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The Midnight Man

by Louis Brierley

On the last day, I heard Daddy crying. He thought I was asleep, but my head hurt too much; and whenever I slipped into dreaming, the creatures woke me up.

I dreamed about a lot of things, bad things that wanted to steal me away. Most wore Daddy’s face. Sometimes I saw them when I was awake; the nurses had to chase them away with the needle.

Daddy cried. He gasped and held his face and told me he was sorry, and when the nurses tried to make him leave, he yelled and tried to hit them. Then the men in blue shirts came but, this time, Daddy didn’t say anything: They all went away together.

It got dark. Out of my western window, the sun winked its goodbyes. A nurse came to see me before the lights went out. He told me that I am so strong, that everything would be all right. He changed my drip and then left me in the dark room alone with my machines.

There was a window to my left. I looked out across the city. They call it dusk when the sky is tinted haze-pink, the sun has gone to sleep, and the cars streak like fireballs in the streets. All the lights, I thought, as I listened to the rasp of my oxygen mask, all the lights in the sky are planes, and satellites, and stars.

I know about stars: I have read in a book that the brightest ones have already died; only the message hasn’t reached us yet. I wonder about that. How can something be dead if its light can still be seen?

I was so sleepy.

When I opened my eyes, someone was standing over me. He was very tall and pale, and he wore a suit made of midnight. There were stars there, too; twinkling bright and clean in the blackness. His cufflinks were the silver belts of solar systems, his eyes the dark wet limestone of old, old caves, but his face was... normal. Neither happy nor sad. I should have felt afraid, but I didn’t; even though I’d never met him before, I didn’t feel he was a stranger.

When he spoke, even the silence fell quiet. “Aisha?”

I shivered, pulling my sheets closer. “Daddy says my... mother named me.”

“Yes.” The man nodded, as if to a question that hadn’t been asked. He held out a gloved hand. “Come with me. There is something I must explain.”

“The nurses said I shouldn’t move,” I mumbled. Then I had a thought, and blurted, “Is this a dream?”

The midnight man seemed to think for a moment before replying, “Perhaps, by your definition.” He had such sad eyes, though his expression was blank. “But now we deal in truths: this is all quite real.”

He offered his hand again. I was confused, but I took it all the same. The moment our fingers touched, all my pain went away, a dark fog lifting. I climbed out of bed. The floor was cool beneath my feet. I touched my face, but my mask had vanished along with my drip.

“Are you sure this is okay?” I asked, but the man said nothing, leading me from the room and into the corridor of the children’s ward. Colourful characters peered down from the walls, caught in the glow of drink machines and electronic signs.

The reception door was propped open with a chair, upon which sprawled the nurse who had put me to bed. His head was hunched, his face in shadow. Even as a device on his belt started to flash and beep, he just snorted and continued to doze.

We turned left before the door, into an open room stacked with picture-books for kids younger than me. A plastic table stood in the room’s centre; upon it, a red-and-blue chess set with cartoon characters for pieces.

The midnight man pulled up a chair. I sat opposite him, looking at his hands on the tabletop. Most people breathe; he didn’t, except when he was about to speak. His fingers were completely still.

Another question popped into my mind. “Are you wearing a costume?”

The midnight man smiled, but only a little. It wasn’t a happy smile; I think he was trying for my sake. “Yes,” he said at last. “I wear many disguises. It helps my clients to cope, you see.”

“That must be hard.” I frowned. “I’d want people to see my face. If people didn’t know who I was, I’d feel lonely. Are you lonely?”

“I meet a great many people,” he replied after a moment’s silence. He seemed to shift uncomfortably without actually moving. “So many, I tire of it. I’m afraid I make for grim company.”

I nodded sagely. “I felt the same when my sister got married. Everyone wanted to talk to me. They asked if I wanted to live with her, until Daddy took me inside.” My squint must have disturbed the midnight man: he leaned forwards and nodded. People only do that when they desperately need something to do with their head. I didn’t feel that he was uninterested, though. The stars in his suit glittered brighter.

“So... what happens now?” I asked, a strange waver in my voice. “Will you make me better?”

His face didn’t change, not in any way I could see, but something faded in him, like the last light of sinking suns. To my child-eyes, he seemed to be something vast, natural, and powerfully simple. He took a long time to reply, “Why do you think that, little ego?”

“Something’s wrong with me,” I said blandly. “I’ve prayed every night. My nurse says—”

“What do you pray for?”

I swallowed my breath, and touched where my mask had itched around my mouth and nose. “I want to go back to school and see my friends. I want not to hurt anymore. Daddy asked the Imam to pray for mercy.”

“Mercy,” echoed the midnight man. His voice was very old. “Do you want me to make you better or give you mercy?”

In the quiet that followed, I glanced down the corridor and saw the nurse had left his chair. He heard the alarm, I thought, and shuddered without knowing why.

The midnight man followed my gaze, fingers arching on the table edge. “You have many loved ones?”

“I have Daddy,” I whispered. “And my friends Rashid and Aisha. Naya, my sister. Aalamgeer...”

“‘Conqueror of the world’?” The midnight man raised an eyebrow.

“He’s my cat.”

“That is a good name” — he nodded sternly — “for a cat.”

“You, uhm, like animals?”

He seemed to consider this, moving a crayon across the table with his little finger. “Just cats: easier to work with. Tell me about your father.”

“Daddy loves me,” I blurted. “He does. Even... even if he gets mad sometimes, he still—”

“Ah. I see, finally.”

I blinked as he touched the cartoon chess set. The surface was coloured plastic, and the pieces were cheap painted wood. “Do you know the rules, little ego?” he asked, his fingertips trickling over the glossy blue heads of his pieces. They were shaped like fox characters. “I usually play black, but I can make an exception.”

I looked at my pieces — all cats — and scowled with a marshal’s focus.

“I don’t understand,” I said at last, barely audible. “Why are we playing?”

“It helps me know the sum of a person. Understand them.” Thunder growled in the distance, and the midnight man frowned. “I apologize. That always happens when I posture.”

I was still staring at the board. Something was very wrong, but I couldn’t tell what. I’d never felt so scared: a cold, slimy feeling twisting in my gut. “I won’t... I can’t...”

“Take your time.”

His words made me shiver. “Why are you doing this? I won’t play; you can’t make me.”

“Then you forfeit?” he asked, ever so softly.

“No!” I heard myself blurt. There were tears in my eyes, stinging tears. “I just... don’t...”

“Then show me, Aisha,” said the midnight man. “Show me something new!”

My hand shot out; fingers freezing, claw-like, over a pawn. All slowed as I gazed at the piece. Tock. Tock. Tock. The wall clock became my world, a noise so final, so definite. For the first moment in my life, I felt despair. “I don’t know what to do,” I whispered.

The midnight man clucked his tongue. “Look at the board, Aisha.”

Groaning, I dragged myself back to the present, expecting to see my army in formation, pieces standing to ready attention.

Instead, I saw a game in progress. Both sides had advanced, and both had suffered losses. I gulped a breath and scanned the board. The midnight man had taken a few pawns, but nothing more. Meanwhile, I had taken his cloaked bishop, his sinister knight. They lay beside my hand, fox-faces grinning up at me.

“A strong will, for such a little ego,” he mused. “You aren’t one to hide behind your pawns... However, I advise you not to underestimate them: the smallest pieces move in strange ways.”

He took another of my pawns with his own. “The lowest peasant can oust the highest ruler: power is where belief is. Chess reminds us of that. Those who make themselves large and terrible may convince the world this is only natural, but each time they step on others, fate tosses dice.

“One day, the mighty will look down and see snake eyes staring back. They will learn that nature means no one wins forever.” The midnight man tipped one of my pawns, rolling it around with the pad of a finger. “The queen represents your daddy. Did you know that, Aisha? I am going to take your queen.”

And he did.

I saw my opportunity. I just had to move a pawn. “Checkmate,” I exhaled.

As I heard a quiet beeping, and distant voices speaking sharply, the midnight man studied my queen with those sad eyes.

I didn’t feel anything, not then. “You let me win.”

“No, Aisha. I simply played... fairly.” He rose, casting a long shadow, and for an instant I thought I saw his face, his real face. “Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he said, dropping my queen into a breast pocket, “it seems I’m running late for an appointment, one that is long overdue.”

“Will I see you again?” I asked.

The midnight man smiled as he took my wrist and led me to my room. Shapes surrounded us, only half-there, shadows within shadow. My skin was swiftly warming.

“Lie down,” said the midnight man, holding back the sheets as I slipped into bed. “Rest, for now. You have big days ahead of you. Big days, and pain, and joy, perhaps. Yes, Aisha, we will meet again. I have no doubt.”

Copyright © 2016 by Louis Brierley

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