Walter Avoritts is dying.
This solemn fact is not met by anyone with tears and wails but rather with the grim sets of jaws, with hushed whispers to plan last meetings, ceremonies, and the quiet divvying up of soon-to-be abandoned assets. He does not have to be alone in his final moments. Walter is 79 years old, will be survived by a wife, two daughters and a litter of grandchildren provided catastrophe is content to keep her eyes on him in the coming hours. Any one of these family members might be called into the stuffy bedroom one last time, as well as a healthy cast of aged friends, but Walter sits alone. His thin shoulders, fragile as a bird's wing, lean against the wooden headboard, tilting his head down to view the gnarled hands folded neatly in his lap. The wrinkly sheaf of his skin is so translucent that he can clearly see each vein and tendon, arteries pressed flush to the bone faithfully pumping blood to the tips of his fingers. Soon these little biological highways will come to a stop, cars full of cargo left abandoned in their lanes. Walter wonders if he will be able to watch it happen.
The decision to be alone when he dies could have been interpreted, as his grieving daughters will, as a last and powerful act of bravery. A tragically heroic means of shouldering from his loved ones the burden of seeing his eyes flutter shut one last time, of watching, horror-struck as his body transforms from husband, father, friend to object. In doing so he gives them the gift, the tremendous gift of keeping himself forever alive in their memories, alive until he quite simply was not. A clean break between person and corpse. It's a kindness, one final kindness they give him because in actuality the situation is quite reversed. Walter Avoritts is terrified, the last dregs of his courage used up in asking quite calmly for his family to please leave him to his rest. He knows not where he is going, but it will be easier, he thinks, to face it alone in his bed without all those wide eyes staring down at him. In solitude such as this, Walter can nestle his head atop the pillows and shut his eyes for what he knows will be the last time. He can pretend he's only falling asleep.
It happens so swiftly that for a moment he thinks he has fallen asleep, except he knows without opening his eyes that something is different. His joints don't ache anymore, his head neither, leaving him feeling impossibly light and free. He could leap out of bed and dance, he could turn two cartwheels the way he'd done when he was a boy, but instead he merely opens his eyes. There is a man sitting at the side of his bed, sitting in the chair his wife has been occupying for the better half of this last and particularly difficult week. "Hello again," the man says with a smile, looking up from the small white book in his lap. "It is lovely to see you. I've missed your company."
Walter stares for a moment, struggling in vain to find a familiar feature on his visitor's face. He's an odd sort of person. Each time Walter thinks he can single out a single distinguishing facet -- a sharp nose, a soft mouth, a cluster of crows feet at the corner of his eyes -- they fade to mediocrity, lingering in the shallowest banks of his recollection. It's as though his face is constantly shifting, simultaneously building and softening itself down, like sand to an ocean current. His face only just manages to register in Walter's mind if he focuses. "Do I know you?" He asks finally, feeling his cheeks color at the question. At this the stranger smiles encouragingly.
"Do you recognize me?"
Walter squints harder, unable to shake the sensation that he is missing something. "I ... no. No, I don't."
"That's all right," the stranger says kindly. "I recognize you."
"Oh," says Walter, feeling mollified, though he's not sure why. There's a pause, one in which he can only stare blankly at the man still smiling unconcernedly at him from his wife's seat. "Who ... might I ask who you are, then?"
"You might," the stranger says genially. "But that rather depends on you, doesn't it?"
"Er -- does it?"
"It does." The stranger spreads out his arms, as though attempting to embrace the possibilities. "I'm meant to look like whoever it is you'd find most comforting to have near. Anyone at all."
"But I don't recognize you," Walter insists again, confusion and the beginnings of something else trickling through his veins.
"And that's quite all right too. It's more natural than you'd think, you'd be surprised how many find comfort in a stranger. Leaves the preconceived at the door. It's more intimate, I think you'll find. More honest."
"I want to see my wife," Walter says suddenly, the first flash of fear now striking through him like lightning. The stranger smiles at him again, though this time far too knowingly. It sends a chill down Walter's spine.
"Well now, we both know that's not true, don't we?"
Walter opens his mouth to retort but finds nothing comes out. "I want to be alone," he says instead. "Please, leave me. I'm going to die."
"You already have, Mr. Avoritts," the stranger says patiently. "Though I will certainly leave you to yourself in just a moment. There is a decision you have to make, you know." "I ... do?"
"Yes," says the stranger encouragingly. "You do."
Walter stares at the stranger before him, the spider patter of fear running down the length of his back. With a start he realizes that the headboard behind him is gone. In his place is only emptiness, a yawning black which beckons with a casual, almost bored gesture. He struggles to fling himself forwards but finds himself terribly, horribly rooted to the spot, as though he's been pressed to the mattress with blankets of lead. Before him, the stranger's white book is glowing in his lap. It's open to the first page.
"Where is it you'd like to go, Mr. Avoritts?" There's a shrieking sound, an undying wail which builds slow and terrible in the hollow of his skull, expanding like a balloon until he's sure he will burst. Somehow through all of this the stranger's voice is oddly clear, distinct between the rush of the black and the deafening howl of the white. "Forwards or back?"
"I --" Walter's tongue is a dry, desiccated thing in his mouth. He can't speak, can hardly manage to think through this chaos on either side.
"Oh, pardon me." The stranger snaps his fingers and all at once the room is back to the way it was. The headboard is solid at his back, the book is closed in his lap. "There now. It should be much easier to make a decision now, shouldn't it?"
Walter feels like crying. He's confused, confused and scared and this room looks so similar to his own that he can't fight the feeling that if he'd only just cry out his wife and daughters would come running through this door and rescue him. He opens his mouth to do so but just before he can shout he sees the stranger's smile. Just like that, sound dies in the back of his throat.
"Forwards or back?" The stranger asks again. "You'll have to choose soon, I'm afraid."
"I don't understand the question," Walter says angrily. "You still haven't told me what either of them mean."
"Oh come now, Mr. Avoritts," the stranger says in a voice that tells him he can do better than that. "That's not true, now is it?" He waits a moment, as though expecting Walter to agree. When he doesn't, he suffers a small sigh. "If you stay back you will be swallowed up. Eaten entirely, not a trace of you will remain." The headboard at his back seems to rumble in agreement. Walter shifts himself forward, as far as he can go.
"Forwards, then. I want to go forwards."
The stranger raises one brow in amusement. "If you move forwards you will be reborn again. You will live out precisely the same life, and you will die, where I will again offer you this same choice."
Walter stares, stupified. The stranger's pleasant smile never falters, and it's that which stirs him back to speech. "So it's a lie, then. One choice. There's only really ever one way for me to go." The stranger's smile brightens. He cocks his head as he looks at him, the way a parent regards a particularly precocious child.
"That's precisely what you said last time."
The two stare at each other. Walter has the urge to hit him, to shake him, to do anything to crack that pleasant veneer but the implications of his words have chilled him to the core. "Why would I ..." He shakes his head. "I've gone forwards, then. Why would I choose that? Why would I go through all of it again?"
"I'm sure I don't know, Mr. Avoritts," the stranger says with a wide smile that claims the contrary. "I suppose you thought you'd be able to change it. It is possible, you know, though I can't say I've ever seen it happen."
"What guarantee do I have that you're telling the truth, then?" Walter asks shrewdly.
"None at all." the stranger says happily. "You'll just have to trust yourself, I suppose. Until you've lived a life you're satisfied with."
There's silence in the room, a silence in which Walter thinks he can still hear the echoes of the roar to his back. Fear is prickling down his neck again. "This is Hell," he says accusingly.
"If it is," the stranger says cheerfully, "then it's one of your own making." There's a good-natured air to his grin, but it's one Walter can't fail to read the message in. His time is up. There's a choice to be made.
"I'll see you soon, I suppose," Walter says, reaching for the white book.
"Sooner than you'll think," the stranger says with a wink. "Though perhaps a touch differently, if you've any luck." Walter looks up quickly at this but before his eyes can reach they're swallowed with white. Differently, he thinks determinedly. A touch differently. I must remember. I must ...
But the white is not only white now, there's a silver and blue to it, the sanitary steel of a hospital room. There are hands on him, he's being lifted up, toweled off, wrapped in something warm and handed to a woman whose eyes look just like his. Different ... different what? The woman is smiling, saying something to him that is perfectly indiscernible. It's the smile that sets him off. He opens his mouth wide, and begins to wail.
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