From the Malafarina files: ‘After Midnight’ a short story by horror author Thomas M. Malafarina

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By Thomas M. Malafarina

The security guard stared at the bank of idle displays, all in bright, vivid colors. Each one showed a separate area of the huge department store. Since there were only eight video screens and dozens of cameras strategically placed around the store the images on the monitors updated every few seconds when in cycle mode to show whichever area was next to be screened. The higher ticket areas were repeated more often, and on more screens than the lower-priced sections.

Chet had only started his shift less than an hour earlier at 11:00 pm and already the boredom was beginning to set in. He was hoping at least something a bit interesting might happen that evening as the previous three nights had been strangely uneventful. This is not to suggest Chet was looking for any sort of major altercation either. God knew he had experienced enough of that for several lifetimes.

Many years earlier, Chester Dalton had graduated from high school and instead of heading off to college like many of his friends; he had decided to see what the world had to offer him. He had enlisted in the army right before 9-11 and quickly found himself part of Desert Storm. As soon as his hitch was up, Chet left the service and using his army experience was able to be accepted by the local police department where he lived. But after several years of that, he became bored left the force. This was followed by several gigs in everything from private security agent to bounty hunter to night club bouncer. Now at forty-five, Chet had just about had his fill of such violent jobs.

Although not a big man, Chet was solid, well-built and could handle himself in a fight if it became necessary. He had done so more times in the past than he cared to think about. Now he was content to sit alone at night in the quiet of his security booth watching video screens and chilling.

He glanced up at the wall clock next to the bank of monitors and saw it was 11:55. Five minutes until midnight. Then things would start to get interesting. Chet liked interesting as long as it stayed calm and secure. After midnight was when the freaks made their nightly appearance. They were seldom the same freaks each night but they were all very similar in their peculiarities. He realized P. T. Barnum would have had a difficult time putting together a sideshow with more oddities than Chet encountered on any given night on his job.

There were the fat lady and the thin man, usually found together for whatever bizarre reason. The woman trucked her way around the store on one of the electric scooters, which Chet referred to as “Lard Carts”. This was because the scooters, which were meant for legitimately handicapped shoppers were more often than not used by these lard butts and fatties. Several times he had seen some disabled shoppers looking for a cart to ride only to discover them all either being used by one of the gravity butts or else recharging because their batteries had drained hauling these bulbous sacks of undulating flesh around the store.

He also wondered why it seemed these huge freakish women often had such skinny husbands dutifully following them and their carts around the store. Were these guys simply chubby chasers? Did they stay slim from constantly enabling their partners by running around getting them whatever they wanted and following their lard carts around stores? Or did the women eat everything in sight leaving nothing for their mates?

There were also the illustrated men and women all adorn with more tattoos than he would ever have imagined possible. Chet wasn’t anti-tattoo by any means. He even had two of his own. But some of the freaks he saw in his store defied all logic and common sense. Arms, legs and even necks, heads and faces were covered with ink. And the body piercings were even more bizarre. He often wondered where these mutants worked. Who in their right mind would even hire such a walking mutant?

Then there were the midgets, the giants, the hermaphrodites, the transvestites, the hookers, the pimps, the potheads, the crack heads, , and the meth-mouths. Not to forget about the goths, the punks and God only knew what else some of these freakish creatures could be called. Chet often wondered to himself at what point does a human stop being a human and becomes something new and not necessarily better.

To the best of his knowledge, Chet believed there were few if any freak shows and sideshows remaining. He knew why. All someone had to do was stop by his big box store after midnight and you could see all the freaks your twisted heart desired. Most of them were harmless, just folks coming out in the privacy of night to do their shopping away from the staring, judgmental eyes of the so-called normal people who were now at home fast asleep. Every so often Chet might have to subdue someone for shoplifting and turn them over to the local police. But that had also become a rare occurrence.

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At 12:10 am as he studied the bank of video screens, he noticed something suspicious which caught his attention. It was an extremely tall man entering the store wearing a long black leather coat, which hung down below his knees. He also wore a leather wide-brimmed dark Fedora, black leather pants and motorcycle boots as well as leather gloves with the fingers cut out. It wasn’t just the style of the man’s dress that caught Chet’s attention, but the fact that the man was wearing such an outfit on a hot ninety-plus degree July night. Of course, the store was air-conditioned but even so, to wear such a getup on such a muggy night was bound to attract suspicion. Chet knew that often professional shoplifters used long coats to hide all sorts of stolen merchandise.

Chet’s security office was located near the front entrance to the store. Its mirrored window allowed him to see out but no one could see in. He watched the odd stranger walk by his window heading into the store. It was then he saw the man had long, greasy black hair that hung down from his hat hiding much of his face. He also wore dark sunglasses and sported a thick black beard. His face and exposed fingers appeared to be coated with filth and glistening with sweat.

As the man passed the window, he stopped for a moment the slowly turned his head looking directly in Chet’s direction. Chet knew the man couldn’t see in through the mirror but he nonetheless felt as if the stranger was looking right at him and could see everything. A cold chill raced down Chet’s spine and he felt a bead of sweat begin to form on his upper lip. After what seemed like an eternity, but was actually only a second or two, the stranger turned back and continued walking into the store. Chet found himself suddenly taking a deep breath realizing that he had been unconsciously holding his breath during the time the stranger was staring at him.

“Wow. That was creepy.” Chet thought, “Now that is one freaky dude.”

However, that wisecrack was only his way of trying to deflect his concentration from the real issue. That being the fact that he knew there was something bad about that character and Chet instinctively knew the stranger was going to be trouble for Chet tonight. That awareness had been developed from a lifetime of dealing with trouble in all the various forms it chose to take. His problem was he didn’t know what sort of trouble the odd man was bringing with him.

Chet went back to his desk and began following the man with his overhead cameras as he moved about the store. The big man moved quickly through the store, bypassing all the high-ticket areas normally targeted by shoplifters. He completely ignored the jewelry department, hurried by electronics, past the sporting goods area before eventually slowing down at the food and produce section.

“What’s this guy up too?” Chet wondered aloud in the quiet of his office.

He saw the man approach the open cold display case which held a variety of packaged cheeses and lunch meats. Unfortunately, his back was to the camera and although Chet suspected the man might be stealing food, he couldn’t see from the view he had available. The man’s back seemed to be moving as if he were picking things up and pulling them into his coat yet his arms were still visible hanging at his side. A moment later Chet saw the wrapper from one of the packages of meat fall to the floor and he suddenly realized what the man was doing.

It was obvious that the arms hanging by his side were not real but props. The man’s actual arms were hidden inside his long coat which probably was lined with dozens of deep pockets. With his back to the camera and his “arms” visible, anyone watching might not realize his scam and that he was filling his pockets with fresh meats and cheeses. Then the man moved over to the area which held a variety of freshly cut high-priced steaks.

After a moment the man turned and began making his way back toward the entrance of the store. Chet could see his coat was closed and because of the thickness of the garment not a single sign of anything inappropriate could be discerned. Chet got up from his desk and opened the door to the office, getting ready to head this character off before he left the store. He didn’t have to wait long. After just a few minutes the man was walking right toward Chet who was blocking his exit from the store.

“Excuse me sir.” Chet said using more cordiality than he would have liked to but which was expected of him, “I need to speak to you about something important.”

The strange man just stood silently looking down at Chet. The security guard hadn’t realized just how large the stranger was. He was certain the man was well over six-seven and his shoulders were much broader than Chet had originally noticed. If this character decided to get violent, Chet might have a real struggle on his hands. He decided to handle this by the book and not to risk any unwarranted danger to himself.

“Sir. I need you to step into my office over there and answer a few questions for me.”

The stranger still said nothing but slowly turned his head and looked toward the security office. Chet had the feeling that not only did this character know exactly what was coming next but he had no fear of Chet, the police or anyone. Without a word the huge man turned and walked toward the open door of the security office. Chet followed and as he did, he pressed a special auto-dial icon on his smart phone which sent an automated message to the local police requesting a unit be dispatched to the store. The store was part of a multi-billion-dollar chain which spared no expense when it came to security and paid a significant annual stipend to the local police department for this level of service. He knew within a half hour a squad car would arrive and head directly to his office. All he had to do is keep this guy calm until then and the locals could deal with him.

As they entered the office, the man stood in front of Chet’s desk and stared at the bank of video screens illuminating the dark room. Chet knew if the guy was going to bolt for the parking lot it would likely be in the next second or two. But the man either didn’t realize he was in trouble, or didn’t care. Chet looked at his watch as saw that only two minutes had passed since he sent the automated request for backup. He decided to try to talk with the man until help arrived.

“Sir, do you know why I asked you to come in here?”

The man didn’t reply. He just stood staring down at the security guard. Chet thought he noticed a slight movement just beneath the front of the man’s coat. I suddenly became concerned realizing the stranger might have a knife, gun or other weapon hidden under that coat. The man opened and closed his gloved hands a few times as if bored. It was then Chet realized the arms weren’t props but where his real arms. But then whose arms were busy stealing food?

“Sir, I have reason to suspect you were shoplifting food from our meat and cheese section. Would you like to explain your actions?”

The man looked down at Chet and after releasing a sigh of frustration mumbled, “I dint wanna… but my brother… he hungry.”

Chet suddenly felt a bit of sympathy for the man. Looking at his worn and dirty clothing he could see the man was obviously poor. And if he had a brother at home who was depending on him for food, perhaps Chet could understand his plight. Maybe he could give the man a break this one time and then he might never return to the store. Then he’d become someone else’s problem.

“Look. I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve been poor from time to time in my life as well. I get that you want to get food for your brother, but I can’t permit shoplifting. I’ll tell you what I’ll do, this one time only. If you just open your coat and leave the food you stole on my desk, I’ll let you leave. I’ve already called the police, but when they get here, I’ll tell them you ran away. I don’t want to see you go to jail, especially if your brother depends upon you to supply him with food.”

The man lowered his head as if in contrition then slowly began to pull down the zipper on his long leather coat. As the coat opened, Chet expected to see packages of food fall out onto his desk, but was in no way prepared for what he saw instead. The man was naked from the waist up but that wasn’t what made Chet’s breath catch in his throat. Hidden under the coat was some sort of freakish deformity the likes of which Chet had never seen in even the worst horror movie.

Just above the top of the man’s pants was a face, or at least it might be called a face of some type. It was a mouth, a huge mouth perhaps a foot wide and two feet high with large red lips and rows of long shark-like teeth. At the center was a long lapping tongue that rolled out of the maw like a snake and danced serpent-like in the air in front of Chet’s face. He was paralyzed with fear. At the top of the mouth was a deformed twisted nose and on each side of the nose were large wandering eyes.

“My brother still hungry.” The man said in a deep monotone voice.

Before Chet had been able to even comprehend what, he was seeing, four long flapping tentacles seemed to fly out from the man’s sides under the coat. On the ends of the rope-like appendages were small human hands. The hands grabbed tightly onto various point around Chet’s body and with strength, he never would have imagined, began to pull him toward that gaping, waiting maw.

Chet opened his mouth to scream and the large man punched him hard in the face, smashing his nose to a bloody pulp and shattering several of his teeth, “I sorry mister… but my brother still hungry.”

As Chet was slowly pulled into the fang-filled chomping wood chipper of a mouth as the agony coursed through his dying body and he realized that all of the people who entered his store after midnight, the ones he thought of as freaks were just regular people with a few odd peculiarities. This thing, this horrible creature that was ending his life and feasting on his flesh was a real freak.

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