Robert Baselton had a hard time looking at his girlfriend without staring at the sable haze of the Messenger looming in the hallway shadows. Its eyes were absent in a pair of harrowing sockets as black as a starless sky; its skull protruded through a dark mist that filled the hall. Its presence could paralyze the bravest of souls, but Robert knew that the message it would bear was worse than the Messenger itself. Someone else was going to die.
“What are you thinking?” Julia asked, pleading for a way to start a conversation.
Robert spent most of dinner facing the lukewarm meatloaf and mashed potatoes that his mother made the day prior, before going to her second job. He had taken three bites before feeding the rest to the still silence in the room. It was hard to eat while knowing he was about to receive the same message he had received twice already.
“R—Robert?” Julia’s hand quivered until she hid it underneath the table. She kept her other hand busy portioning an even ratio of meatloaf and mashed potatoes on her fork. She raised it to her mouth but didn’t eat it. Instead, she kept looking at him, waiting for some semblance of a response.
“Nothing. I’m not thinking of anything.”
Julia grimaced; her paling face was counteracted only by her soft red lips. She took a bite of her meatloaf and slowly chewed it, and he could see that she was running through her index of potential conversation-starters. Robert only hoped that her new subject would be less mundane. He had no desire to talk any further about classes or school.
“Pastor Gordon wants me to teach the kids’ Sunday school lesson this week,” she said with a smile. She was always smiling when she was doing charity work. Tonight her philanthropic duties involved filling the emptiness that usually accompanied his meal after the blur of lipstick and heels he referred to as “Mom” left for work.
He didn’t usually mind Julia’s company. After all, Julia was much nicer to look at than a vacant rickety chair or the Messenger. Her big brown eyes and sandy-brown hair reminded him of a Disney princess, but he was hardly the prince to give Julia her happily ever after, and tonight was no fairytale.
“Are you even listening?” she asked as her smile faded.
“That’s, uh, that’s great.” He forced himself into an oafish, cheesy grin to feign an emotion that he couldn’t feel. He pondered how much the presence of the Messenger had affected their conversation. Probably not as much as it should have.
“…Yeah…” Her wide, hopeful eyes begged for him to inquire more about it.
He took another bite of his meatloaf and kept chewing it much longer than necessary. Even after it dissolved into nothingness in his mouth, he continued to chew on his saliva.
“Would you like to go?” she asked.
“You know, um, go see the lesson?”
He put his hand over his mouth and mumbled as he swallowed. “I’ve, uh… I’ve got a thing that day.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” He watched as a hand reached into her throat and took the words right out of her. “A thing.”
More silence. At any moment someone’s death clock is going to tick toward zero. Who will the third victim be? Robert thought.
Julia stood up abruptly, blushing as she caught his attention. She carefully picked her plate up from the table so that none of the contents would slip off. She approached the garbage can and dumped the majority of the meatloaf out before turning on the sink faucet.
“Don’t,” Robert said, “I’ll wash it.” You’re okay, Julia. You’ve done your good deeds for the day.
“No, that’s all right.” Her voice was barely audible over the sink. She rinsed her dish and then put it in the dishwasher next to the other plates that had been victims of previous awkward dinners at the Baselton residence. “I’m gonna go. I should get to bed soon.”
The microwave clock read 8:23.
She lingered by the sink, just a few feet from the front door. Robert felt her prolonged stare as he sat with his feet glued to the dated sepia tiled floor. He couldn’t get up without acknowledging the other presences in the room. The house was busy that night. The spirits outnumbered those who were living.
“See you at school tomorrow?” Julia was still there, bearing the same expression that his father gave his mother when he was alive: a pair of doe-like eyes, widened and watery, quietly begging for an exchange of affection. The Baselton family was known for consisting of two kinds of people: the budding socialites who brought families and friends together, and the wallflowers who shut out the world. He and his mother were one in the same.
Julia muttered a meek “bye” and crossed through the front door. He saw her silhouette stop at the top of the front porch stairs, but then she trudged down the steps and disappeared from view.
Robert found himself alone with his cold meatloaf and the Messenger, with nothing but Julia’s car pulling out of the driveway to drown out the silence. He stabbed his fork into the butchered slice of once rectangular meat like an explorer would with a flag on uncharted ground. There was no longer a reason to feign enjoying his meal. He never liked meatloaf, but it was easier to pretend that he had eaten it than it was to suggest to his mother that she make something else. Her night shifts made her irritable (not that she was in a good mood before). Even so, Robert would have preferred her company over what currently filled the house.
The Messenger’s skull became more prominent than it had been when Julia was in the room. It was protruding from its shadowy haven, covering the entire hallway entrance with its sheer mass. The outlines of the shadow swayed the way a black cloak would if met with a sudden gust of wind.
The sound of the fridge cooling coils covered the silence mustered up between him and the Messenger, but he couldn’t spend the rest of his awful night having a staring contest. Robert knew he had to approach it, but when he did, he would be told of another future funeral.
With a deep breath, Robert rose to his feet and took a step in the direction of Death’s courier. His foot pressed slowly on the kitchen tile. He could hear every crease in his shoe as if he were walking out of a movie theatre that was littered with buttered popcorn. With each step, his pulse became a little louder. He wanted to grip his heart before approaching the Messenger, out of the fear that it could reach through his ribcage and rip it from his chest.
He had to look almost straight up at the swarthy skull before him. He trapped in his throat whatever courage he had left and spoke as bravely as he could. “Are you gonna tell me or what?”
The Messenger peered down at him, revealing the traces of a smirk and charcoal rotten teeth.
A bee-like buzz overcame the silence and kitchen lights flashed, then went out. The entire house darkened as if a power surge had tripped the breaker, and Robert was left with nothing but the ethereal cerulean glow of the moon to guide him. The Messenger didn’t like his attitude.
His heart bounced against his bones, and goose bumps ran up his skin. It was as if an icy finger had caressed the discs of his spine. Robert took a step back from the obscurity that he could no longer see. Then he took a second, allowing his feet to be coated in the ghostly glow of the Sun’s cousin.
He spun around to acknowledge the transparent teenage girl and the old woman that his back had been facing during the meal. The moon’s glow coated them with a set of hazy outlines, emphasizing their bleak realities: they were no longer a girl and an old woman, but the first two victims of crimes he had yet to understand.
“Do you want another person to go through this?” he asked them.
The two remained as silent as they had always been. The girl had her face on the floor and whimpered quietly to herself. The old woman’s mouth was slightly ajar, and the corners of her lips turned downward.
The hair on the nape of his neck stood straight on end as the Messenger glided behind him. His body froze in its icy embrace as if its frosted boney fingers were reaching through his chest and pricking fractals of his soul. The skull contorted downward until the Messenger’s maggot-encrusted jaw was nearly pressed up against his ear. It spoke in a guttural tone that should have been difficult to comprehend, but he heard its voice loud and clear. “Murder.”
Robert shuddered. He didn’t want to look at Death’s courier—not when it was so close to him. God only knew what sort of unholy displeasure resided within the twin pools of finality where eyes should have been. They would scorch an image into his mind that would resurface every time he closed his eyes until the day Death came to add him to his registry.
“Who is going to be murdered?”
The chills went away. The lights flickered back on. The courier had relayed the message and left him alone to deal with it.
Robert focused on the old woman. The girl seemed inconsolable so, if anything, the old woman was most likely his best bet. The last time he had received the “murder” message the girl didn’t do anything but sob. He spent twenty minutes trying to get her to speak but to no avail. Maybe the old woman, being the more recent of the two victims, would say something.
He got within a foot of her transparent body. She grimaced and hid behind her heavy pink shawl. If she weren’t dead, she would have looked amusing with it draped around her morning gown with beige slippers to match, but Robert could find no humor when peering into the eyes of the deceased. “Who is going to be murdered?”
The old woman gave him a blank stare as if he had asked her the question in a foreign language.
“You must know something.”
She remained quiet, but her eyes grew more somber while the girl continued to cry. It had been a week since he last pushed for either of them to communicate with him. After all of his efforts, he was beginning to ponder whether or not they even could.
“Do you really want someone else to die?”
A tear rolled from her right eye as he spoke. She faded away before he could protest. He motioned toward the girl, but her hysterics had overtaken her, and she vanished before he could reach her.
For the first time all day he was alone. Julia had left him awkwardly, his mother wouldn’t be home until the early morning, his father would never be home again, the Messenger spoke of a murder-to-be, and the spirits had failed to be useful. Without company or a desire to eat any more, he left the kitchen and entered his living room with walls stripped of photos of a once happy family. His mother had taken most of the Baselton family photos down after the accident. She preferred to pretend that his father had not existed, rather than look at the past and dwell on better times.
He turned on the television where, for the next several hours, images and storylines blurred together in his mind. It was always easier to ignore what wasn’t in his control: another benign day of school ahead, his decaying relationships with everyone around him, and the knowledge that someone was about to die and there was nothing that he could do about it.