He waited for us in the McKinley house, a place that everyone avoided. Old Man McKinley chopped up his wife and daughter and then offed himself there in the fifties. Everyone thought it was haunted; Everything felt normal when we came that night. The dining room was how we left it—a table of rotted wood sat in the middle while yellowed paint chips hung off the walls like filthy fingernails. There was also a singular window that provided light from the moon, casting everything in a dull yellow light.
Then, the shadows began to move and grow with unnatural life. In the farthest corner of the room a silhouette borne from nothing. A tall, thin body formed. Its legs stretched out in front of the chair it sat in. Crossed arms rested on a slim chest. Masculine shoulders lead to a head, perfectly round, wearing a top hat; the shape of a man where there was once nothing.
The Passenger, the person who traveled with me, shuttered and sent a tingle down my spine. I’ve learned to love it like a friend that would never leave me, the second voice that lived in my head. “Evening,” the living shadow said, with a voice that was harsh and formless like winter winds, “I am Mister Smooth.” It was a ridiculous name in any other context, but I only tasted fear.
The shadows that surrounded our host receded and he came fully into view. His face was long, ending in a chin that was sharp like an arrowhead. All other features were unnatural. No color graced his face. His black saucers for eyes were a stark contrast to his plaster-white skin. No eyebrows for expression. White lips blended with his face. It was like a porcelain doll came to life.
“One of you has what I need,” he explained, “and I have been waiting patiently.” His voice reverberated over several pitches, like many people speaking at once.
I knew what he came for. My Passenger. I called out to it. I needed to hear her voice, the voice of a young female. She ignored my plea.
“Where are my manners? I should really let you speak for yourselves.” He looked to Lauren, then me, and rested his eyes on Mat. He put his hand to his chin. Mat did not impress him. His gaze was back on me.
“Jana,” he said, “Speak to me, delicate flower.”
His words made my skin crawl and I wanted to lash out, but I calmed myself. What would he do when he found out about my secret? I could taste The Passenger’s fear and it mixed with my own.
“What do you want with us?” I said, terror shaking every word.
He slumped forward and the shadows around him grew until it looked like he sat upon a high-backed throne, “Where I come from I punish the wicked. I know you suspect where I come from—”
“Hell,” Lauren, my best friend, interrupted him.
“No,” he said, “no, I am not from there. It is impossible. Hell does not exist. But you’re on the mark.”
No one spoke so he continued.
“I do not know why they left. I treated them so well.” He sat back in his chair like a weight was on him.
“Someone escaped from Hell.” Lauren was horrified.
“You’re catching on.” He rose from his seat, “but remember, I am not from there.”
He wore a three piece black suit with a white shirt like an executive. His hands were the same plaster white, but were long and bony like a skeleton’s. He towered above even Mat, who stood a full six feet.
Mat hesitated before he pointed out the obvious. “But we are all from here.”
“I know,” Smooth said with frustration.
From nothing, a plush chair with gold trim appeared on Smooth’s side of the table. He sat. Three more chairs appeared on our side. Lauren and I sat obediently. Mat bounded for the flimsy screen door. He tugged and pulled but it would not open.
“Come join us, Mat. You cannot leave. Not until I know you are truly ignorant.”
Mat put his back to the door. All color drained from his face. Realizing it was hopeless, he shuffled to his seat.
“I can feel their presence. I know they are here.”
From his pocket he produced a rather ordinary object, a wooden music box which opened to a glass ballerina. Her top half was broken off. She was all legs. It chimed a soft tune.
“Know that I can rend the mind and the soul. I’ve done it many times.”
“Don’t worry, they have all deserved it,” he added, as if that would reassure us.
“What,” Mat said before gulping hard, “what are you going to do to us?”
“Well, let’s see,” there was amusement in his voice, like a magician preparing a trick, “how about a game?”
The three of us looked to each other, lost. A game?
“I do not like waiting.” He looked straight at me when he said this.
And then The Passenger spoke. It was like the morning light after a night of storms. We need to play, she said.
He is losing his patience.
“Lauren has tarot cards.” It was the first thing that came to my mind.
Lauren came from an ordinary family who was unnerved by something silly like a deck of cards. They were horrified when she drew them out in the middle of church one day. Still, she carried them everywhere. Her trembling hand pushed them across the table.
“Your superstitions are ridiculous,” he shuffled the cards like a Vegas dealer, “these cards were invented to be a simple game. But maybe there is some unseen magic. Who wants to go first?”
None of us volunteered. The Passenger made no sound.
“So be it. I will go first. All knowing cards,” he said with mock severity, “what tidings does my presence bring?”
He drew five cards from the deck and laid them out in a cross. He flipped the card in the middle, the one that reveals the present influence of a situation.
The card was XIII: Death. It depicted a skeleton riding a pale horse. We used to laugh when any of us drew it. It was now the darkest omen.
He picked the card to left of the first. It told of the influence in the situation. The card was Death. The music box chimed away innocently.
The third card told the subject the future result. Death.
The fourth, the one below, was the reason for the outcome. Death.
The fifth was the potential of the situation. Again, it was Death.
“Damn,” he shook his head, “this game always ends up the same.”
Silence hung in the room like a thick fog. Smooth was a nightmare come to life. And we did not know when it would end. We could not wake up and start a new day. The horror was like a card waiting to be revealed.
“How about someone else have a go? Matthew?”
“I don’t…” he struggled with the words, “do I have to?”
“Yes,” Smooth said, “you really do.”
My stomach weighed me down like a rock. What is he going to do to him? I asked The Passenger. Again, she was silent. Smooth watched as Mat spread the cards in front of him.
Mister Smooth chuckled with malicious mischief. Lauren’s composure faded and tears rolled down her cheeks. Mat trembled with fear.
Mat reached his hand for the first card. His hand rested on it but he could not summon the courage to flip it.
“Little mouse, you are terrified, aren’t you?”
“I can’t do this.”
“Then go,” Smooth pointed his chin to the door. “I could smell the cowardice on you. You are of no use.” Smooth looked away from Mat like he no longer existed. “Go.”
Mat looked to both of us, rose, and ran for the door. We watched him walk out. We were not surprised in the least.
“Are neither of you game?”
The Passenger was staying quiet. It was hiding. I needed to know why.
Lauren spoke up. Her courage was something to be admired. “Were you once human, Mister Smooth?” She grabbed the cards like they were nothing of importance, shuffled them, and spread them out in a cross.
Smooth paused, sat back, and pushed his hands together like he was in prayer. “There was a time, yes.”
Lauren flipped her first card. The Fool. Depicted was a happy, juggling jester. It represented purity, simple truth. Mister Smooth looked at it with interest.
“I died. My life was long ago. I was an executioner.” He paused. “I can no longer recall where. But my blade ended lives quickly. Smoothly. I witnessed so much death, and while those that died may have deserved it…it left a mark on my soul.” He spoke of his soul like a long lost lover. “The mark destined me for a different existence.”
A thought came to me. I had to know this about the Passenger. “Who you seek…was her soul marked?”
The Passenger never talked about herself. Before I thought the voice was shy. But maybe she could have been hiding from herself. I hoped she could not sense my suspicion.
Smooth zoomed in on the question like an eagle spotting a mouse. “Yes.” He let the weight of his answer fall. “They experienced a horror so great that their mark of innocence was forever soiled. It was so gruesome, so close to home,” he paused, and I swore he sighed, “it tainted the soul.”
He scanned my face for a reaction. I tried to mask my fear but I know I reeked of it. Lauren was becoming the third wheel. No one even noticed she revealed all the cards dealt to her.
“Isn’t there such a thing as redemption?” Lauren asked, trying to stay in our game.
Smooth laughed like Lauren was a child telling a joke. “You know nothing of what you speak.” His gaze fell on me. Always, it returned to me.
“Maybe this is a mistake. We don’t have what you are looking for.” I said.
“You are trying my patience,” his pale lips puckered into sour anger. “Stop it. I come from a wicked world, girl, and I do not make mistakes.”
The shadows grew about us like vines. The soft moonlight that peered through the lone window faded and the room went cold enough that our breaths came out in clouds.
The game was up. Whatever came next, I was not going to let it happen to Lauren too. I would forever love her for her loyalty. Even though I could hardly see her face, I knew it held a look of defiance. She would have stayed with me. I took a deep breath of harsh air.
“Will you let my friend go?” The question pierced the air.
Smooth’s anger faded as soon as it swelled. The shadows receded and light through the window glowed once more.
Smooth sat. “I will.”
I looked to Lauren, right into her soft eyes, the window to her soul. “Lauren—”
“No, I won’t leave you with this…monster,” she spat.
“He’s looking for me. I have what he is looking for.”
“Wait? You’re telling me this psycho isn’t a psycho?”
We locked eyes. I hesitated before nodding. “I am.”
“And she will not leave until I get just what I came for.” Mister Smooth said.
Lauren rose like a great burden was on her back. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she went to the door like a condemned man down the final hallway. Before she walked out the door she gave me one final look. Without any words, I did my best to show my resolve, to convince her that no matter what happened I was going to be okay. I was trying just as hard to convince myself.
And then she was gone. The screen door slammed shut, and it sounded like a gavel after a final judgment. I turned back to my fate.
“When did you know?”
He was amused. “In a way, I knew right away. But I already made one costly mistake. I cannot afford to be reckless with mortals. The rules I am breaking to be here…it is something that will not wash from me for some time. I knew when you referred to her as ‘she’. I never revealed if it was a he, she, or it. I knew then you had met Annabelle.”
At the sound of the name, my heart palpitated like a drum. Warm recognition washed over me and I was no longer occupied by another but enhanced by our shared, mutual existence. Her name was Annabelle. I called out to her. Annabelle. We embraced each other in our shared mind.
“Tell me now,” Smooth’s voice wavered with eager anticipation, “where is she hiding?”
It seems he has underestimated you, I called to Annabelle again.
And she answered. He always has.
I fed off her courage.
“Annabelle and I are one.”
Smooth’s face could not show surprise or appreciation. But I would like to think he was impressed. He sat still and quiet after the revelation, calculating how it could have been possible.
Then, he looked to the music box to his left. The half ballerina still danced to her charming and simple song. He looked at me as he gripped it by the edges, lifted it above his head, and let it fall to the ground.
When it smashed so did the world about us. Gravity faded. The table, the summoned chairs, my body, and Smooth’s rose. And then the spinning began. It increased in intensity with each rotation. My stomach danced and lurched and the blood rushed to my screaming head.
To my horror, I sensed I was alone in my own skin. I shut my eyes so tight it felt my eyeballs would burst. I called out to Annabelle but no sound escaped my lungs.
Without warning, it was over. The spinning stopped. I fell to the ground, hard.
Opening my eyes was a grueling test of will.
My clothes were not my own. I wore a long plaid skirt, one which I would never wear, and a white blouse that had to be decades old. An apron tied around my waist protected my new clothes, even though I had never cooked a real meal in my life.
On the wood floor with me was a kitchen knife, its metal glinting from the natural light. I gripped it in my right hand. I stood up, looked about, and shook my head with disbelief.
What I saw was impossible. My surroundings were familiar, but basked in a newness that existed before my time. The dining table was no longer sun-bleached and rotted but a deep brown, pristine and shiny. The three chairs, one at the head and one at each side, were immaculate and matching. A single window coated the room in a comforting warm glow. A turkey upon a platter rested in the middle of the table. My nose caught the aroma of the fresh food.
The McKinley House in the fifties. I looked to my hands. There were wrinkles where there once wasn’t; long, bony fingers ached at the joint. Did I age? I could not accept I went to another time. But the evidence screamed like a boiling kettle.
In my shock I forgot about Annabelle. It was time to find her.
A scream as harsh and sudden as shattering glass sounded outside. Someone burst through the front door and ran up the stairs.
It had to be Annabelle. I tasted blood in the back of my mouth and my senses came alive with the surge of adrenaline. The girl screeched all the way to a room upstairs. I gripped the knife and ran to the hallway.
The McKinley House of my time had no second level. The roof caved in after years of harsh winters piling snow on it. But here, it was all restored to its original state. Each step I took was new territory.
The top of the stairs opened up to a hallway. Only one door stood wide open, at the end of the hall. I could peer right in. A girl, no older than twelve, lay flat on the floor. She was sobbing into the floorboards. A familiar object was next to her: a music box containing a ballerina broken at the waist.
I ran to Annabelle, dropping the knife beside us. I embraced her in both my arms. Only until I could steady her sobbing did I pull her back to look at her.
She was exactly as I pictured her. Soft eyes, a delicate nose, and jet black hair that covered her face like a funeral veil.
She spoke, her voice just as clear to me as when it came from within, “You remind me of my mother,” she explained, “before I was born. It’s why I chose you.”
Tears fell down her face silently. My eyes burned with the same. “But he is here too.”
“No,” she said, “my father.”
The screen door downstairs flung open. “Annabelle!” a booming voice yelled below. “I am coming for you.”
I picked up the knife and backed us into a corner. I shielded the young girl with my body. The stories, the urban legends, always described George McKinley as a monstrosity of man in both character and stature. The fight of my life, for both mine and Annabelle’s, was stomping up the stairs.
I looked down the hallway as step by step, he came into view. His eyes fell on us and his face stretched into a sick grin, a starving animal spotting easy prey. In two paw-like hands he held a woodcutter’s axe, the same murder weapon of the grisly crime from decades ago. Fear planted me where I stood but I was ready to die defending us to the end.
The doorway was too narrow and low. He lumbered in, never taking his eyes off us. The scent of liquor and tobacco emanated from him.
He spoke, his voice a thick drawl, “Don’t be scared. This will be real quick.”
He wound up the axe. I thought my survival instinct would kick in, that I would know what to do in the face of a murderer. But all my movements were delayed. In the last moment, I swung wildly with the knife.
My swing struck him in his meaty forearm. He cried out, dropping the axe. But it was only a glancing blow, and it further fueled his drunken fury. His senses recovered, he tried to smack me with a backhand. I lifted the knife in defense and it bit at him.
He snarled, raised his leg, and caught me in the chest with a heavy boot.
All air left my lungs and I flew backwards into Annabelle. We were sprawled on the floor. I could not recover. McKinley was on us, his axe raised again, moments away from once again completing the heinous act. In my last moment I thought this had to be predetermined fate, cursed to occur no matter what.
Something struck McKinley from behind. He screamed in agony and wheeled to face his attacker. An identical axe was buried in McKinley’s spine.
“Back to the hole you crawled from,” Smooth said with pure disgust, “you will harm her no more.”
The floor burst open where McKinley stood. He writhed and screamed as hundreds of long, filthy roots, like those that would hold down a great tree, twisted around him. His skin cracked and bled all over. His struggling only made his punishment worse, but he continued to fight back. Once he was confined within his living prison, the roots returned from where they emerged. The howling of George McKinley echoed from unknown depths.
We stood in place until McKinley’s presence was only a memory.
I rose to my feet, keeping one hand back on Annabelle.
“Where are we?”
“It’s obvious isn’t it? It is our dear Annabelle’s worst nightmare.”
“Why do you need her? Why can’t she just rest?” The poor girl had been through so much horror. After tonight, I experienced it myself.
“It would be a waste. She understands true evil, she has faced it,” Smooth’s tone was respectful, in awe of Annabelle, “there is deep desire within in her to punish those that deserve it.”
“She’s just some moral compass to you.”
“No,” he said sharply, “she gives me purpose. Without her, I just become another twisted soul in that wicked world I come from.” There was pain and desperation in his words.
Keeping my eye on Smooth, I talked to Annabelle. “Is any of this true? I thought you were running from him.”
“Mister Smooth is good to me. There is adventure where we come from. But sometimes adventures turn into nightmares.”
“It’s true,” Smooth admitted, “we have a duty to uphold. Wicked World must not be left to them…”
From his inner jacket he pulled out what looked like a simple glass jar.
“Now, it is time to go.”
Annabelle cowered behind me, grabbing my skirt in bunches. Her trust was put into me. She sought me out and chose me.
I would honor that until the end.
I thought of my life back home as Smooth approached us. As hard as I searched through what my life was until that point, I could never find a time as real and exciting as that evening. There was real danger, intrigue, and I found someone I cared for so much that she felt like an extension of me.
My grandmother would not remember me. There was nothing of her left. Lauren was the only one that brought a pain of longing to my heart. But she would make it without me. A lone wolf or a social butterfly, there was no end to what she could be.
And so it was I said, “Then I am coming with her.”
Mister Smooth regarded me with a cock of his head and a long look. I thought, for just a moment, I could see the human he once was. Dark eyes that could scan your very character, a firm mouth downturned in judgment, and a brow that held wrinkles like a scratchpad for the thoughts inside.
“Where we are going we are hunters of predators. One false move and the tables are turned. Nothing will try your spirit more in any realm.”
“Annabelle needs me. We will not be separated.”
“She escaped once. You will never leave my sight. You will be bound to the both of us.”
My decision was final. “Take me.”
“You can never walk the Earth again. I do not know how Annabelle made it out,” he looked to Annabelle like a father that hinted punishment was near, “there must be a hole in the world I come from. I will need help.”
“I’m ready to die.” It was a lie. I did not think I would ever be ready for that.
Mister Smooth did not move for some time.
Then he said, with soft regret, “So be it.”
He opened the jar.
The effect was immediate. We were pulled in like it was the vortex of a tornado. And we spun, around and around again, just like when I entered Annabelle’s conscience.
I felt her there. Annabelle. There were moments when our mind was one again. She was me and I was her. Who would we be on the other side? There was so much left to consider what life would be like in Wicked World.
Constant danger. My heart thumped at the thought of both fear and excitement. Adventure approached.
I closed my eyes and decided to enjoy the ride.