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Escaping Providence

Keith was nothing special in an age when being unique pushed one from the herd. We all know what happens to those who wander from the herd, don't we? A predator does their species a favor.

A mediocre student, never managing to excel or fail at anything in particular, he was good enough to graduate high school, but possessed neither the grades nor the inclination to attempt college. Had he, he would have been better off financially, but would have died in a car accident one June, swerving away from a woodchuck. Without college, the woodchuck was spared such a sin on its furry soul

A month after he graduated, he married his sweetheart Anne. Seven and a half months later, she bore Keith his only daughter, Marie Lynn Samuels.

Keith was content, as his kind tends to be once they have rutted and spawned. A wife, a child, a house, a job at his father's construction company, what more could a man want?

He showed an unexpected deviancy. He was not drafted, like so many of his former classmates turned co-workers. He chose to join the army and serve his country.

He put in a few good years. Unfortunately for him, fortunately for us, he didn't see much action. Owing to some first aid courses he took at a YMCA back home, he helped patch up wounded soldiers. He kept a great many alive that rightly should have been meat for the beast. He was content. He followed orders, served his country, and had a wife and daughter waiting for him at home. What more could a man want in life?

Anne and Marie were killed and the woodchuck was blameless. A car wreck, a drunk driver who sobered up moments before his head became closer friends with the windshield than with his body, and Keith was alone in the world. Their deaths are nothing of consequence, merely means to an end.

News traveled infamously slowly in the war. Keith did not, as you may expect, take this information well.

Here, dear Keith strayed again from his societal programming and closer to our realm. Rather than grieving, toiling for his father, remarrying in due time, having another child, inheriting the construction company after his father's heart attack at 83, retiring at 60 and eventually dying in his sleep, he rewrote his page with one broad pen stroke. He disappeared from his town, his old life, everything he knew. He thought no one could find him. He expected to start a new life.

He quickly ran out of money and motivation, and who can blame him on the latter count? The transition to vagrancy was seamless. He wandered the streets, surviving winters through some fundamental tenacity to life. By all accounts, this is pretty near where his story should end. Eventually his grip on this mortal coil should weaken during some blizzard and he should end up nothing more than another dash in the city's mortality rate. Should, but doesn't, because this is where we directly intervened.

"Keith, you're late."

He looks more confused than usual, perhaps having forgotten his own name.

"What'd you call me?" he asks in a shaky timbre, looking like he spent the night in a dumpster, though last night was one of the few nights he made it to the shelter and didn't have to sleep among other discarded items. "We called you Keith, as that is your name. Keith Samuels."

"That isn't my name! Hasn't been my name for years! I don't got no name!" he shouts at us. We do try to keep these things quiet and simple and are never much for attracting attention like this. "So you don't have a name? Now that we will have to fix. Are you hungry, No-Man? Come with me. I'm sure we can find a few lotuses for you..."

Inside the diner, docility overcomes Keith. Though at first we must have seemed like Death itself, he now mellows to seeing us as an old friend paying a welcomed visit. An old friend who orders him a cheeseburger with everything - hold the onions - and a strawberry milkshake.

"...Keith, are you listening?"

We knew that he wasn't. We know nearly everything about him. We even know how he escaped his assigned lot in life.

"That's the exact meal my father used to order for me," he blubbers, transitioning from drifter to sentimental old man in record time, as predicted. We could see the tears slithering down his filthy cheek, absorbing into his tangled beard.

"We know a lot about you, as we were trying to tell you."

"But how?" His nervous gaze searches our face, and we can't risk losing him. We slide his plate closer to him, a temptation he wouldn't refuse.

"This, dear friend, is not about us. It is about you. You had a Destiny. After Anne and Marie died, you were supposed to continue your life. You chose not to. What you do not seem to understand, Mr. Samuels, is that you were not given a choice. You slipped out, changed the path you were on. Now we are here because of it. You have a new Destiny. You have earned this choice."

Keith devours his hamburger, the contents spilling out from all sides. He is warm, he has food, someone is talking to him, what more could a man want in life? Our words trickle into his ears and his eyes go wide.

"Before you open your mouth to ask, resign yourself that it is not your lot to know. Depending on your choice, that may change."

A pall came over Keith. "Choice?"

"You can live this life outside of Fate, freeze to death in the dumpster behind this very diner in a little under a month. They will dispose of your carcass discretely, we assure you. No one will mourn you. You can accept the Destiny now being offered. Or we could just kill you now and save you the trouble of deciding. And no, no one here will know we've killed. You will choke to death on your cheeseburger before anyone can help you."

Keith drops food, which hits the plate with a wet thump. Looking as though rigor mortis has already set in, Keith sits mutely as the words sink in. He could freeze, he could choke, or he could...

"...Accept the Destiny you are being handed, yes."

Our finishing his thought aloud frightens him. We can see that his brain ruled out the idea of death by freezing or asphyxiation. He had seen a homeless man frozen to death when he was little. It looked painful. He imagined that choking to death would be even worse, though faster.

Quietly and patiently, like a man who had just read his own obituary, he begs, "What is my destiny?"

"To be again. No age, no pain, just duty."

"What about my life!"

"What life? You sleep in other people's refuse. You have no friends, you turned your back on them when you left. Aside from Anne and Marie, of whom you are painfully aware, your father died a few years ago of a heart attack at 83. Your mother fell soon after, some say of a broken heart, which is technically true as she suffered a myocardial infarction. You have nothing left. You were a soldier once, and you were more than happy to follow the orders of your betters. Be a soldier again. Immortality and honor, or mortality and bathing in a men's room. Which will it be?"

In his relatively short life, he had seen his wife and daughter pass away while he was in a foreign land. He had held soldiers as their wounds took them. He had lost everything in his life. He could not bear the thought of going on this way.

"I'd rather die in a dumpster alone than live remembering," he shouts, walking out of the diner.

We hastily pay for his meal, leaving the change for the waiter who was, after all, still a son of God.

We knew Keith would react this way. Just as well, we knew that nothing we could say would alter him from his course. Once resolved, some people never change.

As he sees us following, he bolts, only to fall. We stand over him as his split chin bled into his crusted beard.

"The die has been cast. Please, at least take our cloak to keep you warm."

This he accepts hesitantly. He pulls the cloak tight over his shoulders and the chill of the winter night falls away. He smiles in spite of himself, then the corners of his mouth fall. The black threads of the cloak penetrate his skin with the speed of bullets. No blood from the wounds reaches the ground before the cloak absorbs it. The threads rip out his hair to violate him from all angles. His skin blanches to a glowing paleness. The irises of his eyes expanded until nothing could be seen but reflecting dark.

We study the fierceness of the conversion, like watching as a tornado uproots the landscape. Before the cloak claims his memory, the weakest and most mortal part, we give one final message to the man who was Keith Samuels.

"You'll have honor, you'll have eternal life, what more could a man want?" The creature at our feet gasps and grabs. We step back and sighed, "You didn't really think you could escape us, did you? Quod me nutrit, me destruit. What nourishes me, destroys me."

Author's Note 2013/06/06: This is one of the earliest elements of We Shadows to be written. I didn't know much about the universe I would be writing, but I was very fond of the idea of this plural agent affecting the destiny of a person who had slipped out of reality. The idea of someone bucking their fate informed the creation of Shane, since I didn't believe Keith could hold a story up by himself.
I submitted a version of this to a creative writing class as an undergrad and earned my favorite criticism ever: "BIG WORDS ARE DUMB." I wanted to have that emblazoned on a t-shirt and kept the paper for years after to show to people. The class seemed a lot more focused on poems about badger skulls and girls infected with acute Maya Angelou-itis - as tends to be the case in creative writing classes - so I didn't get much from my classmates. I recall two other criticisms focused on how vampire stories are stupid (despite the absence of vampires in his story) and that no one reads comic books (which I am almost certain I didn't draw). However, the professor immediately saw the larger picture and described exactly the universe in which this took place, going so far as to label this as a chapter in the middle of a fantasy novel. I can't be certain he wasn't a Time Lord who appeared to cheer me on... Thoth bless those writing teachers who encourage us at the right moment.
Overall, I don't see this as a strong story. Keith has almost no personality before the agent interferes with him, which was intentional given that I was attempting to demonstrate how this imperious character barely saw him as sentient. The reader is not given much reason to care about him as a character, only as an object of pity that is abused by outside, supernatural forces about which the reader knows very little. I prefer my stories character driven.

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.

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