Special Note: This Halloween short story stands in place of the Saturday Night Special I neglected to post this past week. It also preempts Meta Monday. (It’s rude like that.)
While this story can stand alone, I feel like there’s more to tell. So, hopefully, it will be the first in a series.
I find him right where Juliana said he’d be. At the Red Tavern, this little bar on the corner of Liberty and Elm. No one knows how it stays in business—it’s only open a few times a year. It’s always open this week, though. The week leading up to Halloween.
Maybe that’s why I’m expecting chintzy decorations, dollar store style. There aren’t any, though. I mean no Halloween decorations at all, no acknowledgment that the holiday even exists. It’s just a normal, low key, local dive: one big TV, directly over the bar, streaming the World Series. One pool table. A few scattered tables. One booth.
The guy I’m looking for is the sole occupant of that one booth. He’s sitting there with what looks like a bottle of some upscale IPA in front of him. He’s a little taller than me and a little thicker, but about the same age—late twenties, maybe early thirties.
I’ve seen him before. Juliana used to show him off last year, back when they first met. Back when she was itching to prove just how over me she was.
My first thought then was the same one I’ve got now: he’s dangerous. There’s something about this bastard that makes you think he’s got a semi-automatic and a few knives tucked away under his jacket.
Not Juliana’s usual type. She was never into tough guys. Plus, he’s even whiter than me, and yet she used to joke that she’d only leave me for a fellow Peruvian. To make her parents happy, I presume. But Dustin fits right into this neighborhood, which still clings to its Irish population.
There was never any Irish mob here, though. Not as far as I know. But Dustin is into something illegal. I have no evidence for that, but he gives off that kind of vibe.
He hasn’t noticed me yet. He’s one of the few people in the bar who’s got more than half an eye on the Series, despite the fact that neither the Yanks nor the Mets made it in. Not even close.
Fuck it, I can’t keep hovering near the door. So I force myself to walk up to him. “Dustin?”
He doesn’t take his eyes off the screen. “Hey, Patrick. Have a seat.”
So he knew I was here all along. I try not to let that bother me as I slide into the booth, opposite him. And I try to ignore the way my hands feel cold and clammy.
“Jules send you here?”
I shake my head. “She didn’t ask me to come.”
He just grunts. And he still doesn’t look my way.
“It’s over, Dustin. You get that, right?” My voice doesn’t shake. It sounds cool and convincing.
Dustin’s not impressed. But he finally tears his eyes off the game and looks me up and down. “So let me guess. She comes running back to you, tells you it’s done between her and me. Tells you she never wants to see me again. But she puts this idea in your head, like I can’t take no for an answer. Like I’m going to hunt her down.”
I swallow. That’s pretty much exactly what happened. But I don’t say a word.
“And then she tells you that’s it’s okay, she’s fine. She’ll get a restraining order or something. Don’t worry. But she makes sure to tell you just where you can find me, right?”
Nothing. I still have nothing to say.
He grins. There’s always something off about his smile—which is weird, because he’s a good looking guy apart from that. At least if you have a thing for redheads. But his mouth is just a little too big for his face.
I give him a level look. “I just want you to leave her alone.”
“Look, she said she’ll get a restraining order, right? What more do you need?”
He’s right. That should be enough. But somehow I don’t think a restraining order will stop him. Not until it’s too late.
Dustin shakes his head at me. “Come on, man. You have to know she’s bad news. She’s just using you—again. So go on home. Let the cops worry about her.”
What does that mean? Does he have buddies on the force? Are they going to turn a blind eye?
“Hey, Dustin. Can I get your friend something to drink?”
I startle at the new voice. Shit, there’s a woman standing by the table now, looking me up and down the same way Dustin did. In fact, she must be related to him. She has the same red hair and the same blunt attractiveness—and that same disturbing mouth. Too big for her face.
“No thanks, Erin,” he answers. “Patrick here was just leaving.”
“I’m not going anywhere. Not until you swear that you’ll leave Juliana alone.”
“Fuck that. I don’t owe you any promises.”
His relative—a waitress here, I guess—snorts as she glances down at Dustin’s bottle. “I’ll get him one of those.”
Dustin and I both watch her head toward the bar. Then we turn back to each other.
“You got just a couple of minutes to get out of here,” he says. “Once the sun sets, I can’t save you. I got to settle for you in place of Jules.”
I blink. I came in here around four o’clock. And it’s only been a few minutes. “It’s nowhere near sunset. And—and what the fuck are you talking about? Take her place in what?”
Dustin just nods at the window.
It’s almost dark out. What? How is that possible? I dig my phone out of my pocket. Fuck. It’s dead.
“Yeah, that won’t work in here.” There’s a weird hint of sympathy in his voice. “Last chance, Patrick.”
I stand up to leave—but no. No way. I’m not going to let him scare me off with this creepy act. So I sit back down. “What the hell is going on?”
He rolls his eyes just as the waitress comes back. She plunks another bottle of IPA down and rests a hand on my shoulder. Her eyes are on Dustin, though. “So your friend is staying, right?”
Dustin shrugs. “Apparently. But I don’t share, Erin. Hands off.”
She laughs as she releases me. Then she shifts to look me over again. “Drink up,” she advises. “You’re going to need it.”
I ignore her and stare at Dustin. “What the actual fuck?”
He folds his hands on the table and leans forward. “You stayed. Jules is out. You’re in.”
Dustin smiles. But it’s—shit! His mouth is changing. Transforming somehow. It’s expanding till it’s grotesquely large and crammed full of teeth.
Oh God. No one should have teeth like that. Sharp, uneven and almost bursting out of his mouth.
Am I breathing? I can’t tell. How is this happening? I didn’t touch any food or drink here. I can’t be drugged. Shit, shit shit! No. No, calm down. I have to calm down. I keep telling myself that, over and over, using the words as a mantra. This is just a weird dream, that’s all. Juliana was so afraid of Dustin that she put bizarre ideas into my head. So just calm down.
It works. I’m breathing again. I use the table to push myself up. And then, without looking at Dustin, I head for the door.
No one stops me. I feel eyes on me from everywhere, but they just let me go. Not far now—just a few more steps. Four, maybe. Three, two, one . . . I push the door open.
It’s pitch black outside. And chilly. And damp. Damp? It wasn’t damp before. We haven’t had rain in weeks. But now I can feel an icy wet tingle against every inch of my skin.
Okay, I’m still staying calm. There’s some starlight, at least. No moon, though. Right, right. It was almost a new moon last night. But where the hell are the streetlights? And why are my sneakers sinking into grass—what happened to the hard concrete of Liberty and Elm?
This must still be a dream. Please let this be a dream. That’s why I can’t see any houses or apartment buildings or delis or roads. It’s why there’s no music playing anywhere, no rumble of cars passing by. Just an endless, empty meadow.
I swallow. Maybe this is a dream. Maybe it isn’t. Either way, I don’t waste any more time thinking about it. I just run.
Every breath is coming hard now. I stumble forward. A few more steps—shit! My knee gives out, sending me sprawling on the grass. It’s cool and damp and soft and the chill of it seems to sink into my whole body, paralyzing me.
I push myself up, only to collapse again. My mouth is wide open. There’s dirt on my tongue.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. I shut my eyes. I’m done—I’m fucking done. I just want this over with.
I can hear Dustin whistling. And I know it’s him. I can’t explain how, but I do. I wish I could tell how far off he is, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t have any sense of time or distance anymore. I might have been running for hours or just a few minutes. I might have covered miles or just a few yards.
The melody is chipper and weirdly familiar. Some Irish folk tune, I think. It sounds good, but somewhere in the back of my head I’m wondering how he can whistle at all with that mouthful of extra teeth.
Dustin stops when he reaches me. I still have my eyes closed, but I know he’s taking a seat, cross-legged, at my side. I feel the warmth of his thigh as he leans against me.
Isn’t it too damp for him to sit here? It’ll soak through his jeans. The grass will leaves stains. That’s all that’s left in my brain now. Pointless, inane observations.
He rests his arm against my back and threads his fingers through my hair. “Tired of running?”
I don’t answer, but my breaths finally slow down. Like his presence is somehow comforting. Like I want him here.
“Yeah, you are.” He lets out a satisfied grunt. “Nice try, though. Not your fault you had nowhere to go.”
Don’t look at him. Don’t look at those teeth. Keep your eyes shut. This isn’t real.
But his body heat feels real. The weight of his hand feels real. And so does this gentle massage he’s suddenly giving me.
“Why are you doing this, Dustin?”
“I feed on your kind, Patrick. These teeth aren’t just for show.”
“You’re a fucking cannibal?”
“I’m not human, so it’s not cannibalism. I thought you’d have figured that out—you’re on fey turf now.”
My eyes are still shut. No way am I opening them. “You didn’t feed on Juliana.”
He laughs. “Got a little secret for you: death works kind of funny here. And us redcaps know the trick to having our cake and eating it too.”
I try to digest that—oh God, that’s the wrong word. “I don’t understand.”
“I know. Jules did, though. She understood the bargain.” His fingers keep massaging my scalp. Not like he’s flirting with me—it’s more like he sees me as a pet. “Live here for a year and a day. Don’t age. Don’t die. Well, not permanently, anyway. And at the end of her time, she could renew or find a replacement.”
My stomach churns.
Dustin stops massaging me and pats my back. “Told you she was using you. Staying here kind of twisted her—I think it broke her mind a little. Not all humans can stand it, you know? But you—you might do okay.”
He laughs again. “No thank you. I don’t play with my food. Not like that.”
I don’t grace that with a response. But my whole body starts shaking. Like I can’t hold it together. Fuck, please don’t let me piss myself.
“Shhh, Patrick. It’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”
I finally open my eyes—not that I can see much in this light. Just the glint of his teeth.
Relax? He’s insane. Or I’m insane. One of us is.
He’s back to stroking my hair. “You can go back home a few times a year, just like Jules did. But you don’t have to—you might like it better here. If your mind doesn’t break, this place’ll grow on you.”
“Don’t judge by tonight.” Dustin pushes himself to his feet and then hauls me to mine.”Easy—there you go.”
I’m too exhausted to resist, but I have to lean heavily against him to stay upright.
“Bringing me to the slaughter-house?” There’s not nearly as much venom in those words as I intended.
He chuckles—Jesus, I hate that he finds me so amusing. “Tell you what. You keep behaving this well, and I’ll make sure you don’t feel a thing.”
“You can trust me, Patrick. No matter what I do to you, I won’t lie.”
And that’s the worst part of this nightmare. I’m so tired and confused and whipped that I do trust him. And I let him lead me forward.
(© 2016 Jennifer R. Moss. All rights reserved)