“What are we doing here again?” I glanced back at the twenty-foot wall topped with razor wire that surrounded the mansion.
“His name is Argo Milliner. You just have to say hello and thank you for the scholarship, and we leave. It’s just polite.” My mother nudged me toward the door. It was heavy wood, like the door of a castle.
After a moment, a deadbolt slid open, then another, and another. The door creaked open, and a man retreated from the shadows inside.
“You are her then? Alright, come in.” His voice was slightly muffled. When he turned his back and started to walk away, I noticed a plastic bubble around his head, like a spacesuit helmet.
“This is really weird.”
“Yeah, well, millionaires usually are.” My mother gestured for me to follow.
“He’s going to murder us, isn’t he?”
“It’s ten minutes of your life; stop complaining!”
He led us through a dozen rooms, each of them lined with books. There must have been thousands of them, some of them looking very old. He stopped in a long, narrow dining room with a long, narrow table. He sat at one end and gestured for us to sit at the other.
A fire was roaring in a hearth in the middle of the room. It shined on his spacesuit helmet, partially obscuring his face. Still, though, I could tell he was younger than I’d expected. His hair was messy, and his eyes were wild. He was wearing a black button-up shirt and jeans.
He put his hands on the table, and I noticed black leather gloves—what a weirdo.
“Can I offer you some refreshment? Water or wine or…”
“Water would be lovely, thank you,” My mother said, nudging me to agree.
“Yes, thank you.”
He stared at me for a moment before hurrying out of the room. My eyes wandered along the shelves of books until he returned with three glasses of water. He approached us and then stopped and placed them halfway down the table before retaking his seat. My mother smiled and retrieved them.
“Sorry.” He said, “Not used to entertaining.”
“You have a lovely home.” My mother said.
“Yes, I have to just come out with this because I’m afraid I’ll back out if I wait.” He interrupted her. But then he stopped, his eyes danced around the room but returned again and again to me.
“This is going to … I’m …“ He shook his head. “I don’t know where to start.”
“The scholarship…” My mother prompted him helpfully.
“A demonstration. Show, don’t tell, right? That’s what the great writers do.” He stood and drew a handgun.
I screamed and leaped back from the table, knocking the chair over. My mother did the same, grabbing for me as she ducked under the table. He fired the gun then. It was deafening.
But then, nothing. I peeked out from under the table. Argo was watching me, the gun held against his chest, just below the shoulder. He lowered the gun and looked down.
“Guess you can’t really see.” He muttered. “Here.” He fumbled with his shirt for a moment, then pulled it away from his shoulder to show me where he had shot himself.
“What is going on?” My mother croaked. “Please don’t hurt us.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. But you saw right – you believe me now?”
“Saw what?” I said.
“The kiss. Here I’ll do it again.”
“No!” I said, but he shot himself again, just below his shoulder. He pulled the gun away immediately to reveal a hole in his chest. But then the hole started to close like the airlock on a spaceship. And then it was just skin again. He wiped a few drops of blood away with a cloth.
“Sit, please.” He said, re-buttoning his shirt.
“What the hell is going on?” I said.
“When I was nineteen years old, I saved the life of an emperor. Assassins tried to kill him, and I jumped in front of the arrow. I was a guard. The arrow tore up my gut, and I was going to die. No surgery back then.” He grinned as if this was a very funny joke. When I didn’t laugh, he grumbled something and continued his story.
“But there was the kiss of the madonna.” He smirked. “I guess you’d call it magic. I guess that’s what it is. Honestly, I don’t really know what it is. But it means you can’t die. It means you will heal any wound, that you are impervious to any sickness, to aging. The emperor had a kiss-keeper that followed him around to transfer the gift to him should he need it. And then he would transfer it back as soon as he was healed. It’s transferred through touch – any touch, a hug, handshake, a punch – any skin-to-skin contact, and the kiss leaves its host for another. I watched as my gut stopped bleeding, stopped hurting, as it re-knit itself, and then I was whole, and I realized what had happened. The emperor offered me his hand in friendship, in appreciation. And I realized what I had been given. I backed away from his hand, not wanting to give it up. The emperor warned me, insisted I return the gift. But what could they do to stop me? I ran. They filled me with arrows, but I just pulled them out and kept running. They sent the army after me. I lost them by diving off a cliff. I landed in the sea some few thousand feet below. It hurt like – well, anyway, it didn’t last, and I swam away. This was nearly a thousand years ago. More than a thousand, I guess. I lose track.”
I risked a glance at my mother, wondering if we should try to make a break for it. She was frozen though, terrified, confused.
“I thought I had been devilishly clever. I had cheated death. I had won. I would never die. I was penniless, but I had plenty of time, and it’s not like I could starve. So I built an empire. I became the richest man in the world. And the only price was that I could never touch anyone. Never. I’ve taken the most extensive precautions. I’ve worn armor every day of my life, like this.” He tapped on his bubble helmet. “Though not quite as fancy back then.”
“What is going on?” My mother finally croaked. “We were just here to meet my daughter’s benefactor.”
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry to surprise you with this. I just couldn’t have explained on the phone, could I?”
“We would like to go now.” She said.
“Of course.” He frowned. “Just – let me – well – you’re my daughter.” He grimaced and looked away.
“I’m sorry, what?” I said. I looked at my mother, but she and Argo were staring at each other.
“I was the donor.”
“We’re leaving.” My mother grabbed me and pulled me toward the door.
“Wait!” He said. “Please!” He called after us as we fled the overgrown library. I crashed into a shelf and sent leather-bound volumes flying but managed to keep my feet, and the exit was in sight when he caught up to us. He grabbed my wrist with a gloved hand, and I stopped running.
“Please!” I turned slowly, afraid he might have the gun pointed at me, but he didn’t. He was just looking at us, just a young man with wild eyes. He pulled the bubble helmet off and held it up as if this was evidence of his intentions.
“I don’t know how to talk to people.” He said. “I’m trying. I’m sorry for scaring you. I’m not going to hurt you. I want to … I mean … I want to offer you … I’ve come to see the wisdom of the kiss keeper all those years ago. There is no joy in living without the fear of death. Value requires scarcity. There has to be an end or the story is just a cookbook.”
“Wait,” I said. “You mean…”
“I am offering you the kiss of the madonna. That’s why I asked you here. But you have to promise not to keep it. That’s the condition. I can’t enforce it, but I want you to promise anyway.” He stepped forward, reaching out with a gloved hand and shaking fingers.
My mother grabbed my arm, but I didn’t move.
“Promise me you’ll share it.” He said, tugging at his leather fingers until they were freed of their armor. He held up his bared hand, his fingers quivered.
“Promise me.” He said again. “Promise me you won’t keep it. That you will share your life with others. That was the idea, I think. That we all protect each other, that’s why we are here. To share immortality with our neighbor when they need it most.”
My mother had stopped struggling. I glanced at her and then back at Argo. At my father. He nodded, steadying himself as a soldier might before a battle.
I didn’t believe him. It was absurd. It was obviously absurd. I thought it might be a tv show. Hidden cameras. The world would be laughing at my naivety. Immortality! As if such a thing were possible. The kiss of the madonna? It sounds like a cocktail served at a stupid hipster bar.
But Argo didn’t move. He didn’t blink. He didn’t laugh. And there was something about the way he struggled to keep his hand up, the way he trembled. That trembling was not born of deceit.
“Promise me!” He repeated.
“I promise.” I choked on the words. It was suddenly sweltering in that overgrown library.
I lifted my hand, and our fingers met. Just a moment. His eyes went wide, and he snapped his hand away. I thought he might vomit.
“It’s done.” He said. “Now leave. Please.” He nods. He staggered, though not from weakness. Relief. He was relieved. “And remember your promise.”
I followed my mother out of the house, through the doors and the razor wire fence.
I planned to give it up. I did. I thought I’d have a little fun, a little crazy bold fun, and then I’d pass the gift on.
That was eight hundred years ago. But now I understand. I understand the pain that filled my father’s eyes that day—the pain of eternity. And so, my son. I’m begging you. Please learn from my mistake. From your grandfather’s mistake.
Take the gift, and share it.
© 2021, Aaron Zimmerman. All rights reserved.