“Take his boots.”
“I know!” barked his accomplice as he wiped the water from his forehead, a pointless gesture that was more habit than anything else. He had already planned to also steal their victim’s hat.
First, he pulled on the soaked leather. In a place like this, the only thing that connects anybody to anything is the sole of their boots to the mud covering the streets.
The pair of crooks had dragged the old man towards the back of a narrow alley. The buildings in town had a habit of sticking close to each other, maybe as a way to support each other.
The other didn’t look up. The mud had sucked in his right knee. He leaned against the wood for balance. The wall smelled like the previous downpour. Or maybe the one before.
“I’ve got it!”
“’Bout time. Come on, leave him. Fucking cockroach. “
“Better him than us.”
A few meters away, the eyes that had been watching the scene unfold finally blinked.
The sounds of the sky’s ongoing freefall covered his approach. They never saw him coming. Nobody ever did.
The man hung up his hat and long coat. They might dry off this time, he thought.
He leaned over the sink. In the darkness, only the sink’s white porcelain was somewhat visible. The man washed his hands carefully.
“Three…” he let out quietly.
“I know, I know,” he answered the voice in his head. His only companion, if you could call it that.
The two crooks barely had time to be surprised. He had done it so often, he had become infallible, or so his record would suggest. The process required precision. In a matter of seconds, the two bodies had collapsed and become bookends to their victim. The process had only taken a few seconds. It always did.
The man slowly moved away from the sink towards his bed, in the room’s darkest corner. The trio of dead bodies in the alley faded from his memory.
It always felt like rusty needles sinking slowing into the back of his neck, putting every vein in the vicinity on full alert. The man reached for the source of the pain. His fingers lingered on the spotless patch of skin.
His lips started to move again before he caught himself. There was no time, and nobody to hear him anyways. Not really. His hat was still dripping. It had left a dark stain on the wooden floor.
Barely five minutes later, the man spotted the body in the distance. At this hour, the streets were deserted. The town was small, and with no fear of being spotted, it was simple to get anywhere in a matter of minutes.
Boots and hooves had left scars behind. The man had wondered before what was underneath it all. The marks always changed, but they were always there. He was getting closer and his left hand settled on the now wet spot on his neck. He rubbed it. The difference was subtle and yet unmistakable. Too late now, he had arrived.
The thick drops were pounding the body’s back. This would only take a moment. The breathing had already become irregular, he could feel it. He turned the body over to access the bridge between the two eyes.
The shock pushed him back three steps. His eyes were open wider than they had in a long time.
It couldn’t be. Children were not allowed in this town, this was no place for them. But the young features couldn’t lie. Nine, maybe 10? How could this be?
The man kept looking at the boy. Even though the clouds barely let any moonlight through, he could see him clearly.
The pain only got worse on the way back. He couldn’t touch his neck while carrying the boy. Never had he chosen to ignore the process. Never had he had to face a child in this way before. The pain made the thoughts in his skull shake. What now? The boy’s breathing was labored.
“He’s just a boy,” he said through his teeth. His voice hurt his throat as it was leaving his body.
He reached his door. Nobody had turned that knob but him. Nobody else had gone further. This had been his tiny piece of the world where pain would not be waiting for him. The silence of the room was normally reassuring. The sound of somebody else’s breathing was deafening.
“What the hell do you want?”
“I… don’t know,” the man had responded.
He had awoken in the town all those years ago. Nothing had changed since, except the people.
“Then go before I beat the shit out of you.”
The body on the ground was convincing evidence that the cowboy facing the man would, and could, follow through on that warning.
“I have to. Do… do you hear it, too?”
“I’ve heard enough of you, that’s for damn sure.”
That’s when the man first noticed the rain.
His large opponent moved in surprisingly quickly.
He just knew what to do. It just happened.
It had happened countless times since.
He left the gas lamp on. He preferred darkness, but he thought the warmth of the lamp on the boy’s face might help. He left him alone three times. Nobody would come. Nobody had ever come. The man didn’t want to draw attention to himself. His first failure might have gone unnoticed, he thought. Another deviation from the plan would certainly bring consequences.
The boy’s breathing turned normal again, or so the man thought. The boy didn’t move, other than his torso fighting to lift the sheets every few seconds. The man didn’t sleep, his eyes fixed on the innocent face oblivious to its surroundings, much less its company.
Three days passed like this. On the morning of the fourth day, there was finally some movement.
The boy slowly opened his eyes. He didn’t look scared.
“Am I dead?” he asked.
The banging on the door started as the man was about to answer.
“Leave. You have to leave,” announced the visitor as he pushed his way in.
The man had never seen him before.
“You will be dealt with accordingly. This may be irregular, but we have rules,” the visitor’s voice conveyed no emotion, other than a hint of frustration.
The man didn’t answer. He knew the boy was still too weak to do much.
“Not him. Just you,” the visitor replied before the man had a choice to vocalize his concerns.
“We couldn’t sense the problem, a flaw to address. But the process exists for a reason,” the visitor hadn’t looked at the man since walking through the door. He appeared to be searching the room for something, maybe something that would explain how a child had ended up here. He finally turned around to face his host. “Balance requires no exception,” he over-enunciated. The man and the boy could barely see the visitor in the opposite corner, across the room from the small gas lamp.
“Before, there was chaos. We needed an in-between, a filter. It was your choice to come.”
The man was looking at the boy’s eyes when it came flooding back.
The car hadn’t even slowed down.
Adam never stood a chance.
His ten-year-old frame went flying across the road.
In the days following the accident, everyone had tried to save the man, telling him they understood his pain, understood his anger at the drunk who had killed his boy and shattered his life.
The crash happened on a Monday. On the Thursday, the man had woken up in the town.
Now he remembered.
The world had grown darker. His little piece of it had just crumbled. Death had offered him a purpose that life was now missing, and he had agreed.
“You, you did this to me,” the man said.
“Now what? We need to review the procedures,” the visitor was now speaking a little louder.
“I did it. All those contaminated souls. I did it,” the man said more firmly than anything he had said in years.
“We need a reset.”
“It worked, didn’t it? It all worked the way you wanted,” the man said, touching his neck as he sat next to the boy.
“Am I dead?” the boy asked again.
“Why is this kid even here?”
“You need to leave,” the visitor threw back. The silence that absorbed his words was different. It was actual silence. The rain had stopped.
The weight of the memories he was processing was anchoring the man to the bed. The process… He had agreed to execute what the voice had asked him. It would be hard, but it would bring balance back. The voice had promised it, and the man knew that was no ordinary voice. In exchange, he would forget.
“Is he… a glitch?” the man asked about the boy.
“I am a glitch?”
The visitor finally stepped into the light.
“We think you brought him here,” the visitor kept approaching. “You have to leave.”
To be continued…