My name is Graham, and to say I was an ordinary man, who hated his job, would certainly be no exaggeration. In fact, these days my hatred for my terribly paid ‘job’ is what defined me. I would spend each day at that claustrophobic, grim desk with an even grimmer demeanor. Half assed greetings and forced small talk, along with an almost daily act of intimidation from my boss, who would slam her hands onto the desk like a goddamn lunatic, eyeing up today's progress greedily. If it met her standards, she would nod, almost sarcastically and leave to pester another poor fool. If not, well, I’m sure I’ll finally go deaf the next time I miss my target, which nowadays is getting more frequent. Did I mention I hate my job? I think I’ll drop out and take up something like floristry; at least flowers can’t bitch and moan right?
I’d drive home, hoping I wouldn't nod off at the wheel again and park lazily into my apartments parking complex. I’d drag myself into my small two bedroom apartment, crack open a few beers and crash onto the sofa. And begin counting down the hours until I was driving back to that monotone hell hole, sometimes staying up to the early hours of the morning simply to avoid that repetitive morning routine. But when things got gloomy, there was always one word that dragged me up and allowed a smile to crawl onto my weary face.
I turned and smiled, my little daughter stood at the doorway, her little monkey pajamas and tight, red ringlets were illuminated by the flickering TV before me. She smiled sleepily “The spiders been making webs again.” She muttered, clutching the fabric at her chest, and let out a small cough. I never let my smile falter, even If my heart sunk a little. “Ok girlie, let’s get you sorted” I said, leaving my spot and scooping her up, letting her small arms clumsily hook around my neck.
We cleared the ‘webs’ every morning and night, I was taught how, by pummeling her chest until these sticky, gooey webs of mucus were dislodged from her lungs. Even though she would be exhausted, she’d still smile, and would climb back into bed coughing and spluttering.
“Cystic fibrosis” I remember the doctor telling us that day, with an almost rehearsed tone to his voice. But I could feel my hands trembling, my eyes burning, as he explained her shortened life span, the difficulties she would face, the difficulties that my little Rosie would have to face for the rest of her life. My wife, that sick, heartless woman couldn’t be pinned down to caring for a sick child and decided that it would be better for her to simply leave, a few days before Rosie’s third birthday. Well, she’s seven now, although I swear she acts much older than she is. It’s this bond we have, this unbreakable, unfaltering bond, which made that morning so difficult.
I woke up to the sound of unmistakable choking. I shot out of bed, fumbling through the dark and barrelling into her room. Her face was pale in the moonlight, she was spluttering and breathing shallowly and I knew time was a serious factor here. I wrapped her fever ridden body tightly in a blanket and carried her out the door and ran to my car.
At this time of night the roads were empty, and I couldn’t have wasted any time calling and waiting for an ambulance, those incompetent drivers would have wasted time that she didn’t have. We sped down the empty lanes; I kept glancing over to the passenger seat. “C’mon girlie, come on baby girl, keep with me.” I choked my voice breaking as I held her small hand. I tried to keep my cool as we pulled up to the large white building branded by that unmistakable red cross. I ended up in tears as I ran to the receptionist, I’m glad Rosie didn’t see that.
That whole night was long, and exhausting. I remember the doctor muttering the words, severe infection, and that she was in an unstable condition for now, and told me to go home. But, how could I leave her here? Alone and scared, I couldn’t. But the doctor insisted.
That drive home felt like a betrayal.
The following weeks were difficult, her condition was constantly faltering between improvement and knocking on deaths door, my boss held no sympathy, and after another rant at my work ethic, I ended up screaming profanities at that bitch and leaving right there and then. It was stupid, I was stupid, and I ended up drinking more and more, it was certainly a good escape.
I don’t actually remember the accident, not well anyway. I remember thinking in a drunken stupor I would visit my daughter, my sick little Rosie. I didn’t care about the car swerving precariously back and forth on the road, and at the time, I didn’t care about tree that stood in my way between me and reaching my daughter.
I do remember waking up in the hospital, groggy and dazed. It was dark, and it took me a good while to even register that I was hooked up to an array of flashing monitors and tubes. I may have forgotten why I was in here but I didn't forget my original purpose. In an idiotic sense of unfaltering loyalty I slowly removed my hook ups, even as a small alarm rang out, I continued. Putting my weight on my weak legs was a bad move and I crumpled to the floor like a ragdoll, but I managed to drag myself up using a nearby metal shelf as assistance. I stumbled around the halls, disorientated; I peeked desperately into the windows of every room. Old men connected to a dizzying complex of wires and machines, people missing limbs, bandages, blood;
And then. I saw it. But it didn’t see me, at least not at first.
I shuddered and hid against the wall adjacent to the window, I broke out in a cold sweat. Every fibre of my being told me to run, do not look, do not get involved, just turn and leave. But, I had this niggling urge to catch a glimpse of it, just a quick one. Curiosity killed the cat, right? Well, if the cat is fast enough, maybe it could get away unscathed. So I slowly dipped my head to look into the dark room. But found myself unable to pull away.
It was tall, and even in the dark I could tell that whatever this was, it was not human. Its mass was constantly shuddering and shaking, as if its own body was unstable. Unspeakably long arms reached into its body and plucked a wiggling creature from its chest like a ripe fruit. It raised the creature to its elongated face, almost in examination and nodded. A sickening, slender hand reached to gently hold the jaw of the sleeping woman, who lay oblivious in her bed. It forced it open and slid the writhing, worm like creature down her throat. The woman didn’t even react; she had no idea to what had just happened, to what that abomination had just planted inside her. Then its head snapped around at a disturbing angle.
It stared, it stared with sightless sockets. It stared at me, it knew I was there.
My body shuddered and my chest constricted. Run, I told myself, for god sakes man, run. I felt my face contort in horror as it shifted its body in my direction. This is it, I’m going to die, my daughter will be left alone and it’s all my fau-
“Mr Sanders?” A voice yelled, and it snapped me from my frozen daze as I turned to face my addressee. It was a nurse, panting furiously she gripped my wrist, which I aggressively shrugged off.
“You can’t be out of bed, you ar-“
“Shut up! T-there’s a thing, a thing in there, look. Just look…” I yelled, my voice breaking I pointed into the dark room, I shot my glare to follow my shaking hand, but saw nothing.
“That ‘thing’ is a recovering woman, Mr Sanders; in fact she’s in a surprisingly good condition now, and doesn’t need somebody making a ruckus at such a ridiculous time at night.”
I was speechless; I couldn’t have imagined that, could I? No, no something was there, maybe it still is there hiding. I turned, defeated to the nurse, who now held a sympathetic look.
“Now, you shouldn’t be straining yourself. You were in a minor accident, you need to rest.”
“What?” I said, confused.
“You were drunk driving, Mr Sanders,” The nurse stated, in an almost scolding tone “You were very lucky to have escaped with only cuts and bruises,”
She sighed and lightly placed a hand onto my shoulder, “You must be disorientated, I’ll take you back to your bed”
I silently complied, on the way I apologised for my escape and explained that my daughter was in the same facility, which was also the reason for my rash actions the night before. She understood, and promised me that she would take me to see my daughter tomorrow, if I promised to not go running about the wards like a lunatic.
Sleep didn’t come easy, but I’m surprised it came at all. I could never sleep in an unfamiliar place easily; maybe this is why I was so worried about Rosie, sleeping alone without her teddy bear guardians and elephant night light. I worried about that… Thing I saw, what if it came after her? I worried about my little Rosie until my eyelids grew heavy, and sleep took me under its wing.
I woke mid-afternoon, almost forgetting where I was at first. A familiar face was by my bedside, the nurse that broke my encounter with the creature stood taking notes from a monitor. Noticing that I was now awake, she turned to face me with a smile. “Did you have a good sleep Mr.Sanders?”
“I guess so.” I yawned, stretching my bruised arms, ignoring the aches that came with it.
“And you can just call me Graham, honestly” I muttered, rubbing my face in an effort to seem more awake. “OK, Graham, I saw yesterday that your legs were working, do you want to visit your daughter? She’s in ward-“
“I know where she is, I visit her every day,” I interrupted, she nodded silently
“But what I need to know is, whether there’s a gift shop or a newsagents or whatever in here?” I asked while throwing my legs out of the bed, and lurching into a sitting position.
“Yes, there’s a small shop on the first floor, left of the reception,” She said, putting the clipboard into its holder by the bed.
“Also, your brother brought in a change of clothes for you.” She said while heading for the exit, before pausing and leaning against the door frame
“You can find them in the cupboard beside you. I hope your daughter is feeling better when you visit.” She smiled halfheartedly, and walked out the large doors. I wasted no time; I quickly got changed and visited the small gift shop. I bought a bright pack of pens and chocolates, and moaned slightly at the ridiculous price. But, while exchanging money I noticed something, peculiar.
The overweight man who had lazily handed my change had a loop of hair tied around his wrist, a thick, greasy loop of hair constricted into his pudgy skin. At first I thought it was some bizarre fashion statement, until I looked at my own hand. I also had a thick band of hair around my left wrist.
As I walked towards Rosie’s room, I went to pluck at the strands in an attempt to remove it, but as I leaned in to do so I was hit with a deep feeling of terror. So, I reluctantly ignored it, for now. It was nice spending time with her, she was pale, and looked as fragile as a doll. She prodded my bruises, ate enough chocolate to make her sick and drew incomprehensible drawings until she grew tired. I pleaded with the nurse to let me stay with her, just for the night, and he crumpled, fetching me a duvet cover and pillow. I slept with ease being around my little, broken daughter, I hope I did the same for her.
A voice which sounded akin to teeth being dragged along concrete awoke me. A smell, so pungent that I gagged, cloaked me and I turned around sharply. It was there. Standing, no, looming over me. I instinctively stood protectively over Rosie’s bed, I was shuddering, and wasn’t exactly intimidating. I could see the creature more clearly now in the artificial light.
Its body was compromised of what seemed to be worms, writhing and snaking around, bound only by thick strands of black hair; which entwined around the whirling masses to create semi stable limbs. Its long, snaking arms slid into what seemed to be hollow, human arms, worn almost like a sickening pair of gloves, stitched and reformed to make long, slender fingers. Its legs were like stilts of bone, barely supporting the constantly twitching mass it carried. But worn as a crown upon this shifting abomination, was the partially decayed horse’s head that the worms bestowed atop of the body; its eyeless sockets constantly leaked a chunky, yellow substance that slid down its face and onto the floor. The skin had decayed enough to show a long set of teeth, both human and animal. The hair of the creature was black and greasy, and flowed down from its head and entangled into the rest of its body around its midsection.
Was this the devil itself?
“W-what, who are you?” I stammered, gripping onto the bedside rail for support.
“I ask you, son of man, what am I to you?” It wheezed, lumbering forward awaiting a response.
“Death?” I whispered, watching the creature wretch and shake, as if trying to laugh.
“No, no, no,” It harked, raising a crude finger and shaking it back and forth.
“I am not death, rather I have had a long, long partnership with it. Even in all its majesty, Death itself, would be nothing without my assistance.” It wheezed, curling its putrid fingers inward, to make a fist.
“My name, is Orphan.” It brought its fist to its chest, almost engulfing it inside the cavity of worms. It seemed almost proud of its title.
“Why are you called that, I don’t underst-“
“What exactly is an orphan, boy? Tell me.” It wretched, twisting its head unnaturally in curiosity, like an old dog.
“W-Well, it’s a child without parents.”
“Deeper than that.”
“An unwanted and unloved child?”
“Precisely” It breathed, decay sweeping from between its jaws.
“Disgusting, putrid, cancerous, beautiful disease, my boy,” It brought its face inches from my own, and I noticed it had a single, bulbous eye hidden within its socket; staring passionately into my own. I didn’t return the feeling, rather I sunk back into the railings.
“It’s an orphan looking for parents, even the unloving kind.” Suddenly, Orphan lumbered over to the other side of the bed, its small bony stumps allowed it to move surprisingly quickly, faster than my own to clatter over to wrap my arms over my daughter.
“Like a child, like a parasite, it relies solely on its parent to survive.” It exclaimed and in its excitement, it extended a long finger to Rosie’s wrist as I cautiously looked on.
“It seems your own little parasite isn't doing too well.” It cooed, teeth grinding in excitement it pointed towards a very thin band of hair tied around her wrist. Its head twisted awkwardly to face me, its green eye pulsating with excitement, as it prepared its crescendo.
“I can save, poor, little Rosie.”
My jaw dropped, I had to let it sink in, I was confused to what the definition of ‘save’ was. I couldn’t let myself get excited.
“W-What do you mean?” I questioned, gulping back my sickening sense of joy.
“I get bored easily, Mr Sanders, it is situations like these which brighten my poor little existence.” It seemed too excited, like a dog awaiting scraps.
“I’ll strike a bargain with you,” It rasped, looking down to the band of hair, which was thin, brittle and consisted of only a few strands of a recognizable red hue.
“You see this? Each hair is a year of life, and It seems like little Rosie has very little time indeed.”
“What do I have to do? Tell me damn it!” I shouted, and its hand gripped my face, greasy and moist, it made my skin crawl.
“Shh, you’ll wake little Rosie.” It whispered,
“Normal humans can’t see me Mr Sanders, your brush with death, whether you realized it or not, opened a window that you can no longer close, now onto your end of this delicious deal.”
It dropped its hand, and I shuddered. Did I truly want to know?
“Let me guess, you take my life in turn for hers?” I muttered. It threw its head back, its jaw flung open and it howled with laughter. Chunks of black spluttered from it flapping mouth and its body heaved and convulsed.
“Oh, Mr Sanders! How cliché, no, no, too easy, too boring.” It wheezed, and shifted in close to me again.
“You must take years off another’s life, to give to your daughter's.” It leaned back, and pressed its wriggling and writhing mass against the cream walls.
"Have fun, Mr Sanders.” It sneered as its body phased through the wall, some worms escaping and writhing on the floor. I sat for a good half hour contemplating what just happened, and what I will have to do.
However it was during this daze, I noticed something upon the floor. I walked around to investigate, and realized that it was a dull, rusty pair of scissors, blackened with age and cold to the touch. I held them with a determined grip, and looked back at Rosie.
I knew what I had to do.
Even after being discharged, I continued my duty. In the quiet hours of the night, I would slip into other rooms. Hovering over sleeping bodies, young and old, battered or healthy.
I didn't care, the guilt was small at first. But each hair I cut, each body that writhed silently in their sleep, and each face that contorted into that look of utter anguish, as a year or two was plucked from them, made me feel sick. I vomited the first few times, the feeling is explainable. It may seem so simple, but try removing precious years from another child's life, to watch their health falter the days following, the families that cried over them.
Some even died, mostly the older, the more frail people. Probably the shock of the soul being wounded, as fibers of its grand tapestry was shredded to pieces.
I even watched one boy, this young child die right there and then. I watched a worm crawl out if his mouth with the child's final breath. I caught it, slimy and greasy. I cut it, I stabbed it. I made sure it suffered as much as the boy did. It's the least I could do. But it was I who landed the killing blow, I killed a child for the sake of my own.
I also visited the room where I first encountered Orphan, the woman now hooked up to an orchestra of beeping machines. I let her be, she's no doubt suffered enough. I felt sick, that for a few moments I truly considered plucking the whole bunch from her wrist, it seemed so easy. Even after tying the hairs onto Rosie's thin wrists, and seeing colour return to her hollowed cheeks. Was all this suffering worth the cost?
What was I sacrificing myself, from performing these deeds. My humanity?
Yes. Yes that's it, I felt no longer human. Hollow, empty.
I was no longer scared when I saw Orphan spreading disease throughout the hospital. Like a child in a candy store it stuffed those cancerous worms in the broken bodies of whoever it wanted, it seemed to prefer that of children, and watching their loved ones crumble from the shadows of blinking monitors. I wondered if it enjoyed its job, if it enjoyed seeing a man break under its reigns for the sake of his child.
People stared at me, stared at my pale, hollowed complexion. Stared at the dark bags that hung beneath empty eyes. Stared at the man whose life now was worthless, meaningless, if not for his daughter.
Orphan had informed me that I had gave her thirty years of life, but that wasn't enough to see all that life could give someone, my decision was my own, and for my daughter.
I sat next to Rosie's bed. The massive complex of machines had been reduced to a single monitor, she smiled softly in her sleep.
"Oh, Mr Sanders, what are you thinking?" A wheezed voice scraped against my ear drums, I didn't even react.
"Cliché, that's the word you used right?" I mumbled, taking the scissors from my pocket, as Orphan constructed itself beside me.
"You humans can be quite admirable at times, but is she truly worth the remainder of your life?"
"That's a rhetorical question" I said through clenched teeth, as I wiggled the scissors under a segment of the loop around my wrist, and snipped.
It was like something had been forcibly ripped from my very being, my chest thudded, my heart hammered desperately against my weakened chest, and a cold sweat broke out over the deepened furrows of my forehead. I panted furiously as I tried to concentrate enough to tie the strands to Rosie's wrist. My vision blurred more and my body shook and trembled as I tediously repeated the process. I could not fail.
"Y-You wanna kn-know something, Orphan?" I hissed through sweat and pain.
"What, Mr Sanders?"
"Even though, Rosie will be orphaned. She'll be loved, and wanted, and cherished. Unlike you," I spat at him, and he reared back in amusement, its face illuminated by the sun's slow descent outside the window where it stood.
"She'll live with my brother, and her cousins. She'll have fun, make friends, fall in love. She'll die an old woman, warm in her bed. And even if she never knew it, I'll die happily knowing I allowed that to happen."
"What a hero you are, Mr Sanders." Orphan whispered.
It reached a hand to towards Rosie's sleeping form, and as a finger slid into her mouth, I feared the worst, and let out a cry of protest. Until he pulled a writhing creature from her body.
"Consider this a bonus, Mr Sanders, her disease will no longer be a trouble. A treat, for putting on such a tragic performance for my entertainment." It hissed, as it devoured the worm. I knew he would merely force it into another, helpless child, and I didn't care, as I positioned the scissors under the last strand of hair. I scooped Rosie up, and held her close. Her face glowed in the last beams of the sun's light, as she wrapped her small arm around my neck. I breathed in that sweet scent, and silently sobbed into her soft, red ringlets. I smiled. She was worth everything.
"I love you, and always will baby girl." I whispered, feeling the last rays of sun bathe us in such a warm, comforting embrace as I cut down upon the last threads of my life.