News travels fast in our town, remarkably so. That is, depending on what is considered to be news. Issues of elections, wars, and weather are always handled with solemnity, not even Ivan the town drunk would dare comment on one of those sacred subjects without a newspaper or an almanac ready to support an opinion. Such matters were considered factual in nature, and to distort them was to invite mockery and shame upon oneself.
Other subjects of less than universal relevance somehow found their way into the memories of all residents within a day’s time. These facts were of personal matters, things like thefts, infidelity, or even stray thoughts born of idleness and ire. In all small towns, gossip and small-talk are often at the root of this dispersion of information. In the town of Carver’s Grove, however, such things simply did not happen.
Something quite remarkable about Carver’s Grove was the absolute silence found among groups of people. There were exceptions of course, in children who did not know better, and the occasional political discussion amongst adults. The rule of the town found workplaces and homes filled with silent citizens.
Situations like arrests and terminations were handled in mutual silence; usually a passed note and a look of understanding. Strangers sometimes pointed out these oddities, finding themselves as the only voice in a crowded shop. The usual explanation offered was that locals saw each other enough to skip pleasantries, or that the whole town had run out of things to talk about. Most strangers accept these flimsy excuses and leave, forgetting the quiet little town forever. If such an outsider looked closely however, one may notice the slight shudder in the movements of a cashier, the worry lines on a young girl’s face, or the dark patches under the eyes of a passerby. These signs were easy to miss, but like the silence, they were a symptom of the plague of Carver’s Grove. For while voices remained, recreational speech had died.
I had turned twelve the previous year, and as my birthday drew nearer, I began to see the oddity take on a new dimension. The way that people regarded my older brother had shifted. My mother’s eyes seemed to well with tears at the sight of him as our father became distant and drank more. On the way to school, my brother’s friends walked ahead of us, refusing to return his nod of greeting.
“Why won’t they look at you?” I asked in a whisper that would have been inaudible to any outsider.
Tom looked around before responding. The others were well out of earshot, but he kept watching as they moved further off. “It’s a secret.”
“If it’s a secret, why does everybody else already know?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you until you’re older.”
“My birthday is tomorrow. Can’t you tell me now?”
He sighed in exasperation. “Charlene, it isn’t that simple. I’m not allowed to tell you until your birthday.”
“You’ll tell me then?”
We walked on with a renewed lack of conversation. Although I usually found my classes interesting, I could not focus on the monotone lectures. My mind had been captured, taken by the revelation that the whole town was actively withholding information from myself.
The prospect of it all plagued me through the rest of the day, but I was powerless to satisfy my curiosity. Despite my frustration, I had managed to fall asleep at a reasonable time—
Only to be awoken a few hours later. It was still dark in my room, save for the dim glow of streetlamps creeping in through the window. A figure stood next to my bed.
“Tom is that you?” I asked.
“What time is it?”
“Just about midnight, happy birthday.”
I blinked as realization settled in. “What’s the secret?”
“I’ll tell you in a moment, but you have to promise not to shout or anything. You know the rules.”
“I promise, now tell me what’s going on.”
Tom’s silhouette moved over to the window. “It’s easier if you see it first. Look out there.”
With a mixture of suspicion and anticipation, I slowly moved to see what he pointed at. Outside, the cobblestone street was illuminated by the street lanterns, casting odd shadows on the houses of our lane.
“It’ll be there any minute now.” Tom said, gesturing to the Williams’ house across the street. But as I watched nothing happened.
“Do you see it?” he asked.
I squinted into the gloomy night, wondering what I was supposed to see. Abruptly, a shadow seemed to detach itself from the window of the Williams’ house. “I think I see something…” My voice trailed off as the shadow glided up to the rooms of the next house in the line.
“What is that?!” I asked in a loud whisper.
“It has a couple names. Some say it’s the secret stealer, others call it the town crier. It visits every house each night.”
“What does it do that for?”
“It steals thoughts, any idea or secret you have, the crier knows it. He goes to every house, and soon everyone knows it.”
“How does it tell every thought to everyone in one night? That would take weeks!”
“It would if he were a proper person, but when I asked Ivan about it, he said that it speaks in dreams. That the very sound of its voice becomes a vision in the mind of its hearer. In these dreams, a person hears a lot more in short time.”
“How does Ivan know?”
“He said that he’s talked to it before.”
We watched in silence as the shadowy form moved on to the next house.
“Is this the secret?”
“Well, yes. In a sense…”
“Tom, you promised.”
“Fine, you’re right. The crier knows everything about folks, including when they’re going to croak.”
“Tom, don’t say that.”
“Last week the crier told everyone that I was dying.”
“How does it know?”
“It just does!” Tom’s voice rose slightly, causing us both to flinch.
The light from the window disappeared. I beheld the crier covering the glass. It appeared to be made up of a loose pile of tattered linens and blankets, twisted into the rough shape of a person. Protruding from the mess was a mouth. The jaws held human teeth, but the mouth itself was disproportionately sized, dominating the rest of its head.
Tom stepped back quickly, but I held my ground. Whether it was courage or fear holding me there, I could not tell. All that I could see was the grotesque smiling thing, filling my vision and mind. It began speaking.
It felt like I had woken from a deep sleep. The crier and I stood alone in vast emptiness. Its words came quickly in a meaningless, shrieking sound. I knew that it was speaking, but I couldn’t understand what it said.
“Why is my brother going to die?!” I asked the creature before me.
In a heartbeat, the shrieks became words.
“All mortals die, that is part of the bargain. Didn’t you know that already? That he dies in two days makes little difference, as does the fact that his death is at home means nothing.”
“How can I stop this from happening?”
“Death arrives in two day’s time. Appeal to the imp if you must, I doubt it will help.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Child of fear and doubt, to understand is to accept. I cannot make you accept the future, know that his is an unavoidable fate. Make your peace as others have.”
“How can I make peace with an unknown fate?”
“I can show you his death if you wish.”
“How can that be?”
“To live is to accept the patterns of fate, and to choose is to play fate’s role. All who live have an appointed death, and all who die do so according to design. I have seen it.”
“How do you know these things?” I asked. “What gives you the authority to assign fates?”
“Child, such power is not mine. As one born to die and cheated of that end; it is my lot to watch and whisper.”
“Liar! You yourself claim to have cheated death.”
“No, I am not the cheater, but the cheated. Death is more biased than he wants to let on.”
“But there is still hope for Tom? If Death passes him like you, he shall live?”
“You do not know what you speak of. To exist, feeding on the dreams of those with life. Clinging to the Earth as a memory is not life.”
“Then show me his death, that I may prevent it!”
The creature seemed to buckle, crumpling slightly as what seemed to be black smoke poured from its jaws. The smoke shaped itself, becoming a place, our kitchen. Lying on the floor, in a growing pool of blood lay Tom.
I awoke to find myself in the floor by my window. Tom was shaking my arm. “It’s gone now. Are you alright?”
I looked at my brother but saw the image of his death in his place. Dull dead eyes where his should have been, blood dripping from his forehead. I lowered my eyes.
I heard him sigh. “That’s the secret. I’m sorry.”
He fell down the stairs a couple days later, cracked open his skull.