This is supposed to be the best moment of my life. I’m a twenty six year-old guy who has nothing going for him other than a piece of paper I worked my ass off for and a twenty thousand dollar debt to the government that I had to take out just for the opportunity. Somehow, despite all my questionings and doubt about whether or not my life, (and what I spent twenty six years working toward) was even worth it, I managed to get that magic phone call and actually land a decent job. Now the nobody from Pennsylvania is on his way to the other side of the country, to work for a record company! In Los Angeles of all places as a talent representative. Sounds dreamy doesn’t it? I thought the same thing. I had been thinking that for the entire two days I spent driving my first car across the country; that first car that got me through the worst times of my life to what was supposed to be the next chapter, the best chapter.
Somewhere in between Idaho and Wyoming snow began to fall from the sky like frozen stop signs ready to halt my optimism; I pressed my foot harder on the gas pedal and continued on through the weather, I wasn’t ready to let a few snowflakes stop me from starting my new beautiful chapter in life. As I drove, hot air streamed out of the AC vents and beat against my face almost as hard as the lyrics and beats from the music blaring into my eardrums. The whole situation was surreal and dreamlike. I was twenty hours and a beautiful drive down the California coast away from everything I ever wanted, twenty hours away from freedom .I guess it was only fitting that like all dreams, I had to eventually wake up; and fate made sure that happened. It happened right around the same time the hot air shooting out the vents shut off abruptly, and the lyrics being crooned out by an overpaid narcissist on the speakers quickly faded. My car gave the familiar feeling of momentum loss and as I pulled easily to the side of the road, my mind began to analyze the situation and prepare to cope with the car ride that turned into a wide awake broken down nightmare. I turned off the already dead engine, pulled the keys out of the ignition and stepped out into a cold snowy evening on the longest, middle-of-nowhere straight two lane highway I had ever seen in my life.
It was incredibly cold out, and along with that the snow started coming down what felt like twenty times harder after I stepped out of the vehicle. I was already dreading the prospect of having to wait here until help arrived. I walked around to the hood of the car and popped it open (even though my doing this served no purpose other than to assure myself that my car really was in fact not working) I didn’t know a damn thing about cars other than how to turn it on and work the radio, so inspecting my engine was more of a sort of formality at this point. Then it hit me, “Duh! “I’ll just call triple-A. At the very worst I might have to deal with a quick ten minute bout of ball busting lecturing on the phone with some uninspired telephone dispatcher. After that I would just have to wait out the cold for a little while and deal with one more awkward car ride in the cab of a tow truck when the driver arrives to haul my sorry ass to an over charging mechanic. Suddenly things didn’t seem so bad, sort of.
I took out my cell phone and of course, just as I had feared, no service. Great. I was screwed, I hardly know the name of the road I’m on, let alone what to do next. In fact I wasn’t even really sure what state I was in. I did the only thing I could really think of, I started walking; thumb out and all, classic “Kerouac-ian drifter” style. The sun had set, and I figured the temperature was at least 15 degrees. Panic slowly began to set in. The more I thought about it, the more I worried, suppose I froze to death out here? I’m not a doctor or a scientist but I’m pretty certain cold can kill you. Additionally I came to the realization that I hadn’t seen a single car go by yet; “where the hell is everybody?” I mean, I can’t possibly be the only person in this place, I hope not at least. After what felt like a days’ worth more of walking and freaking out in my head, the best thing that could probably happen to me at this point occurred, a yellow light in the distance from what was obviously a neon sign for some sort of business. Salvation at last! I didn’t give a damn what kind of business this was, for all I cared it could be a new upstart cult looking for more human sacrifices.
As I got closer I began to barely make out some red lettering and what appeared to be a capitol “D” at the beginning of the signage; putting two and two together I realized I was on my way to Denny’s. I think this was the most excited I’d ever been to be on my way to a weak cup of coffee and some cold scrambled eggs; nonetheless I could at least use a phone now and get my car towed. As I reached the diner and made my way over to the entrance I managed to peek in the windows and notice that this place was almost completely empty. Now normally I wouldn’t exactly expect a Denny’s on a two lane highway in fly-over country to be a particularly happening place, but oddly enough I didn’t even see any employees in this establishment. The scene was the same as I made my way in and stood waiting at the little wooden pedestal where a cheery little old woman acting as host should be greeting me asking me how many were in my party.
“Hello…? Hey, GUYS, IS ANYONE HERE?”
It was useless. My voice echoed out into what was apparently, an empty, fully lit, fully functional franchise diner.
I decided I would simply make myself at home and walked over to the furthest booth I could find, particularly furthest from the entrance. Sitting there, staring out the window and watching the snow fall, I started to reflect on the immense absurdity of this entire ordeal so far. For starters, I had taken my car to be inspected by a mechanic the day before I left Pennsylvania, Aside from being an aging junker with no AC, my car actually had a clean bill of health; it was possible that the mechanic I went to was full of shit but even then; what would cause my car to flat out shut down to the point where it wouldn’t even start? Also, how could it be that I wasn’t getting any phone service? I was only about a three mile walk from this Denny’s and even in here I was getting no service. Thanks At&t “more bars in more places” my ass… It just didn’t make sense that in a “reputable” establishment like this there was so little evidence of life.
Before I could rattle my brain over it any further, I was shaken back to the present moment by that familiar flop of a laminated menu casually being placed beneath my nose. As I looked up I found myself staring face to face with a living portrait of aged exhaustion. What stood before me in a black, standard issue Denny’s apron and white collared shirt was not a man, but rather a being trapped inside a battle worn coat of skin, peering through a green set of eyes that resembled dirt upon a path trodden on one too many times by those on their way to the top. Gazing at this man I could peer straight through the outer shell of an old Denny’s server, instead gazing at the flickering light of a soul fire on the brink of extinguish.
“Hello young man, how may I be of service to you?” He opened with a casual greeting that was probably rinsed and reused way past the point of mechanical routine.
“I’ll just get some coffee, black please. As hot as you have it”, I forced out.
“Sounds good, I’ll be right back sir, take a look at the menu, don’t be afraid to holler.”
He walked back into the empty kitchen, around the corner and out of sight. I’d expected another server to show up now, or at least a cook to have come in from a smoke break, or out of the bathroom to ease my curiosity about why there was an empty Denny’s with one old soul working in it; but no such luck. The old waiter returned moments later carrying a mug and a fresh pot of weak coffee then proceeded to pour me my first cup.
“I’ll just leave the whole pot here; let me know when you’re ready to order sir.”
I sat for a couple minutes, just staring down into my cup and trying to make sense of everything. It was just then that the door opened, and along with the cold rush of air, in came a young man who, ostensibly looked to be the happiest and most handsome homeless man I’d ever laid eyes on. I say that because judging by his outfit, you’d think this person sang for change on a corner somewhere; however this twenty-something black man dressed in an oversized military jacket and dirty cargo pants had a strange air of purity about him. His clothes were ragged, but his face was almost shinning under the light. His smooth face and skin was highlighted by his prominent jaw bones and his facial hair, while long, was trimmed and groomed almost perfectly. He looked like the type of person who was always in a slightly off-putting good mood. The way he approached the old waiter and put his arm around him greeting him with a beaming smile gave me the impression that they were old friends; it wasn’t until he sat down and I actually spoke to him that I realized this was simply how he treated everyone. It was because of his strange demeanor that I concluded that there was no way this man was homeless.
After greeting the old man, he glided over to my table and casually took a seat across from me and just sat there, arm draped across the headdress while casually staring at me. He held his head cocked to the side giving me a half grin; as if he was a friend of mine I had been waiting on the entire time.
“Umm….hey, bud. What….up?” I opened.
He chuckled a bit, then pulled out a toothpick and stuck it in his mouth before responding to me.
“Hey friend! How you been?”
How have I been? Who was this weirdo?
“I’ve been better dude… So, who are you? Do we know each other? I kinda wanted to sit alone, if you don’t mind.”
“Naaah, don’t worry, I’ll keep you company Tyler. You look like you could use a pep talk, what’s wrong with your coffee?”
He peered into my eyes and slid the cup further toward me on the table,
“Drink it before it gets cold, no one likes cold coffee.”
As he said it, he winked at me and threw me two packets of sugar. The exact amount I liked to put in my coffee. So he knew my name, and apparently how I liked my coffee. Great, who is this oddball? Is he going to follow me out after my meal and stab me right there in the parking lot? Is this how I go out? Knifed down by some psycho in a Denny’s parking lot, lost in the middle of nowhere; no one around to mourn me accept this old guy who barely cared I existed?
“Okay man, what’s your deal, are you trying to spook me? Do you just wait for poor souls to wander in and you finish them off after their runny omelet? Listen dude. I’m not rich, and I’m not even a satisfying kill, I could care less honestly I’d just flop around and stop breathing eventually. Not enough scream and terror for your type.”
“Ha-ha, is that what you think? Tyler look, I only want to help you out. Let me guess your car is broke down huh?”
“Yeah, it is how did you-“
“And you don’t get service around here do you?”
“No I don’t…..”
“Don’t worry service sucks around here. Truth is, I saw a guy who could use a break and I just figured it was time for me to drop in and be a Good Samaritan. It looks like you’re going to need to get your car fixed; I doubt you have the money for that. Listen, I can give you enough money to buy a whole new car if you wanted to. I just need some help.”
At this point I was really intrigued by what this stranger had to say; as initially off putting as he was, he was onto something. I did still need help, and slowly I began to piece together what he said and if it could actually benefit me. Like I said, he had a strange air about him. I trusted him for some reason, and all his words we’re calm and seemed to cast a spell of trust and friendliness upon people. I know the idea of a random ragged looking man in Denny’s offering money to someone if they “help him out” in return sounds like it has bad idea all over it, but I felt as if this guy was as genuine as they come.
“Help you? How so?
“Well let’s not focus on that right now, I need to know, are you really interested?”
“I don’t really have a choice do I? I’m stranded here.”
“That you are. This is how I can help you.”
Then he proceeded to reach under the table and pull out a white backpack that was equally as ragged looking as his outfit. I don’t even recall him coming in with a backpack but there was no denying the bag that was sitting on the table between the both of us. He unzipped the bag half way and I could hardly believe my eyes or control the shocked look on my face as I stared into the opening and saw more cash than I had ever laid eyes on in my life. The bag was filled with stacks of hundred dollar bills, all neatly held together by tightly wrapped bands of white paper. As he zipped the bag back up and put it back under the table, that same strange smile was fixed on his face, which was fixed on mine.
“There’s thirty thousand dollars in this backpack, it’s all yours if you agree to help me out. I know it’s not the biggest amount of money, but I think it could really help you get back on your way, right?”
And that it could.
“I’ll bite then bud. What is it you need me to do? I’m not opposed to making thirty thousand dollars helping some bum in a Denny’s”
That was the moment where he reached into his pocket, and changed everything. Still with that strange look on his face, he reached into his jacket and pulled out the most notorious human invention in written history. On the table at a strange, almost mystical diner, sitting next to my cup of coffee was a shiny seemingly brand new long barreled revolver that sucked away any traces of ease or serenity out of the very thin air we were breathing. I just sat there looking at it, trying not to make any revealing expressions while I took a sip of coffee.
“Nice gun…” The only thing I could manage to get out of my mouth.
“Look at my friend over there.” He said this and turned his head to look at the server, our poor wretched old host. This entire time he had just been pacing around the restaurant sweeping up little nonexistent pieces of trash and wiping down tables with a damp rag. He had that same look on about him still, exhausted and unhopeful, as if he was waiting for a shift to end, but knew that inevitably he would be back here doing the same thing tomorrow. He turned and looked, and gave us a brief nod before going back to his business.
“Well, I want you to take this gun, and shoot my friend here when he finishes his shift tonight. Make sure you shoot him dead now, aim high. I want this to be the last time he ever pours a cup of coffee, lays down a laminated menu, greets a lost traveler, clocks in, clocks out, or leaves this diner, because you my friend are going to put a bullet in his head for me.”
The stranger then turned and leaned forward over the table, bringing his face closer to mine.
“Don’t be afraid, just listen to what I’m asking, and everything will be okay.”
I had finally had enough. When I left my parents’ house two days ago, I was supposed to be driving across country, and finally living the life I wanted to live. I was on my way to becoming the man I always envisioned, living the life I always dreamed of. Shooting an innocent Denny’s server for 30 grand because some well-groomed nut with a nice smile was not in my plans, and I did not intended to make room for it.
“You know what, you’re a fucked up individual. I can’t believe you. You’re a sick puppy man. Don’t get me even involved in your twisted little game. Is this what you do? Meet strangers on the road and con them into killing innocent people for you? Or is this some elaborate mob hit that I’m unfortunately now a part of? Are you going to kill me if I don’t do it? Is that it? Fuck you buddy. Leave my table, I’m going to finish my coffee, and then I’m going to call the cops. I suggest you get lost.”
Much to my disliking, he didn’t budge, or even seem fazed at all by my words. He just sat there with that stupid smile on his face, this time nodding his head slowly with closed eyes.
“Yeah, I anticipated that you would respond like that. You can’t be blamed. You don’t know yet, you’re still ignorant.”
“I’m ignorant? I’M IGNORANT? No, I’m not, I know plenty, I know that that man over there, is completely innocent. He’s done nothing to either you or me to deserve to be involved in some psycho’s game. He’s just a man working his job, the fact that you can’t see that tells me that you obviously are a sad, mentally sick individual, and probably need help. I shouldn’t be calling the cops I should be calling a mental institution. No, I’m not ignorant, I understand completely, YOU are the ignorant bastard who can’t be blamed.”
I wanted nothing more to do with this guy, I could envision myself reaching across the table, grabbing him and slamming his head into the table to wipe that God-awful smile off of his face. But I was actually shaking with rage. I could barely hold onto a coffee mug without spilling on the table and I was certain my face had turned red by now. I honestly could not believe the situation I was in. Why me, why did this maniac just decide to walk into this Denny’s at this moment? Why couldn’t my car have just not have been a piece of shit? It felt like it was a terribly lucid nightmare. Outside the window, it was pitch black and snow was falling heavily. I looked up and made one more horrifying realization that I instantly wished I could take back. When I originally came in and sat down, I noticed a clock above the opening that connected the dining area to the back kitchen nailed onto the overhang. When I came in and sat down, the time was 7:47pm. The clock still read 7:47pm.
As much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, I knew this wasn’t just a clock with dead batteries. A horrible sinking feeling in my gut told me it was more than that, and as I looked down to check my phone, my fears were reaffirmed. 7:47pm.
Time does not stop; everything I knew about the world told me that. It was then that I clung desperately to the notion that this was a vivid dream, and that I needed to wake up as soon as possible.
My head began to rush and I got terribly dizzy. It was as if my entire brain was on overload; I could barely focus my eyes and I it felt as though my entire sense of direction and balance were fried. Somehow I shifted into auto-pilot and stumbled out of the front door. I hit the cold outside air and managed to make it a few more feet, only to collapse away in a bed of snow in what must have been the parking lot. I laid there in the freezing, icy night as the snow quickly piled up on my back and legs. After my head stopped spinning I gathered myself and sat there crunched up in the snow, while I puked up my black coffee… two sugars.
Of course I wasn’t to be left alone for long. My demonic little friend walked out into the parking lot and stood over me, this time, for once looking concerned and somewhat human.
“Tyler please. Get up, get out of the cold, come stand with me.”
“Just get the hell away from me.” I said in-between heaves of air.
“Tyler, I know you think I’m a terrible person, but I assure you. I’m only here to help.”
It was too cold for me to lay there all night, so purely out of necessity I got up and walked over to the overhang of the restaurant and stood there with him.
“Tyler, my friend listen. I know what you think. You think he deserves to live. But tell me, do you know that man? Do you understand his life? You assume he goes home and eats well, sleeps comfortably, and wakes up in good health, ready for another day on earth. But Tyler, can you be sure of that? What if he spends every moment of his life in pain? What if he barely has enough food at home to eat? And sleeps in the cold ,suffering through every night? What if he has no one left in this world? And spends every day, plagued by the simple task of living in a hellish prison he can’t escape?”
“But it’s not my job to decide that! Who are you and I to decide when someone should have their life ended? Who are we to rob an innocent man of any chance he has of happiness just because he’s not living a good life now? No, that he’s potentially not living a good life? We’re not Gods we can’t make that call.”
“….Tyler. I see what your problem is. You are attached to the notion that all life is a good thing, that death is a terrible misfortune to be avoided at all costs. And because of this, you think all life is worth living, absolutely. I see it everywhere, I understand. Tell me something Tyler, you know that everyone must die right?”
“Of course, but that doesn’t change a thing.”
“Wait let me finish, do you believe in God, Tyler?”
“Well, I don’t go to church often, but sure. I believe in a God. The idea of someone watching over us is comforting, I guess. And many of the world’s mysteries seem too strange or complex to be answered scientifically, so yes, I believe in God, or at the very least a creator.”
“Well Tyler, if God exists, and he loves us, since we are after all, his children, wouldn’t he want us to experience all good things and live good lives if we follow all his commands? I mean, if God is all powerful and all loving, he wouldn’t make his children suffer if they did not deserve it right?”
“Yeah, I can agree to that.” I replied, however fully realizing that I was now entertaining this man, this creature, playing directly into his game.
“Well, friend, death is a part of life as well, it’s the final stage of life, the closing act if you will. If God gave us life Tyler, and consequentially gave us death too, why is it that death is to be feared? Doesn’t it follow that it would be a good thing if God gave it to us? Even those who follow his every command will still experience death. Why do we assume it is something to be avoided? Doesn’t it seem plausible that if God made it necessary that we experience death; it could possibly be a good thing? Perhaps we only fear death because there has never been a recoded experience of what it’s like. Our capacities for understanding in this life end at death, so there has never been someone to come back and tell us what it’s like. But maybe death is an amazingly good thing Tyler. Just think, maybe we’ve got it all backwards. Clinging onto life desperately when the final act is long overdue, prolonging the inevitable because we are afraid to take a leap of faith and leave behind the world we know. Perhaps death is the most beautiful part of life, and we, the human race have been blind to it the entire time.”
“You philosophize beautifully, but still, even though you may be able to convince me death might be good, I will never kill, especially not on the basis of probabilities. It’s just as probable death is nothingness, or a terrible plunge into the abyss. If death was a good thing, it will find him when it needs him.”
“Tyler. Maybe it already has. Why should it be such a bad thing, that you help a man across the finish line in his life’s journey? How can you claim to know so much about the world? You think you’ve got it all figured out don’t you? Maybe, just maybe you’re a key part of some higher plan. Maybe I’m just here to help you see that. Maybe it’s your fate Tyler. Don’t run from fate Tyler, you’ll just die tired.”
I looked up and my eyes met his. For what felt like an eternity I was stuck there, gazing into this man’s face. His stare not only seemed to be fixated on me, but also inside me. His glare looked deep into my entire self, and it was then that I slowly started to understand finally what was happening.
The snow had finally stopped, and just then it felt as though this moment and this place were the only things that existed in the entire universe. Not only was it too dark for me to even see anything else, but I was certain that there wasn’t anything else. I finally started to come to terms with the situation. Minute by minute, the past few hours slowly managed to destroy what I thought I knew about reality entirely. Perfectly good cars don’t just stop working for no reason; cell phones don’t just stop getting reception. Strange other-worldly men dressed as hobos don’t just walk into diners and offer people thousands of dollars to kill people. Clocks don’t freeze. Time does not stop.
And most importantly, one man cannot run an entire Denny’s restaurant by himself. Or so I thought.
I walked back into the diner calmly. I didn’t turn around to look and see if the man followed me in, it didn’t matter. I took my seat at the booth and gathered myself. I didn’t look at the clock; I already knew it was still 7:47pm. I didn’t look for the server, I knew he was still alone in this restaurant, sweeping the floor, or pouring coffee hopelessly. I looked down at my feet and sitting there, perfectly untouched was the white backpack. The revolver sat ominously on the table to the left of me, as motionless as the world I found myself locked into. In front of it was one folded up piece of paper, I picked it up and carefully unfolded it, smoothing it out neatly on the table top before reading it;
Don’t run from fate Tyler. You’ll die tired.
I took one last look at the diner I was in and couldn’t help but laugh at it all. I just sat there, chuckling lightly while tears rolled down my face at the same time. I took in my surroundings one last time, and noticed I didn’t see the stranger around anywhere. Just as strangely as he appeared; he vanished into the nothingness and I was certain I’d never see him again. I picked up the gun and felt its cold weight apply pressure against my palm like a stone. I gripped the handle and felt the smooth metal mesh perfectly with my hand. Sitting there in that booth, staring into a cold black cup of coffee, I made the only choice that I could bear to make. Was I going to kill this man, and walk away with a backpack full of thousands of dollars? What if I was met with a swarm of cop cars the moment I walked out of the diner? What if I shot the man and searched his wallet only to find pictures of loving grand children who would have to grow up without their grandfather? What if death was the beautiful journey the stranger painted it as, and this old man would visit me in my dreams, thanking me for the granting him the release from a life of suffering he so desperately yearned for? My mind became fixated on one particular possibility, “What if death is a good thing?” How was I to ever find out?
Sitting there, with a cup in front of me, thirty thousand dollars beneath me, and a gun firmly in my hand, I took the only real way out I saw. I followed through on what had already begun. What was death like? I was about to find out. I pointed the barrel at the side of my head and, well… I broke down.