For the stone-cold sum of five hundred dollars a week, Richard Casey hired me to watch him sleep.
I know what you’re thinking, but not every help-wanted ad ends in depravity. It wasn’t like that. When I called, the voice on the line sounded hoarse and exhausted. The listing wasn’t even in the kink section.
I was looking for placement as a personal assistant—making calls or taking dictation, arranging dentist appointments for old, rich men who can’t be bothered to buy their own socks or pick up their dry-cleaning. What I got was Richard.
He was tall and sullen, with three days of stubble and forty years worth of shadows under his eyes.
The first night, I brought a thermos of coffee and two sandwiches and a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.
“What is that?” he said, staring at the book.
I gave him a long look. “An American classic.”
“Put it out on the steps and don’t bring it again.”
I did what he said because it was his show, and because I needed the money. I’d read it twice already, and anyway, there are all kinds of eccentricities you’ll put up with if you really need to get paid.
For six hours, I sat bolt upright on a hard kitchen chair, and he slept curled in the exact center of the bed, with his hands tucked against his chest and his pillow over his head, and I drank my gritty coffee with the sludge at the bottom and tried not to nod off.
Except, along about four o’clock, I started to hear small but insistent noises from the closet and from the space beneath the bed.
At first, the sound was just a steady scraping—the scratch of a nib pen or a fingernail. But gradually, the noises got louder. When I knelt down to look, something moved far back in the shadows. Then it was gone.
In bed, Richard began to toss and mumble, tangled in the covers.
I stood up and kicked the footboard. “Hey, wake up.”
He gasped himself awake, looking wildly around the room, staring into all the corners. Then, with a glance at the closet, he sighed and let his shoulders slump.
“What was that under your bed? No, what the hell was that?”
Richard scrubbed a hand across his eyes, already right back to sullen. “Look, you might be here in a pretty strange capacity, but my personal life is none of your business. I don’t pay you to ask questions.”
“It is my business,” I said. “It’s my business if you’re losing it, and it’s my business if all kinds of nasty crawlies want to come sneaking into your room, because either way, I’m the one who has to deal with it.”
Richard stared up at me. There were gray shadows under his cheekbones and he was grizzled and tragic, but not in the good way. There was nothing deep and brooding about his gaze. He just looked sick.
“Tell me, or I won’t come back.”
“I’m not a good man,” he said. And left it at that.
It was less than half an answer, but it was honest. He hadn’t bothered to lie, and that much I respected.
The next night, he was waiting for me with a basket of odds and ends. There was a bundle of dried sage tied with string, some candles and chalk and strike-anywhere matches. Sewing shears and salt.
“What is this?”
He set the basket beside the bed. “Consider them necessary objects. They might look harmless, but they’ll keep back the creatures of depravity.”
“In my younger days, I ran with . . . a rough crowd. I mean a whole pack of less-than-savory associates. They did my dirty work, but now my time’s used up and the deal works both ways. Now they’re looking to collect on my debt.”
“Okay, I’m sorry, but are you out of your damn mind? Are you trying to tell me that you sold your soul?”
“I was young,” he said, with a shrug of his shoulders, like that meant anything. “I wanted insight and knowledge. I wanted to know that I wasn’t trivial, and I bough their service because I thought I could afford it.”
“So am I. Young, I mean. But I’m not about to lease myself a demon at a high interest rate and very little down.”
He climbed into bed and pulled the covers up. “Sometimes the long-term consequences don’t really hit you until later. I was in the market for a different kind of life, and they were offering.” Over the quilt, his grin was pale and empty like he was already dead.
So I took the basket and put it under my chair, and at two or three in the morning, the scratching started. This time, though, the sound was louder and more insistent and when the thing under the bed showed signs of getting a little too friendly with my feet, I reached for the necessary objects.
I sprinkled salt over my shoes and lit some tea candles. When I stuck the scissors point-down into the carpet, the scraping stopped.
“Very well,” said a low, soggy voice from the closet. “But tell me this, at least—why do you protect him?”
“Because it pays better than Kinko’s.”
“But the cost to your dignity, my dear! And where are your scruples? Do you know of his sordid past? Only look at his hands.”
In the bed, Richard sighed and rolled over, flinging out an arm. His hand was wet to the wrist with blood. It ran in sloppy rivulets and dripped down onto the carpet.
“I hope that’s metaphorical blood,” I said. “Because otherwise, it will be devilish hard to get out of the shag.”
“He gave us his eternal soul in return for wisdom, and then squandered that same wisdom in favor of power,” whispered a voice under the bed. “He gave himself over to vice and hedonism when it were better he craved knowledge. Even in retreat, he is despicable and clever. For a pittance a week, he owns you, and you accept that when you could surely rise above it.”
“And you figure you’ll snatch him away to hell because he had the audacity to live his own life instead of curing cancer and blessing lepers?”
“Hell has no circumference,” said the thing in the closet. “It is where we make it and this room is as good as another. Hell can be as vast as the sea, or as small as the head of a pin, but I promise you one thing: we will never let him sleep. Go back where you came from and leave us to our work.”
“What’s it worth to you? I mean, are you here for profit, or just for fun?”
“Is this the face?” whispered a voice from somewhere in the shadows. “The face that burned the topless towers of Ilium?”
“No,” I said. “But that sounds like a good time.”
“The power could be yours,” said the voice under the bed. “Imagine, all the cities of men—yours to own.”
“I wouldn’t give up my soul for that,” I said, thinking of home and bed and my book. “But I might could sell his.”
“Then let us have him, and we will give you New York and Chicago. We will give you London and Persia and Rome. Don’t you want Rome?”
“We don’t call it Persia these days.”
I stood up and kicked the salt off my shoes. I blew out the candles. I took away the scissors because people’s debts are their own and a job is only a good one until you find something better. Because I am not a good person, and that’s something I never lie about.
Photo by prakope