(From the "Miscellaneous" Creature Features)

You would have to know Dennis to know how atypically he behaved that day. Dennis was stuffy, even when we were young men. Now that we were in semi-retirement, and I finally rid myself of all those tailored gray suits I detested, Dennis insisted on keeping his corporate uniform, allowing himself only one variance, a worn pair of moccasins, puckered around the fat stitches and sagging laces.

We were off to the lunch, him walking with his back perfectly straight, sunlight shining off of his heavily gelled hair, when he buckled over suddenly, leaning against the wall for support.

“Dennis,” I said, reaching for him, “What’s wrong?”

He never got to answer, as I got close to him, a feeling came over me, a feeling not completely unfamiliar. I remember succumbing to alcohol poisoning during a post-semester holiday in Acapulco. The feeling was similar, but the intensity of the attack was more sudden. I sank to my knees. I was aware of people pulling at me, trying to keep me from falling. They rolled me on my back and the feeling went away.

We left the hospital emergency room three hours later, slightly embarrassed at our clean bill of health, and confused at our situation.

“I’m not sure what happened, Bob,” Dennis Hill, vainly trying to restore his hair to its previous grandeur.

“Nothing adds up, “I replied. “We couldn’t have had mutual anxiety attacks. I have to assume there was some environmental factor that we reacted to.”

“Then why wasn’t anyone else ill,” Dennis snapped. Assessing his current temperament, I kept silent. Despite the severity of the feeling we’d experienced, neither of us felt any unpleasant aftereffects whatsoever. I had no answers, and no resources to pursue any worthwhile conclusion.

 More than any other sensation I am aware of, I hate uncertainty the most.

Life became ordinary for a while. The semi in semi-retirement took much greater precedence with the passage of each day, and I found myself playing more holes of golf than I ever had. I think Gale was the last of us to succumb to wanderlust. He remained the most sluggish man I have ever known, before each utterance he indulged himself in a silent deliberation. His walk was not worthy of the name, it reminded one of the drunkard trying to discipline his unsteady step. Even his eyes only half-opened, and with his slow blink he reminded one of a turtle. These qualities had helped him in business however, I had relied on him for decades to control our accounts, and he had done an exemplary job.

It was bright that day, a wonderful day to golf, even for Gary who avoided the sun religiously. That’s when we first got the feeling of something sinister.

“I’ve been ill,” Jason said softly, as was his custom. “Very ill. I have had to visit the doctor several times, and have received little satisfaction. As a matter of fact, I was forced to recline on the sidewalk at one point. I was simply overcome by nausea.”

“Where was this,” Gary asked, utterly disinterested.

“By St. Edmunds and Crossfield,” Jason replied.

I stopped my swing, and leaned on my club slightly. His incident was scarcely a block north from our fainting spell.

I was fond of telling our newly obtained employees that there are no coincidences, that those who genuflected to the god Fate were simply too lazy to detect the true reasons that things happened. At that moment, I was trying to put together what meager facts I had. Two of my intimate associates had suffered some mysterious malady on the same street.

“When was this,” I queried, perhaps too sternly.

“Evening,” he said, a little intimidated by my sudden scowl. “Maybe seven o’clock.”

“Was anyone else ill,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Just me.”

“I think it behooves us to become intimately acquainted with this stretch of land,” I said. Gary merely smirked.

“No coincidences, as you always say,” he said, his goatee bobbing as he talked.

“No,” I said. “We have all worked with each other in excess of thirty years. That means to some extent we have the same enemies, have come in contact with the same pathogens. Something has happened to us, something that affects three out of our five. I have to assume that it would happen to all five of us, and I have to assume that that is not a random occurrence.”

“Some of the older buildings had asbestos,” Jason said, one plump knuckled-hand rubbing another.

“That may be relevant,” I said patronizingly. “But there is something on that street that caused us to faint. I would imagine we would focus our energies there.”

“What are you saying,” Gale said deliberately.

“We find out what is on that street,” I said. “Every store, every apartment.”

The plans for the street were disturbingly easier to obtain, and Gary and I perused them, Gary was more alive than usual, eager to relive the excitement of his military career.

“Nothing stands out, “he said.

“Of course not,” I said. “We don’t know what we’re looking for yet. Eventually a pattern will emerge. I say we go back to the spot where we took ill.”

“Where you took ill, “he said. “I didn’t have your mysterious malady, remember?”

“Good,” I said. “Then you should have no trouble poking around.”

We drove to the neighborhood, Gary still being the cynic, a position he assumed simply because belief required effort. The sun was setting, but the neighborhood was industrial in nature, and so the streets were abandoned after work hours, thusly, even if the sun were to set we would be safe as houses, as they say.

There was a slight chill in the wind that I only realized when I tried to manipulate my dulled fingertips. Gary was well in front of me as I tried to ascertain exactly where I had gotten sick but now, without the distraction of conversation I became aware of a disconcerting fact.

Every step I took towards the corner of St. Edmunds and Crossfield made me feel more and more uneasy, until what was vague disease became discomfort, and then distress. I stopped my progress and looked over at Gary who stubbornly walked ahead, wiping cold sweat from his brow. He had to abandon this tactic almost immediately as his legs began to fail.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

I looked at the front of the buildings. My eye spotted a flicker of movement.

“Gary,” I said, oblivious to his condition, “Which country’s flag is that? In the window of that private club there, with the brown stucco.”

Gary looked at me, slightly surprised.

“Bob,” he said, his eyes narrowed as if willing me to remember. “It’s Brazilian.”

I remembered and there was a painful silence. We knew what we had done years ago in Brazil.

We rode home in silence. Was it paranoid to assume that this humble edifice was the cause of our recent woes? Was this just delayed guilt for what we’d done? Was this what the rest of our life was going to be like, looking over our shoulders, reading into every incident with suspicion?

We arrived at Gary’s house very late, but it was no inconvenience since Gary was a life-long bachelor.

“A quick game,” Gary asked. I was not the sort of man that was good at resisting temptation, and Gary had something that no one else I knew had – a hundred-year old chess board with genuine ivory pieces.

“Your open aggression against my deliberate attack,” I said with a smile.

“I’ll open some scotch,” he said.

We played into the night, I’m afraid. We drank single malt eighteen year old scotch and we laughed about our lives. I came to my senses only when his grandfather clock struck midnight. He rose to drink some water, since we had had a great deal of scotch.

“Not good enough,” he said. “I’m still thirsty.”

“Give it time,” I said. “Play another game.”

“I can’t do another until I quench this horrible thirst,” he said dramatically.

“Can’t drink like you used to, Wheeler,” I said. “We’re getting old.”

“One moment,” he said. “I know what will do the trick.”

He disappeared down his unlighted hallway, and I amused myself for a while, but even I began to note the passage of time.

“Gary,” I said, and there was no reply. I began to fear that he had fallen in his inebriated state and I ventured in the hallway. The only noise was that of the bathroom sink running, very slightly, a steady trickle.

The bathroom door was locked, and I was quite sure he was inside. I began to knock, but I heard no movement. In the dark, I tripped over something hollow, cursing; I found a light and saw what it was.

It was a gallon jug of caustic liquid; the kind that plumbers can use to open up drains and pipes in lieu of snakes. The pitiful remains within dripped onto his wood floor. I had a bad feeling, an instinctive groan. Somehow, I knew he was dead.

I called the police, and ceased imploring Gary any longer. They came eventually. I was in no mood to castigate them for being sluggish; because I was quite that their rapidity was utterly irrelevant.

“Stay back,” the officer said, and they burst open the door, and then filled the air with their exclamations. I could restrain myself no longer, I ran through the hallway. I received only a glimpse of my friend, reclining in the bathtub very dead, partially immersed in a liquid I had never seen, but knew to be a combination of vital fluids, blood and pipe cleaner.

“What a horrible way to die,” a neighbor said outside, murmuring to another.

 “They say it ate away his lung and trachea before it even reached his stomach.”

I could barely function, my mind was a maelstrom. Why? Why had he chosen to kill himself and in so grisly a fashion? I was his friend, how could I not have seen the signs that pointed to his demise? By the time Jason and Dennis had arrived, I was utterly incoherent, and unable to receive any comfort.

The next few days flew by. The arrangements for the funeral were convoluted, since he had no heirs and saw little of his relations; he had left his possessions to us, his former business partners and secular family. I received his home, although I had no plans for it. I touched no item inside of it; even our chess game remained where it was, stuck mid-way.

The funeral was sparsely attended. The casket was closed, Gary had never wanted to be cremated, and the corpse had been eviscerated so thoroughly that mortician was forced to stuff his abdomen like a turkey. It would be an indignity to present him that way.

It rained the day we buried my friend. Perhaps it was self-indulgent, but I fancied that water running off of the graves and the trees leaves represented the weeping of all creation.

We retreated to Gary’s domicile and stayed up late, unable to sleep the night after the funeral. It had been an exhausting week, and the general opinion was that the funeral itself was a day or two delinquent, but we honestly couldn’t have handled affairs with any greater alacrity than we already had. We talked, and Jason cried, but the clock struck midnight and it was time to go.

Jason was the first to leave. I was distracted by the chess board.

“Have any of you touched the game, “I said.

“Are you mad,” Dennis huffed. “Who could play at a time like this?”

I was uninterested in his grandstanding. I confess a certain neurosis, I have to have an explanation for any question that seizes my mind, and every disruption to my daily routine is for me a subject for exploration. I went outside to try and catch Jason departing. I faintly heard Dennis fussing about not being able find one of the steak knives, but I didn’t grasp the significance of it.

When I went outside I heard something hissing. I walked more briskly, uneasy. The garage door light didn’t come on as I passed it. Jason’s car sat in the driveway, utterly silent with no passenger. I looked through a translucent window, and saw his keys hanging in the ignition.

“Help me,” he said faintly from beneath the car. I dropped to my hands and knees, and saw him there, eyes wide as saucers. He had slit the tires, and then slid underneath the car, hoping it would crush him. In his right hand was the steak knife he had used to gash the tires.

I reached out for him and he slashed at me with the knife, cutting the tip of my finger open. I drew back. The tires hissed.

“Why are you doing this,” I cried. Dennis was just now opening the front door.

“I can’t help it,” he yelled. “I wanted to stop once I realized what was happening, but I couldn’t.”

He choked back a sob.

“You can’t help me, Buehler, “he said. “It’s too late. You’ve been a good friend. Tell my family, tell them that-”

But it was too late. The tires were almost flat, and I heard a sound I care not to describe, and then it was all over. Dennis vomited into the bushes, and Gale sat down blinking slowly, and the police came again, but it didn’t matter. It was obvious now that we were marked men, and at the stroke of midnight next week, like it or not, one of us would die at our own hand.

“I say we stake out that club,” Dennis said. “We find out everything that we can about it, as quickly as possible.”

“I think that’s reasonable,” I said weakly.

And so we did. We spent one night, sitting in a car, battling the chill. I did not sleep a wink that night. At three o’clock in the morning, the door opened, and a small child, perhaps seven years old at the most darted outside and down the street in the opposite direction from us. That was the only activity of the night.

We drove home disappointed.

“One night in that damned car,” Dennis barked, “And I have to show for it is a decrepit old woman.”

“What,” Gale said.

“You saw her,” Dennis said. “That old woman that left.”

“I never saw her,” I said. “When was this?”

“Roughly three o’clock in the morning,” he said. “Weren’t you paying attention?”

“I saw a small child at three o’ clock in the morning,” I replied, “But I observed no elderly woman.”

“I saw neither woman, nor child, but a man with a cane, and a serious handicap,” Gale said after a while. “And this was three o’clock in the morning.”

I stopped the car.

“I think I understand what’s going on,” I said hoarsely. “We have all obviously observed the same person leaving at three o’clock in the morning. The reason we have three disparate descriptions of this individual is because we have been hypnotized. I don’t think that we will ever be able to see the actual form of this person. I think that at some point in time, someone has entered our house and programmed us to kill ourselves in some fashion every Wednesday at midnight. And I think that this is a belated revenge for our activities in Brazil.”

There was a silence, and then Dennis exploded.

“This is your fault,” he roared. “If we hadn’t-”

One gesture silenced him.

“We made an oath,” I said. “We would never speak of it again. And we’re not dead yet. It is a bit much to believe that this was all planned out well ahead of time, that every variable was anticipated. Our assailant must still be breaking into our homes, preparing us for our doom. I say we all room together at Gary’s house until this is settled as a protection for our families. We secure our surroundings. We observe the enemy and attack whenever possible. If we should reach Wednesday without any satisfaction, we will bind ourselves in a manner that will make it impossible to harm ourselves. We can survive this, gentlemen.”

“What do you mean attack,” Gale said. “What could we do-”

“Gary and I saw eye to eye on very little,” I said, “But we both found a decent pistol is sometime quite handy. Need I say more? Ah- I thought not.”

Revenge was easier planned than carried out. We watched the premises of the club, and not a solitary soul came out or in.

Wednesday was upon us. I had (with no small amount of urging) convinced one of our security guards to handcuff us to our chairs and we sat round a kitchen table. His instructions were to release us promptly at eight in the morning. I know he thought us mad, and perhaps he was right. The time approached midnight, and our trepidation became unbearable.

At the last second, I glanced at the chess board in the living room, during the week; I had absent-mindedly made a response to the anonymous chess move. I saw now that another move had been made by my phantom opponent and I was now at a disadvantage.

The clock struck midnight. We looked at each other. This time I saw it, the moment when a man’s mind was no longer his own. Gale’s eyes went dull in an instant; I might well have appealed to a mannequin. Dennis was bellowing something, but I felt the weight of inevitability.

First Gale struggled against his bond, but his desperate strength was no match for the handcuffs and the sturdy chair. He stopped moving, frustrated. I sighed. The plan had worked.

 He looked away for a second, and then he bit his own tongue in half, and partially swallowed it. We were helpless to do anything as we heard him choke to death and then he went limp. I would have cried, had I any tears left, but as it was we had eight silent hours while we sat with our dear dead friend.

“I thought you were insane,” Dennis said finally. “When you suggested hypnotism. But I have no other answer why for why we have lost control of ourselves.”

“I have seen things in Brazil that I thought impossible,” I replied. “Sometimes I think about what our company did to that village, and it has been a cause of anxiety. The years have passed, but imagine those poor people, all saving what they could until they had sufficient funds to enact their revenge. At first, I thought this to be paranoia, but I am certain that my fears were justified.”

I paused then, remembering.

“I never told you about the mesmerists in Brazil, that’s what they prefer to be called, mesmerists. The word hypnotist to them is demeaning; it reduces their art to a cheap parlor trick. Did you know that mesmerism has existed in written records for well over a thousand years, before any study of the human mind, any psychology or psychiatry? Did you know we still don’t know how it works? The originators of this practice were said to be sorcerers having been taught by devils, able to perform miraculous deeds, and always followed by their familiars in the form of black cats or dogs.

“I saw once, in a small village, an old man dying in the street. The circus was in town; among their members they included a mesmerist. He was bearded, his nails were long and dark, and he wore a filthy cloak. He leaned over the man, and did something, his actions were obscured by the cape, and then he waited.

“Soon, the man died, this was confirmed by a midwife, the only medical practitioner available. Shortly therefore, I saw him open his eyes, and he rose suddenly and stiffly and began to sweep the dirt floor of his home. He did so, methodically, and thoroughly. When he was done, he laid back down and never moved. The mesmerist laughed at his little joke and departed. I never saw him again.”

We were released from our bonds, and this time we were protected by policemen. Their investigation was fruitless; they raided the club at our behest, and found a man whose identity they did not know, dead in a chair, the club having been abandoned. No one knew who the members of the club were, but upon research they found a document requesting the corpse be returned to Mina Gerais (in Northern Brazil) for burial. The only other manuscript was terribly incomplete and made reference to those “reaped the fat of the land.” I knew it was referring to us.

At precisely midnight on Wednesday, though surrounded by policemen, Dennis dashed his brains out against a concrete wall. I felt nothing upon hearing the news. I said goodbye to my family, and indulged myself in my wine collection and waited.

At midnight the next week, I sat in a chair and waited to die. The clock reached a minute after midnight, and the policemen began to celebrate. For some reason I looked at the chess board and saw that I was in checkmate.

Morning broke, and so did my appetite. I prepared myself a humble meal, and found myself utterly incapable of eating it. I thought of the most horrible things when I looked in my refrigerator, I thought of open running sores, bursting pustules, the most grotesque maladies imaginable. The feeling did not cease, every time I tried to eat I found myself incapable of swallowing a morsel.

So this was my fate. The slowest death of them all, death by starvation. I was attached to liquid nourishment, but I was aware of its limitations. At a certain point, my wasted body would reject it, and I would slowly die. I was incapable of doing away with myself, and no hypnotist the authorities could summon could undo my affliction.

This is where the story ends. I have resigned myself to death, and I have no time for self pity. There is only addendum to this tale that I find worth mentioning.

One night, while in my hospital bed, a large, black dog slinked into my room. His mouth was red as melon, his eyes large and sensitive. He looked at me; his mouth was drawn back in that way that dogs do when they are pleased. He seemed to be smiling at me, and after some inner amusement he stole away. I have inquired of the night staff, but no one seems to have observed him and they find it impossible for him to have entered; at night the doors are barred, and the watchmen are omnipresent.

Written by Tom Moore @ Chicky5150@aol.com who developed a sudden aversion to Arbor Day.

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