The Hermit Thrush

Today’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig had two parts:

  1. a) Invent your own cocktail (and give us the recipe!). It can be real or fictional — meaning, it can be something we can make ourselves or a cocktail purely made from fictional ingredients (“Betelgeuse Tequila and bitters made from Slarm glands”). Name the cocktail, too.
  2. b) Then write a short story with the name of your cocktail as the name of the short story. The story should be tied to the cocktail in some way — some plot or character-hook, or maybe the cocktail is front and center in the plot.

So after searching around the web for inspiration, I invented the ‘real’ bourbon based cocktail called ‘The Hermit Thrush’. And here’s the story behind it in 2,000 words or less:

The Hermit Thrush

When my roommate Brian asked me if I wanted to come out with the boys tonight, I’m not sure who was more surprised when I said yes – me or him. He had asked me that same question for over a year now, and I had always turned him down. Maybe it’s because he was at the entryway when he asked me tonight, already assuming I’d say no. I can’t blame him; it’s been one year, seven months, and five days since I had a night out on the town. But I still hate it when people assume.

Two bars and one dance club later, I’m exhausted and my buddies are just getting warmed up. Having not gone out in so long, my tolerance for alcohol has gotten ridiculously low. So despite having only stuck to one or less drinks at each location, I’m finding myself so buzzed that I realize I haven’t been concentrating on where we’ve been going. I think we are on Mission or Market Street, but I don’t ask because I don’t want my buddies to know that I’m lost.

The new bar we’ve entered is decidedly more relaxed. There’s a dance room separate from the bar, and I quickly take the opportunity to claim a stool by the rail.

“You good out here for awhile?” Brian asks, already moving away from me, once again assuming my answer.

I don’t bother challenging it this time. “Yup,” I grin toward him. “When you guys are done, next round is on me.”

My buddies cheer before music floods the room. Once the dance hall door is shut, I turn back to the rail, my shoulders slumping in relief of having a break. It doesn’t take long until I feel a warm presence in front of me. “Just a water for now,” I say before the bartender can ask.

“No.”

I blink. “What?”

“Let me guess – nothing but cheap beers and badly mixed drinks all night?” My lips move wordlessly and I hear a chuckle, deeper than her speaking voice. “Thought so.”

I’m debating if I should be intrigued by her deductions or annoyed by them. But with my energy drained, I only lean forward on the counter to set my chin on my palm. “Then what do you recommend?”

“That depends, what are you looking for?

I shrug, “Whiskey is always good.”

“Sorry, I mean what do you want your drink to do for you? Put you in a better mood? Contemplative? Serene? Fiesty?”

The words slip out before I can stop them, “What kind of bartender are you?” There’s a silence and I feel my cheeks burning at my sudden rudeness. I clear my throat to apologize, “I’m—“

“I’m your bartender and I want to make you a drink so good that it’s going to make your whole night get better.”

Her words are confident, but soft spoken. Quieter than my abrupt statement to her. I clear my throat, and nod, “Okay then.”

The warmth in front of me turns hotter and I can feel her smile in her voice before she speaks. “Great!” There is a clink of glass and a scoop of ice.  “So you’re a whiskey man… hmmm… where are you from?”

“Vermont,” I say, now sitting straighter in my seat, curious as to where this will go.

“Oh, interesting,” she says, and a small cupboard opens and something thuds in front of me. “Maple syrup it is.”

“Maple syrup,” I repeat doubtfully.

“Who’s the bartender here?” she challenges. I smirk and put my hands up in the air to hear that deep chuckle again. “Okay well let me think… we need to get you something exotic. Something that will knock all your other drinks out of the park…. What sort of fruit do you like?”

I make a face.

There’s a huff, “Little trust would be nice.”

She says as if it is so easy for me to give out. But I speak, hoping the end creation won’t be too sweet. “I guess, oranges, apples-”

“What’s your name?” she interrupts.

“Steven.”

“Steven, I said exotic. Let’s go beyond the normal grocery story purchase.”

I finally laugh, and say, “Well, the craziest I ever go is apricots.”

She sighs, but says, “I can work with that.” The next few minutes are filled with the normal chatter of bartender talk. What I’ve been up to that night with my friends, what I moved to California for, and so on. During this, I hear shakes and pours, followed by ‘nopes’ and ‘blechs’. By the time a glass is place in front of me, three songs have echoed from the dance hall.

“Take a drink,” she says, eager as if I’m about to open a present. I touch the foam coaster before my fingers slip up the glass. I bring it to my nose to sniff, allowing the aroma of fruit, whiskey, and herbs to fill my senses. Winking at her, I take a sip, letting the flavor sit in my mouth. I set the glass down as I swallow, and look toward her face.

“Nailed it, didn’t I?” her voice is superior and I find my lips smiling into the first genuine expression I’ve had all night.

“What’s in it?”

“Maple syrup, apricot juice, rosemary, bourbon, and just a splash of club soda.”

The description tempts me into another drink, bigger than the first. My sigh of contentment is audible and I ask, “So how much do I owe you?”

“On the house.” I shake my head and pull out my wallet, but before I can unfold it, her warm hand envelops my cold fingers. “If you want another drink, I’ll make you pay. But as you are my test subject, this one’s on me.”

I nod and take another swallow while I hid my other hand beneath the counter, clenching the warmth in my palm for as long as I can. I clear my throat, “Well what are you gonna call it?”

“Sweetie Steve?” she asks, clearly teasing me. I give her a halfhearted scowl and she chuckles throatily again, prompting another drink from me. “Well, considering I used Elijah Craig, how about… The Tarty Reverend?”

“It’s catchy,” I offer with a shrug, not having anything else better off the top of my head.

There’s a snap of her fingers, “No – The Hermit Thrush.”

At first, I’m so fixated on the word hermit, that I don’t realize the absolute genius. Instead, I wonder if her ability to read a person has picked up on the fact that I haven’t gone out in over a year. But when the rest of the title sinks through the buzz of my brain, my mouth becomes agape. “How did you know that was the state bird of Vermont?”

“Let’s just say me and the bird of Vermont have something in common. Besides, I’m a triva addict. Seriously, if you ever find yourself on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, call me.”

It’s a combination of the perfect opening and drink that has summoned my old confidence as I lean forward to say, “But that would require me having your number.”

The heat in front of me comes closer and I can feel her words fall against my face. “You don’t even know my name Sweetie Steve.”

I lick my lips, “Then what’s your name?”

Before she can answer, the doors to the dance hall open and the blaring of music cuts off any ability to communicate. Five pairs of feet walk my way, and I’m groaning as I turn to Brian. “Done already?”

“We got to go,” is his answer, already grabbing my arm and pulling me off the seat. “Omar just ran into his ex and her new boyfriend,” he whispers in my ear before I have a chance to argue. I stumble, trying to catch my footing.  They are pulling me to the exit, and I hear my bartender shouting after me.

“Wait,” she says. “You forgot this.”

She hands me my walking cane, the one I had been quick to hide under the counter as soon as I had sat down. The cane I’ve had ever since the accident one year, seven months, and five nights ago. The night that ended with the last thing I’d ever see again being the flash of headlights before being hit by a car.

So she had noticed after all.

I feel the heat of my cheeks but before I can say anything, she slips her hand into the one not holding the cane and hands me a foam coaster. “And you forgot this too,” she whispers for my ears only.

I cherish the heat of her fingers for only an instant, until she slips away and says good night to our group. When we get out to the street, my buddy Brian walks closely beside me on my right while I extend my cane to the left. The boys are talking about whatever Omar’s ex had done, but I’m too busy touching the foam coaster in my pocket, wondering its significance. It isn’t until I feel the deep indentation that I realize she has written her name and number on the coaster hard enough so I can read it without ever seeing it.

Janet Thrush

555-2374

It’s only as I turn back to the group that I realize she had fulfilled her promise. Her one drink, the Hermit Thrush, really had made my entire night better, if not my entire last year. So it’s with a wide smile that I loop my arm casually through Brian’s as I lean in to ask, “Where to next gentlemen?”

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