Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Short Story - "Debt Collection"
It’s a common assumption that in the absence of light there are no shadows. As with many common assumptions, this is simply not true.
In the absence of light are the deepest and darkest of shadows, obscured from sight by the darkness itself, thankfully hiding from sight the things which we would prefer to commonly assume don’t exist. Still, despite our very human certainty that there are no terrors that lurk in dark corners and underneath beds, we find ourselves casting second glances toward darkened doorways and wondering if it’s just our imagination that a certain shadow seems darker than it ought to be.
On this wet night, in the alley across from 198B Pindale Drive, one such shadow among the many suddenly deepened. There had been no other sound in the alley except for the rain, but the stillness was now broken by a breath, and now by the striking of a match. The flare died quickly, suffocated in the darkness, but it was replaced by a small glow and a satisfied sigh.
“Finally,” said a gruff voice as a man emerged from the darkness, leaving the shadows behind him a bit lighter than they were before. He drew heavily from his cigarette and peered up at the windows of the impressive townhouse in front of him. There were two of them in there; he could hear their heartbeats. Especially hers.
From his pocket he pulled an unusual timepiece. It was not for telling time, but for subtracting it, and it was nearing zero. Still, he was early enough that he could wait until she was alone. He stamped the remains of his cigarette into the wet gravel under his feet and headed into the street for the all-night convenience store halfway down the block.
He entered behind an expensively dressed man in his late fifties accompanied by a young lady in her twenties equally well dressed and decorated with expensive jewelry. The Shadow Man knew the type; the only thing cosmetic surgery could never erase was the pout of childish petulance that preceded the frequent tantrums feeding a never-sated desire for more. More of what, he’d learned, didn’t seem to matter. He listened with amused interest to the beginning of one of these now.
“Bobby! Stop turning your back on me!” She followed him from the liquor shelf to the counter with his large bottle of whiskey. “Why can’t I go? I don’t see why you have to treat me like a child!” Her bottom lip protruded with practiced ease.
The man she’d called “Bobby” turned to look at her. This was the first time the Shadow Man had fully seen his face. It was ashen and weary, lined thickly with years of heavy drinking and depression.
“Why should I let you go? So you can be one of two women on a boat with ten other men? Stop this nonsense, Shana. Make a fool of yourself if you want to, but quit making one of me!”
In line behind them, the Shadow Man snorted almost sympathetically. This further enraged Bobby.
“Do I know you, buddy?”
Casting a glance down at the faint red glow over Bobby’s heart that only the Shadow Man could see, he replied simply, “Not yet,” and smiled bitterly.
Flustered, Bobby paid quickly and dragged a still whining Shana behind him. The Shadow Man stepped up to the counter.
“Menthols, please. Two packs.”
The clerk grabbed the packs, making small talk. “Man, it’s really comin’ down out there. How come you ain’t drenched? You ain’t got no umbrella wid ya.”
“I guess the rain must’ve missed me,” he said honestly.
He opened his mouth to speak again, words no human ear could understand. The clerk looked dazed for a moment, then responded, “I’m sorry, what’d you say?”
“I just said ‘Thanks.’” He took the packs and walked out. He could have walked out with the cash register if he’d wanted to, but what was the point when you could just as easily make people forget to charge you? Besides, he wouldn’t have any use for cash when he returned Down There.
He stepped back into the rain and lit his first cigarette. The match flickered in the downpour, but no drop would ever touch him. He would never feel the cool rain, a cool drink, nor even the slightest cool breeze during his penance, and he had lifetimes yet to serve. Menthol was as close as he could get to something truly refreshing, and he was still afraid someday He would catch on to it and take even that away.
He heard one heartbeat from the townhouse rising and moving away from the other. It was time.
He quickly finished his cigarette and lit yet another as he walked up to and opened the door to his night’s quarry. The locks fell open under his touch and he shut the door behind him without giving worry to the noise. If he didn’t want to be heard or seen, it was as simple as a thought.
As he walked up the luxuriant stairs, the Shadow Man noticed photographs lining the walls. A curious touch revealed the stories. Here was a daughter who’d left home at 17 swearing she’d never speak to either parent again. She’d returned at 24 a drug addict dying with AIDS and a child so damaged by her mother’s heroin use that she wouldn’t survive her first 2 years.
Another photo showed two boys; one was a son who now sat in prison for the reckless manslaughter of a family while he was driving drunk. The other had moved away years ago and supposedly had a family of his own. No one knew how to reach him and this was how he preferred it.
Finally, there hung at the top of the stairs a photo of a loving husband and devoted wife. It was amazing what miracles of deceit photographers could accomplish with the right lighting. What there might have been of love, he knew with a touch, had dried into something bitter and resentful many years before this picture was even taken.
He continued up the stairs to the bedroom and opened the door, purposefully treading loudly into the room.
Virginia Dawes, 72, sat up in her bed and looked at the intruder appraisingly. "I know why you're here. It's been 50 years exactly; I realized it this morning. Are you Him?" She asked with only a slight tremor of fear in her voice.
"No, but I work for Him."
He pulled out the timepiece and passed it to her. There was a glowing line of letters on the back in a feminine hand.
“That’s my signature. Is this my contract?”
“Yes. I’m here to collect it.”
She nodded slowly and looked toward the bathroom door. "What if he comes out?"
"He'll stay in there until I'm ready for him to come out. No one will know I was here."
"Will it hurt?"
"No," he began, "not the part I do. Afterwards, yes."
Virginia looked away and sighed. "Thank you for being honest."
"Did you get everything you wanted?"
"No," she replied sadly. "But I did get everything I asked for."
"That's usually how it goes. It’s time," he added as the glow of the timepiece faded away at last. The red glow over her heart that marked her as His grew brighter as the Shadow Man placed his hand over it and drew the life from her as easily as the smoke from his cigarette.
It was over very simply. She dropped gently back against her pillow with her eyes closed looking peacefully asleep, though he knew all too well that she would find no peace where she was now. He headed back down the stairs as Mr. Dawes came out of the bathroom to return to bed. He may not even realize that his wife was dead until sometime in the morning.
As he left the townhouse he felt the familiar weight of another timepiece tugging in his pocket that meant there was another soul to collect soon. Then there would be another, then yet another. Sometimes they cried, sometimes they pleaded for an extension to the lives they hated out of fear of what came next. All too often they went easily, thinking that they had already been living in Hell.
They would quickly find they had been so very wrong.
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