FOURTEEN – PETTY VICTORIES
Creighton Talbot gently tucked the single red rose into his jacket with one hand and brushed a tear from his cheek with the other. The leather of his glove felt harsh and abrasive in the cold afternoon wind. The action stung his eyes. and another tear trickled down.
He adjusted his hat to better protect him from the wind and cinched the belt of his coat, being careful not to crush his precious cargo.
He’d made the trip to the old cemetery every Saturday for over a month now, but it hadn’t gotten much easier in that time. He got his old three-speed out from under its tarp in the garage, paced it down the driveway to the main road, and hopped on.
The bike seemed a little heavy and wobbly, and Talbot reminded himself to throw the bicycle into the back of the car and fill the tires with air tomorrow. Despite his advancing years, he kept to a biking regimen dictated by one simple rule: never drive if you can reasonably use a bike.
The exercise had helped keep him young and alert, even when many of his contemporaries were sliding into nursing homes. That was something Talbot vowed would never happen to him.
The wind stung his face as he pedaled down Bay Road and turned onto Cemetery Road. He mentally chided himself for starting so late today. The sun was already dipping behind the trees on his right, filling the road with long purple shadows.
Dammit! It just didn’t seem fair, him making this trip alone. He’d ridden the route many times with his wife Mary—she shared his love for cycling. Now, just when it looked like they’d put all their troubles behind them, she wasn’t here to share the victories with him. Instead, Talbot found himself making the ride alone to visit her grave in the old cemetery.
They’d been through some tough times together over the years, no doubt about it. But, through it all their love had survived—many might even say thrived.
Talbot wouldn’t have said that, though. He, of course, knew about the adultery that had nearly torn their marriage apart. None of their friends knew; nor did their children suspect.
Mary had her reasons for cheating, of course. None of them seemed very reasonable to Creighton, even if he had understood some of them. In the end, though, he’d forgiven her. More than forgiven her. The affair had taught him how precious she was to him.
And she’d put the infidelity behind her and come back to him, body and soul.
That one victory meant more to Creighton Talbot than anything else in his life. More than getting out of France alive in WWII. More than when his masonry business finally stood on its own two feet. More than when she’d agreed to marry him (over the man she later had the affair with) in the first place.
When his rival died, Talbot thought it his final victory. But the celebration had been short-lived. And now, with Mary gone, Creighton didn’t feel much like celebrating any more.
He blinked back the mist in his eyes and focused on the road ahead. He could almost see the cemetery gate now, just one curve ahead.
Suddenly, a tree branch flew out of the woods toward him. It caught his bike in the spokes and sent Talbot careening into the brush on the right side of the road.
He threw his hands up reflexively, shielding his face as he went over the handlebars. He bounced once on the hard gravel and felt something snap in his right arm.
Pain shot through his whole body as he smashed through the bracken and rolled to a stop against the trunk of a gnarled dogwood tree. Stars popped before his eyes, and his vision dimmed for a moment. Waves of nausea washed over him as Creighton regained his senses.
He knew from his stint in the army that his arm was broken. He’d had worse wounds during the war, but he had been much younger then. Now it was a major battle just to avoid losing his lunch there by the side of the road.
His worst fear was that he might pass out. There, hidden by the brush, he might lie unnoticed until he either woke up or—more likely this time of year—died of exposure. He knew he had to get out of the scrub and to the side of the road. Maybe he could still ride the bike. Or, if it was broken, even flag down a passing car. At the worst he might have to hike to the cemetery. There he could find refuge in the caretaker’s cottage.
Of course, first he had to stay awake. He focused his determination—the same resolve that had gotten him through campaigns in Italy and France, the same stubborn will that had overcome both his business and romantic rivals, despite the superiority of their wealth. He focused on survival and one last victory.
Slowly, painfully, he crawled through the brush toward the roadside.
Then he heard something: a scrabbling, scraping sound like the dog scratching at the door. And something else, too, a high-pitched chittering—like birds in a pet shop.
Unexpectedly, the brush in front of him parted, and a hideous face leered at him.
“Hi, Craig!” the lead monster said in a sarcastic, sing-song voice. “Long time no see. Have a nice trip?”
Even with the rat-like muzzle, Creighton recognized the rival he’d thought dead.
Talbot’s screams drifted across the road and uphill to where Tammy and the Poet stood, concealed by trees and the deep, lengthening shadows.
“Revenge is sweet for ghouls to eat,” said the Poet, his voice echoing softly from beneath his hood.
Tammy frowned. “Why does he get to have all the fun?”