Waiting was a strategy he utilized frequently. It was a simple enough tactic when he had all of eternity in front of him.
The lavish room was an opulent visual prop. Chandeliers, priceless artwork and rare books were all details in the picture he wished to paint; that he could own anything he chose to posses.
Even after all the years since she had slipped into flesh and bones, she had never grown used to a frantic heartbeat thrumming in her chest. Fear was a learned response that grew like a tumor. The more experience life showed her, the more room it acquired inside of her.
There were no clocks in the room. She could have been waiting hours, or even days. The room lacked windows leaving her no indication of time.
Despite the unfortunate side effects of being human, her sense of entitlement had never dissipated. Regardless of how important her father was, she refused to be diminished to a common minion.
Cerene stomped across a million dollar hand knotted rug and reached the door just in time for it to open.
Her father stood in the doorway and forced her back with only his aura of superiority. His frame was imposing and the gleam in his eyes suggested Cerene was going to do whatever he planned to ask of her.
“You kept me waiting.”
He brushed off her tone and consumed the room with his presence. After seating himself in a buttery leather chair, he gestured to the plush seat across from his own. “Please, Cerene. Come sit with me a while and speak with me.”
It wasn’t a request.
Cerene settled into the chair across from him, straight backed and ankles crossed. Fury licked at the back of her throat, tempting her tongue to spit out unwise words. She held the inside of her lip between her teeth and braced herself.
He cocked his head and grinned at her posture. “You have always amused me, Cerene.”
She only narrowed her eyes in response.
“I think we both know that is why I am generous when it comes to your wishes.”
Cerene scoffed at the exaggeration. “My wishes?”
“Are you not sitting in front of me made of flesh, possessing a soul and so utterly human as you requested?” He laced his fingers together and rested his elbows on the arms of the chair. “Have you failed to realize the magnanimity of such an offer?”
He was circling like a shark. Cerene had to be careful not to bleed. “I am and I have not.”
He sighed and Cerene shivered. “Then if you understand, sweet child why would you fail to uphold your end of the bargain?”
The rapid thrumming in her chest increased to a thumping bass. She knew he could hear it, but he maintained a cool stare.
“Did you forget what was expected of you?”
Cerene shook her head.
“Did you hope I would forget? Or perhaps I wouldn’t notice?”
“No, of course not.”
He shifted in his seat and studied her face. “I have always been fond of your ability to surprise me. Only this time,” he paused and considered his words. “This time I think it is more a feeling of disappointment.”
Cerene deflated at the word. Most children disappointed their parents at some point, but few had to fear repercussions that were potentially permanent.
“I’m so sorry,” Cerene whispered.
“You know how I feel about apologies, Cerene. As useless to me as tits on a nun. Have you decided to give up this crusade and return to me? You only had to ask.”
Cerene shook her head.
“Then why didn’t you do as you were expected?”
She inhaled and tried to understand for herself what went wrong. She had seen the girl leave out the backdoor of the strip club. Cerene thought maybe she was doing her a favor. Her emaciated frame was encased in a jaundiced sack of skin. She had braced herself against the back wall while tears streamed down her face and dripped onto the concrete.
Cerese remembered the slippery twist in her chest when she looked at the defeated woman. She wasn’t some crooked Wall Street broker or back alley rapist like the previous names.
She was wounded and shattered in every ugly way. It didn’t seem right. Cerese had slipped her knife back into its sheath and retreated to the shadows, even though she knew the consequences.
“Answer my question.”
“I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t think she deserved it.”
He huffed in disgust. “It isn’t up to you. It isn’t even up to me. You knew the expectations of you when you accepted the gift. I don’t negotiate contracts after they have been signed.
He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You say you aren’t done yet, but you refuse to do as you are told. I want to know how you plan to make amends.” He steepled his fingers under his chin and waited for her response.
Cerene knew how thin the ice was and she needed to tread carefully. “Did you have something in mind?”
The corner of his mouth lifted with amusement. “You know I always do, but that wasn’t the question. ”
She considered her options and found none. “Could I be granted another name?”
“You are asking for the previous to be pardoned?”
Cerene pictured the lost soul she had been ordered to deliver. She knew with absolute certainty she could not follow through. “I am asking for her to be spared in the place of another, yes.”
“This decision will have consequences.”
He rose and headed for his grand desk. A leather bound book rested in the center and flipped open at his request. He eyed her carefully across the room and withdrew a pen from his jacket. “One Harley Marie Campbell has been pardoned. The next name has been delivered.”
Cerene felt in her pocket for the wisp of paper that would always appear. She unrolled it and felt her blood rush and her heart sink. “No. Please, no. Any other name, but not this.”
His back straightened and face lost any semblance of humor. “Careful, Cerene. My patience with you is stretched as thin as it will go. If anyone else had asked for a pardon on the first name I would have revoked their contract and sentenced them on the spot. Do not mistake my fondness for you as weakness to be manipulated.”
Fear nailed her to the floor. There was simply no choice now that wouldn’t leave her altered.
“You can of course, choose to reject the name and forfeit you gift.” He raised an eyebrow at the small gasp she emitted. “You may want to carefully consider that option. I think the humanity has leaked from your soul and bled into your mind.”
She glanced at the name on the paper and fought back tears.
“Twenty four hours, Cerene. Your first deadline has already passed.” He crossed the room in a few brisk strides. Before opening the door to leave he glanced over his shoulder. “We will not have this meeting again. Understood?”
Cerene nodded at his blurred form and he left.
When the door latched shut, the ostentatious room shuddered and returned to her small apartment she shared with Michael.
She spread her delicate hands out in front of her and admired the beautiful complexity of her human form. She had grown so attached to the physical and spiritual pieces of her human self. Cerene was even willing to bare the brutality of sorrow, jealousy, and helplessness she had never encountered in her previous form if it meant she could indulge in all that was beautiful.
She crumpled the name in her hand and knew she only had one choice. She sat at the small kitchen table with a piece of paper and pen and drafted a letter.
My Dearest Michael,
I met with my father today. I can’t say it went especially well. His house was filled with art deco paintings and smelled faintly of tobacco. It made me wish I were anywhere else, not sitting in that exquisite chair, searching for something to say…
The alternate version of the prompt story can be found here.