map The Table for Eating Customers Only

by Mason Yates

Published in Issue No. 295 ~ December, 2021

Clayton Whitman stood in the dark side alley with disgust written on his face.  The aroma of cigarettes, burnt food, and urine hovered like a cloud in the enclosed space, seeming to radiate off the damp walls.  Below, a few mice scuttled about.  Above, the night sky hung like a blanket.  Clayton could hear voices from the main road caught on the wind, but he still felt alone.  In the last ten years, during his time being a famous food connoisseur with a well-known blog on the subject, Clayton had found himself in similar alleys before.  In fact, sometimes dark, cramped alleys beheld some of the best foods he had ever tasted.  Yet, when he gazed upon the restaurant he wished to blog about, he immediately knew the food would not be appetizing.

When he stepped into the hole-in-the-wall establishment, the smell of urine faded, but the pungent scent of burnt food overwhelmed him.  The restaurant was darker than the alley.  In the corner of the room, there sat a lonely table with a small dangling lamp over it, bathing the table in an orange glow.  Clayton took note of this before stepping to the abandoned counter.  When he tapped a service bell, a man appeared from the backroom, which was separated from the main room by a dark curtain.  The bald man slithered to position behind the counter.  A smile curved on the stranger’s face. 

“How can I help you?” the man asked.

“What’s your best dish?” Clayton said.  “I’ve never been here before.”

“Hmmm, let me surprise you, then,” the man responded with a snicker and that hideous smile.  This time, his lips parted.  His teeth were almost charcoal black.

Clayton tried not to show repulsion.  “Can I have a Coke, too?”

The bald man nodded.  “I’ll have everything out in ten minutes.”

Clayton smiled.  The stranger slithered back into the kitchen. 

After his conversation with the strange, serpent-like restaurateur, he felt much better by himself than with company, especially if the company involved the bald man.  Clayton thought about running out the door and back to the main city road, but he pondered what kind of blog post this restaurant would make- an interesting one, no doubt.  Plus, he thought, the food might even turn out to be better than expected.  With a sigh, he stepped towards the alone table and sat down, not noticing the red stains on the countertop. 

Two minutes later, the bald man appeared at the table, his hands behind his back. 

“Excuse me, sir,” the man said with a devious grin. 

“Yes?” Clayton replied, a bit startled.  He had been too focused on his iPhone to notice the man’s appearance- his food critic blog had been pulled up on his phone’s search engine. 

“Sorry, but this table is for eating customers only.”

Clayton raised an eyebrow.  “I am an eating customer.  Well, I’m about to be, at least.”

The bald man chuckled.  “Yes, you are about to be an eaten customer.”

Before Clayton could ask what was happening, the restaurant owner brought his hands out from behind his back, revealing a long butcher knife.  It gleamed in the soft orange lamplight before it sank into Clayton Whitman’s chest.