We met, as usual, in The Sub-Pope’s Flock, across the public square from the Cathedral. I stood outside for a moment. Maybe, I thought, I shouldn’t go in there. There was the pressure of knowing whether or not anyone thought my story was any good. Could I take the criticism? More importantly, would The Stalker be waiting for me, prepared to kill me? “Hello,” said The Stalker from behind me.
I leapt around, bursting immediately into a heavy sweat and whimpering. “Hi there,” I responded. He was back in what I considered his normal clothing. Where the dress shirt and normal people clothes were slightly disconcerting on him, this was even more so, considering that it was now obvious he was hiding something worse than sinister—something normal.
“You and I both know what you saw yesterday,” he said.
Hearing this took some weight off my shoulders. “So,” I said. “Are you Hyde, or Jekyll?”
The Stalker snorted. “Apt comparison, I guess. Although, I would assume that one such as yourself—who I, up until now, assumed was an intelligent man—would not need to ask the question in the first place.”
The Stalker shrugged. “Persisting in the black-and-white picture of my existence, are you? Fair enough. If you want to think of me as Hyde and other-me as Jekyll, then so be it. Regardless,” he said, clearing his throat, “I think that it would be best for you if you did not mention what you saw. It would complicate matters for me, as I have worked quite hard to project an image upon all of you—an image that I have my own reasons for showing.”
“And what are they?”
The Stalker responded with a grin revealing stark white teeth. “Absolutely nothing sinister. Just remember: it would be for the best if you were never mention what you saw to the others. I’ll know if you do.” With that, he brushed past me into the pub.
Now that the thing I was most worried about had already happened—and I escaped without any puncture wounds—there was relatively nothing to fear from criticism. I followed in The Stalker’s trail.
When I walked in, the others were already in the middle of debating stories. “Ah,” said The Traveler, “there’s The Narrator. I hope you don’t mind that we already started, but we were all anxious to get going.”
“No worries,” I said. I went to the bar, ordered an ale, and sat next to The Drunkard. He had black bags under his eyes and was struggling to keep his head up. “Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”
He craned his neck towards me as if it had cinder blocks tied on. “Late night. French ordered two crates of wine. Wine hangover. Awful.”
I patted him on the back and he belched.
“Okay,” said The Traveler. He sat across from me and massaged his temples. “Over the course of the last half hour of debate, we’ve established two things. One: The Drunkard is on the verge of puking on the table.”
At this, The Drunkard nodded and groaned.
“Two,” continued The Traveller, “The Writer despises every other tale but his own.”
“You leave out the principal reason why,” said The Writer.
“Because no one dares take the bull by the horns and create something worth listening to. All of this was worthless. Mere entertainment. If I wanted mere entertainment,” said with such a sneer that no amount of italics could portray, “I’d go into a Border’s and pick up the latest New York Times best-seller.”
The Student, in a sing-songy voice that I would never expect to hear from him, said, “Go fuck yourself.” It had a nice ring, the way he said it. Almost as if it belonged in a nursery rhyme.
“Okay,” said The Traveler. “Everyone needs to calm down. We’re done with the first round’s debate. Voting time.” He took out his messenger bag and put it on the table. From the inside, he took out a pad of white paper, ripped off a few sheets, and passed them around. “On this paper, you are to write the name of whoever you thought had the best story. And,” he added, “do not write your own name. That’s just not sporting.”
And, of course, everyone but one person wrote their own name. It became clear this happened when The Traveler announced that The Writer received one vote. Of No one in our group other than he would given him a vote. Even if his story had been an amazing one—and it hadn’t been bad—we wouldn’t have voted for him solely out of spite.
One vote remained, and the only person without a tick by his name was The Drunkard. His head lolled next to me, and he hiccupped and groaned to himself as The Traveler picked up the last piece of paper.
All of us leaned forward. Would this final vote show that we were all petty sons of bitches who wouldn’t admit the merits of one another’s stories? Or would it instead show that someone among us was capable of admitting that theirs wasn’t as good as another’s? “And the final vote is for The Student,” announced The Traveler.
“Huhzah!” shouted The Student.
I turned, slowly, to look at him. “Huhzah?”
He blushed. “Well, we’re in Britain, aren’t we?”
“Fuck,” said The Drunkard. “I shouldn’t have voted for you.”
“So, Traveler,” said The Stalker, “by virtue of The Writer receiving a vote, I assume this means that, apart from The Drunkard, we each voted for ourselves. Rather unsporting, don’t you think?”
“Ah,” said The Traveler. “Well. You see, it’s simply a matter of forseeing trends and being able to—”
“Bullshit your way around them?” asked The Writer.
The Traveler responded with a nod.
“So, now that I won, you all owe me a drink.”
“Nope,” I said. “The terms of the first round stated that the winner of the first round would receive naught but bragging rights.” I stood up, reached over, and patted The Student on the shoulder. “Enjoy them. They won’t get you drunk, but they will make you smug.”
The Student, eyes downcast, said, “But I don’t want to be smug. I want to be drunk.”
The Drunkard grumbled.
“In hangover language,” I said, “that means ‘No you don’t. The hangover is a bitch.’”
The Drunkard nodded in agreement.
There was something in the way The Student stared at the table—I imagined a kid watching his hamster fall prey to a vacuum cleaner—that made me take pity on him. I went to the bar, ordered a drink, and gave it to him. He looked down at the whiskey and said, “This Jack?”
“Would it be anything else?”
He knocked it back without a response and grinned. I’m sure that a liberal enough rabbi would agree that this constituted a mitzvah for the day.
“Well,” said The Traveler, “I congratulate you, Student. It was a hard-fought battle, one that was taken up by the best among us—and The Writer—”
“Fuck off,” said The Writer.
The Traveler grinned wolfishly and continued. “As I said, by the best among us, and the vox populi has spoken.”
The Drunkard leaned over and said, “Christ on a broomstick. Vox populi?”
“Dunno,” I whispered. “Apparently we’re on par with a voting populace.
“So,” continued The Traveler, heedless of our interruptions, “I say to you: mazel tov and enjoy it while you can. For soon enough, it shall be snatched away from you and, God willing, I’ll be able to run around shouting that I’m the greatest.”
“Er, I’m not planning on running around and shouting anything.”
“Oh,” said The Traveler, “you say that now. Right, so. As you know, today is the third of November.”
We all nodded. Well, everyone except for The Student nodded, who turned deathly pale and said, “What.”
“Yeah,” said The Stalker. “It’s the third.”
“Fuck,” said the Student. In a series of movements fast enough to give a hummingbird’s wings a run for their money, The Student was out of his chair, put on his jacket, and fled out the door.
The Writer blinked in incomprehension before saying, “What was that?”
“He’s late.” The Drunkard. “He’s late. He’s late for a very important date.” He slammed his head on the table and said, “Fucking kill me now.”
I patted him on the back, “There, there, pal. It’ll be all right. Soon enough, your liver will shut down and you’ll be dead. Hard to quote Disney when you’re dead.”
I was quite impressed with the way he managed to shove me out of my chair without looking at me, and even had to clap a little bit from the floor before sitting back down in the chair.
“Anyway,” said The Traveler, “I have two things to say—and I guess I’ll just have to tell The Student them when I see him next. First: In two days, it is Bonfire Night. The city is hosting a public bonfire out on Tyler Hill, and I’m heading down there with a few friends. You’re all invited to come along, and I’m sure it’ll be a blast. Hey, we might even get to throw The Writer into the flames.”
“Fuck off,” said The Writer. He must have been having an off day—once a couple of weeks back, he told me, “Anyone who uses the same insult twice in one day should be flayed alive and hung from the Washington Monument.” I decided not to remind him of his suggested punishment, and instead shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
“Second,” continued The Traveler, “in a couple of weeks, I’m thinking about going to Oxford. You see, I haven’t gone anywhere thus far, and am getting quite antsy.”
“I’ll go,” I said. Already, plans were hatching in my head about running around shouting at the university students and calling them nerds.
“Why the fuck not,” said The Drunkard. “Oxford’s gotta have better bars than this hick town.”
“Ah, come on,” I said. “This isn’t that bad.”
“Drunkard,” said The Writer, “correct me if I’m wrong, but Cumberland Rift University is in Eldritch, Tennessee, is it not?”
“And Eldritch, if my geography serves me correctly, as,” here The Writer gave a little chuckle that made me want nothing more than to bash his face in, “as I’m sure it does, Eldritch is a town of—not including the university students—three thousand, four hundred people. Is it not?”
The Drunkard finally raised his head off of the table. The look in his eyes clearly said that The Writer should not progress further, but The Writer—madman that he was—ignored it. “So, Drunkard, tell me: How can a town of three thousand—in a dry county, no less—have better bars than a city of forty-five thousand in a country that has, more or less, run on alcohol since antiquity?”
Like The Student before him, The Drunkard was up faster than a human should be able to move. This time, though, instead of someone taking up a coat, The Drunkard took up a very shocked Writer, took him outside, and shoved him in a rubbish bin. After that, neither The Traveler nor I saw The Drunkard until Bonfire Night. The Stalker, The Traveler, and I sat in the pub blinking at each other until The Stalker spoke. “Well,” he said, taking a slurp from his cider, “I don’t think I’ll be joining you all in Oxford. The tension in the group is palatable and I’d rather not be there to see someone impaled on a spire in another city.”
The Traveler nodded. “Fair enough, you’ll be missed.” As he said that, I saw a flash in his eyes that said quite the contrary. That miniscule flash said that The Traveler was thanking God.
“Well,” I said, “I should be going. I’ve got to read a novel that is little more than a 400-page rant against 20s America for class next week.”
“Oil! by Upton Sinclair.”
The Traveler nodded. “What course is it for?”
“The Art of Ranting in Literature. Pretty good class, but stress levels run quite high.” I stood, wished them a good day, and made my way out of the pub.
Outside, it had started raining, and the cobblestone square took on his natural, English tint of looking like something out of a Sherlock Holmes movie. The rain beat down, there was the faint chatter of children, and the slight whiff of vinegar and frying fish from a nearby chippy. I took a deep breath, looked to my right, and saw The Writer’s legs dangling out of the side of a rubbish bin. A small crowd gathered around, taking pictures and laughing. From inside the bin, I heard The Writer shout, “Yeah, laugh now, you French bastards! When I get out I will rip off your frog heads!”
A child walked up and started landing blow after blow of pudgy fists on The Writer’s right calf, laughing while he did so. I let him have his fun for a couple of minutes before I walked up, shooed him away, and helped The Writer out of the bin. He dusted the refuse off of himself, glared at the onlookers and said, “Whiskey time.”
He walked back into the pub, and I made my way to the bus station.