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Horror Contemporary Christmas

CW: Several mentions of blood


That morning, the young man found himself clogged—his stomach with lukewarm French fries; his lungs with smoke; his pores with oil from the grill; his lower lip with pus, from the cheap piercing he had maybe not taken care of; and his chest with irritation, frothing, bubbling, and demanding release.


This sensation was enough to make him stumble back and deliver a single kick into the building’s wall. It shattered only his toes. Pain shot through his foot like a cracking whip. And reeling back, he threw his head upward to cry out.


With a litany of swear words, Shane (as the nametag on his yellow polo read) pulled the cigarette from his mouth (the less tender, uninfected side) and tossed it to the ground, where it smoldered for a few seconds before going out.


The fry cook himself, who had been frying things for almost a decade, also fried things as a hobby—mainly the Peroxide-torched strands atop his head, where the first signs of brown were beginning to show through at the scalp. Still, the ill-kept white blond proved a stark canvas to catch the light from the roof’s blinking neon sign.


Every few seconds, Duke’s Hamburgers: Since 1974 cast the empty parking lot in an eerie green glow. But in truth, a few weeks earlier, most of the words and part of the “U” had gone out. And for the moment, the thing only read “Dik’s.”


But no one was around to see it, so it did not matter. No one was around at 2:45 in the goddamn morning, not on a goddamn Wednesday, and not days before Christmas—when the few folks who actually lived in the little tourist town year-round had fled elsewhere for the holidays.


Shane had actually been hoping the sign would topple down and crush him. He had hoped the single kick would send it, already rusted, creaking just enough to injure, but not permanently maim, him. Then, he might get to be on the news or something.


But the fantasy was interrupted by the beeping of his phone, an indication his break was over. And with a bracing breath, inhaling a rancid mix of distant high tide, of oil, and of smoke, Shane limped his way back through the metal door to the kitchen.


The room smelled of grease and bleach, the latter used for cleaning but never really conquering the former. Most of the light came from the dining area across the counter, sitting pristinely empty like a museum diorama. An all-night radio station was playing holiday music over the intercom.


Shane’s sneakers padded dully on the corroded tile as he made his way to the soda fountain. And although he knew already the ice machine was broken, he still pulled a cup from the stack and pressed it to the lever.


“Spuds are up!”


Shane jumped and spun in a half-circle at the voice. He turned to face the deep fryer, where a woman, thick dark hair piled beneath a yellow baseball cap, was dumping a new pile of fries from the basket. In a single practiced motion, she tugged the automated saltshaker, a piece of amber plastic, from its shelf and began dumping its contents over the steaming batch.


“Jesus Christ, Vera. No one’s even here. You don’t gotta shout like that.”


“We heard you howling at the moon outside. Why shouldn’t I shout?” she replied dully, casting him a look over her shoulder. Narrow eyes stared out from behind a pair of black glasses, which had dipped down to her nose’s tip during the salting. But with her free hand, she pushed them easily back into place and jumped up on a counter, settling into a sitting position and crossing her legs.


She started to flip idly through the comic book she had left there. The cover depicted a grizzled man with a shotgun in one hand and handful of salt in the other, fighting off demons in a flurry of blood.


“Why you makin’ fries anyway? No one’s coming in here tonight.”


Turning back around, Shane filled his cup with orange soda. The fountain sputtered and groaned, and a thick burst of oozing red syrup began to spill forth. He moaned at the sight, dumping out the contents into the drain with a wet plop.


“Same reason she’s over there sweeping up nothing,” Vera replied plainly, turning a page. For only a moment, she looked to a far corner of the room, where another woman, short-haired, and tall enough to duck about when she moved, as if to shrink herself, was pushing around a broom near the feet of the Duke of Hamburgers.


The plastic mascot statue, crudely painted and chipping away from years of display, was a frightening man in yellow pantaloons and a powdered wig. He grinned beneath a black mustache and stared out at the world through lifeless blue eye. His chest, dotted in red blobs, perhaps meant to represent buttons, doubled as a display case, where promotional materials could be stored. It was still full of flyers.


But while the Duke would typically rule his kingdom from the dining room, he had taken up late residence in the kitchen’s darkest corner, ever since a young tourist had scrawled a lewd image on his face with a permanent marker.


“Leslie said he doesn’t care how slow it is. He doesn’t want us slacking off because what the hell is he paying us for?” the woman replied softly, in a matter-of-fact, instructive tone. She paused for only a moment to adjust her nametag, which read Beverly, before returning back to work, scraping the tile with the broom’s steady swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.


She cast a glance upward, hunching under the piercing gaze of Leslie himself, who looked out from the wall with a shark-like, veneered smile. The store’s General Manager, a sunburned, angular man, with over-gelled hair, had named himself Employee of the Month every month since June. And to that end, the same framed portrait appeared six times from this perch, if only to remind his employees that, like the Duke statue, he was always watching.


“He said if he comes in and sees a single crumb on this floor, he’s going to take this broom, show me how to use it and then show me the door. Well, he actually said, ‘this goddamn floor’ and ‘show my ass the door.’ Why does he need to say things like that?” Beverly sighed deeply, brushing at her nose.


“It shouldn’t surprise you by now that he does,” Vera replied flatly.


“Well, with Christmas coming and all, I just don’t want him to cut my hours.” Beverly nibbled gently on her lower lip, but in truth, she did not even realize her nose had begun to bleed until three shimmering red spots appeared on the tile at her feet.


Already locked in motion, Beverly pushed them forward with the broom, smearing the mess into the base of the Duke statue and stumbling back with a low noise of surprise. “Oh! This happens when I’m stressed.” She floundered, dropped the broom, and scurried for the sink.


Shane, sipping cola from his cup, limped to a shelf and grabbed a bottle of bleach with his free hand. He sprayed it about the floor, although he made no actual effort to wipe anything up. And content with it anyway, he set the container back down and idly fished a flyer from the plastic display on the Duke’s tummy.


“Hey! Do you remember this one?” He spun around to hold it up, revealing a cartoonish image of the Duke, holding a gloved finger over his lip as if shushing. The words ‘Truth or Dare’ were printed across the top in bulbous yellow font, and customers could scratch off a golden circle to win a coupon. But the whole promotion had been a disaster.


Still, chucking his cup in the wastebin, Shane held the piece of paper against the wall for leverage, beneath the row of Leslie’s, and used a chipped fingernail to claw away at one of the game symbols.


“The Duke dares you to enjoy a delicious double cheeseburger for a quarter off,” he read aloud, grimacing. “This shit was so dumb. D’you know it said the same thing under the truth side? It would just read, like, ‘the truth is, you should enjoy a delicious double cheeseburger for a quarter off.’ People figured it out pretty quick. And some were just losers, no matter which you picked.”


“They didn’t think about it that hard, dude,” Vera groaned, turning a page. “This place just does things, no rhyme or reason. You know how many people got their PTO requests approved this week? Not me. Nope. Vera, you get to work the overnight with blondie.” She locked eyes with Shane for only a moment. “I should have been on a plane.”


Shane scoffed, casting a glance in Beverly’s direction, as if deciding, for the moment, she were better company. “Hey, Bev,” the man said. “Truth or dare?”


The woman blinked, a mound of paper napkins pressed to her nose. “What?”


“Truth or dare? Come on.”


“Truth?” she replied, as if asking a question. She removed the napkins to see if she was still bleeding.


“Uh, is it really true you pissed yourself on that band trip back in high school?”


“What? No! Stop. That was a mean rumor. Everyone called me Bev-wetter for like, three months.”


“Don’t be a dick, man. Come on,” Vera said gruffly, jumping from the counter. She tossed her comic book atop it, and the pages fluttered as if catching a phantom draft.


“I’m just trying to liven up the place,” Shane retorted. “That’s all. The warden’s gonna be here in two hours for breakfast, so if we wanna make the most of it, now’s the time to do it.” He extended an arm to indicate Leslie’s portraits.


“Well, pick on someone your own size. Truth or dare, Shane?”


“Truth.”


The woman’s face hardened, and she took a few steps forward. And although she herself stood a few inches below his eyeline, she met it unwaveringly, standing as if she could step on him if she really wanted to. “Tell the truth. Do you know why the three of us got stuck on this shift? The schedule changed twice; I saw it. The first time, it was just you, but then, it was the three of us.”


“No, I don’t,” Shane replied, a smirk tugging at the corner of his infected lip. “It’s like you said. They just do things around here. No rhyme or reason. Your turn. Truth or dare, Vera?”


“Dare,” she said after a beat.


“I dare you to go take a big swig of the orange soda syrup from the fountain.”


The woman’s own mouth wavered, arching upward in something of a half-snarl, but biting it back, she marched over to do as bid. Tugging a large cup from the pile, Vera pressed it against the lever, where a mound of reddish ooze began to spill forth. It filled the cup with a sick, wet noise, and Beverly shrunk away, clutching the bloodied napkins in her palm.


But before she could speak up, Vera was throwing the concoction back, swallowing it in one, rancidly sweet gulp and breaking out into a coughing fit. Shane laughed.


“Okay, that was fun,” he snorted. “But I’m, like, starving. Who wants a hamburger?” Having gotten his victory then, he beamed, making his way to the freezer while Beverly patted Vera on the back. The fry cook tugged the metallic door open, and a blast of cold air burst forth.


Arching downward, Shane pried open a white container from a bottom shelf. And there, he dug his hands into a bloody mound of half-frozen red beef, forming two palmfuls into balls. His prize won, he spun around, bopping the door closed with his hip, and tossed the meat onto the grill.


“Hey! It’s my turn. Truth or dare, Shane?” Beverly spoke up.


“Dare,” he replied nonchalantly, flipping switches without wiping his hands. The air vent sprung to life, filling the kitchen with a dull metallic whirr, overpowering the chorus of “Silent Night” still filtering in from the dining room.


“We dare you to make out with the Duke,” Vera cut in. She tossed the empty soda cup onto the floor, where some of its thick contents spilled over. And with her hand free, she extended a finger to point at the gargantuan plastic statue in the corner.


“I’m not putting my mouth on that thing.”


“I drank whatever that shit was,” she retorted. “What are you? Chickenshit?”


“Chicken nugget shit,” Beverly agreed, although she seemed to feel bad about it, immediately bringing up the napkins to cover her mouth.


“You know what? Fine,” Shane replied. Steadying his shoulders then, he abandoned his post at the grill, marching over to where the restaurant’s smiling mascot sat at his shadowy perch. The man met the figure’s painted blue gaze, swallowing hard.


But with a final glance at his co-workers, he grabbed the thing’s cheeks and surged forward, locking swollen red lip to plastic red lip. And as if to prove some unthinkable point, he exaggerated every motion, accepting the dare with gusto.


Vera groaned, Beverly winced, and when Shane pulled back, a trickle of blood was running down his mouth, the swollen piercing having burst. “Oh, shit!” 


A sudden cracking sound filled the kitchen, as if the earth itself were tearing open. The lights flickered, once, twice, and the Christmas music screamed with a mighty crescendo, blurring into a chorus of screeching static.


With that, the ground seemed to tremor, some mighty vibration echoing upward from deep below, and Shane found himself toppling backward, landing hard on the tile, his foot still throbbing.


But then came the roar, a guttural, piercing noise, a sound that could tear souls apart. Vera cried out. Beverly covered her ears. And in one creaking, hollow motion, the statue of the Duke stepped off his platform, his painted mouth spreading into a wide, hungry grin.


“I am Urgrolloth, Duke of Hellfire.”


“What the hell?” Shane screamed.


Vera’s eyes widened. Beverly shrieked.


“Why do you cower, Mortals? Did you not summon me into this painted effigy?”


“What the hell? What the hell? What the hell?” Shane crawled backward.


“Blood of maiden. Blood of butchered beast. Blood of the lying man. Offered at the Devil’s hour on the longest night of year. I have come for my sacrifice. That is my due. I cannot return to my dominion without my due.” Saying this, the Duke moved forward, plastic limbs cracking, each movement splintering his painted surface, as he approached the fallen Shane, who dragged himself backward, eyes flashing. “Are you my sacrifice, lying man? Shall I drag your soul into the lake of fire?"


“I didn’t mean to lie! The ice machine was broken! My lip was so friggin’ swollen. So I took a few ice cream sandwiches. I didn’t even think Leslie would notice,” he cried out. “I just needed to ice it. I’m sorry! He was gonna sack me, so I blamed you all too, and that’s why he stuck us this shit shift.”


“Hey, Hell-burger!” Vera ran for the automated saltshaker. And tipping it over with the same practiced motion with which she had seasoned the fries, she drew a line on the floor between the Duke and the cowering Shane, moving quickly to complete a circle.


“What is this, sorceress?”


“You know how much goddamn salt is in this food, man? Worst place for a demon to come.”


“Release me!” the Duke, now bound by the circle, roared, plastic maw widening. Shane stumbled to his feet, ducking behind Vera and grabbing her shoulders for protection. She shook him off, and he whimpered like a child.


But then, the four of them stared: the Duke at Vera; Shane at Beverly; Beverly, tears streaming down her face, at the Duke. The moment lasted an eternity, each waiting for one to make the first move. It was Vera, who spun back to look at her comic book, turned her gaze down to the circle of salt, to the wall of Leslie portraits, and then back to the Duke’s face.


“One crumb, right, Bev? He said he’d take the broom, show you how to do it?” she asked.


The woman nodded.


“Can you wait two hours, Urgrolloth?”


“Mortal time means nothing to me, sorceress.”


And with that, Vera looked to Beverly, who looked to Shane, who shook his head, mouth hanging open. However, after only a moment, nostrils flaring, he wiped the blood from his chin and gave a firm, affirmative nod.


Bev shook her own head no, still crying, and covered her mouth with her hands.


But bending down, Vera picked up the discarded broom and handed it over. The taller woman took it in her shaking grasp, amid the bloody napkins, swallowed hard, and placed it gently against the wall, beside the circle of salt.


“Stay very still, Duke. The sacrifice’ll be the one who lets you out. But you can’t move until then.” Vera moved back to the counter and picked up her comic book. She motioned with her head for the others to follow. And with that, the trio of them moved unsteadily for the metal exit to the parking lot, where Shane opened the door.


They stared at one another again now, caught in the glow from the neon sign outside and the fluorescents from the dining room.


“Merry Christmas, Shane.”


“Merry Christmas, Vera,” he replied. “Merry Christmas, Beverly.”


“Merry Christmas, I guess. Is this right?”


No one responded, but Vera herself was the last to step outside.


She looked over her shoulder with a final glance.


“Merry Christmas, Urgrolloth.”


And with that, the metal door slammed shut behind her.













August 19, 2021 18:25

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2 comments

23:58 Aug 20, 2021

Wow, wow, wow! Every single word you wrote gripped my attention. The descriptions you created (especially in the first paragraph) were so intense and colorful that I was able to visualize each character and the diner perfectly. I did not expect that twist with Duke at all, and I loved how Vera, Shane, and Beverly resolved their dilemma. Outstanding job!

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Lonnie Russo
18:22 Aug 21, 2021

Thanks so much for reading! I appreciate your kind comment!

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