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The Man's Smile

J. Robert DeWitt is a science fiction writer. He currently lives in St. Louis where he is diligently at work on his first novel.

He says he can bring your wife back. But on one condition. Then he leans across your kitchen table and whispers to you.
"I won't do that," you say.
"Then you're out of luck," he says.
"I could never do that to a child."
"Humans have done much worse for far less."
He leans back and smiles with his large, yellow teeth. For a moment words float to your mouth. This is over, you want to say. But instead you are silent. That is how you realize you are considering his offer. Hesitation presses inside you, a bubble rising in your chest, and this terrifies you. Not the man and his teeth. Not his whispered condition. But the fact that some part of you wants to accept.
"I am the only one that can bring her back," he says. "No one else can do that."
You know this is true. You have seen his ship hidden behind your farmhouse, deep in the forest. He has shown you secrets inside it. Truths about time and space. Visions of other worlds. Realms of unknown dimensions. And he has proven to you, over a cup of coffee in your kitchen, that he can bring your wife back.
"Why me?"
"Because," he says as he sips your coffee, "I know you will do it."
That night you cannot sleep. You sit on the couch and stare at the photo of your wife. With your fingers you touch the smiling face behind the glass. She has been gone eight years, but you have never let go. Her clothes still hang in the closet. Her makeup still lies cluttered in the drawers. Her last voice-mail still flashes on the recorder, a single red numeral glowing in the dark. You set her photo on the table. You tell her about the traveler and his ship. You try to explain his offer, but you cannot say the words out loud. All you say is "I'm sorry, honey. But I love you too much."
The man arrives the next morning from the forest. You watch him through the kitchen window as he walks across the cornfield, the stalks brushing against his suitcase.
"You'll need to drive to the city," he says as he sits across from you. "That's where she lives."
"I haven't said yes yet."
"But I know you will," he smiles. He sets the suitcase on the kitchen table and slides it across. "Everything you need is inside. Do not open it until you are there."
"Why don't you do it? You can do anything."
The man raps his fingers on the table.
"There are rules you are not aware of that cannot be broken and watchers to make sure those rules are kept. And then there are loopholes. You are my loophole."
From his pocket he slides out a photo of a little girl. Brown hair and dimples. Just like your wife. He hands it to you. You hold it, staring at the girl.
"I can't do this," you say.
"Yes you can. She may look cute, but give her twenty years."
"What happens then?"
"She will develop a rare virus. It will spread. It will kill every one of your kind, including you."
"Can't you stop it?"
"Not while they're watching. Not if they knew it was me. It would not be natural. They would reverse it."
"Then why me? Why not just get some thug to do it?"
The man smiles.
"A thug they will suspect. But you they will not."
You stare at the photo again. She has blue eyes like your wife.
"I can't promise anything," you say.
"I know that," he says.
You fold the photo and slip it into your chest pocket. The paper is light, but it feels heavy, as if made of lead.
"So what's in this for you?" you ask.
"Does it matter?"
"It matters to me. I'd like to know."
The man leans forward. On the table, he folds his hands into a little chapel.
"I care about your species. So much potential. So young. Why let a little virus take all that away? Such a waste."
You sit there and stare at his yellow teeth. Something about this moment makes you feel alive. You are aware of your breathing, the air flowing in through your nostrils and out through your lips. Blood courses through your veins to your fingertips. Perhaps it is this verve, delivered from eight years of numbness, that makes you stand from the table and grab the suitcase.
"I'm still not promising anything," you say. "I could never do that to a child."
But the man's smile makes you think otherwise.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Author Comments

I wrote this story while my wife was still at work. I imagined, in that hot Missouri afternoon, what it would be like if she was no longer a part of my life. People go to great lengths to retrieve the things they love. How far would I go?

- J. Robert DeWitt
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