April 27th 2016: Inspired by The Gift of the Magi
You Shouldn’t Have
, by Darren Todd

Sometimes Tad wondered what made Calvin a bad man. He knew only that Nancy’s ex husband was indeed bad. Otherwise she would have shaken off his memory. Now, two years into their relationship, it still clung to her. Calvin had become a set stain in their otherwise blissful relationship.

Christmas loomed only a week away, and Tad wanted more than anything else for Calvin Gauis to leave their lives forever, a two-fold obstacle. First the obvious: Nancy’s anxieties on the matter, which ran far deeper than mere skeevies. Second, that Nancy and Calvin were still legally married.

“You could have a courier drop off the papers. You’d never even have to see him,” Tad said and then blew out the wooden match with which he’d lit a pair of candles to complement their dinner.

Nancy sat, smoothed down her dress, and skooched her chair further under the table. Her posture resembled a broom handle, even as she let out an audible sigh. “I’m sure I could.”

“But?” Tad said, elongating the word. He sat and poured them both half a glass of red wine.

Nancy stared at the liquid, which swirled in the bauble before settling. “But he would use that to find me,” she said as if reporting the weather.

She’d asserted as much before, likewise blending the terrible implications with matter-of-fact flippancy. She spoke of her past marriage by scaling the egregious down to mere trifles. That she would undermine their future just to avoid contact with Calvin made Tad dubious of her nonchalance.

“I don’t know how he’d find you,” Tad said. “The courier would have no idea where you were. Even if he traced the paperwork back to a lawyer, you’re protected by attorney-client privilege.”

She laughed mid drink. Her wine glass added an artificial quality to the sound, like it had played over the loudspeaker at Tad’s school. “He would find a way,” she stated. She pressed her palm flat against the table, smashing her statement into their special meal. “Let’s talk about what play you’re putting on for spring. The kids would love another musical, and it’s been a while.”

A transparent diversion.

“I’m happy to talk theatre all evening,” he said. “Right after we finish talking about—”

“I need you to drop it,” she said. She covered his hand with hers. “I’ll see what I can do. That’s got to be enough for you, Tad. It’s not because I don’t want to marry you.”

“I know that,” he said, squeezing her hand.

She closed her eyes. Her return squeeze telegraphed an apprehension he’d encountered only a handful of times. It was the kind that sent Nancy whimpering into a corner after one of her nightmares, where her feet flailed at the clinging sheets as if threatened by crocodiles. The kind that inspired him to refill her sleep aid at the pharmacy.

“Just have a little faith. It means as much to me as it does to you.”

“I know that,” he repeated. Her fingers had gone cold and her palm clammy.

She pulled it away when she opened her eyes. “This looks lovely,” she said, gesturing to her plate. Lobster ravioli with a spinach salad. “So, a musical then?”

Tad smiled. “I don’t think so. Maybe something a touch darker.” He drank from his wineglass.

***

The following day, he hauled several sheets of plywood and two by fours from storage onto his stage. He tacked up a top-down design he’d created the night before spanning several sheets of paper.

Students filed in. Only the hardcore theatre geeks took drama first thing in the morning, which meant the class was small but dedicated. They conversed about the weekend and the upcoming winter break.
Tad was dragging in a table saw when a senior came to his aid and lifting the other side with the thoughtless strength of youth. By the time they centered the saw in front of the plywood, Tad’s breath had left him, and his arms cried out for reprieve. The senior — arms smooth and sculpted, extending from the cut-off sleeves of a band t-shirt — looked as nonplussed as if he’d strolled across the stage.

“What’s the plan?” called one of the four girls in his class. The seven boys doted on them. Their seating habits in the rigid wooden chairs of the front few rows spoke volumes.

“We’re building a set,” Tad said. Incredulous groans and rhetorical questions pelted him. He raised his hands. “Slow your roll. We’ve got a week before break starts.”

“Four days, Mr. Weehinkle. We can’t build a set in four days.”

Tad shrugged. Standing on the stage, looking out at his students, made anything seem possible.

“Bellyaching sure won’t do it. And I’m putting all my classes on it, not just you guys.”

“Man, the Theatre I students do more harm than good,” said another boy, a junior stagehand. “I spend more time undoing their work than building.”

“Then I’ll have them paint. Or do the heavy lifting. Whatever. You tell me.”

The senior who’d helped him spoke, turning up his hands from the backs of the seats around him, each filled with one of the girls. “Why the rush, Teach?”

“Call it a Christmas miracle. If we do this, I promise I’ll get the paper down here to cover it. We haven’t had a spot in the community section in years. It’ll look damn good on a college resume.” He pointed to the senior for emphasis.

“Do we have a choice?” said a girl. She’d raised her hand, but out of habit. The theatre classes ran without the tight protocol their other courses demanded.

Tad looked up into the stage lights into the catwalk above, as if searching for an answer. He turned back to his students, the lights lingering in his vision, and shook his head.

The senior stood. “Well let’s get to it then.”

***

That night, Tad hunted down and dry-swallowed a Vicodin from a handful he’d been prescribed a year before. They’d probably lost potency, but every muscle, joint, and bone in his body ached as if he’d spent the day in a paint shaker. In college, he could build all day without wearing out, but while his skill remained, his conditioning had waned.

Nancy sucked in a breath when his weaker left knee locked and he pirouetted into a chair. “Jesus, babe. You okay?”

“Fell up the stairs at school,” he said. “Nothing pitiable in that, lemme tell ya. No one came to my rescue, but several students laughed.”

“Those little shits,” she said, hands on hips.

He waved it off, grateful for the take-out dinner she’d brought home. “Yep, some Christmas spirit they’ve got.”

***

The next two days progressed the same. All that changed was the set and the degree to which his students bellyached. On the final day before break, a Thursday two days before Christmas, he bribed them with chocolate and eggnog. He even played “Christmas Vacation” — swearing and all — in the background while they worked.

His body moved from angry incredulity to outright embargo, withholding even a trickle of energy without accompanying pain. Joints he’d never tired out before swelled and shot spikes through him. A dull but incessant ache plagued his left arm from when he’d broken it as a child. His teeth ached, either from clinching his jaw or from the steady sinus infection he carried from breathing in sawdust.

Friday morning he rehearsed his excuses. He prepared to offer an airtight alibi to Nancy for why he woke at the usual time and had pulled his only suit from the dry cleaning bag when they both knew school was closed.

Fortunately, by the time his alarm sounded, Nancy had already left. He thought she had the day off and considered checking their shared online calendar. But why look that gift horse in the mouth? She could be making a last-minute run for presents, intent on returning in time for breakfast. He hurried. Much easier to make excuses for his absence over the phone than in person.

He drove forty-five minutes into the city. Gilead lay on the outskirts, just outside the giant loop that took commuters downtown. While only miles away traffic could gridlock with congestion, Gilead smacked of a small town more than a suburb. Sure, lots of Tad’s students had parents who worked in the city, but Gilead enjoyed some industry and tended to mind its own business.

Maybe that’s why he and Nancy lived in the shadow of the great Calvin Gauis. He’d pried scant details about her husband over the years, but that Calvin lived and worked in the city was common knowledge, if an unspoken anxiety between them.

“Gilead is the last place he’d look,” she’d told him once.

“So he is looking?”

She’d shrugged, but then nodded.

“Then why are we here?” Tad had asked. “If he does decide to check his own backyard….”

“We met here,” she said. “I made my new life here, with you.”

“But why did you come here?” he’d asked.

She shrugged again. “We met the day I ran away. I hadn’t made very far yet.”

The memory of that conversation danced in his ears as he pulled into a parking lot the size of his high school. Nerves assaulted him before he’d even left the car. A little fear might work in his favor, but with his body so sore he could barely move, he found himself unable to control the tremors. He ambled from car to elevator, elevator to lobby like a man experiencing an earthquake no one else could feel.

“Help you?” the security guard said, not kindly, but without malice. His dark uniform clung to his thick arms. The bulges of each muscle group shown through as if the garment were wet. He’d been leaning forward on the marble slap of his desktop, but then straightened and looked Tad up and down every few seconds like he might transform.

“Yessir, I have a nine o’clock with Calvin Gauis.”

“Name?”

“Tad Weehinkle.”

The guard typed on a small laptop, the impact of his fat fingers on the keyboard producing no sound. “All right, come with me.”

The guard led him through a narrow corridor to a bank of elevators. Tad headed for the closest, but the guard coughed and titled his head at the rightmost car, oddly smaller than the others. He gestured inside and Tad entered. The guard leaned in and inserted an odd, cratered key into the brushed steel plate of buttons. He turned it, pressed a series of buttons, and then retracted.

“Just hit 1 to come back down when you’re through,” he said. Again, not a sliver of kindness in that voice, but nothing else, either.

“Thank you,” Tad said, the doors closing on his words. He figured the guard would fail to soften at his gratitude anyway. Might have even sneered at it.

The elevator hummed along, absent the jarring sensation of most cable cars, as if it moved by magic. It opened seconds later at the penthouse suite. An enormous oak desk enclosed a receptionist carved from stone. Even her hair looked fake, pulled back so tight a pinprick to the forehead would cause her face to pop.

Before Tad could reach her, a man strode from around a high, exposed brick wall to his right. Instantly, Tad knew Calvin, if only because Nancy’s ex was the boss and this guy worked for no one. His black pinstriped suit showed no sign of wear. Tad had garbed a few hundred high schoolers over the years. They played businessmen in “Guy and Dolls,” even Masters of the Universe in his original production of “Wall Street”. But he could only fake wealth so well. In the end, they were kids in cheap Goodwill suits. Calvin’s clothes moved with him as if tempered armor. They looked more comfortable than flannel pajamas on a winter morning, and yet bore creases sharp enough to scratch.

“Tad Weehinkle,” the man said, moving in with his right hand as if he might pass it through Tad’s stomach.

“Mr. Gauis,” Tad said and took the hand. It felt warm and moist, like bread fresh from the oven. He only then noticed that the penthouse was several degrees below room temperature. The chill put Calvin’s toasty grip in sharp relief.

“You said it correctly. That’s rare, and I appreciate it. But please, call me Calvin.”

“All right,” Tad said. At least the shaking failed to reach his voice. “Thank you for meeting me on short notice, Calvin.”

Just saying the name sent a wave of anxiety from his head down his back, ending in his weakened knees. He gripped the hand of a person who had haunted him for years. Who had overshadowed every wonderful memory he and Nancy made. Who — years removed — still hung over their holidays like the poisonous mistletoe, but with none of the amorous potential.

Calvin tilted his head to the side mere millimeters, aping a wolf sizing up the situation. Tad cursed himself for not indulging in alcohol ahead of time. Sure, he wanted his mind acute, but he’d ventured past sharp on to jumpy. No doubt Calvin saw through his manufactured levity and sensed his discomfort. No matter; he could do nothing about it now.

“Shall we sit?” Calvin said, and took Tad by the shoulder. He stood several inches taller than Tad, though not as towering as Tad had expected. Yet even that easy gesture betrayed Calvin’s strength. In his state, Tad couldn’t resist even if he tried. He allowed Calvin to guide him into a glass-encased office and onto a squishy leather chair opposite a mahogany table. Calvin sat behind the table and gestured over Tad’s shoulder.

Tad turned to see the stone receptionist enter. She balanced two steaming mugs of coffee atop a silver tray, garishly decorated with gold filigree around the rim like something out of the Biltmore estate.

“Cream or sugar?” the receptionist asked, leaning down. She smelled of a perfume so intoxicating it sent electricity through him, firing inappropriate desires in his imagination.

“Sure,” he said. He took his coffee black if he took it at all. He’d always been a tea drinker. But anything to get that smell away from him.

The receptionist first served Calvin and then prepared Tad’s drink. She took her time, her movements almost ritualistic in their fluidity and grace. The whole time, she made no noise, and neither did Calvin. The loudest sound in the room was Tad’s breathing, which — when he noticed — he slowed and deepened.

She left as quietly as she’d come, and notes of her perfume lingered. Tad found nothing about her attractive and yet tiny flashes of bending her over the mahogany desk and taking her right there toppled what remained of his concentration.

“Everything all right?” Calvin asked. He blew across the top of his coffee and sipped.

Tad nodded, calling on his years of college acting. “Sorry. Thought I had to sneeze. Hate that.” He took a sip from his mug.

Calvin let out a genuine laugh. “I know exactly what you mean. Like when you walk into a spider web. To the rest of the world, you look like you’re having an epileptic fit.”

Tad returned the laugh, but his stomach soured from sharing any mirth with this man. To interrupt the moment, he reached again for his coffee, but something stopped him. His back flared like a pro boxer had worked it over collecting loan shark capital, but that wasn’t it. The soft, white light of the office highlighted a smear of crimson on his thumb.

What the hell is that? he thought.

On the porcelain handle of his coffee mug shone a similar smear, stark against the gleaming white. The only other feature was the name Gauis in bold, capital print, the serifs wide and tapering to points at the top and bottom of each letter. Tad grabbed it and ran the pad of his index finger over the stain. He used the proximity to inspect his thumb. No mistaking it: blood.

His fingers hurt, his whole hand dry as bone from the paint and incessant hand washing, but had they cracked? He wondered in horror if he’d gotten blood on Calvin when they shook. He added this to the dozen reasons his plan seemed bound to fail. His only savior was the score of shows he’d acted in, the dozens of faces he’d taken on and people he’d played. He’d offered his real name, but Calvin knew nothing about him. Tad could tap into any of a dozen personalities.

“So, you know why I’m here,” he said. Just speaking again imbued him with enough confidence to carry on. “And again, it’s a real honor. Your organization has done wonderful things for the arts over the years. I’ve been to a dozen shows in the city that wouldn’t have been possible without your patronage.”

Calvin smiled. “I appreciate that. Still, bit of a stretch, pulling a Gilead high school theatre into the mix.”

Tad nodded. “I understand completely. We only have two-hundred seats, but I fill them as often as not. With your help, we’ll keep them full, and… ” he took a breath “maybe even expand in time and fill those seats as well.”

Calvin held up his hands and laughed. “Easy now. I’m not made of money, Tad.”

No, you’re made of much worse stuff, Tad thought, though he hoped his smile revealed nothing but eagerness and the same subservient avarice Calvin had grown accustomed to in his decades atop the ivory tower.

“I know, Mr. Gauis. Calvin. I’m just excited. What I really want has less to do with money and is more about your legacy.”

Calvin seemed surprised for the first time. He arched his eyebrows and forced a mock frown, as if thinking this over. He raised his mug to take a sip and another bolt rode through Tad, top to bottom, firing every nerve ending on its way down. Calvin’s knuckles were pink against the peach-tinted flesh of his right hand. One bore the unmistakable red of fresh blood at its peak.

The winter had been dry as dust, true enough. Even if Tad hadn’t overextended himself building the set, he’d still have to massage lotion into his hands several times a day to keep them from cracking. But Calvin would never let such a detail slip. And he wouldn’t be working dollar store lotion into those hands, but some hundred-dollars an ounce oil pulled from the body of an endangered species. The sort of moisturizer that silkens even the coarsest hands. So where had it come from?
Calvin said something, but Tad missed it.

“Sorry, sir. You were saying?” He moved his gaze from Calvin’s hands, meeting the ice blue eyes and forcing himself to endure their intensity.

Calvin grinned, but the expression oozed an angry impatience. He never repeated himself. Probably hated it worse than mooching beggars like Tad; at least the latter fed his ego. “You mentioned my legacy. What did you have in mind?” Calvin covered his right fist with his left hand and massaged it. Had he noticed the blood as well?

“Come to my theatre tomorrow. Let me show you.”

Calvin rolled his eyes upward. “Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve.”

Tad held up his hands. “I know, and I’m sure you’ve got… personal affairs to attend to. It won’t take long. I have a buddy who works at the tribune. She’s agreed to meet us there. I show you around, she snaps a couple photos, gets a pull quote, and you make front page of the local section Christmas Day.”

Calvin laughed and wagged a pointed finger at Tad. “You paint a rosy picture, Tad. You sure you’re just a high school drama teacher? You might have missed your calling.” His chilly exterior concealed whether Calvin sensed anything amiss. He seemed the type to give people just enough rope to hang themselves with.

“I’m just a drama teacher who wants to put your name on my stage. I wouldn’t waste your time with anything else.”

Calvin took another sip of his coffee, his knuckles still rosy, as if raw, but the blood had disappeared.

“Tad, I think I can help you.”

***

The stage never bothered Tad, but annual reviews and even parent teacher conferences spurred a nagging sense of dread. He kept a Ziploc baggy of beta blockers in his glove compartment to calm his nerves, but even that only dulled the edge on his drive home from meeting Calvin. His hands quaked on the steering wheel and his knees pistoned reflexively. On his way, he called Nancy. He was tempted to text. A conversation might reveal the swirl of anxiety inside him, but taking his eyes off the road while on the city loop seemed even more dangerous.

“Hey babe,” Nancy said. Her voiced sounded off, even through the poor connection.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Well, no. Bran called me. She and that Zane guy just spit. Can you believe it? Right before Christmas.”

“Oh no,” he said, void of emotion. Bran was Nancy’s token train wreck friend. If she wasn’t declaring undying love for a guy she’d just met, she was singing the praises of some new job. Either way, a month later both would be gone, subject to the same ridicule and histrionics as the last batch. “So…. ”

“I don’t know,” Nancy said. “She’s up in Palmetto now, and it’s almost an hour drive. We’re already on merlot bottle numero dos. Would you hate me if I stayed here tonight?”

A mixture of gratitude and frustration swept over him. The less he had to explain over the next twenty-four hours the better, but he needed her, if only to ground him. To remind him why he was in pain and why his nerves were shot. “Sure,” he said. “I mean, no I don’t hate you. Sure you can stay. You should. She needs you.” Along with everything else the world hands Bran on a silver platter, he thought. “What time you coming home?”

“Tomorrow afternoon at the latest. In time for us to spend Christmas Eve together. Wine by the fire. Some of that brie you bought at Whole Paycheck…. ”

“Something tells me you won’t be in the mood for more wine,” he said.

She laughed. “And one gift, of course. A little taste of what’s the come.”

“It’s a date, beautiful. Be safe.”

***

The apartment filled with an atypical silence. Tad lay in bed a full eight hours, but sleep came only in shallow pockets. He reread an innocuous detective novel. The words swam and darkened, but just on the other side of consciousness, the horrors of his imagination awaited. He stole snatches of sleep twenty minutes at a time, and woke sucking in breath as if he’d been holding it.

Before the sky even lightened, he admitted defeat, got up, and put the kettle on. Even though the strong tea fused him with caffeine, it was a nervous energy, empty and tenuous. He felt as likely to faint as take another step.

He made it to the theatre, and despite the dread of his two o’clock meeting with Calvin, the familiar setting invigorated him. The pep only lasted a moment. Once he unlocked and entered the side door, walked inside, and flipped on the long plate of lights, a quick survey of the remaining work sapped him. The theatre had dipped several degrees since the day before. Maintenance set the thermostat well below room temperature during winter break to save money.

The next several hours passed in a fog of pain and fatigue. The tea barely helped, only making him jittery to where his teeth chattered and his hands shook. He and the students had accomplished more in four days than they usually did in two weeks, but much remained. He had to fit the pieces together, form a functional, cohesive whole. The only lifeline keeping him upright was seeing the final product sharpen into a focused, purposeful set. This part always amazed and delighted him, more so this time. He lost track of the time, and a flash of panic caused him to drop his drill when Calvin’s voice called from the side door.

“Whoa there,” Calvin said, voice light. “Didn’t mean to scare you.” He stood suited in dark wool, a bright red scarf cascading down his front, a coffee in each hand.

Tad remembered his smile and used it. “Not at all. Just didn’t hear you come in.” He walked down from the top of the set one platform at a time. He gestured to the Doric columns, the plywood painted to resemble stone and marble work, complete with snaking ivy. Two-dimensional cutouts of life-sized statues flanked the twenty-foot high podium.

Calvin placed the coffees atop a small piano and stepped upstage to take it in. He shook his head, smiling. “My god, Tad. This is damn impressive for a high school production. But “Julius Caesar” for Christmas?” He chuckled.

Tad limped the last few steps, even turning his ankle coming off the set piece, but hiding the inevitable wince. Calvin still noticed. He stepped toward him, hands open in front of him as if to catch Tad. Tad waved it off. “Well, “Julius Caesar”, yes. Good eye. But not for Christmas. It’ll be for our spring show, actually. A little premature, perhaps, but I have big plans for the final product.”

Calvin grinned. “And it looks good for the paper,” he said.

Tad nodded, even that small gesture causing his back to spasm. “Yes, indeed. And sorry my friend isn’t here yet. She… texted that she’s running behind, but not by much. Shouldn’t be long, sir.”

Calvin turned his head to give Tad a playful glare. “What did I tell you about that? Calvin, remember?”

“Of course.”

Calvin turned and studied the set for several, long seconds. “First act, I see,” he said and pointed to the pit beneath the upper podium.

Tad humphed. “You know your Shakespeare. First act and third, that’s right. Might even use it for the inevitable reestablishment of the state in act five. Here it’s obviously Caesar addressing his subjects. The pikes are the Roman soldiers keeping back the plebeians.”

“Certainly gives off a threatening vibe.”

“Yeah, we’ll add a waist-high rail before show time for safety’s sake.”

Calvin pursed his lips and nodded slowly. “What about a background?”

Tad turned and walked up the steps of the set once more. A near crippling flutter in his stomach masked the pain, at least. His consciousness felt light and fragile, as if he were floating. “We’ll drop a scrim in front of the fire curtain and project onto it.”

Calvin followed him, looking all around as he ascended. “Curtain’s awful close to the podium. Can’t just lose the fire curtain and put the scrim back a few feet?”

Tad laughed, continuing his ascent until he crested the podium. Even ambling, his breath drew out over long seconds. “Only if I want the fire marshal on my ass. This thing is set to drop like a stone in case of fire. Scrim’ll have to go in front of it.” He kept walking, moving to stage right of the podium.

He took several long breaths while turned toward the wings. He knelt and pulled a long blade from beneath a drop cloth, keeping it to his chest. His eyes burned like he’d forgotten to blink. He closed them for a single, long breath, then turned around as he slid the blade behind him.

Calvin stood on the podium, looking down at the series of pikes beneath: long, sharpened dowels painted silver to simulate metal. “This where you want me?” Calvin asked. He still grinned, but the meaning had altered completely. Now it was the toothy grin of animal at the top of his food chain.

Fresh adrenaline shot into Tad’s system, unbidden. It only served to make his tremors more pronounced.

“What do you mean?”

“Come on, Tad. We both know there’s no photographer. No namesake. No need of patronage. Don’t look so surprised. I had you pegged a minute after we met. After you left, my receptionist ran your prints from the coffee cup. Ran your name, found your address. Hell, within an hour I knew who you took to prom.” He laughed slow and terrible. “And I found out who you share your bed with these days, too. Naughty Nance. Couldn’t so much as put a county between us.”

Tad dropped all pretense. Through with humoring this devil, he pulled the knife from behind his back.
Calvin all out cackled this time, arching his back and letting the sound bounce inside the stage and out into the house. “Are you serious? A knife?”

“Funny thing about Caesar,” Tad said, throat so void of moisture the words came out gravely, as if he’d just woken. “We all think his final words were ‘Et tu, Brute’. Best known Latin phrase ever. ‘And you, Brutus?’ That was Will Skakespeare’s doing.” Tad slid further upstage. “The Roman historian Suetonius claims it was actually in Greek — ‘Kai su, teknon?”

Calvin pulled a gun from his inside his jacket and aimed it at Tad from his hip, like a Russian mobster.

“So what’s the difference, Tad? Do tell.”

Tad smiled. “It means: ‘You too, my child?’ Some think Caeser was claiming Brutus as his bastard son, but not me.” He moved further, slinking alongside the wing, and the pistol barrel tracked him. “I think it was one last shot by that self-righteous fuck. One last minimizing dig, calling a great man like Brutus a tiny speck compared to the ruler of Rome.”

Calvin shrugged. “You think that’s unfair? That some men climb higher than others?”

“Even the high climbers gotta fall sometime, Cal. Just like I knew right where you’d stand — at the highest peak, as if you’re better than me.”

Calvin laughed again. “Tad, I hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but Brutus threw a sucker punch. That’s the only reason — the only way — he could ever best a caesar. You, you can barely stand. I could knock you over with a sigh. And, Tad, buddy. You fell for the oldest trick in the book. You brought a knife to a gun fight.” He cocked the hammer of the revolver. “So whenever you’re ready to dance, my child, let’s do it.”

Tad held the knife up. “Okay,” he said, and swung it hard to his left, slicing a rope like a scalpel through flesh.

A shot rang out, and Tad sensed the bullet passing inches from his head. Even through the noise, the sound of wood splintering behind him overrode all else. He pivoted, facing Calvin just in time to the see the fire curtain fall. Even on a quiet stage, it dropped without a sound. Right after the bark of a gun, Calvin never heard it coming. The fabric caught and piled on the podium, guiding the rod down on top of Calvin. He screamed, another shot drowning out the sound and whizzing up somewhere into the catwalk.
He fell limp from the podium, cascading down the twenty feet to the pikes below.

Tad dropped the knife and stood. Every fight or flight chemical reaction giving him energy had ceased. Just hobbling down the steps seemed like descending a mountain barefoot. He fell, caught himself, and ambled the rest of the way down.

At the bottom, he rounded the mock stone structure to find Calvin impaled through the side and one thigh. Shards of the snapped dowels still protruded from his clothes, wet with blood.

Calvin didn’t speak, but rocked back and forth, the fingers of his right hand dancing over his jacket. He pulled out a cell phone and thumbed the unlock code, smearing an arcane design across the screen with streaks of crimson.

Tad leaned in and plucked the device from the dying man’s hand, soliciting an angry groan from Calvin. “Sorry. No cell phones in the theatre, Cal. It’s bad etiquette. All for neigh anyway. The rafters are tin and the walls are reinforced for acoustics. So no cell signal. Guess I could let you have it to play Candy Crush your last hour on earth, but I’m not feeling that generous.”

Tad cried out as he straightened, no longer concerned with appearing in anything less than agony. “I’ll need to pay a visit to my chiropractor. After all, I’ve got to come back here and clean up. But for now, I’m going home to propose to Nancy. Well, I’d already asked for her hand, but you were in the way. So you think about that while you lay here dying, okay?”

Calvin laughed through clenched teeth, blood frothing at his lips and shooting into the air several inches. It landed on his face in macabre spider webs. “You. Do. That. Tad,” he said, each word a sentence.

The sound lingered and echoed in Tad’s mind as he drove home. He had to pinch his thigh to stay awake. He rolled down the windows and let in the frigid air. Both of their assigned parking spots in the quadruplex remained empty. He shuffled through the quad, thankful none of the neighbors lingered outside for a smoke and so wouldn’t see him in such a state.

Inside, Tad pulled off his clothes as a nurse removes gauze from a burn victim. He took a hot shower, his skin able only to endure the soft fabric of his robe after air drying. Still no Nancy.

He lay on the couch, wishing for a fire but unable to conjure the strength to stoke the fireplace. He dozed, seeing the light had shifted in the bay window when he woke. Where was she?

Tad grunted, rose, and fetched his cell phone. He got Bran’s number from Nancy’s desktop calendar and called. It rang only once before Bran answered.

“Hello?” She sounded good, upbeat even.

“Hey Bran, it’s Tad. Just checking up on Nance. She head home yet?”

A long silence, broken finally by, “Uh… she’s not here, Tad. I mean, I talked to her like a couple days ago, and I’d love to see you guys, but…. ”

Tad’s stomach sank. “Right. Um… my mistake. Things all right with Zane, is it?”

“Yeah, he got me this necklace that’s in the shape of the Japanese symbol for happiness, it—”
The front door bolt rolled over.

“Oh, she’s home, Bran. I’ve got to go. Merry Christmas.” And he hung up. He turned to face the door, an amalgam of hope and horror suffusing him.

When the door opened, the pale light framed her familiar figure, and Tad let out a deep sigh. But when she stepped inside, her details registered. Sickly bruises lined her face. Both eyes blue and green and mustard yellow at the edges. She limped forward, not like she’d hurt one leg, but as if her core pained her.

She stared up at him, silent tears running down her face in contrast to her wide smile.

“What happened?” he croaked, and put out his hands to hold her.

Instead, she pushed a manila envelope on him and stepped back. She wiped away her tears and stood taller. “You’re Christmas Eve present,” she said.

His stomach felt sick. The possible culprits to what could have happened paraded through his imagination. He ignored them and looked to the large envelope. The printed label on the front read, “Lewis, Gommel, and Yearly” with a little icon of the scales of justice beside the address. No mailing address or stamp. “Now?” he asked.

Nancy smiled, wiped her face again, and nodded.

He tore open the top, but his subconscious ruined the surprise a split second before he pulled the papers free. Calvin’s last words, Nancy’s face, her limp, her fibbing about where she’d been — all made perfect sense before he’d even read the print.

Divorce papers. Signed. On the last page, a smear of brown Tad knew to be blood, whether from Nancy’s face or Calvin’s fists.

“What… ” he began, intent on asking what they’d cost. What she had to do to get them. What putrid demands Calvin made of her to agree.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, her voice still off from an inability to work her jaw. She leaned, favoring her right side as if gut punched.

Tad nearly fell when he remembered first seeing that son-of-a-bitch. His hands still hot, knuckles still seeping from whatever torment he’d visited on Nancy to agree to signing. How much later had it been? Hours? Minutes? Had the bastard penciled in one and then other? Scheduling such vile turpitude as if a business matter.

The impact of what those papers meant grew in intensity over half a minute of them standing there. The set, the plot, the murder. All for nothing. He looked at her again. No. Not for nothing.

“Say something,” she said. Her smile threatened to leave, perhaps forever.

“It’s just what I always wanted,” he said, and they broke out in labored laughter.

Her eyes surveyed him, no doubt doing the math and aware now he had been up to more than he let on.

“So what’s my gift?”

*

Darren’s non-fiction book, Pirate Nation, was published in Russia in early 2013. He writes full-time thanks to the patronage of his wife and the noble if convenient justification of being a stay-at-home dad for his five-year-old son. While his son attends kindergarten and reads See Spot Run with new friends, Darren haunt coffee shops penning horror stories.


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