The following comes from Then A Penguin Walked In and Other Tall Tales, currently on sale digitally and in paperback.


THE SMELL OF COOKING grease hung thick in the air the way a blue whale might. The sponge-like cloud formed itself around Dominick Hanrahan like a malodorous cocoon, blocking out everything but the heat that wafted up off of the deep-fat fryers. He stared blankly into the four steaming vats of oil and tried to think back to happier times—to better days—but the stench of superheated vegetable oil made it more than a little difficult.

Dominick was idle and bored, as was wont to happen at this time in the morning at the Happy Hamburger Drive-In Restaurant. Between the breakfast and lunch rush there wasn’t much to do, other than clean, and that was a thought he found no pleasure in.

Instead, he clutched at a plastic salt shaker and wondered what might happen were he to plunge it into one of the fryers. He figured the plastic would melt, but what would happen to the salt within? He looked around the narrow cook aisle as he mulled the decision over in his mind.

On one side of the aisle sat a large grill with bun prep station and condiment bar. On the opposite side—Dominick’s domain—lurked the four fryers with a french-fry scoop station located to the left, and an industrial freezer to the right. Everything had been done up in gleaming stainless steel because it was easier to clean.

The boss, Mr. Finkleton, was in the back taking his pre-lunch constitutional. He’d taken a book with him into the employee restroom, which meant he’d be a while. Melissa, the lady who manned (womaned?) the grill behind him, wouldn’t care if Dominick fried the salt shaker. If anything, Mel might egg him on.

In the end, he decided not to do it. While he was positive that Mel could get away with such shenanigans, Dominick knew for certain that he himself would be caught. He’d always had a knack of not getting away with things.

For a moment his eye caught the mark on the palm of his right hand. It had been there for as long as he could remember; a curious paleness that he’d always thought looked like a hammer right in the center of his palm. He’d asked his parents about it many times, but they’d never had an answer. A birthmark, nothing more.

Suddenly, cutting through Dominick’s musings, a shrill beeping sounded from the computer up front, its insistent cries begging–nay, demanding–to be attended to. He panicked and shoved the salt shaker in his pants pocket.

Following the beeping come a loud clatter from the back of the store. More specifically, the clattering and banging sounded from behind the closed doors of the employee restrooms.

“I’ll get it!” Mr. Finkleton called, bursting from the men’s room and buckling his belt as he hurtled up the cook aisle.

Dominick braced himself as the boss hurried past for fear of being pushed into one of the fryers. The narrow cook aisle inside the Happy Hamburger left little room for two average-sized human beings to stand back to back and Mr. Finkleton was larger than most string quartets.

Sweating, Mr. Finkleton arrived at the computer, pulled on a headset microphone, and pushed a large red button on the computer’s right side.

“Happy Hamburger, how may I help you?”

The computer was an overlarge piece of machinery that was made up of a monitor and keypad. The keypad wasn’t like the keyboard on your typical home computer. Each key on this pad had a picture of a hamburger, cheeseburger, or other product offering at the Happy Hamburger. Mr. Finkleton was punching keys furiously as the customer ordered from out in their car.

“Hanrahan!” Mr. Finkleton yelled, despite the fact that Dominick stood within slapping distance. “Tots! We need more tater tots!”

“Yes, Mr. Finkleton,” he mumbled in reply.

Dominick opened the freezer door to the right of the fryers, a sigh escaping his lips of its own volition, yearning to be free. He moved in the methodical, unhurried way of someone who was clearly just going through the motions.

Dominick placed a few handfuls of frozen, barrel-shaped tater tots into a small, rectangular, steel mesh basket, and plunged the basket into the boiling vegetable oil. He stood, motionless, stoic, statuesque, gazing with feigned interest at the fries as they bubbled, popped, and hissed in the liquid fat.

He could sense the frenzied activity going on behind him as Mel created hamburgers at supersonic speed. Dominick just stood and waited on the fries. Wishing, no praying, that there was more to life than the Happy Hamburger.

“How long on those fries?” Mr. Finkleton cried as he wrapped burgers in grease proof paper and thrust them into a bag.

“Thirty seconds,” Dominick said, watching the timer on the front side of the fryer.

Tater tots took two minutes to cook, the same with fries. Onion rings took three; chicken patties took four and a half. Dominick knew all the times by heart. It was something he’d been proud of once, back when he was still a kid and this was just an after school job he’d taken to earn enough to keep gas in his car.

That was six years ago. He’d graduated high school with little thought for his future other than freeing himself from the prison he’d once called home.

College had never really been an option for Dominick Hanrahan. He’d never had the drive to keep his grades up beyond just squeaking through at a solid D average, he’d avoided all manner of sports like a zombie apocalypse, and he’d never been able to spell extracurricular activity, much less know what one was, so a scholarship was out of the question. Growing up, his parents had always seemed to be between jobs, a situation which made a college fund something akin to Bigfoot, so paying his way had never been an option.

He’d been told by his high school counselor, on more than one occasion, about the various Federal Aid programs that might help pay for his post-secondary education, but in the end, Dominick just wasn’t interested in more school. He’d never had the kind of fond memories of his days at Eudora High that hearkened back to the fabled ‘Glory Days’. He’d always just been one those walking-the-halls teenagers who had generally tried to avoid getting beat up, a task he’d often found unsuccessful.

At twenty-two, he still felt like the same guy. But instead of classrooms, classmates, and lockers; he had walk-in freezers, coworkers, and fryers. He couldn’t imagine a life that would ever be much different.

The fryer beeped at him. The tots were done. He turned off the alarm, pulled the basket from the oil, shook the excess oil from the tots, and dumped them into the scoop station where he used the specialized scoop to fill a medium sized colorful box with the crispy tots. It was, in fact, his last medium box.

“I need tot boxes,” Dominick announced. He shuffled out of the cook aisle before Mr. Finkleton could respond and made his way into the back room where they kept all of the supplies.

A minute later he found small boxes, large boxes, even super extra-large boxes, but no mediums.

He stuck his head around the corner to look up the cook aisle.

“I don’t see any,” he called out.

“Try the basement,” Mr. Finkleton shouted back. “We got them on the truck two days ago.”

The basement. A cold lump of ice formed in his stomach.

Dominick hated the basement.

There were spiders in the basement.

He caught Mel’s eye as she threw him a look of mock terror from underneath her Happy Hamburger hat. He only scowled in return.

The Happy Hamburger had been built so that you weren’t able to get to the basement from within the building. Meaning that Dominick had to leave through the back door and take the steps to the right that led down underneath the pavement. He stood at the landing and gazed into the dankness that was the bottom of the concrete steps. Nothing moved, but he knew the spiders were there.

The last time he’d been in the basement he’d seen a lizard. Mel hadn’t believed him, but he’d seen it all the same. It had been a tiny little thing, but it had been clinging to one of the concrete walls. All Dominick could think of from that point on while he’d looked for a box of cups was the horror of lizards and spiders dropping down on top of him from the ceiling. He could feel them crawling beneath his shirt even now as he stood looking down the stairs.

He didn’t have to go down there. He could quit. Just walk away. There had to be better places in this city to work. Jobs that didn’t require you to brave falling spiders and lizards.

Two thoughts changed his mind and got his feet moving down the steps.

The first was his fifty dollar-a-month comic book habit. If he walked away now, he wasn’t guaranteed to find a new place of employment right away. It may be weeks before he would be hired on someplace else, and he couldn’t miss picking up any of his issues.

The second was the thought of starting somewhere new. Being around people he didn’t know then put into a situation where he would be forced to get to know them. It all sounded like a lot of work. Plus, he’d have to learn how to do this new job. It would be like starting all over, which, in fact, was exactly what it would be.

So he made his way down the stairs, pausing on the final step to give his surroundings the sort of visual inspection that would cause even Sherlock Holmes to comment on the high degree of obsessive behavior. Satisfied that there were no spiders or lizards about, Dominick stepped off the last step, opened the door to the basement, leaned in just far enough to flick on the lights, and then shuffled inside.

The door swung automatically shut behind him with a thunk and a click, the two sounds having a sense of finality about them. He pushed aside his fear and moved to the boxes just inside the door with the speed of a striking cobra.

Originally, the basement had been meant to be used as a tornado shelter. It was as wide and long as the building above. It had been made to house the employees, and a full lot of customers, were a twister to strike during work hours. In the thirty-nine years that the Happy Hamburger has stood, not once has there been even the worry of a tornado. So Mr. Finkleton had been using it to store that which wouldn’t fit upstairs.

Dominick couldn’t find what he was looking for in any of the boxes near the door, so he moved further into the room, throwing startled glances at the ceiling above him as he went. It wasn’t until he reached the supporting column midway into the room that he found the medium boxes.

He sighed and tore into the cartoon. There was no sense of delicacy about the operation. He could have used a box cutter to slice open the packing tape that held the flaps at the top of the box together. There would be a box cutter down here somewhere. It would only be the polite thing to do. That way, once he’d grabbed up what he needed, he could just close the flaps back up. After all, it made stacking and storing much safer.

But Dominick wasn’t interested in anything but getting through this as quickly as possible. So, by the time he was able to starting pulling boxes from the carton, the entire top third of it had been removed and what remained was a jagged mess.

The door opened behind him and Dominick sighed once again. It would be just like Mr. Finkleton to check on him. Not out of worry for Dominick’s well-being, but because he would assume that Dominick was down here loafing.

“I found them,” Dominick said. He moved to ensure that he was directly between the carton of boxes and the door. It wouldn’t do for Mr. Finkleton to see the state in which he’d left it.

But there was no reply. No biting comment about Dominick taking his sweet time. No scathing remark in which Dominick’s dedication would be called into question.

Nothing but the steady sound of ragged breathing.

Dominick turned.

“I’ve got them right here, Mr. Finkle—” but he couldn’t finish.

What he suddenly faced standing in the doorway before him took the words from him, stole them right from out of his body like a mugger in a dark alley.

Dominick blinked.

He shook his head. Then he blinked again.

He couldn’t quite make his brain process what his eyes were telling it.

It wasn’t Mr. Finkleton.

It wasn’t even human.

It was a lizard.

A big lizard.

A lizard that stood on two legs and held a sword.

A part lizard, part man creature like in that game Dominick used to play in Junior High with the dragons and the dungeons and such. In other words, a genuine Lizard Man straight from the books.

It stepped into the room. It had been stooping to get under the doorway and now stood at full height. It was at least two heads taller than Dominick. It wore some kind of leather armor with circular steel plates sewn into the chest. Its sword was curved and broad and looked big enough to split Dominick down the middle without much effort.

Dominick rubbed his eyes violently with both fists. His eyes cleared and the thing was still standing there gripping its sword.

“Are you him?” the creature said. Its voice conjured images of gravel rolling around in a plastic barrel.

“Uh,” was about all that Dominick could make himself say.

The walking horror crossed the room in four strides and before Dominick could so much as squeak in terror, the thing was standing over him.

“Let me see your hand,” it said.

“Um,” Dominick said. “Um...”

“Your hand, human dog! Show it to me or I will take it off at the wrist!” The creature brandished its curved sword.

Dominick held up his left hand as he fought against the tears that were forming at the corners of his eyes.

“Your right hand!” The thing barked. “Show it to me!”

Dominick held up a shaking right hand and the lizard man took it in his own. Its tough skin was dry and rough like sandpaper. It gazed at the birthmark on his palm.

“Yes,” it hissed. “The mark. You will be coming with me.” The lizard man tightened its grip on Dominick’s hand and pulled him away from the wall.

There comes a point in every person’s life, when faced with danger, that they are forced to make a choice. Fight or flight. For some, the choice is made for them. For example, Dominick wanted to choose flight, but the creature held him fast. He could only fight if he wanted to survive, and survival was very high on his list of priorities for the moment.

So, screwing up his courage, Dominick made a fist and punched the monstrosity square on the tip of its broad snout.

The creature hissed in pain and let go of Dominick’s arm.

Dominick ran for the door. He’d only made it a few steps before something hard struck him across the backs of his legs. He dropped to the concrete floor like a bag of hammers and slid into a stack of boxes. They fell atop him like an avalanche of cardboard. Dominick cried out in pain. Though the boxes, filled as they were with paper products, weren’t really all that heavy, the corners stabbed into him with no consideration to his all-so-tender skin. Skin which had been known to bruise from nothing more than a well-aimed stern look.

“There’s no point in running from me, ape,” the creature said. “I’ve spent far too long looking for you. A week in your world is like months in mine.”

That made about as much sense as a walking, talking lizard, so Dominick chose to ignore the thing’s statement as he dug himself out from under the mountain of boxes. Again, he didn’t make it far. The creature took hold of an ankle and pulled him free.

“Give over, ape. I’m not letting you go,” the thing said, looking down at Dominick and he lay sprawled on the floor.

“Why?’ Dominick said. “What did I do?”

The lizard man didn’t answer. Instead, moving faster than Dominick was prepared to deal with, it had him wrapped up in arms that felt like steel. It squeezed. Tighter and tighter.

Dominick couldn’t breathe. He kicked and struggled in the thing’s grasp, but the more he fought, the tighter he was held.

“Fighting is useless,” it said. “Soon you will be unconscious and then I will present you to my Lord. I may even put a bow on you.”

Dominick could do nothing but look over the thing’s shoulder at the doorway to the outside world. It was just a dozen steps away. Freedom, so close. He began to lose focus. Everything but the far rectangle of light grew hazy and dark. He watched enough television to know that his brain was being deprived of oxygen and that soon it would all be over.

But he didn’t want things to end. Not here. Not like this. Sure, his life wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but he did feel rather attached to it. He tried to imagine everything he’d yet to do. Like see the Grand Canyon, learn to play the piano, or find himself in a lifelong, committed relationship that was all about love and mutual respect.

But none of that was ever going to happen. Not anymore. His life was going to end here in this spider-infested basement. The thought, probably the last thought he would ever have, made him angry.

The anger sparked something deep within him and suddenly the fog lifted and everything became clear and vibrant like a rich man’s television. He’d always hoped to own a television like that one day, but the creature who held him wanted to put an end to all that.

So he reached deep within himself. Grasping in the dark for something, any spark left within him that would help him fight back. He dug deep. Deeper than he’d ever been. And there, hiding somewhere behind his liver, he found a light, something to grab onto. He took hold of it and shouted:


But that was it.

Nothing happened.

He’d had his moment and he’d done nothing more than scream out a monosyllabic cry of defiance which did no good whatsoever.

The lizard man did not let go. Instead, the creature laughed at Dominick’s pathetic attempt at resistance.

“You have spirit, ape,” it said. “Little good it will do you.”

The thing tightened its grip

Dominick’s vision blurred as he looked at the open door. He tried to focus on the sunshine. He yearned to be out there in the open. But he’d never see the sky again. The realization of that fact settled around him like an old comfortable blanket and Dominick gave in to it.

Then a penguin walked in.

To be continued...


No comments:

Post a Comment