“How do you pick your victims?” I asked. The old man grunted and poked at the fire with his cane. Despite the suffocating August heat of the city, his apartment seemed cold to me. Cold and damp.
“Why do you call them victims?” he asked.
“You’re taking something from them. Even if they don’t get hurt, not physically anyway, they’re still victims.”
The old man turned. The crevices in his face grew deeper in the firelight. His thin white hair, now almost transparent, glowed red-orange.
“I don’t think of them that way,” he said, shuffling over to his chair. He sat down hard, collapsing into the chair. A cloud of dust erupted around him and he waited for it to clear before wiping his face with the corner of his musty robe.
“They give me something I need. I see them as donors—sponsors, if you will.”
I sat down in the chair opposite him.
“Fine. How do you choose your sponsors?”
He chuckled, a horrible phlegmy gurgle of a chuckle. He gripped his cane as if to get up and I moved to help, but he simply pushed himself further into the chair, emitting another dust cloud.
“How long have you been following me?” he asked. He didn’t look at me, only stared at his lap. He wasn’t interested in the answer, or he already knew it. He was buying time.
“Then you haven’t seen much.”
“That’s why I’m here now.” I took out my notepad. He waved a dismissive hand at it.
“You won’t need that.”
I kept it out.
“How do you feel right now?” he asked. He was still staring down as he asked the question. His fingers rubbed the dull white jewel at the top of his cane. I thought it might be ivory, a tusk maybe. My hesitation caused him to look up.
“I don’t understand the question.”
“It’s simple enough. How do you feel?”
Something sparked in his eyes, like a microscopic firework exploding in the dark sky of his pupil. I sat back.
“Good, I guess. I might have a few health concerns about being in here too long, but overall, I’m good.”
He let out another thick wet chuckle.
“I can tell. You’re not scared, not angry, not even particularly nervous.”
“Should I be?”
“It doesn’t matter. You could also be happy, excited, sad, anything really. Something other than good. Stronger.”
“You mean emotional.”
The old man smiled and looked at my notepad. His fingers continued to weave their way around the ivory handle.
“You’re not going to write that down?” he asked.
“No point,” I said.
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly the point.”
He pushed himself to his feet, steadying his balance with his cane. He shuffled back to the fire. Gripping the handle tight, he leaned down and rolled another log in, pushing it into place with his cane. He continued talking.
“You see, while it really doesn’t matter which emotion it is—though you do develop a taste for certain ones—it does matter if it’s strong. The stronger the emotion is, the stronger you become.”
I shifted in my chair. He didn’t turn around, but his head cocked to the side. He noticed my discomfort.
“So, you steal their emotions?” I asked. “How?”
“That’s not your question.”
I shifted again.
“Why did you come here?” he asked. The handle of his cane grew brighter in the firelight as he spun it around, stoking the fire.
“Answers,” I said, but it didn’t feel like the truth. I had come here with only one question on my mind. Now was the time to ask it.
“One answer,” I said. “What are you?”
“It’s not something easy to understand,” he said. “Certainly not something to comprehend through hearsay.”
He pulled the cane out of the fire and turned back to face me. The tip of the cane burned a deep red. He saw my eyes and glanced sideways at the cane.
“Fear,” he said. “Fear is definitely my favorite.”
He plunged the cane into his chair. The moldy cushion erupted in flames as if it had been soaked in gasoline, and the blast knocked me back against my own chair. The fire climbed the back of the chair and jumped across to the dusty bookshelves. Random stacks of books pulled the fire higher, up to the ceiling. The old man yanked the cane out and swung it around his head like a mad circus performer.
“How do you feel now?”
I leaped to my feet as he speared the cushion behind me. Fire shot out of the second chair and onto the floor behind it. I backed to the door, ducking under the expanding billows of smoke. The entire apartment was on fire, and in the middle of all the chaos stood the crazed old man.
“How do you feel?” he shouted over the roar of the flames. I fumbled for the doorknob, keeping my back to the door. My hands slipped on the greasy metal of the knob and I lost my balance, crashing against the doorframe. The old man was standing over me in an instant. He waved the smoldering tip of his cane at me, inches from my face. I knocked it away, burning my hand. The old man laughed.
“It’s too late to struggle,” he said. “As you so bluntly put it earlier, there’s no point.”
He reached down and I grabbed his collar for leverage, then swung as hard as I could with my other hand. He caught it as if swatting away a fly.
“I’m too strong now,” he said, and squeezed my fist as he did. I could feel the power in his grip and realized he had more strength than that, much more. He leaned in, pinning me to the door.
“The more you struggle, the more you’ll realize that to be true. And the more that realization sets in, the more your fear will grow.”
He licked his lips.
“And the better it will taste.”
He reached out with his free hand and cupped my cheek. I jerked my head away, but he yanked it back by the ear. I could feel the prickly callouses of his hand as he brushed back the hair on my forehead.
“I’m going to drain your emotions now.”
He said it like a dentist informing a patient he was about to use the drill.
“You won’t feel it,” he continued. “But you won’t like it, either.”
He covered my eyes and I heard him inhale. I then felt every inch of my skin being pulled toward him as the air was sucked out of my body. I was empty, void of whatever density emotions give to our being.
“After I’m done,” he said, a little short of breath. “Your life will be empty, but you will have the ability to fill it. You’ll have to choose whether or not to do so.”
He sounded nostalgic, almost sad, as he finished speaking.
“It’s not an easy choice.”
The old man inhaled again and I lost consciousness.
* * *
“And so,” I said, looking down at the young man as I finished my story. “That’s how we find ourselves in this situation. It’s been six years since that night. Six years since I made my choice.”
The man was shaking with fear. It smelled delicious.
“After I’m done, you’ll have to make that choice too.” I brushed back his hair. “You won’t feel a thing, but you won’t like it either.”
Then I inhaled.
Joel Stewart has a PhD in Linguistics and lives in Georgia with his wife and two children.
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Photo by Kingston Chen