The day was already hot and bright, even though it was barely ten in the morning, and fat stripes of sun slanted in from the side windows. I hadn’t slept well, and the store was deserted. I was leaning on the counter, half dozing, as I watched a million dust specks try to catch a tan. Just as I started to lose consciousness, the cowbell’s dull clang jarred me fully awake.
“Dante’s Inferno.” It wasn’t a question. It was spoken in a dialect with which I was unfamiliar, and my sleep-deprived mind couldn’t quite make sense of the syllables.
This time I understood the words, but it was the derision that stopped me responding. My eyes narrowed, but before I could respond, the odd-sounding stranger spoke again.
“As much as I hate to disturb your nap, I really am in a bit of a hurry. Perhaps you could fetch what I require before you nod off again.”
The stranger was clearly nonplussed. Maybe at my audacity in expelling a potential customer or perhaps because my accent did not match the town, but either way, his eyes nearly popped from his head in surprise.
“I beg your pardon?”
It was petty and small, but in my exhausted irritation, I derived a sweet satisfaction from it nonetheless.
“Your boss lets you treat customers this way?”
“The owner believes in not pretending a jackass is a racehorse just for the sake of a dollar.”
Now it was his eyes that narrowed, so much so that in the funny morning light, they looked like dark slashes drawn with an angry stroke of charcoal, instead of the features of a real human being. He was clearly furious and, for the first time since he’d walked in, I felt more uneasy than annoyed. I tried to arrange my face into a mask of indifference and before I spoke again.
“Two-fifty,” I said, in the most neutral tone I could manage.
My distraction worked. The slits opened back up into eyes, which registered a renewed surprise. I ducked down behind the counter to retrieve the rattiest copy I had in the store.
“For Dante,” I said in his general direction, not actually looking at him as I slapped the book on the counter. “Will that be cash or charge?” I slid the book into a bag with one hand while punching register keys with the other.
I only looked up again when I heard the cowbell.
The rude stranger was gone and I did not see him on the street.
It was the sort of thing that sets the mood for the day. It wasn’t just his manner or even his disappearance; it was the oddness of the entire episode. Why would someone passing through town need a copy of Dante so urgently he felt he could dispense with manners? And, if it was so urgent, why did he leave without buying it?
After closing, I stopped across the street for dinner. The place was fairly busy, but it was only a few minutes before my order arrived. From the amount of grease on my plate, it was clear that Pete was cooking. While that answered why I got my food so fast, it begged another question. I moved into town 8 years ago and in that time I had never heard of Pete staying in the kitchen past two in the afternoon. That he was still there at nearly six-thirty instead of Maggie did not ease my already-troubled mind.
I moved to flag the waitress as she came past, but when I had barely twisted an inch, something shifted. When I began turning, I was looking at a busy evening crowd inside the pale green walls of Maddy Pete’s in Salvation, Oklahoma. Halfway through the turn of my head, the tableau seemed to shift for a fraction of a second to an altered version of the diner. The altered version was blue instead of green, brighter, and held only a single customer. Dante’s Infernal Customer from this morning. By the time my head completed the turn, the image was gone as if it had never been.
Was I now so tired and stressed out from my day that I was hallucinating? That was the only option that made any rational sense. I dropped my head into my hands for a few seconds to steady myself. Despite its logical rationalization, the strange hallucination had left me momentarily dizzy. When the sensation passed, I returned to my meal. It was only when the waitress brought the check that I remembered why I had been turning around in the first place.
“Where’s Maddy tonight?”
“Oh, um, not sure,” the waitress said, but couldn’t meet my eyes. “I think, um, maybe Pete said, um, sick.” She was off like a shot.
The next day, I got to work early and started dusting the shelves. I stopped short when a black shaped passed in front of me, across the open end of the aisle. I was too stunned to cry out. I ran forward to see what it had been. When I reached the end of the aisle, the area was empty. Nothing lurked in the small alcove, either.
I wanted to just get back to work and forget the whole thing, but before I could, I had another shift like at the diner. The only details that changed were the appearance of a door in the wall behind the counter, and the Infernal Customer leaning against the frame.
This time, instead of the scene returning to normal, that door began rushing forward to meet me until my face was nearly pressed against it, though I did not feel like I had moved.
The door opened and the stranger reached out. He pushed me and I fell through the door, into darkness.