01 Feb I run a bar that serves one of a kind drinks in exchange for stories (Part 5)
I firmly believe there are pivotal moments in our lives that we can take absolute ownership of, even if it feels like we don’t have a choice in that moment. For so many of us, it’s the pivotal choice that stands before us at the end of a long, painful day. Do we take the old and beaten path to our destination or take a shortcut home that may be fraught with danger? Do we stay in that job and risk monotony growing within us like a cancer, or do we take a chance on a world without a financial safety net? Do we let our loved one live a little bit longer in the hopes they’ll wake up, or do we do the merciful thing and let them go with dignity?
In each of these scenarios and the countless others, there are clear options and they define us as a people when we take them.
But standing here in this moment with the option of my friend, my mentor or my companion to be taken away, I find the choices we make are far harder than what can be put down in a document.
I gaze at all three of them, the decision absolutely impossible to make and my heart beating out of my chest as Temperance stares at me, awash with bloodlust.
“Who will it be, Sully? Krauss, Nelle or Cheddar?”
I can’t make the decision, I won’t make the decision. This is not what I set out to do so many years ago and no amount of coercion can change that. I begin to raise my arms and charge at Temperance, but I feel the entire atmosphere change. The air felt thick and hot, my limbs slowing down and everything around me coming to a complete stop.
There the scene splayed out bare: Temperance holding out black flames of lightning, the fog around her like she was pestilence incarnate. To my left, Cheddar was asleep under his blanket, drool frozen in place like a drop of water thawing out on a cold day. Above him was Nelle, an expression of fatigue and contentment staring back at me, one hand gripping the knife and the other rubbing the cover of her Compendium. To the back was Krauss, a look of total shock and mid-scream of an expletive as he jumped back from the impending smoke.
“Well, I see the choice hasn’t been made yet. Seems I was on time.”
Turning slowly, a young woman with a small instrument strapped to her back was sitting on the other end of the bar, her head lazily resting on her hand as she observed the situation. She was tall and slender, her face covered in piercings and her lips smeared in black lipstick, her flowing brown hair nestled under a dark blue hoodie.
“You haven’t got much time and neither have I, so we should probably get to it. But first…”
She looks at the shelf and back to me several times, waiting for me to respond or to move, sweat still running down my brow. Her eyes widen and she sits up, an audible “OH!” coming from her before she clicks her fingers and I feel my body begin to move normally again.
“Sorry, been a while since I had to do this, I’m a little rusty…but how about that drink?” She smiles and again waits on me; I wipe my forehead and stare her down for a moment.
“…those are the rules here, aren’t they? I will tell you a story and get my drink? That’s what brings so many people here, after all.” She laughs and waves her hand. “Don’t worry about what it is, anything will do.”
Lost for words, I follow my instincts and go for the top shelf, spying a particular bottle that I think fits the circumstances, the red glow sealing the deal. A large shot glass with multiple edges carved out, going down in connecting levels like gazing into the circles of hell itself, each one changing the hue from a light red to an almost black at the bottom, a red hot cube affixed to the side, like a lemon on an iced tea. The label reading: “Ornstein’s Little Red Devil – For those whose sins burn hottest when dwelled upon.”
“Oh boy, you don’t mess around when it comes to these things, do you?!” she says, leaning over to stare as I pour the mixture into the shot glass, tapping the cube to let a second, black liquid run down each circle, creating a beautiful symmetry of crimson as it does. “Well, a promise is a promise. My name is Freyja and I’m…well I guess you’d call me an observer? I watch the lives of those with importance and at opportune moments, step in and present them with a chance to make things different.” She swirls the drink around, letting the mixture settle before taking a sip and tapping the instrument on her back. “I’m also a bard, so when the choice is made, I like to write a song about it. Pretty cool, right?”
This isn’t a normal situation, or a normal client, but I fall on normal decorum as if on autopilot.
“Well this is The Spaces In Between, I’m Sully and-“
She puts up a hand and stops me mid-sentence.
“It’s alright, I think we can safely establish I know who you are. Just like I know you’re going to need a drink in a minute, because we’ve got a lot to talk about and all the time in the world to do it.”
She gestures to the stool I keep on my side of the bar and ushers for me to sit down, I oblige and reach under the table, pulling up an unlabelled container in the shape of a clock, the large hand pointing to 4 and the thin hand pointed to 12. I turn the handle on the back, push the dials to 11:30pm and shake the mixture before setting it back down.
“Curious, are you not going to drink that, Sully?” She eyes it, perhaps concerned it’s a bomb or a weapon of some kind, but I flash a smile and seem to disarm her concerns.
“Last orders. I’ll drink it when the bell rings, now why are you here?”
She looks me over before replying
“You were given a chance by your mentor over there, a promise that one day you’d have a chance to set things right if you came to her services. Is that correct?” Her eyes linger on Nelle, who was still staring, still smiling in my direction. My throat felt dry.
“Yeah…that’s right…but that was a lifetime ago…I’d…I’d practically forgotten…” In truth, I’d completely forgotten save for those moments where lucidity overcame me thanks to a special blend of something I’d been working on. Frejya rests her head on both hands now, crimson eyes looking at me with wonderment.
“Tell me what happened a lifetime ago, Sully. Tell me how we got to this choice.”
I don’t recall where it was, but I remember the smell: daffodils. Didn’t matter what season it was or the weather conditions, it was always lingering on the wind and Naya loved it, she chose to always look on the bright side of things and I loved that about her.
We’d been in our place for about six months, it was a dingy little apartment and was all we could afford, but we were young and happy. When you’re 26 and in love, there’s very little that will hinder your joy, I discovered that every time I felt the weight of the world bare down on me before looking into Naya’s eyes. It was like stepping into a cool breeze on a hot summer day and it intoxicated me beyond all words.
I took a job in the downtown area a few miles from where we lived; it was a fair journey but the money was good and they offered work virtually all year round. I knew that if I pushed myself hard now, it would benefit us in the long run. The final night I was ever in that apartment had horrific weather, and the rain was battering down. We’d been told a hurricane was likely to either come close to us and cause damage or could very well hit us if it changed trajectory.
“Babe, I’m begging you, please don’t go tonight.” She’d rub my arm and plead with me, knowing that I didn’t want to go either. But I was steadfast in getting that extra pay, knowing what it would bring us.
The wind was so strong that night and the fog so thick I was terrified I would end up walking into oncoming traffic without realising it, but I persevered and by some miracle made it to work without issue. Fat lot of good it did me, though. They closed within the hour thanks to the extreme weather conditions.
When I got home, I noticed the door was ajar. I called out but I heard nothing, the smell of iron filling my lungs as I pushed the door open to find a massacre.
She was face down in a pool of her own blood, clutching at a box from a delivery company, her hand never releasing its grip from the top corner. Our entire home had been ransacked and it looked like the storm had already hit, but man is far more cruel than nature. Eventually, all I could see was her, my Naya.
I don’t remember much of the next few months, I wandered in a haze of pain and anger as the investigation continued, a key witness refused to testify and the case crawled to a stop. Maybe one of the detectives I sent 40 voicemails to asking for answers took pity on me or maybe he just didn’t care, but he let slip that they knew the group responsible and without their associate’s testimony, they couldn’t move on them.
I remember finding their hideout, the anger boiling inside of me like a rage I’d never felt before, Naya’s smiling face engulfing my mind every single moment of every single day threatening to render me blind to all other things. I put my hand on the door and pushed with all my might, ready to die and to make them suffer.
But instead of a gang of monstrous people, I found a small café. It was old, Victorian style decor with shelf after shelf of beans and blends, a small reading corner to my right and a kindly middle-aged woman standing at the counter, beaming at me as I walked in.
“Welcome to The Refuge Of The Weary, Sully. My name is Madame Nellie Lockwood, but you can just call me Nelle for short. Have a seat, I’ll be right with you.”
I don’t know how to explain it, but every fibre of my rage was gone and replaced with a sense of calm. I did as she asked and wandered over to the counter, taking a seat and watching as she heat checked a bottle of milk on her wrist before setting it on the table.
“Got a baby? Must be stressful, ” I asked, trying to keep my mind sharp and figure out where I was. She chuckled, her dreadlocks bouncing on her shoulders.
“Not exactly, you’ll see.” She grinned as a small “awooo” broke out from beneath her and a tiny puppy began to rise up, impossibly long and grunting as it searched blindly for the bottle, clasping its tiny mouth on it and sinking back beneath the table as Nelle took a hold of it and fed him.
“Cute…dog?” I said, still processing what I’d seen and unsure it was even real, she picked him up and he was a normal puppy once more, eagerly feeding from the bottle in her hand.
“Thanks, his name is Cheddar, not sure how he got here either, but I found him on my doorstep and here we are. Kinda similar to you, in a way.” She looked at me, kind eyes flashing. “Do you know how you got here?”
I shook my head, flashing images of Naya, the gang and a fight that never happened rushing past me as I rubbed my forehead.
“Well, Sully, I am going to fix you a drink and we’re gonna talk about it, okay?” She put a hand on my shoulder. “All will be well, I promise.”
She grabbed a bag of beans from the shelf and began busying herself with a brew, adding in touches of ingredients and humming to herself before setting it down in front of me. It bubbled and the smell of dark chocolate and cinnamon.
“This little establishment of mine is…special. As I’m sure you realise, it isn’t your run of the mill café. I offer a moment in time to let those of stout heart and strong will make a choice that will change where their lives go. Take a look at your chest for a moment, would you?” She clicked her fingers as I look down and see huge chunks of my flesh vanish, gaping black holes left in their wake and a total absence of pain. “This is what happens if you go through that door and finish what you started, with rage in your heart and vengeance in your blood. You will lose. But….”
She taps the side of my drink and smiles wide.
“I will make you an offer. Run a little start-up business I have in mind and one day down the line, I will do better than get you revenge, I will get you a happy ending.” She stares down at the tiny form of Cheddar still grunting as he has his fill of milk. “I’ll even give you a companion too, Cheddar will be a part of the establishment and will protect you until the end, always.”
I stared for a moment, visualising the life I’ve led up to that point. I see large swathes of grey punctuated by the vibrant colours Naya brought to it with her smile, her demeanour and the little things she did that in the hands of anyone else would be mundane, but in hers were fireworks. I hold the hot brew in both hands and down it in one go, the heat rushing through my body and the black holes giving way to new flesh as I felt the vigour of a purpose enter my soul.
I finished my story, everything back in place in my mind where it should be.
“Wow…so you gave up everything in order to have a chance down the line? That’s a gamble if I ever heard one…” Freyja sips her drink, her chin still resting on her hand.
“Yep, I guess something about what you do here allowed me to think clearly for the first time in…well, I don’t know how long…the real question is: what do you want?”
She took another long sip of her drink and smiled, walking around the bar and looking over the jukebox, finding a song and hitting play, her shoulders heaving as she took a deep breath and replied.
“I’m going to offer you a choice, something similar to Nelle’s…but this one puts a lot more on your shoulders.” She walked over in front of Temperance, who was still smiling and holding the black flames. She cupped her face in her hand for a moment, a look of sadness flitting across her face. “Poor girl…corrupted just like the rest…”
“Sully, every time this happens, Amos gets another chance to wreak havoc. What happened with you and Naya repeated over and over before culminating in this latest venture with Letty. He preys on these moments of chance, like you’re destined to do this until one of you wins. Nelle didn’t just give you a chance…she gave Naya one too.”
I felt the sweat run down my face at the mere mention of her name.
“How…how did she…” I breathed, stammering.
“Naya is stuck between realms, she’s tried to reach out so many times but never managed to complete it. She tried with Cheddar, she tried with some of the drinks and now she’s tried again with…well, me.” Freyja looked forlorn, even ashamed at the notion as she stared at the floor. “I kept feeling her pulling at the threads of your life and I just had to intervene, so I came up with a chance to circumvent the process and close the loop for good.” She walked towards me and downed the last of her drink, a short red breath emitting from her mouth as she breathed out, her eyes glowing bright.
“This is the sin I will carry, but it’s the one I will carry with…pride.” She chuckled a little before that same morose look fell on her face. “I’m offering you the chance to put your own destiny into your hands, I’ve been subtly doing so this entire time, but I felt the need to be direct…y’know…since I didn’t stop this sooner.” She held out a hand to me sheepishly. “I’m sorry, Sully. But I hope this helps.”
The penny dropped and I thought back throughout the last few days since this whole mess began, Letty and the ultrasound, her lockbox, Gomez seeing what he thought was a crib, the specific drinks being ordered and smashed…
My chest felt heavy as the realisation of everything set in and I walked over to Cheddar, who was still asleep under his blanket, frozen in that moment and unaware of what was about to happen.
“You’ll take care of everyone for me, won’t you?” I asked, petting Cheddar softly as I felt my composure beginning to crack. Freyja smiled softly as I rose to my feet and she saw the gait of a man with a mission, feeling she’d made the right decision.
“Of course, Sully. Are you ready?”
The song on the jukebox began to end and the bell for last orders rang out, each tone reverberating through my chest as I straightened my tie and pulled down on my waistcoat.
With a snap of her fingers, the moment was reset and I was back in front of a bloodlust ridden Temperance, the lightning flickering and burning bright in her hands.
“Who will it be, Sully? Krauss, Nelle or Cheddar?” Her eyes darted to each one as I stepped forward.
“None of them.” I replied calmly, rag strewn over my shoulder as I wrung my hands. “I’ve made my choice.”
A booming sound could be heard from behind the group as Freyja stood in the doorway, her eyes no longer jubilant but filled with cold defiance.
“You will have a way to access this place in its entirety in 24 hours with your leader. This will all end tomorrow.” She began moving her arms as Temperance screamed at her to stop, the smoke that enveloped them masking any sight of their frames.
“And bring Letty with you.”
With a crack, they were gone, the scene still in disarray as Krauss breathed heavily, muttering “Oh thank sweet Zeus”, Nelle walking towards me with an expression of concern.
“What the hell have you…why are the bells ringing out…you were SUPPOSED to choose me, Sully! What have you done?!” She slammed her hand down on the table as she finished, Cheddar looking up and bounding to my side, staring at my blank expression as I gripped my drink tightly, the glass threatening to crack under my grip.
“I chose to save you all…I chose me.”
I looked at Cheddar’s soft face, to Krauss’s eyes as he realised what I’d done and finally to Nelle’s, unable to hide the pain behind them as I put on my best service smile and closed my eyes.
“This is the last call.”
The bar is closing.