Lights Off by L. Colm

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Like putting cattle to sleep.

This was what the higher-ups used to tell Angel Ariel when she was still beginning. She would hear them inside her head say it like a punctuation to every delivery she had ever done. It was meant to make the job easier for some – and it did get easier over time. However, she never liked the way they put it. She remembered how much she hated it when they incessantly inculcated that to her after her first few deliveries.

It was late afternoon and the traffic had begun to pile up. There were cars in her front and rear that barely budged and wedged her into a stop. She wanted to get to her next delivery before sunset, but she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not that she nor her clients cared for punctuality, she just absolutely despised being stuck in a helpless situation with no reprieve in sight.

She turned on the radio and fumbled through the channels, stopping on the news. It was the usual – corruption scandal, political drama, crimes that ranged from petty to horrendous, the newest millennial trend, and the mundane lives of celebrities. Nothing particularly bizarre. So far, nothing that would have caught the imagination of the newsroom and the masses.

This, altogether, was unsurprising to her. After all, her clients were too commonplace, and their requests were far from deviant – at least from how it looked. Besides, people would rather turn a blind eye and continue as is than acknowledge their existence.

She parked up on the side of the road. It was already dark – quarter after seven. The only things that lit the neighborhood were lampposts and windows from seemingly lively houses. She made sure the shadows camouflaged her car, certain nobody would remember seeing it there the next day.

Even without checking the address, she knew exactly where her next client was. His house was the only one that looked deserted. The gates were rusty and half-opened; paint already flaking, peeled off, smeared by dirt; its roof discolored, and its gutters littered by dead leaves. Overall, it was an eyesore to an otherwise pleasing community. The only sign that someone was living there was the car parked inside the gates and a dim light that pressed onto the window blinds. Her client had obviously already given up trying to make this house at least look habitable.

She surveyed the surroundings once more to make sure no one would see her. Unlike her car, she knew she would stand out, easily remembered. Slender, fair-skinned woman wearing a dark trench coat and black-heeled boots entering a rundown house during the night – that would spark rumors, or worse, an unwarranted interest directed to herself or her client. Once she was certain, she picked up her purse and walked briskly toward the half-opened gate.

She knocked on the door and waited. There was no response, not even the slightest hint of movement inside. She checked if she was at the right address. She was certain her client was supposed to be here. Maybe he didn’t need her anymore. She kept knocking until the door screeched open and a pair of eyes peered out of the crack.

“I thought you’d already gone through it without me,” she said. She reached out her hand but the man behind the door ignored her. “I’m your angel.”

The door banged shut. Taken aback, she was supposed to knock again until she heard the chain rattling against the wood. The knob turned and the door screeched open half-way as she watched the man behind it walk away without saying a word. She followed him inside and was greeted by a rancid odor that could mask the smell of a rotting corpse. The further she went in, the stronger the staleness became.

His place was medium-sized and bare. All he had was a coffee table, a tattered couch, a boxy TV and a small folding table stacked with unwashed plates. There were two doors at the back of the room – one which must have been for his bedroom and the other for his toilet. The rest of the space was littered with dust, crumbs, receipts, take-out containers, and dried up bottles of cheap whiskey. On his coffee table, there was an ashtray filled with cigarette butts and a half-empty glass of whiskey. She looked for picture frames, photographs, or any personal belonging that would shed light to what kind of person he was. But in that sense, his house was even emptier.

Upon a closer look, she saw he was a lanky man in his mid to late thirties, although his disheveled and unkempt look might have made him look older. He had a stubbled jaw and his bones were pressed tight against his skin, while his eyes were heavy and empty at the same time. He wore a faded t-shirt and boxer shorts. By the stains and the smell, she presumed he had had them on for a couple days.

“I’ve come to deliver you,” she said. “Where’s your bag?”

The man did not respond but instead sat on his couch and continued watching television. She asked again and only then did he reach behind his couch and produced a paper bag. He handed it to her without a word.

In the bag were five wads of one-thousand-peso bills and a folded note. She didn’t bother counting the money to check if it was exact. Her history with past clients told her they had no reason to sell her short. It was his note that seemed peculiar to her. Other clients would have filled the page, some even using up more than one sheet. This one only had a couple of lines scribbled on it. She didn’t mind, of course. That was none of her business.

“Everything looks good.” She put the paper bag beside the coffee table, where she could see it. “Anything you might have forgotten?”

He said nothing.

“Anything you want to leave behind? A will, perhaps? Have you had that prepared?”

Nothing.

“Alright. Any other requests?”

“Will it hurt?” he asked, his gaze still fixed on the screen.

“It should be pain-free. That’s one of the perks of our deluxe package. I’d ask my clients to vouch for it, but I don’t think I’m gonna hear back from them.” She chuckled under her breath, but her client did not seem amused. He did not seem to be anything. “It’s going to feel like a long sleep.”

“It sounds too easy.” He picked up his glass of whiskey and gave it a swivel.

“That’s the point. If you could do it easily by yourself, you wouldn’t need us.”

“If you don’t mind–” he got the remote and turned the volume of the television up a couple of notches “–I’d like to finish this episode before we start.”

She nodded and sat beside him. His stench was stronger up close, but she tried her best not to show any signs of revulsion. The show was already midway and it featured a clean-looking young man and a rugged, bearded man tied to a post. They were planning some sort of heist, about raking in big money, about both of them getting what they want. It was hard for her to keep up since she had never watched this series before. She wanted to ask him what was going on, but he looked like he didn’t want to be interrupted. A few scenes later, she gave up and just waited for it to be over.

“It’s the season finale,” he said after the show went to commercials. “I’m sorry if you’re bored.” He slid his glass of whiskey toward her. “It’s cheap and old. But it works. Maybe it will help make things interesting for you.”

“No thanks,” she said. “What’s your show about?”

“An immortal trying to find a way to die.”

“Sounds gruesome.”

“Not really.”

“I bet you can relate.”

“I’m not an immortal.” He sipped on his whiskey. “I think I have lived long enough. There’s nothing left I can offer this world and nothing left it could offer me.”

He sank to a deep, solemn silence that felt disrespectful for her to break. The show went back on air but the man was no longer watching. His eyes were fixed to his table and the dialogue didn’t seem to register with him.

“It’s too late for me,” he said under his breath, almost drowned out by the television noise. “Nobody chooses to be screwed-up, but if you’re ruined from the ground up, you don’t have much of a choice.”

She moved closer to hear him better. His stench made her back away for a half-second, but she powered through her senses and fought away the incoming nausea. “They say it’s never too late to become who you want to be,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re the type of person who believes that.”

“Maybe if I knew what I wanted to be, it would be easier for me to believe. I thought I did and every time I proved myself wrong – maybe not myself, but the people who thought I could be more. I never really believed them. But I liked the idea that I could be this and that if only I tried hard enough.”

“Where are they now?”  

“I don’t know. Far away, I suppose. Somewhere where they can’t see me.”

“They seem like good-meaning people. I’m sure they’ll be saddened.”

“For a second, maybe. Then they’ll move on, as they should. Once in a while they might commemorate my ‘wasted potential’.” He burst into laughter and it took him a while to get himself together. “You should hear them when they talk about me. I remember our past conversations and the letters they sent, telling me how much of a great guy I am and how certain they are that I had a bright future ahead of me as this or that. One of these days, I’d really like to meet that person they’re talking about. Because I’m sure as hell it ain’t me.”

He took another sip and, again, offered her a drink. She refused.

“I must be bumming you out,” he said.

“Do you want me to say something?”

“Oh, god. No. You’re not my psychiatrist.” He gulped his remaining whiskey and poured until the bottle was empty. The glass was only half-full and he checked if he had another bottle to open. Apparently, it was his last. His speech was becoming more slurry. “If I needed one, I would’ve called mine.”

“I won’t pretend to understand what you’re going through,” she said.

“Even if you try, you won’t understand. There’s a language that only broken people can understand and I’m not sure if I speak it well.”

“You’re probably right. Besides, I don’t think me understanding your pain will do you any good. If there’s someone who needs to understand you enough to fix you–”

“Fix? Me?” He burst into another laughing fit, more drunken than before. “I wonder who that someone is? Anyone who would’ve cared enough to listen, I’ve already pushed away. Not because I wanted to be alone, nor my rejection of their affection. I did it because I wanted to stretch our bond and see how far it could go before it snapped. Maybe that was my clumsy way of making them understand me – my pain, my brokenness. After all, only broken things can understand brokenness.” The more he spoke, the more volatile he became; his voice overpowering the noise from the television.

For a moment, he became catatonic. The next, a grimace swept across his face and it was hard to read what emotions he might have felt. Pain, disgust, regret, or a concoction of all three and others, she guessed. Then back to being catatonic again. He buried his face in his palms and, with a softer tone, said, “Or maybe it was my way of staying broken because I can’t imagine myself otherwise. The feeling of security is such a stranger to me that when it comes, I don’t like seeing myself with it.”

Apart from the television noise, the silence between the two hung heavily in the air and was left untouched for a while. She sat perfectly still with her eyes fixed on him while his head remained sunk. He wasn’t shaking, nor was he emitting any vibe of instability. Just like her, he was still. He looked like he was deep in contemplation and wasn’t about to snap out of it anytime soon.

When he lifted his head from his hands, she said, “I’m surprised you made it this far.”

“I thought, if I’m doomed to be broken, I must have something to show for it.” He sank his head again and swiveled his glass of whiskey. “You see, there’s a leak inside me and I don’t have the tools to fix it. It took some time but I’ve already accepted that as something that I can’t change. But I figured there should be more to me than this. More in existence than what I feel. Happiness, comfort, security, they’ll die with me. So will my misery. Maybe they’re not so different after all.” His voice had become so slurred that she had to lean in close to understand him. “In the universe of grander things, what I feel is irrelevant. What matters is what I can leave behind and hope it will stand the test of time.”

He turned towards her and she realized this was the first time he had looked her in the eye. “And here I am with nothing,” he said under his breath. “I thought I could be more than broken. I went to med school – maybe I’ll fix people instead. I dropped out after three months. I thought I could be an artist and channel my pain to something beautiful; history had many of those types, maybe I could be one. But my poetry was clumsy and my novels were unfinished. I tried to be more in other ways – I really did – but I never realised how impossible it is to drag a living corpse and have leftover energy for anything else. It took years of struggle, but the truth was inescapable. This is the extent of who I can be. There’s nothing more in store.”

The television had gone silent without either of them noticing and the credits were rolling. “Look at that,” he said. “I missed my show.” He gulped down the last of his whiskey and, for a second, she thought he was going to vomit. Then he said, “I think I’m ready now.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, even though she knew the answer. She got her purse and took out a syringe.

She looked at him and expected fear. Death, after all, was terrifying. But what she saw was emptiness. A blank expression that had long-since resigned. She might not have understood his pain but, as an angel, she only needed to understand that he wanted it to stop. A picture of her mother flashed in her mind, but she was quick to ignore it.

“Will it hurt?” he asked again.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “There’s pain in emptiness; I can’t say the same for nothingness.”

She took his arm and instructed him to look up to the heavens and count down from ten aloud. Before he could reach eight, she pressed the needle to his skin and plunged the syringe, watching his eyes widen and his pupils dilate.

He drew a long breath and gasped. His back arched and then his body went limp.

She checked her wristwatch and noted the time. 12:11am.

The television continued with its scheduled programming as she turned his lights off.

About The Author

Born from the ashes of an abandoned dream, L. Colm aims to write stories that delve deep into the human psyche – stories that explore different modes of existential crises happening in mundane situations and the feelings that accompany them. When he is neither brooding nor writing, you can find him in front of a piano improvising a piece in A minor or in the kitchen making Cinnamon Chicken – a dish he claims he has perfected. He is based in the Philippines and lives with an undisciplined heart that craves for both a past that’s long gone and a future that’s too fickle to hold.

Bandit Fiction is an entirely not-for-profit organisation ran by passionate volunteers. We do our best to keep costs low, but we rely on the support of our readers and followers to be able to do what we do. The best way to support us is by purchasing one of our back issues. All issues are ‘pay what you want’, and all money goes directly towards paying operational costs.

One thought on “Lights Off by L. Colm

  1. Pingback: Mister Friar

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