They’d finished for the night. It was a cloudy Wednesday evening and Burt was more than ready to head home and sooth his head from the tiresome antics of the day. He leant over the counter drearily, setting down a mug he had poured for myself. The bar’s gloomy neon lights buzzed annoyingly through his ears, the taste of beer lingering on his lips.
Burt blew a sharp whistle, startling the weary drunkard at the corner booth.
The man was a raggedy old bum, fitted in a torn coat mismatched with filthy jeans and two battered shoes, one with half the top missing, exposing his filthy toenails. There wasn’t a clean spot on his entire body, as if he had been dipped head to toe in grime. He kept still, licking his chapped lips as he stared down at the tiled floor, eyes vacant and glassy.
“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 broken smile, his missing teeth and rotting gums on full display.
“The name’s Leslie. Would you like to hear a story, son?”
His 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 in a zigzag pattern towards the counter, pulling up a stool.
“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 grimy hands.
“Found this sitting in the gutter outside.”
Burt sighed and ran his hands down the length of his face.
“Two more minutes. Whatever you want to get off your chest, make it snappy.”
Leslie chuckled quietly.
“First, a drink.”
“Another drink? With the amount you’ve had already I half expected you to pass out before you even reached the counter.”
“Well, I’m a bit of heavyweight, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
“Fine, if you insist.”
The man set the 50 firmly down on the counter. It was covered in fluff, and faintly smelled 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 various liquors, scanning across each row until he came to the Almond Ale. The bottle was sticky with fluid in his hand. 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 palm. His eyes filled with satisfaction as he gulped mouthful after mouthful of the booze, only setting down the glass when it was half empty. Burt was both sickened and slightly 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 slightly 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 cheeky bastard.”
A quiet ting echoed through the empty bar as Burt brought his glass up to meet Leslie’s.
Both men took a gulp from their glasses. Burt exhaled, refreshed, as Leslie wiped the foam from his lips.
“Good, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, really good. I can see why you like it so much. Still, a little variety wouldn’t hurt, would it?”
“Aha, well that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. You see that parking lot out there?”
Leslie gestured to one of the bar’s windows. Outside sat a greyish, dull-looking parking lot devoid of any traffic.
“Yeah, what about it?”
Leslie’s face stiffened into a darker, more serious expression.
“Do you know what was there before the parking lot? Can you remember?”
“Nope. I’m new to this part of the city.”
“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 critical importance.
“When I was a younger, more hopeful lad, I had a small apartment not far from here. And in the cold, soulless vacuum of those great city buildings of joyless steel and concrete that surrounded my residence, 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 little patch of grass and trees to cheer myself up again. And I would always, always, head back from that place with a smile on my face and a head full of hope.”
“Sure does sound like a nice area. Whatever happened to it, I wonder?”
Leslie shook his head solemnly.
“Advancement, buddy, advancement. I’m getting to that. The point is, this little field was like an old friend. 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. 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 asshole construction workers wearing those shitty high-vis jackets. 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. I could’ve starngled a small child right there and not given two shits. 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 breaking point. You wanna know what I did?”
Burt tensed slightly, growing increasingly wary of the man in front of him.
“Well, do you wanna know?”
Leslie smiled once again.
“Good answer, my man. 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 almond tree. The force at which I slam into his body is enough to knock it from his hands. For a moment, I can’t perceive what’s happened, but soon, 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. I put my hands on my face and feel the warm liquid pooling in my palms. 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. 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. It was timeless. At first, I thought I’d be horrified. But I defied all expectations of myself. It was the best moment of my life.”
Burt’s breath became laboured with fear. He froze, wondering what the best course of action would be to preserve his own safety.
“I pick up 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 gore and 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 crying babies 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 me. My field, my haven, is gone. But now, I have a new way to unwind. Murder. And it feels so magnificent.”
“Ha…ha…that’s, uh… quite a story, there…Leslie.” Burt responded with a shaky voice.
“What’s your name, bartend?”
“Ah, Steve. I know I’ve given you a lot to think about. I know what you’re thinking right now. It’s what anyone would think in your situation, and I don’t blame you, honestly. 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 evade me or call the police. And that’s completely reasonable. Hell, I’m pretty sure Steve isn’t even your real name. 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, Steve?”
Burt choked on his drink.
“Steve, 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 babies in your ale. These things are beautiful, Steve. 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, eh, Steve?”
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, evading capture by the police. It’s cold, and it’s tiring, but moments like this make it all worthwhile. Here, let me pour one more out for you, Steve.”
Leslie grabbed the ale bottle by the neck, slowly pouring its contents onto Burt’s seizing body.
“Look on the bright side, Steve. if you had a family, at least they won’t find your mangled body.”