Weldon nudged me toward the diner’s door. I had some options.
1. Pivot to my left. Use my left arm to knock away the gun pressed against the back of my head. In my favor: preternatural quickness and strength.
2. Drop into a crouch. Kick back with my legs. Take out the old man’s knees. In my favor: preternatural quickness and strength.
3. Cooperate. Figure out why there appear to be captive people inside that diner. In my favor: the joke was on them, because I was allowing myself to be captured.
Option 3 sucked.
Then the door was opened by a large man in cook’s whites. He even had a white chef’s hat. And a skillet. He whammed the skillet between my eyes.
It’s not that easy to knock someone out. In my experience, a person will gain a skull fracture before he loses consciousness.
You know something, though? Being hit between the eyes with the blunt edge of a seasoned skillet hurts like a bitch. It makes things go gray, if not black, for a few moments, too. Long enough for two elderly people and Mel to drag me inside the diner. Someone tripped me. I hit my knees. Mel searched me–I smelled him, because seeing him was a bit too much for my brain to do right then–but didn’t take anything. He helped me to my feet.
My vision cleared. He held me by the right elbow, still held the skillet in his right hand. “Sorry about that,” he said. “If it makes you feel better, everybody here got clonked by it. Minus the children, of course.”
Of course. And of course there were children in here. He helped me to a booth. I slid onto a vinyl bench that was surprisingly soft. I put my face in my hands. Ow. Ow. Ow. Fuckin’ ow.
I heal in seconds from gunshot wounds. From stabbings. I laugh off broken bones. But clock me with a hard, blunt object, and I’m in as much pain as a normal human being. You should see me cry after I stub a toe.
I raised my head. Mel held out a Ziploc bag filled with ice cubes. I took it and pressed it to my throbbing forehead. I watched him go behind the counter, into the back. The diner smelled like it didn’t do much cooking. No stench of greasy overcooked meats or burnt coffee. I looked for the old couple, found them outside, shuffling across the gravel. I wished they’d fall and break their hips. But a PT Cruiser pulled into the lot and picked them up. It went back the way we had come.
Before that, though, it had come from the direction we had been heading.
The guy in the John Deere hat plopped down across from me. He leaned back and folded his arms. “They got you with the flat tire too, huh? Got me, got everybody in here with that.”
“Great.” I turned around. People behind me. I counted noses, came away with nine, including three children: two boys, one girl. John Deere and I made eleven.
“What’s going on here?” I asked him. He had taken out his cell phone while I’d been scoping out my fellow captives. “They let you keep that?”
“Yeah. It doesn’t work anyway. No service.” He held it up. “Something else weird about it. I’ve got this GPS app thing on it, supposed to be like the best ever. Look what it’s telling me.” He slid his thumb across the screen a few times, showed me a small map. In the middle of it, there was a large black circle. “That’s supposedly my location. Apparently, we’re in a black hole.” He chuckled. Then he swallowed, hard.
“How long have you been here?”
“Since . . . nine this morning. What’s it now, like two?”
“Close enough. Have they said anything to you? Like what they’re doing with everyone?”
“Nope. The old farts have just been bringing in people. And the big guy’s been hitting ’em with the pan.”
“Well, at least he was telling the truth about that.”
“I’m Luke, by the way.”
“Elizabeth.” I dropped the ice bag and got out of the booth. I went to the door and pulled on it. Locked.
“Wow, gee, no one’s thought of that,” said a young guy in the very last booth. He wore horn rimmed glasses and a battered straw cowboy hat.
I let go of the door handle. “What’s your name?”
“Stuart.” He even managed to say it sarcastically.
“Shut up, Stuart.” I decided to knock against the plate-glass window next. No surprise: it didn’t seem to be glass. Not plastic, either. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was sure that punching it would do nothing except amuse Stuart.
I started eyeing the back area where Mel and his pan had disappeared to. As if reading my mind, a skinny guy, also in cook’s whites, but minus the hat, came out from the back. He held a shotgun in his hands. He stayed behind the counter, the shotgun cradled in his hands and pointed not very casually at my stomach.
He motioned with it to the booth. “Have a seat.”
I held up my hands. “Good idea.” I sat. He stayed.
He didn’t seem to mind when I twisted in my seat and checked out the rest of my new friends. There was Stuart; a family of four, Mom and Dad and a brother and sister; a middle-aged woman with her arm wrapped around a maybe-twelve year-old girl; and a young twenty-something couple holding hands. The family and the single mom were in two neighboring booths. Stuart had the booth in the back. The booth between them was empty. The couple seemed happy standing by the counter.
We sat in silence for an hour. Then two hours. The old couple didn’t come back with anyone new. At 5:30, their Mercury drove past, followed by the Cruiser. It was almost dark by then.
I smelled the fresh-baked cookies again. A few seconds after that, the odd not-smoke drifted toward us. It slid over the diner. I watched my car disappear in the haze. The people behind me started murmuring. One of the kids was crying.
“Shit,” Luke muttered.
Then it passed. I saw my car again. And something else. Street lamps. Sidewalks. A neat two-story house with a wraparound porch and a snowman in its front yard across the street from us. I blinked. A snowman. There was snow on the ground. A thick carpet of white stuff.
We got snow here once in a while, but it wasn’t like that. That was northern snow. That was snow out of a movie. The street lamps even looked like movie props; they were ornate and topped with two round globes of soft glowing light. The last time I’d seen lamps like that had been in It’s a Wonderful Life.
“Oh my holy god what is all that? Where’d all that come from?” Luke was half out of his seat. He pressed his hands to the glass, hissed, slowly took them back. “Glass is cold. Temperature must’ve dropped like twenty degrees.”
The skinny guy finally spoke. “It’s Christmas Eve.” I looked at him. He was grinning.
Then there was a loud blast from the back. A few people screamed. I closed my eyes for a second. Lord, now what? That was the sound of a shotgun.
The skinny guy was turning toward the sound when it happened again. I took that opportunity to dive out of the booth. The floor was black and white tiles, very Happy Days, very slippery. I slid across them on my knees, to the counter. I stayed low.
I heard the skinny guy’s shotgun clatter to the tiles. I smelled gun smoke and blood. The shooter had nailed Skinny, probably in the chest.
Skinny’s body thumped to the floor. Then the click-click of footsteps. The shooter wasn’t wearing sneakers. I smelled sweat, wool, leather mixed with damp socks. I saw the tip of the barrel appear above me. Barely enough of the tip.
I reached up with both hands–shit, hot barrel–and grabbed the shotgun. I wrenched it out of his grasp and popped up with it. “Freeze, asshole. Hands up.”
The shooter raised his hands. The index finger was bleeding, where the skin had torn when I’d snatched the gun. He wore a business suit and wire-rim spectacles. For a second, he looked like Jimmy Stewart. I blinked. The second was gone.
“Listen,” he said, “if you don’t want to meet Santa Claus, you’ll come with me right now.”