On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Keith was the best. His boss had told him so, and there were statistics to prove it, but Keith also just knew that it was a fact.
And no wonder; he was doing the job he was born to do, and making a damned good living in the process. He enjoyed every day of it, even though he was at the mercy of the weather, walking a circuit around the main shopping streets of the city, carrying a big umbrella and wearing a high-visibility vest in the colours of whatever charity he was representing that day.
Today, it was a Monday, which meant he wore the green-and-white livery of a major cancer charity. They were his clients on Thursdays too, and both days always produced a huge number of donations, along with the all-important commission he earned. Keith had a smile on his face, regardless of the grey skies, and he started looking around for potential donors without delay.
The first candidate was farther down the block, just coming out of a newsagent; a middle-aged woman. Women were best. They were much more reluctant to be rude and just ignore his approach, and they took longer to disentangle themselves from the conversation once he’d started his pitch. They were also more concerned about their health in general. On a really good day, he’d take donations solely from female passers-by, if at all possible.
This one was special, though, just like everyone he approached. She was in her late thirties, and it would only be another eight years before she found the tender mass of enlarged lymph nodes under her arm. She would initially think she’d pulled a hair when shaving her armpit, but a further week would only worsen the discomfort, and eventually she would go to see her doctor. There would an examination, and an immediate referral, and a scan, and then a biopsy. Then a letter, and finally a meeting in an office that was ominously comfortable, and ominously quiet, and ominously oncological.
Keith saw it all in his mind, perfectly clearly, because that was his gift. It had become apparent in his early teenage years, and it had almost caused him to be thrown out of high school when he revealed too much knowledge of the personal life of an irascible staff member. Keith had learned to keep his ability close to his chest ever since then, and the great moment of epiphany came when his mother took him to visit the bedside of his dying grandfather. The young Keith held the old man’s rough hand, and his grandfather told him to take good care of his grandmother. Keith had to bite his own tongue to stop himself from telling the old man that his wife would be joining him soon, because of a stroke that was mere weeks away.
Keith had started work when he was seventeen, and it was a source of pride for his parents that he devoted so much time and effort to helping support charities. They didn’t know the true extent of his savings, and of course they had no idea of the source of his uncanny ability to convince strangers on the street to support good causes.
Keith moved towards the woman who had come out of the newsagents. She was stationary, fiddling with something in her handbag, and she wasn’t even aware of his approach until he appeared beside her. She looked up quickly, her face momentarily betraying the fear that must forever be any woman’s companion at the approach of an unknown man, and then the fear evaporated immediately when she saw his logo-emblazoned clothing, clipboard, and identity lanyard.
She gave him the small smile that many people did, which effortlessly conveyed the desire to escape from him as quickly as possible, and Keith responded with a larger and entirely at-ease smile.
“Forgive me for saying so, but I get the feeling that your life has been touched by cancer,” he said, without preamble. “Perhaps a family member? For me, it was my grandfather.”
He watched the familiar procession of expressions on her face. Wariness, annoyance, then everything else swept away by surprise, confusion, momentary doubt, and finally sympathy and empathy. Keith already knew that he had her. He also knew something that she didn’t: the statistics for incidence of heritable cancers, such as the type that this poor woman was going to suffer from.
He tried not to personalise his work. His ability to see within people, and to see their future, was a passive thing even if it was undeniably intrusive and manipulative. They were free to choose whether to donate, and Keith himself received only a small slice off the top of the money, the vast majority of which went to the charities themselves. The donations also funded research, so there was always the small hope that those glimpsed futures might even be altered — if not for the donors, then at least for those who came after.
“How… how could you know that?” the woman asked, face paler now, and Keith gave a sad smile that he’d practiced not just at home, but also for thousands of hours on the streets.
“You learn to recognise the look,” he replied, offering the usual credible nonsense. “That’s why I do this work, and it’s so important to support not just end-of-life care, but also research into this disease. Then maybe there’ll be fewer people like you and I who have lost someone to it. Don’t you think?”
The woman looked at him, and Keith looked back at her with a kindly expression, seeming to wait and see whether she agreed with him. But it was a pretence, because her mind was open to his eyes.
He already knew that she did.
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