Chris sat at the bar, alone, idly stirring his bowl of Cocoa Puffs, watching his milk blend with the swirls of chocolate. There was something oddly calming about Cocoa Puffs. In fact, it was the only luxury from his past he had allowed himself. When he embarked on this new life, he had agreed to leave everything behind – the fame, the fans, it was all lost along with the pain and the shame of everything that had gone wrong in Tucson.
He’d been so young back then. At the tender age of 19, he was nervous, wondering if he could really do it. Where he came from, bartenders were gods, and he was planning to join their ranks. His first job was a small bar in the Tucson International Airport. It was a nondescript bar, with nothing particularly special about it, except one thing.
Jake “The Saint” Peter.
He was famous in those parts, with a following so extensive, flights that connected in Tucson came at a premium price. His talent single-handedly kept that airport afloat. Tending bar was a brutal calling, and most bartenders didn’t last past their 25th year.
“Tending bar is a young man’s game,” Jake had always said. “It takes a certain amount of nonsense that must reside deep in the soul. Only few are born with what it truly took. The ancients called them… Tenderonis.”
Over the years, Jake had passed down the legend of the Tenderonis to his young protegé. Those who were chosen became ageless, timeless, imbued with immeasurable power; power that could be used for good or evil. Chris hadn’t been sure he believed in all of it, but never spoke a word out of respect for his mentor.
Then, one day, a wallet had been left at the bar. Chris had checked the ID inside. It was Jake’s, and the sight of it stilled his heart.
“This date of birth, it can’t be right!” he had said to himself.
“Now do you believe?” a voice startled him.
Chris hadn’t wanted to admit it, but it was all true. According to his license, Jake was 83. “How is this possible?” Chris asked.
A smile passed across Jake’s face. “Now your training can begin.” Jake had seen a spark in Chris from the beginning, so he had immediately taken the scared, young boy under his wing. He didn’t know if he could, in fact, be the next Tenderoni, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
Now, here it was, years later – Chris’s birthday. He had passed his 25th year, with no desire to stop tending bar. In fact, he was working that night. Everything was true. He had alcohol in his blood, just like Jake had said.
So much had changed since those days, and Chris still wasn’t sure at what point it had all started to go wrong. All he knew is that he had a strong sense of foreboding since Mojito Monday. Something was looming on the horizon, and it threatened to destroy everything he had worked for.
He crunched the last Cocoa Puff, slurping his chocolate milk to steel his reserve for the night. The door opened and Joey strolled in, looking at him skeptically. He’d been looking at him weird ever since Monday, and Chris didn’t know how to dispel his suspicions.
Luckily, he was saved from having an awkward conversation when the first wave of patrons entered the bar. They spent the night working around each other cautiously, until finally falling into a semi-comfortable rhythm. All Chris wanted to do was to get through this night unscathed. He turned to the register, having to count someone’s change for the third time, noticing the scar on his wrist began to itch.
a chorus of shrieks filled the bar and everyone spun towards the door. Chris didn’t need to look. He knew that noise, had lived with it almost every day for years.
That’s what they called his fan club. Those whose love of travel was eclipsed only by their love of mojitos. Whenever possible, they made their connections through Tucson just to get one of his famous Mojitos. Time stood still as he turned to face his past, the past that had somehow found him.
“MUDDLES!” they screamed in unison, flocking to the bar, some of them in full Muddle Lover regalia. They all began speaking at once, garnering more attention than Chris was prepared to handle at the moment.
“Where have you been?!”
“I can’t believe we found you!”
“Oh my goodness, Happy Birthday!”
“He was right! You’re actually here!”
He was right. Ah so Jake had decided to give the past a helping hand. Chris looked over, noticing Joey growing more and more curious about the situation unfolding. “Ladies! How about a round of celebratory mojitos?” he suggested. “Why don’t you grab that booth way over there and I’ll be right over to muddle you up something tasty.”
They squealed in delight, quickly making their way over to the booth, chatting about their luck, as Chris wondered how he was ever going to survive the night. He grabbed some fruit and his muddler, hoping his luck would hold out a little while longer. Under the intense scrutiny of Joey, he didn’t see how it possibly could. He stood at the table muddling his heart out, trying to figure a way out of this mess.
“Hey, Muddles… you okay?”
Chris put on a brave smile. “Yeah, just … surprised to see you gals, that’s all.”
They accepted his reply without a word, but none of them believed it. Still, they thanked him sweetly, handing him the birthday presents they’d come to bring him. As he made his way back to the bar, they put their heads together in contemplation. “Darlings,” Ras said, “I think Muddles might be in trouble…”
That night, they vowed to keep a watch over him, for they knew what he truly was. For as long as there have been Tenderonis, there have been Guardian Angels to keep them safe. They often lamented the name, because they were hardly the innocent light bearers their titles suggested. They were daughters of the underworld, warrior tigresses that fiercely protected the balance of the universe of bar tending.
Chris felt the pressure building, and with it came the familiar feeling that lead him to Raleigh. Maybe it was time to cut his losses, before things got really bad. Maybe it was time to run again.
“Hey Tyler, do me a favor, cover me for a second,” he said.
“Sure,” Tyler replied. Finally, it was his time to shine.
Surreptitiously, Chris made his way out the back door, trying his best not to turn around. It was better for everyone involved if he just started over somewhere else.
Chris jumped, assuming that Jake had once again come to torture him. He was shocked to see it was Not-Chandler that came around the side of the building.
“Uh yeah… I just…” Chris tried to think of a plausible story, but halted when Not-Chandler shook his head.
“Bannon, you may think I’m just the quiet, little guy who’s not Chandler… but I see things. And, what I see is someone about to make a bad decision. Nobody is perfect, least of all anyone around here. The one thing we are, is a family… and family doesn’t desert each other.”
Chris was stunned. Not-Chandler was smart, he was profound, he was… “Seriously, where are your pants?!” Chris exclaimed.
“Everyone has their secrets,” Not-Chandler smiled, walking back from whence he came.
Chris walked back into the bar to the crashing wave of “Surprise!” as confetti rained down upon him. As the bar sang “Happy Birthday!” to him, he knew he had made the right choice. He looked around at all the familiar faces, to everyone who had become important to him. Finally his eyes fell to Jamie. He had dressed as Marilyn Monroe and launched into a particularly sultry rendition of the song, standing on top of the bar.
Suddenly, everything became clear to Chris.
That pantless bastard was right. Not only was this is family, but this was his home, and he wouldn’t run out on either one. He would make it through his birthday, and at the end of it, he would get the guys together and confess everything.