In a break from the regularly scheduled programming, I present to you a short story I wrote recently.
I wrote it for a competition over at The Write Practice, and although I didn’t win, it was shortlisted and over the course of many rewrites and with the help of lots of beta reader feedback (thanks guys!) I have gotten the story to a point where I’m happy to share it anyway.
I hope you enjoy it!
The man was there when I woke. Black-clad and angular, he stood by the bed like a dark corner.
“Hi.” I croaked. The man turned to me and I felt the urge to straighten in my seat.
“Hello, little one.” His eyes glowed green, catching the faint light cast by the screen of a beeping hospital machine.
“Your mother is very sick.” His voice was slow, with a rustle like dry leaves.
I nodded. When he stayed quiet, staring, I cast around for something else to say. “Are you a doctor?”
He breathed deeply, turning to my mother where she lay, unmoving. “In a manner of speaking.”
I leaped to my feet. “Can you help her?” I realised I was shaking, my heart pounding. “Dad says that there might be other doctors who can make her better. Are you one of those? Can you help us?”
I was standing by the bedside by then, separated from the man by my sleeping mother and her web of tubes and wires. I gripped the shoulder-high handrail on the bed tight enough to hurt and looked up at the doctor. He had not moved a muscle during my outburst.
“The comfort I provide is usually more,” he paused, placing a long-fingered hand over my mother’s bony fist, “final.”
“Well, great! If you fixed her for good it would be–” My voice cracked and I bowed my head to wipe away tears that had rolled free. I clawed for something powerful to say. “It would be amazing,” I said, slumping. I wished my sister were there. She would have known what to say.
I looked up again and gasped. The man had moved to my side without a sound. His smell washed over me, like stepping into a disused garden shed after a long, wet winter. He placed his hand on my shoulder and kneeled, his head still a half-foot above mine. I was struck by how hairless his cheeks were in comparison to my father’s recent stubble, and the neatness of his eyebrows. They looked like the one-pencil-stroke variety I drew on characters in the margins of my schoolbooks.
“You care a great deal for her.” It was not a question, but I nodded anyway.
The doctor’s eyes bored into mine, like staring into a lit bulb. He studied my face for what felt like days. I held my breath the whole time.
He broke the spell by settling his weight onto his back leg, his hand sliding down to my own. His skin was slick and soft and cool. I clamped down on the beginnings of a shudder. He gripped me with sudden strength and I yelped.
“What would you give,” he said, pulling me forward until my ear was nearly against his mouth, “to have your mother well again?”
He released me and withdrew against the far wall, leaving me reeling on the bare linoleum. My ear burned where his whisper had touched it. The room span around his sharp features.
I wanted badly to get away from this man, or scream for help, but I could not shake the feeling–a certainty in the stone depths of my gut–that if I left my mother’s side something terrible would happen.
Besides, I knew I should not annoy doctors. My father’s painful cap-in-hand politeness had taught me that much. I feared that if I were rude he would refuse to help–and worse, spread word of my bad attitude. I could picture it; a cluster of white coats conferring in a back room. “Don’t bother with the Steiner woman–her son is a spoiled brat.” I swallowed.
I knew he was not asking for a prized action figure, or a precious comic book. He wanted something different, something deeper. I had a sensation like a thousand voices were clamouring in my ears and my nose stung with a prickly heat. Images of my family began to whirl through my mind, unbidden.
My mother, so old-looking with her creased-up eyes and tired smile, stroking my hair. My father picking me up onto his broad shoulders; kicking a ball to me; tucking me in with his big, warm hands. My sister’s laugh; her tears, shed in this very room. Then my stomach twisted and I heard her voice, telling me how much of an idiot I was. My face burning as I glared into my cereal.
The doctor leaned forward, his tongue playing over his thin lips. The image of my sister kept returning, as if his eyes were a fishing line hoisting it out of me, pulling it up until it bobbed on the surface of my mind.
“No.” I breathed.
“Yes.” He hissed, surging forward to tower over me. “She can be malevolent; vindictive; a bully. I see it. You share the same blood. I can take her instead, if you grant her to me. Just say the word.”
I dropped my gaze to the floor, then to the glinting metal of my mother’s bedframe. To have my mother back… The doctor reached down, slid a single finger beneath my chin and raised it until he could lock his eyes on mine once more. I could not resist him, though he used almost no force at all.
He drew more memories into the light of his pale scrutiny. Darla pinching me in church; Darla telling our mother how I had knocked over her vase; Darla, in the dark of the bedroom we shared, trying to convince me that Santa was not real.
Was he dragging them out or was I offering them to him? He was right, I could not say she was the perfect sister. More things floated up. Could I really give her up to make mother well again? A grating voice inside my head whispered “Yesssss…”
“No.” My voice this time. She could be mean, true, but she could also be kind and wise and wonderful. She read me stories; she climbed up to the highest shelves in our kitchen and passed me biscuits; she warned me that only the nerds wore their schoolbags on two shoulders. Mother would never want Darla to get sick instead of her.
“NO!” I screamed and the man pulled his hand away from me as if burned.
I staggered back until I hit the wall. His expression darkened and he seemed to grow, glowering down at me from the ceiling, the dark of his coat sweeping like a black curtain across the room. I shrank, wishing I could melt into the floor.
“Boy,” he said, my lungs thrumming with every word, “If you can not offer me something I want then your mother will be gone by first light. I promise you that.”
I fought the urge to sit on the floor and cry. He could not have Darla. Whatever that might mean, I knew it was nothing good. She was my sister and it was a brother’s duty to protect her. My father had always made that very clear. But I could not let my mother die. The thought put steel in my spine. I only saw one choice.
“What about me?” I said.
He stepped back, cocking his head. His eyes glittered in a way that made the hairs on the back of my neck crackle. His voice was sing-song. “What about you?”
I squeezed my fists tight against the drop of my stomach. “What if you… You took me instead of Darla?”
The doctor grinned, sweeping forward and throwing open his coat. From its depths he produced two tiny hourglasses, sitting them on his ivory palm. He held them up to my face. One was shiny and clean, with a top half full of sand. It glowed brighter than the other, whose more elegant frame had the battered patina of an old penny. There was so little sand remaining in it that I had to squint through the dirty glass to see the faint trickle, dispersing in some breeze I could not feel.
“I will make you a deal, child.” He closed his hand, swallowing the light of the hourglasses. “Your essence is young, vibrant. It is worth far more to me than what is left of your mother.”
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and made it hard to talk. “What do I have to do?”
He smiled. “It is simple. I will give her some of what is yours and take some for my trouble. She will make a miraculous recovery. You will be a hero.”
My breathing caught in my chest and even as my heart leapt I felt the colour drain from my face, into my stomach, swirling down my legs. “Will it hurt?”
“Oh, not just yet.” He chuckled, extending his hand.