The pain rouses me. I’m aware of every inch of my body. I search for some part of me that is unharmed. I come up short. I feel cold steel beneath me. I wish its caress would soothe my battered limbs. The bright lights of the room make world look pink through my shut lids. I don’t dare open them.
It hurts to breath. I will myself to take small draws. The flesh of my lips break open as I pull them apart. The moisture is welcome. The pain in my chest lessens. The air rattles as it comes up my throat, escapes from my mouth. I barely resist the urge to cough. My lungs are full of something…I don’t dare guess what.
My tongue is swollen; my teeth won’t meet. How many of them are still whole? I feel the jagged edges as they scratch the sides of my tongue. I taste copper at the back of my throat. Fluid pools there, blood, saliva…Lord only knows what else. I don’t dare swallow.
I listen for movement. I can hear nothing but the pound of my heart and the buzz of a fluorescent light. The room is still. Am I alone? I don’t dare hope.
My tiny breaths are coming faster, harder to control. I chance the pain, take a deep gulp, trying to calm myself. The smell of blood and urine assault my nostrils. I gag. My chest threatens to explode from the movement.
My eyes open. The light burns, blinding me. I resist the urge to slam them shut. I have to see. I need to see. My vision adjusts to the brightness of the room. I’m not sure whether I should be thankful or not. I let my face fall to the left. I shudder as I study the bizarre looking instruments laid neatly on the table beside my head. I look beyond them to the wall. I focus on the calendar. Ducks rise from a pond, forever frozen mid flight in the picture of the month.
It’s December. Three days of the third line bear brown, crusty Xs. Two days are blank. The 19th is marked with a smiley face, drawn in blue Sharpie. The 19th is my birthday…my death day. The end is near.
I want to sit up, but the leather straps bite into the skin of my chest and thighs. The movement causes me to release the pent up cough. Blood and mucus spray the shiny metal table. I watch as it pools and oozes back towards me. I scream out as the force of the cough clenches the muscles around my broken ribs.
I lie still; I hold my breath. Maybe he didn’t hear me. I can’t keep the tears from rolling down my face as I hear the footsteps cross the floor above me. A door slams. I flinch with each creak of the stairs as he makes his way to me. Another door opens. He still has a smile for me.
He whistles to himself as he opens a cabinet over the sink. The tune is familiar, but I can’t quite place it. He pulls out a syringe and a small brown vial. He pushes the needle through the stopper on top. He pulls back on the plunger; the chamber fills with something the color of honey. He flicks the tip of chamber with his free hand as he walks toward me, still whistling.
He takes a long look at me, his gaze traveling from my feet to my eyes. His head moves slightly form side to side in rhythm to the song he whistles. He holds the needle over my face.
“I’m not ready for you yet,” he whispers, placing a hand on my forehead to hold me still as the needle moves closer slowly, deliberately. “I haven’t even finished my dinner. I would think you’d have learned a bit more patience by now.”
“Oh, don’t worry, my dear boy; we’ll have plenty of quality time soon, but for now…you need your rest.”
I struggle to pull away from him. I turn my head, but his voice draws my gaze back to him.
“Save your strength, Ray.” His laugh is a low rumble. “You’re gonna need it.”
His eyes are bright. He licks his lips in anticipation. It is apparent that he is still enjoying his petty torments. He resumes his song as I watch the needle grow. The plastic chamber looks enormous as it slides to the left of my nose, into my eye socket. I barely feel it; my body has greater pains with which to occupy my mind.
“Pop goes the weasel,” he sings the last verse of his song as he empties the syringe into me.
Cold builds around the needle in my flesh. I feel it spread, numbing my face, numbing my mind. The darkness grows in my peripheral vision, consuming me, carrying me away. The pain is fading; it’s almost a distant memory. I dream of the knock on my door, the smiling face that greets me, the little white carrier filled with plastic bottles. He wants to sell me cleaners. He offers a demonstration. His face is too charming to deny. He wants to know when my birthday is. His hands are like stone on my throat. I feel the coffee table break beneath me. My eyes water from the fumes as he presses the towel over my nose and mouth.
“Will you please stop passing out? We have a lot to do today and our birthday is almost over,” his voice fills my mind as he gentle taps my cheek with the back of his hand.
“It’s already my birthday?”
“Would I lie to you?”
His smile seems so innocent.
“Because this is the day you were born.”
“No,” I find it increasingly difficult to concentrate through the pain. “Why are you doing this?”
“I have to.” He rests his elbows on the table, leaning closer to my face. “This isn’t just your birthday, but mine and the anniversary of…my salvation.”
“I don’t understand,” I admit, blinking away his breath as it washes over my lashes.
“Have you already forgotten? Everyday you ask me and everyday I tell you the same thing. Do I really have to tell you again?” He waits for an answer, but I can only nod. “I was killed six years ago today.”
“But you’re not dead.”
“Yes, My Gods spared me. They gave me back my life and in return--”
“You give Them mine?”
“Bingo! I pay tribute to them once a year…a life for a life”
“Will they save me?”
“No, you’re not worthy. I died doing what I love. I died fighting. I died in Their honor.” He throws his head back, laughs. “You’re a victim. You were born for this and you will die for me.”
“How did you die?”
“With a blade in my chest and smile on my lips, but then…who wouldn’t smile when they look into the face of their Gods?”
He pushes himself up from my side. I can hear the rattle of steel on steel as he searches for just the right blade to resume his games.
I can barely focus my thoughts. My body is on fire. He has been working on me for days it seems. Bits and pieces of memories flutter in my mind. I shut them out; they’re too much to relive. He has been a busy boy. His laughter is infuriating, intoxicating. I am adrift; the pain is pushing me away. His voice is an anchor drawing me back. I can no longer make out his words, but his meaning is driven home with each puncture to my flesh. I try to detach myself, flee inside my mind. It is futile; there is no escape for me. All I have is my pain and his smile.
Light flashes from something he’s picked up, blinding me. Shadows swim; purple dots fade. I see his arm, he his holding something above my head, out of my line of sight. His hand moves; I catch my first glimpse of the blade. It’s length stretches beyond both my shoulders. It’s as thick as my hand is wide. I see a reflection as it passes over my eyes, a sunken face, vacant stare. My stubble has nearly grown into a beard. Is that really me? The edge of the blade is even with my chin. He pauses; turns the blade vertical. He rests it on my chin. I can see myself again. My breath fogs my reflection.
He moves to stand behind me, his smiling face inverted over mine. His left hand is still on the handle. He rests the palm of his other hand on the dull side of the blade. He lifts the blade from my chin, holds calmly in the air between my chin and chest. He pushes down hard. The blade meets my throat; then moves on to the table beneath it with a clang.
I hear my body thrash and twitch. I can no longer feel it. My throat throbs; I try to swallow. Is that the ocean I hear? My vision narrows. The room fades. Only his smile remains. The pain is gone. I am free.