Edition 10: Drunks by Michael C Schutz-Ryan
When I first met Neil, he was drinking Heineken at Jim’s party. Well dressed and very drunk gay men stood around a veritable garden of potted plants; they watched each other watching each other and tried to appear disinterested.
A small crowd of three or four gathered around Neil. I didn’t know him then, but wanted to, so I drifted over.
Neil’s eyes were glassy and bright and returned my (light-hearted) stare far more often than he peered into any others’ eyes. He had black hair twisted and tangled like one of those lucky trolls that were popular years before. Beer in hand, he leaned his lithe body forward, one knee on the cushions. He was ten years younger than anyone there.
He was telling a story; his voice surprised me—it was too gravelly to come out of that face. I’d come in late, and caught only the punchline: “So I took down the sign!” His laughter made the room smile.
I was standing close to the kitchen; Neil left his contingent and walked passed me to the other room. He had an evil little grin that went with his sharp eyes, and anyone would have felt giddy to have it aimed at them. His green eyes flashed. He kept those eyes on me as he walked past, not breaking the stare for several paces.
I followed him, checking him out on the way. When he stopped, I stood at his side.
“Do you mind?” he asked, pulling out a little pot pipe. He was shy about it.
“It’s San Francisco,” I shrugged. “Haven’t seen you around before.”
He exhaled and waggled his head. “I sort of invited myself.”
“Do you have a habit of insinuating yourself into situations?”
He laughed, “Can you write that down for me?”
Neil proffered me the pipe but I shook my head. He took a big hit and coughed it out, holding up a hand to show he had something more to say. “I’m just trying to lose myself in a crowd.”
“It’s hard to ignore you.” I took a drink, letting my come-on hang in the air, making me a little embarrassed.
But he grinned at me. “So these are all your friends?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.”
“You guess so?”
“Of course they are,” I answered. “Just don’t see them much outside of the bar…”
“I had a lot of friends like that.”
“You sure are someone to get to know, aren’t you?”
“No, I don’t think so. But if you’re interested…It’s Neil.”
“Rob.” We shook hands, an awkward gesture because I was so accustomed to hugging everyone I saw. I had to laugh. But his mouth turned down with seriousness. He stared past me, over my shoulder, toward to the living room. They were getting loud in there.
He was distant. “I needed to get away from everyone around me.”
“You did something that bad?”
I said it as a joke, but he nodded his head. “Yes I did.” Lost in thought momentarily, he snapped back. “But now it’s time to get to know new people.”
“I’d like to be one of them.” I surprised myself; I didn’t say things like that.
“As long as you protect me.”
“From everyone else.”
“Yeah.” He put his pipe in his pocket. He left the kitchen, with an exaggerated sidelong glance.
I watched him as he walked away.
Yeah, I fell pretty hard.
Three days later I saw Neil while walking down Haight Street. He was staring through a head shop window.
He turned in a single fluid motion. His green eyes were bright from the sun; then a high cloud of fog doused us in shadow.
“Rob! From the party.”
There was a way about him—when he acknowledged me I felt like I was blessed by the world.
“What are you shopping for?” I tried for the right mixture of curiosity and irony.
His lips parted in a half smile. Not quite the one he’d given me the other night. “I’m looking at the reflection.”
The apparent arrogance made me uncomfortable. “Well…” I said, watching the direction of his gaze shift past, and then through me like it had in the kitchen. I got a vibe that he didn’t want to stand there talking to me. “I should get going.”
Neil’s attention returned. “Oh! Oh, sure, Rob.” He closed the gap between us and hugged me. I realized that I had imagined holding him, if for no other reason than to hold a pretty thing. His clothes pressed against me and his arms were firm around my shoulders. His face brushed mine; it was cool and sent ripples tripping through my veins.
He broke the embrace. “Will I see you again?”
I hesitated but for only a second. “I’m certain.”
I left him there, and halfway down the block I cast a glance back. Neil still stood, frozen in front of the smoke shop window. His posture brought to mind a stance of fear. I shivered as I thought of this lonely young man with nothing better to do than to look back at himself in a reflection.
That Friday I was at Club 5. At ten o’clock it was still early, but the main bar was already a third full. The DJ had started, and the floor bounced with bodies.
At the bar, I cased out the early prospects. None of my (bar acquaintances) friends had arrived yet, and I felt a frenetic worry that I was missing something somewhere else.
I saw Neil at the far end of the horseshoe-shaped bar. In the dim lighting, shadows swallowed him.
“Hi sweetheart,” the bartender threw down a white square of napkin in front of me.
“Kevin.” I leaned over the bar, and we kissed on the cheek.
He set down a tequila sunrise, not needing to hear my order. I gave him a ten and made a gesture to keep the change; I liked to tip heavily early on.
I made a casual revolution with my eyes, not sure if I should go over to Neil. He was still at the far end of the metal and lacquered bar. Two pint glasses stood in front of him, one empty but for the foam sliding down the inside of the glass; the other was halfway gone.
(What the hell.)
I walked over and saw him lean forward, peering into the golden liquid. His lips moved as if silently praying. Neil didn’t see me approach, and I laid my arm across his shoulder in a half-embrace. “Neil!”
He twitched, and his head jerked up. Those green eyes widened and went wild with panic.
“Rob!” He shot a glance over my shoulder. He blinked several times and then focused on me; his face brightened to the point that my stomach tingled despite his erratic behavior. “I’m so glad you decided to come after all.”
“Here…” He became a flurry of movements, pulling out a barstool for me. He waved a hand, indicating the rest of the bar. “They’re here,” he said seriously.
I looked around and nodded at the early revelers. When I looked back, his eyes stared into mine. He nodded his head up-and-down, up-and-down. After draining the rest of his beer, he slammed the newly emptied glass on the bar hard enough to draw Kevin’s attention.
“Take it out of this,” I said and set a bill down. I’d drunk mine without even knowing it.
A moment later, Kevin returned with another drink for me and another pint for Neil. We sat next to each other, and for the briefest of moments, Neil’s leg brushed mine.
“They’re here,” Neil repeated quietly. The muscles of his jaw tensed.
“Dancing…” I said—I offered—he seemed to need some explanation.
“No—” He ran his fingers through his hair, tousling it, making it stand on end.
The bar was filling up. Smoke from the fog machine wound around the ankles of the dancers.
“Don’t you see them?”
“The lights play tricks,” I answered.
“The shadow people…” Neil whimpered. “They blink in and out. They’re coming more often. And there’s more than there used to be.”
“You’ve had a little too much,” I said. “You’re tight.”
“They’re coming for me.” Neil turned his head and tears stood in the corners of those eyes. He reached out, fingers splayed, and held onto me. The hairs stood up on my forearms. He didn’t look drunk anymore. He looked earnest—horribly earnest.
“They’re right there,” he said, but his eyes never left mine. “They came through by the shadows on the walls.”
“What do you mean ‘came through’?”
Now, as I watched the dancing shapes through the knee-deep (San Francisco) fog, the negative space between them seemed…tangible.
“They followed me back,” Neil whispered. I felt his soft breath on my cheek, he leaned so close to me. His fingers tapped against the rim of his glass—it was more than three quarters gone.
“Who followed you?” My own eyes were playing tricks now. They must have been, because the darkness between the patrons was substantial; it moved, independently of the lights strobing into the fog-machine mist. It was as if people stepped through the throng—people who had not been there only a moment before.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Neil, you’re putting crazy ideas into my head.”
Neil’s barstool was empty. Turning around, I saw the back of his loose shirt disappear through the club’s back door. I glanced back to the dance floor, but there were no ghosts in the fog.
(Never had been!)
I wanted to believe that, but I had seen a curious trick of the lighting.
(Too much to drink and too many crazy stories.)
I drank down my sunrise and left for the rear entrance. I pushed the pocked metal door; the late autumn chill hit me despite my alcohol-warmed skin. My breath plumed out—a tiny fog around my head.
The back was an enclosed trash area. Flattened beer cartons stood on end, pinned by clear plastic recycling bags full of stinking beer bottles. A wood fence—the boards painted a streaky purple—walled me in. A hinged door let me out into the parking lot where a dozen sporty little coupes sat dark, rainbow stickers on their bumpers.
The asphalt was damp with (fog) condensation-like night dew.
I wanted to yell out (Neil?) but the stillness of the night begged for quiet.
My breath hitched; my heart pounded against my ribs, invigorated by the (shadows) short chase.
I looked around but Neil could have been anywhere.
My desire for him swelled with a desire to protect him from (shadows) his drunken delusions.
A footstep scraped off to my right.
My feet seemed cemented to the ground. Out of my periphery, I saw (shadows) movement just a couple of cars over.
I stepped toward it. My feet moved, but a chill settled on my limbs. It was a tingling chill not from the cold but from the realization of how dark the sky was—stars obscured by the actual fog, high up there. Only two arc-sodium lamps shone down, casting a faded and jaundiced glow over the cars. Shadows clung deep in the dimness. A trick of the light from headlights of cars passing by on the highway made those shadows tip-toe toward me.
Something clattered, and I whirled around. As I did, the darkness grew thicker.
Maybe he’d driven off. He wasn’t out here—that much I (wanted to believe) felt sure of. There really wasn’t anything out there. Neil’s fantasies had gotten to me; I would have done well to forget them.
I walked around the building and back in through the front. The kid checking IDs knew me and didn’t charge me the cover now in place.
My gut soured when I considered that I might do well to forget about Neil as well.
After two more drinks, I felt only a dull wondering regarding Neil.
(Where did he come from?)
(How had he ended up at Jim’s party?)
I’d had the impression that he was a friend of someone, but I would have noticed him before. Besides, Neil was too much of a (drunk) loose cannon for the group.
“Just my type.” I laughed quietly to myself. In five more years, I wouldn’t be laughing at my relationship track record.
I raised my Collins glass and swallowed down the watery tequila. The remains of ice cubes clinked against my teeth. I didn’t know how many drinks I’d had but was on the cusp of ordering another. The bar was too packed at that point—buttcheeks and elbows jockeyed for position. Around me were (shadow-men); no real friends, only faces familiar in the context of the club. Their eyes showed lechery and greed—they were all fortune hunters, searching to get drunk and get laid.
It was such an effort to be happy.
I had depressed myself into a decision; I shouldered my way through the crowd of people and the wall of sound to the door. I nodded to the kid working the door. His perfect teeth smiled back.
Outside, the temperature had dropped, and the chill brought a cold flush to my face. Rubbing my hands together, I stepped down from the front walk and onto the black asphalt of the lot. I heard the glass in the door rattle rhythmically from the speakers’ bass inside. Other than that, the world was stiff.
That stiffness—it wasn’t right. There should have been the smell of mixing colognes and the beat of music from car stereos where couples sat in the cold, smoking pot. But there was only that heavy silence, prickling my nerves.
I was being watched.
I heard breathing behind me, and suddenly I was haunted by childhood fears—hands groping for me in the dark. Some dank and rotting corpse waited for me . . .
I spun around so fast that I almost toppled over; my heart skipped a beat before racing ahead.
There was no one behind me.
My stomach churned.
“Dammit!” It was small consolation that no one had witnessed me acting the fool.
Behind the wheel of my truck, I shivered, and the engine turned over sluggishly. Tequila swirled my mind. After a moment, my brain cleared; I didn’t intend to, but as I eased out onto the street, I watched in the rearview for the ghosts of Neil’s imagination. I cursed myself for falling for (him) his mental traps. I cursed him for laying them out for me.
All the same, I still thought I was being watched.
I didn’t have terribly far to drive, but my deepening fears—however misguided—started mixing with the alcohol and drained the clarity of my vision. I stayed on side streets to get home. My little truck’s headlights splashed the tree-lined sidewalks. Long, low shadows played out on the road. They danced and twirled, and as I passed they stretched out like reaching arms…and then shrank back into the trees which had birthed them.
Finally in the lot behind my building, the parked cars were pale under the yellow lights, which lined the perimeter. I pulled into my assigned space—my usual space, when on this night little could be considered usual. It wasn’t until parked that I noticed I’d held my breath most of the drive home; I was lightheaded. The flush was still on my cheeks, though now because of embarrassment.
The slamming of my door sounded hollow. In the starkness of sound left behind, a branch off to my left (crunched under foot) snapped. I double-timed it inside.
My tiny apartment was first to the left. I felt safe only after throwing the deadbolt and flipping on the lights. My window faced the empty street. Feeling exposed, I drew the blinds shut.
Now I felt sober. I didn’t want to be, and in the kitchen I found a bottle of decent whiskey.
Knuckles pounded on my door as I sipped. It cut short the fireworks bursting warmth in my stomach. When my head steadied, I crossed to the door. Through the peep-hole I saw only the door across the fish-bowled hallway.
I rested my head against the door. My skull rattled when the knocking came again, louder and more insistent.
Bravery or pride put my fingers in motion and threw the deadbolt back. When I saw that I still held my drink, I felt vulnerable. It was too late—the door opened, and Neil stood in front of me, running his fingers nervously through his hair. His clothes clung to him. Fever undulated off his body.
“I knew you were home.” The lazy sting of beer washed over me—his eyes couldn’t focus, but even in that moment I wanted to pull him toward me and hold him even as I lashed out.
“What do you mean?” My senses had been dulled, but now pieces fell into satisfying place. “You were hiding in the parking lot,” I answered my own question. It was over; I wasn’t going to let him in. I saw it clearly: Neil crouched against the cold side of a car, watching me search for him and enjoying my paranoia at his inventions. “Why are you here?”
“Please, can I come in?”
I thought about other faces peering through other peep-holes, smirking at the gay neighbor making trouble in the hall. I pulled him in and pushed him behind me. I closed the door.
“I followed you here.”
Neil stared at the door for a moment, then back at me. “They’re following me.”
“I’m sick of this game, Neil.”
He held a shaking hand up to still me. “You don’t understand—”
“You’re damned right I don’t.”
Neil shook his head, continued, “They want me back. Do you see?”
“You need to go, Neil.”
“I was drunk…”
“I thought you were cute…”
“It was two years ago…ten years…twenty—I forget.”
“I admit, you were young and cute…” I shook my head, wondering how I’d fallen for this.
Neil’s voice deepened with concentration. “I was so drunk, but I thought I could drive.”
“But you’ve got something going on that I can’t deal with.”
“I was just driving home; it was maybe five miles.”
“You really need to leave.” I opened the door for him, but he crossed over to me and pushed the door out of my hand and slammed it shut. His face was inches from mine; his breath was sweeter than I imagined it could have been after so much beer.
“I hit the car. Going I guess 60. Maybe 70—I was speeding and didn’t really know.” Neil started to cry. “Both cars were totaled. Mine shredded. The mom and two kids . . . their car crumpled around them like a paper ball.”
I blinked, shocked, but eerily unmoved. Neil had already desensitized me. “They died?” I asked.
“No. I did.”
My stomach plummeted. I was disgusted; I didn’t want to look at him. I didn’t want to hear him. “Please leave.”
That was when all the light bulbs in the apartment popped.
A quick, high scream burst from Neil.
I flinched—from his shout more than the tiny explosions of bursting filaments. One lamp survived: the touchier in the corner of the living room.
“They’ve come.” The hollow terror of acceptance in his voice brought gooseflesh to my arms.
The entire apartment swam with bruise-colored shadows.
“I woke up in a room!” Neil continued frantically. He wanted to tell this story to the end. I began to believe it all.
“A white room. Chairs all in a circle. And…” His voice broke. “Bloody cadavers sitting everywhere. Some had skin falling off their faces. If they had any.” Neil hitched between sobs. “There were arms hanging loose, legs shattered and purple. And they smelled. They smelled, Rob. They smelled like scotch and vodka and beer.”
Booze and death.
My skin crawled.
The shadows moved.
“They were all like me…” Neil grew quiet. It was grief now, not fear that motivated him. “They’d all been drunk; all hurt people, or killed them. And they’d all died themselves.”
The walls shimmered—became insubstantial. The flat surfaces in the room glimmered like water.
“They made me re-live it. Every day. Not just my acci—what I had done, but what they had done, too. And it’s not like listening. You see, it happens. The crunch of cars. I smell the gasoline and scorched oil. My ears hurt with the screams of people over and over. It never stops. I hear that little girl, crying for her mom.”
The shadows gathered. They grew more substantial than the walls through which they’d come. I dropped my drink and heard the soft clinking of ice against glass. My ears rang. Tiny bursts of light cast spots behind the lids of my eyes.
“I found a way out. But they don’t want to suffer alone.”
The shadows were hazy outlines of people.
My mouth dried out as if I were chewing cotton balls. I couldn’t answer Neil. If I had, I would have told him that I didn’t think they’d be fooled.
The shadow people came through the walls. I saw that they weren’t really shadows at all, but that they used the shadows. Those broken and haunted bodies slipped over the carpet, using shadow to give form where there was none.
Neil back-pedaled. “No! Rob…Please Rob!”
Neil tripped and hit his head on my couch. He was crying. The shadow people drew steadily closer, passing by (passing through) me. And when half-tangible bodies touched me, I saw it: the death; the blood; the crying—what Neil must have seen every day. It wasn’t like watching on a screen. I was living in that screen—in worlds of burning gasoline and leaking blood, and the full range of emotion from hatred to terror to guilt flowed through my own veins.
But the ghosts only passed through me, and the terror inside my head vanished. They targeted Neil, on his hands and knees, snot and spit and tears wrecking his face. I would have slobbered over myself, too, at the horror of spending one more moment in the Hell I’d witnessed for that brief instant.
They fell on him, shape after shape, thickening over and around his body—drowning out his pleas. Soon there was only a shimmer and that fading bruise color. They faded, too, and with them went the ringing of Neil’s begging. Then they were gone, and there was no more Neil.
I was relieved.
My walls were solid again. I smelled the spilled whiskey from the glass I’d dropped. My legs shook as I bent to pick it up. The fingers of my right hand tittered around on the glass before finally grasping it.
I went to the kitchen and threw it into the garbage.
Then I sat on my couch and tried to comprehend, but only waves of shock radiated around my fingers and toes, hands and feet. Relief became guilt. I should have helped him. I couldn’t have stopped them, but maybe I could have gone to him and held him in those last, long seconds. I hadn’t believed him, and now I felt that I had owed him at least that.
He probably deserved his fate, for what he’d done. And for how he’d escaped that Hell only to recreate his old life and habits.
I sat through the night, unable to get out of my mind the image of Neil sitting in that circle of chairs with the rest of the sinners and killers. Where he would be until I drew my last breath, and then on into forever.
Michael Schutz was born and raised in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin. He attended the UW-Stevens Point and graduated with an English degree from the Madison campus. A lifelong diet of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King whet his appetite for the macabre. A lover of all things horror, he likes to plumb the depths of Netflix in search of decent scary movies. His short story, “Autumn Trees” was published in Expanded Horizons. Currently, he’s finishing his first novel. He lives and writes in San Jose, CA.