It’s time for Weird Fiction Monday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers! As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough.
I finished this story just this evening, having started it back in May of 2011.
The story I am telling happened about three years ago. There isn’t any particular reason to tell it now, other than the hope that, by finally writing it down, I might remember some crucial detail, some neglected observation, which would finally make sense of things. If I could find some sort of explanation for the events, maybe I could stop thinking about them after all this time.
Fifteen years ago, right after my mother died, my father started The Isle of Crete diner. It was a way for both of us to change, and to keep us too busy to think about our loss. He rented a property downtown – not a nice neighborhood, but cheap and busy with businesspeople during the work week. I was too young to work the register then, having just turned ten, but I would bring people’s food to their tables and refill their water glasses, and apply all my girlish charm to keep them entertained and coming back for another visit. Customers order and pay at the register, take a seat, and everything is brought to them. The food is a standard collection of Greek dishes, along with some nontraditional recipes originally concocted by my mother.
Five years ago my father passed away unexpectedly. It was a heart attack brought about by a congenital defect, they said, but I would say that his heart was stronger than anyone’s I know, at least in spirit.
His death left the restaurant without a manager. There were other cooks and other servers, but I was the inheritor of the business, and by that time I had done every role – cook, server, cashier, cleaner. I had been planning to get a late start in college before my father died, but put it off to keep things running. My father started the business to forget about mother’s death, and I continued it to forget about his. I took over The Isle of Crete and never looked back.
I can’t remember for certain now, but I think the man – the regular – started eating at the restaurant only a few weeks after I became manager. Every restaurant has regular customers, and The Isle of Crete had plenty before this one. At first glance, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly different about him. He was of average height, average build; he was the sort of man you wouldn’t glance at twice if you passed him on the street. I can’t really remember what clothes he wore, even though I saw him many, many times. The only unusual feature I noticed was a faint, elongated scar that ran vertically from just above his right eye to the point where his hair was receding.
He came in the evening, shortly before closing. As I said, the neighborhood is not a great one, and though I hadn’t had a problem up to that point I didn’t want to press my luck: I usually shut down by eight o’clock. Not many people came for the dinner hour, and I was the only person in the Isle when he arrived.
He had a book with him, as he would most visits. I didn’t see what he was reading on that first dinner.
He came to the counter and ordered the Greek steak, one of my mother’s old recipes, which was more or less just a seasoned sirloin steak, and not particularly Greek at all. I brought the steak and the silverware to his table, near the front of the diner, and went to clean up the kitchen in preparation for closing.
“Excuse me,” he called me back, and I turned. “Do you have a bigger knife?”
He was sitting at the table, holding his steak knife up delicately in his right hand.
“I prefer to cut my steak with a blade with a little more heft,” he said sheepishly.
You should understand that, though our steaks are not exactly the most tender meat, they’re also not very thick. Our table knives aren’t particularly sharp, but they get the job done. The customer’s request was strange, but anyone who runs a restaurant gets strange requests. I went into the back and picked out a larger knife from one of our older sets of cutlery. The man accepted it without complaint, but as I turned to walk away he called me back again.
“Do you have just a little bigger knife?” he asked, even more sheepish. He was holding the new knife between finger and thumb blade down, like something contaminated. I took it from him and went back into the kitchen.
I have to admit I was somewhat worried at that point. I tried not to think about it, though, and grabbed a heavy solid metal butcher knife that had been around since my Dad started the restaurant; I don’t think it had ever been used. I quickly cleaned it off and brought it out to the man, who took it approvingly.
“Yes, that will do,” he said, tapping his index finger lightly on the tip of the blade. I hurried back to the kitchen and continued cleaning up, watching him with one eye the whole time. Nothing else unusual happened, though. He opened his book on the table and read while he carved into his steak with relish.
Though I had my worries, nothing else happened. He finished his meal, collected his book and left without another word. With some relief I hurried over and locked the door behind him, and switched off the “open” sign.
He became a regular; in fact, he became “the regular”. That is how I thought of him, if I happened to think of him much at all. He came in twice a week, almost without fail, usually once during the week and once on the weekend. He always came in during the last half-hour of business. He always ordered the same thing. He always asked for the heavy knife.
Things went on like that for nearly two years. At first, I was a little guarded around him, always watchful, but eventually I just stopped paying attention. I had my routine, and he had his. He would hunker down behind the pages of a thick book while waiting for his food, and for some time after eating. I only once managed to see what he was reading: it was some sort of aging anatomy textbook, with yellowing pages and color illustrations of blood-red musculature.
I assumed he was a doctor. Now I’m sure he wasn’t.
One evening, just before closing as always, he arrived in a particularly chipper mood. He had a spring in his step and a particularly heavy and thick book under his arm.
Noting his mood, I asked how he was doing.
“Grrreat,” he said with a smile, slapping his book down on the counter. I smiled back, awkwardly, and took his order as usual. When I brought him his food and knife, he already had the book propped open like a screen and had his head buried in it, completely hidden.
I went back to the kitchen and began cleaning up for closing. I was startled to hear the bell on the door ring again, and almost jumped at the sound of it.
Two men had come in, one tall and one short. They were not businessmen, or any of the local crowd, and were dressed for the street. My heart sank instinctively at the sight of them; they did not look hungry in the least. They both advanced directly towards the counter, the short one in the lead. He was wearing a backwards baseball cap that he didn’t bother to take off. The tall one lingered, glancing back towards the regular, whose face was still buried in his book.
“Can I help you?” I began, and then the short man had pulled a revolver from his jacket and pointed it at me. The shiny silver metal reflected the ceiling lights and nearly blinded me; nevertheless, I could see down the darkness of the short barrel.
“The register, empty it!” the short man yelled at me, waving the gun dangerously in my face. My hands had gone up instinctively, and now I struggled to get them down to the register.
“Now, bitch, now!” short man shouted, so close to my face that I could smell his breath. He glanced back towards his accomplice the tall man, who had turned to the regular. He pointed a gun at my customer, who still had not lifted his head out from beyond his massive book.
“Get your hands up, motherfucker!” the tall man said, reaching out his free hand and slamming the book down, exposing the regular’s face.
This is where I can’t be sure of exactly what I saw, or how it happened.
The tall man took a look at the regular, really looked him in the eyes, and seemed to falter. His gun hand lowered noticeably. In that moment of hesitation, the regular had leapt to his feet, bringing the butcher knife up and into the tall man’s stomach. In an instant, he had disemboweled the man.
Tall man’s gun fired harmlessly into the air, the bullet blasting a hole in the floor. Tall man himself sagged to the floor, making a gurgling noise as he went.
Short man whirled at the sound of the shot, his gun trailing the path of his eyes. It settled on the head of the regular, and he pulled the trigger. At the same time, the regular snapped his head back and to the right, drawing his knife arm back to accentuate the movement. The bullet from tall man’s gun grazed the regular’s forehead, and where the regular formerly had a pale vertical scar he now had a bloody gash.
The regular brought his knife arm forward again, and hurled the knife with terrible force. It struck the wrist of the short man’s gun hand, slamming it back against the wall behind him and pinning it there. The gun fired once again, into the ceiling, and then it had clattered harmlessly onto the floor.
The short man was cursing, clutching at the knife embedded through his wrist into the wall. The regular picked up his napkin, dabbed his bleeding forehead once, absentmindedly, and then walked over to the trapped robber.
Only when the regular was right in front of him did the short man notice him again.
“You,” he said in a hollow voice.
The regular gripped the knife handle, pulled it roughly from the wall. The short man fell to the ground with a squeal. The regular grabbed the man’s wounded hand, turned, and began to drag him towards the door.
The short man didn’t struggle. His eyes were open, looking in my direction, but out of focus. I have never seen such a look of utter hopelessness, even soullessness, on a person’s face before; it haunts me to this day.
When the regular reached the table at which he had been eating, he put down the knife, and picked up his book. He continued to the door, dragging the short man behind him. Just as he was putting his hand on the door handle, he turned back towards me.
“Thanks for the food,” he said, smiling; there was no emotion at all in his expression.
And then they passed outside.
The front of the restaurant is mostly windows, including the glass door. However, the lights inside the Isle are brighter than the faint streetlights outside, so things outside become indistinct dark ghosts. I could still see what I thought was the regular, standing over the short man. He seemed to bend over towards the prostrate figure, impossibly bending at the waist without leaning backwards, and his form seemed in the shadows to stretch and bloat, engulfing the outline of the short man. Then my eyes lost the outlines of the two figures, and everything outside looked like a dismal dream.
I stood there, behind the restaurant counter, just as I had been when the short man had pulled his gun, for some time. It was only when I heard the final rattling breath of the tall man crumpled on the floor that I moved to call the police.
I was interrogated intensely when they arrived at the restaurant. Outside, there was no sign of the regular or the short man, but inside I had the corpse of the tall man lying in a pool of blood and his own entrails. Detectives asked me repeatedly about the details of the evening, and had many questions about the regular. It was only then that I realized that I had never even learned the man’s first name in the two years he had eaten at the Isle.
The investigators were particularly skeptical about the regular’s knife throw. They told me, again and again, that it wasn’t possible for a person to throw a knife of that type with enough force to go through a man’s hand and the heavy wall behind it. But the hole was there, on the wall, with a ring of blood around it, and they couldn’t argue with that.
At some point, a uniformed officer came in to give the detective some news. I wasn’t supposed to be able to hear it, but I figured out that the ATM across the street had surveillance camera footage that encompassed the front of the Isle. I was left under supervision while the detectives went to watch the footage.
When they returned, they looked sick. With more intensity, they asked me again about the regular, about the short man, about everything that had happened that evening and every evening that the regular had come into my restaurant. I had nothing new to tell them, so eventually I was taken home.
That is more or less the end of the story. The incident was written up in the newspaper two days later as a “robbery gone wrong”, in which “the robbers had argued, leaving one dead”. The news tried to reach me for a statement, but I stayed home and didn’t answer the phone. Eventually the calls stopped. I got the Isle of Crete cleaned up, and repainted, and reopened two weeks later.
I haven’t seen or heard anything of the regular, or the short man, again. I happened to run into one of the detectives who covered the case a few months later, but he had no new information to report; in fact, he looked haunted when he remembered who I was.
The more I think of that day, the less sense it makes to me. I was hoping that writing it down would help, but it hasn’t. I can still see the regular admiring the shining butcher knife for the first time, the short man waving the shining gun barrel before my eyes, and the empty grin the regular gave me when he departed.
I don’t go out much, anymore. I can’t help feeling that, at some restaurant or grocery store or park or movie theater, there’s someone who is there.
Waiting for me.
My personal theory about writing truly unsettling horror fiction is that it involves giving a story to the reader that seems like it should have an explanation, but which fails to give enough information to conclusively solve the puzzle. The reader is left struggling to understand the clues that have been given, to fit the tale into their worldview. Just like in real life, however, some questions simply don’t have answers. This story is my experiment in building this sort of mystery.
The story is actually inspired by a Greek restaurant that I’m a regular at, and the worker who is usually there when I go in. I’m usually there by myself, reading a book on some esoteric subject. I started to wonder what the worker makes of my peculiar demeanor when I stop by; that led to the story you’ve just read.