by Chloe N. Clark
I didn’t remember the story except for that one moment when the young man looks up and says, And what will you give me for my soul?
It was only in really looking at her that I realized what was so wrong. She had been trying to hide it. Her hands were shaking and I could see the amount of will she was exerting to control them. The shaking was almost imperceptible. When I studied her movements closely, however, it was there. It was that familiar and frightening tremble. She would pick up her cup of coffee, always black and startlingly bitter, as if she left the grounds in, and the surface would move with the tremors; they sent tiny tidal waves across the dark surface.
The glass smashed up and into my hands. I watched the blood well up like pomegranate seeds multiplying upon my skin.
One day, she grabbed my arm and begged me to leave. I knew what she was planning. I knew what she was planning and still I listened to her. I stopped looking, I stopped my faithful watching, got in my car and I left. I drove away, as far away as I could get. I ended up here in this city with its bustling streets and endless traffic lights. I had five hundred dollars in cash and a sack full of wrinkled clothing that smelled of home. I washed those clothes so many times and yet the scent continued to linger. Eventually, I had to throw them out. I took them directly to the trash bin on the corner. I sometimes wonder if someone might have picked them up, if one day I would be walking down the street and I would pass some complete stranger and she would carry the scent of everything I had left.
The lake once and we were walking. The pebbles beneath my feet were so cold; they were like tiny bits of ice. And she looked out and said that she kept seeing god.
I found a hole-in-the-wall apartment with a three hundred-dollar deposit. It was a room with a toilet in the closet. I wasn’t bothered, but I’d need to find a job. I’ve never been good at work; it’s not that I don’t do the work; it’s that people don’t like me. It’s not my fault, or it is my fault if it’s like in those old myths and one chooses how they are born. The problem lies in my eyes.
I was a kid when my parents took me to a fortune-teller. We were on vacation in some water slide masquerading as a town. She told me I was missing lines on my palms.
She used to say that my eyes were the only thing that really gave me away, that proved I was special. People don’t lie to my eyes. They can’t. Everything that someone tells me is lured in and deconstructed until only the truth is remains. Sometimes she’d even test me by looking into my eyes and slipping some tiny false thing into her words. I always knew the one moment that was fictional; I’d laugh and tell her that she didn’t actually wave to the neighbor or spill a cup of tea. Then she would laugh, always a little unbelieving, and say I should open a business. It would never work, I told her, because people can’t trust someone they couldn’t lie to.
There was this valley behind our house and the coyotes used to use it to corral their prey. I’d hear them calling out halfway between shrieking and laughter. Then silence.
So, I couldn’t find a job easily. Still I searched the want ads and I went to every little store in walking distance. Convenience store owners shook their heads; café and restaurant managers mouthed the words that they didn’t need any help right now. I nodded and didn’t point out the brightly colored help-wanted signs in the windows.
The first time I was ever punched in the face. It felt like some sort of victory as I spat blood onto the pavement and it bloomed out across the concrete.
It was in one of those restaurants, a fried food haven with scuffed floors and grease-slicked tables, that he saw me. He picked me out of the crowd; he tapped my shoulder and asked if I was looking for work. He had ice eyes, cold but clear, and so I nodded and shook his hand.
A kid I knew once dared his little brother to eat a piece of glass. He came to our house crying and begging me to help. They were both in tears and I just stared, unable to act. The blood mixed with saliva and looked like the syrup in jars of maraschino cherries.
A deal was struck in a corner booth while he sipped a strawberry shake and chomped a basket of fries. He made an odd sight: a tailored suit and greasy food so cheap that it was best to avoid the thought of ingredients.
We were watching flames lick at the trees on the television. A thousand miles away a forest was turning to pillars of ash. She turned to me and said that she kept seeing god.
That’s how I got this job. It was easy. It was luck. I’ve never been lucky. He gave me a cell phone, one of those untraceable kinds that can be thrown away, the kind that bad guys always use on TV crime shows. I wondered about the need to be untraceable. Doesn’t something have to be known about before anyone would bother tracing it? He laughed at that and said it was all a part of the show; it was like a magician’s patter or, better yet for this analogy, it was like the fact that the magician uses a bejeweled blade when he cuts a woman in half. A blade is a blade is a blade but what we want people to focus on the spectacle and not the cut.
I practiced holding my breath underwater. I was certain that I could be the next Houdini. There was one card trick that I tried to get perfect in which all of the cards turned into dead leaves.
He said that he’d call me when a job came through. He gave me a couple hundred to tide me over and a credit card to buy what I needed. He told me to get some nice clothes because people expect us to look classy. My jeans and Pistons shirt were apparently not classy. He told me that we never want to look youthful. I’m young I said and he smiled and said but not youthful. I asked him why he was willing to trust me. He said that it’s because of my eyes. I have the eyes of this business. I’ve never had the eyes of any business and so for maybe a second I took that as a compliment.
I used to practice dribbling basketballs until my palms would go numb with the endless hit of floor to hand. Sometimes I would hold them up to the light and see all of my veins pushing out at the skin.
It was a Saturday morning, five a.m., and the phone went off. It was a high-pitched ring; it was a kind of ring that would kill if it went on indefinitely.
There was something on the floor. A nightmare I used to have of something scuttling toward me and instead of paws each of its legs ended in a different hand: a woman’s with painted nails, an old man’s, even a small child’s with a ring, the plastic too brightly-colored kind you might win at a fair, on one of the fingers.
I said hey. Sometimes I think that I should start answering with a hello. Joviality seems too cliché in my line of work. Yet, I still always pick up with hey. He said that a job was on the way. He gave me the details and I got my things together. There wasn’t much that I needed but I examined each object as I picked it up. I wanted that first time to be weighted with some sort of significance.
She says that she keeps seeing god.
I found the building easily; it was one of the few high-rises that the city had allowed to be built. Though, of course, that would change quickly in the years to come. Eventually the landscape would be dotted with them like pegs jutting out of a Battleship board. I stepped into the elevator and waited.
The shaking in her hands made the drawing seem abstract but I still saw what was there. The monster of her nightmares with its mouth sewn tightly shut. Still, it had my eyes.
It was a woman with raven’s wing hair. She had black pants and a sky blue blouse on. She had green eyes; they looked like a forest and so much older than her face. She couldn’t have been over forty.
Blood in my mouth and the sharp taste of copper and salt.
The elevator was just me and her. That is always how it is; just me and them and a small space. She hit the twenty-eighth floor, looked at me, I hit thirty. She stared up at the floor numbers in a perfect cliché of elevator awkwardness. No one likes confined spaces. No one likes the idea of elevators, of a cable snapping, of plunging down to nothing. We don’t think about it but that promise is always there weighted like some gun introduced in the first act of a play.
In the sink and going down the drains in twists and swirls of red.
I hit the stop button. We were between floors nineteen and twenty. She turned to me.
-You look like a kid.
-What am I supposed to do anyway?
-Tell me something that you want, just the one thing, and it’ll be done.
-What do I pay? I mean, it’s not like the stories, right?
-Not exactly. It can be someone you love; it doesn’t have to be you.
-I want to be president of the company. I want it within the year.
-That’s a lot. It’s a big company.
-I know what I want.
It was too easy. I smiled at her.
-Who is going to pay the price?
She didn’t hesitate, and that was a mistake. Even if my eyes couldn’t pick out the untruth, the speed of her delivery would have been enough.
-If you loved your husband that would be a fair deal. Too bad you don’t.
She looked down and I could tell that she was thinking hard. I knew her answer before she said it but still it somehow surprised me. I’m perpetually being surprised by what I already know. She whispered the next words.
The words came out too quiet, like she was saying her sins in church and didn’t want to be overheard,
I nodded and handed her the contract. She signed it—red ink—and I watched her closely.
She asked as if she thought the promise might have been enough, like God coming down and rewarding Abraham for his devotion.
I shrugged. I don’t deal with the payment; I just make the deals. She got off at twenty-eight and I saw her smile at the receptionist. No one got off at thirty.
They used to use it for pests. The crushed glass cutting them up as they crawled.
That was my first job and I guess I’ve progressed since then. I met someone once who said they could save me. They told me that I wasn’t like this; they told me that I could reach the light if I tried. I smiled; let it play across my face. I’m not evil, I told them, and I’m never going to be evil. I just make the deals: I’m not the one who signs the contract, I’m not the woman with raven’s wing hair, I’m not the woman who couldn’t wait to give up her son. He was right when he said that I had the eyes for this business. I can always tell when people are giving up the one thing that they can’t live without. They never know it; they never even see it coming.
She was on the floor and staring up at the ceiling. Her hair spread out around her head. It almost looked like she had fallen and cracked her skull. But then she smiled.
One morning I’m sitting in the booth at my favorite café; it’s my favorite because no one ever notices me there and I can sip my coffee for hours and hours. There is a woman at the counter; she’s talking to the waiter about a dream she had. I usually hate to hear people’s dreams because they aren’t meant for me, but this woman has a beautiful voice. It is how a bell ringing in some temple on a mountain would sound, if you were climbing toward the temple and knew it was still a long way off. In the dream she was a shark in the ocean. She was always swimming to stay alive; swimming just to keep breathing. One day she comes across a shipwreck, there is a man tied to the mast of the ship and he is drowning. So, the shark woman swims up to him and bites the ropes. His body spins up to the surface and he gasps for air. He makes it back to land and tells everyone that a shark saved him. She just keeps swimming.
I’m underwater and counting seconds.
I look away from the woman who dreams of being a shark and up to the television. It’s tuned to the news. The sound is off but words flash across the bottom of the screen. The president of some famous company had killed herself. She had leapt from the twenty-eighth floor. People say she was still reeling from the death of her son, who had been killed in some campus tragedy that I can’t quite remember. I never watch the news if I can help it.
Fairy tales that always begin with a mother sitting and speaking aloud as she cuts open her hand and the red taints the white of the snow.
The news is just the facts that can be seen. The news doesn’t say what happened once she hit the ground. The news doesn’t tell that when she woke up she was in an ancient forest. She was all alone there. She couldn’t find her way out.
It’s getting closer to me. Fingernails clacking across the wood of the floor.
One day, I imagine that I’m going to wake up in the darkness and I’m going to reach out for whatever is near. Maybe I will reach out and I will feel a trembling hand and she will lead me out of this job, out of this city, and I will go home.
She says that she keeps seeing god.
Or maybe, it will just be the blankness of my eyes. Maybe there won’t be anyone there to lead me out. I can always hope that at least it will be silent and dark and filled up with nothing.
I’m walking out and she is about to say something. I leave because I already know.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have made a deal, if I would have tried to save us. I would have given up myself to save her. Of course that never would have worked because I never would have been believed. We are all too good at our jobs. Look me in the eyes.