The Mummer

by Brennan J. Bennett

 

Four days, he thought, stepping out of the battered cabin he’d rented when he’d first arrived in Hog-Jaw. It had been four lousy days in this cold, Canadian piss-pot of a town and Jack Bradley still hadn’t figured out why he’d even come in the first place.

It was because of her, he could remember that much.

That bitch.

Before stopping in Hog-Jaw, Jack had been a week into getting-the-fuck-out-of-Dodge—“Dodge” being his marriage and the shit-storm he’d left behind. He’d left his driveway in Maine with “If I ever see you again, I’ll cut your fucking face off!” echoing in his ears and had wound his way through Canada to Newfoundland, where he’d been barrel-assing across the island when he’d seen the sign for Hog-Jaw.

It had been the name “Hog-Jaw” that had reminded him of something she’d said early in their marriage—though he’d never made a habit of listening to her—and he’d been compelled to stop. He’d spent the next four days getting righteously, rip-roaringly drunk, and trying to remember what she’d said that had made him stop and spend the week of Christmas in this Podunk little shit-tank.

And as he heard the burping and coughing of the ancient truck on the morning of his fifth day in Hog-Jaw, he still couldn’t remember a thing.

The truck was rumbling toward him up the neglected dirt road that ended abruptly at his front door, and he descended the cabin’s four-step front porch to meet it.

The rust-colored Chevy rolled to a stop, and the driver killed the engine and swung open the rust-pocked door. He seemed to emerge in segments. By the way he moved, Jack had expected to see an old-timer—a grizzled, leathery woodsman—but the man who uncoiled himself from the Chevy was no more than forty, about his own age. He was broad-shouldered and sturdy, with the thick arms and chest of an athlete (or a lumberjack, Jack thought). Dense hair spilled out over his shirt and seemed to climb like ivy toward his neck where it merged with thick stubble that swallowed most of his face. Messy shocks of reddish-brown hair fell from his head, leaving only a narrow slot for his sunken eyes. Jack thought of medieval knights and the tiny eye slots of their visored helmets.

The man shut the door of the truck and took a few aimless steps toward him. As he approached, Jack could see a deep, twisting scar that began at the corner of his eye and plunged down somewhere into the wild, endless stubble.

He stopped ten feet from where Jack stood and said nothing.

“Morning,” Jack offered.

Silence.

“What can I do you for, Chief?” Jack said, grinning.

Again, silence.

“Everyone in this town this damn chatty? You know, on that note, does thirty people in the woods even constitute a town? I mean, this–”

“Morning,” the man said, suddenly. It was neither a pleasantry nor a greeting, but a simple statement of fact. The flatness in his voice matched the lifelessness in the eyes that peered not at Jack, but past him into the woods, from behind the wild visor of hair.

Jack hesitated, eyeing the man suspiciously, not sure if he might offer more. Finally he said, “Okay, can I help y–?”

“See you tonight,” the man said flatly, suddenly—strangely suddenly, Jack thought. The vacant eyes continued to stare.

Jack furrowed his eyebrows. He opened his mouth to speak, but just as he did, the dead-eyed hair-knight snapped his head a quarter-turn to the right with surprising quickness. The abruptness of the movement startled Jack and his mouth hung open. Hair-Knight seemed to be looking at the cabin.

Jack swallowed hard. His mouth felt dry and the spit stuck in the back of his throat.

He traced Hair-Knight’s line of sight and realized, with sudden confusion, that there was something—maybe a flyer—taped to the outside of his cabin door.

Before Jack had much time to think, Hair-Knight’s head began to turn back toward him. It moved slowly, deliberately. All sound seemed to fade and Jack could feel his eyes darting with metronome quickness, anticipating that something—anything—might happen.

As Hair-Knight’s face became visible to him, Jack could see that his formerly dead, sunken eyes were now wide and popping from his skull. Jack felt the hackles rise on his neck, sick gooseflesh leap from his skin. Despite the freezing air, hot waves of steam rippled from his chest and made his cheeks flushed.

Without a word, the man turned toward his old truck and pulled open the door. The door gave a shrill whine and Jack winced. And before he could really understand what had transpired, the man folded himself back into the old Chevy with his same meandering slowness and was gone.

*****

When Jack arrived at Clapper’s a half-hour later, the barroom was nearly empty, other than a few shrunken old men scattered about the place and a tired-looking bartender.

Jack plopped himself down at the bar and slouched onto his elbows, his head in his hands. Replayings of his peculiar encounter with the stranger outside his cabin flashed before his eyes. His skin crawled and pricked with each replay, as if suffering bites from a swarm of fire ants all over his body. His muscles were tense, and the innocuous sounds of the barroom made his bones pulse and caused him to cower reflexively for an instant each time one disrupted the heavy stillness of the room.

He replayed the stranger’s words—see you tonight—like his mind was stuck in a record-player-skip, until his face felt numb.

The flyer pinned to his door was perhaps the most troubling part of the encounter. It had been pinned to his door in the wee-hours of the morning—he’d been up, piss-drunk, by the fire until at least midnight, and the flyer hadn’t been there when he went in for the night. That meant someone had been watching him, waiting for him to turn in, had crept up to his door… He shivered. What was more concerning, though, was the way Hair-Knight seemed to look right at it—the only thing he looked clearly at—like he wanted him to see it.

When Jack had snatched the paper from the door after Hair-Knight left, he was even more perplexed. “Annual Night of the Mummers,” the headline had read. Below it: “December 23.” Tonight. Underneath that, a peculiar picture of what he could only describe as a “fucked-up clown” had smiled out at him. At the bottom of the page, he’d noticed a few lines of verse that read, “There’s big ones and small ones, and tall ones and thin, / Boys dressed as women and girls dressed as men, / Humps on their backs and mitts on their feet, / My blessed we’ll die with the heat. –Simani.”

He’d seen the same flyer plastered to the window of Mack’s Market as he’d passed a few minutes before, and the same fucked-up clown—“the mummer,” apparently—was staring at him presently from the flyer pinned behind the bar.

“Get’cha, b’y?” the old barman said, startling Jack out of the dark mire of his thoughts.

Jack looked up and said nothing.

“Whadda ya want, b’y,” he asked again in thick Newfoundland English.

“Beer. Don’t care which.”

“Black Horse?” The old bartender’s face was a reddened and weathered patchwork of wrinkles, and Jack could see exhaustion plain and true. His eyes, though, seemed sharp.

“Oh, me nerves,” the barman said under his breath when Jack didn’t answer, and then more forcibly, “Black Horse, eh, b’y?”

“Sure, yeah.”

Jack watched him as he snatched a mug and pulled the tap. He was a stout little man, and he lumbered when he walked, like a man who had seen too much to worry about being in a hurry. Presently, he plodded toward Jack with the amber beer. Jack noticed his eyes again when he set down the mug, the sharpness there that stuck in his mind like a thorn.

“So, what’s the deal with this Mummer thing?” Jack asked, taking a long, calming sip of his beer and gesturing to the flyer behind the bar. “I’ve seen the flyers everywhere.”

Like my fucking cabin, he thought.

“Local ting,” the barman said, turning to eye the poster. “Sort of a game ’round Christmas every year. Yer friends dress up in masks and come to yer house, see if ya can guess who they be. Ya give ’em drinks fer clues, and when ya guess ’em all and the masks come off… well that’s when the real drinkin’ begins, eh, b’y?”

“Sounds…” Jack trailed off and slugged the rest of his beer.

“Yes, b’y, t’sumtin’, tat’s fer sure.”

He held Jack’s gaze a bit longer than was comfortable and Jack sensed that sharpness once again, like the old barman was trying to tell him something.

“Anyway, tis place’ll be empty. Whole town’ll be mumm’rin’. Anotter?” he said, scooping up Jack’s empty mug and heading for the taps. But just as he did, the tavern door swung out furiously and three feral-looking men shoved in. The barkeep eyed them skeptically, almost vigilantly, and turned back to Jack.

He lowered his red-leather face, that sharpness blazing behind his eyes, and whispered, “I’d say t’sabout time ya headed back to where ya come from, me son.”

He stepped back, shot Jack one final knowing glance and greeted the three men with “Get’cha, b’ys?” in the same tired, banal voice he’d used on Jack.

*****

“Fuck me!” Jack yelled as he slammed down his third pint to a chorus of cheers. His three new friends slapped him on the back.

When they’d first arrived, Jack had noticed two things simultaneously: first, each had a scar on his face similar to Hair-Knight’s, and second, almost as soon as they’d come through the door, the handful of old-timers in the room scattered as if they’d caught the fresh scent of death on the wind.

But those things were long gone from him. Now, he was quite enjoying their company.

“Bring me another round, b’y!” Jack yelled to the barkeep, mimicking the local Newfie accent, to another round of wild cheers. The bartender ambled over with another pint. Jack grabbed the beer and spun on his stool to face the men who were standing behind him in a tight half-circle. He thrust his glass toward them, and as he did, the three men raised theirs in odd unison, as if their arms were all tied to the same string. Jack smiled and teetered forward, sliding half off the barstool, not seeming to notice the strange uniformity of the men standing before him—the way they moved, spoke, laughed.

“Okay, b’ys,” he said, “what is it we’re toasting this time?”

A furtive glance passed among the three men, but again, Jack didn’t notice; his head danced in a warm haze.

“To ex-wives,” one of the men, Daniel, said after a moment’s pause, and raised his glass. He was a big bastard, probably six-foot-four, the kind of guy Jack would call a brick shithouse.

“You, Daniel-san?” Jack said stupidly in his Mr. Miyagi voice, pinching Daniel’s cheek. “With that handsome punim?”

“Believe it, brother,” Daniel said, clinking his glass against Jack’s. “She’s sort of the reason I ended up here. I was an ass. I’m getting what I deserve, really.”

“She do that to you?” Jack asked, half-serious, reaching up a hand to finger the ragged scar that twisted from under Daniel’s nostrils and tucked underneath his chin along his jawline.

“Something like that,” Daniel said.

When he didn’t say more, Jack said, “Women,” and downed a healthy gulp of beer. Shaking his head, he added, “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live with ’em. My old man used to say that.” This brought another round of cheers and more clinking glasses.

“You said it, pal,” Daniel agreed.

Though Jack hadn’t noticed, his head beginning to swim in inebriation, Daniel hadn’t touched his beer. In fact, none of them had taken a single sip the whole night.

“You married, Jack?” another of the men, Jordan, asked.

“Me? Fuck no. Well, shit, technically, yes, I still am. But let’s just say things didn’t end too well between me and the missus.” Jack finished off the pint in a heaping gulp.

“No?” Jordan asked, his expressionless face belying the false emotion in his voice.

Jack narrowed his eyes. “There’s something about you, Jordan. Something I can’t quite…” If he hadn’t been drunk, Jack may have placed his finger on what didn’t sit quite right about Jordan—the way he stood, too upright, or the way he never shifted his weight. He may have thought Jordan was a little too robotic, his movements too stiff, his skin too smooth—except for the faded pink gash-scar that split his cheek in two from ear to nose.

What Jack might have noticed most of all about Jordan—about all of them—is that he didn’t speak with a Canadian accent—Newfie or anything else.

Instead, when Jordan told him he didn’t have to talk about it, Jack replied with, “You want a story, fuckers? Then I’ve got one hell of a tale for you.”

“Bartender—another pint!” Daniel yelled and Jordan cheered.

With fresh beer in hand and bright lights bursting behind his eyes, Jack began his story.

“You see, b’ys, ol’ Jackie went and screwed the pooch, as they say. Well, if we’re being technical, I’d been screwing it just about every day.”

“Other women?” Jordan said.

“Everything that moved.” He was starting to slur his words. “You see, my missus… well, she just stopped putting out. It wasn’t always like that. She gave great head when I first met her, really rocked my fucking world. You find a girl who sucks cock like that and you lock her down—my old man never said that, but there would have been some practical advice!”

His three friends laughed a tinny, mechanical laugh in unison. Jack didn’t know why but he thought the laughter sounded like dead leaves scraping across pavement in the dark.

Jack took a long sip and continued his story. “Anyway, the fun stopped right after we got hitched. The fuck am I telling you for? Daniel, you were married; you know all about it.”

Daniel nodded and flashed a hollow grin.

“You other two twats ever married?” Jack asked, looking from Jordan to Nate, the third of the men. Both nodded. “Yeah, I could tell. Both divorced right?” They nodded again and Jack echoed their nods. “Knew it. We divorced guys have a certain look, a certain je ne sais quoi,” he said, nose upturned in mock-sophistication.

Jack noticed—the first thing he had noticed all evening—that Nate’s mouth took a downward dip at this. “Yours did a particular number on you, huh, Nate?”

“I deserve what I got,” he said flatly, looking down.

“Oh come on, boys! I’ve heard enough of that,” Jack groaned. “First Daniel and now Nate… Jordan, straighten them out!”

“Sorry, Jack,” Jordan said. “I, too, have reaped what I’ve sown.”

“Bullshit!” Jack yelled. “Bullshit! A hot, steamy pile of it! Come on, boys! The bitch is to blame! Mine caught me in the act! Came home early one day and caught me laying pipe right there on the living room couch. Some young slut. Big tits.” Jack grinned and lost himself in memory.

“Why are you here?” Nate said with a bluntness that woke Jack from his daydream. He was glowering darkly.

Jack looked up at him through glossy eyes that became suddenly lucid.

“What do you mean?”

Nate, Jack had learned, was a sullen son-of-a-bitch, and he hadn’t done much more than grunt since they’d met. Jack could tell he was a man of few words, but he seemed particularly surly this evening, really just going through the motions. His face was a permanent scowl and his wild-horse eyes were near-black. His scar, too, was unlike those of the other two (three—he remembered Hair-Knight and shivered). While theirs gave their faces a pitiful, victimized quality, his added an element of antagonism. It cut sharply across his lips, from nose to chin.

“You should leave and never come back,” Nate said, his face impassive.

“What Nate means to say,” Daniel broke in, turning toward Nate and glaring feverishly, “is how did it end with your wife?”

Though Daniel had been speaking to him, Jack thought the words were more for Nate.

“Jack?” Daniel said.

Jack, still watching Nate, jumped, startled. “Huh? Oh—sorry. What did you ask?”

“How did things end with your wife?”

“Ehh, you know,” he said dismissively.

“Do tell,” Jordan said. His robotic cadence again shocked Jack, furthering sobering him.

“Not much to tell, man,” he said almost defensively. “My wife’s crazy. She told me to get the hell out, that she’d kill me if she ever saw me again.” I’ll cut your fucking face off.

“Did you believe her?” Daniel said.

“I’m sitting at a hole-in-the-wall bar on an island in Canada, aren’t I?”

“Fair point,” Jordan said.

“I mean, I don’t think she’d ever hurt me. I don’t know; maybe she would. I guess I must have believed her because here I am.” Jack grew suddenly pensive. “I guess she does have something about her that is sort of scary.”

“She sure does,” Daniel said.

Nate jerked up his head and locked eyes with Jack as soon as Daniel spoke.

“What did you say?” Jack said, confusion plain on his face, his mouth suddenly dry.

“I said, ‘I’m sure she does.’ She must scare you to get you to leave home.”

“Yeah,” Jack said slowly, suspiciously.

He stared at Daniel, afraid to break eye contact.

He was just about to look away, to accept that maybe he had heard Daniel wrong, when he saw Daniel grin.

Jack stood up and retreated a half-step. He scanned the faces of the three men, feeling suddenly alone and vulnerable.

And then he saw Jordan grin.

Their grins seemed to be alive, spreading like ink in water, malignant and black, across their faces.

Jack felt a pressure begin to build in his chest like he were in a too-fast car going zero-to-infinity. He couldn’t breathe.

He knew, suddenly, that he had to get away. He recoiled back into his barstool and stumbled hard into the bartop. He caught himself just before he fell and hurried for the door.

Once onto the sidewalk, he took a deep breath of cold afternoon air and glanced back into the bar through the storefront window. Daniel and Jordan were still watching him with their wicked faces. Nate, though, was looking down, his hands in his pockets.

*****

When he awoke, face-down on the tweed sofa in his cabin, Jack was chilled and shivering. The room was dark, except for the sliver of dingy light that shone in, horizontal, through a window by the door. The sky was a quickly-fading orange and the little light slanting in through the blinds made his head throb like an ever-expanding balloon. He sat up slowly, his body heavy, and massaged his temples with trembling fingers.

He wobbled to his feet and shuffled to the refrigerator, where he found a single Budweiser tucked away in the back. He snatched up the can and took a long, purposeful sip which eased his trembling momentarily.

He stumbled back toward the sofa and sat facing the door. His mind reeled with a thousand thoughts at once. The Hair-Knight. The mummers. Daniel and Jordan with their scars… and their grins. Why had Nate told him to leave? He took another sip of beer, holding it on his tongue, and exhaled forcefully through his nose.

His knees bobbed, piston-like, as the slice of light around him thinned to a single strip of brightness. In another minute, the light had receded from the cabin entirely, just a pinhole glare on the horizon. And then it was gone, replaced by a twilight glow that melted away into the starless blue-black of night.

Jack drank the last sip of his beer, and as he did, there were three slow, light knocks at the door.

See you tonight, he remembered in the echoes.

“Who is it?” he called.

Another round of knocking sounded at the door, quicker this time.

“Who is it?” he tried again, voice faltering.

A third round, heavy and aggressive now, boomed as if in response.

Jack’s pulse crashed in his ears like tidal waves pounding the shore. Cold sweat broke over his body.

Suddenly, the knocking became a violent, hateful rapping that seemed to surround him. Loud crashes enveloped him as fists pounded the cabin from all angles. He whipped his head around frantically, trying to catch glimpses of the figures in the darkness through the windows.

The banging on the door thundered in ever-quickening, mallet-fisted blasts. The door leapt on its hinges, threatening to give way at any moment.

“Fuck it,” Jack said aloud. Before he could stop himself, he was on his feet, flipping on the overhead light, and unlocking the door.

When he did, the pounding stopped at once in a single reverberating note. A cruel silence settled over him. And then the cabin door pulled open.

He hadn’t known what he would see when the door opened, when the overhead light spilled out into the darkness and spotlighted whoever was there. He certainly hadn’t expected to see the clown.

It wasn’t so much a clown, he thought as the man crossed the threshold, but a thing of nightmares. The man, whoever he was, wore a mask. It was the wizened, deep-wrinkled face of an old man—heavy brows, sunken cheekbones, bulbous nose—but there was a cartoonish quality to it, like a caricature gone horribly wrong. The old man’s mouth twisted downward into a red-lipped grimace that revealed black gums and rotting teeth. The worst part of the mask, Jack thought, was the empty eye sockets, black and sinister, and the very real, very hateful human eyes beneath.

Hair-Knight. He’d know those eyes anywhere.

Hair-Knight said nothing under his mask. He breathed heavily, threateningly, and stepped toward Jack. Jack recoiled quickly, slamming his heels into the base of the sofa and crashing down into a seated position. He looked up dumbly, helplessly, and saw the rest of Hair-Knight’s outfit. He wore a black tuxedo-looking getup, though, Jack noticed, the entire thing was one piece, like the denim jumpsuit a mechanic might wear. A grotesque hump—obviously fake—protruded from his back. It looked airy and flopped side-to-side as he moved. The whole thing was so absurd, so ironically comical, that Jack wanted to laugh, and he might have, if not for the eyes that burned from behind the mask.

Jack was suddenly aware that two other people, each as oddly dressed as the first, were stepping through the door. None made a sound.

“What…” Jack started but stopped.

The first figure stepped forward and cocked his head at Jack as if in confusion. He wore a white sheet over his face, held tightly to his skin by black cords around his forehead and neck. Mismatching holes revealed eyes that never broke from his. In the droop of the right eye-hole, Jack could see the thin scar across his cheek. If the strange, robotic movements hadn’t given him away, the scar surely had.

Jordan.

Around the white sheet, Jordan wore what looked like a lion’s mane, the hair kinky and rainbow-colored. It billowed like a windy grainfield each time he alternated the tilt of his head. His stare cut into Jack and he said nothing.

A minute or more passed in the silence of this bizarre stare-off, and finally, bewildered, Jack said, “What–”

“Quiet,” Hair-Knight said. Though his voice was barely above a whisper behind the old-man mask, his baleful glare turned Jack’s stomach to knots. Jack held his breath, afraid to make a sound.

“We are the mummers!” Lion’s-Mane-Jordan said suddenly. His voice was high-pitched and squeaky. “We are the mummers, and we’re sorry for this fright! But we’re here for fun, to dance and pun, for you this winter’s night!”

When he finished his song, Jordan stepped back into line and the tall mummer at Hair-Knight’s left shoulder stepped forward. Jack knew him instantly.

Daniel.

Where’s Nate? Jack wondered. Why isn’t he with them?

Daniel had a waterfall of curly blond hair masking his face. Clipped to the hair were two prosthetic-eyes-on-springs, lifeless gray and jouncing wildly. He was shirtless and on his stomach was a tattoo of Siamese cowboys riding Siamese horses.

He was holding a strange-looking stick—a broom handle—about four feet long. Attached to the bottom of the stick was an old work boot, the sole at the steel toe flapping like a lolling tongue. Nails were driven into the wood all along the length of the stick, and from each, dangled bottle caps, marbles, or silver jingle bells.

Siamese-Cowboy-Daniel opened his mouth and said, “It’s really quite simple! Just guess our names! That’s how you win this mumm’ring game!” As he sang, he held the strange stick out from his body with one hand and let it slam, boot-first, to the ground with a discordant crash. Every few seconds, he’d let it fall again.

He continued his song. “We’ll give you clues to help you out. When you know, let out a shout! Call the name and we’ll be done, then you’ll be on to another one!” At this, he brayed chilling laughter—part animal, part demented circus-clown.

Jordan, also giggling maniacally, his mane undulating like underwater plantlife, picked up the verse. “Can’t solve the riddles? That’s no problem. For a price, we’ll help you solve ’em! A drink as bribe will buy a clue. That will make it clear to you. When all unmasked, we’ll be away, and you’ll have learned a truth today.”

“What tru–”

“Shut up!” Hair-Knight roared. Jack was poleaxed by fear. He had been confused before that moment—afraid even—but when Hair-Knight yelled, Jack understood immediately that he was in real danger.

The silence that followed was deafening. The three mummers stared in unison. And then the ugly broom-handled instrument began to bang. It’s beat was steady. One-two-three-CLANG!-one-two-three-CLANG!-one-two-three-CLANG! It was the tolling of a funeral bell.

Get up! he thought. Get up and run!

One-two-three-CLANG!

Jack squeezed his fingers into a tight ball. His pulse thrummed behind his knuckles.

Hair-Knight. Have to get past the fucking Hair-Knight.

The savage yawp of a cornered animal erupted from within him suddenly and Jack was on his feet. He took two loping strides and drove his fist into Hair-Knight’s face. The old-man-face absorbed much of the blow, but it was enough to knock him off balance, and Jack pushed past him and shouldered through the door. It gave way with surprising ease and he stumbled, plunging headlong down the stairs, flipping and landing hard in the snow. Before he could think of the pain or the cold, he was up and running. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the mummers piling through the door, Daniel already to the bottom of the steps, the asinine pole-instrument gripped like a bo staff in his hands.

Jack whipped his head forward and sprinted wildly toward the dirt road. Get to town! he thought. Get help! Before he’d taken three steps, though, he stopped cold.

Standing at the edge of the road was another mummer, a long-bladed kitchen knife in his hand. He rolled the knife between his thumb and fingers and the moonlight glinted menacingly off the blade. Then everything went black.

*****

When he came to, he was only faintly aware of where he was. His vision was blurred, but a musty smell told him he was still in his cabin. The moving shapes across the room told him the mummers were still there, too. He tried to move but found that he was bound, wrists and ankles, to a wicker chair. Panic set in immediately. He yanked feverishly against the ropes, arching his back and throwing his weight against them, but the more he struggled, the tighter they seemed to get. After a few seconds, he gave up and fell heavily into the chair.

He was suddenly aware of the blaring pain in the back of his skull and he closed his eyes tightly. Something warm beaded across his hairline and trickled behind his right ear. Tears came, and then great ragged heaves.

“Shut the fuck up,” he heard and then felt the explosion of pain as knuckles shattered his cheekbone. He made a gurgling sound in his throat and began to sob.

Hair-Knight, still wearing his mask, massaged his knuckles. He tensed when he heard Jack’s cries and was back on him in an instant, his hand wrapped around Jack’s throat, fist clenched and cocked. “I said shut the fuck UP!”

“Enough,” a voice called lackadaisically from across the room. Hair-Knight released his throat and joined the other two mummers by the door.

The voice belonged to the fourth mummer, the one who he’d seen on the road just before he’d blacked out. Now the man was reclining on the sofa, one leg draped over the other. He still held the knife. Jack watched as he picked at the undersides of his fingernails nonchalantly with the tip of the blade.

Nate.

He was dressed in much the same way as the others. Over his face, he wore a burlap sack, black Xs across the eyes and a cross-stitched zipper-pattern smile that traced across the bag.

“Back to the game then, hmm?” Burlap-Sack-Nate said without emotion.

Jordan stepped forward in his preposterous lion’s mane and cocked his head maniacally again. “Take a guess at who I am. Jim or John or maybe Sam. If you think you need a clue, try blueb’rry wine, yes that’ll do,” he sang. The ugly-stick in Daniel’s hand clanged miserably along.

“Please,” Jack begged the mummer on the couch. “Please just let me go. I won’t say anything about this. I just want to go home. Please.”

The mummer sighed. Exasperation maybe. Jack saw him nod at Hair-Knight and flick the knife toward Jack. An instant later, Hair-Knight was hovering over him, fist raised. This time, pain followed, like nothing Jack had ever felt. His already-shattered cheekbone felt as if it had been ground to dust. The fat knuckles had also caught part of his nose and blood poured out. Jack leaned his head back and blood rushed down his throat, making him sputter. He found himself crying again through gulps of metallic blood.

“Do you enjoy the pain, Jackie?” the fourth mummer said. His voice was calm.

“No,” Jack whispered, steadying himself the best he could.

“No. Of course you don’t.” The mummer spoke as if answering his own question. “See, but here’s the thing: I think… you fucking… do.”

“Ple-ea-ease,” Jack mewed. “Please, no.”

“Then play the game. Guess the names and it all ends.” He flicked his hand in a whimsical, dismissive gesture.

“If I play the game, I can leave?” Jack asked, hope rising in the pallor of his face.

Silence.

“It’s Jordan,” Jack said, wheezing through his broken nose. “It’s Jordan in the white sheet. Jordan.”

Jordan stepped forward and slipped the sheet over his face, revealing the rotting grin Jack knew he’d see there. Jack’s skin prickled at the sight.

The Siamese-Cowboy was next. He stepped forward, eyes dangling morbidly on their springs on the blond wig. “My dance–”

“Daniel,” Jack interrupted. “It’s Daniel. And that’s the fucking Hair-Knight,” he said, pointing to the old-man-face mask. They removed their masks. Daniel was grinning. Hair-Knight was glaring.

“Hair-Knight,” the fourth mummer repeated, amused. He was on his feet now, ambling toward Jack, still flourishing the long knife in his hand. Jack felt cold, suffusive fear seeping through his pores, smelled its sour tang in an instant. He bucked his hips and arched his back against the ropes.

“Stop that,” the mummer said, walking past him and touching him lightly on the shoulder with the flat side of the blade. Jack eyed the knife and then swung his head around as far as he could to watch the mummer. He heard the heavy clink of steel on laminate as the mummer laid the knife on the countertop in the kitchen just out of his view. Cords stood out on Jack’s neck as he strained to see. He heard what sounded like twisting and then tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Then a quick fffwoop. His heart raced. Moments later, he heard another clank as the knife hit the cast iron of the burner on the gas range.

“What do you want from me?” Jack said softly.

Behind him, Jack heard the audible expansion of the plume of flame on the burner. After a minute or more of silence, he heard, “I want you to play the game.” The burner turned off with a quick pop.

“I don’t want to play anymore,” he whimpered.

The mummer appeared in his periphery, the knife, now gleaming red-hot, back in his hands. He lowered his burlap-sacked face directly in front of Jack’s and said, “Are you ready for my clue?”

“Nate! You’re Nate,” Jack yelled, desperation thick in his voice.

Without a word, the mummer climbed onto him, draping either leg around the outside of Jack’s until he was in an erotic straddle across his lap. He held the hot knife aloft, the point only a few inches from Jack’s left eye, and twirled the blade in a tight circlet. Jack squeezed his eyes shut and drew back his head as far as he could. The blade inched closer.

“Please, just leave me alone,” Jack begged.

“Oh, if only I’d said that when we first met.”

“But–” he said and then screamed as the mummer touched the point of the blade to the soft flesh under his eye. He saw the tiny curl of steam and screamed again.

“Are you ready for my clue now?”

“Yes,” Jack heard himself say, afraid anything else might get him burned again.

“Good. Here goes. You didn’t know this when we met, and I never did quite clue you, but it’s a fact and you can bet, that I already knew you. Not you, per se, but your type indeed; in fact, I’ve known quite many. Selfish ones, and arrogant; oh, yes, there have been plenty.”

“I don’t know,” Jack said softly, starting to cry again. “Nate. Nate!”

The mummer sang on. “I mark them out, I reel them in; it’s really not that hard. I hunt them down when they run off; leave them broken, beaten, scarred. You, too, I chose, flaws I could tell, when we met that spring in Maine. A year of marriage, a year of hell; I thought only of your pain.”

Jack opened his eyes wide, eyes suddenly alight with understanding.

The mummer continued, “And now here you sit, in my hometown, the seed I planted grown. I led you here, to break you, dear; your life now I do own. So the next time you run out on me, look only to your face; the scar you bear will long remind you of your true disgrace.”

Tears streamed down Jack’s face now; blood and snot poured from his nose.

“Say my name, Jackie,” the mummer said.

He shook his head slowly and said, barely audibly, “No. No. I–”

“Say… my… name!” the mummer yelled, ripping off the burlap sack in one fluid movement. Raven-black hair spilled out and eyes darker-still bore into him. Her face was beautiful and malicious.

*****

Jack was paralyzed by his wife’s wicked smile.

He didn’t struggle even when she shifted her weight forward on his lap and put the palm of her free hand on his forehead to press his face parallel to the ceiling. But then he saw the sheen of the blade in her other hand. And he felt the three sets of hands on him. Only then did Jack let out a pitiful scream. But then the knife stole his breath.

The blade bit deep into the flesh of his upper cheek where she’d burned him moments before. It had cooled considerably, but it cut with a bitter sting nonetheless. She ripped the blade from the soft skin under the eye down across his left cheek, using just the point and tip of the knife for her incision. A thin, red line appeared in its wake. As she turned under his nose, she laid the blade flat and let the cutting edge work. A bright red chasm appeared between his nostrils and lips, blood sliding in sheets across his mouth instantly. She finished the job by dragging the blade’s tip across his right cheek and jawline. And then she kissed him on the mouth. And licked her lips.

The hands released him all at once, but Jack felt glued to the chair. His mouth arched in a terrible grimace. His breath came in shallow gasps. His face burned with venomous flame.

“Say my name, Jack,” she whispered, her lips to his ear, the knife pressing just below it.

“Olivia.” His lips barely moved.

“Good. That’s good,” she said and hopped off his lap. She floated back to the stove, and through his agony, Jack once more heard the range flame to life, the blade clang against it.

“Why?” Jack exhaled to the ceiling.

“It’s not so complicated, really, Jackie,” she yelled from the stove. “My motivations are simple. I grew up here, just down the road actually—you probably didn’t even fucking know that… You never could listen to me, could you?—and my father was a cheating scumbag piece-of-shit who walked out on my mother and me. Now I’m making sure that never happens to anyone again, one arrogant shitsack at a time. Simple, right? So I have daddy issues. Whatever. Know thyself.

“You’re not the first arrogant shitsack though. You’ve probably figured that out by now—I’m sure you’ve seen the scars. You’re actually the fifth. Lucas was first,” Hair-Knight, Jack thought through his disorientation, “then Danny, then Jordy. Nathan was last. He’s still learning.” Jack could hear the control in her voice. The dominance. “We had to remind him just who is in charge after the way he acted today at Clapper’s.”

He’d tried to warn me, Jack thought. Just like the bartender.

Olivia continued, “Nathan had to be taught a lesson. But I think he’ll remember now.”

Hair-Knight stepped forward as Olivia finished speaking and held out his hand. In it, Jack saw a bloody human ear. He made a pathetic mewling sound and closed his eyes. The twisting line on his face throbbed wickedly.

“And now you’re one of mine, Jackie,” Olivia said, still standing by the stove. “You know, I told you Lucas was the first. That’s only partially true. He was my first husband, the first cheating asshole I took up here to break. But my father was really my first. Know what I did to him? I took his balls with an old kitchen knife when I was sixteen.”

A feeling of inevitability soaked through Jack. She’d hunted her own father… She’d tracked him down and… He knew in that moment that it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d come to Hog-Jaw or not. She’d have found him wherever he went.

She continued. “I didn’t even heat the blade. He almost bled out. But I didn’t let him. I thought he should have to live with what he’d done—and what I’d done to him.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack breathed. “For what I did to you.”

“Jack,” she sneered. “Don’t do that. You’re not sorry. You’re not capable of being sorry. Not yet anyway.”

Suddenly, the others were on him. Hair-Knight had his hand around his throat again, and Daniel pinned his legs. Jordan fingered Jack’s belt furiously. In a matter of seconds, he’d unfastened the clasp and shimmied the jeans and briefs down to his ankles.

Olivia, the red-hot knife in hand again, knelt between Jack’s legs and grabbed his balls in one hand like she were collecting wildflowers. He screamed and begged for mercy. He thrashed wildly in the chair, but the men held him firm. Olivia pressed the fat edge of the blade against the delicate skin between her fingers.

Jack threw his head back in agony, begging for an end. His skin hissed under the blade. The stench of burning flesh filled the air.

And then the branding was over.

“Get him into the snow,” Olivia said. Jack’s binds were cut and he was hoisted, his pants still around his ankles, out into the snow. The air rushing over his branding sent him into fresh bouts of agony. The snow, too, seemed to torch his seared flesh. Tears began to fall again and he hung his head, afraid to look at her as she descended the cabin’s steps, her burlap-sack mask in her hand.

She didn’t look at him either; she didn’t need to. Her power was clear.

“You know what you are now.” There was no question in her words. “You are nothing. You are mine. Now get in the car.” She pulled a set of keys—his keys—from her pocket and slid into the driver’s seat of Jack’s Mercedes.

Jack rose and pulled up his pants. He limped wearily toward the car, watching his feet as he walked. When he reached the door, he hesitated, his hand on the handle.

Maybe I can make a run for it, he thought. If I can get to the bartender… But they might catch me. That knife. The pain.

He opened the door and sat down, another wave of pain sweeping through him. Olivia started the car and pulled slowly down the dirt road. Jack could see the three others standing like sentinels. He realized, morosely, that he might soon be standing next to them as some other poor bastard made this drive.

“Put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes,” she said in the darkness.

Jack peeked at her furtively but didn’t move. He thought again of the bartender. He knows I’m here. He’ll send help.

Olivia turned the car onto Hog-Jaw’s main drag, and Jack began to see other mummers through his window. He watched them, the merry and the absurd, children and adults alike, laughing, prancing down sidewalks, knocking on doors. People in their homes smiling, inviting the mummers—their friends and neighbors—in. All fun. All happy.

And then he saw Olivia’s mask on the floor by his feet and shivered.

“Put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes,” she said again as they passed Mack’s Market, an edge to her voice now.

Jack refused to look at her. He could see Clapper’s just ahead.

Suddenly the car slammed to a stop.

“Jack,” she growled in the dark. He could feel her glare but still didn’t look.

And then he saw the bartender.

He was on the sidewalk in front of the bar, almost like he was waiting for them.

Jack’s heart raced. Help was so close. He had to get the barman’s attention.

He felt the power window switch with his finger but didn’t dare press it. He didn’t have time. She’d speed away the second the window moved and it would be all over. But he had to do something. This might be his only chance.

Suddenly, furiously, he pounded the car window with his open palms and screamed.

The barman looked up. He looked right at Jack.

Thank Christ! Jack thought as he kept banging.

And then his window began to lower.

He looked at Olivia, and in astonishment, saw her finger pressing the driver’s side window switch. She leaned toward him and lowered her head, looking past him toward the bartender on the sidewalk.

“Hi, Daddy,” she called through the open window.

Jack’s blood ran cold. His face turned ashen.

In the halo of yellow light from the bulb above the tavern’s door, Jack watched the barman raise a trembling palm to her, the rest of his body rigid at her words. The fear was plain in his eyes, as simple and true as anything Jack had ever seen. And then the barman turned, walked back into the bar, and turned off the light.

A thick darkness settled over the street. A heavy numbness settled over Jack.

He heard the hum of his window closing, and all he could do was sink into his seat.

After a moment of silence, he forced himself to look at Olivia. She was smiling devilishly.

“Put your head on my shoulder and close your eyes, Jackie.”

A shadow fell over her face then—not a shadow, Jack thought, but a darkness. A thing almost alive, wicked and ancient. Evil. Under that mask of primal darkness, her eyes turned to white fire.

Jack Bradley laid his head against her shoulder and closed his eyes.

 

Fate Knocks Twice

by Jeremy Wright

 

One.

Two.

“Someone’s at the front door, Ann,” Hal Sanders yelled out.

Ann Sanders wiped her hands on a dishtowel and said, “Who in the world would be knocking at this time of night?”

Although it was just after nine o’clock, the Sanders weren’t used to and didn’t desire unexpected guests. The majority of unexpected house calls were the obnoxious door-to-door salesmen who tried to sell a truckload of junk for an outrageous price and simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“I don’t know why these damn people can’t read the sign. It’s posted right there on the screen door. No soliciting. Doesn’t anyone give a damn about privacy anymore?” Hal hollered loudly and hoped the person at the front door had heard and was already slinking down the front porch and heading for the next house.

“Just calm down. You’re going to get your blood pressure back up again. I’ll see who it is.”

Ann went to the kitchen door, pulled aside the curtain and turned on the porch light. In the soft glow of the light she saw something that made her feel uneasy.

“Hal, can you come here a minute?”

“Christ Almighty, just tell them to go away. There’s no reason for two of us to do it.”

“I’m not really sure I want to open the door to do that.”

“Then yell it through the glass.”

“Would you please just come here?”

Reluctantly Hal grabbed the handle of the recliner and retracted the footrest. With great effort he worked his large body out of the chair and made for the kitchen all the while cursing the intrusion.

“What’s the problem?” he asked as he entered the kitchen and stopped at the door beside Ann.

“It’s a woman. I don’t like the sight of her. I think it’s a homeless woman.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me? Now they have the gall to come to someone’s door and beg for food? I told you to send her away.”

“You do it. That woman scares me some.”

“For crying out loud,” Hal said. He disengaged the deadbolt and opened the door.

The woman was small, appearing contorted by years of endless arthritic suffering. She was wearing garments that looked as if she had found them at the bottom of a dumpster. Her dirty gray hair hung around her face. Her skin was like battered leather, cracked and darkly tanned by a hard life. Her nose was long and hooked. Her chin pointed and covered in fine white hair. None of that really bothered Hal. What he found most disturbing was one of her yellow eyes staring back at him. The other eye was covered in a milky cataract, but that yellow eye reminded him of a snake’s eye.

“Whatever it is you want, you’ve got the wrong house,” Hal said and began closing the door.

“Mr. and Mrs. Sanders?” the old woman said in an almost frail voice.

Hal paused and pulled the door open again.

“Yes, that’s right. Who are you?”

“Who I am isn’t important. What I want is,” the woman said.

“Whoever sent you this way must have made a mistake. Now if you’ll please leave.”

Before Hal could close the door, the woman said, “You’re the one who sent for me, Mr. Sanders.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow. I’ve never met you before. I’m pretty sure my wife hasn’t met you either. Neither of us have asked you here. You’ll need to leave before I call the police.”

“No, we’ve never met. If you wish to call the police, then very well, but I suggest you don’t do that just yet since I’m here to discuss the boy you ran down four years ago. Of course, you remember him, don’t you?”

Hal felt the blood flush from his face. He felt his knees willing to give out. He also felt the world dramatically take a horrifying spin.

“My god,” Ann said as her hand went to her mouth. “I knew it would all come back to haunt us. I knew we could never escape the consequences of what happened.”

“Hush up now, Ann. You just keep it zipped and I’ll handle this. Look, as I said before, you’ve come to the wrong house. We don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about and we’d like you to leave.”

“I’m here to offer you a choice. I suggest you let me in so that we may discuss what’s going to take place in a little while.”

Hal desperately wanted to close the door in the woman’s face. He wanted to shut out the crude appearance of the woman who suddenly came knocking about a four-year-old incident. But despite all of his mental urging, Hal couldn’t get his body to act.

The old woman stepped inside, removed Hal’s hand and closed the door.

“Well, should we find a more comfortable spot before we get down to the bare bones of the matter?” she asked.

Hal and Ann followed the old woman from the kitchen to the living room. She found a seat on the couch and placed her battered handbag on the coffee table.

“How is it after all this time you found us?” Ann asked.

Hal slammed his fist down on the coffee table, which rattled the decorative pieces Ann kept for show.

“Dammit! Are you trying to cinch the noose tighter around our throats? Why in the hell don’t you run into the street and flag down the next cop that comes by and confess everything? Where’s your brain?”

“Mr. Sanders, you’ll need to calm yourself. I want you clearheaded for a little while because you’ll need to have focus in order to make your choice,” the old woman said.

“Will you just tell us who you are and what you want?” Ann nearly screamed.

The old woman eyed them for a moment, removed a pack of cigarettes from her bag and lit one.

“You look like one of those…” Hal started.

“Go ahead and say it,” the woman replied.

“Gypsies. One of those freaks that ride into town with the carnival.”

“In fact, I am exactly that, Mr. Sanders. Many people call our kind freaks, but we’re not. We’ve just got special abilities that regular people don’t understand. Now, don’t ask me why it took so long to find the people who ran down my grandson. I waited many years for the vision to come to me. It’s taken a long time, but I finally received what I’ve been waiting for and that’s what brought me here.”

“You can’t prove anything. What are you trying to do, blackmail us or something?” Hal asked.

The old woman pointed a yellowed, crooked finger to the telephone on the living room wall. With her other hand she pointed through the kitchen archway and to the door in which she had arrived.

“In fifteen minutes you’re going to have to make a choice. In fifteen minutes two things will happen. The telephone will ring and there will also be a knock at your front door. Only one of these you’ll need to answer.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Ann asked, as her nerves couldn’t take much more.

“I know that you didn’t intentionally kill my grandson when you were leaving the carnival grounds in Bixby four years ago. But you did leave the area without even bothering to see if he was still alive or getting help for the poor boy. My grandson didn’t have a choice. Your son, Brandon, and your daughter, Rebecca, won’t have a choice either. At least one of them won’t have a choice. I’m going to take one, it seems only fair.”

“How the hell do you know our children?” Hal asked as he felt his personal life being probed by this strange woman.

“I know of them, and where they can be found right now. When the telephone rings and if you decide to answer, your daughter will die. If you decide to answer the door, your son will die.” The old woman looked at her antique watch and said, “You have fifteen minutes to make your choice.”

“Are you insane? If this is some sort of twisted revenge, then I’m not answering either,” Hal said.

“Failure to answer one or answering both at the same time will result in two deaths. I recommend you spend your remaining time discussing your decision.”

Hal stood from the chair. “Leave my house immediately, or so help me you won’t like the actions I take. No one threatens my family, especially my children. They haven’t done anything wrong to you.”

“My grandson never wronged you, Mr. Sanders. Still, his life is gone all the same. I’ve given you fifteen minutes to make your decision because that is the amount of time it took the poor boy to die. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering he dealt with before the end. Now pain and suffering has come full circle and knocked on your front door. Which child do you believe you can live without? I’m sure it isn’t an easy decision to make, but one that must be made.”

“Hal, let’s talk this over, like she says,” Ann said as she nervously rubbed her hands together.

Hal quickly turned and looked at his wife as if she had struck him without provocation.

“My god, have you lost all your senses? Did you just say what I think you said? Are you really buying all this crap? How can you seriously justify making a decision that will kill one of our children? How could you even entertain such a cruel thought, Ann?”

“I’m not justifying anything! You heard what she said, both Rebecca and Brandon will die if we do nothing.”

“No one is going to die. I’ve had enough of this. I’m calling the police,” Hal said and moved toward the phone.

When he picked up the phone, Hal didn’t hear a dial tone, but could hear someone on the other end breathing heavily.

A deep-throated voice on the other end said, “Sometimes minutes are fleeting. Sometimes a clock can be deceiving. Soon a precious heart will stop beating. Moments from now there will come a ring-a-ding and a knock-knock you’ll be receiving.”

Hal pulled the phone from his ear and stared at the receiver in bewilderment.

“What is it?” Ann asked.

“They’re messing with the phone line. We can’t call out because they’ve done something to the line.”

“Tick-tock, Mr. Sanders.”

Hal hung up the phone and returned to the chair.

“Okay, I don’t like this sick game you’re playing. You’re right, I accidentally ran over your grandson at the park grounds. I can’t tell you how much I regret leaving and doing nothing for the boy. God, it was dark and he just ran right in front of my truck. I didn’t have time to do anything. Ann wanted to stop. She begged me to stop. I had been drinking most of the day and I knew I’d go to jail for a long, long time if I stopped. Can you understand that?”

“I understand that my grandson is dead. I understand that it’s your fault. I cannot change any of it, but I’ve taken action so that my grandson’s soul is finally at peace. The clock does not stop. You have eight minutes.”

The old woman retrieved another cigarette, lit it and leaned back on the couch.

“Hal, please, I can’t lose my sweet daughter. She’s getting married soon.”

“Sweet lord, you already made up your mind? You’re really prepared to allow our son to die by the hands of these cretins? How can you make a snap decision like that?”

“Okay, okay, so let’s discuss this thing,” Ann said.

Hal pinched his eyes closed and shook his head. This was an impossible choice to make and he knew that either answering the phone or the door would forever haunt him just as the death of the boy had all these years.

The old woman said, “I want you to go to the front window. Across the street you will see a man. That man is patiently waiting to approach your door.”

Hal was instantly on his feet and shuffling for the front window and Ann was a few steps behind. Quickly they moved aside the curtain and pulled up the blinds. In the darkness of the neighbor’s yard they saw the dark figure of a man. They saw the faint wink of a cigarette and something else that eerily glowed. Hal thought it was the man’s eyes, maybe the horrible, unwavering glare of the devil’s eyes.

“Five minutes, Mr. Sanders.”

“I’ll kill you. I swear that I’ll kill you and that man outside if you don’t stop this,” Hal said.

“Oh, prepared to take more lives? Haven’t we become quite the soul collector,” the Gypsy said.

“Don’t you understand? Don’t you see? I can’t lose my son. I can’t lose the child that will carry on the Sanders legacy!” Hal screamed and collapsed in the chair. He covered his face with his hands and began weeping.

“How dare you! How dare you judge me. Your mind was already made up before I said anything about saving Rebecca. How could you even think about saving Brandon’s life over Rebecca’s? He’s taken after you all right. He’s become a drunk and spends half of his time in jail. The drinking and driving, the bar fights, the wandering through life with no job, no goal, that’s what you call a legacy? I suppose with someone like you as a role model, I can understand how he became the way he did. Hell, the only time he even calls is when he needs money. If he’s such a great son, then when was the last time he called and wished you a happy Father’s Day or called on your birthday? He never does and you know it,” Ann yelled.

“Oh, and how about your little princess? She’s quite the saint, isn’t she? Let’s see, arrested for shoplifting half a dozen times, knocked up when she was fifteen and then again at seventeen by two different men. She’s been relying on welfare for years and finally hooks up with a man and promises marriage because he’s got money. God help me I do love her. I do. But that girl has worn me down like a grinding stone.”

“Don’t you talk about my daughter like that!” Ann said and harshly slapped her husband.

Hal quickly stood and said, “I’ve never struck you in twenty-six years of marriage, but so help me, if you do that again, I won’t hold back.”

“Two minutes,” the Gypsy said and smiled, showing a row of crooked brown and yellow teeth.

Ann retrieved a cast-iron bookend from the mantel, stepped toward the couch and said, “You’ve brought this madness to my house! You’re destroying my family and I want you to leave this instant!”

“I will not leave until the choice has been made. The curse has been placed. If you decide to kill me here and now, I promise that your entire family will suffer devastating deaths.”

“I will not lose my son. I won’t. When the phone rings, I’m going to answer. I know that I’ll have to live with the choice I made, but I will manage,” Hal said.

“No, Hal. I’m making the decision. When that person knocks on the front door, I’m going to answer. You know that it’s the right choice.”

Hal looked out the window and saw the dark figure walking across the street. The man moved with a casual stroll, as if he was delivering a pizza instead of death. The man disappeared around the corner of the house heading for the kitchen door. Hal moved from the window and faced his wife.

“I’m sorry, Ann, I really am, but I’ve made the choice. Don’t even think about going for the door. I’d hate to do it, but I’ll knock you to the ground.”

“I’ll die before I let you take my daughter away,” Ann said and moved for the kitchen door.

Hal quickly followed.

When the phone rang and a fist simultaneously pounded on the front door, both of them halted. They looked into each other’s horror-struck eyes. The small part of them that believed the Gypsy’s story to be nothing more than a method to drive them mad began falling apart and reality quickly set in.

Ann dashed for the door and Hal lunged for her, caught her around the legs, and they crashed into a heap on the floor. Immediately they began clawing at each other. Ann’s teeth came down like a vice on Hal’s forearm and immediately blood gushed into her mouth. Hal screamed and threw a punch to the side of her head.

The phone rang and the fist pounded.

Ann drove her knee up and caught her husband in the groin. Hal grunted, but fought through the pain and wrapped his large hand around her throat.

In a gasp, Ann said, “Stop it, just stop it. I won’t let you take away my Rebecca.”

Ann’s thumbs went for Hal’s eyes. In an attempt to avoid losing his eyes, Hal rolled off his wife. Quickly she turned over and in a mad attempt she crawled for the door. Hal gently rubbed his eyes and pulled his hands away to see if he was bleeding. In a state of grief and exhaustion, Hal couldn’t get his legs to lift him up. He rolled to the wall and looked up at the ringing phone. He swatted at the dangling cord and tried to knock the receiver free. He could hear Ann scrambling for the door. As Hal heard the squeak of the doorknob turning, something unseen came down on his chest like a stack of bricks.

With one arm clutched tightly to his chest, he used his free arm and jarred the receiver loose from the cradle.

Hal heard Ann screaming. It wasn’t a scream of terror, but one of pain.

Hal brought the receiver to his ear.

The hinges released a rusty bark as the door opened.

In the kitchen, Ann yelled, “Hal, something’s wrong with my head. It hurts so badly. Call for an ambulance.”

As another shock of pain seized Hal’s chest, he croaked into the phone. “My son. I’ve made the choice. I want to save my son.”

There was no response. Only silence filled his ear.

“Hal, my god, it’s the devil come to take us away,” Ann screamed.

The Gypsy knelt beside Hal and smiled.

“Mr. Sanders, did you honestly believe that I would punish one of your children for your crime? Oh, the curse was set into place. By answering the phone, Mr. Sanders, you’ve sacrificed your wife’s life. By answering the door, she’s sacrificed your life. I told you in the beginning that by not answering one or by answering both at the same time would result in two deaths. I knew the emotional struggle between you and your wife would be spectacular. I was certain your wife couldn’t let your daughter go, just as I was certain you couldn’t let your son go. It’s interesting how both of you were so willing to offer one child to save the other. You and your wife were guilty in the death of my grandson, and neither of you offered yourselves as a sacrifice to save your own children. What a shame. You should know that fate comes with many identities, but no one seems to think it will ever come knocking on their front door.”

 

Harcourt Manor

Harcourt Manor

Illustration by Shane Watson

by Dean P. Turnbloom

 

The letter itself was strange. After all, who writes letters nowadays? An email would have been the norm for communicating with an old friend. But then, an email is much easier to dismiss—easier to forget about. A letter is a very deliberate thing.

In the letter my friend divulged that he was quite taken by surprise when he was contacted by his great-grandfather’s lawyer, or solicitor as they are termed in England, and even more surprised to discover he’d been bequeathed a sizable estate worth a substantial sum of money. My friend was the only child of an only child and both his mother and father had died tragically in an auto accident some five years past.

Even more surprising, he had been bequeathed the estate, all very properly and legally, with the title and deed signed and sealed, even though his great-grandfather was still very much alive, if not well, and residing on the estate.

If it were just the letter that would certainly be strange enough. But Charley had enclosed a coupon good for a one-way ticket to London, England.

Charley and I had been best friends at college—roommates in the dormitory our freshman year and roommates in a small apartment off-campus the remainder of our days at old Indiana University. More than once, we’d sworn that should one of us ever need the other, never mind the reason or the hardship it might impose, we’d answer the call unhesitatingly.

Still, after so many years, years in which neither of us had heard from the other, I was inclined to deny the oath taken in such youthful exuberance, and throw the letter, coupon and all, in the trash. I would have done just that, except my personal circumstances, coincidentally, suddenly lent themselves to taking a trip.

Susan and I had been dating for over a year, and I suppose I just assumed I could continue to string her along indefinitely. But it had very recently come to my attention that Susan had taken matters into her own hands in a way that was sure to upset the status quo. I discovered quite by accident that Susan was sleeping with our mutual friend and my teaching partner, Ted.

Rather than suffer the humiliation of being a cuckold, I fabricated a story about a research grant that I could not pass up. I told Susan we would have to put our relationship on hold for a year, while I pursued this wonderful opportunity. I then arranged to take a sabbatical in pursuit of the supposed grant to write a treatise on English literature of the eighteenth century.

I thought it would do me well to get away and I had been meaning to write a book on that very topic, so my story had a ring of truth to it.

The opportunity to actually begin the book by first taking a trip to England was irresistible to me. I was certain that in addition to fulfilling my oath to my dear friend and cheering him out of his obvious well of depression I could use the occasion to prowl the aisles of London’s best research libraries.

I determined to go at once and replied via email to the address my friend conveniently included along with his telephone number at the bottom of the letter.

I was met at Gatwick Airport by a bespectacled middle-aged man with a mustache in a dark brown uniform. He was my driver, James, engaged by Charley to make sure I arrived safely at his estate. The ride from Gatwick Airport to Harcourt Manor was picturesque. The scenery was pastoral and quite beautiful as the sun set on the horizon.

With the gathering darkness it became increasingly difficult to discern the countryside, then impossible. Just as James announced we were on the private manor road, the moon rose. As we approached the manor, the trees grew thicker and the shadows darker. What little light penetrated the blanket of leaves only served to heighten the sense of gloom.

Abruptly we came into a very large clearing. There in the middle stood what could only be Harcourt Manor. The expanse of stone and mortar that appeared to gleam in the soft moonlight stood in stark contrast to the dark forest beyond and the terraced lawn in front. The low ground fog gave the entire scene an eerie, ethereal quality.

James pulled up to the entry. As I emerged from the auto he retrieved my bags from the trunk, placed them neatly by the door, and then returned to the limo and drove away without a word. I watched as the taillights faded from view.

Shaking myself out of my reverie, I drew back an enormous iron knocker, letting it swing against the door. It struck the door with enough force, I thought, to send the reverberations throughout the sizable manor house. I waited, not wishing to appear impatient. The door creaked as it was slowly opened from within.

At first there appeared to be no light whatsoever from inside the manor (I say manor because “house” is woefully inadequate to describe it, and “manor”, although it may be somewhat lacking, brings to mind a structure more closely akin to what Harcourt is). As the door swung inward, I became aware of a dim flickering in the entryway, which grew brighter and warmer. Its source then became fully visible as a tall, gaunt but smiling man holding a candelabra greeted me most congenially. So emaciated was he that he appeared mere days or perhaps hours even from the grave. His skin had an ashen quality, his thinning hair was unkempt, wild even, and even in the pale candlelight the rheuminess of his eyes, wide and animated, was clearly visible.

The combination of these factors gave the impression of a man near madness. As he greeted me, however, there appeared no trace of madness in his voice—nothing about its tone or quality that betrayed any trace of insanity.

Could this be my friend? It had been twenty-five years since we had last seen one another, but my friend (and I by now realized this was Charley) with whom I’d lived for four years while we were in our salad days, appeared to me to be fifteen or more years my senior.

Greeting me in the warmest fashion possible, “Come in, Winston, it’s so good to see you again.”

“Charley,” I said, “it’s been a long time,” and I took his frail hand in mine, shaking it gingerly, afraid I might damage it. I must admit, though, his grip was surprisingly strong.

“How’s your family?” he inquired as he led me through the foyer, down a long hallway, and into the drawing room. There he had prepared a roaring fire. “And Jack, and Alice, do you see much of them?” he continued, asking about friends long forgotten. “Please, sit here by the fire,” he said, inviting me to sit in one of two chairs situated on either side of a small table on which was arranged a light repast of cheese and wine.

“Thank you,” I replied, looking around the room in which the only light came from the fireplace and the candelabra Charley had placed on a table. The furnishings were old, but obviously of great quality and probably valuable antiques.

He laughed nervously, then said, “One of the many annoyances in a house as old as this one,” he explained, “is that you have to put up with frequent interruptions in the electrical service.”

As my friend poured the wine, I sampled the cheese, and we talked about old friends we’d known, reminiscing about our youth. My friend showed none of the frenetic anxiety displayed in his missive. I asked him about the letter, “Charley, you seemed so distraught and troubled in your message, I couldn’t help but come. But you…”

He interrupted, “Oh, the letter. Yes, well, I was a bit upset. My great-grandfather had recently passed you see, and I was feeling overwhelmed… lonely and melancholy. I’m afraid it got the better of me,” he said apologetically. “Just seeing you here, though, is like a tonic for me.”

When he spoke of his great-grandfather, he looked away nervously. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I distinctly remembered it later on.

At a little past nine my friend suddenly arose, yawning. With the promise to continue our conversation in the morning, he said, “I’m sure you must be exhausted after your long trip. I don’t wish to overtax your energies here on your first night. We’ll have plenty of time for chit-chat tomorrow.” Rising and fetching the candelabra, he said, “I’ll show you to your room. I hope you’ll find it comfortable.”

“After the airplane, I’m sure it’ll be heaven,” I replied.

He led me down the corridor and up a stone staircase to a second-story room. Placing the candelabra on a table, Charley removed two candles. One, he placed in a candle holder beside the door leading to the hall, the other in an identical holder leading to the adjoining bath. He then bade me goodnight and disappeared down the dark hallway.

The room and adjoining bath appeared surprisingly modern. There was a king-sized bed, a large overstuffed chair for lounging and a smaller straight-backed chair at a desk with a reading lamp. My bags, which I had left in the foyer, were placed neatly at the foot of the bed. Suddenly finding myself to be very tired, I retired for the night.

At about two o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by a loud voice. It sounded as though Charley was having an argument over the phone, as his was the only voice I heard with pauses where another voice should have been. I arose, but as soon as I opened my door, the house grew suddenly quiet again.

The next morning I awoke, showered, and made my way downstairs before 8 o’clock. The electricity had been restored sometime during the night. I explored more carefully the path I’d taken to my room the night before. A fortune in antiques, paintings and artifacts lined the corridors and the walls of the drawing room.

One painting in particular caught my eye, as it appeared to be a portrait of my friend, but not as I’d seen him last night. This portrait was of a much younger, more robust man, a man of my own age. I realized this was the man I had expected to see when I arrived, not the shadow I’d seen the evening before.

The painting was nearly life-sized; a full-length portrait of my friend standing before an antique globe in front of a shelf of books. The painting itself and the frame that held it also appeared to be antique, but the clothing he wore was of obvious contemporary fashion. As I stood examining its intricate detail, my friend suddenly spoke my name from directly behind me.

“Good morning, Winston,” he said, “I trust you slept soundly.”

Startled, not having heard his approach, I jumped and turned to face him. The look on his face was fearful and a tic appeared in his left eye that immediately brought the letter to mind. This was the face of the man who’d written me. “Charley, you startled me,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Would you like some coffee?”

“That would be very welcome. I was just admiring your portrait.”

Casting his eyes downward, in a low, almost inaudible voice, he said, “I didn’t commission that; it came with the house. Tradition, you see.”

After a moment he looked up at me smiling—the wide, toothy smile of someone hiding something—and invited me to the dining room for breakfast.

As we sat down to eat, I asked, “Charley, who was that you were on the phone with last night?”

“On the phone?” he asked, seeming genuinely surprised by the question.

“Yes, I heard you about 2 a.m. It sounded as though you were in violent disagreement with someone.”

Looking a bit shocked, he said, “You must be mistaken.” Then, gaining some of his composure, he posited, “Perhaps it was the wind. It sometimes howls through the house. It can play havoc with a sleepy mind.”

“Perhaps,” I agreed, but I was sure he was lying.

As the days passed, my friend’s health and vigor appeared to quickly mend. By the end of the first week of my visit I felt he was sufficiently well enough for me to venture into London. I wanted to at last begin the research I had hoped this trip would enable. When I’d arrived his health had appeared so precarious that I was uneasy about leaving his side. But with each passing day he looked stronger. Equally important, his spirits seemed brighter.

I approached my friend, “Charley,” I said, “since you appear to be feeling so much better, I thought I’d pop into London to do a little research.”

His face grew suddenly pale and wan and he appeared near fainting. I ran to get him a glass of water, “Are you all right?” I asked.

He said, “Yes, I’m sorry,” taking the water, sipping it slowly. “It’s just that your proposal to leave caught me off guard. I know it’s silly, but I suddenly felt anxious. Alarmed, even, out of fear you might not return.”

Reassuringly I said, “Charley, I have every intention of returning. I promise I’ll be back this evening.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for being such a pain,” he said, seeming genuinely contrite. “Might it not be possible to postpone the trip? You haven’t even visited the manor library.”

“Manor library? You mean you have your own library here?”

“Of course. It’s quite extensive, actually. In bygone times, it was quite common for rich aristocratic sorts to build their own private libraries,” he confided. “You could start your research here, until I’m a bit stronger perhaps, and then go to London.” He grasped my hand, “It would be a great comfort to me.”

“I didn’t realize you had a library, Charley. Of course I’ll wait to go to London, if you like. I’ve read that some of these old private libraries are quite extensive. I just hadn’t thought to ask.” His mood improved immediately.

That evening as my friend and I sat before a roaring fire, I inquired about the history of the manor, “This old place must have a lot of stories attached to it, Charley. Have you learned much about it?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” he began. “The manor itself, although renovated, updated, and added to over the years, dates from at least the early sixteenth century—handed down father to son, generation after generation.” Somehow he sounded a little detached, like a bored tour guide, “The estate encompasses over 300 acres of woodlands surrounding the manor. Beyond that I’m afraid I know of no remarkable events having occurred in or around the estate.”

“Considering it’s age, that seems a bit odd, don’t you think?”

“Not really. It’s pretty quiet in this area and I’m sure it hasn’t changed much over the years.” Again, I had the feeling he was hiding something.

At about nine o’clock I rose saying, “Well, I’m off to bed. I’m going to need a good night’s rest,” I yawned, “if I’m going to get an early start investigating your library in the morning.”

“By all means, Winston. And, thank you,” he said looking at me with sad eyes.

Looking up at the extraordinary painting of my friend, I paused for a moment as I was walking out of the drawing room, rubbed my eyes, and looked again. I asked my companion, still seated, “Charley, do you see anything different about this painting?”

He stood, walked over to where I was standing and gave the portrait a long look. I thought I could detect a glimmer of a smile come over his face, a smile originating not on his lips, but more in his eyes, then it was gone and he turned to me saying, “No, it looks the same to me as it always has.”

I mentioned, “I was under the impression that the painting was much more detailed, but now the face and figure appear less distinct than before.”

“I think you’re wrong,” my friend again insisted. “I’d say your memory is just playing tricks on you,” he said with a smile.

I relented, “I suppose that’s what it is.” But I was sure it had changed. And what’s more, I was sure Charley noticed it too. “Oh well, goodnight, Charley,” I said and continued to my room.

As I was walking to my room, through the corridors and up the stairs, I felt the air in the corridor rush past me, much like someone having opened a door on a blustery day, and I assumed my friend must have done that very thing, or perhaps a window. I thought to myself that the very house itself appeared to be drawing a breath.

The next morning I met up with Charley in the drawing room. As I entered, I was awestruck with how much better my friend looked. His face appeared fuller, with good color and he had begun to put on weight. “You are looking very well this morning, Charley,” I commented as we turned to go to breakfast.

“I have you to thank for it,” he replied earnestly.

As we turned to leave the drawing room, I glanced up at the portrait, stopping dead in my tracks. It had definitely changed. The face was undistinguishable. It no longer bore any resemblance to my friend whatsoever. Now it appeared as only a smudged mass of flesh-toned paint, blurred and out of focus, bearing none of the sharp detail it had possessed.

“Charley look,” I said. “You can’t possibly fail to see the change now.”

Charley took a long look. “You’re right,” he admitted stone-faced. “It’s certainly not as distinct as before. Perhaps the fireplace, or its smoke, has damaged the pigments. It is rather close.”

Had the entire painting suffered the same damage this argument might have been plausible, but it had not. The rest of the painting maintained the sharpness of detail about which I had first remarked. Resignedly, I feigned acceptance, “Yes, that must be it.” Wondering why Charley would offer such an obviously poor explanation and determining to inspect the painting more closely when Charley was not around, I proceeded in to breakfast.

The peculiarities of the painting faded from my mind as my excitement about the prospect of digging into the manor library grew. After breakfast, my friend led me down the main corridor to an oaken door at the rear of the manor. Behind the door was a narrow staircase. It led to the library.

As I entered, I was impressed with the size and sheer number of books it contained—there must have been several thousand in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. At the far end of the library was a massive, antique, and beautifully carved wooden desk, beside which stood a large wooden globe. I knew instantly it was the same globe as in the portrait.

As he turned to leave, my friend said, “If you should need anything, you’ll have to return to the main floor. The staff isn’t allowed access to the library. There are far too many rare and valuable books here.”

“I see. No matter, I’m sure I’ll be all right.” I barely noticed his departure as I began perusing the shelves. There were volumes dating back to the 1600s. Here was The Book of Urizen, by William Blake, circa 1818; and there was The Ornithology by Francis Willughby from 1678. Every shelf appeared to have a treasure trove of books in various languages. I gathered half a dozen and took them to the desk for further examination.

After about twenty minutes it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought to look in the desk to see what treasures might be hidden within. Opening the six uniform drawers on either side of the leg well, I was disappointed to find them all empty.

Then I noticed that the bottom drawer on the left side appeared to be shallower than its counterpart on the right side. Pulling it out to its limit, a small notch in the bottom of the drawer appeared.

Excitedly I pulled out the drawer and turned it over on the desk top. A leather-bound journal fell out of the hidden compartment. Upon close examination, I discovered this was the journal of my friend’s late great-grandfather.

Stuck in the middle was an old photograph. It was of a portrait very much like the one of my friend in the drawing room, but the subject was bald and bearded. Scribbled on the back of the photo was the name of my friend’s great-grandfather and the date, 1917. A flash of dread came over me. Examining the photo more closely I became convinced that except for the central subject the portrait was identical in every detail with the one in the drawing room. I tried to convince myself that this might indeed be some quirky family tradition as Charley had said, but something deep within told me it was more. I turned to the front of the journal and began to read.

The first few entries in the journal were innocuous enough, detailing how he had inherited Harcourt from his father, who had become quite reclusive. It recounted some of the business and financial interests of the time. I thumbed my way toward the end of the volume, looking for more current entries. One of the last entries was dated 13 November 1938; it read:

It is with great satisfaction that I have taken this course of action. The curse of Harcourt Manor will end with me. Once I’m deceased, so will it cease to be. What I was unable to do during my lifetime, I will accomplish after death—the total dismantlement of Harcourt, every last brick and stone. My regret and heartbreak is at having to banish my only son to the foreign shores of America. This is surpassed only by my joy of not subjecting him to this curse. My time, I feel, is near. I’ve only to wait.

 

The final passage was written by a hand less sure, but undoubtedly of the same person, dated just last year. It read:

 

My beloved son, grandson or whomever this cup must pass,

 

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

You will find within the contents of this library as complete a history of Harcourt Manor and its former residents as exists. Once you have familiarized yourself with it, I’m sure you will add this journal to the many you will find on the shelves here.

 

These portfolios are compilations of the preceding owner’s statements of apology, lament, or revenge to their unwitting successors. A great many have been from father to son, but on occasion the ownership has changed from one family to another—or rather I should say the manor’s occupancy, for no one truly owns the manor. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.

 

In this most recent entry, while I await your arrival, I shall attempt to relate a synopsis of the history of Harcourt, derived through long years of reading and re-reading the aforementioned journals and regional histories. My own journal will not be concluded, I’ve come to accept, until after the manor has changed hands once again.

 

I had hoped to let the manor and the curse die with me, but at one hundred thirty-seven years of age I have come to accept that the manor won’t release me until I release it.

 

The origin of the curse dates from the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century when the manor was held by the first Baron of Wexley. A cruel tyrant, he was renowned for the evil he visited on the serfs who worked his land. Very much hated, the baron levied taxes so steep the only way the peasants could survive was to hide at least part of their crops and livestock from his equally cruel tax collectors.

 

On those occasions when they found a peasant cheating on his taxes, the collectors burned the offender’s crops and homes to the ground. Then the head of the household was tarred or killed. If there were a young girl in the family it was not unusual for her to be raped and savaged before the eyes of her family. Should a peasant protest or dare even to cast a scornful look at the baron he would feel the sting of the baron’s “cat”, a stiff handled whip with three barbed tails.

 

Frequently as entertainment for himself or friends, the baron would summon the prettiest of the young girls in the neighboring villages to the manor. On one particular occasion a young orphan girl was brought to the baron. She was taken from her grandmother’s hut while the grandmother was away. A particularly beautiful and virtuous young girl, the baron was pleased and dragged her to his quarters.

 

It is said she put up a valiant fight. At the last, rather than surrender her virtue, she jumped to her death from the baron’s window high in the manor. The baron, untouched by this, had his servants carry off her body to be dumped at the doorstep of her grandmother’s hut.

 

Upon seeing her dead granddaughter, the old woman, who many claimed to be a witch, shed not a single tear. Instead, she retrieved a hollowed-out gourd from her hut and a knife. With the knife she opened a vein in her granddaughter’s arm, collecting her blood in the gourd.

 

After walking all night, she stood outside the manor the next morning, the gourd of blood, not yet coagulated, in her hand.

 

Murmuring in an incomprehensible tongue, she dipped her fingers into the gourd of blood and slowly walked around the manor. As she walked, she flicked droplets of blood along the ground. When she’d gone full circle, approaching the point where she began, the baron emerged from the front of the manor and demanded to know who she was and what she was about.

 

As the old woman completed her circuit, she obliged the baron, telling him it was her own granddaughter that had died by his hand the previous night. The baron reared back and laughed mightily saying the old woman was better off without such a worthless harlot.

 

The old woman’s eyes flashed. Her toothless grin became a grimace. With a voice strong and clear she swore, telling the baron that since he was so proud of his riches and his manor, she would see to it that they would never be parted. Intoning a short curse, she looked at the baron, spat on the ground, and said, “It is finished.” Without another word, she turned and walked away.

 

The baron, unused to having anyone turn their back to him, started after her, his “cat” aloft his head ready to tear into her back. But once he advanced to where the blood of the old woman’s granddaughter had been sprinkled, he could advance no further. His feet were unable to cross the line formed by the droplets. The old woman turned back toward him. As the baron cursed and ranted, she laughed. Finally, she said, “You shall remain always a prisoner of your own evil deeds,” and then she vanished. No one ever saw or heard from her again.

 

The baron spent the rest of his life within the confines of the manor. When he died, his body was removed, but his soul remained, inhabiting the manor.

 

Empty for many years, its grand style eventually attracted a new owner, a man named Ezra Harcourt, by whose name the manor has since become known.

 

Ezra Harcourt had of course heard of the curse. But over a hundred years had passed since the death of the baron. Fear and curses fade with time.

 

When he moved into the manor, he was astounded by the painting on the far wall of the foyer. The similarity between the likeness of the baron and Harcourt was uncanny. This surprised Harcourt because he had always heard the baron was tall and thin with dark wavy hair, but the baron’s portrait showed him to be portly with thinning hair. Harcourt had the painting moved into the main drawing room and made certain all who visited observed the resemblance.

 

Harcourt, who had always been an active, outgoing man of business began, shortly after moving in to the manor, to become reclusive and withdrawn. He was never seen outside its confines and his behavior began to become erratic, even paranoid. He lost weight.

 

Within six months after taking occupancy, his once robust countenance took on the look of a skeleton, a mere shadow of his former self. He appeared to have aged twenty years.

 

His worried son moved his small family into the manor to care for his father. So frail was the elder Harcourt by this time that his son was unable to leave his side. The elder Harcourt survived another three decades with his son by his side throughout. By the time the father died, the son was well past his prime.

 

This pattern of the hermit-like occupant of Harcourt passing the manor on to his son, who in turn becomes a hermit, repeated itself, with few exceptions, for nearly three hundred years. It appeared that the curse the old witch had put on Baron Wexley was passed on to whomever inhabited Harcourt Manor.

 

I spent many years studying the bounty of rare books in this library before I happened upon two of the journals. After having read them, I began an earnest search for others. All totaled I found 37 such journals. There may be others. From these journals, I discovered that rather than a curse on the manor, it was Baron Wexley himself that turned the occupants into hermits.

 

The evil that is Baron Wexley gets its sustenance from the inhabitants. Like a blood-thirsty monster, he feeds on the very life-force of the imprisoned occupant. If one listens carefully enough, one can hear the baron’s voice within these walls.

 

I determined to end the curse, my life, and the manor all at one time. After preparing the necessary paperwork with instructions to tear down the manor after my death, I took poison, enough to kill ten men. Although I lingered near death for nearly a month’s time, I did not die. Several other attempts to end my own life also failed. Finally, I resigned myself to live out the remainder of my days at Harcourt. In the end, I judged, I would win the fight. No one lives forever.

 

Or do they? At one hundred thirty-eight years, I’m no longer so sure.

 

I also discovered something else that was very interesting. I discovered the painting, that so delighted Ezra Harcourt because of its resemblance to himself, takes on the image and likeness of whatever occupant from whom the manor feeds…

 

As I read these words, my heart stopped and I felt all the blood drain from my face. I leapt to my feet, flying down the stairs through the long corridor and into the drawing room. As I ran, I felt the air in the hallway moving first with me, then against me as the house inhaled and exhaled. I ran to the portrait and stood there. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I gazed upon it. There I saw staring down at me my own image.

The scream that tore from my throat echoed throughout the empty manor. To my surprise, it was answered by the whisper of a baritone voice I didn’t recognize laughing as it called my name, “Winston… welcome home…” it said, over and over, laughing maniacally. My knees suddenly became weak. I reached for the chair by the secretary near the portrait.

As I sat, I noticed a letter addressed to me, written in my friend’s hand. With trembling fingers, I took it and tore open the envelope.

 

My dear friend,

 

 

Please forgive my hasty departure. I came up to the library to see how you were getting along and noticed that you had found my great-grandfather’s journal. Although I didn’t think you’d come across it quite so soon, I was gratified that I had the foresight to prepare for the eventuality.

 

You will find in the drawer of the secretary beneath my, or should I say your portrait, a signed deed giving you complete claim to Harcourt Manor and all lands in title. I’m sure you will find all is in order.

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

I’m sure you recognize those words from my great-grandfather’s journal. Don’t be fooled; I was. What my deceased predecessor did not tell you about the curse of Harcourt is that the sustenance and life the manor derives from the occupant flows both ways. Evil is infectious. I neither expect nor ask your forgiveness. What I’ve done to you is unforgivable.

 

If you are so inclined, you will find my grandfather’s journal on the shelves of the library, secreted there by him before he ran away to America. Undoubtedly, my great-grandfather didn’t know it was there or he likely would have destroyed it. My great-grandfather was preparing to pass on the manor to his son when my grandfather learned of the curse. He ran away before the portrait had transmuted. Because of my great-grandfather’s advanced age when he passed my “inheritance” on to me, the manor began sucking the life force from me at a startling pace, which is why I was so emaciated when you arrived.

 

Now you know the true curse of Harcourt. I’ve no idea if I can truly escape. If others have escaped by foisting this curse onto some unsuspecting tenant they have left no written record. But I am determined to try. I pray that the evil that allows me to pass this curse on to someone for whom I once had such genuine affection will eventually dissipate as I distance myself from its source.

 

I earnestly wish you all the best.

 

Your devoted Friend,
Charley

 

After reading the letter I spent the next three weeks in bed, suffering from an acute case of depression. Finally I determined there was no use crying over spilled milk. I knew what I had to do.

I ordered my solicitor to give me a full accounting of my newfound wealth, which is considerable. A good deal of it is in perpetual trust to the Harcourt Manor Estate, but there was enough liquidity for me to provide myself with a hefty bankroll to live for the rest of my days, once I am rid of the curse. I also had papers drawn up to transfer the estate.

But you’ll please forgive me now, Ted, if I continue this explanation a bit later, as I believe the limo bringing you and Susan to me has arrived.

 

Negotiating With Ants

by Kenneth Rutherford

 

Amber sits at her desk at work, reviewing a stack of purchase orders. She pushes a strand of her disheveled, platinum blonde hair behind her ear while frowning at Billy, who sits at a nearby desk. He winces as he rubs white cream all over his welt-ridden right hand.

Billy whines, “Amber, do we have any more Cortizone?”

“Try looking in the first aid kit,” she replies, rolling her eyes.

Amber tries to refocus her attention on her work but is unable to do so. Her thoughts wander to an encounter she had with Billy two days earlier.

* * * * *

She was sitting at her desk looking at an invoice when Billy peered over her shoulder.

“Okay, Amber. When US Foodservice comes tomorrow, there should be fifteen extra boxes of chicken carnitas, and I ordered ten boxes of parboiled rice yesterday evening to be shipped on the truck, too. Are you listening?”

Amber glares at him. “Yeah, I’m listening. I’m just waiting for you to take your hand off my thigh.”

“You mean that bothers you? I didn’t realize I’d struck a nerve.”

“Uh, yeah. I’d think after two sexual harassment complaints you’d realize that. But for some reason, the Office of Discipline Management has a habit of losing… Billy, why is your hand on my back?! Ugh.” Grabbing a pack of Marlboro Lights, Amber storms out of the office.

Billy yells after her, “The ODM office works for me, darlin’.”

* * * * *

Amber’s thoughts are interrupted as Craig, the supervisor, enters the office. “Okay, people. What are we going to do about our ant problem? They’re already eating through boxes and gorging themselves on our food. If I can’t eliminate this problem, I’m out of a job. I won’t lose my livelihood to a bunch of ornery ants!”

Amber replies, “We’ve tried everything. Two exterminators refuse to return, and Billy’s idea sure didn’t work.” She grins at him as he nurses his hand.

Billy exclaims, “I’ve never seen ants act like that! They were all over me in seconds. And fire ants… we don’t even have fire ants in this area. Where did they come from? Craig, why don’t we let Amber take a shot at it?”

Craig replies, “Okay, Amber. You’ve been drafted.”

“But…”

“No buts! Talk to your friend at EntoTech and report back to me.”

Her voice falters as she says, “Okay, but I’ll have to re-examine the entry site.”

“Fine. Do whatever it takes.”

* * * * *

Amber squats near a hole in the concrete floor. Boxes of twenty-four ounce cups tower above her. Struggling in the darkness, she presses a button on a lamp clamped to her clipboard. The light continuously flickers as it illuminates the clipboard, her pale, tired face, and the hole in the floor. She scribbles down a few notes on a clean piece of paper that reads “Distribution Center Report,” which sits on top of a two-inch stack of papers. Writing a report would be fruitless. The ants manage to elude all exterminators, leaving no sign of their whereabouts. As Amber peers into the opening, a pair of antennae emerge.

“Hello, human.”

Amber looks behind her to see where the voice is coming from. Seeing no one, she continues to fill out the report.

“Helllooooo, human! You aren’t dreaming. I thought human females were like their counterparts in the ant world, reasonably clever, and more intelligent than the males. Was I mistaken?”

Amber stares in disbelief at the ant who is talking through a megaphone. “What do you want?”

“Food.”

“Why our food? Can’t you find something to eat outside the warehouse and someone else to aggravate?”

“Ha! And miss out on terrorizing you humans? That one guy is particularly amusing.”

Her mouth shifts from a grimace into a grin, “Billy?”

“Yeah. What a schmuck! Typical male—convinced of his superiority and deserving of punishment.

Chuckling, she agrees, “I don’t deny that Billy is an arrogant schmuck. But why punish everyone because of one man? Your little occupation has wreaked havoc on our warehouse and cost us nearly a hundred dollars a week in food.”

One man?! He flooded our home with kerosene, killing all our male drones and a few female workers. How are we supposed to mate without males? We cannot mate if we cannot eat, so…”

“Okay, okay. I get the point. Hmmm…” Amber presses her pencil’s eraser against her lips, “Would providing a fifty-pound bag of sugar to your colony adequately sustain it until you emigrate?”

“You’re not listening. The only way our queen would move the colony would be if we avenged the death of our comrades.”

“Oh. Well, what if I locked him in the warehouse for you to do with him as you please? He is allergic to insect bites, after all.”

The ant’s antennae rise in interest. “Loosen the caps on six half-gallon jugs of honey, the third container from the left, and we have a deal pending approval from my queen. I’ll leave a sugar cube in the pencil mug on your desk if we get the go ahead. Do we have a deal?”

Amber’s eyebrows rise and she smirks, “Deal.”

* * * * *

Later that evening Amber stands by the door, waiting for Billy to lock it. He presses buttons on the security panel with a perplexed look on his face.

“It’s not accepting my pass code. What’s wrong with this thing?”

“Maybe you entered it incorrectly,” Amber suggests.

“No. I’m the assistant supervisor, damn it!” He makes an about-face, takes a deep breath, and turns back towards the panel to try again.

“Have a good evening, Billy,” Amber says, skirting out the door and slamming it behind her.

Click.

“Amber! Let me out of here!!”

Amber pops the sugar cube into her mouth as she walks through the parking lot to her hatchback. Revenge never tasted so sweet.

Soon, screams are heard from inside the warehouse. Covered in honey and fire ants Billy drops to the concrete floor, writhing in agony.

With his maroon Polo lying crumpled in a sticky heap, Billy fumbles with his belt. He unfastens the shiny, eagle head buckle; manages to unbutton and unzip his pants, chucking them half-way off; and rolls onto his forgotten glasses, crushing them. However, the ants seize the opportunity to migrate to his partially exposed legs. As the ants eat away at his skin, his body spasms and welts begin to form. They crawl into every hole and crevice, entering his ravaged body, knowing that their suicide mission will avenge their comrades.

A seemingly endless parade of ants streams into the room following a trail of pheromones and honey. Sweet revenge.

 

Girl in a Mask

by Gregg Zimmerman

 

1. Epiphany

The evening wind picked up, sending waves and furrows racing through the wheat fields, and mountainous cumulus clouds scudded across a sky of deepening blue. Leaves rustled and the loose doors of barns and sheds rattled as the dying reds and yellows of a beautiful sunset faded in the west.

The two sisters, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, whirled in the wind in ecstasy, aprons and colorful sashes flying behind them. Never since the innocent days of childhood had they felt such elation: it was if the world had arrived at a new beginning and the horrors of war and a brutal occupation were things of the past.

“The Nazis are gone, the Nazis are gone!” sang out Angelika in a sweet-voiced but unmusical chant, while Serafina, two years younger, sang a provincial folk song full of joy and happy expectations from her youth.

The young women waltzed and pirouetted, bumping each other and giggling like schoolgirls as the impact nearly knocked them sprawling in the tall grass.

Angelika, ever on the alert, stopped abruptly and stood staring as she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye; Serafina kept singing and twirling, waving her slender arms in the air like flashing bronze-peach colored stalks in the last rays of the declining sun.

Angelika took one half-running step toward the farmhouse which was concealed from view behind the milling shed. But she could not abandon her little sister, even to summon help.

Three men had slouched into view from the field behind the tool shed. Ragged, scruffily bearded, and grimy in their worn Russian military fatigues, gaunt and pale as if they were half-starved, the three advanced slowly with the downcast demeanor of beaten mongrels.

“Ladies, beautiful ladies,” said the man in the lead, raising a dirty white hand in a gesture of supplication. “We have walked for days and days, and have not eaten.” The man, whom Angelika noticed bore a jagged scar high on his cheekbone, half-concealed beneath a frayed beret, spoke Russian in a soft, plaintive voice. Both women, of course, spoke Russian fluently.

Serafina stopped twirling with a gasp of alarm, which quickly gave way to another emotion when she recognized the men as belonging to the Soviet military.

“Soldiers, Angelika, Russian soldiers!” she said in an adoring tone, as if she were addressing war heroes from her homeland. She moved toward them with a greeting on her lips. Angelika looked on with trepidation, her mouth forming a severe line.

Suddenly, as if at a pre-concerted signal, the two soldiers behind the leader sprang forward. Serafina made not a sound, and Angelika’s warning cry was cut off by strangling fingers at her throat as the men grasped the two women and hustled them after the man with the scar, who had kicked open the door of the nearby tool shed.

2. Horror

The two girls, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, crouched against the shed wall beneath a broken horse yolk that was suspended by pegs. Their lower clothing lay in a tangled heap just beyond their reach; their upper clothing had been clawed to tatters and no longer concealed their breasts or privates, which they both felt a desperate need to cover. Neither woman reached for the discarded clothing.

The man with the scar favored the girls with a leering look as he stood, slowly fastening his breeches. His two companions lay back against a pile of leather harnesses, passing back and forth between them a water bottle filled with contraband vodka. Unlike their leader, they avoided eye contact with the women and made no remarks to them.

Serafina sobbed quietly. Angelika stared at their persecutors with eyes of stone.

“Ladies,” said the man with the scar. “That was a very kind welcome, I’m sure my comrades will agree. Your country women are renowned sluts, and as I expected it was not the first time for either of you. But now with deepest regrets we must be leaving.”

He lazily withdrew a German Luger from his pocket and pointed it about in an offhand manner as he spoke.

Serafina’s eyes opened wide, she inhaled loudly to launch a scream. The man with the scar lowered the pistol and shot her through the temple.

Serafina slumped sideways against Angelika, splashing her neck and breast with blood. Angelika shuddered with a spasm that she quickly suppressed. She said nothing, cradling her sister’s bleeding head in her lap and fixing her stony, menacing glare on the man with the scar.

The two other soldiers leaped to their feet and put away the bottle. The discharge of the gun sounded like an exploding mortar round in the confined space of the shed. One of them fastened his eye to the crack at the edge of the shed door, checking if the coast was clear.

The man with the scar approached Angelika in an unhurried manner and placed the gun barrel against her forehead. Angelika neither flinched nor blinked, continuing to fix his eyes with her stare.

“Andrey, the other one!” hissed the man at the door. “They will be coming!”

The man called Andrey caressed Angelika’s cheek gently with the gun barrel. “Blondie would have talked,” he said with a grin that revealed large, stained, horse-like teeth. “But not this one. She is proud!”

“Andrey!” the man called again with a note of panic.

“She would kill me with her look if she could, this one. Sweet-faced vixen, remember me by this,” and he took Angelika’s chin in his hand and tilted up her face. He pointed the gun barrel at the lightning-shaped scar high up on his right cheekbone. Then he brought the handle of the pistol down with a crack on the crown of her head. Angelika’s world exploded into blazing stars, followed by darkness.

3. The Mask

The Leather Flask was a run down public house at the edge of the city’s business district that was heavily patronized by the newly arrived Soviet soldiers, mainly because it was close to their base. The soldiers threw around their scanty silver half-rubles as if they were Dutch guilders, as they may as well have been with their power to purchase the services of the aging hookers with crow’s feet at the corners of their eyes and missing teeth or the scrawny half-starved village girls with their frayed sleeves and dirty necks who had begun to congregate there.

The less inebriated regulars noticed the recent attendance of a girl of a different class, well dressed with a statuesque figure and auburn hair that gleamed like fine golden mesh in the harsh light of the incandescent bulbs without shades. She came in regularly at the fall of darkness and sat for a couple of hours at a corner table away from the others, spurning company but watching the comings and goings of the soldiers with the fixity of a spy from the central government. She always left alone.

On the third day of her presence a non-commissioned officer by the name of Egor, who wore the characteristic red breeches of the hussars—a great bear of a man with a kindly face and a twinkling eye—threw down a few extra brandies and water and determined to make a pass at her. He approached her table and sat down, blocking her view of the entrance. Leaning forward, he caught her upper arm in a familiar grasp and whispered his proposition into her ear. His offer was answered with a resounding slap on the face. Egor’s bushy mustache rose to reveal an indulgent smile and he began to move away when the lady caught his upper arm in turn. “Wait,” she said imperiously.

He looked into the glacial grey-blue eyes that stared coldly into his own and for a passing moment he felt something akin to fear. He also noticed the surpassing beauty of the woman and quickly banished any reservations.

“Andrey with the scar,” she said, “do you know him?”

“Andrey, Andrey, there are a hundred Andreys, dearest lady—”

“Andrey with a jagged scar like a lightning bolt above his right cheek.”

“I’m afraid, sweetest love—”

“Find him for me and you can do what you will with me. And you can keep your dirty kopeks.”

Three days later Egor the bear-like hussar led a slim village errand boy wearing an oversized hat with earflaps through the encampment to the motor pool. A mechanic and his helper were leaning over the engine compartment of a transport vehicle, working on the engine block with a pair of wrenches.

“Andrey with the scar,” muttered Egor, and he felt the slim figure beside him give a sudden start as if of recognition.

Later that night in an un-mown hay field behind the makeshift barracks, Egor the hussar grasped in his arms the most delectable, frigid woman he had lain with during the course of a long and hideous war.

* * * * *

Tomas Stefanik, biochemistry professor turned house painter, wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and climbed down the scaffolding to the dusty street. A well-dressed woman noticeable for her profusion of auburn-golden hair was waiting for him at the curbside.

“Tomas,” she said in a hushed voice that was familiar to him.

He gave a start, staring at her face. “Angelika, my God, I have not seen you for—it must be more than a year now!” And he hugged her to his breast, the joy of this unexpected meeting overwhelming his usual circumspection.

“My god, the Nazis are gone, can you believe it! At long last life can return to normal, and no one has risked more for this moment, has sacrificed more, than you—”

“The Russians are worse,” she said.

“No, no, Angelika, they are a little crude, perhaps, a little ill-mannered, but—”

“The Russians are worse. The rest of you will find out in time what I know now.” And then she related to him her story in as few words as possible. The joyous smile on Stefanik’s face melted away, a growing horror overspread his features, his hand went out to her with fingers splayed apart as if beseeching her to end the assault her words were making on his sensibilities.

“I, I have to sit down,” he said, slipping to the pavement. “How many atrocities can a man bear in one lifetime? She is—was—more than a daughter to me. She was the savior of my family!”

He rocked back and forth as if in physical pain. “Serafina!” he whispered.

“Yes, Serafina,” she said, dry-eyed.

“Oh, oh,” said Stefanik, making an effort to regain his composure. He owed these two women—Angelika and Serafina—a debt of gratitude that time would never efface and that he would never be able to repay. In the dreadful days of 1939 when the Nazis stormed into Poland, Tomas Stefanik was verging on world recognition as a research biochemist in his professorship at the University of Krakow. He had made breakthroughs in the function of the adrenal gland and was delaying the publication of his results until he completed his investigations into certain practical applications of his discoveries.

The invasion could not have come at a more disruptive time for him. As the Nazi persecution of the Jews intensified, it was Angelika Pacek, his brilliant undergraduate student and research assistant who stepped forward to assist him in protecting Jolanta, his Jewish wife, and their two daughters when all the others turned their backs. She hid the family in a cellar on the family farm for six months, and when Angelika went off to join the partisans in their unequal struggle against the occupiers, her angelic sister Serafina served as the lifeline to the concealed family, bringing them food and supplies and keeping them informed of the great, tragic events happening in the outside world. For six months the family knew no greater joy than Serafina’s regular visits when she gave all she could of herself to cheer them up, even teaching the two girls, who adored her, folk songs and keeping them amused by telling them fairy tales and ancient legends of the Polish countryside. At the end of six months Angelika returned to the farm bringing the official papers after having established the needed contacts to spirit Jolanta and the two girls out of the country to a safe haven in Sweden. Stefanik, less worldly than his young protégée, never fully understand how she had accomplished this seemingly impossible feat; all she would ever tell him about it is that he would sleep better not knowing. To this day, Stefanik’s family awaited the coming reunion in their tenement in Stockholm.

“Now,” said Angelika, “my mentor, my esteemed professor, my friend, I need you to do something for me. I need you to do a thing that only you can do.” And she kneeled down beside him on the curbside and whispered her request into his ear.

“No!” he cried, “it cannot be done! The science is not perfected—”

Again Angelika made her request, and again he protested. “It would kill you, my dear, kill you, do you hear? Request anything, but not that!”

“Very well,” she said coldly, rising to her feet. “Tomas, be easy. I will never again trouble you with a request.” And ashen-faced, she turned from him and began to walk away.

Tomas Stefanik, scientist and now house painter, found himself crawling after her on his hands and knees. Lunging forward, he wrapped his arms around her legs and brought her to a halt.

“A week from Tuesday, 3:00 pm, at my studio on Lubicz Street,” he stammered. “It will take me that long to gather supplies—and even that is only possible because of the disorganized security of the Soviets. Come alone, and please, oh please, try to change your mind.”

* * * * *

The studio was tiny, and the truckle bed had to be collapsed and turned on its side to make room for the medical equipment and chemical supplies.

Angelika sat on the edge of the coffin-like wooden box that would have to serve as a surgical table for the upcoming operation.

“When I complete the procedure that will stimulate your adrenal gland, the production of adrenalin will be constantly elevated. Your rate of metabolism will increase, and you will need to breathe a richer mix of oxygen than the atmosphere provides. So you will have to wear an oxygen cylinder and a gas mask wherever you go.” Stefanik held up the mask for her to view—a conventional army-issue combat-green gas mask with a tinted glass eye plate and a breathing port from which the activated carbon had been removed. A small, malleable copper tube provided a connection to the oxygen tank that would need to be strapped to her back.

“I smuggled out six oxygen tanks,” Stefanik resumed. “At the feed rate we must set, each tank will last you 24 hours. You’ll use up one per day, and have to change them. That gives you six days. I will try to obtain more tanks in the meantime. Remember, without the oxygen you will quickly grow lethargic and suffocate within an hour. When you finish your mission come back here and I will try to reverse the procedure. You know about the adaptive memory of our biological processes—I’m not sure I can do it. If not, oh Angelika,” and he squeezed her hand, “this will be irreversible—a death sentence.”

“I have fought beside the partisans,” she replied quietly. “I am not afraid.”

“When you wake up your strength and speed will be abnormal, incredible. But you are still made of the old flesh and bones. You can break your own as easily as your opponent’s.”

There was a silence. Stefanik was clearly reluctant to start the procedure.

“If that’s all, let’s do it,” said Angelika.

“I just can’t bear the thought of losing you both. Can’t you get the partisans together again? There should be a sniper who can take care of your mission by the more conventional means.”

“Where they are all now,” Angelika replied, “Serafina has joined them there.” She lay back on the box while Stefanik applied the anesthetic.

4. The First One

Oleg Pravdin, assistant mechanic with the Soviet Infantry, walked through the un-mown hay field behind the garrison’s barracks. He felt the desire to have a woman strongly tonight, and had meant to remind Andrey of the “girling” expedition he had been promising to lead for a week now. Andrey’s girling expeditions simultaneously satisfied Oleg’s two most pressing cravings: the thrill of the chase, and the sensual bliss of having his way with a woman. It was far more rewarding than throwing away his scant earnings on aging whores or village sluts that smelled of garlic and onions at low dives like the Leather Flask.

But Andrey was stubborn, maintaining that girling must not be done too frequently. “These war-ravaged peasants,” Andrey had observed, “are used to a few dead women popping up here and there, but too many and they will revolt.” Oleg had come to consider Andrey somewhat of a barrack room philosopher, and it was rumored that he had picked up some university education somewhere along the way. At any rate, it was Andrey—and of course he had the final word on the matter.

Andrey had disappeared from the motor pool an hour earlier than usual. So tonight Oleg would be on his own.

Descending a shallow declivity that put him out of sight of the garrison, he thought that he heard a noise to his right. A burnt and abandoned building left by the Nazis, little more than a foundation with a couple of fire-scarred crumbling block walls rose from the weeds at the edge of the field. A rather small, strange figure stepped out of a ruinous doorway and stood facing him.

Oleg’s mouth fell open and he craned his neck forward. At first he took the figure to be a soldier who had somehow emerged from the front line of battle. Dressed in green military fatigues, the figure wore an outlandish head gear that Oleg recognized after some effort as a gas mask. Some sort of metal cylinder rose up from behind the shoulders and was connected by a gleaming copper tube to the gas mask. “Hell’s devils,” Oleg muttered as he discerned, both by its slender build and by the cascade of golden-red hair that surrounded the mask, that it was a woman. The distinctive color of the hair told him which woman.

“You,” he said.

“Yes, me.”

“What do you want?” He fumbled for a moment and drew a Soviet issue Tokarev pistol from the ill-fitting German holster he had pilfered from an abandoned Nazi encampment.

There was no answer.

“I don’t want no trouble, miss.” He pointed the pistol in her direction with a trembling hand. “It was Andrey who offed your friend. I didn’t want to do it. Why the mask—”

The figure lunged to its right with blinding speed. Then it darted to the left. Oleg did not realize, did not have time to notice, that the two movements had also eliminated the distance that separated them.

The handgun was struck from his hand with a force that broke three of his fingers and sent the weapon spinning over the top of the scorched wall. Then Oleg experienced a series of sensations unlike anything he had encountered before. It was as if some sort of lethal machine clasped and crushed his body with unfathomable strength. He felt himself shaken as a mastiff shakes a kitten, and heard his own bones popping and cracking and felt his flesh being mashed to a pulp through waves of unbearable physical agony.

In the morning they found Oleg Pravdin’s corpse at the foot of the ruined wall. Every bone in his body had been broken and splintered and his rib cage was crushed in as if he had been hurled from a vast height. In fact there was some speculation, soon discarded as implausible, that he had been dropped from an airplane. It was also noticed that high on his right cheekbone there was a large jagged wound in the shape of a lightning bolt, apparently carved with a knife.

5. The Second One

Andrey and Pavel the gunner sat on a wad of disheveled blankets that served as a bunk in the corner of a barrack building. The room was lit by a kerosene lantern as the high command had not bothered to extend an electrical feed to the barracks. Pavel was pale and agitated, swiveling his head at every sound, real or imagined, and shuffling his feet or twitching his hands. Andrey, on the other hand, appeared calm and unperturbed as he meditatively smoked a small briarwood pipe.

“You saw the scar,” Pavel uttered abruptly.

“Yes, shut up, be quiet. Do you want the whole garrison to hear us?”

“The body was smashed—like a fly—smashed!” The last word was almost shrieked.

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“It had to be—because of the woman. The blonde woman you shot when we were out girling.”

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“Well, we’re next, you—don’t be stupid!”

There was a silence that Pavel once again felt constrained to break.

“How did they do that to him?”

“That’s the only mystery.”

“You should have shot the other one, you stupid bastard! Like I told you.”

Andrey grinned, revealing his great horse-like teeth. “They may get you, but they won’t get me.”

Pavel lunged at him, but Andrey moved deftly aside.

“Pull yourself together, you fool. I am not the enemy.”

“This girling business was your plan, you brought this upon us.”

“You were not complaining when you were riding the little mares with their legs in the air.”

“Go to hell and be damned, you devil,” said Pavel, but his tone was conciliatory.

“Anyway, it won’t help things to let you know, numbskull, but I have a plan.”

* * * * *

At a discrete distance, so as not to be recognized, Andrey and Pavel watched the roaring flames that consumed the Pacek family’s farmhouse lick upwards into the night sky. The farmhouse which had endured six years of Nazi occupation did not survive six weeks under the Soviets.

“Well, they weren’t home, what did you expect,” grumbled Pavel. “So this is your plan? A lot of good it will do us.”

“They know we struck back, and that the Soviet military is on to them. Let’s go.”

The next morning Andrey submitted a request for a transfer to the Warsaw garrison. He said not a word of it to Pavel.

For his part, Pavel made a concerted effort not to be alone. Wherever the soldiers congregated, that was where he would be found. This was after hours, on his own time. But while on duty he was subject to the orders of his superiors.

The Soviet authorities had begun rounding up the Polish intelligentsia: doctors, university professors, and highly educated professionals that Stalin’s government anticipated might interfere with their plans for Poland. As the jails and prisons were not spacious enough to accommodate these detainees as they awaited transportation to destinations still being worked out—Siberia, military detention centers, or oblivion—the military units were called upon to assist in creating temporary local detention centers.

Pavel’s superior officer knew that he had carpentry and building experience in his private life before the war, therefore he was co-opted to join a team of two other soldiers and a supervising lieutenant to inspect and report on the condition and suitability for use of an abandoned spa and resort complex twenty kilometers outside of Krakow.

Upon arrival of the transport vehicle on the grounds of the resort, the lieutenant dusted off and unfolded a set of blueprints for the facility that he had somehow acquired. To Pavel’s chagrin, the lieutenant dispatched the three soldiers to inspect the buildings separately.

Pavel argued, irrationally the lieutenant thought, to be allowed to team up with one of the others. His request was denied, and the three were ordered to return from their assignments with logged inspection reports by 4:00 pm. The blueprints were distributed and each man provided with a kerosene lantern.

The weather was cool and drizzly as Pavel set out on foot across the overgrown entrance drive to a large deteriorated building at the rear of the compound. The structure still retained the vestiges of luxury, although it had been in disuse since the Nazi occupation.

Electric power had long been cut off, which made the building, whose window spacing was designed for incandescent illumination, exceedingly gloomy inside. Just as Pavel closed the grand, nine-foot tall entry door behind him and prepared to light his kerosene lantern, he thought he heard a sound common enough along the busy streets of Krakow, but out of place in this secluded place—the rumble of a motorbike. He quickly opened the door again—silence. Shaking his head, he lit the lantern and set to work.

In spite of his strained nerves, Pavel soon became immersed in his work, and made his way through room after room, inspecting walls, flooring, fixtures, and making notes. His focus was interrupted by the distinct sound of the opening and slamming shut of the entrance door. Dropping his log book and snatching up the lantern, Pavel rushed into the corridor and called out “Who’s there?”

There was no answer.

Instantly apprehension transformed into icy terror, causing his knees to wobble and beads of cold sweat to break out on his forehead.

He must get out and join the others at all cost. There would be protection where there were numbers.

He sprinted toward the entryway, the kerosene lantern swaying and causing crazy shadows to rush up and down the walls. Then he stopped short with a gasp.

A solitary figure in military fatigues and wearing a gas mask stood against the door as if barring his exit. It occurred to him that, caught by his enemy like a rat, he would be gassed and suffocated in the corridor. With a shout, he pulled his handgun from the pocket of his uniform jacket and fired off two rounds. But the figure was no longer in the doorway.

Was he seeing things? No, there it was, springing out from behind an ornamental column. But the rapidity of it movements! The unbelievable, shocking quickness!

Disconcerted, he dropped the handgun rather than the lantern as he intended. He darted up a high-piled carpeted staircase with a rich mahogany banister, and wheeled around at the top. His pursuer was almost upon him; he dashed the lantern into its face and rushed through a heavy-paneled oak door into one of the upstairs luxury suites. Slamming shut the door, he noticed a heavy metal latch which he shot into place. Immediately a thunderous impact rattled the door in its frame. The doorknob was twisted and he heard metal snap within the lockset. Next there was a second impact against the door and an upper panel buckled inward but did not give way, as if it had been struck by a battering ram. There was a high-pitched scream of pain—could that be a woman’s voice? Pavel turned and raced in almost total darkness down the hallway. A band of light could be seen beneath the door at the far end. Once past that, he might be able to exit the building and hide among the overgrown bushes and trees in the landscaped yard.

Another explosive noise, and—was it possible?—something seemed to be inside the annular space of the wall on the left side of the hallway. He heard wall studs cracking and breaking at the impact of an irresistible force. He threw open the door in front of him; a flood of daylight entered the hallway. A brief glance over his shoulder revealed a large chunk of plaster falling from the wall and crashing to powder against the floor boards while an ominous moving bulge in the plaster followed in the direction of his flight. Internal boards and studs cracked and splintered as a large body made its passage through the annular space in the wall. It appeared that only the strength of the heavy oak wainscoting prevented his attacker form bursting through the wall and into the hallway. It was the vision of a nightmare.

Pavel ran toward the balcony, fully prepared to hurtle over the balustrade to drop down to the overgrown sward below. He flung open the French door leading to the balcony. With a horrible crash and explosion of plaster, the wall behind him burst outward. He once again whirled around—he could not help himself.

There before him, fatigues covered with plaster powder and the splinters of wall boards, and with a splash of kerosene flaming above the left breast, stood his attacker. Brief as the vision was, he could not be mistaken—the figure was a woman.

* * * * *

The lieutenant saw it first—a cloud of smoke rising above the building Pavel had been assigned to inspect. By the time he and the two remaining soldiers reached it, the entrance corridor was fully involved in flames. He now regretted not investigating the two earlier popping sounds that could have been distant gun shots.

“Pavel, Pavel!” the lieutenant shouted. There was no response. He took a step as if to enter the inferno, then thought better of it.

“One of you, go around the back!” he ordered. “There may be a way in from that side. You, help me here,” he said to the other soldier.

The two of them moved in opposite directions along the ground floor, breaking windows with a shovel and a garden hoe they had found and peering inside the rooms shouting Pavel’s name. They had not proceeded far when the lieutenant heard a voice behind him.

“Sir, it’s no use going in.”

He faced the speaker. It was the soldier who had made the circuit of the building. The lieutenant started—the last time he had seen such a horror-stricken face was when he had led teenage boys into a fire fight for the first time.

“Sir, follow me, you’ll want to see this.” Without another word he led the lieutenant and the second soldier around to the rear side of the building. There, beneath an overhanging second floor balcony with an ornate limestone balustrade lay Pavel’s body. It was nearly unrecognizable, having been crushed and pulverized to a near jelly-like state. The lieutenant observed, high on the right cheekbone, a jagged cut in the shape of a lightning bolt. This wound did not seem to be related to the other injuries.

6. Andrey with the scar

The day after word came back of Pavel’s hideous death, Andrey sat alone in the barracks. He rolled the notice carrying the denial of his transfer request into a tight tube, lit it with a match, and applied it to the tobacco packed in the bowl of his briarwood pipe. He drank shot after shot of straight vodka until his lips pulled back to reveal his horse-like teeth in a sardonic grin.

He held his hand straight out in front of him—it did not quiver.

“Ha, ha,” he laughed. “Ha, ha, ha! For once justice is being done; I thought I would never see the day. Well,” and he rose to his feet, “let’s finish this. If I have to go, I hope it’s my little red-haired vixen who takes me out. Because,” and he wobbled on his feet for a moment before steadying himself, “because of all women I love her best.”

He marched with two duffel bags brazenly into the armory, throwing into them a protective vest, a submachine gun and two ammo belts with a hundred rounds, two handguns, and a battle helmet. He was not able to lay his hands on any grenades, which had been at the top of his list. It is a testimony to the utter lack of discipline among the Soviet occupiers that he was neither stopped nor challenged as he made this unauthorized appropriation of military hardware and walked slowly out of the armory and then the garrison half carrying and half dragging his heavy bags.

* * * * *

Andrey had not forgotten his vodka, and had consumed a dangerous, near lethal dosage when he rose to his feet once more. He had been sitting with his back against the Pacek farm tool shed where all of this had started only two weeks ago. For over an hour he had seen no human beings. His liquor was now gone, he saw no reason to protract things.

He put on his battle helmet, then the protective vest which weighed like lead. He thrust the two handguns into his large pockets, and inserted an ammo belt into the submachine gun, throwing the strap around his shoulders. Being a veteran soldier, he accomplished these preparations successfully in spite of his inebriation.

“Ladies,” he shouted, “or shall I say lady. I’m back. This business between us is not finished. Come out, wherever you are.”

He pointed the submachine gun into the air and fired off a burst of rounds.

“Come out now,” he resumed. You’ve traded kiss for kiss with your other two boyfriends. Now it’s my turn. Best for last.”

He skirted the milling shed and was next to the foundation of the house now.

“I know you’re here watching me. You’ve been watching us all along. You Polish girls can be coy, but no need for that now. We know each other like husband and wife. Like husband and wife, I say, you know it’s true. There are no secrets between us.”

Silence.

“I miss you, you fiery-haired virago. I want to marry you, that’s why I’m here. Ha, ha!”

Time passed, the hot sun beat down on his helmeted head. His mood changed.

“Your friend, the blonde—was she your sister? Now there’s one, I tell you. But she got what she deserved. None of us—your three boyfriends I mean—thought her performance was very good that day. Now, you… that’s another story!”

Andrey suddenly noticed a solitary figure standing at the edge of the wheat field. He did not see how it arrived there. He squinted and began walking toward it.

“You are the most vile scum of creation,” said a woman’s quiet voice.

“Oh, it’s you at last!” Andrey cried. “I knew you would come. Having once tasted, how could you resist!”

“I am going to kill you now,” she said.

“Ha, ha! Maybe that’s better than marrying you after all. Marrying you would be a living death.”

She came for him, and for a moment he was taken aback by the rapidity of her movements. As she darted from side to side in a tacking motion, drawing ever closer, he sent a spray of rounds in her direction. He lost sight of her as the gun stock kicked against him.

“Drunken fool,” she said from her place of concealment. “You have the arms of the Kremlin with you, and I bring only my bare hands. Still, I will kill you now.”

“Where are you?” he muttered, moving in the direction he had lost sight of her.

There was a frenzied motion among the wheat stalks and he discharged a second prolonged spray of rounds into the field.

Suddenly she shot out of the wheat field and ran behind the tool shed. He strafed the shed with rounds until the ammo belt was empty. He suddenly recalled that the other ammo belt was in the duffel bag. Angelika stole out of the shelter behind the shed and raced to the duffel bag. “Are you looking for this?” she said, withdrawing the ammo belt and flinging it into the wheat.

Roaring wordlessly, Andrey threw the submachine gun from him and pulled out the two pistols from his pockets. He began firing at her with both hands. But Angelika had retreated behind the shed again.

Andrey stalked forward, meaning to circle around the shed and flush her out. He told himself that if he could get between her and the field and cut off her retreat he would have her where he wanted her.

As he rounded the corner of the shed he noticed that its door was hanging ajar. “Stupid slut, I have you now!” he yelled triumphantly, running to the doorway. He was convinced that she was hiding inside.

The loud metallic squeak of a hinge caused him to look up in time to see the open shed door swinging toward him with incredible velocity. He half turned; the wooden door slammed into him and exploded into fragments. Andrey was thrown headlong into the shed. The two guns flew out of his hands at the impact of his heavy face-forward fall to the floor. He lost consciousness momentarily, reawakening to his own retching. He wheezed amidst the puddle of vodka he had made, trying to regain the wind that had been knocked out of him. He spit several splinters out of his bloody mouth which he became vaguely aware were broken teeth.

When he was able to direct his attention to external things, he saw before him in the doorway the girl in the mask.

“What’s your name?” he asked thickly, trying to navigate his words around the ruins of his mouth.

“It won’t matter, where you’re going.”

She advanced toward him in a slow, deliberate manner.

Appearing to awaken at last to his predicament, he thrust out his left hand in a placating gesture. “Is there nothing I can do?” he asked, a plaintive quaver in his voice.

“Yes,” she said with silky sweetness. “You can bring back my sister that you stole from me.”

“I can do it! I have the power to do it, to bring her back to you!” With his right hand, which had been hidden from her behind his outstretched arm, he flung the thin-bladed knife that he had withdrawn from a compartment in his boot. The half-obscured light from the doorway was sufficient for him to see the knife sink to the handle in her side below her left breast.

“But you would not like her smell,” he finished in his old taunting tone.

Angelika gasped, fell back a step, dropped to a knee, fought to suck in a breath of air. Then gathering herself, she was on him like a tigress.

7. Epiphany

The moonlight streamed down on the village cemetery that had grown greatly in size over the past six years. The chirping crickets stilled their song at the sound of an approaching footstep. A strange figure came into view. It was a woman dressed incongruently in battle fatigues and wearing an army-issue gas mask. Blood streamed from a wound in her side and she moved as if she were at the end of her strength. She dropped to her knees when she reached the most recent grave site, then unhooked and flung away the gas mask, revealing a face pale with suffering, but filled with a sort of ethereal beauty. Angelika lowered her face to the ground, her spreading auburn tresses looking spectral in the moonlight. Then she wept for the first and last time, her tears mingling with the freshly placed soil over her sister Serafina’s grave.

 

A Fragment of Hell

by Dave Hebden

 

“Hello, Frank. It’s me, Arlan. You should be fully awake by now, I think. I’ll bet you have been very anxious. After all, why would you have become conscious while you are still in your suspension pod, right? I know you have probably been struggling and can barely move in that snug little padded vessel so just lie still and my voice will explain everything. It took me quite some time to get this recording just the way I wanted it. I hope it suits.

Now, you know how upset I was when Brenda and I broke up. I will always remember how supportive you pretended to be. My goodness, it was very impressive how well you hid your secret. I thought Brenda’s performance was admirable as well but you see, we had been together for so long that she really couldn’t hide anything from me.

It was such a messy process, wasn’t it? What with you being what I considered a good friend at the time and Brenda being the only love I have ever had, I’m sure you knew it would be difficult for all of us once the truth came out. Of course, that didn’t stop you. Nothing ever stopped you from getting what you wanted, now did it?

I’m sure you remember that day when I finally started to act… what did you call it… “civilized”? Yes, I just suddenly stopped making those annoying calls and leaving those terrible messages all over the place. Perhaps you thought it was because of the success you had in getting me locked up a couple of times. Maybe you were thinking that I had finally come to my senses, that I finally realized that my crude behavior was going to get me nothing but trouble. Well, I’m afraid that wasn’t it at all. Actually it was on that day that I proved out the feasibility of my retribution plan. It took a lot of hard work but, well, here we are.

Where to begin? Well, I recall how elated you were when you were chosen for the Second Colony mission. And when you were able to pull your usual strings to get Brenda to come along you must have just been in Seventh Heaven. How exciting! Being chosen to be on board only the second ship of colonists ever to leave Earth bound for a new world must have been quite a feeling. To be going on that marvelous adventure with someone that loved you so much… how unspeakably wonderful!

I know those poor devils that went on the first ship so many years ago must have been very nervous about their mission. After all, they didn’t know what to expect. They could have awoken to find that Vita Nova wasn’t a habitable planet after all. They would have been doomed to live out their lives in that ship, just floating about a dead world that would remain dead. That not being the case, though, at least they got to spend a little time on the new world which certainly made it far from a wasted mission. I mean they all perished but the information they sent back has made this second mission possible and virtually sure to succeed. To be a member of the first generation of humans to establish a permanent colony on a new world would be an honor unequaled in the lifetime of almost anyone. However, you were afforded an honor that far surpasses that, Frank, and yet you never returned that honor.

Having Brenda fall in love with you was something that you took for granted, that you felt was somehow expected for a man of your stature and importance. Yes, I am sure you loved her as well but as with any other relationship you ever had, it was on your own terms and in your own selfish way. You knew she was enamored by your wealth, your fame, and your good looks and you took full advantage of that fact. You never respected her, simply holding her up as a trophy whenever the cameras were on you. Right to the last, as you were stepping into the suspension module with her, you couldn’t help turning her by the shoulder as you turned yourself for one last wave to the adoring masses, so beautifully adorning the final image of you here on Earth by having that angel at your side. Well, Frank, I am afraid your arrogance has cost you dearly. You see, you are never going to see that new world and you are never going to see Brenda again.

Now, please don’t think I would do something as primitive as to just murder you. That would be much too simple for me and far too lenient a punishment for someone like you. You have spent most of the years of your life using people for whatever they could do to help advance your selfish goals and boost your enormous ego. You have lived almost every waking moment in control of everyone around you. Well, not any more. Even though I am trillions of miles away right now, I am in total control of you. Fancy that.

You see, I had been working as a contractor on the software for this suspension module you are in right now. I saw you many times during your training sessions at the mission center. I know you thought I was far, far away so it is no surprise that you didn’t recognize me in my disguise. Perhaps you recall that man with the oddly puffy face, the full beard, and the port wine stain on his forehead that sat at the console closest to the water station on the promenade? That was me! Yes, I could have done my work from anywhere at the center but it was so much fun to watch you every day as you orchestrated the lives of so many others; smiling and laughing when you were obeyed, scowling and cursing when you weren’t. All the time, I knew that when this moment came, I would have been watching you do more and more to deserve it.

But I digress. As you are well aware, I have always been quite adept at all things technical, especially when it comes to software. I started to conceive my plan as soon as I heard that you were chosen for the mission. I’m not sure how but it just came to me. I had to take the job under a contrived identity but that was not so difficult for someone like me who has done so much work for the security industry. Once I went in and had a look at the suspension module’s control systems, I knew my plan would work. It was then that I stopped harassing you. I’ll bet you were quite pleased that day and probably thought that your conquest of Benda was complete. In retrospect, though, it was the most terrible day that you had ever had for it was precisely then that your fate was sealed. Go figure.

So here you are, Frank, lying in this padded shell unable to move anything but your eyelids. My program is controlling your pod and everything it is doing is masked from the main system by a very fancy little subroutine that I planted there. It will always report all things normal for you. As far as anyone or anything knows, you are and will be soundly in suspension sleep for another 72 years. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

What is going to happen is that my program is going to keep you in a nice, healthy cycle of eight hours of sleep and sixteen hours awake. It is going to provide all the nourishment, muscle stimulation, and waste management services that your body needs to live. I do realize that you will be drawing from the nutrient and oxygen banks and burdening some other systems much more than you would have had you remained in suspension. However, my calculations show that none of these excesses will adversely affect any of the other twelve hundred forty-nine colonists to the slightest degree. The variance will also be within the parameters that the main system has been programmed to handle autonomously without sending out notifications that there is a problem of any kind. I don’t think it would matter if anyone did find out what I had been up to anyway. After all, even in these modern times I am pretty sure no one has ever bothered to put a law on the books that would make it a crime to keep someone alive. Isn’t that deliciously ironic?

You are going to live out your natural life right where you are, Frank. Once you expire, my program will shut down your support system and then it will delete itself without a trace. Although you will probably get agonizingly close to your destination, you will not survive the entire journey as I don’t think you will make it to the ripe old age of one hundred and fifteen. And speaking of ripe, I do pity the poor other colonists that are going to have to open your pod when the ship arrives. That should be a very unpleasant experience to say the least.

You know, there is a Tradition of the Prophet stating that every journey is a fragment of hell. Boy, I guess he got that right in this case, huh? Perhaps at some point you will feel that you are better off dead. I can’t say that I would even hazard a guess as to whether someone like you, no matter what the situation, would ever consider ending their own life. No matter, though, as you have absolutely no way to do so. You could attempt to hold your breath even to the point of unconsciousness but your body will always begin to respire again. You are going to be in control of absolutely nothing except your own thoughts… unless you count blinking, of course. And the thing that satisfies me above all is that you will not be in control of Brenda. She will be very sad, I am sure, when she finds out what happened to you. You can rest assured that there will be no trace of my software and no one will ever know just how it happened. Eventually, she will get over it and I am sure that she will find that one of the other colonists can fill the void. In fact, she might end up with someone a little more selfless and realize that she is actually better off without you. I know I am.

Oh, and one more thing. I remember you telling me more than once that you never wanted me to speak to neither you nor Brenda again. You said in a very angry tone that you could not even stand the sound of my voice. Well, I suppose I could have sardonically granted your wish since having you lie there in silence could become unbearable and even drive you quite mad after a while. I do find that a pleasant thought but here’s something I find even more amusing. Ready?

Hello, Frank. It’s me, Arlan. You should be fully awake by now…”

 

Debbie Does Deuce

by Diane Arrelle

Hanna studied her opponent.

She watched as chubby, acne-scarred Debbie Shuller tossed the tennis ball low and come down too hard with her racket. Smack… into the net. Debbie shrugged and smiled that sickly-sweet smile that always made Hanna want to puke. Then Debbie carefully set up her second serve and sailed a soft easy ball over to Hanna’s side.

Hanna saw the approaching shot and literally crowed as she ran forward to slam it back. Only… the ball must have had a spin to it. Instead of bouncing back and into Hanna’s waiting, big head, extra-long racket, it bounced sideways and forward… just out of her reach.

Debbie smiled even more sweetly and yelled, “Deuce.”

Hanna gritted her teeth. How could it possibly be tied, she thought. Five minutes ago she’d been leading forty-love, whacking those first three balls back at that cow, Debbie, before she could even blink. Now they were at deuce, forty-forty. “Well, I’ll win this one, Debbie,” she muttered. “I always win.”

She waited as Debbie crossed the back of the tennis court. Debbie seemed to be moving in slow motion as she got into position, stretched up, tossed the ball high and then hit it out of bounds.

“Long!” Hanna shouted, waiting impatiently for the second serve. “Come on already,” she muttered as Debbie seemed to slow down even more. Finally she hit the second serve low and into the net.

Debbie still smiled, seemingly unruffled. She appeared cool and collected as she yelled, “Your add, guess I’m a little rusty. Oh well, plenty of time to warm up.”

Hanna wiped the sweat from her upper lip. She snarled at her old school adversary and squinted at the halo the sun made around her mousy limp hair. “No time for you, honey, I’m gonna put this one away and win.”

Debbie stopped preparing to serve. “Did you say something?” she asked, lowering her arm.

“Yeah, I said serve already.”

“All right,” Debbie sighed. “You always were impatient.”

“Well, you know how it is, I’ve got to get home to Timothy,” Hanna shouted back. “He can’t stand when I’m away too long.” She felt immense satisfaction as she watched Debbie quickly blink her eyes a few times. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she called. “I forgot that Timothy was your husband first.”

Debbie served the ball, crossing the net at a sharp angle, just grazing the line. Hanna ground her teeth harder, wanting to call the shot out but knew she didn’t need to cheat to win. “It’s good!” she announced.

Debbie crossed the court again. “Back to deuce.”

After the sixth return to deuce, Hanna knew the pattern. Debbie would blow the first two serves, letting Hanna have the point, then she’d win the next shot taking the game back to deuce.

Frustrated, Hanna wondered why Debbie had called her and asked her for this match. They hadn’t spoken since she’d taken Timothy away from her. It had only been this past morning when the phone rang.

She remembered it vividly because she was almost involved in a head-on with a tractor trailer. She didn’t know how it had missed her, but she was still shaking when the phone beeped. She’d been so surprised to hear Debbie’s voice that she didn’t react as she normally would have—with enough sarcasm to put the cow in her place forever. In fact she had been mildly surprised because she sort of thought that Debbie had died or something. Obviously she’d been wrong, but after all, who had time to keep track of all the losers in the world.

Her hands had been shaking from her near miss when the call came so she slowed to a stop on the side of the road. “Hello,” Hanna barked into her cellular phone, suddenly and irrationally impatient to get where she was going.

“Hello… uh… Hanna.”

“Yes,” Hanna replied trying to place the weak voice.

“Hanna… this… this is Debbie, Debbie Shuller.”

Hanna’s voice frosted over, icing the conversation. “Debbie, what do you want? And don’t say Timothy, he’s mine now.”

She heard Debbie’s quick intake of breath. “Hanna, there is no need for hostility. I’ve missed you, and… and I wanted you to meet me for a game of tennis. It’s been so long and we were once so close. How about meeting me in a few minutes. I’m at the courts at the end of Mountain Side Road. That’s right near where you are now, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” Hanna said, wondering how Debbie knew where she was, then shrugged it off. Probably called Timothy and he told her that she had just left. She saw her racket in the back seat next to her gym bag. She had been planning to work out, so a quick match would fit right into her schedule and playing Debbie was always quick. The bitch had no style or form. “I’m not familiar with the courts, but I’ll look for them and meet you there in fifteen minutes.”

“That’s fine, Hanna. Take your time, after all we’ve got plenty of time.”

Hanna hung up and figured that Debbie called and challenged her because if she could just beat her at one thing, like tennis, then Deb could feel a little vengeful satisfaction. Hanna had to smirk. After all, she’d always beaten Debbie at everything ever since grade school. She never could understand how Debbie had gotten the guy they were both after. It wasn’t fair and it took Hanna five years but she’d finally won at the marriage game too, stealing Timothy away.

She started the car and headed slowly down the road. She was surprised that there were new tennis courts in the park at the bottom of the road but she parked and met Debbie.

 

* * * *

“Add out… Deuce”

Hanna’d lost count of how many times they’d tied the game. Debbie had to be doing this on purpose, but how’d she get so good? She’d always stunk at sports and Hanna had enough trophies to line a room. How, she wondered, wiping the sweat off her face, how could Debbie be doing this?

“Deuce!” Debbie yelled. “Again.”

“Just serve!” Hanna snarled as she struggled to catch her breath.

“Getting testy, aren’t we?” Debbie cooed. “Don’t you just love tennis? Why I could just play it forever.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Hanna yelled back. “You may want to play forever, but I’ve got a life. Let’s stop screwing around and end this.”

Debbie laughed and lowered her racket. “Why, how appropriate, you’ve insinuated that I don’t have a life and you’re right. I was so depressed after Tim left that I moved to Colorado and splat, got hit by a truck last month. Lord, I was nothing but road kill. But what does that matter anyway, you were too busy living your own life to notice a dead Deb. Bet you didn’t even notice Tim’s been upset the last few weeks.”

Hanna put down her racket. “What are you talking about?”

Debbie continued smiling. “Why, Heaven. You see we play tennis in heaven. That’s how I’ve improved so, eternal practice.”

Hanna laughed. “You are nuts! If you are so damned good how come we can’t get out of deuce?”

Debbie joined Hanna’s laughter. “Because I’m not damned. But you are. Tennis is my heaven now, and deuce, why Hanna, deuce can be such an infinite hell!”