Sam allowed the shadows to eat his soul while he still had ample use for it, which didn't seem as strange to him as the new feature on his cell phone he had been discussing with his partner only hours prior ...
"You only now got texting on your phone?" asked Amanda, mouth agape like she just heard about a new kind of surgery.
"See, I've just figured stamps out," he replied in one of those joke-not-a-joke hybrids he spouted when he sensed he was on the verge of ridicule.
They walked to the glass front door. Sam dialed the keypad. Amanda hugged herself and jumped up and down to keep warm. They breathed two thick clouds into the air that pulsed into a single mist before disappearing forever.
The door beeped twice and the latch unlatched.
"We have that Baczewski couple today," he told her, fishing a file folder out of his bag and handing it to her as they walked through their silent lobby, which was painted eggplant even though Amanda had fought for pomegranate. "They're the ones borrowing from the wife's 401k to pay for their mortgage."
"You'll have to be more specific," she said, unwrapping her trench coat and taking the file.
"They're 22," he said. He turned on the lights in the conference room and they tossed their leather backpacks onto the large wood table.
"Right! Dave and Dawn. Did you know they went to Greenview High? They were freshmen when we were seniors. I think I threw a tater tot at him once." Amanda opened a nearby file cabinet and hugged four heavy binders that all had the same logo on the spines: "S&A FINANCIAL ADVISING"
She heaved the binders onto the table. Sam dumped coffee grounds into a filter and said, "Okay, it's not a big deal. Texting just came standard with the contract renewal, but I'm not going to use it. What's the point? If it's urgent, call me. If it's not, don't text me." "And how is Rumspringa working out for you?" Amanda asked. She opened a binder and flipped to a section.
"Hold on," Sam said and pointed. The section divider read, "C-SHARE INVESTING."
"Yeah, so?" Amanda said and curled a hair behind her ear, which meant she was hoping to avoid a discussion.
"The Baczewskis are neck-deep in debt. You're going to recommend they invest what little they have left?"
"The way I figure, they've been pretty stubborn, right? If they don't start listening to us soon, they'll be burning money."
"To stay warm?"
"No, because they'll hate money so much. So to get them to listen, we tell them they have an aggressive time horizon: they're so young, they can afford to take more financial risks. That way they'll feel good about themselves, and be more prone to heed our advice!" She waved her hands like New Year's noisemakers. "Yay!"
"You're serious?" he asked. "Your strategy is to compliment them into submission?"
She shrugged. "Validation is a powerful thing," she said, as simply as if reciting Newtonian law.
Beep beep boop / beep beep bop / bop bop boop / beep was the song that came from Sam's pocket. It sounded like a cash register's favorite overused phrase.
"It's never done that before," he said and produced his phone from his change pocket. Amanda expected it to look like a sad little flip phone from the turn of the century, but it had metal contours and a touch screen.
"How do you ..?" he asked and slid his finger all over the thing, causing nothing.
Amanda reached across the table and grabbed the phone from him. "Apparently you have your first text."
"That's not possible," he said. "I haven't told anyone but you."
"Here," she said, and wiped her finger on the screen with a magician's confidence. "Messages, inbox, new message," she narrated.
Her eyes scanned from left to right, left to right. And then she giggled. "Wow," she said. "And what a first text to get."
Sam grabbed the phone back from her. On the screen was a photo of blurred, grainy, shadowy flesh with some kind of gaping black spot in the middle. It was impossible to tell where on the body it was, but it looked nowhere pleasant. The photo looked dangerous. It looked like evidence. The corresponding text said, Give it to me on the counter, all night long, all night strong, 52 East Miller Road, 10 P.M. tonight. Okay, Sammy Bean?
Sam held the phone away from him like it was germs. "God!" he said.
Amanda laughed. "Calm down. It's just the Haunted Sext of Greenview Park."
Sam repeated the phrase and tacked an offended question mark to the end.
"Yes," Amanda said, repeated the phrase, and tacked an exclamation mark to the end. "The legend goes that a long time ago, like three years ago or something, there was a student at Greenview High named Emily Kurtz. Her dad got life in prison for a crime that becomes more gruesome with each telling, and by the time all was said and convicted, it was Christmas Eve." Amanda strolled around him like a mustached villain.
"Emily wanted to provide her drained and tormented family with a nice Christmas dinner, but she didn't know how to cook, so she sent a booty text to a cute guy in her bio class named Chet Miller. When he showed up to her house at two in the morning, she opened the door wearing a Rudolph-themed negligee ..." Amanda sunk to a whisper,
"... lured him onto the kitchen counter ..." she let it hang in the air, before her balled-up fists exploded ...
"and then sliced him up with the family chainsaw and cooked him for Christmas dinner!!!"
Sam offered a small cough.
"And now, every December, the ghost of Chet Miller sends out the same sext that began the last chapter of his life and the first of his death, hoping that one year someone will finally answer it so he can get laid and move onto the next sphere of the afterlife."
Sam chewed the story, slowly and carefully, as if avoiding catfish bones. He thus concluded: "That story is awful, even for an urban legend."
"Well, you're not supposed to take it literally!" Amanda whined. "The text is just a cute way of saying 'Merry Christmas, and I've got the hots for you.' You have a fan, Sammy Bean, that's all. No harm in having a secret admirer."
"Sorry, not interested," Sam said and dropped the phone back into his pocket. It went ca-chink against the change. "Plus, I think it's Susan Ricker."
"That baseball-hat-and-ponytail mom who ditched us last week?" Amanda asked. "Like my stepsister tells her husband: just because you have a gambling addiction, it doesn't exempt you from manners."
"She's sweet, but on those monthly financial assessments, she keeps leaving me little notes at the bottom, like, 'Have you seen the new wizard movie?'"
The doorbell buzzed.
"Well, everyone needs validation," Amanda said with a shrug, getting up from her chair to let in the Baczewskis. "Susan Ricker, the Baczewskis ..." She stopped at the conference room door and pointed her pen at Sam. "Even you."
No, not me, Sam thought to himself, as he approached 52 East Miller Road at 10 P.M. that night. Not me.
He slammed his car door into a wide wispy echo. It was only him here, and his car, and a black starless sky, and a dry brick building whose equal dimensions and lack of signage made it a mere wooden cube with a door in it. Nothing but road and dirty snow stretched for blocks in either direction. Before him was a perfect windowless gift.
Despite his inner-self shouting like a crazed witness in a courtroom, "Don't do it! This is a bad idea!" his outer-self put foot in front of foot toward the red painted door. He had to know who had sent him The Haunted Sext of Greenview Park. If it was poor lovestruck Susan Ricker pulling rank, it would be his duty to shred her veil of anonymity and remind her about the sacred line between consultant and client. If it was Amanda, well, she'd been pulling stunts like this since they had nothing but neighboring lockers at Greenview High. They'd have a good laugh, he supposed.
Upon touching the ice-flecked doorknob, a wave of sad familiarity came upon him, as if remembering a betrayal from a past life. He stared only at the brass knob. He breathed puffs of cold smoke only at the brass knob. This place ... Yes! It was the ice cream shop, the one where his father treated him to a banana split when he first made Little League, and where he split a banana split with the first girl he called "love bear," and where he and Amanda performed their first, last, and only banjo duet ... before the manager bestowed upon them a free banana split!
It was the ice cream shop that bookended history, as far as Sam was concerned.
And much like it's hard to pinpoint the second a sickness began, he found himself inside, with no recollection of opening the door and stepping through it and performing all the other formalities that come with engulfing oneself in a place. Through shadows, he saw the creaky old wooden counter, some stools, and a cup of newly washed spoons.
He heard soft surfaces scrape against each other with the frequency of a tired metronome. He resigned himself to the fact that he wasn't alone, and did not bother to cross his arms, but kept them at his side as if ready to accept a medal. Whoever was here was close enough to breathe on the back of his neck. He turned, saw nothing. He felt his insides expand upward and downward and outward.
He took a seat at the counter, flipped his coattails over the seat, picked up a long spoon, and began to eat the banana split on the counter that had been waiting for him, made special with almonds and strawberry sauce and architectural precision.
No pangs of surprise rose up in Sam's chest. The presence of the banana split carried all the matter-of-factness of a dentist appointment. The clinks the spoon made against the bowl were loud, and he felt apologetic upon making each one, as if disrespecting a congregation. In front of him, barely visible in the dark, he examined scratches made against a surface. They were harsh and uneven striations, claw marks from creatures at the end of desperation.
As he contemplated the pattern, realizations threaded like silk through his numb little brain. The first realization: the scratches moved. They wavered from side to side. The second: the scratches were not far away. They were inches in front of his face. The third: the scratches were not just scratches. They were themselves a face.
Sam looked down and saw the rest of its body. It had the shape of a human's silhouette, flat but not like paper -- flat like a hole, as if someone had carved a human shape into time and space itself.
The scratch-faced shadow whispered to Sam in sexless monotone, "You are well-adjusted. You are helpful. You are kind. You know things."
And to his left, another shadow approached. It whispered, "You touch many lives. You can mix a great drink. You command attention. You are genuine. You are principled."
And to his right, another, who observed in more overlapping whispers, "You are a competent cook. You judge spatial relationships accurately. You stick by principles. You have love to give and you give it."
And behind him, a chorus of the dark, dimensionless cutouts arose, all wavering side to side like fitful spectators. "You have perfect pitch. You can navigate. Your beautiful face warms hearts."
Sam did not smile or cry or shift in his chair. His heart pounded but not from fright. He felt the joy upon coming home from a war. He was among family and the best of friends. His mother and father were long gone, but he felt their souls here, and though his brothers were still alive he felt their presences, too. He welcomed the warmth of his old teachers and new mentors, his love bears and golfing buddies, his neighbors and acquaintances and fellow shoppers from the supermarket.
The scratched faces encroached, and it took him a handful of minutes, hours, days to realize he was now lying on the counter. He felt the cold drizzle of strawberry syrup stream across his neck, and then the pellet stings of almonds hitting his face. He flinched -- how could he not? -- but otherwise kept still, subordinate to the ritual.
"Your skiing skills are excellent. You have the hands of a builder. You can compliment the lowest man. You have an old soul."
He felt the absence of one person, and it stung him dearly. He slid his phone from his pocket, causing coins to rain to the ground. Without looking, he dialed Amanda's number. He needed to tell her everything, transmute everything unto her. He needed to selfishly, selflessly burden her.
Though they had no mouths for speaking, the faces spoke. And though they had no mouths for eating, they bent their heads and feasted on Sam for Christmas dinner.
"You are needed in this world," they said, "more than money or advice or love and joy eternal." They tore into his heart as time tears through space and vice versa. His face went limp, then his eyes, then his phone at his side.
The phone became infused with a life of its own. It typed, "Give it to me on the counter, all night long, all night strong, 52 East Miller Road, 10 P.M. tonight. Okay, Dandy Mandy?" The phone did not move yet somehow obtained a photo of Sam's remaining devoured shell. It was a grainy, indecipherable, flesh-colored mess. The screen read "Message Sent," and then went dark forever.