By M.V. Freeman
“This place makes me wonder… Which would be worse, to live as a monster, or to die as a good man” The rough hewn man slammed down his heavy gloves and hard hat onto the bar counter. A puff of black powder drifted up from it, not unusual from the mines.
“Depends on the monster.” I couldn’t help the quiet words as I placed a napkin before him and his usual glass of whiskey. I’d never spoken before, just taking orders, getting money and doing my job. It was safer this way. My tips were the lowest because of my reticence, not like Jackie the other waitress, her laughter, flirting and ability to charm everyone gave her a good living. I barely covered my rent.
He turned to look at me and I jerked. No one ever responded to me, just gave terse orders for drinks and tried not to look at me. I didn’t blame them.
“Do you see many monsters?” His face was blackened by dust, masking his features, only his eyes could be seen clearly–a bright green, reminiscent of early color of the spring leaves. Those eyes really looked at me, no, through me. I tried hard not to duck my head and hide. This was the first real conversation I’d had in a very long while.
“Yes.” I muttered, not lying. There were many strange and scary creatures who came in seeking solace in drink, some carried their horror on as part of their skin, others held theirs in their soul—those were the dangerous ones. I didn’t want to discuss it with him, so I added inanely, “The rock trolls come in from time to time.”
“No. That’s not what I mean.” He smiled then, a small flash of white from his teeth. I couldn’t help the catch in my breath, with the curve of his lips his heavy features transformed into something—nice. I needed to get away from him, but he stopped me from turning away with a light press of his finger on my forearm. The sensation of his touch traveled through me with a shock of static electricity. “Stay for a minute.” He nodded toward Reed, the hulking bartender and my boss, “He can spare you for a few minutes of conversation.”
I gave a quick glance over at Reed, he didn’t like us servers to linger too long. Time was money was his favorite cliché. But, I think he was trying to protect us in his own way. I’d heard of some of my predecessors disappearing. I shouldn’t have worried my boss was engrossed in a low-voiced negotiation with a tall, thin, dark haired man. Probably a vampire, they had particular needs which sometimes couldn’t be met. Not everyone was prepared to donate blood, especially those with magic thrumming through one’s veins and here near the mines there were plenty.
I stayed where I was, even when the man next to me leaned down and spoke softly in my ear, his breath tickling my braided dark hair just at my nape making me shiver. “Do you think Monsters are like the vampire there? Willing to rip out a throat? Or the Banshee hiding in the corner, willing to kill for the right price?” I couldn’t help my eyes moving to the plain looking older woman with a hood over half her face trying to hide the tattoo on her cheek denoting her clan. Most Banshee’s supplemented their income as killers for hire, it paid better, but wasn’t great for longevity. She must have hatchlings at home to support, it was the only reason anyone saw them outside their nests their drive to provide for their young physiological and cultural. Another tremble ran through me and I wasn’t sure if it was his voice or what he was saying. I couldn’t stop turning to look into his beautiful eyes again. I wanted to drown in those eyes. He didn’t smell of sweat and rock dust, no, he smelled of moss, growing things and of the dampness of earth.
“I’m a monster.” The words tumbled out before I could stop myself.
Stupid, stupid girl, I castigated myself.
“What? Because you have scars?” It was as if he’d heard my thoughts berating myself for speaking. He smiled again, this one was genuine not a twist of lips. Taking one grimy finger, he touched my check with a breath of pressure and I let him, wanting the feel of it. “Because someone decided they couldn’t live with your beauty?”
“No. Because I couldn’t live with my beauty.” My heart thudded hard in my chest, the pulse of it echoing in my shoulders and ears. I wondered if he could hear it. Why had I told him this? He didn’t know my name, and I only knew him by his profession. Why was I sharing my personal darkness with him? In those few words I revealed my self-loathing and fear. I’d slashed my own face to avoid being auctioned off by my family to some rich man to make a buck. I was useless to them ugly—a monster, but at the least it was my life now.
He took a drink of the whiskey then, swallowing the amber liquid in one move. The form of his jaw was strong. I wondered what brought him here to the mines. He’d never spoken much to anyone, prior to this. Placing the thick glass on the bar, he regarded me with those amazing eyes and for a moment I wanted to know what he looked like under all the grime. The desire to see him clean and clear of the dirt was strong enough to make me ache.
“Beauty. We think it’s all skin deep.” He had a nice voice, clear, strong, not too deep, or too light. It was one made to orate stories, to speak to crowds, but instead he was here in the mines, excavating Rock, filled with properties magic users would kill for. “Monsters are like the foreman, who threw a miner down the shaft today as an example. All because the poor fool was trying to smuggle some extra stone to sell, just to feed his family. There’s a no tolerance policy about stealing, no matter the reason. Another miner stepped in to stop it, but it was too late and because he was a good man to interfere he lost his job. Now two families will be suffering tonight, all because of a senseless death.” He nodded when I lifted the whiskey bottle to offer him more and poured it into his cloudy glass. Cleanliness was not a priority here. “Good men die at the hands of monsters, to prevent it, maybe being worse is better.”
“No.” I couldn’t say why it bothered me that he thought like this. It was as if he was giving up hope, on himself …on life. Before I could answer a group of shifters entered bellowing for beers, excusing myself I rushed to comply. Twenty minutes later, I returned, cloth in hand expecting the strange Miner to be gone and to wipe up what dust I could, but still he sat staring at his full glass of whiskey. I’d left the bottle and most of it was gone.
I’d meant to just walk past, instead I asked, “Do you want some coffee?” I needed to stay away from him. Don’t chat too long with the customers is what Reed said and the warning lay heavy in my mind. But when the Miner nodded giving me a slight smile, I scooted off to the small kitchen in back like some infatuated tween. The cooking area was more for employees than for customers. It didn’t stop me from making a fresh pot and finding an actual clean mug to pour it in, I think it my boss’s, but I wouldn’t tell him. There was no cream and sugar, he’d have to deal with it black. It wasn’t long before I was back in front of him, placing the mug next to his hardhat. At the clunk of the mug on the scratched surface of wood his head came up and he gaze rooted me to the floor.
“Here.” I tried to sound nonchalant; instead it came out a low rasp. I’d been here a year and my ability to converse had disintegrated in this backwoods town, but I’d thought it safer here than among my family. I tried again, “You need this more than whiskey .” What he needed was lots of water, but even I wouldn’t give him that, it was tainted. We all bought bottled water, but Reed didn’t sell it here, saying if the customers wanted bottled water they needed to go to the mini-mart across the street.
“Maybe.” He shrugged picking up the mug.
Emboldened by possible insanity I spoke again, wanting to understand his moroseness, this willingness to talk to me. “You were the one who interfered, to prevent the minor’s death.”
He stilled then and something passed over his face, a grimace of pain so deep it resonated inside me, as if I were a tuning fork. I understood this pain of the soul, we all had one such wound, some even more.
“No.” He said finally. I should’ve left then, but the energy surrounding him vibrated with strong emotion and I was caught in its grip. He took a sip of the hot liquid.
“Careful, it’s hot…” I stopped as he took another swallow uncaring of the heat, even his lips became red with secondary burns. Instead he returned his attention to me, examining me as if I were a puzzle he couldn’t quite figure out.
“What’s your name…?”
My name? I blinked. The last person who asked my name had been my boss. Not even Jackie, the other server knew it, preferring to call me any number of things, the nicest one being “chick”. I hadn’t thought of myself by my name since I left my life.
“Bian. My name is Bian.” The memory of it opened up in my mind like a moon flower blossoming at night and my throat closed up. There was no happiness in the images associated with this name.
“No,” He shook his head as he stood. “It doesn’t suit you. I’ll call you Beauty.” Pulling out a wad of bills I knew was worth more than I made in a month he threw them on the counter. “For listening, which is a greater gift than talking.” He was taller than I expected. I had to tilt my head back to look up at him. Leaning forward he put a hand to my cheek eliciting a light bubbly feeling in my stomach. He’d touched me more than anyone had since I’d been released from the hospital onto the streets after my stitches were removed. I was starving and he was supplying nourishment I hadn’t known I needed.
“What is your name?” I wanted to know it. Needed to. I’d given him a part of myself, didn’t he owe me something back? I’d forgotten this wasn’t the society I’d grown up in. He didn’t need to give me anything.
He caressed my cheek with his thumb, I could feel the roughness of his skin from the hard work he did. There wasn’t a job in this town that was easy.
He didn’t answer right away, studying me with those brilliant green eyes seeing right through me. “Beauty suits you.” He murmured, “Those scars don’t define you.” With those cryptic words his hands dropped and he moved back giving me space. Air I didn’t remember I needed flooded my lungs as I inhaled. I’d been holding my breath. I tried not to lean closer to him, beg him to touch me again. I managed not to embarrass myself, but leaned against the bar fighting myself.
Picking up his hat and gloves, he looked inside his helmet as if debating something. With a roll of his shoulders he lifted his head watching as I observed his every movement, the pull of the blackened fabric of his shirt to the shift of weight as he stood in his heavy leather boots.
“You wanted to know my name,” It didn’t come out as a question, but his voice held something anguished in them. I nodded. I did want to know.
“Call me Beast.” His mouth twisted in a bitter smile, and I could feel the self-hatred roll off of him so thick it coated the back of my throat. “I’m the foreman who threw the miner down the shaft.”
He left then and I was bereft knowing neither of us would ever be good, but I’d go willingly into the abyss.