Jessica took the man’s ticket, tore it, and handed him the stub. “Screen 13. To the right, around the corner, and all the way at the end.”
Why had Jessica told the man to go to Screen 13? wondered Debbie. It was only her first week at Jefferson Cinema, but even she knew there was no Screen 13.
She followed the man at a distance.
Turning the corner, Debbie saw him reach the end of the hall. He would soon be confused and upset. She would apologize for Jessica’s mistake and lead him to the correct screen.
The man opened the door and walked inside.
Oh no, she thought. The man had just walked into a storage room.
Debbie hurried to the door, and pulled the handle. It was locked. She looked up at the electric sign over the door, which was dark, as usual. She knocked.
Zach walked out of Screen 12, which was directly across the hall. “Hey, Debbie, wanna go get a burger tonight after work?”
“What’s the deal with this screen, Zach?”
“That’s not a screen. Didn’t they teach you that during orientation?”
“—the new owner is superstitious. He doesn’t like having a screen number 13.”
“I know. But a man just went in there.”
“A guest? No, couldn’t have been.”
“Jessica sent him down here. She told him his movie was playing on Screen 13. I heard her.”
“She must have been daydreaming. She knows better. Probably had one too many beers last night.”
“Maybe so. But they guy went in there. I saw him.”
Zach tried the door. “How? It’s locked.”
“I know. But I saw him go in.”
Zach knocked on the door and they waited for a while.
There was no response.
Zach shrugged. “How about that burger?”
“Okay, then. Tomorrow night. Great. Can’t wait.”
He walked away.
Debbie checked the door throughout the night, but it remained locked. She never saw the man come out.
The next night, Debbie listened carefully every time she was near a ticket taker. Finally she heard Jessica direct a middle-aged woman to Screen 13. She began to follow the woman. But after only a few steps, another guest stopped her.
“Can you please help me?” the man said.
“Of course.” Debbie smiled. But she needed to give a quick answer. The woman was getting away.
“I stopped to get popcorn and my wife went on to get our seats. She has the ticket stubs. And I forgot which screen she told me. But I don’t want to have to search all twenty-five screens to find it.”
Twenty-four screens, thought Debbie. She helped him, and then hurried to catch up with the Screen 13 woman.
Debbie saw her at the end of the corridor. The woman looked up at the sign over the door.
Debbie was amazed to see the sign lit up.
The woman opened the door and walked into the theater.
Debbie walked faster.
As soon as the door closed behind the woman, the sign over the door went dark.
Debbie was practically running now. What in the hell is going on here?
When she reached the door, it was locked.
“Hey, Debbie, can you give us a hand with this trash?”
She turned around. It was Zach and Henry.
“Sure.” She walked over and helped them roll the three large trash cans toward the exit to the alley.
When they got outside, Zach flipped up the dumpster lid.
“Yuck, that stinks,” said Debbie.
“What did you expect?” said Henry.
“I don’t know,” she said. “The smell of stale popcorn, half-eaten candy and pickles, I guess. But this smells like…Zach, do have a flashlight?”
“Yeah.” He handed it to Debbie and she flicked it on and directed its beam into the dumpster. “What is that?”
Zach took a look. “What?”
“That red liquid.”
“Looks like blood,” she said. “Smells like blood.”
“Vampire barf,” said Henry.
The two boys laughed.
“This is not funny,” she said.
“What’s the big deal?” said Zach.
“She thinks somebody was murdered,” said Henry. “Ooh. Creepy.” He laughed.
“Oh, I know,” said Zach. “Some guy was probably throwing a fit because his popcorn was too salty. So, the manager slit his throat.”
“Yeah,” said Henry, “or maybe his pickle wasn’t quite big enough.”
“Hey, if a guy’s pickle is too small, it ain’t our fault,” said Zach.
The boys laughed.
“You guys are so funny.”
“Ah, come on, Debbie,” said Zach. “If it is blood, it’s probably from the chicken wings. You know—we sell them in the snack bar.”
Later, Debbie walked down to Screen 13 again to take another look.
She whipped around. Jessica was in her face. Debbie jumped back.
“Is there a problem?”
“You keep coming down here. You seem to be obsessed with this storage room.” She looked around to make sure nobody else was near. “You want to know why I sometimes send guests down here to Screen 13?”
“Of course you do. I’ll show you.” Jessica took out a key, unlocked the door, and opened it for Debbie. “Come on in.”
Debbie walked inside. Jessica followed her.
“I can’t see where I going,” said Debbie.
“Just keep moving forward.”
Finally Debbie saw a faint light. Several people stood behind a small table which held a cake. With candles.
“Happy Birthday, Debbie,” said Jessica.
“But my birthday is not until—”
“—I know. We’re celebrating early.”
“So, that’s why you send people in here? For a surprise birthday party?”
“Yes,” said Jessica. “We find people who live alone and don’t have any family or friends. We mail them a free movie ticket, and then we surprise them with a birthday cake.”
Just as Debbie started to relax, she spotted a black blanket draped over something in the corner. As her eyes adjusted, she noticed that there was a shoe sticking out from under the blanket.
Hopefully it didn’t have a dead foot in it.
But what if it did? What if they were luring people into the theater—people that nobody would ever miss—killing them, and selling their body parts? That would explain the blood in the dumpster.
Those poor, lonely people.
But wait—she didn’t have any real friends. Her grandmother was her only family. And she had run away from home several times. Would anybody even come looking for her this time?
“Cut out the heart first?” The large knife in the man’s hand reflected candlelight into her eyes, blinding her.
Debbie knew she couldn’t possibly get away. She was dead meat. “Go ahead. Do it.”
The man looked puzzled. “Okay.” He turned around and cut a huge chunk out of the cake, including the heart made of thick, red icing. “Here you go. Happy Birthday.” He handed the plate to Debbie, smiling.
Zach jumped up from where he was hiding: under the black blanket in the corner.
Everyone began to sing “Happy Birthday.” By the end of the song, tears were streaming down Debbie’s face. It was her best birthday party ever.
Debbie would never again worry about Screen 13. When she saw someone go in, she knew the door would lock behind them. She pictured them being treated to a wonderful birthday surprise.
She would never tell anyone about Screen 13, as she had promised. The secret was safe with her. To the rest of the world, it was just a storage room.
But she would never know what really happens to those lonely people who accept a very special invitation…to Screen 13.