There was this small restaurant in the town I grew up in, called Uncle John and Aunt Annie’s. It was your typical small-town dinner that served home-cooked meals and was run by a friendly older couple.
The two of them must’ve been in their late thirties or early forties when they opened it. What made the place so special was not the food, but the drinks. They served a variety of homemade beverages. There were juices, beers and a variety of hard liquor.
The most popular one was called Aunt Annie’s Ale. It was a reddish fruit liquor if I remember correctly. People were crazy about it, especially since their stock was always limited. Only a few bottles were available and Uncle John always said it took a damn long time to make it.
From what I heard, it was really strong but had this amazing juicy taste. There were quite a few people who visited the place only to taste the ale. I don’t think they ever sold any of the bottles, but served it only during meals. It was a clever strategy.
Many people wanted to know how the ale was made or at least what its ingredients were, but the couple revealed nothing. It’s a family recipe, they used to say.
The ale was so popular that someone broke into the dinner one night, with aspirations of figuring out the secret behind it. Thankfully the old couple noticed the incident and called the police who swiftly apprehended the criminal. The entire thing was crazy, considering it was all about some ale.
But who am I to talk. It’s exactly this ale that brought my best friend and me back to my old hometown. After years, we’d put our savings together and opened our very own restaurant. While we worked on the menu, I thought back to the old place in my hometown. I’d told my friend about their special drinks and the ale. So we soon made our way back there to get our hands on the recipe. If it was even half as good as people said, we could make some serious money.
After getting in touch with some old friends, I found out that Uncle John had died almost a decade ago. Aunt Annie was still very much alive, though. She must’ve been in her seventies by now. As soon as we’d heard that she still lived in the building that had housed the dinner, we were on our way.
The moment we reached our destination, I recognized the old dinner. There was even the old display. Time hadn’t been kind to it. By now most of the colors were faded, and some letters were gone, leaving it an indistinguishable mess.
As we left the car and made our way towards the old building, I saw movement behind one of the second-floor windows. Before we even reached the door, a tiny old lady opened it. Back in the day, Aunt Annie had been a crafty, happy, and boisterous woman. Now, in old age, she looked frail and as if she’d shrunken to only half her former size.
For a moment she just stared at us and didn’t say a thing.
“If you boys are looking for a place to get a meal, sorry to tell you, but this one here’s been closed for a very long time. You’d best be off and try the new place down in,” she broke up, trying to remember the name.
“But Aunt Annie, it’s me, little Jerry, don’t you remember?”
She leaned forward, examined my face for some time before she smiled.
“Oh, of course, little Jerry! How nice of you to come to visit! Come in, come in!”
My friend looked at me, brows raised, but I shushed him in an instant. Of course, my name wasn’t Jerry. There might have been a kid with that name in town, but I didn’t care.
The moment I’d seen her and heard her speak, I could already guess that her state of mind might be as frail as her body. When she recognized me as little Jerry, I knew.
She probably had no idea who Jerry was, but her brain had conjured up the image of a random family member. It was sad seeing her like that, but what worried me more was that she might have forgotten about the ale. She motioned for us to follow her up the stairs into her living room.
Aunt Annie’s place gave you the feeling of traveling back in time. The furniture must’ve been old even when I’d been a kid. The television set was huge and clunky, the type you wouldn’t even find at a scrap yard these days. Even the smell of the place was old and musty.
The old woman had been talking ever since we entered the place. Honestly, I didn’t even understand half of what she was saying and didn’t care about the rest. Aunt Annie, however, chirped on happily about how glad she was that we visited her. I nodded, agreed with her here and there, and smiled a lot. That did the trick.
I soon shifted the topic to the old restaurant and how things were different back then. She told us a few stories about her and Uncle John and the many people they’d know back in the day. I have no idea how much of it was true, but I could tell her mind was all over the place. This went on for almost half an hour before I even got the chance to ask her about the ale.
The moment the word had left my lips, her eyes focused right at me, as if she’d snapped right out of her drowsiness.
“It’s all gone,” she hissed at me, “every last drop of it. Stuff of the devil!”
“What are you talking about Aunt Annie?” I asked, my voice dripping with innocence.
“I’m not here to get any of it. I came to visit you,” I assured her, but she didn’t react at all.
She seemed to be too agitated after I’d mentioned the ale and was still murmuring to herself.
“Aunt Annie?” I asked, putting my hand on her shoulder.
“Oh Jerry, I’m sorry, what were we talking about? Sometimes I forget things.”
I nodded smiling and told her we’d been talking about old times. She smiled and piped up right again. What had caused this sudden episode? It had to be the frustration about people coming here repeatedly over the years asking about it.
Finally, I decided on a different approach. I told her that my friend and I were starting our own restaurant and that we’d like to get some tips from her. After all, her place had been the talk of the town back in the day.
However, there was nothing she could tell us. They prepared food, and people came to eat.
“People need to eat, right?” she said smiling.
I sighed and cursed before I asked her if she had any recipes we could use.
She thought hard but admitted that she didn’t cook much anymore. She often forgot the ingredients, or part of the process, and ended up ruining everything.
By that point, I got frustrated. I told her that the last time I’d been visiting her she’d promised to hand me her old cooking book.
When she heard that she lit up a little.
“Oh, you are right, the book, the book. I’m sorry Jerry, I forgot all about it. My mind isn’t as good as it used to anymore.”
“Don’t worry about it. How about you get it for me now?”
She motioned for me to follow her along, and we went into a little kitchen.
“Now where did I put it again?” she mumbled to herself.
For long minutes she stood there, eying the kitchen in front of her before she went to an old drawer. After rummaging through it for a while, she discovered a small, old notebook. The moment she’d found it, she handed it over to me with an enormous smile on her face. I flipped through it, but all I found were recipes for the various meals they’d served. There was no mention of any drinks.
Dammit, I wasn’t just frustrated anymore. No, I was mad.
“Well, that’s all nice, but what happened to Uncle John’s notes? The ones about the drinks? Wasn’t it the drinks that made your place as popular as it was?”
Her mood changed right away. Again she cursed and murmur to herself.
“What’s the matter, Aunt Annie? Why are you so angry?”
For a second she stared at me, her eyes wide open.
“Is it because they all wanted to get more of that stuff?”
“More of what, dear?” she asked.
The episode was already over again, but my patience was gone.
“More of the ale, Aunt Annie!” I confronted her.
“There’s no more of the ungodly stuff! We had to stop making it,” she broke off.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it was wrong John! We can’t anymore! I can’t.”
She was lost again and tears welled up in her eyes and ran down her cheeks.
“Why can’t you?” I pressed her.
My friend had gotten up and came over to the kitchen looking at me with a sullen face. I didn’t care.
“Because we used them!” she cried.
“Who are they?”
She cried, shivered, and almost collapsed, crashing against the kitchen counter.
“It was wrong John, all of it! We can’t ever go down there again!”
“The basement, John. It’s all wrong, everything down there is!”
She went on and on, but I couldn’t make out her words anymore. I didn’t have to, I knew where I had to go.
Aunt Annie was clinging to the kitchen counter. My friend looked at me in disgust as he stepped up to the old lady.
“The hell’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“I’ll have a look at what I can find down there,” I said shrugging.
With that, I left and hurried down the stairs. Judge me all you want, but there was most likely no other way to get anything out of here.
It took me a while to find the door that led to the basement. It was at the back of the house at the end of the dinner’s old kitchen.
As I approached the door, I found it locked. No surprise, I thought, considering her words. For a little while, I searched for the keys but when I didn’t find them I went back to the door. Fuck it, I told myself. After two heavy kicks, the old door already bent inwards a bit. Three more and it swung open.
I couldn’t see a thing as I stared down the stairs. Thankfully, I found an old light switch that was still working.
A lonely lightbulb dangled from the ceiling near the bottom. I went down one step at the time, testing each of the wooden stairs before I put my weight on them.
Once I was down, I looked around but found nothing of interest. I saw some old, empty shelves that must’ve once been filled with supplies. There was a tool here and a box there, but other than that the place was empty.
I went through a few of the things before I discovered another doorway leading to the second part of the basement.
“Bingo,” I whispered the moment I entered and saw Uncle John’s old still.
There was another shelf here, covered by an old curtain, but I ignored it for now. Instead, I walked right to a small desk at the end of the room. My eyes lit up when I saw its drawers.
The first one was filled with an assortment of tools and spare parts. The second one was the same. It was in the third one that I found what I’d been looking for. A notebook and a few sheets of paper.
A quick look at the sheets revealed that it was the instructions on how to work the still and its various parts.
The moment I opened the notebook and saw the instructions for an herb liquor called Herby Herbert, I knew I’d found what I’d been looking for. I leafed through the pages. There was a variety of liquors and drinks in there, all with silly names. Bobbie’s Berry Booze, Long Leg Larry’s Liquor, Old Odette’s Ouzo, to name a few. It went on like that and I had to admit that some names were funny and creative.
When I came to the last page, I was confused. There were over two dozen drinks in here, but nothing about the ale.
“Shit! Why’s it not in here?”
I checked the few sheets of paper again, then went through the notebook once more. There was nothing.
I threw the notebook to the ground and went back to the drawers. If it was their special secret brew, then maybe…
After five minutes I’d found it. There was a small space at the bottom of one of the drawers containing a small stack of notes. They were dirty and clipped together.
“Finally,” I said to myself in triumph.
There was no name on it, and the handwriting was shoddy. Even worse, the pages were dirty and with the little light I had down here, I almost couldn’t read them. Eventually, I went back upstairs to one of the old dining room tables and looked through them.
The first page was entirely covered in handwriting. The second one showed various glass jars, all with individual notes. The third page held more instructions while the last one listed all the ingredients. I read sugar, fruits, strawberries, and a couple of other things. That’s it! There was no name on the page, but the ingredients left no doubt that I’d found what I’d come here for.
Starting from the first page, I began to read. Creating the drink was a long and arduous process because a so-called special ingredient was limited and took a long time to gain. I was intrigued and wondered what that could be.
As I read on I found out how you had to prepare the ingredients and how to let them age till they were ready to be distilled. The special ingredient was mentioned repeatedly, but it was never revealed what it was. Apparently, it was put in a glass jar and let ripen in there for weeks or even months, depending on a few factors. The process itself was mentioned in excruciating detail. As far as I understood the most significant factor was time. The process itself didn’t seem too hard.
I checked all the notes, looked for some kind of secret message, but never found out what it was.
I went back to the page with the glass jars. It explained how you added one ingredient after another, mixed them with water and other liquids, and what the different stages looked like. At a certain point, it was mentioned that you had to add it to the rest. Then it took more time for everything to get ready.
“What the hell’s it supposed to be?” I cursed at the notes.
Then I remembered the covered shelf I’d seen.
I rushed back down and pulled the curtain away to see what was behind. The entire shelf was filled with jars. Most of them were empty, some had liquids in them, but there were two that contained something else.
I stood there dumbfounded before I stumbled back a few steps. What the hell was that supposed to be? Was this some kind of sick joke? I blinked, shook my head, but it was still there. There was no doubt, I’d found out the identity of the secret ingredient and almost made me vomit. Two of the jars each held a human fetus in them.
One was small, containing a name tag, and identifying the fetus as Raphael. The other, however, was bigger, and apart from the fetus, different fruits and berries had been added to it.
I’m no doctor, but I damn well know what a fetus looks like. I stumbled away from the shelf, but before I’d even reached the next room, I vomited on the ground.
Aunt Annie’s Ale. Now the name made sense in a sick and twisted way. It was made of something that came out of here. Why they’d been driven to create something like that…
Still, I thought, it made sense that the stuff was always so limited and at a certain point they couldn’t make it anymore. There was a point in time at which Aunt Annie couldn’t get pregnant anymore. Thinking about that made me vomit again.
I started thinking. The town had been a devoted Christian community. Other people often condemned abortions or complications during birth. So they hadn’t talked about it. Had the sadness of losing their children brought them to keep them?
What I still couldn’t find an explanation for was what could’ve driven them to do… this. Animosity? Insanity? A way to get rid of them?
I thought back to the time when I was a little boy, to the happy, boisterous lady Aunt Annie had been, to stout Uncle John. The thought of them making a drink out of their own… I would have thrown up a third time, but by then, my stomach was empty. I stumbled back up the stairs of the basement and into the kitchen.
I picked up the notes again, crumbled them up, and was about to throw them away when my friend appeared.
“You found anything?”
“Nothing,” I told him and hid the notes in my pocket.
He looked at me for a while. Must’ve seen how sick I’d looked.
“You all right, man?”
“Yeah, must’ve been the damp air of that freaking basement. Been down there for almost an hour.”
I didn’t say goodbye to Aunt Annie. No, I left the place right away. To be honest, I contemplated burning the entire place to the ground the moment I stepped outside.
Our restaurant started well enough, but it declined quickly. It’s tough competing with other restaurants and the big fast-food chains. My friend told me, if nothing happens we’d have to close the place down soon.
I remembered his words when I found the crumpled up notes one day.
“If nothing happens.”
In a small town, there is a limited supply of the special ingredient. In a city with a population numbering in the millions though, you can get your hands on them much easier. At least, if you know where to look.
Desperation leads to bad decisions, they say.
I wish, I wish I’d thrown those damned notes away back then because now, there’s no turning back anymore.