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Fiction – “Knack” by Sarah Goslee

“Everybody’s got a knack.” The man next to me at the bar stared into his glass as he spoke. I wasn’t sure at first that he was even talking to me, but the stool on his other side was vacant. He looked like a not-so-successful traveling salesman – slightly stooped, slightly shabby – the kind of guy you could find in any hotel bar in the world. With a grating voice like that, I could see why nobody wanted to listen long enough to buy anything from him. But I was bored and a long way from home, so I glanced over at him and asked what he meant.

“You know what I mean, even if you never thought about it that way. That guy who can always find a parking space, or the chick who never hits a red light. Some kind of small trick. Met a guy once, always knew if the car in front of him was getting off at the next exit. Always knew, but only that car, that exit. Not two exits, not any other car, just the one right in front. Not so useful maybe, but he always knew whether to pass or wait.”

The salesman or whatever he was took a swig, then waggled his now-empty glass hopefully. He was more interesting than the basketball game on the bar’s giant screen. I needed something to distract me from thoughts of what didn’t wait for me at home. Listening to tall tales was probably healthier than drinking enough alcohol to make me forget, so I waved the bartender over. “Martini for me, and another of whatever was in that glass.” Just one more martini, or maybe three.

“Nah, bring me a whisky instead.” My companion was silent until the drinks appeared, making damp circles on the bar with his empty pint glass, each one a tiny bit offset from the previous. The bartender deftly slid a coaster underneath when he brought our fresh drinks. “Some people never find their knacks. They’re out of date, like always knowing where the mammoth herd is, or haven’t been invented yet. If your flying car always starts, how would you know?”

I smiled into my martini. My new companion had hit on the perfect bar tale: entertaining, fantastic, completely unprovable. Coincidence becomes a knack, except when it doesn’t. Did he believe his own story, or was this a ploy to cadge drinks? You did run into plenty of crazies in hotel bars. Still, it beat sports or politics as a way to pass the time. And it’s not like I had anywhere else to be any more, just my empty hotel room.

“Not everybody has a knack that does them any good, sometimes just the opposite. Some guys can’t find a parking spot even at three in the morning, or they always hit the red lights. Shorting out electrical stuff, that’s really common. I think maybe it all has to even out, the good and the bad.” He was hunched over his drink again, bald spot displayed to the mirror over the bar. He could have been talking to himself, just loud enough for me to overhear. “Never met anyone who could do miracles, heal the sick or anything, but that would explain all the stories. A really strong knack could maybe do something like that. It’s gotta be something specific though, heal broken legs, or make migranes go away. I think people like that must be somewhere, because I met a guy once with a truly horrible knack.”

He looked up at me for the first time. His eyes were sharper than I’d expected. “This guy, he was black like you, not that I suppose it matters, and he could tell when people were going to die. Not exact, like at 10:03 next Tuesday, but close enough, next week or next month or next year. Said he could see it.” The salesman shuddered and poured the rest of his whisky down his throat. “He grew up in the city, in a bad part of town, watching all the kids around him get killed. Knowing who, knowing when, even sometimes knowing how. Nobody would listen to him, and if they did listen it didn’t make any difference. Nearly drove him mad.” He raised his empty in the bartender’s direction and I nodded.

“That would be awful. What happened to him?” I knew the whole idea was nonsense, but contemplating it made my stomach crawl. Wife, or ex-wife, kids – knowing when they’d die, possibly how. Trying to keep them safe, even more than you already did. Knowing you’d fail, every time. Not just knowing you had failed afterwards, but before too, whenever you looked at your little boy. Every time being reminded of what would happen, and when. I polished off my own drink and contemplated whether another would make it harder or easier.

“This guy stole a big pile of money from a drug dealer who was about to get shot, then moved as far out into the country as he could get so he’d never see any people. I ran into him on a trip into town for the few things he couldn’t get delivered.” He finished his drink, smoothed his thinning hair. “I think he lives in Santa Fe now, a painter or something.”

“How’d he manage that? Santa Fe’s a good-sized town. Surely there must be people dying all the time. Even a reclusive artist has to come down to the street sometimes.”

The little man pushed away from the bar, turning toward me as he rose. “You never asked me what my knack is. Most folks, that’s the first thing they want to know. I’m an exchanger.” He clapped me on the shoulder, squeezed painfully hard but brief. “Thanks for the drinks,” he added, heading toward the exit before I could ask him what he meant.

A black haze, about three-days worth, condensed around the bartender’s hand as he reached for the empty whisky glass. I didn’t need an answer any more.


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About the Author

Sarah Goslee is a scientist, weaver and writer. She delights in figuring things out and telling people about them, whether scientific discoveries, new fiber arts techniques, or complicated plot twists.

Sarah writes for Science in My Fiction at http://crossedgenres.com/simf/ and her other writings on scientific and fictional topics may be found at http://www.sarahgoslee.com.

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