A warm cup of dark tea now occupied Charlie’s hands, which he was very grateful for because he found these types of conversations dreadfully hard to focus on without something to occupy his hands.
“There, that better? Do you need cream or sugar? Good, you looked distracted, and Charlie, I assure you, this is important. Your full attention is required for this next bit, because I need you to understand completely.” Charlie took a noisey sip and nodded to show he was listening to the best of his abilities.
“Good,” the Stranger took a deep breath before continuing,” Charlie, you were supposed to have died in that wreck yesterday. I’m afraid We’re going to have to ask you to relinquish your current dwelling immediately. I know, it is a dreadful error, but can’t look back now, Charlie, must always look forward. It’s the civil thing to do, really…”
“Woah, now, wait a tic. You’re asking me to move out of my home? Because I witnessed an accident? What does my home have to do with that accident! I can tell you right now that Susan will never stand for this!”
There was a deep and meaningful pause after Charlie’s assertion, and the Stranger stood to lean against the window sill. Charlie waited for him (her…?) to say something, but the silence continued to grow ominously, until a palpable darkness curled around the unwelcome Visitor. Charlie yet deeper into the couch, but couldn’t bring himself to get up and run. The darkness continued to coalesce, it finally cracked along one think jagged line, out of which the Stranger strode, calm demeanor returned.
“There now Charlie,” He whispered,”I think you understand now the ramifications of any further lack of civility. You do, understand, don’t you Charlie.”
“Yes, yes,” Charlie stammered,”I won’t interrupt again. Or repeat myself. Sorry. Sorry” Charlie had been near screaming at the sight of the advancing bleakness, and was so relieved at the calm of the Stranger that tears began streaming down his cheeks.
“Think nothing of it Charlie, mistakes can be forgiven, up to a point. Which brings us back to the rather embarrassing mistake that brings Us here. As I was saying, you must vacate your dwelling immediately. This must be put very delicately Charlie, Legal has briefed me extensively on this part, but I am allowed to say that I am not referring to your home. I’m referring to a dwelling that is particular to you and you alone. Understand, Charlie?” The Stranger leaned forward in what Charlie thought was desperation, but couldn’t be sure due to the lack of readable features.
“Are you talking about…my car?” Charlie sipped again at the tea, trying to be helpful to this women (man…?) he had just met, but didn’t know what he (she…?) wanted. “You need to take my car?”
“Closer, Charlie, We do need something you rely on for moving. Think, though, what is more necessary to you than your car?”
“My…clothes?” Charlie did hate being naked.
“No, Charlie, not your clothes. Think. What do you…” the Stranger paused for a second and raised her (his…?) head hesitantly towards the ceiling. “Yes, what do you have under your clothes?”
“Uhhh…this isn’t some weird sex thing is it?” Then it hit Charlie like a box of soggy krispy kreme donuts. “Jesus Christ, are you saying you’re going to kill me?”
The Stranger was already shaking her (his…?) head before Charlie finished his exclamation. “No Charlie. We’re saying We need…you…to…do the thing…you think We…would do. Please bear with me Charlie, the rules are extremely strict in this area. I do so appreciate your patience.”
Charlie stared at the faceless intruder for a moment, then burst out laughing.
“Alright, this is a joke right? Boss Burt figured out I was faking sick and sent you to mess with me? Fine, fine, fine, tell him I’ll head into the office this afternoon after lunch. Jesus, a guy should be able to take a sick day without being hassled like this.” Charlie made to go change into more work appropriate clothes (i.e. something that didn’t show off his appreciable belly) before a cold, insistent hand clamped down on his wrist.
“Charlie,” The Stranger’s voice was warm with compassion and understanding. “Charlie this isn’t a joke. This is very real. The consequences, the things We’re dealing with here, they’re very real. You understand what We’re saying Charlie. Now, We need you to accept it.”
Charlie stared at the hand, face expressionless and body rigid, while the words fluttered in and around his head. He carefully removed the formless hand from his wrist, then sat down again and cupped his chin thoughtfully.
“You’re asking me to kill myself?”
“No. That is something We cannot ask of you Charlie. The rules are clear here. But We can tell you that you were supposed to have died in that car accident yesterday. And We can tell you, that, should you continue to live, you will be part of a chain reaction that will cost the lives of millions, perhaps billions. The last time We had a mistake of this magnitude was the Pölzl Case, and that took Us near forty years to sort out. Still giving Us trouble to the present day, to be honest with you.”
“Jesus Christ, what are you? Some kind of fucking angel of death? Some kind of…some kind of fucking angel or something?” Charlie didn’t take his head from his hands, a small part of him knowing he was just buying time, trying to stretch this, whatever this was, as long as possible. Knowing he wouldn’t like how it ended.
“No, We are not Angelic. The Angels grew sick of this kind of work long ago, so We were created to complete Their tasks. They have no respect for Us, no respect for the work We do, you see? They see Us as Glorified bureaucrats. Sad, really. They miss the splendor of the whole operation, the Divinity in the collective workings. It may require a fair amount of elbow grease to keep going, but it is worth it Charlie, We can…yes, we can promise you that.”
When the Stranger saw Charlie had nothing more to say, was drained completely. It began to mechanically pat his back.
“There, there Charlie. Come now, the more you think on it the worse it will be. Do it now, while it’s still easy.”
“Easy? Easy! You want me to off myself right here? On the couch in my living room in front of my wife!?! In front of my fucking dog?” Charlie pointed at Rover, snuggled in between him and the Stranger, not moving a muscle. “Do you understand what this is for me? Do you even understand what you’re asking me to do?”
“No, We don’t. Just as you don’t truly understand what We’re asking you to do either, Charlie. Don’t work yourself into a self righteous anger over something you don’t comprehend. Don’t cling to something that was given to you freely. Trust that when you let go, something better will be given to you to replace it.”
“Heh,” Charlie sniggered, wiping at his watery eyes, “fine. Fine, I’ll do it. Where’s the gun, huh. Or what, is it against the rules for you to give me a gun to blow my own fucking brains out with? Should I fall on a kitchen knife? Would that do it for you?”
To Charlie’s complete lack of surprise, the Stranger pulled a small handgun out of his crisp, blue jacket. It felt warm in Charlie’s hands.
“That isn’t a real gun, Charlie. That, you might say, is a representation. If you were to, without any prompting from Ourselves, put that to your head and pull the trigger, you would experience a severe cerebral infarction. A fatal cerebral infarction I should say. There will be no blood, no mess. That gun is simply the manifestation of a process that you already possessed the ability to activate.”
“You’re saying I have a self destruct button? You’re saying I could just think it, and BAM! Dead! Drop down right on the spot?” Charlie couldn’t help but laugh, tears falling into the tea cup he still help in his right hand. The gun in his left. The juxtaposition of the two made him laugh harder.
The Stranger waited until Charlie was finished. Then oh so careful not to touch the gun itself, took Charlie’s left hand and raised it to his head. Charlie’s breath came fast and heavy as he saw himself raise his hand to his head in the mirror above his TV. He couldn’t see the Stranger, or see the gun in his hand, but he could feel the weight of both. He closed his eyes tight.
“I’m required to tell you that you have thirty days to do the…thing…you need to do. But you don’t want to wait thirty days, do you Charlie?”
YES, thought Charlie. YES, I DO WANT TO WAIT THIRTY DAYS! I WANT ALL OF THEM! But he found himself shaking his head no. The Stranger’s hand wiped the sweat from his brow, reassuring him, committing him to what he was going to do.
“Did you know that the original title for War and Peace was War, What Is It Good For?” The Stranger said.
“What?!?” Charlie cried, eyes wrenching open “What was that?”
“Nothing, Charlie. Just time catching up with Us.”
“…do you need to know Arabic?” Susan finished saying, stumbling slightly as she came down the stairs. “Charlie? Where’d you disappear to?”
It was a second before she say him laying lifelessly on the couch.
“Charlie?” She asked, moving over to shake him awake.
“Did you know that the original title for War and Peace was War, What Is It Good For?” Jerry said on the TV, to the appreciable laughter of a filmed studio audience.
“I’ll get it,” Susan said, rising lithely from the sofa where Charles lay entombed under a pile of ice cream bar wrappers and chips packaging. He’d taken the day off work, and was determined to finish as much of his new Seinfeld box set as possible.
“Don’t bother, it’s probably just another bill. Let Rover take care of it.” Rover, lying on his back on the couch next to Charlie, feet dangling as angelically as could be expected from a wiener dog, made no move to grab the letter that had just been slipped through the mail slot.
“Lazy mutt. Never paid a bill in your life, have you boy?” Charlie scratched Rover’s belly affectionately as Susan came back with an oversized envelope of a sickly blueish tint. She opened it daintily, then proceeded to take out a mass of documents Charlie was surprised fit in even that enlarged casing.
“What is it?” Charlie asked, now thoroughly distracted from George’s attempts to pass himself off as a marine biologist. Susan didn’t answer, instead becoming more and more absorbed in the letter she held while making this obnoxious little “ooooo”ing sound. He’d found it endearing when they were first married, but it now annoyed him how easily she was absorbed to distraction.
“Hun. Hun, whatd’a’ya got there?” Charlie tried to kick at her, but his leg was sunk comfortably within the crack between the back and the seat of the couch, restricting his movement. “Suz, what does it say?”
“Well isn’t that the strangest…”
“What’s the strangest? Damn it hun I’m trying to watch a show here.”
“I don’t know,” she said, finally shoving the assorted papers towards him. “It’s in Chinese or something, I can’t read a word of it. But look at how official it is. We should try and find someone who can translate it, it must be something dreadfully important. I’ll take some pictures and post them online, hm? Here come help me, you shouldn’t waste you day off lazing about here.”
“I don’t think you particularly understand the idea behind taking a day off, love,” Charlie said, picking up a random page and skimming over the foreign characters. It did look incredibly official, artistic even. The seal at the bottom of the page, next to an extremely embellished signature, was so intricate and beautiful that he stared at it for some minutes before Susan interrupted him by coming up and squeezing his shoulder.
“Come on. Let’s go drive out to the Cheasepeake. We could catch a show and a late lunch. Maybe go for a hike even? Rover would appreciate the exercise” Rover managed to lift his head a half inch, eyes pregnant with disapproval, showing that he would not appreciate any such thing.
“Maybe later tonight hun. I really don’t feel like getting anywhere near a car right now. Can’t seem to get the accident out of my head.”
“Ah, poor dear. Well then how about I at least whip us up a proper meal. I think I have some shells left over, I could have us something manicotti-esque in a couple hours or so?”
“That sounds great. Let me finish this episode and I’ll come clean up the kitchen for you to get started ok?”
“Wonderful. Love you chubs.”
“Love you too, chu…er..love you too hun.” Charlie didn’t understand why it was alright for her to give him a nickname referencing his small paunch, but not ok for him to do the same for her. Three years of marriage had given him plenty of time to learn, if not understand.
“Hello, another one.” Charlie bent down to pick up another bloated, oversized envelope that had been slipped through their front door. He tore it open with his teeth, hands occupied the remnants of his morning binge. “Another of these damned letters…Is this arabic? Hun, do you know what Arabic looks like!?”
“What? Arabic? No, why,” Susan marched down the stairs, looking radiant in sweatpants and an old college t-shirt, when she froze mid way between two steps. Charlie blinked repeatedly, thinking his brain must have gotten stuck. How was she floating in mid-air like that.
“Susan?” He dropped the letter and started towards her, when a voice behind him rang out.
“She’s fine. Just didn’t want her interrupting me. Hate getting interrupted you know, and she looks like the kind who enjoys it.”
An avalanche of dorito bags and candy bar wrappers flooded out of Charlie’s hands, as he attempted a pirouette to find the source of the voice, and fell hard onto his back, cracking his head sharply. He lay immobile while a grinding pain grew in the back of his head.
“Well if that doesn’t beat all…that’s not breaking the rules, is it?” The as yet anonymous voice wondered aloud. Charlie groaned in reply.
“Oh shit, you’re not dead eh? Well that would have been too much to ask I suppose. Here, up you go, I don’t have much time.”
“Augh,” Charlie groaned again as the stranger lifted him to his feet.
“Now, no more repeating yourself, please. I do so hate having things repeated to me. Almost as bad as being interrupted. Here, come have a seat over here and we’ll wrap this right -”
“Wait a second, get your hands off me,” Charlie lurched out of the grasp of the stranger, a rather tall man with rather obscure features. Charlie tried to focus on his face, but couldn’t seem to isolate a single detail, besides a certain masculine quality. Wait, no, this was obviously a women, a very tall women. Or was it? Charlie lifted a hand to his head, trying to clear the painful webs his fall had cast across his brain so he could think.
“Now, really, I just finished telling you how I hate being interrupted. While these circumstances are far from ideal, I would appreciate at least a veneer of civility. For instance, I would very much appreciate something to drink.”
Before he knew what was happening, Charlie found himself filling up a glass of tap water and handing it to his unwelcome guest, who was now sitting on the couch next to Rover. It was impossible to tell whether the larding dog was similarly immobilized, or if he was just sleeping. He tried to watch as the stranger put the glass up to where Charlie assumed her (his..?) lips were, but trying to make anatomical sense of that face greatly worsened his headache. He sat down heavily, and moaned again loudly.
“Right, right, we all get it, you are quiet concussed. Now, to the business at hand. I do humbly apologize for the clerical error, well errors really, but I am sure you agree what the right course of action is.”
Charlie was nodding agreeable before he remotely understood what he was agreeing to. “Woah, wait, what errors? Who are you? What are you doing in my house!” Charlie felt the wave of affability recede momentarily, before the stranger reached up a hand and pulled him back down to the comfort of the couch.
“There now, I understand you’re confused, and I will endeavor to explain, but please let’s be civil about this. No more than one question at a time, it’s quite rude to ask more than one question at a time.”
Charlie nodded agreeably again, seeing that yes, it was quite rude. He felt rather sheepish as the stranger continued.
“Now, yesterday, February the 6th you were witness to a car accident along the 25th mile of I-25, were you not?”
Oh, Charlie thought, suddenly comforted, this was just an insurance matter. “Yes, it was awful. Car in front of me practically exploded. Couldn’t sleep at all last night. Susan was saying…wait why is Susan frozen on the stairs?!?”
“Yes, never mind that for now. What you should mind is that We, I am sorry to say, have made a very unfortunate error. I wish I didn’t have to be the one to break it to you, but after two flubs in our Communique Department I figured it was best to come and sort out the matter myself. The car that exploded you see, well it was a fatal accident for both of the passengers, and, you see, I’m sorry to say that you were…”
“Oh no, there were deaths? I didn’t see, but it looked like they were ok when they were pulling off…”
“Charlie, I don’t know what will happen if I have to repeat myself, but you really must not interrupt again,” the Stranger’s face distorted malevolently, and Charlie shrank back under a sudden feeling of unadorned terror. “Yes, you see what could happen. Now, as I was saying, the Actualities department was almost entirely certain that you would have been enticed enough by the bumper stick located on the aforementioned vehicle, that you would have been involved in the fatal accident as well. Really, I don’t know what they were thinking, you have shown no proclivity towards bumper stickers up to this point, but as I told Legal, there’s really no point in rehashing the whole thing is there?”