“May I come in?”
Eyebrows of steel grey knitted, and the old man scratched at wiry strands on a jutting chin. “Are you selling something?”
Standing to one side, the old man waved a hand toward the interior and his visitor stepped past him. The old man shut the door and kicked an ungainly pile of magazines and mail further against the wall of the small foyer. The glossy pages slid back into place with sullen defiance. Giving up, he followed the visitor into the kitchen.
The tiny room barely had space for a two-person table, refrigerator, range, and other basic amenities. Cigarette ash stained the upper cabinet doors and ceiling tiles a burnt orange. However, the floor and counter spaces were clean, albeit worn, just as the old man himself. Breakfast dishes still littered the sink but one of the cupboards over it was open, his visitor interrupting him in the middle of clean-up.
A half-smoked cigarette glowed in the dish on the small table; the old man sat down and plucked it up in bony fingers that trembled with age and old wounds. He was clad in an old fishing vest over a battered turtle neck and jeans. Sunken green eyes studied the stranger as the other took the seat across from him. Taking a drag from the short cylinder, the old man blew a whisp of smoke to one side. “Why are you here?”
“Will you give me something?”
“I recognized you,” the old man blurted. “I knew you weren’t selling anything.” He turned his eyes away towards the muted television over the breakfast nook. “But why are you here?”
“Will you give me something?”
Standing, the old man crushed the cigarette in the dish, brushing his fingers together to rid them of the ash, then strode to the refrigerator. From the bottom shelf, he retrieved a grey fireproof safe. It took up the entire surface of the kitchen table. The stranger produced a key, unlocked it before he could protest, and lifted the lid. Exhaling, the old man blinked hard, cursed under his breath, and sat down with deliberate slowness.
Inside, the contents glistened, then dulled. When the stranger first entered the apartment, the old man thought it was his imagination when the atmosphere dulled to smoke-colored drab, the stains of cigarette emission spreading over everything else. It was as though the stranger exuded realness, the old man’s apartment and all within appearing sketched in cartoon lines and newsprint and the stranger was rich three-dimensional detail. When the realness fell upon the treasure, the desire he felt towards them flickered, the light glinting off them darkening, the heady scent of age dissipating, and he realized the effect was not his imagination.
The old man glared. A resentment soured in his stomach and he looked away toward the television again.
The stranger picked up a photograph of four soldiers, one bare-headed, the rest in combat helmets. “I remember this.”
“My old unit.” The old man delivered the words in a harsh grumble. “They’re dead now. All but me. That’s what I got when they died,” he added, nodding at the bronze medal with inset eagle the stranger picked up next. Wrapped in a square of velvet, the old man kept it polished, but like the rest of the treasures, the stranger’s presence made it appear dull. The resentment deepened. He reached up to push the lid of the safe closed but hesitated when the stranger’s gaze met his own.
Setting the medal down, the stranger picked up a sapphire-blue velvet box and flicked it open. A modest diamond set in a simple silver band glittered within for a brief moment, then faded; the old man’s fingers tightened on the edge of the lid until the knuckles turned pasty white. Scraping a thumb across a suddenly wet eye, he cleared his throat but kept silent.
The stranger said nothing of the ring. He said nothing about the hip flask, even though it did not glitter even once before succumbing to dullness. The old man felt less resentment about that, more pain. The same with a silver cigarette case, the words “De votre fleur, Noémi” etched in flowing script; burning accompanied the sight, flaring in the old man’s stomach and he touched his wet eyes again, gritting his teeth.
When the stranger brought out a golden pocket watch, the old man did not recognize it. “How did that get in there?”
“No man is without one.” The stranger’s slender fingers cradled the timepiece, offering it to the old man as though it were a sleeping baby. Sheer, enveloping sensations of relief swept over him, sudden and fierce in their dispersal of his unshed tears and resentment. His whole body shook with a pulse akin to the blows of a hammer upon an anvil. It was all he could do to reach both hands and take the watch. But when he did, the sensation passed, leaving behind a chilling uncertainty, one he had noticed only in the sleepless hours of the morning when reality and memory awoke him. He shivered, the watch slipping from his nerveless fingers and clattering back into the safe.
At the bottom of the safe, a paper sack rustled. A crease on the side moved in and out, something stirring within. Before the stranger could pick it up, the old man snatched it away. He shivered and set it on the table beyond the stranger’s reach. “I don’t know how that got in there.” Brownish fluid left drips on his hand from where he had touched the bag and he wiped his hands on his thighs, revulsion curdling his stomach.
“Let me see.”
“No, it’s all right.” Standing, the old man picked up the bag and crossed to the trashcan. He made as if to drop it down among the coffee grounds and steak bones, but found himself setting it back on the table and sitting down again. He blinked and stared at the bag which leaked more of the ooze onto the worn tabletop. A faint odor of rotten fruit issued from the dampness. “It’s all right. What else we got in there?” he forced himself to inject a note of cheeriness into his voice.
“Let me see.”
“Okay, but don’t look too long. Gets over your hands. Throw it away when your-” the old man’s voice died into a rasp and he swallowed.
In the stranger’s hands, the paper bag retained its appearance, though the odor intensified, the rotten fruit smell melding with sour milk. Opening the bag, the stranger removed a corroded metal cube, rust flaking at one corner where the brown fluid seeped out. He handed the cube to the old man who set it down immediately, wiping his hands again. “Let me see,” the stranger pleaded, his voice gentle.
“It doesn’t open,” the old man tapped it. “Look.” Indeed, no telltale cracks hinted at a way to slide it apart. No keyhole or even hinges denoted away to open it.
“Let me see.”
“Look, it’s leaking even more.” Scraping his chair back, the old man sucked at his teeth, crossing his arms and cringing at the drops that spattered from the table to linoleum.
“Let me see.”
“Okay!” With a sudden shout, the old man threw up his hands. “Okay! Just…yeah, just, fine. Okay.” The curdling feeling roiled in his stomach and he wrapped his arms around himself, hunching over in his chair, staring at the safe box. He snuck a glance over as the stranger pressed the sides of the metal cube; white-hot orange and red blossomed from the area he touched, spreading shimmering waves of heat out from under his hands. All at once, the cube melted, molten iron curling and pooling away to reveal the contents. The old man shut his eyes but not in time to avoid the sight.
The afterimage accused him in the darkness behind his eyelids: a gelatinous oblong shape of oily, putrid muscle. Amidst the tumorous growth and pus-leaking cysts, one might see the vague shape of a human heart, rocking with slight beat as it oozed tar-like sludge and faint ebony shadow. The rotting fruit and spoiled milk smell choked the old man and he squeezed his eyes shut tighter, his gorge rising. Other odors materialized with each passing moment, flooding his nostrils, pushing past his lips and snarling in his throat – open latrine ditches coupled with the stench of gangrene wounds, the vomit-splattered ditches with sharp, cheap perfume of nearby dancehalls, and the head-hammering overwhelm of ammonia and anti-septic and hospitals.
Through the sensation of near-retch and gurgling of his gut slashed a coldness in his chest, an emptiness where his own heart should have been. Nothing urged blood to his fingers, to his feet, to his organs; each extremity and part of him froze, sensation of touch halted and dissipated. His line of vision magnified and warped over and over, faster and faster.
Splintering light cut through the blackness at the edge of his sight. The stranger’s hand scooped up the horror; sludge leaked between his fingers, the shadow whisping around his hand but unable to touch the light of his skin; the goo left no stain or trail. “Give this to me.”
“Why would you…want that?” Every word sent rivulets of pain from the old man’s lungs; every breath drew a crackling sound from inside his chest, his lungs turning to sandpaper. “Can’t…you see?”
“Give this to me.” Reaching out his other hand, the stranger took hold of the old man’s shoulder and stared into his eyes. “Please.”
Pulsing warmth trickled down his arm. The stranger’s wrist leaked blood, an open wound spilling crimson. With a weak push, the old man shoved the hand away and the bleeding stopped, the wound closing over and healing completely. “You’ll die.”
“Yes.” Again, the stranger’s hand rested upon his shoulder. Again, the wound appeared and bled. “Please. Give this to me.” The stranger set the heart down and patted it. Invisible vises drove the edges of the old man’s vision inward until all he could see was the stranger’s eyes. He could not see the color of the iris, could not see the black of the pupils, could see nothing of the soul as the old poets said. Amidst the ache in his chest and mind, his shortness of breath, the iciness pervading his form, a trail of stillness issued from behind his eyes as he stared into the stranger’s. “I will leave if you want me to do so.” The stranger’s voice turned strangled with the words.
“Don’t. Please take it.”
And it was done. The stranger snatched up the heart. The realness and solidity that dimmed all else cut away, the heart thrashing and spitting tendrils of ebony bile. Each flung drop spattered on the stranger, hissing with the contact on his clothes, skin, face, eyes. A thin keening issued from his throat, the heart’s tendrils curled and slid and burned their away up his arm. The stranger’s skin blistered, blackened, leaked the same fluid of bile and rot. While the heart had smelled horrendous, the same growth that spread to the stranger’s arm and up across the rest of his form reeked even worse.
A whip cracking sensation in the old man’s chest burst through the pain, the stilted vision, and the pressure. All of his breath left in a whoosh and he fell back in his chair, staring at the stranger. By now, the stranger’s skin frayed in places as though he had been struck with a lash; other areas appeared burned and cracked. From every slash and tear, ooze seeped, increasing the odor even more until the old man’s eyes stung. By now, the deformity reached the stranger’s face. He fell back, the chair clattering to the floor, writhing as the burns and scars webbed, turning his eyes to milky, waxy glass. His body curled up, clothes disappearing amidst the mass of oily blackness issuing from his form, the tumorous growths, the burns, and the weeping sores covering all of him.
The old man’s chest tightened, a severe pity gripping him along with a curious relief. Stumbling forward, he attempted to help, stretching out his hands, but could not move forward, held back by some unknown force-
-and then he sat again across from the stranger. No trace of the filth and decay covered the stranger and in his hands, a roseate shape pulsed with a slow beat. The rich realness that permeated the stranger now extended to the healed heart, the heart that the stranger touched to the old man’s chest and pushed inside. A cool ribbon curled up within him and he breathed deep, a smile pushing up the corners of his mouth. “You did it.”
“Yes.” The stranger stood, more real, more sure in form than ever before, and helped the old man to his feet. For the first time, the stranger grinned; the old man’s heart jolted in his chest, not in pain, but in fierce joy, and he chuckled. “Will you come with me?” the stranger beckoned and strode toward the door.
About to follow, the old man brushed against the table and knocked the fireproof box to the floor. It clattered with a heavy plastic thud, empty. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the gold watch. The hands had disappeared.
Relief spread the coolness in his chest and he tucked the watch away, following the stranger out of the apartment.