The Shape of Us: 14 The Stranger

This is the last episode in, what should we call it? Volume One? Series One? I’m not quite sure. What I do know is that I hope you enjoyed the story this far. I’ll be compiling these episodes into an book with a few bonus stories added. So check back for that. The next volume/series will start after New Year. In the meantime, read on.

Arnie busied himself at the end of the bar, watching the customer out of the corner of his eye. He was a stranger, but that wasn’t unusual for a place on a state road. He was quiet, with an aura that bartenders understood to mean no chatter. Arnold thought the man was familiar though, just in the face, maybe just the profile. He’d lay money down that he’s served up a beer for a relative. A lot of people from all over made their way into Bar 422.

“Arn, can I get some jalapeño poppers,” said a customer at his ear. 

“Sure, Richard. I’ll tell Sandy in the back.” Arnie leaned in and took a quick glance over the postman’s shoulder. “How’s the date going?”

Richard smiled and nodded. “Good, good. She’s a civil servant, like me. We’re getting along by complaining about bureaucracy.”

Arnie laughed and patted his friend on the shoulder. “Good luck, man.” He called back through a small window cut in the wall between the vodka and whiskey. “Sandy, an order of poppers please.”

“Coming up.”

Arnie glanced back down at the stranger. He was scrolling through his phone with one hand, the other tight around his bottle of beer. “He look familiar to you?” he whispered to Richard. “You know everyone around here, same as I. Doesn’t he look familiar?” He waited, knowing Richard to be a thoughtful man. Not wanting to be caught staring, occupied himself by flipping through last night’s receipts. The man never noticed their stares. His phone held all his attention.

“You know there is some…”

“Hi, sorry.” Richard’s date approached the bar, interrupting them. “Where’s the ladies’ room?”

Arnie pointed to a door near the back with a cartoon cocktail sign. “There you go.”

“Thanks. Oh, I’m Grace.” She shook his hand. “Richard says you two go back a ways.”

“Yeah, back to high school, but those days are best forgotten now.”

Richard laughed. “Not all of them, surely.”

Grace put a hand on his arm and leaned close. “I’ll be right back. I didn’t want you to think I ran away.” Arnie saw the change in Richard’s face and was glad of it. His friend had been alone too long, and maybe this girl would be good for him. Richard noticed his friend’s grin. 

“You shut it now.”

Arnie laughed. “I’m just happy for you, guy. She seems nice. She at the post office like you?”

Richard shook his head. “No, animal control. She’s got this great story about…”

“Hey pal?”

Richard fell silent and Arnie registered a presence behind him. He turned to see the stranger leaning on the bar, close to his shoulder. Arnie took a step back, making space for his surprise. He felt like he’d been caught as if his previous curiosity showed all over his face and the stranger wanted to express his displeasure. The man still held his phone in his right hand and Arnie could see the map app open. He quickly moved into bartender mode. “Hi to you, pal. You need another beer?”

The man stared at him. His face was leathery, the kind you see on men who spend their youth working outside. A long scar traced the left side of his face from his temple disappearing into a reddish-brown beard. His hair was more grey than red and his eyes…Arnie blinked. The man’s eyes were two different colors. 

“It’s aniscoria, like David Bowie,” the man said in a rehearsed tone. “Eyes are the same color, one pupil stays open wider than the other.” He squinted at Arnie. “Surprised you could tell in a dimly lit place like this.”

Arnie didn’t know what to say and thought looking over at Richard would make him seem weak. So he plunged forward. “Sorry, man, didn’t mean to notice.”

The man nodded. “Can’t help noticing things. It’s instinct. Part of the predator pack, you see.” He watched Arnie for a moment and still the bartender was at a loss. The customer visibly relaxed.

“Anyway,” the man continued, pointing at his eye, “got this and this,” pointing at his scar “on the same day. So now I’m distinct.” The man smiled and even in a dimly lit place like this, Arnie could see that there was something off about the man’s teeth. He heard Richard take in a short breath and hold it. He’d noticed them too.

“I’m trying to get back into the countryside, out near Fullton. Will this road,” and he pointed out the window to Route 422, “take me close?”

A quick burst of recognition flashed in Arnie’s mind and before he could grab it his fear pushed an answer out of his mouth. “Oh yeah. If you take a left out of the lot and head north, you’ll get to Fullton in about 30 minutes.” Arnie punched up the energy in his answer, trying to create a pathway for this customer to get the fuck out of his bar forever.

“Sure thing,” he continued. “The road between here and there is a nice drive, too. No construction right now, which is unusual. You’re in luck.” 

“Oh?” the man said, looking down at his phone. “Oh that’s good.”

Arnie felt like he was piling it on thick, but the man didn’t seem to notice. He looked uncomfortable, as if he wasn’t used to such a friendly manner. Arnie felt a bit sorry for him. Then he remembered that smile and those teeth. 

He heard the door to the ladies room creak open and saw the man’s eyes move from him to the approaching Grace. The stranger sniffed the air, not in a “pardon me I have allergies” kind of way, but a “I have caught the scent of my next meal” kind of way. Arnie moved to stand in between them but only succeeded in leaning upon the bar. He heard Richard shift.

The man nodded. “Pardon me,” he said. “I have allergies.” He paused. “Thanks.”

The group watched him leave, Arnie especially thankful that Grace said nothing. She seemed to be able to read the room and the trio didn’t look at each other until the man’s motorcycle turned left out of the lot, apparently headed for Fullton. 

“What the hell was that?” Arnie said, turning around. The look of fear on Richard’s face startled him, but Grace’s face was lit up like a carnival.

“Oh. My. God!” she said, waving a frantic hand toward the door. “That guy, he looked like my guy,” she said, smacking Richard on the shoulder. Arnie gave her a confused look, but Richard slowly understood. 

“No.”

“Yes! Like an older version of that guy.”

Arnie turned his back on the empty bar and the window out to the world. “What do you mean?”

Richard laughed. “She has this crazy story…” 

Grace smacked his arm again. “I know it’s crazy, but I still…”

As the sun cast a long last look on the Pennsylvania countryside, Arnie listened to a crazy story about a Doberman and a tall man. The trio huddled together listening and laughing and occasionally shouting in disbelief. The road outside lay empty, save for the salmon-colored glow peeking over the walnut grove. The sensor that controlled the neon “Bar 422” sign took notice of the glow and flicked a switch. A lone motorcycle rolled into the parking lot. No one saw it glide past the front window on its way to the back. The light inside dimmed further.

“Poppers up,” called Sandy from the kitchen.

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