Updated: Oct 12, 2020
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The only other place I could think to look for Jerry was our room. I kept my eyes down as I cut through the parlor and great hall. As far as I was concerned, there was no reason to talk to any of these people ever again. I’d socialized enough for one year.
Before I reached the base of the grand staircase, I noticed that the air smelled like sweet tobacco smoke. I soon realized that the smell was coming from the front door. Now that I didn’t have a blade against my face, I could see the situation in front of me with much more clarity. It was obvious where Jerry had disappeared to. All I had to do was follow the smell of smoke. I pushed open the front door right as another crack of lightning filled the night sky.
The thunder ended, followed by a guilty-sounding “Heyyy, buddy.” It was Jerry. He and Tobias looked back at me from the porch railing, both equipped with lit cigars and half-empty glasses. Jerry held up his Montecristo Number Three and said, “It’s not what it looks like.”
“I don’t care.”
“Really?” he said, raising an eyebrow. "I think you do."
"Well, I don't."
"You do a little."
"Okay, agree to disagree then."
“You said you weren’t going to leave me alone.”
“I did say that. But then T-Bone here dropped his wallet. I had to come and give it back to him.”
“Oh, ‘T-Bone’ ‘dropped’ his wallet, did he?”
Tobias flicked his ash over the railing and said, “It must have fallen out of my jacket pocket.”
I was already over this conversation. “Tobias, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I need a moment alone with Jerry.”
“Sure. Go ahead. I’ll stay out here.”
“Actually, we’re going to need the patio to ourselves.”
He sipped his drink, darted his eyes back and forth between Jerry and me, then said, “Is this something time-sensitive? I’m only asking because I just lit this, and--”
I switched tactics. “Your wife was looking for you, Tobias.”
“Bridget’s looking for me? Why?”
“She spilt jam on her dress.”
“Jam?” Tobias asked incredulously.
“Yep,” I confirmed. “Jam. All over her dress. Just….all over it.”
“I didn’t even know they had jam in there.”
“Well, they don’t anymore.”
“So you’re saying--just so I understand the situation--not only did Bridget spill jam on her dress, but she somehow managed to spill the entire party’s supply of jam… on her dress?”
Jeez, what is this guy? The jam police? Jerry cleared his throat abruptly. It sounded an awful lot like a snicker he couldn’t hold back.
“Look, dude. I don’t know what to tell you. But I promise I would never lie about something like this. Your wife was devastated. She was crying and everything. Asked me to go find you.”
He cocked his head slightly and gave me a long, uncomfortable glare until Jerry stepped in. “Don’t worry T-Bone,” he said. “I’ll keep your cigar warm for you.”
Tobias finally surrendered. “Okay. I guess I’d better go make sure everything’s alright.” With that, he handed Jerry his cigar and walked past me.
The moment the door closed, Jerry asked, “Do you think I’d look good with a mullet?”
“No, of course not. Now shut up for a second and listen. I have a very serious question. Is there any chance you somehow orchestrated all of this as an extremely elaborate hoax just to give me a perverted sense of misadventure? Because if that’s the case, I really appreciate the impressive effort but would like to opt out now.”
“No, but damn that would have been a good idea! I’ll have to remember it for your birthday.”
“Please don’t. We need to leave. Pronto.”
He carefully placed Tobias’s cigar next to his own in the ashtray on the table by the railing. He didn’t have nearly the appropriate sense of urgency. With a smirk, he asked, “Did something ominous just happen?”
“The lady with the kleptomaniacal tween son knows my name. She said my luggage showed up in her room.”
“Well that’s convenient. And also quite alarming. Thank you for confiding in me.”
“Jerry, listen! While we were getting ready, somebody went out in the rain, found our car, broke in, packed a mother-flippin bag, and brought it back to the manor. Why would anyone do something like that?”
He leaned against the railing, put on his thinking face, and mulled it over for a few seconds before responding. “It must be because you said you needed your medicine in order to stay the night. So… That means two things. First, someone must not want us to have any reason to leave here tonight. And second… someone was watching us.”
“Great. Our room is bugged. I guess I can assume they have videos of me in the shower.”
“Oh.” Jerry’s eyes got alarmingly wide.
“I think I know what’s going on here.”
“Yeah, that’s definitely it.”
“You’re not going to like it.”
He cleared his throat, looked me dead in the eyes, and said, “I think we just stumbled into a sex cult.”
I waited for just a moment, as to not sound like a broken record. Then, “What?!”
“Think about it.”
“I will do no such thing, and you can’t make me!”
He lifted the glass to his mouth, but I slapped it out of his hand before he could take another drink. It shattered against the porch. “Hey!” he snapped.
“That could be poison for all we know!”
“Oh yeah,” he laughed. “Now that you mention it, it probably is.”
“Well? What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”
“Okay, yes, but, no.”
“Jerry, I’m not playing around. I’ve seen this movie. I know how it ends. If we go back inside--”
“I hear ya, but let’s think this through.” His voice was annoyingly calm and level. “First of all, we can’t leave without your medicine, and I think they know that. Oh, they probably want to use you as some kind of virgin sacrifice to a Norse fertility god.”
“Why would they--”
“Additionally, you and I probably aren’t the only strangers in a strange land, if you know what I mean. What about the other guests? Either they’re all complicit in the grand strategy to keep us here...”
He was making a lot of sense, and I hated it. I let out a frustrated sigh, then finished his thought, “...or there are other victims we’d be abandoning if we left right now.”
“We just need a plan. Here’s what I think we should do: One of us goes and causes a distraction in the parlor, preferably fire-related, while the other sneaks downstairs to the basement and uses the phone to call for help.”
“That’s the plan?!” I couldn’t hide my apprehension, nor did I feel the need to try. “We’re going to ‘split up, gang’?! How many times--”
The front door opened. A second later, Bridget’s head peered out. She looked around, then said, “Oh. I thought Tobias was out here. Have either of you seen him?”
I searched for a good lie, but all I could come up with was, “Tobias spilt jam all over his trousers. Just... all over them. He went to your room to change.”
She narrowed her eyes at me, slowly backed into the house, and closed the door.
That was a close one.
As usual, the least-bad plan we could come up with was still pretty darn bad. Dividing up tasks was easy. While I’m rarely the sneakiest person in the room, distractions were undeniably Jerry’s bread and butter.
I never count on everything going according to plan, but I was still surprised by just how quickly things went off the rails. As soon as we shut the front door behind us, Maggie popped up out of nowhere to say that dinner was ready and our presence was required. She then herded us into the dining room, where the rest of the guests were gathered around a long wooden table, chatting, laughing, and enjoying their drinks. The immediate silence that occurred when we entered may as well have been accompanied by a record scratching to a stop.
Jerry whispered, “Is it just me, or do things feel a little hostile right now?”
Tobias and Bridget had that oh-so-unique look of “why’d you lie to me about jam?” on their faces. Just… all over their faces. Hope shook her head and folded her arms at the annoying guy who rudely walked away from her mid-sentence. Loren made a subtle but threatening gesture of running her thumb across her neck. Even Old Man Nathaniel Whatshisname the Third had turned to face us, making a toasting gesture with the glass of brandy that someone else must have gotten him after I said I would and bailed. That’s when it occurred to me that I’d already managed to piss off every other group here.
Maggie stood in the doorway as we took our spots at the dinner table. Jerry sat to my right (protecting me from the blind man). Loren sat to my left (protecting Claire from me). The rest of the group took the other side, with Wolfgang my direct opposite. Nobody took the empty seat at the head of the table.
I was still trying to work out how we were going to cause a distraction when Jerry made things weird. “Before we begin,” he announced, pushing back his seat and standing up, “I believe it would be a good idea to say a few words of grace to our lord and savior.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Maggie.
“My pardon I grant thee,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “And now, if you would all be so kind as to close your eyes and bow your heads, I will deliver the most amazing prayer of thanks this side of the BC/AD conversion.” After a few uncomfortable seconds had passed, he repeated himself, a little louder and a little more forcefully. “Please close your eyes and bow your heads.” Everyone else reluctantly followed his command. Everyone but me.
I held out my hands and mouthed the words “What the fuck?” He began speaking… praying while gesturing wildly at the door.
“Dearest lord: Hi! It’s me, Jerry. We met at Vassar College that one time I did too many psychedelics and you told me birds weren’t real… Anyway, I know it’s been a while since we last spake... Sorry about that. Things have been wild. We come to you today to thank you for this presumably delicious meal we’re about to chow up, but first… I’d like to spend a moment catching up...”
It finally hit me. Nobody was looking. This was the distraction.
I carefully scooted my chair back and pushed myself to my feet. I’d have to sneak around a few people, but barring a stumble or surprise sneeze, this was totally doable. Knowing Jerry, he’d have everyone singing along to “Amazing Grace” by the time I made my call to the local police and got back to the table.
I tried to tune him out while focusing on my escape, but some of his words still broke through.
“...because when you think about it, that’s what tattoos are for. But I digress, we come to you today to thank you for the food. And drink (heyo!). And also to thank you for this wonderful lodging. And the company we have here today. And, um, the chairs. And table. And the rest of the furniture. And…”
I held my breath as I stepped past Loren. She was the one I was most afraid of, but her head was down and eyes closed just like all of the others. As soon as I thought I was out of the woods, a hand popped out, blocking my path. It was Claire’s. And it was holding a folded note. The side facing me read, “JACK.”