The old man seated himself across from Jack as if he were expected, plopping down a well-worn bowling bag on the bench and an equally battered laptop onto the table
Jack sat up like a meerkat on duty. His half-eaten burger lay untouched in the silverware-rattled silence. The diner was just about empty this time of night; there was no need to share a booth.
“Can I help you?” Jack wiped at his mouth with a ketchup-stained napkin.
“Not yet.” The white-haired man had the laptop open, casting a bluish glare against the crags of his face, absent of any expression.
“I’m trying to eat here.”
“I won’t be long.”
“Okay.” Jack nodded, hoping the man would elaborate. “There’s no Wi-Fi, you know.”
“Don’t need it.” He had yet to look up from the screen.
Jack reached for his burger’s remains. If he ignored the odd fellow, maybe he’d just move on.
“Go ahead and finish your dinner, Jack. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Jack’s fingers hadn’t made it to his plate. They hung in midair. “How do you know my name?”
A hint of a smile played with the man’s thin mouth, but he didn’t reply.
Jack glanced out the window beside him, through his own reflection and into the black lit only by a curbside streetlight. His pickup sat beneath the amber glow. A few sedans clustered closer to the diner’s entrance, the same cars that had already been there when he’d arrived after his late shift at Best Buy.
“You bowl?” Jack nodded to the man’s bag.
His thick, gnarled fingers ran across the keys, tapping at them like a hunchbacked ape.
“So what’s in there?”
“A hacksaw. I’ll need to take your head.”
Jack felt himself go rigid. His chest tightened. “How’s that?” He forced a weak chuckle.
“It’s for your head.” The man’s watery eyes twitched, focused on the screen.
Jack’s hands trembled. He dropped them into his lap, tightened them into fists. “Listen, I don’t know what you’re on, but you’re gonna have to leave.” He glanced over his shoulder at the lone waitress who served coffee to the only other patron, seated at the bar. Both of them appeared oblivious to his current predicament. He faced the old man. “You hear me? Go.”
“I plan to. Just as soon as I can.” He sounded absent-minded, stringing words together between keystrokes. “There.” He looked at Jack with a toothy grin. “All set.” He reached into the leather bag beside him.
Jack cleared his throat and raised his voice. “I said beat it. Get the hell out of here.”
“How old do you think I am?” He retrieved a hacksaw from the bag and gripped it in one hand, resting it on the table between them. The blade was clean and jagged, glinting beneath the suspended lamp.
Jack wanted to scream or run, but like most of his nightmares, he couldn’t do either. He licked his lips instead. “Listen, I don’t know what this is all about, but I’m pretty sure you’ve got the wrong guy. My name isn’t even Jack, it’s—”
“Yes it is. I’ve done my research, you see. And you’re just what I need.” He slid out of the booth, steadying himself with one spotted hand on the table as he came around to join Jack on his side.
“What are you doing?” Jack slid back against the window and raised a hand in defense. “Don’t come any closer.”
The old man sighed with obvious impatience. “You’re delaying the inevitable. Can’t you see that?” He knelt onto the bench and shoved Jack’s hand out of the way as he advanced.
“No! Hey—somebody!” Jack reached across the back of the bench, prepared to hoist himself over the red leather. “Hey—help!”
“They can’t hear you.” The man nodded to his glowing laptop. “The portal’s open now. We’re between worlds.”
Portal? Jack kicked out with both feet, the heels of his sneakers catching the old man’s throat and nose.
He choked, doubling over as blood erupted in an unexpected spurt. “Damn it,” he grumbled, backing just out of range and dragging his face across his plaid sleeve, leaving a rusty smear.
“Leave me the hell alone!” Jack screamed. The waitress and patron laughed together, but not at him. They acted like he wasn’t even here with this senile psycho. “Get out! I’m calling the police—” He fumbled for the phone in his pocket.
“Won’t work.” The man sniffed, straightening his shoulders and dropping onto the bench. The hacksaw hung limp at his side. “I’m getting too old for this.”
Jack grit his teeth. The screen on his cell displayed no bars. “What are you? Seventy-something? You don’t have to do this, you know.” Could he talk down a killer? “You don’t.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, son. My people depend on it. We can’t survive, otherwise.” With a sigh of determination, he raised the hacksaw in a solid grip. “The head of a virgin every day, mounted in the village square by dawn.” He gave an apologetic shrug of his humped shoulders and turned so fast, with such strength, Jack found himself pinned to the bench and able to utter only a single whimper as the blade’s teeth chewed across his throat.
“But I’m not a virgin,” he managed.
The old man paused with a look of uncertainty behind his eyes, self-doubt carried by the passage of time. In that moment, Jack whipped an elbow up into the man’s ribs. A wet crunch, and his grip on the hacksaw faltered. Jack slid under the table and thrashed himself out into the aisle, stumbling to his feet with one hand to the stream of crimson leaking out of his neck.
The waitress jumped and screamed at the sight of him as if he’d materialized from nothing. The wide-eyed patron nearly slipped off his stool.
“9-1-1,” Jack rasped, turning to look back at the booth.
His unfinished burger sat all alone.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. Stop by anytime: www.milojamesfowler.com.
This story was originally published in Plasma Frequency Magazine.