I sighed. By God, it stinks in here. The walls were littered with custom gold Carrara subway tiles coated in a film of disgust, and there he was, just sagging on the toilet, unaware. This couldn’t be any easier. I stood in the corner of the bathroom and watched him. His expensive designer jeans were so effortlessly thrown to the floor as his floral mesh thong dangled between his ankles. I grimaced at the sink. Greenish-yellow vomit stained the white grout lining the stone finish. A gooey stretch clopped as I lifted my foot, stepping forward. The noise startled him, causing him to look up at me. I couldn’t believe it was my hundredth anniversary as a reaper—100 years of this. 100... years... Sometimes I question my decision. Was collecting this filth of a rockstar better than Hell? Had it been easier to take a young mother away from her children? Halt a boy from getting the chance to finish high school? Steal a queens crowning? I guess I’d been a bit selfish. I pulled the small hankey from my pocket and wiped my face in an attempt to ease the stench.
I recalled the first one I collected. I knew her. The assignment was most definitely on purpose. A deal with the devil is never cut and dry. In the heat of the moment, no pun intended, most are willing to sign anything, and I had been one of them. Diane Santiago. She was my mother’s best friend and confidant. She’d been like a second mother to me. At sixty-one, she had a heart attack. I’d been pushed through a door and plopped into her kitchen. I watched as she grabbed at her chest, gasping for air. Strands of greyish-blonde hair covered her face, and her shirt had risen above her belly in the struggle.
I’d gotten no instruction for this. Papers were signed, and no words were said. They’d dressed me in a black cloque and handed me a wooden rod. A monstrous creature with red skin said, “Good luck,” that was it. I approached her in a panic. Unbeknownst to me, I didn’t look the same. I thought Diane was seeing me, Carl, the kid she’d always known, not a blurred-faced being in all black. I terrified her. Every word I spoke was muddled with demon scripture and slang.
A clear entryway appeared after a few minutes. Unsure of what to do and wanting this to end, I grabbed her arm and yanked her through. It was all white, and a very regular-looking man approached us. He had light brown skin, a buzzed haircut, and brown eyes. His teeth were impeccable.
“Diane Santiago?” he said, reaching for her hand.
She stared ahead, frightened to silence. I could tell her pain was gone, though, as she breathed normally. It made me feel better about the yanking.
“I’m guessing by the lack of an answer, you are,” he said, nodding at her. She unintentionally nodded along. “Ah,” he looked at me, “you’re the new one. I’m Mitch,” he reached for my hand.
“Carl,” I said, shaking it.
“Ah, Carl. You must’ve gotten one of the red ones. They don’t like to tell anyone anything. Just a moment.” He looked back at Diane. “Miss, could you step over here, please.” Stunned, she complied. “Diane, that black blob there,” he pointed to me as she nodded, “that’s your boy Carl. He didn’t mean to scare you. He’s new. You’re going to a beautiful place. They’ll explain more there.” Her face twisted in confusion as he'd snapped his fingers without allowing her to speak, and she was gone. That was the last time I’d see Diane Santiago and the first time I’d deliver a soul.
“Carl, is it?” Mitch said with a hint of a British accent. “Lucky you landed me, chap—a few things. The black cloque look, you can change that. You can wear whatever you want. The wooden rod is a touch more difficult and might take some practice, but you can change that too. Many of you reapers don’t read the fine print and just sign. They know how to pick you. Anyhow, you always have access to that document.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small slip of paper, “Here. When we depart from the white space, you'll return to Diane's kitchen. Go to the address on the paper.”
“Yes. What's the white space? Why are you helping me?” I said, severely confused, pleading.
“Sorry, chap, but no time for details here, and eh, I like to irritate the other side. You know? It’s like a coworker that makes you angry. They don’t train their people well. It trickles down. We can’t stay here much longer. The white space crumbles after a few minutes, and I prefer not to get lost in the void. Good day, Carl. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again.”
I blinked and was back in the kitchen just as he said. I unfolded the paper and read 28 Rue du Sergent Bauchat, 75012 Paris, France. Diane had lived right outside of Shelbyville, Kentucky.
I sighed again. The rockstar was on the way out. That noise usually signifies organ failure. “Hiya,” I said, leaning slightly to meet his eyes. He stared at me in delirium. I’m sure he’s assuming that he’s tripping right now.
“Who are you?” he muttered.
“Carl. You’re dying, and I’m here to take you to the afterlife.” He tilted his head and chuckled. The ability to communicate in this role has been life-changing. It’s a nice reprieve from the curdling screams and tears in my earlier years. That trip to France had been well worth my time.
“Yeah, okay, guy,” he laughed and reached for a syringe hidden behind his left foot. His long dark hair was caked to his forehead and highlighted how pale he was beginning to look. As awful as his appearance was, the guy was still handsome. Chiseled jawline, sculpted abs, and tattoos placed just right. Some people are meant to be famous, and some of us average-looking folk land reaper jobs. I stepped back and watched as he injected the contents of the dirty floor syringe into his arm. Not many clients blatantly ignore me. Most encounters include a long conversation, the entryway appearing, and me dragging or walking them through. His eyes glossed when the fluid hit his vein, and the entry appeared. The opening surprised me. It was the white space but no essence of hell. I thought for sure this guy was going there. I shrugged it off. I didn't care. My hundred years were up.
“You have to come with me.” I left it at that. He didn’t seem to need much more of a description, and I wanted to wrap this up.
“Okay,” he said, standing up in a wobble. I turned my head to avoid the visual of his hanging dong.
“Pull your underwear up, man,” I said, slightly irritated.
“Oh, yea, yea, all right. Ya, square.” He reached down, grabbed the pink flowered thong, swerved, and shuffled it up. “Do I have to find my pants too? You, Lucy,” he laughed.
I rolled my eyes, “through there.” I pointed at the entry. He mocked me as he walked through with no question wagging his ass in my face—deep breath. Don't care.
A woman was in the white space this time. One I'd never met. It must be my send-off person. My heart raced. I couldn’t believe it. I was done—hundred years, thousands of souls, and I was done. My eyes watered slightly in the excitement of it all.
“Are you crying, you pansy?”
My eyebrows furrowed as I looked at the tattered rockstar, “what is wrong with you?”
“What is wrong with you?” He spouted back, stumbling forward and giving me the finger.
“Boys,” the woman shouted, “please. Tyler, come here.”
The nerve of this guy. He moved away from me and stood by her eyeing her from head to toe, smirking. Disgusting. He wasn't wrong, though. She had auburn hair and the body of Jessica Rabbit. It was wild. He stuck his tongue out to me just as she snapped her fingers. That son of bitch. I rolled my neck in irritation. Deep breath. Who cares? He’s gone, and I’m done.
“Carl, is it?” She said, looking at me.
“Yes,” I said, with glee, “so you’ll be snapping for me then or what?”
“There’s an issue with your contract.”
“Oh, did you not hear me? THERE’S AN ISSUE WITH YOUR CONTRACT,” she shouted, leaning closer to me.
I winced, “No, I heard you. I’m confused as to how there would be an issue. I’ve read it multiple times. I did everything listed.”
She reached out her hand, “I’m Connie, by the way. We’ve never met.”
My mouth went dry as I shook it, “Hi, Connie.” I watched as she pulled a scroll from her leather side bag that I hadn’t noticed before. She allowed it to drop from her hand a roll along the empty white space. She sat the back half down and walked about fourteen steps forward, pointing to a line on the scroll.
“Here,” she said. I met her and looked down. “This tiny dot. It's subtext," she moved her finger from the dot to the fine print a few rows down. Very, very fine print. "At least seventy-five souls need to be delivered to Hell. Out of those seventy-five, thirty must remain for thirty years. Sorry, but your contract is extended until further notice.”
My mouth dropped open as I slid down to the white space. My head fell to my knees. I should’ve known better.
“Are you okay?” She said.
“No, Connie. I’m not okay.” That bastard. I’m never getting out of this. How would I ever accomplish that? Rarely does a soul stay in one place for an eternity anymore. Thats old school. My contract was meant for a hundred years in total. This is shit. Of course, there was a clause. How could I have missed that? My cheeks were hot, and my body ached. I felt a slight brush on my thigh. I looked up to see Connie had joined me on the ground or this floor of white nothing.
“Your Mitch’s Carl, aren’t you?” I stared at her. I’d never realized that Mitch and I had an extensive relationship.
“I guess,” I shrugged.
“You know,” she whispered, “you’ll never get out of a contract, but you could probably land a new job if you want. I heard working for Hell blows.” She chuckled.
I stared ahead. I knew I only had a few minutes left in the white space. I thought about Mitch. I thought about my first visit to France. I thought about all I’d learned in the past hundred years. I thought about just staying here and finding out what the void was. I thought that maybe I could find a way at of the contract still and that maybe Connie didn't know shit. I did know that if I took too much time thinking about an opportunity, I’d lose it.
“You’re hot as hell, Connie,” I said, scanning her whole physique.
“I’ll take that as you interested?” she said in a sultry voice. I nodded. She handed me a slip of paper. “See you here in three hours.”
I was shocked that I’d received another piece of paper a hundred years later. I was beginning to wonder what kind of game I was in. We looked at one another as the white space was starting to disappear. I let out a huge breath and threw my head back. In a blink, I was staring at the bathroom ceiling. I didn’t need to look around. The smell confirmed that I was back in Tyler’s bathroom. I yanked the paper and read Rua Balbino, 4, R. Van Erven - Catumbi, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20211-320, Brazil. I sighed. God forbid these people plan to meet me anywhere local. I pushed through the bathroom door and strolled through the house. Two people rushed past me up the stairs avoiding eye contact. Even though that guy was a dick, I still feel bad for the ones left behind to find them. I slammed the front door and made my way to my car.
“Who are you?”
I looked over to see a man standing in the driveway, “no one,” I said, getting in my car and closing the door. I've found it's not worth indulging in the ones that notice you.
“Hey,” he shouted, racing to stop me. I took a moment to stare at him. He won’t remember a thing about me—a hundred freaking years of this if I could only have that luxury. I pushed the gas pedal hard, hearing the roar of the engine. I allow myself to daydream briefly about crashing right into the tree ahead. I touched the paper in my pocket with the address confirming I still had it, and sped down the road.
I'd wake up in sheets that were woven in 14K gold, to a three course breakfast and speaking a language that I only dreamed of. I'd request the jet that I'd reserved the night before and head off to my morning coffee in Colombia. I'm hoping I was privvy to the no limit thing-or this wake up would be dreadful. Wink :)
I want to go to work. I really do. I know that’s what she wants and it’s what I want. In my gut, I know I want that too. I really do. I want that. I can make it work. I can. I know I can. I can make that work. I want to make it work. I want to make it work because I know I can. I love her so much. I love everything about her. She talks to me like no one else does. I really love her. I like her. I love her. A Lot. God, I love her. I feel like everything smells like her. Sometimes when I look at things, I think about her. Is that weird? I don’t think it is. I mean, it’s meant to be. I exhaust myself sometimes, but I love her so much. I must protect her. I’ll follow her, make sure she’s okay. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her. She’s perfect. The way the wind blows that one strand of hair she has that lays so perfectly from her right shoulder is unreal. I breathe her. She is me. I’ll do anything to keep her safe.
The television blared, "founding father and billionaire Jeremy John Wintercrest was found dead, decapitated in his hotel room this morning at 10:30 am," initiating just the right amount of adrenaline I needed to run.
The house was quiet. A few more hours and the kids would be up. I pushed myself further into the green velvet couch my husband and I picked together. It was comfortable. Fluffy, yet stiff. The fabric was exhilarating against my fingers. We bought this couch three years after trying to conceive with no luck. We hadn't given up, but when the couch arrived we were definitely more consumed with it. We'd had sex on it for five nights in a row. A few weeks later, the nausea I had was so intense I decided to take a pregnancy test. Positive. The only thing that helped my nausea was peppermint tea. My life was filled with peppermint tea.
The fireplace flickered in my eyes and I pushed my back deeper into the couch. We had three children now. Only God knows why kids two and three came so quickly. My husband and I agreed that was it. Three and done. Five of us on this planet was enough. My chest rattle and an unintentional breath escaped me as I took a big swig of warm peppermint tea.
Bark. Sniff. Sniff. Pee. Stop. Bark.
. . . . . . . . .
My wife and two children stared silently at the television, submerged in the latest news story splayed across the screen. The volume had increased at least three or four times since the story began. I was amazed at their laser focus and amusement with the topic.
Hello, folks. If you’re just tuning in with us, the police have found the body of a long-time drug lord and known tormentor, Marco Nicks.
“Can you believe it?” She shouted back to us wide-eyed with a mouth full. My wife remained silent, aggressively chewing her overcooked sirloin steak. I appreciated that she cooked for us every night. It’s just that the food wasn’t good. Since she’d seemed so lost in the moment, I took the lead and shrugged at our daughter’s comment.
The city has begun to shiver with the number of bodies that continue to pile up with no known leads.
Rolling my eyes at the comment, I wondered what the big deal was. All the bodies were of terrible people entangled in corruption, murder, and drugs. If anything, the city should be pleased. A small sigh seeped through my lips as I jammed more overly salted mashed potatoes into my mouth. Any fast-food restaurant would’ve been a better choice than this. “You like it?” I looked up to see m wife’s desperation. “Delicious,” I said, “may be the best meal yet.” I was, of course, lying, but I’ve gotten very good at it. The girls turned away from the television and agreed with me. I knew they were also excellent liars. They took after me.
The news switched to pictures of local pets, and the girls collected our dinner plates. The wafting smell of dawn dish soap started to seep into the living room. “Remember, I need to go in tonight for a supply order,” I said, nudging my wife as I stood. “I remember,” she said with a confident smile, “you leaving soon?”
I glanced at my watch, noticing a tiny red smear on the left side of the face. Without acknowledging it, I wiped it hard against my leg. I’d planned to leave two hours later but seeing red inspired me to head out immediately. My body grew angst. ’You know,” I said, “I’d better head out now. Then maybe I can get back sooner.”
“Good plan,” she said, kissing my cheek, “see you in the morning, my love.” I left her side and headed to the kitchen, hugging the girls goodbye.
The car rumbled as the engine started, igniting a rushing burn through my core. I knew that soon the police would find another trash body cast into the street by my hands, and we’d watch another lovely news story tomorrow night. Suppose they see it that fast. They’ve gotten slower, or perhaps I’ve gotten better. One day I’d tell my ladies the truth, but I’ll keep my little secret to myself for now. My grin widened as I exited the driveway.
The color purple is really something unique. It beamed in this new painting. I tilted it slightly, straightening it on the wall. I'd wanted this particular one for months. I couldn't believe he'd actually gotten for me. Leaning into the canvas, I huffed a deep breath in. The wafting smell of acrylic was still there. Boy, it was a beauty. Dark lines and fine details. It had to be my favorite piece. I continued to stare at it in awe.
The door rattled, interrupting my moment. Rolling my eyes into the back of my head and sighing loudly, I headed to the tiny peephole to see who dared to interrupt me. To my surprise, a young woman around my age stood there in a frustrated stance holding her hands on her hips. I paused to take her in. Blonde barrel curls fell below her shoulders, and her jeans sat high on her hips, synching her waist. I narrowed my eyes. Who was she? She lifted her hand and pounded on the door again, startling me. Intrigued, I cracked the door, "Can I help you?" I said sternly.
Without notice, she heaved the door into me, "Are you, Nikki?" She screamed, storming past me, but stopping in front of the painting.
"What?" I said, confused.
She laughed, "You know, that was supposed to be mine!" I looked to see her pointing at my new gift, my painting. Stunned, I had no words. I was unsure of what to do, hoping she'd just leave. She rushed towards me, backing me into the wall.
My head ached, and I was slightly dizzy as I came to. She was gone, along with my painting. The door was also still wide open. Slowly, I gathered my bearings and caught my reflection in the mirror above my sofa table. My right eye and cheek glistened a bright red, turning the whole side of my face deep purple. I winced, rubbing the wound. The color purple is really something unique.
The blooming scientist.
I'd been waiting for months, and it had finally arrived. My mother called me to the kitchen, pointing out the dust-covered window. Unable to control myself, I sprinted to it. I peeked back at the window, noticing she was more annoyed than ever with my excitement. She was so simple-minded at times.
I couldn't believe it had arrived. I'd saved every penny for it. My mind rumbled at sight. It shined bright, clean, and new. A hot, crispy metal stench singed the hairs in my nose as I pushed against it breathing in. A small sigh escaped my chest as I leaned in tighter, wrapping my arms around the belly of my brand-new galvanized tub.
Irritated that one dared to interrupt my moment, "none of your business," I shouted, not turning around.
"Mom said you have to share."
Rolling my eyes in total disgust, I yanked my body away from the base and stared at him. Then paused. He wasn't too tall yet. He'd fit quite well in the tub. He blinked back at me like an imbecile. His blonde hair caused slight nausea in my gut. My brown hair was considered "distasteful" to our mother, whatever that meant.
"Fine," I said, grabbing his arm and yanking, "get in."
"In there?" He whispered, pulling back.
My body burned as I squeezed my fists, but I was committed to this plan now and needed to stay calm. I wanted him to do as I wished. "Yes," I squeezed through my tightly gripped teeth, "in there," I said, loosening my grip.
I watched as he climbed over the side and plopped square in the middle. I often wonder if my mother cheated. "Stay there," I said, holding up both hands as I backed away. He nodded in agreeance, and I moved quickly, worried he'd change his mind. My legs wobbled, unwilling to proceed with the surge of passion.
This might work. Oh, boy, what if it did? I could be famous or, even better, rich at fifteen. I was at the back of the house, grabbing the first bag. It was unbearably heavy, but it wouldn't stop me. Heaving it over my shoulder, I went as quickly as I could. Bag one. Bag two. Bag three. All slammed as delicate as I could against the tub.
"What are those?"
I could feel my body burn as I started to twitch, "just wait and see, will you," I said sternly.
"I'm getting out. Mom!" He shouted.
"No, no, no, I was kidding. Come on. You're my science guy, right?" I nodded at him, "helping with my projects, right?"
He smiled widely, nodding back in agreement. Idiot. I sliced the first bag open with the pocket knife from my belt. There's something whimsical about a bag of sand. It's unexplainable. The puff of powder, the huff of dust, and the glimpse of sparkle make me stiff. I yank the bag from the base and begin dumping it in the tub, circling as it spills.
"Cool," he beamed at me as it began to cover his tiny legs. Ignoring him, I continued emptying bag two and bag three. Bag three was unique. It had the new mix I'd found along the road: a little dirt, some fine grey pebbles, and more sand.
I stood back, placing my hands at my waist. This was going to be good. An everlasting mud. He smiled at me. He was now covered up to his waist, hands-free mucking around in the gravel. "Enough," I shouted, "you're moving it around too much. Let it settle."
He straightened, losing his smile. "Patience," I yelled loudly as a magician would, imagining an audience, but it was only him staring blankly back, confused. I sighed. "Water," I said, appalled, "just don't move, okay?" He nodded eagerly.
I felt giddy again when I grabbed the bucket close by and jogged to the small stream behind our house. Oh, boy, what if it works? One bucket, two, and three buckets, four, five, six, seven, and eight. I wiped the sweat from my forehead. "It feels heavy," he said. I could barely contain the forced smile I had been stretching on my face to keep him entertained. "That's the point," I said, reaching for the large stick I had from another project nearby, beginning to stir. I watched as the muck got darker and darker as it combined.
"This is boring. I'm ready to get out."
"No," I shouted, holding up my hand. "Come on, buddy," I said calmly, "just a few more minutes, then I'll do whatever you want. Okay?"
I nodded. Moron. A breath escaped me. It was happening. The dark was beginning to change, becoming lighter and more complex.
"Hey, I can't swing my feet anymore in here. I want to get out."
I didn't answer. I didn't care. It was working. We could get him out later. He'll live. It was hardening. It was permanent. I think. I pumped a fist into the air. "Woohoo," I shouted.
"Moommmmmm," he let out a shrill. I shook my head. This kid has no patience. I thought as I crossed my arms.
Pain suddenly surged through my shoulder. I immediately knew it was my mother's razor-sharp fingernails digging into my bone. I've never understood how she managed to keep them so pointed.
"What have you done?" She seethed.
The Frog Prince
Feeling the warm breeze and the vibrant humming of the tiny animals around her filled her with pure bliss. The pond was surrounded by a dark green wonder, leaving most feeling at peace. Sitting on the edge, she'd tip her bare toes into the water to feel its anonymous gifts. She'd been coming to the pond since infancy. It was her mother and father's favorite reprieve. Times have changed, though, with her father lost to war and her recent proposal dictating a swift move away from her home. A quite far moved, so far that the pond would no longer exist to her.
In frustration, the young girl picked up a stone, chucking it harshly into the crystal blue water, creating a significant disturbance. Huffing a forced sigh, she crossed her arms as a toddler would, questioning her mother's demand for a wedding and how she could ever leave this pond so effortlessly. She didn't feel twenty. Her mother had insisted the final visit to the pond would've been yesterday, but there was no way she'd give up the fragrant energy of this place on her birthday, especially knowing her next birthday would be very different.
She scooted further to the edge, sliding her feet deeper into the water, as she daydreamed of her new life that would start tomorrow shortly after walking down that aisle. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath of piney pond air and smiled.
"Hi there," she heard loudly from behind her. She squeezed her eyes tighter, hoping it wasn't one of her soon-to-be husband's guardsmen coming to collect her. Gritting her teeth into a smile, she turned to see a young man around her age. His immediate beauty had stolen her words. Silently she watched as his blonde hair caught the breeze and his shirt clasped against his chiseled bust. She felt a curiosity in his dark green eyes. His smirk widened as he reached his hand to her, "Xenopus," he said, waiting on her acknowledgment.
Shaking to life, she muttered, "what?"
"My name," he said, "Xenopus. Are you from around here? I haven't noticed you before."
Smitten, she rambled, "oh yes, I've been coming here since a small child, but I'll be moving soon. Today is my twentieth birthday. Oh," she said, reaching for his hand, "sorry, nice to meet you Zeen-OH-pus," she sounded out.
He beamed, "that's right. Twenty, huh? That's quite a special year around here."
"Really?" She chirped. He nodded, "take a walk with me?"
"Of course," she said, popping up to meet his stance, brushing off the bits of grass from the back of her dress. One last adventure, she thought.
They spent the whole afternoon together. They laughed and frolicked throughout the surrounding forest. He had a way with the plants and animals that fascinated her. Every time his fingers touched her, she felt magic. They ended back at the pond edge, sitting between a set of sizeable purple fern flowers she hadn't noticed before. The smell was intoxicating. She held his hands as he stared deeply into her soul.
"I don't want to go," she whispered, "but I must." She lowered her head and began to stand, knowing that her mother would be furious if she arrived home after dusk.
"I understand," he said, gripping her hands, "but could I ask you for something?"
"Anything," she said, attempting to prolong the moment.
"One parting kiss?" He said, leaning in so closely that she felt his warm breath heat her lips. She hesitated, questioning her morality. She was to marry another man tomorrow and was prepared to do that. He was handsome and thoughtful of her, although she did not choose the marriage. She looked at Xenopus. His presence was comfortable, making her feel at ease. She held his hand tightly in her lap and suddenly pushed into him, falling freely to his lips in pure passion.
Swiftly she pulled away with remorse, feeling a weakness in her belly. An ache she'd never felt before. Locking eyes with the beautiful man in front of her sent a raw sting through her spine. She knew she had made a colossal mistake. His pupils altered to an almond shape with a yellow undertone, and a noticeable foul odor permeated the atmosphere. As his grin widened, the black sludge between his teeth became apparent. Her breath felt stolen as a sharp needle pain consumed her body like poison. She knew her existence was obsolete as a gradual burn encased her eyes, and the world around her went black.
The young girl never showed up for her morning nuptials, which led to a month-long search. Many speculated that she had gotten cold feet, but her mother knew better. Racing to the pond the morning of her daughter's disappearance, she noticed the dying purple fern on the water's edge. It had been the same fern she'd seen the day after her sister had gone missing on what happened to be her twentieth birthday. Tears filled her eyes as she stared into the now dark, black water. She was delusional in thinking her daughter would've grown bored of this pond from all the visits and ignored it. Ripping the dead fern from its home, she pleaded, "please, frog prince, return her to me. I'll do whatever you ask!"
When the response was nothing but silence, she knew it was too late, and he had already taken her to the world of misery below the muck.