The letter arrived on Tuesday in a plain white envelope with no return address. Inside was a mossy green card with a smiling, toothy jack-o-lantern on the front and a speech bubble that read, “Boo!” Will frowned and flipped it open.
The message was written in black pen and long, looping letters.
I am going to kill you on October 28th. The method I will employ is electrocution, though this may be subject to change, depending on unforeseen factors (i.e. weather). There is absolutely nothing you can do to stop me, so I encourage you to enjoy your life to the fullest in the weeks you have left. Machu Picchu is lovely this time of year.
Without thinking, Will slid the card back into the envelope and put it underneath the other mail he’d picked up, as if by undoing the operation of having seen it he could make the letter not exist. He quickly realized this was stupid and took the card back out, staring at it while rubbing his neck. After a minute he walked over to the table, grabbed his cellphone, and dialed a number.
His mom picked up on the last ring. “Can it wait?” she asked.
“Are you about to die?”
“Well…” That would depend on how you defined about to. “I guess technically no.”
“Then it can wait,” she said, and hung up.
Will placed the phone back onto the table. He still gripped the card in one hand, holding it away from him as though it were foul-smelling. Wandering over to his desk chair, he booted up his computer and began searching the Internet.
As it turned out there was a wealth of information on cards like this. It was a rare but not unknown phenomenon: people would start getting letters in the mail at any point from a year to a couple weeks before their inscribed expiration date, and without fail, they would indeed be killed, or die in some terrible accident—be it semi-truck collision or shark attack, house fire or hunting mishap.
In no recorded case did the target ever survive. Nothing was known about the assassins except their unblemished professional record; if you received one of these letters, you would die on the date they said you would. No exceptions. None.
Will wasn’t quite sure how to feel about this.
He had always possessed the vague notion that he would die someday, but he tried not to think about that too much. He didn’t really believe in an afterlife, not because he’d given it much consideration, more just a feeling that it seemed rather implausible. When his time came, he figured that would be that. The World, for all intents and purposes, would end.
He’d had a dream once that was sort of about dying: in it he’d gone to sleep and woken up at the very end of the universe, but he was the only one there; everyone else in the entire world had lived their lives and died and turned to dust, and humanity itself had ceased to exist a hundred billion years ago, leaving him alone at the very end of things—he had missed it all.
That was what dying was like, he imagined: the separation of oneself from time, so that the moment your brain stopped processing all of time skipped forward some impossibly large amount. Viewing it that way it was clear that, if you knew you were going to die, there really was no point in worrying about anything.
He played solitaire on his computer for a while, and then eventually got up and pinned the card to his refrigerator with one of his fridge magnets, a smaller magnet in the shape of a leopard seal. Then he washed his hands and went to go make himself an egg salad sandwich.
I find myself increasingly concerned with your behavior. Your impending doom is a mere two weeks away, yet you have shown no inclination to enjoy what time you have left. You continue to work your day job at the bowling alley (you could do much better, by the way), you have alerted no friends or family (admittedly you have very few friends, but you could perhaps organize a little get-together at the bar down the street), and you have failed to research exotic travel plans or exciting local events (instead, last night, you ordered a Domino’s pizza and ate it in your underwear while watching Netflix.)
I have had many victims and they have reacted in many ways, but I have never had someone completely ignore my messages. To be frank, I am concerned you may be suffering from some form of high-functioning depression. Enclosed with this letter is the business card for a well-reputed therapist in your area. Please consider reaching out to them.
As a matter of fact, Will had been enjoying the time he had left very much, and he felt a little put off by the assassin’s comments. He liked his job at the bowling alley, and though it didn’t pay that much, he figured his role was important: he was the only one on staff who showed up on time; it was he who prepared to open each morning and he who locked up each night, and people enjoyed the venue.
As for the Domino’s pizza, he had ordered it with jalapenos. He had always wanted to try out jalapenos but had never quite worked up the courage before.
After that first phone call to his mom, he’d thought about calling her back, about calling anyone, really, but in the end he’d decided he didn’t want to deal with the hassle. People were going to have all these questions, and they were going to want to do things, and it all just seemed like too much.
His main concern at the moment was his pepper plants.
For the most part, he’d decided he didn’t particularly care what happened after he died, but the pepper plants, growing in a window box on his apartment balcony, were the exception to this. He had bought them at Home Depot about four months ago and since then they had flowered and had started bearing fruit—little green peppers that had eventually turned red on the vine, hanging idly since Will had never felt like harvesting them. It was the first time he’d cared for any other living being. He watered them each day and a part of him was always thinking about them, and it bothered him a little that they might not do so well after he was gone.
Out of a strange compulsion he set up a large water bucket on the balcony and then rigged a makeshift wicking system, a couple of cotton ropes with their ends submerged in the water tank and their other ends buried in the soil of the window box. He had read online that capillary action might move water up from the reservoir up toward the plants. He wasn’t sure it was working, but he slept a bit easier that night knowing that, at the very least, he’d tried.
On the day he was going to die, he slept in late. And made himself a cappuccino when he woke up. It was a Sunday, so he didn’t have to work, and he was halfway through his daily moisturizing routine before he realized he probably didn’t need to worry about that anymore, but he was already mostly done, so it was easier to finish at this point, and then he flossed for good measure.
There were five unopened letters on his kitchen table, probably from Assassin 4. Will had stopped reading them. It was just too much, and Assassin 4 was getting a little annoying, honestly. The last message he’d read had mentioned the assassination would now be via garroting, not electrocution, so that was something.
He watered his pepper plants, and then catastrophe struck when he suddenly realized he hadn’t bought any Halloween candy for the kids in the neighborhood.
Grabbing his keys, he rushed downstairs to the garage and dashed for his car. He had totally whiffed. With all the assassination business going on, he’d completely forgotten that Halloween was in three days. If he bought some candy now and set it out on a bowl on his porch, things would be fine, but he could be killed any second, and if he didn’t put out any Halloween candy those kids would think he was miserly.
He managed to make it down to the local grocery store without incident. Sprinting down the aisles, he located bags of chocolate bars and peanut butter cups and shoved them into a shopping bag.
The woman working the checkout aisle glanced at him. “If you like candy, you should come back after Halloween. We usually have it on clearance.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Will said.
It was only after he’d driven home and was halfway up the stairs, shopping bags in hand, that he realized that if he set out the Halloween candy three days early it might get eaten by squirrels. With a mournful cry he collapsed to the carpeted stairwell, burying his head into the pack of Hershey’s Kisses he’d bought and sobbing as he realized that there was no foolproof way to set out the Halloween candy in advance. The squirrels in his neighborhood were particularly feisty and could get into anything given enough time. Holding those bags of candy Will finally understood what his English teacher had meant all those years ago when he’d referenced Faulkner’s “the human heart in conflict with itself,” for what could that possibly refer to except a moment like this: one man caught between the desire to set out an appropriate amount of Halloween candy versus the need to account for the appetites of voracious local squirrels. “Dammit,” Will cried, clenching his fists and shouting into his apartment stairwell, “I want to live, dammit, I want to live!”
Just then there was a loud crash from outside, followed by the sound of a car alarm going off.
A scream came next, and so Will composed himself as best he could, and wandered outside to see what was going on.
One of his elderly neighbors was standing in the middle of the street, one hand over her mouth and the other hand pointing at a huddled mass that lay on the driveway just below Will’s balcony. Around the figure were the wet cotton ropes and the bucket of water he’d set up for his pepper plants. The car alarm was coming from Will’s car: there was a dent on the hood.
“He fell,” said Will’s neighbor. Will looked closer at the figure lying on the driveway and realized it was indeed a person, a pale man in a long black cloak. Will reached for his cellphone but didn’t dial 911.
Instead, he inspected the body a little closer. The man wasn’t breathing, and his neck was bent at an odd angle. On his forehead, there was a little red tattoo stitched across the skin, in the shape of the number 4.
Before Will or his neighbor could do anything, the body dissolved. The pale man’s corpse melted into some gray liquid that seeped into the cracks in the asphalt, and within seconds it had disappeared, leaving only the debris from the balcony and the long black cloak as evidence that anything had happened.
His neighbor was screaming again. Will’s mind was churning. Had that been Assassin 4? Had he been waiting for Will up on the balcony, and had somehow tripped over Will’s pepper plant contraption? Could that even be possible?
He looked up at the balcony. A part of the railing had come loose. His pepper plants, thankfully, seemed unharmed.
It was only when he woke up the next day and had to get ready for work that he internalized his continued survival. Something had indeed gone wrong, impossibly, miraculously, with Assassin 4’s plan. Will found himself glad that he hadn’t told anyone about the letters. It would have been quite embarrassing trying to explain why he was still alive.
The police came by, quizzical at the story they’d received from Will’s neighbor. But with no physical evidence, save for the black cloak, and no actual reported death or missing person, the investigation immediately stalled. Will had been secretly hoping to keep the cloak as a Halloween costume, but the officers wanted it for material evidence, and he relinquished it with some reluctance.
It occurred to him that the assassins might send somebody else next. They had a reputation to protect, after all. Who was to say an Assassin 3 or Assassin 5 wouldn’t show up someday, garrot in hand? As Will thought back to that dissolving pale body on his driveway, he realized he’d never really be sure. Each day could be his last.
He didn’t see that as any real concern, though. It would happen, or it wouldn’t.
He set out the Halloween candy a few hours early that year. He was a bit worried about it, but he checked every fifteen minutes or so, and the bowl of candy remained unbothered by squirrels. Thinking back to his breakdown on the stairwell he felt a bit sheepish; probably he could have laid the bowl out a couple of days early and it would have been fine. Still, he was willing to forgive himself for the overreaction. Given the circumstances, it had been understandable.
Joseph Kiaza lives in Virginia and works in the electricity industry.