Dine In

a short horror story

Brian J. Jarrett

Copyright © 2014 Brian J. Jarrett

Elegy Publishing, LLC

All rights reserved by the author. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted by any means without the written consent of the author.

This book is a work of fiction. Any names, people, locales, or events are purely a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any person (either living or dead), to any event, or to any locale is coincidental or used fictitiously.


For Robert


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 suited me. 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.

Not anymore.

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?”





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