Deathlight

I first saw the light when I was 6, when we were gathered around my 98-year-old grandmother’s bed in the nursing home, surrounded by stale air and signs of old age. It appeared above her head and danced ever so slightly back and forth, like a tiny firefly.

“Do you see that?” I asked my kid brother, Jamie. Mother was holding Grandma’s hand. Dad was crying.

“See what?” Jamie said. Then Grandma let out one final sound and left us forever.

That was when I first knew I was special.

I’ve seen the light many times over my life since then, always appearing just before. I saw a dot of illumination right above Tommy Conway in 8th Grade, right before he got hit by a speeding car as we walked home from school. I shouted but I was too late. My parents said it was a miracle I survived.

I saw the light over and over in Afghanistan; above a new kid’s head right before he took a bullet from a sniper, hovering over Lt. Austin’s helmet while he tried to defuse an IED – my right ear still rings with tinnitus from time to time, above countless men on the other side before I watched them shot dead or blown into millions of pieces.

I’ve retired now, after all that happened, gone back into civilian work but a line no less dangerous. Some of it’s easy and safe, and some of it isn’t, but either way it’s never simple.

Brink and I are standing next to my car in an empty parking lot, the meeting point. One lonely streetlight far away casts the only brightness in a sea of black. He’s a little shaky – the men we’re to meet were said to have Cartel ties.

A Hummer pulls into the lot from the other end, loud rap music blaring out of open windows.

“You ready?” I say.

“Yeah,” says Brink.

I look down at my hands, and see they are shaking too – and faintly illuminated in the darkness with a dancing light from above.

Dr. Death

They call me Dr. Death.

I offer a service, as discreetly and humanely and as painlessly as possible, to shuffle those off this mortal coil who cannot do the shuffling on their own. Those who are broken. Those who are beaten. Those who are so tired but cannot bring themselves fall asleep.

Do no harm, the oath says; but who’s to say that if someone is suffering, really, truly suffering, that the act of putting them out of their misery is doing more harm than good? That ending a life cannot be a benevolent act? An act of healing? An act of righteousness?

I am bound to a chair. There is blood everywhere on the floor beneath me. I’d never have thought a person could bleed so much and still be alive.

“I’m not afraid to die,” I say once more to my captor. The words come out slowly and quietly, choked whispers. I’m gasping for air again and I don’t recognize my own voice. “I’ve seen hundreds of others do it. I’m not afraid…”

“You killed her!” he screams, for what seems like the thousandth time. The bloody straight razor hangs from his hand at his side. He is covered in my blood. My vision is blurring and I can’t see his face anymore. His voice sounds garbled and distorted. “You took her away from me!”

“She wanted to die…” I gasp weakly. “She asked me to do it…”

My vision is fading. This is it. I feel myself slipping away. And then, far off, a pin prick in my arm, again. He’s stabbed another needle into me and is pushing the plunger.

He draws his face close to mine and I see it clearly now. He is grinning wickedly.

“Not yet,” he says. “Not yet.”

They call me Dr. Death. What I’d give now for my own medicine.

The Collections Men

No one knows who first started saying it, but now we all say it. We all say it because it’s the best thing you can say to let them know that something’s different, that something’s fundamentally changed, and for them to stop a take a beat. Which, of course, is exactly what they need to do.

You see, they’re always surprised to see us when we turn up. To learn that there is no Grim Reaper; just us suits, us mortals working our day jobs, day-in, day-out. I guess it all really is kind of strange, when I stop to think about it. But in the short time we’re talking I don’t really have time to get into how I became a suit, or about Hell Inc., or why He decided they should outsource their collections back to our mortal plane, and insisted on such secrecy around it.

Derek had to explain to me my first week on the job, you see, that they don’t remember. Even if they die in some horrific fashion, like getting crushed by a falling scaffold or blown away by a policeman’s shotgun or even doing the job themselves with a bathtub and razor blade, they never remember. They just wake up, confused and unharmed, with us suits staring back at them and then we say it. It’s the worst for the ones who die in their sleep, when they wake up and think it’s just a regular morning, and we’re there to tell them they’re going to Hell. And that there is no Heaven. But we don’t really have time to get into that either.

“I’m beat,” I said to Derek, “I’m going to call it a night.”

“Sure man,” he said, watching a cop car scream by with sirens flashing. “I’ll get the last one. Cya tomorrow.”

“Cya.” I went home and collapsed into bed. I didn’t even bother take off my suit.

When I woke up Derek was there in the house waiting for me, sitting in the chair in the living room, cigarette in hand, its long plume rising toward the ceiling.

“What’s up?” I said. “Another early start, or some fire to put out?”

Derek turned toward me with a look in his eyes I’d never seen before.

“Please, just take a moment.”

Mother

It was dark all around me and smelled of death.

I stumbled through the blackness, clumsy, lost, disoriented, reaching out in front of me for something, anything, to support me in my fumbling through the void. The cold of the stone walls around me greeted my reaching hands, and I continued forward, feeling my way along them.

My eyes adjusted to the dimness, and I saw the lumpy gray rock sheets enclosing me, and between them ahead, a black hole leading into the nothingness, beckoning me. From the hole a figure emerged, a small silhouette. As it came closer I saw it was that of an old woman in a dress.

As she drew nearer I saw that there was something wrong – just wrong – with her. Even in the blackness I could see her face was discolored and bloated. Red blood showed through in places where the skin was torn away, and her eyes were gone: there were only vacant black pits staring out at me.

It was my mother.

“You left me son,” she said in her feeble voice. I smelled the cigarette smoke on her breath, just like I had when I was child. “You left me to die in that home. Why didn’t you take care of me? Why didn’t you tell me you loved me before I turned into this? Before it was too late?”

“I’m sorry!” I called out to her, but my words were broken somehow, muffled like I was underwater, like I was smothered beneath a thick blanket. I called out again and again, but I knew she could not hear me.

“Why son? Why…?” Her voice grew more and more feeble. She began to fade into the blackness just as she’d emerged from it. “Now I’m doomed to wander here forever. Forever. Just as you are.”

“No! No!” I screamed, but my words were even more distorted than before. And then I felt myself falling, and the blackness closing in, heavy and thick and full of malice, and mother was gone.

I awoke covered in sweat, and rose from bed and put on my black suit. I gathered the crumpled pages I’d written the night before from the bedside table, from their place next to the empty glass.

The funeral was at 11. I couldn’t be late. Mother would have disapproved.

Anno Tenebri

The sand was hot, and the merciless sun beat down without remorse upon the New Mexico desert.

The Man walked, plodding along slowly and methodically, seemingly unaware of the sun’s rays beating down upon his naked back, and the sweltering heat of the air. He rounded the top of the dune and came down the other side. Finally after days of walking, he had reached some sign of civilization. A dirt road broke up the wild landscape, winding in amongst some cactii, and a dilapidated old house of crumbling adobe sat next to one of its bends.

The Man reached the porch of the building. An old Mexican sat in a rocking chair, taking shelter from the sun beneath the shade of the veranda, and the brim of a straw hat which sat upon his head.

“Senor,” he said. “Did you walk here in this heat from the sands of the desert? That’s loco, senor. A man could die out there today.”

The Man said nothing, just came over to the rocking chair and bent down. The other watched in fear, transfixed, as he reached out his arm – his dry, pale arm, without a drop of sweat upon it – and placed his hand on the old man’s chest, above his heart.

No memories came flooding back, there was no bright light, no feeling of elation or hope; only darkness. The Mexican’s eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed back into the wooden embrace of the old chair.

The Man stood, and turned. He made his way back out to the road, and began following it to the capital.

That Evening in the Restaurant

“It really does have atmosphere,” Cynthia Cruthers said, sipping her wine. “I can see what all the fuss is about.”

“Yes, I’m glad we finally got a chance to make it here,” Reginald, her husband of twenty years, replied. “It really is delectable. All the reviews I’ve read of the place just simply haven’t done it justice.”

“Yes, yes,” Francis said. Francis was a movie critic, and had joined the Cruthers only because they were the only way he’d ever get to eat at Le Chez des Desiree, given how new and trendy a restaurant it was.

Suddenly the garçon appeared, coming over while Reginald was in mid-sip of his chardonnay. He brought the tray, with one crisp white envelope upon it, sitting quite unnaturally in the center of the brown circular piece of plastic.

“Madames et Monsieurs,” he said, in an affected French accent. “This came for you.”

“Pardon mois?” Reginald replied, in an equally appalling fake French accent. “Mail? In a restaurant? How deliciously absurd! How could this be for us? Surely no one knows we are here?”

“Mais non, Monsieur,” said the garçon, continuing in the absurdity, “it is addressed to you and your wife. See,” he said, holding the envelope up to face them. “Le party Cruthers. C’est tu.”

“C’est vrai,” Mr. Cruthers replied, sighing.

“Knock it off, Reggie,” Mrs. Cruthers replied harshly. “Let’s see what’s in that envelope already. And garçon, bring me more of this pigswill you call wine.”

The garçon fumed and flushed a shade of bright red. “Right away, Madame,” he said, and turned, the coattails of his white tuxedo fluttering behind him. As he entered the kitchen he uttered a string of profanities reserved for Mrs. Cruthers and Mrs. Cruthers alone, mostly starting with the letter ‘c’.

“Open it, already, Reginald!” Francis said, lighting his pipe. “Whatever could it be? How unconventional, receiving mail in a restaurant while dining out, well I never!” He puffed and puffed.

Reginald Cruthers tore open the package as his fellow diners sat around him with expectation. Finally, the last bits of white envelope and came off to reveal…. a phone. A flat, candybar cell phone, the old kind that no one carried anymore these days and no one had for many years.

“How odd,” Reginald’s wife said. “Reggie, what is this? What does it mean?”

Suddenly, the phone rang loudly, its digital ringtone both oppressive and antiquated. Other patrons in the restaurant stared. A woman dropped her spoon back into her pea soup.

Reginald answered. “Hello?” he said, not knowing quite what to expect.

The voice on the other end of the line was cold and lifeless, and the words chilled Cruthers to the bone when he heard them.

“Reginald Cruthers,” the voice said, “in three days, you will die.”

Then there was the only the sound of the phone being hung up on the other end of the receiver, and the cold, heartless drone of its dial tone.

We’ll Meet Again

I saw him as soon as I came in the door. He sat at the bar, his arm bent at the elbow, clutching his cheap Mexican beer, staring up over the bottles of spirits behind the bartender to the glowing television screen above.

It was when I saw the tattoo that my body screamed for me to turn and I run. In that horrifying split-second I imagined that this is how a deer in the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck must feel; terrified but immobilized, knowing that something horrible is coming and coming fast but unable to move or resist or change the inevitable doom barrelling down upon it.

He turned to face me, slowly, so slowly, and the recognition washed over his face even slower than he’d turned. It was like he was expecting me. Slowly he stood, his giant swarthy form commanding the space around the bar stool. I was petrified. My heart screamed for my body to run but my legs were jelly.

When he looked into my eyes it all came flooding back: I saw the green leaves of the tall trees swaying in the humid jungle breeze, the angry cries of men beneath the din of automatic rifle fire, the explosions, the limbs flying clouds of power and dirt and gore, and the blood. Oh God, the blood. And I saw him floating above it all, not as he was now but as when he’d been then with that long black cloak flowing downward, untouched and unaffected by the bullets whizzing through the air, and his face a bleached skull of death, and his bony fingers outstretched, his hand pointing down from up above in that cloud of smoke. At me. Letting me know he was coming for me.

He smiled a wicked smile, showing all his teeth. “It’s been a long time, but we both knew this day would come,” he said. “Sit down, and share one last drink with me.”

I could only obey.