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.
“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.
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.