2.13: Altercation

Henry left Niles’ house feeling embarrassed. He felt ashamed. But more than anything, it was hot anger which clouded his senses. At what, he wasn’t yet sure; his brain spun at a nauseating pace through the laundry-list of possibilities. Niles, himself, Tortus Bay, his parents, Leia, Niles, Kara, himself, himself, himself…

Something in the minute corner of his mind, operating beneath the deafening streams of anger and blame, suggested that perhaps if he couldn’t identify at whom he ought to be mad, that it wasn’t the proper reaction to be having. But it certainly felt right.

The Anderson was still empty, but it was now fully set up for the upcoming exhibition. Every trace of splattered paint had been scrubbed off the concrete, and informational plaques attached to the walls beside the artwork. He was sure the artists were happy to take a little time away from the place, after the fevered work it took to whip everything into shape. For a moment he considered calling Kara, but thought better of it. The last thing he needed to hear was about how Niles had acted was inevitable. Or simply in his character.

Instead, Henry headed back to his lonely attic apartment—and there sat in his bed while the sun set over the village. Vibrant pink blushed the sky, struck through by streaks of soft lilac. There was a time, when he was younger, when he would have cried. There was a time, not too long ago, when he would have fallen into sleep to hasten a new day. Either one of those reactions seemed just; but what had he come to Tortus Bay for, if not to start a new life? If not to become a new person?

True night cloaked the streets, and—as usual—all movement on them ceased. Henry shrugged on his coat, collected an errant crowbar from the chaos of the construction downstairs, and headed out. His walk to Main Street was undisturbed, save by cold wind, and he drew up quickly on the back entrance of Horizon Foods.

The locks had been changed. Of course. He tried jamming the door a few times, but the wood protested loudly enough to put him off the idea. The window proved less of an obstacle. It had always been loose. He wedged the bar into the bottom corner, applied pressure, and the chipped wooden frame popped open.

Darkness met him in the storeroom. It was better that way. The industrial lights of the grocery store were strong enough to illuminate half of the street; People would wonder, if they flicked on in the middle of the night. He crept through the aisles by memory, and the thin slivers of silver light cast by the moon through the jimmied window. His hand fell on the can of beans which he had hidden away, and a wave of relief spread through his body.

The new writing on the paper was scribbled with a rushed hand: That happened faster than I thought. We need to meet. Two miles east of the graveyard. Follow the boulders.

Cryptic. Useless. Henry balled the note into his fist, and at that moment the lights came on. He was stunned, caught between ducking down and dashing for the window. A second later, it was too late to do either.

“You!” Howie’s voice was exultant. He sprinted to position himself at the end of the aisle, between Henry and the exit. “I’ve already called the police! What did you think I was, a moron?”

“Howie,” he said, slipping the note into his pocket.

The manager’s breathing was ragged, but his lips were curved in a grin the size of the crescent moon. “I suppose if you ever did something worthwhile with your life, and opened your own store, you would leave it unattended at night even when you know that a disgraced former employee of yours is a crook, huh?”

“I only assumed you had better things to be doing with your evenings off.”

“So witty! You always were. People with jobs don’t have the time to come up with perfect quips.”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with having a job. I imagine you can’t think of the right things to say on account of you being a moron, Howie.”

The man’s face turned bright red. “Stop calling me that!”

“What is it, Howie? What about me struck you in such a way that you’ve felt the need to act like this?”

Step by step, the two men approached one another down the long aisle of canned goods. Howard spat while he spoke. “I am sick and tired of people like you. And finally, you’ve gone too far. You’ve crossed the line with somebody who isn’t about to let you off the hook. What, did you think you were special? I’ve been watching people like you show up in this village for decades. You didn’t have any skills out in the real world. You had a real hard time. Then you come here, and expect everybody’s charity. Their gratitude for your presence. Well I don’t care that you’re here. I don’t care which city you came from. You’re a low-life thief who’s never been willing to work for anything.”

“I was willing to work for you.”

“You were willing to take my pity. What do you have to offer this village? No skills. No job prospects. Sleeping in the attic of another man’s home.” 

That anger returned, unfolding itself deep in his gut. “What do you know about it?”

“Oh, I know plenty. I know things about you that I bet your own mother doesn’t. Unless it was her who did the right thing, and kicked you out for it.”

“Howard….”

“What use are you? You’ll never settle down here. You’ll never start a family.”

Henry took a lunging step forward, closing the distance between them, and punched Howie in the face. A satisfying crunch met his knuckles, followed by the sound of the man falling to the floor. Blood streaked his milk-white face. Tears welled in his eyes. “You live a sad life. You don’t understand why people don’t like you, and you’re intimidated by anyone who does better. I feel bad for you.”

He left his old boss laying there, on the hard floor of the storage room, failing to stifle the sound of his pitiful sniffling.

***

The Hell on a Shell bar had long since closed for the night, but he knocked until somebody roused to answer. Jamal opened the door with a wary look. His eyes widened in shock when he saw who awaited him. “Henry! What are you doing out so late?”

“I need a drink,” he said, simply, “and my mini-fridge is empty.”

The bartender was dressed in a crumpled set of white pajamas, and his hair was a frayed mess, but nonetheless he shrugged and stepped aside. “Come on in. What can I do you for?”

No lights were on inside. They moved to the bar by the illumination of neon signs. “On my very first night here, you offered to pour me ‘a couple of fingers.’ Never specified what of, but if that’s still on the menu then I’ll take it.”

Jamal ducked beneath the counter and emerged with an unmarked bottle of brown liquid. “Mostly beer drinkers around these parts, you understand,” he said, nodding his head off to the side.

At the end of the bar, blending almost perfectly in with the grain, sat a slumbering hump of a man. Face down on the wood. Clint. “Shit. Is he okay?”

“Always turns out to be. Sometimes I don’t have the heart to wake him.”

Henry downed two fingers of what turned out to be perfectly acceptable Scotch. “You ever think about cutting him off?”

“Tried it. Couple of times. He winds up drinking by himself down by the docks. Falls in, gives everybody a real good scare. At least here he has somewhere safe to sleep.”

“Guess I’m not the only one having a bad night.”

Jamal re-filled his glass, then poured a shot for himself. “What’s troubling you?”

“Tough times. I suppose I came here trying to get away from myself. That didn’t work. What do people always say? I was already here waiting.” Henry downed his drink. “Anyway, I wanted to thank you proper, for everything you did for me, and it’s only right that you’re the last person I talk to. I think I need to leave Tortus Bay.”

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