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