Edgar raised his head up from his chest; back pressed firmly into his favorite recliner, his entire body drenched in cold sweat. He stared into shadows at the edge of the living room, eyes welling with tears as he lifted the revolver slowly and deliberately to his temple. "Seventeen," he whispered to the darkness.
The index finger of his right hand had already found its perch on the trigger during the weapon's ascent, during which he had hesitated no more than a second, his only concern ensuring that the angle he chose would prove fatal. He clenched his left hand into a fist at his side, steeling his will. He inhaled sharply. And with further need of neither breath nor will, he clenched his right hand.
Darkness flashed brilliantly to light from the barrel of a .38 Special, as the gunshot's dull thunder echoed around the room. The remains of Edgar Freeman slumped sideways in what had once been his favorite chair. The other man with him in that chamber smiled softly, the one in the shadows who had been briefly illuminated by the muzzle flare, that sallow man in the dark suit with the pale blue eyes. He smiled as everything turned gray.
Edgar flailed his way to a sitting position, ripping the covers off the bed as he always did when waking up from that goddamned nightmare. After the fourth night in a row with the same dream, he had taken to sleeping with his bedside lamp turned on. After the sixth night in a row, his frenzy upon waking had sent it crashing to the floor — bulb broken and shade cracked by the impact. Tonight had been the eighth night, and as he recited every vulgarity he could recall into the inky darkness of his bedroom, he swore that today he'd find the time to go purchase a box of light bulbs.
Involuntarily recalling the stranger in the dream's inappropriately sweet smile, he reminded himself to ask the clerk for their highest wattage.
After a warm shower and a few minutes collecting his thoughts on the side of the bed, Edgar set about his day. Nearly-tasteless scrambled eggs and coffee which would have been merciful if it had been tasteless comprised his breakfast, and his thoughts turned to how absurdly better Haley's morning meal would have been. Whatever other problems they had, Haley's cooking had been beyond reproach. He would regularly wake to the mouthwatering aroma of a nutritious breakfast which she had prepared for him—usually egg whites on a wheat English muffin with a tall glass of orange juice—at least before the morning sickness had started and kept her occupied in her prayers to the porcelain goddess for her first waking hour of every day. All this, he reminded himself bitterly, was in the past now.
As the Vice-President of Marketing for the second largest athletic apparel company in the country (and, as he thought of himself, a reasonably attractive man) Edgar was more than used to the occasional flirting—both casual and aggressive—from young female interns and employees within his department. It came with the territory, and it was never anything he couldn't brush off. Thoughts of either taking it further than flirtations or reporting it to Human Resources very rarely crossed his mind; the former on account of his pregnant wife, the latter on account of the ego boost it provided. One month ago, however, Edgar began an affair with a particularly buxom college intern named Samantha. Above and below the brassiere, she had been nothing special; just a warm body to quell the urges to which Haley had been unwilling or unable to tend after entering her third trimester. Even the sex was unremarkable.
Their first rendezvous took place in a motel a few blocks away from the office, the type of place with bay windows overlooking less-than-scenic freeway overpasses, and even the roaches use black lights before scurrying under the unmade bed. As a cursory nod to legitimacy, the establishment stopped short of offering rates on a per-hour basis—a fact known because Edgar had inquired upon checking in.
After that first encounter, the two grew bolder and less discerning in their indiscretions. Edgar's office came next, and that time had been a little more satisfying—a combination of the danger and the skirt Samantha kept on at his request. But boldness turned quickly to carelessness, and Edgar was an apprentice of infidelity less than two weeks before Haley discovered his betrayal.
Whether it was a whiff of unfamiliar perfume or a phone call from one of Edgar's jealous rejects who had spotted the two of them around the office, his adultery with Samantha was soon the topic to which Edgar returned home from work. The accusation was on her face the minute he walked through the door. He had come home late from a particularly wild romp with Samantha, and the words from Haley’s trembling lips quickly disclosed exactly how much she knew.
It would have been pointless to lie — she had too many details and he too little imagination — so Edgar confessed, and made a perfunctory effort to justify his behavior. She cursed him with a severity and intensity which Edgar had never seen from her before, and in her final words to him she made it clear that she was leaving, and that she would make sure he would never in his life have a role in raising their child. Despite his heartache at the prospect of losing Haley, Edgar had spent too long in a cutthroat business to take threats passively, even from his wife. He laughed bitterly, and reminded her of the quality of the lawyers within his means. When he was done, Edgar said, with words he instantly regretted but found himself powerless to silence, that she would be lucky to get weekends and a few holidays with the kid.
That was a lie and he knew it, but at the time his main objective was to get off the defensive and regain the upper hand in the fight—maybe even make Haley reconsider her choice to leave. He would happily cut some hefty checks to a marriage counselor if it saved him from the much larger ones in the form of alimony and child support. But something in the way Haley was smiling at him suggested that he had misunderstood her intentions. And as he realized far too late; if he had been more observant, he might have noticed an empty hook on their key caddy, and connected it to that sardonic grin she was wearing.
She hadn't left right away, like he had expected. Isn't that always the way it works in the movies and on television? The guy comes out of the bathroom or back from the bar a little while after the fight to find the gal's suitcases dusted off and bulging with all the expensive clothes he bought her over the course of their relationship? Her haughty and defiant, him prostrate and pleading?
Edgar would have never played the latter role in his life, but he had fully expected the former from Haley. Instead, an hour after he walked away from their screaming match to take a much-needed shower, he stuck his head into the living room to find her sitting in his favorite chair (what a bitch) staring off into space and rubbing her (Goddamn is she ready to pop) pregnant stomach.
As far as Edgar was concerned, that was the end of the first of presumably many arguments on the subject. He ascended the stairs quietly, and slipped into bed. The day had been long enough, and she clearly wasn't going anywhere or she would have left already. Haley never came to bed, but neither did he hear the front door slamming behind her before he drifted off – so it seemed she had decided to stay at least for the night. All will be well, Edgar told himself as sleep overtook him. But I doubt she's going to fix my breakfast for a few days.
The noise which ripped him out of that deep slumber came just after five o'clock in the morning, according to his alarm clock. By the time consciousness took hold, the sound had died as quickly as it came. He stood reflexively, and scanned over the bed with eyes barely awake enough for even that simple task. Eventually determining Haley's side to be empty, Edgar shuffled out the bedroom door and down the stairs to determine what caused the sudden clamor.
He didn't need to reach the bottom of the staircase, or allow his eyes further time to adjust, to know that she had decided to leave him after all. One glance into the living room cleared up any doubt on that subject. There were no bulging suitcases, or haughty looks – just an unlocked and opened gun cabinet, a crimson splatter on the wall, and a steady trickle of the same beading down the side of his favorite chair and pooling on the hardwood floor beside it.
After a moment of shocked paralysis, Edgar lunged for the house phone in huge, desperate strides. The rapidity was not for the sake of Haley, through whose newly-ventilated skull he could clearly catch glimpses of the televised presidential debate at the far side of the room, but for her blameless passenger of seven and a half months. He gave all the pertinent information to the infuriatingly indifferent emergency control room operator, and waited in the hallway with the front door flung open wide.
The gunshot had drawn a crowd of early-waking neighbors to the driveway in front of the Freeman residence, a phenomenon bred not out of bravery in the face of danger but from the casual ignorance of danger reserved exclusively for neighborhoods peopled by the wealthy and sheltered. They eyed him accusingly, none with less-than-dawning suspicion in their gaze. Edgar raged at them for this; first with harsh thoughts, then with guttural growls and impotent flailing. They would collectively step backward when his fury and frustration flowed strongest, and advance again when the yelling waned in ferocity – a human tide of slack-jawed gawkers.
The spectacle was temporarily dissolved by the wailing siren and subsequent appearance of an Advanced Life Support ambulance, from which paramedics rapidly spawned just a few minutes after Edgar's conversation with their dispatcher (another feature exclusive to the type of neighborhood in which Edgar and Haley Freeman resided). The crowd made way for the emergency vehicles, but soon found a new vantage point on Edgar's lawn.
The paramedics discovered Edgar's wife slumped over in his recliner, and strapped her lifeless form into a gurney. Once she was properly secured, they wheeled her rapidly out of the house and into the back of their ambulance. Edgar jumped in as well, and there was no time to either ask or answer any questions before the crew slammed the bay doors and sped off toward the county hospital.
Between checking vital signs and attempts to keep oxygen pumping into the corpse of his wife for the sake of her unborn child, Edgar noted the cautious glances being shot his way by the paramedics as well as the blue flashes from multiple police vehicles following close behind the ambulance. I didn't have anything to do with it, he wanted to say—to scream—but in the back of his mind he knew that was just a degree or two away from being precisely the truth, and so he remained silent.
He had thought they would throw the handcuffs on him as soon as they arrived at the hospital, but instead the throng of police officers just explained they would wait with Edgar while the doctors did what they could for the baby, and maybe get some information from him if he felt up to talking. Edgar nodded assent, largely because the officers bore all the mannerisms of men who intended to get some information from him whether or not he felt up to talking.
They stood outside the operating room, lined up in the viewing area. The officers gave Edgar his space; his face mere inches from the glass, taking occasional breaks to wipe the window off with his sleeve after frantic breaths had fogged it to the point of opacity. They questioned him hesitantly; he answered them hastily and with little regard for the words he used. His concerns were elsewhere, and he knew there was nothing he could unintentionally blurt out to incriminate himself. He watched as the surgeon made a large incision into Haley's lower abdomen (at least she's sedated for this, Edgar thought insanely) and set about removing the baby from her womb.
Within a few minutes, everyone in the viewing area knew everything they needed to know. The officers knew that Haley had apparently died at her own hand (the autopsy would either confirm or deny that), that she had likely done it as a result of her husband's infidelity, and that Edgar had seen little or no warning signs leading up to the suicide. Edgar, meanwhile, knew that the baby was alive but fading fast, that the baby was a boy (they wanted the gender to be a surprise, one of the few things on which he and Haley never disagreed), and that the baby was being placed in an incubator as a last-ditch effort to save its life.
Edgar stood outside the room, the police now keeping an even more respectful distance as he watched his infant son die. There was little commotion about it, and little the doctors could do to prevent it. The child's eyes opened once the entire time, and the next thing Edgar knew they were pronouncing the time of death as 5:46 AM. They just cut him out of Haley at 5:29, Edgar thought frantically. My kid—my son—was alive less than half an hour. I didn't even have time to name him. A girl and Haley names him, a boy and I name him; that was the promise we made since we couldn't even fucking agree on names. Edgar slammed his fist against the wall, and distantly felt his knuckles grinding. As he fell to his knees, his hand hurt far less than the scalding hot tears welling behind his eyes.
That was two weeks ago. Today, Edgar ate nearly-tasteless scrambled eggs, and drank coffee that would have been merciful if it were tasteless. Eight nights now he lived with the nightmare of killing himself destroying any semblance of sleep. Eight nights now he lived with the man in the shadows of that nightmare smiling at his decision to do so. Light bulbs, a huge box of them, highest wattage the hardware store sells, today after work. Edgar again reminded himself of the errand as he threw on his jacket and walked out the door.
Work went much the same as always, only with the added distraction and morbid water-cooler fodder provided by his wife's suicide. It was annoying—more than anything.
Edgar first became consciously aware of a man's form standing just outside the threshold of his office's open doorway when he glanced at the clock to determine exactly how far into the night he had been lost in paperwork. He came to work at dawn and knew it was now certainly dusk, at a minimum. The day had been typical office fare for the return of a bereaved coworker – mindless platitudes and weightless sympathy, empty words from the empty hearts of people paid just enough to pretend to care but not enough to do so convincingly. There was no telling exactly how long the man had been silently standing in the darkness of the hallway, but Edgar recollected the first vague feeling of being watched a few minutes prior. Everyone but the night shift security guard had left hours ago, giving him a welcome respite in which to concentrate and catch up on missed work. Or so he had thought, until this new interruption.
"Hello?" Edgar hesitantly greeted the interloper, fearing the inevitable next in a long line of ham-handed jabs at emotional consolation.
"Evening, sir." the reply came, grating and phlegmy. His eyes, still attempting to adjust to the drastic change from the brightness of his office to the hallway, illuminated only by the ambient moonlight leaking in from sporadically-placed windows; Edgar judged by the unfamiliar voice that this was either a stranger—a vendor, perhaps—or a colleague with a particularly nasty cold that he'd better not be spreading around.
"Step inside, I've been burning holes in my retinas under this lamp for the past two hours, I can't see a damned thing out there."
"Really can't stay," the man intoned, practically gargling, "just passing through".
"Yeah, I know what you mean; it's been quitting time for who... have we met?" Edgar's eyes had begun to adjust, and he grew uneasy. The stranger was still dim and blurry, but clearly wearing a dark suit of indeterminable quality. Another minute and it would be clear if this was some sort of tight-assed internal auditor from the 14th floor, or another detective sniffing around after Haley's death. Whoever it was, the suit betrayed him for a stranger. Fridays around the office were always Casual Day, when even the senior executives wore polos and khakis. The man was showing no signs of leaving, so Edgar made his eyes' next mission determining whether or not he had one of those idiotic access badge lanyards they all had to wear around the building.
"I'm new. I'm a messenger. I'm here to deliver a package."
Edgar cocked his head, dubious. A courier in a three-piece suit? Pull the other one. No badge, either. Edgar did not reply, hoping the (Process Server? Jehovah's Witness?) stranger would state his business and move along.
"You work such long hours. Don't you miss your family, sir?"
A knot materialized in Edgar's throat, and he sat bolt upright in his chair. After the initial shock wore off, Edgar softened his posture, quickly convincing himself of the question's innocuous nature. A labor union representative – of course. He slipped in here to try and play on some suit's delicate sensibilities, blather about unpaid overtime and kids tucking themselves into bed. Just trying to get us to abolish our non-unionizing clause with factory workers. "I receive fair compensation for the work that I do, as does everyone in our employ. So no, I'm fine, really. Thanks." That should get the point across, he thought with a certain grim satisfaction.
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that. Well..." The stranger turned slightly as if to leave, paused, and leaned his head inside the office for the first time.
"They certainly miss you."
The words scraped like icicles up the length of Edgar's spine, gripping his skull with tendrils as cold as the grave. The face was gone from view as quickly as it came—the form of the man as well—but the hideous visage remained burned into Edgar's brain, and in the recesses of his mind he was acutely aware that it would be etched there until his dying breath. The eyes were of a milky blue so pale and distant they suggested blindness, but met Edgar's with an unerring gaze that insisted they saw him very well indeed. The rest of the face was unburdened with such signs of vitality. His skin was sallow and sickly, and even at a distance it appeared to be the texture of well-worn leather.
The man's cheeks and eye sockets were sunken, the flesh drooping loose in these places, yet drawn tight against the skull around his forehead and mouth. Gaunt and cadaverous, every feature from the greasy, matted hair, to the quivering wattle of flesh when he spoke was identical to that of the dark stranger in Edgar's recently acquired nightmares. But everything else was peripheral to the all-encompassing terror which he felt at seeing those damned eyes. There was something unpleasantly familiar in them, something horrible which he found himself powerless to name or explain.
Once he regained control of his frozen limbs, Edgar lunged toward the doorway where the man had stood moments prior. The elevator hadn't dinged its arrival, and the stubborn latch on the stairwell door hadn't let out the audible clack customary to every opening and closing. 'He's still somewhere on this floor', Edgar thought frantically. The idea gave him strength, but no real clarity of purpose. He knew only that he needed to confirm that the stranger's presence here was more than merely a result of his overtaxed mind and guilty conscience.
There were no desks, no bathroom stalls, no supply closets left unsearched by the time Edgar's frenzied investigation reached its fever pitch. Motivational posters tacked to the walls of overbearingly congenial and downright suspiciously diverse business people smiling and clasping hands warmly seemed to be mocking him, silent conspirators against Edgar in his quest. "Sure we know who he is and where he went," Edgar could imagine them saying, "but we're too busy leveraging our synergy and engaging in value-added interfacing to dialogue on your initiative." He dragged both hands through his hair, gripping thick handfuls of it and tugging slightly.
His visitor, if something more than a delusion, had departed unseen and unheard. Edgar could feel his heart pounding wildly, seemingly slamming against the back of his ribcage. He stopped only to grab his briefcase before sprinting down the stairs to escape the increasingly oppressive emptiness of the office.
The executive parking deck was windowless, and thus even darker than the building from which he had just departed. It was barren except for him and his Lexus, and likely had been since the security guard made their most recent tour through it hours ago, the guard having shut off all but the emergency lights on the way out. Despite that small assurance, Edgar found himself casting furtive glances over both shoulders, and quickening his pace each time they revealed a total lack of reason to do so.
He had never been a superstitious man, any fear of monsters had been laid to rest long ago by the waking horrors which walk amongst men brazenly in the daylight. Student loan debt, insurance premiums, layoffs, mortgage payments—life, Edgar had learned decades ago, sports fangs and claws that make laughingstocks of those belonging to the vampires and werewolves man invented to cope with it. And yet, he scolded himself while fumbling nervously for his keys; all it takes is a little nudge from the imagination to awaken that primordial terror—to populate the uninhabited darkness with things which have no right to exist.
He was five feet from his car and had just unlocked it with the electronic remote attached to his keys when he heard the scream. It was high-pitched, womanly, terrified, and resonated from the office area directly behind him. 'Did Haley scream that way right before she pulled the trigger?' Edgar thought wildly. He stopped in his tracks, turned sharply, and saw nothing. Then, as if in response to his silent inquiry, the gunshot came. Edgar snatched the cell phone from his pocket, frantically calling 911 for the second time in as many weeks. He flipped the phone open to his ear, but the operator requesting the nature of his emergency sounded a thousand miles away. The clacking, dragging footsteps coming down the corridor from the sound of the shot and toward the executive parking garage, however, sounded very close indeed. Edgar dropped the phone and practically dove into his car. His foot was on the accelerator as quickly as he could throw the vehicle into gear.
The roads outside the office were illuminated solely by street lights and the occasional flash of a passing motorist's headlights. The sun had vanished below the horizon hours ago—when people in khakis or sensible skirts departed on a fourteen hour break from pretending to care about each others children or gastrointestinal complications—and left Edgar alone with two weeks worth of backlogged paperwork. Stress, Edgar attempted to convince himself, can make you see things. Stress, he rationalized, can make you hear things. Emotional trauma. None of it took any pressure off of his mind or the gas pedal as he sped toward home.
Upon his frantic arrival, Edgar knew something was wrong before he ever burst through the front door. He hadn't turned any lights off since the nightmares started, much less when he expected to be out past sunset, and yet he found himself fumbling around the darkness of his hallway for the lights. When his blind groping finally brushed across the light switch, there was very little surprise in finding the knob broken off; following the day's events, it would have been a bigger surprise if the switch had been in working order. Instinct told him to turn and flee the house, but the flashing red number "one" on his answering machine called with an even greater urgency.
Despite his hand's anxious trembling, Edgar's finger-struck the Play button with unerring precision, a motion he had grown well-acquainted with over the past two weeks. People he hadn't spoken to or thought about since practically before meeting Haley had seemingly not forgotten him, and had spent the interval between his wife's death and now calling to offer their condolences. Their concern only served to compound his feelings of guilt with each message; what had he done to deserve such loyal friends? He fully anticipated another instance of the same consolation, when one of the last voices he would ever have expected emanated from the machine.
"Edgar?" the voice's normally chipper lilt came, tinged with an unmistakable edge of caution. "It's Samantha. I know I shouldn't be calling you. I'm probably the last person in the world you want to hear from right now, and I can't tell you how sorry I am for what happened." There was a pause and what sounded like a sob. Edgar thought this was quite possibly the most real, orgasm-less emotion he had heard from Samantha since they first met.
"Sorry for everything, really. I... we... we couldn't have known how this would end. But I know I have no right to call. I'm just worried about you, is all. I laid out of work today because I heard you were coming back, and thought you didn't deserve to have to bear seeing me on top of everything else... I could only imagine how hard it must be for you right now... and to tell the truth, I was scared to see you. Scared you might point at me every time someone asked, or something... I know, it's stupid. And selfish. But I came by the office just now to pick up some work to take home with me, and I saw your car in the parking garage..."
Edgar eyed the time of the message on the answering machine. She had called sometime between the end of his frantic search of the office, and before he made it to his car. Which means that she was there right about the time that...
The voice on the machine had kept talking, and Edgar found himself now listening more intently than ever, his knuckles turning white from clenching the kitchen counter so tightly.
"... saw your office light was on, but you aren't anywhere around. And man... this place looks like a tornado hit it. Someone really tore through here. I thought about you right away, so that's why I'm calling. I don't know if this is long overdue, or if I should have just done a quick fade and found another job and never called you again, or what... I mean, what's the appropriate thing to do here? I can never make things right, but... I'm just so sorry, Edgar. Please call me back when you get this. I miss..."
'Miss' was the last word spoken by Samantha, unless one counts a bloodcurdling scream, following which came the sound that silenced whatever would have come next. The gunshot rang out like a thunderclap, and lost none of its horrible potency on the way through the phone lines to Edgar's answering machine. The ensuing silence was deafening, and Edgar stood rigid in front of the machine, bent forward and staring at it intently as if he expected it to begin displaying visual clues as to what had taken place. He got audio instead.
"Miss you, yes. You are very missed, indeed," the male voice, undeniably the same as earlier that day, gargled as it chuckled into the receiver. The machine beeped, and a solid red zero informed him that he now has no unheard messages. But to Edgar the zero represented far more than that. It seemed almost an answer to not just how many messages he had, but to every question that mattered. What, why, who, how? What's left, what matters, what will tomorrow bring? Nothing but zero, of course. Just a big blood-red negation.
Edgar released his death grip from the counter, and groped his way into the darkness of the living room. He passed another light switch on the way, noted with no real interest that the switch had been broken off of this one as well, then flopped down into his favorite recliner. "I have had," Edgar whispered into the emptiness of the house that would never again be a home, "a very tough month." The answer to his presumably recipient-less statement came in the form of a chuckle from a dark corner of the chamber. Edgar felt every muscle in his body go tense, and he lost all control of his bladder. He could not possibly have cared less about the latter; he merely stared into the darkness and waited for whatever must come next as the warmth spread across the front of his pants.
The man in the shadows stepped forward and Edgar winced away, sinking as deep into the plush chair as he could dig himself. The stranger, simply put, had gone from looking like his flesh was preparing to free itself from its Earthly prison to actually having accomplished the task. Edgar was staring at the face and body of a man who had begun to lose some very respectable chunks of himself. Like butter melting in a warm room, some of it actually sloughed off as he made a methodical exit from the darkness.
"I know you're wondering why I'm here, and why the past few weeks have seen your life seemingly spiral out of your control. At this point it comes down to fate. Fate is like playing tug-of-war with an adversary significantly stronger than you: There will always be times when you feel the rope inching your way, your heels dug in and your earnest exertions yielding the result you've worked so hard for, the victory you know you deserve. But even the times in which you feel the most control, the firmest ground, those are merely your opponent adjusting its grip. But this doesn't preclude what you might call free will; the choices people make are what set fate in motion, and those are the pivotal moments."
He paused, then seemingly as an afterthought, "Like you, renting that motel room. Very few things from that moment to this one have been in your control, and none of them of any consequence. Your whore is dead now, and killed by your own gun. Her right eye looks a great deal like your answering machine, now. Just a big red zero. No new messages. By dawn, you'll be in a cell. Your wife found out about you and the whore a few weeks ago. Maybe she took her own life, maybe you had a role in that. The whore, though... she was murdered. There's not a jury in the world for whom your guilt is anything but a foregone conclusion."
"Why." Edgar breathed the inquiry flatly, incapable of inflection. He had never felt so tired—so completely drained and hollow—in his entire life. With each word the pale stranger spoke a deep burning emanated from every muscle in Edgar's body, and yet the frantic scurrying of his mind remained as strong as ever, desperate to place those eyes he felt he knew so well.
"Why what? Why did you stray from the wife who once loved you? I couldn't help you there. Not that knowing would change anything for either of us. But that isn't the most important 'why' for you, is it? You want to know why this is happening to you, why I'm doing this. But for some reason you're afraid to ask me who I am, the true question behind the 'why,' to which I can only say that you must answer for both of us."
The stranger resumed his lumbering gait towards Edgar, halting and awkward as he tottered ever closer. Edgar's mind was drawn deep inside of itself to access the half-recalled memory of something he saw years ago in a mid-dawn walk across the parking lot on his way into work. A tattered salt-and-pepper moth, deceased at the base of a light pole; a coroner's inquest doubtless would have revealed an acute case of banging one's self repeatedly into a domelike miniature plastic electrical sun.
Then came a stiff breeze which sent the moth airborne, flapping and tumbling toward Edgar's path through the parking lot. The breeze settled, and the moth resumed being a body perfectly at rest; as all dead things should, Edgar reckoned, unless acted upon by an outside force. An unseen force, in the case of the moth; and, Edgar again reckoned, in the case of the man now standing before him. Because in his movements, Edgar saw that moth very clearly. These were the movements of something which once lived, and was now being acted upon by an entirely different unseen force—one which could only approximate the mechanisms of the vessel it now controls. The wind had been the name of that force driving the moth back into a perversion of life, but to name the force which could do the same for a man?
After a moment of silence which seemed to stretch for hours, Edgar met the stranger's pale blue eyes with the last shred of courage he had. "Death?"
Then, a little more confidently: "You're Death."
The stranger laughed uproariously, his gaunt frame convulsing with the rhythm of his dry, wheezing cackles. The withered flesh of his face stretched away from blackened gums and all-too-white teeth in the most hideous approximation of a smile Edgar could have ever imagined. After his laughter subsided, the dark man spoke, wiping away tears which were not there. "You misunderstand me. It wasn't my intention to be cryptic; I was merely requesting that you provide me with a name. This body, I'm approximating. It's the body I might have had, had I lived to grow into it. But the eyes, they're the windows to the soul so they say, and I had hoped you would remember mine. I forgive you though. You saw me only briefly, and under duress. But you were supposed to name me. Dying without a name was the worst part."
Comprehension more horrible than the bewilderment had ever been began to spawn in Edgar, as an icy, all-encompassing chill washed over him. The man clapped him gently on the shoulder, and leaned in close, placing four pounds of cold steel into Edgar's open palm. "I told you I was a messenger, and now my task is done. Mom asked me to give you that. She says to hurry. She promises not to be too hard on you if you come home quickly."
Edgar quivered helplessly; his eyes had begun to water and burn, searching for any sign of consolation in those of his son. He parted his lips as if to speak, but could not find the words. His silent plea's response came in presumably the most compassionate tone manageable by his visitor, "It's not terrible there, it's just..." The corpse-thing's head cocked to the side, a very boyishly quixotic look in those pale blue eyes. "Gray. It's gray there. Time moves much slower, if at all. They show you things. They've shown me all I would have known in the life which your actions denied me." Venom in that decaying voice now, and Edgar knew that pulling the trigger himself would be the only mercy granted today.
The visitor turned, staggering clumsily into the darkness toward the edge of the room, as Edgar sat and examined the loaded revolver. His would-be progeny had almost completely exited from sight, and spoke without any discernable emotion. "One more thing. After they cut me out, how long did I last on that incubator? She doesn't know, but I thought you might. I tried my best to hang on, but it couldn't have been long. Fifteen minutes? Twenty?"
Edgar raised his head up from his chest; back pressed firmly into his favorite recliner, his entire body drenched in cold sweat. He stared into shadows at the edge of the living room, eyes welling with tears as he lifted the revolver slowly and deliberately to his temple. "Seventeen," he whispered to the darkness.