This is the first chapter I wrote of a story that went nowhere. I wasn’t feeling it. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments, I’d welcome any feedback.
Life ends. A universe of truth held in those two words. In this, every person on earth could claim to possess flawless clairvoyance. Every future could be predicted with one hundred percent accuracy. Will my wife leave me? Yes, eventually. Will my kids be okay? Not forever, no. Every mystery distilled to two words. Life ends.
Dark thoughts for dark night. Shannon shook his head and tried to shake off this funk. He had planned to stay in and laze around the apartment. Maybe watch a movie, read a book, something like that. Chronic insomnia, however, made sleep impossible and besides, the pull was strong tonight. Very strong. It got worse when the Moon was up, and he supposed there was some deeper meaning in that, but if there was, he hadn’t figured it out
So, out into the night. He could vaguely sense someone a few blocks north, and he wandered in that direction, not paying much attention to where he was going. It was well past midnight and the streets were quiet and near-deserted.
The pull drew him steadily North, past rows of semi-connected, two story townhouses separated by thin, single car driveways. He lived in a confused area of the city, where on certain blocks, gentrification had chased away anyone under a six figure salary. Turn another corner and you were back to pawn shops with bars on the windows, Money Marts proudly declaring “YOUR FIRST CASH ADVANCE FREE” and strip malls with medical centers offering free needles. Most people wouldn’t be in this part of down after midnight on a dare, but he wasn’t worried. People tended to leave him alone when he was working and now that he was out, he was on the clock.
The people that pulled the hardest were the ones that needed him the most. People with no one else, dying alone. Ultimately, everyone died alone, it was a solitary undertaking, but some people at least had a group watching them try.
He stopped in front of an apartment building. Of course, the lock in the front door was broken and someone had posted a sign on the dirty glass, proclaiming “Residents of Clermont only!!! !”. In faded marker, someone had added the fourth exclamation point, apparently believing the first three didn’t sell the point. He ignored the sign and went through.
The elevators were also out of order, so he took the stairs. Broken florescent lights dimly lit the narrow steps, but he wasn’t watching his footing closely. He was locked on. At the fourth floor, the pull started tugging him sideways and he took the exit out of the stairwell. Behind one of the doors he could hear the muffled sounds of conversation, either a TV or a couple fighting.
He stopped at apartment 413 and lightly touched the doorknob and turned. Of course it was unlocked. He pushed it open and the smell of decay and necrotic flesh wafted out. Whoever was going, they were close. He nearly missed it.
The apartment was filthy, with piled plates and stacks of garbage. Flies buzzed on an uneaten pizza that was covered in mold. Through the windows, the moon provided enough illumination that he could see where he was going without turning on a light. He ignored the smell and the garbage and pushed the door to the back room open.
On the bed was a frail man with a patchy beard and very little hair. He had kicked off the covers in his distress and although the night air was cool, he radiated heat. His breath sounded like crumpling paper, each gasp a struggle that worried his chest. He fidgeted under the labor, but as Shannon walked through the door, his eyes opened and he calmed.
“So.” He said.
“So.” Shannon agreed. In the corner of the room was a small footstool and he dragged it beside the bed and took the old man by the hand.
“It’s time, then?”
“It is.” Shannon replied. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Shannon. I’m going to help you.”
“Shannon is a girls name.”
“Fine.” Gerald mused on that for a spell, and a small tear trickled out and rolled down his cheek. “I don’t think I’m ready.”
“No one ever is, not really. It’s okay.”
“Can you do anything? Can you stop this?”
“No. That’s not what I do.”
Gerald took a long, slow blink. His breathing evened out and the tearing, ripping sound faded. No matter what state they were in, when Shannon came to help them, they always calmed.
“Where will I go?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does it hurt?”
Shannon smiled. “It doesn’t hurt. I’ll help you.”
“I’m very scared.” Said Gerald, and more tears fell. He didn’t seem to realize he was crying.
“That’s okay too. Everyone is scared. Would you like to talk?”
Gerald nodded. “I think I wasn’t a good person. That’s what worries me. I was horrible to my son.”
“He was different than me. So different. I didn’t know what to do with that. I fought in the war, the big one. Not the shitty mess of Vietnam or Korea, but World War 2. That was a good war. We had a clean enemy. The Germans needed to be taken out and we did it. It was so simple. It all made sense. When I came back, I expected America to be better. But it wasn’t. They all hated me. I didn’t get any respect.” As he spoke, his voice strained, the points coming out in a rapid staccato. He didn’t have much time left.
“I had to go work in a shitty office. I did it so my family would have food and shelter. My kid wanted to be a teacher. A teacher!” he coughed on the apparent indignity. “He hated violence. He’d argue with me. About the war and what I did. Candice coddled him. She made him soft.”
“Was Candice your wife?”
“She was. She left me a long time ago. I haven’t talked to her in ages. My son, neither. I was too proud. Proud and angry. I wasn’t like that as a kid, you know? I think the war… I think the war did something to me.”
Shannon found that vets all had a similar story, a similar pattern. The end would come and they’d be surprised to find out that years of killing strangers across a battlefield affected them in some way.
“It’s okay.” Shannon replied. “It’s all over now.”
“Do you think they’ll miss me?”
“I do. I think we miss everyone who leaves our lives, even if they weren’t a great memory. The bad memories shape us just as much as the good ones.”
Gerald chewed at his lip. “I hit him.”
Gerald nodded. “I couldn’t stop myself. Too angry. He was too different. I don’t even know. Candice tried to stop me. I didn’t hit her though. I punched the wall instead. That counts for something, right?”
“It might, Gerald. How do you feel about that now?”
“Sad.” Gerald replied. “Lonely. Regretful. None of the things I was mad about mattered.” He looked up at Shannon with wet eyes. “Will I have another chance? Is that how it works?”
“I don’t know.”
“I didn’t do as well as I could have. I made a lot of mistakes.”
“We all do, Gerald. Some are worse than others, but we all make them.”
“Do you think I’ll be punished for them?”
“I don’t know. I like to think it evens out. But I really don’t know. I don’t have any answers, I just make the passing easier.”
“Why are you even here then? You don’t seem to know much of anything.” The words were said without any real heat. There was never much emotion left this close to the end. Life sucked out too much.
“I’m like an Usher.” Replied Shannon. “I help you find your seat. I make sure you’re comfortable, but I don’t stick around to see the movie.”
“What happens to people who don’t have you?”
“Oh, I’m sure they make it anyways.”
Gerald sank back into the bed, exhausted from his speech. They told him everything at the end, always. Even though he couldn’t provide any absolution, they told him. Gerald’s eyes closed and Shannon cupped his frail hand. After a time, Gerald spoke again.
“What do I do now?”
“You don’t need to do anything Gerald. You just need to rest and let go. You can be finished. All of life, everything it did to you and everything you did. You can finally put it down.”
“I think I’m ready. Will you please stay with me?”
“I will Gerald.”
“Are you…” he stopped a choked a little, emotion making his voice thick. He tried again. “Are you mad at me Shannon? For the life I led? I tried.”
Shannon smiled again. “I’m not mad at you Gerald. That’s not what I do. I just help you cross to the other side.”
“You’re not scared anymore, are you?”
“No.” He smiled. “No, I’m not. You’re right, it doesn’t hurt.”
“It’s nearly over. Do you think you want to rest now?”
“I do. I think that will be nice. You promise to stay with me?”
“Until the very end. I’ll be right here, holding your hand.”
“You’re welcome Gerald.”
It didn’t take long. Shannon braced himself for the rush that would come, the flood of memories and sensations that would pour out of the dying as they left this world. He’d pick up images, flashes of a whole life. He had gotten used to it, but he readied himself regardless.
When Gerald finally exhaled his last, a thick smoke poured from his mouth. Shannon held his face to his sleeve and tried to breath lightly. The smoke massaged him, floating around his head and body but he resisted the urge to suck it all in. In the early days, when he didn’t know better, he had done that. The results were… not pleasant. The smoke held secrets and power, but the smoke also held madness. It was part of the process and unavoidable but he had learned through experience it was best to hold his breath and breathe in as little as possible. Still, some small amount always got through in the form of scattered memories that jangled together in a cacophony. He saw an angry woman’s face. That same woman, smiling on a patio in summer. A crying child, with blood pouring from his nose. An office building. A deer behind a fence. Random pages from the book of Gerald, none of which made any sense out of order. He leaned back and waited for it to pass.
After minutes of another persons life flowing past him, it abruptly ended, the smoke dissipated. He stumbled to his feet and took a deep breath. Another person helped into wherever people went when they died.
Now came the distasteful part of his job. He had done enough of these that he had a pretty good idea of where to look, so hopefully it would be quick. He dusted off his pants, covered Gerald up with a bed sheet and arranged him in some semblance of dignity. Given the way Gerald lived, it would probably be a few days, at least, before someone found him. The smell would give it away.
He walked into the kitchen and opened the freezer. It was filled with frozen dinners and Tupperware containers that looked like they had been there for at least a year. Huge chunks of ice had gathered, partially capturing the various food items. There, behind a half-empty bag of peas was a slender coffee tin. Bingo.
He pulled the tin out and opened the lid. Inside was rolls of bills of varying denominations. Guys like Gerald didn’t trust banks and they all kept money in the freezer. If it wasn’t money in a coffee tin, it was in the mattress. Or jewelry in the sock drawer. There was always something. It was distasteful, and he didn’t love doing it, but he had to get money somehow, and it’s not like Gerald had anyone to leave it to.
He rifled through the cold bills, mentally counting. Probably about ten grand, give or take. Enough to keep him going for awhile. Not a bad night. He left the dingy apartment and shut the door behind him. Above him, easily 5 floors up, he could make out another pull. He wearily rubbed his face. He didn’t have the energy for a second one tonight. One was enough. It’s not like there was a quota. He wasn’t being scored.
Still. There was someone dying up there, maybe alone, certainly scared. He could never stop them from dying, all he could do was make it easier. It honestly made no difference if he was there or not. Whether the dying was easy or hard, it ended up at the same spot. He should just head home and call it a night.
The pull tugged at him again and he sighed. What if they were scared? What if there was no one there to hold their hand and hear their stories?
Shit. He’d do one more. One more, and then he’d call it a night. He couldn’t help everyone.