|Enter The Reaper
© Copyright 2004 by Jason Bickerstaff
“One of our Corpses is missing.”
“’Fraid so. Bye bye body.”
The Grim Reaper leaned forward in his throne. “Missing?” He gave the Cretin a smile that a father might give to a misunderstanding child. “But that’s impossible.” Then he stopped. His smile faded. His eyes became like balls of grey static electricity floating high in a bloodless face. When he spoke again, his fetid breath washed over the Cretin’s face, dizzying him. “Impossible. You told me that.”
“Missing is impossible, Greatness,” a second Cretin said. He shuffled back a few feet, huge hairy soles slapping on the marble floor; his big round belly, which overhung his trousers like snow built up in the gutter of a roof, swayed like a pendulum. His round face went red. “Stolen is not, however! We found a Cretin’s empty body.”
The Reaper’s shiny white forehead creased as he tried to raise eyebrows he didn’t have. “The Corpse he took?”
The Cretin sank to his knees, jaw agape. His mouth wouldn’t work, but the answer he tried to give was in his eyes, and eyes the Reaper could read like books.
“Nooo,” he hissed, slamming his staff into the marble floor, and rose to his full height - easily three times that of a Cretin. He roared again and the walls of this eternal citadel shook as if threatening to topple. The hall brightened momentarily, as if even the shadows slunk away from the Reaper’s rare but infamous wrath. But before the Cretins could react - scarper, in other words - the shadows returned and the Reaper was calm again. He took three deep breaths then sat.
“How did this happen?” the Reaper demanded. Cretins surrounded his throne eagerly, but none dared speak until he thrust a finger at one.
“I don’t know, your Highness. I don’t! Maybe he just cut the Sac and got the Corpse out, transferred into it and used the Portal.”
The Portal allowed physical teleportation between this world and others. It was how they transferred Souls into the Basement. It was also how the Reaper travelled between worlds, and the only method of escaping this citadel. But if the errant Cretin had used the Portal, to where had he and his new stolen body gone?
The finger thrust again, selecting a new victim. There was no need to voice this most important question.
“I don’t know!”
“Maybe to see God!” another Cretin said.
“He always wanted to fight Satan!” a third offered.
“He misses his ex-wife,” said a fourth, and all heads turned.
“On Earth?” the Reaper bellowed. “You mean he might have returned to Earth in a body that died there?”
The Cretin nodded. The Reaper roared and stomped off. The Cretins just stared at each other, unsure of what to do. They had never seen the Reaper so mad.
But then again, they had never witnessed one of their own steal a body and use it to return to the world they had all hailed from. And not just any old body…
…but the Reaper’s own Corpse.
Patrick Beach hadn’t been born with the body he now wore, but its effect on people was much the same as his original form: heads turned to follow his progress.
It had been nine years since his death, and he could honestly say life had gone downhill since. Initially his time on Earth had been an awkward, struggling affair. He’d had Mobius Syndrome, whose prey bore facial deformity, and while he never fully understood until adulthood what that condition was and why he suffered from it, he had been certain it had nothing to do with his mother sleeping with aliens, as went the tale spread by other kids at his school.
As he got older and began to understand that he was different to other people, Patrick slowly withered inside, losing all self-confidence. What few friends he’d endeavoured to acquire quickly departed - all but one, Lisa, the daughter of his parents’ best friends. When he wanted to laugh, she was there to tell a joke; when he wanted to cry, she was there to offer a shoulder. She would do for him almost anything, and consequently became his everything. Thus nobody who knew them was surprised when Patrick admitted his love for her by way of a marriage proposal. Surprisingly, this news pleased both sets of parents.
It would be another two years before the couple eventually bonded with the swapping of engagement rings.
For the first time, Patrick had known true happiness, the joy of life rather than existence. For the first time ever, the future and its uncertainty had appealed rather than terrified him. His unknown fate became, in the words of his diary, “…an intriguing novel waiting to be read, rather than a dark alley I must tread.”
He felt he was in control of his own life, his own choices. But there was one aspect of his life he couldn’t change. Lisa. They had gotten engaged only a year out of school, far too early even in their parents’ eyes. No longer was Lisa the cute girl he’d known from class; with the onset of adulthood, she grew into an independent young woman, and began reinventing herself to suit the big, wide world. She dressed differently, she began to enjoy new interests, and she developed a new circle of friends. And nobody but Patrick doubted that she was on the verge of that all-destructive event in a deteriorating relationship: an affair.
Predictably, she met a man whose erratic social endeavours were an inferno that soon cast black smoke across her vision, blotting out the marriage-home-kids lifestyle illustrated by those who loved her, including Patrick.
She had cancelled their engagement, instantly slamming the door on everything good Patrick had been planning. The look in her eyes when she told him had penetrated deep into his stomach and he had felt something give within, like a muscle loosening. But it had been no muscle, he later learned. It had been his Soul’s heartbeat faltering…
Thus, enter the Reaper.
Now Patrick Beach was back walking the Earth, and it was almost as if he’d never left because people were staring at him again. But in those stares was something other than disgust or mirth; it was something he had once seen in Lisa’s eyes, before his face had really revealed itself to her past the shroud of love that misted her vision. Before she had cast him away like an old shoe, in favour of someone better.
He stopped before a shop with a mirrored front window and stared at his reflection.
The man who stared back was beyond handsome; he was beyond any description of beauty, even. His was the face that had engineered not just love but the concept of love; without that face, there was no such thing as attraction between humans. He was the spark that had ignited these emotions into existence. He was …
“I am Arden,” he said. “It is the name I will take, for Lisa. I am Arden, the First.”
The Cretins had arranged a banquet of profiles for the Reaper, but he ignored it. They had found generals, doctors, historical figures, unsung heroes, the young and the old, famous and infamous. Chaplin, Rasputin, Bruce Lee, Tolstoy, Genghis Kahn, Bodhi Dharma - the list was endless. The Cretins paraded them like wares at a boot sale, all to please the Reaper. But the Reaper was not pleased.
The plethora of Corpses before him would have fascinated anyone else, but he was the one Reaper, Guardian of Souls, Caretaker of Heaven and Hell, overseer of the safety of the very fabric of the universe. He had been born before the Earth and would watch its death beneath an expiring sun. He was Arden, written in history as Adam, who had visited the Earth in its beginning, before he had been given the role of Grim Reaper, and had populated in his image. Thus no mortal creature from history would suffice, so for Arden the choice could not be made, at least not based on cunning and strategy.
However, there was always that passion particular to humans: irony. Irony was a powerful emotion in any mind, human or otherwise. And the Reaper was in a funny mood today.
“Find me the Corpse of Patrick Beach,” the Reaper snarled.
He found Lisa in a new life. Gone was the other man who had so intrigued her, and gone were the looks that hade first attracted him to her. The passage of eight years since Patrick had last seen her had not been kind. She was overweight, her skin was greasy and there was a large scar that ran across her jaw line, bright pink, from chin to ear. And in each hand she trailed a screaming child.
She was leading them away from the school gates and towards a bus stop, where other screaming kids and bellowing mothers waited. Arden wanted his heart to go out to her; but for that he’d need a heart.
He was everything that was love and allure, and he used this power now. He stepped out into the middle of the road and held up his hand. A sleek black BMW glided to a halt before him and a woman poked her head out the driver’s side window.
“I want your car,” Arden said.
Between humans, lust and love sometimes ignited with damaging results: stalkings, rapes, broken hearts. But Arden was not part of that fallible species; as a superior entity he could extort only pure love in a form unknown to humans. The driver exited her vehicle and stepped away, eyes never leaving Arden’s face. Her rapture was something alien to her brain and thus unmanageable; she neither spoke nor moved, save her eyes, as Arden took her car and with a screech of tyres blew black exhaust smoke into her face. She coughed and the illusion was over; but she would never report the theft, Arden knew, nor even recall the face of the man who took her car, although it would garnish her dreams that night.
He drew up at the bus stop and wound down his window. Every pair of eyes fell upon him; he almost felt their weight. Children and adults alike were entranced by his beauty, though none would have been capable, if pressed, to describe him, even while he stood before them.
There she was, Lisa. Not pretty any more, but Lisa nonetheless. Arden could have anyone or anything he wanted, but all he wanted was this typical woman with chubby legs and bawling kids.
“Get in,” he said, and of course she did, because no creature contemplated Arden.
The children sat in the back, silent, as their mother leaned close to the man behind the wheel and kissed him. Surprisingly, it was he, not she, who recoiled from the pungency of the emotions stirred by that kiss. He let out a long breath, like that of a man finally finding the base of a mountain he has just overcome. Old memories and feelings flooded him; they washed away the omnipotence that was Arden’s province and for a moment he was Patrick Beach again, full of nerves and insecurity.
He smiled at her. “Will we be together forever, as should have been?”
She smiled back. He awaited her answer, but none came: there was no choice to be made, for he was Arden.
The real Arden, the Grim Reaper, was having a little more trouble finding his way in this world. Everywhere he looked, there was another face staring back at him. In some of the eyes that were cast his way he saw pity, or shame, but in some there was mirth.
“Day release at the freak hospital?” someone shouted. It was a child walking with his mother, who rewarded his wit with a slap on the leg. Mother and son scuttled quickly away.
The Reaper stopped to peruse his appearance in a shop window. He was short, a little chubby, but otherwise he saw nothing wrong. His was a personality that did not understand beauty or attraction; the deformed face, with its large forehead and small, child-like mouth, did not even register as unusual. The Reaper thought it was his attire that shocked people, although he couldn’t understand why. But then he had never understood the enigma that was human civilization.
The Cretins he’d brought along were laughing and pointing at their reflections. He slapped one of them on the head. “Idiots. Quiet down and get out of sight. Follow me at a distance.”
The three Cretins quickly scuttled away into an alley.
As the Reaper headed for his destination in the body of Patrick Beach, he registered other humans taunting his looks. He smoothed his clothing self-consciously. He didn’t like all these strange emotions that were firing in Patrick Beach’s mortal brain. He cursed his damned pride! He could have had the pick of the bunch for this mission, someone with power, intelligence, someone bloodthirsty or simply evil - anyone. Instead he had wanted to rub irony in the traitorous Cretin’s squashed little face, and now he was stuck in this useless body with these despicable clothes and these weird feelings.
The school was a few miles away; he covered this distance at a casual stroll, not wanting to draw attention. To do the same, however, the Cretins he’d dragged along darted in and out of alleys, in and our from under cars, in and out of shadows. Keeping up with their master was a tiring chore, and at its end they collapsed behind an Indian takeaway’s wheelie bin and panted.
“No more running, no more,” one said.
“There she is,” the Reaper said. He pointed and the Cretins’ eyes followed.
A young woman with two children, one of each sex, was hustling along the pavement. She joined the back of a queue at a bus stop. The Reaper had guessed correctly based on information stored in Beach’s head.
“Now we move?” said a Cretin.
He was slapped. “Speak when spoken…” the Reaper began, then revised his order: “Don’t speak.”
The woman, Patrick Beach’s ex-fiancée, bent to talk to her kids. Then a car slid between she and the Reaper, blocking his view. When it moved on, the space where she’d stood was just that: a space.
“That vehicle,” a Cretin hollered, jumping up and down and pointing, like a child at a pantomime. “There, there!”
“Yes, yes,” the Reaper snapped, slapping the Cretin into silence and inactivity. “Follow it.”
The Reaper glared at the Cretin and raised his hand ready to strike. Then he paused, thinking: Good point. How?
He rubbed his head, trying to coax the relevant information out of Beach’s cranium, but it wouldn’t come, or was lost. “You!” he snapped, jabbing a finger at one of his aides. “Go back through the Portal and find out where she lives. Find everything. Everything. Right down to shoe size. Understand?”
“I do.” And a slap got the Cretin moving.
People passed the Reaper, glaring at him but trying to hide it. He felt phantom itches all over and tried to smooth creases out of his clothing again.
“Size seven,” the Cretin said.
The Reaper licked Patrick Beach’s lips. “What? What does that mean?”
“You said get her shoe size, master. Did I do wrong?”
Such awesome stupidity was punishment enough, the Reaper figured. He left the Cretin cowering like a terrorised kitten and paced the pavement.
“Idiots! How now do I find this woman and retrieve my body?”
“We could see where he goes…?” said another Cretin, pointing.
The Reaper followed the finger and saw his quarry, right there in the street. He was strolling with the woman by his side. The Reaper took delight in the sight of his own body, as did everyone else on the street.
“Do we pounce, master?”
The Reaper thought. “Not just yet,” he said after seeing the couple pass through the doors of a cinema. He was actually intrigued by this, wanted to see it to its conclusion. “Go, now. Home,” he told the Cretins. They mumbled, unsure what to do. Predictably, a few slaps decided things for them.
And then the Reaper was alone in this strange world that had changed so much since his time here. Despite this, he grinned.
“I shall have what’s mine,” he said, and followed the couple.
For four weeks he followed them. Where Arden went, Lisa followed like an obedient dog, and the Reaper followed too. Arden used his influence to shape Lisa’s world to suit him. She said she would quit her job, but he said there was no need. A quick word in the ear of her boss and she was signed off sick, with full pay. Neighbours were more than happy to baby-sit when they went out, which was often. They never queued at bars, never waited for taxis. What Lisa wanted, she got, but at the expense of others. A manager at a restaurant had to cover a stock deficiency before next week’s audit; a jewellery shop proprietor had to explain the absence of an expensive diamond ring; suddenly her landlord felt guilty taking any more rent from her. But any gratitude she might have felt was swamped by her obsessive love for Arden, who was beginning to have doubts.
He was Arden, the First, not Patrick Beach. Patrick Beach was short and fat and deformed. Arden was perfect. When Lisa stroked his face, she was stroking Arden’s perfect countenance, not that of the man who loved her and who she had once loved in return. Guilt and sadness began eating him alive.
And then the time came. They were alone in the house; the kids were enjoying all they could eat over at a neighbour’s house. She slid close to him on the sofa and tried to lay a kiss, but Arden pulled back.
“Later,” he said. But his mind wanted to say, “No, it is not me you kiss! It is someone else. The real me you discarded long ago.”
In bed that night, Arden was gone. The darkness made void his overwhelming beauty and charm, and there was only his mind - and that mind belonged to Patrick Beach.
Patrick lay there, gazing at the slivers of moonlight on the ceiling, and considered his predicament.
“I am a fraud,” he said aloud. Lisa murmured but did not stir. “She does not love me, but another. Someone I am not.”
Now she stirred. She rolled closer and draped an arm across his chest.
“No talk,” she wheezed. “Late. Sleep.”
But Patrick Beach did not sleep that night.
And so it came to be that Patrick Beach found himself back at Moon Point on the coast of England. He faced a plush cottage-cum-restaurant, closed for the night, that stood alone out here far enough from any road to accord diners and suicides privacy. A wedding gift from their parents, the cottage had been his and Lisa’s dream home, where they had hoped to live in bliss and die happy and together. But even the simplest of plans had a habit of going belly-up.
His memories were still good. The day after their engagement party, Lisa and he had travelled by car down to Kent to view the cottage. Here, they had stood upon Moon Point, right at the cliff’s edge, and held each other’s hand and gazed upon their new home and dreamed of their new life. But the dream had not lasted.
After the failure of their relationship just three months later, the couple had renounced the cottage, which they hadn’t yet moved into, and it had been sold elsewhere and turned into a restaurant boasting a sea-view. But while still it stood empty, a lost soul like his own, Patrick had travelled here to meet his destiny -
- “Hello,” the Reaper said. Light from the restaurant’s big windows flooded the cliff’s edge almost as far as the fence that secured the precipice. Here the real Arden had found the real Patrick Beach sitting on the other side of that fence, facing a long outcrop of rock that overhung the cliff and the sea eighty metres below.
Patrick glared at the Reaper, neither moving. Patrick threw up a hand.
“Come no closer! I’ll jump.” He got to his feet and scuttled along the pier of rock, stopping at its edge. Beyond him lay the moonlit sea, angry tonight and whipped by the wind.
“Maybe, maybe not,” said the Reaper with Patrick’s mouth. “But that’s my body you’ll jump with. And I want it back. I do have a job to do, you know.”
The Reaper had clambered through the hole in the fence and was a step away from the pier of rock. Below, the sea heaved like so many hands reaching for them, sensing a sacrifice.
“I cannot go on,” said Patrick from Arden’s body -
- ”Who are you?” Patrick said as the stranger stepped out onto the outcrop of rock he sat upon. “Stay there. I’m having a moment here, if you please?”
The Reaper was all in black, carrying a scythe. It was the vision he used to greet all those who were moments from becoming his: the erroneous but typical depiction of the Grim Reaper. He figured it made them comfortable to see a recognisable image, despite the scythe and gaunt complexion.
“You know who I am, although you may have heard me go by other names - Azrael, Charon, Thanatos, others. Forget what you think you know about me, for I am Arden, the First. I come unto you because you seek your own death - but why is this?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Patrick said. “I have loved and lost.”
“Then you are part of the majority. You do not suffer alone, friend. Do you know why I am here?” -
- “You are here to reclaim your body, I know that. But I don’t fear your wrath. I wish to die, and there is nothing you can do to scare me. A lost soul knows no fear.”
The Reaper smiled and took another step along the pier of rock. “But your soul is not lost, friend. It is safe. It became mine when you surrendered it eight years ago now, right here upon this very rock. And do you remember why it was surrendered?”
“My life was over. My relationship was over, I had nothing going for me…”
“And you came here to kill yourself?” -
- “You do not need to perform such drastic action, Patrick. I can release you from all this pain and suffering. I can offer you a new life, and a purpose.”
“What purpose can you possibly offer me? You’re the Grim Reaper, stealer of souls, correct? You pick and choose who dies, but who gave you the right to do that?”
“God, actually. And that is not what I do. I come unto those not unlike you, who have come to the end of a road but see no other route ahead. I simply point the way.”
“And what way is that? Be swift, for I have pressing business with the rocks below.” -
- “I have another offer for you?” The Reaper smiled, but upon the deformed face he wore the expression lacked sincerity.
“Lovely. More trickery. Last time you offered me a new life, and instead you put me in a fat little body and made me wait on you hand and foot, soulless. Do you have any idea of the pain I constantly feel inside, the emptiness? Do you know how much having no soul actually hurts?”
“I know. I was the First, remember. But you are naïve, my friend -“
“I am not your friend.”
“But you are naïve. You remember the place your kind call the Basement, don’t you?”
“Of course. Its a prison for souls.”
Wearing Patrick’s body, the Reaper stepped forward along the pier, forcing Patrick back a few paces. It would have been strange sight to any who watched: a perfect physical specimen shying away from the reach of a squat man in bad clothing The sharp edge of the cliff was frighteningly close now, the roar of the sea below a constant thud in Patrick’s ears.
“It is not a prison. You might be better calling it a boiler room.”
“I know where you lead this, but I don’t believe it. It is said the souls you collect become workers who power the universe.”
“Not quite. The souls are the fuel, and the supply constantly needs replenishing. Such a waste for a soul to die with a body upon some rocks.”
Patrick looked down at the rocks. “So you did your job. And I got stuck with a fat new body and trapped in a dungeon, taking abuse off you. Limbo. I would have preferred oblivion.” -
“Oblivion? Really? You would wish for nothingness? I think not. It is exactly why your kind choose to believe in an afterlife - no one wishes to believe that the world will continue without them, or that loved ones are gone forever. It is an imperfection particular to humans. Take my hand now and all this pain will vanish. I will show you the road ahead.”
“What will happen?” He was still doubtful.
“We will leave this world. To those you leave behind, you will be dead and they will bury your body, but as it decomposes it will knit together in my world, where you will not know the pain of the human soul. You will begin your new life. It’s really that simple, no sales pitch needed. It is the only route open to you. Take my hand now.”
“I will still have my body? Can I visit Earth as a ghost?”
“Yes, the Reaper lied. “Take my hand.”
The hand seemed overwhelming in Patrick’s vision, like a shining light at the end of a dark tunnel. He reached out and took the hand in both his own. The next second, Patrick fell limp, dead, now just an empty vessel.
- “Oblivion you cannot have, Patrick Beach. That is my body you inhabit now. That you stole. And I want it back.”
“Why does the great Grim Reaper need a body?”
“I do not have to answer to you, Cretin. Suffice to say that destroying the body of Arden, the First, will close the chapter on human existence in this universe.” He stepped closer still, reaching out a chubby hand. Patrick found himself wanting to take it, because it was his own. But he checked himself with an internal warning.
“You fear me even in this ugly body?” the Reaper hissed. He did not know the concept of ugliness, but knew that Patrick did.
“I might be ugly,” Patrick said. He stared now at his own ruined face, staring right back at him. Hopelessness flared within him and he turned to face the sea. “But at least I was me!”
And with that, he jumped.
The Reaper loosed a moan and reached for the body of Arden, the First. Below, the sea foamed like the mouths of Pavlov’s dogs awaiting food. Patrick fell, turning, reaching for the hands that sought him, suddenly sure this was a bad idea. Oblivion. Nothingness.
Their fingers brushed and Patrick jerked as if stung by a bolt of electricity, and the next instant he felt the cold rock beneath him, the wind in his hair, and he was looking down, down into the abyss, watching a body tumble away from him, the body of Arden, the First, plummeting towards its doom. In Arden’s eyes was a panic that the Reaper had never known until now.
Patrick was lying on the outcrop of rock, shivering, and he could feel his own body wrapped around him, and it was warm and good. Their touch had reverted he and the Reaper into their own bodies; he was alive again and it…
…did he really feel it? Yes, he really thought he did: he was alive again and it…felt good.
He stared into the abyss, trying to see Arden’s smashed body tumbling in the sea, but the night was just too dark. He shivered at the thought that the Grim Reaper was dead, and momentarily wondered what that might mean for the universe. He felt a wave of sorrow go out to the Reaper, who had fallen in Patrick’s place. Dead and gone and turned into nothingness? Had the Reaper stolen the oblivion that Patrick had so rashly desired?
“Keep it,” Patrick said.
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