I don’t know why I believed the man. There was nothing in his speech or dress that indicated credibility beyond what you might expect from any stranger. As I think about it now there were, perhaps, a few indicators.
He spoke closely, practically in my ear, as if we were old friends. Or as if he wanted no one else to hear. I can picture him wiping his hand along the seam of his pants before he reached for mine to shake it the first time. Each word he spoke was plucked like the petal of a flower from some master script he’d developed over time. Each word was perfect.
I encountered him a second time and a third. By the fourth time it was me reaching to shake his hand, and I did so with a smile on my face. It must have killed him.
Within a month I agreed to watch a football game at his house, though it was nearer to a mansion. He was knowledgeable about the team and its history. It all felt quite natural.
“Jake, is it okay if I call you that?” he said.
“Sure. No one calls me Jacob except my mom anyway.”
“I’m having this thing next week. If I were a pretentious man I would call it a dinner party. It’s one of those things I never thought I would have to do in life that has become a sadly regular occurrence. I would appreciate if I could have someone normal there.”
I recognized the decades between us for the first time in the moment of silence that followed the invitation. His gray roots were coming through. He reminded me of my father, a man with whom I had irregular contact. Maybe that connection inspired me to accept without questioning the previous weeks in our new and quickly evolving friendship.
“Of course,” I said, flashing teeth, and turned my attention back to the game.
My memory of the evening is fuzzy, spotty for lack of a better word. I was unconscious for hours by my best guess. I do recall meeting him at the door and being directed to an upstairs bedroom. I found a tuxedo on the bed next to an open bottle of beer chilling in a bucket of ice.
I had never worn a tuxedo before and he may have guessed this about me because the bowtie was a clip-on. I sipped the beer as I undressed. There was music coming from downstairs but no conversation. I had not been in that room before and, in fact, had seen very little of the house beyond the living room and kitchen. Likely a second or third guest bedroom, it was still larger and more extravagantly furnished than my master bedroom. I was not intimidated by his money because of our friendship, brief though it may have been. I did not know if I would feel the same around his friends.
I sat on the bed and looked at my new shoes, glossy even in the dim light of a single lamp. I stared, thinking of anecdotes I might need to recall. I murmured a joke for practice and then pitched forward to the floor, the empty bottle of beer still clutched in my hand.
I cannot describe what it felt like inside my head when I opened my eyes. Pain registered in my brain, but I could not determine the source. It was like the memory of trauma rather than something new. I blinked and tried to reclaim my senses, deciding to fixate on the muffled music. The rhythm of the song was familiar, distantly so.
There was another sound on top of the music, repetitive; my ears couldn’t make sense of it. In many ways it was very much like being underwater. Time no longer mattered.
I was looking at soup in a porcelain bowl. The music was a song, Bob Dylan’s son’s band. The lyrics floated inside my head, competing for attention amidst the muffled chaos.
“Jake, are you awake?”
That sentence was the repetitive sound I had heard resting on top of the music. I pulled my head up in the direction of the voice. He rose from his position at the head of the table, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin and smoothing the wrinkles in his tuxedo. Soon, he was beside me, his arm draped across my shoulders.
“Jake, this is a dinner party. Please eat with your right hand. Keep your left in your lap out of sight.”
There was something in his voice on the verge of disappointment. How long had I been sitting there staring at my soup? How embarrassed must he feel to have invited me?
I nodded my head and hoisted my arm onto the table, fumbling numbly for the spoon to the right of the assemblage of forks. It took a full minute to summon the dexterity necessary to secure the spoon between my thumb and forefinger. A minute later I cursed myself as half of my hand submerged in the soup in my stone-fisted attempts to feed myself.
The broth ran along the inside of my sleeve to my elbow. My head drooped beneath the weight of his judgment.
The evening and, presumably, night played out in similar fashion. I implored my right hand to behave and it rebelled at every turn. I fingered the mashed potatoes. I flicked asparagus across the table. Every few minutes he would leave his seat, dabbing the corners of his mouth, and whisper in my ear. A suggestion. A velvety admonishment that gave me hope, until the next faux pas.
The pain was more acute as the evening progressed. It was in my lap, unseen. The 90s rock song still played on a loop. I passed in and out of wakefulness, often times not recognizing that I had fallen asleep until the tip of my nose touched gravy. Upon rousing I would smile and nod to various points of the room.
I saw not faces but smudges in evening wear. I bit my tongue and blood flooded my mouth. As I peeled my head off of the tablecloth I realized I had not bitten my tongue. I had been punched just above my jawline.
“You’re a fucking disgrace,” was whispered in my ear.
My head was lifted by the hair and slammed back onto the table. The cartilage in my nose crunched and fresh streams of blood issued from my nostrils and coursed down my throat. I swallowed and passed out.
I was probably gone for less than five minutes. There was a female voice in my ear, whispering so quickly I only caught snippets.
“…you owe us twenty-one years. This is only the beginning.”
“Help,” I said, blood bubbling on my lips.
I felt pressure on my left side as someone braced me. Something hard, likely a baseball bat, broke my ribs. I was unable to scream. I passed out again.
“Now, Jake, when the host calls for the toast you will lift your wine glass with your right hand, drink all of its contents, then proceed on to the desert.”
I nodded my head, crusted gravy flaking off of my nose and cheeks, blood spilling from the corners of my mouth.
The toast came soon after and I obeyed his directive as well as I could manage. I spilled a bit of wine initially, but managed to drink most of it. I reached for the small fork to the left of the cake and found that I had misjudged the distance. I reached again and failed once more. I licked coppery grit from the roof of my mouth, eyeing the empty wine glass as waves of unnatural warmth radiated from my chest.
I peeled back the sleeve of my tuxedo coat and saw two crossed lines of stiches at the end of my left wrist. I laid my head on the table, no longer able to support the weight. I opened my eyes one last time before submitting to darkness. There was a half-moon of a thumbnail protruding from the cake, and a bit of pink flesh. My mother had always hated that I kept my nails long…
Part II is available in Dreadful: Tales of the Dead and Dying by LP Hernandez
LP Hernandez has been writing since he could hold a crayon. His path in life took him to the military and away from the craft for a while, but it has always been his passion. His story Gehenna was a finalist in the 2011 Writer’s Digest short story (horror) competition. That story and ten others can be found in his debut offering Dreadful: Tales of the Dead and Dying.