The Muse's Revenge Part III
Last week we left Rita safe at home in her bed. Now it's J.S. Marlo's turn. Will she too escape the evil muse's trap? Or not?
Marlo turned left on the gravel path and followed it as it twisted and turned in the dark. There were no bars on her cell phone, but she still used it as a flashlight. She walked by cabin nine then cabin twenty. From there, she veered into an entrance that ended in front of tiny cabin two.
It appeared whoever affixed those numbers to the doors had picked them at random from a bag. She wondered if the others had as much trouble finding their cabins.
In the night, something growled and leaves ruffled.
“This is getting ridiculous—and spooky.”
If venturing alone in the dark was part of the workshop, it’d achieved the desire effect. Creepy critters, real or imaginary, crawled up and down her spine, chasing her fatigue. At this rate she wouldn’t sleep for weeks.
She continued on a grassy path sneaking around cabin sixteen. No lights illuminated the interior. It was either unoccupied or the guests were asleep—unless there was no electricity.
“That would be just great if I can’t recharge my phone.”
The gate of the cemetery crossed the grassy path. It was unlocked. Farther ahead, a white glow caught her eyes. She pushed the gate and advanced solemnly between the graves. On her right, petrified wood formed rustic crosses. She approached the closest one. The crude engraving still visible on the horizontal plank astonished her.
Hadrian Drake 12 4/8 17 – 12 25/11 62
It took her a few seconds to decipher it.
Hadrian Drake, born on August 4, 1217, died on November 25, 1262.
The man had been forty-five when he drew his last breath. It was too bad the inscription didn’t list a cause of death. History fascinated Marlo, and she was curious to know how he died—and how he lived.
The comforting odor of a campfire teased her nostrils.
She continued toward the glow. As she drew nearer, it took the shape of a fluorescent tombstone.
“How strange. And beautiful.”
The inscription shone a brighter shade of white and the lamb on top of the stone seemed to curl into a tighter ball.
Aaron Clark (3 May 2011 - 10 Nov 2015)
“Four years old? Poor little guy.”
A light suddenly flooded the cemetery. It came from a lantern attached to the front of a cabin edging the graveyard. Two big bronzed numbers, two and nine, were nailed to the door.
“Cabin twenty-nine? Really?”
The skeleton key rattled in the hole, and after some jiggling, it unlocked the door. Marlo entered the cabin. Flames sizzled inside the fireplace built in the corner of a cozy room. She closed the door, and as she locked it, she noticed a light switch near the handle. The flick of a wrist later, a lone bulb shone over the bed pushed against the windowless wall.
A rectangle box wrapped with a red ribbon rested on two pillows. Banshee had mentioned chocolates. Hoping it wasn’t a lie, Marlo unwrapped the box, lifted the lid, and removed the foiled paper.
The rich aroma tantalized her senses.
Eight chocolates beckoned her to sink her teeth into their dark exterior. Four were decorated with swirls on top while the other fours were carved with a letter. A-E-S-V.
As she tasted a swirly one, an orange cream center, she mentally scrambled the letters to form words. She came up with two possible combination: vase and save.
The orange swirlies were her favorite, but she still devoured lemon cream A, buttercream E, raspberry cream S, and chocolate cream V. Though she’d eaten enough for tonight, she removed the second foiled paper to reveal a second layer. Three chocolates had swirlies while the other fives were carved with more letters. A-A-N-O-R
She moved the chocolate letters in the box.
“R-O-N-A? A Rona?” Back home, Rona was the name of a hardware store. “O-A-R? An oar?” Though it was a possibility, she felt she was missing the boat.
“Those two As are...” A name fleeted across her mind. “Aaron?” Then the two layers formed a sentence. “Save Aaron?”
The only Aaron she’d ever heard of was the young boy buried near the cabin, and he appeared beyond saving.
Marlo didn’t know when or where they were supposed to meet in the morning for that workshop, but before joining them, she would have another look at that fluorescent tombstone.
~ * ~
Birds awoke Marlo at dawn. To appease her growling stomach, she emptied the last layer of chocolates. Hopefully a more substantial breakfast waited for them somewhere.
After a quick shower under lukewarm water, she donned a polar jacket, grabbed her purse and left her cabin.
A thin layer of frost simmered over the cemetery while a chilly mist clouded the blue sky. She approached Aaron’s grave. The carved letters added a touch of finality to the stone. He’d died on November 10, 2015.
“Almost a year ago.”
She’d found no other clues in the chocolate box. The circumstances surrounding his death remained a mystery. Baffled by the message, she caressed the little lamb protecting the young boy’s final sleep. Warm to the touch, the stone generated tiny electric shocks that sizzled through her skin.
A bright orange spark lit up the eyes of the lamb. Marlo’s gasp of surprise was lost in the thunderous blasts of energy gushing through her body and short-circuiting her mind.
At last, oblivion embraced her.
~ * ~
The wind battering her face roused her senses. Wincing, Marlo cracked an eye open.
Different shades of white assailed her vision. She made a fist and trapped something cold and wet. As she propped herself on her knees, she unclasped her hand. The slushy snow chilling her palm fell to the frozen ground.
“What on earth happened?”
She took in her surrounding.
Flurries swirled in the air at the mercy of the wind and a layer of snow covered the cemetery. White carnations tied with a white ribbon rested near the divot her head had created in the snow.
Puzzled by the sudden change of weather and the apparition of the flowers, she gazed up toward the lamb and gasped in shock. The lamb had disappeared, replaced by a gargoyle with outstretched wings.
She jumped to her feet, and as she stepped away from the grotesque statue, she crushed the flowers.
“Darn.” Distressed over her carelessness, she picked up the pathetic little bouquet. A card was attached to the ribbon with a paperclip.
We miss you
Martha & Aaron
“Aaron?” Wasn’t Aaron the dead boy? Confused, she reread the inscription.
George Aaron Clark
Beloved Husband & Father
(7 December 1973 - 8 November 2012)
“What’s going on here?”
Aaron’s grave had been replaced by George’s. The man had died in his late thirties. The greeting card suggested George was a close relative of Martha and Aaron.
“Probably Martha’s husband and Aaron’s father.”
The flowers looked fresh.
“The boy’s name wouldn’t be on the card if he were dead.”
She flipped the card and was stunned by the stamp at the back.
“Beautiful Bouquet on Ellice Avenue in Winnipeg, Manitoba?”
Though she hadn’t set foot in Winnipeg in a decade, she hadn’t forgotten about the flower shop where she’d picked up the bouquets for her brother’s wedding. He’d married a local girl before moving east. Marlo had never lived in Winnipeg—almost being posted there didn’t count—but she’d enjoyed its hospitality many times over the years to attend her daughters’ swim meets, her son’s hockey games, and to visit the zoo with her granddaughter.
Relieved not to have lost her purse, she checked its content. Her wallet and her phone, along with its charger, were inside. Money and credit cards inflated the former, but the battery of the latter was dead.
“I need to hail a cab.” And stop somewhere to eat before I visit that flower shop.
~ * ~
Amazingly, her credit card wasn’t declined when Marlo paid for breakfast at Tim Hortons.
She wondered if the workshop had been a figment of her imagination or if this escapade in Winnipeg was a weird dream in which she was trapped. Either way, she felt compelled to investigate Aaron’s mystery.
The flower shop in which a teenage girl watered plants near a window hadn’t changed. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“No rush, sweetheart.”
A lovely smile spread across the girl’s face. She set a green watering can on the floor before approaching the counter. “What can I do for you?”
“When I visited the cemetery this morning, I stumbled on two teenagers playing catch with a bouquet of white carnations they’d snatched from a grave.”
The girl grimaced in disgust. “That’s awful.”
“Yes.” The advantage of being a writer was that she could spin a believable tale at the drop of a hat. “I chased them, but they escaped through the gate before I gave them a piece of my mind. Anyway, in their haste, they dropped the bouquet. This card was attached to it.”
Marlo presented the card she’d removed from the bouquet and handed it to the young lady who flipped it between her fingers.
“This is ours.”
“Which is why I’m here. I’d like to buy an identical bouquet and return it to its rightful departed owner, except I’m not sure from which grave the teenagers stole it. Would you by any chance remember those people, Martha and Aaron?”
Fine lines creased the girl’s forehead. “White carnations you said?”
“Yes. There were maybe a dozen. They were tied together with a large white ribbon. They didn’t look more than a day or two old.”
“Let me see...” Her fingers danced on a small keyboard attached to an iPad.
Propped on an elbow, Marlo leaned against the counter to get a better view of the screen.
“I have a Martha Roswell. She ordered ten white carnations by phone on the 7th and paid to have them delivered directly to the cemetery.”
While the girl provided her with the details, Marlo’s attention focused on the name and address at the top of the screen. Martha Clark Roswell. The last name puzzled her, though she supposed it was possible the woman was George’s sister and not his wife. Regardless, she committed the address to memory.
“Phil, our delivery guy, dropped them off yesterday on George Aaron Clark’s grave.”
Marlo had requested a receipt from Tim Hortons for the express purpose of looking at the date. Today was November 9th, 2015.
Yesterday had been the third anniversary of George’s death, and tomorrow signaled Aaron’s last day.
“If you’d be kind enough to arrange for a new bouquet to be delivered as soon as possible, I’ll pay for it and nobody needs to know about the incident.”
The girl scrutinized her with a peculiar expression. “Are you sure? I mean that’s very kind, but it wasn’t your fault the grave was vandalized. You shouldn’t be paying for it.”
Marlo presented her credit card. Paying was the least she could do after accidentally ruining the bouquet. “This is the right thing to do.”
~ * ~
The fifteen-minute cab ride cost more than the flowers.
Marlo landed in a residential area as a school bell rang. Kids hurried across the street to a red brick building two blocks down. Brakes squealed and horns resounded, but no vehicles collided with little bodies.
She walked on the sidewalk looking for house number twenty-nine. The coincidence unsettled her, but unlike the cabin, the houses stood in numerical order.
The elderly cabbie had stopped in front of house one-hundred-twenty-nine instead of twenty-nine. She chalked up his error on her accent, on some hearing impairment, or a combination of both.
In front of house thirty-one, a middle-aged woman covered her bushes with burlap. Marlo approached her.
“Your bushes will be all toasty for winter.”
The woman granted her a cordial smile. “That’s the idea. May I help you?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, I’m not selling anything.”
The statement elicited soft chuckles from the woman. “That’s good because I’m not buying.”
“My name is Jane Smith. I’m...I was George Clark’s older sister. Foster sister,” Marlo quickly added in case their ethnicity differed. “We lost touch over the years, but I recently learned he passed away. Someone gave me the address next door, but I’m a bit nervous about knocking after so long.” She fidgeted with her purse. “Is there anything useful you could tell me about his family before I meet them?”
“Useful? Yeah, run away.” As the woman straightened up to her full height, her gaze darted right, left and center. “Your brother and Martha made such a lovely couple, but then he died and she married that thug, Roswell. I used to see her every day, smiling and happy. Now, I’m lucky to glimpse at her, and when I do, she sports new bruises or broken bones and she cast her eyes.”
“He’s beating her?” Imitating the neighbor, Marlo whispered. “What about Aaron?”
The sadden expression settling over the woman’s face didn’t bode well. “Poor kid has it worse than his mom.”
Appalled by the situation, Marlo fought the urge to barge into the house and haul mother and son out. “No one phoned the police?”
The neighbor wrapped her arms around her tiny chest.
“It’s not that simple. Roswell has connections with the crowd that ties concrete blocks to people’s ankles. One day, Annette talked to Martha to convince her to leave. She used to live at the end of the street.” She pointed at an empty corner lot. “The next day, her house burned down. Lucky for her, she didn’t end up at the bottom of a lake, but trust me, we all got the message.”
As long as terror ruled the woman’s decisions, arguing with her was pointless. “I understand.”
Determined to help, Marlo walked down the street toward the school. Thinking the neighbor would have refused to let her borrow her phone for fear of reprisal, she didn’t bother asking. Instead she counted on the school secretary’s sense of duty, but when she noticed the electrical outlets in front of the parking stalls, she plugged her phone instead.
The icon of a battery flashed on her screen. She waited a few more seconds then she dialed.
“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
~ * ~
Alone in the park facing home twenty-nine, Marlo swept the snow from a bench and sat. Her new jeans protected her buttocks from the cold, but she wished she’d packed a winter jacket and a pair of gloves.
A truck was parked in Roswell’s driveway and from time to time, she spotted shadows moving behind the draped windows.
She’d called Emergency Services an hour ago. By now, she’d expected a response, but so far, nothing. As she toyed with the idea of calling again, a police cruiser followed by a blue sedan drove up the street. The car stopped in front of Roswell’s house while the cruiser parked behind the truck, blocking any escape route.
A tall woman with long black hair exited the car. She met two police officers in the driveway. One officer accompanied her to the door while the other stayed by the truck.
The door opened and a bare-chested man stepped on the porch. From the gestures he made, he wasn’t happy at the visitors.
A scuffle suddenly erupted between the man and the officer. The second officer intervened and they subdued the man while the tall woman entered the house. A few minutes later, she returned with a young child in her arms while fending a distraught woman clawing at her sleeve.
Death threats spewed out of the man’s mouth and sobs racked the woman’s body as the tall woman departed with the child. When the officers gave the man a ride in the cruiser, Marlo scuttled across the street to talk to the woman.
Her bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, and erratic behavior spoke as adequately as the bruises, scratches, and cigarette burns on her exposed skin.
~ * ~
Marlo spent the afternoon seeking help for Martha only to be given the same answer wherever she knocked. We can’t help unless she wants to be helped.
Before attempting to return home, she needed to make one last stop.
Children’s Services was located in a brand new professional building in the industrial district. Marlo paid the cabbie as the sun set over the city.
The crowd she encountered in the lobby was leaving for the day, but someone spared a moment to point her in the right direction. In the belly of the second floor, Marlo knocked on an open door.
The black-haired woman who took custody of Aaron sat behind a desk covered with paper and folders. The nameplate identified her as Claire Huxley.
Warm chocolate eyes gazed at Marlo. “Come in.”
“I’m sure you’re eager to go home so I’ll be quick. I—”
“Please, take your time.” Claire indicated a chair. “I already called my husband to let him know I’d be late. So? What can I do for you?”
Feeling at ease, Marlo introduced herself before leaning her purse against the leg of the chair in which she sat.
“I’m the woman who reported the abuse of Aaron Clark, the boy you rescued this morning. You’re probably not allowed to tell me anything, but I’d very much like to know he’ll be okay.”
A kindhearted smile floated on Claire’s lips as she nodded slightly. “Unfortunately, I can’t discuss my caseload. That being said, once I’m home tonight, I’ll share a nice glass of wine with my husband. It’s a ritual after a rewarding day.”
Understanding befell upon Marlo. “I hope you won’t get home too late.”
~ * ~
The weight lifted from her shoulders, Marlo breezed through the deserted lobby and exited into the night. Aaron was safe. She’d fulfilled her mission.
“I deserve more chocolates.”
Big snowflakes twirled in the light of the lampposts surrounding the parking lot. Only one car remained, its color concealed by the snow. As she reached for her phone to call a cab, she froze.
A wave of panic washed over her until she remembered where she’d left it. Against the chair in Claire’s office. She backtracked and pounded on the locked front door. When no one answered, she looked up. Light illuminated Claire’s office.
“I guess I’ll have to wait.”
To keep warm, Marlo walked briskly around the parking lot, then she ventured in the park adjacent to the building while keeping an eye on the window.
After what felt like an eternity, darkness engulfed the office. She hurried toward the building.
Startled, Marlo slowed her pace. Claire paused in the parking lot where a hooded figure stood near the car.
“Marlo? Is that you?” Claire raised her arm. “I have your purse.”
A detonation resonated in the air and Claire collapsed on the ground. A scream escaped Marlo’s throat. She rushed toward the social worker.
Blood gushed from her head reddening the snow. Down on her knees, Marlo wrapped a hand around Claire’s wrist. A weak pulse throbbed at the tip of her fingers.
“Stay with me, Claire.”
Grabbing her purse, then her phone, Marlo called nine-one-one. Beeps warned her to speak fast before the battery died.
“Children’s Services parking lot. A woman was shot. Hurry, plea—”
The line went dead.
Something ruffled, spiking the hair on Marlo’s nape. She looked up. Bile rose in her throat.
The shooter advanced toward her. A sudden gust of wind pushed the hood back as a second gunshot resounded. Sharp pain blurred Marlo’s vision, obscuring the killer’s face.
She stumbled clutching her chest. Every nerve in her body tingled. As reality faded away, her mind pondered the title of such a story—had she had the chance to finish it.
~ * ~
Water dripping on her face then scorching pain stirred Marlo’s consciousness. She opened her eyes. Through the rain, she recognized the cemetery, and at the edge, cabin twenty-nine.
Too weak to move, she stared in horror at the blood coating her fingers. Hoping her fellow authors fared better, she called for them.
Her faint cries were lost amid the graves.
Looks like not all of our authors were so lucky as Rita was. We have one more to go. Will Jenna fall victim to the muse, or escape with her life?
This week's piece was written by J.S. Marlo.