Dents in the Grass

The twins reached a fork in the gravel road before they agreed on which direction to go. One direction was paved, the other in the same shape as the road they’d been walking down all day.

Andrew stopped, looked to his brother, and nodded down the paved road.

Parker shook his head, looked to the right where the gravel road led, and said, “I think I’ll stick with this one.”


Parker offered a weak smile and a shrug.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Andrew. “We’ve got no idea where that road leads.”

“Yeah, well, we don’t know where that one goes either.”

“It goes somewhere,” said Andrew. “They wouldn’t pave it if it didn’t go somewhere.”

“And they wouldn’t make this one if it didn’t go somewhere too,” said Parker as he held out an open palm in the direction of the gravel road.

Both roads stretched to the edge of the flat horizon, curtained by tall, billowing grass that was more brown than green, and growing more golden by the minute as the late day sun inched towards night. Wisps of clouds like white cotton stretched until it was nearly transparent, marring the otherwise pale blue of aging daylight.

“We need to go somewhere safe,” said Andrew.

“I’m not worried.”

“You should be,” said Andrew. “The world doesn’t care about you. I’m not trying to be harsh, just honest. The world couldn’t give two shits if you make it or not. It’ll watch you die and forget you were ever here to begin with. At least if we go this way, down the paved road, we’ll know we’re headed somewhere other people want to be. Down that way…” he motioned down the gravel road. “Parker, who the fuck knows what’s down there?”

“I can always come back.” Parker tried to ease his twin’s concern. “If things don’t go well for me down that road, then I can make my way back here and go that way.”

“It’s too late for that,” said Andrew. “The sun’s going down. We’ve been walking all day. Come on, man. Let’s go the way they want us to.”

“Who’s they?” asked Parker.

“I don’t know. They, them. The fucking people who paved the road because they knew there was stuff that way that people wanted to get to.” He tried to pull at his brother’s shirt to get him to go down the paved road. Parker resisted and stayed on the gravel road as his twin stepped up onto the smooth pavement. “Come on, Park. No more fucking around. Let’s go before we’re caught in the dark.”

“I’m not going that way,” said Parker.

“Why the fuck not?”

“Because that way gets us to where they want us to be, and I don’t want to go where they want me to go.”

“They who?”

Parker laughed, “The same ‘They’ you were talking about. The same ‘They’ who paved that road. The same ‘They’ who looked at a wide open landscape and decided to carve a path for everyone to follow. Step by step, down the paved road. I’ve been thinking about it all day. Even this road,” Parker kicked stones off the path and into the grass. “Someone built this road too. Someone carved a path.”

“They carved a path to help us find our way,” said Andrew. “That’s what paths and roads are for. People come before us and clear the way. They figure out the best road, and then make it easier for the people coming after them.”

“But you’ve got to trust they were headed in the right direction in the first place,” said Parker. “And I’m not so sure. Way I see it, I could go straight that way and make it somewhere.” He pointed straight ahead, out into the field of grass.

“You’re kidding, right?” asked Andrew.

Parker shook his head. “Nope. This is the most serious I’ve been all day.”

Andrew crossed his arms took a deep breath. “World’s going to eat you alive if you go your own way. People don’t like that sort of thing.”

“Every path starts somewhere,” said Parker. “Someone has to start it.”

“You’re no adventurer,” said Andrew. “What’re you, like, fucking Lewis and Clark all of the sudden?”

“I’ll be Lewis if you’ll be Clark,” said Parker.

“Fuck that,” said Andrew. “If you go traipsing off on your own through the grass you’ll be going alone.”

“You’d leave me?”

“You’re the one leaving me,” said Andrew, annoyed. “I’m walking down this perfectly fine road, headed to someplace perfectly safe and perfectly fucking normal. You’re going to go get yourself killed and I’m not going to think twice about it.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” said Parker.

Andrew kept his arms crossed, straightened his posture, and looked away.

“You’re really going to let me go alone?”

“Damn straight,” said Andrew.

“All right then, see you when I see you,” said Parker as he started to walk towards the grass.

Andrew grabbed the back of his shirt to pull him back. “This is the last… Parker, listen to me. This is it. This is the last warning. Okay? Listen to me. I know you’ve got this grand goddamn idea about yourself, like you’re some sort of… I don’t know. Some sort of explorer or something, but you’re not. You’re just like me. You’re a regular fucking dude. Okay? Nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with being a regular fucking dude with a regular fucking life and a goddamn roof over their head and a comfy bed to sleep in. That’s what’s down that way,” he pointed down the paved road. “Let’s go. I’m not sure exactly where that road leads, but I’ve got a pretty damn good idea. It’s someplace nicer than whatever the hell’s waiting for you out in the grass.

“Maybe,” said Parker. “But maybe what’s down that way isn’t for me. No, man. Not maybe. That way’s for you. Okay? It makes sense. It’s safe, and I know that’s what you’re about. Nothing wrong with it. You can go down that road and end up somewhere really nice, but it’s not someplace I want to be. Does that make sense?”

“No,” said Andrew, and he let out a quick, exasperated laugh. “No it sure the fuck doesn’t.”

“Well, it makes sense to me,” said Parker. “I don’t want what’s at the end of that road.”

“You want that,” said Andrew as he motioned to the grass.

“Maybe,” said Parker. “I don’t know what’s out there. I’d like to find out.”

“Even if it’s dangerous to go off the path?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Parker. “I don’t want to get hurt.”

“If you go off through there you’re going to get hurt, I guarantee it.”

“Then so be it,” said Parker. “All I know is that if I go down the paved road I’ll never be happy. Not really. I might have happy moments here and there, but I’ll always wonder what would’ve happened if I threw caution to the wind and walked off into the grass.”

Andrew closed his eyes, defeated. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“We’ve been going through life just getting by. Day to day, never stepping off the path they made for us. Just walking along, hoping we’re headed the right way.”

“But diving off the path entirely seems really, really fucking dumb,” said Andrew.

“How about a compromise,” said Parker.

“I’m listening.”

“If you come with me down this way,” Parker pointed down the gravel road that forked off to the right, “I’ll stay on the path.”

“It’s rocky,” said Andrew. “I’m so damn sick of these rocky ass, piece of shit gravel roads. My feet hurt. I want to walk on the pavement. I want to have a sense that I know where I’m going, and that there’s something good at the end of the road.”

“And I want to go off the road into the grass, but I’ll stay on the path as long as you’re with me.” Parker looked at his brother in silence for a while, and then held out his hand. “Deal?”

“Fine,” Andrew relented. They shook hands, and headed down the uneven, rocky road together as the sun set behind them. They both knew they’d never make it back before nightfall. This was now their path, and all the other Parkers and Andrews would follow behind, each coming to the crossroads and stopping for a moment to have the same discussion.

Eventually, one of those Parkers would choose the grass, and a dent would begin to form in the grass from his footsteps. Others would follow. Then, one day there’d be three roads, and then four, and so it would go, as does all things.

The Doll-Faced Bear

When I was eight years old, I received a gift that would haunt me the rest of my life. It was a present from an estranged member of our family, my Aunt Diane, and it would lead me to uncover a dark secret my parents had tried to hide.

My parents had always been over-protective of me, and they went to great lengths to keep me safe. When I was a toddler, every outlet was fitted with safety plugs, and every drawer was locked. I wasn’t allowed to cross a street by myself until I was nearly in my teens. And perhaps worst of all, I discovered that the cell phone they gave me for my fifteenth birthday acted as a GPS system so they could track me. But despite how much they tried to protect me, the greatest danger would come from our own family, and it all started with the gift from Aunt Diane.

It was the first year after my grandfather had passed. I was only eight at the time, and our family had been in turmoil since his death. My parents made the difficult decision of putting my grandmother into a senior center since she couldn’t care for herself anymore following a severe stroke. This strained our relationship with my mother’s sister, who had been living with her parents.

Aunt Diane wasn’t mentally sound, and my parents refused to give her custody of my grandmother. They sold the house out from under her and hadn’t had any contact with her since. That is until my gift arrived.

Even the box the gift came in was disturbing. It was wrapped in plain, grey tissue paper, and taped manically, as if my aunt had been trying to cover seams that weren’t there. My name was on the tag, but there was nothing explaining who’d sent it. My mother assured me it was from Aunt Diane, and the slight quiver in her voice unnerved me.

My father grimaced at the sight of the bizarrely wrapped gift. He told me, “You don’t have to open it if you don’t want to.”

Mom said, “Yes she does.” She turned to me, the slightest hint of apprehension in her tone, “Go ahead, Ashley, open it up. See what Auntie sent.”

I looked back and forth between them, uncertain who to listen to. Eventually my father grudgingly nodded his approval. I opened the gift cautiously, as if I already knew I didn’t want to see what was inside.

Once the paper was off, I saw a black shoebox. It was made of a heftier material than cardboard, but not as strong as wood. I’m not certain what type of box it was, but it looked like a miniature coffin. Its silver hinges creaked as I lifted the lid to reveal the present inside.

Cotton bloomed from the slowly opening lid, puffing forth like a freed cloud, and then I saw brown fur deeper in. Once the lid was open, I saw the creation that would sear its visage in my subconscious from that day forward.

It was a teddy bear with ragged, brown fur. The fur had singed tips and was matted, as if it’d been washed with grease. Whatever fire had burned the demonic toy had devoured the bear’s hands, feet, and ears. But if all Aunt Diane had sent me was a tattered, burned bear, I would’ve forgotten about it by now. The truly unsettling thing about this gift was the bear’s face. It wasn’t a bear’s face at all, but the visage of a plastic doll glued to the animal. The doll’s lidless eyes stared ahead with pinprick pupils. There were freckles on her porcelain-white cheeks, painted on haphazardly in a pattern mimicking whiskers. The doll’s lips were slightly opened, as if she was frozen in mid-sentence.

I sat transfixed, staring at the demonic creation. I wasn’t merely lost for words, I was lost entirely, as if the sight of the doll-faced bear had ripped away my ability to speak, or move, or do anything but stare into those pinprick pupils in orbs of grey.

“What is it?” asked my mother with tentative curiosity.

I didn’t answer.

“Amy, let me see what she sent.” Mother reached for the box, and when she took the bear away its spell on me faded. I regained my ability to move and speak.

I stood, backed away, and whispered, “I don’t like it.”

My mother took it from its coffin, and a note fell to the floor. My father retrieved the folded paper, and with the Christmas lights twinkling behind him, he muttered a silent curse. “Look at this,” he said as he handed it to my mother.

She set the bear and the box on her knees as she sat on the edge of the loveseat and read the note from her sister. Her eyes glassed as tears threatened to streak down her cheeks. She covered her mouth, but couldn’t stifle a whimper of sorrow.

“Give me that,” said my father as he snatched the gift from her.

“What’re you going to do with it?” she asked. I stood gawking at them.

“I’m going to throw it in the garbage. What do you think I’m going to do?”

“No, no,” said my mother as she got up to chase him. She grabbed the crook of his arm and held him back. “You can’t throw it away.”

“Why not?”

“Because…” she didn’t want to say the reason in front of me. She held up the note as if that was all the explanation he should need.

My father glared at her, and for a second I thought they would start fighting, but he relented and gave her the box. “Fine, but we’re not letting Ashley near it.”

“No, of course not,” said my mother as she cradled the box as if it were a baby. “I’ll put it away. I’ll put it somewhere safe.” She hurried upstairs, leaving me with my father.

“What did the note say?” I asked.

He looked to me, his countenance a mix of anger and fear that he tried to mask with a half-hearted smile. “Nothing, kiddo,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Why don’t you… why don’t you pick out another present?”

There weren’t many left, and I’d lost interest in them. I listened to the sound of my mother opening the stairs to the attic, and I knew the doll-faced bear and the note it came with were forever out of my reach, though the mere fact it was still in the house unsettled me.

I tried to forget about the bear, but it came back to me in my dreams for seven years, until I was fifteen. Sometimes it’d be sitting in a chair in our house, a silent interloper trying to turn mundane dreams into nightmares. Other times the bear would climb over the edge of my bed, freezing me into silence with its devilish stare. It would crawl over to me, pull aside the covers, and slide in bed beside me. 

A distant woman sung, ‘Hush little baby, don’t say a word.’

The singed tips of its matted fur would scrape at my skin, and there was always the hint of whispers coming from between its lips, like wind from beneath a door.

Those were the worst nightmares, where I was frozen by the bear, unable to move or scream for help. It would move closer to my face until I could feel its cold, plastic skin on my cheek, and the whispering wind began to sound like words. Almost as if it needed to tell me something.

One night, the nightmare lasted longer than it ever had before. The bear’s whispers began to form words as the creature pressed itself closer to my ear. For the first time since the doll-faced bear began to invade my dreams, I actually heard what it was trying to say.

“She burned me. And she’ll burn you too.”

I sat up in a panic, my heart thundering and my brow soaked with sweat. I threw off the covers and fell out of bed, grasping my throat as if someone had been choking me. I coughed and sputtered as I scurried to the corner of the room. I pressed by back to the corner and stared at the bed. The faint moonlight streaming in through the window provided a haunting glow, but it was bright enough for me to see the covers move.

Something was in the bed.

I leapt for the door, and the handle was warm to the touch, as if someone had been holding it moments ago. I dared a glance back at the bed, and the doll-faced bear was staring back at me with its pinprick eyes.

There was a faint scent of smoke.

I opened the door and discovered the source of the smell. Smoke wafted through the hall, thick and grey, like storm clouds gathering inside the house. The smoke alarm in the hallway was missing, leaving a torn wire dangling from its base.

The fire had started in the kitchen, but it was quickly moving through the house, following a trail of wetness on the carpet at my feet. I ran to my parents’ room, and the fire chased me, compelled forward by the oily substance on the floor.

The door was locked. I felt the fire at my back as I screamed for help.

And then, mercifully, I woke up. I lifted the covers, and this time the bear was nowhere to be seen.

That night, I was determined to put an end to the mystery of the doll-faced bear. I found a flashlight and snuck to the attic to search for the creature my parents had hidden from me so many years earlier.

I found the creature’s box tucked away in the corner of the attic, with twine tying it shut as if my parents had been afraid the thing inside might break free. I unwound the twine, and lifted the creaky lid, uncertain what I’d find.

The bear was every bit as terrifying as I remembered. Its fur was still slick with oil, and those pinprick eyes gazed soulessly up. As we grow up, we discover the things that scared us as children no longer hold the same power they once did. The doll-faced bear wasn’t an example of this. Terror streaked through me, rattling me to my core as I stared into those lidless, grey orbs and slightly parted lips.

Aunt Diane’s note was tucked in beside the bear, and I took it out. My heart raced as I opened the folded parchment and read what’d upset my parents so many years ago.

‘I made this from two of Jessica’s favorite toys. It’s all that’s left of her. Maybe a part of her is still in here. Keep her safe from me.’

I took the bear, its coffin, and the note back to my room. My fear of the creature had been replaced by curiosity, and an unexplainable sense of empathy. I needed to know more about who Jessica was, and what happened to her. I didn’t tell my parents about my dreams, or that I’d taken the bear from the attic, but I began to pester them with questions about Aunt Diane. They said we shouldn’t concern ourselves with her anymore. They said she was living in a home upstate, though they refused to go into more detail about it than that. 

When I asked about Jessica, my mother turned as pale as a ghost.

“Why are you asking about her?” my mother asked.

“Who was she?”

My parents looked across the dinner table at each other, panic in their eyes.

“Don’t worry about Jessica,” said my father with finality.

“But who was she?”

“What makes you ask about her?” asked my mother.

“It doesn’t matter,” said my father, incensed. He stood from the table with purpose, and his chair screeched on the wood floor as it flew back. “We’re not talking about this.” He stormed off, and before I could ask what was wrong, I heard the attic’s hatch open.

My mother went after him, leaving me to listen as they searched the attic. I raced to my room, found the bear and its coffin, and dropped it out my window just before my father came in.

“Where is it?” he asked, angrier than I’d ever seen him.

“Where’s what?” I feigned ignorance.

“You know what!” He began searching the room, tearing through my things in an attempt to find the doll-faced bear.

“No, I don’t,” I screamed. “What’re you doing? Stop!”

He looked beneath my bed, through my drawers, and in my closet, but he never guessed that the bear was laying in the bushes outside my window.

My mother finally calmed him down, and when he left she asked me in a whisper, “Do you have the bear?”

“What bear?”

“Jessica’s bear,” she said, her eyes tearing up. “The one with the doll’s face.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She knew I was lying, but didn’t pursue the topic any further. I grabbed my backpack and told them I was headed to a friend’s house to study. Once out of the house, I picked up the bear and its coffin, and ran to the only place I thought I might get an answer. I went to see my grandmother at the senior center.

After the standard pleasantries that go with a visit from a granddaughter, I told her why I was really there. “I want to know about Jessica.”

The half-smile my on my grandmother’s partially paralyzed face subsided. “Let’s talk about something else,” she said while reaching for my hand.

I pulled away. “No, I want to know about Jessica. Was she Aunt Diane’s daughter?”

My grandmother looked down at her hands and whispered the answer, “Yes. She died in a terrible fire not long after you were born.”

My cell phone rang, and I saw that it was my parents. I declined the call, and continued my visit with the only person who seemed willing to tell the truth about my family’s past.

“I want to show you something,” I said.

I opened my backpack and took out the doll-faced bear’s coffin. I opened the gift, and showed the creature to my grandmother. Her eyes widened upon seeing it.

“Where did you get that?” she said as she took the bear from its cotton-stuffed coffin.

“Aunt Diane sent it to me for Christmas seven years ago. Mom and Dad hid it from me. It came with this.” I read the note to her, “I made this from two of Jessica’s favorite toys. It’s all that’s left of her. Maybe a part of her is still in here. Keep her safe from me.”

I gave her the note so that she could read it for herself. A tear fell down her wrinkled cheek.

“Why did she say to keep her safe from her? Did Aunt Diane…” The question was harder to ask than I expected. I choked, but forced myself to ask, “Did Aunt Diane hurt her daughter?”

My grandmother dabbed her eye with a handkerchief. It took her a long time to answer, but I sat patiently, determined to wait for an answer no matter how long it took.

“It’s not my place to say.”

“Please, Grandma. I need to know the truth.”

My grandmother closed the lid on the doll-faced bear’s coffin, and handed it back to me. “If Diane wants you to know, then let her tell you. Give me your phone. I’ll call her for you. You can ask her yourself about what happened to Jessica.”

My determination to uncover the truth was challenged by what my grandmother proposed. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to ask such an accusatory question of a woman I’d only met a few times in my life. Nevertheless, I gave my grandmother my phone. My heart raced as I watched her dial my aunt’s number.

It took a while for Diane to answer. My grandmother and I locked eyes as we waited, and then she said, “Diane, it’s me. I’m here with Ashley. She’s asking about Jessica. Do you want to talk to her?”

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to talk to her or not. My curiosity had been tempered by fear.

My grandmother reached out her hand to offer me the phone, but before I could take it someone else snatched it away. It was my father. He’d used the GPS on my phone to track me, and now both he and my mother had come to put an end to my detective work.

I was shuttled away angrily, despite my pleas to know the truth. We fought, but I couldn’t do much more than yell at them. Once we were in the car, my father finally relented. Before we left to go home, he told me the truth about what happened to Jessica.

“Have you ever heard of Munchausen by proxy?” he asked.


“It’s a disease, or a mental disorder I guess. It’s where a parent hurts their own child to get attention. We always suspected that your Aunt Diane did that to her daughter. She used to act like Jessica was sick to get attention from us.”

My mother quietly wept as my father continued.

“It started with her telling us that Jessica had a weak immune system, and then she started getting bruises, which led to her saying that Jessica had cancer. At first we all believed her, but then one day we took Jessica to a doctor ourselves, and all the test came back negative. Jessica was fine.”

“We confronted Diane, but she denied everything, and we didn’t have any proof. For all we knew, Diane had never gotten a second opinion from a doctor, and had just been misled. It wasn’t long after that…” My father was overcome with emotion, and he lapsed into silence for what felt like forever. My mother reached over to squeeze his hand.

He soldiered on, “That’s when the fire happened.”

“Did Aunt Diane start the fire?” I asked.

Neither of them wanted to answer. My mother finally said, “We don’t know. No one knows what really happened. After the fire, Diane went to stay with our parents. She was never the same after that. We never wanted you to find out about any of this. It’s all too horrible.”

The doll-faced bear was in my backpack, and I felt its presence more intensely than ever before. I was certain that Jessica was there with us, and she was determined to have her story told. As we drove home, I had a lingering sense that there was still something left uncovered – some secret I had yet to learn.

We weren’t home for more than half an hour when there came a knock at the door. It wasn’t a normal knock, but a pounding as if the visitor was determined to get in whether we let them in or they had to break down the door.

My mother and I watched from the hallway as my father went to door. He opened the door to reveal a spindly woman in black, wearing a pillbox hat with white netting shielding her wide eyes. Lightning illuminated the night behind her, and my mother uttered her name as if it was a curse.


“Mommy called me,” said Diane to my mother. “She said Ashley was asking about Jessica.”

Thundered roared, shuddering the walls.

“Ashley, go to your room,” said my father.

I hesitated, but began to do as I was told. I felt an overwhelming sense of danger as the tense situation evolved.

Diane screamed out, halting me in my tracks. “Don’t you want to know the truth about your sister?”

I turned and asked, “My sister?”

“Diane, no,” said my mother.

Diane was staring straight at me, “They never told you the truth.”

My father tried to force her out the door, but she pressed her hand to his face and began to scream, “They never told you how he cheated on your mom with me. They never told you how he got me pregnant, and tried to make me lie about it. They never told you how they pretended like it never happened, or how after you came along they just wanted to forget Jessica was even alive!”

“I’m calling the police,” said my mother.

“Why didn’t you love me?” asked Diane of my father as she pounded on his chest. “Why did you make me do this?”

My father released her and backed away as he said, “She’s got a gun.”

My mother screamed out, and then stood frozen in fear with her phone in her hand, an operator asking desperately what was wrong.

Diane stood in the threshold of our home with a pistol, and aimed it at my father as she said, “Why didn’t you love us?”

“Wait,” I said as I pulled the doll-faced bear’s coffin from my bag. I hurriedly got the creature out, and held it aloft for Aunt Diane to see. “Jessica’s here.”

“Jessica,” said Aunt Diane. “Oh my baby girl.”

Once the bear was out, it felt like someone had taken over me. I was being compelled to say things I wouldn’t normally say, and I knew this is what the bear had been hoping for all along. Jessica’s spirit, or a remnant of it, was tied to this creature, and it had possessed me. It was the reason I’d been so determined to learn the truth about what Diane did.

“She wants you to admit what you did.”

“My baby girl,” said Diane mournfully.

I looked through the corner of my eye at the phone in my mother’s hand with the operator still on the line. “Tell the truth about how she died. Tell us about how you broke the smoke detectors, and poured cooking oil outside her door. Tell us how you locked the door to your bedroom so she’d be trapped in the hallway.”

“How do you know about that?” she asked.

“Admit the truth!” I screamed.

“It’s true. All of it. I killed her because it was the only way I could hurt your father the way he hurt me.”

There was a flash of blue light outside, and at first I assumed it was more lightning, but then it was quickly followed by a flash of red. The police had arrived, and the operator on the line had heard everything Aunt Diane said.

She saw the approaching squad car, and began to panic. She looked at me with pin-prick eyes, and then turned the gun on herself. I closed my eyes, unwilling to watch the scene unfold.

I heard my father scream, “Diane, no.”

There was a gunshot, but then I heard my aunt say, “Let me do it. Let me kill myself. I don’t want to live anymore.”

My father wrestled the gun away from her, and within seconds the police were screaming commands for all of us to get on the ground. I dropped the doll-faced bear, and did as I was told.

The police arrested my Aunt Diane, and spoke to us for several hours about what transpired. I didn’t tell them about my suspicions about how my sister’s spirit was inside of the doll-faced bear, because I was afraid no one would believe me.

When I went back to look for the doll-faced bear, it’d vanished. I searched for it, convinced it must’ve rolled under the couch or something like that, but it was nowhere to be found. I opened its coffin, as if perhaps I’d put it back without realizing it, but the bear was gone. In its place, hidden in the cotton, was a silver bracelet with the name ‘Jessica’ on it.

It was medical alert bracelet that listed the various illnesses my sister never truly had. I still have that bracelet today, though I took it in to a jeweler to have the ailments erased. I’m wearing the bracelet now, which makes me feel like my sister’s still with me, even though the doll-faced bear disappeared.

Sometimes, at night, the doll-faced bear shows up in my dreams. They’re no longer nightmares. Instead, now they feel like reunions with a lost sister I never knew I had.

Limbus Lounge

By: A. Wise

I’ve said, ‘How did I get here,’ more than a few times in my life, but I never meant it more than when I found myself being led into the Limbus Lounge by a couple of brutish bouncers.

Seedy bars were a common setting in my life. I got my first job as a bartender at the age of twenty-one, and I’ve been sneaking drinks on someone else’s dime ever since. My habit of ‘borrowing’ drinks from my employer led me to collect quite a lengthy work history. But one good thing about my industry, bar owners rarely check references. Especially not mob-affiliated bars, like my last gig. Unfortunately, my ‘tenure’ at that job got revoked when the boss caught me stealing a case of single malt scotch.

That’s what led me to Raven Delacourt’s joint, Limbus Lounge. I needed a job, and she was willing to give me an interview. Actually, it was more of a contest. There were three applicants, including me, and I was the last to arrive.

Raven was a sultry creature. She was around forty, thin except in the places that counted, and had a raspy voice that I’d love to hear singing. “You’re late,” she said, her long, thin cigar pinched between her index and middle finger. She bit off the tip of the cigar and spit it to the floor.

A single musician sat on a stool, strumming an acoustic guitar and mumbling something that might’ve been a Dylan cover. His black hat dipped low enough to cover his face. Tendrils of smoke climbed from the tip of the cigarette pinched in place beneath a guitar string at the headstock.

“I’m sorry?” My apology to Raven sounded more like a question than I’d intended.

The two bouncers had led me to the bottom of a slick stairwell that’d been painted black. The bar’s wood panel walls and mounted animal heads would’ve given the Limbus Lounge a western feel if it wasn’t for its other modern accents. The bar top was a concrete slab that’d been lacquered over. White Christmas lights dangled from the rafters. Behind the bar were long shelves loaded with hundreds of bottles I recognized, and even more that I didn’t. A blue light glowed faintly behind the bottles, imbuing their liquids with a ghostly hue.

The two, beefy bouncers nodded at their boss, and then headed back upstairs to their post at the entrance.

“Don’t be sorry,” said Raven as she lit her cigar. “Be on time. Get behind the bar. Crystal, David, this is Tom. All three of you applied for this job, and tonight you’re going to have to fight to get it. I’m not going to just hand it to you.”

This was an interesting change of pace. I’d never been in an interview like this before. I sized up the competition.

Crystal was a spritely thing, but she looked like the type who wouldn’t take ‘cute’ as a compliment. Silver studs sat in the dimples on both freckled cheeks, and a myriad of other decorations adorned her face. Her blonde hair was shaved on both sides of her head, revealing thick-lined black tattoos of fearsome lionesses. Her ears were gauged, and her ice blue eyes had to be the work of colored contacts.

David was a somber fellow, tall and thick, but not fat by any means. He had dark skin, though I didn’t think he was black – perhaps Mexican, though it was hard to tell in the Limbus Lounge’s dim light. He wore a tight, black v-neck that would’ve looked more appropriate on a bouncer than a bartender. He side-eyed me, and I sheepishly looked away.

“We’re going to skip the bullshit,” said the owner as she straddled a bar stool in front of Crystal, with me to her left and David to her right. “We’ve got a flood of folks on their way in, and I don’t have time to fuck around.” She sucked in a long drag, and looked at each of us as she did, her lungs gathering more smoke than any human should be able to. When she finished, she ashed on the floor, and then let the smoke drift from her nostrils before she spoke again. “Make me a Moscow Mule.”

“Excuse me?” asked Crystal.

“Strike one, cutie-pie,” said Raven. “Don’t make me repeat myself. I hate having to say things twice.”

“How’re we supposed to find anything?” asked David as he looked around. “I’ve never been back here before.”

The limes were right in front of us, on the lower shelf beneath the bar top. I grabbed one at the same time as Crystal. We locked eyes, and the fire of her competitive spirit might’ve torched me on the spot if possible. I got a paring knife, slit the fruit in two, and slid my spare half across the bar to David.

“Strike one, Tommy Boy,” said the owner. “Don’t help anyone but yourself or you’ll get taken advantage of around here. And when my bartenders get taken advantage of, I get taken advantage of.” She glowered at me and added, “And I don’t like getting taken advantage of.”

My heart thundered, and I couldn’t help but smirk a bit. I love a good competition. I grabbed a pint glass and squeezed the lime into it while reaching for a bottle of Grey Goose.

Crystal beat me to it. Not only that, but she’d found a copper mug somewhere behind the bar. I knew that was the proper way to serve the drink, but hadn’t seen one around before getting started.

Time was of the essence, and I didn’t want to wait for Crystal to finish with the high-end vodka. I grabbed something I deemed good enough, hoping that the third and final ingredient of the drink would mask the harshness of my vodka choice. Besides, the Limbus Lounge didn’t strike me as the sort of place where the patrons had discerning palates.

I dropped the squeezed lime half into my glass, and then filled it with ice. I poured the vodka, careful not to let the spout shoot the liquor past the glass. I saw Crystal measure her portions, but I didn’t bother. A seasoned bartender should be able to count out the shots instead of measuring them. Despite my glass choice, I felt like I might have a leg up on the nymph beside me.

David was lagging far behind. He watched Crystal, and made a mess as he tried to copy her. He didn’t drop the lime half into the bottom of his cup. A rookie mistake. I heard him curse as he spilled vodka on himself.

The last ingredient was ginger beer, but there was no telling if that was even an option. I opened the mini-fridge under the bar and found it stocked with soda, beer, limes, lemons, and finally ginger ale. “Fuck,” I muttered as I moved some of the bottles aside in search of the perfect ingredient. No such luck. It didn’t look like the Limbus Lounge stocked any ginger beers. I’d have to settle for a can of ginger ale.

As I rose from my squatted position, I saw Crystal pouring a bottle of ginger beer into her copper mug. Where’d she find it? I was pissed, and she knew it. She smirked at me, and then dumped the remainder of the ginger beer into the sink before finishing her cocktail by dropping in a metal stirring stick. She slid her perfect drink to the owner several seconds before I managed to finish mine.

David was dead last, and when he slid his copper mug over to Raven there was a trail of wetness behind it. He cursed, glowered, and then folded his hamhock arms like a petulant child.

“Good job, Crystal,” said the owner. “Let’s give it a try.” She set her cigar down on the countertop, not bothering to reach for the ashtray a foot to her right.

David retrieved the ashtray, and then placed the owner’s cigar in it, eager to show how he would care for the place if she hired him. She watched David, either intrigued or appalled, I couldn’t tell which.

“Point to Davey for that move. And then we’ll go ahead and take that point right off again, because… Don’t ever touch my fucking shit again.”

She stirred Crystal’s drink, smelled it, and then took a long drink. A very long drink. A ‘holy-shit-she’s-going-to-finish-it’ long drink.

“God damn,” she said, and then repeated the curse like it was a cheer. “God damn, Crystal!”

Crystal laughed.

“That’s fucking delicious. Ten out of ten. Good job.”

She turned to me. “Wrong glass, Tom. And a Moscow Mule should be made with ginger beer, not that fake ass ginger soda crap.”

“I know.”

“If you know, then why’d you fuck it up?”

I shrugged, resigned to the fact that this interview was going south fast. I was getting a bad feeling about this place, and its owner. I felt like she was trouble – which was a familiar feeling. It was as if I’d met someone like her in the past. She seemed like the type who measured liquid levels and weighed bottles. I hate working at those sorts of joints. I never last more than a couple weeks at them.

The owner took a sip of my Moscow Mule – only a sip. She didn’t chug my offering like she did Crystal’s. She looked at me and said, “It’s fine.”

She swiveled on her stool to face the third competitor in our little battle, “On to you, David. What’s this swill you’re shilling?”

“Only the best,” he said, though his powers of bullshitting were woefully slight.

“Yeah right,” she said before taking a sip. “Oh Christ.” She grimaced, held the drink far to her side, and poured it out onto the floor. She even dropped the mug. It clanked on the wood. “That’s a hot take on cold ass, Davey. Fucking hell. Is this your first time?”

“No ma’am.”

“Are you sure, because that tasted like a four-year-old made it. Seriously, up your game or you can take the southbound train.” She wiped her tongue off on a napkin, and then said, “On to round two. Make me a…”

“Let’s get this party started!” A young man’s voice bellowed from upstairs. It was a young man, probably barely twenty-one, in a ripped t-shirt and jeans that were tattered and dirty. He wasn’t an ugly kid, but it looked like he’d been strapped to the bumper of a Jeep and dragged down a dirt road for a few miles. “I’ve been trying to get to this place forever. I’m thirsty. Haven’t had a drink in… Shit, who knows how long? Someone get me something to drink.”

“And so it begins,” said Raven with a bored expression.

“We’re doing shots tonight. All night, all night, all night.” The newcomer started chanting as he approached the bar.

I took the initiative and poured a shot of the cheapest whiskey I could find. He downed it as if in a race, and then slammed the shot glass upside down on the bar. I hate it when people do that. As if I want to wipe up your leftovers and spit.

“Should I start you a tab?” I asked.

“It’s on the house,” said the owner before shooing the guy away. He asked for some Natty Lights on his way to a booth in the corner. We ignored his request.

“It’s only going to get busier by the minute,” said the owner. “We should hurry this up. How about you guys make me a…” She thought about it for a minute, and then with a burgeoning smile she said, “A daiquiri.”

“What kind of daiquiri?” asked David, but Crystal and I were already plowing ahead.

“Whatever sort of daiquiri you want, my dear,” said the owner.

David reached for a blender, and I grimaced in regret for him. This lady knows what she’s doing. Asking a bartender for a daiquiri is the ideal way to test their basic skills. While there’ve been a thousand different concoctions devised to blend rum, sugar, and some sort of sour fruit to create what might be deemed a daiquiri, the real thing is simple yet divine. It’s a test of perfect balance, blending just a few ingredients into a swirl of notes, each complimenting the next. I make good daiquiris. Damn good daiquiris.

I start with fresh limes squeezed with a hand juicer into a tumbler. This gets a good amount of the oils from the skins without getting any pulp or seeds in the mix. Next comes the white rum.

At this point in my mixing, I heard poor David start blending his icy mixture. Again, I grimaced and shook my head. The owner chuckled, and I casually looked up at her, offered a wry smile, and then got back to work. Both of us knew David wasn’t going to make the cut.

I found the simple syrup, added a shot to the tumbler before a few cubes of ice, and then gave it a rigorous shake. Crystal was already pouring her similarly made daiquiri, but I took my time. I shook my drink until the chill on the tumbler stung my palm. Then, finally, I poured my daiquiri.

Crystal’s drink looked nearly identical to mine, but her martini coupe was colder, and it was decorated with a thin slice of lime and cherry as a garnish. I was captivated by it. She’d outdone me. I realized that she’d plunged her glass into ice before serving, which gave her a frosty edge over me, not to mention the garnish, which put her over the top.

I cursed under my breath.

David was fumbling with his strawberry nightmare. It fell in clumps from the blender into the mug he chose to serve it in. He even had a tiny umbrella waiting to add.

“Just stop, David,” said the owner. “Go ahead and dump that out. I’m too old and tired to even take a sip of it.”

“You’re missing out,” said David, desperate to save his chances. “It’s delicious.”

“Wait, don’t pour it out,” said the owner as she turned to look at the newcomer in the corner booth. “Give it to him.”

“You should really try it,” said David.

“I said give it to the kid.”

“Does this mean I didn’t get the job?” he asked, dejected and on the edge of anger.

“Did I say that?” asked Raven. “Go take that shit to the shithead, and then get back here. I’ve got one more drink I want the three of you to make me.”

Crystal and I watched David pour his frozen strawberry daiquiri into a glass, and then walk it over to the corner booth.

Crystal whispered, “His mess is leaking all over the place.” She used a towel to wipe off the bar in front of her, and then she left it in David’s mess for him to clean himself.

Raven tried my daiquiri and gave me an appreciative nod. Then she sipped Crystal’s, and I knew I’d lost by the way Raven’s eyes sparkled. Yet again, the owner finished Crystal’s offering while leaving mine mostly full.

“How long have you been bartending,” asked Raven of Crystal.

“Three years.”

“You’re damn good,” said Raven. She had no such compliment to offer me.

David returned and said, “He liked it.”

“Good for him,” said Raven. “Now clean off the bar and get ready for your last chance at getting this job.”

“Maybe I don’t want this job,” said David, petulant.

“Oh really?” asked Raven. She crossed her arms and leaned back as if enjoying this. “And what’s your back-up plan if this falls through for you? Where’re you going to go next? Where are any of you going to go if you don’t get this job?”

The three of us were caught off guard by the question. None of us offered an answer.

“I’m the only place around.”

Another new patron came into the bar. He stumbled his way down the steps, disheveled and uncoordinated. He was a businessman who looked like he was already ten shots deep in his drunken stupor before getting here. He tugged at his red and white striped tie, loosening it as he approached.

“Can I get a…” he started to order a drink, but Raven interrupted.

“You can get a martini,” she said. “Guys, the next drink I want you to make is a martini.”

“I don’t want a martini,” said the businessman as the three of us got started.

Raven took a drag while sizing her customer up. She blew smoke in his face, and then asked, “Do I look like I give a flying fuck what you want?”

“What sort of place is this?” he slurred his words.

“The last bar this side of hell,” said Raven. “Go find a seat.”

David, Crystal, and I were already in the process of making our drinks during Raven’s conversation with the patron. What she said to him gave me pause. I had a bottle of dry vermouth in one hand, and my tumbler of ice in the other, and I froze in place.

I looked at the black stairs at the entrance and tried to recall what brought me here. How did I end up at the Limbus Lounge?

I lost my last job when my boss caught me stealing a case of expensive scotch. The owner of that bar wasn’t the sort of guy who sent thieves off with a slap on the wrist.

“Holy shit,” I said as I set my tumbler on the bar.

“What’s the matter?” asked Crystal. “Did you forget how to make a martini?” She had already splashed vermouth on her ice, and then dumped out the excess from her tumbler. This was the same way I usually made martinis, because a nice touch of vermouth on the ice helps harshen the delicate flavor of the gin, but too much sours the drink.

“I’m dead,” I said.

“Dead last,” said David, enjoying the fact he was going to finish his drink before me. He was shaking his martini vigorously, proving that he didn’t know what he was doing. Despite what Bond said, you never shake a martini. You stir them. Shaking a martini bruises the gin and causes chips of ice to break off in the tumbler, which waters down the alcohol. Of course, he was using vodka instead of gin, another mortal sin as far as I was concerned.

But none of that mattered, because by the look in Raven’s eyes I knew I was right.

“I died last night. They…” It was all coming back to me now. “They shot me in the head.”

My purloined case of scotch ended up being the most expensive drink I’d ever stolen. My boss and his goons had been hiding in the back of the van that I was supposed to deliver the scotch to. It’d been a set-up, and there was no explaining my way out of it. After pleading for my life, I remember the cold metal of the gun being pressed behind my ear. There was blackness, and then…

The Limbus Lounge.

“Are we all dead?” I asked Raven.

Crystal had finished her martini, but froze as she held the glass by its stem. I saw the glint of realization lighten her features – the creep of terror in her eyes.

“Oh my God,” said Crystal. “He’s right.”

“What’s going on?” asked David, as clueless as ever.

“We’re fucking dead,” said Crystal, the scant color fading from her already pale face. “I… I’m dead.” She grasped at her throat, feeling for signs of injury. “I hung myself. And now I’m here. I don’t remember how I got here.”

“All right,” said Raven as she stood up. “Let’s cut the bullshit.”

She took a moment to straighten the wrinkles in her dress with a quick swipe down the front, as if she was a salesperson preparing to launch into a pitch. “Yes, you’re dead. Yes, this is the afterlife – sort of. More specifically, this is limbo. Normally you would’ve been given a chance to float around out there and contemplate a bunch of existential nonsense, but my last bartender took a flying leap into forced retirement, and I need a replacement.”

“Wait, are you for real?” asked David.

Crystal had her hands on her head and backed up until she collided with the shelves of liquor. She was cursing, and on the verge of tears.

“Stop it,” commanded Raven. “All three of you led shitty lives. Let’s face facts. You were garbage people. You weren’t bad enough to get tossed down there.” She pointed to the south door, on the opposite side of the tavern from the entrance. “But you sure didn’t deserve a spot up top either. So now you’re here, in between. And…”

David began to say something, but Raven was quick to shut him down.

“Wait, wait,” she said while holding her hand out at him. “Listen to me. I’m giving you a once in an afterlife shot here. A shot at something that’ll make your time here tolerable. You three are stuck in limbo for a few thousand years or so. Without this job, you’ll be sent out into the real limbo. Out with the nothingness, where you’ll float around confronting all the worst memories your brains can conjure up. Trust me, that’s not what you want. A thousand years of nothing but your own demons to keep you company. You can have that, or you can work here, where limbo touches the other side. You’ll help decide who stays, and who goes.”

“I need time to think,” said Crystal as she wiped tears from her eyes.

“No time to think, darling,” said Raven. “It’s time to fight.” She started to reach towards the martini, but Crystal snatched it away.

“No, fuck you,” said Crystal, finding inner strength despite the daunting circumstance. She dumped her drink out into the sink. “This isn’t fair.”

“You’re right, it isn’t,” said Raven. She snapped her fingers, and the bouncers from the entrance came down the stairs. “If life’s not fair, you can bet your ass the afterlife’s worse. Guys, show Crystal out.”

“No,” said the feisty bartender as she moved behind David. “Fuck you. You can’t just throw me out. You can’t expect us to just do whatever you tell us.”

“Yes I can,” said Raven, as relaxed as ever, smoking the way a dame in a noir film might in midst of seduction.

One of the bouncers came behind the bar, and the other skirted the outside, behind the stools. They both looked similar, about six and a half feet tall with chests thicker than kegs and arms as wide as my waist. Their heads were shaved, and their noses looked like they’d been broken a few hundred times until they achieved the perfect lumpy pancake appearance. They looked like mirror images of a mob hitman, each focused on the waifish girl retreating to the other side of the bar.

“Crystal, don’t make this hard on yourself,” said Raven, though I doubt she cared.

The spritely bartender wasn’t going down without a fight. She leapt over the bar, taking a few mugs with her that she tossed at the closest bouncer. “Fuck off!”

The musician paused his lazy strumming, and watched the battle commence in front of his triangle stage in the corner. He moved his beer when it was threatened by Crystal’s calamitous attempt at an escape.

Crystal tipped over a table and kicked a chair at the bouncer as he came for her. She ducked when he lunged, but her nimbleness was no match for the trained fighter. As she tried to crawl past him, he caught her by the belt. There was no compassion on his part, despite the size difference. The bouncer tossed Crystal hard against the wall, shaking the mounted animal heads above. She crumpled and whimpered.

“Hey, come on,” I said, disturbed by the violent scene.

“Don’t get in the middle of it,” said Raven. “Trust me. Once the bouncers get going, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them.”

“They’re going to…”

“What?” she asked. “Kill her? Too bad, she already beat them to the punch on that one. Don’t forget where you are, Tommy. You can’t die when you’re already dead.”

Crystal wasn’t tapping out yet. She still had a little fight in her.

When the nearest bouncer reached for her arm, she struck out at his neck with a broken bottle she’d been hiding. The shard nearly stuck in the man’s throat. He avoided the potentially lethal blow by twisting away from the strike, but the attack gave Crystal a chance to make a break for the entrance. She scurried away, slipping on the slick floor as she went. Her haphazard escape was halted by the second bouncer, and this time there was no breaking free. He clasped his tree-trunk arms around her tiny frame, and squeezed until she was gasping for breath as her ribs compressed her lungs.

“Let’s go, baby girl,” said the brute that held her.

“Where’re they taking her?” I asked.

“Well, I was gonna send her south, but maybe you can change my mind. You tell me where she should go. Out into limbo,” she leaned her head towards the entrance. “Or out the south side door?” she leaned her head the other direction, to the door that I hadn’t seen open yet.

I stammered, and then said, “Limbo, I guess.”

“You sure?” asked Raven, sadistic enjoyment lighting her expression. “Because if we throw her out that way, she’ll eventually circle the drain until she drops back in here. If you’re my new bartender – my liquor stealing bartender,” she gave me a wry smile and winked. “I might just find myself tempted to replace you with her. It’d be in your best interest to send her that other way – where there’s no coming back.” She looked at the black-painted south door. It wasn’t just barred shut. There were several other silver locks adorning its edge, keeping it in place, and keeping out whatever might be on the other side.

“No,” I said, eager to hurry up the decision-making process. Poor Crystal was starting to turn a light shade of purple in the python-grip of the bouncer. “Send her back up there.” I motioned to the entrance I came through. “Wherever the hell it leads.”

“What about you, Davey Boy?” she asked of my newly sole competitor. “Which door?”

He looked at me, as if he was a jock looking for an answer from the nerd in class.

“Come on, man,” I said. “Send her that way.” I motioned at the entrance to what I assumed was limbo versus the barred door to hell.

“I… uh…” He stammered.

“Tick tock, Davey,” said Raven.

“Send her that way,” he said, and I could hardly believe which direction he pointed. “Send her to the south door.”

“You fucking asshole,” I said.

“I’m with Dave,” said Raven. “Let’s send this bitch packing. Peter, open the door.”

The bouncer that Crystal had nearly stabbed was more than happy to comply. He nearly jogged to the door with glee, and started undoing the numerous locks that kept it closed.

“Hey, come on,” I said, feeling helpless, but uncomfortable with what was happening.

“Keep your mouth shut, Tom,” said Raven. “Or you’ll get the boot just the same as her. Don’t test me, Tupello.”

That was something I’d heard before.

“What’d you call me?” I asked.

“It means honey,” she said. “I heard it somewhere. Not sure where. I like the way it sounds.”

A recollection of my final night alive swam through the muddy waters of my brain. I watched the scene play out from above, like a spiritual interloper spying from a window in the wet, smelly, midnight alley.

There was a van parked behind the bar where I worked, its fiery brakes providing the only light to the scene. I was carrying a case of scotch up to the back of the van.

“No!” Crystal managed to get out a plea for mercy as the bouncer eased his grip on her. “Please.”

“Too late, kid,” said Raven. “Tell your devils I said hello.”

The south side door was open now, and within it I saw the depths of depravity, sorrow, and anguish that might be my future as well if I wasn’t careful. There wasn’t hellfire spewing from its edges, nor scenes of torture being played out for us to bear witness to now that the door was open. Instead, there was an emptiness laid before us, so vast and hypnotic that you dare not stare too long. Its depths were maddening, blackness and suffering, emerging from the void like the vacuum of space threatening to pull one in. The certainty of everlasting pain and anguish so apparent it need not show such things with base visual renderings of bloody chains, gnashing teeth, or crackling flames.

I gazed into hell. Into nothingness. Into pain the likes of which I’d never conceived.

And staring back at me, from the yawning expanse of darkness, was an eager torturer. He wasn’t there to be seen, but I knew he was there – waiting for me to take my turn stepping through the south side door. Oh how eager he was to pull me in.

“Please, no,” said Crystal, terror quaking her pleas. She saw the same sorts of devils I saw in that blank canvas. They were all the devils we brought with us, set free to tear us limb from limb if that’s what we deserved.

Upon staring into Hell, David, Crystal, and I knew what Hell was. It was what we brought with us, and it was ready to torture us for eternity.

Crystal was thrown in, and the south side door was ready to be closed again. I could hear her screams as she floated away, cast into the darkness I hoped to never see again. There was a screeching whistle of air as the bouncers tried to force the door closed. It pulled at the furniture in the Limbus Lounge, and several chairs fell to the ground. All of us were affected by the gale, except for Raven. She sat across the bar from me, calmly smoking her cigar.

Her long, thin, familiar cigar.

I was again transported to my own memory. That final night out behind the bar, with a case of scotch in my arms. I knocked on the back of the van, and then waited for it to open.

This case of scotch wasn’t for me. I’d stolen my fair share of liquor from the bar, but never this much. My addiction was better handled one bottle at a time. This scotch was to be sold.

“Let’s start round three over again,” said Raven, breaking me of my momentary recollection. “I want the best damn martini you’ve ever made. Remember, your afterlives depend on it!”

She was more animated now than earlier, as if the sight of Crystal being tossed into the pits of hell reinvigorated her.

I put the ice in my tumbler, as if on auto-pilot. Next, I splashed the ice with dry vermouth, and then drained the excess so that only a kiss remained. I got the gin, and saw that David was sticking with vodka.

I felt confident the game was mine.

I stirred until the tumbler frosted, and then strained the martini free of its ice as I poured it into the glass. A couple olives later and the perfect martini was complete. I slid it towards Raven right before David finished his.

Raven reached for mine first, and said, “Thanks, Tupello.”

And then I remembered how I died.

I saw myself carrying that scotch out to the van to send it off with the person who’d promised to pay me two hundred dollars for it. The woman with the sultry voice and the devil-may-care grin.

“Thanks, Tupello,” she’d said to me as wisps of smoke drifted from her long, thin cigar.

I recalled the back door of that van opening, and the mob thugs reaching for me as I tried to run. And then the cold metal of the gun touching the skin behind my ear.

Now I stood there in the Limbus Lounge and stared at my captor. My gaze grew increasingly severe.

“What’s the matter?” asked Raven.

“You set me up.”

“Set you up for what?” she asked.

I glared at her and reached down for the paring knife below the counter. “That was you in the van.”

Raven stood suddenly. She whistled, sharp and piercing, and then pointed at me. “Send him out with the other one.”

“You fucking set me up,” I shouted at her, and then turned my attention to David. “She probably set you up too. She’s the reason we’re dead.”

“You need to shut your mouth, Tom,” she said with a snarl of hatred. She dropped her cigar and tried to reach across the bar, her long nails grasping unsuccessfully at me like the talons of a swooping hawk barely missing a mouse. “Get out of my bar.” She reached again, and this time I swiped at her with the knife. I caught a corner of her palm, and instead of blood there was a jet of flame that exited her wound. She clasped her other hand over it, extinguishing the hellfire escaping from within her.

“Get the door back open,” said one of the bouncers to his doppelganger. He was behind the bar, coming my way. I tried to plan an escape.

I planned to leap over the bar, push Raven aside, and then head towards the entrance, but David decided this was his chance to secure his job as the new bartender of the Limbus Lounge. He grasped me in a headlock. His meaty arm squeezed at my throat, immediately causing me to become dizzy. I tried to stab at him, but the bouncer had closed the gap between us. He crushed my hand in his, and the knife fell to the floor.

“Get him the fuck out of here,” said Raven as she continued to clasp her wounded hand.

The bouncer in front of me said to David, “Hold him up.”

David did as he was told, and the bouncer punched me so hard I felt my ribs break. He hit me again on the other side of my chest, doing just as much damage there.

I heard the sucking sound of the door to hell pulling in air as the second bouncer finished unlatching the locks. My fate was assured. I couldn’t break free of David’s grasp, and even if I could, I was too wounded to fight any of them.

Raven held the martini David had made for her, and grinned wickedly at me as she said, “I gave you a chance, Tommy, but you fucked it up. Just like you’ve been doing your whole life. You fucked it up.” She took a sip, scowled, and then set David’s martini back on the bar.

“Time to go,” said the bouncer in front of me. “Take this piece of shit and throw him out with the trash.”

Raven sat down at the bar, sneering at me as David dragged me backwards, towards hell.

“Idiot,” said Raven, and then reached for the second martini waiting for her to try at the bar. She sipped my drink. Her scowl softened.

I heard my devils eagerly calling me from behind. I felt the air being pulled past my cheeks as we got closer to my infernal prison.

Raven looked down into the martini, and then at me. She lifted it to her lips, and took in a nice, long whiff of the delicate gin.

She commanded sudden and loud, “Wait.”

David and the bouncer paused.

“I think I’d rather send him out the way he came.”

“Why?” asked the bouncer.

Raven got up from her seat and walked down the bar to get closer to us. “Don’t question me, meathead. Do as you’re told.”

“I say we toss him,” said David, still trying to make sure to secure his job.

“And I say shut the fuck up, newbie, and do what you’re told. Let him go.”

I crumpled to the floor when David released me. It felt like there were swords in my chest stabbing at my lungs.

“Come on,” said the bouncer as he started to drag me across the wet rubber matt behind the bar.

“Stand him up,” said Raven once we reached the black stairs that led to the entrance.

The bouncer lifted me from the floor, and it felt like all the bones in my chest rattled against one another. I cried out in pain.

“Listen here, shit for brains,” said Raven as she put her hand on my cheek. I could feel the intense heat emanating from the wound I’d caused on her hand. “You’re going to spend an awful long time out there in that toilet bowl of existence, swirling round and round in limbo. But one of these days you’re going to find your way back here. On that day, you’d damn well better be ready to make me another one of your martinis. And who knows, if David hasn’t learned to make a better one, maybe I’ll give you a second chance.”

And with that, I was tossed out through the entrance to find myself in a dark alley with a gun pressed to the back of my head, just under my ear.

“Don’t kill him,” said a sultry female’s voice from the front of the van. “He’s too good a bartender to waste.”

My chest no longer hurt. I was as I had been in the moment before I was murdered. Yet I felt no relief.

My mind was spinning as I tried to comprehend what I’d just lived through, but my experience at Limbus Lounge was fading from memory as fast as a dream. Soon, I’d forget everything about Raven and her bar, but I’d be left with a nagging question that would haunt the rest of my days.

Is life Limbo?

Among the Rot and Ruin Preview

This is how the third book in the Among the Masses series starts. It takes place several weeks after the end of book 2. Immediately after this prelude, the book goes back in time to follow directly after the end of the second book.

“I’m struggling to find words,” said The Scholar. The artificial, alien glow of yesteryear light hummed by the mysterious power that brought it to life. It wasn’t a steam engine that was responsible for the light. The Scholar had employed some other magic, something forbidden and forgotten – something dangerous. The light was dim and blue, radiating from a glass enclosure held aloft by a stem of brass and a thick, ornate base planted on the table between them. An ancient device kept safe from time in this hidden tomb filled with The Scholar’s treasures.

His face loomed over the light, his features hidden in shadow, but as he leaned back his emotions were revealed. She didn’t know what to expect at the sight of him without his mask, but was stunned to see a countenance of honest joy edging towards tears.

“After so many years, to be here with you…” He held a book to his breast, clutching it with his right hand as if it meant death to drop it. “It’s everything I’ve been working towards my entire life, ever since I first lost you.”

He turned and moved to the wall. He put the book back in its place among the other forbidden tomes that made up his one-of-a-kind collection. The Scholar’s library was a wonder of the world, and something the Walled Cities would burn down if they discovered it hidden in this buried world. All four walls had sections of inset shelves loaded with books and artifacts, and the sections of walls between the shelves were adorned with ancient weapons, framed pictures of old world buildings, and sconces that could radiate magical light like the one on the table. 

The Scholar traced his index finger lightly across the spines of several ancient tomes, and some of the fragile bindings crackled at the gentle pressure. He picked up a metal figurine from one of the shelves, and admired the depiction of an ancient soldier. When he put the figurine back, he positioned it carefully so that it looked exactly as it had before he picked it up.

“I’ve only brought two other people here,” he said, still turned away. “Here, to the heart of the world.” He stood silent for a moment as if the statement demanded time to be appreciated. “I mean that. This is the beating heart of our new world. Look around you. All the answers we’ve ever wanted to ask can be found here, in this very room. This place is a reliquary of lost knowledge, of purpose, of truth so powerful it’ll shatter the walls of every city left standing.” His zeal bordered mania, and he took a second to calm down lest he appear mad. He turned, smiled, and laughed at himself. “Sorry, I know how I must sound, but you’ll share my passion. I know it in my very soul.”

She refused to utter a word, and sat resolute in front of the glowing light on the table before her.

“You don’t agree?”

She didn’t answer. She didn’t even look at him.

“You will. Before this is over, you’ll be as mad as me, ranting and raving about the new world our army is ushering in. We’ll stand on the rubble of Golden Rock together, mark my words. King and Queen of a new world. A world without walls, and without false gods – without men who rule by fear, or an economy built on the backs of slaves. Because that’s what they are, you know? You and all the rest of them, slaves to a society built on lies – built on ignorance. No more. Together we’ll put an end to that. Together, we’ll change the course of history. You might not see it now, I know. No doubt you’re seething with anger and hatred of me. I don’t blame you. But one day you’ll see I did exactly what I had to do to find you – to get you here.”

She moved in her seat, and the chains that bound her hands and feet rattled.

“I’d love nothing more than to free you,” he said. “But I think you’d leap from that chair and reach for my neck the second I set you free. It’ll take time to forgive me for…”

“I’ll never forgive you,” she said, unable to stay silent any longer. “There’ll never be a day I draw breath that I won’t spend focused on killing you. Know that, Scholar. That’s the only truth you and I share. The truth of blood. The truth of vengeance and pain so horrible you’ll squeal like a pig set to roast alive over a low flame. You’ll cry out for mercy, and I’ll answer with a laugh. If your goal was to bring me here and turn me into a monster like you, then so be it. You win. I’ll be a monster so vile you’ll rue the day you set eyes on me. I’ll peel your eyelids off and dash your weeping eyes with salt. I’ll cut pieces off you and leave them as your only sustenance. You’ll suffer, I swear it. One day I’ll stand over your corpse, or you’ll stand over mine. There’s no other way for this to end. So take your turn now, because if you don’t kill me,” she finally deemed him worth a glance, and they locked eyes, “I’ll bury you.”

The Scholar sighed, closed his eyes, and turned back to the wall. “So be it. We’ll do this the hard way.” He retrieved one of the ancient weapons from the wall, turned to face Saffi, and pointed it at her. The small, silver weapon gleamed in the light. He held it by a handle, and the end that pointed at her proved that the metal device was hollow. “This is going to hurt quite a bit, but you’ve only got yourself to blame.”

There was an explosion, and then Saffi felt a heavy weight on her chest that sent her and the chair she was shackled to falling over backwards. And without understanding how it happened, Saffi Second Baker died.