The Silent World was a short piece I wrote for the 30 Barrel Readings Series sponsored by Creature Comforts. A handful of authors were given a prompt (the name of the new beer, The Silent World) and a week to produce something. This is what I came up with.
THE SILENT WORLD
"Hey, Allysin, what is this?"
Tyler held up the 5 x 7 postcard, studying it. The Silent World Mortuary: Helping You Rest In Peace Since 1832. It was simple and direct, block lettering underneath a photo of two men in a small yard with an old dilapidated house just visible in the corner of the frame. The taller of the two men was in his early fifties, with premature gray hair. He was dressed in a crisp black suit that made his already slender frame look grotesque and skeletal. Next to him was a pale bow-legged man who was much shorter. He was leaning on a shovel, caked in dirt, and smiling. It was not an inviting smile.
"I have no idea," Allysin yelled back from the other room. "I can't even see what you're looking at."
While the men seemed out of place, it was where they were standing that had caught Tyler's eye. The eroded road edge, the low picket fence still unpainted, the unkept yard. It was a house that would fit right in on Tyler and Allysin's street. Hell, it could have been their house from a century ago.
Tyler flipped the ad over. It was addressed to Our Neighbors, Tyler and Allysin Mills. They had even spelled Allysin's name right. 1832? Odd that he didn't know they existed, but then again Tyler wasn't exactly a connoisseur of mortuaries.
"You ever heard of The Silent World Mortuary?" he called out.
Allysin emerged from the bedroom, dressed, but still fumbling with her earrings.
"Mortuary?" she asked. "No. I don't have time for mortuaries right now. Only life."
She ran her hands over her swollen belly.
"As should you."
Tyler grunted. God, she never stopped, did she?
"Oh, come on, Ty. I know you're stressed about the changes, but this is a good thing, a sign that we should be together."
She moved his hand under her shirt to her belly, laying it flat against her warm skin. He hated it. It felt so foreign, all stretched out and thin, almost sallow-looking from the cocoa butter she rubbed on it. It reminded him of an abandoned sun-worn basketball.
"We'll get married," she continued. "Then, a month or so later, this little joy will be here. I can switch out of the night shift, you'll be published."
She paused, her eyes now half-closed in a day dream.
"And you'll be a father."
Tyler grunted again. Where she saw a sign and a blessing, he saw responsibility and debt. And fear. He wasn't meant to be a father. He was just going to screw that up too. Allysin released his hand and he drew it back to the advertisement.
"Don't you think this looks like our house?" he asked, eyes focused back on the picture. "It's a little creepy, don't you think?"
"Unbelievable, Tyler. I try to have an adult conversation, and this is what I get."
Allysin ripped her purse off the back of the chair.
"I'm going to be late. Your dinner's in the fridge. Try not to burn it."
At the front door, Allysin paused.
"You know Tyler, there's a whole life in front of you. Stop freaking out and start living."
Having got the last word, she left. As always, Tyler brooded for a long moment, muttering under his breath - first about Allysin, then about himself. Finally, regret drove him to the window to watch her leave down the street, her dark uniform backlit by the setting sun. Allysin rounded the corner and out of sight.
Live. The word stuck in his mind like a leaflet pinned to a pane of glass by a strong wind. Then, as the gust died down, it fell away, and the thought was gone. Tyler moved on. He held up the postcard to the window. Wrong angle, but it was damn close to being the same yard. The phone rang and Tyler jumped, dropping the postcard. Nobody ever called him, except Allysin. He was sure it wasn't her. Not yet, anyway.
"Hello?" answered Tyler, tentative.
A stern polished voice answered.
"Mr. Mills." It wasn't a question. "This is Harold, from The Silent World. Just following up to see if you've given any thought to our offer."
"What? How did you-"
"We've been in the business a long time, Mr. Mills. I do think you'll find we are the best at what we do."
Tyler scanned the ad. No discounts, no coupon code, no nothing.
"What offer?" Tyler finally responded. His voice was unsure.
"To help you find peace, Tyler."
Tyler flinched. That was not what he wanted to hear from a mortician. He moved to the window and peered out, expecting to see the tall man from the postcard standing on his porch. He wasn't. Thunk. Tyler flinched again as a landscaper started digging across the street. Harold continued on.
"That is what we do. And like I said, Tyler, we are the best at what we do."
"Not interested," said Tyler and hung up. What kind of mortuary called your house? He took the postcard in both hands, set to rip up Harold's 'offer', and stopped. The photo had changed. The tall man, Harold, was still there, but the short bow-legged man, the one with the unsettling grin, was gone.
Tyler shook his head. Maybe there hadn't been a second man before. Maybe he had imagined it. He had been so worked up over Allysin and all the changes recently that he was suffering from severe creative constipation. Maybe this was his was his mind finally releasing.
But, that grin. No way he had imagined that grin. He wasn't that realistic. Tyler flipped on the porch light and peeked out behind the curtain.
The landscaper was bent over the shovel, driving the edge deep into the earth with a smooth practiced motion. Tyler leaned against the glass, straining to make out more details. The man's legs were bowed, but Tyler couldn't say if it was natural, or a result of his stance. He was short though, and undeniably dirty. Tyler shook the postcard violently, as if it were a Polaroid, as if the man might reappear.
He didn't. But something had changed. The porch lights on the house in the postcard were now on.
Tyler quickly turned them off, then checked the postcard again. They were off.
On and off again.
The postcard mirrored everything. Tyler locked the deadbolt and backed away. He ran to the corner bedroom, the one most visible in the postcard, and threw back the curtains. Shaking, he pressed the postcard to the glass. There he was, a small shadow in the window. Inside the postcard. Tyler collapsed against the wall, and watched the shadow disappear from the window, unable to tear his eyes away. He sat for a moment in silence.
Silence. The digging had stopped. Tyler scanned the postcard, frantic to find the bow-legged man. He was still gone, and now the tall man was too. The phone rang, shattering the silence. Tyler crawled into the corner, wedging himself between the bookshelf and the closet door. His phone rang again. And again. He threw the phone against the wall, shattering it into pieces. It rang again. Tyler shook his head. This wasn't happening. None of this was happening. One last piercing ring from the phone and silence filled the house again. Tyler heard the scrape of the deadbolt pin slide out of the strike plate. He had locked it, hadn't he?
Footsteps in the hall followed by the dry tap of a wooden handle on the floor.
"It's time, Mr. Mills," said a stern polished voice.
Harold appeared in the doorway, flanked by the bow-legged man - he was covered in dirt and smiling, shovel held tight in one hand. As the short man raised the shovel, Tyler could see the strength hidden in those stubby arms.
"Welcome to The Silent World, Tyler."
The postcard fluttered to the ground and came to rest propped up against the baseboard. In the photo, Harold and the bow-legged man were back in front of the house. Slightly obscured by the shovel, but still discernible was a mound of freshly piled earth. Two words were engraved on the headstone: Tyler Mills.