I gazed upon the sunset as the great orange globe slowly slipped behind the trees. The interstate had been long and lonely, but I had finally reached my destination. My search across half of the country had finally brought me to this quiet college town where the biggest news story was that there was even a news story at all.
Very little of the city could be seen from my vantage point, as it was mostly obscured by trees. It was as if they sought to conceal the mystery behind an unwavering mass of branches and leaves. The highway was not very busy, so I had to make up ways to entertain myself when my last energy drink wore off. For a brief moment, I even found myself longing for a cigarette. Those days were almost too distant for me to recall the flavor.
My exit was up ahead. I casually drifted off the highway, which had been my loyal companion for most of the day. We parted ways without much fanfare. The evening star winked through the trees as I followed the winding road. The forest thinned enough to see a few city lights down the steep hill ahead. I couldn’t wait to get to the hotel for some much-needed rest. The marque sign was visible in the distance, against the backdrop of a meager skyline consisting of three buildings no more than twenty stories high. The hotel was just on the outskirts of this tiny town, which was perfect for me.
I entered the hotel with my luggage dragging behind me. The young lady at the desk was playing something on her phone. She broke away from it without hesitation, possibly welcoming a break from boredom. For some reason, I felt like she should be vigorously smacking a piece of gum on one side of her mouth. After receiving my key card, I headed to my room. I took the elevator to the fourth floor. Room 412 was only a few paces away after I exited.
I opened the door to a room that looked surprisingly like the images on the website. The slight scent of cleaning products was also a nice touch. After washing my face, I grabbed a drink from the minibar and sat at the end of the bed. I turned on the TV which happened to be on a local news channel talking about the upcoming Country Dawg Festival–if there wasn’t any other indicator that I landed in Podunk, USA. This at least made me less apprehensive about meeting with someone I knew almost nothing about the next day.
I don’t recall what was on the television before I drifted off to sleep, but I had a bizarre dream. Most of the details faded, but at one point, I was on a busy sidewalk picking lint balls off the clothing of people passing by. It was my occupation, and I took it quite seriously. I woke up still in my road clothes. I was definitely in need of a nice hot shower. I just lay there staring at the ceiling. Lazy.
While showering and getting dressed, I had time to think about the coveted drink that brought me to this town. It is supposedly a beverage that could make the drinker successful beyond his wildest dreams. There was also a potential side effect. The drinker might also lose everything, including his life.
I didn’t believe a word of it, but I had always been a fan of folklore. What intrigued me the most was the origins of the lore. To what extent would a person take a myth? We’ve already seen the most extreme version of this in our religious, political, and moral beliefs. None of which would exist without the people who believe in them.
Many other philosophical questions arise from the idea of such a drink. What is success? Success is defined by the individual. One person’s success might be considered a failure by another. This raised the question: is the drink nothing more than a placebo that inspires the imbiber to supply a suitable narrative? I had to cast aside such thoughts. I wanted to enter the realm as a clean slate. No expectations beyond the basics.
That afternoon, I found myself on a seedy side of town. Most of the nearby homes were abandoned and “shitturd.” That’s a word I made up to emphasize the dilapidation surrounding the shuttered buildings. It would have been tolerable if I had seen a single soul roaming the neighborhood. No one went in or out of the convenience store on the opposite corner where I had parked my car.
The only person in sight was some old drunk who could easily be mistaken for a cadaver were it not for his loud snoring. He was curled up fetal on the ground next to the bench where I sat. I scooted as far away as possible to ward off the intense smell of piss wafting from multiple layers of filthy clothing. I would have stood up and walked a few paces away, but I was instructed to stay on the bench until my contact came by.
I felt incredibly exposed. Out of my element. The field behind me was a vacant lot blanketed with weeds tall enough to hide a whole gang of crouching thieves. That could be the name of a movie. My nerves got the best of me. I had been sitting there for at least an hour. Still not a soul. If I walked across the street to the store, I could still see the bus stop through the windows. Something troubling. I was sitting at a bus stop, and not a single bus had appeared. No cars had gone by, for that matter.
As the sun kissed the horizon, I was close to calling it quits and driving straight out of that shit hole. The dusky atmosphere revealed that no lights were on inside the store. None came on outside the store either. I should have at least heard the buzz of street lamps powering up. Did I see movement inside the store? A trick of light. Maybe that bum knew something. A turn to my left put me face-to-face with a crusty bearded mug.
“Whoa! What the hell, man!?”
The presumably homeless man was sitting on the bench uncomfortably close to me. How he managed to do that without me smelling him first was beyond me. I hadn’t even noticed when his snoring stopped.
“Spare a few coins?” the bum asked.
“Dude, you need to move down some. There’s plenty room.”
The man just stared while holding out a hand partially gloved with a ratty sock. It was far too warm for him to be wearing several shirts and a corduroy coat. The Russian Ushanka hat was just overkill. He could have at least had the flaps pent up.
“You probably should give me whatever you have?”
In any other situation, I probably would have been afraid, but I felt the opposite. Incensed. Was this bastard really about to rob me? I leaped from the seat, still facing the man. I was prepared to fight him to the death, just on principle.
The bum laughed gruffly. It was difficult to tell if he was an older man or a young fellow who had been through the wringer.
“I don’t see nothing funny.” I struggled to hide my uneasiness.
The bum’s deep voice resounded. “You’re not supposed to leave the bus stop.”
My hostility spilled over the brim. “You! You’re my damned contact. I’ve been sitting right next to you for over an hour, and you couldn’t be bothered to say a word till now?”
“Spare a few coins?” the man asked again.
“Are you fucking serious?” I practically screamed. “How ’bout you just give me whatever the hell you’re supposed to give me, and I’ll be on my way.”
The overdressed bum shrugged before standing and walking back to the spot where he had been sleeping. At this point, I knew I was in the wrong. I had gone through many layers and gatekeepers just to find out about the special drink. This guy was just another gatekeeper, and I was about to blow it.
“Wait,” I pleaded. “Wait. People don’t exactly walk around with pockets of change anymore. I might have something in my car. I’ll be right back.”
“You’re not supposed to leave the bus stop.”
I couldn’t hide my irritation. “Look, no one told me about paying you. I can’t give you anything without going to my car.”
“You’re not supposed to leave–”
“Yes! I get it! I’m not supposed to leave the damned bus stop.” I needed to cool it. Then I thought about what the man said earlier. He said that I should give him whatever I had. Besides my empty wallet and keys, I only had a half pack of TicTacs and a receipt with a coupon printed on it. I’m glad I had left a couple of fifty-dollar bills in the car. Hey Mr. Bum, can you make change?“Sorry, man. I’m just a little on edge. Is this okay?” I fished the Tic Tacs and receipt out of my pocket. At least he can freshen his breath and get a dollar off a four-pack of toilet paper. Win-win.
He grabbed the items with both hands like I was dumping gold coins into them. “Thank you. Thank you.” The pitiful man quickly stuffed the treasures into his pocket. He immediately reached inside his thick coat, pulling out a folded piece of paper. I just knew it had to reek of urine. He hastily handed me the paper as if he couldn’t wait to get rid of it.
The paper was expensive card stock with a red ribbon tied around it. I opened and read it while still standing there, just in case I had any questions.
1517 Truxillo St.
Park on level 2 of the parking garage,
and wait outside of your vehicle.
I had no idea where that was at, but I was sure the GPS would have no problem pointing me in the right direction. Although the note was straightforward, I still felt inclined to query my host again. “Do you know how far away this is?”
The only answer I got was: “Zzzz.”
I thought about offering him a ride somewhere, but the idea of riding around several days with that smell inside my car changed my mind. I couldn’t get to my ride quick enough. Hanging around this kind of neighborhood in an Audi A6 with out-of-state plates was like asking to get carjacked.
The map took me downtown, or at least this little town’s version of downtown. Near a courthouse and a few other government buildings stood the four-story parking garage. The parking lot outside the garage was a patchwork of broken asphalt and loose gravel. The garage looked like it was a year or two away from demolition. Some of the cracked columns appeared to be tilting too far to one side or the other.
There was only one other car on the second level. I got out with a bag containing my camera, recorder, and other materials. There was no way I would wait another hour for somebody who was already there, so I walked over to the vehicle. It was a dark blue Camry with lightly tinted windows. I could see through them well enough to determine that no one was inside. I decided against tugging on the door handles.
Lights of a moving vehicle cast shifting shadows against the walls and ceiling. I backed away from the car so that no one would get the wrong idea. A black transit van pulled right in front of me. A middle-aged man in a suit let the window down. “Mr. Childs?” His slight Scottish accent was quite unexpected.
“Yes, that’s me.”
The man eyed my bag. “Sorry, you can’t bring that.”
“It’s kind of what I do for a living. Could you make an exception this one time?”
“No, sir. If that’s a problem, I’ll just go off my way, and you can go yours.”
I was put off by his wry delivery, but it was not the first time I was told not to bring any bags or recording equipment, especially my phone. This would make for an excellent setup for a kidnapping ring. I quickly placed my bag in my car before locking it.
When I got back, the van door was already open. It was dark inside, like all of the windows were painted black. When I got in, I noticed a black partition behind the driver. When the door closed, I was in total darkness. “Can I get a light on back here?”
“No, sir,” the driver said with his voice dampened by the partition. “Not allowed to do that.”
“Well, can you at least let me know how long of a trip it’ll be?”
“Can’t tell ya that either, but you’re welcomed to strap in and take a nap if you’d like.”
There’s no way I was going to go to sleep. Anxiety heightened. I was hoping my eyes would adjust to the darkness to see whether or not a body bag was behind me. I felt around only to find that the other seats had been taken out. I couldn’t even see my own hands.
I tried to guess which direction we were headed. Oddly, the driver only made one other turn after exiting the parking lot. From that point on, he was going at least seventy down a straight road. We were miles from any highway, yet he was definitely on one or about to get pulled over.
While in complete darkness, it didn’t take long for road hypnosis to set in. I didn’t need to actually see the road to start quickly dozing off. “So, how long have you been doing this?” I yelled into the dark void. There was no reply. “Hey, man. Can you hear me? Can you talk to me?”
“Well, don’t that just beat all.” It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep, thanks to the silence and pitch blackness.
I had no idea how long that ride was. I just remember waking up to the sound of a mild Scottish accent. “We’re here. Wake up and get out, sir.”
“Thanks. And you don’t have to call me sir.”
Joints popped and cracked as I stretched before sliding out. There was a visual shock when I stepped onto the pavement. We were in front of an actual skyscraper that was at least eighty stories high. Several others were all around. How long were we driving?I wanted to ask the driver, but he had already pulled off. I checked my watch, but it had stopped at roughly the time I arrived at the garage.
Next to the tall building was a smaller one that was clearly a bar. I knew without any guidance that this was where I needed to go. One of the instructions was not to wander far from my dropoff. The doors opened automatically as I walked up. A bluish tint filled the room, emanating from decorative lighting strategically placed on various pillars. They cast shadows of the pillars on the floor, forming multiple geometric shapes where they intersected. The pattern on the floor directed one’s eyes to a single stool at the bar. Behind the bar stood a woman with her back turned.
I followed the arrows to the stool and sat down. The bartender continued drying and putting away wine glasses. A black pixie haircut was the adornment topping her hourglass figure.
“What can I getchya?” she asked with a soft vocal fry at the end. There was something melodic about the way she said those words.
I couldn’t speak for a moment before finally answering. “Uh, I’ll have. Wait. I don’t even know what it’s called.”
The bartender put the glass and towel down before turning around. “I’m just screwing with ya. We only serve one drink here.” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the counter.
I had to force myself not to gasp audibly. This had to be what people meant when they said something or someone was breathtaking. Her smile was radiant, and the contours of her face could only be described as perfect. I get the ‘eye of the beholder’ concept, but it was like someone had ripped the image of an ideal woman directly from my head and sculpted her just for my arrival. People harp on light eye color so much, but I’ve always preferred shape over color. The slightly slanted almond shapes elegantly encircled the deep dark brown of her irises. They were onyx black under the lighting. Did she just wink?
If I wasn’t already sitting on the stool, my knees would have buckled, sending me sprawling on the ground. I felt like a creep staring at her face for so long. Forbidden beauty, not meant for human eyes. My gaze drifted to her chin and traced the lines of her slender neck. Before I knew it, I laser-focused on the rounded flesh revealed by three undone buttons at the top of her white shirt. Sweat was coming from places on my body that I didn’t even know was possible.
“Sorry, I don’t serve drinks from my twins, lover boy.” That thing her voice did at the end of a sentence was almost erotic.
I had truly become the creep. I cleared my throat like a walking cliché. “I… I’m…” I wanted to say I was sorry, but the words escaped me. To be honest, the last time I felt like this in front of a female was back in middle school. Even the day I met my fiancee, I didn’t feel like this. I made myself find the bartender’s face again. It still felt as perverted staring at her face as it did staring at her breasts.
“No need to apologize. You’re not the first person to ogle me, and you won’t be the last.” She paused for a moment to look me up and down. It was like my clothes had been instantly removed. I almost covered up. “When the gaze comes from the right person, it’s sort of a visual massage.” The words rolled off her tongue effortlessly.
Was she flirting with me? She had to be flirting with me. I’m going to need a couple cigarettes after this conversation ends. To be honest, I didn’t want it to ever end. Don’t get me wrong. My fiancee and I always had a very clear understanding when it came to flirting. It was okay for us to flirt back or even initiate flirtation. We just couldn’t give or receive a phone number. Bringing that person home or going to their place was totally out of the question. And if we’re out together, flirting with someone else was not on the table. We would even tell the other about our most interesting encounters. This is an encounter I could never tell her about. There was a raging hormonal teenager inside of me rattling the bars and banging his head against them.
“So, how do you know it’s from the right person,” I asked while trying to bring self-assurance back into my voice.
The enticing bartender graced me with a sideways smile. “There’s no how. You just know.”
She turned around again to prepare my drink. For that brief moment, she was my beverage of choice. I stood up so I could take her in from head to toe. I just knew she was going to turn around and ‘punish’ me for staring at her ass. She turned her body around slowly, with her head coming around last. I had a chance to compose myself.
She walked over and placed the drink in front of me. The black, polished nails on her index finger and pinkie were filed to a sharp point. She clinked the glass with her pinkie nail as if to acknowledge my attention to it. “This is your one shot. What are ya gonna do with it?” She rested upon the counter again.
“So you’re saying I actually have a shot?” I wasn’t going to let that moment escape.
The little pixie laughed in a manner that spoke volumes more than any spoken words. Yes, you just might.
I looked down at the small shot glass, half full of a clear liquid. I reached for it with a shaky hand. A small hand quickly reached out and landed on top of mine. Sharp nails nearly pierced my skin. I was embarrassed about how much more I was shaking. The barkeep’s warm touch did little to ease my anxiety. The expression on her face made it worse.
“You understand the full risks of drinking this, right?” She spoke with urgency and concern.
“I’m not allowed to repeat anything you’ve already been told, but you do understand what could happen?”
“Y… Yes, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.” I hadn’t had any prior apprehensions, but this lady was opening the floodgates. “I’m prepared for any potential consequences.” I lied. I still was skeptical that this was even a real thing. “Besides, whatever happens… I mean, having the chance to see your face was worth any consequences I might face later.” That wasn’t a line. I meant it.
She made a slight sound resembling a whimper before closing her eyes. She squeezed my hand. The worry lines softened and then vanished altogether. Her eyelids fluttered open as she stood upright and stepped away from the bar. She crossed her arms, delicately caressing both of her elbows.
“Can you tell me what’s in it?” I asked.
“Even if I knew, I couldn’t tell ya.” Her voice was so distant.
I picked up the drink between a less shaky finger and thumb. “Can you tell me your name, at least?”
“I can, but you won’t remember it after you leave.”
I put the drink down. “Will I remember you at all? I can’t imagine forgetting somebody so…”
The way she was holding herself made her look so vulnerable, a far cry from the swagger she displayed when I first entered. She slowly crept up to the counter across from me. Her hands went to my chest, then slid up, grasping my collar like she was going to button it. Pulling me toward her, she leaned in close. My heart raced. Breathing, uneven. She moved toward my left ear and whispered her name. When her lips briefly brushed against my ear lobe, I nearly melted all over the countertop.
My eyes were closed when she released me and stepped away. I’m not sure when I closed them. “That’s a very unusual name. I won’t forget it.”
“You will.” Her unwavering confidence returned.
“By the way, my name is…”
“You don’t have to tell me. I already knew it before you arrived.”
“Actually, I wanted to tell you the same way you told me.”
Her face flushed as she smiled. “You’re way too sweet.”
“I can be naughty,” I said as I lifted the drink to my lips. “I promise I won’t forget you.”
“You will.” Her voice sounded like it was passing through liquid.
Before drinking, I asked, “Hey, will you remember me?”
“I remember everyone who’s come through here. So, yes.” She reclined casually against the rear counter. “Now drink up. It goes bad pretty fast once out of the bottle.”
I motioned a toast before downing my shot. It didn’t taste like alcohol. As a matter of fact, it didn’t taste like anything at all. It only took a few seconds for the room to start spinning. I kept repeating the bartender’s name in my head over and over. It’s possible that I was saying it out loud. She remained motionless as I swayed from side to side. I gripped the bar to keep from falling backward. I blinked, and the room changed.
The bar was filthy with gouges and strange glyphs carved into it. The room was brightly lit with peeling paint and water stains near the ceiling. There was an array of drinks and smokey substances in the bottles behind the bar. My little pixie looked mostly the same, but she no longer had any clothes on. Her skin was as black as obsidian with a scaly texture. The whites of her eyes had turned black, and her previously dark irises were a milky white. Her silver hair had a pearlescent shimmer to it. Oddly, this didn’t make her any less beautiful to me.
The image lasted only a few seconds before returning to the dimly lit bar. I tried to stare at the bartender for as long as I could, but my lids wouldn’t stay open. What was her name again?
The next time I opened my eyes, the face I saw wasn’t so pleasant. It was the Scot with graying stubble telling me to get out of the van. I was disoriented. I started to wonder if the time inside the bar was some kind of dream. Maybe the girl was somebody I saw in a magazine long ago, and I had worked her into my dream.
“I don’t know if I should be driving,” I said groggily. “Can you drive me back to my hotel? I’ll pay you one hundred bucks.”
“As enticing as that might sound, I’m not allowed to do that. You’re not drunk if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You all are strict about sticking to arbitrary rules. You can’t bend just one?”
“No, sir. The consequences of breaking some rules aren’t very pleasant.”
“Again with the sir,” I said irritably. “I think the girl at the bar might have drugged me. I gotta call a cab.”
“You saw a girl in there?” the driver asked a little too eagerly.
“Well, lady. It was pretty hard to determine her age. I can’t say I’m even certain of her ethnicity. Do you know who I’m talking about?”
“No, sir. Can’t say I do. Different people work there at different times.”
“That’s another thing. Where is there?” I tried not to sound hostile.
“Sir, it’s time for you to be on your way. I have places to be. Out with ya.”
One thing for sure, I wouldn’t miss the annoying conversations with this driver. I called a cab to drop me off at the hotel. I wracked my brain trying to remember the bartender’s name. I wrote down as much as I could about my experiences and emailed the file to a co-worker, my editor, and myself. Before going to bed, I drew several pictures of the barkeep. I’m a decent artist, but I couldn’t capture whatever magic emanated from her in person. The longer I stared at my drawings, the more unfamiliar she became.
The next day I woke up with a strange sense of dread. It was like there was some kind of impending doom. The drive back home was treacherous. I had to leave the interstate and take less busy state highways that nearly doubled the time. I phoned my fiancee, who thought it was odd that I would take such a long route home. I was the impatient one who was always in a rush.
By the time I made it home, I was convinced that the bartender had poisoned me. I only had about a month or two to live, but I could die any day. Somehow I was absolutely sure of this. The love of my life was rightfully concerned and convinced that something messed up had happened to me. I found out that the files I had emailed were corrupt and unreadable. Thankfully, I had written most of it in my journal during the cab ride to the hotel. I was paranoid that the text would turn into gibberish, and the portraits would scramble into incoherent scribbles.
I was relieved when my fiancee understood everything after putting the snippets in order. She was a little jealous of my musings about the bartender. I admit that I did go on a bit long about her. My fiancee thought the lady I drew was pretty but disagreed that she was worthy of my gushing adulation. She advised me to go see my therapist as soon as possible because I didn’t seem well.
Therapy didn’t help. If anything, it made things worse. I was placed on leave at work, and they wouldn’t publish my story. The fear of not waking up the next morning or dying from some freak accident was overwhelming. Even when it was clear how the drink worked, that clarity of thought couldn’t slice through the dread of one’s own impending death. I was forced to live each day as if it were my last. Death was around the corner. I worked furiously on my will. I found myself working on projects I had set aside years prior. Although I was a total mess, my fiancee told me she felt closer to me than ever. I don’t deserve her.
One day I was home alone with my gun on the bed. I was so drunk I could barely focus on my own hands. Where should I do it?The mess on the bedspread would upset my girl so much. The bathroom. Should I go out on the toilet like Elvis?What a guy. I eventually settled on the shower. Cleanup would be easy. The bullet might shatter the tile when it exits, but that’s an easy fix.
Next to my gun was one of my drawings of the bartender. I picked it up. I don’t know if my hand tremors were caused by my inebriated state or the image of a woman who so drastically altered the trajectory of my life. As I looked at the drawing, I couldn’t be sure that’s what she really looked like. It was probably my impression of the way I thought she looked. For a minute, she resembled some actress from long ago. I tore the drawing down the middle, put the pieces together, and was about to tear it a few more times. And then.
I felt a sensation on my left earlobe. I shuddered. Closed my eyes. A smile appeared out of the darkness, followed by a sharp jawline and a dainty chin. The pixie haircut. Silvery white. Eyes milky white. Pearl lipstick. The obsidian-colored face that I only saw for brief seconds was so vivid in my mind’s eye. My heart skipped several beats as I searched for my drawing pad and charcoal pencils. I was scribbling like I was possessed. I didn’t want to lose the memory again. So much from that night was still hazy.
When I finished, I held the portrait at arm’s length. That feeling came back. A tickle in my stomach. This was her face. Her real face. Had she allowed me to see it, or did I see something I shouldn’t have seen? Anyone else looking at this would swear they were gazing upon some kind of demon. A sexy demon.I saw beauty like nothing I had ever seen before. I loved my fiancee more than life itself, but I’m not sure what would happen if this creature were to come into my life again.
I put my gun in its case and back in the drawer. I rounded up all of the notes about my trip, the bum on the bench, and my life-changing encounter at the bar. I wrote one of the most intriguing stories I had ever written. I submitted it under a pen name to several online and print publications. One of them chose to publish it along with my drawing. I wasn’t crazy enough to send the one with the onyx skin and ghostly eyes. I had drawn a more human version for publication. They republished it in print upon request from readers. I received a bonus and an offer to work under contract for two years.
The feeling that I was going to die any day dissipated over time. It took almost a year before it was gone entirely. Shortly after the republication of my story, the magazine owners told me they had received a curious letter from a reader. They kept a copy and sent the handwritten document to me. The person had expressed interest in my story and described a similar experience. Although the scenery around the bar was different from mine, it was clear that the person wasn’t making it up. They couldn’t remember if there was a bartender, but my drawing had triggered latent memories of their ordeal. My life had purpose again. I would seek out others who had taken the drink. I needed to know more about it. So did the world. While this sounded noble, I was only fooling myself. The real reason for my pursuit was as clear as a whisper in my ear.
Copyright 2010-2021 Darrell Winfrey