The man is ready. He isn’t going to be caught napping, no siree Bob. His opponent seldom lost a fight, or so he had heard, but tonight Ted, as he prefers to be called, is confident everything needed to win is at hand. He has whiskey, to keep his insides warm, but not too much, he needs to keep his wits sharp. A good woolen blanket to keep his outsides warm, although not warm enough to drift off to sleep, thereby missing the event. To help the hours pass, he has a good book, but not so engaging that he will let his guard down. The last item, his father’s German Luger smuggled back from the war. There are only two bullets, but they should be enough.
Tonight, he walks out his front door onto the veranda and eases himself down into his comfortable rocker. Props his cane up against the cabin wall, covers his knees with the blanket and smiles. This is it. The night of reckoning.
Ted begins rocking. The familiar low creaking of this old rocking chair, sitting out on the veranda, through all weather and temperatures, always has a calming effect on him.
Beside him on a sturdy wooden table, he has placed his whiskey, glass, gun, lamp and book. Now he pours himself a finger of his favourite tipple and sits back to enjoy the evening turning day into night. He does this most days when it is clear like this.
Off to the side of his home is a flagpole and flag. When his father, returning from the trenches of war, built their cabin, he had put up the pole, flying the country’s flag with pride. Fifteen years ago, Ted and his partner decided to retire and move permanently to the cabin. The flag now fluttering from the pole in rainbow colours signifies Ted and Jeff’s pride. Every evening he sits rocking on the veranda, Ted looks at the flag, and usually a memory of their life together comes to mind. He lets himself dwell on it, for a little while, nothing maudlin, happy memories. Lifting his glass, he salutes the flag, saying, “To you Jeff, I’m coming, just not yet.”
As the sun sinks behind Mount Elphinstone off to the west, the sky cycles through its fiery colour scheme, ending in mauve. When it darkens to midnight blue, the evening star appears and a slight breeze arises, causing the leaves on the surrounding trees to rustle and the flag to wave. Tipping his head back, Ted marvels at the sky filling up with more and more stars. Out here in the country, there is no competing light obscuring the nightly show. After he has looked his fill, Ted switches on the lamp and picks up his book. ‘Space’ short stories by Canada’s preeminent science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer, will entertain him in this waiting game.
Occasionally chuckling at something in the book, sipping his whiskey and rocking, the hours pass. Each hour, to avoid muscles stiffening, Ted struggles up out of his chair and using his cane, walks back and forth along the veranda. He is careful to pick up the Luger whenever he does this, not willing to be more than a foot away from it at any time.
Around three in the morning Ted feels the air around him change slightly. The breeze picks up and the temperature drops down. This has the effect of making him shiver but also sit up and pay attention.
Into the circle of light thrown by Ted’s lamp, a stranger steps. Ted can’t stop himself audibly gasping. The man is exactly as he is always portrayed. Tall, features hidden inside the hood of a black cloak reaching down to the ground. A white bony hand is grasping the upright pole of a long scythe, the head of which curves backwards over one shoulder.
The Reaper, as he’s called, steps forward and asks a question. It’s always the same question.
“Are you ready?”
“Certainly not, I’m not going with you, I’m too young, I knew you’d turn up tonight. I’m prepared to fight,” Ted says, each sentence a little louder than the previous. “Get out of here!” he shouts, causing a protracted coughing fit to rack his body. When it’s over, Ted fumbles for the Luger and heroically forces himself upright. He will meet his opponent standing on his two feet, like a real man.
While Ted had been speaking and coughing, the Reaper stood watching, saying nothing. He knows it’s important to let his clients have their say. Now though, he moves towards Ted and speaks.
“Age has nothing to do with it. You’re sick, dying actually, I’ll be doing you a favour. Dying under the stars, surrounded by beauty, must be preferable to dying in a noisy, overly lit hospital, surrounded by grasping relatives you hardly know. It will be a quick death, I just need to touch you.”
Ted is in no mood to listen. He’s been psyching himself up for this confrontation for days, knowing it was imminent. He waves the Luger around, then steadies it and fires. The Reaper is shocked! His cloak flies behind him as the bullet goes right through.
“Hey, what are you doing?” he shouts at Ted. “Dude, you know you can’t kill me, don’t you? I’m not human as such, I don’t have a corporeal body. Look what you’ve done to my cloak, dude, it was practically new. I’ll have to pay for the next one, we’re only allocated two free cloaks and this is my second.”
Lifting his scythe off his shoulder, The Reaper uses its narrow point to deftly flick the Luger out of Ted’s hands. It lands somewhere out of the lamplight. “Where did you get that?” he asks. “I haven’t been confronted with one of those in at least sixty years. I’m surprised it still fires.”
Ted doesn’t answer, he’s too stunned hearing this ancient creature call him dude and complain about working conditions. “Dude, did you just say dude?”
“What can I say? I’m a fan of the The Big Lebowski. Best film of the past fifty years,” the Reaper answers.
“You watch movies?” Ted’s incredulity is growing.
“Don’t sound so surprised. What do you think I do with my time, all work and no play, etcetera. I love films and as I expect you know, most of my work takes place in the early morning hours, so there’s lots of time for recreational activities.”
Damn, the Reaper realizes he’s done it again. Stepped across the border of Client and Reaper into the murkier area of budding friendship. Too much chitchat getting in the way of the job. He sighs and looks up at Ted, who, grimacing in pain, is still standing tall.
“All right then,” the Reaper says. “I’ll give you more time, but know this, there will be no warning when I come again. No chatting. In fact, you probably won’t see me at all. One moment you’ll be here and then,” he pauses and snaps his fingers, “no next breath.” Turning, the Reaper hitches up his scythe and strides out of the lamplight.
Ted, now in a lot of pain, almost regretting the fight he put up, carefully sits back into the rocker and pours himself more whiskey. I’ll sit here and watch the sun come up, he thinks.
Andrea Harbour is a flash fiction writer. She conjures up her stories while hiking with her dog along trails in Canada’s West Coast forests. Ignoring the weather, they go out . The dog needs to run and Andrea needs to release her imagination.