Saturday, October 5, 2013
ONE MINUTE, David Webber was following the same tired routine he had followed every Sunday night for three miserable years. He cleaned the floors of Joker’s Pub, wiped down the top of the bar and flipped the stools, and emptied the contents of the registers into the safe. The safe had a small slot installed where you could slip the cash right in without having to use the combination.
The next minute, a ski-mask-wearing thug was jamming a gun in David’s ribs and demanding cash from the registers.
Shit, David thought, forgot to lock the damn door again.
“I just cleaned the registers out,” David informed the robbing, trying to maintain his composure. In a situation like this, he couldn’t afford make the wrong move or use the wrong words that would set this gun-toting thief off.
“What’d you do with the money?”
“I put it in the safe.”
“You know the combination?” Dave nodded. “So open it then.”
At that crucial moment, David’s mind had blanked on the combination to the safe. He was not the type of man who responded well to pressure. And the gun certainly wasn’t helping any. His hands were trembling as he worked the combination lock to hit the three magic numbers that would pop open the door to the safe. In between fidgeting and struggling to remember the combination, David found himself cursing that stupid tree again.
David’s sister, Claire, blamed that tree for everything. She believed it to be the cause of all their miseries and sufferings. If only they had obeyed their mother’s wishes…
In his paranoid state, the masked robber was convinced he saw David reach under the counter after he had removed all the money from the safe and stuffed it into a brown paper bag.
“Did you press the silent alarm?”
“No,” David gulped as he could feel beads of cold sweat building up on his forehead. “I swear on my mother’s grave.”
“Don’t you fucking lie to me, pal. You lie, you die. Got it?”
“I swear I didn’t press the alarm. Just take the money and go, please.”
“You ordering me around, kid?”
“So you swear on your momma’s grave you didn’t press the alarm? That’s reassuring. But how am I supposed to be sure you’re not going to notify the authorities as soon as I leave here?”
David gripped the edge of the bar to retain his balance. His knees were weak and felt like they could cave at any moment. The sense of impending doom had altered his tan complexion and turned him whiter than chalk dust. His whole body was quivering at the sight of the gun, which was now aimed steady at his head.
“I’ll believe you if you do one thing for me,” the robber said.
“Name it,” David whimpered. “I’ll give you anything you want. You want more money? Take my wallet. Take my credit cards. Take my car keys if you want.”
“No I won’t be needing anything else like that. Just do me one favor and it will all be over. Raise your right hand for me and swear you didn’t touch the alarm.”
“You’ll let me go if I do that?” David choked out the words.
“Sure,” the robber chuckled. “Scouts honor.”
As David’s arm extended upwards and his hand made contact with the air, the gun went off.
His arm dropped, his hand throbbed intensely. The robber bolted and David stifled his screams as he looked down and saw two nubs of white bone jutting up where his middle and index finger used to be.
David sterilized the wounds with alcohol from the bar and wrapped it tightly with a clean rag to slow the bleeding. He dialed 911 and requested an ambulance. He managed to avoid shock by downing a little tequila to numb the pain and picturing his white piano set atop the stage of a grand auditorium. He closed his eyes and could envision thousands of people lined up in rows of red cushioned folding chairs. The crowd would rise and applaud with adoration as he hit the last notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with stunning precision.
This fantasy dissolved when the paramedics arrived promptly, only to inform David his fingers were too damaged to reattach. The doctors cauterized his wounds and then crushed his dreams in a matter of minutes. He was told he could still bartend, but the doctor had the misfortune of explaining to David that his real career was over.
PIANO is an instrument of the soul. David didn’t just play piano. There was a small piece of him in every note he hit, every key he struck. It was also a steady gig for him. He played clubs and restaurants during the week, and tutored on the side to pull in extra cash. But now with a shattered hand, his playing and teaching days were over.
Claire worked hard to console him. But she was having a rough time as of late, too. She had lost her internship at the hospital for oversleeping twice and for neglecting to call in once when she had gotten into a car accident on the way to work. Then Claire was forced to cancel and cut up her credit cards after bogus charges started appearing on her accounts. The culprit turned out to be a hacker connected to her spyware-infected laptop, which she caught onto just before the virus erased her entire hard drive.
On top of all that, she was then thrust into a situation where she had to the one thing she promised herself she never would: move back in to her old house. Albert, her father, had taken a turn for the worse and required constant care. Albert was bedridden for months, and it was Claire’s job to feed and look after him.
She always had a soft spot for her father. She was the favorite child, the spoiled child. She was the first one to have a car. Of course she smashed it up two weeks later, but Albert shelled out for a new one almost immediately.
Whenever she needed money, Albert jumped for his wallet. When she was behind on her rent, daddy took care of it. So it made sense to her that she return the favor after all those years. She ditched her apartment and moved back home to look after him between her job, which she didn’t have to worry about anymore. Now her problem was finding a new job.
“Things will turn around,” Claire tried to assure David. But she was also trying to assure herself.
“It’s that fucking tree,” David insisted. “We never should have disturbed it.”
“Moms story was just an urban legend,” Claire said, changing her tone. She had started that as of late. At first, she went on blaming that tree day and night for every little thing that went wrong. Even when she cracked one of her acrylic nails. Now her new game was to pretend it was all just coincidence. A streak of bad luck that would end soon. “We were younger and easier to fool when she told us that story. She was just trying to scare us. That’s all. We’re not cursed or jinxed or hexed.”
During their college years, Monica Webber had shared a childhood story of hers with her children.
When she was living in Whitestone, her neighbors had this huge oak tree in the front of their yard. The branches were so long they almost touched the second-floor windows. One good storm was all it would take for those branches to snap or go sailing through the bedroom windows. But the mother of the house refused to cut it down. It was her tree, and she forbade it. Three months after her death, they cut the tree down without hesitation. From there on out, it was like the Jennings family had a dark cloud looming over their heads twenty-four-seven. The curse of that tree pursued the family wherever they traveled.
Even after they moved from Whitestone, the Jennings continued to suffer profusely. The father died in a terrible auto wreck on the way to his own dad’s funeral. The youngest son, Hank Jennings, died of a heroin overdose. The oldest son, Brad, made a series of bad investments and had to file Chapter 11. The daughter, Jessica, discovered her fiancé was cheating on her, with her best friend Juliana. She went on a bender and never recovered. They found her two days later, dead from alcohol poisoning.
She told them this story after Albert, David, and Claire expressed their desire to chop down the weeping willow tree in their backyard.
The tree was a nuisance to Albert especially. The leaves would dry up and with the slightest gust of wind they would drift into the pool, clog up the skimmers or sink to the bottom. The tree also served as a hazard because Albert noticed one of its branches extended over their side driveway. If the branch snapped, it could easily smash up one of their cars. “That’s why we have insurance,” was Monica’s defense.
Monica planted that tree herself and meant the world to her. She would not let anyone lay a hand on it. She was convinced the curse would haunt her family forever. She made them swear they would never touch it, even after she was gone.
They all swore.
A month after the cancer ate Monica away, the tree came down.
CLAIRE sat on the edge of the bed, swirling a spoon around a steaming bowl of chowder. “Come on, dad. It’s your favorite. I made it with fresh diced clams, not the chunky frozen kind.”
“I’m not hungry,” Albert replied with a cold washcloth wrapped around his head to keep his temperature down. The fever was making him weaker and destroying his appetite. Claire bit her tongue to stop from laughing at the fact that David was right. Their father resembled a wrinkled bag of bones. A few pounds lighter and he’ll fall through his ass and hang himself, David would joke.
“You have to eat something,” Claire stressed the fact. “You’re getting too skinny. The doctor says it isn’t healthy.”
“I’m as healthy as I ever was,” Albert begged to differ with her.
Seconds later, he was clutching at his head and complaining of a terrible migraine. Claire rushed to the bathroom to fetch the aspirin from the medicine chest, and returned to find her dad slumped over, eyes dilated and unresponsive.
As David rushed in to see what the commotion was about, Claire rushed out to call for an ambulance. When she returned to the bedroom, David gave her the news.
“He’s dead,” he said, his eyes fixed and narrow. David and his father had their scuffles here and there, but he cherished the old man. He also embraced the musical talents Albert had passed onto him. Albert was a guitar player in his better days, a damn good one at that. He once opened for Peter Frampton. Now his glory days were behind him, and much like David, his musical career was officially over.
“Check his pulse,” she begged. “He can’t be dead.”
“I already checked his pulse. How do you think I reached the conclusion that he’s dead?”
“No,” Claire shook her head with disbelief. “This can’t be happening.”
“That fucking tree,” David muttered, eyeing up his deformed hand.
“Stop blaming the fucking tree!” Claire screamed. “We’re not cursed. It’s all in your mind.’’
“Is it?” She didn’t respond, but Claire couldn’t help but ponder when this would be over. The streak of bad luck seemed endless and her heart couldn’t bear another loss.
THE RESULTS were in. It was a brain aneurysm that killed Albert Webber. The only man who suspected foul play was detective Dennis O’Reilly. He stopped by the house to inform Claire and David of their inheritance, which they were already made aware of by their father’s lawyer. They stood to inherit all of their father’s money and assets, including the house.
“Too bad that money is going to be worthless,” O’Reilly told them, and a hint of a smirk spread across his face.
“What are you talking about?” David asked.
“Your father has been scamming the IRS for years with shell companies set up to look like legitimate business operations. Once they audit, you can wave bye-bye to all that inheritance money. It all goes to them. I can’t promise if you’ll keep the house or not. So tell me, was it worth it?”
“Was what worth it?” David was perplexed.
“You tell me. I really want to know how you did it. A brain aneurysm. It’s perfect. No one would suspect a thing, especially considering Albert’s age and his poor health as of late.”
“Get out,” David demanded. It was just three days after the funeral and he was in no mood for these false accusations.
“What happened to your hand?” O’Reilly asked before leaving.
“I got robbed last Sunday at Joker’s Pub. The robber shot me. This was all reported to the police. You can check it out if you don’t believe me.”
“Uh huh,” O’Reilly muttered as he headed for the door. Inside job, were the first words that popped into his head. Why didn’t the robber just kill him? O’Reilly wondered, but he didn’t bother to ask. All he had to do was keep a watchful eye over David and wait for him to slip up.
DAVID’S only main chore was to tend to his mother’s garden. He made it a daily task to cut, trim, and water every plant Monica had grown before she passed away. He figured if he did the job just right, the curse might somehow be lifted or reversed.
While trimming Monica's rhododendrons that afternoon, he watched Reggie Cunningham pass by on his skateboard. “Fag,” Reggie muttered to David as he rode by with his knapsack full of spray-paint draped over one shoulder. He loved pretending nobody knew what he had inside that bag. But the truth was Reggie and his friends were responsible for every act of vandalism in town. But with the cops looking at David and Claire now, they had no time to meddle with petty vandals.
Debbie Cunningham was a divorcee who liked to flaunt her body around town like she was Marilyn Monroe. But David found her to be more akin to Marilyn Manson. They bumped into Debbie one evening in town square before their father passed.
When Reggie’s mother heard of the news of Albert’s illness, her patron-izing response to David and Claire was, “oh how the mighty have fallen.” It was no wonder where that little punk got it from.
Just as O’Reilly predicted, a letter from the IRS soon arrived. The letter confirmed their assets were being seized to pay for their fathers debts. The house, which was in their father’s name, would also be seized and sold at auction.
“When do we have to move?” Claire sobbed as David read the letter.
“I’d start packing immediately,” David groaned. “It doesn’t sound promising.”
“Where will we go?”
“I can get another bartending gig, find us an apartment.”
“Don’t you get it? You were right and I was wrong. This curse isn’t going to let up. It’s going to follow us wherever we go.”
David’s face sunk into his hands. That fucking tree, he thought.
THE NOOSE was knotted tightly in the center and tied twice around a thick support beam in the living room. David removed his shoes and positioned a kitchen chair below the dangling noose. He felt like a convict being led to the gallows. Only in this case, he was his own executioner.
David stepped onto the chair and placed the noose firmly around his neck. Tears sprawled down his cheeks as he thought about Claire and Albert and Monica. The thought of leaving Claire behind sickened him. She had already lost so much. Could she cope with the loss of her brother, too?
“I can’t do it,” he sobbed, trying to loosen the grip of the noose. The chair shifted as he struggled with the noose and slipped out from under him. His legs kicked and flailed with a mind of their own, trying desperately to reach the floor. His face grew redder and redder as the fingers of his good hand clawed away at the circular rope that was cutting into his windpipe.
Claire, he thought. I don’t want you to find me like this. Please forgive me.
CLAIRE took several minutes to get over the initial shock before she dialed 911. The paramedics cut him down and wheeled David’s blue corpse away. Right on cue, detective O’Reilly showed up on the scene.
“I’m terribly sorry for your loss,” O’Reilly said sincerely.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Claire rolled her tear soaked eyes. “For the record, I had nothing to do with this.”
“I’m not thinking that,” O’Reilly said. He seemed hurt at the accusation. “You had nothing to gain from this. The IRS is already confiscating your dad’s money and the house. I was never even suspicious of you to begin with. It was David I had my theories about. I guess I’ll never know for sure now.”
“Yes you can,” Claire assured him. “My father died of natural causes. David was a good man who tried his best to take care of the family. He would never hurt any of us.”
“It’s all my fault,” Claire cried.
“I’m sorry,” O’Reilly apologized. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sure your brother was a good man. And you can’t blame yourself. If your brother cared as much as you say he did, he wouldn’t want that.”
“Thanks,” Claire said, dabbing her tears away with a tissue O’Reilly had given her.
“This probably isn’t the best time, but if you still have my card, you can call me sometime. I’ll treat you to a cup of coffee, and you can tell me a little more about yourself.”
“Are you asking me out?” Claire was slightly amused.
“I guess I am, sort of,” O’Reilly chuckled nervously. Claire thought it was cute.
“I might take you up on that one day.”
She walked O’Reilly to the door and almost broke down again when she saw Monica’s garden. Reggie Cunningham and his friends had gotten to it that night. They stomped through the whole garden, ripped her plants out by the roots. She smelled urine and she had no doubts that Reggie or one of his asshole buddies had relieved themselves there.
The curse, she almost said aloud as O’Reilly walked to his car. When Reggie vandalized the garden, the curse must have been transferred to him.
It sounded crazy, but it was no crazier than what she had experienced in the past few months. And there was only one way to find out. The first thing she did was set arrangements for David’s wake and funeral. The second thing she did was dig out O’Reilly’s card from her purse.
EVEN WITH DAVID GONE, Claire’s life improved considerably over the course of the next few months. She hit it off with O’Reilly instantly and knew a proposal was already in the works when she checked his laptop and found Google searches for wedding rings.
The same could not be said for Reggie Cunningham. After vandalizing Monica’s garden, his father gambled away his family’s savings in one short trip to Las Vegas. He had to sell their house just to cover half the debt. A week before they were set to move, they found Reggie’s father in the garage. He died of asphyxiation from exhaust fumes.
To make matters worse, two weeks later Reggie snapped his arm falling out of a neighbor’s tree. His mother was forced to send Reggie to live with his aunt while she resorted to stripping as a means of supporting herself and paying off Reggie’s hospital bills.
Claire saw Debbie one night leaving The Lizard Lounge, a local strip joint. As she passed, Claire whispered with joy, “oh how the mighty have fallen.”