The following is a 1st draft short story. The author takes full responsibility for spelling and grammar mistakes. Content may not be reproduced in any form digital or physical without the permission of the author (me).
By Brian D. Clay
I am Milton Melzer. Over the course of my 24 years I have grown to not only appreciate alliteration, but to become eternally grateful that my uncle Melvin locked my mother in a shed during one of the hottest summers on record all the while teasing her that the dog’s of summer would get her if she left the shed; thus cementing my uncle Milton as her favorite brother. You have to enjoy the little victories that come your way or at least that is what my best friend, Death, is always saying.
Don’t worry, I am not some ultra depressed goth running around with black hair, eye makeup, pontificating the pointless nature of life. My hair is brown, sunscreen makes my skin breakout and I spend 60 hours a week in a beige cube farm working as a technology consultant. So the pointless nature of life is something I don’t need to talk about. My existence sums that up neatly. What I mean is that Death, the Grim Reaper, Angel of Death, rider of a pale horse, Yamaraja rider of the black buffalo, La Santa Muerte, is a personal friend and regularly hangs out at my apartment.
I was barely past my tenth birthday when Death and I first met. My mother had sent me to the convenience store across the street from our apartment complex to buy a gallon of milk. The freedom and responsibility of the little chore distracted me so much that I didn’t notice Mr. Paulson, the old man that cleaned the complex’s pool, collapse in the middle of the snack aisle, hands grasping at his chest. I flung open the cooler door, grabbed the handle of the yellow capped 2% moo-juice. When I turned to head back to the counter I bumped into a tall thin man at the end of the aisle. The man was wearing a pair of fresh blue jeans, a plan navy blue t-shirt, a black vest, and black canvas sneakers that looked brand new. I muttered an apology and stepped around him. The man spun around and stared at me his eyes bulging in shock.
“Can you actually see me? Well of course you can, I mean you bounced into me. You should really watch where you are going. Wow! Wait a minute can you hear me?” asked the man.
“Uh, yes?” I was only ten so at the time my mind was filling with all the warnings my mother had drilled into me about talking to strangers.
“This is so weird!” he jumped in place and slapped his legs. “It has been a really long time and – let me tell you, that means a really long time. I mean, there is no way you could possibly comprehend how long I am talking about – since anyone has heard my voice or seen me. Wow! I mean wow! I am actually having a conversation.” The man’s words were practically crawling over each other to escape his mouth. I took a wary step back. The whole “stranger danger” public service announcement running through my little head.
“Hey, don’t worry you’re not on my list…” Mr. Paulson flailed an arm and knocked a whole row of cookies to the ground. The thin man stop speaking and glanced down the aisle at Mr. Paulson. “Ah, crap. I should really do something about that. Hey, wait here a minute while I take care of this.” He walked down the aisle and knelt down next to the pool cleaner. He leaned in close and whispered something before placing a hand with fingers that seemed impossibly long atop Mr. Paulson’s chest. The old man’s body instantly relaxed. When the thin man stood up with his hands cupped around something. He examined it for a moment, gently turning his hands back and forth before placing the something in the pocket of his pants.
“That can wait there for a little while, not like he is in a hurry to get anywhere.” He grinned at me with entirely too many teeth and his eyes goggled in away that made me feel unsettled. A woman in a green smock with blonde hair that defied gravity, pushed me aside and dashed down the aisle passing completely through the thin man. She dropped down on the ground and grabbed the Mr. Paulson’s wrist and closed her eyes as if she were listening for something. I was frozen where I stood, unable to take my eyes off of what I was seeing.
“Dougie, call an ambulance! I think Mr. Paulson is having a heart attack,” she yelled. She started pushing on the old man’s chest.
“Had a heart attack and won’t have another one.” The thin man stepped up to me and stared down with crystal blue eyes that seemed deeper than any swimming pool I had ever seen. “Your name is Milton, right?”
I nodded unable to speak.
“I am Death and I think we are going to be good friends.” Then I was alone, standing with a gallon of milk in my hands and watching a crowd forming around poor dead Mr. Paulson.
I don’t remember paying for the milk or the walk home. I do remember opening the door to the apartment that I lived in with my mother. The memory of the stale cigarette smoke that flooded out of the apartment imprinted the moment on me in a way that the long walk from the store and through the apartment complex did not. My mother was sitting at the little table that was next to the kitchen area. The lights were dimmed, she had a sketch book opened to a page with a curvy doodle on it. There was a chewed 3h pencil in her right hand and a cigarette with drooping ashes in her left. The light from the open front door stirred her from her thoughts.
“What took so long?” she asked in the same way she would have asked about a change in the weather.
“Mr. Paulson was at the store. He had a heart attack. I think he died.” I went into the kitchen and put the milk in the refrigerator. MY mother put the pencil down and stubbed out the cigarette in a foil mini-pie plate, which was stuffed full of ashes and the remains of two packs worth of cigarettes.
“Are you okay?” she asked. There was real concern in her voice. At that point in my life death was not something I had truly encountered in a personal way. My great grandfather, PaPa, had died when I was four but the family kept me and the other kids from being confronted by what had happened to him.
“I’m fine. He was in the aisle with all the cookies and candy, I think he was in picking up cookies.” I avoided mentioning the strange man who called himself Death. It was not something to talk about with my mother. She wouldn’t have believed me either way, but would have chalked up the encounter to her little boy experiencing a hallucination due to the extra good pot she and her friends had been smoking the night before. When my mother and her friends broke out the little baggies and papers, I would read in my room with a damp towel shoved into the crack under the door; I hated the thick herbal odor that filled the air and the giggling unfocused creature it turned my mom into.
After evaluating me she nodded to herself, picked up the empty package of cigarettes making sure she hadn’t missed the last smoke and crumpled it. “I should send you for a new pack, but I am sure the place is crazy now.” She picked up her pencil and lost herself in the doodle. Her day after high always diminished her attention span.
I climbed the carpet covered stairs, went in to my room and stifled a scream. There sitting on my bed was a boy about my age, wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt sporting a faded image of a white dog with a black spot over its right eye.
“Hey, Milton. I figured looking like this would make you more comfortable. Was I right?” the boy asked excitedly with a wide toothy smile. A dumb founded, “uh”, sound was all I could manage.
“Don’t worry. Your mother doesn’t know I am her. Wouldn’t see me anyway if she did.” The boy shook his wrist which caused a silver band to bang against his hand. “Let me try this another way. You must have questions, right? Everyone wants to know about death and the After. You have a singular opportunity to have the answers that the whole world wants. All I want is a conversation. What do you say?”
I was ten and had not really thought much about death. The words that came spilling out of my mouth were uninspired by the gravity of the moment. “How did you get in my room?”
“Okay… Not what I expected, but it is a start. I can pretty much be anywhere I need or want to be.” The wheels in my brain finally engaged.
“Aren’t there other people dying right now somewhere else in the world?” I wasn’t really accusing him with the question, rather I was struggling with my limited understanding of the universe.
“Yes.” Death said. He grinned at me again in a way that almost seemed to be daring me to push him for a better answer. My 5th grade teacher wore that same grin when she wanted to push me for better answers.
“Then how can you be here? Don’t you have to be there every time someone dies?”
“I am here because I want to be. [I said before that most mortals do not see or hear me] and I believe I will enjoy interacting with you. It is a change of pace, something new. So the answer is because I want to be here, I am.” He reached down to the floor, took up a pair of action figures I had been playing with before my trip to the store and began examining the toys with casual interest. “Every time a mortal dies I am there, I have to be. The star-stuff of their soul needs a little help moving on. It is my job to give a little tug at the right moment and send it on its way.”
“But that doesn’t explain… Wait a minute, I saw you say something to Mr. Paulson. If people can’t see and hear you why did it look like Mr. Paulson heard you?” I decided logic would be the best way of dealing with a situation that defied logic.
“I did. When a person is dying, not like those near death, flat lining in on the operating table, white light seeing kind of dying, but that game over, period at the end of a good sentence dying. That is when they become aware of me. I cannot have a real conversation with them, but I can offer them a few words to make the transition easier. Death is frightening enough without me making it drag out with a dissertation on world affairs, and quite frankly they are too busy to talk.” Death glanced around the room his eyes settling on a stack of board games. “Let’s play a game while we chat.” He hopped off the bed and sifted through the boxes until he found Backgammon. “I get to be white.” He declared as he settled onto the floor legs folded up under himself. I sat across from him and helped set up the game.
“Milton, what is your favorite thing in the whole word?” The Death shook the dice in the faux leather cup before tossing them onto the game board.
“I guess I like to read more than anything else, I like super hero comics a lot, but fantasy stories are my favorite. I like the whole idea of a nobody becoming the savior. It gives me hope.” I shrugged, not looking up from the board.
“Hmmm, I don’t usually read, but it wouldn’t hurt to give a new book a shot. What would be a good one?”
“There is this series about a detective call Tiridates Haile, those are fun. They are set in a kingdom with magic and monsters; the main character is super smart and always solves the mystery. Nobody seems to like him because he is so smart. I know what that is like.” The game continued in silence, piles of white and black pieces moving their way around the board to their homes.
“So, anyway is there a kid at your school that gives you an especially hard time? Because I can totally kill him for you.” Again the too many teeth smile flashed at me.
“Really?” to this day I am not sure if I responded out of surprise, shock or hopefulness.
“Nope, I would need an exemption and those are hard to come by. The best I can do to the actively alive is give a chill up their spines.” He wiggled his fingers at me. “Though, it could be fun to torment a tormentor.”
“Hey, what about the scythe and skeleton face?” I asked remembering a Halloween costume from the previous year.
“I can’t say that I have never put on that guise before, but that was a long time ago. On the whole I tired of scaring people on the verge of dying. I guess it took me awhile to realize that it was a tad cruel. Though to be honest every once and again I enjoy giving the right folks the willies.” The dice clattered on the board and two white disks were moved by fingers a tad too long. He noticed me watching them; he held them up and waggled them at me. “I have a tough time with fingers, not sure why. I have had plenty of practice but I just can’t get them right.” Through the door to my room I heard my mother overcome by a coughing fit. The wracking cough continued for a time that extended uncomfortably into a period too long to be ignored.
“Can you tell me when someone is going to die?” I finally whispered not really certain if I wanted the answer.
“Funny thing is that I am excellent at the now and then; the when… not so much. I suppose the whole omnipotence thing is above my pay grade.” His smile faltered for a blink. “Life throws a lot at you mortals, there is a measure of joy and sadness that be swirled together to make the story of you. Embrace the victories of that story and you’ll find that on the day I meet you in a professional capacity you will not need any special little words whispered into your ear.” Death, the boy, placed the last white disk in its home and stood up.
“Milton, this was uncommonly fun for me. I will stop by tomorrow when you get home from school.” Then he was gone. No pop, no smoke or flash just gone like a thought lost to unexpected distraction. I didn’t really understand half of what happened, even today I struggle to wrap my mind around my odd friendship, but I knew that I had made a friend. Everyday since then Death has popped in to play a game, and chat about life and, of course, death.