Each day, Martin Hendricks follows a strictly laid out plan. His alarm goes off, he gets up, eats a healthy breakfast, dresses for work, and is out the door by 7:15. There are no surprises in Martin’s world. He couldn’t take the stress.
On his way to the bus stop, which takes exactly 542 steps, he makes it a point to plug his headphones into his phone and stick them in his ears. This way he can either listen to his favorite finance podcast or read another book on the history of economics. It doesn’t matter really as long as it sends a clear message to other people to not to disturb him. Mundane conversation with strangers is probably the worst situation Martin can imagine.
When the bus arrives at his stop, he is two blocks away from Cox & Lovell CPA, the accounting firm where he’s been employed for the last six years. This is always the tricky part because Martin is not entirely in control of the other people moving around him. There’s always the chance a tourist will ask him how to get to the local deli or a panhandler will want money to keep living.
To avoid interactions as much as possible, Martin walks with his eyes pointed directly at the sidewalk—only looking up when he hits a crosswalk. This is why he never saw the old man wearing an indigo-colored suit and a charcoal fedora walking intentionally towards him from the other side of the street.
Other people had begun to take notice though. It was hard not to stare as there was a growing amount of blood running out of the man’s sleeve and dripping onto the pavement. Nobody moved a muscle to help the man or to warn Martin that he was getting deadly close. A couple had even pulled out their phones to film the odd sight. It was only when the man had reached his target and pulled out a knife that a woman screamed for Martin to, “Look out!” Unfortunately, she had no idea he was still wearing his headphones and had reached a very tantalizing story about a commune in Nevada that had created a very successful economy based on beets.
Martin didn’t have any time to react before the knife was cutting into his arm. He instinctively fell over to get out of the line of danger, but in his haste, he ended up hitting his head on a metal bench and the world went black.
Faces began to swirl in Martin’s mind. Faces of people smiling, laughing, crying, screaming, dying. They were all dying. All of them. Each face bled into the next too fast for Martin to figure out what was happening, but he was sure in his soul that each person was experiencing their last moment on Earth.
The swirling began to calm, and as the world came back into focus, Martin could clearly see the people leaning over them. They looked just like the faces he’d just seen meeting their end. A man, who appeared to be in his early thirties, reached out his hand to help Martin to his feet. He took it, and the same hazy overcast overtook his vision. He saw an older version of the man standing in front of him sitting in a wooden fishing boat in the middle of a river. Heavy rain started to pour down around him and the wind picked up so intensely it tipped the small vessel over. The man was caught in the heavy current and pushed down river until Martin could no longer see his head or flailing arms.
Martin yanked his hand back and somehow managed to spurt out, “What the hell was that?”
The puzzled helper grew even more concerned, fearful that Martin was concussed as well as bleeding, but the vision and piles of death had completely wiped the stab and head wounds from Martin’s mind.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Is this some sort of prank?”
“Well if it is,” said the stranger, “I think it’s gone very sideways.” He tried to reach out for Martin again, but Martin jerked back. He then haphazardly grabbed his fallen satchel, phone, and headphones off the pavement. The growing crowd was still attempting to help him, but he retreated like a scared cat in the direction of his office.
With less regard for people than usual, Martin kept running until he collapsed into his office chair. It was only then that he was aware of the pain radiating from his right arm. The blood had soaked through his dress shirt, causing it to stick to his skin. When he got it rolled up, he found the injury spread from just beneath his elbow down to his wrist, but that wasn’t what scared him.
What had he just seen? It was the same man, wasn’t it? What about the other people? The images went by so quickly, so he didn’t get the same level of detail; but he was positive it was the same people that were trying to help him. It had to be some kind of traumatic hallucination caused by the stabbing. That had to be it. His subconscious had heard those people and planted horrible thoughts into his brain to shock him into waking up. That had to be it.
Satisfied with his explanation, Martin then buzzed his secretary.
“Yes, Mr. Hendricks?”
“Marie, I appear to be severely injured and losing a lot of blood. Could you please call me an ambulance?”
The trip to the hospital had done nothing to shake Martin’s fears of having a serious head injury. When the EMT held his arm to examine the damage, it felt like he had been pushed out of the world. Instead of his office, he was now surrounded by a grassy field and watched helplessly as the man currently sitting in front of him was shot in the face. He later saw an older version of his nurse trip and fall down a curved wooden staircase, and when he witnessed his middle-aged doctor having a heart attack after jumping out of an airplane, he decided to ask for drugs.
It was very late when Martin woke from his pleasant lack of dreams and visions of death. He was all alone in his room, and except for being in a hospital bed, it was the most normal he had felt all day. Still a lingering foreboding was in the air, and Martin had no intention of having another person touch him until he could make some kind of sense about what had happened to him.
Quietly, he collected his belongings from the cupboard in the corner and hastily made it out of the room to the hospital entrance. On the sidewalk, it occurred to Martin that he didn’t have his apartment keys or wallet. They were no doubt still in his satchel back at the office. With a halfhearted look through the sliding doors, Martin knew he was making the long jaunt back to his firm. There was no power on this earth that could make him have another conversation with a person today. Or so he thought.
Fortunately, Martin already prefers to walk to most places, so the three mile hike to his office wasn’t particularly daunting. His only real worry was the hour. He didn’t have his watch or phone but surmised it had to be in the early morning, and most people out during this time were likely either drunk or up to no good. The unconscious man sitting in front of his building did little to dispel these thoughts.
Thankfully, Martin was able to enter his passcode and get inside without waking him. When he came back out, he was happily surprised to see the man had vacated his spot. Unfortunately, he wasn’t gone.
“Hey you!” the man shouted as he reappeared from the adjacent alley.
Even if Martin hadn’t been seeing disturbing death images all day, he still wouldn’t have stopped for this man.
“Wait,” he persisted and hobbled awkwardly to catch up with Martin, as he began to walk away much faster. “Would you stop! I need to talk to you.”
“I don’t have any change. Sorry,” Martin called back over his shoulder still continuing to outpace the stranger.
“I don’t want your money. Have you seen them die, yet?”
And with that Martin stopped dead in his tracks but still refused to turn back. This man is obviously crazy. He’s not literally talking about what I’ve seen.
“If you want to know what’s happening, I can help. It’s actually not so bad once you figure out how it all works. It took me a while, but I figure I can save you the headache and fill you in now.”
Martin was still refusing to turn around, but he was listening.
“I’ve been waiting on you. I saw you come here earlier, but I had to get patched up and couldn’t stay,” said the man right over Martin’s shoulder, sending chills down his spine and all guesswork of who this person was out of his mind. He was positive it was the man who had stabbed him. What was he going to do now?
“Want to grab some breakfast?”
“Wha… What?” was all a confuddled Martin managed to get out.
“I’ve been waiting for you all night. I’m starving. Figured you wouldn’t show til the place opened, but this is better. Gives me time to really lay it all out for you.”
The two walked to Bites All Night, a 24-hour cafe located a block away. Martin had been here a few times since he started working at Cox & Lovell. They made a tasty tuna ribbon sandwich he made a point to order each time. There was also a pleasant waitress named Katrina, who always served him and made just enough small talk to not make Martin feel hopelessly awkward. He doubted she would be here at this hour, though. There was no one he could trust to ask for help.
Martin tried to take a seat close to the door, but the vagrant nudged him further to a booth in a back corner.
“We need privacy. You’ll see.” But Martin didn’t want to see. If he thought he could smoothly retrieve the phone from inside his bag, he would have already. His wish to keep breathing was the only reason he’d let the man lead him here.
“So,” started the man after the waitress left the table with their order, “where to begin. There’s really so much.”
“You could explain why you attacked me,” Martin stated much braver than he felt.
“Ah that,” he said with the look of a small child who’d just been caught doing something bad. “Unavoidable, I’m afraid. Though after spending years watching much worse things happen to people, it really wasn’t a big deal.” He must have realized how uncomfortable this statement made Martin because he immediately tried to course correct. “Sorry, I don’t mean anything’s going to happen to you, I just mean… well… you’ve probably already started to see it, right? All that death starts to take a toll. I don’t really process the way other people do anymore. It’s just the next step.”
Martin thought back over his day. He had seen many deaths. They didn’t feel like “just the next step.” It felt hopeless.
“Did you do this to me?” he asked the man very sullenly.
“Yes, sorry about that, but it had to be done. Or I could have killed you… or at least aided in your death. I think this is probably preferable for you. I mean what else were you doing?”
“I don’t understand anything that’s coming out of your mouth. You sound like a raving mad man.”
“Yeah, but after all you’ve seen today, you probably feel like one.”
There was no question in that. Martin did feel crazy. In fact, he had wondered numerous times since the stabbing if he had simply failed to wake up yet. He was still about 45 percent positive that this was a nightmare, and he was actually at home in his bed. But he’d never had such a vivid dream.
“Why?” Martin asked without feeling any need to elaborate.
“Retirement,” responded the man, also feeling this required no explanation.
“Yeah, I don’t follow. You stabbed me and gave me death visions because you’re retiring? What does that mean? What did you do to me?” Martin asked, getting progressively louder and angrier with each question. “This is insane.”
“Oh, definitely, but you might want to eat first so you can fully digest what I’m about to tell you.”
When the waitress brought out their food, Martin realized the man was somewhat right. He didn’t realize how hungry he’d been. It’s amazing how a good meal can send a wave of comfort and calmness throughout the body. While he didn’t feel any safer in this man’s presence after eating his sandwich, he at least felt like he was again in his right mind.
“All right, you ready,” said the man as he pushed away his own plate and began to wipe his mouth with the cutlery napkin. “This is a tricky tale I’m about to tell you, but I need you to be quiet and save all your questions for the end.”
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