"Ale," and then the air rang with the kind of sound you get when an empty container meets a flat wooden surface at speed.
"Sir? Haven't you had enough?"
There was a moment of quiet contemplation, then the short man at the bar nodded. "You're right. Make it a brandy. No point in filling my stomach with the weak stuff."
"You sure you don't want to slow down?" Patrick O'Donnell passed a rag cursorily over the bar top, hunching his shoulders and leaning in closer to his customer. Ten years of tending at the Flick and Whistle had taught him that the best way to cut down on drunks—and therefore on floor cleaning and furniture replacement fees—was to get them to see you as their friend. "At this rate, your blood's gonna be forty proof."
"You think I don't want it that way?"
Patrick studied the stranger. Thickly set, edging towards the tall side of four feet, and with eyes of glinty gray. An unkempt mane of red hair burst from his scalp and chin, soaked and smelling where it met his mouth. His face was stark and unreadable. There might have been any measure of pain hidden behind the hard curves of his features. Suicidal? Probably not, but it didn't hurt to check.
Scratching his chin, Patrick set the rag down. "You know, I can certainly think of worse ways to go, but even death by drink strikes me as pretty meaningless."
The stranger looked like he'd just been told the moon was made of Brie. "Who said anything about dyin'? Blacking out, hopefully. Winding up in a strange part of town with a chicken in either hand and my pants on a lamppost, if I'm lucky. But it'll take more than a measure of moonshine in my veins to kill me. Speaking of which…
Brandy, please." Although he held out a hand, the stranger didn't make it sound like a request.
Patrick locked gazes with him for a moment before holding up his hands in mock surrender. "Alright, I give. Brandy. But in exchange, you've gotta tell me what you're drinking for. Funeral?"
"In a way." A glass full of amber clicked down in front of him, and the stranger drained it in one go. "My name's Maug, and I'll start at the beginning. With my exile."
You've never been to hell before. Let me paint you a picture: it's dark and cold, but for the sweat-soaked warmth the rises off your arms. Around you, the walls are jagged and half-finished. They press in like monstrous jaws until you chop them back. You ache with effort, but so then does everyone else.
The air in hell is full of two things: coal dust and the clamor of metal on stone. Both of them flood your lungs in a dirty slurry with every breath you take, and you wonder if maybe it wouldn't be more nourishing for your body to stop breathing altogether. Of course, then your arms move and so does your pickaxe and your mouth opens all on its own. There's no free will in hell; just muscle memory.
The worst part of it all is that you come to hell entirely of your own choice. Every morning, you troop past the sign marked "Redfluke quarry" with a dozen or so other forsaken souls. Maybe you sing with them, or chat, or march alongside in stony silence, but none of you complain. As bad as hell is, it's better than the alternative.
I spent twenty years working the quarry, toiling at the end of shafts eighteen, thirty three, and finally forty one. During the brief stretches of time when I wasn't in the mine, I lived in the shantytown down-slope from the site. The point of that was to save up, get some money together, move out and away, but you'd be surprised how many expenses there are for the poor. Drink, medicine, companionship. Anything to numb your way through the week. And on top of that the little taxes and petty charges thought up by either the overseers or the local toughs. I started working late nights. I started getting sloppy.
It wasn't my mistake that caused the collapse, but it might well have been and I was the only one around to blame. We were taking a shortcut where we shouldn't have been—straight on through a deposit of sandstone to the biggest vein we'd seen in months. It would've meant a bonus for us and an even bigger one for our overseer, who had agreed to overlook the change of course. We were just about to send a cart full of slag back towards the surface when the earth just kind of slanted. The next thing we knew, the way behind us was blocked and young Priam's legs were sticking out from underneath an angular mess.
There were five of us in shaft forty one that day, and working together we managed to get him out pretty quick. Which is not to say it wasn't a pointless gesture. There wasn't a scratch on his body, but the corner of a falling rock had found his skull and stove it in. Pale fluid spilled from the breach, staining his work clothes. We rolled him into a corner and tried not to look at the husk he had once inhabited.
One of the worst feelings in the world is waiting for rescue. There are only a few worse than that. One of them is waiting for someone to realize you need help. It wasn't until nightfall that the overseer sent a man into the mine to see what had become of us. For him, that time measured most of a day. For us, it might've been years.
We sat in a rough circle in the dark, just breathing. The sound came slightly different from each one of us. A note raspier. A note softer. A hair longer. I don't know what mine sounded like. I wasn't listening for it. It would have terrified me.
With cave ins, there are three major dangers. The first is from falling rubble. It generally only lasts for a few minutes. The next is from stale air. When it strikes depends on the size of the enclosed space. The last is from a lack of food and water, which can take days to kill. Our cut off cavern wasn't very large. We weren't going to have to worry about supplies.
Breathe in. Breathe out. I crossed my legs, closed my eyes, and willed my heart to slow. All around me thrummed the steady pulse of the others breathing. It was broken only occasionally by the sound of my chest emptying.
Everything fell into an even rhythm. The dark. The air. The distant click of miners' picks resonating through the rock. My head began to swim. After a while I blacked out.
I came to about a day later to find myself the only survivor of the collapse. I couldn't imagine anything worse than that. An only survivor is a black sheep. A living bit of bad luck that no team will take. The overseers didn't believe in that superstition, but the miners did. I was politely told not to come back to work, and less politely instructed to leave the shantytown.
So I did.
"That's awful," murmured Patrick, "I can see how something like that would haunt a man." Further down the bar a couple of drinkers nodded in sympathy before remembering they weren't supposed to be listening in. Maug snorted loudly.
"It's no worse than most lives at Redfluke, and it's better than some. Anyways, it's not why I'm drinking."
A flat, bushy black brow climbed a few notches up Patrick's forehead. "It isn't?"
"No. It's not." They studied each other, bartender and patron, for a wary minute. Finally Maug spoke up again. "You're curious now, aren't'cha?"
"What makes you say that? Maybe this is just professional courtesy."
"Maybe it is." The glass of brandy, freshly emptied, settled on the bar again. It had been refilled five times already. Maug didn't appear to be swaying yet. His eyes were unglazed. "Tell you what; find me something a touch stronger and I'll continue."
Severance pay for a long-term worker at Redfluke is about enough for a week of nourishing meals. Or, if you spend it all in one go, a night of glorious oblivion.
I walked from the shanty to the nearest proper town, chewing on jerky the whole way. It was late evening when I got there and my throat still burned something fierce from the suffocation of a few days ago, so the first thing I did after arriving was to track down a bottle. I found it cowering between its fellows on a rack in the local liquor store. Some of them looked a little lonely, so I bought them all, promised to treat them nice, and took them to the curb outside.
You get some pretty strange looks drinking in public just outside of a booze barn, but nobody called me on it. They just tutted or whispered or glanced away as fast as they could. I guess I must've looked like a desperate character with my torn tunic and dust stained overalls. I couldn't have cared less.
The sun sank and the moon rose. I got paint-peelingly, soul-shakingly soused. The stars came out.
It was under their wan light that I first saw the man. He was dressed head to toe in burlap, with a double length of twine pulled around his midsection to hold everything in place. There was a thick hood attached to the neck of his robe, but it was pulled back to reveal a rounded, weathered face with a receding hairline. "You saving this space for anybody?" he asked as he sat down beside me.
I thought about that one for awhile, taking a sip of something I couldn't taste anymore on the off chance it might prompt me. "No~oo. I'm saving it for nobody."
"Well, if he shows up I'll have to move." There wasn't any sort of challenge buried in his voice. Just a faint trace of humor. I wasn't sure how to respond to that.
"Okay." My mouth moved, pretty much of its own volition. Apparently the alcohol in me didn't have the same sort of indecision.
Brushing off his knees, the robed man inclined his head towards my stockpile. "That's an awful lot of drink going unused."
"I'm getting to it." I clutched a bottle defensively. It sloshed between my arms, like some sort of liquid newborn crying in its sleep.
"You are. Of course, when you pass out, someone's bound to steal whatever you haven't drank." The notion hit me hard, rattling my skull with panicked greed.
"Pass out? I'm sotally tober, and if anyone says that I'm not, I'll kick 'em 'inna... hmmm… 'inna teef?"
His face grave, the man nodded at me. "I believe you. You're tober. But, just to make sure, why don't you try rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time?"
I nearly poked my eye out with the top of my bottle. This forced me to reconsider. "Maybe I'm a lil' bit tippy."
He nodded. "But you're not going to stop drinking, even if it means someone might swipe your leftovers?"
I shook my head emphatically. Droplets sprayed from my beard.
"Good. That means there's only one other thing you can do. Share some with a friend." I wasn't really sure what he was getting at. My attention wandered and I looked away from him.
The bottom of my bottle was extremely deep. Like, center of the earth kind of deep. I couldn't stop staring. On the outside it didn't look like much, but on the inside it went all the way down to the street beneath it. I was amazed. Someone needed to tell science about this mystical, impossible bottle of—
It was snatched out of my hands. The other man took a swig out of it, wiped the top off, and then returned it. I glared at him accusingly. "You broke the magic."
He just shrugged.
"Our passed-out bodies were collected that morning and thrown into the drunk tank together. I didn't have any money left, so he paid for bail for the both of us. He said his name was Ambrose."
Patrick scratched his chin again. There was dark stubble there and it scraped at his fingers. "So, that's who you're drinking for?"
"Let me guess. You'll finish telling the story if I bring you something even harder?"
"You got it."
"Well, I hope you like whiskey dregs. That's about all can offer."
The ghost of liveliness flickered across Maug's face. "You save your whiskey dregs?"
"Yeah. I use them as drain cleaner."
The following morning I staggered out onto the sidewalk and, fighting a splitting headache, thanked Ambrose for his help as I bid him goodbye. I could barely see him at the time. Sunlight was lancing down in painful beams all around us and I was obliged to keep my eyes narrowed. What I could make out was backlit by burning gold, like the earthly frame of an avenging angel.
Through a shining mouth he spoke. "You look like ten miles of bad road."
I grunted back at him.
"No, seriously. You're practically wearing hoof prints. You going any place in particular?"
I shook my head.
"Well, you got any jobs lined up?"
I started to shake my head again, but it felt like I was whisking my brain. I aborted the gesture midway through the first twist of my neck.
"Any money left?"
I just stared straight ahead.
"Walk with me." He started off down the street. A second passed and then I lurched after him. "If I had to guess, I'd say you were running from something. Something that's got you scared. You squandered all your money on drink and you haven't skipped town yet, so I don't think it's a person. Instead, it's a part of you. Your history. Am I right?"
"I run a second chance home. Mostly it's a place for runaways, throwaways, and drifters to sort themselves out before giving the world another shot. You're a little bit older than everyone else there, but you're welcome to stay until you can get your legs under you again."
I considered my options. As I did, my stomach roiled and I painted the side of a passing shop front. I wasn't in much shape to keep traveling. Not for the rest of the day. "Thanks." My voice was hoarse.
Ambrose held up a hand. "This isn't really a favor I'm doing for you. In order to stay at the home, you have to maintain two things: purity of body and purity of mind. The first is comparatively easy. Spend a few hours out of the day on physical labor or studying a martial art. Cake.
The latter, however…well, it might be quite the challenge for you. Purity of mind means learning to live without your judgment clouded. You won't be able to drink, smoke, snort, huff, puff, or eat anything that makes your past easier to slip away from." He must have caught the full force of my exhausted, hung over glare because he hesitated for a moment there. "I know. I don't follow those rules, but that's because I made them up. I have that right. If you can accept that, if I might have something that could make your stay a little bit easier."
Digging deep into one of his pockets, Ambrose removed a little packet of black powder. I could smell it through the twist of thin paper. It reeked of sulfur and pond scum. "Poison?" I hazarded.
He grinned. "Quite the opposite. It'll sit in your stomach and neutralize any drink that comes through. Until you take the antidote to it, you'll be physically incapable of getting drunk. Or tipsy. Or even mildly affected.
"Want it anyways?"
It was the worst thing I've ever tasted.
Patrick fixed his customer with a long, considering look. "Let me see if I've got this straight. You're drinking a farewell to drink?"
There was a soft thump as Maug set his empty glass down again. "It all gets a little circular, doesn't it?" Broad, weathered hands pushed the vessel away from his chest. Patrick collected it, studied it for a second, and then made it disappear behind the bar. There wasn't much else to say, but he tried anyway.
"That guy, Ambrose. Are you still working for him?"
Maug shrugged. "I don't have much of a choice. He's holding my liver hostage."
"You mean, he won't give you the antidote?"
"Says I haven't earned it. It was expensive, I guess."
"Speaking of which…" Patrick took a step towards the register. "Your total is two hundred and thirty seven—"
There was a sound like an autumn breeze sweeping through the room, and then a chair hit the floor. Patrick turned to face an empty bar.
Well, a mostly empty bar.
There was a note pinned to the oak surface—how and when it had been stuck there, Patrick would always wonder—and it read in curling scrawl: "put it on my tab."
Sometime later, the Flick and Whistle became the fifteenth tavern in the region to install speed bumps outside its door.