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Descending Up

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In a moment of desperation, Tommy Galo makes a deal he thinks will save his marriage to Erica – only for it to drag him down into damnation. As he wanders through his grief, he faces up to his past mistakes as he comes to terms with his horrifying present. Following Tommy’s death, Erica begins her own investigation to understand what happened and is suddenly confronted with a world no longer familiar to her and that seems to be getting stranger every day. Haunted by choices she believes led to Tommy’s demise; Erica finds herself hunting the man Tommy made a deal with as she vies for atonement. But her digging only exposes her to the real darkness that lurks beneath the surface of this world. Can their shared past, full of love, guide them out of their torment? Or will the divide between them be their ultimate downfall?

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* * *


I saw her for the last time that day.

It had been heavily raining all morning. I felt like a character in a modern Gothic novel. Through the heavy rains, cold, gloomy buildings rose to the leaden sky with narrow streets flowing in-between them. It didn’t feel like morning to me, but the continuation of the previous day.

Maybe it’s all the rain’s fault? I thought.

I stopped in the middle of the street.

It rained as if the sky had broken, and it was pouring all the water it had accumulated, as if trying to stop me, not letting me reach the established place. That November, threatening with frost and its lifelong memorization, was already taking on its winter notes. Even though it was raining heavily, I kept my umbrella closed.

Crowds of people scurried on the sidewalk, not paying attention to where I stood - some trying to get around me, others bumping me with their shoulders or the edges of their open umbrellas. Sometimes, I caught sight of their expressions under the umbrellas, full of worry but also indifference. Hundreds of fates passed me by. Each planning how their day will end whether to see the person they loved, to fall into their beloved armchair alone, or maybe into the fiery embraces of alcohol. The latter probably awaited me today.

I raised my gaze to the sky and closed my eyes to search for a pleasant memory. The rain caressed my face. I forgot everyone around me for a second. The crowded sidewalk, like a river of people, moved past me, bypassing me as if I were a stone opposing the flow.

A few more seconds would pass, my respite would end, and I would have to move on. I realized perfectly well that in a few minutes, my life would change radically, and I could not accept this so easily. I knew perfectly well that nothing would be the same as before and that made my stomach clench because final meetings were always scary.

I moved forward. The first step was without confidence, like searching for the next stair in the dark. Then the next step followed and the next one.

I appeared around the corner of the street, right in front of the window of a bakery, which was beautifully lit with some attractive colors, and the aroma of baking pleasantly struck my sense of smell, which stirred a lot of memories. This place had its charm. It was a beloved place, our place. Now, I had neither the time nor the desire to divert my attention to the lights of this place, because I saw her, and suddenly I stopped.

There she was, just a few steps away from me. She stood as she always did, with her back straight and her head slightly tilted to one side, staring at the candy display case, which glowed warmly despite the rain and the gray color that permeated everything at the beginning of this month. Surely, she was immersed in memories too, which could warm her soul and break her from the gloomy reality. Her umbrella partly covered her face. In other circumstances, I would have run to her. I would have lifted her in my arms and spun her around, as I used to do. Back then, if I had seen her sad face, I would have immediately covered her with hundreds of kisses to see her smile. But now, I was cursing myself because I caused her sad expression.

Oh God, how much I love you.

She felt my presence. I was certain it was so, otherwise how else to explain that she turned her gaze directly to my eyes and froze. Our looks stopped time, and the raindrops stopped in the air, at least it seemed to for me, but I took a few more steps, and the rain resumed its monotonous rhythm. She raised her umbrella as I approached so I could seek cover from the rain. We stood like that for a while, without saying a word. People walked around us as if they understood that it was an important moment, and we should not be disturbed.

I broke the silence, looking at the candy display case. “Our showcase with sweets.”

“Let’s skip this part,” Erica said harshly, paused, and then continued. “Are you sure?”

I bowed my head without answering. What could I tell her? Of course, I wasn’t sure about anything. She tried to hide the tears that flooded her eyes but failed.

“Are you sure?” she repeated.

“I’m not sure,” I answered honestly. “But I do not know what else to do. It’s hard for me. Our house is so big now that you are gone, and I can’t stay there anymore.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“South. Somewhere warm,” I said. “Do you want to go with me? We could start again from the beginning.”

“No,” she said. “I left everything for you, once.”

I took a deep breath. “Will you ever be able to forgive me?”

“I don’t know. I still need time.”

“If this is a lesson…”

“I don’t think you could teach yourself a lesson,” she interrupted.

“I understand the seriousness of my mistake. You know how many things appeared lately and how hard it was for us to get over them.”

“Many things?” She was indignant. “Only one thing came up. Now you’re just running away.”

I glanced around at the case full of sweets, the street, and the people, then looked back at her.

“Yes, I’m running,” I admitted. “I am running away from all my past mistakes. I want to start everything from the beginning, somewhere else, because I hate myself. Everything here reminds me of the past. I hate myself because we must worry about tomorrow. I can’t provide a decent living for us. I can’t offer you anything.”

“When did I ask for anything?”

“Now you say so, but in years, we will blame each other for ruining each other’s dreams, for what we have, our living conditions, and what we could have achieved. What will tell our children someday?”

She clenched her little fist and hit me in the chest.

“Erica, look –” I tried to touch her shoulder, but she pushed my hand away.

“Please don’t.”

I kept looking into her tear-filled eyes. She stood on tiptoe and kissed me on the cheek, then turned around and left. I reached out but stopped. I stayed with my hand outstretched in the rain.

I lowered my hand.

Probably, loved died in this way. Just a dry kiss, cold hands, and a turned look. I closed my eyes and looked up at the sky once more. I could follow her now, stop her, tell her how much I love her, try to explain once again, as I had often done, try to tell her something else, it didn’t matter what, just to stop her, but the reasons for the decision came to the surface again, and I decided that I would let her go. Time would arrange things, all in their place, and if it was written from above, that she was the one with whom I would share my entire life, then so be it. So, brain, what do we do? I wondered, but I did not receive an answer.

I watched her until she disappeared around the corner.

People continued to pass by, without any suspicion of what was going on in my heart. I didn’t fully appreciate the destruction of my inner world, I didn’t feel the magnitude of that inner apocalypse, I only knew one: nothing will be the same.

Now, I would give absolutely everything to be able to make her happy. I would give everything.

Even the soul.

It was still raining. Only the raindrops that lingered on my face were witnesses to my last meeting with Erica. Once they reached the ground, no one would know what we talked about or what happened.

* * *

The bags were ready and waiting by the door, arranged one on top of the other, and over them was a coat. I was in the living room armchair, looking out over the deserted house. But it was not deserted in the direct sense, because all the furniture was in its place, but deserted in the absence of a certain person. Ever since Erica left, that comfort and warmth that made this place our “nest” had disappeared. Now, after I had packed my things, everything around seems strange, as if we had never lived here.

We rented this duplex four years ago. We had been creating many memories in this place, and we were attached to it. The mistress of the house – Mrs. Emilia McQuoid, with her round face and dimpled chin – was a kind woman, with whom we found common ground, and she liked us. Often, when the rent was late, she waited for the money for as long as we needed. She was very sad when she found out that Erica had left and that I would be leaving, too. She had gotten used to us. Probably the old woman was worried that the next tenants would be difficult, and she was trying to convince us to stay.

Mrs. McQuoid would show up any minute.

I looked at my watch and then thought that she might not come today. However, what does it matter? She would simply come tomorrow morning. The last payment would be paid, I would listen to the last sentences she said, where she would try to convince me to stay once more. Then, she would wish me good luck and success in everything.

During our time in the duplex, we became good friends with her. On occasion, Mrs. McQuoid invited us to her house across the street where she prepared the tastiest poppy cakes, according to an old recipe, and boiled a special tea made from natural ingredients. Of course, we understood her need for communication, and we accepted the invitations and supported the conversations. But today, we would have a special discussion, but not a pleasant one. The last night in this place – full of memories – would follow. The last night during which I would certainly not sleep.

The last time I had such feelings was the day I left my parents’ house when I went to university. I had spent the night before memorizing my room, the posters on the wall of artists, the table where I did my homework, and the closet. I had the feeling that I had betrayed that place with my departure. Now, I had the same feeling of betrayal. I betrayed everything - our duplex, our belongings, our traditions. I betrayed Erica.

But a hope burned in my heart, that still she would be able to understand me, to accept me, to forgive me, and then, possibly, but only possibly, I would be able to restore at least something of our relationship.

I opened a bottle of whiskey and poured two fingers. I shook the glass, looking at its contents in the light. Ever since Erica left, I promised myself I would not drink anymore, and looking at it now, I wondered if it is not a mistake to start again. In my time, when I started, I could not stop, and I do not want to go down so low again. I sipped and exhaled, then coughed. After that, I leaned my elbows on the table and continued to drink with smaller sips. The soothing heat drained through my esophagus and sat in my stomach.

I had probably better dilute it, I thought.

I took a bottle of Coca-Cola from the fridge, from which I poured into the glass the equivalent of the contents that were already there. Yes, that is better, I thought sipping. Less risk of getting drunk.

I sat and sipped my glass, thinking about what I was doing now and what I would do next. Perhaps I should invent something unusual, something clever, to fool fate.

A wave of melancholy came over me. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have the opportunity to go on vacation somewhere, or on a trip, I couldn’t build a family, I didn’t have a car, I couldn’t make presents, and I couldn’t keep my loved one with me, nor did she need all this. This feeling became almost unbearable, an enormous shame overwhelmed me, and I felt guilty and angry with myself.

I pressed my glass to my forehead and closed my eyes.

The doorbell interrupted the silence.

I looked at the clock on the wall and realized that it has been an hour and I must have fallen asleep.

The doorbell rang again.

My first thought was that it must be Mrs. McQuoid. She came a little later than she said. I got up from the chair, hid the bottle back in the closet, and took the glass to the kitchen. I would not want her to see me drinking alone. I walked to the door, thinking about what explanations I would give her for her questions. Nevertheless, when I opened the door, I was greeted by an old man.

He was tall and thin, with long gray hair that fell over his shoulders under his top hat. He was dressed in a black coat, with gold buttons on his chest, whose collar stood high, and in his gloved hands he held a bent cane with a silver handle. This person looked as if he had penetrated through time straight from the 19th century. I would have been amazed on one of the usual days but considering that the past few days were the Halloween party, I assumed that the old man was bored at his age, and decided to put on his old-fashioned clothes, probably copying them from someone famous, but I could not guess whom. He had a domineering, cold look that seemed calculating. Like he was measuring the value of everything he saw.

“Good evening,” he said in a cold, iron voice. “I’m Emilia’s partner.”

The old man paused, and I needed that pause to take in what he was saying. Mrs. McQuoid never told me about any partner, and even more, I never saw anyone come to visit her. As far as I knew, she only spoke about her husband. She continued to be alone even now, many years after his death. However, on the other hand, who knows, maybe someone still managed with a more special insistence, to melt her heart. After all, it is none of my business.

“I’m sure she told you about me,” added the old man.

“No,” I said incredulously.

The old man exhaled in disappointment and lowered his head a little, then said, “I’m sorry I was the one who divulged this secret.” He seemed shy, as if he felt guilty about it, then he raised his head and looked me in the eyes. “I’m here to tell you that she can’t come to meet you, for which, of course, she apologizes. The thing is, she had surgery today.”

“Is everything okay with her?” I asked sincerely worried.

“Yes, yes. It is nothing serious; she will be home in a couple of days.”

“She never mentioned any issues.”

“It’s nothing serious, and she didn’t suspect what was inside.”

The old man paused, probably waiting for some questions from me, but I just sat and watched him.

“If it had been under other circumstances,” said the old man, “I would not bother you, but she told me it was the last night you were here.”

“Yes,” I said late.

There was a long pause, which the old man broke.

“She empowered me to take the last payment from you. So, you can give me the money for rent,” he said in the same cold, calm voice.

The old man’s words seemed true enough. No one else knew about my departure. I had only informed Mrs. McQuoid, and if she told him, it meant that she trusted this man and wanted him to take the house. Nevertheless, the old man noticed the long pauses in our conversation and added,

“Of course, you can call her for confirmation. She might be able to answer the phone; she is no longer in the intensive care unit.”

“No, there’s no need,” I said, opening the door wider. “Please come in.”

My unexpected guest entered. I marveled once more at his style of dress as I closed the door behind him, and then waved him into the living room.

The old man entered slowly as if he had all the time in the universe at his disposal. With each step, each movement, it became clear that he belonged to the aristocracy, otherwise how to explain his attitude and movements? He walked slowly near the wall with the shelving unit, which contained shelves of books and souvenirs — Erica refused to take any when she left — and sat gracefully in one of the armchairs.

His clothes were in obvious contradiction with the modern style, but, strangely enough, they appeared to be very well kept. The polished shoes shone like a dark mirror, and the reflective glow made them look beautiful. On the ring finger of his left hand - above the glove - was a large ring with a human skull carved on it. With both hands, he leaned on his dark cane, which he placed in front of him. He crossed his legs as if preparing for a long conversation, but at the same time, he took off neither his coat nor his hat nor his gloves, which was rather strange, but, well, I didn’t give these little things too much thought. It was late, and the old man probably just wanted to get the final payment and leave.

What surprised me most was that his clothes were dry, with not a single raindrop on them, even though it was pouring out all day. There was something about him that was unapproachable, like an animal higher in the food chain.

There was a faint smile on his face; the stranger seemed to be enjoying something. The deep wrinkles under his eyes revealed his true age, he was certainly in his eighties. His skin was pale and looked worn, typical of cigarette smokers who inhaled cigarettes for a large part of their life. The eyes with which he looked at me, green, radiant, like the eyes of a cat, yet also had a glassy look, like the look of a dead man. It was quite strange the fact that he did not blink, and sat still, leaving the impression that time had stopped.

I was beginning to feel uncomfortable; or rather, I did not feel at ease around him. An inexplicable alarm crept into me. Why is this man making me feel this way? I wondered.

“Just a moment,” I said, figuring that the old man was waiting.

I turned and took the envelope, which I had already prepared, from the shelf and handed it to him.

This old man was quite suspicious. I, again, ignored the thought. He knew about my departure and today’s payment. And besides, it was not such a significant amount for someone to go through the effort for such a fraud. I reminded myself of this as the old man took the envelope – without paying any attention to it – and put it in the inside pocket of his coat, then looked me in the eye again, as if waiting for something else.

“I wouldn’t mind some tea,” said the stranger after a long pause. Then, he added, “I’d like to talk to you.”

I was surprised by the old man’s arrogance. He had seemed a solid, if distant person when I first opened the door to him, but now he behaved impertinently. This was not a request, I realized, and understood that I would have to wait until he was ready to leave to be alone again. It was a very inopportune time to serve tea with a stranger. I wanted him to leave, but I did not refuse him.

“Sure,” I answered.

I slipped into the kitchen where I put the kettle on to boil. I wasted time puttering around, clinking mugs, and, after the kettle whistled, prepared two cups of tea. I reappeared with the tea and placed it on the coffee table.

“I have nothing for tea,” I said, shrugging.

“It’s okay, don’t worry. The process matters. Discussions go better when a hot drink accompanies them. A strong drink works, too.”

The old man laughed at his joke.

I sat down in the other chair. The guest slowly took the cup of tea, in some graceful manner, tasted it, and then turned his gaze to me again.

“Emilia and I have known each other for a long time,” he began. “Enough, to have trust, to be able to reveal ourselves.”

Again, I caught myself thinking that what this man was saying sounded incredible because I cannot imagine Mrs. McQuoid, that good old-fashioned and kind-hearted old woman, so devoted to her deceased husband, being in a relationship with him. Yes, he looks good for his years, he is nicely dressed, he is probably rich too, but…

“She often talks about you and Erica, and I have to admit, she has said only good things. She also told me that you and Erica are no longer together.”

Erica’s name had a lightning effect on me, felt it course through and numb my mind. I could not find a quick answer.

“Mrs. McQuoid misunderstood,” I reproached, with such a tone that would have made the old man understand that Erica was taboo. “And I don’t think it’s her business.”

“Yes, I understand,” The guest continued with the same calm voice. “Please don’t judge her, she always wished you the best and cared for you.”

I looked at him questioningly. Then I opened my mouth, but I remained like that, without saying a word.

“So? Are you together?” the old man asked again.

“It’s just a break,” I replied dissatisfied.

“Well,” the man said. “Then I assume that you have found another house with better, or more comfortable, conditions. That is why you are leaving?”

“No,” I said, shifting in my seat. “Neither Erica nor I could stay here alone, that’s all. We were always happy with this place, and we got along perfectly with it.”

“Sure, I understand.” The old man takes another sip of tea, still speaking with the same calm tone, which I was already beginning to find irritating. “Emilia didn’t think you had found a new place but didn’t want to pry. I thought I’d asked you the reason myself.”

I did not answer anything.

“Can I ask you where you’re going?” Another question followed from the old man.

“Is this an interrogation?” I sketched a smile, which was not kind at all.

The old man smiled, bringing the cup to his lips, and taking a sip. After, he kept his eyes on the cup.

“You know? Looking at you, I can’t help but note that we are alike in some way.”

I wondered how we might be alike; I didn’t see it.

“I don’t mean the features,” said the old man, as if he had read my thoughts. “Just like you, I thought it is much better somewhere than where I am now. But over the years, I’ve come to understand how good it is at home.”

“Not all the people are the same,” I said. “Maybe sometimes, to understand that it’s good at home, you need to be among strangers.”

“You are right,” agreed the old man. “But what I wanted to tell you is that financial problems,” he paused, raised his index finger to highlight the importance of the following words, “can be solved.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said, leaning back and looking away from the man.

What does this old man understand? He came at the wrong time, now he was talking about inappropriate topics. No one could understand what was happening inside me and the reasons for my decisions, but even if they did, probably not everyone would understand. I did not need lessons on these topics. If the old man continued like this, I would have to ask him to leave. It was my last night here, but it was still my house.

“Is that why you’re leaving?”

“In part, I suppose,” I said, surprising myself with my answer.

“How much money would you need to stay?”

I shot him a puzzled look. This late visit, the situation with Mrs. McQuoid, and our discussion, all together, were starting to seem more and more strange.

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name,” I said instead of answering.

The old man laughed, saying, “I haven’t introduced myself yet. Call me Sebastian. Sebastian Shaw.”

“Mr. Shaw, I find our conversation very strange.”

“Oh, I apologize if I’m rushing. Time moves faster the older you get. But I want you not to be bothered by our discussion, there is nothing strange in the fact that an old man wants to help a lost young man.” Sebastian paused and lowered his gaze to his cup. “You know? I don’t have much time on earth anymore, and I understand all the bad things I did, and now, I want to fix some mistakes, to leave good in my wake. Do you know what I mean? I could give you a chance to change your life.”

I sat forward in my chair without taking my eyes off Sebastian. Now, our discussion makes sense. What proposal did he want to make to me? Maybe a service? Ideally, he needed an heir.

“Throughout my life, I managed to accumulate a great fortune, which I will not be able to take with me in the other world, and I will not have time to spend here.”

“Why help me?”

“I heard from Emilia about your situation, and it breaks my heart to know that the love between you and Erica was destroyed because of financial problems.”

So that is it, Mrs. McQuoid told him everything. In fact, she didn’t know enough details either, but she probably guessed, or how could this old man know?

“So, how much money do you need to stay?” asked Sebastian “Or, what do you need to stay? What amount could solve all your problems and make you happy?”

Despite the man’s reasoning, his offer remained quite suspicious. I was trying to parse the hidden meaning in his words. After all, nothing was for free.

I was looking at him, how he sat with a smile on his face and enjoying tea. What should I answer? That I would need a good job? A car? Or my own house?

Maybe he was a mentally ill person who enjoyed making jokes about needy young people.

“Thank you, but I don’t think you can give me what I need,” I said kindly. “I would be very grateful if you would allow me to spend my last night in peace in this house.”

“I understand,” said Sebastian. Then he added, “I’ll leave you to your evening.”

Sebastian put the already empty cup on the table next to the chair and slowly got up. I got up too and watched the old man’s movements. He took two steps, then stopped, slowly turned, and said, “My offer stands. Think about it. I would love to help you.”

Sebastian reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a paper bag, and placed it on the table.

“If that’s enough for you to stay for another day,” he said. “Then you can expect me back at the same time tomorrow. If you are here, I’ll make you another proposal. If not, you can keep this package, I will not ask for it back.”

After these words, Sebastian smiled once more, grabbed the bottom of his hat with two fingers – signed goodbye - and headed for the door with an elegant gait. I stood still, not moving towards the bag, and watched him leave. The old man opened the door and disappeared into the night like a bat, leaving me alone in the deserted house.

For a while, I stared at the front door, contemplating this strange meeting in my mind, and then looked back at the package on the table. It was a paper bag, a generic one from the stores.

After a few seconds, I opened it and immediately put it back on the table, sitting down in the armchair, keeping the bag in my gaze.

Who carries that much cash in a bag? I thought.

What did he want to achieve with this gesture? To intrigue me? Then he succeeded. I looked at the door and wondered if he was still close enough to catch. I wondered if maybe he was waiting for me to do just that.

I shifted my gaze back to the money. It was a huge amount. My thoughts started to run ahead; I could certainly solve many problems with it. But who could offer so much money for free? No, there is nothing free. No one will ever give anything for free - this rule I learned a long time ago.

Thoughts mingled and passed from one to the other without being finished. I stayed in the armchair for a while, then approached the closet, opened it, and took out the bottle of whiskey I had started earlier, brought my glass, and refilled it. In the light, the liquor in the bottle flickered like the most precious and magical of all elixirs.

The old man had been gone for a few minutes, but his delicate, interesting scent still hung in the air. I took a deep, noisy breath, and then took a sip of whiskey.

Time passed, without feeling how the seconds turn into minutes and the minutes into hours. My conversation with Sebastian gradually began to take the feeling of an unreal event, as if it were part of a hallucination. It seemed to me that I was the victim of a trick, of such a well-thought-out prank, the ultimate goal of which remained unclear to me.

“Tomorrow at the same time,” I repeated the old man’s words aloud.

Yet, as I looked at the bag of cash, I already knew the decision was made, even though I was still opposed. A day lost was worth listening to the offer. For sure, the old man was rich, and he would propose something interesting. My heart was pounding.

I would accept his offer.

I continued to sit in the armchair for a good part of the night, until the empty bottle went to the floor, hitting its twin sister.

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