Copyright (c) 2016 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Ellen squeezed the plastic bottle to drain its last drops of soap into a sink filled with hot water and dirty dishes … just one more thing the Davis family was out of. The liquid detergent swirled around in the water and formed an image of The Scream by Edvard Munch before vanishing. John would be home in twenty minutes and Ellen wanted the kitchen, the whole house for that matter, to look spotless. Hopefully John’s boss would give his workers a bigger bonus than the measly twenty bucks he’d given last year. Little Johnny had his heart set on that new bicycle he’d been ogling at Jefferson’s Hardware and Nancy was mooning over an expensive Barbie dollhouse. Both kids were in the living room watching Huckleberry Hound sing an off key version of “Oh my darling Clementine …”on a black and white TV while sitting on their fold-down bed.
The Davis family’s closest neighbor, Agnes Brown, had agreed to watch the children while their parents went shopping. She was rocking in John’s mother’s old chair eating the plate of fudge the church ladies had brought over the night before and laughing loudly at the cartoon. It was Christmas Eve 1959 and it was blowing hard when John’s car clattered into the driveway. Finally – he’s home! Ellen thought and hoped the roads into Cloverdale wouldn’t be icy or drifted.
John stomped the snow off his boots on the concrete blocks that served as their doorstep and a blast of cold air blew through the four-room house when he opened the door. “Hicks is giving out turkeys this year instead of money,” John said as he plopped the seven pound frozen bird onto the cabinet. Ellen shivered as he quickly shut out the wind.
“John! What are we going to do? I helped the children write their letters to Santa myself!”
“I called Mr. Gold at the bank,” John said taking off his gloves and rubbing his hands together. “Edward agreed to give us $50 on Monday. He said to go ahead and write out the checks and the bank will cover them.”
“Edward is it now? Aren’t we becoming important?” Ellen then wrung her hands in frustration. “Fifty dollars is a lot of money. How will we ever repay the loan?”
“I got a sweet night-job loading 100 pound bags of sugar into train cars,” John said smiling. “I start Monday right after work. It’s only for two weeks but I should come home with an extra eighty bucks!”
“You already work so hard,” Ellen said. “Are you sure?”
John pulled her close and kissed her then swatted her butt as he pushed her toward the broom- closet in the hallway leading to their bedroom. “Grab your coat woman … and your snow boots … we’re going to town!”
“Stanford University, heart surgeon Dr. Richard Lower, with the assistance of Dr. Norman Shumway has performed a successful heart transplant of one dog's heart into the heart of another dog. What an amazing world we live in folks!” The disc jockey said. It was minus seven degrees outside but the high wind-chill had pushed the temperature to twenty-below. The battered Ford plowed through the deep snow. The Browns started singing The Three Bells and Ellen changed the words Jimmy to Johnny as she sang along. “The children grow up so fast,” she told her husband. “I want to give them everything while they’re still young enough to enjoy it.”
“Let’s hope the sixties will be a decade of prosperity,” John said straining to see out the windshield. The falling snow was fast becoming a blizzard. “I’ve had my fill of Joe McCarthy and fallout shelters.” Bright car headlights suddenly appeared - coming head-on! The oncoming car was driving much too fast. With the white-out John couldn’t tell if he was in their lane … or they were in his. A booming radio was playing Heartaches by the Number in a speeding Chevy filled with teens. At the last moment, John yanked the steering wheel to the right. He caught sight of a sneering Eddie Hicks tipping a can of Coors Beer to his lips and the Fowler brothers laughing out the side-windows of the Bel Air as the cars’ wing mirrors kissed. John fought to control the old Ford as it skidded sideways then plowed over a steep embankment in a mushroom-cloud explosion of white powder. Ellen screamed … and the engine died with a crunch.
It was dark for a moment before the windshield wipers moved away part of the snow. The song was just ending … May his soul find the salvation … of thy great eternal love … John turned the ignition off to save the battery. “Are you okay?” John was horrified to see Ellen holding her head. She had banged it on the metal dashboard. A small trickle of blood rolled down her cheek.
“I’m all right,’ she said. “What happened?”
“That fool kid of my boss ran us off the road,’ John said. “I’m sure we’re stuck. It’s going to take a tractor and a chain to pull us out!” He turned on the key and pressed his foot on the starter button mounted on the floorboards. There was a grinding sound that became slower. “The radiator must have got pushed into the fan,” he said.
“What does that mean?” Ellen sounded scared. Without the car’s heater running, she was already beginning to feel cold.
“It means we’re in trouble,” John said. He shivered as he remembered the heavy winter coat he had left at home.
“We can’t stay in the car … it’s like being locked in a refrigerator,” John told her as he led the way through the deep snow fighting against a fierce wind.
“I can’t see a thing,’ Ellen yelled in the near horizontal blowing snow. ‘How do you know where we’re going?”
“The wind always blows out of the south west,” John yelled back. “We were ran off the road about nine miles north east of town. As long as our faces are freezing … we’re probably going in the right direction!”
“I hope you’re right!” Ellen told him. “If I freeze to death … I’ll be so mad at you!”
“I’ll be mad at myself … so let’s not let that happen!” John replied.
Cold rode the wind in an assault on humanity and there was no mercy for those who stood in the way.
Twenty minutes later, Ellen fell unconscious … John began to carry her … and tears of dismay and frustration froze below his eyes.
John saw the light … he thought it might be a farm-house but it was moving and then he heard the bells … strange tones like a recording being played backward. As the sound approached and grew louder … the wind became strangely calmer. A dark figure was driving a single horse-drawn sleigh. What had been a blinding blizzard had transformed into starlight reflected on snow with an intensity so bright the gleaming driver, horse and sleigh were like dark shadow images in a world of white. The air above the frozen wasteland became deathly still … and everything visual along with sound was magnified.
With the wind suddenly gone … the temperature seemed even colder. The sound of sleigh runners carving chunks of ice was like fire crackling in a ghostly cold hearth. Where on Earth did that thought come from? “You žmonės look like one of you could use a ride.” A hooded driver reined-in a black horse breathing plumes of swirling frost next to them. Only black appeared where a face should have been.
John thought the voice sounded remarkably familiar … but he couldn’t place it. “Do I know you?” he asked as he hugged Ellen close.
“Everyone knows of me,” the voice bragged. “But many deny that I exist.”
The black horse turned its head and snorted. Tiny bits of ice scattered on the frozen ground like hail … and then inexplicably burst into flame.
“Who are you?” John was terrified … but he had his freezing wife to think about.
“Velnias,” the voice said. “I am between light and darkness … but you can call me father.”
“Are you some kind of priest?” John asked as he loaded Ellen into the sleigh.
Velnias turned and grinned. Rotted teeth like a crudely carved jack-o-lantern smiled at John. “Something like that …” The voice echoed like it came from the depths of a very deep well.
“Can you take us to safety?” John asked.
“I will take the woman,” Velnias whispered. “She is all but mine.”
“I don’t have any money,” John confessed, thinking he was in the grip of a malicious con … then added quickly, “but I could write you a check?”
“Money has no value to one such as myself,” the strange voice hissed.
“What do you want to deliver us both to safety?” John asked.
“All bright things cast a shadow and darkness follows the light. I want the lights out forever! Velnias smiled again. “But I am willing to make pasiūlymai.”
“Pasiūlymai?” John wasn’t sure he’d pronounced the garbled word right.
“Trades, bargains, deals, covenants,” the hooded creature said. “I am nothing if not Lankstus.” His face showed clearly for the first time … and it was the face of death. John would have run for his life but there was no other place to go … and there was Ellen. The horrible creature would have to be confronted.
“I will give you anything you want,” John trembled, “but I want my wife to live.”
“Anything? Two lives for one … not a bad trade,” the voice considered. Velnias reached into the back of the sleigh where two large packages were wrapped with colorful paper. One was red and green while the other was a yellow box tied with a pink ribbon. He opened a new pack of Bicycle Dragon Back playing cards. “Shall we let fortune decide?” Velnias shuffled the deck and then fanned the cards for John to select one. John drew the two of spades.
“Two it shall be,” the hooded creature laughed. “Climb aboard and we will begin.”
Velnias lashed the black horse and the sleigh tore across the snow covered desert at high speed. “Where are we going?” John clung to Ellen and to the careening sleigh, trying to keep from falling off.
The hooded thing pointed to smoke and fire coming from a large crack in the ground in the distance. It looked to be next to where the Cottonmouth River disappeared into what the locals called Magician’s Canyon. “Water pours into the ground to quench the thirst of a thousand demons,” the creature hissed, “but tonight the river is ice and the fires below rage!” Velnias turned toward John and smiled. “You must answer three questions before we enter my domain. Succeed and you will both be free … fail any question … and two will belong to me!”
The smoking crack in the ground was looming larger by the second. “Ask me the questions!” John shouted. “Stop wasting time!”
The hooded creature smiled. “As you wish.” Velnias lashed the horse six times before continuing. Streams of blood sprayed from the thundering horse’s back. “What beast has man tamed to do his toil … but has never seen?”
John wasn’t expecting a riddle. He twisted his hands trying to think of the correct answer horses, cows, dogs … Ellen opened one eye sitting next to him as the sleigh bounced over ice covered rocks. “The breeze … it is so cold …” she moaned.” John covered her face with his coat as Velnias laughed.
“The wind!” John suddenly shouted. “The wind powers a mill and moves ships … but no one has ever seen it!”
“Your wife pulls you from the flames even when your clothes are smoldering,” Velnias growled.
The crack in the ground was looming even closer. John could see puddles of melted snow-water around the gaping crack shooting fire from the ground. “Ask me the next question!” he shouted.
“You were lucky once, but you will not be again,” Velnias sneered. The thing once again brutally lashed the horse. Streams of blood poured from both of the animal’s eyes like red ribbons.
“What is more precious than gold … but slips through a greedy man’s fingers?”
John was stumped … coins? Jewels? He could see grass beginning to grow next to the gaping chasm. Flames shot a hundred feet in the air as the ground rumbled. A blast of heat scorched the sleigh. “I’m so thirsty!” John heard his wife whisper.
“Water!” he screamed. “No creature on earth can live without it … but fingers cannot grasp it!”
“You are far too lucky!” Velnias spoke softly but with controlled fury. A bony finger reached across John’s chest and touched Ellen’s nose. “No more hints from another … you must answer the last question without her help,” the thing said. Ellen instantly fell asleep. John could hear her soft snoring even over the rumble of the sleigh as it hurtled over a ledge and down a smoking trail into the crack in the ground. The walls of the inferno were covered with squirming worms and fleeing serpents trying to escape the nightmarish raging inferno. A storm cloud of bats almost blinded John when they flew over the plumeting sleigh beating leathery wings and screaming warnings. “The last question!” John screamed. “I still have one more question.”
“Why bother?” Velnias sneered. “The doorway to eternal damnation lies yonder and even now it is being opened to accept my plunder.” Twenty dark winged imps, ten on each side, were opening huge double oven-doors made of cast iron and stone.
“The deal! The Pasiūlymai,” John insisted. “We made a covenant … and you must keep your end!”
Velnias beat the terrified horse furiously, punctuating each part of the question with a lash. “What gives hope … to all things … but has no beginning … and no end?”
John had no idea … he shook Ellen gently but she continued to sleep. The massive iron doors were almost fully open. John could see the red glowing eyes of the twenty winged imps. “Any last words?” Velnias beat the horse twice as the sleigh started through the doorway.
John leaned over to kiss his sleeping wife. “I will love you forever,” he said.
John and Ellen woke to the excited squeals coming from the living room and were forced to pad sleepy eyed to where the children were. It was 6AM Christmas morning. The kids had already put away their fold-down bed and were tearing the wrapping from two packages left under the tree. Johnny ripped a bright red and green package open to reveal a new bicycle while Nancy carefully untied a pink ribbon from a yellow box to reveal her dollhouse. Ellen looked at John and punched his shoulder lovingly. “And you told me Hicks didn’t give you a bonus,” she whispered. Love showed in her eyes. John was stunned … he had bought no presents.
Johnny insisted on riding the bicycle outside in the snow while Helen helped Nancy assemble her dollhouse. A county plow had went down the road earlier and the gravel road in front of the house was fairly clear of snow. Johnny rode up the road a hundred yards but it wasn’t until his return that John noticed the clicking sound. It was like fire crackling in a ghostly cold hearth. Where on Earth did that thought come from? Johnny stopped in front of him and John noticed the Bicycle Dragon Back playing card fastened to the rear spokes. He looked closer; it was the two of spades. “Where did you get that?” John was horrified.
“It was on the bike,” Johnny said starting off again. “Santa must have known what I wanted.”
John tried to remember buying the gifts but he couldn’t … Christmas Eve was a complete blur.
Ellen had hot cocoa on the stove when John and his happy son came inside. “This has to be the best Christmas ever!” she gushed. John allowed himself to relax. I must have had a horrible bad dream, that’s all he thought. Everyone is having a fabulous Christmas except me.
It was after ten O’clock when the children finally fell asleep. John woke two hours later and remembered that he’d forgot to turn down the furnace … oil was expensive this time of year. He walked past Johnny’s present with the Bicycle Dragon Back playing card stuck in the spokes and for some reason shuddered. An antique clock from the Black forest of Germany, a family heirloom from his mother, chimed the witching hour and John thought the sound was like fire crackling in a ghostly cold hearth. Where on Earth did that thought come from? John shook his head trying to shake off a feeling of gloom. Both children were asleep … and that forced him to smile.
Nancy’s Dollhouse stood over three feet tall and John was amazed at the detail in the miniature dwelling. He stopped for a moment to examine it closely. An area on an upstairs floor looked remarkably like their own kitchen. The same oblong table and four chairs and a tiny broom-closet in a hall entrance leading to a bedroom. As he peered inside the room the tiny closet door began to open. A voice that sounded faintly familiar hissed. “Two lives for one … not a bad trade!”