The theme this week was "Happiness in a Bottle". I went with the very mordant comedy sketch, which you can see here. I admire how Bill Cosby can be so gentle about something while still portraying it in all its pathos and horror.
This story is a sequel to Only the Skin. It's a little over 2000 words. I hope you enjoy it. :)
(Another brigits_flame link, which I mostly put in for easy access.)
The wolves were howling again, a full-throated chorus that drifted through the stone walls of the tavern and shivered into Jeb's bones. They sounded even closer tonight, maybe right at the forest's edge surrounding the village. Only a fool would go out without a weapon.
Jeb glanced up quickly, startled when the heavy wooden door creaked open, and then gave Hannah a quick smile as she pushed her way in. There were four large wooden bowls stacked in her arms, spoons rattling.
Hannah smiled back, but it was small and nervous. She set the bowls down on the long table near the hearth, then began scraping the leftovers into the slop bucket for the pigs.
"Turner's gone," she said. "And all his friends with him. You can go out to serve again, if you want."
Jeb nodded that he'd heard her as he ladled a thick portion of stew into another wooden bowl. Hannah's I want you to go out wasn't much hidden by her voice.
He looked at her. She hadn't put any of the bowls he'd newly-filled onto the serving tray waiting on the table. She was just standing there, looking at the fire and wringing her hands.
Jeb walked towards her, worried. Hannah wasn't timid--she'd worked the tables too long for that--but she was young and still pure and she hated it when some men tried to grab her breasts or pull her into their laps. When Isaac was working they only ever tried it once, and then found themselves kissing the cobbles in the back alley, poorer of blood and coin both. But Hannah's father was out tonight with most of the men of the village. Wolf hunting.
"What is it?" Jeb asked her gently. "Someone overstep again? Turner?" Jeb had encouraged his share of patrons to look for more willing company elsewhere, sometimes with more force than truly needed. It wasn't something he was proud of. But the kind of men who didn't understand that a girl wasn't a whore just because she served them were the same kind who liked to call Jeb 'Spook', or 'Coon'. Men like Turner's lot, who would ask Hannah how the Soot-boy was, then laugh 'til they wheezed at their own cleverness.
Turner hadn't tried anything with Hannah in a long time, though. And he was always very polite to Jeb's face, since he was still gap-toothed where Jeb had knocked some manners into him. That's why Jeb stayed in the kitchen when Turner was around: Turner wouldn't linger if Jeb was in the main room, and Turner and his friends were heavy drinkers. Isaac might hate the man almost as much as Hannah and Jeb did, but he loved his money.
"Was it Turner?" Jeb asked Hannah. He wouldn't mind following the man, wolves or no. Remind him politely to keep his hands on the table.
But Hannah shook her head. "No, he's been real nice tonight." She looked up at Jeb with worry like a sheen on her pretty face, flushed from the heat in the main room. "Didn't even say nothing about you. All he done was talk about the wolves."
"Your Pa's going to be just fine," Jeb said, guessing that was what her jitters were about. "Half the village men are out with him, and even a whole pack wouldn't dare come this far into town anyhow."
Hannah nodded again. "I know," she said, too fast. "It's not that. It's this." She fished into the space between her breasts before Jeb could look away and drew out her coin purse. She upended the bag and shook some of the coins into her hand, then pushed them around with her finger until she found the one she wanted. "Here," she said. She put the coin into Jeb's cupped hand. "The stranger, one in the back, he gave it to me."
Jeb nodded as he studied the coin. It was silver, probably from the local mine, nothing unusual about that. But there was a stain on it, dull brown. Jeb scraped some of it off with his thumbnail.
"Blood," he said, looking at Hannah.
Hannah nodded again, eyes miserable with fright. "He's done nothing but drink the whole evening. And he's got this look to him…." She pressed her lips together, like she didn't even want to speak on it. "I don't like him, Jeb," she said. "I don't want to go out while he's still around."
Jeb nodded. "Sure," he said. He slipped the bloodstained coin into his pocket. "You go check the bread, then. And we'll need more wood for the fire soon."
"Thank you, Jeb," Hannah said, grateful.
"You're welcome," Jeb said absently. He looked at the stew bowls he'd set out; they were probably near cold by now. He put them on the large tray anyway, since he was sure the patrons who had asked for them would be too drunk to notice. He hefted the tray easily, balancing it on one shoulder and his open hand.
The main room was brighter than the kitchen--Isaac didn't skimp on the candles out here--and just as warm from the fire in the huge hearth and the press and breath of bodies. It was less than half-full tonight though, the conversations subdued.
Jeb served his the stew quickly, then put his tray down on an empty table and went to the back. The drunk was there just like Hannah said he would be. The one who'd given her the coin with blood on it.
He was light-skinned, which was no surprise, pale from drink and with a few-days' worth of ratty, boyish stubble. He had the side of his head and one arm on the table, his hand loosely wrapped around a wooden cup. His hair was brown, dirty and overly long. His eyes were half-closed, brown as Hannah's but filmed with drinking.
The wolves howled again and the stranger shuddered, shutting his eyes tight for a moment like he was in pain.
He didn't twitch when Jeb slapped the coin down beside his face, but then his nostrils flared and he snapped upright, as if he could smell him. As insults went it was subtle enough to ignore, so Jeb chose to, carefully swallowing back the familiar surge of rage. He knew he kept himself cleaner than half the villagers anyway, and the stranger stank of sweat and alcohol.
Jeb sat carefully across from him. The stranger watched, eyes dull but body strangely alert.
Jeb leaned in close, since he knew the man wouldn't try anything here. "There's something wrong with your coin, friend," he said, voice low. He touched it with his fingertip, moving it a little closer to the other man. The stranger's nostrils flared again, and Jeb pulled his hand back, fisted it. "It's not welcome here. Neither are you."
The stranger blinked, then his eyes widened, and Jeb was shocked to see fear in them. "That's not mine," he said quickly, and his voice rasped like he'd hurt it, or like he hadn't spoken in far too long. He sounded oddly sober for someone who'd been drinking since before dark. Sober and afraid. "I mean, I mean I found it. Lying in the road. I didn't--I'm sure I didn't kill anyone." He swallowed, rubbed his hand viciously over his face. "Please let me stay here," he said. "I--I've got more money. Good money. Clean. I'll sleep in the stables. Just, let me stay here. Please?"
He reached for Jeb's arm, fast, grabbed his wrist before Jeb could pull back. "Please," the man said again. His eyes were dark and wild as storms. "The wolves--I can't--"
The wolves in the forest howled again, like they'd heard him. The man gritted his teeth, ducked his head. Trembled like a newborn foal. His grip on Jeb's wrist tightened until it hurt.
"I can't go out there," the man said when the baying had finally stopped. The tavern had gone quiet in its wake, but Jeb still had to strain to hear the stranger's whispering.
"Let go my arm, friend," Jeb said.
The stranger unpeeled his fingers, then crossed his arms and set them on the table, curving his body over them. He started rocking back and forth in tiny jerks. Sweat sheened his temples, rolled in fat beads down his pinched face.
Jeb studied him, thinking. The man was scared out of his skin, that was certain enough. And he had no weapons as far as Jeb could tell; hadn't done anything either, except offer a stained coin. But with Isaac gone the tavern was Jeb's responsibility, and he knew Isaac would have thrown the man out already, for nothing more than making Hannah afraid. And the stables were very close to the tavern, and Hannah slept upstairs.
"I'm sorry," Jeb said. "But you need to leave."
For a moment the man looked gutted, so bad that Jeb had opened his mouth to apologize again, when he heard the baying of the wolves.
The stranger made a small, sick noise and hunched over, slapping his hands over his ears. He slid off the chair suddenly, before Jeb could catch him, landing hard on his side on the packed-earth floor. His body bucked twice, kicking at the table so that it skidded away from him. One of its legs caught in the dirt and it upended. The man started to scream.
Jeb stood so fast that he knocked his own chair over, watching in mute horror as the man convulsed, digging furrows with his heels. Other patrons were gathering around him, all staring with the same fascination and fear.
"He's possessed! Don't touch him!" someone said, but Jeb ignored them, reaching for the stranger anyway. He had no idea what would help, but he had a vague thought that if he could restrain him somehow, hold him down, the shaking would stop.
The man bit him.
Jeb yanked his arm away with a yell of shock and pain. He fell onto his haunches. The stranger flipped onto his stomach, letting out a continuous, keening wail as he lurched upright and half-ran, half staggered out the door. The door banged shut behind him, letting in a blast of cold that made Jeb shiver.
For a moment it had looked like the stranger's eyes were yellow as a dog's in moonlight. But that couldn't be right, Jeb thought. It couldn't.
"I told you," someone said. Jeb glanced up at him, recognizing Robert. His wife sold eggs. He sounded numb.
Jeb didn't bother to reply. He climbed slowly to his feet, cradling his bleeding arm. No one offered to help. Jeb wanted to think they'd all been shocked dumb, but he knew better.
"Better go clean that," Robert said.
"Yeah," Jeb said. The bite wasn't deep, but it was bleeding freely, running down his arm and dripping on his apron. It was starting to hurt.
"What in God's name was that?" Ezra, who had a small herd of milk cows he'd been fretting about. He had a limp, couldn't go out hunting. He looked at Robert. "What happened?"
"Demon, I tell you," Robert said, voice dark with certainty.
"He's sick, that's all," Jeb said, scowling at both of them. He lifted up his apron so he could wrap it around his arm, try to stop the bleeding.
Robert snorted, but didn't answer.
Jeb ignored them, pushing his way through the few other patrons to get back to the kitchen.
Hannah was waiting, wide-eyed and fussy at the door. She took one look at his arm and her face went white as porcelain. "Are you all right?"
"It's nothing," Jeb said, though it was starting to hurt like crazy. "Get me some vinegar, would you? And something to wrap it."
Hannah nodded and went to do as he asked.
Jeb said heavily at the table, clutching the apron tightly around his arm, listening to the anxious buzz of conversation from the other side of the kitchen door.
"I didn't know he bleeds red, just like a man," one of them said. Maybe Robert, or Ezra. Maybe any of them.
Outside, in the dark forest, the wolves finally stopped.