Stephen looked up at the man’s face–if it could be called a face. Although Stephen could discern the outline of a wirey mouth beneath a slender nose, the accompanying pair of eyes were nowhere to be found. Anyone in his right mind who thinks he is alone is naturally startled by the unanticipated discovery that he is not, particularly when it is dark outside, not to mention when it is well below freezing and snow is falling endlessly from above. On any other night, perhaps Stephen, too, would have been frightened, but not tonight. Somehow, the circumstances were too weird. It couldn’t possibly be coincidence that this man without a face now stood behind Stephen on the dock. For an instant, Stephen had the feeling that he was the hero of some great epic, or the protagonist of a tragic novel; only he realized that just as a character, however willful he may be, is powerless to contest the author’s desires, so he, too, was governed by the cold hand of fate. It was at this moment that Stephen rose to his feet.
(It may seem to the reader that these several thoughts occurred singularly in Stephen’s mind, and that he was staring blankly at the man looming darkly over him, but in reality they occurred to him concurrently. To the reader what may seem like a few minutes was only a few moments in Stephen’s mind.)
When Stephen got up, the dock groaned for the third time on that otherwise still and soundless night. Snowflakes still fell perilously, yet peacefully into the lake behind him. Stephen was preparing to ask the man why he had followed him onto the dock, when he was addressed by the mysterious other:
“You are probably wondering why I am wandering around at such a late hour of the night, but it would be just as reasonable for me to ask you the same question. The difference between us, though, is that I know why you have come here tonight. You couldn’t sleep.”
“No,” answered Stephen, his mind in a fog and his voice suddenly seeming distant, as if being channeled through a long tunnel. “I couldn’t. But how did you know?”
“I knew,” he started, “because…well, let’s just say that I knew, because it always starts this way. It’s far too complicated to get into right now, and we’d both surely freeze before I finished explaining it all. Plus, I simply don’t have the time at the moment. I have pressing matters to attend to. But Stephen…”
When he heard his name, Stephen regained his focus and returned to the present. “Yes, I understand. You can’t leave until I give it to you. It’s just that…” Stephen trailed off.
“No! That is simply out of the question,” the man insisted. “It must be done tonight. Give it to me.”
Stephen reached his hand into his coat pocket and drew out a shiny black case, the same one he had fortuitously gotten from his jeans’ pocket before leaving home. Some of its gleam was now gone, since the moon had slipped behind a cloud, though its rectangular frame could still be made out in the neon glow of the electric lights reflecting off the snow. Without any further thought and mindless of the necessary consequences, Stephen responded obediently and extended his hand. This was quite possibly the first time in Stephen’s life that he had ever complied so gracefully to a command, but as you will find out, it wasn’t the last.
The dock moaned and rocked beneath Stephen’s feet, as the other man received the case gratefully and turned to disappear into the night. Then he paused suddenly and twisted around again. “By the way, you will hear again from us soon,” the man plainly said and, almost as an afterthought, added “and tie your shoes. You wouldn’t want to trip and fall in the cold snow.” He then turned again and wandered into the falling snow.
There were many times in Stephen’s life that he thought back on this moment with mystery and awe, but at present, he stood alone contemplating nothing for at least a quarter of an hour, while he was silently shrouded in snow. Then, as if woken from a hypnotic sleep, he squatted down, tied his shoes, and mechanically marched away from the pond and onto the wintry sidewalk. The dock groaned for the fifth and final time that night, as Stephen disappeared into the distance. By this time, Stephen’s face had grown blue with the cold, and he would have enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate to warm his hands and face, but he wasn’t heading home, not yet at least. Stephen feet sank rhythmically into the freshly fallen snow. He walked as if with great purpose.