WRB_Feature

“He Kindly Stopped for Me”
excerpted from What Rough Beasts

After closing the pub, I lay awake in my loft above the bar. I used to own a three-bedroom home but after my ex pureed my heart in her Quisinart, I sold it and holed up at the bar. Houses are for happy couples with three point two kids.

Not that I’m bitter or anything, but all a bachelor needs is a pillow for his head, a pot to piss in, and a place for his dogs to run. My pub is tucked away from the beaten path so there’s plenty of room out back for Rex and Bear to charge about while Scamper, who no longer scampers much, looks on.

I thought a long time, there in my loft, with Rex and Bear on their blankets and old Scamper curled at my feet.

Death had paid me a visit!

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…

Why, I wondered. Why had he walked into mine?

It suddenly became clear: it was the sign out front. Old stories claimed supernatural beings awaited an invitation before stepping over the threshold of somebody’s home. Well, my place had a standing invitation right on the front door. As a result, it seemed, I had befriended Death. A curious thing, and probably quite an honor.

Yet I am human, fraught with human frailties, and soon my mind was playing with ways to take advantage of this friendship.

A nasty thing to do, but then again I had recently gotten a nasty little wake-up call. A couple months before Death made his appearance, Gary had to rush me to the emergency room. I had just stepped behind the bar to fill some drink orders when my throat closed up and suddenly I was struggling to draw air in through a pinhole.

The ER staff pumped me full of adrenaline. My heart started pounding along like a charging rhino, but at least I was able to breathe. The medical staff chalked it up to unknown allergies. What the hell that was supposed to mean was anybody’s guess. It didn’t make sense. My body just suddenly turned against me and I was never able to find out why. “Sometimes it just happens that way,” the attending physician said. She prescribed an epinephrine injector, so that if it ever happened again, I could jab the needle in my leg and shoot myself full of adrenaline.

Then, if my heart didn’t explode, I might survive. My auto-injector became like American Express: I didn’t leave home without it.

Since that day, I started hearing this strange sound at my back. Hmm, what could it be? Oh yeah: time’s wing’d chariot, hurrying near.

I wondered if it would be possible to cheat Death, side step this little “unknown allergy,” and just keep living and living and living. Millions must have already tried to pull one over on the old reaper. Again, I thought about tales I had heard about Death. None of them ended with “happily ever after.”

I felt ashamed. Not for wanting to live forever, but for the idea of betraying a new friend. I mean, a lover will stab you in the back and rip out your heart in a hot second, that’s expected. Friends should treat each other better. That’s what my pub was all about: a place where friends meet and treat each other with respect.

That got me to thinking about what would happen to my pub after I died, and who I should will it to, and would the new owner “modernize” it and take down my sign. I never wanted my pub to change, and if I had to live forever to make sure of it, then so be it. Again, I found myself scheming.
BreakI told myself I wouldn’t try to trick Death. Would it hurt to simply ask him to erase my name from his appointment book? Aw, hell, that seemed wrong, too. He had come to my pub to take a break from it all, not to be nagged. I almost wished he wouldn’t show up again. But he did.

WRB_sideThe pub was fairly crowded and the table near Starry Night was vacant, as if reserved. He took his seat. I brought him a Club Soda and a world famous olive burger with fries. He motioned for me to join him. I sat and let him talk. He spoke of the castles in Scotland and how beautiful Ireland is, then somehow segued into the subject of bungee-jumping: “I’m sorry, but if you jump off a tower tied to a rubber band, well, you might just as well have me on speed-dial. But once again, I digress. You can tell me to shut up. I never let you get a word in edgewise.”

I wouldn’t dream of telling Death to shut up. “Would it be okay if I asked you a question?”

“You just did,” Death said, with a quirky smile. Such a smartass. “Say what’s on your mind, Gordon.”

“I was just wondering—”

“Hmmm?”

“If anybody was dying. I mean now, right this instant.”

“Probably,” said Death. “Somebody always seems to be cashing out. Don’t you read the news?”

“Then where do you come in? I mean, don’t you, go—to them when—?”

Death grinned and there was something in that smile that told me I was asking just the questions he wanted me to ask, that while I planned to pull one over on him, he was setting a trap for me.

“I will be there for them. For every single one of them. There could be a hundred people, a thousand people, dying right now. I’ll be with all of them.”

“But you’re here, now.”

“Yes,” he said, and his smile grew wider, sepulchral even in my inflamed imagination. “I had to stop for a quick bite before getting back to work.” He polished off the last of the burger and fries.

“But—but—”

“My friend, you have an awfully narrow viewpoint. It’s time we expand your horizons.”

He stood, reached down, and took hold of my arm. Electrical energy surged through my body. I think I let out a girlish little scream. Was this a business call for Death? Was it my time? He was taking me away! I tried to wrench myself free but he had a solid hold. I groped for my epinephrine injector.

“Be still, it’s not what you think,” he said, his voice like a summer breeze. “We’re just going for a little trip, nothing more.”

“Trip?! Trip where?”

“You asked some questions. I’m taking you to the answers.”

Then he yanked me through a hole in the world that only opens for Death.BreakWe emerged in his house, little more than a wooden framework squatting alone in a vast wheat field. Another bachelor dwelling. Yeah, I could relate.

“Is there a Lady Death?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“She died.”

It was night. Death said that it was always night here. He cooked on a cast iron woodstove and carried water up from a stream.

“That’s not very convenient,” I remarked, pointing to the water bucket.

“I’m in no hurry. Time doesn’t matter here. Nor space. Come, I’ll show you.”

We stepped outside and into the field. Pinpoints of light surrounded us. “Since the normal laws of time and space don’t exist here, we can wind up anywhere or any when. So if you’re expecting a guided tour, you’re in for a surprise. I never know what to expect myself.”

I tried to tell him that he had already answered my questions just fine, that I didn’t need a tour or a surprise.

Death only chuckled, grabbed hold of my arm, and half dragged me to a point of light. “Hang on!”

We stepped into a burned, ravaged town exploding with guerrilla warfare. Infantry soldiers in full body armor fired weapons that emitted devastating pulses of plasma energy. I was in the midst of it, in the flesh! It would be one thing if Death had brought me along in non-corporeal form but I was actually there. I guess he wanted me to get the full effect, which I did.

I ran, dove, and scrambled for cover. I shook with the impact pressure of nearby plasma charges. My nostrils sucked in the stench of sulfur, sweat, fear, and blood. Artillery rounds plummeted in a lethal hail all around me.

Nobody seemed to notice me. Maybe I was invisible to everyone, but I could still bite the Big One in the crossfire. Soldiers charged, shouted orders, cursed and prayed and screamed and cried. An infantryman was hit and I saw his armor melt into flesh.

I looked about for Death. I wasn’t the only one searching for him. One infantryman, mangled and burned almost to a crisp, reached out for Death, screaming, “Come back here you bloody bastard, you.”

Death strode back across the devastated landscape and beckoned me to follow. I scrambled after him and we returned to the field where it was always night.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” I asked.

“You want to live forever?” Death flashed that quirky, maddening smile and pushed me into another light.

We emerged into the bedroom of a young girl. She must have been eight or nine, sitting wide awake in bed, holding a Winnie-the-Pooh. I wondered what we were doing there. My heart jack hammered from the mad dash through a war zone moments before. I stayed as still and quiet as I could.

The girl told Pooh Bear a story: “Once upon a time there lived a terrible dragon, but he wasn’t really terrible, just terribly misunderstood. But everyone thought he was terrible because he was so big and he breathed fire, but he couldn’t help but breathe fire, and sometimes he set things on fire without meaning to. Then one day—”

“Go on, Cindy,” said Death, kneeling by her side.

I recognized the fear that flashed across Cindy’s face. When I first met Death the day before, I could barely speak, but Cindy was braver than me and went on with her tale in a strong voice: “One day the king’s army came to slay the dragon. The dragon started to cry and when the army general asked him why he was crying, the dragon said, ‘because you want to kill me.’ The general felt really bad so he left the dragon alone and led his army back to the castle and took all the soldiers out for ice cream. After that the dragon lived a long, long time but when he was very old Death came to visit him and the dragon was afraid.”

“Why was he afraid?” Death asked.

Cindy rolled her eyes. “Because he was a big baby!”

Death smiled at her. “Are you afraid of me?”

“No! Did you come to hear my story?”

“No, sweetheart, I’m afraid not, but it was a wonderful tale nonetheless.”

“Well, duh!”

“It’s time to go now, Cindy.”

“But I’m not even sick!”

“I’m sorry. Sometimes it just happens that way.”

I thought back to my little ER trip. The attending physician had told me the same thing, concerning my “unknown” allergic reaction: sometimes it just happens that way.

“Wait, wait, wait!” cried Cindy. “Listen, I’ll tell you another story and if you like it, you let me stay.”

“Sorry, Scheherazade, no can-do.”

Now Cindy was shaking and had Pooh in a stranglehold. When Death reached for her, she set Pooh on the bed and, crying, took his hand. I stood there wishing I were back on the battlefield or anywhere but here.

“Where am I going?”

“Home, sweetheart. You’re going home.”

“Can I take Pooh?”

Death shook his head no. “Goodnight,” he whispered, and her head fell back on the pillow.

I followed Death back to the field. My guts convulsed and I spewed breakfast, lunch, and supper out on the ground. Still bent over, I informed Death that I had plenty of adventure for one night, thank-you-very-much.

“Oh, but we’re just getting started.”

“Why’d you have to take her?” I screamed. “She was just a little girl, what the hell is wrong with you? She was fine.”

“I don’t decide who lives and who dies.”

“But you’re Death, damnit. If you don’t decide, who the fuck does?”

“I don’t know,” he said, with a shrug. “Wipe your face.”

“You don’t know who decides?”

“I never met my boss. At least, not face to face.”

Death actually enjoyed himself. Scratch that: he seemed positively gleeful.

“Ready, set, go.”

We stepped onto the shoulder of a freeway at mid-day. After my eyes adjusted to the light, I beheld an absolutely horrendous traffic mishap, one of those nasty chain-reaction pileups that seem to just go on forever.

Death set about his work, never hurrying, but also never pausing. He walked among the world of mortals like a tourist strolling through Bali.

He whispered to an unfortunate young man who had overdosed on heroine, “I’m sorry, friend, you made a mistake.”

He visited a bedridden old woman who said, “Well, just where the hell have you been, stranger?” She kissed Death’s cheek and slipped away with a smile.

I watched as Death stood on a street corner and placed his hand on a businessman’s left shoulder. The man looked more puzzled than frightened as he dropped.

On another street, Death delivered a woman from the horror of a knife attack. He spit on the assailant as he ran off with her purse in hand.

Death walked by a bedroom window and, as his shadow passed, a woman cried out.

I stood outside on a crisp winter’s evening while Death marched through the flames of a burning house to rescue a family of three: Mother, Father, young boy. “Fire bothers me,” he said after that, and we finally called it a night.

Download the full collection from Amazon.com

What Rough Beasts
Seth Chambers
Isotropic Fiction (August 2013)

Seth Chambers, author of What Rough BeastsSeth has worked many interesting jobs—from infantry medic to mental health aid to bike messenger—all of which serve as inspiration for his literary creations. He currently teaches ESL and lives in Chicago with two spoiled cats and a neglected spouse.

Seth has won a John Rollins Award for his story “The Factory.” His work has appeared in IF, Aberrations, and Alien Skin. His novella, “In Her Eyes,” is slated for publication in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He is currently writing a novel and seeking a producer for his screenplay version of “We Happy Few.”

Visit his author page at www.facebook.com/SethChambersAuthor.



Isotropic Discussion

Got something to say? Here's the place to do it. Don't let a touch of visiobibliophobia or prosopobibliophobia stop you from being heard.