“Why are so many people getting Dunkin Donuts at 2pm on a Sunday?”
That was the question that started it all. I was driving to get groceries with Nicole and Elena—Elena was driving—and on our way out of the little strip mall parking lot, we had to navigate through the Dunkin Donuts drive-through line, which had somehow grown long enough to overflow from the space around the store.
And Nicole asked her question. It’s a fair question, isn’t it? Who gets Dunkin Donuts at 2pm on a Sunday? I wouldn’t expect more than a single car in that drive-through, if that. Nicole and Elena laughed it off, but the moment continued to bother me.
Especially since, when I looked back at the backed-up line, just as we were driving away, I could have sworn I saw one of the cars disappear—there one moment and gone the next. And then the whole scene passed behind a grove of trees.
I didn’t say anything about my suspicions to my friends. I have a bit of a reputation in the group for being a bit obsessive. And that’s certainly true. A bit. I spent most of the afternoon lying on my bed in my little room, replaying that moment in my head. Was this just another obsession? I concluded that it was, after looking at my phone and realizing I had wasted three hours, but clearly I wouldn’t be able to shake it from my mind until I went and looked at the Dunkin Donuts again.
I couldn’t use Elena’s car since I had decided not to tell her, so I had to bike down to the area. I waited until the next Sunday, actually made sure I had finished everything for the weekend by 1 o’clock, and headed out along the side of the highway down to the Dunkin Donuts.
For once, my obsession was validated. At least, partially validated. There was an enormous line outside the drive through—and, something I hadn’t noticed last week, there were no cars in the parking lot and no one in the store itself. You would think that, even during a rush, some people would forgo the drive-through and just walk into the store to get the donuts they have decided they need at 2 o’clock on a Sunday. But nope. They’re all in the fucking drive-through. So, I started walking my bike over to the grocery store at an angle where I could watch the drive-through line, and I saw it. The car at the front of the line disappeared. Popped right out of existence. I think I stood there for a full ten seconds trying to make sense of it. Then the car behind it disappeared. And the cars behind it just rolled up to take its place like nothing happened.
I sought refuge in the grocery store’s Starbucks. I ordered some coffee (the kind that takes a good while to drink) and sat down at the window to watch the cars disappear. Every last one of them did. No one seemed to care, either. No one even seemed to notice. I sat there, waiting, drinking my coffee, for two hours. At 4:15 on the dot, a car reappeared, just as abruptly as it had disappeared. Over the next fifteen minutes, perhaps a hundred cars appeared and drove off, just like that.
I came back every Sunday for the next few weeks. Every week it was the same. The cars would enter at 2pm, backing up the drive-through. One by one they would disappear. At 4:15 they would reappear and drive off. And not once did I hear anyone else comment on any part of it. I got to know the barista who worked the Sunday afternoon shift pretty well, and one week I got up the courage to ask them if they knew anything about the regular disappearances. They just got this look on their face and refused to say anything—refused even to talk to me for the rest of the afternoon.
I finally told Elena, and she didn’t believe me—I actually had to remind her of the original incident first—until I insisted that she drive down with me to witness the disappearances herself.
“I won’t say that isn’t creepy, because it is, but isn’t it better to leave it alone, Jake?” she said. “You don’t know what kind of cult activity they’re doing in a Dunkin Donuts, alright?”
That conversation quickly turned into a series of jokes about whatever Lovecraftian deity might be worshipped in a donut chain. Then we went home.
Of course, I can’t leave well enough alone. I kept observing. I noticed it was starting to affect my ability to finish my weekend work, but I didn’t care. I resolved that, some way, I had to get inside, to see what was really going on wherever the cars disappeared to. There was one car, a silver SUV, that would often be at the back of the line, with the trunk popped. That straggler would be my in.
One week, I came down even earlier than usual, telling my friends I couldn’t make D&D that week because I had to study for a midterm. In fact, I did—and it was a midterm that I had missed, but this was more important. I got there at one and settled down in the bushes to wait.
At 1:45, I saw something I had never seen before. An employee came out of the store and fiddled with something in the utilities control box outside. I kept my eyes wide, and saw the briefest flash of blue light, right in the center of the drive-through. Then everything looked as it was before.
I was lucky that week. I think. My straggler was at the back again, with his trunk popped. I strolled casually towards the store, on a path that happened to intersect the drive-through line, and scrambled into the open trunk when I came near. Inside was an odd assortment of cardboard boxes. Some of them were half-open, revealing clothes, toys, food, even jewelry. Like it was some kind of donation drive. I peeked over the seats and got a close look at the driver. They were wearing some kind of shapeless, ash-grey hooded robe.
It was very obvious when we passed through the barrier. In a flash, the light coming through the trunk window turned blinding blue, brighter than any light I have ever seen, except for a shape moving out in the distance, huge and hunched.
I’m not sure how long we spent driving through that space. I’m not sure if time really…works properly in there. At one point, I dared to peek out the window, and, despite the fact that we were last to enter, a line of cars stretched out behind us until it vanished into the blue. One of the shapes was following our line, though. I could see several of them from my vantage point, but this one was definitely stretching over the line. As I watched, its shadow approached, closer, and closer, until finally it passed over the trunk I was crouched in.
The trunk door flew open. The pain—oh, it was exquisite. So acute, needling at every point of my body, that my brain gave up on processing it at all, and it felt instead like sinking into a bath of warm milk. The boxes around me flew open, and all kinds of offerings to the shadow above flew out into the infinite emptiness. Food, gold, pages of writings, every kind of significant thing in the lives of people, all of it was swallowed up, passed away. I felt my soul struggle to tear itself from my body, certainly useless at this point, as the shadow looked at me, noticed me for the first time this eternity.
For a moment, it was almost like it raised an eyebrow at me, and then the trunk door slammed shut. As I settled back into myself, the residual pain of that place made itself known—an intense full-body burn that left me speechless for the rest of the time we were in there.
Eventually, we came back. The parking lot reappeared around me, and by then I had regained enough sense to slip out of the trunk before we started up again. And then I went home.
Turns out, biking up a long hill while your entire body is sore and your brain is half-fried from the most painful experience of your life is a bad idea. There was a moment: a single, infinite moment, where my feet slipped off the pedals and I veered into the highway trying to regain my balance. A car passed within an inch of me, and I got a look inside at the driver. Thinking back on it now, it was clearly a mom, or perhaps a babysitter, since there were young kids in the back of the car, but in that moment I felt certain she was wearing that ash-grey robe and looking right at me with eyes of piercing, blinding blue.
I went home as fast as I could after that, locked myself in my room, and dove under the covers like I was seven years old. At some point, I know I fell asleep, because I woke up with the worst hangover I have ever felt. Every inch of my body felt like it had been beaten with a meat tenderizer.
I spent the rest of that week trying desperately to catch up on the work I had let slip during my fixation on the Dunkin Donuts. I felt certain I wasn’t going to go back there ever again.
And yet, when Sunday rolled around, I found myself heading down to get my bike and halfway out the door before even really thinking about it. I weighed my experience of the past week and the pile of work that remained in my room against the curiosity tapeworm that was eating up my brain, and found it a difficult balance.
I finally shook off the urge and returned to my room. Things went slowly back to normal, except for one final thing. I received a letter with no return address or sender. Inside was a coin of shocking blue metal, and these words:
Seek out the faces of death if you will,
Beyond in the blue they live.
But if you would venture to meet them alone,
Beyond all your life you’ll give.
Leland Culver ’24 is a staff writer
Zoe Strothkamp ’24 is a staff artist