He was outside smoking a cigarette, watching the guests arrive one by one.
Did I just think of them as guests? He berated himself. They were not guests; they were members of his family—his three daughters and their children. Between his three daughters, he had seven grandchildren. All my grandchildren are a lovely lot, and so are their mothers—my daughters, my beautiful daughters.
He dropped his half-finished cigarette on the dry ground and stamped it out. The night was cool and inviting. It made him think of lighting another smoke and just relax there, watching the stars glitter down on him in the dark sky.
That would have been a very tempting offer, had he not previously asked all these people to come over. He pushed away from the pole that he had been leaning on and headed towards the door. As he approached, the door burst open to reveal Rosa, his wife.
He had told her, that he needed to go out to get some fresh air.
She frowned at him. “Fresh air, darling?”
“I know,” he nodded.
“The kids are here.”
He stood close to the fireplace, his favourite spot, and looked around the room. It was a spacious living room, which he and Rosa had always used for family gatherings. Their family gatherings were infrequent, memorable occasions, like their wedding anniversary or the holidays: Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas or New Year’s Day. Other occasions that warranted them all gathering together like this would be birthdays—like today.
He counted the people in the room, but there were only eight in total. He frowned.
“Darling?” Rosa pressed, squeezing his hand.
He turned to her. “We’ll wait for the rest before we begin.”
“Good idea. You should sit down. They’ll all be here soon.”
“I wouldn’t last another five minutes in here.”
“You just want to smoke, don’t you?” Rosa fired back. “It’s your birthday today, remember? Why smoke at your age?”
“I know it’s my birthday today! And why not? I’ve been at it all this while and I’m still alive and kicking. One more won’t kill me, my dear.”
He’d gone out and left them all sitting there.
Now she was standing in the doorway, searching for him, and he imagined what was going through her mind. She would be wondering what sort of a person he was, keeping his family waiting like that.
He smiled as he walked up to her. “It appears that everyone’s here now.”
“Yes, they are. It’s you we’re all waiting for, darling.”
Rosa looked at him. He could sense disdain in her eyes. Or was it worry? He wasn’t sure.
She stepped aside. He walked past her but heard her close behind, following him into the living room. Several pairs of eyes were on them as they headed for the sofa by the fireplace. But those eyes are actually on me, he thought, not on Rosa. After all, it was him they were waiting for.
As he sat down, he thought over what he wanted to say. He already had his words prepared, committed to heart and mind. Even at his age, he didn’t need to write down thoughts before he said them. Speaking came naturally to him. He could say the same speech in different locations and at different times without missing a single word.
He smirked. He knew he was good.
On the centre table was a huge cake. It was white and as big as a suitcase. On its face, boldly written in red: ‘99 today! Happy Birthday, Grandpa’. To the side of the cake were bottles of champagne and juice. Littered all around the table were wrapped gifts. He saw trays filled with sweets and candies. He knew his grandchildren couldn’t wait to get their share. They knew him well; he was always eager to share his candies and stories with them.
He took a glance around. Everyone was waiting patiently. He smiled weakly, then gazed into the fireplace. It’s heat warmed his skin. He was happy and comfortable sitting there.
He looked up and cleared his throat. “Good evening, everyone,” he said. “I want to start by welcoming you all here tonight. I really want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to be here. I know that some of you would rather be anywhere else than here with me. After all, what has old Jerry got to say that you haven’t already heard?”
They all laughed. But he knew that in many cases it was snide rather than fond.
“Yes, you’ve all heard a lot from me in the past,” he went on, not bothered by whatever they might have found amusing. “But the truth is that you haven’t heard all that there is to hear. Therefore, I have chosen today of all days, the day I turn ninety-nine, to tell you what I need to tell you.”
He paused to look around again. Rosa was frowning as she crossed one leg over the other. As his wife of several decades, he knew that what he was about to say would shock her, as well as the rest of his family.
“I’m not going to be alive for much longer,” he announced. A few people shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Rosa touched her neck. “Yes, it’s inevitable, you might think. But for me it’s a confirmed fact.”
As the murmuring grew louder, Rosa shot an angry glare at him. He raised his hands to quiet them down. “I remember the last time there was a gathering like this. That was when I came out of a coma last year,” he continued. “I remember how you all came to see me, to show your sympathy and concern.”
He took in all the faces staring back at him. It was obvious that they were all listening closely to his speech, especially his grandchildren, who had always loved to hear his stories.
“Maybe I had been gone for too long,” he shrugged. “How long was it? Three months? Anyway, that day, I watched several of you just as I’m doing right now. And one thought was on my mind: what was really the most important thing to all of you? I ask this question now, because it’s as relevant today as it was to me back then.”
He examined their faces. Some tried to avoid making eye contact. Others, like Rosa, tried to catch his gaze, to communicate to him. He was not really a good mind-reader; he never had been. But by this age, with all his experience, he could now sense hostility and animosity by looking into people’s eyes.
He cleared his throat again. “I’ll tell you what I feel. I feel like you’re all here because you’re only interested—as much now as you were then—in your inheritance.”
The atmosphere in the room changed. Some of his family twitched nervously in their seats. Some coughed, while others simply scratched their necks, all the while glaring at him. But he didn’t care about their reactions. He went on with his speech. “I’m not bothered by how you might feel. At my age, I should be bold enough to speak my mind. I know that you’re interested in what you might receive from my estate. I knew it from that day when I woke up from my slumber and saw all your faces. And I know it now as I sit here and look at you all.”
He paused again. He wanted his words to really hit home. A good speech shouldn’t be rushed, he thought.
“Yes, I can tell you’re all here with expectations—hoping that perhaps old Jerry might soon be gone. I agree. I might soon be gone and my inheritance will be up for grabs. There’s Rosa, my lovely wife of so many years now, then there are my three lovely daughters, and then there are their lovely children and partners. Yes, there are a lot of you. But while I understand your anticipation for what you stand to gain, I must first lay out some bitter truths for you.”
Immediately, he could see more interest in what he was saying. Even Rosa seemed to sit up in her seat.
“I’m glad that I seem to have your attention. The truth is that for all my life, I have been a cold-blooded bastard. I can’t imagine that you’ll ever forgive me for the things that I’ve done. But that’s why I’m asking you all here tonight to not rush to crucify me. Please judge me and my deeds in the proper context.”
Rosa was restless now. He could feel her enquiring gaze burning into him. She must have been feeling betrayed that he didn’t inform her before announcing this to the entire family. This was supposed to be a quiet birthday celebration in his honour. But he had decided to deliver a very important speech, in which he was going to divulge something he had never shared before. They might all be feeling angry right now. But he didn’t care anymore. He had a duty to inform them about what was going to happen before it was too late.
“I have called you all here to tell you about my life and my sin. At the same time, I have also called you here to tell you that today, I’m going to die, and one of you will die with me.”
Their reactions were instantaneous. Some of them, like Rosa, jumped to their feet. Others began to shout at him with words that made no sense at all. He thought he could hear one or two of his grandchildren begin to cry, and that crying soon degenerated into wailing.
He raised his hands, “Please, calm down. You all need to calm down so I can explain myself.”
Gradually, the chaos died down and they began to slide back into their seats.
“Some of you know my story already. I grew up in the Arizona desert, in a town that was known for nothing. And I mean nothing. There was only a diner, a school and a gas station—the last one just before the Las Vegas highway. All I had were my friends.”
He looked at the audience in front of him and continued. “Back then, there was nothing much you could do. But we sure as hell managed to make our own fun. I, for one, didn’t have to worry about the future. How many of you worry about your future? How many?”
No one raised their hands or even nodded. Perhaps they were still confused about what he was trying to say, or perhaps they didn’t worry about the future—he wasn’t really sure.
“I guess none of you is supposed to be worried about the future,” he pondered. “After all, there’s nothing to worry about when everything seems to be settled for you. You all stand a chance of getting an inheritance. Maybe if I’d been in any of your positions back then, I wouldn’t have wound up in the situation that I find myself in today. If I had an inheritance to gain, what would make me worry about my future? Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
He rubbed his forehead. It was as if remembering the past was a strenuous endeavour for him. But it wasn’t. He could remember everything vividly. “I still remember the night that led me into this mess in the first place,” he said, looking out of the window into the dark sky. “I was desperate for something to do. So, I called my friends, and it turned out that they were also bored and in need of distraction.
“Back then, there weren’t a lot of things to do when you were bored. It was either to go play a game or read a book. We didn’t have all the gadgets you have today—video games, the internet or all those apps.” He shook his head. “No, back then we didn’t have many options. And so, what were we to do with our boredom? We decided to play hide-and-seek.”
He nodded at the audience in front of him. “Yes, hide-and-seek. Some of you might wonder what could be wrong with a game like that. It’s simple and fun. Well, I’ll tell you what was wrong with playing hide-and-seek on that particular night—we had decided to play it in the cemetery.”
Several members of his family gasped. The murmuring grew loud as they began to talk amongst themselves.
“Who plays games in a cemetery, you must be wondering! Well, in my time, the urge for adventure could make you do strange things. And in our case, that was what it led us to. So we went to the cemetery. There was no adult to stop us. No one paid attention as we all rushed off, excited and hoping for a new thrill.”
He looked around the room and picked out a young girl. He couldn’t remember her name now, or which of his daughters was her mother. He had simply chosen her because she was the closest to him. “How do you play hide-and seek?” he asked her directly.
The young girl glanced around, not sure whether to respond or to just wait for him to say what he was expecting her to say.
He smiled. “It’s alright. I doubt the game has changed much since I was a young boy. Anyway, I can’t remember who started counting that night in the cemetery, but we all ran in different directions while he counted from one hundred to one. I could hear him counting down as I darted around the tombstones and graves. I was determined not to get caught. Why? It was just a game, wasn’t it? But I’ve always been very competitive, I’m sure you all know that. That was how I was able to build my businesses, the ones you now all have a stake in. Yes, that same determination that I had as a kid is what got me here today. So, while my friends flew off in random directions, I knew exactly where I was going. I didn’t want to get caught and only one place could guarantee that for me: the back of the cemetery.”
He gazed at the faces that were listening to him with rapt attention. “Do you know what is at the back of the cemetery? Do you?” he asked, but no one said anything.
“That’s where they keep the people who were first buried. I’m not referring to the town’s founding fathers. No, not those graves. I had gone past all those tombs where the founding fathers lay—I was searching for a place where time had completely wiped away the names of the dead. Yes, this was where our founding fathers must’ve buried their own fathers and grandfathers. The tombstones there were completely devoid of names.”
He bent over and raised his left trouser leg. “Can you see this?” he asked, showing them his exposed shin. There was a dark line that ran all the way from under his left knee down to the top of his ankle. He let go of his trousers and straightened up again.
“This scar is a constant reminder of that night. I had been searching through that abandoned part of the cemetery to find the perfect hiding spot when I tumbled over a broken headstone. It tore my leg open. I remember the pain as I lay there, bleeding profusely. I could have screamed out for help, and yet I didn’t. I remained quiet so my friends wouldn’t find me. And I won the game. They never found me that night. But I lost a lot of blood in that grave. I thought I was going to bleed to death. When I went back to my friends, I was already very weak. They took me to the hospital to get stitches, but I never revealed my hiding place.”
He looked over his audience. Even Rosa was silent and listening closely. He was sure she couldn’t believe that her husband had such an interesting history. He didn’t blame her. He’d never told her this before.
“When school was over, no one wanted to stay in that town. As soon as the last school bell rang, my circle of friends disappeared. They scattered with the wind. Some joined the army, others went off to college, and a couple went to Hollywood—anywhere, away from that little town. By the time I turned eighteen, I was surprised to find myself working at the gas station. Every day, I’d see different cars filled with laughing people as they headed off to far-off destinations I’d never seen or even imagined I’d ever go to.
“My job at the gas station was very routine. When you worked there, time seemed to fly by. It was on one of those days, while I was resting my tired feet, that I heard the bell ring for what must have been a billionth time. I got up and trudged to get another car filled up. Now, this car was sure pretty—but behind the wheel was an even prettier damsel, her brown hair standing out against the red colour of her car.
“Whenever I cleaned those cars, I was always in the habit of saying to them: have fun in Vegas! I said the same thing to this girl while I was scrubbing her windshield clean. And you know what? She smiled at me. I must admit not many customers smiled at me back then. Why would they? I was just a young lad working in the gas station. But this girl was different. She actually smiled, and it was one of the most wonderful smiles I had ever seen. She told me that she and her father were new in town; they had moved there not long ago. She also said that she was on her way to work, at the diner across the road—I knew the diner she was talking about. She handed me some crumpled dollar bills, told me her name was Rosa, then wiggled her fingers goodbye. I stood there staring, till I realised that I even hadn’t told her my name.”
He stopped. Someone was giggling. He searched through all the faces, but it was hard to tell who it was. Only his wife was smiling warmly. She had to—after all, he was talking about her now, telling their children and grandchildren a story that she knew all too well.
He nodded with a smirk on his face. “Yes, I know what some of you might be thinking now. I must’ve been a loser with the girls. Who forgets to give his name to a girl? Well, I did. I just stood there staring at her tail-lights as she drove off. But even losers have a way of making things right. After that day, I began to have all my meals at the diner where she worked. And during each meal, I’d struggle with myself, trying hard to work up the nerves to ask her out. But it wasn’t easy. I guess even back then it wasn’t that easy to ask out a girl as pretty as Rosa.”
He heard more giggles. He knew that part of his speech was going to be well-received. Rosa was blushing now. Did she find this nostalgia cheesy or endearing? He couldn’t tell for sure.
“During each meal, I would deliberately eat slowly, with the hope of finding the right words to say before I finished. I can’t count how many desserts I might’ve had in that diner. I do remember that it must have taken me six months before I finally did it. Gosh, I was so excited when she agreed to spend her next day off with me! Even to this day, I thank God she agreed. I was getting tired of eating rhubarb pies.”
He paused to survey the audience. Their faces were relaxed. This part of the story was enjoyable. Everyone could relate to what he was saying—especially Rosa, who was the centre of the story.
“Well, my mission had been accomplished,” he grinned. “Rosa was going to spend her day off with me. But now I had a new problem: where was I going to take her? These days, finding a place to take your girl on a date isn’t too difficult. Back then, in the little town that I grew up in, choices were very limited. In fact, to show just how limited my choices were, the only place that was decent was the same diner where Rosa worked.”
Some people chuckled, others giggled, and Rosa blushed again, with a wide smile on her face. He nodded. “Yes, that’s how things were in that town. There I was, with a beautiful girl but nowhere to go. She had left the choice to me—after all, she figured that since I’d grown up there, I must know some nice spots, even if they weren’t conventional. So I thought of the fields around the cemetery.
“Now, before any of you think about how morbid that idea was, remember that this was a desert town. There were only a few spots that had grass. And behind the cemetery was one of those spots. Also, back then, the area used to be peaceful, nice and quiet. I felt that it’d be a good spot for the two of us. The grass there was always green and soft.
“It was going to be a picnic. Rosa brought strawberry crepes and I came with a bottle of red wine. I’ll never forget that date. While we ate the crepes, we exchanged awkward small talk, watching the long blades of green grass dancing in the wind. Soon, the effect of the wine was spreading smiles across our faces. Rosa told me about growing up in New Mexico. She talked about her pets, her plans to go to college, and her work at the diner. I didn’t ask her any questions or talk too much. I was happy to just listen to her, because all I’d wanted to tell her was how lonely I was.”
He saw Rosa shift in her seat as she rubbed her neck again. She should know, he thought. He had been alone for quite some time. “We spent the next three months in each other’s arms,” he continued. “Rosa and I were always together. For three months, I cherished each moment I spent with her. Her kindness, laughter and warmth meant the world to me—for the first time in my life, I felt all the darkness fading away.
“The radiance of her laughter was so strong and infectious that it easily pushed away the sorrow that had consumed my heart for so long. There was no doubt about it, I was in love with Rosa. I felt like she was sent from above to save me from the despair that had been my companion for so long. She was my oasis in that desert town, my one refuge of hope.”
He turned to Rosa. “I have fallen in love only twice in my life. The most recent time was with you, Rosa, when I came out of that coma in the hospital. The first time was also with you, Rosa, when we first met.”
He could see Rosa move in her seat, trying to discretely scratch the corner of her left eye. Was she crying, or was it just an itch? He wondered.
“With Rosa, nothing I did was wrong. Everything was perfect and felt wonderful. I’m sure it wouldn’t come as a surprise to any of you that on one evening, I decided to trade every dollar I’d saved working in that gas station for a ring I hoped would make Rosa mine. Rosa was not just the girl of my dreams—she was all my dreams. She was the solution to everything that was missing in my life, everything that I longed to have and achieve.”
He took a deep breath, and waited for his words to sink in. “I was serious about Rosa. I wanted her in my life. And with that ring, I felt that I was capable of achieving anything. So, as soon as I’d bought it, I dashed out of the jewellery store. The day was almost over, and nightfall came with heavy, dark clouds.
“As the wind began to blow, ushering in a summer storm, I didn’t heed the warnings or abandon my plans. I wanted to get to Rosa. I had to propose to her that evening. I was convinced and resolute. Nothing was going to stop me from seeing her that night.
“Eventually, the winds became very severe. I was on the road, driving very fast. As the wind rose, a storm came crashing down on our little desert town.
“Wisdom would’ve suggested that I park somewhere and allow the storm to pass. But when you’re in love, you don’t always listen to wisdom.”
He stopped to take a deep breath again. This time, he was not waiting for his words to sink in. He was genuinely trying to catch his breath. The story was taking a toll on him; his recollection of Rosa and all that transpired between them was draining his strength.
“As I drove, my vision was impaired by the heavy rain and I hadn’t noticed that I’d driven off the road. I must’ve been driving through mud and water for miles until out of nowhere, the cemetery burst into view. It just appeared like that—from nowhere.”
His audience got tense. He could tell from the way everyone was sitting upright or holding onto their seats tightly. They had been attentive all this time, but now they were hanging onto his every word.
He noticed his own breathing was becoming laboured and his heart was beating rapidly. He didn’t have to wonder what was happening to him. It was obvious, he was scared.
“Every driver in that little town knew that one curve before the cemetery,” he continued. “It was one we all hated. It was too sharp—even with several years of experienced driving, you could easily miss it and drive into the ditch.
“How I was able to negotiate that treacherous road on that dark night, through such heavy downpour, baffles me to this day. I was driving blind, moving through the storm like a speed boat, and yet I somehow missed that curve.”
He sighed. His heart was still thumping rapidly, but he didn’t care. He had to get this story out.
“It happened so fast. My whole world exploded into a cloud of blood and pain as I crashed. I remember how hard I hit those headstones. I remember pain shooting through my entire body. I remember broken glass flying as my windshield broke.
“I shielded my eyes and my face with my arms, but fate had another trick up its sleeve. A branch of an oak tree found its way into my chest. If I had felt pain before, now I was in miserable agony.
“I screamed with all the energy I had left in me. All around me was blood and broken headstones. My world was now shattered. As I stared down at the limb protruding from my chest, I realised in horror that I was never going to see Rosa again. I was never going to give her the ring. I was never going to spend my life with her.
“My joy had turned to ashes, I was utterly distraught. The thought of losing Rosa was more terrifying than the fatal condition I was in.”
The entire room stared at him agape. Rosa was sitting at the edge of her seat, with her hands clasped together. His heart was racing.
“I couldn’t stand not seeing Rosa’s face again. Desperate to set myself free, I opened my mouth and cried at the top of my lungs. But I wasn’t crying tears of pain or distress. No, I was crying out to whatever beings were lurking around the cemetery that rainy night.
“It was a cry of desperation. I yelled out into the storm, with all my strength, with all the resolve in my weakened heart: ‘Just take anything that you want from me! But save me so that I can live with her! Please, anything!’.
“After I had uttered those words, I waited, slowly bleeding to death with each breath that I took. I could feel blood gushing out of my wound. I felt my life ebbing away from me, but still listened out in hope.
“All I heard was silence. I could hear nothing but silence. I strained my ears to listen harder—then something touched my arm.”
At that moment, as if he had planned it earlier, he flinched. His reaction was so abrupt that some people jumped.
“Do you know what I heard when that thing touched my arm?” Many shook their heads in unison.
“I heard a voice that sounded like a murder of crows: ‘A child may pull the wings from a fly and just laugh about it. So much less does your suffering matter to me’, in my anguish and pain, I became afraid. I thought that this might be a fate worse than dying. Something had discovered me. Rather than helping me, it was there to watch me die a painful, agonising death.
“I could sense it watching as my blood seeped away in little streams, down my body and into the grounds of the cemetery. But again I thought of Rosa and opened my mouth to speak, ‘Spirit, don’t I have anything I could offer you in exchange for the chance to live again? What if I gave you my soul?’.”
As he wiped off the sweat from his face with the back of his hand, he realised that he was feeling dizzy, but he still continued. “I could feel hot and putrid breath on my face as it responded, ‘Soul? What soul? What makes you think that such a thing even exists?’.
“In my pain, I didn’t know how to answer, but it continued to speak. It said, ‘I roam the earth from east to west, devouring anyone that can hear my voice’. It went on to say that it could steal the hopeful from their lover’s grasp. It then asked me pointedly, ‘Why should you see her again, when my only companion is your despair?’.”
He wiped off more sweat from his face as he sighed. “It was truly a bitter agony. I had finally found some meaning, some purpose in my life. But look at what was happening!
“One silly slip was about to take it all away from me. I had to give up everything to get Rosa back. I had to sacrifice anything to see her again. So I opened up my mouth and begged, with tears streaming down my face, ‘Take one of my grandchildren then! Take them for your own’.”
He heard several gasps. Some looked at each other nervously. Others reached for their children and hugged them close.
“The spirit said to me, ‘You will live to be 99 with your Rosa, but I shall take the grandchild that you love the most. I will sign my name in their flesh, and they shall join me in my endless wandering’.
“I still lose sleep whenever I remember its shrieking laughter. It haunts me just telling you this. It went on to ask me if I was willing to cast them into the darkness. ‘Choose quickly’, it urged me, because its appetite was growing out of control.”
He was now shedding tears openly. He wiped his face and sniffed. “I said yes several times over. God damn me forever, I must’ve said yes a million times. And as I was saying yes, I could feel my vision fade. I was in genuine shock, I thought the spirit was nothing but a twisted liar—I was still dying! Then I heard a foul, choking wind, gushing, rushing with urgency, and then the sound of several wings beating together.”
Everyone was watching him, holding their breath. “I opened my eyes to find myself in the hospital. Rosa was by my side, clutching the ring and weeping. I threw back the bed sheets and felt my chest. There were no wounds, not even a scratch on me. But every hair had been burned off my body, as if I had passed through a furnace.”
Everyone was murmuring. His breathing had relaxed a little and he was no longer sweating like before. His tears had also stopped flowing.
“A few months later, Rosa demanded a child from me. Initially, I refused. But I couldn’t bear to watch her unhappy. I couldn’t bear to think of her leaving me.
“And so we had a child. One child led to two, and finally three. I did my best to make sure they never found love. I locked them in their rooms, kept them in the house, threatened potential boyfriends with knives and guns. So they all ran away from me—they scattered, and had children of their own.”
He turned to face Rosa. “I spent several years trying to deaden my heart, trying to never feel anything for you, Rosa, or for our daughters. But I failed.”
Suddenly, he fell to his knees. Several people jumped up and ran to his side. He searched through their many concerned faces until he spotted Rosa’s. He smiled at her. “And now,” he said laboriously. “And now, once more, I can feel the light leaving me.
“Quickly, let every grandchild of mine search their bodies. Do so quickly. You will know that you were chosen by the demon once you see the mark of,” he coughed. “The mark of, the mark of —”
He could feel arms around him. They were shaking him vigorously. He saw Rosa’s eyes, wide open and filled with confusion and tears.
“A mark of what?” someone shouted over the uproar. “Grandpa Jerry, a mark of what?”
He turned, trying to identify who had just spoken. He gave up when he couldn’t. He opened his mouth to answer.
Then everything went black.
GRANT ME A WISH
Carol tried to raise her left arm, but found that she couldn’t. Something was holding it down.
She tried to turn her head. The excruciating pain which followed forced her to abandon the idea.
She blinked and tried to focus on something, anything at all. She could see a leg, and an arm.
Who is that?
She tried to trace each limb back to its body, but could not make a match. It was difficult to see who was where.
She called out their names. No one answered.
She strained to look around and realized she was upside down. No wonder she couldn’t move! She struggled again and was able to free her arm. She unfastened her seat belt.
She did not expect to fall so hard and so fast. Her head hit a metallic surface and she screamed as it cut deep into her forehead.
She began to wriggle, but something was holding her leg. She was still stuck.
She looked around, frantically searching.
Not seeing what she was looking for, she used her two hands to pull her leg. Still, she could not move. She reached forward and grabbed the driver’s seat. She held on tightly and pulled as hard as she could. Still, she could not get her leg free.
She stopped struggling and tried to catch her breath. She wiped away the blood that was streaming down her forehead.
God, is this it? Am I going to die?
She did not need anyone to tell her where she was, she knew exactly what had gotten her into this situation.
She had been sitting in the backseat as Laura drove the SUV down the road “I’m so excited for this beach trip, it will be great fun.” Carol had said.
Her friends had giggled mockingly.
“Why are you all laughing at me?”
“Since when do you know anything about having fun, Carol? You’re always engrossed in your studies,” Emily had said.
“That’s not true! I do have fun.”
“Really?” Trish had laughed. “Okay, tell us about the last time you took time off from studying to have fun.”
Carol had paused to think for a while.
“Seriously? You need to think about that?” Trish had asked.
“Well, what about today?” Carol had replied.
“Today? What do you mean today?” Laura had asked.
“I’m hanging out with you guys, aren’t I?”
Laura had turned around to glare at her. “Don’t be ridiculous, Carol. How can you count today? Do you mean that aside from today, you can’t remember when you last had fun?”
“Please keep your eyes on the road. You’re driving,” Carol had protested.
The girls had all burst out laughing again.
“What?” Carol had asked.
“You said that I’d better keep my eyes on the road. You’re such a goody two-shoes,” Laura rolled her eyes.
“What’s wrong with that?”
Laura had turned around again. “What makes you think my eyes aren’t on the road?”
“Oh, stop it! You’re driving, for goodness sake!”
Then Emily and Trish had started screaming.
The sudden noise jolted both Carol and Laura.
They had just taken a sharp bend and were coming out of it. At the speed they were moving, none of them had seen the huge tree which had fallen across the road. It had appeared out of nowhere.
Frantically, Laura had tried to apply the brakes, but it was too late. They were much too close. The collision was inevitable. As their SUV hit the tree trunk, it lifted into the air, then began to spin and somersault.
The SUV had then crash-landed on the road and rolled over several times, finally settling upside down.
Carol had remained conscious all through the accident. She had witnessed everything—the shouting and screaming, the crying followed by that eerie silence.
She shook her head as if trying to clear her mind.
She called her friends’ names again. Still no response.
Then she heard it.
It sounded like water dripping. And it was hitting the road not far from her.
She strained her ears to listen again.
Yes, it sounds like water, she thought.
Then she saw it, dripping steadily from the engine.
That was when she realized what could be happening. Since the car was upside down, it was probably water leaking from the radiator.
Or was it?
The pungent smell of petrol soon began to fill her lungs. It was so strong that she began to cough.
Then she heard it.
Fearing the worst, she turned to see the fire that had started somewhere at the back of the car.
The realization of her impending fate gave her sudden strength as she began to struggle again, trying to break free from whatever was holding her leg down.
But the more she struggled, the more she realized how futile her efforts were. And that was when tears began to stream down her face.
It’s hopeless, she thought. She knew that she was going to die.
She looked around. It was obvious that all of her friends were either unconscious or already dead from the crash.
They weren’t going to witness their bodies being incinerated. But she was. And the thought of that frightened her even more than the rapidly approaching flames.
“Please, someone! Anyone! Help me! Please,” she cried softly, knowing in her heart of hearts that there would be no one around to come to her rescue and that she was moments away from dying a most horrible death.
“Is anyone alive in there?” a man asked.
Surprised, Carol began to struggle again as she shouted back. “Hello! Yes, I’m here! Please, help me get out! Help!”
“Just hold on a moment!” the man called again.
By now, she could see that she had already been surrounded by flames. The putrid smell of burning flesh confirmed her worst fears; her friends were already being burnt inside the car.
Suddenly, the man gripped her arm. The smoke was already too much, obstructing her visibility. She began to cough as she was dragged out forcefully. She screamed when her trapped leg finally broke free.
Soon, she had escaped the wreckage. She could see the upturned SUV burning as hungry flames devoured it with fervour.
“It seems like you were the only one that made it out alive,” the man said.
She could smell the odour of burning flesh as she nodded. “None of them were responsive,” she managed to reply.
“That’s too bad. Who were they?”
“My friends. My best friends from school. I can’t believe they’re all gone.”
“Bad things happen all the time, miss. You should be grateful that you’re still alive.”
“How’d you find me?”
“I heard your cry for help.”
“My cry for help? Was I crying for help?”
“Well, it was more like a prayer.”
“A prayer?” she repeated. At that moment, she turned and looked up to see who her rescuer was.
He was tall. He was wearing a dark suit, a dark shirt and a black hat. Since he was towering above her with his back towards the sun, she couldn’t clearly see his face. The wide brim of his hat shielded his face from view. “Who are you?”
“Someone who just saved your life, Carol.”
She gasped. “How do you know my name?”
“I know a lot of things. A whole lot of things, indeed.”
“But I never told you my name!”
“You amuse me. I’ve just granted your wish, and all you’re bothered about is how I know your name.”
“My wish? What wish are you talking about?”
“Your wish to be alive. Or maybe you could call it a prayer. Whatever you choose to call it, I heard you, and I came. Aren’t you happy that I came?”
Carol shook her head vigorously. “No, no, no, don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy! I’m just confused. I wish my friends had made it out as well.”
“They couldn’t have. None of them called out for help. None of them were alive.”
“But, how did you find me?”
“I was passing by.”
“Yes, we always pass by when such incidents happen to check if there are any survivors.”
“I’m grateful to you, sir. What’s your name?”
“Don’t worry about my name. I’ll be around to see you again soon.”
“Wait, are you going to leave me here all alone?” When she heard no response, she looked up and saw that he had gone.
She turned and began to look around. There were no other vehicles on the road.
Who was he? She kept asking herself that question until the ambulance and police cars arrived.
Soon, she was being lifted onto a stretcher by medical personnel. Tired and exhausted, she closed her eyes and everything went black.
The flickering of the fluorescent light woke her up. She shielded her eyes from the glare.
She was lying on a white bed inside a white room. Everything was white. The walls, the windows, the floor, the chair.
There was someone sitting on it.
“How are you feeling, Carol?”
Carol squinted. “Who are you?”
“All my friends are dead,” Carol replied flatly.
“Yes, I know. But you’re still alive. And you should be grateful for that.”
“Grateful to whom?”
“To me, of course.”
She frowned and took a closer look. Yes, it was him again. The same man who had rescued her from the burning SUV.
“Please. Don’t make me feel unappreciated,” he said, adjusting his wide-brimmed hat.
“You left so suddenly back there. Why?”
“I wasn’t needed there anymore. I was required elsewhere.”
The man nodded, though she could only tell from the motion of his hat. For some reason, his face still remained obscured from her view.
“There was someone else in a situation similar to yours.”
“Yes. Someone had a wish to make. A wish to live.”
Carol sat up. “Who are you?”
“I’ve told you before, haven’t I? I make people’s dying wishes come true.”
“But how is that possible?”
“Well, how about the fact that you were not burnt alive, as your friends were?”
“But why do you go about making dying people’s wishes come true?”
“Because I am mandated to do so. At a price, of course.”
“A price? What do you mean ‘at a price’?”
The man chuckled for the first time. “Come on, Carol. Nothing in this life is free. Don’t you know that?”
“I do. But what’s that got to do with your rescuing me?”
“Everything, Carol. Everything has a price.”
“I’m still confused. What’s the price of rescuing me from an accident that wasn’t even my fault?”
“Another life, Carol. When you made your wish, you were on the verge of death. And, at that moment, your soul was already expected. Now, another soul needs to be sent to replace yours.”
“Expected soul? What’s all this supposed to mean?”
“You are indebted. You owe one soul. Either yours or someone else’s.”
“But wait, I never agreed to any of this. How come I now owe a soul?”
“You still don’t get it, do you? When you wish for life at the point of your imminent death, you must make arrangements to submit the soul of another person.”
“But I never knew about this arrangement!”
“That’s what a lot of people say when they’re confronted with the reality of the situation. However, ignorance is not an excuse, especially when it has to do with matters such as life and death.”
“This is crazy. And what if I don’t do whatever it is that’s expected of me? What if I refuse to get some other soul?”
“That’s simple. The previous status quo is restored, and you’ll be faced with the situation that would have led to your original death.”
“Now I know that all this is nothing but nonsense,” Carol chuckled and shook her head vigorously. “That’s impossible.”
“Is it, Carol? Do you really think it’s impossible?”
“Of course it’s impossible! How can you suggest that I’ll be faced with the same situation? You mean that I’ll have another car accident?”
The man didn’t say anything. Rather, he raised his hands and clapped thrice.
“What are you clapping for?”
Immediately, there was a sudden gush of wind. Carol felt the room begin to spin all around her. The walls, the windows and even the bed beneath her, all appeared to be sucked into some sort of vortex. The experience was unnerving and frightening. She held on tightly to the edges of the bed.
Then, just as suddenly as it started, everything disappeared.
Carol blinked and turned to look around her. It was as if she had just woken up from a deep slumber.
Where am I?
She tried to get up, but discovered that she was stuck in an uncomfortable twisted position.
She tried to focus on something, anything at all.
That was when she gasped. She was upside down.
She freed her hands and felt around her body until she caught the seat belt.
Carol felt a chill of fear as she suddenly realized where she was. She was back in the upturned SUV, the exact spot where she had been not too long ago. The spot where she had been saved by her unknown rescuer.
“No, no, no, this can’t be happening again!” she cried, tugging at the seat belt. But even as she struggled, she could not help but notice the sickening feeling inside her stomach. She knew it was futile. She wasn’t going to be able to break free.
Then, like a scene from a movie, she watched helplessly as the events she already knew so well began to unfold.
She heard what sounded like water dripping in front of her. She looked around and saw it soak the road ahead of her and begin to trickle down. In time, the odour would envelope the entire interior of the car. The unmistakable smell of fuel. And then, there’d be a loud whoosh as fire ignite from somewhere in the back. Soon, the putrid stench of burning flesh would hit her nostrils, and she’d choke on the smell as well as the smoke.
By now, she was crying and wailing. She knew what had happened. Somehow, she’d been transported back in time, back to the same spot where she’d last been—the scene of the accident.
There was no point trying to find out if any of her friends had survived. She already knew they were dead, and she was about to join them if she did not act fast.
The flames were already encircling her. Carol closed her eyes. “Please, help me. I need your help. I’m sorry. Please, help me out of here,” she cried softly.
“Are you sure you want to live?”
Immediately, she opened her eyes. She tried to look around, but the smoke was getting into her eyes. She coughed and struggled as the flames drew closer.
“Yes, I want to live! Please, get me out of here! I don’t want to die like this. Get me out, please!” she cried.
“Fine.” But rather than being pulled out like the last time, Carol was suddenly back inside the vortex. The SUV, the fire, the smoke—everything around her was now spinning around very quickly. She grabbed onto her seat belt and closed her eyes tightly.
She felt as if she was going to fall from a fast-moving vehicle. She was still gripping her seat belt when she felt someone tap her arm.
She opened her eyes and almost jumped when she saw a man in white.
“Are you all right, miss?” asked a tall, strapping man with a kind and pleasant face. His name tag confirmed that he was a doctor.
Carol looked around, shocked that she was back in her hospital room.
“Where, where am I?” she asked, not too sure of her environment.
“Well, you’re in the hospital,” said the doctor, gesturing at the two nurses beside him.
“What happened?” Carol looked around frantically. She was expecting to see the mysterious man in black sitting on the chair. But he wasn’t there. The chair was empty.
“You were involved in an accident. I’m afraid you were the only survivor.”
“But we were all together in the car! How did I get out alive? How did I get here?”
“The rescue team found you some distance away from the wreckage. It’s a miracle that you were able to get out.”
“Get out? How did I get out of a burning car?” Carol demanded.
“You must relax and try to get some rest, okay? I know how traumatic this incident must have been.”
Carol sat up on her bed. “I don’t need any rest. Just answer my questions.”
“What answers do you need from me? You should be grateful that you’re alive! It’s a miracle that you survived the accident.”
“Yes, and you should be grateful. Now try and get some rest, please.”
After the doctor and the nurses had left, Carol was all alone.
“You don’t believe in miracles?”
She turned to look at him. As expected, he was sitting on the chair.
“Are you a miracle? Are you my miracle?”
“You can call me whatever you want. Some people think of me as a provider of solutions. To others, I am a miracle. And yet others call me the answer to their prayers, or simply their dying wish.”
“But you’re not any of those. You’re a sick joke. What’s this supposed to be—a second chance or what?”
“Careful with that temper, Carol. By now, you should know that I’m immune to provocation. Collecting debts from people is a serious business which requires concentration and meticulous attention.”
“You’re a debt collector?”
“I go by so many names these days that I don’t even bother to remember. All I know is that after I’ve granted someone’s dying wish, that person must be ready to repay their debt.”
“And to repay that debt, I must provide another soul, otherwise I’ll get sent back to the same situation I was in when I made my wish, right? A quid pro quo.”
“Exactly. You finally understand.”
“How long do I have to repay my debt?”
“Yes. Exactly forty-eight hours from now.”
“But that’s impossible! Where will I get a soul for you in forty-eight hours?”
“You talk as if you haven’t just been given a brand new life to live. You can be creative with the process, Carol. Before you know it, you’ll see that you’ve already repaid your debt, even before you get discharged from this hospital.”
Carol frowned and shook her head, as if trying to clear her mind. “Wait, I didn’t get that. What do you mean by being creative and repaying my debt before I get discharged?”
The man beckoned to her. “Come, Carol. Come to the window.”
She stood up from her bed and walked to the window.
“What do you see outside?”
“A car park. Cars. People walking around.”
“No, Carol. Look again. Now tell me, what do you see?”
Carol looked again at the car park down below. After a while, she looked away. “There’s nothing else. Just cars and people.”
“Okay, Carol. I’ll open your mind a little. What I can see is height. Do you understand?”
Carol turned to look at him. “Height?”
“Yes, Carol. You’re on the seventh floor of this hospital. Just imagine what it would be like to have someone thrown from this floor. No one would ever suspect anything. They’d say that the person was depressed, mentally ill, or even suicidal. And that would be the end of the story. You would have repaid your debt before you’re discharged.”
Carol gasped. “You’re suggesting that I deliberately kill someone?”
“I’m not suggesting anything. I’m simply showing you ways to repay your debt.”
“But I can’t push someone from a window!”
“Then maybe you might consider what would happen to you if you don’t. Do you remember the burning SUV? Perhaps you’d like to find yourself inside it once again. And this time, there would be no one to answer your cries for help and your dying wish. Is that what you’d prefer, the horrible pain of being burnt alive?”
“No, no, please! Don’t let me die like that!”
“You’re not going to die like that as long as you do what must be done. Forty-eight hours is all you have. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand. Forty-eight hours.”
Then he was gone.
He hadn’t opened the door or flown through the window. He just vanished, disappeared from the room like he was never there at all.
Carol sat down at the edge of the bed. What had she gotten herself into? she wondered.
Just then, the door opened and the doctor came in.
“Hello. How are you feeling now?”
“I’m okay. I’m feeling a bit stronger.”
“That’s good. I’m going to give you some medication to help you recover.”
“But I feel fine, Doctor. Do I still need medication?”
“Of course you do. You don’t realize what it means to survive such an accident. And we don’t want you suffering from an infection as a result of what you have gone through to get out of that burning SUV.”
The burning SUV, she thought. So everyone actually thinks I miraculously escaped from a burning SUV?
“This room is a bit stuffy. Maybe I should open up the window for you?”
Carol watched him cross the room. He drew aside the blinds and opened the window. For a while, he just stood there, observing the scene below.
Carol continued to watch him. Her mind began to race. Perhaps this is my chance, she thought, as she quietly got off the bed and tiptoed towards the doctor.
When she had gotten close to him, she stopped and began to contemplate what to do.
All she had to do was to forcefully push him and he would fall out of the open window.
That wouldn’t be so difficult, she thought.
But he seemed like such a nice person. Why would I want to kill such a nice doctor?
The debt collector must be watching me.
How she wished that there was another way out of this predicament! But still, she began to stretch out her hands towards him.
Just then, the doctor turned around. As he did, she quickly withdrew her hands. “My, you were able to get out of bed?”
“I felt restless. I wanted to take a look out the window.”
The doctor stepped aside. “Of course, go ahead. I guess you must be feeling bored, right? I’ll get a TV brought up to your room.”
“Thank you, Doctor. That would be very nice.”
After he left, Carol sank to the floor and began to hit it with her clenched fists.
“Are you all right, miss?” someone called.
With tears streaming down her face, she looked up. It was one of the nurses. Carol had not heard her come into the room.
“Are you okay, miss? What’s the matter? Why are you crying?” the nurse asked as she knelt down by her side.
Carol wiped her tears. “I’m just tired and confused. I really don’t know what to feel or think anymore.”
“I understand. Not everyone can cope with such an incident. I heard that there were four of you in that SUV, but you were the only one who made it out alive. That must feel awful. Were they your friends?” She was speaking in a soft coaxing voice, so as to comfort an obviously distraught patient.
Carol nodded and wiped away more tears. “Yes. We were going to the beach.”
“I’m really sorry. Let’s get you to your bed so you can rest, okay? I’m sure you’ll feel much better after a bit of a rest. How about that?”
Carol nodded. The nurse’s calm and professional behaviour helped soothe her frayed nerves. She wrapped her arm around the nurse’s shoulders and tried to get up, but her knees were feeling weak.
“You’re feeling groggy. Here, let me help you up,” the nurse said and wrapped her arm around Carol’s waist. Just as she pulled Carol up, the nurse staggered backwards. In the process, she stepped on the edge of the bedsheet that was on the floor. Instinctively, she let go of Carol to try to stabilise herself.
Still weak, Carol collapsed back on the floor, unable to hold herself up. She watched in shock as the nurse slipped and struggled to regain her balance. But the nurse was too close to the window. Realizing what was about to happen, the nurse began to scream, with her hands thrashing all around.
At the last moment, she grabbed onto the window blinds to steady herself. But the blinds only offered momentary relief. They were not designed to support the weight of a full-grown, adult woman. They easily gave way.
Carol was still on the floor. She thought of stretching out her hand to the nurse, but hesitated.
The last thing Carol saw was the look of horror in the nurse’s wide eyes before she fell out of the window.
Carol gasped as she heard the nurse’s screams. There was a loud thud, and then, silence.
It wasn’t long before she began to hear the sound of commotion on the ground outside.
Carol remained huddled on the floor. She was too frightened and weak to even muster the courage to look out the window.
She remained on the floor with her face buried in her hands, crying helplessly.
She was still in that same spot when the door barged open and the doctor rushed in with other personnel.
“Are you all right?” the doctor asked, kneeling beside her.
Carol managed to nod.
“I don’t know. She was trying to help me up. I think she slipped and then, and then, and then–” Carol stuttered as she struggled to complete the sentence.
The doctor patted her shoulder. “It’s all right. Come on, let’s get you back in bed.”
Carol was carried back into her bed. After she had been laid down, the doctor examined her briefly. “I think you’re going to be fine, miss. I’m sorry about that incident. It must really be terrible. I mean, having to witness such a tragic accident not long after surviving one.”
Carol reached up and held the doctor’s arm. “Please, Doctor. How is the nurse? Is she all right?”
The doctor’s eyes were heavy with grief as he shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
Carol gasped and covered her mouth. “Is she dead?”
The doctor nodded. “Unfortunately, yes. Such a terrible thing, isn’t it?”
“I’m so sorry!”
“You don’t have to be. After all, you have repaid your debt. Just like I knew you would. You could have saved the nurse if you’d really wanted to. But you chose not to.”
Shocked, Carol cringed backwards in fear.
“Relax, Carol. After all, you are no longer indebted,” the doctor said with a smile as he left the room.