Upstate New York was already chilly enough to require a substantial coat, but the man walking through the door was wearing a light, fleece coat. People stared in confusion, which quickly turned to shock. None present heard a vehicle pull up, much less drive away. He slipped a backpack strap off one shoulder, walked to the bar, and set the bundle on the floor.
The barman was old and lean, his face a network of creases earned from a life of toil. He didn’t smile easily, but his expression wasn’t unkind. Like everyone, though, the sight of a stranger in town was an impossibility. He was not inclined to let that cause him to be inhospitable.
“Evening, young fellow. My name is Robert and I welcome you. Please, have a seat,” he said, gesturing towards a stool. Placing a steaming mug in the man’s left hand, Robert extended his right. Both men shook hands and the stranger gave him a wide grin, but remained unvocal. He looked disoriented, almost as though he had suffered trauma. His black hair was tousled and slightly darker features seemed more European than anyone Robert had seen locally.
Robert was becoming concerned and reached out to give the man a gentle shake.
“Hey, fella, are you alright?”
The stranger blinked several times and his eyes began to focus on the old man behind the bar. His manic visage slid away, melting into a softer, more genial expression. The man’s dark eyes glinted in the dull, yellow light.
“Sorry, friend,” he said, “I was in a bit of a daze. Thanks for the drink.” He lifted the mug to his lips and nodded in gratitude. The older man almost stepped back in shock as his customer drank down the brew in one long pull.
“Easy, fella, easy! You’ll burn yourself!” He didn’t raise his voice, but there was enough alarm that several heads turned toward the pair. Rather, the stranger grinned and gently patted the wrinkled hand that had rested on his arm.
“It’s alright, Bobby, I can handle a hot drink.” The smile was warm and the words calmed Robert’s concern.
“Well, okay,” he nervously chuckled, “just don’t worry me like that again.” He had turned to make another drink, smiling to himself before realization dawned. He set the new mug in front of the stranger before asking, in a flat voice, “How do you know my name?”
The man’s face retained the gentle smile. The men continued to maintain eye contact before Robert made a small gasp and understanding dawned in his eyes.
“You were just a dream,” he whispered, “a hallucination from the pain. You aren’t real.” The old man’s voice trailed off, hinting at a slight catch that almost brought the tears he fought back.