John Robinson sat at the kitchen table in front of the wood fireplace and wished he had a scotch. Oh, he could have one if he really wanted. He was staring at the bottle in its cardboard case, sitting at the top of the liquor cabinet. No one would say a single word to him if he poured himself a little into one of the tumblers and ‘partook,’ as his Daddy used to put it. But, as far as anyone knew, no one was making scotch anymore. And if they were it wasn’t getting to the Biddies. He had to be choosy about scotch. Everyone had to be choosy about everything, really.
He never ‘partook’ back then, before. Not never, he supposed. A glass of red wine on Christmas, a beer on the Fourth of July. Little enough that it counted as never. They had never kept alcohol in the house, and he never craved it. So much had changed, though. Things that weren’t supposed to change once you hit the big 5-0 but change they did, so why not start drinking a little bit more? He had figured it might help with the nightmares. And it had. A little.
The hardware store on Main Street had been his. Still was, but he hadn’t been in it in months and once upon a time it had been his life. Now it was just an empty front, a fake to fool any thieves and marauders who happened to drift this far up the mountain. A surprising amount, he had to admit. Sure it was late winter, damn near spring, but he wouldn’t have tried to cross the mountains for another month. At least. Maybe some people just don’t know.
He’d barely glanced at his store at first. It wasn’t until those two fools had been dealt with and Birdie was hustling the beaten man toward the Biddies that he really looked at it. He’d given the man his boots, knowing he still had a couple of pairs stashed in his old office. He’d let the others get a couple blocks down before going in. The store, like the others, had been shut up. Holding in the smell. He was afraid every time he went in, a little more of the smell would leak out. Like the scotch, he had to savor it.
Big John, tearing up at the smell of his old store. The nails and the leather and the grease. More differences. Back then, everyone had called him Big John, and no one expected to see Big John cry. Now people just called him ‘John’ or ‘sir’ and everyone cried occasionally so no one really cared anymore. Old habits die hard. Hiding emotion. Wishing for the old life back. He had sat at his old desk for close to half an hour and did just that.
John Robinson, born and raised in Broken Hearts. Everyone called him Big John, and at six and a half feet tall it wasn’t one of those ironic nicknames. His Daddy had opened the hardware store and given it to Big John when he’d retired, and Big John had split his time evenly between the store and his family. His wife, Jewel. Their kids, Candace, Corey, Ashley. No. Corey, Ashley, Candace. Remember them by age, damn it. Not the order they died.
This was the problem with memories. Even the good ones inevitably led to death. The regulars, who would come in and shoot the shit over a bucket of nails. Tell him their plans. Ask for advice. Barry Winslow and Alex Cooper and Hayley Morgan. All dead. Getting into arguments with Rita Black who owned the vegan café next door and always insisted it was his job to clear the sidewalk in front, for some reason. Dead. His store. Stuffed and mounted. Dead.
John was just about to heave himself up and get that glass of scotch after all when Birdie came in from the hall. Roberta Wicky. The only other soul in the Biddies who had lived in Broken Hearts. She looked at him, and him she, and they both knew. Birdie pulled out two glasses and the bottle without even asking.
“Sitting in the dark again?” she asked, sitting down.
“Didn’t even realize.” He hadn’t. It had still been early evening, last he remembered. Birdie poured them a couple fingers each and pushed his glass over to him. They let the glasses touch just briefly before each took a swallow. Before, Big John and Roberta had only met in passing. Big John knew her father, Robert Wicky. Bowled with him on Wednesdays. Sold him the supplies for his never ending backyard project. Listened to him rave about his son and complain about his daughter. Maybe there had been something to complain about with Roberta, but as well as John knew Birdie he doubted it.
“Well,” he said after the grimace, putting the glass down gently. “What’s the verdict?”
Birdie finished her scotch, reached for the bottle, stopped.
“The man’s a fucking mess,” she said. “The bruises don’t go down his legs. I think they did that to him for show. The cigarette burns, though…Wendy’s pretty confident about reversing the frostbite in his fingers. He’s probably going to lose a couple toes, though.”
“What about upstairs?” he asked, tapping his head. “It occurred to me this could be some kind of long con.”
He could see in her face it had occurred to her, too. She was shaking her head, though.
“I stuck around for a while, making sure. Then I left and stood outside the door. Wendy says she’s seen that look in his eyes, though. His pupils are too small, and not moving. Wendy says that means opioids. They’ve been dosing him, probably. But there’s something else. Back here.”
Birdie gestured to the back of her head. Then she reached for the bottle again and this time poured her and John another glass.
“Wendy found it, looking for lice. No lice. Big scar. I think…Christ, I think it’s even a little dented.”
John blinked at her over his glass. “Dented?”
“Like someone brained him from behind.”
Birdie sipped on her scotch, savoring it, maybe hoping it would burn something out. Before, Big John and Roberta would never have been friends. She was almost thirty years younger. She’d graduated high school and disappeared from town, only coming back a few months before The Blues swept through. No idea what she had been doing. If anyone had asked Robert or Carley Wicky they would make a face and talk about their son instead. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t disappointed to find the only other person alive in Broken Hearts had been Roberta Wicky. Now, he couldn’t think of a single other person in the Biddies he trusted more.
“We’re going to run out of room around here, eventually, you know,” he said.
“Eventually,” she said, pushing her empty glass away from her. “Not today.”