The security guard looked back and forth from Walt’s identification to the boy. His pocked skin was gray in the dull morning light.
“Okay?” Walt asked, pulling Arlo close.
The man stared, and Walt stepped in front of the child.
“Yeh,” the guard said. He nodded over his shoulder, “it’s down on…”
“I know,” Walt said. He snatched his ID and rushed the boy down the hall and past the elevators, ducking through a doorway into darkness. He grabbed for the child’s hand as they walked down the steps.
The building was a square, stout structure, with thirty-five floors of gray concrete stretching past the trees in the foothills of West Virginia, and thirty levels reaching down into the pit of the earth. The stairway was dark and cold, lit by a single bulb at each landing, and Walt’s knees wavered with each step.
“Almost,” he said, though it was a lie.
Arlo followed without a word. He would walk as long as required, and would never complain. He always did what his daddy said.
“Just a bit more,” Walt said.
As they stepped deeper into darkness, he wondered what it was like for the people that got to walk up instead of down. If maybe it was easier. Though, he suspected those people took the elevators. Something he couldn’t bring himself to do.
Walt wrapped his arm around the boy’s shoulders. His chest was tight and he fought the tears that threatened against the loose skin beneath his eyes.
“Close now,” Walt said. His voice was wet, and harsh. The boy didn’t seem to notice.
Arlo was adept at such things. At detaching himself from the terrible pieces of the world. It’s why Walt knew the boy could accept what was coming.
He’d understand that Walt was only doing what needed to be done.
“Only a few…” Walt said, but a coughing fit seized his lungs and he leaned heavy against the railing. His chest tightened and cold sweat beaded on his forehead, but he managed to move, guiding Arlo ahead. As they reached the landing to floor B17, he spit in the corner. He made sure the boy didn’t see the way the red glob shined black against the steel.
This would be Arlo’s first and only trip down these steps. As he was only six, there hadn’t yet been a reason to mention this place. But, now, Walt didn’t have a choice. He was running out of time.
“Here,” he said. Ahead was the door to level B23. Twenty-three floors below the surface of the earth. Twenty-three flights of stairs down into darkness.
He couldn’t afford one of the floors above ground. Those were reserved for people with means. People who planned to live long and fulfilling lives.
“Okay,” the boy said.
Walt breathed deep and steadied himself. He pulled Arlo close and opened the door, determined not to let go, even if the boy tried to run away. This he had already promised himself.
The boy tensed beneath his grip, but he didn’t run. He didn’t shout or scream. He only stiffened his shoulders as they walked. His head was steady, but Walt knew the boy was staring at the hundreds of beds lined to the far walls. All separated in glass cubicles.
Hundreds of children, hooked to machines and beeping monitors.
“They’re sleeping,” Walt said, hoping the boy believed it.
As they walked past each row, some of the nurses turned their heads. They glanced at Walt and his son, but they didn’t speak.
These buildings were the consequence of hundreds of years of medical advances. Once people discovered they could live for decades with the help of their children, most didn’t hesitate to sacrifice a son or daughter. To put them to sleep in case they needed bone marrow or a transplant. Or something more.
An insurance policy.
Walt guided Arlo into a cubicle that was not unlike the hundreds of others around the vast room. He stopped beside the bed and placed both hands on his son’s shoulders. A nurse stood to the side. She’d been told they were coming.
“You don’t look well, sir,” she said. She didn’t look at him, only staring at Arlo.
“Yes,” Walt said, and his breath was coming in short, painful bursts now.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked.
He gripped Arlo’s shoulders and the boy shivered. He’d brought the child because he needed to understand. Needed to know about the world.
“Who is it?” Arlo asked, staring at the pale child lying beneath the sheets.
“His name’s Vincent,” Walt said, straining to breathe. “He’s your big brother.”
Arlo turned to look up at him but Walt didn’t have the strength to meet his eyes.
Eight years prior, he and his wife sacrificed Vincent for their future. In case they got sick. The doctors made it seem practical. Necessary, even. Like depositing money in the bank. Planning ahead.
“Ready?” the nurse asked. She stood by the machine behind the bed. Pumps and valves worked in rhythm.
“Yes,” he said, wheezing now. He could no longer hold the tears.
Though Walt was dying, and only had weeks before the end, he couldn’t accept what they’d done. What he’d done to his own child. An attack of conscience, perhaps. He couldn’t take it back, but he could stop the madness.
He could release the boy. And assuage his guilt.
She moved behind the bed, but he never looked away from the child. He stared at Vincent, watching his chest rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall. Until he was still.
Until it was over.
The nurse walked away and the machine was silent. Walt sat on the edge of the bed and pulled Arlo close. He reached out with the other hand, grabbing Vincent’s cold fingers in his.
The boy was gone. Soon enough, Walt would be too.
Author Bio: Thomas Wood lives with his wife and son in Madison, Wisconsin. His work has appeared or is forthcoming with Abomination Magazine, Sanitarium Magazine, Bête Noire, and Stupefying Stories. Connect with him on Twitter @ThomasWoodWrite or at facebook.com/ThomasWoodAuthor.