© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo
By Christopher Opyr
Kyle sank his head into his hands breathing in the gravity of that which was to come. He looked back at the path that had brought him here, to this incredulous point, and he pondered how he had ever let himself come so far.
Yes, for Charlotte. Soon there would be order again, and his daughter would be returned. He lifted his head from his hands and met Anita’s gaze. He trembled contemplating his fate and sought an answer in her eyes.
She nodded, a silent affirmation that Death would lay its hands upon him. In that moment, Kyle accepted his fate, though after a longing glance to the discarded remnants of his cigarettes, he wished he had one last smoke – one last calming of the nerves before his time came to an end.
“Will it be quick?” he asked.
So be it. What else should he have expected? He waited in that silence, so much more terrible than the baying of the dogs and the howling of the wind that had preceded it. He waited for the inevitable, and he pondered what would happen to his daughter.
How would she return? Would she suffer or would she just be made whole? Would she see that which came to claim him and would it haunt her? Or would he die before she saw life once more? He so wanted to see her before he died.
“When she’s here,” he started, pausing and thinking better of his words. “When she’s alive once more, I need you to be sure she gets to her mother. You haven’t lost the address?”
“No, I have it.” She paused then, holding something back. Did she want to tell him goodbye and how she wished there was another way, or was she holding back her anger for what he had made her do. Kyle would never know. “She’ll see her mother, again,” Anita continued.
“Good.” Kyle glanced away not wanting to see the pity in Anita’s eyes – a pity that he did not deserve – or worse, the hate that he did deserve. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper – one of those refrigerator magnet to-do lists – and handed it over to Anita.
“You’ve done your part. Your answer is here.”
Anita glanced at the paper and smiled, though her eyes bore only sadness. Kyle had done wrong forcing her hand, and he knew that no matter what she said.
After the doctors informed him of the cancer riddling his lungs, Kyle’s hesitance had gradually vanished. Before, when Anita had warned him of the line that they could not cross, he had known that it was because she could not bear his death on her hands. Once that sentence had been handed down, however, he could no longer accept her position. If death had chosen him, he’d rather have at it already and let his daughter know life. To perish without making that barter when he could have set the order right, that seemed a waste of life on a cosmic scale.
Anita had not agreed, so he had taken Jonesy. With her husband long in the grave, her corgi was the dearest thing left to her and the only bargaining chip that Kyle could leverage. He regretted that it had come to that, to taking her dog. He was not a man of violence or coercion, but Anita had been unwilling to see sense. Even with his death only a matter of time as the cancer spread, she still insisted that his daughter’s resurrection was untenable.
Though he regretted the way he had forced her hand, or having had to force it at all, Kyle did not feel a deep sympathy for Anita herself – his daughter came first, after all, and his life seemed already forfeit. Instead a deep loss clung to him, grieving for the destruction of the bond that they had formed. When he had come to her and forced her hand, he had seen the life break behind those glassy eyes. At that moment all compassion she had held for Kyle had ended.
Of course there is no compassion left in the world, is there?
Kyle ripped himself from his reverie. Anita looked at him, the crumpled note in her hand.
“Your apartment? The one to which I have a spare key in case of emergency?”
“Yeah, that’s the place. I didn’t really have an option on many places to keep a dog. I didn’t want him to get hurt or stolen.”
“You’re a piece of work.”
The silence returned between them and Kyle looked across the cemetery to the gate as the iron pickets began to rattle and the doors strained against their chain.
“Time?” he asked.
Kyle watched the dark roll in from that gate, fallen leaves riding it and tumbling before it like the foam on a wave crashing to shore. It spread up the hill past tombstone after tombstone, rattling among the roots of the trees and the low bushes, and toppling flowers left for loved ones long gone. The dark wave swept over a nearby vase, sending it crashing down and tearing the pink petals from the still fresh daisies that it had held. Those petals swirled and roiled in the tumultuous tide of encroaching dark, until they blew past caught on a new eddie and whisked away like the smoke of his cigarettes.
What did you say when you knew death had come? What were you to do then? Fuck all, he thought. Ain’t shit left to do about nothing. He laughed struck by the absurdity of the profanity and the poor grammar that would constitute his last thoughts. Then the shadow hand reached from the dark and plunged itself into his chest.
He writhed as the pain tore through him, an ambush of agony. It clawed at his flesh and burned at his insides. He tried to scream but another shadow hand choked him, shoving itself down his throat. The thing tasted of damp earth and chalk and he gagged upon its grit. His breath stolen from him and the pain searing through him, Kyle prayed for an end to come.
Then another hand, and another, and another, rose from the shadow tide and gripped and clawed him and pulled at him, clutching to him at random. As the shock overloaded his system his mind blotted out the pain leaving only the imbalance of it all – the randomness of the pressure. Those hands groped without order, and suddenly Kyle found himself shifting and squirming and tearing at his own self trying to balance the pain and touch, to provide some symmetry to the utter anarchy of the thing that tore at him.
Yet no matter how much he clawed and scratched, no matter how he rolled and punched and ripped at himself, he could provide no balance and find no peace. The sensation erupted into madness and he could bear no more. He could feel himself dying and he welcomed it.
That’s when he felt that other sensation, something familiar. Tiny fingers plucked at the hair of one wrist, their pull soft and tender, a slow and soothing repetition. He did not try to balance it. He did not try to even out the sensation or to resist it. Kyle welcomed it even more than he had death a moment prior.
A soft exhalation of air sounded through the vacuous night, followed by a steadying rhythm as the breathing slowed and found its pattern. A damp sweat broke out on his shoulder as a warmth pressed down against it. Charlotte curled into her father’s arms.
No, he thought. She shouldn’t be here for this. They can’t have her, not her, too!
He opened his eyes against the pain, and struggled to his knees, clutching Charlotte tightly to his chest as he tried to rise. He had to get his daughter to Anita.
Only as he made to move, he felt the shadow hands retreat. They did not accept him. He had been found wanting. One after the other they withdrew from him plummeting back into the shadow tide. He didn’t need to see it to know it. As they vacated a sense of peace had returned to him and his soul mended with every departure.
Yet, a greater terror flooded over him. A life for a life. There was no other way to balance the scales. His daughter slept peacefully in his arms tugging upon the hairs of his wrist, but if she lived, and if he lived, then there was only one other possibility.
“Please,” he said. “Take me. Not her.”
Anita sagged into herself, resting against a tombstone. “You’ll give Jonesy a good home?” she asked. “I left instructions by my usual seat at group.”
She had known. She had known from the moment he asked this of her, and yet she had never told him. She knew that death would reject him and take her instead, that his life so tenuous at best would not balance the scales. He tried to say something, anything, but no words came. Of course, as always, Anita understood.
“There was always a chance of this with you so close to death’s door. Of course you’ll have to stop that habit now. You’ll have to fight.”
Kyle nodded, watching helplessly as the shadows hands lunged from the tide and bore into Anita. She shrieked as the onslaught bombarded her and collapsed to her hands and knees. Again and again those shadow hands dug into her, the pallor fleeing from her face as her remaining years vanished in mere moments.
“She’s waking,” she said, struggling to get out the words. Then her strength gave, her fight snuffed out. She writhed and screamed and kicked against the inescapable grasp of Death’s shadow.
Kyle looked down then and noticed for the first time his daughter’s face, smooth and soft and still so full of innocence. Beads of sweat dripped from her hair, soaked from the nighttime sweats that had always stolen over her in her sleep. She squirmed, seeking comfort against his chest, and as she did her eyes fluttered open for the briefest of moments – those beautiful green eyes, so full of joy and wonder. He could not let the horror of this night be the first thing her new life witnessed.
Kyle cast Anita one last desperate glance. She sunk against the earth, a desiccated husk, a nightmare version of her former self. Her lips dried and cracked and her skin shriveled and hardened like the leathery remnants that had clung to his daughter’s bones. All the while she screamed and struggled weighted down by that shadow-thing.
There was nothing that Kyle could do for her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, then rose to his feet and ran from the cemetery. Her screams echoed behind him as he shimmied through the hole in the fence, all the while clutching his daughter close and shielding her, praying that she would have no memory of this night.
He would not be so lucky. He’d have to return to his promise now. He’d have to fight to live, to be there for Charlotte, and yet he knew that part of him had died in that cemetery with Anita. For every joy that Charlotte experienced, he’d know the sacrifice that he’d made to make that possible. He had killed Anita. He had exchanged her life for his daughter’s life and the part of that exchange that would haunt him, however, was not that he had made that sacrifice, but in knowing that in hindsight, had he known it would have been Anita asked to die in the barter, he would have made the same decision. Even there beside the shadow of Death, asking it to take him instead of her, Kyle had known it. He hadn’t wanted it to take him. No matter what mask he’d worn, he’d been relieved when it claimed Anita. He’d live watching his daughter grow up, fighting against the cancer, and hoping that Charlotte never came to know the darkness of his own soul, the darkness that had granted her new life.
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