He sits behind the window at the North Fairview bank, eyes on the paper he's writing on.
"Next," he says. His tongue tingles and itches with the words, but he's long since grown used to that. The sensation doesn't bother him anymore.
A moment passes, and nobody from the line steps forward.
"Next," he says again.
A middle-aged man in a suit cuts in front of the hesitant old woman at the front of the line and comes up to the window.
"Mr. Ulrick," says the man behind the window, not looking up. "How nice to see you again."
Ulrick smiles wanly. He is a large man, a head taller than most others in line with a top-heavy torso giving him a vague resemblance to the letter V.
"Yes, I suppose it's good to see you too. I'd like to make a deposit."
The Man behind the counter sets his pen down beside a canister on the desk.
Ulrick sheepishly passes a matchbook depicting a sun setting on silhouetted palm trees. The words on the back read: Palm View motel. The Man behind the window understands completely and nods.
"Alright," he says, pouring a glass of something thick, pinkish, and smelling slightly of flowers from the canister. He pushes the shot glass through the hole at the bottom of the window.
Ulrick drinks exactly half the shot, stopping at the line on the glass. He passes the drink back to the teller, who finishes it.
A thought flits through the teller's mind, and the tingling in his tongue turns into a outright burning.
I cheated on my wife again, says the thought. It's loud, clear, and in Ulrick's voice.
The Man tucks the matchbook into a bag and writes Ulrick's name and account number on it. He tucks the bag into the long drawer beside him and, to Ulrick, says only, "Thank you for your patronage."
The burning dies down as the secret settles amongst the others he's already collected that morning.
Ulrick smiles and honest smile and leaves, looking far happier than when he came in.
"Next," says The Man.
The old woman has stepped out of line, off to the side and out of the way. A harried man steps forward, looking pale, thin, and thoroughly frazzled.
"Deposit," he says. "Last name's Achlen." He slaps a bloodstained key onto the counter.
The Man takes it behind the counter calmly pours another drink. Achlen slugs his portion down eagerly and the man behind the counter finishes it off.
I killed a man today. I hit him with my car.
"It was an accident!" hisses Achlen as the secret writhes on the teller's tongue. "He darted out in front of me-"
Suddenly he chokes and stops. The Man behind the counter has gotten the secret under under control. He brings out a bag and gently places Achlen's key into it.
"Will there be anything else, Mr. Achlen?" His voice hasn't changed at all. It's still polite, still slightly apathetic, still a man speaking to a customer.
Achlen blinks and wiped his eyes on his sleeves. "No," he says, sounding entirely composed. "That will be all, thank you." He leaves with a slight skip in his step.
And so it goes.
My daughter's hamster died because I forgot to feed it while she was at summer camp. I told her it was the cat-
I told her we'd only gotten a couple hundred for it and pocketed the rest-
She thinks I want children-
I spent the money-
He hits me-
I haven't told them-
He listens to all their secrets with patience and civility. This one in a suit is a junkie and owes his dealer, That one with the Gucci purse hates her children. This one hurt that one, he slept with her, they robbed that and this stole that-
And he held them all on the tip of his tongue and bid their owners goodbye with a smile.
Finally, only the old woman was left. She'd watched. The entire time, she'd been there watching, even as the rest of the bank closed, the lights dimmed, and every other teller went home.
She approaches the counter. His tongue burns. He wants this day to be over.
"Hello, madam. Would-"
She cuts him off, her frail voice plowing over him with surprising strength. "You really do it, don't you?"
"You take their sins," she says.
He sighs and rubs his eyes. "No, madam, I take their guilt. I take their secrets. Their sins are still very much their own."
"Not every secret is a sin. You can still feel guilty, even if you haven't done anything wrong."
"Then I'd say those people are the ones who appreciate me the most, wouldn't you think?" He tilted his head. "Would you like to make a deposit?"
"No, I'm afraid not." She takes a deep breath and stands a little straighter. "I'm here to take out a loan."
"Madam? I don't-"
She opens her purse and pulls out a photo of a newborn in a glass box covered with wires.
"My grandson," she says.
"Madam. . . "
"He's not going to make it on his own. I know this. I- I haven't got any secrets. I've only got one thing to give as collateral." Her eyes fill with tears.
"Olivia. Olivia Anderson. You- you write that down on your list." She points a skeletal finger at him. "Go on, write it down."
"You're sure?" he says.
She smiles. "More sure than I've ever been in my life."
He could stop her, he thinks. He could say they've closed. Sorry, come back next time. The secrets blaze on his tongue.
Instead, he sticks his hand out beneath the window, and she takes it with both hands. He's surprised by the warmth in them.
Slowly, he draws his hand back.
Soft, silver threads of light that half look like mist and half look like silk pour out of the woman's fingertips. He pulls and pulls, winding them up into a figure eight around his finger and thumb.
Holding the thread with one hand, he makes a special note next to her name on his checklist.
"Is it done?" she says. Her voice is flat. Uninterested.
"Yes," he says, suddenly feeling much, much older. She gives him a small, insincere smile. "Very well."
"Have a nice night, madam."
She doesn't answer and walks across the empty lobby towards the exit, leaving him alone.
He looks at the delicate silver thread in his hands. it shimmers and hums. When he leans in close, he can hear the soft sound of laughter.
He gathers all the little bags collected over the day and scoops them up, one armed, so the thread has his right hand all to itself. He goes into the vault and, one by one, spills the secrets on his tongue into the bag with their tethered artifact. After that, he carefully seals every secret and locks them in the safe boxes.
The thread, he takes to a shelf on the back. Handling it like the sacred, precious thing he knows it to be, he places the thread onto the shelf, beside a few others like it.
He can hear the secrets shouting in the walls on either side of him. They rattle and bang in their boxes, screaming their crimes, but only coming up muffled and distorted. Unsatisfied, they scream even harder.
The thread sits demurely on the shelf.
With a sad sigh, he leaves the vault and locks it up behind him.