Dinner is Served by Elliot J. Harper

With a flourish, the waiter unleashed their steaks. Dan was hit by the smell first and his mouth watered accordingly. He braced himself for consumption, but rather than hand them their bounty, the waiter curiously knelt by the trolley and rummaged underneath, before popping back up again with something gripped firmly in his hand. Dan had no idea what was taking place and a peek at his wife, Susan, revealed that she was as bewildered by the whole process as he.

Nestled within the waiter’s hand was what appeared to be a canister, very much like an aerosol deodorant can. He took that oddity and aimed at the steak to the right, which, Dan presumed, was his because it was the closest to him. The waiter adjusted it in his hand with a sensual flick of his wrist, sprayed, and then the sickly stench of mosquito repellent filled the vicinity, causing Dan’s mouth fell open in surprise. Before either he or Susan could argue, the waiter bent over Susan’s steak and sprayed it in the same manner, the reek of it clinging to their throats. When the waiter was finished, he primly laid their two mosquito repellent soaked steaks on the table.

They were both understandably astonished.

“Sir, madam, dinner is served,” the waiter said. “Would that be all?”

Despite Dan’s lingering disbelief, the man’s words spurred him into action. “Excuse me, what did you just do? Just then? Did you… did you just spray mosquito repellent on our steaks?”

The waiter looked puzzled by the question and glanced at Susan before replying in a rather embarrassed tone. “Why, yes, sir.”

Dan couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Hold on,” he snapped. “So, you’ve just sprayed our fifty-pound steaks with mosquito repellent… Is that… Is that normal?”

The waiter continued to look mortified, his face flushing. “Yes, sir,” he murmured. “There are many mosquitoes in the city. It’s the only way to keep them away.” He hesitated, before continuing, but quieter now, practically a whisper. “Is there a problem, sir?”

Dan didn’t really know what to say. He looked at Susan for help, but she was peering down at her rapidly cooling steal with dread etched on her face. “Yes, I think there is a bit of a problem,” he hissed. “You just sprayed a harmful chemical on our steaks. How can we eat them now?”

The waiter’s cheeks grew ruddier, and he glanced to his left and right as if divulging a great secret. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but this is how it is done. The other guests appear comfortable with this arrangement.”

Dan cast his gaze around the restaurant and found waiters and waitresses scattered throughout the room, each with a can of mosquito repellent in their hands, dutifully spraying steaks and other pieces of meat and then handing them out to the patrons. The room had a strange faint tang when they had first arrived, but Dan had assumed that was just the aroma of an expensive establishment, not because the food had been dowsed with pesticides.

Abruptly, realisation settled, causing Dan to gag a little, which he covered with a closed fist.

The waiter remained perfectly still, the red creeping to his neck. “Sir,” he softly said, his eyes darting to and fro, “will that be all? I must continue to serve the other guests.”

Dan peered up at him, then at a befuddled Susan, and then to the nearest table. The couple there had just received their food, and their waitress was obediently spraying their steaks with mosquito repellent. When she was done, she gently placed their steaks on the table, where the couple tucked in hungrily. Dan even overheard the woman telling her partner that they were wonderful and succulent. He gawped at his own steak, which had a fine mist of sweat on its surface, and then back to the waiter. “Erm… sorry,” he said, blinking rapidly. “Yes, I believe that will be all.”

The waiter hurriedly departed in noticeable relief without even pouring them another glass of wine. Dan looked at Susan, who still looked horrified. He slowly lifted his knife and fork, his hands tremoring as they hovered over the food, but abruptly halted. He glanced around the room to see the rest of the guests demolishing their steaks, so he gripped his cutlery to stop their quivering and forced himself to lower them towards the plate. His knife broke the surface with only the slightest resistance, carving straight through the delectable beef. Blood poured forth, further adding to the detritus on the plate. The smell of mosquito repellent wafted up to his nostrils, triggering a small amount of bile to climb up his throat. Despite his revulsion, he cut a small piece, and trapped it with his fork.

Dan slowly raised the meat to his mouth. Halfway, his hand began to shudder again, dithering his upward trajectory. Susan’s knife and fork were in her hands, but her steak was untouched. The rest of the restaurant were eating, laughing, and joking in distinct pleasure. The sound of it was abrasive to his senses, but he held his nerve enough to resume his ascent. As the meat drew closer, the malodourous odour of mosquito repellent became stronger, assaulting his nostrils, until it was all he could smell. But his fork still rose, almost on its own, as if by some unknown force outside of his willpower. The steak looked delicious, but the smell, oh the smell. Dan tried not to retch as it passed his lips and entered his mouth. Dinner was indeed served.

Elliot Harper is a speculative fiction writer. He has short stories in The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase and Spirit Machine by Air and Nothingness PressBlack Telephone Magazine Issue 1 by Clash Books, and The Protest Issue in Popshot Quarterly Magazine. His short story, “Into the Garden”, won the Flash Vision 2021 contest, which was run by The Molotov Cocktail. He currently lives in Leeds, England. Find him on Twitter @ElliotJHarper and at his website, www.elliotjharper.com.