At first I only hear machines. There's a comforting, steady beep coming from behind me. There are soft, whirring sounds and something that sounds like a pump. From farther off, I can hear voices. They're low, discreet and soft and I have strain to make out what they're saying. I catch the voice of a man in mid-sentence, "--how he survived the fire. No one does, really. The best guess is that somehow the massive dose of painkillers he took kept him from going into shock."
A woman says, "But the trauma from the burns alone--"
"I know, but somehow he lived. And physically, he's in decent shape considering --"
I open my eyes and stare. Then I start to scream. The man says, "Doctor, get the duty nurse."
I can't stop screaming and screaming. I overhear someone saying, "Thirty CCs of Haldol!"
I see a flurry of white lab coats and blue and scrubs around my bed and a handsome man with a needle. I can't stop screaming. I know I'm not making any sense. I can't think of the right words to tell these people. The man jabs me in the arm with the needle. It's not long before a deep, drug-induced calm wells up in me and I close my eyes again.
My mind's eye tries to twist the place into a crooked little cottage in a swamp with an ancient gnarled live oak all covered with spanish moss looming over it. There should have been long shadows cast by a gibbous moon. But the truth of the matter is that she lived a neat little ranch style house in Pasadena. It was white with yellow trim. The lawn was freshly mown. There were birds of paradise bordering the porch. It was a hot summer afternoon and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I stared at the little business card I'd been given. It was a hot day and I was nervous and the letters on the card were smudged from my sweat. My palms were dripping. I could still make out the address and this was the right one. I walked up a narrow brick path to the front porch. There were two rocking chairs on the porch facing the street. They began to rock gently back and forth as I passed them. Sweet peas hung in a pot over my head; they swayed in the breeze. I knocked at the door. After a little while, the door was opened by a tiny, wrinkled, nut-brown woman. She was wearing a heavily starched navy blue suit, the skirt had perfect creases. On her left lapel she wore a brooch with letters that spelled out "Jesus" in rhinestones. Her hair was almost as white as her linen blouse. She stared at me with mismatched eyes; one brown, one blue. Her gaze was piercing and inquisitive. It reminded me of a bird of prey. I stammered out, "Mrs. Braud?"
She frowned at this and muttered, "It's pronounced bro, not broad. You must be Mr. Hudson," She opened the door wide enough for me to enter, then snapped, "Well, come on in. You're letting the cold out."
I followed her into a front parlor filled with dusty, slightly eccentric knicknacks. There was a very large and heavy-looking Grandfather Clock that was stopped at 3:35. There was a ceramic reproduction of Michelangelo's Pieta that also appeared to be a candy dish. There was a small, plastic doll wearing a pink and white crocheted hoop skirt. There was an amateurish painting of The Last Supper hanging above a powder blue velveteen couch with a vinyl slip cover. Mrs. Braud gestured at me to sit down on the couch. I did. She sat across from me in a green brocade wing chair and offered me pistachios from a crystal dish. I politely refused. She took a nut from the dish with one clawlike, wizened hand and popped it into her mouth, shell and all. She crunched it between even, strong teeth. She chewed thoughtfully for a minute, then swallowed and stared at me with those eyes, "What brings you here, to me?"
"There's something I want -- something I need done, and I've asked around and they all say you're the best."
She rubbed her chin, "The best at what?"
I saw no reason to dissemble, "The best at spells and hexes and curses."
She nodded at this, "Could be they're right. Which is it you want done?"
I told her what I wanted. She murmured something softly under her breath and stared at the wall. Then she sighed, it was a deep, wearied sound. She looked at me half with pity, half with contempt and said, "It can be done. But what you want will cost you true."
I pulled out my checkbook, she shook her head, "We'll talk about what you'll pay me later. But the kind of cost I mean is for those who don't have need for cash. They don't drive fancy cars. They don't wear pretty jewelry."
I was confused by this. The man I had met by the docks had assured me it would be a straightforward transaction. I said as much.
She shook her head again, "What you want, boy is a wicked thing. Very wicked thing. Old woman like me can't do that herself. You need help to get something like this done. You pay me for calling the help. But you need wicked things to get something wicked done. You want it bad enough. But if you call on these, you pay, one way or another, you pay."
"So what's the cost?" I asked.
She rubbed her chin for a while, "For something like this? They might be satisfied with your right hand. If you chopped it off good and right with an axe at the crossroads and obeyed all the proper forms. They like it to be done up proper."
I snorted, "I'm not mutilating myself."
Mrs. Braud shrugged, "Suit yourself. You don't got to pay for their services up front. But it's always less costly that way. One way or another, you will pay if you want this done."
"I want it done," I said. I figured if there were some heavy cost I'd figure out how to pay it once I had everything I wanted. Once I had everything I wanted it would all be easy.
"And you don't want to pay first before I ask?" she said. Again that look of pity crept into her dried apple face.
"I'll pay later," I laughed.
She closed her eyes and hummed a little. She whispered something to the air. Then she opened her eyes, and pinched her lips tightly together. She said, "It's done."
I looked at her incredulously, "That's all? No candles? No stabbing clay dolls with a pin? No making signs on the floor?"
She coughed and made a contemptuous sound, "You want all those hocus pocus trappings? I can do that, it'll cost you extra and won't mean nothing, but I can do that. If it'll make you feel better. If it'll make you think that I did this thing and not you. Know this, boy, true magic is about will, not about chanting or ritual. You wanted something done and I helped you. If you want candles and shrieking, we can negotiate."
There was something cold in those mismatched eyes that made me shrink inside. I felt the air grow tense. I stammered an apology. After that, she looked like a little old lady again.
Slowly, with great care, she got up from the brocade wing chair and hobbled over to me. She held out one of her clawlike hands and said, "Now, for my fee."
A week after my visit, I was cursing myself for spending so much money on a wrinkly old bat who had probably been conning desperate young men out of their paychecks since before first world war. If anything, things had gotten worse. Gloria wouldn't even so much as look at me anymore. Gloria was the HR Manager. Gloria was also my boss' wife. She was thirty years younger than Richard and gorgeous. She had glossy black hair and long, flexible legs that she could wrap around you and squeeze you until you cried out. My petname for her was Glory, Glory Hallelujah. We had fooled around several times, a few times in the office or at parties when she was drunk. Once, she gave me a blowjob when I was on a conference call with her husband. But two days after I went to see Mrs. Braud, she pulled me aside and said, "I think Richard's on to us."
I said, "What makes you say that?"
"Last night when we were in bed and he couldn't get it up, he started asking all these questions about you. He said something about you being a good-looking kid and that he didn't like the way you looked at me."
"That doesn't mean anything, baby. He's just insecure."
"Insecure or not, I signed a pre-nup. I'm not blowing his millions to fuck around with you. I'm sorry, David, I like you. But not that much."
After that exchange, she wouldn't talk to me. She wouldn't even make eye contact if she could help it. Even if I had a legitimate business reason to talk to her, like discussing new hires, she'd cut the conversation short and disappear if she could manage it. Meanwhile, the fourth quarter profits for the company didn't look good. There was some murmuring about downsizing. I overheard someone saying, "Surely we don't need a graphic design department. We can outsource that."
I was the graphic design department. I had half a mind to drive back to Pasadena and bang on the door of that evil old shrew until she gave me back my money. But I didn't. And then, at the start of the third week after I visited her, everything changed.
It started with Gloria bursting into my office. She looked terrible. Her mascara was running down her cheeks, her eyes were red and her nose was swollen. She looked at me bit her knuckle and sobbed, "Did you hear? Did you hear the terrible news?"
I wondered what awful thing had happened now. Then Gloria shut the door behind her and turned towards me with a great big grin. She sat on the edge of my desk and leaned over close to me, "Richard's dead. Big, fiery car crash this morning. He made a wrong turn on the highway. He's got no relatives. That means that after I play the grieving widow for long enough for the will to clear, you and me will live the good life."
She kissed me hard on the mouth, "Don't forget to wipe the lipstick off."
Then she began to sob again and wailed loudly, "I told him not to drive those fast sports cars, I told him to be careful."
She winked at me and walked out of my office.
Two weeks later, Richard's widow, who was now the majority shareholder in the company, appointed the graphic designer the new President/CEO in her husband's place. In less than a year, we were married. A little after that, our struggling little company was acquired by a huge conglomerate. This resulted in major profits for everyone, but especially the wife and me. I had everything I had ever wanted. I was rich, powerful and I had the woman of my dreams at my side. We ate in the best restaurants, wore custom tailored clothes and went on long vacations to exotic locales. It was the good life. Gradually, I forgot about the little old woman and her warnings about paying for what I wanted. And for about three years I didn't have a care in the world. Then things started getting strange.
I started to hear nasty little chuckles, but when I turned to look, there was no one around. I'd see slimy, shadowy things with red eyes at the edges of my vision, but when I turned to look at these things squarely, there'd be nothing there. In the night I'd hear the sound of gnashing teeth in the walls, it was like a rat, but somehow more sinister. Gloria never heard anything. And then the dreams started. Dreams where the nasty things I'd see out of the corner of my eyes were standing around me as far as I could see, waiting and staring with a hungry look. In each successive the dream they'd get a little closer. In the last dream one of them spoke. The voice was low and somber and somehow rhythmic. It reminded me of a baptist preacher. The thing said, "You gotta pay what you owe."
After the dream where the thing spoke to me, I headed straight to the place in Pasadena where the old woman lived. I still had the sweat-stained business card. I'd kept it as sort of a memento. But when I drove to the address on the card, there wasn't a little white house with yellow trim anymore. There was a fenced-off hole in the ground. A sign on the fence said "Future Site of Luxury Condominiums. Reservations Starting Now!". I stared at that sign for about a half hour. I punched it. I cursed and spat on the ground. Then I went home.
Nothing bad happened that day. But I spent the day with a sense of dread hanging over me. I took a man's money, I took a man's wife, I took a man's life. what would they take from me? I suppose I should have enjoyed that day. Profits for the company were up and I got a healthy bonus. Gloria showed up for a surprise luxury lunch. But the champagne and foie gras were tasteless, and her kisses left me cold. I was distracted and unhappy no matter what good things happened.
It was the next day that things started to go sour. It turned out that Gloria wasn't happy with just the wealth she had inherited, she had been embezzling healthy sums from the company. Worse, she had used my name, my computer passwords and my signature to do so. There was a clear paper trail leading back to me. There was a serious investigation and I looked guilty as all hell. To make matters worse, Gloria had shown up that morning at the police station with a black eye. According to the police report, she had been crying hysterically and said she was terrified of me. She was afraid that I'd kill her. She showed several bruises on her body in various states of healing. I'd never once touched her roughly. But a restraining order was placed and there were nasty murmurs about charges being pressed. I was asked to resign my position as President/CEO until all litigation was resolved.
This went on for weeks. I didn't have anymore nightmares, but the nasty chuckling sounds and the gnawing in the walls was getting worse. I started to see the things out of the corners of my eyes more often. My reputation was ruined. My lawyer suggested I declare bankruptcy. I was looking at jail time. I took a man's money, I took a man's wife, I took a man's life. Now all but one of those were lost to me. And I knew what I had to do.
Some of Gloria's things were still in the penthouse. Among them were her prescription medications. I looked through the medicine cabinet. One of the bottles was labelled Hydrocodone. This was a painkiller. I had so much pain. So I took one after another after another. I was lying on the floor, the cold marble bathroom floor and I felt so peaceful. I think I vomited a little. But it was calm, and it was quiet and I was going to die. My breathing was slow and I was just about to close my eyes when I heard that voice, the one from dreams say, "Not yet. You still owe."
And I smelled smoke. And it went black.
I open my eyes again. The drug has worn off. This time, I'm ready. This time I don't scream. She's still there, sitting on the edge of my hospital bed. Watching me with mismatched eyes; one brown, one blue. I'm still not sure if it's pity or contempt on her face. The rhinestones on her Jesus brooch glitter in the cold, morning light. And I know the dark things are here, too. Waiting with that hungry look in their eyes.
"Soon," I say to her, "soon."
But she just smiles and folds her hands together as if for a prayer.