The Scars You Keep

So this story is the culmination of a promotion of sorts. The idea was that I’d put a new story out in the world, which I dubbed “Story X,” and post the rejections it received as they came in. The deal was if the story received ten rejections, I’d retire the story and post it on the blog. As you can probably guess, the story did receive ten rejections, so here it is.

If you’d like to read the entire saga of “Story X,” start here: Real-Time Rejection.


The Scars You Keep

By Aeryn Rudel

People have died in this room, Wyatt thought and took a long, nervous drag on his cigarette. Badly.

“Are you going to kill me?” he asked the man seated across from him at a rickety card table. They were alone in a large, square room with plain gray cinderblock walls. The only exit was a steel door directly across from where Wyatt sat. Besides the table and two chairs, the room was empty . . . if you didn’t count the stains. Splotches of fading brown and rust red decorated the walls and even the ceiling.

The man answered Wyatt’s question with one of his own. “You are some kind of healer, yes?” His captor was a screaming cliché of the Russian mobster, complete with black track suit, slicked-back hair, and expensive sunglasses, which he still wore, even though it was the dead of night and they were indoors. He’d be funny if he wasn’t so terrifying. His accent was minimal, audible only in the way he enunciated certain words or omitted others. The Russian was a small man–Wyatt put him at about 5’6” and a buck thirty–but he looked very fast. The butt of a large automatic pistol jutted over his waistband, and his right hand rested on its grip. Wyatt had no doubt his captor could pull that pistol and put two in his brain in the blink of an eye.

The Russian’s question brought Wyatt some relief. It meant the man who’d brought him here had plans other than murder–at least for now. He took another drag, exhaled, and smiled, trying to appear confident and unafraid. He doubted he succeeded at either. “You work for Mr. Koslov, right? Andrei Koslov?”

The Russian frowned. “This is dangerous name to speak aloud,” he said. Wyatt thought he might have surprised the gangster by knowing what he was and who he worked for. Good.

“I make it a habit to know the dangerous people in my vicinity who might need my services,” Wyatt said.

The Russian smiled, showing straight white teeth. It made him look like a very dangerous rodent. “Your services?” He shook his head. “Your bullshit, I think.”

“Mr. Koslov is sick, right?” Wyatt said, pressing. Andrei Koslov had been in the papers a lot lately. The state was pursuing racketeering charges against him, but most didn’t think he’d live long enough for a trial. “That’s why I’m here.”

The man nodded. “A dying man is desperate, desperate enough to believe some American koldun can save him.” He leaned forward. “But you will not bring false hope. You will not take his dignity. You will prove to me you can help Mr. Koslov.”

“Well, for one thing, I’m not a koldun,” Wyatt said. “I’m not a sorcerer.”

“You speak Russian?” The man asked, cocking his head.

“No, I just know the word for hoodoo man in about every language. But if you think I’m a charlatan, why did you bring me here?”

The Russian shrugged. “I am soldier. I follow orders. But first, I check on you. I find strange things. Not strange enough to bring you to Mr. Koslov, but strange enough to bring you here.”

“And if I’m not what Mr. Koslov thinks I am?” Wyatt put his hands flat on the table to keep them from shaking.

The man smiled again. “You know what happens then,” he said. “But it will be quick. I do this because I like you. Most men, when I come for them, they beg and cry, piss or shit in their pants. Not you. For this, I have respect.”

“Thanks, I think,” Wyatt said. The sudden rush of pride that this bona fide slayer of men respected him was surprising.

“Have another cigarette.” The Russian slid the pack of Marlboros across the table. His captor had let him keep his smokes, but not much else.

Wyatt dropped the one he was smoking and crushed it under his foot. “Tell me your name,” he said as he pulled another smoke from the pack.

“You may call me . . . Ivan,” the man said with a crooked grin.

“Okay, Ivan,” Wyatt said and lit his cigarette. Ivan had also let him keep his lighter. “So you’re gonna run some tests, and this is going to be our laboratory, huh?”

Ivan chuckled. “This room has been many things,” he said. “Never laboratory.”

“You said you found out some strange things about me,” Wyatt said. He was starting to get the feeling Ivan liked to talk, and if he was talking, he wasn’t shooting. “Tell me what you heard.”

“I hear stories about a man who heals,” Ivan said and shrugged. “A boy in New Mexico, his mother tells me he had brain tumor, now it is gone because a man came and healed him. A woman in New York tells me she has leukemia, only weeks to live, and now she is better because a man comes to see her. A soldier here in Seattle is burned on his face in Iraq. I saw pictures. Terrible burns. He is not burned any more. He says because of skin grafts, but this is not true, the burns are gone because a man came to see him. All three describe the same man. They describe you.”

“Did you hurt them?” He tried not to let it show on his face, but it was the first time since Ivan had dragged him from his apartment that he wasn’t merely afraid. He was terrified. Those people had been through so much already. The thought of this thug hurting them further made him sick.

Ivan shook his head. “There was no need. They wanted to talk about you. ”

Relief flooded through Wyatt. “Thank you,” he said and meant it. “I don’t blame them for talking, but they didn’t tell you everything.”

“No?”

“The boy in New Mexico, did you talk to his father?”

“I did not.”

“The woman in New York, did you talk to her husband?”

Ivan raised an eyebrow. “No.”

“And the soldier here in Seattle, did you see his mother?”

“Why do you ask these questions?”

“Because I’m not a healer, like Mr. Koslov thinks. The boy’s father is dead, from a brain tumor. The woman’s husband is dead too. He died of leukemia. And the soldier’s mother doesn’t go out in public because her face looks like month-old hamburger.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying you don’t know what Mr. Koslov is asking for, and neither does he.”

Ivan’s eyes narrowed. “Then you will show me,” he said. “Now.”

“Okay, I’ll show you . . . something, but I’ll need you to do what I ask.”

Ivan again offered him that crooked grin. “This is laboratory, like you said. We will experiment.”

“Okay then,” Wyatt said and drew in a deep breath. “I’m going to ask you to do something, something that will sound crazy, but I need you to do it if you want to “experiment.”

The Russian waved a hand at him, urging him to continue.

“Pick up that lighter, please,” Wyatt said.

Ivan did as Wyatt asked.

“Now burn your hand with it,” he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. Even with the warning, he had no idea how Ivan would react to such a command.

The small Russian man chuckled. “This is why I like you. You have balls. But I understand what you ask.” He flicked the top of the lighter with his right hand, then held his left over the tiny spear of flame. He stared at Wyatt unflinching as the flame burned his palm, sending up a curl of smoke and producing a smell like cooked pork.

“Okay,” Wyatt said, and Ivan let the flame die.

The Russian gangster held up his hand. There was a small circle of burnt flesh in the middle of the palm. It had to hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, but Ivan showed no sign of discomfort. “Enough?”

“Yeah,” Wyatt said. “Okay, for this to work, I have to touch you.”

Ivan pulled the pistol from his belt and laid it on the table in front of him, resting his right hand on top of it. He held out his left arm and stared at Wyatt. “I am fast, koldun. You understand?”

“Yeah, I get it.” Wyatt laid his hand on the Russian’s forearm. He closed his eyes and let the power come. It rose up from his belly, from somewhere deep inside him, and flowed along his limbs like an electric current. It wasn’t painful, but it always made him feel a little sick. He could now feel Ivan, feel all the man’s wounds and sicknesses: the minor tears in his muscles from lifting weights, a mild hangover from drinking too much the night before, and the tiny tumor that had begun to grow in Ivan’s right testicle. He focused on the newest injury, the burn. He felt Ivan jerk, and then a sudden sharp pain in Wyatt’s palm told him it was over.

Wyatt opened his eyes and saw Ivan was pointing the gun at him, its barrel a yawning black hole aimed at his forehead. He put his hands in the air. “Your palm, Ivan,” Wyatt said, trying not to look at the gun.

Ivan turned his left hand over and looked down. His eyes went wide and he stood up, knocking the chair over behind him. The mob enforcer spat a stream of rapid-fire Russian and took a big step away from Wyatt, still pointing the gun at him.

Wyatt lowered his left arm and showed Ivan his palm. “You get it now?”

Ivan stared at him for a moment and then lowered the gun. “What did you do?”

“I moved the burn from you to me. That’s what I do. I’m no healer. I can’t cure a fucking thing. I only move pain and sickness from one person to another.”

The Russian walked back to the table and picked up the chair. He sat down, but did not put the gun back in his pants. “The boy’s father . . .” Ivan began.

“Yes, he took the tumor for his son. The woman’s husband took her leukemia, and the soldier’s mother took his burns.”

Ivan stared at Wyatt, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why are you not rich man?” he said. “I have seen men on the TV who pretend to do what you do; they are wealthy, powerful. But no one knows you. Your home is small. You drive shit car. Why?”

“I’ve found the less people who know about what I can do, the better,” Wyatt said and gestured at Ivan. “Case in point.”

The Russian laughed.

“The people I help sometimes tell others, even though I ask them not to,” Wyatt said. “Usually, no one believes them.”

Ivan was quiet for a moment, and his dark eyes never left Wyatt’s. Wyatt could see he was looking for the lie, the con. “You have scar,” he said at last. “There, above your eye. Why?”

“You mean, why didn’t I give it to someone else?”

Ivan nodded.

“Well, one, I’m not a monster. I don’t inflict my pain on others if I can help it. And two, I got that scar because I let myself get in a bad situation. Some scars you have to keep, as a reminder.”

Ivan said nothing, but he seemed satisfied with Wyatt’s answer. “You can help Mr. Koslov,” It was statement not a question.

“Yes, I can help him,” Wyatt said. “But who gets his cancer. I hear it’s something nasty. Are you going to take one for the team, Ivan?”

“I see no problem,” Ivan said and stood. He pointed the gun at Wyatt. “You took my burn; you will take Mr. Koslov’s cancer.”

“Then what?”

Ivan shrugged. “Then you give to someone else. We will bring someone.”

“And then I get to be Koslov’s pet—what was the word you used—koldun?” Wyatt said, making no attempt to hide his disgust. “You and the other leg-breakers do your jobs, and if you get a little fucked up in the process, I keep you going by hurting an innocent person. Does that about sum it up?”

Ivan shrugged “Why do you care? You will live, and you will have good life. Mr. Koslov will be very grateful. Now get up.”

Ivan was holding the gun at his side, aiming it at Wyatt in a casual, even sloppy way. Something resembling a plan formed in Wyatt’s mind. It was absurd, and terrifying, but it was something. Ivan was not a large man, and Wyatt figured he had about seventy pounds on the Russian. If he could reach him, maybe it would be enough.

Before he could really think about what he was doing, Wyatt shot to his feet and flipped the card table up into the air, obscuring him from Ivan for one crucial second, giving him enough time to charge forward. He slammed into the Russian, grabbed him in a bear hug, and bore him to the ground.

The gun went off three times in rapid succession, and Wyatt gasped as the bullets entered his body. Two tore through his liver and stomach, and the last put a gaping hole in his heart. The pain was immense and death was close.

Ivan wasn’t stupid, he knew what was happening. He stopped firing, and tried to squirm free, but there was two hundred pounds of dead weight on top of him. Wyatt used the last of his strength to hold Ivan close, pressing his body into the Russian’s.

The power came, surging through Wyatt and into Ivan. The Russian screamed and fired the gun again and again, fired until the pistol clicked empty. The bullets ripped into Wyatt, but the gun was pressed into his abdomen, pinned there by his weight, and none of the shots were instantly lethal. They hurt like hell, but the pain was soon washed away.

Ivan’s struggles weakened, slowed, and then stopped. Wyatt held him there for a few seconds to make sure, then rolled off the Russian and sat up. Ivan lay on his back, the pistol crushed against his side, eight bullet holes in his chest and stomach. He stared up at the ceiling, but he was long past seeing anything.

Wyatt stood, wobbling a bit, and put one hand against the wall to steady himself. He felt like vomiting. He’d never used the power like that, although he’d always wondered if it was possible. He hoped he’d never have to use it that way again.

He stepped over Ivan’s body, avoiding the widening pool of scarlet, and tried the door. It was unlocked. Ivan’s car, a big black Mercedes, was parked in front of the tiny kill room Koslov had built out in the middle of nowhere, miles into the Cascade Mountains.

Wyatt returned to Ivan’s body and dug through his pockets. He found the car keys and hurried through the door and out into the night. He’d have to leave Seattle–Koslov’s men would be looking for him–but he was used to moving around a lot and at a moment’s notice. He didn’t mind leaving his few meager possessions behind.

He got into the car and slid behind the wheel. The Mercedes started up immediately, the rumble of its big engine reassuring. Wyatt looked down at the palm of his left hand, at the burn that had again started to throb painfully as the adrenaline rush faded. He closed his fist around it and nodded.

Some scars you had to keep.


Copyright © Aeryn Rudel, 2016