Nobody had wanted dessert. Obviously.
What people had wanted was more booze. Thankfully, Lawrence had been happy to oblige. He had an entire liquor cabinet at his disposal, and judging from the way he was pouring their drinks and mixing cocktails, he seemed to be desperate to unload it. Which, hey, she wasn’t going to complain. The nut had brought actual absinthe to the cabin. Anna didn’t even really like the licorice-y taste of anise all that much, but there was something delightfully absurd about going through the whole ritual with the sugar and the slowly dripped water, all for a dinner drink.
Sure, Madison and Kore were both testy, but they were always testy. Always worrying about something, or else completely unable to take an honest joke. Par for the course, really. But Ted was stroking Kore’s back and Lawrence was stroking Madison’s ego, and now everything was better.
“Anyone mind if I burn one?” Anna had posed to the room.
Nobody minded. Obviously. Which was how the five of them came to be sitting in the living room of the cabin, sprawled out on couches, on a giant bean bag chair, on a needlessly fancy leather chair that looked like it could only properly be sat upon if one were wearing a robe and drinking a snifter of brandy (and Lawrence, to his credit, had a snifter full of brandy in one hand.) They giggled, they passed the joint around (all except for Ted, who begged off by saying that he might have to take a piss test as part of training camp,) and they mostly just sat in silence, staring at the ceiling and feeling at peace for a moment.
And then Kore said, “Lawrence, what’s going on with that thing in the woods?” and it was ruined.
To his credit, Lawrence did a good job of playing dumb. He sat up stock straight in the leather chair, fixed Kore with a wide-eyed gaze that was half-anger and half-fear. And then he coughed and a little plume of smoke came out of his mouth. “What thing in the woods?”
Anna let out an exaggerated sigh, flopped over on the bean bag chair until she was facing Lawrence. “I took the scenic route down to the lake when I went looking for those two,” she said, punctuating her sentence by pointing her toe in the general direction of Kore on the couch next to Madison and Ted in a chair by himself with a beer in his hand. “I found the little dungeon scene you guys set up.”
Lawrence’s eyes darted from Anna to Ted and Kore. “Wait, what?”
“I found the big old stone slab with all the trees around it cleared. Ted wouldn’t crack even once I pointed it out, and good on you for that, Ted, but it’s obvious you’ve set up some kind of a LARP.”
Lawrence laughed at that. “A LARP? What the fuck are you talking about?”
“What’s a LARP?” Madison asked.
“Lawrence, what’s the deal with that altar?”
“’Live action role-playing,’” Anna said. “Like Dungeons and Dragons, but you act it out instead of just acting it out.” She paused, considered her words, and giggled. Come on, you’re supposed to be a writer, an artist.
Madison’s face twisted up in equal parts disgust and terror. “We’re playing Dungeons and Dragons?”
“It’s fun,” Ted slurred through sixth or seventh beer. “You’ll love it. Real ‘sci-fi nerd stuff’ type stuff.”
“We are not LARPing,” Lawrence said, the words coming out angry.
“So you know what LARPing is!” Ted shouted, a stupid grin on his face. “You’ve LARPed in the past haven’t you, Mr. Steinman?”
“I haven’t even played Dungeons and Dragons since we were in high school!”
“That’s not what I asked! Where were you on the night of February thirteenth, Mr. Steinman? What are you hiding? Who are you protecting?”
“I don’t have to answer to you! My personal life is not on trial here!”
Anna laughed. She laughed so hard, she fell off of the bean bag. She hit the ground with a heavy thud, coughed once in surprise, and laughed some more. And then they were all laughing, all of them except for Kore.
“Lawrence. The altar.”
He snorted, wiped his eyes, and sighed. “Oh, man. That’s too much. Wait, what? What altar?”
The word cut through the haze over Anna’s mind. She’d had to hear it repeated a few times before it sunk in, before the connection formed between what she’d seen, the word she knew, and the implications of that word. Altar. It’d been an altar. Not some goofy, cheap prop but an actual altar. Like something from Stonehenge or Teotihuacan. The kind of place you’d go to observe the stars.
Or cut up a human heart.
When Anna had first come across it, she’d just walked around the little clearing, stared up at the sky. It had been carefully placed in the clearing, that much was obvious. She’d noticed that when she stood in just the right spot, there was an unobstructed view of the western horizon. The altar was some impeccably made plastic thing, dark and rough at the base but noticeably smoother on top, the way anything gets when it’s used a lot. When there are hands touching it. When there are things being put on top of it, dragged off. That was all she’d noticed at the time.
She’d admired it, admired the attention to detail that marked, but it was just a prop. A prop, just like the jars full of fake formaldehyde and fake dead things down in the garage, the books with nonsensical Latin titles, the apophenia gibberish all over the walls. All the times she’d deliberately exposed herself to weirdness, to madness, to obsession had inured her to the effect Lawrence must have been trying to get out of them. They were all only props, after all.
Except they weren’t. Anna realized that now. Kore had done what she hadn’t, had walked over to the altar and actually touched it. She’d run her hands over its surface. She’d nudged it with her foot. She’d frowned and paced around it, growing increasingly uncomfortable all the while. Ted hadn’t paid the altar much mind at all. He’d just grunted and stood off to the side waiting while Kore inspected the thing. But she’d seen it all, the things that Anna was only now realizing.
The altar hadn’t budged an inch. It was real stone, not plastic. And there were no dark stones around here, not like that. The mountains they were in were all light gray granite. So it must have come from somewhere else. But if it was real stone, then it must have weighed a couple hundred pounds. Ted could pick it up, maybe, but certainly not Lawrence. What, then? They’d brought it all the way from home? That would explain why’d they come up a day early, so they could drag it into place, but really? Lawrence wanted to stage a murder mystery or whatever for them, so he’d done the garage up like a mad scientist’s lair and lugged a giant rock out into the woods behind the house?
The grass wasn’t ruined. A big heavy stone like that would have gouged up the earth as they dragged it. Prop or not, it’d definitely been there longer than a day.
“The big stone block in the woods, Lawrence. It’s basalt. With gouges and bloodstains or something all over the top.”
Anna looked around the room, surveyed everyone’s reactions to this. Madison was sitting straight up on the couch, her body arms and legs drawn tight against her body. Ted’s eyes were looking around the room as well, albeit with the bemused disinterest of a drunk.
Kore’s face was serious. Hard, as hard as the altar she’d described.
But so was Lawrence’s. All trace of intoxication was gone, and when it had left, his eyes had gone cold as ice. “I surely don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Come on, Lawrence. You think I don’t know when someone’s lying to me?”
“I’ve never seen this ‘big stone block’ you’re talking about, Kore,” Lawrence said, spitting each word with disdain. “And I’ve certainly never seen any ‘sacrificial altar.’” Anna shivered.
“Anna told her about the garage too, man,” Ted added.
“What’s in the garage?” Madison asked.
Lawrence’s eye twitched, Anna saw. He looked like he was on the verge of losing his temper. The conversation, at least, had certainly spun out of his control. He took a deep breath, set down his glass next to his chair, and stood up. “You know what? It’s too late and I’m too tired for this. I’m going to bed. You can show me this ‘altar’ in the morning, and I’ll be more than happy to explain to you how you’ve managed to freak yourself out over a rock. Have you forgotten that we’re in the mountains? There’s kind of a lot of rocks in the mountains, you know.” He turned his eyes towards Anna and frowned. “And as for you, thanks a lot for getting her worked up over nothing. Just… Wow. Thanks, really. I really appreciate that you decided to weave a fucking horror story out of a couple of mason jars and a fucking rock. Good job.”
“Oh, come on!” Anna said, but Lawrence was already moving past her, down the hallway and towards his bedroom. “How is it my fault that this cabin’s full of weird shit?”
Lawrence didn’t even acknowledge her. Anna’s eyes narrowed to slits and she pushed herself up off the bean bag.
“Ann, let him go,” Ted said softly. “He’s just being pissy. It’s what he does.”
“To Hell with that. I’m sick of taking shit from rich white guys.” She stomped off after Lawrence, vaguely registering the looks of surprise and confusion that the other three seemed to be giving her as she did so. I’m sick of that, too.
Lawrence’s door was shut. She knocked, but there was no response, and when she tried the knob, it turned freely in her hand. He was pacing around the room, clearly agitated beyond reason. His eyes darted towards her at the sound of the door opening, but he didn’t stop pacing and he didn’t look at her.
Well, in for a penny, in a pound. “Hey. Lawrence. What the fuck?”
He stopped at that, turned towards her, and sighed. “I lost my temper. I apologize. There’s nothing else to it. I’m tired, I’m high, I’m drunk, and I just want to go to bed.”
“You got really mean at the end there.”
He sighed again. Like he’s talking down to a child, trying to explain something I’m too dumb to understand. Bastard. “I got weirded out because Kore was accusing me of human sacrifice, or whatever. You know how she was in high school, all socialism and activism and redistribution of wealth. I’m sure she’s only gotten more like that in college. It’s not going to take much to make her think of me as Saturn devouring his son.”
Despite herself, Anna smirked at that. “Nice reference.”
Lawrence smiled. Only a little bit, but it was something. “Thanks.”
“It’s hard to imagine you gnawing on a human being, though. Seems like Ted’s got more the stature for that.”
“Oh, come on. I can eat children just as well as the next guy.” Lawrence hunched over, pantomimed holding something large and weighty between his hands, and pretended to chew at it. “Rargh! Babies! Feed me babies!”
Anna laughed, the adrenaline rush from earlier already fading away to be replaced with a calming mellow. “You can do better. Come on!”
Lawrence took a few heavy steps towards her, his footsteps heavy on the solid hardwood floor beneath him. “Rargh! Babies! Rargh!” He stepped onto an area rug, and the insistent echo became a series of muted thuds.
“Make-up sex!” Ted shouted from the living room, and Anna lost it. She put one hand on the wall to prop herself up, the other wrapped around her side as she laughed and laughed. Even Lawrence could only manage one more step he was laughing so hard.
The thud as his foot hit the carpet was different. Deeper somehow.
They both noticed it, two sets of eyes dropping to the carpet. It was a plain thing, red and brown and green geometric patterns. Outdoorsy, as it were. Entirely appropriate to a cabin in the middle of nowhere.
Still chuckling, Lawrence raised his foot and brought it down again. One more time. Both Anna and Lawrence weren’t laughing anymore, her brow knotted in confusion, and his face twisted into a frown.
The sound was hollow, like a drum.
Like there was something underneath the floorboards.
Word Count this Post: 2,133
Total Word Count: 15,322/50,000