“Happy people” disdain filled me as I glanced around the bar. Small groups of college students and regulars chattered away unaware of my existence. I settled into my usual back corner booth while Joe, the bartender, brought over a drink without me having to order it.
I made obligatory small talk with Joe before he returned to his post behind the bar. As he resumed polishing glasses with a dirty bar towel, I inspected the all too familiar little dive. Pictures were haphazardly spread over walls covered in smoky grime from the years when the bar was less desolate. The few rickety tables and chairs marred with juvenile graffiti in the center of the room had seen better days. However, the laughing, smiling patrons occupied them without noticing their feeble condition. An electronic dart board in the opposite corner blinked and buzzed tiredly, giving a strobe effect to the dim room.
There was a time I enjoyed this. I fidgeted with the coaster that was supposed to be under my drink and wondered why I bothered coming here at all, but the thought made it no further than a sigh on my lips. It was hard to believe that not so long ago I would have fit in with the people around me, cheerily visiting and drinking away the stress of their day. Though it seemed like little more than a fairy tale, I remembered when we used to come here with a group very similar to the ones I now scorned, a group of friends I called my own. Not anymore. Now there was only one. Me.
“No dwelling, Ella,” the practical, motivational voice I chose to ignore most days rang through my thoughts. “Lingering there isn't going to help anyone. Deal with it.”
But I was dealing with it—the only way I knew how. Coping had become a full time job and it left little energy for anything else.
The vodka warmed as it trickled into my belly. I didn't want to cope right now. My head rested against the wall and I let my mind carry me away. It took me back to when things were good, when the world was black and white and not so many shades of gray. It never occurred to me then, that things could, or rather, would, be different. I always assumed life would just work out. Bad things didn't happen to people like me; they happened to other people… people who deserved it.
Was I one of those people others saw as “asking for it”? Maybe, but I didn’t care. I no longer tried to be friendly or socially acceptable. I no longer forced a smile when I wanted to scowl. Most of the time I didn’t even respond to direct questions since I couldn't be certain what was real. It was safest to treat everything as a figment of my imagination until proven otherwise.
But now some poor bastard was making his way towards my table with a stupid lopsided grin on his face, oblivious to the emotional black hole that was my life. I watched him approach with a detached interest similar to that of a zoo animal watching the hordes of people waving to it from the other side of the glass.
“Hello,” he said, as if we had known each other for years. He sat across from me folding his hands on the table.
I blinked slowly, staring straight ahead as if he didn't exist. The best defense was to ignore everything around you so when you had to lash out you took them by surprise. No indication that I had heard him or could even see him showed on my face as I took another long drink, savoring the moment.
This stranger remained unfazed by my reaction—or lack of one. He continued on as if I had given him a warm, enthusiastic greeting. “I’ve seen you here before. You’re not with anyone, are you? Can’t help, but wonder why.”
Good Lord, he wasn't here to mock me or find out the juicy gossip—he was hitting on me. I sighed and fought a short battle in my mind about how to proceed. Should I make an attempt at civility? Or should I ignore him until he left? I tried the latter, drawing in another large gulp of straight vodka while staring at the pictures and signs on the wall. However, this fellow had more determination than I’d been able muster up in years. He didn’t speak any further just watched me with a curious gaze that sent chills down my spine. The hairs stood on the back of my neck; my posture stiffened.
“Look,” I said, glancing his way, carefully avoiding his eyes, “I’m not here to meet people. As flattering as it is, I want to be alone.”
“That's too bad. I want to meet you.”
Just who did this man think he was? Was I not clear?
“Do I look like I want to have a conversation?” I made eye contact for the first time, clenching my jaw. I didn’t need this right now.
“Not at all,” he said with a grin that others might have found charming. “But I have a way of changing people’s minds. I’m a doctor. New to the area—”
I cut him off before he could recite his whole resume. “I bet this normally works on all the girls,” I said with a roll of my eyes, “but I'm not one of them. I don’t need your company or your conversation. Do us both a favor and leave.”
“As I said I’ve seen you here before. And tonight’s the night I find out why a pretty girl like you is sitting in the corner looking surly.”
Telling this man to leave was as effective as talking to the glass of vodka in front of me.
My eyes closed in response to his probing. Bitterness inched its claws into me. A flood of angry emotions washed across my mind. I tried to let them ebb before I spoke again. I just wanted to be left alone more than anything else… well, more than almost anything else.
“Was this a bet? Can I help you win it? Whatever it takes to make you leave, just let me know.” He raised an eyebrow, but didn’t dignify my rant with a response. “Seriously, buddy. I'm tired I don’t have the energy to deal with you.”
He inspected me for a few moments longer. “Ok…” his voice trailed off, but he didn’t move away.
I waited, but still he made no attempt to leave. “You’re leaving?”
“No. I was wondering why you’re so tired. Thinking out loud really.”
I looked in his eyes. They were so caring and empathic I could throw up. Rather than chucking ice cubes at him I decided to actually talk to him, perhaps a little less dramatic, but hopefully still effective. After all, being bitchy only encouraged further conversation and meaningful looks. Perhaps a small dose of my life would be the coup de grace of this conversation. “What’s your name?”
“Ahhh, a moment of civility, I’m honored,” he teased giving me a half bow. “My name is Grant.”
“Grant? That figures,” I said under my breath, then pushed on before he could comment. “Well, Grant, I’m tired because I have problems at home . . . in a manner of speaking. Problems that keep me awake most nights and this time, right now,” my finger tapped against the tabletop, “that I have here alone is the only silver lining in what would otherwise be an unbearable day. So let me ask you this, why are you ruining it?”
I rolled my eyes again, as deliberately as possible. “If I say yes will I be less interesting?”
“How much longer do you expect me to answer your questions?”
Grant continued to ignore my open hostility. “You have yet to answer any questions. Love a mysterious girl. What kind of problems at home?”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit personal when you don’t even know my name?”
“Now that could be remedied very easily.”
I stalled by taking another languid drink. “Frances, my name is Frances.”
“Frances?” His head tilted to the side. “You don’t look like a Frances.”
“Well, it is nice to meet you. Now, that wasn't too hard was it?”
“You'd be surprised.”
“Hey Ella, you ready for another?” Joe interrupted, ruining my perfectly executed farce.
“Your name is Ella, pretty—suits you much better.”
I gave him a tight smile, annoyed that my lie failed so quickly. I couldn’t escape who I was even for a few moments in a bar.
“Well, now since I know your name and we’re friends, will you tell me all about your problems?” He tried the charming smile again, but I remained unmoved.
Telling the truth, however, was a provocative thought. Someone listening, maybe even understanding, who wouldn't want that? But the reality of the situation didn't escape me. He would run back to his friends with a new story about the raving lunatic of Montgomery. “I didn’t tell you I live alone,” I said absently, “and you wouldn’t believe me if I told you the truth.”
“Ask around. I’m sure any of these folks would be happy to tell you about the woman who killed her husband. In a town this size, it's a big story,” I said with a flippant tone I didn't feel.
“I'd rather hear it from you.”
What was wrong with this man? My words would have sent most people here running for the hills with a story about their brush with death. “What kind of doctor are you?” I asked, giving up. He didn't have to leave if I didn't have to talk about myself.
“I do a little bit of everything.”
“A general practitioner?”
He nodded, looking slightly amused which bothered me. It felt like he was laughing at me. Once again the desire for him to leave took over. “Why are you here? You aren't exactly ugly; other girls in this bar would probably love to talk to you... like that one over there.” I pointed vaguely towards a group of girls. “Why do you have to pick on me? I’m literally the only one here who isn't going to talk to you.”
“I like a challenging woman. Stop avoiding my questions.”
I didn’t notice that someone else was approaching my table until she was standing in front of it. The woman was blurry through the fog of cigarette smoke coming from a nearby table. I found focusing on her easier if I only used one eye. Slowly she became clear enough to recognize—and the night just got better.
“What is this, harass Ella day, Susan?” I grumbled, mostly to myself though I made no attempt to hide it from her.
“Joe thought you might need a ride, El,” she said warily.
I stared at her deciding whether or not I wanted to be difficult. “And you just dropped everything to come and get me?”
Susan sighed. “Are you ready to leave?”
“Whatever.” I slid out of the booth. This wasn't the first time the bartender called Susan to come and get me, and in the end it was pointless to fight against it. If Joe called Susan it was probably time for me to go home. Susan, Doug, Danny and I used to be regulars until all the pieces of our happy foursome shattered around us. I was the only one who still came and probably more often then I should. Joe was the last person left in this town who was nice to me, but then again he hardly spoke. I glanced back at Grant. “You are amazingly pushy.”
“I’ll see you soon.” He said with a disturbing amount of self-confidence.
I followed Susan, who was shaking her head disapprovingly, to her car. After a few moments of driving Susan broke my sullen silence.
“You can stay with us tonight if you want.”
“Why?” I asked with feigned ignorance. “That would be pointless. Everything’s all in my imagination, right?” The smile I put on held no humor or hint of teasing.
“Ella, I don’t want to fight with you. You can stay with us or I'll take you home.”
“Take me home.” We rode the rest of the way to my house without speaking.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Susan said finally, before I could shut the car door.
“Really, Susan? How does it have to be?”
“There're still people who care about you. There are people that can help.”
“I don’t want your help, Susan, or the kind of help you think I need.” I wasn't sure if my vehemence was for her benefit or mine. “I know perfectly well what happened—and what you think I did. Stay away from me.” Cold, hard anger clenched my stomach.
“Ella, be reasonable. Reconsider the hospital . . . With the stress of losing Danny, plus everything else, anyone would need a break, would need to get out of that house. I don't know how you stand it.”
I rubbed my hands hard over my face trying to ease some of the frustration and anger that was still boiling to the surface. “For the last time, Susan, I'm not sick. I'm not crazy. I know exactly what happened and I don’t care if you believe me… And for Christ’s sake, I didn't lose Danny. He isn’t…” I stopped myself, corrected my speech. “He was not a puppy, I know exactly where he is. I buried him there.”
She was too late. I slammed the car door and headed towards the pretty Victorian house that had become my own personal hell. As I looked for my keys, I heard Susan’s car drive away. I didn't know why I even bothered locking the doors anymore; part of me welcomed an intruder to come in and put me out of my misery. I was stuck here, in the house that killed my only family. I dreamed about leaving, but couldn’t. This was Danny’s legacy. Figuring out what happened was the least I could do for him.