It's hard to say how old he was but he was old. Older than my parents were when they died. After a while, it's hard to pin an age on a person. If you see someone in their teens, it's easy to say the were a teenager. People in their early thirties look like people in their early thirties. You never hear about someone looking like they were in their late seventies but I think that's about right for this guy.
He was old.
His breath smelled surprisingly good. It has always been my experience that the elderly have bad breath. It was a mixture of mouthwash, aftershave and talcum powder like he had really gotten ready for his outing. For whatever reason, I've always really respected how old guys get themselves all gussied up before they go out. It harks back to a golden era when a trip to the bank meant wearing a suit. Now you can show up at a job interview in an undershirt and it won't count against you.
He wore a black, woolen cap, pulled tight on his head. The way his gray hair curled out from under the cap reminded me of an old, Irish sea captain but I doubt that he was. His breath was too good for a sea captain.
"Is anyone sitting there?" He gestured a gloved hand at the empty spot on the bench. I had been sitting here for well over an hour and he was the first person I'd seen. It was still too early for the joggers and they're usually the first to hit the park.
I shake my head and he sits with the usual fanfare of an old person sitting. A small cacophony of sighs and grunts, accented by popping joints and the creaking of the bench. I scoot over a few inches to even out how we're sitting. He's a small man but I was sitting in the middle of the bench. It takes a second for the wood to warm up and a few dead leaves scratch the pavement as they blow by.
"You can have the first sip, if you want." The old man has pulled a small flask out of his breast pocket and holds it, uncapped, in front of my nose. The smell of the liquor makes my eyes water a little. When I blink away a small tear, the old man speaks, "It's the good stuff."
I glance at him for more of an explanation but he just smiles ruefully and pushes the flask closer to me. Nodding, I accept the flask and put it to my lips. The metal is warm from his pocket but the cold air is quickly cooling it off. I tip it back a little and allow a mouthful of it past my chapped lips.
Immediately, I can tell that it's not whiskey at all but scotch - good scotch. It pools around my tongue and slips smoothly down the back of my throat. I can feel it slightly burn as it makes its way down to my belly warming me from the inside. I want more.
"Go 'head." The old man nods at me, gesturing with his hand to his mouth. His mime makes me think, I should really tip back and enjoy this concoction.
My mouth still tingling from the first sip, I take a swig and allow the warmth to wash over me, starting with my mouth. But it doesn't happen that way at all. The second taste is bitter, the bilious liquid forcing its way down my throat and landing in my stomach with a sharp, clenching pain.
The old man snatches the flask out of my hands and screws the cap back on while looking at me thoughtfully. My hands are shaking and I'm suddenly freezing. My eyes are closed in pain and I can't bring my self to sit up straight; it's as if I'm being folded in half by an invisible vice.
"You can't handle your liquor." He snarls accusingly. The old man folds his arms across his chest and looks down at me. I've dropped to my knees, my face inches from the grass. I can barely hear him, the blood is rushing in my head in pulsating beats. I hear him snicker under his breath and I force my head up to look at him. He was old before but now he appears ancient. His skin is pinched and gray, curling back to expose a yellow, oversized, toothy grin. I stare at him, trying to plead but I can't seem to control myself. I'm still clutching my guts and bent over in an agonizing bow at the feet of this sadistic old man. A man who seems to be growing older by the second.
I'm trying to shout or scream, even though I know that no one is in the park yet, I hope for an early jogger but I can't make a sound. A strand of spit drips out of my mouth and onto the damp grass. The old man, who was giggling to himself, now whoops with laughter. I stare at him trying to understand. His eyes blaze with merriment and he clutches his sides as his frail body rocks with uncontrolled spasms. I reach out a shaking hand and grab the bottom of his pants, trying to pull myself up or him down - something. He kicks viciously at my hand but it doesn't really hurt. I'm too focused on the tearing burn in my stomach to care about a geezer's kick.
The kick broke his spell of laughter and he's staring down at me with complete composure. "I shouldn't have wasted it on you," he spits the words out contemptiously, "you're not strong enough." He reaches into his pocket and pulls the flask out again. I notice that it's glowing ever so slightly in his hand. Was it doing that before? Surely I would have noticed. In one, swift movement, the cap is off and the old man is pouring the drink down his throat. I can hear him gulping and he finishes it off with a satisfied gasp for air.
His eyes are green fire, burning with other-worldly hate. I don't fully understand but I don't have time to think about it. My guts are churning. It feels as though there are a thousand spoons trying to dig their way out of my stomach. I gag over my own sobs and soon my back arches as acidic bile claws its way up my throat and lands with a tiny splash in the grass.
But something's wrong.
I didn't just throw up. There's a small vial laying on the ground, glistening with fluid. It's charcoal in color and heavily engraved with strange symbols. I'm still on my knees but the pain is gone. Instead, I'm just exhausted. I feel as though I might faint but steady myself with my hands.
"Hmmmm." The old man is thoughtfully examining the vial without touching it. His face is haggard now, straining to stay on his bones. His eyes are bloodshot and tired looking but his breath still smells like talcum and aftershave. "Everyone's looks different but..." He stops and reaches down to pick it up.
Standing, he produces a handkerchief and wipes the vial off completely. He holds it up so that the faint, morning light can shine on it. I stagger to my feet, still feeling weak and holding my stomach. My breathing slows but is still slightly sporadic. My vision and my head have cleared enough for me to pay better attention. The old man is peering at the dark vial with intense concentration. His eyes are straining as if to look through it. His nostrils twitch as if sniffing out its contents. I'm surprised that I coughed up a vial but he looks more like he's surprised at the kind of vial I coughed up.
"Well," the old man begins but doesn't add to it. He lifts his flask up and, with a steady hand, tilts the vial to pour the contents into his mouth. Nothing really comes out, there's a few drops of a syrupy fluid but not more than one or two. "Empty," the old man screams, "what did you do with all of it?" He's shouting into my face now and his breath hasn't changed. There is no trace of the crippling drink, just talcum and mouthwash. "Do you have any idea how much trouble that is?" His hands tighten around my shirt and he pulls me closer. I'm inches from the tip of his nose now and I can see my reflection in his dark eyes.
The sun starts to peek through the mist and the park comes alive with the sounds of birds. It's still very early but the cold of the night is quickly vanishing. The old man squints as a ray of sunlight hits his face. He lets go and holds up a gloved hand to shield his eyes from the glare. "This is ridiculous," he says, "I've never seen that before. What are you?"
I shake my head and shrug.
The man backs away still looking at me, the open flask at his side. A few drops fall out out and disappear in the dew of the grass. He looks older than ever now, his skin waxy and wrinkled. The woolen cap casts a small shadow over his face but his eyes burn out from their sockets at me cruelly. He points, "Stay away from me," he says and turns on his heel, running into the morning fog and out of sight.
Surprisingly quick for an old guy, I muse to myself. I need to get indoors before the sun comes out. No joggers for me, today.