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Dining In is attached.
J.E. Deegan © Copyright 1995 6303 Elmgrove Approx. 3,700 words Spring, TX 77389 (281) 351-9850
"Holy Mother of God," were the first words out of Pete's mouth when Kurt removed the blindfold. A brief pause, then came, quite sincerely, "You've got to be kidding."
"Nope. Happy birthday, Pete," Kurt replied, a greeting echoed by the rest of the snickering group flanking Pete who was staring with dumb disbelief at NIGHTHAWKS, which in any other quarter of the city would stand grotesquely out as a filthy, dilapidated, rat-infested hovel not fit for human tenancy.
But this quarter was Limboland, and nothing, except what didn't belong, stood out. Here, everything was the same: decayed, putrefied, decadent; layered with a foul pall of grime and scum that ate into every board and brick like noxious acid.
NIGHTHAWKS, an eatery, belonged in Limboland. It was a ruin of a place haunted by half-dead winos and potheads scavenging the scraps of sustenance they required between drinks and fixes, and by faded, footsore hookers who sipped coffee laced with bourbon or vodka to chase the chill when tricks were scarce.
Though the streets were full with people this night, NIGHTHAWKS was empty. Not closed, just empty. Kurt and Marcie had seen to that. They had also seen to the decorations: to the red, white and blue crepe paper twirling and looping its way across the windows; to the multi-colored groups of balloons tugging at their strings from a variety of anchors along the storefront; and to the HAPPY BIRTHDAY, P M scripted in white shoe polish across the central window.
"Limboland?… Not me. No way, man," Pete objected as he was dragged toward the door.
Kurt considered this idea his all-time best, which was saying something for a guy renown for great, if somewhat bizarre, ideas. Initially, he shared the notion only with Marcie, his female counterpart within the "Group" - as they called themselves. Marcie's sense of humor was as outlandish as his, and she howled like mad when he shared his plan with her. When the rest of the Group, minus Pete of course, were told, their skeptical reaction was predictable. Compared with Marcie and himself, they were about as jocular as a clique of Tibetan monks. Kurt's reasoning with the Group was that they had outgrown amusement parks and pizza parlors, and that Pete's birthday - not to mention Group's reunion - was worthy of something bold and truly memorable.
Goaded by some ass-chewing from Marcie, the rest of the Group - albeit reluctantly - agreed. They always did.
The members of the Group loved each other dearly - they used that word freely with one another. What else conveyed the deep feeling for friends one had grown up with? Laughed, cried, smiled, and cussed with…and at? Though greatly dissimilar, the five of them had been drawn together in junior high by some strange chemistry none of them really understood. The Group consisted of Chuck Edmonds, the athlete; Bev Kelley, the bookworm; Marcie Williams, class vamp and cut-up; streetwise Pete Morales, referred to as Perfunctory Minority; and Kurt Smith, a vibrant blend of stability and unpredictability. They simply hit it off and stuck together through high school.
The confederation was interrupted for a time. Each went separate ways, four to college; one to serve Uncle Sam. But graduation was now a month behind and Pete had completed his stint in the navy. All had return to the city to look for jobs. The group reformed, just in time for Pete's birthday, and a week earlier Kurt had taken Marcie to NIGHTHAWKS to make the necessary arrangements.
"Good Heavens!" she had said then, while inspecting the place from Kurt's car. "Pete will have a cow. He won't go for this."
"Since when does he have a choice?" Kurt replied. "You know the rules. The Group decides how the birthday boy or girl spends the evening. See any need to change that?"
Marcie laughed. "Nope…now that I think about it. Let's do it."
They entered NIGHTHAWKS, and but a step inside both nearly turned on their heels and left. The place stank of ancient grease and other grungy, nauseating smells that would have brought a vow of fasting from a starving man. Overhead, the ceiling hovered precariously in a series of ulcerated, water-stained waves. The floor was pre-civilization linoleum, split, bubbled and blotched like the bottom of a bomb crater. Woefully neglected tables and chairs cowered against dreary dirt-splattered walls, their rotting lacquer long ago metamorphosed to a cracked, crusty grime.
Some of the chairs were occupied.
Kurt and Marcie gawked upon an alien world populated by a small group of people-like creatures wearing filthy, tattered rags that appeared decades old. All the creatures appeared gray and ravaged, as though some irreversible degeneration had taken root inside them. None of them spoke. Some simply stared distrustfully at the pair of outsiders; others continued snoring off hangovers in darkened corners. One, a blade of a man with a bulbous vein-streaked nose and brightly runneled cheeks, produced a warped grin and yelled a word: "Crutch!"
Straightaway, the curtain covering a doorway behind the counter moved aside to expose a wasted man with a tangle of white hair, a clouded right eye, and a graveyard grimace of black-green teeth. His clouded eye sparkled when he noticed this strange form of clientele standing stiffly by the door. He hobbled to the counter and bade them closer with a wave of a knotted, twisted finger.
Kurt and Marcie looked uncertainly at each other then walked to the counter. Kurt made his proposal.
Crutch's reply was almost immediate. "A hundred dollars and you get the run of the place for the night. Food, drinks and entertainment included. How's that sound, Sonny?"
Marcie stared suspiciously at Crutch. "Uh.. What kind of food?"
"Why whatever your heart desires, Missy. Come have a look." Crutch motioned them behind the counter and led them through the curtained doorway.
Their eyes widened as they stared at an impossible sight. The kitchen was huge and impeccably clean. It glistened pristine and immaculate as a picture from a promotional catalog. The spotless floor shined like a polished mirror; the walls glowed a soft cheery red. Stainless steel counters and preparation tables gleamed under the strong steady glow of overhead fluorescent lights. Waves of scrumptious scents wafted about the room, propelled by two huge ceiling fans humming smoothly overhead. The stoves carried bubbling pots, and the glass fronts of a bank of massive wall-mounted ovens steamed over with the juices of things delectable being slowly cooked.
On its own, Kurt's head turned toward the curtained doorway, toward the wreck of a room beyond. His mind twirled, trying to piece the two totally incongruent sections of NIGHTHAWKS together.
Marcie, though equally perplexed, managed a stuttering question. "Uh…Who…what is all this for?"
Crutch laughed. His clouded eye brightened and his graveyard teeth divided his lips. "Why this is for special customers, Missy. Got a group of conventioneers coming in about ten." His eyes shifted toward the curtain. "One can be deceived by appearances, now can't one?"
About to speak, Kurt's mouth hung open as a whisper of movement intruded - a low, scraping, rustling sound of something stirring within the back wall. Crutch smiled and turned his head toward a small square door set head-high in a back corner. Seeing it, Kurt was reminded of the laundry chute in the bathroom of his parents' house.
"Nighthawks," said Crutch matter-of-factly.
"Nighthawks?" repeated Marcie, a dumb look on her face. "What are nighthawks?"
Crutch snickered and moved to the square door. "Well.. They're kinda hard to describe, Missy. Come see for yourself."
The scratching, rasping sound intensified as Kurt and Marcie approached Crutch, and Marcie jumped into Kurt's arms when Crutch opened the door upon a sight only nightmares create.
Directly behind the door was a grate made of iron reinforcing rods firmly anchored in the wooden studs of the wall. A few of the rods were hinged, forming a small portal in the grate that was secured by a stout padlock. Behind the barrier was a swarm of horrid, squawking little creatures that looked like a horribly failed effort to crossbreed vultures and iguanas. No larger than a fist, each of the wobbling, screeching beasts had a furless, featherless, wingless body covered with yellow-green skin that hung in folds to legless parrot-like feet. The feet were huge; two long, knotted toes ending in thick, curved claws.
Atop each wrinkled mass of drooping flesh was a miniature vulture's head with skin as pitted and pasty-gray as a bald and long-dead chicken. A pair of round, red eyes burned like embers above a narrow beak that hooked downward into a sharp point. The squawking creatures flocked to the open door like crazy wind-up toys, stumbling over each other to hack and saw at the iron rods with their wicked beaks.
Marcie cringed and nestled closer to Kurt. The two just stared for a time. "Dear God," Kurt finally said. "What the hell are those things?"
"Don't know for sure," Crutch answered. "I call them nighthawks. That seems appropriate, don't it? They got a beak like a hawk and they're only active at night. Even named this place after them."
"But…why are they here?" Kurt asked.
"Why, they live here, Sonny. In the wall. Only in this wall, far as I can tell."
"They're disgusting," said Marcie through her teeth. "Why on earth would you keep them?"
Crutch's eyes narrowed. The clouded one rolled with an odd twinkling light. "Keep them?" he snorted. "I don't keep them, Missy. They belong here. Been here a hell of lot longer than I have. Wouldn't be right to get rid of something that belongs, now would it?"
Kurt was acutely curious now. He eased Marcie aside and moved nearer to the grate. "Fascinating little critters," he said. "But what do they do? I mean…they just don't waddle around in there, do they?"
"Yep," Crutch replied. "For the most part they just waddle around in there. Except when they're feeding, that is."
Kurt leaned closer to the grate. Crutch grabbed his arm and pulled him back." Best to keep some distance, Sonny. They get a mite ornery when they're hungry, and they won't get fed till later tonight."
"Fed?" Kurt inquired, backing away. "What do they eat? And, uh…where?"
Crutch's lips drew back from the rotting stumps of his teeth. "As to what, they ain't too particular. They do like things raw, though. Won't eat anything cooked. Just like hawks. As to where, they don't go out, if that's what you mean. They prefer, uh…dining in."
Marcie's hands went to her face. She turned aside. "Good God! This is too much. Let's get out of here, Kurt."
Kurt ignored her and looked at Crutch. "But they must have to go …uh…"
"Relieve themselves?" Crutch interjected. He glanced at Marcie with a grin like a pile of tar-stained nails. "Sorry about the subject matter, Missy." He looked back to Kurt. "Sure… But they eat that, too. Cleanest little devils you ever saw."
Marcie shuddered and moved behind Kurt to peek over his shoulder at the grate. "Can they get out?"
Crutch closed the door and laughed hoarsely. "Not unless I let them."
"And do you?" asked Marcie sternly.
"Only on special occasions, Missy," Crutch answered with a discomforting sense of geniality. He looked to Kurt. "Now, Sonny, do we have a deal?"
Pure doubt captured Marcie's face, narrowing her eyes and snaring her lower lip between her teeth. She looked to Kurt. "I don't know." she looked about the kitchen; threw her hand at it. "This is just too…too insane."
Kurt took her shoulders and forced her to look at him. "Hey," he said with calm assurance, "without a dash of lunacy now and then, how would you know you're sane?"
Marcie laughed at that, a quick, muffled titter that chased misgiving back inside her. "Okay. You only live once, right?"
"Good," said Crutch, his fogged eye flickering like a faulty bulb. "Let's decide on the menu, shall we?"
Whatever remained of apprehension within the Group shriveled away as they entered NIGHTHAWKS. They simply crowded for a time inside the front door, staring silently in upon a sight none of them, including Kurt and Marcie, anticipated.
The dining area had been transformed into a room of warm shadows which hung in a great circular curtain around a centerpiece of soft light. The light issued from a row of slender candles placed upon a huge brightly polished oblong table. On either side along the width of the table were two evenly spaced table settings. A fifth setting was at the head of the table. Each setting consisted of hand-painted china plates, ornately engraved silverware, and Royal Bavarian crystal goblets. Wine-colored place mats braided with gold filament at each corner rested beneath each setting. The chairs were tall and spacious, with wide sturdy arms and cushioned backs and seats covered with red velvet. A brilliant blue and gold rug sat beneath the table, concealing the warped, wrinkled linoleum beneath. Parlor music featuring a harpsichord and stringed instruments thrummed blithely from within the shadows. The scene smacked of an era long past, of a king's banquet room.
Crutch appeared from the shadows, easing into the wash of candlelight like a ghost. He was clean-shaven; his hair untangled and combed straight back. He wore a smartly-fitting tuxedo and carried an spotless white towel over his left forearm. His lips drew back to an affable grin, but remained sealed over his teeth. "Welcome to NIGHTHAWKS," he said with practiced courtliness. He bowed then motioned the Group toward the table.
They moved, shuffling awkwardly and murmuring like a troop of awestruck tourists. Talk began in earnest as they seated themselves, Kurt and Marcie facing Chuck and Bev; Pete at the head of the table where a gold cone-shaped party hat sat waiting on the chair. They leaned toward each other, whispering as though normal timbre would break the enchanted charm of this uncanny domain.
"I don't believe this, " Chuck said, his eyes dancing along the table.
Bev simply said, "Limboland?" while slowly turning her head side-to-side.
Pete's eyes glistened in the candlelight; his lips tightened then quivered. "Thanks, guys," was all he could say.
The Group joined hands and looked to Marcie for a fitting invocation. Her eyes drifted from person to person, her face beamed. "Tonight is especially for you, PM," she said softly, "but it's for all of us, too. For the Group. Back together again."
A brief but warm silence followed before Kurt broke the chain of hands to wave vigorously in the air. "Let's party!"
Then came the meal, an incredible orgy of food and drink that left the Group stunned as well as stuffed. Platters of beef, fowl and fish - fried, baked, boiled and broiled - covered the table end-to-end. Steaming tureens of vegetables, a rainbow of colors smothered with butter, cream sauces and melted cheeses, filled the spaces between. Baskets overflowed with breads, bowls with fruit, decanters with wine, sherry and brandy.
All served by Crutch, elf-nimble and quicksilver-swift, appearing and disappearing when needed as though choreographed by something unseen that had been in rehearsal for eons.
The Group ate and drank. They laughed and sang. They reminisced of times gone by and planned future times. Then, beyond talk, they simply sat, weighted to their chairs by sated appetite and unmovable contentment.
Crutch materialized from the shadows, still as stone and holding a large silver tray. Upon the tray was a silver ice bucket; and within the bucket was a magnum of champagne. "Compliments of NIGHTHAWKS," he said suavely, then glided to the table and deftly filled the five goblets. He stepped back, grinned his sealed, cordial grin, and watched the Group raise their drinks in salute to each other. As they drank, Crutch's sealed grin widened to show the back stumps of his teeth. As they drank, the curtain of shadow pulled back to reveal people-like creatures watching greedily from the tumbledown tables lined against the walls. As they drank, the wasted, squalid ambiance of NIGHTHAWKS rolled back into focus.
The Group hardly noticed. Like a row of dominoes, they toppled face-first upon the table.
Kurt came to last, his eyelids fluttering like butterfly wings, his skull under attack from something angry inside it. He thought he tried to move, but nothing of him responded. He tried again, certain this time that he tried. A wave of horror swept through him when he realized he was unable to move. The wave became a hurricane as his eyes cleared and fixed upon the rest of the Group. They were lashed to their chairs by a series of broad leather straps encircling their wrists, arms, chests and foreheads. Their wine-colored napkins were stuffed into their mouths and covered with a strip of duct tape. Kurt searched each pair of eyes and saw nothing but pure terror and confusion staring back. A final futile attempt at movement convinced him that he was similarly restrained.
Then Crutch was there, and Kurt's heart began floating upward like something dead rising from the depths of a still lake. Crutch grinned his graveyard grin; his clouded eye glowed like a fog lamp. His arms cradled a huge silver serving platter with a rounded dome.
Crutch place the platter on the table, and Kurt heard a familiar scraping, rustling movement. The Group's eyes swiveled to the platter, to Crutch.
"And now…the entertainment," he said cheerily. "Comes with the package, you remember."
The crowd lining the walls hooted and clapped. Kurt trained on them a minute, still trying to switch off this dreadful dream and wake up in reality. The man with the bulbous, vein-streaked nose was there, flapping his arms like a cheerleader. Surrounding him were the other people-like creatures of NIGHTHAWKS: the drunks and junkies who had been there when Kurt and Marcie first arrived. They draped the tables like dropped rags, but glared with rapt attention at the Group's table.
And there were others: a one-legged dwarf dressed as a jester; an armless broomstick of a man with bright demented eyes who held a beer mug between the toes of one foot and a thin bonehandled dagger with the toes of the other; a monstrous mass of muscled flesh with a face covered with saucer-sized red splotches; and a wisp of a girl, naked and smothered with white powder. Her lips were bright red, her eyes dark as moonless midnight. Her smile was open and wide and full of needles for teeth.
Kurt's eyes spun back to Crutch, who reached for the handle atop the silver dome of the platter with the grave and steady slowness of a master sadist. He said but one word.
The dome came off, the nighthawks came out. And Kurt's heart broke into a sudden gallop that he knew without thinking was headed for Hell.
The monstrosities shuffled from the tray, lurching side-to-side on their parrot feet in a clumsy waddle-walk. There were five of the horrid creatures, one for each of the Group, and as though on command each nighthawk broke rank and headed for separate targets.
Chuck's nighthawk arrived first and hopped like a chick onto his lap. With a rapid agility, the little beast was on Chuck's face, pecking at his eyes like a rooster after seed. One after the other, Chuck's eyes exploded like milk-filled balloons. The nighthawk paused a moment then drilled its beak into Chuck's open left-eye socket and began burrowing inward.
Bev was next. Her nighthawk stopped at her neck and began plucking at her throat, tearing out great chunks of flesh with its curled beak and quickly gulping them down. The tiny abomination turned frenzied at the river of blood its assault produced and began a furious attack within the gaping hole in Bev's neck. It dug its claws into her collar bone then frantically coiled and twisted itself into her ravaged throat. Inside, the creature headed upward, boring like a drill into her skull. Her head bulged and contracted then split open in places to loose a flood of viscous red-gray matter. Bev's eyes swirled like pinwheels then abruptly grew still.
Pete, the birthday boy, went next, stiffening as though electrocuted as his nighthawk ripped his left earlobe away then torpedoed itself into the narrow channel. Its terrible clawed feet kicking, the loathsome bird-lizard slashed into his jaw cavity then down, tunneling like a rabid mole through his neck and into his chest. The buttons of his shirt popped like corks, blood and gristle erupted outwards like fireworks. Pete sank into his chair with a wheezy hiss of fetid air.
That left Marcie and Kurt, who stared pathetically at each other then at their nighthawks, which with synchronized precision crept slowly up their chests. Each reached their mouths at the same moment and ripped away the tape and gagging napkins. In desperation Kurt and Marcie clamped their teeth together, but the nighthawks easily jimmied their terrible clawed feet between the upper and lower rows. The sick, dry crack of breaking jawbone echoed through the room, and the repugnant spectators against the wall howled with anticipation.
Kurt felt his tongue disappear, scissored to hash by his nighthawk's savage beak then devoured. He gagged when the beast found the opening to his throat and tunneled in. His eyes bulged outward and froze on Marcie. Blood raged from her horribly distended mouth. Her cheeks mushroomed into twin paper-thin tumors then burst open, freeing her nighthawk's squirming taloned feet. The rapacious monstrosity violently kicked and clawed before gaining purchase on Marcie's splintered teeth. It launched itself into her throat, and Marcie's eyes rolled up to white.
Then Crutch appeared, his gaunt wasted face looming in the space before Kurt like a malignant planet. By then Kurt's nighthawk was in his chest, slashing tissue and muscle to pulp. The light that carried Kurt's life flickered like a faraway star, but he heard Crutch's last words.
"Like I said, Sonny. The nighthawks prefer dining in."