The Thing About Curses
by A. M. Johnson
Red hadn’t meant to kill her, but what the heck: such things happen.
The sky was clear and the moon high when Red cautiously opened the cabin door and peeked out. He didn’t know who he was looking for; there weren’t any other cabins for miles, but one could never be too careful. Satisfied that no one was about on this gorgeous, chilly night, Red propped the door open wide and bent down to shoulder his heavy burden.
A billion stars dotted the black sky, and Red thought to himself how different it was out here, with no light pollution, no cars whizzing down busy streets, no neighbors with their TVs up too loud. He had been reluctant to come out here at first, being a city boy born and bred, but he had to admit it had been good for him. Marie had told him he would learn things about himself out here. She had been right.
The moon and stars very graciously lit the path ahead for him, which was not hard to find; Marie had taken him on it several times. His flashlight sat unused in his jeans pocket.
Over the last few days, they had managed to live off the land, something he never thought he would be capable of. It had involved multiple trips into the woods to hunt for edible plants and roots, the occasional rabbit. He had been surprised at the delicious taste of many of the items they harvested. Some were fantastic, others edible if you had no other choice. In all that time, they had encountered no one else. Marie said it was because the land on which her family’s cabin sat was cursed. Even though there was a town not seven miles up from the edge of the forest, no locals ventured out here.
Making his way slowly toward the edge of the woods, Red shifted his grip just a bit on the bundle he carried. Marie wasn’t really that heavy, but a body was a very complicated thing to cart around, especially before rigor set in. Marie was still warm beneath the sleeping bag he’d wrapped her in; it had all happened that recently.
* * *
He really hadn’t meant to kill her.
That is to say, he hadn’t come out to the cabin with a plan in mind to kill his only friend. For a year now, every time he showed up to work at that nasty little stink-hole of a pub, where he washed the dishes and swabbed out the toilets while Marie slung beers and played her guitar on weekends, Marie had been the only person happy to see him.
TJ, the owner, was an asshole, and when he bothered to come out of his “office” — a storage room with a desk and a TV where he sat and watched porn all day — he had nothing good to say to anyone. The slew of college girls who came through to wait tables for a hot minute before TJ grossed them out and they left, none of them had noticed him. And the burly meatball who flipped the burgers and deep-fried the jalapeno poppers was nearly nonverbal. They called him Grunt, a nickname he seemed comfortable with.
It hadn’t been the ideal job, for sure, but an ex-con had limited opportunities. Those limited opportunities didn’t excuse a person from paying their bills, though, and he was still paying retribution to a couple of people as part of his parole agreement. And a guy had to live. So he had ended up washing dishes and sweeping up at TJ’s, all while living in a tiny efficiency apartment over a massage parlor. He had seen better days.
When he met Marie, his first instinct was to just ignore her. She was at least 50, with fading blonde hair that was probably lustrous and golden once, large breasts that were sagging a bit, and a little paunchy gut that probably came from eating too many french fries. She wasn’t ugly. Just old and washed up. Red was a young man still, only 35, and he had come out of prison with a very nice physique from days upon days of weight-lifting. It didn’t take long, however, to fall under the spell of her gentle nature.
Hell, he probably wouldn’t even have gotten the damn job if she hadn’t said something to TJ. Marie was kind, always asking after everyone’s well-being, always lending a hand when something was needed. Some of the revolving-door college girls had been the beneficiaries of her generosity; she was always buying books for them, buying them a meal, or even babysitting their snot-nosed kids.
Something about her, she seemed to know you the second she met you. He wasn’t sure how she knew his birthday, but she had showed up with a plate of cupcakes for him on the very day. She was a mama to all, and everyone loved her. She was a sweet person, too sweet to be working in that dank little hole for a boss who didn’t even try to hide that he was beating off most of the day in that smelly “office.” And she was way too sweet to be friends with someone like Red. That was really too bad for her.
That’s how life worked though, Red thought. Guys like him didn’t really have friends, mainly because most people were savvy enough to see that Red was borderline sociopathic. That was what the prison doc had said, anyway, and Red didn’t feel inclined to argue with him about it. It did explain a lot, like why he was able to rape so many women and get away with it, having the foresight to wear condoms.
It never had occurred to him that the women’s feelings mattered. It only mattered that he didn’t get caught. He had left no DNA anywhere, except for his last victim, who had managed to scrape her nails down his arm and gather a good chunk of skin and blood. He had been so angry when the bitch made him bleed like that.
That had almost been his first murder. It was the first time he’d raped a woman while she was facing him, something he wanted to do so he could see the look in her eyes. It had been a mistake, and the prison doc had managed to convince Red that this was actually his fault, not the victim’s. This “breakthrough” had led to a very positive parole hearing. After all, as far as they knew, this was his only victim. He hadn’t bothered to correct the doc when he said Red felt remorse. He sort of did. Remorse for not sticking with what had worked for fifteen years. From now on, he would remain a “back-door man.”
* * *
Red stopped and shifted Marie’s weight again, feeling her slip down from atop his shoulders. He was about halfway to his destination, and the path was getting a little steep. On the plus side, he had entered the tree line, so chances of being seen were less. It was about a mile to the cave from Marie’s cabin, and the path was rough in places, but he was strong. He could do this.
When Marie had asked him to her family cabin for a long weekend, he had declined at first. TJ’s was shut down for four days to be tented and treated for termites, and he really hadn’t liked the idea of spending those days alone in his apartment, listening to other men being pleasured in the parlor below. But Marie wasn’t his type, and even though she had never acted romantic toward him, it was implied that spending a long weekend in a remote cabin with her would involve bumping nasties.
Quite frankly, the thought of sex with Marie sort of turned his stomach. She was a bit too moldy. Funny how that worked, him being a rapist and all. Like, if he was raping Marie, it wouldn’t matter that she was old. But to have consensual sex with a woman, she had to be smokin’. However, Marie had assured him that this wasn’t her goal.
“I love spending the time out there away from all this,” she had explained, gesturing at the dismal surroundings. “It’s a great place to connect with nature, to learn about yourself and be refreshed. Don’t you want to feel refreshed?”
Red wasn’t really sure what that meant, but he was intrigued a bit by the idea of living off the land. It seemed like a good skill to have. And getting out of the city might be nice. She had finally convinced him, and once he got out there and experienced the “great outdoors,” he had been glad.
They had brought sleeping bags and very few staples, just coffee, bread and whiskey, the only things they couldn’t forage for, she had said. They also brought her white cat, which she adored and refused to leave at her place in town. The cat was cross-eyed, and its eyes were blue, indicating that it had some Siamese heritage. It was a pretty cool cat, though, and even followed them into the woods every time they struck out to forage.
The first two days were spent exploring the woods, with Marie teaching Red all about edible plants, and how to set a trap for a rabbit. The air was crisp and clean, the water tasted like heaven, and there was no one about to spoil it. Red had asked Marie why she didn’t just live there full time, and she had laughed.
“You forget,” she said jokingly, “it’s cursed. I can’t stay here for long or I’ll make the spirit angry. Besides, if I don’t work at TJ’s, how could I afford coffee and whiskey? And how would I have met you?”
* * *
The cave had been the most fascinating feature of all for Red. Set back deep in the woods at the bottom of a steep hill, it seemed to go on for eternity. The white cat, whose name was Pearl, refused to enter the cave with them but, instead, sat on a rock grooming itself while they went in. They had walked in carefully with their flashlights, stepping over the skeletons of small animals that Marie said were sacrifices from the indigenous people, an attempt to lift the curse.
Red was skeptical. “Probably just a fox holing up here when the weather gets rough,” he had said. But Marie shook her head, as if she had personally borne witness to the attempts of Native peoples to keep a curse at bay.
“They didn’t work, though,” she said grimly. “The spirit that dwells on this land is ancient. You can’t appease her with some dead raccoons. She wants human blood.” With that, Marie had grabbed Red’s hand and quickly sliced the top of his thumb with her hunting knife, causing a drop of blood to fall onto the stone floor of the cave.
“Hey!” he had cried, jerking his hand back.
Marie had only laughed and said that should do it; the spirit would be appeased.
Red had been irritated by her actions, but that wasn’t the reason he had killed her. Nope. She had just been joking around, and it was kind of funny after all. His thumb only bled a drop or two.
What wasn’t funny was when they had cracked open the whiskey and had a few. Red had gotten loose, and reminded her that he had not wanted to come out to the cabin because of “the whole sex thing.”
“I mean, nothing personal, Marie, you’re great. You just ain’t my type. Maybe if you were twenty years younger, you know?”
Marie, who had also imbibed, laughed so hard that tears ran down her face.
Copyright © 2019 by A. M. Johnson