It was dark inside the coffin.
Johnny stretched up his fingers, letting them drag against the carved wood. It was not Mr. Rushveld’s best work. He’d certainly lain in smoother pieces, so perhaps this one wasn’t quite finished yet.
Pine filled his nostrils as he took great, shuddering breaths, trying to tame the pounding in his heart. His side hurt and his left eye was swollen shut. The sounds of the street outside came to him dull and muted, as though he were submerged in water. The rattling of carriages, people shouting halloos and beeps of the new automobiles muffled together. He drowned them out, instead counting the time before he could push open the lid of the coffin and escape back onto the street.
It wouldn’t do for him to be caught here, after all.
He thought lying in a coffin for several hours might seem odd to some people. Especially when you weren’t, for a lack of a better term, dead. But the small, dark spaces of these wooden vessels had become his sanctuary and today had been bad. Really bad. He could still smell the sour stench of old whiskey on his father’s breath. Still feel the fist pounding into him. Still hear his mother’s screams as he ran.
God, he was such a coward.
A firm knock on the lid made him wince and he held himself still, waiting.
“Out with you, lad,” the gravelly voice said above him.
Johnny groaned, pushing up on the lid. He opened it a crack, peering out at the unimpressed gaze of the spindly, old undertaker. He wore a leather apron over his clothes, white sleeves rolled up to his elbows, exposing the wrinkly skin beneath. Those withered hands that worked the wood so well were wrapped around a walking cane, tapping it impatiently.
“How did you know?” Johnny asked loudly, levering himself carefully out of the coffin.
“I can hear you breathing,” Mr. Rushveld said.
“How?” Johnny whispered with a frown.
“You’re a loud breather.”
Johnny stared at Mr. Rushveld, his one good eye travelling up to his face, taking in the wizened features and dazzling green eyes. Wait-
“Who are you?” he accused, backing up.
Mr. Rushveld tensed for just the briefest moment, but it was there. He tilted his head as he peered down at Johnny.
“I’m the one who’s going to thrash you for hiding in my merchandise,” he threatened, lifting his cane.
This, Johnny thought, was a fair enough sort of threat to make. Unfortunately, it didn’t detour him.
“You’re not Mr. Rushveld!” he accused.
“What makes you think I’m not?”
“Mr. Rushveld’s half deaf!”
Silence stretched between them. The imposter was like stone, then he started to shake. His shoulders rolled up and he shook, guffaws of laughter exiting his mouth and clanging in Johnny’s ears. Before his eyes, the Mr. Rushveld look alike started to stretch, his limbs and his face and his ears all becoming long and pointed. His eyes blazed with a green fire. The creature before him had some semblance of human form, but was clearly something else entirely.
Fear, cold and piercing ran through Johnny. The instinct to run was there, but something kept him rooted to the spot. Like a deer facing the hunter’s gun and not sure what to do, he could only stare.
“Clever, aren’t you?” the creature chuckled, peering down at Johnny from the summit of it’s new height, “Well, what do you want?”
Of all the things Johnny thought might come out of the now rather terrifying mouth before him, it wasn’t that.
“Maybe you’re not as clever as I thought,” it said impatiently, “What. Do. You. Want?”
It said each word with agonizing slowness, almost hissing them out and looking far too irritated to be considered safe.
“Come now,” it tried to hurry him along, “Gold, fame, some lucky girl?”
“No, no!” Johnny shook his head, “I don’t want anything!”
“No?” it clicked its tongue, “Well I must give you something to keep you quiet.”
“What are you?” Johnny was shaking, “A demon?”
“Nothing so prosaic,” it dismissed.
“A fairy?” Johnny tried again, thinking of his mother’s stories from the Old Country.
It paused at this, consideringly.
“Yes,” it agreed, “Something like that.”
The creature – or fairy – leered down at Johnny.
“What happened to your face?” it poked at the boy’s swollen cheek, making him wince back with a hiss of pain.
“Doesn’t seem that way,” it paused, something lit up its long gaunt face, “I know what you want. Revenge!”
Johnny made a strangled sound of denial.
“Against whoever did that,” it grinned, wide and hungry, “Oh, I do love a spot of vengeance!”
“I didn’t say-“
It pushed something into Johnny’s hand with out preamble. It was cold and round, fitting neatly into his palm. Before he could get a word in edge ways, the fairy was clasping him about the shoulders and was leading him to the door of the shop.
“Now you just pop that into the drink of your enemy and presto,” it snapped its fingers, “No more problem!”
“But-“ Johnny tried, being pushed out onto the street.
“Just remember,” it intoned, peering down at him with its blazing eyes that were very suddenly coming out of Mr. Rushveld’s face again, “Not. A. Word.”
It slammed the door with a snap, leaving the poor boy standing there not entirely sure of what had just happened. He looked down at his hand. A small, smooth black stone lay there.
It had to be a trick.
Or his imagination.
Maybe he was going crazy.
Maybe Pa had hit him harder than he thought.
It was just a stone, after all.
Johnny replayed that encounter in his head for hours. His bewildered drudge back home to the overcrowded boarding house he shared with his parents and siblings had been uneventful. His father was missing when he came home and his mother sported several new bruises. She made a fuss over him, even though he had left her to Pa’s wrath.
She used a cool cloth to help the swelling of his eye and made porridge for their supper. Little Betty was sleeping soundly in her crib and tiny Paul played with his toys in a corner, both apparently undisturbed by the ruckus.
“Ma,” Johnny asked, “Can you trust a fairy?”
His mother lifted the cloth she had been pressing to his face and gave him a strange look.
“Depends,” she said finally.
“On whether it wants to trick you or not.”
“How do you know that?”
“You don’t.” Johnny licked his lips, thinking of the small, black stone in his pocket. So, the short answer was, no. He didn’t know what the stone did, but something told him it wasn’t anything good.
This resolve not to use the fairy’s proffered gift, however, lasted about as long as it took his father to come home in one of his drunken stupors. It was the end of the month. Pay day. Pa had taken his earnings and gone for a night about town, returning in the early hours of the morning and raging. The whack he got to the back of his head made him see stars and fumble into a corner while his mother tried to quell the anger. Betty was crying her heart out and Paul had taken refuge in his bed.
Johnny gathered his courage. His Pa had come home with half a bottle of whiskey, grabbed an enamel mug from the counter and proceeded to down shot after shot. Whilst the man was harassing his mother, Johnny quickly ran to where the mug sat on the table and plopped the black stone inside.
Whatever happened, it had to be better than this.
Sure enough, the man returned to his whiskey and his mug, screaming about some imagined slight. Johnny watched with a sick sort of eagerness as he threw back the drink.
Disappointment and relief warred in Johnny’s body. Of course, nothing happened. Nothing ever changed.
His father coughed.
His hacking became intense. He doubled over, his face turning blue like he was choking. His mother rushed to his side, hands frantically going to his mouth, his chest, then pounding on his back. Her screams filled the room as her husband collapsed to the ground, his face starting to thin.
In moments, his entire body shrivelled and shrunk until there was nothing left but a dry husk that was barely human.
Betty had stopped crying, now his mother’s sobs filled the room.
“What happened?” she cried, “What devilry is this?”
Johnny stared at the thing that was once a man. He had killed his father. He had murdered him. This was his fault. He never wanted the man dead. He just wanted him to stop.
“I’m sorry!” he blurted out, drawing his mother’s attention to him.
“What-?” she started, but Johnny didn’t wait for a reply.
Down the gaslit streets, silent as the witching hour crept passed. He ran until the breath was taken from his lungs and he could see the dark outline of the undertakers. He pounded on the door, screaming for the thing in Mr. Rushveld’s body to come out. Any moment now, his mother would get the police. She’d tell them what happened and they’d figure out what he’d done. He had to fix it now.
A light came on in the window and the door creaked open. Johnny rushed in without being invited.
“He’s dead! He’s dead!” he cried, pointing accusingly at the fairy, “You tricked me! You have to fix it!”
“Trick you?” its green eyes were on fire again, fame twisted once more into it hellish form, “Ah! So you took your revenge! Did it feel good?”
“My Pa is dead!”
“And how was I to know it was your Pa?” the fairy asked, “You didn’t say.”
“You didn’t give me a chance!” Johnny sniffed, “You have to fix it!”
“I don’t want to,” it sneered.
“I’ll tell! I’ll tell everyone what you are!” Johnny threatened.
It paused here, gaze like a predator on the boy.
“And who would believe a murderer?” it asked, “Why, I think I hear the police coming now.”
Johnny cried a new, getting on his knees and begging. He’d give anything for it to be over. Anything for it to be fixed.
“Anything?” it laughed, “Alright, I’ll help. I just need one thing.”
The gossip mills did their business the next morning. Did you hear? Mr. O’Grady died under mysterious circumstances. It was lucky that his young son John was able to lead the police to the culprit. Some unscrupulous bar owner had sold the poor man a poison, terrible business.
Oh, and odder still, the old undertaker Mr. Rushveld had shown up at the O’Grady’s residence. Not for the reason anyone would think. No, he had a nervous breakdown, begging and crying for his face back. The poor man had finally cracked! Witnesses saw him being carted off to an institution that afternoon.
It was the most eventful April Fools Day the town had seen in ages!