A naked bulb was swinging freely from the ceiling, giving off light in a dull amber color. A few flies were circling around it and repeatedly slamming into it, unable to grasp that it only did them harm.
The scents of sweat and liquor were strong in the room. The mild tumult that is always present in similar settings caused a ringing din, which intruded into the newcomer’s mind with particular malice. The double doors were still swinging behind him. Everybody turned their eyes on him, some of the customers even suspending their pints and glasses in midair.
On edge, the boy took two steps forward, his eyes darting nervously around the room. His hands were together, wringing; his back was a bit hunched. ‘Somebody get that brat outta here,’ came from somewhere in the back. It got a few cries of ‘aye’ and ‘hell yeah.’ He felt the need to look back over his shoulder, to identify the verbal attacker, but he dared not.
As he approached the bar, one of the drunkards sitting on one of tables on either side of the aisle spit at him; the saliva landed on the shoulder of the boy’s coat. He flinched and looked at the spot, fear in his eyes. He didn’t wipe it off, left it there to dry.
When he finally got to the bar, he got a look from the barman that indicated the man had immediately placed him under scrutiny.
‘A b-beer, please,’ the boy said.
The barman didn’t move; his gaze didn’t shift. ‘How old are ya?’
‘T-twenty one, sir.’ The boy fumbled in his pockets for a minute, then in his wallet some more, all the while feeling the withering stare of the barman. He got out his ID and placed it on the bar. ‘Here.’
The barman peered at it, and the boy took advantage of the momentary pressure relief to take a good look at him. He had a long face, a stubble, and green eyes. He was chewing on a toothpick and rubbing a glass with a cloth. It was the image of every onscreen barman he had ever seen, or at least that he could recall.
‘Okay, kiddo. Sure you want just a beer? You seem like yer soul needs some comfortin’.’
‘Um… Then… A glass of win—’
‘A glass o’ whiskey, got it, comin’ right up!’
The boy looked downward, embarrassed. He didn’t want to drink whiskey. He didn’t want to drink anything, but he hoped it would buy him the way to somebody’s (preferably the barman’s) sympathy. Not directly, of course, but he figured if he was drinking, he’d seem more agreeable.
The barman slammed a tumbler full of caramel liquid down on the bar. He said, ‘Finest I could find for yuh. Single malt, cask strength, aged twenty-three years. Helluva drink.’
‘Um… okay. Thanks.’
‘It all don’t mean nothing to your ears, does it, now? That’s alright. When you get right down to it, it means you gonna like it. Drink up! On the house.’
The boy was stupefied. He didn’t care for the booze, but it seemed like he was getting a rather expensive drink, and the man before him was urging him to take it for free. It seemed very odd.
Apparently his bewilderment showed, because the barman laughed. ‘Hey, look— What’s your name, by the way?’
‘Listen, Morgan. How are we supposed to prove to customers our stuff’s good if we make ’em pay for it from the get-go? They’ll hang back. No, first give them the drink, lure them in, then ask for money for the second round. Cos there’s always a second round.’
Morgan swallowed. This practice wasn’t something he’d heard of before. His hand reached for the tumbler but quivered.
The barman reached across the bar and patted him on the shoulder. ‘Attaboy. Pick up the glass.’
Morgan did, but his grip wasn’t firm and he was shaking all over. The glass seemed as if it hung between his fingers, not held but supported by them. He looked up to the barman timidly, his eyes begging for instruction. In answer, the barman only raised his eyebrows and thrust his chin forward.
Okay, Morgan thought. He reckoned he ought to just—
‘Hey, hey, boy, not in one gulp, no—’
But it was too late. Morgan’s throat was on fire. He was spitting, almost vomiting; whiskey was gushing out of his mouth and even his nose. That, too, was burning.
‘It’s okay, you’re alright,’ the barman was saying, and the boy was whining, saying he’d clean the mess up, he was so sorry, but, ‘No, no, don’t you worry about a thing, it’s just water, basically, that’s what it is, that’s what whiskey is, jeez ’twas a perfectly good glass o’ Scotch, all wasted—’ the barman was still saying, going on and on. And the scene had caused a ruckus among the other customers as well: some of them were peeking over the clump of Morgan’s body, who was slouched on the bar. They wanted to see what it was all about; others were just taking advantage of the general commotion by yelling and starting fights between each other for the hell of it.
‘Hey, HEY!’ the barman yelled out. ‘Everybody calm down an’ get back to their drinks! Nothin’ goin’ on! If I hear one more glass shattering, I’ll kick the doer’s ass outta here toot sweet!’
It took a minute, but the room settled once again.
The barman sighed. ‘So, uh, Morgan. Better not do that next time, pal.’
Morgan nodded twice in rapid succession.
‘And seein’ as you obviously never drunk a pint o’ beer before in your life, would you mind telling me why exactly you’re here?’
Morgan once again shyly looked into the barman’s eyes, only to receive in answer an interrogative lift of the eyebrows. Then Morgan sighed and said, ‘I’ve been having these dreams, and… and they’ve been bothering me and I figured I had to tell someone, just to share.’ He paused, expecting a response from the barman; he got none, and continued, ‘I’ve watched a lot of movies. In them, occasionally when a man just wants to talk to somebody, he goes to a bar and dumps his feelings on the barman. But he always drinks, so I figured I couldn’t just stroll in and—’
‘Now, now, Morgan. You’ve watched too many movies, mate.’
‘Oh. So that sort of thing doesn’t really happen, does it?’
‘Not really, no. Not here, at least. But tell you what, I’ll lend me ears to ya, and in exchange you’ll promise not to attempt to drink ever again. Deal?’
‘I’ll ’ave you know, though, that I’m no sigh-col-a-gist. It sounds like you be needin’ yerself one o’ those. Or, or mebbe a… a whatsit, one o’ them dream interpreters. Mebbe that’s what you need.’
Morgan had considered this, of course. Not the dream interpreter thing, that was bogus if you asked him, but the psychologist was an idea he had looked into. He had even made some research and found a guy he liked. Even worse, however, Morgan really thought he needed a psychiatrist. He knew something was wrong with his head. He wasn’t ready to admit it, though.
And in any case, maybe it would help to just… spill the beans to somebody. Anybody. That’s why he was trying it now, with this admittedly friendly appearing barman.
‘Maybe it is what I need, but for now I’ll content myself with simply letting it out. I don’t want any sort of… response, answer, advice, or anything else,’ Morgan said. ‘I just need you to listen. Deal’s a deal.’
‘That’s right, deal’s a deal,’ the other man agreed, thinking to himself that the boy had suddenly become very talkative. ‘Go on, then,’ he urged.
Morgan wet his lips. He did want to tell his story, but it was very hard. He had figured out everything he’d say in advance, but this never worked out the way he wanted. Midway through he’d realize something sounded stupid, and that would lead to him screwing up another part, and it would cause a chain reaction and it would all go to hell…
But he had to. He had to switch his mind off or something, figure out another way, but it was absolutely necessary for the sake of his sanity to tell somebody…
And so he started. A deep breath, another. He closed his eyes to cool his nerves down a tiny bit, and he… began.
‘As I said, dreams. One dream. It has recurred a dozen times, maybe more, every night for the past weeks. And every time it is so damn vivid it’s like it’s really happening. It terrifies me; it sends chills up my spine, all that. I cannot sleep anymore. I’m afraid that the minute I turn off the lights and doze off I’m gonna see his face again…
‘Anyway, so, it’s like this: me and my roommate, Clayton, we live together, but we don’t see each other very much. He’s always out partying or something, and I have my own life, believe it or not, and it’s just… We’re not friends, that’s what I’m saying. We’ve spoken no more than ten times, and most of the conversations are just exchanges of good days and goodnights.
‘But in this dream, we are talking. He asks me about my life, I ask him about his. This part always changes. But it’s always a normal conversation, such as you might have with an actual friend. He seems to know me well, and I’m always surprised that we have a lot of things in common, including friends. Just about the only friend of mine he doesn’t seem to be acquainted with is Jayden, who is my… boyfriend.’ Morgan paused to see if this would get a reaction.
After a second of silence, he resumed, ‘And we’re chattering, right, and suddenly Clayton gets all somber. Usually he’s in the middle of a sentence when this happens, and most of the times he’s talking about his childhood, oftentimes he’s laughing. And then he stops, and his face grows grim. I ask what’s wrong, and he says… says, “I like music.”
‘And I’m already creeped out at this point. Just about to ask him why he said that, and he says again, “I do, I really like music. You like music, Morg?” That’s what he calls me in this dream, and that makes it even weirder, cos it sounds like “morgue.”
‘I say I do like music, yeah, and he asks me if I play an instrument. When I say no, he asks me what my favorite instrument is. And he doesn’t even give me enough time to answer. He just keeps talking, he says, “No, no, Morg, what’s your favorite type of instrument? Like, stringed, wind, percussion, that type of stuff. You like stringed instruments? I do. I like them very much.
‘“As a kid, I really wanted to be a violinist,” he sez. He stands up from his chair, goes over to the kitchen, pours himself a glass of soda. I’m stuck in my chair, listening and following him around with my eyes. He has me awestruck like. “I admired violinists,” he goes on. “The beauty of their music sort of… resonated with me. I wanted to be able to do that, to pluck magnificence out of the strings, to fill the air with this brilliance that was unlike any other.” Clayton says all this, and I remember it word for word, because it’s always the same. Each night, it is the exact same thing; he never says anything different, not one word, no. And I just, I… I sit there and just watch.
‘He put his glass down, having drunk half of it, and he o-opens a drawer at random. Picks up a knife, a very sharp knife. I can see it from my place across the room, how it g-glimmers and sl-slices right through the air. Wonder what it could do with my skin.
‘“My parents bought me a violin when I was thirteen. I tried learning. It was really difficult for me. I never knew where the right note was. Couldn’t… quite… get the right sound out with the bow. All I could do was this screeching noise, like scraping aluminum. You get that, Morg?” I don’t even realize he’s asked me a question, I jus’ keep starin’, dumb and deaf. And he repeats his question, only this time he sort of shouts it out, but not full-on, just like a slight shout. Just loud enough to scare me more.
‘“Yeah, I get it!” I sez, and I grip the edge of my seat, like this. My hairs are standing up on the back o’ my neck and my hands.
‘“Good”, he sez. “And so, I tried learning easier stringed instruments, thinking that I could work my way up to the violin. I tried guitar. Nada. Then the smaller ones, lute, banjo, ukulele. There seemed to be nothing difficult”—here he slams a fist down on th-the table, and I straight up jump in my chair—“but I somehow managed to make it look like it was rocket science. Nothing sounded good in my hands.
‘“Then I thought about instruments that were fundamentally different than the violin and all the others I’d tried. I tried the harp. I tried the lyre. To no avail.”
‘He s-suddenly s-stops, an’ he turns to me, slowly, like he’s on one o’ them suh-circus puh-platforms, an’ I’m p-petrified and can’t move. He stares at me; I see his ah-ah-eyes are shining, and maybe it was my-my-my imagination or b-b-because it was in fact a dream but I-I thought I caught a glimmer of r-red in them, just like the D-Devil’s eyes, yeah, he looked like the Devil—I could even imagine a kuh-couple o’ horns on his head. He makes a s-step and I try to… climb outta my chair, it tumbles over backwards, I fall on my side, my-my ribs start to hurt, the pain is bad but his gaze is worse, he’s coming, I can’t h-hide or run I see the knife turn and turn in his hand and he smiles and I try to scream but it’s stuck in my throat, I’m dead I’m already dead aren’t I—
‘And he-he’s… he’s already over me, knife pointing to my chest. I can’t breathe. He sez, “Now, I realize. I did a minute ago, actually. It just dawned on me. The perfect stringed instrument for me.”
He sez no more, but he looks at me insistently, and I sez—dunno why, my throat works on its own now, and it’s just a dream anyway so maybe that’s why—I sez, “What’s that?”
‘He laughs, right, like… like a lunatic, and s-sez, “Well, glad you asked, Morg. While they’re not exactly strings, I’ll allow it. Why, they’re the human vocal cords, of course! Lemme hear a round of applause for the human vocal cords, the world’s newest official stringed instrument, and the first ever instrumentalist to utilize them—Clayton Eric Middleton!” He plunges the blade into my neck, and now my screams crawl out, giving him exactly what he wants. Just before I wake up I hear him say, in a tone that’s calmer than before—somehow, again, somber—he says, “You know, it always bothered me that the words ‘violins’ and ‘violence’ sound so alike. Now I understand.”’
Morgan took a deep breath. He was shaking. His face was moist with tears. His voice was weak and distant.
The barman had his head in his hands, elbows on the bar, and was looking at him with a serious face, both brows furrowed in an unnatural way. He was silent for some time. Then he stood up, stretched, and said, ‘Kid, you sound all sorts o’ messed up. Sounds like you got yerself one abusive roommate.’
Morgan jerked backward, startled. ‘No, no, it’s not that, he’s been nice every time we’ve sp—’
‘Hah, dun tell me. I ain’t even seen him. Don’t know how to help you, though. I’d offer ya a drink, ’cept…’
Morgan nodded and said, ‘Yeah, I know…’
* * *
The key turned in the lock. The door opened, and left a semicircular smudge of blood in its path.
Morgan hastily got inside and slammed the door behind him. He drew a shaky breath. He dropped his keys on the ground. Then he dropped to his knees himself.
He looked over to the sprawled body of Clayton, drenched in blood. He gave a weak whiny sound. Then his gaze shifted to the corner of the room and the tattered remains of a once beautiful Stradivarius that lay there.
Kamen Pavloff is a writing enthusiast with big dreams yet no other published work. Born and raised in Sofia, the capital city of the charming country of Bulgaria. Besides writing, he likes to spend time reading, pondering (not too difficult) math problems, and playing the occasional video game.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Trauma”:
We love to publish new writers, and we’re pleased to be the first magazine to publish this talented new writer’s work.
Author Kamen Pavloff pulls the reader along and delivers a strong piece with an equally strong and unexpected ending that gives the reader something to ponder.