“Pour me another,” said Paul, “Make it a double.” The old barkeep reached for the half-empty bottle of bourbon from the top shelf. The golden liquid flashed beneath the dim lights as he tipped its contents into a Collins glass. No ice. The man had been drinking them that way all night. For hours now he’d been sitting on the hard barstool, unmoving, save to lift the cool glass to his lips. Cash fell on the glossy, grain-swirled hardwood bar top. Followed but a muttered slur of words that as the day went on the bartender had come to understand as meaning “keep the change”.
Paul wet his lips with the liquor in his glass. The tingling sensation that spread across them was satisfying. He followed it up with a gulp. He let it slide slowly down his throat, immersing himself in every last flare of the biting alcohol. Apart from the request for another drink and incomprehensible statement about tipping, he hadn’t spoken a word. The despair in his heart was worn on his sleeve. No one sat near him, no one spoke to him, no one dared. A cloud of gloom hung over him. You could sense it, feel it, almost see it. His was a broken soul. Damaged beyond repair. The alcohol couldn’t fix what was broken but it could ease the sense of loss, the broken-heartedness, the misery. It helped him forget, or at least dulled the thoughts, faded them out to shadowy silhouettes. They became dreamlike, surreal. They were nightmares. But they were watered down, as though memories from childhood and not the terrors that haunted his adult life. Bourbon wouldn’t solve his problems, but it would make them feel more distant with each drop.
His legs were numb. From his toes up to the small of his back, sensation was lost in his lower body. The alcohol was doing its job. Slowly, but it was working. The green vinyl covering of the stool was torn, the thin layer of padding in tatters. The hard, composite wood, flat and uncomfortable, did little to bother the man. His life was in turmoil, this stool could do nothing that could compare with the hardships he’d endured, especially over the last few months. A routine check-up had revealed his wife to have cancer. It was too late. Her days were numbered. They might be able to try chemotherapy, radiation, but it was likely she would be too weak. Their daughter had just celebrated her fifth birthday. She didn’t understand. She needed her mother. He needed her. Raising a little girl on his own, he could do it, but that’s not what he wanted. They had talked, dreamed, about the things they’d do. Disneyworld, zoo trips, soccer games, school plays. There was so much ahead of them. But it was slipping away.
He wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t think about it anymore. He hadn’t wanted to in the first place. That’s why he was here, damn it. The girl was with her grandparents; she been staying with them since Lynn was admitted. Between work and all the time he spent at the hospital, getting Jenna to school, picking her up, taking her to soccer, it was too much. He needed this time now. If he couldn’t drown his sorrows at least he could make it harder for them to affect him. He would keep dumping in the liquor, and they could keep swimming against the current.
He set the highball down on the bar with a dull clatter of glass on wood. A thin amber film coated the bottom. The barkeeper looked at Paul, then at the glass and proceeded to retrieve the top shelf whiskey. He poured the highball full, picked up the bills that were already waiting for him and left the man to his drink. Something needed to be done. There had to be options, means to solving the dilemma. But he could think of none. He took a sip. The burn in his mouth would sear away his problems, that was the only thing of which he could be sure. He would wake up in the morning, head pounding, like it had been split by a mallet. But what would come in the morning would be dealt with then. Right now the alcohol was washing over his brain, eating away at his memory. Those worries and concerns, his young daughter who didn’t understand, his dying wife, they faded away in his mind until all that remained was the here and now. Whiskey, dark oak, smoky air, crackling jukebox speakers, the clatter of pool balls, the subtle thud of darts hitting the board.
Paul opened his eyes. His face was against the bar, drool hung from his lips connecting with a puddle beneath his cheek. He jerked upright, glancing around quickly through tired eyes. The gray haired bartender was nowhere in sight. His glass was full but he was not thirsty. Had he actually fallen asleep? He couldn’t be entirely sure, but they would have probably kicked him out, or at the very least tried to force water and potato chips on him. That hadn’t happened though. He sniffed. The air smelled cleaner than it had. All was quiet. Looking to his left he realized a pair of eyes had been studying him. The man was dressed in a black biker jacket, matching pants and leather boots. He wore a pair of aviators, tinted too darkly to see his eyes through them. Despite that fact that it was evening, or as far as Paul knew night time or even early morning, the sunglasses remained on the man’s face. Is he actually looking at me, Paul wondered. As if the thought had been sounded out loud, the man spoke.
“You look like you’ve seen better days.” The voice was a deep, harmonious sound. Peaceful, almost hypnotic. Paul blinked furiously, shooing away the sleepiness from his eyes. “Better days? Ha. You have no idea.” The man nodded, conceding Paul’s point. The biker ran his fingers through greasy hair. It was black with streaks of white. Though they appeared to be unnatural stripes, the white ran from root to tip. “Everyone has their story my friend. Everyone has a story.” Paul shook his head. He had just forgotten his troubles and now this stranger was bringing them back in violent waves of anguish. “Listen, guy, I’m just trying to forget about those things. You aren’t helping. So thanks, but no thanks. If you would just leave me to my drink, I would much appreciate it.” “Suit yourself,” said the stranger, then adding, “I was only going to make you an offer.”
Paul’s face twisted with a perplexed expression. What could this man offer him? If he wanted to buy him a drink that would be welcomed, but Paul was confident that was not the case. He was just harassing him. Somehow this man knew about his problems. He knew his wife was dying in the hospital. Maybe he was on staff. Maintenance, an orderly, food service? He’d never seen the guy before and with all the time he’d spent at the hospital he was sure he would recognize an employee who had such knowledge of his situation. “How do you know about my wife?” asked Paul. The stranger continued to stare through his dark glasses. “I don’t recall saying such a thing, but since you asked, let’s just say I’m ‘in the know’ about a lot of such things.” Paul gritted his teeth angrily. What did this guy want? “Okay, I’ve had enough. Just spit it out so I can go back to enjoying my drink,” said Paul, banging his fist on the bar. “Very well, I’ve simply stopped in to offer you a proposal. You can take it or leave it, but I’m only going to offer it once. You don’t get to take time to decide. You don’t get to ask how or why. You only accept or decline. Are we clear on the rules?”
Paul shook his head, throwing his arms in the air, but he remained silent. Whether it was the alcohol or the ridiculousness of the man’s prose, he felt as though he was trapped in his own mind, wading through quicksand that presented itself as possibilities. What could he have to offer that mattered so much, or hinged on these insane guidelines as this did? But Paul’s curiosity was piqued. “All right, let’s hear it.” “The terms are agreeable then?” “Yes, yes, fine, whatever, I don’t see what you could possibly offer me, but go for it.”
“My proposition is simple, however, do not forget the rules, don’t ask, not how, not why. I would offer you the life of your wife, her health restored. In exchange I simply require it be traded for another life, nothing for you to be concerned with, I will make the choice and see that it is done accordingly. All you’ll have to do is return to the hospital to see your wife rise from her bed, a picture of health. Then you can go about your life as though nothing ever happened, this whole ordeal will be behind you. Now then, remembering my rules, do you accept or decline?”
Paul’s eyes were widened, by surprise, maybe, more likely from the terror of such a thing being said. His thoughts raced but they were like a mouse on wheel. He couldn’t get off the track, it spun under his feet as he struggled to push forward. He sat in silence, the dark man waiting patiently beside him. He did not speak despite the fact that Paul was dumbstruck and unable to respond. He could have Lynn back, healthy, cancer-free. They could take their daughter on family vacations, watch her cutely act out her role in the school plays, witness her finesse on the soccer field. Maybe even add another child to their little crew. He didn’t have to feel guilty. The stranger was going to take care of everything…
“Deal,” said Paul suddenly as he snatched up his glass from the bar. The man in black was off his stool and in the doorway. Paul looked over his shoulder at the man as he exited the building. His pants and jacketed appeared to be more of a flowing cloak, darker of blackness than the most lightless night. He could no longer see the man’s face, he had pulled a hood over his head, but he noticed a reddish glow, eyes? Demonic spheres appeared to be floating inside the shadowy hood. A flash of silver, a curve of metal caught the light as the man disappeared into the darkness outside. Paul faced forward and tipped his glass up for a drink but nothing came out. It was as if the content had become solid. He turned it upside down but still it stayed. Holding it over his head, he looked at the solidified whiskey. “What the hell…” It fell out into his face, as liquid as water.
Paul gasped as he sat up. He was soaking wet. The bartender stood in front of him with an empty cup in his hand. “What the hell!” exclaimed Paul. “You fell asleep on the bar, was dreamin’ something awful, moanin’ and talkin’. I shook you a bunch, yelled at you, but you wouldn’t wake up. So I had to do somethin’, threw this cup of water on your head.” Paul tasted the liquid that was running down his face. Water? It was. He noticed his highball was still full sitting on the bar at his right hand. A dream. A terrible dream. That’s what the bartender said. He better get home. It was too much. “Sorry about that,” said Paul, standing. He opened his wallet and pulled out a stack of bills. Grabbing a twenty he tossed it on the bar. “Keep it all, sorry again.”
As he walked toward the door stuffing the change back into his wallet a picture fell out and to the floor. He stopped and bent down, picking up the photograph. It was their family portrait from Christmas. God, Lynn had looked so pretty and full of life then. And how happy was Jenna? And even Paul himself looked like a different person. This wasn’t his fault. This wasn’t his wife’s fault. They would get through. One way or another. He needed to go home, get some good sleep. He would pick up his daughter in the morning and go to the hospital. He wasn’t going to let this test ruin his life, his daughter’s life, his wife’s life, even if she didn’t have a lot of time left. He would make that time the best it could be. He’d had his last drink. From now on, he was going to do what was best. He would be the man Lynn expected, the father Jenna deserved. Paul got in his car, started it up and drove home.
He had pancakes, with chocolate chips, on the table when Jenna came prancing down the stairs. She smiled when she saw her father standing by the table, when she saw her favorite breakfast treat awaiting her. “Good morning, Daddy,” she said cheerily. The reality of what her mother was going through was not fully grasped by her young mind, all the better for her, thought Paul. “Eat up, hun, then we will go see Mommy.” “Okay,” Jenna chirped as she hopped up onto the chair. Lynn had to pull through. It was impossible but she needed to, she needed to be around to see their baby grow up. Paul swallowed with difficulty, the thought of his wife’s inevitable demise too sickening in his throat. His heart twisted as he watched his, Lynn’s, only child eating her pancakes. She looked like her mother. It would be as difficult a task to face her every day after Lynn’s passing as much as it would be a cherished reminder of the woman he’d lost. The love of his life. But it would be enough. It would have to be. His daughter would be all he had left and he wouldn’t let her down.
At the hospital the nurse greeted Paul with an unexpected smile. “Good morning, Mr. Glenn, Lynn is up waiting for you.” Curious phrasing, thought Paul, ‘Up and waiting’. On a good day Lynn barely managed to sit propped up with pillows. Paul smiled at the nurse and led Jenna to her mother’s room. He opened the door, guiding Jenna in first, to find Lynn sitting upright in the bed, no pillows supporting her. Her skin that had been paling more with each day had a fresh glow of warm color beneath the surface. The darkened circles that had been suffocating her eyes were lightened, nearly vanished. She smiled at him.
“You look…” Paul paused, trying to find the appropriate words, “Well.” “I feel well,” replied Lynn, “I feel very, very well. The doctor was surprised when he stopped in this morning. He is awaiting the final test results but he said,” Lynn raised her hands in the air, showing her crossed fingers, “the cancer has gone into remission.” Now it was Paul who wore the appearance of a ghost. “Remission? How, when?” Lynn could only smile, shaking her head lightly. Paul rushed to her side, his feet free of the quicksand of surprise that had held him in place. He wrapped his daughter and wife in a big, family hug. “This is unbelievable,” he murmured.
Though the doctor had encouraged Lynn to stay one more night, just in case something were to happen, she was all too eager to get home. After weeks in that bed, confined to the small, sterile room, she couldn’t stand one more night if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Reluctantly the doctor wished her well. She would have many, many visits for tests ahead of her but that would be nothing compared to what she had just been through. The darkness of night that had grown around her, enclosing her, trapping her in its increasingly bitter cold clutches had suddenly been lifted. She wanted to run, while there was light to see, she wanted to get as far away as she could, as fast as possible.
As she stepped out the hospital lobby door, into the fresh air and sunlight, she paused breathing deeply, closing her eyes, allowing the glowing heat to wash over her skin. Paul stood beside her, Jenna squeezed her hand. Lynn was alive, but it was more, it was as though she’d been born again. It wasn’t the same life she had returned to, it was a fresh start. “Let’s go home,” she said, a new sense of happiness in her voice. Though everyone may deserve a second chance, very few people are rewarded with one that they are able to capitalize on, and that was not a mistake Lynn would make. Nor Paul. It was as much a second chance for him as it was for his wife; they would start over, together, a family, a whole.
At home, Lynn walked into the house glancing around, “These walls will need painted.” “Whatever you want.” “Can I paint my room, too?” squealed Jenna. “Of course,” said Lynn, “We can change anything we want. It is a clean slate.” Paul smiled, he couldn’t help himself. The relief he felt was more than just a weight lifted from his broken back, it was exactly as Lynn had said. A clean slate. The canvas they’d spent years painting had become dirtied, stained, torn. They’d been given a new, blank piece to work with, and they had a full spectrum of colors at their disposal. It would be more beautiful than before. They’d lived through tragedy, survived, somehow, and now they had clear vision as to what the portrait should look like. It took reaching the ultimate low, and rising from that pit, to find the muse. But find it they did, and now they would get to work.
Lynn was up before the morning light spilled over the horizon. When Paul slipped from under the covers to find her missing, terror seized him. Had it all been but a dream? Was she really healed, home from the hospital, or was she still there, confined to the bed, sick, dying? He stormed down the stairs as fast as his feet would carry him. The kitchen light was on but the room was empty. Surely he hadn’t dreamed the tableau that was yesterday. Surely…
The door to the front porch creaked open. Lynn stepped through the threshold, a gallon of paint in each hand, a plastic bag filled with painting supplies around her wrist. “What the matter?” she questioned of Paul, “You look like you’ve had a nightmare.” “I thought I had,” he replied, walking to her, kissing her forehead as he wrapped her in an embrace. She leaned her head on his shoulder. “It’s okay, I really am home.” “I’ll make breakfast, you go ahead and start painting.” “Bacon and eggs,” smiled Lynn. Paul nodded with a grin.
Normally the smell of paint would be bothersome, but as noxious as the scent was, it was but another sign of the change in their life, the new beginning they were making. When breakfast was ready, Lynn went upstairs to get Jenna while Paul plated the food. He poured two mugs of coffee, no cream or sugar for his wife. She’d always had her coffee bleached and sweetened to the taste of a dessert, but she had insisted this time around she would experience everything for what it was, starting with her coffee. In a plastic cup he mixed up chocolate milk for Jenna. She wasn’t usually allowed such things at breakfast but it seemed a trivial matter at this point. Paul set the plates on the table, steam trailing into the air from the hot bacon and warm scrambled eggs.
“PAUL! Get up here! Now!” The shrill, chilling tone of his wife’s cry sent his pulse racing. He charged up the staircase faster than he had descended it earlier in the morning. “What’s wrong?” he called as he rounded the corner, stepped through the doorway into Jenna’s room. No answer was necessary. The sallow skin of his daughter told him everything he needed to know. Paul dropped to his knees beside his wife. “She’s barely breathing,” screeched Lynn between sobs. “Go start the car, I’ll bring her down.”
The doctor came into the room wearing a telling frown. Lynn’s tear-streaked face was red, puffy. Paul’s skin was pallid. “What’s wrong with her?” asked Paul. The doctor sighed. “It’s hard to say at this point. So far all the tests have been negative, but we have plenty more to run. Just hang in there. Hopefully we will know soon.” He turned away, leaving the sorrowful couple alone in the room. “Why…” said Lynn, rhetorically more than anything else. Paul shook his head. “I’ve just survived cancer, and now our daughter had been stricken. What kind of world is this? How can this happen? She is so young. They cancer should have taken me. Left her in peace to live her life and grow old.”
Paul’s blood froze as it pumped through his body. A pit in his stomach opened, swallowing his heart. The dream he’d had sitting at the bar flashed in his mind with vivid clarity. But it was a dream. Still, he felt faint. Lucky to be sitting, his head became light as his blood flow weakened. He became dizzy, slouched in his chair. Through her tears, Lynn did not notice her husband’s plight. What was his dream? It played before his eyes. Her life would be restored to health. He had only to go see her at the hospital. And it was so. Upon his arrival she was healed. The only stipulation… Her life for the life of another. No. It couldn’t be. Had he traded his wife’s life for that of his daughter? What kind of monster would offer such a deal? It was to be the life of his choosing, but how could he grant Paul the life of his wife, only to turn around and take that of his daughter? Impossible. It was only a dream, a dream, yet it seemed real, now, when faced with the actuality of the circumstance. Still, it was impossible to believe.
Paul rose weakly from his seat. Lynn glance at him, her watery eyes beholding him as a blur. “Stay here. I have to go see something.” “Where are you going?” asked Lynn. “I just have to go, I’ll be back shortly.” “You’re just going to leave me here, leave when your daughter’s life is in danger?” “I have to. I’m sorry.” Paul walked from the room, ignoring the further pleas of his disconsolate wife. He really was sorry. He really had to go.
When Paul pulled into the parking lot, beheld the bar he had spent the evening in only a couple nights before, it seemed more like years since he’d been to the place. He stepped from the car, closing the door with a hollow thud. He walked slowly toward the door of the bar, apprehensive, at best, terrified, more likely. The hinges chirped as he pushed open the door. He glanced around the smoky room, hopeful of seeing the man in black. His shoulders slouched and he hung his head when his quest turned up empty. Foolish. It was foolish of him to think that it was anything more than a dream. Yet, somehow, he felt compelled. It felt as though it had been real. Perhaps it was just the tide of the circumstances that continually washed over him, making his feel as though everything was new, each wave, fresh, when it was all actually from the same vast ocean, the very same water that had been splashing the shore for thousands of years.
He sat down on a stool at the bar. “Double shot of bourbon, no ice,” Paul said when the girl behind the bar walked over to him. It felt like a completely different place than the last time he’d sat here. Despite the smoke, the place seemed lighter, less dreary, less run down. Still, he had to hold out hope… Hope for what, he thought to himself. Hope that my dream was real? Hope that I actually traded the life of my daughter for the life of my wife? He let out a long breath of air as the bartender put the filled glass in front of him. Paul tossed a twenty on the counter, grabbed the glass, tipped his head as he pulled it to his lips. A couple chugs and it was gone. He dropped the glass back to the bar with an empty clang. “Another?” Paul nodded.
Whether it was minutes or hours, Paul sat, drowning his hopes, dreams. Suffocating, smothering his sorrows. It was all he could do. No dream would save him. No genie with wishes would come to his rescue. If it hadn’t been his doing, it was some cruel trick played by nature. To nearly steal his wife from him, only to restore her health and take the vitality from his little girl. It was treacherous. A dirty, deceitful scheme. A cruelty of insidious nature. What had he done to deserve such? What had his wife or daughter done? Nothing. Plain and simple. It was a case of bad things happening to good people. It was foul. Paul drank his bourbon by the glass, cursing god, nature, life, death. It was all the same.
He had been too deep into his glass of alcohol to notice when the older fellow sat next to him. Too lost in his hatred to respond when the man greeted him casually. Too angered, depressed, enraged, saddened to acknowledge his presence. Until the hand touched his arm. The cold chill that it sent shooting through his body was too eerie to ignore, too jolting to go unnoticed. Paul turned his head, following the thin fingers up the arm, to the body, and finally meeting the gentleman’s eyes. Through the haze of smoke, the blur of alcohol, the red of eye, he beheld the man with recognition.
“I hear you are unhappy with our deal?” The man in black. “Our deal…” stammered Paul, “OUR DEAL?” Paul shook his head, attempting to shake the fog from his mind. He blinked, but still the man sat beside him. “It was a simple deal. I would restore the health of your wife, and select another to take her place in sickness and ultimately in death.” “You tricked me.” “I did nothing of the sort. It was clearly stated.” Paul shook his head violently. He slurred, “No, you gave me my wife all right. You gave her back her health. At the expense of my DAUGHTER! How could you, how could you be so deceiving?” The older man smiled. “I have not deceived you in the least. Your expectation was not on point, but that is not my problem. When you make deals with the devil you should always remember that there is fire. You may get burned.” “But you knew. You knew! All along, you knew exactly whose life you would take. You didn’t tell me.” The man in black smiled slightly, cautiously. “Whether I did or did not know, is irrelevant. The deal was laid out plainly and you accepted.”
The bartender brought Paul another bourbon. He breathed deeply through his nose, restoring breath to breathless lungs. He snatched the glass from the bar, sipping at first, stewing angrily. He tossed his head and guzzled it down. “Why?” “My dear friend, Why what?” “Why would you take a little girl like that? Why would you take MY little girl?” “Oh, is it not obvious? I cannot take life from one family to give it to another. How would that be fair in the least? No, I can only take life from a member of the family which I am giving life to.” “Then take mine.” “Take yours? Is that an offer?” “It is.” “But you are clearly drunk,” stated the old man, “You are not of sound mind.” “OH, oh, do I need to be of sound mind? Was I of sound mind when you approached me originally? Do you expect me to be of sound mind, now, as you steal the life from my daughter?” “Very well.” “Deal?” asked Paul. “It is a deal, but it will be immediate. When you sew spoiled seeds you grow rotten fruit.” “Fine.”
“You gotta go, mister,” said the bartender, “I can’t serve you anymore.” Paul glanced around. There was no man in black. There was only him, an empty glass, and the girl behind the bar, chattering at him. What was she saying? “You’re all paid up, but you have to go.” “I’ll go,” said Paul with a hint of irritation, “I’ll go right now.” Where had he gone, the old man? Had it been a dream, did the alcohol affect him so, now, for the second time, that he would have the same hallucinations? Doubtful. He would go. His wife was waiting. Probably. It had been hours. Perhaps she waited for him no more. Perhaps his daughter had passed. If that had happened, and he was here, at the bar, Lynn would never forgive him. He didn’t need or want her forgiveness if that was the case. He deserved nothing more than her hatred.
The parking lot lamp flickered as Paul exited the bar. Walking to his car it flashed then went dark. He scowled, squinting. With wobbling legs, unsteady steps, he shuffled toward his car. He stumbled, but caught himself. When he arrived at his car he fumbled for his keys. Turning out his pockets they fell to the ground. He cursed under his breath as he stooped to pick them up. As he rose a voice hissed behind him. “Gimme yer money and keys. Now!” Paul spun on his heels, clumsily given his condition, and far more slowly than he felt like he was moving. A man stood before him, his hand glinted as the object he held captured a fragment of light coming from the shaded windows of the bar. “Screw off, man. You have no idea what I’ve-” With a flash, the glinting object darted out, striking him in the abdomen. Paul felt a sharp pain but it quickly dissipated. He felt only a warmth spreading across his stomach, down his legs. He fell back against the car, slid down the side until he was sitting on the ground, leaning against the sheet metal. The dark man hunched down, rifled through Paul’s pockets. “I told you man, I told you.” He pulled out Paul’s wallet and took his keys that had fallen to the ground.
The man grabbed Paul, pulled him a short distance from the car and laid his motionless body down on the bare ground. Paul blinked, a warm smile across his lips. There was no pain, only warmth. The man leaned over him. “When you sow spoiled seeds, my friend. Peace be with you.” He jumped into the car, fired it up, and drove off. Paul looked up at the stars. Peace, it was with him.