3 – The Worst Cracker Barrel in the Country
“Very good Hisan,” Popov said in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel located just outside of the water park where they had just slaughtered dozens of innocent people.
“Yes, master, though we suffered several casualties,” replied Hisan, slightly worried.
“As it turns out, most of the people there had concealed carry-arms tucked into their ill-fitting board shorts and were looking for a reason to use them. We lost eight men to one single man wearing a Life is Good shirt,” continued Hisan, shocked at the readiness for someone to both bring an armed gun to a waterpark and be willing to unload it at the first sign of unknown danger.
Popov had anticipated this; he was always one step ahead. He knew this was not going to be an easy endeavor, nor did he want it to be. Communism was not easy, but it was right. His ancestors had instilled this in him, and history had shown that a communist dictatorship would not fail like the weak democracy currently in place. This country was desperate for change; civil unrest was at an all-time high with the left and right clashing over virtually every policy and stance imaginable. Imagine living in a utopia where your beliefs are dictated to you, and deviating from them is punishable by the death of you or your family members. Popov sipped a yardstick filled with hurricane, a popular New Orleans cocktail, considering this prospect with a widening gum-forward grin. Though extremely slight in stature, Popov more than made up for it in cunningness and drunkenness. Nothing made a diminutive man feel more powerful and in control than the drink. This situation was no different. He rubbed his balding, jaundiced head purposefully, staring deep into Hisan’s eyes.
“Let me show you something, my son,” Popov said as he led Hisan to a storage shed in a remote end of the abandoned lot.
He struggled to unlock the enormous padlock that had been installed on the door, as cries and moaning emanated loudly from the shed. Hisan wondered how the shed had not been investigated due to the upsetting noises coming from within. He considered the potential of this being a normal occurrence at Cracker Barrels across the country. The sound of pain and remorse were consistent with the happenings inside the restaurant itself. Eating from a trough was trying on the human digestive system, but it was the preferred way to consume breakfast with the family at Cracker Barrel. It was possible that whatever was living in this shed was somehow less miserable than the clientele only a hundred or so feet away. The structure was perfectly camouflaged by the inordinate amount of recreational vehicles in the parking lot and the sound of someone inside choking to death on their fourth plate of dry flapjacks.
They entered the shed, which was far more expansive on the inside than it appeared on the outside. It smelled as though whatever was in here had been existing exclusively on goat cheese and was noticeably lactose intolerant. The dense fog did not help matters. Hisan wasn’t sure if the fog was a visible manifestation of the odor or a heinous mist created by what appeared to be a neglected essential oil diffuser. The scent of shit and lavender forcibly entered his nostrils and immediately flavored his postnasal drip. Popov instantly retched into a rusted bucket that looked like it had held the throw up of several other people who had cared to enter this godforsaken addition to an otherwise family-friendly establishment.
“You need?” he asked Hisan, pushing the bucket into his chest with the vomit spilling over the edges.
Hisan politely declined and placed the bucket back onto the rusty nails lining the floor. Popov lead him through a beaded door, colored like a Jamaican flag, which was similar to the entry of a video store’s designated pornography section. Three cages were firmly installed inside the facility – in the pitch-blackness, each appeared empty at first glance. Popov tugged the chain on a loose lightbulb without a fixture and the room illuminated. A man lie apparently sleeping in each cage.
“Impressive…several grown men locked in cages, but what does it all mean?” Hisan asked Popov, scanning the cages in pure wonder.
“There was something special at the last operation,” Popov responded, attempting to stroke a nonexistent chin, which was little more than just a small carbuncle that sat on his neck. “I allowed you to be seen, wanted you to be seen at that piece of crap water park! Noah’s Ark was the perfect place to unveil you to our shared enemy.”
“What! How could you? We operate in the shadows!” Hisan yelled, grabbing Popov by the neck and pushing him up against the cage.
“It was for one man to see you,” Popov replied calmly. “Duke Dasher.”
Hisan lowered him, looking deeply disturbed. Memories from that fateful evening washed over him. He recalled his precious horses, all slaughtered by Duke Dasher’s negligence and his awful idea to release the domesticated mini horse hybrids into the dangers of the desert wilderness.
“They would rather die standing than live on their knees,” Hisan said, turning swiftly and punching a hole through the concrete wall in front of him.
“These men have been created to help you, to help us defeat the only thing standing between us and overthrowing this government,” Popov continued as he lit the wrong end of his cigarette and promptly smoked through the filter. “We had to draw Dasher out, don’t you see? Get him enraged; shake his confidence in the false god he worships.”
“Isn’t it too soon? Plus, how can the actions of a single man, who has no actual authority, determine if an entire government falls?” Hisan asked, realizing that perhaps Popov overvalued the significance of a single, devout Christian.
“Dasher represents everything this country stands for and physically, even at his older age, he still represents the only threat to you Hisan,” replied Popov. Now, let me show you your new family members.”
Popov rammed a cattle prod in the cage, awakening the beast inside who seemed indifferent to the shock. The creature stirred and rose, though only on all fours, as though it were part wolf or part gimp. The man, if you could call it that, looked wild-eyed at his master, thirsty to please.
“This here is Addison Beach, former Green Beret. He was kidnapped and reprogrammed both physically and mentally. His skin has been infused with a poison that, when touched or scratched, causes almost instantaneous paralysis. He represents the Egyptian plague that poisoned the livestock, crippling the Egyptian empire,” Popov said, proud of his creation.
A whirring sound suddenly became audible and a hidden platform holding a slumbering Cracker Barrel patron emerged from the floor. Beach calmly walked over to the slumbering customer, who routinely passed out at the restaurant after a healthy gorge and with a prick from his finger, the animal fainted. He began convulsing and seconds later, both eyes popped out and blood sprayed freely from mouth and anus just before he finally imploded in on himself. The sound of skin crumpling like loose-leaf paper made Hisan sick. Popov looked on with delight as he continued down the line of sadistic cages.
The next cage appeared empty, even in the light. Hisan stood there, confused, and wondered if what was in the cage had somehow escaped and settled down for an equally miserable life with whatever other trash lived in this god-awful city. Popov threw a piece of sirloin he had found in the garbage remnants of the Cracker Barrel into the cage. Hisan looked on, frozen by the strangeness of the situation. The slab of meat taunted Hisan, tainted and covered in asbestos or not, Popov had never offered Hisan a solid meal.
The steak disappeared as fast as he threw it down and was followed by a horrible slurping noise. Yet, it was somehow not the fastest Hisan had ever seen someone slurp up a piece of abused sirloin meat at the restaurant.
“Camouflage,” Popov muttered casually.
He went on to explain the science behind modifying the former Navy Seal, Titus Rains, whose skin appeared invisible to the naked eye. This represented the darkness plague, according to Popov, who was beginning to seem equally obsessed with the Bible as Dasher was.
“This last one, you are going to love my child,” Popov continued as he staggered towards the final cage.
The last cage held a man dressed in a Best Buy Geek Squad uniform. The man seemed sicker than the other abominations introduced ahead of him, pear-shaped, with skin that appeared as delicate and fragile as the dwindling sinuses of a coke fiend and just as eager to bleed. He was wearing a pair of piss-soaked khaki pants, complete with incredibly used cell phone holster, and reeked of dander. The source of the smell was explained by the unrelenting amount of flakes on the shoulders and back of his shirt. The enormous white flecks almost made the shirt appear tie-dyed; nuggets of dried flesh seemingly sewn into the very fibers of the Best Buy uniform. Hisan wondered how one man could produce that much dead skin and how someone’s hair could appear simultaneously full and sparse. The seemingly endless amount of thinning strands molted out of his head like a clutching fist pulverizing week old Panda Express Chow mein. Each inflamed follicle root appearing more painful than the last. A honeycomb of chrysalises birthing and dying onto tenderized neck meat. Dried bundles of veins and nerves disintegrating through the gaping holes where healthy hair once grew like salt crumbling down the wrinkled elbow of someone named Salt Bae. The hair appeared nonexistent at times, but in the right light, and with the right wind, you could catch glimpses of it like a quivering cobweb enduring a horrific passing of gas on the way to the toilet for something more satisfying. Hisan stared at the man for what seemed like an eternity. What could this man possibly represent? Other than a sickening glimpse into Middle America, which clearly needed their help more than ever.
Something else appeared vaguely familiar about this very mentally and physically unwell looking man, but Hisan could not quite put his finger on it.
“This here is Joel Oscreen, the prominent television evangelist. He actually came here of his own free will,” Popov said with a sinister smile, knowing exactly what was running through Hisan’s head. “And he will kill Dasher’s firstborn, the final and most powerful plague.” Even Hisan marveled at the genius of the plan – using what Dasher loved most against him.
“Tonight, you will all head to rural Illinois to set our plan into motion. Dasher will pay for everything he did, and the broken shell of a man that remains will be left to watch his country transform into a blossoming communist dictatorship,” continued Popov, smoking the rest of the filter on his cigarette and taking a pull from his handle of vodka, spilling most of it onto the front of his already soaked shirt.