Stranger Help | a short story

It was 2:48 a.m. when Tim realized he probably should have went out drinking with his friends rather than stay in on a Saturday, one night after staying in on Friday. Bored and unable to reach any of his friends who were too drunk or passed out to use their phones, he grabbed a book and headed for a diner. He had hoped to read in peace, but like any diner at that hour on any weekend, the clamor of drunks jabbering on about nothing made reading nearly impossible. Eavesdropping was too tempting.

A booth of three, directly to his right, were having a conversation about killing people. All Tim could make out was that they were Marines, or soldiers of some kind—an assumption reached due the fact that they were muscular, very drunk, had crew cuts, and the girl they were with was pregnant.

“I’d snap their necks,” the one said. “Sometimes I feel like that’s how it’d go down if I ever just lost it in public.”

“Yeah, and I’d be the one having to clean up Hank’s mess.”

“Oh yeah?” said the girl sarcastically.

“Yeah. I’m the only one who knows how to deal with him when he goes off. Not many can.”

Hank took a bite of his sandwich, and mumbled incoherently with a mouth full of food. The only understandable word was, “Fuck,” followed by a heavy laugh muted by the mush in his mouth.

Tim shifted his attention back to his book, determined to get through at least one chapter, but after only two sentences his turkey club had arrived. He slid a business card from his mechanic into the crease of the book and set it down on the dull teal table.

When he grabbed the first quarter of the sandwich, he began to doubt how he’d take a bite without the three inch tall sandwich falling apart. There’s a strange kind of self-consciousness that comes from eating alone, especially when surrounded by drunks. They were just out partying, socializing, and here he was reading and eating alone. He stuck out, and as he grabbed the sandwich and moved it towards his mouth, the lettuce began to slide and it all fell apart. Quickly, he reassembled it, squeezed it tight, and took a bite.

Tim flicked the crumbs from his fingers and wiped stray mayo onto a napkin, grabbing his book and doing his best to read. But he glanced up for a second, noticing another drunk at the other end of the diner using the corner of a booth to scratch his back. He hoped the man would slip off and fall because he knew it’d make a funnier story to tell his friends later, but the drunk gathered himself and shuffled towards the cashier.

Soon, the diner was empty, and an eerie silence had taken the place of the loud alcohol-fueled conversations that prevented Tim from reading. He cracked open his book again, hoping to make some progress, but the breeze of a new customer passing by broke his focus. He looked up to see who had walked in. It was fat man in gray khakis and a brown sweater. His hair was patchy and short like the facial hair of a teen desperately trying to grow his first beard. His face was greasy and ridden with craters as though he proactively picked at the acne of his youth.

His demeanor made Tim uneasy, and he quickly averted his attention back to his book, but for some reason this man, who sat one booth away, decided to talk to him.

“Whatchu reading?” asked the man.

“Uh, Lonely Road.”

“Who’s it by?”

“Nevil Shute,” said Tim, deliberately giving short answers to prevent the conversation from going any further.

“What’s it about?” continued the man.

“I don’t know yet. Just started.”

“I read this book once. It was called, Echoes of a Gun. I forgot who it was by, but I really enjoyed it.”

Tim finally looked up at the man, “Yea? I’ll check it out some time.” Of course, he was just trying to placate him.

“So what brings you here at this hour?” asked the man, his mouth moving in a way that caused strands of saliva to pull from his chapped and cracked lips like strings of melted cheese.

“Boredom,” said Tim, returning to his book.

“Oh,” said the man sadly. “Well, enjoy.”

“Yup,” responded Tim.

The fear of the man talking to Tim again was just as distracting as the rambling of the drunks, and Tim decided to wrap his food and go. He walked outside, and the cold December air made him regret wearing only a flannel over a t-shirt. Should’ve wore a jacket, he thought.

Shivering, he got into his car and tried to start it, but all it did was whine and refuse to turn over. He tried a few more times before reaching for his phone to call for help, but realized he left his phone at home. A tap on his window caused him to jump. It was the strange man from the diner.

“You need help?” asked the man, the sound of his voice muffled by the glass.

Tim thought for a second, but the cold weather and his underdressed state had forced his hand.

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess I do.”

Tim followed the man to his rectangular, rust red sedan. The seats were torn and laden with cigarette burns. It smelt like moth balls and body odor, and Tim regretted ever leaving his house. Should’ve just stayed home, he thought.

The man started the car, which rumbled and then hissed as they drove out of the parking lot.

“We can go back to my place,” said the man.

“Na, that’s all right. If you can take me home that’d be great.”

“I have Xbox and movies and beer.”

“I appreciate it, but tonight just hasn’t been my night.”

“But, I,” the man paused for a second. “I thought we could be friends.”

“Yeah, I mean, I’m sorry. I was just trying to pass the time and read. I don’t know what to tell you.”

“So you don’t want to be my friend?” The man’s voice had a disheartened quiver to it now, and Tim was beginning to feel guilty about wanting nothing to do with the stranger who had helped him out of a bind.

“I mean, it’s not that. It’s just…”

“Yeah, you don’t need to explain yourself. Nobody wants to be my friend.”

The man was no longer sad but angry; his eyes wide and fixated on the road, his hands gripped tightly on the steering wheel.

“I’m sure you’re a nice guy,” said Tim trying to calm him down. “Look, you’re helping out a total stranger, but I just don’t…”

“No, don’t bother. Don’t try to make me feel better. It’s been like this all my life.”

The man abruptly pulled to the side of the road and reached under his seat, pulling out a small revolver.

“WHOA! Hey, c’mon, man. I’m sorry. I really am, but please don’t—please don’t hurt me,” Tim pleaded, confused, scared, but mostly shocked by how quickly his uneventful night had taken such a dark turn.

The man turned towards Tim, looked him dead in the eyes, placed the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.

Tim breathed heavily, droplets of blood on his face, the smoke from the pistol hovering in the dingy car, and a man with his head ripped wide open only a couple feet away, propped up against the driver side door. All he could do was stare at the man as his thoughts remained uncollected.

When reality finally clicked in, he realized he couldn’t even call the police, so he got out and began walking home, shivering with each step, but mentally unphased by the frigid air.

written: 2010

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