I went to an old restaurant/antique shop with Todd and his son. (This kid was not one of my stepsons. He was about ten, with straight brown hair.) We climbed an accordion staircase up to a big, musty attic full of broken, dusty furniture. It was very hot, and we decided to leave without buying anything. We were incredibly thirsty.
We unfolded the stairs, but they became choked with old junk and boxes. Moats of dust swirled in our faces as we picked our way down. Here and there sat cases of bottled water, but there was so much crap in the way we couldn’t get to them.
When we finally reached ground level, we asked the old woman who owned the shop if we could get some water. She told us to go into the adjoining restaurant but warned us to be careful of the manager because he was an asshole.
I sent Todd and his son out to wait in the car while I went to the restaurant for the water. As I walked through the wide entrance, a blond girl in a green dress stepped from behind the host podium. “Do you have a reservation?” she asked.
“I’m not here to eat,” I said. “I just need some water to take with us.”
She seemed about to refuse, but then gestured at the kitchen doors. “They’ll give you some,” she said. “But be careful of the manager—he’s a real asshole.”
I found myself in a cramped, dirty kitchen. I tried to ask a guy in an apron for some water, but he was in a hurry to get the dishes washed. Then the door opened, and the manager came in. He was about my age, with pale eyes and slicked-back brown hair. He wore a long-sleeved, maroon striped shirt.
“Hi, I was wondering if I could get some water,” I said.
He spared me a glance, nodding briefly before bending over a spreadsheet on a clipboard. “Sure, you bet. Just wait a second.” He began writing numbers on the sheet. He left the room several times, always returning to the clipboard.
By now, Todd and his son had been waiting out in the car a good twenty minutes. The next time the manager came in, I said, more sharply than I intended, “Do you have any water or not?”
The manager stopped abruptly, and I knew I’d really screwed up. I tried to smile to let him know it wasn’t a big deal. “I mean, because if you’re too busy or whatever, that’s fine. We’ll just get water somewhere else.”
I had been edging toward the door, but the manager casually blocked my way. His expression never changed, but I knew he was crazy. “Come and look,” he said, leaning over the long trough of the sink. I didn’t want to look, but I couldn’t stop myself. On the wall at eye level was a small, splattered portrait of the manager’s face. He touched it with his fingertip. The peeling surface of the picture aged rapidly, stains appearing on the face like mold. He touched it again. Insects crawled over the glazed eyes, and a centipede spilled out of the mouth. A third touch, and the skin began to shrivel, exposing the gaping skull.
The portrait filled my vision, and then the manager’s voice spoke inside my head: “You have to pierce the centipede with a pin and an orange slice. It takes twenty minutes before you can eat it.”
As the voice went on, the world went black, and all I could see was a single eyeball, the lids held shut by a long headpin, on which were impaled an orange slice and a squirming centipede.