It is a bitterly cold night, even by my standards. Tortu doesn’t get quite as cold as Minneapolis, and the wind in the Twin Cities can cut through you. I was bundled tight, but not tight enough to keep the shivers out.
I let myself in quietly through the back door. We keep a light on in the back storage room, so getting the coat and scarf off and the boots shucked is easy and I don’t have to stumble around. I don’t want to turn the main lights on (we’re not open yet), so I tell the under-shelf lights to turn up to 10% — just enough to take a look around.
The place hasn’t changed in the three months I wasn’t around, and the year-plus that Flogging Brews hasn’t been open. It looks like it’s has been tended to. (Apparently Ret, Brit, Mercy, and the rest of the crew come in and keep the place dusted and mopped, but I didn’t know that then.) I stand a long time behind the bar in the gloom, taking in the ghosts.
Not long, old son. Not long now.
The cold and the exertion are catching up to me. I am not supposed to be out tonight. It is too cold tonight for me to breath properly, and Grete fussing over me gets too smothering at times. She thinks I’m staying home reading, but I just couldn’t (could not!) stay away any longer.
I don’t know how I got exposed to COVID; I did the mask and distancing, and still came down with the bastard. We closed down, which just by itself near killed me. I had saved enough to keep the place up and pay the utilities; Boss’s endowment will keep the bar going while it is open, but doesn’t do much for us when we’re not. I even managed to pay the crew something. (Not enough, in my opinion.)
When COVID hit, I thought I could tough it out — Grete’s care and chicken soup really are that amazing, but in the end even that didn’t get it. When the day came I couldn’t drive myself to the hospital, and I wasn’t about to expose a Lyft driver to that shit. I finally called Grete, who of course well chewed my ass for waiting so long, and she and Ret took me. It got pretty bad there in another day or so, and they finally put a tube down my throat.
(Not recommended, folks. Get the vaccine, wear the masks, and keep the goddamned distance.)
Fortunately, l started to rally and the tube came out. I got better, slowly. I missed pneumonia by a whisker. No one could visit me, of course, but the online life will do in a pinch, and whoever it was that snooped and found out my birthday told everyone else, and there was a cake delivery and a Zoom party.
The whole place is very quiet. A little snow has been falling outside all evening, and it enhances the quiet that lay heavily in the room.
You know that feeling when you know there’s someone in the room even when you don’t see them?
“Hello, Mikhail.” It was Shen.
“Shen! I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Gentle snow makes all else quiet.”
“It’s good to see you, Shen. I’ve often thought about you.”
“And I you, my friend. How are you feeling?”
“Tired, but the place here has a way of picking you up. How are you doing?”
“I am well.”
“May I offer you a cup of tea? We have . . . ” I hesitate while I look in the tea and coffee cabinet, “. . . some Republic of Tea Keemun.”
“That would do nicely.”
It takes me 10 blinkin’ minutes to find the kettle, but soon that familiar smoky fruit scent is in the room. It tastes wonderful. Shen doesn’t have his go board with him. Just as well — I am not up to a game, and Shen likes his friends too much to allow them to beat him.
There is a long silence, punctuated by the sound of sipping tea and enjoying the dark.
“Mikhail, when do you reopen Flogging Brews?”
“Soon, Shen. I think the first of May if I am up to it.”
Shen sets his cup on the bar. “Then it is up to us to help make that happen. You need to go home and rest.”
I nod. “I know. I just could not stay away any longer.”
“Understood. Go home, Mikhail. All will be ready as long as you prepare yourself.”
I think about that. “Yes, you are right. Thank you for coming by.”
“I will wash our cups and put things away.”
“Thank you.” I move toward the back room to put my coat on. Before I get far, Shen calls to me.
“You know how many people depend upon your bar and what it offers. Do not disappoint them.”
Without turning, “I know. I promise that I will get better.”
As I get my coat and boots on, I see the front lights go out.
I promise that I will get better.