The road soon became mud. A thick sludge where tires spun and the car threatened to swerve with each new purchase.
“We should get out and walk from here.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“The roads will dry out, and we aren’t far. Might as well walk.”
“I don’t know why I let you talk me into this. I should 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, who initially agreed with an offhand indulgence to quaint smalltown absurdity, had spent the intervening hours relentlessly complaining about his agreeance. Fred heard the passenger door open, and George’s curses as he tried to step lightly upon the mud, but nevertheless sank his polished shoes into a deep puddle.
“How do you hear about these places anyway?”
“No one trying to keep it a secret.”
“You’ve come here before?”
George shook his head, some of his humor returning to him. As they walked, the air began to thicken, puddles evaporating into the heat. George walked a criss-crossing path, avoiding the worst parts, while persistently swatting at the perception of insects buzzing around him.
“How much longer?”
The house was as he 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 tree branches are a real hazard.”
They approached the door, and Fred knocked, stepping back to wait. George looked around, “Guess no one is home,” he said, then added, “Probably been dead for a hundred years, by the looks of it.”
Fred ignored him.
The door opened, and the old woman looked out at them. George smiled politely, but looked visibly strained from the forced expression. The woman looked momentarily confused, unsure, but then stepped back, leaving the door open for them to come in. Fred stepped inside, and heard a muffled curse under George’s breath, before he followed as well.
The inside was surprisingly lit. The entire back wall opened in a large window, letting light fill the single room. The forest loomed behind, but some of it had been cleared for a garden immediately in front of the window. George looked around, unabashedly surveying the home, and casting his gaze with judgement, “You know,” he said, speaking to no one in particular, but seemingly speaking to hear his own thoughts aloud, “despite the weathered exterior, the inside is quite cozy,” he looked up at the ceiling and the cottage-like wooden rafters, “I’d even say most of the structure is soundly made. And the window is a surprisingly nice touch – although a few too many plants for my liking.”
He referred to the side walls, where shelves of little plants and flowers had been made permanent fixtures. George gave the space one more quick, professional glance, as though he might have been a realtor readying himself for a perspective client to upsell. The woman watched him, her expression unreadable, but evidently waiting for him to finish.
She sat down at the small table and gestured for them to sit. George sat with the confidence of someone about to explain to an audience how a particularly simple trick was 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.
“I’ll go first then,” George said.
The woman took out a small intricately carved box that held six many-sided dice, each one carved in slightly different shapes and sizes, but all of them with unreadable symbols and markings. Each one of the dice had a single blank side, and when the woman cast the dice 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 condescendingly good spirits evaporated with the feeling of being cheated by someone he was sure to expose as an unworthy fraud, “Nothing?” he turned to Fred, as a more ready conduit for his annoyance, “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 equal parts irritated enough to speak, and wishing to appear totally unaffected and too unbothered to dignify the incident with a comment. Fred believed he had inadvertently taken a wedge to an otherwise amicable and long lasting friendship that would only further widen and seperate over time. He was wrong, but at the time, could not possibly know how this day would bury itself in his memory, to be turned over and over, endlessly shifted and reimagined. It was ten days later that he received the news. George had been killed, instantly, in a car wreck.
Fred was not an unreasonable person – more or less. He was prone to the familiarity of habit, which was natural. The first time he even convinced himself it was mere idle curiosity, a lighthearted shrug of the shoulders, a tip of the hat to fate and the foolishness of belief. He had put his twenty down on the table with the detached air of watching himself in a dream. The dice turned and came up showing different marks and symbols – meaningless scratches. He had smiled, and did not wait for the reading, but left with a light step. The second time, exactly ten days after the first, he admitted the idea had been lurking in his mind like a lingering and unhealed blister, chaffing at his thoughts. He did not wait for the reading that time either, but only waited to see the dice did not roll blank. He did not smile as the dice bounced and rolled, but watched them with an unacknowledged unease. Each time he left a twenty on the table, and made his slow walk back to his car, feeling a mixture of stupidity and, when he was being honest, relief.
Over the weeks, then months, and then months turning to years, it became his pilgrimage. Every ten days, without fail, and without bitterness, he had given in, conceded to habit’s insidious grip. He had, of course, tried to stop himself. He had stayed away, looking furtively out of windows and jumping at shadows, until he had once more given in, and as the dice fell with their strange markings, he was given the sweet release of another ten days. He knew that if pressed, he was – perhaps – being unreasonable. He was not so foolish as to tell people, however, and risk their glances, their raised eyebrows, or worse, their self-indulgent smiles of patronizing sympathy. He made up his reasons, and he made his returns.
He had long lost track of his visits. Earlier on, he would occasionally see other people making their way down the winding forested lane, still a rare and out of the way sight to see. Those occasions dwindled as the road further washed away in rain and mud, cars having to be parked further and further away, before walking the rest. The old woman had grown accustomed to his visits, no longer seeing him with curiosity on their often wordless encounters, but he sometimes sensed her resignation as she cast the dice, and then looked up at him.
On the last day, the ground was soaked through with rain, the trees glistening in fallen drops. The woman was outside, looking at the small home, the door opened. He stopped beside her, the faint smell of gasoline in the air. He could see small stacks of kindling had been set inside. The woman appeared to be waiting, and a faint drizzle of rain began again. She turned to him, and handed first an envelop, thick with a stack of twenties, and then she held out a small ornate box. He took it with some reverence, opening it to see the neat rows of marked dice.
“I’m leaving here,” she said.
He looked questioningly at the matchbox in her hand.
“The memories come with me.”
“And what about these?” he asked, holding up the dice.
The woman shrugged, seeming to take a last feel of the rain, and then struck a match, “I suggest you throw them in with the rest,” she said, dropping the match, and letting it hit the line of poured gasoline. The line of flame raced toward the house and caught a stack of kindling. A second stack caught and ignited, flames and smoke smoldering.
The dice felt heavy in his hand. The woman had already turned, walking away. Fred cursed, and cast the dice toward the open door. In the moments 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, as though waiting for him, or witnessing. She smiled slightly, as he joined her, and then was about to continue down the lane.
“Wait,” he said, “hold this.”
He held out the envelop of money. The home had thickened in smoke behind them.
“I have to know,” he said.
The woman watched him race back, his arm over 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.