Abigail awoke to the rickety clamor of her window A/C unit. As the Florida heat began its summer spike, the unit threatened to break down at any given moment. Resolving not to let the possible A/C issue ruin her Saturday, she planted her feet on the floor and dressed for the day.
Donning the airiest frock, she owned, Abigail stepped barefoot onto the lawn, avoiding the fire ant mounds and scorching pavement alike, as she wound a path to her car. She smiled as she recounted her plans for the day. First, and foremost on the agenda was a drive out past I-41 to “politely pillage” the new antique shop in town. With a little bit of luck, she might score a sweet find.
Abigail slowed down as she approached her destination. The building itself was nondescript, and it appeared the shop’s marketing strategy consisted of relying entirely upon the sign in front of the building. Constructed from a sawhorse and a sheet of plywood, it was far from fancy. The wood had been painted a crisp and clean white. In bold red letters blazed the words Dead Peoples Things For Sale.
Little effort had been made to organize the store or showcase any potential items of interest. Plates, lamps, knick-knacks, and other random items stuffed the few shelves that had been put up. Everything else lay in heaps or in boxes scattered about without any semblance of order. Eschewing trepidation, Abigail attacked the first box she came to.
Some hours later, she resurfaced. Grimy sweat coursed down her cheeks. Unconcerned about her appearance, Abigail grinned from ear to ear. Triumphant in her scavenging, she had unearthed an antique chest. So pleased was she with herself, it wasn’t until checkout that she noticed it was locked. The shop owner, having quietly observed Abigail’s tenacity in rooting it out from where it lay buried, nodded her approval. She handed her a tiny, skeleton key.
Abigail stood in her bedroom, gazing at chest with anticipation. It looked almost ancient, having the air of something that’s been around for centuries. When she inserted the key into the lock, she heard a satisfying click. Haphazardly strewn inside the chest was an unusual array of items. A whole bunch of new delicacies for her to linger upon and pick through. A veritable treasure trove of baubles and trinkets for her to claim as her own.
Taped to the top of the chest was a tattered piece of yellowing paper. Abigail squinted to read the scrawled handwriting, which proved to be a more difficult undertaking than anticipated, the ink having faded to near translucency. Eager to peruse the chest’s contents, she readily dismissed it, already shifting her attention to the matter at hand. The musty paper could wait another day to deliver whatever words of wisdom it would bestow upon her. Its message, stashed away all this time, couldn’t possibly require any urgency today. Let it be a mystery for tomorrow.
Abigail placed the chest on the comforter and hopped up on the bed next to it, tucking her feet beneath her as she did so. With almost reverent care she extracted each item from within the jumbled mess. When she finally finished, she sat back to admire her take. Running a hand through her disheveled hair, she pondered the origin of some of the pieces. More than one bore the fray and wear of considerable age.
Abigail felt a twinge of guilt at procuring the entire lot for the original price of the chest. What she paid was probably only a pittance compared to what the shop could have gotten for it all. Granted, there were many nonsensical items to sift through, but those items that appeared to have value were potentially big-ticket items.
“I won’t make that mistake again,” the store’s owner had muttered when Abigail suggested they open the chest and negotiate a fair price for whatever was inside. “Enjoy whatever you may find, my dear. It can’t be worth me going through all that bother,” she chuckled, patting Abigail’s hand to reassure her.
With practiced precision, she had shooed Abigail out the door with the tinkling silver bell, and into the stifling humidity. When Abigail had turned to say goodbye, she was astonished to see the sign that proclaimed the shop was open for business now insisted it was closed. The sharp click of the deadbolt engaging confirmed what the sign relayed.
“What an odd woman,” Abigail had said to herself, shaking her head and shrugging, as she climbed into her vehicle.
Abigail spent the rest of the say cataloging the collection strewn across her bed. This way, if the owner changed her mind, she could present her with the list. Along with each description she snapped a photo on her phone. Most of the items were easy enough to identify, but a few tricky pieces required a bit of research on her end. One particularly fascinating piece had her stymied for almost an hour before she stumbled across a directory of sigils that finally provide the information she sought.
Abigail labored well into the night, being as precise or as elaborate as each item required. As she jotted down description after description, she found herself trying to conjure up an image of the chest’s previous owner. She began mentally grouping items together in an attempt to make any sense of all of it. Around 2 AM she gave up any hope of ever discovering what connected all these items, so diverse were they in both orient and composition. Her final frustrated consensus being the previous owner was certainly eclectic.
Abigail surveyed her work. Her final catalogue contained fifty-three items, listed in the order in which they were extricated from the chest. She couldn’t help but scan it, searching one last time for the pieces that would somehow create order within the chaos. The link, however, remained elusive. “Whatever,” she sighed, as she quickly typed the list on her tablet. Having completed her task, she resigned herself to sleep. The last thing she saw as her eyes drowsed closed was the time illuminated on the clock beside her bed. It was 3:33.
The chest contained the following items: a filigree owl pendant dangling from a broken chain, a deck of playing cards, a zebra-striped guitar pick, the charred stub of a burnt candle, a dried and pressed rose encased in wax paper, two 12-gauge shotgun shells, a heart shaped locket with a faded picture of a baby inside of it, a silver dollar from 1971, a chipped rook from a marble chess set, an empty leather pouch, a pack of chewing gum, a Zippo lighter engraved with a cheetah, a Polaroid of a daffodil, a well-worn postcard, a black suede vest, a set of wooden teeth, an unused ticket to a Slayer concert, a gold-plaited baby ring with the monogram M.D.D., a turquoise anklet, an obsidian earring, a class ring from 1989, a pair of broken spectacles, a gold crucifix, a pair of cufflinks with two white horses galloping into an azure horizon, an ivory rosary, a porcelain tea cup, a velvet covered ring box, a Harley-Davidson gas cap, a miniature obelisk with the sigil of Lilith etched into it, a set of six Crayola markers, a souvenir spoon from Niagara Falls, a pewter wizard figurine, an oversized “4X4” belt buckle, a syringe, an iPhone charger, a sapphire and emerald hair clip shaped like a peacock, fourteen unlit matches, a decidedly coldhearted Dear John letter, a black velvet choker, a red Ferrari matchbox car, a Twisted Sister pin, an anniversary card signed Love, Tina, a Barbie doll, a pair of white lace gloves, a tattered book of psalms, a blue and white garter, a pack of rolling papers, a packet of Lipton onion soup mix, a box of condoms, a catnip infused toy mouse, thirty-two cents in wheatback pennies, half a bottle of Ibuprofen, and a single lock
of curly blonde hair.
Sunday began with a chain of thunderstorms, and Abigail decided to tackle the mystery of the letter. In her irritation at being woken up so early, she didn’t see the playing card that slid from the sheets to the floor. The ace of spades remained unnoticed tucked away neatly beneath the bed.
Abigail took a moment to admire the chest before removing the piece of paper. It was ornate, yet not overdone. The carved cornices and wrought iron lion heads lent it an almost foreign feel. The hand tooled scrollwork exquisite in its intricacy. Abigail carried the delicate paper into the kitchen where there was better lighting. It was in worse shape than it had appeared within the safe confines of the box.
Lying exposed on the kitchen table it seemed as fragile as a snowflake. Over a pot of coffee, she painstakingly deciphered its cryptic meaning. The note was comprised of four short sentences, each more puzzling than the last. You must play the hand you are dealt. Introspection will reveal your truth. Acceptance is the key. Redemption comes with a price.
Abigail re-read the words for a third time and again a fourth time, failing to understand their meaning. Having uncovered yet another of the chest’s riddles, she placed the letter in a baggie and taped it to the inside of the lid before flopping onto her bed. Abigail imagined the chest as it waited patiently from atop the dresser, Elegant. Majestic. More questions begotten from its recesses than answers. Exhausted, she fell into an uneasy slumber. Shortly thereafter, the nightmares began.
From beneath sleeping eyelids, Abigail watched as four armored steeds galloped towards her. She marveled at the thudding of their hooves. They slowed to a canter as the drew near, coming to a halt in a clearance a fair distance from her. The dark-hooded figure on the pale steed rode away from the circle, easily closing the distance to where she stood. From atop its perch the figure pointed at Abigail’s heart. Its eyes blazed with an inhuman intensity. So mesmerizing was its gaze, Abigail found she had to force herself to look away. With a hideous whisper the wraith repeated the phrase, “You must play the hand you are dealt,” in a whisper that grew louder with every recitation. Until finally it reverberated throughout the entire valley.
Abigail awoke with a groggy start, the echoes of the wraith’s voice still fresh within her mind. She struggled to sit up as she regained full consciousness. In the outskirts of her peripheral vision she caught sight of a blurry shape withdrawing, and she heard the faint, almost distant, whinny of a horse. Both the steed and its rider receded into nothingness before she could turn her head to glimpse them more clearly. Abigail let out a startled scream. Beside her, nestled in the soft embrace of her pillow, lay the two of clubs.
Abigail got up and rummaged through the contents of the chest until she found what she was looking for. She emptied the deck of cards onto her bed, after fumbling a few moments with the box. Frantically, she began sorting them by suit. As she did so, she told herself to breathe. There had to be a simple explanation for what had transpired. And although her pace became less frantic, it wasn’t until she came across the first ace, that she finally came to a complete standstill. She stared at the ace of hearts with increasing comprehension.
The storm outside continued to rage, pelting her windows with a steady beat. A blown-down tree branch slammed into the side of the trailer, the force of its impact jarring her from her reverie. With the deliberate intent to prove herself wrong, Abigail searched for the remaining aces. She had gone through the deck twice now. Two important and unrelated facts readily stood out. One, the ace of spades and the two of clubs were definitely missing from the deck of cards. Two, this deck of cards was quite unlike any other. Its irregularities made her feel as if she were hallucinating, or at the very least, caught in the throes of a feverish dream.
The deck’s peculiarities probably would have seemed trivial had the aces not been quite so disturbing. The faces of the kings, the queens, and the jacks had all been replaced with skulls, yet the bodies were human. The numbered cards were unusual in that each of the four suits represented an element, so instead of just hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades, there were also earth, air, fire, and water.
What really made this deck exceptional were the aces. Each was represented by one of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The ace of diamonds represented Conquest, the ace of hearts became War, the ace of clubs Famine, presumably leaving the ace of spades to be none other than Death. So many questions plagued Abigail. Why was the ace of spades missing? Had it been a defective pack from the get-go? Had the ace gone missing years earlier unbeknownst to the deck’s previous owner? Yet another unsolved riddle stemming from the chest.
Abigail placed the cards back in the box and returned the deck to the chest, leaving the two of clubs out on her dresser. Both the tattered paper, and the specter in her dream, belabored the point that she must play the hand she was dealt. For now, that meant kicking back with the two of clubs. Who knew how or when the remaining cards were to be dealt? For that matter, who knew what game was even being played? Maybe the two of fire under the watch of Famine was actually a good thing. Abigail snickered and shook her head. “Probably not,” she mused. The rest of Sunday passed without notable incident, but on Monday morning Abigail awoke in tears. A sinking despair completely consumed her. Death had made a return appearance in her sleep.
She spent the day dozing on and off, flip-flopping between the reality of the trailer and the surreal landscape of her dreams. She awoke around midnight, fresh from a dream where Death not only warned her to play her hand, but also insinuated she wasn’t being introspective enough. He then implied her fate would somehow become his responsibility if she continued refusing to follow the rules. As she drifted towards consciousness, she thought she heard him hiss, “One more card. One last chance.”
Abigail turned on the bedside lamp. Two more cards had been dealt during her slumber. In her hand she now held the two of clubs, the six of hearts, and the queen of diamonds. She still wasn’t sure what game was being played, but she felt she could assume with some modicum of accuracy the hand she was dealt thus far was very unlikely a winner.
Sleep eluded Abigail for the remainder of the night. For the first time she felt truly alone. No family or friends lived nearby, and there was no one she felt she could wake with such a crazy tale just to ease her mind. She curled herself in a ball and wept until the sun came up.
When she arose it was without ambition, wandering aimlessly about the trailer. Usually the sight of her easel perked
her up, but today she just stared at it with disinterest. Not even the prospect of painting could snap her out of her fugue. So distracted was she that she didn’t even bother to look at the playing card that rested upon her pillow.
Morning dragged its way into afternoon, and rather than feeling even a tiny bit better, Abigail felt much, much worse. Her condition had not improved by the time night fell around her. Around 8 PM she remembered the playing card. Picking up the seven of spades, she added it to the small piles of cards on her dresser. She assumed the draw of this card must mean the game was finally over, and she had lost, meaning Death would soon visit to mete out his punishment. Abigail sat on the edge of the bed, and contemplated ways she could barter for her life.
As unhappy as she was the thought of dying had never entered her mind, until now. There were too many things she had not gotten around to yet. Now, with presumably less than twenty-four hours to live, she agonized over the time she had wasted. Holding her head in her hands, Abigail stared down at the floor. She noticed a tiny sliver of white jutting out from beneath the bed, barely visible from her vantage point. Crouching to get a better view, she reached beneath the bed to see what it was. Her mouth formed a startled “OH,” as she drew before her the ace of spades. The card must have fallen back before she was aware it existed. Back when her life belonged to her and she wasn’t plagued by nightmares and worries of imminent death. She walked over to the dresser and laid the playing cards face up.
Death’s insistence she hadn’t played the full hand she was dealt now made more sense. She cheered up slightly, as she realized she successfully met the game’s first requirement. She began to hold out some semblance of hope of making it through the night alive. “Introspection will reveal the truth,” she mumbled, drumming her fingers on the dresser. She paced the bedroom floor, trying to figure out what her truth could be. She basically was an honest person. She didn’t steal, and she told little white lies only when necessary. “I don’t have any secrets to reveal,” she whispered. As soon as the words left her lips, a queasy feeling rippled through her stomach and into her bowels. “No,” she shook her head vehemently, whimpering, “I can’t.”
Abigail quaked with fear as the clock on her nightstand read 11:00. Death would be here within the hour. She hoped he honored his duty with empathy and ended her life as quickly and painlessly as possible. The minutes ticked away with alarming speed.
At 11:45 Death materialized before her. His head moved from side to side, denying her wishes, as Abigail began to plead for her life. Terrified, a steady stream of words escaped her lips. “I’m an awful person. I did a terrible thing. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time. No, wait, that’s pretty much a lie. I mean I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t mean for it to hurt anyone. Wait, that’s a lie, too. I chose to act the way I did. I chose to use such hurtful words. I felt bad about myself and I was feeling abandoned and hurt so I attacked myself the only way I could. I assaulted myself with insults and accusations I knew weren’t true. I let my fear overwhelm me and instead of trying to understand my feelings, I chose to act like a spoiled brat. I chose to poke at my insecurities instead of working through them. I pecked at my wounds and made them bleed more. I made myself feel like nothing I did was good enough. I backed myself into a corner. I forced a reaction. And when I finally did defend myself, I blamed myself for my pain.”
Her confession complete, Abigail crumpled to her knees. Her heart thumped in her chest, and her breathing was raspy. Death nodded his approval, then retuned to polishing his scythe. “And…” he queried, without removing his eyes from the weapon. Abigail’s mind raced. What did she need to do now? At 11:58 Abigail whispered, “I accept the blame for what I did, but I refuse to punish myself for it. I made a terrible mistake, but I’ve learned from it. I accept I was abused, but I also accept that I abused myself as well. I accept the responsibility to grow and commit to positive change.”
Death brandished the scythe. “Redemption comes with a price,” he hissed, raising it in preparation to strike. “A token for the chest or pay with your life.” He gestured towards the dresser. Abigail fumbled with the tiny gold key she kept in her pocket and glanced at the chest. Its top lay open, waiting patiently from atop the dresser. With a desperate tug, Abigail freed the key from her pocket and quickly gauged the distance to the dresser. Closing her eyes, she raised the key to her lips and kissed it.
The key tinkered across the floor, coming to a rest in front of the dresser. Abigail’s severed head slowly rolled to a stop, her lifeless eyes staring straight at it for all eternity.
The clock flashed 12:01.