The child is asleep. The tall one watches her breathe. Downstairs, the television emits weak pulses of light and music. The tall one leans in and listens to the air whistling through the girl’s nostrils. Her cheeks and lips move as if she’s suckling. Her hair is stuck to her face with sweat. The tall one reaches a thin hand to touch her, but the other one swats him away.
“Don’t,” he says. “We’re not here for her.”
The tall one is Shepherd and the other is Hank and they know this because their names are sown into their robes. Hank is drawn to water and Shepherd to dirt but neither one clearly remembers the shape of his life or the circumstance of his death. Hank is farther along in this process than Shepherd. Hank at least remembers that he was married, that his wife had dark hair that felt like brushed wool. He’s almost sure that this is true, that she was beautiful.
Hank always does the work. The woman is in the living room, asleep on the couch in front of the television. He puts a hand on her forehead. She doesn’t move. He folds into her dream. There is a door there. There is a hand there. There is a low and constant panic, and the woman can’t reach her hand to the door even though she must, she must, or else everything will be awful forever. Hank takes the woman’s hand and puts it on the door. It isn’t hard. She’s been waiting for so long to move.
“In the morning, call the doctor,” he says. “Everything will be fine, as long as you take the girl to the doctor.”
When Hank slides out of the woman’s dream, Shepherd is gone. Hank finds him outside, like always, digging his hands into the dirt, which he studies with a look of bewilderment.
Their apartment is small and smells like vinegar, and when they get home from the job, Shepherd falls asleep immediately even though it’s still light out. In the log, Hank records the details of the woman’s dream. Maybe someone will read his report. Maybe not. Subject was large-breasted, he writes. Could’ve used a haircut. Then he erases these embellishments. Stick to the facts, he thinks. Remember the training. It’s the only way he’ll be able to move on.
Message delivered: affirmative.
They eat at a diner a few blocks from their apartment. The inside of the diner is painted bright pink, and the walls are lined with stuffed bears. Tonight they’re waited on by a tiny woman named Miranda who has a dark bob and startled-looking eyes.
“Do you think our waitress looks like a movie star?” Shepherd asks.
“Do you mean a specific movie star?”
“No, just a movie star in general.”
Hank studies Miranda as she stands at the counter and pours coffee into a mug until it overflows onto the saucer beneath it.
“You think every woman looks like a movie star.”
They eat in silence. Shepherd occasionally slurps his coffee. Hank keeps his eyes on the door, as if he’s waiting for someone to join them.
Their beds are in the same room, and Shepherd likes to talk when he can’t sleep.
“What was wrong with that woman today?” he asks.
“Same thing that’s wrong with all of them,” Hank says. “She was afraid. Paralyzed by it.”
“Do you think you helped her?”
“I don’t know,” Hank says. “How would I know?”
“We could follow her,” Shepherd says. “We could follow her around for a few days and see if she listens to the message.”
“We’ll have a new assignment tomorrow,” Hank says. “And it’s against the rules.”
Shepherd is quiet long enough for Hank to think he might be asleep. Then he says, “Will you ask me some questions?”
Hank is tired and cocooned in the depression that arrives promptly after the completion of a job, but he says yes because he knows Shepherd will never stop talking if he doesn’t.
“Were you a construction worker?” he asks.
“No,” Shepherd says. “Not a construction worker.”
“Did you work in a park?”
“I don’t remember being outside much.”
“Were you rich?” Hank asks.
Shepherd pauses. “Hmm. Maybe. Actually, maybe I was rich. I remember a desk, a fancy one. Solid wood, big leather chair. Hmm. I think I must have been rich, or maybe I just worked for someone who was rich? But that doesn’t explain my thing with dirt.”
“Maybe you were a gravedigger,” Hank says.
“Maybe I killed someone rich and buried him,” Shepherd says.
The room fills with soft blue light from a passing ambulance.
“Do you think you killed someone?” Hank asks. “Maybe we were both murderers, and that’s why we’re stuck here together.”
“I don’t know,” Shepherd says. “I don’t think so. I can’t remember shooting or stabbing. I don’t feel like I was violent. But I don’t feel like I didn’t kill someone either.”
“Maybe you were a doctor,” Hanks says, even though he can tell that’s not the answer.
“No,” Shepherd says. “Do you want me to ask you some questions now?”
“No,” Hank says. “I just want to sleep.”
Except Hank doesn’t sleep. Hank never sleeps. His body isn’t really a body, so it doesn’t need sleep, but Shepherd hasn’t figured this out yet. Hank lies in bed and watches the darkness change in increments and remembers a woman singing and singing, until his memory of her singing is transformed by the sound of water, until that singing sounds almost exactly like crying.
The new assignment is on the coffee table in the morning, a name and address typed on a crisp white sheet of paper. And the message.
“What is this supposed to mean?” Shepherd asks.
Hank hands him a travel mug filled with coffee, though caffeine has no effect on them now. Shepherd doesn’t know this either.
“We don’t know what it means,” Hank says. He doesn’t say that every time he hopes the message will be for him. “That’s the point. We don’t know what any of it means. We just do it. We just have to deliver the message.”
“I want to do it this time,” Shepherd says.
“Are you sure?”
Shepherd shrugs. “Why not?”
The bus is crowded, but the other passengers don’t look at Hank and Shepherd when they board. People almost never look at them. Hank sits very straight, with the sheet of paper smooth in his lap. Shepherd taps his feet and makes clicking sounds with his mouth.
“Hey,” he says. “Check out that woman.”
Through the window, Hank sees an old woman carrying a goose in a basket. She holds the basket close by her side and feeds the goose something from the palm of her hand. She strokes the goose’s neck tenderly. It watches them as she crosses the street.
“I wish she was our target,” Shepherd says. “We never get anyone interesting.”
“You don’t know that,” Hank says. “We don’t know anything about those people.”
“Can’t you tell from their dreams?”
“Do you think that woman dreams about her pet goose?”
“I bet that lady’s dreams are real interesting,” Shepherd says.
“I can’t remember what I used to dream about,” Hank says. “Can you?”
“Dry land,” Shepherd says, without hesitation. “That’s one thing I know for sure.”
The house is tall and skinny, red brick with a rusting swing set in the backyard.
“Why did we come during the day?” Shepherd asks.
“Because it’s a waste of time to sit at home waiting. If he’s awake, then at least we’ll know where he lives, what the place is like. It’s more efficient this way.”
They enter through the back door, into a kitchen with waxy, grease-stained walls.
“It smells like potatoes,” Shepherd says.
“Quiet,” Hank says.
Downstairs they find unoccupied bedrooms. Everything is dusty, even the floral quilts. Shepherd picks up a gardening spade from a table in the living room covered with small flowerpots.
“Put it back,” Hank says. “You know better.”
“I just want to hold it,” Shepherd says.
They follow the scent of cigar smoke to a study at the top of the stairs. There’s a man asleep in a leather recliner, his skin slightly yellow, his lips dry and cracking. The room is filled with old newspapers.
“This is him,” Hank says.
“Let me see the message again,” Shepherd says.
Hank hands him the slip of paper and watches as Shepherd mouths the message over and over. Hank has never seen Shepherd look anything but curious but now Shepherd blinks rapidly while bobbing up and down. Maybe he’s a child, Hank thinks. Maybe children arrive here in the form of adults. Hank knows he should do the job himself, but before he can say anything, Shepherd disappears into the sleeping man’s dream.
Waiting on the outside feels like a fever. The man’s eyelids flicker softly, and Hank thinks he can see a light behind them. He’s cold, even though he knows he can’t be cold. He can feel water up to his knees, pieces of metal grazing his shins, the brush of something heavy, like a body. He tries to hold onto it, but he can’t, not the body, not the memory, because something is happening behind the sleeping man’s eyes, and now there’s a trickle of bright red blood from his left nostril, and now Shepherd’s standing next to him again, sweating and shaking, saying, “Oh shit oh fuck oh shit oh shit.”
Shepherd kneels slowly and sets the garden spade on the carpet. The man’s nose continues to bleed, dripping onto his blue plaid shirt.
“What did you do?” Hank asks.
“Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.”
“What did you do?”
“Is he okay?” Shepherd asks. “Is he okay?”
Under no circumstances are they supposed the touch the recipients. Damage can be done, they’ve been told. But Hank touches the man anyway. His skin is cool, but Hank can feel a weak pulse.
“What the fuck did you do?”
“He fought me,” Shepherd says. “I gave him the message, and he grabbed me by the throat and started to strangle me. I had to hit him with the spade to get him to let go.”
“It wasn’t real, you moron! All you had to do was leave.”
“What do we do, Hank? Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
Hank thinks. There were no provisions for this in their training. He suspects there’s no way for this damage to be undone.
“Let’s just go,” Shepherd says. “We’ll say he was like this when we got here.”
For a moment, Hank can see right through Shepherd, though his robe to a black and white photograph of costumed children hanging on the wall behind him. There’s a ballerina, a cowboy, a pumpkin, a ghost. The ghost is clutching a stuffed dog to its chest.
On their way out, Hank picks up the phone in the kitchen, dials 911, and leaves the receiver dangling from the wall.
On the bus ride home, Shepherd cries, but no one notices.
“I had to do it,” he keeps saying. “He would’ve killed me.”
Hank doesn’t speak to him. Instead, he stares out the window, looking for the old woman with the goose. If he sees her, he tells himself, it’s a good omen. If he sees the goose, everything will be fine.
He doesn’t see the goose. The streets are filled with sweating families dressed in shorts, children holding balloons. There must’ve been a parade, Hank thinks, but his sense of time has dissolved by now, and he can’t remember an occasion that would warrant a parade. The people on the street look hot, but Hank is freezing. There was a flood. He remembers the water and the look on his wife’s face when the dog got away from her. He told her not to go after it, but she wouldn’t listen.
“I had to do it,” Shepherd says. “I got in there and gave him the message, but he told me he wouldn’t listen. He said there’s something not right with me, I’m a demon, I stink like a demon. He said he recognized me and I should’ve done something to help all those people but I didn’t, and then he started to choke me.”
Hank looks at him. His bones feel muddy, even though he doesn’t have bones. Not anymore.
The apartment isn’t safe now. Hank can feel it from the street—something up there, waiting for them. He puts a hand on Shepherd’s back before they reach the door.
“Keep walking,” he says.
“Why?” says Shepherd. “Do they know? Are we in trouble?”
“Just keep walking,” Hank says.
On the sidewalk, there’s a boy with sunburnt cheeks jumping exuberantly over the cracks. Hank remembers a baby, lying on his back, kicking his feet and laughing. He remembers his rough hand on the baby’s soft, round belly.
They keep walking until they get to the diner. Their waitress has long blonde hair, the curls pinned back, and bright red lipstick. Shepherd asks if the waitress reminds Hank of a movie star.
Hank orders a sandwich and remembers all the sandwiches he ate in his life—grilled cheese and turkey with gravy, peanut butter and banana. BLTs. He remembers po-boys. Po-boys!
“Do you think we’re demons?” Shepherd asks, too loudly. “Is that what we are?”
Hank remembers Shepherd’s face but not where he saw it.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like we’re doing something wrong. When I go into the dreams, that doesn’t feel wrong to me. Don’t you have a sense of whether what you’re doing is wrong or right?”
Shepherd plays with his knife. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a sense of that. I just do what I’m told.”
The waitress brings their coffee. Hank orders bread with butter, Shepherd a strawberry milkshake and a slice of coconut cream pie. Shepherd tells the waitress that she’s pretty, real pretty, just like a star.
They stay at the diner until dark. It’s not an all-night diner, but no one kicks them out at closing time. They sit together in their booth, with only the light that makes its way in from the outside between them.
“Want me to ask you questions?” Hank says.
“I remember music,” Shepherd says.
“What kind of music?” Hank asks.
“Marching music,” Shepherd says.
“Were you a musician?” Hank says. “Or maybe you were in the military.”
“Something,” Shepherd says. “I was something. I had to be, right?”
Outside, a drunken couple staggers down the sidewalk, and the young woman stops and grabs her companion by the face and kisses him so hard he bends backward. Hank remembers kissing. He remembers the taste of his wife’s mouth, deep and tart and sweet like currants. He remembers the way she bit at his bicep when they made love. He remembers the sound of her voice, screaming to him as the water rose. He remembers Shepherd’s face, calm and confident on a television screen.
There’s a noise in the kitchen behind them. Hank feels the presence in the room, moving closer.
“Go,” he tells Shepherd, and he grabs his arm and yanks him out the door.
Everyone around them is either drunk or hungry, bathed in ugly light as they run through an intersection, around a corner, down another street, before stopping in a dark alley. Shepherd breathes hard as if he has lungs or a heart or blood that needs to be oxygenated.
“Why are you helping me?” he asks Hank. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t need to stay with me.”
“What do you remember?” Hank says. “Tell me.”
“I’ve told you,” Shepherd says. “I remember a desk. I remember music. I remember that I didn’t like water. I liked to keep my feet on the ground. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“What else do you remember?” Hank says.
Shepherd looks at him. The skin under his eyes is saggy, as if he’s aged here, as if aging here were possible. But maybe it is, Hank thinks. What happens to those who never allow themselves to fully remember? There must be some who can’t move forward, like the figures in the dreams he’s inhabited, cemented in place by their own fear.
“I remember people were mad at me,” Shepherd says. “I remember something bad happened, and people said it was my fault.”
“Was it?” Hank asks.
“I don’t remember feeling sorry,” Shepherd says.
They keep running until they hit the river. Hank can feel the presence behind them, humming steadily their way. He can feel it carrying a message. The river is fast and wide.
“Can we cross it?” Shepherd asks.
“There’s no point,” Hank says. “We can’t outrun it. Where would we go?”
“An island?” Shepherd says. “I remember an island somewhere. I remember I liked the smell of suntan lotion. Like coconuts, remember?”
Shepherd grins and leaps from the bank.
Hank is surprised that his body makes a splash. The water is warm, even though he knows he can’t feel warmth. He can feel something brush against him, something heavy, and he holds tight to both Shepherd’s robe and the memory of drowning before Shepherd twists desperately away and disappears into the dark.
Hank claws the bank behind him and flings himself onto solid ground. He hasn’t made it to the other side. He stands and wrings the river from his robe. The sounds of the world around him are eclipsed by the sound of rushing water, the sound of his own undeniable death, and Hank lets all his memories rush over him, the taste of bacon and mayonnaise, a cold beer on a hot day, the feeling of sweat running down his back, the feel of his wife’s nipples in his mouth, the smell of his baby’s head, his heart racing when the dog barked at nothing in the night, his heart racing, the sound of his heart beating in his body, the sound of water, the sound of all his wrongness and forgiving, the sound of all remembering and release, all of it as the presence folds over him and over him and over him with its next message.