The cheap plastic bench groans beneath my weight as I crash down onto it. I’m only vaguely aware of the ragged edge digging into my side, of the other people in the waiting room, of the nurse trying vainly to reassure me. My world is a pinprick, a single all-consuming thought.
My wife is going to die.
I pound my fist on the plastic. The nurse takes a step away and asks me to calm down in a uselessly soft tone. Someone across the room clears her throat in distress.
So I’m causing a scene. So god damn what?
Don’t these people know who I am?
Doesn’t death know who I am?
I’m the guy who graduated Harvard with dual degrees in computer science and mechanical engineering at age seventeen. I built one of the first successful social networks in my basement, then I sold it to a bunch of Wall Street fucks and used the money to fund a dozen more companies that have produced hundreds of products and applications.
I revolutionized ride sharing in western Canada.
Half of Africa has internet access because of my hardware.
I built a filtration plant that provides clean drinking water to half of Michigan.
My most recent dating app makes more money than a small market baseball team.
I’ve hosted Saturday Night Live, dined with presidents, and fucking been to fucking space.
What’s happening here in this hospital is not the kind of shit that happens to me. When this kind of shit tries to happen to me, I analyze it, read the appropriate reference materials, confer with the leading experts in related fields, identify the best solution, and throw as much time, money, and energy as is required to implement my that solution.
I fix things.
So why can’t I fix Julia?
I realize now that I’ve been yelling all of this, broadcasting my internal monologue to everyone around me–and to all the shady news outlets to which these assholes are going to sell the story. “Fuck!” I yell, just because.
God damn the motherfucker who plowed his shitty SUV into my wife because he couldn’t stop himself from pounding eighteen margaritas at lunch on a fucking Tuesday.
God damn the EMTs who drove her to this shitty public hospital.
If I have may way, all of them will also be going to space–but they will not be coming back.
I run. The pasty hallways blur together. People dodge out of my path. I wish they hadn’t.
Eventually, I am outside. My throat burns as I vomit in the bushes. As I collect myself, I feel the hot sun on my bald head, and I imagine Julia reminding me I should’ve worn sunscreen. I vomit again.
A strong hand grips my shoulder and offers me a handkerchief. Who in the fuck carries a handkerchief?
I wipe my face with the cheap cloth as I study its owner’s blue jumpsuit and scraggly beard. It takes me a few moments to realize he’s the hospital’s janitor. His craggy, smiling face seems surreal.
“I can’t do it,” I am compelled to admit. “Julia and I have known each other since we were eight. She’s the mother of my children. I can’t pull the plug.”
Something mystical dances maniacally in his dark eyes. “Who says you have to?”
He raises a single finger. The air around its tip darkens. “Doctors don’t know everything,” he says conspiratorially as every car in the lot behind him levitates a few feet up into the air.
I agree to wire five million dollars to an account he gives me, and to return at midnight.
Later, the janitor’s waiting for me by the hospital’s front door. None of the nurses working the night shift even look at us as we walk the hallways. I can’t tell if that’s another of his tricks or if they’re just afraid of him.
I don’t believe in the supernatural. My roommate at Harvard loved watching shows about Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, and past life regressions, and I used to give him no end of shit about it. I’m also not religious. Hell, I don’t particularly enjoy fiction of any sort. I like things I can explain, take apart, and put back together.
But I can’t figure out how this guy lifted those vehicles without introducing something magical to my hypothesis–and since science says my wife is going to die, I need another option.
“Got the transfer,” the janitor says softly, about halfway to Julia’s room, when we’re alone.
My attorney traced the account number to a bank in the Caymans. He recognized the bank by its reputation and refused to investigate further. “If this doesn’t work, I’ll be taking it all back–with interest,” I say, because I feel like I need to.
The janitor chuckles. “Ain’t lost a patient yet. One-hundred percent recovery rate. Shame we’d get shut down if any of our happy customers posted a Yelp review.”
I don’t trust him and I don’t believe him, but he is my only option. If whatever he’s going to do doesn’t help, Julia won’t be any more brain dead. Maybe a failure here will give me the courage I need to pull the plug. Or maybe I’ll just sue the guy’s pants off and move on to the next maybe-charlatan selling silly miracles.
When we arrive in Julia’s room, there are two women waiting for us. One is a cop, heavyset, older, with shifty eyes. The other is just a skinny blonde waif in a dirty t-shirt and jeans. I notice the pointed tips of her ears immediately but do not comment on them. I can tell that she’s not there by choice. Do I care? Should I care? I probably should.
There are no introductions, which is fine because I don’t want to know these people. As one, our attention turns to the broken, bruised, bandaged woman on the bed. Julia’s hooked up to so many machines that it’s hard not to think of her as some sort of cyborg. I angrily suppress the part of my brain that wants to analyze how it all works and upgrade it to something more mobile, sustainable, and perpetually monetizable. This is not the fucking time.
“Will whatever you’re going to do hurt her?” I ask.
“Not at all,” the janitor replies.
I glance at the kid, but I can’t make myself ask if it’s going to hurt anyone else.
“Get to work,” the cop says a few seconds later. Her voice is husky, and it’s clear she’s used to being obeyed.
The pointy-eared girl steps to Julia’s side and places her tiny hands on my wife’s forearm. She closes her eyes and concentrates.
“This is not going to be easy,” she says, frightened. My gut clenches.
The cop sighs. “I’ll let your little sister know.”
The waif’s face flushes. “Rot-damned pixie bastards,” she says as she adjusts her grip and focuses anew.
Do I care? Should I?
“Normally we don’t let the clients see this part,” the janitor says to me. “But you…you’re a special case.”
My curiosity is piqued. I find that annoying. I say nothing.
He presses something hard and plastic into my hand. A flip phone. “Rich guys have rich friends,” he says.
I pocket the device. My witty retort catches in my throat. White light radiates where the waif’s hands touch my wife’s arm. As the seconds pass, the woman with the pointy ears ages before my eyes. She doesn’t grow, but she becomes more solid, her skin taut, her posture erect. She’s suddenly middle-aged, and she grunts. Wrinkles sprout beside her eyes and mouth. Gray hair streaks through her blonde locks. Her ears droop. The tight skin under her jaw becomes a dangling waddle.
An exchange of energy, then. Interesting.
Creases slice through her face like a network of canyons. Her eyes go gray and sink back into her skull as her hands and arms turn leathery. Something like arthritis crooks her fingers. The hair sprouting from her head is stringy and white now, and some of it’s falling to the floor.
It’s horrifying. It’s beautiful. I really should care about the sacrifice this total stranger is making for my wife. I am grateful, but that doesn’t feel like enough. It’s all I’ve got.
Her cracked lips part. One of her teeth falls out of her mouth and clatters to the floor.
“The younger ones never have any self-control,” the janitor growls. “Always burn their dumb asses right out.”
The light fades. So does the waif. She falls to the floor, a dead sack of flesh and bones, accepting the fate that had been awaiting my wife.
The cop scoops her up like a sack of dirt and tosses the withered corpse over her shoulder. They’re gone almost before I can register what happened.
A pat on my shoulder draws my attention to the janitor. “Give your wife a minute. Humans take to it a little slower. Oh, and don’t hesitate to call the number in that phone I gave ya if any of your pals need us, but if I were you…I wouldn’t go blabbing about what you saw here. You’ll ruffle the sorta feathers that really don’t like bein’ ruffled.”
Our gazes meet one more time. I feel like I should have something poignant or snappy to say, but I do not.
“Catch ya later,” he says as he saunters away, whistling to himself.
I look to Julia just in time to see her eyes flutter open. My heart legitimately skips a beat. My wife, the love of my life, has been fixed.
The phone is a lead weight in my pocket. What the hell have I done? Should I care?
I do not. All that matters is that it worked.
From the Author
This is an idea that’s been percolating in my head for a while now. In Shotgun, I introduce the idea that certain elves can utilize healing magic in exchange for time off their own lives. As I’ve thought about expanding my world, I’ve realized there are a ton of ethical implications to that. Is it right for the elves to keep that power to themselves? Should an elf who can heal incurable cancer or other diseases be expected to give up her time to save lives? How might certain assholes try to exploit this? There’s some real meat on that bone, I think, and this story is just a tiny bite of it.