Al Bruno III
No one saw that damn bus coming, not at a quarter to ten. The staff of Burger Clown had already begun cleaning up for the night. Mark Kravis looked up from his mop bucket and blinked at the sight, "You gotta be kidding me."
"Get on the broiler!" Ken squawked from behind the counter, his voice filled the empty restaurant "Get on the broiler now!" Ken was the assistant manager and Mark loathed working with him because his only administrative skills were squawking orders and twitching.
Cursing under his breath Mark let his mop clatter to the floor and got on the broiler. This was just perfect, his band had practice tonight...
They filed off the bus and streamed in, tramping all over the freshly cleaned floor. They were all pasty white and wearing their Sunday best, which was odd considering it was a Thursday. The fluorescent lighting made them look like zombies. Mark glanced up at the counter watching as Darla took the first order. He could hear her voice over the hiss and the pop of the grill, she was reciting the official Burger Clown customer greeting but every syllable reeked with loathing. Mark couldn’t understand how she could be so hot and so scary all at once. He talked to her when it was slow but all he’d ever really learned about her was that she had run away from home and dropped out of college. Mark had never really understood what screwed her up more, her parents or her thesis.
Lucy nudged past him on her way to a fresh tray of hamburger buns. Unlike most of the Burger Clown staff she actually liked this job. She was retired and this supplemented her fixed income. The way she took pride in her work irritated the Hell out of Mark.
There was a video screen set against the wall nearest the broiler. When it was working right it would keep a running tally of the number of beef and chicken patties that needed to be made. Watching the line filter down the counter from Darla to Lucy, Mark started to realize that there were no orders flashing on the screen.
"Why aren’t you doing anything? Why are you just standing there?" Ken screeched, "Were not paying you just to stand there!"
Mark willed himself to think only about rent and car payments, not about the number of ways there were to kill a man with a spatula. "No orders yet," He said evenly, "Maybe they’re all here to use the bathroom."
"It must be broken." Ken slapped the amber monitor and twiddled the CONTRAST and TINT controls meaningfully. "Go out there and see what we need to make. That doesn’t mean hit on Darla that means find out what we need to make and get back here."
"Whatever." Mark said skirting around the fry vats and walking up behind Darla. "Hey-" he began.
"Come to visit us, hah?" Lucy winked at him from the shake machine, "Too hot back there or is Ken just getting on your nerves?"
"Yes." Mark answered as he turned back to the girl at the counter.
A bald man in a clip on tie was placing his order; there was s sticker on his shirt that announced his name in bright, child-like block letters. He grinned at Darla while he rambled, "…so we were on our way back and we figure we may as well stop off and top off. Get it? Stop off and top off."
"May I take your order please?" Darla asked.
"That thing through your eyebrow there," he pointed to the elaborate ring, "did that hurt?"
"May I please take your order?" Darla said again.
Oblivious to the wave after wave of raw hostility washing over him he said, "Ill have a vanilla shake."
For some reason that made Darla’s composure crack, a tremor crept into her voice, "One dollar nine cents please."
Ken yelled, "No conversations! Get back here and work! Ill write you up!"
"All right!" Mark shouted back. He heard Darla slam the cash register door closed. The next customer was already poised to place their order. Mark turned to Darla "Listen, the computer is screwed up. What have they ordered so far?"
She grabbed his arm with bruising force, "They’re only ordering vanilla shakes."
She shook his arm and squeezed harder, her nails digging into his flesh, "They are all ordering vanilla shakes. And they all have exact change. All of them."
With that she let go of his arm and turned to her next customer with a kind of sullen resignation. "Welcome to Burger Clown where smiles are our specialty. May I please take your order?"
Mark retreated to the fry vats, trying to get a head count of how many customers were out there. They couldn’t all be vegetarians could they?
There was a sharp pain as Ken grabbed him by the back of the neck, "Don’t just stand around! You’ve got burgers to make!"
"No I don’t. They’re just ordering shakes."
"I’m gonna go get my mop before someone knocks it over." Mark brushed past him.
Ken stared after him, twitching, "What?"
There was no way he could avoid having to mop the floor again. The shake fanatics were already spreading through the restaurant like a virus. Mark moved through them, nodding blankly at their pleasant smiles. They were all grinning and talking and slurping on shakes. Everywhere around him empty conversations droned on and on.
"I can't wait until next year."
"… I still can’t believe he had the nerve to show up. A real black sheep."
His mop and bucket where were he had left them, near the trashcans. He stared down into the gray bubbly water, trying to talk himself out of quitting. He could imagine the expression on Ken's face if he walked out the door.
"This is an out of the way little joint. I’m surprised they do any business at all."
"… better than last year, but still not as good as the old times. It's all so safe now. In the old days the recruits would get really hurt. "
He slowly began wheeling his mop and bucket through the crowd, some of them he noticed were back in line for seconds. Mark glanced up to the counter; Lucy was dutifully manning the shake dispenser, Darla was looking more and more distressed by the second and Ken was just glaring at everything.
"You like this tie? You want it? I’ve got dozens of 'em!"
"…you should see how my little ones are just into everything now. They’re really a handful."
Mark rolled his eyes as he moved to the back of the restaurant. These people, he realized, must be coming back from some kind of family function. A reunion or a wedding or something, it was only a guess but it felt right. Besides they all looked alike, with heads that looked too big and eyes that seemed too small.
"I swear the damn thing is stuck. Maybe there are some tools on the bus."
"Of course the meat tastes different, it’s the chemicals."
A single short hallway led to the Men’s washroom, the Women’s washroom and the utility room. Mark shoved the mop and bucket into the utility room and kicked the door closed. Then he retreated into the men’s room, to the toilet in a handicapped accessible stall, the urinal the sink and the chipped mirror. There used to be a trash can but someone had set that on fire and Ken refused to buy a new one until Mark confessed to doing it.
Once he was safely locked in the stall Mark sat down on the toilet seat and ran his fingers through his hair. His pants stayed on, he didn’t need to relieve himself- he just needed a break. He tried to tell himself that when he was a big time rock star he would look back at all this and laugh. The problem was that he didn’t even believe it any more. He had been in four bands in five years and not a one of them was able to make back their expenses much less turn a profit. It was at moments like this when he wondered if moving back home wasn’t such a bad idea after all. He still had college money waiting for him; his parents had refused to let him have it when they realized he was going to try his hand in show business.
Leaning back against the cool porcelain he propped his feet up on either side of the stall and tried to relax. He had half a mind to take a little catnap; it wouldn’t be the first time.
"This is terrible."
"Let me see."
The bathroom door slammed open, two of the customers shuffled in. One sounded panicky, the other was cool and rational.
"I'm stuck." Mr. Panicky said, he sounded like a kid that had just found out Christmas was canceled.
Mr. Rational’s voice was AM radio smooth, "You're not stuck, I just need an entrenching tool."
Always on the lookout for free entertainment Mark kept his feet propped up and tried to watch them through the slender gap between the bathroom enclosure's door and the wall. He could only see their backs, but it looked like one of them was undoing his shirt.
There was a smashing followed by a chorus of empty clinkings. "Will this do?" Mr. Panicky asked.
Now there were scraping noises, it sounded like someone was sifting through glass "That just might. Open wide."
Through the gap Mark saw the figures move closer; one shifting and fidgeting in place, the other holding something gleaming in his hand. What the fuck is this? Mark thought as he held his breath.
When the moist wet digging sounds started Mark reached for the switchblade he kept in his boot. He always carried a blade with him and considering the neighborhood he lived in he probably should have carried more. The sounds continued.
Occasionally they would be complimented by a rasping noise. Streaks of bile-like fluid began to ooze across the tile floor and a foul, acrid smell filled the air. Mark didn’t know how much more he could take before he’d have to make a run for it.
The sounds stopped, one of the figures shifted away from the other. Mr. Rational whistled, "Wow. You are stuck."
"Damn." A foot stomped, droplets of orange fluid spattered everywhere.
"Now don't you get upset. This won’t have any bearing on your final record."
Mr. Panicky started to sound like Mr. Resignation "I'm just disappointed."
"You have every right to be but don't worry there will be plenty more trips."
A scream cut through the air. That's Darla! Mark felt his stomach turn cold.
"I need to be out there." Mr. Rational sighed, "Just keep working at it, maybe it will give."
"Yeah." Mr. Panicky said. One set of footsteps receded. The door swung to a close and the digging sounds started again. Mark heard more screams and crashing around. The bathroom wall bordered the kitchen and it sounded like everything was coming down in there. He could hear Ken groveling and sniveling, offering to open up the safe.
Part of him wanted to get the fuck out of dodge. Part of him wanted to rush out there and save the day. No matter what he did, he had to get up and get moving. Whoever these people where, they would find him eventually. He flicked the switchblade and, after a moment to gather his courage, charged out of the bathroom stall.
The first thing Mark's eyes found was the bathroom mirror. It was shattered, the smaller pieces lying in the bathroom sink, the man before him held one of the longer shards in his hand. His shirt hung open and loose. The nametag he wore was still visible, it said HI! MY NAME IS BOB. It took several moments for Mark to realize that Bob was slowly and methodically carving grooves into the skin of his chest. The fluid that oozed from those long, symmetrical wounds was orange. Thick tatters of skin lay on the floor or hung from his torso like strips of ruined wallpaper. He regarded Mark with an expression of dull surprise. "I didn’t know you were here," he said, "you were hiding. You were spying.”
Mark tried to act menacing but all he managed was to stammer was "Well what if I was?" He waved the switchblade in shaky circles.
"Oooooo." The thing called Bob grabbed at the knife, leaving the piece of mirror jutting from his chest.
Howling with panic Mark slashed at Bob, cutting his fingertips and palm. More foul smelling muck oozed out. "Back off," he cautioned, "I don't want any trouble."
"I need this," Bob grabbed the knife away and shoved Mark backwards against the wall.
Groaning Mark tried to stand. He didn’t even realize he had been knocked out and now it was so dark he wasn't even sure he was awake. Steadying himself on the sink he fumbled for the light switch.
He flicked it several times before giving up.
How long was I out? He wondered as he made his way to the door. Things squelched and slid underfoot, he winced with every footstep.
All the power in the building was out but at least the streetlights offered a kind of illumination. Mark moved between the booths wondering why it was so quiet.
Don’t wonder. He thought to himself, Just get to your car and get out of here. Move back in with your parents and get a haircut and real job! Just go!
A thin layer of smoke hung in the air and with it a scent he could only equate with meat left too long on the broiler. The exit was just footsteps away.
But so was the bus.
It was still out there in the parking lot. The sickos were just sitting there staring straight ahead. Mark dropped to all fours praying he hadn't been seen.
What the Frig is going on here?
There was always the back exit. All he had to do was make his way out there and run. Oh Lord would he run.
He crawled into the kitchen and found himself staring at a battlezone, the glass of the office door was shattered, the broiler and the fry vats were smoldering, there were buns and condiments everywhere. One of the cash registers was open, the bills and change left untouched. A tiny squeal escaped from Mark's lips as he saw the skeleton curled at the base of the counter. The bones had been picked clean.
Oh God. Oh God.
Chips of glass bit into his palms as he scrambled over debris. He found two more skeletons near the office, lying side by side like lovers. Frozen in place by the sight he wondered which of his co-workers he was staring at. The broiler hissed and popped, the fry vats gurgled. He couldn't stop wondering if they'd been alive when the flaying began.
Whoever did this... He realized, Whoever did this wouldn't have just left me alive out of sheer kindness. Whoever did this must still be waiting.
When he heard footsteps approaching he wasn't surprised, not really. He stood and found Bob standing there, naked to the waist. His chest was skinless now. The pale gray carapace in its place was grooved in circular patterns.
"You saved me for last," Mark was numbed by the sight.
"They saved you for me," Bob explained, "I was too late to join in here. Defective equipment. It happens sometimes. Thank goodness you had a knife."
Bob's chest began to whisper with motion, it dilated.
Mark felt his knees buckling "Aliens. You're aliens."
"I am no more an alien than you are a chimpanzee," Bob laughed as the hole in the center of his torso widened. "We are immigrants. This is the last part of our orientation, our chance to observe you in your natural environment. Your flesh, your thoughts, your nerve endings- they must be understood before we can continue."
"Is this an invasion?"
Bob’s chest was splayed wide, something shifted in the dark aperture; something gleamed and writhed as it laughed. "Invasion?" When it spoke its voice was a coughing gurgle, "There’s no invasion here. This world is occupied territory."
“What are you going to do to me?”
“Sadly all you have to look forward to now is madness and death. But you can choose which you experience first,” a tendril snaked out of the lifeless automaton. At its touch Mark's flesh bubbled and melted away. Dozens more latched onto him, dragging him closer, burning through him, searing him to the bone, “You can have it your way.”