She fell away, and he could do nothing to stop it.
The woman didn't scream on the way down; the only sound was a slightly wet thud as her body contacted the sidewalk twelve floors down. Johnny tried to contain the sudden nausea that rose within him but it was no use. He hadn't meant for anyone to die... of course, they never meant for anyone to die, not him, not Micki, not Jack. But people always did, no matter how hard they tried to keep it from happening. It was all supposed to be so simple - find a pair of antique windowshades and buy them back. But the owner, an aging woman, had discovered their terrible power and had refused to part with them. Before Jack and Micki could arrive she had attacked Johnny and they had broken through the glass sliding doors leading to the balcony. She had struck the railing and fallen over the side moments before Johnny reached her. Their fingers had missed each other by mere inches as gravity took its inescapable hold and she had plummeted toward the ground.
Minutes later he lifted his head from the mess when he heard furious pounding on the door and the shouts of familiar voices. Johnny wiped his mouth on his jacket sleeve and struggled to his feet, his head aching from being hit with a brass lamp during the fight. He stumbled to the door, fumbling with the chain before managing to pull it open. Micki Foster and Jack Marshak were rushing in even as he fell backward, as consciousness escaped him...
His stomach heaved again as a cloying odor filled his nostrils. He jerked his head away from the bottle of smelling salts that Jack was waving under his nose and barely choked back his urge to vomit. "Johnny? Are you okay?" he heard Micki say.
"I never want to do that again," he mumbled, resting his head against the car window. Micki was driving and Jack was seated beside him in the back seat of the Mercedes. The glass was cool against his forehead and helped drive away the nausea.
"I can't blame you. You barely got out of that one, Johnny." Jack gingerly touched the large bruise on Johnny's forehead, making him wince. "We'd better get that looked at. You might have a concussion."
There was a heavy silence in the car as they drove to a nearby hospital and the staff tended to Johnny's head. He didn't really hear what they were saying; "concussion", "memory loss", "personality disorder"... none of it made much sense in his present condition. What he did understand was that it could have been much worse.
"Jack, did you get the shades?" Johnny asked as soon as the car was rolling.
Neither one answered; Johnny knew that something was wrong. "Johnny, the shades... they weren't in the apartment." Jack's voice was like a death knell.
"That's impossible; I saw them when I went inside. They can't have just walked out on their own."
"I agree... but they're not there now." Jack turned and looked out the window at the urban landscape rolling by. "They're close by, Johnny. I'm sure we'll get them back soon."
"I hope so," Johnny muttered as a huge weariness fell over him, dragging his eyes closed as his thoughts fell into a deep, dark corner of his mind.
A loud crash roused Johnny, followed closely by the tinkle of breaking glass falling on the bare concrete floor. Looking around, Johnny could see that he was laid out on the couch in the back of Curious Goods with a threadbare quilt spread over his still-clothed form; only his shoes were removed. Jack was crouching over a wooden crate that had broken open, scattering fragments of pottery in a wide arc, and he was obviously not pleased. "Sorry I woke you up, Johnny," Jack said as Johnny got to his feet. "I lost my grip on the crate."
"I hope it wasn't too valuable."
"No, not really. Just some Czech figurines carved in the eighteenth century. Figurines that cost six hundred dollars." Jack shook his head in disgust and stood up to go get a broom... but after two steps he stopped and slowly turned to Johnny, a strange look on his face. "Johnny, do you think you..." he almost whispered, and then he pitched headlong into a stack of cardboard boxes by the wall.
"Micki!" Johnny shouted at the top of his voice, getting Jack onto his back and desperately checking for a pulse; thin and very slow, and getting weaker. "Call the paramedics! Hurry!" He didn't know if Micki had heard him, but he couldn't leave Jack right now. All he could do was hope that help was on the way. Jack's chest raised and lowered... raised and lowered... raised and lowered... and stopped.
"Oh, shit. Come on, Jack, don't die on me, not now." Johnny placed his hands on Jack's chest and began pushing down, trying to restart Jack's heart.
"The paramedics are on the way. What's happening?" Micki said as she ran up behind him.
"I think he had a heart attack. He's not breathing, Micki." Johnny kept pressing on his chest, nothing mattered but making Jack breathe again, not time, not Micki, not anything. Johnny kept pressing until his arms ached, until sweat coursed down his face, until a paramedic grabbed him by the shoulders and forcibly moved him in order to get to Jack. Johnny stood back and watched as the young woman picked up CPR immediately, his hands shaking as Micki came up and put her arms around him. "Don't die on me, Jack..." he breathed, watching as the paramedics lifted Jack onto a gurney and began wheeling him out of the store. Johnny followed them into the ambulance, not even bothering to put his shoes back on. "Follow us to the hospital, Micki," he said. "I'll ride along with him."
The ride in the ambulance was one of the longest that Johnny had ever endured. As they wheeled Jack into the hospital, Johnny was stopped by a nurse who told him he couldn't go inside the examination room. He sat down on one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs that lined the waiting room, holding his head in his hands. Why did this have to happen now? Why did it have to happen at all? he thought, wondering if he should call Micki and tell her that they had made it to the hospital. As he stood, a doctor dressed in green surgical scrubs approached him. "Mister Ventura?"
"Doctor, what's happening? Is he going to be okay?"
"I'm sorry. Mister Marshak... didn't make it. The damage was too severe. There was nothing anyone could have done."
Johnny dropped back into the chair as the news sank in. "I... I see, doctor." As the doctor walked away tears silently crawled down Johnny's cheeks. He tried to hide his face in his hands but it was no use; the sobs racked his body as the enormity of it flooded over him, sending cries echoing the length of the hospital corridor.
Get up, young man.
Johnny's head snapped up when the whispered words reached his ears. "What?"
A nurse looked over at him. "Can I help you, sir?"
"No... I just thought you said something to me." I've got to get a grip on myself, Johnny thought as he stood up. "Actually, can you tell me if there's a phone I can use?"
"Right over there." Johnny walked over and picked up the receiver, dialing the number for Curious Goods and listening to the phone ring until the answering machine picked up. As he hung up a chill passed through his body... and he caught sight of a familiar face at the end of the hall, talking to the doctor that had told him about Jack's death. Micki raised her hands to her mouth in horror and before Johnny could get her attention, she bolted away from him and ran out the doors at the far end of the hallway. By the time he reached them he could see the Mercedes pulling out of the parking lot, almost hitting several cars as Micki floored the accelerator in the huge vehicle.
Half an hour had passed by the time Johnny reached the store. The Mercedes had been left parked on the sidewalk, almost against the front door, forcing Johnny to squeeze his way inside. As he entered the familiar dusty confines of Curious Goods he could make out the familiar shapes of the display cases, of the steer skull on the bookcase... but there was a shape in the dimness that he couldn't place, like someone was sitting behind the desk. Then it reached him: an acrid, smoky odor, mingled with a metallic tinge. Approaching the desk he saw that Micki was sitting there, her head flung back and her arms limp, a trail of blood running down her neck. Clutched in her right hand was Jack's service revolver.
It was two days before he entered Curious Goods again.
There had been little blood from the wound, pooled around the legs of the chair, and it took only a few minutes to clean. Johnny stood by the chair with a plastic-wrapped suit over his shoulder, not wanting to sit back down, not even wanting to be in the place where Micki had died, as if whatever had caused her to kill herself would claim him as well. In the darkness Johnny realized how mysterious the store truly was; over the past two years he had never spent much time alone there, and he was terrified that now he was the only one left to continue the recovery of Lewis Vendredi's cursed objects.
Johnny walked slowly up the stairs, each creaky step echoing like a gunshot in his ears. There was the table that they would never sit at and tell stories around again, and there was the TV set that Johnny would never hit and be berated by Micki again. There was Micki's room with the frilly bedcovers and her expansive collection of clothes... all of which he would have to find a place for now.
It had been hardest to call her parents. He had done that the day after she had died from the relative security of his apartment, instead of going back to the store. Johnny had only talked to her father, a gruff-voiced man who had just gone cold when Johnny had told him about his daughter. "I see, son," was all he had said after a too-long silence. "When is the funeral?"
Johnny had told him and had been thanked, and then Micki's father hung up on him abruptly. The funeral was tomorrow, right after Jack's, both in the same cemetary. Rashid had called him to help plan Jack's funeral, but he had to make arrangements for Micki's all on his own. As he looked at the suit he had brought for the funeral, his thoughts wandered back to what he was going to do about the store now that he was all alone.
He sat down at the table and laid his head on his arms, feeling a great weariness washing over him. He had nobody now; with Jack and Micki gone and his father two years dead, the only people he had left were an uncle and his family; nice people, but he didn't know them very well and had only visited them a few times. The tears threatened to surface again, but he fought them back, not even knowing why he tried anymore. All he wanted to do was sleep, maybe forever...
Yes, my boy, the voice whispered again. Sleep forever and dream.
Johnny jumped to his feet and looked around the small kitchen, suddenly terrified by the darkness. "Who's there?"
Your judge, young man. I'm the one you killed, the one you threw to her death from a sixth-floor balcony.
"No... that's not true.. it didn't happen that way!"
Liar! You know that it did! You lied to your friends, and you lied to yourself. Look where it led them... and is leading you, too.
Johnny backed up, feeling the voice echo in his mind. "It was an accident. Jack died of a heart attack."
Jack died because the enormity of the task was too much for him, just like it was for Micki. Strange that she would use a gun, was it not? Of course, it was Jack's pistol. Very symbolic.
"Get out of my head! Leave me alone!" Johnny fled down the stairs, but the voice stayed with him, taunting him with every step until he was once again at the chair.
Ahhh, the scene of the crime. You could have stopped this, you know. All you did was make mistakes, critical errors that got people killed. How does it feel, young man? How does it feel to know that you killed them?
"Yes, Mister Ventura, how does it feel?" a man's voice called from behind him, laced with a Southern accent. Footsteps came from the back of the store, slowly, deliberately, like the steps of one getting reacquainted with a place long since forgotten. "How does it feel to have done something I could never accomplish on my own?"
Even though he had never heard the voice before, he knew who it was once the man stepped into the light. The grinning face that greeted him could only be one person...but it was the face of a dead man. It was the face of Lewis Vendredi.
"Oh my God," Johnny muttered as he backed away, desperately wanting the nightmare to end, knowing that it never would.
"God can't help you now, boy. You've let me loose by killing your friends; I'm free to return this store to its rightful place in the Master's scheme." Lewis advanced on him and suddenly Johnny felt an icy hand close around his throat. "And I have you to thank for it."
"So now you'll kill me, right?" Johnny gasped, struggling to breathe.
"Now tell me why I would want to do such a thing. It would be so much more satisfying to let you live... to let you suffer as the world is filled with the Devil's toys, knowing that you were the one who caused it to be." Lewis dropped Johnny to the floor. "Get out now... before I change my mind. Besides, I'll come for you soon enough."
Johnny scrambled to his feet and fled out the door, into the night, leaving Curious Goods and everything he had known far behind. The wind blew cold and drove freezing rain into his face and clothes. He didn't even know where he was going until he found himself standing in front of an eerily familiar building... the old lady's apartment building.
It's time, young man. It's time for you to give me life again.
His legs moved with a will of their own, into the lobby, up the six flights of stairs, to the apartment door where this whole mess had begun just a few days before. Pushing the door open, Johnny could see the shattered glass on the balcony, now slick with rain. He lurched toward the opening, knowing somehow that it was all he could do to keep from being claimed by Lewis. Hell was already waiting for him, he believed with all his heart... after all, he'd killed Jack and Micki because of his stupidity, just like the old lady had said.
Just a few more steps, young man. You've caused me quite some trouble... but you can make it up to me. Just throw yourself off of the balcony that you threw me off of.
Johnny stepped forward, past the windowshades, out onto the concrete balcony. Rain pelted him as he looked over the railing into the inky darkness below. Hooking one leg over, he straddled the rail for a moment, watching the wind blow the shades in and out of the shattered balcony door.
The shades that the old lady had bought from Lewis Vendredi.
That's right, young man. Stand up on the ledge and look at your death. The voice pounded through his skull like the thunder echoing around him, bringing him to his feel, barely balanced on the ledge. Die here so you can bring me life. Johnny leaned forward, leaned out over the side of the balcony, past the ledge... and then pitched backward abruptly, falling through the broken glass door and the billowing windowshades.
The screams blacked out everything else as Johnny hit the carpet in the brightly lit apartment, covered in rainwater but caught by sunlight. As he looked up he saw the old lady shrieking, holding her hands up as they began to crumble into dust. By the time he had struggled to his knees, the woman's screams had been cut to a harsh gurgle as her throat fell away in pieces, adding to the gray pile around her feet. When she tried to move toward him her legs snapped with a sound like twin gunshots, sending her body to the floor where it shattered like glass.
"Johnny? Are you okay?" he heard Jack's voice call through the door. Johnny got to his feet and staggered to the door, unlocking it and slumping to the floor as Jack and Micki rushed in. "Oh my God, what happened?"
"She tried to kill me... tried to kill me by killing you..." Johnny heard their voices for a moment longer but then everything went black.
A loud crash roused Johnny, followed closely by the tinkle of breaking glass falling on the bare concrete floor. Looking around, Johnny could see that he was laid out on the couch in the back of Curious Goods with a threadbare quilt spread over his still-clothed form; only his shoes were removed. Jack was crouching over a wooden crate that had broken open, scattering fragments of pottery in a wide arc, and he was obviously not pleased. "Sorry I woke you, Johnny," Jack said as Johnny slowly sat up. "I lost my grip on the crate."
"Jack... is that really you?" he asked, unsure whether this was reality or still the illusion that he had endured.
"Of course it's me, Johnny." Jack walked over to the couch and sat down beside Johnny. "What on earth happened in there? We were only a few minutes behind you."
"I'm not really sure. I went in and asked about the shades, she gave me a cup of tea and then just went nuts. She started hitting me, clawing me, and then we crashed through the shades onto the balcony... and then everything got weird." Johnny told him what he had endured, what the old woman had almost coerced him into doing,,, except for one detail she had missed.
When he finished, Jack was shaking his head. "So that's how she did it with no victims being found. The shades must have created a world of their own making, where their worst fears and nightmares came true. Their torment must have become so great that they were driven to suicide, which fueled the curse."
"The shades kept her young." Johnny looked at his hands, unable to make eye contact. "Jack, I was there for three days. It was real, down to the last detail. I saw you and Micki die, I saw Lewis come back. I almost did it, almost threw myself off of that balcony. I got real lucky, Jack."
"Sometimes luck is all we have, Johnny," Micki's voice came from behind them. "I'm glad you made it out."
"You and me both, Micki." He reached out and took her hand in his own, as if to make sure it was real. "You and me both."
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This page was created on April 25, 1999.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.