As Nick lifted the glass to his lips once more, he felt his shirt sleeve pull free from the sticky puddle of spilled cocktails that had accumulated throughout the night. He tilted his head back and tossed the remainder of the drink into the back of his throat. The burn that he had originally experienced was now gone, leaving only a numbness in his throat. He kept a neutral expression on his face before turning the glass upside down and placing it on to the countertop. He rubbed one of his eyes before passing his fingers through the greasy locks of blonde hair that hung over his face.
“That makes the third one tonight, correct?”
With a muffled grunt, Nick slowly turned his attention to the barstool next to him. A man was staring at him through a pair of black-rimmed glasses. He removed his coat and draped it over the counter next to him.
“I guess,” Nick said with the words spilling from his mouth in a slurred fashion.
He lifted his finger and signaled for the bartender to pour him another drink.
“Thanks, Mike. I can always count on you as a friend.”
Mike gave Nick a worried look before fetching the bottle of whiskey. The golden-brown liquid dribbled from the opening and into his glass before cascading over the ice cubes. Without a word of thanks, Nick raised the glass and took a large sip.
“You’re going to have quite the tab going if you don’t slow things down a bit,” the stranger said while watching Nick turn in his direction and give him a glare.
“I don’t see why that should be of any concern to you.”
“Not necessarily a concern,” the new bar mate said in a velvety smooth voice. “It’s just more of a curious observation.”
Nick rolled his eyes and took another sip from the glass.
“Well, if you’re worried about me skipping out on the tab or something, no need to worry. I’ve got enough money to pay for everyone in this bar.”
The stranger gave him a slightly puzzled look.
“I understand that cost isn’t an issue with you, but I just can’t reason as to why you would spend so much more drinking in a bar alone when you could just as easily do it at home for a fraction of the price.”
Mike reluctantly walked over as Nick finished off what was left in the bottom of the glass. His drink was once again topped off, and he gave a nod to the bartender.
“There’s two reasons. Mike has a much larger selection than my little cabinet at home.”
Nick threw back his head and tossed nearly half of the drink into his mouth. He swallowed without any sort of reaction to the harsh liquid.
“However, the main reason I came here is because I know if I drink at home, I’ll be tempted to grab the gun I keep in my nightstand.”
Nick flashed a somewhat demented smile at his newly found friend. This did not deter the stranger, who continued his inquiries.
“Something must really be bothering you.”
Nick motioned up and down his body, showing off the stained clothes and disheveled appearance that he seemed to have no shame in showing off.
“Gee, I wonder what could have given it away.”
With a grunt, Nick finished off the remainder of his drink. He set the glass down on the countertop, causing the ice cubes to shift and clink against the container.
“I’m just trying to make conversation, Nick. There’s no need for sarcasm.”
Nick’s eyes went wide. For a moment, he stared forward before slamming his fist on the bar top and grabbing the man by the collar.
“How the fuck do you know my name? Who even are you” Nick asked with a sense of panic in his voice.
The stranger chuckled to himself before grabbing hold of Nick’s hands. With little effort, he removed them from his collar and straightened his jacket.
“I’m glad to see you have some newfound enthusiasm. My name is Jack, and I know everyone’s name, Mr. Wilson. It’s all required by my job. Could you imagine how bad of a salesman I’d be if I didn’t know my clients’ names? It seems to me that it would be highly informal, which is no way to make oneself appear professional.”
Nick scoffed and signaled for the bar tender to fill his glass once more. The booze poured into his glass before he looked back over at Jack.
“What kind of a salesman are you anyway? Cause right now, all you’ve really managed to pitch me is a load of bullshit.”
“Wow, it must’ve taken a lot of mental power to come up with that one,” Jack said sarcastically before sipping from his glass.
Nick rolled his eyes before quickly looking back at the drink pressed to Jack’s lips. He could have sworn that the glass had not been there seconds before. It was as if the thing had materialized out of thin air with a snap of his fingers.
“Are you going to answer, or just continue to sit here and be insulting?”
Jack rested his glass down on a napkin before turning to stare into Nick’s bloodshot eyes.
“Since you seem to be in no mood for light-hearted conversation, I’m just going to cut directly to my main point. What’s your opinion on the afterlife, Mr. Wilson?”
“If you’re asking whether or not I’m a religious man, then you really picked a bad time.”
Jack paused for a moment as his mind ran over what to say next. Unlike his original predictions, Nick was proving to be more difficult than he originally anticipated.
“Despite the impression I’ve apparently given you, Nick, I want you to understand that I’m here to help you. Now, I know exactly what’s running through your head right now.”
For the first time that night, Nick smiled before letting out a hearty laugh. He grabbed his stomach out of exaggeration and turned to Jack.
“Trust me. You have no fucking idea what’s going on with me right now. Go ahead and make all the silly little guesses you want.”
For the first time that night, the slight smile that Jack had kept on his lips vanished. He was now starring at Nick with a stern expression plastered on his face.
“I know that for the past three days, Craig hasn’t left your mind for a single second.”
Nick’s blood ran cold as he felt his limbs go numb. The music droning from the bar’s speakers slowly faded away as his ears were filled with a high-pitched ringing sound. With his lower lip beginning to tremble, Nick slowly turned to face Jack.
“I’m glad I finally have your attention, Nick. If we’re done with all the small talk, I’d like to get down to business.”
Nick let out uneven breaths as the words choked in his throat. With great struggle, he managed to nod his head.
“I know the past few days have been difficult for you, Nick. I’m not one to judge that you decided to nurse your emotions with a bottle of liquor. After all, losing your son is something that no parent should ever have to go through.”
Nick looked away and wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt. He sniffled before turning back to Jack. His eyes had become even more red. Tears streamed down his cheeks and cut through the dirt and grime that had accumulated on his skin over the past few days.
“Do you know how hard it is?”
Jack remained silent and waited for Nick to compose himself before continuing.
“Do you know what it’s like to kneel next to a hospital bed and stare at your child, bruised and broken before you? Thoughts race through your mind and fight each other over which one should make you feel the worse. One moment, I was depressed about never seeing my son graduate. The next it was the thought that he never even got the chance to ride his bike without training wheels.”
Nick paused and rubbed a hand over his face. He sucked in a deep breath and let it out unevenly.
“However, I think the biggest regret I have is that I’ll never be satisfied with how many times I said I loved him. No matter how much I did it, there’s still that nagging voice in the back of my head that I should’ve said it more.”
Jack reached out and placed a hand on Nick’s shoulder. He did not respond to the gesture and continued to fight against his sobs to speak.
“Do you know what my last words to him were… before he died?”
Jack shook his head.
“I told him that everything was going to be alright… I lied to my son and left his side to get something to eat for the first time in nearly two days. By the time I came back, nurses had swarmed around him. It was no use though… The doctors told me it was so sudden, and there was nothing that could’ve be done. They told me to take comfort in the fact that he had likely gone quickly and without pain…”
Nick turned away and looked at the mirror in front of him. Amongst the amber and clear liquids illuminated by the sickly yellow lights overhead, a disheveled face of the man he had once known starred back at him with sunken eyes. The two sat in silence as Nick attempted to compose himself.
“Meanwhile, that drunken son a bitch that slammed into our car is expected to make a full recovery. Sure, he’ll go to jail, but that’s hardly going to make a difference to me. That man could rot in a cell for the rest of his life, and I still wouldn’t be happy. No matter how long he’s put away for, nothing will bring my Craig back…”
With a frown, Nick picked up the glass in front of him. He swirled the whiskey and ice cubes around the bottom and just starred. Jack waited for him to finish off the dink, but raised an eyebrow when Nick set it down on the counter with a sigh of defeat.
“I know I came here to avoid being home, but it honestly didn’t make a difference. At this point, I fail to see a reason why I need to stay around.”
Jack opened his mouth to speak, but instead decided to wait and see where the conversation turned.
“I’ve heard a million times that suicide does nothing but multiply your pain and spread it to those you love. As much as I hate the thought of passing this suffering on to my friends and family, the thought of continuing life without my son outweighs any potential guilt.”
Nick turned to Jack and gave him a pat on the back.
“To answer your previous question, I never did believe in any sort of afterlife. I grew up never believing in a god, and the thought of there being one who would allow my precious baby boy to be stripped from my arms doesn’t have me starting to believe any time soon. Whether or not I’m wrong, I really don’t care. Heaven or not, anything is better than continuing life without my Craig.”
Nick stood up to button his coat and prepare for the bombardment of freezing weather outside. Pulling a hundred dollar bill from his wallet, he placed it under his glass before turning to Jack once more.
“At least putting a barrel in my mouth is supposed to be the least painful way to go out.”
Before he had chance to turn around and leave, Jack spoke up.
“What if you could have him back?”
Nick found this remark humorous and gave Jack a look of disbelief.
“I appreciate you trying to use humor as a pitch, but that’s not really keeping me interested.”
“I’m serious, Mr. Wilson. Didn’t Josie say to you, right before she died, that she trusted you to keep Craig safe? I believe her exact words were, ‘I trust you, Nicholas. Make sure to give Craig the life you and I always wanted him to lead.’ Does that sound right, Nick?”
A silence hung between the two men as Nick struggled to keep himself standing. The doubt that had built inside him during the course of their conversation suddenly fled, leaving Nick to question the very existence of the man that sat before him. His legs began to shake, causing him to collapse back down on the barstool.
“I’ve tried not to overstep my boundaries tonight, but there’s only a few things that I really think will make you believe me. If the words of your cancer-stricken wife don’t make you trust me, then I don’t know what will, Nick. Now, can I have your word that you’ll trust everything that leaves my mouth from this point on?”
Nick swallowed hard before nodding his head.
“W-what… what exactly are you?”
Jack gave a light laugh before sipping from his glass. As he rested it back down on the bar top, Nick swore to himself that the level of whiskey in the glass had not changed.
“I’m surprised it took you this long to come to the conclusion that I am not of this world. I am not well known to your species. In fact, I believe the amount of the people that are aware of my existence can be counted on two hands. That includes yourself by the way.”
“Are you… an angel?”
Jack scoffed at the notion while running a hand through his perfectly-kempt brown hair.
“Oh, heavens no. I can understand the misconception, given how well I dress, but those goody-goodies are a little too well-behaved for my taste. I keep myself in line, but I also like to indulge every now and then.”
“So then, what are you,” Nick asked.
“Although I was never given an official title, the souls I’ve interacted with over the years have dubbed me The Balancer. I just use the name Jack when speaking with people on Earth. To be exact, I’m the entity that monitors Purgatory. Despite its complexity, the system is flawless. Well, at least it is most of the time.”
“Most of the time isn’t exactly flawless.”
Jack raised an eyebrow, causing Nick to be silent once again.
“As I was saying, it’s my duty to monitor those who have just left this world. Think of me as the last checkpoint before a soul moves on to its final resting place. There are some instances where a mistake occurs within the system. I won’t bother getting into the details. I stopped doing that after getting numerous questions about how the dead are to be judged. Just understand that my job is to alleviate any issues that occur.”
For the first time that night, Nick felt a sense of hope begin to burn inside him. He sat up from his slumped position and starred at Jack with a faint hint of joy in his eyes.
“Are you sating that… that Craig will come back to me?”
Jack held up a hand before continuing.
“Make no mistake with me, Nick. I’m not doing this just for you. Every time I make these corrections, it’s because bringing one person back spares many others further down the line. I don’t see the upside in scrambling your mind with the discussion of future events. Just understand that your son is a small gear that’s going to make an entire machine work.”
Nick suddenly leaned forward and threw his head against Jack’s chest. Fresh tears once again poured from his eyes. The white dress shirt Jack had been wearing under his coat was soon streaked with wet spots.
“Thank you… thank you so much, Jack…”
Jack placed a hand of Nick’s shoulder and slowly pushed him back. As he wiped his face with the back of his sleeve, Nick looked at him with a wide smile.
“Believe me when I say that there’s no catch, Nick. You wouldn’t believe how many times I get asked what kind of Twilight Zone twist I’m going to put on something. If there’s one thing I’m not, that would be a liar. I’m a man of my word; well… being of my word.”
“If there’s no catch, t-then there must be some sort of price to pay,” Nick spoke with worry.
“No price either. Like I said, my job is to simply keep the system in check and tie up any loose ends. I’m not here to try and make a quick buck on the side. Everything I do is strictly business.”
Nick shook his head in disbelief.
“This… this all seems like some sort of dream…”
“I can assure you it’s not. All I ask of you is one thing, Nick.”
Jack leaned forward and stared him straight in the eyes.
“Do everything you told me. Tell Craig each and every day how much you love him. Teach him to ride that bike without training wheels. Make sure he walks across that stage at graduation. Savor every second of life that the two of you share. Your time on this Earth is precious, Nick. All I ask is that you take advantage of it and live your lives to the fullest. Not everyone can say they were given a second chance like this. Make sure you don’t abuse it.”
Nick suddenly wrapped his arms around Jack and embraced him in a bear hug. Jack awkwardly sat in silence with his arms pinned to his sides.
“I will… I promise…”
Without another word, Jack pulled one of his arms free and lifted his hand. Starring at a nearby table, he snapped his fingers and caused the sound to echo throughout the bar like a thunderclap.
Nick let go of the man and quickly turned on his heels. Facing the direction he had heard the voice coming from, Nick was at a sudden loss for words. Sitting at the table with his head barely reaching over the top, Craig starred at his father with a large smile. He waved excitedly and let out a laugh.
Nick sprinted from where he stood with his arms outstretched.
As he neared the table, he felt his foot slip in a puddle of spilled booze. Nick’s body tilted forward as his legs were thrown out from underneath him. Before he was able to react, the edge of the table made contact with the side of his head. The empty beer bottles resting on top teetered and fell to the floor. As fragments of brown glass exploded around him, Nick hit the floor with a mighty thud. The smell of booze filled his nostrils as his vision slowly faded out to black. The last thing Nick saw was his son stepping in front of him and bending down look at him with a smile.
The blaring of his alarm clock pulled Nick from slumber. With a groan, he extended a hand and slapped at the device until the noise ceased. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and attempted to make sense of his surroundings. As his eyes adjusted, he looked around to find the familiar scenery of his bedroom bathed in rays of morning sunlight. Questioning how he had made it home from the bar, memories of the previous night came flooding back in a mighty wave.
Nick ripped the covers from his body and sprinted towards the door. He grabbed the frame while turning the corner into the hallway. His bare feet slapped against the hardwood floors as he threw himself against the doorway of Craig’s room. The smile on his face soon disappeared as he was met with the sight of an empty bed. Any doubt he had pushed to the front of his mind at that moment. Despite the difficulty, he began convincing himself that the events of the previous night had been nothing more than a booze-fueled hallucination.
Nick let out a scream as his back slammed against the doorframe. Looking down, he was met with the sight of Craig starring up at him. The boy’s blonde hair was still damp, causing it to poke out in various directions.
“W-where were you?”
“I just took my shower. The school bus is going to be here in a few minutes.”
Nick struggled to keep his breathing at a normal pace. He attempted to act normal, even if he had failed to do so up until this moment.
“Oh yeah… I-I forgot it was a school morning. Do you have everything packed?”
“I just ate breakfast. I was going to go brush my teeth until I heard you making noise up here. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. I just… I just wanted to check on you after last night.”
“You told me not to worry before I went to bed.”
Nick gave his son a puzzled look.
“Worry about what? What did I tell you?”
Craig stared at his father with confusion before speaking.
“You said not to worry about that drunk guy who ran that red light in front of us last night. Remember? He ran into a pole, and you said the people in the ambulance couldn’t save him. Wherever he was going, it was going to be better than the life he had now.”
Nick was at a complete loss for words. His mind attempted to merge the experience he had last night with the conversation he was having right now, but this proved to be a great difficulty. Deciding it was best not to question it any further, he quickly bent down and gave his son a hug.
“Oh yeah, I-I remember now. Thank you. Now go ahead and brush your teeth.”
With a smile, his son ran to the bathroom. Nick watched with disbelief as Craig ran his toothbrush under the water. The previous day, he had stood in front of a hospital bed to stare down at Craig’s lifeless body with medical equipment beeping all around him. Now, he was the same joy-filled boy that Nick had so deeply missed. Still in a haze, he descended the stairs and walked into the kitchen. Morning light poured in through the windows while birds sang outside. As he began brewing a cup of coffee, the familiar sound of Craig’s shoes running down the stairs echoed throughout the house. Nick watched in silence as his son grabbed the small Spider-Man bag from the living room couch and slung it across his back. As he came running into the kitchen, it bounced up and down and emitted the sound of jingling art supplies.
Craig grabbed his lunch bag from the dining room table and headed towards the door. Just as he reached up to grab the door handle, Nick ran from the kitchen. He got down on one knee and pulled his son into a hug. Craig returned the gesture without hesitation.
“I love you, son…”
“I love you, too!”
Nick leaned down and placed a kiss on Craig’s forehead. With a smile, he tussled the boy’s hair and opened the door for him.
“Have a good day at school and be safe!”
“I will,” Craig yelled back as he turned to give an excited wave.
Nick stood in the doorway and watched as his son ran down the driveway and onto the sidewalk that crossed their yard. Craig came to a stop at the corner and began talking with his other friends who were already waiting for the school bus to arrive.
“I’ll be damned,” Nick let out with a chuckle as he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye.
He turned to close the door but stopped just before it shut. Nick pulled it open again and looked at the sidewalk across the street. Standing with a pair of sunglasses and hands in his pockets, Jack smiled at him. Nick found himself struggling to believe the sight. Not knowing what else to do, he slowly raised a hand and gave an awkward wave. Jack returned the gesture. Without a single word, the man turned and began walking in the opposite direction of the bus stop. Nick stood speechless and simply stared until Jack had vanished from sight.
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