Mr. Tibbs walked more quickly as the wind picked up, and his hands broke the surface of his pockets. They dove deep, and he laid his palms flat against the cotton, the front of his thighs. There was no sound except the crickets, somewhere, but there was a cold, electric thing flitting over the bottom of Mr. Tibbs’ stomach. There was nothing behind or in front of him, but he walked more quickly, with the wind.
At breakfast he had eaten his banana nut muffin with coffee and looked at his watch. His gray green shirt laid tight against his belly, and there had been a rattling at the back door. He had turned in his plastic chair toward the back of the house, and the sun through the kitchen window made four yellow squares on the wall beside him, separated and floating. He had been poised on his toes, ready to rise and investigate, but the clock against the flower-bathed wallpaper sang out that it was nine. “Maury Povich time,” said Mr. Tibbs out loud to himself. It was the first time he had spoken that day; his voice cracked, an old record through a phonograph’s bell. He was forty-seven, divorced for twenty years.
There was no sound but the crickets, he was sure, but he curled his hands up inside his pockets, and held his breath, and looked behind him. There wasn’t anything there. He put his head down and continued walking.
Mr. Tibbs landed on his front step and stopped still. He thought he heard, for a moment, the sound of metal on metal coming from inside. He scratched an ear. He opened the door to his house, the familiar lamplight from the hallway greeting him, but the wrongness of a light from somewhere else in the house spilling out too, bright and uncomfortable. He walked slowly through the hall, and heard again a metal clink, and saw that the lights were on in the kitchen. He made his way around the corner. There was a man, a tall young man in black, buttering some bread.
“Ah, Jesus, I’m sorry, I was just making myself a little grilled cheese. I thought I’d be done before you got home.” The man laid down his butter knife. “Anyway, it’s time for you to go. I’m sorry, man, but it’s time for you to go.”
Mr. Tibbs stood by the kitchen table and changed weight from left foot to right. He blinked and put a hand to his chin. “It’s…I’m sorry, where am I going?”
The man in black dragged the blunt knife back and forth across the bread, twisting his wrist in a flamboyant parabola. He said, “Now listen, don’t panic. Everybody always freakin’ panics. I’ll tell you in a second.” The man put an orange square of cheese on one piece of bread. “If it’s cool with you, I’m going to finish grilling up this sandwich real quick though. You want one?”
Mr. Tibbs thought about running, and he thought about calling the police, maybe. Mostly he was hungry, so he nodded and sat down at the table. “How did you get in here?”
The man in black buttered two more slices of bread. “Through the back door. I jimmied the lock this morning on my way to another house. Mrs. Phelps down the road. You weren’t friends with her, I hope?”
Mr. Tibbs shook his head.
“Good. Not that it really matters, I guess, considering the circumstances.”
The man in black flipped two sandwiches in a large frying pan, then slid them onto paper plates, almost dropping one. He brought them to the table and laid one in front of Mr. Tibbs, took one for himself. “So here’s the deal,” he said, and took a bite. “You’re going to die tonight.”
Mr. Tibbs didn’t breathe for a moment. “You’re…going to kill me?”
The man in black shook his head and smiled. “No, it’s not like that. I’m just letting you know. I mean, I’m just overseeing, you know, making sure things go according to plan.”
Mr. Tibbs stood up and went for the front door, but there was no door anymore, only wall. He looked back at the table where the man in black sat. The man in black waved.
Mr. Tibbs walked quickly past the table toward the back of the house. The back door was gone too. He ran into every room, turned circles. No doors and no windows. He stared at the white walls, the blue walls, the blank walls. Shelves and light switches stared back. Electrical sockets looked back, each with two wide-eyed wide-mouthed answerless faces, as if to say, “I don’t know what to tell you.” He walked back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. “I’m going to die tonight,” he said.
“Good, glad we’re on the same page.” The man in black swallowed another bite.
“Who are you?” asked Mr. Tibbs, and he rubbed his face with both hands.
“Guess.” The man in black rested his elbows on the table, held his face in his hands, and stared across at Mr. Tibbs.
“I don’t want to.”
“Tough biscuits then, bro.”
The man in black chewed. The two men stared at each other in silence.
“But I’m not ready.”
“Well, you better get ready, man!”
Mr. Tibbs blinked.
“Dude, I’m sorry, was that insensitive?” The man in black got up and began to open cabinets. “I mean, this isn’t really a negotiable deal, but I don’t want to be a dick about it. Where are your cups?”
Mr. Tibbs indicated one of the cabinets, and the man in black gave himself a glass of water.
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t offended,” said Mr. Tibbs, and poked a finger into his sandwich. “I just haven’t had a lot of time to get used to the idea. What’s it been, ten minutes?”
The man in black sat back down and said, “Longer than usual, man. I just happen to be in the mood for a sandwich. So we might as well enjoy it.”
Mr. Tibbs looked at his sandwich and shrugged, and took a bite. “It might sound silly,” he said, and he tore one half of his sandwich in halves again, “but I think I knew.”
“You guys always think that,” said the man in black, “but you don’t. You don’t know, and that’s kind of the whole point.” He threw up a hand. “That’s the beauty! That’s the supreme awesomeness of it!” The man in black scraped some melted cheese from his paper plate and ate it. “Ten times a day you people get this feeling like you could go at any second and so you better do something drastic, but you never really do. You forget about it. Then I come and tell you the jig is up and you say, ‘You know, I knew it all along.’ Horse shit.”
Mr. Tibbs drummed his fingers on the table. “I guess I just figured I had at least a good 20 years left in me. I was thinking about taking up sailing.”
The man in black took a drink from his glass, and swished the liquid around in his mouth. “Well,” he said. “I got nothin’. I can be reassuring, I guess. I mean, sailing’s not really all that great. It’s kind of a lot of work for like, not that much pay off.”
“That’s not really the issue, though,” said Mr. Tibbs, chewing.
“Oh I know, dude, I’ve been doing this a while. There are some people, I give them the news and they’re hysterical, you know, ‘Please please please, I haven’t even really lived yet, just let me have another week, another day, just another hour,’ blah blah blah, you know. And some people are kind of happy about it, you know, they’ve done everything they want to do and seen everything they want to see, and I guess they’re ready for the next thing.” The man in black swirled the contents of his glass. “I always think to myself, if any of these jerks have done one good or nice thing, then they’ve served their purpose. And if they haven’t, they should’ve been gone a long time ago. It makes the job easier for me, anyway. I’m not really a heartless bastard, you know.”
Mr. Tibbs was silent. There was this time he went to the movies on a Saturday. He saw a movie where a character nailed fliers to posts and trees, but they didn’t say “Missing” or “Lost” or “Found.” There was no distressing news in bold black letters, and there was no urgent message to deliver to the public on an eight-by-ten inch sheet of paper. There was only the proud announcement of a new father: “IT’S A GIRL!”
Mr. Tibbs didn’t have a new baby girl, or any other exciting news to share. But after he had stared out the window of the cross-town bus and walked the two blocks down to his doorstep, he went into his bedroom and took from his drawer a piece of paper and a pen. He sat down at the kitchen table and let the pen hover for a moment. He put the ball-point tip to the paper and drew a shell, some flippers, a gnarled and irascible face. He drew a giant sea turtle, and around its head he drew a garland of flowers. He drew the waves lapping around its side, and a bird flying low, to touch one foot to the turtle’s shell. He drew the sun hanging low too, getting ready to close the day. He had no crayons with which to color the picture.
Mr. Tibbs walked the mile-and-a-half to the copy store where he worked, and waited for the suited man who was using the copier to check his watch, pay the cashier, and leave. He made one hundred copies and departed. On seventy-nine posts he nailed his sea turtle picture, and on twelve trees. On eight benches he taped them. He left one in the men’s bathroom of a McDonald’s. When Mr. Tibbs came out of the McDonald’s, he saw across the street a man scrutinizing his picture, attached to a post at the man’s eye level. Mr. Tibbs watched the back of the man’s head tilt slowly to the right, and then to the left. The man shrugged and walked away. Mr. Tibbs sat at one of the cold, concrete tables in front of the restaurant. He sat for an hour, and then a young girl came by with a bag across her shoulder and headphones surrounding her ears. She passed the post, and then came back, to stand in front and stare. She put her hands in her pockets and she laughed. She looked to her right and to her left, and then laughed again at what she saw. She walked away smiling. Mr. Tibbs decided to stay for the day.
“I guess I could think of one,” said Mr. Tibbs to the man at his kitchen table. They finished their sandwiches.
“So…does it hurt?”
The man in black threw his paper plate in the trash. “Now that I can’t tell you. I’ve only been on the giving end of this whole business. But like anything, I guess, it doesn’t last forever, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
“How’s it going to happen, then?”
“How do you want it to happen?”
Mr. Tibbs put a hand to the back of his neck and looked up. “Sailing accident?”
The man in black laughed. “I like that.”
The man in black stepped out the front door, and Mr. Tibbs followed, and shut the door behind him. The white fence followed the side walk and the crickets were still hanging around, and the two men walked away from them, toward the dark and the open water.