There is a man sitting at a small wooden table, dented and dinged, scratched free of its former polish and raised high off the ground on rather tall legs. He drinks not from a glass but an old mug that pulls vaguely at something deeper than his mind, familiar in a way he’s sure he knows the imperfect ceramic under the pad of his thumb but doesn’t remember ever owning such a piece of tableware. Whiskey, free of ice, has long since gone warm in his ever-so yet not quite familiar mug.
There isn’t much to know about this man aside from the fact that his name is Sam. He sits here now, across from another patron of this establishment. They sit parallel to one another in chairs that at one point may have been identical, but now have as much wear and marking as the table they stand vigil at that gives them identity separate from one another. Only, the height of the chair is much more suited to Sam than his companion, Archie. Archie stands on the worn seat and leans over the table, much too short to truly see eye to eye in any other position.
“The truth is coming for ya, faster than you may like,” Archie drawls. He yawns, with white fangs gleaming as though polished, though they are no stranger to crunching through fur and bone out in the dust. Stretching, he flexes and arches his back, shuffles black paws farther forward on the table. A white tipped tail flicks leisurely.
Sam scoffs. “Your truth ain’t the whole world’s truth,” he says, and knocks back a swallow of unpleasantly warm whiskey.
The air, in slow suffusion, has taken on a bit of a smokey quality. Though, there aren’t any other patrons around to puff on a pipe or cigar and cloud the room. It isn’t the right sort of smell for that either. There’s a certain astringency to tobacco smoke, and this isn’t that. It has a more homely quality. Woodsmoke, not quite campfire without the open air and the fresh tang of spruce or pine or common deciduous tree lingering around.
Something tickles and pricks ever so slightly at the back of Sam’s throat, but he doesn’t pay it any more mind than he needs. Archie, the brackish beast he is, takes more of Sam’s attention. “Just because you say it’s so, doesn’t mean it is. I’m just here for a drink, then we’re heading back on home. That’s the long and short of it. All there is to know.”
Archie blinks slow, then his lips curl like Sam just said something rather curious and amusing, which he’s rightly sure he didn’t. “Delude yourself, then,” Archie says. “But you and I both know you didn’t walk in here for a drink. Your muddy old boots didn’t even touch the floor.”
Sam’s feet don’t touch the floor now. Sitting a few feet above on a tall chair, they brace against the thin wooden support rods that keep the chair sturdy. “You’ve never had much mind to start with. Now you went and lost it all,” Sam says. More like sighs, heavy with weariness.
“I’m sharper than a tack. More like a knife. A razor, if we’re talking about your knives.” Archie leans in a smidge closer, unsheathes his claws. He digs them into the wooden tabletop below his paws, sharpens the points up and stretches out the tendons. “I watched it all go down. From inside the house. Out of it. I made it all the way to the barn before it caught me. And I know you didn’t budge heel or tail out of that ancient piece of cowhide you call a recliner until it was too late. Passed out and reeking,” Archie spits. At just the memory of that truly horrendous sour stench, a shiver ripples through him, raising the hair along the ridge of his back.
Stubborn and bothered, Sam huffs, turns his head and eyes away from the little black-coated menace. “Nonsense,” he mutters. His head’s a bit fuzzy, with the drink he recons, and the details are slipping away from him. But even if his memory pits and bubbles like burning film, he can see around this place. See something other than the truth Archie insists is standing steadfast behind his words.
There isn’t much to see, though, illuminated in the warm but dull glow the distinctly orange overhead light casts. The only other tables in the establishment, equally identical and not so to the one he sits at now, are all empty and abandoned, without so much as a seat to take a load off at. The floors and walls are all a bit discolored, soiled between the boards and turning black along the corners and edges.
A dead mare, sturdy and stocky, lies a few feet from their table. She’s not yet rotted, in good condition aside from the one too many layers of dirt and oils turning her coat and mane to something grimy. Sam can feel that grime as if it were between his fingertips now, as accustomed to it as he is. Chestnut coat dulled from red and sorry beige, she looks a shell of what he can only imagine must have been her former glory. Dead, open eyes gaze out at everything and see nothing.
There’s the mild creak of a fan turning lazily overhead, and eventually, Sam addresses his tablemate once more. “That’s quite the story you spun up,” he says, aiming for firm and final. An end to the nonsense yammered and meowed on for the better part of… however long they’ve been drinking. He’s been drinking. Archie has no glass in front of him.
“Yarn’s got nothing to do with it,” Archie says, smooth and sure. “But in any case, why don’t ya spin me your yarn. Tell me how you remember it.”
“You mean the way it actually happened?” Sam insists. He props an elbow on the table, rests his chin against the back of his hand.
“I mean the way you remember it.”
“You really are a nasty, mangy thing, you know that?” Sam huffs. If he could burn with a gaze, well, he wouldn’t really have the energy to catch a spark, but the intention is still there. Archie could use a bit of a sweat. Actually, Sam is starting to sweat. Sun must be coming up, burning off the night chill.
He drinks again, maybe to clear his head, maybe to dull the throb from the thorn in his side that is Archie. And then he tells it. The memory he has left, melting away as it is, of the afternoon before this evening, this night. Work out in the fields. Chores out in the barn. A night in front of the television set with a frozen dinner tray and a bottle of something strong that he always keeps jammed down between the arm and seat cushion of the recliner so it’s never far from reach. Then, a stumble to, well, here, for another drink.
“Did ya take the pickup?” Archie meows, looking pleased as he does when he snags cereal milk from a morning breakfast bowl.
An affirmative swells up on Sam’s tongue, but he bites it back. He takes the pickup everywhere, but his shirt pocket feels suspiciously light. He pats the pocket over his chest, then the ones in his jeans. There’s no metallic jingle of keys.
“What’s the name of this fine establishment?” Archie asks.
Sam thinks and thinks and comes up blank. But he knows every bar, restaurant, and club in town, if only because there aren’t many. He’s been to them all, dozens of times, hundreds of times as the years have rolled on by.
The heat is stronger now, rising far faster than the rising sun. More like the mercury in a thermometer, pushed under a fevered tongue. Sam pulls at his collar, tries to think, tries to remember. Sweat sticks his shirt to his chest, drips from his lashes into his eyes.
“Don’t ya feel it, Sammy?” Archie asks. He’s jumped up onto the table now, lithe body winding around the ceramic mug. Steam trickles from the top, the whiskey near boiling inside. Then Archie comes and sits, face to face, nose to nose, eye to piercing yellow eye. When he talks, he fangs gleam and flash, the orange overhead light set to flickering and wavering, casting dancing shadows.
Sam can feel the truth in his worlds like fangs to the heart. The realization coughs his heart up from his ribs and puts it in Archie’s jaws.
“You know what really happened today.”
He does. Sam does. He feels it in the oppressive heat, sees it in the oppressive smoke and flickering light. He knows now.
When Archie jumps down from the table, he leaves black, sooty paw prints smeared across the wood planks all the way from the table to the door, making a detour around the dead mare.
“The house burned,” Sam says, and for the first time, he realizes there’s no heart in his chest. No pulse in his veins. The breath in his lungs is hollow, superficial, and wholly unnecessary. “The barn, too.”
“Now you’re seeing things my way,” Archie says, flicking his tail in a lazy, satisfied sort of gesture. “Time to get on out of the hot seat now. Let’s go.”
Sam doesn’t know where they’re going. But this place is coming to light and coming to ruin. Blaze ensnares the walls, tongues of flame licking out and lapping up whatever they can reach. The bar moans and groans, wood crackling and popping. The smoke that was once loose and hazy has turned thick and stark as tar.
Sweating, sighing, sick for home among many other things, he follows the black paw prints to his black cat. And they, as Archie and Sam, go on, away from this place and away from a life lived and finished.
“Told ya I was right,” Archie grins, pleased, just as they step through the door.