Victor watched the ball soar up against the blue-sky backdrop and stepped to his right, positioning himself to catch it. As the ball spiralled toward him, it passed in front of the sun; Victor squinted and shielded his eyes with his hand but lost sight of it. He ducked his head and moved aside; the ball struck the ground beside him and bounced high, its momentum carrying it over the courtyard’s stone fence. He turned in time to see it dip behind the wall and out of sight. “Bugger. So much for that,” he said under his breath. He turned to face Gary. “Sorry about that, Gary. I lost it in the sun.”
Gary seemed unconcerned as he watched the wall. “It’s okay. Just wait a second.” Victor turned back around. There was fierce shriek from the other side, and something like an amplified burp. The football sailed over the wall into the courtyard. “Thank you,” Gary called out. Victor turned to him in surprise. Gary smiled. “The goblins always throw the ball back.”
The kicking back and forth continued for another fifteen minutes, with Victor’s kicking becoming more accurate and consistent. After that, Gary set the ball on the ground, took off his jacket and tossed it onto a rose bush. “All right,” he said. “Now we’ll kick the apples off the tree.”
He and Victor then took turns kicking the football into the branches of the apple tree to see who could knock down the most apples. After a dozen kicks each, and Gary advancing to a thirty-one to two lead on the scoreboard, Victor pleaded for the mercy rule.
The next game involved kicking the ball against the wall and catching it when it rebounded. Once again, Gary was far better at the game than Victor. And so it was with the next four games. Finally, sweaty and with no hope of victory, Victor took a time out and sat under the apple tree. Gary, retaining all the energy of an eleven-year-old despite his sixty-year-old appearance, kept running up and down the courtyard and kicking the ball. He showed Victor his impressions of his favourite football players—and he had a lot of favourite players. Around the courtyard he would run, demonstrating the peculiar running and kicking styles of his heroes, and re-enacting memorable moments from football games he had seen. Victor watched, nodding at Gary’s stories and explanations, and smiling to himself.
The sun made its decent, casting a sweet blush over the lofty clouds drifting away to the north, while the clouds rolling in from the south grew darker, brightened only by frequent flashes of lightning. After sitting through an almost play-by-play, one-man reproduction of the nineteen sixty-six VFL Grand Final, Victor stepped out from under the apple tree. “Hey, Gary,” he said, “I think that’s enough football for me today.”
Gary seemed disappointed but accepted the decision. “Oh, okay.” He looked at the sky. “Twilight soon. The dragon lady.”
“The what?” said Victor.
“Oh, um, that’s what we used to call her—The Dragon Lady. Mrs O’Donnell is her real name.”
“Who’s Mrs O’Donnell?”
Gary made a fist of one hand and then opened it, looking down at it; there was a faint scar across the back of his knuckles. He looked seriously at Victor. “She was my piano teacher. She was very strict.”
Victor examined the sky. “Why do you mention her? You said twilight?”
“Yeah,” said Gary, crouching beside the garden. “Every evening at twilight she appears. The Dragon Lady comes seeking another victim.”
“Yes.” Gary picked a white daisy. “She’s the curse in the last room upstairs.” He twirled the flower between his fingers and stood up.
Victor’s mouth opened but he said nothing. He watched Gary for a minute, and the spinning white petals of the daisy. “So, uh… this dragon lady,” he said, “she’s the only thing left to defeat, and then the curse is broken?”
Gary nodded. “She’ll be here soon.”
Victor’s eyes darted with his every racing thought. “Just one lady,” he whispered. “So close.”
Gary peered at Victor and guessed as to his thoughts. “The curse in the hall is never wrong. An empty picture frame means one more person has to die.”
Victor nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
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