October 3, 2018

The Gypsy & the Thief - A Thirty-Three Short Story

"The greatest of convergences sometimes start with the humblest of beginnings. Today's snake in the grass could become the apple of your eye tomorrow. Even evil itself can give rise to good, and enmity to love."
-Randolph Midian

Maria pulled her hair from across her face. It was stuck over her eyes from the sweat that was now pouring down, despite the December night’s chill. “You insufferable jackass,” she grunted through clenched teeth, grasping at Taber’s hand to help pull him from the frigid muck of the swamp.

Taber, in a fragile attempt to hide his terror and mounting dread of the monstrous thing that was struggling to free itself from the mud, cut back at her with a sarcastic grin to cover his fear, “I bet you only say that to the fella’s you really like, eh doll?”

Despite Taber’s inappropriate humor, Maria did find him unusually attractive. Maybe it was the awkward confidence that hid his innate cowardice, or maybe it was just simply being in common peril. In any case, she tried to remain practical. If they were going to survive whatever had just attacked them, they would have to work together, even if she decided to ditch the poor fool in the dark woods when it was all over.

Though she was not cruel, she figured him for little more than a common thief who had already nearly gotten her killed, and probably deserved whatever this mess was that was probably his fault anyway. As Taber regained his footing on the muddy ground, she could not help but wish she had never taken the job that led her out into the backwoods of Massachusetts.


Two days earlier, a large painting was dropped, crashing to the hardwood floor with a loud crack and evoking a strained cringe from Maria. “Damnit! Watch what you’re doing, boys!” she shouted at the workmen, as they scrambled to lift the seven-foot portrait.

They grunted bitterly, “Sorry, Miss Bond.”

Maria rushed over and bent down to lift the dust cloth and examine the damage. The bottom of the elaborate, French-style frame was now cracked almost to the edge of the canvas. She ran her thumb along the fissure and sighed in frustration. At least the artist was not around to add his complaints to the whole debacle. “Just get it loaded up on the truck, and try to act like it’s expensive,” she snapped.

Maria Ann Bond was typically a patient and generally compassionate woman. At thirty-nine years old, she was a particularly attractive yet commanding presence with her dark eyes and hair, and curvaceous figure. Although she had never been married, Maria often had men eating out of the palm of her hand. She mostly enjoyed it, only occasionally taking advantage of her natural beauty, which some men playfully referred to as “beguiling.” But, she most often took it for granted and remained otherwise focused on her own interests amidst a flowing current of hopeful admirers.

Her immigrant parentage—a Spanish father and Romani mother—shaped her features in exotic curves, giving her face an almost mystical allure. Her mother had also imparted a smattering of customs from the old world, most of which had faded away into childhood memories. A working girl through and through, Maria mostly ignored the female conventions of the 1920’s, instead preferring fitted shirts with sleeves rolled up, practical pants, and short fedora. Although not the picture of traditional femininity, she was nonetheless an icon of womanly power and smoldering sexuality.

She had made her own way working in freelance acquisitions, collecting historical art and artifacts for museums and collectors around New England. Although her unconventional sense of style and assertiveness made her few friends in a male-dominated field, she was often sought out for her talent to track down obscure pieces as well as detect forgeries.

Currently, Maria was on a job to curate pieces from an eccentric painter in Boston. Richard Pickman had been fairly renowned in the height of his career for his lifelike portraits, but had fallen out of favor for the grotesque nature of his stranger pieces. He had recently disappeared, but by then had been so recluse that no one noticed for some time, at least until the estate that had commissioned his last portrait called in the debt.

He had painted a large portrait of a wealthy and distinguished attorney named Bennett Truman with a woman that was presumably his mistress. The piece had been completed for many months, but Truman himself had apparently passed away during that time and the executor of his estate was only now collecting his outstanding commissions. The Old Bridgewater Historical Society subsequently purchased the painting as part of their local archives collection, along with other items from the estate.

Once the movers had loaded the truck, Maria took a moment to look the canvas over. She pulled back the cloth and was somewhat disgusted. It was not clear whether or not it was the subjects of the piece that were unsettling or simply that the artist was incapable of making an image that was not somehow tainted with subtle undertones of the macabre.

The man was stiff and cold, wearing a pressed blue-gray suit, one hand in his pocket and the other bent to his side. His expression was flat and unfriendly, made no warmer by his seemingly flawless, stern features and perfectly combed hair. The woman at his side was a stark contrast to his statuesque presence—a lithe and seductive creature, and likely much younger. She was lustfully draped on his arm and her long, black hair draped over her shoulders like silk. Her scarlet lips matched her dress and were curled into a sardonic smile. With her exotic features, dark eyes, and over-sexualized posture, she embodied the stereotype of a shameless mistress.

“Rich folks...” Maria grumbled cynically, dropping the cloth. She turned and jumped down from the truck, failing to hear the soft breathing coming from the shipping crate behind her.


The day before Maria visited Pickman’s studio, the shipping manager at Stonewall Couriers sent an urgent telegram to his good friend in Boston.

DEC 14, 1926

Professor Thompson taught at the seminary college and, although he generally liked what he did, it did not pay well, nor was it remotely as exhilarating as his moonlighting profession. When Taber was not droning through classes with the Catholic Church’s next generation of collars, he orchestrated the occasional extracurricular acquisition—all sorts of things, but valuable art and artifacts were his specialty.

Through paid informants who monitored orders through different couriers’ offices, Taber collected tips on shipments of valuable pieces that were sent through the Massachusetts area. He had various methods, from those as simple as doctored paperwork to those as involved as stealing delivery trucks. Through a network of private buyers across New England, the sly professor had amassed quite the small fortune for a man of thirty-two. And, he decided that this most recent tip falling on his birthday was a fine opportunity to commandeer himself a handsome gift for his thirty-third.

The next morning, around nine o’clock, Taber met his long-time friend, Mac, in the shipping warehouse. There were already some large statues from other studios being packed into crates that were headed to the Bridgewater Museum. Taber looked them over while Mac made some tactful alterations to some of the shipping documents.

“Where’s the truck headed first?” Taber asked, as he slid his hand over the cold surface of a carved marble beauty’s breasts that were half submerged in excelsior. The statue was an imitation Greco-Roman style rendering of a nude girl with a melancholic expression.

Taber looked younger than his age, with careless brown hair, thin build, and clean-shaven features that frequently shifted between stoically stern and boyishly thoughtful. Even when not lecturing, he dressed in the same unassuming collared shirt and tweed jacket. His green eyes were bright and alert, but his attentions sometimes ran childishly short, as indicated by telltale drooping eyelids and a twist of the mouth when his interest waned.

Mac answered without looking up, “It’s headed to some painter’s studio. Some broad put the order in for that other stuff too, said it’s all getting’ loaded together and sent to the museum this afternoon.”

Taber, realizing his mind had wandered and his hand had come to rest on the delicate contours of a statue’s breast, slid his hand away. The disinterested twist of his mouth straightened as he asked, “A girl ordered all this stuff?”

“Yeah,” answered Mac, rubbing his oily forehead, “She’s curating for the society, I guess. Hot little number, nice rack too. When she came in yesterday, she was real brassy. You know, like you like ‘em.”

Taber scoffed, “I don’t usually get involved with women I’m stealing from.” He smiled with one side of his mouth, “Not that I’m against it, but they usually don’t take kindly to being on the wrong end of this kind of work.” The professor turned back to the open crates, “What’s a woman doing working this business anyway?”

“Pants and hat,” Mac added dryly.

“What?” asked Taber.

Mac finally looked up, “She wore pants and a hat. Any broad that dresses like that is usually all business—you know, prudish.” The gruff man grinned, “That is, until you get ‘em in the sack. If a broad dresses like a man, she’s just achin’ to be un-dressed by one.”

Taber raised one eyebrow and frowned with the same side of his mouth that had just smiled, “Eloquent as always, old buddy.” He put his hand on the edge of the open crate and examined it, “How about we put this young lady here in a bigger crate? I think I’m going for a ride on this one. I’ve got a driver waiting in Bridgewater. All I have to do is open up the museum doors from the inside after everything gets unloaded, then we reload everything onto his truck. Then, pay day.”

Mac scratched at his beard, “It’s a long ride to Bridgewater.”

“It won’t be comfortable,” Taber added, “but it’s a surefire way to avoid hassle. Hopefully it won’t be more than a couple hours.”

As Taber looked the crate over, out of the corner of his eye, it looked as though the statue was smiling at him. “Wait,” he said, pulling his hand away. The marble face he would have sworn had been somber and forlorn only moments ago, now looked quite satisfied, even bright and happy. “Hey, Mac,” he called out, his eyes fixed on the statue, “this statue... wasn’t it... sad a minute ago?” He turned his head away, keeping his eyes fixed on it.

Mac looked up again, “I don’t know. I didn’t really notice. So, what? She worth less if she’s happy?”

Taber rubbed his eyes, “I must be tired.”

The two men set about their work to pack Taber in with the statue and fix a release catch inside. By the time Maria arrived, there were about a half-dozen crates of all sizes, seemingly nailed shut and loaded into the truck, one containing a marble statue of a smiling girl padded alongside an uncomfortable professor. “Good damn thing I’m not claustrophobic,” he thought, also thankful that the winter chill kept him from sweating too much inside the crate.

Later that afternoon, once everything was loaded up and Maria had finished examining the painting, Taber made every effort to stifle the sound of his breathing. Through the gaps in the wood planks, he got a candid glimpse of her, but quickly reminded himself not to ruin a good job with unprofessional ideas.

The movers finally closed the back of the truck and the rocking of the vehicle lurching forward was comforting to Taber in his padded tomb. At least he might be able to fall asleep for a while during the drive. So, he nestled himself in as comfortably as possible, the crate supporting him vertically, and tried to doze off.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Maria mumbled to herself as she flipped through her acquisition documents. “Statues from Europe, vases and silver from the west coast, and this huge portrait from some crazy local artist.” She looked over at the truck driver, as if to prompt any insight he might have, “None of this stuff is historical to the Bridgewater area.”

Ed Nadam, a tall, lanky fellow in his forties with an unshaven face and balding head, looked over at her through his clouded spectacles, “I just drive the truck, lady. They don’t tell me about what I’m haulin’ usually.” He sniffed and turned back to the road, “What about your boss? Maybe he knows.”

Maria, accustomed to being dismissed as a professional, stifled her reaction to snap at Ed, simply sighing, “I am the boss—an independent curator—and I couldn’t begin to tell you why this stuff would go in the Society’s museum. The only thing they all have in common is that they all belonged to this Truman fellow.” Her temper cooling, she flipped back to the front page, “Looks like everything was sold off by the executor, Nadia Sherell.” She blew aside the bangs that hung over her left eye, “Must be the tart in the painting.”

Clearly not wanting any part of the ordeal, Ed shrugged his shoulders and silently excused himself to the sole task of driving the truck. As they approached the road to turn towards Bridgewater, they were stopped by a man putting up wooden blockades. He said there were some fallen trees up ahead and that the road would be closed throughout the day.

“Damn,” snorted Ed, “We’ll have to go down through Easton, the long way ‘round.”

Maria, not knowing the roadways very well, asked, “What’s wrong with that? It’s not too far out of the way is it?”

“At least an hour or so extra.”

It was already mid-afternoon and Maria, realizing her hopes of a quick job were lost, slumped her shoulders in resignation. “Alright,” she groaned, and settled into the seat, pulling her hat down over her eyes.


A while later, the truck hit a bump and jolted both passengers awake, Maria in the front cab and Taber nestled in his scratchy wooden coffin. Maria, who had been lulled to sleep by the rhythmic banging of the engine, rubbed her eyes, yawning, and asked, “Where are we?” They were on a bumpy, dirt road in the woods, pocked with divots and exposed roots.

“We, uh...” Ed stammered, “well, I ain’t sure. I had to take a different road back out of town. Looks like we’re comin’ near the swamp soon.” The nearby ground was beginning to show signs of the standing water and murky pools indicative of the area of the Hockomock Swamp. It was a fairly large area that most locals knew for its reputation of strange animal sightings and old folktale myths.

Maria looked at her watch, shocked to see that it was nearly five o’clock. “You mean we’re lost?”

As Taber regained hazy consciousness in the darkness, he quickly realized by his dry mouth and full bladder that the drive must have been longer than he expected. He groaned and shifted his position, barely able to move. “Don’t tell me they’re lost,” he mumbled under his breath.

Taber looked around for any signs that might indicate their progress. However, all he could see in the dark cabin was a faint ray of late-afternoon light from the gap around the door. Squirming uncomfortably, he suddenly realized the crate seemed to be getting tighter. Assuming he must be tangled in the excelsior, he tried turning his body to loosen himself. But, the crate only felt smaller with every twist of his trunk.

“Great,” he thought, as he rolled through the range of logical possibilities. His train of thought was interrupted though, by a slow sound of creaking boards and splintering wood. The planks actually began to push into his back and cut into his shoulders. It was slow, and utterly defied reason, but somehow the wooden crate seemed to be actually getting smaller, threatening to smother him.

When Taber’s brain finally allowed him to accept what was happening, he snapped out of confusion and groped frantically for the inner catch to release the lid. He turned it and the crate fell open, spilling its contents. Taber fell over onto the neighboring crate with a crash and the statue fell on top of him, its arms posed so they supported its weight but also pinned him down. He panicked for just a moment because of the noise, but quickly realized that there was no way it could be heard in the front cab over the already clamorous rattling on the bumpy road.

In the dim ray of light, he could just barely make out the large painting. The dust cloth had fallen off along the way and the two faces seemed to glare at him condescendingly. His need to relieve himself began to nag heavily and he pressed his legs together, not knowing how long it might be before the truck stopped. Taber realized all at once how stupid he had been and that he would have to put things back together quickly to avoid getting caught.

He pushed against the statue, but it was far heavier than expected. He grunted and strained, but could only seem to shove it to one side or the other. The more he struggled, the more packing fibers he seemed to spread around, making an even bigger mess.

“Can’t even lift up a statue? You never were very good at anything,” a bitterly dissatisfied, patriarchal voice crept through the heavy air, like a subtle whisper.

The hair on his neck pricked up as Taber’s eyes shot around the cabin, looking for who might be stowing away with him. “Who’s there?” he asked in a half-whispered shout. But, there was no reply.

He looked around, but the only focal point his eyes could find was the portrait and its hauntingly realistic faces. They both peered at him, almost moving in the faint illumination. The man, previously staring out blankly with a cold gaze, now almost looked as thought a grin was creeping at the corners of his perfect mouth. Although the face was different, it very vaguely reminded him of his grandfather, or perhaps some other relation he could not place. The woman, who had already worn a derisive grin, now seemed to be laughing through slightly parted crimson lips.

“I’ve got to get the hell out of here,” he thought, struggling with the statue, “I’m going nuts.”

Taber finally gave in to his hopeless situation and rolled the statue off to the side. He tried to scramble to his feet, but something held his ankle tightly. Assuming he had lodged it in between the crates, he tugged at it. But, when he looked down he was stricken with horror to see the statue’s cold, stone hand was wrapped around his foot. The statue’s face had also changed, now a maniacal grin full of exposed marble teeth, and was turned staring up at him through lifeless eyes.

Panicking with reckless abandon, Taber fell over and started banging on the wall of the cabin. Maria assumed the noise must be the road getting bumpier, but Ed knew right away that something was amiss and slammed on the brakes. They had been the only vehicle for miles, so there was little risk of blocking any traffic, even though they were now surrounded by swampland on both sides of the narrow road.

Maria asked what it was, but Ed ignored her, instead jumping down from his seat and running to the back of the truck. Inside the cabin, Taber felt like he was clamoring for his life. It was too dark to see much, but he felt another cold hand grip his other ankle like a vice pressing his flesh between stone fingers. With no more pretense of secrecy and only basic survival driving him, he called out for help.

The same voice that had seemed to whisper to him earlier now crept into his mind again, “It’s time, Taber. Thirty-three... I find all of you on your birthday.”

Instinctively glancing up at the painting again, he saw the man in the picture that had been so plain and straight-faced now scowling menacingly with a hateful snarl on his thin lips. “For God’s sakes, open the truck!” Taber screamed as loud as he could.

The failing light of dusk flooded into the cabin and nearly blinded Taber’s darkness-adjusted eyes. Ed peered in and, seeing the stranger, called out to Maria.

Taber, still in a panic, rubbed at his eyes and looked down to see the statue, still lying on its back, but with no look of maniacal intent. It again had a soft smile and gentle eyes, and its hands were still only half raised in a casual position as before. The cuff of his pants, however, was snagged on one of its hands, the statue’s thumb poking through a rip in the fabric. He stammered and motioned to the thing that he would have sworn threatened his life only moments ago.

As he tried to collect himself, blinking in the light, Maria looked Taber over and asked in disgust, “Why the hell is there a librarian in the back of the truck?”

Taber cleared his throat and tried to scramble to his feet. “I’m not a librarian,” he answered defensively, “I’m a professor. I... well, I don’t know how I got here.” Pausing, both in a daze from the shock and in swift contemplation of formulating a convincing lie, he continued, “I was at the Stonewall warehouse and someone attacked me. The next thing I knew, I woke up in this crate.”

Maria frowned skeptically and leaned against the truck. “Seriously?” she asked, “You mean someone stuffed you in with expensive antiques and you don’t know why? Why didn’t you call out to us earlier?”

“I, um... I just woke up. I tried to get out myself, but then,” Taber wagged his finger at the statue, “I would swear this thing had a hold of me.” He yanked his leg away, tearing the bottom edge of his pants. “I know how that sounds. But, it... well, something happened. I guess it was too dark to tell,” he stammered, having much more confidence in his lying than the insane truth. He looked back over at the painting, but it too had seemingly returned to normal—the man’s face was again cold and stoic, rather than angry and menacing. In that moment, he remembered the voice had said something about his birthday.

This reminded him of something he had not given a second thought to in many years. Although he had never been close with his family, or even his parents, he had always heard vague stories, which he never lent any credibility to, of strange or even dangerous events happening on their birthdays, usually around his age. He only dwelt on the thought for a moment though, quickly deciding to come back to reasonable pursuits.

Maria sighed, still suspicious of the new discovery. As a curator of often valuable items, she was used to people trying to swindle her and could not help but smell a rank scam brewing. She looked at Ed, who had already lost interest, and asked, “So, what now?”

“You’re the boss, lady,” Ed grunted.

Lighting up a cigarette, Maria opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted.

“Could I ask,” Taber spoke up, “given the circumstances, if I could just have a lift to the next town?” He winced and rubbed the back of his head to support the lie that he had been attacked, “I’ve been through a lot today, and I’d rather like to see about getting back home.” Hoping to maintain an opportunity to at least keep close to the goods, he put on his best squirrely, academic persona and was already calculating how he might salvage the debacle. “In any case, if you’ll excuse me, I must’ve been in that crate for some time and need to relieve myself.”

Maria rolled her eyes, “Fine. Go ahead. I guess we’ll bring you, but you’ll have to ride in the back, again,” she pointed at the statue, “with your girlfriend there.”

As Taber scuttled off to find a tree amidst the marshy ground, Ed called out from the front of the truck, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“What?” Maria asked, getting sorely annoyed with the delays.

“The tire’s busted,” Ed said with some confused resignation, “it’ll take a few minutes to fix it.”

Maria sighed more heavily, puffing on her cigarette. The truck rocked slightly as Taber hopped back into the cabin, calling out, “Alright, do you think we could get moving now?”

Maria’s head poked around the corner as she glared at him from under her hat, “Looks like we’re not going anywhere just yet, professor.”

“Taber, my name’s Taber,” he said confidently.

“Well,” Maria exhaled, resting her hands on her hips, “whoever you are, how about you get off your skinny ass and go help...”

As she stared Taber down, a pair of stone arms reached out from the dark of the cabin and wrapped around his neck. The twitching limbs pulled him in and began to constrict, cracking at the joints and shedding marble dust. Taber gasped for air and groped wildly at them as his throat closed, pulling at the stone in futility. Maria could hardly believe her eyes as the cigarette fell from her gaping mouth.

She leapt into the truck to see the statue, seemingly crawling on its knees and leaving chalk marks on the wood floor. Its face was contorted into a fiendish grin and wicked scowl as it crept backwards, dragging a struggling Taber towards the dark recess overlooked by the painting. Maria saw a hammer on the floor out of the corner of her eye and grabbed it. Allowing little time for disbelief to set in, she instinctively rushed over and smashed the hammer down on the statue’s arm, cracking it and sending shards of marble flying.

She struck it a second time and its left arm broke off and fell to the floor with a heavy thud. As its other arm loosened its grip, Taber slid out underneath and scrambled away, still gasping for breath. The statue fell backwards, slowly moving its stiff limbs to steady itself. Maria and Taber both backed away and jumped down off the truck as the stone girl rose to its feet. The statue reached out with its remaining arm and lurched forward, moving in unnatural jerky motions, like a marionette on strings.

“What the hell is that?!” Maria yelled at Tabor, assuming he must be responsible.

“I don’t know,” he stammered, watching the statue in horror.

Hearing the commotion, Ed came around the corner and saw the statue, its maniacal face turning in twitching motions. “Holy Mother of God!” he exclaimed rather flatly.

In the rocking of the truck, the painting fell over with the portrait of Truman and his mistress facing them. The painted figures slumped down from the canvas, as though invisible bodies were weighing the cloth down from behind, and started to stretch out. The figures seemed to be moving, pushing against their canvas barrier and trying to push through.

“Nope,” said Ed, with an almost calm resolution as he slammed the door shut and pulled down the latch, locking it tight.

Maria and Taber, who were still stricken with terror and amazement, looked at him, stupefied.

Ed looked back at them and grunted, “I don’t know what that is, but I don’t want nothin’ to do with it.”

Taber shouted, “What were you moving, Maria? That’s impossible! Is has to be some kind of trick.”

She cut him off, “Me?! You’re the one who just showed up out of nowhere. What were you really doing back there anyway? And, what did you...” She stopped, glaring at him, “Wait, how did you know my name?”

“What?” he said defensively, “I... you said it, just then, when you opened the door.”

A slender stone arm crashed through the door, lunging in between them and sending wood splinters flying. They looked at each other, silently suspending their argument, and backed away. Ed ran back to the front of the truck and grabbed a tire iron, saying to himself, “No, no, no. Nuh uh. I don’t want none of this.”

They all backed away from the truck cautiously. Maria turned again to Taber, “You were trying to steal this stuff, weren’t you?”

“What? No... I told you, I was, uh...” Taber was losing the grip on his own theatrics amidst the turmoil, “Oh, damn it. Fine, I was going to. But, I still don’t know what that thing is.”

The sky was growing darker by the moment as the sun crept below the horizon. The arm reached down and groped for the latch, then the door swung open. The statue leaned forward and fell off the truck, its heavy feet plunging into the dirt. Where its right arm had been broken off was now a dark, vaguely corporeal limb vaguely like an arm terminating in elongated fingers. It reached up, pointing a shadowy claw at Taber and began to advance with plodding steps.

Ed came behind it and cracked the tire iron over its head, breaking off a chunk of its chiseled hair and face. Maria threw her hammer at it, but it only cracked against its chest, superficially chipping the surface. Ed smacked it again across the back, sending it toppling to the ground. The statue fell on its hands and knees and began to convulse with loud grinding noises.

Ed backed away and they all looked in astonishment as the thing began to break apart. But, underneath the stone exterior was a full shadowy figure that seemed to direct the statues movements. As each chunk of marble fell away, the thing underneath seemed to erupt out, bulging and swelling as though being released from its constraints.

Whatever it was though, was almost not real. It seemed to vibrate and blur, like it was either a diabolical figment or a flitting dark shape in a photograph. Their eyes began to hurt just looking at it, and the more they tried to make it out, the less they could see it clearly.

Its arms elongated and engorged, growing huge and sprouting claw-like appendages. Its torso broke free from the stony vessel and swelled to a muscular, hulking form. The cracked head shattered to pieces and what was underneath opened into a gaping ragged maw full of crocodile-like teeth. Although it seemed only half-real, its eyes were solid enough, bulging at the sides, lifeless, and black as death.

As the horrid spectacle unfolded in a matter of moments, a thick cloud of acrid, sulfurous stench washed over them, choking them and burning their eyes. Whatever the thing was, its presence assailed every sense, even seeming to thicken the air around it and causing their ears to ring like they were under pressure in deep water. Ed, who had been the most collected up until that moment, ran at the thing madly and took a swing at its misshapen head.

It made a dense thud sound and seemed to not affect the phantom as it jerked itself up to a slumped, bipedal posture. In the failing light and corrosive presence of the thing, Maria and Taber could barely see straight, much less fully process the indescribable creature that stood before them.

Before Ed could realize the futility of his effort, its huge arm reached up and grabbed him by the neck. As he grasped at its twisted claws, it effortlessly slammed his head to the ground and twisted his neck with a loud snap. The beast looked up at Maria and Taber with singular intent and started to approach, stepping on Ed’s lifeless head and cracking it under its massive weight like an egg.

With untraversable marsh on either side of them and only a narrow dirt road under their feet, they stepped close together and looked at each other, whispering simultaneously, “What do we do?”

Maria pushed him away, “What good are you anyway?”

Before he could answer, the beast launched forward, leaping from the ground and sending clods of dirt showering against the truck. Maria shoved hard against Taber, knocking the wind out of him and sending them both to the ground in opposite directions as the thing sailed in between, barely missing them and taking a clumsy, sliding tumble to the ground.

Taber growled through clenched teeth, “Oh... thanks, I think.” Regaining his senses, he looked up in time to see the beast shaking its bulbous head and looking up at them. “Time to be brave, I guess,” Taber mumbled, as he scrambled to his feet and ran back toward the truck. He ran alongside it, hoping to draw it away from Maria.

The beast bounded after him. Instead of leaving footprints though, the thing left black scorches on the ground, like its presence was corrosive to everything around it. Just as Taber turned to see how close it was, he was nearly face to face with it, its hot, sulfurous breath choking him. It reared back its monstrous claws and lashed at him. He fell to his knees just in time though, and the beast plunged its terrible limb straight through the wall of the cabin. Taber crawled underneath the truck and tried to make his way back to the rear.

An otherworldly hiss emanated from the thing as it struggled for a moment to free its claws from the hole it had punched into the truck. Taber crawled frantically out from underneath and Maria grabbed his hand. “Come on. We’ve go to get out of here before...” she shouted, only to see that the thing was already free as it turned its head around the corner, its mouth drooping open and dripping foul ichor.

“I have an idea,” Taber said in a hush as he stood up beside her.

“What could you possibly...” she started to ask, but the beast lunged towards them again.

Taber then pushed her aside and leapt backwards, falling into the marsh and sinking up to his waist. The beast, too bulky to react, again lurched forward and over him, and toppled past him into the swamp, also sinking nearly halfway into the mud.

“You insufferable jackass,” she grunted through clenched teeth, grasping at Taber’s hand to help pull him from the frigid muck of the swamp.

The sun was nearly down and they had only fading light to see by. Behind Taber, the beast thrashed and slung mud in every direction, trying to claw its way out of the mire. It grabbed hold of a small tree that nearly cracked in half in its grip as it tried to wrench itself out. They both took a step back as they looked on in horror. Taber, never a very genuinely religious man, rhythmically crossed himself in the manner that he had so often emptily done at the seminary, while mumbling, “What in God’s name is that thing?”

Maria, at a loss for what she was even witnessing, remembered something her mother had taught her as a child and, like Taber, rhythmically performed it. She murmured an odd phrase in another language, pointing with her index and little fingers.

Taber looked at her and asked, “What the hell are you doing?”

Before she could answer or even fully understand why she had done it, the thing in the mud howled, the sound echoing painfully inside their skulls, scraping like rusty nails. It flailed violently as the marsh slowly sucked it down further. Vines and roots began to crawl and slither like snakes, wrapping themselves around the beast’s thrashing limbs and immobilizing it while dragging it down.

Maria looked at Taber, as awestruck and confused as he was, “I... I just remembered something my mother taught me when I was little. It’s an old gypsy thing, in Hungarian I think, something I was supposed to do if I was ever scared, when I thought there was a monster in the closet or...”

“You mean you did that,” Taber asked, pointing at the beast that was slowly being constricted by creeping vines, “with a gypsy trick?! That can’t be true. That would be ridiculous!”

Maria, still doubting it herself, turned to him with a scowl, “Oh, right, like a demon-monster... thing attacking us in the swamp is just perfectly normal? Like any of this isn’t ridiculous?”

Taber started to argue, ignoring the fact that she was distractingly attractive as she yelled at him. But, before he could open his mouth, they heard loud creaking and snapping from the swamp. The beast was struggling ferociously and grinding its jagged teeth across the roots that were coiled around it.

“Magic or not,” Taber said, “Whatever it is, I don’t think that’s actually going to hold it.”

Maria turned and saw Ed’s crushed body in the road and was still grappling with the reality of their situation. She looked back at Taber, “I don’t suppose you have a gun, or anything useful, huh, professor, thief... whatever you are?”

Taber, knowing he had nothing of the kind, subconsciously patted his jacket, saying, “No.” Then, he looked back at the truck. “But, I may have an idea. It’s probably crazy, but it might work,” he said cautiously, then mumbled under his breath, “at least for you.”

“What?” Maria asked, but Taber took off toward the back of the truck.

“Quick, this way,” he called out, motioning for her to follow. When she got to the truck, he pointed around the other side, “Get to the wheel and start the engine, and leave the door open. When I call out to you, drive the truck into the swamp. Just jump out before it goes off the road.” Then, he took off away from the truck.

“That’s crazy!” Maria yelled out, “And, the tire’s flat!”

“Don’t worry,” Taber yelled back, “that won’t matter.”

She sighed in frustration, thinking he must truly be insane or a total jackass. Nonetheless, she ran to the wheel and started the truck.

Over the roar of the engine, she could not hear the snapping of the overgrowth as the beast broke free from its bonds. Taber, who had run out a distance from the rear of the truck, kept his eye on it, though. He jumped and waved his arms around, yelling for its attention.

The beast ripped through the last of the vines that held it and splashed its way to the solid ground of the road. It clamored up on its thick legs, leaving the water behind it steaming with vile toxicity, and broke into a run. Tabor took off back towards the truck too, slipping just past the beast as it approached. As it turned its massive body in the dirt, it slowed just enough to give Taber a brief lead. When he reached the truck, he vaulted up into it and ran to the back, ducking underneath the painting and turning it towards the entrance in front of him.

Seconds later, the beast leapt into the cabin, throwing itself headfirst through the painting and into the wall. Taber yelled out as the beast crashed into the pile of crates where he was crouched, and Maria hit the gas as hard as she could. The combined force of the motor with the beast’s massive weight and momentum forced the truck forward.

Maria, shocked that the plan had worked at all and forgetting that Taber must still be in the cabin with the thing, sharply jerked the wheel once it reached full speed and jumped out. The truck turned and skidded on the flat tire, then rolled over just as she leapt out. It toppled off the road backwards and splashed into the marsh with the thing inside.

The back door must have shut itself with the momentum of the thrust. She saw the walls bending and creaking and could hear the beast inside thrashing around wildly trying to free itself as the truck sank backwards into the swamp. Maria suddenly realized Taber must have shut the door himself from the inside, whispering, “Oh God, he’s still in there.”

Something grasped her shoulder from behind, startling her. She spun around and reflexively swung a punch directly into Taber’s jaw, sending him to the ground with a thud. “Ow!” he cried, in a muffled voice as he cradled his mouth, “And, I thought you might be happy to see me.”

“How did you...? I thought you were inside?” she stammered.

Taber crawled to his knees and coughed, “The hole. It punched a hole in the side. I crawled out and shut the door from the outside.” He got to his feet and smiled, his cheek already swelling, “Pretty clever, huh?” He looked over her shoulder just in time to see the headlights of the truck submerging in the murky water of the Hockomock Swamp.

Without thinking, Maria wrapped her arms around him, simply thrilled to be alive. She quickly came to her senses and pushed him away, “You ass! You could’ve told me what you were doing.” As she thought more, she continued, “And, you were going to steal that stuff!”

Taber smiled again, “Well, I was. But, it looks like no one’s getting it now. Besides, we’ve got a long walk to town still, I would guess. I might not seem so bad after a few miles together in the dark, right?”

Maria exhaled, looking around. She had no idea how she would explain the situation to the Society, or what happened to poor Ed. “Fine. But, I’m seeing you in handcuffs when we get to town,” she said, turning to walk.

Taber raised one eyebrow and smiled with one corner of his mouth, “Alright, doll. We’ll see.”

For Diana, my beguiling gypsy.
Happy Birthday