Yikes- need to stop letting my blog languish, eh? I’ve been in the midst of finishing commission work, trying (unsuccessfully, but pressing on nonetheless) to quit smoking, put up a new Irreverent Inspirational (check my YouTube channel), and ramping up for work on Book 2 of the archetype Trilogy. Whew.
But, I’ve also started taking some time to write out short stories, and I’d like to share one with you today. This was intended to be sent on to TOR for their consideration and possible inclusion in the short fiction portion of their site, but upon further investigation (read: ruthless self doubt) I decided that it wasn’t something that fell into their usual faire, and would probably be rejected. Still, I think it’s a fun little story, so I’m sharing it here for you. enjoy!
The first thing John noticed was the absence; the great invisible internal hole left behind by something being taken away. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but as he stood in front of the dingy glass door that lead into the diner, he knew that there was something important about what he was not feeling.
For instance, he couldn’t feel any pain, and the last thing he remembered was an overabundance of searing agony. Then? Glass door.
For another thing, he couldn’t hear anything besides the listless breeze, and the last thing he recalled was a cacophony of shouting. Now? Glass door.
Stranger still was his lack of disorientation. Shouldn’t he be a bit more surprised, or even remotely curious, as to how he had come to be standing here on this street facing the door of a nondescript greasy spoon? Somehow, it didn’t seem to matter, and the thoughts concerning puzzling it out slipped out of focus almost as soon as John thought them up. Even as he glanced to his left and right to take in the surroundings, and became aware that this diner was apparently the only structure on this road for miles in either direction, the idea that such a revelation should frighten him wafted away on the wind and into the featureless night. There was nothing of importance beyond the glass door that bore a crooked sign that read:
“MEDIAN EATS – PROUDLY SERVING AFTER.”
John blinked at the sign.
There were no times listed, but John suddenly had the feeling that this was one of those “always open” kind of dives that catered to travelers at all points on the clock. The empty feeling took John again, and seemed to be magnified by the barren night behind, so he pushed on the door and strolled inside. Maybe they had a phone, or at the very least some information to make sense of this tableau. Wasn’t there something that he needed to be doing right now? Well, it could wait until he figured out where he was. Couldn’t it?
The interior was a riot of nostalgia. Chrome-trimmed rounded furniture, checkered tile floor, neon light-framed signs and clock, a tall soda fountain with waiting metal flutes for your choice of floats; it was like walking into a postcard from the hey-day of Americana highway road trips. There was even an honest-to-goodness rockabilly number piping out of a coin-hungry jukebox. Patrons lounged in the window side cavernous booths, and sank into the faux red leather padding. They were all in their Sunday best for seeing the sights, and each cut and line of their attire was circa Eisenhower administration. Behind the long curving bar, complete with soda-shop stools, was a thin man who was also a spot-on reproduction of bygone era servers: the kind with the paper hats who would sling a mean skillet steak right alongside an excited commentary on last night’s boxing match.
Nostalgic cornucopia or not, it wasn’t like the diner was just for show. Like the glass door that lead inside, the place felt like it was used, and in need of a mop-up. Not filthy, but hardly pristine. The patina of a day’s working made the diner feel real and whole, like John had somehow blundered back in time. Yet, like John, it felt… hollow. It felt like a very ornate, expensive, convoluted, and ultimately deceptive façade. John thought that he should be shaken by this, but could not figure out why that was the appropriate response, if there even was such a thing.
The other thing that tipped John off as to the less-than-concrete nature of the diner was the fact that not a single one of the patrons had so much as glanced his way when the hanging door chime announced his arrival, yet the man behind the bar was watching him closely, and patiently. The man seemed to wait for John to take in the scenery, and then responded to some unheard cue by smiling at John and gesturing toward one of the empty stools.
So, John did the only reasonable thing: he forgot what he was initially thinking about, and sat at the bar.
The server nodded as if that was the correct choice, and began wiping down the bar in front of John will a well-worn rag. As he worked, he spoke in a mellow voice John swore he had heard before, but couldn’t place.
“Here’s where you would ask me for a menu,” the thin man said, “and how is it that I know your name is John. Don’t bother with the self once-over. You’re not wearing a nametag.”
John’s mouth fell open, but even the sudden shock passed with preternatural swiftness. It was as though there was something in the air that was determined to convince John that everything about this entire scenario was on the level. It was all right. John should just play along. John closed his mouth, and gave the room another round of scrutiny.
“Mm hmm,” the thin man chuckled. “You get used to that, too. They’re going for as mellow a vibe as they can manage here, so you’ll find that the more extreme emotions just sort of fizzle. Same with curiosity, after a stretch. It’s easier to do business when people aren’t asking so many questions.”
“Well, I guess my curiosity’s still intact,” replied John. “Who’s ‘they’? Who are you? What is all this?”
The thin man tossed the rag over his shoulder, and turned to the shoulder-high opening in the wall behind him that served as the kitchen’s slot to pass food through. He hefted a few plates laden with food up, shifted them onto his arms with the ease of long practice, and carried them out into the dining room. He called out to John as he delivered the meals to the customers.
“Hungry, John? We’ve got a little something for everyone here. It’s kind of our niche.”
The food did smell wonderful, but John found that he wasn’t hungry. In point of fact, he couldn’t remember what that felt like. The thin man finished serving up, and took his place back behind the bar.
“I thought as much,” sighed the thin man. “You’re the third one this week.”
John was becoming agitated in spite of the sedative effect the diner seemed to radiate. “Third what? You haven’t even answered the questions I’ve already asked! Is this some kind of put-on, or am I just having a very lucid- and annoying- dream? Can you not give a straight answer?”
The thin man raised his hands. “Calm down, Sport. It’s very simple, and since you’ve a mind to do so, you can work it out. Let me guess,” the thin man turned to tack a couple of new order slips onto the steel rotunda before turning back to John. “You’re feeling a kind of emptiness that you can’t quite explain? An emptiness that seems to come as much from within you as it does from everything else around you?”
John nodded, and leaned forward. Finally, some clarification.
“Well, that’s life,” the thin man finished.
John groaned and leaned back onto his stool. “I said straight answers, not bullshit platitudes. What’s next? ‘Keep your eye on the ball’?”
“No no,” the thin man pressed. “I mean, what’s missing. That emptiness you’re feeling? That’s life. Or, where life should be.” The thin man spread his hands. “You’re dead, friend.”
John swallowed, and gave the room another perusal. He hadn’t noticed it before, but aside from the song on the jukebox, the friendly sound of the door chime, and the conversation he was having, there was absolutely no sound. The patrons ate, talked, and even laughed all in complete silence. Maybe it was all an elaborate mime show? No. It was probably just an extraordinarily odd dream; a weird bit of slumber theater brought on by something he ate.
“Well, yeah it was something you ate, but you’re not asleep,” offered the thin man in response to John’s thoughts. “And don’t bother freaking out or anything. Even though you’re a wrong order, the overall effect of this place will gentle you down before you can really explore any fear you’re feeling over being dead, or, well, mind-reading.” The thin man tilted his head to the side, and added, as though it were an afterthought, “I’d apologize about it- the mind-reading thing and all- but you’re thinking loud enough to wake the dead. Ha! C’mon, Tiger. Laugh. It’s funny.”
John didn’t feel like laughing. Too many things abruptly clicked into place that gave the server’s declaration a ring of truth.
“So,” John paused, gaining his wits and hoping that nifty calming effect would kick in a bit more quickly, “this is the afterlife?”
The thin man sucked in air over his teeth and shrugged. “Well, yes and no, Champ.”
John growled, and couldn’t keep his hands from balling into fists. The thin man made a shushing motion, and leaned over the bar in a conspiratorial manner.
“Look, kiddo. The afterlife’s got to do with faith, and faith’s a lot like scrambled eggs. We serve those here, by the way. Anyway, everyone knows how scrambled eggs should be done, except that everyone’s wrong if they don’t make them exactly the way you like them. Follow me?”
John shook his head. “I don’t do eggs. I’m vegan.”
“See? You’re a wrong order, so I’m using the wrong metaphor. Wacky, isn’t it?”
John threw up his hands as the thin man laughed. “This is ridiculous. What do you mean ‘wrong order’? What is this place supposed to be if not the afterlife?”
Taking off his apron, the thin man favored John with an amused grin before coming around the bar to sit on a stool next to him. “You’re right, and I’m sorry. It’s just that when a mistake gets made in this job, you can either laugh or cry. I choose to make merry.”
“Death’s forever, pal,” John snarled. “I don’t see the humor.”
“Death’s no more eternal than birth, Sour Patch. It’s an event. You go through it, and it’s done. Now, what comes after is on this side of forever, sure, but don’t get me started. Now, this is the afterlife. It’s just not yours. John Smith, right?”
“See. That right there. Save me from Anglo-Saxon working surnames and their popularity. I take it that my voice sounds familiar to you, right? How about my face?”
John rolled his eyes and looked at the other man. Come to think of it, he did look familiar, but it was in an oddly neutral sort of way; like the man’s features were such that nothing stood out. It was the kind of face that everyone had seen, and known, and could never pick out of a crowd if their lives depended on it. It was a comforting ordinary face to match the comforting ordinary voice.
“My point,” said the thin man. “And the fact that you keep fighting against acceptance here means you’re not supposed to be here. Not yet, anyway. You’re what we call a ‘wrong order’ in this trade. John Smith was ordered up, but the John Smith we got wasn’t quite right. It’s also why you keep feeling like there’s something you have to get to. Something you have to do, like an important date on your day planner, Sparky.”
John nodded, then grinned in spite of himself. “You’re real fond of the nicknames, aren’t you?”
The thin man shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, honestly. What do you see, anyway?” The thin man waved a hand around. “All this, I mean.”
“It’s a diner straight out of the 1950’s. Like, one of those roadside mom and pop places you’d hit before seeing the ‘world’s biggest ball of twine’ exhibits.” John answered.
The thin man looked around, and squinted. “Okay, yeah. I see it now. That explains my weird euphemisms and use of nicknames. The John Smith we were expecting knew this kind of place as a kid, so it’s set up to match his needs.”
John propped his elbows on the bar and put his head in his hands. “Calming vibe or not, this is giving me a headache. I still don’t understand what this place is.”
The thin man patted John on the back, then spun his stool seat around to allow him to lean back against the bar in a cavalier sort of way. “You had the right of it, if not the whole picture. This is a rest stop of sorts. Some come in and see a pub. Some wander in and see a bistro. Others pop in when they shouldn’t, and see someone’s memory of the soda shop they loved as a kid. In any case, they always see a place to relax, talk with friendly faces, and maybe grab a bite to eat or a drink before they get on their way. The only thing that remains the same, other than the basic set up, is the name: Median Eats. Of course, it’s also translated into whatever language or phrasing best suits the intended customer.”
“Proudly Serving After,” intoned John.
The thin man laughed, and spun back around. “Catchy, isn’t it? I’m really proud of that one. It’s a real corker, Pally.”
“If this is a rest stop, where do the people go when they leave?”
The thin man tapped John on the shoulder and pointed at the customers, who still enjoyed their meals in silence. “You can’t hear them, because you’re not supposed to. You’re not hungry for any of the food, because you’re not supposed to be. And I take it you noticed the street-to-nowhere outside that had no other buildings?”
John looked through this windows and nodded.
“You’ve no idea where it is, or where it goes, because you’re not supposed to be here. There’s not even stars in the sky for Pete’s sake. Are you noticing a theme here, mister?” the thin man smiled.
John grimaced. “Yeah, I get it. So those people are just waiting to go on to what comes next?”
“Some, sure,” the thin man nodded. “Some of them are something else. Emphasis on the ‘thing’. Not human, if that makes it clearer.”
“Whatever makes you happy, Slappy.”
John wanted to scream.
The thin man laughed again, and placed a hand on John’s shoulder. “Sorry, Buddy. I’m afraid that no matter how the menu changes here, ‘cryptic’ is always the house special. Absolute knowledge is doled out at kiosks down the road a ways. As far as what they are, I already explained it: we’ve got a little something for everyone here. It’s kind of our niche. I guess that also means the supernatural oddities, doesn’t it?”
John snarled, and slipped off of his stool. He whirled around on the patrons. He wanted to rail at them. He wanted to scream. How was it that he could be dead, and yet even that was messed up? What? Was the Hereafter as much of an inefficient bureaucracy as what the living had to put up with?
“Well, yeah, Buzz,” called the thin man. “But hey, at least we’re not the DMV, right? Now settle yourself and have a seat before they get wise.”
John was about to asked what he meant, when he noticed that some of the patrons were now openly staring at him. Some looked insulted. Others, with eyes that seemed to waver like the blurred lines of a mirage, seemed to look at him with intense hunger. Their attention on him was like a physical caress, and the room seemed to shrink in order to bring John within reach. John decided to exercise the better part of valor and promptly returned to his seat.
The thin man shook his head, and turned John around to face the bar with him. “You do not want to mix it up with those types, buddy-boy. As far as I know, you’re not on their cab schedule, but they will gladly take you on board if you make a scene. The others, well. They won’t react kindly to a tourist being here, either. So head down and button up until I can get this sorted out.”
John nodded, and decided to do everything he could to not do anything else that would attract attention. There was a particularly interesting coffee stain on the countertop. Sure. He’d just make like he was checking that out intently, and then… what was he keeping his head down for, again?
“That’s the ticket, Chief,” the thin man complimented. “Now then. This has been fun, but I’ve got an establishment to run here, so it’s high time we see to you.”
John looked up from his reverie, and couldn’t remember what it was that he was supposed to be doing. All he knew was that he had something he really needed to get on with, and that the thin man was absolutely right. John suddenly felt a lot better about things, overall. “Oh, right. So, what happens to wrong orders around here, anyway?”
The thin man smiled in a wolfish kind of way. “What happens to any wrong order at a diner? It gets sent back.”
Outside, a car honked twice, and John could hear the throaty purr of a powerful old engine.
John stood up, and traded grips with the thin man. “You know,” John smiled, “I never got an answer for who you are.”
“What’s it say on my nametag?”
John glanced down at the man’s chest. There was a cheap plastic badge clipped onto the white cotton shirt he wore.
“It says ‘Donny’.” John replied, obviously skeptical.
The thin man barked a laugh, and nodded. “I suppose that’s fitting. The John Smith we were expecting comes from Irish ancestry. It’s the first Celtic pun I’ve heard of, though. We’ll go with Donny, then. Besides, you’ve got a cab to catch, and my name’s hardly the most important bit here, eh?”
“Donny” walked John to the glass door, and held it open. Outside, an old model New York taxi was idling. John looked at the thin man.
“What’s the most important thing, then? Secret of life? Why are we here?”
Donny gave John a gentle push toward the cab, and grinned. “Good questions, and above my pay grade. No, Sport, the only important thing you need to know is that of this moment, you’ve already opened a tab at Median Eats.” The thin man’s voice dropped in pitch; still warm, yet with an undercurrent of warning. “Make sure you’re ready to pay up when your reservation hits, huh?”
“Tab for what? I didn’t order anything!” John cried.
“No? We serve a bit of everything here, Skipper.” Donny shrugged and began to close the glass door. “From BLT’s to second chances.”
Before John could reply, he found himself inside the cab. The engine revved, and suddenly John was blinded by brilliant light, and his lungs quaked under the force of his vicious coughing fit. He was laying on his back on the thin carpet of the restaurant, and there was a circle of frightened people around him, and a particularly relieved EMT hovering over his chest. Snatched phrases of “choked” and “thought he was dead for sure” threaded throughout the excited jabbering. John could see the restaurant manager wringing his hands, and loudly proclaiming to all gathered that his restaurant apologized profusely for the scene, and would gladly reimburse the diners for their meals in order to keep their patronage.
John laughed weakly, and the pain in his throat was a strange blessing. He didn’t know why, but he felt like he wouldn’t want to eat out again anytime soon. The crowds would leave eventually, and the restaurant would dim its lights to end the working day. John Smith would wander back into the flow of life, such as he could make it. Or, at the very least, such as he could order up with the hope that it was done right.
Elsewhere, at a diner that never bothered to close because business was always good, a man walked in with an appetite, and the thin server at the counter was ready with a smile.
“Welcome to Median Eats,” the thin man said. “It’s about time, Cowboy. How about a menu while you wait?”