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This story is the second prequel to the Tobit Series, and should be read before embarking on the Tobit Series itself.

Enjoy!


Love and Hot Chocolate Rings

Tragic Encounters with Moving Cars

It was a dark evening when Blain Kellerman lost control of his car, with his wife in the passenger seat. They had been invited out to a friend's house in the suburbs, and thus ventured into the darker wooded areas that surrounded the city of New Orleans. Both Blain and his wife Christine were lifelong residents of the section of New Orleans known as mid-city, and although both of them were in their early 30s, they had little experience driving in the darker, more rural areas that made up the suburban section called the Northshore.

It was a Friday night. Neither Blain nor his wife really desired to drive 45 minutes out of the city just to sit down and hang out with friends that they've known most of their lives. However, the invitation had been sent, and since it was a Friday, no work the next day, the Kellermans agreed to make the short-long drive out to Covington, Louisiana, where their old friends Jessica and Tim had moved.

Blain had groaned more than his wife. He worked long hours in a cramped office building downtown. Christine worked further out from the hub that was the New Orleans Central Business District, so she couldn't exactly share his pain. She worked at a small store, with lots of parking and plenty of street space. Blain worked on Poydras Street, in the Harrah's Casino legal department. Poydras runs directly through the heart of the CBD, and therefore he had to fight traffic coming and going to work, as well as parking in an overpriced garage.

It was worth it though. Blain and Christine had been married for eight years now, all of them amazing. Sure, there were fights here and there, but at the end of each day, Blain was always pleased beyond words at where his life landed him. Good job, great marriage. There was nothing that Blain could complain about... until that Friday night.

The dinner with friends had been fun. There was a mediocre home cooked meal, which of course both Blain and Christine raved about to their hosts. There were drinks served, but both Kellermans refrained from overindulging. A couple of board games were toted out after the eating and drinking was complete. Christine and Jessica clucked on about old times, old friends and old places. The men went outside on Tim's back porch to smoke cigars and also tell stories about old times and old crimes.

Midnight rolled around quickly, and general laughter was replaced by yawns and stretches. It was time to leave.

Jessica insisted that they spend the night. Christine was game for it; the couch looked much more comfortable than spending nearly an hour in the car. Blain, though, wanted to get home. This very want has become a constant source of guilt for the man, but we'll get to that soon enough.

Blain was a stubborn homebody, something that Christine found joy in teasing him about from time to time. He liked to go to sleep and wake up in his own bed. He was never a fan of spending the night with friends. Hotels he was fine with, since it was his own space, but staying with friends, or even family, was something that Blain Kellerman simply disliked.

"I don't like feeling like a guest," Blaine insisted to his wife on Tim's porch.

"Honey, we're both tired. Let's just sleep here tonight and head home in the morning," she replied.

"We have plans tomorrow, babe, and you already know what's going to happen if we spend the night. Tim and Jessica are going to want to do stuff, and before you know it, our entire Saturday will be spent in Covington."

Christine smiled and caved in. "Okay, but you're driving, and no getting mad if I fall asleep on the ride back," conceded Christine.

So goodbyes were said, hands were shook and hugs were issued out. By the end of the whole affair, even Christine was about ready to get back to the comfort and privacy of her own home. She loved her friends, but Blain was right about privacy and such; she valued it as much as he did.

The accident happened about 10 minutes after leaving Tim and Jessica's home.

The fatigue really set into Blain while he and Tim smoked cigars. He didn't want to admit it, though. After all, he had been up since 6 AM and put in a nine hour work day at the office. However, he knew if he gave in, he'd be spending the night, and he didn't want to sleep on Tim's sofa.

By the time he and Christine were pulling out into the street, he was running on mental fumes. Christine looked over and offered to drive, Blain brushed it off. Perhaps had he let her drive....

His next decision point came when they pulled into one of the few 24 hour gas stations in Covington. He went in and bought a Red Bull, even though based on his daily caffeine intake, he knew the energy drink was more for the flavor than the energy.

The main drag that runs through Covington is called HWY 1-90. Covington at 1 AM usually had almost no traffic. Blain knew this, so he was paying more attention on digging his can of Red Bull out of the plastic grocery bag than he was on the road. Still, on any other night, this wouldn't have made a difference.

The car that hit him was driven not by teenagers breaking curfew, nor was it a drunk driver. Nothing so easy to blame. It was just another driver out late in a small town, who probably thought the same thing that Blain did, that there would be no one else on the road.

The traffic light was out. There was not even the flashing yellow light that sometimes came on. There simply was no light active at all. Due to the lack of development in that area, there were no street lights to warn Blain that a side street was approaching. Something as simple as a stop sign may have changed everything.

There was no stop sign, though, and thus fate enforced its will. The other driver, a man named Martin Bendles, struck Blain's car on the passenger side, directing all of the force of metal and momentum onto Christine. Blain's head struck the steering wheel, with the airbag deploying and possibly saving his life. Christine was not so lucky.

Her airbag did not deploy. Her head struck the dashboard, which was then snapped backwards, jerking her back into the seat. Her neck and head took almost all of the force.

The Coma of Christine Kellerman

Blain woke up in the hospital many hours later. Doctors came in and explained what happened.

"Where is my wife? Where is Christine?" Blain demanded to know.

All would be revealed, and the terror was still unfolding.

Christine was knocked into a coma. The doctors did all they could, but her brain showed no signs of life. Machines were doing her eating and breathing.

Several months passed. Blain slowly recovered. Physical therapy did its job, and by the time six months passed, he was pretty much back to being physically whole again. Martin Bendles, the hapless driver that struck Blain's car, died in the hospital. Blain considered his passing to be no great loss.

Christine, however, never woke up. She slept on in her coma. Blain went to her bed each and every day. He brought in her favorite foods and drinks; they had picnics in her hospital room. Some days he would wake up and just know... know without a doubt that his wife was going to wake up that day. He would race to the hospital, even bringing her a new change of clothes, as though she was just going to jump out of that hospital bed ready to change out of her gown and head home. That was Blain's illusion of the situation, anyway, and perhaps that only thing that kept him sane.

He had sued the car company for the defective airbag. There was a huge settlement out of court, with the automotive corporation agreeing to pay for any and all of Christine's medical bills. Blain ordered the doctors to keep her alive on the machines because he was convinced that one day she might just wake up.

With the settlement money, Blain was able to take a substantial amount of time from work. His boss would call him from time to time and ask when he planned on returning. Blain would usually brush this off. In his heart, he knew he couldn't go back to work until Christine returned to him. Perhaps he could have lived like this for years, too. He would spend each and every day with her, talking to her in her coma, massaging her muscles, watching television next to her lifeless shell. He would tell her about his day, and with each passing week, with each advancing month, he would become more and more sure that anytime now, she would just wake up.

The doctors explained to him the full extent of her injuries. They told him that the odds of her waking up were almost nil. Blain would hear none of it. Even Christine's family eventually let their voices be heard. They wanted the machines turned off.

"It's wrong for her to live like that!" Maggie screamed at Blain over the phone. Maggie was Christine's sister.

"It's wrong to kill my wife, too, to just turn off the machines and watch her choke to death, or starve to death, or however the process works!" he shouted back.

"We have legal recourse Blain, and if you won't end her suffering, we will bring the law into it!" demanded Christine's mother.

"You'll have to kill me before I let that happen. How can you sit there and lobby for them to kill your daughter? She is alive, she is still in there. Would you allow her to die if she might wake up the next day?!" screamed Blain.

"Blain, you know how much we love Christine, and you too. But son, have you been listening to the doctors? She isn't going to wake up. Her brain... her brain is dead. What's laying in that hospital bed... that isn't our daughter... that isn't your wife... please, let's do this with dignity, don't force us to bring in the law on a family matter."

This particular logic bomb was being delivered by Fred, Christine's father. He was a level-headed family man, but he was a fool if he thought for even a second that Blain was going to allow them to just kill his wife. He would fight them to the end.

This argument raged on for weeks. Blain was perfectly willing to continue this verbal joust, but things moved a lot faster than he was prepared. Legal papers were filed, and for the first time, when Blain actually found himself standing in court explaining to a judge why Christine should be allowed to live, he realized that he could lose her. Christine's family made valid points in court. They had medical papers, testimony from doctors and other medical professionals, all outlining exactly how pointless it was to keep her alive on the machines. Blain began to feel small and weak in the debate. They had facts and statistics. All he was, was a sad and broken man, begging a stranger in a black robe to allow him more time with his wife. For the first time since the accident, he began to feel truly helpless in the situation. They were going to take her away from him, with the power of the law to do it. He would have no means by which to stop them.

Legal wheels do turn slowly, though; everyone knows that. Almost a year went by. Court was held, opinions were thrown. Pro-life groups rallied for Blain's cause. However, these were the same nuts that wanted to tell women what to do with their bodies. They were Bible thumpers at best, a faction of society that Blain would have never associated with before this. Now, they were his only hope.

Towards the end, the final days in court, Blain already knew which way the judge was going to sway. He knew enough about court procedures to know he was going to lose. He couldn't watch her die. He couldn't be a part of it.

"I love you so much, Christine. You are my life, my everything. They want to kill you... and there is nothing I can do to stop it. In a week the judge is expected to rule, and even I know... they've made a better case. I am so sorry, my love... I am so sorry, Christine...." Blain wept long into that night. He finally went home around 11 PM. Things weren't better there. He broke down into tears that simply wouldn't stop flowing. Everything in their home reminded him of their lives together.

Photos on the wall... their wedding, their anniversaries. How happy they were together. Emmy, their pet cat, would jump into his lap. She was an old cat now, but he still remembered the day they went down to the animal shelter together and brought her home.

"I will love you forever and forever," he mumbled to himself. It was what he said to her the day they were married.

"But will you love me forever, forever and forever?" she responded later that night, when they were alone in their hotel room.

"Take all the stars in the sky, multiply them by forever and add in a few more forevers, and you still wouldn't be close."

They had laughed and made love. Forever and forever... Blain was starting to realize just how short that theoretical time frame could be.

Talking to Astrid

It was the thought of the stars that next inspired Blain. During the course of his marriage to Christine, the stars had played a big part, at least in lore, to their success. The night that Blain decided he wanted to ask her on their first date, he had been standing in his front yard. It was twilight, and the very first star had appeared that night. On a whim, he had invoked that old child's nursery rhyme about wishing on the stars.

"Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight."

He had recited this little astral ritual, followed by wishing Christine would agree to go on a date with him. That night he called her, and she said yes. Blain had made this same wish again on the night he intended to propose, and on that same night, his wish was once again granted.

Now, Blain was a smart man and didn't believe in much superstition, but still, the double success of this little tradition did strike him almost as fate at work. Years later, he told Christine about his little twilight wishes. She laughed about it, but they kept the tradition going.

Before they bought their first home, they did a star wish. They got their home at an unbelievably low interest rate. Almost, some would say, a miracle.

Christine, who was the art major of the marriage, began calling this tradition, "Talking to Astrid." Whenever the couple needed a real long shot of luck, they would wait until dusk, sometimes even checking online to see what time the very first stars would start to appear that night, and they would go out into their front yard and sit on the grass and wait. When the first star became visible, they would make their wish, and as luck would have it, each and every time they talked to Astrid, their desire would be met.

"We should wish for a million dollars," Blain had mentioned one night.

"It won't come true that way," Christine corrected. "So far, our wishes have been for unselfish desires, things that we need, rather than millions of dollars. Plus, I feel like if we made a wish like that, it wouldn't come true, and that might break our streak of luck with Astrid."

Christine made a great point, and she and Blain had never abused their crazy, stargazing methods. In Blain's mind, he always just assumed these things would have happened either way, and the star wishing was really just more of a morale booster than an effectual process. He was pretty sure that Christine believed the same. Still though, it was something that was fun, and something that was theirs.

Tonight, as Blain paced his small home, a home that felt somehow even smaller without his wife there to share the space, he decided to try once more. In his heart he knew it was just a stupid child's fantasy that something would actually come from wishing on a star. However, he had tried all of the adult methods of saving his wife, from medical to legal, and now it seemed as though nothing would work.

Blain stepped out onto his front yard at dusk. Being in the middle of the city always meant that there weren't a ton of stars to be seen, especially early in the evening. One usually had to wait until later, once all traces of the sun were gone, to really see the diamonds light up the sky. He sat on his porch, smoked a cigarette - a habit that started just recently - and waited until the sky was mostly darkened. The sky at twilight in the city always had a neon glow, something that used to bring him comfort. Tonight, the lights from the street lamps and the nearby downtown high rises just seemed to weigh down on his mind.

He scanned the sky for the first star, and quickly found Venus, in her usual spot near the moon. Venus was a planet, though, and tonight he wanted to talk to Astrid, not just some non-twinkling rock in the sky. He looked over and saw Mars, apparent by its reddish glimmer. It never occurred to him that he was picking out a lot of heavenly bodies for this time of night in New Orleans. The sky seemed to be opening up for him as never before.

Then he saw it. A real star, apparent by its shimmer. He almost thought he was looking at Mars again, because there was an unmistakable red hue. He looked back and saw the non-glimmering Mars, right where it should be. So what was he looking at?

He was no astronomer, so seeing this tiny, slightly rust-colored star shining in the evening sky didn't exactly throw him into overdrive. It was a star, a rather unique one at that. He decided that as far as wishing goes, this one was as good as any other.

"Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight," he recited as always. Tears were falling down his face now. "Bring back Christine... please... star, God... whoever... please, I can't live without her. I am broken without her in my life, she is everything to me... I will do anything... just please...."

Blain stood there a moment longer, allowing himself to weep. Thankfully, none of his neighbors were out. He didn't care if they saw him cry, but he didn't feel like answering the always lovely, "Are you alright?" question. This was his and Christine's connection. He had talked to Astrid.

He returned to his home, slamming the door behind him.

"Wishing on stars... yeah, I am on top of the world ma..." he mumbled to himself, before collapsing on his couch.

Mr. Pinkerton

That night, he was awoken by a knock at his door. It was a gentle and restrained knock, as though the person knew he would be right there on his couch, instead of upstairs in their bed, where he most certainly would have slept through it. Blain rolled off the couch and looked at the clock on his cable box. 11:04. Who the hell would be knocking this late?

The knock returned in the same restrained manner. However, there was a strange persistence in it, something that said the person wasn't going anywhere. They could wait.

Blain grabbed the baseball bat that he kept for just this sort of thing, and peered through his peep-hole. On the other side was a small man, probably about 5'6" at the most. Blain could only make out part of his face, as he was wearing one of those old flat brimmed hats, the kind that old southern politicians were always seen wearing back in the 1950s. The round brim cast a shadow over his eyes and nose. The hat was blue and white striped.

"Who is it?" Blain replied in a gruff voice.

"Mr. Kellerman, oh Mr. Kellerman... my name is Mr. Pinkerton, but my friends all call me Mr. Pinky. I would just loooove it if you called me that too. I am here to speak with you on a very personal business matter. I do believe you reached out to me and my associates this very evening."

Whoever this Pinkerton man was, he was almost a walking cliché. He had a southern accent that was practically a caricature of the "Southern Dandy." He pronounced Blain's last name "Keller-man" and really threw out a lot of his words for emphasis.

"What business do we have, Mr. Pinkerton?" Blain inquired through the locked door. He still sounded gruff, but Pinkerton seemed to pay no mind.

"Mr. Kellerman, if you could be ever so gracious as to open your door, we could discuss the matter at much greater detail, and in far more human comfort, I would imagine."

"You show up at my door at this hour and expect me to invite you in for coffee... whatever you're selling I am not buying. Piss off, Pinky."

Blain observed a small smile whisk across Pinkerton's face. However, he did not move from his position on the porch.

"Mr. Kellerman, know two things. If you turn me away now, I will never return. You will never see me or hear from me again. But also know this, your precious Christine will die."

Suddenly heat rushed through Blain's face, a rage so sudden and so raw that he almost felt faint. He flung the door open.

The sight of Mr. Pinkerton just about deflated his anger. The man was indeed short; he had a pot belly and was wearing a blue and white suit that matched his ridiculous hat. He had a bow tie around his neck, tied loose. His skin did have a pinkish hue, as though to match his name. Blain realized it was no doubt sunburn. Pinkerton looked like a very delicate man, a true dandy if ever there was one. Blain wouldn't have been surprised if the moonlight on this very night had given Pinkerton his burn.

His eyes however, told a different story. His eyes looked sharp and cunning. A dark blue, piercing stare. His eyes made him look a little dangerous in the dim glow of his porch light.

"What did you say about Christine!?" Blain demanded.

"Well now, Mr. Kellerman, does this mean I may enter your humble domicile?"

"If this is a con... I will fuck your world up!" snarled Blain Kellerman.

"Sir, if this is a con, I will gladly offer you my body to enact your every primal desire of revenge. However, once you hear what I have come to say, I do believe harming me will be your last impulse."

Blain backed up and allowed Pinkerton to enter his home. He removed his hat, revealing a perfectly bald head. "May I sit?" he asked.

Blain gestured to his couch. Pinkerton sat, and placed his hat neatly in his lap. "I would so love that coffee you mentioned before, Mr. Kellerman, if you would be ever so kind. And if I may venture to be so bold as to make a suggestion to the man of the house. I would implore you to make yourself a cup as well; you're going to want to be awake for this."

Blain was in sort of a waking shock at this little man, who had invited himself in, ordered himself a cup of coffee and even suggested one for Blain. Pinkerton had a certain energy about him that Blain was hard pressed to identify.

Blain returned a few minutes later with two steaming cups of coffee. Pinkerton requested his black, same as Blain. "Okay Pinky, you got in, you got your coffee, now tell your story. What do you know about Christine, how can you possibly help me?"

The small man sipped his brew and smiled. He licked his lips and began speaking. Blain was entranced from start to finish.

"Mr. Kellerman, tonight, at about 7:45 PM, as you know time, you ventured right out there into your front yard and called out to the very stars for help, did you not?"

Blain nodded.

"Over the years, this was a bit of a tradition of you and your wife. Let me tell you, there was no magic in those wishes; you simply had good luck. However, your belief, your honoring of such old and glorious traditions, certainly did catch the attention of my superior. It is indeed a thrill to see a young man such as you, in this here modern world, still holding true to ways and days that have long passed by."

"What do you mean?" Blain asked.

"Picture this, Mr. Kellerman, and really, I do mean, picture what I say in your mind. Eons and eons ago, there was a kingdom among the stars. A floating castle, as you would no doubt imagine it. In that castle sat a very powerful king. His name... well, he has many. King Tobit is the best for your tongue I do believe. A few of his other names are a bit... let's say, twisty. Anyway, Tobit sat in his castle in the stars, granting his favor to those who called out to him. For centuries he would bestow his kindness onto mortal creatures, small critters like yourself, scampering through your ever so short time on this level of existence.

"For some time, this pleased Tobit to no end. People would speak his name, glorify his image, he of the goat's head and man's body. Then things changed. People demanded his favor. Blamed him for their problems. And unlike other powerful beings that your kind know, Tobit did not forgive so easily. He shifted his favor to those who deserved it. Those who were willing to earn it.

"Those that would risk it all.

"He even came to earth and built a city, just for his most loyal. Oh, and what a paradise it is, but the cost to reside there... well, that doesn't concern you. I am not here to invite you to his glorious city in the frozen lands; that’s a different ritual altogether. What I am here to offer you, Mr. Kellerman, is your wish, the very desire that you cried out for tonight in your yard, when you gazed upon King Tobit's star. That star revealed itself to you, Mr. Kellerman, because King Tobit believes in you. Oh yes, he does. He believes that you may be worthy of his favor. However, sir, you will have to prove it."

Blain spoke up for the first time in what seemed forever. "You mean, you're telling me Pinky, that this Tobit character can bring Christine back from her coma?"

Pinkerton smiled, and snapped his fingers, as if for emphasis. "Just like that Mr. Kellerman. At King Tobit's whim, your lovely bride will simply awaken, as though she has just been in a long slumber. There will be no brain damage, no physical problems. As far as she will know, it will be as if she simply fell asleep after one too many mint juleps. And won't that just amaze her family, who seem to be in such a rush to see her demise?"

"This has to be a trick... you... you can't be serious," Blain insisted.

"Answer me this, Mr. Kellerman. Are you prepared to gamble on that? Let's say I am just some crazy man, some individual that has been following you and your problems, just some lunatic out for a good time? You could thrash my tender hide at this very moment, or you could call your local police to come on over here and haul me away, but you haven't. No, you sat here and listened to me talk about god-kings in floating castles, magical wishes and bringing your wife back. Tell me, do you doubt me, or just doubt yourself?"

"Prove it then! If you really are magical, prove it!" Blain shouted.

"Now, now, Mr. Kellerman. Faith is of the utmost importance in such matters. If I went around doing parlor tricks for everyone who beckoned upon my Master, well, this whole operation would turn into a traveling carnival... and me, I guess that would make me the clown. Mr. Kellerman, like wishing on those stars, you must go into this with faith. The proof will be given to you in the form of your beautiful Christine waking up and calling out for her husband."

"What do I have to do then?" Blain asked cautiously.

"For now, simply sleep; you will need your strength come tomorrow. I will see you at my place of business, where all rules will be explained and all contracts will be agreed upon. Should you succeed, you will have your wife back with you again, happy and healthy."

"Wait now, if I succeed? Does this mean it isn't guaranteed?"

"Mr. Kellerman, nothing in this sad, fragile world of ours is ever guaranteed, now is it? However, what I can promise you is that there are rules that will be followed, and any and all participation will be fair and impartial. I am not here to see you succeed or fail; I am simply here to make the offer and ensure that all aspects of the agreement are upheld at the conclusion of our arrangement."

"So, if I succeed, Christine wakes up. What happens if I fail?"

"Well now, Mr. Kellerman, at the risk of sounding cliché, if you fail, King Hyraaq Tobit gets your soul for all of eternity."

"Okay, enough of this shit! Get out of my house, you're fucking nuts!" Blain said, raising his voice with each word.

"Very well, Mr. Kellerman. You did invite me in, and you did serve some very delicious coffee. So for you, I will make a small exception." Pinkerton pulled out a card from his suit pocket.

"Be at this address tomorrow. Come by yourself. I will wait for you until nightfall, and at that time, I will pack up my lovely little operation, and move on to the next town. There are always people in need of favors. As I said at your door, you will never see me again, and yes, your wife will most certainly die. If you want me to perform a miracle, allow me to predict the future for you real quick. Your wife's mother and father are going to win. The judge has already decided in fact. They are going to allow the plugs to be pulled, and your sweet wife will fade out, but not before suffering greatly. Pulling that plug doesn't bring instant death, but rather a very slow and deliberate suffering. And since her mind isn't capable of conceiving time in her current state, her suffering will seem like an eternity, as she chokes and gasps, reaching for a rescue that will never come."

"Just get out of here!" Blain screamed.

Pinkerton showed himself to the door and stepped out to the porch. He turned and made one last comment before leaving.

"Be the hand that rescues Christine. She is reaching for you even now, Mr. Kellerman. Should you meet her one day on the other side, do you want to tell her that you allowed her to die a horrible death, rather than spending one day with me to wake her back up? Come to the address tomorrow before sundown, or live in your misery forever."

With that, Pinkerton quickly stepped down the porch to the sidewalk. Blain, consumed with rage and emotion, grabbed his baseball bat, intending to take out his aggression on the small chubby man. He charged into the street to find Pinkerton gone. That quick.

Blain's Nightmare

Blain didn't sleep the rest of that night. He sat up and twirled the card in his fingers, looking down at the address. It was a spot way out in the country, in a small town called Madisonville, Louisiana. Oddly enough, Madisonville was not that far from Covington, where all of this began.

Blain was almost sure that this Pinkerton asshole was just as full of shit as any one man could be. All of the information he presented Blain was readily available if someone really wanted to dig a little. The newspaper ran an article on the accident last year. The hospital records were sealed of course, but Blain knew all too well that Christine's sister kept a pretty updated blog. He had read it himself a few times; it detailed all the secrets of their lives, both comic and tragic alike.

Blain was thinking out loud.

"So let's say that Pinkerton is a con artist, and all of this is just a scam. What does he have to gain?"

Blain was directing this set of questions at Emmy the cat. Emmy gazed at him with her sleepy eyes, as if to say, "Humans... so many stupid questions."

"Maybe he wants to get me out there in the middle of nowhere and kill me, did you think about that?"

Emmy stared back, silently. Blain answered his own question.

"Well, if he wanted to kill me, he could have just done it right here. Why would he leave me the address on a card, knowing that I could just call the cops, or have someone wait around for me to make sure I was alright?"

The cat looked back. She seemed to be bored with the situation.

Blain waged this internal debate until almost sunrise, when fatigue finally caught up to him. At that point, he fell asleep, and dreamed.

He was at home, but it was different. The house was lit up, bright with life. Emmy was purring, music was playing from the television, and the smell of hot chocolate filled the room. Of course it did, though; Christine loved hot chocolate. She didn't drink coffee; no, she drank hot chocolate, almost all the time, even in the summer. Blain walked into the kitchen and saw the cup of hot chocolate, but no sign of Christine.

"Darling, will you bring me my drink?" came Christine's voice.

Of course, she was upstairs in bed; it was early. She must have come down, made the cup, and then gone back up to snooze until he came home.

Blain grabbed the cup of warm fluid and began to take it upstairs.

"Here baby, it's nice and hot...." The sight before him stole his words.

Christine was in their bed, but she wasn't the Christine he knew. She was wasted, dying. Her face was too thin; her arms were nothing more than sticks. There were machines hooked up to every part of her body. A large black pump was jutting out of her chest. It sucked in air, and Blain could hear a thump, her heart, before the pump would deflate again. Each time it did, blood would splash out onto the bed. A device that looked like a car radiator was dug into her stomach, belching out black smoke. Tubes ran from her eyes, ears, nose... everywhere.

"Blain... it hurts so bad... please, I can feel this... all of it...."

"Christine! What have they done to you?" cried Blain.

"This is what I feel... every second on the machines... oh God, Blain, please, make it stop!"

Suddenly Christine's family rushed in. Her mother and father, their faces set and stern, like an executioner before he throws the switch of an electric chair, or a hangman before he drops the platform. They begin to rip the devices from Christine's body, and as they do, the life in her eyes slowly vanishes. Her family backs away and begins to weep softly. Christine is gagging, choking on air. Her stomach begins to sink in, becoming further emaciated. She looks at Blain, mouthing pleas, begging him to stop the suffering.

"This will go on for weeks, Mr. Kellerman." A voice, Pinkerton, standing directly behind Blain.

"I have to stop this, she is suffering, please," Blain begs.

"If you leave her on the machines, she suffers; take her off the machines, she suffers. Salvation, Mr. Kellerman, salvation is yours to claim. There is no freedom from King Tobit; there is only freedom through King Tobit. Vie for his favor, show your worth. If you truly love her, if you are capable of expressing that love... well, just imagine."

Pinkerton snapped his fingers, and Christine was standing in the room. Healthy, whole.

"Blain, I feel so amazing, so much better. Thank you for bringing me my hot chocolate. You always know how to help me wake up."

The room vanished again, and Blain was standing in the dark. Pinkerton was near him, whispering in his ear.

"Bring your wife her hot chocolate, Mr. Kellerman. Help her wake up."

The room suddenly lit up, and Blain saw an image before him. A being standing at least 40 feet tall. A massive masculine frame, with the head of a goat. Behind this being burned a red star. Its light and heat bearing down on Blain.

Hyraaq Tobit.

The Grove in Madisonville

Blain snapped awake. It was late morning, at least according to the amount of light coming in through the window. The card was still in his hand.

Without any thought, Blain cleaned up, got dressed and started driving.

The trip to Madisonville was normally a long and boring ride. Blain left the city by way of Lake Pontchartrain over the Causeway Bridge. He touched down in Mandeville, a small town on the edge of the lake. Up ahead was a small green interstate sign announcing the exit for Madisonville.

The trip became complicated once he drove into the meager strip of small buildings and gas stations that made up the main drag on Madisonville. He pulled into the parking lot of the three-story historic library on the quaintly named Main Street.

His GPS had crapped out on him when it came to finding this address. Everything was smooth until he got into the town itself. At that point, the robotic voice of his guide began telling him to make left turns where there were no streets, U-turns where there was no need, and it repeatedly told him that he arrived at his destination, only to promptly correct itself and instruct him to travel another three miles this way, or make a right turn that would put him into a ditch.

Finally he gave up and pulled over to ask directions. The inside of the library was cool. The room was dark. While the building was three stories, it was a very tiny space. The books all looked older than they should. The whole place seemed archaic, even in small town America. Blain rang the tiny bell that summoned the librarian.

Love and Hot Chocolate Library

Madisonville Library.

"Yes sir?" asked a small, elderly woman.

"I'm trying to find a place... ummm... Bannister Road?" Blain asked.

"Oh yes, Bannister... now, that road hasn't been used in years, and even calling it a road is giving it justice. Take Main Street down six blocks and turn right at the Madisonville Bank and Trust. Take that road until you see a small yellow gate, turn down that dirt road, and travel a few miles. You'll see a homemade sign with Bannister written on it. That's your place."

Blain assumed the directions would be easy enough to follow, thanked the woman, and began to head out.

"Um, young man? Are you a photographer, or a historian?"

"No ma'am. Why do you ask?"

"Well, Bannister Road is sort of our local legend around here. People say it's haunted. Some people say that devil worshipers live back there. Just silly stuff really, but it brings in a tourist now and then. I mean, on Halloween, the police sit out there, just to, you know, make sure no funny business happens."

"Ma'am, does the name Pinkerton mean anything to you?"

"No sir, but you do be careful if you're going back that way. I don't believe in ghosts, but I do hear that strange people hang out there sometimes. Like I said, devil worshipers."

Blain nodded slowly, considering the weight of this information. It did make him nervous that perhaps this was some sort of setup. He didn't own a gun; Christine was afraid of them and would never let Blain bring one in their house. He sort of wished he had one right now. He returned to his car and sat and pondered for some time. Part of him wanted to simply get back in his car right now and speed home. Fuck Pinkerton and his promises. But then Christine's face rose in his mind. Her beautiful smile, her kind eyes. He would never forgive himself if he didn't try every possible option. He knew that if she died, he would spend the rest of his life wondering just what was out there on Bannister Road, and if that strange little man named Mr. Pinkerton, Pinky to his friends, really could have saved Christine's life.

Blain promised himself that he would be careful out there. That he would keep his wits about him, and if something looked strange, felt off, he would bolt. No questions asked.

The drive to Bannister Road was easy. The librarian's directions had been simple enough to follow. There really wasn't a way to get lost in a town like Madisonville anyway. It was basically one main strip that ran between two highways and the interstate. If the best tourist attraction they could offer was a road that may contain ghosts and Satanists, then it was a sad little place indeed.

Blain turned at the bank, drove down until he saw the yellow gate, turned there and gritted his teeth at the thought of his Audi bouncing down a dirt road. Dust flew up, spotting the wind shield. It was almost 2 PM now. Pinkerton had given him until sunset. He was making good time.

A few miles in, he found the turn off for Bannister Road. Bannister was even worse than the yellow gate road he had just been on. This one couldn't even boast being a dirt road. It was just a mud strip leading down into some thick woods. The mud right now was as hard as iron, but Blain had an idea that when the rainy season came through, Bannister Road would be converted into a clay pit that not even a Range Rover could muscle through.

Now the real question came. He was on Bannister Road, but as far as he could tell, there was nothing at all here. He drove down for a mile until it dead ended into a thick grove of trees. Blain couldn't help but think this scene would be beautiful if not for the circumstances that brought him here. He stopped his car at the dead end and climbed out. He lit a cigarette and leaned against his trunk. He gazed around in all directions, and at first, it seemed that he was simply sitting in a deserted grove.

Then he saw it.

About 20 feet into the woods on his right, barely visible through the leaves and bushes, he could make out a roof. There was a building back there. It was bright red, which is what caught his attention. He peered harder through the trees, and could gradually make out more features. It looked almost like a small circus tent. Perhaps a leftover remnant from a long passed carnival.

Love and Hot Chocolate Tent

Then something Pinkerton said to Blain occurred to him. He had made a comment about the carnival, and being the clown, something like that. Was that a hint? Was this the place?

Blain pushed through the woods and came out into a clearing. The tent was old and ragged. Its once bright red and yellow design was long gone. What stood before him was a destroyed artifact, a reminder that once there was fun and laughter here. Now this place was simply dead.

Then Blain noticed the single, pink balloon tied to a nearby tree. The balloon was still inflated; this was put here recently. Blain knew at that point he had the right place. Drawing on his courage, which was small, and his love for Christine, which was large and noble, he gathered his nerves, and stepped into the tent.

The Trials

“Mister Kellerman!” shouted Pinkerton full of glee, as Blain entered the tent.

The inside of the tent had a wrong feel to it that Blain would be hard pressed to describe. It was totally hollow inside. If this place ever did house happy, cheering people, those days were long gone. Now there was only Pinkerton, standing in the center, wearing his blue and white striped suit. He was vigorously wiping at his forehead with his handkerchief.

“By the Saints above, today is a hot one, is it not, Mr. Kellerman? I do say, such climate is not suitable for refined gentlemen like ourselves.”

“I came, Pinkerton. Now tell me how to get my wife back!” Blaine commanded.

“A man who gets right to the point. You are a dying breed, Mr. Kellerman, indeed you are. Why, if more gentlemen thought like you, perhaps your breed would have landed on the moon a thousand years ago, as was the plan. Oh, the treats that King Tobit hid for you there. Such a shame you all missed it.”

“No more games, no more riddles. You told me that you could save Christine, that is why I am here. Please.”

“Well, your manners are commendable. Yes, you are here to save your wife, and I am capable of facilitating that very desire. However, before we begin, I must cover the rules. Do be a good ambassador to our beloved Dixie and sit quietly as I explain.”

Blain obliged and sat on the ground. His exterior almost appeared patient, but inside... inside he was burning.

“Now, as I said before, King Tobit has become, well, disenfranchised with mortals and their constant wants. Still, though, in all of his glory, he desires to shed his favor upon you. However, now it comes at a test - a wager, really. You will complete a few… tests of will, let’s say. Like Hercules, you must demonstrate that your strength, your will, is both pure and stoic. Once you demonstrate these qualities to King Tobit, he shall bestow upon you your heart’s desire.”

“What are these tests?” Blain asked.

“Well, Mr. Kellerman, they vary. Once the trials begin, you will be at the whims of King Tobit himself. I will be here to sort of... nod you in the right direction, but in the end, this is your test, your rules and your duty to complete them.

"Now, as I stated back at your home, the name of the game here is fairness. Our mighty lord is nothing if not utterly lawful. Even when he imposes his will on his servants, things that you might consider… ghastly, it is never out of trickery. Everyone is given a fair chance, especially in the court of wish fulfillment.

"The rules, as they are, are very simple. No cheating. Follow the instructions as they are presented. In order to claim any prize - your wish in other words - there must be a wager. Remember Mr. Kellerman, your word will be a direct reflection on how King Tobit perceives your actions. Whatever you say, you must be prepared to follow through. Be very careful when choosing your words.”

Pinkerton stopped speaking long enough to gesture in the direction of another tent flap when a ragged, rough looking man stepped through.

“This is Mr. Peaty. He is under my employ, and is here to provide a balance to your actions during the trials.”

Peaty looked like a mix between a pirate and a biker. He was dirty with a scruffy beard, a black bandana on his head and a denim vest. He was wearing ragged pants that tore off towards the shins. He stood sort of hunched over, which really hammered home the pirate look. His arms were no joke, though; Peaty looked like he lived at the gym, even though the idea of a man like this working out among preppy gym members seemed too strange to imagine.

“Is this the bastard pansy that couldn’t take care of his wife?” Peaty grunted. His accent sounded like someone trying to do a London accent for a cheap stage play.

Blain tensed and prepared to reply, but Pinkerton beat him to it. “Mr. Peaty, we will have none of that. Your poor breeding and sub-par upbringing is no excuse to speak to Mr. Kellerman in such a manner. He is our guest, and I have personally sought him out. You will behave in my presence.”

“Sorry there, boss. You know I got a stupid head sometimes, just goes off on its own. Won’t happen again, I say.”

Seeing this hulk of a man backing down to someone like Pinkerton actually unnerved Blain more than it comforted him. It produced more questions, like who is Pinkerton really, and how does he keep such a brute in line?

“Now, Mr. Kellerman, Peaty will be in and out of some of your trials. He is simply here to ensure that everything is legal. King Tobit wants you to succeed, but he wants you to earn it.”

Peaty spit on the ground in Blain’s direction and crossed his arms. He was clearly ready to do whatever his task was in all of this. Blain didn’t like it.

“So, what do I have to do?” Blain asked.

“Ah, yes, we should begin soon. Even as we speak, your wife’s family is making legal moves to try and lock you out of the decision making. So, do you understand the rules Mr. Kellerman?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“YES!”

“Very well, what are you willing to do to save your wife?”

“Anything!”

Peaty smiled at that.

“Mr. Kellerman, I fear you weren’t paying attention. I warned you about the rules. Had you just answered that question with something like, let’s say, eat an ice cream cone, then that perhaps would have been your only test. But, like so many before you, you said ‘anything.’ King Tobit holds us to our words after all.”

“You mean, the trial has already begun?”

“Mr. Kellerman, the trials began when I visited your home. Now you’re playing for keeps. Your contract was struck when you answered my question; your soul is now on the betting table. Ante up, Mr. Kellerman!”

Blain felt a panic seeping in. Yet, somehow this still felt made-up. This Pinkerton freak talked a good game, but so far, all he’s really shown is his ability to hide out in a tent with some freak named Peaty. Blaine felt his confidence harden a bit.

“Okay, fine, what’s the next trial?”

“Mr. Kellerman, I sense that you are still not playing your best game here. Now, King Tobit would not be happy if you were simply… what’s the term, Peaty?”

“Half assing it, sir.”

“Yes, that. You are wagering your very soul here. So, in the spirit of fairness, allow me to relieve you of all doubt, since it is far too late for you to back out now anyway.”

Pinkerton produced from what appeared to be thin air, a curtain hanging on a rod. He released the rod, and the whole apparatus simply hovered in the air.

“Neat trick, is it not? Now observe.”

Pinkerton slid the curtain to the side, revealing a tiny altar behind it. On the altar was a small stone statue, a goat-headed man. Blain recognized it from his nightmare the previous night. It was Hyraaq Tobit.

“Now, Mr. Kellerman, allow me to show you where your soul will be delivered, should you fail to gain King Tobit’s favor.”

Pinkerton waved his arms, and suddenly the walls of the tent collapsed. Blain gazed around in utter horror. As far as his mind could comprehend, he was in the pits of Hell.

Fire burned everywhere; even the sky itself seemed to blaze with flame. People lay here and there, wallowing on the ground, moaning, crying out. Blain strained his eyes to the horizon, but the orange flame and the pitch black sky was all that he could see.

“Convinced yet, Mr. Kellerman?” the voice of Pinkerton filled the sky.

Blain strained to look directly above, and the entire sky was the face of Pinkerton. Only now he looked less like a portly southern dandy, and a lot more like a demon from the darkest corners of the abyss.

“You’re not in Hell, Mr. Kellerman. No, that is a different playground for a different religion. You are on the red star, the wastelands where those that fail Hyraaq Tobit find themselves, for all of eternity. However, it does relate to your backwards concepts of damnation, in the fact that this is eternal. There is no hope, there is no escape.”

Blain dropped to his knees. “Please, get me out of here… God help me!” he screamed into the darkness and fire all around him.

“King Tobit is your God now, and I would suggest you avoid such blasphemy in the future. Now, have you seen enough Mr. Kellerman? Or do you need further proof that this is not a con?”

“Please, I believe you, for the love of… for the love of…” Blain caught himself before he said "God".

“Very well, Mr. Kellerman.”

In a flash of light Blain was back in the tent. Pinkerton and Peaty were in their original positions.

“What the fuck was that?” Blain gasped.

“That’ll be your home if you fuck this up,” grunted Peaty.

“Yes Mr. Kellerman. Mr. Peaty’s words are far from gentle and barely are grammatical, but he is correct. Should you fail to appease King Tobit, you can expect to spend all of eternity there, on the red star. And imagine this - you were just there to witness it. You didn’t feel the pain, the fire or the thirst. You didn’t feel the loneliness, and desperation for freedom. Please keep all of that in mind as you complete your trials. For if you lose, you will be shown no mercy.”

The contest began.

“Mister Kellerman, we will begin this easily enough. Tell me, where did you and Christine spend your first date?”

Blain gathered his wits as quickly as he could. He was now terrified, but he was determined to let his love for his wife guide his mind.

“Okay, okay, that’s easy. Algiers Point. I took her across the river and we sat on the bank of the Mississippi and had a picnic.”

“Sorry, Mr. Kellerman, that is wrong,” replied Pinkerton with a frown.

“No, I know where I took Christine on our first date, I planned the whole thing out myself,” Blain demanded.

“You’re playing this selfish, sir. Your first date, in her eyes, was a simple hamburger at a little shack called Bud’s Broiler. As I recall, you took her there after work one day.”

“We were just friends then! That wasn’t a date!”

“To her it was. How can such a doting husband have missed the look in her eyes at that simple little meal? She was already falling for you. Sad really, and that was the easy, warm up test.”

Blain once again tried to center himself. Clearly this game was rigged, at least to an extent. Trick question right from the start. He would have to do better if he was going to save Christine, and himself.

“Let’s try again, shall we?” invited Pinkerton.

Blain nodded. He would be ready this time.

Pinkerton waved his arms, and three items appeared before Blain.

A silver locket. A wedding ring. A small personal mirror.

“Mr. Kellerman, which of these items is the most relevant to your love of Christine? Choose wisely.”

Blain did think long and hard on this. The locket, that was an anniversary gift. He had spent a fortune on it, and Christine had scolded him, lovingly, for using most of his annual bonus on a gift. The mirror, he remembered it also. He and Christine had gone camping in Alabama one year, and he bought her that mirror for the trip. He made some joke about how she could still spend an hour on her make-up even at a camp site. She had laughed about it, but did in fact end up using it for most of the trip. And the wedding ring, the symbol of their love. He had placed it on her delicate finger the day he swore to love her forever and forever. He knew it was the ring, his confidence was solid.

“Her wedding ring, of course. The symbol of my eternal love for her.”

Pinkerton frowned again.

“Oh, Mr. Kellerman, what a shame. The correct answer was the mirror. Had you taken the time to pick it up, you would have seen your own reflection. You are indeed a stronger symbol of love to her than any jewelry could ever be. Or do you think of her in such a shallow light?”

Blain felt that air leave his body. He was down two strikes already, and on such easy questions.

“Let us move on, Mr. Kellerman, for the longer we linger on your failures, the more difficult it will be to return to the track of success.”

Pinkerton waved his arms again, and a mug of dark liquid appeared before him.

“Hot chocolate, Christine’s favorite, am I correct sir?” asked Pinkerton.

“Yes… she loves it, I would bring her a mug almost every morning,” responded Blain.

“Of course, sir, and now you simply must bring the mug to me. Allow King Tobit to witness your affection. Simply grasp the mug and bring it to me.”

Blain nodded. At least this one wasn’t a trick question or anything. A simple task. Blain grasped the mug and began to walk it towards Pinkerton.

“That’s it, Mr. Kellerman, that’s it. Right to me.”

Blain actually allowed himself to relax a bit, and immediately paid for it.

A sharp pain suddenly inflicted itself into Blain’s side, followed by another hard thud to the center of his back. He fell to the ground, spilling the hot chocolate into the mud.

“What the fuck…” Blain had time to mutter, before Peaty delivered another hard kick to his ribs. The diseased-looking fucker was smiling through his yellowed and rotting teeth.

“Mr. Kellerman, I warned you before all of this began that Peaty was here to challenge you. I know for a fact that each morning, you would ever so carefully bring Christine her drink, stepping wisely to ensure you didn’t spill a drop. Do you mean to tell me that you were more concerned about tripping over your rug at home than you are about a thug like our Mr. Peaty here? What a sad state you’re in sir. Another failure, and on such a simple task.”

“You bastard, he sucker punched me…. How the fuck is that fair?” Blain grunted, trying to catch his wind.

“It’s fair because I warned you about it well in advance. Is it my fault that you are such a simple man that you had to apply all of your cognition on carrying a mug? Mr. Peaty didn’t vanish and appear behind you. He walked to your blind spot right out in the open. You were the one who failed to see such an obvious ploy. Do not shift blame here, Mr. Kellerman, or I will happily declare this contest over. Is that what you want? Are you finished, sir? Two simple questions and a task that a blind child could perform… is that all it takes to defeat your will? Is that all the love you can muster for your wife?”

“NO! I am not done, I will never stop fighting for Christine!” Blain shouted back.

“Then prove it!” Pinkerton answered sharply.

The world flashed again, and Blain was in a moving car, behind the wheel. He didn’t know where he was, but the road was dark, and tall pines lined the sides.

“Where am I?” he shouted.

Pinkerton’s voice answered from nowhere, and everywhere.

“You are in the car that was once owned by a pathetic little sod named Martin Bendles. Remember him, the man whose car struck yours. The man who caused your wife to fall into her coma. You are in Mr. Bendles's position now. Since I know that you feel it was all his fault, that he caused all of your problems, let us see if you can do any better.”

Blain suddenly recognized the environment. This was Covington, that dark side road where Bendles had emerged. Up ahead, Blain could see the intersection. He didn’t want to believe what he was witnessing. He slammed his foot on the brakes, but the car continued to move forward. He honked his horn and flashed his lights, trying his damn best to warn his past self of his approach.

The intersection came into clear view. Ahead he could see… he could see his Jeep Patriot, or at least, his former Jeep Patriot, before the accident. He slammed his foot on the brake over and over again, honked the horn, but nothing changed.

In that horrifying moment, he saw Christine’s face, awake and aware for the first time in over a year. It was not the wonderful moment he had imagined, though. He saw the fear as she turned to look, he saw that fear turn into utter horror, he saw her mouth open to scream, her eyes widen, her arms fly up to shield her face.

Then the impact. He saw her beautiful face smash into the dashboard, as the airbag failed to deploy. He saw her head snap back against the seat from the impact. It all happened in slow motion for him.

He was back in the tent again, on his knees, weeping.

“Mr. Kellerman, what happened? I gave you the chance to change it all. To prevent the accident. You wasted it.”

“No, no… I tried to stop, I hit the brake, the fucking car kept going.” Blain was almost begging.

“Sir, you could have turned your car off of the road. Your steering wheel worked just fine. Sure, you would have been injured, maybe killed, but Christine would have been spared. How sad it is that you were still selfish, even in the moment that could have changed all of this.”

“No, it was a trick. Bendles's brakes didn’t fail; I remember that from the accident report, he just wasn’t paying attention. You… you rigged it!”

“Rigged it? Is that what you dare say, Mr. Kellerman? Nothing here is rigged. You said that you would do anything, ANYTHING, to save Christine. Am I to believe that running a car into a tree falls outside the realm of anything?”

Blain gasped, but no words would come out of his mouth.

“Mr. Peaty, I am beginning to think that our dear friend Mr. Kellerman doesn’t want to save his wife. Have we not played fair with him? Have we not presented the rules to him in the most transparent means possible?”

“Well, boss, I knew this little runt was a failure when he walked in. Little softy is all he is, ain’t he, boss? I bet that little wife of his went into that coma just to get away from him,” replied Peaty.

“You shut the fuck up!” screamed Blain, as he rushed Peaty with all of his rage.

Peaty side stepped and delivered a hard knee into Blain’s abdomen, followed by a fist driven into the back of his head. Blain collapsed.

“Now, now sir, none of that. If you cannot even abide Mr. Peaty’s foul and uncultured sense of humor, how can you possibly hope to gain the favor of King Tobit?” scolded Pinkerton.

Blain gasped and finally found air in his lungs. On legs that felt far too weak, he brought himself to his feet.

“Mr. Kellerman, when I met with you at your home last night, I felt that you were a champion of your love. Why, I even remarked to Mr. Peaty here that this would be a short trial; I simply knew you were going to succeed. It pains me so to be so harshly corrected by you. Why, I do believe you have been wasting our time.”

“Told yer so boss, told yer this guy was a chump,” Peaty chimed in, happily shedding misery on Blain.

“One more test, Mr. Kellerman. I do implore you to try on this last one. It is of little secret at this point that you have utterly disappointed King Tobit. However, in his infinite mercy and wisdom, he will grant you one final trial. However, it will not be simple.”

Pinkerton waved his arms one more time, and Blain found himself in a hospital. Not any hospital though, rather, the very hospital where his wife was silently wasting away in her sleep. Standing next to him was Peaty.

The voice of Pinkerton filled the halls.

“Gentlemen, this is a simple foot race. The finish line is Christine Kellerman. Now, Mr. Kellerman, it is your simple trial to reach your beloved wife before Mr. Peaty. In your hand, you will notice a cup of her favorite hot chocolate. Bring it to her, help her wake up. After all, your wife’s very words professed that she can simply never wake up without her drink. Should Peaty reach your wife first, well, let’s just say you don’t want that to happen. He is a very nasty man, and I doubt a woman in a coma would deter his more, let us say, primal urges. Gentleman, we shall begin when Mr. Kellerman declares that he is ready.”

Blain gathered all of his concentration. He knew there was a trick here. Regardless of how fair Pinkerton swore this would be, every single trial had been rigged. He knew that. This one would be no different.

He looked down at the cup of hot chocolate, and that was when inspiration hit.

“Okay, I’m ready!” Blain shouted.

Without hesitation, Blain turned and slung the hot chocolate into Peaty’s face, causing the large man to drop to his knees and grasp his face. Blain didn’t wait to enjoy his suffering though; he bolted down the hall towards the stairs.

“Mr. Kellerman, what about her hot chocolate?” the voice of Pinkerton echoed.

“If you really knew me as well as you claim to, you would know that every day I visit her hospital room, and every day I bring a packet of hot chocolate mix. There is plenty of it in her room!” Blain shouted, almost laughing as he ran.

“Finally, the noble husband is playing to win!” the voice of Pinkerton answered.

Blain made a sharp turn into the stairwell, but could hear the heavy footfalls of Peaty only inches behind him.

He was halfway up the first flight when a hand grasped his ankle, pulling him down. Peaty. Blain wasted no time smashing the mug over Peaty’s head. The large man grunted in pain, and Blain delivered a swift kick to his face, causing him to tumble down the short flight of stairs.

“Why, you smashed the mug Mr. Kellerman, however will she drink it?”

“What, you think I bring hot chocolate packets without a mug? Her favorite mug has been sitting in her hospital room for months now!” Blain announced, feeling, for the first time, hopeful.

“Well now, Mr. Kellerman, perhaps we have all underestimated you.”

Blain made it to the fourth floor. Peaty was hot on his trail, but he knew his wife’s room. Room 416. Through the door and to the right, directly passed the nurses station. Blain was now on the 4th floor, running with all of his might. Christine was so close now, all he had to do was round the corner and he’d be there.

Then disaster struck.

A sharp pain, far too intense to be anything other than a blade, slashed into his hip. Peaty, wielding a knife. Blain collapsed. Blood quickly caked his pants. He attempted to stand but could put no weight on his leg. He was cut deep.

“I’ll crawl to her…” he grunted, but was quickly planted on the floor by Peaty’s boot.

“So sorry there, pal. You thought you were cute with the little hot chocolate in my face, but ol’ Peaty is in this to win,” the burly man spoke directly into Blain’s face, his sour breath and body odor seeming to hammer in his taunts.

“Yer wifey in there is going to make a great little prize, now isn’t she? I promise you though, ol’ Peaty is going to take real good care of her, until they pull da plug anyway. Enjoy the red star.”

With that, Peaty walked into Christine’s room, and Blain found himself back in the tent. Peaty was standing next to Pinkerton, who no longer seemed charming or cultured. Now he looked hungry.

“Well, Mr. Kellerman, I do believe that concludes our trials. You did your best, as pitiful as your best turned out to be. However, the contest was presented and delivered in a fair manner, with all rules enforced. You simply failed. Now, prepare yourself.”

Blain’s world began to fade. He began to smell burning flesh; the heat of the burning star began to grow. The world phased between the tent and the red star. Reality shifting. Blain had time to cast his final thoughts to Christine. How proud she was of him. How much they loved each other. Their first date, their wedding day. She even supported Blain when he worked in dead end jobs, such as when he was a legal copywriter for Harrah’s casino. That job paid barely enough to keep the lights on, but they always had their love, and what more light could anyone need?

And to think, a man whose entire career was once built around proofing contracts and finding…loopholes. Loopholes… are legal, loopholes are… bending, a bending of the rules. That’s how Blain had risen in the corporate ranks, go move up to the executive wing of the casino’s legal depart… winning… with loopholes….

One Final Appeal

“WAIT!” Blain screamed.

“Oh, what now, Mr. Kellerman? Are you going to tell us how you deserve another chance, because of love or faith or some other pathetic mortal platitude?”

“No, I am going to tell you how I won,” Blain stated, in a very matter-of-fact voice.

“By all means, Mr. Kellerman, do tell.”

Pinkerton had cast aside the southern charm. He now had the spite and tone of… well, damn it all, he sounded just like a lawyer.

“You told me at the beginning of all of this, that in order to claim the prize, a wager was required, correct?”

“Of course. Do hurry along with this,” answered Pinkerton.

“You also insisted that successful and motivated attempts at each of the trials were necessary in claiming the prize, correct?”

Pinkerton didn’t answer, but simply twirled his finger in that "go on" gesture.

“Finally, you stated that terms in this contest were of the most literal sense, correct? That what we say in this contest directly affects the rules and guidelines, correct?”

“Yes, Mr. Kellerman, I am well aware of the rules of the very contest that I…”

Blain stood, cutting him off. “Then Peaty lost. Peaty goes, not me.”

“WHAT! You little shit, you little cunt, how dare you try and…” Peaty was cut off this time.

“How did Peaty lose in a contest for your heart’s desire?” demanded Pinkerton.

“On the last test, when we were in the hospital, Peaty told me that he would claim Christine. By your very own policy, one must play the game in order to claim the prize, and the wager in the game is always the person’s soul,” Blain announced.

“Mr. Kellerman, you are rambling now, trying to avoid…”

Blain cut him off again. “Peaty didn’t participate in half of the challenges, but even if all of that is void, even if only the last challenge mattered… Peaty… Peaty didn’t bring my wife her hot chocolate! He failed, and since there is a wager on the board, there must be a declared winner. Since Peaty failed at the contest, since he disqualified himself, that would make the runner-up the winner. That would be me.”

“Nice try, Mr. Kellerman, but do you recall, you had hot chocolate in the room, along with her favorite mug! You said so yourself!” shouted Pinkerton.

“But did he make the chocolate, did he complete the task?” Blain demanded.

“Of course he did, he knows that such…” Pinkerton was cut off one more time.

“I am not asking you, Pinky; I am asking him!” Blain bolstered, pointing directly at the small statue of Hyraaq Tobit.

“King Tobit, you called for a test, you called for true will and strength. I delivered. Surely you do not care about watching a mortal remember a first date location, or pick out an item, or even race through a hospital with a mug of Swiss Miss. You wanted to know if I was worthy. Well, I wager it all now. I will wager my soul that Peaty is lying. He never made her the drink; he failed. If I am wrong, I give you my soul willingly. And since your honest agent, Mr. Pinky over there, was so quick to vouch for Peaty, I am quite sure that he will happily wager his soul that he is telling the truth. So how about it, King Tobit? Can a simple mortal stand on his convictions and truly be willing to give anything for your favor?”

Pinkerton fell silent. He knew that he had been bested. Should he bet against Blain, he knew that he would lose, as he knew that Peaty never made the chocolate.

“Goodbye, Mr. Peaty, enjoy eternity,” Pinkerton mumbled, sounding very defeated.

“What, no… No, you little fuck… you can’t do this to me… I have been loyal to you… you’re letting this little piece of shit manipulaaaaaaaaaaa…” those were Peaty’s final words as he vanished into the fire and suffering that was awaiting him on the red star.

“Well now, Mr. Kellerman, well done. Well done indeed. It took you until the very end, but you finally understood what it was to risk everything. You honored your words; you were very willing to do anything, give anything, to have your wife again.”

Pinkerton sounded totally deflated. Perhaps he had hoped for Blain to lose, or maybe he was just attached to Peaty. Who knew?

“So… is it over… is Christine going to awaken?” Blain uttered.

“My word is my bond, Mr. Kellerman. You have gained Hyraaq Tobit’s favor; your wish is granted. Enjoy the rest of your life.”

Pinkerton placed his hand over Blain’s face, and Blain collapsed to the ground.

The ringing of his cellphone brought Blain back to reality. He was on his couch. He was having some sort of nightmare, something about an evil little man playing games for souls.

He reached over and picked up the phone. It was Maggie, no doubt calling to tell Blain that she had won another legal battle to hasten Christine’s death.

He pushed the RECEIVE button on his phone.

“What do you want, Maggie?” he asked, with little emotion.

The excitement and squeal of her voice caused Blain to hold the phone away from his head for a moment.

“Oh My God, Blain! It’s Christine, you’ll… you’ll never believe it. She opened her eyes today, just… opened them up. She sat up and stretched and yawned and… she’s back…. I don’t know how it happened, but… she’s awake and talking and… she just thinks she’s been asleep!”

Blain was floored; his hands were shaking.

“Are you serious, Maggie? You’re not fucking with me here?”

“Never, never about this. Oh, Blain, thank you so much for defending her! I mean, Mom and Dad nearly fainted when she woke up. I mean, to think… we wanted to…” Maggie was now weeping.

“Anyway, Blain, hurry up and get your ass down here! She’s been asking for you all morning!” Maggie exclaimed.

“Of course… my God, of course… let me get in my car! I’ll be there in a few minutes!”

Blain hung up and bent over to get his shoes. He noticed they were already on his feet. Did he fall asleep with them? He didn’t have time to care. Nor did he notice that there were bits of grass on his shoes, and mud stains on his pants. He had no memory of the tent, or of Mr. Pinkerton. He only had a vague feeling of a strange nightmare, but now he was filled with far too much joy to think of anything other than getting to the hospital and seeing his wife again.

Blain climbed into his car and began to back out of his driveway, when he noticed an item sitting on the passenger seat. It was a mug. A simple white mug. It had a few cracks running through it, as though it had been shattered at some point. Inside of the mug was a folded note. Blain read it:

“Don’t forget the hot chocolate, Mr. Kellerman, and don’t forget that you are one of the few men in the world that can say he did everything for the one he loved. Enjoy your life; love your wife, Hail Tobit.”

Yours,

Mr. Pinky

Blain examined the note a moment longer. Tobit, Pinky… it sounded like something from a childhood daydream. Either way, he had no time to dwell on it. He backed out of the driveway and drove to the hospital to see his wife.

Love and Hot Chocolate

Narrations




Written by K. Banning Kellum
Content is available under CC BY-NC
Published January 18th, 2015

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