The cup rattled it's metallic guts. The cruel injustice of a bill's silence, the man thought. When the cup rattled coins it was an audible question for more coins. When the more important, more valuable paper mixed in with the rattle the sound muffled as if satisfied by the meal. The paradigm gave people an opportunity to be generous though. They could feel as if they're helping and that feeling would linger and mix with night as their thoughts turned dark. He held a sturdy arm out to the world, head down, when he felt his cup move.
A man in pinstripe suit turned away from him, his hand lingered behind for a moment. The homeless man looked inside his cup and found a 100$ bill. He double checked the man walking away, he wanted to run up and thank him, but his feeble legs quivered at the thought. The homeless man reached inside the cup and took out the hundred to examine it. Fresh and rolled it felt like fire in his hands. His eyes darted to every painted detail. The serial number was intact, an old presidents face stared back at him and he felt it wink, and then he saw it. In the bottom right corner was a tiny burn mark as if a hot needle pierced the bill. The hole was barely visible, unnoticeable to those who did not know where to look, but the old man saw it. He knew where to look. He whipped his head down the sidewalk again to find the suited man, but he was long gone. The old man checked the time on mounted clock outside of a bank. 6:15 it read. The old man would be back at his spot the next day at the same time, and he knew the suited man would walk by again and drop another burnt bill in his cup.
The sun burned the sky orange. Clouds stretched the horizon as they drifted, diffracted as they passed that diving fireball. It was fire the homeless man thought of. Fire that destroyed to create. Fire that took everything. Fire that sparked something inside him after all these years. Those last rays of day piercing their way through buildings and passerby's. That hope dressed in a pinstripe suit.
The homeless man didn't thank the few coins that dropped into his cup. There was someone he expected who cast a shadow larger than any city scrapers could possibly know.
The old man investigated the sidewalk lined by bars and boutique shops. The crowd thickened at the intersection closest to the old mans spot. At the edge a pinstripe arm protruded. The homeless man readied his cup.
The suit was new. The jacket arms were fresh and stiff. The sunglasses had a gold trim, and seemed to catch the sunlight from every direction. He walked with the swagger of a man who just slayed his worst internal demon. He was a man that turned faces, but he was still getting used to that reaction. New rich, and the homeless man knew why.
As expected, the pinstripe man stopped, dropped down a fat wad of bills, crisp and insatiable. The pin stripped man returned the wallet to his coat pocket, smiled and walked away.
"It will burn you." The old man said.
The pin striped man turned. The smug smile faltered. The careless brow furrowed. Only for a moment, but enough for the old homeless man to notice.
"It will ruin you" the old man added.
The pinstripe man chortled and though the homeless man couldn't see it, he knew behind those golden sunglasses was the largest eye roll the world had never seen.
The pinstripe man turned back down the sidewalk and walked off into the horizon.
The next day proceeded much like the one before. Sunshine washed over the busy city a warm blanket. The train would come at 5:55 and the pinstripe man would walk by soon. Soon, the old man knew, the pinstripe man wouldn't be taking the train. He would have a fancy car and a fancy driver with a fancy name like Carlton. But today the pinstripe man would be taking the train as usual, still adjusting to the avalanche of money he'd only recently discovered.
Today the pinstripe man smiled ear to ear. He was invincible. It was as if the sun had rose today just for him and followed him around like a spotlight. He approached the homeless man and a little of the smile faded. The pinstriped man had given him close to 2000$ the day before and was confused as why this man persisted at staying on the streets. He paused, studying the homeless man.
"What is it you want old man? I gave you a small fortune yesterday, what did you do with it? Drugs? Alcohol? Don't you want to get off these streets?" The pinstriped man said. He cleaned his sunglasses with his tie while he waited for an answer.
The old man curled his lip. "It has you doesn't it." He said. "It has blinded you." The homeless man reached out a hand. The pinstripe man sighed, stopped cleaning his glasses and began to dig into his pocket. The homeless man pull back his own sleeve, revealing a crescent shaped scar on his wrist.
"I know your secret." The homeless man whispered.
The pinstriped man froze.
"You'll have to make a decision soon." The homeless man said. "You'll have to give it all up. You'll have to--"
"Get off the streets old man. And don't spend that all on drugs this time." And he started off down the street.
"Listen to me." The homeless man shouted at him. He pushed himself to his knees and shouted again. "Listen to me you fool. You'll lose everything. Everything!"
The homeless man caught himself and the looks people gave him as they walked by. He sat back down against his wall as body shook with fear and excitement. Memories flashed before his eyes and he blinked them away. His breath heaved beneath his ragged clothes. He wiped sweat from his forehead. He watched the man walk off as he fingered the new roll of bills.
"Everything" he muttered to himself. He traced the scar on his wrist as tall shadows collapsed over him and a chill spread through the city.
3 years went by with no sight of the pinstripe man. The homeless man sat at his corner as he had every day for the past 15 years. He would be there for the rest of his life. He would die on that corner. It was his choice, and no amount of money would change his decision. He had no children to take care of. He had no family to visit or stay with. He had no one he would call a friend, not even the other homeless that shared the sewers with him at night. He was alone and surrounded at all times. The only relatable trait to the outside world was this pinstripe man with the growing scar. He alone would know why the homeless man sat at the corner every day. Or would he. Doubt crept into the homeless man darker than a moonless night. What if the pinstripe man didn't suffocate like he had? What if he found a way to manage it? To get away with it. And that he, as he sat on his corner at the dusk of his life, with his limitless greed and displays of wealth, was not worthy of the burnt gifts. And part of his punishment was to watch someone else enjoy the fruits that he naively squandered. He wondered if anyone was capable of overcoming what he could not. He fidgeted as he captured glimpses of passerby’s. Could he? Could she? What about children? Are they as susceptible to the temptations of greed as there adult counterparts? What about the elderly? Do they possess the wisdom to escape before drowning in wealth? It was the first time in 15 years the homeless man thought he might be losing his mind. Faces passed in sudden terror. People crossed the street before having to interact with the man. He stopped his frantic searching in the crowds and stared straight ahead. Though the view before him was serene, a city landscape punctured generously by a yawning bay crowned by a pastel sky, the man ignored it. His senses were blotted out by a regretful past and bleak future. What is left? He asked himself. Why go on?
"Get in." A voice knocked on the homeless man's mind.
"Hey! You on the corner." The voice came again. Anger lay a thick dressing in the voice's words. The least inviting thing the homeless man had ever heard. He was content with his dark thoughts. He was content passing on into another life or nothingness or whatever lay beyond. He accepted that morbid step. As a certain calm began to chill his body, hands seized his arms and legs. To all onlookers, it appeared as if the homeless man was being kidnapped, or perhaps rounded up by the local insane asylum. Whatever justification crossed through the individual minds, no one made a move to stop it. Group think and self preservation mingled with the probability that this was all caught on camera were all the modern ingredients necessary for inaction and looking the other way. The homeless man was tossed into a stretch limo without so much as a "What's happening?".
Black leather coated every surface that might come in contact with skin. Dark brown swirls of some rare wood offset the leather interior in a raw unfiltered way, the designers attempt to remind the passengers of the source of all this luxury. The windows were tinted just enough to ward off outside eyes as well keep inside eyes uninterested in the dark shadows beyond the windows. Every detail of this was ignored by the homeless man, much to the frustration of his captor who sat across from him, waiting for the full effect of the limo to strike. His captor, dressed in a tailored grey pinstripe suit, crossed one leg over the other and spread his arms along the freshly oiled leather. Impatience riddled his body like a Parkinson’s patient.
"John." The pinstripe man burst out. "You're name is John. I looked you up. It wasn't easy considering you have no identification or family to speak of. All I had to go on was your face, and since fifteen years has left you disfigured, wrinkled and grey, that made things all the more difficult. But I found you. I found out that you, John Fitzmeyer, were once king of the world. You chaired the International Monetary Group with all the world's leading importers and exporters sitting comfortably in your pocket." The man paused and cocked his head. "John? Are you listening?"
John sat with the same stare he had on the street corner. Straight ahead and blank. The pinstripe man pressed on with growing irritation.
"I need you to listen, John, because what I have to say is important and I hate to be ignored. I guess maybe you're waiting for me to introduce myself. My name is Alfred Preston. I go by Al. This is my limo and one of a fleet. I run a multibillion dollar conglomerate with ties to NAFTA, OPEC, and several important contacts in several important governments. But this is irrelevant to you isn't it, John? None of this is new to you. You've experienced the wealth and the power, and the pain." Alfred cringed at the word. "I didn't understand the significance of our related scar until I discovered your history. But it's all coming together now. You know the pain. You've suffered as I have. Is that why you're sitting on a corner, John? Did you go to the streets for relief? Did it work? I need to know, John. I need that answer. And you're going to give it to me."
The last statement came out of Al like in a command. He frothed like a rabid dog.
"You already know." John said, calmly.
"Know what, John?" Al said. He leaned towards John ready to strangle him.
"You know why I sit on that corner. You looked me up remember." John said.
Al slammed his back into the seat. "You went missing. Disappeared the newspapers read. Probably a suicide." Al said.
Silence passed over them as the limo strolled through the city, winding it's way down every avenue towards the bay's esplanade.
"Clearly, they were mistaken" John said.
Al ground his teeth. His hand clenched, resisting the urge to touch his scar. Al noticed. "You ran." Al said.
"I didn't." John said, repressing memories. He pointed at Al's wrist. "I bet you have to go through a new suit each week."
"I can afford it." Al said.
"I'm sure you can." John said. "But is it worth it."
"I didn't pull you into my limo to talk about suit's." Al said. His body shook in a violent shock of pain. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a bottle of pills. A flash of silver at Al's waist caught John's eye. He made a mental note as he watched Al uncap the bottle and pour half it's contents down his throat, chasing it with the limo champagne.
"Does that help?" John said.
Sweat began to bead on Al's forehead. "It stops the shakes." He said and swallowed the rest of the pills. "But no. It numbs everything but the scar. It makes me focus." Al looked away.
Al braced himself up with his hands as if waiting for the pills to take hold. That maybe this time they would work. He sighed as his shakes eased, though the sneer carved into his face sunk deeper.
"I suppose you're going to tell me the only way out is to burn it, root it from the ground, bomb the damned thing." Al said.
"You'd be better off dead." John said. It was a conclusion he only recently attained and one he still was not entirely sure about.
Al grunted and looked away.
"You can abandon the tree, as I think you've already done. But all the money it gave you are it's children, and you have to abandon that as well. The pain will not go away, Al. You carry it with you wherever you go--"
"There has to be a way. There has to be a pill or procedure..." Al looked at his wrist with disgust.
"It won't work." John said. He grabbed his left hand, twisted, and with a sickening pop, his left hand broke off at mid wrist. He showed it to Al, offered it to him. Al recoiled. "You have to realize, Al, there is no escaping it. The pain gets worse. The nightmares get worse. Even while everything around you gets better, that knife that twists inside you gets sharper and more sinister." John replaced his prosthetic wrist. "There is one way." John muttered. Al flicked his eyes at John. "One way out."
"What." Al said.
"We would switch."
Al considered this. The words entered his mind but failed to attach meaning. He laughed, his default emotion when he was confused. "Switch?"
"So you would be me and I would be you."
"I don't think you could pull it off, John." Al said smugly. He tossed one half of his fitted jacket back onto body and looked away. "Plus, why would I want to be you?"
"The pain, Al. It would be gone. So would the money, the power, the family. But the pain would cease."
"So what, you dress like me, I dress like you, the pain goes away, and nobody's the wiser." Al said sarcastically.
"Not exactly." John said.
Al waited for more then burst out, the reaction John waited for. "Then fucking tell me. I'm tired of your vague answers and mystery. What exactly do you mean?"
John resisted a smile. "What I mean, Al, is I become you and you become me. We switch bodies, or minds if you prefer. It's quite simple really. We share the same scar and in that way share the same pieces of a soul. The only difference is chronological, which is a human limit, not a universal limit. What is universal is balance. What you take you have to give back."
"Bullshit." Al said.
"Fine, then go live your life. Enjoy the pain and misery that you seem so capable of suppressing now."
Already, Al's shakes returned. He nearly reached for his pills again, but instead growled in anger, pulling his hand away. The pain controlled every action, every motive, a feeling John was too familiar with. It made Al impressionable and eager for any answer. He watched as the pain's vice grip tightened around Al's neck. "So we switch, the pain goes away, and I die as an old, ugly, homeless man, alone and miserable. Do I have that right?" Al said.
"Yes and no. The pain will go away, but you won't have to die an old man. Not ugly, mind you, nor miserable. You said that you've abandoned the tree. More than likely it abandoned you. It found another, and that other will find you. It happened to me and the one before me. And when that other finds you, you will explain this whole process and switch into a new life. This is not to say you will not suffer in the interim, because you will. You will have nothing and no one, but it is not permanent, and as with all things, time will heal, the universe will balance."
Al took all of this in as he fought his pain. "There's another way." Al said.
John flinched at the statement, then realized what Al meant as Al looked at the hidden weapon at his waist.
"A cowards way." John said.
"Maybe. My business would sustain itself. I would be remembered for my contributions to society and my legacy would be intact. My family would remember me and be well looked after. Cowardly? Possibly. But isn't living a little longer in a meager existence in the hopes of one day meeting a young sap with infinite pain, and offer what you offer now, even more cowardly. Like a junkie who has been promised a new drug. What if I die before that? What if in those paused years I starve to death or am stabbed in the night while I sleep on the street? Look at how old and unhealthy you are. If I became you I might have a heart attack tomorrow or just die of old age." Al grimaced a sudden flare of pain in his wrist. He held it and cursed.
"You would have done it already. You wouldn't be seeking alternatives. You want to live, Al, and there is a way. An easy way. A painless way.”
Al grabbed his scar. Tears rolled down his face. It consumes him, John saw. He can think of nothing else. True, blinding pain. He was at his limit and Al's raw self poured out.
"Give me your wrist," John said. Al stifled his tears and looked up at John's outstretched hand. "It will be instantaneous. No pain."
Al reached out a trembling hand. John seized Al's wrist and pulled back the jacket sleeve. He removed a thick wet bandage revealing a festering crescent shaped scar. It looked alive with red and yellow boils that grew over each other, popping and and,oozing. Al looked away. He hated the sight of it. John reached out his own naked scar. On his wrist the same crescent shape showed, without the sinister boils. The scar had faded with the years into a dull raised pink. John placed his own scar over top of Al's. As the skin touch they both experienced a pulling sensation like being yanked back by a bungee jumper's cord, and then a strange calm and discomfort.
John, in Al's body, looked up first. He observed his new body with a smirk. Al, in John's body, lolled his head against the limo window with the relief of a heroin addict relapsing 3 days into withdrawal. The new Al crossed his fresh pinstripe leg over the other and extended his arms like the original Al had when John first entered the limo. He waited.
The new John unrolled his eyes as he came to. "It's gone," He whispered. "It's finally gone."
"Yes," The new Al said. "It's gone." He looked to his waist, feeling a foreign, remembering his mental note. He placed a hand inside his jacket and felt the cold unforgiving steel of a pistol. He pulled it out and pointed it at the new John.
"I knew you'd bring a gun," Al said. "You considered it every day, but couldn't bring yourself to do it. To take your own life."
John stared at the pistol Al pointed at him. "What are you doing?" The new John tried to decipher the situation while adjusting to his new voice and body, when his wrist, like lightning, flashed with pain.
"You said it would be gone!" John screamed. He grabbed his wrist. The boils returned. The shakes tremored into his body.
"I did," Al said. "I also told you the pain would go with you wherever you go. In time, because you've given up everything, the pain would fade as it did for me, but time is a luxury you no longer have." He pulled the trigger and put five bullets in John's chest.
John's bulged his eyes and spit up blood.
"You see, John, the pain is already fading.” Al barked a sinister laugh. “I'll take care of the business, take care of the family. Don't worry John, Alfred Preston's legacy will stay intact. John Fitzmeyer's legacy, however, has arrived at it's end. What I didn't tell you, John, is when I was first offered the switch, I refused. The old man with the dull scar tried to strangle me as I put my knife into his heart. I was you Al though that was a several lifetimes ago. I've switched six bodies since then. Before John I was, Frank. And before that, Melissa, Michael, Aaron, and my original name, Jack. It was Jack that figured it out. Jack that learned what the old man was really up to. He wanted a new body, a new life, but I caught on. He was too eager. Too demanding. He was more desperate than I was to obtain a new life. He found me before the pain was too great to deal with and in time, six generations worth of time, that pain is but a paper cut.” He observed John's body and shook his head. "I'm sorry, John." Al said, and he shot his last bullet into John's head.
Al pressed a button on the limo's side panel.
"Driver, pull over please," Al said. The limo pulled over and the driver opened the door.
"Thank you, that's all," Al said. He waited until the driver returned to the front seat and rolled John's body out of the limo. Nobody would notice, Al knew. John Fitzmeyer died a long time ago. Al closed the door and the driver drove off without question.
Al turned to the sunset as sipped the last of the champagne. "Seven," he said the empty limo and he raised his empty glass. “To Alfred.”