There was a grand old church mid-block, then a squat apartment building with no windows on the first floor. On the end of this building, near the subway entrance, was the little iron door that led to the Exchange of Regrets. Brown with age, it looked like the entrance to a basement or boiler room. It didn’t need to be locked or guarded. Its power to be overlooked was security enough.

September, and already the weather was getting cold. Paul Migo opened the little door and descended the narrow staircase to the main room of the Exchange. It was a dirty and depressing place. The old linoleum tiles had been scratched and scuffed by hundreds of pacing feet, and the walls stained by people leaning against them. Bare fluorescent lights glowed overhead.

Paul took a form off the table by the door and joined the line to get his ticket. When he reached the window, the clerk scowled at his form, then read from a series of prepared questions. She confirmed his name, his age and his address. She made Paul swear that the burden he was presenting was his own. “Do you solemnly attest, under penalty of law, that the events chronicled and emotions felt happened to you, and to you alone, and that they are your own?” She read from the card in a bored voice. She seemed to have read the question so often that she had wrung all the meaning out of it. In fact, Paul heard the same question being intoned from the other clerks at the other windows, and he’d heard it read to the people who’d come to this window before him.

“I do,” he said, naturally.

Once Paul got his ticket, he was matched immediately. The clerk pointed out a man about his father’s age in the milling crowd. He could have been Paul’s father, even. Or an uncle. He was white like Paul, with a bald head and glasses like Paul. And maybe they were matched based on some demographic factors, because they seemed so alike. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Paul had been told that the matching was only based on the weight of the regret, as recorded by the number on the ticket. But who knew how these clerks at the Exchange really did things. Everything was fine and good on paper. The devil was in the details, in the bureaucratic execution of procedures. Paul felt a flash anger thinking about it. Though the Exchange of Regrets might not relieve him of his burden, the promise was that he would have the relief of something fresh, of a change, as when a heavy pack is shifted from one shoulder to the other. Seeing who he’d been matched with, Paul wondered whether these wheezy clerks weren’t simply matching like with like, for expediency’s sake.

The ticket holders weren’t supposed to give each other details, either. But the man Paul was matched with broke the rules right away and muttered to him, “It’s because I didn’t visit her when she was dying,” as he handed Paul his ticket.

He probably expected Paul to say something about the ticket he was trading, but Paul didn’t. He believed in the rules, and even with his suspicions, he was only going to act in good faith in the system.

His ticket gone, Paul’s heart stretched in momentary freedom before it shifted to bear the regret the other had transferred. The man’s eyes looked side to side as he also reckoned internally with Paul’s old burden.

The man did look like his father, Paul thought again. This time, the fact didn’t bother him. It made him feel sympathetic. They touched hands before parting, each bravely bearing the regret of the other. Paul’s new regret seemed easy to carry for now, and a welcome change. The other man looked at him with gratitude.

As he went to leave, Paul passed people slumped on the benches by the door. Many had crumpled tickets in their hands. They were the ones whose burdens were difficult to match at the Exchange. Sometimes it was too light, and he wondered why someone would come to get a low numbered ticket. Was it just a game to them? At the end of the bench was an old man with a crumpled hat that Paul knew in a single glance had been assigned a number that was very high. His wet pained eyes said it all.

Besides, he actually showed his ticket. He noticed Paul’s interest and held it right up to be read, perhaps hoping beyond hope that Paul was finally the match he was waiting for. The number was shocking. Paul couldn’t help himself. He looked at the old man in disgust. The old man lowered his ticket. He crumpled his hat even more and pulled it over his ears. He put his hands over his face, and peered shiftily through the fingers.

But then Paul saw the light of recognition, and then fear, come into the old man’s eyes.

A young woman had just come into the Exchange. Without taking any form or joining any line, she was scanning the faces of everyone around her. She saw the old man and she marched towards him. He stood, and spread his arms. At first, Paul thought they were going to embrace.

Instead, there was a sickening thudding noise. The old man groaned and stumbled back on the bench. He stared at a knife in his belly. He touched the handle with blood-slick hands, and he tried to pull it out in a feeble way. The young woman had stepped back, but now she came close again. She grabbed the handle from him, pulled it halfway out, then she pushed it in again. Another groan, this time from everyone milling in the Exchange. No-one interfered, however. They watched as the old man slumped and fell over off the bench to the floor.

The young woman bent down to his outstretched hand and plucked the blood-stained ticket with its dreadful number from it. She left no ticket of her own behind. She had not come in with any regrets to exchange. She thrust his ticket into the pocket of the hoodie she wore, and rushed out of the room.

(c) 2017 Ted Kelsey

image: "Charon" by Ourocat

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