The man came to some sort of consciousness with a start, staring at a stark old man dressed in black, who scratched an eye and moved a lock of grey hair back in place.
“Welcome to the ‘Caller’s Club,’” the old man said, not unkindly. “You’ve joined the ranks of those who’ve come to me willingly; an illustrious, if sad, group…
“You’re here now because of your particular path. Can you explain? I’ve seen similar journeys, and I love them so…”
“I don’t understand,” the object of the old man’s attention replied. “I’m not… this isn’t supposed to happen. I’m supposed to be dead.”
“Oh, you are. You are! Death rarely means what those who seek it desired it to mean.”
“So what is it for?”
The old man chuckled. “For? Well, that’s why we’re here.”
He tapped a book on a table, neither of which the dead man had noticed before.
“It’s up to you to define yourself. You were in this book, alive, with meaning – but you turned that to ash.” He flecked some lint from his sleeve. “It’s a compulsion of mine, you see, to try to find a reason, a foundation of understanding about who you were, which might define who you are.
“I so hate loose ends, you might say.
“So, please tell me the story of your passing; you are so very dead now. There’s nothing to hide for or from. And who knows? This may be important.”
The man looked down dejectedly. “I’m .. dead? Even now?”
“Yes, very much so. It’s a one-way trip, you might say. If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I would be it.”
“Well… if I’m able to tell you anything, then none of it was worth it after all.”
“Just so. But please… for me.”
With an inward stare, the dead man began to talk.
“I planned for years. I was an engineer; I wanted to have a world where things were better, somehow. I could build. I could fix. I was good at it.
“But nothing worked. The more I poured myself into the world, the more broken it became; all I did was learn how useless I was, in the end.
“I lived for beauty, but all beauty did was pass away.
“I couldn’t … there was no way to find success. Anything I built, I could see the end even while putting it together. A brick turned to dust in my eyes; a tree turned to smoke. All of it. The thing that made me a good engineer…”
“And you were a good engineer, yes,” the old man agreed, nodding.
“The things that made me good at my job, well, they allowed me to see the entire lifetime of everything I touched. And all I could see was the end: worthlessness, death, ruin.
“So I gave up. I spent ten years as an engineer, and left my job to become a standup comedian. My wife almost left me – saw my job change as giving up on my her and our sons. But she supported me, after I promised I’d be able to provide – or I’d go back to engineering. Others had done the same kind of thing; why couldn’t I?”
“Why a comedian, though? It seems an incongruous path.”
“Well, that’s what made sense. As an engineer, I wasn’t allowed to scream. I wasn’t allowed to feel the pain of everything I saw and felt. But as a comedian?
“Well, there I could scream all I wanted. I could say everything, anything. I could echo my soul on stage, and express every ounce of pain – and the audience could hear me. And laugh.
“I knew what I wanted, even then.
“But this way, I could beg for help, which satisfied my desire for doing the right thing. I didn’t want to hide away my pain, and come… here, without actually trying. I didn’t want some angel of death asking why I didn’t ask for help.”
The old man chuckled, while the dead man continued.
“So on stage, I could be suicidal, destructive… and it was reversed. The audience could nod, and laugh, and I could cry for them. It was a dance.
“All I had to do was wait.
“I guess you know how I … how I died.”
“Indeed. You didn’t go out of your way to cause it, but you also chose a path that ended up with you here.”
“Yeah… yes, that’s it. Tell me, though… did the kid survive?”
“Oh, yes. And later generations never understood why he went the way he did. But I knew – it was because he was one of the few who understood you.”
“Wait… ‘later generations?’”
“Indeed. It’s been nearly two centuries. Your children, you see, remembered you, and kept you alive in their memories, and their childrens’ memories… “
“You said ‘why he went the way he did.’ What were you talking about?”
“Well, you saved him, of course. But he was broken the same way you were. His destiny was meant to end where you ended instead; but he grew up, valuing his life the way he saw you valuing yours! And when one no longer values one’s own life, of course, you learn to not value anyone else’s, either. A bit of a bastard, that one was.”
The old man smiled with no warmth in his eyes. “I’m afraid I understand. You are no different than some of the others; trying to rescue yourself from your own pain, you shared it with others, and continued even after your suicide by proxy. Welcome to Hell; you are denied even the nothingness you thought you’d become.
“Howl, sir. Howl all you like. What you thought is now true; now, truly, nobody cares.”
And the old man faded from view.