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Frequently among one’s daily travels are others often overlooked by the dizzying pace of modernization. I recall, however, an incident in my own life when the most peculiar of happenings occurred. The day it took placed upon had been the most average among many. I had ventured to town, be it by the cheapest means available, by bus.
I had bought some cleaning supplies for my bathroom, shared by four other individuals, for I lived in a dormitory back then. Still, with my meager savings, I indulged myself with few snacks that I planned to nibble upon when writing my daily quandaries in the early hours of the morning. By my stomach’s accord, I also purchased a juicy Reuben sandwich from a local Shoppe; as was its namesake.
It had been down pouring since the morning, a common occurrence this far north by the ocean in California. It was not till late in the afternoon that I went, the rain making me reluctant to go earlier. By the time I had gotten what I needed and had eaten dinner that early evening had fallen. Fearing I would miss the few and fleeting last buses back to campus, I jogged hurriedly from the Shoppe to the nearest bus stop, leaving a generous tip on my way out.
Nearly out of breath by the rabbit like sprint and queerly lightheaded, I noticed how eerily quiet and dark everything had become. The ever flowing traffic and people seemed vacant as the dim buzz of the overhead lights seemed to be my only company. As I journey closer to the benches, it became clear that I was not alone.
Illuminated the overhead lights was the outlined the form of a slender man, thinner then my own scarecrow-like physic, who leaned against the glass frame of the bus stop with a hand in his pocket while the other held a cigarette he was smoking. Not being one for the smell of burning or tobacco, I simply strolled by him taking a seat on the farther bench so I would not suffer inhaling in more second handily than need be. Soon after, I could hear his shoe rubbing against the asphalt, most likely putting out the cigarette before I could hear him coughing violently. Out of curiosity, I looked out to see if he was alright only to be greeted by his prodding footsteps as he approached the benches.
Quickly I drew my head back hoping it would be unnoticed as by my surprise he stood before me in the bleak light scenery. It was here I noticed the strangeness of his appearance, as he had been cloaked by the shadows prior.
Physically; his skin was a strange pale whiteness that seemed chalk-like in comparison and his eyes were a glowing green that looked as if they could burn by their gaze. Of his attire; he wore a flowing black overcoat that seemed tattered by the weather and a matching black fedora.
Under it, he appeared to be wearing a full dark purple suite that blended in color with the overcoat. Contrasting that was the snow white undershirt; bright red rose nestled near his suit jacket’s peaked lapel, and milk white coverings of his dress shoes. One could speculate that he looked either like someone from the 1920’s-1940’s pulp fiction gangster or a theater performer.
He stared at me for what must have been a good five minutes before he came close and sat down next to me. When he sat, I could see another strangeness about him which was his mouth being covered by a medical mask. Of any normality, his hair was jet black like my own and his height was only great by mine by six or seven inches. By his looks, I gathered he was only older then myself by one or two years.
There was nothing but silence as I sat there, with growing apprehension for this stranger and his eccentric atmosphere he had about himself. I was nearly at the seams of distress before he began talking, at first starting with a soft rasping whisper to normal speech.
“Hey there, Kid. Sorry to rouse you if you don’t feel like talkin’ but I’d be a curious sorta fellow so figures to ask ya where you’d be headin’ tonight?”
His voice was a unique one, having both slang and dialect merge into a gruff yet guttural tone that was slightly comical. I informed him that I was heading back to my dorm and that was a student of college not far from here. His eyes widened.
“College boy, eh? How nice that must be for you. I’d never felt obligated to be one. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m some sorta guy who feels he couldn’t hack away at it and do it. No, I’m very educated. Could a gotten to Oxford or Yale with my standings in school. Its just…”
The tone in his voice became soft and incoherent that it seemed like he was mumbling to himself. It was then that I had noticed he was staring down at a picture he held loosely in his right white gloved hand. From what I could make of it, it appeared to be the boy when he was younger by two or three years with what I could assume was his mother. Unlike most pictures, the boy appeared to have a listless face while his mother a light smile. It made me more unsettled before I could hear his voice rising.
“ … I never just saw the point in any of it, you see. Now, I’m not sayin’ it’s a bad thing or anythin’. I can understand that most folks who are doctors, engineers, chemists…. What have you; need to future their education so they can do their jobs. But, you put in all that effort and what do you really get? A lousy piece of paper sayin’ you did it all. And who is that really for? Society and yourself. I never felt I had to prove anything to either.”
He began chuckling lowly after he said this but it was neither a laughing sort of chuckle nor a sad one, I could not place it emotionally. It was only a faint spell for he went about his ramblings not soon after.
“Always wanted to visit good ol’ Cali, though. Never could understand why, myself. I guess my body just sorta felt drawn to this place. Ya know, like someone who goes out in ta the world lookin’ fer somethin’ but they just can’t pin it down. Ya know what I mean?”
I nodded lightly an agreement before with the utmost tension in my voice asking where about he had come here from. If he was pleased by this I could not tell due to his covered mouth but his answer to it was a gentle tone that was unlike his low gruff and guttural voice.
Confused by this, I inquired of him just what he meant by that to which he replied with the high gruff voice that stammered slightly as he spoke.
“O-oh, my apologizes. It’s a small town in New York, you see. I know that most California folk like yourself probably think of the city of the same namesake when you hear that name. I suppose it’s how we think of L.A. when we heard the name California.
Truth is, though, the city was far away from where I lived. The town was an oddity itself, broken up into sections that spanned far and wide. Busy and lively as it was in its center, its outskirts were bare and bleak in population. That’s where we lived.
Honestly, the most morbid part of it all was, I could walk outside and not be three minutes from a cemetery.”
Echoing was that strange laughter as he fell into another small fit. With all he had told me, my mind could still not stop focusing on the picture he held. With curiosity getting the better of my normal restrained persona, I ask a bit bluntly of it. It was here his laughing ceased, his eyes looking downcast at the picture as they seemed to droop by a look of sadness.
This was only temporary as he turned to me and though his mouth was covered, I could feel him smiling widely back at me, almost unnaturally so. It was more unsettling that everything else about him but there was nothing I could now do but listen. With an acute attention to detail nestled in the back of my mind, seeking knowledge of this stranger’s origins and background. With a child like vigor back in his frame, he resumed in his raspy weathered voice.
“Ah, this old thing? I was wonderin’ when you’d acquire ‘bout it. Lot a people do when they see me. I can fancy you were probably lookin’ at it earlier but it’s fine.
Normal fella like yourself probably will assume that it’s of me and my mother. You hit it dead center, there, chief. It was taken…. When was it taken?
Two years ago? Four years ago? It slips my memory and the date was washed out by the weather. My memory hasn’t been good since two…four… years ago… I can recall everything else fine ‘cept then.
Well, that and my name. Was it Jack…? John….Johnny… James? I mostly just go with Jack to keep it simple.
Last name, too. Nappa… Norman… Newman…Napier? I decided just to have it be Nice.
Jack Nice, sounds friendly don’t you think?”
I nodded somberly. In truth, my apprehension had grown to slight fear at him for I at once recalled the all to true tales of the wandering homeless that sometimes settled among the old concrete ruins that lay like monuments of an ancient city behind the mall we were positioned by. My natural pessimistic assumptions led me to believe he was among them. One is never certain among the homeless those who may be unstable which is why precaution must often be taken.
By this fright of unknown, I felt compelled with my soul to flee but my curiosity to this man kept me stationed like an anchor in the deep dark depths of the ocean floor.
He reached in with his left hand to his jacket’s pocket, pulling from it a deck of cards before placing the picture into where the cards had been. He shuffled them wildly with both his hands, first a simple bridge before doing several small loops with them in the air. It was a surreal phantasm of circus like performance that lifted the dread I felt. He clutched the deck with both hands as he began simply shuffling them in his palms up and down. Once more, he ranted.
“I’ve loved cards since I was a small child. My grandparents, you see, would play hand and foot frequently. Probably as frequently as my mother and me would visit them. I was never good at either the games nor holdin’ them.
So I had this sorta gadget that allowed me to hold ‘em. My gram’ taught me basic games like go-fish and crazy eights when I was hardly even seven. I took to it like fish ta water, though. By the time I was fourteen, I knew all the games and held the cards like a master.
It became less of watchin’ the games and more of doin’, winning at that.”
He swiftly motioned the deck still in his hands as he drew a card from the top of the deck and held it out to me. His tone and look upon me became rather child-like as he spoke.
“Guess the card?”
Not one for parlor tricks but being a natural lucky guesser, I choose spades on the highest suit of the Ace. He filliped the card proving my guess correct.
“Bravo! Ace of Spades it is! That’s what my grandfather was, an Ace in everything he did. He was a master gardener and card player.
A kind man who loved children. I know because he loved me. Oh, how he held me on his lap as a child and the tales he would tell me! He taught me just about everything I know from cards to shuffle board to whistling like a bird.
He was quite the card, too! He would tell a joke by say either ‘Stop me if you’ve heard this one before’ or he’d just do it dead pan. Oh, I love him…. I love him….
I loved him…. But one day as he got up he had a stroke…. He wasn’t the same after that…. He looked the same, he sounded the same but he wasn’t the same…
I still loved him but then he just withered…… I couldn’t cry when it happened because I was far away than… When I was close, I never thought I could cry so hard…”
A sense of piety overcame me for this strange nightly phantom but when I was about to speak, he simply put the card on the bottom of the deck as he drew another card mimicking the same tone as earlier.
“Guess the card?”
Perplexed by the oddity of continuing, I had no choice but to comply. I surmised it must be hearts and royal at that so I guessed Queen. He flipped revealing my guess correct yet again. If I could see behind that medical mask, I felt yet again he was grinning abnormally which held me with an unexplainable feeling of sickening dread.
Had he even ceased since my first assumption?
“Yessir! Right twice in a row! My mother and grandmother were Queens when it came to their hearts. My gram’ the kinder but my ma was still kind, maybe too kind in some ways. She never really asked much o’ me, grades or otherwise. Told me how proud she was that I was her son…. How she loved me…. Worked tooth and nail so we could have a decent life but workin’ only gets ya so far…”
His voice began to trail off again into a low mumble before rhythmically and mechanically, he flipped the card back upon the deck. Again he drew a card from the top in this gross pantomimed theatrical act as he held it out towards me once again, parroting the words.
“Guess the card?”
I wonder how long it had been now since I had first come upon this eccentric ghoul. I carried no watch on me and never one for time, I could scarcely tell five minutes from an hour. The next closest bus stop was rather far and I dared not venture that far in this nightmarish dark that had become the current atmosphere. I was bound to simply wait for mercy to be free of this stranger’s oddity.
Until that freedom, I was his audience. I guess the next would be the other black suit, clubs, and since it was on my mind of numeric numbers, I choose two. Again I could sense the ghastly smiled of his mouth as his green eyes looked into mine, shivers of fear running through my frame though my face did no convey it. He clapped comically, almost as if mocking me.
“Ding, ding, ding! Jackpot! Three sevens for the winner! All I ever got was two cents.
Two cents from my old man. He was always tryin’ to take me huntin’ or fishin’. Oh, I enjoyed the fishin’ and bein’ with him but he just drank all the time…
He eventually stopped takin’ me and left me alone at home while he went to the bar to drink all his money away…. When he didn’t work, he drank all ma’s hard earned money away…”
This time was different than the prior three for he began chuckling strangely as before yet it was drastically different. It felt sorrowful yet angry with a harsh bitterness. He grasped the three bottom cards and the top card while he dropped the deck, the cards sprawled chaotically about.
“It’s funny, Pal, it really is. My family, they were a stacked deck! I could tell when the ones who loved me were real and when the ones who didn’t were nothin’ but a bluff! They all said they loved me, they all said they cared but only a few of them ever meant it!
But, maybe the real sad thing ‘ bout it is, I still loved those who I could tell didn’t love me…. I was alone…. I had friends but they lived too far away… So I ponder to distract me from it eatin’ away at me…
I wondered my existence…. My place in the world….. The value my life had… I never could come up with an answer till one day…”
The lights above began to flicker strangely, unnaturally. There seemed to be a dawning look of malice in his eyes as he spoke.
“One day… Two or four years ago…. The person who I knew didn’t love me the most because all he loved was alcohol, my father, let me see the truth.
Oh, it was at first a day like any other, I was just home watchin’ cartoons when his car skidded sharply into the driveway. He flung the door open that it probably broke the handle as it hit the wall. He gave me this look, a look even in his most drunken of stupors I had never seen on him, as he told me to come with him to the bed room.
I was afraid, I told him no. He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me there, locking the door behind him. He told me to sit on the bed and face him. Shaking nervously, I complied.
His eyes burned into me. He removed his belt. Bitterly, unlike him, he asked me why I hated him. Shocked, I stammered to say what as he struck the belt buckle against my back. The sharp pain made me double over, feeling tears stream down my face.
He asked me it again. I tried raising my head and was able to speak a W before I saw the belt lopped around his fist as he smashed me with the buckle. The sharp snap of my nose breaking was beyond words.
Yet again, he asked the same mind numbing question. He gave me no chance as he struck my stomach with his fist before throwing me on the bed. Breathless, I tried to maintain concessions as his large form crushed my legs by sitting on them, asking me again. I knew no longer could I call this man father or even a man for whatever this was, it was a monster but the worst was yet to come.
Gripping my torso to hold my hand down to hold me down, he told me it was my fault they were getting divorced, that I had placed such things in my mother’s head. I knew it was bullshit as she stayed with him to give me a sense of normality. He grinned wickedly as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a grizzly bowie knife. Horrified, I asked what he aimed to do. He said…. it said….”
His speech became more erratic and broken as he nervous adjusted his light green bow tie and messed with his hair. He seemed to be adjusting the mask that hide his mouth but it came loose and flew among the steady wind that seemed to pick up. The lights went out, it was pitch darkness by the overhead storm clouds, but he still spoke.
“I forget what that thing said…. I just felt blood against my face and in my mouth. I spit it at that monster, blindin’ him. I grabbed the rifle from under the bed, he always had it loaded. It called me a dirty bastard as I just shot it. Stammerin’, it tried to grasp somethin’ but fell dead. Another car. Running. My mother. I smiled at her. She screamed. I run towards her. She’s running away. The rifle goes off again. She falls down. Blood. I killed my mother….”
The harsh rising gale was hallowed by the strange laughing that seemed to dry the air. Angrily, I demand why he was laughing, his grin becoming visible.
“I am not laughing.”
I called him a liar because he was grinning.
“I am not grinning.”
My fear had been replaced by rage as I felt the desire to hit him. But, I froze. Horror froze me. He wasn’t lying on either for his face was disfigured by a large glasgow smile. Instantly, I jumped to my feet and withdrew to the lamppost. That strange laugh of his rose to an almost devilish like pitch as he dropped the three cards and stood facing me. My face felt drained of blood as I saw him draw from his overcoat pocket a revolting blood stained bowie knife. Slowly, he advanced upon me.
“It’s funny, too…. I can’t remember just what he did to my face. Must’ve been bad ‘cause as soon as I saw it, I started vomiting…. I just couldn’t stand it so I got this crazy idea to take his ol’ Bowie knife and…. Oh, what’s the point of it all? Our game isn’t over yet! Nobody’s ever got it right four times in a row. Come on, guess the card will yea. Come on, guess!”
I stammered to speak as he had advanced towards me, so much so he began to pull the knife back. I knew he meant to use it on me.
“Guess, damn you! You’ve just have to guess! Nobody’s ever guess this one right, nobody! I know you can! Guess, guess, guess, guess!”
Widely in a frenzy of utter terror, I screamed in a rush of panic as the knife now was in inches from my face , I stammered the letters J and O before I felt the blade sliced my right cheek. I stumbled back, falling unconscious as in the dimness of sense I heard him proclaim aloud in a wicked voice.
“Lucky guy! Here’s the truth of me! I’m nothin’ but a sick twisted joke!”
I felt someone pushing at my form as my sense came around along with the sounds of blasting sirens. An ambulance technician was standing over me along with a group of people. It was strange; it had been the same lightheaded sensation I had seen when I first ran over here.
“Hey, he’s coming out of it! Kid, are you alright? Looks to me like you must have fainted or something, due to exhaustion. Someone said you ran over here then stopped dead in your tracks falling like a tree. You cut your face up kind of bad on the right side. Must’ve been from one of these loose pebbles on the asphalt. Think you can stand?”
Helping me to my feet, he inspected me before determining I was alright.
“You were out for a good eight minutes by the time we got here. Nobody wanted to come near you due to that black overcoat of yours and the way you were laughing so strangely….”
I staggered trying to keep my bearings. On the ground lay my lucky pack of cards my grandfather gave me and a picture of me and my mother from three years ago. Those were happier days but I never smiled back then. Always found it unnatural how people smiled in photos. The cards had been splayed over the ground.
Truthfully, so you know, my parents are divorced and my grandfather had passed on due to an growing illness with his mind. As I began to pick up the cards, I surmised my mind had blurred some kind of twisted hallucination.
However, what came next was something that keeps me secluded to this day with the greatest urge to never venture alone again. As I picked up the Joker card, I felt the life drain out of me. For there, written in my blood were the words:
“Jack Nice was Here!”
I pondered in the ways I was Jack Nice but detested all the more in the ways Jack Nice was me.
Credit To: 1000Masks