The restaurant over by the interstate is one of those kitschy, family joints with a bunch of crap tacked to the walls. Move posters vie for space alongside antique garden tools and signed headshots of celebrities who have never even heard of the place. Under the watchful glass eye of a fake buffalo head, Eben sits by the window, thumbing through a menu with great intent. A large black duffel bag sits propped up in the seat next to him.
“What can I get for you?”
Eben looks up to see a skinny young waiter in an apron hovering near him, notepad and pencil in hand.
“Not quite sure” Eben says, returning to the menu. “How are your salads?”
“Oh, they’re great.” A pause. Honky-Tonk music warbles from the overhead speakers. Seeing Eben‘s hesitation, the waiter asks “Do you want some more time?”
“You know what? Give me the -… No, I shouldn’t.”
“Well, it’s about your steak. See, the last time I ordered it here I woke up sick the next morning. Normally, such things would keep me from coming back to a place. But since I like your fries, I returned about a week later and decided to give it another go. I ordered a burger – well done – and went home feeling fine. Next day? Sick again. Mild food poisoning. Naturally, I assumed your meat was funky or something, so I steered clear of here for awhile…”
“Do you… want to see a manager?” the waiter asks, fidgeting.
Eben waves his hand dismissively. “No no no. You misunderstand me. A few days later, I went to one of the other grills down the block and ordered their prime rib. I spent the rest of the evening and most of the night confined to the bathroom. So I decided to try a little experiment. I went to the grocery store and picked up a small sirloin, came home, and slapped it on the grill. This thing looked like a charcoal briquette when I was done. I only ate half of it to be safe and yet, like clockwork, I’m sick again for another day after. Finally, I go to the doctor to see what‘s wrong. I give him the story I’ve told you and ask what the deal is. He tells me that, basically, I’m allergic to meat. Meat. I didn’t even think that could happen, you know? How can someone be allergic to meat? You ever hear of that?”
“Uh, no can’t say I have.”
“It’s crazy. So, in short, I think I’ll have a salad.”
“No problem” the waiter says, chuckling. “What dressing do you want?”
“Ranch, if you have it”
“Any cheese on that?”
“Uh, what do you have?”
The waiter ticks them off on his fingers. “Parmesan, Cheddar, Provolone, Feta…”
“Provolone is fine.”
“You want croutons?”
“Boy, you’re just full of questions, aren’t you?” Eben says as he puts down the menu and begins to rummage through the bag at his side.
The waiter just laughs.
“Let me ask you a question” Eben says as he pulls out the Sack of Binding and sets it on the table. Despite the glaring afternoon sun, the temperature in the room drops ever so slightly.
Eben points to the sack, says: “What is this?”
“Um… a bag?”
Eben blinks. Undeterred, he tries another angle.
“Well… okay. Not quite. What else might you call a bag?”
“What’s another word for ‘bag’?”
The waiter just stares, confused.
“Look, never mind” Eben stuffs the item back in his duffel, muttering to himself. Stupid. Nobody says “sack” anymore.
“So… did you want croutons?”
Eben retrieves a small ornate wooden box covered in strange runes and sets it on the table. The lights inside dim a little. In the corners and other places you don’t normally look, the shadows deepen slightly. A faint whispering can be heard.
“What is this?” he asks again.
“Get in it.”
Eben opens the lid.
A choir of screams accompanies a great rush of wind. The lights flicker briefly.
A moment passes.
Ambient diner noise and muted conversation continue unabated. The Honky-tonk shifts into Bluegrass. In this way, the disturbance goes unnoticed. These things happen.
Eben returns the box (now humming slightly) to the duffel bag. He picks up the menu again. The waiter is gone.
After a while, a young hostess approaches.
“Sir? Have you been helped yet?” she asks.
“Actually, my server seems to have disappeared,” he says, handing her the menu. “Could I just have an iced tea? I‘m waiting for someone.” Another lie.
She leaves. Eben turns to stare out the window. He is thinking. Of what, we are better off not knowing.
We all wear masks. Eben just takes it one step further and dons the whole outfit. The one he’s in at the moment is a personal favorite, taken after the fall of Ctesiphon in the second century. Olive skin, dark eyes, and wavy black hair - a former smith’s apprentice. A little lanky and not all that muscular, sure, but as Eben would tell you, it’s not the size of your muscles that counts, it’s the fact that you’re inhabited by a malevolent entity older than the very notion of linear time.
That this entity now contents itself with collecting the refuse of a spiritually-bereft species at the end of its evolutionary chain is a source of minor shame for him.
Staring at the line of rush hour traffic oozing by outside the restaurant’s front windows, Eben is trying to ignore the fact that he just collected a theme restaurant table jockey. Eight hundred years ago, it was Mongol horsemen and Byzantine patricians.
Last month it was a busboy at Olive Garden.
Eben sighs, annoyed. The trend is not encouraging.
He’s staring at the duffel bag beside him when he hears a loud pop. Then, a series of them. A woman at a nearby table stands up, exclaiming. She’s pointing outside.
The road that runs by the restaurant is a major route leading to the interstate. Most afternoons, one can look out the large front windows at the traffic light and the long line of rush-hour commuters waiting before it. Currently, there is a tiny war being waged.
Eben notices, along with everyone in the restaurant, that a number of men have climbed out of a car and are peppering the one in the next lane with a hail of small arms fire. Everyone also notices that the men are all wearing white, eyeless masks with crude, black crosses painted over the face.
Eben alone knows who they are.
He looks over, the hostess is standing beside him, clutching a glass of iced tea as she watches the spectacle unfold.
Eben gets up, grabbing the duffle bag and slinging it over his shoulder. He takes the drink from her and downs half of it, then hands back the glass. She doesn’t seem to notice. He starts toward the front door. Towards the gunfire.
“Somebody should call the police” she says.
“Don’t bother” he intones.
Sooooo.... yeah. Not sure where that all came from. I sat down planning to take up Theo's predicament and this guy jumped out in his place. Hope you're enjoying it because I have no idea where the hell this is going. As always, thanks for reading!