Melanie comes back from her dinner break—one half of a reheated halal cart platter, eaten in the sad excuse for a park across the street—to the sight of three lifeless bodies sprawled on the floor of the bar where she works.
“Again?” Melanie asks, looking into the dead men’s eyes, glassy and unfocused in their doughy faces.
Angela, her fellow barmaid and de facto boss, sits up on the counter, chugging whiskey straight from the bottle, her dark curly bun in disarray. She nods without even taking the bottle from her lips. It’s a grim sight. There’s no blood, just a pile of ripped-shirt punk-wannabe dudes, with their arms bent unnaturally underneath them. All the patrons are gone, except for the dead ones.
The whole scene unfurls a burning anger in Melanie’s chest. It’s an emotion she’s only recently become in touch with—another skill she’s learned on the job, like pouring a perfect pint of Guinness (let it rest) and fixing the taste of stale Corona (a pinch of salt.)
“This is fucking bad for business,” she says. “Trey needs to do something.” Her hands curl into fists; they tingle with her newfound rage. Trey’s her real boss, the bar’s new owner. They didn’t have any murders until he showed up. Now, his shady friends are cursing each other left and right and there’s practically a corpse a week. No one comes to pack their happy hours or their Sunday Specials. They even had to cancel trivia night. Melanie can’t remember the last time she left a shift with more than $20 in tips, and it’s bound to get even worse.
“Honey,” Angela replies, in her all-knowing tone, “when has Trey done anything good for this place?”
Melanie sighs. She grabs the bottle from Angela and takes a swig herself. Never, she thinks. Never is the answer. Trey has just chipped away at the good things and left a shitshow in his wake for them to clean up.
Angela leans back on her hands, her shoulders square and determined. Her gaze wanders around the bar, over the worn tables and the upturned chairs. “If anything changes around here, it has got to come from us. We’re all we’ve got.”
Melanie looks across the room, at the soft light of the sconces on the wall and the twinkling of the age-old chandeliers hanging above their heads. In her chest, she feels a warmth, spreading slowly, like a long hug from the inside out.
In that moment, she knows she’ll do anything for this place. Once upon a time, she had friends and hobbies and things she cared about in her free time. Now, in all her waking hours, her focus has narrowed to just this: a bar that she hates but still loves, a bar that she feels compelled to protect, a bar that’s like family, like her own precious child.
When she first started working at the bar, it was called The Tavern in the Wall. You couldn’t just walk in off the street. You had to go to a little hole-in-the-wall pizzeria in the three blocks that remained of Little Italy, give the cashier five bucks, and then waltz through the very much operational kitchen, full of pizza makers, to a secret door that looked like a refrigerator. Then you ended up in an alleyway by some trash cans, wondering if you were in the right place, and the bricks in the wall opposite would move, and there would be a candle-lit entryway leading into the bar.
“No fucking way,” she said the first time she saw it. She and her grad school friend, whose name she now could not recall, only found the place through a post on the internet, and even then they didn’t believe it would be real. She couldn’t tear her eyes away. The moving bricks, the flickering flames, the shimmering murmur of voices spilling out into the alleyway—they tugged at her, the stories of her childhood come to life in the guise of adulthood adventure.
Inside, The Tavern in the Wall looked like an ancient cathedral. Hand-painted monks and dragons danced through various ribald scenarios on the walls. Elaborate candelabras appeared to float in midair throughout the room. (They actually were floating, magically; she would learn that later.)
Angela, the only bartender-slash-waitress then, ran around bringing drinks to all the tables and taking orders. At the bar, a withered white-haired man with a beard down to his waist—the owner—held court. When guests got too rowdy, he climbed onto the countertop and shushed them all. If someone laughed, he would just shush them more. Shhhhhhhhh! Shhhhhhhh! Shhhhhhh!
On her way out, practically stumbling after three very strong glasses of house-made mead, Melanie caught a harried Angela by the arm.
“I used to be a waitress in undergrad,” she said, “and I just want to tell you that you’re doing a great job.”
“Honey, you’re gonna make me cry,” Angela said, laughing.
Melanie smiled awkwardly back and turned to go, but Angela reached out to stop her. Her eyes were solemn; the playfulness was gone from her voice. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately—Erwin’s looking tired these days. We could use another. You might be just the right fit.”
Melanie was supposed to be writing her dissertation. The use of the sublime in James Joyce. I do have room in my schedule, though, she thought. And seeing those chandeliers everyday—smelling the warm hops-scented air of this place each morning—
She started the next day.
That was four years ago. She never did finish her dissertation. She probably never will. This place, Angela is fond of saying, takes hold of you.
The old owner, Erwin, was the first person to die in the bar during Melanie’s tenure. In the middle of quieting down the patrons, he just keeled over. Shhh—thud. All the floating lights flickered. One even crashed to the floor before Angela came to her senses and raised them all back to their proper places with a flick of her wrist.
For a few weeks after that, Angela kept the place running. In the back stockroom, she did whatever mumbo-jumbo made the mead so delicious. She lit the floating candles each night without touching them. Melanie kept busy too, washing glasses and cutting lemons. She had long ceased to be surprised by Angela’s magic; by then, nearly three years in, the fact that she had to move through the world without it was what bothered her.
“Your time will come,” Angela assured her, when Melanie let her envies slip into her face. “Erwin always said this place would give us what we needed when we needed it.” And besides: it wasn’t like she was some all-powerful being. The magic only worked when she was at the bar. “I’d save a shit ton in electric bills if it were otherwise,” she joked.
The day after that conversation was when Trey came, barreling through the doors like he owned the place. Which, it turns out, he did: his grandfather, Erwin, had left it to him in his will. “Allegedly,” Angela whispered to her, a frown etched into her face. Melanie hadn’t known the jolly little man half as well as Angela, who’d worked there for ten years, but she had seen him call Angela his second-in-command in front of customers enough times to wonder, too.
Nonetheless, Trey had the will, in hard copy. He hugged them both, ignoring the stiffness of their limbs. “We’re gonna have a baller time working together,” he said.
Trey immediately began redecorating. His taste was terrible. He replaced Gregorian-chanting urns with a player piano that preferred early-2000s emo hits. “Think Westworld meets Canto Bight,” he said, hanging a light-up sign with the bar’s new name on a freshly painted wall that used to be a mural. The Stardust Saloon, it said. Melanie never thought she’d miss cartoon monk butts so much.
He asked Angela what she thought. She gave him a smile that would seem friendly if you didn’t know Angela. It was the same smile she wore when he handed them their new uniforms: low-cut black dresses, with big bustles and built-in corsets. “Don’t get all MeToo on me,” he laughed. “Sex sells. It’s just business.” Melanie’s palms itched. She wished she could pick him up without touching him, like Angela had done with the candles on the night Erwin died, and toss him across the room.
The Stardust Saloon served a different clientele. Trey spent little time in the bar, but he gave out discount tokens to all his ride-or-dies. They came in annoying droves. Wall Street guys who moved things with their minds. Legions of indistinguishable blondes who conjured party drugs out of thin air. Then they brought their friends: punks who had fights telepathically; shapeshifters you only recognized on second meeting because of their tattoos.
“The only thing worse than a trust-fund kid is a third-generation mage,” Angela grumbled.
A pink-haired man at the bar overheard her and sneered. “If you hate it here so much, why don’t you quit?” The lights dimmed a bit, just briefly. Quit! It was the most absurd thing Melanie had ever heard. Who would take care of the bar?
It certainly needed them. A few nights later, two telepaths stood up and drew loaded guns. Angela redirected the bullets into the wall with a frantic hand-wave. Trey left them there; for ambience, he said. After they sold out of Erwin’s mead, the old regulars stopped coming.
The next shootout ended in deaths, two of them. Trey shrugged and said that at least they were underground types that no one would miss. “No one will even remember that they were here,” he said. He and Angela dragged the bodies into the stockroom. After thirty minutes, only Trey came out. Later, Melanie found Angela hunched against boxes of whiskey, covered in black dust, staring at nothing.
“Cleanup,” she said, hoarsely. “I’m glad you’re here.” A forced smile flickered across her face, but it faded quickly into exhaustion.
In the end, it takes only a few more burning shots of whiskey before they decide on a plan. Melanie finally gets a hold of Trey on the third try. He’s not happy about it—not then, nor when he arrives.
“This better be fucking worth it,” he says. The wooden half-doors that he’d insisted on installing swing hard behind him as he enters the bar. “The heavyweight fight was just getting good when you called.”
The neon sign with the bar’s new name, high up on the wall, flickers with the force of an unknown thing. The rattling doors, maybe, or Trey’s angry steps. But Trey doesn’t notice. Trey never notices shit.
They lead him past empty tables and upturned glasses scattered on the floor. When they reach the stockroom, and the pile of bodies from earlier in the night that they’d placed there, he rounds on them.
“Really? You called for this?”
“Trey,” Melanie begins, “this is the second set of murders this week. We need help. Security. You, yelling at your friends to keep their shit together. Otherwise, no one is going to want to come to this bar. We’ll go under.”
Trey just laughs. “What do you know? You’re just a bartender. When there are no customers, your job is to clean the bar. So get to cleaning. You don’t need my help for that.”
He turns to go, but Angela grabs his wrist. If Trey doesn’t want to help, then he’s made his choice, she’d said, moments before they’d made the call. And he has chosen. Angela’s eyes glitter with a quality that even Melanie, after all these years working by her side, does not recognize, though she knows what is coming.
“Sorry, Trey,” Angela says, unsmiling, as his body dissolves, bit by bit, in a swirl of black. “It’s just business.”
Trey doesn’t even have time to scream or struggle. His face dissolves before he can even open his mouth. Black soot is everywhere, swirling fast. It fills Melanie’s chest. Her mouth. Her vision. She’s choking, gasping, swimming—
Angela collapses to the empty floor. The dark dust settles around her. It’s only then that Melanie can even attempt to breathe again. Instead, she coughs, roughly, like sandpaper scraping out her lungs, the muscles in her back knotting in on themselves.
Melanie should feel alarmed at what they’ve done. She should worry about the police knocking on their door, tracing calls, interviewing witnesses. She should be concerned about wills, inheritances, nexts-of-kin. She should fear the new regulars, Trey’s friends, threatening her with guns or magic or both.
But Melanie feels none of these things. She’s warm and fuzzy inside with a knowledge that it will all work out. She doesn’t know where it came from, that sureness. It has struck her like a warm wind, settling down inside her bones. No one will miss Trey. He wasn’t the type to make plans beyond what he was going to watch on pay-per-view. No one will even remember he was here. The thought echoes through her mind, unbidden.
She gives Angela her hand and pulls her to her feet. She’s limp, a soft jumble of limbs, and she doesn’t speak at all. Melanie holds her up and guides her slow steps out of the stockroom. She sits her down at a table with a glass of water and a towel full of ice. Tonight, Angela will rest, and Melanie will clean up the dust and the broken glass. Tomorrow, they’ll pick a new name for their bar, and start cleaning up a mess of a different kind, together.
It’s a daunting task, and Melanie should dread it. But she doesn’t. She looks around at the piano and the bullet holes and the flickering neon sign and plots what she’ll put in their place. What will we call it? she wonders. Her palms tingle with excitement. She has more energy than she’s ever had.
But before all that: a toast. She raises her hand; a pint glass flies from the shelf to the taps and starts filling itself with a rich amber ale. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Angela watching her from underneath the ice pack on her forehead. The black dust is still smudged all over her skin, mingled with sweat and tears. Little microscopic bits of Trey, matted to her cheeks.
Melanie reaches for the glass she just poured and faces her, beaming. She raises the pint in the air. “Looks like my time has come after all,” she says. Her hands are sooty, too; there is even black grime under her nails.
She expects to see a certain kind of look in Angela’s face. Pride. Relief. Joy, even. Instead she is stiff and unreadable. Her eyes are glassy and her lips press together so tightly that they turn slightly white.
“I told you,” Angela finally replies. She looks so tired now. “I told you. This place—it takes hold of you.”
Melanie feels her smile grow wider. All she can think is that she wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m glad you’re here, the walls seem to sing. I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re here.
Caelyn Cobb is a university press editor living in Queens, NY. Her writing has appeared in The Hunger, Longleaf Review, Dream Journal, and other places on the internet. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @caelyncobb.