Nick knew the road. The motels that blurred into one another, smelling of sex and desperation beneath the cheap cleansers. He ate greasy burgers in more railcar diners than he could count.
The sign said Picket Fences, a railcar diner brighter and more cheerful than most. A place to get a bite before the long drive home.
Nick knew the road. He knew how heat mirages made things look different than they were—he never expected to end up in a mirage himself.
People say beware of what you wish—that includes fantasies.
On Friday afternoon Nick found himself propositioned by a prostitute for the first time in his life.
It happened in what he would have thought was the most unexpected place. He’d been driving for most of the day when he saw a diner up ahead beside the road. Fashioned with two railroad cars painted yellow, with white trim, the sign above proclaimed it as “Picket Fences.” True to the name a small white picket fence surrounded a green lawn out front. Daisies waved in the breeze. The diner looked like an oasis in the barren desert of the highway. The dingy gas station next door looked like it belonged but the diner stood out. His stomach rumbled and before he realized he had decided to stop he had already signaled and was turning into the parking lot along the side of the diner.
As he walked inside a bell rang above the door and he was greeted by the scents of bacon and burgers. He heard the sizzle from the grill. The first railroad car held a bar and a row of tables for two. Through the connecting door he could see that the second car contained larger tables. The only people in the place were a waitress behind the bar and a guy in a blue suit nursing a drink. The waitress looked to be mid-thirties, trim with dirty blond hair tied back. She welcomed Nick with a bright smile as he came into the diner.
“Take a seat. What would you like to drink?”
Nick slid onto a stool one over from the guy in the suit. He glanced over and the other guy looked back with red-rimmed bloodshot eyes. Nick nodded and the guy turned back to his drink.
Nick looked up at the waitress, noting that she had amazing green eyes. “Coffee would be great.”
“Gosh, if you’re that easy to please I’m not even going to have to work here.”
Nick chuckled. Behind her he could see that the back wall of the train car had been removed to allow an addition which contained the kitchen. He couldn’t see the cook but there was a teenage bus boy washing dishes. He looked back at the waitress and saw her name tag read “Janice.”
She set a steaming cup of coffee down in front of him. He met her eyes again. “If it isn’t out of line, is Janice your real name?”
“So my mother tells me. I don’t think she’s the baby-swapping type.” She laughed openly.
“Well then Janice, what’s good in here?”
She put a hand on her hip. “Other than little ol’ me?”
He flushed a bit and couldn’t think what to say.
“Oh quit teasing the guy,” the drunk suddenly said. “Why don’t you just tell him the specials for once?”
Nick was shocked at the guy’s outburst. Janice waved a hand at the drunk like she heard it all the time. She turned back to Nick.
“Our double patty melt is on special today. That comes with fries and a soda, if you like. Plus we’ve got a lemon meringue pie that’s heavenly.”
“And?” The drunk leered.
Janice waved her hand again at him. “Oh shoot, hon. You don’t think he’d be interested in that, do you?”
The drunk eyed Nick. “He’s got a dick, hasn’t he? What man wouldn’t?”
“Maybe you should watch your language in front of the lady,” Nick said. He couldn’t believe the guy. Still, he also couldn’t help but wonder what the drunk had referred to, but he wasn’t about to ask.
The drunk laughed and smacked the bar. “Lady! Haw, do you like that? Lady. She’s no lady, not this one.”
Janice nodded her head happily. “Oh, he’s right. Leroy knows that for sure.”
Nick didn’t know what to do with the information but he was starting to feel like the butt of this particular joke. Worse yet, he didn’t understand the joke. He decided the best course was to ignore it all.
“I think I’ll go ahead with the patty melt. That sounds good.”
“That’s great hon. It’ll be up in a bit. Nothing here sits around under a heat lamp. It’ll be fresh and hot.” She winked. “Like me.”
She spun around and headed to the kitchen with her shoes tapping on the floor and spared him the need to respond. He picked up his coffee and sipped it. Leaving now would seem rude, he thought, but he wished that he hadn’t pulled into the Picket Fences diner. Something about the place seemed odd to him.
Leroy slid over onto the stool beside Nick. That close he could smell the sweat and alcohol haze that clung to the drunk. Leroy turned his head a bit towards Nick but kept his eyes on Janice.
“You know buddy, you really should ask her about the other specials. It’s something alright.”
“I’m good with my order. Thanks.”
Leroy reached up and grabbed Nick’s shoulder. He leaned close. Fetid breath caressed Nick’s face. “Take it from me, you won’t regret it.”
Nick shook his shoulder and Leroy let go. Nick resisted the urge to shove the guy away or get up off the stool. “Look, I came in to get a bite and then I’m on my way. I don’t want any trouble. So why don’t you finish your drink and I’ll have my patty melt.”
Leroy shook his head. “I could do that but it’d be wrong. I’m trying to help you out here, buddy. I know what you see when you look at me. I’m not so far gone that I don’t despise my own reflection. I didn’t spring from that bar full grown as you see me, although the bar stool might disagree. I used to be somebody. I worked on Wall Street up until the collapse. Even that didn’t really bother me. I’d cut my losses and walked away with plenty to carry me the rest of my days.”
“I don’t really need —”
Leroy leaned close. “Listen! I’m helping you out. I could show you. I don’t mind you watching. You spot me the cash and I’ll show you the gash.”
Nick shoved Leroy and slid off his own stool at the same time. “Get away!”
Leroy glared at Nick but then shrugged. “Fine. I’ve done it all anyway. Good luck to you, sport.”
Nick stood aside as Leroy blundered out through the door leaving only the smell and the sound of the bell above the door.
“Leroy took off, did he, hon?”
Janice was back at the bar. She didn’t look as old as he’d thought originally, he realized. No way she was mid-thirties. She had to be younger than that.
Nick blinked and realized that Janice was talking to him. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry, it’s been a long day.”
She smiled. “Why has it been a long day? I thought all these days were pretty much the same length?”
Nick chuckled with her. “That’s true. But when you’re driving all day it seems like the day is longer.”
She snapped her fingers. “You know, I think you’re on to something there. Perception, isn’t that what they call it? How something can be one way but you see it differently?”
“I think so.”
Janice leaned on the counter. She looked to the right and then the left as if to make sure they were alone. They were, except for the cook and bus boy working in the kitchen.
“Leroy might not be entirely wrong. I could tell you about our other special, if you’d like.”
“I’ve already ordered.”
Janice waved her hand as if fanning a bad smell. “That don’t matter. You’d have room for this after you eat.”
“I don’t usually eat pie,” Nick said. He didn’t know what she was getting at, but after what Leroy had said he felt a bit uncomfortable.
“I’m not talking about pie, hon!” She laughed. She leaned closer and her voice dropped. “I don’t make this offer to every customer. Trouble is some people can’t handle it.”
His gut felt tight. “Like Leroy?”
She nodded. “Like Leroy. He hangs around even though I’ve told him to stop. I need to do something about that.”
“I think I’ll be good with the patty melt, thanks.”
Janice shook her head slowly. “You haven’t even heard what the offer is yet, hon.”
Nick didn’t deny that Janice was attractive. And he might be dense but he’d pretty much decided that she was coming on to him. He didn’t have much experience with that sort of thing. He wasn’t unattractive, at least he didn’t think so, but he never attracted that sort of attention from women. Those he’d been with over the years he’d made the advances and each time he’d been surprised when the woman in question responded positively. Then he’d met Melody, his wife, and along with his love and gratitude he felt relief that he was officially ‘off the market.’ Since then he’d never really been tempted to stray.
He held up his hand and ran his thumb across his ring. He didn’t say anything, assuming the hint would be blunt enough.
“Oh hon, that don’t matter none,” Janice said. She took his hand. “This is the special. I can become any woman you’ve ever fantasized about and we can have ourselves a good time. You like Jennifer Connelly? Sandra Bullock? Julia Roberts? Or do you like them younger? Kirsten Bell, maybe?”
Nick shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t think I’m interested in your role-playing.”
Besides, as attractive as she might be she didn’t look like any of the women she mentioned any more than they looked like each other.
“Let me give you a taste,” Janice said.
Only it wasn’t Janice standing behind the counter any longer but Jessica Alba with her dark waves of hair and dark eyes drawing him in. He remembered seeing her in Sin City. No sooner than he recognized her and there was a different woman behind the counter. Taller, blond and very attractive but he didn’t recognize her from anything. A moment later it was only Janice standing behind the counter with a smile in her eye. She winked.
“You get it now, hon? We’re not talking dress-up here and games. I’ll actually become whatever woman you’ve fantasized about down to the last mole or birthmark.”
Nick tried to understand what he’d just seen. It couldn’t be possible. How could this waitress in a roadside diner suddenly become all of those women. Guiltily, he realized that he found the idea tempting.
He shook his head. “I don’t know what you just did, but you can’t really become those women.”
A bell rang behind her. She winked. “Saved by the bell, hon. Order’s up. I’ll let you eat and think on what you’ve seen. I’ll heat up that coffee for you too.”
She grabbed the coffee pot and refilled his cup, then went back for the plate. She put it in front of him a moment later. Golden bread, grilled meat and giant fries filled the plate and the air with its aroma. Nick’s stomach growled. He thought he should just get up and walk out of the place. He’d never been propositioned before like this and it finally occurred to him that Janice must be some sort of prostitute. She didn’t care one bit about him beyond what he could pay.
He picked up half the patty melt and bit into the sandwich. Juices exploded across his tongue with almost scalding intensity. It tasted divine. He chewed slowly and took another bite while he worked over the problem in his head.
Look what had happened to Leroy? Drunk or not, according to what he’d said he used to have money. Implying that he spent it all on Janice here. Nick could see it. Janice becoming every actress, starlet or model that Leroy could imagine. The two of them having sex on the bar or with her bent over one of the tables in the next car.
Nick picked up a French fry and bit into it. It crackled between his teeth, hot and crisp on the outside while being soft and even hotter inside. Almost too hot to eat. He blew out his breath and realized that he had started to get an erection thinking about the possibilities. It wouldn’t be anything except sex. The sort of sex that people dreamed about. Some people even had lists for that sort of thing. He remembered watching Friends and they had a show about that, you could have ten people on your list and if you ever got the chance your partner gave you permission to sleep with them. That sort of thing.
He finished the first half of the patty melt feeling more guilty than ever. And there was no denying now that the idea turned him on.
“How is everything?” Janice asked.
The question startled him out of his thoughts. He looked at her. She looked like Janice, the waitress, not some Hollywood actress.
“The food is great,” he managed. He wanted to say something else but he didn’t even know what that might be.
“You’ve been giving thought to that special I mentioned, haven’t you?”
He felt tongue-tied and flushed.
She chuckled. “Oh hon, don’t worry so much about it. A bit of fun is all it is. Perfectly safe, I assure you. And don’t worry about that pretty wife of your’s — how’s it any different than you tossing off while you fantasize? She’s not one of those women who expect you to stop entertaining yourself, is she?”
He had the feeling that it was a lot different than the time he spent by himself by the virtue that he wouldn’t be doing this alone. Not that he was going to do anything, he corrected himself silently. Not if he got out of there now. He pulled out his wallet.
“What do I owe for the food?”
“You’ve only had half your sandwich,” Janice said. “It’s no big deal. You don’t want the special, that’s fine. Why don’t you finish your meal?”
Nick picked up another French fry to humor her. It tasted fantastic. He couldn’t resist trying one more, than another. Remembering how good the patty melt tasted he decided he might as well finish his meal. It wasn’t like she was going to attack him or something. The flavor of the patty melt was wonderful. The hot juices burst across his tongue and blended with the melting cheese. Janice smiled at him.
“Good, isn’t it?”
Melody leaned on the counter. Nick coughed, spraying out bits of bread and patty melt onto the counter. Melody smiled at him.
“Really, hon. Do you think I’d mind? I know you’ll always love me. Why shouldn’t you have a little fun? Remember how I looked when we first met?”
She changed. He recognized her, it was still Melody but now it was Melody at twenty-four. Thirty pounds lighter with firmer muscles and better skin. Her hair was cut short back then and styled. She was as gorgeous as he remembered and his erection came back hard, making sitting uncomfortable. She leaned across the counter and took his hand. Her face was only inches from his and he could smell the apple-scent of the organic shampoo she used back then.
“I said I can be any woman you fantasize about, even if that’s just your wife as you remember her being when you met. And I can do all of the things that you never dared ask her to do. How can it be cheating when I’m her?”
Her lips touched his. Only a second but it felt wonderful and sent electricity through his skin. Nick slid backwards off the stool. He shook his head.
“No matter how you change I still know that it’s someone else. Even if you look like her.” He took out his wallet, removed a twenty and tossed it on the counter. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
Nick turned to leave but she came around the bar and blocked his way. She smiled nastily, in a way that Melody would never do.
“Haven’t you heard the phrase, ‘Hell hath no fury’?”
Nick backed away.
She wasn’t Melody anymore. Instead Marilyn Monroe stood in his path looking like she had at her best. She stalked towards him. “I don’t make this offer to just anyone you know? I save it for my special customers.”
He walked backwards through the railcar at a faster pace. He looked into the kitchen but the cook and bus boy had vanished.
Katherine Hepburn laughed at him. “Remember what we said about perception? They weren’t ever actually there. You saw them because I wanted you to see them.”
He turned and ran towards the next car. He made it to the connecting door, through and pushed it closed behind him. Through the window he saw Julia Roberts running towards him with a snarl on her beautiful face. He had thought he could jump down but metal bars enclosed the space between the cars. There wasn’t any way out. He yanked open the next door and went through into the second car.
A smell of rotten meat filled the car. Nick gagged and pinched his nose closed. The place was full of mold and lumps slumped at the tables. The pristine dining room he’d seen through the connecting doors was replaced by a decaying slaughter house. He heard a door bang open behind him and saw Jessica Biel step into the space between the cars. Nick ran down the aisle between the tables. His foot slipped on something that squished. He kept going towards the end of the railcar.
A woman laughed behind him. He glanced back and saw Sarah Michelle Gellar in the aisle behind him. She laughed again.
“Where are you going, hon?”
“I just want to get out of here and go back to my wife.”
“Oh, I don’t see that happening. Not now that you’ve seen all that you’ve seen.”
There was something wrong with her hair, he noticed. It looked like it had fallen out in patches. He backed down the aisle. She kept walking towards him. He moved faster then broke into a run for the door. He reached it, yanked on the door and it rattled but didn’t open. He yanked again. Nothing. It was locked.
More laughter behind him but it sounded scratchy. Nick looked back at her. She didn’t look so good now. Her face was a patchwork of different women all mismatched. Different eyes, skin tones, a nose made from several parts, her scalp was largely bald but sprouted tufts of hair in different colors.
“Hon, you might as well give it up now.”
Nick looked around for something, anything that could be used as a weapon. On his left the decayed skeleton of a man lay slumped in a booth. His clothing and skin hung on his bones in rags. Both looked torn apart. Nick bent down and grabbed the poor fellow’s upper leg bone. He yanked on it and pulled the whole body up off the table into the aisle.
The creature that had been Janice and all of the other women laughed at him. “What are you doing, hon? Pulling his leg like that?”
She laughed again. While she laughed he put a foot on the hip bone and yanked up again. With a loud pop and tearing of dried muscles the leg bone came free in his hand. The round knob at the end looked hard. All in all, a serviceable club, he thought.
Janice tsked him. “You shouldn’t be thinking such things. Others before you kicked and hit and fought such as they could but I’m still here, aren’t I? It would have been better you took the special. Then you might have died a happy man at least.”
“I plan to die happy.” Nick swung the leg bone. Not at her but at the window in the door at the end of the rail car. He put his whole body into the swing. He pictured the window shattering apart into sparkling pieces.
The round knob went into the window and got stuck. Nick pulled on the bone but the old flesh slipped in his hands. He heard her running towards him now. It wasn’t far. Any second and she’d have her claws in him. He gave the bone a big yank and it popped free pulling the window with it. He swung it back and hit Janice with the broken window.
She screamed and fell back, batting the glass away with enough force to knock the bone from his hand. Nick didn’t hesitate. He turned and dove through the window. His legs scraped the edge and he tucked his arms up as he rolled through. He hit on his shoulders and rolled with the fall up against the picket fence.
It was gray and weathered with age now. Pickets were missing and weeds grew tall around it. Nick got to his feet and kicked his way through the fence towards his car. He didn’t look back then.
Only after he got in the car and it started up did he look back at the railcars. The whole place looked like an abandoned wreck. For a moment he saw a woman’s face in the broken window looking out. It could have been anyone, he couldn’t tell what exactly she looked like before he pulled out and got back on the road for home.
Three weeks later he ended up out that way again. He hadn’t called the police or told anyone what had happened. Who would believe the story. He hardly didn’t believe it himself anymore except it had taken nearly a week for the scrapes on his legs to heal. He got to the spot only to find the railroad cars gone and no sign of the diner. He saw a man sitting on a chair outside the gas station and pulled in.
The man raised his face when Nick walked up. It was a tear-streaked Leroy that sat on the chair. Leroy waved a bottle at the spot where the diner had stood.
“She’s gone and left.”
“Why’d she let you live?” Nick asked, chilled inside despite the hot sun.
Leroy shook his head. “I’ve never known. I would have given anything for her but she wouldn’t take me like the others. Not completely. I thought maybe she loved me, but she left me here.”
Nick didn’t have an answer for him. He left Leroy sitting in front of the gas station as he’d found him and vowed if he ever saw Picket Fences sitting beside a road somewhere he wouldn’t stop, no matter how tempting it might look.
This story is the 63rd weekly short story release, written in September 2010 and originally released under my pen name “R.M. Haag”. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Dreamstone.