The guests slowly arrived at Jorge Regatta’s annual spring gathering, congregating at the picnic tables and making small talk at the amply-stocked bar. Mark spotted her through the sea of gingham, faux Japanese parasols and sunhats dotting the spacious lawn, her young son spryly in step behind her. Although she wore large dark glasses, Mark was certain they made eye contact, their gazes locking for a fraction of a second. He watched as she filled her paper plate with spoonfuls of potato salad, soft-shell crabs and radish tartines before fixing a child-sized plate for her son. All afternoon, Mark struck up awkward conversations with acquaintances if they happened to be in her immediate vicinity. He imagined how later, after consuming a few plastic cups of red wine, they might engage in small talk.
“How do you know Jorge?” he would ask.
“Through a friend,” she would reply, trying to seem mysterious.
“Yes, he certainly has a lot of those,” Mark would say with a slight laugh.
The shadows on the lawn grew long and the guests began to thin to a select few. Discarded Dixie Cups and balled-up napkins accumulated on the trampled grass, the debris of the afternoon festivities. Mark was pleased to see that the woman was among those remaining. They had still not spoken yet, although as the hour of Jorge’s arrival approached he was certain that an opportunity would present itself.
The woman was stretched out on a checkered blanket watching her son swing a badminton racket. The child darted from one end of the net to the other, wielding the racket like a sword and batting a shuttlecock across the lawn. Jorge the Elder sat idly in his chair watching the child play. His frame sunk into the lawn chair, contorting at awkward angles. Two arthritic hands rested lifelessly in his lap, twisted into claws. The eyes that peered out of the emaciated face were the only things that hinted at life in an otherwise depleted body. As he followed the child’s movements it was evident that the old man was admiring the boy’s youth and agility. Conscious of the stares, the mother smiled kindly at the man. For all her compassion though, she was unable to hide the hint of sadness implicit in the gesture.
Mark was never certain why they invited the Elder each year. It seemed cruel and unnecessary. Why subject him to public humiliation for the sake of ceremony? Each year he sat in the same worn-out lawn chair under the tree crumpled up like a formless heap of rags. His presence visibly upset some of the guests. Everyone socialized and laughed, but it was a feigned conviviality, a conscientious refusal to acknowledge what was preferable to ignore.
It took Jamie Kessling, a smug obstetrician whom Mark had always disliked, to introduce them. Jamie was discussing the ongoing studies at his clinic to stabilize embryonic tissue samples. It was the typical self-congratulatory bragging that Mark expected from Jamie Kessling, a man who never failed to use kernels of knowledge and anecdotes as a means of conveying his own inflated sense of importance. Mark was on the verge of excusing himself when Jamie waved to the woman sitting on the lawn. “Let me introduce you to the latest member of the team,” he said.
Jamie was noticeably intoxicated as they walked across the lawn, a detail Mark found troubling. Two glasses, three at max was the rule of thumb at these gathering. Anything more and you ran the risk of being impaired when Jorge the Younger arrived.
“Doctor Mark Clempson meet Deborah Peters,” Jamie said, gesturing to the woman. “She is our latest specialist in cellular therapeutics.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Mark said, extending his hand.
“There are so many doctors present here I imagine there’s a joke in there somewhere,” she said.
“There is the one about two doctors and an HMO manager who—”
Mark never had a chance to deliver the punchline. His attempt at a lame joke was punctuated by an ear-piercing scream. People began murmuring and craning their necks in the direction of the commotion. A crowd had gathered at the far edge of the lawn. Mark and Deborah joined the circle to find the lawn chair overturned and the Elder splayed flat on his back in the grass. The child stood above him, a paring knife clutched in his fist. The man screamed as the child thrust the blade repeatedly into the Elder, soaking his loose-fitting cloths in blood. Nobody stirred as the screams subsided and the limbs ceased to twitch, leaving only the sound of the blade hacking through cold dead meat.
When the child finally ceased, he arose and faced the guests. The stillness was almost palpable in the seconds before the audience erupted into loud applause and whistling.
Mark looked over at Deborah and noticed tears beginning to stream down her cheeks. They were both a part of this moment, of something bigger than themselves, he thought as he moved closer to her. It would mark their commencement, their collective beginning as one.
The child began to convulse and dropped to the ground. Nudged by maternal instinct, Deborah rushed to her son’s side and proceeded to wipe beads of sweat from his brow. His abdomen and throat engorged, inducing a series of spastic movements. The child’s face drained of color as the jaw detached to reveal a gaping mouth filled with broken teeth. A single talon-like hand protruded from the throat, eliciting a tearing sound of muscle and flesh.
“Jamie! Jamie! It’s time!” somebody shouted.
Not for the first time, Mark stood spellbound watching the limbs claw their way out of the throat and grasp at the balmy night air. The spectators gathered around in awe, relishing in the sublime moment.
Then came the familiar cry echoed each year.
“Jorge’s arrived! Jorge’s arrived!”
At various points in his life, Alistair Rey has been an author, archivist, and writer of political propaganda. His work has appeared in The Berkeley Fiction Review, Juked magazine, and the Millhaven Press anthology Home Sweet Home, among other publications. You can find out more about his work at the Parenthetical Review website (parentheticalreview.com). He presently resides in the United Kingdom.