By Tara Campbell
Prompt, by Claire Lombardo: Write about an exquisitely eccentric holiday guest.
Mark meandered around the edges of the crowd, sipping his gin and tonic. Macy had warned him to stay away from the office holiday party that year, but not for the obvious reasons. It wasn’t about getting out of small talk with colleagues and clients, or avoiding drippy choral music and voluntary-but-not-really rounds of Pin the Nose on Rudolph. And she didn’t even mention the inherent sadness of crumpled tinsel wilting against hotel ballroom walls, or the looming awkwardness of ex-lover coworkers being in the same room with booze and mistletoe.
No, Macy’s reasons for steering both of them away from the Hilton that night were entirely about The Curse. That’s what she called it, at least, which always hurt him a little because the night of The Curse was also the first night they hooked up, at the end of last year’s holiday party, after a few too many eggnogs and a mind-blowing joint in the alley behind the hotel. He thought that night was pretty awesome, actually.
He took another sip of gin, as though it could rinse the memory of eggnog puke. The one sour note, so to speak, of the first night he and Macy spent together.
Anyway there he was, and there she wasn’t: at the holiday party. He hadn’t bailed on it because the firm’s newest client, Virgin Atlantic, was supposed to be sending someone over. There were still open spots on the Virgin service team, and if he played his cards right, he could get in. Sweet swag, maybe free flights or even a Richard Branson sighting? That was about as exciting as the insurance biz was likely to get, so he wasn’t going to give that up because of a superstitious ex.
His cube-neighbor Jeff strolled out of the burbling crowd in the ballroom and clinked glasses with him.
Mark pointed at his ironically ugly Christmas sweater. “That’s hideous, man.”
“Thanks.” Jeff smiled and sidled next to Mark.
They stood shoulder to shoulder, scanning the crowd and wondering aloud which young woman Mr. Nickerson would harass this year. Their boss was nothing if not dependable, every year getting smashed and trying (hilariously and unsuccessfully) to convince some young thing to accompany him to the suite he’d booked upstairs. Then Christmas bonuses would come out, one of them a skosh higher than the rest, and all would be forgiven.
But someone must have talked to the boss this year: he wasn’t doing his usual sharking around the room, and the soundtrack had actually been switched to piano jazz. He’d have to tell Macy. They were still good, he and Macy. Even though they weren’t dating anymore, they could still work together and talk without tension. Except when it came to The Curse.
He shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Someone who reads Tarot is more likely to believe in curses, right? Still, it was pretty hot when she pulled out the cards that night, after they’d drunk eggnog and toked and he’d puked all over both of them and she’d invited him to her place to clean up. He was effectively neutered with embarrassment by the time they got there, but she had other ideas about how the evening would end; and when she put on that sheer, flowy robe and held up those Tarot cards like some sexy, mysterious gypsy—
“Dude.” Jeff elbowed his arm. “Check it out,” he said, nodding toward the ballroom entrance.
A tall, slender man stood in the doorway. He held both doors open with outstretched arms, his silhouette a crucifix against the glaring light of the hallway beyond. He stepped over the threshold. The brightness behind him fluttered and dimmed as the doors lurched shut.
Jeff raised his eyebrow at Mark.
The dark figure stood motionless for a moment before striding further into the room. He wore a slim-fitting suit made of a broad yet understated brown plaid. The thick carpet of beard on his chin was edgily at odds with his shaved upper lip. A maroon silk ascot gleamed at the neck of his collarless white dress shirt, and the sheen of his dark, slicked-back hair matched the shine of his shoes. His gait was runway; his beard, Lincoln; his aura, preternaturally cool.
Mark clenched his teeth as the stranger approached. God how he hated these nouveau-alpha-males with their chiseled features and their calculatedly quirky accessories and their names like River or Van or Stone or whatever it was Valkyrie parents named their über-hip progeny.
The son of Valkyries granted them a suave nod and kept sailing toward the bar.
Mark shot another glance at the man after he’d passed. Christ, of course—a man-bun. “What is this, Hipster-Douche Ken goes to prom?” he murmured to Jeff. “What’s that thing on his head?”
“Jesus, seriously?” Jeff scoffed.
“Dude, I know what a man-bun is. But what’s on it?”
Jeff had a fist to his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. “Holy shit, it’s a fucking hat.”
“Yeah. Dude’s wearing a tiny fucking fedora on his punk-ass man-bun!”
Mark squinted. Sure enough, atop the stranger’s gleaming topknot perched a tiny brown fedora with a taupe band.
Jeff strolled off to nudge more coworkers’ arms and point out the new arrival. Mark sucked at his drink and watched the stranger. His stomach tightened with a queasy sense of familiarity. He knew this guy from somewhere. Something inside him stirred, something—no way, not like that, not for a guy. Then he laughed to himself. That’s what it was: Fedora-man looked like that Tarot card of the Knight, the one Macy made him look at so many times. The one she drew the first night they were together.
She’d made him wait that night; took her time mixing the cards, torturing them both. “What do you want them to reveal?” she’d asked. She winked and slowly slid the first card from the top of the stack. She looked at it, then him, a smile lifting the corner of her mouth. She leaned across the table, the silk of her robe stretching taut against her nipples, to place the Knight in front of him. The Maiden card was next, then the Emperor. She lingered over each card, explaining what it might mean, but all he understood was the curve of her lips and the swell of her breasts. Next came an image of a high Tower, then the Devil. Each time she leaned back to choose another card, her robe opened a little further. She reached forward again and again, and finally, so did he…
Damn, why did they break it off? Of course, The freaking Curse.
She’d been distraught the next morning, upset because she’d abused the Tarot. She’d used it for impure purposes, she said, to seduce him, and that manipulation of the Tarot would provoke grave destruction. From that night on, she told him a new theory about The Curse just about every time they got together: who it would hurt—if not all of them—and how they could stop it. After a while she stopped reading Tarot entirely. He thought maybe it was some kind of New Age manifestation of Catholic guilt about all the Grade A sex they were having—except she wasn’t Catholic. The year wore on, and the longer nothing happened with The Curse, the more obsessed with it she became, until he finally couldn’t take it any more.
Even after they broke up, she would talk about it. And when the company announced that the next holiday party would be at the Hilton, the highest building in town, she was convinced that the convergence of the party (Tower), her (Maiden), Mark (Knight) and their boss Mr. Nickerson (Emperor) would spell disaster: the Devil.
In short, the whole thing had made her a little bat-shit. Maybe he should have at least tried to believe in The Curse to placate her. But wouldn’t that have been worse, lying to her to make her happy? A year later, he still had no answer.
Mark took another sip of gin and focused on the other guests. Only then did he notice that the rumbling murmur of the party had diminished to the whisper of autumn leaves on the sidewalk. The crowd rippled. One by one, all heads turned in a single direction, like compass needles finding true north: toward the mystery man in the tiny brown fedora.
Mark’s cheeks began to feel warm. He frowned and put down his drink. He hadn’t had that much, had he?
The mysterious visitor stood off to the side with a three-olive martini in his hand. He scanned the room absently, focusing just above the crowd with a faint, unreadable smile on his face. All the guests watched the stranger, their eyes glinting.
They were all just curious, Mark told himself. Intrigued. Maybe even a little fascinated.
The stranger pinched his olive-laden cocktail pick and began to stir his drink.
Mark’s cheeks burned hotter and his chest felt tight. Was it jealousy he felt? Admiration, maybe? His gut twisted with unsettling urges as he watched the mysterious man whirl his olives faster and faster around his glass.
Was it attraction?
He had to look away. Everyone else still gawked at the tall, dapper man. Their faces were red, some starting to perspire, all of them awash with, what? Longing? Desire?
The stranger stopped stirring abruptly and looked down into the crowd. Mark followed his gaze and spotted Macy, devastatingly beautiful in a clinging blue gown, waves of chestnut hair falling over one shoulder.
Damn, why did they split up again?
Oh yeah, The Curse.
Mark fanned himself with his collar and his head began to clear. What the hell was Macy doing there anyway? She’d told him they had to stay away from the party, and now there she was in the middle of the crowd standing right next to Nickerson and whispering into his ear.
She looked up at the stranger. Her full, red lips froze mid-whisper. The dapper man tilted his head downward and moved toward her, his steps taut and smooth. Stalking.
Mark squared his shoulders and walked toward Macy, blocking the man’s approach. She smiled. Her dimples and dazzling eyes pulled him closer.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Nickerson. Macy.” Mark held his hand out to his boss for a shake, but Nickerson merely stared at him with vacant eyes. Macy grabbed their boss’s hand and placed it into Mark’s. Nickerson smiled dimly, disoriented, while Mark shook his hand. Whatever spell had been cast on the guests crumbled: conversations resumed, laughter tinkled, whispers rose once again to the pitch of a perfectly normal holiday party.
Nickerson’s weak smile flickered to full wattage, and he pumped Mark’s hand with gusto. “Merry Christmas to us all,” he crowed. He slipped an arm around Macy and his grubby fingers squeezed her waist.
Mark’s temples throbbed. He clenched his free hand into a fist.
Macy leaned over to finish whispering into Nickerson’s ear. Mark fumed as the boss’ fat, hairy hand slid down her hip.
“Be right back,” she cooed, tapping the tip of Nickerson’s bulbous nose with her finger. Then, quick as a minx, she grabbed Mark’s hand and pulled him aside.
“Don’t freak out,” she said, placing her hands on his chest. “I had to come. That guy’s trouble.” She jerked her head toward the slim stranger, who was leaning against the wall stroking his beard and staring at their boss. “Mr. Nickerson’s the target. If we can keep them separated, maybe we can keep him out of danger.”
He glowered at Nickerson. “Yeah, well, he’s not the only one in danger.” The boss was glad-handing around the room while sneaking lecherous glances at Macy’s ass. Mark’s stomach turned when he thought of all the places those greedy fingers wanted to explore.
“I know, he’s disgusting,” she said. “But I can handle him.”
“Yeah, well why can’t he handle himself? Why are we responsible for him?”
“Mark, sweetie.” She shook her head. “This isn’t just about him. We’re all bound together by the cards—”
“Yes, yes, and, ‘If one of is hurt, it might just be a matter of time for the rest of us.’” He’d endured this mantra many times.
“Exactly. But if we can divert disaster tonight, maybe we can break the curse.” She grasped his lapels and gently pulled him closer. “And if we can break the curse, maybe everything will work out.”
He clenched his teeth. She had no idea what she was doing.
She cupped his cheeks in her palms. “Baby, don’t you see, all the cards are in place: this stupid Christmas party, you, Nickerson—”
“And a hipster devil with a man-bun fedora?”
She scrunched her lips to the side, the way she did every time he mocked The Curse: the I-know-it-sounds-nuts, but-what-if-it’s-true? look. The look that gave him hope she wasn’t completely crazy.
So, what if he played along, just this once? If he could distract this guy for a few hours, keep him away from Nickerson, maybe she’d finally be able to let the whole thing go. No more Tarot, no more Curses. Just him and Macy with a fresh start.
He took her hands in his. “Just don’t go up to Nickerson’s room, okay?”
“You got it.”
He leaned closer, but she turned her head. “Our guy’s on the move again.”
Mark glimpsed the tall man winding through the crowd toward their boss. He had to admit, there was something strange about the man, the charge that had filled the room, the emotions that had surged across everyone’s faces. The tangle of urges he’d felt himself.
Mark stepped into the crowd, shouldering past coworkers. Maybe what Macy called “evil” was more like a premonition. Intuition, he could understand that. It’s not like she thought some devil was going to march in with a pitchfork; she just had the feeling something bad was about to happen.
He had that feeling now too.
The stranger’s lips stretched into a thin smile as he closed in on Nickerson. Mark elbowed faster and harder through the mass of party guests—Curse or no Curse, there was a sinister edge to that grin.
“Ah, Mr. Nickerson.” The visitor’s voice was a low, satisfied rumble, the purr of a black cat at midnight. “Finally we meet.” He reached toward Nickerson and—
“Wait!” yelled Mark. The crowd shifted. In an agonizing, unstoppable blur, Mark tripped on someone’s foot, lurched forward and slammed into the stranger. They both fell, crashing into a knot of bystanders and landing in a heap on the ballroom floor. People gasped and screamed. An elbow dug into Mark’s ribs. Hands reached down and pulled him up from the floor.
Jeff broke through the crowd and glared at Mark. “What the hell was that all about?”
“Look out!” Mark pointed at the stranger rising to his feet.
The mystery man straightened his jacket and smoothed back his hair. “Pardon me?”
“Watch him,” sputtered Mark. “He’s—I have to—” He looked from face to face. Everyone blinked back, shocked and confused.
“It appears there’s been a misunderstanding,” said the stranger. His accent was clipped. British. “I’m Roger Fordham from Virgin Atlantic. I was hoping to introduce myself to Mr. Nickerson, but that seems to have been a breach of company protocol.” He flashed a rakish grin at the ring of guests around him.
A giggle pierced the silence, prompting a chuckle, then more laughter. Someone handed Mr. Fordham his tiny fedora, and he dusted it off. Everyone pressed in to meet the dashing new client.
Jeff put a hand on Mark’s shoulder and steered him aside. “Dude, what are you doing?”
“I thought he was—Macy said—” Mark craned his neck to look for her and Nickerson. “She was just here.”
Jeff tightened his grip on Mark’s shoulder. “Hey, man, come on. What’s going on with you?”
Jeff’s stern tone jolted him back to reality: he’d just tackled a client. Not just a client, but probably the most exciting, high profile client their company had ever had. Oh god. Mark ran a hand through his hair. He was toast. He’d lose his job all because of some crazy Tarot crap. And Macy—Macy was about to let Nickerson paw her, maybe worse, all for nothing!
He jerked away from Jeff and jostled through the crowd. A flash of light caught his eye. Against the brightness of the open ballroom doorway, Macy’s silhouette led Mr. Nickerson’s shadow out into the hall.
“Macy!” He maneuvered around a knot of coworkers blocking the entrance. “Stop!” He pulled open the doors and raced into the corridor. “Macy!”
Mark saw a flash of blue just as he turned toward the lobby. Mr. Nickerson followed Macy into the elevator.
Mark barreled into the lobby and punched the up button, watching the display above Macy’s car to see where it stopped. Of course, Nickerson had to book his suite all the way at the top.
Come on, come on, come on.
Another set of doors opened. He jumped into the elevator and stabbed the button for the same floor. The car groaned slowly upward.
Comeoncomeoncomeon. He was swimming to the top of a vat of molasses and running out of air.
The doors finally slid open. Mark sprang out of the elevator into a long, empty hallway. It was silent. A faint, murky odor permeated the air. He hustled down the empty corridor, listening at doors, but there was no sound. No TVs blaring, no giggling or running water or clinking minibars or any sign of life.
Mark stopped pacing in the middle of the hallway and pulled out his phone. He texted her: Mission over gtfo of his room. He scowled at the screen, waiting for her reply. She’d already sent him a bunch of texts that night:
Where r u?
R u at party?
He clutched his phone, wanting nothing more than to grab Macy and get away from whatever rotten funk was permeating the hallway. His phone vibrated in his fist, emitting the dopey, cheerful bloop-bloop-bloop of a Skype call. He picked up and his breath caught. It was Macy. The room behind her was dim. Her eyes were sleepy and her hair was tousled.
He ran his hand down his face, dragging his cheek toward the floor. “Oh, shit. Macy.” Some malevolent, invisible elf had just punched him in the gut.
She rubbed her eyes and peered at him. “Mark, you ass, I knew it!”
“Hang on,” she said. Her face disappeared from the screen, then the room behind her lit up. She frowned into the phone again, her thin eyebrows bunched together.
Wearing no makeup.
In a baggy, grey sweatshirt.
Mark shook his head dumbly.
“You’re at the hotel,” she snapped. “I can see it behind you!”
There she was, sitting in front of her rubber tree plant and the wall hanging from Morocco, fuming at him—from her apartment.
Her expression softened. “You jerk, why didn’t you answer any of my calls? I was worried.”
He thumbed over to his contact screen and found a stream of missed calls from Macy. The whole time he’d been at the party with—Macy?
He swallowed and flipped back to Skype.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “You look freaked out. Are you okay?”
At the end of the empty hallway, the elevator doors opened. The sulfurous smell intensified. Mark shuddered.
“Mark? Talk to me.”
The Knight at the top of the Tower…
“Say something,” pleaded Macy. “You’re scaring me.”
The Virgin Maiden below…
The doors closed and the elevator hummed in its shaft. He shivered again.
“What happened?” she asked. “Come on, it’s me. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
And the Devil who claimed the Emperor, and might someday claim them all…
“Please, Mark, just say it.”
…wore the shape of the one who summoned him.
“Mark, it’s me!”