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by Riley Cannon
Shaken, and longing for a drink worse than he ever had in his life, Tobias Beecher slammed the door shut and locked it before stumbling over to collapse onto the couch. He couldn't seem to stop shivering, feeling like the cold of the grave had seeped right into his bones. Dragging the blanket off the back of the sofa, Toby wrapped it tight around himself, teeth chattering now, and wondered if he would ever be warm again.
After a few minutes, still hanging onto the blanket, he was able to go over to the fireplace and, crouching there, putting more logs on to burn, he could feel the heat gradually penetrate and bring some calm to his shattered nerves. He still couldn't quite look at the thing, over there on the coffee table -- or, only for an instant, out of the corner of his eye.
It was so ridiculous. Nothing but a grotesque novelty handed out at the Halloween party last night, by some woman dressed up in Hollywood's version of a Gypsy fortune-teller. She'd read his palm and told him the usual drill: that she saw he would go on a journey soon, and that there was romance in his future. Then, rummaging around in her bag, she had presented him with that ... thing, calling it a magic talisman that had once belonged to the likes of Dr. John Dee and Paracelsus, and had last been known to be in the possession of the great Houdini. Just as it had for them, she'd told him, it could grant him anything he wished -- but, she'd added darkly, wish carefully, for it could as easily conjure up a nightmare.
At least that's what he'd told himself at the time, planning to pitch the gruesome thing in the trash at the first opportunity. In fact, he would have sworn he had, and still couldn't understand how it had been lying over there on the coffee table when he'd come downstairs tonight.
Pushing to his feet, he approached cautiously, using the fireplace poker to nudge it. Did he really expect it to move, to react? He shivered again and pulled the blanket around him, unwilling to go too far down that road.
It looked real: a shriveled up monkey's paw, with blackened claws extending from curved fingers, wisps of fur clinging to it. But of course it was a fake, it had to be; just some kind of old movie prop.
He wanted to believe that so very badly -- and nearly jumped out of his skin as something banged against a window.
Just a tree branch, that was all, being tossed around in the wind.
That didn't go far in calming in his racing heart.
He wanted to be drunk. He wanted to be tossing in his bed, having the worst dream of his life. He so badly wanted none of this to be real.
He'd been sitting here, gazing into the fire and feeling lonesome and filled with regrets. Just for a moment, not even really thinking about it, he had whispered a confession to the flames -- "I wish Chris was here." Foolish, and not something he could ever acknowledge to anyone else, but surely there was no harm in making the admission to himself.
As a rule, that was something Toby had learned to keep to himself. It was hard, though, never being able to talk about Chris, to remember him with anyone else. Sometimes he thought that's what made it so hard to let it all go.
That quiet confession had provided some balm and he'd been about to go back upstairs and maybe get a couple hour's sleep before sunrise. His foot had been on the bottom step, his hand on the polished banister, when he'd heard something -- something that had sounded like his name, moaned on the wind. Scolding himself for letting his imagination run wild just because it was Halloween night, Toby had made it to the first landing when he heard something thump against the front door.
Kids up to mischief, he'd thought, and was headed for the door, hand reaching to turn on the porch light, when the eerie sound of something scratching, scratching, scratching at the door froze him in place.
Worse than that scratching, than the door knob rattling as if someone outside was trying to get in? That was the sound of his name again, being whispered, moaned, in a garbled and clogged voice that he almost, almost recognized.
Hands pressed against the door, every ounce of strength poured into keeping out what was on the other side, he shouted, "Go away!"
The only reply was more scratching, as of long nails scrabbling at the wood, and that voice, "To-by... To-by, let me in."
"Go away! You're not real!" He'd screamed until he was hoarse, until he was sitting in a heap, huddled against the door, ear pressed to it and listening.
No scratching, no whispers, nothing but blessed silence.
That's all there had ever been.
He knew that had to be true. Nothing else was possible.
And he'd dragged himself back to his feet and -- gingerly -- opened the door, relief washing through him when nothing was revealed but a scattering of dead leaves and dirt on the porch. Breathing easier, he'd taken a couple of steps outside, drawing his robe around him tighter as the brisk autumn breeze cut into him, confirming there was nothing there..
It was when he turned to go back inside. When he saw the long scratches gouged deep into the wood. When he heard a shuffling footstep rustle through the fallen leaves and smelled the decay of damp earth and dead flesh, and heard that rotted gurgle of a voice whisper, "To-by," -- and turning just his head, he saw him, saw Chris, moldering flesh that exposed bone, disintegrating rags of clothing that clung to the putrid body.
"To-by," it said again, coming toward him, and now he saw only one blue eye was left in the rotted head. He saw it reaching for him with a claw-like hand that was more bone than flesh, and knew it meant to gather him into an embrace, kiss him with that lipless mouth full of grinning teeth--
Some ineffable instinct stirred to life in him, some arcane knowledge culled from lord knew where, and just as those bony fingers stroked along his cheek and the putrid stench of the grave overcame him, he told it, "I wish you back from where you came."
It stopped, putrefied head slightly cocked as if looking at him ... and then it turned and slowly, oh so very slowly, shambled off into the night.
He had bolted back into the house, locking out the horror, and still shuddered at the memory of it.
He remembered the story now, though. How the Devil allowed three wishes, but always with the knowledge that no mortal could ever craft a wish in such a way that it would not be attended by horrific consequences. You might wish for money, for instance, and suddenly come into an inheritance -- because some beloved family member was killed in the most gruesome manner. Wish for the return of a departed loved one ... and they clawed their way out of the grave to come to you.
Toby swallowed, cast another glance outside, and then looked at the monkey's paw again.
No mortal could ever fashion a wish that covered every possible contingency?
Well, the Devil'd never reckoned on him.
Dusting off the knees of his jeans, Toby gave the ground one more pat with the shovel before trundling over some rocks in the wheelbarrow and placing them over the spot. He'd let this area of the yard go wild, and even if somebody took a bulldozer to it someday, they'd never find the damned monkey's paw. He'd buried it good and deep.
He untied the do-rag around his head and mopped his face and the back of his neck. It was a cool November day, but he'd worked up a sweat and felt damp and sticky all over.
Anticipating a shower and clean clothes, he headed back up to the house, pausing for a moment as he spotted a delivery van parked in the street. Quickening his step, he went around the corner of the house and called to the guy standing on the porch, about to smack his knuckles against the door. "Hey!"
The guy looked around, uncertain for a moment, before spotting him. "Hey. Got a delivery here for a Tobias Beecher. That you?"
Toby hurried up the walkway to join him, nodding. "It is," he said, taking the proffered clipboard and scribbling his name. "Busy time of year?"
The delivery guy shrugged, possessing the uncanny ability to make the gray coveralls he wore look good. "Not too bad. Nothin' like Christmas." He took back the clipboard, handed over the package, and gave a nod at the door. "Looks like you got some damage there."
"Yeah, some kind of Halloween prank, I think," Toby said, drinking in the striking profile.
"Yeah, kids can be a pain in the ass. Well," the delivery guy looked at him, eyes a startling blue, and if his smile wasn't as dazzling as it could be, it still sent a shiver up Toby's spine -- and this one had nothing to do with fear, "you have a good day then, Mr. Beecher."
The guy gave him an uncertain look. "Okay, Toby," he said, only a little tentative. And after a moment, when Toby gave him an expectant look, he added, "I'm Chris."
"Good to meet you, Chris," holding out his hand.
Another hesitation, but then Chris grasped it, giving him a searching look. "We've met?"
"We have now," Toby said, and saw that puzzle him more.
Toby watched him head back to the van, pause to cast one more mystified look back at him, then climb in and drive away.
Toby stayed there for a long time, his lawyer's mind searching for loopholes and going over the fine print again, and then gazing at the palm of his hand, tracing the lines and contours ... and wondering what if.
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