J. R. Andrews


     The bar is east of downtown – way east – on the ass-end of Loser’s Row. Good luck finding it on your maps app. My haunt doesn’t have a name; I doubt there’s even a business address. The windows are shuttered with yellowed contact paper, despite facing nothing across the street. The alleyway out back would be a great place to commit a homicide, then hide the body afterwards. Even the wine bums are too scared to sleep there.

     But you’ve stumbled in somehow, like I once did. Don’t expect warm greetings from a jukebox, or the clack of billiard balls, or the soft glow of neon beer adverts. Prepare to be assailed by the stench from the bathroom. There’s every kind of human ballast in there, and the door’s been broken since time out of mind. If that doesn’t send you reeling, how about rows of carelessly cleaned beer mugs – each still greased by three sets of fingerprints and twice as many slobbering lips. The floor-to-ceiling cockroaches are just the cherry on top.

     If this all sounds so negligent as to be purposeful, you’ve got the right idea. There may not be a sign, but my bar is members only. Ten to twelve lowlifes aim bloodshot glares. You, an outsider, would do well to take the hint. Otherwise, you’ll get spit on before you pluck up the nerve to order that cocktail.

     Jesus, how bad do you need this drink? As much as I did when I first came? Maybe we have more in common than I thought.

     Ricky – the joint’s proprietor, bartender, and sole employee – is fine as wine with de facto segregation. His maniacal grin full of gold and decay. He keeps us, his regulars, jealously, because ten at my bar drinks for fifty. It’s no shit. Free from distraction, every night’s a Friday. Every noontime opening is last call at the end of the world. Besides, it saves him a cleaning bill.

     Oh, but I can see the bewilderment; might as well be tattooed across your face. How does a pretty, young thing like me end up in an establishment for death-wish alcoholics?

     Well, you’re already here, so escort me to the corner booth. Buy us a round, and I’ll regale you with some of the horror buried deep in my wretched and damned soul.




     I have problems. I’ve always had problems.

     My parents first took me to a psychiatrist when I was five. The good doctor diagnosed me with depression, but I don’t remember much of that. The compulsiveness is much clearer. Lost afternoons spent counting drips from the kitchen sink. Missing the school bus deciding what to wear – based on season, day of the week, and the exact minute I rose from bed. But food took the lion’s share of it. I was obsessed with what I should and should not eat. Mostly what I shouldn’t. If I found a speck of dust in my fruit-on-the-bottom, I couldn’t have yogurt again – didn’t matter if it was plain, Greek, or frozen. Same-same with sandwiches. I had to switch to wraps. By the time I got my first period, all I wanted from the deli were breadless salad bowls.

     Over time, this subtraction not only applied to classes of food, but colors and textures as well. Nothing overly chewy. Nothing green. Portion size came next. Nothing larger than a deck of cards.

     By middle school’s end, I was subsisting on skim milk and steamed white rice – the amounts meticulously controlled. The headshrinker maintained these were all shades of depression. She had me on Xanax. I think that’s all they had back then.

     In high school, things took a turn. My dietary habits had given me a body worth noticing – at least, that’s what they told me. I was approached by a modeling agent at the mall. This being LA, he was no small-timer. He fell upon me like a vampire; booking gigs every weekend; taking his pound of flesh. Among my new peers, my debilitating disease was enviable.

     I began running with the popular circles at school. The varsity quarterback had a crush on me. Invites to all the best parties. That’s where it happened, at one of those my-parents-are-gone-for-the-weekend ragers.

     They say you never forget your first. Mine was vodka at the bottom of a red Solo cup. No ice, no mixer, and absolutely no food in my stomach. Lots of parties in high school, a whole galaxy of recreationals to come, but none compared to that first taste of sin. One sip and it had me, body and soul. I knew it like déjà vu or a premonition of evil. Simultaneously warm as a blanket and heartless as a razor. The end of it all.

     There’s an invisible path between that red cup and my usual barstool over there. But this is where things start to get fuzzy. Daily boozing’ll do that, you know. It makes good sport of recapturing bygones.

     I got into UCLA, if you can believe it. But my studies were quickly interrupted by more blackouts than grains of sand on Santa Monica Pier. Frat parties. Sunday Funday. Modeling was still there, too. Champagne at every shoot since I’d turned seventeen.

      For a while I thought I could do it all. We all think we’re God’s exception, don’t we? This whole time, my barstool was calling to me. Longing for the touch of my wasted shanks.

     One day, I up and decided to redefine success in life. I was going to make as much money as possible, as fast as possible, then spend the rest of my born days drinking it up. I guess you’d say that’s when I turned pro.

     First you lose nights, then whole days are punched from the calendar – blank spaces, heavy with shame. Instead of spinning when you’re drunk, the sky starts to whirl about when you’re sober. Auditory and visual hallucinations – none of them fun. It has a medical name, my condition. Wet brain, or some such a thing. You learn to live with it.

     Life went on in flashes.

     Buying the car and dropping out of college. Renting the apartment in Hermosa Beach. Throwing a party and waking up two days later in my neighbor’s garage. Cursing out Mom and Dad, then all my friends who still gave a shit. Drunk tank. Court date. Throwing another party. Throwing up all over myself at a photoshoot. My agent dropping me. Vomiting blood into a filthy toilet. Getting evicted from the apartment in Hermosa Beach. Selling the car and pawning my phone.

     And, yes, attempts at sobriety. White-knuckle affairs, all. None of which survived the week.

     At length, I found my twenty-something body in the streets, without a home to go to. Ninety pounds soaking wet and broke in downtown. Feeling thrown. A slice of raw and weeping pork, chucked amongst wolves.

     Why didn’t I run home to my parents? They would’ve made me stop.

     The flophouse where I live has hourly rates. The landlady lets me overnight in exchange for four hours sweeping and folding sheets. That’s how I came to this place…


     I was in the middle of another wicked bender and had just scored some easy cash. But, easy or not, the deed had taken hours. Now it was late, and all the liquor stores were closed. I tore my room apart, desperate for some overlooked bottle with two fingers left at the bottom. Frenzy spilled my body into the streets, put me to a wandering zigzag. Nauseous, itching; wailing like an ape.

     Then, just two blocks from home, something halted my unsteady legs. Turning; feeling it in my chest like the tug on the end of a line. Red light, vaguely erotic, outlining the heavy, wooden door.

     Crossing the threshold, I had to question my eyes. In that low, filthy light, the patrons all looked like descendants of demons. Leering and cackling at what the night had brought them. Grinding teeth like rows of tiny knives.

     This vision of terror jittered and shimmied, but no worse than the sidewalk outside. I see things all the time. I have a condition. Did I say that already? Only one medicine would put it to right.

     Twenty glowing eyes, swimming in ten faces darker than murder. I didn’t care. I’d found a bar with money in my pocket. Now, I couldn’t see past the drink in my mind’s eye. I would’ve walked through fire and Hell frozen over for it. Needing it like love in a lonely world.

     Boldly taking a seat – my seat.

     “Cape Codder,” I spoke, raising a brazen finger.

     I cocked my head back towards the others. Their faces had stopped oozing, the features no longer pinwheeling. Seated correctly, they still looked horrible, but no worse than the pimps and predatory addicts I sometimes went home with. Let one of them eviscerate me. Let the rest take morbid pleasure from my cold cadaver. Odds on I could get my vodka down first.

     Ricky came over, showing me the metal and rot in his mouth. He put a particularly soiled glass down in front of me. Then, the magic whisper of ice, red juice from a soda gun, and the all-important splash of wells. Everyone watched me take that drink, the filth floating around it like clotted blood. It was like a test.

     I brought it to my lips. It couldn’t have disappeared faster if I’d poured it down the sink.


     Once here, I stayed. Cheap and close to home, you know? Why go anyplace else?

     The guy sitting at the end there is Rat Faced Andy. Next to him is El Topo. That guy there, the albino with the fist-sized gauges in his ears? We call him Dragon, on account of his tongue being forked. He didn’t go to a parlor. He did it himself, with a filet knife.

     Around here, they call me Cakes, but my real name’s Julie.

     Thanks for asking. Really. Feels good to say my own name. Feels good in my mouth after all this time.


     There came this one night – and maybe there’s a year between now and then. Or maybe this is two years gone. Or we’re talking over a hundred-thousand unremembered sunsets. Does it matter? I was here. A night like any other.

     Anyway, here’s what happened…

     My condition had been acting up all day. Lapses while sweeping the flophouse lobby. Like a somnambulist, suddenly coming to on my feet, broom in hand, with a head full of twisted thoughts. Nothing especially new. Except, this day, the notions I kept coming back with all had a markedly dark glint. My heart racing uncontrollably and sensing fear at its root. Not just a nightmare, something much more solid. Like I kept seeing The Devil and was trying to forget the shape of His crotch.

     Days like those, you figure the night ahead will be rough.

     Next I knew, the torn leather of my barstool was digging into the seat of my pants. Context and my relative sobriety told me I’d just arrived. That made it eight o’clock sharp. My condition may have robbed me of most things, but not my compulsiveness. If anything, I’m a creature of habits now more than ever.

     Before I could get any cash from my pocket, Ricky set a drink in front of me. When even this didn’t relieve the anxiety, I started to feel sick.

     Drifting, like I sometimes do. Eons of shadow passing. Old things coming back.

     When I returned, I was staring at the glass incomprehensibly. I hadn’t ordered anything. The cocktail was a deep scarlet color. A rum runner, or a zombie, or a Singapore sling.

     Pick it up, the inner voice commanded; the voice of addiction; its tone tinged with acid. Touch the cold edge to your lips. Let it slide down your throat, smooth as buttered silk. And all will be right with the world.

     For once, I ignored its demands. No sense of triumph.

     I massaged fingers against my temples, working my jaw a few times; trying to get my head around what was wrong. That’s when I caught sight of myself in the mirror-glass on the other side of the bar; the stuff behind the top-shelf sundry bottles. It’s not as if there are no mirrors in my room, but something about that glimpse almost stopped my heart. Sitting there, I looked positively gruesome; like Death with tits. My face fleshless as a skull drizzled with gray wax. The eyes huge in their sockets.

     Suddenly, I understood what this was. In AA meetings, self-revelatory cruxes like these are known as, “moments of clarity.” But I’m with old Billy Bones from Treasure Island. Better to call them, “The horrors.” When the shame, self-pity, and hallucinations kick this hard, there’s no better word.

     In my panic, the others began to change. Pale, gaunt features melting like soft cheese. The bone underneath revealing itself, flesh crawling over it like swarms of ants. Everything cracking, shifting; taking forms more animal than human. Mongrel Maggie – the only other female regular – seemed to suspect what I was witnessing. Her wet, accusatory eyes narrowed above her glass of red wine. Her mouth agape as her fat, sallow face was busy reconstituting into some thing you’d expect from a carnival side-show; the ones meant to frighten small children and teenage girls.

     I averted my gaze, frightened she might say something to the others, and was confronted again by my drink. Clawing for it with shaking hands. Knowing no other way. Desperate for this to end, just end.

     I took a sip, rolling it around my tongue – trying to get all the good sustenance from it. But there came the uncontrolled urge to gag. At once, my throat convulsed, shooting the mouthful up my nose. Burning sinus and nostril.

     All I could think was something else the AA cultists preach, “There’ll come a day when it just won’t taste good anymore.” They really weren’t shitting. My red drink tasted of corpses.

     “Something wrong there, Cakes?”

     The surprise almost knocked me from my stool. Raising my chin, I found Ricky standing before me. He seemed the only one not compelled to ghastly mutations. His smile awful enough on its own.

     “No,” I stammered back. “Nothing’s wrong.”

     Forcing something approximate to nonchalance to my face. But feeling weight in the pause between us – needing to honey it.

    “Hey, who’s buying?” I said without thinking.

     Ricky’s smile remained. But his shrunken irises shifted back and forth, scanning me critically.

     “Does it matter who’s buying?” he snorted. “Drink up, Cakes. Be merry.” Then, arching an eyebrow, “Tomorrow we may be dead, right?”

     With that, he nudged the glass another half-inch towards me. Some unclear threat in this small gesture.

     I swallowed, finding my throat dry as coffin dust.

     “Hey, Ricky, why is it you only ever serve me red drinks?”

     He finally dropped the pretense. His features became sharp as spikes as they drew into a heavy sneer. In the best of times, I trust Ricky as much as a coiled snake. At that moment, I was as scared of him as I’d ever been. Thinking he might actually lunge forward and take a bite from my neck.

     I still wasn’t drinking. That was the real issue.

     After a time, the smile bloomed on his face once more – spreading easily as the legs of a willing prostitute.

     “Why do I only ever serve you red drinks?” he repeated playfully. “Well, that’s easy, Cakes. It’s all you ever order!”

     Hard laughter erupted from every corner of the bar, rattling my teeth. The urge to cry welling up from inside. Forced to chuckle, in spite of the cruelty. Better to laugh along at the black mass than be its sacrifice.

     Drifting again. At the worst possible moment, a twig on the river’s current. Used to the sensation after so many years. Remembering, amongst a lost childhood, only allowing myself red sauces. Ketchup but not mustard. Tabasco. Salsa roja but never salsa verde.

     Coming back and feeling as sober as I had in months. Ricky’s glare still there. Everyone else’s, too. By now, their forms had completely fallen apart, reincorporating into a single, dark miasma. A cloud of blood-dust; black wind with eyes and fangs swirling inside.

     Real or imagined, those stares lit against my skin, prickly as thorns.

     I picked up my glass and laughed a final time. Then, knowing no alternative, I swallowed the stuff as fast as I could – trying to make it look easy.

     The taste was putrid meat mixed with the fluid that drained from roadkill. My gorge rose almost immediately, the intensity frightening in its own right. I clasped a hand over my mouth, feeling the drink return with something close to fury. Everyone at the bar began howling with laughter; all except for Ricky.

     “Not here!” he barked, his spit flying. “Not on the bar!”

     He pointed at the bathroom, but I’d never been so drunk as to handle the stink in there. I blew through the front door, turning the corner into murder alley. It was late enough that daylight had bled out from the sky. The rear of the bar already so black I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Somewhere in that dark, my feet gave out from under me. Feeling the broken glass and grit bite into my knees as I ripped my hand away from my nose and mouth.

      It was like puking into the abyss. I wouldn’t have believed I had so much inside me. It came and came, ‘til I thought my lungs had collapsed.


     Taking refuge in my fleabag room, cocooned inside my narrow cot. The landlady seemed to sense what I was going through and left me be. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d tried for sobriety. It felt like a hundred years. Every attempt from that century ran together, their mold and fashion unchanging.

     The first day’s the easiest. You spend it sleeping. Getting up only to urinate, perhaps pausing for a mouthful of water from the sink. The poison and urge filtering out passively.

     The second day is much harder. Restless and twisting atop the meager bedding. The noise from the A/C unit enough to put me on edge. I don’t have a laptop or even a television. Heavy drinking takes so much effort and time, you forget what it is other people do with their hours – besides weep and ache.

     I remember, on the third evening of this particular attempt, I found myself at an AA meeting. As ever, I just sort of came to already sitting there. Scanning the exits of a windowless room in some downtown church basement. The accoutrements ever the same, too. A small table with donated snacks, a collection basket full of loose dollars, and the all-important urn of coffee. Folding chairs arranged to face front. Stifled coughs and whispers.

     Sitting there, waiting for the meeting to start. Already surrounded by bodies but utterly alone. The people don’t transform here, but they don’t have to. These are true monsters, the living dead. Gray, sagging faces on every man, woman, and non-binary. Shoulder slumped forward in defeat. Some fatter than engorged ticks, others thinner than nails. No power or steam in their movements. Nothing of God. Sunken, colorless eyes buzzing from too much caffeine, too many cigarettes, and too many joys deferred.

     I felt terror stinging my belly, and it was nearly the same as what I experienced in the bar. I thought, What am I doing here? Cruel or not, at least there was laughter at the bar and life to breathe it in. At least there, the faces moved. Dreadful, yes. But was not their animate flesh a testament to life’s dynamism?

     I stood and began walking out. Nothing so reflexive as finding myself doing so. This was a conscious decision, as true an act of self-control as any. Someone grabbed at my wrist, and I jerked it away angrily.


     Outside, squatting by the church sign, I weighed my options. I could try for rehab, one of those fancy clinics over Malibu way. But, with what money? I could reach out to my parents. I seemed to remember they had money; that they loved me once. But how would I find them? I didn’t have a phone number or even an email address. I could walk there, but it was already twilight, and I didn’t know north from not north.

     I crossed the street, tripping the entrance bell to the convenience store. I went straight to the back aisle, grabbing two forty-ounce cans: one of beer, one of hard seltzer. The clerk pressed a look on me as I set them down; as if he knew; as though he was not surprised I was quitting so easily. Just disappointed.


     When I got back to my room, I didn’t open them immediately. I put them on my nightstand, letting them sweat a while.

     Darkness outside my tiny window with the suicide-proof lock. Who knew how late it was out there. As the minutes unwound, I paced my floor. Two hundred square feet of linoleum in ankle-less socks. Trying to recall the images and emotions which had brought me to swearing off the stuff a few short days before. The memories were still there, like shocking photographs, but they’d already taken on sepia tones. The two cans looked on blankly. I tried recapturing the exact moment, tried lifting my shirt and scrutinizing myself in the mirror. I was thin as ever. Ribs protruding as much as the bones in my wrists. The kind of emaciation you’d expect from some wraith lurking in back of your closet.

     Not enough, the inner voice mocked.

     I tried to remember my mother, my father, or the shape of my childhood home. I couldn’t. It was like they’d never existed.

     The cans waited patiently. Their faceless expressions smug. Knowing they could outlast me.

     The voice was right. What it came down to was: not enough. Not enough reasons. Or I was not enough? Either way.

     I half-walked, half-stumbled to the nightstand. Picking up one of the tall cans (I didn’t care which) and cracking a nail as I carelessly popped the tab. Putting my mouth over its shrunken metal one. Sucking it out like a babe taking milk from a bottle.


     And nothing.

     I was used to it coming in a rush. Real or imagined, the taste was usually all it took to open the floodgates. The signal scrambling, allowing me some depth, some shallow and opaque space to hide from myself.

     But not this time.

     The can upended above me. I crushed it angrily with one hand. A long, wet belch rising from my increasingly nervous viscera. Could it be that my latest bout of sobriety had broken something? Was it to do with my condition? Were three days all it took to cleave one’s brain so irreparably?

     No. God, please, no!

     I cracked the second can, still not discerning whether it was the beer or the seltzer. This one too I sucked, till my belly distended like a balloon from all the gurgling fluids.

     Still nothing. No relief. No hope.


     I fell down the flophouse stairwell, lurching through the fire exit, out into the night like the monster I am.

     How could it be? Had I been cursed forever to walk the land as a joyless shade?

     Knowing suddenly, in a moment of sheer terror, that I would do anything for one more fix. Even murder. Yes. I would end a life to salvage my own. Old or young, it didn’t matter. I would do it any which way I was told, just as long as I got my drink at the end.

     I was standing outside my bar. My breath coming fast and ragged. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.

     Of course, I thought. Here was my problem. The drinks were different at my bar. Purer. The ethanol content so high-octane that I’d built a tolerance to rival a Titan’s.

     I ran over, wrapping fingers of gristle around the front door handle. Pulling, only to find it locked. My skin flushed hot, the stages of grief running through me in a jolt. Wanting so bad to land on denial. How could it be closed? How late could it really be? Not a single memory of enduring a last call at my bar. We all just left, by some tacit agreement, whenever the sun started rising. Dragon sometimes hissing at the new day’s light as we dispersed into the gloom.

     So why was it shuttered now? In my most desperate hour?

     My thoughts raced. Like I said, I would’ve done anything for my next drink. I was going to.


     The front door was solid, heavy wood. Surely the one in back was more manageable. I darted around the corner, into the dark of the alleyway and began groping blindly. At one point stumbling off the pavement into the muck of the far side. The ground wet and spongy, trying to suck the shoes off my feet.

     Manageable or not, how would I get the backdoor open? In my lunacy, I convinced myself I would tear it apart with tooth and nail if that’s what it took.

     Turns out I didn’t have to. When my fingers grazed the door hinges, when I finally found the handle, a gentle tug was all that was required. The backdoor swung wide on greased hinges.

     What I beheld I will never forget; not so long as I remember anything:

     Bodies in the back room. More precisely, pieces of bodies, slaughtered and hacked roughly. Limbs of at least four different persons – axed or sawed – dangling from hooks like meat in a butcher’s window. Hands and feet aimed towards the sky. Torsos too, some split and dressed, others still whole, all headless and without appendages, like the marble busts in foreign museums. And the tubes. Plastic tubes, thicker than your thumbs, snaking around and amongst all of this. Inserted in and out of the flesh like the thread of a stitch. All of this close to the ceiling, making their purpose apparent. The tubes pierced and ran through innards, capturing and draining blood on their way down, down. Only they didn’t feed out to some cesspit along the floor. Halfway there, each bent at ninety-degrees, inserting into a plug along the wall.

     My scream might’ve woken the dead. Within my roiling head, I was afraid those unincorporated pieces might try to slither over and try and comfort me. But, thank God, when I felt flesh against my own, it wasn’t one of them. It was only Ricky, patting my forearm.

     “Let’s get you inside, huh, Cakes?” he spoke.

     His breath, so close to my face, was revolting as ever, but his tone put me into a daze. He ushered me into the charnel room, calmly shutting the door behind him. I recognized that I wasn’t screaming anymore, though my body was. Every nerve-ending crying out for sanity, or some sweeter version of insanity. Anything to take this all away.

     I couldn’t seem to blink.

     Ricky looked me up and down like a cattle trader appraising stock. Hands at his hips, he eventually sighed and shook his chin approvingly.

     “You look like you could use a drink,” he said. “Come on, I’ll give you one on the house.”

     He led me around the wall, through the kitchen entrance, and back to the proper side of the bar. Without further prodding, I found my legs taking me around to my stool.

     The others called out, happy to see me.

     “Where you been?” one asked.

     “We missed you,” another said, his talking mouth a wide gash.

     They were all in the process of shifting, transforming, becoming. Some resembled huge rodents, others were reptilian or insectoid. It was beyond comprehension, but it was also fine. Only— only I dare not glance in the mirror-glass behind the bar again. The look was all right on others – I could make my peace with it – but I couldn’t bear to see it done to myself.

     Leave it inside. Forget it for a while.

     “What’ll it be, Cakes?” Ricky was saying (he too had taken his proper place, leaning an elbow against the bar).

     “Anything red,” I found myself saying.

     He cracked a smile, nodded. He picked up the soda gun, its plastic tube leading to a plug, to the back room. The glass was as big as any I’d ever seen, almost as large as a pitcher. Ricky added ice, an oversized dash of spirits, and topped with five fingers of red juice. Finishing with flair, he set it before me.

     I lifted the huge chalice uneasily, needing both hands. For a second, I drifted, wondering: How many years? How many unremembered centuries have I been coming here?

     Then, I drank. And drank.

     “Feel better?”

     (One more huge gulp) I gasped, then replied, “Oh, yeah, Ricky. I do. I really, really do.”

     I meant it, too.





J.R. Andrews was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but has lived as far afield as Los Angeles, California, and Anchorage, Alaska. At present, he lives in North Central Florida with his three-legged cat, Lovey. His fiction has appeared in several zines, including, Coffin Bell Journal, The Vanishing Point Magazine, and Dark Winter Literary Magazine. When he’s not writing, he enjoys watching old movies and building Gundam models. You can sometimes find him on Twitter: @andrewshorror