Yet another grim day started with the alarm clock blaring maddeningly.
Beep, beep, beep!
The day itself wasn’t the issue, or even the morning alarm. More specifically, Cathy dreaded facing her husband, Marty. Their marriage, once brilliant with the colors of life, now dwindled into greys.
Fourteen long years of marriage to this man has been like a stent in purgatory. Marty’s consistency and predictability, once a source of comfort, now pained Cathy. His haircut – the same haircut that he has had since he was sixteen – irked her.
You are a man; get a grownup’s haircut, idiot.
Of course, she never spoke this aloud, but her internal dialogue provided the soundtrack. Every morning was filled with the same tired jokes.
“Is this coffee, or is this mud? It looks like…blah blah blah.” Even his boyish smile, wide and toothy, infuriated her.
What the hell are you so happy about?
She wore a porcelain smile, choking back the urge to strangle him. He never complained or argued. Even when she tried to goad him in to an argument, he kept the same calm demeanor.
Show some emotion, you robot! She screamed in her head.
Marty worked as an accountant. He was smart. Jeopardy smart. While they watched evening game shows, Marty would answer questions a split second before the contestants. He wasn’t always correct, but he usually was.
“Why don’t you go on one of these shows, and win us some money?” Cathy often asked. He always brushed the notion aside, saying he wasn’t that smart, stating “Anyone could answer these questions.” Cathy couldn’t. She found his modesty dishonest.
He knows he is smart, she complained internally. He’s just fishing for compliments.
At this point in her life, Cathy couldn’t stomach anything about her husband. Even the way he drank his coffee grinded on her nerves. She was sick of how he talked. Sick of how he smelled. Cathy was sick of him all together.
Her only morning rest came after Marty left for work. Cathy would have sixty minutes of alone time, before she had to leave for work herself.
The front door shut as Marty left, and Cathy exhaled deeply in relief.
This morning, she decided to catch up on some light reading, while enjoying some green tea. Well, she tried to enjoy it. Cathy didn’t care for tea, but she read it was the only healthy thing to drink besides water.
The doorbell rang out.
Oh no. That idiot came back. He must have forgotten his house key again. Why he insists on keeping it separate from his car keys, I will never know.
She slumped out of the puffy recliner and lumbered to the front door, expecting her dull husband. However, on the other side of the door stood a thin man in a dark blue suit and matching Fedora.
He looked like he had come straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie or something. His pencil thin mustache danced on his upper lip as he spoke.
“Hello, madam. I am hoping you can spare a moment to hear my proposition.” Normally the door would be closed before a door-to-door salesman’s first sentence was out, but Cathy was caught off guard.
Cathy composed herself for a moment.
“I am not sure what you want, but I am not buying anything,” she spoke her well-rehearsed line. Besides the sales people and religious zealots, she typically had to fend off charity workers and girl scouts. Those damn cookies go straight to her thighs.
“My good madam, I have no intentions of selling you anything!” He smiled at her with a wink. The man brushed her aside as he strolled into their living room. “Now, I will be quick, as I know you have to get to work.”
“Wait, who said you could… Hey, how did you know I had to…” Cathy stopped talking. She couldn’t finish her sentence. Flabbergasted. Yes, she was flabbergasted at the gall of this man.
The man sat in her recliner and sipped her tea. “Nasty stuff, this tea. Is health really worth it?” He laughed. “Please, sit, Mrs. Miller. We have much to discuss.”
“Who do you think you are?” Cathy dashed over to her kitchen counter to pick up her cell phone to call the police. Where did her phone go? She left it charging this morning on the kitchen counter. A whistle rang out from the living room, where her uninvited guest waved her cell phone back and forth, between his thumb and index finger.
“Mrs. Miller, please. I would like to get down to business.”
“How…?” Confusion caused her head to hurt. Could this really be happening?
“How? That is easy. ’Tis but a little sleight of hand – a little hocus pocus.” The man shook his hand, and the phone disappeared. “Mrs. Miller, if you would like me to leave, just ask.”
“Please leave,” she scowled, as she pointed to the front door, “and give me back my phone!”
He let out a sigh. “Alright. Although, it is a shame we didn’t talk about your husband’s unfortunate accident.” He rose from the puffy chair and turned to the door.
“W…wait.” Cathy didn’t realize she said the words until they slipped by her lips. Did she really want to talk to this man? She then noticed his eyes. Something was wrong about them. He had no irises; just pupils, swimming on white globes. And she could swear for a brief moment his teeth were all filed to points. So many things seemed wrong with this man. Although, she doubted ”man” was the right term. Every fiber of her being told her this creature was no man, and to run. But deep down, she knew she had to hear what it had to say. She just had to know.
He grinned, as if hearing her inner most thoughts, and spun on his heels to face her. “Now we’re being civilized! Shall we sit?” He gestured towards the couch. “Oh, and your phone is in your front pocket.” He gave a non-chalet wave towards Cathy.
She felt the outside of her pocket, and her fingers slid over the outline of her phone. It hadn’t been there a moment before.
Cathy sat on the edge of the couch, her hands cupped on her lap. Relaxing was not an option.
“You may call me Mr. Stix.” He reached over to the end table and picked up a framed picture of Marty and Cathy. “What a fine-looking couple you make.” His grin widened.
Cathy could feel the warmth of her cheeks as her anger arose. “What is it you want, Mr. Stix?”
“It is not what I want, but what you want.” He set the picture back on the end table and straightened it a couple of times, until it was exactly where he first found it. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped off his hands, as if he had just touched something distasteful. “You have a relationship problem; I am offering a cure. I am offering to end your marriage without any messy divorce or splitting of the assets. In fact, with the insurance policy you already have on your husband, you can live comfortably for the rest of your life.” He leaned forward with his hands together. “Sound interesting to you, Mrs. Miller?”
She regarded his face for a moment. His face was narrow, with high cheekbones and a pointy nose. He seemed almost cartoonish. “How do you know I have relationship issues?”
“Good madam, knowing things is my business. Like when you were eight and let the neighbor boy see up your skirt. Quite the exhibitionist.” He winked at her from across the room.
“Are you the devil?” Her eye widened.
“Why madam, you flatter me!” His voice had a delighted tone. “I assure you, I am not. But I do represent him. The boss can’t be expected to handle every matter that comes across his desk.”
“Why are you here? And why me?” Her voice was shaking.
“To help you, of course.” He tried to sound reassuring. “You know another client of ours, so while I was in the area, I wanted to offer our services to you, as well.”
“But I don’t know anyone who’s spouse was killed -”
“Exactly the point,” he interrupted. ”We wouldn’t be any good if everyone knew about it.”
Mr. Stix regarded the overwhelmed look on Cathy’s face for a moment before speaking. “Let me cut to the chase, so to speak. We are offering to kill your husband and end this travesty you call a marriage. You, my dear, get the freedom you desire.”
Cathy contemplated. But why was she contemplating this? Was life really that bad? No, she couldn’t continue. She had to do something. Why not just leave? Why not divorce him? She loved the house; she couldn’t leave it. Was it really this easy?
“Yes, it is,” he said, interrupting her thoughts again. “You can choose to not accept my proposition, Mrs. Miller. You are under no obligation. However, perhaps I should show you your future, should you decide to pass on my offer.” He closed his eyes and raised his hand. A moment later, the visions started.
There was a flash of light, and Cathy woke in a large movie theater, sitting next to Mr. Stix. He munched on popcorn, looking up at the screen.
Cathy began to ask what was happening, but Mr. Stix shushed her and pointed to the screen. She moved down a couple of seats away from him; being that close to him unnerved her. He chuckled to himself, for this was not the first person to squirm in his presence. He rather liked it.
An image of the outside of her house flickered on the screen. The camera panned and zoomed in on the front door, which swung open, as if the camera itself had opened it. Images of the living room flowed by, stopping on Marty. He stood there in a familiar blue suit; he was older, but wore the same stupid smile. His hair had more grey than brown, but besides that, he looked the same. He walked out the front door, heading off to work. “Some things never change,” Mr. Stix laughed.
The camera panned to the bedroom.
“Oh, here comes the good part.” His grin made munching popcorn a little difficult, but he managed. On the screen, sitting on the bed, a haggard Cathy stared at her feet, her hands rubbing over her lap. Tears rolled down her cheeks, as she began to sob.
“You never leave.” His voice actually sounded sympathetic. “You still complained and talked about leaving, but year after year, no divorce, no leaving, and no freedom.”
Cathy felt tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked so old on the screen, compared to how Marty had looked. Her heart sank.
“And then, there’s this.” Again, Mr. Stix pointed at the screen.
Cathy glanced at Mr. Stix, and then looked back up at the screen to see her older self pick up the object from her lap. What was that?
In horror, Cathy watched her older form fall limp. Blood sprayed against the walls. All breath left her lungs. Panic struck her, and she began looking around for an exit. The theatre spun. Her eyes could no longer focus; she needed to escape.
Mr. Stix snapped his fingers, and they were back in the living room. Cathy felt her head, making sure she didn’t have any new holes.
She glared at Mr. Stix. “You b*****d. How could you?”
“That is the future you create, not me. I am your only option to avoid that unfortunate fate.” He tried to look sympathetic, but that emotion was lost on him again.
“So if I decide to accept your offer, I will avoid that future?”
“You mean you won’t swallow a gun barrel? That I can promise.”
“What do you want? Why help me?” The fight had been taken out of her. She couldn’t end up living the life she had seen on the screen.
“Ah, the cost. It always comes down to that, doesn’t it?” Mr. Stix crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. “The price is your soul.” He tapped his two index fingers together, awaiting a response.
“You want my soul? I can’t do that!”
“You are not one of those religious sorts, are you?” Mr. Stix rolled his eyes. “You humans have the whole idea wrong. This is a game, a bet between two rivals. Just because you win a hand a poker doesn’t mean you keep the cards, does it?” He opened his folded hands in a sign of trust. “Your soul isn’t really yours to lose. It is just a tally on a scorecard for bragging rights between two immortals.”
Cathy was at a loss. All of existence is a bet?
“Mind blowing, I know. Believe it or not, we all work for the same team. Besides, what choice do you have?”
She took a deep breath and nodded her head. “How do we do this?” A great relief came over her. There was light at the end of the tunnel, and she could smell her freedom.
“Here is your contract.” He pulled out a scroll from inside his coat pocket. “I know the scroll is a little old school, but we got them in bulk in the dark ages. Besides, why not stick with a classic?” He handed the scroll to her. “To sign, just stick your finger at the bottom.”
Cathy pressed her finger on the bottom of the scroll. A red dot formed beneath her finger and began to spread. She quickly pulled her finger away and noticed blood coming from the tip.
“Now, that wasn’t so bad.” Mr. Stix rose from the chair. “Anyone can fake a signature; that’s why we require blood.” He reached over and snatched the scroll from her hands. “I will take that. Now, let me give you a receipt.”
“Receipt? Why not?” Cathy was far beyond puzzled at this point, so she just decided to go with it.
“Of course, many people tend to pass this offer off as a dream, so we offer a reminder so they won’t forget.”
“You’re not going to brand me or something like that, are you?” Her voice shook.
“What?” He sounded truly surprised by her query. “Madam, we are not animals. Of course, you will receive a paper receipt.” He pulled out a small square of paper – the same parchment as the scroll. “One final question, Mrs. Miller. His end. Should he suffer?” He tapped a pen against the small piece of paper. “On a scale of one to five, five being skinned alive with a butter knife and one being sudden heart attack. Of course, these are just examples; each death is customized for the individual.”
Cathy paused to think, but Marty’s face appeared in her mind. That smug smile…
“Let’s go with a three.” She didn’t want to be cruel, after all. Three seemed like a reasonable number. Mr. Stix scribbled three vertical lines, which crossed at a point a quarter of their length. He circled the intersection, making it look like a crudely drawn bunch of wheat.
“Don’t judge the artwork. We wouldn’t want everything spelled out. No need for evidence to be found just laying around.” He slyly smiled and handed the receipt to her. “This matter should be resolved for you in the next month, give or take a few days. We like to leave it as a little bit of a surprise. In the meantime, live as you normally would. Now, you have a good day Ms. Miller. I imagine you and I will not speak again, regarding this arrangement.” And with a wink, he was gone. No need for pretense any longer; using the door was no longer necessary.
Cathy decided to fake a headache that day, and phoned in sick to work. A long bath was in order with her favorite candles.
Over the next week, Cathy didn’t reflect much on what was to come. As Mr. Stix said, she recalled it as more of a vague dream, figment of her imagination. The receipt was the only reminder of that day, a marker declaring the reality of her decision.
On day eight, the guilt began. That morning, she pulled the receipt with the three lines out. The tan color, along with the heavy weight and unclean edges, made the paper feel hundreds of years old. Did he deserve to suffer? Wouldn’t a single line have been sufficient?
Cathy decided to make Marty’s final days as pleasant as possible. She made his favorite meals and watched his stupid sci-fi shows. She could stomach this for a few weeks. All the while, her porcelain smile never faded.
On the evening of day twelve, Marty decided to go to a poker game with some co-workers. It was unusual for him to go out on a weeknight, but he seemed excited to get out of the house. This gave Cathy some time to relax and maybe get some laundry done.
Cathy began putting away her laundry. She noticed that one of Marty’s socks had been mixed with her clothes. She opened his sock drawer to put away the stray. In the back corner of the drawer was a familiar piece of paper. She withdrew it from the drawer, recognizing the receipt. What was it doing in his drawer? She went to her jewelry box where she had originally kept the receipt, only to find it exactly where she had left it.
“Then what is this?” she wondered. She unfolded the parchment. Sure enough, it was a receipt, with scribbles and marks similar to her own.
At that precise moment, a voice from over her left shoulder whispered in her ear. “I see you found Marty’s receipt.” Cathy clutched her fist to her chest, but dared not turn around. She knew who was behind her. Gone were the blue suit and pencil mustache. Behind Cathy stood what was once Mr. Stix. A vision of his skeletal body wrapped tightly with brittle, dry skin, exposed bones and fiery eyes. She dared not turn and face him; the vision told her as much.
“You see, Marty sought me out weeks before you and I met.” She felt Mr. Stix’s boney fingers on both of her shoulders, his long nails sharpened to jagged points. “Tough luck. He opted for five lines.”
“Don’t worry my dear, I will honor my side of the agreement and pay Marty a visit soon enough.” She could hear the crackling of his skin as he smiled. “A deal is a deal.”
“Now shall we begin?” His boney fingers dug in to her shoulders. “It is alright to scream.”