It was dark at the corner of Almont and Terribleau street. With an overcast sky and no streetlights, the darkness would have been absolute, but for the Passthrough diner.
It was a 24-hour eatery for those coming in or going out, and the yellow tube lights underneath its overhang cast a reassuring glow against the gray concrete below. A sign-post hung just outside the door, pointing down the long road, casting a faint white glow that struggled to push away the darkness, yet could be seen for hundreds of yards.
Inside, the diner was brightly lit with white light, reflecting on the polished red stools and granite slab counter. Occasionally, a lonely car would pass, its headlights illuminating the stop-sign at the four-way stop outside, and then it would pass on.
A small group was gathered, sitting on the stools at the counter.
"You did not." Chelsea was challenging her friend Mark, who had claimed that he had once caught a girl who had fallen from a tree.
Mark, as calm as always, back leaned against the counter and arms spread casually, just grinned. "I sure did. Crossed a wish from my bucket list."
"You're like a knight in shining armor," Holly said, habitually adjusting her red-rimmed glasses that had, as was their habit, dropped to the tip of her nose. If she did not push them up, they'd teeter forward until they dropped onto the floor. More than one lens had been replaced this way, but her adjusting of the glasses remained mostly unconscious.
Mr. Jimmy, the diner proprietor and all-around nice guy, was on the other side of the counter with a classic paper "sail boat" hat, leaning his elbow on the countertop, cheek resting in his hand. He had on an amused expression that wasn't quite a smile. "Stranger things have happened."
The group of three friends met here when life became so hectic and frustrating that they felt like there was nowhere else they could turn. They had each other, and Mr. Jimmy, who had been something of a sage to them, doling out wisdom like complimentary bread and butter at a cheap restaurant.
"I don't doubt that it could have happened," Chelsea said. "I just don't believe this noodle-arm who has never lifted a weight in his life
caught a 140 pound girl falling from a tree."
Chelsea was expecting some snide remark, but Mark was staring. Turning around in her seat, she followed his gaze. The diner had large glass windows with metal frames that went from the ceiling to almost the floor, affixed in the concrete wall. Outside, they could see the sidewalk, illuminated in the yellow light of the diner, and a small bit of the street that faded into blackness beyond.
"What?" Chelsea asked, suddenly nervous. She didn't like the way he was staring, and she didn't like the way the darkness engulfed the world just outside the light.
"I wish this place had streetlights," Holly whispered.
"Yeah," Chelsea whispered back. "Mark! What are you looking at?"
"Oh, uh, nothing. I thought I saw something."
"Are you trying to scare us? Because it isn't working."
Holly said, "It's working on me. I can't even look out of the window anymore."
"No, I'm not trying to scare you. I just thought I saw something."
A momentary silence descended upon the group. They looked at one another.
Holly finally spoke. "Can we please talk? I'm getting frightened."
They all began laughing quietly.
"Who says 'frightened,' anyway?" Chelsea ribbed..
"The girl had an education," said Mark. "Let her alone."
Holly feigned a haughty sniff, closing her eyes, "Leave, not let."
"I'm gonna let you guys leave," said Mr. Jimmy, "if you start arguing." They all began bantering again, forgetting about the darkness that lurked outside.
Headlights faded into existence, throwing a shadow behind the stop-sign outside and stretching it, long and thin across the sidewalk. A hundred other subtle, tiny shadows moved from left to right as the car neared, slowed, idled at the four-way. A few moments later, the rear wheels spun, screeching on the asphalt. Every head in the diner jerked toward the window as the car jolted forward and roared into the night.
"Show-offs," Chelsea said, rolling her eyes. "I wonder if guys like that think anyone is impressed."
"What's that?" Mark said.
"Don't start this again!" Holly pleaded, but she couldn't resist looking out. At first they all saw nothing, but Chelsea thought she made out some kind of - something. Shape? Movement? There! There it was. It was across the road, beyond the light, but there was some sort of reflection, some gleam that was shifting about.
There was a dead quiet as they all watched. A humanoid figure came onto this side of the road, just inside the light cast by the diner's yellow fluorescent lights. It was pitch black, and oleaginous. That's the white gleam Chelsea had seen. It was as glossy black as tar. It was moving in a strange, flopping gait, rising and lowering at the waist, thin legs dragging forward with each step. Its arms were even thinner, and ended in long, stiletto-like protrusions instead of hands.
Chelsea felt a scream strangling somewhere in her throat, and Mark had stood to his feet beside her. The creature's eyes were but pinpoints of white light, yet there was some strange intelligence there. It came close enough for the interior diner lights to reflect on its pitch-like flesh that seemed to ooze down endlessly without ever dripping.
"What is that? What is that? What is that?" Chelsea repeated over and over.
"I don't know," Mark stammered. "I don't know!"
"Everyone stay calm," Mr. Jimmy said. "It's probably some kind of prank. Like those clown things. He's probably just going to stand there staring."
They waited and watched. The thing looked at them, then turned its eyes to the left.
"The door." Chelsea gasped.
Mr. Jimmy, surprising everyone, leaped over the counter, dashed to the door and threw the dead-bolt switch. It turned and locked with a satisfying metallic click. Jimmy backed away from the door then, not moving his eyes from the strange visitor.
The visitor lifted one long, thin stiletto and stared at the window, turning its pinpoint eyes up and down, studying. Then it began to tap the glass.
"You break that glass and you'll pay for it!" Mr. Jimmy warned, but Chelsea could hear the fear in his voice. He must have been hoping as much as her that whatever it was would go away. It didn't. It began tapping harder, faster. The glass began to making crunching sounds.
Mr. Jimmy came back, slid over the counter deftly - he had worked here a long time - and pulled the phone receiver off the wall-mounted base and began dialing. The kids could hear the numbers being dialed, and they knew right away who he had called. 911.
"Yes, I've got some maniac outside trying to smash the glass on my diner. Yeah, name's Jimmy Duran, it's the Passthrough Diner." He gave the address. "Yes, as soon as possible. Thank you." He held the receiver out toward the stranger outside, "I've called the police. You better beat it!" He shouted. It didn't deter the stranger, but in fact it began to draw back its stiletto and smash into the window with force. Long, craggy cracks split across the glass.
"Kids, back behind the counter. Now."
Chelsea and Mark scrambled over, but Holly, she was still sitting there, silent and still. Chelsea landed on her feet and turned. Seeing Holly, she reached across the counter and took hold of her arm. "Holly! Holly?" Chelsea tugged her arm. "Get over here." No response. Holly must have been in shock, because she wasn't responding to anything Chelsea was saying or doing.
Mr. Jimmy hopped up on the counter, grabbed Holly under the arms and hauled her up, lowering her onto the other side of the counter. She sank to the floor, her knees splaying out on each side of her.
"Holly!" Mark shouted, crouched down in front of her. He shook her and she finally came to, slapping and crying. "Stop it! Stop! Get away from me!"
Mark let go of her shirt and held his hands up in supplication.
Holly drew her knees to her chest. "I want to go home. What is that thing?" She felt both fear and guilt, but the fear was more important right now.
"It's O.K., Holly. It's just some vandal or something. The police will be here any minute, O.K.? The-"
The glass shattered with an explosive peal, cutting off her words. Mr. Jimmy was standing, watching. He looked around and grabbed a frying pan. A cast-iron one. It was heavy-duty. "I have a weapon and I will use it," he called.
The creature pushed its way through the opening in the glass, leaving black goop oozing on the jagged, razor-sharp edges. Then it set its feet inside the diner, kicking a shard of glass across the floor. It skittered along with a high-pitched ring, bounced against the base of the counter
and spun to a stop.
Mr. Jimmy waited, hands wringing the iron skillet's handle. He licked droplets of sweat from his upper lip. Chelsea stroked Holly's shoulder while Mark crouched in front of them both protectively. In his mind he had already resolved to do anything to protect them, just as Mr. Jimmy had.
The creature started toward him, reached the counter and hopped up. It didn't need hands, it leaped at least 6 feet high and landed on the table, scattering aluminum napkin holders and salt shakers across the counter and tumbling onto the floor.
Mr. Jimmy didn't wait. He swung with all of his might. It was a solid hit. The heavy skillet struck it right where its pelvis should have been. Should have been. It buried in as if the thing were made of moist dough. Stunned at first, Jimmy quickly returned to action, attempting to pull the skillet back, but it wouldn't come. It was as solid as if it had fused to the thing.
The creature lifted a stiletto. Jimmy saw it and backed away, prepared for a strike, but the stiletto didn't strike, it opened. It opened into three elongated triangles, revealing a hole like the barrel of a cannon. Black goo of some sort shot out of it. Jimmy couldn't have expected it. The tar-like goo splattered onto his torso. He tried to grab it and pull it off, but it stuck to his hand and stretched in long tendrils between his hand and his chest. It was spreading. Desperately, he grabbed a spatula and attempted to scrape it off, but the spatula only dug an inch or two before it stuck fast. Seeing the goo spreading he began to panic, to thrash, but it was at his neck now, covering his knees, his wrists.
Then he was suddenly still. It covered his mouth. He breathed in rapid, panicked bursts from his nostrils, his body unresponsive, standing like a statue made of tar.
Chelsea watched in horror as the viscous black liquid covered his nose; she witnessed the terror in his eyes become absolute. All three of the kids were trying desperately to remain quiet, but Holly was wheezing, sobbing. Chelsea had her arms wrapped around Holly's shoulders, as much for her own comfort as Holly's. Mark was staring wide-eyed, but his mind was racing. He had to get them out of here.
The creature jumped down to the floor on this side of the counter. The breath caught in Chelsea's chest. It was going to kill them all, and there was nothing she could do.
Mark stood, every muscle in his body tense. He was prepared to stall this thing. Yet, the creature did not so much as look at him. Mr. Jimmy had thrashed himself to the far side of the counter, and the creature lumbered and flopped toward him, the barrel on its arm closing again into a stiletto. It drew back and stabbed into Jimmy's chest. Chelsea heard his muffled scream.
Standing suddenly, Mark darted toward the fire extinguisher, pulled it off of the wall and jerked the pin. It clattered to the floor. "You two, get over that counter and go. I'm going to hold this thing off for as long as I can."
Holly's senses had returned enough that she looked up at him with her red, tear-streaked face, eyes glassy behind fogged glasses. "What about you?"
Chelsea stood and took Holly's shoulder, hauling her to her feet.
"I'm right behind you," Mark assured her, "Now go, go!"
They both scrambled over the countertop and rushed toward the door.
Mark had some idea about sacrificing himself, maybe taking this thing down with him or something, but it was fixated on Jimmy's corpse. Jimmy was dead, almost certainly. Mark stared. Maybe he could kill this thing. It deserved it. He considered it. A sickly squelching sound was coming from over where that thing stood, arm still pushed deeply into what was now only a human-shaped, black statue. The creature was distracted. Mark felt his arms tense as he prepared to act.
It was a stupid idea, though. He had no idea what this thing could do, what it could withstand. He knew how quickly it could kill him if it shot him with that disgusting black tar, though. Dropping the fire extinguisher, he turned and leaped the counter, threw open the door and followed the girls' trail out.
They ran around the building, looking back over their shoulders every few steps. Parked in the back was the car they'd come in. It was Chelsea's. Dashing across the small back lot, Holly tripped and landed bodily on the concrete. Her glasses skittered across the concrete. Chelsea stopped to go back for her, but Mark came flying up behind them and dipped down to grab Holly.
"Don't stop!" He shouted to Chelsea as he pulled Holly to her feet. "Just go, go!"
Chelsea ran around to the driver's side of her car and began fumbling with her keys. Her hands were shaking. Where is the right one? Here, here, get it. She fumbled and dropped the keys. By this time Mark and Holly were waiting on the passenger's side, anxiously casting glances over their shoulders.
"Get the door open!" Mark shouted.
"I'm trying!" She screamed back in frustration. His yelling at her gave her enough presence of mind, stilled her nerves just enough. She shoved the correct key into the door, turned. Click. The lock disengaged and she jerk the door open by the handle and mashed the electronic unlock button. All the locks disengaged. Mark fairly threw Holly into the backseat, hopped into the front and slammed the door closed, slapping the lock down manually.
"The car won't start," Chelsea said.
Mark looked over incredulously. "It better fucking start! You said your sister takes care of this thing!"
"She does! I don't know why it isn't working!" Chelsea screamed frantically as she turned the key again and again. She pulled the key out and then reinserted it. Turned. Nothing.
"That thing is going to come back any moment!" Holly cried from the back seat.
"Chelsea," Mark suddenly said, looking at her feet.
"I know it's coming back, do you think I'm stupid!" Chelsea was screaming at Holly.
"Chelsea!" Mark yelled, projecting his voice.
"The clutch. Hold down the clutch."
Chelsea stared at him. Then she pushed down the clutch and turned the key. The car turned over twice then roared to life.
"Go. Go, go, go!"
She slammed the handbrake down, threw the car into first gear, released the clutch and mashed her foot down on the gas. The little hatchback hopped the curb, drove along the building sidewalk, crashed down on the cement, ran the stop-sign and Chelsea didn't even slow down until the diner's lights had faded completely from view.