The words croak out through dust in my throat, “Help me.”
Across the table, the man is like a cold breeze. His voice laughs. “Help you, Joseph? After all I’ve already done for you?”
I lean. Lean over my coffee. Lean into my palm, wavering. “Please.”
“Of course. Joseph. Of course. But for what?”
“Anything. Whatever you want.”
He nods. Cool. Mr. Chill. “That’s good. That’s very good. I’m glad you came around. But I mean ‘for what’ in a more philosophical sense.” He rephrases the question in a deliberate staccato: “What will you do with the life I save?’”
I blink at the gravel in my eyes. Shake my head.
Mr. Chill’s lips go tight. “That’s what I was afraid of. Do you even know what I gave you? I gave you a third more life. A third. Instead of sixteen hours in a day, you now have twenty-four. What are you going to do with a third more time on earth?”
I bat at the air by my face. Something’s there. I can’t see it but I can feel it. A spider web, maybe. “Whatever you want me to.”
Chill catches my hand and places it like a live grenade on the table between us, his own hand atop it. “Listen to me. I can’t help you if you don’t help yourself.”
He turns my hand palm up, leaves two tablets. White. The size of aspirin. But not aspirin.
“Take these,” he says. “It won’t solve anything, but you will feel better. In the morning you report to this address. You lost your job. I have one for you.”
Mr. Chill writes on a napkin with the pen the waitress left.
“Don’t be late,” he says, rising and shrugging into his white, cotton blazer.
I watch the napkin and the pills in my hand. “What time?”
He’s at the door now, ready to leave the diner. He doesn’t turn around. “Morning.”
And he’s gone.
For a minute longer, I watch the gifts Mr. Chill left me. I swallow the pills and chase them with the ice water in the translucent plastic cup on the table. Then I crumple the napkin into my coat pocket.
I want to fall asleep right there in the diner. I don’t. In two minutes, I feel better.
I first met Mr. Chill a few days ago. Three, four, five? Not sure how many. I haven’t slept since.
I had a job. But I lost it. I’ve been losing a number of things as of late–sleep being the foremost on my mind. How did I get here? All I know for sure is that it all starts with Kelly Burbank.
Ms. Burbank is the kind of girl who makes you ashamed to be the man you are. I would talk to her sometimes. She’d be the only other person in the building most nights. Usually she’d say nothing, just hand me the wastebasket from under her desk.
Once, I said something like, “Burning the midnight oil, huh?” And she smiled. I couldn’t tell if it was a polite or an embarrassed smile. Was she embarrassed by my presumption or the clumsy cliche? I thought about that a lot.
Another time, I asked her about her books. She said she was studying journalism. I told her about this program on public radio. She knew the one I was talking about, said she applied for an internship there, but didn’t get it. Instead, she works here at the publishing house, goes to class during the day, and they let her stay late to finish her work. Mostly editing. She told me all this, looking over her shoulder without turning her body toward me.
After our first real conversation, I started working out. Push-ups in my living room. Pull-ups in my bathroom door jam.
I asked her, one night, if she ever sleeps.
“Nope,” she said. “Don’t have time.”
I knew that meant she didn’t want to talk either, so I left her alone. I didn’t bother her for the rest of the week. On the following Monday, she came into the break room for coffee while I was cleaning the fridge. She leaned against the kitchen counter with her mug in both hands and said: “So what’s your story?”
“No story,” I said.
“Someone once told me: ‘people with shitty jobs are making the most interesting art.’”
“This job isn’t that bad.”
I met Mr. Chill a couple days later. I went to the diner down the street from the building I clean. I do that sometimes after work–sit, drink coffee, watch the world wake up around me. Chill came in like a regular and sat down across from me. I’d never seen him before in my life.
Cool Mr. Chill. He’s easy. Easy to talk to. Easy to listen to. Make eye contact with. Trust.
I told him my story. The real reason I’m where I’m at–the truth I’d never tell pretty Ms. Kelly Burbank. I didn’t do a good job telling it; but Chill put all the pieces together, gave it pith.
“So you needed more time. Weren’t ready to start a family and she was.”
“Something like that.”
“When did this happen?”
“We signed the papers almost six months ago.”
“Time goes by so fast.”
“Think of how much of it we waste. If you could do more in a day, wouldn’t that solve everything? If you had more time, you could have a family and everything else you want out of life. You wouldn’t have to choose.”
“Yeah. But where do I get more time?”
I laughed. But he was serious.
What happened next is a blurry jumble. I went somewhere with him, but the rest of my memories of that night are swirling light trails burnt into my retina. I can hear Chill’s easy voice saying, “Just relax, this will only take a moment.”
Then I was at home.
I laid awake in the half light of my apartment. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I just laid there. I got up when I normally would, did some push-ups, ate some breakfast, went to work.
He didn’t tell me I would feel so tired.
“Long night?” Kelly asked, handing her wastebasket over.
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“You need to wake up.”
“You’re telling me.”
I went to the diner after work. Chill didn’t show; he had said he might.
At home I tried to do more push-ups, but my muscles were sore. I sat on the couch and watched TV. Kept getting this feeling like an hour or two had passed in the space of a single commercial. I’d blink and it would be the same cat scratching at the litter box, animated odor waves rising from the sand. That’s all it was, a blink. But, God, it seemed so long.
Outside, traffic waxed and waned. People went to their jobs. Children went to school. They all came home again.
God I was tired.
At work, hours passed in geological time. During a single foot fall, I dreamed I was an astronaut trapped in a space capsule with no windows or doors. I floated weightless for hours until the impact of my foot against the linoleum roused me. The void still hummed outside the capsule until I turned the vacuum off.
I took my lunch break early, went to the diner and sat in a booth.
Eventually, Chill arrived and sat down across from me. “You don’t look good.”
“That’s what happens when you don’t sleep.”
“Why did you do this?”
“You know why. To help you. To give you more time to get your life on track.”
“Yes. There are side effects. But I can help you with those. We can help each other.”
I blinked and for the first time saw him as he truly was. Radiant, beautiful, an angel of light.
“Do you know what I do?” he said, and his brilliant aura disappeared. “We talked about you last time, I never got a chance to tell you about me. It’s okay. But now it’s my turn to talk. About me.”
I rubbed grains of sand into my eyes and tried to open them wider. He went on talking.
“What I do is help people. Not just people like you who need a little bit of a push to get their lives on track. I also help other people. Wealthy people. Sometimes they have complicated problems. Tricky, delicate situations. Sometimes, simple problems. They want something. For example, there’s this box, discovered in a shipwreck at the bottom of the Adriatic. It dates back to the Byzantine empire, the only one of its kind left in the world. And it can calculate the position of the stars with unimaginable precision. Have you heard of this?”
I nod. “Discovery Channel, I think.”
“My mind reels at the implications of such an invention. I think about it all the time. Can you imagine? A man, just a simple man, without the aid of computers–not even a calculator–built this device. And it still functions today. I think, ‘What have I done that compares?’ It makes me want to use every second I have to the very best of my ability. Because a second is infinite, really. Infinite potential. But then–and this is what really bends my noodle–when you think about the very cosmos the box represents, you realize what a lark the last thousand or so years are since that box was built. No one remembers the man who built it. He’s dead anyway, and the box is just a toy to be sold on the black market. Do you get what I’m saying?”
I was starting to.
“Right now,” he went on, “this priceless piece of antiquity is on public display at the Museum of Science and Industry. My client wants it on the private market. See? Simple problem.”
Then Mr. Chill leaned across the table. “But how are we going to get it for him?”
I took it for a rhetorical question, but Chill just stayed there, inclining toward me as if he expected an answer.
Finally, I said, “I don’t know.”
Chill pulled back, threw his arms over the back of the booth.
“Well you should think about it. Because how you answer that question will determine whether I will continue to help you.”
“I don’t want your help anymore, I just want to get some sleep.”
Mr. Chill sighed. “No, you do not need to sleep. You need to wake up.”
“No. No. I need to sleep.”
“Technically, you can still sleep. For very, very short periods. Seconds at most. Not enough to keep you sane. Do you know what will happen to you?”
I didn’t nod. I didn’t blink. I said nothing. Just looked across the table at him.
“You will, very quickly, begin to lose your mind. You will dream and not know it. Waking dreams that will come in waves. Your brain won’t be able to write new memories properly. Your metabolism will stop functioning properly. Your immune system will shut down. You will be a raving mad, human husk in a week, tops, living out a torturous hell as you die.”
I said, “Go fuck yourself.”
I didn’t go back to work right away. I wandered around downtown, went to a bar, got drunk, threw up.
The night was warm. I took my shoes off and I could feel the concrete vibrating against the soles of my feet. Living energy. The essence of the city. The aggregate heartbeats of every sleeping person in every building connected by this asphalt grid. This nervous system.
I blinked and it was gone, so I went back to work.
Maybe Mr. Chill was lying. Maybe I would fall asleep eventually. When that happened, when I got back to normal, I would need my job. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Dawn was approaching. The professionals would be returning to smudge the glass and fill their trash cans and piss on the floor in front of the urinals. I had to hurry.
That’s when I heard the voices of children playing in the empty halls, always around a corner, or behind a door. And when I’d turn my back they’d be right behind me, shrill and shrieking. I chased the voices until I found them outside the sixth floor window. I pounded on the glass, trying to find a window that would open.
Kelly found me. I didn’t know she was still there.
She smiled the kindest smile I had ever seen. Not shy. Not embarrassed. Kind. I remember crumbling in a corner of the room and asking her if she could hear the children too.
She bent down and held my chin in her hand. She said, “I can’t believe you told him to go fuck himself.”
An ice age thawed every time I blinked my eyes. When the paramedics got there they asked where the ‘EDP’ was. I guess they meant me. They put a needle in my arm and everything got worse. The blinks came more quickly. I dreamed with each blink, and each dream evaporated like a forgotten aeon.
It went on and on–the prophesied hell Chill spoke of.
Until it got better.
I recall a flash and the hallucinations were gone, washed away in a tsunami of consciousness. The surface of my brain was covered in fresh, new, pink skin; it made my scalp tingle.
It felt so good.
“You need to get out of here.”
White sheets. A curtain. Linoleum. Fluorescent lights. An emergency room, I reasoned. Kelly leaned over me, her hands on both sides of my face, forcing my head to turn and look up at her.
“I gave you a little bit of a treatment. Not a full one, because it’s one of my own and I need it. I would have given it to you back at the office, but my boss got there early and called 9-1-1. So get up and get out of here before they throw you in the State Hospital or whatever they do with junkies and crazy people.”
“What’s going on?”
She drew the IV needle from my arm without ceremony; the tube ran to a syringe in her hand. She disconnected the syringe and stuffed it into her pocket. “Get up!”
She pulled me to my feet, pressed my wallet into my hands. “Here. Let’s go.”
“Where did you get this?”
And we left. Right out the sliding glass doors. No one seemed to notice.
In front of the hospital she said, “I don’t think anyone ever turned him down before. I can respect that you did. But you’ll die if you don’t do what he wants. Go find him. Make a deal.”
And she walked away–just as Beth pulled up.
Beth leaned into the passenger seat of her sedan and called to me through the open window, “Joey!”
“Beth? What are you doing here?”
I looked around for Kelly. She was gone.
“What are you looking for?” Beth said. “Are you hurt or something?”
“I’m fine,” I said and opened the passenger door. “What are you doing here?”
She made a face I knew, like we were married again, and she wasn’t happy about it.
“Nice to see you, too. Do me a favor and change your emergency contact information.”
“They called you?”
“Honestly, Joey, who else would they call? What happened? Are you okay?”
“I think so. No, yes. I feel great.”
She looked at me, studied my face. “Get in the car. I’ll give you a ride.”
She pulled up to my place. We sat, the car idling.
I reached for the door, then stopped. “I was thinking. I know you’re with what’s his name. I’m not trying to horn in on that. I just–when we were married, it felt like there was always something around the corner, something more I couldn’t get my hands on. I wanted… more. And I didn’t want to settle down, have kids, buy a house–because I thought, you know, what if? Maybe you felt like, I don’t know, you weren’t enough for me. But it wasn’t that at all. You were the best thing in my life, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let it all get so screwed up. It wasn’t you. It was me. It was all my fault.”
She was looking at her hands, limp on the bottom of the steering wheel.
“I know you see it that way,” she said; she looked over at me like I were a very sick child. “But you’re wrong. That’s not why I left you, anyway. Look. I loved you. I still love you. But you are not the man I want to be married to. I want the house, I want the kids, I want the life. I want all that. I don’t want you. You… don’t work with all that. What I’m saying is: it’s not that you want too much. You don’t want enough.”
This was a conversation we’d never had before.
In the absence of my reply, she shrugged and said, “Or you don’t want anything bad enough. I don’t know. Either way…”
I took a breath and opened the door.
“You’ve given me something to think about,” I said, dumbly. “I have a lot more time on my hands now, so, that’s good, I guess.”
She touched my leg. “Please… Please take care of yourself, Joey.”
I put my hand on hers. “Thanks for the ride.”
I was fired from my job, so, instead of going to work that night, I went to the diner and waited. I drank coffee and tipped the waitress over and over again, all night and into the next morning. I walked around town and came back. Ordered breakfast. Waited. Beer. Coffee. Waited and waited. At some point, whatever Kelly gave me began to wear off. That day became another. In the diner. Around town. Back again. The waitress seemed nonplussed by my behavior, like she’d seen it all before–the actions of some lame Sisyphus pushing his coffee cup to the edge of the table.
Finally, a breeze blew in from the door, and there he was. Mr. Chill. He walked over to my table. With every other step he took, I blinked one of my eternal blinks. He sat down, and I begged him to give me another chance. “Help me,” I said. That’s when he gave me the pills and the address and made an appointment with me for “Morning.”
The address Chill gave me is to a brick townhouse. The hills in Northwest, a nice neighborhood with lots of iron gates and stone and ivy.
It’s after seven a.m. when I arrive. A man with eye sockets like plums answers the door. He wears an expensive-looking suit that seems especially tailored for his wiry frame. The tip of a tattoo on his neck peeks out from behind his collar. He looks me over and pops his knuckles one by one–a green, tattoo-ink letter on each finger: ‘N-I-T-E’ and ‘L-I-F-E.’ He steps aside and jerks his head toward the interior of the house. I go in. Knuckles puts his fist in his palm like it’s his at-ease stance and nods in the direction of the stairs. I climb to the sound of his cracking joints behind me.
At the top of the stairs, a doorway opens into an office. The decor is sparse. On one wall is a print of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, and on the wall across from it is another painting I do not recognize depicting the same scene from the myth. A vague sense of apprehension tightens inside my chest.
Mr. Chill stands behind a dark and shiny wood desk in the center of the room. He’s facing the window, looking out at the dew-slick morning streets.
“It’s been morning for over seven hours, Joseph. I do not normally tolerate this kind of ineptitude.”
Chill turns around and smiles a forgiving smile.
“Consider this your warning,” he says.
I nod and look at the floor.
Chill sits down in the plush high-back chair behind his desk and watches me for several seconds. “Did you bring a resume?”
I shake my head.
His face is a facade of exaggerated disappointment. “What kinds of skills do you have?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I’m a janitor.”
“Do you have a high school diploma?”
“I went to OSU.”
“Oh?” Chill raises his eyebrows–a mockery of flattery. “What did you major in? Sanitary engineering?”
“Mm. That explains it.”
He looks me over like he’s taking measurements for a suit–or a coffin.
I clear my throat. “What were those pills you gave me?”
“You want more?”
I look at Chill, right in the eyes. I can’t tell if he’s really offering them to me, mocking me or doing something else entirely. I decide to say nothing.
“You’re scared. I can see it. Good. I’m giving you another chance, Joseph. How long has it been since you last slept–since I gave you this gift? Have the hallucinations started yet?”
He waves away his own questions. “The pills were just a quick fix. What you really need is a treatment. A treatment will take care of all the side effects of sleeplessness–for a little while, anyway. But you are going to have to work for it. Every time, you’re going to have to prove you deserve it. You said ‘no’ to me once. You don’t get to say it again. Do you understand?”
Chill takes a set of keys out of the desk drawer, sets them down and slides them over.
“Now, I can see you’re a coward. So I’m not going to ask anything too taxing of you for now.”
I pick up the keys and look at them.
“You’ll be my driver,” Chill says. “I expect you here at twelve a.m. everyday. You don’t get paid. You’re done when I tell you you’re done. You get your treatments exactly as often as I deem it necessary for you to receive them. Understand?”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes, but how–”
“That is not my problem. Be here at twelve a.m. everyday, and you do everything I ask. That’s it. The day you don’t show–the day you tell me ‘no’–you’re done. You get one warning about this shit. Do. You. Understand?”
I hear Knuckles behind me. Pop. Pop. Pop. Chill nods at him.
“The kid’s here,” says Knuckles.
At the bottom of the stairs is a boy, maybe seventeen. He’s tall, handsome. He has a book bag on his shoulder. When he sees Chill he looks nervous the way teenagers do.
“There he is!” Chill says with sudden exuberance. “Have you had breakfast yet? I know a place.”
I drive them to that diner. On the way, Chill asks the kid questions, tells him interesting stories. By the time they get out of the car, the kid isn’t awkward anymore.
I go park and wait. I wonder what they’re talking about in the diner. But it doesn’t matter what–I know where it’s going. The kid has a problem. A sick mother. Hospital bills stacking up. No money for college. And he has a dream. He needs more time–all day and all night–to fix his problems or to make his dream come true. Chill can ‘help’ him with that. The kid will love him–probably already does. But Chill hasn’t started squeezing him yet.
After breakfast, I drive them to Grant High School; it’s where I used to go–a long time ago, now, long before time started killing me. The kid gets out.
“I’ll see you tomorrow night, Kevin,” says Mr. Chill, and pats the back of my seat to go.
Through the mirror, I watch the kid walk across the grass toward the big, brick building, and I can’t shake the sense that I’ve abandoned him to die.
“I have a job for you,” says Chill as I drive.
I glance at him in the rear view mirror and say nothing.
“That girl. The one who helped you. I’m done with her.”
I just keep driving.
When we get to the townhouse, I park and turn around in my seat. This will be the second time I’ve had to beg him.
“I’ll do anything, man. I’ll steal that box. Whatever you want. But I can’t–I can’t hurt that girl.”
Chill holds up his hand. “Are you saying ‘no?’”
“I’m saying, ‘please.’ I’m saying, ‘I’ll do the box job.’ I’ll do anything.”
He nods, licks his lips. “You are so pathetic. You know that’s why she picked you, right? And just to spite me. I asked her to find me a real player. Instead, she brings me you. The box job is off the table. You want a treatment, you do what I say. I can’t have two of you piece-of-shits undermining my operation.”
“It’s you or her. One of you gets the treatments, the other dies. If you’re merciful, you will put a bullet between her eyes. Or you can drown her in mop water. Whatever a low-life janitor does to commit murder. But do it tonight.”
I still have my keys from my old job. I find her in the break room, pouring coffee. She looks up at me, then drops her eyes to my hand–the fat, black .45-caliber Glock I hold against my thigh. She nods at the gun.
“Did he give you that?”
I blink and look away.
“He told you to kill me,” she says.
It’s not a question–she knows.
We stand there for a beat longer. I think about raising the gun. My hand twitches, but that’s all I can manage. She takes a sip of her coffee.
“He knows you won’t do it. He knows you can’t. He knows everything, even if he pretends he doesn’t. It’s this game he’s playing–to toy with me. You don’t even matter.”
Finally, I lift my eyes to her; they feel rusty. My head aches. I’m so goddamn tired. “What–what do you mean?”
“He knows you’re not going to do it. He just wants me to know I fucked up. That I’m on his shit-list, or whatever. So I’ll toe the line.”
She takes another sip of her coffee. “You should have done a better job of begging. You should have impressed him. What did you do, tell him to fuck off again? Whatever it was, he’s going to make you suffer now.”
My legs feel weak. There’s a chair beside me and I slump into it. My hand falls on the table; the gun rests on its surface, inert. I couldn’t pick it up again if I tried. “What do I do?”
Kelly sets her coffee on the table across from the pistol. Her voice is soft and small and she says, “You kill me.”
Her eyes are glossy.
“I’m done,” she says in the same small voice. “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.”
She sits down across from me, clears her throat.
“Listen. It’s the only thing that makes sense. He thinks he can control us. But if you do it, if you actually kill me–that’s a freewill choice. It’s the only real choice you have.”
Her voice is small again.
“Please do it.”
“I want you to do it.”
I rub my temples. How much time do I have before the pills Chill gave me in the diner wear off completely? How much time until I lose my mind again. My stomach hurts. Every second matters now.
I push my chair back, stand and grip the Glock. She closes her eyes; crystal beads stream down her cheeks. For an infinite second, the teardrops hang at her chin, and I am trapped inside each. Trapped in thought. It’s just a second, but it tells me what to do.
“There’s a kid,” I say. “A high school student–Grant High School. His name’s Kevin.”
Kelly opens her eyes and looks at me. I’m holding the gun at my side.
“He’s next,” I tell her. “He’s going to do to Kevin what he did to us. Tomorrow night. He’s going to do it.”
I can see in her eyes that she knows exactly what I’m talking about. I can see her making her own choice.
I put the gun down on the table.
“His name’s Kevin,” I tell her again. “I don’t know how much time I have left before I lose it again. Not long, I guess. It’s okay. I’ve earned my death now. But you still have to earn yours. Remember, his name is Kevin.”
I know I’m rambling, but she nods like she gets it, so I leave.
My mind unravels as I walk. I can’t shake the sense that someone awaits me outside. So I walk like I have an appointment. A rendezvous with a stranger everyone knows.
I go to meet him.
In the dark.
Andrew Weber is a freelance writer in Eugene, OR. He does a sci-fi webcomic called Ion Grip (iongrip.com), has written some fantasy novels, and produces a podcast of original short fiction called Lies and Half-Truths. You can see some of his portfolio at apweber.com.