“Hospitality”

Share this story on social media!

"Hospitality"

Written by Erik Peabody

I.

 

The snow had stopped about an hour ago, but god damn, it was still a treacherous road.  Mark turned up the radio, half to keep himself awake, and half to try to hear the music through the interfering static.  The mountains weren’t good for the signal, and even though all he could pick up was country, anything was better than listening to the rattling heater trying in vain to keep the car warm.  It was dark, he was tired, and it would be all too easy for the lullaby of the road noise to sneak up on him.  His ‘72 Datsun station wagon, now 15 years old and in dire need of a tuneup (or a replacement) wasn’t going to win him any awards, but he didn’t want to wake up with it smashed up in a ditch.  Or down the side of a mountain.

 

He shifted in his seat, trying in vain to find some new configuration for his large body that would be a bit more comfortable, and brought his cold thermos from between his legs up to his lips.  Still empty, just like it had been for the last two hours.  Mark cursed under his breath and tossed it into the back seat so he wouldn’t keep trying it.  It landed among the accumulated papers and food wrappers, and began to roll around as the Datsun inexpertly navigated the twisting road.  Steering wheel goes clockwise, thermos rolls to the left.  Steering wheel goes counterclockwise, thermos rolls to the right.  Trash crinkled, adding another layer of competing noise to the radio.  Mark gritted his teeth and stared forward into the night, the snow-covered road bordered by tall trees on both sides.

 

He should have been in Boulder an hour ago.  The motel would have a night clerk, so he wasn’t concerned about not getting into his room, but after twelve hours of driving, he was ready to get some sleep.  The interview was at 8:00 a.m. sharp, and he was already going to be getting less than eight hours in the sack.  He needed to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed if he wanted to make a good impression.  He knew that he was under-qualified for the job, and coming in with a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye was the only thing that was going to edge him ahead of the self-important college grads that he was competing with.  Then, his next chapter could begin.  New job, new town (hell, a new state,) new life.  Most importantly, new freedom.  In spite of his fatigue, he grinned a little, showing a spiteful glimpse of his teeth in the dim glow of the dashboard lights.  He knew a lot more about alimony payments and child support than he did a year ago, but he was still not an expert.  He didn’t know how much harder it was going to make it for the bitch to find him in Colorado, but he did know she’d have to jump through some hoops to do it.  That might take a few months, or even a few years if he was lucky.  It’s not too easy to find extra time for anything when you’re working and trying to raise a kid.  That was just fine by him.  That was just dandy.

 

The whole thing had been bullshit from the beginning.  Never meant to last, never meant to be anything at all, when you got right down to it, but mistakes happen, and good fucking Christ had his family pressured him to “do the right thing.”  He never wanted to be a father, and especially not with Amber Bailey.  He’d known her all through high school back home in Flagstaff, which was more than enough time to peg her for what she was: a loser.  He hadn’t been unaware of her glances and how she’d blush when they ended up exchanging words in the halls.  So what if she had a crush on him.  Lots of girls did.  Mark had heard the word “charisma,” before, in various English and History classes that he spent grab-assing with his football buddies, but he wouldn’t have thought to apply the word to himself.  He understood his place in the world in a more instinctual sense.  He was good-looking, he had a way of making people laugh (usually at the expense of others,) and people tended to like him.  He was aware of his limitations, and he figured that he could make something of himself if he knew when to charm and when to intimidate.

 

Amber had been a mistake, just one stupid decision on a November evening.  He didn’t even know when she ended up at the party, but he was well beyond drunk when he first saw her.  He had already struck out with Brittany Christenson, who was much more attractive than Amber and rumored to be an easy lay, but she apparently didn’t like having it said to her face.  Mark knew better than to try something so overt anyway, but he was riding high on a winning touchdown and a six-pack of Budweiser.  So now, instead of nailing Brittany upstairs in Johnny Sklowdowski’s bed, he was sitting on the couch in the living room, Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” thumping through the house, a throng of teenage revelry surrounding him, and his face still mildly stinging from Brittany’s rejection.  Not getting laid was bad, but the constant snickering glances he was getting from the party-goers was worse.  Mark had switched from beer to whiskey after Brittany left, and he was now blackly drunk, head throbbing from the noise, from the alcohol, and from his own anger.

 

His memory of the rest of the evening was understandably hazy, but he remembered the main points.  Amber sitting down next to him on the couch.  Mark handing her the bottle of Jack against her diminishing declinations.  Mark sobering up just enough to shelve his anger and turn up the charm.  Taking Amber upstairs, half-leading and half-carrying her since she apparently couldn’t hold her liquor.  At that point, Mark wasn’t even focused on getting off; he just wanted to make sure that no one thought he was too much of a loser to get some action after the game.

 

Mark knew he wasn’t a loser.  His parents knew it, and always told him, or always used to, at least.  His coaches knew it, and he got the praise he deserved for carrying his team to win after win.  His teachers might not know it, but fuck them.  What did they matter?  Sure, they had good words for some kids, like Amber goddamn Bailey, but Mark knew better.  Amber got good grades, but she was a fucking bore.  Plain.  Forgettable.  She’d stay in Flagstaff her whole life.  Sure, she’d go to college, but she was too polite and complacent to make anything of herself.  As it turned out, she didn’t even go to college.  She was a little too busy caring for an infant and trying to set up a home with her semi-willing husband.  Mark didn’t go to college either, football scholarship or no, but it was further down on his list of life complaints at that point, definitely below “having a new kid” and “being forced to marry Amber Bailey.”

 

He supposed it wasn’t a surprise to anyone that the next five years went the way they did.  Mark got a blue-collar job in a factory, spent too much time at the bar instead of home, and wasn’t discrete with his indiscretions.  Amber knew. She had to know, and he sometimes caught her crying, but she never said anything.  Maybe she was trying to keep the marriage together, or maybe she was just scared of what he’d do if she confronted him.  Frankly, he didn’t care.  Amber was a loser, and rolling over and taking the lot that life dealt her was her place in things.  It didn’t surprise him.

 

What did surprise him was when Amber filed for divorce.  He might have found it amusing (after all, it was an easy ticket out for him,) but what he didn’t find amusing was when she filed for alimony, and when the judge granted it.  Their home hadn’t been much, but it was a damn piece better than the one-bedroom apartment he ended up in.  That was three months ago, and things weren’t showing any sign of improving.  He picked up extra shifts where he could, but the constant thought of working his hands to the bone just to give more money to the bitch drove him crazy.  He could work 70 hours a week, and all he had to show for it was his shitty apartment and his shitty car.

 

Hell, it had even been her fault that he was where he was now, driving down some awful back road in Colorado instead of lying peacefully in the motel room bed.  He had been packing his bag to hit the road that morning when she had knocked on the door.  What should have been a quick trip out the door turned into an hour-long shouting match about why he hadn’t sent the check last month.  Well, he had been shouting and she had been crying.  Things finally ended when Mark grabbed his bag and walked out the door, leaving her sitting and blubbering on the floor of his front room, but he hadn’t had the time to make sure everything was packed, and wouldn’t you know it, the Colorado roadmap was left sitting on his kitchen table.  Mark didn’t notice until well into the drive, and his anger and pride had kept him from pulling over to ask directions.  You could say that it had actually been his fault that he got lost, but it didn’t really matter, did it?  Here he was, trying to find his way through the dark and the snow with only his memory of the route he traced last night.  His mood had not improved with the road signs he had encountered over the last forty miles or so.  Signs with uplifting messages like “WINDING ROAD,” and “BEWARE OF FALLING ROCKS” and “DON’T STOP FOR HITCHHIKERS.”

 

He shifted in his seat again and shivered in his denim jacket.  A cramp was developing in his lower back, and it was getting harder and harder to keep his eyes open.  He kept expecting the trees to thin out, the lanes to widen, and to see some sign of civilization in the distance, but the road droned on, unchanging.  The thought of having to sleep in the car was looming in the back of his mind, but he knew that meant he would likely miss the interview in the morning, so he kept pushing it back.  If he could go ten more miles, he was sure he’d find something, some gas station or truck stop, and then he could find out where the fuck he was.

 

As it turned out, Mark only had four more miles until he found The Silver Line.

 

II.

 

He was at the point of shaking his head violently from side to side to stay awake when he saw the first phantom glimpses of light through the trees.  The snow had started up again, and Mark initially mistook the stuttered illumination to be his eyes playing tricks on him as the wipers pushed the snow off the windshield.  However, as he continued down the twisting road, the light became more visible, and he knew that there was something real ahead.

 

Mark’s fatigue lifted a little, and his body seemed to ache even more at the thought of finally being able to get out of the car and stretch.  He couldn’t tell how far away the source of the light was, but he knew it was close.  After a few more minutes, he entered a straight stretch of road, and the trees on the right-hand side fell away.  He slowed, and saw that the ground spilled down from the snow-covered roadway into the parking lot of what looked like a diner.  It was a squat, long building with a neon sign above that read, “The Silver Line.”  Welcoming light was pouring out of the windows, which stretched the length of the front of the building.

 

Mark stopped the car for a moment to make sure he could see where to drive down from the road.  The snow was covering everything, and it would be easy to mistake a ditch for a driveway.  As he did so, the lights inside of The Silver Line suddenly turned off, and he caught some brief movement near the front that might have been the door opening.  “Oh fuck,” he said, and made a gamble as to where the driveway was.  His car tilted to the right as his passenger-side tires briefly left the paved roadway, but then found purchase.  He drove down into the parking lot, the Datsun sliding briefly as he brought it to a stop midway between the road and the building.  There were a few other cars in the lot, covered in snow, but they were on the far side and Mark had been in no danger of hitting them.  It was very dark now, with only his headlights and the dull red glow thrown by the neon sign above.  Through the falling snow, he could see a figure moving under the front awning, just outside the door.  Mark tapped quickly on his horn twice, and the figure stopped.  He turned off the Datsun and the engine died, shuddering, and then Mark was out into the snow, legs and back complaining at this exertion after so many hours in the car.

 

“Hey.  Hi!” Mark called to the figure, who was now standing still and apparently looking back at him.  Mark couldn’t make out anything about the person (it was so damn dark,) but he appeared to be very big, over six feet.  The figure didn’t respond.  Mark waved and then stuck his hands into his pockets against the cold.  He shrugged his shoulders, pulling his jacket further up around his neck and walked towards the overhang.  He had underestimated how much the Datsun’s heater had been doing; it was freezing outside.  As he trudged through the snow, socks getting wet through his sneakers, he called out again to the stranger.  “Hi, are you closing up?”  Still no response.

 

When he was about ten yards away, the figure turned and went back through the front door into the diner.  Shortly after, the lights flashed back on, causing Mark to shut his eyes against the sudden illumination.  When he opened them again, he saw a very large, very bald man standing inside, smiling broadly at him through the window.  The man opened the door outward with one heavily-muscled arm, and beckoned Mark to come in.  The man was wearing a plain white tee shirt that must have done nothing to protect him from the cold.  Mark hurried in, glad to put the night and the chill behind him.

 

He shivered and stamped the snow off of his shoes just inside the entrance as the stranger let the door close behind him.  “Thanks,” he said to the man as he looked around the diner.  Linoleum floor, wood paneling, booths lining the walls under the windows, and a bar running the down the middle of the room with a series of grills, stovetops, and various appliances behind.  A door led to some back area at one end of the bar.  He realized that only some of the lights were on, shining down on the bar and cooking area.  The booths and the front of the diner were still partially covered in shadow.

 

Mark was still looking around as he heard a click from behind him.  He turned to see that the large man had just engaged a deadbolt on the front door.  The man saw the look on Mark’s face and said, “oh, I hope that doesn’t bother you.  We sometimes get strange people trying to wander in late at night.”  The man’s voice was strangely high, almost feminine, which was an odd juxtaposition to his intimidating frame.  Mark was no whelp himself, but this man was at least six inches taller and probably outweighed him by 50 pounds.  “Not that you’re strange,” the man continued, “I didn’t mean to imply that.  You get lost in the storm, huh?”

 

Mark was taken off guard by the man’s voice and demeanor.  Stammering a bit, from both the cold and from his confusion, he replied, “Um, sort of.  I’m trying to get to Boulder and must have taken a wrong turn a while back.  I was hoping to get directions and a cup of…” but he stopped when the man threw his head back and started laughing.  It was high, like his speaking voice, with a little squeak in it.

 

After about ten seconds, he got control of himself and said “Boulder?  Oh, friend, you’re quite aways from Boulder!  It’s about sixty miles north of here!  But you had the good fortune for God to bring you to me, so you’re not bad off.”

 

“Well, where am I?” Mark asked.

 

The stranger smiled broadly and said, “Not in Boulder!”

 

Mark’s expression darkened and he opened his mouth to say, “No shit, fuck face,” but then stopped himself.  This man was the only person he’d seen in hours, and was the one way he was going to get directions and some coffee.  On top of that, his usual intimidation routine wasn’t going to work on someone that had such an obvious physical advantage over him.  It’s hard to bully a giant.  He saw that the man’s smile had faded and a frown was forming on his brow.  Mark closed his mouth and mentally regrouped.

 

“Hey, I’m sorry.  I’ve been on the road since Flagstaff and I’m pretty damn lost.  It looks like you’re closing up, but I’d appreciate the hell out of it if I could get a cup of coffee and pointed in the right direction.”  He tried a smile, which probably looked ghastly on his face after so long on the road.

 

The stranger looked at him for several seconds, his frown unchanging.  Mark noticed that the man had exceptionally blue eyes.  Then, the frown vanished and was replaced by the previous bright smile.  It happened so quickly that it startled Mark.  “Sure, buddy!” the stranger said affably, and held out his huge hand.  “The name’s Roger!”

 

Mark took it and internally winced at the strength of Roger’s grip.  “Mark,” he said.  Roger disengaged just as Mark was about to try to pull his own hand back, and then walked down the length of the diner and stepped through the partition to the cooking area behind the bar.  Mark saw him lean down and start rustling through various drawers and cabinets.  After a minute of this, Mark walked up and swung his leg over one of the barstools, turning his back to the bar and looking out the windows.  It was very dark outside, the lights barely reaching out to the few snow-covered cars in the parking lot.  Snow continued to drift down from above.

 

“There you are, you bastard,” Roger said with good humor in his voice, and Mark turned to see him straightening up with a can of Folgers in one giant hand.  He put it on the counter and started to fill a coffee pot with water from a nearby sink, his back to Mark and light from the fluorescents overhead gleaming on his bald scalp.  Mark was again struck by how huge the man was.  He could see muscles rippling along Roger’s broad back as he leaned forward to work the sink.  Mark also noticed something that he hadn’t caught earlier: the man’s clothing was dirty.  There was a general griminess to the white shirt, with a few streaks of brown here and there.  The neckline was uneven and loose around Roger’s neck, unlike the rest of the garment, which fit snugly across his torso.  The shirt was partially tucked into nondescript brown pants, with a tattered belt and one belt loop ripped, hanging freely by its lower portion.

 

Roger shut off the sink and poured the water into the coffee maker.  As he did so, he looked back at Mark over his shoulder and said, “So.  Boulder?”

 

“Yeah.  Do you know the quickest way I can get there?”

 

Roger chuckled a bit and replied, “I sure do!  But you’re not getting there tonight.  Not with the weather like this!”

 

Mark felt his jaw tightening and made an effort to ease off on it.  “Well, I’ve really got to be there for a job interview in the morning.  How about you give me directions and I’ll figure out if I can get there or not?”  As he spoke, he couldn’t keep a slight note of irritation out of his voice.

 

“You got family back in Flagstaff?”

 

“Um… yeah.  Wife and a kid.”  He was having a bit of trouble following the sudden changes in the conversation.

 

Roger turned to him, wiping his hands on his shirt.  The smile was still on his face as he said, “I bet you that wife and kid of yours would love to have you back there one day.  All things said and done, family’s all we got, isn’t it?  Family and God.”

 

Mark was silent for a moment, hands slowly clenching on the bar, and then said, “How about you just tell me how to get to Boulder.”

 

Roger stood for a minute, seeming to look Mark over, and then stepped forward, somehow making the three-foot journey into a relaxed stroll.  He leaned forward with his elbows on the bar, right in front of Mark.

 

“How about you just calm the fuck down, friend.”

 

Mark recoiled a bit.  “What did you say to me?”

Roger pointed forward over Mark’s shoulder and towards the parking lot.  “You see that out there?  That is a winter snowstorm in Colorado, buddy.  I know you don’t get much of that in Arizona, but it’s a real son of a bitch out here.  You drive through that when you’re tired and don’t know the roads…”  He trailed off and then made a motion with his hand, mimicking a car falling off a cliff.  His grin seemed to brighten as he did so.  “Bye-bye job interview, bye-bye wife and kid back in Arizona.”

 

Mark sat staring at him, unsure of how to respond.  He didn’t bother bringing up that Flagstaff had about as much snow as anywhere; this man was clearly impressed with himself and arguing with him wasn’t going to accomplish anything.  “Well,” he said eventually, “what do you suggest?”

 

Roger waited a beat, looked down at Mark’s clenched hands, and then pushed back from the bar, standing up straight and looking down at Mark.  “Ten hours, eh?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Ten hours.  I figure if you’ve been driving from Flagstaff, that’s about ten hours on the road, inn’t?”

 

“Oh.  Twelve.”

 

Roger whistled and raised his eyebrows.  “I got just the thing for you,” he said with a hint of a laugh, and then turned to walk towards the door to the back.  As he went, he called back to Mark, “I bet that coffee would go down even better with some food, wouldn’t it?” and then opened the door onto a pitch-black room beyond, stepped in, and let the door swing slowly shut behind him.

 

Mark called out, “I really don’t have time for…,” but then the door latched shut, and Mark was alone in the diner.  He sighed and closed his eyes, slowly lowering his head until it rested on the cool veneer bar top.

 

Sixty fucking miles.  Like it or not, the huge asshole was right; there was no way that Mark was getting to Boulder tonight.  His best bet was to try to find some place nearby to get three or four hours of shut-eye, and then drive the rest of the way in the morning.  There’d still be snow, but at least it wouldn’t be quite so dark.  And god damn, he really was tired.  He felt his body slowly relaxing now that it was out of the car.  The sound of the diner was soothing, actually.  Sort of familiar.  The buzz of the overhead lights, the sound of the coffee percolating, some muffled cracking sound that was probably a tree branch giving way under the weight of the snow.  Roger would probably know of some place he could crash out for a few hours.  Didn’t have to be much.  Just a warm bed that he could stretch out in, close his eyes, let his body unwind…

 

III.

 

Consciousness came back to him slowly.  He was first aware of the new smells.  Coffee, cooking oil that was slightly burnt, and meat.  Mark opened his eyes and tried to sit up, but his lower back screamed out, cramped and painful from his posture.  His forehead landed back on the bar, making a dull thud.  He groaned and closed his eyes again.

 

“Well look who’s back!”

 

Mark rolled his head to the side, facing the voice.  Everything felt very puffy, the way that it only does after you’ve been awake for far too long and gotten far too little sleep.  He managed to open one eye a slit and saw Roger behind the bar, his back to the stovetop and hands propped on his hips, grinning down at him.  Mark didn’t notice the tongs that the man was holding, nor did he immediately notice that Roger had, for some reason, removed his pants, his stained underwear showing below the bottom of his tee-shirt.  All Mark noticed was the shirt itself, and he was suddenly up and backpedaling off the barstool, unaware of his body protesting at the sudden movement.  His feet tangled together and he sat down hard on the floor, biting his tongue.  He didn’t notice this either.

Roger was around the bar and coming up to him quickly, holding his hands forward in what was supposed to be a comforting gesture.  Mark was not comforted.  All Mark could see was that the white tee shirt, previously only grimy, was now covered with blood.  There were splattered drops all over the front, and several wide streaks angling across it, as if someone had dipped a paintbrush in a bucket of the stuff and haphazardly gone to town on the shirt.

 

Mark was scuttling back on his hands and feet like a crab, whispering, “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck.”  He knew he had to get up, that something was very wrong and that this giant of a man was coming towards him, but he couldn’t get his body to cooperate.

 

“Hey, buddy, calm down!  It’s okay!  It’s okay!” Roger said.

 

Mark got a bit of control over his legs and managed to push back into a half-crouch on his way to a full stance.  He also found a bit more of his voice.  “What the fuck!” he yelled.  “What the fuck did you do, man!”  At that point, he noticed that Roger was only half-dressed.  He stopped, staring at the dirty briefs.  “Where the fuck are your pants?”

 

“It’s fine!  Everything’s okay!” Roger said, stopping as well and dropping his hands to his side.  The smile was still plastered on his face.  “Just had a bit of trouble with the meat.”

 

“A bit of trouble with the meat?” Mark half asked, half yelled.  “You look like you just fucking murdered someone!”

 

Roger’s smile faltered a degree and he was silent for a moment.  “That’s not a nice thing to say, friend.  After everything I’m doing to help you out, help you get back safe to your family, you go and say something like that?”

“You’re covered in blood and your fucking pants are gone!”

 

Roger looked down at himself and didn’t move for a beat.  He then tilted his head back up, and Mark could see that the smile had returned to full strength.  “I guess they are, aren’t they?” he said, and uttered a quick bark of laughter.  With that, he turned around and strolled back around the bar to the stovetop, where smoke was starting to rise from a pan.

 

Mark pulled himself the rest of the way up and stood, slowly returning to himself.  He became aware that his tongue hurt like a son of a bitch, and his balance was off.  He steadied himself against a nearby booth and let his heart rate and breathing come back to something resembling normalcy.  His eyes were fixed on Roger, who was whistling with his back turned, bare-assed at the range.

 

“Roger,” Mark called out.  Roger continued to whistle and cook.

 

“Roger!” Mark said again, louder.

 

Roger stopped whistling and called back over his shoulder, “Yes’m?”

 

“What do you mean, ‘trouble with the meat?’”

 

Roger briefly looked back towards Mark and favored him with his perpetual smile.  “Oh, it had just thawed out a bit more than I expected.  Lots of juices loose in the packaging and I had a bit of a spill!”  He turned back and resumed his whistling.

 

Mark leaned against the booth and blinked, trying to clear the fogginess from his head.  This couldn’t make sense.  Did this make sense?  He wasn’t much of a cook, but he knew how to fry up a steak or a burger.  How much blood could there be in one of those?  Enough to drench a shirt?  Enough to ruin a pair of pants?  Maybe not for a bachelor like himself to cook at home, but if he was stocking enough for a diner…

 

Just then, Roger lifted the pan off the range and transferred something from inside to a nearby plate.  He set it on the bar alongside a coffee cup, and then leaned forward on his hands, the picture of pride.  “Soup’s on!” he said cheerily, and raised his eyebrows at Mark.

 

Mark stayed where he was, assessing.  He could now feel the ache in his back and legs, and his head was throbbing.  He looked across the diner to the plate, and could see strips of meat on it.  The smell reached him, and in spite of his various aches and pains, his stomach grumbled.  The desire to sit down and the desire to have food, the first in probably six hours, were now omnipresent in his mind.  Was he overreacting?  Today had been a shit day, and he’d spent twelve hours in the car driving.  Besides, he was still pissed at the stunt that Amber had pulled earlier.  Wasn’t it possible that he was jumping at shadows, just a little?  He hesitated a moment longer, and then his eyes landed on the coffee mug.  That cinched it.  “Fuck it,” he said under his breath, and stumbled over to the bar, collapsing onto the stool.

 

“There you go!” Roger said merrily, and turned around to start cleaning up.

 

Mark took a long drink of coffee.  It was strong and black, and it felt amazing going down.  As it reached his stomach and he turned his attention to the dish, he almost forgot about Roger.  It had been a long damn day, and he needed this.  The meat appeared to be strips of pork.  Not chops, or at least not cut like chops usually were.  Mark didn’t care.  It smelled great, and after cutting off a piece and biting down on it, he realized it tasted even better than it smelled.  The pounding in his head was already starting to ease back, and he felt the fog in his brain clearing.  Good lord, this was just what he needed.

 

And then Roger had to ruin his brightening mood.  “So, what’s your wife’s name?”

 

Mark stopped chewing for a moment, displeased by the sudden reminder.  “Amber,” he said briskly, and resumed eating.

 

“Boy or a girl?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Your kid!”

 

“Boy.”  Back to chewing.

“How old?”

 

Mark looked up and saw that Roger still had his back to him as he continued to clean the small mess from the food prep.  He couldn’t see Roger’s face, but he was sure that he was still grinning.  Mark suddenly became aware again of Roger’s partial nudity, and that realization paired poorly with the taste of the meat in his mouth.  He didn’t want to stare at the man’s ass while he was eating.  He turned his gaze aside and responded curtly, “five.”

 

“Aw, that’s great,” Roger said.  “I remember being five.  It was a great time.”

 

Mark lowered his head, facing his food and trying to not encourage further conversation.  The food tasted good, and he didn’t want to taint it with thoughts of his family.  All he needed right now was to eat and get more coffee into him.  After that, get directions, and then leave this weirdo in the dust.  As the food and caffeine were hitting his bloodstream, his upper brain functions were creeping back toward normal levels, and he was realizing with renewed clarity that this was a strange situation.  He was hundreds of miles from anywhere he’d ever been, it was god knew how late at night, and he was sitting in a diner talking to a man with blood on his shirt and no pants.  Best to wrap this up and get back on track.  That would be just dandy with Mark.

 

“Yessirree, five was mighty fine.  I didn’t know it then, but it was the best time, now that I think about it.”

 

Mark closed his eyes and silently willed Roger to shut up.  His tongue hurt from where he bit it and his headache was coming back.  All he wanted was to eat in peace.

 

“It was only a year later that he left us, you know.  My dad, I mean.”

 

Mark looked up.  Roger was facing him, leaning back against the range, grin in its rightful place on his face.  His thumbs were hooked into the top of his jockey shorts like a cowboy would hook them into his belt.  The weight had pushed them down slightly, and Mark saw the uppermost tufts of dark pubic hair creeping out from behind the elastic.  He stopped chewing.

 

“Real son of a bitch thing to do, if you ask me,” Roger said, still smiling.

 

Mark froze.  Something here was wrong.  Very wrong.  He choked back the half-chewed meat that was in his mouth and looked up at Roger’s face.  The grin brightened, showing the man’s teeth.  Mark hadn’t noticed before, but they were stained yellow.  He straightened and put down his silverware, still looking Roger in the eyes.  There was a glimmer of something in there that unsettled him deeply.  All of a sudden, he thought, “cars.  There are cars in the parking lot.  More than one.  Where are the people that drove those cars?” As that clicked into place in his mind, two other things followed.  The first was the sound of the deadbolt on the front door clicking into place, and Roger saying, “we sometimes get strange people trying to wander in late at night.”  The other was a brief glimpse of a road sign that read “DON’T STOP FOR HITCHHIKERS.”

 

He pushed the plate away across the bar.  It was time to leave.  Fuck the directions, fuck the coffee, and fuck Roger.  “Thanks for the food, but I really need to get back to it.”  He placed his palms on the bar top and started to push himself up.  He didn’t see Roger remove his right hand from the elastic of his briefs and reach behind him to the stovetop.

 

“Oh, no need for that,” Roger said, leaned forward, the muscles in his arm bunching, and drove a butter knife through the top of Mark’s right hand, sinking it through the veneer top of the bar and to its hilt in the plywood underneath.

 

Mark stared down at the knife, his eyes as wide as teacups, completely unable to understand why, even though he was pulling his hand back towards him, it wasn’t moving.  A moment later, the pain hit his brain, and he started screaming.  He grabbed the remaining few inches of protruding handle with his left hand, meaning to pull it out.

 

He had barely gotten a grip on it (it was already slick with blood,) when Roger reached forward with both of his monstrous hands and wrapped them around Mark’s, firmly but gently.  Mark was now trapped; right hand pinned to the bar by the knife, and left hand enveloped in Roger’s gorilla-like hold.  Roger stared directly into his eyes, still smiling, but Mark could see that the muscle at the edge of his jaw was now twitching rapidly.  Roger winked, said, “check this out,” and then slowly began to squeeze his hands together around Mark’s closed left first.  The first thing to give way to the increasing force of Roger’s grip was Mark’s middle finger, which dislocated at the knuckle.  Then his hand turned into a chorus of agony as bones shifted, realigned, and snapped.  Roger kept going, pressing harder and harder, and Mark saw with terror that there was now fresh blood seeping through Roger’s fingers, not from the knife wound, but from the increasing damage being done to his left hand.  He looked back to Roger’s face and saw that blood was dripping from his grin, oozing out of his gums and around his yellowed teeth as his jaw clenched into its maniac rictus.

 

Mark pushed with his legs, panicking, trying desperately to do something, anything, to get away from the pain.  He pressed hard against the bottom of the bar and wrenched back with his shoulders, trying in vain to pull his hands away.  Roger’s grasp was too tight, and Mark was distantly aware that the man was now laughing, high and loud, as he continued to squeeze, continued to crush Mark’s left hand.  Mark shifted his feet to get a better angle, leaned forward, and then shoved back again, putting everything he had into it.  At the same moment, Roger released his grasp, throwing his arms wide like a magician releasing a dove.  Mark’s momentum, suddenly unimpeded, threw him back across the barstool.  The knife, driven too deeply into the bar to move, ripped through Mark’s right hand, separating tissue all the way through and out the webbing between his index and middle finger.  Mark continued backward, pivoting on his ass over the stool, and landed hard on the back of his head.  Lights exploded across his field of vision, and his view of the ceiling unmoored from its proper perspective, spinning and stuttering.  Mercifully, for a moment, the pain in his hands subsided.

 

He realized that Roger was talking.  He couldn’t make out the words at first.  His ears were ringing from the blow to his head, and he was disoriented.  “.. as soon as I saw you pull up, so you shouldn’t feel too bad.  It’s not like you could have done anything to prevent it.  I did four before you even got here, so one more isn’t much of a thing.”

 

Mark’s vision swam, but he was aware of Roger walking towards him from behind the bar.  He knew that he should be doing something to try to get away, but he couldn’t quite understand why.  He rolled halfway over and tried to prop himself up with his ruined left hand.  That cleared his mind in a hurry, and he screamed, feeling the shattered bones grind and shift under the weight.  He dropped back to the floor, crying out, as Roger continued towards him.

 

“The rest were already here when I came along.  God told me that they would be, and that I should stop by and say hello.  Nothing too special, but I gotta do what I gotta do.  Made it as quick as I could.  Not really their fault, you know?  Just the wrong place at the wrong time.”

 

He was now just a few feet away from Mark.  He strode casually and easily, like a man enjoying a walk in his garden.  Mark was breathing in fast, shallow whimpers, tears running down his face.

 

“But then you showed up, and I thought, well, one more would be fine.  Just fine.  And, friend, you were my lucky one!”

 

He stood over Mark, bloody hands on his hips and legs in a wide stance.  He grinned down at him, illuminated from behind by the lights, face in partial shadow.

“You’re the proof, after all.  I do what he wants me to, and God throws me a gift!  My mom always taught me to have faith in God.  As soon as I saw that finger of yours I knew I had something special.”

 

Roger stepped over Mark and outside of his field of vision.  He heard him say, “man with a wife and kid shouldn’t be this far from home with a tan line on his ring finger.  I mean, my mom raised me right, but I saw what it did to her, him leaving.  My dad, I mean.  Got me thinking that maybe I could give you a piece of what my old man deserved.  That’s the gift, right there.  That’s how God lets me know that I’m doing the right thing, that I’m making him proud!”

 

Both of his hands were on fire, and his head felt like someone had hit it with a bowling ball.  As enormous as the pain was, it was eclipsed by his fear.  Hyperventilating now, he struggled to prop himself upright, to turn so he could see what Roger was doing behind him.  He was still too dizzy, and succeeded only in a stilted thrashing.

 

“But still, my mom taught me about hospitality, right?  Right!”  He guffawed laughter.  “Least I could do was give you a hot meal before we got down to the real work.  Nothing proper, of course.  After all, you’re not a proper man, and you don’t deserve to eat what a proper man would eat.  But, we had some fresh meat lying around, didn’t we?  Something fit for someone like you.”

 

A moment later, the lights clicked off, leaving him in complete darkness, and he heard the sound of the big man walking back towards him.