Monday, November 13, 2017

For The Pain - By David Eccher

His grandmother was walking him home from the park when she collapsed.
She fell, gasping for breath, clutching her arm, face twisted with pain. He was 6. He was confused. He was panicked. He wanted to run to get his mother, but instead fell to his knees beside his grandmother. His tiny pleas in his tiny voice didn’t reach her through her pain. He put his hands on her round cheeks, as he often did when she was reading him a story.
Her eyes opened and he almost passed out. His chest suddenly felt as if Godzilla were standing on him. Pain shot down his arm far worse than the time he accidentally closed the step ladder on his hand. He couldn’t hear anything, only a blur of sounds that seemed to come from inside his own head.
His grandmother, suddenly clear in her head, looked at him in love and wonderment, then died. All the pain drained from his body, leaving behind a terrified and broken little boy.
Hugh spent much of the last 20 years having panic attacks whenever he had to be in physical contact with a person.
Whatever had happened when he was 6 was no longer a memory in his brain, but a scar through his being. He didn’t remember Grandma, except from pictures and videos, but the thought of her sent anxiety coursing through his chest. Xanax, and other pills, were his way of life.   

Over the years, he had confided what tiny bits he could remember to doctors, therapists, even to his older brother. The medical assessment was that he was a sensitive boy and the trauma of grandmother’s death had overwhelmed his system. It didn’t surprise any of them, given the fact that his grandmother was walking him home because his mother was in the hospital. Grandmother died in his hands, while mother died out of sight, and a boy was permanently broken.

“I remember wanting to run to her, but I didn’t know where the hospital was,” he told his brother.

His brother Hector, only 2 years older, had reacted to the dual trauma differently. He hardened. Already a bit of a bully in the neighborhood, having the body of a 12 year old when he was 8, he intimidated kids and parents alike. Their father, a non-entity after the divorce, completely withdrew. They weren’t even sure where the deadbeat moved to. Lacking guidance, and mother and grandmother, detention became Hector’s most frequent location in school. He didn’t care and let it be known that anyone in his path was at risk. That included his brother, whom he threatened regularly and defended fiercely.

“Something happened when I touched grandma’s face,” Hugh shared once. “I don’t know what it was.”

Over the years, Hector pieced together a theory that he kept to himself. His incessant teasing and bullying would often lead to a situation in which he was sitting on Hugh’s gut, using one hand to pin Hugh’s arms down and the other to slap Hugh’s face.

“Oh, baby Hughie can’t be touched. Does this hurt? How about this? Cry, baby Hughie, cry.”

There was something supremely satisfying about lightly beating on his brother that Hector couldn’t explain. A feeling he couldn’t get even from delivering the most cruel and vicious beating to someone else. This added to his theory over the years. And an accident in their 20s confirmed it as fact. Hector had stolen and crashed motorcycle, again, but this time, he could barely walk away. Rather than risk police involvement by going to an Emergency Room, he got himself to his home, and texted Hugh to come over immediately.

Hugh winced at the site of his brother, bloodied, bent, flung across a couch.

“Jesus, Hector, should I call an ambulance?”

“No, they’d bring cops, and it would be a parole violation again.” His voice was shallow as he pushed the words out through the pain. “I’d do my full sentence this time, for sure.”
“What then? What then?” The sight of his brother triggered him, bringing a PTSD reaction of his brain shutting down and retreating to a far away place.

“I think you can help me, Hugh. I think you can fix me. Stay with me now. Listen to me. Come over here and give me your hand. Yes, come here. Put one hand on my face here...”

Hugh felt as though his left femur shattered inside his leg. His face stung from scratches and bruises. His organs ached. It wasn’t unbearable though, and he held his hand on Hector’s face for a long time.

Hector stared up at him, pain free. He looked at his brother’s face for any sign of injury. There was none. He tried to move his left  leg, and watched as Hugh winced and jumped away. The second Hugh’s hands left him, the pain rushed back into Hector’s body.

‘God damn it.”

Hector reached out to grab Hugh and held him by the wrist. He pulled at Hugh’s sleeves to get skin to skin contact. He pulled him in close and put his hands on Hugh’s face. Nothing happened. He grabbed Hugh’s arms again and pressed both of his brother’s hands back to his own face.

“Look at me kid,” he commanded. “Look at me and focus. Stay here, keep your mind here.”

But Hugh was nearly catatonic, and nothing happened. The pain stayed in him. His leg remained shattered.

“Fuck. You’re useless now,” he muttered as he pushed Hugh away.

Hector managed to pick up his phone and text again. He was commanding, well bullying, his gang to steal morphine, codeine, whatever they could find and bring to him.

Hugh slumped on the floor, trancelike.

Despite his efforts at concealment, Hector had his parole revoked. A suburb bully, but not a master criminal, the path from the crashed, stolen motorcycle to his home was ridiculously easy to follow. And even if the victim of his assault and theft was too scared to identify Hector as the assailant, the security camera footage of him crawling away from the crash had no such reservation.

Hugh, at least, visited him in the prison hospital.

“What happened?”

“What do you think happened. They caught me.”

“No, I mean at the house. When I put my hands on you. What was that? What did you do to me?

Hector was lying on his back, his leg in a cast, bones held together by pins while they healed. The prison docs were stingy with the narcotics, so the pain was tolerable, but not entirely gone.

“Come here and put your hands on me. You’ll see. It’s not me doing it, it’s you.”

Hugh didn’t want to, but did. As he lay his hands on Hector’s face, the sensation returned. Not as sharp as at the house, just a dull ache in his leg. He swore he could feel the metal pins in his femur and the crack in his tailbone. He held on a long time, letting the sensation normalize within him. It were as if he were taking over Hector’s nervous system. Every bit of discomfort moved through him, instead of through Hector.

“Are you sure that’s me doing that?”

“It ain’t me.”

“How did you... what made you think I could do that?”

“I sort of pieced it together from your story about Grandma. A lot I guessed at first, kind of because of the way you act, all touch-phobic and all. Some I figured out when he tousled as kids.”

“When you beat on me, you mean.”

“Come on, it was kid fighting. I was wrong though.”

Hugh was still holding his hands against Hector’s face as he spoke. The look in Hector’s eyes had never been clearer. All the years of rage, anger, and bullying had made Hector’s eyes a dark,  dark place. But now, they were the bright, optimistic eyes of the Hector from before death had seared their lives. The pain that came through was not just the leg, the bones, the bruises. It was something more, and it began to wear on Hugh, but he held on a bit longer, looking for truth.

“Thank you for saying you were wrong.”

Hector was puzzled for a moment.

“No, not that. I ain’t apologizing for kid stuff, cry baby. I meant I thought you might have healing powers. You know, that after you let go, I would be fixed.”

“I didn’t heal Grandma.”

“She was old. Worn down. The heart attack was massive. I figured you were healing her, but it was too late. Or you were too young. Or something.”

Hugh let go. The pain was instantly gone, and Hector again turned dark.

“Motherfucker. Fuck. Fuck. Do it again, damn it.”

Hugh moved away, out of Hector’s reach. He looked at him. Hated him. He loved his brother, and hated seeing this guy back, and not the brother that was there when the pain was gone. He hated what his brother had become, he hated the way his brother treated him, treated everybody. He always knew he hated him, even when he loved him, but now he could feel it. He knew it, as if for the first time. The pain came into him and left him as if a light switch was being flipped on when he touched Hector and off when he let go, but something else stayed behind. Maybe it wasn't something that came from Hector, but it was something Hugh had not known was there before. And for the first time in a long time, he felt, felt something.

“Goodbye, brother,” Hugh said and turned to have the guard let him out of the room.

He walked away from the prison hospital. Walked out of the prison building. Walked past the parking lot where his car was. Walked 4 miles down a road that was lined with signs warning against picking up hitchhikers. Walked past the stores, the schools, the churches and movie theater.. His feet were blistering and his body dehydrating when he walked into the city hospital where his psychiatrist had her office. There was a shared receptionist in the lobby where the group of psychiatrists had offices in this wing.

“Hugh, hello, I didn’t think you had an appointment today.”

Hugh looked at Jon. He looked normal. He looked cheerful.

“I don’t, but can she fit me in for a few minutes. I have something I need to ask.”

Jon looked at his computer screen.

“Well, it might be tough. If you can wait for a while, maybe. She just started a session, but I could ask her when she’s done. Might be able to get a few minutes before she starts the next one, if you can wait?”

Hugh nodded and turned to sit. Then turned back.

“Can I ask you something, Jon?”


“Are you in any pain today?”

Jon was surprised by the question, but didn’t let much of that show on his face.

“Well, maybe a bit I guess. I...”

Hugh stopped him.

“No, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me,” Hugh said. “But, can I ask for something that is going to sound really odd?”

“Hugh, working in this place, believe me, whatever you ask me won’t be the oddest thing I’ve ever been asked.”

Hugh moved closer to Jon’s desk. He smiled and looked him directly in the eyes, but he couldn’t guess what pain Jon might have.

“Okay, I’m going to ask if I can put my hands on your face for a few seconds. Wow, that sounds even weirder when I say it than it did in my head.”

In the years that Hugh had been coming to this office, Jon had never seen him touch anyone. Not a handshake, not a hug, not a pat on the back. All patients have their quirks, and Jon saw them all.



“Yes, that does sound weird. And yes, you may.”

Hugh hesitated, but Jon sat perfectly still, patiently.

When his hands touched Jon’s face, the first thing Hugh felt was a spasm in his left hip. Just an uncomfortable cramp. He held longer. Hugh felt little more by way of physical pain, but started to feel sadness, heartache, melancholy behind the cheerful face.

Jon answered the unasked question that crept across Hugh’s face.

“My boyfriend and I split up. It hurts a lot.”

Hugh let go of Jon’s face. The cheerful smile stayed, but there was a misting of tears in Jon’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, Jon. You are a good man. I wish you peace and love. I don’t think I’ll wait for the doctor, you already helped me answer my question.”

“Are you, are you sure? She would want you to ask, I think.”

“No. Maybe best not to. Please don’t tell anyone what just happened.”

“I couldn’t possibly. I have no idea what just happened.”

Hugh smiled at him and turned to leave, but stopped.

“Jon, one more question?”


“Do you have any band-aids? Got some blisters from walking here in these new shoes.”


The line outside the tent stretched for a block.

Inside the tent was Hugh’s small, private area, and room for about a dozen others. Staff and security, and the next two clients in line. Security would be checking the second one, because you couldn’t be careful enough. And staff would be talking to the first one, asking questions, explaining the procedure. Hugh didn’t want to know anything about them, so the questions weren’t for that. Sometimes people’s motives were suspect, and the staff asked questions that seemed innocuous, because they were innocuous, while watching for telltale behaviors that might indicate a less than sincere desire to hand over money for pain relief. They also turned away many who thought this was healing. Despite the flyers, and the radio ads, and the late night TV spots clearly saying that Hugh DID NOT OFFER HEALING, so many people showed up desperate for it. If the staff was convinced that they understood, and still wanted to experience the pain transference, which is what they did advertise it as, and they had the money,then the staff would let them through, one at a time, to Hugh.

They did their best to gauge what the client could afford to pay.

The stated price was $500 per minute, and Hugh made sure the rich asshats paid at least that. But the unwritten rule was “pay what you can.” This is where word of mouth outpaced advertising. For the “Pain Transference Tour, with the one and only Paul of Peace”, the paid advertising was more about logistics and covering themselves legally: the when and where and what was offered, and very explicitly what was NOT offered. But take the pain from a cancer ridden father with no health insurance, even if only for a minute, charge him only a dollar, and word spread fast.

Two towns ago, such a woman showed up. Given drugs by doctors that she couldn’t take without losing her ability to care for her kids, she moved with the slowness of a person in perpetual pain. Her name was Maria, and she grudgingly admitted that she hoped ‘Paul’ would take away not only her pain, but her cancer.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Ms. Green told her.

The staff all used obviously fake names. Hugh’s accountant knew who they were, but Hugh didn’t want to know, though he did want to minimize their exposure to the crackpots of the world. This business, this “Pain Transference Tour”, had no online presence. No phones. No Facebook. No Youtube channel. And they quickly, forcefully, and legally demanded removal of any surreptitiously taken photos or videos. This was the last remaining business in the world that you had to be present for, couldn’t order online, couldn’t outsource. It was Hugh, in the name of Paul, and he was determined to keep it that way.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Ms. Green told her.

Maria nodded her head. “I thought maybe, maybe it could for me. For my children.”

“I’m sorry, Maria. This is not a miracle. You will leave here exactly the same, physically, as you came. As you are now.”

Ms. Green had said this a thousand times before. It never got easier. Watching a brave person racked with pain, reaching for hope, and having to take that away from them.  The young and untreatable were the worst. Many couldn’t afford proper medication, for many it had simply stopped being effective. Sure, there were people here because they wanted to try it. You don’t get a line of 100 people with untreatable pain in a relatively small town like this. Some thought it would be healing, some thought it would be fun, some thought their pain was the worst in the world when it was barely a blip on the radar of what Hugh had seen. And some were like Maria.

Ms. Green let her through to “Paul.”

Hugh usually sat in a high, sturdy chair. Sometime he stood, if he wasn’t too tired.  This was the 3rd event in 4 days, with travel in between, and he was indeed tired. He sat, eyes closed, dressed in blue jeans and a black t-shirt. People might expect flowing robes, or some other hint of holiness. Hugh did everything he could to discourage that romanticism.
Back a few years, before he had it this well orchestrated, before he met his lawyer and accountant, Ms. Law and Mr. Numbers, respectively, he took advantage of his touch power in a way he was not proud of. He might be nude then, trading pain for sex. He might be dressed in vestments that looked suspiciously like those of a Catholic priest, trading promises of salvation for cash. All those ruses were risky, and ultimately tiresome. They weren't him. This was him.

“Paul, this is Maria,” Ms Green said and let the interior tent flap close behind her.

Maria stood, nearly trembling. “Thank you sir, for doing this, for doing this for so little ....”

“Okay, that’s okay,” he said, stopping her short. “All that stays out there. In here, you are Maria, I am Paul, and we will leave the same as when we entered. That is all.”

“Yes, I understand.”

He motioned to Maria to sit in the chair next to him, more or less at his side, and lower so he could easily reach down to touch her face. The clients often prayed, or wept, or whatever. Hugh let them. He said nothing more and took Maria’s face in his hands. Other touch worked too, usually. Holding their hands might do, but holding their face with his two hands was the surest connection. They had paid for a number of minutes, and Ms. Green had silently signalled the number to Hugh before she left. His tolerance was strong, stronger than in the beginning, and no one’s pain overwhelmed him anymore. Maria’s was deep, and sorrowful. In her bones and in her organs. With someone like her, he really wished this was healing, that he was taking the disease from their body and into his. But he had to be satisfied with the look of peace, bliss even, that took over their faces as he held their pain.

Ms. Green has signalled “five” for Maria, but Hugh held her for much longer. His hands grew damp against her cheeks. She was so beautiful with the pain gone, so relaxed, so... happy. Yes, probably happy for the first time since she learned of her cancer. Ten minutes. Twelve. He heard the noises in the tent. He heard the crowd, still substantial, outside the tent. He didn't want to, but he let go. The miserable part of this “job” was seeing the feeling of pain return to the client. As that first time in the hospital with Hector, many emotions, including anger, came flooding back into the client as he let go, and it was hard to watch. But with some, such as Maria, their expression was all gratitude. Yes, they were not cured, yes the pain was back, but this had been a moment of rejuvenation. To know they could once again, even briefly, not feel the constant pain, was enough for some people to go on, to get back up and face the world for another day.


Several months later, many states and towns down the line, Mr. Buff, head security guard, recognized Hector in line and stopped him from entering the tent.

“You must leave now.”

“I only want to see my brother.”

“I understand. You must leave now.”

Years spent in the prison yard lifting weights have made Hector even larger and more imposing than before, even with the noticeable drag in his leg as he walked. He used his bulk, as he always did, to try and push past Mr. Buff. Hector’s nose met the ground with a thud.

“I asked you to leave, sir.”

Mr. Buff had Hector’s arm twisted hard and pinned between Hector’s shoulder blades as his knee drove his full weight into the small of Hector’s back. There is a significant difference between intimidating and being ready to fight. Mr. Buff was always ready.

“Jesus. I think you fucking broke my nose,” Hector said with a mouth full of dirt.

“Are you ready to leave now?”

“Fuck. Yes. Just let me up.”

Mr Buff let Hector up, and, still holding Hector’s twisted arm, walked him to the edge of the property.

Mr. Buff leaned into Hector’s ear and said a phone number.


“The boss said if you ever show up, tell you to call that number.”

Mr. Buff said the number again.

“Leave a message, he might call back. Now don’t show up again or I may get rough.”



Hector’s phone answering manners were no better than his in person manners.

“It’s Hugh. What did you want?”

“Fuck you and your goons, that’s what I want.”

Hector listened to dead silence for a while before figuring out that Hugh had hung up on him. Hector called the number again, but didn’t leave a message this time. It was 2 days before Hugh called back.


“It’s Hugh. What did you want?”

Hector took a moment to compose himself and refrain from cursing a threat again.

“I got out.”

“I know.”

“It’s been a long time.”

“Six years, four months, and a few days. Not that long a time.”

“I just want to see my brother, that’s all.”

“I don’t want you in the same room with me.”

“What? Why the f..., why not? What could I ever do to you?”

“You’re a liar. A bully and a liar. You wanted to use me then, you’ll want to use me now. I have money. I have... a marketable skill. You have a prison record, a miserable existence, no conscience, no money, no friends.”

“Well then, a healer like you would want to help a poor follow like me out then, wouldn’t you? Prison changes people. I found God, I’m on the straight and narrow.”

“I’m not a healer. I don’t believe in god. And I don’t believe you.”

“Well, how about some cash for me to stay away then?”

There was a long silence, and Hector kept looking at his phone to make sure the call was still there.

“You still there, Hugh?”

“I sold Mom’s house. I put the money in a trust for you. Ms. Law will call you with details.”

“Miss who?”

But the line was dead.


It was Jon who brought Isabella to Hugh.

She was a patient at the hospital Hugh had been treated at, back when he still sought treatment. She was a medical patient, a psychiatric patient, a mother, an ex-wife, a victim of abuse, an artist of no small skill. Doctors gave fancy words to her pain, all the fancier because they couldn’t treat it. Or find a cause for it. Some thought her depression manifest itself in her untreatable pain, some thought her untreatable pain manifest itself in her depression, and around, and around, and around the treatments went, solving nothing.

The tour had brought them back around near Hugh’s hometown. His services weren’t incredibly popular here, the novelty having worn off earlier and familiarity breeding contempt. It was a dreary, rain soaked day, and the line was short. Hugh was getting bored waiting for Ms. Green to bring someone in, so he snuck out the back of the tent and wandered around to the front. There he saw Jon in a quiet conversation with a strikely haunted looking woman. The rain had paused, but both Jon and the woman were soaked through, a useless umbrella at Jon’s hip.

Hugh surprised them when he walked up and put his hands on Jon’s shoulders. He was pleased to feel very little pain.
“Hugh! I mean, ‘Paul’. I was lead to believe you never showed your face outside of the tent at these things.”

Hugh laughed, and moved in for an embrace. “It’s okay, call me Hugh. Today feels different, my old friend. It is a different sort of day, isn’t it.”

The sound of Hugh’s voice put Mr. Buff and all of the rest of the staff on high alert and they quickly moved to surround Hugh and the couple, despite there being practically no one on the street.

“It’s okay guys. Jon is a friend,” Hugh said, signalling then to stay back, which they did, but none of them relaxed or looked away.

“What brings you out on this gloomy day, Jon?”

Jon hesitated and looked up at the woman. She was looking at her feet, looking like she wanted her feet to move but couldn’t get them to. She stayed still.

“This is Isabella, Hugh. I wanted her to come see you.”

“Hello Isabella, pleased to meet you.”

She nodded at him, with just the hint of acceptance of his statement.

“I was explaining the procedure to Isabella. That she needed to go into the tent on her own, but I don’t think I was winning the argument.”

Isabella pulled her hand from her pocket, clutching a wad of bills. “I don’t want to take his money. He can’t afford to pay this for me to see you. We should not have come, really. Not at all.”

Hugh looked at the cash in her hand.

“Isabella, you are right about that. He can’t afford it. Jon, take the money back before you embarrass this poor woman any further.”

Jon took the cash from Isabella. “But she needs...”

“It’s okay Jon. She’ll get what she needs. No charge for new friends of old friends today.”

Hugh turned to Isabella in preparation to put his hands on her.

“Mr Paul,” came Ms. Green’s voice. “Mr. Paul, we should stick with procedure.”

“It’s okay, Ms. Green.”

“Well you should have her come inside the tent at least.”

Hugh looked at Isabella. She was delicate, tall, porcelain. Her hand was still extended, frozen in mid air where the cash had gone back to Jon. Her fingers were long, worn sticks of flesh and bone. Her back was stiff, her neck tilted to one side, looking, but not looking at him. There was something about her that he could not fathom, but he wanted very much to put his hands on her cheekbones and feel what she was feeling.

“I don’t think Isabella wants to come inside the tent, Ms. Green. She feels safer out here. Don’t you, Isabella.”


By now a few people had started to gather, watching, and the staff watched very intently for any sign of trouble.

“Isabella, is it okay if I put my hands on your face? Out here, outside of the tent. Here with our friend Jon. And remember, no charge.”

Hugh smiled at her. He never did this, well, since he figured out a procedure any way. Getting to know the client didn’t help, it didn’t change their experience, and it didn’t alter his, well, his ‘power.’ Conversely, getting to know them increased the risk of them getting attached to him, of having expectations beyond what he was able to deliver.

Isabella looked at Jon, and saw approval to proceed in his eyes.

“Okay. It’s okay. You can try your ‘thing.'”

There were more people now, and Mr. Buff was rigid and alert. Getting himself between those gathering and Hugh.

Hugh stepped toward Isabella, raised his hands, and placed them on her face.

Pain shot through him. His teeth felt like they were gnawing through his head from the inside. His hands felt like they were trapped in a vice, being crushed lengthwise. His feet didn't know where the ground was as pain killed all practical sensations in his legs. His heart raced, pounded, twisted, as if it had been ripped from his chest and was being lynched, left hanging from a tree, still beating, while a crowed jeered and mocked it. His soul felt crushed. He couldn’t see anything, couldn’t see Isabella, the pain was too blinding. He held on as long as he could, then dropped his hands and dropped to his knees, panting.

Ms. Green rushed to his side.

“Are you okay?”

“How long,” he gasped. “How long was that?”

“Seconds, just a few seconds. What happened to you?”

Hugh looked up at Isabella, and saw a look of astonishment on her face.

“I had no idea,” Hugh said to Isabella. “In all my time, I have never found... I had no idea. How can you be standing here, hell, how can you be alive, with all of that inside you.”

Isabella looked at him. It was a look like Hugh had never seen before. There was something poking through the god awful layers of agony. A look that said ‘finally, someone who believes me.”

She finally spoke.

“I couldn’t remember that there was any other way to feel.”


Now, he was the one that hoped if he hung on long enough, he could actually heal her.

And she worried he would leave.

Everyone eventually left because she wore them out. The pain, the depression, the crying, it all wore even the best intentioned, most loving people out. Friends, parents, spouse, even doctors. The smiles, the hugs, the ‘I love you’, followed by absence. Men couldn’t fix her, friends didn’t know what to say anymore, parents couldn’t forgive (themselves, her, each other), and so they they all eventually faded away. One day her kids would be grown, and they would have better lives than she could provide in her state, and they would recede into their own lives as well. And Hugh would go, it was inevitable.

The day he met Isabella was the last day of the traveling tent show.

It was a brief time, perhaps too brief, of visiting her constantly before asking if he could move in.

Why would he want to do that, she asked. His house was big, she had this tiny little hovel. The boys shared a room, and they would have to clear out the back storage room, barely bigger than a closet really, to make a space for Hugh. He didn’t care. He wanted to be with her, and he wasn’t going to uproot Isabella and her boys from their home.

He dropped the Pain Transference business to reserve all his ‘power’ for Isabella. He had never felt such complete pain. He worked at holding on to her. Once they got close to five minutes, and it exhausted him. AND SHE LIVED WITH THAT 24 HOURS A DAY EVERY DAY OF HER FUCKING LIFE. She became his hero, his mission, his love.

The first time they lay naked together was joy. Not physical joy for him. He had become practiced in maintaining his erection while experiencing someone else’s pain. And he had learned how to not accept the pain at all. He had not figured out how to do either of those things with Isabella. Just her fingertips on his skin was enough to flow the pain. He had to learn not to react, so as not to make her afraid to touch him. But it was joy to him to have found her, to be able to look at her, to be able to help someone who really needed his help. Not that others didn't genuinely need his help. Despite the many whose pain was transient, there were many for whom he was the only relief they would experience. But Isabella’s was not a pain from something. Her’s was not a condition to be relieved. Her pain was her being.    

He had enough money to keep paying the staff, though there wasn’t much for them to do without the traveling show. Some found other work, thanked him, took a final check and went on their way. Ms. Green stayed on to keep running properties and day to day things for Hugh, as he spent all of his time with Isabella. Mr. Buff was on call in case Hugh wanted a driver and bodyguard for the day, though Hugh asked him to keep a distance. It just felt awkward to be walking with Isabella and have the memories of the traveling show in his sightlines.

Hugh never asked Isabella the ‘why’ questions. Oh, she told him plenty about her trauma. The awful, awful, unspeakable things that had happened to her. And Hugh listened, and he wept, or grew enraged, or just went numb with incredulity.

Isabella held back. Everyone who knew her story, even parts, had eventually left her. She couldn’t blame them, really. It wore her down, and she knew it wore them down. To walk into a room, any room, any time of day or night, and once again find her in the depths of sadness, crying, was a wearing experience. She never just sat and cried, but the sadness could overtake her at any moment. She cried doing dishes, she cried tending the garden, she cried when she was painting. When she was painting was the only time she was truly happy, but even then the pain and sadness would find a way to burst through. One day, she knew, Hugh would walk into a room and see her crying, again, for the 100th time, or the thousandth time, or the millionth time, one of these times, and he would have had enough and he would turn and walk away. She knew it, she feared it, and it added to her sadness.

But not yet. For months now he would walk in, see her state, and embrace her. Standing in the small kitchen, cooking for the kids, trying her hardest to think of them so that the knife only cut the vegetables, and not her skin, as she had had it do before, she would hear Hugh come in. Never a hesitation, he would come up behind her and embrace her. And it would all flow out: the neuralgia, the neuropathy, the fibromyalgia, all of the conditions doctors couldn’t explain and couldn’t treat. And she would stop crying. The memories of the abuse, the heartbreaks, the twisted perversions she had been subjected to as a little girl, they were all still there. But they were disconnected from her body. Hugh took the pain, leaving her mind free to focus, to process.

Her art was different when he held her. Maybe only to her eye, but she saw sharper lines and more clarity in the abstraction of the colors.

Her play was different. She would playing a board game with the boys, and Hugh would come stand behind her and lay his hands on her shoulders. To the boys it looked like a shoulder massage. To her to was the lifting of her soul. For minutes on end, she could tease, laugh, lose, or win with her boys. These two angels, the only things that had kept her from taking her own life many times over, and now she could see them through painfree eyes. Tousle their too long hair. Laugh when they tried to cheat at the game so they could win. She would be so lifted that she would turn to smile at Hugh, to thank him with all the love in her heart, and she would see his face, the smile forced through the unbearable pain, the glint in his eye refracted through saltwater tears, the flutter in his cheek that said he couldn’t hold on much longer, and she knew he would have to let go.


Death cannot be cheated.

Hector fell into a spiral of cruelty and drugs, blame and self-pity. The only good thing about this was that his drug addled lethargy kept him out of the way of law enforcement. The worst things were a dwindling pile of cash, and the fits of rage that would pop up when drugs were not at hand.

Soon after getting his share of house sale money from Ms. Law, their deadbeat dad had tracked him down. How dad knew he had money was unknown. Maybe just coincidence. More likely, Hector fumed, Hugh had tipped him off and set the deadbeat on his trail. Just like that pussy, Hugh, with his money and easy life. He always got the easy way, leaving the tough business for Hector.

Hector shook off deadbeat dad with hardly any effort, but what he wished was that he had a bodyguard like that pussy Hugh. Someone to twist an arm and slam a face into the dirt, when they did nothing to deserve it. That would be awesome.

But no such luck. Out of luck, out of cash, and out of drugs, he was just looking to hurt someone when he saw Hugh and Isabella, walking along, hands lightly touching. His twisted brain envisioned shooting Isabella, and making Hugh feel the pain. Mr. Buff was too far away from Hector to stop the shots, though he did flatten Hector against the pavement with a thud and a fury. In his last moment of freedom, before spending his final years of life in prison, Hector was once again cursing with a mouthful of dirt.

Death cannot be cheated.

Even with powers, and bodyguards, and love.

One bullet sailed past Isabella, harming no one. But a second caught Hugh flush.

Isabella screamed at the gushing blood. Of all her pain, this was the first to make her scream.

Blood flowed from the entry wound in his back, and moreso from the far larger exit wound in Hugh’s front. She instinctively grabbed him, then wanted to let go as she felt her pain flow into him and his into her. But Hugh clutched at her shirt and held firm.

The moment he felt the projectile rip through him, he knew these would be his final moments. He knew that his promise to never leave her was about to be exposed as a romantic flight of fancy. But he wanted it to be as true as he could make it. He wanted to hold her to the end.

Hugh never knew where the shot came from, not that it mattered to him in the least. The only thing being taken from him was Isabella, and the how and why were insignificant. There wasn’t even time in his brain for Grandma or Mother, only the touch of his hero, Isabella.  

911 calls and frantic movement in the street were not fast enough to save him.

The air was gone from his chest, and Hugh could not speak, but he felt no need. His dying thought was to take all the pain from Isabella one final time. He kept his eyes open as long as he could, looking at Isabella’s pale green eyes, and pulled all the pain he could from her as he died.

Isabella felt him go. Felt the life leave him, and she felt no pain. Even in death, his touch was a calming panacea for her being. She expected the pain to return when the paramedics pulled her away from him, but it did not. If a thought could horrify her at that moment, it would be that Hugh was going to hold her pain inside him for all eternity, but she knew he didn’t believe in that, and she chose not to believe that either.
The paramedics could not revive him, yet still they moved him to a gurney and took him away to the hospital.

Isabella was right, in a way. Hugh left her. But she was wrong in a way, because he never really did.

This story appears courtesy of David Eccher. You can and should follow David on twitter at @DaveEccher


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