Johnny stared at the stain, dark red, crusted in the center, fading across the gray carpet. Shards of wood protruded from the closet door in thin splinters. Uncle Jack had died on that spot. Paramedics had pulled his teeth from that door and Johnny had soaked up most of the blood. But it was not enough. Johnny still saw the blood and he still saw Uncle Jack.
The attic stairs groaned when Johnny pushed them open. Hot air poured over his face as he slung the suitcase over the makeshift railing. The edge clipped the wood and his finger caught in between.
He bit on the end of his thumb to calm the throbbing. Light above dimmed as if something crossed over it. When he looked up, all he saw were shadows from the dull sunlight bleeding through the hazy plastic of the one small window.
He hunched down, sliding aside boxes overstuffed with blankets and yellowed pillows. Long wooden slats lined the middle of the floor. Old furniture stood against the walls, including the full-length mirror that had frightened Johnny as a child. He remembered reading Dorian Gray and wondering if mirrors had the same power to trap souls.
As he shoved the suitcase into a crevice between two boxes, he heard a loud ripping sound.
His voice, muffled in the confined space, startled him. He hated the quiet. Anytime Rachel went to the store or to her mother’s, he tagged along. Better to listen to her mother prattle on about her gall bladder than be alone in the house surrounded by silence. But this weekend he would be alone. Rachel had flown back to Baltimore after the funeral, leaving him to tend to Uncle Jack’s belongings. It was only for the weekend, but the old house groaned with every gust of wind and exhaled with every movement.
Pulling a rag from his pocket, he swiped the sweat away from his forehead, ignoring the dirt he was rubbing into his skin. He had only been up here for a minute and his clothes already felt damp and dirty. He stretched, making sure not to clunk himself on the head. The peak of the house provided him enough space to stand up straight – almost. Uncle Jack’s five foot seven frame would have had little trouble moving around in the tight space.
A box of photo albums sat next to a small step stool under the window. The peeling paint reminded him that he needed to replace the molding around the front door. One more thing to do before the house was ready for the market. The house, a one level cape cod, was not huge, but it was practically empty, even before the Salvation Army took away all the furniture. Most of what Uncle Jack had, he kept in the attic or his office.
Johnny picked up one of the albums, the brown corners frayed at the edges. Plastic sleeves crinkled when he opened it. A black and white photo of his dad and Uncle Jack fell into his lap. It looked hazy like the photographer had taken it underwater and not at the old house. Swallowing back a tear, he ran his finger across the face of his father and then his uncle. The two men who had shaped his life were gone; his dad’s heart attack two years ago and now Uncle Jack. Johnny blamed himself. He had noticed on his last visit that Uncle Jack did not seem right. It was unusual to see the man who had taught him how to box and how to score a baseball game look so uncoordinated and weak. If he would have heeded his gut, Uncle Jack would not have fallen down those stairs, would not have broken his neck and died alone in this stuffy old house.
A loud knock on the front door made him jump.
“Hold on a sec.”
He backed down the attic stairs, taking each step carefully. Blowing out a long breath, he opened the door.
“Johnny-boy, hah ya doone?” asked Mr. Chad as he strode into the house. Johnny remembered Mr. Chad’s hands, like two catcher’s mitts, squeezing his cheeks when he was a kid. Even now, his weathered hands swallowed his own.
“Not bad. Just putting some stuff away.”
Mr. Chad regarded the house, examining the living room, reminding Johnny of the real estate agent from yesterday. He removed his Steelers hat and wiped his brow with his shirtsleeve. Red splotches speckled his unshaven face, the few black hairs overwhelmed by the white.
“Weird seeing the place so empty,” said Mr. Chad.
“I know. It’s not like Uncle Jack had a lot of stuff, but it sure is depressing now.”
“You pack up his office yet?”
“Not yet. Figured I’d do that tonight with a bottle of scotch.”
The old man chuckled, running his hand across his silver hair like a comb. He started for the office.
“Did you need something?” asked Johnny.
Mr. Chad paused, tilting his head to the side, a broad smile stretching the wrinkles from his cheeks. “Just thought I’d take a last look before it gets packed up.”
Chills ran across Johnny’s arms. He had known Mr. Chad since third grade and he never thought of the man as warm, but friendly enough. His bulbous neck coined him the nickname Bullfrog from the neighbor kids, but Uncle Jack said his droopy face reminded him of Alfred Hitchcock so Johnny had always thought of him as Hitch.
Hitch had yelled at him from time to time, especially the tape ball incident when Johnny and his cousin decided to wrap up pieces of paper in duct tape and play baseball in the backyard. They had made about fifty balls and spent the afternoon pitching them to one another. When Hitch came out to mow his lawn, he kept running over them. He had marched over, red faced, mouth crunched into a snarl with his rake in hand demanding that they clean up their mess. His face had smoothed out then too, as if only intense emotions made him youthful.
“It’s getting late and I really don’t have time. Hope you understand. I just want to get things packed up and get to bed.”
A moment passed, as if Hitch needed time to translate the words to English. He nodded emphatically. “Of course. Where are my manners?”
Johnny opened the door and Hitch stopped at the threshold. “Just remember, I’m next door if you need me. No harm in asking for help you know.”
Johnny slapped him on the back, enjoying the shock on the old man’s face from the force of the blow. “I appreciate that and I’ll keep you in mind.”
Hitch started down the front steps and turned back. “It was a terrible thing what happened to your Uncle. I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
Johnny widened his grin. Yeah, prayers are really going to help. “Thanks, Mr. Chad.”
After he shut the door, he let out a long breath he did not know he was holding. Peering through the front window, he watched Hitch step down, pausing at the azalea bushes. He yanked a few dead leaves and tossed them to the ground, his eyes flicking to the upstairs window. After a moment, he strode down the walk, hands fidgeting at his sides, and closed the front gate. Johnny waited until he disappeared into the house next door.
After confirming the locked door with a pull on the handle, he flipped the light on in the office. The dull glow did little to illuminate the dark wood. Catacombs of shelving covered the walls, filled with signed baseballs, Pirate bobble heads, and old photographs of Roberto Clemente, Pie Trayner and Ralph Kiner. Bats lined the top of the ceiling like unsophisticated crown molding. Hidden in the corner of the room sat a rolltop desk cluttered with newspapers, compartments overstuffed with baseball cards, and sports magazines. A lonely feeling came upon Johnny in the silence of the room, a room that he remembered so alive and colorful as a child seemed distant, as if he had walked onto a dead moon.
A loud scrape broke his trance. The photograph above the desk swung against the rough paneling and Johnny steadied it, straightening and leveling it with the wall. Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner, the greatest shortstop to play the game of baseball and Johnny’s namesake. The black and white photograph showed Honus staring away from the camera, a broad smile across his face, hat tipped on his head to show his sweat soaked hair.
As Johnny sat down, a strong whiff of cigarettes filled the room as if the disturbance had unearthed a tobacco field. The chair creaked and fell back, the tension worn from the springs after years of use and he had to jolt forward to keep from falling over. He eased back and spun the chair to take in the entire room. The stories rolled back into the forefront of his mind and he could not focus on a particular one as each photo, each card reminded him of his dad or Uncle Jack. They both loved baseball and the Pirates. It was their religion, and they preached it to Johnny every day, not just Sundays.
Standing, he wiped the dampness from his cheek and started to box up the office. He worked silently, the only sounds the thump of books dropping, the ruffle of newspaper and the lonely sighs from his lungs. When he looked back at the photo of Honus, the man faced the opposite direction, the broad smile replaced with a closed lipped grimace. He dug his fists into his eyes to clear the exhaustion. The picture returned to the smiling version.
Johnny cleared his throat to disturb the silence. He finished packing a box and slid it into the hall. A loud bang from upstairs, the slapping of something heavy against wood, startled him. He walked up the stairs angling to see into the upper hallway, but the area disappeared in shadows. Tiny electrical currents ran across the hairs of his skin as he felt for the light switch. The light barely illuminated the hall so he reached into Uncle Jack’s bedroom and flipped on the lamp.
Uncle Jack sat on the edge of the bed. Cold bit at Johnny’s gut and he felt the acid turning over in his stomach. He swallowed back the pizza he had earlier, tasting the salty pepperoni on the back of his throat. Uncle Jack held something in his hand, small and square, like a credit card. He rose and his body flickered, like a satellite picture during heavy rain. His face was pale, the grey features saturnine. His baldhead, liver spotted with random hairs sticking out from the top and side made him look older than Johnny remembered. His clothes looked baggy. The stale smell of age filled the room as Johnny watched the specter of Uncle Jack open his chifferobe. The clip clop sound of the door springing open made Johnny flinch. Uncle Jack reached inside and a small hidden shelf appeared from the top. He placed the plastic square gently down and slightly lifted the shelf until it disappeared.
Uncle Jack turned to face Johnny. The old man’s body looked outlined in black ink. His arms, legs and torso wavered and turned translucent. His features bunched together with rage as he stormed toward Johnny, passing through him. Cold shuddered through Johnny and he tried to hug the sting away.
When he turned, he saw Uncle Jack coming up the stairs, not down. He looked refreshed, his skin bright, a wide grin on his face. His clothes were different. He wore the Pirates jersey the paramedics had cut off him. As he reached the top of the stairs, he stopped, the blood rushing from his cheeks. He looked directly into Johnny’s eyes. Uncle Jack’s wide-eyed shock twisted into a scowl as he pointed and yelled. Johnny tried to read his lips, but the haziness distorted Uncle Jack’s features. Two hands appeared out of the ether, floating as if additional limbs protruded from Johnny. Johnny felt stapled to the floor. Sweat poured down the sides of his face. He felt his bowels gurgle.
The hands wrapped around Uncle Jack’s neck and squeezed. The vein in his forehead bulged as he clawed for breath. Twisting toward the stairs, the hands forced him into the wall and a long gash sprouted on Uncle Jack’s pale forehead, the blood rushing down in a long rivulet. The hands hesitated a moment, considering options, running through possibilities and then with a simple shove, sent Uncle Jack bounding down the stairs. His body vanished as it tumbled down.
The hands clasped together in the air, rubbing Uncle Jack’s blood into the skin. A ring, silver with tiny etched markings along the side and a large purple stone, glistened in the blood. The fingers twisted into smoke leaving the ring revolving in the mist until it blinked out.
Johnny woke to a sliver of sun running across his eyelids. He blinked them open and he found himself lying on the office floor. His body ached, his skin felt clammy as if he had a fever. Sitting up, his back creaked and tightened, the muscles contracting with each tiny movement. His mind grasped onto the notion that it was all a dream, but his subconscious knew different.
The chifferobe stood against the wall, the door open. Johnny rubbed the wood with his palm, sliding along the side allowing the wood to grate against his fingernails. Reaching inside, he fumbled around and pushed the top. He did not feel an indentation in the wood or any edges as he rubbed across the surface. He felt silly looking for something he saw in a dream. Even now, the dream faded into the recesses of his mind, slowly becoming a forgotten memory.
Moving toward the front of the chifferobe, his hand sensed a different gradient in the wood. It felt rough and when he pushed up, the wood gave. A small shelf lowered. On the shelf sat a small rectangle. The plastic gave off a dull shine. It looked buffed. It was a card in a plastic sleeve.
Lifting the card out, he dropped it into his palm, his mind not quite grasping what his eyes showed him. He stumbled back and plopped onto the bed, sinking into the mattress. It was a Honus Wagner T206 card. He was positive.
As a Pittsburgh native, Uncle Jack had told him the story of the Wagner card and the controversy. A collector named Bill Mastro had sold the card to Wayne Gretsky and the card had become the ambassador of the hobby, rising in price each time it sold. The last time it sold for almost three million dollars. It was the golden ticket of baseball cards, the perfect version of the perfect card. But it had been a fraud, the edges altered by Mastro to improve the sale. Uncle Jack had taken the whole incident personally, claiming it was a slight to the best player of all time.
Johnny chewed his bottom lip and turned the card over to inspect the back. The Piedmont insignia ran across diagonally in florid handwriting. “The Cigarette of Quality”. He flipped it back over. The yellow background seemed to blaze, to lift off the card. Rosy cheeks popped from Honus’ face. A memory blossomed in Johnny’s mind, Uncle Jack sitting in the kitchen, gray haired arm resting on the table, a cigarette between his fingers. Dark circles hung under his eyes and his retinas were the cloudy color of too much alcohol.
“History is important,” Uncle Jack said. “It isn’t something to be sold or bartered for. It means something. There are things that should be protected. You understand?”
Johnny had nodded without really listening. Now, the conversation had a different tone. It had always been important to Uncle Jack to keep certain things without sin, without the cheap lacquer of a dishonest world.
Johnny knew he held a perfect Wagner card in his hands. A card that Uncle Jack had kept from society, kept pristine. Sweat bubbled on the back of his neck. He put the card down on the shelf and lightly pushed it back. It vanished into the chifferobe.
The front door again. The thought to ignore it ran through his mind, but another knock, this one more insistent, made him throw his head back in frustration.
Johnny stepped over the bloodstain and opened the door. Hitch filled up the doorframe. His bright red jacket fit tautly to his protruding belly. Broken blood vessels graphed his nose. He held a stack of envelopes in his hand.
“Mail call,” he announced stepping into the house.
He plopped the mail on the coffee table and looked around the room. “Wasn’t sure if you’d be up yet.”
“So you kept knocking?”
Hitch flinched. “Sorry, John. Thought you could use some help is all.”
Johnny turned, not wanting to stare into Hitch’s wounded eyes a moment longer. “Sorry. Just cranky.”
“Understandable.” The word seemed to sum up things. He started for the office. “How’d you do last night?”
Before Johnny could protest, Hitch barged into the office. A half filled box sat in the middle of the room. The picture of Honus Wagner tilted to the left now. This time Wagner stared straight ahead, his expression blasé with a hint of petulance.
Hitch picked up a stack of cards. “Didn’t get much done, huh?” His mouth twitched after every sentence, a stuttering period to every thought.
Johnny ignored him and whisked the curtain aside. Dust exploded from the cloth and bathed the room in morning light.
“Jack wasn’t much for cleaning,” said Hitch. He put the cards down on the desk. “What you planning to do with all this stuff?”
Johnny met the old man’s eyes. Piercing blue stared thorough him. Johnny did not want Hitch in the office. The thought felt unholy, like a vampire attending a Sunday service at church.
“I’ll probably keep most of it. Uncle Jack always wanted me to have my own collection so I can start with this.”
“Hell of a start.” The words bubbled from his chubby lips. “I could hook you up with a collector if you want to sell some of it. Hell, I’d buy some of the cards from ya. I know Jack wanted you to have some money since you’d been out of work for so long.”
Johnny frowned, unable to keep a pleasant demeanor and Hitch saw the change.
“I’m good for money,” said Johnny. “I’d just as soon keep the collection going. For Uncle Jack.”
Hitch smiled brightly, the teeth too white and perfect for a man his age. “Sounds good.”
“Is there anything you need?” asked Johnny. He wanted Hitch out the door so he could examine the Wagner card more closely.
Hitch’s smile wavered a bit. His right cheek twitched and his eyes flashed annoyance. “No, just checking on you.”
Hitch nodded three times in quick succession. “Ok, then.” He rapped his knuckles on the desk. The sound was hard, the sound of two opposing substances. Johnny noticed the class ring, the purple stone.
Hitch noticed him staring at the ring. “Class of ’59,” said Hitch. His eyes darted at the door and then back to Johnny. “What’s wrong John? You look like you seent a ghost.”
Johnny’s knees buckled a little and his body felt heavy. He could feel the blood draining from his cheeks. “I might be coming down with something.” His voice cracked on every other word.
“You need to be real careful, John.” Hitch flashed a big toothy grin. “If you don’t have your health, well, you don’t have nothing.”
Johnny tried to force a smile, but his mouth clamped shut. He pictured the hands, Hitch’s hands, around Uncle Jack’s neck, slamming him into the wall, blood leaking from the gash, Uncle Jack’s eyes rolling white as the hands shoved him down the stairs.
“Can I see your ring?” said Johnny, anger replacing the fear.
Hitch lifted his hand and twisted it the way a new bride might when showing off her wedding ring for the first time. “Oh, doubt I could get it off. Had it on for s’long.”
Johnny took a step forward. “Give it a try.”
“You sure you’re ok?” asked Hitch moving toward the front door.
“I need to see that ring.”
Hitch snorted and made for the door. Johnny grabbed his hand and flipped his back to face Hitch. He used the momentum to force Hitch against the wall. He yanked at the ring, ripping the skin. Hitch screamed and shoved Johnny in the back. Stumbling forward, Johnny caught himself before he bounded into the sofa.
“What in holy hell is wrong with you?” roared Hitch. His face flared red and he slumped over, holding his hand close to his body.
Johnny held the ring up to the light and looked inside to read the inscription. He could see all the letters now. It read Chad Gordon. Red filled the o’s in Hitch’s last name and Johnny knew it was Uncle Jack’s blood.
“You killed him.”
Hitch still clutched his hand. His eyes widened, his breath quick and frantic. “I don’t know what you…”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a long object that looked like an electric razor. He pointed it at Johnny and two long wires shot out, striking Johnny in the chest. Electric coursed through Johnny’s body and he collapsed to the ground shaking. He rolled onto his side and Hitch hovered over him. He lifted his boot and Johnny saw black.
When Johnny woke, his jaw throbbed and he noticed the dark paneling of Uncle Jack’s office, the afternoon light outlining the curtain.
“You’re finally awake,” said Hitch. He held a glass of iced tea. “I’d offer you some…” Hitch shrugged and when Johnny tried to talk, he felt the duct tape around his mouth. Adhesive pulled on his skin each time he struggled to move his mouth. His head ached.
“Can’t have you hollering for anyone.” Hitch took a long swallow and smacked his lips for effect. “So, what’s it gonna to be?”
Johnny twisted his head to try to get his bearings. The old chair squeaked when he moved and the rope around his wrists tightened.
“No use in that,” said Hitch. “Where is it?”
Johnny stopped struggling and met Hitch’s gaze. When he dropped his eyes, Hitch laughed.
“I know you know where it is. Jack and you probably had this all figured out from the start. You’re as stubborn as he is. Well was.”
Johnny started to work his wrists in circles. If he could just slip out a hand.
“Jack and his ideals,” said Hitch picking up a Sports Illustrated with a smiling Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw on the cover. “All this junk. Most of it not worth a damn. But a pristine Wagner card. He’s sitting on millions when he knows I’m losing my house.”
He dropped the magazine and picked up a picture of Uncle Jack shaking hands with Barry Bonds. He rocked the picture in front of Johnny. “Oh, that’s your problem Hitch,” he said, his voice a high-pitched mocking whine. “You don’t accept responsibility for your actions.” He tossed the picture and it shattered against the wall. “Kiss my ass.”
Johnny almost had his right hand free. Hitch leaned closer. “Stop trying to get loose or I’ll zap you again.” His mouth slowly turned into a sneer. He reached around and yanked the rope. It fell to the floor and before Johnny could pull his arms around, Hitch leveled the gun at his face. “This time, you won’t wake up.”
Johnny froze. Hitch’s grin grew wider. He tapped Johnny’s mouth with the gun. “Now, I’m going to rip this off and if you yell or try anything I’ll blow your fucking head off. Got it?”
Johnny nodded and Hitch pulled the tape off with on quick rip. Johnny cried out and Hitch cocked the gun. “Remember what I said.”
Hitch settled back, keeping the gun pointed at Johnny’s chest. “Good. No bullshit. Where’s the card?”
“Why did you have to kill him?”
Hitch popped him on the nose and blood squirted. Johnny’s eyes watered and he started to cough, his hands covering his nose as trickles of blood ran through his fingers.
Hitch laughed. “I ask the fucking questions. That ok with you? Can I be in charge?”
Hitch tossed an old rag at him. “Enough fucking around. Tell me now and I promise I’ll let you go.”
“Bullshit. You’ll kill me as soon as you get the card.”
“I’ll kill you right now if you want. I know the card’s here. I’ll find it before you start smelling up the place.”
Johnny looked up and into Hitch’s eyes. Two black globes stared back at him. Old beer and onions seethed from his mouth. Johnny held up his hands. “Ok, it’s upstairs.”
Hitch motioned with the gun and Johnny stood, his knees creaking, his back tensing. They climbed the stairs. Hitch stayed an extra step behind and Johnny thought about running, but where could he run. Hitch would shoot him. Maybe if he could distract him, get the gun away.
They reached the hall and Johnny walked into the bedroom, stopping in front of the chifferobe. He turned. Hitch stepped into the bedroom, his eyes scanning the room. He raised his brow.
Two bony hands appeared behind Hitch, the long fingers filed into razor sharp needles. Johnny tried not to stare at the hands as they hovered behind Hitch’s silver head. The old man waved his gun.
“Do I need to shoot you?”
“If you shoot me, someone will hear.”
Hitch chuckled. “This gun isn’t as loud as you think and anyone that hears it will think it was a car backfiring. No one gives a shit anymore.”
“That’s the problem isn’t it,” said Johnny. His eyes urged the hands to grab Hitch, strangle him the way he had Uncle Jack. But the hands continued to hover just out of reach. Waiting.
Hitch sighed heavily. “I’ve had to listen to your uncle for years and I don’t need to hear this bleeding heart liberal crap anymore. I could care less. Last chance or I shoot you in the nuts.”
Johnny instinctively placed his hands over his crotch. “Ok, it’s in there.”
He opened the chifferobe and pushed the top. The shelf lowered.
“Son of a bitch,” muttered Hitch.
Johnny gently pulled the card out and held it in front of him. Hitch licked his lips as if getting ready to take a bite of a glorious meal. He took the card. The hands wiggled their fingers, dancing in the air. Hitch flipped the card over in his hand, never letting the gun drop.
“It’s perfect. I can’t believe it. I knew it was going to be good, but I had no idea just how good.”
He lifted his gaze to Johnny. “Your uncle could have made this easy on all of us you know. It didn’t have to be this way. All those years we spent together.”
“My uncle hated you,” spat Johnny. Hitch physically flinched from the words and took a step back. The hands inched closer to his throat.
“You’re whole family always were a bunch of losers.” Hitch pointed the gun at Johnny. “No great loss.”
The translucent hands became corporeal and attached to Hitch’s neck like a spider grasping onto a fly in a web. Hitch froze, his body rigid. He looked like a piece of petrified wood. The hands looped around his neck like a snake, tightening until spittle drooled from the corners of his mouth. The dark points of his pupils expanded filling up with black oil. His body shook and began to grow faint. Long fingernails punctured his neck and his faded form began spinning, funneling into the card that rested on the floor. Johnny watched Hitch slowly disappear into the card. His legs, torso, arms and lastly his head stretched into a thin line before zipping into the card. A memory of I Dream of Genie jumped into Johnny’s mind and a nervous laugh escaped his lips. An acrid smell of tobacco filled the room and the hum that ignited the event slowly dissipated. The room was quiet.
The curator took the card from Johnny. The large smile on the man’s face had lasted the entire hour during the presentation and Johnny thought the man would still be smiling in his sleep.
“This is such a great day for baseball,” said the curator.
“I’m just glad to do something for my Uncle. I think he would like this.”
“Well, I know I do.” The curator laughed a big boisterous laugh that shook his immense bulk. “Donating this card means so much. After the fraud of the last card, it is wonderful to have a true pristine Wagner card preserved for all time. Your uncle would be very proud.”
Johnny smiled and looked at the card. The lights brightened the already brilliant yellow and the card looked majestic behind the tempered glass. A small flicker in Wagner’s eyes made Johnny swallow.
“Would you mind if I just had a moment alone?” asked Johnny.
The man cocked his smile and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “Of course. Take your time.”
After the curator left, the lights seemed to dim around Johnny making the card glow on the tiny pedestal. He inched closer and looked at Wagner’s face. A flicker again in the solemn eyes and Johnny leaned forward, almost touching the glass. In Wagner’s left eye, Hitch screamed silently, his features twisted in anguish.
Eric Scott is the author of horror and science fiction. He was born in Baltimore, MD and was raised by his mother and grandparents. Accompanying his mother to her office at Johns Hopkins, he spent his summer vacations playing chess and learning about life from the professors who served as honorary fathers. He began working at Johns Hopkins when he was seventeen as an office clerk and worked his way up to join the faculty in 2007. He lives in York, PA and has two sons, Ben and Sam.