The Burger Joint: Short fiction by C.L. Hesser

Burger-Joint-Poster

C.L. Hesser will be featuring four short stories on Popcorn Horror. Check out Dead Girl Talking, Strawberry Killer and and Grocery Ghost

Bio by C.L. Hesser

I’m not one to speak about myself unheeded, but here goes. I guess I’ve always been a storyteller, from before I can remember… and I’ve always written horror, in a way. Creatures getting eaten alive by dinosaur ape-men? Is that horror? I guess my relations didn’t mind until I kept coming up with tale about eyeball slaughters. And insane, beautiful teenagers trapped in a madhouse, living out their nightmares. 

Er, I was an odd kid. 

But I finally stumbled upon some inspiring work – horror novels, to be exact. And stories, so many stories. Short stories always have called to me – they’re just enough to tantalize but not enough to overwhelm the horror. So I consumed these novels and anthologies by the dozen, gulping them down like so much super-sweetened ice tea. 

All under my parent’s self-righteous noses. 

Anne Rice, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Bradbury, Thomas Harris. Even a touch of Dean Koontz. And then I found the movies… 

From there, it’s all history. Found my love for horror and cultivated it, and pushed through despite the chiding tones of some quite smart English teachers. I’m sure I appreciate every nugget of literary gold I’ve stumbled into over the years. 

I live in the suburbia wilderness to the south of Atlanta, Georgia, and spend my spare time hunting for killer mermaids in nearby lakes.  So far, I’ve not had much luck. 

***

The Burger Joint

In the last days of my nineteenth year, my tastes had not quite been refined to their current state. I would taste of any dish that came my way at mealtimes, regardless of flavor or nutrient.

In fact, I never ate in large quantities. Rather, I nibbled away at the food, slipped bits of salad on my fork and just tested them with the tip of my tongue, dusted with lemon juice or salt, or tore off slivers with my teeth.

But I’ve always had this affinity for meat. It’s a sensation I can’t shake, that burst of pure flavor when dead flesh falls in your mouth. I loved the feeling, and couldn’t resist those steamy, pungent aromas.

At this time I lived by the waterfront of a low, pleasantly mysterious city where the sun dipped low on a hazy, blue horizon. I’d sit by the river and watch boats go by, driving up the water in long curls. And I’d occasionally catch a whiff of that thick, warm, meaty odor drifting away from a number of nearby restaurants. And it thrilled me, on occasion, to catch an exquisite scent from one particular eatery.

A tiny, dark-lit, hole-in-the-wall place it was, with grease-grimed counters and one slouching old man, fiddling with the ticket machines. He grinned at me when I stepped inside, and flashed me a wickedly white smile. It nearly dazzled me.

Huge in girth and taller than me by a head and a half, the old man bore down on me with an unflinching gaze. He’d stuck a pair of serving tongs into his wide belt, and now leaned down over the glass bubbles to inquire of me what my order might be.

I glanced speedily over the menu, noted the usual fare to be expected of a cheap burger joint. Noted the prices – quite economical. A burger for fifty cents. And that smell… Ah, that glorious, infinitely intricate aroma… I practically salivated from the very sensation of it.

I ordered the house specialty, extra onions.

The old man jotted down my request on a dingy, stained-yellow notepad and disappeared into the back kitchen, leaving a trail of sweat-stink mixed with that sweet aroma. The scent of the meat must have seeped into him somehow, intertwining itself with his own piggy smell. I waited, with the expectant saliva practically choking me, until he returned.

He’d been only a few moments, and now had a white platter in his arms, layered with fries and that fantastic burger. Smothered in dressings and wrapped in this miasma of scent, the thing practically sung to me. Taking the platter, I retreated hastily into one of the booths furthest from the door. I spread my napkin out and lifted the burger with both hands; it dripped ketchup and slick, shiny dribbles of mayonnaise, and pickles fell from under the top bun when I sank my teeth in.

Oh, god, this thing was fantastic. I can’t begin to describe the incredibly complex taste, the heavenly aroma that wafted up from the meat and burst, dangerously strong. The very texture of the thing. I finished half and let it fall to the plate again, leaned back in my slippery plastic seat and gazed out into the gas-laden city. I could feel my brain, my tongue, my everything yearning for just one more bite of that perfectly-seasoned flesh.

Tentatively, I tasted one of the fries. Salt, and limp half-done potato. I wasn’t picky, but the fries didn’t interest me in particular. As I mentioned before, I’ve never had an appetite to speak of when I wasn’t concerned with meat.

So I gave up with the side dish and lifted the burger again, devoured the last half in three or four mouthfuls, and washed down the last of it with a Styrofoam cupful of water.

Ah.

Couldn’t have paid more than a dollar for that.

I checked my wallet again, wondering if I could finish a second burger – without fries, of course – and was shocked to find I’d spent my last dollar. Of course, as an art student I was constantly in the red. But I’d been sure to fill my wallet with the last of my last month’s paycheck, in order to purchase a rather expensive type of paint.

I’d paid for it, of course, about an hour before. And I’d still had around fifteen dollars in my pocket at that point.

I hurriedly looked about my person, the tile floor under my feet, and the surface of the Formica table. I swore under my breath, glanced around and caught the eye of the old man; he’d been standing, watching me, at the crook between kitchen and counter. He smiled that brilliantly white smile again, and I turned away but found my eyes glued to his gnarled and time-torn face.

Shit.

I wanted another – I needed another. The odor wafting from the kitchen, from the old man, from the entire place absolutely sung out to me. Cried to me. It thumped in my chest with the beating of my heart, with every pulsation of blood in my veins, with every electrical synapse in my brain.

That meat, that horribly tender and beautiful meat. He grinned at me, didn’t let my vision wander again; his eyes glinted in a horrific way, and I felt a swell of disgust rising up in my throat. I could feel him undressing me with his eyes, peeling away my jacket and shirt to reveal my bony rib cage, dead-pallid body.

I shuddered; now, with every passing moment of my longing for that cooking meat, the lust was more obvious and intense in his eyes, but it wasn’t a human lust. A sort of animal craving. I wanted another of those burgers, I absolutely had to have one; the intense longing in my was more than I could bare, and my very intestines seemed to squirm with anticipation. But I had no money left, not even a scraping of spare change from one of those innumerable mason jars I kept in the rented room.

He held out his hands as if to say, “Sorry. You had your taste of it, and that’s all I can offer.”

But I stood, shakily, and crossed the sticky floor to the counters again. Left my bag at the table, and the crumpled remains of my napkin. His smile didn’t waver. I put down my empty wallet on the counter, splayed open to reveal nothing but a student I.D. card and a receipt from the art store.

“I need another one,” I blurted out. “Another one.”

“Ah, but I see you’re short on cash.”

“Yeah.” It came out as a choked whisper.

“So, you’re desperately in need of another of my brilliant creations?”

“What?”

“Another burger.”

“Yeah.” My guts were squirming in their hot, dark confines.

“So, we must needs arrange an alternate form of payment.”

Alright, so this was beginning to feel like the start of some exquisitely bad porno flick. But for gods sake, that burger meat was just calling out to me. Begging to me. The smell made my head spin and my limbs practically quiver. So I nodded slowly, and he crooked his head to one side, pondering my expression.

Then he smiled. He knew what he wanted, and those eyes trained on mine imparted his thoughts.

The counter slid open on squeaking hinges and I hesitantly followed him, with the aroma of the burger meat enveloping my whole form. The first thing I noticed when we entered the back kitchen was the sheer size of the place – it seemed to go on for the whole length of the river walk, although of course that couldn’t be true.

But it staggered me, nonetheless. And then I realized what I’d seen were nothing but mirrors. Mirrored ceiling, mirrored walls. And the blood was the second thing I noticed. Oh god, the blood. I still remember it. Running down the mirrors in purple rivulets, clogging at the base of the walls. I sank to my knees with the shock that wrapped around my heart and squeezed, hard. Did he slaughter the beasts himself, the cows? Did he kill them here, slit their throats?

I couldn’t breathe, and my heart seized up in my bony chest, trying to thump-thump-thump but failing. I couldn’t catch my breath. I seized the cloth over my heart and tried to stop the sudden pain, there. Cold started to set in all over me.

And suddenly he was upon me, dragging me up from the blood-sliced floor, and his lips were on mine; and I just caught a glimpse of some maddening display to his left. A series of sharpened instruments, butchers’ tools.

Knives and hacksaws and hooks, and… oh god… I saw her. A body, stripped bare and ripped apart, ravaged. Hanging there by a hook in her chest. Her head lulled forward, eyes vacant and white, and the blood stuck her hair close to her neck, to her bare breasts. Half of her lower body was chopped away, and suddenly I realized what I’d eaten.

Oh god, and I’d eaten it.

And I wanted another one – I still wanted another one. Oh god, to taste that again. Even while I looked up past his hulking frame and into her dead face, I knew I wanted more of that sweet, pungent meat.

And I couldn’t breathe, still couldn’t breathe; his thick and purple lips on mine, and one hand grappling for one of those deadly-frightening instruments. The knife, the butchers’ knife with a gleaming, blood-clogged handle. He was going to kill me; I lost consciousness, slumped in his arms, and my last vision was of that blood-soaked floor looming outwards beneath my feet, and his gore-slicked boots.

I don’t know why I survived. I don’t know why I came to my senses by the riverbank the next morning. I don’t know why I’m alive to tell you this tale, but I have my suspicions. I think he tasted this disease in me. I think he knew what I hold in my veins, in my heart and my brain, in all of me.

And I think he knew the risks.

I never did find that burger joint again. But still, on occasion, I find myself longing for just one more mouthful of that tantalizing, rich, perfectly-seasoned meat.

-END-

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