Luck of the Draw
C. Dennis Moore
John, as what passed for sheriff in the little German village, was in charge of the annual lottery, which would be held tomorrow after Sunday service. The children would be outside playing in the sun while the parents sat inside in grim silence.
Life in their village was, as far as John could tell, about as close to perfect as one was likely to find. The farmers worked together to make sure everyone had food, the business owners worked together to make sure anything that couldn't be grown or made within the community was brought in from outside, the families worked together to make sure the children were cared for. John had once heard a phrase about it taking a village to raise a child and he supposed that was true. For the most part the village acted as a one. But that's what a secret does, isn't it, John thought. It brings people together in the keeping and suffering of it.
He took a large burlap sack from a trunk he kept out of sight all the rest of the year so he didn't have to think about the cost of survival in their hidden corner of the world. He unfolded the bag, made sure rats hadn't gotten into the trunk and chewed holes in it, and was about to hang it on the door. Before he could turn around, a hand, wet and stinking, covered his mouth while something sharp poked him in the throat.
The smell of the flesh made his stomach roll and John felt the stew he'd had for supper coming back up. The skin was covered in something sticky that greased John's face. He would have that smell on him for days, he thought. The thing sticking in his neck was nothing compared to that reek.
John didn't have to wonder who, only why. They were sticking to the deal, he would have said if he could, they were going to make their payment in eight days. But when the voice whispered in his ear, he knew this year, and most likely all the years to follow, things weren't going to be that easy. As if the lottery were ever easy. But this year it would be twice as difficult.
Then she was gone again just as quickly as she'd come, vanishing into the shadows like the monster she was.
John looked at the sack hanging on his door and thought of the black day that would follow. Yes, the community worked together for the betterment of all, but there was that time each year when one family was set aside from the others, when everyone in town sighed and resumed their good lives, knowing the shadow cast by the thing in the forest was falling on one of their own, helpless to stop it, but content that it hadn't fallen on them.
* * *
No time was wasted the next day. The final prayer given, the children sent outside with the pastor who kept them entertained, knowing what was going on inside and damning the people each year for allowing it. But what else could they do? The bag was passed around. Each family dropped in their placards and John took the bag to the head of the church. Standing in front of the alter, he gave the bag a shake. The placards inside clinked against one another, and everyone knew it was destiny clacking for one of them. Without looking at any them--he still hadn't given them the news--he reached his hand inside, dug around the placards, and pulled one out.
He read the name, which was immediately followed by the wailing he knew was coming. He tried not to notice the look of relief on the faces of the other families. Unmarried and childless, John's regret at having to go through with this every year was knowing he would have to face the families later on, knowing it was his hand that had settled on that placard, his that had chosen which of their children to send to its death in the forest. And if things weren't bad enough. . . .
"I have to make an announcement," he said before anyone could retreat, lucky and thankful at having escaped their own child's name being read for another year.
Everyone sat and looked at him, wondering what could be the news. This had never happened before, keeping everyone there. The general rule was the name was read, a moment was given for it to sink in, and everyone left as soon as possible. It was really best for everyone, this pattern. But now this new twist.
"I, um," John stammered, trying to force himself to get on with it. "I received a visit last night," he finally told them. Everyone looked around. Everyone except Wilhelm and his wife, holding each other and crying. "She came to me last night."
This was news, and nothing that could be good. The lottery was held as usual, so they knew it hadn't been called off. But she'd come out of the forest for something. What was it?
"She wants two this year," John said.
The church gasped as one. They searched his face for a lie, but found none.
Without another word, he shook the bag again and reached in for another name.
When he pulled it out and looked at it, John felt his heart sink and his stomach turned to fire. In a voice that cracked with his regret, he read the name and set the placard down next to the other one. He looked at them a second, two names, a boy and a girl, brother and sister, their parents losing both children at once.
He couldn't imagine what was going through their heads, but he knew the thoughts in his own were bad enough to make him go home and thank the Lord he hadn't any children of his own whose names might one day be drawn from the sack.
* * *
Within five hours of the drawing that day, John was too drunk to stand. He spent the next three days in a similar state, knowing it didn't matter, that by week's end, no matter how he'd tried to forget, he'd be sitting alone in front of his fire, wiping away tears and praying to forget while two innocent children were led into the forest as sacrifice for the sake of the village.
He almost got his gun and strode into the forest himself, meaning to kill the witch and be done with it, but John, like everyone else in the village, had grown up with her legend to keep them at bay, the stories of what she'd done to the few brave enough to stand against her and how they'd never lived to make another bad decision again. The stories also said none of those unfortunates had died quickly enough. The witch's powers stretched far. She didn't have to come into town to make them pay. Those few suffered enough in a short time to make sure no one else ever tried to prevent the witch from collecting her fee for leaving them in peace the rest of the year.
Before he could lay a hand on his rifle, he thought of these stories. He knew it would be a long time before he could face Wilhelm again, but he knew eventually he could and they would both know it wasn't John's decision, simply the luck of the draw. He knew one day Wilhelm and his wife would forgive him. He could live with that. Besides, he'd carried this burden ten years or more already. John knew he couldn't live forever. What was one more burden on top of the others when surely there weren't many years left anyway.?
That decision didn't change his behavior, though, and he remained drunk and secluded in his house the rest of the week. On Sunday, he skipped service.
He always did on the day of the sacrifice.
It wasn't bad enough she demanded one of their children--two of their children now--she had to do on the Lord's day while everyone else prayed and pretended they were going to Heaven? On that day, he lit the fire, settled in front of it with his jug, and watched the flames dance.
He thought of nothing for hours, just watched the colors change and drank himself into a moaning stupor, eventually crying and wishing the world would end because any world that demanded of someone what he'd been forced to do over and over couldn't be one that was good for anything at all.
Near midnight, he finally stood up.
His breeches were soaked with piss and spilled booze.
John dropped his jug and took his rifle down from the wall. He went back to his chair and sat in front of the fire again, the iron having replaced the clay in his grasp.
He'd made his decision finally. The witch would never let them go. She'd been tormenting them before John was born and would be here still when he was gone. He would never see the day when their village was free of her. When that truth made itself crystal clear to his admittedly muddled mind, he knew he couldn't see another family ruined because of the reach of John's fingers. And now it would be two because what were the chances he'd ever again draw two names from one family in the same day? No, that wasn't something he could be a part of any longer. The village would go on, they'd vote another sheriff and the heartbreak and guilt would be their problem, not John's, not any longer.
He put the barrel of his rifle to his chin, said a prayer, and placed his finger on the trigger, ready to push and fire.
The door burst open and one of the men from the village, Jakob, fell inside yelling, "John, come quick. They're back. The children."
John dropped the gun and moved away from it, hoping to hide what he'd been about to do. He stepped into the shadows and wiped at his face, trying to clear his head for just a second and make sense of what Jakob had just said.
"What?" he asked. "What do you mean?"
"I mean they've come back, the children. Wilhelm sent them off this morning, and then tonight, just an hour ago, they came back, said they'd done her in, tricked her into cooking herself, the girl did."
John took a breathe. There are few moments in life where one feels their world changing, but this was one of those few.
"They're back?" he asked.
"And Grethel, as well," the other man said. "Come on, we're gathering everyone in the church to make the announcement. Then we're going to send a team into the forest to make sure"
"And if they're wrong and she's still there?"
"John, the children have come back. That's never happened."
John felt his tears start again, this time though for different reasons and he let them come.
"Give me a minute," he said. "I'll meet you there."
"Hurry," Jakob said, and ran off to spread the news.
John closed the door against the night, went back to his chair and stared at the rifle lying on the floor.
He picked it up, hung it back on its hook on the wall. Then he sat in his chair again and cried some more, now in big heaving sobs, wondering how the world could work like this, and was it really the luck of the draw that had brought it on, was it really only a matter of John's own clumsy hands that brought everything together, the perfect piece to make this puzzle complete?
He didn't know.
He might never understand.
But he knew one thing, there was a family he had to face. There was a man to congratulate, and two children to hug as if they were his own.
(originally published in Horror Carousel)