The old man shifted his weight as he peered out through the tavern’s window settling on three figures standing in the street. Although obscured in shadows cast by the lone lantern, one could easily tell there were two adults and one child.
Over the years he watched many families stand outside in the street exactly where the three were standing now. Although it was a different one each time, the scene always played out the same.
One could say it was tradition.
The old man reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a silver pocket watch. He pressed the small button releasing the latch and looked at the clock’s face.
Frowning he closed the watch and slid it back into his pocket.
“It is almost time.”
He heard someone grunt behind him and turned to the rest of the people in the tavern who came to witness. None met his gaze. He felt their hatred as easily as he could smell the odor of stale beer.
The old man turned in time to see the two adults kneeling down hugging the child. The father was the first to stand and had to pull the mother away. She began cried as her husband led her toward the bar, away from their child.
The little girl watched her parents, not entirely sure what was happening.
The tavern’s door opened and the mother’s wails filled the room.
“Let go of me,” she cried. “This is your doing!” As she began hitting his back, the old man did not take his eyes off the girl.
A faint mist swirled around her feet.
“Ellie, come on,” the husband said wrestling his wife away. “Screaming at the heartless bastard isn’t going to change anything.”
“How could you…” Ellie spat. “She’s only nine…”
The mist thickened, making everything outside appear in grey scale.
“If you only knew what it was like…”
The words stung, the old man’s throat went dry. I know only too well. He exhaled sharply keeping his attention on the girl.
She was barely visible in the impenetrable mist.
It will be over soon.
A shadow danced in the mist to the little girl’s left and vanished as she spun around to see what it was. Her head darted back and forth looking for it.
The shadow reappeared to her right, only closer. Once again the girl turned to look but the shadow disappeared. Her movements became frantic and she turned her head to toward the tavern.
It rose up through the mist like a scorpion’s tail and struck, knocking the little girl to the ground. The shadow rushed forward engulfing her in a blur of grey and black. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. Her struggling weakened and within seconds she no longer moved as the shadow devoured her.
The mist quickly dissipated revealing an empty street with no trace the girl had even been there. He checked his pocket watch again.
The old man turned, moved away from the window. He kept his head down to avoid the icy stares and shuffled toward the door as fast as his frail frame could take him.
“Just like always, you leave without having the fucking guts to face those of us who have given so much,” the little girl’s mother said.
He slowly turned and raised his head, meeting the hateful stares head on.
“Would it make it any easier if I did?” he asked.
“At the very least you could see the pain… the anguish that this ungodly tradition causes.”
“Yes, it is an ungodly tradition.” He pointed toward the window. “That thing that takes so much from us every year is ungodly.”
“Takes so much from us?” the father asked. “What do you know of it?”
Before he could reply, the bar erupted in profanity laced rants. Globs of saliva struck his face and he dropped to one knee.
“If you would please…” he tried to say but was drowned out.
His breathing quickened as his chest tightened. His hand slid down the shaft of his cane until it reached the bottom. With a deep breath, the old man stood up and in one fluid, powerful motion smashed his cane on the floor. It splintered in the middle and the sudden show of force silenced the bar.
“You all think I haven’t felt the pain this night brings?” he yelled as his lower lip quivered. “Do you all think that I cannot relate to what you are going through?” His eyes scanned the stunned expressions. “When we settled here almost fifty years ago, I had three sons and a daughter who I loved with all my being. We thought we found paradise but little did we know what we’d have to pay for it.”
“Are… are you saying…” the mother began.
“Mine were the first to be given to the ungodly. I know all too well what you are going through. If there were some other way believe me when I say we would’ve found it.” He wiped the spit off of his face. “But there isn’t.”
He hobbled to the door and spoke over his shoulder as he opened it. “You all knew the price you might have to pay when you moved here. Don’t forget that.”
With that he stepped outside and pulled the door shut behind him.
∼ Jon Olson
© Copyright Jon Olson. All Rights Reserved.