For those of you who have not visited frequently, I have been writing a short story in serial format. I’ve decided to piece it all together here in one spot for ease of reading in one sitting. Hope you enjoy! Please feel free to comment and/or criticize.
The first drop landed right on top of his head. His closely cropped gray hair allowed him to know when it was raining just before most others knew. He slid his hand along his scalp and kept walking briskly along, hoping to make it home before the skies really opened up. He had almost forgotten what it felt like to be this anxious, but here it was. His heart pumped a little harder and his stomach did a little jump whenever he thought of what was coming next. She was waiting for him – well, not really waiting. She was there. That was enough.
The door closed a little too loudly behind him when he walked in. Excitable now, his heart practically thumped out of his chest. She was downstairs. He knew this with a certainty. It was quiet, but she was there. Had she fallen asleep?
His cheap black shoes landed heavily on each wooden step. The creaks echoed against the cinder block walls, reminding him how far his body had deteriorated. The door squealed open and he saw her there just as he had left her. Her hair was matted from sweat and her clothes soaked through. She had struggled, surely. But he had tied the knots well. Her chest heaved up and down. She was asleep, or passed out. He checked the ropes – thick and strong.
He pulled out the small leather pouch from his coat, set it on the small table in the corner and unrolled it. The knives caught the weak light from the table lamp. He hated this part, but it was necessary. She would understand. They all would.
A sudden lurching from the bed and he knew she was waking up, or coming to. It was important that she was awake for the next part. He picked up the short knife, ran his finger along the blade and slowly stepped toward her. Her eyes were open now and he could see the hate. He could almost feel it radiating from her. Her eyes were red. Not the whites, but her irises. They were a fire red. He had never understood why hate burned like that every time he had to do this, but there it was. He had somehow calmed himself. This wasn’t the first time, after all. There would be blood, of course. Screaming, perhaps. And death. But he knew he had to do it. There was nothing more important than what he was doing right here and now.
The hate never left her eyes. Not when he cut into her, not when he turned for the long knife… not until he was done.
She rose from the bed. The sheets were bunched up from a restless night. She stepped out of the door into the night air, the city blinking beneath her. She had awoken after he left, but before the sun started brightening the horizon. She turned and looked at her reflection in the large glass windows that went all the way from the ceiling to the floor. She looked pale, but felt good – better than she had in a long time. She turned, climbed onto the balcony railing, stretched her arms out on either side to shape her body like a tormented crucifix and…
She woke up.
Stupid dream. She hated heights and hated the thought of falling even more. Thank God she woke up again before her subconscious went all vertigo on her. She pulled herself out from other the comforter and shuffled her way to the bathroom. She was wearing her usual sleeping uniform for this time of year – a t-shirt, sweat pants and socks. Comfort before vanity. Besides, she hadn’t shared her bed with anyone for quite a while now.
The reflection in the mirror was less than she expected. Her sandy blond hair was in perfect “bedhead” formation and her eyes looked puffy. Did anyone look good when they first woke up? She showered and sat down to check her email. Nope. Nothing. Typical. Seemed like ever since she had moved here, her social life had gone backward instead of forward. Bright lights, big city. Yeah, whatever.
She never heard him. Just felt a brutal pain that made the world go phosphorous white and then slowly faded into semi-focus. The world tilted and she dropped to the floor. Strangely, she didn’t feel terrified – just very, very angry. Then everything went red…
You are not alone.
It was a whisper. But somehow it had brought back consciousness. And a dull pain along the middle of her chest.
You are not alone.
And again, the whisper. Who was there? There was a gentleness in the voice, but it was not familiar. It wasn’t fatherly, but there was a kindness in it.
You are not alone.
Her eyes flew open. There was little light in the room, so there was no sudden flash of pain in her head. No, the pain was deeper than that. And sharp. It was in her chest. She was hurt and hurt badly, but… she was not alarmed. There was no reason for this calm, but there it was, anyway.
His face hovered above. Not malevolent. Short cropped gray hair, blue eyes. Wait… didn’t he? Then it flooded back – through all of this, through the pain and the blood (yes, she remembered the blood now) and her screams – she never saw fury or anger or pleasure on the face that now lingered over her. It was only a grim determination, as if he had a job to do – a duty to perform. Was she dead?
“Welcome,” he said.
Welcome to where? Shouldn’t she be angry or terrified or… shouldn’t she feel something? But there was only calm. And questions.
“Who are you?” she asked feebly, her throat felt thick and the pain was very acute now.
“You are not the first,” he said, ignoring her question. “And you will not be the last. How do you feel?”
It struck her at that moment that she had absolutely no idea how she felt. She was in pain, yes, but that was simple nerve response. “I hurt.”
“Yes, that will pass.” He turned from her to the small table. She saw the knives laying on the leather pouch. They were clean – almost pristine. “But how do you feel?”
There was only one answer. “I don’t know.”
“Good.” Then he rolled the knives into their pouch, dimmed the small table lamp and said, “Get some sleep, now.”
When she woke up, there were no ties on her hands. But there were questions. So many questions.
She heard the stairs creaking as he returned. A heavy form filled the doorway. His face was still placid. Who was he?
He sat down on a folding chair that somehow held his weight. “I imagine you have questions. But I may not have answers for you. You should know that before you start asking me.”
Where was she? Who was he? Why was she here? What did he do to her? What is going on??
“I am a collector.” He had obviously seen all the questions racing across her face. “That is my duty – to collect.”
Collect? She had seen movies about psychopaths, had read books about horrible men like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, watched TV shows about the psychology of serial murderers. Was she going to become part of his collection? But she didn’t feel threatened. Or angry. Or afraid. Or anything.
“You are simply where you end up, eventually.” There was a simple finality to that statement. Not harsh, not firm… just final.
She finally managed to speak. “What happened?”
This is how it always goes, he thought. They all want to know the specifics, as if that would change anything.
“I don’t know.” Definitely not the answer she expected. Her eyes took in the particulars of the room as her mind tried wrapping around and unwrapping itself from the situation. The room was spartan, to say the least: a table with a small lamp, the bed with a thin mattress, gray cinder block walls.
He did not respond. She looked down at the scar on her chest…
What was that all about? And the knives? And why did she feel so level-headed despite everything that had happened – but what had happened?
“As I said, I am a collector.” His obfuscation would be infuriating if she didn’t feel so peaceful.
“I don’t… understand…” she could not resist sleeping again. Dreaming again.
Her head swam as she sat up. The room tilted precariously for a moment before settling in the horizontal. She had dreamt, that was certain. But this time, there was nothing she could recall or remember. Maybe her subconscious was hiding something from her. She slowly, carefully climbed the stairs. He sat at the kitchen table, facing away from her. “You’ve made your way this far,” he said not kindly, and not unkindly. “You must be hungry.”
She sat to his right, facing him. There was a plate of cold meats and cheeses set in front of her – and a glass of water. She ate slowly as he watched. She swallowed a bite and looked up at him. “You never answered me. Am I dead?”
He looked straight ahead. “As I said, there may be questions I will not be able to answer.”
She went back to the food, occasionally glancing at him as he stared out the window at… something. The rain had stopped. It was the light gray atmosphere that follows a long rain – the smell of life, of home. “There are things you need to discover on your own.”
“I can’t feel.” It came blurting out. She would have been embarrassed if she could.
“I know,” he said, in a tone more gentle and comforting than even her father or mother had mustered at her most frightened as a child. “Neither can I.”
Something suddenly fell into place in her thoughts. “You didn’t bring me here.”
He shook his head. “I am only a collector.”
“Then who?” It was then that she made a startling realization. It was something that should have overwhelmed her, should have made her curl up in the fetal position and wail. She had no memory of anything that happened before she woke up here. Nothing.
“No memories in there.” Dear God, it was like he was inside her head. Was he?
“I’m empty. There are no memories, yes. But… there’s nothing else, either. No fear, no hate, no joy.” It was as alien as anything she had ever experienced, she guessed.
He stood up, picked up her plate and glass and walked to the sink. He quickly rinsed off the remains of her meal and set the plate and glass on the counter. He never seemed to tell her what she needed to know.
“What did you do to me?” She asked clinically, unemotionally.
He turned and faced her. “I told you. I am a collector.”
“Yes, but you said you did not collect me. You did not bring me here.” It was at that moment that her hands drifted to the scar on her chest. And slowly – slowly, she began to see.
Where do the passions lie? Where do emotions reside? Everyone knows that there are chemical and neurological reactions that combine to create the physical manifestations of emotion. But where do they come from? What makes them such an inseparable part of you – a part of who you are – a guide for where you will go? What could possibly store all those possibilities and keep them so close to you?
“You collect… souls?” It sounded laughable, even as she said it. So gothic. So horror movie cliche’. But she knew. Somehow, she could actually feel this truth.
“You have a very strong sense of who you are,” he said. “That will help.”
Obviously there was more to discover. More to know.
He walked over to her and held out his hand. “Take a walk with me.”
They stepped out into the air. It was a soft gray that surrounded them and muffled their voices as they followed the sidewalk. She asked questions. He answered or did not answer.
Had he gone through this? No. He was not like her – like them. She and they were made in His image. He was merely a servant. An angel? Perhaps. You always have such quaint names for us, he said. No wings, no halo. Just a collector. That’s all. He could do this Himself, you know. This just seems to make it easier for you, for now.
What happens next? I don’t know. There are many doors left to open and she has to decide which ones to take. Will I feel again? Oh, yes. Most assuredly. But there is a journey ahead before that happens.
Why? You have to observe yourself outside yourself. Live your life again as a watcher and understand it. Accept your life or deny it. That’s the choice that makes the difference. That is all I know.
How long? Time is only an organizational construct, it means nothing when you are outside it.
Heaven or hell? That’s the consequence. He already knows the choice you will make, but you have to make it anyway. That is the way it always is.
They came to a wrought iron gate. A cemetery? No. But you have to go inside.
She opened the door, looked back and smiled, and walked inside. As the rain began falling again, he turned and walked home. It had been particularly difficult this time. He had lied again about his ability to feel. His soul was firmly in place. Had been for centuries. His curse was the deep connection he felt with people he would never know and could never know, and the pain he was required to inflict on them. Over and over. Eternally.
It was hell.