FOOD CHAIN – A Short Story by William Allen Pepper
“Who had the chicken?”
“Over here,” the balding, bespectacled guy said as he hung his suit jacket over the back of the chair.
The waitress, petite but skillful, balanced the large tray of lunch platters on one hip and passed the chicken special over. She was grateful today would be a short shift at the outdoor café and she could go back into the air conditioning and put her feet up. She liked being indoors; safe and secure.
“And the vegetarian lasagna?” the waitress asked.
“You’re sure there’s no meat in this?” the curly-haired woman asked. “They messed it up last time.” Her tone wasn’t entirely accusatory; but it was far from friendly.
The waitress’s smile was thin as the layer of sweat on her forehead. “I’m sure.”
“Hey, Cheryl,” the guy in the polo shirt said. “Offer to double the tip if she’ll taste-test it for you.”
The business-class table laughed, even as Cheryl seemed to consider the idea. The waitress smiled through clenched teeth. T-minus forty-eight minutes until she was out of here.
Outside the little gate that separated the café from the sidewalk arose a flurry of activity as pedestrians suddenly became aware of…something. It was a nonspecific awareness at first before sharpening into time-worn, dreadful knowledge. Everyone, even Cheryl and her party, stopped to scan the horizon.
“It’s coming! It’s coming!” an old man in a Grateful Dead shirt out on the street said. A pink-haired girl with an iPod and rocky road ice cream cone shrieked.
Another guy in sneakers and black socks sprinted from around the corner toward the café. “Oy! It got Corrigan. And it’s coming this way!” He didn’t stop running.
The outdoor café burst to life, people pivoting, plates clattering to the floor, all eyes on the street. Waiting, but not moving; not a single hair.
“This way!” the waitress finally called. Then, when no one moved, added, “Move it!” She opened the double doors that lead to the café’s interior and herded everyone inside.
T-minus forty-four minutes.
Why couldn’t this have happened an hour later, the waitress wondered, when she was comfortably in her dwelling?
Inside the café’, the diners barely looked up from grazing on their specials as the outdoor patrons moved suddenly indoors. It was feeding time. What was there to worry about?
The deafening burst of splintering wood and pulverized glass, however, brought everyone to their feet. People sprinted and stumbled over toppled chairs as they huddled into the far corner of the restaurant. The restaurant’s entrance was filled with the black coarse fur and muddy claws on the fist of one of the predators. It didn’t have a name, but the humans didn’t need one. For as long as humans had breathed the air, it, and others like it, had hunted them. It would definitely come without being called, so why name it?
“Shut up!” the waitress hissed. “We’ll be fine.”
The gnarled fingers of the thing grasped blindly at whatever it could reach; the arm inching inside the restaurant up the elbow, overturning tables and plants as it swept along the floor. The excited growls of the thing the arm was attached to shook the building; plaster rained down.
It got the busboy first. He didn’t stand a chance, weighted down by the big tub of dishes. The dishes shattering on the floor almost, but not quite, drowned out the screams. No one else moved.
It was still hungry.
The matted, newly-stained fingers searched the dining area for another victim. A claw poked at Cheryl, smearing her pants suit with human gore, but she managed to compel herself to move just a few inches toward the dessert station and out of reach. The bald guy in glasses, though, wasn’t so lucky.
With admirable, or pathetic, resignation, glasses guy let himself be picked up, whimpering only a little and looking around as if he wasn’t entirely sure what was about to happen even though everyone knew.
“Nom-nom-nom!” said the thing through a mouthful of businessman. Thick eyeglasses clattering to the floor and a spurt of scarlet middle-management blood and it was over. The fist did not make another appearance inside the café. Its hunger, it seemed, was temporarily sated.
After a few moments, the patrons realized the feed was over, heard the thing shuffle away through a sea of noon-time traffic and squealing tires. The survivors here, as they did everywhere else in the neighborhood, resumed their normal lives. Chairs were set upright. A new busboy cleared away the remains of various overturned meals. The departed businessman’s plate was cleared away and his now cast-off jacket was claimed by a survivor. Everyone sat and resumed their lunchtime conversations.
“All veggie. Right?” Cheryl asked.
The waitress smiled gamely. “Yes, just as much as when I said it the first time.”
Cheryl nodded, satisfied for now. The waitress gratefully moved on to another table.
T-minus thirty-six minutes…
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