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CHAPTER 17: LAW OF LABELING
 
“People tend to believe that they understand something when they have a name for it.”
 
           
  It was fifteen minutes before the time that Carl was going to die and he had questions.
 
            Lots of them.
 
            What did it feel like to die?  Would it hurt?  Was it a comfort or a curse to know that there was some form of an afterlife?  What’ll happen once he gets there?
 
            Ten minutes.
 
            He’d said goodbye to his family, somewhat.  He told them all that he loved them and hugged and kissed everybody.  Then he came up here and locked the door.  He’ll have to do his best not to cry out, come what may.
 
            Five minutes.
 
            He was spending the last minutes of his life pacing the floor and deliberating.  Not exactly what he expected of himself. 
 
            A tap at the window startled him.  He looked to see a macaw perched on the window sill.  He knew this was the same macaw that had guided him to Jacob in the first place. 
 
            Hesitantly he opened the window and let her in. 
 
            “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” he confessed to the bird.  “But please, whatever does, look after my family.” 
 
            She tilted her head to one side, as though considering his proposal, then nodded.
 
            For the first time in a long time, Carl felt at ease.
 
            He looked to the clock....
 
            It was time.
           
            Carl laid back on the bed, resting his arms on his chest.  He was surprised, though maybe he shouldn’t be, when the macaw settled down next to him. 
 
            He stroked the bird’s soft, warm feathers, not even noticing the room getting colder or fading away.  Instead he focused on the memories he made today...
 
            Walking on the boardwalk and holding hands with Cecelia.
 
            Watching Raymond, Edmond, and Anthony splash and play in the ocean.
 
            Dragging the kids around the historic sites of NYC and taking pictures of them making funny faces. 
 
            All this and more... he had more memories than that. 
 
            He sighed.  It was getting harder to breathe.
 
            Is this what he wants? 
 
            Was he having second thoughts?
 
            Suddenly it became apparent, though he didn’t know how, that all he had to do was say “no.”
 
That’d be enough for him to stay here, in this life.
 
He opened his mouth to say it—and almost did—but then he remembered why he was doing this in the first place: Tom.
 
Tom...
 
            Tom, who never had the chance to make memories like Carl had.
 
            Tom, who, if Carl didn’t do something soon, would be less than a memory himself. 
 
            It was unfair.
 
It was unfair that he had to do this, had to decide the fates of all involved.
 
He cursed Tom for putting him in this position, then stopped.
 
If what Jacob had said was true, he’d done this to Tom at some point in time too.
 
How long will this go on?
 
The thought had so much resonance that he wasn’t sure who it belonged to.
 
 
 
A small sob interrupted the story and broke the intensity.
 
“Nita, you okay?”  Tom asked concerned, finding and handing her a Kleenex. 
 
She wiped her tears off on her sweater first before accepting a tissue to finish the job.  
 
“It’s not fair!” she sniffled, blowing her nose and finding her hands in her lap to be far more interesting than usual. 
 
She didn’t dare look up. 
 
She was afraid to—afraid to face these men who had gone through such hardships.  Afraid they’d see her pity.  Afraid they’d see her sorrow. 
 
“Nita...”  Tom began gently, “Would you like to stop?” 
 
“No!”  She all but shouted, glancing up accidentally. 
 
She met Tom’s gaze and couldn’t turn away. 
 
Tom’s expression was one of understanding and compassion.
 
Why had she expected anything else?
 
Nita suddenly remembered every encounter she had with the Senior.  How much he’d made her smile, encouraged her, gently rebuked her, how he was a pillar of strength when her mom...
 
She couldn’t imagine a world without him.   
 
Yet there had been one. 
 
And that it was up to Carl to make that choice... 
 
She wanted to cry even harder but instead, taking a deep breath to calm herself, she managed a watery smile for the older men in the room. 
 
“Please,” she beseeched them as intelligibly as possible.  “What happens next?  I have to know now... I need to know what happened!” 
 
Carl cleared his throat, sounding hoarse when he did talk.
 
“Very well...” he rasped, and began anew.
 
­
 
            In the beginning, dying wasn’t as horrible as Carl thought it would be.
 
            It was an awful experience, yes, but it was in fact relatively painless.
 
Initially he just lost feeling in his toes; could no longer wiggle them.  Then a tingling sensation started within his feet and spread so they froze up too.  Gradually his legs felt like lead.  It seemed like something was taking over his body, working its way up little by little from the bottom of his spine.   
 
Finally, he could no longer feel his lower body at all.
 
Carl admitted it then, he was scared...
 
Whatever Death was, he swore he finally felt its chill devouring his body.
 
Soon, he’d be completely paralyzed.
 
            And therefore at the mercy of the man who had appeared in his room without warning.
 
            If It was even a man at all...
 
            Fiery red hair adorned his head.  Eyes shone like black opals.  And on his lips played a smirk, one of triumph.
 
            The macaw started hissing.
           
            “Relax Carl, you’re safe,” the stranger said, ignoring the bird, “I’m going to take good care of you...  After all I am a doctor.”      
           
And instinctively, Carl knew that every word He spoke was a lie.
 
            His fingertips started prickling like stabs from a needle.
 
            Carl wanted to cry out but was immediately reminded of Tom and how it was possible that one word could keep him in this reality. 
 
            So he just settled with glaring defiantly. 
 
            The Not-Man shook His head, smirk firmly in place.   
 
            “Ah Carl, why didn’t you heed my warning?  Whatever am I going to do with you now?”
 
            The smirk turned upwards into itself then twisted into a malevolent grin.
 
            “I haven’t decided yet actually.  You see, death is my territory.  You may have eluded me once but you’re mine now.”
 
            Carl swallowed hard, the motion painful against his raw throat.
 
Jacob, help me!
 
And with that mental plea, the macaw took flight.
 
She flew with a speed and precision that Carl didn’t know any animal possessed: she pecked at the eyes, pulled out great chunks of His hair, and left long scrapes down His arms with her talons. 
 
The way she fought, Carl could have sworn she was a phoenix instead of just an ordinary house pet...
 
But then again, had this remarkable macaw ever been just any bird?
 
Somehow Carl doubted it.
 
He didn’t know what to do.  He was trapped there, unable to do anything more than watch the battle unfold.  The macaw seemed to be winning but Carl knew it was only a matter of time before the tables were turned.  A bird, even one as brilliant as she, could not beat a human...
 
...or whatever He was.
 
Jacob, do something, please!  Carl pled.
 
Lie back down, Carl, came Jacob’s response. 
 
Or at least he thought it was Jacob.  It was getting harder and harder to distinguish between Jacob’s voice and his own inner thoughts.
 
Still, he didn’t have the time to dwell on what that meant. 
 
            Good Carl, just close your eyes and try to remember that this won’t last forever.
 
            Jacob...what?!
 
            Powerless, that was Carl.  He had no choice then.
 
            Well, that wasn’t entirely correct...
 
            But was giving up on Tom even a possibility anymore?
 
            Had it ever been?
           
            Ok...
 
            So he did as he was told...
 
            And instantly regretted it.
 
            Pain. 
 
Pain.          
 
Pain.
 
Pain that seemed to go on forever.
 
There were no words to describe the agony he was in.  And even if there were, he wasn’t aware of them.  He had lost his mind long ago to the suffering...
 
            But somehow, miraculously, he didn’t cry out. 
 
            Where that strength had come from he wasn’t sure.
 
            There seemed to be no end to the torment.  Carl tried to recall the words of Jacob, that this all will pass, but he’s not so sure of them anymore.
 
            Every cell in his body was screaming.  The pain had started off from his fingertips and had quickly spread throughout, encompassing his whole world
 
            Then, as suddenly as the pain had reached its peak, it stopped.
 
Every organ stilled.
 
Except for one...
 
His heart.
 
It was the center of his heart that was on fire.          
 
            Then there was a roaring sound and he felt a falling sensation as he heard the last beats of his heart slow down and eventually die off.
 
            He barely heard the enraged scream.
 
            There was darkness that consumed him and he seemed to be floating within it forever.  But a white light did pierce the black as it came racing towards him, reaching out and wrapping around him, surrounding him like the comfort of a warm blanket.  His soul, or whatever was left of him, surrendered to that light.