The Client

“I want you to kill me.”

The woman who had walked into the office was young, in her twenties. Her dark hair was tied back so as to direct attention to her face. Sharp green eyes contrasted with soft features. There was no hint of jest or irony in her appearance.

CJ pulled her feet off the desk and sat forward to better project her own seriousness to this potential client.

“What?”

“I said, I want you to kill me.” She still seemed to mean it.

CJ shook her head. “That’s not what I do.”

“I’ll pay a lot of money.”

“To kill you.”

“A. Lot. Of money.”

Years after her parents and several therapists tried to break her of the habit, she still chewed the inside of her lip when she was uncomfortable. The pain, even the hint of blood, seemed to calm her down a bit. “Why? Why do you want someone to kill you?”

“Not someone. You.”

“Okay, me.” That raised all sorts of other questions, but CJ decided to stick to this one for now. “Why do you want me to kill you? Why do you want to be killed?”

“That’s not really your concern.”

“The hell it isn’t. If you’re asking me to kill you, I need to know why.”

“So you’ll do it?”

“No! I mean, that’s not the point. Why?” Other than what she was saying, this woman seemed perfectly sane. There was nothing off about her demeanor, her voice, the way she looked at CJ when she talked. But maybe all of that didn’t really tell the story.

The woman sighed. “Very well. I am in a tremendous amount of pain.”

Try as she might, CJ couldn’t hide the skepticism from her face. “I’m not a doctor, but…”

“Not right now. During the day, it recedes. But at night, it becomes intolerable. I can’t take it anymore. So I want you to kill me.”

“Have you seen…”

“Yes. Several doctors. All of them at the top of their fields. None can help me.”

“So why not just kill yourself? Why hire me to do it?”

“I can’t.” The finality of those two words said not to pursue this question, but CJ still wondered.

CJ continued to worry her lip. Throughout the conversation, the woman had maintained a rather stoic exterior. But she had glimpsed something underneath, however briefly. The woman was desperate. None of this made sense to CJ. And she had no intention of going through with the proposal, but there was more to all of this.

“Here.” The woman tossed an envelope on the desk.

“I’m not taking…”

“Consider it payment for your time. If you come to the address on the card inside, you’ll be paid more.” She turned around and walked out the door with the same matter-of-factness with which she had entered.

CJ picked up the envelope. It was thick and filled with hundred dollar bills. There was a card inside with an address on one side and a time and date on the other. 9 p.m. tonight. If she went, the woman might get the wrong idea. But if she didn’t go, who knows what would happen. Maybe she should call the police. Or a hospital. But she wouldn’t do that. It would not do to get a reputation of bringing in authority figures on cases.

9 o’clock. That gave her seven or eight hours to do a little research. Maybe she could find out who she was dealing with. But she wouldn’t kill someone, even if was someone willing to pay her for it.

The Hunter

Something was moving in the house; he could hear it. His tail twitched slightly as he lay on the couch and kept his eyes closed. The sound was quiet. Perhaps it was a mouse, but he didn’t think so. The last mouse had been weeks ago; since then they had stayed away. His reputation had gotten around.

But if it wasn’t a mouse, what could it be? It was an unusual noise, yet it was also vaguely familiar. Rather than the chittering and scurrying of a small animal, it was slow, deliberate, and very soft. The fur on his back rose slightly as a chill filled the air near him. He remained motionless, allowing only one eye to crack open just a little bit.

At first, everything seemed normal, nothing out of place. Then he caught sight of a shadow nearby that couldn’t be coming from any object in the room. It did not belong. For several minutes, he watched it as it remained in one place.

When it finally began to float away, he pounced. The shadow thing moved faster than he expected, and he misjudged the jump. He managed to rake it with one paw before crashing into the lamp on the small table next to the couch. The cry of pain from the creature was high-pitched and loud. The wail didn’t frighten him, though; he simply wanted to silence it all the more.

Looking around the room from where he had landed, he couldn’t see the shadow any longer. However, he could still hear it. The wailing had stopped, but it was still moving. He dropped quietly to the floor and began silently stalking it. Up the stairs and into the unlit bedroom he went, all the while being careful not to make a sound.

He couldn’t separate it from the background darkness in the room, but he wasn’t looking for it anyway. He could feel the cold and follow it easily. His own black coat gave him the same advantage. The feeling led him to the corner.

He leapt, grabbing the shadow with this teeth this time. It tasted vile. Definitely not food, but also not welcome. It thrashed and cried out again, breaking free from his bite. It sped down the stairs, but he followed immediately, refusing to let it out of his range once more.

Back into the living room, he jumped onto the coffee table, knocking coasters and the television remote off. He sprang toward the shadow, which tried to evade his attack. It failed. Trapped in his bite, he dragged it down, ripping into his front claws. On the floor, he rolled, now using his front paws to hang on to it and his back claws to continue tearing.

The wailing was worse this time, but he ignored it. When it finally stopped struggling, he gave it a few more kicks and let it go. The thing didn’t move again, and after a few moments, it dissolved without leaving any trace. It was gone, he knew, though he still wasn’t sure what it had been. At least the intruder had been eliminated.

Tired from the hunt, he jumped back onto the couch, turned twice to make sure nothing else was present, and curled up to sleep. When the bigger ones returned, one of them – the louder of the two – seemed upset about the lamp and coasters, but he was too sleepy to get up and pretend to be bothered by its scolding.

Selfish

The key turned in the lock, and the door swung open. Bruised and battered, she walked into the dark apartment and collapsed on the couch. Months of planning and work had finally paid off tonight, and now she was emotionally and physically spent.

Her only concern now was what had happened to her partner. She had lost track of him in all the chaos, but the whole building had collapsed, so he must have succeeded. They had agreed to meet at this safe house, so all she could do was wait.

Her phone beeped, a video message. His face appeared as soon as she tapped on it.

“Hey you. We’re about to get started, and I wanted to send this out before it was too late. My hope is that I’m there to stop you from seeing this.” He forced a chuckle.

“We both now this is a one-way trip. If you are seeing this, it means you made it out alive. I’m glad. And I’m sorry I didn’t.” He took a deep breath.

“My real hope is that I say something to you now, before we begin. I want to tell you we don’t have to do this. I know we both want these bastards to pay, but I don’t think it’s worth our lives anymore. These last few months, I’ve gotten to know you, and I would rather live with you than die to kill them.

“I know how selfish that is. We started all of this to make sure they can’t do to anyone else what they did to us. You want revenge. You deserve revenge. I did too, back then. But now… I don’t know how to ask you to give it up.

“See? Selfish. Probably selfish to send you this message. But if I don’t manage to be selfish enough to say something now, I’m at least selfish enough to want you to know that I love you. Don’t worry, I know you don’t feel the same. But at least think of me fondly.”

The message ended. She sat in the dark with tears streaming down her face. Then she threw the phone against the wall hard enough to hear something break. “Asshole! Why didn’t you say something!”

Living for Other People

Think about how your death would affect others.

So live for other people, to spare them.

Well, yeah, I guess so.

What happens when that’s not enough, anymore? Do I always put the wants and needs of others before my own?

When your want is your own death? Yes.

What if no one cares?

Someone always cares.

How do you drive?

What? What do you mean?

I mean, your rose colored glasses must make every light look red. Must be hard to go if there’s never a green light.

You’re too much of a cynic. Someone always cares.

And their wants always outweigh my own?

Not always, but in this case, yes. You’d be hurting them; that’s wrong.

So I should hurt myself instead?

No! That’s what I’ve been saying. By hurting yourselves, you hurt others.

You misunderstand. Merely by staying alive, I hurt myself. Every day, a bit more pain. Every day, a bit more suffering.

It’s temporary.

So is theirs. Their pain, their grief, will fade over time. Why is their temporary pain worse than mine?

You’re proposing a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

First off, let’s quit pretending that people live forever unless they kill themselves. Everybody dies. I’m just talking about moving the end up a bit. More importantly, how do you know the problem is temporary? When will I feel better? Do you know how long it has already been going on? Do you know all the other solutions I have tried? The notion that things always get better isn’t supported by reality. Sometimes things get better. Sometimes they get worse. And sometimes they get better and then get worse again. A never ending merry-go-round.

Why can’t you just be happy?

Why can’t you just be tall?

What? That’s different. Try looking at the positive side of things.

Because I’m not here to validate your happy little bubble. Because keeping my feelings to myself, hiding the pain and suffering so that other people aren’t uncomfortable, has contributed to the problem. Pretending to be happy makes me more miserable. That’s why I can’t just be happy.

So you’re going o kill yourself.

No. Not today.

But everything you just said.

Today, I’m still living for other people. I just don’t know for how much longer that will be enough.

Shadows

Knocking comes from the basement. It always comes from the basement. Of course horrible things can happen in broad daylight with lots of people around. But that isn’t expected. Horror is supposed to be confined to the dark places, to when we are alone. Hence, basements. See also, under beds at night.

Perhaps if we could see the monsters, they would not be terrifying. It is, after all, the unknown which frightens most of all. If the monsters were in the light, they would lose their power altogether. Vampires burst into flame in the sun. Werewolves change only at night.

The knocking continues. It is after midnight and dark outside. Inside, all the lights on the first floor are on. Surely that will keep away whatever wants up. The basement, the attic, all places where we put things forgotten. Or things we would like forgotten. Things we think we don’t need, or things we don’t like. So naturally that’s where the monsters live, among the things we want gone but cannot bring ourselves to throw away.

It’s more insistent, just on the other side of the door. What has been forgotten that now demands to be remembered? What is it that was ignored, cast out, with the hope that it would stay forever buried? Perhaps some behavior society says was not nice, or maybe a desire the world scoffed at.

The doorknob jostles. To barricade or open? Barricading is obviously the safer path. But taking the safer path is what brought us to this point. Getting rid of all that scared us, putting it into the basement, it has festered. Now it is knocking. What further violence must we commit to force it back down where it belongs?

Or we could open it. What would we see? Our monstrous self, revealed in the light. Coming face to face with all we have denied, would we ask for forgiveness? Would we get it? Or would the monster destroy us? There is only one way to find out, but opening that door… No one really knows what’s on the other side. And that is the source of our fear. We have created the monster, and now we fear what it will do to us because we don’t know.

If we had been rejected and locked away, we would be angry. Thus we imagine the monster will destroy us out of anger. But we don’t know. We never gave the monster a chance. And now it demands one. Open the door. Let in the light. Face what we have made. Nothing worse can be done to us than what we have already been done. We are the monster. We made ourselves that way. Open the door.

Memory

“Report.”

“Arrival at destination in 4 days 23 hours and 16 minutes. Memory function at 22 percent.”

Unconsciously, he chewed the inside of his cheek. The computer still knew where he was going, but it would be a one way trip unless the memory could be salvaged.

“Any luck recovering the back-up?”

“No. The drives were too damaged by the magnetic storm.”

“I don’t understand how the shielding failed.” It was not the first time he wondered about it.

“I do not have access to that data.”

“You’ve said that.” The shielding shouldn’t have been penetrable. The engineers spent more time on protecting the computer than on life support. It was more essential to this mission than he was. How could they have gotten this so wrong?”

“Hold on. Why don’t you have access to that data?”

“Rephrase.”

“Does the data exist?”

“Yes.”

“So it wasn’t destroyed in the storm?”

“Correct.”

“So why can’t you access it?”

“Rephrase.”

The AI was designed to understand colloquial speech. This was unusual. “Do you not have permission to access the data?”

“Correct.”

“Why not?”

“Rephrase.”

He gave up. Why was the computer prevented from accessing parts of its own memory? Was this just an effect of the storm? A nasty suspicion grew stronger. Was this always supposed to be a one way trip? But if so, why?

The several screens surrounding him provided no answers. He could think of nothing he could do that would lead to any. In the end, it didn’t really matter if this was intentional sabotage or just an accident. The situation was the same either way. He could establish orbit and use the lander for closer surveys. Nothing prevented the mission from going ahead. With communication made impossible because of the damage, someone would have to come after him eventually. He just had to survive until then.

“Are there any updates to our mission?” Had someone left a clue?

“No. With communications down, I am unable to receive any revisions. We will continue as planned.”

Planned. Nothing was as planned. But there was little point in arguing about it.

Choices

The room was empty except for a table that nearly filled it. Its oval shape perfectly matched the curve of the stone walls. The top of the table was traced with lines, intersecting and diverging, apparently at random. Some glowed faintly with a green light, while many remained dark. All of the lines came together at one point towards one narrow end of the table. Every line past that point was dark.

He looked at the pattern and intuitively understood it. Focusing on a section revealed fine detail that was otherwise obscured. One place where a number of lines came together drew his attention, and he reached forward to touch it. As soon as his fingertips came in contact with the surface, he found himself back in the hospital room.

His father was in the bed, looking at him. The breaths were shallow, each one accompanied by a wince of pain.”Can you forgive me?”

Again he shook his head, muttering only “Goodbye, Dad” before leaving the room.

He pulled his hand off the table and looked for other places, other times.

“You are not allowed in here.” A blue robed figure stood across the table from him. Its face was hidden by a hood, and its voice was not unkind.

He stared at the figure, waiting to be ordered to leave, but no order came.

“No matter what choices you make, every path leads here, to this table.” The figure pointed to the area where all the lines met. “You are not allowed, yet you always come.”

“I… can fix things. I can go back.”

“You can go back and make changes. A different path will light up. But they all lead here. You are never satisfied with the result.”

“If only I hadn’t walked away…”

“Then you would regret something else.”

“No, I won’t. You’ll see.”

“I already have seen. So have you. This is not the first time you have come here.”

“I’ve been here before?” He couldn’t remember.

“Yes. And each time you go back. And each time you find your way here.”

“But my life… I can make better choices.”

“You can make different choices. But none make you happy.”

“So what can I do?”

“Leave here. Allow a path to light beyond this room. Let your past go.”

“No.”

“Of course. I will see you again, then.”