February 25th 2016: Best break up ever
To Believe or Not
, by R.R. Brooks

What can cure the nonbeliever? A miracle? A blessing? Pure evil?

Late on Halloween night, Stephanie Sanford and her sixteen-year-old stepson Tim stood in the temple room. Both out of breath. The chamber was as empty as a beggar’s purse except for candles on the floor and a strange piece of furniture, a coffin-sized stone table on carved pillars with hooves for feet. Lengthwise grooves on the obsidian top led to a basin. Tim had finally learned what the altar was for: to collect the blood from the goat his father sacrificed.

“Your father is dead, but we’re alive,” Stephanie said. “All we have to do is keep the demon down in the basement until help arrives.”

Tim closed his eyes. “He deserved what he got, but I’m scared.”

“Don’t be. Take the knife and hand it to John when he gets here.”

“Okay. Hope this works. I don’t need a foster home.”

Once Tim left for the cellar, Stephanie arranged the temple room and went to the kitchen. She sat at the table, fixed her makeup, and dialed. When her ex-boyfriend answered, she said in a breathy, halting voice, “John, it’s Stephanie. I … I have a problem and need your help.”

“You do realize it’s almost midnight?” John said.

“This is urgent. It has to be now. I have the proof to make you a believer.”

Before he could say anything, she hung up.

* * *

John stared at the silent phone. He and Stephanie had broken up a year earlier and not spoken since. He probably would have married her, if it weren’t for the incompatibility that arose between them: she had a spiritual bent and he had none. With an Indian shaman as a father and an ex-nun as a mother, Stephanie had no formal religion, but she firmly believed something outside of and after this life existed. He was more the un-churched, materialist, god-baiting skeptic.

All of which came out in a revelatory, after-sex talk, which ended by her telling him off like a confident prosecutor: “John, you’re wrong-headed. There’s a whole world beyond your senses, and the one you’re heading for is plenty hot. We can never be a couple. Goodbye.” She left, clutching panties, blouse, and shorts, giving him a lasting, fond memory of her indignant backside.

It was probably best they broke it off. They were always fighting, and sometimes it got a bit physical. She’d even called the police once but never pressed charges, despite being the vengeful sort, especially when backed into a quarter. No telling what she’d do then.

Now, like a spook of Halloween, she was calling with the proof of something unnatural. Or so she claimed. As if the argument were still in play. Probably because he’d boasted that, if he could see something not of this world, he’d be happy to reconsider his unbelief. There wasn’t such evidence, but her hanging up tweaked his interest.

* * *

Since Stephanie lived close and the weather was warm, John decided to ride his new ten-speed. He biked in the dark past houses guarded by ghouls and goblins lighted orange and yellow. They didn’t bother him, but away from the lights, the night seemed darker than usual. The air had a sticky quiet about it, as if unseen watchers lurked in the shadows. He reached the Sanford estate, pedaled past the massive steel gate, and started up the unlit winding drive. In the gloom he felt something touch his neck. More than once. He pedaled faster.

Stephanie had acquired her grand residence by going through a big wedding with a guy John knew from high school. She’d also become stepmother to a teenager. Then she seemed to disappear.

At the house John leaned his bike against one of the stone columns supporting the gloomy, covered portico. Windows left and right with glowing candles framed the dark door. Near the candles he could see what looked like bloody, severed heads. The realism made him jerk back, and it took more than a moment before he realized they were chopped from manikins and decorated with red paint. It was more Halloween than he needed. When he rattled the gargoyle knocker, the hefty oak door creaked inward, and Stephanie appeared, wearing a low-cut black gown that gave her a familiar allure. Her look was marred only by a black eye and bruised cheek.

She thrust a candle in his direction, and crooked a beckoning finger. “Electricity’s out.”

John followed her into a cavernous room where tapers in death-mask sconces danced light on stone: a granite floor, black onyx panels, and a dusky marble table. A tapestry with winged, black-horned creatures flying above flaming pits covered one wall. The images and the smell of brimstone fed his anxiety.

Stephanie’s hand shook as she poured inky wine into a goblet and pushed it toward him. “Drink this. You’ll need it.”

John struggled to regain his normal nonchalance, raised the glass, and sipped. “Nice bouquet, but with an odd aftertaste.” He drank again and pointed to her face. “What happened to you?”

“I got into a fight with Morlon.”

“I told you not to marry that jerk. Do you want me to pop him one? Where is he?”

“He’s dead.”

“Damn. Was he sick?” John leaned forward as if to receive a secret.

“Not physically.”

“What happened?”

Stephanie lifted her head and closed her eyes. “Something unnatural. That’s the evidence I want to show you.”

His mind awhirl, he gulped the last of his wine and stood, fighting off a bit of dizziness.

* * *

She led him to another stone chamber with a goat-footed, glassy altar against one wall. A five-pointed star lay on the floor, and each point held the stub of a thick, dark candle. Stephanie hovered near the door as John entered, stirring up black dust.

“This place could stand a good vacuuming. What am I supposed to see?” he asked, blinking to clear his vision.

“This ash is all that remains of my husband.”

“Crap,” he said, stepping back, losing his balance, and grabbing the altar as he brushed body dust from his pants.

“Morlon was a warlock.”

John’s brain spun like the rollers on a slot machine, wondering if his ex-girlfriend thought her tale of a black magic ritual would convince him of the supernatural.

“Morlon summoned a demon,” she said.

John grimaced. “Which you are going to show me to prove the existence of what? Not of gods. Demons are the opposite.”

“Demons are fallen angels. Can’t have one without the other.”

“I don’t believe in demons.”

“You will.” She pointed to the center of the pentagram. “That’s the portal from hell.”

“There is no hell and there are no portals,” he said as he got a whiff of what smelled like rotten egg.

“Morlon discovered too late that he wasn’t strong enough to control his demon.”

John shook his head and was about to say good-bye when a clang of metal and thumping came from somewhere below. An un-human moan followed, and he froze, his heart throbbing like a struck kettle drum.

“That’s Tim. He’s in the basement with the demon and needs your help. The door is this way.”

* * *

John followed her into the kitchen, a warm room where stainless steel appliances, cherry cabinets, and a beige tile floor gleamed in candle light. The atmosphere calmed him, and without thinking, he reached toward a bag of cookies.

Stephanie slapped his hand. “Pay attention. Morlon couldn’t control the demon, but his son could. You said you’d believe in things like spirits when you had evidence. I’m going to show you that evidence and expect you to live up to your part of the bargain.” She opened the basement door and shoved him toward the steps.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked.

“Tim will tell you. He’s down there controlling the demon.” She raised her voice. “Tim, he’s here.”

A trembly voice from the depths answered, “Hurry.”

John felt lost. The tale of summoning a demon was preposterous. And he didn’t understand why Tim needed him. He descended a step.

Stephanie closed the door softly behind him, and he thought he heard the lock click.

* * *

A damp mustiness made his neck hairs stand up as he descended the stairs. At the bottom he saw a hissing lantern that tried to battle the gloom of the chilly basement. Near the light, a blond boy perched in a Windsor chair with a missing back spoke. He seemed human, just a big, muscular kid wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and gloves, staring at a closed door before him.

Tim turned only his head, like the girl in The Exorcist. “You made it just in time.”

“In time for what?” John felt thick-tongued.

“I’m real tired and if I fall asleep, the demon will get out of the furnace room.” He pointed to the dark-streaked door. “I need help to send it back to where it came from. Stephanie said you were big and strong.”

If muscles were needed to combat a demon, Tim could handle it on his own, John thought. He ignored his brain fuzziness and tried to act the psychologist. “I’m sure I can take over, Tim. Why don’t you go up to Stephanie?”

Tim ignored the words. “And you really believe stuff, right? Like with all your heart. You have to believe in the demon.”

“What if I don’t?” The words dragged.

“You will when I release it. Take this knife. It’s called the Elon.” He handed John a dagger with a black blade and a golden handle. In the haft was a raisin-sized jewel that glowed first white and then red. “See. The jewel is red,” he said. “That says you’re the chosen one.”

“Chosen for what?” John felt dizzy again and grabbed the back of the chair.

“To kill the demon, of course,” Tim said. “My father said a saint used the knife to erase demons, sorcerers, witches, warlocks, whatever. He gave it to me to hold when he called the demon.”

John worked to process that, thinking that only mobsters, not saints, erased people. He was about to pull open the door and end the nonsense when he glanced at the Elon. His skepticism reasserted itself, and he held the knife out, haft first, toward Tim. “You hold it. I want to test it.”

Tim refused. When John insisted, the boy closed his eyes and, seeming to concentrate, took the knife. When he held it, the gem faded to white. When John took the Elon back and the stone flashed red, his rationalism received another kick in the butt.

“What’s the plan exactly?” he asked.

Tim curled his lips as if he’d just been asked a stupid question. “You have to go in there and stab it. It will be real mad, so you have to kill it quick. Like when it jumps at you. If you don’t knife it, it will kill you. Just believe it’s a demon and stick it with the Elon.”

“What if I believe it’s a wombat and still stab it?” John asked, backing away.

“Then you will die and so will I. You have to believe for the knife to work. What’s a wombat?”

“A small Australian bear with a pouch.” John visualized the marsupial ripping out kangaroo throats.

Tim frowned. “This isn’t a joke.”

John tried to imagine how this could be a Halloween joke. But Stephanie had no sense of humor. And Tim couldn’t be so convincing an actor.

“Is it big?”

“Well it changes, but it can be big. It can have teeth and claws. And it’s strong.”

“Is there anything that helps me?” John asked, half playing along.

“It will die right away once it’s stuck.”

John felt he had no options. To walk away would make him a chicken and a traitor to his worldview. This was a test, and he had to call the bluff of Stephanie and her conniving son. The knife bothered him, and he wondered how he was supposed to get away with stabbing whatever was in the furnace room. Probably Morlon wearing a padded suit. Maybe the knife was the kind that collapsed, he reasoned. Just to be safe, he would only half-stab.

He ignored his fuzzy head, locked eyes with Tim, and nodded.

The boy stood and pointed. “The door’s being held closed by the demon because he fears the Elon. Yank it open and stab.”

John grabbed the handle, holding the Elon low and at his side.

Tim moved behind him and said, “What are you waiting for? Are you scared?”

John yanked, and the portal burst outward with a snap as if something broke. He glimpsed something big floating in the dark room. The lantern dimmed and hell materialized.

Tim shoved him into the furnace room, yelling, “Stab it.”

In the darkness John came into full contact with the demon. He imagined something reddish with horns, fangs, and scales, even though whatever flew into him felt less like a demon and more like a wet Pillsbury Doughboy.

In a panicked instant, John wished the world beyond his senses contained more than just demons. He longed for someone to help. Like dying people who float above the operating table as they flatline, John floated and looked in vain for the tunnel of light. He hoped his epitaph would not be, “Here lies John, who believed in nothing until it killed him.”

John shoved the heavy beast away. It retreated briefly and then flew back in his face, slapping him.

Tim started screaming. “This is real. Stick it, stick it. If you don’t, you will die. I will die. Stephanie will die. Do it now.”

And with that plea came belief—in demons, in evil, maybe even in God. John thrust the dagger into the beast’s black heart. Not half way. With everything he had. The creature fell back, taking the Elon with it. He heard a thump in the darkness, as if a large body had hit the floor. Tim grabbed his arm and yanked him back into the dark basement. John’s brain gave in to black overload, and he collapsed.

* * *

He remained unconscious until the pain in his arm roused him. He woke to find Stephanie and Tim hauling him up the last step into the kitchen. His ex-girlfriend had raked her nails across his forearm, leaving bloody scratches an inch long. He yelped.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Stephanie said. She grabbed a kitchen towel and wrapped it around his wounded arm.

That’s when he realized the electricity was back on. He dragged himself to the counter and sat, stunned and speechless. The cuts were minor and he was more concerned about the pain in his brain, probably made worse as he struggled to come to grips with what he’d just witnessed.

Tim grabbed a pecan sandie, said he was tired, and announced he was going to his tent in the backyard.

When they were alone, Stephanie poured John a glass of wine. “I had to call on you. I needed someone of very strong belief—even if it was in nothing—to dispatch this … this last gift from my damn husband.”

As her voice buzzed in his head, John drank and framed the problem in his mind: did the existence of supernatural evil imply the existence of supernatural good? He had no answer, but at least he knew the question.

Stephanie smiled and served a plate of brie and goat cheese with flatbread crackers. She had more to say. “You’re probably wondering why I’m not devastated by Morlon’s death.”

John hadn’t wondered, but his eyes widened.

“Morlon and I were not getting along. His warlock hobby came to light only after the wedding. I had no problem believing in evil creatures like demons, but I couldn’t condone worshipping them. That’s what Morlon wanted to do.” She spread cheese on a cracker, popped it into her mouth, and sipped wine.

“It’s all right now. The demon is gone, and you will come to grips with this. I know you are strong enough to change your beliefs. There’s something else you should know. Morlon and I never had, well, a physical relationship. He said he loved me, but would only consummate our marriage if I agreed to do it during a warlock ritual, something involving a blood sacrifice on that black altar in the portal room.”

Stephanie leaned over and kissed him. “I’m sure he would never be the lover you were. And still are. Anyway, that’s all behind me now. I feel freed of a great burden.”

John felt sleepy, just like Tim. “I should get going.”

“Don’t be silly. It’s late and we have a big bed.” She took his hand and led him to the master bedroom.

* * *

An hour later, Stephanie returned to the kitchen in a ripped tee shirt and shorts. Her face was red, as if she’d been slapped. She picked up the phone and dialed.

A couple of uniforms and a detective arrived in short order and dragged John, clad in his undershorts, from deep sleep. They put him at the kitchen table.

“I’m Detective Jarick, Homicide,” announced a tall, gnarly guy in a wrinkled gray suit. He had a mouth that seemed to turn up on one side and down on the other, as if he were playing the roles of good cop and bad cop all by himself. He looked none too happy to be out in the middle of the night. “We have a problem that you may be able to help us with,” Jarick said. “You see, we found Mr. Morlon Sanford’s body in the furnace room. He’s been stabbed to death and then hung by his neck from a nail in the rafter. At least until the nail bent. Care to tell me how that came about?”

John tried to focus, but his mind resisted. “What are you talking about?” he asked.

“Let me put it this way, John. You don’t mind if I call you John? Mrs. Sanford says that you murdered her husband. She said Morlon caught you two in flagrante delicto, and you and Morlon had at it. And you stabbed him.”

“None of that is true.”

Both sides of Jarick’s mouth formed a frown. “Looks like you killed him in what Mrs. Sanford calls the temple room. We found blood on the floor under that powdered charcoal. You dragged him downstairs and hung him up. Just to make sure he was dead, right?”

“I never saw Morlon,” John sputtered.

“Your footprints are in the temple room. And also in the furnace room near the body.”

“You’ve got this all wrong. I was in the furnace room to ….” John stopped himself before he said “to kill a demon.”

“There was a handprint, about your size, on that table in the temple chamber. It’s a kind of glass, a great surface for collecting prints. It’s your print, isn’t it?”

“This is crazy. I was called here by Stephanie to ….” John said, starting another sentence with an ending he didn’t want to vocalize.

“We also have the knife you dropped in the furnace room. The smooth half seems to have prints from a single large person.”

“The boy gave me the knife,” John blurted. “Just ask him. He’ll tell you—”

“Tim says he’s been asleep in his tent. Doesn’t know who you are.”

John emitted a croak that morphed into “I didn’t kill Morlon. Why would I?”

Jarick leaned back and gazed at the ceiling. “Well, let’s see. You hated the guy, ever since high school when you punched his lights out. Then he stole your girl. Then he found you boffing his wife. Seems like motive enough.” Jarick paused, as if inviting John to respond. The detective picked up a clear plastic bag containing a shirt and jeans. “These are both yours, right? There’s blood on them. Any idea how that got there?”

John remembered the wet demon he’d stabbed with all his might. He tried to say something, but nothing emerged.

Detective Jarick squinted at him, as if looking could serve as a lie-detector test. He had more to say. “Mrs. Sanford said you raped her. That probably made Morlon even madder. You had to kill him, right?”

Dread threatened to consume John, and he began to shiver. “Our lovemaking was consensual,” he gasped, feeling naked. “She ran the show.”

“Was her black eye and bruised face consensual?”

“I never—”

Jarick poked a finger at his suspect. “Never, like two years ago when you roughed her up, and she called the police?”

“That was nothing.”

“And where did you get those fresh scratches on your arm?”

John slapped his hand over the red streaks, and in that moment, the truth dawned. He understood it all. Stephanie had a dead husband to explain, so she calls the gullible ex-boyfriend and drugs his wine. Then sends him into the temple room alone to leave footprints in charcoal dust and a handprint on the altar. Then feeds him a tale of a demon summoning and locks him in the basement. And the complicit actor-son with the gloved hands gives him a knife to leave his prints on. Probably already had blood on it. Nice touch with the temperature-sensitive gem in the haft that turned red in a warm hand and white in a gloved hand, John thought. Got to give it to the kid who talked him into stabbing a still-wet corpse swinging on a rope. Not that it was hard, given that John was dizzy, seeing double, and buzzed on the spiked wine. Good way to get blood on his clothes and leave footprints in the furnace room. And the icing on the cake: sex with the poor widow with the black eye and ripped clothes. Who just happened to scratch his arm. Nice for motive.

Yes, it was enough to make him to look guilty as … that place he now believed in.

*

Robert R. Brooks (R.R. Brooks) served time in the drug industry, seeking a true love potion until he was fired for untoward behavior.  Now he writes (see his epic fantasy novel Justi the Gifted from, bless them, Leo Publishing).  He’s published shorts and now writes more shorts and novels as a member of underground writing groups (the Appalachian Round Table, the Brevard Authors Guild, and the N.C. Writers Network).  He harbors two cats and lurks on Facebook and Amazon while seeking transcendence.


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