|Hank and John :D|
Ok, moving on. I wrote this story to enter a magazine, but it didn't get selected so I'll post it here. Enjoy :)
The first time I saw Death was in an auction room, above the town hall. It was the summer of 1897 and I was only eight. I was sitting in my seat, my eyes lowered and my legs swinging. Father sat beside me. His back was pressed flat on the chair and his fingers played with the pocket watch that hung from his coat. The auctioneer called something out, and men started shouting numbers at him, 1’s and 5’s flying through the air like knives. It made no sense to me - the man might as well have been speaking German. I sighed under my breath and let my eyes wander round the room. Sunlight dappled the wooden floorboards and illuminated the beige walls. Hats bobbed up and down in the sea of people that sat behind me and hands soared into the air, holding cards, crumpled and worn with age. I turned my head and that was when I saw him. Death.
He was standing at the side, leaning against the wall, his head bent into the shadows. He looked normal - like a man - but he was rough, and his face was gaunt and pale in the afternoon sun. Blue veins criss-crossed his cheek in an intricate pattern, like a seamstress had taken a thread and sewn him up, a fruitless attempt to make him beautiful. He was wearing a pinstripe black suit on his top half, held into his flat stomach with a matching waistcoat. Black trousers covered his scrawny legs, and there was a hat perched on his head, covering a mass of lank, black hair. One of his hands was hidden in his jacket pocket, but I could see it moving, jerking, caught in-between reality and fantasy. In the other he held a playing card - the Ace of Spades. He rippled it over his skinny fingers and smiled. I still remember that smile. It sent a ripple of heat down your body, scorching hot fire that shot through your spine and down your feet. It was horrible.
Death played with his card for another minute and then he placed it in his jacket. His smile had long since vanished and had been replaced by long thin ribbons of pink flesh that could barely be called lips. My eyes were drawn to them - they were unnatural. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have stared, as a moment later, he whipped round and trapped my eyes in his own. They burned like fire, only a thousand degrees hotter. There were an ordinary brown, but flickers of red jumped and sparked through them. They bored into your soul. I wanted to turn away but couldn’t. I heard voices around me, but they were barely audible.
Death smiled again, and turned away. I was released from their grasp and I hurriedly turned back to my Father. I tugged on his sleeve. “There’s a man over there and he, he’s-”
Father glared at me and shook my arm off. I slumped back in my seat and frowned. I could see why he was annoyed. He was here on work, and he’d made me promise to stay quiet. Even so, he could have at least looked at the man. I turned to face the wall again. Death was gone, but then I almost expected that. He seemed like the person who wouldn’t linger in a boring situation. I took one final scan of the room, and then turned back to the front. The auctioneer was still droning on and on, in a single monotone voice, telling the audience about the fascinating potato peeler for sale. I sat back in my seat and frowned. Death was already leaving my mind, to be replaced by a fantasy. That was how it should have been. But things never work out the way they’re meant to, do they?
The next time I saw Death was that night, after the auction was over and I had been dragged back to the house by Father. I was lying in my bed, staring at the ceiling. The night was as black as soot, and just as filthy. It clouded my lungs and stifled my breathing. I hated the dark. You never knew what could be lurking round corners, under beds, waiting to pounce...
I jumped and grasped my covers tightly. I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. I tried a second and this time my voice echoed through the room.
“Just little old me, kiddo.” There was a flash, and an orb flew out in the darkness, lighting my room. It was odd though, I remember thinking that. The orb was bright, blinding even, but it was as dark as coal, and metallic. It hovered above my bed for a moment before shooting upwards, towards the ceiling.
“Don’t worry. Only me and you can see the light. Old daddio can’t see anything.”
The voice was American. He sounded like the cowboys Father told me about in his stories. There was a clunk on the floor and the figure stepped forward. I knew it was Death before he revealed himself, but now there was no going back. No hope that it was Santa, or just a stranger.
“W-why are you here?” I stuttered as Death walked towards me. He was dressed as he was before but his hand was empty.
“I have some business to attend to. That and I’m curious. What’s your name?”
“James. James Warren.”
“And you can see me?”
I nodded and pulled the covers closer to my chest. Death had stopped walking towards me, but I could smell his breath, rancid and rotten as it wafted into my nostrils. I fought back the urge to gag and instead breathed through my mouth.
“I can see you, Sir. Should I not be able to?”
Death smiled and crouched down beside me. “No, son, you shouldn’t.” His eyes swept over my face, inspecting it. “You don’t seem special.” I nodded, unsure whether to be flattered or insulted. There was still a question pressing in my mind, bursting and screaming to get out.
“Sir?” Death glanced up, but didn’t look me in the eye. “Why were you at the auction today?”
Death froze and then stood up. “That is private business, kiddo. Now, you don’t happen to be related to Johnny Warren, do you?”
I paused and then shook my head. Death sighed and shoved one of his bony hands in his pocket. “Shame. I need to talk to that guy. Owes me some money.” He smiled and then brought his hand out of his pocket. He was holding his Ace of Spades card.
“Look here buddy.” He leaned close into my face and waggled the card in my nose. “You want this?”
I stared at the card. It looked normal, bar a tiny red spot just above the ace. I took a deep breath, “Yes please, Sir.”
Death smiled. “Alright then. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you my card,” he flipped it onto his other hand with a flourish, “if you show me your...left arm. Deal?” I nodded vigorously. Death’s card for a glimpse of my left arm? That wasn’t a deal - it was a rip-off, leaning heavily in my favour.
“Fine then.” Death handed the card to me, placing it in my fingers. They looked so pink and fat compared to his limp, dry, scaly ones. He withdrew his hand and smiled. A flash of heat burned up my spine but I was too busy examining the card to notice it. I flipped the card over, felt it, touched and traced each line on it. I was holding Death’s card. Death’s card! I grinned. Father would go crazy if he knew.
“Right. Let’s see that arm, kiddo.” I glanced up and blinked.
“Oh.” I dropped the card into my lap and pulled up the sleeve of my pyjama top. It was too big for me, so I rolled it up to my shoulder, so it wouldn’t fall down on Death’s unsuspecting hand. “There you are, Sir.”
Death grabbed my arm and pulled it closer to his face. His eyes moved over it, inspecting it. His eyes lingered on my wrist, and he glanced up at me. “Have you always had this?”
I looked down to where he was pointing. My birthmark. It was small and red, like the blood had somehow leaked out my veins and into my skin. It was shaped like a crudely drawn Ace. “The birthmark? Yes, Sir. Since the day I was born.”
Death furrowed his brow and traced the sign with his finger. “Interesting...What has your daddy said about it?”
“Nothing, Sir. I showed him it once, but he said he couldn’t see it.”
Death nodded and glanced back down at my wrist. He peered at it for a moment and then let my hand flop onto the bed. He stood up and held out his hand.
“Kid, I’m sorry to do this but I need that card back.”
I frowned and grasped the card in my hand. “You gave it to me. We had a deal.”
“Look, I know, son, but I need that card back. Now.”
I glared at Death. “NO.”
Death frowned and squatted on the floor. “Look, James. If you don’t give me that card, a lot of bad shit is going to happen. Give me it now, please, or I swear I will find your Grandma and strike her dead! Now, give it to me!”
My hand twitched. I didn’t want Granny to die, but he had given me his card as part of a deal. I stopped frowning and instead crossed my arms.
“Why do you want it?”
Death tensed and sighed. “That birthmark, son, ain’t a good sign. You hear me? Not. Good.”
Death paused for a second, and then pulled up his sleeve. “There. Look.” I leaned over his arm. It stank of rancid meat, and it was mottled with spots and grime, but there was no mistaking it. An Ace, settled just below his elbow. “You see it?”
I sat back in my bed and nodded. Death had the same birthmark as me. As weird as it sounds, it didn’t bother me. It was just a coincidence.
“Son, this might not make sense now, but you have to listen to me real careful. Ok?” Death pulled his sleeve back down and took a deep breath. “That birthmark tells me something, something that you don’t know about. Only you and I can see it - well, me and every other Death that came before me.” He crammed his hands in his pocket. “You, son, are the next Death.”
A gasp escaped my throat before it was seized by Death’s iron grip. “Look, kiddo, daddy might not be able to see me, but he can hear you. I’ll explain all in a moment. So, don’t scream...” He loosened his grip and I gasped for air. Whether it was because I had just been choked or whether it was shock, I didn’t know.
“Me? Death?” My mind swam. I couldn’t be Death. I was eight. I wasn’t sadistic or evil, or greedy. I was, I was...
“Son, I know you’re just a boy and I know you’re shocked, but hear me out, alright. Once every century, a boy is chosen in the world. It doesn’t matter where he’s from, and he’s chosen at random. That boy is marked with the Ace - the death card symbol. I have one, and the Death before me had one. When we’re sixteen, our parents...well, they pass on and we are greeted by Death, who recognises us by the Ace. Only Deaths can see other Deaths, which explains why your daddy didn’t see me in the auction house. Anyway, we are taken in and trained for a year, and then the old Death dies, and he is replaced by the new one. We ain’t evil, son. We were just chosen to ensure life can flourish.”
He paused and looked at my puzzled face. “You don’t get it? Ok, so if everyone in the world live to say, seventy, who will make new babies? Who will plough the land, feed the sheep, harvest the grain? Who will work the clocks in the station? You see, son? Death has to exist for the world to go on. Death ahs to exist so young people can replace the old.” He smiled and stood up. “The reason you can’t have that card is that, well we use it to carry people to the other side. If you get my gist. In the hands of a normal man it is useless, but if Death touches someone with it, they drop down dead.”
I stared at the card in my lap. It seemed poisonous now, deadly. I picked it up and chucked it on the floor.
Death laughed. “Relax, James. The card, the invisibility, they don’t work until I die and Death dies when he is one hundred. No sooner, no later. And we look pretty good too. Me, I’m 91. Another,” he paused for a moment, his eyes narrowed in concentration, “nine years, and I’ll be gone. And you’ll take my place. You’ll get your own death card then.” He smiled and placed a hand on my shoulder. It sent a shiver through my spine.
“Look, kiddo. I know how you feel. I’ve been here as well, you remember.” I was shaking all over, my body pricked with icicles and candles at the same time. I was Death, Father was going to die in eight years, I would live for one hundred years, and I had no control over anything. Fear and sadness and anger welled and
flowed through my veins. Scared one second, sad the next.
“W-why?” I was suddenly aware that tears were streaming down my cheeks.
Death sighed and turned away. “Why, bud? I have no idea. I could tell you about luck and chance and a million other things, but that’s just rubbish. I have no idea why. Anyway, I’ll see you again in eight years, kiddo. Enjoy your life. In this job, you don’t get a break.” He clicked his fingers and the card flew into his empty hand. He shoved it in his pocket, and then clicked his fingers again. This time, the orb came down and caved in on itself, leaving darkness where there once was light.
“See ya, kiddo.” I blinked and when I looked back, Death was gone.