The streetlight buzzed above the taco truck like a nest of angry hornets as it flickered in its death throes. Not unlike most neglected corners in Los Angeles, this particular stretch of downtown had been left to the bottom-feeders. At least down here, Enrique thought, the cops didn’t harass street vendors all that much.
“Here you go, brother,” Enrique said, sliding the order of carne asada fries across the service counter.
“Thanks, Rick,” Mike said, jabbing the plastic fork into the mound of steaming fries. The drunkard’s shadow danced manically on the sidewalk as the streetlight offered a final flicker before burning out. Under the concession window’s pale blue light, Mike’s face looked lifeless, cold. Like a living corpse. “I’ll see you next week, amigo.” The man stumbled down the street until his footfalls became whispers and the night absorbed his body.
Enrique ducked his head under the window and peered out into the night. Like twisted flecks of light, the stars above became distorted in a haze of light pollution. A few shooting stars streaked to Earth before fading from view. He smirked and made a wish.
Not far off from the truck, the skyscrapers blotted out the moon shrouding everything below in a latticework of darkness. Apart from a few vagrants taking refuge in the shadowed nooks of shuttered businesses, the streets were empty.
Enrique crinkled his nose. The air was thick with summer’s heat, pungent with the smell of motor oil, urine, and the rot of discarded food scattering the ground. Before he turned back, he spotted movement in the corner of his eye. Just beside the back tire and under the shadow of a flipped paper plate, he saw maggots hard at work on a half-eaten taco. His eyes followed a trail of gore, where in the alcove of a storm drain, the bugs had gotten to feasting on a lifeless rat’s burst intestines. An ecosystem unto itself, the streets truly were the empire of the bottom-feeder.
He turned from the gnarly curbside banquet and shuffled toward the front of the truck, fidgeting with the knob on his police scanner. He’d haggled the janky thing off some screwball Vietnam vet at a flea market rambling about government coverups. There were things, the man had alleged, going on all the time. All one had to do was tune in to the right frequency and listen.
Enrique thought the scanner would be a good investment to help keep tabs on police activity, though besides the constant hum of the generator, it had been quiet tonight. No screams, no gunshots. The usual reports of drunken disorderly conduct had been unusually low, as had reports of assaults or rapes or even calls to shut down street vendors. It was his kind of night.
At the moment, a dispatcher was squawking into the radio about a possible nude male harassing a couple of folks two blocks from his location. Working downtown had exposed him to a different environment. A hidden world most people didn’t get to experience from the comfort of their homes. A world of filthy, violent things and transgressions not normally seen in decent society. Even for a man who thought he’d steeled himself to that kind of stuff, he couldn’t help but feel a shiver run up the back of his neck just thinking about it.
Enrique switched off the burners. The bins had been nearly emptied of carnitas, lengua, and adobada. Not too shabby for a Thursday night. He peeked inside the cashbox. It would be enough to make rent this week with a little extra left over for the child support. It was honest, hard work, and it was starting to pay off.
The moment of reflection was shattered as a police siren wailed in the distance.
“No,” he muttered under his breath. “Not now.”
For a moment Enrique felt his chest tighten. He didn’t have a permit and couldn’t handle another stint in prison. After he’d done his time, he’d struggled to secure a loan to buy the truck. And now that he had, he couldn’t afford to lose the business. His kids were counting on him. Without the money, Stefanie wouldn’t be able to make ends meet and they’d all be out in the street in a month’s time.
The truck suddenly rocked as the patrol car zipped down the street. It’s blaring sirens faded as the car cut a hard corner, disappearing deep into the bowels of downtown.
Enrique sighed and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. He shook off the panic and got to scraping the griddle clean. After he wiped down the residue with a wet cloth, he covered the bins in aluminum foil. When he finished, he opened a bottle of Mexican Coke and leaned against the counter.
He drew a heavy sigh. Sometimes he could still see their faces contorted on the asphalt. Their features were blurred, but the streaming crimson puddles pooling under their heads were still vibrant, shimmering under his headlights near the divider. Once he’d expunged the intoxication from his body, the years in prison brought even clearer memories. But he knew better now. He was on a different path. Honest to God.
When he was halfway done with the bottle, the scanner crackled and whined, piercing his eardrums like daggers.
“Fuck!” He twisted the dial and tuned to a different frequency. There was silence for a moment before he heard what sounded like wet, sloshing noises. Almost like the squirmy sounds when someone stirs mac n’ cheese.
Ssssssss. The radio crackled back to life.
Then, soft, guttural voices began to slither in between those long moments of scrambled interference.
“Made.” Ssss. “Planetfall,” said one voice in broken English. “Have acquired language.”
“Yes,” replied another voice. “Language.”
“Tonight.” Sssss. “We. Consume.”
“Yes,” said the second speaker. “Consume. Need meat.”
The radio shrieked, a shrill sound like metal scraping against metal. Another voice. Deeper. “Hunger.” Sssss. “Meat. Meat. Meat.”
Something rapped on the counter. Enrique spun around, his heart nearly bursting out of his chest. “Jesus Christ, Willy, you fucking scared me.”
Willy rubbed his frizzled chin and flashed a near-toothless grin. The homeless man had poked his head halfway inside the truck. “Aw, I’m sorry, Rick. Just wanted to ask if you could hook me up with a taco or two.”
“Sure thing, brother.” Enrique turned on the burner. “Carnitas okay?”
“Anything you can spare, my good man.”
Enrique chopped up some roast pork and slapped it on the griddle. When it was done, he shoved the meat in between two pairs of tortillas, gave it a pinch of onion and cilantro, and squeezed on some red salsa from a squirt bottle.
“Here you go, Willy.” Enrique slid him the paper plate, smiling. “Try to stay out of trouble.”
Willy nodded. He tilted his head back and inhaled the aroma of hot pork. “Thank you, hermano and God bless.” The man shuffled toward an occulted spot under the awning of a wholesale jewelry store and got to munching.
“Just trying to earn my soul back,” Enrique said to himself. Though, he wondered if he hadn’t been too late.
A scraping sound echoed at his back. Out the driver side window he spotted a pair of men across the street lurking in the darkness between the streetlights, their heads stooped, hands stuffed inside their jacket pockets. They stood there still, and silent. Pair of hoodlums, he assumed.
Enrique squinted his eyes. He could almost swear their shadowed faces were moving, scrambled like the static on those old analog TV sets he remembered from his childhood. After knocking back the rest of his Coke, he shook his head. Fuck. It had been a long night and home was calling. Time to wrap things up.
He shoved his hands under the cold, running water from the sink and thought about the kids as he scrubbed. He’d been on speaking terms with their mother again. Things were looking up with the business and he found himself smiling as he placed the food into the cooler. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to think of the possibilities. A new car. An apartment in a better part of town. A permit, so he could sell to gringos outside of Laker games. That’s where the money was at.
The scanner came alive again with a jarring hiss.
“Man in truck,” screeched one voice.
“Yes.” Ssss. “Man in truck,” said another.
“Man in truck. Man in truck. Man in truck. Man in truck.”
Enrique glanced out the window again. A few more men stepped out of the alley, hands in their pockets, their gazes fixed on his truck. Shit. It wasn’t unusual to have some wise guys try to shake him loose of change from time to time. His hand slid toward the switchblade hanging on his belt.
There was scraping behind him now, like shoes kicking up pebbles. When Enrique turned, he spotted a tall, slender man hobbling in from the shadows, another drunkard looking to satisfy his midnight cravings. As the man stepped into the concession window’s cone of blue light, Enrique could see his—its— complexion clearly. An orgy of squirming maggot-like insects composed the vague shape of a pallid head, their wriggling masses etching raised lips across the thing that was its face. The maggots had even hollowed out small, dark pits for eyes. Lifeless, yet all-seeing eyes.
The thing turned to Enrique and smiled. Its upper set of ‘teeth’ chomped down on its bottom lip which then squirted out white pus-like fluid, as some maggots were undoubtedly pressed to death. The maggot-thing was dressed in dirty rags: nothing but a hoodie and grey sweats. Hanging at its side, its slimy hand gripped a police radio caked with blood.
Its lips shifted awkwardly before they puckered. A thin, greyish tongue pressed against the roof of its mouth as it spoke. “Come. From. Far. Away,” it said with a grating voice. “What is… best meat?”
“I-I don’t know what you mean,” Enrique, said, backing into the wall. The window would be too small for him to crawl out of. He unhooked the knife from his belt, but his fingers became thin, clumsy things and he dropped it on the floor. The meat cleaver lay just out of reach beside the griddle.
What felt like a hot coal began to bore through his chest. What the fuck was happening? This… this couldn’t be real. He crossed himself and recited the Lord’s Prayer in his head as he had in prison during those long, arduous years.
The maggot-thing ducked under the raised concession flap, a slew of flies hovering around its body. “What is… best meat?” It said again, its breath hot and smelling of decay and death. The thing’s hands clutched the counter and maggots spilled everywhere, their writhing bodies making the same wet noises he’d heard on the radio.
Enrique, shivering now, stifled a sob with the crook of his elbow. The warm tears pooling under his eyes began to sting.
The maggot-thing leaned its head inside the window and flicked its tongue out as it tasted the warm air around it. “Best. Meat.”
Enrique raised a trembling hand and pointed to that dark spot under the awning where Willy had now fallen asleep. He lay there huddled into a ball atop a cardboard mattress.
The maggot-thing turned toward Willy, snoring in the shadows, and raised its radio to its mouth. “Meat. Acquired.”
The group of shrouded figures stumbled across the street. Their radios crackled as they ambled past the truck, a constant static like meat sizzling on a grill.
Willy, in his slumber, lay oblivious to the half-dozen terrors as they encroached him.
Enrique jumped in the driver’s seat, turned the ignition, and sped off, shoving the guilt way down where he’d never be able to find it. Just as he always had.
He shut off the police scanner as he heard Willy’s anguished shrieks. From the rearview mirror he watched as the skyline shrunk and faded behind him. Tomorrow night, Enrique told himself, he’d ditch the scanner and find a new spot in town.
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Pedro Iniguez is a Mexican-American speculative fiction writer and painter from Los Angeles, California. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Helios Quarterly, Worlds of Possibility, Star*Line, Space & Time Magazine, and Tiny Nightmares, among others.
Copyright ©2022 by Pedro Iniguez.
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