I sat in the dark corner of the drab, empty little pub staring at the pint of stout sitting on the grungy table. How long had I been sitting, staring?
“You gonna drink it or not? We’re running out of time.”
Considering that the irritable scowl on the bearded face of the dwarf sitting across from me had grown even more irritable, it must have been a while. He leaned over the table and half spat, half whispered, “I told you I’d get you here, and I did. Now you keep up your end of the bargain.”
He’d been irritable since we’d first met – when he approached me at that other dingy pub in Belfast offering his assistance. “I know where the stout is, and I’ll take you there, but once we get there you’ll use it to help me.”
I’d heard this before – in pubs in Ediburgh, Glasgow, Dublin… the same empty promises and the same wasted time, and lots of lost money. But this time had turned out to be different: the dwarf had actually done it: led me here, to the isle of Inisturk of all places, and now the stout sat before me.
I’d been searching for more than ten years, ever since first reading about it in some obscure Gaelic literature in that nearly abandoned section of the Taylor Library at Oxford. A stout made from the springs of the mythical isle of Brasil, an island that only appears from the mists once every seven years. The stuff of fairy tales, not academia or reality.
But for some reason, the idea latched onto me like a leech, and I persisted. I continued to research, dig through ancient texts, trying to find the truth. My professors laughed at me, as had my classmates. And when I ignored them all and published my research, Professor McDonald said that I had “committed academic suicide.”
“Wasting my time,” I muttered, watching a single drop of condensation make its way down the side of the dirty glass.
“What’s that?” the dwarf asked.
“They all told me I was wasting my time, that I was mad to keep pretending it was more than legend.”
“We don’t have time for this,” the dwarf said, grabbing the shot of whisky that sat before him and downing it in a swift gulp. “See? It’s not hard. Just drink the damned thing! That’s what you came here to do!”
What I came here to do. Right.
I turned my attention back to the stout. I lifted the pint glass, which was surprisingly cold, and held it up to the shaft of light coming from the dingy window over my shoulder. The onyx liquid seemed to absorb the light. But was that just my imagination?
“The Ballad of Ailbe Ailbhe said that the one who drank the stout of the isle of Brasil would receive untold gifts from God, “Beidh súile Dé ag titim air”… The legend of Cu Chulainn says that the stout is what gave him his mighty powers, that he kept a cask nearby as he fought Queen Mebh of Connacht. But all the stories end the same way… there was always a cost…”
A sudden pounding on the rough wooden pub door just to my right brought me out my revelry. With a curse in a language I didn’t recognize, my diminutive associate shot out of the seat and stood before the door, his hands raised and head bowed.
She’d been trailing us every step of the way, but the dwarf had kept us out of her reach. But now, she’d found us.
She wanted the stout for herself.
The irony is, she’d been the only one who’d believed me. I’d opened up everything to her, given her my heart, confessed all my hopes and dreams. She’d listened and absorbed and learned and then betrayed me. First, Ciara went to the dean accusing me of plagiarism, and then after I’d confronted her about it, she went to the dean again accusing me of assault.
All lies, of course.
“Drink the damned drink!” the dwarf cried, his hands now pressed hard against the door. Were they glowing? “I can’t hold them!”
I turned my attention back to the stout. God only knew what Ciara would do if she got her hands on something so powerful. It’s my fate, not hers. It’s my dream, and she – with all of her lies and masks and broken promises – she can go to hell.
My hands shook as I lifted the pint to my lips, and as the glass grew closer, the sounds of the struggle at the door receded until they were nothing more than a buzzing fly or a neighbor playing his music a bit too loud. The glass was cold. So cold. Why would they serve it cold?
Before I could drink, the door exploded in, flinging the dwarf across the room and slamming him against the wall beside my table. He slumped lifelessly to the floor, and then she was there, her da’s pistol pointed at my head, two ugly goons flanking her on either side.
“Put it down, Liam,” she said breathlessly.
“I can’t,” I whispered, the stout just an inch from my lips. “You know I can’t. This is the stout of Brasil! It’s real!”
“It’s not real, Liam,” she whispered, desperation in her voice. “Please put it down and come with me.”
“Or you’ll shoot me?” I asked, laughing at the irony. Just two weeks earlier, we were lying naked in bed playing Fortnite on our phones, and now she’s pointing an actual gun at my head? “You just can’t stand the idea of me getting the power.”
“I want you to get some help,” she said, shaking her head. “Please.”
But I’d come too far. Maybe she would shoot me, maybe she wouldn’t. But if I could take a drink – even just a quick one – then none of it would matter. Her bullets, her rejection, all of the rejection – none of it would matter.
I took a drink.
This is a short story written for the Shenzhen Writing Group, Shenzhen, China, September 2018.