To the surprise of Philadelphians, none of them had actually witnessed the rampage that occurred between the hours of three and five a.m. on June 10th and resulted in thirty-four deaths.
As news of the massacre spread, many claimed to have felt a thunderous vibration pass through the city in the middle of the night. Three patrons of Monk’s Cafe said they’d glanced up from pissing in the alley to see a hulking outline disappear on the horizon. Six grad students claimed they’d been smoking weed on their rooftop when they became mesmerized by the glow of two orange, pupilless eyes dripping viscously above the apartments across the street.
No footage had been Periscoped or Facebook Live-d or uploaded to any server, so Philadelphians were left to imagine the five-story cheesesteak spreading its toasted halves and micturating death on the city.
The first annual Philadelphia Cheesesteak Festival had unfolded on June 9th under a crisp blue sky typical of springtime in the city. The sticky heat that descended promptly at 11 a.m. was not as typical, and the citizens of brotherly love were peeved.
They rubbed their clammy necks and shifted their jackets from arm to arm as they waited in line for samples of the vaunted cheesesteak. On Twitter the next day, they expressed their displeasure in droves:
@patsfan75: Waited for two hours and the samples were micro-fucking-scopic. Really, #cheesesteakfestival??
@RebDowdy: It may be sunny in Philly, but that doesn’t make the #cheesesteakfestival worth the muggy wait.
@PhillyPhil: Provolone??? Come on #cheesesteakfestival! Where’s the Cheez Whiz?
At six a.m. on June 10th, Miriam Williams exited her Diamond Street brownstone to find the street flooded, but not with water. She later told the Inquirer that the lugubrious gold substance “looked cartoonish, like the whole cast of The Simpsons melted onto the pavement.”
Miriam had noticed in her dawning horror that the substance coated not only cars and sidewalks, but at least twenty prone bodies as well. “It was like someone melted a bunch of Velveeta slices, and suffocated, or like, fried those poor people with hot cheese.”
When a slew of angry reader comments upbraided Miriam for failing to recognize what was clearly Cheez Whiz, she was defended by a small contingent of friends. As a lifelong vegan, they pointed out, Miriam should be forgiven.
While Miriam was fighting a hysteric urge to wipe the orange goo from the faces of its victims on that grisly morning, twins Drake and Shelton Varianz were arriving at the Paine skate park.
Unlike the majority of their teenaged cohort, Drake and Shelton had always been early risers, a habit reinforced by the fact that they had the park entirely to themselves on Saturday mornings. The smooth concrete reminded the twins of an alien planet undulating with lavender craters in the predawn gloom.
On this particular Saturday, the alien landscape hailed from a horror flick. “Hold up — ” Drake extended an arm to stop his brother from skating any further.
Shelton froze as his eyes slid over the three pairs of ragged pant legs and tattered shoes waving jauntily over the rim of a dip in the skate park. A few feet away, a circle of teenagers lay on their backs, fat blunts and solo cups surrounding them in an ellipsis that struck Shelton as strangely beautiful. Then he noticed the bubbly brown loaf-sized rocks that had smashed in the kids’ skulls. The boulders were eventually identified in the coroner’s report as gigantic shreds of strip loin steak.
In the weeks that followed, Lincoln Financial Park was the subject of the most gruesome photos that appeared in the national coverage. The tents and stalls from the festival had already been packed up and carted away, but the grounds were not quite empty.
Underneath a slimy coating of caramelized onions that had burned four unfortunate groundskeepers alive, the skeleton of an ancient Ferris wheel could be seen glinting sickly in the morning light. The groundskeepers were recognizable only by their uniforms, which were wet and translucent with spatterings of onion grease and liquefied human fat. The hands, feet, and heads of the four men had, according to one bystander, “just sort of melted into the ground.”
Even Police Chief Ike Morrison lost his lunch when he appeared on the scene. Morrison’s first unspoken thought was shared by every city employee and journalist unfortunate enough to witness the carnage firsthand: this is the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen, but goddamn if I couldn’t eat a shit ton of caramelized onions on a cheesesteak right now.
Similar scenes, with green boa constrictors of sautéed peppers standing in for the onions, were reported in the Harrowgate neighborhood. No deaths accompanied the bell pepper downpour, because the Harrowgate residents kept indoors at night. When they surveyed their cramped, green-ribboned streets the next morning, they shrugged and sighed. Just another blight on the dangerous streets of Philadelphia.
Some elderly citizens muttered darkly that the city’s collective ungratefulness at the Cheesesteak Festival had spawned a vengeful monster. Others wished impotently that Ben Franklin had been alive to…you know, do something about it.
For generations to come, the city scared its children with tales of a bright, evil smile dripping over craggy sirloin teeth, of massive buns rolling on a tide of blood and boiling cheese. Despite Marcia Gladstone’s interview, some insist that the cheese that killed the Diamond Street Twenty was definitely Provolone. Many claim that the bell peppers in Harrowgate were purely myth and that caramelized onions were the only vegetables to flay anyone in Lincoln Park that day.
As time passed, Snopes, the Twitterverse, and consequently the world decided that the photos were probably doctored and the deaths misattributed.
Philadelphians don’t give a shit. They know what they saw.
They continue to tout their native sandwich with deranged enthusiasm, but, when any non-Philadelphian happens to wonder why the first annual Philadelphia cheesesteak festival was also the last, Philadelphians remain uncharacteristically silent.
Sarah Beaudette is a PNW native and nomadic traveler currently living in Mexico. Her short fiction is published and forthcoming in NewMyths.com, Monkeybicycle, and Juked, among others. She spends most of her time procrastinating on The Novel by swilling scalding coffee or guiding her sons between piles of dog crap in the callejones where every passerby meets your gaze and greets you with a smile. Find her full bibliography here and her sporadic tweets @sarahbeaudette.