Saturday, October 18, 2014

Uncle Al's Halloween Hoedown Day Eighteen: ANGEL HAIR AND BABY'S BREATH

Angel Hair And Baby’s Breath
by
Al Bruno III


“What are we doing here?” Lorelei asked as she crawled through the second story window. She was nineteen years old. Her hair was dyed fuchsia and she wore mostly black.
“We’re- WUFF- We’re- WUFF-” Jason Magwier leapt up, his fingers just catching on the windowsill then slipping away, “-WUFF-I mean to say...”
The next time he jumped Lorelei grabbed his wrists and pulled him inside, “Talk.”
“I just need some angel hair,” Magwier fell on the hardwood floor. Even though he smiled his eyes were sad. His close-cropped hair was dark. He wore jeans, a battered leather jacket and a t-shirt for the long lost rock band White Brains On Toast.
The house they were in had been recently abandoned, Magwier had a thing for abandoned houses. Lorelei didn’t; when you lived in a world of secrets and magic life was cheap and real estate was at a premium.
Magwier put a finger to his lips and made a shushing sound. Lorelei pulled a long-empty Zippo lighter from her jacket pocket and flicked the tumblewheel. Reddish flame haloed out around them.
“Angel hair...” she quietly scoffed. There were no such things as angels so finding bits of their hair was next to impossible. “Sometimes,” Lorelei hissed, “I can’t believe we’re friends.”
“We’re a lot more than friends,” he said affectionately.
“Well... sometimes I can’t believe that either.”
They made their way up the stairs to the fourth floor. All along the walls were pale rectangles marking where pictures had once been hung. Lorelei wondered what had been there. Paintings? Photographs? One hundred year old framed erotic woodcarvings?
“What are you snickering at?” Magwier asked softly.
“Private joke.”
He raised an eyebrow, the crimson light from her haunted Zippo made him look demonic. What am I doing with this man? Lorelei wondered. I like him but he loves me...

“Oh!” Magwier said suddenly, “Excuse us...”
There was a woman at the end of the hallway; her figure was swollen and ugly, she wore a short, ill-fitting apron of red leather. At first Lorelei thought her face was locked in an idiot gape but then she realized the woman was wearing the mangled head of an inflatable sex doll over her face.
Lorelei asked, “Who are you?”
“Baby’s...” the grotesque figure’s voice was small and frail, “...Breath.”
“We don’t want any trouble,” Lorelei said.
Baby’s Breath cocked her head, “...are you angels?”
Lorelei didn’t answer, she didn’t dare. Theology and lunatics were always a volatile mix.
“There was an angel. His touch was like glass,” the masked woman whispered.
Magwier eye’s brightened with interest, “What do you-”
A tearing sound interrupted them. Something wet and gleaming dropped from between the legs of Baby’s Breath. It hit the floor with a splat and began to mewl. It tried to creep away, dragging itself turtle-like by its wings.
“Oh sweet holy fuck,” Lorelei said.
Baby’s Breath ignored the crawling thing and said, “You want the hair... they always want the hair...”
“Oh no,” Magwier said, “I have plenty of hair. I mean you should see my back. Am I right Lorelei?”
Lorelei didn’t speak, she just watched the grotesque figure drop to her knees looking like an animal getting ready to attack. “Magwier...” she said softly, “I think we should get ready to split up.”

He was incredulous,“You want to talk about our relationship now?”
Baby’s Breath charged at them.
Magwier pushed Lorelei aside and ran for one of the fourth floor’s empty rooms, the figure in red leather hot on his heels.
The impact with the floor momentarily dazed Lorelei. She heard a crash and Jason Magwier making a gurgling sound. Her Zippo was on the floor near her feet. She grabbed it and made a run for the doorway she had seen her lover disappear into.
Baby’s Breath was strangling him. He clawed at the hands around his throat but his eyes were starting to roll back.
Lorelei saw that Baby’s Breath was naked save for her ridiculous mask and red leather apron. Another squealing thing dropped out from between her legs and plopped onto the floor. Lorelei darted forward and flicked her haunted lighter scorching the madwoman’s exposed backside.
She screamed and dropped Magwier. Now it was Lorelei’s turn to run. She made it all the way to the top of the stairs before thick fingers tangled in her hair.
This is it. She thought, I’m going to die and in an appropriately ridiculous manner.
“WAIT!” Magwier shouted in a croaking voice.
Baby’s Breath turned in place, dragging Lorelei with her. The grotesque woman snarled a challenge.
There was an strange glint in Jason Magwier’s eyes. He extended one arm and hooked the other on his hip. Then he began to sing, “I’m a little teapot short and stout. This is my arm and this is my spout...”
Baby’s Breath drew back in confusion, her grip loosened and Lorelei pulled free.
Once she had blundered two steps back Lorelei spun around with and caught the other woman in the chest with a clumsy kick.
Clumsy but effective. Lorelei thought.
Baby’s Breath clawed at empty air as she tipped backwards and went crashing down the four flights of stairs. She hit the bottom landing face first and her stomach split open like a rotten melon. Tiny figures, wet misshapen and half squashed, crawled free.
Jason Magwier put his arm around Lorelei, she leaned her head on his shoulder. “What were those things?”
“Little messiahs,” He said, “come on, lets get that hair and go home. We can stop by the frozen custard stand if you like.”
They turned to leave, then Lorelei paused and punched him in the arm.
“What was that for?” Magwier asked.
When she spoke her voice was full of annoyed disbelief, “I’m a Little Teapot?”

Friday, October 17, 2014

We will be going quiet here for the next three days or so...

...moving day is tomorrow but there will be no Internet service until Monday.

I have a few auto posts set to go but otherwise have a good weekend folks!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Uncle Al's Halloween Hoedown Day Sixteen: A SON'S DUTY

A Son's Duty
by
Al Bruno III


All through the long drive Sidney kept thinking, This is a mistake. He thought it as he parked his car on a side street, he thought it as he made his way up the walk, he thought it as he rang the bell. Every moment of the journey he had felt like a man trapped in a dream, fighting every step but unable to turn away from the jaws of the nightmare.

The sound of footsteps moving through the house made Sidney’s mouth go dry.

Sidney thought, Too late to run now.

The door swung open and his older brother David looked at him with a combination of surprise and relief.

“You’re here.”

Sidney nodded, feeling self conscious in his worn out jeans and flannel shirt. David, as always was neat as a pin.

Was it a touch of reluctance Sidney saw in the way his brother stepped aside to let him in? The inside of the house hadn’t changed but it felt so much smaller.

“Where is he?” Sidney asked.

David nodded, “Upstairs, in his room.”

In his room. Sidney’s parents had slept in separate rooms for as long as he could remember. Whatever love they might have shared had dwindled away by the time he was old enough to notice. He had grown up in a world of icy silences and sudden outbursts. The experience had left him angry and haunted but somehow his brother had learned to survive, developing the skills he had used to become a successful local politician.

“How is he?” Sidney asked as he started up the stairs.

“He’s been asking for you,” was David’s only answer.

Sidney made his way up the steps wondering why. Why would Father want to see him now? Reconciliation wasn’t part of the old man’s repertoire.

The first room at the top of the stairs had belonged to Sidney’s mother. It had been kept locked and empty for years. There had been no funeral when she passed, Father had buried her hastily and without a trace of mourning.

The next room was the one Sidney had shared with his brother for 18 years. The door was open and Sidney had no doubt his brother had been going through old mementos, his pennants, awards and trophies. Sidney wondered if the hollowed out copy of Moby Dick he had stored his pot in was still there. He had left in such a hurry he had left it behind, he wasn’t sure but he might have left a roach behind. Probably not, but it amused Sidney to imagine it had been there for years right under the old man’s nose.

Next was Father’s room, the smell of antiseptic and shit flooded Sidney’s nostrils. He barely recognized the figure on the bed. There was an uncomfortable-looking chair at the bedside, Sidney slowly sat down.

He dreaded his next words but he knew they needed to be said, “Dad? It’s me.”

“Took your time didn’t you?” Father’s eyes snapped open, “I would have thought this was something you wanted to see.”

Sidney kept silent, wondering to himself how his old man’s body could be dying when his eyes were so very alive. He felt himself shrinking under their gaze.

“You think I’m a bastard don’t you?”

“Please don’t be like this,” Sidney said, “not now.”

“Your Momma was lucky. She was dead before she hit the ground.”

“I’m sorry,” Sidney shifted in the chair, not even sure what he was apologizing for.

“I was so proud of you, but you changed on me. You got weak.”

“Maybe...” Sidney looked away, “Maybe you're the one who changed.”

Father laughed just a little at that.

“You used to be my whole world,” Sidney said, “you were my hero but suddenly I wasn’t good enough.”

“Still whining, like an old woman. Like your Momma.”

Suddenly Sidney was on his feet, the chair clattered over. He expected his brother to shout and come running but where ever David might be he was keeping silent. “What do you want from me? Is this why you called me here?”

“Close the door,” Father said, “close the door and come closer.”

He wasn't sure if it was some last vestige of a child's blind obedience or a kind of morbid curiosity but Sidney did as he was told. He leaned in close and realized again how bad his old man smelled.

“I'm dying,” he spoke quietly, “I'm rotting away.”

“I know,” Sidney said, but a lot worse replies had come to mind.

“It hurts. You can't imagine how bad it hurts.”

“The doctors can give you-”

Father shook his head, “The doctors are assholes. They don't care.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” Sidney asked, “What do you want from me?”

“I need you to do...” the old man's hands spidered back behind his head and pulled out one of the pillows, “...what you've always wanted to do.”

When the warm pillow was pressed into his hands Sidney almost dropped it. It wasn't a soft, his father had never been a man for soft anything.

“Do it...”

Was this really what I always wanted? Sidney thought but he already knew the answer. He pressed the pillow down over his old man's face.

Sidney had expected more of a struggle, but Father stayed still until the very end, until some involuntary response set his arms flailing. A ragged yellow fingernail cut Sidney right below the eye.

Is he having second thoughts?

If he was it didn't matter, Sidney was determined to be strong enough for the both of them.
Just this once he was going to make his father proud.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

GoFundMe update

Saturday is the big day! I am still not sure how we are going to get all this stuff from the old place to the new place but I suppose everyone feels that way as they get ready to move. 

How is Ness? She's doing much better, still sore but less so. 

How are our finances? Still a disaster but less so. 

I am still plugging away at the overtime and still getting almost no writing done but that's having a day job for you. 

Thanks again for tagging along on this journey, any support you can give is really appreciated.

Uncle Al's Halloween Hoedown Day Fifteen: GRANNY PANTIES

Granny Panties
By
Al Bruno III 


Shapeless, white, trimmed with lace and roughly the size of his head.

Brett couldn't believe he had forgotten them but there was nothing he could do about it now; the funeral was over and Great Aunt Jill was in the ground. All that was left for him to do now was pack up her two lifetime's worth of clothes and knickknacks for goodwill or eBay, the house was his, finally his.

Still though he felt guilty about the whole underwear thing, near the end Great Aunt Jill had been worried to the point of paranoia about being buried in respectable undergarments. “Please be sure they bury me in my blue church dress and my own underwear. Sometimes the undertakers don't bother and leave you nude under your clothes.” 

She had actually said “Nude under your clothes.” And without a drop of irony. More than once Brett had found himself burying his face to make sure she didn't see him roll his eyes.

Still though, Great Aunt Jill was gone, her blue dress was gone and being dragged to church every Sunday at 8 in the morning was over. Brett decided he needed a little fresh air and walked on to the porch. His porch. It was still crowded with colorful plants and drab decorations; it would all go soon in favor of something a little more bachelor-y. It would all be going, the doilies, the precious moments’ figurines the paintings and statuettes depicting the suffering of Christ. He often wondered why there weren't any pictures of Jesus hanging out with his buds- of course he never wondered it aloud, Great Aunt Jill would have had a conniption.

Once he felt refreshed enough and the smell of mothballs was gone from his nose Brett headed back inside. He thought to himself that his life shouldn't have been this way, that at 24 he should have been out and on his own- and hopefully been knee deep in pussy.

But his parents had thrown him under the bus at 12 years old and all just because he had shoplifted, gotten into a few fights and been caught with marijuana at school that one time. Brett barely escaped juvenile detention or boot camp but for the grace of God and his parents' lawyer. When it had all blown over Mom and Dad had shipped him off to his Great Aunt Jill in Elmira certain that she would be able to 'straighten him out'.

He now in retrospect felt that he should have taken his chances in juvie; after all they would have had to let him go at 18. Great Aunt Jill was under no such restrictions.

It took him a little a little while longer to clear out the last of the clothes, for a woman that only seemed to wear six seven outfits her whole life Great Aunt Jill sure had a lot of clothes stuffed into bureaus, dressers and most of the closets. Once that was done Brett started to break down her bed, he was done sleeping in the attic but there was no way he was sharing a mattress with her, even after the fact.

Soon enough the room would be empty and he could put in a waterbed or a widescreen TV, anything he wanted, he could afford it now. Brett remembered his parents dropping him off here to leave him in the care of a relative he only saw at holidays and funerals. A relative he only remembered because of her bell- like shape and dry kisses. As soon as he’d finished waving goodbye to Mom and Dad his new guardian laid down the house rules - no loud radios, no TV but educational programming, no videogames, lights out was at 10 PM and there was no lock on the bathroom door so if she caught him pleasuring himself he would find himself doing Hail Mary's for an hour.

That was when Brett made the mistake of asking her what a Hail Mary was.

A baker’s dozen of Hail Mary’s later she took him to his new room… it wasn’t much more than a bed a lamp and a chest of drawers in the attic. He could hear the wind whistling through the cracks in the attic windowsill and shivered a little in anticipation. His parents weren’t really going to go through with this were they?

Once Great Aunt Jill’s bed was broken down and waiting out on the curb for the trash man Brett made sure all the closets and drawers had been fully emptied. He found a black and white photograph in the top drawer of the nightstand table. It was of his Great Uncle John, who had apparently died a few years after his marriage. Everyone said it was a tragic accident but Brett now suspected it had all been an elaborate escape attempt gone wrong.

Brett tossed the photo and the bible into the kitchen trash, already making plans for his Monday visit with the estate lawyer. Did he want all the money at once? Or did he want it put in some kind of trust that would invest for him and dole out cash like a paycheck.

A really big paycheck. Brett thought as he decided to make a sandwich and have a beer. That’s right Jill, a beer. 

He tripped over something on his way to the refrigerator, something tangled around the heel of his shoe. It was Great Aunt Jill’s forgotten funeral underwear, Brett laughed to himself he tossed the handful of cloth into the trash and got to work on that sandwich and beer.

And he didn’t use a single coaster or napkin; it made the meal taste even better.

*


From the ages 12 to 24 learned a great many things beyond the basic necessities of survival, like keeping the house neat, his manners perfect and how to sneak down into the basement laundry room at 1 AM so he could masturbate. Brett also learned that his parents weren’t coming back for him, that he’d been written off.

No, not written off… sold off.

Brett had found out that for all her frugal living and unwillingness to upgrade to cable TV Great Aunt Jill was rich, not super rich but rich enough to never need anything- rich enough to have family members coming to her with their hands out morning, noon and night. However since she was stingy Great Aunt Jill stayed rich and got richer.

And as far as Brett could figure it that was why he was stranded in Elmira because his parents were trying to win Great Aunt Jill’s heart and cash by giving here the one thing she never had.

A son of her own to take care of, and dote on and emasculate

It didn’t matter how many times he begged to come home. It didn’t matter that at every family gathering he felt himself drifting further and further from the emotional orbit of his parents and siblings until they started to treat him with the same kind of cool affection they’d reserve for a third cousin.

Or a Great Aunt.

*


Now that she was gone relatives were less reluctant to visit Great Aunt Jill’s house and they were all amazed and alarmed at how much the place had changed in the three months since her death. 1940’s era wallpaper and linoleum? Gone. Religious iconography? Gone. Threadbare non-leather furniture? Gone. Cool bachelor lifestyle?

Well he was working on that.

Of course when his relatives did come to call, the conversations always ended up reaching the subject of Great Aunt Jill’s fortune. How much did she leave? What was he going to do with it? Could they borrow five hundred dollars to get their car out of the impound lot?

Brett quickly discovered that the only thing better than having relatives beg you for money was saying no- especially his parents. He wondered sometimes what left them more stunned, that Great Aunt Jill had managed to live for as long as she had or that boy they had given to her had somehow managed to wheedle his way into the entire inheritance.

*



“Do you want to come up for a while?” she asked.

The question sent Brett’s pulse rate soaring, her name was Melanie and she was an assistant librarian. Which Brett assumed meant that she hadn’t quite mastered the Dewey Decimal system yet. Although personally he didn’t care if she had a job gelding horses because she was cute, easy to talk to and interested in him.

It was only their first date but somewhere between dinner and the show they’d gone from hand holding to kissing. He hadn’t planned to take things too quickly but Melanie had plans of her own. Once they were alone in her apartment they wasted no time in finding their way to her bedroom. Shoes off, their bodies rubbed together, they panted nonsense words to each other between the kisses.

Melanie wasn’t his first, but this was the first time when he had been alone with a woman and it hadn’t felt furtive or clumsy. Brett peeled her clothes away, slowly, savoring every moment of it. Her blouse and bra landed on the floor, he nuzzled the nape of her neck his hands exploring.

This girl was something, really something but he couldn’t quite imagine himself spending the rest of his life with her. But what as that old saying? That every girl was practice until the right girl came along?

Well as far as Brett was concerned he was going to practice the shit out of this girl.

Once he had exhausted himself with the possibilities of her exposed breasts Brett reached down and undid the zipper of Melanie’s skirt. By the time he had it off her she was cooing his name. Brett felt his body begin to tremble with anticipation, this was it. He hooked his fingers in the waistband of her panties; they were exactly the kind of panties he would have expected to see an assistant librarian wearing- shapeless, white, trimmed with lace.

That thought was like a splash of cold water in all the wrong places. He looked back up the length of her hoping it was a trick of the light but no.

She was wearing panties just like Great Aunt Jill’s, a thick asexual square of fabric that covered her from crotch to navel.

“What’s wrong?” Melanie asked.

“I don’t feel so…” He dressed clumsily, jamming his feet back into his shoes and throwing on his jacket, “…I’ll call you.”

“What’s wrong?” she called after him but he was already halfway down the stairs.

What’s the matter with me? Brett thought as he sped home, You blew it, and over what? Some underwear that she was going to let you take off her anyway? 

But it was more than that, seeing that underwear had made him suddenly conscious of the woman again, of all the restrictions, stress and head games. He had spent the last six years of his life taking care of her and waiting for her to die. There was no way he was going to let Great Aunt Jill go to a nursing home so her estate could be nickel and dimned away to nothing so he had played nursemaid- but playing nursemaid had left him with images of the woman’s anatomy floating in his subconscious.

The sight of those panties had brought one too many clumsy bedpan cleanups to mind.

All Brett wanted now was to get home and get blind stinking drunk- he would have gone to a strip club but the closest one he knew of was in Utica. Police lights flared to life behind him. Oh what the Hell is this? Just because I have a red sports car and I’m going… He checked the speedometer …40 miles an hour above the speed limit. 

“Shit.” Brett pulled over to the side of the road and tried to remind himself that he had a clean record. This was nothing. He would look back at all this someday and laugh.

The officer asked, “Sir do you know how fast you were going back there?”

Brett shrugged, “Pretty fast? Sorry?”

“Could I get your license and registration please?”

The license was in his wallet, the registration was in his glove compartment buried under the old Burger Clown paper napkins, owners manual and CDs. He pawed through them, tossing Night Ranger and Limp Bizkit’s greatest hits onto the seat beside him.

The napkins were all stuck together somehow and they all came out at once when he pulled at them. They were so old that they had become smooth to the touch and shapeless…

…and white.

…and trimmed with lace.

Brett screamed.

*



It took one ticket, field sobriety test and car search before the police let him go home. He wasn’t sure how the panties had gotten there but Brett figured he must have pulled them off Melanie when he ran from her place.

The gentlemanly thing would have been to keep them to return to her but Brett couldn’t bear to have the things near him. He tossed them out the window of his car as he made his way home at a safe and reasonable speed.

*



A month later Brett was a jittery and teary eyed every moment of the day. His newly swinging bachelor pad was had become a slovenly ruin… even by the low standards set by bachelor pads.

Wherever he went he found them. He found them when he was folding laundry, when he was reaching for something to towel off with and even that one time when he was in the psychiatrist’s office they had fallen out of a magazine along with all those subscription cards!

Great Aunt Jill’s panties hounded him at every turn.

No. He thought, No just her panties… it’s her, she’s haunting me. 

And Brett thought he knew why.

“Please be sure they bury me in my blue church dress and my own underwear. Sometimes the undertakers don't bother and leave you nude under your clothes.” 

So she wanted her damn granny panties did she? Well he would see to it she got the damn things. Brett was sure he had everything he needed; flashlight, shovel and a crowbar.

He would have preferred not to go on such a dark and stormy night but he’d caught the panties lounging insolently on the dish rack and knew it was now or never.

It was a little after 1 AM when he reached the cemetery, a half an hour later he found an out of the way spot that he could use to sneak in. The cold rain soaked him to the skin, the thunder and lightning disoriented but he found Great Aunt Jill tombstone soon enough.

The storm had left the ground soft for digging but it was still a long backbreaking process. Every time he thought he was making progress one side of the grave would fall in and he would have to start again.

When the coffin was uncovered he took a moment to rest, the parts of his body that weren’t clammy and cold were sore and aching. He wondered to himself if it would be enough to just leave the granny panties in the coffin with her or if Great Aunt Jill really expected him to slip them on her.

Well I’m here. I may as well go all the way. He grabbed the crowbar and started to pry open the coffin lid. He cursed himself for getting such an expensive casket but eventually his persistence was rewarded with the sound of wood cracking. Brett opened the coffin.

The stench was worse than he could ever imagine both rancid and stale, bile filled his mouth, his eyes water. He forced himself to finish the job, there was no turning back now.

He reached into his jacket pocket but the panties weren’t there.

He tried the other. Still nothing.

“No.” Brett said as he checked each pocket a second and third time, “Oh no no no no…”

They were gone.

Did they… escape? 

Scrambling out of the grave Brett looked all around the open Great Aunt Jill’s final resting place for the scrap of cloth.

Nothing. Nothing at all. He thought, Are they back at the car? Did I leave them home? What am I going to do? 

Then Brett realized and he started tearing at himself, the crack of thunder swallowing his choking cries.

*



The next morning the cemetery caretaker ran into his office and dialed 911, “I need the police down at Morningside Cemetery. Someone dug up one of the graves and there’s this young man lying dead just a few feet away. Yes he’s dead. I know a dead man when I see one but you wouldn’t believe what he’s wearing…”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Still getting ready for the big surprise move from Hell...

...but I am working on getting new material ready for you.

Just ever so sloooooowly!



Thanks for sticking with me!

Uncle Al's Halloween Hoedown Day Fourteen: FOOD, FOLKS AND FUN

IN THIS TWILIGHT
Food, Folks and Fun
By
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."

"What?"

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."

"Oh."

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."

"What?"

"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.”