They talked Carol into dropping by. His coworkers met at the tavern once a week after their shift. The Graveyard Ghouls, they called themselves, and one of them even had patches made up, about three inches round, with a melting ghost face amidst a field of flame, clutching a wrench in its teeth. Carol wanted nothing to do with them normally, but agreed to stop in on account of it being Christmas Eve.
A crow, claws clicking with agitation on the flashing of the squat single-story tavern, drew his attention. He stopped and watched it pulling at a string of colored lights, useless and dim in the overcast morning. It cocked his head and looked at him, then hopped backward and disappeared, behind the roof lip.
He did not particularly want to be here. But since complete anonymity was impossible, and people talk if you're too standoffish, it made sense to make an effort to show up. Rude people stand out, he knew. But boring people? — and Carol was very good at being boring — boring people were ignored.
He pushed open the heavy weathered door, a porthole at his eye-level caught a neon sign as a flash of red in his peripheral vision. Inside, a dozen of his coworkers huddled at a grouped set of tables. Aside from the owner, who was leaning on the bar and looking at his phone, the only other soul in the place was a young man with greasy hair, wearing an armless jeans jacket over his leather, club insignia on the back — a fist holding a red heart, and above and below it, the words "Rip it out with your hands." He was playing video poker, and the screen made a flickering glow on his unshaven face. There was something about him Carol found curious, but someone called his name, and he walked over to his coworkers and took an open chair.
They knew better to ask Carol if he wanted a drink, and Betty even politely moved a pitcher from in front of him when he sat. Jack passed him a pint glass of water, but it smelled of bleach and he didn't drink.
"You got plans?" Betty asked him. He could smell the beer on her breath, her voice rough from years of smoke.
"No," said Carol. "Wish they'd run the line Christmas Day. Get some overtime."
"I hear that," Betty said. "I'd work this year. I'm alone, my daughter's in Mexico. Can you believe it? Mexico. She's texting me pictures from a beach. Trying to drive me mad. She knows I can't travel. I had this operation on my eye. Got a bubble in there, if I fly? Pow. Bursts open. I go blind. It's the pressure change in the cabins. No beach in the world worth that, but that little jerk still taunts me all the day long."
"Hmmm," Carol said.
"Well, I hope you have a Merry Christmas," she said.
She tipped her beer to him, and he reciprocated with his water, then sat it back down without bringing it to his lips.
He stayed for thirty minutes, picking his moment when Betty and that raven-haired drunk whose name he could never keep went out back for a cigarette.
He visited the bathroom, and while washing his hands, he heard the women's voices through a cracked window.
"...never seen him with a woman?" That wasn't Betty, so must be black hair.
"I've worked with the man for ten years, never seen a ring or heard him talk about a soul. Never caught him stealing a glance, neither."
"So he's got some tinsel on his tree. Big whoop."
"I guess you never know, but that don't read right either," said Betty."
"Well, he's off somehow. Something about him isn't square."
"Oh, don't say that."
"You feel sorry for him."
"Well, he ain't bad looking, I'm sure he could have a friend if he wanted."
"Honey, I think the last thing that man wants is any kind of friend."
"I guess that's what got me curious, right? Who the hell doesn't want friends?"
The rain was starting as he crunched across the gravel of the parking lot. The video poker guy was straddling his bike, a skullcap helmet fit tight. He kicked the starter, arms high, gripping ridiculous ape hangers. The engine turned, and Carol could feel the thrum up from his feet. It hit his gut and made him nauseous. He watched the man ride away, the machine throwing a wake of cascading sound waves for nearly a minute as it cruised down the highway.
It pulled up something for Carol, something that made his heart beat mad, a memory of a rider. That obscene sound. "Loud pipes save lives" a voice repeated in his head, and he saw those steel toed black leather boots, and remembered a broken rib and difficulty breathing. Gravel of a parking lot tearing at his cheek. Chains rattling. Too drunk to know what was going on. Too drunk to remember a decade or so, frankly. But he wasn't too drunk to remember one thought: "I deserved it."
Traffic was confused, jumpy, and frustrated with people needing to get their last bit of shopping done. Carol stopped at the market, standing in line behind some Martha Stewart with cart brimming: fixings for pie, a large ham, whipped cream, and nearly twenty bottles of wine. Just as her turn came up, she turned to him and squeaked "so sorry!" And then ran off to retrieve something or another she forgot.
In his basket, a steak, some potatoes, some spinach to wilt, a six pack of Coke. A hunting magazine. He waited without complaint until she came back, but turned his face away from her when she tried to apologize.
He was home before noon. He decided to stay up and just sleep the night like he was a normal person. He rarely inverted his schedule, but there was something about Christmas that pulled a little bit of childhood hope from his bones. Something about the stillness and quietness of the day appealed to him, how there was never much traffic, and nobody came calling, and the world was just as quiet as it ever got. He liked being awake for that.
It was during dinner when the power went out. He was watching a poker championship match, and just as a player was about to win a huge pot, hung on a ballsy bluff, darkness came down as if he had suddenly lost his vision.
He aimed his large Maglite at the ceiling in the kitchen and washed the dishes while there was hot water in the tank. He brushed, and then put himself to bed early.
The rain started. It fell on his under-insulated roof and made an even patter he found soothing. He lay there, cars on the windy road beside his building splashing a glow in his room, the rain a loping drum.
For the first time in a long time he thought about his mother, who perhaps Betty recalled just a bit, in her voice or manner of talk. Just enough to tease at the edge of recognition, and Carol understood why, besides the alcohol or her just being a woman, he didn't trust her.
He picked up his flip phone and pulled up the little weather app. It reported strong rain non-stop for the next twenty-four hours at least. He turned on an AM talk radio station, paranoid chatter about conspiracies.
Then, there, what was that? He turned off the radio to hear that motorcycle sound, a Harley driving down the road. His pulse quickened, and he listened for it to turn into his parking lot, for the sound to change as it drove under the carport and the engine to reverberate in a different way.
But it was just another bike passing in the night, and soon the sound was faded on the wind, and he could hear the water falling on the roof again. He lay for a while, no guessing how long, until sleep came for him.
There was something amiss when he woke in the dark, and it took Carol a moment to hear it as silence. There was no rain above him, despite the promises of his app. No rain, and the eerie unrest of a late-night waking. The shadow of a tree branch stretched like a demon claw across his ceiling.
Once Carol's mother told him a story, that when you wake from a dream and you feel scared, that's all the ghouls leaving your room, and it isn't until your fear is gone that they are gone too. Ghouls are drawn to fear. Fear makes them stay. "Better not be scared, buddy. Better not be scared of anything, or the ghouls gonna come eat'cha."
So Carol always waited for the fear to calm, and imagined it as all the ghosts he could ever know dissipating, moving away, leaving him. He lay in that quiet for a moment, his heart rate coming back down to normal. He had just closed his eyes, ready to return to sleep, when he felt the weight of something sitting on the bed at his feet.
Some moments in life trigger an animal panic so acute that no mind could calm you. Carol recoiled, like a muscle cut from the tendons that kept it taught. He pulled back, scrambling across the mattress away from the weight, falling off the bed. To the floor with a clunk, hitting his elbow sharply on his bedside table on the way down.
He lay on the floor for a moment, cheek to the carpet, breathing the dust, afraid to raise up and see what it was. But he had to, it was worse not knowing — what if whatever it was crawled across the bed and was about to look down on him where he lay?
Carol rose to all fours, and putting one hand on the table to steady himself, pulled his head up over the top of the mattress so that he could see. There, on the bed, sat the dark shape of a man.
"Get...get the fuck out of my house," spat Carol. "I'm getting my gun."
"You don't have a gun," said a calm voice, smooth and steady, low and masculine. "You don't like them."
To turn on the light, Carol would have to walk past this man. His heart was a hummingbird in his chest. He backed to the wall, and slid to his haunches.
He could make out the head, with shoulder-length hair. The man was wide, and though it was too dark to know what he was wearing, when the man moved his arm Carol could hear the distinctive creak of leather.
Carol tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind, or if it did, he rejected it out of hand. So they sat there, in silence, which was almost worse for Carol.
"You've had one motherfucking life all right," said the man. He clicked his tongue in a way that signaled disappointment.
There was something useful there in his voice, something memorable. It sounded like his brother, but his brother was dead a long time. It sounded like his dad, but his dad was dead, too. All the men in his family had the same voice. They were forever being mistaken for each other on the phone.
"I remember the closest you got to getting caught," said the man. "You were twenty-seven, and decided to try your luck in Spokane. You found a bar, and in the bar a woman, and you played her sharp. She missed you, didn't see at all, thought you were just a man like all the rest. And you decided to tomcat and toy with her, but she said things to you nobody else ever had, and somehow they actually broke through and reached something inside of you.
"She left you in your hotel by the light of dawn. There she was again, on her stool, the next night, and you kept bringing it sweet. You were feeling it, too. The excitement at seeing her. She missed the next night, but on the fourth you both came to each other like old lovers.
"You told her things. You opened your heart to her, and she held you close while you unburdened yourself. You confessed, you goddamn idiot. You confessed everything that you'd done. You thought she loved you, didn't you? You thought she'd be able to handle it. Fool."
"Then — do you remember this, Carol? — then, it's morning and she's gone to get some cigarettes and breakfast. You look out the window and you see her in the parking lot with a cop. She's pointing to your room. She's pointing and gesturing. The cop reaches to check his gun and starts towards you.
"You make it out the window with your duffel, leaving a few things behind. You make it out and run, setting out for Olympia. You got played, man. Played deep, and you still manage to get away."
While the man talked Carol saw it all happen, in vivid color and detail. He could smell her rosewater, her cigarettes, her gin. Thinking about her was like thinking about a knife wound.
"Never told anybody that story, did you?"
"No," Carol creaked.
"Then I have your attention. I was hoping I wouldn't have to list some of your more, uh, unsavory acts."
The man stood. He stretched his neck, it cracked. "If it were up to me, people would suffer in equal measure to what they handed out. You, Carol, are a motherfucker ripe for some suffering. Don't think just because you kept yourself clean for some time that the weights on your scale get rebalanced." The man walked to the doorway of Carol's room, and Carol could see his outline well enough to know he turned.
"But it is my job to tell you that you will be visited by three spirits before Christmas is over. Pay heed, fool. Pay heed and change your ways, lest you will suffer in ways you can barely comprehend."
The man lifted his arms above his head, and the room filled with light and chaos, deafening sounds, and Carol cried out and covered his face with his arm, feeling that surely the this was the end of it all. It assaulted his ears, a discordant keening that felt wrong, but then, why so familiar? The sounds resolved into something knowable: laughter, talking, music...television?
He uncovered his face and squinted into the brightness of his house lighting. The electricity was back.
Carol stumbled to the living room, shut down his television, all the lights. Fell before his toilet and retched, out of pent-up fear, but all that came out was a thick sob.
He took himself to bed again, wanting to best any left over feelings, but despite the sound of the rain — now returned — he found no peace. When dawn cracked the day, he was still staring at the demon claw, shivering in the wind, clutching at his ceiling.
The rain stopped by eight or so. Carol showered, shaved, and dressed. He made himself some coffee, eggs, and bacon. He found the poker tournament on re-run, but he could barely concentrate on the screen, the feeling of dread from his — what was it, a dream? — last night had him nervous and jittery.
"Pay heed, fool. Pay heed and change your ways." For fuck's sake. He'd been sober over twenty years. He stopped doing everything he did before. He was a changed man.
Feeling restless, he set out to walk his favorite trail. He passed a man jogging with a dog, but otherwise he was alone on the old railway bed. It cut straight through dense forest, long with only a few turns over the miles he liked to walk. As he walked, a mist descended. It was like floating through a cloud. He pulled his coat close and kept on.
He thought of his mother again, who loved Christmas best of all. It was the day she pretended to be a homemaker, and would invite the neighbors to stop by for boozy egg nog, starting early in the day.
A tree had fallen across the trail, a broad trunk he had to scramble over. He slipped on the moss, his coat snagged a branch, and he lost his balance and fell to the ground, his coat ripping open, a different sharp branch lacerating his skin in a painful tear that seemed to strike him to the bone.
He lay on the gravel of the road, eyes closed until the shock of the event passed enough for awareness of his situation to resolve, then he sat up suddenly and looked at his arm, but there was no damage there. Not to the coat, and not to himself. He stood, breath visible in the air, panting and confused, patting and feeling his arms in disbelief.
A whimper caught his ear, and he turned to see a dog emerge from the fog up the trail, tail between its legs. It was a medium-sized terrier of some kind, maybe a mutt, some black and brown fur, a flash of gray on its muzzle.
Carol reached out to it, offering his hand. "You lost, boy?"
It pleaded with him, brows arched in and concerned, then it feigned going off the trail, stopping to turn back and make sure he was paying attention. Carol followed, stumbling a bit on his uneven feet, a ridge of cold sweat across his brow.
They went off the path into a thicket of tall straight trees, across a dry stream bed, up a hill. The dog kept a good ten yards ahead of Carol at all times, looking back to make sure he was following.
Carol tried to get him to stop, tried even picking up a stick and throwing it, but the dog kept on, determined in his task, so Carol did too. The ground was wet and crusty with ice where the sun hadn't warmed the earth. Carol stepped into more than one disguised puddle, but he wore heavy boots and wool socks so the freezing water didn't bother him.
The dog lead him to a gully, and Carol watched him wind his way into the depression in the earth, skittering over piled, decaying leaves and dried branches. Carol looked up, trees above blocking the wan Christmas light, a crow sitting on a branch watching him, head cocked. A chill ran Carol and made him shiver deep. He kept on.
The smell came first, and Carol stopped. Coughed. The shivering dog pleaded with him, twitchy and concerned. Carol pulled his sweatshirt over his mouth, and continued down, balancing himself on a rock.
He lost sight of the dog around a bend. He had to slow down to negotiate a few tricky steps, sliding once on slick wet leaves. A bark rang out through the air. Another. He rounded the last boulder to see what the dog had wanted to show him.
Bodies, everywhere. In different stages of decay. A woman in a red summer dress. A woman, face down, naked. My god, they were all women. Here, out in the open, the corpses of too many to count. Some whole, some not. Stained bone and open, old skin. An open grave.
Carol's blood ran from flesh, he went cold and his skin prickled. Sounds became acute around him as his senses narrowed and went in full alert. He heard the dog panting, it looked up at him with the saddest eyes Carol had ever witnessed in an animal.
And then the dog looked right past him, and growled, lowering itself on its haunches. Carol spun around expecting to see some monster, but he saw nothing above him but the crow launching itself from its branch.
He looked up the gully ridge and wondered how he had climbed down — what felt like a gentle slope on the way in now rose impossibly high above him. He was stuck and would never be able to get out of here.
A hand on his ankle. He turned back and saw her, the woman in the red dress, come alive. She was sickly gray and horrible, looking up at him. Her eyes pleaded, teared. Blood across her cheek.
"You can't be alive," said Carol. She was too decayed. Too obviously something other than fresh.
And then the dog was on her, tearing. Carol kicked at her, and the dog pulled, and together they freed Carol from her grip. She lolled onto her back, and the dog was on her, paws pinning her shoulders, tearing into her stomach, blood on its muzzle.
He ripped something from her chest, something red and dripping, something beating and alive. Carol stumbled back, falling against the muddy slope. He looked up again, and now he was even further down, impossibly. The walls of the hole rising above him nearly as far as he could see, the small ring of daylight a skyscraper's height above him.
The dog came to him, pleading, carrying its offering. Carol slipped further in the clay slick ground, his head smashed against a rock, and his vision narrowed. The dog was on him, cold and wet, pressing its body-warm offering into Carol's sputtering mouth.
He woke to heavy breathing, and wetness on his cheek. Hot breath.
"No, Max. Off," said a man's voice.
Carol opened his eyes. He was on the trail, his cheek against the gravel. His arm numb and sliced where he cut it open.
The dog he had seen earlier with the runner was there, whimpering and licking him.
Then the man was pulling the dog off. "Hey, buddy. Looks like you had a spill."
"I'm okay," said Carol. He started to rise, but felt dizzy.
"Take it easy," said the man. "You're bleeding quite a bit. Look, my car isn't far from here. I think you need to see someone about that."
"You are a lucky man, Carol," said the doctor, as she pulled the last of ten stitches through his arm. Carol thought she could use a hair-washing, he could smell her natural odor. It was bothering him. "A little deeper and you would have tore the muscle. As it is, providing you keep this clean and it doesn't get infected, you should be back to work very soon."
Carol, who was cold to the bone and felt like he'd never be warm, was trying to stop from shivering. They had already covered him with a blanket.
"I have to lose work?"
"I guess that depends on your comfort, but I wouldn't do too many physical activities until you get the stitches out, you don't want them to rip."
The nurse, a stocky man with a thick beard, wearing a t-shirt that portrayed C3P0 in a Santa hat, came into the room through the curtain, and said something privately to the doctor. She nodded, and tied off the last stitch, cutting the loose ends.
"I'll write up your discharge papers. Sit tight for a bit, yes?"
The nurse sat, looked at the doctor's work. "How's the pain?"
Carol shrugged. His teeth started clattering. The nurse noticed, pulled the blanket up more.
"Okay." The nurse covered the stitches, greasy in antiseptic gel, with a bandage.
"The shaking is because of shock, not because you're really freezing. But we'll keep you warm and that will help it pass."
He finished covering the stitches, and pulled the blanket so it covered both of Carol's arms.
From another room, a woman screamed. It was the second time Carol heard her, and he must have looked at the nurse with a question in his eye.
"Psych patient. Seventy-two hour hold. She's next door and agitated right now. We usually keep psych patients grouped together, but the holidays are busy for us."
"Don't they have anywhere else for people like that?"
"Welcome to modern medicine, friend. Be back in a few with the paperwork and we'll get you out of here, okay?"
They brought him a donated sweatshirt, since his shirt and jacket were ruined and soaked with blood. He got himself dressed. He found out just how his arm reacted when he stretched it this way or that. He'd be off the line, all right, at least for a few days. He could already tell this was gonna hurt bad in the morning.
Carol stretched across the bed to get his coat, go through the pockets, his hands still shaking as he pulled his keys out. He heard the rustle of the curtain behind him.
A woman stood, stringy blonde hair around her face, her eye sockets dark and receded. Her shoulders hunched forward. She was in a gown, bare feet.
"I knew it was you," she said. "I could smell your stink all the way next door."
Carol turned to her. Dirt was caked under her fingernails. She looked upset, angry.
"I don't know you," Carol said.
"It's your fault I'm like this," she said. "I used to be like anybody else. I used to be normal. Once I was happy and thought the world could give me good things. Then I met you. One, two, three, four nights maybe in a lifetime, and now here I am."
"Lady, I've never set eyes on you," Carol said. It's true, right? She's no more than thirty-four or so. Carol had been sober twenty-some years. No way he did anything to her. He never messed with kids.
"I was going to go to college when I met you. I had a scholarship to Yale. No, Harvard. No, Yale. That's right. Yale. I was going to be somebody."
She walked closer to him, and Carol scooted back on his cot. She moved her hands behind her, which confused Carol, until her robe draped forward and he realized she had untied it. It fell open, but stayed on her shoulders.
"What's the matter don't you want me anymore?"
She reached out and touched him, and it was as if her touch held voltage. He felt it up his leg, like a vein of ice. It made the wound on his arm scream. She crawled up him, like a spider might, and Carol thought about crying out, but found he couldn't.
Then she was on him, he was pinned down. She was kissing his lips, and licking at him, her gross tongue sour in his mouth, he was turning, trying to get away from her. Her hips pressing against him.
"Don't you want me any more, Carol?" She hissed in his ear. How did she know his name? "Don't you know me? Don't you remember the promises?"
The mattress of the bed gave, and Carol fell into it, down into the stretching plush foam. He fell until he was in a valley the shape of his own body, looking up at this woman, naked, undulating above him at the top of the tunnel, cackling and laughing.
And then, climbing down towards him, licking her lips, fingers clawing the mattress side as she came to him, crawling like an insect. He felt her lay on top of him, press him further into the bed until the bed resisted more, like they had reached the bottom of its receding. It felt like sitting in a hammock that was about to give, and Carol could feel the something starting to tear under him. She wrapped her arms around him.
"All you have to do is love me, Carol, and I'll become something you want to see. All you have to do is love someone to see what they are truly like."
The bed ripped and gave, and they fell into nothingness, Carol and his clinging mistress, her eyes wide, and she laughed, and then started screaming.
The screaming. And the male nurse, there by his side, and Carol came to see it was him that was screaming. And he was still in his bed in the room, alone. He stopped. He panted as he looked around.
"Where is she?"
The nurse looked him in the eyes, held his face and examined him. "What's going on? What are you experiencing?" He asked, not unkindly.
"I...I just fell asleep," Carol said. "Bad dream."
"You can go if you want. But that was kind of scary, what you were doing there."
"I'm fine. I want to leave. I was dreaming, and I don't want to talk about it any more."
It was evening by the time he was home. The cab passed a Harley rider on the freeway who looked like the fellow from the bar, but when Carol went to look at the back of his jacket, it was a different emblem.
Carol wondered about that guy from the morning, the "rip it out with your hands" image and lettering.
He got home, and, more than anything, he wanted to sleep. But his head was pounding from not eating all day, and his arm was starting to break through the drugs and ache pretty bad. He went to his kitchen to see what it had to offer. He'd settled on a Christmas grilled cheese and tomato soup, and was heating them up when the doorbell rang.
It was Betty, from work, standing there holding bags.
"Hi Carol," she said. "Merry Christmas."
"What's going on?" he said.
She laughed. "What's going on? I'm being neighborly. Look, like I said, my daughter's in Mexico. I cooked a big meal last night with some friends, and tonight I was on my own. Figured you might be too. Thought I'd drop some food by."
"I don't need charity."
"Jesus h, man, you are one standoffish fellow. It ain't charity. You work hard as I do on the line. It's just being nice to someone for fuck's sake. Can't a someone do that?"
If it were any other day, if Carol was on his normal game, if he had slept last night or hadn't hurt himself today or seen what he's seen — maybe yes, then, he'd close the door in Betty's face.
But today he was so gone, so drained, so alone, that he stood back and let her in.
"And boy weren't you a military man," she said, looking at how he kept his apartment. "What branch?"
She walked into his kitchen. Took the grilled cheese and the soup off the stove. "Not that this don't look good, but it is Christmas, you know."
A short while later they were sitting at his small table with a reasonable assortment of leftovers. Ham, and some turkey. Potatoes and green beans. Betty had brought some soda water, and that's what they drank.
Carol told her about slipping on the log, and getting stitches. To his surprise, she laughed.
"You got a hell of a way of celebrating Christmas," she said. "My day wasn't so great. Talked to my daughter on the phone. Talked to my ex. My mom and dad are both gone, you know. Talked to my sister a bit, just long enough for her to get snooty about their new car, one of those hundred-thousand dollar electric jobs. Tesla, that sort of thing. Fancy as all get out. She made me watch on video while she opened those stupid rear doors.
"Anyway. That's why this ain't charity. Hell, maybe it's charity for me. Keeps me from drinking the night away all alone."
"You could go to a meeting," said Carol. "I did. Quit cold."
"Some might need that, but I'm okay. Ain't got nobody left to hurt, anyway."
"Yourself," said Carol.
Betty cocked her head, and pursed her lips. "Well, if that ain't the sweetest thing."
She stood up, reached to take his dish. "I can do it," he said.
"You can do all the clean up," said Betty. "I'm just bringing out dessert. While I'm gone, you can think of something to tell me, since I've been the one blabbering all over the place."
Carol was fixing the thought in his head. He'd say: "I don't want any company tonight, I just want to go to bed." But then he recalled the visitor from last night. Didn't he say he'd be visited by three spirits before Christmas was over?
So Carol thought maybe he could talk to Betty. Maybe he could open up and tell her why he's so alone and lonely. Tell her that he was a violent drunk, and most of the things he did he doesn't remember, but the ones he does will haunt him forever. He could see her, then, reaching out with a concerned gentleness, and placing her hand on his heart. Just placing it there and smiling at him. She would do that.
Betty returned with two slices of apple pie. "I was gonna bring pecan but it had bourbon in it." She said.
"Thanks," said Carol. He pursed his lips. He didn't know how to talk. "Betty, I was a bad drunk," he said. "Real bad."
"That so?" She put the pie down, and leaned back in her chair. Crossed her arms and listened.
"Do you suppose regret means anything? If you do something bad to someone, and feel bad about it?"
"Does that regret come with justice? I don't care if you feel bad after you hit my car so long as you pay up so I can get it fixed."
"Justice." He saw that biker's jacket: rip it out with your hands. "I never saw justice for anything. Nothing I did, nothing anybody did to me."
"What the hell do you think justice looks like?" Asked Betty. "Are you atoning for your wrongs, Carol? Did you do anything to change anything about what you did? Or did you just quit drinking and stop doing the stuff, and just let the weights on the bad side of your scales grow all dusty? Did you ever try to add to the good side by any action other than not doing bad?"
"I feel bad," he said. He did, in his arm, and his head. And maybe, too, in his heart. But did he really feel bad, or did he feel unsettled? Like he should have felt worse?
"Feelings aren't worth the paper they're printed on. My daughter feels bad about being in Mexico. She's still in fucking Mexico."
He took a bite of pie. It was amazing. Crispy and sweet, brown-sugary and lucious.
"Here's the truth, Carol. You're going to go to sleep tonight and wake up in the morning with two ways to live your day. One in which you can just go about your life as you do without worrying much about anybody else. The other is to help people. To try to help people in some way where you make a difference in the world."
"It's not that easy," he said.
"The fuck it's not. It's Christmas. Make a choice to be charitable."
"Don't lecture me," he said, taking another bite. "I hate being lectured by drunks.
She didn't respond right away. Carol thought maybe he pushed her to far. He wanted to apologize, but was scared of what apologizing would feel like, he did it so rarely.
When she did speak it was so quiet that he had to lean in to hear her.
"I'm a person who cares so much that it cripples me sometimes. And I struggle with my own demons. Look me in the eye and tell me, sober man. Tell me that you're free."
He finished the slice of pie. She hadn't touched hers. His eyes closed. It was so hard to keep them open. He tried. He forced them, and looked up at Betty, her arms crossed, her eyes judging him, as he slid from the chair and blacked out.
Carol was on an altar. Even with his eyes closed, he knew it. He could see it from above: the alter, the circle surrounding it, the inverted pentagram, the candles.
Thirteen women in robes around him, chanting. Their voices a mush, seemingly in a different tongue. Betty was there, as was the black-haired woman from his job. The corpse in a red dress, and the woman from the hospital. Even his doctor, there, chanting.
Something rose beneath him, cracking into his back. An energy. A demon. All thirteen witches laid their hands on different parts of his body, and from below the demon was howling and pounding at his spine like it was a doorway.
Betty scrambled up on the dais, she pulled back her hood to show flowers woven into her hair. The light hit her just right, and Carol could see she actually was a very striking woman.
She spoke a tongue he did not understand. From her belt, she freed a knife with a sinewy curved blade, about twenty inches long. It glinted in the candlelight.
She stood over Carol, and showed the knife for all to see. The women chanted with her, and she fell to her knees, straddling him, and she drove the knife deep into his heart.
The demon below him screamed, angry and cursing. He felt it drop, falling into a deeper well than he had ever encountered. He felt it drop, and looked into Betty's eyes as she drove the knife deep into him, and she was radiating light from her face. She was so clean and pure and good.
And Carol, with the knife in his heart, woke in his room, alone. Still in his clothes. The demon claw on the ceiling, scratching. A motorcycle in the distance, driving away. Darkness all around.
He closed his eyes, and something broke. He shut them tight, but it came anyway, the wetness on his pillow. The deep howl of regret. An admission of the fear he had felt so long and tamped down. A sobbing that sounded like a boy's blubbering to him, but maybe only because he'd never had the chance in his life to hear a man weep.
And in his cleaned kitchen, a note from Betty. He'd find it tomorrow. He'd hold it for a very long time after reading it. And there he'd be, in the day, with two ways to live his life, just like Betty said. The whole future laid before him. And the only thing he had to do was choose.