The dusty, faded Confederate flag hanging on the wall drooped like sagging curtains in a long abandoned house from nails spread unevenly across the crown molding. Bookshelves lined the other walls of the office crammed to overflowing with worn editions of past and present conservative ideology, from Rand to Buckley to Buchanan, a lifelong collection of arguments of thinkers from just right of center to Nazis and white nationalists. This was Joel Preston's theater, church and sanctuary, the center of his universe where he delivered his popular weekly podcast "Joel's America," the backdrop for his interviews with FOX News pundits and the source of inspiration for his own books and articles going back thirty-five years.
Photos were haphazardly scattered around the room capturing Joel meeting with Presidents, Senators, musicians, authors and other international stars of the conservative galaxy. In a corner an American flag hung like a limp towel from a pole and next to it an off-kilter framed copy of the Constitution. Scattered on the large mahogany desk in the center of the room were Joel's computer, camera, prescription bottles and sticky notes of all sizes and colors. A green bottle of scotch stood at attention to one side accompanied by a smudged glass. A cane leaned against the desk's edge. As still as any other piece of furniture in the room, Arthur Rimsell sat hunched in a chair in a corner of the room, a rotund man wearing a plaid vest, crooked bowtie and rimless glasses that were hard to see in the crimson glow of his face. Arthur was Joel's longtime producer, defender and shoulder-of-many-uses.
Thin hair slicked to one side, Joel's posture was as stiff as a congressional witness reading a statement, his arms resting on the desk, a yellow legal pad with scribbles on it between them. He was nearing the end of his podcast.
"…yes, Senator Stanton and I go back a long way. If this was a comic book, I guess he would be my arch nemesis, you might say, but life isn't a comic book. Is it? Stanton's long history of radical votes and statements have pushed him to the outer most fringes of the socialist Democratic Party, which places him somewhere between Bernie Sanders and Karl Marx. Friends in California, let Stanton know that true Americans do not support or condone their tax dollars going to fund generational welfare. And we are so sick and tired of Libtards and their condescending history lessons. The Civil War is over. Slavery is over. Jim Crow is…over."
Taps on the door to the office. Joel tried to start again, but there were more raps. Arthur pushed himself up and went to the door, pulling it open. In the threshold stood Letta De Montagne, an African American woman wearing a warm smile and crisp, white, nurse uniform. Petite with large, penetrating brown eyes, Letta quickly saw Joel as the person to defer to.
"I'm really sorry to bother you."
"Didn't you see the red light on next to the door?" asked Joel.
"Yes, that's why I knocked. I thought it might be a call button."
Joel gave Arthur a sideways glance. "A call button?"
"Let me start over. I'm Letta De Montagne from the Carlson agency. Your regular nurse Rosita is sick so they sent me over for the day."
"Please don't take offense, Miss…"
"De Montagne, but doesn't your agency employ any Caucasian nurses? And what is that accent?"
Letta stood motionless, as if slapped, but not for the first time. "I am from Haiti, Sir."
"They only let in the finest, don't they Arthur?"
Shock turned to anger then to restrained indignation. "I can see if they'll send someone else out."
"No, no. It's too late. Do you know the regimen?"
Letta pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket and glared. "Yes."
"Alright. I need to finish up what I'm doing here so please wait in the living room until I'm done and then we can do the morning medications."
"Yes, Mr. Preston." Letta turned stiffly and walked away into the shadowy rooms of the old house.
Arthur closed the door. "You are an irascible old fart."
"I won't argue with you, dear friend. The world's going to hell in a hand basket, but I'm not going to let it go without a fight. Let's wrap this up."
Light struggled to penetrate the large dark paneled living room. Dust swarmed in the rays like tiny angry insects, and the air was infused with cleaning chemicals and patriarchy. Letta sat at the end of a long leather couch, knees together, hands resting on her lap. She didn't feel comfortable touching anything. This was a man's world, a kind of twentieth-century testosterone-laced museum honoring maleness, with a pipe rack and brandy snifters and antlers and paintings of foxhunts in European forests. Museum or prison, Letta wondered. A framed photo on the end table closest to her showed a younger, smiling Joel standing with a group of people in front of the house, a woman who must have been his wife next to him, an wiry blond wearing an expression lingering somewhere between endearment and endurance. A frowning little boy around four stood next to her with one small hand out toward whoever took the picture, which could be interpreted as either a wave or a plea for help.
"She died of cancer six years ago," said Joel, hobbling into the room to the click of his cane. "And now I'm trying to keep the same thing at bay. Should have gone the other way around."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Preston."
Joel eased his sickly body into a chair with an IV pole next to it holding a bag. "Down the hall behind me you'll find the kitchen and the sterilization machine with needles. I am ready when you are. Between treatments, please confine yourself to the kitchen area and backyard." Letta stood up. "Oh, and tonight I am having my son and daughter and their spouses for dinner, so we'll need to do the evening treatment before six."
Letta nodded and left the room.
The chef hired to cook the meal that evening arrived at four and after introductions began gathering ingredients and chopping up vegetables. The tall, lanky man's name was Jean Paul, but despite the pretentious moniker, he was warm and friendly to Letta, inviting her to be his sous chef for the evening. Having nothing else to do until later, she accepted enthusiastically.
"So I'm guessing you don't know what you've gotten yourself into," said Jean Paul, as he diced carrots.
"I know who Joel Preston is, if that's what you mean."
"Yeah. I'm talking about the entertainment tonight."
Jean Paul smiled. "I've cooked for Preston a few times in the past. He likes my food and I keep my mouth shut. And the money's good." He leaned toward Letta and lowered his voice. "But every time I've been here to prepare a meal, Joel has gotten drunk, and this guy is one nasty human being when he's drunk."
"He's nasty when he's sober."
"I mean, beyond the political stuff. One night he got into a fistfight with a cousin of his. Another time, he got up on a chair and mooned someone he was arguing with. Then there was the night he called the President and told him he was a pussy for not charging liberals with treason. Got a visit from the Secret Service for that one. He's just crazy when he drinks."
"Well, you only have to suffer through one night of it. Think about poor Rosita who has to put up with his angry racist shit day in and day out. I don't know how she does it."
"It won't be much longer."
"It won't be much longer until the guests get here. Anything else I can do?"
Joel's oldest son Robert arrived first with his bejeweled wife sporting the Texas golden bouffant, her body stuffed into an hour-glass red dress several sizes too small, his own belt straining to rein in in his mddle-age girth. Drinks were served and soon the youngest daughter Joanne, her trim runner's body draped in an expensive pants suit, brown hair severely pulled back into a ponytail, was welcomed by her father with a stiff hug. The group barely acknowledged her husband Jay, whose glassy eyes and flushed cheeks signaled he'd been to the liquor cabinet earlier. Arthur materialized from somewhere and joined the group. Letta watched from a corner of the large entryway, not expecting to be acknowledged by Joel, who reacted true to form, escorting his family into the living room without a glance in her direction.
Although strained at times, the conversation remained civil through three courses, but Jean Paul gave Letta a "storm-is-brewing" look as Joel's voice rose in volume during dessert. A glass fell to the floor and shattered. Chair legs screeched. Arthur could be heard trying to calm Joel who swore in frustration. Jean Paul grabbed a towel and went to the dining room, as voices began clashing and running over each other into an unintelligible word riot.
"Why does this have to happen every time we get together," came a woman's angry voice.
Joel was now spitting his words. "Why does Trotsky there have to spew his--?"
"You're the one who can't have a nice family dinner without letting your anger get the best of you. It's eating you alive."
A man, presumably Arthur, urged calm. "Please, why don't we all go to the parlor for a cognac…"
"Father doesn't need any more alcohol. Jean Paul…coffee?"
Joel had passed the tipping point. "Don't tell me what I can and cannot have."
Voices were lowered, but Letta heard, "Come on Duane, we're leaving."
There was bustling, doors opening and closing, murmurs. Jean Paul returned to the kitchen, damp rag in hand, and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "I'm sorry I was right," as he dropped shards of glass into the trash. Letta helped Jean Paul clean up and pack.
"The money must be awful damn good to put yourself through this more than once," she said.
He stopped what he was doing and leaned forward on his hands. "It is, and I know that in a way I'm a whore for doing this. I don't like the man or his family, but I have a wife and two children…and bills. Not the life I wanted…."
Letta put a hand on Jean Paul's arm. "Please, you don't have to justify this to me. I always believe things have a way of working themselves out. You'll see."
"An optimist," he said smiling. "Very rare in this day and age."
As the two finished cleaning and picking up, darkness finally conquered the late afternoon light. Tapping sounds turned Letta around to find Arthur standing in the doorway, his face drawn and crooked bow tie resembling a stalled propeller.
"Joel is in the…bathroom right now. When he's done, I'd like you to give him his treatment. He'll be turning in early tonight."
Letta wiped her hands with a towel. "Of course. Just let me know when he's ready."
Calm settled on the house and from the kitchen window Letta followed Jean Paul's minivan down the long driveway toward his family with a healthy check in a pocket of his white coat. A good person doing what he needed to do to survive, thought Letta. Eyes closed, she stood at the open window and inhaled a soul-refreshing breeze that washed over her like a promise. The moment ended too soon, however, with a bark from upstairs and Letta pulled the window shut and snapped the dead bolt.
Joel was barely awake on his bed as Letta pushed the needle into a vein and started the IV. He moaned and placed his free hand on his stomach, continuing to suffer from an overdose of Johnnie Walker and political vitriol. Letta stood at his bedside, arms folded, watching as Joel's muscles relaxed and consciousness faded away.
Heavy footsteps. Children laughing. A slamming door jolted Joel awake. Before he could focus he inhaled enough smoke to send him into a coughing fit.
"Joel. Wake up. Get your ass out of bed. The Mistress wants you up at the main house."
Joel pushed himself up and turned on his side, still coughing, his head pounding. "Arthur, what the hell time is it?"
"I don't know. Seven, maybe."
Blinking his eyes into focus, he found himself staring at his lifelong friend, who was now forty pounds lighter and dressed in a tattered shirt, stained pants and wearing a fearful expression. "You don't…the Mistress? Why are you dressed like that, Arthur? Is it Halloween already?"
"I told you not to drink so much of that moonshine. Now look at you. She's going to whip your ass if you don't get up there now."
"What the hell are you babbling about? And where are we?"
"Stop messing around."
The door to the cabin banged open and a steely-eyed black man entered dressed in mid-nineteenth century clothing holding a coiled whip. Joel grunted to a sitting position.
"Who the hell is he?" asked Joel.
The man, Thomas, walked up to Joel and hit him on the side of the head with the whip handle. Joel fell sideways to the grimy mattress with an outraged yelp. "Get out of bed and up to the house now," said Thomas.
"Arthur, call the cops," shouted Joel.
The man grabbed Joel's shirt, pulled him up and hit him again. "Now drag your lazy white ass up off of that cot and get up to the house."
"Why are you-?"
The man raised the whip again.
"Master Thomas?" said Arthur in a panic. "He…he had too much liquor last night and he's slow this morning. Give me two minutes and I'll have him up to the house right away. I promise you, Sir."
Thomas adjusted his vest and turned to Arthur. "Two minutes or he isn't going to be able to get out of bed for a week. Understand?"
"Yessir. I do."
The door slammed behind Thomas and Arthur helped Joel up to a sitting position, blood leaking from the dazed man's nose. "Please tell me what's going on here," asked Joel, his usual condescending tone reduced to a feeble plea.
Arthur knelt down. "Listen to me, Joel. I don't know what's gotten into you, but you'all are gonna get yourself whipped but good unless you get up to the house now. We can talk later." Arthur put his hands under Joel's armpits and pulled him up to a standing position. "Come on." Joel clung to Arthur as they stepped outside into a sunny, humid afternoon, with children in rags chasing each other and mothers carrying babies on their hips as they washed clothes in a bucket. They were all white.
"Arthur, what the fuck is this? Am I in hell? Is this Appalachia?"
"Stop with that nonsense. Gonna be hell to pay if we don't get to the house."
With a confused Joel reluctantly in tow, the two men followed a well-worn path from the grim, foul smelling cluster of shanties up a slope to where a southern mansion loomed over the plantation, all wide porches, tall columns and chimneys. Three large weeping willows stood guard in front of the formidable structure, with an arching wagon path running in front of the grand porch.
"There's something wrong, Arthur. I don't belong here," complained Joel.
"None of us do, Joel, but here we is."
"Why are you talking like that?"
"Shut your fat mouth, Joel. And keep it shut."
They approached a side door. A girl sweeping the steps ran inside and soon a black woman emerged from the house in a tight-waisted expansive dark green dress. She was poised, dignified and frowning.
"Who's that?" asked Joel.
"Have you lost your mind? It's the Mistress Letta."
"Letta? I know that name."
"Because she owns your ass. Now shut up and let me talk."
The two men pulled up to a stop several yards from the house. Letta leaned against a porch railing, her long dark fingers flowing over the edge. "What took you so long?" she demanded.
"I am so sorry, Miss Letta, but Joel ain't been feeling well."
"Ah, the notorious drunkard isn't feeling well. That is a surprise. Bring him to me."
Arthur guided the still wobbly Joel to the short flight of steps and pushed him forward. "Go on. Do what she says."
His eye throbbing, nose bleeding, the utterly unmoored Joel grabbed the hand rail and pulled himself up the steps until he was standing in front of Letta, head hanging like a student facing the principal.
"Come," was all she said, suddenly disappearing into the house.
Joel's eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light in the kitchen and caught the tail end of Letta's dress turning left just beyond a doorway. He followed her past the curious glances of the sweat-soaked kitchen staff as they cleaned the last meal and prepared the next. Once beyond the kitchen, he entered a hallway and turned left, slowly shuffling down the corridor. Both walls were adorned with paintings and portraits, men in uniforms, families posed like European royalty…only the subjects were all black.
"Don't touch anything," demanded Letta, standing in a doorway at the end of the hall. "Stop gawking and come in here."
No one had ever talked to Joel like that. Not his parents, not his siblings, not even his fraternity brothers during initiation at Princeton. He was about to shoot a snide retort in the arrogant woman's direction when the pain and swelling around his eye suddenly stopped his mouth from making things worse. This may be…had to be…a bad dream, but the pain was real.
He approached the doorway warily, not sure if he was going to be welcomed in or attacked again for some unforeseen transgression. He peeked around the corner and found Letta sitting on a small loveseat, her dress spread like a fan, hands folded on her lap as if waiting for tea to be served.
"Come in and sit down. I don't bite." Joel wanted to scream, 'What about this on my face?' but again restrained his natural impulses and silently sat in the nearest chair under the cold gaze of Letta. "Good. Joel, how long have you been working for my family?"
Starting right off with a trick question. He could guess, but what would that gain him? "Two hours?" he responded.
Letta closed her eyes as if someone had whispered bad news in her ear. "You see, Joel, this is the issue at hand. We've noticed your mental state is, how should I say this delicately, in decline. It's probably the alcohol."
"There's nothing wrong with my mind. What's wrong is that I woke up in this…abominable place and I have no idea why or what's happening to me."
The sound of singing could be heard through the open windows of the house, coming from fields in the distance. Joel couldn't make out the words, but the repetitive tempo coinciding with physical movements was familiar. Letta reached over and picked up a framed picture from a side table.
"Come over here, Joel." He stood, still woozy from his head injury, and approached Letta. She held out the picture for him and he took it. It was an old black & white photograph of a large group of people in front of the mansion, including Letta and what he assumed was her family, and various white people standing on the fringes, eyes wide, looking haggard and fearful. "That picture was taken two years ago. If you look to the far left…"
"That can't be me," said Joel, adjusting the picture to help his eyes focus.
"You've been with us for fifteen years."
Joel looked up, his psyche crushed. "What year is it now?"
The woman shook her head, the sorrow on her face evident. "1860."
That was impossible. It's a prank, one of Arthur's elaborate practical jokes. Then his eyes stopped on a tall white man standing in back of the group holding a cleaver and ladle in an 'X' across his chest and wearing a drooping chef's hat. It was without doubt Jean Paul. The photo fell from his hands to the floor, the glass shattering into dozens of splinters, each now a small window on reality from a different angle.
John Andreini's stories have been published by the following: House of Zolo’s Journal of Speculative Fiction, Across the Margin, Literary Yard, Horla Magazine, Oregon’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction (2018), Indiana Horror Review 2018, Hello Horror Anthology, Drunken Pen Writing, Dark Dossier (3), Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, Simply Scary Podcast; and Horror d’Oeuvres – Bite-Sized Tales of Terror (anthology). Films based on my short stories have been official selections at seven national film festivals.