In the calm evening lights with night fast approaching, Johnson sits at a table in his favorite corner of the bar, wondering why it's so quiet tonight. A man approaches him, glancing sideways. He knows the look of a good story carrier when he sees one, so he smiles.
“I heard you pay for stories with a full cup hey?” the man says.
“Yes, I do, for a good story we can do two bottles or more,” he replies to the stranger with a laugh.
“They call you the writer, and folks here say you don’t ask for names hey?”
“Yes, no name just stories, or you can bring up imaginary names. It's your story.”
“Then call me Fred. I have a story for you alright, worthy of big journals and magazines,” Fred replies, and grabs him by the shoulder, his face full of laughter.
Johnson smiles as jolly Fred sits heavily on the chair opposite him, a round table between them. He thinks Fred might be in his late forties, but suffering has a way of tilting men to old age.
“No, a bottle, rum, ‘tis a long story, writer. Horror that keeps men awake at night,” Fred replies with a wink.
Johnson’s face lights up. “Barman, a bottle of rum, two glasses,” he calls out.
Johnson can feel the aroma of a good story as the tension on Fred’s face becomes visible as they wait for the barman. Most men come to him because he doesn't ask questions; he just records, pays for their drinks, and makes notes. Then rewrites, and submits to the big magazines. He often thinks himself a counsellor of sorts.
After opening the bottle the barman placed between them, he pours Fred a full glass, and half for himself.
Fred sips a little, sighs deep, and interweaves his fingers on the table, before looking at him, straight in the eye. He begins with a voice tilting towards sadness, another sign of a good story—grief, and horror.
“That evening was to be her last, but she didn't look it, she was bright like them stars, she was good, and sweet, in love you see, that accursed thing, but she was Angel. They were going out was all she told me,” Fred fakes a cough and corrects himself. “I meant what she told her father, you know?”
“Yes, I understand,” Johnson replies, and nods for him to continue.
“So she told her father she's going out with the boyfriend on a drive, not far, just along the road to enjoy the August breeze. Her father said no, but you know she's not a kid no more, seventeen that was how old she was, so her father let her go. Come back quick, he warned, and wished her mother hadn't died ten years ago, maybe she would have known how to advise her better. But she left that night, never to return except...,” Fred swallows hard. “She did return, you know, unrecognizable.” Fred stops, and wraps his mouth on the cup, gulping the rest of his rum at one go.
The writer watches him carefully. He has met many like him, bottled up with stories that are killing them, always reluctant to share the weight until they start nearing their graves, but he never interrupts.
“So, they left in his car, they were close to the expressway when the Jeep hit them. The driver must have been drunk; others said he was the devil.”
The writer feels uneasy, and adjusts his glasses.
“Oh, they never caught him,” the man tries to dismiss his uneasiness with a smile. “He ran into the bush, left the car, a rental he got with a fake identity, but she saw him, yes she did, begged him as the car pinned her, and smoke started coming from the engine. They said they heard her crying for him to help, but no, the devil ran, and the car caught fire, burning the girl to bones, that’s all the father got, bones.” Fred pours another cup full and gulps it down.
The writer is about to speak when Fred interrupts him. “That's not the end of the story you see, no, it's just begun.”
Johnson is so invested in the story, he forgets to sip his own cup of rum. Fred pushes the cup towards him, his big hand covering the whole cup.
“Thanks,” Johnson says and raises the cup to his trembling lips, sipping it gently. “How does it end then?” he asks Fred, who sits back looking at him, tears forming at the corners of his eyes.
“It didn't end with the little girl, it ended with her father who later searched unrelentingly for the killer, how he sold his soul to the devil, bribed the police, asked to see the car, and somehow in that car, wedged between the seats, there was a paper that survived, a story, a single page. No one thought of it, but I read it a thousand times, I know the words by heart.”
Johnson makes quick notes, and avoids direct eye contact with Fred.
“For three years I began reading all the short stories ever published, until one day, I saw that complete story online, written by you.”
Johnson’s eyes bulge as he remembers. He thought it had all burned with his car, the story he had published in a local magazine. They had mailed the acceptance back to him, his first publication, and he was excited to collect it from the post office, then celebrated afterwards with too many drinks. He opens his mouth but he can't utter any words as his heart begins to shut down.
Johnson has read about the craft of drink poisoning, and symptoms. He remembers Fred’s hand covering his drink, and he knows what Fred has done.
“Yes, you see the story ends with you. You shouldn't have let my little Angela burn.”
“I was scared, drunk,” Johnson pleads as the pen falls from his hands. As he struggles for breath, he can hear his recorder beeping, recording the whole conversation. Fred was right; this is a story that will make him popular, it will be published in the biggest journals and news outlets, and even though his name will be forever known as the driver who killed the two kids, he can’t help but wonder what the title will be as he falls facedown onto the table. Fred stands up to leave and the barman smiles knowingly as the writer takes his last breath.