by J.A. Strawn
“And then she looks at me, right in the eye and tells me that the reason the kid’s backpack stinks is because he stuffed a live baby penguin inside of it. I kinda laughed because I gathered the whole thing was a big joke but she looks at me like I’m being impolite. And I give her this look, like I’m waiting for the punchline. You know what she does instead? She keeps spinning the tale with all of these crazy details. No way it’s true and I’m thinking this new temp has some kind of messed up sense of humor or she’s bonkers. Poor Jill who’s too kind for this world, well she’s got this perplexed look on her face, trying to put her science brain on hold so she can believe the story. So I finally yell ‘Bullshit!’ cause I—”
“—Marcy! Language,” Bruce says from the family room.
“I’m tellin Har the crazy story from work,” Marcy explained, raising her voice. She entered the dining room carrying dishes loaded up with food.
“Penguin lady?” her father asked from the next room.
“The very one!” She replied.
The sun was setting outside and the last remnants of sunlight projected through the windows like a spotlight. Marcy squinted her eyes when she passed through the beam. She smiled when their father arrived in the room. He flicked on the light-switch for the crystal chandelier, hesitated, and crouched down to get two candlesticks from the corner cabinet.
“Hold on. . .I know this story,” Harrison said, following Marcy with the rest of the dishes and cutlery.
“Well, yeah,” Marcy said. “It’s an urban legend.”
Harrison spoke over her and said, “The kid wandered off and liked the baby penguins so much that he brought it home but something smelled fishy and the parents found him out.”
“Uh-huh. I heard something like that ages ago and then my co-worker tries to pass it off as her own. She decided that the original story needed more of a flourish so decided that the boy gave it a bath too.”
“Bold move!” Harrison said through laughter while Marcy shook her head. He placed his dish on the table and collapsed into a chair before the other two finished fussing with their plates and drinking glasses. He raised his eyebrows at his father placing candles on the table alongside a book of matches.
"Marcy, something smells divine," Bruce’s voice boomed across the table.
"Feeling better?" she asked him. Her father nodded and sat in front of his plate of food at the head of the table. The candles remained unlit. The man was showered and dressed for a formal dinner after his afternoon nap. His hair was combed out and beard tidied, unlike that afternoon. He scanned the room and couldn't stop himself from smiling, as if he heard a private joke. Instead of letting his children in on the source of his mirth, he led them in a short prayer. Harrison joined in and kicked at Marcy's ankle when she rolled her eyes. She leaned back and drank from her wine glass, waiting for the spectacle to end.
“I thought you saved Grace for special occasions,” she commented.
Harrison started to say something when a beep sounded from the kitchen. Marcy rushed out of the room and tried to ignore their voices while she pulled the warmed bread from the oven. It was nice and crispy the way she liked it. She grabbed the neck of the wine bottle on her way back to the dining room. The guys started talking politics from the bits and pieces she could hear and she simply wasn’t in the mood. Not today.
“As if women aren’t already in charge of everything. Just look at Marcy forcing us to eat healthy,” her father mock-complained.
“Hilarious.” She mumbled under her breath as she placed everything on the table. Her father grabbed the knife and started slicing the bread. Marcy gulped down her wine and refilled the glass in one smooth motion.
“That Latina from New York is hot.” Harrison said, missing his sister’s wince. Nothing good could come from the impending conversation.
“What does that have to do with anything?” She snapped.
“AOC? She is a type,” her father said with emphasis. He smirked at his son. “Loud mouth with those harlot red lips.”
“I see the Montgomery’s moved out,” Marcy in a voice that sounded shrill to her ears. Harrison rolled his eyes, knowing they hit another of his sister’s sore spots.
Oblivious to her mood, Daddy went along with the change in topic. “That they did.”
“Who?” Harrison asked.
“They always brought the fireworks to the 4th of July,” Daddy answered, gesturing to the house across the street with his knife and fork
“Who’s taking over?” Harrison was still a kid in many ways, Marcy thought.
“I don’t know. You? You love to set fires,” she said with a gleam in her eyes, urging him to remember a shared memory from when he lit a bathroom trash-can on fire. There was a date involved—a total failure of a date. And food poisoning. His face grew red.
“That was one time!”
“What are you two talking about?” Their father finally paid some attention to the chatter.
“Nothing!” They both said, giggling to each other. She promised to never tell the story to a living soul but she still liked to tease him about it. Bruce let a warm smile spread across his face as their laughter eventually died down. Daddy didn’t like it when they got along too well. Keeping secrets and such from him. Marcy figured out his tactics a long time ago and she nervously played with a stray curl of hair while she waited for the fallout.
“Harrison, I think I can set you up with an interview out in Charlotte, come December.”
“MmHmm,” his father answered. “If you won’t follow me into medicine, then I should make sure my boy has a bright future.” There it was. Always giving her brother that extra help. It wasn’t that he was babied, she expected that kind of thing for the youngest. He was always afforded the ‘young man’ benefits that she would never get. And so the next words that came from Marcy’s mouth had a bitter tinge to it.
“Har, you don’t need help do you? Daddy, he’s already got a hedge fund job all lined up. That’s in DC, isn’t that right?”
Harrison’s face flushed with embarrassment or anger, she wasn’t sure which. “Shut up!” he said to her. “I dunno. My roommates father offered. I wasn’t planning on saying anything until it was a done deal.”
“You sure sounded confident about it not thirty minutes ago,” Marcy said in a whiny voice. She anxiously drummed her fingers on the table. Harrison’s eyebrows shot up and he attempted to stare her into some kind of understanding. The kid looked terrified and she felt guilty for it.
“Is that right?” their father said. He was unperturbed by the news. In fact, Marcy was surprised to see his delight at the prospect. Apparently she added another step to the Harrison pedestal.
“I thought you wanted to family to stay close,” Marcy said, slightly distracted. Something moved past the window but it must have been a large bird.
“A young man can’t pass up a good business opportunity. In any case, it can’t hurt to go to the interview I set up for you. It’s with Coca Cola so you could end up back in Atlanta.” Harrison nodded his head, glad for an end to the conversation.
Marcy crossed her arms like a petulant child and she was feeling the buzz of alcohol warming her veins. “You never let me even leave the state for college.”
“It was different for you.”
“Oh I know how it was different,” she mumbled to herself. Harrison cleared his throat loudly to drown out her voice.
“You are a lot like your mother sometimes. She had a feisty side too. Didn’t think I’d notice her little rebellions.” Bruce leaned back in his chair with a smug look on his face.
Marcy took a few deep breaths to calm herself, to avoid more of whatever argument she was plowing into with no self-regard. She thought back to the joint she made especially for today, sitting on the table right next to the sunglasses she accidentally left at home when the weather changed. She just had to make it through dinner and maybe then she’d call up Bill for a lift home if the buzz didn’t let up.
They quieted down with only the scraping forks and occasional ding of their glasses hitting the table. Harrison caught her eyes and shrugged his shoulders. She mouthed ‘sorry’ and stabbed a piece of meat on her fork. The air felt thick again, like they were up for another storm. Dangit. She might have to stay the night.
“I was thinking of taking some time off. Might travel,” Marcy announced.
“Don’t say Paris. Everybody says Paris,” Harrison joked.
Marcy smiled and started to answer when her father cut her off “—What does your husband think of this?”
“Might take time off from him too. This baby business is so—”
“—I see. Don’t lose heart. You were made to be a mama.”
Marcy grew quiet and slumped in her chair. She didn’t mean to tell them anything about her plans but it slipped out. Too late now. She felt the air move unnaturally though the room. It was a familiar feeling and she didn’t like it. Not now. Please, not now. Her wine glass fell over with a thump, red wine soaking the table cloth. The front door flew open and a figure shrouded in darkness filled the doorway. Marcy knew the creature but only from her most paranoid late-night freakouts. Conversations that she later believed were dreams or part of an overactive imagination. This was real. The others saw it. The Wanderer changed faces but settled on an androgenous one. It wore a long dress and shredded robes. Beautiful feathered black wings emerged from its back.
She had no idea that to those who weren't in its good graces, it took on a more psycho-subjective appearance. To Harrison and Bruce, it possessed only the general shape of a man. Its features were non-existent a lacuna, a dark void, that made one fill the gap with one’s worst fears—in Bruce’s case--writhing worms and images of the women he wronged. For Harrison, it was the familiar face of their father scowling at him from on high. He recalled a similar horror as a child when the man in question locked him inside of a cupboard. These appearances were so brief, that it didn't actually register with either of the men. It only left them both with dread and future nightmares, to be sure.
Whatever the difference they perceived, there was one constant. In his hand was a book.
Their father spoke first.
"What are you doing in my…my home? I've atoned. I've atoned! And my wife, she was the price, got that?"
“It’s him! It’s really him!” Harrison jumped up, hitting his thighs on the dining table. “I saw you. Didn't I? You followed us.”
“I am here for one man,” the creature’s voice sounded like an angry chorus.
Marcy shook her head. “Don’t. Please! Why can they see you? You told me that only. . .only guilty. . .” her voice went from shouting to hiccups and sobs. The creature circled them, its head tilting left and right, as if it was solving the riddle of the Johnstone family. Daddy flew up from the table, running into his office, leaving his children with the man he dubbed the Wanderer.
"You will see, child-Marcy," the Wanderer spoke gently.
Bruce came stomping into the room again bringing an awful stench. A pentagram hung from his neck and he swung a large incense holder from a long chain.
“I couldn’t tell you, my dear. It cannot be stopped.”
Marcy understood only too well and rounded on her father. “What did you do?” she demanded an answer but he ignored everyone in the room while he lit the long candle on the table and read from a crumpled piece of paper. It was a pagan incantation of some kind.
“I think he’s a murderer. Marcy, I think he killed Mama,” Harrison’s voice was a mere whisper but she somehow heard him above her father’s strange chant. She knew it was the truth as soon as her brother uttered it; Daddy was a murderer.
The Wanderer placed a book on the table and opened it to a page covered in writing that shone like the sun.
"It’s the Wanderer. Marcy, run away," Harrison said. In response, the face that looked at him scowled.
"I am Raguel. An angel of vengeance. This man is guilty in the eyes of the Holy. Did you truly believe that delivering your wife to an early death would be a fair exchange for your past sins?" Raguel asked Bruce. Then addressing Harrison, "And if you can see me now, this is your chance to amend your ways. Change paths or your sins will only multiply the longer you live."
"Daddy? What are you doing?" Marcy asked, horrified at the change in her father.
"I don't leave anything to chance. Your master isn't the only powerful being." Daddy sneered at everyone in the room with black seeping from his eyes and cracks appearing all over his skin. He started chanting again.
Raguel focused his energy on the father.
"You cannot escape judgement!" Raguel said, satisfied now that a black liquid came sputtering from their father's mouth. Though he slowed its effects with whatever magic his incantation possessed. It seeped through the cracks like sticky tar and hissed when it touched the pentagram. For the first time, Raguel reacted in a nearly human way; he startled.
“Molech,” Raguel murmured.
The air around the pentagram was impossibly hot and rippled, surrounding her father until he was ensconced in an enormous metallic bubble where they were faced with a mirror version of the room. He was still visible from inside that strange sphere. He was laughing. Dr. Johnstone, once an upstanding member of the community, a church-going man laughed at Raguel himself, taunted an angel from the safety of his strange hiding place.
The sound of gurgling and choking interrupted the stare-down between man and angel. Harrison screamed and backed away from Marcy. She was drowning in the black substance, the instrument of execution meant for her father, now transferred to her body. Raguel fell to his knees, shocking everyone in the room. He held her as she writhed in his arms, terrified and in agony. At least it didn't take long. The death was more merciful than those meted out by the countless killers he encountered in his vocation. Moments later, Marcy was completely encased inside of the black ooze and a loud popping sound came from her chest cavity, like a gunshot. The room was thrown into silence.
Harrison was alone. His father gone. His sister's body lay on the floor like an empty carapace left for someone to clean up. Raguel merged with the darkness of the house, leaving grief and dread stamped upon his heart.