By the looks of it, you’d assume Whataburger was a happening place after midnight on a Saturday night here in San Antonio. Not really, no. There are only so many options for a teenager when it comes to properly hanging out at that particular junction in space/time. All the theaters, malls, and arcades are closed. Too young to get into a bar, even the ones that don’t give a damn about UTSA freshmen slipping in and spending daddy’s money.
Yeah, there’s the parentless and booze-filled houses of those rich kids who live 15 miles away from your lower middle class school because housing development is always faster than what school districts can keep up with, but if those kids even acknowledged your existence, Whataburger wouldn’t have to factor into the equation.
And staying at home? Or hanging out at a friend’s place? That’d be a nice option. Some guys would just do that. Carlos wasn’t really that guy. Home wasn’t bad, but home wasn’t really home, save for his spot in the driveway. His friends were a bit flakey. Or was is he who they called a flake? It didn’t matter.
That’s to say, it also didn’t matter that Whataburger wasn’t a truly happening place. It just happened to be where things happened that night.
Carlos’ friends were busy with dates and saving the world. That’s what he assumed, since they usually called when neither of those things were going down. So all he had was his beat-up ’87 Camry, half a tank of gas, a couple of joints, and enough cash to get a Whataburger Jr and a small fry. He’d have to make due with the room temperature 20 ounce of Surge he found under the passenger seat while making Gup’s cruising nest of old t-shirts and never-washed gym clothes.
Gup grumbled, his little pug face squished into itself even more than usual.
“Yeah, dude, I’m hungry too. That’s what we came here for. Gonna get you some fries for that grumbly belly.”
Gup yipped in agreement.
Carlos picked up Gup and tucked him into his surplus army jacket. Not that he needed to hide his friend, since the crew at this Whataburger didn’t care if he brought the little guy in. They were way too busy with the mix of post-movie high schoolers, post-bad-date castoffs, and those sensible enough to ditch the bar scene before 2AM. Gup just liked his jacket hideaway, since he didn’t have to scoot around on his old dog legs.
Unfortunately, while the line inside wasn’t too long, there wasn’t much in the way of free tables.
“Guess it’s the car again, dude, but we’ll have plenty of company if you know what I mean.” Carlos quietly laughed to himself as he stepped into line to order. That was when he bumped into someone he swore wasn’t standing there half a second ago.
He quickly looked up from Gup, ready to apologize to whoever it was he didn’t see. When he saw her, those words chose not to exit his mouth.
At first glance she was cute enough by Carlos’ pretty typical standards. She was wearing a comfortable-looking sweater, jeans, and boots– typical for “winter” in Texas. She looked a little older, like she was in college. Her dark hair stood out– very straight and long enough to reach mid-thigh. But what made his mouth cease to function in that moment was the faint glimmer of light that he saw emanated from her. The flash was faint but striking– like a star erupting millions of light years away– distant and profound. It was also brief enough to make him question if it was really her or if it was just another strange image his friends blamed on his youth spent in a marijuana haze.
The awe of it was enough that it was a long moment before Carlos finally tried to respond, but by that time the woman had already turned away from him and got back in her place in line. It looked to him as if she was trying to ignore the situation long enough for it all to go away. That wasn’t going to stop Carlos from trying to apologize.
“Hey. Sorry about not seeing you there. We’re just hyped to get a Whataburger after such an exciting night out. Right Gup?” Gup peaked out of the jacked and gupped.
The woman turned her head enough to look back. Carlos couldn’t get a read on her expression. She didn’t seem mad. She didn’t seem embarrassed. She didn’t seem annoyed or interested. Carlos blushed a bit nonetheless. A girl was looking at him. Or was it Gup? Either way, that was awesome. But that awesomeness quickly subsided, as she turned her head back as soon as the line moved forward.
“What’s up with that?” He silently mouthed as he looked down at his dog. Gup blinked his eyes– his way of shrugging. Carlos shrugged as well and returned his attention to where he last saw the woman.
She was gone, and he was now the only person in line.
“You ready to order, hon?” Wendy, the night manager, was all Carlos saw. It wasn’t too awkward of a situation. She usually ran the register since she didn’t trust any of these part-timer kids with the till, and she’s seen Carlos’ perplexed face all too often from his late night weekend burger runs. “You paying for a drink this time, or is it tepid soda yet again? Ice is free, y’know.”
“Nah. I like it like that. Cold drinks make the grease stick together in your stomach. Just the usual.” Carlos stepped up to the counter while looking to both sides. “Anyway. What happened to the girl who was standing in line ahead of me? I was trying to apologize to her.”
“Beats me, hon. Only ones I saw in front of you were those kickers over in the corner and the balding guy crying into a triple meat cheeseburger. Busy night. Lucky I remembered that much. Maybe she went to the restroom? Or maybe she was a ghost. You should call Art Bell about it. Call her the Whataburger Wraith.”
Carlos feigned a laugh like he always did when Wendy brought that stuff up. He’d seen enough weird stuff to fill up an entire night of that show, but knew that sharing would do him more harm than good. He was also a bit worried that something happened to this woman. Not enough to hit pause on his Whataburger cravings– his priorities were squarely focused on feeding fries to his hungry pup– in any sort of way that he wanted to jump out there and go looking for her, since his priorities mostly consisted of fries, pot, and feeding pugs at this moment, but he was worried enough to put a proverbial pin in it and ask around after a nice chill session in his car.
Their order was ready soon enough, and he and Gup headed back to his Camry. The window was down on Gup’s side. Carlos couldn’t quite remember if he left it like that. Did he grab Gup while sitting in the driver’s seat, or did he roll that window down to grab him from the outside? That point of confusion caused Carlos to question if Gup was actually with him. He checked and found him still snug inside his jacket. So at least he remembered to do that much.
Carlos headed over to the passenger side window and let Gup hop back down on his nest. He got back in the car on his side and tossed the Whataburger bag in front of Gup, who promptly tried to paw the bag open.
“Hey! Dude! Wait a sec. Take a look at who just got here. We can’t light up and munch down here. We gotta get back home so we don’t run afoul of the you-know-who.” Carlos looked over at the two cop cars that just pulled up in the handicap parking spaces next to the entrance. “But OK. Just one fry of the french before we book it.”
Carlos reached over to grab the bag, but as he did he had an encounter with something that shouldn’t be there. This time, with his attention firmly fixed in that direction, he saw her shimmer into view. The lights were ever brighter than before, making the entire parking lot erupt in a lightshow. It was the same long-haired woman from the Whataburger line. She was reaching into his car from the passenger side, and she had a few fries in her hand.
“Don’t bogart the fries, man!” Carlos instinctually cried. “I already have two hungry mouths to feed here.”
The woman dropped the fries back into the bag, quickly pulled her arm out of the car, and turned her back in the same manner she did when Carlos saw her before. This time, Carlos put everything together and didn’t avert his gaze from her. She just stood there, back turned, bobbing back and forth a bit.
“Hey. Yeah. Sorry about bumping into you back there. And now for yelling at you and making you drop your fries. Gup here’s just hungry. I don’t want him to miss out on his favorite treat.
Gup growled in agreement as the woman again turned her head to see what was behind her. This time she was nervously blushing a bit. Then she whispered to herself.
“Surely he’s just stoned. He doesn’t see me. He just thinks he’s seeing something. His drug brain is telling him he sees someone because his drug brain thinks it felt something. All a weird coincidence. Yeah. You can do this. You can do this. Yeah. Yeah!” Her voice got louder as she pumped herself up.
“You can do what?” Carlos asked, having heard everything she just whispered.
The woman jumped several inches straight into the air, turning her whole body so as to face Carlos and Gup. She then ducked down low, so that all either of them could see was the top of her head. After a few moments, she raised her head enough so that she could look into the car.
“You can hear me?”
“You can see me?”
“You can feel me?”
Carlos and Gup gulped in unison with that question.
“Yeah? I did bump into you twice. Sorry.”
She ducked back down, this time to the point where no one could see her. Carlos could hear her drumming her fingers on the side of the car. After a few seconds, she hopped up, opened the back seat passenger door, got in the car, and began mumbling to herself.
“This is different. People just don’t see me, hear, or touch me unless they know. And he couldn’t know I was there. It just doesn’t work that way. This isn’t going to work. Will I have to make a mess here? I don’t want that. He seems like such a good boy, despite everything.”
“Wait. Wait. Make a mess? Slow down, lady. Also, are you a ghost? Because if you are, you’re probably new at it. I know someone who can help–”
“No. No. Not even close. Depending on who you ask, I’m more alive than you. And that’s not just me criticizing you for doing drugs. But I am criticizing you for that. Just Say No, Carlos. Didn’t you go to that assembly? But I’m very alive. You just shouldn’t know any of this. What am I going to do? I’m already behind schedule.”
“What do you–?”
“I need him!” The woman pointed at Gup, who had taken advantage of the ongoing conversation to dig into the Whataburger bag and devour all the fries. “We need him! Oh. Yeah. Can I have him?”
“No! You can’t have my best friend! I’ve had him ever since I was a baby. We’ve been pals for almost 16 years. Who knows how much longer he has. I just want to make sure he gets his munchies and his treats for as long as he has left.”
The woman cracked a smile. “He’s not 16 years old. And he has way more time left than the two of us put together. It never crossed your mind that a dog could live that long eating a stoner’s diet? You stoner. God!”
“I mean, that’d make a lot of sense, but he’s also just a little pug dude. Look at him!”
Gup gupped again.
The woman sighed. “Fine. OK. I think I have an idea that’ll make us all happy. Well, make you and Gup happy. Gup mainly. I’m not so sure about myself. You can see and hear and touch me after all. That’s different.” She lifted the ring finger on her right hand to her mouth. The small onyx stone on the ring started to glow ever so slightly, and she spoke into it. “I’m in possession of the package. Rendition requires additional acquisition. Currently subduing secondary acquisition and returning with–.”
Carlos felt a slight prick in his neck, and the woman’s voice faded into unintelligible garble. He reached around to feel his neck. The last thing he saw before losing consciousness was a sliver of onyx with a drop of his blood on it.
Gup enjoyed his Whataburger Jr on the trip home.