Chance Encounter (Short Story)
Jack Byrne often wondered what a kiss was supposed to feel like. He had been many things during his preternatural existence—men, women, and everything in between. Jack could change his appearance and gender, depending on circumstance or his mood (and when you’re so old that you can’t remember how old you are, you can have some serious mood swings). He’d met many people in different places, blending in as easily as a native in any country, and was a raging pansexual.
Kisses to Jack felt like the moment when your lips close around a ripe strawberry; the ecstatic second right before a complex arrangement of lush sweet-tartness bursts on your tongue. He always kept his eyes shut during a kiss, the green glow that accompanied his feeding would show as he siphoned away a portion of his partner’s soul. Inevitably Jack’s partner would pull back, dazed enough to follow Jack down the path he wished to take.
They were always willing, but after fevered passion in an alleyway or a few hours of rolling in the sheets, they all looked at him differently. Not with lust, but with fear, as if they knew exactly what he was and needed to scramble far away. The self-disgust Jack felt in those moments was immeasurable, and made him want to stop eating for good. Idle contemplations of suicide were far and few between, since he’d been forced to start running for his life. He hadn’t fed in a week, pushing the limits of his tolerance—but with a hunter hot on his heels, Jack didn’t have time for elaborate seduction.
Jack shook his head to end the self-pity party and raised his empty glass to flag down the bartender. The bar was a dive in West Los Angeles, sticky-floored and smashed between a 24-hour laundromat and a cell phone store. Its three features were cheap liquor, a pool table, and a wide-screen television. The smell of spilled beer and marijuana laced the air, stirred around by a rickety ceiling fan. At the moment it was empty save for Jack, the bartender, and a group of college-aged guys having a roaring good time in one of the booths. It was nice that the bar wasn’t crowded; it meant Jack had a moment to wallow in his melancholy before death walked through the door.
The wall behind the peeling pine bar was mirrored glass, and Jack—or John William Byrne, as it read on his latest forged birth certificate—caught a glimpse of his own reflection. A man in his mid-twenties stared back, skin as pale as milk and cornflower blue eyes. Wild eyebrows and a slightly bent nose kept Jack’s chosen face modest, with a neatly-trimmed dark beard that surrounded lips pink and plush like cotton candy. The only thing extraordinary about his current appearance was his hair; lime-green on the top of his head and sharply undercut behind his ears. Not the best for hiding in plain sight, but Jack felt like his disguises needed some kind of personality in order to seem authentic.
The bartender stepped into Jack’s line of sight, slinging a towel over one broad shoulder. He nodded toward Jack’s empty glass. “Another rum and Coke?”
Jack came into this nameless place with his gaze on his boots, blurting out the first drink he could name in a Dublin brogue he hadn’t used for a hundred years. He’d never had a home, with the exception of time-worn memories of Daniel, his drunken bastard shapeshifter of a father, and Marie, his succubus mother who’d eventually given in to her demonic nature, killing Jack’s father and gunning for him next. Survive survive survive had pounded through Jack’s head like a second pulse, and he’d taken the knife Marie used on her husband to slit her throat.
In the here and now, Jack finally found the gall to look the bartender in the face, and—oh, that was a mistake, one that made his pulse pound and his face flush with heat. The bartender was handsome, genetically speaking and in the way that certain people were because they radiated kindness. In the bartender’s case that kindness shone from angular brown eyes combined with a one-two punch of strong jaw and sharp cheekbones. The sleeves of his black button-down shirt were rolled to the elbows, revealing tanned forearms and hands that looked like they should’ve been hoisting bales of hay instead of mixing drinks.
Mouth suddenly dry, Jack took in a breath to speak and immediately felt the cloying, sticky-sweet sensation that came with his hunger, crawling up his throat and flooding his brain. He shut his mouth so fast his teeth clacked together, sweat immediately beading on his temples.
The bartender’s brows pulled downward in concern. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Jack ground out. He sucked in another breath through his nose and pushed his glass aside. “Last one was too sweet for my taste.”
“Oh!” The worried expression was replaced by one of surprise, and maybe a touch of disappointment. “I’m sorry to hear that. Too much Coke, maybe.” He took the glass back, bending briefly to put it under the bar. “I’ve been doing this for three years now, and it’s the first time I’ve heard that. The next one’s on the house, so what can I get you?”
Despite his current state, Jack couldn’t help but chuckle. “Usually I at least learn a fella’s name before he buys me a drink. I’m Jack Byrne.”
“Mark. Mark Haas.” To Jack’s shock and dismay, Mark Haas the bartender was even more attractive when he smiled. Was that a flash of interest in those whiskey-colored eyes, or was Jack reading too much into things? “Now can I get you a drink?”
“I actually don’t drink often,” Jack admitted. “What would you recommend?”
Mark laughed. “Here’s irony for you: I own a bar, and I recently discovered I can’t drink alcohol anymore. Boring story involving enzymes and a heart attack—no big whoop. But when I could drink, I liked Guinness.”
Jack snorted. “You’re just saying that ’cause I sound like a fuckin’ potato farmer.”
“Well maybe I’d like to fuck a potato farmer.” Mark paused, wincing as soon as the words came out. “Sorry, I didn’t think that through. Too forward?”
Not even close, Jack thought. “Either that or you’ve got a tuber fetish,” he quipped, unable to help himself.
He hadn’t felt a connection to someone beyond physical attraction in a half-century, and it’d figure that someone as witty and obviously kindhearted as Mark would come along right as Jack was about to die. That depressing thought turned out to be accurate. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rise, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a shadow fall across the bar’s only dingy window. “Oh God,” Jack whispered, the blood draining from his face. “Mark, I know we just met and have a shared love of spuds…”
“Hey, I was joking! That was a joke, even if it wasn’t funny!” Mark had turned away to grab a beer glass and nearly dropped it when he saw Jack’s anguished expression. “Jack? What is it?”
Survive survive survive, Jack’s second pulse whispered, that sticky-sweetness lurking in his gullet. He warred with himself—he’d never endangered a life despite the very fiber of what he was—but in this moment, he didn’t see a choice. “I need help. There’s a man outside who’s going to come in here and… hurt me.”
Mark’s naturally genial face slipped into darkness. “They give us baseball bats in bartender school for a reason, you know. Who is this guy? An ex?”
Jack stood, alarmed. “No! He’s nothing like that, but you have to listen to me! A baseball bat won’t do a damn thing to him. I can’t explain right now—” and you won’t believe me “—but the only way to get rid of him is for you to kiss me.”
To Jack’s ears, it sounded like the worst (and creepiest) pick-up line ever. The terror he felt must have been reflected in his voice, because though Mark eyed him warily, he said, “Sure, why not?” He leaned across the bar, trading the empty beer glass for a handful of Jack’s leather coat, pulling him in for a kiss right as the door to the bar opened.
For a moment everything fell away, and Jack reveled in sensation. Mark’s lips were soft but slightly chapped, catching in all the right places, his mouth gentle but insistent against Jack’s. The cloying sweetness rose and Jack was powerless to stop it, but then something inexplicably wonderful happened; Mark made a noise in the back of his throat and brought his hands up to frame Jack’s face, pulling him closer instead of pushing away. Behind Jack, the dark presence of the hunter hesitated. Jack opened his eyes—he could feel them glowing as green as his hair—and was startled to discover that Mark’s eyes were open already. A chill shivered up Jack’s spine and Mark made another sound, gaze trained over Jack’s shoulder.
Jack knew Mark saw the hunter with his scythe raised, all crackling electricity and black smoke. There was one problem… Mark shouldn’t have seen the hunter or his scythe, because the hunter was invisible to humans. But if Mark saw the hunter, then he was some kind of supernatural creature, like Jack. Logically that explained why he hadn’t stumbled away from Jack like the drunk he could never be, but it still caused a spark of newborn affection in Jack’s old heart. The hunter hesitated for another moment before sheathing his scythe and leaving the bar. Jack and Mark separated amid hollers of approval from the table of young men, who were quickly distracted once again by their drinks.
In answer to Jack’s unasked question, Mark smiled as brightly as the sun, his black hair taking on a cherry red hue and his eyes warming up to match. “So,” he said in a breathless, rough voice, one that sounded to Jack’s ears as if it was full of possibilities, “How about that drink?”