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Pride. That's the problem with the younger generation, they simply don't take pride in their work. They come to my door daily, peddling their goods, but they don't have their hearts in it. At least, not like people used to- not like I still do. People aren't interested in alarm systems or credit card services, they're interested in service. They want to know that they can count on someone to keep their business safe at night, or to set them up with a good interest rate off the bat. You shouldn't have to negotiate these things. It's simply not necessary to nickel and dime someone. You take care of your customers and they take care of you. That's how business is done. I've been in business for a long time and the last thing I need is some punk half-heartedly trying to explain how a website will generate a positive R-O-I while intermittently trailing off to read his latest text message.
Maybe that makes me a dinosaur, a relic in my own time. Take this kid, for instance. He's trying to tell me that getting people to like me on Book Face will help me generate more revenue. Did he not see the sign on the door? Of course not, and that's the problem. He's trying to sell me something. He doesn't care who I am or what I do. He wants a sale and he's wasting valuable time. Or maybe his time isn't valuable, but nevertheless, the clock ticks and all he can do is prattle on about likes and fans and statuses, the poor soul. He's dismissed at once.
But time marches on.
It finds me sitting here with the Lowes. The poor couple. He's devastated. He tries to maintain his composure, but his shoulders are listing and it's clear he hasn't slept. She doesn't fare well either. He urges her to lift her chin as I pass the gilded box of tissue. He's afraid of me. It's been so long since he met someone like me- someone who takes pride- that he suspects me of just being another man bent on making a dollar.
This wasn't their fault. Tragedy sought them out and found them unprepared. Emotionally. Financially. They simply aren't equipped to handle this. Not that you could prepare for a tragedy of this nature. But, fortunately for them, I am.
“There, there, Mrs. Lowe. It's going to be okay. This is came as a shock to both of you. I cannot say that I know how you feel, but I can tell you that Thanos & Sons has been in business for over eighty-five years. I've personally dealt with similar situations. Your loss will take a long time to get over, but I am here for you in the short term. Over the next few days, I am personally at your disposal. I will arrange every detail and see that everything is attended to.”
“Do we have to choose the casket now?” she asks.
“We have an assortment of caskets that cater to every taste and budget, yes, but before we do that, why don't you take a moment to tell me about Joshua. I never had the opportunity to meet him, so it's the most we can do to make sure that we say goodbye to him as he would have wanted.”
They both take a moment to digest what I have just told them, but I meant what I said. Above all else, we at Thanos & Sons make sure that we do everything in our power to please our client. Unfortunately, in our line of work, our clients are unable to speak for themselves.
“He was wonderful,” he starts, catching himself to keep from breaking down. He loved playing outside, he was smart, inquisitive, nice, honest ... we loved him more than anything in the world.”
He reaches for her hand and I produce a handkerchief. They did love him more than anything, he wasn't lying when he said that. Of course, every parent says that in my presence, they'd appear barbaric not too, but you'd be surprised how many of them leave the burial looking as though a tremendous weight were suddenly lifted from their shoulders. We strive to deliver a stellar service to all of our clients, of course, but some we truly go above and beyond for.
“There, there, I'm sure he was,” I say as the tears begin to ebb. “I'm afraid it's getting late, so I don't have time to explain the finer points, but what would you say if I told you we could forgo with these preparations all together?”
“What are you saying?” He says brashly. “Are you suggesting that we just dump him somewhere to save a buck or two? This is our son for God's sake!”
“No, of course not.” I respond immediately. He must really think I'm a monster if that's the first thought he conjured up. But why shouldn't he think of me as a monster. I do have his son's body in my basement after all. “No, Mr. Lowe, exactly the opposite. You see, I've had an opportunity to examine your son. He is pristine and I am sure we can all agree that this was not his time.”
They nod in agreement over it not being his time, but it's clear that they do not understand. “But the clock is ticking, so let me explain the best I can. You see, I believe you when you say that you loved him more than anything. Just like I know you believe me when I say that it simply was not his time. That's why his body is so immaculate; it isn't meant to be put into the ground.”
They look at each other now, each wondering if the other is thinking the same impossible thought. “Cutting to the point,” I add, “the fact of the matter is that he can be brought back.”
That did it, what they both wanted and simultaneously dreaded. “I know it sounds impossible, but it's true. Your son wants to be called back to this world and you have the power to do it.”
“But how,” he finally asks. “We all know that's not possible otherwise people would be coming back left and right. Are you trying to play us for fools?!”
“No, I assure you I'm not.” I say cautiously. It's sad, really, the world being as it is, where you would actually suspect someone of taking advantage of you over the death of a child. “But every second is crucial and I'm afraid I'm running out of time. You see, it's like I said: he isn't meant to be put into the ground and your love for him can bring him back. This is no more a tragedy than a fluke of the clock, so to speak.”
“And how much to you intend to rob us of for this service?” He interrupts.
“Mr. Lowe, please. This is an ancient practice that people in my trade have been practicing for years. But you are correct on one point, this will cost you something. You see, in order to get back that which you love the most, you will have to sacrifice that which you hate the most.”
“Now I'm really confused,” she says. “What do you mean we have to give up what we hate the most?”
“It's just like I said, so tell me: what do you hate the most?”
They pause, but only for a second. “Our debts,” they both say. It's funny, it only ever takes someone a second to think of what they hate the most. Ask someone to name what they are most grateful for and they may take minutes to answer.
“Your debt?” I confirm and they both nod emphatically. “Well, then it's simple. You hand over your debts to me and I will return Joshua to you.”
“You're saying that you can bring Joshua back to us alive like before, but in order for that to happen, we have to give up a burden?” she says. “This doesn't make any sense at all!”
“It's like I said before. This is a fluke, this was not supposed to happen. Now because you are good parents and truly love him, he will be returned to you. The giving up a burden part is considered a recompense, a settlement of sorts, for your unnecessary suffering. Believe me, this is all standard, I've mediated these situations before. It comes with the job.”
“Now,” I continue, “I can begin at once, I just need you to fill out this short form detailing the debts you'd like to surrender to me and sign this declaration that the debts you surrender are for the return of the one you love the most.”
She examines the document. “It's all standard boilerplate,” I add to speed up the process, but she shakes her head.
“I'm sorry,” she says. “I don't believe for a second that this was Joshua's time to go, but this isn't right either. I want him back more than anything, but this just seems wrong to me.”
I excuse myself as Mr. Lowe tries to dissuade her. He's clearly angry, but this only brings on another fit on her part. They really weren't prepared for any of this.
I return to find them both standing. She's sobbing. He shakes my hand with an unsteady grip. “I'm sorry,” he says, “but this is too much for us right now. You'll understand if we make other arrangements?”
“Of course,” I answer. “But if you feel as though you are going to change your mind, please do it quickly, our window is closing.”
The clock strikes nine.
I open the door to find Mr. Lowe presenting the document with a wavering hand. “Here,” he says, “take it.”
I peruse it to find that it has been duly executed. “These are both of your signatures,” I ask. He nods. “Then if you both agree, I will set to work at once. Be here at noon tomorrow and be prepared to take Joshua home.”
Mr. Lowe lingers on the porch for a second unsure if he should say anything. But in the end he just nods and turns into the night.
It's nearing 11:30 in the morning by the time I have Joshua cleaned and dressed. The clothes are not his and perhaps they're a bit dated, but they fit well enough. He doesn't speak, but he is already responding to simple commands. The doorbell rings and he follows me up from the basement as instructed.
We meet the Lowes at the door. They burst into tears at the sight of him. Mrs. Lowe takes him in her arms and rushes him to their car without so much as a hello. Mr. Lowe starts to follow, but turns to shake my hand and thank me. “But this is real, right?” He asks after a thoughtful pause.
“Just like I explained last night. He wasn't meant to go; it wasn't his time. But let me caution you, Joshua has been through a lot. It might take a few days for him to return to normal. He's still cool to the touch and he may refuse to eat at first, but that's just his body readjusting itself.”
“Is there anything else we can do?” he asks.
“Just love him and treat him like he's recovering from the flu,” I say. “Welcome him back gently.”
It's 6:17 the next morning when Mr. Lowe calls. “He won't stop talking,” he says. I try to assure him that these things take time. That Joshua has been through a lot. “Look, I don't know what you did to him, but I'm coming over right now and I want you to explain this to me step by step.
Mr. Lowe must have had a devil on his tail because he arrives by 6:38. “Come in,” I say, “I've prepared some tea.” I lead him to the receiving room and pour us each a cup. He cradles it in his hands. “Why won't he stop talking?” he asks.
“It's like I said, he wasn't gone long, but he needs to readjust to his body. It takes time.”
“You don't understand,” he replies emphatically. “Joshua was non-verbal. The doctors said it was autism and a lot of other jargon, they said he'd never progress mentally beyond a two year old. Now he won't stop talking. He kept us up the entire night!”
If I hadn't been in this business so long, I might be taken aback. “It's the recompense,” I say. “You see, you simply asked for your debts to be forgiven. Debt is a relatively new phenomenon in this business and apparently the makers of this deal do not put a lot of weight in money. So in order to right the fluke, they gave you back your son as he should have been. I once serviced a client whose daughter was born with a terrible disfigurement. When it came time for recompense, she only stated that the thing she hated most was her daughter's suffering in life. I can't name names, but she grew up to become a famous starlet.”
“But it's not like that!” he insists. “Listen to me, he's talking, but he's saying terrible things. He called my wife a harlot. He said that I wasn't his father. He said adulterers burn alone. You call that recompense? What did you do to him!”
“Mr. Lowe, please. You are obviously quite upset and I understand why. However, you must understand that the makers of this deal are just. They returned Joshua to correct a wrong. I cannot claim to speak for them or to understand their ways, but we must trust them.”
“But why is he saying these things?” Mr. Lowe asks pleadingly.
“These things take time, Mr. Lowe. Joshua's brain is no doubt struggling to make sense of what has happened. I'm sure that there wasn't any meaning behind his words. Now Joshua and Mrs. Lowe need you,” I add, “being with them is the best thing you can do right now. Of course you can call me if anything else unusual happens, but I honestly wouldn't worry about it.”
I show Mr. Lowe to the door.
It has been a busy day. It's nearly eight o'clock by the time I have the viewing room in proper order. It's then that I hear the door chime. Eight is a strange hour for visitors, but in my business you always have to be prepared for new clients. I cross to the receiving room to find Joshua standing by the front door.
“Hello, Joshua,” I say. He doesn't respond. “So you've said your peace then?” He shuffles past me, his eyes intent on the basement door.
Mrs. Lowe bursts into the room not a minute later. She's clearly upset and holds a blood soaked towel to her forearm.
“Is he here?” she shouts demandingly. Mr. Lowe is not long on her tail.
“Mrs. Lowe, it's good to see you again. Yes, Joshua is here, though I must say that it was a surprise to see him. Shall I get him for you?”
“No,” she insists, “you can keep him for all I care. That thing you gave us isn't our son.” She falters to her knees and breaks into a guttural sob.
“Is it true?” Mr. Lowe asks me. His voice is cold and his face wears a matching pallor.
“Is what true, Mr. Lowe?” I ask.
“The things Joshua said. He continued talking. He said I was a fool, that he pitied me for not knowing. I didn't know what he was talking about, so I asked him. He said I was too pathetic to save him. Then he laughed again and that's when he bit her and took off running. You need to tell me what's going on here.”
Mrs. Lowe continues sobbing. The blood from her arm threatens to soil the carpet as dark fissures spider their way up her arm. Mrs. Lowe's clock is winding down.
“Mr. Lowe, it's like I said. It wasn't Joshua's time. Perhaps you could have saved him. Perhaps, if you'd known you could have prevented his death.” Joshua was right, Mr. Lowe is clueless to the ways of this world, good men generally are.
His gaze follows mine to Mrs. Lowe.
“No,” he says, “I don't believe it.”
Mrs. Lowe's sob intensifies. “I didn't mean for it to happen,” she says. “I didn't know what I was doing. I tucked him in and the next thing I know there's a pillow over his face and I can't bring myself to take it away. I was so exhausted I couldn't think, I just knew I couldn't stand another day of taking the tantrums or the diapers or the stress because none of it would make him better.”
Mrs. Lowe attempts to wipe the tears from her eyes and that's when she takes sight of her arm. It's turned entirely black. She screams.
“What's wrong with me?” she asks pleadingly. Mr. Lowe cannot look at her. Her eyes dart frantically about the room until they meet mine. “What did he do to me?” she asks pleadingly.
“Mrs. Lowe, it's like I said before, the makers of this deal are just. Joshua was not meant to be taken from this world and that decision was not yours to make. But that is neither here nor there now. Joshua bit you and the wound is necrotizing. Nothing can be done for that.”
“I'm dying?” she asks.
“We're all dying, Mrs. Lowe, it's really a question of timing.”
“Then call me an ambulance, I need to go to the hospital,” she pleads.
People's selfishness never ceases to surprise me and I see more than my fair share of it in my business. But a few grains in the hourglass and she wants nothing more than to save herself. She should be repenting, she of all people should know that filicides burn forever.
Mr. Lowe steps away. I nod at him, he trusts my professionalism, that I will see to the details with the care and competence I show all of my clients. With that he turns to the door. He has suffered more than anyone when you think about it, but as he leaves a perceptive man would notice the subtle, but long dormant spring in his step.
“So that's it then, you're not going to help me?” Mrs. Lowe asks me spitefully.
“Of course I am, Mrs. Lowe, I wouldn't dream of turning my back on you,” I say to her relief. “I have every intention of helping you. Now tell me, how do you feel about mahogany?”