McTire knew it was going to be a bad day when he had to wait for the snow plow to clear out his driveway. Thick grey clouds hung close overhead, turning the dawn grimy and dark. Even his monster four wheeler couldn’t break through the bank. McTire had waited, coffee freezing in his bundled up hands, until those huge lights burned out of the not-night like distant angels, approaching at ten miles an hour.
It was still fall, for chrisakes!
As he drove to the diner, (he’d called ahead to let Mildred know he was going to be late, which, she said, was just as well, since that would give the plow time to clear her road home too, and maybe he should just close up, since she’d had two truckers all night. “Close?” He’d said, flabbergasted. “We’re Tire’s 24-hour diner. We can’t close!“) he took the opportunity to thrash through a few smaller drifts. It made him feel a little better, and then he laughed at himself.
When he pulled into the iced over parking lot it was snowing again. Mildred was standing by the glowing open sign frowning at the snow, the empty restaurant behind her.
“Hope you brought a book.” She told him, as she left.
He had. He’d brought three. He’d been planning to clean everything before he started reading, but Mildred already had. Probably twice. Even the inside of the toaster and under the counters.
He flicked the switch for the big “Tire’s 24-hour DINER!” sign up top, and then went to check to make sure it had fizzled on. Mildred had turned it off at dawn, but the clouds had only grown thicker. It was getting dark. McTire read his Best Shooter magazine and watched the empty highway. At five o’clock, dark enough to be eleven, the phone rang. The noise was so startling that McTire spilled his third cup of coffee all over the bar.
That was alright. Cleaning it up would give him something to do.
“Hello, Tire’s 24-hour Diner, we are open, how may I help you?”
“Hey, got any one?” It was Mildred.
“Not a soul all day.” McTire said, righting his coffee cup and searching around for a bar cloth.
“Yikes. You think we’ll get any tonight?”
McTire dropped the cloth on top of the coffee spill and looked out. The light from the windows didn’t make it a foot outside, blocked by falling snow. He couldn’t even see the parking lot anymore.
“I sort of doubt it.” McTire conceded gloomily. He couldn’t see his truck either. “But the sign is on, and the snow usually melts off it.”
“Well, it’ll have to melt off tomorrow morning, because I can’t make it tonight.”
“Why not?” McTire said, shocked. Mildred was as reliable as, well, snow in December.
“The passes are closed, Tire. Have you got the news on?”
“It’s the lotto.” McTire answered automatically, looking at the silent screens and then looking around for the remote. “What’s happening?”
“Only the biggest blizzard this side of the ice age.”
“Milly! It ain’t even November!”
McTire flipped the station, to watch the blond on channel 6 mouth soundlessly with pictures of falling snow and an ominous looking chart behind her. “Yikes.” He said. “Well, you have a safe night now, okay?”
“Will do. You gonna go home?”
McTire looked out at the flood of snow currently serving him as a parking lot. “Well… You know, I suppose I could give it a try.”
McTire finished cleaning up the spill and gathered up his things, but the snow was so thick in the parking lot he couldn’t get the truck door all the way open without serious tugging. He went back inside and turned the heat up and called the Missus.
“You on your way home?” She asked, probably looking worriedly at the clock.
“Not tonight. Snowed in.”
“Damn.” She said, but without any particular shock. “You gonna be okay?”
“Oh yeah, we got a delivery day before yesterday, and everything is still working.”
“Alright. I’ll let Terry know, just in case.”
Terry was the sheriff.
“Sounds like a plan. You let him know we’re open if he wants to swing by.” McTire joked.
“Alright. I’ll let the polar bears know too.”
“Good plan! We’ve got ribs, I could do a special.”
They both laughed, and chatted for a while. Then McTire hung up and made himself another cup of coffee and a big bacon sandwich.
It was so dark outside. The windows served as perfect mirrors, only the too deep shadows and unexpected darkness in well-lit spaces giving them away. The wind hissed and screeched, as if it was angry that it couldn’t reach him.
McTire settled into his spot behind the register, just in case someone did come in, and read his book about the Civil War. He’d been working on it for a while now, but it one of those books you always got interrupted reading.
He’d made it three paragraphs into Kansas joining the Union when the windows fluxed and rattled, and the door shook. McTire looked up, but the wind didn’t slam it open. The lights flickered out. The coffee maker started to burble. He took a gulp of coffee.
Then the door slammed open. By the glow of the coffee maker and the stove gas light he could see the register, the counter, not much else. Darkness seeped in the door, somehow darker then the ordinary darkness of the restaurant. Air, cold and sucking like the kiss of the dead, blew flakes of solid darkness onto his face, where they gently melted.
A voice hissed. “You’re open?”
McTire felt his spine try and leave his body. He swallowed his mouthful of burning coffee. “Always.” He croaked out.
“Good.” The hiss rattled at the end, like a dying breath.
The door slammed back the other direction, bells thrashing, wind forcing the door out before slamming it back into the frame.
The lights came back on.
There was no one in front of him. The door was shut.
But there was a trail of melting snow on the clean linoleum.
And, distant, but somehow clear under the sound of the screaming wind, singing, coming closer. He couldn’t catch the words, but something told him he didn’t want to know.
A light was traveling along the outside of the restaurant. It warped and ruined the reflections as it passed. It looked like an emergency lamp on a stick or something. It came around to the door.
This time the door opened gently, the bells tinkling happily. Two young boys stood at the door. Both wore long red caps, like Santa hats only without the little puff balls at the ends. One had a long wooden staff, with a glowing round cage of wire on the end. The bulb was too bright too see, giving the impression that there was a ball of light stuck in the cage. The wind ripped into the restaurant, rattling the menus and making the bells shiver.
“oOoOOh.” One of the little boys said, the one with the pole, in a very deep voice.
The other little boy, who had a longer cap, reached up and jingled the bells with a crabbed hand. They jingled.
“OoOooh.” The other boy said again, still apparently amazed. The wind whipped through again, bringing more snow this time.
“Please come in!” McTire said. “Your family coming behind you?” He could still hear the strange singing, getting louder.
Both boys turned to glare at him. Sharp glares. They felt like pricks on his skin, from dark beady eyes. But they stepped into the restaurant and let the door shut behind them, with another jarring jangle of bells.
“No.” The boy, at least he was the right size to be a boy, with the longer cap said. “Behind us rides the Winter Queen and her lovely dark host.”
“Number in the party?” McTire asked, automatically.
The one with the long cap opened his mouth. Then he shut it. The one with the pole shuffled his feet. They looked at each other.
“Maybe fifty, sixty?” The one with the pole said.
“Probably about that. We counting the hounds?”
“Oooh, we’d better.” The shorter hat said. “Just to be safe.”
“Right.” Long cap nodded. The red was dark under the bright lights. He looked back to McTire and cleared his throat. “About seventy or eighty.”
Fire marshal capacity was eighty. McTire nodded. “Alright. We’re a bit short handed right now, but we’ll get you served as fast as possible. Don’t suppose you know what beverages I could get started?”
He turned on all three coffee makers and started pouring pitchers of water. The little boys, they were very burly for boys, wandered from booth to booth, looking under the tables and exclaiming at how clean it was. They’d just settled on booth number three, apparently it was the ‘best one’, when the door slammed open again.
McTire winced. He was probably going to have to repair that wall. He grabbed his order pad and walked around the counter, glancing over the—
McTire nearly stumbled. But he was on autopilot now. “Good evening and welcome to Tire’s, please have a seat! Any idea what sort of beverage I can grab for ya?”
The bull headed man rolled his huge yellowing eyes around, to focus on McTire. McTire was a big man. He wasn’t used to looking up to meet people’s eyes.
The bull-man pulled his huge, bare, muscled shoulders back and then snorted, huge gust of air sending the ring in his nose swinging. “Coffee. And beer.”
“Sure thing. We’ve got Coors and bud on tap and a couple of imports in the back.”
The bull man looked at him and leaned in. “Beer.” He said. The floor rumbled slightly under McTire’s feet.
“Right you are.” McTire said. That ruled the Coors out. “Take a seat wherever!”
McTire heard the bells jangling, and a faint voice going “Oooh, look at that! They make noise!”
McTire pointed to the stack of menus behind him. “Menu’s are right there. We’ve only got forty, so you’d better share them around!”
The bull-man snorted again, eyes still following him intently. McTire smiled and tried to lean around the bull, without much luck. Suddenly the bull stepped aside, on light feet, pressing himself up against the wall of the entrance.
There was a little girl there now. She’d taken the bells off. She had long red hair that streamed freely behind her, and she kicked the door shut with the back of her foot as she turned to look at him. She moved with startling speed, like a striking snake.
A grin appeared on her face, with teeth too sharp to be hers. Her eyes were the grey of snow clouds. “The beer is for me.” She said. “I’d like a pitcher of your house brew, please. Unless it’s pale. Then I’d like a pitcher of your blood.” She said it all in a light hearted little girl voice, until she got to the end, when she dropped in to what must have been her ‘creepy announcer’ voice. McTire smiled, despite the unease that was starting to swirl around his stomach.
“He’ll have milk.” The little girl continued, jerking her thumb at the towering bull-man.
The bull-man grunted. “And coffee.”
“I’m afraid I can’t serve you beer, miss. You’re too young.” McTire said, very seriously, trying to joke with her.
She shook the bells slightly, as if thinking. The bull-man was leaning carefully around him to pick up a menu. He did it delicately, like he was trying not to break anything. Like the menu was a butterfly he didn’t want to startle.
“How old do you have to be?” The girl said after a moment. Her mouth was too big. It split further up her cheeks then it should have. McTire tired not to stare.
“Twenty one, miss, and I have to see your id.”
“Twenty one thousand?” She asked, suspiciously, little girl lisp slipping in.
“No, just twenty one.” The door slammed open again, and the little girl jingled the bells.
“Exactly twenty one?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Over twenty one.”
Her grin got long and thin. “I’m way over twenty one.”
McTire smiled, trying to sound like this was still playing. “Then I’m afraid I need to see your ID, miss.”
She reached a tiny hand up towards him. “Here, look at this.” She was opening her palm. McTire obliged, leaning down to look into her palm.
“What, is this a line? Move out of the way!” Someone was saying. It seemed distant. Something was glittering in her palm. McTire tried to squint at it, to see it clearer.
The bull snorted and roared, waving the menu.
“Oh.” The newcomer said. “Well, you’d better clear out! She’s coming!”
It was a little crystal ball or something. McTire reached out for it.
“Do you know what this is?” A voice, almost the voice of the little girl, hissed in his ear. His vision went black. McTire tried to struggle, but he couldn’t move. He felt like he was floating, somewhere very cold. “It’s your soul.”
McTire tried to open his eyes, but he wasn’t sure he had eyes anymore.
Oh man. The coffee was going to burn!
“I eat souls!” Hissing, spitting, seething roar.
Cold wind on his face.
McTire snapped his eyes open, and found he was looking into the cold grey iris of the little girl with the sharp grin. “So get me my damn beer, okay?” She said.
McTire nodded. “Right away, ma’am.” He stood up and scuttled back behind the counter.
“And one for me!” A tall gentleman by the door called.
“A round!” The shot muscly boys from booth three shouted.
McTire scrambled into the back, following the smell of burning coffee.
“And a strawberry milkshake!” Something called after him. There was whooping and hollering, and the door slammed again, the wind screaming into the front.
McTire closed the kitchen door behind him and took a deep, shaking breath. The lights were glaring back here, shining off of the meticulously cleaned metal counters and the grey linoleum.
He’d better get the ovens on too.
McTire took another deep breath. What an odd family. He flicked on a few switches to start the process, and grabbed a whole armful of pitchers. They had twenty tables. He stumbled out to the bar and started lining up the pitchers. He had a couple out already, full of water.
The coffee! McTire went back and pulled the pot off the burner, grabbed the second pot, put both on a tray and got the third pot on his way around the counter.
The tables were filling up rapidly, and the door was slamming and banging. McTire frowned. There was no way he was going to manage this crowd on his own. And Milly was snowed in, and everyone else was off for the day.
He was going to have to get unconventional.
McTire put the tray down on the counter and pulled out a bunch of mugs. On his way back down under the counter he caught sight of a man who was on fire. Totally on fire. Everyone seemed pretty calm about it.
Clink-clink-clink mugs on the counter.
McTire surveyed the crowd.
It was like the old days, back at the sports bar. On Superbowl Sunday. When Jim, John and Joe had all been sick. And the Peacocks were unexpectedly in town. And the European fans with the soccer-bowl thing.
Hey, they even looked like soccer fans.
The two burly boys with the red caps had been ousted from their booth by three tall women with eyes like the darkest night and faces like models from the magazines, complete with the slightly creepy angles and the sickening thinness. They were just standing there, surveying.
The bull-man and the little girl were at booth seven on the other side of the seating area with the flaming man and two tall, thin men, one with no eyes and the other with no ears.
Booth eight was occupied entirely by crows. Literally crows. One of them was smoking. The place was seething. And more people were coming in.
McTire took a deep breath. “Drinks on the bar! Get’chur own!” He kept stacking cups and mugs, and then started filling pitchers with beer from the tap.