Hate is a fickle thing. It can sustain the weak and caress the lonely on the darkest nights, and all it demands in return is submission. But when the object of one’s hate is lost it vanishes like the sun in winter and leaves you cold and empty.
Eli felt cold and empty as he watched the coffin being lowered into the grave. With every turn of the winch, the dark mahogany box sunk a little deeper into the earth, and with it went the man all his consuming hate had depended upon.
The day was gray and was promising snow by the late afternoon. Eli fingered the cuff of his sleeve intently as the priest spoke his words and the sexton turned his lever.
‘Come on vicar,’ he thought. ‘Move it along, I have places to be.’
Subtly, he glanced down at the gold watch on his wrist under the guise of stretching his neck.
The priest stopped speaking and looked toward him making no effort to conceal the fact he found Eli’s presence revolting. “Am I keeping you son? I apologize for the inconvenience of your father’s death. Shall I skip to the end?”
“Adoptive father,” Eli corrected quickly. “I never knew my real father.”
The old man shook his head hopelessly. “He never made the distinction, perhaps you shouldn’t either.”
Eli glared at the skinny, pale man standing before him and gave him a hateful smile. “I care little of what you think and even less of what you say. I am a bastard by nature but also by choice.”
The priest only looked at him, saying nothing. After a long silence, Eli signed the cross over his chest and said, “Well, if your sermon is over then I will take my leave.” He turned on his heel, leaving the two men behind him, and began the long walk from the family cemetery towards the looming manor a half-mile away.
* * *
He had always enjoyed walking this time of year. Winter had forever been his season and while most people favored the colors of spring he had been enraptured by the opposite. He was fascinated by the plants that could savagely cling to life despite the frozen ground and absent sun. For some reason, it gave him courage.
As he walked along the tightly kept gravel path he observed the gardens of winter, smiling. The flowers were dead or dying, the trees leafless and crooked, even the grass had turned a sickly brown color. His kindred, all.
He went on this way for some time but the path soon split and, turning the corner of a tall hedge, the home upon the hill came into view. It was an old place, from old money. Passed down through the centuries like a recessive genetic disease. A manor built in a time when kings still sat upon ornate thrones and his favored servants were granted all the wealth of an empire.
Eli smiled as he approached the wide marble stairway that led up to the chateau’s thick, oak double door entry.
“And now it is mine,” he whispered wickedly, “though I bow to no monarch.”
Twenty thousand dollars had been deposited into his account that morning as a stipend for the month. He had expected far more, millions more, but according to the will he had never had the opportunity to glance at before the morning of his adoptive father’s death, the full amount of his inheritance would not be released until the day of his twenty-first birthday, six months removed.
He pushed aside the slightly irksome thought, determined not to have the day of his freedom spoiled by the impatience of his youth. Reaching the top of the steps, he threw the double doors open recklessly and walked through them like a conquering hero returning victorious after a long battle. He looked around the cavernous foyer, at the Renaissance era vases sitting atop Victorian tables, at the rich Persian rug beneath his feet, at the crystal chandelier hung high over his head, and it was as if he were seeing the treasures for the first time. They were his now after all, and finally worth notice.
But, inevitable as the sunrise, his eyes eventually made their way towards the prize that by rights now belonged to him, a token to mark the day of his triumph. A treasure hung high above him on the wall of the stairway’s first landing in the same spot it had hung his entire life, like a living presence.
It was a simple thing, really, to have haunted him so. An ornate letter ‘V’ cast by iron and plated with copious amounts of precious metals. The letter’s edges were embellished with twisting rose vines that grew up its angular sides. Lain across the letter were two swords, one plated gold, the other silver, with fine cut diamonds, rubies, and sapphires pressed into the edges of their blades and the end of their hilts.
The Vipond family crest was, by all accounts, a treasure of 15th-century metallurgic skill and a priceless piece of art. To him though it had been a constant reminder that his own, true, last name had been assigned to him by the nun who had found him upon the top step of the convent entrance some twenty years ago.
He could see the curve of the silver rose vines that twisted their way over and under the twin swords even before he looked upon it, and his mind could not help but drift back to the day he first saw the coveted heirloom.
It was a day that might’ve been lost in the mind of a three going on four-year-old had he not been pulled from his bed before the sun had fully crested the distant hills. The nun had dressed him swiftly in a fresh smelling, green overcoat and a pair of brown corduroys. Garments that up to that point he had never seen before.
His belongings had been packed into a car waiting in the front of the orphanage; a man in a long coat with gold buttons had opened his door and ushered him in. The nun had kissed his cheek and stood in the drive waving as his new life sped towards him at forty miles an hour.
“Go on then,” the man driving the car had said when they had reached the end of a seemingly endless length of pavement lined by pristine hedges. “They’ll be waiting for you. I’ll take your things in when I park the car.” Obeying, he exited and walked toward the manse.
The hinges creaked loudly as they turned and his young eyes had fallen upon the foyer where the twenty-year-old him now stood, unchanged over all these years save a single thing. That day, standing on the landing above him had been the Viponds observing their new acquisition with measured stares.
The tallest of them wore a dark suit that matched his raven black hair. His face was solemn, though his eyes had not seemed unkind, at least not back then. Next to him had been a woman wearing a bright floral dress and an even brighter smile. To their front had been a boy nearly his age tugging at his mother’s hem. Centered above them, as if it were their guardian angel, was the Vipond V.
Looking at them then he had wanted to run, but had no comprehension of why. It was only after years of reflection that he realized that he had been a mere mortal looking upon the keepers of Mount Olympus. The sigil acting in the place of Zeus’ mighty thunderbolt, guarding against trespassers. Eli knew in an instant what had taken him years to put words to. That try as he might, he would never be one of them. Only an outsider looking in.
Then, there came the day that he had decided to take what he desired most. The heart of their power. A boy of twelve, he snuck from his room at an hour well past midnight, and stole the V; hiding it in the attic where he might return each night and extract the secrets of its power.
When the man who called himself ‘father’ had found him there a week later the look in his eye had told Eli all he would ever need to know. He was a guest, not a son. The acceptance of that fact hurt him terribly, but he was consoled by a new friend.
Hatred. It took him in and over the years whispered to him a truth he could not deny. “They had to die.”
It had taken a long time to gather the courage, but once he had poisoned his adoptive mother, he found he quite enjoyed the work.
The toxin had been quick with her, and even swifter with his untrue brother, but the head of his adoptive family had not died so easily. He resisted, clinging to life like a weed in the garden. Then, just as Eli began to suspect his plans might fail, he had awoken and found his fake father was gone. The housekeeper, in tears, asserting his untimely death. His coup had succeeded after all.
Now he would take his prize. Pulling himself from his memories, his eyes finally landed upon the letter hanging upon the wall, or at least where it should have been. He gasped slightly, realizing it was no longer there. Gone, leaving only an outline of its shape in the cream-colored paint.
* * *
Sweat beaded on his forehead as he drove the spade into the loose dirt. For hours now Eli had not stopped moving. Upon discovering his token of ascension had been taken, Eli had torn the house apart starting in the attic and moving down until at last he had come to his father’s room and found a small, black notebook written in his father’s hand.
Pausing to take a breath, he had flipped through the pages, reading the scattered entries, until he came to the last passage.
“All has become clear to me and I name myself a fool for not seeing what was plain before my eyes. I will soon rest, and will take the Vipond V to rest with me.”
Eli was almost there now and would have been tired if he had not been so incensed that even in death they had tried to cheat him. To pull up the bridge and close the gates before he could take his throne.
The spade stopped short with a loud, hollow clang. He threw the tool aside and wiped the thin layer of dirt from the top of his fake father’s coffin. Smiling, he opened the lid, and there it was upon a bed of soft silk, his at last.
He was so entranced by it that it took him a moment to realize there was no corpse underneath it. The coffin was empty save the silver and gold V.
A soft footstep rustled above his head, and slowly he looked up to meet his father’s eye.
They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity beneath the cloudless, starry night. Absently, Eli realized the man above the grave held a small pistol in his right hand and his heart began to beat so hard in his chest he felt it might escape and fall to his feet.
“It is yours,” his untrue father said sadly nodding down at the V. Eli was reminded once again of the day of their first meeting. He, low and of the dirt, him regal and high above. “May this gift you so covet bring your soul peace, wherever it may travel.”
Eli could say nothing as he watched the pistol rise to meet his brow. A bright light erupted and his scream was cut short in his throat. His last thought was of Prometheus and stolen fire as the stars above him faded to black.