Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Hollow Choices

What struck me was that I didn’t feel happy in any way at all when they walked me down the hall. I’d seen other prisoners whoop and cheer they were paraded through the doors and gates and checkpoints, nodding to friends or even foes as they made their final exit. I’d seen smirks and shit-eating grins and knowing smiles. But I didn’t feel like celebrating. I couldn’t. I couldn’t even imagine how.

Maybe it was who was walking me out. The guard on my right I knew well, or at least I knew his baton, which I’d felt on my shoulder or cheek occasionally when I didn’t look at him the right way, or when he just needed to show off. The guard on my left had never hurt me, or at least never struck me or wounded me: but he had been the one to look away and slink off on the afternoon when Hutchins and his friends, who I’d apparently slighted, crowded into the shower with me, slowly penning me in the corner . . .

And I wondered, as this guard walked beside me, if he had listened. He must’ve known what they were going to do to me. And I wondered if he’d known then, as I had not, that it wouldn’t be the last time.

They showed me the papers. Recited the appropriate texts. Notified me of all the strictures that’d be placed upon me when I walked out those doors. They were telling me, in a way, that though I was free of this place, though I’d served my time and paid my debt to society, I was not truly free, for they still had some part of me, some part still locked up in here. And I nodded, and nodded, and nodded.

The squeak of cheap shoes on linoleum. The flutter of fluorescent lights. Then doors fell open before me, one after the other, and there was a blast of chill and the gray, flat light of an overcast sky.

I walked out. Snowflakes danced down to my shoulders and hands. The guards pointed the way toward the bus I’d be taking to a halfway house. I thanked them, bag in my hand, and started walking.

I smelled exhaust and seawater and winter wind and snow. I smelled the tang of a Swisher Sweet and the rot from a Dumpster. But I did not smell freedom. None of it smelled free to me. Maybe I’d forgotten what that smelled like.

• • • •

When you get out of prison, it’s like visiting a foreign country: you watch, amazed, as people go about their inscrutable tasks that feel loaded with threat, meaning, subtext. What would have been impossible for you to do a mere week ago—getting a soda, opening a window—is white noise to them. You realize that these people are not yours, nor are you part of them. You can walk through a city where you once belonged, but now you’re an alien.

This was the world I now lived in. I slept at the halfway house (“ST. MART N’S MEN’S TRAN ITION L HOUS NG” read the sign), awoke every day at 6:30 a.m. (expecting each time to hear the blare of the morning alarm), and applied for jobs, with no response. That was no surprise: I wasn’t in the front of the line for work by a long shot.

I wandered the city. It felt so strange to move freely. I was so used to tight rooms and winding corridors, to the musty aroma of underoxygenated air . . . To have the sky spilling in on me from all directions was terrifying and thrilling.

And one day, while waiting on one corner for the signal to walk, I looked up and saw a woman standing beside me. There wasn’t anything especially notable about her. Her heavy winter coat was wrapped around medical scrubs, like she’d ducked out of her workplace to run an errand. She was neither beautiful nor ugly. She wasn’t even plain. There was nothing about her appearance to make an ordinary person take note, but when I looked in her eyes, I saw it.

Nothing.

Well, not nothing. Her eyes were there, like actually in her skull, but there was nothing in them. There’s a spark to eyes, an aliveness when there’s an intelligence behind them, looking out, watching, learning. You forget it’s there, and only realize what’s missing when you see the eyes of the dead, or those in drugged stupor, or—a third option—those like her.

She looked at me and said, with a note of some irritation, “Can I help you with something?”

I was so surprised to see her move and speak, I had no idea what to say. It was as though a mannequin had suddenly come to life. She scoffed, assuming, I guess, that I was a perv, and when the walk sign came she hurried away.

• • • •

I didn’t know what she was, but I suspected, and it was a pretty good suspicion. Better than a guess. I’d seen men with empty looks in prison, but that was the norm. The men inside were beaten down, defeated, dispirited. They had surrendered to a life without possibilities or choice, but there was more in those men than there had been in that woman.

I began following her without intending to. I was half a block behind her for five minutes before I even realized what I was doing, and let’s be honest, what I was doing was dangerous—for so many reasons.

Maybe trouble was exactly what I needed. I had a ticking clock and a lot of grudges, and I was either going to spend my days watching the sand dribble out of the glass or I was going to settle some old scores. I knew which of those was the more likely.

I felt the need growing inside me, all the time. I had to do something. I couldn’t let it all go. I wanted justice, or at least something that felt like justice to me. I was going to rebalance the scales of my little corner of the universe, and I’d do it with a hammer.

That was the plan, anyhow, until I saw the woman. Because she was so like them, the ones who had put me in prison in the first place. She reminded me of decisions I’d made, questions I’d never gotten answered. More than anything, I had to know if she had . . . well, if she had done it.

And if she had, then I had to know why. Because if she’d had to make the same choice I did, she would have been asked the same question I’d been asked once. Only her answer had been different.

She turned the corner at a coffee shop. I rushed to catch up, but when I came around, she was waiting. She leaned against the building and looked at me, those dead eyes revealing nothing, her lips twisted in maybe amusement, maybe pity.

“Jesus,” she breathed through pursed lips, sending a lock of blond fluttering against her forehead. “You again. What do you want?”

I realized I was panting, blowing out puffs of wintry breath like a chimney. “You did it, didn’t you?” I said. “You got the offer and you took it.”

She looked frightened or caught or guilty. And then she didn’t. She steeled herself and met my gaze. “How do you know? Who told you?”

“I don’t know how I know. I just . . .”

“Just what?”

“I just . . . looked at you. And I knew.”

She watched me a second longer, maybe gauging if I was a threat. Finally she said, “I took it. Yeah, I took it. I’d have been an idiot not to.”

There were so many things I wanted to ask her, to make her explain, but I knew I could not have that conversation. It would take hours. So I asked the most important question I thought she might be willing to answer: “Do you feel any . . . different?”

She thought about it. Shrugged. “I guess I feel different because my life doesn’t suck anymore. My kid’s kidneys aren’t failing. I’m not about to lose my house. That feels different.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes. That’s it.”

I was silent. She couldn’t have known it, but her simple answer had reached inside me, broken me up, crumbled me to dust. I felt faint, but I didn’t fall. I stumbled backward, nodding to her, and managed a weak, “Thanks.”

“You said no?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Why?” It was the incredulous voice of a parent speaking to a child who had done something utterly stupid and inexplicable.

“It seemed like the right call at the time.” I turned away.

“Hey,” she said. “How did you know? What gave it away?”

I almost said it was her eyes, but then I stopped myself. Obviously she did not know, and I didn’t think it was right to tell her. Even though this woman had done something unspeakable, it wasn’t my place to judge her. She was already, in a very real sense, damned. There was no need to make her feel like crap about her appearance.

• • • •

There are a lot of ways to go to prison. Most of them are stupid. Criminals, after all, do criminal acts because they can’t make a straight living, either because circumstances prevent it, or because they can’t figure out how to get their shit together.

I was a little of both. Me and my friends Marco and Teddy had been busboys at this restaurant for what felt like years. In truth, it’d only been a handful of months, but when you’re young, time is different: the days move slowly when you’re miserable, and in that steamy restaurant, elbow deep in gray water scummed over with old cheese, they moved even slower.

So when Marco heard that we could make more money as movers, Teddy and I jumped at the opportunity. He didn’t mention that we’d be moving gambling machines. And he didn’t mention until after we’d already worked a few jobs that what we were doing was highly illegal. But by then we’d been paid, many times over, and it’s hard to say no or think straight when you’ve got a wad of money burning a hole in your pocket. So we kept going back to the well.

At the time, it seemed like things could never go wrong. That’s the problem with being young: it seemed like it would be beer and dancing and money and pussy forever. But when I look back on it now, all that was over in an instant.

I remember everything about how it ended. When you’re in prison, that’s all you ever think about. So much more than getting out.

I remember the call in the night. Marco’s girlfriend, telling me Marco was hurt. Then I remember rushing into his apartment, the tile of his bathroom a raw, brilliant red, lakes of blood stymied in their crawl across his floor, and the gray-white hand twisted in the shower curtain.

When I pulled the curtain aside, it was not Marco: it was an old man, white, mid-fifties. He was dressed like a security guard, and his throat had been slashed so wide I could see inches into his neck.

Then I heard the sirens. And I remembered how Marco and Teddy had been so secretive the last few days, always pulled aside to talk to the bosses, presumably arranging a big score.

But what I remember most, out of all of it, was the way their eyes had looked the night before I was arrested. Empty. Dead. Something had been in those eyes once, but it was gone. And when they had smiled at me, it had tasted false and wrong, like someone had drawn a smile on a mannequin.

When the cops brought me in, booked me, and questioned me, I learned piece by piece that a huge amount of electrical equipment had been stolen at the docks. The guard had gone missing along with it: to be found, of course, in Marco’s bathtub, beaten about the face and bathing in several gallons of his own blood.

They never found the thieves, but they’d found me, and they were goddamn intent on keeping me. Because among all the riffraff in Marco’s apartment, they’d found a Glock with my prints on the barrel hood, a Glock whose handle just happened to have traces of the guard’s blood on its grip. The bruising on the guard’s face matched the pattern of the grip. And while you can explain away some fingerprints on a handle, a fingerprint on the inner workings of a gun is a tall order.

I told them I didn’t know anything—even how my fingerprints got on the gun. That went down about as well as you’d think. They asked me who else was involved. They told me it would go easier if I gave up the guys who had left me flapping in the breeze. They used words like deal and probation and first-time offender, but even a fuckup like me knew what that meant. They wanted me to flip.

In some distant part of my mind, I’d always known things could go south. I hadn’t believed it, but I’d known it, and I had understood there was a way you accepted these things. You took your lumps. You did your time. You didn’t rat out your friends. A man who turns on his friends is vermin—that’s why they call it ratting. And he deserves to be dealt with like vermin. I wasn’t going to go that route.

I stayed silent. And they seemed to accept that pretty easily. They didn’t beat me. They didn’t press me too hard on accomplices. They didn’t need to. They had a crime, and they had a suspect. Somewhere, some suit who worked in the D.A.’s office was saying they had enough to convict. Why sweat the small stuff?

And so that was that. They were done with me.

I spent my first night in jail that night. The first night of what would be fifteen years.

• • • •

I didn’t spend it alone.

I’m still not sure when he arrived. He was just there, like he’d always been there, slouched in the cell across from me.

“You look,” he said, “like someone in a world of hurt.”

I looked up at him. He was a thoroughly unremarkable man: skinny but not too skinny, with salt-and-pepper hair but not that old, his eyes a plain, dull shade of brown. His clothes were nice but nothing particularly special: he could belong anywhere and nowhere.

“What?” I said.

“I said, you look like someone in a world of hurt.”

I looked away, said nothing. I was terrified. I was angry. And I was aware that there was a very good chance I’d be spending a lot of time in a place like this.

“I’ve seen a lot of people in your state,” he said. “Tons. God, I can’t even count ’em. I’ve seen so many folks at the end of their ropes, I guess there must be rope ends all over the fucking place. I really do.”

“Shut the fuck up,” I moaned.

But he didn’t. He sat up and leaned against the wall at the far end of the cell, all nonthreatening-like. “Now, the thing is, I don’t usually see them in such a sorry state for long. You know why?”

“I sure as shit hope you’re not going to tell me they find Jesus.”

He was quiet. Then he burst out laughing. He laughed long and loud, a rough, throaty laugh that sounded like it hurt. “Oh, man! That’s good. That’s some good stuff, it really is. Shit, no! That Jesus stuff, it only works on folks who are buried deep in.”

“Deep in what?”

He flicked the bars of his cell. “Deep in bars. Folks behind bars behind bars behind bars. And that’s the only place it lasts, too. Once they get out, poof, it’s gone. They forget all about it. Back to their old tricks, y’see.” He smiled. “No, these people . . . the ones whose fortunes really turn for the better . . . they find something different.”

I glared at him. I wished he was dead. Him, and Marco, and Teddy, and the detectives who’d asked me, seriously, a total of six questions, because they’d known they had me dead to rights. “What is it?” I asked angrily.

“Oh, now hold on there,” said the man. “Let’s not blow our wad just yet. You don’t want to jump into this, now do you?”

“I didn’t even know there was a ‘this.’”

“Well, there is, and you’re trying to jump into it. To get what I’m offering, you have to give something up. You have to give me something. It’s an exchange. Get it?”

“If you want my ass, man, you can fucking forget about it.”

He smiled. But I noticed his eyes didn’t smile. Most people when they smile, even if they don’t mean it, some part of their eyes move. It’s just what a human face does. But his . . . didn’t. “No,” he said. “I want something a little bit more valuable than your anal virginity, my boy.”

“What?”

He leaned forward, the top of his forehead poking through the bars. “Son . . . do you believe in the soul?”

I stared at him. Then I burst out laughing, just as he had done. “You’ve got be fucking kidding me! Oh, man. You seriously had me for a moment!”

He didn’t laugh: he just kept smiling through the bars.

I asked, “Are you, like, some drunk that’s in here every night, and this is how you get your kicks?”

Still, he did not laugh. But then he said, “You know, I’m not surprised to hear you laugh. Marco laughed too, when he heard my offer.”

I stopped. The world went dead. “What?” I asked. “What did you say?”

He kept smiling.

“What the fuck was that?” I shouted. “What the fuck did you just say to me?”

“You’ll want to keep your voice down,” he said. “Otherwise the guards will come, and you’ll never hear the rest.”

The man leaned against the wall and folded his arms. He half closed his eyes like he was remembering something sweet. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “Marco took it. And Teddy took it. That’s why they’re out there and you’re in here. But the good news—the real good news, my friend—is that when you take it, you’ll be out there, too. It’s as simple as it sounds: you give me your soul, and I give you an easy life.”

“So, what,” I said with a snort, “you’re like the devil or something? Like in the stories?”

“Stories are stories,” said the man, “because reality is so much more complex. Here’s how it works: I’m not going to offer to make you rich, a movie star, or any of that. I won’t make you immortal or irresistible to women. All that is crap. What I can offer you is an uncomplicated, pleasant life. You won’t get sick before your time, you won’t end up living on the street. You’ll be luckier than most people. The things you shoot for will have a better chance of working out. Hopefully some high flying, but absolutely a lot of smooth sailing.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Okay, that’s swell. That’s a pretty good pitch. Now, I’m going to get some sleep.”

“You want to get some sleep?” he asked. “You’d rather get some sleep than, say, be set up for life? You’d rather get some sleep than get out of jail free?”

“Tell you what,” I said. “Get me out of jail free, and I’ll listen. Transport me to the VIP room of some club and stick a supermodel on my lap, and we’ll talk terms.”

“Doesn’t work that way. I can get you out of here, but the clubs and the models are up to you. And I can’t give you the goods without getting the payment. That would be bad business on my part. I will promise to get you out of jail in exchange for what I’m asking. All you have to do is agree. Even if you don’t believe me, then what do you have to lose? And if I’m right, then you’ve got your proof, plus so much more.”

I was awake now, and I was paying attention. The thing was, somewhere along the way, I started to believe this guy. This wasn’t just an annoying cell mate, this was a business negotiation. I told myself I was being ridiculous—it was fear and fantasy thinking—but I believed him, not myself. On some level, I understood that his offer was for real.

It wasn’t just the sincerity in his voice, the confident ease with which he delivered a sales pitch I knew he’d delivered countless times before. There were other things. The cell was colder than it had been before, and the air felt charged, like just before a storm, and there were pockets of heat. The man was not attractive—he kind of looked like Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill, with his long face and high forehead and dour expression, but that was not it. He looked perfectly normal, yet he was also off—his eyes and nose and mouth sat on his face slightly wrong, like their proportions were mixed up, but just so slightly you couldn’t quite say how. And the color of his skin seemed strange too. I had never seen a shade precisely like that—no, I decided, not the shade but the color saturation. It made him look like a man out of an old photograph.

“Can you prove all this?” I was interested now for sure. Not interested in the deal precisely, but in the situation. “Can you show me what you’re talking about is real?”

He grinned. “You mean like magic?” He waved his hands around, like a magician performing a trick with invisible props. “There’s no such thing. There’s the reality you know and the reality you don’t, but everything follows the same laws of physics. I just might know a few more of those laws than you do. But I can’t turn you into a donkey or make vines grow out of the toilet. That sort of thing doesn’t happen.”

“But the soul is an actual thing?”

“Absolutely. Just like an appendix is an actual thing. That wart on your left big toe is real too, but if I were to remove it, you wouldn’t miss having it, and it doesn’t do you any good.”

“And there’s no way to prove you’re telling the truth?”

He looked at me, and his eyes glistened strangely. “You know I am.”

And I did. Or at least I thought I did, because when I thought about them, his words had the weight and texture and sound of truth. “Let’s say you are telling the truth. Then that means there is such a thing as a soul. If that’s true, then all the fucking bullshit we’ve learned about religion and heaven and hell and all that is also true, or could be. Right?”

He didn’t nod or shake his head. He just watched me.

I asked, “Wouldn’t I be a moron to sell my soul for a shot at a decent life on Earth and then trash my chance for eternal happiness? Who would take such a dumb-ass bargain? If anything, the idea that you’re telling the truth would give a person the strength to endure all the shit life throws at them because it means that they’re safe from hell and destined for heaven.”

The man thought about this for a second. It looked like no one had ever confronted him with these ideas before, but they seemed obvious to me.

“You’re basing your assumptions on medieval ideas about the soul,” he said. “That’s very much like basing your flight plan to India on medieval maps. The soul is real, and it is a commodity, one I can use and profit from. This isn’t about heaven and hell. It’s about supply and demand. This is the economics of the marketplace, so don’t go thinking that just because you have a soul you can use Dante’s Inferno as a travel guide.”

“But it’s a soul,” I said. “Isn’t it, like, the essence of who I am?”

He waved his hand in the air in a dismissive gesture. “If you needed a heart transplant, and I offered to sell you a compatible organ, you wouldn’t worry about the love and goodness and hopes contained in the donor’s heart, would you? It’s a piece of flesh, and it serves a function. The soul is the same thing. It’s a part of you, and one you can live without. Giving it up doesn’t necessarily mean you are giving up anything else.”

“But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not.”

He shrugged. “You want to do business, I’m your man. You want to talk metaphysics, there are some deep-thinking hard timers in maximum security. They’ll be happy to discuss this once they’ve knocked out all your teeth so they can rape your mouth.”

I’d had a chance to ease my way by selling out Marco and Teddy, but I hadn’t done it. I’d taken the hard way because the hard way felt like the honorable course. So I sure as hell wasn’t about to take the easy way now. I knew—and you have to understand this—I knew what he was offering me was the real deal. I knew all I had to do was say yes, and I also believed him when he said I wouldn’t miss having it. It would be like that wart, useless and there, and then useless and gone.

But fuck it. I didn’t like his attitude. I didn’t like the idea of some stranger buying and selling pieces of people, pieces of me. I didn’t like that he danced around the details rather than answering my questions. No matter what I got in this bargain, he would always have power over me.

“Not interested,” I said.

His smile made me want to punch him in the teeth. So smug and satisfied. “Marco said you might not. He said you were too much of a pussy.”

“Oh, then I’ll show him and prove he’s wrong,” I said in a lilting voice. “Did you actually think that was going to work?”

“The thing about Marco and Teddy,” he said, “is that by getting out of jail, they created kind of a vacuum in the legal system. They’d been arrested for the crime, and then they were let out. Someone else had to look guilty, and that’s where you came in. You’re sitting right here because those guys took the deal. And now you’re going to do time for them.”

He wasn’t going to force me into making a decision I didn’t want to make, but I needed to know if this was for real. “When they made the bargain, did they know this would happen?”

He shrugged. “They knew it might. But they also thought you would get out of it, just like they did. Teddy was sure you’d say yes. Everyone says yes. Just about.”

“Not me.”

“I won’t come back,” he said. “There are perfect moments for trading, and this is yours. If you say no, you’re saying no forever.”

“Fine by me,” I said.

He coughed out a mocking laugh. “When you’re shitting on that public toilet tomorrow morning, and you’re struck by the realization of what your life is going to be for a very long time, you’ll be sorry. And then it’ll be too late.”

I looked over at the toilet, and it did seem a pretty good metaphor for what was coming, but I wasn’t about to let him talk me into it.

I turned back to say that, but he was gone. Disappeared. Just bars and darkness across the hall. Any doubts I had about the truth of what he’d been saying vanished with him. I’d been offered a deal, and I’d said no. And now I had a long time to think about whether or not it had been the right call. And I knew something else. Whatever the world was, and however it worked, it wasn’t like I’d always thought. It wasn’t like how any of us had always thought. But the real deal—that was a big fucking question mark.

• • • •

Now that I knew there were others, I started walking the city, more and more. I watched the crowds in the street, watched how they looked at the world, how they interacted with it: stabbing at the buttons of cell phones, dancing around little dogs on leashes, haltingly raising their arms for a cab.

And the way they watched things. The way they looked at one another. And the way they looked inward. Lots of people look inward when they walk.

But maybe sometimes they looked inward at something that wasn’t there.

I saw it more. Flashes of it. People with dead, painted-on eyes, people who I knew without a doubt were hollow and empty and drifting, like something had just fallen out of them as they walked down the sidewalk.

So many of them were . . . well, not rich, but healthy, whole: they looked like Gap models, like bit players in a commercial, not the image of howling rock star success, but the image of comfort, of contentment, of having bought something and found genuine fulfillment in it.

I hated them. I hated them and the cold and the snow, and I hated how it made me feel colder on the inside. They’d said yes, and I hadn’t, and I hated myself for it.

It took weeks for me to notice the next big thing, though, weeks of roving and walking in circles. And when I first saw it, it took me a while to realize what I was seeing was true.

There was one block where I saw more of them than ever. Not just the random outliers, drifting down the pavement. Flocks of them. Gangs of them. Dozens and dozens of them.

This was where they lived. This was where they congregated, all the ones who said yes.

I felt like I’d penetrated some foreign territory, like a spy on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Were they watching me? Would they suddenly turn hostile, now that I’d found their big secret?

As I huddled in a doorway, I realized they wouldn’t. In fact, they didn’t give a shit. It took me a minute to realize that to them, to these gleaming, effervescent, happy people with empty eyes, I was probably just some homeless guy. I looked the part, at least. I was scruffy, beat-up. I was someone who’d seen a lot of things and been changed by it. I was not like them, but neither was I anything to care about.

I kept coming back to that block, not sure what I was looking for. Somewhere behind the cold stone walls of that city block was the truth, the thing that had been hiding from me all along, and I had to find it.

Or him, actually.

It was sheer random chance that I saw him. The door of a very upscale apartment building opened, and I expected to see, well, anyone walk out. And at first, I couldn’t even really tell it was him, since it was so dark at the door’s threshold.

But when he took a few steps out, I realized I knew that walk. That swinging-dick swagger . . . It was unmistakable.

“Marco,” I said softly.

He was dressed in a cream-white jacket and corduroy pants, and he wore his beard trimmed so neat and clean it might have been cut by a surgeon. As he walked out, he flipped out a pair of sleek little sunglasses, and he slipped them on with the air of a man confident that he’s the protagonist in the movie of his life.

Marco turned back to the door and said something. I saw a shadow at the threshold, and a gorgeous woman in a faux-fur jacket and stripper stiletto heels came clip-clopping out. Usually these ornamentations would make any woman look ridiculous, but she was the sort who used and worked them effortlessly, so that you didn’t even notice how impractical they were.

The girl put her arm in his, and they walked off into the city, she with the pristine, pneumatic efficiency of practiced beauty, he with the relaxed contentment of a man freshly scrubbed and refreshed after a long bout of athletic sex.

I stood there in silence for a long time. It started snowing again. When the snow covered the toes of my shoes, I left.

• • • •

The next time I came back I brought a knife.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. I mean, I vaguely knew. I knew that I wanted to see Marco die, and if that meant I had to do it myself then, well . . . that would need to happen.

But everything had a faint unreality to it as I huddled in an alley outside of his building. I was aware how all this should go—I follow him, wait until he’s alone, then confront him, cut his throat—but it felt like I was trying to live someone else’s story. I had never killed anyone, even in prison. I’d been in fights in prison, but I’d hated being in them. I’d seen men die, and I hated seeing that.

But I wanted Marco to die. I never ratted him out. I took his years, gave him my own. But I’d never realized how different my life could have been.

He was so happy. Even though his eyes were as empty as all the other hollow people’s, he just . . . he just looked like someone everyone wanted to be.

I stood and watched as his apartment door opened. Two young girls came out, trotted down the street. I relaxed. I realized that I’d actually been dreading it: if it was Marco, then I’d have to do what I set out to do.

Then the door opened again, and out he came.

My whole body went rigid. Again, he composed himself on the sidewalk, before setting off with his confident swagger.

I knew that if I took one step after him, I’d have to follow him the whole way, and the more I looked at him, the more I’d want to do it.

My body quivered, frozen. I watched impotently as Marco blithely strolled down the street, turned the corner, and was gone.

Coward, coward. Always such a coward.

• • • •

I wandered then. I think I wept. I wasn’t sure.

The buzz of yellow sodium lights. The endless tumble of snow. Hallways of towering granite cliffs, riddled with dead little windows. Not unlike the hallways I’d left mere weeks ago. Was this place not unlike a prison? Faceless, miserable people bundled in bright clothing, shuffling along empty stretches, returning to their cells.

I walked down, down into the subway, found some miserable little line hidden in the exposed guts of the city, and sat there listening to the trains, thinking, alone except for a homeless man slouched in the corner.

I looked at my face in the reflection of the knife’s blade. The bright, happy young man who’d dabbled in crime had long been erased by sunless years and unspeakable abuse.

How I wished I’d said yes. The hell with all the spiritual navel-gazing. There could be no worse punishment than this, to be alive, and powerless, and empty, and forced to see people living lives that could never be yours.

There was a voice in the subway station. “You look,” it said, “like someone in a world of hurt.”

I turned my head. The homeless man in the corner raised a hand and pulled his hood back. A familiar face, as familiar as the twenty-dollar bill, smiled out at me as it emerged from shadow.

“Hello again,” he said.

• • • •

“You’ve seen Marco,” he said. He had the same odd, off-color skin, the same weirdly placed features, but he was older and certainly more haggard, even more like an old photograph than before. “Don’t tell me you haven’t. That could be you, my friend. The deal’s a better bargain if you make it before you waste your youth in prison, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had. You’ve got many fine years before you—or, shall we say, they could be fine. That’s option number one. Number two is that hepatitis C drags you down any day, any minute, poisoned blood washing into your body . . .”

He knew about the hep C. I hated his advantage over me, but whoever this guy was, he wasn’t Satan. At least I didn’t think so. There was something about him this time that smacked of desperation, like a salesman down on his luck. He had the same jolly, confident tone, but I’d picked up a few skills in prison, and one of them was learning to tell when a guy was talking out of his ass. This guy wasn’t just making me an offer, he was trying to save his own bacon. Maybe he had a quota to make. Maybe it had cost him something when he’d let me slide the first time. Who the hell knows how it works in the soul-selling business? Whatever it was, I wanted to find some way to work it.

“I thought it was a one-time offer,” I said.

“It was,” he said with an easy grin. “And now it is again.”

I thought about what he was offering, and what it might mean. I thought about Marco and that woman and all those people in that neighborhood who didn’t seem to know or care that they’d lost something. If you don’t know or care, how important could losing it be?

“Let’s talk,” I said.

• • • •

We sat in a local coffee shop that fortunately wasn’t very crowded. Maybe it had been before we came in, but if so, it soon thinned out. The few other patrons shot menacing stares at us, but I ignored them. None of those people had anything on me, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to be intimidated by the evil gaze of a bleach-blond mother who had been ignoring her toddlers while typing into her phone. So I sat with Andrew Jackson while retro cool jazz played over the sound system and strange coffee machines belched out steam like ancient factory equipment.

“The hepatitis goes away?” I asked him.

He raised a saucer full of latte and savored the scent. “Mmmm. Caramel. Yes, my friend. Health is yours for the asking. And more than that—good fortune, friends, women. People will want to help you, give you what you desire, open the doors that now block your every move. No one will want to cheat you or kill you or rob you or rape you—a little protection that might have come in handy over the past few years, I suspect.”

Was that why I had been too cowardly to kill Marco? Was I feeling the effects of Marco’s deal, and he’d been protected against me?

“Health is good,” I said. “So’s people being nice.”

Women being nice,” he said with a wiggle of his eyebrows. “Girls gone wild, my friend. Wild.”

I said nothing for a long time. He drank his latte and appeared content to wait.

“In the stories,” I ventured, “you make a deal, and then something you didn’t think of comes back to bite you on the ass. People will be nice to me and luck goes my way, so how do I know a brick won’t fall on my head or I won’t be paralyzed in a car accident?”

“The brick won’t fall,” he said, “and you won’t get in that car. It’s a matter of chance, a matter of choice. The world operates in patterns. I can put you in a place where the patterns always work in your favor.”

“What guarantee do I have?”

He appeared curious now. “What kind would you like?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t want to be ripped off.”

“I assure you, no one’s out to trick you. It’s all aboveboard. If we don’t keep our part of the bargain . . . if you fall victim to the wrong sort of pattern, I suppose, and experience devastating bad luck . . . then we are obligated to void the contact. You will, of course, be dead or paralyzed or otherwise unfortunate, but you’d be out of the contract. We can’t keep what we take if you don’t get what we promise.”

“Would that be bad for you?” I asked.

He cocked his head, like an animal hearing something not quite disturbing. “It wouldn’t be good, no. But we’re not here to discuss me. I see you’re interested. There’s no time like the present to commit.”

I nodded. There was, in fact, no time like the present.

His expression brightened. “Then shall we proceed?”

“Give me twenty-four hours to think about it.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he said sadly.

“You seem to want this deal,” I told him, “so I think you can. I’ll be back here, in this coffee shop, in twenty-four hours. If you don’t show, we’ll just say I lost out again, forever. Until the next time.”

“You drive a hard bargain, my friend. A very hard bargain.”

• • • •

I went back to the neighborhood, the one full of people with dead eyes. I bought another cup of coffee and stood leaning against the side of a building, breathing into the cup, letting the steam blast my face.

Those people walked past me, happy and smiling and full of life, hardly seeming to notice that they appeared dead. At least they did to me. Maybe they didn’t look that way to each other. Maybe, I thought, they didn’t look that way to anyone else. What if you had to say no to the deal in order to spot all the people who’d made deals of their own? The more I thought about it, the more sense that made. A beautiful woman walked past me, her face so lovely it almost hurt to see it, but she had the eyes of a corpse. How could it be that no one else was repelled? The only answer was that they didn’t see it.

I did not choose her. A woman like that would be used to turning away strangers. Instead I waited for an older guy, perhaps in his fifties, out walking his little dog in its blue sweater. He seemed like the sort who enjoyed talking, so I walked up to him, my posture relaxed and unthreatening.

“Hey,” I said. “Can I ask you something?”

This question appeared to be the highlight of his day. “Sure!” he boomed, his voice low and deep and cheerful.

“When you made the deal, what did the guy look like?”

He lost some of his friendliness now, and he stared at me with fear or shame or regret, I couldn’t quite tell.

I raised my free hand. “Just curious. Not looking for trouble. I just kind of need to know.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding vigorously, like maybe he really wanted to talk about it. “He was kind of strange looking, with a big forehead.”

“Like Andrew Jackson?” I asked. “The guy from the twenty-dollar bill?”

“I know who Andrew Jackson is,” he said peevishly. “I teach American history. But yes, that’s exactly it. I could never quite put my finger on it, but that’s what he looked like. Except not.”

“Except not,” I agreed.

I found three more people willing to answer my question, and I got the same response. Andrew Jackson, every time. Either everyone making these deals looked like my guy, or this entire neighborhood was all serviced by a single merchant.

So much the better.

• • • •

That night I went out. I wanted to enjoy myself before everything changed. I drank a lot of whiskey and paid for a woman, but I didn’t particularly enjoy either. The next morning I told myself it was better to have made the effort.

It was just after eight in the morning when I rang the doorbell. I rang it three times and then knocked. Then I pounded. Finally I heard feet on hardwood, and then an awkward hand fiddling with locks. He didn’t ask who it was. Why should he have to? No one ever meant him any harm.

He answered the door in his bathrobe open to his waist. He was in great shape, but his face looked like shit—red eyes, unshaven, puffy.

“Rough night, Marco?” I asked.

His face contorted in confusion and then he got it. He remembered. He opened his arms and drew me into a hug.

• • • •

We sat in his beautiful kitchen, at the table in the nook, away from his own hissing and puffing espresso machine on the marble island. Natural light poured in from the windows. Marco ran a hand through his mussed hair and sipped from his mug, leaving a momentary foam mustache. I passed on the coffee. I didn’t need any more caffeine.

We spent half an hour on bullshit. He told me about his life, his job as a consultant, whatever the fuck that was—even he didn’t really seem to know. It was just some kind of high-paying boondoggle that had fallen into his lap. He told me about his fiancée, who was not the woman I’d seen the other day. That was someone else, a little thing on the side that didn’t mean a whole lot, but sure was fun. And then, after all this wonderful conversation, the topic turned to me.

“I can’t tell you how sorry I am about how things went down. Teddy and I never forgot how much we owe you for keeping quiet.”

“It’s what any one of us would have done,” I said. “I just had bad luck.”

He opened his mouth, and I was sure he was going to say—In this world, you make your own luck—but he thought better of it. Bright boy.

Instead, he said, “Still, I totally owe you.”

Maybe he forgot that I received the same offer he did. Maybe he never knew, and the business about him calling me a pussy had been pure bullshit. Whatever the reason, he didn’t tell me about the deal, and I didn’t bring it up.

After hearing more about how much he owed me, I finally decided to put it to the test.

“I hate to ask,” I said, “but the truth is, I’m kind of in trouble. Some guys I knew from inside are trying to shake me down. I could use something to get them off my case.”

“Something?” he asked. His face went dark. He loved telling me how much he owed me, but maybe he didn’t like so much actually following up on it.

“I need a gun, Marco, and it’s kind of hard for an ex-con to get one. You always had a few pieces stashed away. I can’t believe you’ve changed that much.”

“I don’t know,” he said, his eyes drifting toward the window. He gazed at his watch-less wrist and considered the busy morning ahead. “It’s getting kind of late and—”

“I’m not going to shoot anyone,” I said, rushing to get the words out, earnest and nervous. “I just want to let them know they can’t push me around.”

He sipped his drink, thinking. Now he looked at the wall clock.

“You know what, forget it,” I said, my voice easy and apologetic, my palms flying up. “I had no right to ask. You dodged a bullet all those years ago, and I shouldn’t have asked for you to tempt fate now that you’re clean.” I pushed back my chair.

If I had tried to lay a guilt trip on him, he’d have left me high and dry, but this worked like a charm.

“Hold on,” he said, and he got up, pressing a hand on my shoulder to set me back down. He went upstairs and came down a few minutes later with a Glock. Nice piece. Nine millimeter, seventeen-round magazine. It felt good in my hand.

“Sweet,” I said, as I weighed it in my palm. I then held it and pointed it toward an imaginary target.

Marco smiled nervously. “Just be sure you don’t kill anyone with it,” he said.

“Not a living soul,” I assured him.

Something shifted in his face, and he knew. He understood everything.

That instant, less than a full second, hung between us, and the years and experiences and fortunes that separated us collapsed. It was just me and just Marco, old friends. Marco, a good guy, the kind of guy who always attracted good fortune and favors—even before he made his deal. Marco, who walked when I went to jail.

I fired the gun into his forehead. Blood sprayed out the back of his head against the window, a brilliant blossom around the spiderweb of cracked glass.

I hadn’t wanted to hurt him. Andrew Jackson had been right about that. I hadn’t wanted to do anything that might have done him harm. But I knew that what I was doing was helping him.

“You’re welcome,” I said to Marco’s corpse.

Sixteen rounds left. I headed outside to make the most of them.

• • • •

I wish I could say it made me feel different. I wish I could say that when I sat in the coffee shop, staring at the cream dancing slowly with the coffee in my cup, I felt like a man on the run, fraught with paranoia, expecting danger from every corner, to hear the air fill with silence and have SWAT officers descend in a coordinated onrush.

But no. I watched the happy couples and young parents stand in line, fussing and chatting, and I felt exactly the same as I had the day I left prison.

I lifted my coffee cup to my lips, but my hand expected the grip of a Glock, and the kick of a firing pin, and when I drank, my nose expected not coffee but the perfume of cordite.

I shut my eyes, and drank. It was like it was all still happening.

. . . A housewife stands in the doorway of her apartment, shouting to her husband that they’re six minutes late already. When she sees me, she frowns, curious, and that curious frown never leaves her face as I lift the Glock and point it at her cheek . . .

. . . The teen boy and his girlfriend leap to their feet when I kick in the door, the black sheet of her hair withdrawing from his crotch to reveal a half-flaccid penis dangling from the front of his boxers, and the boy raises his hands to me and screams but the gun is already going off . . .

. . . The old history teacher grumbles as he tries to fix a plastic bag around his hand while his dog yaps mindlessly at me, standing mere feet away. I don’t wait for him to look up. The left collarbone of his thick vest spews stuffing, followed shortly by blood. He shouts, slightly outraged, and falls to the ground on his side. His dog shrieks, rears up, tries to bound at me, but the old man’s hand holds fast. When he sees me, he blinks and says, “Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness,” and I take aim again . . .

I swallowed. I put the coffee cup back down and opened my eyes, expecting to see police converging on the coffee shop.

But there were no police. Only him, the curious vagrant with a striking likeness to Andrew Jackson. He was staring at me through the window with a look of slight betrayal. He opened the door and walked in to sit before me.

He stared at me as I sipped my coffee. I did not meet his eyes.

“So,” he said. “It was you?”

I didn’t answer.

“Of course it was you,” he said. “Who else?”

“Who else,” I echoed.

Why?” He sounded genuinely shocked. “Why would you do this? Why?”

I looked around the coffee shop, sullen, and did not answer.

“Ten people,” he said. “Ten of my people. I . . . I told them they would live happy lives.”

“I guess maybe I wanted to see if the bullets would bounce off them. To see how charmed their lives really were. Or maybe I thought they’d be better off this way.”

“You . . . you don’t understand what you’ve done!” he hissed. “You don’t understand how you’ve hurt things!”

“Did I fuck your sales quota? Is that it?”

“You’ve ruined me,” he whispered. He looked like he was on the verge of tears. “You’ve destroyed me.”

“I guess your firm must be pretty pissed at you. I can’t say you get a lot of my sympathy. After all, I just voided a lot of contracts. Set a lot of souls free.” I smiled. “You know, there was a guy I met in prison who’d spent almost his whole life in solitary.”

“They’ll . . . They’ll eat me alive for this . . .”

“I only saw him once,” I continued, “for about a week, before he wound up going back—back to that empty cell, all by himself. He’d spent years in there, they told me. And it was all his fault, you know? Because this guy, whenever they let him out, he always went wild on everybody. A huge guy, and he’d just pummel anyone he could get his hands on, beat them to shit. Maybe a week or two would go by before he did it again—the calm before the storm—but then he’d be raging like an elephant, hurling chairs and desks over stairways, breaking glass with his fists . . .”

He buried his face in his hands.

“And I asked him, while I had the chance—why do you do it? What’s the point? I was terrified to ask, you see, because I thought he’d kill me—but he didn’t. He thought about it, and he just laughed. It was a nasty kind of laugh. And he said, ‘We only got a handful of choices. Figure I’ll use mine to spit in their goddamn eyes.’ And it didn’t make a lot of sense to me then, but yesterday, it did.”

The vagrant slowly looked up at me. His face drained of expression, then turned to rage. “You did this all . . . for spite?”

“Spite’s all you’ve allowed me. It’s all I have left. You and the world, you take away my choices, bit by bit, until the only ones I’ve got left are the ones that destroy me. But I guess you never thought I could take you with me.”

“I’ll . . . I’ll ruin you,” said the man. He snapped his fingers. “The police will come and they’ll take you away, back to your rotten little cell! And you’ll die there, you’ll die coughing and fouling yourself as your body eats itself alive!”

I shrugged. “Out here, I’d be in a cell, too. A little block of life you’d have arranged for me. I don’t much see the difference. Except with your cell, I’d never have made a choice.”

“You would have chosen to be happy!”

“I would have chosen to allow you to make me happy. Which isn’t the same. But here’s the thing—having done what I did, and having made the choice I made . . .” I took another sip of coffee, knowing it’d almost certainly be the last I’d be getting for a while. “. . . I am happy as shit.” And I grinned at him.

The man fumed for a second. Then he spat in my face, a thick, warm blob, turned around, and stormed out, cursing.

I laughed. I laughed long and hard as I wiped his spit away. I was still laughing when I heard the sirens.

Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert Jackson Bennett is a two-time award winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, an Edgar Award winner for Best Paperback Original, and is also the 2010 recipient of the Sydney J Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and a Philip K Dick Award Citation of Excellence. City of Stairs was shortlisted for the Locus Award and the World Fantasy Award. His sixth novel, City of Blades, is in stores now.

He lives in Austin with his wife and sons. He can be found on Twitter at @robertjbennett.

David Liss

David Liss is the author of ten novels, most recently Rebels, the second book in the Randoms trilogy – his first books for younger readers. His previous bestselling books include The Coffee Trader and The Ethical Assassin, both of which are being developed as films, and A Conspiracy of Paper, which is now being developed for television. Liss is the author of numerous comics, including Mystery Men, Sherlock Holmes: Moriarty Lives and Angelica Tomorrow.