“AND SO, ladies and gentlemen, we must now leave the glorious world where our loved ones eagerly await us, and return, albeit grudgingly, to the harsh realm of our own reality. But fear not, dear friends. For this reality will soon fade into distant memory, as we each one of us step into the world of eternal peace. The Land of Light.”
“Beautiful, Chris. Just beautiful!” called a woman’s voice from the booth that jutted out of a wall, twenty feet over the audience’s heads. “Keep smiling through the credits now. Big wave to the little people. Ok, five, four, three, two, and cut! We’re outa here, folks. Let’s wrap this pig up, and we’ll all be having mai tais by midnight.”
Chris Hope continued to smile as a stagehand removed his lapel mic and battery pack. “Going to the party at Ken’s house, Chris?” the youth asked. “Connie says she’s going, and I heard that Max Caesar would be there. I’ll have to keep a tow line on my girlfriend, but–.”
“’Scuse me, kid,” Hope said, as he brushed past the stagehand. “Well, ladies, did you enjoy the show?”
Three delicious young things from the front row had lined up for an autograph, a trio in red, blonde, and brunette. Hope put on his best smile.
The brunette giggled. “Can you really do all that stuff, Mr. Hope? Contact the dead, I mean.”
Hope shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s all in a day’s work. Is there someone you’d like to contact, my dear?” he asked, his voice a practiced river of glass.
The blonde elbowed the redhead. “She’s the one who wants to, you know. Make contact.” All three burst into champagne giggles, and Hope put his arms around their shoulders, drawing them into a bunch like so many picked flowers. “Well, now, we’ll have to see what we can do about that.”
He started to herd them toward his dressing room, but a tug at his right elbow stopped him. He turned to see a withered old man of ageless years in a threadbare coat of patchwork wool and a grimy straw hat with a ridiculous looking feather sticking out the top. “Could you take a minute to speak with me, Mr. Hope?” he asked in little more than a whisper.
“Mister, uh, Mister–.”
“Pierson. Josh Pierson.”
“Ah, yes, well, Mr. Pierson, the show’s over for now, but if you want to speak with my producer, Connie Markham, I’m sure we can work you into a future show.”
The man’s pale eyes sagged. “Won’t do. I need to talk to you now. Time is running out, Mr. Hope. I have to warn you about–.”
The brunette’s hand had slipped into Hope’s jacket pocket, and Chris felt sure she’d left a room key there. “I can’t help you tonight, Mr. Pierson. Talk to Connie. She’ll work you in. Goodnight.”
He turned away, followed by the laughing, high-heeled trio, not caring whether or not the woman got help tonight or if she got it next year. Hope had just wrapped his one hundredth live episode of Land of Light, fittingly aired on Halloween, and he had no intention of letting some crazy old lady keep him from a night’s howling.
Outside, he and his three companions slid into the leather embrace of Hope’s limousine. “Compton, take me home. These lovely ladies need personal consultations,” he told the chauffeur as they pulled away from the curb. It was nearly midnight, and Hope leaned back as the girls talked. This would be a night to remember.
“How does it feel to be so powerful?” asked the blonde. “Isn’t it frightening?”
Hope ran a hand along her thick, bleached tresses. “Oh it is, my dear. And it’s a terrible burden. I was ten when I first realized my gift. I saw my grandmother after her funeral. She hovered over her casket like a weeping cloud. Of course, my parents didn’t believe me then. Genius just isn’t appreciated.”
The redhead nodded, tickling Hope’s recently straightened nose. “We appreciate you, Chris. Is that your real name – Chris? You can tell us. You’re among friends.”
Hope winked. “Read that in that market rag, did you? Well, it’s true. Why should I deny it? My real name is Ed. Edward Alan Stump. Ugly name, huh?”
The brunette stroked Hope’s golden hair; each strand faithfully restored two years earlier in Sweden. “I’ll bet the kids teased you. Called you Stumpy.”
Hope blinked. Bad memories. “Pretty good guess,” he muttered. “Archie Plankman was the worst. He and Danny Kellerman made me eat their dirt every time we had recess back in school. Every single recess! They couldn’t let up even once!”
The redhead kissed his left cheek. “Poor Eddie. You showed them though, didn’t you? You got back at Archie and Danny.”
Hope sat forward, staring at the three women. “You bet I did. I – what? What kind of question is that? And the name’s Chris. Christopher Hope.”
“We’re here, sir,” the chauffeur called as the car pulled to a stop.
Hope looked puzzled. The conversation must have made him lose track of time. His penthouse was more than an hour from the studio. It seemed like only minutes had gone by. He checked his Rolex. Midnight.
“Compton, are you sure we’re home?” he asked as the car door swung open.
The girls stepped out, helped by Compton’s gloved hand, but Hope was having trouble seeing much inside the garage. He could have sworn he saw fog!
“Compton, just where are we?” he insisted, as the chauffeur’s hand reached in to help Hope.
The television psychic stood outside the car, but his feet were not on concrete as he’d expected.
“What the hell!” he called out, as the fog rose to engulf the car. The girls had run ahead, and he could hear their giggling voices echoing in the mists. “Compton!” he called, but the chauffeur had vanished.
Hope shuddered, as his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light of this new place. He thought he heard music and the tinkling of glasses.
The party! Connie’s Halloween party – that was it. She’d planned a big bash in the woods behind her new lake house. That was it! He’d have to have it out with Compton for helping Connie with this prank. Still, Connie’s parties were legendary. It might just be fun.
“Oh, ladies!” he called through the fog. Hope forged ahead toward the noises, noticing how spongy the earth was. Funny, he thought, it hasn’t rained in weeks.
“May I take your coat?” asked a high-pitched voice. A man with small, dark eyes had appeared out of the fog.
“Sure, Renfield. Nice costume. Here’s my suit coat. Sure is hot! You guys turn up the heat just for me?”
The small man took the coat without remark and left. Hope shrugged. Hard to find good help these days. “Hey, girls! Wait up!”
He couldn’t be more than a few yards from the knot of partygoers now. Hope glanced up, but he could see no stars or moon. Cloudy night, he thought. “Hey! Where’s Connie?” he asked a dancing body just ahead.
A tall, stick thin man wearing a disgustingly grungy fedora turned to his question. The man’s skeletal face looked gaunt even for Hollywood, and Hope decided to move on. “Thanks, buddy,” he said as he pushed past the bobbling skeleton. “Eat a sandwich sometime! Sheesh!”
“Hey, Eddy!” a man’s voiced called from the darkness. “Nice party, huh, Eddy?”
Hope strained to see the speaker’s face. “Do I know you?” he asked, wondering if some cockroach reporter had crashed the gate. “The name’s Chris Hope. I don’t think I got yours.”
“Sure you did,” the voice answered. “Kellerman. Daniel J. Kellerman. Old Danny boy, Eddy. Remember me?”
Hope stopped up short. “What the hell are you talking about? Kellerman? Not funny, buddy. Dan Kellerman was killed back when I was in high school.”
“That’s right, Eddy my lad. Three days before the spring dance, remember? Oh, you were inspired at my funeral, Eddy. You weren’t much of a ladies’ man in school, but those girls sure snuggled up to you when you talked about how I was in a better world. Good stuff, Eddy. Golden stuff. Sherry Anderson fell for it hook, line, and sinker. You’re smooth, Eddy. Smooth as the satin lining of a coffin.”
“Hey, Ed! Good to see you!” called another voice from just beyond the skeletal man. “Ed Stump! Good old Stumpy!”
Hope shut his eyes against a bad memory that clawed at his mind. “Plankman?” he asked, certain now that he’d fallen asleep in the car. Dreaming. He was simply dreaming.
“In the flesh!” called a portly shape from the mist. “Try the canapés, Stumpy. Burn your tongue right off! Right, Kellerman?”
The two dream figures laughed, taking turns slapping Hope on the back. “Oh, Stumpy, you always were a dope! Hope the Dope! Hey, I made a funny!”
“Funny as a screen door on a submarine, Plankman!” the other dream figure added, stuffing a small spider into his mouth. “Say, Stumpy, where’d you get those chicks that came here with you? They’re hot!”
It’s just a dream, Hope. You’re only dreaming in the car. You’ll be home soon, and all this nonsense will be gone.
Chris “Stumpy” Hope stepped past Plankman and his idiot sidekick, intent upon finding the girls. He could hear both bullies cackling like hyenas, but chose to ignore them. This was only a dream, right? He could change it if he wanted; make it whatever he chose to make it.
“Do you have time for me now, son?” asked a quivering voice from the darkness just beyond.
Hope turned on his heel to find the old man from the studio staring at him. “You! You were at the studio! Now why would I drag you into this dream?”
The old man’s pale eyes narrowed. “Dream, son? Oh, I shouldn’t think so. You’d like to believe that, I’d imagine. Believe that it’s a dream, I mean. Do you have time to talk now? I really need to tell you about –.”
“No time, old man!” he answered brusquely, pushing toward the main knot of partygoers. He had to take control of this dream!
Ahead in the mist, he could see the girls, huddled around someone at a big table. The redhead smiled seductively, beckoning to him with one scarlet-tipped finger.
Hope pushed up the sleeves of his Calvin Klein turtleneck and ran a hand through his hair. “So, shall we blow this place?” he asked her.
The girl smiled provocatively and nudged the other two. “We’d love to,” she said, her voice tinkling like a small bell. “But wouldn’t you like to meet our boss first?”
Hope blinked, wondering just what sort of game the girls were playing. “Your boss?” he asked, glancing at his watch. Still midnight? He shook the timepiece, which appeared to have stopped.
That proves it – this has to be a dream.
Hope smiled again. He was, after all, in control of his own dreams.
The redhead drew him into the small circle. Before Hope, towered a man of nearly seven feet in height. Red eyes met his own, and an enormous palm with sharp nails dwarfed his in a meaty handshake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ed,” the tall man said.
Hope jerked his hand away, noting several red streaks where the man’s fingers had touched him. “I didn’t catch your name,” Hope returned, doing his utmost to appear cool.
“Oh, I believe you know me, Ed. We’ve been friends for years. Ever since your grandmother’s death, if you’ll recall. One might say I made you what you are.”
“The name’s Christopher Hope. And I don’t think we’ve met.”
The tall man laughed, and Hope felt his entire body shake as the giant’s laughter echoed eerily against the fog.
“You’re an amusing fellow, Ed. I take it the girls made you welcome. They’re good for that. Now, Thalia, Euphrosyne, Aglaira, go now! You’ve done your jobs. Scurry away now!”
The redhead lingered a moment near Hope’s left ear, whispering something that made the confused psychic blush, then she kissed his eyes and laughed. “You were more fun than most,” she said as she led her two sister Fates toward a large tree at the center of the grove.
The tall man handed Hope a large, golden cup, filled to the brim with a dark, thick fluid. “Drink up, Ed. Drink to those lives that your lies have ruined! Drink to eternity and darkness! Here – here in this dark place, drink to your friends, Ed. Mr. Kellerman and Mr. Plankman. Drink to Kellerman’s untimely demise after you prayed he would die! I heard you, Ed. I have always heard you. And the very dear Mr. Plankman! Drink to the syphilis that took him to his wormy grave! The very end you had wished for him, isn’t it Ed? Once again, prayer works miracles, my lad!”
Hope threw the cup to the ground, and the crimson liquid ran out and became a swarm of flies.
“Dear God!” he cried, stumbling backward. “What is this place? Why would I dream this?”
“Don’t you recognize the other world, Stumpy?” asked Kellerman, whose face now twisted into a thing with three eyes and a blackened tongue. “Isn’t the afterlife light enough for you, old boy?”
“No! You’re not – it’s a lie!” Hope screamed, pushing away from the hideous creature called Kellerman and running toward the car. He had to regain control!
But in the thick fog, he lost his way, and he smacked into a soft figure, clothed in rags. “Watch it!” he cried out, and he glanced down to see the old man. “You!”
The white-haired man’s hat had fallen, and he looked at Ed Stump with eyes that had grown soft and wise. “I tried to tell you, Ed. I tried to warn you, but you wouldn’t listen. I’m sorry, Ed.”
Stump suddenly felt enraged, and he shook the old man by his thin shoulders. “You did this! You did this to me! Who the hell are you?”
Behind him, peals of raucous laughter rang out from the tall man and his minions. The Fates danced beneath the great tree that dominated the dark wood, and the two demons who had been masquerading as Kellerman and Plankman slapped each other’s backs in congratulatory fashion.
The old man’s gentle eyes grew wet, and he bent to pick up his hat. “I tried to help you,” he said as his body changed shape and began to brighten. “God loves you, Ed. But you refused that love. Instead, you wasted your life on earth by seeking power, and then you used that power to deceive others. There is no Land of Light, Ed, and you know it. Not for those who refuse God’s gift of eternal life in Christ. Verily, I say unto you that for those who refuse this great gift, there is only wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Ed shielded his eyes as the figure grew taller and whiter, until Ed could no longer bear to gaze at the shimmering, pure light.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life, Edward. I died for you. But since you did not wish to know me in life, then I will not know you in death.”
The figure, clothed now in a snow-white robe and girded with a sash of gold, rose high above Ed Stump’s head. The being’s feet shone like bronze lanterns, and Ed could barely stand in His wonderful presence.
“Goodbye, Ed,” the magnificent being called as His light grew brighter and brighter. Suddenly ashamed, Ed fell to the ground in supplication. As he glanced up, Ed strained to catch one last glimpse of this perfect, loving man. Ed knew this man embodied all that was good, and he longed to go with Him. As He rose, the man spread his arms wide, and Ed could just make out the imprints of crimson wounds in both hands.
“Dear God!” Ed cried, as the demons Kellerman and Plankman reached for him from behind. “I was wrong! I do believe! Dear Lord, please, don’t leave me here!”
“Too late,” the Kellerman creature said with a throaty laugh. “We have a special place for people like you, Eddy old man. Not a land of light, though,” he added, and everyone in hell laughed. “It’s not light at all!”
Ed screamed as the demons pulled him toward a blackened maw that had opened up beneath the tree. The Fates spat upon Ed as he fell. And all Ed Stump, formerly Christopher Hope, could think as he fell was how much he longed to see the man of light again, just for a moment, so he touch the hem of his gown.
Copyright 2004 by Sharon K. Gilbert