A Little Life
Edgar awoke to doggy kisses. He wiped the slobber from his cheek and sat up on the couch. Pale green light poured out of the television as it tried to sell him medicine for allergies he didn't have.
He stepped into his colorless bathroom and squeezed white paste onto faded bristles. He ate something flavorless on his way out the door. Edgar grayed his way through his commute from door to cubicle. He grayed his way from morning meeting to lunch to afternoon. This account was verified. That file was checked. All normal. All routine.
Edgar's fingers kept typing a good twenty seconds before he realized he was being addressed. He blinked a time or two before taking in the speaker. “Tim. Hi. What do you need?”
Tim shrugged. He was wearing a shirt so scarlet it looked soaked in fresh blood. “Need?” he asked. “Nothing. But some of us are going out to karaoke Friday and . . .” He trailed off. Then cleared his throat. “Look, we haven't hung out in forever. I don't know if that was cuz' Terry or other stuff, but I thought I'd offer.”
Edgar's hands hovered over the keyboard as if stuck. He closed his fingers, realized he had made fists, then tried folding his hands casually on his desk. He waited for Tim to move on, for his day to slide back into routine.
But Tim didn't leave. He did raise an eyebrow expectantly.
“I'm sorry,” Edgar said. Tim's face fell at the words, but Edgar pressed on. “I'm just a little tired today. I'd love to go. Friday, right?”
“I'll shoot you details,” Tim said, clearly relieved. He made a gun with his fingers and dropped the thumb-hammer, then vanished into the labyrinth of cubicles.
Edgar turned back to his computer, trying to find the thread of work. Had he verified the last account? Were his numbers right? What was he doing?
Edgar awoke to doggy kisses. Icy blue light poured over the living room as a news anchor mutely delivered the morning tragedies. Edgar wiped the slobber from his cheek and the sleep from his eyes. He dragged himself through his morning. He grayed his way through work.
He received two new accounts. New might not have been the best word for them. They were just like any other account. The names and numbers passed through Edgar as if he were little more than a cable carrying information. Data in, adjusted, and out. Account one finished.
“So what happened?”
Edgar opened the second account. It was as unspecial as the first. He set about processing—
“Ed? What happened to Friday?”
It was Tim again. He was leaning against Edgar's cubicle, trying to look casual. Today he wore a black shirt but his tie was the purple of bygone royalty.
Edgar adjusted to the interruption faster this time. “We're still on,” he said. Then added a belated, “Karaoke.”
“No. Karaoke was Friday. Today is Tuesday.”
Edgar frowned as if his friend was speaking an unfamiliar language. Understanding seeped in slowly. He checked the date on his monitor, on the clock on the wall. “I don't— Honestly, Tim. I don't know how I missed it. Sorry.”
“Ah, not that big of a deal. What'd you do over the weekend?”
“Huh. Well, if you want to do anything—”
“How about drinks tonight?” Edgar blurted.
Tim froze with his mouth half open. “I,” he said drawing out the word. “I guess we could grab a drink. As long as it's just one.”
“Cool,” Edgar said. His fingers began dancing on the keyboard once more. Tim stayed a moment longer but Edgar had already faded into work.
Edgar awoke to doggy kisses. He slapped at the drool like an infant and clawed his way upright. A skier was slaloming down his television, thin white light pouring over the couch. Something was gnawing at the back of his mind. He had forgotten to do something.
“Goddammit!” he shouted at the tv. He had to apologize to Tim. Maybe do something to make up for blowing him off twice. Maybe on break.
Edgar awoke to doggy kisses. He laid on the couch and tried to sluggishly piece together the reason for his unease. Light flickered out of the tv as it switched through channels.
He'd forgotten again. “I need a reminder,” he said to the empty apartment. “I need to tie a string to my finger or write a note on the back of my hand or something.”
Edgar awoke to doggy kisses.
“No,” he said, before even opening his eyes. “No. No no no!”
Edgar awoke to doggy kisses. His eyes opened to see warm, orange light streaming from the television. There was no image, just pure color. It seemed to pulse slowly, growing deeper and lighter with the rhythm of lapping waves. Soothing. Hypnotic.
He leaped off the couch and drove his fist into the screen, a move that hurt his hand far more than the television. Edgar jumped back, almost tripped onto the couch, but caught himself.
The screen was perfectly intact. The orange light silently thrummed on.
Edgar tackled his adversary, ripping it from its stand. They crashed to the floor in a heap. Edgar climbed atop and rained blows down, hammering and hammering until his hands ached and his chest heaved.
He stopped, gasping for breath, and assessed the damage. The screen was unbroken but had gone dark. Somewhere in his fury, the power cord had come unplugged.
Edgar fled his apartment. His hands throbbed all the way to work. His muscles ached from the sudden, intense exertion. He welcomed both.
Pain sharp, the route to work seemed an alien thing. Billboards and vendors splashed needed vibrancy onto a dull cityscape. The road held unfamiliar turns adorned with forgotten buildings. It took him two tries to find the office he had worked at every day for six years.
By the time he was at the elevators, the pain had become familiar. He could feel the gray creeping its way back in, suffocating him.
Edgar bit his tongue as the doors closed. He chewed the inside of his cheek all the way to his floor. It helped some, but he could feel the numbness seeping in. He bounced up and down on his tiptoes like an impatient child.
Other people on the elevator, some even coworkers, gave him strange looks. Edgar didn't care. He needed to stay alert. Just for a bit.
The elevator stopped. The doors opened. Edgar checked the floor number, trying to recall if it was the right one, when Tim stepped past.
“Tim!” Edgar didn't shout, but his voice carried desperation. He darted after his friend.
Tim turned to meet him, clearly exasperated. Today he wore a shirt so deep a blue you could almost swim in it. Edgar had never really noticed how bland the office was until contrasted with color so vibrant. It was as if the decorator had drawn his pallet from the complexion of a slow dying relative.
Edgar blinked, unsure what he could say. What he should say. He clenched his hands into fists, refreshing the pain. “I need help.”
“Won't argue with you there.”
“I think something is wrong with me,” Edgar said, ignoring the jab. “Really wrong. I keep losing time. I have trouble remembering things.”
Tim let a long breath escape from clenched teeth. “Ed, I'm not a therapist.”
“I don't need a therapist. I need a friend.”
“A friend,” Tim said slowly. “To do what.”
“To make sure I don't go home alone.” The corner of Tim's mouth twitched at an unspoken joke, but Edgar pressed on, pressed forward. “Please. Find me before you leave for home tonight. Don't let me leave the building by myself. Please.”
He stopped talking. Tim didn't start. What would have been an awkward silence was filled by the background bustle of professionals going about their workdays.
“Okay,” Tim relented.
Edgar took a step toward his cubicle, then stopped. “For what?”
“You wanted me to chaperone you home. You remember your big song and dance this morning?”
“This morning? I—” Fear slid into Edgar's belly like a swallowed a lump of ice. He checked the clock on the wall. It was quitting time. Coworkers jostled by, eager to escape work and be about their lives.
“You alright Ed?”
“Sure. Sure. Let's go.” They crowded into the elevator and doors sealed. Edgar stared at the red numbers as the floors counted down.
“Do you need to stop anywhere or are we going straight to your place?”
The air felt thick. Though no one was actually touching him, Edgar could feel the subtle pressure of people inches from each other in a tight space. Sweat began to bead on his forehead. “I—,” he said, trying to recall Tim's question. “I might need to pick up dog food.”
“Oh,” Tim said lightly. Either he didn't feel the growing stuffiness, or was better at pretending he didn't. “I didn't know you got a new puppy.”
The elevator stopped. The doors opened, bringing a gust of fresh air. No one got off. Instead, another person edged in, compacting everyone together sardine-like. Edgar took one last breath of cool, clean air before the doors shut.
“Ed?” Tim asked, nudging him.
There had a been a question. Edgar fought through the distracting heat and closed space and focused. “What do you mean by 'a new puppy?'”
“Why else would you need dog food? You're not eating it are you?”
“No. It's for Terry.” A bead of sweat slid down his forehead, paused a second in the hair of his eyebrow, then fell into Edgar's eye. He blinked the sting away. He wanted to wipe his brow but everyone was packed too tight to move.
“Ed, Terry’s dead.”
The stinging seemed to grow with every blink. Edgar's eye flickered open and closed like a humming bird's wing. Still, Tim's words managed to penetrate.
The doors opened. Workers spilled into the lobby scattering to embrace whatever evening plans awaited them. Edgar stepped to the side, finding refuge from the river of humanity in an alcove sporting a pair of drinking fountains. He used the taller one to rinse the sweat from his eye and scrubbed cold water over his face.
“Ed, are you okay.”
Tim had followed him. Part of Edgar was thrilled his friend was still there. Part of him was annoyed, tired of being awake, and wanted nothing more than to crash in front of the television.
Tim raised both eyebrows. “You don't look fine. You look like you just about had a heart attack.”
“Well, I'm fine,” Edgar said. He wiped away the last of the water with his sleeve and looked his friend in the eye. “Are you still coming?”
Tim held his peace, at least for a second or two. “Sure,” he said at last, then dug out his phone. “but I'm texting my brother that I went to your place. If you go psycho-killer on me, the cops will know who to look at.”
“Your compassion is overwhelming.”
Tim grinned broadly. “Wow Ed, that was almost a joke.”
“Yeah,” Edgar said, “almost.”
He grayed through the trip home. He didn't mean to, but staying alert was tiring. Somewhere along the way, he stopped fighting and the world faded to fog.
“Alright, Ed. Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”
The voice startled him. For a moment he was disoriented, feeling like he should be waking up in his living room, yet he stood in a hall. “Where—” The question died on his lips. It was the hallway to his apartment, a hall he had walked down hundreds of times, yet now it felt so alien.
He turned his attention to the door. He should say good night. He should walk in, reset the tv, and go to sleep.
“Ed, you're staring at that door like you're afraid it'll bite you.”
Edgar tried to speak but found his jaw locked tight. His hands were balled into fists at his side, fingernails digging into the meat of his palms. “I can't go in,” he whispered through clenched teeth.
Tim looked at him, all good humor and friendly mockery gone. “Would you like me to go in first. Make sure it's safe.”
Tension drained out of Edgar like some magic plug had been pulled. “Yes. Please.”
“What am I going to find in there, Ed?”
Edgar frowned, trying to remember. It felt like clawing through a warehouse filled with packing foam. He couldn't find anything. He couldn't remember.
“I don’t know.”
Tim nodded, then opened the door. It was unlocked. If this surprised him, he covered well and stepped through the doorway, leaving it gaping behind him.
Edgar stayed rooted outside, not daring to lift a toe. The open door stared at him, beckoned him to come inside. To lay down. To give up.
Tim passed into sight briefly, stepping from the living room to the kitchen. He made little noise. That or the apartment dampened it somehow. It occurred to Edgar that there should be more sound. There should be children crying or playing. There should be people coming into and out of the other apartments. There should be the half-muted babble of a television or radio. And yet, there were none of these things. Just somber quiet.
Tim reappeared. “Okay, no dead bodies but you should see this.” He gestured Edgar to follow, but Edgar didn't. “Look, Ed. I'll be right next to you the entire time, okay?”
Edgar tried to speak, but couldn't at first. He chewed his lip. Nodded. “Okay,” he managed, “but you can't leave me here. I can't stay here tonight.”
Tim nodded. “Fair enough. Now stop being a wuss and get your ass in here.” He turned his back and walked into the kitchen. Edgar hesitated, then followed.
It was a mess. The sink was buried in dirty dishes. The counter was covered in dust. It looked like it hadn't been used in months.
Tim ignored all this, instead walking to a pile of bags. Dog food, all the same brand, haphazardly piled next to and atop each other. Some were still sealed, others open, contents spilled messily on the floor. Next to them was a dog dish. One bowl was filled with stagnant water, the other overflowing with food.
“Ed,” Tim said softly, “I know you took it hard, but I didn't think it was like this.”
Edgar stared at the dish. The mound of food could have been poured in one go, but he didn't think it had. No. It had been added again and again in small amounts, enough to fill an empty dish as if trying to feed an animal that wasn't there. A small spider web had been built on the piled food. Kibble hadn't been added in some time.
“You realize he's dead? Terry? You remember when we buried him?”
“A little,” Edgar said. Trying to pull up the memories felt like dragging a massive tarp from a lake. “The vet never figured out what it was. His strength just seemed to fade. By the end of it, he was so weak he could barely climb onto the couch.”
“Are you okay?”
Fear returned. Slowly Edgar wiped imaginary slobber from his cheek. “I think I need to lay down.”
Edgar awoke to doggy kisses. He wiped them away and tried to fade back to sleep. The tongue returned, gently caressing the side of his face. With every pass, he slipped further under, almost like consciousness was being licked away.
A spark of cold terror burned in his chest. It was a little thing, a pebble wrapped in layer after layer of soft cotton. Still, Edger latched onto it, embraced the little coal of fear until it seared away the mental gauze.
He meant to fling himself away from the couch but only managed to roll drunkenly to the floor. There was little light to see by since the television had never been restored, but Edgar still saw. A long tongue, gray and semi-translucent, sliding back into the fold between cushion and armrest.
Half-panicked with fear and half-stupid with sleep, Edgar pulled himself up on the entertainment center. The couch sat there unmoving, but alive. He was sure of it. Without the television washing it in colored light, it was a bland thing, almost too colorless to be called gray. Unexciting to a fault. So perfectly camouflaged that he had curled up on it night after night, slowly having his life licked away. Just like Terry. Just like . . .
“Tim? Tim are you here?”
There came no reply. Edgar called again, louder. And again no response. Not in words.
Without moving, the couch managed to radiate an aura of smugness, or maybe satiatence. Like a teenager that had just gotten laid. Or a starving man after a feast.
“Oh, no.” It was said as a whisper. Panic and fear swelled in Edgar's chest until they became courage of a sort. He tore away the couch cushions, searching for some sign of his friend. And he found it. At the far back, where so many coins and crumbs would normally fall was a hand, leeched of all color, sticking out of a sleeve so deep a blue you could almost swim in it.
The couch slurped loudly and sucked the hand from view.
Edgar shrieked and ran. Burst through a door. Realized he'd gone the wrong way. He was in his bedroom. He turned around to flee through his living room and out the front door.
The couch was pressed up against the doorway, cushions back in place, waiting.
Edgar's breath caught, then he slammed the flimsy door closed. There was no way the couch could fit through even if he had left it open. He was trapped, but also safe for the time being.
“I need to call someone,” he said to the empty room. But he couldn't remember where he'd put his phone. He couldn't remember the last time he used a phone. “Computer,” he said. “I own a computer.”
He tried to remember, he really did, but it felt like drowning in wool. He knew he had owned one once. Where would it be? Could he even email from it if he found it? Maybe he should lie down.
His hand was on the doorknob before he realized what he was doing. Edgar let go and backed away in horror. There was no way he could wait for someone to save him. He needed to escape now.
There weren't a host of options. He either tried sprinting past the couch, or he went out the window.
“Fire escape. Please let there be a fire escape.”
He moved to the window, slid it open and fought with the screen until it fell. And fell. And fell. Far below the screen collided with concrete. There was no fire escape. There was no way to survive the drop.
A breeze flowed in. It cooled Edgar's skin and cleared some cobwebs from his mind. He took in the view as if seeing it with new eyes. Most of the city was drab, but there were sparks of color. A woman strode confidently down the sidewalk in an emerald skirt. A little boy ran along toting a copper-colored backpack. Above the sky was cloudless and blue.
A car door slammed, breaking his revelry. He leaned out, trying to spot the source of the interruption. Across the street, a pair of gray-clad workmen were unloading furniture from a gray van. The van had no logo and the workmen moved like sleepwalkers. The couch they pulled out was bland, and boring, and terrifyingly familiar.
And collided with something soft. He spun around, terror-quick.
It was his couch. The bedroom door was still closed, but it had gotten in, silently moved behind him. Its cushions swelled gently, rubbed together in anticipation.
Exhaustion washed over him. He felt himself slumping forward. The gray tongue slid out, licking back and forth.
Edgar bit his lip, leaned desperately, and managed tilt himself backward. He didn't collide with the wall as intended. No, he passed through the open window. His fingers caught on the sill.
The couch quivered. Its tongue reached for him.
Edgar held tight and mewled in pure misery. And he let go. And he fell. And he broke against the ground, pale blood splattered on the pale concrete.