My eyes open at the wretched clanging of the bell. Its fateful timbre echoes off the tower’s stones and resonates into my bones. I shiver in anticipation. Well, I’m not sure if you can call it anticipation as much as trepidation. I don’t know how it came so quickly this time around. I have just been so busy with everything; bringing in the small crops, caring for my mother after her hip surgery and writing my novel. It’s funny how time can pass when you aren’t watching the clock tick. And even funnier that time doesn’t pass at all when you are watching it. One would assume you get used to something if it happens over and over…but I can’t seem to get used to this.
You see, every year it goes the same. On the 266th day, all hell breaks loose–quite literally. Everyone in our usually sleepy town of Ochre will gather in the Town Hall auditorium tonight, if they can pay the fee to get in. It’s not an incredibly steep price at $67 a person, but not everyone can scrounge up the cash. A single mother with many children may bear the burden of leaving one behind. An ever-increasing number of people grow lean in the months leading up to this day. If you aren’t in the auditorium when the sun recedes beyond the horizon-line, then you are free game to the shadowy creatures lusting for flesh. Death comes by vampires, banshees and demons. These beings of eternal twilight are always watching throughout the year, but their powers are unbridled on this night. At dusk, their ghoulish whims move from play to pure evil.The blue fire of Hades blazes in the scared eyes of us who fear. You can see it when we crowd into the old building.
It was an agreement made many seasons ago. A rivalry between worlds created chaos for the residents of light and dark. Town officials and the heads of shadow community came to an understanding of sorts. The contract kept both parties happy and content, for the time being. It’s really quite simple. If you do not make it past the safety line before the doors shut in the center of our rural home, then your chances of survival are pretty much non-existent. If you can’t borrow, beg or steal the funds to pay the mayor, you may as well write your will on the 265th day. Many people do just that. It’s not unheard of for the depressed, ill or elderly in the community to refuse the refuge. When they don’t want to suffer anymore, or have others take care of their decaying bodies, they stay behind. In a way, they sacrifice themselves in hopes that the malevolent beings will be occupied with their offering instead of anothers. Needless to say: there are many tears to be shed and aching souls to be consumed tonight. Almost everyone has come to terms with it, but generally it comes easier to those with the financial means to be so unmoved.
I snap back into my body, even though my hair is standing straight up and cold thoughts have enveloped me. My bed releases me to the day. There is much to do and not much time. Entering her musty room, I rouse my mother and aid her in descending the loud, old stairs. She is patient and dull, drugged up on pain medication. For a moment, I consider taking some myself. It would be nice to not be so afraid, to feel like I was floating in a calm ocean. I twitch my head and am brought back into myself for the second time this morning. Once we are ready to go, we load up the car and start into town like almost everyone else. There are children hugging teddy bears, teenagers scaring each other while making mockeries and adults carrying bottles of wine and whiskey. For some people, I think it’s to quiet the pain; and for others, it’s just another form of entertainment. Something to talk about at the next book club meeting or over cigars on the golf course.
Once we reach the busy auditorium, I take out my money and give it to the cashier. I’m lucky I was able to make extra money by doing portraits at the last street fair. A lot of people say I’m pretty talented. We venture through the doors with our tickets and find two seats near the front of the stage. The sound in that space is enormous and I can’t help but flinch. After I get my mother settled, I take a moment to myself and close my eyes. There are soft murmurs, boisterous laughter and silent tears that I can literally feel. The mood is unrest and concern. More and more, people filter in and squeeze together. There are enough seats in the auditorium for every person in our town. As the hour of sunset grows nearer, they fill up rapidly. It is now time to close the doors on death.
I forgot to mention one little catch to this agreement our great-great-grandparents made. Outside the hall, there is a small track with miniature train-cars that runs from a platform inside the auditorium to outside the hall and back again. The metal tracks are a terrifying loop of sorts, not unlike that of a kiddie-ride at a carnival. It is dark now, and the creatures that are in this for sport come to the center of Ochre for this macabre parade. Purchasing a ticket to this “safe-zone” doesn’t guarantee survival. One person out of the auditorium will be chosen by the vampires and other beings of evil. This one person will be offered up to them as a ritual sacrifice.
Row by row, we are led onto the open air cars. Some folks dress nicely, some bow their heads in fearful respect while trying to look haggard. We all come up with our own ideas of what will save us. Perhaps if one looks ill, they may think that our life force will be less appetizing. If one wears an attractive guise, they may be regarded as too beautiful to die. The truth is that none of us know what will keep us from death, but we all have our opinions and theories.
As the people are loaded and unloaded there is a puppet show playing on the main stage. It’s dark and farcical. Everyone laughs but nobody is truly amused. It depicts this evening with bold faced marionettes and scenery made by the elementary school children. I’m taken aback when my row is ushered into the cars. My mother is vacant and for this, I am happy. I consider putting a hat on, but I don’t want to make myself more noticeable. I leave the hat behind and in a haze sit on the creaky wooden seats. We slowly start to move after the last person is seated. The doors open unto the chilling night air, and we are all moved to stillness. All I can see are the blurry outlines of shadows and red eyes; red, glowing embers of penetrating glares.
As a person sensitive to the energies of light and dark, I find myself to be more vulnerable than most. I have seen the demons that visit me in the realm between waking and sleep. I have smelled the burning odor from these beasts on my lonely walks home. My body tenses and grows weak as I think of those moments. I feel hot breath steaming alongside my cart, but cannot see what provides the heat. My eyes look up to the sky, but I see no stars, no beacons of light. Just as I am about to leave my body again, the doors open and the cars are back on the platform. Relief washes over me when we are seated in the auditorium, and my mother falls back asleep. I am again grateful. This continues for what seems like forever, until everyone has been shown to the night.
Mr. Mayor comes onstage in his usual overzealous form (he is not part of the agreement and is safe from harm). All is hushed and the mood is leaden. I’m pretty sure nobody is breathing. He opens an envelope and announces the name of the doomed individual. He speaks–and I hear nothing. I squint and lean in to try again. All of a sudden, my arms are being seized. Have I gone deaf? Have I gone dumb? All I know is that I am numb everywhere and the last thing I see are my mother’s grey eyes filling with heartache. I’m snatched past the doors and flung into the dusty streets of Ochre.
The last thing I remember is being consumed by glowing red embers. I look up to the skies that once gave me pleasure:
And before the star/glory line
Sharp. Painful. Painless.