Your surprise at seeing Benziah here takes the words from your throat. Benziah, however, seems to have no problem with the suddenly awkward silence. Calmly, as if you weren’t even in the same hallway, Benziah strolls to the still body of a nearby man. He stops briefly and places his palm on the corpse’s chest and his face near its face. Then Benziah closes his eyes for a moment and breathes deeply in through his nostrils. You see the corpse’s chest fall, as if Benziah were pushing down to take the air from its lungs, but you notice no tension in his hand — clearly the corpse’s chest is moving of its own volition.
You remember briefly a vision of an enormous mason jar with thousands of tiny people inside and you shudder deeply.
Benziah removes his hand from the corpse and moves to another nearby — this time a woman.
“Are you a Catholic, Vladimir?” From his tone, Benziah might as well have been asking you what time it was.
You manage to stammer out a negative. Benziah kneels down near the woman and places his hand on her abdomen.
“Shame. The Catholics have always interested me. I didn’t study them overmuch when I was practicing.” Benziah sighs deeply, “Still, are you familiar with the concept of ‘Last Rites’?” He bends over and places his face close to the woman’s mouth. The scene seems almost poignant — like a grotesque mockery of a kiss.
This time you manage some words. “I’ve heard of it — the preacher does a ritual with the dying person. Sends the soul to heaven if they die, or something…” In the absence of a concrete threat, you’re beginning to regain your composure a bit. While still rooted to the spot with fear, your confidence is at least marginally beginning to improve. You change your stance slightly, making the pocket with your shiv in it easier to access… just in case.
Benziah inhales slowly. Again, you see the woman’s chest contract in time with Benziah’s deep breath. Having finished, he opens his eyes and looks right at you.
“Yes, very good Vladimir. You’ve got the gist of it, anyway.”
He stands up and begins to walk towards another body. “Did you know, though, that for a long time it was considered appropriate to give this rite to someone hours after death?”
Benziah shakes his head. “Of course you don’t — but I’m preaching, and old habits die hard.” He smiles and continues. “The reason they thought it appropriate to perform this important ritual after death, Vladimir, was because they didn’t know when it was that the soul left the body. They just had no clue. Likewise, many other religions also allow their final rites to be peformed for hours after death, some forms of Buddhism for example.”
Once again, he kneels by a corpse and puts his hand on its chest. He glances up at you, then, and continues. “For all they knew, the soul might linger on. Certainly recent advances in medical resuscitation seem to bear this belief out. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of people being dead and then brought back from the brink.”
Again he leans down, closes his eyes, and breathes in. A chill strikes you to the very bone.
He stands up again. Now he’s only a few feet away from you. Easily within striking distance, should either of you choose to attack.
“I certainly have come to believe this, and I’m sure you, of all people, believe this to be true. Considering how many times we’ve been through this whole charade, I don’t know how you could believe anything else.” Again, he smiles. This time you notice the smile does not touch his eyes.
“But that will all change soon. I will make sure of it. Soon this damnable play will reach its final act and we can clear the stage, turn off the lights, and lock the doors behind us.”
Now he’s standing right in front of you. You smell something on his breath… you’re not sure you want to know exactly what.
“And when it’s done, Vladimir, there will be no review in tomorrow’s paper. There will be no cast party. No applause, no jeers, no curtain call. Only silence.” He pauses and stares directly into your eyes before he continues.
“And the two of us can finally rest.”
Locked in his eyes, you can’t bring yourself to do much more than scream internally.
Benziah’s macabre speech has taxed the limits of your already strained psyche. Your options at this point have been limited accordingly.
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