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 went to lunch and requested he leave that day. Apparently a plant manager had been calling 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 going. It was a long drive and he wanted to have time to stop and get something to eat.
       The first couple of hours 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, and then got back on the road.
       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 Chevy truck rode up beside him in the fast lane. Scott glanced over and saw the blue pickup was riding the bumper of the car in front of it, weaving back and forth, obviously wanting the slower car to get over. When the slower car didn’t move fast enough, the truck, which had a rebel flag and an NRA sticker on the back window, 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'd done? Scott pressed down on the gas pedal, speeding up until he rode 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, a set of antlers jutted from the front grill.
       “Fucking rednecks,” he muttered.
       The driver, no doubt noticing him after his sudden acceleration, glanced over and gave him a cheery smile and a wave—the universal sorry about that, but not really gesture. The guy in the passenger seat merely shot him a bird.
       Scott’s anger left as quickly as it came. It wasn’t worth it. He let 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 where he might have a better chance. He took the next offramp and started down a stretch of mostly empty road, not knowing if he was heading toward the next town or not. The GPS map on the screen was now 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, made a few more, and then belatedly realized he hadn't kept track of his position and was now more or less lost. He could probably use the GPS to eventually make it back to the interstate, but that wouldn’t quickly find him a restroom and a bite to eat.

       He looked at his watch. It was getting late. Already 5:00. He needed to stop 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, he 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 oak 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, nearly hidden in the undergrowth. He never would have spotted it if he hadn’t stopped. He climbed back in and pulled up so he could get a better look at it. The sign read “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 looking for another sign and found one about half a mile later. This one read “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 traveled this stretch 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'd 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 the 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. Scott pulled his jacket tighter and hurried toward the entrance as the wind kicked up, rushing through the surrounding trees, and sent a beer can scraping and clanking across the pavement.
       As Scott got closer he could see that the “OPEN” sign was actually white that had yellowed in the sun. In the front window on each side of it, sat 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 restored ’66 Mustang, and this one looked to be the same year.
       He passed on around and between two cars parked directly out front, noticing that one of them also had an expired tag. Great, a town full of losers. As he was reaching for the door handle, he finally noticed the truck parked catty-corner to the building. The blue pickup with the set of antlers attached to the grill.
       “No way,” he exclaimed involuntarily.
       This just keeps getting better and better. A bell tinkled overhead as he pulled the door open and stepped inside. He stood there for a moment to give 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 wore his greasy brown hair in a long ponytail and had on suede leather cowboy boots.
       Scott ignored them and looked for a place to sit. The only other customer was an older gray-haired man sitting at a booth nursing a cup of coffee. Scott decided to sit at a small table near him. The man nodded as he sat down, and he 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 the vehicles parked outside, 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. He 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 gray-haired man. “You mind?” He motioned at the newspaper Scott had brought in.
       Scott pushed the paper toward him. “Go ahead.” He probably wouldn’t have time to read it anyway.
       The waitress finally made it over to him. She was overweight and her none-too-clean uniform strained across her bust. Her face was heavily made up with makeup was so thick it looked positively caked on.
       “What do you want?” she asked in a barely decipherable voice garbled with some kind of speech impediment.
       He took the man’s advice and asked for coffee, and then 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. As the waitress walked off, he saw the woman had her hair, which was thick, almost matted, pulled back and held with what looked like a chip clip—an orange chip clip.
       He took a sip of his coffee, noticing absently that it was good, and puzzled 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'd never seen one stoop to a plastic chip clip before.
       He glanced over at the older man beside him.
       The man, eyes still on the paper, suddenly spoke in a low voice. "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 he was talking about something he'd read in the paper. He continued to regard Scott for a long moment, and then the waitress came back out and he finally went back to reading. Scott decided it was a good time to check out the jukebox in the corner. The man was making him nervous.
       He got up and walked over, and started flipping through the selections. Everything was old. And not classic hits old, either, but stuff that hadn't been popular, or probably thought of, for about fifteen years. There didn’t seem to be anything good at all. As he turned around to walk back to the table, his attention was snagged by the calendar hanging on the wall. It was turned to December 2010. He glanced over at the desiccated plants in the front window. Apparently someone was as slack about putting up a new calendar as they were about throwing out their dead poinsettias.
       He glanced over at the line of booths. The older man was no longer reading. He was now sitting up straight, eyes wide and alert, watching him.
       Or maybe it was just his imagination. Scott gave himself a mental shake and started toward his table, where the waitress was now delivering his order. She was in the process of serving the redneck twins a plate of country-style steak with mashed potatoes when Scott finally paid attention to his food.
       He stared 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, when the two rednecks erupted.
       “What the FUCK!” Red had tried to bite into a biscuit and appeared to have nearly broken a tooth.
       Ponytail grabbed a napkin and spit out the mouthful of potatoes he'd just taken. "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. Red leaned over and stuck a finger in his gravy and tentatively tasted it. He blanched. “Jesus, what the hell? 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 hefty and 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 man beside him, surprising strong, grabbed a hold of his arm, pulled him back down, and 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 seconds, 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,” muttered Red.
       Ponytail walked over and paused by the register as Red headed for the restrooms. "And you can forget it if you think we’re paying for that shit,” he called over to the pair still standing silently on the other side of the counter. Then with this parting shot, he went out the door, presumably to wait in the truck.
       Both the cook and the waitress, motionless until now, swiveled their heads around and looked over at Scott.
       “Easy,” the older man whispered, then raised his voice. “Try the pie, it’s pretty good."
       Scott didn’t know exactly what was going on but he knew enough to go along. He pulled the saucer with the slice of pie closer, picked up his fork, and forced himself to take a bite—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 turned and went back into the kitchen, and a second later, the waitress followed.
       “What in God’s name is going on here?”
       Again the man shook his head. He picked up the paper and made a great show of opening it 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 2010, the dead poinsettias from a Christmas long past, all the dated songs on the jukebox, the cars piled out back—and worst of all, the missing people. 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 act like nothing’s wrong." He glanced toward the kitchen and then stuck out his hand. “Name’s John."
       Scott gave it a shake. “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 black SUV. 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 started yelling with his hands cupped around his mouth. “Gerald, would you come ON! Let’s GO!” Right then the corpulent cook came out of the little hallway leading to the bathrooms, and Ponytail froze at the sight of him, his face going 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 filthy apron. On one corner of the buckle, a dark red spot of what looked like blood glistened.
       Eyes wide, Ponytail reached behind him and pulled 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 ropy green 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 dread as the alien waitress's face changed. Her mouth stretched open impossibly wide, revealing two rows of razor-sharp teeth.
       “NOW!” John yelled as Ponytail began to scream, and leapt up. Scott's knees banged onto the bottom of the table as he rose after him and dashed for the door. Twisting, he managed to get off a shot before slamming into it, then tripped and fell. Landing on his side, he immediately flipped, sprang to his feet, and 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 BLACK 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.

       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, as the thing jumped up on top of the Mustang parked at the gas pumps. He began firing in earnest, each report deafeningly loud. He couldn’t take the chance of missing, so he aimed instead at the back of the car. Just as the monster hopped off, one of the bullets hit their mark and the Mustang exploded, blowing the creature into one of the pumps and knocking it over. Flames engulfed it, and a loud high-pitched screeching noise began emanating 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 neared the SUV. John was right behind him. They both dove in and Scott frantically jammed the 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 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 lot and 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 night sky. Where the diner and the parking lot used to be, there was now a smoking, burning crater.
       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 ...”



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