Caroline let out a long, happy sigh. Her last patron trundled out the door, and she waited half a minute before rushing to lock the door behind him.
Spring had finally overtaken the cold, so she was tempted to reopen the door after seeing the gentleman turn the corner. But she decided the fresh breeze was not worth the risk of a passerby thinking the bar was still open.
Weekdays were always quiet, and therefore always handled by a single manager. She’d sent the new waitress, Maddie, home an hour ago, but continued to serve the melancholy man until he was ready to leave. She didn’t always let people stay passed closing, but this gentleman had been in several times, never got obnoxiously drunk, and left a good tip.
She turned and leaned back against the door, surveying her little domain. There had been two interviews and a full bar audition to earn the coveted spot as a lead bartender here. Caroline had heard of an opening, and practiced for weeks after shifts at her old hole-in-the-wall bar to master her movements as well as her spirit knowledge.
The Swan was no place for flipping bottles of vodka high in the air to impress co-eds. This was the favored bar for both the quietly wealthy and the want-to-be famous of the city. These people wanted smooth over showy, flowing and easy movements that told them they were in confident hands. They needed someone who knew sorrow called for strong yet pure, and different joys begged for different flavors. One needed to be as cool as the marble curled in front of tall arched chairs; as peaceful as the azure walls stretched high to meet with crystal chandeliers that shimmered even in the dim evening. Yet still as warm and approachable as the overstuffed leather couches circled farthest away from the door, where the larger groups liked to gather. Caroline was proud to belong here, both in the rush of Saturday evenings as well as the hushed Tuesday nights.
These quieter evenings, or rather early mornings, when the seats were empty and the doors locked, that is when Caroline’s true regulars arrived.
The shadows in the edge of each corner and every doorway, those had been with her since she could barely toddle. They arrived each evening in her childhood bedroom to stay until dawn. When she’d lay down at night, she’d stare at them, wide eyed and determined to stay awake. She thought if she kept a watch on them, they could not creep any closer. If the dared to do so, she sprinted to the sanctuary of her mother’s sleepy arms.
Shadows followed her to her first apartment too, where there was no parental shelter. Part of the reason she took a job with so many night shifts was to avoid the eerie darkness waiting for her at home. Yet, her first closing night of her bartending debut, there they were. They followed her everywhere.
The knocks and wind-filled whispers had joined her as companions around her teenage years. With growing pains came growing anxiety, and the nightly random pitches were its soundtrack, her speeding heartbeat the metronome. She’d known then she was too old to still be afraid of the dark, but the sounds still shook her. A little scratch there meant danger, a bump here meant imminent peril.
The chill along the back of her neck joined her in the nights after her college graduation. Abroad and alone, nothing prepares the body’s system to lose the last safety net, so this chill happily filled in the void.
She had one regular that who no longer courted her, though. Though they’d left their shadowy accomplices, the hidden monsters themselves left her five years back.
Before that last long night, she had checked each closet corner and under the bed every day since she could remember. As she’d grown, she would try to creak open the closet doors as quietly as possible, so her siblings or roommates would not hear how childish her fears remained. Sometimes, she would have to recheck each dark space again when she woke in the middle of the night.
But he’d taken the monsters with him. After the last fight, in which he had said the only monster he saw was inside Caroline, she watched him walk out her door. She stared at the closed door for several long minutes, and then simply went to bed. It was only when she was halfway through the night she realized what she hadn’t done. But the sobbing and heartbreak were too heavy for her to rise and do her nightly rounds. The next night came, and she again felt no need to check. She knew there was no reason to inspect the empty spaces. Whether it was because he was right or he was wrong still weighed on her mind. Either way, the other monsters took their leave along with him.
A little older, a little more worn, she welcomed those she once tried to chase away. Sometimes the world was too bright, or the glare from a busy shift too painful, and the gloomy corners softened the pain around her eyes. They’d become more shade than shadow.
The bumps and thumps fought of the silence. Now they were only her sunless symphony.
She rolled her neck back and the chill creeping there cooled the steaming sweat from a long shift.
Caroline wiped down the marble bar, humming to the dark places. These were her regulars. These were the patrons she always served, and a good bartender was kind to her loyal customers.
Reconcile (verb): 1. Restore friendly relations between. 2. Cause to coexist in harmony; make or show to be compatible. 3. Make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.
Hello again to Caroline! She’s so familiar, I enjoy writing her so I hope you all are good with her popping up from time to time.
This whole too-old-to-be-afraid-of-the-dark thing is something I have certainly pulled from experience, haha…
…no really, there was dust on my college degree by the time I stopped turning on the closet or hall light before getting in bed. But then as I dealt with some inner demons, the ones in my closet seemed to fade away too. Tonight I’m sitting with my patio door open to the night, letting a chill breeze in and loving the soft calls the world is singing out to the stars. Crazy how that works, huh?
I hope you all sleep well tonight, whether your night-light is within you, or a cute little plug-in 😉