Terence McCurdy leaned heavily on his gnarled cane, his breath ragged. The Crossroads o’ Calloway Pub squatted a short ways up a path that had been worn through the grassy surrounds by 150-some-odd years of walking. A buttery glow once spilled from its cottage windows and, despite the mossy and wet-blacked stone walls, loud mirthful hoots and wild exclamations from within were hardly muffled.
“T’ain’t naught but a jumble o’ rocks now,” he whispered. It made him cold to look at it. Cold and pained. The edifice, ever exposed to the salty winds of the coast, now sat forsaken, its windows dark, its soul silent.
A weather-greyed For Sale sign had been haphazardly driven into the ground ahead. McCurdy spat. “This dyin’s a cruel, cruel thing,” he muttered. “Well then. Sooner started, sooner finished.”
Hefting his cane, he resumed his aching trundle up the lane. With a sharp thwack! he struck the signpost with his cane, sending it toppling with a cough of dark earth. A spark of satisfaction shot through him, reminding him of youthful trouble-rousing with his dear friend Artie. Artie who had died two days ago. Artie whose passing had transformed the Crossroads o’ Calloway from a bastion of companionship into a disquieting haunt.
McCurdy thrust a hand into his coat pocket and drew forth a ring of iron keys. Artie’s keys, given over in secret. They rattled in his trembling hand, but ancient habit overcame the tremors of age. He chose one by feel and slotted it surely into the keyhole. With a quiet crick, the tumblers fell into place and he pushed at the door, the wood scraping across the time-grooved stone threshold. McCurdy stepped inside.
The air was cool. Absent was the billowing warmth of the crackling hearth and smiles of friends. The familiar scents yet lingered, though they had become faint and were fading. As Artie had. Still present were the grandfatherly balm of Willie Henley’s pipe smoke, the cutting smell of whiskey, the richness of hardwoods oiled by the hands and elbows of generations, and sturdy brass polished to a gleam without a cloth ever touching it.
Beneath those familiar scents, however, was a trace of something foreign and wrong. A hospital smell. A chemical smell.
Arthur Clancy had been laid in a coffin set across two tables. The man’s high forehead and the backs of his hands had a sheen McCurdy associated with plastic. Artie’d always been lean but now he seemed shrunken, dressed into the dark suit he’d worn to his own wedding . . . and to all the deaths of his friends in the 63 years since then. He’d only had the one suit, McCurdy knew.
Near the door was a guestbook and a fountain pen. A memento of death, soon to be scrawled throughout by those who had come here to be secretly glad of their own health. McCurdy suddenly wished he could whisk his friend away. But he was an old man, eroded by years and lingering ailments. And besides, this had been Arthur’s place.
McCurdy drew his familiar bar seat across the scuffed floor to his friend’s side. He desperately wanted to take up his friend’s hand, but the thought of its now-alien texture scared him terribly, and that shamed him. His teary eyes roamed the room that, until just two days ago, had been a sanctuary for him. His jowls trembled.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, but I’m old. Older’n you were.” Streaks of warmth wet his cheeks. He gritted his teeth. “That boy o’ yers . . . .”
A rasping sigh escaped his lungs. “Now it’s all gone away.”
He sat there in the dark room beside his friend until he heard voices outside. A young man and woman were arguing. The doorknob rattled.
McCurdy smirked and stood. He peered down at his friend. “Here we part ways, but not for terribly long, at least.”
After safely dropping the iron keys into his coat pocket and leaning over the bar to snatch up a dusty bottle of Midleton, previously hidden behind a loose board, Terence McCurdy made his way to the rear door. He gave but a brief glance over his shoulder at his friend, cold in that grey light, and nodded. The old man stepped into the late afternoon. The brisk air nipped at him as he ambled down the grassy hillside toward the sea.
This flash-fiction-style story was written for submission to the Grammar Ghoul Writing Challenge #1. Although I’m not entirely happy with it (I had a more supernatural direction I wanted to take — next time!), I’m glad to be writing again.