At the only bar in a very small town, she worked. She worked there because it was her father's bar, and his father's before him. And it would be hers in the future. But that wasn't the only reason she worked at the bar on Christmas Eve, no, it was her principles, moral.
On the door of the small house was a sign that said always open and to her father that meant 24 hours a day, 365 days out of every year - forever. And it would be forever until, as some would suggest to her; he died and she changed it. But her grandfather had passed on his principles and moral to her father, and sadly, her dad had instilled his into her. So always open wasn't just a saying for her either, it meant they were in business every day, and were available – if needed – at night as well. But since it was a small town the bar was usually pretty empty at 3 o'clock in the morning. And today especially, since it was Christmas Eve. They were the only business in town welcoming customers with a sign declaring 'OPEN' instead of 'Sorry, we're closed'.
She was alone, her turn to work the nights of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, while the family celebrated with friends and neighbours. She wasn't really bored, not really, but maybe just a little. She'd wiped down the counter twenty times already, and there hadn't been one customer yet to stain it with alcohol – or drool. She'd listened to all her dad's Christmas cds, and she had sung "Rudolph the rednosed reindeer", "Jingle bell jingle bell jingle bell rock", "Let it snow let it snow let it snow" and the jolly "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…
…with every Christmas card I write"… Only she hadn't written any cards, and she wasn't dreaming of a white Christmas. A White Christmas was already upon them, and the freezing cold, and slippery sidewalks along with it. A white Christmas sucked.
She had eaten five bags of peanuts, three cans of olives, half a lemon, and because of the lemon; a spoonful of salt, and because of the salt; four glasses of water. The last hour and a half she had challenged herself to ten games of pool and won ten times!
She groaned and yawned and groaned again. Time always passed real slow at night and she had a hard time keeping her eyes open. If anyone ever asked she would deny it; but she spent more than half of her night shifts sleeping on the pool table, save for the occasional jerk-eyes open-awareness at the dull sounds of snow falling from the roof to the ground. The rest of the shifts she was awake but wishing she wasn't. Like now.
It was 3 o'clock in the morning and her dad would relieve her in three hours. He'd then work for twelve hours until she relieved him. Who ever said owning a business in a small town was easy?
She would think that she was overqualified for this kind of work. She was a bartender, not a night shift guard for crying out loud! She could juggle bottles like a circus clown, she could pour three drinks at the same time with only one hand, she knew two hundred drink recipes by heart and she was really good at making her own special made drinks. Ask for a gin&tonic and she'd laugh you in the face. She'd been taught to be the best and she was.
She studied the tip of the cue rendering its surface and preciseness. She blew off invisible particles of blue chalk before aiming to make the final shot. And grand slam, she was the man! And the pool cup award goes to…
"Excuse me, are you open?"
Arms raised in victory quickly dropped to her sides and she turned to the open door with an embarrassed smile. She hadn't heard him come in.
"Oh, yeah, sorry, come on in," she welcomed her guest. He was already inside so he simply closed the door behind him and smiled at her. She waited for him to do something, to say something, but he wasn't moving, just standing, right arm draped protectively over his midsection. He seemed to have been outdoors a while because his clothes were moist, darkened from the cold and wet snow, and his hair was damp and tousled. He looked like he'd taken a bath with his clothes on.
"What can I get you?" she asked, wishing silently for something more than the usual 'a beer'.
His laugh was soft and kind; "Surprise me." He walked slowly between the tables and up to the counter, clearly not planning to shed his wet leather jacket. She thought she heard a soft moan leave his lips as he sat down on the bar stool. But she wasn't sure, her back was turned to him, and why would he moan?
"I'm gonna make you a drink you'll never forget," she said, back still turned to him, as she searched the shelves for the proper liquids to use. "This will be the drink you'll ask for on your death bed."
He laughed again. Soft and warm. "I believe you," he said. She turned then and their eyes met. His eyes were even warmer than his laugh. They revealed a sharp mind and a kind heart. He had eyes women adored, she knew, because her green orbs instantly sought refuge in his hazel ones. In his gaze she felt safe, and special, and just a little giddy.
"So…what's a guy like you doing alone on a night like this?" she asked. "Shouldn't you be at home with your family?" She'd never known tact. Her mom use to say she was like an elephant clumping around in a porcelain store. But her guest didn't seem to mind the clumsy questions, instead his eyes dropped to the counter and he smiled sadly. "Yeah…" She thought she saw sadness in there, but when he looked up at her again his eyes were like before and he smiled as if he had no cares in the world. "How about that drink, huh?" he said. She returned his smile and got to work.
A splash of this and a dash of that, a little martini, some Sprite, a splash of something else and a dash of something different. He watched her in silence as she skillfully mixed his drink, her hands and mind working at full speed. And voilà, with a twist. He accepted the drink with his left hand because his right was still behind the counter, hidden from her. Their eyes met again as he took his first sip of Christmas Eve '06 with a twist. When the first drops had passed his lips she could tell she had pleased yet another customer.
The glass was set on the counter and he licked full, cherry lips. "I'm not really the drink kind of guy," he confessed, "but this is really good." And she was happier to hear him say that than she'd ever been hearing anyone else's proclaimed approval. But she wasn't the humble type of girl. "I know," she said instead, "and that's because I am the best." He laughed at that, and she wondered why.
"You know, I've only met two other people as sure of themselves as you," he said and took a swig of his drink. She didn't know if she should take that as an insult or a compliment, and so she kept her face blank and her voice even as she asked for an explanation. "Really, and who might they be?"
And there was that overwhelming sadness again. Or was she just imagining? He smiled, but not at her, probably at the thought of the persons he'd just mentioned to her. "My dad and my brother," he said and took another quick swig of his drink.
"Okay?" she said, not really sure of what to say next, and he didn't explain further. He looked around them, taking in their surroundings. "Is that thing working?" he asked, referring to the jukebox standing in the corner. She looked over at the ten year old machine and nodded. "Yeah, but there are only crap songs on it." He smirked. "Okay, and what crap is on it?"
She wanted to roll her eyes and groan loudly because her father had selected the songs and refused to remove or change any of them. "James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, some Beatles tunes, Metallica, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones…" she recounted and sighed. Her dad really was a hopeless case when it came to music. "You know, oldies and mullet rock."
Her customer laughed again - and again she wondered what was so damn funny. "My brother…Sammy," the man in front of her said, "he calls it that." She looked at him quizzically. "Calls what what?"
He ran his fingers over the rough surface of the counter and flashed her his trademark – although she didn't know it – grin. "Mullet rock," he explained, "he calls it that."
She didn't say anything. There just wasn't a whole lot to say to that. Instead she grabbed the dishcloth and began wiping down the counter for the twenty-first time that night. They were both quiet while she worked; she concentrating on her cleaning and he occupied with emptying his glass.
She'd almost forgotten he was there when he suddenly spoke again. "So I meant to ask you why a pretty girl like you are holed up in a bar on Christmas Eve." She sniggered. So the guy did have some spunk. And humour. "Yeah, well," she said and brushed a strand of hair away from her face, "Let's just say this is the way my old man runs it. Always open isn't something we're aiming for here, it's a motto."
He nodded slowly as if he understood, as if that explained everything, what she was doing there, why she was alone. "You're not loving it, are you?" he said softly. It wasn't really a question. She shook her head and then hesitated. Why was she revealing this to him, a stranger, when she would never admit it to any of the townsfolk? But his eyes' response to her head shake had her aching to tell him more. "No, I don't. But I love my dad," she said simply, "Sometimes you just gotta take the good with the bad…" She bit her lip searching for the words, wanting to explain to him, but more importantly to herself, "…This is my life and it's the only thing I've ever known," she continued, "It's what I'm good at and I want him to be proud of me, you know?"
He nodded like he knew exactly what she was talking about and she couldn't help but reach for his hand. There was a connection between them and she wanted to connect with him even more. Her warm hand reached his and covered it slowly. His hand was cold and his fingers a little moist from holding the glass. She stroked his hand gently, her fingers tracing a jagged scar that had probably been a nasty cut before it had healed, and he looked at her surprised, as if he'd never been touched like that before. She didn't say anything, she just held his hand until it was no longer cold in hers and not once did he try to pull his hand away from her. It was then, in those moments of silence between them that she noticed the tears in his clothing, his leather jacket not only wet but beyond repair, ripped from the chest and down disappearing behind the counter but probably not ending there. "Your jacket has a rip in it," she commented breathlessly because suddenly any sound breaking through the silence felt like crying out a swear word in church might. His eyes didn't leave hers. "I know," he said flatly, and she could tell, to him it wasn't just a jacket or a rip in exchangeable clothing. This was final, like the jacket could never be replaced, like it was a part of him and now they were both doomed. "I'm sorry," she said, knowing her words wouldn't make it better.
He looked incredibly sad all of a sudden and this time she knew she wasn't imagining it. He laughed suddenly but it was a hollow laugh, devoid of happiness. "You know, Sammy always said I was fucking crazy to be so attached to an object, something that isn't even real, you know, like a person."
"You said he said that. Don't you mean he says?
He pulled away from her then, his eyes darting around the room, his face contorted with pain as if she'd just broken the news of his brother's death to him. But that couldn't be, right? He was the one that used the word 'said', not her. But the way he was looking at her right then chilled her to the bone. He looked crushed, broken, and through all the years she'd worked at the bar, talking to people whose goal had been to drown their sorrows with her special made drinks, she'd never seen anyone in that much pain. She could see his soul, naked and wounded; his eyes begging, pleading for the hurt to stop and for her to stop it. His brother really was gone, she realized, but it was more than that. She reached out to him again, wanting nothing more than to help him, ease his pain, if only just a little. But he flinched and almost fell of the stool and she quickly withdrew her hand. "I'm sorry," she said but those words weren't even remotely close to how sorry she really was. He scrambled off the stool and backed away from her slowly. He wasn't aware he was backing into a table and jumped when his back connected with it and one of the chairs on top fell to the floor. He grabbed it quickly and put it back on the table and she noticed how his right hand was still draped over his stomach. She wondered why that was but quickly forgot about it when he stumbled towards the door. She rounded the counter to follow him.
"Wait," she begged and he stopped suddenly his face still turned away from her, "You never told me why you came here tonight…"
He was silent for what seemed like an eternity before uttering the words she would never forget;
"I just didn't want to be alone."
And he left.
She walked back to the counter slowly and sat down on one of the bar stools. She stared at the bottles on the shelves in front of her trying to make sense of what had just happened. She was upset for him, this stranger, and she didn't really know why because he hadn't really told her much. It was very confusing. She felt empty, drained of emotion, because maybe she'd just felt too much in too short a time. She kept staring at the bottles and the different coloured liquids inside until suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder. She jumped and her head whipped to the side to see who was touching her. She let out a sigh of relief when she saw it was her dad.
"Dad, what are you doing here?" she asked absent-mindedly, "Your shift doesn't start until 6."
He looked at her puzzled. "Sweetie, it's 6:10, I'm actually late." He studied his daughter carefully. "Are you alright?"
She brushed a hand through her hair and nodded. "Yeah," she said slowly and smiled, "I'm just a little tired." Her dad squeezed her shoulder and kissed her on the forehead. "Go home and get some sleep, honey," he said, "You should take the day off."
Normally she'd never accept it but this time she was too tired to refuse. She nodded and grabbed her jacket from behind the counter. "See you later, daddy." Her dad was already behind the counter, dishcloth in hand wiping down the table top. Clean or not, it was just something they did. He waved at her and she headed outside, stepping right into the chilly winter morning.
She pulled her jacket tighter around her and bowed her head a little against the cold morning breeze. It was still pretty dark out but light enough for all the shadows of the night to have disappeared. She walked fast, wanting to get home to her warm, soft bed as soon as possible. Then something in the snow caught her eye and she stopped short. No, it couldn't be. She bent down to have a closer look and gasped when she saw the colour of the blotch at her feet. Red. Blood.
She looked around desperately, a fear rising inside of her suddenly. Then she saw another blotch of red and another and another. She followed the stains of blood in the snow and the closer the stains got to each other the faster she walked until she was half running. And then suddenly she couldn't move. Her eyes had caught something lying in the snow not five yards away and she recognized the brown leather jacket from earlier that night. She stopped breathing and just stared, paralyzed with a fear she didn't understand. And as sudden as she had stopped, she started running again and got down on her knees beside the man she had earlier felt so close to but now knew was not going to be close to anyone ever again. Her fingers found his neck, feeling for a pulse that wasn't there and she couldn't stop the sobs from leaving her body.
He felt so cold, was so still, and his right hand lay lifelessly at his side, palm stained with his own blood. She lifted up his jacket and shirt carefully and whimpered when she saw the large gash in his abdomen. All the time he'd been at the bar he had been bleeding. Bleeding to death. And she hadn't even noticed. She covered his bloodied stomach with her hands, in an attempt to stop the bleeding that no longer was.
Her eyes wandered over his still form. His clothes were wet again and she figured he must be cold so she took off her jacket and placed it over his body. She did it even though she knew he couldn't feel it. His eyes were closed and he wasn't sleeping. She knew that. But she wanted him to know, even if he was dead, that someone cared about him. She took his hand in hers and squeezed it. "You're not alone," she whispered. And she sank to the ground beside him, lying on her back, and she leaned her head against his. And she cried. She cried until she was too exhausted to go on. And she stayed beside him for almost an hour before she got up, teeth clattering, body shivering from the cold.
As she walked home to call an ambulance she suddenly remembered an exchange they'd had earlier that night, she and the guy with the hazel eyes, and she cringed at the memory.
"This will be the drink you'll ask for on your death bed."
"I believe you."THE END