The Agreement (Horror)

The Agreement (Horror)

Another dreaded Thanksgiving.

Mr. Thomas has already taken his seat, and he strokes his beard with gnarled fingers as I set a bowl of mashed potatoes on the table. I’ve heard his hands are quite strong.

“Smells good,” he says, watching me. “I always eat too much.”

I give him a polite smile.

“And afterwards I always swear I’m going to get on my old ten-speed and ride it for five miles every day,” he said. His low, untroubled chuckle brought bile to my throat. “And then I think, how silly would that look? An old man on a bike. Old men don’t ride bikes. They swim laps in the pool or play golf. Bikes are for you teenagers.”

The strain of my smile hurts my face. “I guess.”

I hear sobs coming from the kitchen. They bring no reaction from Mr. Thomas. Perhaps he’s used to it. Ten years ago, he’d brought the town out of financial debt with his millions. All he demanded in return was an annual payment to keep the population manageable. The whole town had signed the agreement.

I escape to the kitchen to see Mom holding the basket of warmed rolls at arm’s length. They smell far too good. Mr. Thomas always brings the rolls and asks that they be warmed up. Mom’s face is turned away. “Take it. Just take it,” she says to my twin brother.

Jake takes the basket. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“We weren’t fine three years ago,” my aunt reminds him. The plunk of ice cubes she drops into glasses punctuates her words. “Three years ago, your father–”

“I know what happened to Dad,” Jake says, and the strain on his face as he walks past me surely matches my own.

I point to the turkey cooling on the counter. “Do you want me to take that to the dining room?”

Mom’s eyes look old, haunted. “No. I’ll do it.” Her gaze darts to the broken clock on the wall. It had given up recently after years of use but hasn’t yet been replaced. We still check it out of habit. “What time is it?”

Aunt Grace glances at her watch. “Almost six.”

“We need to hurry,” Mom says. “Terri, get your little brother in here.”

If only he could stay outside. My eyes sting, and I blink away tears.

Eleven-year-old Alex has been raking leaves for over an hour so he won’t have to be near Mr. Thomas. I breathe in crisp fall air and approach him. “It’s time.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You have to eat. You know the rules.”

“Screw the rules!” Alex throws down the rake and rushes past me to the back steps where three rotting pumpkins sit, their shriveled carved faces collapsing inward, remnants of happier times just weeks before. We’d each had our own pumpkin to carve this year.

Alex stomps on each one. His furious, frustrated grunts at the effort break my heart.

The pumpkins flattened, Alex stands, panting. Tears roll down his cheeks. “Screw the rules,” he repeats, softer this time. He yanks open the door and enters the house.

Moments later we sit at the table. Alex is across the table next to Jake. Aunt Grace sits beside me, putting herself between Mr. Thomas and me. Mom brings out the turkey, a trace of old pride still in her step. We compliment her cooking, as is tradition.

On each of the holidays throughout the year, Mr. Thomas takes turns dining with the families left in the town. Our turn is every Thanksgiving at six o’clock. If a family has to make a payment during his visit, he will stop dining with families for the remainder of the year. Sometimes, the town gets lucky on New Year’s Day, and we can all relax.

He stands and carves the turkey, setting the juicy pieces onto the dinner plates stacked before him, and we pass the plates down the table. Bowls of vegetables and mashed potatoes go around. We pile our plates, then sit in silence. No one moves.

Mr. Thomas lifts the one item that hasn’t been passed. “Bread, anyone?”

At the foot of the table, Mom puts her hand over her mouth, closes her eyes, and gives a soft moan. Mr. Thomas hands the basket of dinner rolls to Aunt Grace without taking one for himself. Grace takes a roll and sets it on her plate, then passes the basket to me.

I stare at the five remaining rolls, willing myself to see through them.

Mr. Thomas’s voice holds a gentle, coaxing threat. “Terri.”

I take a roll and pass the basket to Mom. It makes its way around the table back to Mr. Thomas, who sets it in front of him. One roll remains in the basket.

“Eat now,” Mr. Thomas says.

First Aunt Grace, then Jake, bite into their rolls, eyes downcast. Mom is next. Alex stuffs his into his mouth and swallows it whole.

Mr. Thomas sends a piercing gaze to Alex. “We’ll find it, if it was in there. What goes in must come out.”

I bite into my roll and my teeth hit something warm and hard. Cold terror makes my heart slam my chest. With trembling fingers I pull the coin from the bread.

“Ah,” Mr. Thomas says, smiling at me in delight. “You got the lucky penny. I wondered if we would go the entire year without a payment.” He stands, looking satisfied. “Your family and I will eat this wonderful meal afterwards.”

My family’s faces hold sheer misery. It has happened to us again. First my father, and now me.

I gulp in shallow breaths and try to speak. My desperate gaze meets Jake’s, then my mother’s. I am alone in my terror. No one can help me. Fighting is useless. If I resist, all of us will die.

Mr. Thomas takes my hand and leads me to the front room. My family follows. Alex begins to cry, and Jake puts his arm around him. Aunt Grace and Mom cling to each other.

Mr. Thomas pulls a small rock from his pocket and hits the window. The glass shatters in the middle and leaves long shards stuck in the sash.

He turns back and faces me. “You’d think a broken window means failure to those who see it from the street. But your payment is an honorable symbol of the agreement. The population stays as it should and the town is better off financially.”

Payment. I keep the word in my mind as I move my feet to the window. Mr. Thomas dons a thick leather glove in his right hand, grasps the back of my neck, and pushes my head out the window. My throat is inches above the shards.

Sobs and wails emit behind me. “Let me hug her, please,” Mom cries out. “Let me say goodbye.”

“You know the rules. The agreement has no room for emotion.” His warm breath wafts over my neck. “It’s all about payment owed.”

Payment. For them. For my family. They’ll be safe. For now.

I close my eyes. His hand tightens on my neck and shoves it down.

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to a person, living or deceased, events, or locations is purely coincidental.

The idea for this story came from a “what if” scenario involving a millionaire who owned a town and everyone in it as the result of a signed agreement to keep everyone financially secure. What would happen if one person per year was killed by the millionaire so that there would be one less mouth to feed? This story might remind you of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, which is about an annual tradition in a small community where one person is selected via lottery and killed in order to ensure the harvest will be good that year.

Laughter is the Best Medicine (Humor)

Laughter is the Best Medicine (Humor)

Fifteen gifts, all placed in boxes of identical size, were wrapped and lined up side by side on my couch.

I’d completed the task with my usual meticulous efforts. After finding fifteen identical white boxes and inserting the gifts into a bed of gold tissue paper, I had wrapped red ribbon around each box using five pieces of tape, and topped each dead center with a red bow.

I stood, hands on my hips, gazing at my work and admiring my efficiency. Even though they looked identical, I knew who was getting what based on its place on the couch and my family’s alphabetical names. My sister Amy’s gift sat on the far left, my nephew Zeke’s on the far right. All I had left to do was write the names on tags and place them on the presents, something I couldn’t have done as I wrapped, for then my process would be out of order. I’d even marked the precise spot on each box where I would place the tags.

I considered myself simply splendid, even as I knew my obsession with order was the reason for this precision. A troublesome thought rose of how my family would ask whether I had taken my medicine lately. Shrugging it off, I proceeded to the next step.

The tags lay in an orderly stack on my writing table with my gold felt pen placed perpendicular to them. I sat and lifted a cup of ginger tea to my lips, sipped delicately, then set the cup back in the its matching saucer with the handle pointing at three-o’clock.

I lifted the pen and removed the cap and set it to the left of the cup. Zeke’s name would go onto the first tag, then William, then Thaddeus, Sarah, and so on until Amy’s tag sat at the top of the stack. From there, I’d start with her tag and work my way down the couch, taping each tags to its box.

As I wrote Zeke’s name, the doorbell rang. Startled, I messed up the ‘k’. It looked like a capital R. No, his name was not ZeRe. I would need to redo this tag, but I had brought only fifteen out of the storeroom. I couldn’t proceed without making Zeke’s tag. Everything would be out of order, even if I made it later and tucked it on the bottom of the stack. No, I needed to get another tag right now, and write his name. Zeke was first in the tag stack because it would be the last to go onto the present. That was the way it had to be.

The doorbell rang again.

Frowning, I capped the felt pen and set it above the tags, then corrected the slight angle. At the door, I peered out of the peephole to see the UPS man. I liked the UPS uniforms; they were such a pleasant shade of brown, and everything matched. I opened the door and signed for a wrapped package that held my medicine. I’d run out the week before. Later, I would take a dose.

The man nodded and bade me happy holidays. Even his eyes were brown. How nice. I watched him get into his truck, which was the same shade of brown as his clothing. He pulled away, and I shut the door and tested the deadbolt several times. Well, maybe half a dozen times. I don’t know how long I stood there turning it one way and then the other before remembering I needed an extra tag.

In my neat and tidy storeroom I took another tag from my supply, making sure everything was in order before leaving the room. I wrote Zeke’s name in my careful handwriting, then went through the rest of the tags in order. Amy’s name was on top. Perfect.

The doorbell rang again. I glanced at my watch and realized it was time for the family to arrive. And the tags were not on the gifts. I stood for a moment, my gaze darting from the door to the tags to the gifts on the couch. Panic rose within me and my breath hitched. Okay. I was okay. I would let them in and then finish my task.

Opening the door, I ushered in my sister, Janelle, and her husband and small children. Behind them came William and his family, then my parents, and the rest followed. All carried in gifts and food. Amidst the hugs and the greetings and conversation and directing the food to the kitchen and gifts to the tree, I forgot about the tags until I heard a ruckus from the family room.

Only then did I notice my empty couch.

In a daze I watched my young nieces and nephews stacking up my presents like bricks, seeing how high the boxes could go before they fell into a jumbled pile on the floor.

Gasping, I grabbed the tags and ran to the gifts and stood with both hands over my mouth. The children must have seen my expression, for they bolted to their mothers.

I held out the tags in despair, and sobbed.

My family surrounded me and sat me down. Each box was presented to me and I placed a tag on it in haphazard fashion, not knowing if it was teenage Greg’s favorite sports team jersey or Mom’s perfume or William’s scarf. Tears ran down my face. Christmas was ruined.

But then, with gentle smiles, each of my family members took a box that had the name on the tag. One by one, they opened their gifts, and laughter filled the room as little Beth tried on the jersey and William sampled the floral perfume and Dad held up a toddler’s pair of pants and declared them a perfect fit. Then came a merry exchange as each gift founds its true home. Afterward, everyone claimed I had started a family tradition and requested a tag mix-up every year.

And I was okay. Yes, I went to take my meds, but I knew that I had experienced the best medicine of all, and it was called laughter.

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to a person, living or deceased, events, or locations is purely coincidental.

The idea for this story came from a writing contest I entered where I needed to insert the concept that laughter is the best medicine. I combined that with my penchant for compulsive ordering of objects and maintaining organization. One weekend, when I was cleaning the basement and going through quite a few boxes and bins to organize everything, I kept finding adaptors (those things that plug into an outlet and connect to an electronic object). All the adaptors I found went into one drawer. Later, my husband stood, mortified, and asked where the items were that went with the fifteen or so adaptors I had put into the drawer. I had no answer for him since everything had been put into its own place all over the house. Three years later, we still haven’t re-matched some of the adaptors with their electronic mates. Oops.