Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Vessel

Here's a little taste of my contribution to the third Erie Tales Anthology: Saturday Evening Ghosts. This full short is also a precursor to DREAM PROPHET.


The blizzard wrecked havoc on the small diner in Bay City. As the winter days grew shorter so did my window of opportunity. This was my last chance to seek out that one person for redemption. Finding my way into the warmth of the diner I smelled the patrons regret. Its salty goodness nestled its way down my throat. The lament they felt tasted sweeter than the day-old pumpkin pie in the display case. My job wasn’t an easy task, but it sure was a fun one.

I circled them all till I found just the right appetizer. There was the bedraggled alcoholic at the counter sipping coffee. Though he was sober the distinct taint of whiskey wafted from his dingy coat. Tempting.

The waitress with her black eyeliner smeared over puffy eyes offered to refill his drink. She was sweet and rejected. What was even more tantalizing was her pain. It was recent and clear in her mind. I hovered over her as she made her way to a table full of miscreants. I salivated when I sensed the blood flow between her thighs. This was not Mother Nature’s doing.

“So, can I get you all anything else?” She brushed away a stray blonde strand of hair. Then poised a pen over her order pad. Her nametag read ‘Bonnie’. She shifted her feet two times while awaiting a response.

“No, just a check please.” The young man said. His spiky brown hair withered in the late hour.

“Jeremy,” his girlfriend tugged his sleeve, “I want a piece of pie.”

Jeremy draped his arm across her shoulders. “You sure?”

“Yeah. Besides I don’t want to go out into that storm yet. Maybe after the pie comes it will slow down.” She flipped her brown hair and batted her big doe eyes up at him.

“Sure thing, baby.” Jeremy turned back to Bonnie. “Can we get one piece of pumpkin pie first?”

“Of course, I’ll be right back with your piece.” Bonnie twisted her hips, causing the joint to crack, and went to retrieve the dessert. She mumbled under her breath, “When will this night end.”

“Soon my dear. I promise.” There was a sense of freedom in being able to say whatever I damn well pleased. It wasn’t like any of them heard me, unless I wanted them to.

I stayed behind with the lovebirds. Young love was almost as intoxicating as the whiskey on the alcoholic’s coat or the blood between Bonnie’s legs. There was more to their tale though. Their past spoke to me as if I were there when their journey to my dinner party began.

Jeremy stroked her arm. “What do you want to do after this?”

“Could we go back to your place? I really don’t want to be home alone.” She snuggled into him.

“We can do that. Baby, you shiverin’? It isn’t that cold in here.”

“I’m not cold. I’m just.” She pulled away from him. “I’m just a little scared.”

“Elizabeth Adams, what’s got you so scared that you shake that hard?”

She stared out away from him, across the table. A glossy expression marred her beautiful face. Our eyes met for an instant. Which was not impossible but improbable. Being nothing more than a spirit has its advantages when eavesdropping on conversations. Nonetheless she looked right at me.

When she spoke next her words did not change her expression, only her lips moved. She was a blank slate. “I’ve got a funny feeling tonight that I haven’t had in awhile. Not since my dad died.”

Did my luck change? Had I found what I’ve been desiring all this time? I leaned across the table. This was my chance, my first contact ripened to perfection. She was open to me. Was Elizabeth the willing vessel that would aid me in my charge? All I needed was that one touch.

“Lizzie,” Jeremy turned her away from me. “You don’t need to be scared of anything with me here. I’ve got you. And that was a long time ago. You gotta move on.”

She blinked and gave him a half-hearted smile. “You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

The gateway between us shut. An ache churned my stomach. “Damn.”

Lights flickered. The bell on the door chimed though no one walked in from the cold. The cook yelled out a string of profanities.

“Sorry about that everybody.” Bonnie rounded the corner. “It’s just the storm picking up, but we should be okay. I’m heading out back to kick on the generator.”

“Miss?” Jeremy called out to her.

“I’ll be right back with your pie. It’ll be just one minute.”

“Thanks, but that isn’t what I was going to ask about.”

Bonnie shifted her weight to one side, hands on her hips. Her complexion paled. “Yes?”

“Is the cook all right?”

She shifted once again. Her gazes went down and back up. Bonnie’s cheeks now had a rosy tint to them. “He’s fine. When the power flickered the burners shut off. Then they flared back up. He got a little toasty, but he’s used to that.”

“Right. Can’t be a fry cook and not be used to getting burned every now and then.” His grin didn’t reach his eyes.

“Exactly.” She gave a light giggle. Then pivoted toward the manager’s office.

Within minutes the hum of the generator as it fired up was heard over some random pop song. Bonnie walked in a brisk stride to the counter. She cut a slice of pie. Then served Elizabeth. They exchanged polite words.

Tweets from a bird that popped out of a wall clock reminded me of my limited time. The hour was growing near. I had to make my move now.

I followed Bonnie back to the alcoholic. “Are you sure I can’t freshen your drink?”

“I’m fine.” He scratched his dirty face. Flakes of skin fell into his cup.

“Bernie, you are in here every night. You sit there staring at the classifieds as if your life depended on it, sippin’ on a single cup of coffee till the morning rush. If you want my opinion you need to be home, in bed, so you can get up refreshed.”

“Last I checked Bonnie, I didn’t ask for you opinion.”

“Whatever.” She snatched the coffee pot from the burner. Before he could protest she poured the lava hot sludge in his cup. “By the way, refills are free.”

“Bonnie!”

“Don’t give me no lip. You’re gonna drink it and be happy with what you’ve got. Understand.” She beamed at him.

“I owe you one.”

“You don’t owe me a thing.” With that she went back into the kitchen.

One would think that being offered anything for free would have made his day. Instead his frustration came off him like waves. Though he didn’t feel me in the physical sense, my presence was felt. I massaged away the heavy burdens that lay upon him and whispered. “You could really use a drink. No one will know. All you need is one little sip to take away the sting.”

His shoulders sighed under my strength. I stabbed a pressure point in his back. Bernie winced. He rubbed his eyes and groaned. “God, I can’t. I just can’t.” Even as he spoke to himself he reached for the bottle hidden in his inner coat pocket.

He did a once around the room. No one was watching. Bernie poured the amber liquid down his gullet. With a jerk, he twisted the lid back on. Then thrust the bottle into the pocket hard enough that he could have shoved it through the material. “Three years down the fucking drain. Fuck.”

He went back to sipping the coffee as if nothing had happened. His eyes watered. Bernie rubbed his face and brushed the unshed tears aside.
I loved denial. While he wiped away his sorrow I stepped into him. Every part of me became one with him. All of his memories were mine. I sifted through those hazy regrets from a lifelong addiction to booze. I hungered for the sweet spot. That moment where he lost who he was and how he came to be a cheap suit for an old haunt such as myself.

“#”

Three years ago Bernard Langenthal was your average drunk. Tossed out of bars at closing though loved by bartenders from Bay City to Detroit. Back then he was a car salesman, a thankless job where your customers automatically thought you were out to cheat them. After a hard day’s work Bernie did what Bernie always did. He went to the bar.

“Bernie, sweetie, I’ve got to close up and you need to get on home. I’m sure that pretty wife of yours is wondering where you are.” Sherry, his favorite bartender, said as she escorted him to the door.

“I need ta go home.” He slurred. “Do you ‘member where I parked my car?”

“Where you always park it. Right next to mine. Walk me out.”

They walked, arm in arm, and kept each other from slipping in the snow-covered parking lot. Sherry helped Bernie get into his red pickup truck. “Drive safe, sweetie. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You too.” Bernie started his truck. He squinted at the dashboard as he made out the gears. Once he figured out where ‘drive’ was located he put the truck into gear and tore out of the parking lot.

“Dang it.” He said when he noticed a sign for Midland. He moaned and steered the wheel to make an illegal u-turn. It was then that he saw the headlights coming for him.

The truck fishtailed. Black ice kept his wheels rolling as the brakes locked up. In a moment of clarity, of sudden sobriety, Bernie’s truck smashed into Sherry’s sedan.

“What have I done?”

The ringing in his ears mingled with the sound of Sherry’s blaring horn. He staggered from his truck. “Sherry? Sherry, you okay?”

She was slumped over the steering wheel. Bernie pushed her back against the seat. Blood gushed from a head laceration. She was not breathing.

“Shit.” His thoughts raced as he tried to come up with what to do next. Unsure as to what to do he leaned against the car. Through tears of fear he saw the river that ran beside the highway.

He ran to the river’s edge. It was frozen, but not solid. There were plenty of dark patches where the ice was weak. He wiped the adrenaline inspired perspiration from his upper lip, and knew what he had to do.

“#”

Bernie finished wiping away his tears and blinked. Sherry stood behind the diner’s counter. Her skin has a bluish tint to it. She was bloated and her tender eyes bulged. She was dressed the same as she had the night Bernie killed her. She slammed her hands on the counter. “How could you?”

“Sherry?” He whispered.

She reached over the counter, grabbed the back of his head, and pulled him down onto his steamy coffee mug. The porcelain shattered. Splinters sliced his face. Some buried in his cheeks. The drink scolded his skin, searing away bits of flesh.

He shrieked. “Help. Oh god.”

Bonnie rushed out of the kitchen. When she saw the damage to Bernie’s face she said, “On my. Hold on.” She ransacked the cupboard under the cash register for a first aid kit.

“Did you really think you wouldn’t have to pay for what you did to me?” Sherry was inches from his face.

“I’m sorry.” He cried.

“You dumped my body in the river, and all you can say is you’re sorry. You don’t know the meaning of the word because if you did you wouldn’t have had that last shot. But you will.” Sherry slipped through the counter as if it weren’t there. She straddled Bernie’s legs. “Eye for an eye.” She kissed him.

The steam from the coffee on Bernie’s face stopped. The liquid cooled till it froze his skin. The blue tint in Sherry’s skin brightened to that of a more normal shade as Bernie’s lightened. Under the dirt and the grime his coloring changed as the hypothermia set in.

“Let me take a look at you.” Bonnie said as she came to attend to Bernie’s wounds. The first aid kit fell from her hands. Bernie’s head dropped backward, lifeless, and frozen.

Unbeknown to anyone in the room, other than myself, Sherry climbed off her murderer. With newfound life in her step she came to my side. “I couldn’t have done this without you.”

“No need to thank me. I’ll get my payment.”

“Do you really…”

“If you want to know then stick around.”

Sherry stood by my side. Her eagerness radiated off her life a heat wave. Her desire for justice was a charming side dish. The main course lay before me.

I stuck my hand into Bernie’s chest. I hungered for his sorrowful soul. It was like mother’s milk to me. To my dismay he was nothing but an empty shell.

The lights flickered. The florescent bulb over the table beside the lovebirds burst. Elizabeth shrieked. She gave into Jeremy’s insistent tugs. They ran from the table to the counter in the main hall.

I glared at Sherry. Had she stolen my soul? Was it she I needed to punish? I couldn’t finish my mission without feeding. Fulfilling my pledge to the Gatekeeper by aiding vengeful ghosts weakened me. The further back the incident the harder the memories were to obtain. Thus the more difficult it was to cross ghosts to this side. There was more at stake than petty acts of vengeance.

“What the hell happened?” Jeremy asked Bonnie, who stared at him wide eyed. I asked Sherry the same question.

She shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I just killed the bastard. That was it.”

Elizabeth stepped away from Jeremy. She inched her way not to Bernie, but closer to me. “What do you think you’re doing?”

I jerked my hand from Bernie’s empty chest cavity. All I could do was stare at her. This young, na├»ve woman saw me. She had to have been a clairvoyant of some kind. This newfound knowledge solidified my previous assumption. She was my vessel.

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