by Russell Huneke
I lay here in the heat. It's hot tonight, just like it has been all this summer. The damp, saturating humidity makes it feel like you're walking through a sauna the whole day through! I toss and turn, feeling the sodden sheets stick to my bare, slimy skin. I have no air conditioner and the heat is merciless for a man my age! I'm seventy-nine for crying out loud!
A raspy cough rips from my throat. I'm sick on top of everything else!
I suppose the fan shall have to suffice for now. All it does is blow the swampy air around, but its better than nothing...I suppose.
My eyes shift and roll in the darkness. I close them, trying to will myself to sleep, but the oppressive heat feels heavy in my lungs like inhaling mud. I close my eyes and feel the darkness press in on me as I hear the errant clinking sound of the metal fan at the foot of my bed as it rattles on in a slightly uneven cadence. Then suddenly comes another sound. This one faint and distant, and slightly muffled, but there nonetheless. I recognize it immediately. It's the sound of the hallway elevator coming up. The aching sound of the doors opening are familiar. I look at my analogue clock on my bed stand.
12:30 it reads.
Probably some drunken reveler returning from a night of shameless debauchery. Although I've lived in this complex twenty years, I never keep much track of the comings and goings of faces and people. I'm a bit of a recluse.
I listen for the slam of a door to certify that one inebriated derelict has found his destination, but I hear no slam. What I do hear is knocking. It sounds like the door across the hall, but I can't be sure. Knocking. Steady and trenchant enough to be irritating and...even more so...down right aggravating!
"What kind of crazy sumnabitch comes calling on folks at half past midnight?" I grouse to myself as I peel my crumpled body from the sweaty sheets and shamble on down the hall; a loose, phlegmy cough rattles in my throat as I go. I reach for the light switch and then decide better. I go for the more clandestine approach and peek through my peephole into naked hallway that is only faintly illuminated by the bare, sallow glow of the weak hallway lighting. A man stands in front of the door directly across the hall from me, his broad back faces toward me. He is wearing a long, dark trench coat and continues rapping at the door with a regular rhythm. A trench coat! In this heat? I shake my head as I peer from my peephole and remain as quiet as I can. I want to wrench the door open and lash out sharp brays of protest, but something about this figure is ominous and fear chills my bones with an odd little shiver. I keep watching and after a few minutes, the figure turns and walks toward the elevator, pushes the button and gets in. The door closes so rapidly behind him that I have no chance to see his face in the circular window before the car drops and whisks him away from my view. I peel my gaze away with a shrug. Slowly I shuffle back to my bed and return to my attempt at sleep. The damp bed sheets feel sick against my narrow bones and my shirt is caked to my chest with a tight sheet of pungent perspiration. The fan rattles in the muggy silence and I close my eyes.
I swim up from my brittle slumber. An hour has passed. The faintly numb drowsiness is broken by thumping sounds emitting from the hall outside. I rise again, eyes bleary and mind swimmy and feel my way through the pithy void of night. I peep through my peephole again, looking out on the hallway. The strange, dark figure is back. I didn't hear the moan of the elevator this time, but it is the same man...or at least what appears to be a man. And now my fear and weariness is replaced with a slowly burgeoning rage. I flip on my lights and a thin wedge of light seeps from below my door and splays out sharply into the hall. The figure must have heard the snap of the lights or my movements inside because it turns about rapidly like some kind of jagged shadow shifting over the walls in the sickly yellow hallway light. It looks directly toward my door; directly towards me! It's face is still shrouded in shadows. It's hair is a dingy mop of electric gray mangled on its head, and the face is obscured slightly by its upturned collar. Lame yellow eyes peer out, connecting completely with my line of vision, as if he...or it can see through walls! I blench away from the peephole as fright tightens around my neck. That was a creepy dark gaze if ever I'd seen one! I don't want to confront whoever or whatever lurks under the hoods of those malign yellow eyeballs. I just want to sleep. I just want him to stop that infernal pounding and go back to wherever it was he came from! Far away from here, preferably!
I move to my leather couch. The cushions are cracked with age and the cracks fan out into a spidery web formation. I sit there, unable to bring myself to look through the peephole again. Suppose this time the malevolent face was right up at the peephole, peering at me with its hideous yellow glare? Suppose it was a murderer!
Now I flop back onto the couch in a supine position. I mop my face with my large bulky hand and try to will away the terror I am feeling in my bones. I cough a little more, but try to subdue it as I have no idea if the strange person is still lurking in the hallway or not.
The leather couch feels slightly cool to my clammy skin. The cracks pinch a little but not too bad. My head lolls back on the rounded armrest as my hand remains over my twitching eyes.
"I'm sorry to bother you," comes a voice that stabs the silence and sends a hot sear of panic through my being. It is the man from the hall. He is standing in my doorway, having crept my door open. Had I forgotten to bolt it the last time I was there? Of all the foolishness!
"What d-do you want?" I yelp, trying to sound aggressive, but the words rattle in my throat in a shaky stutter, betraying my nervousness.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to alarm you-"
Coughs! They are stronger and broken up with ripping fits of gags.
"What right have you to come barging into a person's private apartment in the dead of night! I have a good mind to-"
"Please forgive me. I meant no harm. It's just that your door was ajar and your light was on. I've been trying to contact the party across the way and..."
"You've been jack hammering that damn door half the night and..." Coughs! "disturbing my rest! Isn't bad enough it's hot as Hades, I need this racket from you! And now breaking and entering to boot!"
My coughing turns violent and I grapple for breath. Suddenly I seem not able to catch my breath! The room is going swimmy as I hack and wheeze and the last thing I see is the dark figure running toward my kitchen and a hissing sound. A sound like rushing water...and then...blackness!
I awaken, my chest feeling tight and my throat feels like it's been burnt up. The man in the dark trench coat is patting my head gingerly with a cool cloth. The cold dampness of the cloth is refreshing to me. He has a pitcher of ice water on the coffee table next to me and has poured out a glass. The cubes glisten in the clear water and are refreshing as well.
"Easy," says the trench coat man. "You passed out! That's quite a bad cough you have there. Sounds almost like pneumonia?"
He hands me the cubed glass of water and I drink.
"Could well be. Could be a lot of things for that matter," I say as I sip briskly at the cold water, it soothes my throat and feels good going down. "I've been sick for a while..."
"Well just rest easy. I didn't mean to get you so upset! Are you feeling better now?"
I nod and say, "Yes, a little bit."
I look toward the door and then back to my secret guest. Suddenly his face doesn't look as malevolent as I had first thought it was. He looks stern, but not really threatening. His eyes are piercing, but subdued. The yellowish look must have been a trick of lighting. He is a slightly scraggly looking fellow, but more innocuous than I had first thought.
"What was all the banging and big deal about getting into that apartment across the way?"
"Oh that," says the dark man, rising to his feet and then taking a seat in my recliner across from the couch. "I had a critical appointment with the party across the way."
I slug down more iced water. The cubes tinkle against the glass like a song.
"What could be so all fired critical that you have to pound away in the middle of the night like this?"
The dark clad man throws his head back, and swipes his hand through his snarled mess of hair and tips his head up again, gazing at me.
"Well, you see his time is up. I have to claim him."
I cock a perturbed eyebrow at Mr. Trench Coat.
"What? Is he a criminal who has broken parole or something?"
"No no. You misunderstand. I have to take him. It's his time to go. That's my job. I'm the Reaper you see."
I chuckle at this nonsense. The chuckle almost trips another fit of coughing, but by dint of my will I suppress it.
This guy's fucking GONE, I think to myself. My first impression was right. He's a loony! I'd best humor him to get him out of here!
"Now wait just a minute. You mean...Reaper...as in the Grim Reaper. Angel of death and all that?"
Mr. Trench Coat smiles placidly and nods slowly. I shift up on my elbow and straighten my back.
"Ok. If you're the Grim Reaper, then why did you save me? I thought bringing death was your stock and trade? Least that's what I always heard."
"It wasn't your time to GO yet," insisted the stern faced man.
"Well, then how 'bout that gent across the hall? Why haven't you just stormed in and taken him?"
"Well I'm not allowed to just storm in. He's a stubborn cuss and refuses to believe it's his time. Usually when people are near the end of their lives, their will caves in and I just go in and claim them. But this here fellow. Well, he's giving me a devil of a time surrendering to what is obviously the inevitable! Refuses to let me in. And we can't take him until we've broken his will to live!"
All I want is to get this guy out of my apartment, I think to myself in thick determination. I have to do something to pacify him and get him moving on out of here or I'll never get any sleep!
"Okay," I say, determination rimmed deeply in my words. "Then how about a..."
"How do you mean," asks the dark trench coat man, sitting forward.
"Well, take a look at me. I'm damn near eighty...and in failing health. Maybe dying of pneumonia soon anyhow. You said so yourself!"
"Hmmmm. Very interesting. Never been done before, you know. But certainly nothing in the books against it! And one does have to balance things out, and after all a soul is a soul. But you would have to we willing, of course!"
"Oh brother, am I willing," I say, sitting up ramrod strait. "I tell you what if you can take my soul, you're welcome to it. But if by some chance you CAN'T, you vamoose and let me get some sleep, right"
"It's a deal. But you'll have to shake on it and accept all consequences that would have been applied to the other party. Do you agree to that?"
"I do indeed," I reply and shake his somewhat callused hand.
I also believe you should find yourself a good shrink ASAP, pal!
"One moment then, please," says the dark trench coated man, turning around. His hands reach in back of him, but they are not hands any more. His hands have become craggy, alabaster white bones! SKELETON HANDS! The hands reach toward what appears to be a hood and drape a cowl over it's head. Then he turns around and his face has transfigured into a skull! The skull has sunken eyes and nose as well as a twitching mandible rocking on its joints as it speaks! It brings forth a hooked scythe in one bony hand!
"Let us be on our way, shall we?"
I look at the being, thinking it some kind of trick of the eyes. But as I look at it harder and harder it becomes more apparent that what seems insanely impossible is real! I am looking at the GRIM REAPER!
I look at my glass of water and see now that all of the ice has melted. It is hotter than usual now and the remainder of water left in the glass is beginning to steam. It can't possibly be THIS HOT!
"Oh, one last thing I forgot to mention," says the skull face figure in insidious delight as it begins to laugh. "The man whose place you are taking? He was a very BAD man. His place is HELL!"
The heat intensifies! The walls begin to melt and I feel myself descending as the fiery vision of the dark skull faced phantom cackles before me; his crazy twitching skull mandible seeming to arc in a grinning rictus! The smell of sulfur and brimstone rise into my nostrils like poking fork tines as I look before me at a bleeding lake of lava and fire.
And then I hear the cries of the damned!