Short Story: Cold Moon

The moon had risen cold that night, duller than it had any right to be. Just another sign something was wrong, or heading that way. The highways were deserted. Only once did headlights meet to warn then bypass Austin from the oncoming lane. He barely noticed them. To him the road was merely an endless series of ups and downs, micro-turbulence, and wide curves. For all he knew, he was flying.

The dull-Mooned sky was cloudless. An occasional wisp of fluff drifted by in the distance, but never bothered the dampened sheen of incandescent white. The two were like opposite sides of a coin, ne’er to meet. Somehow that didn’t affect Austin. He merely drove, staring, almost lifeless. His motions automatic.

Even after, he wasn’t sure where things had gone wrong. There was a deer in the headlights moment, with Austin the deer. Moments where, even long after the accident, Austin swore there’d been no-one there. It was as if one moment the road were empty. The next, a boy had materialized. The blood stains said otherwise. His damaged car said otherwise. The boy’s grieving father said otherwise.

Austin knew the kid was dead. He was just sitting, waiting to hear it confirmed. A police officer sat beside him. He’d come to take a statement. It was simple: “I was tired, but alert. Like always. I drive that road twice a day. No-one’s around on late-nights like mine though. Still, I check the mirrors. Always. Mom was killed by a drunk driver ‘cause she merged without checking her mirrors. I always check them.”

The cop was forced to re-focus him.

Austin stared at the floor, completely shell-shocked. “I checked my mirror to change lanes. My exit was next. You know how it is. I look up, and this kid’s in the middle of the road. I didn’t see him before. It was like he’d come outta’ thin air. I didn’t… didn’t see him. I was checking my mirrors.”

Austin wasn’t much use after that. He descended into a fugue state. Traumatized. The officer stayed near him. Eventually Austin suspected it was as much for safety as support– the last thing a prosecuting entity wanted was a vigilante murder out of grief. Austin didn’t think it would’ve been all that bad. Then again, he didn’t feeling much save complete and total dread.

Before long, a doctor appeared. He stepped from earshot with the officer, muttered in low tones. This was the moment. Austin knew it. In seconds, the officer would lock-step over, relay the news. He couldn’t help but feel the soul-shattering crack in his chest. It still echoed through him as the officer escorted him to his bloody car and promised to be in touch. Austin drove toward home, front-end one headlight less than usual.

He wasn’t one for bars, but he knew all of them in his dingy town. He knew the upscale ones. The ones that attracted the best women. The ones that brought allowed underage kids. He even knew the ones that stank least or offered the best drugs. He wasn’t interested in any of them. He went to the only one he was certain he’d never wanted to approach. It was a dive-bar for dive-bars. A place where nobody knew your name because no-one had names there, because no-one spoke. They just drank, hunched over, acting as small as they felt.

He hid in there, and within there, like all the other so-called barflies drinking away sorrows. No-one bothered him. No-one would. The bartender didn’t even ask what he wanted. He just set two-fingers of whiskey on the counter. It was warm, vile, felt like Austin’s insides felt. Whether clairvoyant, or prescient, the bartender never needed to speak. If someone needed another drink, or a change of taste, they got it.

Perhaps that was the reason Austin found himself returning nightly. Perhaps not. Perhaps it was something entirely unrelated, inexplicable. Or, perhaps, it was just another of life’s mysteries– like how a child living twelve miles from a highway mysteriously appeared there without his family knowing he was missing.

Like everyone else, Austin drank with his head down. This was the way such people were made– how places like the dive-bar survived. They fed off the souls of those slowly killing themselves there. Not directly. Indirectly. And not through money. Not a single person, Austin included, ever paid. They were never asked to. Their tabs were kept and tallied, in as much silence as everything else, to be paid by their next of kin. All of it was overseen by one man; a creature of silence like the rest.

Somehow, perhaps from lack of awareness, or the desire to keep quiet, drown sorrows, the man that joined the barflies every night in the corner was entirely missed. He sat with legs crossed, just out of range of Austin’s peripheral vision. Atop his knees was a book. Beside it on the round table, a Mojito. A curious drink for such a place. More curious was the way, every few minutes, he dabbed sweat from his forehead, sipped his mojito, and scratched his book with a pen.

Had anyone bothered to look, they might have noticed the rhythm. Had they bothered to look, they might have noticed him at all. Then, they might have thought to step near him. They might have smelled the hint of sulfur to the air. They might have seen the ink colored of fresh blood or drying to a deep, brown. They might have noticed too, the curiously Latin and rune-like writings in the book. If anyone in the bar had thought to notice him at all, they might have noticed these things too. Indeed, they might have noticed the names of their fellow liquor-jocks, or even themselves.

And if they’d thought to stick around long enough, observing closing time, they might’ve seen the man rise to disappear out the door. Were they able to inhabit multiple places at once, they might even find themselves near a highway and at the bar simultaneously. Then, with a flicker of surreal reality, the man would disappear from the door while a boy materialized on the highway.

Perhaps, if someone thought to look, they would see these things. But no-one ever did. And no-one ever would.

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