Jack pulled back the soggy flap which served as the door to his cardboard cottage. A bitterly cold breeze greeted his hairy face. He hated the beard, but at least it afforded him a modicum of protection from the elements. He scratched his chin vigorously, dislodging pieces of dried food and dirt. He glanced at his wrist just like every morning, always forgetting that he no longer wore a watch. He wondered if he’d ever grow out of the habit. He let the wet cardboard flop back into place as he rummaged around for his grubby overcoat. He struggled into it, being careful not to dislodge the roof of his shelter, and crawled outside into the icy morning.
Grabbing his crudely written sign, he took up his position at the corner of the crossroads, in front of some posh coffee house, and opposite some ghastly fast food ‘restaurants’. He hung the sign around his neck, pulled on his fingerless gloves, and sat down cross-legged on the sidewalk. He’d lost track of how long he’d been out there; all the days blended into another. He watched the pedestrians shy away from him, casting disparaging looks, and some even took time from their busy days to harass him. If only they knew the truth.
The Christmas decorations would be coming down soon, the season at an end with the New Year upon the world once again. Jack wondered how many of the people he saw made resolutions they’d never stick to. He wondered if he could stick to his. The crossroads was a great spot, and he was very privileged to have it, but lately he’d realised that it just wasn’t enough anymore. He resolved to do something about it, something about his entire situation.
A hand carrying a hot cup of coffee appeared before Jack’s face.
“There you go, Jack. Enjoy!”
Jack looked up at Jenny’s pretty face, one of the servers from the coffee house. She always brought Jack a hot coffee in the morning before things got busy.
“You need more boxes?” Jen nodded towards Jack’s cardboard palace down the alleyway.
“Not sure I’ll be needing them after today.”
“Really? Moving on, or up?”
“Maybe down.” Jack mumbled.
A puzzled look crossed Jen’s face. Sometimes Jack said the strangest things. She shrugged her shoulders and changed the subject.
“Jack, can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” he replied taking a large gulp of steaming hot coffee.
“Careful, that’s roasting!” warned Jen.
“It’s fine, and tastes so good,” Jack replied, smiling. “What you want to know?”
“I saw you yesterday, at the accident.”
Jack looked away from her, staring down the road, remembering; a car had come hurtling through the lights and clipped a cyclist.
“What did you say to the girl?”
“Yeah, Jack. There was so much blood. She was hysterical, screaming and then you … I saw you get up from here, go over, and kneel down beside her. She just calmed, like she knew it was going to be okay. What did you do?”
“You tell the cops this?”
“You know I didn’t. They’d have been all over your ass by now.”
Jack grinned at her, “That’s true. Thanks, I don’t need the hassle.”
“So, what did you say?”
“I offered her … solace. A few words of hope. That’s all.”
“More or less.” He flashed her a smile. “Great coffee, thanks.”
“No problem. You must be some kind of saint. It’s a miracle that girl didn’t die.”
Miracle? And I ain’t no saint. “Wasn’t as bad as it looked once you got up close.”
“I gotta get back, Jack. See you.”
“See ya, Jen. Thanks again for the coffee. You’re a good woman.”
Jen smiled and hurried back inside the coffee shop, leaving Jack to his vigil once again.
Jack watched as the stores shut up shop for the evening; keys turned in the locks and metal shutters descended. A fine, drizzling rain descended from the heavens. Jack looked upwards with a wry grin on his face. Are you trying to give us business here? The temperature would drop dramatically overnight and the roads would turn to ice-rinks by the morning. He pulled his worn coat around him tighter, stood up, and hobbled off into the alleyway.
Jack awoke suddenly as a heavy weight pressed down upon his chest. He opened his eyes but couldn’t see. What the Hell? His arms felt achy and heavy. He started to thrash around trying to escape from the confines. Something stuck, and clung to him with every movement. He yelled into the night and bolted upright. Whatever had covered his face fell away.
Jack giggled when he realised he’d been struggling with the pile of saturated cardboard that had once been his home. It was now a sopping mess of mulch. He plucked pulp from his hair and beard as he stood and attempted to shake the mess from his clothes. “Should have taken those fresh boxes,” he muttered.
He heard the shouting first. Then the screams. Jack ran down the alleyway to the accompaniment of a huge crash. He ran out into the intersection, slipping and sliding on the black ice. It was carnage.
One car lay on its roof in the middle of the intersection, the interior crushed. There was glass everywhere. Another vehicle had embedded itself into a street light. A mown down fire hydrant was spewing water high into the air. It wouldn’t take long to freeze on the icy ground. The world slowed down in front of Jack’s eyes as he took in the casualties. The drivers were still in their vehicles, a few people lay on the pavement. Jack had seen this kind of thing before. This was his bread and butter, but today things were going to be different.
Sirens screamed in the background as he rushed to the upturned vehicle on the intersection. Kneeling down and peering in through the window, he knew it was pointless. Can’t do anything when they ain’t got a head.
He ran to the other vehicle, and smashed the driver’s side window with his elbow. The woman was breathing … barely. He reached in and gently stroked her cheek. Her eyes shot open, looking at him pleadingly. He leant into the vehicle and met her gaze.
“Do you want to live?”
She coughed, spluttered, and answered, “Yes, I’d give any—“
“Stop! Say nothing else.” Jack closed his eyes, sweat breaking out on his forehead as he grabbed the side of the driver’s head in a vice-like grip. Heat radiated from him to her.
She took a gulp of air, and her breathing became steady. Jack reached over and ripped the steering wheel from the column, before yanking open the door.
Jack turned in time to see another driver from the other direction brake suddenly; the vehicle careened across the road. It hit some debris, blowing out a tyre before striking the curb. The car bounced into the air, ploughed through the coffee shop window, and came to rest amid panicked screams from inside.
Holy Shit! Jack squeezed through the hole the car had made in the window, oblivious to the cuts he sustained from the mangled frame. The coffee shop had been busy with people getting their early morning fix on the way to work. There were bodies strewn everywhere. Jack surveyed the injured, prioritising just like he always did. He approached the worst cases first and worked his way around. He worked fast, surprised he’d been allowed to get so far without repercussions. By the time Jack had attended the last near death victim, he was drained.
He stood on weary legs when he spotted someone partially pinned underneath the far side of the car. Dizzy with exertion, he made his way slowly towards the casualty. Please, just one more. Just one. He moved away the rubble from the waitress’s body. He heard the short raspy breaths, the low moaning. He saw the blood, then he saw her face.
“Jen. Oh God, no.”
Jack knelt down and cradled her head in his hands. Her eyes fluttered and slowly opened.
“Tell me you want to live,” he whispered.
She looked at him, eyes wide. He didn’t know if it was with wonderment, or fear. Does she know what I truly am?
Jen tried to speak, but no words came out. Jack tensed his body and closed his eyes. He grasped the side of her head, summoning all of his will. Nothing happened. He was about to try again when the car exploded, engulfing them both in flames.
The heat of the explosion washed over Jack, sealing his fate. He felt the flesh melt from him, but it was nothing compared to the searing heat he was subjected to on wakening. The air was virtually unbreathable. The flames licked at his limbs sending pain throughout his entire being. His screams mingled with the screams of millions of others. A shimmering figure materialised from the heat haze and approached Jack. In an instant, the fires subsided, and stillness reigned.
“Jack, what were you thinking?”
Jack wisely kept his gaze averted. It would not bode well to anger his visitor. Jack did not reply.
“I will require answers to my questions. It’s the least you can do after that performance. Now, what did you do?”
Jack whispered his response, “What I’m supposed to do.”
“I’m sorry. What was that?”
Jack lifted his head and stared into the black coal eyes of his questioner. “What I’m supposed to do. I spared lives.”
“Spared lives! At what cost?” The voice reverberated inside Jack’s head as much as in his ears.
“None! You know the cost. Where the fuck are my souls?”
Pain wracked Jack’s body as the flames erupted once again, searing into his very being; the excruciating, unbearable heat Jack had not felt since before he made his own deal. Jack howled for what seemed like an eternity, and then, as quickly as it came, the heat was gone. His torturer stood before him, fixing him with a soul-zapping stare.
“Well, Jack. You’ve been a fine harvester. One of the best. I could let you burn, but you’ve brought me so much fuel in the past that I’m going to send you back. Reach your quota and then we’ll talk.”
“No more,” Jack whispered.
“That’s what I thought. Good lad.” A hint of mirth in the voice now.
Jack raised his voice, and spat out, “I meant no more souls, you bastard. I’m done.”
“You don’t get to decide. I say when you’re done. A few years in here will change your mind.”
The flames burned white as Jack screamed in the hiss and roar. The figure dissolved into the ether, but Jack kept his resolve.
Jack opened his eyes to a burning white light. He snapped them shut. Even with his eyes closed there was no darkness. There was also no pain. Has he sent me back?
“You’ll get used to the light.”
“Hello?” Jack called out.
“Open your eyes, Jack.”
Jack opened his eyes slowly, letting them get adjusted to the brightness. A familiar scent filled his nostrils. Coffee?
Jack sat cross-legged on the floor, a steaming cup of coffee before him. A figure in white stood beyond the heat haze from the cup. They sat down; Jack raised his head to meet their gaze.
“Hi Jen. You’re looking good, considering when I last saw you.”
“That was quite some time ago. I’ve had time to recover.”
“Where are we?”
“Remember when I asked you if you were heading on, or heading up?”
“Well, you headed up all right.”
“But how? The things I did … the souls--"
"Don't you know, Jack? It’s never too late for redemption.”
Jack smiled at Jen’s grinning face, picked up his coffee cup and raised it to his lips.
“Be careful, Jack, it’ll burn you up here.”