The Kindness of Strangers

January 2, 2013 at 12:00 PM
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“You can only hold a smile for so long,
after that it’s just teeth.”
¬- Chuck Palahniuk

By the time I had made my way into town I was just about ready to collapse. Sprinting for your life through cornfields and over long stretches of gravel roads at 1:00 a.m. will do that to a person. I’m not even sure that I really needed to be running at all, but I wasn’t willing to take any chances. Not after dealing with those… freaks. Getting back to civilization was all that mattered. Not that I was going to the police or anything, I’m not even sure they did anything illegal. Unless being “creepy as all hell,” qualifies as a punishable offense. Maybe kidnapping? Either way, I don’t think anyone will ever believe me.

Okay, stop thinking about it. The past is the past and there’s nothing I can do about it. Just focus on finding somewhere full of people. That might actually be somewhat difficult in a town like this. According to Google, the unincorporated town of Charlottesville NC has a population just a little under 1,000.I walked down Main St. looking for a gas station or a bar or anything still open for business. The streets were deader than dead, everything saturated in the sickly yellow-orange glow of the street lights made worse by unseasonable fog. I was starting to get nervous, the thought of accidentally wandering into the Twilight Zone began to cross my mind just as I saw the first signs of life. A young girl, I’m going to say about 22, had some hillbilly looking guy in an arm hold. She was pushing him out of a bar and swearing a lot. “The next time you try to touch my ass again I’ll break more than just your arm you miserable piece of shit!” I heard her say before shoving his face into the pavement. She turned around and quickly walked back into the bar while I stood there trying to re-hinge my jaw. Despite all the craziness that I’d been through tonight, one thing I had not been expecting to see was a skinny little twig of a girl with weird hair obviously beating the crap out of some trucker twice her size. Am I hesitant to follow her? Yes, yes I am. But the bar appears to be open and I’m sick of being outside in the rain and fog.

The sign on the door said that the name of the place was “The Broken Window.”

I walked in. The first thing I noticed was the overturned table surrounded by a couple of broken beer bottles. Looking around some more I saw that the place wasn’t exactly packed. There was a tired looking guy behind the counter talking to a few sad faced drunks at the far end of the bar. In the corner booth was group of bikers. The girl from earlier was sweeping up the glass as I walked towards a booth. As I passed her, a peculiar man in a pin striped suit reading the paper spoke up.

“I see those judo lessons are starting to pay off.” He said without looking away from the news print.
“And right they should,” Replied the girl, “this place needs a good bouncer.” I removed my duffle bag from my shoulder and sat down.
“Well, I think I’m going to turn in for the night.” Said the man. “See you later Billie. Good night Terry.”
“Sleep tight Stephan.” Yelled the Afro American man behind the bar counter. The man in the suit folded up his paper and walked out into the night.

I put my head down onto the table and inhaled deeply. I wanted to take a nap. When I looked back up, the girl was standing next to me. “You can’t sleep here. Not unless you buy a drink first.” She said. “What’s with the camping gear?”

I didn’t even care enough to feel embarrassed to say it. “I’m hitchhiking north to Albany. The bags and stuff are for when I take breaks at national parks and campgrounds.” The girl eyeballed me suspiciously. “Hitchhiking huh? How’s that working out for you? Not good I’m guessing, considering that your face and shoulder are bleeding. Be honest, you’re a lot lizard aren’t you? It’s okay to admit it, I won’t judge you. What a man does with his mouth is between him and the baloney pony.”

I didn’t know what to say to any of that, so I just starred at her until she burst out laughing. “I’m just kidding, you’re way too ugly to be a prostitute. But seriously, what happened? You look like absolute shit pie.”

I sighed. “I really don’t feel like talking about it. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The girl crossed her arms and starred down at me disapprovingly. “You can’t say something like that and expect me to lose interest. Tell you what, first rounds on me if you satisfy my need for story time.” I contemplated the last five hours of my life, considering the complete lack sanity that a summary would entail. I also considered the fact that this chick, Billie, was a total stranger. Her judgment meant nothing to me. “Alright,” I said, “Get me a beer and a shot and I’ll tell you everything.” When the girl returned, I drank both in one gulp before beginning my tale.

“Okay, so I’m guessing that you’re familiar with the area, you know Christian Light Road right?” Billie nodded her head. “Well that’s where it all started. I had been walking down Route 42 for the better half of the day with no luck whatsoever catching rides. Most of the art of traveling by thumb is actually just walking, so it’s not like I wasn’t used to it, but when an entire freaking day goes by without a single car pulling to the side of the road, you start to get desperate. Especially when dusk approaches. It’s not smart to try to hail a ride in the dark, for more reasons than one, so like I said, I was getting pretty antsy. Now, I have this rule where I never get into a car that has children passengers…” “Why’s that?” Billie suddenly interrupted. I lit a cigarette to make her wait. “Because it’s a sign of bad character. I’m a strange man on the side of the road, and when it comes to the mind of a driver to let me hop in with their children… I don’t know. It just seems like a red flag to me. But back to the point of this. It was getting dark, I was tired and had to take a dump, so when finally a station wagon pulls up behind me and offers to give me a lift, I decided to ignore the rule about kids. I mean, they didn’t seem white trash at all, not like they were a family of roaming meth dealers or anything, so I said ‘fuck it’ and climbed into the back.”

I paused for a moment to collect myself. “They were pretty nice and normal, at least at first. I thanked the dad guy for helping me out, and he seemed more than welcome to do so. His name was Frank, and he was wearing a brown sweater vest and a pair of khakis. His wife I guess was sitting in the passenger seat wearing this frilly blue sundress that looked like it was from the fifties or something. I think her name was Janet. The kids in the back sitting with me, a boy and a girl, I can’t remember their names. I didn’t notice it until later, but they were both wearing the exact same clothes as their parents, just smaller versions. They didn’t speak to me the entire time, didn’t even look at me even though I was sitting right next to them. Frank though, the driver, he talked a bit. Mostly questions, the normal sort that I had grown used to. Things like, ‘where are you headed?’ or, ‘who knows where you are right now?’ That last one isn’t as unsettling as you might think. Normally people just ask the general small talk topics, either because they can’t think of anything else to say or possibly out of genuine concern. Of course, I always end up asking the inevitable, ‘What made you decide to stop for me?’ ‘Well,’ said Frank, ‘you were just walking along the road all by yourself.”

“So you’re telling me that these folks were the ones who fucked up your face?” Billie belched through a sip of beer. “No, that happened later during my escape.” I rubbed my eyes in frustration. “I told you that you wouldn’t believe any of this bullshit.” “What? No, I never thought such a thing.” She responded. “Trust me, I’ve seen some pretty bizarre stuff go on around this town. I’ve heard about even more, things that make 4chan seem sane and rational. Every other week some yokel has a mental breakdown after running around sayin’ that he’s seen ‘flashing lights,’ in the sky, or a farmer comes in here babbling about how he saw ‘a giant snake,’ trying to strangle one of his horses. So no, I’m not telling you that I don’t believe you. I’m just asking a question alright? And I’m probably going to ask more. Example, what happened next?”

“Okay, so after they picked me up and following awkward chit chat, Janet and Frank asked me where I wanted to be dropped off. They both tip toed around that question for whatever reason. Anyway, I told them that I had planned to pass through Raleigh because I had some friends up there, but I also mentioned that if they didn’t feel like driving that far they could just drop me somewhere near a camping ground. Frank told me that the only camp site nearby was Raven Rock National Forest, which was about forty miles Southwest of where they lived. It was around this point that Janet leaned over to Frank to whisper something. He nodded back to her, and she turned around to face me. She asked if I wanted to have dinner with them. Of course I was hesitant to answer her; the whole atmosphere of the situation just seemed… I don’t know, unnatural somehow. The way Frank and Janet smiled at me just looked fake and forced, but also completely genuine in a strange way. Like they weren’t smiling at me, but smiling AT me. Kind of like they knew something that I didn’t.”

“Like they were in on some sick joke?” Billie asked, looking straight into my eyes.

“Yeah, kind of like that. But I wasn’t really thinking about it too much at the time. My decision was based mostly on the fact that I really needed to get to a toilet. So I said yes, that I’d be more than thankful to have a hot meal with them. The rest of the drive was quiet, which was fine by me considering how tired I was. I’m pretty sure I dozed off at some point, because I remember shutting my eyes for just a second, but when I opened them the sky had grown completely dark and Frank was pulling the station wagon up a dirt driveway to this cruddy looking farmhouse. I mean seriously, if it hadn’t been for the porch lights I would have sworn the place was abandoned. Frank parked the car and helped me with my bags while Janet and the kids went straight into the house. ‘Welcome to our home,’ said Frank as he walked me up the porch steps. ‘I’m very glad that you agreed to have a home cooked meal with us, we don’t have too many opportunities to share our kindness.’ Yeah, I know, an odd choice of words but I was trying to be polite. So then I walked into the place and asked where the bathroom was, Frank said it was just down the hall. Okay, so here’s the first thing I noticed about that house; all of their furniture was covered in plastic tarp sheets. Not the normal kind either, I’m talking about the blue kind that people put of their roofs after a hurricane. Also the floor was absolutely covered in stains and dirt. Like, the whole place just gave off the vibe of crazy, like imagine that a family of homeless people were squatting in a condemned building while trying to create the illusion that everything was normal. I mean, the walls had framed pictures and the shelves had books, all the lights seemed to be working, but it just didn’t seem quite up to code if you know what I mean. Either way I promised myself that I wouldn’t stay any longer than I had to.”

“Okay, so while Frank moved my bags into the house while I tried to find the bathroom, all while trying to ignore the strangeness. Before I could though, one of the kids, the boy, tugged on my arm. He told me that dinner was ready.”

“I gulped some air and tried to look casual while following the boy into the dining area. He moved ahead of me and sat down next to his sister I before even had a chance to ask any questions. It was here that I looked around the dining room and started to feel an eerie chill crawl along my back. They were all there, sitting at a large wooden table under a bare light bulb. All of them had their heads tilted forward in complete silence. Even though none of them were making even the slightest noise, they looked like they were muttering to themselves, what the fuck was that about anyway? That was I think the turning point when I fully realized that people weren’t right, like at all. Listen, Billie, believe it or not the feeling those weirdos were giving off wasn’t exactly new. I had this dream once, where my family was throwing me a birthday party. But in the dream, it wasn’t my birthday and they weren’t my family. When they brought out the cake, I noticed that their lips and eyes had been shown shut. All they could do was hum the tune to the birthday song. That dream really messed with me. So were these people with their silent mutters.
When they finally noticed that I had been standing there watching them, they all looked up and directly at me in total unison, and smiled. Janet told me that I should take a seat with them and join in prayer. I looked over what I assumed was the meal. It was hard to tell for sure but it looked like a pile of raw meatballs had been dumped onto plates and served without silverware. It was disgusting and creepy, everything about it. I asked if they would mind if I used their bathroom. I know that I should have just left right then and there, and I promised myself that I would. Right after I got to a toilet. Frank smiled, and pointed towards the hallway, so that’s where I went.

Finally I managed to drop a load after having spent a whole day clenching my cheeks. I memention this here because it became obvious in a quick way that my need to relive myself had been fucking with my judgment more than I had thought. Example, by the time I had pulled my pants back up I had already begun to notice that the house had a terrible odor. I guess the best description would have to be a combination of sour milk and ozone. Holy hell it was awful, and I was sure that it didn’t come from me. So I started to wash my hands and, um, hold on….”

I was starting to gag on my own words as I thought about the sink. “What’s up?” Billie asked in a concerned tone. “Um, just give a sec alright?” I replied. Billie stayed quiet as I caught my breath. By now the bar was pretty much empty except for the two bikers in the corner and the bartender, who had walked over to us at some point to listen to the story. He whispered something to Billie without taking his eyes off me.

“I don’t know yet Terry,” She said back to him, “Let’s let him finish his story before we bother Stephan about it. Hey, are you good yet?”

“No, not really,” I said, “But I’ll keep going. So the sink had a drainage problem right? I don’t know why I cared, but I decided to look into the drain for the blockage, which turned out to be that some hair that gotten stuck. I started to pull it out when I noticed that it wasn’t just a little bit of hair either, it wasn’t even all hair. The huge clump was leaking blood. Blood and teeth and hair all wadded together in a mess of something so profoundly fucked up that I almost fainted after realizing that I had just touched the thing. I backed away from the sink trying to think of what the hell was going on. I was getting scared; I had no idea who these people were but my general assumption was that they were going to murder the shit out me and feed my flesh to their children, or something like that. I needed to get out of there as fast as freaking possible, but I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself that would let them know what I had seen. I exited the bathroom cautiously, slinking around the corner towards the front door, I had almost made it to the living room and was just about to grab my grab my bags, when something stopped me. A voice, a small voice coming from behind. I turned around to see who it was. It was the girl, the little one. ‘You can’t leave.’ She said. ‘It needs you.’ The lights flickered when she spoke.

The others had moved into the room. They were standing in front of the front door, I guess to keep me from making a run for it. ‘Yeah, actually,’ I said back. ‘I’m pretty sure I’ve overstayed my welcome. I’m going now.’ Janet was holding some of those meatball things from before, so was Frank. They were smiling, but none of them looked happy.
‘Why?’ they all asked simultaneously, anger boiling up beneath those smiles. ‘Don’t tell us that you’re going to leave now. Our family put a lot of work into this meal, it would be a shame to not even give us the fucking curtsey of trying some.’ That’s when they grabbed me.

Three of them, they rushed me, holding back my arms while dragging me. Janet was screaming gibberish as she tried forcing those meat things into my mouth, but I kept my jaw shut tight. They were smashing up into my face, each one smelling just like the rest of the house, but more concentrated. I think they realized that I wasn’t going to eat those things, because the next thing I knew they were dragging me through their house towards a door, all of them still smiling those crazed fucking smiles of theirs. The girl and the boy, they kept hissing the word ‘other.’ Other what exactly, I never found out, because when I started to hear the noises coming from behind that door, all that banging and screeching, enough adrenaline shot into my blood that I was able to thrash and wiggle myself free. They tried to catch me, but I threw myself out of one of the houses side windows, which is where these cuts came from, and after putting my face through that glass window I didn’t stop running until I got into town. Even though they obviously didn’t chase after me, I didn’t want to stop moving until I found somewhere safe. But holy shit, I’m pretty sure I’d be dead right now if hadn’t gotten away.”

The bar was now completely empty except for us. The juke box had stopped playing music a while back. It was silent until Terry spoke up.
“What kind of noises did you hear behind that door?” He asked me.
“I don’t know really, but it sounded like something large and in pain. You ever hear a jack rabbit getting ripped apart by a coyote? It was kinda like that, like something bigger eating something smaller alive.”

Billie and Terry were both staring at me without expression. I couldn’t figure out what they were thinking at this point.
“You don’t believe any of it, do you?” I asked them. Billie shook her head in disagreement.
“No, it’s not that. It’s not that all. I’m just trying to think what to do now.”
Terry cut in. “Well first of all, we can’t have you wandering around town in the middle of the night. That’s just asking for trouble. So how about you crash on our couch tonight? I promise we’re cool. We don’t even have a basement.” That seemed fine to me, so I agreed. It was nearly three in the morning, and I would have settled for a cardboard box at this point.

I started to walk out of the bar with Terry when I saw that Billie wasn’t following us.
“You’re not coming with?” I asked.
“No, not yet,” She replied. “I’m going to stay behind and close up shop. Maybe make a phone call. Don’t worry about it, I’ll meet up with you guys later.”

Credit To – Stephan D. Harris

Read the prequel here: Harlequin No. 7

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