Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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A Drop In The Well

by Shawn Montgomery



For the six years I worked at the Wishing Well, we didn't celebrate holidays. We were never the type of bar that hosted theme nights, and last Halloween wasn't any different -- Andy was tending bar, the usual cast of neighborhood regulars were at the counter, and the video poker folks were perched at their machines. And I of course, was working back in the kitchen.

The only yearly tradition Andy bothered to do was tacking up a cheap plastic sign next to the beer cooler that said

DRINK AT YOUR OWN RISK

in spooky lettering and cartoonish ghosts and witches danced around a big, crumbling tombstone.

Before I get any further, I want to write that Halloween was one of my favorite holidays, and I celebrated it in my own little way -- I always wore the ZOMBIES ATTACK! T-shirt that I bought twenty years ago at a Hatchet Hound concert. The front of it looked like a movie poster from a 60's B-movie monster film, you know -- frightened kids and heavily lipsticked housewives fleeing from decomposing zombies. Wearing the T-shirt was probably as far as I was willing to go to "dress up" for the holiday, especially at work. To be honest, I just preferred the anonymity of being away from the crowd up front. Back in the kitchen, I was alone and nobody could gawk or say shit to me. I came out to deliver food to the customers and occasionally help Andy if there was a sudden rush, but didn't stick around after my shift to drink and socialize.

That day I started my shift at four o'clock -- took the usual #72 bus from downtown and arrived on time. Andy didn't start until six, and Carla was working there when I started the shift. She was dressed like a she-devil, something completely appropriate for work -- devil horns poking out from her head, a glittering tight red shirt and the usual tight pair of jeans that hugged her body perfectly. I think she was wearing black lipstick. I bashfully smiled. "Hi Carla."

"Hey, Mike," she drawled.

"Hey Mike, you got your t-shirt!"

I noticed a few of the regulars straining their heads to catch a glimpse. I nodded along and said, "Yeah, you betcha!" and walked as fast as I could towards the kitchen. I heard somebody laughing behind me, but knew it wasn't any of the regulars doing that crap. They were good people...almost like family.

The kitchen was slow for a couple of hours so I killed time prepping for the night and cleaning the grill. Then I fixed myself some dinner and made a few burger baskets. Eventually, I felt comfortable enough afterwards to engage in some casual banter with Kurt and Joe --

"Hey there, Mike."

"Hey guys."

"How ya doin'?"

"Not bad...and you?"

"Hangin' in there, ya know..."

I laughed and shook my head enthusiastically. "Yep...yep," I said.

"Got into the holiday spirit, I see."

I glanced down to my shirt and smiled proudly. "Yeah, I've been wearing this shirt on Halloween the past three years now."

"Yeah...yeah...it's nice," Kurt said, his usually pasty face glowing like a pumpkin's.

I ran my hand over one of the zombie's dripping skulls. "Yeah, yeah" I said, "it's my favorite shirt." And then forcing out my usual harmless laugh, I walked back to the kitchen with a stack of empty baskets in hand.

Andy ended up starting her shift five minutes early, dressed in her usual black slacks, white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her forearms, and her purple vest that she wore every shift. She never said why she wanted to wear a vest every day to work, and I never heard anybody ask her. I guess it was her uniform just as much as my zombie t-shirt or any of my other concert t-shirts that I wore there every day.

"Hey there," Andy said, cheerful as usual.

"Hey," I said and smiled. I liked Andy. She was a no-bullshit kind of woman. We worked a hell of a lot together, and put up with a whole lot of crap. She was good company and I liked her husband too. Kurt treated her good and didn't get too sloppy when he drank at the bar, and never drove when he drank (Andy confided one night that Kurt was in a car accident in high school) and Andy never drank anything stronger than coffee. When Andy and Kurt were both in good moods, things at the bar were a lot of fun. Kurt liked telling these long drawn out stories of strange places he worked at or just sitting there on his stool and arguing with his drinking buddy. Andy would pace around the bar rolling her eyes, calling out Kurt's bullshit stories, or just bark out something sarcastic once in awhile.

For a long time, the bar stayed pretty empty -- just Kurt and Joe, some video poker folks, a couple of small groups of college kids and Murph, who had shown up a little earlier.

Murph was intriguing, actually. I never had a conversation with him past me asking how his food was (he usually ordered the burger with fries) and I guess I always was a bit intimidated by him. I always found writers (or people who sit at the bar with their notebooks and pretended to be writers) inaccessible for some reason...too ego-filled...but Murph wasn't like those douche-bags.

I didn't know much about him other than what people gossiped about when he wasn't around -- that he had a degree in English and was a writer, but worked in some office downtown. Murph always walked to and from the bar, which I assumed was because he lived in the neighborhood or had his license revoked. He didn't seem too interested in making friends at the bar and kept mostly to himself, except to ask for change for tips and the jukebox, or tell me the score of whatever game was on the TV.

I remember bringing out an order to a table and overhearing Kurt and Joe arguing about the Vietnam War for the thousandth time --

"We were in the jungle, for the most part," Kurt continued explaining in his best 'wise professor' voice, "...in the villages...the enemy had already left and there was nobody left but the women and children and old people."

"I didn't have that experience," Joe mumbled.

"What?" Kurt gasped. "Really?"

Joe took a drink and shouted, "The only time I saw Vietnamese people, they were on the run!"

Now it was time for Kurt to take a drink. Sometimes the boys got like that -- repeated, synchronized drinks when they didn't have anything else to say to each other. It was a perk in my job observing peoples' drinking rituals at the bar...from the placement of the napkins, to the methodical peeled off beer bottle labels.

"Well, in my experience," Kurt barked back, "these people were happy to see us!"

Joe shook his head. "Not me...no sir...the only time I saw those people in the jungle, they were either running at us or away from us!"

"Well, I don't know about that," Kurt groaned quietly.

Joe suddenly came out of his painfully shy and awkward demeanor, and pulled off his Mariners ballcap and angrily waved it in the air.

"The houses we encountered...the people were...how'd you say it..." He paused for dramatic effect, and perhaps, to collect his beer-clouded thoughts. "The people were...dis-stressed!"

Kurt conceded and nodded mournfully. "Oh...oh." They both sat there in a silent stalemate before Joe finally said, "I never saw anybody happy to see me then, I'll tell ya that much."

Then the men got real quiet again and drank their beers, miles away from each other. Murph was sitting on his usual stool, glued to the World Series and absently twirling his lighter around on the counter. I noticed his knuckles were bruised and swollen.

"What's the score?" I asked, grinning sheepishly.

"Three...two...bottom of the sixth," he mumbled with a quick glance. I remember thinking he looked more anxious than usual -- fidgeting on his stool with this sense of panicked urgency and his jaw grinding desperation.

"Good game," I answered as cheerful as possible and headed back to the kitchen again.

From what I do remember, I made myself an order of wings to munch on, the bar was thinning out, and it wasn't too much longer before Kurt and Joe came back from their routine reconciliatory smoke break out back. I don't remember how much time transpired from when we were stuck with our own little routines in our safe little bar until that guy came into the Wishing Well and turned it upside down.

The man introduced himself to everybody with a series of violent bangs and rattles on the front door.

"What the hell!" Andy yelled, spilling a small pool of beer across her hand.

I thought there was a fight going on outside, but we couldn't see anybody scuffling out the window. Then suddenly, the door jerked open, a current of cool air rushed into my face, and this stranger stumbled inside.

Andy took a quick glance towards me for my first impression, and all I could do was shrug. How easy was it going to be throwing this drunk out? I was never good with confrontations, and sometimes my size and voice was enough to convince some overzealous and potentially dangerous drunk to do their business elsewhere.

But as soon as this guy regained his composure, which only took a second, he could have been the most sober person in the place. His eyes were small dark orbs that stared right at Andy. A slight apologetic smile crept on his face and his cheeks blushed flirtatiously.

"Sorry about that," he announced, mostly for Andy's benefit.

"Having trouble there?" Andy countered playfully.

The man smiled. "No...not yet," he said, tugging his leather gloves off.

"Uh-oh, no trick or treats here," Andy said and wiped the counter in front of him.

The man laughed and laid a fifty-dollar bill out. "No...no...just the treats," he deadpanned before politely asking for a whiskey and beer back.

Andy leaned into the bar and smirked. "You got some I.D. for me, sweetheart."

"Oh, yeah," he said apologetically and pulled a license out from his wallet. Andy squinted and studied it. She was good with fake I.D.s, but we didn't have to deal with many kids coming in the place and trying to pull off their bullshit. We didn't cater to that sort of crowd, but of course, once in a awhile somebody would try. Andy was good dealing with that crap.

She quickly scanned the license and handed it back to him. He responded with a smile and quickly slipped the card inside his coat pocket. I suppose Andy was the only person in that bar who knew his name, but for the record, she never once mentioned the stranger's name.

"That be all?" she asked him.

"Yes, thank you," he answered politely.

Andy didn't bother asking him what kind of booze he wanted, she just poured the cheapest rotgut we have. The guy didn't protest, however, when she slid the drinks towards him, and he gracefully slid the fifty-dollar bill towards her.

"Can I get some change for the jukebox too?" he asked.

"Three tens, two fives and five ones okay?"

"Yeah, sounds good," he said, and looked distractedly up to the television. It was playing a football weekly highlight show. I remember noticing this new guy sitting there quietly on his stool then with this sneaky grin spread across his face like somebody was whispering jokes to him. And like he finally satisfied with the punch lines in his head, he finally looked away from the game and directed his gaze at Murph. He continued to stare at Murph like a mad scientist studying a helpless lab rat.

A few awkward moments later, Kurt and Joe came shouting and stumbling back from their smoke break. Andy frowned and shook her head. "You're having too much fun!" she yelled.

Joe gazed distantly towards Andy and barked, "Vodka-seven, please!"

Andy didn't miss a beat. "Uh-oh, Joe's got his second wind!"

"Fourth by now!" Kurt played along and patted his friend's shoulder.

When he was drunk, Joe was usually an easy-going guy and seemed most relaxed and happy. On his bad nights though, he would emit an immense wave of tense, negative energy and something like raw, tortured sadness.

We all knew better than to ask him anything other than if he wanted another drink. And once he answered, we left him alone.

Kurt sat back down, catching Andy's attention with a small wave and grin and ordered another beer. Andy replied with just a slight, appreciative smirk and continued pouring vodka into Joe's glass. "Play some Neil Young!" Kurt called over to Joe who was unsuccessfully trying to aim a crumpled, limp bill into the jukebox. I noticed the stranger twirling his whiskey around in his glass.

Instead of Neil Young though, Johnny Cash came on (Folsom Prison Blues) and I remember Joe almost swaggering back to his stool. It was around then that the boys noticed the guy. Kurt's bushy eyebrows furrowed suspiciously and Joe did a passing glance and indifferently twirled the ice around in his drink.

The man sat silently and returned Kurt's gaze.

Finally, Kurt submissively looked down to his beer and took a slow, self-conscious drink before turning his attention back to his friend.

"You know, I was right in the thick of it." Joe mumbled.

Kurt knew immediately what his friend was talking about. "Well, I was southwest of the DMZ, about ninety miles or so..."

"Oh, I was way down south at that point."

"Oh yeah," Joe said dryly.

"Yeah...yeah," Kurt replied and took another drink, draining about a quarter of it in one nervous gulp.

"It was horrible," Joe groaned.

And then after that, nothing unusual happened for a long time. I remembering hearing the rest of Joe's jukebox selections -- mostly sentimental folk -- and overlapping fragments of deafening, drunken conversations and bursts of laughter. I cooked a few burger and wing orders, and when I came back out, things continued to look normal enough.

Joe and Kurt were sitting quietly on their stools. The stranger was sipping on a new beer and occasionally glanced up at the game. Andy was leaning on the counter, complaining to nobody in particular about how dead the place was.

A video-poker regular rushed up to the counter, gripping onto a few slips. She squinted up at the surveillance monitor on the shelf above the register. It showed only two alternate shots -- a mounted camera overlooking most of the parking lot out, and a wide angle shot of the smokers' area out back that consisted of two small picnic tables dotted with ashtrays and beer cans. Each shot lasted only six seconds or so before flashing back to the next live shot -- the parking lot and the patio. Both scenes looked like they were taken through cloudy green glass.

"Is there a green light out there?" the woman asked Andy, handing her the tickets.

"It's an infrared camera," Andy said and began feeding them into the register.

"Huh?" the woman blurted.

"That's why we can see out there...it's an infrared camera!" Andy shouted back.

"Oh, oh," the woman whispered confused.

Andy rolled her eyes and licked the peach fuzz over her lip. "Okay....twenty...forty...sixty and...one-two-three-and-four."

The woman held out her hands and continued staring at the monitor.

"It's like television," she finally blurted before ordering another diet soda.

Before Andy had time to say anything sarcastic back, I butted in and asked Murph if there were any football games playing.

He shrugged nonchalantly and drawled, "Naw, not now, just a bunch of highlights," before downing his beer with a series of awkward, nervous spasms.

"Want another one?" I asked him carefully.

He quietly slid the empty, saliva glistened glass towards me and grinned dopily.

Joe's selections finally twanged to an end, and Andy turned the jukebox off again and turned the baseball game back up.

I got Murph another drink, took his money and he responded with a silent, shy nod. As I was heading back to the kitchen, the stranger caught my attention with a piercing stare, beckoning me over to him with a patronizing nod.

"Want another?" I asked.

He swooped in, leaning menacingly towards me, and then shouting loud enough so everybody could hear him, "Could you turn up the jukebox?"

I looked over at the stilled machine, confused. "It's not playing now."

Impatience lined his face and his eyes leveled through my guts. I vividly remember that exact moment because of this intense sense of...nothingness and apathy emanating from this guy at that point.

"I know," he said sharply, "but I want to play some songs."

"Uh..." I delayed, looking over to Andy for help. She was getting drinks for three college girls, but instinctively sensing my rising panic, scowled.

"I'm gonna turn up the jukebox," I told her.

"Huh?" she said, deadpan, but sending me a clear message.

I nervously looked up at the television, thinking of Murph. "Anybody watching the television?" I asked innocently.

Andy came over with two cans of beer in her hands. "What's going on now?" she said.

"This gentleman would like to play some music."

It was Andy's turn to look up at the TV and frown.

"Does anyone care if I mute the TV?" she shouted, annoyed. She knew Murph wasn't going to complain (he was hunched over on his stool, writing away in his notebook anyway) and the college girls looked like they didn't give two shits about anything.

Andy shrugged and aimed the remote control towards the TV and muted it, and then grabbed another controller and pointed it towards the jukebox. After turning the juke back on, Andy didn't say anything more and gingerly walked out back for a smoke. The guy got up from his stool and hustled over to the jukebox. As he passed behind Kurt and Joe, he said, "I got to hear some music, my man," although I'm not sure who he was actually addressing.

He leaned against the machine and fed several dollars in. As he studied each selection and began making his choices, that smirk held frozen on his face.

I remember noticing Murph finally looking up from his notebook and frowning slightly, like he was suddenly stricken with cramps. Andy just continued pouring a couple of beers, seemingly unfazed and Kurt and Joe exchanged quick, nervous glances and gulped down their beers with unsettled dissatisfaction.

The man enthusiastically finished his selections and sat back down on his stool. He glanced over at Kurt and Joe, like a kid waiting to get some form of reassurance and approval. The boys replied with quick, courteous nods (Actually, only Kurt nodded. Joe's eyes were glued to the surveillance monitor).

I retreated into the kitchen, cooked up some orders, and nervously awaited for the stranger's selections. I was in the kitchen a total of thirty minutes, maybe forty. When the jukebox started back up again, I recognized some newer songs, but nothing too loud or weird. During a lull in orders, I went out for my cigarette break and shot the shit with a couple of the video poker players out on the patio. Nothing dramatic. Another routine holiday. But as soon as I finished and went back inside, I was instantly alarmed -- it sounded like a damned riot was happening out front.

Nobody was in the place then except Andy, Murph, Kurt, Joe and the stranger. The jukebox was still on but playing a barely audible piano ballad (I know I told newspapers I thought it was Neil Diamond, but it might have been somebody like Gordon Lightfoot.)

The first person I really noticed that showed any change was Joe. His body was wound up tight with high anxiety as he blindly dug his nails into his sweating face. His left hand was raised in the air as if he was giving a salute, but he was actually pointing towards the monitor.

Then I noticed Kurt reeling over with the most exasperated, terrified expression on his bloodless face. His hands cupped the side of his head as if he was struck with a migraine headache.

Andy stood on the far end of the bar, alone and stuttering to herself. "Hey...hey...there stranger," she stammered to nobody.

I initially thought this was some kind of Halloween prank Andy conjured up when I was out back. ‘How'd they get Murph to play along?' I remember thinking when I noticed his beer glass overturned on the bar and his face grimacing and twitching, as if he was on the receiving end of electric shocks. He was crouching over, looking hypnotized at something invisible beside him.

Then I finally noticed the stranger. He continued sitting on his stool, sipping his drink, watching everybody with calm amusement, as if he was watching another predictable sitcom. He didn't acknowledge me at first, which I always thought strange. Surely, Andy was capable of asking him to play along. Everybody could have suddenly bonded and co-conspired this freakish display while I was out back cooking and smoking cigarettes. But then the stranger locked eyes with me and I knew right then it wasn't a joke.

"What's going on?" I said, hoping Andy would snap out of her creepy trance and compulsive licking and tell me that I was just a sucker. Okay, you got me guys...good one... nice one... I would say, and we would all laugh.

But Andy and the guys showed no signs of letting up.

"Hey there...don'tcha recognize me, son," she kept saying. "Hey there, don'tcha recognize me?"

The stranger playfully shook his emptied glass in the air. "Um, sir..." he said with this mock kindly voice, "It seems like the bartender is busy right now. Would you mind getting me another drink?"

I instinctively headed for the row of booze, then stopped dead in my tracks as Joe began to howl, his fingers shaking in the air. "What's going on?" I shouted.

The stranger's eyebrows furrowed disapprovingly. "A little Halloween spirit," he replied, a pungent scent of smugness wafting from between his thin lips.

"Why are they doing that?" I demanded, gesturing towards my friends.

The stranger licked his lips and held out his hands. "A drink first, please."

My heart was racing and my knees wobbled as if they were going to go out at any moment. My asthma began acting up too and I was huffing each struggled breath.

The man frowned. "You better get some water and have a seat, big fella, don't want you falling down now," he cooed tenderly.

At that point, I expected him to pull out a gun from under the counter, rob the bar, and shoot me dead. While everybody sat frozen in their places, seemingly lost in their own custom nightmare, I was going to die right there behind the bar. If the stranger even twitched or sneezed during that brief standoff moment, I think I would have charged at him and grabbed something sharp along the way. Or I might have gone for the door. Or I might have run out back. But instead, I stared at him, my heart pounding, my feet tapping nervously, but frozen in place. "What the hell is going on?" I shouted.

He grinned sheepishly. He placed his hands neatly atop one another like a kid posing in a school portrait. "Do you really want to see, Mike?" he said.

I glanced at the monitor to see if anybody was outside and I noticed a few people smoking out back, but they wouldn't be able to hear me shouting inside.

He caught me looking at the monitor. "See anything interesting?" he asked.

I looked around the bar and tried to soak it in -- Andy obsessively rubbing her face, tears streaming down her red cheeks, Joe groaning and gyrating on his stool while his fingers still shakily pointed up to the monitor. "No...can't...this ain't real!" he cried out repeatedly. Meanwhile, Kurt sat on his stool, the silences of fear broken only by the occasional whimper and his hands slapping the counter. I hopelessly looked towards Murph for some help, but he continued to glance next to him, shaking his head, tears welling in the sides of his narrowed, horrified eyes. "Sissy, I'm sorry... I'm so sorry, sissy," he whispered.

"Do you really want to see...things, Mike?" the stranger asked again.

All thoughts and consideration of escape had drifted away. I felt a sudden tightness in my chest. ‘This is it', I remember thinking, ‘I'm having a heart attack.' Running my hand over my shirt, I just stood there and nodded my head dreamily.

The guy's eyes never left mine, even when he grabbed a pencil stub and wrote something on a napkin. After he finished, he brushed aside the pencil, his eyes ripping through me like laser beams and whistled the most high-pitched, ear-splitting whistle I have ever heard. It sounded like some animal distress signal.

Cringing in pain, and panicked that my eardrums had popped, I steadied myself on the counter. The bar seemed to have been suddenly replaced with a completely different one -- almost doubling with people for starters (if you want to call them...people). It was like the zombies on my t-shirt had come to life and were sitting next to everybody at the bar.

I reeled back shocked at what I was seeing -- a young girl, about twelve years old, sat awkwardly at the end of the bar near the bathrooms, her face all done up in white pancake make-up, her lips blazing a lustful red. She wore pink flannel pajamas, but the front of her pants was glistening wet with blood. She grimaced a mournful pout, and her eyes were stubbornly shut tight.

Murph continued looking guiltily towards the girl, his shaky hands outstretched as if he was about to ask for something. "I'm so sorry, sissy, do you hear me?" he repeated several times before shaking his head in disbelief. The girl silently glared at him, and a seductive smirk crept across the ruby blot in her mouth.

A slightly older kid sat beside Kurt, and he definitely appeared much worse off than the girl sitting next to Murph. This kid's face was doughy bloated and bruised a wet, deep plum color. A large coagulated gash zigzagged along the left side of his face. His left eye socket was emptied like a mangled eggshell, and a flaking, coagulated wound consumed most of his gargling mouth. Strips of loose flesh dangled uselessly from the mangled remains of his chin. The boy's broken arms twisted grotesquely around the sides of his contorted body so his swollen, scabbed knuckles rested comfortably on the counter. A black tongue stuck out of his mouth, licking around blindly to what was left of his swollen lips. The Black Sabbath t-shirt he was wearing was wet and glistening.

Kurt looked revolted at the sight of the boy, but remained stuck there on the stool. Suddenly, he asked sheepishly, "Are you all right? Are you all right?" His eyes were trying hard to avoid eye contact with the kid, who kept running his swollen dead tongue across flaps of flesh that were once lips. "Are you all right? Are you all right?"

Andy continued squirming uncomfortably in place like she had to pee and repeatedly waved her hand in front of a thin, young guy sitting right across from her.

He looked about eighteen, his scrawny, unhealthy body swallowed up by a hoodie and baggy jeans.

"Don't ya recognize me, son," Andy kept saying in varying voice tones -- from inquisitive and desperate to an authoritative and impatient tone to finally, an exhausted, defeated whisper.

The young man gave no indication that he could hear her though, and sat there absently scratching the festering, oozing sores on his neck. "What do ya got to do to get a drink around here!" he shouted right at Andy's face, oblivious to her presence right in front of him.

I desperately looked to Joe and his shaky, pointing fingers. On the monitor, it continued to predictably alternate shots between the parking lot and the back patio, but now there was nobody out back smoking. Now covering most of the shot was the face of a young Asian girl, around ten years old or so. The expression on her face was unsettling blank, but her mouth stretched grotesquely in a frozen scream. A golf ball sized hole ripped through her forehead like a bloody bulls-eye.

Then the monitor flashed back to the parking lot -- the usual scattering of parked cars, and no sign of any new cars pulling in. And after about six seconds, it flashed back to the back patio still filled with the young girl's agonized, howling face. Dark, thick globs of blood oozed from the wound in her forehead.

Click...back to the parking lot -- the same cars, the same tediously calm parking lot. One second...two seconds...three seconds. I wanted to look away from the monitor, but I found myself absolutely glued to the screen. Click... Several strands of long black hair stuck to the side of the girl's sweaty face. She was grimacing, fear clouding her eyes into dark pools. Her lips stretched out like she was in the middle of a yawn and her tongue lolled around uncontrollably in the roof of her mouth. She had to be dead, with that gaping wound in her head, but her tongue kept moving. Click...back to the serene, dark parking lot.

I looked around the bar frantically.

The stranger was grinning proudly, as if his child had just won an award.

"Hey!" I yelled at Andy and grabbed her arm.

She continued staring at the young man sitting in front of her and didn't make any effort to free my grasp on her. "Don't ya recognize me, son!" she shouted.

The kid replied with a nervous scratch and demanded, "What do ya have to do to get a drink around here!"

Joe's raspy, dry voice began mumbling, "I ain't seein' this...I ain't seein' this."

"Hey, Joe," I called, trying to get his attention. I started walking towards him, waving my arms, but the mashed up kid sitting next to Kurt suddenly snapped out of his zombie glare and turned his head slowly at me. I stopped dead in my tracks, and the stranger began to laugh.

It was right about then that the others began to scream. The first voice I heard came from Murph's girl. Smacking violently on her bubblegum, she squealed in this shrill childish voice, "Don't hurt me!" Her vacant gloomy eyes continued to look at and through Murph but he just continued to squirm on his stook and clutch his notebook. "I'm sorry, sissy...I'm so sorry..."

The girl inched closer to him. "Don't hurt me!" she screeched.

Blood dripped down from both of Murph's ears, but he didn't seem fazed.

The only seemingly subdued and controlled part of this madness was the stranger sitting there on his stool, taking sips from his drink and asking me if I wanted to see more insanity.

I know I could have gathered the strength to look away and ignore the surveillance monitor, but it was impossible to avoid everybody else around me. And I'll tell you -- the notion of running out of that bar at that time never crossed my mind. I was stuck in that place, my brain reasoned, and escape was impossible. "Please make it stop," I tried pleading.

The man nodded his head regretfully. "I'm sorry Mike, but I can't do that...you might as well stick around and see how it ends."

"Don't hurt me!" the girl squealed...

"What do ya have to do to get a drink around here?" the young man demanded.

And my friends kept repeating, like an old vinyl record with a deep scratch.

Murph: "I'm sorry, sissy, I'm so sorry!"

Andy: "Don't ya recognize me?"

Kurt: "Are you all right? Are you all right?"

Then suddenly the monitor began emitting these sounds, even though there wasn't any speaker attached. It was of a girl's voice and she was crying -- her foreign sounding words increasingly blended into a desperate, impossibly high-pitched blur. Even when it switched back to the parking lot, the young girl's frantic cries still blared from the box.

"Don't hurt me!" the doll-girl sitting next to Murph shrieked again, as if she was feeling neglected by all the attention to the monitor.

By this time, Murph's eyes had dulled from a frantic wide-eyed stare to a defeated, crazed blankness. His lip was bleeding from biting it incessantly, and the side of his neck began to cast a deep burgundy shade from compulsively scratching at it. He was mumbling something to himself.

"What do you have to do..." Andy's son demanded again.

Andy was still standing there in front of him. "Hello...don't ya recognize me?" she kept asking him, and he continuing to be oblivious to her existence.

It was about then that I decided to just quit trying to make sense of what was happening. I just stood there, helpless and defeated, ready to lift my arms up in the air like a bird, and give up. I closed my eyes and waited.

Without warning, the rest of the voices began to get louder...much louder...as if some imaginary, giant dial turned up the volume in the whole bar.

I struggled to keep my eyes closed; the noise around me avalanched a white noise of screaming, wailing and shrieking. It was like a soundtrack of somebody going crazy or being smack dab in the depths of hell.

Desperate, I opened my eyes and turned to the stranger. "Please stop!" I yelled.

The stranger didn't seem affected by the noise, but took pity on me. Rolling his eyes, with a disappointed frown, he clapped forcefully one dramatic time. All the noise in the whole place suddenly stopped.

My eardrums were ringing, however, and I thought I felt something wet dripping down along the back of my neck. I remember thinking Shit, this is it, goodnight.

However, it wasn't the end for me. The ringing in my ears faded to several seconds of low, monotonous humming...and then...nothing. I thought I heard a faint hissing sound, like air escaping a leaky tire. I felt myself shouting something useless, but couldn't hear my own voice. It was like I was in a silent movie -- all that chaos and madness and noise completely muted. In a moment of shock and protest, I stuttered out some incomprehensible syllables before finally reeling back and slamming into the cooler.

And then I began screaming.

The stranger responded with enthusiastic applause.

The girl sitting next to Murph began inching closrr, her little eyes almost pleading. Murph continued scratching the side of his neck.

Joe's fingers were beginning to turn blue at this point, the muscles in his arm twitching madly, but he still kept pointing them up in the air.

The girl's face in the monitor had taken up the entire screen by now, her mouth contorting into a frozen scream.

The mutilated kid sitting next to Kurt had slowly extended his decimated arm and latched onto the side of Kurt's neck. Kurt just sat on his stool, catatonic, letting the boy's hand awkwardly paw on him. Flakes of dried blood and flesh dropped off him, like dandruff, onto the counter.

A wave of nausea ripped through me and the room began spinning. It was if I was the drunkest I had ever been, and I keeled over and convulsed, spewing vomit down Andy's legs. My legs gave out and I collapsed to the floor with a painful thud, immediately grimacing from a sharp, stabbing pain in my stomach and ribs. I was scared to death and death seemed like the most logical thing to happen. I remember thinking what's keeping him so long...do it already!

Suddenly, a shadow descended over me. The stranger kicked me in the ribs and even though I desperately wanted to play dead, I flinched. He knelt down beside me.

I tried covering myself up in self-defense, even though I knew that if he wanted to kill me there wasn't anything I could do about it.

The stranger leaned in towards me and yelled something in my right ear.

I felt the vibrations from his voice humming low and it tickled, but I couldn't decipher any of his words. There was an acrid odor, like burning oil, emanating from his body, and I began heaving.

He forced my head up with his hand and glared directly into my sobbing, tear soaked face.

"Please leave!" I tried yelling. I could feel my throat vibrating, the air rushing from my lips, but still couldn't hear a sound.

The stranger continued grinning and patted me on the shoulders like we were old school friends sharing a bottle of booze and memories. Suddenly, he leaned in closer, his breath feeling like hot air from an oven. His arm circled my waist and his fingers clamped down on me, digging into the flesh between ribs and hips like hot steel.

I tried to squirm and pull away, but it felt like his hand was actually inside me, squeezing and destroying my organs. My head was swimming in raw fear and pain, but I managed to read the stranger's lips moving oh-so-slowly....but also very deliberately, no doubt for my benefit.

He said, "Trick...or...treat."

It was then that I finally gave up -- closed my eyes and let my mind spin away into a darkness filled with screaming nausea. There was no light at the end of a shadowy tunnel. I didn't see any dead relatives with open, sympathetic arms. I didn't hover serenely above my slumped body on the floor. It felt like I had just slipped into unconsciousness and all the lights simultaneously clicked off. When I finally awoke, (I was told I was in a coma for three days) I felt like I had the worst hangover in the world. Tubes were stuck in my arm and up my nose and I was buried underneath layers of sheets and blankets. There were several machines with blinking red and green lights set up next to my bed. I was alone in the room. I licked my cracked lips, wholly willing at that exact moment to sell my soul for a glass of cold water. I looked back over to the machines, thinking that they should have been making some sort of noise but I couldn't hear anything, which didn't seem odd at the time. But then, like a just-remembered nightmare, the details and memory of that night exploded, like fireworks, through my mind.

A battalion of doctors took tests and studied me for days. Then a legion of "specialists" poked into my skin, drew a lot of blood, and wrote an endless series of questions for me on a battered notepad. I was deaf, but there was no physical damage to my ears or the nerves. I had wounds like nothing they had ever seen before. How had these things happened?

I had no answers that they would believe.

The police, of course, had their own questions for me. I answered their questions the best I could, of what I remembered about that night. I couldn't give an explanation then, and I still can't now. The detectives weren't happy with me obviously. From the blood -- gallons of it -- and other traces, they were sure that two or more people had died in the Wishing Well on Halloween night, but they couldn't tell who the victims were, or how they had been killed. Andy, Kurt, Murph and Joe had all disappeared, but there was no evidence to prove whether they had all been victims or if one or more had taken part in the crime or crimes. I was the only witness as well as the only available suspect.

However, after endless rounds of questioning and the test results of the mysterious internal injuries I had that that nobody could explain, the questions began to change. There had been a fire in another bar that night, over in Gresham, one that left seven charcoaled bodies in its wake. None of the bodies had been near the exits, suggesting that the victims had been dead before the fire started. The police developed the theory that the events were connected somehow, and I was just another victim who had somehow survived.

I survived the onslaught of media attention and the nightly, reoccurring nightmares, too. As horrible as it was, my story faded from view as new tragedies took its place in the tabloids. I had time to breathe, to remember, to try to shovel some of the horror out of my head and onto these pages. Maybe some of it will stick to the paper instead of painting my dreams red and night-vision green every night...

THE END


© 2011 Shawn Montgomery

Bio: Shawn Montgomery is a resident of Portland, Oregon who enjoys the rich spoils of that city (micro-brewed beer and fresh-roasted coffee) and likes to daydream and play the "what-if" game on lazy summer afternoons. (Exactly what "what if" spawned this story, I really don't want to know. RM) His short horror fiction has appeared in Deadman's Tome (July, 2010) and Death Head Grin (October 2010; July 2011).

E-mail: Shawn Montgomery

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