A short story written for the Flash Fiction Challenge: The Cooperative Cliffhanger on Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds.
Professor Barsa pulled back our fish-patterned shower curtain.
Leaning against the towel rack, I peered into the emptied trashcan I held. “Is the window big enough?”
“We’ll find out.”
From the sill, Barsa gathered the array of shampoos, conditioners, and body washes only a dorm of four girls could assemble and dumped them into my trashcan. He put his weight against the square window, and a grunt and squishy glide later let in gust of October night. Moonlight spilled across the tiles, silvered rays falling into the tub.
Barsa dusted his hands and eyed the small opening. “Good enough.”
He twisted the faucet and water gushed from the spout. After a plug of the drain, a pool began flooding in the tub.
I didn’t look up when Barsa took the trashcan from me. “Are you ready, Ms. Baker?”
“I think so.”
His gnarled fingers tensed around the flower-painted can, the liver spots on his skin dark. “You have to know. You have to believe.”
I met his grassy-green eyes, the ones with slits like a cat, and then looked to Rory.
He stiffened but kept his hand on the knob, his broad back against the door, blocking anyone from interrupting. “I’m not going anywhere.”
When the knob jostled, Rory tightened his grip. Sputtering laughter mixed with the party’s floor-vibrating bass and the voices of my roommates burst through the thin walls.
“What do you think they’re doing in there?”
“The three of them? What do you think?”
My roommates tittered off, their giggling melting into the music and drunken conversations we should have been enjoying. Instead, I stood barefoot, in a bathroom, hoping for a miracle.
Bracing on the wall, I pivoted to face the tub. “They’re going to start asking questions if we stay in here any longer.”
“Curiosity will help,” said Barsa.
“What do you mean?”
“It adds energy.”
He set the trashcan on the toilet and offered me his hand. I took it without glancing back at Rory, without catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I didn’t want to see his concern or how pale I’d become, the gleam on my bald head or eyes that looked like someone else’s. A careful step had me ankle deep in luke-warm water tinged with moonlight.
Barsa shut off the faucet, leaving me and the music to make ripples in the pool. From within his tweed suit coat, he brought out a golden rod, the end pointed, the sides covered with etched characters I couldn’t interpret but ones matching the tattoos I’d seen on his forearms. He held the flattened handle to me.
“A few drops from each middle finger.”
I might have winced once when asked to draw my own blood. Months of needles, however, left me callous to the prick, unfeeling to the blood I squeezed from my fingertip. Drops plopped into the water, the crimson dissolving like it never had been. While I punctured the second one, Barsa attended his collection around the sink.
He set a polished stone by the mirror, then held out his had to Rory. “I need your lighter.”
Rory balked. “Sure.” He fumbled into his jeans.
“I thought you stopped.”
He handed over a storm-oil lighter without looking my way. “I’ve been a little stressed.”
I swallowed further chastisement. Despite the promise he’d made, finals, graduation, job applications, and an inoperable diagnosis might lead anyone back to a smoke or two even if the growths weren’t in your own skull or in the bones keeping you standing.
After a click, the tiny flame flickered on the chrome and Barsa lit the trio of half-melted candles he’d arranged within a circle of bleached sand. He warmed a crystal snifter over a dark purple pillar whose light glowed violet. While the facets fogged, he twisted off the cap of a flask.
When he poured, the smell of allspice mingled with the sweeter aromas of weed, sweat, and cloves from the party. His second bottle added a nose-wrinkling stench.
I brought my hand to my face, the rusty scent of my blood stirring my perpetual nausea. “What is that?”
“An ancient recipe.” Barsa poured a finger-full into the crystal, the layers of liquid twining. “The light, please.”
Rory flicked the switch by the door, dropping us into moonbeams and candlelight. Shadows played on Barsa’s face when he faced me.
He eyed the pool and grunted like he did whenever I’d make an astute comment in class. He reclaimed his rod and with his eyes half closed, his mouth moving to strange words I could barely hear, he mixed the drink with the bloodied end.
Looking past him, I held Rory’s gaze. I saw the worry in his eyes, the fear in his rigid jaw. He’d looked the same every morning when I woke up beside him, at the hospital after each failed attempt to cure what festered inside of me, whenever I wobbled on our walks between classes, or had to stop for a breathless wheeze atop some stairs.
I wanted to wipe that expression off his face, to keep it from ever coming back. More than that, I wanted to purge the cause, to eliminate the source, to exterminate what had brought us to the point of staring across a bathroom while smoke hung in the air and an old man’s sing-song murmurs filled our ears. I wanted to be in the living room full of the energy Barsa had said we’d need, outside under the light of the full moon, walking, dancing, living.
Barsa’s eyes snapped open but he seemed to gaze beyond me, into a netherworld only he perceived. “They are ready if you are.”
Without looking away from Rory, I took the glass and belted Barsa’s drink.