's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Let Me Help

Submitted by Dave Lernerr

Rebecca came in to the lobby. Nothing unusual about that. She was a regular. But instead of gliding in casually she stumbled in. Instead of her matching purse she
carried two heavy grocery bags. And she looked a mess. That was unusual.

I worked the front desk at Hannon Charities. We distributed funds to a variety of worthy causes: Homeless shelters, cancer research, service animal training, that sort of thing. People frequently stopped in to give us small cash donations, or somewhat larger check or credit card donations. I never asked, but I suspected
the cash donations was a major part of why I was hired. So nobody'd rob us. I was a six-foot-six heavyset Black man with a shaved head. I looked scary as all hell. Last time I'd gotten into a fight was when I was eleven, and I'd gotten my butt kicked. But I looked scary as all hell.

Rebecca would stop in every couple of months with a twenty-five hundred dollar donation. All cash. Fifties and hundreds. She never wanted a receipt, not even for tax purposes. She said giving is a "mitzvah", and you don't expect a reward for a mitzvah. She said she'd have preferred to mail the cash anonymously, but she wanted to make certain it reached its destination. She made me swear never to tell anyone who'd given the cash. Rebecca was always well-dressed, elegant, with tasteful understated jewelry probably worth more than her donations. Her hair and makeup were applied with an artistry one expected from paintings in museums. I'd watched her leave a few times, and she always got in this really nice, really expensive Mercedes.

Then Monday she dropped off five thousand dollars. She looked a little unwell. I'd asked if she was okay, but she just waved me off. Wednesday she walked in with
twenty thousand. She seemed unsteady, had to sit for a few moments. She kept grimacing like she was in pain. "You okay?" I asked like I'd asked Monday.

"Dammit, I'm fine!" Then after a moment she said, "Kurt? I apologize. I'm sorry. You were just being concerned, and I snapped at you. That was wrong of
me." As she spoke she seemed visibly to get better. I told her to think nothing of it, and she got up and ran off.

Now it was Friday. As I said, she'd stumbled in and she looked a mess. Hair ratty and tangled. Shirt buttons in the wrong holes. No jewelry. No makeup. She smelled like she hadn't showered since the last time I'd seen her. She grunted, face contorted. Every step looked like an effort almost beyond her ability. I stood up, moved to go around my desk to help her. She poured the contents of the grocery bags onto the desk. "Here!" she snarled.

Hundreds, all in bands of maybe one hundred each, overflowed the desk. Some piled onto the floor. A quick count, and I figured maybe about five hundred
thousand dollars, give or take. She sighed in relief. Then she stared at me kind of funny.

"You are a good person," she said, almost as if she were surprised.

"I... I try to be." I wasn't sure what to say.

She doubled over in obvious agony. I ran around the desk, grabbed her arm so she wouldn't fall. "Let me help," I said. "I'm going to call an ambulance."

She took my hand in both of hers (0.00). I could see her growing stronger. I could see pain replaced by surprise. "So that's how I get rid of it! I'd thought only an
act of altruism, ultimate pure altruism, could make it go away," she said. She straightened up, finally looked me in the eyes. After a moment she said, "I... I'm just so sorry. So sorry." And she ran out the door, much quicker than she came in.

I wanted to chase after her, but no way I could leave a half a million just lying around. I gathered up the money and put it in the safe as fast as I could. But by the time I came back out she was gone.

I worried about her, but there was nothing I could do. For all the times she'd been here, she'd never given us an address or a phone number or even a last name. I just hoped she was okay.

So I worried fruitlessly for the rest of the day. I felt a small, slight ache in my chest, not noticeable when I was moving around or talking to anybody, only, when I was just sitting, and barely noticeable even then (0.02). I figured it was just because I was worried about Rebecca or something.

The day ended. Now, I loved my job. I really liked my apartment. But my job and my apartment were almost an hour apart, and I hated the commute. I took mostly side streets and back roads, but traffic still got backed up in spots.

But this day, as I drove home, I felt the chest pain slowly, irregularly, get worse (1.25). I started worrying, just a little. I was a 26-year-old non-smoker who exercised occasionally and had no family history of heart disease, but still... I had only gone a couple of blocks when I considered pulling over and calling an ambulance, or at least driving to the nearest hospital.

Then I stopped to let a Buick pull out of its driveway, and the pain abruptly all but ceased (0.01). After the car went the pain started building again (0.91). Then a
firetruck, lights, and sirens, appeared behind me. I pulled over to let it pass, and the pain ebbed again. Not completely this time, but still considerably (0.49). And it came back after the firetruck passed (1.03). Then at an intersection I waved for a Chrysler on the left to go, and the pain was almost gone again (0.02).

Every chance I got I let some car go, or let a pedestrian cross the street even when I had right of way. Every time I did, the pain reduced, though by a smaller amount each time. And the overall pain level slowly increased (0.86). And I realized something else odd. I could feel each increment of the increase or decrease. I'd never before had such... an awareness of my exact level of pain.

Almost home. I stopped at McDonald's like I do every Friday, ordered the two cheeseburgers meal. I dropped my change in the little box they had for Ronald McDonald House, like I always do, and again the pain ceased abruptly (0.01). By the time I got my food the pain had started to come back (0.76). I dropped a dollar in the box, the pain faded (0.04). I sat down and ate. I finished just as the pain reached full effect (1.51).

I put another dollar in the box (0.07). The pain lessened, but not to the same degree as before. A five dollar bill, and the pain was almost completely gone (0.02).

The pain rose slowly as I went home (1.72). Still too minor to worry about, though I didn't feel like going out anywhere tonight. I just watched TV, then went to bed. The pain didn't keep me awake (1.83).

I woke up at about five, well earlier than I usually do on a Saturday. Not only did the pain not go away, it had actually gotten slightly worse (2.09). Time for the hospital. I drove myself; no need for an ambulance. This young woman was behind me in line, and I let her cut ahead of me (2.04). When it was my turn I told the admitting nurse I was having chest pains (2.11). Turns out, when it comes to chest pains, hospitals don't mess around. I got an EKG, an MRI, and a bunch of other tests with initials. Thank God I had good insurance.

Eventually I was sitting on a bed in a small room in the ER, bored. There was no real opportunity to help anyone without getting in everyone's way (3.21). Finally, this young and pretty woman doctor knocked on the wall next to the opening (no door) and asked if she could come in.

She had a tablet and was flipping through various results. "Mister Aaronson," she began.

"Please, call me Kurt."

"Kurt. I'm Doctor Yip. You're having chest pains? Are you still having them?"

"Yeah. I mean, they're minor. If it was anywhere else in my body besides my chest, I wouldn't think twice. It's just that the chest...."

"You were right to come in, then. How would you describe this pain? Sharp, dull, throbbing...?"

"More of a... twisting, I guess."

She pointed to a chart on the wall. One of those pain charts. Numbered with even numbers from zero to ten, a face at each number. A smiling face at zero. No pain at all. The faces progressively got sadder, the face at ten crying. Maximum pain.

"How bad would you say your pain is?" I think she continued talking, but I barely heard her. I realized something. I could put an exact number on my pain! I could put a number exact to two decimal places. I knew my precise pain level (3.22), and I even knew when that number went up or down by as little as one one-hundredth of the round number (3.23). I decided not to tell the doctor this much. It sounded way weird to me, and I was the one it was happening to.

"Three," I said. "Maybe slightly above it." I think I surprised her by saying that.

"Is this level tolerable?"

"Yeah, I got a good resistance to pain." That was true. "I'm just worried that it keeps going up. Slowly. Not steadily, more like fits and starts. But it's mostly going up."

"Well, we ran all the tests. You have a good strong heart."

"That's what people keep saying to me." She chuckled a little (3.22).

"We couldn't find anything wrong. No history of heart disease, either you or your family. Healthy lifestyle, though from what you say you could cut down on the cheeseburgers. If you wish, we can check you in, but I honestly don't know what else we can do for you, except observe."

"I'd rather not, if that's okay."

"All right, but you should have your doctor set up an appointment with a thoracic specialist. And we should schedule a stress test sometime next week. Now, do you think you'll need any pain meds?"

I shook my head, and she seemed relieved, though she tried not to show it. Maybe she thought I was a drug-seeker? But if I was, I would've claimed a higher pain
number, wouldn't I? I decided to forget about it.

"Hey, do you guys need help here? Anything I could volunteer, help out?"

She told me to ask at the front desk, I did, and they found plenty for me to do (3.18).

The next day. Sunday. The pain was worse (4.23). I considered going back to the hospital, volunteering. But I'd noticed that my returns diminished. Each time I repeated a specific charitable act the pain reduction was less.

I went to church as always. This time I had something particular to pray for. The Brentleigh Baptist Church didn't pass around a collection plate anymore; they had an app for that. I gave fifty dollars (3.87).

I didn't need my alarm to wake me Monday (5.02). I'd been worried before, but now... I used the church app to donate a few hundred dollars more (4.88). Then I called work, told them I was sick. On the other end, Sammy said I sounded terrible. I wasn't faking (5.10).

Rebecca. Obviously, that bitch had done something to me. I thought about her past few visits. Increasing pain, reduced by giving. Made sense. But how could I find her?

I listed what I did know. Her first name was Rebecca. She was charitable and generous, and not for show. She was rich. She probably lived nearby. She drove a really nice blue Mercedes. And I knew what she looked like (5.12). I went online, looked for charity events that had happened nearby. Nothing. I kept using the app to give the church more and more money. Then I gave to Hannon Charities. Switching helped a little (4.61). It was getting hard to concentrate. To think. I looked at other fancy-ass events recently. Then I got lucky.

The governor's Inauguration. Pictures of various attendees. Two women. One who looked a lot like Rebecca. And one who looked exactly like Rebecca.

She was Rebecca Steinman. The other woman was her sister Roberta. With her name I could easily find her address. Canterbury Heights. I should have guessed that, really. The richest community near Hannon Charities. That could be a problem.

I imagined confronting her. Then I imagined the headlines: Big Scary Black Man Menaces Two Rich White Women. Police Mace and Taser Him, Then Beat Him with Nightsticks for an Hour and a Half. And that's if I were lucky. More likely, that last line would read: Police Empty Their Guns Shooting Him, Reload, and Shoot Him Some More (5.96).

I found her telephone number. When I called a woman answered almost immediately. "Rebecca?" I asked.

Her voice sounded almost but not quite like Rebecca. "Is this... Kurt? Kurt... Aaronson?"

"Yeah. Where's Rebecca?"

"This is her sister, Roberta. Rebecca told me you might call. She said to tell you she's sorry."

"Put her on!" I realized I was just about shouting (6.19).

"She said she can't tell you anything. That I can't tell you anything. She said just to remember what she had said to you at the time. I don't know what she meant by

that. That's all I know." She sounded like she was almost in tears.

I put every ounce of Big Scary Angry Black Man I had into my next words. "Put. Her. On!"

"She isn't here!" Now Roberta was crying. "Please! Please just leave us alone! We can't help you! We can't..."


"We can't... I... Please don't call again. Please?" She hung up. I called her again. Straight to voicemail. I hung up without leaving a message. What would have
been the point?

Rebecca had said something about ultimate pure altruism breaking the curse, hadn't she? Ultimate pure altruism? What was that, giving my life for somebody? I'd do that if I had the chance. Hell, if the pain kept rising it wouldn't be a sacrifice. It would be a relief (6.32).

I'd emptied my bank account in donations (5.49). Not a good idea with rent due in a week and a half, but I couldn't think that far ahead. I had plenty of Tylenol with Codeine left over from almost a year ago when I'd slammed my fingers in a door. Stupid accident. My own fault. My left pinky was still a little crooked. I took a handful, well over the recommended dose, but as I said, I'm a large man, and the pain was getting even worse (6.41). The pills didn't touch it, but they did put me to sleep.

Next morning was even worse (7.02). I forgot about calling in sick, about showering and shaving.

Hannon Charities took cars as donations, of course. But they knew me there. Too many questions. But I knew a few good local charities we worked with. This one veteran's group was nearby. I was going to have them tow it, but that might've taken too long, so I drove there, gave them my Ford Focus (5.38). I took the bus home. They'd given me a receipt for my taxes. I'd crumpled it up and thrown it away.

Now I had no car, no money. Pretty soon I'd have no job and no apartment. But all of that was in the back of my mind. What really mattered was finding somebody to help. What really mattered was stopping, or at least reducing, the pain (7.36).

Sammy from work called. I answered, told her I'd need some time off. I couldn't think straight enough to give her a good story, but she accepted what I'd said.

That night I couldn't sleep. The pain was bad enough (7.52). The thought that it would just get worse and worse horrified me. Even the Tylenol with Codeine wouldn't put me out this time. I drank some of the Scotch I only touch for special occasions. The combination of the pills and the drink dulled everything but the pain (7.54).

Finally morning came (8.27). I had a thought. I had more than half of the bottle of the Tylenol with Codeine left. A few other medications. And plenty of liquor in the cabinet. If I drank a lot of alcohol, took all the pills...

Suicide was a mortal sin, I knew. The last mortal sin, because you can't seek forgiveness afterward. But the pain... I couldn't think past the pain. I would just- (9.75).

I collapsed. I might have screamed. I shouted, "Okay! I won't kill myself!" At least, I think I shouted. I don't know if I actually made any sound. But the pain dropped back a bit (8.38).

Well, suicide was out of the question. Our walls were pretty thick, but if I'd shouted as loud as I thought I did, someone might have heard. I didn't care. I didn't know what else to do. I just curled up on the floor and cried.

After I don't know how long I stood up. I stumbled out of my apartment; I don't think I locked or even closed the door. I staggered outside my apartment building, trying to find someone, anyone, to help. Unshaven. Unshowered. Looking like a Big Scary Crazy Black Man, shambling up to random people and shouting in their faces, "Do you need help? I want to help you! Let me help! Please! Why won't you let me help you?" I collapsed again, onto the pavement (8.88). I forced myself to open my eyes. Most people were managing not to see or hear me. The pain rose again (9.02). I saw this old Latino guy standing over me, looking at me.

"Are you all right, sir? Do you need help? Let me help. I'm afraid you're a little too big for me to lift you up, but maybe I can help you balance while you stand?" A heavy Hispanic accent.

I looked at the old man. Short, skinny, light-brown skin, a full head of short black-and-white hair and a mouth full of teeth too white and too even to be real. He wore a faded suit that had been in style before I was born. He had a cane in one hand and a hat in the other.

I could tell something else looking at him. I knew, somehow knew, that he was a good person. A truly good person. Kind, generous, always helping others without a thought for himself. I didn't know how I knew, but I knew (9.39).

I knew something else. That there was a way to get rid of this curse. I took the old man's hand in both of mine (9.01) (7.63) (5.12) (3.74) (1.28) (0.00). "So that's how I get rid of it!" I said as if automatically. As if I had no control over my own words. "I'd thought only an act of altruism, ultimate pure altruism, could make it go away." I stood up. God, I was a mess! I felt lightheaded. You know when there's a loud annoying noise, like a car alarm right near you, and it stops suddenly, and you can hear the silence? That's how I was with the pain. Then I looked at the old man's face.

Did I just...? I'd just damned him to the same nightmare I'd been going through. I found myself unable to warn him, unable to say almost anything. "Please... I'm sorry. I really am sorry," was all I could say. I left him, not completely voluntary, not completely involuntary. I knew I wasn't allowed to help him. He'd have to figure
it out on his own. At best I could maybe give him a hint. If he contacted me. I ran back to my building.

I was in the elevator, almost at my floor, when I felt a familiar twisting twinge in my chest (1.15). Instantly, I knew something else. Like the previous knowledge, I just knew it.

I had given that old man my pain. I knew he was a good person, and I'd chosen to give him my pain (2.82). If I'd chosen to spare him, to keep the pain for myself, regardless of how bad, well, that would have been an act of ultimate pure altruism (4.68). That was the only way to break the curse. The curse on me, on Rebecca, and on everyone else who'd been cursed before us would have been broken (6.84). All I'd done is bought myself a temporary respite, at the cost of someone else's suffering (8.25). Now the pain was back, and all I could do was hope and pray that the old man was a better person than me (9.65). That he, unlike me, unlike Rebecca, unlike however many dozens or hundreds up the line, that he was truly a good person (10.23 and rising).