The Path That Does Not Stray by Christopher Ryan

” … Nessun maggior dolore Che ricordarsi del tempo felice Nella miseria.”

(There is no greater pain than to remember a happy time when one is in misery.)

Dante Alighieri, The Inferno

Richard entered the next room as the door locked behind him. A quick assessment of his surroundings produced two noteworthy observations. First, he could see an exit across the room, and second, he was not alone. In the center of the room an older man stood hunched over a bathtub, cutting into a pale mass with a circular saw. Blood streaked the shower curtain and floor. The resonating wails of the blade and the stale reek of old meat filled the confined space like an animal trapped in too small a cage. The man looked up, stared straight at the newcomer, and turned back to his work.

Richard could feel his resolve beginning to falter, but he had to keep going. Stopping now, even if that were an option, would render meaningless everything he had endured to get this far. He had to press forward. Forgoing fear and further deliberation, he moved. Having to turn sideways in the narrow space to pass behind the man, Richard made sure to avert his eyes from whatever gruesome labors were being performed. The pitch of the saw’s scream dipped sharply as if its blade were struggling through something especially dense. Richard lunged for the door, which upon opening remained ajar. It did not slam and lock behind him, as had all of the others.

Something was different.

Rushing through the doorway his wildest hopes manifested as there, atop a small ancient looking stone pillar, rested the goal of this entire twisted affair.

One glance at its beauty made all of the journey’s previous horrors drift from his mind. Before even realizing he had moved Richard crossed the room to the pillar. Clutching the object he stood transfixed. For a moment he was whole again.

Reality’s harsh grip returned as the man from the bathroom entered through the open door, a horrible grin twisted across his face. The saw’s power cord trailed behind him, entangled with the clinging stench of fresh death.

“I’ve reached the end! I have it!” Richard screamed over the saw’s whine, holding his bounty aloft.

The man stopped his advance, shutting off the blade.

“What?” The old man’s voice cracked as if it had not been used in some time. This had to be the end. There was nowhere else to go. No more demons to face, no more terror to conquer.

“I said I’ve found it! I’ve finished!”

The old man glanced at the stone pillar.

“Is that yours?” he asked.

In the place Richard had found his treasure now rested a small antique music box. The worn black and white photo of a man wearing a military uniform rested on the inside of the box’s open lid. Soft music emanated from the box, filling the room like subtle perfume. The sweetly cheerful nature of the tune held a disturbing quality given the setting. Richard’s fist tightened around the item it held.

“No,” he said. “That’s not mine.”

“Then we must hurry. You must finish with me before the next one arrives.”

“Wha-what?”

The man grabbed Richard by the wrist, pulling him back through the open door to the still blood-soaked, though now empty bathtub. Dried, caked patches of black packed the corners and crevices, only to be rewetted by the dripping linear splatters of fresh crimson.

“Are you?” Richard paused, unable to bring himself to ask the question his racing mind had formed. “I mean… I have to be able to leave now. I found it!”

The man acknowledged the delicate object in Richard’s hand for the first time, and he smiled.

“It’s small enough. You will be able to take it with you.”

From his pocket the man produced a plain gold ring. He kissed it, and with tears in his eyes dropped the ring down the bathtub’s open drain. He pushed the saw into Richard’s shaking hands.

“It will take longer than you think, so get to it.”

Without another word he lay down in the bathtub.

BIO : Christopher Ryan lives with his family in Pennsylvania. He can be found online at PrehistoryRanch.com.

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