Dave Becker

The Faustian Host


The Funeral

Tony Marino stood alone and watched the stars fall from the sky. Streaks of white light cut through the black expanse like wild brush strokes on a dark canvas. He leaned against a tall cypress, trying to ignore the comments that came from the crowded porch.

“Do you think it’s a sign.”

“I think it’s a curse.”

Relax, people, Tony thought, it’s not the end of the world.

“You know what they say: when stars fall from the sky, demons fall from heaven.”

Tony wanted to scream. He didn’t know most of the funeral guests, but they were obviously as backward and superstitious as his grandmother had been. He tilted his head. Instinctively he knew that the meteor shower was light years away, but he had to admit it really looked like, at any moment, one of the fireballs could crash to the ground. It fit with his mood. He felt like his whole life was falling apart.

Orphaned three times — that’s what the reverend had said. Tony didn’t hear much of the funeral service, but he heard that loud and clear. He never knew his mom or dad. He had grown up with his mother’s mother, a short, stout woman with silver hair and a sharp tongue. She had raised Tony in the swamps of southern Florida on religious myths and backwater fables, and he had tested her every step of the way. Now he was all alone — fourteen with nowhere to go — and a part of him wondered how he would ever survive without his grandma.

Relatives he swore he had never seen before had spent the entire afternoon fawning over him with hugs and kisses. It was horribly uncomfortable. The same stupid questions about his age and grade were always followed by comments about how he was the spitting image of, depending on the relation, either his mom or his dad.

Apparently Tony had inherited his father’s coloring, dark skin and black hair, and his mother’s features. At least that’s what the strangers kept telling him. His dad disappeared before he was ever born, and facing life as a single, teenage parent was apparently too much for his mom to handle. She swallowed a bottle of pills before Tony’s first birthday. All in all, he had no happy memories of his parents, and very few of his grandmother. If his doting relatives were trying to make him feel better, they were failing miserably.

“There you are.”

Tony groaned. A friendly looking couple had moved from the porch and joined him under the tangled branches of the old tree. They gazed up at the sky, admiring the meteor shower. Tony tried to ignore them. He didn’t want to deal with any more annoying relatives.

“That’s some show,” the man commented.

Tony didn’t respond.

“We’re the Browns,” the stranger continued, offering his hand to Tony. “I’m Robert and this is my wife, Laura.”

Tony shook their hands, hoping they’d go back to the porch and leave him alone.

“You’re a lot bigger since the last time we saw you,” Mrs. Brown commented.

Tony mumbled, “I don’t remember you.”

Her smile faded to a frown. Mr. Brown cleared his throat.

“Your grandmother never mentioned us?”

Tony shook his head.

“Odd,” Mr. Brown muttered, “because if anything ever happened to her, she wanted you to come live with us in Massachusetts.”

Tony almost choked.

Mrs. Brown forced a big smile. “We’re your guardians.”

Tony backed away from the couple. “I’m not moving to Massachusetts!”

The Browns looked at each other.

“Well, you can’t stay here, Champ,” Mr. Brown stammered.

Tony motioned at the large house behind him.

“I have a house. And please don’t call me ‘Champ.’”

“You’re a minor,” Mrs. Brown said in a sweet voice that made Tony want to smack her. “You can’t live by yourself.”

“I’ll do just fine by myself,” Tony huffed. He turned his back on them and stepped into the darkness.

He had practically been on his own since he was ten. Having an eighty year-old guardian was like having no parents at all, and Tony had always been too smart for his own good. At age eight, he qualified for the gifted program at his small, rural elementary school, but his grandmother refused to enroll him, paranoid the teachers would try to brainwash her boy. The old woman was a desperate, religious fanatic, afraid of the whole world. For her, monsters lurked around every corner and demons hung in every space. Caught between his brilliant mind and his irrational home life, Tony’s boredom began to drive him toward the troublemakers in his class. Despite his outstanding test scores, his behavior landed him in detention a lot more than the honor roll. By the time he reached middle school, he decided he didn’t need church or his grandmother anymore. It probably killed her inside, but she never stopped praying for him, or warning him to look out for demons.

He gazed up at the shooting stars as he crossed the dark lawn. Against the black sky, the white steeple of his grandmother’s next-door church gleamed like a lighthouse. He quietly entered the cemetery where he would often walk at night. Something about graves relaxed him, and tonight was no different, even standing over his grandmother’s grave. It was the freshest one he had ever seen. There were no flowers. There was no headstone. Only a dark rectangle of earth marked the spot where she had been buried just a few hours ago. He looked around the cemetery. White crosses and rounded blocks spread across the black lawn like warriors ready for battle, eerily similar to the shooting stars that sliced across the heavens above. If Tony had been a superstitious boy, he would have considered it a sign. But Tony didn’t believe in signs. He didn’t believe in anything anymore.

Something chirped sharply behind him and made him jump. He shook it off and looked back at the dirt, wondering what was going to happen to him. Tree leaves rustled overhead, and a terrifying shriek preceded a clap of wings. A hundred black bats burst from the treetops, covering the night sky in a darker shroud. Tony covered his ears and closed his eyes. When the noise was gone, he looked back at the sky.

“That’s some show,” said a voice in the darkness.

Tony spun around. “I told you I’m not going to Massachusetts!”

A shadowy figure emerged from the black brush surrounding the cemetery. It was a man; at least Tony thought it was a man. Even when the person was only a few steps from him, the boy still couldn’t make out any details. The stranger appeared to be a black man in a black suit with black sunglasses and a black stick of some sort. He held his hands up in a sign of surrender.

“Who said anything about Massachusetts?”

Tony looked away without answering.

“Some folks just can’t see what’s right in front of their noses.”

The stranger had an odd accent, maybe Cajun or Creole, but definitely not southern Florida. Tony didn’t recall seeing him at the funeral, but he didn’t really care. Whoever he was, he needed to go.

“Why don’t you go hide in the dark where you were before.”

“Oh, I’m always in the dark,” the man replied.

Then Tony saw it. The man was blind. Something dropped inside his stomach, and he suddenly felt a tinge of guilt.

“Look, my grandma just died…”

“Oh, I know that,” the stranger chimed.

“…and I’d really like to be alone.”

“Oh, I know that, too.”

The man pressed his cane into the soft earth and held it in place with one finger. Slowly, he rolled his finger in a small circle, spinning the cane like a long top. Tony found it strangely hypnotic.

“How do you know me?” he finally asked.

“Your grandma believed in magic.”

Tony couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement.

“She believed in a little bit of everything. Honestly, I don’t think she knew what to believe.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” the man offered, stepping back from his cane, now spinning on its own in the dark. “I’ll take a confused person over a crazy person any day.”

Tony bit his lip. “I think my grandma was both.”

“Confused and crazy?” the stranger laughed. “You can’t be both. Crazy folks don’t think they’re confused; and confused folks admit they’re confused, so they can’t be crazy.”

Tony was beginning to think the stranger was confused and crazy.

“Whatever,” he mumbled dismissively, unimpressed with the cane trick. He started to walk away.

“I can make it so you don’t have to go to Massachusetts.”

Tony stopped.

“Like I said, some folks can’t see what’s right in front of their noses.”

The stranger waved his hands around the spinning cane, and it started to glow. Tony watched the blurred stick spin faster and faster. Blue rays shot from the cane and enveloped the blind man, transforming him from a black figure to a bright blue one. A stiff wind began to swirl.

For a moment, Tony was intrigued by the trick. Then thoughts of illusion and manipulation snapped him back to his senses. He stepped forward and grabbed the glowing stick. Immediately, the light and wind disappeared. The cemetery returned to pitch darkness, except for the white streaks of the meteors. Tony slammed the cane into the ground several times.

“It’s just a stick! There’s nothing magic about it.”

“Oh, I know that,” the stranger said, taking the cane from Tony. “There’s nothing special about this stick, but there’s a magic….”

“There’s no such thing as magic!” Tony made a face at the stranger, thankful the man couldn’t see him.

“You best be careful with things you don’t understand.” The man’s tone grew more threatening as he spoke. “A person might find himself cursed.”

“You sound like my crazy grandma.”

“Maybe your grandma wasn’t as crazy as you think.”

Tony sighed. “She believed she could see demons. That sounds pretty crazy to me.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” the man said, adjusting his sunglasses in the darkness. “To a blind man, seeing anything at all isn’t crazy.”

An eerie sensation crawled up Tony’s leg. He shuddered, then stormed into the darkness, doubting the day could get any worse. He paused, and looked over his shoulder. The man was gone. Tony was alone, which was what he had wanted, but all of a sudden he felt uncomfortable, maybe even scared. A chill rolled over his body when he gazed at the silver tips of the cemetery lawn. The light from the meteor shower seemed to be growing brighter. He sprinted out of the graveyard and up the hill toward the yellow lights of his grandmother’s house.

As he neared the house, a faint whistling sound approached from the darkness. He could see the black silhouettes of his relatives moving across the yard toward their cars. The sound grew louder, and he spotted what looked like a tiny fire floating in the sky. The light became a baseball-sized ember, then something closer to the size of the sun. Tony could feel the ground trembling under his feet.

He screamed, but it was too late. The fireball struck the house in an enormous explosion of flames and smoke. Tony was thrown facedown onto the ground. A thick cloud covered the entire area.

Coughing and sputtering, Tony crawled over the singed grass until he reached the smoldering stump of the cypress. He stood and peered into a black hole that marked where his house had once been. Tears filled his eyes, but the shock of the moment left him paralyzed, unable to cry. He had lost the only parent and the only home he had ever known. The day had officially become much worse.

Through the fiery fog, he saw the Browns running.

“Oh, Tony! You’re all right,” Mrs. Brown squealed, throwing her arms around the boy.

Mr. Brown placed his large hands on Tony’s shoulders and squeezed.

“Thank God no one was in the house.”

“Yes,” Tony mumbled, “let’s thank God for all of this.”

Mrs. Brown pulled him closer.

“Luckily your grandma wanted you to live with us.”

Tony groaned. Somewhere in the distant darkness he swore he could feel the black stranger staring at him. A person might find himself cursed. If he didn’t believed in absolute logic, Tony would have admitted that the whole thing felt like a setup, but every cell in his brain screamed out against the accusation. He refused to accept a supernatural explanation. Still, his home was disintegrated and his life was in shambles. There was no way to return to normal. There was no way to argue with the Browns. There was no way to avoid moving to Massachusetts.

© 2014 by Dave Becker. All rights reserved.