Bly was playing on the car pile when the man found him. He had just executed a particularly difficult hop from a fender to an axle when the cry came: “hey you!”
Of course he ran.
Of course the man caught up to him, sinking a thorny hand into his shoulder. Bly was propelled to the backseat of a long black car amidst a chorus of I didn’t do nothin’s. One he was ensconced in the driver’s seat, Bly imprisoned in the luxury box of the back, the man asked:
“How would you like to make five dollars?”
Bly’s mother had told him about these things. His bitten fingernails scrabbled at the doors, but there were no interior locks. He found the minibar and spent the drive whipping ice cubes at the plexiglass that separated him from the front seat.
They left Bly’s home and the fields he and his neighbors tended and instead of turning left on the long gravel road and heading to the market in the next town, they drove through a field that might have been a path of packed earth at one time. Bly was sick all over the seats, a little bit on purpose. They found a road again, only this one was paved and whole and hugged the tires as they drove up a hill to a wall. The wall swallowed the entire summit of the hill. The man entered something on a keypad and the gate moved and they drove up, almost to the sky. Bly gaped out the window. There was nothing but green lawn for ages, flat green grass trimmed so close to the earth it looked like green sand. He had never seen so much land without crops. The road stayed smooth all the way to the biggest building Bly had ever seen, a white palace with real glass windows.
The man extracted Bly from the car by his collar, which tore. He caught Bly by the shoulder with his other hand. Together they went up the steps. In a stone urn just before the door, someone had planted Oilwick and then let it dry, so that the stems were crispy and brown and completely worthless. Bly pondered on the shame of it as he was pushed into the house.
They trekked through endless opulence, rooms upon rooms upon rooms of gilt and crystal and velvet. Bly worried he might go blind with so much gleam. All of it looked pristine, as if the objects hadn’t even been touched when being placed.
Finally they stopped at a door. The man dug his thumb into Bly’s back and brought their faces close. Bly could see himself in the man’s sunglasses.
“I’m not gonna repeat myself,” he said, “you’re about to meet a very important man. If you play it right, you might walk away with five bucks. You’d like that, right? Buy a lotta food with that. You get smart with me…let’s just say there were too many of you where you came from anyway.
Bly swallowed dryly.
On the other side of the door was the biggest room of all, and in the room was a bed the size of Bly’s whole shack, and on the bed was a withered old man. He looked like an egg that had been fried badly. The room smelled of phlegm and unwashed skin. Sick smells.
A thin plea drifted from the bed: “Tobias, have you found someone?”
“I did, boss.” The man gave Bly a little shove with his foot.
“Is he young? Does he have an innocent heart?”
“Here, see for yourself.”
The man called Tobias directed Bly with his foot to the bed.
Leave your body, mama said, don’t try to make ’em happy or sorry. Just lay there ’til it gets over with.
“You there, come let me take a look at you.” The old man beckoned with one veiny finger.
Bly blinked. He laid on the floor.
The man kicked him back up. “You look at Mister Cleaves when he’s talking to you.”
“O-kay, o-kay,” Bly said, rubbing his side.
The old man smiled. His teeth were rotted stumps.
“You look like a boy who knows how to do what he’s told. Don’t be afraid. Nothing bad ever happens to people who know their place in the world.”
His breath was like garbage fumes.
“I am a rich man, as you probably saw on the way up. Rich in spirit, money, and, at one time, health. Yet I have no one around my bed, boy.” he indicated the room with his hand. “My family have fled. My friends are nonexistent. I had to seek a stranger to free me from the terrible burden I carry. You know, young man, that everything comes at a price?”
Bly shrugged. He was digging around in his nose, finding choice nuggets. At a glance from the man, Bly wiped them on his shirt.
“Your parents surely forfeited what little wealth they held when they had you. Doubtless there are many at your house, you leapt at the prospect of earning five dollars. Have you ever heard of a sin eater?”
The change in subject made Bly wary. “Not sure.”
“No, of course you haven’t. They were banned a long time ago. Your parents probably grew up without learning of them.” The old man hacked and Tobias caught it in a garnet ashtray. “They served a very important function. Like you are going to today. I must have absolution, boy. My soul cannot pass to the æther without being cleared.”
Bly sucked at his mouth. Tobius nudged his arm.
“He wants you to forgive him.”
The old man nodded and closed his eyes. “And with this unselfish deed, I am ready.”
Bly waited, but the old man seemed to be done talking.
“I forgive you—”
The old man sighed.
“I forgive you for wasting Oilwick like that.”
The old man died with his eyes open in shock.