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The pungent smell of disinfectant. A corridor lit a brilliant white by the LED lights overhead. Men in drab white garbs rushing by, each and every one of them plagued by some urgent matter or another.
Henry Haywood sat alone, his head in his hands.
The creaking of a door, the patter of footsteps along the polished hospital floor. A man clothed in white, a stereoscope of some kind adorning his collar – evidently a doctor – approached Henry.
“Would you like a smoke?”
Henry glanced at the doctor. The doctor held a cigar in his hand, and protruded it at Henry, offering the cigar.
“Thanks. I guess.”
The doctor lit the cigar for Henry.
“They don’t normally allow smoking on hospital grounds, but exceptions have to be made.”
The smoke from the cigar billowed upwards in a spiral, forming a white cloud at the ceiling.
Henry looked at the doctor. The doctor’s aged face was dire – he was not enjoying this.
“The chemotherapy has failed. She has three months, four at the most.”
Henry remained silent.
“We have done our best. I am sorry for your loss.”
The doctor looked at Henry. Fat tears were cascading down his face.
Then, Henry screamed.
“What are you doing, Daddy?”
Henry Haywood turned around to find the face of his 5-year-old daughter, Annie, gazing down on his working desk.
“You mean this picture, sweetie?” Henry asked, motioning with his pencil. Annie nodded, evidently curious. Henry chuckled.
“I’m working on an animation, sweetie. It’s my job.”
“What’s an animation, Daddy?”
“What’s an animation? Well, it’s a series of moving pictures.”
Annie tilted her head, confused. Henry laughed.
“I guess I’d better show you, then.”
He lifted her up, and carried her over to the projector at the back of the room. Then, he walked back to his desk, and returned with a metal wheel with a spool of film wrapped around it. He inserted the wheel at an opening on the contraption, turned off the lights and flicked a switch on the projector.
The room was instantly lit up by the light from the projector. Annie’s eyes widened in fascination as Henry’s drawings came to motion on the screen attached to the wall.
“You see the little fellow in the center of the screen, the one that’s prancing around in the black suit with the cane?”
Annie nodded. Henry smiled.
“I call him Cecil. In my cartoons, he dances a lot.”
A big smile spread across Annie’s face. “I really like him, Daddy.”
“Why, thank you, sweetie,” Henry said. Suddenly, the animation ended, and a bleak white luminance replaced the dancing midget on the screen.
“Would you like to see more of this?”
Annie nodded enthusiastically. Henry suddenly felt a pang of pride over his drawings – even if the studio didn’t particularly favor them, at least Annie seemed to like them.
“You wait there, sweetie,” Henry said. “I’ll go get more for you.”
He returned with another roll of film. Swiftly, he unfastened the previous roll from the projector, and inserted the new one.
“I want to be friends with Cecil, Daddy.”
Henry grinned. He thought of explaining to Annie how Cecil was just a drawing and wasn’t real, but decided against it. After all, of what difference would that be to a little girl? Plus, they said it was good for the imagination. Just let things take their course and everything would work itself out.
But Annie wasn’t listening anymore. She was in a whole new world now, in a black-and-white world filled with new friends to be made and new places to explore.
The doctor led him into a hospital room. He pushed the door aside, and beckoned for Henry to enter first. Henry obliged, striding into the brightly lit room.
A little humanoid figure lay below the sheets. The rising and depressing of its chest told Henry it was still breathing. He traced the figure upwards, and found Annie’s swollen face. Her eyes were closed.
Obscene plastic tubes protruded from many points on her body. Her scalp was barren with what had once been a glorious mop of blonde, and her skin was pale and colorless.
“We can arrange for her to be released,” the doctor said. “No point in having her spend her final days in such a dreary place.”
Henry stared at his daughter.
“So much pain and suffering,” the doctor said. “This is the part of my job that I hate most.”
Henry did not respond.
“When is mommy coming back, Daddy?”
A funeral procession. Relatives in black were dabbing at their eyes with their handkerchiefs, paying their last respects to the deceased.
The reverend strode before the coffin, and recited a prayer. Two men appeared, and hoisted the coffin into a depression in the moist earth.
She’s too young to understand.
Henry turned to the curious face of his daughter. Still smiling, oblivious to what was happening.
“You see, sweetie,” Henry explained. “Mommy has gone to… to a better place. A place far away from here, where it’s always sunny and everyone is happy.”
Annie seemed to accept this explanation. “So when is mommy coming back, Daddy?”
“Why are you crying, Daddy?”
“Her mother died of cancer.”
The doctor, on the verge of leaving, turned around to face Henry. Henry’s gaze was still on Annie.
“The exact same cancer, too. Three years ago.”
“I am sorry.”
“You must understand, doctor. I have already lost so much – she is all I have left.”
“I am truly sorry, but there is nothing we can do. The cancer has spread to her organs, and operation at this stage is futile. It is best that you reduce her suffering.”
“She’s all I have left, doctor.”
“I am sorry. We have tried.”
“C’mon, Annie. We’re going home.”
He inserted his arms under his daughter, and lifted her up from the hospital bed.
The doctor moved to the side as Henry left the hospital room.
“Still watching the cartoons, Annie?”
Annie, now seven years old, had developed a great headful of blonde hair. She was doing the thing she liked best – sitting scrunched up in front of the projector screen, watching the same black-and-white cartoons… As usual.
“The same cartoons again,” Henry said. “Don’t you ever get bored?”
She shook her head in disagreement.
“Ah, well,” Henry said. “Whatever you wish. No harm in that, I guess.”
Henry couldn’t sleep.
Night had fallen hours ago, and the streets had been consumed by the fabric of midnight – not even the streetlights remained alit at this ungodly hour.
It was now well past midnight, and Henry still couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned in the double bed to no avail.
Three o’clock and I haven’t slept. Reasonable, I guess. How can I sleep knowing my daughter has three months?
That doctor was wrong. I don’t believe him. I can’t believe him. There has to be some kind of operation –
I jumped. What was that sound?
The fire alarm? Annie, I have to get Annie –
The telephone. It’s the telephone, the telephone that’s making this ringing.
Who’d call at this hour? It’s –
Three past midnight.
Who’d want to call at three past midnight?
“I’ve rung the doorbell five times! What is wrong with you people?”
“I’m at the door, okay,” the voice said, obviously quite indignant. “It’s freezing out here! Don’t you answer the bell?”
“Who is this?”
“Don’t toy with me, Henry Haywood. You know perfectly well who I am.”
“To be honest, I really don’t. Is this a prank? If it is, I assure you – ”
“Poppycock! You’ve known me for five years. Don’t play games, Henry, and open the bloody door!”
Henry slammed the telephone back onto its stand with a clack.
“Youngsters these days,” Henry fumed. “Some sense of humor.”
Henry laid his head down and tried to sleep.
He thought of the man standing outside in the freezing weather.
He got up, and strode over to the door. Just in case, he thought.
He opened the door to reveal a short man, dressed in a black suit and clutching a walking cane, standing shivering on his front porch. His skin was frighteningly devoid of color. He must’ve been waiting for hours, Henry deduced.
“And you just had to stall for a while! As if three bloody hours in the cold wasn’t enough! That’s how you treat people, eh? Three bloody hours!”
Henry stood still, staring at the little man.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Don’t just stand there like a bloody fool! Let me in!”
“Have I seen you somewhere before?”
“And you still don’t recognize me,” the little man grumbled. “Five years, Henry, condemn it!”
Henry realized that the little man’s skin wasn’t pale – it also bore a light shade of brownish yellow.
Henry stepped forward.
“What- pray, what are you doing?”
Henry stuck out his hand at the little man, and rubbed a finger on his exposed cheek.
The texture of his skin, so… rough.
The little man slapped at his hand, furious.
“Enough of this foolishness,” The little man bellowed. “I’m Cecil, you oaf! Cecil, the dancing tramp!”
The color drained from Henry’s face.
“Oh, my good Lord,” Henry moaned. “I’m losing my shit. What am I going to do with Annie?”
The little man stepped forward, held out his cane and whacked him on the face, hard. Henry’s head jerked to the side from the impact. Holding his hand to his wounded cheek, he glared at the little man in shock and disbelief.
“There,” the little man said. “Now you believe me. So let me in already, and I’ll explain why I am here.”
“Much better,” the little man sighed. “Now I can actually feel my fingers.”
They were sitting in front of the fireplace, the little man in a rocking-chair very close to the hearth. He was enjoying the warmth very much.
“So,” Henry began. “Why are you here?”
“It’s a long story, really,” the little man said. “It has something to do with Annie.”
Henry stared at the little man.
“You’ll understand more after I tell you my story,” the little man explained. “I’ll try to make it concise.”
All stories have a beginning, and mine would be about three or four years ago, in a makeshift studio in this very house.
About three or four years ago – draw the average and make that three and a half – you decided to get cracking on your own animations. Apparently drawing for a studio just wasn’t a very rewarding task, I suppose.
You were looking for the sort of generic character that could fit in just about any situation. You were racking your brains for a decent protagonist that didn’t resemble a Disney character in some obscure way, and in a bout of genius you came up with Cecil, the dancing tramp. Me.
You thought I was the perfect protagonist, and couldn’t wait to get me a cartoon show of my own at the studio. The studio didn’t quite share your view of things, though – I didn’t have much appeal on children, they thought – and you almost scrapped me thinking I wasn’t of much use.
Then, you decided, what the heck, it wasn’t as if you had anything better to do. Might as well keep working on my show, maybe I’d get accepted by some other studio someday.
Well, that never happened. All for the best, though, Annie would never have fallen for some kid’s show on TV. I’ve always felt that she is more mature than most kids her age.
Two years ago, you decided to show a curious Annie your work. The first time she saw me, we knew we were going to be great companions.
Didn’t you ever suspect that something wasn’t right? For an entire year, Annie devoted every bit of her time into watching that same cartoon, over and over again. Doesn’t that sound the least bit strange? No?
Of course, there was much more to what she was doing than staring at the screen. Every time she dimmed the lights and flicked the switch, she and I would go fishing, or take a stroll along the street or go prance in the fields. I enjoyed her company very much – you hadn’t really given a thought to drawing me a friend or two. I felt so alone in that desolate, colorless prison – every time Annie came, it felt like she added a bit of color to my world.
And then, the cancer.
I didn’t find out until a good deal of time later. I thought she’d gotten tired of me.
Four months ago, when Annie’s cancer got worse and you had to take her back for chemotherapy. It took me a crippling amount of time and energy, but I managed to free myself from the confinements of the screen. Then, I followed your footprints in the snow all the way to the nearest hospital. I peered into a window, and saw Annie hooked up to all those beastly wires.
“I’m afraid it’s gotten worse, Mr. Haywood,” a male voice said. “The tumor is back with a vengeance. Chemotherapy is inevitable at this stage.”
Then, I understood what was going on.
For months I have schemed for this moment. I knew that this would be my final chance at exiting my black-and-white prison by sheer might of will. I would confront you on the day that Annie’s fate is sealed, for I have only one shot at convincing you to let me do what is necessary.
I can save your daughter, Henry. If you let me.
Henry’s hands flew to the little man’s collar. He grabbed him, and shook him vigorously.
“Save Annie,” Henry pleaded. “Do whatever you have, name whatever price you want. Please, Cecil, she’s all I have, I beg of you – “
“Listen to me!” The little man jerked his collar from Henry’s grasp. “I know I am asking the impossible, but do get a grip!”
Henry stared at the little man, his eyes watering with pleading.
“I do not wish for you to repay me for this in any way,” the little man said. “For I am not as selfless as you think. I am doing this for Annie, but I am also doing this for myself.”
The little man sighed.
“I guess everything has a price,” the little man said. “You live in a world filled with color, but you are blighted with age and decay. The price for a world of color.”
Henry stared at the little man. The little man avoided Henry’s eyes.
“I guess you already have an idea of what I have to do.”
“What was that, Hank?” Irma White, the lady who lived two blocks from the Haywoods, asked her sleeping husband.
“My God,” Hank White exclaimed. “I have no idea, Irm.”
“A loud bang, coming from down the street,” Irma said. “It almost sounded like an explosion.”
Irma White opened the door.
“Did you hear that, Irm?” Mrs. McDeere said, clad in her nightclothes. “Woke up the kids. What was that sound?”
“I have no idea, Veronica.”
“Let’s go find out. Maybe you should bring Hank, just in case. Tom has to care for the kids.”
The trio ventured over to the Haywood’s porch.
Irma rang the doorbell. There was no answer. She rang again to no avail.
“Something isn’t right,” Veronica said. “Maybe we should call the cops.”
Sirens and flashing lights. Within minutes, the local police had dispatched a police car in response to Irma White’s call to the department.
“Please stand aside, ma’am,” the male officer said. “Might be dangerous.”
“The owner’s not responding,” the other officer, a female, said. “Shall we enter, sir?”
“I believe we might have to,” the male officer responded. “What they heard was probably a gunshot, or as Mrs. White suggested on the phone, an explosion, like a gas leak. Both scenarios require investigation.”
They kicked in the door, and strode in.
“What’s that stench? I smell rust – “
The officer gave a yelp of shock.
The living room was a bloody mess. Henry Haywood lay on his back, his pupils having rolled back into his sockets. A pistol lay several feet from his outstretched right hand.
There was a massive hole in the side of his head. Gray matter was leaking out of what had once been Henry Haywood’s skull.
“Good God,” the officer exclaimed. “It appears to be suicide.”
“What’s this?” the female officer asked.
“What’s what?” the other officer walked over to join her.
“You mean the projection on the screen?” the male officer replied. “Some sort of cartoon, it seems.”
On the screen was a little man in a black suit, cane in one hand and a little girl’s hand in the other. The little girl’s scalp was bald. They were singing and dancing down the street, and both figures seemed to be smiling.
Credit: Thaddeus Yeung