I sat slowly circling the teaspoon around my black coffee, creating swirls of bubbles so perfect their combination had never occurred in existence, would never occur again, yet were the production of something so utterly banal no-one would ever appreciate their complexity. This cup was a perfect microcosm of my surroundings, a motorway diner that was somewhere, but nowhere. A place where people passed through, but never visited. Lives’ imprinted here for a moment, yet like a name written in breath on a window, would never leave a mark on their surroundings.
The Diner was like an old, yellow dog-eared photo of itself. Dirty blinds covered the windows slicing the light from passing cars into searching shafts that crawled across the walls. The tables were shrink-wrapped in scarred wipe-clean plastic that would require far more than a wipe to clean and the floor was a disfigured chessboard of black and white parquet grimacing at me with cement cavities. This faded facsimile of Americana was supported by the reproduction 60’s Jukebox leaning lazily on the far wall, although Enya’s “Caribbean Blue” drifting from the speakers shattered the illusion somewhat.
It was a dump, but being the only diner in a 40 mile radius meant that it was busy. Every permutation of every possible decision meant people’s lives would criss-cross here like tracks in the snow, their impact only felt until the snow melted. Toilet breaks, rest stops, breakdowns, refuelling and a million other contrivances of consequence drew strangers here, whatever the motive; I doubted the promise of quality food was one of them. A hunch of smoke clung jealously to the ceiling outside the kitchen door where a steady stream of plates were shuttled to the tables, the taste of greasy air kept toying with the back of my throat. To me it made no odds, I didn’t really care; I wasn’t here to eat their food.
It was about 9.30pm, I had been sat here in a booth alone long enough that my coffee had become cold, and long enough that my waitress had noticed. Deep red lipstick, violet eye-shadow, red horn rimmed glasses and squeezed into a uniform that shouted walking cliché. Though she was a large lady she had made a better job of shrink wrapping herself than they had done the tables. The seams of her dress strained as she strode towards me with an air of practised authority. Her red frizzy hair gently bounced as she approached thrusting out her large breasts which bounced in unison, albeit not so gently. She looked like something from a “Far Side” cartoon, I allowed myself a wry smile and it must have come off as insincere.
“Something wrong with the coffee there darling?” Her lazy drawl making it more an accusation than a question.
“No, Sorry… I was miles away”
“You want a refill? This is our busiest time and I can’t have you taking up a booth without paying for anything” She said thudding her coffee pot down beside my cup, she smelt of lipstick and chip-fat.
I looked past her breasts and into her eyes, she was looking for confrontation so I merely smiled and nodded in acquiescence. Tutting she poured me another cup. Her fat fingers bursting out from under her rings, of which she had many, her hands reminding me of balloon animals. I noticed no wedding ring though, and through her confidence around men she must have been married, divorced now or widowed then… complexity hidden by triviality, like the coffee she poured.
She caught me starring at her fingers and questioning my probing eyes turned fast and made her way back towards the kitchen. I watched her for a moment, angry with myself that I had given her reason to remember me. Almost in sympathy of my concern she recognized someone entering the Diner and squealing with delight gave this rather fat man a warm embrace. He returned the gesture squeezing both her and the mild annoyance from my mind.
The Diner had filled by now and the atmosphere was thick with conversation. Hushed speech hung in the air like smoke, anonymous talk that was familiar but at the same time foreign. I liked it here; I was ambiguous like the words. The chatter intertwined like vines, meaning being lost in the noise, a phrase or two recognisable but the overall effect was like static. One of the purest truths is that you can never feel more alone than when in a large crowd of strangers, this made me feel invisible and was something I thrived on.
Spending much of my time in places like these you understand how people enjoy being around other people, whilst simultaneously being alone. No eye-contact made and conversation rarely struck up, sharing time with others privately. Tonight was different, in the corner there was a group of three, two men and a girl. Both men must’ve been late twenties, their denims, aged sneakers and dirty hooded jumpers made them look immediately out of place with the usual trucker clientele. I assumed the girl was the girlfriend of one… possibly both. Her hair was dark, greasy and pinned back in a ponytail, she looked tired and kept pulling the sleeves of her jumper over her hands like a nervous tick. Both men were sat opposite each other having an intent discussion. They were perched on their elbows arguing about something or other, as they talked their eyes wandered through the faces of the diner. They were surveying the customers, gauging everyone, in particular sizing up the men… I knew this, because this is what I did.
The bigger of the two had a shaven head with a dusting of stubble that gleamed with sweat. His pronounced jaw and low brow made him look slow, but his intelligence was betrayed by his eyes. They moved fast through the patchwork of faces, analysing the men, surmising who would be the greatest threat and who needed to be controlled. He met my gaze and immediately his eyes danced from mine with a jolt of disinterest, most likely due to my small frame and pale, sickly complexion. The smaller of the two was agitated and nervous. He hid his head and eyes underneath his hood and was flicking the tip of a fork off his bottom lip, compounding the neuroticism of the girl who snatched at the fork with one of her small hands. Echoing the girl’s anxiety the fork nervously danced from her grip across the tabletop clattering against the wall and landing on the floor. The noise evaporated into the bustle of the evening’s trade but the smaller of the two men froze and glared at the girl. His shoulders hunched and with slow deliberation he reached across to the girls hand and squeezed her knuckles until his went white. The larger man reached across and touched the others forearm, nodding to the oblivious patrons lost in their thoughts and talk, he let go. Her hand whipped back into her sleeve and she wiped at newly emerging tears from her eyes.
I looked down at my coffee, I hadn’t intended to drink the last cup, and I didn’t intend to drink this cup. I found the black liquid more soothing to my mind than body, I loved how the dark circle absorbed all light casting no reflection as I stared at it, almost like it was listening to and contemplating my thoughts. As my coffee gazed back I felt a pang of hunger deep within me rising to the tip of my throat, this helped sharpen my thoughts. It was now at the peak of the evening’s trade I would normally act but the situation had become dangerously unpredictable with the addition of the three strangers. We were at opposite ends of a chess board but only one side knew they were playing, it hardly seemed fair.
The larger of the men reached out and held the girls hands in his, he spoke softly and deliberately to her for a moment and pulling a sports bag from under the table digging through its contents he handed her something wrapped in a dirty towel. She stood and tentatively made her way towards the entrance quietly slipping out the front door, careful not to open it wide enough that the bell perched above the frame rang. She’d no doubt stand outside guarding the entrance and blocking off anyone trying to get out whilst keeping watch. She was hardly intimidating so I assumed she’d have a gun on her, no doubt they all would. As I watched her shadow framed by the moonlight steady behind the thin blind of the entrance I felt the leader’s eyes settle on me. Ignoring his gaze I rubbed my temple feigning a headache, I didn’t want to give him any reason to approach me first.
Feeling his eyes leave me I looked up as he as he began to climb onto the table, some other heads followed in mild amusement as he stood to his full height forcing attention from the bewildered patrons. My waitress propelled herself from behind the counter firing a volley of expletives but the words travelled further than she did freezing mid stride, her jaw hanging slack in recognition of the object now unveiled in his hands. The entire diner was combined in a moment of silent incomprehension before he raised his sawn off shotgun and released a blast of buck into the Styrofoam ceiling tiles. In the small confines of the Diner the noise was absolutely deafening and seconds later the ringing in my ears was replaced by a chorus of terrified screams. A tidal wave of human emotion overcame my senses, a harsh, painful noise that made me close my eyes and grit my teeth… male or female, it’s always hard to tell which is which when someone is truly scared. The shot must have gone through a strip light as the remaining lights joined in with the panic blinking on and off in terror-stricken fear. Dust rained from the demolished ceiling tiles like ashen snow, the malfunctioning bulbs causing a strobe effect giving the scene the look of a stop-motion nightmare.
The lights managed to catch their breath and lit the entire scene in harsh reality just as the leader brought the butt of his gun down on the head of the waitress’s fat friend who had attempted a clumsy run for the kitchen. An exclamation mark of blood sparked from his skull and he collapsed moaning into a crumpled heap on the vinyl tiled floor. There was a sharp pause of bewilderment but then the screams began anew with renewed vigour. The shooter had begun to shout and as his words took hold of the patron’s attention the screams wilted into sobs and silence slowly descended across the diner. A heavy grey veil of violent intent had rolled over the room, a veil so heavy it bowed the heads of everyone forcing their eyes to the floor.
“If you hadn’t already guessed this is a fecking robbery. We’re just here for the till money and yer bloody money. That’s all, we’re not here to hurt anyone, I’m sorry about that poor bastard but I had to show you we weren’t arsing around. We’ve done this before and we’re bloody good at it, so no shaggin hero’s ok! It’s just bloody money and we need it more than you do.”
He was Irish, Dublin I guessed. His relaxed brogue seemed to antagonise the intent of his language but his exaggerated curses caused some to cower even more as if the words themselves were could cause harm.
“Your man here is going to come round with a bag; I want your wallets, phones and car keys. No one talks, just put everything in the fecking bag. Until he comes round keep your eyes on the ground and your hands on the table. You don’t wanna die in this pony hole now do you?”
He let his words hang in the air for a moment, the silence almost as hostile as his words daring someone to retaliate… There was no reply, he had his captive audience.
The smaller of the two pulled his hood back as he approached the first table with an open duffel bag. Seeing him now in the light he was younger than I first guessed although it was hard to tell as his face resembled a crushed ball of paper. Complimenting his visage was a plaster over a recently broken nose, the redness from the injury radiating out across his cheeks forming blue and purple tipped wings under both eye sockets. His hairline seemed to be as repulsed by his face as everyone else and was making a hasty retreat across the top of his skull leaving a few wispy footprints in its wake. He was a user, barbiturates most likely by the sorry state of his skin, like tissue paper caught in the branches of a winter tree. His flesh clung so closely to his bones that he looked like a bloodless ghost. I visibly flinched at the thought and this is when he noticed me.
“You! You Neddy! Get your fecking… Get your wallet out now!” Irish also although the accent was further south, it was difficult to pinpoint as the drugs had seemingly ravaged his brain as well as his body.
“Calm down John, do the tables and I’ll keep an eye on him. You might wanna do what my friend said and get yer wallet out there son, your man there is a little nervous and I’d rather he didn’t make a mess”.
The leader had climbed from the table and taken position by the till holding on to my waitress’s hair who was on her knees by his feet. She was trembling so much her blouse appeared to be vibrating and her meticulous make up had morphed into twin black streams that ran from her eyes into a red bloom around her mouth that was formerly her lipstick.
I held up the palm of my left hand as I put my right into my shirt pocket pulling out $40 in $5 notes and threw it onto the table surface. The notes extravagantly fanned out as they hit the table as if to proudly emphasise their lack of value.
“Is that it? Keys and phone there son, c’mon now, we’re not playing around”. His sentence was punctuated by a soundtrack of sobs as he pulled on the waitress’s hair at each syllable. She pleaded at me through wide, watercolour eyes.
“I don’t have a phone, I don’t have a car”. I spoke to the leader but my eyes stayed with the addict.
“What th…the feck you looking at you stupid ned …” He was cut off by a guffaw from his friend.
“You’re Scottish!? Ha-ha! No wonder you only had 40 bucks on you ya tight bastard ya. I’m afraid I’m going to have address the obvious white elephant in the room here though fella… why would you be at a freeway diner, if you didn’t have a car now?”
“I don’t need a car… I don’t use a mobile”.
“Please son, just give them what they want, we all just want to get through this” A whimpering voice drifted over from somewhere to my right, it could have been any one of them.
“You might want to listen to your man there Jock… we’re in a hurry here you see”.
I held up both my hands in the air and shrugged whilst still holding the addicts stare, I gave him a smile.
“You fffuu…” He pushed the bag onto the floor, picked up his shotgun and came towards me; he seemed so weak that he had to rest one hand underneath the barrel to support its weight. I slowly put my hands face down on the table careful not to break his gaze as he approached me, his exaggerated scowl making his facial bruising look like oil on water. Without the gun he would pose no problem, with the gun… much the same.
“Now John! Calm down now! We said this was going to be clean and quick, will ye just get the bag and we’ll be done”
“What you looking at y…you manky freak” John stood in front of me forcing his chest out with every sinew in his being, he clearly thought I was no threat… I held my smile. He violently thrust the tip of the barrel into my forehead jerking my head back against the seat. My sight blurred for a moment as a cold trickle of blood welled in the corner of my eye from a semi-circular gash on my forehead. As the blood caressed its way down the underside of my chin I gave John an even bigger smile, this time a large, toothy grin.
Through his self-inflicted fog of substance abuse his brain struggled to make sense of what he had seen, but in an instant the mist cleared and he turned in revulsion just as the girl burst through the front door.
“There’s a truck pulling in to the car park, what’s taking so long!?”
“He’s a fff…” That’s all John managed as I quickly rose from the table grabbing his gun arm and yanking it away from his body. His weak frame relented in my grip and using his arm to point his gun at the girl I cradled his jaw and neck in my right hand holding his face level with mine and looking directly at the leader. He levelled his gun at me letting go of the waitress’s hair, she clumsily crawled on her elbows under the nearest table which made a poor job of concealing her considerable rear.
“Ok, now fella, don’t do anything rash here. We were never going to hurt anyone, we were just here for the cash like we said”.
“Just sh..sh..shoot this gobshi..arrrgh” I squeezed his jaw tightly and felt his drool run down the palm of my hand as he started choking on his own tongue.
“Don’t hurt him or I shoot you pal. Two of us, one of you fella. Put him down and leave, take the gun if you like but just go.”
I turned my head looking at the girl, it must have begun to rain outside as her black hair was flattened to her head and the night’s moisture shined across her red cheeks. She was aiming her gun at me but her shoulders were pushed far back betraying the fear in both the weapon in her hands and its intended target. Under the grime and misfortune she was a pretty girl, her green eyes nestled in teary hammocks that broke when she blinked.
“Put the gun down, turn around, walk away and forget about tonight. This is not you, call your family, tell them you’re sorry and go home.” I spoke softly and deliberately, she glanced at the gun in my hand and I lifted the barrel toward the ceiling. She looked over my shoulder at the Irishman who was still pointing his gun at the back of my head, “Jess, don’t you fecking go anywhere, this freak is just trying to scare you, we’re in control. Yer parents don’t need you Jess, but right now I do.” Holding her eyes in mine I shook my head.
She took a step back towards the door and slowly lowered the gun, her shoulders began quivering in time with the tears that were now streaming down her face.
“KEEP YOUR FECKING GUN POINTED AT THIS PRICK JESS!”
“I… I’m sorry Joe, I, I can’t.” She knelt and put the gun on the ground and as she stood again, I gave her a reassuring nod and she quickly slipped out the door into the cool night air.
“No! You can…” I pulled back John’s head straining his neck and putting pressure on his already injured nose, his eyes pleaded and jolted from side to side in fearful discord.
The same cowering voice came again from the corner of the diner, “please let us go sir, we’re just customers here and have no quarrel with either of you. Please let us leave and none of us will call the police”. You could almost taste the subservience, it disgusted me.
“Sit down and shut up”. Eyes now trained on me in a cacophony of confusion, if they thought I was their saviour, they were wrong.
“Ok now Jock, We’ll call this a day, I’ll put the gun down now and follow my girl out. Just let go of my friend there and…”
“Come closer and we’ll talk, just the three of us. Keep the gun pointed at my head if you like”.
Like a chid approaching the end of a diving-board he edged towards me until the barrel of his gun touched the skin of my throat and our three faces were a breaths width apart. John’s eyes darted furiously between us as his hot, panicked breath tried to force my hand away from his face through his nose.
“Go on then…”
I laughed, “Of all the Diners, you choose this one tonight.” A second passed and watching my mouth his pupils dilated fully and I sensed the kinetic motion that would precede him pulling the trigger. I hit him hard in the chest with my right arm and he flew backwards, his thighs hitting the counter sending him somersaulting behind the till. John startled and began to struggle. Pulling his gun hand back and grasping under his jaw I wrenched hard tearing his head from his neck, the only resistance being a slick popping sound. His body slumped to my feet with barely a sound, his sullied blood pooling on the parquet almost relieved to escape its diseased host.
Pandemonium: the 20 or so patrons nervously exploded from their seats searching for any exit they could find. Elbows flying and necks straining they climbed over each other like frightened ants to reach the perceived safety of the dark. One man went straight through one of the main windows, a crescendo of grunts and smashed glass followed him into the light summer rain. More followed in his wake out the window landing on his prostrate form crunching glass into his back as he struggled to catch his breath. The blinds blown by the breeze swung up towards the ceiling almost as if they would do anything to stay away from the night followed by the cool air and swirling rain.
The waitress was on her knees trying to coax her friend from his stupor, he came to and whilst she tried to lift him pain caught up with his consciousness and he wailed out in agonised confusion. Her tears had melted her make-up into the mask of a nightmarish mime and as he focused on her for the first time he cried out again. I dropped both the gun and John’s head stepping over his legs as she recoiled behind his torso. As I walked on she quickly scurried out the open door into the screams of the night leaving her friend mumbling incoherently as I turned my back. I rounded the till and found the Irishman face-down; his left shoulder clearly dislocated, his right arm outstretched to his gun lying just out of his grasp. Squatting down beside him I picked up the gun checking on the fresh shell in the chamber. Attention on the weapon he shook his head from side to side as tears fled from his eyes in absolute terror.
“P…Pl…please don’t hurt me, I’m sorry I won’t ever…”
“Don’t apologise, I admire you; you take what you want, just as God, no… just as nature intended… just as I do”. I grabbed him by the throat and lifted him up against the thin wall looking directly into his eyes.
The injured trucker had regained his senses and was wailing as he slipped drunkenly about on the tar like blood that had streamed from the headless corpse at his feet. Still holding the Irishman’s throat I aimed the shogun at the truckers head and pulled the trigger removing his face in a cloud of red mist. His body collapsed to the floor, limbs twitching and jerking independently of his control oblivious to the fate of their host brain.
The Irishman writhed and strained in revulsion at the scene, he’d obviously never seen what appliance of his threats could do, and it was unlikely he’d appreciate the irony of his present situation.
“Wh… what are you?” An invitation of blood had spilled down his face from a deep gauge above his right eye and I could feel the steady anticipation rise in my body. I fought to hold it back but the excitement rolled up my back across my shoulders and into my arms inadvertently tightening my grip around his throat as if the very thirst were impatient itself.
I leaned in to his ear and whispered the last sentence his brain would ever be able to comprehend;
“There’s always a bigger fish.”
I grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head back exposing his neck, the sinews of his muscle rippled and his skin slightly pulsed from the blood being forced through his veins, his elevated heart rate almost sympathetic to my thirst tempting me from within. He closed his eyes tightly as if hiding his mind would blind the pain… they all did. My chest swelled as I left the thirst take over and bit into his throat and tearing away the skin, muscle and cartilage. Like a rose waking in the dawn light his neck opened invitingly for me, blood pulsing from the wound. I put my lips to his throat and drank greedily. With each gulp I felt a warm wave washing through me, filling me with life as the Irishman’s slowly faded. As the flow stemmed I squeezed his abdomen hard and the stream gained in strength once more finally dying. I pulled my mouth away arched my back and screamed out into the air of the almost empty diner. The thirst now satisfied, relinquished control over my senses and I looked at my prey as the last of his life left him. The fear was gone from his eyes although there was no peace – a purely human invention to give meaning to the emptiness of death, his brain simply had stopped forming discernible emotion as his synapses slowly misfired. I released him into oblivion with a quick turn of his head and lay his body gently on the floor.
As I walked into the cold night air I looked towards the sky letting the rain wash the fast congealing blood from my mouth and neck. The clouds gently glowed as the rain fell in infinite, exquisite patterns onto my face. I smiled and closed my eyes enjoying the moment, the invigoration of my meal mixing with the God-like feeling of power that only the hunt can give. As the rain intensified into hard unforgiving sheets I looked across the parking lot and the remains of the patrons who had left the diner in such haste moments earlier. Heads, arms… viscera, a result of the feeding frenzy. The teeming rain mixed with the steam rising from the still warm blood painted like a carpet across the lot. The younger ones had no control, their hunger was driven by pure, ancient instinct… this is why I kept them outside, in the shadows until the time was right.