Dead Habits

(A bit of fiction partially inspired by the three songs in the above playlist.)

***

Casey crushed the paper between his fingers, loosening the stiff rectangle to make rolling easier.

He’d started in Kansas with a simple mission: carry an envelope to San Francisco.  The gunman didn’t normally take delivery work, but for the price offered Casey would change his name to Pony Express.

Shaking, he reached into the leather pouch, drawing out a pinch of the fading tobacco supply.  Only two more rolls remained for the rest of this trip, about a hundred miles he figured.  Not near enough, but he’d barely noticed.  Smoking put some calm into his hands.

Just nerves from the road, more than from the plume of smoke haunting his trail the last two days.  Certainly not from the simple wax sealed envelope that weighed heavier with each thump of hooves, or the absurd payment for the job.

Flecks of tobacco blew away in a breeze and Casey threw a curse at the wind, turning in his saddle to protect the remaining shreds.

Leaning close to lick the gummed edge, the dark scent filled the gunman’s nose.  His mouth watered, eager for the touch of release warm smoke would bring.  Cigarette sealed tight, he stuck the end in his mouth.  The matchbox was in his hand when the shot rang out.

Heat ripped into his back, the horse bucked, rushing from under Casey and the world spun around him.  A hard root caught his fall, his head cracked into the wood, and one leg crunched under him.  His vision blurred, time moved in slow jerks.

The gunman’s hand still gripped tight around the matchbox.  Wheezing caught his ear, the bullet passed through a lung.  He’d seen a dozen men die from the same wound in the war and wished the shooter had better aim.

A dark shadow filled his Casey’s vision.  He ignored the shooter and pushed the box open, drawing a single stick.  A flick and sulfur filled the air.  He put the match to the end of the cigarette still clamped hard in his lips.

“Would’ve given you a machine rolled,” the shadow said in a low tone.

Before Casey could reply another bark of fire rang.  And silence.

Four years and one day later he took a drag.  Spectral lungs burned with peace after the long wait.  Sweet relief numbed him further into the painless sea of apathetic haunting.

The gunman’s sense of smell worked okay.  Taste came and went, fading without reason, but the cigarette always burned.  The phantom smoked in peace for years under his tree, before the new world grew around him.

Concrete started everything these days, just a road at first.  Casey stared at the lake for years, through the trees in the distance.  Now houses, and a lodge, sprang up around the water.  He admired the strange vehicles that passed by and the speed of the boats skimming the lake.

In time a store came.  More houses and a sheriff’s office followed.  The law and he never saw eye to eye in his lifetime, but the station ended up five feet from his tree—Welcome entertainment to the gunman.  Day after day the deputies shared old lies and new gossip on the wooden porch.

The town really got going when the cement factory opened.  Houses were built and workmen arrived to live in them, playing at the lake on weekends with the family.  Almost overnight the vacant lot next to the store became a butcher’s shop, turning into a deli by the end of the decade.

A bar opened, just a small one, but plenty good for the tiny town.  Casey couldn’t see it, just heard the gossip besides occasional calls to the sheriff.  He mostly saw drunks being carted in for those, sometimes bloody, often just unruly.

More cars filled the streets, more people and business out of his view came to town.  The gunman enjoyed the variety of the new vehicles, picking up the specifics on a lot of them from a young officer.

The car buff worked at the station two years before the gunman watched him die in the lake.  Kid messed around with the sheriff’s wife and ended up going for a drunken swim.  Probably never stood a chance in February, even without the oar holding him under.

Years and decades spun into each other, a new store took the old general’s place.  The deli closed for a few years, opening up and closing again so often Casey’d swear the space was cursed.

Green leaves turned orange one final time before the county decided the sheriff’s office lacked parking.

A rumble approached from the east, shaking the root he’d rested on for a hundred years.  The truck was tan with brown lettering on the side, and parked right near the tree.

“Goddammit.”  The cigarette hanging from his lip bounced with the curse.

Casey didn’t grumble anymore, instead enjoying the rustle of leaves before home became toothpicks and a bonfire the idiots would probably burn down the station with.

Clumsy workmen joined a few deputies and they made short work of the job, digging out the stump last.  A shovel went right through his skull.  No pain reached the ghost, just a familiar longing for his old hat.  He missed the wider brim, the one he died with didn’t wear the same.

They found his pistol and everything he died with save for the letter, solving one mystery.  Figured the first well paying job all year would get him killed.  Just his luck around then, his first bad year in a while.

An upside was the gunman could walk around town.  His grave desecrated, he was free to haunt wherever he chose.  He started with the bar and found a new home in the neon lights, so he stuck around there.

Cold beer and hard whiskey scented the air, considerably better than road fumes.  Casey settled on a seat at the end, leaning against the wall and watching the world unfold around him.  Wisps of fine tobacco smoke curled into the air, his old cigarette, the musty scent forever the bartender’s companion.

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The other patron’s dramas and dreams engrossed the gunman.  An afterlife of entertainment swirled through the little town, the chaotic center located somewhere around either the pool tables or the two small booths at the back.

Sometimes the louder ones took place at the bar, but more often than not the best parts were simple whispers deep in the smoky shadows.  The bar’s saddest cases got a silent tilt of his hat and a few drawled words of advice they never heard.

Greta started slinging booze in the fall, some time after Casey took up his post.  Her skin looked amber under the bars orange lights, the grey of her eyes took on smoky hue.  For a month after she started, every tongue wagged behind her shapely back.  Desire swirled through the small bar; lust, longing, and other attentions filled her tip jar.

The gunman liked her odd jokes, and the quiet mirth playing in her tone when she teased the regulars. But the place did get a bit easier on phantom eyes when she started.

She tended bar for a pleasant four months, before whatever happened.  Casey never asked and she never offered.  One night the blonde woman shut down the bar and the police showed up a few days later.  Once more she became the town’s favorite subject.

Eventually they arrested a regular.  Casey spent some time around the lake, less interested in the town’s gossip hub for a while.

In the summer the gunmen resumed his sentinel.  The bartender returned a few years later.  Her shimmering hair loose around pale shoulders.  She took the seat next to him, pouring a shot from a spectral bottle.

If Casey’s presence in the bar surprised Greta he couldn’t tell.  Her smoky eyes never showed more than a subtle hint of the girl’s weird humor and they rarely talked about themselves.  Other entertainments held their souls captive.

The two seats at the end always looked empty.  Often the  bartenders heard a soft laugh, or caught a hint of smoke in the tobacco free building.  The darkest nights they might catch a glimpse of the saloon’s spirit couple, embraced in their phantom vices.

END TALE

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