by Brian J. Jarrett
There are few things in life that really cause a person to rethink their convictions. Even fewer things that cause a person to reevaluate their entire life. You know you should eat more vegetables, but you keep ordering that burger and fries. It might end up killing you, but only maybe and that kind of shit usually happens to other people anyway. Or that’s the going thinking, at least.
New Year’s Eve rolls around and out come the resolutions. We’re going to get on that treadmill again. Or we’re going to stick to the budget this year and sock that money away for a vacation come summer. Sometimes we decide we’re going to keep the house clean or organize that messy garage once and for all.
Sometimes we even follow through—for a while. We sign up for a gym membership or we cut back on the spending for a couple of months. We clean up part of the garage. But then we fall right back into the same old habits.
Why? Those habits suit us, I think. We don’t want to admit it, but it’s who we are. Changing our true nature, the things that fundamentally define us, that’s what’s hard. Way hard. And we don’t take to it easily.
I’d never really thought about my convictions, about the stuff I believed in. About what suitedme. I went to church with my parents until I moved out and then I dropped down to twice a year—Christmas and Easter—like most other fair-weather types. I didn’t believe in ghosts or fortune tellers and I sure as shit didn’t believe in ESP or the like.
Funny how things can change overnight.
I don’t know if what I saw has convinced me that there is no God or that God really does exist. What I saw that night couldn’t have come from any god, or at least not one I’d want to pray to. I don’t know if I now believe in ESP or astrology, but I can tell you that I can’t dismiss it outright.
I’ve never been a particularly imaginative person. Can’t draw, can’t play music and sure as hell couldn’t write the next great American novel. I’m a salesman, not that sales precludes a person from being creative, but it was a simple enough job for a guy like me. I’m a people person, an extrovert. I’m the guy in the room doing all the talking. Made me a pretty good salesman, too. I know the product and I can read the customer. I can tell a live one from a cold fish and I’ve been doing it well enough for the last twenty years to earn some pretty good dough. No private yachts or anything, but I was doing well enough that I was planning on calling it quits at fifty.
But that was before Chuck’s Diner.
Let me back up a bit. Despite a two year stint selling life insurance, it turned out that auto parts was my sweet spot. I repped to all the big guys: Napa, Pep Boys, Auto Zone, you name it. The job put me on the road a lot, but that wasn’t really a problem. I always found it kind of ironic that an extrovert such as myself never seemed to be able to keep a steady girl, much less a wife. Women came and went, usually in short order, though I did have a steady live in for nearly two years. Ended up a real mess. I guess that cured me of it. Apparently I have intimacy issues, or so I’m told. I’m not too proud to admit to buying some temporary companionship while on my runs. A man has needs and it seems working girls don’t mind a lack of intimacy. In fact, they prefer it.
I cover a pretty big area, so I spend a lot of time on the road. I hit a lot of diners along the way, opting for the out-of-the-way Mom and Pop joints of days gone by. The chains just aren’t as honest. A Denny’s waitress might have been an Applebee’s waitress just last week, but the old lady smelling of cigarettes at your local greasy spoon is a lifer. She depends on that job and that job alone. And that’s about as honest as it gets.
So I found myself in bumfuck Missouri, further east than I’d been in a long damn time. Every state has a bunch of these towns, tiny specks on the map with a solid streak of pride and a not so subtle undercurrent of suspicion. Hard to say I blame them, so I conduct my business and move along as expected.
After spending most of the day working a deal with the local Napa distribution office (and taking half of a competitor’s business in the process) I found myself cruising down an inconspicuous two-lane road surrounded by dairy cows, farm houses and graying fences. Ahead, just above the horizon, the sun dipped below the hills. Behind me, dark storm clouds filled up my rearview, gaining on me every mile.
I hate driving in the rain, especially at night, but I’d already checked out of my motel and was headed home. There wasn’t a room worth a damn along the way (even a road warrior such as myself has standards) and to be honest I really just wanted to sleep in my own bed. I knew if I pushed I’d make it home by two in the morning, three at the latest.
That’s when the sign for the diner appeared. Chuck’s Diner. The reason I didn’t pass the place up and head for a disappointingly generic Denny’s experience was the sign itself. Made of cheap wood and painted white sometime around the Carter era, Chuck’s name barely registered in faded red letters. The sign sat on farmland at the base of a stubby hill, weeds sprouting up around the posts on either end like tufts of hair. For some reason its state of disrepair appealed to me. It was simple and to the point. No marketing department involved.
Two miles later the building appeared from the other side of a sharp curve, jutting up from the ground beside the road like a piece of the landscape itself. It was exactly as I’d pictured it. Hell, maybe even better. Squat and rectangular with a faded white facade. Another equally weary sign adorned the lip of the roof at the front of the building, spelling out Chuck’s Diner in simple, hand-painted red block lettering.
I turned on my signal, despite there being no traffic in sight for miles, and pulled into the gravel parking lot in front of the building. I came to a crumbling concrete curb and brought the car to a stop. A small dust cloud billowed up and around me as I peered into the building through one of the large plate glass windows.
A handful of patrons sat at red and white checkerboard tables, scattered randomly throughout the place. The interior wasn’t huge, but even with its small size it didn’t seem crowded. Sparse, really. That was fine by me, because I really needed to get in and out, especially if I was gonna make it home before morning. Too many people around and I’d be tempted to start up a conversation. That could mean driving time wasted and a guarantee that I’d be doing it in the rain.
Happy to stretch my legs, I got out of the car. The smell of greasy burgers and fries hit me right in the nose, making my stomach sit up and beg. I knew right then that the garden salad I’d planned on having wouldn’t happen that night. I couldn’t eat like I was sixteen anymore, but I wasn’t about to deny myself every damn time I ate.
I walked to the door, feet crunching on the small gravel that made up the surface of the parking lot. As I yanked the glass and steel door open, a small bell tied to the door handle clanged against the glass, announcing my entrance. No electronic ding, just the simple sound of a plain old bell. I was already feeling good about this place and I hadn’t even taken my first bite.
Most of the folks inside turned toward me as I came through the door. A young couple that couldn’t have been any older than twenty-five sat near the door. A couple of old coots—sixty-five if they were a day—sat at the counter, nursing coffee in plain white mugs. The young couple was engaged—I noticed the ring on her finger and none on his. She was cute in a plain sort of way. He looked like a bum.
As the door closed behind me I heeded the advice of a prominently-placed sign telling me to seat myself. The gaze of the patrons fell away as I walked past, with the exception of two men in their mid-thirties, both cloaked in green army jackets and dark jeans. They eyed me sideways as I walked past and for a moment I could have sworn one of them glared at me. I don’t consider myself much of a badass—nor do I see myself as a coward—but I’ve found that when people have a hankering for a fight it doesn’t make me any more of a man to give them the fuel for their fire.
Comfortable that my fighting days were still behind me, I broke eye contact with the man and took a seat far away, near the back of the restaurant. I regretted this decision immediately when I looked toward my right and saw two blockheaded jock-types scarfing down plates of food, their equally vapid girlfriends sitting beside them and giggling at their antics like school girls watching a couple of dogs doing tricks.
I studied the group for a moment before admitting that they were loud but probably harmless and then attempted (unsuccessfully) to chastise myself for my prejudice. I guess getting beaten up by jocks in high school really stuck with me into adulthood.
Another glance around the place revealed a uniformed cop sitting at the counter, a mound of apple pie heaving up off his plate like a camel’s hump. The guy looked like Barney Fife crossed with Les Nessman. A gleaming, probably-never-fired pistol hung loosely from his hip.
A moment later the waitress approached and I swear to God she might as well have stepped right out of my imagination. Thin and slightly taller than average, her hair stood atop her head in an ancient gray beehive. Stale cigarette smoke wafted around her like an invisible cloud. The name tag on her blouse read Nan.
“What can I getcha?” Nan asked, her wattle giggling like a spider web attached to her throat.
“Any specials tonight?” I asked, picking up a greasy, laminated menu and trying to conceal a smile. I already liked her.
“Tuna salad’s good,” Nan replied, her voice creaking like an old floor. “If you like fish.”
“I do, but I’m in more of a meat and potatoes mood tonight.”
“My husband was the same way. Burger and fries then?” she asked. “Cause we don’t have no steak around these parts.” She smiled, revealing yellowed dentures. Smoker’s wrinkles creased around her mouth. I wondered if she’d ever been pretty, fifty years ago.
“I think a burger and fries would hit the spot. And a Coke, too.”
“Sure thing, hon. Want cheese on that burger?”
“Why not? Let’s go with cheddar. Gotta live a little, right?”
“That’s what I always say,” Nan said, grinning wider. She took the menu. “Be up in a jif, darlin’.”
I nodded with a smile and watched her walk away. Nobody uses pet names for their customers anymore. It’s a lost art form. Nowadays that kind of shit gets you sent straight to Human Resources.
I happened to glance toward the table with the two glaring guys. They weren’t looking my way this time, so I figured maybe I’d just imagined the whole thing. Just as I’d blown it off, a loud bang echoed from the jock table. I turned toward the sound to see the bigger of the two guys laughing so hard his face had turned red. He smacked the table again, hard, apparently to let his buddy know just how goddamn funny things were.
Fucking jocks. Both girls were pretty, but weren’t they always? There’s something about certain women that seems to draw them toward men who are ultimately bad for them. These girls were young, so maybe youth was to blame. In my mind I saw these girls twenty years down the road, grown women saddled with a couple of kids and crippling debt, wishing like hell they’d made better choices. Anything to get out of the trailer park and away from the bill collectors and husbands drunk again on a Wednesday night.
Maybe it was sour grapes, but I already didn’t like those guys.
Cursing myself for not bringing anything to read, I got out my phone and tried to get through some email for work. I hate typing on those things. My thumbs just haven’t been trained to peck on small screens with any degree of accuracy. Not exciting work and definitely not as fun as reading a novel—especially since I had a brand new Tim Curran novel sitting out in the car—but it was something to pass the time.
I made it through two emails before another loud slam brought me out of my concentrated stare. I jumped and found myself glaring toward the jock table. The big one was red-faced and shit-grinned again, short sleeves rolled up to show off a couple of crappy tattoos, hat turned around backward with a dopey look plastered on his face.
It occurred to me that I might want to get dinner to go.
I was about to go back to my phone when I noticed that the glaring guy had gotten up from his seat. I tensed a little, I’m not ashamed to say, because something told me that the guy was trouble. Big trouble. Something about him set off all my sensors, put all my systems on high alert.
I glanced back at the table from where Glaring Guy came. His buddy remained seated, a look of anticipation on his face. I suddenly had the overpowering urge to just get up and leave. No waiting for my food, no paying my check. No goodbyes or sorries, just me marching my ass out the front door and getting back on the road where I belonged.
Glaring Guy approached the loud table and stopped a couple of feet away. The jock with the shitty tattoos continued laughing, eyes squeezed tightly shut, face beet-red, unaware of his unannounced guest. The others at the table, however, noticed the man right away. He smiled at them, but there was nothing friendly about that smile. Nothing at all. It sent chills down my spine.
“Something funny?” Glaring Guy said, his voice calm.
The laughing jock opened his eyes. He kept the smile on his face, but that was for show. His eyes…they stopped smiling as soon as they got a look at the man standing by the table.
“Fuck off,” the jock said, his tone dismissive more than aggressive.
“Brach, come on,” his girl said. She was thin and tall, with straight brown hair and a face like a model. I think I saw her blush in embarrassment.
“I asked you if something was funny,” Glaring Guy continued, “because you’re laughing so goddamn loud that the rest of us in here are wondering just what kind of a fucking thing could possibly ever be that funny.”
“We’ll keep it down,” the other girlfriend at the table said. Her blonde hair was longer than the other girl’s, draping down her neck in loose spirals. She wore a real look of concern on her face. Despite the tension mounting at table side, I couldn’t help but remark on just how beautiful they both were.
“The hell we will,” the blonde’s boyfriend blurted out. “You need to move the fuck along, asshole.”
By now the entire restaurant had become quiet. Even my waitress and a solitary on-duty cook watched with baited anticipation.
Glaring Guy ignored the threat. “I asked you a question. What’s so goddamn fucking funny?”
I noticed movement to my left. The off duty police officer who looked like Barney Fife had arrived at the scene, leaving his seat and his pie mountain behind. He kept his gleaming pistol holstered, but displayed it prominently for all those involved to see. “Everything okay here?” he asked.
“No, officer,” Glaring Guy said. He kept his gaze on Brach as he spoke. “Everything is not okay. Not at all. I asked this Neanderthal a question and he still hasn’t given me an answer. I want to know what’s so goddam funny.”
“He doesn’t have to answer you, sir,” Barney Fife said.
“No, that’s where you’re wrong. He does have to answer me.”
Barney placed a hand on the butt of his pistol, maybe not even aware he’d done it. “How about you and your buddy there make good on your bill and get yourselves back on the road. Be on your way to your next destination.”
Glaring Guy huffed. “I’m not leaving until I get my answer.”
I glanced at Glaring Guy’s buddy still sitting. He watched with serious interest, his eyes glued to the scene like a kid who’d just found his first Playboy magazine. That look worried me a lot.
Apparently Barney had had enough. “Okay, buddy, you’re coming with me. Get your ass—”
“How about you guard the door instead?” Glaring Guy said, turning toward Barney and staring at him for a few seconds. “Shoot anybody who tries to get out.”
It shocked me to hear the guy talking to a cop like that. But what shocked me even more was what came next.
“Yes, sir,” Barney said, saluting.
What the fuck? my mind screamed. This couldn’t be happening. No way. I was hearing things. Or maybe it was all an act. Some kind of Ashton Kutcher reality shit in the middle of nowhere. No chance it was real. That would mean these guys were up to something very bad. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as sweat beaded on my forehead and my empty stomach did flip-flops.
“What the fuck, pig?” Brach yelled, incredulous.
“Don’t talk to him,” Glaring Guy told Barney. “You take orders from me now.”
“Yes, sir,” Barney Fife responded.
Brach’s friend got to his feet.
“Donnie!” his girlfriend yelled, but he’d already begun his swing. Halfway through, he stopped. He just froze mid-punch, inches away from Glaring Guy’s face like a dog on a short leash.
Glaring Guy shook his head. “Donnie, Donnie…didn’t your mother ever tell you it’s not polite to hit others?”
As instructed, Barney Fife walked to the door and took up position, pistol drawn and ready. From the looks of it he wasn’t planning on letting anybody out.
Meanwhile, Donnie’s massive arm hung suspended in mid-air, trembling. A mixture of confusion and anger raged on his face. “What the hell, man!” he cried out. Brach and the others at the table simply stared, unable or unwilling to act.
“Manners, Donnie. You wouldn’t believe how far simple manners can take a person,” Glaring Guy said, staring at the kids intently. A few moments later Donnie—who must of have been two hundred and fifty pounds of solid muscle—lowered his trembling arm and placed his hand flat on the table. Then he picked up a steak knife and plunged through the back of his hand, pinning it to the wooden tabletop.
His screams filled the room. The other girls at the table joined him. Brach screamed loudest of all.
“That’ll do, pig,” Glaring Guy said, grinning. He returned his focus to Brach while the rest of the restaurant sat and watched in nervous silence.
“So, Brach, tell me. What was so GODDAMN FUNNY?”
Brach’s upper lip quivered as a tear leaked out of his eye, streaking down his round cheek. He sat this way, eyes locked with Glaring Guy, while the seconds ticked by like hours.
“Nothing,” he finally said. “Nothing at all.” Meanwhile Donnie moaned, blood pooling around his impaled hand.
“Nothing?” Glaring Guy said, brow creased. “You mean to tell me that you were laughing at nothing? What the hell kind of person laughs at nothing? Are you fucking retarded? Some kind of feeb with rocks rattling around up in that giant head of yours?”
“Just leave us alone,” Brach pleaded. Now he was crying.
Glaring Guy’s friend got up and walked to the table. He stared at Brach and Donnie, shaking his head. “This is boring, Caleb.”
“Hold your horses,” Caleb said. “We’ll liven things up.”
“You boys need to leave,” the cook said, as if appearing from nowhere. He stepped out from behind the counter with a spatula in his hand, poised like a weapon, a sight both sad and brave.
Caleb sighed. He turned to Barney Fife standing guard by the door. “Shoot him.”
Barney raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. No hesitation at all. A loud crack echoed as flame licked out from the barrel. The cook’s head jerked back and he collapsed, striking the hard floor with a sickening thud.
The entire place went nuts. People screamed. Nan dropped to her knees beside the cook, reaching out to help him, but pulling away when she saw the blood begin to collect around his head.
“Sit down and shut up!” Caleb yelled.
Everyone quieted down except Brach’s girlfriend. She kept screaming, staring at the dead cook on the floor.
“Emory, shut that bitch up,” Caleb said, turning to his friend.
Emory locked eyes with the young girl and simply said, “Shut up.”
The girl stopped crying at once. She froze, a blank stare spreading over her face. You could have heard a pin drop after that.
“You wanna see something really funny, Brach?” Caleb asked.
Brach shook his head, snot and tears covering his face.
“Come on, buddy. You know you do.”
“No, I don’t. I just want to leave.” Brach sounded like a small child who needed his mommy. And I completely understood.
“You can’t leave now, we’re just getting started. I’m gonna give you something to laugh about, buddy boy. It’s gonna be a fucking laugh riot!”
Caleb turned toward the two old men sitting at the counter and pointed toward Nan. “You two, go grab the old bag.”
“No,” Nan croaked, still on her knees beside the dead cook.
The two old men hopped up from their seats, moving like men fifty years younger. They got to her just as she made it to her feet, taking her by the arms and holding her tight.
Caleb turned back to Brach. “You like french fries, my man?” He had a wild look in his eyes, like Charles Manson on speed.
Brach didn’t reply.
Brach shook his head slowly. “Sure,” he muttered.
“Well, it’s your lucky day,” Caleb replied. He turned toward the men. “Dunk that bitch.”
“No!” Nan cried, but it did no good. The two old men had her locked up. They dragged her by both arms to the fry vat, just to the left of the front counter, butted up against the wall. A moment later they dunked her head into the vat. The scalding oil instantly boiled up around her submerged head while her body twitched and jerked. The two old guys held her in place, their own hands deep frying right alongside Nan’s head. They seemed oblivious to the pain, their eyes vacant like zombies on valium.
I sat there watching, unable to move or speak. I don’t think I even took a breath. I felt like I wanted to vomit as a cold chill passed over me. This was happening, all right, and no amount of denial on my part would change it. Nan’s body twitched one last time before the two men released their grip, tossing her to the floor and out of sight behind the counter. I’m thankful for that, because when I saw that the two old guys’ hands looked like fried chicken nuggets, I could only imagine the damage done to Nan’s head.
Emory clapped, a vicious smile splitting his face. “Bravo, my friend,” he said to Caleb. “You’ve outdone yourself this time.”
Caleb grinned like a wolf. “So what did you think, Brach? That’s what I call funny!”
Brach nodded lightly, imploring Caleb with red-rimmed eyes.
“Hey, cop!” Caleb called out. “Get rid of the two geezers, will ya?”
“Yes, sir,” Barney Fife answered. He walked up to the two old men, their hands still sizzling, the nauseating smell of deep-fried human skin permeating the air.
“Turn around,” Barney said. The two old guys followed his orders. Barney then shot both of them, one after the other, putting a single shot in the back of their heads. Their bodies dropped like wet bags of cement.
A flash of movement came from one of the tables by the door. I turned to see the plain young woman with the engagement ring get to her feet and bolt toward the door, trying to make an escape while Barney was distracted.
But Barney didn’t waste a minute. He got off a quick shot, striking the woman in the back, not three steps away from the exit. The bullet passed through her body and exploded out of her chest in a red mist, shattering the glass in the door and ringing the attached bell. She hit the floor hard and didn’t move.
“Sharon!” the girl’s fiancé cried out. He darted toward her body, but made it only a few feet before Barney unloaded a round into his neck. He fell, blood squirting five feet in the air with each heartbeat. He made a grunting noise and rolled onto his back before going limp, the spurting blood quickly accumulating around his body.
“Guy’s a crack shot,” Emory added. “At least it’s not boring in here anymore.”
“Just let us go,” Donnie pleaded, his hand still pinned to the table top.
Caleb did that, I finally admitted to myself. He made Donnie do it. I don’t know how exactly, but he did.
“Donnie,” Caleb said. “What makes you think we’d ever let you go?”
“We won’t tell anybody, I swear,” Donnie pleaded. “Honest. We’ll forget any of this happened.”
Caleb flashed that same wolfish grin. He turned his attention to the two girls at the table. “Hey, Emory,” he said, without breaking his gaze on the girls. “Wanna have some real fun?”
“Always,” Emory replied.
“You,” Caleb said to Brach’s girlfriend. “What’s your name, sweetie?”
Suddenly the girl came to life, as if she’d been held in suspended animation.
“Amanda,” she replied, her voice now calm and flat.
Caleb turned to the other girl, Donnie’s girlfriend. “What about you, precious?”
“Brittany.” The same calm and cool flatness coated the girl’s voice.
“Amanda and Brittany,” Caleb repeated. “Those are beautiful names, don’t you think, Emory?”
“I do,” Emory replied. “Beautiful names for beautiful girls.”
This seemed to amuse Caleb. He grinned wide, his eyes cold and dark stones. There was no question where things were going next. Where guys like Caleb and Emory always went when no one was around to enforce the rules.
“Amanda, take off your shirt.”
“What the fuck, man!” Brach bellowed.
“Shut up, Brach.”
“Mandy, don’t do it. You don’t have to do what he says,” Brach pleaded.
Caleb ignored him. “Do it, Amanda. Come on now.”
Amanda removed her shirt. Underneath she wore a white bra.
“Nice tits,” Emory said. He turned toward the other girl. “Now you, Brittany. Get that shirt off, honey.”
Brittany removed her shirt, revealing a black pushup bra. Donnie groaned, but said nothing.
Both Caleb and Emory absorbed the girls with their eyes, like two petulant children eyeing a banana split.
“Now kiss,” Caleb said.
Apparently Brach had reached a breaking point. With the crying and the fear quickly pushed aside, he lunged at Caleb. As he did, Emory gave Donnie a look and without a word said, Donnie yanked the knife free from his own hand and leapt forward, plunging the blade deep into Brach’s left eye socket. Brach collapsed to the floor, the knife protruding from his eye like the mast of a macabre ship.
The girls seemed not to notice. They stood there, exposed, dead eyes staring forward.
Emory looked at Donnie. “Get the knife.”
As instructed, Donnie walked around to the other side of the table and yanked the knife from his dead friend’s eye. The blade made a sickening, sucking sound as it came out, blood dripping from the blade. Just like the girls, the same frighteningly dead calm expression now haunted Donnie’s eyes.
Emory mimicked a slashing motion across his own throat. In turn, Donnie placed the knife to his throat and dragged it across. Blood poured from the wound like a crimson curtain, saturating his sleeveless t-shirt and dripping onto the checkered tile floor. He gagged as he tried to breathe, his eyes suddenly wide again with fear and recognition, darting back and forth between Amanda and Brittany.
They both stared ahead, emotionless.
Donnie didn’t remain standing for long. A few seconds later he dropped and I knew right then that I had only one chance of getting out of there alive. If I got to my feet and ran, right then, while everyone was distracted, then maybe I could make it out. A slim chance, but one that had to be taken. I counted the shots the cop had fired…five in all. That meant there was most likely one more in the cylinder. But in Emory’s own words, the guy was a crack shot. The likelihood that I’d be able to make it five feet without a bullet in my head seemed low, but there was no way I was going to let those two psychos have their way with me. Better to go out by a bullet than cutting my own throat—or worse.
I ran. On the way, I picked up a chair from a nearby table and held it out in front of myself like a shield. It wouldn’t stop a bullet, but it might disorient the guy, put him off his game a little. It wasn’t much to rely on, but it was all that I had.
What happened next is still a blur. I held the chair in front of myself as I ran. Barney Fife got off a shot and a small hole appeared in my improvised shield. Splinters flew. The cop pulled the trigger again and I heard the wonderful click of an empty chamber.
I raged forward with renewed confidence, yelling as I went. When I got close enough, I threw the chair with all I had. One of the legs smashed Barney’s nose, knocking the guy on his ass just as my feet went out from under me. I went down, slamming my head hard on the unyielding tile.
I suddenly found myself on the floor, lying in a pool of blood from the dead fiancé, reeling from the impact. The room spun. Bile welled up in the back of my throat and I vomited what little I had in my stomach. Everything went fuzzy and it occurred to me that I might have a concussion.
I looked up to see Barney Fife walking toward me with a butcher knife, his nose leaking blood all down the front of his uniform.
This is the last thing I’ll ever see, I thought. Killed by Barney Fife. What irony.
Barney moved toward me like a man possessed, his eyes wide and absolutely crazy. His upper lip curled into a viscous snarl as he tightened his grip on the knife. I tried to get up, but everything kept spinning, whirling around me like a giant pinwheel. I heaved again, spitting out more stomach bile, black spots obscuring my vision.
Then, just as I resigned myself to my fate, all hell broke loose.
A half-dozen shots rang out, showering me with glass as Barney’s body jerked back and forth like a marionette dancing on its strings. The mad look in his eyes disappeared, replaced by confusion and pain before he dropped, marinating in a pool of his own blood.
The shooting stopped. Glass crunched as two men wearing Stetson hats and cowboy boots walked into the diner. Faded, denim jeans and button up shirts rounded out their ensemble. They looked like a couple of Texas ranch hands, lost in the middle of Missouri.
Another shot rang out, this one from inside the room. One of the plate glass windows behind the men shattered and the pair ducked. Ignoring the pain in my throbbing head, I turned to see Emory standing with a pistol drawn. Screaming with a mad look in his eyes, he got off three more wild shots before the cowboys returned fire with two of the biggest hand guns I’d ever seen.
Two shots roared and Emory was literally picked up and slammed against the wall. He slid down slowly, leaving behind a bloody trail on the tile.
“Caleb!” one of the cowboys yelled. He had jet-black hair with a beard to match. “Come out with your hands in the air!”
Seconds passed. Then a pair of hands appeared, held high. “Don’t shoot,” Caleb said. “There’s nothing to see here. You should just get back on the road and move along.”
“It doesn’t work on us, you idiot,” the other cowboy said. Long brown hair trailed down his back in a thick ponytail. “You ought to have known that.”
“Of course,” Caleb replied. “I should have known they’d only send the best.”
“Save your ass kissing,” Black Hair said. “It’s too late for that now.”
Caleb didn’t reply.
“Did you think you could run forever?” Ponytail asked.
“It was worth a shot, don’t you think?” Caleb replied.
“You had your chance, but you both blew it,” Black Hair said. “It didn’t have to happen like this.”
“You know it did,” Caleb replied. “But you can tell yourself whatever you like. The council set us up and you know it. Now you’re here to do their dirty work. How’s it feel to be a gopher and a chump?”
“Caleb Walker,” Black Hair began, ignoring Caleb’s insult, “you are hereby sentenced to death for thought crimes. Your sentence will be carried out immediately. Do you have any last words?”
Caleb grinned. “When I get to the other side, I’m gonna fuck your mom in the ass.”
A shot exploded from Black Hair’s hand cannon. Caleb’s head exploded in a meaty mess, coating the wall behind him with blood and brains. His headless body toppled to the floor. The place went eerily silent.
“What about these two?” Pony Tail asked, pointing to Brittany and Amanda. “They’re still under.”
Black Hair inspected the girls like a scientist attempting to discern their species. “No witnesses,” he said. “Council’s orders.”
“But they’re cute.”
“Council’s orders,” Black Hair repeated, adding some bass to his voice. He seemed to be the one in charge.
“All right, all right. Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”
Two more explosions ripped through the diner and then Amanda and Brittany were no more.
I knew then that those cowboys weren’t saviors. They weren’t heroes. They were mercenaries who’d just murdered two innocent young girls. I wanted to kill those guys, to somehow get a hold of Caleb’s gun and just blow both of their heads off. But I couldn’t even sit up, much less fight back.
The world swam around me as black spots clouded my vision again. I decided it just wasn’t worth it. Even if I did make it to my feet I wouldn’t make it out the door. The hired guns would see to that. It seemed better to just close my eyes and drift away. The end would be easier that way. I really didn’t want to see it coming.
So I closed my eyes and let go.
Some time later I awoke to the smell of gasoline. Black Beard was on his cell phone, across the room from where I lay in cold, congealing blood.
“They’re all taken care of,” he said. A pause. “No, sir. Of course not. No witnesses.” He hung up his phone and looked around, taking in the carnage. “They made a first class royal fucking mess of the place, didn’t they?”
“True to form,” Pony Tail replied.
“I always hated that guy.” He took one last look around. “Light it up, before the cops get here.”
At first I thought maybe they spared me, but then reality hit me hard. The only reason I was still alive was because they thought I was dead. Covered in another man’s blood and lying unconscious on the floor, the cowboys had simply passed me by like any other corpse.
One of the hired guns struck a match and I heard that familiar crack and sizzle as the match head took the flame. A moment later the room exhaled as the fumes caught fire. Choking black smoke filled the tight space quickly and I fought the urge to cover my mouth. If they saw me move, I was dead.
I closed my eyes. When I opened them again the fire in the diner was raging. A young woman—maybe late twenties—had a hold of my hand. I struggled against my spinning head and got to my feet, the acrid smoke from the fire burning my lungs down deep. I coughed so hard that with each hack it felt like the lining of my throat was coming up a chunk at a time.
“Come on!” the woman yelled. “Move your ass!”
I forced myself to focus and got going.
She led me through the smoke, past the bodies of the jocks and their girls and toward the women’s restroom. She kicked open the door with surprising strength. Coughing badly, I followed her inside. There, above one of the toilet stalls, was an open window, large enough for a person to fit through.
“This way,” she said, pointing at the window. I stepped on the toilet and hoisted myself up the short distance to the window, wriggling through like a giant worm. I slid through the opening and crashed to the ground below, landing squarely on my shoulder. Something popped and hot pain shot through my upper body.
The woman’s feet appeared through the window as she slid through with the grace and agility of a gymnast. She landed gently and crouched, shooting a quick glance both ways before making her way to me. She stood before me, the building a burning sun behind her, silhouetting her body like something out of a painting.
“Who are you?” I asked, trying to ignore the pain in my shoulder and head.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
“Were you inside?”
“I was in the bathroom.”
“What happened? Who the hell were those guys?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, but I didn’t believe her. “You need to get the hell out of here. Do you have a car?”
I tried to think, but couldn’t remember. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.
“Focus,” she said, touching the side of my face.
Slowly it came back to me. “Yeah. It’s around front.”
“Good. Get in it and drive.”
“I don’t think I’m able,” I argued.
“Would you rather die?”
I didn’t respond. I didn’t have to.
“Get in your car, drive home, and forget this ever happened,” she said. “Understand?”
I nodded, but I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand any of it. Still, I got in my car and I drove home anyway, because that’s all I could think to do. When I got home I took the longest shower of my life before collapsing into a coma-like sleep.
I had no dreams that night.
That was two weeks ago.
I didn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t report what happened to the police. My head hurt for a few days and so did my shoulder, but eventually the pain subsided. I took a week’s vacation from work, but that didn’t seem like enough, so I took another week. I told them I needed a break from the road. I wasn’t lying.
I pretended nothing happened at first. The entire thing felt like a dream, so I guess I convinced myself for a while that it was all in my head. Some elaborate fabrication dreamed up by an overactive subconscious. I liked that story better. In a dream nobody can really die. In a dream, Nan couldn’t be real, much less cooked alive. The two pretty girls couldn’t be gunned down by mercenaries and a goofy town cop couldn’t become a cold-blooded killer.
Because in a dream nobody really gets hurt.
I bought the lie, but eventually the truth crept up on me. For the first few nights I’d lie in bed, looking at the ceiling and I could smell Nan’s flesh cooking. I could see the bright, red blood splattered on cold, white tile. I could feel the acrid smoke from the fire in my lungs. I could smell the spent gunpowder, sharp and burning. I woke up sure that I was still lying in pool of another man’s blood.
And when I finally went back to my car for the first time in a week, I saw the brown, dried blood smeared all over the leather driver’s seat. What I’d been lying in back at the restaurant. I rushed inside and found the bloody clothes I’d been wearing stuffed into the hamper.
I couldn’t deny it anymore
Something happened two nights ago. An envelope appeared, slid beneath my front door, lying face up with my name printed in large, block capital letters.
Inside I found a single slip of paper, on it written a single word:
I’ve been staying in motels for the past two nights. I emptied my savings account for some fast cash. There’s not a lot, but enough to sustain me for a while. My real money is tied up in my retirement accounts. Not easy to get to. I have a feeling I might not be needing that money for retirement anyway.
I don’t know who left the note, but the handwriting looks like a woman’s. The woman from the diner who saved me? I don’t know. Sometimes I think so. Sometimes I think not. But I think maybe those cowboys figured out they didn’t finish the job. Not all the way.
The woman who saved me…I need to find her. She might be my only hope.
I never used to believe in anything I couldn’t explain. Not ESP or Tarot cards or ghosts or the supernatural.
But now I’m starting to believe.
And I’ve never been more afraid in my life.
Copyright © 2012 Brian J. Jarrett