by J R Alfieri
Autumn leaves lightly showered the midnight road. Moonlight drenched it.
The roar of his engine and the sharp whisper of the wind cut through his open windows. Slipstream fingers reached in with the noises and tousled his hair. Beneath skeleton branches that scraped across the black ocean known to mankind as the night sky, Arthur drove. With every mile he put behind him, the world itself seemed to grow more distant, as if it were only a waypoint on a road he had so long ago visited. A road his memory darkened with night and shrouded with fallen leaves. A midnight road.
Upon reflection he saw staring back at him in the mirror of his mind only two things, that his Latin mother had named him Arthur and that something called Bliss had been stolen from him. Which was a most disturbing discovery, especially when considering the pools of blood brimming the two backseat footwells.
Whose blood, Arthur could only rule out himself, as no one else occupied the car with him, bleeding or otherwise. For a peculiar reason, though, perhaps because a vague shape was manifesting itself in the mirror of his mind, the blood seemed to Arthur perfectly natural—a memento he had taken from that waypoint the world, a trading token, maybe, he had once exchanged for that stolen possession of his called Bliss.
But like the world, the blood swished and swayed behind him. And soon the road would ribbon behind him too.
Up ahead drew his inevitable destination, the light at the end of this forest tunnel. Through darkness, through dead and dying leaves, through the black ocean he saw it rising ahead. And when his engine whimpered and the wind shushed, when slipstream fingers withdrew from his open windows and his hair flattened, he found himself there, parked at the entrance.
The skeleton branches had swapped themselves for a porte-cochère, and the midnight road had clumped itself into cobblestones. Before Arthur could even motion for it, his car door swung outward—an arm presenting his destination, saying in its silent way of gesture, “After you.”
Arthur hesitated, and not because the door took him by surprise, but because the valet boy who pried it looked nothing like a valet boy and everything like a cancer patient.
Huckleberry-kissed lips, skin so anemic in the right light you could probably see his organs failing underneath, eyes sunken and haloed with purple rings that attested to sleepless nights, the only thing missing was the hospital gown, and maybe also a grieving parent to be his personalized storm cloud, always raining teardrops over his buzzed head.
“Good mornin’, mister,” the valet boy grinned, his voice as crumpling as his appearance.
Arthur, who understood morning as the time of day when the sun yawns and night as the time of day when darkness gathers, gazed past the boy at the gathered darkness, and yet, upon validation, found he had not the heart to correct him. “Good morning, son.”
Overly pleased with the response, the valet boy now regarded Arthur how a child might regard an adult who just agreed to imaginative play.
“Take it before you step out of the car,” the boy urged in a low, prison-yard whisper.
“Take what?” Arthur whispered back. For the briefest of moments he thought, I have no buckets.
It was only when the boy said, “look in your glovebox,” that Arthur realized the backseat blood wasn’t of reference here.
With a yank and a click, the glovebox’s lower jaw hung open. Inside the gaping oyster Arthur closed his hand around a pearl he had seen before, had caressed and squeezed before, a Glock 22. When he returned his eyes upon the valet boy—questions springing from his expression before they could spring from his mouth—the valet boy bounced an index finger off of his pursed lips.
“Shhh,” he caution furtively as his eyes sprang about searching for eavesdroppers. Then, in a louder, more official voice that almost seemed to invite spying ears, he announced, “Welcome to Here. Is there anything I can help you with before I valet your car?”
Arthur burrowed the pistol into his waistband, veiled its identity with the hem of his shirt and stepped out of the car. He too scanned the porte-cochère. Though his search came up short of eavesdroppers, it came up long of oddities.
The first among them was the lighting source, which was exclusively firelight, absolutely no electricity whatsoever. Medieval torches sputtered their spiral flames and tallow candles wept their teary wax.
At the heels of that was the vacancy of this place. Why the valet boy had felt the need to whisper, Arthur couldn’t tell you. But he could tell you that even the air smelt strangely hollow, strangely dead.
And finally, lastly, most importantly, what mystified Arthur more than the boy too young to be a valet driver, too sick to be alive, was that he had not the slightest clue what this place was or why he had come here.
“Yeah,” Arthur said as he pressed his car keys into the boy’s ice-cold palms, “there is something you can help me out with. Where am I? And what is this place you call ‘Here’?”
Sunken, cancer-punched eyes skittered to and fro before they fell still upon some point of interest behind Arthur. The boy gave a curt nod to whatever, whomever it was, and in that official voice again announced, “Why, you are at the end of the midnight road, of course. And this place,” he presented it how Arthur’s car had presented it, with a sweeping arm, “is home now.”
As the car spun its tires and left Arthur dallying under the porte-cochere alone, the target of the valet boy’s final fixation revealed itself; a man standing in the hotel doorway, who by his mess jacket and flaring lapels could only be a bellhop.
“Come, come!” the bellhop beckoned.
As Arthur crossed the cobblestones, he noticed that the flare of the bellhop’s lapels came not from their size or particular style, but from the rose brooch pinned above his left breast.
“No luggage, I take it?” the bellhop asked.
Closer now, just about in handshaking range, Arthur wobbled his head no.
“Not to worry, good sir. Inside you’ll find everything you could ever possibly need. Let’s head in and get you squared up with the concierge.” Just as the bellhop said this, he turned into the hotel doors and the abundant candlelight glowing within.
Arthur, as he passed through the hotel threshold and into the steady light, thereupon recognized that the bellhop’s rose brooch wasn’t a brooch at all, but a dried wine stain, or some other form of liquid capable of producing a likewise hue.
The inertia propelling him forward soon did as an Easter lily might do under direct sunlight; it shriveled, wilted and died. His legs stiffened, his heart stiffened, and he stopped moving altogether. Though being stationary, being idle, made absorbing what laid ahead no easier.
Among the torches and candlelit sconces mounted onto the walls, Arthur noted and duly felt the eyes of a hundred beasts weighing down on him. All horned, black-eyed, and awash in the many flicking tongues of firelight, the taxidermy on display appeared almost sinister. And amidst this heat, that appearance seemed less of an appearance and more of a reality.
This heat, this godforsaken, rolling, wafting, energy-sapping heat that swam about the lobby crashed over him. Opening all hatches, all windows, he gaped his mouth, flared his nostrils and tried siphoning as much air as possible. But this heat, this godforsaken heat only apportioned him shallow lungfuls.
“Oh now, Arthur, it’s not that bad! You look like a fish out of water!” the bellhop chuckled as he clapped Arthur on the shoulder.
Arthur wished he hadn’t had done that, chuckled. The lobby and its undercurrents of dark air needed no chuckling or, for that matter, clairvoyance. A fish out of water was exactly how he felt—plucked from his world and thrown into a frying pan.
“What’s wrong with the AC?” Arthur asked. He hooked his one finger into his collar and stretched it out.
Another chuckle, this one slightly more unhinged, “Hasn’t work in ages, Arthur, in ages!” The bellhop retook the lead and began escorting Arthur across the lobby to the concierge’s desk. But before they reached it and parted ways, Arthur slipped in one final question.
“My name, how do you know it?”
“We all know it, Arthur.” Just as the words rolled off the bellhop’s tongue, they approached the concierge’s desk.
The woman behind it verified the bellhop’s claim almost immediately, “Good evening, Arthur.”
Evening…good evening the concierge said, whereas the valet boy had declared it morning.
Muddled, discontented and now wearing a headband sown of sweat beads—one that was coming apart and running down his face as quickly as his sanity—Arthur wanted to know, “how?”
The bellhop and the concierge traded looks. And also grins.
“Because we’ve been expecting you,” the concierge said matter-of-factly, as if this were as obvious as the color of the sky, or perhaps more appropriately, as obvious as the time of day.
The grin smeared across the bellhop’s face split wide like clamps on an operating incision, and from it bellowed that chuckle, that awful, sinister-accentuating chuckle. “For about as long as the AC hasn’t worked! Ages, Arthur! We’ve been expecting you for ages!”
Even after the bellhop and his chuckle strolled out of sight, the concierge held onto her grin. She was, by far, the oldest woman Arthur had ever set his eyes on. Looking like the great grandmother of Father Time, she reminded Arthur of someone he had formerly known, someone he had met at that waypoint the world. From the rather peculiar manner in which she grinned at him, he had a feeling she reciprocated this notion.
When Arthur spoke next, he unintentionally sprinkled salt on the curved slug that was the concierge’s lips. “Have we met before?”
Her grin squirmed a bit before it dissolved. She leaned her torso left so she could peer behind him. Then with cataract-clouded eyes she combed the lobby. It wasn’t until she rectified her lean that she whispered, like it was their little secret, “Once upon a time, my dear boy.”
Then, with a much more pronounced voice, she covered up and buried her whispers, “You’ve arrived just in time, Arthur. Tonight the Master will be throwing a grand feast in His chambers. And He has personally asked that I extended to you the invitation. So what do you say? Shall we send you up?”
“Thank you, but my appetite—”
“Oh, but I insist! It would be exceptionally improper to decline the Master’s invitation. So few are every graced with such an honor.” She paused, flashed her cataract eyes at him and under the concealment of her breath mumbled, “Please. You have the gun. Save us. Save yourself. Kill—”
Eclipsed by her own secondary voice, “The Master is waiting, Arthur!”
An internal battle seemed to wage across her entire being, two sides fighting over and only momentarily attaining control. “Shoot Him in the head, Arthur. Not the heart. I don’t think He has one.”
The instant Arthur had retrieved the Glock 22 was also the very instant he had concealed it, its nose shoved between his belt loop and hip bone, its rubber grip cloaked underneath his shirt. So how, how could this hoary old woman see past the white film blighting her eyes at the faint outlines of the pistol?
Before Arthur could parrot this question and for the millionth time utter the word ‘how’, he bit down on his tongue. He knew no answer would satisfy because even the true answer, one naked to the ambiguity these folk seemed so fond of, would be an impossibility, just like the valet boy’s omniscient knowledge of the gun in the first place, and the sheer existence of this hotel, which, Arthur was now concluding, was not much of a hotel at all, but a point at the end of the road, a dead end.
So Arthur no longer concerned himself with the understanding of ‘how’ and instead shifted his attention onto the two reflections he saw staring back at him in the mirror of his mind, that his Latin mother had named him Arthur and that something called Bliss had been stolen from him. Everything else melted away at the feet of that.
“This Master,” Arthur said and henceforth dived into the rabbit hole, “does He know anything of Bliss?”
Something embedded within his voice must have pricked the concierge, for the clouds of cataracts in that old woman’s sorry eyes were now releasing their rainwater. Tears streamed down over the wrinkled gorges and riverbeds carving up her wizened face.
Her reaction answered him far better than any words.
“Where? Where are the Master’s chambers?”
Choking on her sobs, she hefted a gnarled, arthritic-inflamed finger down the nearest corridor. “There’s a stairwell at the end. It’s connected to the tower, where the Master resides. Take it all the way to the top. That’s where you’ll find all that you seek. Hurry, now.”
Then the whispers wrested and ultimately won control, “And don’t forget what I told you.” That gnarled, arthritic-inflamed finger curled inward and tapped her forehead, right at the junction of eyes, brow and nose.
On last look at her and Arthur couldn’t help but to feel the familiarity she vented. “I’ll remember,” he promised, and little did he know how much that promise would cost him. With that he made way for the corridor. As he treaded through its carpeted throat, he heard her shout behind him, the final warcry of her whispers, who at long last achieved their victory.
In both comprehension and agreement, Arthur reached near his belt, chambered a round into his pistol, and entered the Master’s tower. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Spiraling stairs and spiraling senses, Arthur rose up through the madness of it all. Past the first floor, the second floor, then the third and fourth, as he breezed by the fifth he began intercepting the smells. Sour wine and spiced meat fused the air. But, quite queerly, noises of the feast never reached him…except for the subtlest gnashing of teeth.
Whirlwinded and dressed in a full gown of sweat, Arthur shouldered through the door marked with the number 6.
Expecting another corridor and instead finding a grand banquet hall, he stopped dead in his tracks.
One long refectory table extended before him, overlaid with candelabras ablaze and cutlery untouched. Flopped dead along the table were suckling pigs chewing on apples and other such forms of roasted meat. The benches sat about thirty men and women on each side, all of whom had turned to stone upon Arthur’s entry.
Some were clutching onto drumsticks, others were stuffing their fingers into their mouths, and a few were even caught lapping at the trickle of blood that had escaped down their rolled-back sleeves. Half-chewed meat puffed some of their cheeks, and mouthfuls of sour wine pruned some of their gums.
Whatever pose they struck, they struck it so while gazing at Arthur. These hundred or some odd eyes weighed down upon him heavier than the horned beasts decorating the lobby walls. And heavier yet, heavier than all, was the cast from the head of the table, the only figure who hadn’t stilled on Arthur’s arrival, the Master.
So youthful He looked, so entitled and regal, Arthur might have mistaken Him not as a master of this place, but as a prince of something else entirely. Arthur might have made this mistake, had it not been for first the eyes—possessive of their targets, seeming to know a million secrets—and second the voice—defiler of sound, seeming to carry with it unlocked wisdom.
“Welcome,” it resonated across the banquet hall, slicing through the distance against an opposition of none. “Arthur, sweet child of mine, my heart sings to receive you. As do the hearts of my lieges.”
At that, the stone mold fragmented. Everyone lined along the refectory table nodded in accord.
“Do sit, Arthur,” the Master waved His arm at a chair set all the way at the end of the table, a few steps from where Arthur was standing. “Please, I implore you, indulge beside your brothers and sisters. You must be rightfully ravished from your travels.”
Only half obliging the request, Arthur squatted down into the seat, but he did not help himself to the nearest apple-gnawing pig. “Thank you, but I’m not hungry.”
“No?” the Master titled His head askew. “Can I not interest thee in even the slightest tastes of nourishment? The apples, Arthur, the apples. You must try them. I am confident you will find they are most pleasing. Down here they are just…”
And at that exact point in time Arthur saw clearly, across the entire table, a repulsive development occur. The Master began salivating from the corners of His mouth.
“…they are just oh so decliousss.”
“No,” Arthur refused rather bluntly. In response the candelabras ablaze burned deeper, hotter, as the red tips of their branches turned a dead-lip shade of blue, a huckleberry blue.
“A taste, my child, a bite, a nibble, you must, you must. Otherwise however will you know? However will you open your eyes and see that it is neither night nor day?”
“The hour is of no concern to me.”
Those eyes, opened and drowning in the million secrets they harbored, simpered with elation. “Ahh, but I know what is. I know all things, for I have not only tasted the fruit, but have planted the seed myself. You and I, Arthur, we are one and the same. Both the victims of theft. Something has been stolen from me, my Kingdom. And something has been stolen from you, your Bliss.”
Silence, during which the Master allowed time for His words to sink in and grow a new strain of thought, a strain much like a seed that would soon germinate and bear fruit.
“Eat of the apple, child, and the fog enshrouding your memory will surely evaporate. You will see all. You will see Bliss.”
Just then the apple nearest Arthur wiggled free from its entrapment and rolled itself until it filled his empty plate. Arthur looked down upon the orb, its stem sprouting a single leaf, its skin a twilight blend of sunrise yellow, blood red and emerald green.
“How do I know I can trust you? That this isn’t poison you’re feeding me?” With this question Arthur unintentionally watered the seed of the Mater’s words.
“Because you know me. All your life you’ve known me.” That simper in His eyes now spread down to His slobbering lips.
“Know you? I don’t know you.” And with this Arthur unintentionally nursed the sapling.
“Oh yes, child, you do. How could you not? You walk with me every day. You sleep with me every night. I am the shadow on the face of the moon. I am the dead space between the stars. On your left shoulder I sit. And in that same ear I whisper. When it is not my voice you hear, it is the countless works brought up in my name that you see. I am everything you have ever feared. And most frightening of all, I am almost everything you have ever loved.”
“Almost,” Arthur echoed over the eyes reflecting firelight, the meat oozing blood, and the wine inviting indulgence.
“Yes, almost. There are but two loves of yours I cannot claim as my own. Two, I must admit that is quite impressive. At least double that of the average man. One is what you seek. Bliss. Bite into the apple and I will show you both.”
So there was two, then. Two footwells in the backseat of his car brimmed with blood. Yes, two.
Arthur knew who the Master was now. He knew the temptation that manifested itself as a twilit orb. He knew the sapling had blossomed in full. And for all that he still picked the fruit of the tree. And for all that he still bit into the apple.
And the very moment his teeth sank into its juicy, acidulous flesh, he felt it. Chaos, anarchy, the sense that whatever natural order had upheld his life thus far, with its many rules and restrictions, had just disbanded, tucked tail and vanished, or as the Master had claimed, evaporated. Freedom would be one way of putting it, though not freedom in the sense of a caged bird released, but of an astronaut untethered and drifting aimlessly through the deep chasms of space.
And his eyes shucked open, all three of them. Memories swam around and around in the pool of his irises, like ships orbiting a maelstrom, or exiled members of an asteroid belt tracing the rim of a black hole, soon to be sucked into the vortex, into the darkness.
And so he fell. Into the wormhole. Into the memories where Bliss lied.
And in the past he landed. As an unseen shadow pitched against the wall, Arthur fixed his eyes on his childhood room, and on the boy sniffling under the covers. His carousel nightlight, which circled around and around just like the memories, just like madness and chaos and order and life, staved off so little of the night, and the monsters who dwelt within it.
And the sniffles coming from underneath the covers grew in volume and intensity. Arthur remembered then, the childhood monsters who had harrowed him so. Not imaginary ghosts, ghouls or goblins hiding in his closet, but imaginary fathers hiding in his dreams, who explained to him why they had left, and why they were never coming back.
And for the third time this week, the nine-year-old Arthur wailed, “Mom! Mom!” Footfalls raced outside his door. The shadow pitched against the wall knew who would come to the rescue before she came to it. With his third eye open, Arthur knew all, and that knowledge cost him dearly. He paid for it in a currency of unmeasurable pain.
And his bedroom door blasted open. Through it whisked a woman whose smile lines would in time beget wrinkled gorges and riverbeds, and whose eyes would in time cloud with age.
And now the nine-year-old Arthur wasn’t the only one wailing after his mother. The shadow pitched against the wall wailed after her too, though no one could hear or see him. His mother sat down on his bed. Clasped in her hands was his favorite book, The Once and Future King—an account of the man he shared a name with, King Arthur of Camelot. His mother had long ago decided that if no father figure could be the hero in her young son’s life, King Arthur would have to do.
And as his mother cracked open that book, she stifled his sniveling with just four magic words, four magic words that weren’t in the text, but were in her heart and in his, “Once upon a time”.
And Arthur understood then that the concierge, his mother, had said those very words to him after he had asked her if they had ever met before—a desperate attempt to breathe life into his memories, to keep him from the apple that would forever tarnish his soul. Though now it was too late, as his eyes were open and he was seeing—
Adulthood. Invisible, occupying the passenger seat of his car, he looked upon the driver and there looked upon himself. He heard some woman moaning discomfort behind him. Twisting around and peering into the backseat, his heart imploded.
Legs splayed, hair plastered across her brow, hands clawed onto her bulbous belly, Arthur’s wife roared, “SHE’S COMING, ARTHUR! THE BABY IS COMING!”
Then they flew beneath a red light, honking their horn and blinking their hazards. Sirens whooped and blared not far behind, but Arthur, the driver, showed no sign of slowing. In fact, he gave the steel rocket they soared on more juice. Those sirens belonged to a buddy of his, his partner on the force who was catching up to escort them.
“WE’RE ALMOST THERE, HONEY! HOLD IT IN!”
Then they were killing themselves laughing, absolutely loosing it at the absurd prospect of ‘holding in’ a child as if it might be some urgent bowel movement.
Then amidst their laughter, their bliss, his wife’s relaxed, unclenched pelvic muscles released to them a gooey sack of crying life.
Then they were all crying together—their first activity as a family. The ghost in the passenger seat wept with them, though not out of joy, but out of pure heartbreak. Arthur, the driver, gazed up at the rearview mirror and beheld his two loves clutching each other in backseat. Just when he lifted his attention off the road hurtling below them, the ghost screamed, screamed and hollered and blubbered through his tears. But no one could hear.
Then his wife whispered, “Welcome to the world, Bliss,” and Arthur, the driver, repeated the name on his lips just so he could enjoy its taste. “Bliss.”
Then as they flew beneath another red light, the world offered Bliss quite a different welcome. It slammed into them in form of a diesel truck, T-boned them in the center of a four-way intersection.
Then glass shattered, life shattered, bliss shattered and the all the lights flicked off. When Arthur came to, and peeled himself up from the steering wheel, he reached over the ghost bawling in the passenger seat, pulled open the glovebox’s lower jaw, and retrieved from it not a pearl, but the instrument of his doom.
Then the police-issued Glock 22—which he had carried with him always, thinking of himself as King Arthur armed with his modern day equivalent of Excalibur—rose up and pointed its nose outside the passenger side window, where, past a dented hood and behind a spider-webbed windshield, sat the man who had crashed into them.
Then Arthur fired two bullets into that man’s head, that man who was no longer a threat. One bullet for his wife, one bullet for Bliss.
Then Arthur spun around, saw blood brimming the two backseat footwells, and thereafter fired a third bullet, this one for and into himself.
And, then, the drowning, reminiscent pool spat Arthur back out. At the end of the midnight road, sitting at a feasting table inside the Master’s chambers, in the tallest of towers in the highest of rooms, Arthur dropped the apple.
That twilit orb bounced off his plate twice. The skin he had bitten through showed him an inner ugliness that so starkly contradicted the apple’s outer beauty, an ugliness infested with worms and maggots and tiny little spiders. He went to regurgitate his bite, but he had already swallowed and digested it, and now there was no getting rid of the foulness inside him.
As the worms and maggots and tiny little spiders crawled out of the apple, they began inching their way across the table, back towards the place from which they came, the Master.
Warming His perch at the head, calling upon His throng, the Master raised His arms towards Arthur, “Behold my lieges! It is he, Arthur, great King of man!”
With disconcerting obedience, all sixty heads rotated through the firelight and found in Arthur a new home for their gaze.
Suddenly there came an abrupt peep, a hiccup, really, that sounded like maniacal laughter. The Master had birthed it, and his lieges raised it. Soon the entire refectory sung a cackling chorus, one that knew no rhythm, structure or order.
The hysterics, with all their horrific, high-pitched, hyena-giggling inflections, blew through the lieges uncontrollably. Laughing so hard, clutching themselves, slapping their knees and pounding their chests, they too raised their arms at the butt of the joke wallowing at the butt of the table, Arthur, the hero who wound up here, sharing a table with murderers and thieves.
All at once the merry winds died, killed by the screech of the Master’s pushed-back chair. As He gained His feet and stood tall, He flattened the wrinkles on tunic.
“King,” He said lingering above His seat, chewing the word and addressing Arthur. “It seems to me all you are King of is self-destruction and woe.”
But Arthur, trembling softly in grief’s cold embrace, wasn’t paying the Master any mind. All his efforts were instead concentrating on remaining whole, on not collapsing beneath his agony and succumbing to what felt like a barbaric torture device pilling him apart limb by limb.
“My mother,” Arthur mumbled to no one in particular.
Incited, the Master cupped a hand around his ear and bent far over the table. “What’s that now? Don’t be shy, speak up, speak up!”
Arthur spoke up. “My mother!” he cried and for the first time since emerging from the memories reared up out of his hunched-over position.
Initially he thought the tablecloth had changed colors. But after a moment’s hesitation he realized that no, those were just the worms, maggots and tiny little spiders, the hundreds and hundreds of worms, maggots and tiny little spiders that now blanketed the table, rolling, squirming, and skittering about, pushing themselves out of pig eyes, apple cores and unseen burrows hidden inside raw meat.
Worse than all this, Arthur saw the sixty men and women at table eating off of it, cherry-picking this juicy worm over that spindly spider, and tossing said creatures down their throats.
As swift as a jump is to a fright, for this was essentially his action, Arthur floored back his chair and shot up. Now he and the Master stood tall together, both above the ensuing smorgasbord.
“What’s the matter, Arthur? Lost your appetite?”
“My mother, you have no right to her!” he said as a tear he never felt slipped down his check.
This seemed to only spur on the Master. “Oh child, faithful son, you are dearly mistaken. My hold on your mother’s soul could not be more firm. But you should know this. And in fact you do. Look, Arthur. Look, and you shall see.”
Arthur was too afraid to look, too afraid to slip under again and experience another train wreck he couldn’t prevent. So he wagged his head and closed his eyes. “Wake up, wake up, wake up,” he begged himself, though he knew no matter how many times he said this, or how many times he clicked his heels, he would not wake up. For this was no dream. This was no nightmare.
“Let’s not get silly, now. We’ll want to keep our heads for what’s next.”
“What’s next?” Though he squeezed his eyes shut, he could sense a grand smile rumpling across the Master’s face.
“You refuse to look, so I am afraid I must show you. I must tell you how your mother came to be in my possession. Before—”
“No,” Arthur said and restored his sight. “Please, no.”
But the Master had already begun. He had turned and was now striding towards Arthur, down alongside the feasting table, His hands folded behind His back, His presence composed and oh so superior to the carnivorous mayhem.
“—you were born, your mother committed adultery against her fiancé, the man she had accepted a ring and then a house from. I would call him your father, but he had as much involvement in your raising as he did with your birth. You are the product of infidelity, Arthur.”
About halfway down the table and drawing nearer with each step, each word, the Master’s approach forced Arthur back.
“Furthermore, you are the only survivor of that treacherous womb, where two fetuses met their deaths at the point of a coat hanger. Your mother would sooner exterminate the lives inside her than exterminate her relationship with her fiancé. But you, Arthur, ruined all that. The coat hanger never reached you, and when your mother’s fiancé realized the child wasn’t his, he left.”
“You’re lying. You’re lying!” Arthur howled as he retreated. Only an easily-bridged gap separated him and the Master.
“A bastard, not a king. A misbegotten child. Fatherless and—”
BANG, the Glock 22 ruptured fire and lead. The bullet easily bridged the gap. Then it drilled a hole into the Master’s forehead, right at the junction of eyes, brow and nose.
Before blood, ichor or crawling critters could seep from it, the hole mended itself. Just as the last stretch of skin grafted over the hollow, Arthur felt the deepest pressuring welling up inside his own forehead, right at the junction of eyes, brow and nose. He inspected the area with his fingers, and upon contact, the slightest touch, bone caved in.
Skin followed and a black rose bloomed. Arthur took on the likeness of his corpse, of the shell his brothers in the force had lowered six feet under and had fired a three-volley salute over, of the dead driver who had consigned himself to oblivion.
The Master reached out and molded His hand over the gun barrel, which puffed into black, smoky wisps. And like sand those wisps escaped through their fingers.
“False hope,” the Master explained. He guided His arm upwards and tenderly grabbed a hold of Arthur’s jawline.
At this intimate range, Arthur could make out details previously indiscernible. The Master’s eyes, they held the darkest shade of the deepest night, yet among their blackness glistened a million stars, a million secrets.
“There’s nothing crueler than giving hope where there is none. And no better way to welcome a new resident. You thought you carried with you Excalibur. So did everyone else. For they too have bitten into the apple, and know all that they wish to see. Excalibur, yes, and here I, an evil Merlin, wicked sorcerer who was supposed to fall beneath your heroism. Quite a tale, Arthur, quite a happily-ever-after.”
Arthur pulled away. Three backpedaling steps later, his heels clouted into the chamber door.
The Master let out a series of clucking noises in the same mantra as tsk, tsk, tsk. “But you know now that such tales are folly. This,” the Master looked back at the lieges gobbling up vermin, the firelight and the spilling of blood, “is your happily-ever-after. So without further ado, I would like to welcome you to Hell.”
Fear rode his bloodstream. Grief settled itself into his heart. And panic set fire to his world. Arthur flipped over and jiggled the doorknob, but it refused him. Locked, trapped, condemned…
Then those dead, merry winds took to the air again, resurrected and back in full force. Laughter from everyone, from the lieges snorting and howling through spider legs wedged between their teeth, from the Master throwing His head back and shouting rejoice at the ceiling, and maybe also at the heavens past it, laugher from everyone.
Amidst His glee, the Master flicked out His arm. The door magically brushed open. Just how the car and valet boy had presented Arthur his destination, the Master presented him the spiraling staircase, and the madness of it all.
Arthur hurled himself through the frame. As he descended upon the stairs, he heard the Master’s disembodied voice chasing after him, “You can check out anytime you like, Arthur,” and, after an interruption of cackling, “but you can’t ever leave!”
And Arthur never did.
J R Alfieri