Children know not morality. That’s what I was taught. All children are innocent; they are the blessed future of the world. Thus, we should always save them.
Yet now, right now, here I stand, the deep winter chill seeping through my puffy coat, and a boy--can’t be older than twelve--standing before me, intimating a gun poking at his windbreaker’s pocket.
"Come on, man, gimme your wallet." His visible hand crushes the flesh of my jacket.
I stare at him. A voice in my head tells me to give it to him and go...that I can’t waste any more time. Another voice demands I backhand the boy and throttle some sense into him. I know which voice is Barry’s, but I’m not sure the other is mine.
I stand before him, statue still. The free hand, so youthful yet so hardened, releases my jacket and quivers in a hurry up gesture. The other pokes forward in his pocket imitating--or is it clutching?--a gun. Talcum clouds explode from his mouth.
Whether he has a gun or not is immaterial. I have the bum’s life energy; I could heal myself--theoretically, that is; I’ve never actually tried to. But it’s not my life that concerns me. Nor my accoster’s.
I hesitate and he shifts from foot to foot, eyes scanning beyond me. I glance past him, at the stolid bricks of the hospital, two blocks down 43rd. The sun glints off its metal crown, feigning warmth as it plays in the crystal-clear air.
I force myself to remember there’s a dying little boy in there behind those walls. That’s why I’m out here. I can’t be delayed.
I extend my wallet toward him. He snatches it and vanishes into a sunlit alley.
In the hospital my rash-red cheeks contrast sharply with little Billy’s pale face. His parents look nearly as dead. I told them I’d be back in ten minutes; it’s been twenty.
"We must pray now," I tell them. It’s a lie that’s never been doubted.
Billy’s parents, standing across the boy’s withered body from me, grasp hands, both of Billy’s and each other's. His parent’s are devout Catholic, so I start with The Lord’s Prayer, one of the four Christian prayers I’ve bothered to memorize. It’s usually long enough to give me time to do what I do.
I can’t resist glancing at the doctor’s face. I never can. He’s alternately watching me and Billy. His eyes are narrow, like accusing fingers pointed along an aquiline nose. His frown sinks into an uncertain sigh.
He knows Billy is going to die. He knows the leukemia has beaten both him and the child. He knows another hopeless case is near its requisite conclusion. He knows no matter how much we pray, Billy will soon depart this world.
I suppress a derisive snort.
But there’s Barry’s voice in my head, saying, "Don’t mock the docs--our way doesn’t always work, either."
And then the spiders creep along the edges of my heart and down around my gut. Salty rivulets flow across my palms. I have to swipe my hands on something, dry off the sweat, but I can’t. I’m set. My hands rest on Billy’s boney shoulders, index fingers under his jaw, thumbs pointed heartward. I’m ready.
And I can’t do it.
The spiders jerk their web tight around my stomach. My heart pumps double fast, trying to shake the web off. I’m a senseless mackerel with one thought--too late--as the fisher’s net squeezes my companions into me: I’m going to die, Billy is going to die.
And there’s nothing I can do about it. What I’m trying is unnatural; I’m not human. I’m a freak, a super-holyman, and if the government discovers me, I’d simply become an X-File that vanishes into their clutches.
I have to squeeze Billy’s shoulders hard to keep hands from flying back to my own body. He gasps.
Suddenly, there’s Barry in my memory. He’s just told me the truth, told me what, who I am.
He found me the first time at the Eisenberg Science Library, studying for my first exam of the year.
"You are a Healer," he said after stopping across from me and studying me long enough to unnerve me. I glared at him, thinking, get lost. I called him a fool, a psycho. He wouldn’t be dissuaded.
"It’s your destiny. It’s what you are," he said in October.
"You might not believe in God or the immortal soul, but you’ve got to believe you have a great destiny," he added in February. “In the end, you’ll accept it. You have to.”
I tried to get on with my life--finish my junior year, get a summer internship--but every time I thought I’d escaped him, Barry was there.
At the post-Spring Break bonfire when Nick "My ego’s the only thing bigger than my dick" McQueen beat the crap out of me because he was so hyped.
At the library when we were studying for the physics final from Hell.
At the year-end party I got talked into attending, where I finally lost my virginity to Melanie. Melanie, the irrepressibly cute prodigy who was drunk for the first time in her life. Passing out an hour later upstairs, she choked on her own vomit. As did Nick, at the same time, downstairs.
"You could have saved her with Nick’s life energy," Barry whispered the next day into my hung-over ear. I don’t know how he got into my room. I don’t know how I got there either. "In the past four months he’s raped four girls at parties like that one, and after the last one Nikki Farallon paid with her life for letting him drive her home while he was smashed."
“Kill him, so she could live? That’s sick, Barry,” I think I said.
"He deserved to die," Barry insisted. "She didn’t."
Every time, I tried to muster enough anger to make his words false, but they hid in the alcoves of my mind, peeking out anytime I threatened to get on with my life.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t believe him--I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want my life ruled by some mysterious "destiny." My life was mine own to forge and shape as I wished to, and my wish was to be a physicist. That’s what college was all about, right?
My curiosity, in the end, out-dueled my sensibility. Two days before my senior year began, I puppy-dogged at his heels as he hurried to the red-bricked hospital at 43rd Street and University Road. Followed him back onto the street as he searched for some bum or evil punk, someone beyond his or her useful life. Someone who’d made his or her choices. Someone who didn’t matter anymore. To Barry at least.
He knelt over a homeless guy, passed out drunk in an alley, a stinking dumpster hiding us from the street. Barry wouldn’t--or couldn’t--explain how and exactly what he did. I saw him lay his hands on the man’s top-layer sweatshirt, watched Barry grimace, and listened to the man’s sigh-cum-death rattle. Just because I can't explain it today doesn't mean there is no explanation. A scientific modus operandi yet undiscovered isn't magic or religion, it's a challenge for the future. Still, for the moment, it’s easier to just believe.
Barry was good--he saved eight of nine people, all but two of them children--that over the next two months. The ninth...the little tawny-haired girl named Brittany died two days before Thanksgiving even as Barry tried, it seemed to me, to force his own life energy into her failing body. Later, in an alley behind the hospital, tears cascading down his face, he told me she didn’t want to be with her family and friends. She wanted to be wife her dog who’d died in the same car accident that eventually took her life.
I almost put an arm around his shoulder, almost comforted him. I couldn’t. Anger surged into me and I suddenly couldn’t stand to be near him.
He was a...a god with his power. I’d seen him restore a little girl who drank half a bottle of lye. Brittany was-- She had a good eighty years before her, and Barry had saved all those others. If only I--
I spent the rest of the semester evading Barry, until I was as convinced he was an insane fraud, an crazy illusionist. He was just a psycho, some guy that watched too much SCI-FI Channel, stalking me for his own perverted purpose. I should have known I couldn’t run forever.
Heading home for winter break, north up Route 97 far out of the city and into the ‘burbs, he was suddenly there on the side of the road, like he was waiting for a bus that would never come. The idiot must have waited for me for hours, slowly morphing into a pillar of ice, as snow alternated with freezing rain.
After ten minutes of my Scion’s heater blowing hotter than Hell, he had thawed out enough to speak. He only managed a syllable before I fired into hi, turning the radio down to a whisper. Adorned in my hat and gloves, he sat silent, absorbing my fury, like a lead sheet under a bombardment of gamma rays.
"You can’t run forever, Michael,” he said when I finally I ran out of breath. “Someday, you must accept your gift.”
“Look, Barry, I’d never saved one electrocuted friend with the fading life energy of the other, like you did.”
“How many innocent children will--"
"It’s innocent people you’re killing to save these ‘innocent’ children! I might not be observant, but in my seven years of Hebrew school they ground into my head that it’s wrong to kill an innocent person to save someone else."
"They’re not innocent, they’ve made their choices and lived out their useful life."
"That’s lame, Barry, and you know it! It’s murder. That’s what you do, you murder people to save other people. So what, it’s kids. It’s wrong, and I am not going to be a part of it. I am going to help people, but not--not!--by murdering others! Hell, one of your ‘innocent’ children could grow up to be the next Hitler.”
He didn’t respond.
"Nobody, not even Nick McQueen, deserves to die so Melanie can survive a stupid freshman mistake," I said.
Neither of us said anything the next ten miles, the only sounds, road noise and the radio I refused to turn off.
"Children are innocent," he said finally, so soft I barely heard him over the radio. "They don’t know morality. They don’t know the difference between good and evil. They deserve the chance to learn morality. Children, pardon the cliché, are our future."
"All children are not innocent," I said through clenched teeth. My hands tightened on the steering wheel until my knuckles were as white as the trees lining the road.
I drove on, up Route 97 as four lanes shrunk to two, and rolling farms replaced scattered McMansions as we passed beyond the outskirts of suburbia. The snow morphed into a hard crystal drizzle.
Focusing as far ahead as I could, I spotted some idiot in a sports car slaloming into my lane, trying to pass some moron puttering too slow. The idiot almost made it. He cut back into his lane a hundred yards in front of me, but skidded on an icy patch. Almost recovered too, until a tree jumped into his path. His plastic sports car slammed driver’s side first and wrapped around it like one of those slap bracelets my sister had as a kid.
The moron puttered on past, shaking his head.
Barry didn’t have to say a thing--my heart may have been enraged, but it was still there. I spun halfway around slamming on the brakes too hard. Barry was at the driver’s door as I got to the passenger’s. Idiot was dead, despite the deployed front and side airbags. His passenger barely breathed, but she was alive.
Neither of them could have been thirty yet. Neither wore a seat belt.
I’d don’t remember a cry, but something made me look in the what was left of the back seat. She couldn’t have been more than a month old. Her face matched the snow in color, though streaks of blood ran along her cheek where she’d been cut by the shattering glass.
God alone could know how she was still alive. But she would not live much longer than her mother, unless--
My knees buckled, only the force of my arms, hands frozen to the car’s accordion door, kept me standing.
"Barry," I squeaked. He looked at her, then turned to me.
"Dying, like her mother, but alive at this moment."
Panic forced me back to that faith I had tried to abandon. "Do something, Barry. Save her."
He locked eyes with me, then cocked his head and stared at the child, still strapped in the remains of her car seat.
I must have ignored it then, but later I remembered his eyes wracked with more pain then when he’d lost Brittany.
He stepped back, away from the twisted wreck between us. "No," he said again, "you do something.”
“What the hell can I do?”
“You’re a Healer. Use the mother’s life energy before it’s gone. You save the innocent child."
"Godamnit it, Barry, I can’t! Kill her to save her daughter? That’s crazy.”
“She’s dead anyway.” He walked around the car and stood behind me. “You think she’ll live otherwise? Use your gift.”
“I don’t have your power. If I-- If I had your ‘gift’, I could have saved Melanie, I could have saved Brittany. You can’t let her die! She’s just a baby!"
I couldn’t turn away from her to face him. Barry set a gloved hand on my shoulder. I felt the warmth through my puffy coat.
"You can’t let her die. You can save her."
I wanted to argue, but my jaw locked up. Spiders swarmed my chest and gut. She couldn’t have cried, all bloody and mangled, but I heard some sound from the backseat of her parent’s the snow whitened car. It was like watching the last embers of a campfire, slowly giving in to the cold death of the night.
I tore my bare palms from the car and grabbed the mother’s chest. My blood mingled with hers.
Barry had never taught me how he did it, how he drew the life energy from the "donor," how he infused it into the recipient. I’d never asked.
Somehow, I did it.
The mother’s life energy rushed into me not like the fire I’d expected but rather like a torrent of arctic water. As the rush of water drowned the spiders, it burst into flames around my heart.
I stretched an arm into the backseat, barely able to touch her with two fingers. Cold. Her fire had gone out.
Even I heard my scream.
I imagined my arms like conductors, channeling her mother’s life energy toward her still-warm body. What destiny governs this power, I don’t know, but in that moment, it made me God.
The embers caught and rekindled.
I remember being called a hero. I remember reading about the funeral for Idiot and his young wife. I remember an innocent child lived.
I remember Barry’s arm around my shoulders and his gentle voice telling me if I hadn’t at least tried, he’d have gone away, left me alone forever. I’ve never seen him since that day, but he’s always with me.
In the past four years, since that frozen December night, I’ve healed two dozen people--all but four, innocent children. I’ve been called in as a last, desperate effort by desperate parents when their well-trained doctors conceded defeat. I’ve lost two, both toddlers. Children, for all their innocence, are fickle creatures.
And now, here I am, Billy’s feeble chest barely moving under my hands. Spider webs criss-cross my heart, squeezing life from me just as the disease creeps through Billy’s body. His parents stand like parishioners pleading for an ice storm in hell. The doctor’s own prayers are almost audible, his tears barely hidden by his professionalism.
As my strength fails, there’s Barry’s voice telling me I can’t give up, I mustn’t give up. Billy’s just a little eight-year-old, with a good eighty years of life before him, he tells me. He deserves to live. I can’t let that bum’s life energy go to waste. He’d lived his life, made his choices, and now Billy deserves the same chance.
I take a long breath, feeling the bum’s fire roil within me. It spreads to my heart, burning the webs and roasting the spiders. My grip on Billy relaxes and the fire flows like water from a dam from me to him. The dying embers flare. The leukemia remains, but I can sense the fire burning it away.
I tell his parents, Billy will live.
The doctor raises a skeptical eyebrown, but I sense a numinous hope challenging his natural pessimism.
A month later I’m back at the hospital. Her name is Brittnee and she’s four years old. Her father accidentally rolled the family car over her.
They’re already planning the funeral.
It was her brother, a high school volunteer in the cancer ward, who called me. Said he heard how I prayed over little Billy and cured his leukemia when the doctors said it was only a matter of before lunch or after.
Brittnee’s pretty, even for an incurably cute four-year-old. She’d be prettier if not for the bandages swathing her head and the tubes criss-crossing her body. Her cream brown skin is ashen like the January snow on the ground outside. I’ve been in intensive care half a dozen times. It’s never been this quiet.
I look at her father, watching the guilt in his eyes as he tries to form a coherent thought. His eyes locked on his daughter’s, but she can’t see back. His chocolate skin nearly as pale as her’s, I doubt he’ll be long to follow if I can’t save her.
We’re Baptist, her brother told me. It’s been a year since I’ve done Baptist. Touching Brittnee’s cool skin, I start muttering, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want..." It’s such a utilitarian prayer, Psalm 23.
A spider creeps up my spine as I cull from memory the face of another girl with the same name. This one’s going to be difficult, I realize, worse even than Billy. There’s life left in Brittnee, but it’s loose, free-flowing, incoherent. Even if I do save her, I don’t know if I can heal her mind. This gift only gives quantity of life, not quality.
Or can I? I’ve never tried. I’ve only kept them from death, never tried to improve life. But is it right to try experiment on the four-year-old before me?
"It’s not an experiment, it’s Brittnee," Barry replies. After a moment, I concur. For what purpose do I heal her, if not to let her make her choices?
As always, I tell them I must go off--alone--into the outside for a short while. To "cleanse" myself, I always tell them. It’s a lie that’s never been doubted.
It takes me twenty minutes to find her. A long time given the neighborhood I’m in. She’s the only one within miles, a rot-toothed hag in a side-street alley, gibbering to herself and her bottle of cheap wine. Her body exudes an alley-puke perfume of garbage, wine, urine, and fungus.
I squat before her. "Hello, my name is Michael."
"Can you help me?" she says, reaching up with an unsteady hand. The weather feels more like May than January, but she’s layered with an oversized sweater and a ratty trench coat. “It’s cold and I got nowhere...” Her breath’s stench wafts up my nose and I swallow my bile. It burns on the way back down, too. I fall back, catching myself with one hand.
Gazing into those eyes, I study her soul. Or do I simply see my own biases and bigotries reflected? It doesn’t matter--I’ve still got a job to do.
There’s a precocious little girl who needs to live, I tell her. You’ve lived your life, made your choices, I tell her. And look where they brought you. You won’t survive the winter. It’ll be easier for you this way, I say.
Barry scolds me. "It’s cruel," he says. He caught them unaware, absorbed their life energy, and left their corpse to be found by someone else passing by. "It’s kinder that way," he says.
"It’s not right if they don’t know,” I tell him. “If they know what will happen, they’ll have a moment to prepare their soul."
"You don’t believe in the soul," he chides.
"They do." All I know is, telling them makes me feel better.
Perhaps, through the muck of puke, piss, and worse-smelling messes, back along a trail of bled-out bottles, there was a deserving person. But no more, not this dying hag before me. She lived her life, made her choices, and look where they brought her. There’s a precocious little girl who needs to live, I tell her.
She watches me with eyes like fishbowls filled with wine as I set my hands on her shoulders. Perhaps she hears me, perhaps she understands. It doesn’t matter, for it will be--
She fights back, struggling for her forfeited life. I sense a desperate effort to live, to continue this miserable existence. I fall back on both hands and she sags against the wall, breathless, fear in her suddenly clear eyes.
It’s not that no one has resisted before; several of them have, mostly the ones who least deserved to live. It’s that...none of them fought as hard. For a moment, I think about letting her live, about finding someone else. But...Brittnee. I don’t have much time.
In the end, her resistance is futile. A minute later, I stand, leaving the husk to desiccate in the winter’s air. For all her fight, she had precious little life left. She would not have lasted the rest of the month, perhaps not even this week.
She won’t leave my mind as I hurry back to the hospital. She fought like none other. A few welcomed their release. Most were too far gone to understand as the last flickers of their life flows into my arms. None had fought so hard for so little.
But, she’d made her choices, lived her life, chosen her path, and now it was ended. There’s an innocent little girl who needs to live, to have her chance, and that’s all there is to it.
It was good that she fought, I try to convince myself. It was good that beneath the rubbish heap of her life, she was a fighter. It was good for little Brittnee. She’ll need all the fight she could get. I take a shortcut back, toward the alley behind the hospital.
Nearing the final corner, I spot him, the boy, the twelve-year-old, who accosted me last time two blocks away. This time, he’s on the wrong end of the gun. I hang back, watching and searching for an escape route.
There are two of them, perhaps four years older than him, but obviously they’ve made their choices, and here they are carrying them out. They want the boy’s sneakers.
Shoes! Threatening a life over footwear! What is this world coming to? They wouldn’t shoot him over--
Barely does the pop pop slap my ears that his assailants snatch their booty and race off down the alley away from me. The twelve-year-old twitches on the pavement.
My mind numb from the ringing in my ears, I scramble down the alley and stand over him. Blood gushes from his chest like beer at a frat party. The hospital’s steps away, someone else had to hear the shots. The single door in the red brick wall stays shut.
I stand over him.
The old woman’s life energy, little though it was, is warm within me. It isn’t much, but maybe it’s enough.
I stand over him; my knees refuse to bend. This is the...child...who robbed me, held me up so that little Billy almost died. This is the child who made a moral decision, who choose a path in life. Who choose the wrong path.
And the precious life I bear is for a precocious little girl who never got to choose. His eyes roll back, and blood flows from his wound with every thump-dump of his dying heart.
I stand over him. For once, Barry is silent, but I feel as if he’s standing there behind me, hands at his side, watching me.
"The world is changing, Barry," I say. "We must change too."
He’s just a child, Barry would say. All children are innocent; all children deserve a chance to choose.
He’s made his, I reply, and now he’s dying for it.
But not dead yet. For all she fought, the hag didn’t have much more than a few sparks to fight over. But the boy...I could absorb his energy, and save not just Brittnee’s life, but her mind as well.
I stand over him; my knees locked.
No, a voice tells me--I think it is my own. No, this child is impure. His life energy would taint innocent little Brittnee.
This is what the world has come to, children who make moral choices, who chose between right and wrong, who chose wrong.
I glance at the door to the hospital. Still shut, but someone’s bound to come. It’s locked from the inside, I know from past experience. Someone’s bound to come save the boy.
My knees finally release and I turn away from him, walking back around the corner, leaving him to his fate. There’s an innocent little girl who needs me, I tell myself, hoping I’ve not wasted too much precious time.
This story originally appeared in Abyss & Apex.