When the Man Comes Around

by Emmett Nahil

Johnny Cash came and visited him at the hospital. The ward where Pattie was convalescing had been locked for most of the morning and then through the long, humidity-sodden afternoon, but by evening the nurses rolled the patients out to the hallway on their beds. To catch some of the nighttime breeze as it gusted throughout the big windows in the upper ward, was the idea. Pattie was one of them in the beds.

Seeing him walk down the long hallway, Pattie had mistaken him for a pastor. Old and half-stooped, hair turned white and wearing an all-black suit jacket underneath. The clothes were still crisp, spotless. Looking just as he had around the time he’d died.

Pattie gaped, like a kid in a supermarket cart staring at some stranger down the cereal aisle.

“…Sir?”

Johnny Cash paused in front of him and he barked out a laugh. “I’m here to take over your case.” He turned to amble down the hall, waving a hand back in Pattie’s direction. “I’ll be seeing you later, kid.” The old man had strode past his bed, out the swinging doors behind him.

 * 

The second night that Johnny Cash came to visit, he stayed quiet at first, standing in front of the window, chain-smoking Marlboros like someone’s old uncle. He supposed Cash didn’t need to worry about lung cancer. Worse, he looked like he was waiting for Pattie to talk to him this time. He steeled himself and obliged.

“I didn’t mean to get hurt and end up here. I couldn’t help it.” His throat was midday-pavement dry, again. “If I coulda avoided crashing at all, I would have.”

Pattie tried to sit up taller in the bed, but to no avail. Cash shook his head, dissipating the halo of smoke that lingered around his slicked-back hair. He heaved the kind of rattling sigh that only old folks have.

“So you need confession, in order to atone for your actions?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. You can start by telling me something. What did it feel like?”

What kind of confessor starts off like that?

“Like…nothing. And then everything came rushing on in. All at once.”

Cash snorted and flicked the remains of his cigarette out the open window.

“You’re copping out. ” He clambered out onto the windowsill, crouching on his haunches like a pomade-bound gargoyle, “You better think long and hard before I come back, son.”

Without another word, he launched himself off the ledge, hurtling into the night.

*

The face of the kid he’d crashed into at the four-way stop kept resurfacing in nightmares, bobbing up like a bottle cork, appearing on his father’s body, with his brother’s hair and tee shirt on. He looked as Pattie’d seen him later on, in a photo the police had taken of the kid lying sideways out of his busted car window.

The hospital had a small army of baby monitors from natal intensive care. His restlessness had made the resident supervising his case nervous, and a monitor was placed firmly out of his reach on a far table. He hadn’t bothered to ask if they’d caught one voice or two emanating from his room at night on the receiver.

He’d been alone for about an hour when Johnny Cash came back. His black coat interrupted the unblinking, red cyclops eye on the monitor as the ghost clambered past the window sash.

“What’s that there for?”

“Dunno.”

“Suppose you’re gonna have to get used to being watched,” He shot Pattie a significant look, nodding in the direction of the monitor, “What with being in the poke for the foreseeable future.”

“You…you’re not wrong, sir.”

Cash sidled to the foot of the bed and sat heavily. The box spring gave way, but didn’t creak. Like any good confessor, he read the room before poking at him for more.

“They must’ve done a real number on you.”

As he looked up to meet his gaze, a deep, lizard-brained urging crawled up from the back of his head.

Follow.

Repent.

Johnny Cash’s irises were dark as anything, like looking into the woods at two in the morning from your back porch. They ate any light that entered them.

“You look stricken, son.”

“Just…the being watched. I don’t like it but—”

Follow. Repent.

“But…?”

“I guess I deserve to feel bad. And watched, or monitored, or whatever.”

“Not what I’m after, son.”

Pattie could feel the color rising in his cheeks. Cash slid down the hospital bed towards him, the nerves in his torso slowly registering the motion as he advanced.

“What they don’t tell you in Sunday school is that there’s a few gods out there. There’s the big one, all the angels and saints, to be sure. But then there’s the god of the coal mine. And a god of prisons and jails, and prisoners too. And a god of them killed before their time.” He was leaning over him now, moon silhouetting his head as Pattie looked up from the pillow, frozen stiff.

“Sometimes you don’t have a choice in who takes notice. But I have to come and be your confessor first, and to collect you last of all.” A twinging feeling nudged at the back of Pattie’s mind, and he looked to the side. Cash had left the window open, and a cool breeze was blowing through, the slat blinds clacking lightly in the night air.

Follow.

When Johnny Cash lifted him up, and brought him up out of the hospital bed, he didn’t protest.

Repent.

Pattie couldn’t see Cash’s face, the moon behind him had clouded it in shadow. The baby monitor blinked out as the two of them passed by, shut off by a hand he couldn’t and didn’t want to think about.

In a quick moment, the windowsill was emptied of its two occupants. The moonlight-soaked earth rose up to meet them, fast and final.

Emmett Nahil is a writer, editor, and SFF junkie whose work is forthcoming in a queer fantasy anthology and in the recently kickstarted visual novel Love Shore. He trying desperately to finish a book, and in the meantime, he moonlights as an arts reviewer for the Boston Hassle. He loves speculative fiction centering marginalized voices over anything else and tweets about it over at @_emnays
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