HE WOKE TO THE sound of his own coughing.

The cough – a dry, hacking bark – reverberated throughout his entire body. It took control over every muscle and sent a sharp stinging pain into each nerve. He’d been living with the cough for a number of years, and now he would die with it.

After a few moments, the coughing subsided. He opened his eyes to blinding sunlight that shone through a bank of windows behind and above his bed. He shaded his eyes with a hand and had to blink away the pain that the light brought as it bounced off of the snow on the other side of the glass.

He thought about going back to sleep, but he knew it wouldn’t last. Besides, he’d be dead soon. He could sleep all he wanted then.

He sat up and looked around the room in which he would spend his remaining days. A strange amalgamation of rustic hunting lodge and sterile hospital, he imagined it to be the sort of place where doctors would spend their work hours tending to patients, and their off hours killing a few of God’s creatures.

His wasn’t the only bed in the room, though it was the only one currently occupied. This suited him just fine. He thought he might like to die without a lot of fuss and bother. Besides, if others were sharing the room with him, they’d likely be in the same state as him, and he didn’t quite feel up spending his last few hours on Earth listening to others wail and moan in anguish. Just the thought of it made him sick. In total, there were twelve beds in the room, six on his side, six on the opposite. That would have been a lot of whining and crying were the place full. Sometimes you just had to count your blessings.

He thought about leaving. Just climbing out of bed, pulling on his boots, and finding some decent place to die. A saloon, for example. He’d always figured he’d die in a saloon. A winning hand of poker in one hand and a six shooter in the other. At least he could have one last shot of whiskey before the lights went out on him. The thought of whisky made him smile. They didn’t allow him any whisky in this place. No whisky, no women, and absolutely no fun.

A nurse entered the room with fresh water. She looked cheerful and happy; the very embodiment of optimism and hope. He hated her for that reason alone.

“Good morning,” she sang. “How are we feeling?”

“I won’t be so bold as to speak for you, darlin’, but I feel like crap,” he said.

The nurse put the water on the little table to the right of his bed and checked his bedding. “You just tell me what you need,” she said, her face twisting into a smile that he thought made her look like a witless moron. “After all, we want to make you as comfortable as possible.”

“I could use a bottle of whiskey,” is what he wanted to say. Instead his body curled in on itself, wracked once again with a fit of coughing. He grabbed at a small white handkerchief that sat on his bedside table and used it to cover his mouth. When the coughing subsided and he pulled the cloth away, he found it flecked with blood. More blood than usual. Not a good sign, though not surprising either.

The nurse placed a cold hand to his forehead and made soothing noises meant to comfort and reassure. He knew she meant well, but he hated her for it, despite her intentions. He understood that she knew that in end, there would be nothing that she, or anyone in the sanitarium for that matter, could do for him. His fate was sealed. It was only a matter of time. Yet they all continued to go through the motions, trying to make his remaining time comfortable and free of worry. And for that he would curse them with his last remaining breath. He didn’t need their pity, their fuss, or their bother. He wanted to be out there, in the saloons, a winning hand on the table and guns blazing away. He wanted to be free. As he had it now, he might as well have been in prison.

The coughing fit passed and the nurse continued with her morning routine. She fluffed his pillow, fussed him out of bed long enough to use the chamber pot, had him sit in a chair by the window as she changed his bedding, and forced him to listen to her prattle on and on about any little piece of information that popped into her empty head.

Soon it was time to get back into bed. As he lay back, he looked down at his feet. After everything he had been through, after all he’d seen, all he’d done, he would die with his boots off. He smiled at the irony.

“The doctor will be in to see you later this afternoon. In the meantime, is there anything I can do for you?” the nurse asked as she tucked the fresh linens in around him, trapping him in the bed.

“How about a bottle of whisky?” he asked.

“You know we can’t allow that,” she replied, a look of sour disappointment crossing her face.

“Damn, this is funny,” was all he could say and sent her on her way with a whack on her behind.

There wasn’t much to do in the sanitarium, no one visited anymore, he wasn’t allowed whisky, and playing solitaire just reminded him of the old days.

All he had left, until death came to claim him, was sleep. He smiled for the second time that morning. Sometimes the irony was just too much.

* * * * * * * * *

He woke from the nightmare, sitting bolt upright in bed, a scream lodged in his throat. He looked around the room in panic, groping at his side for the pistols that were no longer there. He was alone.

He lay back on the pillow, the memory of the dream fading. He tried to bring it back, but he might as well have been trying to grab at smoke. There was a bear, he could remember that, a giant grizzly bear. It stood over him, clawing and biting in a frenzy. Ripping into his clothes, his flesh, his soul. That’s when he woke and found himself back in the sanitarium.

The room was dark. He’d slept most of the day. The coughing took him again, bending his body into an unnatural position. It came on so swiftly and with such ferocity that he didn’t get a chance to snatch his handkerchief from the table. He didn’t even bother covering his mouth and instead let the blood spray the pristine white of his blankets.

The coughing abated and he laid back, thinking that he might go back to sleep. Hoping that this time he wouldn’t wake.

“That was a bad one,” a voice said from the front of the room.

He sat up to find a man in a suit standing in the doorway, the light from the hall spilling over him.

The man’s suit was black, even the shirt. A black bowler hat sat perched at a jaunty angle atop the man’s head.

“You the new doctor?” he asked the stranger.

“No,” the man in black smiled. “I am not a doctor.”

“What do you want?”

“I need to talk to you, John.”

John. No one had called him that in a great long time. “Then talk. I’m afraid I can’t guarantee you that I’ll survive the conversation.”

The man in black smiled again. He had a thick black mustache that hung down on each side of his mouth. When the dark man smiled the mustache moved. It looked to John like a black worm that wriggled about on his lip. Something about the man gave John a feeling of darkness, of foreboding. He didn’t care for it.

“You aren’t doing too good, John,” the man in black said, stepping into the room and approaching the bed. “I don’t think you are much longer for this life.”

“I got doctors to tell me the obvious. What do you want?” he asked.

“John,” the man in black sat at the edge of the bed and looked down at him. “What if I told you that I could make you better? What if I told you that I could take the sickness away? That you could go back to gambling? That you could go back to being you?”

“How do you expect to do that?” he asked, a bitter smile on his lips. “You some kind of preacher? You gonna tell me that all I have to do is confess my sins and ask for forgiveness and then I’ll be allowed to walk through the gates of Heaven and all will be as it was?”

“No, John,” the man in black laughed. “I’m no preacher. Well, not in the way you might define it.”

The man in black smiled again and John saw something in his eyes. Something that wasn’t quite … right. A touch of something unnatural. The look held no compassion. The look held nothing but contempt. Not just for John, but for everything. The bed, the room, even the world beyond. The man’s eyes reached out and took hold of him. Pulled him in. Captivated him. The eyes managed to be both comforting and disturbing, causing a chill to race through him.

“Who are you?” John asked, his voice nothing more than a whisper.

“I’m the one who can help you, John. The only one. I can return you to your glory. Imagine it. Imagine it, John. Imagine being back in the saloons. A winning hand, a shot of whisky, the women, the fear you inspired in people. Now imagine it without this sickness eating you up from the inside out. Imagine it, John.”

“It sounds nice,” he said, his voice sounding distant to his own ears as he gazed deep into the man’s eyes.

“I can do that for you, John. Me. Only me.”

“How?” he asked. “How can you do that?”

“Just know that I can, John. Do you believe me? Do you believe that I can do this for you? Do you believe in me?”

“I do. I do believe,” he said. He began to feel light-headed. His head was floating gently like a wisp of smoke as he lost himself in the man’s dark eyes.

“Then that leaves us with only one question, John.”

“What? What question?”

“How much, John? What would you give to go back? To go back without the sickness and do it all over again? How much would you pay?”

“Everything,” he whispered, he floated. “Anything.”

“I have some paperwork here, John. You see?” The dark man held out a short stack of papers. Papers filled with words written in thick, black ink. Words that looked to be written in an alien or long dead language. The words were scrawled across the pages in such a way that they seemed to be alive, crawling and wriggling around the papers in desperate impatience. But John didn’t see any of this. John hadn’t moved. He refused to break his gaze. His eyes stayed connected with the eyes of the man in black.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I see.”

“All I need from you is your signature, John. Just that. Your signature, right here on this line,” the man gestured to a line at the bottom of the paper.

“My signature?” he asked dreamily. “That’s it?”

“That’s it, John.” The man in black placed a pen in his hand. “Just sign, John. Just sign right here and everything will change.”

John signed, never taking his eyes off of the dark man. He just signed the paper, his hand moving on its own, a smile of ecstasy forming on his face.

“Good, John. Good,” the man in black said as he rolled up the paperwork and stood. “Now, just go back to sleep. Sleep for the last time. And when you wake, all will be different. When you wake, you will be yourself again.”

“Myself, again,” John said. Then he yawned and closed his eyes.

Soon he was snoring, his blankets pulled up to his chin. The man in black remained. Watching. Waiting.

John’s breathing slowed. The dark man waited.

John coughed weakly. The dark man watched.

John's heart stopped. The dark man smiled.

“Now we shall see,” the man in black said to the empty room. “Now we shall see.”

* * * * * * * * *

Three hours after the last breath had escaped John’s body, as the early morning sun began to filter in through the frost covered windows, a girl entered the room and approached John’s bed.

She looked to be about six or seven and wore a plain wool dress that was a gray so dark in color that it was practically black. In general she was a thoroughly unremarkable little girl. She did however, have two odd peculiarities about her.

The first was a large five pointed star that was sewn upon the front of her dress, right smack in the center. The star was made from a fabric so white that it seemed to glow and pulse with its own inner light.

Her second peculiarity was her hair. It was a shade of brown that was quite common and nothing to write home about, but had been done up in no less than seven pony tails that stuck up in random points atop her head, the rest hanging to just above her shoulders.

The little girl looked upon John’s lifeless form with sadness as she placed a hand to his brow.

A tear rolled slowly down her cheek and landed upon the star on her chest.

The little girl removed her hand from John’s brow and placed it upon his still chest, resting there for only a moment before she let it drop back to her side.

“Don’t worry, John,” she said, her voice a whisper. “I’m not ready to give up on you just yet.”

She turned her back on John’s body and made her way back across the room to the door, moving in an effortless manner, virtually floating across the wooden floor.

She stopped at the threshold and smiled, turning to look back at John once more from over her shoulder.

“It’s never too late, John. It’s never too late.”

And with that, she was gone.