Northmount Meats, 11:35 pm

appeared in After Hours #11, Summer 1991

copyright (c) 1991 Kenneth Kittlitz

"This is a perfect place for a rakshasa," Mike said, grinning.

"A rak-what?" Barry looked at him, worried. That grin meant trouble.

"A rakshasa. A Hindu spirit that loves to eat human flesh."

Alex, staring into his Pabst, shook his head slowly. "Christ, blondie, you come up with the craziest shit. Sounds like a dance -- do the rakshasa. Why the hell would one be here?"

"Like I said, it loves human flesh -- strip you to the bone in minutes. But it'll eat other meat if it has to. Beef, for instance -- lots of that in this place."

Lots of beef, all right, and only Barry to watch over it. After the first week of lonely twelve-hour shifts, he'd wanted company. Not such a good idea, maybe.

"Three of us, one of it." Looking away, trying to sound disinterested. "I'm not worried."

"Haven't told you the worst part," said Mike, leaning over the desk. "It appears to you as someone you know. Someone you trust."

Alex snorted a laugh. "I don't trust anyone, blondie."

Mike stood up quickly, grinning his crazy grin. "You don't believe me, but there could be one right in... there!" He ran out of the office, towards the main freezer room.

"Hey!" said Barry, getting up. "That's off limits!" Mike yanked open the steel door, waved, and was gone. Barry swore and started after him, hearing loud atonal humming, thwacking sounds of meat being punched. Lousy bastard!

A sharp cry and a thump, just as he got to the door. He stopped uncertainly, shivering in tentacles of cold. "Mike? Mike?" No answer.

Alex walked up behind him, beer in hand. "Problem?"

"I heard something... like he was in trouble."

"Naw -- he's just an asshole." Alex nudged him forward.

Rows of frozen beef slabs hanging a foot in the air, neat and orderly. Aisles between the rows, wide enough to walk in. Salt on the meat, salt on the floor, smell of it sharp in his nostrils. No sign of Mike.

"Split up," Alex whispered, breath misting. "We'll surprise him."

"I don't--" Barry said, but Alex was already walking away, big but quiet. He turned into the aisle nearest the wall.

Strip you to the bone in minutes, Mike had said.

Barry looked at the silent slabs of beef and shivered. You're the watchman, asshole! That got him moving. Slowly.

His shoes made barely a sound on the salty concrete. It's a joke. Has to be. By the time he reached the end of his aisle he believed it. Then he looked down.

Glasses. Mike's. Lying at the end of the next row. Trail in the salt beside them, like something had been dragged off towards the freezer units.

Strip you to the bone in minutes.

Too fucking weird, man. He opened his mouth to yell for Alex.

Behind him, the steel door slammed shut.

The lights went out.

He whirled, a gasp getting out before he could stop it. Calm down! He stood still, wishing he had a gun, wishing it wasn't so cold. Wishing he could see.

No sound.

It's a joke! It's a joke!

Strip you to the bone.


To the bone, to the bone...

A thing that could do that would have to be big, very big. Where would it start? Your throat? Your guts, maybe?

Your face?

He wrapped his arms around himself, began to rock back and forth.

A noise.

Adrenalin burst, searing through him. Something in the aisle. He opened his eyes as wide as they would go. No light.

A footstep, muffled by salt. Whatever it was sounded big. Very big.

Not a rakshasa, his mind said. Not a rakshasa because rakshasas don't exist.

Another footstep, closer. He moved to one side, trying to merge with a slab, salty cold enveloping him.

How close? How close? Peering into the darkness, holding his breath. How close???

Icy fingers in his hair.

Turning, running. Screaming. Hit from behind, going down kicking, flailing. Screaming. Salt in his nose, in his mouth. Crushing weight. Screaming, screaming.

Beer breath. Laughter. Punches to his shoulder.

"God damn!" Alex said, getting off him. "Had you scared shitless!"

He lay in a cushion of salt, mute.

Light. Mike's voice, from the far end of the aisle. "Congratulations, buddy boy. Helluva show."

Barry rolled over, stared dumbly up at the fluorescents. Alex pulled him up, looking concerned. "Sorry, man," he said, brushing salt off Barry's shirt. "Maybe we went a bit far. Mike thought it up before we got here."

"I had to drag one of those slabs away," Mike put in, grinning. "Realism, y'know."

Alex looked him over critically. "You'll live." He turned and picked up his Pabst from underneath one of the slabs, took a long swallow. "Join us when you're ready."

"And don't forget my glasses!" They opened the door and walked out, laughter ringing behind.

Bastards. He could hear them, horsing around in the other room. He bent and picked up Mike's glasses, brushed salt from the lenses. Never have them here again. Going where they're not supposed to, making me look like a pussy...

His eyes moved angrily over the ceiling hooks, each with its slab of beef. No empties.

I had to drag one of those slabs...

Mike's glasses slid through his fingers, hit the floor with a mild plop.

He began to walk, following the trail in the salt. No, his mind said.

Behind the nearest freezer unit. A few ribs showing, a cheekbone, blonde hair splattered red. Grin gone forever.

Vomit rose hot in his throat. A joke. Somehow, a joke. Realism, y'know.

Heavy thud from behind, echoing off the slabs. He turned, shrieking. Shrieked, turning.

An arm lying in the aisle like a half-eaten corn cob, its fingers wrapped around glass, not quite covering the Pabst label.

No, Barry's mind said. No. No. No.

The door swung shut with a muffled clang; the lights went out. Something laughed in the sudden, icy darkness, and that something sounded big.

Very big.