It was a quarter to three and the pain never stopped.
I stumble across linoleum to hardwood, from carpet to concrete and the frigid air beyond the overgrown grass does nothing for the pain. I register bare feet on sharp gravel and barren arms free of a jacket, yet my legs keep moving and the pain keeps coming. I look at my watch and it tells me half past four. I laugh until my stomach hurts.
The madness is strong with this one.
Soon a bench comes into view, then a streetlamp and a dusty old bottle hidden behind one of the legs. I stare at that spot, watching as the barren branches creek in the wind, as the lamplight flickers and the leaves scatter across cracked concrete. Above, the sky is a mass of black clouds and feeble glimmers of gas. I walk and then I sit, waiting.
It’s quarter past four when he comes.
He’s quiet, stocky beneath a wool coat, tufts of white hair beneath the edges of a red hunters cap. This time, he holds a cane as a third leg, the gait of his steps off kilter as if one leg has somehow become shorter than the other. Two years and his face has stayed the same. Sunken skin with an ashy tint; dull blue eyes with pinkish whites; a nose that slants to the side and a mouth that sinks in the corners. He lets out a grunt as he sits and the smell of fetid trash wafts like smoke on the wind.
The surprise I feel when he recognizes me is nothing short of a miracle. Hope is a cruel, cruel bitch.
“Let’s see it, then.”
I don’t have to ask what he means. An odd sense of shame forces itself beneath my skin and the pain is soon replaced by an ungodly amount of agitation. It takes a while before I’m able to move. The pain is hard enough, but what’s even worse is my trampled pride. I lift my arm, noticing for the first time in a while the dark, scattered scars, inflamed skin and a single black line, extending from the crook of my elbow to the end of my wrist.
He grabs my arm, his bony fingers pressing so hard I grit my teeth until my jaw aches. He’s quiet for a moment and the dense silence is something familiar. It seems to gather distance, first starting at the ears until it gradually builds, as if it were enveloping your entire person, then the space around you, and further still into the dark. It was one of those silences that suffocated you, forcing its way down your throat, building and building until it settled deep within your chest like a parasite, always feeding. It consumes until the only noise I hear is something similar to that of the white noise you hear when the cable goes out. And then there are two heartbeats, one in my chest and one in my arm, and they keep pounding and pounding so hard that I can feel tears at the corners of my eyes.
It is then that I realize this is what madness must feel like.
He finally lets my arm go, but it is as if his grip has been seared into my skin. The pressure is unbearable, but the skin looks the same; marred and grotesque, but that was usual. I realize then that I’m sweating, which means I’m really fucked.
He speaks then, a guttural rasp that cuts through the silence and grates at my ears in a way that sends unpleasant shivers down my neck.
“He’s angry. You haven’t finished what was asked and this is His consequence.”
My head falls into my hand, the other a deadened sack of flesh. I can feel a third heartbeat, pulsing at the base of my skull and sending stars dancing across the back of my closed eyes. I want to punch him, punch him so hard until my fist breaks his teeth and shoves its way down his throat. I don’t deign to give him an answer, and I guess that doesn’t quite satisfy, because then he’s standing up again with that damn cane and making his way across the grass, and he says the only thing that could have stopped my heart right then and there.
“Do I have to remind you of your bargain, Benjamin? Or should I just get the girl now and save you the trouble?”
And then it’s like the world stops for a moment, me sitting there staring through a cage of my own fingers and all I can see is his eyes; a glossy blue shot with blood and somehow, suddenly, Gabby is there, looking back at me. I’ve moved, if the searing pain in my arm is any indication, and then I’m in front of him, my good hand latched onto his skinny throat and I’m shaking him. Shaking him so hard his stupid red hat falls to the ground and I’m sure that if he were any normal human being he probably would have been dead. But he isn’t, and all I can see is a red haze that leaks its way into my skull and screams words that release an explosion of pain behind my eyes: kill him!
And it’s then, in that moment, I actually believe I might be able to kill someone. The label murderer pales in comparison to what may happen if I don’t provide what’s being demanded of me. And I know that if he had put someone right in front of me, right then and there, I might have been able to fucking do it.
I want to, not just for my sake but for Gabby’s. But I can’t, and the truth of it all sends me to my knees and all I can think is how I sold Gabby’s life like it was something worth selling, as if she were something expendable. And what’s even worse is the part of me that tries to come up with any kind of excuse to lessen the pain, the guilt. It’s a constant voice at the edge of my consciousness, telling me that it was all for her, that it was the only way to save her. The bargain had drawn me like a fucking moth to a flame and I had burned, bringing Gabby right along with me.
“You sick, fucking bastards. That wasn’t part of the deal.”
He speaks again, and it’s almost as if his voice has become softer, and for a second I believe I hear something like pity in his terrible voice.
“The terms are absolute. If He is not given something equal in value, your sister’s life is forfeit. There is nothing that can be done, no matter how much you may want it. He gives you an hour, Benjamin. Do with it what you will.”
And then he’s gone.
It takes me a while to make it to my mother’s house, my feet having become numb hours ago and my arm weighing ten pounds heavier than I last remember. Outside the house is quiet, a predawn haze turning the edifice into a blurry manifestation that almost doesn’t seem real. I go to take the steps but turn at the last second, going around the back and towards the last window on the right. Gabby’s room.
I want to see Mom, but what would I say? Hey Mom! What, its five in the morning? Funny story, but I really need to see Gabby right now. She’s asleep? That’s alright, I just happened to bargain her life in hopes to save it, but it got all fucked up you see, so I don’t really have time to talk! So… sorry!
So fucking sorry.
I let out a sound that resembles something more along the lines of a sob than a laugh before working on the window. It doesn’t take long before I’m able to pop the outdoor screen off, and I’m not that surprised to find her window unlocked. More than once Gabby’s been known to throw open the window on more than one occasion before she goes to bed. She likes the feel of the cool wind on her skin.
The real battle I realize is actually getting through her window, but with a lot of effort on my part I soon find myself in Gabby’s room, back against the floor and dead arm twisted at an odd angle behind my back, and all I can do is stare at the fake, glowing stars on her ceiling and just listen to her breathe.
Tonight she sounds better. The last time I saw her she could hardly take in a single breath, her chest rattling with each push of her lungs as if something had come loose inside. Now it’s only a soft knocking deep in her throat. I roll over, making my way slowly towards her, and when I see her face for the first time I cry, reaching my good hand towards her hair, her brow, her tiny eyes and then her little hands. The oxygen tank hisses almost as if in warning, like a dutiful guard watching over her while she sleeps.
She doesn’t even stir when I reach for her, gathering her tiny frame against my chest, holding her close as if she might disappear into nothing any moment. Mom must have given her something extra to sleep, and I’m grateful. For a while I rock her in my lap, smoothing her hair and speaking in hushed tones until my voice becomes a warbling, raspy mess. I apologize over and over again, as if she could really forgive me.
I don’t leave her until the sun has finally crested over the horizon, when I know my hour is up, and I force myself to not look back because I know that if I do, she really will be gone forever.
This time when I see him sitting on the bench I can only make myself feel so much before I really let myself do something stupid. Hatred seems to be the strongest, squashing all the others under its dirty fucking boot until there’s nothing but a numbness that even it can’t escape. I take my time, slowly making my way as the dawn heats my skin to a feverish temperature and all I can see is Gabby’s face as she sleeps and I know I’m doing the right thing for once in my damn life.
So when I finally reach the end of my journey I don’t speak and I don’t look at him. I force my eyes to my arm, the damned flesh with the black line that seems to dig its way under my skin and into my blood.
“You understand the terms are absolute. In exchange for your sister’s life, you agree to give up something of equal value in return?”
I can’t stop looking at that fucking line. I only nob.
“So be it, then. The terms of this bargain have been fulfilled. In exchange for Gabriel Williams’ life you, Benjamin Williams, have agreed to forfeit yours. He accepts.”
His hand takes its grip on my arm, right where the end of the line meets the crook of my elbow, and first one heart beat goes, and then another and another until all I can feel is a stillness within my chest. And before I fall, squealing and screaming like a gutted pig, all I can think of is Gabby’s breath and her tiny, beating heart, and that if it were up to Him, he would’ve taken the both of us.