For this week’s Fiction Friday, I have another story from Firethorne for you. This one was published in the Fall 2012 edition, alongside “In Bloom.” It’s a creepy one, and I’m not entirely sure where it came from, but I know I could see it clearly in my mind when I wrote it. It’s a good way to gear up for the spooky month of October, no?
The rod of the pool cue glided back and forth between Martin’s slim fingers as he surveyed the field before him: the odds were not in his favor. Three balls remained — one striped, one solid, and the eight ball, right in front of the left corner pocket. Number five sat pulsating in its flamboyant orange just to the left and two inches in front of the Black Magic, actively reminding Martin of the pressure he was under: “I’m the last one!” it seemed to exclaim. “You have to pocket me!” Still, the situation screamed impossibility.
Martin exhaled loudly and settled into position from the right side of the table to knock the cue ball hard and fast, as close to the left edge of number five as he could make it — it was his only hope.
Jonas watched from the shadows behind the same pocket the eight ball guarded, his head and shoulders silhouetted by the glow of a neon pink flamingo sign. It was hard to see in the dim light of the bar just how dirty his white undershirt was, or how menacing he looked in the brown bomber jacket he always wore. To Martin’s knowledge, no one had ever seen him without it, and for some reason, this was a comfort to him — although it was ominous not to have any idea what lay underneath, he was glad not to have a concept of the raw power that could, no doubt, be summoned if the jacket came off. It was just better not to know, he reasoned, what fate he might meet in such a case. Still, Martin was under no illusion that he would or could actually win, and if that was the case, what could there be to worry about?
Martin pulled back slowly on the pool cue one last time, honed in on number five and slammed the chalky tip into the cream of the cue ball. A miniature cloud of blue smoke puffed into the air before the rolling ivory orb, creating the image of strange, enormous white eye with a hazy blue iris and no pupil.
Martin was suddenly aware that he was no longer watching the movement of the billiard balls, but staring straight into the eyes of a man who now seemed much more — or less, depending on how you looked at it — than that. Jonas’ gaze did more than pierce Martin with its direct intensity; it ripped into him with a bestial voracity that only increased when Jonas bared his teeth in a devilish grin.
The cue ball tapped the solid flame of number five, causing it to kiss the soulless black of number eight. A dull thunk resounded in the corner pocket, and the significance of the sound filled the room. The game was over. Martin became completely unhinged.
“You—you—he’s a cheat!” Martin screeched, wrenching himself from the cruel blue eyes in the shadows to address the other patrons. The last word was so high-pitched that the denotation was almost lost on the audience, but he had their attention. “The ball—he—he’s a wizard, or a fucking hypnotist, did you see? Did you see?!”
The men seated at the counter swiveled back to the bar and hunched over their beers, not wanting to get involved. Whatever Jonas was, no one wanted to make eye contact with him or the crazed man appealing to anyone who would look his direction.
“I had it! The five! The eight was—it was—i-i-it shouldn’t have—I could have made it!” Martin was in hysterics at the injustice of it all. It hardly mattered whether he won or lost — he was grateful not to invoke the resultant wrath of winning — but it was downright bad sportsmanship to cheat, he told himself.
The bartender set the green glass bottle he had been cleaning back on the shelf behind him and threw the rag into the sink. He cautiously made his way around the other side of the counter and tried to talk some sense into the grown man turning into a blubbering block of Jell-O.
“Now c’mon Marty, is jest a game, you know Jonas never—”
“DON’T CALL ME MARTY!” Martin screeched again, straining his vocal chords so much that he began to cough violently. Someone handed him a glass of water and he began taking huge gulps before he thought to identify his savior. Jonas had moved from beneath the flamingo to replace the billiard balls in their triangle, half-illuminated by the shaft of light trickling in the high, dirty window of the pub. Martin cast a furtive look toward the movement and suddenly spat out his mouthful of water, dropping the glass as well.
“Jesus, Marty, now who’s gonna clean that up?” the bartender asked irritably, jumping back from the shattering glass.
“POISON!” Martin screamed, ignoring both the hated nickname and the question. He stared at Jonas, breathing heavily, but addressed the bartender, “What in the hell kind of joint are you running?!”
“Now Martin, I—”
Jonas was suddenly towering over Martin, breathing the scent of sweet tobacco into his face. “That’s all right, Cal. He doesn’t mean any disrespect to you, I’m sure, but I’m curious to know why Martin believes I poisoned him.”
Martin’s knees threatened to buckle at the direct address, but his feet were rooted to the spot, just as his eyes were to Jonas’ cold expression. The two-day-old scruff on his neck and face hid the pockmarks of innumerable scars, and even though Martin was blind to them, he was scared stiff, utterly lost for words.
“Well?” Jonas asked, as calmly as before.
Martin tried to communicate: “I—I-I-I—”
“That’s enough of the stuttering, I think.” Jonas silenced Martin with a cupped hand and the littler man’s eyes grew wide. Before another word left Jonas’ mouth, Martin’s eyes rolled back as he fainted and collapsed on the beer-stained floor.
No one moved.
Jonas scanned the room for witnesses, searching for any shocked expressions, but he found none. Cal continued to look at the ground and shuffle his feet uncomfortably under Jonas’ mystifying stare as the weathered lips parted in speech:
“I s’pose you ought to call the authorities there, Cal. I ‘spect Martin may need some medical assistance.”
Cal shivered at the calm, calculated tone and mumbled something like, “sure, s’right, oughta call somebody,” retreating to the phone behind the bar counter to carry out Jonas’ instructions. As he punched in 911 and began muttering into the receiver, he noticed the pub quickly emptying as wary customers slipped out the front door. To the remaining three or four patrons skulking in the shadows, too ashamed to show their drunken faces in public so early in the evening, Jonas voiced his farewell:
“Enjoy the rest of your evening, gentlemen.” Chuckling at the lack of response, he turned his back on the lounge and spat on the floor just behind the pool table. The bartender hung up the phone and hurried back around the counter to clean up the broken glass, careful not to get in Jonas’ way. Before disappearing into the shadows and out the back door, Jonas rapped his knuckles on the wooden support beam at the end of the counter, making the six letters tattooed on the back of his right hand visible to Cal as he looked up: SINNER. His blood ran cold, but Jonas was already gone.
Copyright © Caitlin Skvorc, 2012; Cait Buxbaum, 2019