Although the evening wasn't truly gloomy, it felt that way to me. The night sky was starless and clouded over. Probably to do with the recent rainy weather. The air was clear, clean and stirred only by the passing of the occasional car. I walked at an easy pace - after all, it was my birthday. I'd not do much that I didn't want to for at least one day. I walked into the old bar, The Lamp and Post, and took up station on a stool. The bartender, an older man who somehow seemed out of place, put a coaster in front of me.
"What'll it be, friend?" he asked. He raised his eyebrows, and for a moment I had a hard time looking at his face. For just a split second he'd looked quite young, but then the white hair and trimmed beard were in place where a moment ago I'd have sworn there was a young, clean-shaven man. Probably a side effect of my meds.
"I'll take the seasonal," I said, nodding toward the tap. He nodded and pulled a glass from under the counter. As he did I pulled out my wallet, selected a couple of twenties and placed them on the bar top. Replacing my wallet I settled in and glanced about the inside of the bar.
Gay bar. You get the idea that there should be unicorns, go-go boys and glittering rainbows all about. Older ones might have cut outs of Judy Garland, while others might have Madonna or that Ga Ga woman. What is it with gay men and female singers, anyway? The differences between my imagination and the reality were striking. The lighting was low, just like every other bar I'd ever been in. Booths lined one side of the wall, there was a pool table in back and the bar was beat-up, lacquered dark wood.
"One seasonal," the bartender said as he deposited the glass. After withdrawing the cost of my drink from my funds he leaned back against the back bar. "First time to our place?"
The bar was largely empty, just a few people in a booth in the back. I glanced at the bartender, a man perhaps my age or older. For the blink of an eye I saw him as a young man again. But between one blink and the next he was white haired and smiling gently at me again.
"Yeah, first time," I said with a small sigh and sipped my beer. I let it roll across my tongue, a rich flavor that left a slightly bitter aftertaste.
"I didn't think I remembered you," he said and smiled. "My memory is still pretty good. Are you a local or just in town for a bit?"
I looked down at the amber liquid in my glass. "Local." I looked up at him and said, "I've lived around the corner, more or less, for the past thirty-two years."
"Oh? Well, imagine that. I only fill in here once in a blue moon. Welcome!" he said with a small chuckle.
"Well, I figured I'd do something different for my birthday," I said and flashed a tight smile.
"A birthday? Well, happy birthday! We should celebrate," he said. He pulled out two shot glasses and a bottle with a clear liquid inside. He poured and capped the bottle before nudging the shot toward me. "A toast!"
I felt a flash of appreciation for a simple kindness. I lifted the shot glass and tilted it toward him.
"To birthdays," he said and I nodded before we both tossed back the alcohol. I coughed and shook my head as it burned its way down to my guts.
"Wow. That has some kick," I said and sipped my beer to soothe my shocked system. Music kicked on, something with a steady beat and lyrics I didn't recognize.
"Yeah, good stuff," he said in agreement. "So, friend, what brings you here on your birthday all on your own?"
I sighed and hoisted my glass again, draining it and pushing it toward the bartender. He picked it up and begun refilling it as I contemplated my answer. He took the appropriate money, and I thought to myself, what the hell? There was no reason to be anything but honest. Maybe at one time I'd have been embarrassed or secretive, but all bets were off these days.
I sipped my drink again and hunched forward. The bartender had taken up station, leaning once more against the back bar, and I looked up at him once before letting my eyes drift over to the rows of spirits behind him.
"It's a common enough story these days, I guess," I told him. "I suppressed who I was for most of my life. Did what was expected - had a wife, kids. Bought a house, dependable career so I could provide. And then I woke up one morning to realize most of my life had passed and I felt a little....cheated."
"Ah. I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "Was your home life good outside of that?"
"Oh, I guess so, yeah," I replied with a nod. "Peggy was a good woman; didn't deserve my baggage. The kids are pretty normal and seem happy. Successful, even. They moved away, busy with their own lives and families." I paused and contemplated my glass before I took a drink, then continued. "Peggy cried when I told her, though. She wondered if it was her fault, somehow. If she hadn't been enough or something like that. We, uh, talked divorce but...well, sometimes decisions get made for us, you know?"
He tilted his head and adopted a sympathetic expression. "How do you mean?"
I leaned back and pointed a finger at my gut. "Cancer. Stage four. It's kinder to stay together and let her have the life insurance." I looked away. "She's with her sister for a few weeks. She promised to come back before it's over. I, uh, would rather she just stayed away, though. Kind of cowardly I guess, but there it is."
"Wow. That's really amazing of you."
I shrugged and drained half of my glass. "Not really. None of this is her fault. Decided...not to tell the kids. What for, right?" I asked with a shrug. I glanced up at him and chuckled mirthlessly. "Got a little more than you bargained for, huh? Sorry about that."
"Oh no, not at all," he replied and set up the shot glasses again. "Bartenders are kind of the poor man's therapist, you know? I fill in here because I enjoy getting the chance to talk to people, even the sad ones. Sometimes I think they are the strongest, you know. The sad ones."
I grunted and accepted the shot. It burned, but not as badly as before. Perhaps my body was ready for it this time. I chased the shot by draining my beer and pushing the glass back toward the bartender. My glass was refilled in short order, and a few new people came into the bar. A burning pain streaked across my gut and I winced, counting to one-hundred as I waited for it to pass. Sweating, I stood and made my way unsteadily to the bathroom.
I leaned slightly, pressing my palm to the wall as I relieved myself at the urinal. What was I doing? What was I hoping to accomplish by coming to this place? My life was over, spent. There would be no love found or great truths revealed. I would get drunk and try to stumble home. Wouldn't that be a kick, to fall asleep on a neighbors stoop? Imagine the scandal the hens in the neighborhood would have then! Perhaps that was a way to go out - scandalously. But, no. Peggy didn't deserve that, and neither did the kids.
I made my way back to my stool and was greeted by a bar that was now half full. I guess it's true what I heard, that bars get busier later in the evening. I glanced down at my watch, but the light played tricks on me as I tried to read the dial. It kept moving from six to seven-thirty to quarter after ten. I blinked owlishly and thought I might ask for the time from someone. My glass was full, however, so I decided to ignore the time and have another beer; with Peggy out of town I had no one to answer to but myself. As I drank I looked around at the patrons.
Some were like me; older but not yet dead. Some sat in groups with mixed ages, some were couples, and a very few were like me, sitting alone. The door opened and a group of young men came in with a few young ladies mixed in. Good gravy, what I wouldn't give to live a life more like theirs. How different must the possibilities be. They were all so young - heart-breakingly young and full of life.
"Wouldn't it be grand to be so young and in love?" I asked aloud to no one.
With a sigh of regret I turned from that group that glittered like new stars and contemplated my beer. Time seemed to stretch, to become somehow malleable. I was probably just drunk; two light beers was usually my limit before I'd be snoring on the couch, and I'd already had far more tonight, would have been worse if I'd had my pain meds. No doubt about it, though, I was getting messy. Peggy would have called me 'snockered'. That word always made me chuckle. There was just something uppity and old-fashioned about it.
"So, friend," the bartender said as he took up station with me again. "Think you'd do things differently if you had the chance?"
I bobbed my head a little, either in thought or in time with the music, I wasn't sure which. "Maybe. Hopefully. If I knew what I do now, sure. I could make better choices. But if I were, you know, just to be myself it'd probably be harder." I sighed. "I always admired the pretty ones, the athletic ones or the ones with musical talent. Things always seemed to go better for them."
"Well, maybe in another life you're happily married to the man of your dreams and cancer free."
"Sure," I said with a snort and a laugh. For a moment, unexpectedly, I grew wistful at his question. "I could be the gay version of that old saw about marrying my high school sweetheart."
"Really. Have you heard of the multiverse theory? Multiple realities that exist side by side? Imagine stepping into another reality, maybe very similar to this one, but in which things had gone right. What do you think?"
"If I could do it without hurting anyone, I'd say sign me up!" I told him and took another drink.
My inebriation began to affect my senses more palpably. Sounds were by turns muted and crystal clear. I spoke to the barkeep and at other times felt I was talking to myself. My words weren't important. I was just lamenting being old and dying. How I'd inherited my father's body shape, which made me look middle aged from about ten on. How I wished I'd been better at sports, played an instrument - the same old bullshit I'd been wishing for most of my life. I'd never been really good at sports, though I enjoyed playing them. My musical skills were on par with your average four year old. I think I covered my looks already. Hell, I'm really glad my kids looked like Peggy.
My attention was drawn again by the barman as he called for the attention of the bar and the background noise dropped down to a low murmur.
"We have a birthday in the house tonight!" he called out and the crowd broke into scattered cheers. "A toast to our new friend!"
The bartender pushed a shot toward me, something neon green. The bar patrons gave a ragged cheer, a couple of whistles and a few broke into a bawdy version of 'Happy Birthday'. I looked around the room quickly as smiling faces lifted glasses toward me before returning to their friends. I nodded to myself and smiled at the bartender.
"Thanks for that. Very kind," I told him. I lifted the shot, tipped toward him in salute and downed it. The liquid was sweet, thick and left a mild feeling of refreshment floating on my tongue. I sat for a moment in contemplation of that, wondering what I'd just drunk and considering cutting myself off.
That's about the last thing I can remember.
"Drake? Time to get up, buddy."
My eyes flickered open and my head felt a bit heavy and cottony. A mild confusion set in as I blearily tried to come awake. My bladder was screaming for release and I felt the uncomfortable pressure of a piss hard-on straining at my underwear.
The room was semi-dark, and as I sat up I felt disoriented. Light filtered through cheap Venetian blinds and I very dimly wondered where I was. I felt awkward, but that was probably due to the alcohol, I assumed.
"Come on. It's getting late in the day, Drake." That voice. It was foreign to me. Who was Drake? I shook my head and the cobwebs shifted, perhaps, but didn't clear. I stood up and my body entered an involuntary stretch that felt incredibly good, except for my middle which reported a bladder near bursting.
To my right was a doorway and I gingerly stepped though the door. Rather than a proper hallway I found I was on a smallish landing with several doors branching from it. A man leaned on a railing in front of me, dressed in sweats and with a flat cap perched on his head. He lowered his phone and smiled. His teeth seemed overly bright in contrast with his dark skin.
"Morning." He tilted his head toward me, a small smile playing about his lips.
"Bathroom?" I asked. I could find out where I was afterward, first order of business was to not wet myself. He pointed to my right and I turned and stumbled into the room. I reached blindly along the wall until I hit on the light switch, which brought a dim illumination to the small room. I closed the door and leaned against the wall at an acute angle so I could actually relieve myself.
I chuckled to myself, wondering when the last time had been I'd woken up and had to perform the leaning tower position in order to pee. I frowned slightly and looked down at myself as I finished my business. Where was my gut? And that was not my pecker. I blinked and pulled up my underwear - again, not mine - and looked around, bewildered and growing uneasy. The bathroom was depressing. To my right was a stained cast iron tub with mildewed tile forming the surround. A stained shower curtain was pushed off to one side. Turning to my left I noted the tiny vanity with a small skirt underneath it to hide whatever was stored beneath.
I stepped over to the sink and looked into the mirror. I stared blankly, wondering what was going on but unable to make any kind of sane connection outside of some sort of practical joke or maybe the most vivid of dreams. Maybe I was dying and this was the last gift of a wistful brain? A boy looked back from the mirror. A handsome boy, at least I thought so. He had a diamond shaped face - prominent cheekbones, a long straight nose and the overall effect was one of aristocratic beauty. There was a light tan on his face, golden brown hair that was tousled from sleep and pale, yet bright, green eyes. I blinked and the boy in the mirror copied me. I lifted my hand and rubbed the sleep from my eyes and the mirror image did the same.
What was going on? I ran the tap and rinsed my face, trying to knock the last of the cobwebs from my brain. I didn't see a towel and the ring on the wall where one would hang a washcloth was empty so I just pushed as much water from my face as I could. I glanced back into the mirror and the same boy, now with a wet face, looked back at me. I looked down at myself, only becoming more confused as I took in the slender body adorned with a white tee shirt and boxer briefs. Slender but athletic legs tapered down to bare feet - and I felt a cold wave ripple through me.
What the fuck was going on? I passed a hand through my hair and it felt so real. On the few times I'd had strong dreams I can recall trying to make sense of them or struggling to wake, but I didn't feel that now. I ran a hand under my shirt and felt the hand as well as its passage along my flat stomach. I couldn't recall ever having such heightened awareness in a dream but I hoped I wouldn't wake up, at least not right away.
A tap came at the door. "Drake? You okay? Breakfast is waitin.'"
I looked at the mirror. "Who is Drake?" I whispered.
I'd dressed simply in clothes that appeared to be for Drake, whom everyone assumed I was. Sweats were comfortable and soft against my skin, and I'd pulled on socks though no slippers were forthcoming. I'd descended the stairs and the man with the flat cap followed me. I found myself in an older home that was minimally maintained. The stairs ended in some sort of ante-room and there was a decorative partition that included a pillar to either side. The carpet was low pile, wrinkled in spots and clearly old. The walls were dingy and the finish chipped in places; fine cracks were visible in the surface.
The pillars had some sort of cracked veneer on them that added to the overall run-down appearance. The room adjacent was a TV room where a flat screen mounted high on the wall blared out some cartoon where people just screamed instead of forming actual words. There were two couches, identical sizes and patterns, and they were both worn down enough to consider leaving them on the curb. Children sat on each of them, looking at me with mild curiosity and then going back to whatever they were doing.
The drab interior continued through the TV room and into a dining room, just off to the left. A battered table with mismatched, damaged chairs sat forlornly underneath an old light fixture that was probably from before my time. Beyond that was an enclosed porch with large windows, covered with stained drapes. The overall feeling was of desperation and depression. There was a single place setting on the table, with a couple of pancakes and something that was trying very hard to look like scrambled eggs.
From the left a woman entered the room from what appeared to be a kitchen. She was thin, with dishwater blond hair and a bandanna corralling her wispy hair. She smiled, showing coffee stained teeth, with one turning a weird brown-yellow color.
"There he is! Want some sausages, honey?" she asked in a voice that clearly announced life-long smoker.
Despite the dubious nature of the food on the table, my...my? Well, mine for the moment, I guess. My stomach growled and I tried to smile and nod.
"Poor thing," she said in her smoky growl. She turned back into the kitchen and I glanced at the table.
"Go ahead and get started, you're the last one, Drake," she called out. I glanced behind me and the man with the flat cap was sitting on the arm of a couch, looking down at his phone. I pulled the chair out and sat. Moisture was leaking away from the eggs and I pushed the pancakes away from them to avoid getting them soggy. Eww, soggier.
I put some butter and syrup on them to mask the taste and started to eat. It was bland, but my stomach didn't care. It gurgled and demanded more. Soon I was left to contemplate the runny eggs and I took a tentative bite. Squishy, sort of rubbery and a bit slimy. No, I couldn't stomach those. I waited and looked around at the room, but it was depressingly more of the same. There was a window that let in weak light, though it looked to be sunny outside. The windows were dirty and had the same crappy blinds as the bedroom, making it hard to tell what was really going on outside, weather wise.
I was interrupted as a plate smacked down on the table before me with four sausage links. The woman sat in a chair next to me with a coffee cup and she smiled again.
"Wow, you polished off those pancakes, huh? Did you sleep well?"
I paused to wonder if I had slept well and realized I just didn't know. I had no idea where I was, what was going on with this body I seemed to be in or who these other people were. I didn't know when it was, either - no date, time. Hell, what planet.
"I'm not sure," I told her honestly, then speared a link and carefully chewed as they were still hot.
"Well, with all you've been through?" she said and blew out her lips. "I'm not surprised."
Ah. This woman knew something. I cleared my throat and frowned lightly. "All I've been through?"
She gave me a sympathetic look. I nibbled on the sausage as I waited to hear whatever information she had that might help me make sense of my situation. If this was somehow not a dream or a joke, and I couldn't understand how it wouldn't be, then I had to figure out my situation and what was expected of me.
"Sure. Your folks? Going from that to, well, this," she said and waved her hand around at the room we inhabited but which I took to mean the whole building. She nodded knowingly. "It has to be a huge shock. No wonder your memories are, well, you know what I mean."
"Shell," flat cap said as he shuffled into the room. "Anymore o' them sausages lef'?"
"Yeah, four more. Don't eat more'n two! Drake looks like he's not eating those eggs so he needs the protein." She looked at flat cap as he walked into the kitchen, but he seemed to have stopped listening at 'yeah'.
From what she was saying my memories were damaged, somehow, so I could ask questions and not be thought of as weird or impaired.
"Uh, so, where am I?" I asked.
"Huh?" she asked, turning back from the direction flat cap had gone.
"Where am I?"
"Oh. This is Forest House. We're a group home," she said and coughed.
A group home? Was I some kind of delinquent? Or was this kid whose body I was in - setting aside for the nonce how weird that sounds - a troublemaker of some kind? No matter what, I was in a house with people paid to see to my needs. It was odd to essentially have a babysitter again.
"Uh, why am I here?" I asked.
Her expression grew soft. She brought a hand up to adjust her bandanna and then removed it entirely in order to refold it. "Well, honey, there was a bad accident. A car accident. Your folks, they didn't...well, they went quick." She paused, gauging my reaction. When I said nothing she continued, "You came out without a mark on ya. Kind of a miracle, that. You were in some kind of coma in the hospital for a bit, not sure how long really. A month? But so far, they can't find any of your people, you know?"
"Family? Can you think of any aunts or uncles?" She looked at me pensively for a moment and then went to work replacing her bandanna. "Records don't show you having any extended family. I'd guess the lawyer for your parents' estate is looking, though."
I looked away from her and kept eating the sausages. As I did I wondered about what she'd said. I'd lost my parents quite a while ago. My mother to ALS and my father to dementia. Of course she was referring to this boy I seemed to be masquerading as, and I had no memory of anything to do with him. His face in the mirror was that of a stranger. I felt stress building in my head as I tried to reconcile the idea that I seemed to be in someone else's body. How does that even begin to happen? When did it happen? Why?
"Do you have any other questions, honey?" she asked. "Are you all right?"
I blinked and looked at her.
"What's my name?"
She looked at me blankly for a moment and then said, "You're Drake. Drake Dalton Mathews."