There was a softness to the winds. Deep ochre branches swayed. Rich emerald leaves shook. Even in the darkness of the park at this hour, the colors were vibrant. It was incredibly late. Or was it early? Whatever the designation, it was close to sunrise.
Thomas smiled. He’d been sitting near that bench for hours. He was tired. He’d had nothing of sustenance for a while. It was a rule of the ritual. It was a rule of the Way.
He slid his fingertips along the splintering wood. The sensations were electric. It could have been due to his anxiety, his lack of nourishment, his ‘naturally’ heightened senses; he didn’t know the culprit. He only knew that everything was, at once, closer and more distant than it had ever been.
When he was a young man, he’d experienced a state much like this. It required the use of powders and liquids. Recreations of that nature were more acceptable in those years. He shared the opinion of today. He could never accustom himself to the dangerously euphoric. It frightened him.
This frightened him.
He’d received the letter, sealed with the golden insignia of the Way, his clan, so to speak. He knew it was coming. He knew what it would say. He was beyond the allowable age.
For the past fifty years, he’d watched the elderly. He saw pieces of them that they would most likely ignore. He saw the subtle ways they moved and spoke. He was searching for an aspect he could almost never find. He was trying to see the fear he was feeling.
He volunteered at homes, even shelters for the homeless. He was welcomed by them. They showed him compassion and acceptance. They extended those reactions to their own lives or rather, their expirations. Knowledge of death, he’d once been told by a man he was occupying with a game of chess, is just something about being human. As the man check mated Thomas’s king, he continued.
“We’re all gonna die. I’m happy about it. I think immortality’s hell. Can you imagine playing a game of chess forever? That’s hell, ind’t it?”
The silver maned ex-marine was his favorite companion on those rounds of entertaining the aged. So much so that when the cancer in his brain began to cause the nights to be filled with more pain than rest, Thomas came to offer help.
He didn’t give him the choice. He knew he wouldn’t take it. He knew he shouldn’t take it. Changing at such an age, in so much pain, would be pointless. Thomas’s own disability, the never ending string of wheelchairs and crutches that followed him through his prolonged life gave him a different understanding than those others of his kind. He had pain, agony that would never relent. Aching that was as immortal as he was. He could not give that to this man who showed him so much.
There was no surprise on the wrinkled face when Thomas appeared in the closed room. He smiled, trying to sit up. His hands went to the chess set on the side table. Dementia had crept in, allowed by the pain. It was too dangerous to feed from him yet that was never Thomas’s intent.
He forced himself to be as gentle as he could. He put the man back down in his bed. He smiled as he always had. He felt love for him. This old, withered fighter was, at that moment, his son and his father. He was a youth in need of help and an elder who had offered him so much. Thomas turned the morphine dial slowly, allowing a gradual increase. It didn’t stop the pain, the cells were still dying, still sending chemicals, still crying out for aid. The drug created a block around the brain.
The man closed his eyes and let the heft of his head fall into his pillow. Thomas waited with him, holding his hand. He could hear the heart slow. He could feel the electric currents in the nerves lessen their magnitude.
He left the room through the window. The springs on the back wheels of his incredibly well-built chair cushioned the impact with the ground. He went home, thinking about what the man had said.
Can you imagine playing this game of chess forever? That’s hell, ind’t it?
When asked, he’d shaken his head. He pretended a youthful ignorance. He looked only nineteen. It was a magical age to seem. It gave maturity when necessary and allowed sophomoric diversions.
But in the park, beside the bench with the letter in his hand and the wait till sunrise behind him, he couldn’t get the thought out of his head. It whispered again and again, with all the rustic inflection of the original speaker.
He was right. And he was wrong.
It was hell. But what a strange, different version of eternal damnation it was. Such gorgeous sights lived in this hell. It held the most wonderful, and horrible things. It gave Thomas the time and power to organize greatness in those he knew but equalling allowing many of the less benevolent to overtake any positive influence he may have had.
One thing was certain. No hell had such extravagant dawns. The edges of his lips pulled up and back in a wide grin. He loved to watch the sunrises. Though most of his kind enjoyed mocking the misconceptions of some ‘allergy’ or other aversion to daylight by actively hunting in those hours, he remained ever the traditional.
Even through the late hours, he made time before returning home. His favorite spot was the roof of a specific high rise a few blocks from his town house. He’d wait for the great orb of fire to ascend from darkness. His friends were the pigeons, fluttering on the ledges and gargoyles. They shared the greatest of his few happinesses.
But here, the fog and trees joined the light and color. They seemed to agree to make something worth paying attention to. They sang to the eyes. He saw the jets of sunlight funneled by the trees shine broken spots on the grass. It was drama, a production, a play. To Thomas, it overtook Marlow and Shakespeare.
A heckler joined his reverie.
Footsteps, taking care to be soft and silent, failed. Thomas put his hand to the wheels and turned. There was little shock on the other man’s face.
Thomas was a bit surprised.
The older looking man smiled dully. He was not one for emotion. In the three hundred years they’d known each other, this man was never known to laugh.
The silver scabbard flickered with the reflection of the continuing play. The world didn’t care much, it continued to turn, continued to bring the sunlight along it’s face.
Thomas couldn’t quite believe it. Jess’s hand was already on the handle.
“Why’d you volunteer, Jess?”
Jess sighed and pressed his lips together.
“I was offered your position. This is my test.”
The Way had changed so much since Thomas had gained acceptance. His test was to deliver a package containing a secret treasure. It arrived, intact and Thomas was brought in.
Of course, that was to be a member. Thomas was now a Governor. Levels of power, he realized, came with greater costs.
Jess stepped forward, forcing another smile.
“This is almost fitting, don’t you think?”
Jess was half his age. Thomas knew it to the day. He had given him the choice. He had given him the change. He’d found the man, bloodied and dying in a park like this one. He’d been mugged. In otherwise perfect health, Thomas decided to save him.
At that instant, seeing his creation pulling the dagger from its sheathe. He made a starkly different choice.
Thomas nodded. He put both hands to his side and closed his eyes.
“I believe you’re right.”
He ripped the hidden short bladed sword from it’s sheathe, built into his chair. The weapon was thin, a rapier. His well-trained armed thrusted the tip into Jess’s chest. His other hand turned a wheel, driving it deeper and into his heart.
Jess still held the dagger tight in his hand. He grasped at the sword’s but the strength was fading. His face thinned. Torrents of sickly sticky fluid flowed from the wound. He fell to his knees in front of Thomas. His eyes were wide. He tried to speak.
Thomas put a hand on his shoulder. He pulled the dagger, breaking the fingers trying to keep it away.
“I’m putting you back where I found you, Jess. Yes, it is fitting.”
The word ‘but’ seemed to form on the dying’s lips. Thomas smiled.
“The Way? I can no longer follow it, I’m sorry but I retire.”
The edge of the dagger slashed the now brittle skin of Jess’s throat. Thomas pulled him closer, working the knife until he heard the unmistakable drop of a head on grass.
He threw his child down to join the disembodied piece. His life was different now. The Way was not to be denied.
Can you imagine playing a game of chess forever?
Thomas figured he had just made his first move.