You Will Welcome Death

bywantsomefun1951©

In the morning, I felt better than I had in days, well-rested, and ready to get to the bottom of the mystery of my beautiful sketch. Ignoring my empty stomach, I carried things down to the office, and typed up everything I had learned about this amazing piece of art. Stopping frequently to examine it for inspiration, I found myself wondering if I would ever sell it, no matter what it turned out to be worth. Besides, how would I prove its value? I wasn't about to mail it off to some lab. I didn't want it out of my sight that long.

By early afternoon, I decided I should really make something to eat. I went up to the kitchen, but before I could open the refrigerator, I was attacked by a vicious headache and sudden stomach upset, the combination I was getting to know all too well. I grabbed the bucket I kept under the sink, and struggled back downstairs. After an hour or two, I felt amazingly better and very hungry, so I decided to get a pizza from the shop across the parking lot from the ruins of Frank's store.

Less than fifty feet from my door, the nausea hit. The ache I had felt in my joints the day before was nothing compared to the grinding agony of every movement I made stumbling back to my shop. As I fumbled with my keys, I cursed myself, wondering why a man as sick as I was would think about pizza.

After an hour of resting my sweaty head on my desk, I felt a lot better, ready to resume my web-searching. I looked at the sketch again, and was startled to see that the incubus now appeared to be beckoning to me. I tried to blame it on the stress and horror of the last few days. A tiny part of me knew what I thought I saw was impossible, but my love for the drawing insisted that I was making it all up.

The headline story in the evening paper that day was about Frank. His parents had posted a sizable reward for information that might lead to the arrest and conviction of his killer. They refused to believe Frank killed himself. His memorial service was scheduled for the next morning. Sick or not, I had to go.

I was weak with exhaustion and hunger. I started up the steps to make dinner, but the pain in my joints, head, and gut made it impossible. Afraid of passing out and falling down the stairs, I stumbled back to my desk and flopped in my chair.

My phone woke me. Early afternoon sun streamed through my office window. I had missed my best friend's funeral. My phone sounded its alert for a new voicemail. "Carl, it's Bob. I'm worried about you, man. Why weren't you at Frank's service? He was your best friend, wasn't he? Are you okay? I haven't heard from you since I called you about Marge. We're having a small thing for her tomorrow morning at ten. It would mean a lot to the kids and me if you were there. I think Marge would want that too. Please call me."

I started to call him back, but then stopped. What was I going to say? "Hey, buddy, sorry I didn't go to the funeral for my life-long friend who went nuts and burned himself to death. I'll be sure to come and cry with you over your lovely wife-turned-criminal, who intentionally splattered herself against a concrete wall."

Who was I kidding? I knew I couldn't go to Marge's service. Even though I felt half decent at the moment, I knew I'd be too sick to even get in my car.

Since I had no intention of opening the shop, I gathered my power saw, hammer, and nails, and resumed work on my shelf-building project. My head was killing me, so I stopped and got a cup of water from the bathroom next to my office and sat at my desk to examine my drawing again. Odd. For just an instant, I thought it looked like the incubus was covering its pointy ears, almost as though the scream of my saw was too loud for it. I was lost in thought about that when I heard the accursed buzzer on my front door.

Damn it! Didn't these morons know I had more important things to do than stand in my shop with them for an hour, making small talk, just so they could hand me a couple of bucks for some trash?

Someone started knocking on the back door of my shop, hammering incessantly on it. I struggled to my feet and looked through the peephole. Bertoli again. I unlocked the door, opened it, and shuffled back to my desk.

"Carl, you look like hell."

"Thanks. It's how I feel, too."

"You're pale."

"You would be too, if you couldn't eat."

"Bob Singleton called me and asked if I had heard from you. He's concerned, since you haven't returned his calls and didn't go to Frank Brown's service today."

"You saw the paper, didn't you? How was I supposed to face his family? It sounds like they don't know the truth about Frank."

"We told them Frank started the fire, but they don't believe us. The mayor agrees we shouldn't show them the video from inside the shop, so they're convinced we're wrong about the cause of his death. They're threatening a lawsuit against the city, since we're calling it a suicide."

"Morons. What else could it have been? You told them no one came and went from the building, didn't you?"

"They insist we're wrong. Carl, why didn't you go to his service?"

"I slept right through it. I fell asleep here at my desk. Maybe I even passed out. I don't know. I'm so weak and tired. I tried to go upstairs to bed last night, but I couldn't do it."

"Carl, when was the last time you had a decent meal?"

"I don't remember."

"When was the last time you took a shower or changed your clothes?"

"What business is it of yours? Is there a new hygiene ordinance I'm violating?"

"Of course not, Carl. I know you've had a rough couple of days, between being sick and all the horror you've gone through. Maybe you should see a doctor."

"Why would I go to the doctor for the flu? So he can charge me a hundred dollars and tell me stay hydrated?"

"I wasn't talking about a general practitioner. You need to talk to someone."

"I'm fine. See? I'm busy building new shelves to better display my wonderful merchandise."

"How's the research on your drawing going?"

"I think it's the only thing keeping me sane. I'm positive it's the work of an eighteenth century artist named Henry Fuseli. He made preliminary sketches for some of his paintings. My treasure is a study for 'The Nightmare,' series, probably his most famous work. Look."

I showed him prints I made of all the known versions of "The Nightmare," pointing out the similarities between them and my wondrous sketch.

"You're probably right. The horse looks crazy in all of them, just like it does on your sketch, and the incubus is glaring at the viewer, almost like he's challenging us to take the woman away from him. He looks very possessive," Bertoli said.

"Isn't it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"

Bertoli regarded it for a moment. "No, frankly, I find it very disturbing, almost evil."

"You're an idiot. If you can't see why this work is so important, if you can't appreciate the beauty of it, you could at least keep your dumb cop opinion to yourself. I'm busy. It's time for you to leave."

Bertoli rose and headed for the door. "Bob asked me to call him back if I got to speak to you. Should I tell him to expect you at Marge's funeral tomorrow?"

"Tell him whatever you want. Now, get out!" I slammed and bolted the door behind him.

I flopped in my chair again and lost myself in the strange and wonderful beauty of my sketch. How could he be so insensitive? Bertoli was as bad as Frank and Marge, not respecting my precious and inspired piece of art.

As bad as Frank and Marge. Yes, that was why I didn't like him. At least he hadn't done anything to actually harm my treasure. If he had, I might have killed him myself, I thought, staring lovingly at the life-like detail of the gift given to me. I turned the paper over, remembering Frank's translation the Latin inscription on the back: "Respect this, or suffer. You will welcome death." Frank and Marge hadn't shown the proper respect to my precious drawing, damaging it with their carelessness. Then they killed themselves. Well, good. Cretins like them didn't deserve to live.

I turned the drawing over again. The incubus was smiling at me. The grin seemed genuine, almost conspiratorial. We shared a secret. He knew I understood the responsibility for his safety lay in my hands.

Following links in a new search, I learned more about incubi -- fascinating creatures, all about need and taking. Legend and fiction concentrated on their sexuality, but they took more than the honor of their prey. Souls were their life-blood. They drained a victim of their strength and consumed the remaining husk of their humanity. Satan's worker-bees, their purpose was to transfer mortals to their Master in Hell.

The logic of it was insanely beautiful. That's what Fuseli's sketch represented. Like a bee, the incubus would lash out to defend itself. It didn't physically kill its enemies. It made them do it themselves. Much of Christianity believed suicide was the express route to Hell.

Many years had passed since my childhood Sunday School classes. Obviously, Collins believed the warning of the incubus. I did too.

My printouts fit in my laptop case, making it easy to take the drawing upstairs with me when the sun set. I thawed a left-over Easter dinner and ate walking back and forth from my plate on the counter to my drawing and computer on the table. When I was sure the exhaust fan would keep the moisture under control, I set up a tray in the bathroom door, showering for the first time in days. Clearing my nightstand afterward, I smoothed a fresh pillow where the street-lamp would allow me to see my drawing.

In the morning, I chose some clean clothes, and took everything downstairs after breakfast. The sketch looked perfect, carefully propped on the shelf behind the cash register. Maybe it was the contrast of Bertoli's black and white rendering with the hodgepodge of colors in my store, but somehow, the lighting looked better. After a thorough dust and polish of my inventory, I got to work on my shop windows. Careful buying throughout the year gave me some "killer" ideas for last-minute upgrades to my Halloween display.

A few customers came in and bought things I was going to use, but the addition of one of Collins' Elvis-on-velvet atrocities made my windows perfect. I hung my blood-red curtains after waiting on the last customer of the night. Instead of my usual closed sign, I wrote on a chalkboard, "You need what I have for Halloween. See you at dawn."

The pizza shop down the street delivered in thirty minutes. I devoured the huge antipasto, planning to re-heat the pizza after I closed Halloween night. With a long day ahead of me, I managed to get everything upstairs. In the shower, I figured out how to build a proper and safe place for my treasure. I drew it on my laptop between bites of my pre-dawn breakfast, and I had everything ready to build my little shrine by the time I opened my curtains and unlocked the door.

Two stamp collectors bought complete costumes for themselves and their girlfriends, helped me re-sort the Collins envelopes, and then bought most of them for more than I had planned to ask. I sold some Asian rugs I planned to throw away at the end of the year, and by evening collectors and college kids had cleaned out my windows so I could set up my winter display.

Re-heated pizza is always a favorite. After dinner, we went downstairs. My measurements would work. The reason for my continued existence would have a proper place to live. Four hours and one smashed fingernail later, the shrine was ready for paint. Carefully, I picked up the drawing to wave any dust from it.

At the top of the steps, I nearly collapsed with pain. Why? Now what? Under the light at the kitchen table I saw it. The gorilla-sized creature dominated the emaciated woman beneath it, and the horse reared up to be able to see over the hunched back of the enraged demon. Both glared at the tiny bloodstain on the upper edge where my injured finger had touched it.

I retched all the way downstairs and uncoiled my long extension cord.

"Never in my entire career did I think I'd see this," Hayes said. "Bertoli! Get over here, but make sure breakfast is under control before you do."

"His electric saw? Wait. Wasn't Singleton right-handed?"

"I think so. Yeah." Hayes said. "How does a right-handed man make such a clean cut though his own right arm with a circular saw?"

Bertoli pulled out his rosary. "Where is that drawing?"

*****

Serling would sometimes end his show with a voice-over, a creepy summation of what the viewer had endured.

"Carl Singleton was a skeptic. He dealt in realities, relics, and artifacts. He didn't appreciate the power art can have over a man's soul, especially in The Night Gallery."

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