by Jeremy Wright
“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.”