I love Danny Oldham. He’s probably one of the best characters I’ve ever written and the thought of him being just a one-off for A Thousand Little Deaths was completely unacceptable. So, not only am I trying to write a follow up or completely secondary story for him to appear in, I’ve also uncovered and polished up a couple of older shorts I wrote about him over the years. This is probably one of my favorites and was the original basis for the character years ago. Enjoy.
Dinner at the Crossroads Cafe
The Crossroads Cafe was an out of the way little nothing of a diner in the foothills of Tennessee. A double wide aluminum sided monstrosity sitting off the edge of the highway in the wood line, it wasn’t much to look at with its pothole pocked parking lot and smudged windows. An old Chevy pickup was rusting into nothing in front of the building near the sign, filled with black potting soil it had become a flower bed for the owner’s purple iris and some creeping vines that crawled along the wheel wells and up the front grill. A neon sign in the cracked window by the front door flickered with the word OPEN despite the parking lot being completely empty. Inside, the diner had a retro decor of red vinyl seats with aluminum trim that matched the bar and every table’s red top. The walls were surrounded in neon tubes and lined with photos of celebrities who had dined at the Crossroads Cafe over the years. Country music legends and Hollywood royalty had left their autographed marks to prove they were there as Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper sang the hits from a jukebox near the kitchen door. The whole place was a giant, nostalgic cliché.
And none of it was real.
Every morning a little girl with a mop of tangled red hair and a frail, freckled body would stretch her arms over her head, yawn, and imagine the place exactly how she had always dreamed it would be. Moldering carpet and rotted walls would transform to the bright, neon and plastic fantasy world she had seen in the movies as the old burlap bag dress she’d been wearing since before the Depression became a poodle skirt and a pink sweater. Her frizzled mess of hair would become a tight blonde ponytail with a giant red bow tied at her scalp. The staff would soon materialize and join her in their period appropriate uniforms, standing at attention as she inspected them all. Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn were her waitresses. James Dean had returned from the grave as a fry cook with a toothpick hanging out of his pursed lips while a young Marlon Brando waited in a paper hat to mix malts and jerk sodas behind the bar.
The little girl’s name was Ophelia and the diner, her little empire of imagination was just one of the joys she had found in being an ancient trickster goddess forgotten by time and myth alike.
Night had fallen outside as her imaginary customers were seated and sated with imaginary food prepared by an imaginary celebrity fry cook and served by an imaginary celebrity waitress. To the clueless passerby, it was just another night in an ordinary little dump in the middle of nowhere. If not for the man sitting in the back of the diner with his feet propped up on the table reading the paper, the illusion would have been flawless. Danny Oldham was no stranger to the unusual. With his pale skin and mismatched blue and green eyes, he’d seen his share of odd over a long life. Looking to be somewhere in his thirties his skin was a tapestry of faded pink scars that criss crossed his entire body from the top of his freshly shaved head to the nine remaining toes he walked on. He’d been coming to the diner every night at the same time for a year now, smiling at the simulacra experience and getting to know little Ophelia as he perused the obituaries. Danny, like everything else in the Crossroads Cafe, was an anomaly because, much like the little girl who dreamed the place into existence, Danny couldn’t die.
Sure, he’d tried for years to “shuffle off this mortal coil” as it were, and lots of folks had been eager to help him. Still, he’d found it impossible to stay dead and, after a long time trying to cope with the idea of immortality, He’d made and lost more friends and lovers than he could remember while collecting twice as many enemies and indifferent strangers. There was a certain amount of peace and normalcy he felt when loitering in Ophelia’s little diner and even if the food left something to be desired, he still enjoyed the company. The two were sharing the booth that night, Danny with his obituaries and Ophelia her puppets.
He loved the obits. He always had. There was a certain amount of craftsmanship that went in to summing up a man’s life in a single paragraph. It was an underappreciated literary art and he thought of himself as a connoisseur of the eclectic medium.
“Does it ever get boring?” Ophelia asked. Her voice was meek, delicate.
“Does what get boring?” He groaned. His voice was gruff, less cordial.
“Being alive like you are?” She continued, her short legs kicking back and forth as she sat on the edge of her seat. “I mean, I was a goddess. I used to have worshippers and all sorts of stuff to do. Even now I still keep busy with things like this place. But you, I mean, geez. Do you even remember what it’s like to be afraid of death?”
“Sure I do.” He said with a grin. “I’m just more afraid of the mess I have to clean up after I’ve died. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get blood out of carpet?”
“Why have you been hanging around here so much, Danny?” She asked.
He folded his paper and placed it on the table between them. Swinging his legs around, he planted his feet on the floor and looked at her. The world saw her as a child, an innocent, slightly mischievous little girl. But he saw the creature she really was, the thing that existed beyond time and space as men knew it. He could see the halo of light that enveloped her and the true body that had forced itself into this world from one far different. He’d dealt with creatures like her before but few had ever shared her pleasant disposition.
“I’m tired, O.” He told her bluntly, lighting a cigarette from the pack he’d left sitting on the table. “I’ve been trying to sort some things out, get my head straight about what it is I’m supposed to be doing.”
“So what have you got so far?” She asked.
He shrugged. “I’ve been tracking down the same monsters for long time and I’ve got nothing to show for it. It’s getting a hell of a lot harder finding these things out in the wild anymore and none of them seem to be taking the bait I’ve been leaving for them. Let’s face it; I’m not much of a monster hunter.”
“True, but you’ve always had one thing that few others can brag about.”
“And what’s that?”
The front door chimed as it opened. The man who stepped through wasn’t one of Ophelia’s imaginary customers but an actual living, breathing person wrapped in a brown trench coat and ragged fedora like some old noir detective stepping off of a movie screen.
“Dumb luck.” Ophelia said with a smile. “A never ending supply of ridiculous, dumb luck.”
The old man in the trench coat looked around the diner as he stepped inside. His face was creased in wrinkles, the skin brown and leathery from a lifetime out in the sun. His bushy white mustache was yellowed under his nose from a pack a day smoking habit and both his dark brown eyes were beginning to cloud with cataracts as he surveyed the room. He put his coat and hat on the rack by the door and limped slowly through the diner, admiring the pictures on the wall as well as the waitresses sauntering about with trays of fresh food in their hands. After a few minutes of marveling he stopped at the booth at the back of the diner and offered a crooked smile to Ophelia and Danny. From the jukebox, Buddy Holly started to croon an old Al Green tune.
“Folks mind if I join you?” He asked. His voice was low and gruff.
Ophelia extended an arm and ushered him into the bench beside her.
“Name’s Byron Zakowski,” he continued as he sat down. “Been looking for you for quite some time.”
“For me?” Danny feigned surprise. “Who wants to find a miserable bastard like me?”
“Lots of folks.” Zakowski said. He pulled his phone from his pants pocket, scrolled through it for a moment, and then placed it on the table between them. “Two hundred and eighty different coroner’s reports, police reports, and crime scene photos of you scattered across the country over the last century both figuratively and literally.”
“Handsome fellow,” I told him. “What makes you think that this is me?”
“Because I fished you out of the Kalamazoo River in sixty-eight when I was a beat cop and again in eighty after I made detective. I mean, you once went through the same morgue six times in two months. How did they not know it was you?”
Danny thought for a minute and then grinned. “Otsego, Michigan. Yeah, the coroner in that region was a good friend of mine. He helped move me in and out pretty quick most of the time. I’ve actually got nineteen different plots in the county’s Potter’s Field. All of ‘em John Doe.”
“I believe the point he’s trying to make, Danny,” Ophelia interjected. “Is that you’ve made a reputation for yourself. He seems to have been following your career. So what can we do for you?”
The old man began wringing his hands together and looked down at the phone. He pushed it further towards Danny before looking at himself in the reflection of the window.
“I don’t have much longer left in this world.” Zakowski said. His voice was quivering as he spoke. “I came looking for help, for answers I guess.”
“What kind of answers?”
The old man covered his face with a handkerchief as he coughed. As he pulled it away there were blood stains on the cotton.
“Everyone told me I was crazy.” He wheezed. “I ruined my career trying to prove that the same man had kept dying again and again all over the country. But I knew the truth.”
“And what is the truth, detective?” Danny asked. “Thrill me.”
“Everywhere you go, death follows.” Zakowski said. “But there doesn’t seem to be a grave that can hold you down. Now, either you’ve got the worst luck in human history, or you’ve made a deal with the Devil to keep your ass above ground and I’ve got to know which it is. What makes a man live forever?”
Danny shook his head and sighed. “Wish I knew, detective. I’m a bad penny. Everywhere I go, something shows up to take a piece out of me. It’s like there’s a contest or something. Everything in hell wants the honor of killing me for good and, so far, no one’s claimed the title. I don’t know why I won’t stay dead. Wish I did, though.”
Zakowski shook his head. “All these years searching for answers, piecing together the mystery of the carnage you leave behind, trying to understand how it is that you never stay dead and you’re telling me the answer to the biggest question I’ve ever asked is ‘I dunno’ know?'”
Zakowski shook his head.
“He told me I’d find my answers,” he muttered to himself. “And he warned me I wouldn’t like what I found.”
“Who told you that?” Ophelia asked cautiously.
“I have a message for you, Danny.” Zakowski growled.
The lights began to flicker in the diner. The jukebox warbled and fell silent. The illusion began to melt, celluloid reels of memory and imagination burning against the bulb until the dilapidated interior was forced again into reality. Zakowski’s hands had begun to shrivel and blacken into the contorted grip of a frostbitten fist. The skin along his weathered arms marbled, the veins striking out in black and purple lightning across his flesh.
“Nothing is forever.” Zakowski growled. “With strange eons even death will die.”
The flesh of his body sloughed off to reveal slick black bones wrapped tightly in putrescent muscles. His cataract clouded eyes were blood red and glowed in the failing light around the diner. His entire body began to stretch and warp as insect legs sprouted from inside his rib cage and lifted him up onto the table.
“What the hell is this?” Ophelia asked.
“A nightmare generator.” Danny laughed. “I haven’t seen one of these things in years. I thought he was trailing me but I needed the extra juice from the ley lines just to be sure.”
“Should we be worried?” Ophelia asked.
“Probably.” Danny said.
Zakowski’s lower jaw split open sideways into mandibles as a long, black barbed tongue lolled out and began to serpentine and twist around the mutilated body.
“I will shred your sanity and feast on the chaos of your mind.” An aperture in the tongue growled.
“You’re more than welcome to it,” Danny said, standing to look the creature in the eye. “But bigger and better have tried.”
The barbed tongue split into four thin, snaking tentacles that immediately bored into Danny’s skull.
Images from Danny’s past flickered through his mind, every moment of pain and torment and fear that he had ever survived assaulted him all at once. Through the physical and psychic hold on his mind, he still managed to smile and laugh at the assault. The world through Danny’s eyes was a hellscape. The diner itself was little more than an ash filled pit inside a burned cinder block basin. The forest around it was littered in charred trees, gnarled and smoking match sticks reaching forever into the blood red sky. The main road had melted into a black asphalt river as bodies writhed and burned trying to stay above the waves. Danny could feel his blood boiling, could see the horrors of his flesh peeling away strip by strip inside the nightmare world projected into his mind. Each agonizing touch sent needs through every nerve in his body.
“You’re going to try harder than that.” Danny chuckled.
Ophelia rolled her eyes as the monster and her lone customer continued to stare at one another. Despite the nightmare world the monster has made to feast upon, there was no visible change in the environment around them. Placing her hands over one of the slick black arms that had erupted from the creature’s chest she whispered something in her diminutive, mousy voice. The lights flickered out entirely and, in the split second of darkness, carried away the old man and the monster inside him to some realm far removed from the little booth at the back of the Cross Roads Cafe.
“What’d you do that for?” Danny yelled. The wounds bored through the sides of his skull had already begun to heal. “Things were just getting interesting.”
“You’d have let that poor thing starve to death if I hadn’t banished it.” Ophelia scolded.
“You mean the mind raping, body snatching, psychic vampire monster?” Danny asked. “Yeah, I’d have starved him to death in a heartbeat. It lives off of people’s fear of death. It creates the most terrible world imaginable inside their minds, shatters their sanity, and feasts on every negative emotion that comes spilling out before they eventually stroke out and die. So yes, I’d have starved him out and laughed while I did it.”
The illusion of the diner flickered again into reality, a room full of customers and imitation celebrity servers all going about their lives to Mo-Town’s greatest hits crooned by the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly.
“That’s cruel, Danny.” Ophelia said, shaking her head. “You should learn some compassion. Everything has to eat.”
Danny sat back down in the booth, flipped open his paper to the obituaries and laughed.
“That reminds me,” he said. “How about a cup of coffee?”