Less The Bitters

Submitted into Contest #233 in response to: Set your story in a bar that doesn’t serve alcohol.... view prompt

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Friendship Fiction

She’d lasted ten days.

Daisy plodded slowly against the packed throng. She wasn’t going to drink — she really wasn’t. After seeing what a “liquid dinner” did to her colleagues—Carmella always had a bottle in her desk and Jeff couldn’t hold a conversation without holding a glass—she had brazenly declared her New Year’s resolution was to go sober. But there was a certain hopefulness that she only felt staring into the velvety depths of a glass of cabernet. The only way she could escape the hell of their nine-to-five that usually extended well into eight p.m. It was the same with her father when she was fifteen. How she hated when he came home smelling of whisky and slurring his words. How she’d pitied her mother.

Now she had a job, with a boss who expected more from her than she ever wanted to give. A boss who suddenly invaded her inbox at four-thirty p.m., needing this, that, and ten other things done urgently. With no care for her five-to-nine plans, no concept of a life outside the dreadful walls of her cubicle. And another year passed, and she still didn’t have friends, a lover, an apartment of her own. For all her sweat and blood she hadn’t even gotten a bonus. 

She yearned to feel something other than anger, hatred and emptiness, even if for an hour.

Her phone rang. She ignored it. Her watch buzzed. She took it off. There were no friends who would try to stop her from cheating on her resolution. No one to remind her why she chose sobriety. Only work was looking for her. 

“Admit it.” She sighed, looking down at her feet as she plodded in search of a bar. A real hole in the wall bar she could get lost in. “You have no hope.” The words were a hex that seized her. And she knew they were true. 

A door swung open in front of her. Daisy yelped and jumped back. But she was too slow to avoid the collision. She backed into something solid and warm, her sneaker nearly crushing a polished black shoe. Startled, she missed a step and lost her footing. 

Hands clasped her shoulders, steadying her, and she looked up into a man’s wide brown eyes. “There you are, I’ve got you.” He smiled, and a dimple pierced his left cheek. Daisy could only manage to smooth the frown from her face. He wore a full length trench coat over a three piece suit, and looked for all purposes like he’d just disembarked the Titanic.

“You look like you need a strong drink.” He rocked back on his heels, gesturing for her to enter the door first. Daisy peered inside the establishment’s small frosted windows. Dim yellow light revealed what looked like a bar transplanted squat in the middle of a greenhouse. The surfaces she could see were polished and clean. 

“This is a bar?” A sign above the door read Less the Bitters.

The man’s grin widened. “Come in with me, you’ll see.”

Daisy glanced toward the door. She didn’t want to be seen. She didn’t want to talk. She just wanted to wallow in her low esteem.

The man shivered and stepped around her. “Or not, suit yourself.” 

“Wait!” 

“Yes?”

“Who are you?” 

He grinned. “I’m Rupert. I’m a regular. We all are.”

“We?” With a nod, he entered the bar.

She pinched her finger tips. Outside, snow pummeled the pavement. Pedestrians marched with hunched shoulders against the icy wind. There would be no driving just yet, not until the snow plows came through with salt. Okay, one drink, and then home. The last thing she needed was driving drunk in the snow.

Daisy stepped inside. She noticed the smell right off. The moment her fingers tugged open the bronze door handle, the scent ushered out in a wave. The musty odor of old books, well-loved furniture, with just a hint of vanilla and spice — it was not many bars that smelled like a bookstore cafe. Then she stepped inside and caught a glimpse of the place.

An atmosphere of light and warmth ensconced her as she followed Rupert toward a table in a back corner by a window. Soft jazz whispered between pendant lighting. Greenery tumbled from the tops of the bar shelves, over counters, and hung from the ceiling. Tables quartered with well-cushioned seats sat every few feet, some near the frost-bitten windows, some nestled in corner nooks. While a couple holding hands leaned against the bar, most people grouped around the tables, bent over boardgames

Discomfort was a heavy coat clinging to Daisy’s shoulders as she took in the faces. Everyone looked happy. It reminded her of the time she’d entered the girl’s locker room to try out for the cheer team in seventh grade, how all the gorgeous giggling girls had quieted for a moment. And in the space left by their voices she had filled in her own hopeless thoughts. 

“Picked up another stray?” They had come to a stop. A stout woman stood from the table, and Daisy didn’t know if she was more put off by the scowl folded into her tan face or the crooked finger that skewered her in place. “You’re new.” 

“She wanted a drink,” Rupert said, rather cryptically. Beside the woman, a bearded man in a dirty collared shirt smirked into his beverage. 

“You must have been busy, not answering my text.” The old woman spread her arms and Rupert slid into her hug and scooped her off the floor. 

She banged a fist half-heartedly against his back until he lowered her. “I guess this means you escaped Ylenol?”

“I live to fight another day. Though the bugger did his best - he found me at work today! Needed to book a flight for a business trip but he got in my head.” Rupert blinked, then forced a grin. It wasn’t entirely convincing.

“And you? Did Superwoman save another child from the curse?”

The creases framing her mouth deepened.

“She always does,” the bearded man groused. “Just like I always sell.”

“Daisy,” Rupert clapped a hand on her shoulder. “These are my mortal enemies.” He managed to say that with the level of glee and warmth usually reserved for introducing friends. 

Daisy watched the woman smooth her hands over her blue-grey hair, tucked into a low bun.“I’m Su-ja, and I’m a grandmother.” She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “Ignore this grump.”

The man next to Su-ja extended a brown hand, and the movement kicked up a cloud of sour sweat and body odor. She took Mike’s cold hand, grimacing at how thin he was. “Dreadful to meet ya. Mike Saddell, Founder-CEO.” Daisy frowned, taking in the tattered tailored shirt, open at the neck and cuffs, tucked into—of all things—gym shorts. 

Rupert pulled out the two chairs opposite them. He gestured for Daisy to sit before leaning in close. “Don’t take it personally. We always talk like this.” 

“It’s fine.” Daisy stared at the puzzle spread over the tabletop. There was no box cover in sight, and all the pieces were of similar colors - speckled blue and violet against black. It looked complicated and a rhythmic throbbing instantly took up in her skull, like weariness banging to be let in. 

Mike plucked up a violet-hued piece of the puzzle and turned it in his bony fingers as if seeking the answer to time itself. “So what’s your non-truth?”

Daisy sighed, having no idea what that meant. “Can I order a drink first?” Daisy had not had an honest, sober conversation with a stranger in months. The mere thought of it made her fingers clench. 

Su-ja’s eyes connected with Rupert’s. She cleared her throat and intoned, “First, ground rules.” She selected a piece from a pile of speckled black and purple galaxy pieces that all looked identical. With hawklike precision, she slid it into place next to another. “One, you can sit with us as long as you play.” She selected another piece. “Two, the game is this: we only share non-truths.” She found its home again. “Three, no phones.” 

Daisy frowned. She had been in search of solitude, not a cult. But it would be incredibly rude and awkward to leave now. She looked at Mike. “What are you drinking?” 

“Zero-proof.”

“Oh, that’s another thing,” Rupert supplied. “They don’t actually serve alcohol here. Club sodas, spritzers, coffee, tea. They’ve got loads of non-alcoholic drinks now, not just the diet soda you get at your average pub. Some are even good for you, like my personal favorite, Here Comes the Sun. It’s got turmeric in it, and honey.” His eyes twinkled. 

Daisy scoffed. “So, you all come to a bar every night and just play … games?”

Mike swirled his own mock-tail, a silvery drink with lime green crystals and a cucumber crusting the rim. He picked up three more puzzle pieces and jiggled them in his hands, the way a gambler might rub and blow on their dice before rolling. “So what brings you to our little corner of the universe?”

Daisy’s eyes landed on what she’d been searching for and she pulled the menu from beneath the puzzle. Like the rest of the bar it was warm and well worn. Flipping it over, she perused the unfamiliar list. A waitress appeared and took their orders. 

“I’ll have a … cappuccino, please.” If she couldn’t wipe out the void that gaped within her, she at least needed fuel. 

“Five to Nine it is. Another Sunny, and Sweet Rain for you, Su-ja?”

The woman nodded, and the waitress left. Silence fell.

Su-ja pushed the pile of painted cardboard chips toward Daisy. “Will you play a piece?” 

Maybe the light atmosphere had gone to her head. There was something about the odd group that was charming. Rupert was easy to look at, and if she was being honest, she wanted him to look at her, too. The group had a repartee among each other that made it easy for her to be an observer. And there was much to observe. 

They spoke nonsense. Rupert reported his adventures with the mysterious Yyenol, of a large family of his own he seemed to want nothing more than to hide from. Su-ja listened and interjected with advice or admonition. Mike’s company was days away from IPO. He was optimistic about a deal closing and promised when he bought an island he’d let them enter for free. At first, Daisy tried to invert everything they said. Was Su-ja's grandchild gone? Did Mike have any income? But at some point she stopped thinking and just let herself play. The puzzle began to take shape and she nodded. It was the Milky Way. 

Daisy startled when the waitress set her cappuccino down. For a pocket of time she had actually forgotten to want a chemical solution to her pain. 

But eventually three pairs of eyes fell on Daisy. It was her turn to share. 

She met Rupert’s gaze. A window inside her opened and the void howled in, and as her insides fought to pressurize it sucked out every bit of warmth and comfort she had begun to feel. There was a crash. Glass scattered. Daisy ordered herself to shut the window but it was too late. All that remained inside was painful emptiness and a fractured photo frame of her mother’s face. 

“I lost someone.” The words landed on the table with a thunk that shook the puzzle. She looked at her fingers clenched in her lap and pinched the tips of them, one by one. “I lost her and I’ve never been able to…” She pulled at her sleeves. “And I keep looking for her approval in work, but it’s never enough, and I push myself so hard that I’m always exhausted. I have no hope.” 

“Well if she’s lost I might have come across her in my travels. Tell me what she looks like.” 

Daisy looked to Rupert. Through the filter of tears his form stretched and blurred, becoming something fuzzy and vague and sad. Cold shook her. 

Rupert shifted away. “Say, Mike, d’you need a refill? I think I’ll get myself a refill.”

Mike sighed into his cup. “They always forget the second rule.”

“Oh hush.” Su-ja stretched her stout arms over the table, taking Daisy’s hand. And she just held it, stroking her rough thumb over Daisy’s hand.

Rupert chugged his turmeric-honey concoction. “We drink non-alc and share non-truths, remember? You're not the only one-" he stopped short.

Daisy focused on the rhythmic rub of Su-ja’s thumb. When she was eleven, after school, she would lay beside her mother on the couch and watch TV for half an our. Her mother used to rub her back until she dozed. Maybe they all had troubles, but how could they act just fine?

But then something occurred to her.

“You never mentioned what you do.” She turned to the man who had commanded her attention all evening. Just then he looked like the table had morphed into a fiery pit of lava. His fingers turned white as they clutched his glass. “What’s your non-truth?” 

“Forgive me, I thought I’d said.” His eyes were miles away now, staring into the depths of the galaxy puzzle. “This might come as a shock to you, Daisy, but you must never reveal my identity." He paused, blinked. "I am an immortal. Cursed with long life. If they ever found out, see, they’d do all kinds of tests. Turn me in to a lab rat.”

“They? Ylenol?” Daisy asked. 

“Ylenol is my only friend…the only one I can't hurt. My family, they’re worse. They want the tests. They want answers.” His throat bobbed.

So the opposite was true. Was it cancer, like her mom, or something else?

Like light in a dark room, a switch flipped and he smiled again. “And so I travel, and hide.”

Silence hovered. Daisy’s voice was dry as she said “My mom was—is also a traveller. She missed my graduation so she could see Marrakech. She’s been in Peru, searching for the end of the world. My dad’s expecting her tonight. I’ll see her soon.”

Speaking the words felt like believing them. But it wasn’t the words themselves that changed her. It was the quirk on Mike’s chapped lips, the shame in Su-ja’s deep eyes, the tears Rupert barely kept back, even as he smiled brightest of all. Each of them had lost someone or something. Yet they smiled. Yet they lived and hoped.

Around them arose the murmur of similar voices, each sharing a story of who they were with someone they loved. The pendant lamps glowed, and the books shed their musty parchment scent, and the bartender filled glass after glass of comfort. The non-bar seemed alive with the soul and breath of its patrons. 

The window inside Daisy cracked open, only instead of a howling void, a soft trickle of warm water dripped in. 

She picked up the most challenging piece of the puzzle she could find, a plain black squiggly one, and set it in the middle of the frame. And she ordered a round of drinks and pastries for each of them. The heavy shroud of sorrow at the table began to lift. They worked on the puzzle and shared non-truths and laughs, and Daisy felt herself slip out of time. She stopped ruminating about her day. She stopped worrying about tomorrow. She was glad she wasn’t drunk. 

The lights cut off, leaving only the bar and kitchen aglow. 

“That’s closing time,” Su-ja said, gathering up her purse. Suddenly she seemed in a hurry to leave. Cold blew in as Daisy helped them return the puzzle to its box.

“Well, we didn’t finish today, looks like we’ll have to try again tomorrow,” Rupert said. 

“Can't. Big customer meeting tomorrow.” Mike pulled on a tattered coat, and another cloud of odor billowed from it. 

“Where’s home for you?” Daisy asked casually. 

“Mansion in the hills.” Mike whistled as he left. Daisy pictured him sleeping in his car. He hadn’t asked for any help. Maybe she’d offer again, if she saw him.

Rupert leaned down and bumped her shoulder. “Come on. Walk you to the door?”

She fell into step beside him. “You come here every night?”

“Oh, most nights. Well, except when I’m hosting the mighty Ylenol. Relentless bastard.”

Daisy smirked. “Right.” But her insides twisted.

They walked in silence a few steps as staff swept beneath the now empty tables. 

“It’s just loneliness, you know. Well, it’s ‘lonely,’ spelled backwards. I find it’s easier to talk about if I pretend it’s a monster I can battle.”

Daisy didn’t know what to say to that. It hurt. Because she knew how painful and crushing loneliness was. And though she wanted to ask what his diagnosis was, how long he expected to live, she didn't. Because it didn’t really matter. The greatest disappointment of life was that people entered and left, always.

They reached the door. Rupert removed his hands from his pockets and faced her. The air around them was close and warm still. She soaked it up, not ready yet to return to the blasting cold outside. 

He took her hands. Her face heated. “You’re welcome to join us again tomorrow, you know. And every night after.” She winced at the hopeful note in his voice. “I would… very much like if if you did.”

“I don’t know.” Her brow folded as she looked up into his eyes. “You said we only say non-truths. I think you’re actually saying you hope you never see me again.”

His grin cut a valley of mirth across his face, punctuated by the dimple. “Well then, in that case.” He squeezed her hands and dropped them. “I hope I never see you again.”

And for the first time that night Daisy smiled, too. 

January 19, 2024 22:04

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3 comments

Tricia Shulist
03:33 Jan 25, 2024

That was lovely. The mood and atmosphere in the non-bar are almost haunting. Thanks for sharing.

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Amanda Song
20:16 Jan 28, 2024

Thank you! First attempt at publishing my short story here, I really appreciate you reading it :)

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Tricia Shulist
18:00 Jan 29, 2024

I like writing for the prompts. It forces me to write every week, even if the prompts don’t resonate. I’m glad you published. And welcome!

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