Summary: This was written for the October 2018 Bonanza Brand challenge to write an out of this world story. Adam is suffering from a mysterious malady, and his days are growing short. Hoss gives Joe a clue to solve the mystery, but what Joe discovers is a horror. Most appropriate for the Halloween season.
Word Count: 1451
Worried no longer described how they felt. Dread was more what they felt in the pit of their stomachs. It was that constant feeling of something horrible about to happen and you had to stand helplessly by and wait for it. Hoss and Joe watched Adam retch his lunch one more day and knew the doctor was correct. Because Adam had lost so much weight already and still was unable to keep any food down, he probably wasn’t going to last the month. Yet he insisted on working with them every day although he no longer had the strength to do much of anything he once did and had to take frequent breaks. Any suggestion that he stay home and rest was met with a surly reply.
“I’m not spending my last days sitting inside staring at a cold fireplace. If my company is tiresome, I can work elsewhere.”
Of course, they hadn’t meant that and never said it again after the first two efforts to show their concern were rebuffed with his anger. Both understood. They knew it would have been wiser to suggest he should work with their father who sat alone in that big house worrying every day, but it was too late to say it and not have it sound lame. Instead, they worked together day-by-day watching Adam die. Even his hat seemed too large for him during that month as his weight dropped perilously close to skeletal. His clothing hung on him, and he had resorted to wearing suspenders to make sure his pants didn’t fall down. Cinching his belt tightly wasn’t enough. Despite the warmth of the sun and the late summer days, he chilled easily so no one saw the suspenders under the light coat he wore.
With the conditions he faced, the doctor told the family that any disease, even a cold, could be deadly at that point. It didn’t matter. He didn’t have long to live. At dinner, he seldom ate much. His stomach could tolerate so little and he didn’t want to lose his sleep by being nauseated for the night. Hop Sing did his best by providing broths and teas instead of the heavier foods the rest of the family had.
It seemed everyone was losing weight though as it was so difficult to eat watching Adam sip broth and tea grimacing frequently as his stomach often rebelled against even those liquids. Watching him move the cup to his lips supporting it with two hands so he didn’t spill and seeing those long fingers that had been so capable and strong barely able to lift a cup was almost more than a heart could bear. After the first weeks of that, Adam began taking his dinner in his room unable to withstand the looks his family gave him. They couldn’t help the sympathetic gazes, but he couldn’t face them much longer without losing what little emotional control he still had. Growing weaker by the day after weeks of deprivation, he found that tears came too easily and would have broken down in sobs every day except he knew there was no true relief there. Instead he and his family stuck to routine, which was the only comfort to be had.
Doctor Martin consulted with every expert he could locate and their responses varied from assuming it was melancholia to theories of an unknown malady. None had any suggestions for treatment other than what was being done. At least twice a week, Paul was there to check on Adam, but all he was actually doing was monitoring his decline. He could offer no hopeful words. It shook him to see his friends slow demise unable to stop it much less explain it. He felt the pain of this family whose members each day would put a hand on Adam’s shoulder to try to offer support only to find there was no comfort to give when your hand encountered that thin bony hardness where muscle and sinew had previously padded it so well.
Trying to be supportive, Joe and Hoss said they wouldn’t attend the church picnic or the town social. Adam insisted they go saying rather harshly that he was the one who was dying, and they shouldn’t act as if their lives were over. Ben said they should go if only to keep some calm in the house. They did, but after those two events and a wedding they attended, Hoss had an observation.
“Joe, I’m getting worried you might be getting a tetch of what got into Adam.”
“Every time, we go to town, you get sick. You look so good leavin’ all dressed up with your new tie on, but when we come back, you’re sicker than a dog that night or the next day or so.”
“But I’m fine now.”
“Yeah, it’s the only thing that don’t make me scared to death for ya even if I still worry some. I don’t know, but Adam is so sick and you get sick some. It’s got me plumb not sure ifn I want ta go ta sleep at night not knowing what the next day might bring.”
The conversation dogged Joe for days. It pricked at his mind day and night, but he couldn’t think of why it seemed important. One morning, as the doctor was in Adam’s room, he got out that new tie Hoss had mentioned and looked carefully at it. Of everything he owned, it was the one thing he wore only when he went to special events in town. It was also the only new thing he had. Taking it to the window so he could see it better in the light, he poked at it with his fingernail loosening some of the strands from the material that bound them together and made them shine. When he did that, he was surprised almost to the point of shock. For a time, he stood there contemplating the tie and why it would be constructed that way. Then he walked downstairs and over to the credenza and examined the band on Adam’s hat. Like his tie, it was liberally adorned with silver, but when he scratched it, he found it too was made from the same material as his tie. He walked to his father’s desk where Ben was doing his best to look busy and failing miserably. When he looked up at his youngest son, his bloodshot eyes and sunken cheeks showed the strain of watching his eldest slip away from him.
“Pa, you’ve told us about that voodoo stuff. You heard about it in your sailing days. Do they have any of that in Baltimore?”
“I suppose they could or do. There were many slaves who were brought into that port over the years. It was a major market, and some would have come from the Caribbean islands with those beliefs. Why would you ask about that now?”
“Well, you said some of them used things to try to cast spells on people. Now I know you’re going to say it’s foolish and maybe superstitious, but Melinda sent me this tie and Adam that fancy hat band when her mother died.”
Ben frowned. He knew that but couldn’t imagine a connection between them and the questions Joe had posed.
“Yes, if I recall correctly, she said in her note to you two that they were so sorry about what happened and wanted to make amends, but her mother died before they could write to you with a proper apology. Joe, what has that got to do with anything and why would I think it foolish or superstitious?”
“Pa, Melinda’s mother, Deborah, she had really long hair. I know she kept it pinned up, and it was short in front, but you could tell there was a lot of hair up there especially in the back.”
Starting to get terribly worried, Ben could predict at that point what Joe was going to say next even if he wanted to be wrong. His face had a look of horror on it before he heard the actual words from his son.
“Pa, my tie and Adam’s hat band look like they’re made from hair. It’s her hair color too.”
“Oh, my God! Burn them, Joe. Burn them!”