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••• Joshua Keller glanced at his wristwatch as he walked through the city, retracing a familiar path he had often traveled in reflection. It was 12:14 in the afternoon, and he had been awake since the vision tore him from sleep. After years of this dependable pattern, Joshua slept very little, even when the demon in his head allowed him a night of peace. This afternoon was much like any other, and he walked his familiar path, traveling without direction, his head lost in a familiar semiconscious haze. The lack of sleep left him constantly ragged, and he shuffled down the street with very little enthusiasm, barely noticing any of the people walking past him. They were nothing to a man who spent his days waiting for promised death, and he had learned long ago not to look at their strange faces. For, far too often, he saw the face of the man with the pistol staring back at him, less terrified at seeing the man than knowing that the man had seen him. Earlier, the sight would startle him, but the shock would always bring him back to reality, and a second glance would reveal that it was not his eyes that saw the man, merely his head. Now, as he traveled with his head bowed, he saw only shoes passing by him, none of which resembled the pistol-bearing visage in his dreams. As Joshua made his journey, he suddenly became aware of different colored legs on a bus stop bench. Had they been painted? He wondered for a moment, afraid to examine his specific surroundings. As he hesitantly lifted his head to investigate the unfamiliar sight, he quickly became aware that the intersection he walked by was not part of his routine travel. Apparently, so deeply lost in his musing, Joshua had missed a familiar turn, and now found himself in a part of the monstrous city that he had not been through. He looked around him, feeling odd for finding the spectacle so engrossing. He felt a strange fear, lost in these unknown surroundings, despite the fact
that he was mere blocks away from the route that had signaled the tranquility of his thoughts for so long. For a moment, he considered turning around and retracing his steps to his intended turn, but a surprising sense of adventure came over Joshua, and he suddenly felt alive with this discovery of new sights. Joshua continued his journey out of the boundaries his habits had imposed on him, now lifting his head to investigate the world around him. He didn’t let his sight settle on any faces, fearing these new strangers even more than the familiar strangers of his daily walk. Then, suddenly, as he walked past the gated patio of a thriving sidewalk café, Joshua stopped. A panic overtook him, as he glanced to his side and saw that one of the patrons wore a familiar face. He hurried his steps away from the café, shaking his head absently. As he rushed from the scene, he was sure that the man in his vision was sitting at the café behind him, sipping from a teacup and looking very satisfied from the devouring of whatever became the remnants on his plate. Joshua shook his head. His mind had surely invented the sight, initiating a cruel jest with him. He had seen the face of his death thousands of times, on any number of pedestrians he had encountered, and the man at the café was only the latest trick his mind played on him. There was nothing to fear, as this was a hallucination, nothing more. But, Joshua could not convince himself. Something inside him told him not to listen to his reassuring reason, and, as never before, he felt sure that he had finally encountered the man in his head. Joshua had to be sure, and he quickened his steps around the block, intent on returning to the path he had just traveled, seeking the same view of the man on the patio. He would look again, and see if his eyes still beheld the man that would kill him. And if what he saw was the same, what then? He came down the block, approaching the corner of the café, the fear drain15
Their dialogue was brief. Then, finishing it with two words, the seated man relaxed into his vast chair and closed his eyes. The other man moved only slightly, sliding a gloved hand into the hip pocket of his dark brown trench coat and withdrawing a pistol. He aimed the weapon at the seated man and let his outstretched arm hang in the air between them for a moment. The seated man did not stir, even as the trigger was pulled. His eyes opened suddenly with the impact of the bullet as a torrent of blood gurgled from the wound in his throat. He began to shudder in the chair, his body spasming as his life faded down the front of his shirt. The twitches gradually slowed and each was less violent than the previous. Then, after the movements dwindled to stillness, the vision was gone. Joshua found himself in the bathroom, forgetting the trip as the vision echoed in his head. His legs were shaking, and he reached for the sink top to brace himself. A sudden sickness came over him, and he twisted his body toward the toilet. He vomited during the motion and missed the bowl, splashing bile on to the tile floor. Joshua fell to his knees, then into a full collapse, and found himself lying on the floor, the smell of his vomit nauseating him again. He began to sob uncontrollably, choking back tears that poured out like the blood in his dream. In this state he stayed for several minutes before finally rolling away from the rancid pile by his head and crawling for the door. He used the doorknob to pull up to his feet, clutching it for life as he struggled to balance himself. The shaking began to slow, and Joshua wiped his sickness from his lips, breathing heavily to calm himself. He gave an uneasy glance to the mirror, noticing how pathetic he looked, then glanced at the vomit on the floor. He took a washcloth from the cabinet under his sink and ran it under the water, then used it to wipe his face. The cold
water refreshed him, and he began to feel himself returning to normal. He rinsed the cloth again and kneeled before the toilet, attempting to clean his mess. However, as his face neared the pile, he began to feel sick again, and backpedaled away from it. He stood again, this time on his own, and wiped himself again with the cloth. He looked once more at his vomit, and decided to leave it until his stomach was settled. He looked in the mirror again, sad to see his familiar face glaring back at him. Joshua had seen the vision his entire life. When he was a child, he dismissed the horrible sight as a nightmare. But, even at a young age, he knew that there was something very different about this nightmare. The people in the vision never changed, and he grew to know every detail of their faces. For a long time, he could only speculate who the men might be, their features unfamiliar to him. But, as he grew older, he began to resemble the seated man, and the vision became even more horrifying to him. Now, as he looked in the mirror, 32 years of the vision worn hard on his face, Joshua Keller did not see himself. He saw the man slumped backward in his chair, leaking from his throat and suffocating on his own blood. Every twisted wrinkle was in place, and his face perfectly matched the one he had seen his entire life. His cruel fate danced around in his head, and he knew, as he had guessed some time ago, that it was his own death that he had been seeing in his sleep since birth. The fear came over him, and he bolted from the room, crashing hard on his bedroom floor and choking back another batch of tears. He stopped them this time, and pushed himself to his feet again. He could still taste the bile in his mouth, and resolved to get a glass of water. He headed for the kitchen, the same familiar thoughts pounding in his head.
down. Joshua undressed slowly, waiting for the water to heat, throwing his blood stained clothes into a heap in the corner. As he stepped into the warm flow of the water, he played the events of this early evening in his head, searching for a mistake in his actions. Joshua had cheated death of claiming its prize, and he had no intention of trading his new gift for a prison term. No one had seen the deed, he was fairly sure of that. The street was rather quiet when he dragged the demon into the alleyway, and the darkness between the two buildings offered no clear vision to anyone who might have passed by during what followed. His shower was long and exquisite, and as he stepped out, Joshua felt cleaner than he had ever been. The blood was now absent from his body, still swirling down the drain with the last of the water from his cleansing. He wiped fresh fog from the mirror and smiled at the man looking back at him, a boundless joy behind the expression. Tonight Joshua Keller felt alive for the first time in his summoned memory, and the vision was all but forgotten in his merriment. He dried himself deliberately, his eyes never leaving the gaze of the ecstatic man in the mirror, admiring the happiness that he saw in the stare. After slipping into his bathrobe, Joshua went into his modest kitchen and mixed a screwdriver. For a moment, he considered how ironic the ritual would be if he had used a screwdriver in his deed. He sank into his recliner, drink in hand, lost in thoughts. He closed his eyes and drank deeply, wincing at the bitter first swallow of the liquor. While the joy of his newly earned life remained at the center of his thoughts, something else remained, like a dark cloud in a clear blue sky. There was a face. Not the face in his vision, but, rather, what remained of it: a horrible red nothingness framed by strands of tattered, blood-soaked hair. There were a few teeth left in the mess, but most had been knocked out during
the relentless beating that Joshua’s hands had administered. The mass of gore didn’t resemble anything human anymore. But it was still a face, and the teeth, although there were only a few, seemed to form a wicked smile, enhanced by the gaping sockets where eyes once rested. It was a face without flesh, floating in a pool of its own blood within the hollow remnants of a skull. And with that face, the demon still smiled back at Joshua Keller. When he opened his eyes, the demon was gone again, and he returned to his euphoric new life, the liquor beginning to perform its task, adding to the bliss. There was no remorse left in Joshua for what he had done. All had been swept away by relief of the demon’s demise, even though the demise had left him with lingering visions of the non-face in the alley. He drank more, quickly finishing his screwdriver, then returned to the kitchen and mixed another. As he returned to his recliner, he glanced at the hammer on the floor, which lay surrounded by stains from the blood that had slid down the tool his absence. The hammer had writing on its handle, and it was then that Joshua Keller realized that the weapon could be traced to the construction truck he had stolen it from after following the demon to its large office building. The evidence of his deed taunted him from the floor, and he studied it intently. His eyes scanned the claw end of the hammer, which he had imbedded into the back of the demon’s skull after it left the office. He had used the firmly inserted claw to yank the devil’s twitching body into the darkness of the alley. He remembered how quiet the motion had been, done in a split second and in near silence. His eyes moved to the head of the tool, which he had used to pound the demon’s taunting face, repeatedly. When the demon’s conquered body lay before Joshua, the face in his vision still stared back at him, the eyes wide open at the initial shock of the assault. Even as the form lay dead, the face was still very much
alive, and the relief that Joshua Keller had dreamed of while he prepared for his violence did not come. That was when he began hacking away at the demon’s face with the blunt side of the hammer, occasionally twisting the tool around to strike with the claw. He did not stop until he had erased the face completely, leaving behind the liquid visage that now lingered in his thoughts. But the demon was dead. Though he knew the hammer should be carefully disposed of, Joshua resolved to leave it where it lay for the moment. Though the bloody tool was gruesome to behold, it was a comforting reminder of the devil’s defeat, and a symbol of the new life that awaited him. So, he settled into his chair again and continued his drink. As he rested his head back, smiling broadly, exhaustion began to overcome him. Before long, Joshua Keller fell into a deep and refreshing sleep. ••• Joshua Keller screamed as he awoke. He shook in his recliner, drunk and barely conscious, as an icy terror consumed him. As he had slept, lost in distant dreams, his rest had been cruelly interrupted. For, those dreams had concluded with the familiar vision, as powerful as ever, jarring Joshua awake. He reached for his throat, relieved to not find a gaping bullet wound. He breathed in heavily, calming himself, and blinked away the forming tears on the corners of his eyes. He regained composure and sat forward, resting his head in his hands. Joshua’s thoughts were heavy as he sat perched in the quiet darkness. The devil was dead, he was certain of that. So, why had the vision returned to his sleep, the very night he removed the man in his dream from existence? Had his act of savagery failed to provide him with the peace he so desperately desired? He peered at the digital display on his VCR through the tops of his fingers,
knowing that it would read 3:49. However, he was sharply surprised to see the numbers 3:46 glaring back at him through the darkness. Until this night, the vision had always pulled him awake at 3:49, and Joshua agonized over this minor discrepancy. Perhaps there had been some sort of electrical short, he speculated, or he had hit a button on his remote control by accident. He glanced over his shoulder to the display on his microwave, and was somewhat startled to see it agree with the numbers on his VCR. Joshua was unnerved by this inexplicable alteration in the scenario that had repeated itself with impeccable timing his entire life. And, then, the perfect stillness of the dark was interrupted. “Hello, Joshua Keller.” The voice cut through the darkness, three calm words that penetrated Joshua’s chest like daggers. He didn’t want to look, but his eyes forced themselves slowly to the source of the sound. And, deep in the shadows, there was a figure, revealed only slightly in the dim illumination the moon shed through the window. Joshua could not move, frozen with wonder, and it suddenly became clear to him why the vision had come to him early on this night. He did not need light to identify the source of the voice, and as the figure moved methodically out of the shadow-draped corner of the apartment, Joshua Keller knew that he was foolish to think that he could stop the devil from winning the game it had played with him his entire life. As the darkness parted for the figure, Joshua began to see the features that he had disassembled with a hammer earlier in the evening form again, untainted, in the light. The man in his vision crept before him, seemingly unaffected by the death Joshua Keller thought he had served him. He knew what was about to take place, but there was little fear in his paralysis, rather a wretched curiosity that kept his eyes locked on the figure stepping toward him.
The man kept his hands in the pockets of the trench coat he wore, which swished across the carpet with each step he took, and his eyes matched Joshua’s stare. Neither man wore an expression as they studied each other, and though Joshua’s mouth struggled for words, it was the familiar stranger who broke the glass silence a second time. “Do you know who I am, Joshua Keller?” asked the man, his tone soft and deliberate. “Yes, I know you,” he replied, stonefaced. “You are the devil.” The man’s blank expression widened for a slight smile. “Hardly,” he assured. “It appears maybe you don’t know me.” “How do you know me, then?” Joshua challenged, his voice monotonous in his awe. “Why, I have known you my entire life, Joshua Keller,” the man began. “Ever since I was a child, I have had dreams about this moment we are in right now. I have seen your face every day, and each time I have been consumed with an agonizing guilt over a heinous act that I have seen myself commit on the man wearing that face. But, I always told myself that I was not capable of killing someone, and I knew that the terrible prophecy would never materialize, I would not allow it to.” Joshua pondered this optimistically. “Imagine my surprise,” the man continued, “when, a mere 20 days after moving into this city, I was stopped at a red light, and happened to glance out my window and see a face all too familiar to me. You were walking with your head bowed, but I knew, and something inside me confirmed my thoughts. I had laid my eyes on the man I killed in my dreams forever. “As you probably know, I was amazed to find you, so I followed you to your apartment building. I didn’t dare confront you, but I was completely fascinated with your existence, and decided to study you extensively. I have watched you many afternoons from afar, and seen you take your routine walk perhaps a
hundred or more times since coming here. I have even been inside your apartment, Joshua Keller, many times while you were away. I have walked every inch of this dwelling, and I have learned everything that I could about you. “I was not just trying to satisfy my own curiosity by keeping close track of you. I have done it all for you, Joshua Keller. For, when I knew where you were, I could make sure that our paths would not cross, and I would not have an opportunity or reason to perform the execution that my dreams had foreshadowed. “But, I was not with you today, Joshua Keller, when you took your afternoon walk. I was at home trying to erase a pounding in my head. For, at 3:49 in the morning I was jolted awake by my familiar dream. But, there was something different about this dream, an electric intensity that made it more vivid and graphically realistic than it had ever been before. When I awoke screaming, I was nauseous and sweating, and feeling a deep sickness in the pit of my very soul, as if I had actually performed the disgusting act I had seen. This feeling lingered through my entire day, and I chose to remain at home and rest, and avoid being anywhere near you. I told myself to ignore the dreadful feeling that washed over me, and assured myself, that even if one day our paths did cross, I would never have a reason to wish such a brutal action upon you. “And all of these things were swimming in my pounding head when I received a phone call from the police saying that they thought that my brother had been the victim of a savage attack. They told me that they couldn’t be sure because the victim’s face had been disfigured beyond any possible recognition, but a wallet in the pocket contained my brother’s identification. “Of course, I had to be sure, and I insisted to see the remains. There are no adequate words to describe the atrocity that I saw this night, or the feeling of pure and unblemished pain that arose in me after seeing my brother in such a state. A part of me died and was lost in that man-
gled tissue that used to be a face identical to mine. My twin brother was dead, and I had a pretty easy time figuring out who would have a reason to do such a vomitous deed. “But, still, I convinced myself that someone else was responsible, and I assured myself of this on the way to your apartment tonight. For you see, I have never wanted to kill anyone, and as much as my brother’s missing face destroyed me, a part of me feared that I might be forced to fulfill the prophecy. I assumed your innocence all the way through your front door, when, as I watched you sleep, I noticed a mess on your carpet.” The man motioned to the bloodstained hammer resting in the center of a crimson stain on Joshua’s carpet. “Joshua Keller, you told me I was the devil, but after seeing this hammer covered in red mass that used to be my brother’s life, I know now that the devil is you. The reprehensible thing you did to the other half of me was inhuman, and for the first time in my life, I do not fear my dream. “I have no guilt anymore, and I am ready to do what I have watched myself do forever. My only regret is that I will be sparing you of the agony of watching yourself die every morning. You deserve much worse than this for what you have done, but I apparently don’t have much choice in the matter, do I? “So, Joshua Keller, here is your peace, and mine.” “Thank you,” said Joshua Keller, uttering the final words that had always eluded when he observed the scene he was now living. There was nothing else to say, quite simply, and he closed his eyes and leaned back into the softness of his recliner, hearing the strikingly familiar sound of a leather-gloved hand sliding into a trench coat pocket.
ing with each step as he realized the improbability of walking past the man in his vision by chance. He prepared to round the turn, coming around for another pass of the patio. He approached his destination, and the fear completely faded from him as he saw exactly what he had assured himself he would. The table that Joshua had seen the man at was unoccupied, and there was no one there to wear the face he had seen. He smiled for the first time that day, elated to find out he had not glimpsed his death on his afternoon walk. Perhaps the excitement of exploring a new part of the city had been too much for him, Joshua hypothesized. Maybe he had walked enough for today, and it was time to head back to his familiar path home. As he quickly turned to begin his trip home, he stumbled into a man who was hurrying out the café’s front door. Joshua Keller collided hard with the man, the impact dazing him for a moment. His lack of sleep prompted his temper to flare, and he aimed his angry eyes at the welldressed gentleman, intent on prolonging the confrontation. However, as his dizzy eyes began to focus on the face before him, he began to see familiar features come to life. The man before him was the man he had seen in his sleep his whole life, every chiseled detail on his face matching the vision. And, Joshua Keller was paralyzed by a numbing fear unlike any he had ever experienced. They were face to face for mere seconds, but a lifetime of thoughts traveled through Joshua’s mind. He studied the face intently, expecting the sight before him to dwindle away and reveal another deception from his head, but it did not. The man was as real now as the visions had been for so long, and as he glimpsed into the eyes of his death, Joshua Keller watched the man’s pupils dilate, studying him. Yet, Joshua could sense no recognition. Then, the devil spoke, his tone warmer and milder than Joshua would have ever expected.
With a simple “excuse me,” the man stepped away from Joshua, and hurried forward on his path, walking down the sidewalk bordering the café patio and tucking a newspaper under his arm. Joshua’s eyes followed the gentleman, though his mouth was still too stunned to speak. The man walked quickly along the sidewalk toward a distant horizon, growing smaller with each second he was watched. Just as quickly as he had been there at the café, he was quickly disappearing. But Joshua knew that he would be back. For an absurd moment, he wondered if the brief altercation would provide the motive for the inevitable reality in the vision. He realized that he had never given much thought to why the man in his dream meant to kill him. And then Joshua Keller remembered a sound, heard moments before. When he had collided with the devil, causing the well-dressed man to stagger backward a step, death let out a slight groan. Much like the soothing voice that came from the demon’s lips, the noise was not what Joshua would expect from the man in his vision. It was a very normal noise: the loss of breath, the noise every human makes when winded. Not a reflex, but an expression of being stunned, and maybe an indication of... Pain? So, as he watched the death that he had encountered not five minutes before disappear into the horizon, Joshua Keller knew that he had hurt the devil. A smile crossed his face, the expression broad and rich. There was a deep joy in the smile, and beneath it, a twisted satisfaction that his simple misstep had led him to his death, only to find his fate to be as human as he. It was not until now, as his shoulder throbbed slightly from the impact minutes before, that he began to ponder his fate differently. He had seen his death as a tangible thing, and caused the being pain.
So, how much could he hurt this devil? Now, new thoughts began working their way through his head. The demon did not wear a trench coat, so today was not the day. Forever, he had simply been waiting for his destiny to come to him, and now he had been presented with an unforeseen opportunity to confront that destiny. At that point, he realized that, just as his blunder had stopped the devil in its brisk walk, his actions had the power to alter the course of the demon’s fate. A new world of possibility opened up to him, and he drank it in deeply. Joshua laughed like he had not done in some time: a buoyant, joyous sound that turned the heads of the patrons on the café patio. He knew now that he could alter his destiny, and vowed that the fiend who had haunted him for 32 years would not have the chance to perform its hideous deed. So, as the man from the café began to almost disappear completely into the horizon, Joshua Keller followed, shuffling quickly along the sidewalk. His eyes remained fixated on the distant dot in front of him as he quickened his pace, almost jogging. He weaved his way through the people walking toward him, his glance never wavering from his point of fixation. A vision came to him, but it was a new vision. There was still a man bleeding from his throat in a chair, but it was Joshua Keller on his feet, smiling jubilantly with a smoking pistol hanging at his side. He walked faster. ••• There was a tremendous amount of hot blood on Joshua Keller’s hands when he returned to his apartment. He shuffled distantly, horrified by the atrocities that his eyes had witnessed his hands perform, yet still relieved to be safe inside his apartment. His long walk from the scene was a blur, his head overcome with the grotesque images. But, he had made it.
He became aware of the weight in his jacket pocket and pulled out the blooddrenched hammer his hands had used in such a brutally effective fashion. As he twirled the hammer in the light, he noticed bits of tissue clinging to the thick metal head and tufts of hair swimming in the blood that caked the claw side. He let the hammer fall from his shuddering hands to the carpet, stepping over it as he further ensconced himself in the security of his familiar home. Now, safe in his apartment, the horror of his deed consumed him and he fell to the floor weeping. He buried his eyes in his hands, forgetting the blood and smearing a light layer of the fluid across his face. He trembled to his feet and walked carefully to the bathroom, noticing the digital clock on his dresser. It was 8:23. As he stepped through the doorway, his red-stained face greeted him in the mirror, another reminder of the carnage earlier in the evening. He walked toward himself slowly, lost in his own eyes. It was then that he saw a smile stutter to life beneath the lips in his reflection, as new thought entered his head. The devil in his vision was dead. A mere hour before, Joshua Keller had lived in constant terror of a nameless demon that haunted him in his sleep. Now, that demon had no face, and no life left to take his. The death in his vision could not come, he had seen to that, and Joshua was free of his fate. And he rejoiced, a smiling fool in the mirror, with still-moist blood stained on his skin. There was a madness in the smile, a lingering thread of the demon that had consumed Joshua an hour before. He had destroyed the devil in his dreams by becoming the devil, and it sat perched on his lips now. But, the blood drying on his face became uncomfortable and began to remind him of the demon he had slain an hour previous. He pulled the shower door open eagerly, leaving bloody finger tracks on the glass. He twisted the shower to life, admiring the cool stream of water that cascaded
The vision dragged Joshua Keller from sleep, as it had countless times before. He sat up in his bed, feeling the icy sting of the winter air that ebbed through his open bedroom window as he slid from under his blankets. He glanced out this window for a moment, distracted by the neon lights of the Marlboro billboard atop the building across the street. Calmed by this familiar sight, he spent a thought reflecting on how his eyes had been drawn to this neon beacon night after night. He had gazed upon the billboard perhaps thousands of times, but never had the smallest desire to partake in the product that tantalized him so persistently. Then, he thought of the vision, as familiar as the billboard, but without the calming effect. He glanced at the clock radio, free with his subscription to Sports Illustrated, which read 3:49 a.m., then
began his familiar journey to the bathroom to wash off the newly formed perspiration on his brow. And again the vision played in his head: The two men were silent, one standing, one seated, both wearing emotionless faces as they gazed at each other. Joshua watched this scene as from a distance, a casual observer of the wordless conversation before him. When the men finally spoke, he watched their lips move soundlessly, their calm voices beyond his hearing. But somehow, he knew that this seated man was about to die. Despite the intended violence, the seated man showed no fear; rather, his face was blank like that of a pondering infant, with eyes that looked on with a wonderment that substituted his lack of expression.
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