He found the contest on one of those dark web sites where you can meet willing Russian or Asian girls. This one was different. It was a contest and the entry fee was only twenty bucks and they paid transportation if you were one of the ten selected. The winners were guaranteed to meet beautiful young women. The posted pictures took his breath away. The girls were as fresh as spring flowers.
Jacob received notification via email that he was a selected winner and the jaded side of him thought the exhortations would start with requests for money. He was too smart to fall for that snake oil routine, but the pitch never came. This thing was legit. The winner’s package arrived regular snail mail. A plane ticket and a colorful brochure describing the special “Old World Valentine’s Day Tradition”. It didn’t give specific details but promised each winner would meet at least one beautiful woman. From the airport, a local bus drove the winners to a Walmart parking lot. The instructions said to wait under light number 27 at the far end of the lot. The brochure describe a rustic resort in rural West Virginia. “A hidden gem in the hills,” it said. Jacob envisioned bouncing along a mountain trail in a tricked out jeep.
He stood with a group of young men under the light at the empty end of the lot enclosed in a fort of overnight bags and except for their ages, they looked like kids waiting for parents to pick them up after camp. A faded gray van circled once and then stopped where Jacob and the other six clutched their contest packets.
“I’m your driver,” the man grunted as he opened the door. “Two hour trip. There abouts,” he finished. He tossed their bags roughly into the back, climbed back into the worn seat and pulled onto the main road.
“Where is this resort, exactly?” One of the men asked. Jacob turned to see who had spoken but none acknowledged his gaze,
“Two hours,” the driver answered again before he pulled a pinch of snuff from a can on the dash and inserted it into his mouth. He ignored other queries and questions as if he couldn’t hear. A local AM station faded in and out on the radio. Through the static Jacob heard snatches of bible quotes, loose words rolled around like marbles on the floor. Nothing coherent. Cell service dropped out when the van made a turn onto a narrow, twisting two lane road a half hour from the Walmart parking lot
The van finally halted along a stretch of gravel road near a battered mailbox. Jacob’s watch read eight thirty. Two hours on the button.
. The wordless driver, left the engine idling but stepped out and slid the side door open. Jacob exited, glad to stretch his legs. The others followed.
“Is someone supposed to meet us? This can’t be the place, it’s in the middle of nowhere,” Jacob said. The driver pointed to a rutted mud path leading up into the trees and moved to the rear of the van. Before anyone could object, he tossed their bags onto the gravel and drove away.
“Wait,” Jacob said to the empty road.
Jacob felt a growing unease in his guts as if he had been transported to another reality. Now he was trudging up a godforsaken mud path in the boonies to who knows where. He glanced around at the the others but their faces showed no discomfort or signs of regret.
“Some contest prize,” he said but none of the others responded.
Each step was and effort to stay upright in sloshing mud as they jostled against each other. The dark trees formed a narrow tunnel and the trail was only slightly raised above the surrounding ground. The steepness of the slope made made the trek more taxing as they lugged their bags and tried not to slip. Ahead, a grayed wood cabin rose up from the ground like a parody of a resort.
An old lady greeted them from the shadows of the porch. She said her name but it was a guttural slur, sounding with Slavic consonants. She waved her arm to indicate a younger man who represented the corporate sponsor. “George,” she said.
“The cabins are alphabetical, A through E. In the correspondence accompanying your brochure, you were assigned a cabin.” She pointed with a flashlight toward a narrow path. “Note the markers to guide you. You will find bottled water and light snacks in the cabin. Breakfast will be served here,” she swept her arm back to indicate the cabin. “At 8:15 sharp. It is important that you be on time. If you are late, perhaps you will miss your meal.” A thin smirk turned up the edge of her lips.
Jacob shook his head. This wasn’t the bright atmosphere pictured in the colorful pamphlet. A sense of disbelief and betrayal seeped into him. No good ever came out of dark web sites. He should have known better.
Ten cabins and the common house were scattered like random mushrooms on the hillsides in the vee of the hollow where the hills met. Two men to a cabin. His roommate was Joe from somewhere in Pennsylvania. All the winners appeared to be toe-gazers, socially awkward misfits who couldn’t get a date for any amount of money. Some, by their clothes and mannerisms were wealthy and yet exhibited a singular reluctance to conversation. Their faces reflected the pale glow of their hand held devices. Jacob’s own phone alternately flipped between none and one bar. What were the others seeing on their phones if there was no coverage? Routine talking wasn’t part of their DNA. Only half a day with these guys and Jacob already felt like he’d go mad. How the hell do you eat and share space with people and not have some conversation?
The morning air was crisp and streamers of fog slithered among the trees as Jacob and Joe shuffled down the shovel-width path toward breakfast. He breathed in pleasant breakfast scents as they closed on the big cabin.
“Smells good. Didn’t realize I was hungry till just now,” he said. Joe nodded and flicked his eyes up toward the porch.
“Wonder when we’ll meet the girls?” The words caused Jacob’s head to twist to face Joe.
“Hey, you can talk.” A faint smile flicked across Joe’s face before his eyes lowered to the path.
The contest form had included the questionnaire that Jacob recognized as a psych profile sheet. He wondered if the contest was specifically searching for severe introverts. Maybe he should have been more truthful.
The inside of the main cabin appeared to only be setup with a dinning area and a kitchen, he wondered where administrative offices were hidden. Fresh plates were laid on the tables and breakfast was self-serve buffet style from a steam table in front. Although he could hear the clatter of dishes and pots from the area directly behind the buffet, no serving staff were visible. The old woman instructed them to leave dishware on the table and return to their cabins when they were finished.
“Later in the day we will teach you the particulars about the ceremony. Please stay in your cabins. It is easy to get lost and hurt in these woods. Rest and relax. The excitement will begin this evening.” Jacob doubted if his idea of excitement was on the agenda. Were their really girls here?
“Don’t you think it’s a bit strange we never see any staff?” he asked the guy sitting across from him. The man wore his hair slicked back and was stylishly dressed. Probably made millions on some game he hashed together in his basement. He turned back toward the buffet table then faced Jacob and shook his head.
George coughed to gain their attention from where stood near the entrance door.
“Lunch will be a boxed affair,” he said. Drop by, between noon and one to pick up yours. There will be two selections marked on the boxes. Make your decision and take it back to your cabin. Again, please stay in the cabins, as these woods are hazardous. The hills are steep and it’s easy to fall. Dinner tonight will be the lead into the ceremony.”
Not very friendly.
Time and boredom inched like a bad mosquito bite and since Joe let each attempt at conversation fall flat, Jacob alternately napped and read from a paperback he’d stuffed in his bag.
Dusk rolled into the room when Joe stood up from his bed.
“Time to go,” he said. Jacob gave him a cold stare. Three words. All afternoon and I get three words.
Dinner was an exercise in uncomfortable silence and cold clatter of utensils. They were shoveling the last forkfuls of food from the plates when a bell jangled, startling Jacob. She stood at the center of the buffet holding an old brass school bell.
“You will choose your names now and later this evening you will meet the ones whose names are on the paper.” The company rep was a bobble head doll next to her, his head nodding as she spoke. “Form two lines,” she said, waving to the beginning and end of the table. The men lined up like fence posts.
“This is the old world tradition in my country. Dip your hand into the basket and pull out a tab of paper. The girl’s name written on the paper will be yours—no questions asked. She belongs to you.” It was that simple. An ancient Valentine’s Day tradition. I came out here for this, he thought.
“What’s the catch?” Jacob asked when it came his turn. “You just can’t own somebody. How do they get the women to volunteer for this? I mean, like, I’m okay but what if some creep or perv gets hold of her? What then?”
The woman’s face, a mass of wrinkled lines, was impassive. Stoic. “It is part of the ritual. They know and honor their duty.”
“I’m not sure I want to do this now. It seems. . .it seems. . .” his voice faltered. He turned toward the others behind him. Their faces were eager.
“You are here. Choices are done.” She spoke with an Eastern European accent he couldn’t place. A hint of rolled ‘R’s’.
“Maybe I’ll just leave,” he shrugged.
Her face became solid. The lines of her hair seemed like taunt wires pulling the line of her face tight.
“We do not allow disruptions. You must choose. No options.”
“Sure, I can just walk back down the road. Catch a ride.” Her bony hand circled his wrist like a steel cuff.
“You will select a name from the basket.” She forced his hand toward the worn basket she held above his head. A cold shiver crawled up his spine as if an icy eel had twisted around his bones.
His fingers touched the edge and reluctantly reached inside. The papers rippled like small waves of thin water against his skin. One caught between two fingers. He withdrew the paper and she snatched it from him.
“Catalina,” she read from the paper. “Catalina is yours. You will join with her in one hour.”
He found his hands shaking as the other pressed toward the basket. He stood to the side turning the paper over in his hands, when they all had papers, the woman shuffled out of the way, back into the shadows, her steps like dry leaves.
George, stepped forward from near the kitchen entrance.
“After you finish your meal, you will return to your cabins and change into the formal attire prepared for you. The ceremony will begin at six thirty precisely. Do not be late, your brides will be waiting.” George folded his arms across his chest as if to belie further discussion.
Brides? He hadn’t signed on for that!. He approached her from the table and she moved to a dark corner, possibly entrance to the kitchen when she saw him weaving between the tables. They would be out of earshot of the others.
“I didn’t sign on to get married,” he sputtered as he moved toward George. The woman intercepted his path and fixed him once more with the cold stare. His feet felt nailed to the floor.
“You signed papers of agreement. Perhaps you should have perused them with a more critical eye.”
“I won’t take part in this travesty. It’s slavery. I’m leaving and I’ll report this scam. We’ll see how you feel when the state police show up.”
“You were told. You do not have the option to leave.” He felt the implied menace in the icicles of her voice.
“All right,” he answered with a shrug.
He scanned the other faces. Several looked away including Joe. Others were intently studying the names on the paper as if it held some deep secret. What the hell was wrong with them?
Jacob resolved to escape because that’s what it was—an escape. He refused to be a willing participant. He’d pretend to return to the cabin and change but instead slip out the back door and make it down to the road. It was already dusk. He was certain he could evade anyone she sent searching. He saw himself returning triumphantly with an army of state police and feds, maybe FBI, to watch as they carted the scraggly bitch off in cuffs. All the girls who were probably Russian or Asian would see him has a hero for saving them. He might still get laid.
The rear door of the cabin was locked with a small metal rod on the outside. He couldn’t risk Joe seeing him walking to the back. There would be no help from any of the other men.
A wire coat hanger served to release the small bar latch. He hurried out while his room partner was still in the bathroom. He moved quietly into the shadowing shelter of trees and undergrowth a few yards from the cabin and waited while his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The distant light of the night stars failed to penetrate the over head cover of the leaf canopy so he was forced to move slowly to cover the sounds of his escape. He kept his hand in front groping for trees and shuffled moving by ponderous feel rather than sight. As long as he was descending down hill, he surmised he would eventually reach the road. He dared not use his phone to check time. The artificial light would be a signal beacon in the forest, revealing his location.
It must be near to time for the ceremony. The old hag would have her hidden assistants out probing the surrounding woods for him. He moved quicker now thinking they’d drag him back if caught. He had nearly reached the bottom of the hill when the dark leaves under his feet skated over another layer. He landed hard on his back as he fell and slipped down the bank into a tiny creek. His elbow smashed on to hard stones, stunning him with pain and icy cold water suddenly cascaded over him. His right arm felt as though it was shot through with sharp daggers and he felt a sickening in his stomach. His senses slammed shut. Even though the freezing creek soaked his clothes, he was unable to move. In a few minutes he began to shiver and numbly scrambled up the crumbling dirt bank to the other side, his arm shooting waves of nausea through him each time it brushed against the bank. Finally he lay in the leaves gasping great lungs full of breath like a man who has been underwater too long. The anger in his bone was so intense, it must be broken at the elbow. When a numbness covered his body like a blanket, he finally struggled to his knees, rested a moment and pulled himself upright. A smattering of light wove through the thin layer of trees in front of him. A few steps forward and he could make out a clearing ahead. The gravel road lay at the bottom of the hollow. Two figures came toward him as he floundered toward the road, a large bear of a man with a shaved head and the gray woman. His head turned left and right searching for support, a passing car, a stranger, anyone, but the road was blank in either direction and he was too hurt to run. The big man stepped around him, gripped his neck like an iron shackle and propelled Jacob forward.
“Let me go,” he coughed but neither replied. They brought him to his own cabin but the room was empty when the man pushed him through the door. Joe must already be at the ceremony.
“Prepare him,” she said. “Bring him to the main lodge and be quick.”
In the bathroom, the man wiped his face and arms with a wet cloth. He screamed and the room tilted as the man lifted his injured arm.
“Strip,” he said. The hoarse word spilled from the man’s mouth with a voice unaccustomed to speech. He painfully obeyed.
He used the cloth to clean Jacob’s hands and shoved him out into the main room where the clothes lay stood with arms hanging loosely at his sides while Jacob struggled into the suit.
“I can’t do the tie,” he said as tears coursed down his cheeks. The brute’s face never changed expression but he reached out and knotted the tie and then pointed toward the door.
Lights illuminated the central cabin with thin shadow shapes cast on the windows. Inside the six men stood along side the women. One woman stood alone at the far end. His guard guided him toward the girl. Even in his pain he could tell she was incredibly beautiful. All of them were.
The room held its breath like the muted hush of a funeral parlor. No one spoke. The men alternately looked into the eyes of the women and then down at their own feet as their cheeks flushed red. The faces of the women radiated a soft ethereal beauty, gleaming with a near transparent inner glow as if lighted from within. Their lips blushed crimson like a morning rose but the faces were vacantly devoid of soul. Hollow words floated across the room. He heard, brides, joined, dance and forever. The the single word—dance and there was movement. The women took the hands of the men and swirled around the floor to some unheard melody. The room was silent except for the odd shuffle of feet across the floor. He found Catalina in his arms.
Her skin was like the pedals of a delicate flower. No matter how soft his touch, light brownish bruises erupted with the imprint of his hand or fingers. A musty soft, perfume hovered around her fanned by fairy wings. Her scent covered him like the soil of a freshly turned garden. He breathed deeply and the scent soothed the throbbing in his arm.
They walked a path up the hill, each girl held the hand of her man as the glow of predawn kissed the tree tops. A haunting back water memory urged him to run but it was pushed down by her inebriating fragrance.
A bulbous row of gray-green curtain-like leaves stood man-tall and lined either side of the old mine entrance. The leaves were folded open like thin alluring gowns. A dark stem snaked out of the mine opening to each of the flowers. He felt his senses drowning in the now thick fog of perfume issuing from the flowers and the women. He was no longer afraid as Catalina led him into the open bed of the flower and pressed against him. The leaf enveloped them in a soft embrace as the sun breathed a new day over the trees.
Retired professor of Electronic Technology and Mechatronics. Writing interest include science fiction, literary and comic books. Recently published works in VerseWrights, 365 Tomorrows, With Painted Words, Aurora Wolf and Literary Hatchet.