THE STAIN by Ray O'Bannon
(Click here for audio.)
Hank Nelson slammed the glass back down, spilling a few drops of scotch across the bar. He scowled. Damn bar top was too low for a guy his size, and the barstools were too tall, made so those scrawny types could sit up high and feel important. Hank snorted as he sat hunched over his glass like a large angry bear in a small dark cave. Waving the bartender over for a refill, Hank glanced around the dimly lit tavern. Three or four couples sat quietly chatting in the more secluded booths, but except for Hank the bar itself remained empty. He glanced back down, and noticed the whiskey stain on his paper napkin making the cheap ink bleed, ruining the punch line of whatever lousy joke had been printed there. "Too bad" he thought dryly. "I coulda used a joke". The ink stain reminded him of the stain on the sleeve of his jacket, and his mood grew even darker as his thoughts turned to Sarah.
It would be different if she paid him a little attention now and then. But she was always upstairs painting that crap she painted. Weird squiggly crap that didn't look like anything. She called it 'art'. But his meals are always ready when he was hungry, and the laundry got taken care of, so if she wanted to waste the rest of her time pretending to be some kind of 'artist', fine. Whatever. But a fella needs a little attention sometimes. His gaze settled on the empty stool at the end of the bar. "She'll be here" he told himself. "Give it time, she'll be here".
According to the bartender, her name was Noreen, and she was the most incredible female Hank had ever laid eyes on. With Sarah feeling so 'inspired' lately about her hobby, Hank had found himself left with plenty of time to kill, and had started taking walks in the evening. During one such walk several weeks ago, he had seen her for the first time, getting out of a cab on 59th Street. He had stood amazed as her graceful form crossed the sidewalk, and then he had followed her into this dim little tavern. He had felt too intimidated to approach her directly, and had instead spent half an hour gazing at her from across the room before finally drifting home. But he came back the next evening. And he had asked the bartender, who always seemed to be smiling at some private joke, what her name was. That name echoed now in his mind like a favorite melody... 'Noreen'.
He had returned to the tavern several times since first seeing Noreen, but had still never had the nerve to approach her. Two nights ago, as he sat admiring her from a distance, she had suddenly turned directly towards him. And she had given him a smile that froze his blood in his veins, a smile that came more from her eyes than from her ruby lips, a smile that said 'I know what you're thinking, and I approve'. And then she was drifting out the door and Hank was left staring breathlessly. That's when he had decided that tonight would be the night, that this time he would approach her, speak to her, hear her voice... he was almost glad about spilling the paint.
He had been stepping out the door when Sarah had called down to him from upstairs. "Could you bring me my brush cup?" And sure enough, there was the plastic mug full of brushes, sitting beside several cups of paint on a table at the foot of the stairs. Did she have to be so scatterbrained? She was always leaving things lying around in the wrong place, and it bugged him even more than that wimpy jazz music she liked listening to, the flimsy sort of music that was drifting now from the open door of the spare bedroom she called her 'art room'. He had picked up the tray that held the brushes and paint cups, but something inside him snapped as he started up the stairs.
Maybe it was the horrible day he'd had at work, so awful that he'd simply sat drinking since arriving home. Perhaps it was the way Sarah insisted on wasting her time upstairs instead of watching TV with him, or maybe it was just that sappy wimpy jazz music filtering down from above. But for whatever reason, a little voice in Hank's head convinced him that he had endured enough, and he threw the tray to the floor, spilling a rainbow of vibrant colors all over the carpet. His momentary satisfaction was ruined by the realization that he'd stained the sleeve of his favorite jacket, and the little voice in his head was now pointing out that the carpet was probably ruined. Sarah would never let him hear the end of this. "Screw it" he grumbled, slamming the front door loudly as he stomped off into the night. The broken doorbell, which he had never repaired, chose now to chime three times. He would have laughed if he hadn't been so angry.
Hank tossed a few more bills toward the bartender, who still seemed to wear that secret little smile, and turned his attention back towards the empty stool at the end of the bar. But his view was blocked by a nasty looking little man who had taken the seat next to him while he was looking away. Hank's first impulse was to tell the little punk to bugger off and find someplace else to sit, but the man was so physically repellent that Hank was reluctant to even speak to him. The man's frail frame hunkered down in a shabby brown coat, and something about the man's features reminded Hank unpleasantly of a rodent. Hank was preparing to find a different stool himself, but then the little guy turned his gaze towards Hank, revealing the saddest eyes Hank had ever seen in a human. Even sadder than a dogs eyes, they seemed. And when he spoke, it was with the voice of a dead branch scraping the side of a deserted farmhouse.
"Got a light, friend?"
"Umm... yeah" stammered Hank, reaching absently for the lighter in his pocket as the bartender sat a glass of scotch in front of this odd little stranger.
"Name's Harvey" smiled the man as he held out a pale thin hand. The smile took a little of the sadness from the eyes, but not much. And the teeth were bad. Hank was hesitant to shake the offered hand, but saw no choice. "I'm a cleaner. You?"
Realizing it was too late to avoid talking to this ugly little gnome, Hank mumbled something about his job as an investment counselor, and returned his gaze to the bar top in hopes of ending the conversation. But the little jerk was apparently just getting started.
"I used to be a priest, you know" he continued, as though telling not only Hank but reminding himself as well. "I was a good one, too. But you know how things go... you win a few, you loose a few..." his voice trailed off momentarily as he sipped the scotch. Hank thought hopefully that he was done speaking, but then he continued as Hank glanced nervously past him to the still empty barstool across the room.
"Now I'm a cleaner, but business isn't very good. Let's be honest...look at me. I'm not what you'd call handsome, so why would anybody want to do business with me if they could help it? I'm all grown up, I can handle it... but it hurts sometimes, you know?"
Hank didn't know, and didn't particularly care. His mind was on the empty stool, wondering when the magical vision named Noreen would be drifting in to take her place there. He had a momentary image of how stupid he'd look if he were still talking with this little creep when she arrived, but the little creep was still yammering.
"We had to close the store once folks stopped coming, but I still do mobile carpet and drapery cleaning when I have a chance." The rodent man now noticed the paint stain on Hank's sleeve. "Hey, I can get that out for you!" And before Hank could withdraw, the nasty little man had grabbed his sleeve and was pouring a drop of liquid from a small vial he had produced from within the shabby brown coat. He rubbed the fabric between his rat-like fingers for a moment, and then released the garment.
"There ya go, pal" he mumbled with a faint hint of pride. "I'm a good cleaner."
And to Hank's suprise, the paint stain was completely gone. A dim notion began to collect its wits and step towards the front of Hank's inebriated brain. If he were to hire this loser to clean that stupid paint he had spilled, maybe Sarah wouldn't scream at him about it.
"Y'know, I have some carpet you could clean" Hank found himself saying. And the rodent man's entire face changed. There was a sudden look of astonished hopefulness.
"You mean that?" he stammered. "You see, I haven't actually had any work for several weeks, and my kid's hungry, and gosh it sure would be great if you could give me the work, and I promise..."
The little creep kept speaking, but Hank suddenly wasn't listening to any of it. Because beyond the suddenly happy little gnome Hank could now see the barstool across the room was occupied. She had drifted in without his noticing. Noreen was here.
He had to get this runt to shut up before Noreen noticed them speaking. If she were to notice them together, she'd undoubtedly consider Hank a loser and give him no further thought. But Harvey the Rat Man was falling all over himself in his sudden gratitude, and Hank knew the creep would only follow him if he tried to move away. He needed to tell this freak whatever was necessary to get free and clear.
"Look, it's no big deal" he began. "Just show up tomorrow sometime and the job's yours. Doorbell's busted, so I'll leave the door unlocked for you." Hank suddenly realized he hadn't even asked the price, but what did it matter? He just needed to shut this loser up so he could concentrate on the magical vision sitting across the room.
"You'll leave the door unlocked so I can get in?" repeated the little man.
"Yeah, didn't I just say that?" Hank scowled impatiently.
"So you're inviting me into your home?" asked the little man.
What was wrong with this little weirdo? Didn't he understand plain English?
"YEAH! You're invited! Come clean up the stupid stains. Enjoy! And now if you'll excuse me, I have something to attend to."
Hank began to rise, but suddenly the rodent man's hand shot forward and seized his lapel. A cold sensation seemed to spread out from the hand, freezing first Hank's jacket and then his chest. His limbs grew numb and he found himself sitting back down heavily. The little man smiled again, but it was a different smile now.
"You will join me in a drink. To celebrate." And Hank found himself unable to keep his hand from reaching out for the shot glass the bartender had left while they were talking. The glass seemed to raise itself to his lips, and over its edge he noticed the ink stain on his paper napkin, which had grown into the vague form of a skull. And then there was blackness.
Hank awoke to find himself sitting on the ground, back propped against the hard cold bricks of the alley behind the tavern. Standing before him was the little rodent man, but he seemed to have somehow changed. He seemed taller, less frail. And Hank could almost swear there was a dim red glow in the man's eyes.
"What do you want with me?" Hank growled defiantly, even though he couldn't seem to move his limbs.
"Want with you?" repeated the rodent man slowly. And then he laughed hysterically, revealing teeth that now seemed much larger than before, and much sharper.
"I want nothing from you beyond that which you have already given me" chuckled the man. "But perhaps I owe you an explanation." And he came closer, seeming to float over the pavement as he advanced. He knelt down until his face was only inches from Hank's, and smiled like a reptile.
"You see, I was first drawn into your life by the wondrous music coming from an upstairs window of your home. Jazz, I believe it's called. Simply wondrous! And drifting up to look inside, I beheld a number of paintings the likes of which I have never seen. The design and composition of the artwork was completely masterful and the use of color was utterly superb. I was sure there could be nothing more beautiful until the artist herself entered the room. She was a vision beyond description, and I knew I could never live without her."
"So you lied to me..." Hank muttered.
"Perhaps. But I also told you the truth at times. We have to, you see. It's part of the deal."
As the man spoke, the changes seemed to continue. He was growing more robust, less ugly and perhaps even handsome in an odd way.
"I really was a priest once, before the vampires decided it would be fun to change me. But I made them agree to a deal. I only destroy those who have it coming. As I mentioned, I'm a cleaner. And you, Mister Nelson, are a stain."
"I can, of course, read your thoughts to a limited extent. So I know how impressed you are with my daughter." And at this point Noreen stepped forward from the shadows. "You'll find I was being very honest when I told you she was hungry." And Noreen's face was changing in a terrible way, as the mouth grew larger, her teeth having become sharp jagged spikes, glinting like shark's teeth in the moonlight. "Now that you've been kind enough to invite me into your home, I'll be able to offer sweet dear Sarah the gift of eternal life. She shall have all eternity to create her delightful paintings, if she so wishes. And if not, I shall leave her undisturbed, though my heart will be broken. Either way, I'll have cleaned YOU up."
Harvey the Vampire rose gracefully to his feet as Noreen bent closer over Hank's immobilized form. Noreen was very efficient, and Harvey knew there would be no noise to disturb the quiet evening. His thoughts returned to the lovely Sarah as he stepped briskly down the sidewalk, smiling contentedly and quietly whistling a jazz tune.