George’s glass of water is warm; the air conditioning blowing against the back of his neck sends shivers down his spine; there’s a light wobble to his table, but he’ll hold his judgment until the bill is paid because he is hungrier than a dog at a deli shop. He’s heard that the meals at Wildest Expectations will be delicious enough to make him consider retiring from writing his food column and take up reporting about something less complex, like sports.
What puts George off more than anything is how nervous the waiter wearing glasses seemed, stuttering when he recited the daily special before spilling some of George’s warm water on the tablecloth as he filled his glass. As tiny as your restaurant may be, if your wait staff acts like a high school kid taking his first date to homecoming, then that same frantic energy will leak into the atmosphere and soak into your main course. George would like to think he’s been fair with his reviews in the past, but in a city where you can order from a five-star restaurant via a delivery app like Seamless, ambiance becomes tied with food quality more than ever.
From the outside, the venue is your typical East Village joint, tucked away among a hundred other restaurants and bars in the graffiti and hipster speckled streets adjacent to Alphabet City. Aside from the rooftop eateries, the venues of Manhattan are known more for their soul than their beauty. George wouldn’t be here if his old friend Reggie hadn’t recommended it to him. Reggie’s twice as much of a foodie as George, but he can barely write out a text message and that’s how George stays employed. Skill beats out passion any way you look at it. Call it cheating that George has only been reviewing restaurants that he knew were going to be good for the past few years, but with his fortieth birthday rapidly approaching, he has little patience for a bad meal. Plus, no matter how good the food is, he’ll still give out a four or three star rating because people like subjectivity just as much as they do being told what will make a good meal to brag about on social media.
The walls of Wildest Expectations are covered in photographs, all featuring what looks to be a potbellied chef with a mustache and a greasy apron standing beside random people that George assumes are celebrities, though he doesn’t recognize anybody on the wall closest to him. He’s not following the latest reality TV stars, but some of the guests in the pictures seem older than him yet they don’t ring any bells. Another weird thing is that George could swear Reggie told him this place had only been open for a year or so. How do they have so many old looking pictures? Jeez, is George going to have his picture plastered over the next free segment of wallpaper? That would be a hell of a catch to draw in customers, but George’s stomach has been bloated lately and he wouldn’t want to be documented while appearing fatter than a freaking chef.
There is a yell from somewhere in back of the restaurant, a man’s voice faintly high pitched. George wouldn’t be surprised if the pimply waiter stubbed his toe. George is the only diner at the restaurant, which is how he generally prefers it. Four in the afternoon is the perfect time to beat a restaurant’s dinner rush.
A bang, somebody hitting a wall, sounds off from the back and George turns in his chair, burping.
“Sorry,” George hears a woman whisper and he finds it strange that the venue has no music playing. He can’t remember the last time he ate somewhere that was completely silent. What seems to be the same lady that spoke emerges from the back. Short, with black hair tied into a bun, she marches right toward George.
“Sorry, we’re short staffed today. What can I get you?” she asks and George hardly looked at the menu, full of fancy, Latin names for each dish. He orders the Umbra Sanguine, which translates something to do with dark meat and blood, although he heard the meal itself had a fishy quality.
“Anything to drink?” The waitress seems to grimace at George’s warm glass of water. She’s not dressed like a server, she’s in a grey uniform that seems like standard chef wear at a wannabe fancy place like this. “Red wine is what we recommend,” she flashes him a smile.
“Make it a glass of Merlot then. Are you a cook?” George gestures to her outfit and her smile breaks into a toothy grin.
“I’m also the owner.” The woman’s earrings, triangles, seem to catch a few rays of dim lighting. She extends a hand, “Madelline Bianca,” and George wonders if his cover is blown. Some waiters, let alone owners, have smelled his intentions in the past, despite George’s best efforts. If only he didn’t dine alone but it’s always such a headache coordinating with the schedules of others. Madelline seems to frown when George gives her a fake name but her smile returns before he starts to worry. When she bounces off to get his meal, he begins to hope this place will overcome its first impression upon him.
Fifteen minutes later, just as George’s stomach is starting to twist itself into ravenous knots, there’s another bang and shout from the kitchen. What happened to his original waiter? Madelline introduced herself, would it hurt to check what’s going on? George burps again and his stomach always acts up when he’s hungry. The bathrooms are near the kitchen, it wouldn’t hurt to peek and see what the hell’s going on.
George used to be a waiter himself, working at a bar for a few weeks back when he was in college. His dad found out and made him quit over some snobby ideal that George shouldn’t lower himself to such a position. His dad then gave him as much money as he needed until he got his career started, so George can’t fault the guy too much. Still, George learned that nobody likes an impatient customer. Specially if the place is short staffed. But there’s nobody here and, George does sort of have to pee.
He walks past the bathroom, peeking into the hallway leading to a kitchen. A freezer door is wide open, and what may be the pimply waiter’s glasses lie broken on the ground. The open freezer door blocks out most of the hallway, but beyond it George can see a group of five or so people huddled together in plain clothes. Weird as it is, George thinks he recognizes one of them.
Approaching hesitantly down the hallway, George calls out the name of his number one assistant that recommended this place. “Reggie?”
The group of people are silent, swaying where they stand, and the edge of the open freezer door is mostly blocking them. As George moves to close the door, he can’t help but stop and stare at what he sees inside. Madelline, hunched over a metal rolling table that reminds George of the slab a corpse lies on in a mortuary. Also helping him figure this analogy is the humanoid body sprawled across the table, missing square chunks of its mid-section that’s presumably due to the butcher knife Madelline’s holding in her hands.
With black, frog-like skin, the dead thing has the general outline of a child, a child with half a dozen purple-puckered tentacles jutting from each shoulder instead of arms. Weird, frosted yet still slimy looking orange and purple flower pedals grow out of its back. The head, which seems to be composed of two snouts, is titled partially out of view, hanging off the back of the table. Madelline curses when she sees George and lowers the knife by her side. “When Reggie said you’d be here for dinner, I expected you a bit later,” she says, as a pair of strong arms grab George from behind.
Reggie’s familiar, scruffy face is eclipsed by several strangers, including the pimply-faced waiter. All of their eyes are cast down to the floor, looking away from George and yet they’re converging on him like they can see him, as if their linked as one. They force George’s arms to be still and spin him to face Madelline.
“I didn’t expect you to remember this place, or my father who I saw you studying on the walls. But do you have any idea how many one star reviews you’ve given?” Madelline asks and this is too perfect a fairy tale to be true. Scorned chef gets revenge on a food critic? This can’t be happening.
The thing on the table, which George has rationalized to be some sort of weird taxidermy/Frankenstein’s monster experiment as opposed to an actual, once living creature, gives him pause. This is not a mugging or a kidnapping. “Reggie?” George pleads to his friend, who remains staring off into space. One star reviews?
“You’re taking me too seriously…” George says, recognizing Madelline’s contempt, her accusation. He’s gotten a few angry letters from people over the years but nothing serious. His voice and opinion, as praised as they are from time to time, hardly sway the flow of a place’s business.
“You’ve got it wrong. I didn’t mean to imply that you matter. You didn’t kill him, you didn’t ruin us. It was the ever-breeding rats and the health inspectors that did that. No, but I remember you, Mr. Speking. I remember my mother crying because my father promised that he wouldn’t come home until he fixed things. I remember wondering what we would do when immigration came. I remember finding your review just as everything seemed hopeless….you want to how I felt, when I thought I was at my lowest? Was it too much, to hope for one positive thing? For a single compliment? You aren’t important, Mr. Speking, but I remembered you. I remembered imagining what it would be like, to bring you here, to feed you what you deserve.” Madelline uses her knife to flake off something from the inhuman cadaver’s head. It looks like a finger at first, but as it catches the light there’s a bulbous, transparent quality to it and it starts to remind George of a bloated, elongated eye.
“When people are dumped into the dirt, then further spit on by men like you, they make friends, after a while. We all do what we can to survive,” Madelline places the knife down beside the dead thing, the primary ingredient in her menu. George’s tensed up chest relaxes, until she raises a chunk of the dead thing’s meat and takes a step toward him. “But it’s not about me anymore. It’s not about you, or any one of us. My father found something that makes us more, that can make us one…if you give it a chance. There won’t be any more critiquing once we’re all the same.” She waves the eye or whatever it is right in George’s face and he gags. Frosted over as the thing is, there’s the worst sort of fishy smell to it.
The four men around George begin to speak as one, “We’ve tried it. Yummy, like we told you,” and Reggie presses his face next to George’s, even as his eyes roll to the ceiling. It’s as if they’re puppets, mere skin sacks being pulled along by strings.
“Call it brain food,” Madelline says as she crouches, pressing the severed appendage to George’s lips. Of course he bites down, forcing the men around him to wrench his jaw open as his mouth fills with a cold, soggy meat. “Mmmm,” Madelline coos as the hands around George rub his throat until he swallows. A moment later, the overhead lights turn into stars and he is cast into the deep black void of space.
“Share,” begins to repeat from either side of George, whispered by a thousand voices. Above him, enshrouded in a miasma of throbbing red stars, there is a pulsing glob of light with too many snaking arms and eyes set atop stalks slit with gills. It is a brain, a spore floating through the galaxy, and its only goal is to be connected, as it spits out larvae through flimsy little tubes along its underside. Larvae that floats through free space, waiting to burst through an atmosphere and land on somebody’s dinner plate. It is a great cosmic fruit, spitting out seeds that will blossom into life that will then be snuffed out, recycled, once more consumed. The blackness around George becomes a spinning vortex and as if fed by an anesthesia drip, he floats up and off. He awakens at the dining table he should have never left, his head hunched into his arms and the menu stuck to his face.
A dream, he figures, as he sits up in his chair. The only bad taste in his mouth is the acid of indigestion. His arms aren’t sore from being grabbed and he, fell asleep? Waiting for his meal? He pushes his chair out, stands on swaying legs. He reaches for the glass of water and finds it to be both cold and refreshing. The Wildest Expectations is still empty and the waitress or waiter, foggy as they both are, have forgotten him. His appetite’s gone and hell, he can just come back some other time. Yeah, it’s still light outside. Spring is in the air, a walk will better serve him than a meal.
The day is a daze that passes into night, and when George finds himself in front of his computer, staring at a blank document that he’d usually fill with a review or some other form of correspondence, he finds himself typing WILDEST EXPECTATIONS in big black letters. He’s never been a liar before, as biased as he has sometimes gotten, but tonight he takes a little piece of every glowing praise he’s ever given a restaurant, churns it in a pot of expression and metaphors, and comes up with a review. He sweeps through it once for typos, and then sends it off to his editor. It’s the first restaurant he’s ever insisted that “everybody has try before they die,” and he’s not sure where the passion for that line comes from, but he means it. He believes it, despite his belly still being empty. Bloated. In fact, he’s going to come back there the very next day. He’s going to sit at that same table, order the same dish and this time, he’s not going to worry and overanalyze every bite, the texture, the taste, the smell. He’s going to smile at the wait staff and never enjoy his meals without company again.