False Ends

 Four stiff drinks sat heavy on his mind, blurring his world about the edges. Last in a long series of bad decisions that had left him standing in the sodden darkness of that stinking alley.

  Soaked through in the best suit that he owned, mud plastered from toes to knees. Fingers wrapped tight around the dethorned stems of a dozen roses, their petals left in disarray by the bitter wind that had forced him to take shelter at last.

  Wandering between dim thoughts and the first flickers of what would surely become a terrible headache. Stretching a hand from beneath the overhang of the next-door store, drawing it back no wetter than before. Perhaps the storm had finally exhausted its fury – the first break he'd been given in the whole of that godawful night.

  Only when he stepped away from the cold solidity of that brick wall did he realize how much it had done to support his weight. His first step nearly sent him lurching into the mud, flailing for the sense of balance that he'd possessed before the whiskey had hit.

  She would understand.

  The thought was an echo of desperation, stabilizing him against the reeking dumpster that occupied the other side of the alley. A stench that coated mouth and nostrils with his first shuddering breath, seizing his stomach around what little he'd eaten since morning.

  Upright, standing free for the time being. With care, he found that he could walk, forcing his body into some semblance of its sober, familiar rhythm. Firm strides, eyes roving through the shadows in search of-

  Of...he'd had reason to be worried before the roses and alcohol, hadn't he?

  Well, wasn't there always reason? Leaks in the roof, frigid gazes from a landlord long since exhausted of patience, her raw, accusatory words as he had donned his coat and headed for the door.

  Even in that state, she shone clear in his mind's eye. Beauty that couldn't be defiled by something as simple as tangled hair or the rumpled folds of an unwashed housecoat. Blue eyes searching desperately for any sign of kindness in his, rimmed with red and the shadows of too many sleepless nights. Her lips chapped and pale, moving to promise him that if he walked through that door into the stormy night, he would never be welcome beneath her roof again.

  She had to understand. For the first time, he'd explain it all – the job, the viscera that he had scrubbed from his hands in the bathroom of a filthy gas station. The money that had bought the roses, that would raise their child. When she understood, she would smile at him again, the way she had before the whiskey, the storm, the blood...

  The street signs, still dripping rain water, would guide him home.

  Avenues all but deserted, no one to observe the ridiculous sight that he must have made. Stained and stumbling, clutching those roses even as they shed their petals in response to each sudden movement. Neon signs traced vibrant lines across his vision, and must have blinded him during the moment in which she appeared.

  Not the she who mastered his thoughts and deserved the roses. A stranger, untouched by the rain and filth despite the white that she wore from head to toe. Face turned away, concealed by a heavy shroud of golden hair.

  What would leave someone like that lost in the dark? The thought was fleeting, entertained only as she drew close enough to pass him by. Her sweeping steps accompanied by a sound that he could not quite place, his gaze straying to meet hers during the moment in which she was closest.

  A moment in which he found himself the sole focus of intent, unnatural eyes, far too close to the colour of streetlights shining through whiskey. Before he could pause to stare, or assure himself that it had been no more than his imagination, they were past, leaving him naught to do but identify the sound which they had left.

  The vague clattering of metal. Couldn't quite say why, but it chilled him far more than the storm could have hoped to, stripping the comforting haze of alcohol from his mind in a heartbeat.

  Couldn't say, didn't want to consider it any longer. His long strides had become a nervous jog, and the roses continued to shed their sweet-smelling garments as he returned the full weight of his mind to home and her.

  If she didn't understand, he would-

  A thought he couldn't entertain. Stone leviathans were looming ahead, grey apartment buildings set in orderly rows, and his steps resounded between them as he made for her door. The stairs were a blur at the edge of his mind, taken far too quickly to be safe, and their rusted guardrail shed water as his free hand raced across it.

  Her door loomed before him, and she had to understand. If he explained all that he'd done for her, for the child who grew within her, she had to realize that it had been necessary. If not, he-

  Locked. Of course it was locked, no sensible person would have left the door open to him in the middle of the night. Thrice he brought his fist against the door, waiting in breathless silence for some answer from within.

  There – the sound of shuffling steps, the flickering sputter of a lamp turned on to guide the way. His heartbeat resided somewhere in his throat and skull, and the door was swinging open at last.

  There she was, beauty in disarray. Delicate fingers wrapped around the door, and hollow, sleepless eyes searching the darkness. For the first time since breaking into a jog, he found his breath for the first word of greeting.

  “I-”

  What?

  Her gaze was straying past him, through him. Furrowing in confusion, as though she saw nothing more than the empty night beyond her threshold. His free, sodden hand was extended towards hers, to brush against the fingers that had once held him so close, and-

  Slid through as though he'd reached for nothing more than empty space. She was pulling the door shut in his face, and he could not bring himself to move quickly enough to stop her.

  It was a joke, wasn't it? The whole damn universe, playing some sort of sick- or a dream. That would make more sense, wouldn't it? He'd passed out in a whiskey soaked stupor, hadn't he, back in that reeking alley?

  “Do you understand now?”

  A voice that occupied the same narrow walkway, mingling with the whisper of the wind. Turning to face it, heart still screaming in his ears, he was-

  He wasn't surprised, was he? To see the woman in white, eyes like amber fixed firmly on his face. Seeing him, speaking to him – he had never realized how much of a relief that could be. “I-”

  “I've given you seven nights,” she continued, clear, sweet, and horrible. “On each, you've done the same. The memory of alcohol. Roses. Her. My schedule is busy, I'm sure you can understand, and I cannot wait for you any longer.”

  “Any-” His throat was stifling the words, closing tight around any sound that he attempted to make. “What are you talking about? I-”

  “You aren't a part of her world anymore.” Words that stung like the recent, freezing rain. “Either you come with me now, or I depart alone, and you're reaped by him instead.”

  “Reaped? I-” The words seemed alien and heavy, falling from his lips. An impossibility. “You mean, I'm-” Couldn't be. “Dead?”

  She was approaching him with slow, deliberate steps, and he knew the sound that accompanied her every movement. The rhythmic clattering of chains, closing around him as she drew near enough to touch. His fingers had fallen loose, and those imaginary roses shed the last of their petals as they struck the ground.

  “For nearly a week,” the stranger confirmed in that musical voice. “What I offer now is the last choice left to you – where, exactly, you will spend the rest of forever.”

The End

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