make ourselves look more legit.”
“We have everything we need,” Ben insisted, trying to convince himself more than Eric.
With all their equipment, the two walked into the lobby of All Seasons, trying to project an air of confidence. At least, Ben was. With his close-cut hair cut and his chilseled face that he’d shaved that morning, he made sure he put his best foot forward. Eric didn’t seem too troubled by the prospect of not looking professional, walking in with a smile that Ben thought looked more amused than anything else. Framing that tickled expression was a shaggy haircut that partially covered his ears, and a messy beard straddling the line between looking like something he’d grown out intentionally and something that had happened by accident.
As the two approached the front desk, Ben took the lead in talking with the receptionist. “Hi, we’re here to see Shonda.”
“Oh, you must be the ghost hunters!” the receptionist said excitedly. “You know, I somehow thought you’d be dressed in brown jumpsuits.”
“We get that a lot, miss,” Eric chimed in before Ben could say anything. “But I assure you, Ghostbusters wasn’t a documentary.”
As both of them laughed, Ben couldn’t help but smile. No one had mentioned brown jumpsuits to them before, let alone “a lot”, but letting the receptionist think otherwise would add to their legitimacy. If that was Eric’s plan, maybe he was taking this seriously after all.
Of course, there was also business to attend to. “We prefer the term ‘paranormal investigators’, ma’am. But yes, I’m Ben, and this is my partner, Eric. Were you expecting us?”
“I should say so,” the receptionist chuckled. “It’s not often that people ask for the hotelier by name.”
“Hotelier?” Ben repeated. “You mean… the general manager?”
“The very same.”
“She’s the one who contacted us?”
“You seem surprised,” she said with smile.
“Well… pleasantly so,” Ben said, trying to put on a professional attitude again.
“Let me call her down You gentlemen can take a seat right there,” she concluded as she pointed to the plush chairs and couches in the center of lobby.
The two weren’t left waiting for long. Almost as soon as they sat down, a tall, broad-shouldered woman in a deep plum-colored suit walked into the lobby. Her lengthy coiled hair bounced and waved with the pace of her step, as she walked quickly enough to create the illusion of wind blowing past her. As she got close, Ben could see that she had an assured demeanor on her face, not the attitude he would expect from a hotel manager dealing with a ghost problem.
“Gentlemen,” she greeted with a deep, deliberate voice. “You must be Ben and Eric. I’m Shonda Robinson, general manager of this All Seasons branch.”
“Lovely to meet you, Shonda,” Ben started, shaking her hand with a firmness that she returned. “I’m Ben, the one you’ve been talking with on the phone.”
“Wonderful to finally meet you in person, Ben. And you must be Eric.”
“It stands to reason. Nice to meet you,” Eric said with a smile. “So, Ben tells me you have a long-standing ghost problem?”
“Yes,” Shonda sighed, losing a bit of the pleasantness in her expression, but none of the confidence. “Perhaps we should go back to my office to discuss it. Or would you rather see the room itself?”
“Well, we already have our equipment,” Ben said, “so I say let’s get down to business.”
With a nod, Shonda turned around to lead them to the elevator, where they discussed the details of the job. “As you requested, I left a room next to 403 empty as well so you can get baseline readings. 403 itself, well…” she paused, not continuing until the elevator dinged to let them know they’d reached the fourth floor. “403 has been unoccupied ever since 1983, when Mr. Grace passed away inside. Some of my receptionists will offer it when all the other rooms are full, but in my 12 years managing this hotel, most of them have just told guests the hotel is full when it’s the only room left.”
“Has… anyone been in the room since then?”
“Not many. My cleaning staff refuses to enter. Every few years, I have to hire professional cleaners to take care of it and keep it from falling into total shambles. Even then, it costs a pretty penny to hire cleaners to clean a haunted room around here. But I made sure to get it cleaned before you came in.” Once they reached room 403, Shonda passed the two men each a key card. “These will get you into both 403 and 402.”
With a nod, Ben took one of the cards, and opened the door to 403. Stepping inside, he saw what looked like any old hotel room, albeit with all of the lights turned off. “Huh. I thought it would look more retro.”
“Technically, it’s still an available room, so any changes we make to all the rooms in the hotel, we need to make to this room too. Hasn’t scared old Wallace away so far.”
“Mmm. Well, we’ll get started on our work,” Ben said as he and Eric both put their duffle bags on the beds.
“Of course. Please let me know if there’s any way I can be of assistance,” Shonda said before turning to walk down the hall. But before she could walk away, she turned back and added, “Oh! One more thing, gentlemen. I’ve set up 402 as a legitimate room reservation, compliments of All Seasons. You can stay in the room if you please, and if you ever want to eat in Seasonal Cuisine, our restaurant downstairs, you can charge to room 402 and the hotel will foot the bill. Ditto for room service. Call it a token of my appreciation.”
“Well thank you,” Ben exclaimed. “That’s very sweet of you.”
“Of course. You’re doing us a huge favor here. It’s the least I can do,” she said before walking away.
Ben turned to Eric, surprised to have not heard him thank Shonda as well. Eric was definitely the more food-motivated of the two, as evidenced by the bit of pudge that crept over his belt in his tucked-in button down shirt. Ben wouldn’t have precisely called him “fat”, but he had enough flab on his body to contrast with Ben’s toned frame. He still made attempts at shedding it, swapping out his cola habit for diet cola, hitting the gym semi-regularly, and opting for sandwiches or salads when the two went out for a business lunch. But old habits were hard to break, and Eric liked snacking and going out to eat after work enough to make up the difference.
Given all that, Ben thought for sure that Eric would be noticeably excited about the complimentary food. But when he turned around to look at his partner, he saw that he had a strange look on his face. “You okay?”
“I dunno. Something strange just came over me. There’s this… weird feeling in my stomach.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be drinking all that soda.”
“Yeah…” Eric relented. “I mean, they say the fake sugar in the diet stuff is worse for you anyway. I might as well just drink regular coke.”
“That’s not… well anyway, do you think you’ll still be able to work?”
“I think so. It just feels a bit unsettled, is all.”
“Maybe you should just go light on dinner after we’re done here.”
“I dunno, this seems like the kind of feeling that food would help, not hurt.” After pausing for a bit, Eric continued, “I’m going to go down to the vending machine and get a snack.”
“Suit yourself,” Ben replied before he opened his duffel bag. “Hey, tell you what!” he called out, stopping Eric in his tracks. “Bring your duffle bag with you, so you can set up your equipment in room 402 after you get your snack.”
“Good idea! That way, I can carry my snacks in my bag,” Eric said as he left, which Ben didn’t pay much mind to.
Ben got to work setting up the EVP recorder and geophone in 403, to monitor the room for paranormal activity while the two were gone, before he started scanning the room for activity. He spent a long time sweeping the whole room with his EMF meter and his infrared thermometer, trying to find some evidence of Wallace. But he couldn’t find the usual fluctuations and cold spots that denoted a paranormal presence. He supposed that wasn’t all that surprising; if Wallace was taking food in the restaurant kitchen and from the room service orders, then his presence probably wasn’t constrained to room 403. Unfortunately, that meant finding him would likely prove difficult.
“Hey Ben, look, I’m emitting a field,” Ben heard Eric say from outside the door, along with the EMF meter going off. Looking behind him, Ben saw Eric holding the meter up against his body, and he said, “I guess I’m the ghost!”
“Very funny. That’s sensitive equipment, you know; if you break if, you’re buying a new one. Also, the human body emits electromagnetic energy on its own, so no, you’re not a ghost.”
“Okay,” Eric said playfully. “I set up the voice recorder and geo-thingy in 402, if you want to come take a look.”
After letting out a sigh, Ben said, “Actually, I do. I couldn’t get any readings in this room, and I want to see how the unhaunted room compares. Stay in the hallway for now so you don’t alter the readings.”
After packing up his duffel bag, Ben brought his tools into 402 and started scanning. To his disappointment, 402 had the same electromagnetic and temperature readings as 403. At the very least, Eric had set up the EVP recorder and geophone correctly, even though he couldn’t call them by their real names. With a sigh, he turned around to leave the room and let his tools collect their data.
On the way out, Ben caught a glimpse of something shiny in the trash bin. Looking inside, he saw what looked like about a dozen snack wrappers. Some were from candy, some were from chips, and at least two were from pre-packaged cinnamon rolls. After a long pause, he stepped out of the room to meet Eric in the hallway.
“No, no differences–”
“–but… did you eat all those snacks?”
“All what snacks?”
“All the snacks that came in the wrappers in the trash.”
“Oh, yeah, why?”
“You ate all those?”
“I was hungry,” Eric said with a shrug. “What can I say? They were good.”
“Does your stomach feel better now?”
“I… I think so. It really wasn’t feeling that bad to begin with.”
“Well that’s better than I expected,” Ben muttered. ”Come one, we have a lot more work to do if we’re going to find some leads.”
The two spent the remainder of the afternoon walking all over the hotel, trying their usual tricks to scout out paranormal presences and finding nothing. As dinner time approached, Ben was getting increasingly agitated, until Eric suggested, “Why don’t we go get something to eat? Take your mind off of things for a while. We can talk about what we already know and figure out a plan for going forward.”
After a silent pause, Ben relented, “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Where should we eat?”
“I mean, the restaurant downstairs will be free for us,” Eric said with a smile.
“Yeah, let’s do that,” Ben said curtly, audibly ready to take a break.
Seasonal Cuisine wasn’t too full of people when the two entered, which was all the better for giving Ben the break he needed. Once they were seated, he was surprised by the breadth of choices on the menu. In his experiences, most hotel restaurants had a pretty limited selection, but Seasonal Cuisine seemed to be trying to be appealing as a stand-alone restaurant, not just as a place for guests of the All Seasons to eat. With a menu several pages long, the two could have eaten at the restaurant every night of the job and gotten something different every time, even if the job went on as long as it seemed like it was going to.
As impressed as he was with the selection, though, Ben opted to order a salad with grilled chicken, keeping things light so he could still think about the job the two had ahead of them. When the waiter came, however, Eric seemed to have other ideas.
“Hi, I’ll start with the Caesar salad with extra dressing, followed by a bloomin’ onion and Teriyaki wings, to share, of course,” he said with a smile as he looked at Ben, whose eyebrows were already raised, “and the chicken fettuccine alfredo. I’ll think about dessert after dinner,” he finished with a grin before passing his menu to the waiter.
Ben waited until the waiter had left before he asked Eric, “What happened to salad or sandwiches during work lunch?”
“This isn’t a work lunch,” Eric chuckled. “It’s dinner. Whole different set of rules.”
“You usually eat this much at dinner?”
“Not usually, but with so many selections to try, how can I pick just one?”
Ben shook his head before he took a slice from the basket of free bread, which Eric had already looted for a slice to spread thick with butter and munch on as the two chatted. They talked about what Ben was hoping to see on the EVP recorder and geophone in the next few days, and how they’d proceed based on what they found. “I’d also like to spend a day talking to hotel staff about their experiences with Wallace’s ghost. See if they can offer any more clues.”
“Maybe we should scan the kitchen at some point,” Eric suggested as he took another piece of the bloomin’ onion, which he had kept on his side of the table, along with the wings. “If so many of the problems happen with room service and meals here, it seems like a likely place for our ghostly friend to be.”
“That’s… I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. I’ll talk to Shonda and see when they can be arranged. They probably won’t want us there during working hours.”
“Probably. Man, this is so good,” Eric beamed through a mouth full of several cuts of the onion appetizer.
“Can I try some?”
“Hell yeah! I did got it to share,” Eric reminded Bill before he pushed the plate to be within Bill’s reach. Once Bill had taken one piece, Eric pulled the plate back to sit in front of him before taking a few more.
“I mean, it’s good, I guess.”
“‘You guess’? Man, what are you talking about? This is delicious!”
“Well, enjoy it, then.”
“Oh I will!”
The two’s entrees generated similarly mixed reactions, with Ben thinking his was decent, while Eric wolfed down his chicken fettuccine alfredo, raving about how delicious it was, even though it looked rather mediocre to Ben. When the time came to order dessert, Eric ordered the chocolate cake, while Ben passed. When the giant slice came out, Ben thought looked like the hotel was trying to make up for a lack of quality with quantity. But Eric enjoyed it just as much as the rest of the meal, not quite savoring it but slowing down his eating just enough to not be wolfing the treat down.
After charging the bill to room 402, the two stood up to go home. As Eric stood up, he let out a “Whoa,” and had to push himself up with one of his hands on the chair. Once he was standing, he leaned back and stood in place until he found his balance again. “Man,” he sighed as he gave his stomach a few pats. “Must’ve eaten more than I realized.”
“You ate a salad, two appetizers, a heavy meal, and dessert. What do you mean ‘more than you realized’?” Ben teased.
“Okay, fair,” Eric chuckled. “I feel like I could eat more, though.”
As he shook his head side-to-side, Ben said, “I’d say your eyes are bigger than your stomach, but that might not actually be true.”
“Yeah,” Eric chuckled. “Anyway, how would you feel about stopping for some burgers on the way back?”
After packing up the van, the two drove home, with Ben driving to Eric’s house first even though they lived only a ten minute walk away from each other. Though they’d gotten most of their discussions over with at dinner, Ben was still searching for a way to bring up one last topic.
“So, there’s still the unpleasant fact that one of us has to listen to the EVP recordings for anomalies, and compare both them and the geophone readings between the two rooms. We can do it as often or rarely as we want, but the more often one of us goes in there, the less time it’ll take each time.”
“You mean me, don’t you?” Eric asked, his tone of voice conveying that he knew the answer.
“We could take turns,” Ben offered genuinely.
“Nah, you’re the expert here; you should be out doing the rough investigative work, not pouring over recordings. Leave that to me; I don’t mind stopping in every day to do that.”
Flabbergasted by Eric’s generosity, Ben asked, “You’ll really do it? I know it’s not exactly glamorous, but–”
“Hey, I’ll find a way to make it fun.”
“Thank you,” Ben said with audible relief. “For your stomach’s sake, maybe try making it fun with something other than a dozen vending machine snacks.”
“Oh don’t worry, I won’t be doing that again,” Eric chuckled.
“Now, you should be able to access the recordings from both rooms on the laptop in room 402, so there should be no reason for you to go in 403.”
“Unless the ghost messed with our equipment,” Eric chuckled.
“Maybe. But if something like that happens, call me. I don’t want something bad happening to do you because you had to contend with a paranormal presence on your own.”
“Will do,” Eric promised. “Can I take the van, even if you’re not going in?” he asked with a toothy grin.
“Sure,” Ben chuckled. “I’ll let you know ahead of time when I want to go into the hotel on a given day. Otherwise, the van’s all yours.”
“Sweet,” Eric enthused, before pointing toward a Wendy’s down the road saying, “Ooh, pull in there.”
“You’re serious right now?” Ben asked incredulously.
“Dead serious. Come on, I could go for something less pretentious after that meal.”
Shonda told Ben they wouldn’t be able to close down the kitchen for a few weeks, but he could interview the hotel’s staff about their experiences with Wallace about a week later, that next Tuesday. Tuesdays, Shonda claimed, were their slowest days, making it the best day for him to have lengthy conversations with the employees. At Ben’s request, she’d sent out an email to her staff inviting them to talk to Ben about their experiences with Wallace. The response had been so overwhelming that Ben made sure he arrived at 6:30 AM that morning, giving him enough time to talk to everyone. Eric didn’t want to wake up that early, so he’d told Ben he’d drive himself in rather than ride in the van.
“It’s the strangest thing,” one of the chefs told him. “I know I put that garlic bread on the plate.”
“And I know it was on there,” said the waitress standing next to him. “I saw it before I brought the dishes to the table.”
“Do you think it might have fallen onto the floor as you brought it over?” Ben asked.
“I doubt it. I had those dishes on a tray. It should have at least fallen on the tray.”
“And look at this,” the chef said as he pulled an order slip out of his pocket. It was wrinkled and yellowed, clearly fairly old, but the writing was still legible enough to be read. “Look at that last item.”
Ben saw that the last line seemed to be ordering a cheeseburger, medium rare, though he had trouble making out the code the wait staff used to make writing faster. But once he looked at the whole slip, he saw what the chef seemed to be referring to. “It’s a different handwriting. It looks like it’s trying to match the server’s handwriting, but it’s loopier, and more faintly written.”
The chef nodded, with his eyes open wide and mouth flat. “Wally definitely added that.”
“You mean Wallace?”
Before Ben had even finished his sentence, both the chef and the waitress were shushing him, with looks of genuine nervousness in his eyes. “We, uh, try to not refer to him by his real name,” the chef told Ben. “Otherwise…”
“Otherwise he might show up,” the waitress finished.
“Well, making him show up is exactly what I’m hoping to do,” Ben told them, trying to put on a confident tone.
“Okay. Just… maybe wait until you’re the only one around?” the waitress asked. “I promise you, we’re not the only ones you’ll spook if you mention his name.”
“Really? He’s not Voldemort.”
“Who?” the waitress asked.
“Voldemort? From Harry Potter?”
“Oh, ma never let me read Harry Potter. Said it promotes paganism. I know better now, but… I just never got around to it.”
As Ben talked to the rest of the staff, he heard similar stories. One of the room service attendants told him, “At this point, it’s become unwritten hotel policy to let the guests keep the meals if they want them.”
“Do you think some of them might be trying to con you out of paying for their food?”
“You know, when I started working here, I thought that. But about two thirds of them turn their meals away, so it’s not all cheapskates and wannabe con artists.”
“They turn away free food?”
“Surprising, right?” the room service attendant chuckled. “A lot of them say they aren’t hungry, or they’ve already made plans to eat elsewhere. Others tell us they don’t even like the food they supposedly ordered. We’ve even had a few instances where Wally ordered food that the guest was allergic to. I had to deliver a lobster dinner to a man, only to find out he had a severe shellfish allergy that could flare up just by being in the same room as the stuff. I think the hotel paid for everything that particular stay.”
“So how do so many fake orders go through?”
“You know, it used to not be so much of a problem back when we were still doing everything by phone. But ever since the system went digital, that’s when it got really bad. Once an order is in the system, the computer can’t tell the difference between a fake order and real one. And neither can we. We used to try calling the guests to confirm the orders, but between how many orders we go through in a day and how often the guests weren’t in their room to answer the call, it just wasn’t worth it.”
With a nod, Ben took a few notes before asking, “Do you know of any unfinished business Wally might have that’s tethering him to the All Seasons?”
“Revenge, maybe? For the room service dinner that ended his life?” the attendant suggested with a shrug.
“Perhaps, although that wouldn’t explain why the kitchen has stories of him interfering with restaurant orders too.”
“True,” the attendant admitted. “I suppose the only common thread seems to be that he still wants to eat. Stealing food, making sure more food gets made, it fits both. I don’t imagine he’d be pleased if he were alive today to see that the restaurant downstairs isn’t all-you-can-eat anymore.”
Ben kept talking to the hotel staff until noon, when he felt his stomach growl and decided it was time for him to grab lunch. He pulled out his phone and sent Eric a quick text: “I’m coming up to 402. Don’t want to surprise you.”
At the end of the hallway, Ben knocked on the door before entering, noticing a room service tray littered with empty plates next to the door. He chuckled to himself, thinking, That’s one way to pass the time checking those recordings. When he walked in, Eric was sitting at the laptop with the headphones on, listening intently. He gave Ben a wave, listened a while longer, then took them off. “Hey,” he greated.
“Hey. Find anything?”
“‘Fraid not,” Eric sighed. “If I had, I would have let you know as soon as I found it. The first day, the only differences I could find came from when one of us was in one of the rooms. Since then, I’ve only found differences when I enter or leave. Anything promising that I heard in the voice recording for 403, I also heard in the recording for 402.”
“Meaning it was a noise that originated from outside of the room and was loud enough to be heard in both.”
“Yeah,” Eric replied with pursed lips.
With a sigh, Ben rested his chin in his right hand and his right elbow in his left hand.
“Did the interviews give you any leads?”
“Maybe. Let’s talk about it over lunch.”
“Ooh, good idea!” Eric exclaimed. He enthusiastically bent forward in his seat, only to rise slowly into a standing position.
“You sure you’ll be hungry after getting room service?”
“Oh yeah. It was just a snack, anyway. Really convenient, too. You can order right on here,” he said as he held up a tablet which bore the All Seasons logo.
“You know, one of the guys I talked to said that when they moved over to those tablets, that’s when the number of incidents really spiked.”
“I guess it’s as convenient for the dead as it is for the living,” Eric chuckled.
“Can I see it?”
“Sure,” Eric answered before passing the tablet to Ben. As Ben browsed through the room service app, he saw that nearly the entire menu was available for ordering. There was also a “history” tab, which he checked to see what history could possibly have to do with food. When he pressed it, it seemed to contain all of the past orders placed for the room, with timestamps and a button for re-ordering any of them.
It was there that Ben saw that Eric had in fact not ordered just a snack, but rather a full-fledged meal. And it seemed to be one of three that he’d ordered that day alone. Over the course of the morning, he’d progressed from breakfast food to brunch food, ordering himself a veritable buffet of options every time. As Ben kept scrolling, he saw that this was a pattern. Each day had two or three room service orders in the morning and anywhere from three to five in the afternoon.
Perhaps, he pondered, it was the work of Wallace. Maybe he was putting in fake orders to get back at them for pestering him, and the hotel had wised up early enough to prevent the fake orders for 402 from going through. Yes, he told himself, that had to be it. There was no way one person, even someone like Eric, could eat that much. “But yeah, the guy I talked to said that even before they switched to tablets, they couldn’t keep up with double checking all the orders to make sure Wallace’s phony ones didn’t go through.”
“That would probably be even less feasible now. Now that they can just use an app, people must be putting in a lot more orders.”
“Yeah…” Ben stalled, drawing out the word. “Have they called you at all to double check whether the…” he paused to avoid saying, “orders”. “Order you put in was legitimate?”
“No,” Eric answered nonchalantly. “Why would they call me if they’re not calling anyone else?”
“Well,” Eric stuttered as he tried to come up with a reason for asking, without acknowledging Eric’s order history, let alone the possibility that it could be real. “I mean, we’re in his space, and we’re working to try to find him. He might be putting in orders for our room to get back at us.”
“Oh yeah, I suppose. But still, no calls from room service to confirm my orders.”
“And they brought you everything you ordered?”
“Yeah,” Eric replied, with a tone of voice that asked, “Where are you going with this?“ “Why wouldn’t they?”
“Well, I mean… if they’re not checking…”
“Why are you acting so weird about this?” Eric asked with eyelids half-closed and eyebrows lowered.
“Nothing, nothing. Just… a lot on my mind about this haunting. Let’s talk about it over lunch.”
With no delay or hesitation, Eric’s expression completely changed, blooming into an enthusiastic smile and eyes wide open. “Okay!” Soon he strode right past Ben and left the room. Ben remained in place, playing the conversation over in his head, until he heard Eric shout out, “You coming or what?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ben said, shaking his head and jogging out into the hallway. He walked behind Eric down the hall, trying to just focus on the job ahead of them. Which was a challenge when he couldn’t help but notice that Eric’s love handles seemed to be jutting out a bit farther over his belt than they had the last time Ben had seen him. When they reached the elevator, Eric hit the “down” button before looking back at Ben with a smile. Ben returned the grin, even though he had the stubborn feeling that Eric’s face looked a bit rounder than it had the day they arrived at the All Seasons
It was two weeks later when Ben and Eric saw each other in person again. That day, another Tuesday, Shonda had promised them the kitchen would be empty from 9:00 to 11:00 so they could conduct their sweep. The two drove to the All Seasons together in their B&E van, as Eric sipped on a regular cola. “I can take care of the kitchen on my own, especially given two hours,” Ben told Eric. “I’ll meet up with you in 402 when I’m done.”
“Oka–wait,” Eric interjected. “You didn’t want me going into 403 alone in case Wallace was in there, but you’ll go into the kitchen alone to try to find him?”
“403 is different. A paranormal presence is always more powerful in the spot where the person died. I think you and I are both more than capable of contending with Wallace on our own anywhere else in the hotel, but in 403, I’d rather we be together.”
“That’s no guarantee of protection, of course. We still don’t know what Wallace is really capable of.”
“I dunno. We haven’t found any evidence of him so far, and the extent of his haunting seems to be messing with food orders. Doesn’t sound like we’re dealing with an Exorcist situation here.”
“No, I guess not,” Ben chuckled. “To use your words, the Exorcist wasn’t a documentary. Still, I don’t think we can be too careful in the spot where the Wallace himself died.”
The two were quiet as they pulled up to a red light, with only the sounds of the van and the soft AM rock from the radio breaking the silence. As they waited for the light to change, Ben took the chance to look over at Eric, feeling like something was different about him that day.
Once Ben could take a good look, it finally hit him: Eric had a belly. Not just a bit of pudge that crept over the seat belt when he sat down, but a veritable paunch that had its own roundness and shape as it pushed over his legs. It was by no means a big belly, but Ben was sure Eric hadn’t been that pudgy before. Looking up, he saw that Eric’s chest now stuck out more noticeably as well, forcing the shirt to drape over the two lobes as well as his abdomen. To top it all off, he seemed to be growing a double chin.
Ben kept looking at Eric out of the side of his eye until a car horn alerted him to the fact that the light had changed to green. Once they reached a constant speed, Ben gently asked Eric, “Say, are you still hitting the gym? It would probably be helpful with these long days spent sitting in 402.”
“Nah,” Eric answered dismissively.
“No?” The casualness of Eric’s reply caught Ben off guard. It seemed like Eric had really taken his time at the gym seriously this time. To hear him be so nonchalant about saying no wasn’t what Ben expected.
“I just haven’t had any motivation. And what’s the point of going if I’m not going to bother doing anything?”
“Well, I mean… you push through, and trust that the motivation will follow,” Ben answered shakily. He had his own on-again-off-again relationship with the gym, and could scarcely chastise Eric for not going without becoming a hypocrite.
“Oh I’ve pushed through alright,” Eric chuckled. “And every time I push through and try to go to the gym anyways, I end up stopping at every drive-through on the way there. By the time I get to the gym, I’m too full to work out.”
“Every drive-through?” Ben asked, too astonished to know what to do with that information other than confirm it.
“Every one. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Sonic, KFC, Dairy Queen, and Dunkin Donuts for dessert. I even found something to eat at the Starbucks drive through.”
“Holy shit, dude,” Eric whispered.
“Yeah. So maybe it’s better if I just skip the gym.” The casualness with which Eric said it left Ben speechless, unable to comment any further. If Eric wasn’t exaggerating, that would certainly have explained his recent pudge. “It’s always delicious, though. Like, I know they’re all chains, and in theory there’s no difference between them and any other place of the same name. But we must just have the ones that make everything a little better than the rest. Every one of them is so good, I don’t know why I wasn’t stopping there earlier.”
“Um, Eric,” Ben finally spoke up. “Have you been feeling okay?”
“I mean… you’re eating… a lot more than you used to, and it’s such a drastic change that I’m just–”
“You know, I’ve been wondering about that myself,” Eric interjected. “I think it’s diet fatigue.”
“Yeah, you know. When you try to go on a diet and eat better, but after a while, everything forbidden by your diet looks extra delicious. Being hungry all the time drains your willpower, and eventually, you snap, and eat everything you couldn’t eat before.”
“Sounds like it’s happened before.”
“Yeah,” Eric sighed. “But they’re always temporary. Once I calm down, I’ll get back on the wagon. Until then, I’m just going to enjoy it.”
“You certainly have been enjoying it.”
“I mean, the diet’s already ruined. Might as well milk this opportunity for all I can,” Eric chuckled.
It didn’t take long for the two reached the All Seasons, pulling into the parking lot around 8:30. After grabbing their gear out of the back of the van, they walked inside, where Shonda was waiting for them. “Gentlemen! I hope this morning finds you well. Have you had any luck tracking down our… stubborn guest?”
Both men looked at each other nervously before Ben stuttered, “W-we’re still following up on some promising leads.”
“Of course. That’s why you’re here today, after all.”
“Yes!” Ben enthused, his confident demeanor having returned. “Are we still on to sweep the kitchen from 9:00 to 11:00?”
“Of course. The cooks are still in there preparing a brunch buffet so we can still serve our guests while you work.”
“Did you say… ‘buffet’?” Eric asked, his voice full of wonder, like a child being promised a trip to Disney World.
“You say that like you’ve never been to one before,” Shonda commented, an amused smile spread across her face.
“Listen, Ben,” Eric said, “I’m gonna grab some breakfast before I head up to 402 to compare the readings.”
“Did you not eat breakfast before you came here?”
“Irrelevant,” Eric called out, already on his way to the other end of the dining room. There, Ben could see a buffet table set up with plenty of breakfast staples, including pancakes, French toast, eggs, bacon, sausages, muffins, cinnamon rolls, and a fruit salad for good measure. Eric took a tray and arranged two plates on it, which he piled high with everything except the fruit salad. He walked back to a table noticeably more slowly than he’d walked to the buffet, balancing two plates piled high with breakfast staples.
After shaking his head, Ben turned to Shonda and said, “I better get in there and set up.”
“Of course. Right this way.”
With the kitchen crew’s help, Eric made sure all the cooking equipment was properly turned off, ensuring minimal interference from any heat or electromagnetism they might create. Once everyone else was out, he turned the ventilation on high, to get any remaining heat out of the room. With some time to kill until the room cooled off, he shrugged and walked back into the restaurant, figuring he could do with a bite to eat too.
Ben found the buffet table set up right outside the kitchen. Taking one plate, he grabbed a muffin and some of the fruit salad, easily the entree that had been touched the least that morning. Looking out into the dining room, he saw Eric at one of the tables and walked over to join him. As Ben approached, he was surprised to see just how quickly Eric was wolfing down his meal, like he was rushing to get back to 402 as quickly as Ben wanted to be back in the kitchen. “Hello.”
“Oh hi,” Eric replied, his surprised voice muffled by a mouthful of pancakes. “You didn’t finish the kitchen already, did you?”
“Nah, I need to let it cool down so the heat doesn’t mess with my readings. Figured I’d grab a bite to eat too while I wait.”
“Good thinking,” Eric commended before shoving a forkful of eggs topped with bacon in his mouth.
“How’s the food?” Ben asked, though he had a feeling Eric would say…
“Amazing,” he mumbled through his full mouth. “The pancakes are so fluffy, the bacon is so crispy, the eggs are cooked perfectly. I’m amazed they could keep the food this good while it’s out on the buffet table.”
Looking at Eric’s plate, Ben couldn’t help but feel he was overselling the meal. The pancakes looked rubbery, the bacon looked soft, and the eggs looked overcooked. When he ate his muffin, he found it dry and lacking in flavor. The fruit salad somehow tasted blander than the individual fruits that made it up should have been. But it was something to eat, and his unenthusiastic pace of eating helped him pass the time until he could go back in the kitchen.
When Ben finished his comparatively meager meal, Eric had also taken the last bite of his feast. “Alright, I’ll see you in 402, then?”
“Probably,” Eric replied, standing up and taking his tray with him, but not his two dirty plates.
“Aren’t you checking the readings today?”
“Of course. I just might not be there yet when you finish in the kitchen,” Eric called back.
Ben shook his head and left his plate on the table too, since that seemed to be the rule. Without a tray to bring back, he went right for the kitchen, paying Eric no mind as he walked back to the buffet table.
Ben spent about 45 minutes scanning the kitchen for EMF anomalies and cold spots. He swept it thoroughly, checking under tables and behind equipment for any signs of paranormal activity. But there was none. The kitchen was just as cold as 403, showing no signs of Wallace’s ghost. Having had no luck sweeping the place, he set up an EVP recorder and geophone to take readings for the next half hour, in case that told him anything.
With yet more time to kill, Ben figured he’d join Eric in 402 until the time came to collect his equipment from the kitchen. It would certainly beat being on his phone for the next half-hour. But when he walked out of the kitchen, he was surprised to see Eric still at the table, still eating. This time, he seemed to be finishing up a stack of pancakes drenched with syrup, as he cut through the last few. Surrounding him were about a dozen dirty dishes, all cleared of their previous contents.
“You’re still eating?”
“I’m still hungry,” Eric explained through a mouthful of pancake.
“You’ve been eating for over an hour.”
“What’s it to you?”
“I can’t leave here until you can because I drove us here, and the later you wait to start taking those readings, the later you’ll be here.”
“Alright, alright,” Eric exclaimed as he pushed himself away from the table, leaving a few scraps of pancake behind. When he tried to get up, he grunted and moved slowly until he’d taken a standing position. Ben thought he was seeing things when the buttons on Eric’s shirt looked tighter. But given how much he’d eaten, he supposed that was inevitable.
Once Eric was finally upright, he stretched his arms and back, causing his rounded belly to bulge out even farther and pulling his button-down shirt out from his pants. When he finished stretching, Ben could see that his belly had rounded out enough to make a crease in his shirt where he chest ended and his pudgy belly began. With a yawn, he absentmindedly gave his gut a few pats, keeping his hand on it as he looked up and saw Ben still staring at him. “I’m going, I’m going,” he insisted as he hobbled off, out of the restaurant and toward the elevators.
Ben spent the next half-hour on his phone, with no food in front of him, being much less inclined to go back for seconds than Eric. Once the time had passed, he returned to the kitchen and checked the readings. Nothing. With a sigh, he packed up all his equipment and went to join Eric in 402.
When Ben walked into the hotel room, he found Eric snacking on a cornucopia of vending machine goodies yet again, with wrappers overflowing out of the waste basket. He didn’t bother to count how many his partner had eaten. With disbelief, he asked, “Did you eat all these?”
“Well, they’re not sending out room service while the kitchen is closed, so I had to do something,” Eric replied without looking away from the screen. After turning to face Ben, he continued in a surprisingly serious tone, “Did you find anything in the kitchen?”
“Nothing?” Eric repeated, voice raised in disbelief.
“Not a thing. It was as devoid of signs of paranormal activity as these two rooms have been.”
With his chin in his hand, Eric looked at the floor before he looked back up at Ben. “You know, that kinda makes sense.”
“All the reports mention Wallace messing with food service orders and orders for customers in the restaurants. If we’re expecting him to be in the kitchen, he’ll be in there while it’s active, not while it’s closed down and not making any food.”
With a blank look on his face, Ben looked down and sighed, because he knew Eric was right. It made too much sense to be otherwise. “How do you know so much about ghost behavior, all of a sudden? You keep coming up with these ideas that I never would have thought of, even though I’m the one that does the actual research.”
“Lucky guess?” Eric answered before putting his headphones back on to keep listening to the recording.
Ben sighed and dropped his duffle bag on one of the beds before he sat in the room’s corner chair. “If we’re going to try to find signs of Wallace’s ghost in the kitchen while it’s active, we’re going to need better equipment. In the meantime, I’m going to go talk with Shonda about setting up some EVP recorders and geophones in the restaurant to record while they’re closed.”
“That’s going to mean more recordings for me to check, isn’t it?” Eric asked, his tone of voice flat like he already knew the answer.
“I could take that duty. It’s not fair to you to–”
Raising his hand toward Ben, Eric had a placid smile on his face as he explained, “The restaurant is open from 6 AM to 10 PM every day. They probably arrive early and leave late to do clean-up, meaning only another six-to-seven hours of viable recordings to examine. I already have 24 to check each day, and I’ve gotten pretty good at doing that in much less time than 24 hours. I can handle another six or seven. You go work your day job so you can support this little venture of ours.”
With a dismal chuckle, Ben admitted, “It’s not much support with all this unpaid time off I’ve had to take.”
“All the more reason why you shouldn’t be here listening to recordings every day.”
“I could catch up on the weekends,” Ben suggested.
“Or you could let me do it while I’m here anyway.”
Ben let out a sigh of exasperation. It felt like when he and Eric went out for lunch and they’d argue about who would pay the bill, neither person wanting to let the other pay. But if Eric was truly willing to look over the extra recordings, Ben couldn’t argue much for taking a duty he didn’t like. With another sigh, this one of relief, he quietly said, “Thank you, Eric. I’m, uh, I’m going to go talk to Shonda about setting up those recorders.”
It didn’t take much convincing to get Shonda to agree to let Ben setup the recording devices inside and outside the kitchen. Her only concern, she told him, was Ben being in staff’s way during setup, and the equipment being in their way afterward. “If you come by around 10 tonight,” she told him, “we’ll make sure you can put them someplace out-of-the-way that still works for you. Or come by earlier and grab a bite to eat, on the house.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ben said warmly, knowing full well he’d be eating dinner before he arrived at the All Seasons.
Ben did some more sweeps of the hotel and talked to a few more employees to pass the time until Eric had finished checking the recordings. Around 4:00, he got the text from Eric reading, “I’m done. I’ll see you in the lobby.” After packing up his equipment, Ben made his way to the entrance, happy to finally be going home.
Ben found Eric standing near the double automatic doors the opened out into the parking lot. He waved as Ben approached, a gesture Ben returned while he asked, “Anything in the recordings?”
“Nothing as usual,” Eric sighed. “Any luck on the kitchen?”
“I’ll be coming back tonight to set up equipment after the restaurant closes.”
Eric nodded as he turned to walk toward the door, Ben following behind him as they walked to the van. As they got in from opposite sides, Ben observed that one of the buttons in the middle of Eric’s shirts had popped open, exposing a sliver of the white undershirt underneath.
Ben didn’t see much of Eric for the next few months. Ben had to take extra hours at the plant in order to save up for some new equipment to help them find Wallace. With Eric now the only one driving to the All Seasons, he’d taken to parking the van in his own driveway to avoid needing to walk to Ben’s every morning. In what little time Ben had between his shifts, he and Eric kept each other updated via email. Ben told Eric about his new plan, while Eric sent Ben a steady stream of “Nothing notable on the recordings,” emails, punctuated with ravings about how good the room service meals were.
About a month later, Ben had his new equipment, and could explain his plan to Shonda. “It’s called a wide-scanning EMF meter. It’s like my little one here,” he said as he held up his hand-held model, “But it can scan a whole room for electromagnetic fluctuations. It’s obviously not as precise as a smaller model like this one, but with your paranormal phenomenon being so pronounced, I’m confident it’ll be sensitive enough.”
“So what will you use it for?”
“Given that we haven’t had much luck finding Wally so far, we think he’s only going to show up in the kitchen while it’s active and sending out orders. As such, we don’t think doing nightly scans with our current equipment is enough. What I would like to do is set up one of these in the kitchen, and one in 403 to be on the safe side. Then, when another paranormal phenomenon occurs, let us know and we can check for fluctuations on both meters.”
“You mean when Wallace messes with another order?”
“Sounds reasonable. You can set up the meter in the kitchen after close like you did with the other two.”
“Great. I’ll bring both around tonight.”
Ben left immediately after finishing his conversation with Shonda, lest he be late for work again. There wasn’t much point in him visiting room 402 anyway; he hadn’t seen their van in the parking lot, meaning Eric wouldn’t be in. It was a bit early for Eric to be awake anyway.
Ben put Eric and Shonda in contact so she could tell him directly if there was a paranormal episode, and he could check the readings while they were still recent. But as he went back to work to ensure they had the money to upgrade their equipment if the need arose again, the lack of contact got to him. Without regular communication with Shonda, he felt like he was out of the loop, sometimes like he was even neglecting his duties.
After over a week without hearing from Shonda, Ben gave her a call after he got out of work on a Friday. “Any hauntings since we set up the meters?” he asked.
“‘Fraid not,” she replied. “I suppose that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t get you much closer to any answers. I assure you, though, the employees know to tell me if there is one, and once I hear of it, you and Eric will be the first to know.”
“Okay, great,” Ben said with a relieved sigh. “I’ll probably still be calling you once a week or so to check. For now, I’m not sure there’s much we can do except twiddle our thumbs and wait for Wally to strike again.”
“‘Strike’?” Shonda repeated. “That’s a bit dramatic. But yes, I’ll be sure to let you know when he ‘strikes’ again.” With a chuckle, Shonda bid him good day, and the two went about their respective Friday evenings.
That conversation set the tone for all of the two’s updates to follow. Each week, Ben called Shonda to ask if there had been any hauntings, and she would inform him that it had been another uneventful week. She always sounded more chipper about it than Ben felt, with Ben worried they’d never get to the bottom of the case at that rate. Shonda, meanwhile, was simply relieved that the kitchen hadn’t had any incidents, though she expressed sympathy for Ben’s frustration.
The pattern continued until eight weeks in, when the two’s conversation took a turn Ben didn’t expect. “You know, Ben,” Shonda started hesitantly. “Before you two showed up, we were having problems with Wally every week or two, consistently. But I looked through my emails, and I haven’t had any reports from the employees since the day you two first walked through our doors. That was, oh, three or four months ago? Now, obviously I’m not the expert in the paranormal here. But it seems to me you might have scarred Wallace away.”
“Huh,” Ben stalled. “You know, I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility.”
“I dare say,” Shonda continued, the excitement in her voice building audibly. “I think you might have solved our ghost problem.”
“That would explain why we haven’t been able to find any trace of him in the hotel,” Ben said, less optimistic than Shonda seemed. “Still, if we scared him away, I’m not sure he won’t come back once we and our equipment are gone. I think I’d like to clear our presence from the hotel and wait a while longer before we declare the job done.”
“I suppose,” Shonda conceded. “Perhaps I’m just a bit… eager to see this chapter of our history closed. Do you think I’d jinx it if I payed you now?”
Ben felt his eyebrows shoot up, after which he answered chipperly, “I don’t think ghosts care much about the economic dealings of us mortals.”
“Well, you’d know better than I would,” Shonda chuckled. “Tell you what: I can see the van in the parking lot, so Eric must still be here. Can you swing by now and we can close the book on this?”
“Sure,” Ben answered. “I’ll make sure Eric doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Great. See you soon!”
After he hung up, Ben pulled over to the side of the road and sent Eric a quick text: “Meet me in the lobby of the hotel. Shonda wants to talk to us. It’s good news.” After hitting “Send”, he made a U-turn and drove to the All Seasons as quickly as he could.
When Ben arrived, he walked into the lobby to find neither Eric nor Shonda waiting for him. Approaching the front desk, he asked the receptionist, “Is Shonda around?”
“Oh, Ms. Robinson had to take an urgent call. She said she’ll be back down as soon as it’s done.”
Ben gave the receptionist a nod, before looking around to see if Eric was walking down any of the halls. “Tell you what; if she comes down here, can you tell her I went to get my partner and I’ll be right back?”
“Sure,” she replied. As Ben turned to walk away, she asked in a quieter voice, “How’s, uh… how’s the hunt for Wally going?”
“It’s really more of an investigation than a hunt,” Ben corrected. “And, well, uh… I’ll just say I’m optimistic.”
“Oh good,” she chuckled as a smile spread across her face.
After returning her smile, Ben turned back to walk toward the elevators. As he waited for the elevator to arrive, he pulled out his phone to see if Eric had replied. Nothing. With a sigh, he walked through the doors and hit the button for the fourth floor. As he walked to room 402, Ben wonder whether he should have checked for Eric in the restaurant while he was on the ground level. Either way, he slid his card into the door to 402 and entered.
On first glimpse, Ben thought there was an intruder in 402, some overfed layabout sitting on the bed stuffing his face full of room service food. When he pulled the burger down from in front of his mouth, the mess around his lips made him even harder to recognize. Ben was so flabbergasted by the scene that he didn’t say anything until he heard that familiar voice say, “Oh hey, what’s up?” It was Eric.
Once Ben recognized Eric, he had a bit more presence of mind to take in the scene, though not much. Eric sat on the head of the bed, leaning back against all of the pillows, surrounded by at least four room service trays. All but one that Ben could see were empty, with only the plate with the burger and fries still left uncleared. The rest were adorned only with scraps of food and smears of sauces. At the foot of the bed was another stack of room service trays, looking to be about eight in number, with plates stacked high on top.
Looking back to Eric, Ben saw a man he could barely recognize as his partner. His once modest paunch had ballooned to a gut that made his torso look like a bean bag chair. His belly looked like it would droop out over his legs if his thighs hadn’t grown thick enough to match its girth. All of him–his belly, his legs, even his arms and chin–spilled out over that bad as he sat there munching on his burger, looking content as could be.
Ben could see that Eric’s clothes were a good deal bigger than they’d been when the two had started the All Seasons job. As big as he’d grown, he wouldn’t have been able to get his old clothes on his body at all. But it seemed he hadn’t been entirely on top of making sure his wardrobe kept up with his growth, and he’d already outgrown his outfit that day. His fly was unzipped and his shorts lay unbuttoned on his lap, giving his gargantuan belly more room to protrude forward. His shirt had ridden up his rounded stomach, exposing his belly button as the cloth stretched tightly over the top of his mound of belly. Above his stomach, his shirt bunched up over his ample chest, which still perceptibly bulged out with a heft of its own.
As Eric chewed another massive bite of the burger, Ben looked up and saw just how much his face had rounded out. It looked as if the line where his cheeks ended and his chin began had vanished, the two having joined into one ring of fat that framed his contented expression. It was difficult for Ben to tell, however, as Eric’s beard had grown out longer than before, from a messy scruff to more respectable length. It matched his hair in scragginess, but Ben had to give him credit: it looked better now that he’d committed to letting it grow out.
But as Ben watched Eric’s eyelids open, revealing that his eyes looked smaller with his cheeks having plumped up so much, Ben wasn’t so sure it was an intentional change. It seemed more like he’d let himself go when it came to shaving, like he had with eating.
“Eric, um… did, uh… did you get my text?”
“Oh,” Eric said, pushing the trays next to him aside so he could swing his hefty legs off the bed. With his burger still in one hand, he scooted to the edge until his legs were far enough over it that he could push himself up. Even then, he still struggled, grunting as he used his one free hand to get himself in a standing position and groaning once he succeeded.
As Eric walked down the side of the bed toward the desk, his shuffling walk made it all the more evident just how much he’d eaten. As he used one arm to bring his burger up to take another bite, his other arm hung out far at his side, like all the food in his stomach was pushing it away to make more room. Similarly, his back was arched, resulting in his head tilting back as he walked, forcing him to look down to see ahead of him. And his belly used all that extra room to push out ahead of him, making it clear who was in charge.
Once Eric reached the desk, he picked his phone up and read the text. “My bad, dude. Let’s head down there now,” he said before taking another massive bite of the burger.
“Wha—now? We can’t go down there now. Not with all your clothes hanging open like that.”
“Oh yeah,” Eric mumbled through his mouthful of chewed burger. Once he’d swallowed it, he put the burger in his mouth again, this time leaving it in and using his teeth to hold it in place. With both hands free, he reached around his gut and grabbed at the side of his shorts, just barely managing to close the fly and zip up the zipper. He hadn’t been able to suck his gut in much, but once the shorts were closed, he let out a sigh of relief and relaxed, litting his mound of fat jut out a little farther over his belt line.
His tee shirt was easier to deal with, revealing just how much it hand bunched up around his chest when he pulled it down. It was tight, wrapped snuggly around his massive belly and hanging just barely low enough to cover it. But it was more coverage than Ben expected. After biting into the the burger and taking it out of his mouth, Eric asked, “There. Better?”
“Y-yeah,” Ben asked. He had so many unanswered questions, but at least he and Eric looked presentable enough to talk to Shonda. How she’d react to Eric’ transformation, Ben couldn’t be sure.
With how full Eric was, it took the two longer than usual to reach the elevators. But they got there, Eric’s lumbering walk taking him down to the end of the hall at a slow but steady pace. Once they were back in the lobby, they saw Shonda waiting by the front desk. Her face lit up when she saw the two, which Ben supposed was the best reaction he could hope for.
“Gentlemen,” she greeted. “As I told Ben over the phone, there hasn’t been an incident with Wallace since you two stepped foot in the hotel on your first day. With how frequently they used to occur, I’m willing to call that a success.”
“Oh that’s great!” Eric enthused.
“Happy we could help,” Ben concurred. “We’ll clear our equipment out of 403 and 402 now, and I’ll be back later tonight to clear the equipment out of the kitchen. Once I get home with the equipment, I’ll email you an invoice.”
“And I’ll leave the check at the front desk for you to pick up tonight.”
“Great! Wonderful working with you,” Ben said as he shook Shonda’s hand.
“Likewise!” she concurred, shaking Ben’s hand before she took Eric’s. As they shook, Ben watched the vibrations travel up Eric’s arm, jiggling his torso a bit before they dissipated into his girth like so many room service meals.
“I’ll go grab the duffel bags from the Van,” Eric said, before he waddled out of the hotel.
Once Eric was out of earshot, Shonda leaned over to Ben and whispered, “Quite the appetite on that one.”
“You’ve noticed?” Ben asked nervously.
“It hasn’t exactly been a subtle change,” she chuckled.
“But doesn’t it strike you as at all… odd?”
“Not really,” Shonda replied with a shrug. “All the men in my family are big eaters, as are most of the men I’ve dated. I’m sure they would have been just as eager to take advantage of free room service if they’d been given it.”
“Yeah, about that… sorry for how much he–”
“Oh don’t worry about it,” Shonda interjected. “Those meals will pay for themselves now that we aren’t losing money and employee time on Wallace.” With a contented smile, Shonda crossed her arms and looked out toward the double doors. “I tell you what, though: I don’t think anyone’s eaten that much room service since Wallace himself.”
Ben’s gaze shifted from the door to staring off into the distance at nothing in particular as his mouth flattened out. He didn’t even want to put the idea that had just dawned on him into words in his own head, like that might somehow prevent it from coming true. Like whether it was true or not hadn’t been decided the first day he and Eric walked into 403.
“It can’t… no,” he whispered to himself.
“Hm?” Shonda asked quietly, a contented look still spread across her face.
“Nothing,” Ben said, plastering on a fake smile as he watched Eric return with their duffle bags. It couldn’t be true, he thought. Wallace seemed too good-natured of a spirit for that. At least, he certainly hoped so. As Eric passed Ben his bag, Ben looked into Eric’s eyes, as if that might give him any answers. Eric merely returned his look and smiled before hobbling back toward the elevators.
It took Ben a second to collect himself before rushing off after his partner. As they prepared to vacate the hotel, Ben hoped desperately that his intuition was off just this once. Even with their first big-name success under their belt, Ben didn’t feel like B&E Paranormal Investigators was ready to deal with a possession. Especially a possession of one of their own.
Once word spread that B&E Paranormal Investigators had cleared out the haunting at the All Seasons, business picked up for the two significantly. Ben only worked two more weeks at the plant before he put in his two week’s notice, as he was getting too many calls for the two to catch up with on weekends and during his unpaid days off. By the time his last two weeks ended, B&E had enough jobs lined up for both Ben and Eric to work on full-time for the next month.
Most of those jobs had cleaner resolution than the All Seasons job. All of the signs of paranormal activity that they couldn’t find at the All Seasons–EMF fluctuations, cold spots, EVP anomalies, and vibrations–were much more abundant in their subsequent jobs. With more success came more word of mouth, and business kept growing.
Eric felt like he should have been happy. His little venture had taken off the way he always knew it could, and Ben took the work seriously enough to stick it out with him. But he couldn’t shake the bad feeling he had about the All Seasons job. Every subsequent successful job made him all the more suspicious about the fact that the two had found no signs of paranormal activity at All Seasons using the same methods. He had every reason to believe that All Seasons had indeed been haunted, but the two could find no evidence of it. That the hauntings stopped when they arrived was an even more unsatisfactory resolution. If they had succeeded in clearing out Wallace, Ben wanted to know how.
Eric’s still-elevated appetite hadn’t done much to allay Ben’s suspicions. Without the benefit of unlimited free room service, his weight seemed to have leveled out. But he was still an impressive eater. It seemed that every night, they ended up stopping at a drive-thru on the way back from a job, sometimes twice in one night. And every time, Eric ordered enough food for both men and then some, even though Ben never wanted any for himself. Ben wished he could take the passenger seat on those drives so Eric wouldn’t have to yell over him into the microphone. But as he ate, Eric was so focused on the food that Ben didn’t trust him to keep his eyes on the road. If it weren’t for the fact that Eric kept a trash bag in the van to keep his mess from leaving a mark, Ben would have cut him off.
It was a months later that the two got a request for a job at an old barn that was an hour-and-a-half drive away. They were happy to do it, although Ben wasn’t thrilled that Eric had asked him to stop at four different drive-thrus on the way back. Climbing all around the barn, he claimed, had left him hungry, which he used to justify ordering meals even bigger than he usually did and wolfing them all down voraciously. It was after the fourth meal that he succumbed to food coma and fell asleep.
Ben’s gut feeling told him to pull over and put the van in park, but leave the ignition on, so the engine’s hum would help keep Eric asleep. In the fading light of day, Ben looked at his partner and let out a lengthy exhalation. Eric’s lips were surrounded by the crumbs and morsels of four massive fast food meals as they hung open. A quiet snore escaped them as he breathed heavily, his eyelids firmly shut. Over his belly, his shirt had ridden up to reveal the underside of his gut as it rolled onto his lap. If he hadn’t reclined his seat, it looked like it would encroach on the majority of the length of his thighs. But instead it stuck out rounded and farther than usual, bloated from his many meals.
Ben closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was a shot in the dark, but he didn’t have much else to go with. In a low whisper, he called out, “Wallace.” Eric kept snoring. Just as quietly, but more assertively, Ben repeated, “Wallace. I know you can hear me.”
Eric remained quiet for a moment, his eyes still closed and his mouth still opens as he snored. But after a snort, he sighed, his mouth moving as if he were awake while his eyes remained shut. “You’re not… mad, are you?” he asked quietly, his voice sounding more buoyant and bubbly even in its quiet volume.
“I think Eric has more to be mad about than I do.”
“There was just… so much new food to experience. So many flavors I’ve missed terribly, so many dishes that didn’t even exist when I was alive. And it’s all so easy to access now… maybe I overdid it a bit.”
“You think?” Ben blurted out, nearly raising his voice before the fear of waking Eric quieted him again.
“I just… I just want to experience the buffet one more time.”
“What about that breakfast buffet the day I swept the kitchen?”
“You cut me off,” Eric mumbled, sounding more aggravated than he had before. “I just want to stuff myself silly one more time. If I can have that, I’ll leave your friend and the All Seasons alone forever.”
“You expect me to believe Eric hasn’t gone to a buffet since you possessed him?”
“He… refuses. He’s convinced that he’s not a real fat man as long as he doesn’t go to a buffet.”
“I think it’s a bit late too late for that.”
“Tell him that. Look: one buffet, and I’ll be gone. Just… not tonight. Can’t enjoy a buffet when you go in with a full stomach.”
With those words, Eric let out another snort and sunk farther into his seat. This time, his mouth hung open like it had before, moving ever so slightly with the ebb and flow of his breath.
Ben stared at Eric a while longer before he put the van back in drive and resumed the trip home. He wondered, could Eric have been faking it just to get a free meal out of him? With how much he was spending on drive-thru meals, the cost of food didn’t seem to be a concern for him. Could ghosts even talk through the people they possessed like that? He wished he’d done more research on possessions after he suspected Eric had fallen victim to one, but doing so felt like admitting it was true.
As Ben neared the two’s houses, Eric finally stirred from his slumber, adjusted his position in his seat, and pulled his shirt down to cover his bulging stomach yet again. “Was… was I talking in my sleep?” he asked groggily.
“Kinda,” Ben answered vaguely. “So, before we get you home, I have an idea: we never really did anything to celebrate this business of ours getting off the ground.”
After a pause and a vacant stare into the distance, Eric concurred, “No, I guess we haven’t.”
“We should go out to dinner on Friday.”
“I’m down. Where were you thinking?”
“How about Mama Garrick’s?”
“The country buffet? Nah, I don’t do buffets.”
“Look, I might be fat, but as long as I pay for all my food individually, then I’m not fat fat, you know?”
“Then what does all that room service make you?”
“Hey, I would have been paying for each of those if they weren’t free.”
“Alright, tell you what: dinner tomorrow will be my treat. That way it makes no difference to you.”
“Well…” Eric stalled, looking around as he pondered it. “It is tempting,” he admitted as his hand wandered to his protruding belly, giving it some absent-minded pats. “Alright, just this once. After all, it’s your habits that matter most for weight, and I doubt you’ll be making it a habit to buy me buffet dinners,” Eric chuckled.
“Definitely not,” Ben replied with a laugh of his own. “Just this once. Special circumstances and all,” Ben explained. That much, he told himself, wasn’t a lie.
Ben pushed Eric and himself to finish work early on Friday so they could get to Mama Garrick’s around 5:00. With Eric’s appetite having grown along with his belly, and Wallace’s spirit pushing him on, Ben had a feeling they’d be there a while before Wallace was satisfied. Both men headed home first to change out of their work shirts and into some tee shirts, a more appropriate outfit for the venue.
When Eric returned to the van, Ben couldn’t help but notice that his shirt, which must have had several X’s in its size, still fit rather snugly around his ample midsection. In front, the bottom hem hung down barely farther over his belt line than his gut itself did. It wouldn’t take much food to make his belly peek out from under his shirt, and Ben knew Eric would fill his stomach to its limit that night. But he thought twice about suggesting Eric put on a bigger shirt. If Eric became self-conscious about his growth, Ben thought, he might bow out of the buffet, which would only prolong Wallace’s possession.
Eric lifted his hefty belly up to put his seatbelt on before letting it fall. It jiggled once it landed in his lap, sloshing back and forth until it finally came to rest. Ben tried to not think about it too much as he drove to his own house to change his wardrobe. As they drove, Eric asked, “Since when do you like buffets, anyway?”
“Mama Garrick’s is better than most,” Ben claimed, knowing Eric wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It wasn’t long before they arrived at Ben’s house, where he changed into his casual attire.
“Hey, do you want to, you know, swap out for one of our cars instead of driving the van while we’re off-duty?”
Ben thought about it briefly, before shaking his head. He didn’t trust his sedan to be big enough for Eric, especially after the buffet, and he didn’t trust Eric to be fit to drive them home after he was done stuffing himself. “Think of it as easy publicity.”
Eric chuckled as Ben fastened his seatbelt. With both of them in more appropriate attire, Ben drove off to the restaurant, hoping to bring an end to this strange chapter of their history.
Ben pulled up to a spot near the entrance of Mama Garrick’s, knowing Eric probably wouldn’t be able to walk far once the night was over. Once they entered, he wondered whether it was the best choice, as the host had a nervous look in her eyes when she saw them walk in. “Hello,” she greeted shakily. “Are you, uh… here to hunt ghosts?”
“Oh no, we’re just here for dinner,” Ben laughed.
“Paranormal investigators gotta eat too,” Eric said with a chuckle, making his belly vibrate with his laugh.
“Hehe, yep,” the host agreed, grabbing two menus while staring at Eric’s gut out of the sides of her eyes. Eric seemed blissfully unaware of the attention, but Ben couldn’t help but notice. “Right this way. Would you like a booth?”
“Let’s go with a table,” Ben told her, making his own sideward glance toward Eric’s gut. With a nod, she brought the two to a four-person table, left the menus, and took two of the place settings with her.
After they sat down, Eric didn’t pay the menu any mind, eyeing the buffet the entire time. Even Ben had to admit it looked quite appealing, with all the piles of food steaming visibly under the heat lamps. Among the many items available, he recognized fried chicken, biscuits, cornbread, thick-cut French fries, bacon mashed potatoes and gravy, lasagna, chicken parm, slices of various cakes and pies, and a selection of pre-mixed salads for good measure, all swimming in dressing.
“I’m thinking the same thing,” Ben finally said to break the silence.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” the spritely young waitress greeted as she walked up to the table. “My name’s Ashley, I’ll be taking taking care of you tonight. Can I start you off with some drinks?”
“I’ll have a coke,” Eric answered.
“Just water for me, and I think we’re both going to do the buffet.”
An eager smile spread across Eric’s face as he nodded vigorously at the waitress.
“Alright!” Ashley enthused. “Makes my job easy. I’ll bring your drinks, and you can head up any time you like.”
That was all Eric needed. As Ashley turned away from the table, Eric stood up faster than Ben had seen his newly-expanded friend move since the last day of the All Seasons job. Once he was standing, his belly bounced at the sudden stop, before he turned quickly towards the buffet. Ben shook his head side to side, wondering how much of Eric’s enthusiasm was really coming from Wallace, before he got up himself.
Ben immediately knew that arriving early was the right choice, because Eric didn’t seem to have much patience for waiting in the short line that lead to the buffet. He bounced up and down as he stood in place, looking back at Ben with an eager smile. Ben merely grinned back, holding his tongue when he wanted to say, “And you didn’t want to come here.” But he thought it better to leave the matter alone and let Wallace do what he apparently did best.
Once they got to the front of the line, Eric put two plates on his tray and started piling them high at just the first few stations. “Remember that you can come back for more,” Ben quipped as Eric’s selections began to resemble a mound more than a sampling.
“I know,” Eric insisted as he continued piling his plates high, his two mounds turning into mountains. In what little space was left on his tray, he put a slice of pumpkin pie and a slice of cheesecake.
“You going to be alright carrying that back to the table?”
“I’ll manage,” Eric grunted as he picked up the tray. It wobbled a bit until he could steady it in his hands, at which point he moved carefully to the table.
Ben watched a while before turning back to complement his fried chicken and fries with a slice of cornbread. Once he walked back to the table, the distinct and distinguishable items on his plate stood in stark contrast with the mountains of food on Eric’s plate. Or rather, the mountain and the mound, as Eric had already started wolfing down the contents of one of his plates.
Ben munched on his chicken slowly as he watched with amazement at how Eric ate. It was like watching a competitive eater, but all of Eric’s grunts and “Mmm”s let Ben know he was enjoying his meal. Looking at the mounds of food on Eric’s plates, Ben wasn’t sure how he could pick distinct entreés out of the mess to eat individually. But Eric didn’t seem to care, plowing his way through the course faster than Ben had ever seen him eat.
When Ben thought about it, he realized he hadn’t eaten a meal with Eric since that breakfast buffet so many months ago. Perhaps, he pondered, this wasn’t unusual behavior for Eric anymore. If this was how Eric was eating every time he took advantage of the All Seasons’ room service too, Ben supposed Eric’s growth wasn’t all that unbelievable. He just hoped that buffet would be the last of it, for Eric’s sake.
But it was going to be a long night before they reached that point. While Ben had finished his chicken and was snacking on his fries, Eric had already finished both of his mountains of food and his two slices of dessert. He stacked the empty plates on the side of the table and took his tray in hand. With only a slight apparent hindrance to his movement, he got up and headed back to the buffet without a word, just a giddy smile on his face, a smile surrounded by various food bits.
As Eric waited in line, Ben flagged down Ashley to ask, “Could we have some more napkins, please?”
“Sure, they’re right over there with the utensils,” she said as she pointed to the end of the buffet. There Ben saw tall stacks of paper napkins making what looked like a mountain of their own, not unlike the ones reforming on Eric’s plate.
“I better go get some of those,” he said, more to himself than to Ashley. “Oh, uh, thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she beamed before walking off to take care of other tables.
While Eric filled his second pair of plates, Ben snuck ahead to the cutlery station and grabbed a stack of napkins. He brought it back to the table and set it down next to Eric’s napkin, which was already worthless, completely covered with various food stains and ripped in several places. Eric returned soon after, saying, “Ooh, good thinking,” when he saw he napkins. As he sat down, he gazed in Ben’s direction with a peculiar look. “Did you not get any for yourself?”
“Food or napkins?”
“Well… I meant napkins, but both.”
“I’m all set on both fronts.”
With eyebrows raised, Eric gave Ben a single nod before he dug into his third and fourth mountains of food. Ben could recognize that Eric had taken a different selection of food that time, the mounds being of different colors and textures from the previous two. But as Eric scarfed them down, Ben still couldn’t quite make out exactly what he was eating. All he knew for sure was that by the end of the night, Eric could sample the entire buffet twice over if he desired.
After Eric put his third and fourth plate on top of the stack he’d started during the previous round, he required a bit more effort to stand up. He let out a grunt or two as he rose, followed by a quiet “Hoo!” once he was upright. As he picked up his tray with one hand, his other migrated to his gut, where his fingers gently rode back and forth over it. It was then that Ben noticed Eric’s shirt had already ridden up his stomach, allowing the soft underside of his belly to peek out. Ben thought that bit of pale flab suited Eric at that point. “You coming?”
Ben still had a few french fries left, as well as the cornbread, so he looked up and said, “I think I better finish this first.”
With a nod, Eric took his tray back to the buffet to get in line. In the meantime, Ashley came by to clear Eric’s stack of plates, with a professional, unaffected smile still on her face.
“Hey, uh, listen,” Ben said quietly, leaning in close to Ashley as she did the same. “If he eats too much, feel free to charge for more than one buffet order. I’m paying, so he won’t see it. I just–”
“Sir,” Ashley interjected with an amused smile. “When we say “all you can eat”, we mean all you can eat. Your friend or boyfriend or whatever can eat as much as he likes.”
“He’s–okay, great, thank you,” Ben said. As Ashley walked away, Ben was thankful she’d cut him off. He wasn’t sure how he’d get around explaining that Eric was possessed by a ghost that could only be cast out by letting him stuff his face as much as he pleased.
Eric soon returned with two more plates piled just as high as the first four. Ben wished on some level that he could lose count and not think so much about how much his partner was eating. But the spectacle of seeing Eric eat so much was impossible to ignore. Perhaps, Ben thought, that was part of why he hadn’t touched his own food much since Eric had finished his first course.
Ben couldn’t deny that he felt a little self-conscious on Eric’s behalf, who seemed to not have a care in the world for how much he was eating. He tried to not look around Mama Garrick’s, lest he see the stares of others and feel even more embarrassed. But with Eric eating too voraciously to keep up a conversation and Ben moving his food around his plate more than he was eating it, his found his eyes wandering in spite of his best efforts.
To Ben’s surprise, he was the odd one out at Mama Garrick’s more than Eric was. As Ben looked around the restaurant, he could pick out a half-dozen guys as big as Eric, and many of the diners were closer to him in size than Ben. He spotted a man in suspenders and a tight tee shirt who’d pushed the table in his booth far to the other side to fit his mammoth belly between himself and the table. At another table, he saw a man whose gut was so rotund that he had to reach around it to get to the food on his plate. Yet another man was walking toward the buffet with more side-to-side motion than forward motion, his legs barely bending as he waddled his mountainous body to get more food. Ben didn’t think he’d see anyone at the restaurant bigger than Eric, but that man looked like he had at least a hundred pounds on him.
It was in the midst of Ben’s people watching that Eric finished his sixth plate. He let out a loud sigh as he let his fork hit the empty plate with a loud clang. Leaning back in his chair, his mouth hung open as he breathed heavily. He gave his belly a few pats before letting out a grunt, looking down at it with mouth still agape.
“You throwing in the towel?”
At that, Eric stood up with several more grunts, pushing himself up using the back of his chair. Once he had resumed a standing position, he leaned back as if his center of gravity had shifted forward, wavering back and forth as he found his balance. After taking the plates off his tray, he picked it up and replied, “Not yet.” With a smile, he turned to walk back to the buffet.
Once Eric was out of sight, Ben slumped down in his chair and closed his eyes, letting out a long exhalation before he opened them again. When he caught sight of Ashley, he flagged her down and asked, “Can I get a Bud light please?”
“Sure thing. 16 or 23 ounce?”
“The 23 is tempting,” Ben admitted, looking at Eric’s fifth and sixth empty plate and knowing there was more to come. “But let’s go with 16. I’m driving tonight.”
“Yeah, definitely 16,” Ashley concurred. “If you were eating as much as him, I’m sure you could handle more than that. But as it is, I think the 16 is wise.”
“His eating is exactly why I don’t trust him to be fit to drive at the end of the night.”
“Smart,” Ashley chuckled. “You knew, everyone goes on and on about the dangers drunk driving, as they should, but no one ever acknowledges the danger of driving with food coma. And working here, I’ve seen a few people go home who probably weren’t fit to drive, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from a breathalyzer.”
“I’ll… keep that in mind when we’re leaving.”
“Not to scare you,” Ashley laughed. “But you’re definitely doing the right thing. Anyway, one Bud light coming up.”
Eric returned to the table soon after Ashley left, and not long before she returned with Ben’s drink. Ben sipped his beer as Eric ate, trying to make it last as long as he could. He needed something to busy himself with, other than getting more to eat when he wasn’t hungry anymore.
Eric, of course, didn’t seem to have that problem, as he dug into two more plates stacked high with food. Ben had stopped bothering to try to recognize exactly what Eric was eating. But it didn’t take much observation to notice that Eric was eating more slowly, his voracious manner having been replaced by a more even, consistent pace. He even seemed to be swallowing each bite before he took another.
All that added up to Eric taking longer to finish his seventh and eighth plate of food than he had taken to wolf down his previous courses. Ben kept sipping his beer and trying to make small talk as the meal went on, anything to pass the time. The last thing he wanted to do was take out his phone or in any other way look bored, which might make Eric feel guilty for eating past the point when Ben wanted to stay.
But Eric didn’t seem to notice. Though he ate at a more moderate pace, he seemed just as enraptured by his meal as he had been with his first bite. His occasional groans were outnumbered by his various affirmations, his “Mmm”s and “Ah”s and “This is so good”s. Ben wasn’t sure how much he believed the last one, but as long as Eric was enjoying himself, it seemed they were on pace to exorcise Wallace.
Soon enough, Eric finished his seventh and eighth plate. Once he’d downed the last remaining morsel of food, he leaned back in his chair, giving his rounded belly more room to stretch out in front of him. With his mouth hanging open and his eyelids drooping half-shut, he let his hands wander over his ample midsection, as if hoping for any relief they might provide. From his intermittent groans, it didn’t seem like it was much.
“How ya feeling?”
Eric let his head droop before he brought it back up to face Ben, mouth closed, and gave him a thumbs up. With motions just as slow, he picked up each empty plate off of his tray and stacked them on the table next to him. Even lifting them seemed to take more energy than he had left.
Getting up was similarly challenging. After slowly pushing his chair away from the table, Eric leaned forward with a groan until he could push himself up. Once he was upright, he seemed to be straddling the chair, which he had to waddle away from before he could move. With his tray in hand, he waddled toward the buffet in much the same manner as the man who looked 100 pounds heavier than him.
When Ashley came to clear the plates away, Ben leaned in and asked, “Can we have the check? I think he’s going to be checked out after this course. At least, I hope so.”
“Sure thing,” she replied with her steadfast professional smile. As Ben waited, he pulled out his phone until Eric came back, with two plates stacked not quite so high as the others. As he started on his two mounds of food, their reduced size had Ben optimistic they would be Eric’s last.
But Eric took his sweet time eating them, seeming to finally be reaching his limit. He brought the food to his mouth more slowly, chewed it more slowly, and took more time between bites than he had since the two had arrived. Meanwhile, Ben handed Ashley his card when she came with the bill and took care of the tip while nursing his beer as slowly as he could. It wasn’t difficult now that the beer was warm.
Ben didn’t know how long they sat there, Eric hunched over as he brought one fork-full of food to his mouth after another. But eventually, he seemed to finally be defeated. As he leaned over toward his plates, Eric tried to lift his next forkful to his mouth, only for his arm to fall back on the table on the way up. A few more failed attempts ended with Eric letting his head hang down, as if he’d fallen asleep in his chair.
“You ready to head out?”
After raising his head slowly to look at Ben, Eric nodded just as deliberately. His eyelids drooped down extra low, and his lips smacked lazily, as if he were still eating. But there was no mistaking it: he was done.
With a prolonged moan, Eric pushed himself up off of his chair. The chair creaked beneath him as it struggled to support his weight, but he managed to get himself upright. Once he stopped leaning on it, he wobbled side to side, then back and forth as he found his balance again. His stuffed belly protruded far enough to force him to lean back to counteract the new weight. As he swayed, he brought a hand up to the top of his belly and ran lazily it across the top.
As Ben watched Eric’s hand, he noticed that Eric’s shirt had ridden up exactly as much as he expected, exposing a stripe of pale skin beneath the shirt’s lower hem. That his belly button was still covered was astounding to Ben. His tee shirt hung off his bulbous belly like a tarp, hanging up noticeably higher in front than it did in back. As Eric rubbed his engorged gut over, he let out a tiny burp. It seemed there wasn’t much room left for air in his stomach.
“Let’s get you home, buddy,” Ben said quietly, walking to the other side of the table and putting his hand behind Eric’s shoulder. He slowed his pace so Eric could keep up, giving Eric a gentle push to at least get him to the van. Eric, meanwhile, didn’t wobble like he had before. Rather, he walked with as little upper-body movement as possible, as if afraid to disturb the contents of his stomach. His eyelids and mouth both hung only half open, and as they left the hubbub of the restaurant, Ben could hear Eric groaning quietly.
Once they got to the van, Ben was glad Eric didn’t have to dip down very far to sit on its seats. All he had to was slide in, and they were ready to be on their way. Eric took the driver’s seat, started the van, looked around for any other food-comatose people leaving the parking lot, and started on their way home.
It didn’t take long for Eric to fall asleep, as his snoring made evident. But Ben didn’t mind, as his high-pitched gurgle blended in with the noise of the engine as they drove down the road. Dusk was starting to set in, and the streets were mercifully free of cars, allowing Ben to drive at a leisurely pace so he didn’t disturb his friend’s sleep.
When Ben pulled up to Eric’s house, he put the car in park but left the engine running once again. After looking over at Eric’ face, his mouth hanging wide open as he slept, Ben looked down and took a deep breath. “Wallace?”
“Wallace?” Ben said a bit more forcefully.
Eric kept snoozing, his snoring pausing only momentarily between an inhalation and exhalation.
“Wallace, if you’re in there, you better speak up.”
Eric didn’t stir.
With another long exhalation, this time one of relief, Ben said, “Eric,” a bit more loudly, prompting his partner to stir from his sleep. His snoring halted with a sharp grunt before his eyelids opened halfway and his eyes rotated slowly toward Ben. “We’re at your house.”
Eric’s eyes closed again before he reached down and pushed himself up in his chair. With a grunt, he rubbed his eyelids until he could open them again. “I guess I better get out, then.”
“It’ll be more comfortable sleeping in your bed than a car seat.”
“Mmm, you say that,” Eric asserted sleepily. “But yeah, yeah, I’ll go.” With lethargic movements, Eric undid his seatbelt, opened the van door, and rotated his legs to slide out. Once he was standing again, he turned around to look back inside. “Hey Ben?”
Eric was silent for a moment, looking at Ben from behind half-closed eyelids, his closed mouth making a flat line. After a few seconds, a gentle smile spread across his face. “Thanks for dinner,” he finally said.
“And, uh,” he continued hesitantly. “Thanks for not judging me for how much I ate. I don’t know what came over me. I probably shouldn’t do buffets, to be honest.”
“Hey, it was just this once,” Ben said with a placid smile. “Take it easy this weekend. I’ll see you on Monday.”
After giving Ben a thumbs up, Eric turned to close the van door, before turning to hobble back to his house. Ben stayed long enough to make sure Eric got inside and closed the door behind him. Once Eric was inside, Ben let out a lengthy sigh and made the short trip home. He intended to sleep like a log, just as Eric probably would too.
When Monday morning came, Ben drove to Eric’s house to pick him up for their upcoming job. Eric got in the van wearing a button-down shirt that fit with a modest amount of slack, something of a change of pace after he’d keep filing in his previous shirts not long after he bought them. It didn’t exactly have a slimming effect, but Ben reasoned that at Eric’s size, that wasn’t possible anymore. At the very least, he looked spiffy, which was all Ben could ask for.
“Hey,” Ben greeted.
“Hello,” Eric said, sounding a bit tired but otherwise no worse for wear.
The two made light conversations on the way until Ben saw a Dunkin Donuts coming up. He needed something to eat, and most importantly, this particular establishment had a drive-thru, “I’m going to stop for breakfast. You want anything?”
“You know, I could go for some coffee. Medium, black.”
“You don’t want anything to eat?”
“I already had some toast and an apple at home,” Eric said nonchalantly.
“You don’t want… anything else?”
“Nah. I mean, I’ll probably be hungry again mid-morning, but I’ll just put up with it until lunch.”
“You don’t want to get something to stave that off? Maybe a muffin?”
“Nah,” Eric sighed. “That diet fatigue definitely wore off after that buffet. I’m fine, really.”
Ben didn’t say anything else about the matter as they waited in the drive through, where he ordered a medium black coffee and an egg sandwich on an English muffin for himself. Deep down, he was still expecting Eric to shout over him, “Can we also get…”, but he stayed still and silent in his seat, looking like he really wasn’t giving it a second thought. It was over. It was finally over.
The two were silent after the trip through the drive-thru. Eric sipped his coffee as Ben ate his sandwich, neither saying anything as they both looked at the road ahead. With the poignant quiet between the two, Ben supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised when the first thing Eric said was, “Was I possessed by Wallace?”
Ben would have hung his head down if he didn’t have to keep looking at the road ahead. Instead he let out a lengthy exhalation, trying to do so quietly and only partially succeeding.
“I mean, we couldn’t find him anywhere in the All Seasons, but we’ve found all of the other ghosts we’ve looked for just fine. Maybe we were… looking in the wrong place the whole time. And I mean… the diet fatigue starting right after we entered the room? Is that really a coincidence?”
After a long silence, Ben let out a deep sigh and admitted, “I might not have been as responsible with this as I should have.”
“What do you mean?”
It took Ben a few moments to work up the guts to say what he knew he had to say next. The unpunctuated drone of the engine didn’t make the passage of that time any less difficult. “That night I suggested we go to a buffet… it wasn’t to celebrate our business succeeding. While you were asleep that night, I… called out to Wallace.”
“You mean like… with a ouija board?”
“Not quite. I just said, “Wallace, I know you’re in there,” and you snorted and then… he started talking.”
“Through me?” Eric asked his eyes having grown wide.
“Yeah. And he said what he wanted was to experience a buffet one more time. That if he could have that, he would leave you and the All Seasons alone. So I… gave him his last wish.”
Eric stared straight at the road ahead, his expressionless face somehow worse than an angry one. “No…” he finally spoke up, his voice serious and unfaltering. “I did.”
“I’m sorry. I should have recognized the signs earlier, but instead I left you alone to face the wrath of a ghost in the most direct way possible.”
A deep, hearty laugh was not the reaction Ben expected from Eric, but that was what Eric gave him. “I wouldn’t call it ‘wrath’. I ate a lot. Big whoop. I probably would have done that anyway.”
Ben let out his own chuckle, this one a nervous one, as he wasn’t sure whether Eric’s optimism about the whole ordeal would last. But if nothing else, he was glad for the moment of respite.
“Did he tell you… I dunno, why he did it?”
“Did what? Want to go to the buffet?”
“No. I can understand why someone like him would want that. I mean… why he possessed me.”
“He mentioned there being a lot of new food to experience. Foods he’d missed and food that had been invented after his death. I think through you, he could taste them in a way he couldn’t as a spectre.”
“Then why would he mess with the room service orders if he couldn’t enjoy that food properly?”
“Can’t fault him for trying,” Ben guessed with a shrug.
After conceding Ben’s point with a nod, Eric was silent a moment longer. After a deep inhalation, he finally asked, “So you think Wallace is gone?”
“Well, that was the first time we’ve passed by a drive-thru since we started the All Seasons job where you didn’t order anything. Something’s different, alright,” Ben asserted, trying to sound optimistic.
“Mmm. I guess it would be, now that I’m not eating for two,” Eric chuckled, prompting Ben to finally laugh along.
Conversation between the two remained light-hearted as they finished the drive to their new client’s house. When they arrived, the pulled their duffle bags out of the back of the van, both of which were now filled with enough equipment to actually require two bags to carry. With their bags in hand and their best professional smile on their faces, they knocked on the door.
A woman in a pastel pink sweater answered with a nervous smile. “Hi, you must be the paranormal investigators?”
“That’s us,” Ben answered confidently.
“Great. Come on in. Can I get you something to drink? Coffee? Tea?”
As the two walked through the living room to the kitchen, Eric slowed down his step, looking toward where the television stood. “So this is where the spectre died, ma’am?” he asked as he pointed toward the TV.
Ben was surprised by Eric’s question, assuming he was trying to make a lucky guess to appear more perceptive than he was. But when he looked at the woman, she had a shocked look on her face, her eyelids and eyebrows both having risen. “Yes! Exactly in that spot!”
“Where the TV is?” Ben asked confusedly.
“The couch used to be there. We moved it to the other side of the room in the hopes of, I don’t know, disturbing the ghost’s routine and making it go away. But it still remains. My husband is convinced the TV is haunted. I think if we were to move it, the problems would go away, but he insists the glare is worse anywhere else in the room.”
Ben’s eyebrows and eyelids lowered as much as the woman’s had risen. Looking at Eric just as confusedly, he asked, “How did you know that?”
“Can’t you tell? The presence here is so strong you can feel,” Eric insisted as he put his hand near where the TV stood.
Approaching cautiously, Ben slowly moved his hand to where Ben had placed his. He kept it there a while, trying to feel for anything Eric might have found. “No. Nothing.”
The two were silent a while before the woman interjected, “So… any drinks, gentlemen?”
“Tea sounds lovely,” Ben said.
“I have chamomile and rooibos,” the woman said as she walked into the kitchen.
“Chamomile, please,” Ben called out.
“Nothing for me, thanks,” Eric followed.
In a quieter voice, Ben asked Eric, “You can really feel the ghost’s presence here?”
“Yeah! It’s really strong. Can you not?”
Rather than answer the question, Ben pondered a while longer before he finally asked, “Have you felt a paranormal presence this way before today?”
“No. That’s why I’m so surprised you can’t feel it.”
As a smile slowly spread across Ben’s face, he concluded, “I think Wallace might have left you with more than just a few extra pounds,” as he patted the soft bottom of Eric’s massive belly.
“You mean… some kind of paranormal sensitivity?”
Ben nodded as he looked toward the TV with an assured grin. “And if that’s the case,” he started before looking back toward Eric. “Then I think this little venture of ours is going to be just fine.”