Vespers

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robert T. Knight


The motorcycle streaked through the darkness, the flash of the streetlights on the chromed machine laughing at the night. Richard hunched over the handlebars, hands coaxing more power from the roaring beast, face split into a huge grin under the black helmet. Though his ears were protected by the hard plastic, he was satisfied when the growling echoes reached him from the nearby buildings. Had he been in any other part of town, grumpy sleepers would be bellowing from their frozen windows, threatening to phone the police. Dogs, protective of their human packs, would bark at the marauding ghost, while he would be more concerned with weaving through the dense traffic of the city, avoiding the slick piles of dirty slush.

Not here.

The abandoned newspapers flitted behind him, caught in the wintry wake of his prized possession. Watching them rip through the twilight, the weak overhead lights cast the streets in a sickening, yellow glow. Only the occasional cat was present to give a baleful glance, hair rising on end as the felines spotted the apparition.

Richard lurched forward, the breath knocked from his body.

He allowed the bike to coast while he rubbed the offending muscle, wincing in pain. Slowing, he came to a quiet stop, the frosted asphalt lining of the neighborhood succumbing to silence. Removing his helmet, he grimaced again, warm breath rising in the chill. Sweat trickled from under his shock of dark hair, toying with his square jaw before dripping to the cold ground.

A quick glance at his watch confirmed he was late. He imagined his brother pacing at the apartment, wondering where on earth his devilish sibling had torn off to. Frank’s wife would calm him down, using a gentle touch of his arm and her soft words to remind him not to throttle Richie when he waltzed in the door. Dinner could be kept warm and, besides, this would be
their first meeting in two years. There was too much catching up to do to remain angry, she would reason.

The flashing neon caught his eye, the beckoning wink drawing his gaze. He wondered if he should call Frank, just to let him know that he was safe. It wouldn’t hurt to grab a snack, a quick bite to tide him over.

He hoped his brother hadn’t cooked.

He looked behind to the chill road, tempted to continue his ride. Shapes moving in the darkness sent shivers down his spine, giving him pause. The small group emerged from the shadows, far up the road from where he had thundered. From their hooded sweatshirts and baggy clothes, complete with glinting jewelry and flashy hand signals, he guessed they were part of a gang. They gathered around something crumpled in the road, their happy laughter reverberating along the callous walls.

The wailing sirens caused them to bolt.

Richie decided to rest for a minute, wheeling his bike to the beaming glow of the bar. Vespers blinked the sign. An odd name, he thought. Though he had traveled the road many times, he didn’t remember such a building. Perhaps it was new, the courageous owner attempting to wrest some form of life from this bleak neighborhood. The cracked door could have been shipped from its former destination, giving the place a slightly weathered feel. He grunted as he turned off the bike, lowering the kickstand. With no windows decorating the exterior, he couldn’t see inside to judge whether the place was a haven from the dangers of the dark, or a mere cage for the animals stalking the streets.

The warmth curled around him as he opened the wooden door. The forlorn rooms begged for patrons, those few that were already there keeping their gazes averted. No sense in starting any trouble in this town, this late at night.

His felt his breath sucked from his lungs. The petite, fiery-haired woman stood behind the bar, flipping glasses as she poured drinks. Her brown eyes met his for only an instant as she looked to her new visitor, but the crush of her smile sent his heart into an offbeat cascade of rhythm. Her dark cropped sweater, unzipped, hugged the white T-shirt underneath, the stark clothing blasting out the Vespers logo across her chest.

“Do you have a phone?” he asked, hearing the croak of his nervousness, yet not caring.

She didn’t answer, but nodded her head to the corner. He gave her a smile, trying to catch her eye, but she was too focused on her work. Giving up for the moment, he made his way to the old phone, dropping his quarters into the gluttonous beast. As he waited, he found his eyes sliding back to the angelic woman.

“Hey! Frankie!”

“Richie, where in the—” A voice warbled in the background, causing his brother to make a quick correction. “—world are you?”

“Some place called Vespers. It’s on the east side. Ever heard of it?”

“Never. What are you doing there? Dinner was supposed to be… ” He and his wife exchanged some sort of remarks with each other.

Richie caught the bartender’s eye again; she smiled. “I think I’m in love.”

“Right. Cheerleader?”

“No.”

“Rocker?”

“No, she’s a bartender.”

“Oh.”

He smiled, imagining he could hear his brother’s eyes roll.

“Well, just get her number and get here already.”

Now he laughed. “Sure thing, bro. I’ll only be a little while.”

Frank’s grunted response indicated he didn’t believe him, and the ensuing click confirmed this.

“What’ll you be havin’?” she asked from behind the counter as he turned from the phone.

He raised his hands. “Nothing with alcohol. Got to hit the road in a few minutes.” His eyes caught sight of the lean man sitting across from her, one of his hands resting near an old, lit lantern. The flame illuminated the man’s dark eyes, casting them in an orange glow. His gaze didn’t move from the odd sight, the man ignoring him as he read his paper, moving only
to massage his left arm, as if the pain from an old injury bothered him. “Say, do you have a bathroom?”

“Down the hall, around the corner to your right. Can’t miss it.”

He thanked her, retreating from the room and the eerie lantern. As he walked through the next room, an older man approached, wringing his gnarled hands, a desperate look floating in his bloodshot eyes. The old timer gripped his arm in a crushing embrace, pulling him down to his level.

“You know, I had to do it,” he rambled. His breath reeked of alcohol, the pungent aroma encircling Richie’s head, leaving him in a repulsed haze. “They weren’t supposed to use it. It was mine! Thought I’d scare them off by moving a few things!” His eyes grew large, as if he were seeing something in the distance. “But that didn’t stop them!”

“Yes,” Richie answered slowly, removing his arm from the drunken fool, thinking it best to just agree. “It’s a shame. Something should be done about that.”

The old man tilted his head, then shuffled backward, lurching as if the idea struck him in his brittle forehead. “Yes!” he answered, his shrill voice grating against Richie’s ears. “Yes! Something should be done!”

Richie made his way back to the entry room after finishing his business. Thankfully, the old man was jabbering to himself when he returned, allowing the young man to bypass that awkward conversation. He walked to the bar, moving to take a seat. “You know, I think one of your customers is drunk,” he began.

“Drunk?” the lean man repeated from beside him, lowering his paper. “James?”

“Mr. Elliot’s drunk?” the pretty woman asked.

Richie wasn’t paying attention any longer, leg frozen halfway in the air as he was about to mount the bar stool. Sitting in the corner, next to the ancient phone, rested his bike. His mouth moved, but no words tumbled forth. More air than anything escaping, he turned to regard the two nearest him, jaws flapping in confusion. “That’s my bike,” he stammered.

“You sure about that?” she asked, hand on her hip.

“Yes!” There was no mistaking it, for he was the only one that had the audacity to sully a Harley by placing the shield symbol of his favorite comic-book hero upon the headlight. “Who brought it in?”

The thin man shrugged, and the redhead went back to her work without a word. There was a sad look nestled in her soft eyes, but she turned away from him, resuming her flipping and filling as Mr. Elliot staggered in from the next room.

Richie decided he had enough of this place. Even getting her number was not enough incentive for him to stay. Something just wasn’t right about this bar, these people. He strode towards the door, intending to throw it open and dash into the waiting darkness. A quick look outside would inform him if his bike had been moved, and he could ride to Frank’s in time to receive a justly deserved tongue-lashing.

Instead, the old door swung inward, and a sopping wet, sobbing girl stumbled inside. He had just enough time to step forward and catch her in his arms before she collapsed.

“Becky!” the lean man called from behind him.

“Oh, it happened again, sweetheart!” In a second, he was there, extracting her from Richie’s arms. It was then that the young man could see the thin, pink dress she wore, soaked through to her skin. The only thing keeping her from freezing to death was a blazer someone had thrown over her shoulders.

The man snatched it from her as he led her to a seat. “Took another one, did you?” he asked in a stern voice, placing it on the counter.

She looked at the coat, giving a miserable sigh. “It always happens so fast.” A trembling hand went to her forehead. “I just don’t have time to think.”

“Mary? Be a dear and get Becky something to drink.”

“Time to think?” Richie had to ask, taking the coat from the top of the bar. He didn’t know who this man was, but he did know that the jacket was the only thing keeping her warm. He moved to throw it around her frail shoulders.

“No, Richie,” the man admonished, taking it away with a firm, but gentle tug.

He stopped. “How’d you know my name?”

Before the stranger could answer, the room began to buzz. Richie put a hand to his ears, wincing from the deafening roar. It was as if a thousand locusts had descended upon the bar, their fluttering wings threatening to devour every sane sound left to him. In front of him, Mary turned toward the giant mirror stretching the length of the bar. Though he couldn’t see her face, her heaving shoulders told him she was crying. The buzzing grew louder, and he could swear that voices were within it, chanting something.

Bloody Mary! they screamed.

Smoke swarmed into the mirror, reducing its former reflective brilliance to a dark haze. “Why? Why do they keep doing this?” she wailed. Her fingers wiped at her eyes, and he could swear that the tips came away with blood. The beautiful bartender turned to regard him, wishing that he didn’t have to see her like this for, instead of tears flowing from her brown eyes, blood trickled down her cheeks.

Then, she vanished, the devouring haze of the mirror consuming her.

“Whoop, there we go,” the strange man said, moving to place a chair behind Richie as his legs gave way. “Becky, get Richie here something strong. I think this calls for my special reserve. And pour yourself something, too.” He sat on the edge of the table next to Richie, waving away the patrons as their heads peered from behind corners and booths. Placing
the glass in the young biker’s hand, he gripped it with him until he was sure Richie could manage on his own.

“What?” was all a stunned Richie could manage.

“Let’s start off slow. Take a drink… that’s it… good.” He extended his hand, looking down his hawk nose at the young man. “The name’s Budd Hookman. Yours is…?” He already knew, of course, but something had to jar Richie back to reality, such as it was.

“Richie Turner.”

“Now, Richie, you’re in Vespers. A kind of in-between place for some of us.” He grasped the paper he had been reading, placing it in Richie’s hands. “I want you to read something. Feel free to finish your drink first, though.”

Richie emptied the entire glass.

17 December 2007

Richard “Richie” Turner died Saturday, December 15, from a gunshot wound while driving through the East Hill neighborhood. He was 23 years old. He was attending Roosevelt College, due to graduate next summer. He is survived by his brother, Frank Turner. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m., Sunday, January 13, at Chase Hall.

“That’s not possible,” Richie smiled, some modicum of strength returning to his body. Perhaps it was the alcohol, maybe his refusal to believe, but a sheer bolt of confidence now coursed through him. He slapped the paper down on the table, rising, intent upon leaving the insanity once and for all. No sobbing girl would stop him this time.

Budd watched as he stalked towards the door. “Richie,” he called. “Have you noticed any windows in this place? That’s because there’s nothing outside.”

Richie snorted, yanking open the door.

Moments later he sat in front of Budd, another drink in his hand, color drained from his face. A finger toyed with the bullet hole he had found in his leather jacket. He made no move as the giant mirror over the bar swirled, Mary deposited back into the room by the uncaring smoke. He did offer her a small smile, trying to give her some comfort, but there was none left for even him. She wiped her bloody tears on the stark white of a bar towel, then resumed her work with shaking hands.

“So, what is this place?” he whispered to the man.

“Oh, an in-between place,” the older man repeated, his voice still calm and even. “I’m sure you know enough about Mary now, given what you’ve heard. Becky,” he pointed towards the young girl, the pretty blonde grasping Mary’s hand as she walked by, “she went to a school dance a few years back. Sad story. Went with the guy she loved, but he just wanted one thing from her. When he tried to make his move, she let him know where she stood. He left her on an old, abandoned road in anger, forcing her to walk the ten miles to town in a torrential downpour. Now, each year on that anniversary, she returns to that spot. Most times a kind stranger picks her up and takes her home.”

“But she never gets home, does she?”

“No.” Budd shook his head. “No, she doesn’t. She ends up keeping a coat or a hat, or some other such apparel that the strangers offer. She claims she forgets, but I think she just wants something from the living to hold on to.”

Richie was confused. “What about me, though? I don’t have any story attached to me that should hold me here.”

Budd raised a brow at this. “We don’t stay here because of the legends. We stay here because our deaths created them. Often, it’s just a small thing that sets off the rumors.”

Again, the quiet of his voice soothed Richie’s nerves, even though he knew bad news was stalking him. It was as if the older man could quiet a storm just with that singsong tone.

“What about the phone call you made?”

A blank expression met that statement.

“You’ve got your paper. Read it.” Budd accepted a drink from Becky before she flounced back over to Mary. “Everyone gets an edition when they walk through the door. Kind of a glimpse into the future, or an explanation.”

He watched as the news article sank into his young companion’s brain. “Turns out, all those gang members die within a year from mysterious ailments, or just dumb luck. They never find your bike, and the police can’t explain how you called your brother from a nonexistent number after you died.”

Richie stabbed the bold type with his finger. “The Demon Rider of East Hill? What’s that about?”

“That’s you, my friend. That’s what they’ll call you. You appear on your bike and hunt down criminals in the area.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound so bad.”

“No. Actually, crime drops in East Hill, so much so that businesses start moving in again. But there’s a price.” Budd finished his drink. “You can never go home again, Richie. None of us can.”

The young biker let his head roll backwards until he stared up at the wooden ceiling. No going home? No seeing Frank again? His numb mind tried to wrap around the concept, a shudder rippling along his skin as he imagined his funeral, his body being lowered into the ground. Then he thought of what Frank would be going through, how his older brother would be the only one left of their family.

The bitter taste of regret flooded his mouth. “Not even to comfort my brother?” he asked.

“Not even to do that. You might get lucky and catch a glimpse of him when you’re out, but that’ll be all you get.”

Richie rose, placing the paper on the table. When it faded away into nothing, melting into the ancient wood, he found he was no longer surprised. He found himself wondering about his calm companion, about the flickering lantern and the way he rubbed his shoulder. Mr. Elliot chattered away in the next room, perhaps having caught the ear of one of the bar’s eternal patrons. A story rested in that addled skull, an explanation as to why such a disturbed old man was now a legend.

His brain was tired, his heart heavy. As he looked towards Mary, however, the same fluttering in his heart he had experienced upon his entrance sprang forth. There, at least, was some desperate measure of escape, a welcome distraction from the ghostly reality he now waded through. She met his eyes, almost as if she could read his thoughts, and flashed that beautiful smile again.

Budd followed his gaze, a glad feeling enveloping his heart. It had been decades since the warmth had settled there, and it forced a smile onto his serene face. His hand settled onto his glowing lantern as Richie approached her, words exchanged between them. For the first time, he saw Mary blush, the redhead turning her face from Richie as the flitting of her heart pounded against the walls of her chest. Perhaps, even in the midst of all the dreary haunting, something could flourish.

“Richie,” he said, rising to resume his place at the counter, lantern swinging by his side. Though the flame flickered orange, a green glow followed him along the ground. “You’re free to move about here. There’s more to Vespers than just a bar. Just one thing, though.” He placed the metal lantern on the table as he slid onto the seat. “Don’t ever go down in the basement.”

“Why’s that?” Richie asked.

Budd laughed. “There are alligators in the sewer.”

pencil

“I’ve lived in Washington for most of my life. This is my first foray into the writing field, though I have fiddled with various longer plot lines. I enjoy the sense of wonder that reading and writing offers, and hope that this story enables me to spread that sense to others. I am fond of all styles and genres of writing and, when not doing any reading, I can be found traipsing through the wilderness with my wife.” Published works: “Manesgrove, OR” to appear in the Midnight Times (July ’08). E-mail: panthaeanprophecies[at]gmail.com