"For sale, Baby shoes, Never Worn"
— Ernest Hemingway
"Hey, Pony Joe! Another donut!"
The colt never even raised his head.
Pony Joe took a quick glance at him and sighed. Without a word, he grabbed a mug from the shelf behind him and poured it full of the hot stuff. Shaking his head, he then took out a box of his "strong" donuts and dipped one of them into the steaming brown liquid.
That kid again, he thought. This is his fifth round.
Joe looked back at the youngster again. He sat motionless at the far end of the counter with his head between his hooves. He could not have been in here for more than an hour, yet he was already going through more rounds than most other guests twice his age. Joe sighed again and placed the box back under the counter. With a slight flick of his hoof, he then slid the mug over to the colt.
The place was almost empty by now. The chairs and round tables stood barren, leaving the worn stools before the counter as the last refuge of the few patrons who stayed behind. Everypony else had either gone home, or went outside to face the blizzard, willing to risk a nasty cold to take part in the nighttime festivities.
Pony Joe wiped a bit of sweat from his brow. The heating had been turned up a little too high, making the alcohol-tainted air feel heavy, and even the all but deserted place feel cramped. Nopony would speak. An occasional sneeze or cough, a sigh, glass touching wood, somepony ordering another drink; these were the only things to break the silence weighing down on them.
Outside, the streets were bustling with activity. Even at this late hour, the Hearth's Warming Eve fair was still in full motion. Ponies milled and rushed about, carrying boxes of presents, as well as some last-minute decorations that still needed delivery. Families, young and old couples, and the occasional group of restless children wandered among vast the maze of stands, buying all sorts of trinkets and sampling a bit of the holiday cuisine.
A few blocks away, a couple of mischievous colts were setting off fireworks. A pair of guards came looking for the source of the disturbance, and the little daredevils would hide among the alleys, giggling to themselves.
On the square before the castle, a small crowd had gathered around a choir of colts and fillies from a nearby school. The older ponies cheered and stomped their hooves proudly as the children kept singing with joy, undeterred by the strong, icy winds biting into their ranks.
The fire of friendship lives in our hearts,
As long as it burns, we cannot drift apart!
Though quarrels arise, their numbers are few,
Laughter and singing will see us through!
Joe smiled. The singing reminded him of how he felt when he was their age. He remembered how much time was spent organizing and rehearsing their little act, how he thought the whole choir thing was stupid and pointless, how cold it was, and how much he wanted to go home already.
He remembered how the adults used to cheer for them and how happy they all looked. He remembered how by the time they were finished, the pride and joy he felt made him forget all of his frustration, and how he went back every year to do it again.
No matter how cold those nights became, he could always find some warmth.
There was a sudden, odd noise. It reminded him of laughter. Pony Joe's head snapped up. Had someone finally entered again? he thought.
No, the doorway is empty. He heard the noise again and realized it was coming from the middle-aged pony to his left. She must have had a few too many. She was not laughing, either; she was coughing. Six glasses of punch apparently did not cure her cold.
More noise came afterward. Hooves landing on hardwood. Somepony was getting up, ready to leave.
It was an older stallion from Manehattan. He said he came "to the heart of Equestria" to have some fun. He had been in here ever since he got off the train, and his only company was the cider he had been drinking. He burped, mumbled some sort of farewell, and stumbled out through the door.
Joe nodded silently, gathered the glasses the stallion had been drinking from, and placed them into the sink behind the counter. He watched the aging pony trudge outside and pull his coat tight over his body. Must be getting really cold out there, he thought.
To his right, the maroon colt raised the mug to his mouth. He grabbed the donut with his teeth and ate the whole thing in one bite. Grimacing slightly, he took a couple of sips from the hot chocolate, then lay his head back down on the counter.
"She isn't coming, is she?" Joe asked while using a rag to wipe some of the glasses clean.
The colt did not respond. Joe threw the rag into the sink and rinsed it with some water.
"No... she isn't," the kid finally muttered, his head still resting on the counter.
"When were you going to meet her?" Joe asked.
Pony Joe glanced at the clock on the wall behind him. It was half past ten.
"In front of the big tree on the square?" he asked.
"Yeah... I was there all day..." the colt mumbled, then took another sip from his drink.
Of course you were, he thought. Pony Joe knew this story by heart. Mares and stallions, young and old, impoverished and wealthy; the actors may have been different, but the play was still the same, and he had seen it so many times before.
Yes, that's how it always goes. Somepony walks in, looking all miserable, and asks for something strong to drink.
"Want another?" Joe asked, gesturing toward his now empty mug. The colt nodded.
Most of them don't even stop until they're all out of bits... or until they end up all over the floor.
Sometimes, Joe would be the one to ask them what the trouble was. He only felt that it was right, with it being Hearth's Warming Eve and all. Other times, he would be dragged into hearing about their misery, when all he wanted to do was serve their drinks.
They have a few rounds, waiting for that pleasant, warm haze to settle in. Then they start telling their stories.
"Think maybe she's just running late?" Pony Joe asked, then handed the kid his next round.
"No. I know she isn't." The colt took a bite of his donut. "She's never been late," he said. The alcohol was weighing down on his head more and more.
With this kind of story, the ending was the most important detail: the other never showed up. Sometimes they did, and they broke up that very night. Tears, curse words, prayers, and a great deal more drinks would follow.
The filling was a strong mix of jelly and gold rum. When served with the usual dose of hot chocolate, it was said to be the perfect remedy for the heartbroken during this season.
"Chocolate for the cold; rum for the soul..."
Not all of the stories were about "that special somepony," however. Ponies would cry their hearts out about anything in here: family, career, politics; even the weather that day could bring forth somepony's tears.
Such visits were not limited to the day of Hearth's Warming Eve, either. Every week, from Friday to Sunday, the "lost souls" of Canterlot wandered to Pony Joe's.
Let them come, he would tell himself. They're customers too, just like everypony else.
"So, you're just going to sit here, drinking all night?" Joe asked.
The maroon colt murmured something, but did not raise his head.
"Well?" Joe said.
"No... I don't know. I guess..." the kid babbled while swaying on his seat.
Pony Joe put down the glass he was holding and leaned closer to him. "Listen to me," he said. "Today wasn't your lucky day, all right? You win some, you lose some. Think sitting here on your flank, moping all night is going to change that?"
"No!" the colt moaned. "Look, I just..." He paused for a moment and looked like he was about to fall off the stool. "I just didn't want to feel any pain..."
"Nobody does, kid," Joe said. "Look around you." He gestured toward the other patrons. They all sat hunched over their drinks and stared blankly ahead. "You think they want to feel any? Think I keep the place open to see them like this? To see you like this?"
The young stallion turned his head to look at them. He did not reply for several seconds and slowly shook his head.
"Take my advice: this night isn't over yet," Joe said. "You are still young, and there's so much more ahead of you that life has to offer. So what the hay are you waiting for?"
He grabbed the kid's half-empty mug, dumped its contents it into the sink, and poured a fresh dose of hot chocolate into it. After adding another "strong" donut, he placed it in front of the brooding colt.
"Here," Joe said. "One more round, on the house. Drink up, then get out there and do something with your life already!"
The colt raised his head slightly and stared at the mug in front of him. He picked it up slowly, ate the whole donut in one bite again, and chugged down the steaming liquid all at once.
Pony Joe smiled and patted his shoulder. "Don't you worry, kid," he said. "Just forget about what happened tonight. It gets better."
At that moment, the youngster raised his head completely and stared straight into Joe's face. His smile disappeared as soon as he saw the look in the colt's eyes.
It was not a look of happiness, sorrow, or even anger, which he might have expected. The young pony's face was empty, devoid of any kind of emotion. Behind those brown irises, the spark of youthful lust was long gone, replaced by a look of grim determination and morbid acceptance. Somehow, today was already far behind him, along with all the rest of the days that would follow. The sight chilled Pony Joe to the core.
After what felt like an eternity, the maroon colt finally looked away. He retrieved a dozen bits from his coat pocket and left them on top of the counter. Without saying another word, he got off his seat, pulled his coat over his shoulders, and walked outside.
"Seven rounds, and he's walking in a straight line..." Joe whispered in disbelief.
11 PM. Closing time.
Pony Joe busied himself with doing a final sweep of the floor. Behind him, three young ponies argued quietly about whose house they should stay at. From the sound of it, adding cider to their debate did not move things along any faster.
They were his final guests for the night. He was about to close the place when they showed up, begging him to be allowed to stay for just a few minutes. Reluctantly, Joe let them inside. A half-dozen other patrons had yet to leave anyway, so it did not make that much of a difference.
Joe had other things on his mind. Ever since he left almost half an hour ago, he just could not stop thinking about that colt. What could have been bothering him to make him look so... off? he thought, shuddering as he remembered the look on the pony's face.
"Who are you, kid? Where the hay did you go?" he muttered to himself.
Glasses clinked, and ponies cheered; the youngsters apparently found their solution for the rest of the night. Joe permitted himself a slight chuckle. If they keep this up, I doubt they'll make it to anypony's place, he thought, remembering all those nights spent on the streets after "just a couple of drinks."
The door to his place burst open again, letting in a freezing gust of air. A large white pegasus stallion stepped in, wearing the traditional gold armor plating of the Royal Guard.
"Whew!" he huffed while stomping his hooves to get the snow off of them. "Hell of a breeze we got out here... Hey, Joe! Happy Hearth's Warming Eve!"
Joe nodded back and smiled. "Hey there, Sunburst! The usual?"
"Nah, I think I'm gonna need something a bit stronger this time. I can't feel my goddess-damned wings!"
Joe nodded once more and trotted back behind the bar to retrieve a large bottle and a shot glass.
"Rum? Haha, excellent! My soul could use a bit of warming up, too!" Sunburst mused while dusting himself off. He removed his helmet and took a seat before the counter.
Pony Joe nudged the glass in front of his friend. "Cheers!" the guard exclaimed, then drank up. The trio of colts to his left raised their cider mugs to him in response.
"Damn, I needed that!" Sunburst said. "These last few hours weren't going easy on me. Sucks having to work a shift on a holiday, right?"
Joe picked up the broom again.
"Heh, I guess you should know," the pegasus went on. "Why the hay do you keep this place open today, anyhow? Business that good?"
"It makes ponies happy. I like to see them being happy," Joe replied curtly.
"Yeah? Well, why not close early at least? I don't see a lot of happy folk here by the evening."
"I don't want to send them away, out into the cold. Why not let them feel wanted somewhere?"
"Sure, sure, whatever works for you, Joe," Sunburst said with a laugh. He poured himself another shot.
"You know," he said, his tone suddenly going a bit darker, "every year, when Hearth's Warming Eve comes 'round, I wish that everypony would stay out of trouble this time. Just one day without anything bad happening to anypony." He raised the glass in front of his face, stared into the amber liquid for a while, and gave a slight chuckle. "I'd take it, even if it means I'm left without a job."
Pony Joe did not reply. The right corner still had some dirt piled up in it. One of his guests had dragged in a lot of mud before sitting down. He sighed and went over to sweep it up.
"Well, tonight wasn't going to be my lucky night either," Sunburst said. "Bumped into a small crowd on Lily Street. Figured it must be some kind of trouble." He downed a second dose of alcohol and gave a small grunt. "Ambulance carriage was parked next to them. I knew it wasn't going to be good news."
Joe placed the broom back in its corner, walked back behind the bar, and poured the next shot. He paused for a moment, bottle in his hoof, and took out a glass for himself.
"Pegasus mare. Young. Barely past twenty. The ponies in the neighborhood said she must have been in a hurry somewhere. She was flying way too fast among streets that were much too narrow."
Down went the third round. Joe poured himself a shot, while the pegasus rested his head on his hooves.
"Paramedics said that by the time they got there, there was nothing they could do. She probably didn't feel anything by the time she hit the ground."
I just didn't want to feel any pain...
Sunburst was still talking to him, but Pony Joe could no longer hear what he was saying. The rum burned a path down to his stomach, leaving behind a dull throb and a lingering warmth. His attention drifted to the sound of those colts' and fillies' singing outside. What came through before as muffled noise he could now hear with absolute clarity. He could hear every one of their wonderful voices, the faint tremor in each note as they all shivered slightly in the cold.
We are a circle of pony friends
A circle of friends
We'll be to the very end!