By BD Scott
“You in or out, Larry?”
The dark, depth of a quiet basement sucked Larry into a temporary lull. The hanging cigar smoke and several shots of whiskey couldn’t have caused it. It may have been because he ignored his physical need for food and deep clear breathing from his inhalers.
Just this once, he remembered thinking while driving over, I’ll be alright. I’ll be fresh, sipping whiskey during the game, and remain sharp enough to finally win the pot.
His empty belly, mildly shallow breathing and the sharpness of nursing flat whiskey earned him the straight flush he held in his left hand. And it would change everything and he’d take his friends down misery lane.
“Well, boys. We’ll see who cleans up.”
One by one, Larry laid down his cards. And one by one, his buddies exhaled in synchronized shock with each card edge snapping the tabletop. All except one of his friends folded and sat back, each with a distinctly different shade of red rage coloring their faces.
George sat diagonal to Larry.
Not a facial muscle moved on George.
Instead of mimicking Larry’s drama, George laid out his hand in full, fanning his royal flush open, peacock feather style.
Larry’s smirk lost itself inside his mouth along with the remaining cigar he puffed throughout the night, nearly choking. Larry stood up, coughed hard and eyed his buddies with an angry gaze. He stormed toward the door. Three of them managed to force themselves between Larry and the door.
“Oh no, “Alex torted, “you lost fair and square. You know what you agreed to. Now you pay.”
“You guys have everything I laid out on the table,” Larry insisted, pulling out his pants pockets to reveal he had nothing remaining.
“You forgot your written debt, now due, and in full,” Alex demanded.
“Written debt?” Larry demanded, his eyebrows furrowing deep in the center of his forehead.
The paper had been sitting atop the pile of money in the middle of the table, resembling an IOU.
“Ahem, I, Larry Cornwald, hereby give permission to the victor to do anything with my wife. What do ya suppose you meant?” George quipped, rubbing the paper between his thick digits.
“That was a drunken joke, we all laughed at it. I was kidding,” Larry blasted.
“We can always wrap your bare legs up with barbed wire and make you walk a mile. That’ll be a fun debt to pay and watch, “George quipped with a hint of dark amusement.
“The game is over. I’m done here.”
Larry barreled his five foot nine inch two hundred pound frame through his friends without apology.
The door slammed behind him.
Alex announced, “It’s time, fellas.”
All nodded to one another in unison.
Outside, Larry managed to push his drunken rage aside and chose to walk rather than drive. He’d retrieve his car in the morning.
I counted those cards? I had that damn game won! Did I really write that IOU? It was supposed to be a fucking joke.
Following a grunt full of pure anger, the thickness of the summer night weighed down him as if it were a cross of punishment placed directly on his shoulders. Moreover, the evening humidity seemed to awaken every smell in the area, including what was left inside half-open garbage bins. Somewhere between disgusting rotting food scents, the summer wind hinted rain was soon to fall. One can always smell the rain before it pours.
He recalled not feeling particularly drunk during the entire evening. He poised himself to finally take those jerks down and walk away a few thousand dollars richer, hadn’t he? Tonight was his night.
What went wrong? How can I recoup all of that money?
The first drizzle of rain began to fall and small puddles splashed softly underneath his boots while mentally searching for a way to deal with the loss.
One step at a time, old boy. One step at a time. Just get home.
His wife could smell stress from a mile away. Being that mile away, he took his inhaler from his coat pocket, blasted four shots, breathed a bit deeper.
Calm down and get home. Sleep it off. Figure it out in the morning.
Shaking off his self-chastisement, he accelerated his lazy walk into a walk of urgency. The security of a warm bed and body close to him was all he could salvage for tonight.
As he slipped into bed, the half-awake grunt from his wife gave him a sense of emotional comfort. He calmed her with a soft kiss to her neck. She sighed and slept off. Tomorrow would arrive soon enough and his loss would go undetected, as long as he could keep his mouth shut.
Larry awoke to the sharp sunlight poking through his thin eyelids. He stretched out, renewing blood flow to his hands and feet. His neck screamed at him for the forced fetal sleeping position he kept throughout the night. He took a deep breath, listening for the rush of water in the master bathroom. His ears were greeted with silence.
He perched himself up on this elbows, slowly panning the scene around him, hunting for signs of his wife rushing to start her day.
Larry’s feet jumped against the floor and an irritating huff rushed passed his lips.
“Babe? Where are you?”
He remembered the half bathroom on the ground floor of their two-story home.
“Now, why would she get ready there? Your crap is right there, in our bathroom. Geez. Honey! Come on, I’ll use the small bathroom.”
A lone tweet from a bird on the outside windowsill rang out.
“Got any coffee, birdbrain?”
The bird flew off and joined what looked like the rest of its winged family.
“That’s what I thought.”
Larry picked himself up, rearranged his shorts to accommodate his generous male parts and coughed. He yelled out to his wife to remind her of the inconvenient hour of the day.
“It’s 6:35am, babe. The bus doesn’t leave until 7:45! Sharon! Where are you?”
Larry grabbed his trousers and threw on a blue shirt, straightening the collars, which sprung back into their wrinkles. He paid no mind and took the stairs down to the kitchen, mumbling.
“Probably left a note.”
Larry nearly tripped over the throw rug leading to the kitchen. After regaining his balance, an expletive erupted from his lips. He settled down while grabbing a cup from the cupboard. He powered up the coffee maker and inserted one of those instant pre-made sealed coffee flavor cups. Vanilla or something French was his favorite, complimented with one sugar, one crème and his wife’s smile, which included today, minus his wife’s smile.
Larry shuffled his body to the sliding doors leading to his small back yard with coffee in hand.
A lone piece of paper fluttered softly in the morning breeze, sitting just beyond the circular patterned concrete design just outside the sliding doors.
I cleaned the yard two days ago, what gives?
Larry opened the sliding doors and stepped onto the dew covered grass, reaching down to retrieve the paper. It looked like someone wrote on it. He managed to spread it open against the breeze. It flapped around as he held it.
A distant female scream distracted him and his coffee spilled out onto the grass; the paper flew away in the breeze, hitting the post of his tall maple fence and it disappeared into the yard next door.
When Larry scampered to grab the paper, he turned his head in the direction of a second scream. A thud he sustained to his head cut off his senses and his world went dark.
A series of grunts rumbled through Larry’s throat to his lips, waking him up to the freshness of the air. A single drop of morning dew from a green leaf hanging a meter above him took responsibility for waking him up by dripping square between his eyes. He wiped his face and squinted hard. When the clouds passed, he realized he was no longer in his back yard.
He peered to his right to gaze at the sun while four figures with mesh covered heads raced toward him and behind him. They held an odd marching cadence and a strange distance between them. Within seconds, they blended into the woods.
Larry was oblivious to the approaching figures. He rubbed his head, finding a bump, which reminded him of his fall. He groaned from the memory while brushing off his pants, attempting to make sense of his surroundings.
He figured he wandered off his property, recalling his pattern of finding himself in strange places after upsetting situations.
Why do I do this so much?
He hadn’t mentioned a word of this tendency to his wife or buddies because it was embarrassing.
Why hadn’t he panicked? Larry figured his sense of calm was due to the fact that he always found his way home, no matter what and without incident, following the sun, westward. His remembered his pathway through these strange woods. He trusted the trail. And this time around his feet moved without much provocation or surrender; they possessed a memory of this way home and automatically knew where to lead him.
Along the way, the sun snuck behind the trees and created a night-like environment. His eyes needed to adjust to the change in light. Larry peered upwards and took in a strange scene never once before in front of him, not along this path anyway.
A solitary statue with wings stood, blocking his path.
“Who put that there?”
He approached the statue as if it were to answer him, like a smaller version of the Oracle of Delphi. His eyes transfixed upon its stone wings, which spread wider than any bird he’d ever detect through binoculars. The face was finely chiseled but missing its eyes and nose, leaving decaying lips, covered in a greenish moss. His critical mind snapped into focus by scanning the area for water. His mind raced to find an explanation for the moss growing from the feet of this female statue and onto its face. His eyes landed up fixating upon the stony lips. The memory of hearing someone scream erupted for the briefest of seconds
“Did I hear you scream earlier today?”
He paused to consider the mystery.
His fingertips slowly traced the statue’s face anyway, as if to waken it from slumber and explain everything.
A small breeze grazed his face, encouraging his mind to ease down. He resisted the mental comfort his brain demanded and walked beyond the statue, glancing back, thinking it might wake up in his absence.
His feet continued their insistent trod and the forest thickened around him, now obscuring the statue’s presence.
“This has got to be the way, home.”
Suddenly, a huge wind smacked him in the gut, carrying him deeper into the wooded area and into a massive slump. By some miracle, he did not lose consciousness. Instead he lay still, in a state of shock.
His senses collected themselves as if he had dropped them during his tumble to the ground. And his instincts demanded he fight back. But there was no one and nothing to defend against, just the hard, dry instantly still air.
A humming grew in volume while he collected himself. A young woman suspended face up in water greeted his eyes as he stood up. On each of her hands sat a bird, still and waiting.
Her hum seemed to hold them there by vibrationary forces. Or were they hypnotized?
His mind could not fathom why any of this was happening and why he was alone to observe it all. He reviewed the last 24 hours in his head.
I finished a disappointing night of poker with the guys, woke up to an empty home, chased a written note and now I finding myself here staring at bathing beauty. Where is here?
The complexity of this undesired adventure stretched his thoughts into vague territory, making him hold his chin and think.
“Have I been drugged?” his whisper asked of the thin morning air.
“All of this just doesn’t happen to anyone, “he reasoned, scratching his beard.
When his eyes rose to ask the lady in the pond what this was all about, there was nothing there, not even a residual ripple of proof she had been bathing peacefully.
An eerie silence took over and his suspicion grew. Would another windblast would knock him over again or was somebody doing this to him?
Something was not right. And for the first time today, a small bit of fear crept into his gut. He really did not know what direction to take next.
“This has got to be a dream or something.”
His hands wiped his face, attempting to clear his mind. He surveyed the area again. Something brushed the top of his head and he shooed it away. A soft thump on the grass caught his attention. It looked like a small bag. He picked up a stick and slowly prodded it, suspecting insects inside.
A crumpled piece of paper scrunched under the pointing stick.
He crouched down and propped the bag open.
He could make out a few letters at best and spread the paper out with the rounded aspect of the stick, being careful not to touch it.
Put this hood on to find your way back.
He scoured his surroundings for an imminent ambush.
“I need a weapon.”
He stooped to gather as many thick branches as he could, testing them and trying to break each one. The ones he couldn’t break would band as one with one secured shoelace. This make-shift piece of self defense he was creating would be odd to use but it would resemble a weapon nonetheless.
He quieted the part of his brain which told him he hadn’t any experience with self-defense and weapons. Alternatively, his gut guided him and this he trusted. He had to.
“Wear a hood, yeah, and I’ll smash anyone who tries to cover my face.”
He knew he was talking to a tied up bunch of dead branches and used the tip of his makeshift weapon to pick up the hood. Using it to mark a landmark would be smart if he had to double back and regain his path. Tactical thinking pushed itself into the forefront of his mind while pocketing the hood. He could not let the thought go that this whole matter smacked of a complex prank. Being prepared for anything was now the rule, even if he arrived home intact.
He walked for a good hour and the scenery hadn’t changed significantly. The lack of food and water nagged at his stomach. Forcing himself to ignore his bodily needs, he paused, noticing where the sun’s rays settled after a dozen more paces. If he could just persist westward, he’d find civilization. He was banking on this hunch with his life, despite his poor fitness level.
He remembered promising to lose weight on previous holidays and breaking the promise within minutes. His wife always smiled meekly and nodded. Why did he sell her out to a bunch of idiots in a card game? She never slighted him in the least during their ten year marriage. Why was offering his wife as a reward to the winner during a card game as a bargaining chip? What was the rationale again, he demanded of his sober mind? He didn’t deserve her. He also harbored a deeper inconsistency, which now bubbled to the surface of his awareness. He held a hatred for his inability to hold meaningful lifestyle promises to himself. But he maintained his willingness to work hard on his job. Didn’t that count? He dug into this thought but it wasn’t enough. He knew his posturing was an act. Down deep there wasn’t much reason to seek better of anything beyond the job, unless his back was against the wall, like right now. Someone was tracking him and got him focused and mindful of his purpose, for the moment anyway.
Should he survive this mess, would he be able to uncover the underlying pattern that kept him from gaining raises when he deserved them, upgrading the car or house or even improving the quality of his married life? Why hold onto a mental roadblock like it was oxygen? Did he truly need to be threatened before making improvements in his life?
Oh, a threat was present now. And it was real, burning within his gut. And no material gain, job advancement or otherwise mattered in the woods. It was him against something or someone hunting him.
The sweat on his brow soon dripped small rivers down his face, following the middle-aged lines leading to his narrow bearded chin. The back of his hand wiped it as if clearing away his old ways and into newness. He refused to allow a slight smile of satisfaction, even with the clearing up ahead, to which his trusting feet had led during his quiet self-psychoanalysis.
He decided to sit and rest, seeing that his journey was about to culminate into some kind of familiar comfort.
Wait, you’re doing it again. Get up, fast ass! They could be behind you.
His legs straightened up and took him another significant distance.
He started running toward the sound of voices and people.
A cloud passed over the sun and his world went dark ~ again.
The muffled sounds of voices woke Larry up. Slowly he realized the streaking pain up his arms and into his shoulders. His knees clamped together like they were nailed in place. The blackness his fluttering eyes absorbed also fed confusing signals of awareness into his mind, making him question his level of consciousness.
Who is talking?
Instinct took him over, encouraging him to play dead.
“Hey look who’s awake.”
The shuffling of feet moved around him. In the same moment, a soft voice spoke.
“We can start now.”
Larry attempted to speak.
A horrible bland taste introduced itself to his tongue. Dry, flaking plastic pressed against the inside of his mouth, blocking his ability to talk.
He was pulled upward by someone, who slit an area of his head cover in the form of a very small opening, allowing just a little of his sight to take in the scene. He took stock of four people, kneeling, each with their own head covered, faces completely obscured.
“All of you have done well. But now we must ask him what bothers him so much.”
All four of them raised their heads and pointed their attention straight at Larry. His own expression took on pure shock. His muffled protests were met with his hood being stretched forward as two eye holes suddenly became wider, allowing a larger view.
He recognized the woman, slipped into mental shock and confusion by the show of four people kneeling with their heads covered.
“Larry, hon. We want to help you get over your sleep walking issue, ok?”
Larry couldn’t decide if he agreed to it or not. He also was kneeling, bound at the ankles, knees, arms and wrists and a ball gag in his mouth.
“Being your wife of ten years, I’ve noticed some of your, well, tendencies. And it comes as no surprise. I mean, the stress of your job is one. Coming home to me, if I’m not even there, is frustrating. I’m sure you feel like a bachelor at times, huh? Something inside you wants you to get up and leave. And if you thought about it at all, there’s little need for a shrink. It’s easy to figure out. The only question is, is my perceived reasoning accurate?”
Larry’s emotions burned like acid inside his belly.
“Do tell me, Sharon, your loving wife. Is there more to your little issue?”
She tore away the gag from his mouth which ripped the top layers of skin away from his lips, making him yelp. His eyes became slits of anger, studying the woman in front of him with disdain and judgment.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” he managed to express with lips bleeding.
“Well, I believe these four are the root cause of your inability to express anything deeper.”
“Hey, what is all of this? We should be at home.”
“Shut up, Larry. I went to great lengths to lead you here. Do NOT spoil this evening.”
“You’re out of your mind, Sharon,” Larry shouted despite his lip pain, “Explain yourself!”
“No, you need to understand something. These four did me a favour. You lost a game recently, didn’t you?”
“You know about that?”
“So, it’s true. No need to play detective any further. It’s all out in the open.”
Sharon expressed her minor triumph of observation by elegantly opening her arms outward, mimicking the girl floating in the pond.
His eyes widened.
Sharon continued, “Now, honey, we both know you could be doing better in life, for our lives. What holds you back, love? Do tell. But before you do, you must do without these four pals of yours. They are a huge part of why we’re not together often enough.”
Larry still couldn’t understand why she would go to this extent just to make a point.
Why couldn’t everyone just be on their way? Why couldn’t this be a conversation at home?
“The night sky my dear. It’s so lovely tonight, don’t you think? The clouds hovering around the moon are so elegant, as if to play a nocturnal version of hide and go seek.”
Larry’s eyes never left his wife, watching her every move.
This is crazy. She’s out of her mind.
“Larry, you have until the clouds expose the moon’s fullness or…”
“Or what?” Larry queried with a growl.
“What holds you back from making our lives better as a couple? You keep talking a big game at times. Out with your secret! Why do you leave home in the middle of the night? Don’t you know being a tease is evil? ”
She swayed her hips, revealing her lovely legs and inner thighs, her dress flipping around, asking silently to be torn off in passion.
“What is it you’re hoping to hear, Sharon?” Larry spat out, blood spittle landing inches away from her feet.
The rays of the moon started to poke thru, casting bright spots of light upon his four friends.
“Time’s a wasting, babe,” Sharon tested, her hands now on her hips.
“What’s it to you anyway? You summed up my life pretty well a moment ago. What’s my big secret? Well, I don’t have one. There’s no mistress, no secret holiday fund, no getaway plans without you, no hidden agenda, I mean, what do you take me for after all these years?”
The moon exposed itself wide and glorious.
“Time’s up, lov. These four are the problem. You spend too much time with them. And by some miracle, they want to help you too. So they will. Right, men? “
Their covered heads bobbed one by one.
“And here’s the proof!”
“Wait, Sharon. I don’t know why I find myself waking up somewhere else. Maybe I just need medical attention or something. I can figure it out. There just hasn’t been a reason to because I always find my way back.”
“Back where, Larry?”
“Back to you.”
“Well, isn’t that just romantic as hell?”
“Sharon, you said it yourself. My job in IT, our life, it’s not bad, but why invite more responsibility and give us more stress? We endured the demands of your overtime job in Upper Management for years.”
“Larry, you were my knight in shining armour to get us out of that racket. My promise. My hope for better. Where did you go?”
Sharon’s fingers pointed at his head and chest.
“I think it’s time for roadblocks to be removed, darling,” she added with a look wedged between rage and compassion.
One by one, she whipped off the head covers of each of his friends. A ball gag had been muting their voices. She traipsed around them once, as if to show them off for the first time.
“Here we go, Larry. You lost money. It’s time for repayment. Oh, the note you wrote as an IOU. That was a nice touch. They get to do anything to me? Oh, no darling. That’s backward!”
Each of his friends lifted their heads, smiling despite the gag.
“Each of them were perfect lovers, keeping the peace, while you decided to go mental and lose yourself somewhere or were you just a frequently lost drunk? Or should we call it sleepwalking?”
Larry mentally screamed for the creatures of the night to interrupt her rant. His request went unheard.
“Who cares what your problem was, Larry. We’ll cure you just the same and purge you of this little issue, won’t we, gentleman?”
Sharon pulled each man’s head back, smiling while she sliced each man’s throat, until the last man slumped into a small bloody river.
“Sharon, stop! What are you doing?“
Sharon began chanting. “Heavens, take our sacrifice to mean the blessing of a better, cleaner life for my consecrated marriage to Larry. He has learned his lesson. Heal him! We’re ready for your bountiful gifts!”
Larry quickly realized who and what his wife had become or was all along. During her chant, he threw himself down and rolled toward the knife she dropped during her celebratory dance into the woods. He paused, catching Alex’s eyes.
Alex still indicated a flicker of life in his final seconds, terrifying Larry even more. Larry had seen scary movies before with slasher type scares, but nothing like this. This was real. His four best friends were killed by the hands of his crazed lunatic of a wife. She had them all as lovers and brainwashed them into some kind of slavery.
“I was stupid to think she was special at all. Gawd, Alex, I’m sorry.”
Alex’s life slipped away and Larry’s anger rose. If any level of behavior had to change it had to be right now. A thud of deadly conviction slammed within him as he manipulated his lips to mouth the knife edge and throw it several inches closer to his hands. He shifted his weight on his side and slid closer to the blade, his fingers slowly gaining grip on the knife handle. After a few seconds of securing his grip, he flipped the knife’s edge back against the rope around his wrists. For what seemed like hours, he manipulated the knife to cut the rope. His grip slipped several times, grappling with the instrument representing his freedom. His ire rose higher than it had ever been before. Strand by strand the rope weakened and within several enraged minutes he cut himself free. The rope round his knees fell away after feverish sawing. Lastly, his ankles breathed the freshness of release.
Off in the distance, the singing of his triumphant wife grew.
Should I run or confront her?
The moonlight draped a lit pathway toward the thick of the woods and into where she danced. The persistent rustle of leaves and crackles of branches breaking littered the air, hinting where she settled.
He low crawled in her direction, only to find her crouched, bent over and singing by the statue from earlier in the day. A wind swirled around her and two birds perched on the tallest of the statue’s wingtips, as if to celebrate her ritualized sacrifice.
For a second, compassion and love filled his heart. A silent whisper vibrated his thoughts.
I’ll miss you.
The deep red blood drenching his hands produced a stickiness, adhering his hands to the blade handle. A blood curdling scream filled the air and the night creatures scurried away amongst the dark shadows. Larry crouched down in momentary sadness and a minute later, stood up and without announcement.
…but not that much. I’ve grown up a little tonight, Sharon, you dead witch.
He peered left and right, listening intently for any indication that anyone was rushing to this horrific scene. Satisfied with the silence around him, he sat down against the winged statue, patting it with a bloodied hand.
“Here we are again.”
Now he could take a rest. This hadn’t been a sleep walking event or drunken episode. A new mental clarity and measure of self-trust washed over him like never before. It was what he had been aching to experience.
Tonight’s events pushed him into this new territory of his mind. He remained awake, thinking about everything, now considering his life direction.
He whispered to himself, “Now, wait till the morning for the westward sun, it’ll lead home. It’ll lead home.”
The high moon scurried away in silence behind the large dark clouds.
—endBD Scott, Author, Producer of Bestshorthorrorstories.com & Founder of Friedrich Imagines, Ltd. a media production company