Robbie shuffled sullenly towards the hot dog cart, bits of hay and mud sticking to the tread of his sneakers. He hated the annual fall festivals. They were just so family friendly and every year his mother forced him to go.
“It’s good to get out and socialize. You never know what you’re going to miss,” she said an hour earlier, handing him a scarf and urging him towards the front door.
Wouldn't want to miss out on this festive chili dog, Robbie thought bitterly as he handed a five to the guy behind the cart in exchange for his food. After, he looked around the fair grounds for something remotely interesting—at least for a sixteen year old attending the fair unaccompanied.
Petting zoo. Nah. Ring toss. No. Kiddie coaster. Nice try. Haunted fun house. No way. Lucky ducks. The prizes are crap. Face painting. Meh. The Devil’s Chest?
The young man took a bite of chili dog and thoughtfully chewed over the possibility of a slightly entertaining booth. Maybe it was a vendor selling cheap occult items. The idea of finding a planchette or a voodoo doll to take home delighted him. He could hear his mother now.
“Good Lord, Robbie! What in Jesus’s name did you bring into our house? I raised you to be a good Christian and you invite the Devil to bed with you.”
Robbie finished off his chili dog, chuckling over the thought of his mother. If only the Devil would come to bed with him. Then maybe his mother would turn the heat down at night.
Now filled with a new-found sense of excitement, the young man all but skipped over to the booth containing The Devil’s Chest. That sense of excitement disappeared the moment that Robbie set foot into the booth, which seemed to be little more than an empty stall. There were no other fair-goers to be seen. There wasn't even a vendor. In the middle of the stall, atop a crudely constructed wooden table, sat an equally crude wooden chest.
This must be it, Robbie thought, approaching the chest. It was an ugly thing with rusted hinges and raw designs splintered into its unfinished surface. The hairs on the back of the young man’s neck prickled. He rubbed a finger absently under his scarf and reached out to lift the lid.
“Come to have your fortune read, boy?”
Robbie jerked his hand away and looked up to see an old woman standing beside him. Her gaze was fixed on the chest. She leaned heavily on her cane. The young man could see the length of it tremble with her palsy. He smiled weakly.
“I suppose. Is that what this is? Fortune telling? You’re not selling anything?”
The old woman tilted her head slightly towards Robbie, but did not look up. “Aye, boy. Fortune reading. Fortune telling involves things you want to hear.”
This lady’s completely off it, Robbie decided, pursing his lips in annoyance as he considered the difference between fortune reading and fortune telling. “So, it’s free?”
The old woman nodded and finally met his gaze with her own—for the most part. While one eye was trained on Robbie’s face, the other whirled cloudily onto some distant target. She smiled back at him reassuringly, which caused her eyes to sink into the recesses of her wrinkled face. “As free as your will, boy. All you've got to do is open the chest and remove one trinket from inside.”
Robbie’s expression brightened at the word “trinket.” Not only was this a free—albeit poorly-presented—festival attraction, but he’d be able to take something home with him. He reached out again to open the chest, attributing the slight tremor of his fingers to anticipation at what sort of goodies were hidden inside.
When the young man lifted the lid, his heart sank. The “trinkets,” as the old woman called them, were little more than garbage. There, resting in the hollow space of the chest, was a pile of screws, a mothball, a feather, and an antique comb. Robbie sighed and pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose in an effort to maintain a sense of calm. He should have known that the whole Devil’s Chest thing was too good to be true.
“What are you waiting for, boy? Choose something,” the old woman said.
“There are just…so many options,” Robbie said, brushing his fingers over the comb. At least I can give this one to Mom. She likes antique junk.
“Your sass is wasted on me, boy. Take the comb if that is your wish.”
“Fine, I will.” Robbie snatched the comb from its resting place and slammed the lid to the chest shut. “I get a reading now, right?”
The old woman pointed her cane into the sixteen-year-old boy’s face. “You doubt The Chest. I can feel it. Your faith is lacking, boy. But, heed my words. You will be trapped by the guilt you feel for years to come.”
Robbie stuffed the comb into his pocket and did his best not to roll his eyes. “Yeah, all right. Thanks.”
“My heart goes out to you, boy,” the old woman said as Robbie backed away and left to wander boredly through the rest of the fall festival.
He plucked at the teeth of the comb with his fingers as he walked and a bit of ivory chipped off into his thumb. Ah! Stupid piece of junk, Robbie thought, yanking his hand out of his jacket and jamming his thumb into the end of his scarf to stave the bleeding. I’m going home.
Robbie mumbled over the stupidity of fall festivals his entire walk home, vowing to tell his mother that he would never attend another so long as he lived under her roof. As he reached his driveway, he mumbled over the special kind of stupidity of attractions like The Devil’s Chest that were too good to be true. Robbie mumbled up the driveway and past his mother’s van. He mumbled up the walk to the front porch and then finally to the front door, where he stopped mumbling because he heard a knocking sound coming from inside the house.
Robbie waited in silence a moment to see if the knocking would stop, but it didn't.
“Real funny, Mom. You can stop now. I got ya something from the festival,” the young man said, opening the door. The knocking stopped. “It’s an antique—"
Robbie screamed as he realized that he was face-to-face with his mother’s shoes. Her body swayed limply from the rafters, just steps away from the doorway. A chill breeze swept into the house and a note fluttered to the floor. Shaking, Robbie knelt to the floor to retrieve it, hoping for an inkling of a reason as to why his mother would have done such a thing.
Tears welled in his eyes and his stomach lurched as he read Thank you for finding my missing comb, Robbie.