Michael was standing outside the door to his grandfather's room, but he was afraid of going in.
His sister, Victoria told him that people with cancer lose all their hair and they shrivel up like prunes and their breath smells really bad. She also said that if you get too close you'll shrivel up and become a cancer person too. Michael only half believed this at first, but when he saw his father's face a couple hours ago after he got off the phone with the hospital, he began to think that Victoria might not be lying after all.
His dad was never one to cry – he was a stoic, solid man. He wasn't large, but he looked very dense, as if it would take a lot to knock him over, like a football player or maybe a bulldozer. He was a good dad, Michael thought, in a gruff, coarse kind of way. There was this one time when Michael accidentally broke the lamp in their living room, and when his father ran in, wide eyed and red, he simply broke into tears. But his dad didn't even yell at him. He instead picked him up and hugged him – a rare thing from his dad – and Michael stopped crying, and he felt the itchy whiskers from his beard, and then he laughed and pushed him away and everything was better. He didn't even get grounded.
And now his father stood outside that plain green door (such an ugly green, a vomit green), with his shining eyes and trembling beard (Michael wondered how beards could tremble) and he was afraid. He did not want to go through that door; it smelled funny, and not just hospital funny. It smelled like the time Nikki, their Dalmatian fell down the basement stairs and hurt her neck and fell asleep – at least that's what his dad told him. He had taken her to a place where she would feel better – because she kept whimpering – and when he came back he told Michael that Nikki was fine. Michael believed him, and he still believed that Nikki was in a hotel just for dogs, as his father told him even though he hadn't seen Nikki in several years. A part of him knew that she was dead from euthanization for he was not stupid, but the child part of him refused to believe anything other than Nikki living happily and eating to her heart's content, in Dog Hotel.
A nurse lady came out of the vomit door and gestured toward Michael's dad. "You can go in now. He was a bit jumpy earlier, and we gave him some sedatives to calm him down. He kept calling for you because he said he wanted to talk to you," she said. Michael's father nodded and swallowed audibly. He moved forward but she stopped him. She hesitated, and then reached for his hand. "You may want to brace yourself," she said. "He is very sick."
His father nodded, and she opened the vomit door, ushered them in and closed it quietly behind them.
They were standing in a drafty, white room. To their direct right was a small bathroom, more of an airplane bathroom than anything. Next to the bathroom was a blank bed and beyond that, Grandpa.
He lay on the bed, wheezing and staring at the ceiling. On the other side of his bed was a small window, which was open, allowing the winter white to drift in. Already there was a small pile on the windowsill. It must have been cold to lie there because all that covered Grandpa was a thin silk sheet, but he stared at the ceiling and wheezed some more and paid it no mind. There was an EKG hooked up by the corner of the bed post by his head. Michael thought it funny that a mean old man like Grandpa would have to depend on anything but himself, especially a machine – he hated them.
Michael's father gave a little cry and moved forward to shut the window. Then he brought up a chair from the corner of the room, sat down and took Grandpa's veiny, arthritic clawed hands in his. It looked like a scene from a soap opera.
Michael and Victoria stood off to one side, feeling awkward and second hand. Then his sister bent down and whispered into his ear, nudging him. "Go on, go see Grandpa." She forced him forward, with her hands on his shoulders. He glared at her for a moment before taking her hands off him and edged shyly towards the dying old man.
Now that he had a better view of Grandpa he could see how bad he looked. He was very thin, and he was bald. Michael could probably wrap his hand around his biceps and his fingers would meet. He was grey and puny, and it looked like his insides had shrunk, leaving large folds of excess skin hanging off his sides. Michael imagined a skeleton in a skin suit, without the stomach and liver and other organs. He could also see that the body that was his Grandpa was hooked up to one of those bags on a stand, and fluid was flowing through tubes into him. His father had told him that the bags were juice, and that Grandpa was too sick to drink through his mouth so doctors had to put the juice directly into him. What scared Michael the most, though, was the fact that his eyes were open and vacant. He also could not see the pupils of his grandfather, but that made no sense because he wasn't blind. How do people suddenly lose their pupils?
Then he realized that his grandfather's eyes were covered in some form of viscous, white substance. It kind of looked like condensed milk oozing from his tear ducts. When Michael saw this he recoiled, but his curiosity was more than his revulsion, and he decided to move forward to get a better look. Maybe the skeleton-skin-suit was filled with condensed milk, but the doctors put too much in and now it was bursting out of Grandpa. Maybe the juice bag was actually filled with condensed milk!
He was surprised to see that his father had not noticed the liquid; he sat there without moving, only grasping his own father's hand with his head bowed. He looked up when Grandpa moved.
"Oh, well if it isn't Tommy boy!" he said, voice rasping. And though it seemed he was blind, he looked at his hands, which were enfolded in his son's. "You mind not squeezing me too hard? I don't think I'm feeling just right at the moment."
Dad loosened his grip, and then tried to smile. "Hey, dad. How are you doing?"
"Just fine, son. I'm feeling just fine." He made as if to sit up, and groaned from the strain. Dad made a little noise and put one of his hands beneath his back. "Goddam arthritis. Getting old is one kind of bitch. Gimme a hand here, eh, Mikey boy?"
Michael jumped. He hadn't realized Grandpa had known his presence. "Sure, Grandpa." He moved to the side of the bed opposite his father and felt around for the bed controls. As he did this, his Grandpa spoke. "Don't say bitch, Mikey. Turns you bad and ugly inside, only for old men with old hearts. And don't say any of them other bad words, either." He patted Michael's arm. It was burning hot, hot enough for Michael to yelp, which he did. "Whas'a matter, kid? Afraid of your old granpappy?" he asked, then froze for a moment and looked at Michael, and then at his burning forearms with those Condensed Eyes. "Eh, Mikey..." he said, and then lay back down on the bed. "Aw, shit. I forgot 'bout that. Forgot 'bout that promise." He groaned again and rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Dad? What's wrong? Do you need the bathroom? A nurse?" Michael's father said.
"Shut it for a moment, son," And he did. For a few long minutes the three of them sat there in silence. Michael glanced at the door and saw that Victoria was sitting at the entrance quietly. She flashed him an I'm-invisible-don't-mind-me look and waved him away.
"I see ya there, Vicky. Don't try to put the old blindfold on this old man. C'mere and gimme a kiss."
She looked up, startled, then resolutely came over to the bed. "Hi Grandpa. How did you see me over in the corner?" As she said this she hugged him and kissed his forehead. He held her cheek as she did this, and caressed her face with his thumb. "Grandpa ain't stupid, Vicky. Ears are still good, though my sight is rightly for the shit hole. Aw, geez. Gotta stop swearing in front of you kids, you little brats." He sounded annoyed, but his face showed otherwise.
They fell into a silence. The clock above the bed ticked by, and the EKG beeped softly. Michael wondered if the nurse would come in and interrupt the moment. "You about sixteen, Vicky?" Grandpa suddenly asked.
"Yeah, in a couple of weeks, Gramps."
"Sorry Gramps won't be there, for your sweet sixteen or whatever you call it."
"Dad! Don't say that! You don't know what will happen in the next few weeks!"
Grandpa turned slowly towards Michael's dad. "I ain't much for the road anymore, Tommy. You know that, and I know that." He watched as his face crumpled, and his rough voice went quiet and soft. "Eh, don't look like that, Tom. I'm just voicing the truth. You know I don't have much time left on this world." He laughed. "Naw, but I have a reservation for an eternity somewhere else. Somewhere far from here."
"That's right, dad. Heaven is just around the corner." Tears drew rivets down Michael's father's face.
Grandpa looked at him for a long time. His mouth was a thin line, and he did not take away his gaze. Michael and Victoria looked at each other. "...Yes." he said. "Heaven."
He patted Michael's father on the arm, then turned back to Victoria. "But what's all this talk about dying?" He cried, with his arms thrown into the air. "We were talking about your birthday, Vicky. I got a present for, you, if you don't know." He plucked a card from the bedside table and placed it in Victoria's hands. "Happy birthday, for all its worth. Happy Early Birthday."
She opened the card and out fell a small golden ring. It was studded with a little diamond. Victoria held it in her hand. She stared at it, a little trinket twinkling in her hand under the cold fluorescent hospital lights, and said nothing.
Michael saw that Grandpa looked embarrassed. "I, uh, know it ain't your kind of thing, Vicky, but I bought it for your Grandmother when I proposed and she loved it so." He twiddled his thumbs and he was suddenly a young boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I didn't have much else then, and I thought you would, uh, like to have it. She loved it so," he repeated. "She did a lot." His voice lowered to a mumble. "You, could, uh, pawn it for some cash, I guess, if you want. I know it ain't your kind of thing."
Michael observed the unravelling scene with the simple-mindedness of a child. He had never seen Grandpa look remotely embarrassed, and he had never seen Victoria verbally unarmed, without a sharp retort hidden up her sleeves. He suddenly realized that something important was happening in the cold room. He looked at the funny white stuff coming out of Grandpa's eyes and he thought that maybe he wasn't that bad a grandpa, for a mean old man.
Victoria wordlessly threw her arms around his neck and he drew in a sharp intake of breath. Michael saw that her shoulders shook, but she made no sound. And when she spoke her voice only trembled just a bit. "Love it Grampa. Won't ever take it off." She held him tighter, and Grandpa put his arms around her. "No pawn." Michael thought that she wanted to say something else, but she didn't.
He smiled, and he saw that his son was smiling, and Michael couldn't help but smile. Then Grandpa gently pushed Victoria away, embarrassed to display any form of emotion. "Just don't be going around proposing to the first guy you meet!" he laughed, but no one else did. "Eh, but you are beautiful, Vicky, you're one beautiful granddaughter. Good to see you before I kick the bucket. Hey, come now, don't be going off like my idiot son over there," he said as he watched her expression. He gestured to Michael's dad, who had backed off and was now sitting on the windowsill, still smiling. "Chin up, Vicky, it's... a good thing. It's a damn good thing. And stop grinning, Tom. Look like a dumbass." He blinked, and the liquid from his eyes oozed out.
Michael could not believe neither his father nor his sister noticed the stuff coming out of his grandfather's eyes. Then it came to him that maybe they did, but they were just ignoring it so as not to be rude. He decided to follow suit.
Grandpa cleared his throat, and coughed. Some white stuff came out of his mouth and down the corner of his chin. He groaned and immediately Michael's father was at his side again with his hands enclosed in his. "I'm going to call the nurse. Make you feel better."
"You do that, Tommy boy, you do that."
His father got up and walked to the end of the room, then looked back. Michael saw a face twisted with emotions for a moment before he turned and exited the room. It became very silent, and very awkward. Michael started twiddling his thumbs. His grandfather watched him with his white eyes.
After a minute or so he called him over. "Boy, stop fiddling around and come over here." He paused, swallowed (more of that condensed milk looking stuff seemed to come out of his mouth as he did), then spoke again. "I...I uh, got you something too." He looked around the room, and not finding what he was looking for, he turned to Victoria. "Vicky, be a good granddaughter and get me some writing script and a pen, would ya? And don't bother hurrying yourself up about it. Me and ol' Mikey gotta talk about – some things."
He and Michael watched her leave the door, her skirt breezing along as she went. "Beautiful," Grandpa said. "Gonna have a shitload of problems when she comes of age. Goddam men and their goddam hormones." He sighed and sank into the sheets. Some Condensed Milk had dribbled onto the sheets and Michael saw with interest that it did not soak in and dampen the woven silk as water would, but it instead seemed to hover along and pool around Grandpa.
Grandpa gave him a light slap on the cheek. "Concentrate, boy! Not got much time before she comes back."
He studied Grandpa, and Grandpa studied him back. "You don't talk much, do you?" Grandpa asked. "You one of them quiet, crazy ones? You better not try to smother me in my sleep, Mikey." He chuckled at the thought of a third – grader throwing a pillow over his head and suffocating him. "I guess it's all for the better, an' it I won't get no more distractions than necessary." He coughed into his hand. Michael watched his body spasm. It sounded like he was trying to dislodge his lungs from his chest cavity. He wondered when his father would get back with the nurse.
"Thing is, Mikey," He said, sighing, the amusement melting away from him, "Is that I'm not a good person. I've done some bad shit in my life." He glanced solemnly at Michael, who stared back unmovingly. "Haven't killed nobody, not directly, but I've gotten as close to taking someone's life as possible." Some moments ticked by. He remained silent. Finally Michael decided to elaborate.
"Grandpa, what do you mean?"
He jumped at the noise then smiled. "Well, hey! Goddam if I don't say so myself, but Mikey can speak. Yes, indeedy.
"What I mean, Mikey, is that there are some things in life that are worse than death. Living too long a life is a hell-on-earth experience," he said, then stopped. "Damn if that ain't irony if I never seen one in my life! Living is worse than death." He broke out into laughter again, large baleful guffaws that reached the corners of the empty room.
"Grandpa...I don't understand. When's dad coming back?" Michael asked. He was feeling more and more uncomfortable.
Grandpa looked out the hospital window. It was getting dark outside. "In a minute, Mike. In a minute. Just sit tight, and, and just listen to my story. And I'm sorry," he added, after a moment's pause. "Because no fucking eight year old should have to bear the shit that I'm about to tell you. God works in mysterious ways, if there is one, on this planet we call home.
"Yeah...He does indeed."
"My real name is Miguel Consuelez. I am not your grandfather, and yet I am in some ways. Let me say that if I hadn't fucked around and tried to swim in the deep end of the pool then I would not be your grandfather, nor would you even exist. Still, I gotta say that I stand by my choice, because despite it all I guess you and your father and sister were worth it all.
"I was born in Mexico. Don't really know where exactly, but it doesn't really matter. All I know is that I lived a hard life being some cruel couple's slave for the first years of my life. Don't know my parents, you see. The people who took me in told me that one day I just up and turned up on their doorstep one day. Bullshit, of course. I'd more likely believe they shot my parents, left them for dead, then 'adopted me,'" Grandpa said, waving his hands in sarcasm, "to wash the dishes and sweep the floor, take care of the house while they were out. You know, some other shit like that. Mikey, my adopted parents were criminals. Small time, of course, nothing serious. Just two desperate people in a poor city in good old Mexico and one scared little boy. I remember this one time when they had had company over, someone from a wealthy background. Obviously no one would be pleased to see a small, dirty, beaten – oh yes, did they beat me – child for dinner, so I was locked in the basement and told to keep my mouth shut or I would get it later. As soon as that door closed I screamed so loud I thought the house would fall down. No way was I going to stay in that dark, smelly, cell. Pappi and Mama – they told me that was what I was to call them, God knows why. Made me feel like dirt every time I did. But look at me, telling you my life story," Grandpa said, throwing his hands into the air, chuckling under his breath. "And I sound like such a pessimist whenever I do! Mikey, boy, tell me next time I get carried away, eh?"
"Sure, grandpa." Michael said. He was fascinated by this story. He was not sure where Grandpa was going with this story, nor did he understand any of it. It made no sense. He had recently learned from his elementary teacher, Ms. Kalin, about people of different races and culture. Grandpa couldn't possibly be Mexican, because Michael, his father and Victoria were all of Polish – Canadian descent. Meaning Grandpa had to be to. Dad had told him Grandpa had been in the HollowCast, or something. "Grandpa, you're not making any sense. And where's Victoria and Dad?"
Grandpa 'Miguel Consuelez' looked at Michael, then shook his head. "Dunno, son. They'll be back soon. Lemme finish my story, so shut up and listen for a moment." He cleared his throat. "Damn. Not used to speaking so long.
"I was beaten to within an inch of my life, pardon the cliché, and I was put in the barn with the pigs. But forget that story," He said, watching Michael's dumbfounded expression, "What you should know, Mikey, is that I am of two identities. One, I am Mikhail Bezryck of Auschwitz. Two, I am, or was, Miguel Consuelez of some God who knows where Mexican slum. Pappi and Mama named me that. You know, I don't think I know their real names." He hung his head.
"I grew up as Miguel and I will die as Mikhail. Hmm," He said thoughtfully, "Some hell of a weird shit when I put it that way. And to explain this to an eight year old...
"One day I decided that I had had enough of that bastard Pappi and that bitch Mama." He said, the bitterness barely hidden behind the fake amusement. "So I ran. Don't know how it happened. I just got up and moved my legs and I never stopped moving them until I could no more."
He coughed again, but this time it sounded more violent and retching. Bits of white flew out in from his mouth, and from his nose now too, Michael saw with horror. The whiteness didn't just fly out all over the place either. It kind spread out in the air in slow motion, as if held back by some force, and then collected into larger white blobs suspended into the air. It was very eerie, as if Grandpa was surrounded by a crowd of dim light bulbs (the blobs glowed ever so slightly). The white 'Condensed Milk' goop that had pooled around Grandpa earlier had lost its consistency, and was about as viscous as hot wax. Grandpa saw Michael staring and spread his arm like a saint. Some of the white blobs stuck to his pale skin as if magnetized. "Pretty, in a terrible sort of way, huh?"
"Grandpa, you can see that stuff?"
"In a moment, Mikey. Almost done here." Grandpa said, interrupting Michael. "So I'm on some road, half dead, passed out in the dirt, and I'm thinking maybe running wasn't such a good idea. I could have at least got some food or something before I left, but when you're fourteen years old you don't really know better." As he spoke he glanced down at his arms. Michael saw that his eyes were very tight.
"Then all of a sudden I see this snake directly in front of my feet, just coiled up and sitting there like it was watching me sleep."
"It bit you, didn't it?"
Grandpa solemnly looked at his arm. There were scars etched along the length of his left wrist, all the way to the elbow. Each scar was paired – two small holes, every few centimetres, slanted this way and that, so that it looked almost as if it were an art piece. Upon closer inspection, Michael could see that the scars were dark brown and drawn tight, obviously very old wounds. They appeared to be sorted into a rough shape of some kind, but before Michael could determine them Grandpa pulled his sleeves back over his arms, obviously pained.
"It definitely wasn't no ordinary snake." He said. "For one, I never heard it hiss the whole time it was biting me. It just...lay there, watching me, with those goddamn milky eyes. Yes, it had white eyes. And its scales were very cold. I know that snakes are cold blooded, but under the heat of the sun there was no way it could have been as cold as it had been." He shuddered. "But the worst part, the thing that really set me off yelling was that it blinked." He looked at Michael. "Even you know that snakes don't blink! What in God's name is that all about? It blinked!" He was working himself into an aggression. Michael got out of his seat and moved to the other side of the bed. The EKG began to beep at a quicker pace.
Beep beep beep beepbeepbeepbeep
"Fucking snake biting me! And it wouldn't stop! How many times can it bite you before it runs out of venom! Jesus Mary Christ it wouldn't stop! Thirteen times it bit me, and each one hurt more than the last! By God, my arm was a motherfucking pincushion that day. And they stayed on after I switched! After I switched! How is that possible!?" Grandpa screamed, and then he gasped and fell back. A wave of goo flew forth from his mouth and splattered along the length of his body like a milky waterfall.
"Grandpa grandpa nurse nurse help help Daddy daddy DADDY-"
The nurse burst through the ugly green door, and, shoving Michael out of the way. He actually felt his feet leave the floor as she pushed, and he slammed into the wall with tremendous force. The EKG buzzed and started to fuzz out, like the white noise that comes out from a broken TV.
Beep beep beep beep beep beep
The nurse leaned over, blocking Michael's view. He thought he saw her hand holding a syringe needle, but he wasn't sure.
"Grandpa grandpa grandpa-"
"Shut up, kid." Moved away from Grandpa and turned to Michael. "He's going to be okay, for a while longer."
"Where's daddy and Vicki? I want to go home. Please, Miss, I'm tired." He felt tears coming to his eyes and he held them back, afraid the nurse would laugh.
"I'm going to look for them. You stay here and watch your grandpa, okay?" She scruffed his head, smiled a forced smile, and then walked out of the room. Michael heard her footsteps echo down the hall. He wondered if he should leave too, but he knew that grandpa wasn't feeling too good and he might die any time. He reluctantly walked back to the bedside.
The EKG was at its normal pace again, and it was quiet as well. Dad and Victoria wouldn't even know that anything had happened if Michael decided not to tell them. Even most of the white blobs had gone; they weren't spread over the bed anymore. And Grandpa was breathing softly, and he was looking at Michael. Michael yipped and jumped back.
"Mikey…" He gestured toward himself, and Michael moved forward. "Almost done here, eh? Just listen a while more."
With a tremendous effort, he shifted back onto the inclined bed and with a sigh gently lowered himself back, his head lolling to the side a bit. "God, I'm feeling not so good. But you gotta listen Mikey, listen."
"Grandpa, I really don't wanna anymore. I wanna go home. I wanna go."
"This is important, Michael. Give me a few more minutes and you'll be free of me." After a few false starts, he resumed his story. "So, this demon fucking snake bites me, right? And it bites and bites and bites until my whole left arm is a slab of bloody meat. I'm lying there, and I can't feel my arm, and then I can't feel my shoulder, then I puke my guts out and I can't feel the left side of my body so good anymore. Things getting dark, right? And I'm even cold, in the afternoon in Mexico. So I'm there, crying and I even think I pissed myself and I bet I was smelling pretty bad now, and then in front of me is a man." He pulled Michael close. He yelped. "Just there, right? Not even walking up or nothing, just not there and suddenly there."
"Grandpa, my arm –"
"Shut your mouth and listen."
He coughed and the whiteness spewed out again, this time all over Michael. He let out a shriek and jerked his arm out of Grandpa's reach. He scrabbled wildly, trying to scrape the white goo off his arm. But instead of flinging it off it clung to his other hand and stuck there, like glue.
"Get offa me! Get out – Ahhh!" Michael screamed, a baby once again. Then he stopped and stared in fascinated horror. The goo was dissipating. For a moment he thought that the goo was melting away but he realized that his skin was absorbing it.
"Nothing you can do about it, Michael. It's done."
Of Michael felt panic rise in his chest. "What is this Grandpa? What is it? Make it get away!"
Grandpa shook his head. "God forgive. I didn't want this to happen." With that he said no more and hung his head. "Please, boy, just let me do this quickly and get it over with. Come." He beckoned with his hand, but Michael shook his head. "Please, come." And this time Michael came, slowly, and shaking, his hand throbbing and cold. He felt the panic drain out of him as his grandfather's voice mesmerized him into submission. His mind began to faze out, and it was very difficult for him to concentrate.
"I'm sorry, Mikey. I didn't want nothing of this to happen. It's my fault. I'm..."
Beyond the fog in his head, Michael felt his grandfather trembling. He heard his chest hitch every time he drew in a breath, and the sob in his throat, things only a toddler would do. He bet that if he touched his grandfather's eyes, they would be wet.
Michael sat on the bed beside his Grandpa.
"This man… he wore a long brown coat – a trench coat. Underneath he was wearing an expensive looking suit, like he had just left a wedding. There was even a flower poking from his front pocket. God, I was terrified. What scared me the most was his smile. He was grinning as wide as can be, but anyone with a brain could tell that he wasn't really smiling at all.
"He looked at me, and offered me a choice." As he said this, Michael moved closer to Grandpa until he was within touching distance again. Then he moved closer and Grandpa took his arm and pulled him close.
"Can you believe that? He didn't introduce himself or anything, didn't give a name, nothing. He went up to me and said, 'Do you want to live or do you want to die?'"
He was looking at Michael, but Michael could tell he wasn't really looking at him. "So sudden, is what it was. But you wouldn't believe how bad I was looking. My arm was like a balloon, all tight and red. If I got poked with a nail it would have popped, and there'd be no arm left. Wasn't no natural bite, for sure. Bad, bad shit was in that snake.
"He told me he could save me, Mikey. He said he could stop the bleeding and make me well again. But he said that I have to do something for him in return. I scratch your back, you scratch mine."
He took Michael and made him lie down next to him. He draped his arm over his chest, and then pulled him so Michael could feel his breath on his face. Strangely, he felt oddly comfortable.
"What do you think I could do? I would die if I didn't accept, so of course I said yes. But he also said there was something else. Do you know what it is?"
"He asked you to kill someone, didn't he, Grandpa?"
Grandpa laughed. "Now, how did you know that? You are one good detective, Mikey.
"I don't know whether he was a devil or an angel. He saved me, yes, but in return I had to do something for him. I had to take someone else's life." He passed a weary hand over his eyes. "It doesn't matter whether this person did good or bad things in their life. It's still killing. You know?"
"I agreed, of course. But he said that Miguel Consuelez had to die, no matter what. He said it was planned, and it had to happen. I think I was crying again, telling him that he was a liar. But he said that he could make me someone else instead, put me into someone else's identity. I would live, but I would not live my original life again. And despite having a shitty childhood, I could no more part with it than I could part with my snake bitten arm. I couldn't, see? Me was all I had, then. I had no friends, food, possessions, parents, nothing. Just me.
"He gave me time to think about it. And I had plenty of time – when I spoke to him, it seemed like time went by real slowly. Minutes were like hours in his company. In the end I decided that I had no choice, really. So I said yes. Then he told me that all I had to do was trace a circle on the back of the person I was to kill, with my finger. Then I was to kill myself and he would take care of the rest.
"I...I didn't know what else to do. Sometimes I wish I said no. But what choice did I have?"
"You could have said no."
Grandpa looked at Michael, scrutinizing him. "If you were in my position, you would not think so quickly. Realize that if I had said no, then I would have died, and you would have been a very different person right now. You might not have even existed."
He made a shooing motion with his hand. "Ah, but what do you know? You're just a child, and you have no business in the affairs of adults."
Anyways, I killed the woman. Snuck up on her in the marketplace, I did. I remember her bargaining with the vendor while she balanced her child on her hip." He was silent for a long moment. "She was buying a bag of rice from the man. She was fretting over how she was going to get home, because she only had enough money to buy food, but not enough for a bus fare.
"I tried not to think about it. Was a kid, you know? Not much older than you. I was scared. I wanted to live. She had had plenty of more living than me. It wasn't fair for me. It wasn't fair for me to make this choice! So don't even try to contradict me. She had a kid, so what? I was a kid. So shut up, Michael. I see that look. Don't. Just don't."
He put his hands over his eyes and weeped quietly. Michael moved to comfort him but he pushed him away. "I jumped in front of a car afterwards. Didn't feel a thing." He sighed and wiped his eyes. "Like I said, I've done some bad things in my life, and I ain't proud of them. I'm glad to go. Damn glad, and I deserve everything that's coming to me."
Again Michael considered what he should do to make his grandfather feel better, but nothing came to mind. He instead decided to ask another question.
"So the trench coat man put you into this body?"
"That's right, Mikey. Only he was a lying bastard, and that when I signed our contract I never read between the lines."
"He took me, not my body – but me – I don't know how to explain it. He...he pulled me out of my body and put me into someone else. It was terrible. Life ain't supposed to work like that, you know? You can't just rip out...rip out your..."
"I don't like that word, but yeah, that's it, I guess. It's not natural to pull a soul out of a dead body and then to put it back in, in some other vessel. That's what they are, you know? Just a shell, like, like, hell, I dunno, a fucking peanut shell." He laughed out loud, a real genuine one. "You can't break a peanut shell and eat the stuff inside and put it back together, and it'll be all fine again, like Humpty Dumpty. It won't be the same. Once it's done, that egg is gone. Remember that, Mikey. Don't go chasing your shell once you break it."
"I don't get it, Grandpa."
He ignored Michael's remark.
"So he pulls me out of Miguel Consuelez. Hurts, though I don't have any pain nerves or nothing. It was more of a numb, blackness feeling, like I was falling into a hole and I couldn't get out."
Michael looked at his arm in horror, the one that had been splashed by the whiteness. Grandpa was too distracted to notice.
"He said I only had to kill that one lady, and he would leave me alone. He said that I was free after she dies, but I wasn't. Every now and then he came back and said I had to kill another person. Same drill, every time. Trace a circle on their back when they're not looking, leave, and forget you ever did it. It was a horrible way to live. The nights after I killed I would just sit in my chair and not do anything, not say anything, just become a puppet. I didn't want to feel anything after I did the trench coat man's work.
"You know what the trench coat man is? I think he might be the angel of death. But an evil one, not like the righteous one in the bible, a twisted version of an angel. I think that's what he is, or she or whatever it is. He gave me a second chance, but with many catches. And, sometimes I wonder if he was the one who got that goddam snake on me in the first place." He glared at the wall. "Lying bastard.
"Souls aren't meant to be put in other bodies. I had a lot of trouble getting control of 'Mikhail Bezryck.' My hands would shake when I was distracted, and I couldn't move without a cane, let alone run, in the first years. And all this at age thirty five! I must have shit my pants so many times. I bet I used my trousers as a bathroom more than the toilet, back then.
"And even now, I never have one hundred percent control of my body. And you know the worst part, Mikey? You know how souls aren't meant to have multiple vessels? Every now and then this body tries to reject me, and it tries to push me out, It happens when I get sick, but more often when I lose control of my emotions – because those things are part of a soul, not a body. You understand what I'm telling you? I leak out of myself, like a crack in a dam. And if I don't get a hold of myself quick, the dam explodes and my...my being will rush out. And it ain't supposed to be out in the open air, unprotected."
Michael recalled the whiteness, the milky goop that had spewed out of Grandpa, and shuddered. The stuff had splashed onto him – Grandpa's soul had touched his body. And it hurt. Well, not exactly hurt, but it felt bad. Wrong. Whenever he went to mass with his family and the preacher spoke about Jesus ascending to heaven, he would always imagine a bright, shiny soul in the silhouette of its owner bobbing up into the sky. It seemed, however, that a soul was poisonous, and direct contact with it would hurt you. Never in all his life did Michael believe that there was no Heaven – his parents – his father, in particular, had drilled that notion into his head so many times it was no wonder ne believed it. But he began to wonder, that day. Heaven was everything good. Souls apparently, were bad, and he reinforced this thought by touching his 'infected' arm, which was numb and cold. In reality, if the very core of a human being was a cold, misshapen, gelatinous toxic mess, then, what, exactly, did Michael (and his Grandpa) have to hope for when he died?
Grandpa seemed to understand what he was thinking and consoled him. "Don't forget, Michael, that there is still plenty of good left in the world. Definitely not as much as the evil, in the world, of course, but enough to make it worth fighting for." He grunted humorously "Goddam, look at me, trying to comfort you with clichés. Next thing I know I'll be coming up with the whole 'hope is what counts' bullshit.
"No, what I mean to say, is that souls are governed by the actions of their owners. Do something good, and your soul stays okay. Do something bad," he said, waving his finger at Michael as if he were scolding him, "Well, then your soul ends up like mine. Cold, dead, and tainted. A reflection of who I am."
This struck Michael as odd. "You're not a bad person, though. You had no choice! You felt terrible after what you did! You still feel terrible. And if you hadn't done what you did, you would have died-"
"But that's just the thing!" cried Grandpa, clearly stressed. "Maybe I wouldn't have died!"
"What are you-"
"I've been thinking. Obviously that snake wasn't there by chance. I am a complete fool if I couldn't see that the snake and the trench coat man are the same. It was probably just a form he used, to do what he does. I think," he said, pausing, unsure of how to continue, "I think I was being tested, you know? I think he was trying to see what would I would do if I was put into a situation entirely out of my control. And I think I failed." He rolled up his sleeves and showed Michael the marks the snake had scored into his flesh.
"One, two, three, four. Five, six, seven, all the way to thirteen," He said, counting each pair of snakebites with his finger. "One for each time the snake bit me." Tears were running down his wizened face, and his voice trembled. He was finally nothing but a miserable, sad old man. "Now look at them, look at them Michael. Look closely."
Michael felt a terror rising in him as he bent down to inspect the scars once more. And he saw, now that Grandpa was willingly showing him the wounds that had so pained him, both body and mind, that among the thirteen bites that were inflicted upon him, one hot summer's day somewhere in Mexico, that one pair stood out from the rest. It was an angry red, and veins could be seen faintly beneath the skin. It had risen from Grandpa's skin, a small hill above the other twelve scars. But the thing that scared Michael the most was that he could hear it. Pulsing.
He drew back with a scream, jumping from the bed and onto his feet, backing away from Grandpa. But he could still hear it, pumping along, slowly and quietly, like a heartbeat. He drew in breath after breath in small, frightful gasps, and then he heard the beat quicken.
Ba-bump Ba-bump Ba-bumpBa-bumpBa-bump
It was alive, surely, moving and twisting with the beat. And then, in his terror and disgust, Michael felt a petrifying horror run through him and up his spine, as his very soul shrunk within him. For the beat of the scar matched perfectly to the rhythm of his own heart.
He let out a low moan and sank to his knees. He finally understood why Grandpa had bothered to tell him his story.
"One, two, three, four. Five six, seven, all the way to thirteen," Grandpa said, weeping harder than ever, but without making a sound. "The first bite was for a woman, holding her child against her hip, buying some goddam rice from a street vendor in Mexico. Two, a man crossing the street from a coffee shop in Europe. Three, a prisoner, caught selling women as a living somewhere in India." He continued to name the people he had killed, all over the world to Michael, as he sat on the floor, frozen and lifeless. He felt a coldness steal through his heart, and he looked down at the circle Grandpa had drawn on his arm, using the white goo as ink. He wondered briefly what would have happened if Grandpa had managed to draw it on his back. His heart continued to beat, throb.
"And thirteen. A boy in Ontario, eight years old, innocent and pure, who had his whole life ahead of him."
And at this, Grandpa let out a heart wrenching howl of misery that moved even Michael, who suddenly could not bring himself to hate the old man who had killed him. He saw that his soul was spilling out of every crevice of his body in waves, gushing forth from him, a quantity so plentiful that it flowed over the bed and onto the floor, so much that it could not possibly have been contained in one man.
Michael felt it cover his knees and his soles without emotion. It was numbing him slightly, but what was a little more sadness before he died? He wondered if he would go to heaven or hell, and realized that they did not exist. Not to him, anymore.
He looked at Grandpa and saw that he was convulsing violently, his body throwing this way and that. But his eyes were looking straight at Michael, and they glowed with remorse. Forgive me, was what they said, plain and simple.
At that moment Victoria and their father burst through the door. Behind them came the nurse who had postponed Grandpa's death. They were both breathing hard, and Michael's father had a manic expression painted across his face. He pushed past Victoria and fell to Grandpa's side.
But he can't, don't you see that? Thought Michael. He can't because he's already stepping through the door. And once you're in, you can't come back.
"Michael! Get up!" Victoria screamed, falling to his side. She slipped her hands beneath his shoulders and tried to haul him up, and he slumped to the side, head lolling, limbs dead.
"Michael-" Victoria screamed again, and she was fighting back tears. "Get up – can't let you see this – cmon-" She dragged him across the floor, in a desperate attempt to get him out of the room. "Help me!" She screamed at the nurse, who was standing in the corner. "Oh my God, he's just a kid!" She shrieked, and her voice cracked, sending echoes through the corridors of the quiet hospital that was a tomb. "Can't you see that he can't see this?"
"Why not?" the nurse said, eyes blank and arms pulled taut, around herself. She had a look of extreme stupidification on her face.
The lights are on, but nobody is home, Michael thought.
"Because he's a child, he's fucking eight and I'm his sister so I gotta get him out-"
Behind them, Grandpa was choking loudly on the white goop pumping out of him. He couldn't even get a breath in. His hands clawed helplessly in the air, then fell upon his throat. Michael's father, who couldn't see the whiteness coming out, nor could he comprehend it if he did, clutched at the gnarled digits and put his forehead against Grandpa's chest and began to cry, loud and ugly.
"He has to watch this," the nurse said, beginning to smile. "That man deserves everything that's coming to him."
"What – No – HE'S MY BROTHER!" Victoria said, and knowing that she could not hope to move Michael from Grandpa's sightless eyes, crouched over him and covered his face (which was abnormally cold), finally allowing herself to cry.
The nurse smiled even wider at the impending chaos, and at Victoria's defeated figure. "He's my bounty," she whispered, and her eyes shown white – a milky, opaque white, the eyes of a snake.
Terror seized Michael and he tried to move away, anywhere but here, but the infection had spread too far, and his body was all but gone. His vision was dim and blurring, and he could hear Victoria sobbing faintly in his ear. Down below, deep down below him, not in terms of height, but in terms of feeling – he felt something tug loose, and an unfeeling wave of pain emerged from him.
Victoria saw her brother's eyes slowly roll up into their sockets and she screamed. Behind her, Grandpa was slowly fading away, like a very old wind up toy finally reaching the end of its life. Her father had his head on his chest, almost as if he were sleeping or listening to a heartbeat that was slowly disappearing.
The room fell dead quiet. All that could be heard was Victoria's ragged, shocked sobs, muffled in Michael's hair.
Fainted, she thought. That's all it is, he'll be fine later. If I could just get him out-
The nurse coughed, quietly. She looked very out of place, and seemed to be very embarrassed and ashamed, at freezing up the moment when everything counted on her. Victoria knew, however, that there was nothing that could have been done to help her grandfather. She knew it the moment he gave her that ring. She looked at it now, and it winked cheerily back at her. If only she had gotten Michael out sooner. She shouldn't have let him see this.
"The other staff should have been here by now," She said, looking at Victoria's father nervously. "There must be a problem. I-I think I might go check it, now. I will send someone in," She added, then quickly headed for the door. Victoria's father did not move, and only lay there, on the dead body of her grandfather.
The nurse let out a little 'Oh!' and turned around, as if she forgot something. She moved towards Victoria's grandfather and passed a hand over his eyes, glancing at Victoria's father, who lay unmoving. And for a second, Victoria thought she saw the nurse inhale deeply, through the mouth, as if a particularly good draft of air passed before her. Then, without a word, she turned round again, knelt beside Victoria, and silently took her brother in her arms, with definite ease, as if he were as light as a pillow. Then she stooped down, and touched Victoria's face that was hidden behind her hair, very quietly and gently. Again, Victoria heard her inhale deeply, this time maybe to calm herself from the gravely quiet room. "I'll send someone in," She repeated, looking at Victoria this time, as her father was clearly not listening, and walked out of the room, pushing past the ugly green door and down the hall, her heels clicking on the cold tile floor.
He will be fine, Victoria thought, but she couldn't help but cry a little more, at the sadness and the misery, but mostly at the shock, because before the nurse left the room with her brother, she smiled, and Victoria could see that she wasn'treally smiling at all.