THE LAST STOP DINER (R)

By Sharon Mikeworth

 



Scott left the house late that afternoon. He worked for a small robotics company and normally would have waited until the next day to go out on a service call but Sean, his boss, had come into his office right before Scott left for a late lunch and requested he leave that day. Apparently a plant manager had been calling Sean since that morning, about to have a coronary over his assembly line downtime. So Scott had agreed to leave right away, partly because he had nothing planned and could use the overtime, and partly because accepting fieldwork without complaint was one of the reasons he had just been named “Employee of the Year.”
       He loaded his laptop and tools into his SUV, eager to get on the road. It was a long drive and he wanted to have time to stop and get something to eat about halfway.
       The first couple of hours of driving were uneventful. He made pretty good time, stopping only once at a rest area to call Sean and report on his progress. He reassured him again that he would be there by early evening at the latest.
       An hour later, he was almost at the halfway point and starting to get seriously hungry. He was riding in the slow lane just beginning to look for signs for a likely place to stop and eat, when a blue Ford F250 rode up beside him in the fast lane. Scott glanced over and saw the blue truck was riding the bumper of the car in front of it, weaving back and forth, obviously wanting the slower car to get over. There was a rebel flag and an NRA sticker on the back window of the truck. When the slower car didn’t move fast enough, the truck suddenly swerved over into Scott’s lane and would have clipped the front of his bumper if he hadn’t stomped down on the brake. Scott swore and then let back off, afraid of being rear-ended by the car behind him.
       He was still swearing as the truck passed the too-slow car and got back over in the fast lane. Scott was furious. He tried to put a clamp on his anger but he was mad as hell, shaking from the near collision. Did the jerk even notice or care what he had done? Scott pressed down on the gas pedal, speeding up until he rode up beside and slightly ahead of the blue truck. There were actually two jerks and they were both wearing cowboy hats. Loud country music blared from their radio, and incredibly, there was a set of some kind of antlers attached to the front grill.
       “Fucking rednecks,” he muttered.
       The driver, no doubt noticing him now after his sudden acceleration and subsequent furious stare, glanced over at him and gave a cheery smile and a wave—the universal sorry about that, but not really gesture. The guy in the passenger seat shot him a bird.
       Scott’s anger left him as quickly as it came. It wasn’t worth it. He left off the gas, and soon the truck disappeared ahead of him. Still shook up from the incident, he began looking for a place to eat again.
       He watched for signs indicating food at each exit. He saw a couple for gas, but not much else. He decided to get off onto a secondary highway, hoping he would have better luck.
       The female voice of the GPS began to annoy him, so he canceled the route. It wasn’t helping at this point anyway. The little map was only showing smaller, unconnected roads that seemed to lead to nowhere.
       He drove for a while and then turned onto another road that he hoped would eventually lead him to the nearest McDonald’s at the very least. He was starving and now he had to use the bathroom. He made a few more turns with no luck and finally had to admit that he was more or less lost. He could use the GPS again and it would probably lead him out and back to where he was heading, but that wouldn’t get him a restroom and a bite to eat.
       It was getting late. He looked at his watch. Already 5:00. He needed to find somewhere soon if he was going to make it to the plant that night.
       Traffic had been practically nonexistent since leaving the secondary highway, and on this particular road, Scott hadn’t passed a single car. Which was good considering he couldn’t wait any longer. He pulled off beside a slightly more overgrown area by a large tree and got behind it to shield himself from any passing cars.
       After finishing and zipping up, he started around the tree and noticed a small sign a little farther up, almost hidden in the undergrowth. He probably would have missed it if he hadn’t stopped. He got back in his Explorer and pulled up so he could get a better look at it. The sign said “Food” in faded letters with an arrow pointing straight ahead. That was good enough for him but he doubted the place was still in business from the looks of the sign and the fact that he was in the middle of nowhere. But it was worth a try. He'd come this far.
       He drove on down the road looking for another sign and found one about half a mile later. This one said “Restaurant/Gas” with an accompanying arrow pointing to the right. He kept going, looking for the road to the right, and found it not far ahead. It didn’t look like it had been paved in a very long time. The next sign was smaller—just an arrow pointing down the ancient road. He was starting to feel ridiculous. It didn’t look like anyone used this road anymore at all.
       He bounced along over a pothole and around a curve and was thinking about turning around, when he spotted a building up ahead.
       The trees opened up to a small drive leading to a parking lot, and he turned in. It was a small combination diner and gas station. The place did appear to still be in business. There were several cars out front and he could just make out a yellow “OPEN” sign in the window.
       The spaces directly in front were filled, so he parked a little ways out beside a gold Chevrolet Lumina. He got out, grabbed the newspaper he had picked up at the rest area, hit the lock button, and started across the parking lot.
       The place had definitely seen better days. The sign on top that was supposed to say “DINER”, had both the letter “N” and the letter “R” out, and now only “DI E ” glowed red in the fading light. Just then the wind kicked up, rushing through the surrounding trees. An old beer can blew across the parking lot, scraping and clanking across the pavement. Scott pulled his jacket tighter and hurried toward the entrance.
       As Scott got closer he could see that the “OPEN” sign was actually white that had yellowed in the sun. The edges were curled in with age. In the front window on each side of it, there was a pot containing some long-dead plant wrapped in holiday foil.
       He slowed down as he got to the gas pumps, admiring an old mustang parked there. It was in pretty good shape but needed a paint job and had an expired tag. The first car he had ever owned had been a ’66 mustang, and this one looked to be the same year.
       He passed on around and between two cars parked directly in front, noticing that one of them also had an expired tag. Great, a town full of losers. As he was reaching for the diner's door handle, he finally caught sight of the blue truck parked catty-corner to the building. It was partially hidden from where he was standing but he could see the curve of what looked like an antler sticking out from the side.
       “No way,” Scott exclaimed involuntarily.
       This just keeps getting better and better, he thought. A bell tinkled overhead as he opened the door and stepped in. He stood there for a moment, giving his eyes time to adjust.
       A voice came out of the gloom. “Well it shore is a small world, aint it?”
       It was definitely the rednecks. They had both turned around and were now facing him at the counter that ran the length of the place, smirking and elbowing each other. Their cowboy hats were off, sitting on the counter behind them. Redneck number one, the driver, had short reddish hair and was sporting a large silver NASCAR belt buckle. Redneck number two had long greasy brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and was wearing shiny, probably new, cowboy boots.
       Scott ignored them and looked for a place to sit. The only other customer was an old man sitting at a booth nursing a cup of coffee. Scott decided to sit at a small table near him. The older man nodded at him as he sat down, and Scott nodded back, still trying to keep an eye on the Billy Bob Boys.
       There was no sign of a waitress. In fact, there was no sign of anybody. From all of the cars, Scott thought there would have been more people.
       Feeling antsy, he got back up to stretch his legs some more. He could hear faint sounds coming from the kitchen in the back now. Maneuvering around the empty tables, he walked over by the bathrooms and peered out the windows that lined the right side of the building. There were more cars around here. A lot of them. Some were parked in spaces running diagonal to the side of the diner, while others were sitting haphazardly in the grass around the back. Some of the cars were old and rusty, sitting on flat tires, and had obviously been there for a while. It looked almost like … a junkyard. He shook his head and ambled back toward his table.
       The waitress was taking Red and Ponytail’s order. It was about time. Scott was starting to get seriously worried about how late it was getting. He grabbed a menu off the counter and sat down.
       “Coffee’s good,” said the old man. “You mind?” He motioned at the newspaper Scott had brought in.
       “Go ahead,” Scott replied, pushing the paper toward him. He probably wouldn’t have time to read it anyway.
       The waitress finally made it over to Scott. She was overweight and her not-too-clean uniform strained across her bust. Her face was heavily made up. Her makeup was so thick it looked positively caked on.
       “What do you want?” She had some kind of speech impediment. Her voice was so low and garbled he could barely understand her.
       He took the old man’s advice and ordered coffee. He scanned the menu some more while she got the pot and poured it. Deciding to keep it safe, he ordered a cheeseburger and a slice of pie. Scott saw as she walked off that she had her hair, which was thick, almost matted, pulled back and held with what looked like a chip clip—an orange chip clip.
       Scott took a sip of his coffee, noticing absently that it was good, still puzzling over the weird choice for a hair clip. He had seen women wear all kinds of hair bows and scrunchies in their hair, sometimes even a rubber band, but he had never seen one stoop to a plastic chip clip before.
       Scott glanced over at the old man beside him.
       He was still reading the paper intently. Without looking up, the old man suddenly started speaking. He kept his eyes on the paper and spoke in a low voice, as if he didn’t want to be overheard.
       “All kinds of crazy shit going on in the world. Sometimes it’s best to just go along.” He turned his head and looked at Scott as he said this and seemed to give particular emphasis to “go along.”
       Scott nodded noncommittally. He could only assume the man was talking about something he had just read in the paper. The older man kept staring at Scott until the waitress came back out then finally went back to reading. Scott decided to check out the jukebox in the corner. The man was making him nervous.
       He got up and walked over to the jukebox, and started flipping through the selections. Everything was old. And not classic old, either, but stuff that hadn't been popular, or probably thought of, for about ten years. There didn’t seem to be anything good at all. He turned around to walk back over to his table, and his attention was snagged by the calendar hanging on the wall. It was turned to December 1997. Scott glanced over at the old, desiccated plants in the front window. Apparently someone was as slack about putting up a new calendar as they were about throwing out their old dead poinsettias.
       He turned around. The old man was no longer reading. He was sitting up straight, eyes wide and alert, watching him.
       Or maybe it was just his imagination. Scott gave himself a mental shake and walked back over to his table, where the waitress was now delivering his order. She was in the process of serving the redneck twins a plate of what looked like country-style steak with mashed potatoes when Scott finally paid attention to his food.
       He looked down in disbelief at what was on his plate. The french fries were burnt. They had been fried for so long they were now blackened crisps. A charred smell wafted up from the plate. What the hell? He lifted up the top bun of his cheeseburger. The patty looked fine on the outside, but when he picked up his knife and cut into it, the middle oozed blood. He went to push his plate away and the two rednecks erupted.
       “What the FUCK!” Red had tried to bite into his biscuit and appeared to have nearly broken a tooth.
       Ponytail threw down his fork. He spit what looked like mashed potatoes into his napkin. "What the HELL is this shit? It tastes sweet."
       They were both on their feet now. Red was holding his jaw and Ponytail was staring down at his plate, poking at the food with his fork. Red leaned over and stuck a finger in his gravy and tentatively tasted it. He blanched. “Jesus, what the hell is that? It tastes like friggin' pancake batter.” He turned his head and deliberately spat  it on the floor.
       By this time the waitress was back again, and the previously unseen cook was with her. He was just as fat, and incredibly, also seemed to be wearing makeup. He looked over at Scott, and for just a moment as he zeroed in on him, his eyes seemed to glow a peculiar shade of red. Scott tore his gaze away, telling himself it was just the reflection from the florescent lights overhead.
       It was time to leave.  Scott made to get up and the old man, surprising strong, grabbed a hold of his arm and pulled him back down. He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
       “What the hell you trying to pull here?” Red was asking now, his voice low and menacing. He was starting to look pissed, and maybe a little scared. “You trying to poison people?”
       He got no response from either the cook or the waitress. They stood impassively in front of him, not saying a word. Their silence must have been as unnerving to the rednecks as it was to Scott, because after staring back for a few moments, their faces a mixture of outrage and puzzlement, they both began to shuffle away from the counter, glancing at each other with raised eyebrows.
       “I’m going to piss, then let’s get the hell out of here,” said Red.
       Ponytail walked over and paused by the register near the door. “And you can forget it if you think we’re paying for that shit.” With this parting shot, he went out the door, presumably to wait in the truck.
       As the door swung shut, both the cook and the waitress, motionless until now, swiveled their heads around and looked over at Scott.
       “Easy,” the old man whispered, then raised his voice. “Try the pie, it’s pretty good."
       Scott didn’t know what was going on but he knew instinctively to go along. He pulled the saucer with the pie slice closer, picked up his fork and forced himself to take a bite, and then almost choked. It was supposed to be lemon meringue, and although the lemon taste was there, it was salty instead of sweet. The waitress and cook had not moved and were still watching him intently. Scott chewed and swallowed, trying not to grimace. Something told him that showing any indication that anything was wrong would be a very, very bad move.
       “Pretty good,” he finally managed. He tried to smile in the waitress’s direction and was rewarded with a small twitch of her waxy lips in return. The cook went back into the kitchen, and after a moment, the waitress followed.
       “What in God’s name is going on here?” whispered Scott.
       Again the old man shook his head. He picked up the paper and made a great show of opening it up and beginning to read again, but Scott could see his hands were trembling.
       “I’ve been here for going on three days,” the man said quietly, not taking his eyes off the paper.
       Three days? What? But details were running through Scott's mind now, clicking into place. The expired tags, the old calendar still sitting on December 1997, the dead poinsettias from a Christmas long past, all the old songs on the jukebox, the cars piled out back—and worst of all, the missing people. There were all those cars parked outside and no people.
       “My car doesn’t always start the first time so I was afraid to make a run for it,” the man continued. “They seem to leave you alone if you just act like nothing’s wrong." He glanced toward the kitchen and then stuck out his hand. “Name’s John."
       Scott shook his hand. “I'm Scott."
       He reached for his cell phone and realized he had left it in the Explorer. He began firing questions at the older man. “What the hell is going on here? Why can't you leave? Are they crazy, or what? I’m in the blue Explorer; we can make a run for—”
       “We wouldn’t make it ten steps out the door."
       “Sure we would,” he began, then stopped. It had just occurred to him that Red still hadn’t returned from the restroom.
       It must have occurred to Ponytail too, because he came back in, and after that things started happening really fast.
       As soon as Ponytail got in the door, he headed toward the bathrooms, yelling with his hands cupped around his mouth. “Gerald, would you come ON! Let’s GO!” Right then the fat cook came out of the little hallway leading to the bathrooms, and Ponytail froze at the sight of him. His face went white with shock.
       Scott looked over and felt his heart skip a beat.
       The cook was now the proud owner of a bright silver NASCAR belt buckle, along with the belt it was attached to, which he had wrapped and fastened around the outside of his white apron. A spot of what looked like blood glistened on one corner of the buckle.
       Ponytail's eyes went wide. He reached behind him and pulled out a large revolver from the back waistband of his pants, but before he could pull the trigger, the front of the cook’s uniform bulged out and ripped open as a large, green ropy-looking tentacle shot out and wrapped around his wrist. He gave a surprised yelp and the gun flew out of his handand landed at Scott’s feet.  Scott didn’t stop to think, just reached down and grabbed it.
       “Wait,” said John.
       The waitress had reappeared and didn’t bother walking around the counter, just slithered up and over it. She flew at the ponytailed redneck, tentacles sliding out and around him before he even processed what was happening. Now Scott knew why the older man hadn’t bothered trying to run; they would have taken him over in no time. Scott watched in horrified dread as the alien waitress's face changed. Her mouth stretched open impossibly wide, revealing two rows of razor-sharp teeth. Ponytail began screaming.
       “NOW!” the old man yelled and leapt up. Scott's knees banged onto the bottom of the table as he jumped up and dove for the door. He twisted and got off a shot before slamming into the door and flinging himself out. He landed on his back and flipped, scrambling to his feet before he even quit rolling.  He took off, looking back over his shoulder as he literally ran for his life across the parking lot. John was right behind him, booking like hell, moving pretty damn fast for an old guy.
       Ponytail's scream abruptly cut off. “THE BLUE EXPLORER!” Scott yelled, trying to hold the gun, dig out his keys, and run at the same time. He risked another look behind him and was horrified to see the thing that used to be the waitress was already out the door and gaining on them. There was nothing even remotely human-looking about it now. Its eyes glowed crimson and what stood for its lips were peeled back, showing sharp little teeth, now edged in blood.  It leaped up on top of the mustang parked at the gas pumps.

       Considering how fast the damn things were, Scott knew they would never make it. He slid to a stop, turned around, and braced himself, legs apart. He began firing in earnest. He couldn’t take the chance of missing, so he aimed instead at the back of the mustang. Just as the thing jumped off the car, one of his bullets hit their mark and the Mustang exploded, blowing the creature into one of the pumps and knocking it over. Flames engulfed the creature. A loud high-pitched screeching noise emanated from it, like the sound of a thousand lobsters being dropped into boiling water.
       Scott didn’t stay to watch. He ran for the Explorer, repeatedly pressing the unlock button as he got near. John was right behind him. They both dove in and Scott frantically jammed his key in the ignition, cranking the engine before he even had his door shut good. He slammed down the locks and they took off, sliding and squalling across the parking lot. Scott looked back as they slid sideways out onto the road. The alien cook-thing had come out and was already past the flaming gas pumps and halfway to them. Suddenly there was a loud WHUMP and the whole world seemed to erupt in a giant ball of flame as the underground gas tanks ignited. Neither Scott nor John had their seat belts on and were thrown forward from the concussion. The force of the explosion helped hurtle them out of the parking lot onto the road, and Scott just barely managed to keep control of the SUV. He slammed on the brakes and looked back over his shoulder.
       The flames rose high in the air and lit up the approaching night. Where the diner and the parking lot used to be, there was now a smoking, burning crater in the ground.
       Scott's cell phone rang.
       He stomped down on the gas pedal again, picking up his phone at the same time. He could hear Sean’s voice cutting in and out before he got it all the way to his ear. “… are you? I've been trying to reach you ... starting to think you were abducted by aliens or something ...”

  

 



March 2008