Margaret was expecting the knock, but when it came she didn't move immediately. Instead she sat staring at two brimming wineglasses, placed side-by-side on the table in front of her. They were made of real glass, the only ones of their kind in the village, and she had received them for her birthday three days prior. Each one was filled to the lip with warm red wine. Behind them she had placed the bright green bottle, unlabeled and nearly empty.
The sharp, earthy smell of her wine had, over the years, soaked into the floor and walls of the cottage, and even into Margaret herself. Mixed with this was the faint, sweetish smell of loam and decay and blood and old sex. Both her hands were stained a faint purplish red from a lifetime of winemaking. She was forty-nine years old.
Margaret listened for a second knock, and when one didn't come she eased herself out of her chair. The rough wood of the door felt nice against her palms as she pulled it open. Outside a blond youth, thirty years her junior and shirtless, rested one arm against her doorframe. He was sharply in-focus, glittering and alive and somehow too large for the simple cottage.
There wasn't anything to say. Margaret's chin was quivering a little, embarrassing both her and the youth, who turned his face towards the sunset. She composed herself, wiping a faint film of sweat off her upper lip. Then out of sheer nervousness she began to speak.
"It's already time, then. My, my. Come on in. Wouldn't want to keep you waiting." She tried a laugh, but the sound was brittle and uncomfortable, and she soon stopped.
The young man coughed eloquently, and Margaret stepped back from the doorway so that he could enter. He glanced cursorily around the room, a kind of disdainful fondness flickering across his face. "May I sit down?"
On the center of the table was a simple clay pitcher, half-full of water and bristling with fading sunflowers. Velvety dead petals were scattered around its base. It was beside this that Margaret had set the wineglasses and bottle. She gestured him towards a rough wooden seat,
then smiled to herself as he pulled a second one out for her.
In the creaking silence Margaret touched her glass against the youth's, and listened to the sweet ringing sound. She took a small sip, and the familiar, loamy taste set her partially at ease.
"Oh, I'm so excited! Forty-nine years old. It's hard to imagine, you know. It passed so amazingly quickly. And now it's my turn! You know, you'll be my age before you know it. You'll be…"
She trailed off, startled into silence at her own thoughtlessness. The young man's sharp blue eyes reproached her, but after a moment he softened. "How did you spend the last three days, Margaret?"
"With my family. With my daughter, actually. You must be about her age, right?"
"Younger. I turned nineteen last March."
"Nineteen. God, I remember nineteen." She almost smiled, tracing the fingertips of her right hand over the worn tablecloth.
"You must be so proud, Margaret. I mean, this is quite an honor."
"Oh, I know. Imagine, the village choosing me!" She took another small sip of wine. The youth did the same, and Margaret tried to stop herself from watching him swallow.
"You're the oldest, Margaret. You were the only choice."
"Well, I know that. Still. It's nice to pretend that it's because of something special."
They drank in silence for a few more moments. The young man's face remained impassive, but he began to take larger sips. Margaret watched nervously as the level in his glass sank.
"Don't drink so quickly," she said, and laughed into one hand. Her eyes were fixed on his face. He scowled warningly, but she plunged on.
"I was so surprised when I opened the last present, and there were the wineglasses! I mean, I didn't think I'd be given those for another few years at least. Almost doesn't seem fair. I mean, I know it's fair, and I'm proud, but… it wasn't long enough. I didn't have long enough." She ended in a low voice, trailing off and curling both her hands into fists around the stained tablecloth. She had stopped pretending to smile.
He took a final sip, and carefully set the empty wineglass down. "Alright, Margaret. It's time."
"I'm not done yet!" she answered quickly, her voice high and tense and somehow strange even to Margaret. She brandished her wineglass, sloshing the liquid back and forth a few times. "See? I still have some left!"
"Stop that!" The young man's face was dark and shocking with anger, and his words cut through her sudden, choking hysteria.
She grew still. A thin, terrible smile jostled its way back onto her face. "You're right. I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me. Let me just finish this, and then we can go ahead." She swallowed the rest of the wine without tasting it, then picked up the bright green bottle and held it out to the youth. "Here you go. I'm sorry, I just couldn't believe it was already time. Seems like only yesterday… and now the vats are ready. I'm excited about this, you know."
"I know." The youth took out a vial of clear liquid, unscrewing the top and holding it gingerly over the wine bottle. When it was empty he gently shook the bottle back and forth to mix the poison with what was left of the wine. Then he held it out to Margaret.
She had control of her face, but barely. Her smile was fraying badly around the edges, and showed just a wet glint of teeth. "Well. This is it, then. To the last drop," she said hesitantly, and reached out for the bottle.
When Margaret's fingers touched the cool, glassy surface something seemed to snap inside her, and she wrenched her hand back. For a moment she was too startled to move, but a second later she began to struggle towards the door. She clawed at the young man, at the air, at anything she could reach, pulling herself away from the sweet, sick smell of the cottage. The youth darted between her and her escape route, sighed softly, and shoved her to the ground.
"Really, Margaret. You know I didn't want to have to do this."
She screamed into his face then, digging her fingernails deep in the soft flesh of his forearm and writhed frantically against the wooden floorboards. He began to slap her, roughly and methodically, and eventually she quieted. In a small voice she began to whisper to him, urgently twisting her hands together.
"I don't want this. I don't want this."
"It's an honor, Margaret. You're lucky, you know."
Her face was contorted with fear, and each word was hissed softly as she struggled for breath. "I know. No. It's wrong, what we do. Please. I haven't had enough time."
"I respect you, Margaret. Some people just don't know what they want."
Her words were cut short as the youth lifted up his free arm and smashed the wine bottle against the side of her face. When he raised it again, a few drops of the tainted red liquid spattered her cheek, mingling with the blood that had begun to trickle onto the floor. The youth straightened, staring solemnly down at her body. The gash in her face gaped, smiling hideously back at him.
"It's what you wanted, Margaret. It's what we all want."
Returning to the table he carefully poured the rotten water out of the pitcher, and then laid the putrid sunflowers on the counter. Kneeling beside her body he very gently raised her cooling arm, and pulled the knife out of his back pocket. The blade shone dully as he ran it over her skin, and soon her blood was flowing steadily into the clay pitcher. The soft patter of falling drops filled the little cottage.
It took five cuts to fill the pitcher; one across each wrist, one across the stringy underside of each ankle, and a final one across the smooth, papery skin of her neck. When he was finished the youth picked up the brimming pitcher, careful not to waste a drop of its pulpy red contents. He walked along a narrow dirt road back towards the center of the village, where he was met by a crowd of children. Catching sight of him they began to shout delightedly, reaching their small, plump hands up to try and touch the clay pitcher he carried. The youth smiled benevolently down at them, slowly pushing his way through and continuing towards the large, badly lit barn to his left. The children continued to follow him as he passed through the barn's molding archway, several of them picked up and held high in the arms of their parents so that they wouldn't miss a moment of the ceremony. The youth let the doors swing shut behind him.
Once inside, he continued to walk in the same measured pace towards the large oaken barrels at the rear of the barn, and everyone he passed patted him on the back or hissed their spirited congratulations in his ears. He left their arms and stepped up beside the first vat, carefully uncorking it and breathing deeply of the smooth, heady scent. Then he picked up a small, stained wooden cup and filled it to the brim with Margaret's blood.
This he poured with a flourish into the first barrel. The watching villagers screamed with pleasure. The youth repeated the process at each of the barrels, finally scraping the jellied red fluid from the bottom of the pitcher as he stood beside the last one. And every time he tipped the little red cup, the crowd shrieked with delight.
He stepped off the last wooden platform a hero, smothered under the wave of pride and giddy excitement. They carried him out of the barn and set him noisily down on the village green, still laughing and shouting with sheer, electric ecstasy. The celebrations would last the entire night and most of the next day, as they did every year.
The village was famous for its wine.
Written for They Hunger For Nodes: An E2 Halloween Scary Story Quest