My mind dances between intense color and darkness.
My skin is trying to get inside while my bones want out.
It is exquisite.
It is brutal.
The man, if you can call him that, watches me through zippered eyelids that clink when he blinks. I mean that literally. His eyelids are zippers and the sound of them clinking together is maddening. I’ve never been bothered with nails on a chalkboard so that’s not a good comparison. The sound that makes my back teeth rattle is the squeaky sound of a frosted freezer when you slide a box inside. For some reason, that sound drives me insane. This sound is worse. It is tormenting me to no end. Speaking of insane…is that what I’m experiencing? He watches my distress at the realization at what I’d become and am becoming. Perhaps I should explain.
I’m a research scientist at UPMC in Pittsburgh – Oakland area, actually. I save lives for a living. That’s what my wife says…well…used to say. Sorry. It’s all pretty fresh and I’m not processing things correctly yet. I work a ton of hours. It keeps me away from home and up at night so when I’m home, my mind is back at the lab anyway. I may converse with you. We may chat. I’m not listening. Trust me on that. My wife is…was…a saint for putting up with me. I know it’s not exactly the way she pictured her life. Is it ever?
She was reaching a breaking point that flowers and shiny baubles couldn’t fix. I was practically sleeping at work racing against the clock for a grant I desperately needed. I decided a night out was in order. It’s amazing how time is more precious that gifts. Someone is growing more flowers and crafting more shiny baubles. Nobody is making more time. Looking back I was an idiot. Maybe I still am despite my epiphany.
The man watches all of this wash across my face. His eyelids clink and there is no other sound.
I break the silence, “What’s the deal with your eyes?”
He stares at me for a bit…clinking as the zipper teeth gnash together with his blinks. “They keep the worms out when I sleep,” he responds. “Want some too?”
“Why in the hell would I want that?”
“Why in the hell, indeed,” he says. “I have an offer for you.”
“Where is my wife?”
“That depends on you, Robert.” He reaches up to unhook his eyelid after some of the teeth get stuck.
Another shot of pain rocks through my body making me piss myself and I feel lucky that was all I did. Pus drips from his eyelid and he seems worried that the worms may gain a foothold during his slumber. I wonder if worms can gain a foothold when they have no feet and I stop myself before I get too far down that rabbit hole.
“Ok,” I say. “Where is my wife and what is this place?”
“This place is a holding center. We’d like to make you a deal.”
I look around for the first time. There were no windows in this completely white room. There was one door but if you weren’t looking for it, you’d likely miss it. The floor was as white as the ceiling and neither had seams indicating tiles, corners, or any type of break at all. Where in the hell was I?
“Indeed,” he says.
I wheel around to face him. “Am I dead? Is this heaven?”
“Not quite but we’re the only ones here with you. I keep saying we want to make you a deal and you just keep asking questions.”
“Ok, what’s the deal?”
“We’re recruiting, Robert. That’s all. Come work for us and your wife lives.”
“I’m dead aren’t I?”
He laughs so hard his zippers squeeze together and his laughter turns into a scream as he tears them apart. “You are a bright one, Robert. Easy to see why science was your first love. It’ll all come back to you in time. For now, your wife lives or dies, you’re here anyway so it really just comes down to your options. Not many people get options. The boss must really like you.”
“You’re not the devil?” I ask.
“I’m a devil but I’m not the devil in the sense you’re thinking. I’m more of a demon. I get to have fun but I clock-out at the end of the day. The big guy is always on the clock. So – what’ll it be?”
“I don’t know why I’m here but I want my wife to live. I’ll do anything.”
Zippers produces a document. Not sure where he had it but it looks to be a simple contract.
“No pen?” I ask.
“Put your hand on it anywhere. It doesn’t matter where.”
I sandwich the contract between my hands and it turns to flame before my eyes. It’s a beautiful blue flame and I’m mesmerized until I feel pain again all over my body. It feels like I’m being carved alive. Thousands of knives work my flesh to the bone. I scream through it but it doesn’t stop…until it does. Panting, I look down. There is no blood. There are names burned into my skin all over my body.
Zippers looks me over and grins. “Looks like that’s the first hundred souls.”
“What?” I respond. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“You work for us. We’re partners now, you and I. We collect souls. As you collect them from Earth, their names disappear from your body. Until then, they will itch and burn like an unwashed ass. Get to work.”
“I want to see my wife,” I manage through tears that sizzle on my cheek as they wash over a name.
“She’s on life support. Alive as promised. Visit her anytime you like. She can’t see you but, then again, she can’t see anybody”
“That’s not alive!” I scream.
Zippers moves close enough to me I feel his eyelids against my face. “Should have thought about that before. Like I said, it’ll come back to you in time.”
“I don’t want to do this,” I cry. “Please.” I look down at my hands and am startled to recognize a name. “I know this guy. He works…worked with me at UPMC.”
“Oh you’ll recognize most of the names we’ve given you,” Zippers says with a smile. “We knew you’d need a little incentive to get started. Everyone does. Most of the hundred names on your body represent people your dear sweet wife fucked while you were buried in your work.”
I am speechless.
“Now, be a good little worker…and get to work.”
It was exquisite.