Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Salesman

Happy Halloween, Boys and Ghouls! :) Hope you all are gearing up for a night of candy and fun. Hubby and I will be taking our boys trick-or-treating a little bit later this evening. They are already raring to go! 

Anyway, remember when I announced this writing contest for scary stories



Well, a winner has been chosen. Everyone, give Kelli Beck a round of applause. Her story, The Salesman, is the winner of the contest. Congrats, Kelli! 

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THE SALESMAN by Kelli Beck
{posted with permission}


The deadbolt slid into place under her fingertips. The voices of the patrons faded as they got into their cars and backed out of the parking spaces. Others were on foot, their laughter and slurred words slipping through the cracks of the door. The music stopped, casting the bar, dark and hazy with cigarette smoke, into silence. The sudden quiet came down upon her. She felt the weight of it across her chest taking the breath from her lungs. 

She crossed the bar, the sound of crackling peanut shells under her feet was a nice break in the silence. She opened the window to clear out the smoke. The moon was full, casting the world in its silver glow. She took a breath of the fresh air and rubbed her tired eyes. After nights of wakefulness, she hoped she could find sleep tonight. She wiped the dinge and dirt from the counter with the ease and care of someone who had spent the last ten years doing that chore night in and night out. Her mind wandered as she scrubbed the sticky residue of spilled liquor, energy drinks, and the thin dusting of peanut shells, pretending that each swipe of the cloth was blotting out some of the emptiness inside her, cleaning not just the counters, but perhaps, her very soul. Peanut shells fell from beneath her hand and crumbled to the floor, landing on top of the filth that had accumulated over the course of the past four hours, solidifying in her mind the fact that she was never going to wipe herself clean. Whatever mess you cleaned up, it always ended up somewhere else. 

She stopped momentarily and looked up at the clock ticking in the silence. Half past one. She was exhausted, thinking too much. She took a breath, let it out, and finished wiping up the counters without further thought. She threw the rag in the sink and started upending the chairs and placing them on top of the clean counter and tables. She grabbed the broom and dragged it behind her as she crossed to the other side. She started sweeping in the corner brushing the bits hastily and with force to the middle of the floor. When she was in front of the window a slight breeze slipped up her neck, caressing the small hairs that had fallen from her loose ponytail. She shivered, turned and faced the night. Fog started to wash its way across the street heavy like smoke creeping in from all directions, swallowing up first the hardware store and the small defunct movie theatre, moving in to the center until the entire parking lot was invisible behind the shroud of fog. A childish fear built up in her and she closed the window, securing it in place with the locks. She watched the haze, then, afraid of what might appear out of the mist, closed the shades, and turned her back on it.

In front of her someone cleared his throat. She started, the broom falling from her grasp and rapping the hard wood floor underneath. Her eyes followed the handle of the broomstick as if it were pointing to the stranger who was sitting on one of the stools at the bar. One of the stools she had just placed upside down on the counter. He wore a black suit, the white collar on his shirt flipped up and his tie loosened. His hair was slightly disheveled.

“We’re closed.” she said, her voice strangely frog-like. 
“I just need a drink.”
“I’m sorry, but last call was forty minutes ago.”
“Just one, then I’ll be on my way.”

She didn’t move.

“It’s been a long day.” he said.
“It has.”
“Just one drink?”

Too tired to think, she walked, giving a wide berth between him and her as if she were expecting him to lunge towards her at any moment.

“Whiskey?” he said.
“What kind?” she asked.
 
He shrugged. She got out a glass and poured him his drink and set it in front of him, “Just one glass.” He nodded and took it. He slid a twenty dollar bill, crisp and new, across to her. Her eyes met his and he smiled, his face weathered from too much sun. His eyes so deep and black the pupils scarcely showed, crinkled with his smile. She kept his gaze, tumbled, and fell and fell and fell. 

"Are you okay?" his voice cut in through the darkness.
She blinked, emerging from the depths, "Yeah." She took the money and crossed to the register.
"Tired?" he asked.
"Very."
"Have one with me?"

She shook her head and motioned towards the broom lying on the floor, "Can't," she said, moving around the bar to continue her clean-up. She worked quickly, the bits of filth under the bristles of the broom flinging into the middle of the floor, a small cloud of dust rising into the air. The man whistled a familiar tune, one both sad and redeeming at the same time. Her heart ached as the man continued and she cleaned without consciousness. Before she knew it she was placing an extra-large rubber band around the fresh garbage bag she had put in the bin. She stood, one hand still touching the black plastic bag. She shook her head. I'm so tired, I don't remember getting here, she thought. She gazed toward the window with its heavy curtains pulled. Picturing the fog consuming the town around her, the cold touch of fear made its way up her spine, stopping at the base of her head, making the little hairs stand on end. Goose-pimples rose on her arms. She pushed her sweater sleeve down against the chill and the always present shame of gazing upon the scars that accompanied them. 

"Strange night isn't it?" she said.

When the man didn't respond she turned but he was gone. The glass he drank from sat upside down next to the sink with the few other clean glasses that (she thought) she had not yet washed. His chair was flipped back on top of the counter. The whistling had stopped without her realizing it. She looked around the bar, the place sparkling clean. The floor was mopped and the bathroom doors were propped opened to allow the stench of bleach to dissipate. She didn't think too hard on this. How many times had she driven to Sparrowville for groceries and hardly remembered pulling out of the drive? She picked up her keys and went to the back door. The deadbolt was already locked. She checked the handle of the door, but it too was locked. She took her purse on the way to the front door. As she did this she noticed two dollars sitting on the counter next to the chair the stranger was sitting in. 

She took the money and made her way slowly to the door. When she unlocked the deadbolt and the handle and pulled the door open, she took one more look around, wondering if there had been a man there at all. She gazed down at the money in her hand. She rubbed her forehead, sighed, and closed the door, locking it behind her. 

*****

For a few nights after seeing the stranger, she had slept. Once her head hit the pillow she tumbled into unconsciousness and hovered in the smooth black of slumber, never waking to the barking dogs of the neighborhood, nor to the mean bullying group of boys that threw a rock through her kitchen window. She woke in the mornings without remembering her dreams, a blessing, for dreams held the memories she was trying to forget. But slowly, like the rolling clouds before a thunderstorm, she could feel the restless stirrings that always brought forth a nightmare. Images of what she had done and what she had tried not to do flashed in her mind, waking her up to her sweat soaked bed, her body trembling and cold. 

Standing behind the bar she felt more or less okay. She was exhausted again after three nights of turning in her sleep afraid of the dreams and afraid she might wake up to splattered eggs drying on the side of her porch, another broken window, or perhaps, a gutted cat (this time, though, it would not be hers) lying on the porch steps with glazed over eyes, flies and gnats gathering in the blood and insides that had been pulled out and strewn across the body. She cringed at the thought of that and beat back tears that tried to surface. That was a long time ago. She opened a beer and slid it across the counter to Bill, an older man who spent most of his waking hours in that same chair. She liked her work. Her customers didn't tend to focus on her past as much as their own, spilling out their secrets and misdeeds to her as if she were a priest in a confessional booth. She didn't mind. The more they talked about themselves, the less she had to think about the things that kept her up at night. 
When the bar closed the stranger returned and brought with him the fog and an eerie sense of pleasure for her. She felt herself drawn to him, drawn to those big black bottomless eyes. She poured him whiskey and finished her cleaning duties. He didn't speak. She wrung out her washrag and turned to him. 

"Where are you from?" she asked, the jukebox kicking out a languid song about lost love.
"Who says I'm from anywhere?" he threw her a half smile and shifted in his chair.
"Surely you have a home."
"I'm a traveling salesman. I spend all my time on the road so no, I don't have a home."
"What about family?"
He shook his head.
"Isn't it lonely?"

He nodded and threw back the last of his drink. He set the cup down and cast his gaze onto her, reaching out and touching her hand lightly, his fingers gentle over her scarred flesh. He made no mention of her rough skin. Instead, "But I don't need to tell you anything about being lonely."
She shook her head. He smiled at her warmly, taking her hand fully in his and drawing her closer. She stretched over the bar, his eyes deep and all consuming. She closed her eyes, her lips touching his. They weren’t soft and warm as she had expected, rather they were cold, metallic...She opened her eyes, the upturned legs of the bar stool connecting with her lips. She jumped back and hit the opposite counter, knocking tumblers off their white clean towel with her elbow. The music stopped playing as the glasses fell and shattered on the floor. The man was gone. The chair was put back in place and his glass was not on the counter. After a few silent minutes she retrieved the broom and swept the glass with trembling hands.

*****

A few people still sat at the bar--regulars. It was Tuesday and she hadn’t had much business for the night. She gathered empty glasses from the countertop and took them to the kitchen. She came back out and stacked the clean dishes on a white towel. 


"Strange night." Someone said. She looked out the window. The outside world was being eaten up by the fog. She turned and saw the stranger sitting in the same chair he had been in the other night. He smiled at her.

"Whiskey." he said.
"Certainly." she said, her throat dry. She fumbled with the glass and the half empty bottle of liquor. When she set it down in front of the stranger she noticed Bill and the other three patrons looking at her. "They can't see me." the stranger said. She narrowed her eyes at the men, mustering her courage to try and look natural, "Haven't you ever seen anyone pour themselves a drink?"

The men looked at each other for a moment, but seemed satisfied by this and went on finishing their drinks. When the clock hit one the men left without being told. They bid her a good night and she told them to be careful walking home. Once she locked the deadbolts she said, "What are you?"
He narrowed his eyes at her, the tease of a smile starting at the corners of his mouth, "I'm a salesman."

"Are you a ghost?"
The wisp of smile disappeared and the weight of his eyes rested on her, "I'm a salesman."
“Are you the Devil?”
“Like I said, I’m a salesman.”

Under her near crippling fear bubbled an unfamiliar feeling: anger. It rose just enough to bring her courage to say, "What kind of salesman pops in and out of dingy old bars when the deadbolts are locked? What kind of salesman spends his time sitting silently watching a run-down bartender clean at the end of her shift?"

"I simply go where I'm needed."
"What do you want?" She asked.
"Relax; I'm not here to make you pay for what you've done."

Her mouth went dry and a heat spread across her body, climbed to the top of her head and she felt dizzy. Tears welled in her eyes. She bit her lip and tried to blink them away but there was too much water and they spilled out and rolled down her cheeks, hot and shameful as the memory of her brother’s death filled her vision. The man took a swallow of his whiskey, staring at her all the while with those deep black eyes. She shrugged him off, turned her back to him, and started upending the chairs, her knees weak. She had trouble trying to make one foot move in front of the other and her arms move so that she could lift the chairs onto the counter. When she neared him she turned, but he was gone.

A fortnight passed before the salesman returned but she saw him every night in her dreams. Her nightmares were always the same, ending with her covered in blood from stones cast by the people of her town. Before she woke, she would be struck in the head by a stone thrown by her mother and she would collapse over the burnt and choked body of her brother. Behind her a house was ablaze—a fire she had set.

During the last couple weeks, however, the stranger entered her dreams. He walked through the barrage of stones, untouched by them, and reached a hand out to her. She wouldn't take it, more scared of him than the people throwing stones. He spoke to her every night. He always said the same thing: "You can't stay like this forever." Then he would fade out and she would be struck by the fatal stone and wake to the warm darkness of her room.

When he showed on this particular night, unexpectedly, and when her three regulars were still finishing their last drinks, she felt a surge of surprise, relief, anger, and excitement. Overcome with her emotions, she wept. She closed her hands over her face and sobbed, her fragile mind broken. Hands touched her shaking shoulders. Bill's hands. He took her in his arms and pressed her head to his chest.

"Don't cry." He said.
"I think I'm losing my mind."
He pushed her from the comfort of his warm body and said, "You have to quit thinking about him."
For a moment she didn't know which him Bill was referring to. My brother, she thought, knowing that Bill couldn't see the salesman. She nodded.

He let go of her and crossed over to the other side of the bar, finished his drink and bade her goodbye. The other two men were already gone. "Have a good night, Bill," she said. She locked the door behind him, crossed to the back and locked that door too. 

"You've come back." she said to the salesman.
"You don't need to be afraid of me." he said.
"What do you want?"
"You're asking the wrong question. It's not about what I want; it's about what you want."
"I want you to leave me alone." She poured him a drink and slid it over the counter.
He took it, "It's all in your hands. I wouldn't be here if you didn't need me."
"You're not a salesman. You're a ghost."
"Why don't you ever take my hand?" he asked.
She was pulling the broom out of the closet and stopped when he spoke, "Excuse me?"
"When they're throwing stones at you. Why don't you take my hand?"
“I don’t—you’re—I’m—” she stuttered.  Her brain, overwhelmed, was unable to transport the words forming there into intelligent speech. 

He stood and approached her. She hadn't realized how tall he was. He reached a hand out and touched her face. Electricity spread throughout her body, she let the broom fall back against the wall of the closet. He gathered her face in his hands and moved closer. They stood toe to toe. He smelled burnt, like a fire was burning him up from the inside. His hands were hot, his body temperature causing sweat to break on her brow. Though unsettling, it wasn't an altogether bad feeling. 

"I only come to town when needed." he said, pushing her head to his chest, much like Bill had done earlier. This time she didn’t cry. She felt safe in his arms, the fear abated, "I can give you anything."
"What do you give other people?"
"Whatever they ask for. Money. Revenge. Peace. Comfort."
"At what price?"
"I think you know the answer to that."
She did. "What if I wanted you?"
"I don't think you know what you're asking."
"I don't belong here." she said, thinking about what she had done and thinking about the past, before the accident when she had still felt that same lonely tick of the clock as if she were just biding her time before...

He took her face in his hands again and brought his lips to hers. He tasted sweet, like the juice from fruit a little too ripe. She could smell the heat from him, rich and thick and all-consuming like a forest fire. She was pulled from her body and joined him in spirit, merged with him, blending into a powerful energy that was more pleasurable than anything she had experienced in the flesh. When they finally came apart he pointed towards the body that stood staring blankly in their direction.

"You have to go back now." he said.
"But I want to go with you. Can't we just leave her behind?"
He shook his head, "It doesn't work that way. There is still life to live. When the Reaper calls I will be there. We will be together then."
"That's a long time."
  "A blink of an eye." he said, his form fading, fading, gone.

She returned to her body. It was ill-fitting and cold. She picked up the broom and worked her way from the window back, the fog lifting from the streets, returning the town from its grasp. She shivered and thought that she would never be warm again, but with the thought of his touch on her skin she smiled and knew that one day she would.

THE END. 

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P.S. Don't forget to join Shelly and me for the next round of the Write or Die writer's link up. The prompt is the quote below. Come share some laughs with us! You can link up beginning Weds, Nov. 4th. Happy writing! 


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