The road soon became mud. The tires spun in a thick sludge, and with each acceleration the car threatened to swerve.
“We should get out and walk,” Fred said.
“This is ridiculous.”
“The roads will dry out, and we aren’t far. Might as well walk.”
“I ought to stay in the car.”
Fred opened the driver’s door and stepped out, his shoes immediately sinking into the mud. He had to admit, the idea had not been a good one. George had initially agreed with an offhand indulgence of small-town absurdity. Then, he had then spent the intervening hours relentlessly complaining. Fred waited, hearing the passenger door finally open alongside George’s muttered curses.
“How did you hear about this place?” George asked, trying to step lightly on the mud, but nevertheless sinking into every puddle.
“No one tries to keep it a secret.”
“You’ve come here before?”
George shook his head at the madness, some of his good humour returning. As they walked, the air began to thicken, puddles evaporating into the heat. George walked in a criss-crossed path, avoiding the worst parts, while persistently swatting at insects and their phantom perceptions.
“How much longer?”
The house was as Fred remembered. Pushed back into the trees, the small roof hidden under the canopy of branches. It looked weathered beyond age.
George had stopped, staring in incredulous wonder and disgust, “Someone lives there?”
Fred waved him forward.
“You don’t expect me to go inside, do you?”
“We’ve come along this far.”
“Those trees are a hazard. Could collapse on the house any second.”
They approached the door, and Fred knocked.
“Guess no one is home,” George said, looking around. “They’ve probably been dead for a hundred years, by the looks of it.”
Fred ignored him.
The door opened and the old woman looked out. George smiled politely, but looked visibly strained from effort. The woman hesitated but then stepped back, leaving the door open. Fred stepped inside and George followed.
The inside was surprisingly lit. The entire back wall opened in a large window and light filled the single room. The forest loomed behind, but it had been pushed back to let a small garden grow in front of the window.
George looked around, unabashedly surveying the home. “You know,” he began, speaking to no one in particular, but liking to hear his own thoughts aloud. “Despite the weathered exterior, the inside is cozy.” He looked up at the ceiling and the wooden rafters. “The structure seems soundly made and the large window is a nice touch. A few too many plants for my liking, but –” he spread his hands and gave the space one more quick, professional glance. The woman waited for him to finish.
She sat down at the small table and gestured for them to join. George sat with the confidence of someone about to explain how a particularly simple trick is done. Fred took out a twenty dollar bill and set it on the table. George looked at it with brief contempt, and the woman looked at it blankly.
“Let me go first,” George said.
The woman took out a carved box that held six dice. Each one of the dice had a single blank side, and when the woman cast them on the table, all six fell with the blank side up.
George smiled, “Well?”
George’s smile faltered in irritation. “Come now, tell us what it means.”
George’s good spirits evaporated. He had been about to expose this woman as an unworthy fraud, and now she was cheating him of the chance. “Nothing?” he asked, and he turned to Fred. “Bloody waste of time, like I told you.” George snatched up the twenty and thrust it at Fred. “Let’s go then.”
Fred placed the twenty back on the table and found George waiting outside.
They walked to the car in silence. George looked irritated enough to speak, but said nothing. Fred suspected he had inadvertently taken a wedge to an otherwise amicable friendship. He was wrong, but at the time, couldn’t possibly know why. Ten days later, he received news that George had been killed, instantly, in a car wreck.
Fred was a reasonable person – more or less. The first time he returned, he convinced himself it was idle curiosity. It was only a lighthearted shrug of the shoulders, a tip of the hat to fate and the foolishness of belief.
He put his twenty on the table like he was watching himself in a dream. The dice turned and came up looking random – a meaningless combination. He smiled and did not wait for the reading, leaving with a light step. The second time he returned, he admitted the idea had been lurking in his mind like an unhealed blister, chaffing at his thoughts. He waited long enough to see the dice did not roll blank, and then left. On the slow walk back to his car, he felt a mixture of stupidity – and relief.
Over the weeks, months, and then years, it became his pilgrimage. He returned every ten days, without fail and without bitterness. He had conceded to the insidious habit. Initially, he had tried to stop himself. He had stayed away, looking furtively out of windows and jumping at shadows, but he did not know peace until he returned. If pressed, he knew he was – perhaps – being unreasonable.
He lost track of his visits. Over the years, the road further dwindled in washed out mud and overgrown forest, and he parked farther and farther out. The old woman had grown accustomed to his visits. No longer seeing him with idle curiosity, he sensed her resignation as she cast the dice and then looked at him.
On the last day, the ground was soaked with rain and the trees glistened with speckled drops. The woman was outside, looking at the small home. He stopped beside her, the faint smell of accelerant in the air. The woman appeared to be waiting, and a faint drizzle of rain began. She turned to him and handed him a thick envelop full twenty dollar bills. Then, she held out the small ornate box. He took it with some reverence, opening it to see neat rows of dice.
He looked questioningly at the matchbox in her hand.
When the rain began in earnest, she struck a match. “The memories come with me,” she said, dropping the match. It hit the line of accelerant and raced toward the open door of the house.
“And what about these?” he asked, holding up the dice.
“I suggest you cast them in with the rest.”
Out of the box, the dice felt heavy in his hand. The woman had already turned to walk away. Fred hesitated, then cursed and threw the dice toward the burning house. As they arced in the air, he felt unburdened of his mind. Two dice hit the frame of the door, landing on the porch, the others sailed inside. His involuntary glance caught two blank sides lying on the porch. He wrenched himself away. The woman had stopped and was watching him as though waiting – or witnessing. She smiled as he ran to join her.
She began walking.
“Wait!” he shouted, handing her back the envelop of money. The home had thickened in smoke, and she reached for his arm. “I have to know,” he said, and wrenched himself away.
The woman watched him race back, his arm covering his mouth as he ducked inside. She tucked the envelop into her coat and turned away. She had known the strange man would come today, and had already cast his dice.
She continued down the lane and did not look back.