The teacup rattled against the saucer as Mary picked it up. Slowly, she lifted the cup to her thin lips and sipped the steaming liquid. "Ah," she said to herself, even though her taste buds weren't quite as sharp now as they had been in her younger days. That was, perhaps, the thing she hated most about getting older. The aches and pains were expected, but the dulling of the senses was something that, occasionally filled her with a deep sadness.

Still, she was not one to stay down for long. At the age of one hundred and two, and after all of the losses she suffered, barely anything could phase her. Mary was the last of her entire family, having outlived her siblings, her husband, and yes, even her children. The last of them to go, her daughter, had passed before Mary even hit her eightieth birthday. She became an octogenarian alone, and had remained so ever since.

Though she may have had a few complaints, Mary absolutely knew enough to count her blessings. She still had her legs to walk with, her mind to think with, and just enough strength to keep her house on her own without needing too much help from the kindly neighbors. She had been just fine for a long time, and she meant to go on that way.

On that sunny Sunday afternoon, with her tea going cold on the table beside her, Mary was just about to nod off for a nap when she heard a series of knocks at the door.

Ba boom, ba boom, ba boom.

The rhythm was that of a heartbeat. Mary's blood froze in her veins. She only knew of one person who knocked like that, and she'd never expected to see him again.

It couldn't be, Mary thought to herself. It's been so.... But maybe... just maybe... it's one of the children from next door. Children like to play games. And thus, having seeded her mind with reasonable doubt, Mary rose to answer the door.

Her guest was not among her neighbors. Instead, Mary found herself looking into the same cold gray eyes she had seen on so many occasions. His hair was slicked back as always, and his suit perfectly pressed. That handsome face had charmed her once, but she had learned long ago to associate it with pain.

"What do you want?" Mary asked.

"Mary," said the man, "is that any way to greet an old friend?" He smiled, as he always had, as if he were trying on a brand new face. His eyes, however, remained dead.

"Answer me," Mary said. "What do you want?"

"May I come in?" the man asked.

"Why?" Mary demanded.

The man's expression made no change, but Mary could tell from his tone that he was irritated. "I'll tell you once you let me in."

With that, Mary sighed and stepped aside to admit the man. "All right, you're in now. What do you want?"

The man smiled again. "I've come to check up on you," he said. "Come. Let's sit together for a while. And chat." The friendly words sounded just as unnatural in his mouth as the smile did on it.

"Ain't nothing to chat about," Mary insisted, her nerves beginning to jitter. "I'm doing just fine."

"Yes," said the man. "I can see that." He looked down at the table beside him, on top of which rested a tiny, plastic device. It was a call box of some sort with a red, unlit bulb in the center. He pressed the button just below the bulb and smiled. Turning to look at Mary, he raised the device to his ear and gave it a shake. Something loose rattled within.

"Shouldn't you be wearing this?" he asked.

"I don't need it. I'm in perfect health," Mary said, proudly. "Besides. It stopped working a month ago."

"I see," said the man, his smile widening. "You know, Mary, I liked you from the moment we met. How long ago was that now? Oh, well. It doesn't matter. But my point is that I liked you even then. And do you know why?"

"Why?" Mary asked, somewhat afraid of the answer.

"I like you because you're proud," the man said. "Pride. It's one of my seven favorite qualities." He chuckled a little to himself.

Mary rolled her eyes. "I would have thought, with how long you've been around, you'd have learned to make a decent joke by now."

The man's face contorted in an expression of mock injury. "Oh, but I have, Mary," he said. "You know me. I know jokes and tricks of all kinds. As a matter of fact...." He slowly stepped toward her. "That's why I came here today."

Mary shrank from him. For the first time since he'd arrived, she was now truly frightened. "What are you talking about?" she asked.

"Your payment is due, Mary," said the man.

"My... payment...?" Mary repeated. "But, that was due more than ten years ago... and you never came! I thought...."

"What? That I had forgotten?" He let out a laugh that was shockingly loud and deep. It shook Mary's bones and made her yelp. "I never forget an agreement. Whatever made you think I would?"

"Well, then," Mary stuttered, "why didn't you come to collect a decade ago?"

"If you'll remember the exact terms of our contract," the man began, "I said I'd come about 'every so often.' It just so happens that most of the time, I've come around at the regular interval of ten years, but you never should have expected anything so predictable." He tilted his head to the side in an almost robotic way. "Silly Mary. So very silly."

"So you tricked me!" she spat.

"Mary, my dear, I've done nothing of the kind," he said. "I'm being true to both the spirit and letter of what we originally agreed." His smile faded, and a darkness seemed to fill his intense stare. "But I'm getting impatient now, Mary. You're not the only stop I've got to make, and I want my payment. So tell me: who's it going to be?"

Mary began to tremble. "There's.... There's no one left," she said, meekly. "I... I've got no one."

The man's expression became wild and hungry. His eyes widened, making Mary shiver even more. "Well, then," he said with audible excitement. "You know what that means...." He lurched toward her.

"Wait!" Mary cried. "Does it have to be a family member? I've got neighbors who---"

The man cut her off. "You know the rules, Mary. Blood relations and lovers only."

"No," she begged with tears in her eyes. "Please!"

"A deal's a deal, Mary," the man said. "You should just resign yourself now." He lurched ever closer. Before Mary knew what was happening, he had backed her into the corner of the room.

"Please," she screamed, clutching the wall and sliding down. "I'll do anything! I'll give you anything!"

"You have nothing left to give!" he said, almost joyously. "Thanks for playing, Mary. It's been fun!"

In one lightning-quick motion, he seized the old woman by the throat. Slowly and deliberately, he lifted her whole body in the air, and then violently pressed her mouth to his. All the while, Mary screamed and choked until all of the air had been sucked clean out of her lungs. When at last she hung limp in his grasp, the man tossed her carelessly back into the corner. Satisfied, he picked up the call box and threw it down at the body where it landed in Mary's lap. And with that, he calmly strolled out the front door and into the crisp, early evening air.

Written by Jdeschene
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