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A raving lunatic sat upon the ground, verbally assaulting the sensitivities of all within his near proximity. To any glancing ear not partaking in the verbal vomit, the world might merely be ending in a number of insidious ways. To any who might take a gander at the doomsday notifications, the words might perhaps be rather hilarious. What is a better way to feel like one's life is far superior than viewing man lacking both heart and hearth, one who seems trapped in the drugs that seemingly set him free? What the listener may not realize is that we are all stuck in the same cycle, but with drugs by any other name. One girl, who felt herself wizened beyond her years, and her thoughts purer than most, pitied the man and his significant lack of clothing. Every day for the past half year, she filled his cup with silver- and copper-toned currencies, the coins clicking gracefully against his cracked chalice.
Despite seeing him on a frequent basis, she never truly took the time to understand him. To her, this man was just another point of normalcy on her daily walk to work. What was once an oddity was now blossoming into a fixation of ever-present screaming in her mind's eye. She wanted to know his name, what he did when he wasn't blaring random obscenities to the open sky, and most importantly, how he got to where he was. Yet she never took the time to approach him other than spending her spare change to support whatever strange habit he likely partook in. This man, with his translucent skin, eyes as brown as the flush, and face bearded with pinecones, somehow had an oddly intelligent look about him. The strange mixture was terrifying to her, and she did not know what to expect. As with any young and marginally attractive women, she was careful with how she approached men, lest anything be a fault of her own.
This day she had an interview for a promotion against the stereotypical office everyman. She was dressed in her most tasteful attire, which of course consisted of the nondescript pantsuit ensemble in a stark navy blue with a ruffled white shirt. Her cinnamon brown curls were tied up in a loose bun with just enough hair free to still be considered a tier below the stereotype of office bitch, but still pretty. Her eyes were a pale machine grey of someone who is used to hiding behind a neutral expression, but secretly holds too much pain from their earlier years. As she dug into her purse for her spare change from the day before, she thought nothing as she went to drop them in his outreached hand without a glance. She barely noticed that Robert, as she dubbed him in her own mind, was not using his usual colorful vocabulary skills to shout at everyone about how the dinosaurs will come back and murder us all. Instead, he merely said a polite thank you, followed by a curt use of her own name: Pearl Leigh McCann.
Abruptly, she stopped in her tracks, barely able to keep herself upright. Her biggest fear was ruining her affordable, but still presentable, outfit. But his voice, generally incomprehensible, as lucid as a fever dream, was now as enunciated as a two-year-old told to say please. Now she was faced with the idea that her Robert was more than just a street lamp, but a man capable of thought and human emotion. This shattered the confidence she had been born with that morning by the mere change in her own day. Something was telling her to walk away before he said more, to completely change her walking route. Something sinister was rolling off his breath that she could taste within her own mouth. It was then that she realized her homeless man was now inches within her flesh. A peculiar smile sneered around his broken teeth as he was staring at her. His voice was silken when he spoke with words pouring off of his tongue in perfectly delicious drips. After a brief period of silence that lasted eternally, he said, "Did your mother not teach you any manners child?"
"Sorry... sir. Um, I mean thank you?" she replied hastily, rather unsure of herself at that exact moment, her confidence deflating like a punctured balloon. She wondered why now of all days he had to speak to her.
"Today, you will receive what you wish most in life in this eclipse of time.," her Robert went on to proclaim, "You will break through and bleed, but your desire will be fulfilled." He glanced at his cup and moved it briefly from side to side, as if to tell Pearl she owed him for his prophesizing to her. Unable to help herself, she pulled out a dollar bill and hastily placed it within the confines of the ceramic. She feared that if she did not do his minor bidding, then she may somehow be cursed. As fast as the moment had begun, the clouds covered his eyes once more, taking with it his mind. Strangely, a new calm settled over her, and she started back on her trek to work.
Despite leaving later than usual after getting ready, Pearl was somehow earlier than normal. The air was filled with an overused surface cleaner, vaguely reminiscent of cheap vinegar. It was somehow prevalent but remained mostly anonymous like the secretary that had been there since days of yore. With barely a glance at the unfortunate Glenda Evans, and her sad attempt at making her face look younger with too much powder, Pearl went to the bathroom to freshen herself up before the big moment. Her biggest dream was to become the CEO of her company, despite lacking certain masculine credentials. She had all but forgotten about what Robert had breathed on her face, and made herself to appear more confident than she actually was, but not too much so. At exactly nine AM, she made her way to the office of the ever-shrinking Mr. Oswald Smalls, a name fitting for a man of his physique. He was a dour old man, and was past a sensible retirement. In every sense, he was the perfect office manager: grouchy and well hated. With his yellowed teeth and rotten breath, Mr. Smalls announced, "Miss Pearl McCann, Mr. Daniel Edwards, please do come in."
Daniel went into the office first with his rightful entitlement of having been at the office longer than Pearl. At 43, he was long overdue for a promotion, but he had started this career later on in life. Since joining the office twelve years ago, he had fought hard enough over the last donuts and bits of office cake to morph into another slightly pudgy drone. His hair was peaked in a bold way to ensure everyone noticed his balding scalp. A sidelong glance from both him and their boss told Pearl all she needed to know. She was only selected as a candidate for show. At no point in time had a female in the entire history of this company been promoted to more than a special personal assistant for the head honcho. Glenda was past her prime to fulfill such duties, so maybe she was the new replacement. Pearl was barely able to stop a soft sigh from escaping her lips before sitting down in the creaky leather chair. Lo and behold, the smile upon Mr. Smalls' face was one of distinct disdain for her. Again, he rose to speak, the man of the hour, the day, and the year, "Edwards, McCann, I think we both know why we are in here. While you have both put in a number of wonderful years with this company–"
A rough gasp escaped from Daniel, with his hand going straight to his throat. He suddenly dropped down to the floor, his life quickly surrendering to whatever lies beyond. One brief word escaped his breath: granted. It was heard only to the ears of those that paid. Before the ambulance could be called, Edwards grew completely devoid of life.
Without a second glance at Pearl, Smalls continued where he left off, "He would have made a great office manager in my retirement, but now he is deceased. That man should have laid off the donuts and cake. Tsk. So, my dear, that leaves only one proper candidate for this role, which unfortunately has to be you. It would be most improper to select someone else in a time of such a sudden demise. Congratulations Miss McCann, you are the new top dog in this office. The party will be held—ahem—at noon, after this body is taken care of."
She left without any words of gratitude, too shocked over the loss of a life that was just standing before her moments ago. Particularly unnerving was the severe callousness of Mr. Smalls. Perhaps he had seen a lot of loss in his previous employ in whatever the past war was that he was old enough to have fought in. Despite Daniel's steadily growing lethargy and hours wasted on mountains of paperwork, there didn't seem to be any reason for his silent departure. A quick shiver ran down her spine when she remembered the words of Robert a few short hours ago: you will receive what you wish most in life, and something about bleeding. Had she truly wished for the death of her office nemesis or had she only desired the promotion? The question of her own self-righteousness was too large a struggle for her, bringing her to quickly decide on the latter.
The party in the break room was nothing lavish. In fact, a stale smell of cigarettes from previous decades was still somehow fresher than the cake that had been made for the person of honor. Everyone was called from their cubicles for half an hour to acknowledge the change of power. All eyes were demanded at attention as Mr. Smalls gave a trivial speech about his many years here, and how he was going to play golf for the rest of his days. He made a brief joke about how his wife would be happy to finally see him after all these years. An even smaller mention about how Edwards was now beyond his mortal coil was glanced over, but nothing more. No one really cared, as he was simply another worker with drudgery to be done. Now that he was dead, there was even more piles of paper divvied up among the already overworked employees. The rest of the day went by in a haze of monotony until precisely five o'clock, when she was allowed to leave half an hour early to celebrate. On her walk home, she avoided the corner that Robert was inhabiting, as to clear her mind from the tragedy of the day. She refused to see him again until she had convinced herself that she alone had deserved the promotion despite the uncanny semblance of the day.
Later that night at the home of her parents, there was the monthly family dinner her mother insisted upon, to keep everyone possible. With four adult daughters, two with extended families of their own, this task was a lot more tumultuous for Harriet, the McCann matriarch, ever suspected. She insisted her older daughter, Maria, video in from where she worked in Asia someplace, but that only worked out seldomly due to the massive difference in time. Theodora and Daniella were always there with their brood of children and their respective spouses. This only served to add on to the growing anxiety of Pearl, and the pronouncement of her success. Already she knew she would be overshadowed by what one of the kids had to say about some commonplace award they had won for existing. The hour passed by in a dreary sludge until her turn to speak came.
With her quiet voice, Pearl told the gathered beloved, "I got the promotion. And someone died."
Theodora chimed in with her typical exasperation, "Enough with the dramatics honey, you got the job. Just be happy for once. You always were the solemn baby of this family and you never grew out of it."
"Oh, leave her alone Dora," Daniella added on, rescuing their baby sister as always, "It's not as if you would enjoy someone dropping dead in front of you!"
Not to be outdone, Harriet glowered and said, "This is our family dinner. There is no need for hysterics here. Johnny got his perfect attendance award and Rosie won the school spelling bee. This is a time of celebration. Let me go get the pie!"
This was how dinner typically went. Everyone bragged of their highest accomplishments of the past four weeks, and Pearl was chided for whatever she said. As the daughter of her father's affair many years ago, her mother and sisters never let her forget that she wasn't really one of the family. Sometimes their dad showed up, and other times he ceased existing. Her mother and father were old fashioned enough to avoid divorce, and keep up appearances, but the disdain for one another could be felt from across the room. Pearl had no idea who her birth mother was, but she was still grateful for being allowed to be officially adopted by her father's wife. It never really mattered since this was all she knew anyhow. At 25, she was at least ten years younger than the original youngest child. If Pearl refused to show up to the dinner, Mrs. McCann would never let her forget all that she had done for her despite everything, and how she never had to do this.
That night she went home to her overpriced studio apartment in a decent neighborhood. The furniture was a mixture of being paid off, and scratched up thrift store finds. Her one prized possession was an old trombone from her youth when she had attempted to be a musician, but could never quite pick it up. The language of music was always slightly out of her grasp, and was seldom comprehensible. It reminded her that no matter how hard she tried, there was always a chance she might slightly grasp one song while she was failing at another. After a brief moment of reminiscing, she went to her kitchen area to pour herself a shot of whiskey. When she went to empty the sour metaphor of her day into her mouth, the tiny glass slipped from her hand. The glass shattered into a hundred shards, aimed directly at her foot. Pearl mourned her favorite shot glass, and the loss some blood. The damage was minor, but the ruby rivulets forming on her foot echoed back into the farthest recesses of her mind: You. Will. Bleed.
The damage was not serious enough for stitches, and she was much too tired to care about the grim coincidences of the day. For the first time in her life, something had gone her way. Pearl felt as if she should be more enamored with life, but instead, she felt trapped in an endless cycle of ennui. Yes, she had made the promotion, but what did that matter if she was stuck in the same office until she was portly and grey? Was this worth the price to pay for bossing around the same world-weary souls until they melted into an aged bag of flesh? Looking in her only mirror, Pearl could already see eternity etched beneath her sleepless eyes, the shadows growing fiercer every passing day. Next would come the bird's feet perched upon her face, and then the smoky wisps in the waterfall of her hair. The lights sighed above her, and she decided it was time to rest her weary soul.
Early the next morning, Pearl felt a deep itch within her that she just could not scratch. It was the gnawing kind that filled her with an anxious cry. Something had to be done, but what could fix her despondency? Her coffee shop was close to the street were Robert lay in wait for her. The past several days of her avoidance had cost her not only the best latte her money could buy, but also a glimpse at the siren of her compassion. How she missed the soft glare of her smile, and the sweeping waves at the base of her neck. Amelia had laughter with a way of shrieking gracefully in a crowded room. Her eyes had a look of hunger meant just for Pearl, or at least that is what she liked to believe. A thought flickered to life in the base of her human instinct, just wondering what would have happened if she'd wished in that moment for the touch of her lips. A guilt for the loss of her coworker was crushed with the hum of passion being a greater thirst. Half hoping she would see Robert, she let her subconscious guide her where she really wanted to go.
"Doom! Doom will fall upon the weary who follow their whims! Kill the desires of the mortal flesh!" a disembodied voice from around the corner squawked.
The words robbed the joy from Pearl's thoughts of blackened brew, and the sight of a goddess in the flesh. Hurriedly she quickened her step to avoid the crazed man at any cost. The quickening of her step however stole the opportunity beneath her feet as she fell to the ground scraping her skin on the baked concrete. Before Pearl could catch her breath, Robert manifested in front of her, offering her his blackened hand.
As if to chide his prot, he spoke in a clipped manner, "Sweet child, how good it is to see you again. Have you any idea how I have suffered without your generosity? I had no flames to feed the wick of my candles. What do you have to say for yourself?"
His glare held a contempt so dark, tiny shadows discharged in a cruel dance. She swore she saw the fires of hell burning behind his shaded pupils. Never before had she felt so terrified that her very soul would be dragged from right beneath her flesh. Robert seemed to sense her unease, bringing a false smile to his cracked face.
His very presence urged her to speak forth, and thus she spoke, "Oh, well you see I have been trying new scenery. If you excuse me, I must get on to my work. I apologize but I do not have any change on me today."
"Lies! The tongue of yours is as great a burden as the first snake who spoke to man!" with a frenzied flick of his tongue to his deeply dried lips he continued, "Surely you know by now you have committed yourself to feeding a starving man fallen on hard times. Your generosity has granted you a gift I give few others. Do not forsake me girl."
With a shiver she threw a ten-dollar bill into his cup and cried, "Here... here is some money. I don't want your generosity. Please leave me alone."
"Oh, but it is too late for that, for you have already signed the seal that binds us. Surely you are not that simple? The greed in you is truer than true. Tonight, you will have the screams of delight with the one you picture in your head as we speak."
"No. I don't want it anymore. I already have everything I desire."
"The price has already been set to be paid."
The lucidity vanished once more from the beggar leaving Pearl to wonder if this encounter was due to a severe lack of sleep, or some newfound psychosis. She continued on her routine, choosing to ignore the encounter as best she could. She had a coffee to drink, and a woman to see.
Her deep skin flickered in the dimly lit shop, the low hum of the jazz music adding to the soothing ambiance. The gentle smirk on her face made her appear all the more dazzling. Pearl stood at the back of the morning rush, frequently glancing at the object of her obsession. She had nothing but haste to hear the glittering voice of Amelia. Her usual order of overly-sweetened coffee was tame compared to the feelings she held deep within the recesses of her core. What seemed like an eternity was really only a few snippets of time before it was Pearl's turn to place her order.
After a moment's hesitation, Amelia's voice dripped soothingly, "Hey sweet pea, will it be the usual today? I'll even throw in an extra shot for free. You look like you could use a little pick me up love."
"Um," Pearl replied hesitantly, shocked out of her stupor, "that would be great. Thank you. I... uh, need all the caffeine that is legally allowed."
She smiled a little sly grin, greedy with heathen needs. Her heart tried to pour from her chest with an erratic rhythm, and her face was flushed with frenzy.
After a moment of working up her nerve, she inquired, "Would you like to hang out later and watch some movies at my place?"
"Sure thing, Pearl. I would love to hang outside of the coffee shop with you sometime. I'll just write my number on your cup, and you can hit me up later."
Pearl left the coffee shop swearing she could hear angels singing her praise. Nothing was going to stop her from enjoying the rest of her day. The filthy clouds angrily clogging the sun from the sky were no damper on her mood. Knowing she was heading to the same dingy office space would not wipe the beam of light etched on her face. She was the sole owner of the emotion known as bliss. This was finally her moment she had been waiting for to feel alive again. It was to the benefit of her stupor that she did feel the foul eyes of a grimy man staring into her soul, consuming her.
Amelia brought over a bottle of mediocre red wine, and a small bouquet of discount flowers. Pearl placed the wine in cheap plastic cups that still smelled faintly of takeout fountain drinks. The flowers, already losing vitality, did not fare much better in their new makeshift vase of a whiskey glass. Greasy pizza was ordered by the pair, heaping with extra cheese. That evening was filled with laughter and joy, not a moment wasted on dull things like the talk of daily life. Hearts soared to new places beyond the limits of space and time. When food and drink were sufficiently buried in the digestive system, Pearl and Amelia drew closer. In a slightly drunken haze, Pearl kissed the warm body beside her, lips seeking the confirmation of tongue. First base led to a home run, with all bases being ran. They both slept tangled in a mass of hair and flesh, sweetly dreaming of different things.
A loud screech woke up Pearl from her saccharine slumber.
"What did you do to me!" screamed Amelia, "I have a boyfriend. I don't know why I even came over here last night. Oh my God, I can't believe I did that."
Her words grew with more ferocity the longer her rant went on.
Unable to accept what had occurred, she told Pearl, "I don't want to see you again. I can't be reminded of this. I am engaged, and you will ruin it all if I see you ever again. Stay away from me, and stay away from the coffee shop, okay?"
Aghast, Pearl responded timidly, "Then why did you come over here? I thought that we had something."
"We had too much to drink, that is it. You don't understand. I am not a woman who likes women. Just leave me alone. I have to go now."
As Amelia headed towards the door, Pearl's heart skipped a beat. She looked on with a sense of dread while a darkness overtook her, swallowing her within its gaping maws. She called in sick to work with a chastisement by Mr. Smalls, as if he expected nothing less of a woman, let alone the one who would soon be replacing him. For weeks her life had been spent flirting with the edges of happiness, and the sense of accomplishment. Now it all seemed for naught. Everything that was hers actually belonged to others; her soul devoid of any inkling of entitlement.
That evening she decided to take a stroll around the block to clear the clouds away from her mind. The outdoors, as her father said during one of the few times he was around, does the brain some good. Perhaps he was onto something, because she began to feel the weight of words lifting off her carried burdens. Perhaps not all was as bad as it seemed. The moon was highlighting the sky, and a gentle breeze caressed her skin. A tinge of guilt reminded her that she was supposed to be with her family that night, but there was no reason to subject herself to the bleating as the black sheep. No one would miss her when they had their own accomplishments to discuss, and children to ogle over. Why should she go eat one of the three or four meals her mother was actually good at cooking when she could just order takeout instead? Mildly overcooked takeout food had a way of soothing a hurting soul.
Pearl was lost in her thoughts for a slight eternity, and was looking forward to going upstairs and calling in her order. Before she could touch the door handle to her home, a hand tightly grasped her wrist. Terrified that she was facing a nighttime robbery, she began to go into flight mode. The harder she tried to release herself, the more the fingers folded into her skin. Her face was wrenched forward to look into sickly eyes worn by a well weathered face. A voice cackled and a sudden warmth overcame her. She knew this man, and did not believe he would harm her. He was, after all, just another local eccentric, but he was still her Robert.
"Oh, hello there," she smiled warmly, complying with his need for her abrupt attention.
"Hello sweet girl," the warm voice purred, "I expect you enjoyed your little gift last night. It's not an easy thing to overtake the will of one so strong you know. But that was just a taste of what you can have. Let me inside tonight, and all your debts will be fulfilled, and your ultimate dreams will become one with you."
"Sir, I really can't. If in fact it was you who 'gifted' me such occurrences, then thank you, but otherwise be gone," Pearl replied in a voice shakier than she meant.
"Just one night of warmth off of this street, and I will leave you alone forever. Can you find it in your heart for that much more compassion for these ancient bones?"
Finding it in her heart, Pearl felt that perhaps, one night was a small price to pay for this madness to end, and for her life to continue in its dreary existence. She wanted nothing more than the stale spice of her pale office, where the lights constantly flickered on the ceiling. The cast of the fluorescent bulbs appealed to her senses more than ever. Perhaps a life of drudgery and pushing papers was not so bad after all. She missed being the dirty family secret that everyone loathed, but put up with for sanity's sake. One more night and it could all be hers again. Mournfully full of twisted hope, she beckoned Robert with a small flicker of her wrist. Just one more night.
The sun was shining much too brightly upon her face. No matter which way she rolled over, all she could feel was the warmth increasing on her skin until it burned with a ferocity she had never felt before. Her bed was filled with lumps that appeared out of nowhere, and they scratched her skin with every small movement. The goose feathered pillow she splurged on a few months ago had seemingly vanished into thin air. Pearl slowly opened her eyes to a scene of confusion. Where was she? Her bed was the very cement she had walked upon many times to work; the pillow was an old rag that was malodourous and unidentifiable in both color and material. Her skin, once smooth with the vanity of youth, was now mottled and deepened with canyons. The hair she once held so much pride in was snarled and grey with dirt and lack of luster. To no avail, Pearl tried everything within her power to wake up from this nightmare. She let out a painful scream, trying to get someone to listen to her. Instead, the bystanders stared for a moment and then hurried away.
Hours later when the heat of the sun was mercifully fading and the sky was filled with the color of music, a man with a graceful poise lazily strolled towards her. His slender hand groped around in his pocket, seeking the obligatory spare change. He pointed towards a small earthen cup in which to deposit the money. Something about him was oddly familiar. The face was much like hers, but more rugged. His gait was slightly off from what could have been a childhood injury of a cleanly broken bone. The scar on his right hand looked jagged from a cut during a brief stint in the culinary arts. Old injuries that were also hers.
After along moment of silence, the man sang to her amiably, "Sweet hag, I offer you my spare change. Do you not wish to eat tonight?"
"Who... who are you?" she asked.
"Why, I am none other than you. I am everything you always wished for."
"No, this is not what I wanted. This is never what I asked for."
"Tell me, sweet, now do you know who I am? I am the man you always dreamed of being. I can move about this world without being questioned, without a second glance. At work I can be in charge without being second guessed; at play I can have the girl and not be condemned. I am who you used to be, but better."
"No! This is not the life I wanted!"
"In your greed, you stole the will of others, and this is your punishment. You let your avarice get the best of you and set me free. I am Peter Lee McCann, and you are Nameless. You are Nothingness, just like I used to be. Once, I was you and now you are me."
"How can I get my life back?"
"You have died and have been reborn. Now you must take the soul of another to become who they are. Enjoy your new life, Roberta."
The smug smile on his face was maddening, and she only wanted to rip it off of his face in a desperate attempt to recover her life. Her enraged shouts were muffled by cursed cries. All around her she could hear a faint putrid laughter puncturing her mind. Her thoughts were stolen by constant static. Nothing made sense anymore. The only thing left to relieve her chronic malice was greeting the world with the hatred she felt inside.
Some time, much later, a young man approached her. Unlike others, he was not afraid of her monstrous appearance. With a sly smile, he put some small change in her cup, and began to walk away. Like a mirror filled with static, she could see herself within him, if only he would take the bait.
"Young man," she implored with her broken lips, "I can give you anything you desire if only you help me a little more each day."
Thus, the young man strode back towards her and pulled out his wallet and handed her a dollar bill. Her greasy eyes grew greedy with promised sin.