Leah sighed as she exited the bar. It had been a rough night- a rough week- and she was looking forward to her day off tomorrow. Being a waitress at the One Horse Saloon was difficult, and Leah hated the booze-soaked men and their grabby, grubby hands, but it was the only job available. So, Leah smiled and flirted with them for tips, all the while wishing for a way out.
That night, the new moon left the sky dark, and millions of stars shone at her as she walked home down the deserted street. Leah paused under a dim streetlight as she searched for her phone, and that’s when she noticed the neon “Open” sign blinking at her from across the way.
It shone from the window of a dark, low building that Leah didn’t remember being there. As she examined it, she noticed the unmistakable scent of cakes in the air, and her stomach rumbled in response.
“Ok, stomach, I get it. Let’s see what’s over there.”
Leah crossed the street and slowly opened the heavy doors.
The building consisted of a single room lit in dim hues of pink, purple, and blue. A sweet smoke filled the air and made Leah’s head swim as she noticed other patrons lounging about on velvet couches as they smoked and chatted. Soft, tinkling music filled the silent spaces, and Leah felt relaxed as she approached the bar. The bartender was young, almost too young, and he greeted Leah with a wide smile.
“Welcome to The Court. Fancy a beer?”
As soon as Leah said the word, a tall, ice-cold pint sat on the bar before her. She took a sip and admired the taste before looking at the bartender again.
“What is this place? I don’t remember seeing it before.”
“We arrived last night. Here, have a cake.”
A small, sugary cake seemed to appear at the bar, and Leah forgot all her questions as she took a bite of its airy texture.
“This is perfect! Thank you.”
“Not at all! Cakes are our specialty. More beer?”
Leah had barely nodded before her pint refilled, and she began to feel drowsy as she drank and ate her fill. The soft music and heavy smoke were weighing on her, and she yawned.
“Thank you, but I need to go home. How much do I owe you?”
“Four years for the cake, three for the beer.”
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
The bartender smiled again, and Leah noticed that he had too many teeth as he repeated the price.
“You owe four years for the cakes and three for the beers. You can pay all seven years at once, or we can collect a year at a time throughout the remainder of your life. Your choice.”
His eyes were dark, and Leah began to feel uncomfortable as she stood from the barstool.
“You don’t take cash?”
The bartender shook his head. “Time is a far more valuable commodity.”
“But…but how? How can I pay with years?”
The bartender gestured to the other patrons. “The same way they do. If you agree to pay in bulk, you’ll remain here for the next seven years. If you choose to pay a little at a time, you’ll be allowed to leave, but seven years of your life will randomly go missing.” He shrugged as he bit into a cake. “It’s not like you’ll miss them. After you pay, your memory is wiped clean.”
Leah went to the nearest couch and tapped the patron on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, can I ask…” Her question died out when the patron slowly turned his face to her, revealing sunken eyes, yellowed skin, and gaunt cheeks. His body was nothing but skin and bone, and he couldn’t raise himself from the couch. His lips moved slowly, and Leah bet low to hear what he said.
Standing up, Leah examined each patron, noticing which ones were suffering from starvation and which ones were happily eating and drinking their years away, and everything became clear.
She returned to the bartender.
“I’ll pay my seven years one at a time.”
The bartender grinned and made seven tally marks on her arm.
“When these marks fade, your debt is paid.”
Leah exited the bar, wincing as the sunlight assaulted her eyes. She felt her phone buzz and found several missed calls and numerous texts, and she blinked as she looked at the date.
According to her phone, Leah had been gone for three days.
She couldn’t remember anything beyond exiting the lounge this morning, but when she turned to look at the building, she found nothing but empty land.
Leah hurried home and tried to unravel the mess that her absence had made when she noticed a strange tattoo on her arm. It consisted of seven dark tally marks, and while Leah had no memory of getting it done, she knew those tally marks were important.
Especially since one had already started to fade.