By Katie McKinney
“Tell me again,” I said from the passenger seat of Lana’s truck, “why are we going to a bar in the middle of the woods?”
“Because,” said Lana in that matter-of-fact, yet somehow still light-hearted voice, “you need to get out of the house and have some fun.”
“Hey!” I feigned hurt. “I am fun!”
Lana turned and stared me down with a look I knew too well–that signature, extrovert-trying-to-socialize-their-shut-in-introverted-counterpart look–before turning back to the road. “I’ve gotta tell you, making Excel spreadsheets and sharing paleo recipes you find on Pinterest isn’t exactly what most people imagine when they think fun.” Reaching into the cup holder in her center console, she pulled out a piece of hard candy, unwrapped it, and stuck it in her mouth, all without taking her eyes off the road. “I swear, Bex. For being in your twenties, you act friggin’ ancient.”
I rolled my eyes and scoffed. “Yeah, whatever.”
“But hey, oh, ancient one. Maybe tonight, you’ll find somebody to, uhh, worship you,” she said, prodding me with her elbow, “if you know what I mean.”
She turned over to me again. “What? Come on! It’s been almost a year since Matt.”
My breath caught as she said his name. “Yeah,” I said, my face falling, “it’s only been a year––not long at all for someone who’s supposedly ancient.”
The car went quiet for a long time after that. “Sorry,” said Lana at last. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just miss seeing you happy.” She paused. “No guys tonight. Okay?”
“Thank you.” I sighed. “So, what’s the deal with this place, anyway? It’s still new, right?”
“Yeah. It just went up a few months ago. From what I’ve heard, it’s a real hit so far.”
I scrolled through review after positive review on my phone, its tiny LED casting a dull blue glow across the truck’s whole interior. “Hmm,” I said absently. “Do they have good drinks or something?”
Lana shrugged as she downshifted the truck. “Honestly? No idea. I don’t think it’s the drinks people come for, though; it’s the music. A bunch of the reviews say their band is–and I’m quoting–‘hypnotic’.”
“Yeah,” I said, continuing to scroll through the reviews, “I can see that. I guess that means they’re good?”
Lana laughed as she maneuvered the truck and settled us into a parking space in the crowded dirt lot. She turned off the ignition and the pair of us got out, the truck’s rusty, bulky doors closing with a loud groan behind us. “I mean, there’s only one way to find out,” she said before coming around to the passenger side of the truck, linking arms with me, and all but dragging me into the bar.
True to its name, The Rustic had a pastoral ambiance to it. From the moment we entered, it was as though we’d set foot in another realm. All around us were exposed woods and growing things residing in all manner of pots and other receptacles. A kitschy array of items, many of them antiques, lined the bar’s walls––everything from an old wooden ship’s wheel to strings upon strings of dangling skeleton keys suspended from ribbons and hung like medals in a child’s bedroom. The place was lit by what appeared to be dozens of old-style lanterns, within which, flames danced and flickered. Though the smell of alcohol was clearly present, I was surprised by how pervasive the scents of rosemary and lavender were all around me.
Appearing more than a little overwhelmed by the sights and smells in this strange place, I saw Lana gasp beside me. “Wow.”
As I stood there, absorbing all there was to see in the space, Lana leaned over to me and said, “I’ll grab us some drinks if you want to find us a table.”
Nodding, I turned and scanned the packed room. At first, it appeared we were out of luck–that we might have to stand all evening–until I glimpsed a couple vacating the table nearest the stage. Like some predatory animal, I leapt into motion and crossed to the tall polished wooden table. Before I reached it, though, a tall, scruffy-looking man slid into one of its seats and laid an arm across the surface. That same well-muscled arm, I noticed as I glanced down at it, bore a tattoo: a symbol I didn’t quite recognize. It looked like a gender marker, but there was something else there, too. Horns, perhaps? Before I could get a better look, the man rolled his sleeve back down over his forearm, covering the mark. I realized then that the man was staring at me with a pair of bright green eyes I could only think to describe as wild.
“Hey,” I said as I approached the table, a little more aggressively than I’d intended. I was certain that my own eyes had become a little wild then, too. “I was–”
“Trying to save the table?”
I exhaled and cocked my head to the side. “Yes.”
“I figured,” he said, brushing a strand of unkempt, sandy-blond hair out of his face, which was covered in fine, light brown scruff. He looked young, about the same age as me, maybe a little older. But he had an air about him–a confidence–that suggested otherwise. “You seemed like a woman on a mission,” said the man with a playfulness in his voice, “so I figured I’d help you out a bit.”
“Oh,” I said, taking the seat across from him. “Thanks, I guess.”
The man stood and offered a slight nod. “No problem. I haven’t seen you in here before.” The look he gave me was intense, as though he were appraising me.
“Oh. No. Do you come here often?”
He shrugged. “Sure. I guess you could say that.”
“It’s my first time here,” I said, my cheeks going warm.
“First time? Are you liking it here?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I am. There’s something about it that just feels… I don’t know.”
“Magnetic?” suggested the man.
I nodded. “Yeah, actually. How’d you know I was going to say that?”
He smiled. “Glad to hear you like it.” After another moment, he said, “I’m the owner. I’ve spent over a year building this place from the ground up. I wanted to incorporate a little magic. Evidently, I’ve succeeded.”
“Wait, you’re the owner?” I asked, leaning in closer. Just then, Lana arrived at the table bearing drinks–two cosmos–and sat.
“Who’s your friend?” asked Lana with a glint in her eyes I didn’t know if I liked.
Now engrossed, I waved her off and asked, “if you’ve been here over a year, do you remember the man who went missing in these woods back in January? Matt Cortez?” My voice was on the verge of cracking as I said his name.
“Bex,” came Lana’s voice in my ear–a warning. “What are you doing? Who is this?”
“He’s the owner,” I said. “Maybe he knows something.”
The man stood back and lowered his head. “I heard about that. I take it you know him? Or, rather, knew him?”
It was like all the air had been sucked from my lungs. I couldn’t speak.
“He was her fiancé,” said Lana, apparently noticing my dilemma and resting a hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the man, hands outstretched, voice taking on that apologetic tone I’d heard so many times–too many–this past year. “I can’t give you the help you’re looking for.” He sighed. “It might not soothe you much, but there’s a legend about these woods.” The strange man leaned in, resting his elbows on the table before me. It was then that I noticed something odd about his eyes. Though at first glance there appeared to be nothing special about those bright wild, bright green eyes, the longer I looked, the stranger they became. Instead of the normal lines and features a pair of irises ought to have, his were like vines: growing, curling, wrapping, moving. They were definitely moving. “They say that those who disappear in these woods are claimed by the gods; their souls are ancient, rare, and that makes them special.”
I pulled back from him. “Whoa! What the hell is happening with your eyes?”
“His eyes?” Lana looked at me like I was nuts. “What are you talking about?”
I turned to her and lowered my voice, though I knew he would still be able to hear me. “You don’t see that?” I all but whispered.
“No! What are you talking about?”
The man gave a little laugh. “My eyes?” He scoffed. “I don’t get that very often.” He blinked, and his eyes looked normal once again–still, featureless, ordinary green eyes.
“Your eyes–they were moving.” I pointed up to my own eyes as an example. “The lines– they–they were moving like tentacles, or vines, or something. I don’t know.”
“Moving, you say?” And then quieter, “Well, maybe you’re a special soul, too.”
He leaned in closer. “I said, ‘that’s the sort of thing this lighting will do’.”
I screwed up my face. “That’s not what you said.”
Lana scoffed beside me. “Yeah, it is, Bex. Are you feeling okay? First you’re seeing things in his eyes, and now you’re hearing things, too?”
“I…” Was I okay?
Tapping a staccato beat on the table and glancing up at the stage, the bar’s owner said, “Sorry. I’ve got to get up there. We’re playing in five.”
Taking the seat that the strange man had just vacated, Lana said, “we’ll be watching” with a playful grin spreading across her face. Once the man was out of sight and earshot, Lana nudged me. “Dude, he was super cute! Not to mention totally into you.”
Rather than get into it with Lana, I grabbed my drink and sipped. Had she really not seen or heard what I had?
Not much later, the musicians emerged on stage, instruments in hand. There was a man with an acoustic guitar, a heavyset woman on vocals, and a shorter, slender woman on bongos. Among them, at the back of the group, was the owner of the bar, whose name I hadn’t caught, carrying with him–of all things–a pan flute.
“A pan flute in a folk band?” asked Lana from beside me with her face all scrunched up. “That’s weird.” Her expression seemed torn between laughter and confusion, as did my own, I was sure.
Sitting back, we watched as the musicians started their set. I took a few drinks, finally shaking the sick feeling the stranger had stirred within me. Their first song started slowly, first with a soft tune on the guitar, accompanied by the vocalist humming a deep, rich melody, and followed by the percussion. The flutist was the last to start–last but certainly not least.
The reviews had been right. Though there was something undeniably creepy about the man, the sound of his flute, coupled with that of the rest of the band, was rich and deep and haunting, as though each note were permeating my very soul. Hearing it for myself, I understood how so many reviewers might have been inclined to describe this tiny band’s music as hypnotic.
After a few songs, Lana finished her drink in a few gulps and excused herself to the restroom, leaving me alone at the table. My stomach gave a little turn every time the owner/pan flutist glanced over at me (which was often), but at least Lana would be back soon. I looked down at my table then, the surface of which was polished and shiny enough to see nearly every feature of each of the band’s members reflected back at me. It was while looking down at these reflections that I saw his face.
I shot up out of my seat. “What the hell?” I said and was immediately shushed by a patron at a neighboring table. Finishing my drink in one swift movement, I gathered up my things and waited for Lana. That was it.
After the band had finished their set and come down off the stage, Lana still hadn’t emerged from the bathroom. I took a shaky little breath as I tapped my foot, every so often turning my attention down toward my phone. No texts, no missed calls, nothing. Then I caught the flutist staring at me, those eyes like green tourmaline, the lines in their irises moving again. As my skin erupted in gooseflesh again at the sight of him, I shifted my gaze back down to the empty glass on the table before me, from which I pretended to drink.
When I looked up again, he was there, standing not two feet from me, appearing from all the way across the crowded bar as though by magic. “You were staring,” he said. Despite the noise of the crowd, his voice was all I heard.
“Oh, I was staring?”
“Yes, you,” said the owner, taking the seat opposite me once more and cocking his head to one side. “While I was up there, you looked at me like I had two heads.”
My cheeks grew warm. “More like two faces! What the hell was that?”
“Yes, your face! It changed up there. For a second or two, you had the face of, I don’t know, a ram or a goat or something.”
Though I knew it sounded mad, I was sure of what I’d seen up there. “Horns and all,” I added, though I realized this addition made my claim sound no less absurd. I’d seen only glimpses of a face–one that was decidedly inhuman–but that had been enough.
“Horns?” He chuckled, a sound nearly as hypnotic as his music. Though he laughed, there was an edge in his voice. “How much have you had to drink?”
“Not enough for that,” I crossed my arms. “I know what I saw–and see.”
“See?” He leaned back in his chair, studying me. “As in, right now?”
“Yes,” I said, pointing. “Your eyes are still moving.”
Those same eyes widened and then regarded me with a look I could not immediately identify. Was it anger? Curiosity? Something in between? “Fascinating.”
“You don’t sound shocked to hear that I saw all that.” I couldn’t keep my voice from breaking. I wanted answers. “What is going on?”
Goat-man shrugged. “What do I know? You could just be mad,” he winked.
“If I saw it, I’m sure someone else here must have, too.”
“But,” said Goat-Man, quirking a brow, “you’re the only one here.”
“What?” I gestured around at the bar, but when I did, I found the room was empty. Where only moments ago bodies had filled nearly every square foot of available space, there now was no one. The place was silent, devoid of all life–save for the two of us at the table.
“Maybe,” said the man, “I like a little madness.”
I blinked–once, twice, three times–and the whole of the bar had vanished. I sat, alone, at the table, in the middle of the forest, which was lit only by the flames of torches and the moon.
As I looked around, I saw another table a few dozen yards away from me, seated at which was the unmistakable figure of–Matt! So, the hunch had been correct; something about the Goat-Man was off. He’d had something to do with Matt’s disappearance!
Before I could cross to him or even open my mouth, the strange man before me changed form once more.
Between shallow, trembling breaths, I managed to get out the words, “What–who are you?” Though, I got the feeling that I already knew.
The face before me was now unabashedly, undeniably that of a ram, the eyes wild and moving once again. The creature possessed the lower body of a goat, but the torso of a man. In one hand, he carried a torch, illuminating that strangest of faces and those wildest of eyes. In the other, he held his pipes.
I let out a tiny gasp as the god of the wild stared down at me.
“Don’t you know?” said Pan, “I’m ancient.”