February 7, 2011
“C’mon James!” yelled Casey Hampton from across the parking lot. “Hurry up. They said the plane leaving in 15 minutes.”
James Harrison got out of the taxi and walked to the entrance of the small airplane hangar that housed the Pittsburgh Steelers’ private jet. They were heading home after a long and disappointing trip. His duffel bag draped over his one arm and a small felt pouch in the other hand. He wore a dark grey wool sweater with a white collared shirt underneath, black slacks, black shoes. He was in a dark mood. Dallas was unseasonably cold and the garments he wore would barely protect a normal human against the chill. But he wasn’t normal. He once was, but no longer.
A large field with small rows of pine trees surrounded the parking lot. It was quiet and the swirling wind drowned out any of the muffled sounds coming from the tarmac.
“James!” Casey shouted again trying to get his teammate’s attention. James Harrison was well known for his thousand-yard stare. It was a confusing mix of intimidation and misunderstanding. The look made people question his sanity and his humanity. There was something in that stare that suggested he was missing a piece of his soul.
There was a rustle in the nearby pine trees that sounded like suppressed laughter. Harrison looked over his shoulder to the adjoining field. “I’ll be there in a minute,” the linebacker responded softly in a solitary tone. A white smile flickered in the foliage. He dropped his bag on the sidewalk but clutched the felt pouch and walked into the night.
“James! James!” Casey called out then muttered to himself, “Crazy…”
The loss to the Green Bay Packers was almost a foggy memory to the Steelers Linebacker. But a loss wasn’t what he signed up for. This wasn’t the deal. Someone didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
His black shoes left the pavement and hit the soft grass of the meadow. Twigs snapping underneath his black shoes textured the softer sounds of the wind. The smile showed itself again in a shadow. A stifled chuckle.
Harrison entered into the grove of trees and scanned the darkness. “Show yourself,” Harrison demanded. “If you’ve got any guts.” He unfastened the felt pouch and took a small pinch of the dust inside. He flung it towards the floating row of crooked teeth. The dust fell to the ground and from the pine needles sprung a lanky brittle figure of Erlking, the forest goblin.
“I didn’t want you,” Harrison yelled. “You’re a errand boy as far as I’m concerned. Where’s your master?”
“The forrest is my dominion earthling,” the prickly stick figure responded. Dead leaves and dust seemed to hold together this wicked skeleton. “My master has faith that I can speak on his behalf.” The crooked smile grew again as though it was peeking through the center of the Earth.
“Well you go back and tell him that the deal’s off!” the 6 foot linebacker lurched forward as if to strike Erlking.
“Do not threaten me. I have carried more souls away from this Earth than you could conceive. Your threats of bodily harm may work on other humans but I caution you now, restrain yourself.” The bleak scarecrow’s voice rose slightly. “Besides, the terms of your agreement have not yet been violated from our end.”
“They have! When I came to you 6 years ago asking for help, I was at the end of my sanity! I had almost been cut from football entirely. No one was giving me a chance. I gave everything I had just to get back in,” the beastly football player said. “My compassion, my soul, my spark. You promised me 3 Championship rings before the end of the decade. You could have honored that tonight. But you didn’t.”
Erlking listened and nodded his head, the leaves on his head rustling gently. “You wanted to be a champion and we have made you that.” The twigs of its jaws snapped and popped with each syllable. Its white teeth contrasted against the bark and the night.
“Three times! I said three times within the decade!”
“You’re human brains have unfortunately still not grasped time correctly. You’ve just been lucky guessers thus far. Your decade is different than ours and you were unclear as to your timeframe, so we interpreted it as we saw fit.”
“What does that mean?” Harrison screamed.
“That means,” the twigs began to erode and fall back to the ground. “You’ll be back.” Erlking’s body decomposed in front of his eyes. The dust drifted away with the churning wind. The sticks and pine needles fell to the ground once more. Harrison saw the teeth fade back into the shadows. “We never break our word.” The final sentence could have been mistaken as an articulate breath of the Dallas wind. “You’ll be back.”
“James! James!” he heard in the distance. Casey Hampton’s voice echoed of genuine concern. The gargantuan nose-tackle rumbled into the field, his hands cupped to his mouth shouting for his teammate. He saw Harrison still clutching the felt pouch alone in the darkness.
“There you are,” he bellowed. “Let’s go. The plane’s leaving now.” Casey looked around the field. “What the heck were you doing out here anyways?”
Harrison’s eyes glazed over and his voice became monotone. “It was business.”
As Casey Hampton walked James Harrison back to the airplane hangar he could have sworn he heard an ominous laugh, suppressed and muffled by the soft wind.