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The Old Scratching Post

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“No, I don’t feel up to it,” I said to Dave for the sixth time that day.

“C’mon, you’re not gonna flake out on us are you? It’s Halloween! We always go out!” he retorted.

He kept after me for another hour until I finally was worn down enough to agree. Dave and Jay were going to take me out to a dive bar in the country called “The Old Scratching Post” that they’d recently heard about. It was famous for its unusual closing time of 6:00 AM. Our goal was to drink until the bar closed and then sleep it off in Dave’s van before driving home.

We left my house at 8:00 PM sharp and drove out of town. We drove around eight miles before turning left onto a gravel road riddled with potholes. The dark trees hanging over it seemed to create a tunnel that led us farther and farther away from all civilization. Dave was behind the wheel while Jay and I sat in the back seat swigging beers and passing a joint back and forth. The radio alternated between heavy metal and static, eventually fading completely into mind-numbing white noise as we got farther from town. Turning down the radio, Dave suggested we start entertaining ourselves with a few ghost stories. He started with a local urban legend revolving around an escaped convict with a hook for a hand. I followed with a personal story about a haunted house I’d lived in as a teenager. Then Jay spoke up.

“I lived in a haunted house as well. It was a beautiful old town house just outside of town. From the first day we walked in we started finding scorpions everywhere. The exterminators couldn’t get rid of the things, nothing we did helped. To top it all off, a few weeks in we start hearing noises, like whispering inside the walls. Doors slammed shut on their own, and the scorpions multiplied. My parents put me in the basement room, I hated that place. It always felt like I was being watched. Finally one night I woke up to my bed shaking violently. Terrified, I jumped out of bed and started to run upstairs. But then I stopped.”

Jay’s voice dropped into a hushed tone. “In the doorway of my room stood a seven foot tall shadow figure. I could tell it was watching me when it raised its long inky fingers toward me.” His voice dropped lower, speaking now in a whisper, “It took a step forward. Then another.” Jay had lowered his voice now so that it was barely audible. “It stood right in front of me and then it spoke.”

“What did it say?” I asked, my ear nearly touching Jay’s lips.

“APPLESAUCE!” Jay screamed at the top of his lungs in a high pitched wail.

Dave nearly swerved off the road and I slammed my head into the window and jerked back so fast. Jay laughed at our expense and we progressed in silence as the thick darkness surrounded us, barely broken by the dim yellow lights of our vehicle. Suddenly, the radio static gave way to a weather broadcast. The unexpected voice that crackled through the speakers in the van made us all jump. It predicted severe thunderstorms to come between two and four in the morning, lasting well after noon. We turned into the gravel and dirt parking lot and I saw the bar for the first time. The old wooden building was covered in holes and dry rot, shutters hung on a single hinge in the front, and the patio was completely caved in.

It looked like a real deathtrap. The front entrance had been boarded over with a couple pieces of plywood. Instead, we carefully picked our way to the side of the building where a dimly-lit stone path led to what looked like a cheaply painted house door. Above the door hung the only sign on the premises, a single battered steel sign with black, hand-painted lettering that read “BAR”. A flickering light hung above it, just a naked bulb in a socket. Laughing to myself, I followed Dave and Jay inside. The interior was dim and smoky. I could just make out a single pool table sitting unused near a neon-colored jukebox which wailed “Crossroad Blues” by Robert Johnston on repeat. The bar was a piece of old, scratched wood that might have been cherry, with a carved top, and stools with thick leather padding squatted in front of it.

There were few patrons situated around the bar, each sitting silently and staring into their respective drinks. Through the smoke-filled atmosphere, the faces of these customers seemed to contort and writhe in pain and misery as shadows danced across them. I thought it was strange that these people would be so quiet and still, but kept my concern to myself, chalking it up to residual discomfort from the stories we had been telling. The bartender, a rather attractive blond man with piercing blue eyes, took our order as we sat down.

Something about his confidence and demeanor made me feel like he was my friend from the moment he turned towards me. He stood behind the bar working his rag with one hand and twisting a squeaking pint glass with the other. He was partial to old world blues, citing a collection of songs from blues artists from the civil-war era. His favorite sport was baseball, an avid fan of the Yankees. Everything he said came through a crooked smile that made him seem as if he were perpetually enjoying some inside joke.

After four or five beers, I excused myself to the restroom. The tile was peeling from the floor and the fixtures on the stalls and toilets were lumps of grime-covered corrosion. The stink of unwashed messes alone made my eyes water. The room was hot and stuffy, and within seconds I had started to sweat. I finished my business and walked back into the bar proper.

Instantly, I could tell something was different. The patrons were talking in hushed tones and beginning to become more animated. Returning to my seat, I noticed Dave and Jay were gone.

“Did you see where the guys went?” I asked the bartender.

“They went out for some air,” he responded with that smile of his.

I walked over to a dust-caked window in a shadowy nook and tried to wipe a spot big enough to look through. My stomach sank as I watched our van turning into the intersection and speeding away. I could imagine their howls of laughter. I’m sure they thought they were being very funny, very clever.

I ordered another beer and a shot of whiskey. I drank them down quickly and settled the tab. The bartender asked what I would do about my situation.

“I guess I’m going to have to walk home,” I said.

I clenched my jaw to keep myself from saying anything more about my so-called friends.

“Be careful, we have some wicked weather coming this way,” he answered.

I thought about the weather forecast as I walked out the side door and wished I’d thought to bring a jacket.

After about twenty minutes of swaying drunkenly across the broken pavement and listening to the wind blow through the cornfield, rustling the cornstalks and scarecrows alike as it crept past, the first clap of thunder rumbled through the night. I continued relatively unfazed as the first drops of rain splashed heavily on my nose and cheek. Ahead of me I saw a light shining yellow against the blackened night sky. Not wanting to be caught in the rain, I began to stumble rapidly toward the light in hopes there would be shelter nearby.

As I approached it, the rain started to pick up. I then realized I had walked in a circle and ended up right back at the bar. I went back in, soaked from top to bottom and leaving a wet, dripping path behind me. The patrons had all left and only the bartender remained. I sat down at the bar and was working up the courage to ask for help, when he read my mind.

“You need a ride?”

I thought I detected a note of genuine concern in his voice as he said this. “I would love that, I don’t even know where I am right now to be honest.” The man laughed a musical laugh at this and smiled that smile.

“Why did they leave you?” he asked.

“I don’t know, some kind of stupid joke, I guess.”

“I see. Maybe you should drive yourself from now on,” he said.

“I would love that but I don’t have a car. I’d sell my soul to get one, but no one wants to finance me.”

“What was that?”

“I said, no one wants to finance me.”

“No, before that.”

“I would sell my soul to have a car?” I asked.

“You should be careful saying things like that, you never know who’s listening,” he said. He poured me another shot. “This one’s on the house.”

A few minutes later, he left the bar without bothering to lock up and led me around the back to a rusted carport. The vehicle that was there was so out of place it caused me to stop dead in my tracks. This bartender must do well for himself, I thought as I stared at the cherry red Aston Martin DBS. “Let’s burn,” he said. I shook myself free of my stupor and climbed into the gleaming car.

“Thanks so much for this ride,” I said, relaxing into the black leather seat.

“It’s no problem,” he said. The steady patter of the rain was soothing and I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke we were at my house. I didn’t remember giving him my address, but there we were. “Be well,” the bartender said with a wave, and drove off into the storm. It would be cliché to say that with a clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning he was gone, but that didn’t happen. Nothing as dramatic as that. Just an understated splash from a puddle and a quiet, powerful roar from his car’s engine.

“You too,” I automatically replied.

I went inside, collapsed onto the couch, and slept for the next twelve hours. When I awoke my head was throbbing and I had three missed calls and one voicemail waiting for me on my phone. I didn’t recognize any of the numbers, so after I had a couple of aspirin, a glass of water, and a scorching hot shower, I sat down to piece together the puzzle. Two numbers were from a local car dealership. When I called back, I was told they had found someone willing to finance my vehicle that day. I only needed to go in and sign the paperwork. The third number, the one that had left a voicemail, was the bartender. I recognized his melodic voice. The number was disconnected when I tried to call it back, and the message said only, “It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

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