Subject: S.E. by C.M. Barnes


She watched the man approach the house on the security screen. He was not as tall as she had expected—and definitely not as old. She couldn’t guess his exact age—somewhere between a care-free thirty and a super-fit forty-five—but she had expected a looming, sepulchral figure: some old Father Time with a bent back and a gnarled cane. This guy was practically jogging up the drive from the guard hut. He was dressed all in black (at least that made sense), but it was a very fashionable black: pea coat, thick scarf, dress shoes.

Definitely not antique funeral style.

He was even wearing expensive sunglasses, and his long, brown hair was swept back behind his ears with some kind of glossy product that shimmered though the high-def screen. If she hadn’t known better, she would have guessed he was a successful realtor—or maybe an attorney who dealt in some kind of white-collar law, so complicated as to be bloodless.

But she did know better.

It had been Harvey’s doing, of course. Harvey, the family lawyer whose job it was to look out for everyone and everything connected to Enoch’s legacy. That he had even seen to this bizarre contingency was telling of his thorough professionalism—that, or a well-hidden insanity. What had he said? All the big guys get it done. Presidents, hedge funders, CEOs who manage to get out with their golden parachutes intact...Of course, Enoch didn’t fit into any of these categories, at least not anymore.

At one point, you could have said he was a businessman—a highly successful one and a billionaire, but still a businessman. But he was way beyond that now: He had passed into the realm of legend, even of a god. More importantly, he had done it before he even passed from this earth. Metatron had become one of those companies that was essentially its own hybrid part of speech: a noun (“I’m sure it’s on Meta. Everything is!”), a verb (“Want to just meet up and Meta?”), and an adjective (“This thing is like Meta-big!”), and Enoch had maintained full control of his creation all the way to the end.

He had also—maybe even more unusually—maintained one marriage throughout his life, which was why she was here this morning—a faithful widow devoted to maintaining her larger-than-life husband’s memory. The fact that she had never really known him didn’t matter. No one had. Not really, anyway. And the marriage had just been part of the show. She had played her part dutifully though, and now there were just a few bits of epilogue to finish up. This was one of them, and apparently, only the closest of kin could be present.

She left the security alcove and started down the long, tiled hall toward the front door, her suitably low heels clicking. Normally, she didn’t meet guests at the door. It wasn’t a snob thing. It just usually wasn’t possible in such a large house. But she’d sent all the staff home for the day, and the children had not yet made it back from the far-flung continents where they liked to spend their time and money. An empty house was necessary, the man had said.

She had done some point-and-click research, and it seemed guests were often present at the ceremony, at least historically speaking. Maybe the isolation and the secrecy—because that’s what it was, wasn’t it?—were features of the modern iteration. She wasn’t sure, and she wasn’t planning to ask. Instead, she opened the front door just in time to greet the man with an appropriately subdued smile.

“Hello,” she said as he came to a stop before the threshold. “I’m so glad you were available on such short notice.”

He smiled, and it was a perfectly nice smile. Genuine looking, yes, but no teeth visible and a reassuring number of laugh lines crinkling around his pretty blue eyes.

“No problem at all,” he said. “It’s sort of the nature of the business.”

He had the kind of warm, robo-friendly voice that invites you to watch the safety video before takeoff.

“I suppose it is.”

They were still smiling at each other from either side of the open door, and it took a long moment to realize he wasn’t going to enter without her say-so.

“Please come in,” she said, stepping aside. “The...coffin is in the sunroom at the back of the house. The windows face east in there, and Enoch liked to read the paper in the morning light.”

“Lovely.”

He stepped into the hall and began to shrug his way out of his thick, black coat.

“I’m sorry,” she said, surprising herself. “Obviously, I’ve never done this before. Would you like something to drink first? Coffee? Tea?”

He smiled at her again, and she almost laughed with embarrassment. Had she really just offered to get him a beverage before his meal? What were they going to do if he said yes? Sip and chat at the coffin side for a few minutes before the main course?

“No, thank you,” he said evenly. “All I need is what I asked for in the email. Do you have it ready? It’s fine if it’s not. I have all morning.”

“No. It’s ready,” she said. “It’s back in the sunroom too.”

“Excellent. Then I’ll follow you...unless you’d like to talk for a minute first? It can be difficult to have a conversation in the presence of the deceased, and people naturally have questions.”

He met her gaze with those deep, blue eyes—eyes as deep and blue as the water in some opulent Mediterranean grotto that she never would have seen had she not married Enoch, had she not become an accessory to the kind of fortune that could open up every corner of the world, no matter how obscure or exclusive.

“I don’t have any questions,” she said, trying to put some authority into her voice. Who was serving whom here after all?

“Wonderful.”

“Yes,” she echoed. “Wonderful.”

She led him back down the hall toward the sunroom. Of course, the cutesy story about Enoch liking to read the paper in the morning light was the purest bull. Enoch probably hadn’t touched a flesh-and-blood newspaper in at least a decade, and he’d been instrumental in putting hundreds of them out of business. Whenever possible, he had operated purely via screen. He also probably hadn’t known there was a sunroom in the house. On the rare occasions he was here, he’d been walled up in his basement study, door locked tight, typing, scheming, always conference calling away in his never-ending quest to dominate the market. If she had wanted him for anything—which she rarely had— she’d had to text him, and even then, she’d usually only receive a response from his personal assistant, Emanuel. But now Emanuel was gone too. He had jetted away to grieve in his chalet in La Fontaine Sainte-Agnès. Like everyone else, he would return for the funeral, and so she wanted to keep the coffin in a sunny place. Anything to make this all a little less strange.

She heard the man’s expensive shoes clicking down the hall behind her. Thankfully, he seemed to be all business behind that friendly smile. Then again, he was probably practiced in reading his clients’ moods. Harvey had said he was highly respected within his field. Granted, she had never even heard of this field before. Through Enoch, she had known some very powerful people—ones who probably could have benefited from the ceremony.

“In here,” she said, gesturing toward an open door off the hall. “You’ll find the coffin near the back of the room in front of the condolence bouquets. There are a lot of them, and more keep showing up every minute. Security is supposed to hold any who arrive down at the gate while you’re, um...working. You won’t be disturbed.”

The man paused in the doorway, and for a split second, she thought he winked at her.

We won’t be disturbed,” he said. “You’re a part of this too, as I think I explained in the email. Are there chairs on either side of the coffin?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Then please follow me in when you’re ready. Take your time. Like I said, I have all morning.”

I bet you do, she thought. I bet you have all morning and then some for the richest man on the planet—or at least the richest estate on the planet. She scowled. I’m a big part of that estate, and I plan to be treated as such. So, I will take my time, thank you!

But he had already gone into the sunroom.

She waited out in the hall for another moment, if only to give the impression that she was a big person with weighty thoughts. Absurd, but it seemed like a necessary part of the act, and she would be damned if she was going to break character this late in the show. It wasn’t like Harvey had read the will yet anyway. For all she knew, there was some bastardly little clause about her having to perform ‘good widow’ or else no stock, no property, no honorary-but-still-very-remunerative ongoing position within the company. That wouldn’t be like Enoch. At least, she didn’t think so. He had always been fair, if cold and distant, to her. But he also didn’t get to where he did—become who he did—by being overly charitable. With Enoch, everything had at least one string attached.

When she went in, she found the man sitting in the chair on the far side of the coffin. This put his back up against all the bouquets the staff had stacked against the windows before leaving. As she approached, she could see that golden, pollen-spattered dust had settled on the black shoulders of his dress shirt.

It was an excellent shirt. Fitted but not tight. He was in perfect shape.

“Please sit,” he said and gestured to the other chair across the coffin’s glossy, gray lid. “The bread’s already on your side.”

“As per your instructions,” she said, sitting quickly.

“Yes. I’m sorry if they were a lot to take in. It’s actually a simple ceremony, but I always get carried away explaining it. Then again, too much detail is probably always better than not enough, don’t you think?”

“Your message was very helpful for getting things set up.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Now, if you’re ready, we can get started.”

“So, we’re going to open the lid?”

“Yes. We start by opening the lid. I hope you’re all right with that?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“If it helps, you don’t have to look inside. You can just set the bread on his chest while looking away.”

“I said I’ll be fine.”

“Fantastic. The hinges are on my side, so you’ll have to do the initial lifting. Once the lid is part way up, I’ll get ahold from my side and pull it the rest of the way. Does that make sense?”

She didn’t say anything. What was there to say? Instead, she shoved her dusky-red, carefully manicured fingernails under the edge of the lid and began to lift.

It didn’t rise.

She lifted harder, feeling tension grow in her fingers and down the backs of her hands. But the lid still wouldn’t give.

What was going on? Had somebody already nailed it shut?

“It’s not coming up,” she said. “Is that normal? Maybe there’s a lock or something.”

His concerned frown was just as practiced as his smile. “Shouldn’t be a lock,” he said, “at least not on any coffin I’ve seen. I’d offer to come around and help, but that would break with the ceremony. Do you mind trying again? Don’t strain yourself. If we need to, we can try again later after this issue has been resolved.”

“No... hell no. I’ll try again now.”

Wow! Had she really just said hell over her late husband’s coffin? This was exactly the kind of Freudian slip she was usually so good at intercepting. Maybe there was a confidentiality expectation she could rely on here, like the kind that came with talking to a priest.

But he wasn’t priest, was he? Not even close.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “This is a very emotional time for me.”

Now, his look was so cookie-cutter comforting that she had to look away.

“I completely understand,” he said. “If you’d like to try again, we can. If not, then—”

“No, I’ll try again. Hold on.”

This time, she hunched down in her chair so she could press her palms up against the edge of the lid, and she realized that it was just heavy. Terribly, unusually heavy. That was all. It probably had been lined with platinum or some other expensive material and cost them a million dollars. That wouldn’t really be like Enoch either, though—he never gave a shit about these ceremonial-human-experience-type things. It was common knowledge within his personal circles that Enoch had planned to live forever on some kind of intense exercise and vitamin regime. But still, his heart had stopped suddenly—far earlier than he had expected. Maybe he’d thought selecting a coffin for himself would be self-defeating.

She pushed up hard, and the lid rose with a faint groan. Inside, he was laid out just like he was taking one of his trademark, micro-meditation naps—except, he was better dressed.

“Well done,” the man said, his face now invisible on the other side of the lid. “I’ve got ahold of it now. When you’re ready, place the bread on his chest just above where his hands are clasped over his sternum. The top of the loaf should almost touch his chin, but not quite.”

Without lingering to look, she bent down to pick up the loaf that was sitting on a plate beside her shoe. It was just a simple loaf of white bread baked to no specific specifications. The email had said it would be fine to use any kind of edible bread: It only had to be unwrapped. Last night, she had sent a staffer down the hill to the little gas station at the corner where their private road met up with the highway, instructing him to bring back the cheapest loaf he could find.

“There,” she said, inserting the bread into the open coffin. “It’s on his chest now.”

“Excellent. Now, we just wait for about a minute. It doesn’t take long.”

“For what?”

“For the corruption to rise up and sink in.”

“The corruption?”

“I’m sorry. Did you read the whole email?”

“Yes! I read the whole...effing email. I’m just asking!”

“Right. I’m sorry. It’s very natural to have questions.”

“There’s nothing natural about this, if you ask me.”

A gentle sigh washed against the other side of the lid.

“I can see how it would seem that way,” the man said. “Believe it or not, I really can, but this isn’t the time or place to get into the specifics—”

“Listen! Let’s remember who’s paying who here...and it’s not like you’re doing surgery. If you’ve got all morning, then you’ve got the time to tell me just what the fuck is going on.”

She was mad now. She couldn’t help it. In fact, she’d been mad the entire time that he had been there. She just hadn’t wanted to admit it to herself that this...this bullshit had any power over her emotions. Because to admit that would be to admit something else—something about Enoch’s continued power over her. He was the one who had shut her out, not the other way around. He had done it from day one, and what right did he have to keep tugging on her strings now? She was finally free to cash in the credit or do whatever else: That was her right after spending all those miserable years with him, neglected and unseen.

Another sigh from the other side of the lid. She was glad that she couldn’t see his face.

“Okay,” he said. “That’s fair...and the ceremony won’t be directly affected if we spend a little time talking at this point. That said, I wish you would have asked earlier, as this is not a good moment in which to linger—”

“Talk,” she said. “Explain it to me.”

“Right now, the poisonous residue of all your husband’s transgressions, all of the trespasses he made against himself and others in his life, are rising up out of him. They are flowing upward to find a temporary home in the bread.” His eyes were fixed on her as he spoke. “Very shortly, they will all have left him, and his remainder, if you will, will be free to travel into the other world, unencumbered.”

“That sounds...nice?”

What else was she supposed to say?

“It is—in a way. However, that poisonous residue cannot stay in the bread. It has to find a new home—a new host. And that’s where I come in.”

There was a pause on the other side of the lid—a hesitancy that she could feel like a pressure building up in the otherwise bright and clear morning light streaming through the windows.

“In a moment, I will eat the bread—the entire corrupted loaf. Once I do that, all the stain of your husband’s wrong-doing will be safely contained within me.”

“That doesn’t sound so nice—at least not for you.”

“No. But it’s important to remember that, as long as I don’t die with that poison inside of me, I will ultimately be fine.”

“And just how will you manage that?”

“Someday, somebody will have to do the same for me...just as I did for my predecessor, and by extension, his predecessor, and all the predecessors who came before him. It’s a long line, I can assure you.”

“So, we’re talking about souls here?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. That said, I prefer to think of it as a kind of scientific process. Call it ‘culpability transference’ if you like. It takes some of the medieval, mumbo-jumbo feel out of it.”

For a second, she was tempted to look down into the coffin again, just to see what was happening to the bread. But she kept her gaze up and on the plush velvet interior of the lid. She didn’t want to see Enoch again. She’d much rather contemplate the only view he would ever see again.

“That makes sense,” she said. “But I can’t help but wonder, why did you take this job in the first place?”

“Well, it pays very well for one.”

“Still seems pretty dangerous—I mean, if you believe in all of that.”

“It is, and I do.”

“But then what happens if you get hit by a bus or something? What if nobody around knows your, um...situation?”

“That’s a good question.”

No pause this time. In fact, he sounded like he was almost enjoying himself. Then again, how often does anyone get a chance to explain his life?

“It probably won’t surprise you to know that I have a successor in place—a rather eager one, believe it or not. He tracks my movements very closely. I’m fine with this, considering that I am probably the most damnable man walking the earth.”

“Does he get paid too?”

Why was she so curious?

“A little bit, but not nearly as much as he will when my time comes, and he fulfills his duty. He’s contractually bound in that sense.”

“By whom? God? The Devil?

A gentle chuckle from the other side of the lid.

“No! Of course not. I use an attorney just like everyone else.”

She looked down into the coffin. She couldn’t help herself. It wasn’t any final desire to see Enoch in all of his restful glory. She just needed to see the bread, needed to see the vehicle that would transmit whatever ethereal slime her husband had accrued in life into this strange man...

“Should it be turning black?” she said.

“What?”

“The bread. Should it be turning black? It’s white bread, but now it looks black, kind of like it’s burning—”

“Let me see!”

The chair on the other side of the coffin clattered to the floor as the man jumped up to run around to her side of the lid. His shiny hair was suddenly wild, and his blue eyes were as wide as two frozen, glittering seas.

“Get back!” he shouted. “Get away from the body!”

She started to rise from her chair, but he was already pushing her away. She almost fell over from the shove he gave her, and she would have cried out had he not already been thrusting his head under the lid.

“Fuck!” he hissed. “Fuck!

“What!” she said, edging back toward the door of the sunroom. “What’s wrong?”

“We waited too long.” He didn’t look up from the bread. “It shouldn’t have been too long—not unless he did horrible things.”

“I don’t know about horrible—”

“I have to eat it now. Please, look away. I don’t know if I’ll be able to capture all of it.”

“All of what?”

“Look away. You probably already have some of it inside you, and more might escape when I eat. I’m going to try to take in as much of it as I can.”

“As much of what? You said it would all go into the bread!”

“Look away!”

She did, but she didn’t leave the room. Later, she thought she maybe should have, but it wasn’t like she could feel anything happening—at least not yet. The guy freaking out had been scary, sure. But, other than that...

She thought it would sound like heavy chewing, like someone trying to choke down a whole mouthful of something that didn’t want to go down. But it didn’t. Instead, the sound was more like the noise of a large and heavy door closing. A vault door, maybe, or the hatch to some huge ship she couldn’t really imagine other than by picturing certain movies she’d seen about outer space.

It certainly didn’t take long: It was over before she could even open her eyes.

The man was still bent over the coffin, his head under the open lid. His back was heaving, and he was wiping fiercely at his face with both hands.

“Awful,” he was saying. “Terrible. Awful. Horrible.”

“This...isn’t how it’s supposed to go?” she said.

“Terrible. Awful. Unbelievable.”

“I mean normally?”

He looked over his shoulder at her. His handsome face was twisted up into a rictus grin of disgust.

“That was the worst I have ever tasted,” he said. “That was worse than all of the dictators, and the murderers, and the monsters who have foisted their bile upon on me. It was even worse than the taste of my predecessor—that twisted creature filled with a hundred generations of filth, oozing from the days back when men ate men and worshipped the molten darkness below.”

“So... you want, like, a bonus or something?”

“We shouldn’t be in here. It’s still in the air. It’s all around us. There was so much of it. Do you understand? There was so much of it.”

And, in a way, she did. But to admit that would be to buy into something that she just couldn’t buy into. Not yet. Maybe someday when she was on her own deathbed, and she felt the fear that would no doubt arrive, and she was ready to grasp at any chance, any opportunity to avoid what was coming.

“If you’re done, I think you should leave,” she said. “My understanding is that Harvey—our family attorney—will be handling payment.”

“Some of it got into you. I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. I just had no idea there would be so much.”

“Please go now. I don’t want to discuss this further.”

“I don’t think you understand—”

“Please go.”

He rose slowly from the coffin side and brushed off the front of his shirt. A few scattered, black crumbs fell to the sunroom floor. He turned and closed the coffin lid quickly; it came down with a dull thud.

“Bury this...thing as soon as you can,” he said. “And don’t spend time in this room unless you have to. At least there’s a lot of sunlight. That will help—eventually.”

She moved to the door, and he quickly followed. As he came, she noticed he’d left his coat on the floor next to his fallen chair. She pointed at it.

He looked back and shook his head.

“Leave it,” he said. “And don’t touch it unless you’re going to burn it—which is probably what you should do with this whole house.”

“I’m not going to burn the house.”

He stared at her, all the false warmth gone from his face. In its place, she saw only a hateful cold.

“It’s your funeral,” he said.

She led him to the front door and then stopped on the threshold. She thought he might look back as he left and say something more, something prophetic—or maybe even condoling. It wasn’t like she had asked him to come. But he just left, walking quickly down the drive in his nice black clothes, his long, glossy hair waving in a wind she couldn’t feel.

She watched him go for a long moment, then she went back down the hall to the security alcove. There, she could see him still going down the drive on the screen. If anything, he was moving even faster now—practically running—and he didn’t pause at the guard hut to talk with security. Instead, he just waited in front of the slow opening gate, standing silent and still as a man being released from prison after so many years that he couldn’t really believe it was happening.

He slipped through the gate as soon as it was wide enough. A few seconds later, he was beyond the cameras’ reach. Just before he disappeared, she saw another man step out from behind a copse of trees to follow him. This man looked even younger, even more handsome. And he was also dressed in black.

She turned away from the screen and stared out into the empty hall. Was it her imagination, or did it not seem as empty as it had before? She couldn’t see anything new.

But she could feel it now—just a little bit. A creeping, dark weight pressing against her from every side. It was an odd feeling, but not entirely unwelcome. It was immensely powerful, and after all, she didn't like to be alone.

C.M. Barnes lives and writes just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana, and his work is forthcoming in Schlock Magazine, Allegory, and Cosmic Horror. He is currently working on a collection of interwoven, speculative tales and a horror novel. Get in touch at silenceoncebroken@gmail.com to learn more.

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