Short Stories

Absolution

"What do you think would be the worst way to die?" he asked calmly.

The boy looked at the old man, his eyes narrowed. The boy was just getting a little bit of dark scruff on his chin. "What I'm going to do to you, old man, when I get out of here."

The old man sighed and stood up, assisted by a walking staff. He shook his head and hobbled out, allowing the heavy wooden door to slam behind him. The screams of the frustrated youth went ignored for another day.

After what seemed an interminable time, the door opened again. This time no light poured through it, telling the boy that it was night. With painstaking slowness, the old man limped to the single wooden chair that he had, two days before, placed in front of the boy.

"What do you think would be the worst way to die?" he asked calmly.

The boy glared at him, his eyes as daggers trying to kill his captor. Two days had not yet weakened his heart or his mind. "I don't know. Torn to death by wild dogs while their master watches, laughing?"

The old man peered at him for a moment, then shook his head. He arose and hobbled toward the door, his walking staff making thudding noises on the planked floor.

The boy cried out, "What do you want from me?!" But he was answered only with the sounds of the heavy door slamming shut and being bolted. Again, he was alone in darkness, only his own hoarse voice to keep him company. This time his screams were shorter, and he gave out earlier.

More time passed before the door opened again. Light spilled in from behind the old man, almost blinding the boy whose eyes had become fully accustomed to the dark.

"What do you want from me!" The boy screamed at him, but the old man ignored it. He merely returned to his seat and sat, calmly watching the boy. The walking staff remained in one hand, the other hand free to gesture. He repeated the question that he had, so far, asked every time he sat down.

The boy just stared at him. He could smell the dinner the old man had just eaten, could see the little spot of gravy that was still stuck in the old man's steel-grey beard.

"Please," the boy said. Quietly now. "Please. I'm so thirsty." The boys lips were cracked and starting to peel from dehydration. "Please."

The old man paused for a moment, hesitation in his eyes. But then he resolved himself and shook his head. "What do you think would be the worst way to die?" There was almost a plea in the question, this time, as though he was looking for a certain response from the boy.

The boy would've wept had he the water, but after three days it was all he could do to get his eyes moist. "To starve to death in here, alone, with only a bastard like you to watch me die like some dog who'd bitten his master."

The old man nodded, seeming pleased with this answer. He stood up, again using the staff to help himself up, and moved back through the door. "You bastard! Isn't that what you wanted?" He pulled at his bonds, but only succeeded in opening the fresh scabs, and a few drops of blood trickled slowly down his arms.

He was answered only with the sound of the door closing. For a moment, he was caught in a grip of despair, but to his surprise the door opened again, and the man had a bucket. The boy never thought water had a smell before that moment, but right then he could smell the life-giving water. "Water! Please! You must!"

The old man hardened his expression, but nodded. He hobbled over and set the bucket at the boy's feet. His nose wrinkled at the boy's rank scent; three days of immobility had not been kind. But he did his best to ignore it, and dipped a ladle into the water.

Water! Water! The boy watched the iron ladle raptly, afraid to say anything lest he anger the man and he take the water away. The precious water. But he was rewarded, such as it was, and the ladle was placed to his lips. He tried to drink greedily, but the old man would only let him drink a little at a time. But he did get several ladles full, and then the old man picked up his belongings and was gone again.

The boy's elation faded quickly. Water was one thing, and he knew he needed it, but it wasn't everything. Now that he'd drank, he was desperately hungry. Maybe even more hungry than he'd remembered, now that his stomach had something in it. He wanted to cry, but instead he closed his eyes and whispered a prayer to Tolhi to protect him from misfortune. Then he signed. "For all the good that will do me." He tried to sleep.

Yet more uncounted hours later, and the creak of the door told the boy his captor had returned again. He felt a little stronger than last time, but no more strong-willed.

The man sat in the chair. It seemed to the boy to take a painstakingly long time. After hours upon hours of nothingness, it seemed too much to know that something was coming, but have to wait so long. And clearly the man was old and in pain. Sitting was not entirely easy for him.

But sit he did, and the clear blue of the old man's eyes belied any pain he might have felt. He looked the boy up and down, quickly glancing past the soiled trousers, looking more at the haggard, grizzled face of the boy. It wasn't what the old man would've called a beard, but it did a fair job of covering the boys face. And his sunken eyes. Weary eyes, weary of capture, weary of torment. But hungry, too. He could see the hunger, and he did not wish to look at it further.

"What do you think is the cause of suffering in the world?"

The boy startled. The question was different, this time. He thought about how this had gone last time. He thought about a trite answer, or a sarcastic one. He almost vocalized one, but then thought better of it. Maybe, he thought, maybe he might get food if he answered this one well.

So he thought back to his younger days, days when a proud father tried to teach the boy morality. He tried to remember what his father had said about suffering. "Suffering," he said.

"Suffering is caused by the cruelty of men like you."

The old man laughed almost warmly. It was the first time in several days the boy had heard such a noise, but it didn't hearten the boy any. It only made captivity seem that much more cruel.

"Why are you laughing at me?"

"You think I am cruel, do you?"

"Why else would I be here? So that you can watch me suffer? Play with me like a mouse until you are finally bored, and then kill me? What am I to the likes of you?"

"Ahh, then. You speak of cruelty and suffering. The world has been cruel to you, as I have been. Has it not?"

The boy looked down at his noisome trousers, but said nothing.

The old man stood up, slowly. "I am afraid, boy, that you know nothing of true cruelty. Not yet." He turned and strode toward the door.

"Please, old man. I beg you. Let me out of here."

The elder stopped at the door, free hand on the mechanism. "Not yet. You have not yet learned your lesson."

Tears fell from the boys eyes as the door slammed shut and he was, once again, alone.

Eventually, the door opened again, though by now the boy was losing the strength to even look up at the door as it opened. No light came through the door, except for an oil lamp the old man held, suggesting it was once again night. The boy tried to remember how many nights had passed, but he was no longer sure. He couldn't tell them apart now, they were all running together in his mind.

Then the smell wafted in, just as the door closed. The old man was cooking something, and it smelled delicious. His stomach, which he'd tried so hard to forget about, suddenly gave a loud rumble, and his mouth watered. He summoned what strength he could and looked up. "Can I have something to eat?" His voice was quiet and rough, barely more than a whisper.

"Hmm," pronounced the old man. Then a short pause. "What do you think is the cause of suffering?"

The boy sobbed. He was losing his ability to bear this. "I don't know. I don't care. I just want some food."

The old man let out a heavy sigh, but did not get up. He looked over the boy's features--the now hollow cheekbones, sunken eyes, pale pale skin. He frowned. "You are running out of time, boy."

The boy blinked tears from his eyes. "I don't understand, I don't know what you want from me." His stomach rumbled loudly again.

The old man answered, patiently, "I want to know your opinion on why there is suffering in the world."

The boy let out a long sigh. He remembered getting water for the last questioned, and he so desperately needed something to eat. So he marshaled his thoughts and his strength to try and tackle this one again. "What would the old man want to hear," he thought.

"There is suffering because people who have much take from those who have little."

"Ahh!" said the old man. "So you have figured out what I want to hear. Yes, that's very good, yes." He smiled, warmly again. "But what about those who have little who take from those who have little? Is that not also a cause for suffering?"

The boy thought about this for a moment. "I suppose it would. But if I have nothing, then I have to take something from someone else."

The old man nodded. "Yes. So you would have another suffer in your place."

The boy shook his head, but it was without conviction. "No, that's not..." But he hadn't the heart to finish his protestation.

The old man rose, leaning heavily upon his staff. He opened the door again, and the smell of the food overwhelmed the poor boy. But it was only a few short seconds before the old man limped back into the room, carrying a largish bowl of some kind of soup and a thick wooden spoon. The boy was fed, slowly, the spoon repeatedly dipping into the broth, until it was finally all gone. It had a few chunky bits, which was just about all the poor boy's stomach was able to handle.

When it was finished, the old man collected the bowl and spoon, and departed the room without a word. The boy just sat there, and now that his hunger was satisfied, his mind moved on to the other discomforts that now bothered him--is tightly bound wrists and ankles, rubbed raw and surrounded by dried blood from his efforts to free himself. And his soiled trousers, the smell of which was threatening to make him lose the food he had just eaten. And the darkness. The darkness was not complete; there was a very small amount of ambient light from someplace that the boy could not determine. Just enough light to see shapes, and not much more.

After several more hours, when the boy had digested the food and felt a little bit stronger, but also ravishingly hungry again, the old man returned. This time the light behind him showed that it was daytime, and the boy caught a glimpse of sunshine hitting wooden floor behind the door, and a set of stairs.

As usual, the old man sat down slowly. The boy could hear his bones creaking as he made the motions, noted the little grimace of pain as his joints resettled and he tried to find a comfortable position.

"So then. What do you want to do with your life?"

The boy looked astonished at the question. Somehow he'd been expecting something different, something more impersonal, like the previous questions had been. He seemed to be left speechless, and did not answer immediately.

The old man repeated the question, leaning forward slightly, carefully watching every nuance of the boy's reaction.

"I--I don't know," stammered the boy. "I've never really given it much thought."

"Think about it now, then. It would appear that you have the luxury of time."

The boy scowled. "Luxury?" He tugged at his wrists, gently, for show.

The old man smiled. "When you have nothing else--no freedom, no hope, no life, it would seem then that time is all you have left. And to some that would, indeed be a luxury. To others, time is merely a reminder of mortality."

The boy sneered. "Bitter much?"

The old man smiled, gently. "No. Not bitter. But...well, let's just say that, if you're lucky, one day you'll understand. But anyway, back to the question. What do you want to do with your life?"

The boy sighed. He contemplated sarcasm, but decided against it. He was too weary to fight. "Gods, I don't know. I just want to survive. I live day to day out there. Who can think about the future when you don't know where you're getting your next meal?"

The old man nodded. "A poor answer. If all you worry about is your next meal, then that is all you will ever have." He shook his head, saddened.

The boy shouted, "It's not my fault! What am I supposed to do? I'm fourteen years old and I have nothing. No friends, no family, nothing I can call mine. What am I supposed to do?"

The old man smiled, again gently. "That is a question you have to answer for yourself. But there are options." He sighed. "You have had enough of this." He waved his left hand, and to the boy's surprise, the ropes suddenly came free. He got unsteadily to his feet, which he barely managed. "I'm...free?"

The old man nodded, then pushed himself to his feet. "Freedom. How does it taste?"

The boy looked at the old man distrustfully. "I'll let you know when I see the sun."

The old man then produced a small bag, which jingled slightly. He stretched a hand out, offering it to the boy. "This is, I presume, what you came to steal?"

The boy looked at it, down at the old man's feet, unable to meet his eyes. "Uh. Yea."

"Take it, then, now that you've earned it. And possibly learned something."

The boy looked surprised, and confused. This was all too much for his addled brain to accept in this condition. "T-take it? You mean it?"

The old man nodded. "You have tasted suffering. Now you might taste happiness, at least for a few days. But--if you return, and knock this time, I might have work for one with skills such as yours."

The boy finally looked up and took the bag, fingers shaking. "Work?"

The old man nodded. "Yes. Work." Then he paused. "By the by, who did you think I was, that you chose to rob my house?"

The boy grinned, then, still fingering the bag, getting a feel for the wealth that was in it. "Just some old guy with too much money, I guess."

The old man shook his head. "Remarkable. For a thief, you have a lot to learn about observation." Then he chuckled, more to himself than anything. "Come. It's time to go."

Unable to find words, the boy followed him out.

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