A Joke

A man walks into a bar.

Yes, I know‌‌‌—‌sounds like the start of a bad joke. But honestly, my life is a joke. Always has been, and now I know it always will be.

It didn’t help that my parents called me Grim. Guess they liked the sound of the word. I never got to ask. By the time I could form those kinds of questions, they were long gone.

Can’t say I blame them for getting out.

Grim‌—‌it’s a name you have to live up to. A name like that, and you can’t be all smiles and friendly quips.

People hear my name, and the moment I smile, they cower.

So, a man walks into a bar. The man’s me. The bar’s just another run-down dive. The kind where the barkeep hates everyone, and where the regulars drink themselves into oblivion every night.

She said to meet her here.

It was late enough to be early, and the barkeep was wiping down the bar-top with a rag that looked almost alive. Most of the reprobates in the shadows were slumped over tables, some snoring. Maybe a couple were bleeding. I didn’t look too closely.

He sneered in greeting. I asked for a drink, and he acted like I’d asked for the secret to eternal youth. But he poured me a glass of something dirty and flat, charged me over the odds. I paid and thanked him.

She sat in a corner, watching me. She didn’t smile.

I asked the barkeep what she was drinking, offered to get her one. He didn’t say. Just sneered and carried on wiping with that filthy rag.

I walked to her table.

“So you’re the one,” she said through unmoving lips.

What kind of an opening is that?

She kicked the chair opposite her, and I took the cue to sit.

“You’re determined,” she said. Her voice was thick as it poured into my ears, settling heavily in my mind. “You sure you want this?”

“Nothing for me here,” I answered.

“There are easier ways to escape.”

I shook my head, knowing this was the only way. I could run, but not from myself. And ending it all? I knew I couldn’t do that, not even through an arranged accident.

She didn’t try to dissuade me. She sat back, half into the shadows. I couldn’t make out her features, or her figure. She wore some kind of cloak, tight around her throat. Maybe she didn’t need to breathe.

The room grew colder. The door opened, and she told me to turn and watch.

The man wore dark clothes, a hat obscuring his face. As the door creaked shut behind him, the barkeep yelled something. The stranger ignored him, and turned to one of the tables. Two drunks, slumped in their chairs, cradling spilt drinks.

The man said something then, too quiet for me to hear. Then he moved, and the drunks were on the floor. Glass shattered, but it didn’t hide the two sharp cracks. The drunks’ heads hung at grotesque angles.

I saw the barkeep back away and reach under the counter. I heard chairs scraping, and saw people rising, metal in their hands.

The man turned to another table and smiled, his teeth bright in the shadows.

The place erupted. Figures surged, and metal flashed. I heard cracks, and thuds. I swear there were a couple of soft explosions. Before the lights went out I saw blood spray across a table.

I shut my eyes. The thick air swirled, pungent with sweat and copper. Adrenaline surged, warm and fast, and I have never felt more alive.

When the light returned, I looked at the carnage around me. Tables were overturned. Blades littered the floor. Bodies lay motionless in spreading patches of crimson. Eyes were open, but saw nothing.

The barkeep shouted, and now he held a vicious, gnarled weapon, one finger curled round the trigger, one hand trembling as it held the barrel. The butt rested against his shoulder. Too low. It would hurt when he fired.

A laugh came from right behind me, close enough to shake my body.

The weapon boomed, and there was a blinding flash. He spun with the recoil, sending bottles flying.

Laughter sounded in my head this time. I didn’t dare turn round.

The barkeep grimaced as he raised his gun, a tendril of smoke curling upwards. I could smell cordite.

A hand reached forward and grabbed the smouldering barrel. I caught the aroma of burning flesh as the weapon was yanked from the barkeep’s hands.

“Who the hell are you?” he said. Another stench rose, the sharp, acrid tang of his fear.

No reply came.

“What are you?” His voice was quiet, and he looked into my eyes. His skin was pale, unhealthy. He didn’t have long for this world.

But he would see the next dawn.

“I’m Grim,” I said with a smile.

The woman whispered something in my ear.

“Run,” I told the barkeep. He didn’t need telling twice.

I turned to face the woman, pulling the hat down to shield my eyes.

“That wasn’t what I wanted,” I said.

“You wanted to escape.” She looked both old and young, attractive and hideous. I knew I’d grow to know her intimately. “Welcome to your new life.”

The door slammed after the barkeep, and I thought of the stories he’d tell, and the name he’d spread. This was how legends started.

I never wanted to hurt anyone, but with a name like mine, did I really have any choice?

Like I said, my life’s nothing but a hideous joke.


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