Carlin Reese had two broken yolks, one headache, and zero bars on his phone. He winced as he mopped up the last of the eggs with a bit of toast and tried to be as subtle as possible as he took in the other patrons of the diner. They all stared into their meals, pushing food around as if ignoring him. At least three glistened with clammy sweat, even in the air conditioning, their skin the texture of freshly washed squid. Something was wrong here. Carlin tasted something bitter on his tongue and realized, unexpectedly, that it was fear.
“Enjoy your meal?” The waitress was a middle-aged woman whose face was a memory of beauty supported by load-bearing makeup. She smiled in exhaustion, the basecoat cracking under the strain of being polite to a New Yorker, like fractures in drying mud.
Carlin cleared his throat and ignored the furtive stares of the other diners. For some reason, he was acutely aware that there were seven of them and one of him.
He looked the woman in the eye. “So the Lone Ranger and Tonto are standing on a mountain,” Carlin said, checking his phone one last time for a signal, finding none, then pulling out his wallet. He didn’t see a phone-pay scanner anyway. “The Lone Ranger looks north and says, ‘Tonto, what’s that to the north of us?’ ‘Five thousand Indians,’ Tonto says.”
Carlin started to pull out a credit card, but he didn’t see a card reader either. He pulled out a hundred-dollar-bill instead, flopping it down. “So the Lone Ranger looks to the west and says, ‘What’s that to the west of us?’ ‘Five thousand Indians,’ Tonto says. ‘What’s that to the east of us?’ ‘Five thousand Indians.”
Carlin scanned down the counter, across a shifting ocean of flannel and bad hygiene. The men glanced back at him with flat glares, then at the waitress as if they wanted her to leave, then down at their meals. They looked for all the world like a group of men preparing to do something drastic. Either waiting for the last witness to leave or for a signal of some kind. He scanned the group to find the leader. “He finally looks south and says, ‘What’s that to the south of us?’ ‘Five. Thousand. Indians.’ The Lone Ranger looks around, the panic just starting to sink in and says, ‘It looks like we’re surrounded. What are we going to do?’” Carlin cleared his throat. “And Tonto looks at him and says, ‘What do you mean “we,” white man?’”
Carlin paused for the laugh, but none came. One of the men farther down the counter whispered, “That was kinda racist.”
Meanwhile the aging waitress just said, “I can’t change a hundred.”
The hell she couldn’t change a hundred. She’d taken in more than a hundred while he was eating. Still, best just to get the hell out of Dodge.
The glares radiated down the counter and he wondered distantly if any of them had ever eaten a city boy on one of those big hick farms they probably had. He needed to get back in his car and back on the road. Next time he got hungry on the road through Oklahoma, instead of stopping he’d eat his coat.
And as he considered the men, the whole image seemed to flash. One moment he looked down the counter, the diner exactly as it should be, the next he was a few stools down, and while the same people were there, they stood in different positions and wore different clothes.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Next time he got hungry on the road through Oklahoma, instead of stopping he’d eat his coat.[/pullquote]
Everything flashed back. Carlin grabbed the counter to steady himself and shook he head. A wave of fear washed over him, so powerful it seemed to resonate through the room. His headache pounded, blinding. He needed to get air. He squinted his eyes. What the hell had just happened?
“Keep the change.” He gathered his Armani wool-cashmere coat and started for the door. One of the men started to move, but another put out an arm to stop him. That was the leader.
“Why you tell that joke?” the leader asked. He was stocky with dark hair well-groomed and moussed, in flannels so sharp they had an actual crease. Carlin blinked at him. He and this man were like night and day in size and breeding, but the hick’s hair was almost identical to Carlin’s own.
His eyes scanned the rest of the yokels and landed back on the waitress. “I have no earthly idea.”
He pushed out the door and into the parking lot of the Ozark diner. Green trees crowded the winding mountain road on either side, the parking lot and diner cut out of the living wilderness. A cool breeze took the grill stink out of his nostrils as he moved to his Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. He opened the back door and hung his coat on the hanger he kept there, then moved to the driver’s, tapping the voice assist on his headset. Lexi beeped.
“Lexi,” he said, the words conveyed to the phone in his pocket via the magic of Bluetooth. “Take me to civilization.”
“The nearest town is 430 feet away,” the digital assistant said in his ear. “Pull out onto State Road—”
“No,” he said. “Real civilization. This place is a shit hole.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that,” Lexi said. Stupid phone app.
“How far to St. Louis?”
“Three hundred and fifty-two miles.”
He slid into the driver’s seat and said, “Take me there.”
The instructions played over the headset, and he tried to start the Escalade, but nothing happened. He tried again. Still nothing. Completely dead. He pulled out the phone. Lexi processed the navigation app on the screen, but he still had no bars.
“Dammit,” he said, staring back at the diner. “Dammit!”
It took ten minutes for Carlin to work up the energy to open the door to the Escalade, and by then his headache had somehow gotten even worse. He didn’t want to walk back into that place, but he really didn’t have a choice.
He spent about five more minutes doing the ritual “no signal” dance, trying to find a location where the phone could contact a tower, but no matter how high he stretched or how he hopped, the phone didn’t so much as ping. Lexi must be working off the new internal cache instead of the central Lexi servers. If he wanted to make a call, he’d have to find a land line.
He slid out of the SUV, but left his coat in the back. It was a cool autumn day, and the altitude left the air uncomfortably chilly, but it wasn’t truly cold. He strode back to the diner, cringing at what the loose asphalt must be doing to the soles of his patent-leather shoes.
He pushed through the door and into a solid wall of disdain. The low hum of conversation ceased the moment he broke the threshold and all the flannel jockeys turned to look at him. The stocky leader in the freshly pressed flannel stood next to a gangly blond man who looked like Alan Tudyk with about ten grand less in lifetime dental care.
Their eyes fell on him, flat and emotionless, the way that creepy kid in the fourth grade had looked at bugs. It was like stepping into seven twin beams of… no, not hate… animal indifference.
And another flash. This time the faces of all the patrons were missing. In their place glistening, bloody muscle. The gangly one’s intestines spilled out onto the floor and the well-groomed one knelt nearby, forming them into strange symbols.
Everything flashed back and Carlin gasped. His headache gnawed at the back of his eyes, scratched the inside of his skull. His heart pounded in his chest and he aborted his move for the counter, instead turning and riding a wave of fear in the direction of the rest room, the gazes burning his skin.
Light gleamed off the metal bands that surrounded the edges of the counter and tables as he moved under the ponderous judgment of the uneducated. He needed to get out. Out.
He pushed into the hall at the back of the diner and through the door into the rest room, then pressed his back against the door and gulped air.
Jesus Christ, what was going on? Was the headache making him see things? Was he having a psychotic break? It had to be fear, but while only one of them had seen the business end of a washing machine, they were just people. They weren’t monsters. All that staring had just spooked him. His mind was playing tricks…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, coming this month from Cold Fusion Media!