Andrew Hughes vs. Jacob Cohen
That night, as with every night for the past two moons, Jossen took the carriage into town to delight the inhabitants of the Black Dog Tavern. Previously known around town as the half-foot fool, when Jossen first had entered the tavern with the moleskin notebook clutched in his pudgy hands, the owner of the establishment had only allowed him to read as a lark. The drunkards and harlots had fallen quiet, awaiting a good laugh. But no one chortled as the poetic prose flowed from his lips. That night, as with every night, when the story was finished, the room had erupted in a chorus of applause. Men had shaken his hand, their eyes glossy with tears of admiration. Women had wept and clung to his cloak. He used to blush in embarrassment at their adoration. He was once just a simple stable hand and had never known a woman’s touch or a man’s appreciation. But slowly, he became accustomed to their praise and now he bathed in it as he drank and shouted out his tales.
That night, when he finished reading and returned the notebook to his cloak pocket, the men applauded and the women rushed forward. All except for one. Jossen saw her through the throng, the beauty, the angel, the golden-haired goddess in the evergreen gown. She sat at the farthest table, leaned back in a chair, running her long pink nails around the mouth of her flagon. Her lips were pursed in rye amusement. She appeared unimpressed. Jossen pushed his way past the lustful women and shouting men and stumbled to her table. She watched his approach and any words he might have conjured in defense of his work vacated his thoughts. His knees went weak and he leaned against her table for balance. The mead in her flagon swirled, then settled.
“Good evening milady,” Jossen stuttered. “Did you enjoy the reading?”
The woman smirked then picked up her drink and brought it to her thin, pink lips. She drained it in a single swallow and Jossen watched as it flowed down the smoothness of her throat. There seemed to be light emanating from her very presence. He averted his eyes and kicked himself for being foolish enough to approach someone of such high blood.
“It was good.” Her voice flowed like velvet. “But it was not what I search for.” The woman stood.
“Please. What is it you seek?”
The woman smiled and placed her fingertips upon his forehead. “My name is Gessle and I’m searching for the best tale ever told. I have traveled far to reach this town because I’ve heard rumor of you, Jossen, but it appears they were mistaken.” She removed her fingers and took a step towards the door.
“No, please.” He clasped his hands. “Let me read for you again tomorrow night. I will bring my very best work.”
She smiled and her teeth glowed as white as fresh milk. “Perhaps.” With that, she seemed to float across the barroom and out the door.
Jossen hurried to the bar and had the tavern owner hail the carriage. There was no time for drinking and whoring tonight and the owner gave him the sack of coins for his work. When the carriage arrived, Jossen slipped out the back, gave the driver a handful of coppers, and told him to ride fast. The driver uncoiled his whip and they galloped through town. Jossen pressed his face to the carriage window and searched for Gessle, but she was nowhere to be seen and when they passed onto the dirt road that led to his shack, he leaned back and began to plan. He had a long night of work ahead. It would be hard work indeed, drawing out a story divine enough to enthrall her.
When the carriage arrived, he bid the driver goodnight and shuffled to the door. There was no lock on his front entrance for no one would think to rob a place so ramshackle. There were no gutters and sections of the roof had caved in. Inside, the floorboards had rotten and rats had chewed holes in his straw bed. Some nights, when he lay upon it, he could feel them moving within. Jossen tossed the sack of coins upon the rickety kitchen table then found a candle and matches. When the wick was lit, he strode to the wolf-skin rug that lay beside the cooking pot. Kneeling, he yanked it back and revealed the trap door. Six iron locks held it in place. Jossen removed the keys from his pocket and twisted them one after another. Each fell away with a soft thunk and he lifted the wood slab. Below, stone steps stretched into the blackness.
A cool draft tickled the flame, casting flickering shadows as Jossen descended. He whistled as he walked. When he emerged in the musty cellar, Jossen set the candle on the workbench amongst the hammers, the pliers, and the spikes.
“I told another one tonight.” He clutched his notebook in one hand and stepped forward. The candlelight fell upon his back, casting a dark shape upon the wall. “There was a woman there, the most beautiful being to ever grace this land, but she wasn’t impressed. I may have another chance though. I need you to do better this time.”
The creature hung where Jossen had left it, its arms splayed out and affixed to the wall by chains. Its wings were pressed against the stone tight enough that they could not flutter. The creature was humanoid in shape but far too small, the size of a child rather than any grown thing. The evergreen corset it had worn when Jossen had found it sleeping by the lake was torn to a loincloth that obscured its groin, but its skin was still a rich tan despite being locked in the dark for weeks. As with every night, the previous wounds had healed, leaving no scars or traces of blood. The creature’s eyes were pinched shut and the rag was still in place, threaded through its mouth and tied behind its pointed ears.
“You can’t hold out on me this time,” Jossen said as he dragged a stool across the dirt. “She’s searching for the greatest story ever told.” He placed it in front of the creature and sat down. “I’m in love. And I need something truly perfect. For her.”
Air flowed from the creature’s nostrils, but still, it averted its eyes, the lids pinched shut so tight that its forehead quivered.
Jossen reached out and pulled the rag from the creature’s mouth. “Come now, don’t hold out. If you tell me a good story, maybe I’ll take you for a walk.” The creature did not budge. Jossen sighed. “Always the hard way.” He stood, went to the bench, and picked up a hammer and a handful of spikes. “Don’t forget, I gave you the chance to be nice.”
Jossen started with a blow to its claw like hand. The creature squirmed. He struck harder, cracking the fingers. The creature screamed, but did not open its eyes. For hours, Jossen went through his tools, driving spikes through limbs, clipping off claws, tearing off chunks of flesh. Finally, as he sawed through its wing with a jagged blade, the creature opened its eyes and black tears flooded down from its golden pupils. Jossen dropped the saw, dove for his notebook, and placed it beneath the creature’s pointed chin. As the tears struck page, they transformed into floral, looping writing and as it sobbed on and on, the story spun forward, of knights, and princesses, and high adventure upon distant mountain slopes. Sucking in breath, his arms quivering from their exertion, Jossen read the story as it unfolded. Soon, he was crying too, for it truly was more beautiful than anything he could have ever fathomed. When the final tear fell and blossomed into the end, Jossen closed his notebook and slid it into the breast pocket of his cloak.
“Thank you,” he said, shoving the gag back in the creature’s mouth and synching it tight. The golden eyes glared at him and Jossen ruffled its evergreen hair. “This is truly your best work yet.”
He picked up the candle, now only a nub, went back upstairs, and fell upon the straw bedding. Outside, birds chirped and the sun rose, ushering in a new day. As he fell asleep, Jossen’s mouth perked in a grin, for those pages held his destiny.
When he woke late the next day, he ate a quick meal of venison and cabbage stew, then reread the story. Again, it brought tears to his eyes and he kissed the parchment. This was his masterpiece. As night descended, purple then black, he donned his best britches and shirt. When he heard the drumbeat of hooves upon the dirt path, he checked the locks on the cellar, covered it once more with the wolf pelt, and went outside to meet the carriage.
The tavern was packed that night, as more outsiders piled in to bear witness. Jossen made his way through the crowd to the stool in the corner of the room. The crowd fell silent as he climbed to his seat. The notebook felt rough in his sweaty fingers. He cleared his throat, and searched the sea of faces, but Gessle was not amongst them. His heart throbbed and his mouth ran dry.
The crowd began to murmur, then someone shouted out. “Get on with it already!” There was a chorus of jeering support.
Jossen sighed, his hopes as beaten as a hunting trail, and began to read.
The story followed a young knight as he fled a bloodied battlefield in search of his love, Susanna. Across scorched fields and burning cliffs, he searched for her. Fighting dragons, and demons, and trolls, he searched for her. Until finally, he returned home alone, to find her ghost waiting for him. As the story ended, there was not a dry eye in the tavern and when he read the final words, the crowd cheered and pounded their hands together so hard pain flashed across their faces. They showered him with coin and women reached for him, yearning to drown him in kisses and perfume. Men bowed and shouted for an encore, but Jossen stuffed the story into his cloak pocket and pushed his way through the throng, his head cast down.
Before he could reach the door, he felt a hand on his shoulder and her velvet voice flowed into his ear. “That, was true beauty.”
Jossen turned and there she was, more heavenly than before, donned in a white gown fit for a priest’s blessing of matrimony. Gessle leaned down and brushed her lips across his ear as she whispered, “take me with you.”
The carriage rode fast through the night. Gessle stroked her hand through his hair and Jossen felt the point of her nails brush his neck. He studied her and stammered for words. “I, I did not think you had come.”
Gessle leaned back upon the wooden bench and smiled as she looked out at the passing forest. “How could I have forsaken such potential? You had me last night, but I had to be sure it was not a fluke. You truly are the most talented storyteller I’ve ever bore witness to.”
Jossen bowed his head. “How can one be so kind, yet so beautiful?”
Gessle stroked his neck. “Only for you.”
They arrived at the shack and Jossen gave the carriage driver a silver coin. He thudded down upon the muck and offered his hand to Gessle. She took it and he led her down the steps and in through the door.
Jossen rummaged around the shack, lighting every candle he could find until the room was as luminous as a shrine. Gessle studied the shabby decor.
“It is not much.” Jossen produced a bottle of mead and two clay cups. “But perhaps once the printing press arrives, I may buy a home in town.”
“I think you should.” Gessle eyed the wolf-skin rug. “For the two of us. And whomever we may create.”
“Oh, yes,” Jossen stammered as he pulled at the mead cork. “Whatever you desire.”
“And this,” Gessle outstretched her hands, “is where you pen your stories?”
“Yes, yes,” Jossen strained, twisting the bottle. Finally, the cork came free. He poured the two mugs. “This is where I write my stories.”
Gessle strode forward, picked up one of the mugs, and downed it. “Then I need to see what more you can do.”
She pressed her hands against his chest and pushed him backwards. Stumbling, Jossen landed upon the straw bedding. Within, the rats squeaked.
Before him, Gessle brought her long nails to the straps of her dress.
Jossen gulped, clutched his chest, and felt the notebook in his pocket.
Gessle pulled the straps to the side, and the dress fell away. Thin, porous wings sprouted from her back filling the room. Her face elongated and contorted, her ears growing points. Her pupils glowed with golden fire and when she spoke, her voice was a booming thunderclap that made the mausoleum of candles flicker.
“WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER.”
Jossen screamed and pushed further onto the bedding.
One long, clawed arm shot out, grabbed him by the neck, and lifted him into the air. His stubby legs quivered as her grip closed around his windpipe. Gessle’s mouth gaped wide, exposing pointed teeth.
“TELL ME NOW.”
Jossen’s vision swirled with the white, flickering candlelight. He raised one pudgy hand and pointed at the rug.
Gessle hurled him at the pelt and he landed hard enough to crack the floorboards. He tried to crawl away, pulling the pelt with him and exposing the locks, when a clawed foot dug into his back and pinned him to the ground.
Jossen struggled beneath the grip, slunk a hand into his pocket, and produced the keys. He unlocked them one by one. When the last metal lock fell aside, Gessle reached down, wrenched the trapdoor open, and tossed him into the black. Jossen fell hard, struck his head upon the stone, and descended into a pit of unconsciousness.
When he woke, his vision spun. He attempted to move his hands, but they were held tight by metal bracers. Jossen blinked through the pain and caught a single glimpse of light pouring down from the opening in the floor. In the beam, he saw two silhouettes hovering on fluttering wings. Then, the trapdoor fell, the lock clicked, and his world was consumed by black.
Everybody gets a curveball or two thrown at them over the course of their life. Others get what feels like an endless amount of obstacles. Jack was one of those “others”. He set out to simply be a decent person and for the most part had accomplished just that. The rules of karma didn’t seem to apply to him though, and it seemed to stem from a certain type of person consistently standing in his way.
The people who came in and squashed Jack’s dreams were always in the position of power. Family, teachers, police, hell even the guy at the Deli made life hard for Jack. Everyone who got a chance of fraying his connection to success, seemed to take it. He managed to stay afloat for a while and then he’d snap and his course in life would be jettisoned away from his true destiny.
One time, Jack almost got expelled from school. He’d been accused of giving this blind kid the old heave-ho down three flights of stairs. Security officer Bussy and Principal Allman ushered him into the office and demanded an explanation.
“Tell us why the hell you sent a blind kid flying down not one, not two, but three flights of stairs?” Principal Allman said.
“If I did it, I’d tell you, but I have no idea what you guys are talking about.”
“Look Blunt, the kid is in bad shape. Broken ribs, collar bone, and a severe concussion. He’s lucky he didn’t die. So act like Chunk in Goonies and tell us everything,” said Bussy.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“About the Chunk bit? I have to splash in a little humor to make it by,” Bussy said.
“Apparently, he’s got the hots for your girl. We’re guessing that’s the motive right there,” Principal Allman said.
“Can I call my lawyer?”
They ended up settling out of court. Shortly after, Jack got dumped and simultaneously picked up a moniker: Handicap Hacker. Everyone knew the blind kid gave himself the old heave-ho. If he couldn’t have Jack’s girl, he was going to make sure Jack couldn’t either. From there things turned for Jack. His parents started blaming him even more so than before. Girls shunned him. Guys sneered at him. Teachers threw him out of class for simply moving the wrong way and where possible D’s and F’s.
It wasn’t until he went to community college that the pendulum started swinging the other way. He started writing again and even got published in a few online journals. Eventually, he met the girl that would become his wife and the mother of his child. They didn’t go to school together, but met at the library and fell in love. Only issue was, the mother-in-law, Victoria, ended up embodying everything Jack Blunt despised. After they got married and had Mia, Victoria tried everything in her power to turn Elizabeth against them and rejected Mia for just looking slightly more like Jack.
The toy soldiers were of no use to Victoria and it seemed everything outside of her stocks and bonds were somehow not visible either. Victoria was hoping for a boy and when Elizabeth came instead, she decided to put the toys in the attic. Girls wouldn’t possibly play with toy soldiers. They stayed there for forty years under the only window in the attic. They were boxed and specially marked: KEEP in black marker. All of the soldiers were in mint condition, unopened and ready for battle or trade. Cobra Commander, Lady Jane, Snake Eyes, Destro, Duke, Hawk..you name them, they were there.
When Victoria gave them to Jack, whiteout conditions were in effect. Even though it was only noon, you couldn’t see the road in front of you. After a foot had fallen, Victoria called in a frenzy asking to be saved from the snow. Jack agreed to go over to plow and shovel the walk ways. He brought Mia along to salt the walking paths so Victoria wouldn’t slip. When they were done, they got into the truck and started pulling out. Victoria flicked the porch light on and off and popped her head out the window.
“Go in the attic Mia, There’s a surprise for you.”
“Yeah, sure thing grandma,” said Mia.
“Be careful coming down the stairs. Don't need your mom suing me.”
“What’s in the box?”
“Just some old busted toys.”
“Why’d you keep them?”
Grandma didn’t answer though. She just sulked back in front of CNN.
The toys remained boxed in the garage, poised for another forty year run untouched. Jack was looking for decoration boxes in the garage. It was only Thanksgiving, but Elizabeth loved to inject Christmas spirit in the air immediately after. He stumbled upon the box that was marked: KEEP and remembered the toy soldiers. As he took them out of the box, he marveled at the condition and was flung back onto his couch in 1985 watching G.I. Joe’s on Saturday morning. When Elizabeth got home from work, he didn’t say anything about what his Google search had uncovered. She ate her dinner, showered and sat down to read when he looked over at her.
“We are going to be rich.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The toys. The G.I. fucking Joe’s.”
“That’s a good one. It’s Thanksgiving not April Fools.”
“No, those toys aren’t what Victoria thought. They are in mint condition and worth a shitload of money.”
“How much are we talking here?”
“Are you kidding me? Fifty?”
Jack didn’t think toys could be worth so much, but these being collector items in perfect condition set them into a six figure stratosphere. Finally, Jack saw a chance. A chance to not worry about someone over him. Maybe he’d go back to school and finally write a novel. Jack figured this was his big Christmas gift to make up for all the shit he’d endured. After all the wrongs, here was the ultimate right.
Problem was, things turned in the other direction again for Jack. Soon after, they linked up with a potential buyer who happened to be local. The guys’ name was Harold. He decided to broadcast the deal over every social media site imaginable. At first, only local news stations caught wind of the great toy haul. Soon after one million Twitter followers, CNN and Good Morning America were running with it. The whole ordeal was being spun as a Christmas rags to riches story. That’s when Victoria exerted her muscle.
“Where the hell is that worthless husband of yours?”
“Not home yet, Mom. Why, what’s going on?”
“Do you live under a rock? I want my money!.”
“What are you talking about? That money is ours. You gave those toys to Mia.”
“Just have your husband call me right away.”
When Jack got home, Elizabeth was in the driveway, arms folded. Usually, if in trouble, he’d have received a text: call me now. This was new, so Jack wasn’t sure how to handle it.
“What’s up, hon?”
“You need to call my mom right now.”
“You mean, I can’t eat first?”
Jack was smiling. Elizabeth was not.
“She wants the toys back or the money for the toys. Just call her.”
Jack dialed up her landline, reluctantly, and leaned back on the couch, bracing himself for the call.
“Hey, it’s Jack. Elizabeth said you wanted me to call about the money or something.”
“Don’t ‘or something me’. You know you have what’s mine.”
“Jeez, Victoria, I always figured you were the kind to play fair with toys.”
“Play. I’ll show you how to play.”
“I don’t want to play, Victoria. I want a better life for Mia and Elizabeth.”
“Well, I told Harold I want the toys after all and that I'd be willing to pay double.”
“I’ll find another buyer.”
“I’ll get those toys. One way or another, I’ll get them back.”
Thanksgiving came and went. Grandma was invited, but politely declined and they didn’t hear anything from her until Christmas Eve. It came in the form of a thunderous pounding on the front door as a light snow fell outside and the only light came from Christmas lights.
Jack stopped poking the fire to make sure he heard correctly. The pounding escalated.
“Who is it?”
“Harold. The toy guy”
“The toy guy, Harold. Listen, give me the goddamn toys and we’ll call it a night.”
“Or? Or, I take the stupid toy soldiers and before I go I put my foot in all your asses.”
“How much will it take for you to go away, forever?”
There was silence on the other end. Jack turned on the front door camera and a faux Santa appeared. He was shorter than the real Santa. Just over five feet and wide as the door he was staring through. Harold was chewing gum, with his hands on his hips. He kept swinging his head to the side for a second like he’d found his answer and then back the other way like he’d lost it on the other side. Then he looked into the camera.
“I usually don’t do business with strangers. But I know what is going on here. I mean, who the hell doesn’t. I also pride myself on being malleable. So, I’m thinking of a fifty-fifty split.”
Jack paused for poise and swung the door open. Harold shrank backwards and almost fell, but Jack grabbed his Santa jacket and steadied him.
“Come in, Harold. I don’t see why we can’t settle this like gentlemen.”
Once he got inside and turned his back, Jack put his foot into the small of Harold’s back as hard as he could, sending him flying into the fireplace head first. His false hair instantly took to the flames and set afire. Harold shot upwards and began circling like a wild dog. He finally extinguished the flames in the fish tank.
“You asshole. You could’ve killed me,” Harold said.
“Shut up you little prick. You come here on Christmas Eve, you little shit, and threaten me and my family?”
“Look, I just want the toys man. I got hired for the toys.”
“Yeah, well Harold, sorry pal but you aren’t getting them.”
“Shut up. Take off the Santa getup and start walking home. Keep it PG and stay out of the neighbors windows.”
Harold looked up in dismay. He started shedding clothing. By the time the whole charade was over, the snow started kicking up and without socks and underwear, Jack figured he could freeze. The Blunts went to bed excited for Christmas morning. Around two in the morning, a crash of glass set off the security system. Jack zipped down the stairs and into the kitchen. The rock was sitting in the sink, with a note rubber banded around it.
Dear Toy Thief,
You may have taken Harold out, but I have more weapons at my disposal and I’ll gladly use them. This is far from over. Have a splendid Christmas with the family.
P.S. - Don’t spend all my money
After the rock incident, Jack made an executive decision. First thing he considered was contacting the police. It’s not that Jack disliked cops, he was just afraid they’d make him hand over the toys. In the cartoon, G.I. Joe soldiers always said ‘Knowing is half the battle’. Jack knew what he had to do. The obvious choice: hitman. Not for Harold. For Grandma. Jack wasn’t sure how Elizabeth was going to take option B, and when he factored in the quickness with which he needed to execute, he decided she was better off not knowing. After a short self-deliberation, Jack chose option B. An old work buddy of Jack’s, Pitter, was the only logical choice.
“Pitter, you there? Merry Christmas you old bastard.”
“Yeah, who’s this?”
“I know it’s been a few years, but it’s me, Jack.”
“Blunt? Jack Blunt?”
“The one and only….well, only one you know.”
“Shit man, mighty thoughtful of you to reach out. Only took you four years after my divorce and life fell apart. What can I do you for?”
“I’m sorry for the tardiness, but I’m in a unique situation here. I could use your muscle”
“Muscle? You mean fat”
“Fat will do.”
“How much are we talking and what the hell do I have to do?”
“After dinner, I’ll meet you at Andy’s for a pint.”
Pitter arrived late. The place was packed and deafening with the band pounding out tunes. When Pitter came into Andy’s, he stumbled.
“Did you drive?” Jack asked.
“Have a seat, and we can talk about what the deal is.”
“Just give me the address.”
“Don't screw this up Pitter. It should be easy because she doesn’t have an alarm system and sleeps like the dead.”
“What do I get outta this?”
“If you pull this off, you won’t have to worry about...well, about anything.”
Pitter’s prize materialized in his mind. The possibilities sobered him and when his eyes met Jacks, a Christmas twinkle came with them.
Pitter wasn’t sure how he’d get into the house. He took out his cheap infra-red night goggles. They were knockoffs, but they got the job done. He could make out Harold sprawled out on the couch, still in the bottom half of his Santa costume from his mall gig. He noticed a camera on the corner of the house. Blunt had failed to let him know about it, and it was throwing him off.
Pitter sat back against the wall of a car in the driveway. He was an old highschool quarterback, so it only took him five or six tries before he heard the camera crack. He let the night settle back into its muffled quietness and went around to the window. He slipped on leather gloves.
A small night light in Victoria’s room afforded him the opportunity to see her asleep and he went to make his move, but it didn’t work out like that. Nothing ever works out the way you think or hope or want it to. Grandma came out of the bathroom and when Pitter went to give her the old heave-ho downstairs, he stumbled on the runner. They both stared at one another, and then Pitter lunged.
“Haaaaaaarold,” she screamed.
Pitter ran toward her and she backpedaled into the night of the staircase. She didn’t fall like you are probably imagining. She flailed. Her head smacked against the stairs. Pitter appeared over the faux Santa to make sure he wasn’t going to be a problem, but he didn’t even budge. An odor of Jack Daniels and cheap strippers wafted into the air when Harold coughed.
Pitter then leaned over grandma and watched as her eyes remained open staring back at him. He realized this was a staring match he wouldn’t win and went to go into the kitchen. Oddly enough, “Grandma Got Ran Over By a Reindeer” fell out of the radio. Pitter chuckled at the uncanniness. He was hoping the song, “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas,” would come on the radio next, but he decided better not wait to find out. The real Santa might appear, and with that he left the kitchen light on, poured a glass of cool milk and set out the pack of cigarettes tucked in Harold’s Santa hat.