The bargain

by John Polselli

Where are we at in existence?

     A single ray of moonlight shone upon the wall behind a bed on which a man was sitting, while his partner, slightly younger than himself, looked through the window of the lighthouse at the darkened sea whose waves ascended prior to their plunging down back to the black abyss, like phantoms tossed and lurching.

     “How much longer do we have to wait?” the younger of the two complained. “What’s keeping him?”

     “Impatience. That’s your flaw,” the other said. “He made it clear that midnight is the hour of his coming. Just sit tight. I’m sure he’ll be here on the dot.”

     “I wonder if he’ll keep his promise. How can we be sure? You said yourself that he’s a liar and as slippery as a snake. What if he doesn’t keep his word, and we get nothing in return for what we’ve sold? What happens then? What happens if we lose it all, and spend the rest of—“

     “Knock it off. He’ll be here, and he’ll give us just what we want. I made a deal with him. You weren’t there. He swore to me he’d grant both our requests. Go and sit down, and listen for him. We won’t see him when he comes.”

     “What will we hear?”

     “It depends. I mostly heard his voice when I was in his presence. It was very dark out there, and I could hardly see a thing. We’re both supposed to wait for him in here. He said he knows this lighthouse, and to listen for him. Midnight, he kept saying.”

     “Jim, I’m having doubts about this bargain. There is something underhanded in it. I can almost guarantee it. Can’t you feel it too? How come we have to wait around for him in such a dark, secluded place when what he’s going to give us can’t be seen by anyone?”

     “Because he doesn’t want to be identified.”

     “I thought you said nobody knows exactly what he looks like.”

     “They would recognize him just the same.”

     “But how?”

     “Because of what he is. Because of what he represents and what he was.”

     “I’m—“

    “Ssh!”

     “What’s going on?”

     “I thought I heard a roar.”

     “A roar? That’s just the sound of waves.”

     “I’m not so sure. Just listen.”

     “That’s a ship, the engines of a freighter or barge.”

     “It’s coming closer. It’s still far away, but I can hear it coming.”

     “Is it him?”

     “I can’t be certain, but I know when I was with him I could hear a throbbing sound—something mechanical and accurate. I had a strong impression that he rides on a machine. That’s what I sensed when I was out there.”

     “I don’t hear it any more—the ship, I mean. There’s just the crashing waves.”

     “This place brings back so many memories. I used to come here when I was a kid. This lighthouse was a landmark, and I’d never become lost once I had found it and seen its light. It was a comfort, really. Once, I ran away from home when I was twelve. I didn’t plan to stray that far. I thought I’d scare my folks a little, make them see what it was like without me there. I hid myself in here—this guiding light. I don’t recall how long it was before I made my way back home, but I remember thinking that this lighthouse seemed much more like home than the house that I lived in. And here I am, back home again, not likely to return, I guess. Maybe some day. But we’ll see lights that burn far brighter than the one we are sitting under now. That’s sure. And time? Methuselah would envy us! It’s almost midnight. Everything will change when he arrives. Just think of it, to live—“

     “I heard something out there just now.”

     “You did?”

     “Like footsteps. But they didn’t sound at all—“

     “It’s the machine. I think I hear it. Wait.”

     “I don’t hear a machine. I hear someone who’s walking with a limp.”

     “It might be him.”

     “But I don’t see a soul out there. Don’t look at me like that. I wasn’t thinking when I said it.”

     “Well, don’t say it any more. Besides, I told you that he never shows himself to anyone—not when he’s here.”

     “Is it an animal that’s walking--?”

     “Here! We’re both in here and waiting!”

     “I’m aware.”

     “Was that his voice? He sounds so old and weak!”

     “Go to the window, where we’ll see a light. Gaze into it. That’s what he said for us to do.”

     “That crimson light that’s moving toward us fast?”

     “Just keep on staring at it, Tom, and nobody will ever dig a grave for us as long as we’re on Earth.”

     But then Jim yelled as though he’d been tricked. The crimson light reflecting on the waves resembled fire, while the roaring of the sea sounded like the tortured screams of souls  abandoned without hope.

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