[ In this Eater piece by Helen Rosner, there is a line: “There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.” It was suggested that this could be an amusing prompt for a piece of fiction, to use it as the opening sentence.
The following is my attempt. ]
There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.
“Would you like an appetizer?”
Amber was hunched over slightly, squinting as she stared at the glossy page of the menu, her eyes scanning down the offerings at an exploring pace.
“I… I’m sorry,” she said after a pause, and fidgeted in the booth seat. “No appetizer, but, did you guys change your menu recently, or something? I’m not even seeing any pasta here. I mean, that’s weird, right?” She flipped a page over. Then another. She frowned at the sight of an off-center photo of a lump of beef in dim lighting, spritzed with something that maybe resembled a cheese, one of those translucent Restaurant Cheeses that always seems like it’s been left out on a party platter for a few hours.
The server stood nearby with a thin smile. “We have all sorts,” she replied with a nod. “Perhaps we could start with wine, instead?”
“Yes!” Amber snapped the menu shut and set it on the table. “Wine would be great, thank you.”
The server nodded and left.
Amber found her phone, in her lap, and blinked. The screen remained blank, formless and void, as she tried to turn it on. “Seriously?” she muttered, and swore under her breath. She sighed. She frowned, as she looked for a purse, or a jacket. She settled for a serendipitous pocket, sliding the phone in as she stood to her feet.
She took a quick glance around, hardly noting her fellow patrons, the bottles arrayed on various shelves nearby, the pallor of walls cast in hues akin to unremarkable teeth. She managed to coax her feet to movement, striding under the gentle wooden curve of an archway overhead as she made her way through the foyer.
She… hesitated, as she searched, as she turned on a heel and failed to find any sign of a bathroom.
She walked up to a modest podium, with a hostess behind. “Excuse me,” Amber said, “Where are the restrooms?”
The woman behind the podium pointed over Amber’s shoulder, back toward a set of metal-and-glass doors in succession. “It should be through there, to the left of the bar,” she explained.
Amber — chose not to harp on this less-than-confident answer, only muttering a “thanks” as she turned, and walked, and pushed at a door, then another, then one more? She thought about this, how typically these would be the sort of doors that would lead outside. Not here, apparently.
Another foyer. Foyer-like area? The ‘front.’ Whatever. She coasted past a redundant podium, through another Doorway Of Gentle Curves, to the left of the bar.
She placed her hands on her hips. No restroom in sight. A corridor, sure. Bottles of wine, everywhere. Walls. A server, walking dutifully. No restrooms, however.
She surveyed the tables. At one, a man was seated, and reading a newspaper. Who the hell reads a newspaper at Olive Garden? At another table, a woman, also seated alone, staring blankly ahead of her, unmoving, her hands neatly folded against the table’s edge.
Amber reached across her body and scratched at her forearm, grinding her teeth as she became aware of her breathing, her breathing that was getting too fast.
That’s when she noticed the man at the corner booth. Tan suit jacket. Dark tie. Wispy, blonde-white beard and long hair. Wrinkles.
He was looking right at her, and gesturing toward the seat across from him. Now, normally, Amber would not be one to partake of a strange man’s invitation to company, but then she saw the way two servers were staring wordlessly at each other for an indeterminable period, and she felt unnerved to the point of irrational desperation.
So she sat, across from him. He smiled, and spoke plainly. “You’ve noticed by now, yes? How this place does not feel entirely right.”
She shifted more comfortably in the seat. “Yeah, it’s kinda freaking me out. Do you, uh, know where the restroom is?”
He smiled, again. “I am not sure there are any restrooms here.”
Amber’s mouth opened, but no sound emerged. She slowly cocked her head to one side.
“Oh, I’ve looked,” he continued. “I’ve walked a lot, throughout. I’ve seen many tables, many chairs, many bars, many servers, many doors, many guests. Entire rooms of artwork on walls or bottles on shelves, but no restrooms. I try to keep a catalogue of what is not quite right here. The way the servers move, and speak. The menu has all sorts of problems. I have heard people complain about the food in many ways, and about the drinks. The temperature, the taste, the texture. It is never good. There is always something wrong. It just takes some longer to notice than others. I once watched a man send his dinner back four times before he began to suspect anything.”
Amber’s head was becoming a fuzzy liquid, her mind swimming amid half-formed thoughts and an already-overwhelming amount of questions. She could feel her heart beating.
She spoke quietly, in a steady cadence, each word tumbling past her lips in a very measured, conscious sequence: “How long have you been here?”
The man make a sort of ‘click’ sound with his mouth, and held up an index finger, and tapped it against the air a few times.
“That’s another thing: I’m not sure. Phones and watches do not work here. There are no clocks. There are not even any windows, to see if it is night or day outside.”
Amber turned in her seat, snapping her head around. It was true: No windows, anywhere in sight. Just an endless interior. She began to feel an increase in pressure, a closing-in.
“Why? What’s going on here?” she sputtered, alternately trying to convey urgency yet remain calm. ‘I’m ready to wake up now,’ she thought.
“I am certain it is aliens,” the man said.
… the woman raised an eyebrow, at the man’s statement, but said nothing for the moment.
“They have constructed this environment, trying to represent a place of normalcy for humans. Clearly, they could improve. But for some purpose, they bring people in here. They must be observing. There must be a reason, for all this. Most of the other diners, here, are completely artificial. Watch.”
Casually and quickly, the man grabbed a spoon from the table. He turned, somewhat, and neatly wrapped the blunt backside of the spoon against the back of a man’s head. The man flinched, briefly, then resumed sitting in a still silence.
Amber brought her elbows to the tabletop and rubbed her eyes, exhaling through pursed lips, self-conscious of an unsurety as to how to feel about, the, whatever this was.
“But you said there were others? Who… who know?” she said, tucking her chin atop her knuckles. “How many people are here? What… what happens to them?”
“I can’t say,” the man said. “I can tell you that some deal with the knowledge differently. Some break down right away. Others enter a state of odd acceptance. One man attacked me, when I explained that I had no idea where his children were.”
“Okay, I need to get out of here,” Amber said, even as she struggled to move in any particular direction, her hands shaking as she began sliding toward the edge of the seat.
“I don’t think you can,” the man said flatly. “I don’t think there are any exits.”
“Well I have to try,” she said, swinging her legs out toward the floor. “I’m not staying here, trapped in a damned Olive Garden.”
The man began to laugh. His laugh was a dry, raspy sort of noise. He held his hands up, palms facing the ceiling. “Why? We have barely begun to talk.” His voice began to rise. “What if the outside world is gone and you have nowhere to go? Besides, you don’t even know their purpose yet. What if they consider you a grand specimen, and their intentions are for your benefit? What if they truly mean you no harm, only delight? What if they seek to learn from you, to have a dialogue with you? Is that not worth pursuing?”
Amber stood, and kept a hand on the edge of the table, as she eyed the man intensely. She spoke in a bitter hiss. “I don’t care. I don’t care if this is a prank, or an experiment, or if it really is aliens. I want to go home. I want to see my family, my friends, I want to sit down, and watch TV, and recharge my phone, and sleep, and… this is insane,” she chuckled, and shook her head. “I’m going.”
The man sighed, as Amber began walking briskly away. “So interesting. So much to learn,” he said, to himself, before he opened his mouth extra-wide. A long, thin tentacle flicked out, across the room, over the expanse of dull carpet, and stabbed a venomous barb into the back of Amber’s neck.
She groaned, and grabbed, and fell, her body slumping awkwardly against one of the endless walls.
There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.