Once, there was a rundown diner where two elderly men were sitting, waiting for a third to show.
It was dark out and the only light that could be seen outside was that single, dimly-flickering lamp post that illumined the parking lot. Every few minutes it would stop producing light, only to feebly wink on again and continue its dying existence. Under its watchful glow of gold sat two trucks, both of days long before nukes had burned away half of Canada; battered and broken were they, running on scraps of materials that long should have rusted away. Vehicles made these days belonged to the military, destined to be broken or smashed or incinerated or have its existence negated or some horrible event.
“I'm sorry to hear about Miranda, Hank. She'll be missed.” The older man at the table, Peter, spoke with a forced warmth in his voice which came from seeing scores of people broken or smashed or incinerated or have their existence negated. He'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time too many times.
The slightly younger of the two, Hank, shook his head slowly, looking up from his cup of cooling coffee. “It was just before her time- you know? She didn't deserve this. Especially not the way that it happened, you know?”
Peter nodded reluctantly and sipped from his own mug.
“I should have told her to get rid of that peacock.” Hank mumbled into his cup and he rubbed his eyes with leathery palms as tears sprang anew from already depleted reservoirs. “I should have told her to get rid of that fuckin' bird.”
“What did you do- you know- when you lost Elaine?” Whimpered the other man and Peter thought back on his wife.
“I got mad, Hank. Really mad. I put six rounds in that farmhand and it didn't solve anything.” Peter tapped the revolver holstered at his side. These days, it was unsafe to go anywhere without a weapon.
“He just got up and laughed at me with the same laugh that he used to captivate Elaine. I couldn't do anything about it. I called the police and later some guys in suits took him away. They said they were sorry and they were gonna put him in an incinerator. I couldn't do anything at all.”
Outside, another truck pulled into the lot. Its bright headlights reflected off of the dull chrome finish on the bar and the dusty tubes where neon lights used to run. Couldn't waste power anymore, the pretty little waitress had explained. Even out here, where power plants were still running.
That pretty little waitress saw the truck pull in and approached the table with another mug of the steaming black shit that they called coffee. “Is that your third?”
“Yeah.” Peter gave her a nod and she set down the coffee.
Hank looked out the window as the waitress unlocked the door.
“Some goverment suits came for the bird too.” He sniffed, “They had a guy with them, some egghead in a labcoat running tests on Miranda. He told me that there was a shortage, but he could give me drugs that could make me forget her.”
Peter sipped his coffee.
Hank wiped a batch of fresh tears from his eyes and rubbed at his cheeks with a napkin, “I wish I had taken him up on it.”
Peter hadn't gotten that option.
The waitress at the door let their new companion in and locked it behind him.
Michael was a younger man than both Hank or Peter, come out to the family farm to help his ailing father in a world that had no mercy for the elderly. His father had grown up between both of them, “Hey guys.” He said as he sat beside Peter.
“Why'd you need us, Mike?” Asked Peter, holding up his mug for a refill.
“I think I'm in trouble.” Michael wasted no time, “There's something happening at my farm and I wondered if you guys had ever seen anything like it.”
Michael caught his breath while pulling a very old iPhone from his jacket pocket. He touched the screen and began searching through the files. Those days, even outdated tech like that was hard to come by.
“By the way, I'm sorry to hear about-” Michael looked up at Hank, but Peter gently touched his arm and covertly shook his head. Michael cut off and went back to his task.
Hank pursed his lips and sipped weakly from his coffee. With a cracked voice, he sighed. “It's a fucked up world, Mike. You had a good idea coming to us.” He glanced out the window with rheumy eyes, “How's your dad?”
“He's okay. He's pretty sick these days- some kind of flu. My sister doesn't let him off the farm much anymore.”
Michael found the file and set the device on the table for all three to see. “My sister's kid Eddy recently went over to Nepal or Vietnam or something for some U.N. Mission. Real big secret- won't talk about beyond a few things. He came back and mentioned that he had taken up this-”
“Get to it.” Hank muttered and Michael hesitated.
“Well, he'd been practicing martial arts in the barn and he said that the cows were acting funny. Look.” He pressed play on the device and sat back to watch his companion's eyes widen.
The sloppy video showed a man in his twenties performing a kata and beyond him, five cows were stumbling about upon two legs. As the man moved, so did they. He let out a punch and shifted his arm upwards and the cows mirrored his movement, attempting to perform it quickly enough before their balance failed them. There were many other cows within the barn and all watched, enraptured as Eddy moved.
“What the hell?” Peter mumbled.
“That's pretty fucking weird.” Hank agreed quietly.
“We thought the same, so I asked him not to practice in the barn anymore.”
Michael switched the file and hit Play on another. The same man advanced in a fighting stance in a courtyard of sorts, closed in by a large stone house and a small shed.
“Look.” Michael pointed to a tabby cat on the side of the screen, “The cat's been following Eddy around ever since he started doing this about two months ago.” Michael switched the file and played another while talking. “-Yesterday, the cat was doing this.”
The video displayed the same courtyard, but the cat was the only occupant. Without Eddy, the cat had preceded to enact the form and same movements.”
“That cat doesn't look-” Began Peter before Hank cut him off. “The damn thing looks like a fuckin' human.”
It was so. The cat's head had been enlarged and its ears had moved more towards the side of its face. Its torso was much thicker than it should have been and the movement demonstrated joints that cats should not have. Its tail had been shortened to a mere nub at the base of its back and its paws had elongated toes that moved like fingers. All in all, the cat stood more than a meter tall.
“I heard it talking yesterday.” Michael muttered and let the video play on repeat. “I shot 'im last night.”
Hank stopped the video. “Anything else?”
“The cows are doing it now. A lot more sloppy than the cat, but they're getting better. They can stand on two legs without support. The other ones that weren't doing anything the first time are doing it too.”
There was a moment in silence in which Michael looked as if he was going to speak, but didn't.
“Are you going to put the cows down?”
“We won't be able to get by without them. Food crops don't take in the soil anymore.”
"Do you still have a working phone?" Hank asked. "One of the normal ones?"
"Yeah." Michael gave a curt nod. "By the grace of God."
“Call the police. Chances are slim that they will but they might be able to help.” Peter advised and Michael sat back silently.
“It's this whole area,” Hank muttered sadly, “I should just move up into the city. Sell my farm and buy a house in the suburbs.”
Peter grunted. “Not a bad idea.”
“They're not letting anyone in anymore.” Michael said, mind elsewhere. “I went up there to look for another generator and these guys in black suits and gas masks run up to my truck with assault rifles and demand that I get out. They searched me and questioned me for twenty minutes before demanding that I leave.”
“What happened up there?” Peter asked quietly.
“Same thing that's happening everywhere else. Everything is going to Hell in a handbasket. My nephew says that cities in Nepal- or wherever- was all locked down by someone else and the U.N. was trying to trying to drive them out. The other guys ended up overrun by some shit and our guys bombed the place into oblivion.”
The waitress finally approached with a coffeepot after seeing Peter's empty mug, “Sorry guys. The coffeemaker's been straining it too thin lately.” She took their cups and filled them to the brim. Not making conversation, she then retreated behind the bar and set the pot on the chrome counter.
"Fuckin' media blackout." Hank muttered apathetically. "I don't hear about anything that happens outside the county anymore.
Peter sipped the hot fluid and watched the lightbulb dimly flickering. “I saw tanks up at the Meyer's farm last Wednesday. Just sitting there. You guys remember Danielle?”
“Which one is that? They have way too many kids.” Hank remarked.
“She's the little redhead that my grandson, Perry, was running around with. He brought her up to your place to help with the harvest two years ago.” Hank began to wear a grin for the first time that day as he remembered the young couple.
"Yeah, I remember her. She was a frisky little thing."
Peter mirrored Hank's grin, albeit more strongly. "She's been running messages for her family- says that she's got quite a few for my family in particular. Anything so that she can-"
“What about her?” Michael asked, coming out of his cocoon.
“Uh- she told me that her great grandma had gotten tired of all the soldiers passing through her land and so she told them to leave. Danielle said that the soldiers just vanished. Right out of thin air.”
“Even our own people are getting weird.” Hank groaned.
Michael leaned forward to the table and spoke in a low tone. “One of the guys up at the city asked me about that. They wanted to know if she'd done shit like that before. They were saying that-”
Peter finished his mug of coffee and looked up and around, trying to find the waitress. His keen eye noted the full coffeepot on the counter.
The waitress nearby saw him looking up and smiled, gesturing at the pot.
He returned the smile and shook his head gently. Reaching for his wallet, he thumbed out a ten dollar bill and placed it on the table. Michael stared up at him oddly, “You leaving?”
“We all are,” said Peter. Both Hank and Michael stood without question. Both knew that a man like Peter was not to be taken lightly when he acted. As he shepherded them towards the double glass doors, the waitress took the hint and ran forward to unlock it before them. “Thanks for coming!” She said with a smile.
“Thanks for having us.” Peter replied as they stepped outside into the brisk air. What should have been a warm summer evening was instead a frigid evening that had already caused small amounts of ice to freeze upon truck windshields. Dark skies above were a result of the bombs dropping on Canada and a million other things together amalgamating into a freezing world.
Their breath turned to mist as they walked to the group of vehicles.
“Why'd you rush us out of there?” Michael asked, staring through the large clear window at the well-lit interior. The waitress was removing their steaming mugs from the table and placing them in a bin that she had carried from the kitchen.
“They had a full pot of coffee on the counter.” Peter opened the door to his truck and sat inside. He fumbled for his keys, ever so often looking up at the window where the waitress was sliding the bin through a narrow window into the kitchen.
“So?” Hank demanded, “I was having a good time. Why'd you-”
“It was half-empty when she filled our cups. She didn't put it back in the coffeemaker.”
As he started the vehicle, he noted the sudden silence overtake his two companions; contesting his decision was no longer favorable.
Hank reached for a pack of cigarettes in his pocket and went for his truck, “Well, that's just fuckin' great.”
Michael shook his head and got into his own vehicle. The look on his face said that he was either going to call the military or put the cows down himself.
Peter just thought of the whiskey in the cupboard and telling his grandson to watch the farm that night.
Each of the three went their own way in silence and that day were neither broken nor smashed nor incinerated nor had their existence negated.
In those days, this was as enviable as ends could get.