THE DARK-CLAD MAN AND MY FIRST DAY ON THE JOB
BY STEVEN MICHAEL SARBER
I stole a glance over my left shoulder, stumbling as I ran. He was still behind me, The Dark-Clad Man, though he didn’t seem to move at all. It was as if he was attached to me by an invisible tether attached to an invisible sled, and I was the sled dog.
I needed a job, but this was ridiculous.
Something in his fist glowed, spilling yellow light between his fingers. It was another of those marble-things.
He tossed the reality-altering marble (you think you can come up with a better name, feel free to use it. Me, I just call ‘em like I see ‘em) in my direction; it landed about three feet in front of me. Instantly, a fissure opened—a tear in the fabric of the real world—the real world and something else, something much darker. The fissure widened quickly, and I had no chance of avoiding it. Tripping over my own two feet, I went flailing in, head first.
My first thought after I crossed the barrier was that I’d been struck blind, then I realized wherever I was, it was pitch-black.
Slowly, as my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I saw that I was in a room with a chair, and a desk. Hollow laughter filled the room, and torches I hadn’t seen; one of either side of the desk, came to life, giving the room spooky, flickering light. The Dark-Clad-Man appeared behind the desk in a plume of smoke.
“Who are you? The devil?” I said.
“Think of me as the gatekeeper. And you’re here on a job interview.”
“So, am I dead?” I said, shaking.
“You’re terrified, why?” asked The Dark-Clad Man.
“Oh, hell and damnation and eternal torment.”
“That, son, was a rhetorical question. You are not in hell, you are not destined for it, unless that is the path you choose. You were praying earlier tonight for a job. I’ve come to recruit you.
“We need a new Reaper. I’ve kept tabs on you since your birth, as any father would his only son.”
The words hit me harder than a safe falling on my head in some old cartoon. I was flattened. My father, some sort of demon. I flashed back to my youth, asking my mother why I didn’t have a Daddy, like other kids. She never kept to the same story on that—“He left us after you were born,” or “He was a man I met for only one night” (which may have been close to the truth), or “We’re better off without him” (definitely the truth).” When I was eighteen, Mom died, suddenly and unexpectedly. I was alone, set loose to find my own way in the world.
I realized The Dark-Clad Man was talking again. I heard words, but it was like they came in all garbled and out of order. Some of what he said came through—I had to die to fulfill my destiny.
I won’t lie… I crapped my pants.
“It will be painless, and instantaneous,” he said, then touched my forearm with one finger.
I felt no change, no gasping for breath, no great clutching pain in my chest. Absolutely nothing. That’s when I knew I had to be dreaming.
Only things didn’t change.
The Dark-Clad Man gazed at me, allowing me time to collect my thoughts, smiling as he saw my realization that this was true. I knew what he smiled at, for I could see into his mind; a dark, sinister, but not necessarily evil place. After all, death was a natural part of life. His job was to impart souls on their correct paths—mine would be to collect those souls at the appointed time.
“So, do I get a black cloak and a scythe?” I asked.
“You’ve watched too many movies, however if that is your wish…” he snapped his fingers, and I was dressed as the Grim Reaper image I grew up believing in. “You needed new underpants,
“This will do, for now, I guess, but I think I’ll make some modifications,” I said, still half-believing it was a dream. “I do thank you for the new underwear, though.”
“’Tis no dream,” he said. Then he held out his hand, there were no more of the marble-things, but a glowing aura, ever-changing in shape and size and color sat there. He took a leather necklace with a small ampoule dangling from it, removed a tiny cork from the top, and the aura flew inside. “This is your soul, and you will wear it at all times, until your work is finished. Then it will be decided to which path I will send it.
“Your work must always be swift and true, judgment is not yours to bestow, that is handed down from above, or below. You were mortal, and mortal feelings still will haunt you. You cannot, must not let them interfere. When it is time for a soul to depart its earthly confines, you will touch them with one finger, as I have done with you. The souls will enter this bag,” The Dark-Clad Man handed me an ancient leather satchel. “Every morning you will bring me the bag, then go back to your curse.”
“Millions of people die all over the world, thousands every minute—how can I do it all?” I asked.
“The truth is that there are thousands of Reapers, or Collectors. You have a jurisdiction, and that is what you will canvas, like the thief in the night. You will no longer require rest, sleep, food, or any mortal pleasures. But you only will crave the dank, unstoppable horrors, and sometimes delight, of taking life.”
“Babies? Will I have to kill babies?”
“Sometimes. But don’t think of it like that. You have a job to do, their time was set long before you came along.
“Now, it’s your last night before the work begins. Come with me and I will teach you everything you need to know.”
I think he took pity on me, as our first stop was a nursing home. It wasn’t my neighborhood, or even my state, as far as I could tell. He read my mind.
“We never put you in your own hometown—too much risk of personal feelings getting in the way.
“Now, look down at that man,” he said.
The bedside lamp was off, but I could see as clearly as if a bright sun shone in the window. The man lying there, under the covers, in a peaceful sleep, was maybe seventy, wrinkled, with liver-spots on his hands, crossed on his chest. They slowly rose and fell with his breathing.
“He doesn’t look sick, just old,” I said.
“He isn’t. But it’s his time.” The Dark-Clad Man took my hand and placed my finger on the old-timer’s arm. He took one last deep breath—as he exhaled I felt his soul escape. There it was, in my hand. Well, floating above it. There was a penetrating warmth emanating from it. I flipped back the flap on the leather satchel and the soul immediately flew inside. Then The Dark-Clad Man took me by the hand, off to another collection point.
In truth, he was setting me out on my own. Of course, he would be watching me. “Follow the call. You’ll hear it—feel it—pulling at your heart.”
“Like GPS,” I said.
This should be easy, right? Put my body on autopilot and follow the course. Find the persons ready to breathe their last, touch them and detach the soul from the body.
This was easier said than done, as so many things often are.
I got through the first collections on my own without incident. Two more elderly persons, who had lived long, full lives. No moral dilemmas, nothing controversial.
Then my inner compass lead me to a room in a sorority house. I found myself standing at the bedside of a beautiful, young, vibrant woman. Her breath was even, and I could hear her heartbeat, regular and strong. What could she be dying from?
Then a young man, a coed, I assumed, entered the room. He had been crying, and was muttering.
“Cheat on me, you selfish bitch,” I was able to make out. Then more words, muddied by sobs, then a knife appeared from his pocket. I tried to scream, probably did, but the sound was not heard by the living.
The coed brought the knife across her throat, a line of red appearing from ear to ear on her otherwise perfect skin.
I had no choice; I had to touch her and dispatch her soul from her body. Then I once again had no choice—I touched the coed and stole his soul as well.
The Dark-Clad Man was immediately in front of me, a disapproving frown on his face.
“And what do you think we do now? Now that you have taken one not ready for the eternal curse?”
I didn’t have an answer for that. “You saw what he did,” was all I could muster.
“Yes, I saw. And it was not even the most horrific thing I’ve seen this week.
“Now we must pass over one who would die tonight, for there must be balance. You will have a choice, one you meet tonight you must spare—for now.”
So maybe this wasn’t the end of the world. I could spare a life to make up for the un-ripened soul I’d harvested. But who? What a decision to be left to a greenhorn like myself.
Three collections later, I came to a hospital room, the maternity ward, it appeared. The woman on the bed was dripping, her hair disheveled and matted. Her color was that of cottage cheese, except her face, which was flushed red from strain.
It was not her I was there for, however—it was the child.
“This is the one,” I said.
“Are you positive? You cannot take back your decision,” The Dark-Clad Man replied.
“Yes, save the child.”
So the baby lived. The cord, once tight around his tiny neck loosened, and life giving oxygen flooded his new lungs. I felt good about my decision, and the rest of the night’s collections went smoothly.
Until we got back to… the office, I guess you would call it. That was when he showed me.
“Here is the curse of your decision.”
It was like watching a drive-in movie.
“You have any popcorn?” I asked.
He glared at me, and snapped his fingers. A tub of fresh popped corn appeared in my hands.
“What? No butter?”
I watched as the baby I’d spared grew up. At three years old he stood at the top of a staircase, nobody was around save a little girl, about his own age.
The boy shoved the girl, and head over heels she toppled down the stairs, hitting the hardwood floor at the bottom with great force. The mother ran out from a room atop the stairs, screaming.
She bounded down the staircase, too late.
The little girl was gone.
Nobody would blame a three-year-old for the death.
At about fourteen, the boy was becoming a young man. A pretty nanny had charge of his care, and the boy was enamored by her. I watched as she politely turned away his advances.
The boy was in the kitchen, using a blender to puree some fruit, and ice. He added an ingredient, from a box I didn’t recognize until he set it back on the counter.
Rat B-Gone. Arsenic.
I gazed in horror as he brought the smoothie to the nanny, a peace offering, of sorts.
Once again a death not attributed to the boy.
This went on. By the time he was a full-grown adult I counted four more murders.
Then the boy was a man. A birthday cake attributed his age to be thirty-three. After a party he began to give a speech, calling himself the messiah. People cried, cheered, and fainted as he touched them.
I had spared the Anti-Christ.
“Don’t be ashamed, the world has waited for his arrival, and it was inevitable,” said The Dark-Clad Man, before extinguishing the ‘movie.’ Then he left the room in a cloud of smoke and steam.
I should have been horrified. Maybe I was. But I decided to find what passed in this world as a bar, have a beer, and contemplate the meaning of life, death, and everything in between. Then I would get some rest.
After all, tomorrow was another day.