Chris tended the bar distractedly. It was once again Mojito Monday, and a week since his world was rocked to its core by an unexpected visitor to the bar. Though he never saw his face, Chris had reason to believe it was someone that he hadn’t laid eyes on since Tucson.
Chris hadn’t been sure he had survived the fallout of that fateful day, but now, it appeared as though he was not as safe as once imagined. Chris waited for a message, a sign, anything! By now, he was beginning to doubt himself. Perhaps his guilty mind was playing tricks on him. He was so frazzled, he couldn’t even enjoy Fruit Day. Deciding that this constant worrying was getting him nowhere, Chris immersed himself in the work he loved. He looked over to the corner of the bar to see Zac pouring small amounts of liquids into a glass. As he filled the glass, the contents began to emit a thick fog that poured over the top of the glass in a rolling cloud.
Joey, who had been watching Zac the whole time, grew increasingly alarmed. “Duffy… what the hell… are you doing?”
Zac sniffed his concoction, his singed nose hairs making his eyes water. “I’m trying something new… it’s like a cider…” he said.
Joey looked at the sputtering fluid in the glass and backed away a few steps. “The fuck it is!” he replied. Joey recognized a hint of madness in Zac’s eyes and tapped Chris rapidly on the shoulder.
Taken away from his dark thoughts, Chris took in the scene before him, wonder just what was transpiring. “Hey… Zac… don’t drink that, man.”
Zac waved away their protests and quickly guzzled the drink. “Whoo! That’s a tasty bitch!” He smacked his lips repeatedly, feeling the warmth spread through his chest.
Joey and Chris looked at him skeptically for a minute, shaking their head at his dumb luck. Their attention was short-lived when Tyler burst through the doors, a ball of rage. “Where… is he?” he asked.
Chris took in his disheveled appearance, noticing several threads hanging from around his neck and arms. “What is wrong with your clothes?” he asked.
“Jamie sewed up all of my clothes!” Tyler shouted.
Chris failed to stifle his chuckles. “W-what?”
Tyler enunciated carefully. “He sewed up the neck holes of my shirts, and the sleeves, and the bottoms. He sewed up the top and bottom of all my jeans… He even sewed up the legs of my boxers!”
Joey fell against the bar, laughing.
“It’s not funny, Joey! When does he find the time to do these things?!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Joey repeated with tears in his eyes.
“Ugh, I need a drink!” Tyler said.
They all noticed Zac beginning to cough and choke behind the bar.
“Hey, Duffy. You okay?” Tyler asked.
Zac’s knees buckled and he fell to the floor, feeling the burn spread throughout his body, wracking him with pain. The guys rushed over to him, concerned, when suddenly he went completely motionless.
“Shit! Zac! Hey!” Chris started shaking him, automatically fearing the worst.
Tyler helped roll him over and the three of them were taken aback. Zac’s eyes popped open, and he jumped to his feet. His mustache was magically jet black, and pencil thin. Where there was once a full beard, a tiny goatee stood proudly in a slick triangle below his bottom lip. He seemed somehow tanner, his eyebrows permanently arched in suave flirtation. His comrades were silent for a moment, not quite sure how to react.
“Zac… buddy? How ya feelin?” Tyler asked.
“Como…un pantera negra…” he said. “Mmm. I AM zee black panth-errrr.” he purred.
“Wait… what?” Tyler replied.
Chris and Joey looked at each other in confusion. “Why are you a black panther?” Chris asked.
“Why are you Spanish and French?” Joey queried.
“Enough!” Zac commanded. “Zee night, she is full of the beautiful mujeres waiting to be served by…” He snapped, stomping is feet. “Zee Black Pantherrrr.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “Well, Ole then.”
Joey continued to stare at Zac. “Just don’t serve them that shit you just drank,” he replied.
Three ladies walked up to the bar, and Tyler looked on with rapt attention.
“Ju! My little ménage a trois, I make something especial for ju!” Zac announced.
“Pick a language, dude!” Joey called as he walked through the bar.
Zac began to create another elixir, as Chris watched on with equal measure of awe and relief – in awe of how much liquor was going into the drink, and relief that Zac had remained true to his word and had not duplicated the smoking potion of before. As Zac poured the mix into three glasses, Chris stuck a straw into one of them to taste the new offerings.
“Here you are, my little sex flowers!” Zac offered the drinks to the young ladies, who were automatically enthralled and impressed with the new drink.
“Sex Flower… si!”
Chris nodded. “Not bad, Duf… I mean Black Panther. We’ll work on the name though.” Sex Flower simply would not do.
Joey returned with a few empty glasses that had be left on abandoned tables around the bar. “Hey Chris, I need a mint julep.”
Chris’s stomach lurched, and panic gripped his heart. The scar on his wrist began to itch. “Who ordered this, Joey?!” Chris demanded.
“Some guy in a hoodie,” Joey replied.
Chris grabbed Joey by the shirt, desperate for answers. “What did he look like?!”
Eyebrows raised, Joey looked at Chris as if he had sprouted another head. “He looked like a guy… in a hoodie.”
Chris released him and apologized. “Where is he?”
Joey looked around, but did not see the man who was sitting alone in the far, corner booth. “Huh. I guess I no mint julep after all…”
Before he finished speaking, Chris ran from the bar, out the back door. He spun around in the parking lot, looking for any signs of life, but found only the crisp December air and the bustle of the busy streets.
“You seem to have done well for yourself… Mad. Muddles. Bannon.”
The deep voice froze his blood, but Chris had no choice but to slowly turn and come face to face with past. “Saint Peter,” he replied.
“How’ve you been, Christopherson?” Jake asked.
“It’s Chris… and I’ve been just fine.”
“More than fine, I would say.” He grinned evilly. “They’re starting to call your name again, just like the old days.”
Chris hated that he couldn’t resist scratching the scar on his wrist.
“Aww, yes. How is the old war wound? Still bothering you?”
Chris shook his head. “No, it’s much better.”
“Well that’s good. Pretty soon, you’ll be as famous here as you were in Tucson,” Jake baited.
“Tucson was a long time ago. I’m just a simple bartender now,” Chris reasoned.
“I wanted so much to believe that. But, then, you had to go and start muddling again.” Jake circled him slowly, like a shark. “Do they know; your new found friends?” He laughed. “How about your boss? Does Jamie know of the past?”
One look at Chris’s aghast expression and Jake knew he had hit his mark. “Of course I know who he is. I’ve known all along! What is this, Bannon, some desperate attempt at penance?”
“Sainthood is your thing, Jake, not mine,” Chris shot back.
“Ooh, kitten has claws. How brave do you think you’ll be when your new family finds out you’ve been lying to them?”
Chris felt his throat close. He looked around him at the see of bright lights – Christmas lights. This was the season of joy and giving. It was heartbreaking to think of so much regret, on the backdrop of what should be the most wonderful time of the year.
Jamie’s voice was most unwelcome. Chris could already see the mischievous glint in Jake’s eye. He felt like his entire world could end tonight. “H-hey, Jamie.” Chris wished on every star in the sky that it didn’t end this way.
Joey burst through the back door. “Chris, Zac is trying to bullfight Tyler!” he yelled.
Jamie’s trilling giggle echoed through the parking lot. “This, I’ve gotta see! Wheeeeeee!” He ran past Chris and Jake without a second glance. Only Joey noticed that there was something not quite right between the two.
“Chris, is everything alright?” he asked.
Was everything alright? Such an innocuous question to have such a complicated answer.
Jake smiled charmingly. “I was just apologizing for running out after ordering my drink. Family emergency, you know how that can be.” He sent a pointed look at Chris. “Still, allow me to give you a tip, for your trouble.” He placed something in Chris’s hand, then walked away, smiling. He didn’t get into a vehicle, nor make any moves to call a cab. He simply walked off into the night.
Chris didn’t know if he trusted himself enough to move, let alone to speak. When he looked up at Joey, and attempted a smile, he hoped the depth of his concern didn’t show all over his face. From inside the bar, sounds of joy and laughter and the occasional shouts of TORO! momentarily distracted Joey. Chris took the opportunity to slip past him into the bar. Joey watched him retreat, but wasn’t fooled for a minute. Joey always thought there was something going on with him, and this interrupted confrontation with the hooded stranger only confirmed it. Joey decided then and there that he would get to the bottom of it. Above everything else, no one and no thing was allowed to break the family up.
Nearby shuffling caught his attention as Not-Chandler walked through the parking lot, bared from ankle to thigh. Confused for the millionth time that night, Joey looked at him incredulously. “Not-Chandler…” The blank expression he got in return, as if nothing was amiss completely dumbfounded him. Joey had no idea where he’d come from, he was completely alone, and it was twenty degrees outside. “…where are your pants?”
Not-Chandler scratched his head with a cheeky smile. “…long story.”
Joey decided that was a better reply than ‘I’m not sure’, so they must be doing something right. “Get inside before you die,” Joey said, shaking his head. It was going to be that kind of night.
Behind the bar, while everyone’s attention was on the pantless Not-Chandler, Chris unfolded the paper Jake had slipped into his palm.