Three days ago, the ring in Dag’s pocket had been an engagement ring. Now it was an anchor and a drag. Ignoring the bartender’s glare, he poked unsteadily at the little velvet box through the wool of his jacket and ordered something called a Blooming Salamander, which was made with chartreuse and cost seventeen dollars. He no longer smelled good enough to be at a bar with seventeen-dollar cocktails, but she took his credit card anyway. Perching uneasily on a peacock blue bar stool designed by someone who’d never had to sit on it, he contemplated the black opal in his pocket.
He had asked her (the nameless, the black hole) to point out rings she liked on three occasions, and each time she had shaken her head and said she hated diamonds. They were immoral, plucked from rocky mines by the small hands of children. So he hadn’t gotten her a diamond.
He’d gotten her an opal. An expensive one. Yes, it was on sale, but why would you spend four thousand dollars on a four-thousand-dollar ring if you could get a ten-thousand-dollar ring instead? Maybe the woman he had bought it from wasn’t on the up-and-up, but love would redeem the ring’s criminal provenance.
The jeweler, a friend of a friend, had big glasses and glittering earrings shaped like spiders. She said she would give him a good price if she could count on his discretion, and held the ring out in her palm. When Dag took it, the metal was warm from her hand. The stone, held by four little prongs, was scintillating black, shot through with specks of red and blue and yellow. It was a tiny universe where good things happened to good people.
“No returns,” the jeweler said, smiling.
He said he wouldn’t need to return it and told her his whole giddy plan. Fish tacos at their fish taco place. A matinee at their movie theater. A walk up their hill. The jeweler’s attic studio was bathhouse warm. After he wrote the check, her eyes glittered like her earrings, and she laughed and tucked the ring into his pocket, patting it for safekeeping.
Now the thing weighed down his pocket like congealed pudding in a sack. It emanated dark energy, and if he didn’t get rid of it soon, its noxious energy would shrivel his dick into a morel mushroom. He could not keep it under any circumstances.
He couldn’t get his money back from Spider Earrings. She’d been very clear about that. Also, telling her about the Bad No On The Hill would make his heart plummet out of his asshole and roll off the docks into the Pacific ocean.
If he had any guts he would buy a small drone and fly it into the nearest active volcano caldera. But he didn’t have any guts, he had a disgusting crevasse where his blood-pumping organs should be. Also he really needed the money. For first and last on a new apartment, for one. And for the increasingly baroque bar tabs he’d run up since Tuesday. Also, two days ago he had thrown his phone into a duck pond rather than returning the six missed calls from his mother. So that would be an expense.
After he explained all of this to the thin woman in the yellow leather jacket teetering on the neighboring peacock stool, she invited him to the bathroom. Her name was Mori. Dag laid flat on his back on the cool vintage tile and watched her pull a perfectly symmetrical mushroom from her bra, a fungus with a red cap and white spots. She knelt down beside him and fed it to him as the bouncer banged on the art deco door and yelled that they had to leave. Walking back into the main room, trailed by their surprisingly small and wiry evictor, Dag felt his eyes double in size. Neon lights danced through the bottles behind the bar, glittering like—not jewels, no, fuck all jewels and their curses forever—like the segmented eyes of a carnivorous insect. He grabbed the edge of the bar for a moment. If he could spend enough money drinking enough shining liquid from enough of these bottles, he might be able to prove how actually and completely fucked up he was.
Mori pried his fingers off the bar (the bouncer seemed to assume she had some duty to manage him) and pushed him outside, maybe as a shield against the cold and unfair wind. Dag tried to sit on the sidewalk, but the wiry little bouncer shook his head, hauled him to his feet, and pushed him towards an alleyway. Someone had dumped an overstuffed sofa there that didn’t smell too peed on. Mori flung herself beside him and kissed him perfunctorily. Then she told him about the Glade.
You could get all kinds of shit there, she explained, too-orange lipstick collecting at the corners of her mouth.
“There’s nothing you can haul up that trail that hasn’t been brought up there at least once. And you can’t get fucked over. It’s literally impossible. If you tried it… well you couldn’t try it. That’s the whole point. Once you’re past the arch, anything you give or throw or generally put out into the world will come back to you with exact value.”
She rolled a joint on some gold rolling paper. Not weed though. Something rust-red that smelled like a prehistoric predator. As she lit it, the ground got so cold Dag felt goosebumps prick the skin on his toes. She continued.
“It’s like the opposite of gambling. You can only come out even. That’s where you should sell the ring.”
She was even higher than he was. Unbelievable altitude. But it sounded like the truth.
Her brother was going up there now to trade stocks, she said. He should come.
Twenty minutes later, Dag watched a matte-black electric car pull up to the curb. The driver seemed surprised to see Dag and Mori come out of the alley rather than the bar, but he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he introduced himself as Job and glared at Dag in the rearview mirror for the whole ride out of town and up the mountain.
They shared the backseat of the car with a heap of electronics equipment. Job explained that he used a satellite connection to boost his internet signal into the Glade so he could trade at high speeds.
“If everything in the Glade is even steven, how do you make money off stocks?” Dag said. “Finance is a big game of fuck the little guy and hide the taxes, right? So if no one gets fucked, how does anyone win?”
“I’m a value trader,” Job said, sounding annoyed, and turned on an episode of Warren Buffett’s podcast that made Dag want to stab his eyes out with a free pen from a bank.
Eventually Mori, who seemed bored of staring out the window, ripped open a cardboard box of liquid meal-replacement formula. She swigged it, handed it to Dag, and flipped Job off when he complained that those were his lunches for the month.
There were cars parked on both sides of the road near the trailhead, so they had to walk a quarter of a mile along the asphalt in the dark. Job tried to give Dag a hundred-dollar bill to carry the iridium satellite phone, but Dag laughed at him and went to vomit behind a bush. He wasn’t going to be a mule for some money nerd.
Instead of performing lame manual labor, Dag daydreamed about being hit by a truck careening around a corner. He imagined himself painted on the road like a cartoon character, the ring in his pocket ground into dust.
The trail, when they reached it, was emerald dark and loud with night noises. The hike to the Glade was only a mile, but Dag struggled with even that distance. He’d been fucking reduced. Cold wind assaulted his eyes, which were still twice their usual size.
After a while, Dag started to see red mushrooms on the sides of the trail in perfectly mirrored pairs. The trees became increasingly symmetrical, forking into identical branches, radiating into fractals. The trail stopped winding and became a smooth ramp. Soon, even the rough rocks on the sides of the trails matched each other. It was an inverted funhouse, with everything around him becoming neat and orderly.
Sweat poured down Dag’s face and the moonlight was starting to burn his eyes, so he yanked another mushroom off the side of the trail and swallowed it whole in a mad bid for energy. Staring at the dark dirt hole where the mushroom had been, he suddenly felt uneasy. He glanced across the trail and saw the mushroom’s mirror, lonely and unbalanced in the low light. There was something profane about it, unfinished, and as he started to walk away his skin itched.
“If you don’t even it out you’ll die,” a voice said behind him. He looked around and saw a sallow-skinned woman whose entire body was covered with an oversized tangerine poncho. She looked like someone had stuck a doll head on a traffic cone, and she smelled like old compost. But she didn’t say anything else, and disappeared up the trail.
After a moment, he found himself unable to keep walking until he had gone back and eaten the second mushroom. He was dripping wet when the trail spit him through a granite arch and into the Glade.
The clearing was the size of a baseball diamond. An enormous bonfire in the center of the space cast flickering light that dissipated before it reached the surrounding forest. Dag guessed there were maybe fifty people there—he blinked as their outlines rippled and glowed. A slow-moving woman in red sneakers spread a wool blanket over the ground and unloaded a backpack of gold jewelry. Dag stared at a neat row of rings and thought about vomiting again.
Job tapped Dag on the shoulder and pointed to a smooth rectangle of stone twenty feet away from the fire.
“I’m going to set up my stuff there if you need me. I mean, you shouldn’t need me because you’re theoretically an adult man. But that’s where I’ll be.”
Dag nodded and kept nodding long after Job left to spread a waxy blue tarp on the ground and set up his iridium phone. He stared back at the woman with the jewelry, and like a kid with a loose tooth, slipped his hand into his pocket to fondle the ring box. It didn’t burn him, so he pulled it out and flicked it open. The little metal hinge made a satisfying click.
The opal looked alive. The black velvet around it sucked up all ambient light as it sparkled, enormous and malign. It was making its own electricity now, and the bonfire behind it doubled in size, looming over him, licking flames pulsing in time with his heartbeat.
The stone was going to swallow him, trap his soul inside of it like a genie lamp. So he threw it on the ground and stomped on it with the heel of his boot until it was safe to touch. He hunched over to pick it up, and when he rose back up he was face to face with the sallow-skinned woman. She had shed her orange poncho, and her eyes were now as big and wet as his own.
“You have a dead thing,” she said, and jabbed an accusing finger at the dirty ring in his hand. She had two teeth, one on top and one on the bottom, and they were red with blood from her gums. “I have a dead thing too,” she said, and pulled a carcass from behind her back. It was the body of an animal. Three feet long, skinless and stinking, and Dag felt immediately it was as cursed as the ring.
As the woman approached him, Dag imagined the worms in the soil beneath him fleeing in all directions. There was a little spittle on the corner of her chin and it was red with mingled blood. He felt himself frozen to the ground, planted like a scarecrow as she poked the opal with a grubby finger. Then, she lifted it weightlessly from his hand.
“TRADE!” she shouted, rabid and foaming.
Dag shook his head. No. No trade. It wasn’t fair. The rotting animal would never fit into the little velvet ring box in his pocket. He imagined presenting the red flesh to some landlord as a down payment on a new apartment. He opened his mouth to whisper no trade but his throat locked and his voice stuck.
The woman slipped the ring onto her finger and flung the dead animal on the ground at his feet. A droplet of pink goo landed on his shoelace as she spun and ran towards the stone arch at the edge of the Glade yelling Trade! Trade! Trade! with her finger glittering in the firelight.
The carcass was dead but not still. Insects agitated the stretched pink skin. Flies glittered in the crannies. Dag knew he should go retrieve his ring, dig his boots into the dirt and run her down like a beast in the forest. But he found himself planted. It was a fair trade. This was what the ring was worth. He knew it like he knew what would happen if he held his hand over the burning logs of the bonfire. The rotting bones on the ground were his now. He had earned them, and so he picked up the carcass and hugged it to his chest, breathing in rust and death.
The hilt of a knife stuck out from between the thing’s ribs. Dag grabbed it. It took several tries to free the offal-slicked knife, but finally it came out with a crunch.
The blade was the kind of thing you could buy at a renaissance fair, with swirls of metal where some bushy beard with a chain mail fetish had folded the steel over and over and over. He stared at the knife in the firelight until the whorls started to pulse and beg for blood.
He found Mori doing lines of cocaine off a faded antique hand-mirror with a handle like a swan’s neck. He cradled his carcass like a newborn, and when she saw him she held out the mirror at arm’s length, en garde.
“You said I couldn’t get fucked,” Dag whispered. “You said it was impossible.”
With cautious movements, she licked the mirror like a lollypop and watched the knife vibrate in his hand.
She had lied to him. She had told him nothing bad could happen here. She hadn’t explained things clearly. Everything was too fair. The hunk of dead meat in his hands was exactly what he deserved, and that wasn’t fair at all.
The rotting meat slid wetly out of his arms and he pointed the knife.
“This is not what I deserve!”
She poked the tip of the knife with her mirror.
“Put that down. You remember what I said? Whatever you do here comes back to you.”
He hoped she was right and lunged. This was what he had come for, after all. Resolution.
Moving the blade around was harder than spatchcocking a chicken. At the end of the day, the knife was more pretty than sharp. Still, it took her a few moments to start screaming. When she did, it was an animal noise, something from the brain stem, and Dag saw faces look in their direction. He saw them hesitate as they saw the blood.
After Mori’s voice faded into gurgles it was easier to hear their voices.
He killed her.
No. Don’t take his knife. Let the Glade take care of it.
He lay on the ground and waited for death. He could feel it now. Instinctually. The even trade was coming for him. Soon, basic horrible fairness would release him from feeling and sensation. His heart would stop, or a freak windstorm would crush his skull with a thrown branch, or he would be compelled to eat red-and-white spotted mushrooms until the universe puked him into oblivion.
Dag relaxed when the stars blinked out, because he knew it was starting. For a while, the after-image of the bonfire swirled around behind his eyeballs. The hilt of the knife in his hand was cold for a minute, and then it wasn’t anything. He waited for the feeling of the frigid dirt against his arms to evaporate.
Only nothing happened. The indistinct whispering tortured his ears and his body grew cold on the ground.
“What time is it!” he shouted, and no one answered. His teeth chattered and he felt himself wiggling his toes, trying to keep his own blood going. He willed himself to stay still, to go hypothermic, but his legs rebelled.
Half an hour later, he was forced to accept that he wasn’t dying. He was blind though, and he couldn’t move his hands. When he moved his arms, they flopped like bludgeoned fish, and no effort of his brain could animate them. His hearing was okay, and he pointed himself in the direction of the crackling fire, crawling on his knees and using his arms like canes.
As the warmth of the fire returned blood to his toes and forearms, he started to scream.
He begged the whispering voices to kill him, begged them to pick up the pretty, swirly knife and slit his throat. He imagined how he looked, blind and dead-handed, kneeling by the fire with blood on his useless hands. And he knew, suddenly, that no one would kill him. No one would put him out of his misery. It wouldn’t be fair.
Ella Gale is a writer and comedian in Los Angeles who has published mostly humor in places like McSweeney’s and the Hard Times.