by Michael Carter, 3.24am Sept 10th 2021
Everyone in Bear Creek considered Jake Stillson the luckiest man alive. Except Stillson himself. He had left his shift early to play hooky when the Smith Mine ignited and blew to smithereens thirty souls, many of them his friends. Another forty-four died later from their wounds.
“It was probably Dotson, yes, it had’a been him,” he’d mumble while wandering town. “Dotson was always smoking; he flicked that lighter so many times had’a been him.”
Sometimes Stillson was seen in the alley behind the billiards, chewing tobacco and repeating between spits, “Damn mine should’a taken me, too. How come I gotta live with this?”
Stillson was all but a ghost to his neighbors. He roamed, and cursed, and spit, and mumbled, “Dotson, Dotson, yes, had’a been him.” Before retiring for the evening, he could be seen staring at the stars, reciting, “should’a been me, should’a been me.”
The priest, constable, and Stillson’s billiards friends all confronted him at one time or another: “It wasn’t your fault”; “You’re not well, Jake”; “Get some help.”
And so he did.
Some said Janey at the Mosey Inn Tavern in nearby Bridger had powers. On a fall evening, Stillson hit the road to Bridger in his salvaged Barrelback.
Stillson pushed open the Mosey doors and admired the tavern’s hallmark plaster stalactites that dripped from the ceiling.
“Evening,” Janey said, hiking her pants and adjusting her belt as she rose from a stool behind the bar. She was round and cheerful, with red cheeks and a stomach that moved in its own direction, in its own time. Except for her stringy white hair and barn-owl nose, she could be mistaken for Mrs. Klaus.
“They say you make a special boilermaker,” Stillson said as he approached the lacquered, knotty-pine bar.
“From time to time, yes.” She squinted and leaned forward. “Ain’t you the feller survived Smith Mine?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, looking down.
“Folks say you gone nuts, wandering around talkin’ to yourself and such. What do you want from my boilermaker?”
“To be set free. Free from the guilt of livin’ while they all perished.”
“Understood,” Janey said. “You know the rules?”
“Only three wishes,” she said, grinning.
Janey turned to the back counter. She prepared a sachet by bundling dried plains grasses, a dash of ground houndstooth, and two cloves in a kerchief, and tied it with twine. She soaked the sachet in a pint of ale, and dropped a shot of whiskey into the pint glass.
Janey glided her concoction across the bar. Stillson raised the pint glass and drank it in one pull, lipping the shot glass when it slid forward and clanked against his teeth.
“What’s your wish?”
“For the miners to come back to life, of course.”
Stillson rose early next morning and drove to the mine. Movement flanked the buildings and steam billowed from the ventilation shafts as he approached. He walked down the dusty trail to the front office.
“Mornin’ Jake,” Mrs. Williams, the clerk who clocked everyone in, said. Including Stillson, she was one of three survivors.
“They’re waiting for ya on line 24.”
Stillson walked past the dried up lines at 22 and 23, and then heard voices from the opening of 24.
A charred face poked out.
“Jake!” the face said while pieces of skin sloughed off. “Glad ya made it.”
The figure emerged from the tunnel. It was missing an arm, and the body was battered. Its hair was singed into globs.
“Got a light?” the figure said.
Stillson recognized the voice. “Dotson?”
“How ‘bout you sub for me while I take a smoke break?” Dotson walked toward Stillson, chuckling. One of his legs buckled and snapped.
Other miners emerged wearing torn clothing over blackened, crumbling bodies.
The Barrelback kicked up dust as it sped away, heading straight to Bridger.
Stillson pushed open the doors of Mosey Inn. Janey was wiping the glossy bar top under the dangling stalactites.
“They’re alive, but they look dead.”
“You got what you asked for.”
“Pour me another boilermaker.”
At the back counter, Janey bundled the dried plains grasses, ground houndstooth, and two cloves in the kerchief. She soaked the sachet in the ale, and dropped a whiskey shot into the pint glass.
Stillson paused and closed his eyes. He downed it in a swig.
“They’re freaky looking. I wish things could be the same again; that they looked like me.”
Stillson woke the next morning in Bearcreek. He poured his coffee and readied himself for the drive to the mine.
He startled when he pulled the beaded chain to the bulb above his bathroom mirror. Scrub-jays and magpies fluttered from the trees outside his home when he screamed.
“Why?” Stillson said to the black and purple face that bulged back at him in the mirror. His face peeled, and the blackened skin around his mouth cracked as he tried to breathe.
Barney, the bouncer of Mosey Inn, rushed toward Stillson as he entered for the third time.
“What are you?” Barney said.
Stillson hobbled forward on his good leg and dragged his other.
“Need a drink,” Stillson said through his teeth.
“Let him in,” Janey said.
Stillson continued forward to the bar.
Janey bundled dried plains grasses, ground houndstooth, and cloves in the kerchief. She tied the sachet, dunked it in the ale, and slid a whiskey shot into the glass.
Stillson’s foot broke off as he positioned the barstool closer. Part of his face fell on the counter.
With white fingertips, he grasped the twine and dunked the sachet a few more times.
“Bottoms up,” Janey said.
The edges of Stillson’s remaining cheeks drew up, perhaps in a smile. He placed the edge of the glass to his lower lip, and tilted it. He savored the piney taste of the grasses mixed with bitter spiciness of the cloves.
He wished the drink would be his last.