They say everyone must eventually meet their maker; to be judged for their sins. But I've already been judged. The only thing keeping me walking this earth is the deal I made long ago to save the woman I loved.
Sherry was diagnosed with medulloblastoma three years into our marriage when we were still too young to want to start a family. Maybe things would have been different if we had kids. Maybe I could have watched her body failing and her mind slipping away taking comfort in the knowledge that some part of her would still be with me. Christ sake's she was only twenty-seven. We'd each finished grad school the year before and were planning on taking our first real vacation to Europe. It would have been the first time either of us had left Canada. But that all changed the night she had her first seizure.
Months of doctors appointments, scans, blood work, and a series of mis-diagnosis gave way to the stark realization that she was dying. Not in a few years or even months. The doctors wouldn't even let her leave the hospital. Within a week her vibrant smile and intelligent eyes were replaced with an unresponsive mask. She stared at the ceiling, and the only sounds that came from her lips was a gurgle when she couldn't even swallow her own spit.
I didn't leave her side unless I had to. I barely ate, but the colorless mush served at the hospital cafeteria wasn't much of a temptation. While they pumped nutrients and corrosive chemicals into Sherry's body in a desperate attempt give her a few more days I survived on the bitter sludge that drained from the coffee machine and Smarties. They were Sherry's favorite candies. She always insisted on sorting the bright candy coated chocolates by their color before consuming them. She always eat the red ones last because it was her favorite color. The bright red lipstick she loved was long wiped from her thin, pasty lips. The pink flush of her cheeks was only a distant memory. Even the blood they transfused into her body was such a deep red it looked almost brown under the neon hospital lights. The color had gone out of Sherry's world and mine.
There was nothing the doctors could do, although that didn't stop them from trying. Machines to feed her stomach. Machines to pump air into her lungs. Machines to collect her bodily fluids. Machines to keep her heart pumping. None of it mattered. The woman I knew had long left the tortured body the doctors worked so obsessively to resurrect.
A month after Sherry's grim diagnosis the doctors finally up, and the hell I had been living was replaced by a fresh, new one.
"We'll give you a few moments to say good-bye." The behemoth nurse dressed in pink and yellow scrubs said as she patted me on the back like a child. "It's time to let her go."
Numb and exhausted, I couldn't even find the strength to yell at her. I wasn't ready to let go of Sherry even if all that was left was a body incapable of supporting its own life.
I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it. The incessant beeping and thumping of the machines that took up more space that Sherry's decimated body did drowned out all thought. I felt the room closing in on me, and at the center of it the woman I'd promised to grow old with.
So I ran. Like a coward I ran. Down the hall, passed the nurses station, through the abandoned cafeteria, and out into the winter night. I ran until my legs burned and my lungs begged for air. Spurred on by the idiotic idea that I could out run death itself I didn't stop until the ground gave way beneath my feet. I slipped down the embankment tumbling through slush and mud until I cracked my head against the stones that lined the path by the river.
My eyes fought to focus as I saw a hand reaching out towards me.
"Sherry?" I gasped and reached for her.
As soon as my hands closed around hers she was gone. Sherry was back in that God forsaken hospital waiting for me to say good-bye. But I couldn't. Instead I cursed, shouted, begged, and prayed at the empty night until I my voice was hoarse. Silence was the only reply I got. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. I knew I wasn't the first man to grieve for the woman he loved, and Sherry wasn't the first woman to die before her time. That didn't stop me from wanting it to all be a dream.
I'm not sure how long I lay there crying. Eventually the sky lightened, and I knew I had to face what I didn't want to face. I had to let her go.
"I wouldn't be so sure about that," a thin, elegant voice threaded the night and reached my ears.
Wiping my swollen eyes I searched the river bank but found no one. Now I was really losing it, I thought. With a heaving sigh I pushed myself to my feet and felt a rush of dizziness that almost knocked me back on my ass. It was going to take me a while to get back to the hospital. I didn't even know where I was. But I had to give Sherry her freedom to move on to where it was that people when when their bodies failed.
"What freedom do you think you can give her?" There was that voice again.
This time it sounded like it was coming from the water. I peered out across the distance over the reflected city that bent and twisted on the slowly moving waters. Shadow danced with light until the form of a man appeared. He walked towards me as if the river were frozen behinds his feet. Yet I could see the rippling water racing away as his heel made contact with it.
Dizziness made my world spin again and I let it take me to the ground. Maybe I was dying too, and I'd leave this world with Sherry.
“Are you in that much of a hurry to die?”
I looked up to see a slender man with a narrow face and empty eyes standing in front of me. His tailored suit moved perfectly as he knelt beside me and took off his top hat. With gloved hands he wiped the snow from the top of it.
“You aren't in a hurry to see Sherry die, are you?” The moment the man's obsidian eyes met mine my heart skipped a beat. “She is such a lovely woman. So young, so vibrant. Or she was. I would have thought you would want to keep her alive and keep your promise to her.”
“Who are you?” I forced the words weakly passed my lips choking on the acrid air that surrounded the man.
“Someone who can help,” the man smiled to reveal two rows of pointed teeth on both his upper and lower jaws. “For a price, that is.”
In the end I agreed to his deal out of pure desperation. Even as I stumbled back to the hospital I felt like I was dreaming. I had thought that I'd finally lost it.
When they told me that they'd removed the breathing apparatus and heart pump I knew I'd lost my love, my life. The nurses ushered me into Sherry's room with an excitement that seemed comical. They tried to tell me that Sherry was alive, that through some miracle she'd started breathing on her own. Hysterical laughter filled the room. It wasn't until I saw the concerned look on the nurses faces that I realized that the laughter was coming from me.
The doctors spoke of remission and the long recovery ahead of Sherry. She would live, but the damage done to her brain would be permanent. The tumor was embedded into the portions of her brain that controlled long-term memory. Everything she had known and been was gone. The doctors were so worried about her fragile state that they convinced me she needed to start her life anew, without me.
I was right. I had already lost her. But I lost so much more that night.
Now I run not to escape death, but the man in the top hat who will come to collect his debt. I seem him sometimes out of the corner of my eye. He is watching and waiting. The problem isn't that he's coming for me. Death would be a welcome escape from the hell I've already lived these nine hundred years. It's the one hundred souls he charged me with collecting that keep me running. Ninety-nine are already in my possession. One more and our bargain will be complete. One more and I will doom not only myself but those one hundred souls to an eternity of darkness they don't deserve.
“Meet me at the crossroad,” the man in the top hat said as he turned back towards the river the night Sherry had died. “I'll be looking for you.”