BRUEGEL TAROT: 5 of Chalices

Grim Encounter

Jeb and Billy stepped out of the bar as if floating on clouds. Their heads swam with every step, and their faces glowed with a foolish grin. They ambled along in the humid night. The chilly breeze cooled their blazing cheeks, and the air smelled of wet earth.

“I guess it rained,” Jeb slurred.

“We weren’t in there that long, were we?” Billy answered, and hiccuped.

Jeb shrugged and gazed at the sky. A thin shaft of moonlight pierced the thick clouds overhead.

“It was still daylight when we entered the bar, and not a cloud in the sky.” Jeb gave Billy a lazy and dazed grin.

“Maybe we are Whip n’ Wrinkle and we walked out twenty years later,” Billy suggested.

“Rip van Twinkle… no, Winkle.”

“That’s… what I said.”

The brothers giggled like schoolboys and sauntered on, swaying now and again.

“Damn that Ol’ Hans. Once he gets talkin’ there’s no stoppin’ him,” Billy spoke after a while, as the cool night ebbed his boozy buzz.

“Yep, but he spins a good yarn. He’s a helluva folklorist, if there ever was one,” Jeb replied.

“Ha!” Billy snorted, “He tells half the stories backward and confuses fairies with leprechauns.”

“Ain’t leprechauns a type of fairy?” Jeb asked.

“Don’t you start,” Billy glared at him askance.

Jeb giggled.

The cloudy night drew around them as they turned down the country lane towards home. Only the faint beams of porch-lights guided the way. Jeb wished he had his flashlight with him and said so. Billy harrumphed. In their drunken state, it occurred to neither of them their cellphones could act as flashlights, so what had begun as a swaying amble now turned into a precarious trek.

A crisp breeze blew through the trees lining the lane as a patch of sky opened above them. The half moon shone on a nearby tree.

“What’s that?” Jeb stopped Billy and pointed towards the tree.

Through his boozy daze, Billy glimpsed something white billowing beside the tree. He blinked a few times and squinted, trying to focus his eyes. He had forgotten his glasses and the undulating whiteness took on a spectral blur.

Chills ran up his spine as his befuddled mind recalled the tall tales Ol’ Hans had regaled them with in the bar.

“A ghost!” Billy said and Jeb paled.

“You think?”

“Uh-huh,” Billy nodded as the thing quivered before their eyes.

“Uh-oh, what if it sees us?” Jeb said, his eyes darting side to side, searching for a hidey-hole. But… Could you hide from ghosts?

“If we don’t look at it, it won’t see us,” Billy said matter-of-fact.

“Like… Cats,” Jeb answered.

“Yup… Wait, what?”

But Jeb had moved on, and was tiptoeing past the ghost with both hands at his temples, shielding his eyes, like horse blinders. He froze with one foot in front of the other. Still shielding the corner of his eyes, Jeb turned inch by inch towards Billy, who stood stiff as a board, though with quivering knees.

“You hear that?” Jeb whispered, and the soft sound cut through the heavy darkness.

“Yeah,” Billy squeaked.

“It came from the ghost,” Jeb said.

Billy nodded.

The brothers stared at one another for a moment, Billy opened his mouth to speak, but a low growl near the tree killed the words in his throat. Then a sorrowful howl meandered through the forest. It crescendoed as it approached, and the brothers, ashen-faced, watched in terror as the ghost hovered for an instant and took flight towards them.

Its flapping and quick approach stopped their hearts but kick-started their legs. Jeb and Billy, neither athletic nor limber, sprinted home while the ghost fluttered and thrashed at their napes, lashing out and tousling their hair. Screeching like frightened squirrels, they reached the safety of their house faster than either of them could say Usain Bolt.

They locked the door, drew all the blinds and huddled in their living room until sleep overtook them. 

Sunlight woke Jeb. He rubbed the sleep off his eyes. He lay sprawled on the couch, one foot on the floor. 

Billy snorted himself awake and blinked at Jeb. He had draped himself on the high-backed chair with limbs contorted every which way. 

“If anyone asks,” he said, “we fought the thing off.”

Jeb nodded, “like the Brave Little Sailor.”

“Tailor.”

“Whatever.”

Birds twittered outside their window and a soft thump on the door meant the newspaper had arrived.

Billy rose from the chair and rubbed his back and neck. Groaning and muttering something about feeling stiff, like RoboCop, he blundered and tottered towards the door. 

He opened it and grabbed the paper. 

Wind gusted and lifted the discarded white rag lying on the lawn. It lingered for an instant, waving goodbye, before the wind blew it away. The brothers were none the wiser.

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