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A Nerd Walks Into A Bar
‘Just because they come here to escape, doesn’t mean they’re not human.’
It was one of his father’s favourite sayings, before the dementia stole his words, and twisted their meaning. So was ‘you can’t polish a turd,’ but that isn’t relevant to this particular moment. James Armstrong was polishing, but it was his bar, not a turd, that was getting his attention.
Armstrong’s was a popular venue for men. More accurately middle-aged men, and mainly married. It was dimly lit, dourly decorated and had a focussed, read limited, stock. It had obstinately refused to become a trendy night spot for young people; shunning postmodern design. Ironically, it had achieved the look and feel of several other bars in the area simply by retaining its original decor.
The main door to the bar opened tentatively, and even more tentatively, was followed by the entrance of a young man. James thought two things. Firstly, he didn’t need to update the bar to attract younger visitors. Secondly, he knew a broken heart when it was carried by a man with eyes like that.
Armstrong saw similar eyes around the bar. Those eyes had the same wide vacant look, but also had a certain dullness. Time did that. So did the liquid stock behind the bar. That was why the bar existed, for souls that needed to forget… at least for a few hours.
The young man glanced furtively around the bar. He looked unsure whether or not to venture in. Armstrong stopped the polishing for a brief moment, looked up and beckoned the lad to the bar with a sideways nod of his head. He wiped one last spot on the bar’s surface and then put the cloth away on a shelf under the bar.
The lad stepped up to bar. The nervous look on his face was still there, but with each step it had relaxed a little.
‘Take a seat son,’ Armstrong welcomed the young guy. To the right of the boy was a stool and he sat on it. He looked behind and along the bar, apparently baffled as to what he should do next. He remained silent. About a minute later, Armstrong thought it was time to give the lad a little help.
‘We have beer on tap, that’s nice and simple. There are a couple of branded bottled beers in the cooler too. They have their own distinct tastes, but to be honest, the difference between them and what we have on tap ain’t worth the difference in price.’
Armstrong reached behind, barely looking and grabbed a bottle. He brought it round and placed it on the bar. Then reached beneath and pulled out a tumbler.
‘This though, kicks. It burns, but not for long. It warms, but don’t take long to reach that part of your brain that deals with what led you to walk in here.’ Armstrong was assuming a lot, but the eyes never lied. Although there was something slightly different in the eyes of the young lad. Armstrong couldn’t put his finger on it at the moment, but was currently putting it down to the fact that the lad was young. The lad’s eyes were also warped by thick-rimmed and thick-lensed glasses.
The boy just nodded and pulled out a wad of money and placed it on the bar. Armstrong, raised his eyebrows, took one of the notes and took the top off the bottle. He poured a finger in the glass and then added another. The kid looked like he needed it.
‘Take it slow though.’ Armstrong, put the stop back in the top of the bottle and returned it to the shelf behind. One of the regulars at the far end of the bar raised an empty glass to catch Armstrong’s eye. It worked. Armstrong ambled down toward him.
‘Same again Charlie?’ Why Armstrong asked, he didn’t know. He knew the answer and had already taken the glass and began to fill it with the draft beer before Charlie replied.
‘You know me Jimbo. Three beers then back home to watch the Late Show and any porn I can find.’ Charlie (Charles Smithson) began to laugh. The laugh quickly turned into a cough, twenty-a-day egging it on. Charlie’s eyes began to water as his lungs spasmed. Who was he kidding, three beers were often followed by a half bottle of whiskey from the corner store. Even if he could find porn his body was never in any state to do anything about it. Not that he had a TV anymore… even the Late Show was off the menu.
‘You okay Charlie?’ Armstrong voiced his concern, as the regular continued to wheeze. Charlie waved his hand and nodded, he wasn’t able to speak yet, but the shaking was subsiding. Several final tears from his eyes were not caused by the coughing.
Armstrong placed the full glass back in front of Charlie.
‘Then that’s the last one tonight?’ Armstrong raised his eyebrow as he asked. He didn’t expect an answer and was shocked when Charlie opened his mouth.
‘Seems like breaking hearts are occurring at a younger age these days.’ Charlie turned his face from Armstrong to the kid at the other end of the bar. ‘At least I had ten years of heaven before hell decided to take up residence. That little’un can’t be more an twenty-two.’
Armstrong followed Charlie’s gaze and looked at the kid. He was no good at telling people’s ages apart from if they were or were not of drinking age. That he knew and could tell. That was something else he saw in their eyes.
The lad mumbled something but they couldn’t hear or make out the words. Armstrong made to move back down the bar, but the lad turned, cleared his that and spoke again.
‘I’m twenty-nine. And I’ve just had one month of heaven.’ He returned to looking at his drink. It was untouched.
‘If it wasn’t that I knew you were a capitalist business man I’d be asking if you were putting something stronger into the draught. I’m losing all perspective these days.’ Charlie laughed again but this time there was no coughing fit.
‘When you get to our age they all look that young.’ Armstrong replied. Though he had to admit that he would have put the lad at the lower end of his twenties than the upper. They must be feeding them the right vitamins these days. He was worried that the drink hadn’t been touched yet. He wondered for a moment whether the kid was on the wagon. He’d seen many an alcoholic on the program come in, order a drink and then just sit there. Sometimes for hours without touching a drop. Surely the kid was too young for that?
‘You in the program son?’
The young guy looked back at Armstrong. The set expression on his face wavered for the first time since entering the bar. Confusion. Armstrong relaxed. The kid was no more an alcoholic than his great grandma, who’d never touched a drop in her life.
‘It’s okay, I thought you might be doing the twelve step program.’ When the kid’s expression remained puzzled he added, ‘AA, Alcoholics anonymous. You haven’t touched your drink.’ Armstrong pointed to the glass in front of the man.
‘Oh.’ Clarity and the dulled expression returned. The eyes. There was something about the eyes. There was more than just the hollow despair. But he still couldn’t tease out what it was, despite the magnification caused by the glasses as the lad moved his head.
‘What pays your way lad?’ Responding to Charlie’s statement was a green light to open conversation at Armstrong’s. This question came from Bob, Robert Preston. He was playing pool by himself at the bar’s only table. He almost always played alone. He did most things alone, since his wife walked out. She had finally had enough of one thing that Bob didn’t do on his own, and that was sharing his fists.
Bob was still in denial. Denial that he was alone and denial that he had done anything wrong. Denial that he was slowly wasting his days drinking and playing pool at a bar with other loners / losers.
The lad turned to face the newcomer in the conversation. At first Armstrong thought he wasn’t going to answer, but then the kid nodded and responded.
‘That’s the big drug place on the East Side ain’t it?’ Bob phrased it as a question, but he and no one else in the room needed an answer. Everyone knew of ChemTech. They were either employed by the pharmaceutical giant, lived off the local economy generated by it, or campaigned to get it shut down.
‘Not just drugs.’ The kid replied to no one. He had returned his gaze to the untouched glass in front. Armstrong, Charlie and Bob became suddenly attentive, a little knowledge was always worth knowing. The other guys in bar also raised their eyes from peering deep into their drinks. All focus was on the lad.
‘What else?’ Charlie, prompted the young man when there was no further revelation.
The kid reached toward his glass and began to turn it round on the bar, but he didn’t pick it up and take a sip.
‘Drugs are the Chem part. The Tech part is something else.’ The kid stopped and Armstrong assumed he was thinking over the security implications. He had probably signed some official secret declaration, and was wondering just what he could say. Armstrong knew if he had taken a sip or two of the whiskey he would reply without hesitation.
‘And?’ Bob chimed in, but before the word was even complete the kid was continuing.
‘The Tech part deals with manufactured, digital machines. Tiny machines that can do the work of medicines and other drugs.’
Bob lined up shot, pulled back on the cue and slammed the white toward one of the stripes. The other ball crashed into the corner pocket and disappeared. Armstrong wished that Bob wouldn’t treat the pool table with such force. It was old enough as it was.
‘Yea, I heard of that. Nana technology or something.’ Bob explained as he straightened up. He had a broad grin on his face as though he’d scored with the best looking girl in class. It dropped as he was corrected.
‘Nan ‘O’ technology.’ The young lad twisted the glass again.
‘And that’s not all. Those are the two separate components. But I work where the two come together. I really do work for the whole ChemTech. My work crosses the boundaries of each division.’
Armstrong felt a slight chill run down his spine. He was uneasy with ChemTech, having been at the wrong end of needing to obtain medicine for his Dad. The wrong end meaning, he didn’t have the money. To think that ChemTech was building tiny machines too, left him even warier. He’d read a book about nanobots by the guy who’d written Jurassic Park – it wasn’t about utopia.
‘My department, our department…’ The kid drifted off and Armstrong knew that the reason for the lad’s visit to the bar would soon be revealed. A quick twist of the glass and the young man resumed.
‘My department, was working on the delivery of genetically modified viral material.’ He looked around the room and saw blank faces.
‘A virus is something bad. A virus infects a host and then proceeds to make the host ill, most times. What we were developing were viruses that could be delivered to specific parts of the body by the machines. The viruses were changed so that instead of infecting and causing illness in cells, they were to deliver medicine. We saw a cure for cancer. We saw a cure for ageing. Hell we saw a cure for baldness.’
Charlie who was very thin on top ran his hand through what was left, he nodded and made an approving noise. Bob picked up one of the billiard balls and rubbed his thumb over the smooth surface.
‘What was her name?’ Armstrong, again didn’t normally press, but he wanted to move the conversation away from the drug side of things. He was uncomfortable with it, but was also aware of the ears around the bar. He didn’t want the kid dealing with legal actions, as well as whatever had led him to the bar. The lad replied without missing a beat.
‘Charlotte. Charlotte Ellison.’ He drifted off and Armstrong saw his eyes glisten slightly, the glasses magnifying the liquid sadness. Once again he thought that the conversation was drawing to an end, but the lad inhaled deeply and steeled himself.
‘We worked together on h232, it was a really promising strain. The machines were targeted with entering the lungs and delivering a package that attacked the cancer cells. Our delivery rates, during the last trial, were over 98%. We just needed to tweak the drugs being delivered and we were well on the way to curing lung cancer. And that was just the beginning. But it went wrong.’
Armstrong noticed how silent the bar had got. It was never noisy with most of the regulars drowning in their drinks, but now it had taken on a stony silence. It felt eerie.
‘She was beautiful.’ Armstrong noticed the use of the past tense and began to worry. The look in the kid’s eyes. That was it, he’d seen it before, many years before.
Oliver Beattie was one of the calmest owners of a broken heart that Armstrong had ever seen. He had turned up at the bar about a half hour before closing time, ordered a double whiskey and downed it before the top was back in the neck of the bottle. A second and third double quickly followed, and during a fourth, Beattie told his story.
The woman was beautiful, the most beautiful woman in the world they always were. They had been together for almost six months. The best six months of Oliver’s life. They had made plans, dreamed dreams and lived the life. It ended when she had run off with her fitness instructor, Dwayne.
‘Dwayne? I mean, what sort of name is that?’ That sentence was the only one when the look in Oliver’s eyes changed. The only time there was any sparkle. That look made Armstrong take note of Oliver’s eyes, and by the end of the conversation, Armstrong would never forget it. He had the traditional Armstrong bar look of loneliness and despair, but something else too. There was a steely glint in his eye. Despite the hollowness, there was something more.
That something more revealed itself as the drinking continued after the bar shut. A few regulars stayed behind and listened to more of Oliver’s story over several more drinks.
It turned sour when Oliver relaxed a little as the alcohol went to work. He took off his jacket and there on the sleeve of his shirt was blood. He didn’t even try and make up a story. He came out with it all at once. As he shared the events the steely glint disappeared from his eyes and was replaced by sadness and despair.
Oliver had killed Dwayne and his former girlfriend before coming to the bar. Their bodies were still cooling as he drank his first drink at Armstrong’s. Before Oliver had drunk too many more, the police had been called. The thing that chilled Armstrong was the way he said the cliché, ‘If I can’t have her, then no one will.’ When he said those words the haunting steely glint returned to his eyes.
Armstrong now realised what he was seeing in the eyes of the young lad. It was the same steely glint. The kid had done something. Armstrong’s fear and concern grew.
‘We were going to get married next year. We were engaged, making plans. It was all going beautifully.’ He turned the glass in front of him again. Armstrong moved away from Charlie and toward the phone that was in the middle of the shelf behind the bar. He hoped he wouldn’t need to make a phone call to the police but the feeling of unease was growing. The kid’s use of the past tense had a chilling ring to it.
The young lad put his hand in his jacket pocket, rummaged briefly and then pulled out a small tin and out it on the bar next to his drink. Armstrong wondered what it was and had a grisly premonition of it containing the eyes or some other part of the lad’s girlfriend’s anatomy. He shuddered and wished he had poured himself a drink.
There was silence. This time it went on and the lad didn’t say anything else. The regulars began to take quick looks toward one another. Charlie glanced at Armstrong who shrugged.
The lad picked up the tin and unscrewed the top and then placed it back on the bar top. Armstrong glanced across expecting to see some dark and bloody mess, but when his eyes focused he saw that the tin was empty.
’We had so many plans, we wanted to do so much.’
‘What happened son?’ It was Bob from the pool table, he hadn’t taken another shot. The young lad’s eyes began to glisten again. This time a single tear trickled down his cheek.
What on earth had the lad done? Armstrong’s concern was rising even more. He had seen grown men break down and cry in their drink over a girl, but this was different. There was something very wrong here, Armstrong felt it in his barman genes.
‘I’m dying.’ Armstrong didn’t believe the bar could get quieter, but it did. ‘I have an aggressive brain tumour and it’s killing me. I have, so the doctor says just weeks to live. It’s aggressive and has wrapped itself all around my brain. Apparently one of several blood vessels could burst at any moment, killing me pretty much instantly.’
No one replied and the silence stretched.
‘So now it’s all gone. We’ll never live those dreams and our lives.’ Again silence. No more tears had followed the first. As his eyes cleared Armstrong saw the look return. He was scared, deeply scared. Armstrong had heard the words before, but they still cut him as he heard them uttered by the young man.
‘If I can’t have her, then no one will.’
‘Son, what have you done?’ Armstrong was by the phone now, ready to make a call. There might still be some hope depending on what had happened, and what the lad had done.
There was no reply. The silence in the bar was overbearing.
‘Where’s the girl? Where’s… ‘ Charlie couldn’t remember the name so paused, fortunately Armstrong jumped in barely missing a beat. They all knew that something was wrong.
‘Charlotte, where’s Charlotte?’ The young lad twisted his glass yet again before replying.
Charlotte? I don’t know.’ Armstrong felt his stomach drop, but the lad seemed to come out of his fugue. ‘I assume she’s at home, it’s a Thursday, she never goes anywhere on a Thursday, she likes to watch Grey’s.’
Armstrong felt confused. He also felt slightly dizzy but dismissed it.
‘So what do you mean? You said if you can’t have her, then no one will? What do you mean by that?’
The young man picked up the tin and showed it to Armstrong and the rest of the bar.
‘Self replicating nanobots. Engineered to deliver a genetically modified super virus.’ The chill returned to Armstrong.
‘If I can’t have her, no one will. The first symptoms generally begin to manifest within ten to fifteen minutes. Dizziness initially, causing nausea. Sickness quickly follows. Internal bleeding is the final stage. The infected individual bleeds to death. The nanobots use the host victim to make more of themselves. They drift on the air until they find their next victim.’
There was a crash from by the pool table, Bob had slipped and pushed the remaining balls across the table. He tried to steady himself.
Armstrong picked up the phone, but dropped it as a wave of nausea swept through him. He looked at the young lad at the bar. A small trickle of blood was running from his nose. He picked up his glass, swirling the brown liquid around.
‘If I can’t have her, then no one will… No one at all.’
He raised the glass, tilted it toward Armstrong, and downed the whiskey in one.
A Nerd Walks Into A Bar was written between April – June 2014, it will eventually (hopefully), form part of a collection of stories entitled Grimly Tales from the Love Grimoire.
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