Mark is not my real name. I’m changing the names for others’ privacy too. I’ll tell you why I can’t sleep. You’ll find this a bit strange but I swear it’s all true.
I’m friends with a guy, call him Bill, I worked with at the Crab House back in the day. We actually were on the same work shift together most weeks, that’s kinda how we started hanging out.
So Bill is friends with this other guy, Tony. We go to Tony’s house. Tony also has a girlfriend we’ll call Deb.
Me and Bill, We’re knocking back some beers with Tony and Deb at Tony’s place. He’s got a row home with a concrete back yard in Baltimore County. I guess the name of the place is okay to say. But it’s facing the alley or whatever. We either drink there or in the basement, when a game is on.
So we’re there and we’re talking about Tarot and how Deb’s been reading people their cards, and she wants to go buy some new ones. I used to play with Tarot when I was younger but no big deal.
We’re crushing it when Tony starts talking about how the New Age store has a back room for weekly meetings, the Open Pagan Discussion Group. They’ve got Wiccans and Voodoouns and Norse mythology people; they all go there for their group.
Tony’s a cool guy, but he shoplifts a lot. He’s always got Magic: The Gathering cards he pockets, or candy, or some bullshit. Wherever.
Tony tells us about this one thing they have under the glass counter there and he wants it. It’s a figure, like a little statue. It’s got a little card about the history standing up next to it. It’s not for sale, he says, it’s just for show. And he wants it.
We go check it out. We ride up there in Tony’s car. He’s got a Dodge Charger. Remember that later.
The New Age store smelled strongly of incense. As we enter, we see the glass counter on the left, with items inside and a cash register on top. On the right are a pair of bookshelves, one displaying Tarot cards in various styles, the other with a display of stuffed animal toy cats with wings and glittery unicorns.
Ahead are a dollar-a-pound book bin, some shelves on the left are stacked with jars of loose dry herbs for rituals, and in the middle are more books. There’s an open door to a mostly empty back room with a table and some metal folding chairs.
I check out the statue when we get there. It’s this little black stone statue, about four or five inches tall, and shaped like a tentacled monster. The color is some kind of shimmering black, but with a greenish sheen, if that makes any sense. We talk to the lady behind the counter, and the guy who owns the shop comes over and tells us he’s just borrowing the statue. He’s holding it until the owner of the statue gets back from the Amazon, then they’re taking it to a museum to put it on a showcase. Cool.
Except Tony gets this look in his eyes, especially when the owner tells us the legend. And we’re like, uh-oh. It’s a supposedly cursed statue, it makes people immune to death or harm but also brings their doom.
Tony proposes later over beers that we do a heist. He says he can unlock the shop back door with a shim and we can steal the statue, “for a laugh” is how he puts it. I’m hesitant. Bill wants to go through with it. He thinks it’ll be fun. Deb does whatever Tony does. I eventually relent.
Now, to be perfectly clear here, I’m an idiot. We’re all idiots. We do what Tony wants. He’s this kind of electric personality.
We meet back up that night around 10. I’m wearing black jeans and a black hoodie. My shoes are brown. Bill wears green Army camouflage. Deb and Tony, they’re also dressed in black.
I’ve done a lot of 20/20 hindsight thinking and there are about a billion different ways this could have ended before it started. But there we were.
We walk to the shopping center and stick to the backs of the buildings. The New Age store is at the end of a row of stores so we easily slip right up to it. Nobody is even around. It’s going on midnight.
One thing Tony knows for sure, he says, is that the New Age place’s cameras are all fake. He’s scoped it out before and has pocketed a few small things to test it.
When we come up to the metal door on the back of the store he pulls out a little brass tool, like a little j-shaped baby trumpet. He sticks it between the gap of the door, lines it up with the lock and turns the knob on the tool. The door pops right open. Genius.
In for a penny, in for a pound. We go inside. Tony produces a knife and holds it out in front of him. That should have been a red flag.
We Scooby-Doo it on into the store and straight to the front case. From the cashier’s side, it’s not even locked; the door just slides right open. The register is hanging open and empty. Tony tells Bill to get the statue. He does it. No alarm goes off.
Okay, so far so good. This is when it goes to shit. We’re skulking into the back room again on our way out when out steps the shop owner. And he’s pretty pissed.
We bolt. Bill’s got the statue, Tony’s got his knife out. I run, Deb runs. As I’m stepping out of the store I see Tony is right up in front of the owner, and then a moment later he’s outside with us. “Book it,” he tells us.
So apparently Bill stumbles hard at the tree line but nobody really notices and Bill isn’t fazed.
We’re at Tony’s basement and Bill hands over Tony’s statue. As soon as he does, his leg buckles under him and he twists his ankle.
I’m telling you, he was fine up until that moment.
After pausing for a beat, Tony says he’s going to try something. Then he uses the tip of his knife to prick his palm. Nothing happens. No blood. Then he passes the statue to deb. Immediately his open palm oozes out some blood which he quickly presses to his mouth.
“Hey, Debbie, let me cut you,” he says. Tony proceeds to jab and feint at her threateningly with his knife.
“No. No, Tony, stop. I’m not kidding, Tony.” She is backing up. “No, you asshole! Here, take your stupid thing back. Here, I don’t want it.”
“I will,” he says. Tony takes back the statue, looking pissed off at being called an asshole.
Time passes. It’s a while later and we’re all a little drunk. Well, actually, Tony’s very drunk. He has left the basement and come back by this time and is keeping something in the front pocket of his hoodie.
“Let’s play Russian roulette,” he says out of nowhere.
Bill chuffs. “Yeah, right,” he says.
But then Tony pulls a pistol from his kangaroo pocket. It’s a revolver. The temperature in the room immediately drops, and my heart skips a beat.
“Oh, Jesus, Tony, not that thing again,” Deb says. We’re all feeling the same dread. See, Tony has this problem with anger management. It is entirely not out of character for him to pull a gun out of nowhere, and it’s especially like him to tease us with it.
“We’re playing,” he states firmly.
“No,” says Deb.
“Tony, no,” Bill starts to object, but Tony stares him down and he looks away.
The game is we have to hold the statue and then take a turn firing the gun at our own head. Tony, with the statue in hand, immediately turns the gun on himself and pulls the trigger. The gun dry fires and makes a loud click as the cylinder revolves.
Then it’s my turn. I take the statue. The polished sheen is smooth, and it feels warm in my hand. I’m holding my breath. I touch the muzzle of the pistol to my right temple. I don’t want to die. I realize he never showed us if the gun only has one bullet. I exhale slowly and squeeze the trigger. The loud click next to my ear is the scariest sound I’ve ever heard in my life. I breathe again and pass the gun and statue to Bill.
“No,” says Tony. “I want it to be Debbie’s turn.” He knows she hates being called Debbie. Bill hesitates. “Do it,” says Tony. Cowed, Bill pushes the gun and statue into Deb’s reluctant hands.
He glowers darkly, daring her defiance.
“Tony, I’m scared,” she says. “Please, Tony.”
“C’mon, Tony, it’s not her turn,” I say, trying awkwardly to help Deb. Who am I kidding? It’s not a great plan.
Deb gives the things over to Bill. Bill’s eyes go wide, looking hunted. He takes the statue. He looks to Tony for a reaction.
“Yeah, okay,” says Tony.
Bill is trembling. He takes the gun. He points it at his temple.
Click! The gun dry fires in his hand. He blanches. He sets both items down on the floor like they’re too hot to touch.
Deb makes no move to pick them up. “I don’t want to play,” she says, her voice quavering.
“Oh, you’re playing, Deb-bie.” He put the inflection on the second syllable of her name, really driving his point home. She dare not defy him again, he was saying.
Tony is staring daggers at her as he picks up the pistol. “Pick up the statue, Debbie, or I’ll shove it down your throat.”
She’s crying now. “Please,” she breathes, nearly voiceless. “Please, no.”
“It’s your turn, take the statue! I demand that you pick it up!” he roars. He raises the gun, sharply, hyperextending his elbow, aiming at her face.
Defeated, silently sobbing through her tears, she reaches down slowly and picks up the statue.
The percussive explosion from the muzzle of the gun makes us all jump back. Except Tony. His eyes are blazing, the rictus across his face neither grimace nor grin, cold as the dead.
Seemingly in slow motion, my adrenaline pumping, I watch the bullet exit the gun. I watch it fly the distance to Deb. I watch it enter her face. God in heaven, I see it go into her face.
Time kicks back in. My ears are ringing. My heart is palpitating. I am shocked. She absorbed the bullet. Is that what I saw? She did it, I don’t know how but she did it. She absorbed the bullet into her face and then sat there with a horrified expression but remaining completely uninjured.
Everything is silent for just a moment. Tony is the first to move. He hoots. He is excited. He laughs maniacally.
Bill looks pale, like he might be sick.
Deb is wide-eyed, frozen.
“Now, whatever you do,” Tony says, sounding like a smiling schoolteacher, “don’t put the statue down. Ever.”
She doesn’t know how to react.
I want to go home.
Tony gathers Deb into his smiling embrace and suddenly sounds like a different man, like a jolly uncle. He consoles her, gently jokes with her, generally tries to cheer her up. He assures her that she’ll be fine if she just hangs onto the statue, and he doesn’t even want it anyway. She can keep it.
She’s freaked out but okay. He sends her home, and we all break for the night. I go home and get some rest. I have to sleep off all this excitement.
So it’s over for the night. Or so we think.
What I find out later is that during the night, Tony snuck into her house overnight wearing gloves, wiped all his prints off his gun, and put it in her father’s hand; then he slipped into her room and stole the statue while she slept.
Her face and head were basically obliterated, and she would have to have a closed casket at her funeral. Her father swore up and down his innocence, but he went down hard with the law. Elsewhere the shop owner of the New Age store was also dead on the floor. The police didn’t connect the two murders.
Bill and I, we had no idea of this the next morning.
When we met up at Tony’s again that day, he kept a straight face and seemed as shocked as we were when we heard the news. She must have dropped the statue, he says. Where’s the statue now, we wonder? He has no idea. It’s not until weeks later, after the funeral and everything had calmed back down, that we saw him with the statue again.
I was astonished. He was nonchalant. This is at his place again. We’re in his domain. He’s got control of the statue and the room.
I accuse him. He shrugs. I threaten to call the cops.
He taunts, go ahead.
It turns quickly into an argument. He storms out. I storm after him. Bill stays put, hands up, palms forward, and declaring himself out of it.
Tony gets into his Dodge Charger. I stomp to the passenger side and get in. I cross my arms and try to look mean and serious. He looks bored and waives me away with the back of his hand. I buckle myself, still shouting accusations. He shrugs. He starts the car and drives. He gets onto the open road and starts to accelerate. He’s going fast and getting faster. Trees and buildings fly past to the left and right of us.
I glare at him and reach to buckle my seatbelt.
He looks smug and deliberately doesn’t buckle in. He’s counting on the statue saving him if we crash. We’re passing other cars, fast. Too fast.
I snake my hand out to swipe the statue out of his hand. He pulls it away and hits me in the nose with his elbow.
Now he’s talking. Now he’s cursing me.
We’re both shouting as he jerks the wheel sharply to the right and we hurtle down a side street. We’re passing pedestrians, parked cars, houses, a lady walking her dog. A toddler on a tricycle, his father guiding him with his hand on the child’s back.
I’m telling him to stop. I’m pretty scared and I want to get out of the car.
“Fuck you, Mark,” he says. He yanks the steering wheel to the left, slaloms a lamppost, takes us up a smaller street.
I know where we are. We’re on a dead-end road. We’ve got maybe a mile before the road runs out, and after that it’s nothing but trees.
He’s laying on the accelerator hard. We’re going to die. I look at the statue. I grab for it. He yanks it away. I’m scrabbling across him, while he’s jerking the wheel and weaving down the road.
Here it comes. The dead end. A short guardrail and a red sign and that’s all that’s between us and deadly trees. I’m grabbing. He’s taking us up the curb. He’s going to skirt the guardrail and aim us at a tree. He’s laughing like a maniac. I’m desperate and panicking.
I grab his head, pull it near, not even trying to hurt him, just pulling his arm with that statue closer so I can grab it.
Impact in five, four, three-
I grab it. My fingers curl around the statue. I feel the sweat on his hand, his tight fist losing its grip on the statue.
I have it.
The world explodes.
It’s minutes later. I’ve woken up from an apparent blackout. The airbags are out and deflated. The turn signal is click-click-clicking. Tony is dead or dying. Even with the airbag, he’d still been slammed so hard that he’d been launched at the window. His head and face are a bloody mess. He’s not responding when I say his name.
I unbuckle. The statue is in my hand. I wrestle the door open. I get up and out of the car. I’m walking and I’m fine. I’m completely okay. I clutch the statue close.
I’m a block or two down the road before sirens come screaming past, on their way to Tony’s car and his shattered body.
I get home. I clutch the statue. I hold it tight while I take a shower. I dare not let it go. If the crash would have killed me, it’ll catch up as soon as I let go of the statue.
I’m writing this with one hand. My left hand is holding the statue and wrapped in duct tape. I’m telling you what happened today, and I can’t risk ever dropping the statue. It’s my whole life now.
And I don’t dare fall asleep.
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