It had been a dry Nevada summer, and this night was no exception. A storm was whipping the desert sands, and the entire region southeast of Carson City was blanketed in dust. Carlie's Diner wasn't excluded. Its tin roof rattled wildly and its harsh incandescent lights phased in and out of power. Carlie's should've been closed. It was a Sunday, and everyone knew old Emma-Jean was a Mormon. But this storm had started around midnight Saturday, and the unfortunate timing had left many customers clinging to their barstools and booths. One of those, Johnny Smithing, practically lived at the diner. He'd wandered in one day, took the first seat he saw, and refused to relinquish it. Except on Sundays. It was a mystery where he went. There was also the rancher, Danny Everson. He had a few hundred heads out on his ranch a couple miles from Carlie's. He'd swing by in his big boots, flannel shirt, and 10-gallon hat, ravenously demanding coffee. Sometimes something stronger. Also, there was Madame Pomporous, who claimed she could see the future and communicate with the dead. She would visit Carlie's only when Mars was in retrograde. Besides the regulars, there were a few who were only passing through: a lady who looked like a hooker (Vegas wasn't far), and a family of seven who had hauled themselves out of the smallest Volvo imaginable. These people, including the waitress, Luanne (who tonight doubled as cook), and of course Emma-Jean manning the cash register (she trusted only herself with the profits), made up the populace of Carlie's Diner. Together they were trapped. For the moment, anyway. Then, suddenly, the bell clanged above the door. Sand swirled in, dancing as if it were at the ballet. Everyone was caught unaware and turned just in time to see a stranger pass over the threshold. He was tall – taller than six feet, maybe even pushing seven. He was dressed in a long trench coat, black boots, a red bandanna, and a floppy sun hat. From what little could be seen of his skin, he was grimy and apparently of Native American descent. Probably Navajo. He had a manner that made you want to avoid eye contact. Predatory, almost. Shocked, everyone stared for a moment. Then Emma-Jean slapped Luanne's hindquarters to get her moving. Remembering her job, Luanne scurried over to the stranger, taking out her pen and paper as she went. “H-hello, sir. Welcome to Carlie's Diner. Would you like to take a seat?” She motioned toward a barstool. The stranger nodded stiffly and made his way over. “Can I get you anything?” Luanne asked. Suddenly, he looked up, sending his gaze through her. “Coffee. Black,” he said after a moment, his blue eyes studying Luanne's like a hungry lion studies an antelope. She nodded and ran to grab the pot. Everyone wondered the same thing. How was this man here? Had he driven a car? No one had seen headlights. Had he walked? How could that be possible? The winds must've worked their way up to at least eighty miles per hour. Nobody could stand upright in that. Luanne plunked the stranger's mug down in front of him. He threw a quarter on the table. Carlie's was still quiet, and the stranger seemed to like it that way. He made no move to enlighten anyone. But Johnny Smithing wouldn't take that. He got up, wobbling from too many beers, and made his way over to the stranger. He stumbled up to the counter and let his unshaven face sink dangerously close to the newcomer's. “And who do you think you are? You just waltz in here and sit down? Who do you think you are?” He was standing now, arms spread wide, swaying. “I, sir, am a hero,” said the stranger in a low growl, staring straight ahead, sipping his coffee. He spoke with an accent. “A hero!” shouted Johnny, stumbling. “And what makes you say that?” A leer spread across the stranger's face. “Take a seat and I'll tell you.” Johnny was taken aback. Normally, strange men like this were not so open. Everyone in the diner was enthralled by this mysterious man and the grace with which he carried himself. “Many moons ago, when I was young,” the stranger began, “the ways of old were still feared among my people. The Witchery Way and other customs of the ancients were respected and valued. “The year was 1957. It was a warm, lethargic summer, the kind that never seems to end. As a boy, I spent my days fishing and playing handball on the reservation. You've heard the saying ‘Ignorance is bliss'? Well, that couldn't be closer to the truth. “My bliss would not last, though. The night my grandfather disappeared, everything changed.” The diner was silent, which the stranger relished with an odd sort of satisfaction. “The whole thing shocked the community. Nothing like that had happened in years. And when the white police told us there was no ransom, they said it meant he was likely dead. We held the weeping ceremony immediately. The entire reservation shed tears. Everyone but me.” When everyone in the diner saw the sly smile spread across his face, a bit of fear struck their cores. Why would he not cry? “My grandfather was a cruel, drunken bastard. He beat me. He beat his children. He neglected us and left us for dead more than once. I was happy to see him go.” “Your own grandfather?” asked Luanne, shocked from her silence. The area around Carlie's wasn't so keen on abusive parents. Most were Mormons. The stranger nodded. A few surely assumed this was the end of his tale, and some moved back to their food. But the stranger wasn't finished, and his abrupt cough proved that. “I left the reservation the following summer,” he said. “Got out of the Southwest altogether. Drove a cab in Chicago. Sold hot dogs in Brooklyn for a time. But my ghosts refused to let me be.” He didn't explain that last sentence. “Look, buddy,” said Danny Everson, never a big talker and silent until now. “I don't know what you're playing at, but we're honest folk here. Want no trouble. Why don't you just move on?” “Oh, leave him alone, Danny,” pooh-poohed Madame Pomporous. She took a moment to readjust her various scarves before continuing. “He's passing through, just like anyone else.” “That, Madame,” said the stranger, “is where you are wrong.” The whole diner turned their attention back to him. Even Emma-Jean raised her head. “My ghosts have chased me here tonight,” said the stranger, getting up and walking to the center of Carlie's. “And tonight, the road ends.” In one swift move, he pulled a gun from the depths of his trench coat. Seeing it, everyone fell silent, except for the hooker. She screamed. “Shut up!” said the stranger, and that was exactly what happened. No one moved. No one breathed. Life hung in the balance. “You'll do as I say. I want all of you at the counter facing me!” The stranger strode to the door and turned, expecting everyone to be on the barstools. But nobody moved. “Now!” he shouted, and the spell was broken. Everyone scurried to the counter. Johnny Smithing hung to the spot he had. When one of the children from the Volvo tried to sit on its mother's lap, the stranger shrieked, “No! No! Everyone on their own stool!” The smaller children began to cry, and the stranger fired three warning shots in the air, piercing the ceiling and sending down a cascade of sand from the roof. This didn't seem to bother him. In fact, it seemed to bolster his confidence. “What do you want?” A calm, clear voice cut through the tension. It was old Emma-Jean, still perched at her cash register. She was the only one who hadn't moved. Startled, the stranger leveled his pistol at her face. “Get to the counter, now,” he said, just as calm, but with an edge. Emma-Jean crossed her arms. “No,” was her reply. The stranger didn't hesitate. He yelled out something incomprehensible before pulling the trigger. Emma-Jean slumped to the floor. There was little resistance after that. Everyone took their own barstool and clasped it firmly. “Now, this is what's going to happen,” said the stranger. “All of you will answer my questions truthfully. Understand?” Most nodded, but others just stared straight ahead. “Have any of you visited Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the past six months?” A few nods, some denials. “All who have not may stand over there by the cash register.” The stranger motioned quickly with the gun. Those who'd shaken their heads were glad to move. Johnny Smithing, Madame Pomporous, and the hooker all got up and stood by the register. Luanne hadn't given a response, and neither had Danny Everson, but he tried to get up and join the others by the register. The stranger shot at the ground immediately in front of Everson, nearly hitting him. “Stay put, sir. You haven't answered my question.” Everson grumbled something about business deals in Chattanooga, and he took a seat again. “Why are you doing this?” asked the Volvo mother in a whisper. She shied away once his gaze hit her. “Ma'am, I do not mean to frighten, but there is a killer in this eatery, and I intend to find him.” The interrogation continued. The stranger fired off questions rapidly. Had anyone been to Denver in the past six months? Eaten fast food in the past month? They were seemingly meaningless questions, but a simple glance into the stranger's eyes showed there was reason to his rhyme. Finally, only Luanne the waitress was left. All others stood by the register, a few shivering. Luanne clutched her barstool, shaking. “Please,” she pleaded. The stranger had a grim look of determination on his face. “There can be no forgiveness, witch,” he said. “My grandfather was a bad man, but no one should die at the stinking jaws of a skinwalker! Tonight, you die yee naaldlooshi!” Tears streamed down Luanne's cheeks as the gun was leveled at her. “Wait,” a voice interrupted. Danny Everson stepped forward. “You have the wrong person.” He looked steady and statuesque. Luanne was quivering like a harp string. “No,” said the stranger, adamant. He still had the gun pointing at Luanne, but for the first time his hand wavered. Had he gotten it wrong? “I have been to Reno lately,” said Everson. “I visited my sister. She had a baby.” For the first time the stranger deviated from his plan. There was nothing on Danny's face to suggest he was lying. There was also nothing to indicate he was telling the truth. “I'm your man, and you know it,” said Everson. The stranger shook his head. “Get back to the counter,” he spat. Danny refused. “You let her go, and I'll sit down.” The stranger shrugged. Seeing he wouldn't be able to shoot them both side by side, he turned to take out Danny. And suddenly he was hit from behind. Hard. The stranger fell to the ground as sharp claws clamped onto his shoulder blades. The gun skittered across the linoleum. Danny picked it up and gaped. They all gaped. “Shoot it!” screeched the stranger. “Call its name and shoot it!” He screamed as the skinwalker's jaws clamped onto his left shoulder. “L-L-Luanne!” stuttered Danny, unable to fathom what he was seeing. “Her name is Dezba! Call ‘Dezba' and shoot!” shrieked the stranger. Most of the diners had decided that the storm was a safer risk than the monster and were heading to the door. But Danny Everson stayed, staring at the beast – the beast that had visited him in the night and lain with him, even while his wife lay dying of cancer in the hospital. Yes, Luanne had been his mistress. And now the Luanne he had cared for was transfigured into a beast – a wolf-like being, its legs like thick timber, its mouth snarling. Danny gasped as the thing that had been his illicit lover stood over the stranger, mauling him. Bones broke. “Whatever she was to you, she isn't that anymore!” screamed the stranger, seeing the rancher's hesitation. Danny met the skinwalker's eyes and saw his lover. The eyes were Luanne's. Cool. Calm. Calculating. There was intelligence behind those eyes. Luanne's intelligence. “She's gone,” mumbled the stranger, seeming to slip out of consciousness. “She's gone.” And it finally hit home. Luanne was no more. Danny raised the gun. “The name!” croaked the stranger, apparently still conscious. “Say ‘Dezba' and then shoot!” A low, guttural sound issued from the skinwalker. She understood. But Danny was quicker. “Dezba.” He pulled the trigger.
The storm had settled, leaving Carlie's Diner dusted. Three bodies littered the floor: Emma-Jean's, the stranger's, and Danny Everson's. Luanne hadn't wanted to kill Danny. Of all the humans she'd ever known, he was the kindest – and had all of those cattle ready for snacking. “Oh, Danny,” wept Luanne, leaning to touch his cold face. She'd been merciful and went right for the throat. The stranger hadn't been so lucky. “I'm so sorry, Danny, but you left me no choice. If you'd hit me in the face, that would've been the end. Good thing that stupid Indian didn't know that, or I would be dead.” Luanne heard sirens and saw flashing lights. Apparently one of the escaped patrons had placed a call. She would have to run. Run far from her handiwork and her Danny. “Good-bye,” she said, kissing his still lips. Then she retrieved her fur coat from the back room. The winter garment would help her hold her form and make her stronger. She gave one last glance at Danny, passed through the kitchen, and slipped out the back door.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the October 2014 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.