He’d finished for the night. It was a cloudy Wednesday evening and Burt was more than ready to head home and clear his head of the tiresome antics of the day. He leant over the counter drearily, setting down a mug he had poured for himself. The bar’s neon lights buzzed annoyingly through his ears while the old TV monitor blared from the corner of the room. The taste of beer lingered on his lips as he blew a sharp whistle, startling the drunkard at the corner booth.
The man kept still, his mouth hanging open as he stared down at the floor with vacant eyes. He was a typical, raggedy bum, fitted in a torn overcoat mismatched with filthy jeans and only a single battered shoe. There wasn’t a clean spot on his entire body, as if he had been dipped head to toe in grime.
“Hey,” Burt called out, jangling the bar keys in his hand. “Bar’s closing. You got two minutes, or I’ll throw you out myself.”
He flicked his gaze at Burt, his stare unmatched in its coldness, like the eyes of a dead man.
“What’s the matter with you?” Burt spoke. “I said we’re closing. You deaf or something?”
The bum’s mouth quivered as he slowly cracked a smile, his missing teeth and rotting gums on full display.
“The name’s Leslie," he spoke gruffly. "Would you like to hear a story, son?”
Leslie's voice was deep and rough, like a cowboy from an old western movie. He pried himself from the table, empty beer bottle still in hand, and staggered forwards towards the counter, pulling up a chair.
“I’ve no time for the words of a drunken bum, especially not at this hour. Beat it.”
“You a bartender, aint’cha? I thought folks like you were the listening type.”
“Yeah, during opening hours. And only to people who pay their tabs.”
“Well, we still got a couple ‘a minutes left, don’t we? I’m willing to pay for the extra time.”
Leslie grinned as he waved a crumpled 50 in his hands.
“Found this sitting in the gutter outside. Some rich fella must've dropped it.”
Burt sighed and rubbed his hands down his face.
“Two more minutes. Whatever you want to get off your chest, make it snappy.”
Leslie chuckled quietly.
“First, a drink.”
“Another drink?" Burt scoffed. "With the amount you’ve had already I half expected you to pass out before you even reached the counter.”
Burt's remark was met with a displeased glare.
“Fine, fine. If you insist.”
Leslie set the 50 down on the counter. It was covered in fluff, and smelled faintly of raw sewage. Burt reluctantly peeled it into his palm and placed it into the cash register.
“I take it’ll be the usual, then.”
Leslie grunted in affirmation. Burt turned and stepped to a shelf of liquors, scanning across each row until he came to the Almond Ale. The bottle was sticky in his hand, almost gluing his fingers together. He set a pint glass down on the counter and began to pour.
“I like it a little foamy.”
The glass beamed a bright orange as it came into Leslie’s hand. His eyes filled with satisfaction as he gulped mouthful after mouthful of the booze, at last setting down the glass when it was half empty. Burt was both sickened and a little impressed.
“So, what’s on your mind, tough guy?”
“You ain’t gonna pour one out for yourself? I seen you work up and down the counters all day, you look like you could use a pint, too.”
Burt stopped and rapped his hand along the counter in contemplation.
“As a matter of fact, you’re absolutely right.”
He smiled as he filled up another glass with the same ale.
“Didn’t think you were the type to have some manners about you.”
“Hah!” Leslie replied. “I’ll drink to that, you bastard.”
A quiet ting echoed through the bar as Burt brought his glass up to meet Leslie’s.
Both men took a gulp from their glasses. Burt exhaled gently and wiped the foam from his mouth.
“Good, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, it's alright. Still, we've got better stuff than this. A little variety wouldn’t hurt, would it?”
“Aha, well that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about," Leslie started. "You see that parking lot out there?”
Leslie gestured to one of the bar’s windows. Outside sat a greyish, dull-looking parking lot, seemingly unremarkable in every way.
“Yeah, what about it?”
Leslie’s face stiffened into a darker expression.
“Do you know what was there before the parking lot?"
“Can't say I do, no.”
“Ah, that’s a damn shame. Here, I’ll explain.”
“I’m all ears.”
Leslie took a small sip from his glass. He inhaled deeply through his nose, as if what he was about to say was of great importance.
“When I was a younger lad, I had an apartment not far from here. And in the cold vacuum of those joyless city buildings that surrounded me there, I sought refuge in a little field that was once in the place that parking lot is now. You understand?”
“That field was my little...haven, my escape from the worries that troubled me in my day-to-day existence. Whenever I felt down, I would drag myself to that patch of nature to cheer myself up again. And I would always, always, go back home with a smile on my face and a head full of hope.”
“Sure does sound like a nice little area.”
Leslie shook his head solemnly.
“Believe me, it was. But the point is, this little field was like an old friend to me. A best friend. And you know what the best thing about it was? There was this little almond tree, slap bang in the middle, surrounded by bright pink blossoms and vibrant grass. And when that tree bore its fruit, oh ho, it was like my own personal Christmas. Each year, I’d run to that field like a little kid running down the stairs on his birthday. One by one, I'd pluck those little almonds off the branches until I could barely carry them all back home again. I’d make almond pie, almond soup, almond whatever, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.”
“Hence the choice of liquor.”
“Exactly. So imagine my surprise when one night, I get to the field, and there’s a big plastic barrier on the gate that leads in. I look inside, and I see a bunch of construction workers. They’re tearing the place apart. Uprooting plants, cutting down trees, the works. I’m heartbroken. And I see a poster on one of the walls inside saying ‘NEW PARKING LOT COMING SOON’ in these big flashy letters.”
“And at this point, I’m infuriated. Like there’s this primal, unstoppable rage that inhabits every little inch of my body. And I'm holding myself back. I'm trying not to let myself go over the edge, I really am. But the final straw is when I see a guy with a chainsaw start walking up to the almond tree. In my head, I’m saying ‘no, please no, god no, anything but this, not the almond tree’. But I know it’s inevitable. I can’t take it. Just seeing him rev the damned thing into action pushes me to my breaking point."
Leslie paused, allowing some of the bitterness to evaporate from his words.
"Do you wanna know what I did?" He continued.
Burt tensed up slightly, growing increasingly wary of the man in front of him.
“Well, do you wanna know?”
Leslie smiled once again.
“Good answer. Here’s what I do. I push down the barrier and sprint inside with the speed of a fucking cheetah. I can hear the voices of the workers yelling at me to get lost, but I’m not listening. I’m focused only on the guy with the chainsaw, who luckily for me, is wearing protective headphones. I reach him in no time at all, just as the tip of the chainsaw is reaching the bark of the almond tree. The sheer force at which I slam into his body is enough to knock it from his hands. For a moment, I don't even know what’s happened. But quickly, my vision clears and I look down in front of me.”
“And what do you see?”
“It’s wedged in his stomach, still on, spraying blood and viscera everywhere. The guy is choking, coughing, begging me for help. He’s screaming, too. Agonizing screams, like the type you hear only in nightmares. I look around me at the horrified faces, the tear-filled eyes of the construction workers. They’re too scared to move, and I hardly blame them for it. I take a deep breath through my nose, and that’s the part I’ll never forget. The rich scent of the man’s blood mixed with the sweet aroma of the blossoming almonds. It was invigorating.”
Burt’s breath became laboured with fear. He froze, wondering if Leslie could hear the sound of his deafening heartbeat rising in his chest.
“I grab the chainsaw, and I hold it high above my head like some sort of trophy. I’m laughing all the while, even as I smash the blades down into the man’s head. There’s a final explosion of brain matter, soaking the almond tree and ending my fit of rage. I drop the chainsaw at the man’s torn-open stomach cavity and book it. All I remember of the next 10 minutes are scared looks from pedestrians and bewildered mothers with crying babies passing me by as I stumble back to my apartment. I get back inside. I take a shower, I change my clothes, and I lie on the bathroom floor as a new wave of clarity and self-awareness passes through my body. My field, my haven, is gone. But now, I have a new way to unwind. Vicious, cold-blooded murder. And it feels so...magnificent.”
“Ha…ha…that’s, uh… quite a story, there…Leslie.” Burt responded shakily, betraying his attempt at sustaining a calm demeanour.
“Now, I know I’ve given you a lot to think about. And I know what you’re thinking right now. It’s what anyone would think in your situation, and I really don’t blame you for it. You’re thinking that I’m either a deranged lunatic or a pathological liar, or both, and you’re playing it cool until you get into a situation where you can get rid of me or maybe even call the police. And that’s completely reasonable. But I’m afraid you won’t get to do any of those things.”
“Hah…and, uh…why is th-that?”
Burt reached to take another sip from his glass.
“Because you know what else smells like almonds, bartend?”
Burt choked on his drink.
“You remember when I got you to look out the window?”
Leslie held up a sachet of a powdery substance.
“I put one of these in your ale. I get them from a friend not far from here. These babies are beautiful. Completely tasteless, easy to conceal, and they work wonders on the human body in just minutes, plenty of time for me to spout my dialogue, of course.”
Burt doubled over in pain. His chest felt as if it was on fire.
“What…what the f-fuck have you done…” he barely managed to get out, froth already building in his mouth.
Burt collapsed, writhing gently on the floor as the poison began to seep into his brain.
“Ever since that day at the almond tree, I’ve lived a vagrant lifestyle, to make my murders easier to get away with. Got a body count of about 10 or 20, now. It's cold, tiring work, but moments like this make it all worthwhile."
Leslie grabbed the bottle by the neck and took a generous swig.
"Here, let me pour one more out for you, bartend.”
Burt's seizing face was coated in a splash of the ale.
“Hey, look on the bright side. If you had a family, at least they won’t find your mangled body.”