It’s that time of year again, Spooky Showcase time! For the fourth year, I contributed to Jolene Haley‘s collection of thrilling short stories posted daily throughout the month of October. This year’s theme was These Deadly Curses and was hosted by Midnight Society Tales. Click here to read this story on their site.
Because my story posted on October 30, you’re getting it after Halloween, but for many, thrillers transcend a season. I hope you enjoy.
She couldn’t let it go. Let him go. Sure, he’d served his purpose. Quite nicely, indeed. Emily had selected well, her gift helping her to divine the perfect vessel. So why the nagging doubt?
This one had seemed different from the beginning; their ‘meet cute’ actually a cute meet. She’d been drawn to him immediately upon entering the shop, like a wave to shore. He’d been in the produce section of the bodega, a tight fit for his broad frame, and had dislodged a pyramid of tangelos with a wayward elbow. She’d reached in to block the avalanche before they could plummet to the floor. When he’d grazed her arm to readjust the stack, she’d felt the familiar buzz that accompanied identifying a target, but also a terrifyingly delightful zing.
“Orange you sweet for helping,” he’d said coyly, and she’d blushed. Actually blushed!
“What can I say,” she replied, dipping into an adjacent bin and lifting a fruit, “we make a great pear.” They’d shared a punny laugh. It had been an unexpected and welcome change from her usual meets in bars or back alleys.
His name was Ethan and he was new to town. Perhaps she could show him around? Maybe introduce him to a grocer with aisles that facilitated his ‘haven’t been a college linebacker for many years but could still block a run’ physique. Being close to him made her want to be closer. The attraction intense, yet foreign, she proceeded with caution. Or so she thought.
The power in Ethan was strong. Alongside her, his ability absorbed so much negativity, results could be experienced in real time. She couldn’t remember that ever happening before. He’d walk into a waiting room and the general mood would lift. Another major difference, this mark didn’t mind volunteering in the children’s ward at the cancer hospital. He enjoyed working with the homeless at the soup kitchen, and even suggested they muck out stalls at the pet shelter. Places where sadness, grief, and fear weighed heavy on the caring, the stressed, and the ill.
With a sudden feeling of emotional lightness, unknowing audiences claimed the duo brought bliss. It’s not what they brought, it’s what he removed. Ethan acted as a filter, siphoning their worries, misery, and anxiety. He soaked it up like a sponge.
It had been Emily’s previous understanding that those who frequented depressing areas, like bars and back alleys, had a greater depth as containers. Their lifestyles offered a greater capacity for absorbing what they themselves were steeped in. Unfortunately, the negativity was so thick in those areas, they barely skimmed the surface before they were full.
This guy was different. She’d never met a vessel like Ethan. He was optimistic, eager, and kind. On average, Emily turned one a week, sometimes more, but it wasn’t until her fourth month with Ethan, a picnic celebration on the hill overlooking the bodega where they had met, that she circled back to her duties. On the verge of being critically full, Ethan’s jovial laugh came slower, his wit and humor falling short. He grew sluggish. Emily worried about losing him, which was crazy considering her duty was to sacrifice him once his soul could hold no more. Not wanting to further tax–or bloat—him, she begged off hospital visits and old folks’ homes, hoping to eke out a few more days in his company.
Emily had always done whatever it took to get the job completed, her duties trumping her personal discomforts. She’d smoked, drank, gambled, slept with, lied and cheated to entice a mark, contributing to the very actions she was collecting. Ironic? Sure, but her actions were a mere drop in the bottom of their tainted selves. Guys, girls, young, old, rich, poor—there was no specific type that held the ability to soak up the emotional bile humanity secreted. She sought and her gift supplied.
Recently, Emily had wrestled with escalating feelings. The flutter in her belly when Ethan touched her face, stroked her hair, or gazed into her eyes, genuinely admiring and complementing. The tingle in her loins when he touched, stroked, or grazed other parts of her body. A plain Jane by design, Emily succumbed to the unfamiliar attention, universal repercussions be damned.
If she had been the only one benefitting from his attentions, he may have proven easier to rebuff, but . . . the mother whose posture grew in response to the beatific smile of her toddler, the angry dementia patient that calmed at the recollection of joyful memories, and the homeless who banded together to create a community when she and Ethan passed out blankets and sandwiches. These were the people she worked for; the reason she did what she did. She stayed by his side, doing her job, allowing his soul to swell.
Ethan never suspected, even as he grew heavy with the infected emotions he drained. It would have never occurred to him that she was responsible for his decline. He genuinely appreciated her company and told her repeatedly how lucky he was to have met her. “You’re one in a melon,” he said, in tribute to the first crossing of their paths.
Her talent had always been the ability to seek out souls that could, in her presence, absorb the heaviness of humanity. Never before had her gift felt like a curse. She broke protocol when she suggested they spend some time apart, hoping he might regroup. A futile effort. Recovery was not an option. There was only solution, and she was long overdue.
In a full flip of his naturally buoyant personality, Ethan’s fatigue and despair were the final indicators that it was, indeed, time.
So, why couldn’t Emily let go of the idea he wasn’t ready? Could it be because she wasn’t ready? That had never happened before. After decades of the hunt and gather, had she found the one that she connected to in a deeper, more organic way? Was she . . . in love? Did it matter?
She considered this as the ceremonial garb glided over her shoulders. She donned the hood and slipped the sacred athame from its sheath. He had to die; she needed to sacrifice him. Maybe the fact that if she was honest with Ethan, if she explained the circumstances, he would have gladly reclined and guided her hand to his chest, was what held her back. Most vessels were contributors to distress long before they were carriers.
Emily stood over Ethan’s supine body. Per protocol, she had sedated and strapped him to the ceremonial dais. Loose straps, she hoped he wouldn’t wake and didn’t expect a tussle if he did. And also, she hated to cause him discomfort. Beyond, you know, the murder. She stroked his cheek, brushing across his lips, never to see them smile again. Never to touch them to her own. Dragging her hand down his neck and across his chest, she stopped when her fingertips found his heart, the slow, steady beat resonating through her whole body. With a pause, she allowed her rhythm to sync with his. Emily closed her eyes and imagined one last embrace. A tear slid down her cheek.
A few sacred words, then a piercing of his heart with the antique blade. All of the negative energy he had absorbed would die with him, leaving the world a better place for its remaining inhabitants. For her. She was always left behind.
What if she didn’t do it? What if she saved Ethan? Could he survive with his soul saturated with darkness? Perhaps she could filter him with another vessel? There was no time, deleterious energies were reproducing while she delayed. She needed to wrap this up so she could recruit another. And another. And another. She sobbed, her chest hitching. A writhing ball of emotional conflict, Emily raised the knife and with a trembling hand, plunged.
The soul screams when you kill it, a tea kettle whistling as the steam escapes on the body’s last gasp. Emily, however, breathed easier. Her heart should ache, but that was a pain that had died with this guy.
This story was inspired by a prompt we did in DAWGs. Much thanks to that new group–it’s so nice to be writing short stories again.
THANKS FOR READING!
Happy . . . November.