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 poured the windows like a spotlight. Marcy squinted her eyes whenever she passed through it and smiled when their father Bruce arrived in the room. He flicked on the lightswitch 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. He had showered and changed after his afternoon nap and took the time to smooth out his hair, unlike that afternoon. His face still wore the effects of exhaustion and he sighed before leading the family in a short prayer before digging into the food. Marcy didn’t bother closing her eyes or clasping her hands. She leaned back and drank from her wine glass and eyed the two men suspiciously.
“I thought you saved Grace for special occasions,” she commented. Bruce ignored her and Harrison started to say something when a beep sounded from the kitchen. She rushed away to pull the bread out, 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 one of his sister’s sore spots.
Oblivious to her mood, Bruce went along with the change in topic. “That they did.”
“Who?” Harrison asked.
“They always brought the fireworks to the 4th of July,” Bruce 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 giggles eventually died down. He 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?” Bruce 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. How did her brother never see it for himself?
“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 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 left behind 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 of forks and occasional ding of their glasses hitting the table. Harrison snuck a peak at his sister and father a few times just to check that they had calmed down some. He caught her eyes briefly slowly 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 seemed to recognize the person but 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 scowl of their father. He recalled a similar horror as a child when the man in question locked him inside of a cupboard because he’d embarrassed his father in front of his friends.
Whatever the difference they perceived, there was one constant. In his hand was a book.
"What are you doing in my…my home? I've atoned. I've atoned! And my wife, she was the price, got that?" Bruce flew up from the table, running into his office, leaving his children with the man he dubbed the Wanderer.
“It’s him! It’s really him!” Harrison jumped up, hitting his thighs on the dining table. “You followed us.”
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 was moving the entire time, slowly, as if it was solving an impossible riddle of the Johnstone family.
Bruce came stomping into the room again bringing an awful stench with him. A pentagram hung from his neck and he swung a large incense holder from a long chain.
“I am here for one man,” the creature’s voice sounded like an angry chorus.
“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.
“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 chanting, like the words would make it to her no matter where in the world they were said. He 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 did nothing to illuminate the true face of the creature but its brightness forced Marcy to look away.
'It’s the Wanderer. Marcy, run away,' Harrison wished to say aloud. 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."
Raguel focused his energy on Bruce. A black liquid came sputtering from his mouth as he continued his strange incantation. It seeped through his pores like sticky tar and hissed when it touched the pentagram. For the first time, Raguel reacted in a nearly human way; he startled.
“Molech,” he murmured.
The air around the pentagram was impossibly hot, like liquid glass. It grew quickly, surrounding her father until he was ensconced in an enormous bubble, a mirror version of the room. The black ooze was gone from his body and Bruce laughed in disbelief. He laughed at Raguel himself, almost taunting the angel.
His laughter was cut short by a strangled scream from his daughter. Now she was drowning in the black substance. Raguel fell to his knees, shocking everyone in the room. He held her as she writhed in his arms, terrified and in agony as the death meant for her murderous father attacked her instead. The black liquid oozed through every pore in her body until she was completely encased inside of it. A loud popping sound came from her chest cavity and the room was thrown into silence. Harrison looked where his father stood but the man and the strange bubble were gone, leaving him alone with a dead sister and a grieving angel.