This story by Joanna South Dunn is a runner-up in the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Joanna South Dunn lives in South Carolina with her husband David, her two shelter dogs Maggie and Jack, and her two hunt horses, Dewey Redbird and the Ace of Spades—all of whom wish she would spend less time at her desk and more time feeding them.
The Grim Reaper was having a bad day; he was hopelessly behind schedule and losing ground by the minute. His first four collections had been routine and efficient: deaths caused by old age, lymphoma, liver failure, and a heart attack. All four souls had been ready and willing to go.
The schedule-wrecking culprits had been three unanticipated demises: murder by a jealous ex-husband, a broken neck from a fall, and a grisly traffic death. Each of those events had necessitated his immediate attention—the collection of souls ripped abruptly from the body was often difficult and time-consuming—but he had eventually prevailed with patience and a bit of ingenuity. Now his fifth scheduled collection was meeting with inexplicable resistance.
He had drifted over to Portia Patoli’s brick ranch house the night before: pancreatic cancer metastasized to the bone—deadly, painful, quick. The collection should have gone without incident; folks in Portia’s condition were generally relieved to be free of their failing bodies. He had not been surprised, however, when Portia had peeked out the bedroom window and then ducked out of sight. It was, no doubt, one of those final rallies common to terminal patients at the very end. They never lasted long.
At dawn, Portia pulled the curtain back and stared at him without blinking. She reeked from the smell of cellular decay as her soul ebbed from her body. She was painfully thin and bald. She could see him, and that was only possible once her soul acknowledged its imminent departure.
She was ready.
Drawing all seven feet of his formidable frame up to full height, the Grim Reaper commenced the official summons. He swept his long arms slowly out to his sides, unfolding the voluminous sleeves of his black robe like a mighty prehistoric bird about to take flight. He held the pose (perhaps a tad longer than necessary for effect, but he felt it contributed to the solemnity of the moment), and then in one grand motion, he raised his humongous scythe high in the air with his left hand and reached out to her with his right, summoning her soul with a long, white bony forefinger. Portia squinted at him through the glass, then she threw open the window, spit on the ground, flipped him the bird and slammed the window shut.
The Grim Reaper froze. Lowering his scythe, he retreated to the edge of the terrace. Portia’s anger, he knew, masked her profound fear of death, a fear universally shared by all humans, and that anger was often directed at him because humans believed he was the agent of death. It was simply not true. His responsibilities were delineated in Rule 1478 of the Ancient Traditions established by Big G Above: he was only a guide sent to collect the soul at the time of death and deliver it to the ferryman on the River Styx.
The heavy-hooded black robe and ghastly-looking scythe didn’t help matters any. His collections would be far more efficient if his attire was less frightful; newly-released souls might be drawn to him instead of paralyzed with fear. Some years back, he had proposed an alternative to the Traditions Committee (composed of two ancient prophets and some obscure saint): a silky robe in, say, a soft robin’s egg blue and a shepherd’s crook instead of the scythe. But the angels had raised a thunderous cry of objection on the grounds that the proposed attire was too similar to their celestial white robes and trumpets, and the idea had been promptly and decisively dismissed. Prima donnas, those angels—every one of them.
Ah. Well. Portia’s anger could only delay the inevitable for so long. All he could do was wait.
At dawn Portia slipped out the back door and stood facing him, head bowed and hands clasped behind her back. Finally, he thought, and moved towards her cautiously, forgoing a replay of the official summons for fear she would spook. When he was ten feet away, she raised her head and held his gaze with uncommon boldness for a human at this stage of departure. Suddenly she pounced, assaulting him with a long plume of noxious chemical foam from a can of Raid Wasp Spray she had been hiding behind her back. The Grim Reaper beat a hasty retreat to the woods abutting the yard.
And there he stayed. Late in the afternoon, he stood his scythe up against the trunk of a maple tree and patted the folds of his robes, searching for the pack of Marlboros he had lifted off the body of Jordan Coles—an act that was arguably a violation of Rule 9763 (or was it 9736? Who could remember?): The carcass of the deceased shall not be disturbed in any way. Clothing and valuables shall be left intact. He had not disturbed the carcass when he pilfered the half-visible pack of Marlboros from Jordan’s bathrobe pocket, and the cigarettes, which had been the precipitating cause of death (Stage Four lung cancer), could hardly be classified as “valuables.”
The Grim Reaper grunted with satisfaction. The angels might be able to hover and proclaim and perform the occasional miracle, but they were remarkably unimaginative when it came to matters of interpretation.
A shower of stones bounced off his robe. “Pssst . . . hey, Mister.”
The Grim Reaper turned his great head to the bank of wild privets to his left. Two young boys were crouched behind the bushes peering up at him.
The tubby one with the crew cut said, “Whatcha doin’? You ain’t supposed to be back here.”
The smaller one with two missing front teeth and a pronounced under bite nodded vigorously. “That’s right. Ol’ Miss Portoli, she’s real sick, my momma told me so, and we ain’t supposed to pester her any.”
The Grim Reaper examined the boys from the depth of his hood. How was it possible they could see him? They were not on the schedule for a planned collection, nor had he been notified of any untimely demises. He searched the unlimited databank of his memory, but he could not come up with a single Rule that covered this situation: humans who were not scheduled for collection but who could see him. He sighed; Big G Above loved to pitch a curve ball from time to time.
The tubby one pointed at his black robe. “Hey Mister, how come you dressed so funny? You a preacher or sumpthin’?”
“Naw,” said the smaller kid with the unfortunate dental issue, “he ain’t no preacher ‘cause he smokes and he ain’t got no bible.” He sniffed the air. “Plus, he stinks. Ewww! He stinks, just like . . .,” he crinkled his nose, “just like . . . poo-poo!”
“Whoa!” squealed the tubby kid, pinching his nose with pudgy little fingers, “Black and stinky! Poo-poo man!” Cackling with delight at the sound of the naughty word, the boys scrambled to their feet chanting “Poo-poo man! Poo-poo man!” and commenced pelting him with pine cones.
The Grim Reaper was flummoxed. In the course of 24 hours, he had been cursed at, sprayed with wasp spray like a common insect, attacked by pip-squeaks and accused of being malodorous in the basest of terms. Quivering with indignation, he turned slowly towards the boys, stretched up to his full height and extended his arms out so wide he blocked the sky from their view. He raised the scythe into the air and pumped ferociously, setting the folds of his enormous black robe into vigorous motion. It was overkill, but it had the desired effect: the boys shrieked in terror and took off, tripping over their own feet in their panic to escape.
He turned back to the house; still no sign of Portia. He checked the position of the sun in the sky. It was late and he had other collections to attend to by the end of the day, and the daily quota had to be met (Rule 1442) to prevent a potentially dangerous ripple in the space/time continuum. There was an abstruse rule permitting substitution of collections so long as the substituted collection was not forced or materially hurried along in any way (Rules 1234, 1235, 1236 et seq.). In his opinion, Portia’s extraordinary resistance to letting go provided a sound basis for invoking the rule. The McDonalds down on Sherman Street had a 15-year-old golden retriever named Sam they were planning to put down the next day; perhaps he could pull a few strings and move the departure up a few hours. It would be a relief to all concerned if old Sam died in his sleep.
The Grim Reaper turned and drifted back towards town. Sam would be glad to see him. Dogs were easy. They were always up for a walk, and if he smelled like shit, well, so much the better.
Portia’s time would come. Like taxes, that was certain.