The Dark Stranger

I entered the bar and its tender turned from beneath the neon glow of beer signs above his domain to face me. The place was dank and cold, open and empty; it was just him, his grizzled face and balding head reflecting the amber light toward me, and only few others dotting the tables here and there in the place. Besides them there was only one lone man sat at the bar, drinking beer from a glass. He wore a dark overcoat and had not turned to face me when I entered as the other patrons had.

The bartender walked over toward my end and looked me in the eye: “What’ll it be?” he said, his stubbled-covered jowls flapping as he spoke.

“Whiskey,” I said. “On ice.” “You got it,” he said, and disappeared back toward the bottles of precious spirit, lining the shelf behind the bar like soldiers standing at attention.

I watched him pour a glass of the amber liquid and cubes embrace it as they shifted in the glass. He replaced the bottle and returned to me.

“Thanks,” I said, taking a first sip of the warm liquid. It burned in my mouth pleasantly. “No problem, bud.” He wiped his hairy arm against his sweaty forehead and grunted.

As I drank the warm spirit from the tumbler, I took in my surroundings and looked longer at the other patrons. There was a couple in the back corner, huddled deep down into a booth of red leather, arms around each other and eyes locked together, oblivious to everything, save for each other and their glasses of poison.

A large biker sat a table in the center of the place. He drank a cheap beer – a PBR it looked like – in long, slow drags, and laughed occasionally at the commercials on the TV. His giant gut shook when he did so, beneath a filthy shirt and a vest made of leather.

Finally my eyes turned toward the man sitting at the bar alone. There was something strange about him, something not quite right, that I couldn’t put my finger on. I could feel it, even from far away. He didn’t look up to watch the televisions right in front of him. He didn’t look up at the bartender when the man walked by. He just sat there with his head down into his drink, black shoulder-length hair hiding his face, and this strange darkness, this strange atmosphere, seeming to exude from him and cut him off from everything around.

The bar felt colder as I watched the strange pale man sip his beer.

“Shitty night they’re having, ain’t it?” The bartender was back in front of me again. “Yeah, real shame it is,” I said. I drained the last of my drink. “Another?” “Yeah, please.” He disappeared to the rows of soliders standing at attention again.

The stranger rose from his seat, and still I could not see his face. I watched him reach deep into the dark folds of his overcoat, reaching for something, and I saw the expressions of the other patrons in the bar begin to match my own: falling, long and languid, into shock, terror, uncertainty, as if in slow motion.

From the dark folds of his coat, the man pulled something, something shiny and silver. A butterknife. No, that wasn’t it. It was hard to see in the dimness of the place. I watched him bring it to his throat and it was then I realized what it was.

A straight razor.

The bartender made as if to speak, but the stranger beat him to it.

He turned to face me and looked me square in the eyes and his eyes were blacker than midnight, blacker than the burned flesh of all the souls suffering in Hell, and he spoke:

“We all die alone,” he said coldly. “And you will too.”

And then in an instant he sliced the blade across his throat in one sudden jerk, and the other patrons in the bar screamed and I felt my blood grow cold and my legs turn to jelly, and my eyes suddenly feel like they were one too many sizes big enough for their sockets. The blood spurted everywhere, shooting out in long red geysers, painting the black overcoat of the dying man, painting in red the bar and all the bottles behind it, and all I could see was the blood, the blood and the darkness and the sweat on the bartender’s cue-ball forehead glistening beneath the amber radiance of the Amstel Light sign above him.

The man collapsed to his knees and the woman in the booth screamed. Blood pooled around his crumpled body and finally I found myself and stood, but no words came. I acted as if a man possessed. I ran over to the body, not thinking, moving without a mind, and took his blood-soaked form into my arms. His head lolled back on his neck sickeningly and his eyes were blank and empty and face smeared with blood.

“Call 9-11!” I heard the girl scream.

In one hand I held him, and the other escaped from beneath the weight of his body. That hand shook above the pool of blood I knelt in, and found its way down to the filthy hardwood of the floor. To the handle of the implement that had fallen from the stranger’s hand once it had finished its dirty work. Mother of Pearl.

I held up the blade before my face and it shook in my hand, and as I read the words engraved into the luminescent handle I felt every hair on my body rise:

YOU’RE NEXT

The Collections Men

No one knows who first started saying it, but now we all say it. We all say it because it’s the best thing you can say to let them know that something’s different, that something’s fundamentally changed, and for them to stop a take a beat. Which, of course, is exactly what they need to do.

You see, they’re always surprised to see us when we turn up. To learn that there is no Grim Reaper; just us suits, us mortals working our day jobs, day-in, day-out. I guess it all really is kind of strange, when I stop to think about it. But in the short time we’re talking I don’t really have time to get into how I became a suit, or about Hell Inc., or why He decided they should outsource their collections back to our mortal plane, and insisted on such secrecy around it.

Derek had to explain to me my first week on the job, you see, that they don’t remember. Even if they die in some horrific fashion, like getting crushed by a falling scaffold or blown away by a policeman’s shotgun or even doing the job themselves with a bathtub and razor blade, they never remember. They just wake up, confused and unharmed, with us suits staring back at them and then we say it. It’s the worst for the ones who die in their sleep, when they wake up and think it’s just a regular morning, and we’re there to tell them they’re going to Hell. And that there is no Heaven. But we don’t really have time to get into that either.

“I’m beat,” I said to Derek, “I’m going to call it a night.”

“Sure man,” he said, watching a cop car scream by with sirens flashing. “I’ll get the last one. Cya tomorrow.”

“Cya.” I went home and collapsed into bed. I didn’t even bother take off my suit.

When I woke up Derek was there in the house waiting for me, sitting in the chair in the living room, cigarette in hand, its long plume rising toward the ceiling.

“What’s up?” I said. “Another early start, or some fire to put out?”

Derek turned toward me with a look in his eyes I’d never seen before.

“Please, just take a moment.”

When the AC came on

I live in a condo
a big box of concrete
and glass
in the sky

Every year, summer’s begin
there’s the time
in-between
when the heat is off
and the AC too

too hot

Yesterday I stood
in the kitchen
alone
felt finally the coolness overtake me
with relief

then realization
there was no sound
realization

10 years to the day
He’d thrown himself from our balcony
34th floor
I found his note in the bedroom
“Julia, there’s nothing for me
in this world
anymore

i’m sorry”

I stood
in the kitchen
alone
and heard his scream
behind the glass of the door
to the world outside
and our potted plants on concrete

the coolness passed
but my chill’s remained
today the AC came on
already my coldness