The grand opening was three days away, on Hallowe’en of all nights, and Peter Gray still needed to finish hiring the staff. Would the bartender, Kyle or Cal—whatever his name was, consider working an extra shift? It seemed like a quarter of Roseland was out of work, but he couldn’t find enough employees. It would be easier to forget fine dining, but he had made a promise to his father. Even if he screwed up nearly everything else in life, promises he meant to keep.
Pushing the last table into place, Peter surveyed the area making sure there was more than enough space for some large man swinging elbows to pass without knocking someone on the head. As he stacked a chair upside-down on the table, a high-pitched squeal coming from the kitchen startled him. The sound of fracturing wood made him cringe.
In the kitchen, everything gleamed, white walls and silver-wired shelves. Pots, pans, and knives hung on a wall. The shelves at the back were still empty, and the slicer was nowhere to be seen leaving an open space in the middle where Boris crouched over a crate. Splintered wood broke the serenity of the tiled floor.
Pulling on a crowbar, Boris grunted. Another nail squealed as the lid popped up leaving one corner attached.
“Boris,” said Peter, “what the hell is that?”
Boris waved the crowbar at the crate. “The door to the freezer, I imagine. What else would it be?”
Taking up the corner of the kitchen, the walk-in freezer appeared like the opening to a dark, empty cave. He had already rescheduled the meat delivery twice, and needed that freezer door before the big day.
“Boris, that isn’t the right shape for the walk-in. A skinny door, maybe.”
The wrong shape for any door, really, the crate appeared more like it held something the size of a coffee table and plenty of padding.
“Some assembly required,” said Boris. Another pull popped the crate open, and he leaned the lid against the wire shelf. Staring into the open crate in bewilderment, he rubbed his face.
A coffin. Black, unusually glossy under the bright florescent lights, the box appeared ominous sitting snug inside the crate. At the corners, packing peanuts provided padding along with Styrofoam blocks on either side at the narrow end of the coffin.
For a moment it felt as if the afterlife had shipped his father back to him, but his old man rested underground in a white casket. No, this was a mistake. It had to be. Shipper royally screwed up, and likely some funeral home had a freezer door. Opening a restaurant came with its share of stumbles along the way, and for the most part everything seemed to balance out. As far as setbacks go, Peter put this bad delivery into the weird experiences pile.
Tearing the shipping documents off the lid, Boris stood up spewing curses in the language of his homeland.
In the other room, the front door clapped shut. Footsteps approached.
Peter glanced over finding a young woman standing beside him, and he recalled the late afternoon interview. Her sharp-yet-comfortable attire, short-sleeved blouse and long skirt, scored high on his old man’s quality test. After a day of interviewing girls in torn jeans, this woman lifted his spirits. Her smile, closed lips curling up on her left side, appeared playful like a child discovering a new present beneath the Christmas tree.
“That’s the Reaper’s Box,” said the woman.
“It’s a goddamn tragedy is what it is,” said Boris.
“An old model from a line of colorfully named boxes,” said the woman. Shaking her head, she appeared apologetic and held out her hand. “Sorry, I’m Nine Thyme. My family runs a funeral home.”
Studying Nine Thyme, Peter found a pleasant expression, not the face of a prankster. Unless she had one hell of a poker face, Nine hadn’t sent the coffin as a joke. Although, a funeral expert arriving after the coffin seemed like a strange twist of cosmic entanglement. Tentatively, he shook her hand and introduced himself.
“Aren’t you too young to be running a restaurant?” asked Nine. Squeezing her eyes shut, embarrassed as if she had just stepped in something disgusting, she took in a deep breath and opened her eyes again. “I mean you are the sole owner, aren’t you?”
“Autumn Twilight was my father’s dream. Before he passed, I had promised to see it through for him.”
Her smile evaporated, and her gaze darted between the coffin and his face.
“No,” said Peter, feeling the blood drain from his face. A restaurant is an unthinkable location to keep dear old Dad. “My father died three months ago. This is a shipping mistake.”
“Mistake my ass,” said Boris. He waved the shipping papers. “This thing is addressed to you, Peter. Your goddam name is on here.”
“Papers must be mixed up, Boris. While I interview Nine, will you get the shipper on the phone and see if we can swap this thing for our freezer door before tomorrow?”
Nodding, Boris pulled his phone out of his pocket.
Nine kneeled beside the crate and ran her fingers over the surface of the coffin. “A nice old model in great shape,” she said.
“Well, I’m trying not to become too attached to it,” said Peter.
Glancing over her shoulder, Nine shot him a cold look. “You might want to rethink that, Peter Gray.”
Gaze falling on Nine’s tapping finger, Peter spotted a blue sticky note near the top corner of the coffin. He crouched beside the crate, his gut sinking deeper. Edge crinkled, and black ink smudged, the note appeared as though it had been stuck there for a year or longer. He had no trouble reading it though, and he didn’t like it one bit. As if it might make the meaning more clear, he read it again to the room.
“For Peter Gray. Do not open until All Hallows’ Eve.”