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Three o’clock, am. 

The reflection of the neon sign outside flickered on the glass. Flickered against the blackness that spread indefinitely. Not that it was any more stimulating than in the daytime. Dry flatland as far as the eye could see, aside from traces of civilization forming on the horizon.

Above, fluorescent lamps also flickered occasionally at their own pace. Only other thing I could hear was the chirping of crickets. I took out my phone and sank to the linoleum floor, sitting behind the register. To my left was an L-shaped counter. On the short end was the prep area, next to the deep fryer. Between that and the sink in front of me, the griddle. Undercounter fridge beneath it. Immediately to my left and below two blenders was a small shelf. There we kept the mixes, toppings, and cups for the shakes. Good place to hide my pistol. Could get it immediately while not having it scare away customers. With a 7 1⁄2-inch barrel, my Cattleman wasn’t exactly a pocket revolver. 

Started working last night at this “diner”, made out of a converted shipping container. More like a glorified burger stand, to be honest. As I scrolled through Reddit, I wondered if I’ll hear it again. I hoped not. I’m the only one here cooking and working the register. And even though I knew what it was, I’d still shit myself. In fact, knowing didn’t help. That’s the reason why I had a piece. 

The owner was showing me around last night. Hung on insulated metal panels were framed, food-related motivational posters that said shit like, “Good Food, Good Mood”. They were heavily creased and yellowed. It was like she couldn’t be bothered to buy new ones and found them at some garage sale. Surrounded by the posters, like the centerpiece of the wall, was a rusted sign that actually said “Live Love Laugh”. These were above a wall-mounted table with some bar stool. Frail string lights lined the storefront on the other side. Right next to the window, three booth seats with cracked leather upholstery. The tables, adorned with fake plants, and the frames of the chairs were made of metal. Metal with scratches, dents, and rust. First time I’ve ever seen industrial cheugy. Suddenly — what sounded like a woman screaming. My hair stood on ends.

The owner sighed. “Mountain lions.”

Was worried about a cat wandering inside and attacking me. I did cowboy-action shooting and still had my Uberti Cattleman. Not sure if .357’s enough to stop a puma, but it’s better than nothing.

The door slid open. I sprang to my feet to face the customer, a man in a suit and tie. Rangy, one head away from his slick hair brushing against the lightbulb. Well-kempt. He stood in front of the counter, smiling widely. Too widely. He had a look of… hunger in his eyes. Wondered how famished he was to stop at a hole in the wall instead of driving thirty minutes to the McD’s in the city proper. Wait — I didn’t hear any motor vehicle pull up. Did he walk for hours to get here? There aren’t any houses nearby.

“Can I get you anything?” I asked. 

“Do you serve human flesh?”

“Um… afraid we don’t. Would you like something else?”

His beam gave way to an incredulous frown. As if he couldn’t believe we don’t sell people-meat. For a second. Then the corners of his mouth pulled back far, nearly touching his ears.

“Alright,” the customer said. “I’ll check again if I can’t find any elsewhere.”

The customer promptly left. I stood dumbly, listening to his car drive off. Racked my head at what just happened. Deciding it was a weird prank, I sat back down on the linoleum. The next half-hour was uneventful. Still, I popped my head up every now and then, in case he couldn’t “find any elsewhere”. Around forty minutes later, a mountain lion called in the distance.

• • • 

It was now eight in the morning. I was talking with Jen about what happened last night. She did the morning shift and was the one who recommended working here.

“That’s weird, Wyatt.” She was facing the prep area, making the breakfast burger I ordered.

A while later, she served the burger on the countertop. I ate it standing up. 

“Probably a morbid joke, but I genuinely thought he was going to come back.”

“Call Sarah if he does.” Jen was referring to the owner. “She’ll get the cops involved.”

• • • 

Second night. Someone actually came, but that was an hour ago. A motorcyclist ordered a cheeseburger with a side of fries. Busy night. I was crouched, restocking the undercounter fridge when the door slid open. Didn’t hear a car pull up. I froze when a long shadow engulfed me. I screamed internally, wishing it was anyone but —

“Do you serve human flesh?”

Mustered all my courage to pull myself up. To face him and say, “Again, we don’t. Would you like anything else?”

He stood there for a while. Frowned. Part of me hoped he’d go “Syke!” and we’d have a good laugh. Then he’d check out the menu on the chalkboard above, order something normal. I fiddled with the cash register. An excuse not to see his lips pull back into a wicked smile.

“Alright,” the customer said. “I’ll check again if I can’t find any elsewhere.”

Called Sarah after the customer left, asking if this guy’s been here before and does this regularly. Said he’s probably fucking with me, but to notify her in case he comes back. She’d get the cops involved.

Was taking a piss in some bushes out back an hour later. They didn’t have a bathroom. Then I heard it again. Mountain lion calling. But it sounded… off. Deeper, huskier. Sounded like a man screaming, not a woman. Probably just a cat, I thought. I’d rather not think about what else it could be.

• • • 

Third night. The wall clock above the jamb said three o’clock as I entered the stockroom. A family of eight pulled up in a minivan and ordered BOGO burgers. Emptied the kitchen of buns. I rummaged through boxes under the light of a clip-op table lamp, clipped on a metal shelf. There went the call bell on the countertop. My heart stopped for a moment. But I rationalized that it was a busy night, for real. It could be anyone other than… 

I stepped into the kitchen. “This isn’t funny. I’m calling the cops.”

“Do you serve human flesh?”

“We don’t, you creep!”

This time, he kept smiling. Like it wasn’t that big a deal anymore.

“Alright,” the customer said. “I’ll check again if I can’t find any elsewhere.”

“Like hell you are!”

Called the cops while he walked out and drove off.  It’s been almost an hour and, big surprise, pigs are no-show. But I didn’t hear a mountain lion this time. I was viewing cute animal videos on Tiktok to ease my nerves. Then, things felt off. I stood up, trying to figure out what it was. It hit me — the crickets stopped chirping. 

Abnormally quiet. Probably overthinking things, I thought. Decided to sit back down when the sliding door is yanked out of its frame. The customer returned. At least, the thing that pretended to be the customer. His limbs were now deformed and spindly. The pants and sleeves of his once-bespoke suit, now halfway past his thighs and upper arms. He crouched inside, taking out one of the fluorescents. At full length, he occupied a third of the dinner. Barely recognized him through the rows of jagged, needle-teeth in his literal ear-to-ear smile. Through the predatory hunger in his glowing yellow eyes. 

I grabbed my revolver. Pulled the trigger. Click. SHIT, I DIDN’T COCK THE HAMMER.

I ran back inside the stockroom, slid the door shut and locked it. Fuck, the only way out was the one I came in. I was trapped. Ran to the furthest end of the room. Tipped over the metal shelf to put something between me and that thing. Boxes fell to the floor. Their contents fell out of them. Buns, soda bottles, packs of nachos. It was the shelf where the lamp was clipped on. The bulb hit the wall, shattered, and died. In the dark, backed against a corner, my training finally kicked in. Cocking the hammer, I aimed.

The stockroom’s sliding door didn’t even put up a fight. Got ripped from its frame, exactly like the front door. The “customer” ducked under the door frame, illuminated by flickering fluorescent lights. His hands, dimly reaching out to me. Barely made out his gaping maw in the glow of his eyes. I quickly fired twice. One hit the metal shelf, sparking on impact. But the other caught him between the eyes. 

He stopped dead in his tracks. Metaphorically, not literally. He stared at me, grimacing. Like he was deliberating if I was worth the trouble. Apparently, I wasn’t. He ducked out under the door and left. Part of me told me to rush out, shoot him in the back as he went. The other part told me that’ll piss him off into actually killing me. Better safe than dead. Plus, it wasn’t like I could even if I wanted to. I stood frozen for what felt like an eternity until sirens came wailing in the distance.

• • • 

Twilight. The cop told me someone called in about gunshots. I said a puma wandered inside, causing me to panic.

“I know they’re wild animals, but you sayin’ a dang cat did all that?” He gestured at the ripped-out door.

“Yep.” Still easier than telling him the truth. 

He was writing down my statement. Suddenly — a woman screaming. My hair stood on ends

The officer sighed. “Mountain lions.”