Serial blogging, stories to tell. Short stories and micro-fiction!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Leon (A Christmas Tale)

By Jesse Edwardson



The homeless shelter was crowded. Leon Robinson waits in line for a meal. He is a patient man. He isn't griping like some of the people in line ahead and behind him. He just stands quietly, with his stocking cap rolled up inside of his dark and wrinkled hands, and waits for the line to move forward.

Leon watches people to pass the time, so he looks around the room. So many children, he thinks. Too many children. It’s so sad. They should be tucked in their beds, in a warm house. He sees many single moms, looking lonely and desperate. He also sees several men here. Men like him, black and past their prime, and men unlike him. These men are scrawny strung out junkies and wannabe gang bangers. Everyone here needs something. Some of those here need everything. Leon only needs a meal and a warm place to sleep.

The line takes a step forward.

The front door of the shelter swings open and lets in the frozen December wind. A family of four is coming in. They look lost and half starved. The father shuts the door again as quickly as he can manage. He turns and faces the room and gathers his family together in his long arms. They huddle for a few minutes until a shelter worker approaches them with a warm smile and four Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate. They exchanged a few words and the volunteer leads them to a crowded school lunch table. The mother and children sit down on the narrow bench while the father remains standing. He looks as if he is guarding them. In a way, he is.

“Hey old man, get to steppin” some crack-head startles Leon out of his reverie. The line had taken a couple of steps forward.

“Oh, yeah, yeah. Sorry,” Leon replies. He can remember a time when young people respected their elders. Days long forgotten it would seem. Leon could remind this youngster about respect, but he has learned the hard way that it’s not worth it. Two stab wounds in his belly has taught Leon to bite his tongue.

Leon finally reaches the counter. He picks up a tray and waits to be served.

“Well, hello Mr. Robinson, and Merry Christmas!”

“Hello Sylvia. Thank you. And Happy Hanukkah!” Leon smiles at the short, round lady behind the counter. Leon and Sylvia have known each other for a long time. Leon has been homeless for years and has always come to the Forty-Seventh Street Shelter. Sylvia has been a volunteer here for as long as Leon can remember.

Sylvia came to America with her husband, Karl Steinman, in the winter of 1939. The rise of the Nazis in their homeland caused them to flee Europe. They found a good life in America and through all of their years together they have tried to give back to the community at every opportunity.

“Thank you,” said Sylvia. “What will it be tonight, ham or turkey?”

“A little of both if you can spare it, please,” Leon replies. He doesn’t like to ask for too much but it has been days since his last real meal.

“Of course dear.” Sylvia places a slice of ham and a slice of turkey on a plate and hands it across the counter to Leon. He smiles appreciatively.

“Thank you so much Sylvia, I am much obliged.”

“Oh, don’t mention it. There is plenty here for everyone to have seconds, maybe thirds.” Sylvia returns Leon’s smile.

“Well then, thank you for your kindness and your warm smile,” Leon says with a wink.
Sylvia blushes. Leon moves down the counter and fills his tray with corn, stuffing, cranberry sauce, milk, and a slice of pumpkin pie. The shelter must have raised a lot of money to be able to put out a spread like this, Leon thinks. He is glad for it.

With his tray full, Leon turns to face the room and searches for a seat. The shelter was so full, and far too full for Christmas eve. He spots a seat next to the family he saw come in earlier and walks over and sits down. The father has taken a seat too. He must have decided to relax a little.

Leon nods to the man and his wife and says “Hello.” He also smiles and greets the children. The parents are apprehensive and nervous. It was obvious that they have never spent a holiday in a homeless shelter. Leon feels sorry for them, he knows how it is.

Once upon a time, Leon had decent job running a punch press. He and his wife Vivian, and their daughter Lisa, lived in an old run-down apartment building on the south-side. Life was pretty good, they didn’t have a lot but they had enough. Leon worked on the third shift, ten p.m. to six a.m. He hated working nights. Their neighborhood was dangerous.

One night, Leon was called into the office by his boss. A neighbor had called because there had been a fire on Leon’s floor. The fire department was still putting out the flames and the building had been evacuated but no one had seen Vivian or Lisa come out. Leon ran home as fast as his feet could take him.

As it turned out, the fire had started in the apartment adjacent to Leon’s. Some fool had fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand. The fire killed him and two other neighbors along with Vivian and Lisa. Lisa was only six years old. They both died in their sleep from smoke inhalation. Leon’s heart was broken.

Vivian was several years younger than Leon and they had tried for many years to have children. They were finally blessed with Lisa one month before Leon’s forty-first birthday. She was the apple of his eye. His pain is still strong, especially on holidays, but it always makes Leon happy when he sees a whole family. He is thankful for this family's blessings.

The boy of the family stared at Leon as he ate his dinner. Leon pretended not to notice at first but then he caught his eye and smiled and gave him a wink. The boy blushed and looked away. Leon chuckled.

“What is your name young man?” Leon asked the boy.

“Michael,” he answered.

“Well I’m pleased to meet you Michael, I’m Leon.” Leon put out his hand. Michael took it and gave Leon a firm handshake. Just like his grand-dad had taught him to.

“Hello, Mr. Leon.” said Michael.

This made Leon laugh again. “You can just call me Leon, son.”

“Okay, Leon.” The boy smiled. Leon reminded Michael of his grand-dad.

“Why are you here, Leon?” Michael asked.

“Michael, that is none of your business!” his father scolded. “I’m sorry Sir. He really has better manners than that.”

“That is quite alright. Children love to know things and asking questions is the best way to get to know things,” Leon said to Michael’s father.

“Well Michael, I’m here because I don’t have a house to live in. Just like most of these folks here,” Leon says as he motions to the rest of the room. “I once had a good job and a beautiful wife and daughter, but now all I’ve got is my grandpa’s harmonica and the clothes on my back. Oh, and my health. I can’t forget about that,” Leon said. And to make his point, Leon stabbed a thick piece of turkey and popped it into his mouth. Michael giggled.

“Wow,” Michael said. “It’s kinda like us. Dad lost his job and the landlord kicked us out of our apartment.”

“Michael I’m sure Mr.... I’m sorry what is your name?” Michael’s mother asked not unkindly but a little embarrassed.

“Leon Robinson, ma’am. You can just call me Leon.”

“Thank you Leon,” she says. “Michael, I’m sure Leon doesn’t want to hear about us. Now please drink your cocoa.”

“It’s quite alright ma’am. I really don’t mind. It’s nice talking to your little man here,” Leon said. “I’m very sorry that you were evicted. Times are tough.”

Michael's mother looked down at her lap while Leon spoke. He could see how all of their struggles were wearing her out.

“You know what?” Leon continues. “You have found the best shelter in the city. They’ve got comfy beds upstairs, good food, and a nice little chapel right through that door over there if you’re so inclined. They take good care of people here.”

Michael’s mom looks up and gives Leon a weak smile.

“Don’t worry honey, we’ll be back on our feet in no time,” Michael’s father whispers into her ear as he kisses her cheek. “I’ll go get us some food,” He says as he takes his daughter’s hand and leads her to the food line.

“You are a very kind man Mr. Robinson,” she says to Leon.

“Well, thank you ma’am. You have a very nice family, I’m glad to have met you,” Leon says sincerely.

“Where is your wife and daughter, Leon?” Michael pipes in.

Leon’s smile falters a little. “Well Michael, they're in heaven.”

“Oh,” Michael says sadly.

“Mr. Robinson, I am so sorry,” Michael’s mom says and reaches across the table and touches Leon's arm.

“Thank you ma’am, it was quite some time ago. And I do miss them something awful. I’m just thankful that they went together. That way, my little Lisa had a hand to hold as she entered the Kingdom of God,” Leon smiled with a tear shining in the corner of his eye.

“Oh my, they went together?” she asks.

“Yeah, some fool tried to burn our building down and the smoke got to them in their sleep. So they went to heaven together, mother and daughter. They meant the world to me, Vivian was the love of my life and Lisa was the life of my love. I miss them terribly, but I’ll see them again someday,”

“That is so sad,” Michael says.

Suddenly an announcement came across the loud speakers. “Attention, attention everyone. I would like to let everyone know that our beds have all been filled. Those of you with children will be accommodated. All single adults, we regret to inform you that you will need to find shelter elsewhere for the evening . Please feel free to try the Fifty Second Street Shelter, five blocks east of here. They sometimes have spare beds when we do not. We apologize for this inconvenience. Merry Christmas to you all and may God bless. Thank you.” Click.

“Well, I guess that means me,” Leon says as he stands up. He had finished his dinner.

“Where are you going Leon?” Michael asks.

“I’m gonna have to go to that other shelter and find a bed tonight. There’s no room for me here.”

“But, I don’t want you to go,” Michael says, pouting.

“Don’t worry young man. I’ll be alright,” Leon tells Michael. He turns to his mom and says, “It was wonderful meeting you and your family ma’am. You all have a good night, and don’t worry, you’ll get back on your feet soon.”

“Thank you Leon, and you be safe tonight. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you too.”

“Merry Christmas Leon,” Michael says while holding out his hand to the old man.

“Merry Christmas Michael,” he replies as they shake hands again.

“I want you to have this,” Michael says, handing a small toy to Leon.

“Well, what’s this?” Leon says while turning the toy around in his large hands.

“It’s one of my army men, I want you to have it,” the boy smiled proudly.

“Well, how nice of you Michael. Say, I've got something for you too.” Leon reaches into his pocket and brings something out. “Here, I want you to have this,” Leon hands Michael his harmonica. “You play that when you feel bad and it will make you feel good again.”

“Wow, a real harmonica!” Michael says with wonder.

Michael’s mother watches this exchange while tears run freely down her cheeks.

“Thanks Leon!” Michael says.

“And thank you Michael.”

Michael got up and ran around the long table to give the old black man a bear hug. Leon returned the hug gladly. They both had tears in their eyes.

Leon straightens up when Michael lets go of him and runs around the table again to rejoin his mom. He wipes the tears from his face and buttons up his coat. “I plan on coming back here tomorrow for the church service, so maybe I’ll see you then,” he says to Michael and his mom.

“Sure thing,” she says, smiling.

“Ok, good night now,” Leon says.

“Good night Leon,” Michael and his mom say at the same time.

“Thanks again Leon, for everything,” Michael calls to the old man as he turns to leave.

Leon pauses, turns back around to face them, smiles and gives them a little bow.  Michael giggles.

Leon walks to the front door of the shelter with a smile on his face. He pulls the door open and steps out into the frozen night.

The wind bites deeply. It is the coldest Christmas Eve in recent memory.

Leon makes the five-block journey to the Fifty Second Street Shelter. No room for him here either. The lady he meets just inside the door sincerely felt badly for turning him out. Leon feels no resentment toward her though. He understands quite well that space is limited and the children come first.

He leaves the shelter and heads toward his favorite alley. Having a favorite alley seemed odd at first, but this alley is behind an appliance store and Leon knows that he can find a good cardboard box to sleep in tonight. This alley is also quiet and far from where the gangbangers hang out.

“Oh lord, it is COLD this evening!” Leon speaks out loud to himself. He pulls his stocking cap down a little tighter over his ears. He doesn't have any gloves, but he has a good coat and he keeps his hands deep in the pockets.  He holds Michael’s army man tightly in his left hand.

On his way to the alley, Leon passes a liquor store. Leon doesn't drink often, he never did, but he thinks that a little something sounds good. He turns around on the sidewalk and steps into the warm store.

Just inside the door Leon stops to shake off the chill and remove his cap.

“Good evening,” says an old Asian woman behind the counter. Her face and tone of voice are expressionless.

“Good evening ma’am,” Leon replies.

The old woman eyes Leon suspiciously. She assumes that he is just some bum trying to stay warm and plans to loiter in her store without buying anything. Or worse still, that he may be planning to hold her up. Either way she has her hand under the counter, ready to grab her pistol.

Leon walks down one of the two aisles running the length of the store. He looks at some bottles of wine and can not believe some of the prices. One bottle cost more money than Leon had seen in the past six months.

“Hoo, Lawdy!” he says under his breath. He reaches the end of the aisle and finds something he can afford. It will cost him nearly half of the money he is carrying, but tonight is special. It is Christmas Eve. He takes the bottle to the counter and sets it down.

The old woman relaxes a little but keeps her hand near the gun while she rings up Leon’s purchase.

“Three, forty-nine,” she says without any enthusiasm.

“And worth every penny,” Leon replies with a chuckle as he hands her four very wrinkled one dollar bills. The old woman doesn’t even make the smallest of grins.

Leon takes his change and puts it into his pocket. He pulls his cap back onto his head, slips the bottle into his coat and under his arm.

“Well, Merry Christmas,” he says as he turns toward the door. The old woman makes no reply.

Leon steps back out into the biting wind and the old woman resumes reading her tabloid.

After a couple of blocks, Leon reaches the alley. He tries to keep a box hidden behind a dumpster so that he will have one when he needs it. The box he has hidden is gone. He looks inside the dumpsters for another box and can't find one anywhere.

“I guess I’ll just have to hunker down between these two bins for the night,” he says to himself.

Trying to be thankful for what he does have, Leon throws a bag of garbage down against the wall so that he had something soft to lean on. Then he sits down between the dumpsters and tries to bundle himself up the best he can. It is going to be a long night.

Leon pulls his wallet from his pocket and opens the pictures that he carries there. He sits, staring at the photos of his wife and daughter. A tear leaks from his eye and freezes to his cheek.

“I miss you two so much,” he says with a choked voice. His finger traces the face of Lisa. It was her first grade school picture. He remembers all the fuss she and Vivian went through that morning trying to get her hair just right. The dress was the easy part that morning. It was her favorite dress, she always felt so pretty when she wore it.

“Oh baby-girl, you are so beautiful,” he speaks to the picture. “You were so proud of that dress, your Princess Dress,” another tear freezes to his cheek.

He sets his wallet down in his lap with the pictures still open and pulls the bottle of wine from his coat and twists off the cap.

“Merry Christmas, my lovely ladies!” he toasts and put the bottle to his lips. He drinks deeply and when he tips the bottle back down he takes a long, shuddering breath.

He looks out into the alley and notices just how quiet the night is. He wipes the frozen tears from his face and feels just how alone he is. Alone and lonely. Leon is not the kind of man who ever feels sorry for himself, but every once in a while the feeling sneaks up behind him and tugs at his coat tails.

He looks down at the pictures in his wallet again. He allows one or two more tears to fall before he returns the wallet to his pocket.

He sat there between the dumpsters, sipping his wine, celebrating Christmas and freezing. The air was so cold that his wine began to slush up.

“Just as well,” he says, setting the bottle down. He pulls his knees up to his chest and leans against the bag of garbage. Trying his best to get comfortable, Leon Robinson settles in for the night.

“Now why did I give that young man my harp?” Leon asks himself. “ A little music would be nice right now. But, oh how his face lit up when I handed it to him. It's right that he has it now, he will get so much joy from it.”

Leon pulls his collar tighter to his face, closes his eyes and begins to sing.

“This little light of mine I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it...” In the middle of the last line, Leon drifts off.

In his sleep, a small voice fills his ears. It's singing, “let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

The voice finishes the song and then gently coos. “Daddy… Daddy. Wake up,”

It’s a voice that Leon thinks he recognizes, but it can't be right. Leon opens his eyes and sees the face of Lisa, his baby girl, just poking in between the dumpsters.

“Lisa?” Leon says in disbelief. “Is this a dream?”

“No Daddy, it’s no dream silly. I’ve come for you.” Lisa smiles.

“But you can’t be here baby girl. You’re supposed to be in heaven, with Momma,” Leon says while warm wet tears begin to roll freely down his cheeks.

“I was, and Daddy it’s so beautiful there. Come on, stand up,” she says as she takes her father’s hand and helps him to his feet.

Leon stands up and realizes that he is no longer cold. The tears stay wet on his face and his daughter Lisa, is holding his hand. He can feel warmth and life in her small hand.

“Come on, come on,” Lisa gently pulls her daddy’s hand and leads him along the alley toward the street. Leon takes a glance over his shoulder to the spot where he was sitting on the cold ground. He sees himself, hunched in the shadows between the dumpsters. His knees are drawn up tightly against his chest and his arms are wrapped around his bony legs. His head is resting against the wall behind him and his face is looking toward the sky. He is smiling.

Leon turns his gaze back to his daughter and asks, “Oh baby girl, where are you taking me?”

Lisa turns her smiling face up to her father and says, “To see Momma.”

Leon stares at her, amazed by what she has said. Then something catches his eye and he looks up toward the street. Leon watches the end of the alley and the street beyond disappear in a great flood of light. In the light he can see the silhouette of a woman, she is waiting. Leon recognizes the shape of his wife at once.

“Merry Christmas Daddy,” Lisa says as she leads her father into the light. His wide wonder-filled eyes return to Lisa's upturned face as a deep peace enters his heart.

Leon Robinson enters Heaven while holding his daughter’s hand.




This is a rewrite of the story LEON that I have posted in the past. I think that this is a better version. There aren’t many changes from the original, mostly small tweaks. I did add some things in order to “flesh it out” a little. I hope you like it, I still get a little misty when I read it LOL.


Sunday, July 08, 2012

Charlie’s Chop House

By Jesse Edwardson

The car entered the crowded parking lot. It drove slowly up and down the lanes looking for an empty stall. After several minutes, it finally took a spot in the parking lot of an adjacent business. It was quite a hike, as far as parking lots go, to the door of the restaurant. Tonight was a special occasion though, so no one minded.

“Okay guys, we're here,” Dad said as he turned the ignition off and looked into the rear-view mirror at the excited kids in the back seat.

“Yay!!!” they both cheered in unison. One boy and one girl, who looked like twins but were almost two years apart.

Mom smiled at her husband. “Happy birthday honey,” she said and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

“Thanks, babe. I love you.”

“Love you too,” she replied and gave his hand a quick squeeze.

She turned to face the kids in the back and said, “Okay you guys, are you going to be on your best behavior and use your manners?”

“Yes, Mom,” they said in unison again. It was clear that they have heard this question several times before.

“Alright then, let's get going. There is probably going to be a long wait. This place is pretty busy,” Mom said.

“Well, it's only been open for a few days. New places are always super busy for the first few weeks,” Dad said as he popped his door open.

They all got out of the car and started for the door. The family weaved through the cars, zigging and zagging. The night was clear and crisp. March had come in like a lion and winter still had a strong grip on the world. Their breath puffed in the cold air.

The son, who was a fantastic big brother, spotted the restaurant's sign. His little sister was still learning to read so he pointed it out to her and said, “Can you read the sign, Sis?” He was always doing this with signs and such. He enjoyed giving her opportunities to use her new skill.

She looked up at the front of the building and read the neon words there. “Charlie's... Chop... House... Good... People Meat... Good... Food.”

“Good job, but it says 'Charlie's Chop House WHERE good people meat good food.' The where must be burned out so it's not lit up,” Brother corrected.

“Oh,” she said. “Where good people meat good food.”

The son looked up at dad and said, “Dad, shouldn't the 'meat' be spelled m-e-e-t?”

“Yeah, but it's supposed to be a joke because this place specializes in steaks and burgers and such. Get it? Ha Ha,” Dad said.

“I guess so,” the boy answered. “But, it's kinda weird.”

“Yeah, it is,” Mom said.

They reached the door and the hostess opened it for them. “Welcome to Charlie's Chop House. How many in your party?”

“Four,” Dad replied.

“And your name?” the hostess asked.

Dad gave her his name and gathered his family around him in the crowded entryway.
“Okay, I have you down. It's going to be about a forty-five minute wait,” the hostess said with an is that okay? smile.

“That's fine,” Dad said.

The hostess walked away. Mom whispered to Dad, “She was kind of pale, wasn't she?”

“Yeah, I guess so. Maybe she doesn't get outside much.”

The packed lobby had benches lining the walls, stuffed with people. A small arcade area, with no room for anyone to play, filled one corner of the room. More and more people came in behind them and the hostess collected their names and checked them in. The family felt like sardines in a can.

The wait was long. The groups that came in ahead of them were called into the dinning room one by one. A bench became available and Dad lead his family to it. They all took a seat. The kids were rowdy in the noisy room, they were bouncing off the walls in excitement as the overhead speakers blasted Hotel California. After about an hour their name was finally called. They followed the hostess to their table.

“Here you are,” the hostess said when they reached a booth in the far corner of the dining room.

“Thank you,” said Dad.

Before Mom sat down she whispered something into the hostess's ear. She glanced at Dad and then nodded to Mom with a smile.

“Natalia will be your server tonight,” the hostess said as she handed out menus. “Can I get you all started with something to drink?”

“Yes, a Miller Lite for me, a glass of Cabernet for my wife and two chocolate milks for the little ones,” Dad said.

“Okay, Natalia will be right over with those. Thank you for coming tonight and I hope you enjoy your meal,” she said and then headed off to the bar to place their drink order.

“Well, I sure hope the food is worth that wait,” Mom said. She tried not to sound grumpy but failed just a little.

“It will be. I've heard a lot of great things about this place,” said Dad.

“At least I got out of cooking tonight so that's a plus,” Mom said with a smile and a wink at the kids. They winked in return and giggled.

Mom looked around the room and asked, “Hey, where do you think the exit is in this place?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the whole time we were waiting I saw a ton of people come in but no one left,” Mom said with a puzzled look.

“Really? I didn't notice,” Dad said. “By the way, you didn't tell that lady it was my birthday or anything did you?” He asked, smiling.

“Maybe,” Mom said with a sly grin.

“Oh boy,” Dad said, already embarrassed, anticipating the corny birthday song that would soon be sung to him by the waitstaff.

The parents got the kids settled. Their place mats had pictures to color and games to play printed on them. They each had a small box of four crayons to use laying on the table next to their silverware. All of these themed restaurants have place mats like these anymore. It's a good thing, it gives the children something to do while they wait for their food. With the kids all set, Mom and Dad had a few moments to absorb the atmosphere and wait for their drinks.

“This place is pretty interesting,” Dad said as he looked around the room at the decorations that covered the walls. The usual old pictures, license plates and knick-knacks adorned everything.

“Yeah,” Mom answered. “Are those meat hooks hanging from that cable up there?”

Dad looked at the ceiling, “Um yeah, I think so. What is that over there?” Dad said pointing in another direction. “It looks like a bunch of knives all fanned out in a circle.”

“It sure looks like that's what it is,” she replied. “Is it supposed to be pretty?” Mom asked. “Because it isn't.”

“I guess so,” Dad answered. He was just about to point out what appeared to be surgical tools hanging on another wall when the waitress arrived with the drinks.

“Hello, my name is Natalia. I will be your server this evening. Are you ready to order?” the waitress announced as she set the family's drinks in front of them.

The girl standing before them, delivering their beverages, wore an all-black waitress uniform. She was tall and very thin. Mom thought she looked impossibly thin as she looked her over. Her skin was pale, like the hostess', almost to the point of appearing to be gray. She wore little make-up, just some dark eye shadow, red lipstick, and a touch of blush on her cheeks. It helped her gray complexion, but not much. Her hair was straight and long and the darkest black Mom had ever seen. It was tied up in a beautiful red satin ribbon that weaved through the hair in a lattice pattern. It reminded Mom of something she had seen in an old painting once. The girls voice was rather musical and had a light accent, it sounded European or Russian. It was such a light accent that it was hard to place. Her hands looked very delicate with long fingers and long, red painted nails. They looked like the hands of a magician.

“And, for you ma'am?” Mom heard Natalia ask as she snapped out of her reverie.

“Oh, I'm sorry,” Mom said blushing. “I guess I was day dreaming.”

“It's quite all right ma'am,” Natalia said with a smile that just barely revealed the tips of sharp pointed teeth. Mom didn't notice, she was finally looking at the menu.

The daughter noticed Natalia's teeth, though.

Mom looked up and down the menu quickly trying to find something to order. She was embarrassed about how she had been caught staring at the waitress. The items on the menu were definitely named by an overactive imagination. She saw something called Hot Chick Sandwich in the poultry and fish section. Something called Chairman of the Board and Employee of the Month in the steak section. And something called Spicy Italian Bus Driver in the in the sub-sandwich section. Mom felt rushed and couldn't concentrate enough to figure out what the menu items actually were so she just gave up and looked at Natalia and asked for a cheeseburger and fries.

“Hey that's what we're having,” Dad and the kids said in unison. They laughed at themselves.

“Excellent,” Natalia said. “Would you like the chef to drag it through the garden also?” Natalia said as if this phrase were new to her.

“Yes, please,” Mom answered with a smile, knowing that Natalia had just learned a new term for 'put everything on it' from the man sitting across the table from her. Dad and the kids were still giggling.

“Ok, I will have this out to you as soon as it's ready. Please and thank you,” Natalia said with a small curtsey and walked away.

“Please and thank you?” Mom asked her husband with eyebrows raised as she brought her wine glass to her lips.

“Yeah, I know right?” Dad answered. “I don't think she's from around here. She sounds Romanian or something.”

“Or something is right,” Mom agreed.

“Daddy, I drew a picture for you,” The daughter said, tugging on Dad's sleeve and holding up her place mat

Dad took it and looked at it. “What is it baby?” he asked his daughter.

“It's the scary lady that gave me my chocolate milk, silly,” she answered with a proud smile on her face.

Dad stared down at the picture. Mom leaned forward over the table to look too. Together, they saw a picture of a tall, thin, black figure with black eyes, a red mouth and long red claws for hands. She drew streaks of red crayon running from the mouth and down the thing's throat and onto its black clothes. There were also dots of red falling from the things fingers and puddles of red at its feet. Both parents shivered at the same time. They looked up from the drawing and toward each other with wide eyes and gaping mouths.

Dad gulped and turned to his daughter and said, “Well, of course it is honey. Good job!”

The daughter glowed with pride.

Mom glanced over at her daughter's crayons and noticed the black and the red ones were worn down to nubs. The green and yellow ones were still unused.

“We understand that somebody has a birthday to celebrate,” Natalia said. The whole family jumped. They didn't see her walk up. Natalia tried to stifle a giggle at their reaction but failed.

“Yes, my husband's,” Mom answered with a little crack in her voice.

“Well, we would like to sing him a birthday song!” Natalia said as the rest of the waitstaff gathered around, smiling.

“Everyone, can I have your attention please. We have a birthday to celebrate! Please sing along with us!” Natalia announced to the room. Every face in the restaurant turned to look in their direction. Some faces were smiling, some faces looked dazed and confused as if singing a birthday song in a restaurant was new to them.

A chubby busboy took a pitch pipe from his pocket and blew into it. The rest of the waitstaff hummed the note and took a deep breath before they started their song.

Happy happy birthday, we hope you enjoy your food!
Happy happy birthday, aren't you glad it isn't you! HEY!

They all clapped and laughed after they finished their short song. The family clapped too but Mom and Dad didn't laugh. They shared a puzzled look with each other. The crowd dispersed and the other customers returned to their food.

Still laughing and clapping, Natalia looked at Mom and Dad and said, “Your food should be right up.” She walked away.

Dad looked at Mom and said, “Aren't you glad it isn't you?! Just part of the motif I suppose, huh?”

“I guess, but that is the weirdest birthday song I have ever heard,” Mom said.

“Um, yeah,” said Dad.

In a few minutes, Natalia returned with their dinners. Four cheeseburgers dragged through the garden with fries. She gave each of them a smile as she placed their plates in front of them. Her pointy teeth showed, but none of them seemed to have noticed.

“Ok, I hope you enjoy you dinner. I will be back with refills of all your drinks. Please and thank you,” Natalia said and left.

The food smelled fantastic. Mom and Dad each helped one of the kids put ketchup on their burgers and fries and then dug into their own meals. The burgers were the best tasting they had ever eaten. The meat had a rich flavor that they have never experienced before. The toppings were fresh and crispy. The fries, well the fries were just fries nothing special about them.

Natalia returned with their drink refills and said, “Does everything meet your expectations?”

“More than meet them. This is the best burger I have EVER had!” Dad exclaimed. The rest of the family nodded their heads in approval.

“Well, good. Excellent,” Natalia said. “Is there anything else I can get for you while I am here?”

“Actually, can I have an iced tea?” Mom asked. “This wine is very good but I'd like some iced tea while I eat if it's no bother.”

“Oh, no bother at all,” Natalia said. The emphasis on the word bother indicated otherwise. She picked up the wine glass, put it on her tray and headed toward the bar.

Mom looked at her husband and said, “Did I detect a slight attitude there?”

“Maybe a small one. Maybe she's had a long day,” Dad said.

“Well I don't think that's my problem,” Mom said. Her anger was obvious.

“This burger is seriously the best I have ever had,” Dad said trying to change the subject.

“I know,” Mom said losing her anger a little.

“It's like nothing I've ever had before. The meat is so rich. Almost like it's a mix of veal and pork or something. It's SO good!” Dad said and then turned to the kids. “Do you guys like your burgers?” They both nodded and smiled around their sandwiches.

Mom's heart was softened by this exchange. “Are you having a good birthday honey?”

“Yes! You're the best,” Dad answered as he reached across the table and gave his wife's hand a squeeze.

They stared at each other a moment longer and then got down to business on their food. Within ten minutes their plates were empty. Then, at almost the same moment, Dad and Son leaned back in their seats and rubbed their stomachs while letting out a satisfying burp. Like Father like Son, Mom thought and smiled to herself.

“Hey, where's your iced tea?” Dad asked, suddenly realizing Mom's drink never arrived.

“I don't know. It's okay though. I'm ready to go anyway,” She said.

“Okay, well, she should be bringing the check pretty soon,” Dad replied.

“I hope so,” Mom said.

In a short time, Natalia did bring the check.

“Here you are,” She said, putting the check in front of Mom. “ I hope your dinner was exceptional.”

“It was, and could I ask you something?” Dad said.

“Of course.”

“We all ordered the same thing, but I forgot what it was called?”

“It was The Customer's Always Right and it is our most popular burger,” Natalia answered, smiling.

“Oh, right. That was it! No wonder it's so popular, it's delicious!” Dad exclaimed.

“Yes, it is. It is one of my favorites as well,” Natalia said. “When you are ready, you may go through that door in the corner and pay the cashier,” she pointed at a door that the family hadn't noticed until now. “It has been my pleasure serving you this evening and it is my hope that you will tell your friends about us,” Natalia said this with a smirk that made it obvious that she didn't really mean it.

“We will, and thank you for taking such good care of us,” Dad said, obviously forgetting about the iced tea that never came.

“You are very welcome, and I will enjoy you very much. Please and thank you,” Natalia said with a smile and a curtsey before walking away.

“What did she say?” Mom asked Dad. “I will enjoy you very much?”

“I'm sure she meant to say 'I have enjoyed you very much,'” Dad said with a peculiar look on his face as if he hoped he was right about what he had said. “You know foreigners, they're always mixing up words when they speak English.”

“Yeah, you're right,” Mom said.

“Ready to go guys?” Dad asked the kids.

“Yup,” they answered in unison.

“Thanks again, honey,” Dad said to Mom as they got up from the booth.

“You're welcome,” she answered. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

The family made their way through the crowded restaurant toward the door. They were all in a great mood. The food was fantastic, the service was good. Creepy, but good. Everyone was happy. They reached the door, paused to put on their coats, and then pushed through the exit.

The four of them entered the exit lobby and saw a small, shriveled old lady sitting on a stool behind a cash register on a small counter. She glanced up from something she was reading when they entered the small room and stared at them blankly.

Mom approached the counter and offered the bill. The old woman snatched it from her hand without speaking. She looked at it and punched some buttons on the cash register then looked at Mom with empty eyes.

Thrown off by the woman's silence, Mom presented her credit card to the cashier. “Here you are,” she said.

The old hag took the card and slid it though the reader and handed it back to Mom. Her expression remained blank the whole time. The receipt printed, and the woman tore it from the machine and handed it to Mom with a pen.

Mom took the pen and receipt, jotted down a generous tip, and totaled the transaction on the slip and handed it back to the old woman. The woman handed Mom a copy of the receipt and then returned her attention back to whatever she had been doing before they entered the room.

The whole transaction lasted only seconds but was one of the most uncomfortable moments of their lives. Mom and Dad looked at each other with raised eyebrows and wide eyes. The look silently communicated, 'Let's get the hell out of here.'

The kids were oblivious to this whole exchange between the adults and were waiting impatiently by the door that must lead to the outside. Mom and Dad joined the kids and pushed their way through the door.

On the other side of the supposed exit door, the family was shocked to find themselves in a brightly lit room lined with ceramic tiles and furnished with stainless steel tables. The tables were the kind you might find in a medical examiners autopsy room.

Mom and Dad were grabbed from behind and the kids were whisked away through an adjacent door.

“How sweet, fresh meat,” a rough voice whispered in Mom's ear. She screamed.

Dad struggled to free himself from his captor. “Let go of me you son of a bitch!” he yelled.

A voice whispered in his ear, “Actually, I'm not a son. I'm just a BITCH!” It was Natalia. She held Dad across the chest in a bear hug with one arm. She was impossibly strong. Her other arm was raised. In her slender hand she held a straight razor. It flew through the air and across his throat as quick as a lightning strike. The blood poured from Dad's open throat and soaked his clothes like a waterfall. He grabbed his neck in a futile effort to save own his life.

Mom watched this happen through blurry eyes as her tears and screams flooded her senses. Dad's dying body was carried to one of the tables by two black clothed men and strapped down. His movements and struggles slowed as the blood flowed from the wound. The cut across his throat looked like some kind of weird mouth that was spitting blood. Natalia yelled orders to the others in the room to gather as much of his blood as they can. She was thirsty.

As her minions collected Dad's blood in stainless steel pails that hung from beneath the table he rested on, Natalia dropped on all fours and began to lap up fallen blood from the floor. She looked like a human dog lapping up red water. She crawled across the floor, following the trail Dad left behind him, making sure that she didn't miss a drop. She paused briefly to bark out an order to strap Mom to a table.

Mom was dragged, kicking and screaming, to another steel table adjacent to the table that Dad's lifeless body now rested. She was strapped down quickly only catching glances of the person doing the strapping. It was the pudgy busboy that had blown the pitch pipe for the birthday song. He looked down at her while he did what he was told. His face was empty of emotion.

With his task completed, the fat busboy left the room.

Mom struggled in her bindings. She screamed incoherent threats, cried worries about her children and the word WHY? Over and over she cried, WHY?

Natalia rose to her feet when she had reached Dad's table. She then walked, almost slinked, across the room toward Mom. Her face held a look that was pure lustful hunger. She leaned in close to Mom's face, her vampire teeth now fully visible. Her lips were coated with a thin layer of blood. One stray drop rested on her chin and was slowly creeping it's way down toward her neck. Natalia lunged with her open mouth toward Mom's throat in a playful manner. She clearly enjoyed this game because she giggled to herself in a playful, childish manner.

The carnage on Natalia's breath, a dark coppery smell, filled Mom's nose. She struggled to keep herself under control, but could feel her gorge rising in her stomach.

“Why is this happening?” Mom asked the pale, yet pretty monster that leaned over her.

“It's my break time and I'm RAVENOUS,” Natalia answered.

“What are you doing to my kids you BITCH?” Mom screamed in Natalia's face.

“Oh, don't worry about them. They will be on the kids menu tomorrow,” Natalia crooned as she lightly stroked Mom's face with her long finger.

Mom's eyes opened wide as complete understanding flooded her with shock and horror. The strange decorations in the restaurant, the funny names of meals on the menu and that strange birthday song.

Natalia smiled, as if to a lover that had just promised their undying love. “Yes, we are the hungry ones, who feed the hungry ones to the hungry ones. We take what we need and well, you know the rest.” She lifted Mom's chin fully exposing her throat and said, “I have enjoyed serving you this evening. And, by the way, I didn't forget your iced tea. I didn't bring it because it makes your blood taste funny...” Natalia's final words were just a whisper as she nestled her face into Mom's exposed throat and plunged her teeth deep into soft flesh. Mom's body jerked and her eye's fluttered as Natalia's teeth broke the surface of her skin. The blood flowed at once. It filled Natalia with a freshness of life that always took her by surprise. Her satisfaction was apparent as her eyes rolled back into their sockets.

After taking her fill, Natalia wiped blood from the corners of her mouth and sucked it from her fingers. She carried a deeply satisfied look on her gentle face and walked to the door that the busboy had escaped through. She knocked and spoke. “Wayne, please come and collect the meat.”

The chubby busboy entered the room. He glanced toward Natalia, subservient and fearful. He took hold of the table holding Dad, another slave collected Mom and they rolled the parents into the kitchen.

Natalia watched them leave. When they were gone, she did a curtsy and then spoke under her breath, because this was her private ritual, “The customer is always right. Please and thank you.” She giggled.
The End?

Note; The phrase “Yes, we are the hungry ones.” is a tribute to Ray Bradbury. It was a line in the film version of his story “Something Wicked This Way Comes” It was spoken by Mr. Dark, the carnival operator and apparent demon who feeds upon people's pain and misery. I kind of cheesed it up by adding the rest but I think it works well for this story. The line “How sweet, fresh meat.” is borrowed from one of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies. Thank you Freddy Krueger LOL.

This story was mainly inspired by the horror comics published by EC Comics such as “Tales From The Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror.” The idea for this story occurred to me while Debi and the kids and I were waiting to be seated at Red Robin. We were out to celebrate my birthday. I happened to notice how people kept piling up behind us. Of course people were also making their way out with Styrofoam boxes full of leftovers but I wondered “what if no one was leaving as new people kept arriving, where would those people be?” So, I decided that the people who never left were feeding the new arrivals.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


By Jesse Edwardson

I know they say you can't go home again
I just had to come back one last time
Ma'am I know you don't know me from Adam
But these handprints on the front steps are mine

The House That Built Me - Miranda Lambert

She was told by the insurance man to meet her at the house at three o'clock but she arrived at two. She needed time alone with all that she had lost.

The days first tear slid silently down her cheek as she walked up the driveway.

The house had been a dream come true for Tina. It was fairly old, built in 1940, but she had fallen in love with it at first sight. The previous owner had performed a lot of updates including a new heating and air conditioning system, a water softener and a deck on the back of the house that was great for entertaining friends. The interior had been extensively remodeled with new flooring, light fixtures and paint. It was “move-in” ready.

Moving day was amazing, extremely busy but still amazing. She had never owned anything before. She had rented plenty of apartments in her life up until now. But this time she owned it. It was all hers. She remembered unlocking the door and stepping into the front room carrying the first box into an empty house, empty and waiting for the new life it would hold. She knew she was Home.

Now, standing in the littered driveway, Home felt dead. The house was half destroyed by fire. The fire investigator had determined that an electrical short in the house’s old wiring had caused the fire. “Just one of those things as they say. It was no ones fault, these things just happen.” He had told her. She was probably supposed to take some kind of comfort in his words but she couldn't find any. It might be easier to handle if she could blame someone or something. If she could point her anger and sadness in some direction she could get rid of it faster. Instead, all she can do is wade around in all that emotion until it finally drains away. If it ever drains away.

The driveway runs up the right side of the house to the garage that is set back from the rear of the house. Between the two buildings was a breeze-way that offered a great shady spot in the summer and protection from snow in the winter. It now lays scattered in charred pieces on the concrete. A pathway was made through this debris by the fire-fighters. Tina walked through this trail to the back door and pushed it open.

The inside walls were impossibly black from all the smoke. She didn't step in all the way, the firemen warned her that the floors may not be stable and could collapse at any time so she only leaned in to take a look. Her tears were flowing freely now. She felt as if someone had died. Her heart hurt, her head throbbed and her knees felt weak.

Everywhere she looked was a memory. She could see the spot where her son's highchair stood when he sunk his face into his first birthday cake. She could hear all the laughter of that day ringing in her head. She could see the notes and pictures, now charred and black, still hanging on her refrigerator. The small table and chairs in the breakfast nook were there looking like something from a horror movie. The paint was hanging off the walls in giant sheets. It looked like peeled black blisters.

“Thank God we got out in time.” she said to herself in a low whisper. The night of the fire her son was spending the night at a friends house and she was sleeping when her boyfriend shook her awake. The fire traveled through the walls and burned from the inside out. The smoke detector never had a chance to go off. It had melted from the heat behind the wall. Brad had gotten up to use the bathroom and saw the flames flickering on the outside of the house through the window. He woke Tina up and they hurried out before the house was completely engulfed in flames.

Tina stepped back out of the door way and pulled the door shut. She turned around and saw a man and a woman standing in the driveway. The man was a little overweight with graying hair, the woman was a beautiful red head. She recognized them at once.

“Oh, Hi. I didn't see you there.” Tina said as she tried to wipe the tears off of her face.

“That's ok, I'm sure you've got a lot on your mind right now.” the man said as he gestured toward the burned shell of a house. “We shouldn't have snuck up on you like this.”

“Yeah, sorry. We just happened to be driving by and thought we'd stop and take a look at the house.” The woman said. She seemed a little shy and embarrassed for Tina. The couple were James and Lisa, the people Tina had bought the house from. The truth is, they felt drawn to the house as if some force had pulled them here. “We heard about the fire on the radio. We feel so bad for you. We know how special the house was to you, as special as it was to us while we lived here I guess.” In the days after hearing the news of the fire, James and Lisa could not stop thinking about the house that they use to call home. The couple had shed some tears themselves. James once told his wife that he feels as if a close family member had died.

“It's so sad, we feel as though we lost something right along with you. Just like you, this was our first home. Lots of memories lived within those walls,” James said with a slight crack in his voice.

“Thanks, yeah lots of memories,” Tina said while wiping a new tear off of her cheek.

Lisa stepped forward and put her arms around Tina and gave her a hug. Even though the two women hardly knew each other the hug felt natural and was something both of them needed. James stood by and tried not to let his own tears fall.

Just then, James heard footsteps behind him. He turned and couldn't believe what he saw. It was an elderly couple, a woman with gray hair done up in a tight bun and a narrow bird-like face walked carefully through the debris strewn driveway with an old hunched over man walking with a cane. James knew them although he hadn't seen them in over twenty years.

“Mr. and Mrs. Clark? Is it really you?” James said clearly surprised.

The two women turned their heads at the sound of James' voice and released each other from their embrace. Lisa recognized the name but had never met this couple in person. The couple were the people that James and Lisa had purchased the house from so many years ago.

“Yes, and you are John?” Mrs. Clark replied.


“Oh yes, James. I'm sorry. My old noodle isn't as quick as it used to be.” Mrs. Clark said.

“That's ok, How are you two?” James asked.

“We're fine, just fine,” Mr. Clark answered.

James was dumbstruck. He thought, what are the odds that we and the Clarks show up here at almost the same time. He stared at them in amazement.

“Tina, this is the couple we bought the house from. Mr. and Mrs. Clark.” James introduced them.

“I'm sorry if we are intruding but we felt compelled to come here today. Are you the owner young lady?” Mrs. Clark asked Tina.

“Yes ma'am. My name is Tina, I'm glad to meet you.” Tina said as she put out her hand to shake with Mrs. Clark.

“I'm very glad to meet you too,” she answered. “We are so sorry for your loss. Losing your home is something very heartbreaking.”

“Yes, it has been very hard to deal with.” Tina said.

“I'm sure. Your family is all safe I pray?”

“Yes, thank God. My son was at a friends house and my boy-friend woke up in time to get us out safely.” Tina said.

“That is good.” Mrs. Clark said with a smile.

“Young lady, you have lost a great deal here but I hope you know that you are very fortunate that a house and some things are all that you've lost.” Mr. Clark said with a kind smile.

“Yes, I know.” Tina said. She was touched by these people's kindness. She felt as though they were all a kind of family. They did all share a home together after all.

The small group stood in the driveway for a while. Talking, telling stories about their lives spent in the house. They laughed and shed a few tears together.

In a short time more visitors showed up. The people that the Clarks had bought the house from were there. A man who had rented the place before that came by. The couple who had rented the house to that man showed up shortly after him. Then, a man who was the son of the people that the owned the house before them came by. He had grown up in this house and told the ever growing group that he had felt something pulling him home. They all felt that pull.

Something was bringing them all home.

More stories were exchanged: baby's first steps, birthday parties, Superbowl parties, all the things that make a house a home. Someone’s Aunt had fallen down the steps to the basement. Apparently she had dropped a dollar on the landing and bent over to pick it up when she rolled down the stairs. She didn't get hurt, only embarrassed. Someone else told a tale about their kids making a huge mess with baby powder all over the floor of the nursery. Everyone laughed. The kids had played dumb, as if they had no idea how the powder had gotten all over everything. Tina felt her heart lighten with each story. She no longer felt alone with her loss.

The man who had grown up in the house told a story that his father passed down to him about the man who had built the place. His name was Willard Jenkins and he had built the house for his wife Ellenore. Mrs. Jenkins died before the house was finished and Willard had died shortly after it was finished. He had lived in the house alone for only six months or so. The rumor was that he died of a broken heart. He and his wife had dreamed of filling the house with children but of course that never happened.

Everyone in the group was quiet as he finished the story. They all looked at each other and felt a strong kinship. This place was all home to them. Other houses had come and gone in all of their lives but when they heard the word home it was this place that came to mind first.

Just then, Tina noticed a new arrival walking up the driveway. It was a man in his mid-twenties. He looked as if he had just stepped out of the 1940's. He was dressed in brown pants, a faded blue long sleeved work shirt. A brown fedora rested on his head. He reminded Tina of Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies.
He approached the group, nodded to them and walked on. He went straight to the house. He appeared to be looking for something.

Tina thought, doubtfully, that maybe he was the insurance man finally showing up. “Sir, are you from the insurance company?” she called after him. He didn't answer he just continued looking at the corner of the house near the back door.

He began feeling around the burned and melted siding. His strong fingers found a gap in the corner piece. He pulled on it and it came away from the house with a cracking sound. He dropped the vinyl siding to the ground and peered at the exposed wooden siding beneath. His fingers traced something carved into the wood. He smiled to himself and looked thoughtful as a tear slid out of the corner of his eye. His hand lingered on the carving for a minute or so before he dropped it back to his side and faced the group. He walked directly to Tina.

By now she was sure that this man was not the insurance guy. He looked as though he had stepped out of the past and she felt as though he belonged to this “family” that was assembled in the littered driveway. Her own tears had started flowing again as he touched her chin and raised her eyes to his.

She looked into his kind face as he spoke. “Don't be sad, this home was filled with life and love that we all will carry forever.” Tina smiled and he smiled. He gently wiped away the next tears that escaped her eyes with the back of his hand. The man nodded to her and turned to face the group and nodded to them. He then started back down the driveway.

Everyone watched him as he walked away. They all wondered who he was, but at the same time they all knew who he was. As he reached the sidewalk he began to fade. At first the people standing around Tina could see through him and then they could only see his outline and then he was gone.

Where the man had disappeared a new visitor was marching up the driveway. In his suit and carrying a briefcase he was obviously the insurance man Tina had been waiting for.

Everyone looked at each other in amazed disbelief. Tina turned toward the house and walked to the corner that the man had pulled free. She saw, carved into the wood siding, a heart. It looked as though it had been made with a pocket knife. Carved inside the heart were the initials W.J. + E.J. Tina smiled as fresh tears filled her eyes.