Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
“Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there,” the man at the bar said to me, nursing a fresh two-fingers’ worth of Ketel vodka in a tumbler he cradled between his thick, calloused fingers.
“‘He wasn’t there again today. Oh how I wish he’d go away,’” I answered, drawing his sleepy but surprised gaze from the basin of his drink.” Antogonish by William Hughes Mearns. That’s what you were quoting right?”
He studied me for a moment as if seeing me for the first time and trying to size me up. Most of the terminal drunks who typically dragged their sorry carcasses into the tavern this time of the night amused themselves by ogling my tits or hitting me with slurred promises of unimaginable sexual pleasure. Not this guy—John was his name. His first name anyway, or at least that’s what he’d told me. I didn’t know his last one, didn’t really care.
When he said nothing, I rolled my eyes and turned away, grabbing beer mugs off a drying rack by the sink beneath the bar and mopping beads of residual water away with a hand towel. “Forget it,” I muttered. Why try to carry on an intelligent conversation—much less a literary one—with someone who’d pretty much polished off a fifth of vodka all on his own, all in less than two hours?
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Mel,” I replied. “Short for Melanie. No one calls me that except my dad.”
He’d asked me this before and I’d answered him the same. I waited to see if there was any dawn of recognition in his face at the words, wasn’t the least bit surprised when there wasn’t.
“You drink, Meg?” he asked.
He’d called me Meg every time, too.
I held up the mug in one hand, the towel in the other, gave both demonstrative little shakes. “Not while I’m on duty.”
I didn’t tell him I never drank because my old man was a drunk, and even though he’d been clean and sober for seven years now, once upon a time, he’d liked to get into the Pabst Blue Ribbon and then slap me and my mother around for shits and grins. I had never tasted alcohol. I worked in the bar so I would never forget it—the hot stink of booze on his breath—and how much I hated him still for that.
John nodded once, fingered his glass again, and tossed back the entire dollop in a solitary swallow. “That’s good,” he told me, his gaze wandering distantly toward a nearby pale water ring stained into the top of the bar. “I wish I’d never started. Maybe then they’d leave me alone.”
I glanced around the pub. It was a Tuesday, almost midnight—almost closing time. Besides John on his bar stool perch before me, the place was pretty much empty. A couple of kids with greasy hair and too many crude tattoos to have earned them anyplace but prison loafed in a far corner, shooting pool and drinking beer. They had one girl between them, a bleach blonde in a too-tight denim miniskirt who didn’t seem to mind the two-to-one odds.
Figuring what the fuck, I had nothing better to do, I took the bait and walked back over to John. He had that cast in his eyes, a tone in his voice that my chronic drunks sometimes affect when they want to get nostalgic or wax rhapsodically.
“Maybe who would leave you alone?” I asked. Probably his family—his old lady and kids. He was wearing a wedding ring. Old ladies, kids and chronic alcoholism seldom mixed company amicably.
He looked at me. “The periphery people.”
I blinked at him, wondering if I’d heard him right. “The who?”
Still he studied me, his gaze unwavering—surprisingly steady, in fact, given the amount of booze he’d been knocking back that night.
“Periphery people,” he said again, pronouncing the words slowly, carefully, as if each was a delicate crystal vase he was trying to swaddle in newspaper before packing away in a box in the attic. “Although they’re not really people. Not like you and me. I don’t know what the hell they are.” He blinked, his eyes growing cloudy again, and he looked away. “Never mind. You can’t see them.”
Again because I had nothing better to do—and because I was actually caught off-guard by both his poem quotation and his use of a functional vocabulary word not typical of the common lexicon—I leaned comfortably across the bar. “Why can’t I see them?”
“You have to be drunk,” he replied. “Or at least I do anymore. Didn’t use to. I could see them just fine on my own when I was a kid. I think kids are more receptive to seeing them. They believe in things, you know? Like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.”
“Or periphery people,” I supplied and he nodded. “The periphery of what?”
John flapped his hand, indicating the room. “Here. There. Everywhere. Everything. They’re always around, standing in the shadows. All along the edges.”
“The periphery,” I said.
“Yeah.” He lifted his glass to his lips, then realized he had no more vodka.
“So they’re here right now?” As he set the glass down, I reached for the Ketel bottle and topped him off.
“Yeah.” Nodding to me in thanks, he took a small sip, smacked his lips appreciatively and drank again.
“You said they weren’t human. What do they look like?”
He shrugged. “They’re tall. Really tall. Like seven or eight feet high. They wear cloaks, hooded cloaks. The cowls cover their heads.”
Cloaks. Cowls. Periphery and poetry. I was beginning to wonder if this guy, John, wasn’t your typical chronic drunk at all, but something more…tragic.
I made a show of glancing around, brows raised. There were plenty of shadow-draped edges and corners in the dump where I worked. Not a one of them seemed to be harboring a seven-foot-tall giant hooded man with a cowl over his face.
“You can’t see them,” he told me.
“Because I’m sober.”
“Yeah. But they’re hideous.” He shuddered, though whether from this admittance or the drink, I wasn’t sure. “Their faces are flat. There’s nothing there—no eyes, no nose. Only a mouth. Round and gaping, taking up almost the whole front side. Ringed with teeth. God, lots and lots of teeth—rows of them going backward down their throats, just like a shark.”
The color drained somewhat from his face, leaving him with a sort of putty-colored pallor. “They like to eat, you see.”
Maybe it was the unspoken body language that seemed to suggest this poor son of a bitch was really buying the snow cone machine he was selling to the Eskimos. Whatever the reason, I found myself simply staring at him. And fighting the urge to shiver.
“Eat what?” I asked, my voice uncharacteristically small.
His expression shifted, growing grim, his eyes round and earnest. He whispered one word in reply to me: “Souls.”
I’d expected him to say “human flesh.” Maybe even “brains,” or perhaps spleen, appendix, right little toe. This, however, caught me by surprise.
“Souls?” I asked.
“They latch on to the back of your head with their teeth. Then they wrap themselves around you, make you carry them around like that while they glut themselves. Sometimes they take a little. Sometimes they take a lot. Depends on how hungry they are.”
The cracked vinyl seat cover beneath his ass creaked as he shifted his weight, pivoting to glance behind them. With a nod, he pointed out the ménage-a-trois-in-situ playing pool. “You see that girl over there?”
Turning in the seat again, he leaned across the bar toward me, close enough for me to smell the vodka in his breath. “One of them’s feeding on her right now.”
I took another look, but saw only the blonde laughing, slapping away one of the guy’s hands as he tried clumsily, vainly to grope the generous outward swell of her ass.
“She looks okay to me,” I said.
“Because you can’t see it. And she can’t feel it. Not yet anyway.”
“But she will?”
John nodded. “One day, yeah. She’ll find out she has cancer. Or AIDS. Or maybe she’ll step off the curb at the wrong time and get plowed into by a bus. Or have a psychotic break and shove a seven-inch-long butcher knife through her husband’s sternum while he’s sleeping one night. But not at first. That comes later. I’ve seen it. No, at first…she’ll just be sad.”
“Sad.” I repeated this, brow raised.
“You ever feel like everything in the world’s gone wrong? Like you can’t do anything right? Like the world is nothing but a big pile of dog shit, and you’re just a smear in the fecal matter taking up space? That kind of sadness, that sort of despair—that’s what they leave you with once they’ve eaten enough of your soul. From there, it only gets worse. Because that sorrow…that unhappiness, it must smell good to them, draw them somehow. They’re always with you after that, like a pack of wolves, fighting over you, for their chance to latch onto your skull and drain you dry.”
I’ve been tending bar for a long time—for seven years, starting about the time my mother had died and my dad had first sworn on her deathbed that he’d go clean, and then had shocked the glorious ever-living shit out of me by sticking to that. I’ve heard a lot of stories, yarns woven by a lot of guys far more wasted and crazy and pathetic than John. But for some reason, I couldn’t just bob my head and cock that condescending smirk that I usually reserve for someone shitfaced and rambling. The in-one-ear-and-out-the-other look, I call it.
“They’ve fed from you, you know,” he told me pointedly.
I felt a chill steal down my spine, slithering and unnerving, like a live eel dropped down the back of my T-shirt. Managing a hoarse bark of laughter, trying my damndest to sound dubious, I said, “What?”
“How can you tell?”
His eyes found mine—round, sorrowful, nearly sheepish. “You knew the poem. You haven’t always been a bar maid.”
Normally, that antiquated and decidedly misogynistic term—bar maid—might have made me bristle. But this time, instead, it only sent another of those unpleasant little tremors racing down from the nape of my neck toward my ass.
“No,” I said in slow admittance. “I was a teacher. English literature. High school.”
“World civilization,” he said by way of introducing himself in ex-career fellowship. “At the university. Had tenure and everything.”
We studied each other for a long, quiet moment.
“Something happened,” he said. “Something that changed you. Maybe a moment you can’t quite put your finger on or remember, but it’s there. And in that moment, whether you knew it or not, a part of your soul was gone.”
“My mother died,” I said. “My dad’s on disability. He can’t get around. I have to be home in the daytime with him. There’s no one else who can take care of him.”
“Feels like your life’s being sucked right out of you sometimes, doesn’t it?” John asked, and when I nodded, hesitant, the corners of his mouth hooked in a brief, bitter smile. “Because it is.” A glance beyond my shoulder, split second but pointed. “There’s one behind you right now.”
I whirled, eyes wide, but saw only rows of liquor bottles and phalanxes of cocktail glasses lined up dutifully along the shelves.
“It’s not feeding,” he continued. “Not yet anyway. But it wants to. And there’s only one way to stop it.”
“How?” I asked. As ridiculous as this whole thing sounded, I couldn’t help but believe him. There was such a tremendous, sorrowful sincerity in his face, his eyes. It was as if all of the booze had been wiped from his system and he was sober again—brutally, helplessly so.
He leaned toward me. “You have to see them.” His hand draped against mine, his skin dry and warm. “If you can see them, they’ll leave you alone.” Another fleeting, humorless smirk. “No sport in it for them then.”
As he drew back his hand, he shifted on his stool again, letting his feet fall heavily to the floor. I shook my head as if snapping out of a trance. For the first time, I realized we were alone in the bar. The trio of pool players—along with their invisible, soul-sucking new friend—had left.
“You ever see movement out of the corner of your eye?” John asked, fishing his wallet from his back pocket and dropping a pair of twenties onto the bar. His glass still had vodka in it, but he left it alone, turning with a shuffling gait for the door. “A flash of shadow, maybe, like something’s there, just beyond your field of sight—only when you turn your head, it’s gone?”
I nodded and he said, “That’s them. The periphery people.”
He started to walk away, but paused when I said, “What about you? You said something changed me—the moment where one of these things fed from me. What about your moment? What changed you?”
He looked over his shoulder at me and this time when he smiled, it was something melancholy and lonely. His lips pursed, then parted, as if he meant to speak, but then he must have thought better of it because he closed them again. Still shuffling, the palsied gait of a man far older than his years, John turned again and walked away, leaving the bar without another word.
I locked up behind him, the heavy sound of the deadbolt sliding home as I turned the key as sharp and loud as a gunshot. I tried to laugh it off, to tell myself he was just a crazy drunk, that he’d been spewing vodka-infused bullshit he wouldn’t even remember come the morning.
But then, as I started to turn away from the door to face the bar again, I thought I caught a glimpse of something reflected in the glass—a looming shadow directly behind me, standing just along the peripheral edge of my vision. With a startled gasp, my heart jackhammering in sudden, bright fear, I whirled around, pressing myself back into the door.
I was alone.
At least, to my sober eye.
There’s one behind you right now, he’d told me. It’s not feeding, not yet anyway. But it wants to.
I thought of how he’d described them—their ghoulish mouths ringed with teeth so they could latch on and hold tight. Again, I wanted to dismiss it—and him—as utter bullshit, and again, I couldn’t suppress an uneasy shiver just the same.
There’s only one way to stop it, John had told me. You have to see them.
I returned to the bar and stood beside the seat he’d only recently vacated. His last shot of Ketel remained where he’d left it, and I reached for it now, lifting the glass in hand, giving it an experimental sniff. I’d never tried vodka before; had felt neither the urge nor desire to drink myself into a stupor.
If you can see them, they’ll leave you alone. No sport in it for them then.
Bracing myself, I drew the glass to my lips, tossed my head back and swallowed. Having drained it dry, I leaned forward, poured another and downed it. Then a third. Then a fourth. And after the fifth, as my mind started to grow murky, and the shadows in every corner of the room seemed to grow elongated and sinister somehow before my eyes—becoming nearly human in shape, creeping closer to me, slowly but surely—I took a seat on the bar stool.
And waited to see.
Credit To – Sara Reinke