Jade remembers how excited she felt when she first saw the advert—the one promising the culinary delights of a long-forgotten culture. She switched off her phone so she could listen, without distraction, to the radio interview with the man who may or may not have been the seven-years-missing, Michelin-starred chef. “I don’t want my new restaurant to be exclusive,” he’d said. “The super-rich are only interested in bragging to their friends, and food critics will spoil the mystery for future diners. We pride ourselves on the diversity of our menu, which is why we value diversity in our clients.”
How could she resist?
The restaurant, situated in an industrial hub outside the city, is hard to miss. Even in darkness, the architecture is eccentric. The entrance is guarded by statues of lion-headed men with barrel chests and serpentine tales, their faces fixed in hungry roars. Dozens of carved-stone hands reach out from the window frames as though previous diners were frozen while trying to claw their way free. The domed roof bulges like a squashed water balloon, glowing green and gold against the night sky. Most impressive of all is the spire on top of the dome, a needle of granite that reaches up beyond the clouds.
At eight o’clock, the queue goes quiet when the maître-d’ opens the doors.
Jade shoves her hands into her jacket pockets to keep them from shaking with excitement. She’s tired of her restaurant reviews being published in hidden corners of local newspapers and the constant struggle to be noticed. She longs to be known, to be a recognised name, and tonight is her big opportunity. After tickets for entry were drawn at random from an online lottery, she emptied her savings account to buy one through a black-market website. She’s desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, a story no one else can tell.
Inside, the restaurant is disappointingly mundane.
A waiter, wearing a silver waistcoat over a midnight blue shirt, provides Jade with a complimentary glass of Champagne before escorting her to her table. He places a wicker basket of freshly-baked rolls by her elbow, the bread crusted with whole grains and smelling faintly of anchovies. She asks questions but the waiter gives nothing away, other than to promise a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” for everyone.
The only striking feature of the restaurant’s interior is the ceiling: a solid sheet of black material, maybe acrylic, which has been polished into a mirror. Jade leans back in her chair and walks her eyes across the reflected room, seeing ghostly fingers fiddling with cutlery, lips kissing Champagne flutes, and heads bobbing to the tune of a hundred hungry stomachs. But something is wrong. Where have the waiters gone? And where’s the aroma of freshly-cooked food?
Opening-night jitters, no doubt. She’s seen it often enough.
Her eyes are drawn back to the ceiling and she realises that, behind every reflection, the darkness has depth. The material is no longer opaque; it’s some sort of glass. In every shadow, she can see the white pinpricks of distant stars. Galaxies spiralling across the night sky. Great mysteries unwinding to infinity. Her instincts tell her to record everything, every thought and whisper, and she fights the urge to reach for the notebook she keeps in her handbag.
A bell rings, loud and crisp. “Ladies and gentlemen,” says the maître-d’. “Thank you for joining us on this most … triumphant of occasions. I trust you enjoyed your Champagne. I hope you enjoyed the bread. Now it’s time for the main course.”
The lights go out and a scream erupts from the far side of the room. Glasses crash against empty plates and chairs scrape the carpet as diners flee their tables. In darkness, it’s possible to see clearly through the ceiling, to witness the vast cosmos in all its radiant beauty. But there’s something moving up there, something so big it would cast the whole city in shadow. Jade stares in horror as the snout of what looks like a giant reptile floats above them, with armoured skin covered in luminescent scales, and teeth that must be ten times the size of elephant tusks. The creature rolls on its side, revealing a single eye with a long, narrow pupil and an iris that burns red and gold. It watches, unblinking, as panic unfolds in the restaurant.
Crowds gather around the exits, tugging on handles, ramming doors with shoulders, but it’s futile. A chair flies towards a window and bounces uselessly to the floor. With creeping dread, Jade realises they’re trapped.
Like lobsters in a tank.
The creature slips a long, scaly appendage through the black-glass ceiling, which ripples like the surface of a pond. Jade’s eyes sting as the air is filled with the stench of rotting fish and urine. She wipes away her tears in time to see the creature pluck a young man from the restaurant floor and lift him up to its mouth, shoving him in whole. The man’s legs flail briefly before being crunched between the creature’s mighty jaws. The other diners scream and huddle in corners until the creature swipes at them, sending them scurrying across the floor.
A middle-aged businesswoman is next to go.
Then a father trying to protect his children.
Through it all, Jade remains seated. She feels oddly relieved. No one is leaving the restaurant; their fates have already been determined. And yet the story isn’t over. Editors have rejected her opinions about chefs and restaurants and opening night misadventures, but she’s sure they’ll want to hear this one—even if she won’t be around to tell it.
She used to tell the story; now she is the story.
The food critic who became the main course.
Feeling a surge of inspiration, she removes a notebook and pen from her handbag. If she’s quick, she might be able to scribble some last words.
Christopher Stanley lives on a hill with three sons who share a birthday but aren’t triplets. His stories have been published by Unnerving Magazine and in The Third Corona Book of Horror Stories. His novelette, The Forest is Hungry, was published by Demain Publishing in April 2019. Follow him @allthosestrings.