31 Mar The Joker’s Wilde
“The Joker’s Wilde”Written by Brandon Faircloth Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 17 minutes
If anyone ever asked me to name the best three people I know, Russell Allison would be the first name out of my mouth. We’ve been friends since high school, and in the twenty years since, I’ve never had any reason to doubt his honesty, loyalty or kindness. He’s always just been the best guy I’ve ever known.
He’s also the unluckiest person I’ve ever known. Russ’s mom ran off when he was a baby, and his father spent most of his time either working at his welding shop or sleeping off a combination of the day’s work and the night’s booze. He had no siblings, and before we got assigned as partners in tenth-grade Biology, I’m not sure he’d ever had a close friend.
I’d like to say that his luck changed as he got older, and for a while, I thought maybe it had. He had a good job at the meat processing plant on the edge of town, he’d started dating this girl Stephanie that he was crazy about, and his father, while still not the warmest guy, had certainly mellowed out in his later years.
But then about two years ago, Russ’s dad died suddenly of a heart attack. He was heartbroken, but between Steph and me, we got him through the parts he couldn’t get through on his own. I remember how much I appreciated Stephanie back then. She was patient with him, and they really did seem to have a good relationship—better than any I’d ever managed, anyway. There was a time when I thought they’d get married and live happily ever after.
Six months later, Russ came to me, eyes red and voice trembling. He told me that Stephanie had been cheating on him since before his Dad died, and at first, I defended her. Said he must have made a mistake, and that she didn’t seem like the type to cheat. But he just shook his head, cutting me off. Told me that he’d been suspicious for a while, and when he confronted her, she’d finally admitted it.
I asked him if she’d said who it was, but he just shook his head. Said he didn’t get a chance to even ask before she dropped the next bomb. She was pregnant, and it was Russ’.
Breaking up with her wasn’t an option, he said. Not with the baby on the way. I tried to point out that he could still be a good father without being with the mother, but he wouldn’t hear it. Just kept saying he wasn’t going to be like his Mom. That unlike him, the baby was going to know from the start that it was loved.
I let it go after that. What else could I do? It wasn’t my choice, and he’d already made up his mind. And surprisingly, for a time he seemed…well, if not happy, at least at peace with his decision. And he was so excited about the baby. I still found it hard to be around Stephanie with everything going on, but I’d meet up with Russ to make sure he was doing okay and give him a sounding board for all the big life decisions he had coming his way.
When Carmen came, everything seemed to change. Russ wanted me to come over more, and at first I was hesitant, but to my surprise, it wasn’t as awkward as I’d been afraid of. The baby was the focus now, and seeing the two of them seemingly getting along and happy…well, it made me happy too. And when they asked me to be Carmen’s godparent, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
But eight weeks ago, things started to go sour for Russ again. He got laid off from his job at the plant, and with work hard to come by, he wound up delivering groceries for a couple of the local supermarkets just to make ends meet. I offered to help, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Told me he’d take the help if they really needed it, but that for now, they were okay.
And maybe they were, at least for a time, but I could see the cracks forming between him and Steph. She hadn’t gone back to work since giving birth, and her attempts at finding a job in the past couple of weeks hadn’t born any fruit. I wasn’t sure how to feel about their growing distance or whether I should mention it to either of them. Then, one day last month, it ceased to matter.
Stephanie had been driving to a job interview when she lost control of her car on a sharp curve near the highway. Her car stopped when it hit a large oak head-on, but she kept on traveling, making it through the windshield and thirty feet of scrub grass before finally coming to rest. I…I took it hard, but nothing like Russ. He’d been growing strange already, but after Steph died…
I went over to see him and check on the baby every day, and I will say, he was doing a good job of taking care of Carmen still. But he seemed…haunted. He barely ate or slept, and while he would always welcome my visits, he usually just sat in a corner, quiet and fidgety, as though he was anxiously awaiting the next bad thing that would surely come.
Maybe he was. I felt so sorry for him, so helpless to make it better. I tried to tell myself that with time things would get better. With time, he would come back to himself.
But I wasn’t so sure. I’d lived and seen enough to know that sometimes a person just broke for good. Some trauma, some betrayal, some string of bad choices or terrible luck, and they were just never the same after. Something vital inside had been too badly bruised to ever fully heal.
That’s why I got so excited when Russ called me one night. He told me he had something to show me, something he was really excited about, and he was wondering if I could come over right away. His voice was still jittery and strange, but at least something had sparked his interest again, however small or short-lived that spark might be. I didn’t hesitate—thirty minutes later I was in his kitchen, staring down at a rusty metal box with a dark slot in the top. It was about the size and shape of a cash box, but there was no visible handle, latch or even a seam. Above the small slot was an artist’s rendering of a devil wearing clown make-up, one clawed hand gesturing to a logo or name painted in thin, uneven red letters.
“The Joker’s Wilde?” I looked up at Russell. “What is it? Like a piggy bank or something?”
He glanced at me and then back at the box, licking his lips as he quickly shook his head. “No, it’s a game. An old card game.”
I picked up the box gingerly, turning it this way and that. It wasn’t especially heavy, but you could still tell there was something inside. Feeling along the bottom, I felt a small bump that turned out to be a tarnished brass button. I gave Russell a questioning look.
“Do you think it’s worth some money? Maybe you could sell it to an antique place or look it up on the internet. Might be some rare weird thing people would pay big bucks for.”
His eyes widened slightly. “Oh, no. I wouldn’t do that. I love it. I’ve been playing it, and now I want you to try it out too. See what you think of it.”
I gently set the box back on the table. “Um, yeah, maybe later, okay?” I glanced past him toward Carmen’s room. “Hey, how’s the baby doing? Think I can go peek in on…” I stopped as Russ gently grabbed my arm.
“Mark, I want you to try it now, okay? I want to see what you think. It means a lot to me.” I met his eyes and could see that not only was he serious, but he…well, he looked on the verge of crying about it.
I tried to force a smile. “Jesus, okay, man. I didn’t know it was a big deal. I’ll be glad to try it.” Pulling out a chair, I sat down. “Is it something we can play together, or how does it work?”
He sat down across from me, his face solemn. “No, it’s only for one person at a time. It’s not a normal game. It’s more of a prank thing, I guess.” I started to ask a question, but he was still going, picking up the box and handing it back to me. “That button on the bottom, you hold the box and hit the button. It’ll spit out a card with a prank for you to do. Then you just do the prank.”
I looked down at the box again and then back at Russ. “And that’s it? How do you win? What’s the point of the game?”
He gave me a small smile. “You’ll see. It’s interesting, and it’ll make more sense as you go.” Licking his lips again, he glanced back at the box. “Go ahead. Try it.”
I felt a nervous twinge in my stomach, but ignored it. This was all weird, bordering on creepy, but if it made him happy, what was the harm in playing some antique truth or dare game? I owed him that much at least.
So I pushed the button. There was a small rustling sound inside the box, and I could feel something stirring in the box as a three-note melody rang out from within. Ding-dong-DING. After a moment, a white card shot out of the slot with such speed that I let out a gasp and almost dropped the box. Russ let out a small laugh.
“It’s just a playing card, pussy.”
He was right. The back of the card was red and gold, decorated with the same leering devil clown that was on the box itself. But the front of the card had no suit or numbers. Instead, there was just a single line of dark text.
Tell your sister you hit her car.
I read the card again before looking up at Russell. “It says for me to tell my sister I hit her car.”
He grinned. “Well, there you go. Easy enough. Go ahead and call her.”
I didn’t return his smile. “Russ, where’d you get this?”
His grin faltered as he gave a non-committal shrug. “Just found it at work. Well, not at the store, but in the trash outside of one of the deliveries. It was just sitting up on top, and it looked cool. At first, I was like you. I thought it might be worth something because it’s old, right? But then I decided to try it and…well, it works.”
I sat the box and the card back down. “Yeah, but how does it work? And how do you know the rules to it? Did they throw out a manual or something too?”
Russ was frowning now. “I figured it out, or close enough. Just call her, okay? Just do it so you can keep playing.”
Grabbing the card, I held it up to him. “And that’s the other thing. How is it this specific? What if I didn’t have a sister? Or she didn’t have a car? And how old is this thing? Would it even have cards talking about cars?” I flicked the stiff paper of the card with a light thwack. “And how are the cards so new-looking when this thing looks like garbage?”
His eyes had grown wide, and as I watched, his bottom lip began to tremble. When he spoke, it was barely above a whisper. “Please. Just call Karen. Tell her you hit her car.”
Swallowing, I nodded. I didn’t understand, and Karen was going to be pissed off and…“Damn, man. The whole reason I have her car at my house is because she’s still in Poland. It’s like the middle of the night there. Can’t I wait and do it tomorrow?” Seeing his expression, I picked up the box again. “Or how about I just get a different card and…” I’d hit the button once, twice, but nothing happened. Russ reached over and took it from my hand.
“Please. Just call her.”
My stomach was full of cold rocks now, and I didn’t like how he sounded, let alone looked. “Sheesh. Okay.” I pulled up her number and hit send, silently hoping she had the ringer off and I’d have an excuse to get out of the whole thing.
“Mark? Are you okay?”
I inwardly winced. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. But, well, I just wanted you to know that today…well, I accidentally backed into your car. Did a decent bit of damage, if I’m honest. Um, I’m sorry.”
There was a moment of silence before she responded, her voice more awake now, but also more irritated. “Well…okay. Did you call your insurance yet?”
“Ah, no, not yet. But I will tomorrow morning, first thing.” Actually, first thing I’ll have to call you and apologize for this stupid ‘prank.’”
“Okay, well, thanks for telling me. Next time, just wait until the morning though, huh? I have to be up in like three hours.”
“Crap. Yeah, I’m sorry.” I looked at Russ. “I just felt like it couldn’t wait.”
“It’s fine. Night, love you.” And then she was gone. Setting down my phone, I tried not to look as irritated as I felt. “Okay. Satis…” The relief on Russell’s face was almost painful to see. “What is the matter? Why is this such a big deal?”
He just held the box out. “Hit the button again.”
I frowned at him. “I already tried that, remember? It’s out of cards or whatever. And thank God. Seriously, what’s…”
“You tried it before you did the last card. Try it now.” I looked for some sign he was joking, or that this was all an elaborate prank, but he looked intensely serious as he pushed the box over to me.
Shaking my head, I picked it up and tapped the button on the bottom. Something inside immediately began to rustle. Ding-dong-DING I dropped the box to the table just as a fresh white card popped out the top. I could only read part of the writing from its position in the slot: “son” and “cat.”
I pulled the card free.
Go home and poison your neighbor’s cat.
“What does it say?” When I looked up at Russ, I could see fear there, and sadness, but also a species of shame.
“Russ, what is this thing? Where did it really come from?”
He rubbed the side of his face anxiously. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you all about it. Just…what does it say?”
I felt anger flaring in my chest as I threw the card at him. “It says to go and poison my neighbor’s cat. What is this, man? Are you trying to screw with me or something? Punish me?”
Russ stared at me. “No. Why would I punish you?”
I pushed back from the table. “I-I don’t know, but I’m going home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He rose and waved me back down. “Please, just please wait. I’ll explain it. What I know, at least.”
Reluctantly, I took my seat. And then he began.
* * * * * *
I did find that box making deliveries a few weeks ago, but not in the trash. I was on the north side of town, dropping off to a woman I’d never met before. When I got to the house, the front door was open. Normally I’d just call out a couple of times and then head back to the store—we have rules about going in, you know?
But I could tell from the house, from the old covered car outside, even from the neighborhood, this was some old lady. She was probably getting groceries delivered because she lived alone and couldn’t drive anymore, and with the door open like that…well, I was afraid she could be hurt or something.
So I went inside, calling out the name on the receipt. Dolores. I called it three or four times before she answered. Told me to come into the living room.
This woman…she wasn’t just old. She was ancient. Her hair was a long, yellowish-white on one side, with the other side just starting to grow out from where it had been shaved. If she was eighty years younger I’d think she was a punk rocker or something. As it was, I just tried not to stare as I edged into the room.
“Ms. Winters? I’ve come with your groceries.” I glanced around the room. Everything was clean and tidy—I couldn’t imagine she did it herself. She just looked so thin and frail. But when her eyes fixed on mine, I saw how sharp she was. How…there. I don’t know, I’m explaining this badly. She just seemed…really real. Real important. I don’t know how or why, or if it was true at all. What I do know is that when she spoke again, her voice seemed young and strong.
“Thank you, Russell.”
I stopped in my tracks. “How’d you know my name was Russell?”
She smiled. “I must have called the store to see who was coming. Can’t be too careful who you open the door for these days.”
I wanted to point out that she’d left her door standing wide open, but I let it go. Just then, she abruptly turned from me to point at something on the table in front of her.
“Take it, Russell. It’s for you now.”
I remember looking down at the box and…the next thing I knew, it was night-time. I was home. I thought I’d gotten sick and blacked out or something, but when I checked with the store, I’d finished all my deliveries on time and gone home. I just didn’t remember any of it.
The funny thing was, when I went back through the records of that day’s orders, there was no order for a Delores Winters. I tried to go back and find her house…more than once, actually, but I’ve never been able to. I’d think it was all a dream, but when I came to that night, that box was sitting on the table…just about like it is now.
At first, I was so freaked out that I was just going to throw it away. But…I didn’t. Instead, I just took it and hid it away in a closet before…before Steph saw it. I never did let her know about it. Not directly.
The next afternoon, I snuck the box out of the house and took it to work. Sat looking at it for probably an hour in the parking lot before I got up the nerve to hit the button. It’s strange, but I don’t think it ever occurred to me that it wouldn’t work.
* * * * * *
He let out a bitter laugh. “I got a card, just like you. And at first, I was just going to dismiss it. I hit the button again, but nothing happened. And I certainly didn’t plan on going to my boss’ house and pissing on his front door.”
“Except…I did. I couldn’t explain it, and I was terrified of getting caught the whole time, but for some reason, I couldn’t not do it. I felt like I was getting pulled into a black hole or something. This terrible gravity kept dragging me down until I just gave in.” He put his head in his hands. “I… That’s how it works. Once you start, it has you. It won’t seem like you’ve lost control, and then you find yourself obsessing. Wanting to use the box, wanting to carry out its…” He let out a wet and terrible caw of a laugh into his palms, “…its pranks. It doesn’t matter what you want. Only what it tells you.”
I didn’t know what to say. He was having some kind of breakdown, or maybe he’d started taking drugs. Something was terribly wrong, and I just wanted to know how bad off he really was before I decided if I needed to call someone to get him help. “Russ…not trying to be a jerk, but this sounds…well, it sounds crazy, man.” I leaned forward. “Look, you’ve been through so much the last few months. Maybe you’re just…I don’t know…overwhelmed?”
His eyebrows knitted together as his gaze turned hard. “Don’t patronize me. I’m not crazy, even though I know it sounds that way.” He shook his head. “I’m doing a bad job of explaining. Just a second.” Before I could respond, he got up and went over to a kitchen drawer. When he came back, he had a stack of five cards in his hand. Sitting back down, he slid the first card to me like we were playing poker. I fought back the urge to recoil.
“This was the first one, like I told you.” I followed his gaze down to the card.
Urinate on the front door of your boss’s home.
“Then the second.” He placed this card on top of the first.
Find an animal in your yard and suffocate it.
His voice was trembling when he spoke again. “It…it was a grasshopper. A big one. Put it in a freezer bag. God, it took so long. I was crying by the end, but I still did it.”
“Russ, what the hell?”
He ignored me and went on, laying down the third card.
Cut off your right pinky toe.
He gave a hollow laugh. “This one…I didn’t mind it that much. Felt like I deserved it. But it was hard hiding it from you and Steph. Remember? I told you I’d dropped a can on my foot, and that’s why I was limping for a couple of days. It got infected, you know? I got it under control with antibiotic cream, but…well, everything would probably better if I hadn’t, right?”
“Don’t say that, man. I don’t understand what…”
“Stop interrupting, okay?” For a moment I thought he might hit me, but then the moment passed, as though all the air had gone out of him. “Just…let me finish. This is hard enough as it is.”
I swallowed. “Okay, yeah, sure. Go ahead.”
He looked at me a moment before nodding. “With this one, maybe you’ll start to understand.” He laid down the fourth card, and as I looked at it, everything else seemed to fall away.
Cut Stephanie’s brakes tomorrow morning.
I shot up from the table and stumbled back across the room. “What…no, you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t!” My chest was burning, and I could barely see as tears swam into my vision. “What is this? You wouldn’t hurt her. You wouldn’t hurt anybody. You say it. You take it back.”
He just sat there, silently watching me blubber as I swayed against the kitchen wall like a sailor on a storm-tossed ship. None of this made sense. It was all some trick or revenge or…
As I watched, Russ turned his attention from me to the box. Picking it up in trembling hands, he found the button on the bottom and pushed it.
The box tumbled from his hands to the floor as he clutched his face. “Oh, God. Oh, God, it worked. Thank you, God…I…” His eyes found me again. “Mark…I’m so sorry. I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t let it happen to her.”
I stumbled forward to grip the back of my chair. “What? What are you talking about?”
Fresh tears streaming down his cheeks, he handed me the fifth and final card.
Cook your baby or give me to Mark.
“The box is yours now. It won’t work for me anymore.”
His face sagged as he stood and picked up the box. “You can take it with you if you want. Or don’t. I don’t think it will matter. It’ll find you one way or the other.” He pointed towards the door. “Either way, I need you to leave. I…I can’t risk you being around us anymore. If you leave without the box, I’ll set it on the bench in your front yard. After that, I wash my hands of it.” He swallowed roughly. “And you.”
Wiping my eyes, I shook my head. “No. No way. You don’t get to say all this and…”
His expression grew stony. “You don’t get to decide how this goes. Neither of us does.” He sighed, and his voice was softer when he spoke next. “I…I wrote you a letter. Mailed it this afternoon. Read it when you get it, and maybe…maybe it’ll explain better than I have. But for now…I need you to go. Please, just go.”
* * * * * *
I left the box behind. A half dozen times I almost went back, another half dozen I almost called 911. But every time, something stopped me.
Thirty minutes after I got home, I got a call from Russ.
“Mark…I’m so sorry. I…I can’t do this to you. I’m going to take the box and try to destroy it. I tried before, and it didn’t work, but this time…I’ve still got Pop’s old cutting torches in the workshop. I’m going to get it open and melt it down. Kill whatever is inside. Kill it before it can make you…make you like me.”
And then he was gone.
* * * * * *
I drove as fast as I could back to Russ’ house, but it was too late. The workshop was engulfed in flames, and there was no sign of Russ anywhere. I ran into the house and got Carmen out, the wail of sirens filling the air even as I went to call for help.
It took less than an hour for them to put out the fire and find what was left of Russ inside. It took some pushing, but by the next day, I’d learned they’d found him curled against the back wall of the workshop, far from any door. Maybe he’d gotten confused in the heat and smoke, or maybe he wasn’t trying to get out at all. Either way, one of the cops told me that he’d been holding two halves of a metal box against his chest when they pulled him out.
That was on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, I got his letter.
* * * * * *
When I first sat down to write this letter, it was out of cowardice, but also out of spite. I know it was you that Steph had the affair with. She never admitted it, but I’d suspected for some time. The way you looked at each other, made a point of not talking about each other…I know you both too well. And it hurt me. It still does. I loved you both so much, and to have you betray me like that…but, it doesn’t matter. By the time you read this, you’ll know that I’ve done things that are far worse than either of you. One of the worst…maybe the worst of all, I’m going to do to you in a few hours.
I’ll be as honest with you as I can when we meet tonight. I really don’t know that much, after all. Only that whatever is inside that box is evil and that I can’t stop it. I’ve tried, and I can’t, and I’m sorry. It’s too late for me. It’s probably too late for you, too, by the time you get this.
Just know…I always loved you and Steph. That’s why I never left her or confronted you. Despite the pain, you were the best things in my life.
Until Carmen, at least. I can’t let anything happen to her. Can’t let that thing touch her. And I’ll sacrifice both of us to make sure that doesn’t happen. I hope you can understand that and forgive me.
Your brother forever,
* * * * * *
I have temporary custody of Carmen, and it’ll be a lengthy process, but Russ left behind a clear enough will that I should be granted full custody in a matter of months. I don’t know much about taking care of a baby, but I’m getting help, starting classes, and I swear, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure she has a good life and knows how much I love her. How much her parents loved her.
Sometimes I worry that they’ll find out about Mrs. Terwilliger’s cat. It was dark out when I slipped the antifreeze into its water dish, but that doesn’t help my paranoia or my guilt. I remind myself that I did it before Russ called. That the box is destroyed now, and it’s all over. Carmen and I are safe now.
And then tonight, I heard a sound.
Just a small tinkling of music I’d only heard twice, but still knew right away. And it was coming from Carmen’s room.
I ran in and flipped on the light to find the baby gasping and choking, her face turning purple. Panicked, I picked her up and tried to see what was wrong. She was choking on something. I stuck my pinky in her mouth and fished out a wad of paper. The dark shade began to fade from the baby’s cheeks immediately as she took an easy breath, but my relief was shot through with terror. What was that paper? Where had it come from?
Sitting Carmen back in her crib gently, I looked around for the wad of paper and saw it a couple of feet away on the carpet. Hands shaking, I bent down and picked it up. It wasn’t a wad of paper, but a carefully folded card with an ornate back of red and gold. As I held it up to the light, I could see the clown devil’s eye staring into my own. Unable to breathe, I unfolded the card and read its message.
Write it all down.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableBrandon Faircloth Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A