The Scarville Garnet
by Christina Phillips
The air was abuzz, static and anticipation tangling and tangoing in the vents of the motel room. Their dance raised the hair on the arms of the two teenagers renting the space, but they both pretended nonchalance. One, the taller of the two, was standing barefoot with her heels pressed against the baseboard of the bathroom door frame, and the other had in his hands a pencil and a measuring tape, his eyes trained on the marks he was leaving on the wood grain.
“See?” At his prompting, the tall girl stepped forward and turned to look. “5’10, just like I said. Not tall enough for the second-floor window, even if I boost you.”
She rolled her amber eyes and pushed past him to grab her beer off the bathroom counter. “You win, Cash. Back door it is.”
Cassius watched, eyes bloodshot and hungry, as she lifted her hips to sit on the counter, brought the bottle to her lips, pulled a knee to her chest, still as enticed by her effortless grace as he’d ever been. His good mood only went as far as her face, though, which was solemn. Maybe even a little worried. “Could you do me a favor and pretend you’re having fun? You’re not a good time when you act the cynic, Rhea, and you know the role looks better on me anyhow.”
He couldn’t help smiling to himself as her whole body stiffened at his remark. “Me? Not a good time?” She sounded unaffected as she lowered the bottle into her lap, but Cassius knew every lilt in her voice was meticulously crafted.
“Oh, not as good of a time as you used to be,” he snarked, knowing the playful tone would do nothing to soften the words as he leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed. “I bet you couldn’t cheat a hand of blackjack now if you tried. What happened to that girl?
A shaky breath taken behind her curtain of hair. A moment of hesitation. “Maybe she grew up.” Oh, and wasn’t that a raw line? One more push ought to get him what he wanted.
“Well, I wonder why she’d go and do a stupid thing like that.”
Her head snapped up, and he had to bite his lip to keep from grinning at the anger in her eyes, the way she looked at him like she hated him, like she could punch through his rib cage and rip out his beating heart. God, it was orgasmic. “Because—” That first word was barked out with all the fire he could’ve wanted, but by then she’d caught on to his game and knew to withhold his prize. She forced herself back into nonchalance, into a cool and unchallenging posture. She spat out some ineffectual comeback, something she wished would hurt him but knew wouldn’t.
Silence was strung up and hanged like a convict between them as her pleading eyes betrayed her unbothered body. He waited just long enough for her to decide she really wanted his apology before he gave it, crossing the threshold with open arms and a kissing mouth. In the fluorescence of the bathroom light, the scarlet of her outgrown box-dyed hair fell over his cheeks that flushed the same shade, and he whispered to her how important it was to him, too, this job that would set them up for life, this rock they were stealing that would pay for their white picket fence.
The gem in question was known as the Scarville Garnet, named for the sleepy little town in which it resided, the same town that had been the backdrop for the tiresome and tireless parade of miseries Rhea had to look back on as a childhood. But amidst the concrete greys and bruise blues of that time, a scarlet beacon gleamed just the way it had under each year’s July sun when the fat, happy man who owned it had carted it out to the county fair. She remembered vividly the smell of the cotton candy, the popcorn, the sweat of a hundred people packed into the fairgrounds’ assembly hall to see a man in a fancy linen suit with a Cuban cigar hanging from his lip beam over his prized jewel. And years later, when she and Cassius had been passing through the area and heard whispers of a supposedly abandoned mansion and the supposedly cursed gem that had supposedly done unspeakable things to its owner, Rhea couldn’t believe her luck.
The two of them had talked, of course, about getting out of the life, of settling down together somewhere and making for themselves a domestic little idyll, but the words were only ever exchanged between sheets. So Rhea had put together the whole plan herself and presented it to him all in one go, so that all he had to do was say yes. She’d had him sky-high on adrenaline at the mention of the largest garnet in the country, willing to say anything to make the heist happen. Yes, he’d help her paint their mailbox and yes, he’d love it if they got a dog and yes, he’d make an honest woman of her as soon as he could, just as long as he could get his hands on that rock.
Cassius was not much the convincing actor, but Rhea was every bit his captive audience.
Arriving back in town and actually casing the target had revealed a few holes in Rhea’s meticulous plot. For example, she’d had them climbing in through the second-floor window on the north side of the house, so as not to risk agitating a creaky staircase, but they were higher up than she’d recalled.
“How do you know it’s even on the second floor, anyway?” Cassius had asked as they were arguing over it.
“Because you used to be able to see it at night, through the window,” she’d responded, not for the first time that evening. “He never wanted anyone to forget the look of it, his success.”
“Some success he is now,” he’d muttered, growing bored of her vexation.
That first fight on the subject had been days ago now, though they’d continued to squabble over it in bursts, and these spats had culminated with Rhea insisting he measure her exactly so they might reach a conclusion. This was fine by Cassius, of course, since putting a matter to bed usually meant taking Rhea to bed, and today was no exception; what had started on the bathroom counter had continued into the shower and had ended in the motel’s moth-eaten sheets.
Rhea lay there in the dying afternoon light, arms wrapped around Cassius’s broad chest as it rose and fell with sleep. She was sick with desperation that he hold her, but his hands stayed tucked beneath his head, indifferent to her raucous yearning. Things would change soon, though, she thought to herself. He would change once everything else did.
The moon rose on the night of the heist, and as it approached its zenith, Rhea poured two shots of dark rum and passed one to Cassius. “To the end of the line,” she announced triumphantly, holding out her glass.
“To our biggest score yet,” Cassius amended, clinking his glass against hers. Both downed their drinks to chase their malcontent and wished there were time for another round.
The two were thieves by trade, of course, and they’d gone through every motion what felt like a thousand times over. Looking inconspicuous as they approached the house, scaling the fence, picking the lock—it all came easy, and Rhea was damn near bored with the song and dance, but the thrill for Cassius was unlike anything else. There could be no wrong moves, no misplaced steps, no breath taken out of turn. It was his passion, really, doing what he knew to be wrong, and his heart pounded as his nimble fingers played the lock pins for fools.
The house was the belle of the ball as far as Scarville went, but that wasn’t very far. White brick and black trim that looked stately under blue skies were almost ghostly in the silver starlight, but the thing that really chilled Rhea’s blood as she gazed up at it, waiting for the lock to crack, was, sure enough, that crimson glow pouring from that window, exactly as she remembered it. Even when Cassius got the lock figured and tugged her wrist to beckon her inside, she had a hard time tearing her gaze away from the light.
When she stepped over the threshold, she thought she’d looked so long at it that it’d glazed her vision scarlet, but when she rubbed her eyes and came away with the same view as before, she realized the whole inside of the house was awash in the glow of the garnet.
“The hell is going on in here?” Cassius muttered, balled fists rubbing ferociously at his eyes.
Rhea tried not to choke on her laugh as she nudged him with her elbow. “You expected to steal a spooky cursed gemstone from a house that looked perfectly normal? It’s a good thing you aren’t the brains on this one, babe.”
Cassius scowled at her quip and turned to find a way from the room they’d entered, the kitchen, to the stairs. Rhea knew she should be doing the same, but she squinted around, trying to find the source of the light. It seemed to evenly bathe the full kitchen, but—was it her imagination, or did it get stronger out in the hall? Yes, it did, and there it was, getting brighter again around the corner, smearing blood all over the crown molding, and there—
“Cash,” Rhea whispered over her shoulder, hoping he’d hear her. “Cash, the stairs—it’s coming from the stairs.”
He wasn’t far behind, and soon they were creeping up the winding spiral staircase, squinting against the light that was verging on blinding the further up they went. In fact, Rhea was sure the light must’ve been doing something to her eyes, because she could swear the railing was wrapped in veins of dark, throbbing stone, that the light bent, warped, reached for her and for Cassius.
As far as Cassius was concerned, all of this was shaping up to be the heist of his life. His heart hammered as he inhaled and smelled danger mingling with the smell of dust and old mothballs. He could barely feel his own body past the staticky sensation of adrenaline, and he certainly couldn’t feel it as his unnerved lover reached for his hand where it rested on the banister.
The stairs brought them to a hallway, right across from a door, and from the crack between it and the hardwood spilled all this horrible crimson light. Cassius was across the corridor in a stride, but Rhea clamped a hand around his wrist. “Cash—Cassius, this doesn’t feel right. Something’s not—”
“What, you’re gonna sprout a moral compass right here? Right now?” His face, awash in red light and anger, looked like the gargoyle on the roof of the Scarville Chapel. He tore her hand off his and slammed the door open, all thought of subtlety left at the foot of the stairs.
At first, the light was so blinding that Rhea couldn’t see what lay beyond the door, but as her eyes adjusted, she wished they hadn’t. She wished she were Oedipus, eyeless in her agony, for what she saw was too terrible to see.
This had been the fat, happy man’s room, once; that much was made apparent by the luxurious four-poster occupying much of the space. But the man was no longer fat, nor happy, and it appeared this was no longer his room, but the garnet’s.
Emaciated, his face locked in a cry of utter anguish, the man was held to his ruined mattress by the garnet, which stuck out from amongst his splintered ribs like crystalized viscera. It seemed to have grown roots that had slithered into him, following the paths set out by his veins, before bursting through his skin, through his palms and his eye sockets, his feet and his mouth. The roots had continued growing, snaking up the bed’s posters and down onto the floor, embedding themselves in the very foundations of the house. And with all the damned, hellish light, it was impossible to tell what was garnet and what was dried blood. But then, Rhea did not want to know.
She hadn’t realized she was weeping at the sight until Cassius took a step towards the bed and her voice cracked as she tried to yell his name. She swallowed and tried again, louder this time: “Cassius! Please! Please, no, it isn’t worth it!” She was screaming and begging and pleading and crying, praying to a god who clearly couldn’t be real that her love would turn around, scoop her up, and take her away from this nightmare she’d found herself in.
But he didn’t.
Rhea’s throat bled with the force of her scream as Cassius reached out and tried to grab the garnet. Tried and failed because it was the garnet which grabbed him. Sheer panic washed over her as scarlet light spilled out of her lover’s eyes and mouth and bathed the room, as it shredded his skin and seared his bones and lit him up like a neon vacancy sign. His name was on her lips, but it couldn’t fill his ears quite so well as the blood she saw leaking from them, trickling down his neck and pooling in the hollow of his throat.
She could barely see through her tears, but she saw as the roots of the garnet crawled up Cassius’s neck, and she could hear the sickening crack as they turned his head and locked what had been his eyes on her.
And it occurred to her that there was no saving him. There was only saving herself.
Christina Phillips has been fascinated with words since before she could read them. She is a proud hard of hearing woman and, as of the fall of 2022, is a junior studying English literature and creative writing at Texas Christian University. She’s previously been published in Neologism Poetry Journal.