I keep a tight leash on my bestial worst half, so I was able to follow my guide inside the store without incident.
I took a moment to scope out the place. It smelled of mold, garbage, and sour milk. The only light source was a bare hundred-watt bulb powered by the rumbling gasoline generator housed somewhere in the back. The fumes from it immediately gave me a headache. Three booths stationed against a large, dirty picture window that allowed me to keep an eye on my car. Counter straight ahead, no stools. Bumpy linoleum floor. And warm in here, too warm, at least thirty degrees above the outside temperature. I felt the first trickles of sweat run down my back and underarms. The bottle of Coca-Cola that lady-man brought me was shockingly cold, with chips of ice clinging to its smooth plastic surface.
She mumbled something about her uncles and then went back outside, leaving me in this foul-smelling oven. But I wasn’t alone; there was an old woman behind the counter. With the nearly identical facial features, I guessed her to be lady-man’s mother, or an aunt.
I twisted the cap off the Coke. “Afternoon,” I said to the woman. She wore a faded sundress. I took a deep breath, wanting her scent. I got it, and more of the gasoline funk, which did wonders for my head.
Nailed it: she was related to lady-man. Closely related. A bit too closely related. The family tree lacked branches, so to speak. I took a seat at one of the booths, softly humming “Dueling Banjos” to myself. The fake leather was cracked and smelled like raccoons. I lifted the Coke to my lips, and paused.
I can’t name all the chemicals that make up a Coke, but I know what they’re supposed to smell like, and this one had an extra component. I glanced at the old woman. She was staring at me with a dull-eyed intensity that made my skin crawl. She was drooling, but that might have been genetics.
I took a sip. Whatever was in it was undetectable, tongue-wise. I doubt anyone with a normal human sniffer would catch it.
I stared out the fly-specked window and wondered what it was supposed to do to me. Make me sleepy? Kill me?
Lady-man was outside, standing close to my car, talking with three fat old men. The three men were identical. Triplets of the same branchless tree that had spawned the drooling old broad and lady-man. Her uncles. Or fathers. Or brothers. Or all the above.
She looked over her shoulder at me. I held up the soda and smiled. Faked taking another swallow. She turned back to her audience, but not before I saw her smile.
Shuffling of feet on my right. Old lady was moving in closer. I looked at her. She was making her way out from behind the counter, staring not at me, but at the floor. I took the opportunity to spill a bit of soda on the floor under the table. I set the bottle back on the table and decided to wing it.
She finally navigated her way onto the diner’s floor. She stopped and looked at my Coke. Smiled when she saw how much was missing from it. Her teeth were tiny, black stumps in black gums.
I pinched the bridge of my nose, blinked slowly. Rubbed my eyes. Yawned for good measure. I’m very good at faking sleepiness; it’s gotten me out of a few bad dates. The old lady seemed pleased; she started shuffling again, heading for the door.
She opened it, yelled something that I didn’t understand. Lady-man turned away from the trio and walked to her. The trio broke up. I lost sight of two of them, but one was heading toward the stump.
Lady-man made it inside the diner. She asked if I was okay.
“Just sleepy all of a sudden,” I said. I scratched my head. “Kind of hot in here.”
“Get you outside,” she said. “Fresh air.” She grabbed my elbow. Quite a grip. She’d make a great NFL receiver. Or a linebacker.
She tugged me out of the booth. I decided to go for the Oscar: I stumbled. She hauled me to my feet.
“Outside,” she said, and escorted me out of the diner. The old lady shuffled after us.
She kept her power-grip on my arm and walked me past my car. All the tires were still on it.
“Wait,” I said, dragging my feet. “Where’re we going?”
She pulled me along. “Set you down. Make you feel better.”
The uncle stood beside the stump. The axe was missing. I was willing to bet it was behind his back.