Flashback…2 years ago, Christmas Eve. The grandfather clock ticks inside the current Butchers’ home; 5:35 P.M.
“Was it you?” asks Michael, accusingly. The dark circles and bags under his eyes are tell-tale signs that he has not slept well for days, baffled by grief and betrayal.
Arthur quickly figures out what’s happened. “She’s dead.”
They’re in the dining hall. Both men are wearing all-black suits, only Arthur appears more groomed and put together than his older brother, Michael.
Michael’s ballistic. “It’s your fault!” His words come out with spit and bitterness.
“I didn’t say a word to anyone,” says Arthur, in a cold manner, but he’s burning inside from the rising tension.
“You were the only one I told.”
“We should get out of here before the family comes to dinner.” Arthur glances to the doorway.
“Someone killed her! And they’re in this family!”
Arthur sees the time on the grandfather clock. It’s close to six o’clock. “Michael, we need to—” but before Arthur can finish, Michael reaches inside his coat pocket and flings a stack of paper at Arthur, smacking him in the chest and face. The paper cut at Arthur’s cheek bleeds, but the stinging flesh wound doesn’t bother him. His eyes follow the images on the thin, falling
sheets, destined to hit the floor.
They’re not paper, but photographs: 5x7s and full color. Pictures of a set of broken legs revealing bones at the shin and ankle, multiple stab wounds in a torso, and slits to both sides of a woman’s mouth scatter on the floor. Images of a deceased woman’s body taken at mid-range and close-up with number markers and rulers measuring the wounds pile on one another.
Arthur recognizes the victim in the photographs. Michael shoves him, shouting, pointing, and accusing him. Everything tunes out for Arthur like background noise. He feels partially responsible for his brother’s trouble. Arthur only hears the last part of Michael’s words.
“Did you kill her?” asks Michael, fuming and ready to explode again.
Arthur comes back to his reality. “No. I told you to un-invite her.”
Their hard stares can burn through each other, one filled with hatred and the other with willingness to take on any challenge.
An inkling stirs deep inside of Arthur, sharp and piercing at his chest. I know who did this. But he can’t name them, fearful of what Michael might do next.
Michael sees the truth in Arthur’s eyes; he didn’t do it. Michael is still furious. “The week before the rite.”
Arthur knows his brother well, and he reminds Michael, “You can’t take on Father and Grandpa. Even if it wasn’t them, they would never allow you to touch anyone in the family.”
What he said confirms Michael’s suspicion. “She was killed before the rite, because whoever did it knew they wouldn’t be able to touch her after she became one of us,” says Michael, squeezing his rage into his fists.
“You’re angry, but we should go;” Arthur reinforces his suggestion, “Now.”
Michael steps right up to his nose. “Someone I love was taken from me. I’m beyond angry.”
Michael is too close, and Arthur doesn’t like it, especially the raging stare from his eyes. They’re both heated, each ready to rip the other man’s head off at the slightest wrong move. Arthur has a smaller and slimmer body than his brother, who is all muscles, but he won’t back down.
Clacking heels approach just outside the dining hall.
Arthur asks Michael, “Should we challenge everyone in the family tonight and die together?”
Michael can see that Arthur is serious.
The look in Michael’s eyes are filled with rage and desperation. He pauses for a moment, contemplating his next move. He walks to the exit, brooding in hatred.
Arthur pivots his body to watch Michael disappear into the shadowy, dark hall. He takes a minute to himself and then decides not to follow his brother.
In comes Cate and Lily from the opposite end of the hall.
“Was that Michael?” Lily asks Arthur.
Cate avoids eye contact with Arthur for once, asking in a bored fashion, “Is he not joining us?” Heedless of her words, “Oh dear, another ruined holiday.”
Arthur remains at the doorway a little while longer, wondering—what will Michael do next?
Seven days later, New Year’s Eve. Tick. It’s eleven past seven o’clock on the clock hanging on the wall behind Arthur and his father, James Junior. They stand on opposite sides of a mortuary table occupied by a burnt body, fully exposed. The deceased has a disfigured face, and every piece of flesh is unrecognizable.
James Junior study the body in dead silence. The fury in his eyes makes Arthur uneasy.
“No. This isn’t Michael,” says James Junior, unconvinced.
The medical examiner joins them, chewing the last bite of food in his mouth. “Sorry, I’m late. Didn’t expect long lines at the drive through this early in the morning.” He tilts his balding head back from the strong odor of the body and puts on a surgical mask. “The holidays bring out the crazies.”
James Junior is impatient. His breathing changes, becoming heavy and deep. His nostrils flare. Another annoying word from the medical examiner can his last. James Junior’s fingers inches for the medical tools on the side table.
Arthur gives his father a stern look; they both need to calm down. He tells the examiner, “We’re ready for the report.”
“Of course.” The medical examiner hands a file to Arthur and briefs them, “The fallen beams from the house crushed the face into the skull, so dental records will not be useful in this case. The body was so badly burnt; there are no more fingerprints. All that is left on the body is a ring melted to the finger.”
James Junior stares at the gold ring. He and Arthur both wear the same family ring.
Flashback…it’s twelve hours before the Butchers’ dinner party, 6:45 A.M. on New Year’s Eve 2018, inside the book and coffee shop, Spellbound. Dr. Grant takes off his glasses and reaches for the paper cup from the counter. He lifts the lid, blows the steam off the surface, and sips the hot, black coffee. The roasted cocoa aroma blissfully lifts his spirit. He glances up and catches sight of May.
Wearing a brown coat, she’s wrapped up with a white knitted scarf and hat. The light in this place highlights her best facial features: high cheeks and pink lips. Her focus is on the last two pages of an open book in her hands, while she walks mindlessly to put a book back on a shelf nearby.
Bump. She shoulders a stranger.
May looks at him and catches his bright blue eyes for a second as his dirty blond hair sways just above his brows. She realizes that she bumped him pretty hard. “I’m sorry,” May apologizes, and then quickly returns to the last page of the book.
“It’s okay,” replies the stranger with a devilishly handsome smile as he goes on his way.
Dr. Grant goes to her. “May.” He’s honestly surprised to see her in the same place.
She turns away from the bookshelf and finds Dr. Grant’s cheerful face. “Dr. Grant,” says May, looking glad to run into him. “Hi.”
He smiles. “Hi. You know you can call me Paul outside the office. I only keep it professional around my employees.”
“I forget sometimes. I feel like I’m in therapy every time I see you now.”
“I get it.”
“You’re an early bird.”
“And a bookworm.” Dr. Grant lifts the bag of books as proof. He’s holding his glasses in the other hand. “I often read at the end of the night. Old habit.”
“I thought you had plans tonight.”
“I still do, but I don’t plan on staying long after midnight.”
“So, what brings you here on your day off?”
“Boredom,” he remembers, “and lack of coffee. I also like to come here when I have too much on my mind. Almost couldn’t leave my house today. Misplaced my keys last night. I spent hours looking for them. Then I gave up and called my assistant to pick the spare keys from the office and she dropped them with me this morning.”
His experience strikes a chord with May. “That’s funny. I’ve lost my keys many times, but they normally turn up days after,” she stammers. “After a bad event happens.”
“Really? Like a ghost hid them for your protection?” Dr. Grant quickly adds, “I’m joking.”
“No, really. That’s what I think happens sometimes.” She chuckles. “Like today. I was making tea with my favorite mason jar, and while I was pouring the semi hot water, the jar suddenly burst into three pieces. Water and glass went everywhere.”
“It gets worse,” says May. “In a panic, I went for towels and knocked over my bag. Everything spilled out of it. My keys somehow fell into the cracks in the floor. They went underneath the crawl space of the house.”
“Imagine the critters that live down there. Did you find anything else besides your keys?”
“I didn’t go down there. It was 5A.M. I’m afraid of the dark. Remember?”
“How did you get here then?”
“I always keep a spare in my car. So, I instantly went for the front door, but the doorknob was stuck. Then it fell off when I turned it too hard. I had to leave out the back door.”
“You’ve had a rough morning.”
“Yeah.” May hesitates. “Not to make you feel like we’re in therapy, or freak you out, but you keep telling me to listen to my gut.” Her voice flutters nervously. “I have a feeling something bad is going to happen.”
Dr. Grant can see that May seems a little anxious, and she appears embarrassed about what she said. “What makes you say that?”
“I thought I’d come here for coffee and peace of mind. I was only in here twenty minutes, and now my car won’t start. The battery is new.”
“Wow. Is it that cold outside?” Dr. Grant glances at the window to the clear and cold view outside. Frost cover everything outdoors like a fine layer of crystals. “It’s only snowed once a week this winter.” He turns his gaze from the window to May. “That’s a very odd string of coincidences.”
“I’d say it’s a string of bad coincidences, all in one morning. It’s like something is trying to tell me not to leave the house today. And now I’m stuck here.” May notices the burn on the back of his hand, a popped blister over a red patch. “Did you burn yourself?”
“From trying to make coffee this morning.” He makes light of the situation. “I’m more upset about dropping the last pot of coffee I had in the house.”
“You had a rough morning, too, then.”
“It could be better.” He glances at the book in her hand titled Manifesting Your Life. “That book there suggests that I manifested all of it; the good and the bad things that I experienced. That what I think about, I bring about.”
“You’ve read it?” She places the book back on the shelf.
“More like I skimped through it. It’s not original; there are many books like it.”
“My culture believes in something similar; we have to watch what we say because it could come true.”
“I like that. We all should practice saying better things to each other and ourselves.” He offers, “I can take you home, if you like.”
“Okay, thank you.”
They both turn to the exit and stop in their tracks at the unexpected scene outside. A white blizzard lies beyond the double doors: heavy, fierce, and blinding.
“Perhaps we wait it out?” suggests Dr. Grant, looking at May.
“Yeah,” agrees May, looking back at him.
A Tortured Ghost
Back in the present, Arthur drags his body on the lawn while inky, black hands drag his legs into the muddy earth. He’s near the entrance of the woods, feeling the moss underneath his nails. The tart smell of pine bursts in his nostrils, shaking him loose from the hallucination. There’s no force pulling him back. He glances at his feet; the piles of black tar-covered bodies are missing. He’s alone and his legs are clearly on the surface of the ground. Arthur goes to his knees, shaking, as the fog rises from the misty floor. He balances himself, trying to stand on his feet, sweating like he came out of a sauna. His body is tense, taking steps as if his feet are glued to the ground.
Shadows move on the ground and in the trees in front of Arthur. His eyes follow the shadows overhead. They’re flying above him, dark figures in the shapes of men and women. Then suddenly, they’re gone. It’s just Arthur standing in the woods. In reality, the flying figures are crows, observing the Butchers’ rite from above, waiting patiently for any opportunity to feast.
Meanwhile, Cate is still tacked to the door at the greenhouse. A stream of fresh blood continues to leak from the knife wound at her arm. She nods on and off, losing too much blood.
Someone is coming into her view like a solid shadow man, tall and strong. Suddenly he’s right in front of her.
“Michael…” Cate’s voice is weak, and his face is out of focus.
“Hello, Cat,” says Michael, casually. He tilts up her head to get a good look at her face.
“My sweet Michael.” She tries to kiss him. Her lips barely touch his.
Michael doesn’t appear too happy to see her, holding back his aggression. He carelessly slams Cate’s head back on the wooden door in a resentful way. She chuckles. Looking at him makes her head spin, like they’re both sitting in a giant teacup ride at a carnival. The illusion of colorful lights surrounds her, and she hears distorted music, like a dying record.
Half of Michael’s face suddenly appears burnt and morbid to Cate. She thinks her own eyes are betraying her as well. “You’re not really here,” says Cate.
Michael looks into her large, dark pupils. “If I am really here, what would you say?”
She laughs softly and sighs. “Deep down you know I killed that girl.” A tear falls from her eye. “Because you’re mine.”
Michael reaches for the knife at her arm but changes his mind. He lets go of her head and steps backwards.
She sees him blur into the background with the rest of the surroundings. Even if he is just a hallucination, it’s breaking Cate’s heart to see him go. “Michael,” cries Cate. The sight of him fades, filling her with unsettled emotions. She screams, kicking and pulling at the knife at her arm. She whimpers, sniffles, and yells, scaring away the small animals hidden in nearby bushes and trees. She’s only making the wound larger.
“Cat.” James Junior steps in front of her, disappointed at the injuries she’s sustained. The dried blood strangely smeared across her eyes bothers him less than her bruised face and the knife pinning her arm to the door. She looks exactly like the mess she’s created, drugged up and beaten.
Cate knows his voice. “Dad.” Her head twirls to see him. He’s naked, his skin all black with sharp, black bones sprouting out of his spine that reach out to wrap around her. She tells him, “You look like the devil.”
“Would the devil help you?” James Junior wraps bandages around her arm as a red spot spreads onto the surface of the white sterilized gauze.
Cate’s vision improves as she sees her father, James Junior, clearly. He casts short, serious glances as he patches up her badly wounded arm. A black tourniquet is fastened two inches above the wound. She glances around and notices her new surroundings. They’re near the open doorway inside the greenhouse, sitting on the floor with scattered bandages. The mixture of hot air inside and chilly breezes from outside feels good on her partially numb skin. She knows that she’s lost time. “What time is it?” she asks, ashamed.
James Junior tapes the end of the bandage at her arm; his patch work is decent. “You finally caught up? It’s nearly 10.”
She sees the wooden box of medicine and rolls of clean bandages between them. She glances at the time on her dad’s wristwatch. “9:50.” Her face frowns, disappointed in herself.
He lets go of her bandaged arm, and it limps to the side, weakened from the injury and loss of sensation. He notices and asks, “You don’t feel much pain, do you?”
“Then you don’t need the morphine.” He shuts the case over the collection of medicine and brushes a finger on the back of her hand. “Still numb?”
“The guests can overindulge at dinner, but you know only to partake enough for the cause of the ritual. Don’t let this happen again.”
For once, Cate listens attentively, regretting her earlier actions.
“Don’t become like your grandparents; they’re drunks and reckless,” says James Junior, sounding fatherly. “Why are we not addicts?”
Cate knows the answer; he’s taught her many things growing up, and this is the one branded into her like a birthmark on her skin. She replies softly and strongly believes, “We have purpose.”
He nods—that’s right. “Warriors don’t drink away their problems; they purge it.”
Cate nods obediently. They were close to sharing a father and daughter moment, but James Junior recognizes his emotions as weakness and he turns away from her, picking up the emergency kit. He places the box into a large potter and covers it with moss. Then he dusts off his suit at the knees and the coat. “Don’t speak of this to anyone. They’ll hold it over our heads.”
Cate’s upset at herself, but she tries to hide the emotions from surfacing, afraid they’ll lead to tears. “Are you disappointed?”
“Yes.” He steps out the door. “Try to kill someone, especially the one who did that to you,” says James Junior, with a doubtful tone as he marches into the cold, white night.
Cate huffs, infuriated and heartbroken, producing tears and snot.
In the woods, Arthur is moving past trees faster than he can comprehend and as though his mind is a few seconds behind his movements. His senses are heightened, smelling every tree, fungi, and creature he comes across. It could just be his altered eyesight, but sparkles of gold and white light shimmer in the air all around him like he’s in an enchanted forest.
Something large and fast steals Arthur’s attention. A blurry man in a black suit runs through the wooded area parallel to Arthur in the distance. The man becomes a hulking buck with great spiked antlers, galloping at full speed past a bushy pine tree and emerges on the other side as the man again. He even sounds like a large animal, creating massive clouds of breaths in his path. Arthur enlarges his eyes and squints back and forth, but the shapeshifting man is too out of focus and fast for him to see any of his facial details.
Arthur slows down and shakes his head. It’s in my head.
“Keep up, Arthur!” yells the blurry man, with an echo in his voice.
The vibrations of his echoing voice reach Arthur in waves of rings that he can touch. What’s more shocking for Arthur is the man’s voice. Even with the vocal distortion, he knows that voice—that playful tone. It’s Michael. He cuts over, running toward the blurry man with his heart racing. Somehow, the blurry man grows further and further away as Arthur chases him. Arthur looks down at his own feet; it appears like he’s moving as fast as he can, but he’s not entirely certain due to the slight delay that his mind is still experiencing. He lifts his eyes back to the trees, but the blurry man is gone. Glancing around, Arthur is making his altered vision worse and his head spins.
Loud grunting and shouting echo a short distance ahead. One of them is a woman’s voice, frightfully shouting.
Arthur charges in that direction. Maybe he’s there.
Flash forward to the noise up ahead: it’s James, the old man has a blood-crusted face with raging red eyes as he chops the branches where May stands. He chases her from tree to tree with an ax that looks handcrafted by a woodsman. The blade is longer and sharper, taking branches off with one clean swipe, and leaving a trail of butchered trees behind them. Sap from the freshly cut trees oozes from the bark like liquid gold.
Arthur arrives on the scene. His grandfather, James, is a loose cannon with an ax in his hand, laughing while taking swings at May, and poorly missing her by an inch or a hair. James’ body follows the forceful swings of the ax, causing him to recover from each blow slower than May, but his sloppy and reckless attacks still makes him dangerously unpredictable.
Some of the wide, fuzzy pine trees are marked with red paint all around the trunk. Arthur slides to the nearest marked tree and reaches up the branches. He pulls out a thick brown rope attached to a short-blade machete.
James leaps at May with the ax, swinging over the top of her head. Yank! He is suddenly pulled backwards while the ax is a centimeter from splitting her head. There’s brown rope around his shoulders and chest, two loops tightly locking his arms down from using the ax properly.
May is alarmed to see Arthur, but more shocked that he’s helping her. Either way, she sees an opportunity to run and instantly casts off from the scene.
James darts forward, but Arthur has him in the knotted rope and he yanks James back forcefully. James falls backwards and poofs into the foggy ground like magic. His head lands on a rock and bounces to the side with a small bleeding wound on the back, exposing the skull. He twitches on the ground with weak grunting. Then silence.
Did I kill him? Concerned, Arthur leans down to find James with a bloody head and his eyes rolled back. Arthur checks his grandfather’s pulse at the neck. He still has a pulse.
Suddenly, James grabs Arthur’s arm. James is not fully conscious, mumbling nonsense. Arthur rips away, grabs the ax, and abandons his grandfather.
May is short of breath as she runs deep in the woods. She stops for a short break, leaning her exhausted body on a tall tree with frost and moss on its scaly bark that rubs off her on her dress on contact. She takes a deep breath and exhales sharply.
A breeze brushes through May with a whisper, “Mai…”
The name strikes a familiar feeling, bringing a new kind of horror into May’s racing heart. She looks forward to the woods; no one, not a single soul is present.
“Mai,” whispers the wind from behind her.
May turns to look behind her. Nothing. She shuts her eyes and whispers underneath her breath, “Don’t answer.” Then she feels a heavy presence as if someone is standing right next to her, causing the hair on her arms to stand.
“Mai,” says the voice in the wind, right at May’s ear where she senses them, a dark entity.
“I know you,” whispers the dark entity beside her. She feels its breath like a chilly breeze on her skin.
Caw. Caw. Crows cawing come from behind the tree, sounding like they’re nearby.
May opens her eyes. The feeling of not being alone is gone, along with the presence of the dark entity. Caw. She turns her head towards the noise of the crows. Her eyes fall on the bloody body on the ground just a few feet away. She instantly holds her breath at the gory scene. Half a dozen crows feast on Michelle’s body. Most of her face is missing. A large crow perches on her forehead, holding her blue eye in its black beak. Real or not, May doesn’t waste time questioning the gruesome dead body. The morbid sight fills her with paranoia, and she quickly scans the area for any immediate danger. Then she picks up her feet again to run, causing some ruffled crows to fly over her.
Suddenly, someone takes May’s hand from behind and races in front of her, pulling her along faster than the speed she’s going. She looks at the dirty blond hair and his strong back; it’s Arthur. The ax in his other hand is intimidating, but she doesn’t stop or resist, thinking maybe he is genuine in helping her.
Time starts to slow down for May; even her heart rate is unnaturally slow. They pass areas of dark, blue-green woods, kicking the cool dirt underneath their feet. The soles of her feet are cut and bleeding, marking patches of green moss dark red.
Suddenly, May sees Arthur falling and sinking into the earth in slow-motion. She goes to her toes and her body barrels forward. He glances back at her with worry as he lets go of her hand, but it’s too late and she can’t stop her own body from falling after him.
A crow soars above them in slow motion. Black feathers softly land on Arthur’s chest. He swings the ax upwards, flinging the dangerous weapon far away from the pit. Arthur spreads his arms to May, hoping he can lessen the impact of the fall for her. As she descends closer to him, he extends his hands toward her. May freaks at her own delusion of seeing his fingers extend into long black claws and then his jacket bursts into black feathers. She drops into his arms, and he embraces her with his fluffy, feathered body. Her right cheek smashes into his warm chest as they crash into the black hole.