Charlie had taken the early shift, preferring the long hours of prep work before the bar opened to staying at home by himself. He kept his hands busy and his mind blank by throwing himself into the prep work. This place had a long inventory of tasks necessary for a mid-end bar to keep their one hundred percent cleanliness rating. Glassware accounted for…he didn’t think about her. Fruit and other accoutrements chopped…he refused to think about her. Then dumping out the American Eagle butts from the ashtrays outside…her favorite brand of cig- no, he refused to think about Jessica.
Charlie was a thin five foot eight, with slightly too long arms and legs and a high forehead under straight blond hair. He believed his thin lips and sharp chin made him ugly and, as few lovers mentioned his looks as any motive, he went right on believing it. His brown eyes held imagination and he longed to live off of it, but there was never any money to go to college.
When he can open up at six and the regulars and hopefuls start to file in, Charlie relaxes. The primary stream of customers means a torrent of work, but Charlie delights in the company. He remembers to greet as many as he can by name, asking them how they are, offering them a beer or favorite mix drink. The Cheers-Treatment, the owner, Miguel, calls it. Charlie wasn’t the most charming of people, but he was genuinely interested in others, their interests, and their drama. He was often told he was too trusting, and as of late, he would probably be inclined to agree. Charlie didn’t like feeling suspicious. He preferred to deal openly and honestly, unless brooding, and assumed others were as well.
This proved a risky policy from time to time.
Stu started his shift at eight and Charlie was relieved, at least figuratively. The job went much faster with two behind the bar, both in that the work was done with more alacrity and the chatter passed the time. Charlie and Stu got on famously, which is to say that their friendship was not lacking in controversy and gloss. When Charlie was in need of housing, Stu insisted his roommates take the kid in without any references or research. Charlie did not recognize the risk his friend had assumed until resentment had formed. When Charlie realized his thoughtlessness he threw himself in to the friendship, taking care to get to know Stu whenever he was welcome to and Charlie never allowed an opportunity to prove his appreciation for his friend to pass. The burly and bald Stu, with his thick Van Dyke beard and Hebrew tattoos, was juxtaposed by Charlie’s thin, conservative look. The patrons of the bar often called them “Peabody and Duke”, but never to their faces.
“A’right, Charlie. It’s ‘bout ten. Clock out and leave ‘em to me.” Commanded the larger man, after they had finished a distracting round of “Why you wouldn’t like Stu’s mom”. Charlie frowned, not looking forward to the walk home, much less what he would find there, which is to say nothing.
“I think, I’ll stay here, at least until midnight.” Countered Charlie. “I like this place.”
“Yeah, sure. Just stay out of my way.” Stu replied, as he pushed his friend toward the break in the bar. Charlie allowed himself to be pushed, washed up, clocked out, and collected his tips. He had enough now to pay to send the last box of Jessica’s things, thank god. Trying not to get dragged down, he stretched sore muscles and rubbed absent mindedly at the dark bruises under his shirt. Finding the lone empty seat next to a morose career drunk, Charlie sat at the edge of the bar and looked out over the thirsty.
His scanning fixated on those who were out of place, only two newcomers tonight. One was a tall, severe looking woman, sitting in a corner by herself, looking out over the crowd just as intently as Charlie. She was wearing her brown leather jacket, despite the heat of the room and spun a coin on the table with both hands as she sat vigil over the bar, as serious as a lifeguard. Her hair was short and black, kept in ponytail, and her face hinted at a happy past, despite her intensity and a nasty scar. She turned away prospective hopefuls with few words, never looking angry or frustrated. Her unusual demeanor was eclipsed only by the other visitor to this neighborhood establishment.
The other visitor slid into Charlie’s view with all the grace of coming night, her gaze finding his and holding it with eyes so dark and blue they could have hidden and ocean’s depth. Though he had seen her drift from group to group with a relaxed air, she now was all focus as she made a bee line to Charlie. The drinker to Charlie’s right slipped from the stool and found somewhere else to mope just in time for her to take his place, never pausing.
“And how a lad as you can be alone?” She purred in a mix of Irish and English tilt that confused Charlie’s ear “on this a night for drink and revelry? You have not heard it is Valentine’s night? A fit young man should not be lonely now…”
“Uhhhh….” Fumbled Charlie, his moody staring interrupted by her intense bearing. She was, he realized, enchantingly beautiful. Her long, raven black hair was curly at the tips, and draped her shoulders and back like a hood. Her skin was as unmarred as a cosmetics model’s, and she had ample curves about her thin frame to match. The violet evening dress wrapped around her was topped with what Charlie could not imagine to be real fur, from something black and used to the tundra. Her lips were full and naturally red, like mistletoe berries. And her bearing was more than the sum of her aspects; she carried herself with all the confidence of Jessica-
“What better compliment can I receive, than to make a man mumble, fret, and blush?” She laughed deeply, her purple nailed fingertips, sliding up his arm. Realizing he WAS blushing, Charlie used the blind passion of his embarrassment to project words past his sluggish tongue.
“I-I’m Charlie.” He said, trying to get a handle on the situation. “You’re very sweet, but I had not realized it was V-Day, and I don’t really want to dwell on that now. I have other…things to think about, work on, I mean. I was just going home, actually.” He said, finding her forwardness unsettling. He had been told by his older sister years ago that you should never touch a potential date when you first meet, as it was possessive and often threatening. Now he saw what they meant.
“You’ll Call me Mabel, Charlie, yes, let’s go.” She slunk down from the stool and offered him her arm. “I’ve had a bit too much to drink tonight. My bus stop lies along Washington Square. You would not mind helping me safely there?”
A patron too inebriated to get home was a problem Charlie was wont to see solved. He had sold her the alcohol, after all, though he could not remember her ordering anything. Well, women of her charms didn’t need to, he reasoned, and her bus stop was on his way back to the apartment. So that was all right.
“Ok, I’d rather not be alone with my thoughts anyway-“ He began, placing his arm around Mabel’s as he hopped off
“It’s done. We’ll go now.” She replied, cutting him off and pulling him towards the door. Charlie corrected himself. Mabel wasn’t confident. She was a force of nature.
“I’ve gotten this, our sorry comp’ny, lost.” Mabel moaned in a not-all-that-apologetic tone as she turned to give him a jaunty pout.
“Well, yes. I tried to tell you, we didn’t have to turn right back there…” Charlie murmured. Mabel had spent the last ten minutes prompting him with questions on every aspect of his life, listening like a confessor to everything but his suggested directions.
“We’ll cut through sylvan park to correct course.” Mabel exclaimed, turning them both to the left and walking out into the street, completely ignoring the slowing oncoming traffic.
“Oh….kay.” struggled Charlie, as he tried to signal an apology to a car that had slowed not to hit them. There was no traffic in the reverse lane, and they stormed the sidewalk, arm and arm. Soon they had slipped into the shadowy evergreen park that was Washington Square. “Let’s find the path, off to our left, I think? It’s barely lit and don’t want either of us to turn an ankle.” Charlie protested.
“Oh Charlie, you are safe here close to me.” Mabel said, her fingers stroking his arm that was held fast in the grip of her opposite hand. “Now come this way, with me, back to my home.”
Before he could object, she turned toward him, her back to their now uncertain destination. Mabel’s eyes seemed to be purple in the soft reflected glow of the streetlights through the trees. Her hands found his and she clasped them together, bringing them to rest on the top of her sternum. This pulled him even closer to her, and he found her breath to be quiet, but no less warm. Mabel seemed to be the only bit of warmth in the chill February night, and he found himself leaning in to her against the crisp air. Mabel’s eyes on his, she began to speak with purpose.
“Oh Charlie, do say you’ll come home with me? Only, I…can give you convalescence. I know your heart aches from the pain of her, I promise to listen, or more, say yes?” Mabel’s eyes, not pleading but captivating, grew so purple now that her irises slipped into nothing, and Charlie found he could not look away. The thought of having the complete attention of someone so beautiful, if not gentle, was intoxicating. Her mouth was bent in a self-assured crescent moon of a smile. Her stare was an unimaginable promise. Her eyes….Mabel’s eyes…
“Yes.” He relented. “Yes, I’ll go with you.”
“Ah, good” Her smile deepened, and she leaned in to bring their lips so very close “You chose well, I please my pets –URK!” Mabel’s expression snapped in to the anger of pain and she thrust Charlie from her, to crash painfully into the side of a tree. The sound of the wind forced from his lungs was many more times less composed than her own cry.
When the spots stopped dancing from Charlie’s eyes, he saw that area around them lit in an eerie azure glow. Snow was, inexplicably, spread around in pastoral perfection. The trees were far more twisted than he had remembered them being, the sounds of traffic now absent. Confused, he focused on the familiar sight of Mabel, now taller, her arms bending back impossibly to grapple with the severe looking woman from the bar. The woman had a black and wicked looking dagger in both hands, the end of which was thrust deep in to Mabel’s shoulder. The latter pulled the tall woman completely over her head, throwing her before her with all the agility of a tiger. The knife came with the attacker, who landed expertly with a twist of her body.
“You! And your clever little iron blade…I should have killed you in New Amsterdam!” Cried Mabel, her hands weaving a complex pattern before her. No care was shown at all to the too-dark blood that rushed from behind her shoulder, nor for the fact that the medievally armed woman had began to close in once more.
“Its name is New York and yours is Mab, the knowledge of which makes me closer to your equa-!“ The woman was silenced as branches from the surrounding trees knocked aside her dagger and apprehended her. Their sinewy boughs could were more like pincers than anything dexterous, and Charlie could see from her expression that the woman was being crushed.
“Yes, Closer to, but not my equal yet.” Laughed the more-than-Mabel, “Your arrogance in striking in my realm will spell your end, your bones my trolls shall gnaw.” Her arms movements became more fluid now, and the branches began to grown with tension. The woman groaned but denied her torturer a scream, choosing instead to glare fully into her eyes.
“Mab?” Pondered Charlie, the name striking some memory from Honors English class ten years ago. Upon uttering the single syllable, his sight solidified and felt both warmth and health returning to his aching body. He did not understand the context of this mad scene, but Charlie’s intuition prodded him to reach out and grasp the ugly iron blade. He stood up and, seeing the woman’s hand open toward him, Charlie tossed the weapon to her. Her hand closed around it as Charlie spoke up, hoping to distract.
“Mab…el. Mabel. I’ve decided…not to go home with you. Thank you, tho-“
“As if that choice has meaning now, you fool! Within my home, your assent has brought us!” sneered Mab. “Your body is now mine to stroke or break. I’ll punish you, first, for your insolence!”
She loomed toward him, raising one hand, fingers bent into claws. But before she could deliver the blow, the severe looking woman drove her dagger deep into Mab’s neck. Behind the assassin settled the twisted evergreen branches, their cut edges dissipating like burning paper. Mabel…no, Mab seemed to be as susceptible to the iron blade as the bark of her verdant minions, and she fell, weakly pawing at her bleeding neck.
The woman clasped Charlie’s hand and pulled him back the way he thought they had come. They ran through woodded expanses too large for a one by two block park.
“You killed her!” He exclaimed. More surprised than judgmental.
“Nope! Just gave us what I hope will be a sufficient head start. I’ve delivered her and her kin worse wounds than that before, but we’ll be fine as long as we focus on where we want to go. Don’t get distract…ed….uh…” The woman was forced to stop when Charlie did. Though strong, she could not pull him by the wrist. Charlie found he could not take another step…why would he want to, if it meant getting closer to…
“Jessica…” He murmured, naming the apparition that had drifted to block their way. She was Jessica, she had to be. Charlie knew every detail of her face, the set of her stance. She even had a very Jessica- like smirk on her face, the kind she adopted whenever Charlie tried to explain why she had gone too far. The smirk said it all, that there was nothing to be said. Jessica never felt she owed Charlie an explanation, but was always amused that he thought so.
“Charlie…” the Jessica crooned musically. She took a step toward him and he flinched, retreating so much as to break the warrior woman’s shocked hold on his wrist. “Charlie, don’t leave. I forgive you for throwing me out. I won’t hit you again, I promise. Your mine, I’m yours. You know how it goes. Aren’t you in love with me?”
“Yes- no…I shouldn’t be.” Charlie stammered.
“Don’t let it get to you, whatever it is you see.” Ordered the woman. Her tone softened, as she looked behind them, offering advice. “These woods are a phantasm of Mab’s making, her tricks can’t hurt you, if you do not let them.”
“That’s right, Charlie,” Murmured the Jessica. “I won’t hurt you. I love you. You wouldn’t make me hurt you, would you?” She took another step toward them and the pain Charlie felt was much more real than that which left the bruise under his shirt. But he did not back up any further.
“No, I won’t LET you hurt me.” Charlie hissed through ground teeth. “Fuck. Off.” The maybe-Jessica gave him a cold look at that, and strode toward him, raising her hand. Breathing deeply, he grasped for his companion and walked up to meet Jessica, who struck at him with all her might.
Charlie didn’t flinch, but pushed past, no THROUGH her, and he and the woman started running when the apparition dissipated before the phantom blow could land. That Charlie’s heart was racing had nothing to do with their accelerating pace.
The woman was murmuring in what could have been Gaelic as they hit a thick wall of brush. Small branches whipped at their face and bodies. Charlie thought he felt cold, sharp fingernails suddenly rake his shoulder. Just as suddenly, they burst from the tree line on to the sidewalk, scaring a small Scottish terrier that quickly bolted from its owner. The woman, still holding Charlie’s hand crossed the deserted street. They were followed only by the dog owner’s curses.
“Are you alright?” Asked the woman, when they came to a halt on the other side.
“Yeah….a little beat up. Thank you, for saving me, I mean. I did not know what I was getting in to.” Charlie exclaimed, breathing heavily
“As was her design. Her victims rarely realize they are agreeing to be snatched off to faerie.”
“Faerie? No, fuck it, Faerie, why not? So you…”
“I’m Rose, I do this professionally. It’s nice to meet you, Charlie.”
“You know me? Of course, you do your research-“
“No, nothing like that, I just followed her. Your name is on your employee tag.” Rose said, pointing down at his shirt. “Do you have a first aid kit at home?”
“Then, may we go there? We are both scratched up, and your shoulder needs bandaging.” At this, Charlie felt where he had been scratched.
“Did she leave any…bad things?” He asked nervously.
“No…but you’ll see things now. I do.” She indicated her facial scar. “That first aid kit. I understand if, after that, you don’t want to invite a stranger in to your house…”
“No...” decided Charlie. “You’re welcome to come back with me. We’ll get cleaned up, and you can spend the night. I’ll sleep on the couch.”