The Alley Cat was one of three bars in Derry Township. It wasn’t much more than a hole in the wall, nestled just south of Town Square on the corner of 12th and Walnut. The building had stood since the 20’s. It was a dim dive, old brick facade with a twelve-seat bar, amber and green glass hanging lights, and carpet that reeked with decades of second hand smoke. Crushed crimson velvet booths nestled in the back room behind the pool table. Tattered, stiff with dust. Above the bar counter hung a neon sign: a woman’s hand with long red fingernails and a gold bracelet clutching a long-stemmed rose, fingers poised gracefully. A short in the wire made it flicker, just barely. The kitchen around back was tiny—eight by eight feet—serving up all of six deep fried menu items that hardly anyone was brave enough to order.
An ornery old man named Ronald Kent owned the Alley Cat. He’d bought it back in 69’ and had been pouring drinks there 6 days a week ever since, many of which went straight into his own mouth. In 87’ his doctor diagnosed him with a bum liver and gave him two options: quit drinking or draw up a will. Ron was particular but he was cheap too. He didn’t see the point in hiring two bartenders to do a job that he himself had managed single-handedly for years. Instead he looked for one ideal candidate: someone seasoned enough to do the job well but young enough to handle the 50-hour work week without keeling over. Someone “hungry” so to speak. He spent a few days asking around, poaching restaurants, talking to the regulars coherent enough to hold a conversation. Finally, he got a solid lead.
Her name was Dana Matthews. She was barely nineteen but he had been assured she could pour a drink stiffer than a corpse in no time flat. Ron didn’t care much that she was underage. On the contrary it appealed to him, meant he could fudge the paper work and pay her under the table. Cops in Derry wouldn’t care as long as she kept their glasses full. They had bigger fish to fry. And it didn’t hurt that she was easy on the eyes to boot.
Ron trained her for three nights. By the fourth he felt comfortable leaving her on her own. After a month he’d stopped coming around at all. Between the new hire and his cook, Terry, the Alley Cat had all the staff it needed to run like a well-oiled machine.
It was a slow Wednesday night and Dana was ready for it to be over. She always picked at herself when it was dead at work. Tonight she’d made herself bleed twice gouging at a hangnail on her thumb. She’d made less than a dozen drinks in the past eight hours and half of them had been for the same guy. Those numbers were reflected in her tips. She looked at the jar on the counter. There were a few sad bills crumpled in it, dwarfed by the void of space around them. Her hourly salary of $2.25 didn’t exactly leave her flush with cash on its own. She needed those tips.
At first the downpour and flooding had kept people housebound; even Friday and Saturday nights crawled by with virtually no business. And just when things hard started to let up outside the Denbrough boy had gone missing. Everyone was mortified and going out drinking seemed lewd considering the circumstances. True, the rain served as easy blame for the town’s bleak aura. But it seemed unlikely to Dana that sun would bring much relief. An ambiguous sense of dread had begun to stir in her guts. She hadn’t noticed its onset exactly couldn’t pinpoint the origin of the feeling. The longer she sat with it the more urgently it gnawed at her, the harder it was for her to remember a time when it wasn’t there.
Part of her enjoyed the quiet. She didn’t miss yuppie idiots barking drink orders at her, straining their shrill voices to be heard over the music, snapping their fingers to get her attention. Nor did she miss the nightly onslaught of advances by drunk men, both young and old, single and married, shy and aggressive. But goddamnit she needed their money. Tips were the lifeblood of her income. Being the only female bartender in Derry gave her a leg up on the competition. That she was young, attractive, and heavily tattooed only increased her value. She was a spectacle, a novelty. Some men would come through just to gawk at her. Her dark hair hung just above her shoulders in short, messy layers. Thick, straight bangs framed strong eyebrows and large jade-colored eyes. Her skin was so pale she seemed to almost glow in the dimly lit bar. Sparse freckles peppered her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Her lips were full and shapely and sly when she smiled. She was petite but far from frail. On the contrary, years of hauling pony kegs and walking eight miles a night behind the bar had toned her arms and legs, dimpled her back and shoulders with strong muscle. Her tattoos made folks curious more than anything else. Her least favorite inquiries included: ‘Why would you do that to your beautiful body?’ and ‘Which one hurt the most?’ and ‘What’s that one mean?’ Sometimes she’d hear rumors whispered, speculations offered up in explanation of them. That she was gay was a fairly popular theory. Unfortunately, it did little to dissuade male advances. That she worshipped the devil was another. Her favorite one, though, was that she was in a gang. It was never mentioned which Derry gang she supposedly belonged to, but it did provide Dana with a good laugh when Terry brought it up to her. For the most part she’d learned to ignore the looks and the questions and rumors. Her tattoos were for her, and her alone. She loved the way the pain of each session made it impossible for her thoughts to wander anywhere beyond the physicality of that moment, the freshness of the colors the day after, the way her skin puffed and scabbed, tending to them with precious care as they healed, the impact as the volume of images amassed on her body.
Tonight there was no one to gawk, and no one to bark orders, and no one to tip, and nothing to distract Dana from the feeling clung to her like an itchy, foreboding blanket. She checked her watch. It was almost three AM. Terry had already finished cleaning the flat top and changing the oil in the fryers as he did even on nights like tonight when no one had ordered anything. He emerged from the kitchen, tugging a sweatshirt over his long torso.
“You mind if I head out just a few minutes early tonight? It’s me and Nancy’s two year…I was gonna cook her a late dinner…or an early breakfast…depending on which way you look at it I guess.”
Dana smiled. “Good for you guys. Yeah you go ahead. You want a drink before you take off?”
“Nah I got beers at home. I’ll go out the back. You have a good night.”
“See you tomorrow.” Dana smiled again, chuckling under her breath. “Such an awkward man, God love him.” She checked her watch again. “2:55...” she deliberated, then shrugged. “Fuck it.” She lifted the gate and stepped out from behind the bar. No customers meant no prep or cleaning to be done for the next day. Everything was untouched. She headed towards the front door to flip the sign and shut off the lights. As she reached it she noticed a figure on the other side, a man. His face was obscured by the sign’s glow. Her hand was already on the deadbolt when he spoke.
“Are you closed?” His voice was small. It sounded strained. Dana sighed and reluctantly opened the door just enough to get a look at him. He appeared to be in his early 40s, had pleasant features but they heavily weighted, drooping. His eyes were pink and the skin around them glistened. He wore a flannel shirt and paint stained blue jeans. “Are you closed?” he asked again, craning his neck a little to see inside.
“Just about,” Dana responded. “Oh.” His face slumped further. He turned to leave.
There was something so tragic about him, such a quiet, fatal sadness. It worried her. She had an idea of who this man might be and if she was right he could certainly use a drink. She opened the door wider and stepped out. “Hey, hold on. Kitchen’s closed; our cook went home for the night. But if you’re thirsty I can help you.”
His expression lightened a bit. “I’d appreciate it, very much.”
“I just gotta check your ID.”
“I look underage?” he asked, surprised.
“House rule says I gotta check everyone who looks under forty,” she lied.
He reached into his wallet and extracted his license. Dana’s eyes studied his name: Denbrough, Zackary, R. A long, prickly shiver washed over her. She’d known somehow: Zack Denbrough. His son, George, had been missing for nearly three weeks.She swallowed, trying to downplay her unease.
“Come on in.”
She opened the door and held it for him. As he walked past she got a whiff of whisky and cigarettes. He was a little wobbly on his feet. It probably wasn’t the best idea to serve him. Too late now though, he’d already seated himself on a bar stool, his boney shoulders slumped, his head bowed. Dana lifted the bar gate and stepped behind it.
“What can I get you?”
“Whisky soda bitters please.”
“You got a whisky preference?”
Dana reached for the well at first, then thought better of it. The guy was having a rough time of it, least she could do was upgrade him to a decent bourbon. She cruised the shelves until she found what she wanted, grabbed the bottle of Maker’s Mark and flipped its head into a shallow glass. As the liquor poured she packed the glass with ice, added bitters, and topped it with a shot of soda from the gun. When she set the drink in front of him his face brightened.
He took a long sip and crunched some of the ice. His bloodshot eyes beamed vacantly into glass. “I’m not keeping you from something am I?” he asked. “Some one? At home?”
She filled a pint glass with water and slid it towards him but he didn’t notice. “No. It’s fine. Take your time.”
There was silence between them for a few minutes. Dana tried to busy herself wiping glasses and straightening stacks of bar napkins.
“You know it’s funny,” Zack said suddenly. “I used to stay out late like this drinking, when I was young. I didn’t have a wife waiting up for me. I didn’t have any—any kids. Used to think I was the luckiest guy in the world, no one to think of but myself—did whatever I wanted, whenever…” he took another sip.
Dana smiled curtly in response. “Oh yeah?”
“I don’t miss it though. Not a goddamn bit. Never did. My wife, my kids…my kids…” his jaw trembled. Dana winced. She wasn’t a comforting person by nature. She couldn’t bring herself to say what someone wanted to hear if it wasn’t true. She wasn’t a hugger. And truthfully she had no idea how to console a weeping stranger whose young son was missing and likely dead. Moving quickly, she raised the bottle and topped off his drink with a generous splash of whisky and slide him a couple of napkins. It was all she could offer in the way of condolences. He gulped half the drink and released a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I don’t normally do this, I shouldn’t have-”
“You’re fine,” Dana interrupted as gently as she could. “It happens. I wish I could do something for you…”
He stared at her through misty eyes. “You’ve done plenty, trust me.” He raised his glass to her and finished the drink. “What do I owe you?”
Dana shook her head. “I got this one.” He protested but she was firm. “I already settled the register. Don’t worry, it’s on me. It’s ok.” His eyes welled but he didn’t argue. “I think you should head out now, Mr. Denbrough. It’s late. Your wife’s probably worried.”
“Yeah. She probably is.” He rose, a little shaky. Dana came from behind the bar to walk him out.
“You’re not trying to drive are you?”
“Oh no,” he answered dreamily. “I just sort of wandered here, I can wander home the same way.”
As Dana turned the deadbolt Zack reached a shaky hand into his wallet and extracted a twenty-dollar bill. He folded it in half, and reached to take Dana’s hand. “I can’t—”
“Please,” he said earnestly, holding the 20 towards her. “Please take it.”
She sighed and accepted it. “Thanks. Take care of yourself, ok?”
When he’d gone Dana folded the bill into her pocket and rubbed the hand he’d touched against her jeans until it was chapped. She re-locked the door and turned off all the lights that weren’t florescent. She turned up the radio and Fleetwood Mac crooned, echoing through the empty space. She made herself a Negroni, mixed a double shot of gin with Campari and sweet vermouth. It was her favorite drink: sleek ruby-red liquid, vaguely medicine tasting in a way that she liked. She only drank them at work, her ritual treat. She sat in a booth with her feet propped on the bench and lit a cigarette. She tried not to smoke too much. It was hard though. She loved it, the way the cherry on the tip of her cigarette hissed and crackled when she took a drag. She’d made her drink strong tonight. Between the liquor and the buzz off of the tobacco Dana felt pleasantly light. She didn’t always stay for a drink after close. But the night had ended on a heavy note and all she had at home was beer.
As she took another drag that grim, gnawing feeling resumed. When she was alone it was practically impossible to dodge. This was usually when it was the strongest, when work ended and she was winding down for the night. It would creep to the front of her consciousness and sit there; it would begin to make connections that didn’t make sense, create patterns encompassing a broader spectrum of fears and worries, tethering them into one giant knot of awareness. Still ambiguous, but just strangely cohesive enough to make her wonder. It wasn’t anxiety, exactly. Dana knew anxiety. It was concentrated to specific events and people. The triggers were predictable and she could avoid them for the most part. This fear was more abstract. For example, walking to her car after work never used to bother her. She didn’t care that it was late and dark or that she was alone, didn’t give it a second thought, until recently. These days she walked with her keys in her hand, startled by any sound, any movement. But when had the change taken place? She sipped her drink and tried to trace it. A month maybe? Or two? More like two. Had anything happened? No, not to her, not directly. But in town? She lit another cigarette, thought hard. Two months ago…what was it? What changed? What was different? The rain had come and George Denbrough had gone missing but that was only a few weeks ago. There was something before that. Something to prompt it…
The florescent hand flickered and shut off, jolting Dana from her thoughts. It came back on with a low buzz. She shivered, drawing her shoulders up to halt the eerie tickle climbing her neck. Shooting back the last sip of her drink, Dana slung her bag over her shoulder and went out the back, pushing in the lock on the handle as the door swung shut. Her Gremlin was parked in the back lot. She unlocked it and slid in, checking the back seat in the mirror and catching herself as she did it.
Fucking irrational, she thought bitterly. Still, she checked it again. She waited for that uneasy feeling to dissipate. It didn’t. Sighing, Dana plugged her key into the ignition. She wished the liquor store was still open.