Jonathan Harper

The Hearthstone

Henry, who has never been lucky with relationships, got all of his needs met at the Hearthstone, the kitschy little bar on the edge of his neighborhood. He often went for two-dollar vodka night or for show-tunes night, but mostly for Marcus. Oftentimes, Henry sat at his usual pedestal table, gin and tonic in hand, and stared up at the clock, but without anxiety, but merely to please himself with the thought that each passing moment was a minute closer to when Marcus would arrive. Of course, Marcus was fickle and often showed up late or not at all, but when you had his attention, he made you feel like you were the center of the universe and therefore, he was always worth waiting for.

On this particular night, the night it happened, an early season  had rolled in and was casting the neighborhood in flurries. Henry found himself killing time by chatting with a young college student, a delicate-looking creature that seemed to blur the lines between man and boy. At first, he had no interest in talking with the kid – he always had trouble relating to people younger than him. But the longer he sat there, the more the kid stood out. He seemed terribly awkward, fidgeting in his seat. He had loud Anime eyes that gobbled up his face and stared longingly over the rest of the bar as he sipped his beer, nervously nodding at anyone who glanced in his direction. As Henry observed him, he felt a sudden pang of nostalgia for his own youth, back when he, too, had been twenty-one and sulking in the corner of the Hearthstone waiting for anyone to come and talk to him.

And then, Henry was reminded of something Marcus had once told him: “You know you’re not an introvert, right? You’re really a snob.” It was meant as a harmless joke, he was sure of it, but now he was determined to prove the statement wrong.

This turned out to be a mistake. As soon as Henry introduced himself, the kid’s shy demeanor instantly vanished, his mouth curving into an impish smile and once it opened, it didn’t shut up! Within half-an-hour, they had covered the topics of his college major, the perks of socialism, and the newest video game he was playing. And if the conversation alone wasn’t exhausting enough, when Henry excused himself back to the bar, the kid followed and ordered his drink with the expectation that Henry could cover both of them. For another hour, the young man spoke in a near stream of consciousness, one so unwieldy that they both risked falling in and drowning themselves. Even as Henry tried to extradite himself, the kid latched on harder.

“I’m actually meeting a friend shortly,” Henry offered, his eyes darting back to the clock. Marcus was most likely not coming.

“Who?” the kid asked, almost clutching his sleeve. “Maybe I know him!” This, of course, led into the long roster of his own friends and their quirky habits.

The longer he sat there, the more Henry shifted in his seat. He was not drunk but was starting to feel queasy. He became quite aware of the nasally quality to the kid’s voice and the way he tossed his hand back and forth as if he were waving an imaginary cigarette. Henry’s discomforted mounted. He suddenly pictured his brother, Travis, sitting there. In that moment, everything the young man did reminded him of Travis, from every word to every gesture. Once the association was made it was all he could see. Even the shape of the kid’s head, his eyes and hair – though Travis was blonde, not brown – conjured the image of his brother sitting there across from him.

He had not spoken to his brother in a year; the mere thought of him brought on a paroxysm of anxiety.

Eventually, Marcus did arrive, wrapped in his Sherpa lined coat, applying lip balm and looking rather bored.  “I’m sorry, I’m late. I had a client who just wouldn’t let me leave,” he said. And then plopping a few bills in Henry’s hand, he said, “Get us a round. I can’t deal with the bartender. Not tonight. Not after the night I’ve had.”  

Henry obediently ordered their drinks and came back to find Marcus and the kid in deep conversation. He spent the next hour clutching his cocktail as if were a weapon, feeling oddly perturbed. It was like watching his bar friend inching too close to his brother.

“I’m going out for a smoke,” Marcus said and as he moved to the side entrance, the kid followed.

If he had known what would happen later that night, he might have stayed. Instead, Henry waited until they were out of sight before putting on his coat and marching out through the front door. Outside, the snow continued in its steady stream and he kept a free hand over his face to block the wind. Winter was upon him with a vengeance; soon there would be no late nights until warmer weather. He had only made it a few blocks before his phone started to hum in his pocket. Marcus texted him:

Where R you?

Coming back?

Hope I didn’t hurt our friendship.

Henry arrived home tragically sober and muttering to himself. Around him, his apartment sat stoically, full of the little treasures he’d accumulated over the years. It was full of pretty things: overlapping rugs, antique furniture, little arrangements of ornaments and glass vases, and a bookcase that was close to heaven. He had long believed that one’s living environment should reflect their true self and he had gone out of his way to make his home tranquil and bohemian, though he rarely lived up to the standard.

He poured himself a scotch and paced around the den. Though he could explain why he was so restless, he was certain it had to do with the empty apartment, the fact that Marcus was always late, and the horrible college student. But in the end, all thoughts redirected themselves back to Travis. He could mentally picture his brother standing there, the constant albatross around his neck. He wanted to yell at him, to cause harm, physical or emotional – or better yet both. He wanted a Travis-skin rug, throat freshly slit, draped across his floor.

Ever since Cain slew Abel, entire histories have been told around siblings betraying each other.

Their rivalry had started in childhood, as these things often do. They had grown up as the two youngest sons of a large Catholic family, one that valued togetherness over privacy and for some reason Henry could never understand, their parents had lumped them together as an inseparable duo, as if such bonds could be forced and made unbreakable through will alone. It was an absurd expectation: they were nothing alike. Henry had been a quiet brooding child with secrets and the desire to keep them. Travis, on the other hand, had a wild streak to him, a loud confrontational edge, as if he was constantly on the hunt for conflict. Their childhood was defined by years of endless arguments and accusations and fist fights and coveting whatever the other had acquired. And for every door Henry closed, Travis was always beating against it – not because he wanted entry, but because he had a malevolent imp inside of him, one that craved to be the center of Henry’s attention, for better or for worse, and was capable of doing anything to keep it.

The snow fell throughout the night and by morning, the whole neighborhood was covered in a thin layer of fluffy whiteness. He lived for mornings like these, especially as they happened less often. Snowstorms made him think of childhood: a day off of school where he sat bundled in blankets watching cartoons. For some reason, those moments stood out as his happiest.

He made coffee and lingered after his shower, unmindful of the time, admiring the quiet beauty outside. The morning traffic was light – people were obviously hibernating. He had been so caught up in the moment, he had barely heard his phone buzzing. It was Marcus, who never called. Marcus only texted and only when he wanted to get a drink or was already three drinks in.

“Where have you been? I’ve been calling all night!” Marcus’s voice was frantic.

“Good morning to you, too,” he grumbled.

“It’s all over the news. The kid from last night was killed…”

At first, Henry had no idea who he was referring to. And then, for some reason, he thought of his brother and felt an instinctual fear for his safety.

“Come on! That kid from last night, the guy who wouldn’t shut up. You bought him a drink for Christ’s sake.”

And then, the previous night came back into focus. “Yes, of course. How awful! What happened?”

“We think it was a mugging. He was out in the back alley and somebody stabbed him. No one even knew it was happening until it was too late.” Marcus went on to describe the scene in great detail. It was horrific. There was so much blood. And yet, the more he spoke, the more the scene felt unreal, as if it were plucked from some television drama.

“That’s so awful,” Henry said. He was suddenly aware of the time and his commute.

“I’m really freaking out. This kind of thing doesn’t happen around here.”

“Look, I’m sorry, but I need to go in a minute. Are you going to be alright?”

“Can you meet me for coffee?” Marcus finally asked. “I could use the company.”

“I can’t. I have work.”

“But it’s snowing out!”

Henry cleared his throat; he chose his words carefully. “I really have to go. But I’ll call you later and check in, ok?” And with that, Marcus relented and they hung up.

But he didn’t call Marcus back. Not that evening, nor the next day. Instead, he meandered through his usual routine, the mindless cycle between apartment and office; his mind was like a sieve. For those days, the snow continued on in a light dusting, making the world seem clean and fresh. His coworkers remained their usual cheerful gossipy selves. And while the world around him was content, there was still this unspoken expectation that he should feel something for the dead kid.  But he couldn’t, as hard as he tried. As he sat through a marketing meeting, watched the news, made the nightly trek from bed to toilet, he tried to picture the boy’s face and found the image vague and unremarkable. It was an absence of feeling, a vacant hollowness that begged to be filled. If his mind was not like a sieve, then it was a dried up well. And as much as he tried to fill it with water, he couldn’t so much as shed a single tear.

On the third day, the snow stopped and its spell over Henry was broken. The workday had muddled on until he was restless and annoyed by everything. He took a late lunch and stretched it out long enough where returning to the office no longer made sense. Instead, he went to the Hearthstone and found himself nursing his faithful gin and tonic, admiring the sunken interior through the haze of daylight coming in through the front windows. In all his time coming there, he had never seen it so bright and empty. Behind the counter, the bartender lazily turned the page of his newspaper; the TV screen showed nothing but daytime soaps. He texted Marcus:

At the Hearthstone.

Wish u were here.

There was no one else to talk with except the bartender, who kept flicking his newspaper in front of his head as to ward off unwanted conversation. If Travis had been there, he would have arrogantly started talking until the man gave in to him. Travis had always been like that: loud, proud, and completely unaware of other people’s boundaries.

Years ago, on a family vacation, they had all been sitting in the hotel restaurant and Travis had walked up to the bar counter to order a beer and no sooner had it arrived, he thrusted his hand forward and introduced himself to the server which led to an uncomfortably long chat they all observed from the other side of the room. Later on, Travis had boasted about his bar etiquette, that you needed to befriend the waitstaff, show them you’re interested and interesting, and that was how you got special treatment. He acted very official as he said this. “They want your money, not your friendship,” Henry had muttered, a little too loudly, which caused another public argument and he refused to eat there the rest of the trip. Why he thought about this now, he had no idea, but he was greatly bothered by the experience.

“Were you working the other night?” he finally asked.

The bartender sighed. “If you mean when that kid was killed, no I was not, but I heard all about it.”

“It was so terrible,” Henry said. “I was talking with him all night – such a sweet a kid. It’s absolutely horrible.”

“Well, from what I heard, he was annoying as fuck. But yeh, sweet kid. Far too young. Things like that shouldn’t happen.” The newspaper slowly rose back in front of the bartender’s face. “Let me know if you need another.”

After that, he sat there in an embarrassed silence, wondering why he had brought up the subject in the first place. By then, he was starting to regret skipping out of work and coming there, even though there was no other place he could think to go. As the afternoon receded, the bar started filling up with the usual suspects. He recognized a handful of them, a collective of salty old queens who were usually loud, vulgar, and inspiring. However, there was a solemn tone to the afternoon. People were quiet; the bar was quiet. And Henry began to wonder why they always came here night after night, why they were so dedicated to this space when it usually had very little to offer them.

Outside, the world began to dim and grow cold. He was about to order another cocktail when his phone started to buzz. It was Marcus:

In a bind.

Pick me up?


For a moment, he considered not responding. But after a few moments, he did.

Where are you? I can be on my way in ten minutes.

They met at a laundromat across town. As Henry’s sedan pulled up, Marcus came rushing up, bundled in his winter coat, and for along chaotic moment, he fumbled with the passenger side door. The usual arrogance was gone and instead, he was a total mess, disheveled and reeking of cigarette smoke.

“You have heard of Uber, right?” Henry asked as he pulled out back onto the street.

At first, it didn’t seem like Marcus heard him. He was peering over his shoulder as if worried they were being followed. “Just drive,” he said.

And Henry did. He drove for several blocks, the only sound coming from the radio. “So, are you gonna tell me what’s up or am I just playing chauffeur?”

“It’s nothing,” Marcus snapped. And then, after a few more awkward moments, he added: “I was with a client and things turned weird. I just needed to get out of there.”


“Really?” Marcus gave him an incredulous look. “Do you ever get the feeling someone’s up to no good? Like, you instinctively know you’re in danger?”

“You need to be more careful carrying on the way you do.”

“I’m always careful.”

“I still don’t know where we’re going,” Henry said. “What about the Hearthstone?”

“I don’t want to go there,” Marcus snapped.

They passed through their usual neighborhoods and onwards, until they were crossing the bridge. If Marcus thought anything, he didn’t share it. Instead, he stared vacantly out the passenger window watching the city turn dark. It was only when they were there did Henry realize where he was taking them. The Skylark, a boutique hotel, that overlooked the water. There was ample parking and he pulled into a nearby space.

“We could have just gone to your place,” Marcus said.

“Relax. We’re getting a cocktail. A good one this time.”

The lounge was exactly as he remembered it: chaise lounges and high back chairs under the glow of artsy chandeliers. They took a table up by the front windows and were instantly greeted by a spritely young server who came bouncing forward with her caffeinated ponytail. They ordered two Manhattans and Henry handed over his credit card.

“Tab?” she asked sweetly.

“No. We’ll pay as we go.”

With their drinks, they settled into the usual safe small talk and for the first time, Henry felt the pressure of carrying the conversation. Now that the veneer was pulled back, Marcus was no longer the exciting trendy friend, but instead an overgrown teenager sulking over his phone. He answered in short curt sentences like it pained him to be there. But Henry didn’t mind.

There, on the other side of the room, Travis stood in his uniform, black shirt over black slacks, mostly unchanged from a year, though thicker in the gut. He was staring at them in shock or disbelief.

Henry leaned over the table and whispered, “You see the manager over there? That’s my brother. He hates me.” The smile crept over his face like a sneeze: sudden, urgent, and unavoidable.

Marcus perked up at the prospect of meaningful gossip. “Yeh? I was wondering why he was staring at us. What a creeper.” He downed the rest of his drink and with a flick of his wrist, the waitress came with another. Henry handed over the credit card again.

“Whatever you do, don’t let him cover any of our drinks. It could cause a lot of problems for me,” he whispered. “Last year, my company held an event here and we had this afterparty in the bar, nothing special. And this was right around the time Travis got hired as the manager. Considering we’ve never gotten along, neither of us were excited to see each other. He was awful. One moment, he was trying to pretend I didn’t exist and the next moment, he was introducing himself to my coworkers and hovering over us like he had nothing better to do. It made me so anxious, I had to leave and when I went to pay my tab, the bartender told me it was already taken care of.”

Though Henry hadn’t even finished his first, Marcus signaled for another drink. “So, he did something nice for you.”

“That’s what it seemed like. My own father called me the next day to tell me what a good brother I had and wasn’t that nice of him and I should send him a thank you note. Then, a week or two later, I get this email asking if I’m gonna pay him back for the tab I walked out on.”

Even as he said it, he knew how ridiculous it all sounded, the kind of manufactured fights of sibling rivalry. But, it wasn’t just that one stupid moment. It was the following weeks, the raging emails and text messages that turned into downright threats. It was the resurfacing of every old grudge they could think of and the late night phone calls that ended with neighbors pounding on the wall. It was skipping Thanksgiving and Christmas and then the residual guilt trips from the rest of the family for not “getting along.” When there is hatred on that level, it is always there, lying dissonant and dormant in the background, and the slightest reminder can make the world stop still until all of your thoughts are focused on the one person. And at that moment, there was always the heart-sinking realization that they won.

Henry wanted another drink, but decided against it. It was best to stop at one. Marcus was taking it all in.

“So, he’s crazy,” Marcus said with a shrug.

“Maybe, but probably not. He wouldn’t do that with anyone else,” Henry said. “There’s something about family – you can say and do things to them and in the end, they’re supposed to forgive you.”

Across the room, Travis was at least trying to keep himself occupied. He had gone into the back office twice, pacing in and out. Whenever they caught him glancing in their direction, he turned his head away.

“So, why did you bring me here tonight?” Marcus finally asked.

And then Henry flinched. He didn’t know why he drove here other than he felt compelled to do so.

“Well, that kid from the other night reminded me of Travis. Not at first, but by the time you got there, they were so similar that it just felt like Travis was actually the one sitting there talking at me. That’s why I left – it was just too much and I had to get away. Then, the next morning, you call and tell me the kid died and first thought was, that’s my brother. It was so weird and I was so caught off guard and suddenly I realized I was actually disappointed that it was somebody else.”

“Are you saying you wished your brother was murdered?” Marcus looked perturbed.

“No. Not really. But all week I’ve been thinking about him. I guess, I needed to see him and know he’s still here.”

But that wasn’t true. Henry wasn’t there to see if Travis was alive and well. He certainly didn’t want to speak with him or offer any comfort or reconciliation. He had not come for peace, but for war. And if not war, then discomfort, because a year was a long time for unfinished business and the constant waiting gnawed at him. What he wanted most was to be seen and for Travis to have his life interrupted for a change.

Marcus didn’t feel like talking after that. He returned to his phone, perhaps reaching out to other friends to come and rescue him. When the waitress returned, Henry declined another round before Marcus could order. Instead, Henry pulled on his coat and gave one last solid look at Travis, as if he were looking right through him.

“Do you want to go talk to him?” Marcus asked.

“No. I really don’t.” And then, Henry proudly walked out to the hotel lobby.

Back at the car, they idled in the cold. “Where are we going now?” Marcus asked. He was halfway through a cigarette, shivering slightly.

“It’s getting late. I suppose I’ll go home,” Henry said. “Do you want me to drop you off someplace?”

“Oh. I kind of assumed you wanted company tonight.”

Henry shrugged. The thought had been appealing once, but he was in no mood now. Years ago, back when he was married, he would have booked a room right then and there, no matter what the cost. Just to be spiteful, just so he could wallow in delicious guilt for the days afterwards. But tonight, all he had waiting for him was his lone apartment full of his pretty little things and the impending messages from Travis to look forward to.

It hardly seemed worth the effort.

Jonathan Harper is the author of the short story collection Daydreamers (Lethe Press), listed as a Kirkus Review‘s Indie Book of the Year for 2015. He received his MFA from American University and his work has been featured in such places as The Rumpus, The Rappahannock Review, Chelsea Station, and in numerous anthologies. He was a finalist in the Saints & Sinners 2019 Short Story Contest. His new novel, The Impossible, will be published by Lethe Press in 2022. Visit him online at