The minute hand on the old grandfather clock moved sluggishly to rest on the 12 and the deep melancholy voice called out, announcing the arrival of midnight. There was a knock on the door. The man in the faded blue armchair, who’d been intently watching the time, slowly stood up. His usually tanned face was ghostly pale and his hands trembled ever so slightly. He took a moment to collect himself, then started towards the door. As he reached for the handle, it turned by itself and the door swung open before him.
A tall thin figure stood there, silhouetted against the yellow glow of the porch light.
“Hello, Arthur,” it said in a voice like silk, low and smooth.
Arthur opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came out. Instead, he reluctantly moved aside to let the silhouette in. The shadowy figure resolved into a man as it came into the light of the house. He wore a sleek, well-tailored suit; all black except for the tie, which was a deep red.
Arthur gazed forlornly into the man’s well-known face. He had a shock of black hair that contrasted sharply with his alabaster skin, dark brows, and thick dark lashes. His eyes were the color of ice.
But his visage possessed an odd quality. The moment you glanced away, you immediately forgot what he looked like until you turned and beheld him once again. Then, he was so familiar that you felt almost foolish for forgetting him.
Arthur was experiencing this as he looked at the man, along with a strong feeling of déjà vu. The combination of these two sensations made his head spin and he sat down again, closing his bloodshot eyes. He rubbed his temples slowly for a few moments until he heard a quiet sigh. Opening his eyes, he found the man leaning against the clock, watching him. His handsome face bore a curious expression; a mixture of sadness and amusement.
“We made-” he began.
“I know!” Arthur snapped, cutting him off. “I know. We made a deal.”
The man’s surprise at the outburst dissolved into a frown. “What is it, Arthur?” He already knew, of course.
Arthur stared up at him helplessly, spreading his hands on his knees. “I have a daughter,” he said, and his eyes filled with tears.
“Yes,” the other muttered, almost to himself.
The man had always liked Arthur. He was a bookish, hopeless romantic with a good heart. He remembered his first meeting with the poor fellow. It had been in a hospital room, next to a bed on which Shannon, Arthur’s wife, lay dying. They’d been in a terrible car accident. Miraculously, Arthur, who had been driving, walked away without a scratch. Shannon had not been so lucky. She suffered from severe head injuries and internal bleeding. The doctors had done what they could, but there was no way to save her.
When the man arrived, Arthur was sitting on the floor against the stark white wall, head in his hands, mumbling to himself. “Don’t take her. Not yet. Not yet.”
The man went softly to Shannon’s side and looked down at her. He watched her eyelids flicker and her mouth twitch, as if she were having a bad dream.
Suddenly, Arthur’s head shot up, his eyes wide with worry. “Please,” he said hoarsely, getting to his feet. “We’ve only been married for ten months. Please, I’ll do anything.”
The man regarded him thoughtfully. Against his better judgment, he was considering it. He really did like the boy. He’d only done this a handful of times and those were all centuries ago. Perhaps it would be all right.
“Very well,” he said finally. “She will live.” Arthur’s tired, tear-stained face lit up. “But,” the man raised his hand, “there is one condition.”
“No problem,” Arthur replied eagerly. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it.”
“The next time I come for her, you must come as well. No matter what.”
“Done,” said the boy. Some condition. They would both go out together. It was perfect.
But the man had seen something that Arthur could not. He had seen the end. Yes, they would live happily together for some time. But the end was tinged blue with melancholy.
When they shook on it, Arthur felt a brief, sharp pain shoot through his hand. He gasped and drew it back quickly. There, burning on his palm, was the thin outline of an hourglass. He gaped at it for a few seconds until it disappeared, then looked up to question the man. But he was gone and Shannon was waking up, and every other thought fled from Arthur’s mind.
Now here he was, eight years later, sitting at home in his armchair, and he began to feel a faint tingling in his hand. Already knowing what he would see, Arthur turned his palm up and looked through blurry eyes at the hourglass outlined there. It was the faded white of an old scar.
“You knew,” he said quietly, contemplating his hand. “You’ve known ever since that day.”
“Yes,” the man said solemnly, “I have.”
Arthur stood. “Why didn’t you tell me back then?” he asked, his fingers curling into angry fists.
“That was not part of the deal,” the man said, his voice stern. Then he softened. “What good would it have done you? You have lived a happy life thus far. The knowing would have been in your thoughts at every waking moment and tainted that happiness. Ignorance is, after all, bliss, no?” he added with a small ironic smile.
Arthur grimaced, knowing his dark visitor was right. He had lived a happy life. Happier than most, probably, in the short time he’d had.
He remembered clearly the day Maggie was born and the pure, absolute joy that he’d felt. She had cried nonstop for the first five minutes as he’d held her in his arms. And then, in one miraculous moment, her crying ceased and she simply stared up at him with huge unblinking eyes. Gazing back at her in wonder, he’d felt his heart was going to burst. Cliché as it sounds, he knew in that moment that she had him fully and completely wrapped around her tiny perfect finger.
The man cleared his throat solicitously, breaking Arthur out of his reverie. The smile that had crept onto his face at the memory faded in an instant. He ran a hand through his disheveled hair, trying desperately to think of a way to prevent the inevitable. Or at least delay it. Nothing was coming to mind.
His visitor eyed him with mounting pity, hating what he was about to do. But what other choice did he have? This was his job and it had to be done. Anyway, he’d gotten himself into this situation. He would have to stop being so lenient. All right, enough stalling.
“Come, Arthur,” he coaxed softly. “Wouldn’t you like to see Shannon again? Don’t you want to be with her?”
Arthur stared at him with something like horror. But this quickly subsided as images of his wife flashed through his mind. Not as she was during her last couple months, but before, when she’d been healthy. Green eyes sparkling brightly, blonde hair falling about her shoulders, and a smile that could light up a room. She hadn’t been gone long at all, but already his chest ached when he thought of her.
“That’s it,” he vaguely heard the man say in a saccharine voice, lulling him into a daydream. “Remember her as she was.”
Arthur, in subconscious acquiescence, thought of the day he and Shannon had met. It was late July; the 23rdto be exact. 8:30 in the morning and already 80 degrees. He’d taken a walk down to the lake to watch the loons and cormorants dive for their breakfast. It was cooler by the water. When he first saw her, he’d thought she was a little girl from the way she was sitting; crouched on the soles of her feet in that position only children can manage. As he approached he saw that she was not a child at all, but a beautiful young woman. He stopped a moment in surprise. Then he noticed the loon on the grass in front of her. The creature had somehow gotten itself all tangled up in a fishing line. Shannon was murmuring softly, trying to soothe it as it struggled.
“What’ve you got there?”
She jumped a little and had to steady herself with a hand on the ground to keep from tipping over. Arthur reached out reflexively, not quite touching her.
“Sorry,” he said quickly, “didn’t mean to scare you.”
She gave him a once over, one eyebrow raised suspiciously. “You know, you really shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”
He shrugged, giving her an apologetic half smile, and her expression softened considerably. She stood up and offered her hand. “I’m Shannon.”
They’d ended up freeing the loon, with the help of Arthur’s pocket knife, and spending the rest of the day talking and strolling round the lake. And he fell a little more for her every time he looked into those green eyes.
They never lost that sparkle. Even at the end, after her hair had fallen out and her smile had weakened, her eyes never changed. In a way, that made him sadder. Made it worse, somehow. After she got sick, Shannon’s eyes were the only thing about her that stayed the same. Everything else – her lack of hair, her body, even her voice – none of it was her. But those eyes…they were always Shannon. Perhaps if they had changed as well; if he hadn’t been reminded each time he looked into them that she was still in there somewhere inside that frail, skeletal body, it would have been easier to watch her die. Like watching a stranger die.
But they were always her. And she would never be a stranger to him.
Arthur came back to reality with a jolt, as if he had been startled awake from one of those dreams in which one is falling and wakes up just before the impact. He blinked and looked around, his eyes almost instantly locking onto the man in black’s. Something passed between them; some unspoken communication. He could not describe it, but he knew what it meant. It had the feeling of finality.
He stood up on shaky legs, feeling like he was in a dream. That one where he was falling. Only, this time he knew he wouldn’t wake up before the impact. Instead, it would take him somewhere else. Somewhere good, he hoped. His head was full of colors he’d never seen and sounds he could not identify.
And of Shannon. She was everywhere, not just in his head. She was in his arms and his fingertips. With every unsteady breath he took she filled his lungs.
He walked towards his guest, who was now holding the front door open, smiling encouragingly. He beckoned to Arthur, pulling him along gently with an invisible but irresistible force.
Arthur stopped in the doorway. It was filled with light. Not the bright white light at the end of the tunnel, but the dull fuzzy light of a March morning in England. The light was not what had made him pause, however. It was that he suddenly had the strange notion he was forgetting something. Just a tiny nagging itch in the back of his mind. What was it?
He thought he’d nearly put his finger on it when he made the mistake of looking into the man’s eyes. Immediately, the thought was lost in those endless icy depths. Once again, his only focus was Shannon and the doorway in front of him. It drew him in, like a moth to the flame.
The man watched gravely as Arthur walked forward and was swallowed up by the muted light. He sighed wearily and was about to follow when he heard a small noise behind him. Turning, he found a little blonde-haired girl in a pink nightgown standing at the foot of the stairs. He marveled at how much she resembled her mother.
“Where is Daddy going?” Maggie asked.
“To see your mother,” the man said, tilting his head to the side.
He stepped closer and knelt down in front of her. She met his gaze boldly. “Can I go too?”
“Not tonight, my dear,” he replied, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “One day you will, but I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient.”
“Okay,” she said simply.
“Go back to sleep now,” he said, getting to his feet and gently turning her around.
He watched her climb the stairs, knowing her aunt would stop by for a visit in the morning and, finding her alone, would care for Maggie as her own child.
The grey light was familiar and welcoming as the man stepped through the door and disappeared. The old grandfather clock called out its last chime, the minute hand still resting on the 12.
Molly Brainard is a writer from Southern California and is a lover of cats, tea, and a good story with a sad ending. Molly’s goal is to move you to tears, but any deep emotion will do.