I made it to the McDonald’s on time—barely.
I walked in through the front door. As the six o’clock hour neared, the restaurant was doing a fair amount of business.
This early, it was mostly families. Young parents with small children. McDonald’s wouldn’t release the Happy Meal for several more years, but the fast food chain was already a hit with children.
When I walked back into the employees area, behind the customer counter, I didn’t see any unfamiliar faces—and certainly no one who could be Diane Parker.
I was about to take my place behind the open cash register—the one on the far right. But first I had to clock in. The time clock, with a card for each employee, was mounted on the wall, adjacent to the manager’s office. As I stepped past the office door, I saw Louis seated behind the desk. He was smoking a cigarette, as always.
Louis saw me through the window in the center of the top half of the door. He waved me in.
I pantomimed punching my timecard. Louis nodded. I clocked in, so I would get credit for my time. Then I entered the smoke-filled office.
Oh, another thing about 1976: Smoking in public was still more or less acceptable behavior. Most restaurant dining rooms had nonsmoking sections. But smokers lit up without hesitation in the common areas of offices, shopping malls, and bars.
“Shut the door behind you,” Louis said.
I complied. The smoke inside the office was so thick it stung my eyes, filled my mouth and nostrils.
I waved my hands about dramatically, as if I could drive the smoke away. “You’re going to stunt my growth with that stuff, Louis.”
Louis was a tall, gangly young man with black curly hair and a light complexion. He often developed inexplicable red blotches on his cheeks and neck. He wore thick glasses encased in heavy black frames.
Louis smiled impassively at my objection to the smoke. We had had this discussion before.
“How tall are you?” he asked.
“Well, there you have it. You’ve already done all of your growing. And look at me: I’m six-three.”
“We could both get cancer.”
“You won’t get cancer. Have a seat, please.” He motioned to the visitor’s chair on the far side of the desk. “I wanted to go over next week’s schedule with you.”
I sat down, coughing.
“Quit hamming it up. The smoke will make a man of you.”
“If that’s the case, then I should have a twelve-incher by the time I walk out of here.”
“Hey, I didn’t say that smoke is a miracle drug. Think of what you’re starting with. Anyway, take a look at the days and shifts I have you signed up for next week. Let me know if there’s any problem. But please don’t let there be any problems. If I have to redo your schedule, I have to redo everyone else’s schedule to fill in the gaps.”
He slid the paper across the desk to me and I gave it a quick look. I was scheduled to work almost every evening, as usual.
Ray Smith had a diktat about day shifts: Day shifts were reserved for the older employees, especially the young married women with children. I think Ray Smith believed that he was doing his part to keep at least a handful of the local teenage population out of trouble, by keeping us at work at his restaurant during the witching hours.
“I don’t see any problems,” I said, sliding the schedule back to him. “That will be fine.”
“I saw you looking around when you came in,” Louis said. “You were looking for Diane Parker, weren’t you?”
“Not really.” I said.
“Bullshit. You were rubber-necking like you’d never seen the inside of a McDonald’s before. Anyway, Diane Parker is working a half shift tonight. She’ll be in at eight. Speaking of schedules: You’re good for closing up tonight, right?”
“Closing up” referred to the procedures that we went through after the conclusion of business hours. Some light cleaning, restocking supplies, etc. Everything that needed to be done so that the morning shift didn’t walk into a chaotic, messy restaurant.
“Of course,” I said dutifully. I would leave the restaurant at 10:30 or 10:45 p.m. tonight, I estimated.
“I guess you can go ahead and get to your cash register.” He glanced at his watch. “Did you get here at six?”
“Five minutes early, actually. Then you called me in here to talk.”
“Ah. Yes. Well, anyway.”
I could sense Louis hemming and hawing around. There was something else he wanted to talk to me about.
“Is something else on your mind, Louis?”
After pondering my question for perhaps five seconds, he said, “I’m not sure, really. I’ve been feeling a little…weird, of late.”
“‘Weird’? You’re always a little weird, Louis.”
“Come on. I’m being serious.”
“All right. What do you mean by ‘weird’? Are you sick?”
“No. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong or weird about me. I feel like there’s something weird going on. Around here, I mean.”
It was as if Louis had read my thoughts, been privy to the events of the entire day: the hoofprints at the Pantry Shelf, the missing persons flyer, that shadow I saw in the hallway of my home…and then finally, the second set of hoofprints and the bizarre reaction of the clerk at the Sunoco station.
“What about you, Steve? Have you noticed anything unusual of late?”
I could have confided in him in that moment. I could have told him about everything I had experienced since roughly noon.
Unlike the clerk, Louis was certainly open to a speculative conversation.
But I didn’t reveal anything to Louis.
“I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary,” I said. “Not really. Not at all, now that I think of it.”
Why didn’t I meet Louis halfway, when he was clearly attempting to take me into his confidence?
I wondered to myself—even then.
My reasons had nothing to do with Louis. I don’t know if I was still in denial, but I was definitely in a state of resistance. This was the summer before my senior year of high school. I wanted it to be filled with fun. Pleasant memories. Maybe a new girlfriend.
I didn’t want to think about young people around my age going missing, possibly the victims of some horrible forces that I could barely imagine existing. I didn’t want to consider the notion that Harry Bailey’s article in Spooky American Tales might be anything more than the sensational ramblings of a pulp journalist. I didn’t want to contemplate the possible meaning of those two sets of hoofprints, the nasty gunk around their edges.
“I’d better get to my cash register,” I said.
“Yes, I guess you’d better.”
I was standing up from the visitor’s chair when Louis gave me yet one more thing to think about.
“Oh,” Louis said, “if you do happen to hit it off with Diane Parker, I recommend that you don’t take too long in making your move. What I mean is: Don’t let Keith Conway make his move first. You know how he is, after all.”