The apprehension Carl channeled from the lady at his left set his leg to jittering. This mirrored the fingers tapping upon the steering wheel of the van they occupied. The lady—Carl’s aunt, Marilyn, nicknamed Marlee—had come to check in on her mentally-challenged brother as she’d often done in the past. But after parking in the driveway of a large home, in a middle-class neighborhood of south-central Arizona, she made no move. Except for those tapping fingers.
At eighteen years, Carl looked every bit the high-school senior ready to go out and claim his spot among the world’s alpha males. His wavy, dirty-blond hair that gets harder to tame as the inches stack up complemented his rosy-white skin, which sported a light tan at present. A nearly six-foot, athletic build put the finishing touch on his classical good looks.
Leaning forward in the front passenger seat, he searched Marilyn’s face.
She kept looking through the windshield to the house she and her brother had grown up in, to the gearshift between the van seats, and back again.
Moments passed before Carl spoke. “So, Aunt Marlee, I’m guessing you’re thinking about that conversation you and Howard had last night?”
The tapping halted. Instead, she gripped the steering wheel and muttered past stiff lips, “Simply refuses to call me Mom.” Louder, she said, “It was so…unusual.”
Carl grimaced and the bounce in his leg intensified though not by conscious thought. He didn’t enjoy irritating this woman who had always shown him unconditional love and cared for him the same as she cared for her natural-born children. But he couldn’t bring himself to assign that title to her. Not yet. His attachment to his biological mom and his longing for her belated return wouldn’t allow it. He mumbled an apology.
Marilyn continued, “I mean, some witch weeping in the corner of his room? And then something about being driven to entertain her…But that terrible things could happen if he did?” Exhaling forcefully, she propped her arm on the door and rubbed at her temples. “I hate it when I can’t figure out what he’s trying to say. It makes it very difficult to help him.”
“It sounds like an adjustment of his meds would probably help, if you asked me. Or, maybe he stopped taking them for some reason? It wouldn’t be the first time.” Carl said with a shrug.
“You may be right.”
“Then again, it could have been some nightmare he was having.”
“That’s what I told him. Hopefully, he followed my advice and went back to sleep.” Marilyn sighed. “Ugh. But he might not have. The anxiety in his voice—I should have prayed with him.”
Heidi, Marlee’s fifteen-year-old daughter, as pretty and petite as she was outspoken, said from behind. “Are any of us going to go in? I still wish you’d taken us home first, Mom. But, since you didn’t, can we please make this visit quick. I’m getting hungry.”
“All right. I’ll make it quick,” Marlee said. “Stay here with Tyler since he’s napping. You too, Carl.”
She took a deep breath, got out of the van, and walked up the driveway to the house.
Carl pulled out his cell and thumbed his way to one of his favorite YouTube channels.
But, soon, a sense of woe made him lift his gaze from a comedic clip that seemed less humorous to him than it was probably meant to be. He saw Marlee standing on the porch, peering into the half-closed shutters of the window.
She jerked back, as if frightened by something she saw, then scurried over to the front door. Her hands shook so badly when she tried to insert the key into the lock that she dropped them.
Carl set his phone aside and looked over his shoulder at the two other occupants of the van.
Tyler’s head rested against the back of the seat he occupied, eyes shut and lips parted as he breathed, lost in sweet repose.
Heidi sat staring down at her phone, thumbing away at the screen.
“Muppet, uh, I’m gonna make sure your mother doesn’t lose track of time in there.”
“Don’t call me Muppet.” She didn’t look up nor pause her thumbs. “Dork.”
Carl smirked. “Be right back.”
The haunting silence pervading the house made Carl’s skin crawl. Then, he looked to the right where his Aunt Marlee stood. She hugged her arms as though holding herself together. Tears wet her cheeks and dripped to the floor as she gazed up at the face of her brother.
His body hung by a long, heavy-duty electrical cord from a supporting beam of the vaulted living room ceiling.
Carl eyes went wide. “Oh, my God.” He clamped a hand over his gaping mouth and looked away.
Regretting that he’d come, he turned to high tail it back out the door but found that he couldn’t leave. He couldn’t let his aunt face this tragedy alone. He turned and started her way.
Her posture stiffened, apparently at the sound of the floor creaking under his foot.
Carl was halfway to her but froze at the subtle variation in her stance.
She wiped her face and let her hands fall. Then her voice ripped through the silence. “Couldn’t you stay in the van with your cousins for just a few minutes? I seem to remember telling you all to do that,” she said without even looking to see that Carl was the one approaching.
Her tone stung even while the words seemed to catch in her throat, but Carl pressed on and made it to her side. “I saw through the windshield that you were frightened and got kinda worried.” He glanced at his father’s body. “Oh, crud.” He swallowed. It didn’t ease the queasiness in his stomach. He willed himself not to barf. “Uh, Aunt Marlee? I’m so sor—”
“Why, for the love of God, did he have to choose hanging?” She sniffed despite the bitterness the question held.
Carl’s eyes flicked to the corpse again. He ran his hand through his hair then looked away, quicker than before. Shrugging, he said, “Mmmaybe... I don’t know. I—I don’t even wanna take a guess.”
“Me neither.” Marilyn shook her head. “It’s so unconscionable. It’s the same way Judas Iscariot went out, you know.”
“Yeah. Right.” Carl frowned while he tried to remember who this Judas person was. He vaguely recalled hearing the name at a couple of the church meetings she often dragged him to. Beyond that he could only guess. “All right, but—”
“Do you imagine, when they found Judas, that his eyes were all bugged-out like this?” Marlee continued. “Or, did they close before he took his last breath?”
Carl frowned. “Huh? W-why—”
“And check out these lips. What kind of blue is this really? Smoky? Cobalt?”
“Uh, you okay, Aunt Marlee?” He took hold of her hand. It felt cool and trembled a little. He gave it a squeeze.
She looked at Carl with tearful eyes. “It-it was only a nightmare. Why? Why do this?”
Pulling her hand from his grasp, she raised both hands to cover her face. With a whimper, she hung and wagged her head.
Carl pressed his lips together and stood tall but could not stop his own tears. They flowed not out of any pity for this man, a father he had no real connection to. Rather, Carl felt Marlee’s pain—that it went very deep. And it tore him up inside. He sincerely hoped she wouldn’t fall into uncontrollable weeping. He’d lose it altogether.
Abruptly, she raised her head, wiped her cheeks, and let her hands drop.
Carl breathed a sigh of relief. It appeared he wouldn’t be reduced to a blubbering sap after all.
Marilyn let fly a brief chuckle. “Crazy thing is all I really care the most about is my brother choosing to hang himself. Not to say that a bullet to the head, slitting the wrists or any other method of self-destructing would have been any better. I—Wh-What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t be like this. I shouldn’t be able to stand. I should be…ugly crying. Right?”
Carl said, “Aunt Marlee, you didn’t come here expecting this. Like you said earlier, he was supposed to go back to sleep. You’re not yourself. Who would be if they were dealing with this kind of thing?”
“Yeah. You’re right, I s’pose.” She sighed.
They stood there for a moment, him examining the floor while his aunt stared up at the gruesome sight.
The silence regrouped around them.
Marlee sucked in a breath. “Oh my goodness! Carl! You must be all broken up inside over this.”
Carl looked at her and offered a bland smile.
Reaching out, she lifted a few unruly locks out of his face and tucked them behind an ear. “Guess that’s about right. You were only almost four when he brought you to me and John, begged us to take you in. He knew trying to raise you himself wouldn’t be best. Not with his mental instabilities.”
She had a point. The little Carl did know about his father, he’d pieced together from short visits in the summer, the occasional holiday and birthdays. Sad but true, he wasn’t, he couldn’t, bring himself to feel too ‘broken up.’
Marlee’s eyes widened. “Your cousins! I need you to go. Now. Hurry! Get back to the van before—”
A terrible shrieking sounded from the doorway. Heidi had stepped inside. “Noooo! Uncle Howie, NOOO!”
“For goodness sake! Doesn’t ‘stay in here’ mean anything to anybody anymore?” Marlee despaired as she charged towards her daughter to block her from getting near enough to see every ugly detail of her uncle’s demise. She hardly paused as she wrapped her arms around Heidi’s wispy frame and hustled her outside.
The same almost tangible silence that imposed earlier returned as Carl stood alone in the presence of his father’s corpse. Meanwhile, he forced back new tears that arose from witnessing Heidi’s grief. Glancing at the frightening body helped him to regain composure. Yet, he kept having to avert his eyes after each quick look.
The stench underscoring the scene seemed to grow more fetid by the second. Either he left or risk hurling the contents of his stomach. The scene deserved more respect.
In his haste to move away, Carl’s foot bumped a squat stepladder lying nearby, sending it askew by a few inches. He ordered himself to keep moving. Seconds later, he turned and used his foot to nudge it back to its original spot.
He would forever remember the picture. A stepladder. And, off to the side, sock-covered feet suspended over a small puddle—a dead man’s final response to a rough life.
Carl started back out, towards the van. But a faint musical tone he’d swear he never heard before sounded from somewhere towards the back of the house. His heart flittered at the freakish sound but recovered in seconds and an overwhelming curiosity took hold. The tone repeated, summoning him like a mother, his mother, eager for a long-awaited reunion. Though knowing she couldn’t possibly be there, he could almost feel a ghostly embrace, the warmth of it seeping through his shirt to his skin, though simultaneously making his blood run cold. He shuddered. Still, spell-bound by the sweet refrain, he started towards the back of the house.
He proceeded through the kitchen which offered nothing quite as scandalous as the other room, except for the knives on the countertop. Six of them were lined up in a row like contestants in a cutlery pageant. Perhaps, an alternate choice of ending his life that Howard canned? Carl shook his head.
The distraction held him for only a few seconds, the melodious chord drawing him forward from his core. He did not know how it moved him nor could he care why. He simply needed. Though he never willed it, his pace quickened to get to the source of the sound.
He entered the master bedroom where the first thing to catch his eyes was his father’s old guitar. It was propped up in a shadowy corner on the opposite side of the room.
He froze. Then he scrambled over to the spot. He paused and gazed at the instrument for a moment, debating. Touching it seemed improper, disrespectful in a way he couldn’t explain. But the instrument demanded to be held.
The 1932 Gibson L-00 acoustic wore a heavy coat of dust. A string gone askew provided further evidence of serious neglect. As if to punctuate this, an exceptionally large, nasty-looking spider crawled out of the soundhole, causing him to almost drop the thing.
The spider sat motionless against the front, perhaps contemplating the meaning of life.
Recovering from the surprise, Carl looked around for anything he might use to kill it. He snatched a sheet of paper up from a nearby nightstand and used it as a barrier for his hand while he smashed the arachnid flat against the guitar. A squirming he swore he felt through the paper prompted him to press the sheet harder against the instrument, even grinding it with the base of his palm. With a scooping wipe, he removed the messy result and crumpled the paper into a tight ball in his fist.
Marlee appeared in the doorway. “I need you to go sit with Muppet. And Skooch. He’s awake now. Keep ‘em calm while I deal with the police.” She slapped her palm to her forehead. “Darn it. The Police.” Digging into her pockets, she wondered out loud: “Where’s my phone?” She paused. “And why are you still standing there, Carl? Go.”
“All right. On my way. But—”
“Oh, heck. I must have put it down in the room where Howard is.” She dismissed Carl, turned and started towards her deceased brother.
“Wait. Aunt Marlee?”
“Whaat?” She spun about.
“I found Howard’s guitar. You know. The one mom bought for him. I was wondering. I-I know it’s a little soon but…would it be all right if I kept it?”
She propped the elbow of an arm upon the one lying across her front and tapped fingers to her chin before responding, “Yeah. It’s very soon.”
“Sorry. If you say I have to, I’ll wait.” He raked a hand through his hair. “But…Please?”
“It’s a piece of junk, Carl. What do you need with it?”
His head hung. “I—I don’t know. I just…I need it.”
“You know what? Why not?” She sighed. “I imagine your father would want you to have it anyway.”
Carl dealt her a smile. He knew Marlee well enough to know she was hurting really bad. Shouting for joy or pumping his fist would be cruel treatment. Drawing a breath to quell his excitement, he responded simply, “Thanks, Aunt Marlee.”
She nodded. “Now, quickly, before you go back and sit with your cousins, come help me with something in the living room.” She huffed. “‘Living room.’ There’s an ironic term, if I ever heard one.” She turned and walked off.
Carl slung the guitar across his back by the old, fraying embroidered strap, readying to go help his aunt. With his first step, he kicked the balled-up piece of paper. It skittered to the threshold and tapped against the door frame. Like a lightning bolt, that soft tap brought the thought of what the piece of paper might be to his mind.
Stepping forward, he bent and retrieved the crumpled ball. His entire body tensed while he coaxed the sheet back to a more readable form. He saw writing and his fingers trembled.
Carl paused and took deep breaths, not sure if he really wanted to read it.
But, when he’d pulled it open well enough, he could see he wouldn’t be able to decipher the message anyway. Spider parts covered most of what had been written. To make matters worse, several words appeared washed out, blurred, as if Howard had cried while writing it.
Carl squinted and strained to decipher the suicide note. The only words he could be sure of were Gibson and, a couple lines later, JUST DON’T.
Carl ran a hand through his hair. “Just don’t what?”
Marlee’s cry came from the other part of the house. “Carl. Come here, now! Please. I need you to help me get my brother down. I won’t stand for the police to find him this way. Strung up like that— It’s…it’s…wrong. Hurry!”
A couple of seconds passed before the order sank into Carl’s head. Once it did, the note fell from his hand. When it landed on the floor, it veered backwards underneath the bed and out of sight, never to be seen again.
The relevancy of deciphering the message, even the memory of it went out the proverbial window as Carl turned to the doorway. “You want me to do what?”
The air split open beside a tree on a street in the middle-class community. The split, unnoticed by the small gathering of onlookers standing on the opposite side, disgorged a man—a Sean Connery lookalike of average height and muscular bearing who was ostensibly advanced in years.
Melfour Lucius alSurgeon, First Circle Mage of the Black Order and djinn token-seeker, hurried over and merged with the group as they observed the removal of a body from a house. He, however, paid the most attention to the young man sitting in the van. The young man with an enviable instrument resting in his lap.
He gnashed his teeth in frustration. His right jaw twitched. He’d followed the lead of the Omniscient Compass with meticulous obedience. Still, he arrived a little too late. His gaze dropped to the ground. He fought the urge to stomp the concrete, even knowing the attack would change nothing. How did this happen? Had he misinterpreted the oracle’s message?
A scowl marred the mage’s face. He blamed his failure on the extra time he needed to take to cast a diversion spell in order to throw off the Netherways Patrol as well as one Ruenyah alPatmus, a particularly pesky rival wizard, token-seeker and perpetual thief.
He grumbled and turned away, weary of playing the part of nosy neighbor. He needed to devise a new plan and put it in motion.
As the distance between him and the crowd widened, it occurred to him that his quick, smooth stride didn’t quite harmonize with his pretense of being elderly.
He quickened his pace. Did he need to worry? Not even one person was noticing.