“Twenty Minutes,” Cyrus announced to everyone and yet no one at all. He was eye-glued to the clock on the high wall; keeping everyone aware of how much time was left before the stoke of midnight.
“Shut it Cyrus, we all have eyes and we all know how much time is left!” Big Cappy let out a long heavy sigh and looked down to the ground. He needed quiet to think; to rewind and re-watch every job he’d been on this past year and hopefully put himself in the clear. Hopefully. His foreboding shoulders slumped forward and he wore the mask of a defeated man.
If he’d bothered to look around the room, he’d see that he wasn’t alone in his trepidation. Even though a few faces remained stonefast, it was only a performance; they were scared shitless, just like he was. In the corner, Mike, Chief, Terry, and Jesus sat nervously passing greasy cards back and forth in some sort of local game. Cyrus stood against the wall near the emergency exit, not that it was odd to see him camping out near the door, but that his face was frozen in mortal terror, watching the seconds pass. Phil and his wife Casey were at the bar, nursing ever-warming beer and talking quietly. Carrie and Claire were at the table near the stage; neither looked like they’d slept in days. The dark circles around Claire’s eye never seemed to go away. Rumors were that she had dreams; dreams like no other.
Alice smoked one cigarette after another as she leaned against the register. No one had ordered a drink in a long time but it was habit and comforted her. Finally Slippery Larry, the unassuming leader of this bunch, and the reason why everyone was gathered in an otherwise closed bar, twenty miles away from anything on a desert highway, with no phone service and no easy way out, walked to the middle of the room. No one, including Larry, wanted to be there, but after Petey skipped the gathering last year, I doubt anyone would ever miss it again.
The Story of Petey
Petey Rudnick was a small time crook before he met Larry; but like all the rest of the gang, it didn’t take long before he followed Larry like a loyal dog, and his skills on the street increased dramatically. Larry was the kind of guy who just knew things. He knew locks and he really knew architecture. Electrical systems were a breeze and some say he could plumb your house too. Larry was also a good teacher and never held back anything, so his crew were loyal to the last. Well, Petey had someone on the outside talking to him; the signs were there, but no one acted on it. After six years, he said it was enough; he wasn’t coming this year. Some of the guys laughed, and later that night they were still expecting him to show at the last minute, but he never did.
At the first stroke of the midnight hour, eyes across the room closed and breath was held. Bodies stiffened as each hour rang out across the room. The pace was sickeningly slow as eyes feverishly scanned the room, watching one another for some change. Nothing was happening, no one was screaming in pain. The chimes continued until at last, silence. No one moved for a minute and then no one moved for another minute more. Larry shouted out, “who has it this year! Someone gotta have it! Confess if it’s youuuuuu,” his words tailing off oddly. Larry took two steps towards the front of the bar before he began running, and when he ran, everyone ran behind him. Larry whipped open the door and stopped after a few steps. Those behind him also quickly pulled up and they all collectively stared at the broken and rusted highway sign.
Petey hung from the corner; his neck at an angle which wasn’t natural. He was naked and covered with red lines. From a distance they appeared to be knife wounds, but upon closer investigation were identified as welts from a whip of sorts. His mouth was a swollen mess of hamburger and both feet were missing; some of the guys later decided that this was because he ran, but no one is certain. Petey was a whole lot of broken and his mangled body just hanging there, blowing in the strong winds, really broke the spirits of the crew. It’s like hope was simply sucked away, never to return. Chief spoke, it was crass and hard, but everyone was thinking it. “At least no one will have the curse this year….”
Ten Minutes Until Midnight
Since no one had the curse due to Petey last year, no one was happy with but ten minutes remaining. At least in all the years before then, one person would be happy that their one year sentence was finally coming to an end. Carrie had broke down weeping like a woman who had just lost her children, when the severe eczema that made her skin scaly and thick as an animal hide finally abated. She later spoke of the constant pain that every mode held; the skin would barely stretch and she was always cramped and didn’t get a good night’s sleep that entire year.
Everyone knew how the curse started, and for every day of the last seven years, each member of the crew pondered and thought about how to stop it. There was an exit strategy, they all heard it when it was first read, but no one could figure out how it worked. Every member secretly worked on their own on trying to understand how each person was chosen each year; they tried tying it to different crimes, body counts, arrests, anything that they did in fact. Mike got it the year he didn’t do a single job and Casey got it in a year she killed and secretly buried a teenage girl that her and Phil were sleeping with and running kilos over the Mexican border. Good or bad didn’t seem to matter; neither did height, weight, sex, or any other damn thing they tried to form a theory. It was random and that made it more dangerous than anything they’d ever seen before.
Seven years ago, Slippery Larry was just Larry, a medium level jack-of-all-trades, who worked with many of the best crews in the city. They’d all tried to recruit him as a permanent, but he had bigger ambitions. Larry had some inside information about a shipment of Egyptian artifacts that was off the books for security reasons. The load would be brought in by truck during the night under heavy guard, but strictly disconnected from any communications outside of their own team. The comms were new and Larry didn’t have the time to figure out their hack, but he figured enough guys would make it unnecessary. The plan was stout; all he had to do was find a crew he could trust.
Larry and Phil Servius worked lots of jobs; his wife too, so they were in. Cyrus was a street runner who needed a home base and Big Cappy came along with him. Carrie and Claire met Casey at a lesbian bar where she trolled for threesome partners for her and Phil. They were cat burglars who were very careful and very underground. Last came the four stooges, a loving term coined by Phil because they fought so much among one another. Mostly just words, but sometimes fists and furniture. Mike was muscle, Jesus a driver, Chief and Terry were skilled in the arts of making people disappear and never come back. It was a solid team and a big payoff ahead, if they did it right.
The Job and Aftermath
On the night of the job, a full moon hung low in the sky. It was windy and the sky was uneasy; bordering between something violent, wet, and noisy, or a steady dark rumbling like a hidden dragon trying to decide to fry or fly. Regardless, no one noticed. The crew was focused and moved with precision. Jesus slipped his van between a ten-wheeler and a brick barrier, making the get away vehicle nearly invisible. Just as the truck was backing in, the team moved without anyone noticing; they probably were relaxed as they expected no threats. Everyone took their positions and then, like a magnificent criminal machine, the guards all fell, several workers lost consciousness, and not a sound was to be heard. Less than a minute passed and the crew was converging on the truck, eager to look at the contents. Terry was the first to get to the dock and he took up a defensive position, watching over their escape path. Larry and the three girls came up next, cutting the lock on the truck and lighting up the inside.
Everyone shielded their eyes as the glitter of gold momentarily blinded them. “Flashlights down,” Larry whispered and everyone filled in to surround the single stack of wooden pallets securely anchored in the middle of the truck. There, about two feet off the ground and surrounded in a soft emerald green blanket, was a gold idol, nearly three feet long. Not that anyone was an expert on Egyptology, no one was able to recognize who was represented in the image. The head of the gold mask was like none other. The traditional Egyptian headress of blue and gold was perched on a creature with an oval shaped head and large eyes; large doesn’t do them justice, they were giant. The body looked like it was wearing solid gold armor like something you’d see in Halo. It was nothing like anything anyone had ever seen and it was made of solid gold.
It didn’t matter. The plan had always been to melt down anything they took, to avoid the chance of anyone making the connection to the robbery. The gold could be pawned in small amounts or sold off in low-key transactions. The statue was big enough that everyone would make bank that would last for a long time. Within a few minutes, the strapping was cut away and the statues was being hauled out of the truck. Jesus pulled out and the statue was secured in the van, the doors shut, and the crew on their way; seemingly getting away Scott free.
Forty-Five minutes later the van slipped quietly in the shed behind the closed bar the crew used for a flop house. Alice owned the place, but she stopped keeping regular hours right after meeting Larry. She closed up and the two of them traveled for about six months, raising hell and rumpling sheets across untraveled roads and nearly abandoned highways. When they got back, they did a few small jobs to get enough funds raised to finance this big job. They needed a place to practice and eventually the bar became everyone’s second home.
Counting the Score
Having a hideaway in the middle of a desert has it’s advantages, especially when it came to unloading a bulky statue from an old rusty van; the reverberations were insignificant. Once inside, the statue was unceremoniously dropped in the middle of the floor and portable spotlights were placed around it. “This thing looks like an alien,” Cyrus blurted out to everyone and no one at all. Several heads nodded in agreement. It seemed as if Cyrus said what everyone was thinking. The reason this thing was being moved in secret was that it was something no one would see; not in a museum, not ever. Real evidence of aliens would literally destroy the entire profession of Egyptology, and be an embarrassment to Archeologists and other so-called experts. It would be a world-changing event and no one seemed to want it.
Chief estimated that the statue weighed two hundred pounds, perhaps more. Two hundred pounds of gold split between thirteen people would be the equivalent of 246 ounces per person; which on the open market was about $270,000.00 per person. This was more money than any of them had seen, would ever think about seeing, and would do anything to get. Big Cappy and Phil had already set up a huge clay crucible out back and had gathered all the necessary materials to melt the gold down. Several propane burners were in place and once lit, they would bring the gold to the 1943 degrees necessary to turn the statue into liquid. Larry grabbed a small axe to start dismantling the statue to make it easier.
Larry swung the axe high over his head. He held it in place while trying to decide on the best place to make contact. Terry, Casey, Petey, and Jesus were passing beers and enjoying life. Laughter and a sense of winning permeated the bar. Larry was laughing as the axe came down swiftly and straight; the air on both sides of the blade making an angry slicing sound. Every eye focused on the darkened steel blade; the bent handle; the target. A golden armored warrior about to be killed for the final time. The center of that golden chest the target and first contact.
Time froze momentarily. For a split second nothing moved, nothing breathed, and nothing screamed. For a split second, everyone, especially Larry knew that this was a life-changing moment. Perhaps a life-ending moment. Suddenly time resumed. Everyone grabbed their ears and fell to the floor writhing in agony. No one saw it, but the axe head dissolved into nothingness upon making contact with the idol. Eardrums ruptured and bled as a piercing sound exploded into every crevice of the room. Imagine a rusty knife carving slowly through a metal can, but louder than the human ear can hear safely. Pain seared through heads, eyes, and ears. Fists pounding the floor, screaming, and then a sudden and immediate silence.
The idol was glowing. No electricity or power source; but it was glowing. The crew gathered in a loose circle: none getting too close but no one running away either. The glow shifted from steady to a pulsating glow, which had a surreal effect. Each flash acted like a swinging pendulum and it hypnotized and disoriented the crew, men and women alike. Everyone walked closer until actually touching one another and almost touching the pulsating idol. The alien eyes drew heads to turn and eyes to focus. Without warning, the large eyes went from gold to a deep reflective black, yet no one flinched or even moved. When the mouth started speaking, the same held true; faces were frozen in terror, yet unable to resist the hypnotizing power of the idol.
The voice was booming; thunderous and intimidating. It didn’t sound like English, but everyone heard it that way, except Jesus, who later said he heard it in his native Spanish. The words echoed and reverberated throughout the room. It was everywhere but no where at all and it put an ever greater fear into each person. Dread, misery, and mind-numbing depression settled in on the crew; almost as if a blanket of desperation was wrapped around their narrow shoulders. Fear and depression led to fevered-pitch moments of anxiety, only separated by foreign angry screeches of metal on metal. Hearts jumped and jumped again, pushing beat counts higher and higher with the fuel of constant terror spilling into their very veins. It was moments like these when someone, usually someone weak, would simply snap; they’d let loose with a unbalanced maniacal outburst before grabbing something sharp and making their move. And yet, no one moved…
Human sinners with thieving eyes
Ignorant of proper decorum
I call upon the powers of eternity
Chaos and that which fails control
Unleash your fury upon this crowd
The curse of the New Year’s hour
Each day plus the five holidays
Shall one suffer for the rest
Death shall be no escape clause
Only adding a worsening
To this undeserving gathering
Words to heed, so stop and listen
Gather here each midnight hour
As one year ends another begins
One curse lifted and another begun
And to escape only lies
An answer hidden within
Heed the curse and become its servant
Or death shall seek your soul
And pain will become your spouse
Until soulless you become
The First Victim
Larry was the first victim of the curse; it seemed appropriate since he was the one who swung the axe. The idol has just finished talking when the clock on the wall began chiming the bells of midnight. Everyone was still held firm in a state of frozen terror, their hearts pounding without slowing, lungs heaving and tears streaming down faces. As the clock struck twelve, Larry started writhing in pain. He screamed as his body was unchained from the force field we’d all seemingly been trapped in. His head was bent over at a strange direction and he grabbed for his skull with both hands. No one could move as his t-shirt started rising up on his right shoulder; his head looked like it was being pushed down to the left by an unseen force. The material ripped and shredded in an explosion of fresh blood and tissue. The fear was at near-death level when something burst out of Larry’s shoulder; it was big and covering in blood. He screamed as more blood gurgled from his open mouth and from around his eyes.
And all at once, the pain subsided; not just Larry’s pain, but everyone’s. It was like consciousness was returning but slowly, as to avoid the shock. Everyone seemed to be eyeing up their own body and as movement improved, they felt their heads and arms and then felt them again. A mild and short-lived sense that everything would be fine passed with the sound of screaming in chorus. Larry stood facing them; the lump on his shoulder wiped free of the gore and blood. He blinked; and then his other head blinked as well. Alice fainted. No one moved for a long, long, long time. “That must be the curse,” said Cyrus to everyone and no one at all.
Time After Time
The second head had a second mind and pretty much kept Larry terrified, confused, and housebound for the entire year he had it. Most folk would have gone bat shit crazy after a few days, but not Larry. The crew kept him locked up in the basement of the bar and kept him fed as best they could. Alice mixed marijuana, opium, downers, or whatever she could get into his food, just so he could sleep without the demons on him. It was messed up, but not as messed up as finding out on the second year, that it went away. Everyone gathered, but no one knew what was going to happen. Even though the idol had disappeared after the events last year, it’s power still lingered and on that night it was very strong.
The midnight chimes came and screams could be heard from the basement. About half of the crew wanted to run down and check on Larry, and the other half demanded they stay. If the curse was coming again, they wanted to be in the same room. Even if someone would have wanted to run, the crew found themselves frozen in the exact same state as last year. The room lit up in the same pulsating glow, but without the idol present. It was Cyrus who felt the curse that year. His man parts turned into some sort of serpent-like appendage which never stopped moving and left Cyrus traumatized and a sobbing mess of surrender. The serpent needed to be fed living things or it would bite Cyrus along his thighs and stomach.
When Larry called out from downstairs in his normal Larry-voice, Big Cappy went down to see his status. A few minutes later a one-headed Larry came stumbling up the stairs disoriented like he’d just come out of a coma; but a coma in which he remembered every terrifying, mind-destroying, horrible moment. He recovered to something close to his old self, but it took a few months; the curse had taken something from him, but none of us could put our finger on exactly what it was.
Carrie got some kind of alligator skin the next year; she could barely move and was in excruciating pain. Terry was the unlucky one the year after that and after he tried to kill himself but was unable to, we realized that the curse was much stronger than we’d thought at first. The next year we learned another lesson when Cyrus got the curse for the second time. The second time around he couldn’t speak, smell, hear, or see; it was painful to watch him sit frozen in terror, unable to interact with the world like a tiny lost soul in a great ocean.
Two Minutes Until Midnight
No one bothered to pick up the cards Mike had just dealt. The table was quiet. Phil and Casey held hands tightly. Carrie was sitting on Claire’s lap and Larry had moved behind the bar to stand with Alice. Each second passed and no one dared speak aloud. Jesus kept rubbing his goatee like a philosopher pondering life after death. Chief lit a cigarette but never took a single puff; smoke wafted skyward as it burned down to the filter still clamped between his scarred knuckles.
One minute left. Minds raced and heartbeats pounded. Bile rose from unsettled stomachs as the time drew near. Eyes scanned other faces and other faces made strange and suggestive views and everything moved in rapid fire. Reflections shadowed and mirrored one another as confusion gave way to clarity and then confusion again. All around colors erupted and silenced again and the kaleidoscope of hidden hailstorms and shattering lights exploded. The clock struck the first chime, but no golden pulsating glow, no tractor beam holding everyone in place. If anyone wanted to run, this year they actually could for there was nothing, nowhere, not a thing. Rapidly moving and now spinning made it impossible to stand and dizziness drove everyone down to the floor.
Music, or at least what passed for music somewhere, filled the room. Harsh and angry pounding mixed with razor sharp screeches of flame and broken granite being pulled across sheets of bronze. Electric trumpeting of squealing steam pipe and coastal thunder, rounded out the cauldron of chaos. Every sense was overloaded with sound, sight, and every space filled with nothingness and everythingness and switching between one another at a moments notice. Eight, nine, ten, and time sped up to that of light, or more. Everything sped by in a blur of silvery colored blue and shimmering red. Eyes losing their abilities to measure the reality of every space and corpuscle; every crevice and tunnel; every everything and then nothing. Wonderland was never like this thought Casey….
The final chime and then an unhealthy silence. Eyes scanned the eyes and faces while those same faces and eyes scanned the faces of those looking at their eyes.
And Cut !!!!!
That’s Dinner !!!!!
The actors playing Mike, Tony, and Larry walked off stage right together; they were laughing about something. The rest of the crew seemed to melt into the army of stagehands, lighting people, gaffers, technicians, and other tradespeople. The formed a wave heading toward the dining area. I stood there, somewhat in shock and somewhat in a state of confusion. “How does it end,” I said aloud to everyone and yet to no one at all. Surprisingly, my words were met with an answer. “Ask that guy over there, he’s the writer,” I quickly turned to see a man that appeared to be a carpenter, both speaking and pointing towards another man in a brown sweater. “He’s the one you’re looking for Buddy, but you better hurry.”
I sprinted across the now-abandoned stage on a seek and detain mission. The writer must know the outcome and I cannot wait to find out how the story ends. My steps were lively, but my sense of direction not-so-good and I slipped into a partial roll and partial stumble. But as luck would have it, the writer came to my rescue, grabbing my arm before I completely lost it. He righted me and we both laughed at the close call. I quickly realized who I was speaking to and blurted out, “so how does it end? I can’t stay and I just have to know.” The writer smiled and put his finger up to his lips, indicating I should be quiet. He whispered, “come with me and I’ll tell you in private. There are too many listening ears in this big area.”
“Fine, sure, let’s go,” I said as he took several steps and then opened a side door. I followed him into a smaller room; it was full of costumes and wigs. We moved quickly through another door, passing racks and racks of paint, until finally coming to a halt in a small corner sitting area. The writer bid me to sit and gave a lengthy look in each direction before joining me. He smiled and laughed softly without opening his mouth. I too laughed as it somehow felt we were brothers in arms who had just managed some caper with near-perfection and were riding the final waves of excitement. And yet we’d never met.
“You ever heard of Purgatory,” he said to me. “Everyone thinks it’s a place in between heaven and hell, but that’s not right. Well, it’s partially right,” he said. “Purgatory is a place between any two realms; it’s like a river that flows between everything but never moves.” He went on, “people get sent to Purgatory because they did some bad shit, and had to make amends for it, or something like that.” “In Purgatory just about anything can happen, so there’s a lot of room for a writer to create things without getting crap from anyone.”
I didn’t intentionally interrupt; O.K., I did. “What does Purgatory have to do with the end of the story,” I spoke loudly and with force. “H0ld on,” he said. “I’m getting to that part.” He smiled before resuming, “In Purgatory, there’s always one or two people you interact with more than others. Most of the time you’re just trying to stay ahead of the next torture or mind game.” “Anyway,” he went on, ” these people lie to you but make you feel like they are helping; it’s too funny how everyone, I mean everyone falls for it, too.”
“So someone’s getting sent to Purgatory for a year as part of the curse?”
“Yes, someone who deserves Purgatory is there right now.”
“Can you tell me how you decided which character to put the curse on each year? I can’t figure it out and there’s no pattern to it. Please?”
“There’s no pattern to who gets the curse each year, I just decide and it happens.”
“I’m not buying it….”
“Come on Petey…..or Cyrus, or Carrie, or whichever one you want to be this year…….Purgatory awaits…..”
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