Congratulations on Your Impending Doom

Peter makes greeting cards that are out of the ordinary. Most greeting cards say things like “Congratulations on your graduation!” or “Our thoughts are with you in this time of loss” or “Happy birthday to the best grandma ever!” But Peter doesn’t work for Hallmark. He works for a bigger company whose name nobody knows.

He used to work for SparkleCards. They were a cheery offshoot of some bigger company, and for them he wrote lines that ended up in flowing script to condole, to congratulate, to celebrate. There was nothing exceptional about them, though he was very good at his job. One day he came into his office and on his desk was a black business card. He couldn’t see anything written on it, the dull black rectangle on his desk, until he held it up and it caught the light. The glow from his overhead lamp lit up letters in white, shining against the black. It was a name and a number. He muttered, “Foolish way to advertise,” but he called the number. A secretary’s bright voice asked who he was, and his reason for calling. He said, “Peter Celsten, I found a card—“ and a long beep interrupted him. The phone rang again and a man’s brisk voice rattled off an address and a time. Peter never could resist a mystery.

The office building at the address given was hard to find, though not far. It was enmeshed in a cluster of apartments and the sprawling buildings of a hospital, but he made it up to the right floor with several minutes to spare. A small man in a neat suit ushered him in and thrust him into a chair almost before he realized what was happening. The man began the interview and it dawned on Peter that he was, in fact, interviewing for a job. He asked, nonplussed, at the end about it.

“Oh,” said the small man, surprise pitching his voice. “It’s for this company, writing cards. We’ll pay you one point five seven times what you’re earning now. Will you work for us?”

Peter didn’t know what to say, other than yes.

The office at the new company was slightly bigger than his old one. The secretaries were pretty, and his new boss was waiting for him with a sheaf of papers. The small man handed the packet to Peter and said, “Here is your first batch. Could you, hm, get them to me by the end of the week? It somewhat urgent, as you will notice.”

Peter sat at his desk, rolling the chair back and forth on the carpet. He studied the tracks that the wheels made, faint against the white plush, before turning his attention to his new work. The packet was thick, fastened with a metal clip. The first page looked like some kind of brief personal bio as he began to read. Annabelle Watkins, 76; Neurodegenerative Disorder (type 46B); Due Date/Day before Death: April 23rd (High Priority!).

Peter sprang up and into the small man’s office. The man looked up, unsurprised. Peter got out a few strangled words before his boss silenced him with an explanation. He said that cards are meant to mark occasions, and their company was tasked with marking the most momentous occasion a person could ever have in his life: the end of it. He described, in exacting steps, the process of creating and delivering the cards. He clarified the nature of the recipients, that not everybody received a card, because only those whose deaths were momentous of some sort or another warranted a personalized card. Sometimes, he said, lots of people who were dying all at once got a generic card, but there was less demand for those. People don’t want their deaths to be mass-produced.

It was a long time before anybody he knew showed up in Peter’s packet of bios. His mother’s friend Sarah was the second person he was assigned one day almost a year after he started working for the death card company. She was in her sixties, not that old, and she’d never had serious health problems that he knew about. Even so, there she was: Sarah Epstein, 64; Cardiac Arrest (sudden, first); Due Date/Three Days before Death: February 18th.

He put Sarah’s card in a red envelope. Heart disease went with liver and kidney problems or complications. They all got red envelopes. Brain-related deaths got blue; sudden accidental deaths were put in yellow envelopes; murder and suicide envelopes were brown. There were other colors but those were, he found, the most common. A few times he had put together the death cards for people who worked at the card company. They all got gray envelopes, though he wasn’t sure if it was because of working at the company regardless of cause of death or if, actually, they all died of the same thing. It wasn’t the sort of thing he asked his boss.

Peter mostly shuffled the death cards into the right piles now, one file for each color, and didn’t think much of it. He paused for a long time over Sarah’s card. He’d written a nice normal one for her, as comforting as he could make it. After he finished for the day, he called her up. They hadn’t spoken for a long time, not since Peter had been fighting with his mother. When she answered the phone he was surprised at the cracked dry voice that answered. It seemed to be a parched version of what he’d known. They had a nice chat, Peter and Sarah, and asked polite questions and got polite answers. It didn’t make him feel any better. She told him it was lovely to hear from him and hung up, thinking nothing of it probably, a little bemused and unaware still of the death waiting for her in three more days. Peter tossed the phone from hand to hand for a minute and then put it down and went on with his day.

Peter learned a sort of balance in his work. It caught him between empathy and detachment, between sorrow and practicality. It placed him precisely at the moment between life and death. Sometimes people he knew, or people he’d heard of, showed up in his packet of death assignments for the day. It always caused a twinge of unease, but Peter tried not to let it bother him too much. He knew that, one day, there would be a gray envelope in his own mail.

The General’s Dream

The general tossed in his sleep that night, plagued with a bad dream. He rose with the sun and rubbed the crackle of sleep from his eyes. He walked out to where the men were waiting. They looked so clean and smart in their pressed uniforms and their straight serious faces. They were very dear, he thought, and he felt a pang. Generals of armies were not supposed to think words like “dear,” least of all about their own young soldiers. But the sensation was there and it was growing, so the general began to speak.

The sunlight shining through these clouds in E...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

This was supposed to be his stirring speech, readying them all for battle, lifting the sodden soldierly spirits up to the brightness of the sun that must be shining somewhere above all that foggy grey. Instead, he told them to wait until the sun came out on its own. There was no reason they had to die on this dark day, without ever feeling the sunlight sift on their faces again. They were free, forgiven of any loyalty to the army, just go. Go, he urged them, and watched doubt creep onto those rigid faces. Go, he said again, and the first broke away. One by one they scattered, and he watched them huddle into their tents with a pinprick of pride. Then he went to the other side, and here things got blurry.The general went to talk to the opposing army, to the surprised faces that awaited him there. He wasn’t sure what happened. He explained what he had done, and why, and recounted several important events in the war as though they hadn’t been present – though they hadn’t, he supposed, for his version of them. He wasn’t sure if that was when light began to dawn, or when he was taken out by a lone shot. Either way, the early sunlight was filtering its rays onto his face and into his eyes, so he blinked awake. The dream ended abruptly and there was no peace being brokered, as yet no fatal shot, no young lives saved.

The general dressed quickly and went to meet the soldiers, filing into line with fear in their expressions. The smell of soap and dread mingled, and the morning’s cold stole into their bones. The general recited his stirring speech, the last comma memorized and intoned to them. Then they went to battle.

Post-Apocalyptic Loss

Thin smoke was drifting in a grey cloudy curl up from the meager fire, which was burning away the last green-tinged branch in the center of the room. A half-empty box of matches lay beside it, on top of a crumple of clothing. The doors were blocked by desks and tables nailed in place, and there was a bookcase tipped across the window.

The room was dark, but for the pitiful glow of the flames as they sputtered, and the two occupants were huddled in the corners. One was rifling frantically through something as the other gazed with dead eyes on the ruin and decay that surrounded them. From time to time, there was a dull pounding outside, but they barely flinched when it began and let out a scant puff of air in relief when it ended.

The sounds outside had stopped for the moment, and the two men inside sagged in a release of the tension that plagued them. One of them coughed dryly for a moment, choking on the smoke that drifted in the heavy air. There was a long silence, broken by the occasional cough and the small shifting sounds of the other’s search in a drawer. It was mercifully free of the dread pounding from outside. Suddenly a weary, plaintive cry split the air.

“Drat, where have all the biscuits got to?” called Oscar. “I know we had some, and I could have sworn the cabinet was simply chock-full of unopened boxes. We can’t possibly have gone through all the biscuits in the past week.”

The person at the other end of the room, hunched and miserable, unbent himself slowly. When he stood, he towered nearly a foot over Oscar, who was short and plump. He said, “Bloody hell, I don’t know. The tea’s all there.”

Just the mention made Oscar recoil, his arms clasping the tins closer to his breast. “Yes, Maurice, I know where the tea is, I’m holding it. We can’t properly have tea without biscuits though, now can we?”

Maurice shook his head in unthinking assent and shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose we’d better look though. Whatever shall we do if there aren’t any in the room though?”

Oscar’s eyes widened – he had clearly never thought such a thing could happen. “Oh dear, I don’t know. Let’s not think of it. They must be here somewhere.”

The two men shuffled through the contents of the cupboards and drawers. After several minutes, the banging outside started again and they both winced. They bent their heads as it continued, bringing their shoulders up as if the tension in their muscles would keep the sound away. Oscar shambled to the fire in the middle of the room and thrust the dented teakettle over it, dropping it so neatly on the flames that the fire nearly went out altogether. He cursed and knelt, huffing at the fire and flapping his hands at it. It was soon burning away doggedly again, and he crumpled a piece of paper to shove under the kettle that inspired a burst of brightness that flared and then sank again when the paper was ash.

The pounding from without sounded louder for a moment, and Oscar shrank with fear where he was crouched by the flames. He scuttled over to Maurice, and clung to a sleeve as the other pushed boxes aside on a shelf. They stood there, together and silent, until Maurice spoke.

He said, “I honestly don’t see anything, Oscar. It might be that there are none left.”

Oscar’s face was a mask of horror. “No biscuits? That just can’t be.”

“Well,” said Maurice, pragmatically. “What can you do about it, right?”

Oscar’s eyes narrowed in sudden calculation. “I suppose,” he began, his tone suddenly speculative. He eyed the doorway, where the pounding was beating on steadily. “There aren’t too many out there right now, are there? I bet -”

“No,” Maurice cut him off. “Don’t be so utterly ridiculous. Goodness, Oscar, we don’t even know what there is out there really, but you remember Alice when she came inside. All bloodied up and out of her mind, and then she -” Both men shuddered. Maurice continued firmly, “No, Oscar, you certainly can’t go out there.”

Oscar sighed and leaned back, his eyes still fixed longingly on the blocked door. He seemed to be weighing almost-certain death against almost-certain biscuits for a minute longer, and then he resumed the search.

It really was very lucky for them that they found two boxes of biscuits, faded and dusty in the back of the closet, later that night. They had a quiet evening with hot tea, stale biscuits, and a surprising lack of banging and pounding from the bloodthirsty hordes outside, and their voices were tinged with relief as they talked and joked. The biscuits in those box might last them another week or two, certainly.

Being Surprised by Grief

Anna was hurrying home, because she thought she was going to cry. Probably nobody would notice anyway, since in this dark she could barely see her feet moving over the sidewalk. Even so, she felt she’d be much more comfortable dissolving in tears on her own bed, rather than sniffling awkwardly as she walked down the street.

Her phone buzzed against her side, and with a wriggle she pulled it from her pocket. A message scrolled across the top: PATRICK hi sweetie you ok? how about you come have dinner with us tomorrow at 7 let me know. She shoved the phone back, clicking it off, and tucked her head to her chest. When she got to the stairway at the end of the block, she clamped a hand on the railing as if it were all that was holding her upright.

She felt she was sliding down the stairs and if she leaned a little too far she would just fold forward and crumple, bend, her knees collapsing until she sunk into a heap gently slipping downwards. To keep that from happening, Anna narrowed her eyes and concentrated on getting down the stairs. A moment later she was surprised to find herself at the bottom, no stairs left, and her knees still locked and straight.

When Anna arrived at the door to her apartment she was surprised again, fumbling for the key and then realizing what she was doing. It was lucky, she observed to herself, that her body knew what to do without her having to think about it at all. She was done unlocking the door by the time she finished thinking this, and floated into the room wondering at herself.

Before she even formed the thought Anna was in her bedroom, the lights flicked on and her bag draped over the chair. She sat heavily on her bed and leaned her head into her arms. She sat like that for a long time, thinking about crying, waiting for the tears to come. She was surprised again when they didn’t, and she was doing nothing more than sitting on her bed, eyes dry and burning, with her arms wrapped around her head and her heart aching.

Consciousness

There was a man, not any particularly remarkable one. Pick any man of all men and it might as well be him. When I spoke to him at first, there was nothing to suggest to me that he was different. Nothing whispered that something was odd, nor stroked a warning finger down the hills of my spine. There was no way to know.

You would think, once you did know, that it would be more obvious. You would think that he would be frantic, afraid, sad. His eyes would bulge, or his hands would shake. When you meet him, though, he’s a perfectly ordinary man. Rather, he seems to be a perfectly ordinary man.

I am lucky. I never spoke to him for long enough to find out. That, I think, would have been worse. One of his friends, I suppose it must have been, walked over to me after I met him so briefly, and explained to me. I’m not sure why – out of a vindictive sort of malice, perhaps, but for no reason I can see.

After the stranger told me about the man, I went home. It was too strange to stay, and the tumbling in the bottom of my stomach gave me all the excuse I needed. I went home and went over the words. Here is exactly what I was told:

“That man you just met is not normal. You think of life as continuous, you know? He doesn’t. He doesn’t know how. His life has no present and no past. He lives just a bit farther away from time, outside the flow of it maybe. He lives in a single moment. It’s unattached to his past, to his present, to anything. He lives in the split-second of being conscious and when he’s not, he’s simply, I guess, not alive. This moment – this one, right now – is his whole life.”

I nodded at the words, and I packed up. I went home and I huddled into my sofa and I waited for the horror to fade. I’m not sure why it struck me so breathless. They’re not such inflammatory words. They ran through my mind until they seemed normal, and then I let myself sleep.

The man never showed up again. I’ve mostly forgotten, except for the four-o-clock ramblings like now. These times, when I wake up gasping and can’t sleep again for the thud of my heartbeat, I bend over a notebook and I write something down. Somehow that seems like I’m saving it, the shred of half-remembered dream or the feel of the breath slicing in my chest, and once it’s carved into the paper in blue ballpoint it will stay. That moment at least is preserved, as if I could go back to it.

That’s what bothers me the most, of course. When I think too closely about the words I heard, my pulse skips and my shoulders tense. There’s a horror there that I don’t understand, and then what’s worse. If I’m thinking too hard about it, so much that it seems unexceptional, then I start to wonder. It stops making sense that this way to live is different from how anyone lives – from how I live. Then I’m trapped in the moment, shivering and wordless, and I can’t find my way out.

Sparks

I live in a world where to die is to burn. It didn’t always used to be this way, some say, but maybe it did. That might be a dream. In the same way, there’s the legend of the phoenix. It’s a bird that bursts into flame and burns to ash, dying, but from those ashes a new one is born.

We’re like that, except we’re no phoenixes. We flame out, and there’s no rebirth. Just ordinary death, flickering until there’s nothing left. People sometimes ask if it hurts, but there’s no way to know. When you touch something too hot, it hurts, but that might be different. We don’t have a lot of heat around anyway. When you’re flammable, you tend to avoid fire.

Some people carry matches around. Just to be exciting, I guess, to show how tough they are. Every once in a while, that’s how someone dies – to get set on fire by someone else and burn to a crisp as they watch you wither. That is a nightmare.

The crazies go around with gasoline. Obviously, it’s a banned substance. But you can get hold of it, there’s a whole black market just for things to catch on fire. Sparks, they’re called, usually. Gasoline’s a bit more than a spark, but it’s in the same category. Anyone carrying any kind of spark is arrested right away, because that’s much too dangerous to go around. The problem is that the ones with gasoline usually set a whole town ablaze before anyone gets the chance to stop them.

Nobody knows what happens after you burn, either. It happens so fast, and often so suddenly. But there’s so much speculation about people after they dissolve into cinders, and leave only the smell of smoke drifting into the air. Some like to think that there’s a soul, and that stays. The soul is the middle of the flame that burns searing blue, and when the flame goes out the soul becomes part of something – the stories are different. Most people like that the soul goes into the sky, which makes sense to them. There are stories too, though, of ashes floating on the wind and watching all that happens below. I don’t really think any of it makes sense, because once you go up in flames there’s just nothing left of you. The fire burns you away, soul and all.

Lots of people think it’s a holy experience. They spend their lives preparing to burn, hoping that their flame will last as long as it can. Something like that, anyway. They’re kind of like the suicides, the self-immolators, who are exactly the opposite. They despair, because if you could catch at any moment then they don’t see why to live at all. As in, if life is something that can be eaten by fire in a few seconds, they don’t want it. The religious nuts and the suicides often burn in public, to show everyone with a flash of light that they believe. Either in the meaning of life and death, or in the complete absence of meaning at all. When you see someone burning on purpose, you at least know they believe one or the other. They do at least usually burn far enough from anyone else that nobody else catches fire. Sometimes they do it together. But mostly alone, mostly on the corner of a sidewalk or the middle of a town square. They burn so bright, the flames reaching up and grasping at nothing until they die out completely.

It’s strange to live when you can die by fire. It’s difficult, sometimes, because even though you want to live so much before you catch, it’s hard not to despair. It’s hard to live without wanting to choose, only once and so deliberate, to spark and flame so bright you’re blinding, until you’re gone.

Toasters and Death

The mall was quiet that day. There were only a few people around, sitting on benches or strolling, relaxed and clasping arms, from storefront to storefront. There was a couple, the woman with a red hat and a round face and several shopping bags swinging from her arms, and the man blank-faced as if he would switch back on when they got home. They walked idly past stores, chattering, the woman’s voice eager and sweet as he nodded companionably. The teenagers sitting on a bench nearby snickered at them, but quietly, and the husband’s eyes slid over before he nodded again. The kids were clustered around one, in the center, a tall blond boy who was showing off his new tattoo. Several of them were round-eyed, but a few were biting their lips and glaring behind calm faces.

A man walked through this peaceable crowd briskly, upsetting the gentle waves of shoppers with the wake of his motion, pushing them to the side with his presence. They looked at him a bit oddly. He was frenetic as he walked, and they watched him go with lips parted and eyes puzzled. He needed a toaster – his had broken this morning – and he hurried through the mall with his brow drawn close and worried, his eyes shadowed and his lips tight.

He tried to avoid things like malls at all costs. Crowded areas – even scattered with the remnants of a Tuesday afternoon, like today – and especially streets, and sidewalks. He never ate in restaurants, never went to bars, never had gotten a job in an office, tried to go to supermarkets when they were emptied of harried housewives.

Sometimes it couldn’t be helped. He knew the mall was never quite empty, and it was usually more full than this. Probably everyone would drift away as soon as he left, that was how these things went.
He did his best not to look at anyone though, shielding his eyes from the giggling teenagers and grimacing as he passed the couple, the wife now clinging to her husband’s arm as she pointed to a very pretty dress in a window. The husband patted her elbow absently.

The man pushed on. The woman was going to die quite soon. The visions, though they weren’t truly that, got so much stronger, more distinct – more solid, perhaps – the closer the death was. They weren’t visions only because they didn’t take place in his head; they took place in the world in front of him, the world he could see and hear. The woman’s death was overlaid, blurred atop her form like a transparency roughly pushed in between her body and his eyes. She was there, pointing, but the shifting shape showed her terrified as she was pulled toward the window with the pretty dress, the windshield exploding in her face and the glass sprinkling across her skin. She slumped forward, her neck twisted, on a dashboard that wasn’t there as the husband pulled the reluctant woman toward the next store. He saw this, not sequentially, but over and over, as if each motion was entwined with every other, and as she dragged her feet he saw her sprawled flat, he saw the fragments of glass sparkling in the passing headlights, and quite faintly he heard her wail as the metal twisted and broke around her.
He shuddered and kept walking. The husband’s death was very far away, faint around him, and the old man coughing and hacking into stillness was barely discernible before the young man’s indifferent expression.
The man couldn’t see his own death. It was the only one. He often wished, staring at the mirror and seeing only his own gaze, his own ordinary face, that he could see it. Perhaps he’d know if he died an old man or despaired sooner, the mirror showing him with a pistol in his mouth or a noose tied and yanking before the crow’s feet around his eyes deepened.

He ducked his head as he passed the teenagers. He couldn’t look at them, always tried to hide his eyes from children. It was almost as if his vision ensured their death, as if his knowledge of their impending doom hastened it to them. The blond boy was still holding court on the bench, and he caught only a glimpse of a face twisted with disease before his feet, tripping, took him past them. He wasn’t even sure which child it was. Perhaps it was another one.

This was always the challenge he faced. When he first realized, or first gained this power – though he couldn’t remember a time before it, and he certainly didn’t feel powerful – he puzzled over what it meant. It should have been easier. Death was natural, something he knew must come to all. Even if that was difficult, it should have worn into him, he should have gotten used to the faint screams and the crashes, the cries of rage and fear, and the choking gasps that hadn’t yet been heard. It had never become bearable.
So he hurried through the mall, head down, hoping to be untouched by death. He hunched his back, and winced occasionally, but he kept on. He needed a toaster.

The people at the mall – shopping, sitting with a drink and a pastry, chatting with their friends – looked after him curiously as he pounded across the floor, wondering.