“Nice to meet you, Summer,” Victor echoed my words from earlier, then turned back toward the bar. “Hey, Howe!” He called out, raising his head and his glass in search of the bartender. “Can I get another one of these?”
Curiously, ‘Howe’ was nowhere to be seen. I shrugged, about to use this opportunity to escape my new ‘friend’ and head back to where Debbie and Paul stood to either side of the jukebox trying to choose the next song, when the power went out. Without lighting or sound, the dilapidated old bar was just that. It was pitch black thanks to the shitty weather and the fact that the streetlamp outside the front window had also gone dark. Guess this isn’t just Howe blowing a fuse.
I could hear voices and shuffling even if I couldn’t make anyone out. It wasn’t crowded by any means, this being a Tuesday night, but it wasn’t a big place. Somebody must have bumped into Debbie because she squealed, “Paul, that better have been you!”
“Uhh…” I heard Paul reply.
“Power’s out across the street too,” somebody called, presumably looking out a window, “but it seems to have stopped raining, so there’s that.”
But my attention wasn’t on the bar patrons, it was on Victor. From the sounds of his stool scraping back, he’d stood and if the darker shadow over the bar was any indication, he seemed to be trying to clamber over it. “Howe?” He called out again from somewhere ahead and above me.
I heard a thunk as Victor landed heavily behind the bar, followed by rustling noises. In the background someone said, “Hey, a power outage doesn’t have to ruin the night, I brought my guitar!”
Despite my better judgement, I started forward, feeling for Victor’s stool. I found it with little trouble. It was still warm. Without thinking too hard about what I was about to do, I put my drink down, hoisted myself up onto the still-warm leather seat of the stool, and stood, stepping onto the bar. My foot hit what I presumed to be Victor’s drink. I made a point to avoid it as I let myself down the other side.
“Aha!” Victor proclaimed seconds before a match flared to life in his hands and our eyes met for the briefest of seconds in the sudden illumination. He seemed surprised to see me there. I was simply glad the ruddy light of the single flickering match didn’t allow Victor to make out the embarrassed flush of my cheeks.
“Here,” he shoved the pack of matches in my hands before grabbing another and starting past me. By the time I got a match of my own lit, he was halfway around the inside corner of the L-shaped bar and moving quickly. I hurried to follow.
A door I hadn’t noticed before now was open slightly. Pulling it wider, Victor disappeared into the opening, his body cutting off all view of the match in his hands. Rounding the corner myself, I almost bumped into him where he had stopped on a set of stairs headed downwards. In retrospect, wearing black was a poor choice, Victor, I silently admonished him.
I became aware of a strange sound coming from the darkness below. Halfway between a hum and a rumbly growl, I couldn’t identify it, but the sound unsettled me in way I couldn’t explain. “Howe?” Victor called again, more tentatively this time, I thought.
Silence greeted his call. I mean real silence; whatever that grumbly sound was, it stopped the moment Victor spoke. Against my better judgement, Victor started forward again, lighting a fresh match and raising it high above his head. I made it two steps before my own match burned my fingers, forcing me to shake my hand forcefully to put the fire out. I stuck my fingers in my mouth and looked down, less than eager to face the prospect of burning myself on another match.
My fingers in my mouth were the only thing that kept me from screaming. There on the ground, in a pool of his own blood mingling with the juice from a smashed jar of pickles was the bartender, Howe. His pale green shirt was bloodied and torn, and the gut I’d noticed earlier was missing entirely, having been replaced by a gaping maw, resembling nothing more than a fleshy crater. From that crater rose a field of spikes, like an over-sized porcupine had taken up residence inside the portly man.
“Holy shit!” Victor cursed and flailed wildly, causing his match to go out.
I fought the urge to vomit as he quickly struck another. The initial flare of light glinted off large yellow eyes and as the light settled to its dim brightness I became aware of what I was staring at. Well, not what it was, exactly, only that I was staring at it.
It, was the source of that strange rumbling growl from before and now the sound returned. A warning, low and guttural, it informed me on an instinctual level that I was in danger. Even with shock numbing my mental faculties, I didn’t need the warning. I fled, Victor’s heavy footfalls on the stairs proclaiming that he was trailing after me. Only two steps were needed to take me out of the basement, but they felt like twenty. I cleared the threshold of the door and quickly realized I was trapped by the L-shaped bar I didn’t know my way around.
Victor however, did. He made straight past me for the exit. I started after him, but a blur of motion crossing my vision stopped me.
The creature’s leap was silent. It’s landing wasn’t. Bottles crashed and the wood of the bar groaned as the massive cat-like thing landed on it. Soft guitar music was replaced by a cacophony of screams and curses from the bar patrons as the thing swung its head around, sniffing the air.
I felt a hand grab mine, warm in the darkness. I gasped, but it was only Victor, pulling me away from the scene and toward the back door of the bar. I stumbled along after him and we broke out into the cool, wet night air.
The rain had stopped, but the sky still looked dangerous.