The first thing I realized as I stepped out onto the busy nighttime streets was that I didn’t really have a destination or goal in mind. I stood in place in the middle of the sidewalk, trying to decide if I was hungry or just bored. Story of my life. I took a few steps in the direction the crowds were flowing a melted in with them, let the flow of passers-by pass me by. They moved with such energy, I could feel it thrum through me. The city had a pulse tonight and I was tapped into it on a strangely primal level.
I let the flow of people carry me along while my mind wandered, awaiting inspiration. My gaze drifted up to the towers of concrete and steel that rose up into the night sky, whose glass windows made the reflections of millions of street signs and headlights indistinguishable from the stars above. There really was nothing quite like a bustling city lit up at night. It was like a living snapshot of all we as a people had accomplished on our unending march to the future—
“Hey! You’re holding up the line!”
A sharp shove to my shoulder jostled me back into the mundane drudgery of the streets. I saw that I had somehow found myself to the front of the line at a hamburger stand, with a dozen or so hungry and increasingly grumpy city folk shuffling around behind me.
“Come on, order or get out of the line!”
I stepped up to the stand and surveyed the menu. The man behind the stand looked at me impatiently, his thick mustache twitching. Time was money, and I seemed to be wasting his. Time for a decision, stomach. My stomach responded with an indifferent shrug. I concluded I wasn’t hungry, just bored. Greasy food could wait. I stepped out of line and started down the street, ignoring the angry jeers of the people still in line.
I found my way back into the crowds, my mind once again jumping over the fence of discipline and running loose down the streets of imagination. I often wondered why I chose to live in a city, especially one as large as this one. I could do my job from anywhere with computer access. My apartment rent was hilariously overpriced. I couldn’t remember the last time I had called up a friend to go get a drink. And I the last family I had was half a continent away. But every time I stepped out and lost myself in a crowd on the move, it was like I was touching a groove of collective thought that did wonders for my writing. Others did yoga or meditated, so I supposed this was my version of it. I sometimes pictured it like I was part of the blood flowing through some wonderful, massive beast. It was the only time I felt truly connected to my fellow peoples.
I had no idea how long I wandered and wondered through the sea of humanity. Eventually, I was tossed ashore again, so to speak. Or more accurately, I was rudely shoved out of the crowd and found myself at the entrance to a rather damp and soiled alley. Halfway down the alleyway there was a blinking sign of red neon that read ‘Here’. Where the hell was I? I’d never heard of such a place. I shrugged and decided to check it out. After all, what was the worst that could happen? Aside from being jumped, mugged, stabbed, or any of the other hazards city dwellers the world over weathered on a nightly basis. I gingerly stepped around piles of trashbags, overturned trashcans, and feral trashcats as I approached the glowing beacon of red light. I saw it was hanging from the brick above a solid looking wooden door with an eye slat. I raised my hand to knock, but paused when I heard sounds from inside. It sounded like music, of a sort. But not the throbbing bass beat I normally associated with back alley clubs. I distinctly heard the sound of a guitar and tambourine. That was intriguing. I rapped smartly on the door and waited. No response. I knocked again and tried the eye slat. No response and the slat was sealed. I decided that this must be one of those private places, one where you could only get in if you knew someone who was a member, or some pretentious nonsense like that. Whatever, I’d find something else to get into—
The door swung open and a fellow with immaculately combed hair and a wild, bushy beard poked his head out.
“Ah, I thought I heard someone out here knocking.”
“Uh, hi.” I wasn’t sure what to say here. Was he a bouncer, a member, or someone else? Should I ask to come in or just take my business elsewhere? I shuffled nervously.
The man noticed my flighty posture and smiled knowingly. “Lost, huh? Come on in.” He held the door open.
I took a step, but paused. “Wait, what is this place?” As curious as I was, I didn’t want to find myself being led into some mafia gambling club or weird cult or something. Then again, if this was either of those places, I doubted they would just come out and tell me.
“This is Here,” he said. “It’s a refuge for likeminded people to gather and find inspiration together.”
“Ah.” This was still sounding like a cult to me.
He blinked, his smile faltering. “It’s a bar. People hang out here. Perform here. Dream up ideas here.”
That sounded a bit better. I was in desperate need of ideas, that was for sure. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to pop in and take a look. I reached for the door.
The man’s smile returned. He welcomed me in with a handshake and a clap on the arm. “Awesome, man. You’ll love it in here.”
He led me through a dark entryway and into a large windowless room, decorated with colored lights, tables, chairs, and plushy couches occupied to the last with excited customers. Works of post-modern art were thrown up onto the walls in a seemingly haphazard fashion, though I guessed it was meant to be purposeful, like the arrangement itself was the true art. The place was much quieter than I would have expected from the amount of people I saw. Most conversations were low murmurs or excited whispers. Then I heard the tambourine again and realized they were just being respectful to whoever was performing on stage.
The man nudged my arm. “Digging it?”
I wasn’t used to terms like that and answered lamely before I could stop myself. “Digging what?”
“It, man. It.”
Was this guy being intentionally vague? How could anyone stand to talk like this on a normal basis? I looked around, hoping to see if there was some obvious answer. “What is ‘it’?”
He pointed toward the performers on stage. I could see a tall fellow, dressed in clashing jeans and a business jacket, with a red scarf around his neck. He held a tambourine and banged it periodically, a look of rapturous intensity in his eyes as they swept the crowd. Behind him, half hidden from view from where I was standing, was a thing woman sitting on a chair, acoustic guitar in hand. She was dressed all in black, but also had a matching red scarf. Her hair was long and dark. Her face looked like a tambourine… at least until the other performer took a step to the side, revealing her actual face. She caught my eye for a moment as she took a breath before starting to… well, it wasn’t quite singing. I supposed it was more like she was speaking in a cadence, like reciting poetry. The only thing about it, though, was I couldn’t make out a thing she said. It was beautiful sounding, sure, but it sounded almost like she was speaking another language. Her gaze stayed on mine for a moment, and I’d like to say there was something profound that occurred. Something like my heart skipping a beat or sparks of attraction flaring. But nothing like that happened. She flicked her eyes elsewhere, and part of me wondered if it was me she had been looking at in the first place.
“Well?” The man beside me asked.
I had forgotten about him. “Oh. Yeah. Interesting stuff. Very…” I searched for the perfect term, “uh, avant-garde.”
He nodded approvingly, stroking his magnificent beard.
I leaned over, keeping my eyes on the stage. “So… what is it exactly that they’re doing?”
He chuckled. “Whatever they want. We try to encourage people to get up there and share whatever has been burning at their soul.”
The performers finished the song/poem to a smatter of appreciative applause. I guessed this must have been their last piece, as the two gave a small wave of thanks to the crowd before exiting the stage. The woman looked over again and gave a nod. The man beside me nodded back.
“What’s your name, brother?”
I had completely forgotten to introduce myself. I felt like an asshole. “Oh, sorry. I’m Johnny.”
“Johnny, huh? Alright, sit tight.” He clapped my shoulder for the second time that evening, then went off to join the two performers as they disappeared into the crowd.
So, it was going to be like that, eh? Fine. I considered leaving. I had an article to write and crunch time was starting to bear down on me. But I still had no story. I sighed and flagged down the bartender for a drink. It was like my creative engine was burnt out. Every week I somehow managed to come up with something and put together quality content for Eugene’s website, and every week I went through this same problem. I always managed it, in the end. This time, though… I took a swig of my drink, not even remembering the bartender dropping it off. This time I wasn’t so confident I’d be able to pull that magic rabbit out of my ass by the due date, like before. And Eugene had sounded a bit more stressed about my deadline pushing than usual…
“Oy!” I looked over to see the bearded man waving at me from beside a table in the back of the room. The woman from the stage was seated there, her partner nowhere to be seen, and she saying something to the bearded man as he gestured for me to join them. “Come on over, man, grab your drink!”
I shrugged, previous concerns fading away. Why not? They both watched me intently as I picked my way through the crowd, trying not to spill my drink. I felt oddly self-conscious and had to actively watch where my feet were going, but I made it there in one piece.
“Hey, man!” The bearded man greeted loudly. He slapped my shoulder, causing my carefully protected drink to slosh out. He didn’t seem to notice. “Have a seat.”
The woman’s face was unreadable, I couldn’t tell if this was her idea or the bearded guy’s, or if she was even okay with it at all. “Yeah, alright.” I sat carefully, waiting for the woman to say something about this interloper joining the table.
She quirked up the side of her mouth, then addressed the bearded man instead in a light Irish accent. “Thanks, Beanbag. We’re good now.”
The bearded man, Beanbag I assumed, grinned. “Great! Let me know if you two need anything.” He spotted the male performer over at the side of the stage and left to go socialize with him.
I was now alone with her, and I had no idea what to say. “So… Beanbag, huh?”
She smiled again. “Yeah. Good guy. Owns the place.”
I couldn’t stop my jaw from dropping. “Who, him? He seems so…” I struggled to find a word that was accurate but still polite.
“Out there?” She offered.
Well, it was better than what I was going to say. “Yeah,” I agreed. “I’m assuming he wasn’t born with that name. Right?”
“With parents like his, it’s a distinct possibility,” she said. “But no, it’s because he’s really into that game where you bounce little sack of beans off your knees and elbows.”
I knew the one she spoke of. I hadn’t ever seen anyone out of their teens ever playing it, but who was I to judge what someone did in their free time? “He must really love it. Is he any good?”
“No, he’s dreadful.” She shook her head. “Absolutely dreadful.”
I nodded. “Ah, that’s a shame.” There didn’t really seem to be anything more to say on the subject.
She squared her shoulders. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked him to bring you over here.”
I blinked. “I didn’t really know who wanted me to come over. I guess I thought he had just gone to chat you up after your performance. Which was really good, by the way.” I added quickly.
She looked me up and down, eyebrow raised. “Oh, do you have an ear for poetry?”
I met her eyes, blue and brilliant now that I was only a few feet away and could properly appreciate them, and noted that her tone of voice had contained a note of challenge to it. I realized I was now facing a choice. In the past, this would have been the cue to summon my incredible talent for fabrication and charm my way into her heart. Or pants. Past results with other women had included both, much to my short term pleasure. However, the girls always ended up leaving after eventually seeing the charm for what it really was. Bullshit. Much to my long term detriment. Her eyes flashed and I had a horribly unsettling feeling in my brain that I could only describe as someone shining a giant spotlight down on my thoughts. Maybe bullshit wasn’t the way to go here…
“I don’t,” I confessed. “I’ll be honest, I actually couldn’t even understand a word you were saying up there. But it sounded beautiful and you had mine and everyone else’s attention.”
She didn’t respond for a moment. Was she turned off by my admission of ignorance? Should I have gone for confident bullshit? She reached over and took my glass in her hand, studying the contents closely. “It was Gaelic.”
Now, I know she didn’t say ‘garlic’, but it was the only word I’d heard that matched what she said. I got a sense of touchiness about the subject and decided that making any jokes about garlic would not be appreciated here. I decided that sticking with an honest lack of knowledge would be the most diplomatic way to go. “I’ve never heard of that. I assume it’s another language?”
Her eyes focused on mine through the liquid filled glass in her hand. “It is. And more.” Was she being intentionally vague to draw me in for more questions, or was she being terse and wanting me to drop the subject?
A faint rumbling shook the building and the lights flickered. Everyone froze in place, someone yelped in surprise as a glass dropped to the floor. The lights came back on and people started moving around again, sharing nervous laughter with each other.
The woman acted as if she hadn’t noticed anything awry just happen.
“Must be storming outside,” I said. “Weird though, because it was a clear night when I came in just a bit ago.”
She down the contents of my glass in one go. I hadn’t even had a chance to get drunk off that yet. She set down the empty glass and leaned forward. “Let me see your eyes.”
That wasn’t a request I was prepared to hear. But to my surprise, I found myself obeying. Her blue orbs held mine and I felt a bit of a spark. Not like a romantic one or anything, but more like a literal one. Like a charge of static electricity zipped through me. The lights dimmed around us, and the rest of the bar grew blurry. The sounds of people around us quieted to a dull roar, like I was hearing them from underwater. What the hell was going on? I hadn’t drank nearly enough to start blacking out, and I didn’t think I had been drugged… As the shadows strengthened around us, I saw her hair blending into the darkness and her pale face, still so clear in my vision, took on a disturbing skull-like quality. In her sunken eye sockets, her eyes flared bright, glowing with intensity. I tried to shake my head, to clear it all away. Maybe I had been drugged somehow? But my muscles no longer heeded my call.
The woman spoke. I don’t remember what words she said, or honestly if she even used words.
I answered in the same way she had asked. Whatever it was I said was gone from my mind immediately after they were thought.
The skull with the flaming eyes held my very soul in its regard and then let go.
I blinked and then found myself looking once again at the face of a normal, beautiful woman, surrounded by the noise of people in a back alley art bar. The hair on my arms was raised and I could see goosebumps all over my skin. My head swam, like I had just awakened from a dream that fled memory the moment is was recalled. Maybe I needed a break from work. From the city. Eugene would probably go into conniptions if one of his writers failed to meet the deadline, but clearly I was in need of some rest. Something was up tonight, and I wasn’t entirely sure it was all in my head.
“Are you alright, Johnny?” I found that my hand had somehow ended up across the table and was now in hers. Her thumb caressed the side of mine. I felt a thrill go through me.
I swallowed. “Yeah, I’m…” Wait, how did she know my name? I never told her. Maybe Beanbag had mentioned it to her. Yeah, that had to be it. But I still didn’t know hers. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I ever caught your name.”
The side of her mouth quirked up again. “It’s Lilly.” She stood, still holding my hand in hers and gave a light tug. “Come on, Johnny. Let’s go have some fun while we still can.”