Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Night Falls, Again

I’m not thinking about where I’m going to sit. I’m not thinking about anything at all. No sir. Not me. My mind is a total blank. I’m just walking into a bar to have a drink, which is a perfectly reasonable ambition. People do it, all the time. Everywhere. That’s what bars are for. For people to just walk into. People like me and you. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there, on every street.

The bar in question is called Tony’s and takes up most of a small block a little north of Duval Street. It’s split roughly in half, in terms of area. You can hang inside amongst the dark wood and neon beer signs, planting your elbows on tables sticky with last night’s margaritas; or there’s a covered patio outside, with twisted vines overhead and a good view of the street and its passing mildlife. The tourists mainly opt for the outside—the Europeans, especially, who like the warmth. The locals head for the interior, where it’s cooler. They can get heat anytime—plus the bar has televisions, so they can keep up to speed with the incessant burbling of the news and sports and the soaps. Especially the soaps. People sit there for hours on end, heads tilted back, mouths hanging open, drinking the fiction by the glass: not wanting to miss a moment in the lives of these shadow friends, the narratives of whose existence are barely more deranged than our own.

I steer a course through the tables outside and head through the double-door portal to the interior. It’s late afternoon and neither area is crowded. I could sit wherever I want. I’ve lived in Key West for nearly two years now, and so the heat is no big novelty to me either, but I decide that once I’ve sourced a drink I’ll come sit with it outside. Inside is for night time, when it’s dark. During the day you might as well be out in the light: while it’s there; while it lasts. The only problem with the outside is the waitress service. They do their best and are cheery as all hell, but drinks can still be slow in arriving. I know that I shouldn’t let the first one take too long. I don’t want to get panicked. I’m not good with temptation when I’m panicky. Later on, outside will be great. I’ll take up residence at a table with a view, and sip my drink, waiting patiently for the next one to arrive. I’ll watch the people as they amble up and down the street, and make up half-stories about where they’ve come from: the families and the couples, the children growing tired and fractious, the oldsters holding hands. It’ll be sedate and civilised and grown-up.

But for now, speed is of the essence.

I walk into the dim inner sanctum and walk straight up to the bar. A television is on stun directly above my head, two coifed ladies in tight sweaters accusing each other of fell deeds, the nature of which I can’t make out. One of them has slept with the other’s husband, or daughter, or is her long-lost neurologist, or something. The sound is loud and crackly, the picture an over-saturated bleed of interlacing. I’ve seen the show before but can’t remember what it’s called. Sometimes I’ll let one or other of them welter in front of my eyes for a while, for old times’ sake, but I begin to lose a grip on the difference between what I’m watching and what is real. I find myself expecting friends, people I haven’t seen in a while, to pop up in the next scene. They never have, but I’m not sure whether this is good or bad.

The two guys behind the bar are busy, but one nods to show he’ll be with me real soon. I light a cigarette and lean back against the counter, still firmly not thinking. I scan the other customers instead, the husbands and wives, the girls and their guys. The day is unusually hot, and a few tourists have made it inside. Most have foreheads that are at least blushing; some look like they should be sitting in a burns unit. If you’re not used to it, the breeze off the harbour will fool you. There’ll be a few couples wincing in their hotel rooms tonight, carefully putting lotion on each other and making injured hissing sounds. Sleeping under the same sheet later on, but not getting any closer than that, musing that tomorrow they’ll maybe buy a hat, and wishing they’d had the thought twentyfour hours previously.

After a minute or so I turn to check on progress, but the drink jockeys are still pouring and stirring. I have an impulse to just walk out, but it’s only mild and I beat it down with little effort.

I notice that another man has entered the bar and is now standing at the counter. I frown. I know the guy. At least, I think I do. It feels like I’ve seen him before, anyway. He’s tall with ragged dark hair and is dressed in a dark suit with a tie pulled down, the top button of his shirt undone. His shirt is also dark. I don’t know what he thinks he’s playing at. In Key West, for Christ’s sake. In summer. There are places around here where you can dress like an advert in GQ if you really want to—in the evenings—but stand around looking like that in the afternoon and not only will you be hotter than hell, but you’re going to look like you’ve been up all night.

I watch the guy for a while, trying to work out where I know him from. At one point he sweeps his eyes around the counter, probably trying to work out how many are ahead of him in line for a drink. This gives me a better look at his face, but even that doesn’t help. It isn’t like I can think “Oh yeah, that’s . . . oh, what’s his name?” or “Doesn’t he work in such and such a store?”

Just a face I know, in some context or other.

The bar people are still shaking cocktails, but none of the contents has my name on it. I abruptly decide this isn’t the place for me. Not today. It isn’t working out. I turn and walk away from the counter. I’m going to go back out through the doors and out into the day. And that’s when I get caught.

Between the inside and outside doors of Tony’s, there’s a corridor about four feet deep. As I enter it, a bunch of tourists are already in place. An extended family, or a distended one: each looking as if they’ve had been unevenly but enthusiastically inflated with a pump. They start to move, then change their minds and return to the bill of fare, shipwrecked in Gap casuals, mired in space, worrying. Is this a good place, or are they going to get ripped off? Are they going to get value? Those extra couple of cents make all the difference, and never mind that in the search for value nirvana you waste irreplaceable hours of your life. My grandmother used to say that if you look after the cents then the dollars will look after themselves. This has a nice ring to it, but on the other hand Grandma’s dead and has been for a long time, so it evidently didn’t help her with the bigger things in life. She did leave behind a vast jar of small change, I’ll admit. It added up to two hundred and eighty bucks, or about a hundred and fifty instances of not having quite what she wanted, but something slightly cheaper instead.

The point is, I got stuck. Tourists to the left of me, tourists to the right, a hot and frowning mass of indecision. I can’t get past. If this hadn’t happened, I would have just walked straight out and into the heat, turned right, walked across the patio and through the gate and into the street. There’s a strong chance that I might have headed out to the harbour and drunk an ice tea; sitting watching the birds until people started to gather for the sunset, at which point I would have gone home and watched the tube or read a book or held something else in front of my eyes until they started to close. My mission in Tony’s had been very specific. A single idea had been allowed to surface, and it was this I was following through. It’s possible that . . .

Well, whatever. It doesn’t happen that way. Instead, as I try to be polite about cutting my way through the blubbery mass in front of me, I happen to glance out onto the patio. To the left.

And I see her.

She’s sitting at one of the tables outside, wearing a long white cotton skirt and a T-shirt that doesn’t have a slogan on it. There’s an empty seat opposite her. She has mid-length blonde hair and skin which has been carefully sheltered from the sun, and she is exactly the person I most don’t want to see.

I take a step back, using the tourists as a screen. My heart misfires, a spastic double-thud. I wait, hot and nervous enough to feel a little sick. Eventually the tourists move, like iron molecules in a bar stroked long enough that all of the magnetic poles finally started to point in the same direction. They decide against what’s on offer, and go back out into the light.

I still don’t move. For a moment I neither go outside, nor back the way I’ve come. I don’t know what to do. Whichever way I turn seems bad. I’ve lost faith in being inside, but I don’t want the woman to see me. I can’t cope with her today. I’m just not in the mood.

I glance inside the bar. One of the barmen is putting a Manhattan in front of the man in the dark suit. The man lays some bills down on the counter, payment for it and against any future brethren it might have.

Outside, the woman is still without a drink. A waitress walks right by her, but she doesn’t try to flag her down. She’s settled in for the duration and will wait until the staff deign to see her of their own volition. She’s like that, I know. Willing to wait, marinating you in her displeasure until you’re good and softened up, ready to be flash-fried.

That’s harsh, in fact. She isn’t like that often, and it’s usually justified. Enough light is filtering down through the vines in the trellis to pick out the white and blonde in her hair, like a fistful of pretty fibre optics. She looks beautiful, and far away. But not far enough. There’s no other route out of the bar. I have to jump one way or the other, face one music or other.

I can’t handle the woman.

I turn and go back inside. This time both barmen come to attention immediately, as if wondering what has taken me so long. I ask for what I want and I hand over the exact amount. I don’t leave a wad on the bar. I’m not staying. I don’t even sit on a stool, but drink slowly, standing up. I’m shaking, but only a little.

When half of the beer is inside me, I feel steadied enough to look around the room. The tourists are happily sipping and wincing. Two new women in sweaters are on television, baying two sides of some story editor’s idea of trauma. The guy in the dark suit is still in place at the counter. As I watch, he pushes his pile of money toward the barmen in mute request. I turn away, still bothered about where I recognise him from. It’s not like I think he’s trouble, or that he sparks trepidation in me. It just bugs me, not remembering things. It’s getting worse. Either that, or more selective.

When I’m halfway through my drink, I go to the john. On the way back, I glance out of the doors. The woman is still sitting out there, still waiting for a drink. Something big and fruity, probably, a non-drink that will take an age to wade through.

I walk bad-temperedly back to my position at the counter and start sipping again. On the screen above my head, the voices crackle and spit, clichés put on pedestals by ominous musical stings. My drink gets finished. The barman hovers, waiting to see if I want another. I hold up my hand for him to wait a second, turn to peer out of the door. She’s still out there, waiting. I turn back and nod.

I drink slowly for a while. Pretty slowly. Midway through the fourth beer, I go to the john again. It’s that way with me. Suddenly the alcohol starts trickling through my system like clockwork. You become a conduit, experience entering and leaving almost immediately, barely touching the sides. Afterwards I wash my hands with cold water and rub them over my face. I look in the mirror for a while. My hair looks a mess. But my eyes look a little better. Warmer inside.

Back at the bar, the other man is still drinking. Sometimes you’ll be sitting in a place like Tony’s and two of you will get talking, rationalizing a lonesome task into sociability. Not this time. I don’t want to talk to him. He doesn’t want to talk to me. We aren’t communicating. Don’t need to. Everything’s cool. It’s fine all round. He just keeps ordering and being served, and by now I’m doing the same, though I’m settling up each time as if this is going to be the last. I still don’t have a tab running. I’m still only there for a couple of quick ones. Until she goes.

Maybe an hour passes. It’s late afternoon by now but still sunny outside. Sunset is an hour or so away. The tidal movements in the street outside have started to run in both directions: some people on their way out to the harbour already, others going home to change first. I am dimly aware that I’m being stupid. Instead of standing in here with people who don’t know me and don’t care, I should go outside and get on with what’s planned. It’s childish, like breaking a toy instead of dutifully putting it away. It’s been suggested that what I’m doing is a bad thing to do, and so naturally that means I have to do it. Reaction, instead of action. Always. Bits of you want different things, and it’s so hard to tell which is right unless you’re presented with something you know for damn sure that you don’t want to do. Why is that, for God’s sake? It shouldn’t be that hard. It should be obvious what you want. If there’s genuinely someone there inside you, some one person, then he or she must want something in particular, must have specific desires they wish to see realized. But you still hit that wall, locked in a doorless courtyard, caught in silence between two opposing shouts. Sometimes working out what you want is the most difficult thing in the world, and then you go ahead and get it wrong anyway.

The john and I are old friends by now. I’ve started muttering things to myself as I look in the mirror, in that way you do. Drawing yourself closer, mixing the strands together, stroking your own magnet. Telling myself I look okay, that I’ll sort myself out. A kind of tension, enjoying standing there looking at my reflection because I know that when I go back out I have a drink sitting waiting for me. The comfort of short-term futures, of immanently satisfiable desires.

I come out again. Look through the open door. She’s still waiting. She’s patient, I’ll give her that. Of course . . . maybe she shouldn’t have been. Sometimes indulgence is not the greatest thing.

I creep a little nearer to the door this time, take a longer look. She too is watching the people as they walk in the street, her hands folded in her lap. Her nose, which I liked but which she thought too big, has finally caught a little sun. Her hair is pushed back and behind her ears. A drop of blood is running from above the hairline, down her temple. She puts her hand up to tuck a stray hair back, and the drop is smeared.

I go sit back on my stool—I have a stool by now—and signal for another beer.

Another couple drinks, and more time passes. Finally it just becomes stupid, and the man and I acknowledge each other. Upward nods of the head. That’s the way it’s done. When I finish my drink I raise my eyebrows at him. He nods, moves his stuff over. That’s also the way that it’s done. You have to invite them in.

“Same again,” I tell the barman. “And one for my friend.” Barman only brings one drink, but that’s okay. The man in the suit already has one. We sit, not talking, just watching the people with their beers and cigarettes, their smiles and plans. They have all become a little fuzzy now. I finish my pack of Marlboros, slide off the stool to buy more. Decide I might as well go to the john again, while I’m on my feet. Up and down, up and down: it’s a tough life if you don’t weaken. I caroom off the door frame on the way in, but that’s okay. You expect to pay one way or another. Nobody saw.

Mirrors in bar toilets are always so dirty. They make you look ways that you’re not. Sometimes better, mainly worse. Different, anyhow. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize yourself. The face you see in front of you doesn’t look like the one you’re expecting. Just slightly familiar, and rather strange. It’s like living in a house painted purple when everything is white inside. You think: I wonder who lives in there? What is he like, and what does he want? And why is he wearing that suit?

I stumble back out again and take a look through the door, and she’s still out there. Still sitting, so fucking stoic. A few lines running down the face now, tracks of vibrant red. One down each cheek. Coming down the forehead too, out of the hair line. The reddening on her nose is not from the sun, I realise. It’s a graze. Blood is dripping off it onto the table and down the front of her t-shirt.

What we could have done, of course, had she not been so obsessed with keeping up with The Young and the Brainless, was go out and have a couple drinks in the afternoon together. Do the sunset. Together. Go back, get changed. Then I would have been happy to go straight out to dinner. It just seemed a waste, that’s all. A waste of what we’d come down for.

Stool. Raised hand. Another beer. I’m sensing that the barman is viewing me differently with each repetition of this cycle. It doesn’t really matter, so long as he keeps doing his job. I’ve got a friend sitting next to me now. I’m an army of two. That’s enough.

I didn’t mean for it to happen. I just didn’t want to be bossed around. I wanted to have a few drinks before we went out for the evening. We were due to have dinner with some people, locals we’d met at the harbour while watching fish in the bay. They lived twenty miles away, up on the next Key. They’d seemed nice enough, but a little wealthier than we were: and so I wore the only suit I’d brought with me and felt kind of an ass because if was so dark and formal and people don’t dress like that around here. Our car was parked outside Tony’s. She hadn’t wanted to stop, didn’t understand what I was so het up about. Looking back, I’m not sure that I do either. I was merely trying to maximise the vacation, fitting in stuff wherever we could. That was my thinking. I just thought it’d be fun to stop in for a couple of cocktails before we went to dinner. Start the evening right. She didn’t want to. She thought it was rude. Probably it was rude. It’s difficult to judge now. Being rude seems a very small issue. Like good value. Who cares?

Every drink is a coin in a dusty jar.

When I eventually came out, she left the remains of her fruity drink and got up. We didn’t argue. We never did. We just did whatever I said. I’d had maybe five, six Sweet Manhattans. Large ones. I drove.

When I go to the john now, I’m careful not to look in the mirror. I am feeling not bad but have reached the stage where thinking is difficult. Words don’t seem to mean very much. Even the letters which make them up feel awkward and unformed and have to be remembered one by one. The paper I got from the barman is getting wet and I’m running out, but I don’t really want to ask him for more because he looked at me kind of weird last time and it’s important he stays on my side. This ballpoint is shit too. And it’s all a waste of time. I have told it a hundred times, to people and pads of paper and to a bird which sometimes comes and perches on the balcony outside the room I rent. Mary would have known what type it was. I don’t. Instead of making more sense, everything means less and less each time. It doesn’t work, the telling. Maybe I’ll try it on the man in the suit. Maybe he can make it untrue.

I drove, that night. Into another car.

She’s still sitting out there, but she’ll be gone soon. Gone for a while. Someone blurry has taken the place opposite her. In fact, someone is sitting in her seat too. Mary’s face is wholly red now, the back of her head broken open. Blood is spattering softly onto the floor through the slats of chair, out of bad places.

She is looking right at me.

It doesn’t matter. The barman is my friend and will keep giving me what I need. He likes me now, I think: likes me very much. The man in the suit has gone, but not far. He came and sat on my stool with me.

Later I’ll have to leave, but by then she’ll have gone. For a while. She will stay away as long as I stay this way, and I can stay this way as long as I can find what I need and pretend it’s what I want.

Stay this way, stayaway, it’s okay—and getting better. You don’t have to wait until night falls. You can go find it, by yourself, at any time.

It’s always dark somewhere.

Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith is a novelist and screenwriter. Under this name he has published eighty short stories, and three novels — Only Forward, Spares and One of Us — winning the Philip K. Dick, International Horror Guild, and August Derleth awards, along with the Prix Bob Morane in France: he has won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction four times, more than any other author.

Writing as Michael Marshall, he has published seven internationally-bestselling thrillers including The Straw Men, The Intruders — recently a series on BBCAmerica starring John Simm and Mira Sorvino — and Killer Move. His most recent novel is We Are Here.

He lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife, son, and two cats.