COLD - by Ray O'Bannon
See, the funny thing is...we never see him unless it's cold out. And since I run the only bar in a town of 340 people, I tend to notice who comes and goes. I run a quiet respectable tavern here, so most of the fellas in town stop by now and then. But not this guy...no, he only shows up when it's cold. And I gotta tell ya, I'm never very happy to see him.
It's usually around the end of October or early November that he shows up, never in the daytime, just at night. And he always has the hood of that parka pulled up over his head and tied real tight around his face. That parka's a weird item, too...black with black fur trim, and cut in an odd sort of style nobody's ever seen downtown anyplace. But it's not so much the coat as the way he walks in, or maybe just how he walks to begin with. See, he moves real slow, sort of like he aches or has some deformity. Must be a fairly tall guy but he kinda hunches over, and you almost get the idea it hurts him to move around. For some reason we always seem to notice his shadowy outline outside the frosted glass front doors, just before he enters. Its odd... conversation always dies off and folks just sort of glance nervously at the door. And then he pushes it open and does that slow creepy walk clear to the back of the place, where he always sits.
Now, you know some loser's gonna start in with the vampire jokes and crap any second, because of that weird black parka, but danged if anybody ever has. You just get this vibe off the guy...it's hard to explain, but you seem to sense some horrible tragedy and you suddenly feel like everyone's gathered together for a wake or something. You just feel... I dunno...solemn.
So in he comes, and he sits there in that back booth where it's dark, and gradually conversations start back up and there's a sort of nervous laughter in the air and everybody gets back to having a nice evening. Everybody but me, because now I gotta serve him. Don't get me wrong... I like people. I like everybody. But this guy just gives me the creeps every time. I walk back and he orders whiskey in that dry sounding voice he has. And when I return with it there are always several bills on the table, but they're across from him where I can reach them without getting any closer to him than necessary. I just slide him his drink and go back up front, but I always feel like I've just walked through a cemetery at midnight.
And I know it's not just me. I've seen the younger guys get a little too drunk by the end of the night and head back there like they were gonna mess with him. But then they always seem to kind of come up short half way there. They wind up just standing around by the coolers looking kind of lost, and then they usually grab a few six packs and go home without much else to say to anyone. I mean it's eerie.
The guy never really causes any trouble, just sits back there watching the room and drinking his whiskey. When it's closing time, he always seems to drift off while I'm busy and I never really seem to see him leave. I just glance back and there's an empty booth. That's how it happens every time he's here. Except for that last time.
The drunks had finally wobbled out into the snowy darkness, the waitress had headed home to her cats, and I was shutting off the lights while some sports show wrapped up on Channel 7. I was reaching up to turn off the TV when I happened to glance back across the dark empty room. And there he sat.
Now part of why it's a nice friendly tavern is because I'm large enough to discourage the rowdier types from making any trouble. And since I live right upstairs, this pub just naturally feels like it's MY house. Everyone's welcome if they're nice, but threaten anyone and you meet one very large and very angry bear. Except right then I didn't feel like much of a bear. Truth is...I felt like a 5-year-old. I had this tremendous sensation of being in trouble, that panicky feeling of wanting to run blindly in the opposite direction, like a lost and frightened child who suddenly finds himself face to face with a monster.
I just stood there looking at him. He rose up silently and started towards me, and I swear the temperature in that place dropped 10 degrees. When he reached the bar, he stopped directly across from me and sat down. His face was completely in shadow inside that parka hood, even though the brighter lighting around the taps should have clearly illuminated his features. He leaned forward and spoke in that horrible dry voice.
"I'd very much enjoy another drink. How's Mrs. Thurmond? And Joe Spaulding, is he recovering well?"
I was dumbfounded for a moment. To suddenly realize he had any interest in those around him... it just unnerved me somehow. And maybe he had just been listening to folks talk, but Emma Thurmond, the town librarian, had been mourning the death of her husband since April, and Joe Spaulding had fallen off a ladder while fixing his roof in early June. So I was amazed the guy knew anything about any of that because he simply wasn't around during the summer to begin with. In the winter he was never seen anywhere except here, and he certainly never spoke with anyone. But here he was speaking to me, and speaking about the townsfolk as though he knew them all personally.
The following hours are sort of blurry and I have a difficult time saying just what happened in exactly what order. He wanted to know about dozens of people from the area...all those who had experienced unusual hardships or personal crisis of one kind or another. At some point he offered for me to join him as I was refilling his glass. The whiskey tasted bitter and somehow much too thick. I can't really explain why his gloved hand, as he placed money on the bar, reminded me so strongly of a spider.
I recall him holding the whiskey glass up to his hooded face, and I could sense eyes somewhere back in that hooded darkness gazing at the glass, which was thickly frosted even though I only frost the beer mugs, not the whiskey glasses.
"I need this. When it's cold."
Something in the back of my mind was screaming for me to realize I shouldn't be so near this dark figure, shouldn't be within his reach, should be screaming. But I just stood there trembling. I felt my whiskey glass slipping though my fingers, but before it could shatter against the counter, his hand snaked out to catch it. I can't describe the way the hand moved, but it seemed to perform a sort of motion that human bones are simply not designed to include. That hand shot out so inhumanly quickly, and seized the glass with such unnatural precision, that I staggered back with a kind of terror I can never fully describe.
And then he was gone, as simply as that. I was staring at his hand as he sat the glass down, I turned my eyes back up to face him, and found myself staring at an empty room.
I raced across the deserted bar towards the front door, determined to somehow make some sort of sense out of at least a part of this insane night. I threw the doors open and cold air stung my face as I staggered out into the snow. There were no footprints on the front step, and no sign of anyone having crossed the fresh layer of snow that gleamed beneath the streetlights. Glancing up and down the street, I at first thought no one was in sight. But then I glimpsed movement in a nearby alley, and recognized the hunched dark form slowly walking away.
I can't imagine what I was preparing to scream, or even why I felt it wise to scream anything, but as I raised my arms hysterically above my head, I felt myself losing my balance on the icy pavement. I fell backwards in the darkness, my feet skittering out from under me, my mind racing ahead to the next second when the back of my skull would crunch horribly against the cold hard cement sidewalk.
But instead of a shattering pain, I felt something like a burning sensation, and looked up to see the black parka hunched over me. The burning seemed to come from the gloved hand on which my head was resting.
"The night holds peril. You must be cautious."
I rose to my feet hesitantly and stood staring at him, wondering how it was possible that he was already on the opposite side of the street. My view of him was obscured by clouds of my own breath forming in the frigid night air. And I realized he wasn't breathing as he turned away and vanished into the darkness.
The next morning I found a few marks on the back of my head that resembled some sort of frostbite.
I'm sure he'll return to the tavern a few more times before winter's over. He doesn't usually drop out of sight until around February. And then we probably won't see him for another 8 months or so. Meanwhile, I'll just serve him his whiskey in that shadowy booth in the back like usual.
And I'll hope he goes away when everyone else does.