“What is most important?”
Henry McFarland woke with the sun in his face and a sickly sweet smell of spittle on his cheek. He sat up, pushing aside the large but friendly street dog that had been licking his face and glanced at the garbage bins that sat around him. The alley was a familiar one and as Henry stood up he removed a fresh cigarette from his pocket and placed it in his dry, cracked lips. He searched his pockets for his lighter and as he did, he felt the bruises and broken ribs from the night before. After a brief search he spun around and began checking the rubbish bins for where the lighter may have fallen. As he tossed aside the bags of garbage, tears began to swell in his eyes as the sudden memory of last night came flooding back to him. As his emotions overtook him the cigarette fell from his lips, he screamed, kicking the hollow metal trash can over and over until he could feel his toes cracking and bleeding within his shoes.
From an early age Henry did not know how to quit; many had labeled him as having an addictive personality but to him, it was more than that. The insatiable desire to gamble cost him every job, every chance at a better life, every great opportunity and every major love in his life – except his daughter Emily. Emily was born eight years ago on a miserably cold January day and although the woman he had conceived her with was a vile woman, Emily was the light to Henry’s darkness and because of that she kept Henry whole. He often pretended that she was his conscience and when met with doubt it was always her face he saw when he needed it most. Henry’s father never cared for him that way, so Henry made it abundantly clear that he would not be the cliché “terrible father who had a terrible father,” and he made sure that Emily would be the one thing in his life that he was proud of. But as he sat bloody and beaten below the hot lamp in the basement of Edwin’s bar he couldn’t see her face, only the knuckles that were beating him repeatedly.
Edwin sat up from the table on the far side of the room and strolled over to Henry, dancing a coin between his fingers as he did. Edwin was a large, rugged man with little patience and as he walked towards Henry he whistled a cheery tune.
“Well. I didn’t think I’d see you in here for a while after last time Henry,” Edwin said through a thick cigar which danced in the corner of his mouth.
After a beat, Henry tried to look up, his head heavy with blood that dripped from his mouth and pooled in his lap. His hands were tied behind his back and for the last 20 minutes or so they had bruised every non-visible portion of his body. He softly spoke through cracked teeth,
“Please….” Henry pleaded.
Edwin drew back and hit him hard across the face with the back side of his hand. He walked back over to the table and began looking through Henry’s things. Weakly Henry turned towards Edwin.
“I can pay…” Henry began to say but was cut off when Edwin strolled back over with something in his hand.
“No you won’t Henry, we know this. We’ve done this before pal.” Edwin said coldly.
Henry gritted his teeth, pain shooting through his snapped and broken jaw as he looked up towards Edwin who loomed over him.
“I can Edwin, I swear it.” He said.
After a long beat Edwin lifted his eyebrows and pulled a wooden chair over so that he now sat in front of Henry. Edwin rubbed his chin, shook his head in exasperation and gave a look to the men standing at the sidelines as Henry waited anxiously.
“Okay Henry.” Edwin said flatly. “Against my better judgement, I’ll give you a chance to come up with the money.”
Immediately Henry began thanking him and tears streamed from his eyes. Edwin held up a hand to stop him.
“Henry, hold on; I’m going to give you three days to come up with the money.” Edwin said and as he did he opened what Henry now recognized as his own wallet and removed a small piece of white paper. “But if you don’t have my money to me in three days…”
Henry’s eyes began darting around nervously from the men in the room to the piece of paper when Edwin slapped him hard across the face.
“Pay attention…” Edwin said with anger as he wiped his bloody hand on Henry’s coat. “If you don’t have my money to me in three days, I’m going to kill your little girl.”
Edwin spun the piece of paper that was removed from Henry’s wallet and showed him the picture of Emily that was always kept inside of it. Henry swallowed hard.
That was last night.
Once he caught his breath and breathed the fire out of his lungs, he slowly stooped down to pick up his cigarette which had fallen from his mouth. As he did, he noticed his wallet lay open beside him and he grabbed it as well. In the morning light the alley almost looked pleasant and as he began searching for his lighter again he heard a voice come from behind him.
“Need a light?” the voice asked.
He spun around to see a man standing before him dressed in black with a hand outstretched and a lighter at the end of it. Without changing the stern look on his face the man flicked the lighter and the flame ignited. Nervously Henry leaned in and lit the tip of his cigarette off the man’s lighter.
“I can pay your debt.” The man said without so much of a hello.
For a second Henry searched the man’s face confused at the situation before him. Henry scoffed and almost denied the man a chance to speak before the realization of what was at stake dawned on him. As Henry’s gaze met the man’s he saw the seriousness behind his eyes and questioned him.
“Why?” Henry asked nervously.
The man took a step towards Henry who was already fairly close,
“…because I need a favour.” The man said flatly. Henry turned away putting his back to the man momentarily; as he did he remembered the wallet in his hand and flipped it open to the smiling face of his daughter. Henry turned back to the man, tears welling in his eyes.
This was three weeks ago…