Zandra was my best friend, which says more about the state of my social life than about our friendship. I had other friends, but they were the kind of friendships where, when we hung out, we chatted rather than talked. We knew about each other—what we were doing and who was dating who—but I didn’t know them, and none of them knew me.
I never knew anything about Zandra. I only saw her on Saturdays. Whenever I’d suggested we do something on a different day, she’d said she was busy. I didn’t know what she did with the rest of the week. I didn’t know if she had a job, or a social life, or even what her last name was. But it didn’t matter. Zandra was the only person who understood me.
It wasn’t that we spent our time having deep conversations, because we didn’t. But Zandra lived in the moment, and when I was with her the world seemed different somehow. Every passing butterfly was a miracle, and even the most insignificant chitchat was imbued with soul.
One day—it was a Tuesday—I got home very late, and surprised a burglar. I stood in my doorway, shocked at this invasion of my home. The burglar dropped my TV, pulled out a gun, and shot me.
The bullet hit my leg. I collapsed, and he rushed past me out of my house.
I was screaming. One of my neighbors must have heard my screams, or the gunshot, and called the police. My face was soaked in tears of pain when the ambulance finally arrived.
At the hospital, the doctor told me that the bullet hadn’t quite hit the bone, but was still in my leg and would need to be removed. I would be fine, they assured me.
The painkillers were beginning to set in by then, so my leg didn’t hurt as much, but I felt betrayed by the world at the invasion of my home by the burglar and of my body by the bullet. I didn’t think I would be fine.
The operation was successful. All my friends stopped by the hospital to give their condolences and express their shock. All except Zandra, and again I felt betrayed. So what if it wasn’t a Saturday? So what if she was busy? I was in the hospital recovering from being shot!
On Saturday, she did come, sneaking into my room without waiting for visiting hours.
“Hi,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said Zandra.
I shrugged. “Life sucks.”
Zandra studied me carefully. “Can I tell you a story?”
She sat down in a chair. “Once, people caused each other a great deal of pain.”
“They still do,” I interrupted, gesturing towards me leg.
“Yes, of course, but once there was twice as much pain in the world. I don’t know if twice as many bad things happened, or if each grievance suffered then was felt twice as much. Either way, the world is only half as cruel now as it once was.”
“It must have been pretty bad back then,” I said.
“It was. People were hurt, and saw their friends hurt, and were miserable. They say we are given no more than we can bear, but then why are there so many suicides? There were even more then than now. The whole world was in despair.”
“So what happened?”
“It was a small thing, in the grand scheme of the world. No one ever knew about it, ever knew about it, even. There was a girl. She had suffered no great tragedy but for living among the horrors of the world. She saw the pain around her, and knew she had to stop it.
“She went off in search of… she didn’t even know what. An evil to defeat? A last thread of hope to unleash into the world? She traveled far and wide, never knowing what she was looking for.
“Until she found it.” Zandra paused and stared off into the distance.
“What was it?” I asked impatiently.
"You would call him the devil, perhaps, though that is not quite right. He is not how you would think of him. He was simply a power with a lust for evil, but rather than committing it with his own hand, he stirred the rest of the world to do his work for him.
“How and where the girl found him does not matter. Perhaps he found her, even. However it went, she knew him for what he was. And he was no demon to be defeated, that was quite clear. So she did the only thing she could.”
“She made a bargain, of course. A deal with the devil, but she didn’t pledge her soul, and she knew what she was getting into. She couldn’t, of course, completely understand, but she knew.
“The deal was this: She would take on half of the world’s pain, for as long as she chose to.”
I let out a little gasp of astonishment. “But how could she? If the entire world couldn’t handle it, how could the one girl?”
“She just did,” Zandra said sternly. “Maybe she was stronger or more determined, maybe she was simply able to bear more, maybe it was because she took the burden on herself, a willing sacrifice. And of course, no mortal could survive thousands of years of constant pain. So she was given eternal, or at least extended, life, and youth. And… I forgot to mention this part of the deal—she was given one day off every week, to spend free in the world she had saved.”
I would have realized then, of course, had it not been for the painkillers. As it was, I missed the obvious. “Then what happened?”
“Then she kept up her end of the deal, and he kept up his, and the world is only half as bad as it once was. And every Saturday she is free to enjoy the improvement.” Zandra got up. “Get well soon. I’ll see you next week.” She began to leave.
“Wait,” I called. She stopped halfway to the door. “How can you go back to that?”
She didn’t deny it. “How could I not?” she asked, and left.
I was out of the hospital by the next Saturday, walking on crutches but otherwise fine. I was a little worried to see Zandra. I thought that after knowing her story, our friendship would be changed. But she appeared with a handful of brightly colored sharpies and drew her name over most of my cast, acting the same as ever. I realized that that was how she was able to bear half the world’s pain; by living in the moment; and that this was her retreat. So I didn’t dwell on it any more than she did, and I stopped dwelling on my own lingering pain and fear as well.
After a while, I began to wonder if Zandra had really told me that, or if it had just been a painkiller-induced dream. So I asked her if it had really happened. “Maybe,” she said playfully, but I could tell by her tone that she had told me the story. There was no proof that it was true, of course, but I believed it.
So life went back to normal. My cast came off. The man who shot me was never caught, but it stopped mattering so much to me. I am, for the most part, very happy, and at least on the days I see her, so is Zandra.