Today — June 3rd — is National Repeat Day. While the origins of this celebration of repetition are less than clear, it is nonetheless an auspicious day to pick something to do and repeat it, ad nauseam. Send the same messages, watch the same movies, eat the same foods.
To celebrate, we're posting a story by one of our murderers, CJ Miles IV, about the horrifying repetition of death, featuring artwork by Krowjak Illustration. "Repeat After Me" was originally published in Happy Days, Sweetheart.
Repeat After Me
“Nobody lives forever, dear.”
Morty grunted in response, turning the page of the newspaper and trying to ignore his wife. He smoothed out the creases in the paper and reached for the pen in his pocket, the day's crossword issuing its challenge. He filled in the first few words in small, rigid letters, pausing to think between each clue.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“For Pete's sake, Pam, no,” he said, a bit harsher than he'd meant to. Even with this unwanted interruption, he continued the daily routine of scanning the grid. With the right amount of time and simple logic, finding the solution was a foregone conclusion. It was only a matter of time. Fifteen across: Booth pesters. It took him several minutes to parse the phrase, before he finally wrote assassin bug in the blank spaces provided.
She sighed. “You'll have to deal with it eventually, Morty.”
“I already did,” he said, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice as he filled in more of the answers. There was pain, too, raw and ragged. If he noticed it, she certainly had as well.
“You can't ignore it forever. Talking is the only way you'll ever get over it.”
Focusing on the puzzle was becoming problematic. He put down the pen and pulled his glasses off, setting them atop the papers. When he saw her look of concern, he shut his eyes. Maybe if he didn't look at her, he could regain control. “Pam, there's nothing to be said. There are some things a man just can't talk about.”
“And this is one of them?” She reached across the table and squeezed his hand. Her touch surprised him, and he couldn't ignore the sound of crinkling where her arm rested on the paper. “Even with your own wife?”
“I can't...” His voice cracked, and he felt tears at the corners of his eyes. “I'm still scared, Pam. That isn't easy to admit for a man like me. But I... I wasn't ready for it. I don't know how I could have been.” He cleared his throat, pretending his hoarseness wasn't from sadness.
“It's alright, Morty. It's natural to be scared of death. We all are, on some level. It just means you're normal. Human.” She smiled, her eyes wrinkling at the corners even as his filled with tears. “And there are people you know on the other side, waiting for you. Your parents, your brothers and sisters--”
“And you, too.” He bit back a sob as he rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. “It's been so hard, Pam. It's a wonder I can get out of bed in the morning without you.”
There was a long pause while he took back control of his emotions. She sat across from him calmly, her hand still on his. It had been the better part of a year, but it still felt so real, so warm. When his tears had finally dried and the wet spots on the newspaper had become crumpled paper and splotched ink, he asked, “What should I do?”
She smiled, and he remembered all the reasons he had fallen in love with her, so long ago. “Do whatever you think is best, Morty.” He felt her squeeze his hand one more time. He closed his eyes, willing away the tears that were threatening to return. When he looked again, she was gone. The chair she had been sitting in was pushed up to the table. The coffee cup she had used was hanging on the wall hook, stainless and dry.
Had it been a dream? Morty pinched himself on the way to the bathroom, and found a small amount of comfort when nothing changed with the sharp pain. He pulled out a thermometer and began counting his breaths while waiting for the mercury to settle. Both measurements were normal enough, though. It was getting harder and harder to explain Pam's visit. Her last words echoed in his mind unbidden.
Do whatever you think is best.
He returned to the kitchen and opened the cupboard above the fridge. It was only ten o'clock in the morning, but he needed the amber courage the bottle could provide. It was half-empty before he got up. He had always known this day would come, but, until now, he wasn't sure he would be ready. Now he knew. It had only been a matter of time.
After Pam died, he'd been given a prescription to help with the sleepless nights. He refilled it occasionally, although he hadn't used it for a while. A small part of him wondered what kind of doctor asked so few questions and gave so many pills, but he had stopped caring. Better to have it and not need it.
He swallowed a handful of pills and whiskey with one healthy swig and, resisting the urge to cough, drained the rest of the bottle for good measure. Between the pills, the alcohol, and the anticipation, he found the trek to his bedroom difficult. Everything began to go out of focus as he felt the familiar chemicals mixing into something new in his veins, something simultaneously exciting and terrifying. Before his eyelids sank closed for the final time, he thought he saw the door open, and wondered if the pressure on his hand was just his imagination.
There was no bright light leading to a pearly gate, no heavenly chorus welcoming him to an afterlife. He recognized his bedroom but, as his confusion faded, realized that much of the furniture had been removed. The bed, nightstands, and mirror had all been taken, and the drawers had been removed from the lonely dresser in the corner. He called out, but the words felt hollow, empty. The curtains were missing from the windows, he realized, but there was nothing to see outside but darkness. The room was warm enough, but Morty found himself shivering nonetheless.
As he entered the hallway, he flicked the switch out of habit and jumped as the lights overhead turned on. The hallway was cold and sterile, with marks on the walls showing where pictures had hung for decades. He couldn't feel his fingers as they slid across the smooth wall, and his footsteps made no noise on the thin carpet.
Each room he checked was the same as his bedroom. The shelves and walls in his study were bare, and the armchair he had spent more nights in than he could remember was gone. The only thing left in the office across the hall was the heavy desk in the center of the room. The spare bedroom had been emptied as well. He knew this was his home, but there was some small part of his mind screaming at him that he was somewhere strange and unfamiliar. It was getting louder.
The dinette and countertop appliances were gone from the kitchen, and the mugs that hung above the sink were nowhere to be seen. As he approached the counter, he spotted a small creased booklet. He recognized the picture on the front as he approached it, but picked it up, hoping he was wrong.
His name and two dates were at the top, but the picture had been enough to tell him what he was looking at. The photo had been taken years ago, before Pam had died, at some dinner party he could no longer remember. They had used half of it for her funeral booklet. It only made sense that his own program had used the other side.
Morty wanted to cry as he flipped through the pages, but no tears came now. The prayers and readings were all familiar, even though it had been years since he had seen them. Now that felt like a mistake.
“What have I done?” His voice sounded muted and foreign in the empty house, and speaking left a sour taste in his mouth.
“What you thought was best.”
Morty froze. The voice wasn't familiar in the least, but it was the first thing since he “woke up” that had felt real. His head began to throb gently. It reminded him of the pulsing that accompanied migraines, though he knew he wouldn't find a similar sensation in his wrist or chest. He tried his best to ignore it and the thoughts that came with it.
He wasn't sure how long he waited for an answer. Just as he began wondering if he had imagined it, he heard a door slam elsewhere in the house. For a moment, his instincts told him to flee, to save himself from whom- or whatever was in the house with him. His mind caught up, though, and reminded him that, without his mortality, there was nothing left to lose that he wanted to keep. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves and returned to the hallway.
Morty knew he hadn't been in the kitchen for very long, but the hallway had taken a drastic change. Several inches of dirt and grime covered the floor, and the walls, previously empty and white, had been covered with dust and cobwebs that spanned from the baseboards to the ceiling. The light bulbs overhead were shattered or removed, and the plaster around the sockets was cracked and flaking. He took anxious steps into the corridor. With each footfall, the pounding in his head increased.
The doors, save the one at the end of the hallway, rested against the walls, removed from their rusted hinges. As he passed by the unobstructed doorways, Morty saw the other rooms in the same condition. The desk in his study sat forgotten, covered in dust. Even in the darkness, he could see the tarnish on the brass handles of its drawers. The windows in the study had been broken and boarded up, but the plywood barrier had begun to rot. The holes in the boards showed him the darkness outside again, deeper and more menacing than the shadows in the house.
The pain in his head had grown to a sharp, steady throbbing, and his fingertips began to ache and burn as he reached for the bedroom door. Morty turned the doorknob and pushed, expecting some resistance from the hinges or dust, but found none. The room was darker than the hallway, and he noticed the strong smell of mildew as he entered.
By the time his eyes adjusted, it was difficult to focus through his headache, and he was losing the feeling in his arms. His mortality was no longer anything to worry about, but he had never felt such pain before. It made him wonder if the dead could die. He hoped that he would never find out.
The bedroom had changed, too. The wallpaper had cracked and peeled in uneven strips. The dresser had fallen forward, and the backboard had been split along its length. Morty heard a steady drip coming from the adjoining bathroom. His legs began to burn as he stepped into the room, making him reach for the wall for support. He wondered what the point of checking the decaying house was. The small voice in his head that told him to leave returned. Right before it convinced him, the bedroom door slammed shut with such force that he thought he felt the whole house shake. The surprise robbed Morty of his balance, sending him crashing to the floor hard.
The room lit up red in a flash of pain, bright circles and stars filling his vision of the blank ceiling. His head throbbed, chasing his thoughts away. There was no way to tell how long he stayed like that. When he pulled himself off the floor, he realized the room had changed again. The door had been wedged firmly in the jamb, and heavy wooden beams had been nailed to the wall on either side of the doorway. He could still hear the drip from the bathroom around the corner. A light shone from under the door as he approached, and it opened without resistance.
Unlike the rest of the house, the bathroom was just how he had left it. The white tiles were spotless despite the dust across the threshold, and the porcelain fixtures were the cleanest he'd ever seen them in the clear light. Water leaked from the faucet slowly. He had never gotten around to fixing it. His hand was numb and stiff, but he managed to wrap it around the handle. As he turned it tightly, something caught his eye in the mirror.
Silver wires, thin as syringes, hung loosely from his shoulders, elbows, and the backs of his knees. They trailed up to the vent and the cracks in the ceiling. The way they hung reminded him of a marionette's strings. He tugged one gingerly, trying to remove it without thinking of where they came from. The end of the cable came out bloodless and hung inanimate for a moment.
Before he could try to remove another, though, the wire struck like a snake, burying itself deep in the wound he had just removed it from. Morty cried out in pain and horror, and could see the squirming metal sliding beneath his skin deeper into his arm. He reached for it, but had no sooner grabbed it when more of the wires began biting into his legs. They came from the faucets and the ceiling, writhing masses of cold pain that worked their way into his body. It was unbearable, and he wanted nothing more than to give in to the dark edges of his vision. The wires kept him standing, though, holding his arms at his sides and his legs planted firmly on the floor. He could only watch in the mirror as they continued, leaving no spot unclaimed.
When they finally stopped, he stepped toward the mirror against his will. The wires had reminded him of puppet strings before. Now he was left to wonder who was the puppet master. Pain, confusion, and terror formed a haze that slowed his mind and dulled his thoughts. He heard himself speaking, though the things he said were unlike any language he had ever heard before. His eyes closed and all sensation faded away.
When his eyes opened again, he wasn't sure where he was at first. The bathroom was gone, but the bedroom he was in seemed familiar. The smell and sounds reminded him of home, and he thought he recognized the view from the window. A picture frame on a nearby nightstand caught his attention. Morty realized where he was by the faces he saw.
He set the frame down gently and turned to the door. No matter how hard he fought, his motions were out of his control. He walked down a long hallway and descended a staircase to a cozy living room. Pictures of familiar faces, young and old, decorated the walls and tables in the house. It’d been almost a year since he’d been here last. He had missed it, but the growing panic in his mind told him this was the last place he wanted to be.
He softly pushed open the door to the kitchen. A woman stood near the counter looking at her phone for a moment before noticing him. She was nearly fifty, but Morty always saw her like she had been as a child, innocent and happy. Her mouth fell open in shock as her phone hit the floor. She stammered and gasped, and tears began to pool in the corners of her eyes. Morty wanted to tell her to run, to get away from the body he no longer had any control over.
Instead, he reached up and gently touched the side of her face, breaking her from her trance. She put one hand over his and wiped her eyes with the other. “D-dad? This... This can't be real. I mean, you're... you died.” He could hear the pain in her voice, raw and ragged, and knew she had as well.
“Nobody lives forever, dear.”