Arbitratus Short Fiction

There’s Always Tomorrow

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Authors’ Note: We hope Christmas finds you well, celebrating the holiday with happiness and peace, and the love of your friends and family. This story was born out of the knowledge that no matter how much we hope for it, that’s just not true for everyone. Mental health struggles are a part of our lives, our family, and our jobs. There’s Always Tomorrow is deeply personal for us.

This story is about a young woman named Mary, alone on Christmas, who just doesn’t see a way out of the crushing depression and anxiety that fill her life. 

If you know someone who you think is struggling, reach out. Just ask them what they need, check in, let them know someone cares. If you’re concerned they are going to hurt themselves, please don’t stay silent.

If you’re alone and in need of help please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. And you can chat online right now at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/ You can also connect with a crisis counselor in under five minutes by texting HOME to 741741. A crisis doesn’t have to be someone ready to end their life. There’s help working through troubling emotions, help getting connected with assistance close to home, help knowing you aren’t alone.

You’re important. You matter. 

There’s Always Tomorrow – 

Trigger warning for suicidal ideation with a plan and intent.

The soft steady lights from the Christmas tree cast strange, sharp shadows in the otherwise dark room. The stillness encroached. Like the darkness, it seemed to grow, the longer she sat there, rocking back and forth, cradling her father’s service revolver.

The front of her shirt clung uncomfortably to her chest and neck, damp as it was from the tears streaming down her face. She sniffled, but could no longer clear her nose like that. Her shoulders stiffened. This time she’d just get it over with.

She raised the gun and pressed it into her temple, finger tensing on the trigger. 

“Alright. This is it,” she sobbed to the empty room.

Her hand started to shake and another bout of full force crying shook her whole body. She dropped the gun to her lap.

“Goddamnit, I can’t even kill myself right!”

She reached for the tissues on the lampstand next to her couch and blew her nose. She wanted to die, but not covered in snot. She sat looking at the gun for a while. Finally, she picked it up again. She thought perhaps she’d finally worked up the courage. 

“Okay. Third time’s the charm.” 

Her voice still shook, but her hand was steadier this time.

“It’s the only way out.”

“Is it though?” a deep voice asked from the shadows.

She jumped, dropping her gun to the floor.

Standing next to her Christmas tree was a tall young man, broad shouldered, and under different circumstances she’d have thought he was cute as Hell, as far as men went. As it was, she recovered quickly from her surprise and scrambled to pick the gun up from the floor, stood, and leveled it at the intruder. “Who are you and what do you want?”

He held up his hands, showing her open palms, and made no move to get closer. “I’m Ben, and right now what I want is to not get shot, if it’s all the same to you.”

“You know what I mean,” she snapped. “What are you doing here?”

He shrugged a little. “Well, I mean, yeah, I figured that’s what you meant, but …You’re not gonna believe me anyway.”

Her momentary fear, quickly turned to anger at the interruption. “Try me.”

Another shrug, “Hokay. I warned you though.”

“Now!” she snapped, checking to be sure the safety was really off.

“I’m here to collect your soul, or … I guess, to see about collecting it.”

She frowned. “My soul?”

“Yeah. I mean, somebody’s got to, what with you being ready to kick it out of your body and all.”

“Okay, so you’re nuts.”

“I told you you wouldn’t believe me, but I…”

“I’m calling the police,” she interrupted, keeping the gun pointed at him with one hand and reaching for her phone with the other. 

“Sure. You could do that. Or we could talk a little. You seem like you could use it.”

“Talk? You want to talk? You broke into my house to talk?”

“I didn’t break in. I materialized. It’s an important distinction. I mean picking locks is cool and all, and I can definitely do it. But magic from other realms to just appear with an honest to goodness body to have a heart to heart is so much cooler.”

She shook her head. “You really are crazy.”

She finally blindly found her phone, and started to dial, taking her eyes off the clearly insane blond guy in her living room.

“911. What’s your emergency?”

She looked around and was momentarily struck dumb. She was alone. Completely.

“I … um … There was someone in my apartment. An intruder.”

“Are they still there, ma’am?”

“I … no … I don’t think so. They must have left when I called.”

“Ma’am, are you safe?”

A lump formed in her throat. It was a common enough thing to say. It made perfect sense in this situation. But … for her … she knew she wasn’t safe. She was the opposite of safe. And lying did not come to her easily. She cleared her throat so she could speak. “I … Yes, I think so. I guess I’m not sure. I don’t know how the man got in.”

“I have uniforms in your area, ma’am. I’m dispatching them to your location.”

“Um … okay. Thanks.”

“I’ll stay on the line with you until they arrive.”

She waited for the police. After a minute or two of stunned silence, she had the presence of mind to put her gun under the couch cushion. She turned on all the lights, too. Soon she could see the blue strobes from the street below and a knock came at her door. “They’re here now. Thank you.”

“Very good, ma’am. Happy holidays.”

“Um, yeah, thanks, you too.”

She ended the call and let the two uniformed cops in. They took her statement and did a walk through of the apartment. 

“All clear, ma’am,” the younger of the two assured her.

“Don’t hesitate to call if he comes back,” said the older officer.

“Of course. Thank you. Merry Christmas,” she said stiffly as she showed them out.

She locked the door behind them. Then she followed in their footsteps, going through the whole place, checking and rechecking the locks on all her windows, the door to the fire escape out back, the one to her patio, too. No more interruptions.

She went back to the living room, determined to finish what she’d started earlier.

“Finally. I thought they’d never leave.”

She jumped again at the deep voice. In the same spot, this time with his hands jammed into his pockets, stood her intruder. She ran over to the couch, reaching under the cushions.

“Don’t bother. I’m not a big fan of guns. So I got rid of it for you. I don’t much like the idea of a hole in either of us.”

“Goddamnit!” She started searching for her phone. She’d left it right on the coffee table.

“Um … I’ve got your phone, too.” He took his hands out of his pockets and held them up in a placating gesture at the furious look she shot him. “I mean … I’ll give it back, but I’d really like a chance for us to talk.”

She was flushed and visibly shaking. “You’re not here, you’re not real. I’m having some sort of breakdown.”

He shook his head. “Only one out of three. I’m definitely here and I’m a hundred percent real. As real as you are, Mary.”

She sat down on the couch, dropped her head into her hands. “I’ve never seen you before tonight. If you’re real … How do you know my name?”

“You mean other than you saying it out loud to the 5-O?” he asked. She looked up and he tipped her a very charming, very sympathetic smile. “It’s my business to know, Mary. You’re my assignment tonight. I told you, I’m here to collect your soul.”

She sighed. If he was a hallucination, he was a damned convincing one. “Alright. Lemme guess. You’re an angel,” she said mockingly.

He smirked and shook his head. “As a matter of fact, I’m from a lot further south.”

“Huh?”

“I’m a demon.”

“Yup, it’s a breakdown.”

“That, I’m not going to argue with. But I’m not part of the breakdown.” He stepped toward her hesitantly. “Would it help if you touched me?”

She frowned. “If you’re a demon, how could I touch you? Aren’t you just, like a spirit or something?”

“Well, not everybody bothers with a body for the job. But I like mine.” He offered another charming smirk. “Can you blame me?”

One of her eyebrows went up. 

“Sorry. I have a really bad habit of being kind of a smart ass when I’m scared.”

“You’re scared? Of me?”

He swallowed hard. “No. But I’m honestly scared for you.” He paused. “So, like I said, would it help you believe if you touched me?”

Finally she nodded. He moved over to the couch and sat carefully down beside her. She reached out, hand still shaking, and laid it on his arm. Her eyes went wide and she stared into his face. “You really are real. But how? Why?”

He offered a kind smile. “Magic. And I probably shouldn’t have just shown up in your living room, but you seemed like you could use a friendly ear. I’ve been told I’m a good listener when I want to be.”

Her hand tightened on his arm and he saw real fear light her eyes. “Wait. If you are who you say you are, that means I’m going to Hell?”

He put his other hand over hers and shook his head, making sure she was still making eye contact so she’d know he was telling the truth. “Not necessarily. Sometimes it just happens. Other times we get dispatched to do the job. See, there’s almost always a question about what direction a soul will travel. Heaven sends an angel, and the other guys send someone like me … We do a thing, and evaluate the soul and settle the question. Sometimes, if it’s close, there’ll be a fight about it. It’s not usually close though.”

“So where’s this angel?”

Ben shrugged. “Heaven probably. You’re not due to call it for another hour or so. It takes time to work up the … whatever it takes to end it.”

She frowned again, but she still hadn’t let go of his arm. “I could go to Heaven?”

He made a gesture somewhere between a shrug and a nod. “Yeah, but at best it’s like 50/50.”

She peered more intensely into his eyes. “Since I’m a suicide, does that make my odds worse.”

Ben looked almost offended. “No! I mean, no. Suicide isn’t a factor either way. Nobody gets punished for being sick and overwhelmed, Mary.”

She thought about that for a minute. Then she looked almost angry. “And I’m gay, so … Hell, right?”

“What difference would that make?” He frowned this time. “Okay, I know what all the modern big religions say, but … come on. Like anyone is gonna get punished for being born and just living their life as who they are.” He sighed. “It’s more about the choices you make, the exercising of your free will. The ripples of that, so to speak.”

“Okay, well 50/50 aren’t bad odds … Ben, is it?”

“It is. And sure, if you’re hitting a casino, 50/50 isn’t a bad bet. Nobody is going to give you those odds in Vegas either though. And we’re talking about eternity here, Mary. The thing about gambling is, the House almost always wins.”

“This is a lot,” Mary said, shifting uncomfortably.

“It is. But I didn’t show up early to give you the rundown on the hereafter, to be honest.”

She finally took her hand away from his arm and looked away. “Well, why did you?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know.

This time, he reached out to her, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Mary, why do you want to kill yourself?”

Her eyes, that once again held tears, flicked to his. When they started running down her cheeks again, she looked down at her feet. “Does it matter?”

“It does to me.”

She continued to stare at the floor. “I’m just so tired,” she whispered. Ben passed her a tissue with his free and and she attempted to wipe her face. Then she started twisting it up in her hands. “Um … my wife left me a couple of months ago. Said she couldn’t watch me keep digging myself into the hole I was going down … My dad died … Really aggressive, invasive cancer … I didn’t even recognize him by the end … And now … work … They’re laying off. And I know I’m on the block, with all my absences, and my performance hasn’t been great and …” He simply squeezed her shoulder gently. “This is where you tell me life is precious and there are people worse off than me, right?”

“Well, from my point of view, every life is precious. I had to get thrown out of mine or I’d have never let go.”

“You were alive?”

“I was. A long time ago. But Mary, I’m not going to feed you some crap about other people … Your pain is yours. And it’s real. Suffering is suffering. It’s not positional. Okay?”

“So what?” she began bitterly. “Am I supposed to just keep on living through it all while my life crumbles around me?”

He squeezed her shoulder again. “I’m not here to pretend this isn’t all crushing you under its weight. I’m not much for bland platitudes or tired cliches either.” She looked at him again. “Have you tried getting help?” She shook her head, just enough so he saw it. “There’re crisis numbers, therapy, counseling, peer support groups, medication … All kinds of ways you can…”

She shook her head firmly. “No,” she interrupted. “I never. I don’t think…”

“Look, Mary, you’re a strong person. So the fact that you’ve reached your limit makes it feel even worse. Because you have always been told that even having a limit is a weakness. But it’s not. Everyone has a limit, Mary.”

She started to cry again, her whole body shaking. He put an arm around her. “It’s okay to need help.”

“It’s just too much,” she sobbed softly.

“I know. And I’m sorry. But you really don’t have to do what you planned on doing tonight. You don’t have to carry this weight alone.”

“What do I even do?”

“Calling a suicide hotline would be a good first step.” He pulled Mary’s phone from his pocket. “I’ll dial it for you if you want.”

“No,” she said, reaching for her phone. “No, I’ll do it.”

She opened her browser and looked for the number to call. She wiped her tears with a fresh tissue he passed her, and she dialed. Ben sat there quietly, his arm still around her as she talked to the crisis counselor. When she hung up, she turned to look at Ben. “They think I should go to the hospital.”

He nodded. “And what do you think?”

“I think maybe I should.”

He smiled gently. “I’m glad to hear it. Is there anything I can do?”

At first she shook her head, then she stopped herself. “Will you sit with me, until the cab gets here?”

“Of course.”

*** 

Ben sat out on the patio for a while, enjoying the cold night air. He felt the shimmer behind him that told him his company had finally arrived. 

“Ronoven.”

He glanced at the angel. “Hey, Sariel. How’s it hangin’?”

“I thought you quit doing this.”

“Well, I was already up doing another thing. The local agent thought I might want this one.”

“Speaking of, where is she? The human, I mean.”

“At the hospital. I guess she changed her mind.” He smiled, and didn’t bother to hide it. He and Sariel went way back.

“And I’m sure you had nothing to do with it, did you Ben?”

“Who me?” He put a hand on his chest. “You wound me with your lack of faith in my ability to be a dick … I mean demon.” He grinned.

“I swear, every time I run into you, I’m shocked you still exist.”

He grinned again. “I’m like a bad penny, I guess, Sar.”

“You’re going to get in trouble again.”

“Nah. Besides, what’re you worried about? You’re on the other side anyway.”

Her wings ruffled. How was this creature a demon? He made no sense and he never had. “I suppose I’ll be going back then.”

He nodded. “You do that. Merry Christmas, Sar.”

“Oh, for the love of…” She winked out of existence.

Ben sat there for a while, alone with his thoughts. He stretched his senses to assure himself that Mary was safe.

He knew it wasn’t magic, knew she had a long road ahead of her. But Mary had fought and won another day, another day to get well, another day to live, and maybe to overcome her troubles enough to want to. Ben knew all too well, one day could change everything. Maybe in her case, it would be for the better.

After a while, he spoke softly.

“Merry Christmas.”  

*****

 

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