by Kaylia Mai
Art by Joy Song
Issue: Nostos (Winter 2019)
A full christmas tree stands in the center of the pub, with presents beneath and an angel perched above. By the tree, a flaming hearth lights the inner chamber of the pub, smiles warmly at nearby patrons, and reaches with its flame-tip arms; the patrons subconsciously turn to the flame and the warmth is like a soothing stroke of fluttering leaves. Stray leaves leftover from autumn crowd around the threshold, but those which enter are swept away.
A man lumbers into the pub, and collapses upon the furthest stool in the darkest corner. He spills his half empty bottle, so he gestures vaguely to the bartender for a drink. The buzz of high spirits and washy smiles escape him, and the warmth of the hearth is absent from him. The man stares at the glass set before him vacantly. His eyes are sad and rough from a long day outside. Picking up the shot glass, the man, Brennan, feels a small twinge; he had pricked his finger earlier on roses. The shallow cut no longer bled, but as he stares, red spills past the flesh, dripping, dripping. Distant sirens scream as red reflects on twisted metal as it seeps into the knees of the crying, and red stains a face with brown hair and staring eyes.
Eyes focus on him with concern, on a round, flushed face. Beside the man sits a large one, watching him. This man holds a bulging middle from too many sweets, and a thick, white beard. The large man notices his grim mood.
“Nothing like a few rounds to soften the day.” He pauses to take a shot of amber liquid, then eyes the man beside him. “Shouldn’t a fellow like you be home on Christmas Eve?”
Brennan scowls. “Move off,” he grumbles and tips back his own drink. The shadows of his cloak cascade around his form.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” the large man laughs, “was just making a bit of conversation is all. I’ve a present for you, here.”
The man leans in close and pauses for effect, then laughs uproariously and crows, “Whatever fight you had will blow over by morning! Then you’ll be merry with misery forgotten. One night of liquor in solitude, and looking forwards to the next days of family cheer.”
As the large man speaks, Brennan’s scowl carves into his face. The flush of the large man’s cheeks become fuzzy and hazily red, like liquor, or roses, or life-blood, then the haze begins dripping and dripping, spilling down the counter and pooling with the tears on the pavement.
Then suddenly Brennan is whirling around, and his knuckles are twinging, and the large man’s face is snapping backwards. His mind hums and there is a roar in his heart, and his soul knows only screams and white fury. The press of human bodies engulfs him, drags him, and he swings like wild, wounded animals do.
When he looks up, the moon is shrouded, and the shine of the stars are hidden in the mist. A nearby street lamp casts a shadow that surrounds him and slinks away with his ragged fury in its maw. Instead his chest is a hollow of tired defeat, making him recoil at the thought of going back in even if he has no more liquor. He stumbles his way to his car. The keys slip in his hands, and it takes a few movements to push them in correctly.
He drives. He drives, and drives away from the happy pub with well-meaning patrons. The car swings slightly on the road, left then right then left again, and rocks him like a child back and forth. He drives, and the fog descends as the last dredges of sunlight slink away. The fog surrounds the car, almost as if it travels with him and carries him away. It is not until hours later that the last dredges of Brennan’s fury slip away and he realizes he does not recognize his surroundings. The library should have been around that last corner, and the bank just across from where he is now, yet neither is. This neighborhood is older, and the buildings are closely pressed together so that only fog may pass through. Now the fog is darker, and denser in a way that no fog ever is. The road is narrower and no longer paved, so he parks, walks up to the nearest house, a modest establishment, and knocks.
The elderly couple that open the door are as surprised to see him as he is that the door had been answered. A drunkard stands on the porch of an ordinary couple, and the shabbiness of his appearance has never been so prominent to him. The old man wears a brown cardigan and well-worn jeans, and the woman wears a cozy red dress. The woman pulls herself together first and her smile is motherly.
“Long day? You look like you need a break from that outside world. Come on in.”
“I got a bit lost. I, uh, need a place to crash and I’ll drive back off in the morning.” Brennan introduces awkwardly, suddenly feeling bashful.
“Of course. Joseph! Light the fireplace for him! Here, I have leftover cinnamon cookies, have some. I’m afraid they’re a bit stale. I’m Mary, by the way.” The newly-ignited fire shines on Mary’s hair and casts a ring of gold, and her smile is that of an angel.
Brennan’s awkwardness mutates into the cousin of embarrassment. “er, I’m Brennan. Really, you needn’t do all this. I just need a bit of space and I’ll be gone in the morning.”
But Mary insists, so they all end up eating cookies around a table by the fire. The interior of the house is small but cozy, and a miniature christmas tree stands by a few armchairs, with three gold-wrapped presents beneath it. “No one really visits here. It’s nice to have someone unexpected, however briefly.” she explains.
Mellow conversation surrounds the table, as the couple are eager to share stories about recent life. Brennan explains how his interest in shoemaking stems from his father, who had been the first of his family in the trade. Joseph is in the shoemaking trade as well, but never had any mentorship. A fellowship develops between two men of shared passions, and they leap down all avenues of discussion until the cookie plate is empty.
At last the fire burns low and hides between logs, and their spirits burn down into a comfortable silence. This room, with the hearth in the middle and the empty plate on the table, inspires an old scene of long-forgotten happiness and a peaceful belonging.
“Make yourself right at home, dear,” Mary says kindly, sweeping her brown hair over her shoulder. She and John wipe down the table and fade down a hallway deep in the house.
Brennan curls onto a nearby armchair and dreams.
The scent of cinnamon awakens him. He blinks groggily, and sits up. A heavy blanket falls off of him. His heavy blanket falls off of him. The car is parked on the driveway outside. The birds chirp on the plum tree as they always do. Ms. Brown walks her dog across the street as she always does. His head punches itself from the inside, and through the constant drumming he regrets that it had all been a dream.
Or had it been?
On his bedside table is a gold-wrapped present with a note attached: Thanks for the roses earlier yesterday, they match my dress. Made a fresh batch, hope you like it!