Bleak Lives

A 9-Part Eerie Mystery

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EPISODE 2: Dead Man Walking

Do you know what I've just shown you?

Yes. You've shown me Hell.

What is the worst thing about Hell, Edward Bleak?

Feeling the pain of torture while always having the joys of Paradise in sight, and
knowing they could have been yours.

Do you want to be in eternity for the remainder of days?

No. Oh, Good Lord, no, please. . . .

* * *

HE HAD FORCED HIS WAY OUT OF A COFFIN and up through the moist earth in which it had been buried. Now he sat in front of a cemetery gravestone, looking at a pair of hands that manifestly were not his own. His name was Edward Bleak, but he could be certain of nothing else.

The name on the gravestone, Roger McCutcheon, brought forth no memories for him. Besides his name, all he could bring forth in his mind was some sort of exchange, a dialogue. The conversation had taken place just before he awoke in the coffin. What had addressed him wasn't a person, but rather seemed vast as a galaxy. During the exchange, he had been given a charge, set forth upon a mission. He wasn't sure why he thought that. He had no clue what he was supposed to do.

He looked down at his form. He was clad in a light grey suit, which he didn't recognize. The pants, shirt, coat, and his flesh were caked with damp soil. He was grimy, filthy; there was no cleaning the clothes; they'd have to be burned. With the fingers on his right hand, he brushed away some of the dirt clods on his left hand. The soil smeared across the skin. Bleak felt for a pulse at the wrist, then his neck. Nothing throbbed beneath his touch.

Dead. I'm moving . . . and this body is dead. The idea was mad, it was insane, but so was waking up inside a coffin. Such things simply did not happen.

He tried to get to his feet, his movements awkward and jerky. His limbs felt as if they were a mile away. Sensations came into his awareness, but they were dim and muted. He managed to rise into a standing position, but when he took a baby step, he toppled to one knee and had to break his fall. Surprisingly, no pain shot up his leg. He manuevered himself into an upright stance once more. Holding his arms out to the side for balance, he started shambling toward the lights of New Regina.

Whatever his goal, he could only achieve it in the city. I've got to find out everything I can about Roger McCutcheon. It was not mere chance that caused him to awaken in that particular grave.

A soft breeze off the not-too-distant coast caused the blades of grass to sway, but he couldn't feel it. Intricate floral arrangements decorated hundreds of headstones, but their beauty eluded him. After an indeterminate amount of time walking, he came to a tall, wrought iron fence, each bar tipped with a spear point. In my shaky condition, I'll never be able to climb over that, Bleak reasoned. Better to seek out the main entrance gate.

He began to feel more comfortable with walking, but he moved no more quickly than a toddler. Finally a light became visible through some bushes, emanating from a boxy sentry-house. There must be a night watchman on duty. I must be close to the entrance. Bleak wasn't sure how he was going to get his point across, but he had to make the attempt.

He came around the back corner of the sentry-house. The main door was open, and a screen door kept night-flying insects out of the watchman's hair. A young man, thin and somewhat cadaverous himself, sat at a desk inside, feet propped up. He was reading some sort of pulp magazine -- Famous Fantastic Mysteries or Weird Tales. Bleak had seen them on the newstand, but had never picked one up himself.

Standing in the shadows, Bleak opened his mouth. He tried to call out a greeting. Nothing happened. The jaw went up and down, but he couldn't produce a sound. Damn! Have to try the direct approach. He went up to the sentry-house and slammed his forearm into the screen door. It clattered in the frame, and the sudden sound brought the young watchman out of his chair with a startled yelp.

The boy's mouth dropped. His eyes went wide. One hand went toward the small caliber revolver at his hip. Then his pupils rolled back into their sockets, and his entire body went limp. The watchman sagged against the desk, precariously poised on the edge, ready to topple to the floor.

So much for the backbone of young people these days, Bleak thought wryly.

He fumbled the screen door open and stepped inside. He situated the watchman in the desk chair so that at least he'd be comfortable. Bleak searched the body, taking for himself a circular keyring and the revolver. Just seems like something that might come in handy later, he considered.

Outside once more, he discovered the sentry-house was set beside the central thoroughfare, and the main gates were just ahead on his right. He tried the keys in the lock methodically until it opened, the two halves swinging away from each other with an unoiled squeal. He left the keys where they were; the watchman would find them when he woke up in the morning. Unfortunately, he wouldn't be able to find his gun. I hope he's able to make up a story for his employers, Bleak thought. I don't really want to get him fired.

The road led to New Regina, so Bleak walked along the curb, hoping the hour was such that there wouldn't be much traffic on the road. I must look horrid, if I can make the night watchman faint, he thought. Luckily, most of the area was undeveloped, with low-growing shrubs and patches of rye grass. Stars glistened overhead, as if they were jewels mounted on a black dropcloth to set off their shine.

After an hour or so, houses appeared on either side, an older residential neighborhood, no longer upscale. Doors were shut, curtains drawn. Good God-fearing people were tucked in bed, waiting for dawn. They have no idea what is passing by their homes in the middle of the night. They too would shriek and go mad if they realized a dead man strolled down their sidewalk.

Finally he entered New Regina proper, a hardy port on the northeastern sea coast. Skyscrapers rose on either side, towering monoliths of concrete and glass. With a sense of relief, he recognized his location. That was Georgia Avenue just ahead, the city's main drag, with bars and restaurants and theaters. It would still be hopping, even in the middle of the night. Bleak thought he ought to pass by the heavily populated areas.

As he moved down the sidewalk, he now encountered others. Couples arm-in-arm, cuddling and cooing, would near him. Their conversation would stop abruptly. They'd cough, look up at him, and, giving a start, would move far to the side. Bleak started to hug the spot where the sidewalk met the building, turning himself away from others.

He walked past a jeweler's shop, which was located just underneath a street lamp. The store's central glass pane had become a mirror. Bleak raised his head and looked at his reflection.

If there had been any way, he, too, would have screamed. Locks of hair stood out in unkempt, greasy shocks. His face was coal-miner black. One eye was bug-eyed and protruding; the other was barely open at all. His mouth was contorted into a rictus of agony, lips pulled back from teeth and gums, giving him the appearance of a crazed, rabid beast.

But even worse was the fact that Edward Bleak did not know this face, had no idea -- beyond a possible name -- who might be the person who used to occupy the flesh he now wore.

Next episode ... LIFE IN DEATH

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Bleak Lives is copyright Scott H. Urban. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)