Dean set down the crystal tumbler with a heavy sigh. It was empty, but his throat still burned with the scotch. His room was dark, as was the rest of the gym, except for the single neon sign that glew red and yellow in his office window.
“Dean & Mort’s Gym” it read.
Most days, he would chuckle when he read the sign. Not tonight though. Not with the man across the desk.
Normally, if someone asked about the name, he might recant the tale of how he and his friend Mort were so desperate for a place to box, that they went out and opened a gym of their own. He’d tell them how people started to show up just to watch them train with each other. Family and friends at first, but soon they had to charge admission and were putting on little boxing matches of their own.
Depending on who the person was, Dean might go into more detail for them. He’d tell them about how he was the heavier hitter but Mort was tougher. He could never stay on the mat no matter how many times Dean put him down. Every time he went down, Mort would jump right back up. Every time…except once.
“That one time.” Dean would say. “That one time it was all my fault…” his voice would trail off quietly. Theatrically. “I saw the opening and I took the swing. I wasn’t really looking. Wasn’t thinking. I caught him square in the temple.”
Most people stopped asking after that.
A few brave souls might want to know more. They’d listen to his voice crack as he told them how he tried to get Mort back up. How he screamed for a doctor or an ambulance, but by the time the men in white had arrived, it was already too late. Then he’d go on about how he took off his gloves and hung them up that very night and how they still hang in his office today, soaked with the blood of his only true friend.
No one ever wanted to know more after that.
Not one except the man across the desk from Dean.
“What would you tell them?” the man asked Dean. “Would you tell them the truth or more of the story that you’ve practiced so well?”
“Would you tell them about the money on the fight? Or about the offer from the loan sharks? Would you tell them how you sold out your friend for the cost of a debt?”
“No.” he said to the man. “I would tell them I made an awful mistake.”
“Some would argue pre-meditation doesn’t allow mistakes, only regret.”
Dean had no response.
His eyes drifted to the sign in the window. The neon flicked and buzzed. A constant drone that Dean had long ignored but now sounded ten times louder than ever.
“You’re right, of course. I thought it was the right thing to do.” Dean said. “The business wasn’t failing but it was built on a snake’s nest of bad investments and back alley deals. There was never enough money to pay back the sharks.”
“It’s funny. When you think that you’re looking death in the eye, you do some crazy things.” Dean said with a hollow chuckle. There was no happiness in that sound. It was a low, deep thing that sounded more sinister and sad than truly amused.
“Irony.” Dean said, shaking his head.
“So tell me,” the man continued. “How would you make it right?”
“The gym never belonged to me. Not me alone, anyway. That was my only real mistake. As you pointed out, plenty of regrets…but only one mistake. I should have been the one to take that punch.”
Dean felt his guts twist into a knot as the man across the desk rose from his chair. He knew what was coming. He deserved it. He’d always had. Yet he didn’t have the stones to see it coming. Instead, he turned in his desk chair so that he could see his gloves hanging on the wall. They were ugly and old and still splotched with his friend’s blood.
“Before you finish it.” Dean said quietly. “Just one more thing.”
“And what’s that?”
“Can you forgive me for what I did?”
The police didn’t find Dean’s body until the next evening. A concerned regular had called in when he happened to look in the office window and saw Dean with his head caved in, slumped over in his chair. They cordoned off the area, checked for prints, and did what they could, but never found any evidence that pointed to the killer. After a few months of searching, they gave up.
The building is still there though. The landlord has tried to sell it, but no one ever wants to buy. There always seems to be the smell of blood and the sound of blows landing whenever you’re in there late at night. No one dares stay another night.
And so it sits. An empty old gym with a half burned-out red and yellow neon sign hanging in the window of a dumpy little office.
“Mort’s Gym” it still reads today.
(Hello Lovelies. I hope you enjoyed today's little flash fiction. I was challenged by my friend to try out a writing prompt that she herself was working on. "Write a ghost story 1000 words or less that involves a neon sign." It was a fun little experiment for me. Personally, I think it might have come out a little too dark and broody, but I'd love to hear your opinions!)