People come and go in this small town. I've been runnin' Matty’s bar here for 40 years and that’s one thing that’s never changed. Most pass through. Maybe they'll stop for a drink, but it’s never long before they realise there ain't much to our little corner of the old world. They move onto somethin’ more excitin’. But the bar is home for me and for the small handful of regulars from town. They and some passin' truckers have given me enough business to keep the lights on and I’m grateful for that.
When you live in one of these passin’ places - the little islands people hop between when headin' somewhere - you see all sorts. You meet all kinds, you know? Good, bad, everything in between. I used to like that. It stopped my day from bein’ the same, each hour movin’ along slowly into another. Just enough variety in the people drinkin' here to keep life interestin’.
I didn’t have family then, and I don't now. Never started one. Had a fiance once about thirty years back just before I hit the big ole' 40. But that didn't work out. She was a goodin' too. I guess I was too wrapped up in other things to notice. When I brush the regulars out at night, sometimes the emptiness hits me like a left hook. I think about her, but I try my best to get my head down, then the next morning comes and the day starts again. You gotta just keep goin' ya know? Life'll eat you up otherwise.
Most days and nights pass like that for me, but one night sticks out more than others, like a broken finger pointin' to somethin' I don't care to think about it. But think about it is what I do. In between the openin' and closin'. I hear the bar sign creakin' in the wind at night, and I wonder about what I saw and what I heard. Some nights I can tell myself it was as it appeared, but I've seen enough of this world to leave the bedroom door open slightly at night, with the hall light streamin' in through the gap to keep me safe.
In all this time, that one night out of the thousands at Matty's bar, bothers me. It was New Year's Eve and I had nothin' better to do but to keep the bar open for those brave or foolish enough to walk the distance through the freezin' cold. Some folks came and toasted the New Year before heading back out into the frost to their homes, others just wanted to be near other people. New Year’s a lonely time, especially when life ain't as full as you feel it should be.
At one in the morning, I was ready to shut up shop and hit the hay. By that time there was only me, two regulars, and a stranger left in the bar. I let them stay due to it being New Year’s and all, but a man's gotta sleep sometime, ‘specially in his 70s. The old body ain't what it used to be, not this hip when it gets cold, that's for damn sure.
The regulars consisted of Reggie Smith, a 32-year-old trucker who often stopped in town. Out of boredom more than anything else, I think. The other was old Larry Thompson. Larry wasn't quite the town drunk, but at 78, he'd seen the bottom of a fair few bottles, let's put it that way. Closin' up the till and countin' the slim takin’s for the night - slimmer than most New Year’s Eve’s'- I was happy to turn on the closed sign and then pour a couple of whiskeys on the house for Larry and Reggie. I poured myself one, too. Laphroaig 21. Good stuff.
While I stood on one side of the bar and Reggie and Larry sat, red faced and worse for wear, on the other exchangin’ stories, we couldn't help but give a glance towards the stranger in the corner of the room. He was starin' into a glass as if the world around him meant nothin'. I would've asked him to leave before closin’, but it wouldn’t have been right to do that on a cold New Year's night, ‘specially when I was lettin' two regulars stay beyond closin'. So, I thought I'd let the man finish his drink before politely shepherdin' him out the door into the car park outside.
When I finished my drink, I cleared my throat and said loudly: 'Time's up gentlemen. Time to hit the road. Have a good New Year.'
The stranger didn't respond. It was like I'd said nothin'.
I'll do my best to remember what was and wasn't said that night from here.
'That man looks like he's lost in that drink,' said Old Larry. 'A’ve been there, that's for sure!' He laughed and so did we.
Reggie downed the last of his whiskey, pulled his denim jacket over his red checkered shirt and then fixed his cap as if goin' somewhere important. 'I better be getting back to the cab, Mary doesn't like to be alone when it's this cold.'
'You know it's creepy, givin' your truck a name, right?' I said.
Larry grinned. 'Closest the boy'll ever get to a warm woman.'
I wiped the bar down. 'I don't remember you gettin' much closer, Larry.'
'You neither, Owen.'
Reggie stood up, a little lopsided for a second from the booze before straightenin'. He didn't take bein’ made fun of as well as some of the other regulars. 'Lay off, guys. It's been a hard year.'
'Excuse me, sir?' I then said loudly, addressin' the man in the corner at the back of the bar.
The man didn't move. His gaze was fixed, almost like he was dead. Glazed over like, lookin' at the dribble of drink in his glass.
'Maybe he can't hear you?' Reggie said.
I stepped out of the bar and walked over to the man's table. 'Excuse me, pal. I know it's cold out there and all, but it's time to go home.'
The man didn't look up. But he spoke. When he did, his words were strange. 'Don't make me go out there.'
'It's closing time,' I said, tired and lookin' forward to my bed.
The man, in his 50s, finally looked at me, and for the first time I saw that the poor guy had tears in his eyes. 'Please, don't make me go out there.'
By this time, Reggie and Larry were walkin’ over to the table, drunkenly trying to help if there were trouble brewin’. 'Everythin’ okay, Owen?' asked Larry.
I nodded before turnin’ back to the man. 'Don't you have anywhere to stay?'
The man sort of smirked to himself. 'I'm not homeless, if that's what you mean.' And he sure didn't look it, dressed in a suit that was higher class than Matty's bar usually saw. Though it was lookin' a bit shook up, like he'd slept in it.
'I never said you were homeless. Either way, you can't stay here. I'm closin' up and I'm not openin' in the morning.’
Larry sighed. 'No New Year's Day lock-in this year?'
'Not this year, Larry. I'm tired. Anyways, your niece in town wants to have you round for dinner.'
'She's a terrible cook,' said Larry. 'And there ain't a drop of drink in her house'.
'You could do with a day off the sauce, Larry,' said Reggie, though his red face made me think he should lay off himself.
The stranger then pulled out his wallet and placed a bundle of cash on the table. 'I've got nearly two grand in cash there. You can have it if you let me stay. I'll just sleep on the floor.'
Alarm bells started ringin’ in my head. 'A man who's willin' to pay two grand to sleep on the floor of a run-down bar in a no end town sounds like a man in trouble. And that ain't the type of trouble I'm interested in sharin'.'
'Yeah, I wouldn't take that money if I were you,’ Larry said, drunkenly pulling up a chair at the man's table and eyein' the cash. 'But for two grand you can sleep on my couch!'
'Or in my cab. My truck's just outside.' Reggie's attention had turned to the cash as well.
Larry chuckled. 'Ain't no room in yer cab but for you and those porno mags you keep stuffed in the chair.'
The man smiled nervously. 'It's after midnight. It needs to be here in the bar or nowhere.'
Business was bad and two grand would have helped, but I wasn't gonna to let a stranger who was obviously on the run hide in my bar. 'I appreciate the offer,' I said. 'But I'm goin’ to have to say no. I need you to leave, sir. '
That was the last 'sir' he was gettin'.
The man stuttered: 'I... I can't go out there. Don't make me. He's waiting out there.'
'Who is?' asked Larry, staring disappointingly at his own empty glass.
'There's a man out there in the cold. If you send me out tonight, I'm a goner.' The fella was growin’ more agitated by the minute.
'If I were you,' Larry said turnin’ to me. 'I'd kick this here stranger out into the street before he gives you more trouble than it's worth.'
'Let's not be too hasty,' said Reggie. 'Maybe there is someone out there.'
I stood up and walked to the window of the bar, starin’ through the open blinds out into the car park outside. Everythin' was covered in a thin frost, but it was lifeless out there. I saw no one.
'There's no one there.’
'You may not be able to see him,' said the stranger. 'But he's there all right. And he's waiting for me.'
'Who is he?' Reggie asked, more open to entertainin' flights of fancy than most. 'Maybe we can help.'
The stranger now sat his empty glass in front of him and pushed it away slightly with his hand. 'The only thing you can do to help me is to keep me inside. I don't think he'll come in.'
'Listen, fella,' said Larry. 'Unless I'm gettin' another drink poured or a cut of that two grand, I'm not interested in your story. You've been asked to leave. So leave.'
'I can't. Please, for God's sake.'
I could see how agitated the man was, and although he was probably just another delusional customer scared of returnin' home to an angry partner, it seemed fair to at least hear him out. 'I don't want to put you in danger, my friend. What's your name?'
'Galen. Galen T. Morris.'
'It's nice to meet you, Galen. I'm Owen, and this here is Larry and Reggie. Now that we all know each other, how about you tell me who you're running from?'
'Running? There’s no running.'
'Hidin’ then,' said Larry abruptly.
'There’s no hiding either. There’s only staying.'
I walked back over to Galen's table and pulled up a chair. 'Could the authorities help?'
Galen laughed. 'I don't think even a priest could save me from this.'
'Owen didn't see anyone outside. I'm sure you're safe.' Reggie was always one for offerin' support. That's why I liked him.
Lookin’ up from his drink, Galen spoke. His voice was grim, like he'd been given a death sentence. 'Look again, Reggie.'
Reggie now walked to the window, slipped his finger between two blinds and peered out at the car park. 'No one there... Wait...'
Larry stood up. 'See somethin'?'
'Yeah', answered Reggie. 'There is someone out there. I never saw him at first. I think he was standing in a shadow. One minute the lot was empty, the next... There he is.'
'What does the fella look like?' Larry was always a gossip, always curious, but never brave.
'I can't see him right. He's got his back to a streetlight. Looks like he's wearing a long coat. And he's just...' Reggie trailed off.
'Just what?' I asked.
'Now don't think me crazy, but it's like he's staring at the bar. At me.' Reggie turned to face us. 'Galen's man is out there, for sure. And I don't like the look of him one bit.'
'Is he moving?' asked Galen.
Reggie looked again. 'No. Just standing and staring, I think. But I can't see his face.'
'Who is this fella, Galen? If he's gonna cause trouble for old Owen...'
'Larry, I'm nearly ten years younger than you.'
'In years, sure.'
Walking over to the window, I stood beside Reggie and looked out through the blinds again. Sure enough, there was the man. Standing there, lookin' at us from the middle of the car park.
'Galen, you want to check and see if this is the guy you're hidin' from?' I asked.
Leaning back in his chair, Galen rubbed his face with his hand, nervous. 'I don't need to look. It's him alright. He doesn't always look the same. But it's him.'
'Doesn't always look the same? Fella in disguise, huh?' Larry sat down beside Galen and seemed interested. I knew why; that night was a break from the usual.
'Disguise?' Galen laughed. 'Sure, he's in disguise. Always.'
'Wait,' said Reggie. 'The guy outside: he's moving!'
'Where?' Galen's voice sorta trembled.
'He's walking slowly towards the bar,' Reggie was now whisperin', like he was afraid the man would hear us. Even though that weren't likely.
I looked myself. There he was. The man outside was walkin' across the car park in our direction. 'I still can't see his damned face.'
Galen stuttered. 'I... I don't think he can come in...'
'He sure as hell can't.' I walked over to the bar and stuck my hand between two of the old ice boxes that always went on the blink. I had only used her a few times, but I had a small wooden bat stuffed down there if there was ever trouble.
'You gonna bludgeon the poor fella?' Larry said.
'If he tries to come in here. Away from the window, Reggie.'
Reggie backed off and I stood there, bat in hand.
Galen stood up and walked further away from the window to the back of the bar. 'Is he still...'
'Yeah, still walkin',' I said. Turning away from the window, I stepped to the side and locked the door.
When I went back to the blinds, I got the fright of my life. The man outside was at the window, staring right at me.
'We're closed!' I shouted through the glass.
He said nothin'. He just put his hands around his eyes and leaned into the window to see inside.
'Turn off the lights,' Galen whispered.
'I'm turnin' off nothin'.'
Two loud knocks came at the glass.
'We're closed, fella. Better get yerself home!' I shouted.
We waited quietly. Then, we heard footsteps as the man outside walked round to the door. This time, three loud knocks.
I was gettin' tetchy by this point. I reached up to pull the lock open and give this fella a piece of my mind, but Reggie stepped forward and put his hand on my shoulder. 'Maybe don't let him in.'
'I ain't lettin' him in,' I said.
For once Larry agreed with Reggie: 'He's right, Owen. Leave the door shut. I don't like the look of this here fella.'
Normally, I wouldn't have listened to the regulars and dealt with this myself. But I gotta tell ya, lookin' at that man through the glass of the door, there was somethin' not right about him. I think it was his eyes, like he never blinked or somethin'.
I turned the porch light on and we could now see the man's face. There weren’t an ounce of colour to it. Cold it was. Pale. He looked at me through the glass, then raised his head and peered over my shoulder. He was starin' at Galen in the back.
'Oh God. Christ help me,' Galen said in a low voice.
I lifted the bat in my hand up to make sure the fella outside could see it. 'We're closed. And we ain't openin. Get goin' or I'll call the police.'
The man turned and walked away, back across the car park and then he disappeared into the dark.
'He was definitely looking at you, Galen.' Reggie's words went unanswered, but Galen kept his eyes stuck on the front door.
'Is there a back way out of here?' he said.
'You thinkin' of makin' a run for it out the back door?' asked Larry.
'Thinking of locking it,' came the reply.
'Stay here,' I said. 'I'll check the back is locked. Larry, don't touch any booze while I'm gone.'
I walked through the back hall and found that I'd forgotten to lock the back door we used for deliveries. When I told the guys about this, they asked if this was strange. I told them it wasn't, but between you and me, yeah, it was strange. In all my years I must have forgotten to lock that door twice.
Back in the bar, I decided to get to the bottom of things. 'If I'm gonna be sittin' up here with you, Galen, through the night, I need to know what's goin' on. Reggie, Larry - you two can leave if you want.'
'I think I'd rather stay in here than in the cab of my truck, if you don't mind.'
'I don't fancy the walk home neither.' Larry was just as spooked, though he never needed an excuse to stay in the bar.
I turned to Galen, who was still standin’ at the back of the bar as far away from the front door as possible.'You gonna tell us what's happenin' here or what? Otherwise, I'm callin' the cops.'
'You'll think I'm mad,' Galen said.
'Can't be worse than Reggie,' said Larry. 'He pretends he's got deliveries sometimes just to stop here.'
Reggie said nothin’, and I just felt bad for him.
I decided to be more reassurin’ and poured us all another drink while we all sat at a table. 'Maybe this will help. Let us know what's goin' on before I bash some innocent fella out there just for wantin’ a later drink on New Year’s Eve.'
'It's not innocent,' said Galen sipping his whiskey.
'It?' Reggie was askin’ the same question on my mind.
'I suppose "it" is the best way I can describe it,' Galen continued. 'You see it changes its appearance. I've seen it as a man, a woman, once I even thought I encountered it as a dog.'
'A dog!' Larry scoffed. 'That fella out there may have been creepy, but he weren't no dog.'
'Not right now. But he's the same thing. It's the eyes, you see. I can tell by the eyes. And there's an air about it. He's always in there however he appears.'
I leaned back in my chair and thought for a moment. 'Galen. I'm sure ya know how crazy this sounds?'
Galen nodded. 'And I wouldn't believe it myself if I heard it from anyone else. But the last three decades are proof that I'm right.'
'Proof? How?' asked Reggie, looking at his whiskey like he couldn't stomach it.
'What age do you think I am?' Galen looked ‘round the table at each of us.
'Old enough to know better about men changin' into dogs, that's for sure!' Larry laughed.
No one laughed with him.
'Go on, Larry,' Galen continued. 'Tell me. How old am I?'
'I dunno, 50s?'
'I'm 80 years old.'
Larry grinned. 'That's as believable as yer man out there bein' Lassie!'
This time, Reggie and I did let out a laugh.
'Look.' Galen took out a wallet. It looked expensive. Then he opened it up and took out some ID. There it was in black n' white. He was 80 years old.
'Could be fake,' Larry didn't sound so sure of himself now.
'Doesn't look fake to me,' said Reggie, holding the ID up to the light.
'Gimme here, I've seen enough fake ID's to last me a lifetime.'
Reggie handed it to me, but I couldn't see anythin' wrong with it.
'Gentlemen,' said Galen, puttin’ the ID back in his wallet. 'I'm 80 years old and my time's up. That thing out there has come for me. It was part of the agreement.'
'Agreement?' I rested the bat on my lap, then shivered.
'You feel that, too?' Reggie shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
'Yeah, I felt it, must be a draught in here somewhere,' answered Larry.
I stood up and checked the windows and the front door. But the cold air wasn't comin' from there. It was comin' from the back hall outta view.
'The back door,' Reggie said nervously.
'I locked it.'
'You sure?' said Larry.
'I... I don't think he can come in here...' Galen repeated that point a few times.
'The door's locked, it's just...' We all felt an icy draught, followed by the sound of a door creakin' open.
Galen panicked at that point and jumped behind the bar. 'Don't let him take me. You can't!'
I gripped my old bat. 'No one's takin' anyone. I'd call you “sonny”, but it appears you're even older than Larry.' I walked towards the doorway that led to the back hall. 'Reggie? Larry?'
'I'll stay here with the old timer,' said Larry. He sounded frightened.
'Come on, then, Reggie.'
'Do we have to? Can't we just block this doorway or something?'
'Reggie, you're the most able bodied of us. Grab a chair, somethin' you can fight with, and let's go shut that door.'
Reggie picked up a chair and lifted it up and down in his hands, like he was checkin’ the weight. Then he put that down and picked up a bar stool that was easier to swing. 'Okay...'
I went through the doorway first. The back hall was always dim, but this was somethin’ else. Darker than just a few minutes before. 'Been meanin' to fix that light.' I was tryin' to put Reggie at ease, but the hall was dimmer than usual. The lights were on, but it was like they weren't cuttin' through the air or somethin'. I can't explain it. Maybe it was just a set of old bulbs that needed replacin'. A bit like me.
We both looked down the hall and saw that the door to the outside was open. It creaked and then shut lightly. On any other night I would have said it was just the wind.
Reggie lowered his voice. 'Let's get this over with.'
We walked down that hallway to the door. On the way it creaked open slightly again and rubbed up 'gainst the wooden frame when it closed, scratching itself 'gainst the wood. I reached out and touched the handle. It was frozen.
'Look.' Reggie's hand shook pointin' to the bottom of the door. 'Scratches.'
Pushin' the door open a bit, I saw some paw prints in the frost. 'A dog or somethin.'
'You think...' Reggie was stammerin' now. 'You think it's that man Galen was talking about?'
'No. Men don't turn into other men. And they don't turn into dogs either. We've let this Galen fella spook us long enough.'
It was Larry that shouted first. When someone's scared like that, even when the years are 'gainst them, they find a sorta strength. Like they had when they were younger. I hadn't heard Larry like that before.
I slammed the door shut, locked it again, and then rushed past Reggie, my aching hip yelping from the cold. We headed down the hall. Just as we reached the doorway to the bar, Larry shouted my name.
My eyes hurt at first. Bright lights were streamin' into the bar through the glass of the door, and the blinds Larry had probably opened. It took me a minute to realise the lights were from a car, parked right up front facing the buildin’.
Galen slunk down behind the bar. 'It's him!'
Reggie clung to the bar stool in his hands and I held onto my bat. Larry was now holding a bottle of booze he'd helped himself to while I was out back.
I walked over to the door and saw three men get out of the car. When they reached the door to my place, it was hard to see their faces what with the light behind them and all. I flicked the porch light, which now wasn’t workin’ for some reason.
'Owen?' one of the men said from outside.
'Thank Christ. It's Jessie.' I turned to Galen. 'Don't worry, Jessie's a police officer. I know him. He stops here from time to time.'
'No!' Galen leaped out from behind the bar, rushed to the door, and grabbed my hand. 'Don't let them in, Owen. It's not Jessie or whoever... It... It's out there.'
'Which one?' said Larry slurping from a bottle of JD. 'There's three of them now.'
'I'm billing you for that bourbon, Larry,' I said.
Jessie was staring at me through the glass. 'Owen? That you at the door? Let us in, we're freezing our balls off out here.'
Galen wouldn't let go of my hand. 'Please. Owen. Don't let them in.'
'Galen,' I replied. 'Has this thing ever appeared as three people?'
I could see the doubt in his eyes. 'No... It hasn't.'
'Well then, could this just be Jessie Parkins and two other officers, dropping by because they saw the lights on late?'
'I can't explain it. But I'm sure it's one of them.'
Gently, I removed Galen's hand from my wrist.
Galen pleaded again. 'Don't. Please. It can't get in here if you don't invite it.'
Reggie cleared his throat. 'I think they can do anything they want if they have cause. That's what the badge gives them.'
'Owen! Come on!' Jessie said again from outside.
'Who's that with you, Jessie?' Larry groaned.
'Pete and a Doctor Ellison.'
I knew Pete about as well as I knew Jessie. They were partners. But Doctor Ellison was new to me.
'I believe you have one of my patients in there with you, Owen?' the Doctor said. I couldn't quite place the accent.
We all looked at Galen at the same time.
'It's him. He's come as this Doctor Ellison. He'll try and persuade you that I'm mad and need to go with him.'
'Can you vouch for this Ellison fella, Jessie?' I asked loudly through the glass.
'Sure. Everything checks out. I think this patient, Galen T. Morris, is dangerous.'
Galen stared at us. If you’ve ever seen madness, it was then. 'I wont' go with him. I won't!' He grabbed at my bat and tried to wrench the thing from my hands.
'Jessie!' I shouted.
Jessie smashed the door in, glass shattered over us. I fell to the floor and smacked my hip off the ground. But I wasn't lettin' go of that bat for love nor money. Galen could've done damage with it.
Pete and Jessie wrestled Galen to the floor.
'No! No!' I've never heard a man scream like that before. Like a pig stuck, knowin' it's about to be slaughtered.
'Go easy on the poor guy,' said Reggie.
'Lock him up!' Larry took another swig of his bottle.
The officers dragged Galen to the back of their car after cuffing him and threw him inside. I could still hear his cryin' and sobbin' from where I was inside the bar.
'Sorry, about this, Owen. The man's a crazy,' said Jessie. 'The good Doctor here will get him the help he needs.'
That was the first and last time I laid eyes on that Doctor. He had a funny look. Somethin' off about him. I like to tell myself that he was just tired, but he looked like the life had drained out of him.
'Will he be okay?' I asked.
'I'll take care of him,' said the Doctor.
None of us stepped out into the cold. Galen continued screamin' from the car. Worse still, he screamed for me, Larry, and Reggie to help him.
Jessie and Pete stood either side of the car. 'We best be on our way, Doctor. Before this fella hurts himself.'
'Galen said you were... Somethin' else,' I said, lookin' straight at the Doctor's pale face.
'Something else?' He laughed. 'Oh, poor Galen has many delusions. He thinks he signed a deal with the... Well, never mind.'
The doctor smiled at me before leavin’, and I tell ya, there was somethin' wrong about that smile. The eyes too. Like there was nothin’ behind them. And he never once stepped foot in my bar. I hope he never will.