Dr. Beth Weber's first impression of Ward H was that the hallway was painted the seemingly standard off-white shade reserved exclusively for mental institutions, a sort of hold-over from the sanitarium days of the 1930s. She followed closely behind Dr. Cormack, a balding, heavyset man who had been kind enough to bring her onto his staff here at the Crittenden Institute, carefully cradling the thin file of her first case, listed as John Doe #30143. Cormack's voice filled the hallway as he expertly ducked around two burly orderlies and led her deeper into the ancient brick building without losing a step. "It's really a unique case, Dr. Weber. I've never seen a delusion so deeply ingrained. He's absolutely convinced of the reality his mind has constructed, but unlike other psychotics, he remains utterly lucid on details not pertaining to his delusion. As you surely read in the case file, we've tried several drug series, electroshock therapy... hell, I even considered a partial lobotomy. But look at those EEG patterns; solid as a rock."
"He's been in isolation ever since he was admitted?" Weber asked, adjusting her glasses nervously and fussing with her wavy red hair as they walked past cell after cell, each containing a man considered criminally insane by the legal system.
"Yes; except for my attempts at therapy, he hasn't seen a soul. He insisted upon it, actually." Cormack rounded a corner and stopped at a heavy metal door, pulling a large keyring from his belt and shuffling through its contents. "You know the rules, but I have to go over them every time someone enters into a private session with a patient. You are not to cross to the patient's side of the table for any reason; you are not to take anything offered, nor are you to give anything to the patient without prior approval by myself. Everything will be recorded on both video and audiotape. If you need help, just say so and an orderly will be here in under fifteen seconds. That's it." He turned the key in the lock and swung the door open, revealing a tan-painted conference room that smelled faintly of urine and bleach.
Dr. Weber stepped inside and took her first good look at the patient as the door closed behind her with a solid thunk. The man was pitifully thin, his black hair shaggy and unkempt from months - or perhaps years - of neglect. He was seated on the far side of a heavy wooden table that had been bolted to the concrete floor many years before, as had the chairs they would both be sitting in. A scar ran along the right side of his face, starting at the middle of his cheek and corkscrewing its way under his misshapen right ear, still easily visible under the heavy growth of beard. Between the man's feet was a heavy steel ring that had been laced through with the chains from the shackles that bound the man hand and foot. "Hello. I'm Doctor Weber, and I've been assigned to your case."
The man made no response; his eyes were closed, almost as if he were asleep. "Can you hear me?"
"Of course I can hear you," came the man's voice, surprisingly forceful given his frail-looking appearance. "I'm crazy, not deaf." He opened his eyes and Weber was shocked to see that the left eye was solid white; not the milky color of glaucoma or a cataract, but solid white, as if it had never had an iris or pupil to begin with. He almost smiled when he saw her lean back in surprise. "Do you think I'm crazy?"
"I think 'crazy' is an overused term, especially in this day and age. I think you need help."
"And you're going to... 'help'... me?" Weber could hear the sarcasm almost dripping from the man's words.
"All I can do is try."
The man laughed, a low, guttural sound. "That's what I used to say... what we all used to say, back when this all started." He leaned forward, the chains binding him clinking softly together. "But I've had a lot of time to think about that, all alone in my cell, and I've come to an understanding. I know now that even fools can have their prayers answered... Mary."
The vision again, so intense after lying dormant for so long: the blood on her clothes, the rain, the running, the words of comfort whispered in the hissing voice, like a snake given language, master of temptation...
"What did you say?" she managed to whisper after a long, shocked silence. But the man turned his face away and said nothing more for the remainder of the session.
"Stephen, I don't think I'm up to handling this case."
Standing in the door to his office, Dr. Cormack could see Beth Weber waiting for him on the large, comfortable couch where she had sat for so long while he was her therapist. "Beth, I'll understand if you're nervous about jumping back into this. What happened last time was unfortunate-"
"What happened last time has nothing to do with this," Beth blurted, more angrily than she intended. Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm herself down before she continued. "I don't think that he falls into my area of expertise."
"Violent psychosis is your field, especially such therapy-resistant types. That's what you insisted upon after you decided to go into psychiatry." Her sat down on the couch next to her, wrapping a beefy arm around her shoulders. "What is it about this case that scares you so?"
"I... I can't really explain it to you, Stephen."
"Can't... or won't?" He waited for any reply, but stood up after a few silent minutes. "We all have crises of faith, Beth, whether it be faith in God or ourselves. I have faith in you." He walked out the door, leaving Beth alone with her thoughts again... and the case file.
She opened the thin folder and looked through the varied documents within, trying to find connections within her mind that would explain her reaction to the patient. As she read, she mumbled to herself (as she often did), trying to organize her thoughts. "Patient was found April 30 of this year at the site of a fire that consumed three city blocks on the South Side, where he assaulted three firefighters trying to put out the blaze and two policemen and was subsequently taken into custody. Evidence collected suggests that he set the fire to obscure the fact that he killed two squatters living in an abandoned structure. Psychiatric evaluations revealed a deep-seated delusion involving devil worship... and further investigation showed evidence linking a series of deaths to a business formerly located in the building where the fire was started."
The rain, again, and the boy. The flashes of lightning revealing the spray of crimson erupting from his throat, splattering across the ground, the bricks, her dress. The words again, cold and comforting at the same time, always in that snake's tempting hiss-
She looked up, suddenly back in Cormack's office, the file clutched tightly in her clenched fist. Cormack was standing in the doorway, an expression of worry barely concealed on his face. "Are you all right? You've been in here for hours." Beth looked up and saw that the sky was almost completely dark.
"I was... just going over the case file again," she said. "I guess I lost track of the time."
"Well... maybe you should go home, get some rest. See you tomorrow?"
She nodded and stood, trying to clear her head as she walked out of the office. Why now? she wondered. Why have the visions returned after all this time? Who are you? Who are you, really?
And she knew that she had to find out.
Not an hour later, she found herself pulling to a stop near a blackened, snow-covered ruin on the South Side of Chicago. Sections of brick wall still rose from the ashes and debris that remained after the inferno, their blackened faces thrown into stark contrast by the fresh-fallen November snow. The building had been very tall, and had collapsed almost completely during the fire; crews had only recently begun clearing the rubble away after the conclusion of the police investigation. Streetlights threw an orange sodium glow across the scene, giving the place an eerie, almost dreamlike quality. She looked up at the street sign hanging lopsided from the burned-out lamppost: Druid Ave.
She carefully picked her way past the beams that had fallen from the roof and spilled into the street, past the piles of brick and concrete that had been already been knocked down and were awaiting removal, and stepped into the space of the first shop she came to... the one where the fire had been set. The floor was charred but, surprisingly, mostly intact, and she could see recent footprints still preserved in the snow. Making her way to the center of the space, she turned in a slow circle, surveying the now-ruined space around her. Pulling a piece of paper from a coat pocket, she scanned it until she found what the place had been: an antique shop called Curious Goods, but the place had been abandoned for years, just another building left to rot in a decaying urban landscape.
There were no answers here. Beth turned around to leave, but a sudden creak under her feet stopped her, as did the vibration she felt as the boards beneath her feet shifted and began to give way. She tried to lunge toward more stable footing, but the rotten and scorched wood split and opened a hole three feet across.
She fell into the darkness.
"He was so happy when you called," Elizabeth Dallion said proudly as she followed Micki's gaze. "He's been looking forward to this all week."
"So have I," Micki replied, her gaze fixed on her eleven-year-old cousin. His wavy black hair fell sloppily over his forehead, and he repeatedly had to pause and push it out of his eyes. "I'm just sorry I couldn't come sooner."
"Don't apologize; I'm sure running the store keeps you busy. Besides, your visits always manage to bring him out of the dumps," Ryan's mother said. Micki could see a hint of a frown cross her face at the memory. After a moment, she continued with, "He's having the dreams again."
"About what happened... before?" Micki said, knowing the answer in her heart before she was done with the question.
"Yes. He wakes up in the middle of the night, sometimes three or four times, terrified by what he sees in his nightmares. He's told me about a cave full of dead bodies, an axe crashing through glass coming towards his head... things no little boy should ever have to see, even if only in his dreams." Mrs. Dallion turned away from Micki, pulling a crumpled tissue from her purse. "Why is this happening? I don't understand, Micki."
Micki reached out and grasped the older woman's hand, not knowing what to say. After a few minutes, Mrs. Dallion wiped the tears away from her eyes and looked back at her son, who had turned toward the bench with a thoughtful expression on his young face. "So young... but his soul is so old."
Ryan trotted over to them, looking from one to the other carefully before asking, "Mom, can we go get some ice cream now? I'm hungry."
Walking toward the white-dressed man pushing a cart, Ryan held Micki's hand as his mother walked ahead a few steps. "Ryan, are you feeling okay? Your mother says that you've been having bad dreams."
Ryan was silent for a moment, his eyes focused on his feet. "Ryan?"
"They're not dreams, Micki. I... remember things, but they happened when I was older. There was you, and an older guy... and we were friends... but I can only remember a little bit when I'm awake. And then I see things that I don't understand, not memories, but... I don't know." Ryan looked up at her, an expression of utter misery on his face. "I don't think Mom would believe me."
"You haven't told her anything?" It came out more as a statement than a question.
"She's my Mom, and I love her... but she doesn't listen to me like you do. She doesn't understand." He shoved his hands into his pockets, a petulant frown crossing his face. "The kids at school don't talk to me anymore. They think I'm some sort of freak. That's why I like to come here with you, Micki; I can feel normal here."
"Ryan..." Micki started, but found herself lost for words as he trotted forward to be at his mother's side. Some time later, as they were walking toward the park entrance to return home, Micki and Mrs. Dallion talked quietly. "Do you think he might be able to spend some time with me at the store? I think... I think it might help him."
"The school psychiatrist thinks that it might be best to take him out of classes for a few days. If it's all right with Johnny and Mr. Marshak, then I suppose it's fine with me. And I'm sure Ryan will jump at the chance to spend more time with you. I think he's suffering from his first crush... again." Micki watched as they got into Mrs. Dallion's sedan, waved to Ryan as they pulled away from the curb... then began the long trip back to Curious Goods with an oddly heavy heart at not having said what she should.
"You know, Jack, it has been too long since we enjoyed a cup of tea together," Rashid al-Kamir said as he drained the last of his cup and set it down, looking over at his old - and, as of late, estranged - friend, Jack Marshak. The two were talking in the cramped space of Rashid's small herbalist shop, nestled deep in one of Chicago's many alleyways, as the afternoon faded into evening.
"Yes it has. I didn't know... how to react to what we found out. It's taken a long time for me to start coming to terms with my actions. It's taken all of us a long time." Jack poured another cup for each of them and crossed over to Rashid, handing him one and sitting in the empty chair beside his friend. "I thought you'd hate me as much as I hated myself."
"Hate? No, Jack; I was angry, and I was afraid... but there was never any hatred. The person you are now is not who made that decision so long ago." He tipped a spoonful of sugar into his cup and stirred absently, obviously focusing on something serious. "Jack... I have been meaning to tell you something. I should have contacted you some time ago, but..."
"I understand," Jack replied as he leaned forward. "Go on."
"This timeline we are living in is not the one that was originally present; the journal we discovered is proof of that. Both timelines cannot exist simultaneously. But, as time passes, it may become more and more difficult for the universe to keep the timelines separate, especially at the focal point of the separation." He set his cup down with a trembling hand, causing the spoon to rattle. "That focal point is you, Jack. You were responsible for the decision that split the timeline, and therefore caused this one to be. Forces more powerful than any mortal has ever wielded pivot around you... and those close to you. Jack, you must be extremely careful... especially now."
"Why now, Rashid?" Jack asked at the change in his friend's tone. "What do you know?"
"Time is fluid, never the same from one moment to the next... but I sense that the powers of both Light and Darkness are aware of your unique position, and may attempt to influence your judgment to their advantage." Rashid looked at Jack carefully. "It seems as if we are at the center of something neither of us expected."
Jack stared into his tea for a long moment. "Come on, then," he said as he stood up and grabbed his coat. "We'd best get back to the store. There's work to be done."
The house is dark and silent as the intruder tiptoes up the stairs, treading carefully in the patent leather shoes. Moonlight filtered through gauzy windowshades is the only illumination as he takes a step into the hallway, then another, and another. Finally he reaches the room at the far end, its door open just a crack. Through it he can see two figures lying on a large bed, draped by a thick comforter, one the size of a young woman, the other possibly the size of a small boy. He catches a glimpse of long red hair in a spot of moonlight reflected by a large mirror standing in one corner of the room, and he smiles.
The knife is silent and deadly as he continues his work.
There was cold, and there was pain. These were the first things that Beth Weber felt as consciousness returned to her. She opened her eyes to be greeted by darkness that surrounded a jagged hole that allowed only a tiny amount of light to reach her. Wincing, she reached out toward the pain coming from her leg, only to find a deep lasceration on her calf. Her fingers came away sticky with blood, black in the near-total darkness. There seemed to be no further serious injury to her, and she carefully managed to get to her knees and pull a handkerchief from her pocket to tie around the wound.
Making it to her feet, Beth pulled a book of matches from the same pocket and lit one. The yellow light exposed little of her surroundings, except that she appeared to be in a basement filled with debris. Blackened floor joists and plaster chunks littered the concrete floor, two or three feet deep in spots. It was obvious that nobody from the cleanup teams had made it down here; the only stairs she could see lay in ruins to her left.
She slowly made her way toward them, knowing that shouting for help would be fruitless and hoping that some way remained to get back up to the main floor. As she crawled over a large pipe that had fallen, her gaze fell upon the section of wall directly across from the ruins of the stairs.
There was a large hole there. A beam had broken through, either when the place had burned or afterward, exposing a space of some sort. There was not dirt behind the brick, nor stone... but metal, Beth realized as the matchlight flickered across it.
And there were symbols engraved on it.
A trilling sound filled the darkness, making her drop the match. Feeling in her pocket she pulled out her cell-phone and flipped it open, feeling an almost palpable relief when she heard Cormack's voice on the other end. "Beth? Did I wake you?"
"Stephen, thank God it's you. Listen, I need your help..."
An hour later Beth and Stephen were sitting in a diner, sipping cups of coffee as she tried to drive the chill from her bones. "What the hell were you doing there in the first place? I mean, the place is just a pile of rubble waiting to fall down."
"I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to find any answers I could about why his delusion is so deeply ingrained."
"And did you? Stephen said, skepticism heavy in his voice.
Beth paused before answering, the hesitation in her mind quite clear in the silence. "Beth, what is it?" Stephen asked, his voice softer now.
"I don't know, Stephen. I'm not sure what's going on here... I feel like I'm losing control again -"
"No, Beth, you're not losing control. That will never happen again, I promise you." Stephen wrapped his hands around hers and squeezed them gently. "I remember the terrified girl I found all those years ago, huddled in a corner of the holding room. You could hardly speak a word then. I watched as you grew past whatever terrified you so much, watched you grow into the beautiful young woman you are today. We worked together to make you whole again... we can work together to keep you that way."
"No, we can't... but I have to, Stephen. Alone, just me and him. He knows things, knows the things I could never remember about what happened." Beth's eyes filled with tears as her voiced dropped to a whisper. "Help me, Stephen."
And against all his better judgment, Stephen nodded. "What do you need me to do?"
The early morning light reflected harshly off the snow as Beth drove up to the Institute, weary after her long night in the snow and the coffee shop. As she walked through the front doors and into the Administration wing, she caught sight of Stephen standing in his office doorway, his eyes puffy from too much coffee and too little sleep. He nodded as she walked past and fell into step beside her, handing her a metal clipboard. "I've got the release papers all lined up; you've got a forty-eight hour furlough with him. Beth... this is risky. If you get in trouble, I can't cover for you with the board... but I'm guessing that doesn't really matter to you anymore, does it?"
"Not really." She took the clipboard and hugged it to her chest. "Stephen, If something happens -"
"I hope nothing will." He opened her hand and folded something small into it before closing it again. "But I'll pray for you anyway."
The door to Ward H opened and Beth walked quickly to the holding area, where her patient was dressed in a baggy set of Salvation Army hand-me-downs: faded jeans, black T-shirt and a navy blue jacket at least twenty years out of style. He had been permitted a shower and now had his black hair slicked back; his beard was gone thanks to an orderly with a safety razor. Except for the slightly unbalanced look in his one good eye, he might have seemed normal. "You did this?" he asked, carefully looking over Beth's face.
"Yes. I need answers... and you've got them."
He nodded, a mischevious glint in his eye. "What a coincidence. I need the same thing from you, too... Mary."
"Stop calling me that," she hissed. "That's not my name anymore."
"But it was, back when all this started. That was twenty-three years ago... and you were just a little girl.
"A little girl named Mary Simms."
"It felt real, didn't it?" Joan Kelleigh playfully punched her companion in the shoulder and kissed him again, relishing the sensation of flesh on flesh, feasting on his mouth with her own. Johnny Ventura responded in kind, a lopsided grin surfacing as they finally pulled apart.
"Yes, it did," he murmured as she slid her lithe body from under the covers and into his bathroom. Johnny marveled at her figure as it vanished behind the door, then turned his glance to his alarm clock. "Oh, shit," he groaned as he realized that - for the third time in two weeks - he was going to be late for work.
Jack and Micki were lenient, but neither knew about the budding relationship between Johnny and Joan. Ever since their journey to the Morcos estate two months before - and the revelation that both had been brought into existence by the deranged author's use of a cursed object - they had found themselves drawn to each other. Coupled with their initial attraction, what they were doing was perfectly natural... even if they were not.
Johnny picked up the handset and dialed a number. "Curious Goods," he heard Micki's voice say.
"Hey, yourself. You're late again."
Johnny winced as he spoke. "Yeah, I... overslept. I'll be there in twenty minutes. Look, make you a deal: I'll run the place alone today so you and Jack can take a breather. I'll even do the inventory. Okay?"
"Sounds good. Jack and Rashid are waist-deep in files and books and I have to get things ready for Ryan."
"Oh, yeah. How long is he staying?"
"Just for the weekend. Look, I've got to go. Twenty minutes?"
"Yeah. Later, Mick." Johnny hung up and began throwing on clothes, and was just pulling on his shoes when Joan emerged from the bathroom, towelling her dark hair. "I gotta go. Meet you at the store later?"
"Sure, Johnny." He was opening the door when she asked, "Do you think they know?"
"Maybe. You want to tell them?"
"I don't know... I guess it just feels like we're keeping secrets."
"We shouldn't have to, Joan. Look, why don't I talk to Micki and Jack alone; Micki'll probably be glad I won't be hitting on her anymore. I'm sure they'll understand. Besides, we're both adults - what we do is our business, not theirs." They shared a quick smile and then Johnny was gone out the front door.
That was the last time she ever saw him.
Micki hung up the phone and turned to the weary figures that were shambling toward the front of the store. Jack and Rashid had been awake all night, searching through Jack's extensive collection of occult texts and obscure rites and rituals, hoping to find anything that might help give substance to Rashid's fears.
So far, there was nothing.
Both men gladly accepted the cups of strong tea Micki handed them as they settled on the couch. "Any luck?" she asked, knowing from their expressions their answer would be 'no'.
"All we have are a great number of loose ends that refuse to come together. Old legends, fragments of history... none of it makes any sense," Jack groused after he knocked back the contents of his cup. He looked over the pages of newspaper that Micki had strewn across the store: the New York Times, the Washington Post, more papers from two dozen other American cities. "Anything new?"
"Nothing, It's like the objects just... stopped working. No odd deaths in the papers, and nothing on any of the leads we had." Micki cast a worried glance toward the basement stairs. "Maybe... maybe it's over."
"We can always hope... but I doubt it." A huge yawn split Jack's face and he patted the couch. "Go back downstairs, Rashid, and get some sleep. I'll catch a few hours on the couch before afternoon inventory -"
"Which Johnny has graciously volunteered to take care of for you, Jack. Get caught up on your rest," Micki said as she took the empty cup from his hand; Rashid was already on his feet and walking slowly toward the steps as Jack's head came to rest on the armrest.
"Thank you, Micki... you're..." Soft snores emerged from his lips almost from the moment he closed his eyes, and Micki quickly pulled a heavy quilt over his form.
"Rest now," she whispered, and kissed him on his forehead. As she sat back down at the desk she picked up the Los Angeles Times and resumed her search. Almost two months before - right after the Morcos incident - all traces of the cursed objects had vanished from the news, and all their leads had dried up as well.
It was as if the objects had vanished altogether from the face of the Earth.
Some minutes later the front door quietly swung open and Johnny walked into the store, carrying two brown paper bags which her set down at Micki's right hand. "What's this?" she asked.
"Breakfast. I figured since you guys have been pulling my share lately, I'd make it up to you - " Micki put a finger over her lips and pointed at Jack's sleeping form on the couch, and Johnny continued in a whisper " - starting with two orders of Belgian waffles, heavy on the cream and syrup, and some fresh-ground coffee."
"I'll save the coffee - but I'll take the waffles." Micki opened one of the styrofoam boxes and dug into the food, her body suddenly screaming for sustenance. Johnny sat across from her and dug into the fried egg sandwich he'd picked up for himself, looking across the newspaper headlines before saying, "Anything?"
"No." Micki dropped the plastic fork and pushed the box away, her appetite gone. "I have to get upstairs ready for Ryan; he'll be here in a couple of hours." Before Johnny could say anything Micki was halfway up the steps, retreating into the kitchen.
"Micki, wait a minute!" Johnny hissed as he bounded up the steps as quietly as he could, catching up to her as she reached the kitchen table. "What's going on?"
"I just... I don't know, Johnny. Something doesn't feel right... but I don't know what it is." She turned away, tears forming in her eyes. Johnny wrapped his arms around her shoulders and held her for a few minutes, held her until the sobs abated and she slumped into a chair. "Jack and Rashid have been up all night looking for something, something that might explain why we can't find any more objects... and the feelings Rashid's been having."
"What feelings? What are you talking about?"
"Feelings that things are changing all around us... and that some force is causing these changes." The Devil, she wisely left unsaid.
He squeezed her hand tightly. "I won't change, Micki. None of us will, I swear."
She looked into his eyes, agony etched around the rims of her own. "But what if we do?"
"Are you ready, my dear?"
Of course, the lady does not respond; she hasn't responded for several weeks now. The man does not panic, he is not surprised... but he is busy, and much remains to be done before he departs.
"Time grows short, you see," he whispers as he slips a sharp Windsor knot into his silk tie. "There's an old story you might want to hear. There was an Old Man, a very long time ago, and this Old Man made the most wonderful things. He created the heavens and the Earth, all the stars in the sky and all the creatures of the world, and highest among these was the creature He called Man. He gave Man a face, and He gave Man a will... but His servants were left alone, and bereft of spirit.
"And one of His servants rose up and cried, 'Why have You created us? Why have You subjected us, Your firstborn, to this misery, this injustice? You made us first; are we unworthy of Your love?' And the Old Man lashed out with His mighty hand, and struck His firstborn down and cast them from Heaven to the mud and the filth of the Earth. And His firstborn cried in pain, 'Why? Why have You forsaken us?'
"And what did the Old Man say? He said, 'Forsaken you? But it is you who have forsaken Me.' Here endeth the Lesson." The man pulls on his overcoat and takes the woman's hand, urging her to her feet. "The Old Man and I have not spoken in... in quite some time. But don't worry; I know where He's going to be... and I think it's time to make His acquaintance."
"But first... I'll be having dinner with a few friends of mine."
"So what do I call you?" Beth Weber - also known as Mary Simms - asked as she maneuvered her car through the busy streets of Chicago.
"You know my real name, and I'm pretty sure that yours isn't John Doe. So... what should I call you?"
"Soon, Mary... very soon. But not right now." He looked out the window at the traffic rushing by through the city that now sported six million people. So much had changed, so many new buildings and faces of strangers. It had been so long since he'd seen a face he knew that he had stopped looking at all. Chicago of 2014 was far different than the city he had grown up in all those lonely years ago, full of towering skyscrapers and jumbo jets constantly taking off and landing from the first megaport constructed in the United States, capable of handling ten times the air traffic of O'Hare or Dulles or Logan - or even all three put together.
"At least tell me where we're going."
"Simple. We're going back to the store, back to Curious Goods. That's where it all started... don't you remember?"
"I don't know what I remember anymore. When I - when I was a little girl, something happened to me. I did something terrible... but I can't remember what it was now, or why." Her knuckles were stark white against the black steering wheel, and she rested her head against it as she pulled to a stop for a red light. "I've never been able to remember it... there's just these flashes, like dreams, or hallucinations. That's how I met Stephen - he was my therapist for seven years."
"Stephen... you mean Dr. Cormack." The man leaned his head back and laughed quietly, a sad, joyless sound. "Oh, God... you did better than I thought."
"What do you mean?" she retorted, anger boiling up within her. The light turned green and she stomped on the gas pedal, sending the vehicle hurtling down the busy street.
"I told her that a good therapist could put you back together... in about twenty years." He looked at her, his brown eye rimmed with tears, its malformed companion dry. "And now you have to put me together. Fitting, considering all that's happened."
Enough, she thought, and stood on the brake, nearly causing the sedan to be hit by several vehicles behind it. "All right, goddamnit, what the hell is going on with you? Who are you, and what do you know about me? What do you know?" she shouted, grabbing him by the collar.
"Easy, easy... Let go. I'll tell you everything if you let go." His voice carried a defeated tone, and she slowly released her grip. Merging back into traffic, she said, "Talk."
"My name is Ryan Dallion, and I was there when your stepmother was killed. I was there when your babysitter was almost killed, and I was there when you almost killed..." His voice shrank to a strangled whisper. "Micki."
Whirling on a merry-go-round, the small one painted her favorite shade of red, as the skies grew dark and stormy. The voice was there, always there, hisssssing in that lovely awful tone, promising anything if she would only let it take them away from her, into the storm.
And he was there, grasping the voice, pulling with a strength that seemed too great for such a young man. He pulled and then the voice stopped, and she was flying, seeing sky, ground, sky, ground...
Then there was nothing but tears... and pain.
"Oh, my God... it was you..." she breathed as she saw him with the eyes of a six year-old again. "You took it away from me. You took her -" Terror filled her face as the memories, barred by years of logic-reinforced mental locks, crashed through any defenses she had built as though they were nothing. "You took Vita."
"Pull over, Mary, right now. You'll kill us both," Ryan said as he gripped the forgotten wheel, trying to keep the car from veering into oncoming traffic half-obscured by the snow. He held it for a few seconds until Beth's eyes came back into focus and she turned it hard to the right, pulling into a wide alley where she jammed the transmission into Neutral and stumbled out of the car, backing up against a brick wall.
Ryan opened the door and slowly walked toward her. "Yes, I took her, Mary. I had to take her because she was made to kill... and she would have eventually killed you, too. That's how it worked, that's where the power came from." He held out his hand in a gesture of need. "Please... come with me. I'll tell you everything, but there isn't much time left... and there are still things I have to know that only you can tell me."
Every thought, every fiber of her being recoiled in horror at the thought of him, at the thought of what he'd taken away from her so long ago... but now she knew that the visions weren't visions at all. They were memories. And her hand snaked out and grabbed onto his, clutching it with all her strength as he took her into his arms and tears fell between them.
"It... it was all like a nightmare," she said as the memories assaulted her, fresh as the day they occurred. "My stepmother was so horrible, and the boy was so mean, and Vita said that they should go away... and she made it happen. The doctors said I was delusional, that I was abused and trying to make what happened to them fit into my make-believe world where I could be happy... but I'm... not... crazy!" Her face lit up, and for a moment Ryan could see that six year-old girl again, happier than he'd ever seen her the first time they had met. "I'm not crazy... it actually happened. She was real."
"Yes... she was real, Mary. And you were never crazy."
It was approaching dusk when they got back on the road. "We've got to hurry if we're going to get the things we need," Ryan said as he scribbled with a pencil on a scrap of paper he'd liberated from her purse.
"What things?" Beth eyed the list: shovel, pickaxe, 10-pound sledge, along with various other heavy tools. "Are we going mining?" she asked, a pit of emptiness welling up in her stomach - she knew exactly where they were going now.
"Close, Mary. We're going to dig up the truth, once and for all."
"Micki!" Ryan shouted as he bounded through the front door of Curious Goods, knocking Jack Marshak right out of a sound sleep and almost making Johnny drop the marionette he was carefully placing on a high shelf. "You're here!"
"Of course I'm here! Did you think I wouldn't be?" she asked as he sat down next to her at the desk, slinging his stuffed backpack over the back of the chair. Elizabeth Dallion watched from near the door as Ryan began badgering Micki with good-natured questions about how she was doing, seemingly unfazed by whatever had troubled him the day before.
Jack walked over to her after waving a brief 'hello' in their direction and stood by her side, his arms folded. "Hello, Elizabeth. How are you doing?"
"Better, now that Ryan's doing better. Mr. Marshak, are you sure you're okay with this? I mean, if it going to be any trouble -"
"Everything's going to be fine. I'm sure he's a very well-behaved young man. Besides, if it's any comfort... I know you don't want to let him out of your sight." Jack patted her reassuringly on the shoulder. "We'll take good care of him."
"I know you will." After a few minutes, Mrs. Dallion kissed her son on the forehead and said, "I've got to be getting to work, Ryan. I'll call you tomorrow, and see you Sunday afternoon, okay?"
"Okay, Mom. Love you," he said, already turning his attention back to Micki and the comic books he was showing her.
I love you, too, was what she thought she said... but what came out was a whispered "Goodbye," so low that nobody heard.
After she left, Micki and Ryan retired to the kitchen while Jack grabbed a few more hours of fitful sleep and Johnny finished the inventory and dealt with the single afternoon customer. After placing all the items on the shelves and stacking the now-empty boxes in the back of the store, Johnny settled in for a nice, quiet Friday night of watching TV and hanging out with Ryan for a while.
The phone rang at just after six p.m., rousing Johnny from the half-completed crossword he'd spent the past twenty minutes staring at. He grabbed it and said, "Curious Goods."
The voice on the other end was scratchy with static but spoke with authority. "Get him, boy. Get Jack for me, now."
"Who is this?"
"Get Jack for me, right now, if you value anything in this world whatsoever. Hurry!"
Johnny turned toward the couch to see Jack already standing. "It's... for you," he said, the color drained from his face.
Jack walked over and grabbed the handset, terror almost freezing his vocal cords. "Hello?" he managed to choke out.
"Jack, you must help me, and there isn't much time," came the familiar voice that sent a chill down Jack's spine.
"No... I can't. You're dead," Jack spat as the hatred welled up again inside him. "You're dead, Lewis, and you can't hurt us anymore."
"I may be dead, Jack, but even the dead can die... forever." Lewis' voice was strange, and it took Jack a moment to figure out why.
Lewis' words were stained with fear.
"What do you want, Lewis?" Jack whispered.
"I have to see you, Jack. I have something you need to know."
"I'm at the 17th Prescinct in lockup. Come find me, and hurry. I'll tell you everything." And then Lewis was gone, the phone connection severed.
"Jack, was that -" Johnny cut off the name.
"Yes... it was." Jack ran to the basement stairs and thudded down them, waking Rashid even before he reached the bed. "Rashid, I just talked to Lewis. He's out again -"
"Again?" Rashid got to his feet and opened the Vault, looking carefully over the mystical seals he had inscribed months before when lewis had previously returned. None had been violated. "He did not re-enter the world through the Vault or Temple."
"No, and he's in jail. The 17th Prescinct lockup. He says he has information for me... that he's going to tell me everything. Come on," Jack said as he looked his friend in his sleep-blurred eyes and trudged back up the stairs. "Is this what you felt? Is this some sort of trap that Lewis is setting us up for?"
"I don't know, Jack... but I think I may know how he might have come to be on earth." Rashid looked through one of the stacks of books until he reached a small tome bound in reddish-brown leather. " 'In some occult circles, the importance of Hallowe'en as a time of power is almost overshadowed by that of Walpurgis Night. While Hallowe'en is a time when the dead are said to walk in the world of the living, Walpurgis Night is when the spirits of those still alive are brought closer to the world of the dead.' Jack, the world we live in now is the world of the living... and the one you changed is the world of the dead. The time is right for the worlds to reconcile themselves, for they are closer together than at any other time of the year."
"Whatever is going to happen... will be tonight," Jack said. "I've got to talk to Lewis."
"Woah, Jack. What if it is a trap, like you said?" Johnny said, the information barely sinking into his brain.
"We have no choice, Johnny. Rashid, get Micki and Ryan out of here, as far away as you can," Jack said as he bounded up the steps, followed closely by Johnny. The two ran out the front door and peeled away in Johnny's Thunderbird as Rashid started up the steps to the kitchen... but then he turned around and looked out the door.
There was a man standing there. "Come here, Rashid," he whispered, waving at the Egyptian. "I have something you should know about."
Hesitantly rashid placed one foot in front of the other, left, right, left, right, until he was standing in the doorway to Curious Goods. The man was in shadow, his face nothing but blackness... but his eyes were luminescent. "That's good, Rashid. Stand right there."
The windows on either side of them exploded, sending jagged shards of glass into their bodies, ripping through flesh and rending bone. As the debris settled, the man looked down at Rashid with a sad smile on his unmarked face. "If you had any concept of what would have awaited you, Rashid al-Kamir, you would thank me for this gift. Farewell." The man walked through the front door; the now-lifeless body of Rashid followed a moment later, and the glass reformed itself an instant after that.
All was normal on Druid Avenue once again.
"You mean...we're spending the night down here?" Beth looked around the ruined basement uncertainly, the slash on her leg still aching. An hour earlier she and Ryan had emerged from a hardware store brandishing two shopping carts full of supplies, which they had carefully moved down an aluminum ladder into the cellar of what had been Curious Goods many years before. They had tools, they had a kerosene space heater and sleeping bags, they had food for the night... and Ryan had insisted upon buying a plain, old-fashioned mini-tape recorder and a dozen blank cassettes. He loaded the first one and pressed record.
"Yes, we have to. It's the only chance we'll get. But first, we need to get to work." He pointed a flashlight at the hole that Beth had seen earlier, its beam reflecting off the dark greenish-gray metal. "This is where we start."
"What is it?" She reached out to touch it, pulling off her glove; the metal was deathly cold to the touch, but surprisingly smooth as well.
"This is the Vault. It's where Lewis stored everything he cursed before selling it up in the store... and it's where we stored everything after we started getting it all back." He picked up the sledgehammer and Beth backed away, dozens of questions wanting to leap from her tongue but remaining unsaid as he swung the sledge in a wide arc, cracking into the brick wall and creating a new hole at waist level. "Lewis was afraid of death, and cherished wealth more than anything on this earth. He worked this little shop for some time before he stumbled onto the idea of making a pact with the Devil... or so we were led to believe. He was to receive enormous wealth and immortality... and in exchange, his store would become the gateway for Satan's toys to spread across the earth." He struck the wall again and again, faster and faster, exposing more and more of the ominous doorway.
"Lewis died in the spring of 1987. He was my great-uncle; I never even knew him. My cousin, Micki Foster, and I wound up with the place after probate, and we ended up selling everything. Then we found out what the objects could do after we met Jack Marshak, who used to be a friend of his. They give people what they want... or what they think they want... but at a terrible price."
"And that is?" Beth asked, her voice small in the echoing darkness.
"Death. Death powered the objects, and over time their hunger for blood grew stronger, eventually killing the poor, unfortunate users. Then the cycle would begin again, and more pain would be unleashed across the world. Jack, Micki and I - and later on, Johnny and Joan - took it upon ourselves to get back all the objects and lock them away, so they could do no more harm... because, once cursed, they couldn't be destroyed. And for a while, it seemed to work.
"But everything changed. I was transformed, changed back into a little boy with no knowledge of what happened here, or most of the pain I had seen through my life. I went to live with my mother, while everyone else stayed here and kept up the good fight. But little by little, everything started to break down: Lewis tried to escape from Hell... and very nearly succeeded, by making me his sacrifice. The friendship between Johnny, Micki and Jack fell apart when they learned something horrible about Jack's past that even he did not remember. The objects very nearly claimed Johnny's and Micki's lives because... there was no hope anymore. No hope that what they were doing would make any difference in the end.
"And then it happened."
"What, Ryan? What happened?"
"How humble we were before that day. How ignorant of what he really wanted." Ryan swung the sledge with all his might and shattered the remnants of the brick wall, exposing the doors completely. He picked up the shovel and began shoving rubble out of the way, piling it haphazardly at the sides of the entrance. "We didn't know; how could we? Not even Lewis knew."
He dropped the shovel and grasped the heavy iron handles of the twin doors, then pulled with all his might. The doors remained frozen... but then moved a quarter of an inch. Then three quarters. Two inches. A foot yawned between them, and the space just kept getting wider until the doors were fully opened for the first time in decades. Inside, carefully lining the stone walls, were rickety wooden shelves holding a multitude of antiques. There was an old music box, a compact lying half-hidden underneath an ornate black quilt, a comic book rolled up next to a hideous Cupid statue, and many more, dozens, hundreds. "This is where we kept everything."
He lifted a heavy stone slab with an effort and exposed a staircase leading underneath the Vault. "And down there is where Lewis made his deal. They didn't find this until I was gone; they called it the Temple, so I guess that'll do."
"Why are we here? What does this have to do with anything?" Beth asked, swinging her flashlight around nervously.
Ryan sighed and rummaged around on the shelves for a moment, facing away from her... and when he turned back around, he was holding a doll in his hand, a doll with a white porcelain face and a hinged mouth like a puppet. She stepped back and pressed herself against the wall, hearing the hiss again: You left me, Mary. You left me alone here... and now I'm going to play with you forever -
"Oh, God!" she screamed and broke into a run, desperate to get up the ladder, desperate to get away, anywhere but here. Ryan dropped the doll and grabbed her just outside the Vault doors, holding her close as the terror slowly worked its way down to manageable levels. "They're still cursed, Mary. We never got all of them back; after a while, we just stopped trying. It never ended, no matter what we tried."
When Ryan spoke again, his voice was heavy and black. It was the voice of someone who knows he is damned, Beth realized. "But what happened in the end was worse."
Micki and Ryan were in the middle of Monopoly when she heard the front door open. There were voices, and then she heard the bells ring again and the door close. "Johnny?" she called out. "Everything all right?"
"Yeah, no problem. Just some tourist looking for directions to the Sears Tower," Johnny's familiar voice echoed back up to her. Had she gone down to look, she would have seen the man carrying Rashid's body effortlessly across the store to the back, where he laid it on the floor and covered it with boxes and crates. "Look, it's almost seven. No one's coming in, Micki; is it okay if I close up?" he called out, his voice a perfect mimicry of Johnny's.
"I suppose so. Just leave the lights on so Jack and Rashid can see when they get done with their research." Micki turned back to her game, rolled the dice...
Heavy, deliberate footsteps sounded as Micki turned to look at the stairs, a cold fist of dread clutching at her heart. "Micki?" Ryan asked. "What's wrong?"
She had heard those footsteps before... and they were not Johnny's. "Ryan, get into the bedroom, now!" she hissed, backing away from the steps as a shadow turned the corner and began ascending the second flight. The boy vanished into the bedroom and Micki closed the door just as a man came into view, his startlingly blue eyes encased in a ruggedly handsome face, black wavy hair windblown from the breeze outside. He walked toward her, a smile coming to his lips, and she backed away from him quickly. "Who are you?"
"Must you ask, child? I think you've already answered that question for yourself... so you tell me."
"Much obliged, Miss Foster. I always knew you were a smart one, far more intelligent than that cousin of yours. Far more attractive as well." He took another step and Micki bolted across the kitchen, yanking open a drawer and removing a long-bladed carving knife.
"Stay away from me," she said, brandishing the blade like a samurai sword.
"You think I'm here... to hurt you?" The man laughed, and the temperature in the kitchen fell twenty degrees. "I don't want to hurt you. I would never hurt you, Micki. You're far too important to me... and to the world."
He sidestepped around her and in one smooth motion had removed the knife from her grasp, effortlessly sliding it back into the drawer. "You are in a unique place, young lady, one never before occupied by a human - even one as lovely as yourself." He leaned closer to her and whispered into her ear. "Would you like to know why?"
Micki tried to speak but her voice was silent, as if the vocal cords were being held utterly motionless. "I thought so. Lewis Vendredi made a deal with me... but I've grown weary of the arrangement, and he's in Hell, so what good does do for either of us? Not a bit.
"But you... you have something I want, Micki. You have the one thing that could make me release my hold on the curse forever. I could end it all, make those horrible items you've squirreled away in the cellar nothing more than a collection of worthless junk... just like it was in the first place. Think of it - all the pain, all the suffering, in this world and the one Jack changed... all gone, because of you." His lips brushed across her forehead, cold to the touch. "All you have to do is ask."
"What - what do you want?" she whispered.
He grinned. "You."
It took Jack and Johnny almost an hour to see the prisoner in lockup at the 15th Prescinct, even with Johnny's influyence with several of the cops there. Detective Charlie McCallister (who Johnny explained to Jack had been partnered with his father many years ago when they were beat cops) finally managed to push through the red tape and get them in to see the man, who was awaiting a transfer to Central Booking.
The cells curved around in a shallow arc, green paint peeling into tiny chips on the floor. Jack and Johnny could smell the faint odor of urine in the air as they followed the officer toward the cell; one or two of the inmates called out obscenities, but the place seemed unusually quiet.
Then they rounded a corner... and he was there, waiting for them. "Hello... old friend."
Jack nodded at the guard, and the man moved off to give them some privacy. "Lewis."
Lewis Vendredi looked much the same as he had in life - balding, wrinkled, wearing a silk shirt that seemed two sizes too big and patent leather shoes. But his face was pale, almost white, and his eyes seemed almost buried within his skull. "So nice of you to call on me one last time, Jack. It's certainly been... quite a time." Lewis doubled over, a series of hacking coughs erupting from his throat. When he looked back at them, a thin line of blood was visible from the corner of his mouth.
"What do you want?" Jack asked without preamble, anxious to learn whatever Lewis could tell them... and hoping that it was not already too late.
"I want... to be forgiven my sins, Jack. I want to be made clean and whole again in the eyes of God. But what I want... I could never have. It's too late for me, Jack... too late..." Lewis got to his feet and stepped toward the bars, making Johnny take a step back in fear. "But I can give you something, Jack. I can give you the piece of the puzzle that explains everything... the piece that makes it all worth the effort." He grinned, his teeth yellow and rotten. "But you won't want to hear it."
"What is it, Lewis? What do you know?" Jack whispered, leaning close to the man behind the bars. Johnny could hear muffled whispers pass between them for several minutes, could see Jack pull away, the color drained from his face. "No," he finally said in a quavering voice. "I won't do that. He won't do that."
"Jack, you know it must be done. Do it... and save me... save everyone..." Lewis broke into another coughing fit, blood spraying from his mouth as it overflowed his lungs. Jack turned away, calling for the guard, and Johnny followed close behind as the older man turned to run out of the cell block.
"Jack, what the hell is going on? Dammit, what?" Johnny grabbed him and spun him around. "What did he say?"
"He said... we're too late. All we can do now is... is..." He turned away, tears flowing freely from his eyes now. "We've got to get back to them."
Joan swung open the door and stepped into Curious Goods, brandishing a plastic sack in one hand. "Hello? Anyone here?" she called, seeing nobody in the main area of the store. It was not unusual, so she walked inside and headed toward the steps. She turned the corner and headed toward the kitchen... and a shadow passed across her vision. She heard a gentle humming from above, a male voice but not Johnny's... and definitely not Jack's. "Rashid? Is that you?"
And then he was standing there, right in front of her, as terrible as he had been in her dream months ago... only now, he was absolutely real. "Hello, Joan. I see you decided to... ignore my advice and stay here."
"Where are they?" she whispered, slowly backing down the steps as her vision was clouded by thick strands of blackness crawling from every point of the man who stood above her.
"Oh, they'll be along... but I won't be able to stay for dinner. You see, I've already had my fill... and I'm very busy. But I'll return soon enough." He started walking toward her and a flash of pain bounded through her skull. "I would have given you freedom... but now all I can offer is oblivion." He reached up as the pain made her double over, clutching her head as the pressure built inside, the bone fragment that gave her the altered vision corkscrewing deeper within her brain, striking nerves and slashing open blood vessels as it traveled. "Enjoy. It is far better this way."
"Johnny..." she tried to say, but her mouth would no longer work. She slid to the floor, her last sight the shoes of the man walking downstairs. Her sight faded, followed by the pain... and then she knew no more.
Ryan flipped the tape over and ran his hand along the wall of the Vault, the rough stone cold against the flesh, cold enough to be painful. He relished the sensation... and that scared him even now. "Have you ever wondered why the world is the way it is?" he murmured, feeling the stone scrape away the top layer of skin and the warmth of the blood he drew.
"What?" Beth asked, her voice hoarse. Ryan had spent almost an hour murmuring into the tape recorder, staring at the Vault and its contents as she had walked around the basement, trying to shove the image of Vita out of her mind.
"I used to think the world was wonderful, back when I was a child. All that was good was what I had; my home, my family... my life. But then my brother died, and my mother left, and all I had then was nothing. The world had gone and left me behind. It seemed like I was wandering aimlessly through existence... until I came here. Until I decided to get the antiques back." He stood up, swept his arms across the Vault in the harsh lantern light. "All this... all this pain and suffering... gave me purpose; for what reason, I still don't know.
"But then I was changed. I became that child again... but the purpose was lost. This time childhood was filled with fear, and the knowledge that somehting was missing... that I'd left something behind, I suppose." He sat down next to Beth and took her hand before continuing in a whisper. "And then I came back here, that day in the spring of 1991. And I found out what my true purpose was."
"What... what was it, Ryan?" Beth whispered, transfixed by Ryan's words.
He wrapped her hand around something small, something cold and metal. With shock, she realized that it was a knife. "What... what is this?" she asked.
"Simple, really. My true purpose... is to die."
Micki awoke to the sound of glass breaking... or was it someone screaming? Was it her?
Then she moved, and she knew that it was. Pain ripped through her like a million steel needles piercing her skin; every inch of her being cried out in agony when she twitched or tried to lift an eyelid. Her arms were useless, her legs nothing but immobile lead ingots... but her eyelids could move. She lifted them a fraction of an inch, saw a blur of light -
Oh, God, the pain! She screamed again, the vibration of her own voice setting off even more nerves, sending her mind into a cold dark place where the pain was nothing but a dull ache. She had no idea how much time passed there; there was no sound, no sensation, blessed nothingness.
And then there was light.
She opened her eyes slowly, but the pain was gone now. She got to her knees and looked around the kitchen of Curious Goods, trying to remember what had happened before... but all she could remember was the pain. The kitchen was wrecked; pans and dishes were scattered across the room, holes were punched deep into the plaster of the walls. There was blood sprayed everywhere.
Ryan, she thought, crawling over shattered crockery and glass, slicing open her hands and legs to get to him. She shoved open the doors to her room, shouting his name as she did so.
He peered up from underneath the bed, his eyes wide with terror. "Micki... I thought he killed you..." he whispered, scrambling out and into her arms, neither of them caring about the blood that covered them both now.
"No... I'm okay, Ryan..." she gasped. "I'm okay."
"Come on, Ryan. Let's get out of here," Micki said as she struggled to her feet. She grabbed a blouse that was hangng, tore it into strips and wrapped them around her hands and legs, then carefully led the way down the steps.
"Micki... are Johnny and Jack okay?" Ryan asked, clinging to her waist.
"I don't know," Micki answered, limping her way down the steps, hoping against hope that they were... but knowing that they were most likely dead. And she knew that nothing would ever be the same.
Jack reached the end of the cell block and waited for the guard to open the door when he heard the sound of a cell door swinging open behind him. Johnny was just catching up to him when Jack turned around, his eyes focused on the curving stretch of corridor, at the far end of which waited his oldest friend... his oldest enemy. The lights flickered and faded out, and there was silence in the corridor. "Jack, what the hell's going on?" Johnny said, trying to open the outer door, knowing it was futile.
"I think we've just walked into a trap after all," Jack said grimly. The sound of footsteps filled the hall, echoing off the concrete walls and metal bars. Around the bend walked a man, maybe in hid mid-forties, his hair longish and black, curled all around his head like the flames of a fire.
"Hello, Jack," he said. "We haven't spoken in so long." Lewis shuffled around the corner behind the man, clutching his chest, his face contorted in agony. "I thought you might like to see this. Lewis thought he could beat me after all... but nobody beats the Devil. Nobody, Jack." Lewis fell to the ground, blood spraying from his mouth as the Devil continued.
"You see, Lewis managed to deceive me after all. He escaped from my attentions for just long enough to undermine my efforts by killing several people. He managed to send them on to the next world before I was completely prepared, which forced my... personal appearance." He grinned, his teeth sharp and pointed as a wolf's.
"I know that he found out the truth behind the curse. I know what has to be done," Jack said.
"Somebody once said knowledge is power... but for you, it's just misery." The Devil raised his hand and a freezing wind filled the corridor, howling past Jack and Johnny and chilling them to the bone. "There's a special place I'm saving just for you, Jack. When I come for you, know that I'll be devoting the rest of eternity to your suffering. But for now... I'll take the boy."
Johnny was pulled forward by an invisible force, seemingly thrown into the grip of the Devil. "You're a poor acquisition, Johnny... like your woman, Joan, you're too involved with evil. Your very spirits are infused with it, and that makes you useless to me. But the pleasure of your torment... that's worth the effort." And Johnny's eyes filled with blood, the vessels expanding horrifically as his blood pressure rose past 200, 250, 300, more. Blisters spontaneously formed and burst on his skin, in his mouth and throat; blood seeped from every opening of his body, every pore.
And then, mercifully, a blood vessel burst in the center of his brain and he slumped, dead. The Devil looked at Jack as he dropped the body, the grin growing wider. "You don't know anything, Jack. Especially not the truth." The door swung open behind Jack. "Go to her, Jack."
And, terrified not for his soul but for Micki's, he ran.
Micki and Ryan were almost at the front door when she heard a voice call from behind her, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
They wheeled around and saw a man sitting at the desk idly flipping through the Manifest, a small smile on his face. Micki backed away, shielding Ryan with her body. "Stay away from us!"
"I've already finished with you... but how are you going to stop me if I try?" he said, his voice low and melodious, a deep baritone. "No, I'm here to make sure my work continues - unimpeded." He stood and walked toward them a few steps, forcing Micki further toward the door. "Unless you think you can stop me."
"Please... let him go. Keep me, but let Ryan go," she said, grasping the doorknob and twisting with all her strength. the door would not budge.
He walked down the steps to the door, now no more than five feet away from them. "I don't want you anymore, Micki. Let me make a counter-proposal: I'll tell you something very important, and if you can make the choice, I'll leave and never return." he leaned close to her, began to whisper in her ear -
And Micki's knee shot up between the man's legs, doubling him over. "Ryan, run! she screamed, grabbing the man's head and smashing it into the windows that lined the front of the store. The boy shot past the man and fled into the back of the store, crawling in among the boxes and antiques piled in the cramped space, trying to be as quiet as possible.
The Devil raised his head and laughed, his face and neck undamaged by Micki's assault. "Was it good for you, too?" he asked as she slid down the wall, the strength gone from her body. "You never understood what this was all about, did you? Not even now, when the end looms so very close. None of you did: not Jack, who made the first deal with me; not Lewis, who continued it. Not Rashid, or even Joan and Johnny, who I helped to create, had any concept of the work I was trying to accomplish here.
"The curse was never about wealth or immortality; it was never about power or even death. The curse is all about suffering, Micki, the most exquisite sensation one of God's creatures can experience. Every life that has been touched by the antiques, every life taken and drop of blood spilled, every tear shed... they've all been for me. I can still taste your sister's screams from when Lewis killed her, only days ago; I can still hear the blood run from your mother's eyes as she lays beside your father in their bed, three thousand miles away. They all thought they could escape me.
"Nobody escapes me... not even Him," the Devil breathed as he leaned close to Micki and whispered in her ear.
Ryan watched in horror as the Devil leaned down to where Micki had fallen. From his hiding place among the boxes he wanted to move, but fear held him in place as his hand brushed across something soft and pliable. He looked down to see Joan lying on a bed of straw right next to Rashid, both their faces covered in blood, their eyes open and empty. He bit down hard on his hand to keep from screaming. Then he saw the Devil stand again, look right at him and smile. "Come on out, boy. You've much work to do."
Then the Devil was gone.
Micki saw Ryan run up to her, heard him talk to her, crying in terror... but she no longer cared, because time had run out. Nothing mattered anymore - not Jack, not Johnny, not even herself... nothing but the life she knew was growing inside her.
The child of the Devil.
She knew what had to be done now, knew why she grasped the heavy weight in her hand. She raised the blade of the ornate sacrificial dagger and closed her eyes... then plunged it deep into her belly. She heard Ryan scream, felt him grab for her arm, but his strength was only a boy's... and she knew this was the last chance for all of them. Micki shoved him away and plunged the blade inside herself again and again, the pain unbearable... and then nothing but a distraction. It has to be good enough, she thought as blood roiled up her throat and filled her mouth. No time left.
"Ryan... the knife..." She shoved the handle into his small hands even as he tried vainly to stop the torrent of blood, and then she moved the blade to her chest. "Kill me."
"W - what?" he whispered, his twelve-year-old mind unable to comprehend what was being asked of him.
"I... love you, Ryan... but you have to kill me." She could feel the pounding of blood in her ears fading as she spoke. Her limbs were heavy and cold, and she knew she had only minutes... maybe seconds. "Please, Ryan, if you love me, if you ever loved me, you have to kill me now. I have to die at the hands of an innocent... or the curse will never end. If you love me - " She held his tiny hands in her own, the blade poised above her heart - "then please... kill me."
The blade slid forward between the ribs and buried itself within Micki's heart, releasing what was left of her blood to spill down her chest and over Ryan's hands. Her breath hitched and her mouth opened, trying to say something more; her chest rose, fell... and did not rise again. The blood slowly stopped flowing and in a minute, as the last light of the day faded, Ryan Dallion was alone once more.
Then the knife burst forth from her chest and sliced across Ryan's face deeply, the metal red hot, the scent of seared flesh filling the air as Ryan screamed and fell backwards, his right eye covered with blood, only his left able to see as an unholy fire filled the store. Flesh crisped, wood burst into flame and glass shattered as Ryan saw tendrils of obsidian flame shoot forth from Micki, swirling about madly in their dance of destruction. He curled up into a ball, his left eye burning madly... but then the flames were gone, and Ryan was once again kneeling in front of Micki, his hands holding the knife.
He was not sure how much time passed when he felt the hands on his shoulders. He turned and saw Jack Marshak kneeling beside him, the older man's face ashen with grief. Jack reached down and took the knife from his grasp, set it gently on the floor beside him and took the boy into his arms, murmuring to himself. "I'm so sorry, Micki... oh, God, please take it back... please..."
Beth threw the dagger from her hand and tried to pull away from Ryan but his grip was iron and untiring. "You have to do this, Beth. There's no other way."
"I'm not going to kill you, Ryan, there's no way in Hell that I'm going to -"
The flat of Ryan's palm struck her square across the face, effectively silencing her. "Listen to me now, and don't speak. I've been waiting a long time to meet you, Beth. I've been looking for you ever since that day twenty-three years ago. It's funny... I never thought you'd be the one."
"The Devil was right... it was all about suffering. But not our suffering, Beth; it was about God's suffering. Jack said to me once that evil was just the lack of something... the lack of good. But it's more than that... it's when the voice of God no longer speaks, and the ear of God no longer listens. God banished Lucifer by taking away His Light... and made Lucifer suffer. The Devil struck back in kind, knowing that God would not take a direct hand. He found people with power, brought them together... and made them think that the deal was their idea. He brought suffering into the world on a scale unknown, even with all the evil we inflict upon each other, through the antiques.
"But God could act... and He acted through Micki. And Jack, and Johnny, and everyone else who helped to recover the antiques. In the end, it was we who failed, not God."
Ryan grabbed her hand. What happened next was so quick that she did not realize what he was doing until the knife was in her hand again and leveled at his chest... the same knife that had killed Micki all those years ago. The handle was wrapped with some sort of necklace and a simple silver chain. "Your visions... they were your curse, brought on by what you made Lewis do that night in the spring of 1987. You were here the night he renounced the curse. You were the cause... because he refused to allow a child to die. I've looked for you for so long... and now that I've found you, I know what to do." He started to push the dagger in but stopped, the point barely drawing blood. "You have the power to end this. You have to kill me... of your own free will. I can't make you, and I can't kill myself. That's why I had to kill her; she had to die at the hands of another. Just like me."
"Ryan, I... I can't..." Beth choked out, trying to escape his steely grip.
"You have to," he replied. "This sacrifice is all that matters. It's all we have left when our hopes and fears leave us alone, all we have when it's said and done. It's all I can offer you now... because this must end."
And, grasping the handle even more tightly, her hands wrapped by his, she plunged the blade into his heart. Blood spurted out in pulses, a far deeper red than any Beth had seen before, covering both of them in its coppery warmth. Ryan's grip faded and he fell back against the wall next to her, his lips red as they tried to form words. "Thank you," he breathed.
Then the flames erupted and consumed the Vault and everything within. Beth screamed as she felt her skin stripped away, her muscles carbonized by the fire, eyes bursting, the cartilage of her nose melting away like candle wax -
And then the pain was gone.
When awareness returned, she could feel cold against her face. Carefully moving her aching head, she saw nothing around her but blackness. Her hands were cold and sticky, sliding across the stone floor as she tried to get to her feet... but they soon came to rest on the still-running tape recorder. She grabbed at it and the tapes piled beside it and stuffed them into a pocket of her coat. Grasping at the wall she found the ring that would open the Vault from the inside and pulled at it, causing the massive doors to swing wide open and illuminate the black chamber.
Outside, instead of the blackened rubble of a burned-out building, there was a dusty, lit cellar with a wooden staircase leading upward. She stumbled out, hands leaving bloody prints as she grabbed at the doors and began making her was upstairs, her mind in a daze. This can't be real, she thought as she carefully set foot on the first step... and then the next. The next. And the next, until she was all the way to the top of the stairs, standing in an eerily familiar place. For a long moment she could swear she heard thunder... but then she shook her head and swept the memory away, trying to concentrate on the task at hand.
She heard agitated voices coming from the front of the store and crouched down behind a stack of crates, trying to remain hidden. She could dimly see three men standing there around a desk, one young and dark-haired, the other two older. Jack and Johnny and Rashid, she thought numbly. She heard Rashid speak: "While Hallowe'en is a time when the dead are said to walk in the world of the living, Walpurgis Night is when the spirits of those still alive are brought closer to the world of the dead.' Jack, the world we live in now is the world of the living... and the one you changed is the world of the dead. The time is right for the worlds to reconcile themselves, for they are closer together than at any other time of the year."
"Whatever is going to happen... will be tonight," Jack said. "I've got to talk to Lewis."
And before she knew she was going to, Beth was speaking. "No, Jack. You're going to stay right here."
"What the hell?" Johnny asked, hitting a lightswitch and illuminating the back of the store. Beth stepped out from behind the crates and held up her hands. "Who are you? How the hell did you get in here?"
"I'm... I'm a friend, Johnny." She walked forward, into the light, eliciting gasps as the trio saw her bloodstained hands. "You have to listen to me. You have to stay here and protect Micki."
"Protect her from what?" Jack asked, his eyes studying her face, knowing that he had seen her before somewhere.
"From her fate," Beth replied, holding the tape recorder in front of her and inserting the tape Ryan had made as she had wandered around the basement, lost in her own thoughts. She pressed play and saw their eyes widen in shock as they heard their friend's voice fill the store.
"Hello, Jack. I wish I could be there to tell you this in person... it's been so long... but there's nothing I can do now. Nothing but this: I know the secret of the curse. I know how to stop it now... but the price is high, Jack, maybe too high. Mary knows what to do -"
The tape player went silent as sparks flew from the tiny speaker. Beth dropped it as a red light flooded the store and the front door blew off its hinges, splintering on the railing as the windows shattered and antiques were destroyed by the dozen. Looking at the light, they could all see a huge, malformed figure standing outside the store, its clawed hand tearing apart the storefront to get inside, its hellish voice screaming in rage. None of the men moved, eyes riveted to this sight, but Beth knew that this was her only chance and sprinted past them and up the stairs, barely missing the fiery grasp of the claws as she came to the top of the stairs -
Right into the path of a very confused and terrified Micki. "What the - ?" she asked, but Beth's only reply was a whispered "I'm sorry," as she plunged the dagger into Micki's chest, expertly slicing into the heart between the ribs, feeling the new blood mix with Ryan's as Micki fell away from her and against the wall, already dying. She could see the store bursting into flames around her as the Devil's fiery form pushed its way inside, igniting wood and flesh, incinerating glass and metal as it tried to reach her.
It's all right, she heard a voice say from somewhere close by. You can come home now. And, in relief and triumph, she plunged the dagger into her neck, severing the carotid artery and sending a spray of blood across the face of the Devil as it reached her. "Go... to Hell..." she spat as the power of the curse erupted out of her eyes and into the Devil's, the energy that had killed so many flowing away from the earthly realm and back down to Hell along with its master. The agony was unbearable, the flames were everywhere -
Then they were gone. Beth looked up. Curious Goods had vanished; in its place was a field of whiteness that stretched on for what seemed to be forever. She was sitting on nothing, breathing in nothingness.
There was a boy sitting next to her. "Hi," he said cheerfully as he toyed with a baseball in his right hand.
"Hi," she replied, unsure of how else to respond.
"I'm Jimmy. You must be Mary."
"My name is Beth now."
The boy shrugged. "Mary Beth Simms; Mary will always be your name." He stuck out his left hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Beth shook it uncertainly. "Where are we?" she asked. "Are we... dead?"
"Not exactly, Beth. This is sort of a waiting room. We won't be here long."
"What are we waiting for?" Beth said, truly mystified.
"For things to change." The boy stood and took her hand.. "You've done something wonderful, Beth. Never forget that."
I won't, she tried to say, but then the Light had them... and she was gone.
"What the hell was that?" Johnny breathed as consciousness returned to him. He was standing in Curious Goods, right beside Jack and Rashid now... but just a moment ago the store had been filled with an unholy fire.
"That was Hell," Jack replied, a stunned look on his face. Rashid fell back into a chair as Jack stumbled up the steps to Micki and the other woman, the one who had warned them; Johnny followed close behind. Micki's sweater was soaked with blood... but when he reached out to feel for a pulse, he was rewarded by one healthy and strong. "She's alive," Jack said, gathering her up into his arms as tears flowed down his face.
Johnny carefully rolled over the other woman... but, in her place, was a young girl of perhaps eleven or twelve. Her clothes were the same and now shrouded her like a blanket, but the girl's young face was free of the haunted look it would have acquired in later years. When he checked for a pulse, though, he was rewarded with nothing. The girl was dead. "Who... who is she?" he asked.
"Mary Simms," came the deep voice from above them, and when they looked up both Johnny and Jack could see Ryan standing there, an adult Ryan, as if he'd never been away. "The one who made Lewis break the deal... and the one who ended the curse." He knelt down and took the girl's hand in his own, pressing it to his lips as tears flowed down his face. "She sacrificed herself for the world, Jack. For us all."
Micki awoke to the scent of coffee brewing. Lying on her own bed she could see the early morning light filtering through the windows, casting a gray pall over everything. Outside the French doors she could hear voices speaking dimly and cups rattling, and every now and then a snort of laughter. She rubbed her eyes and carefully moved her aching body into a sitting position, her hand unconsciously over the place where the woman had stabbed her -
Stabbed me? she thought numbly, remembering what had happened... what had happened when? "What's happening?" she whispered, terror filling her mind as images of blood and fire cascaded before her eyes.
And then she heard it - the voice that had been apart from her for so long now, that deep, melodious speech that she had dreamed of almost since the moment she had met Ryan almost four years ago. clutching the silk robe around her shoulders, she stood and slowly made her way to the door, peering through the lace curtains at the shadowy figures beyond. There were Johnny and Joan, hands clasped tightly together as they sat across the table from Jack and Rashid... and there was Ryan right next to them, tall, dark-haired, not the little boy he had become but the man she knew she loved.
She opened the door and all conversation stopped. "Ryan..." she breathed as he stood up, his brown eyes moist with tears.
"Welcome back," he said, walking to her and taking her in his arms. The others stood and went downstairs after a few words of greeting, leaving the two of them alone. After a few minutes he pulled away and said, "Bet this is the last thing you expected."
Ryan looked down at Micki, his eyes a study in tormented thoughts. "God hears all our prayers, Micki, even if He may not answer them directly. And, last night... one was answered."
He stood, taking her by the hand and leading her down the stairs into the display area of the store. "The final lesson most of us learn is that it doesn't matter what we accomplished in this life; we still die in the end, and all that we've ever said or done will be forgotten. Everyone's afraid that their good deeds will just be bricked up and built over like some ancient ruin.
"But the first lesson, the one that everyone forgets when they grow up... that's the one that matters. The one that tells you that the boogeyman is real; that monsters really live under your bed; that your dreams can actually come true. That the future is nothing but hope - and the past can be changed." They stepped down off of the steps and over to the desk where the others had converged around a warm pot of tea, the Manifest, a claw hammer... and a porcelain doll with a hinged mouth, the doll that Mary Simms had called Vita. Ryan picked it up and looked into its lifeless eyes; Micki almost snatched it away from him immediately, tempted to throw it into the farthest corner of the room. "Anything is possible, Micki. All we have to do is believe in it."
He picked up the hammer, laid the doll down and swung with all his strength - and the doll's head dissolved into porcelain splinters. "Belief is what matters, Micki. Belief is what holds back the darkness when it wants us most of all."
She looked at the crushed antique in wide-eyed awe. "Are they..." she whispered.
"Every single one, Micki," Jack said. "They're just as fragile now as before they became cursed."
"It's over, Micki," Johnny said quietly. "We won. If you can call it winning." He looked down at his scraped hands, then at everyone else in the room. "I think it's about time."
"Time for what?" Micki asked as everyone stood and followed Johnny toward the basement stairs.
"A going-away party," Jack said. "One that's long overdue."
In the darkness of the cellar everyone gathered around the Vault doors, hanging wide open, exposing the hellish treasures held within... but now those treasures were just junk. Worthless, useless... ultimately forgettable, Micki realized as she looked at the now-empty shelves within. Just as they should be. Everywhere were pieces of glass and splinters of wood from where Johnny and Ryan had broken them into pieces, as many as they could before their strength had finally given out. Most of the debris had already been swept into the gaping hole that led to the Temple, and a few minutes with a pushbroom took care of the rest, leaving the Vault barren as Johnny and Ryan pulled the wooden shelves out and against a basement wall.
Jack went over to a corner and returned with two one-gallon cans of gasoline and a road flare. Handing the cans to Johnny and Ryan, he looked as if he were about to speak... but then he closed his mouth and struck the flare against the wall, sending a shower of sparks flying into the air. "Nothing to say?" Joan asked as she watched Johnny and Ryan open the gasoline cans.
"It's all been said, I think," Jack replied. The younger men poured the fuel down the square hole and onto the wood and fabric piled there. There was a moment of silence... and then Jack tossed the flare into the hole. A whoosh of flame leapt up halfway to the ceiling for a few seconds before dying down to a quiet inferno, consuming everything within but the stone of the walls and steps. They gazed at it for a few minutes before, one at a time, shuffling out of the Vault, finally leaving Micki alone. She looked at the doll - the one that had turned and looked at her the very first night she had set foot in the store - and, seeing nothing more in the ruined face or shattered eye sockets, dropped it into the fires already dying below. After a few minutes Johnny and Ryan moved a heavy stone slab into position over the hole and dropped it into place with a resounding slam, sealing off the charred remnants of the antiques from the Vault.
After that, sealing up the Vault was easy as Johnny welded the iron doors shut and everyone helped replace the wall that had originally been in place, remaking it brick by brick until the early hours of the morning and there was no sign that the Vault - or the secrets it had held - had ever existed in the first place.
As the first rays of sunlight filtered through the windows, Micki's hand found Ryan's and held it tightly. What will we do now, after all we've seen? she wondered, gazing at Johnny and Joan sitting close together at the foot of the stairs, her head resting on his chest. Jack and Rashid had taken over the chairs at the desk, leaving Micki and Ryan leaning against one of the display cases. Where will we go? How far away? Will the nightmares forever chase us... or have we, at last, outrun them as well?
And she realized, maybe for the first time in her life, what Ryan had called the first lesson: Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe we don't have to outrun them. Maybe they're already gone... because we only have to believe it. Her hand found its way around his and squeezed; their eyes met; the touch was returned silently (although everyone in the room knew it) and she smiled.
Maybe we only have to believe to make our dreams real.
Memories fade with time, like paper bleached by long summer days spent in the sun. The facts become blurred by emotion and by what we wish we had done... instead of the truth. We tell ourselves that we did our best, that everything turned out all right after all, that maybe it was just a bad dream.
We all know that we're liars. And so, my memories are thus:
Time passed, as time tends to do, and those who saw the curse through to its end parted ways soon after that day. Rashid returned to his small herbalist shop nestled in that Chicago back alley and lived much as he had before; Jack Marshak, when in town after one of his numerous globe-spanning adventures, often stayed with him and they would talk deep into the night.
Johnny Ventura married Joan Kelleigh in the spring of 1992; I was best man and Micki was the maid of honor. The last time I heard from them, Johnny was awaiting the publication of his first novel... and they were expecting their first child.
We sold Curious Goods in August of 1991. The building sat unused for several years, until an urban development company bought most of the neighborhood and began tearing it down to make way for an industrial park. All evidence of what happened there is now buried under a concrete slab three feet thick. I was there when they tore down the building; the wrecking ball went through Curious Goods first, and I was satisfied when the dust settled and it was all cleared away. But sometimes at night, when Micki lies next to me with her eyes wide open and maybe a tear winding its way down her face, I wonder.
I listen to the tapes that Mary brought with her from the future that never happened. I listen to my own voice telling me how much we'd never known, how limited our understanding of the curse actually was. I listen to the words as he tells Mary to kill him... and I find my eyes filled with tears as I thank God that I never had to make the decision that my counterpart did.
I pray for Mary. I pray for us all, that we did the best we could in the face of the impossible odds we faced all those years ago. In the daylight I can ignore the thoughts, pack them neatly away in some dark corner of my mind like unwanted baggage... but in the dark, I'm afraid. I'm afraid for us all, for what we did... and for what we did not do. I hope - pray - that it is enough, that God understands our actions and will forgive us...
But in the dark... I'm afraid.
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This page was created on June 1, 2001.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.