A Dance With Death

A short story based on A Tale Of Two Reapers
By Jack Wallen

I have a confession to make.
Don’t worry, it’s not one of those where you find out I have dead bodies buried in my backyard. First off, I don’t have a back yard. Second, well, that’s laughable…considering my job.
My name is Grim.
I’m a Reaper.
Correction, I’m the Reaper.
Anyway, this isn’t about the job I’ve had for centuries, this is about my confession—of sorts.
Are you ready for this?
I hate being social. It should come as no surprise, given that I see death’s aura swirling around the dying and, when I do, I’m charged with reaping the enshrouded soul. With that bit of knowledge in your spank bank—is that how that works, I never really understood the psycho-sexual behavior of humans—you should get why I cannot stand hanging with this mortal coil.
But hey, what’s a Reaper to do when he’s binge watched every television show ever made, read every book printed between the seventeen hundreds and the year of the Purple One, 1999. Why I stopped there is beyond me.
Seems fitting now that 2016 took one of the greatest souls to have ever existed.
But I digress.
You’ll have to forgive me, digression is a talent I’ve honed to an Occam’s Razor-sharp edge.
What was I saying? Oh yes, socializing. The dread plague, I often called it.
Over the last decade or so, I’d found myself avoiding any and all human contact. Beyond salvaging their souls for reclamation, I wanted nothing to do with the living.
Save one.
Jonesy was special. The young man suffered from some form of mental illness. I never asked and he never told. The issue never failed to come out to play when he spoke. Even so, Jonesy was one of the good ones. How he and I met is a guilt corset I wear to this day. He and his mother were out running errands. I was plying my trade, reaping souls like a mad bastard, when I spotted them. They were walking up Forty Second Street, hand in hand. Jonesy had the biggest grin plastered across his face; the kid was in absolute heaven. That perfect glee could have been caused by the slice of pizza pie in Jonesy’s hand that could have only come from Louis’ Pie Shack. Or maybe it was the company. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered, because of the ink-black aura that swirled around Mrs. Jonesy.
In my line of work, black meant death. The darker the aura, the nearer to the big nap. Mrs. Jonesy was seconds away. I wasted no time and dove into the woman. To this day I remember the smell of her aura—patience and moth balls.
Jonesy stood over his mom, eating his pizza, unsure of what was going on. For whatever reason, I grabbed the kid, looked him straight in the eye, and said…
“It’s a new world out there kiddo.”
Jonesy’s voice pimp-slapped me from my reverie. He laughed and continued. “Is it booty-o-clock?” A wail of a laugh escaped his mouth.
I glanced at my watch. “It’s always booty-o-clock, my friend.”
Laughter all around.
“Seriously, my b-b-brother from annnnother,” Jonesy’s voice had a penchant for skipping and tripping when overstimulated. “There is ssssoooo much booty here, how c-c-could you ever choose? A p-player like you could g-get anyone he wanted.”
I laid my hand on Jonesy’s. “I got everything I need right here, my friend.”
Jonesy yanked his arm away with a laugh. “You’re not m-m-my type. I like my men with b-b-boobs.”
A woman with cascading scarlet curls falling over her shoulders caught my attention. She stared my way, her piercing green eyes threatened to melt me from within. A slightly tilted smile spoke curious volumes. She raised a hand to wave. I glanced behind me to ensure she wasn’t attempting to catch the attention of a bigger better deal.
“Dude,” Jonesy hissed. “That hottie is soooo ch-ch-checkin’ you out. You are on fire.”
“You certain she’s not lookin’ for a little Jonesy action tonight?”
My friend cackled. “Thanks for playin’, but wr-wr-wrong answer.”
I was about to set Jonesy straight when the crimson queen backed away from the bar and threaded her way through the crowd…and stopped directly before our table. She stared down at Jonesy and me with the most glorious smile; her writhing aura a majestic purple.
“My name’s Kara.”
Jonesy squealed. “Like S-Supergirl!”
Kara’s face lit up. “I love that show.”
“B-Be still my heart.”
I decided to run interference, before Jonesy drove so far into crushtown I’d never retrieve him. I offered my hand to Kara. “My name’s Grim and this is Jonesy.”
Another kryptonite smile.
“Glad to meet you both.” Kara turned to me, a crimson glow rising to the surface of her cheeks. “Actually, I was wondering…”
The music shifted. The Lucky Chops rendition of Adele’s Hello. Be still my heart. Beauty and good taste in the cities finest buskers.
Kara’s blush deepened. “I requested this song, hoping you might dance with me.”
This was one of those moments I so badly wanted to dive into the Netherelm and toss a hearty j’accuse at Fate. Women this beautiful never found their way to me. I’d reaped plenty whose adorbs was on part with Kara’s, but that was the extent of our interaction—me sucking soul. The last time anyone asked me to dance was back in the eighties. That incident ground to a shameless halt when I realized it was just some random woman singing “The Safety Dance” at the top of her lungs. Like her friends, she left me behind.
This time around, there was no mistaking the moment. Kara was asking moi to take a turn on the dance floor. Cut a rug, as it were.
I could cut a rug. I’d cut many in my time.
I glanced over to Jonesy and raised a tell tale eyebrow.
“I’ll be f-fine. I’m sure some hottie’ll come along for me any m-minute.”
Out of the blue, Kara leaned in and gave Jonesy a kiss on the cheek.
Son of a bitch, I thought. I could marry this woman.
Before I made an absolute jackass out of myself, I tugged Kara out onto the dance floor and, unwittingly, made a fool of myself anyway.
You’d have thought, after existing for centuries, I’d enjoy some serious skills when the music did play. Would that were the truth. Instead, I was all thumbs on my two left feet.
“You two brothers?” Kara yanked me from my internal lashing.
“No. Yes. Sort of. He lives with a foster family who cares for him. I serve as his link to the real world. He and I meet once a week and share a laugh.”
Kara dug her face into the crook of my neck. Who’d a thought Jonesy would wind up the greatest wing man to have ever existed. Not that a Reaper needed a…who am I kidding? I needed every bit of help…offered or not.
I felt Kara’s warm breath sigh onto the exposed flesh of my neck. “That’s so sweet.”
“It’s not as charitable as you might think. I actually enjoy the guy’s company. I can’t imagine existing in this world without him.”
Kara cozied up even tighter. “Where have you been all my life?,” she asked.
“You’d be surprised,” I mumbled.
“It’s like fate brought us together, Grim.”
I so badly wanted to set her straight on the myth of predestination, but opted to forgo the lecture. The last thing I needed, with such a lovely specimen of mortality in my arms, was to come off as a member of the lunatic fringe. Besides, that wasn’t my shtick.
Kara rested her head against my chest and we finished out the song. She pulled back and said, “Damn, the bari sax in that number rumbles my libido.”
Check please, I thought. Instead of voicing the cheesy line, I opted for, “Should I request the DJ spin it one more time?”
I may as well have wink-winked and nudged-nudged. Damn I am so out of practice. Whoever said it was like riding a bicycle must have never actually ridden a bike. The act of dating was more in line with a rocket science comparison.
Schrodinger probably never dated.
Would we ever know?
Which is a lie. The man was married. One cannot go from single to married without having to navigate the waters of dating. If it were possible, I’m certain a quantum physicist could pull off the trick.
“Buy me a drink?” Kara asked.
“Hell, I’ll buy you the bar.”
Yeah…I actually said it. Regret doesn’t do that particular moment justice.
Damn I’m awkward. Fortunately, not in a creepy uncle awkward way; more like pimply guys in the AV club kinda way.
With a bit of shock and awe, Kara planted a kiss on my lips. When she pulled back, the reflection off the disco ball sent a thousand sparkles shimmering from her eyes. “You go to the bar and I’ll retreat to the table and check up on your buddy.”
I nodded, feeling a bit like I was committing treason. I’d vowed to never leave Jonesy’s side while we were out. Yet, here I was, allowing some piece of strange to take the lead of guys night out. Fortunately, Jonesy would understand.
Kara turned and walked toward the table. The second I caught a glimpse of her legs, the treasonous thoughts flew a very befuddled coup.
“I just danced with that glorious woman,” I said to myself. With a prideful nod, I turned and slammed into a wall of man. My face buried deep into the big buttery slabs of his chest. I literally bounced off the guy and shot my hands into the air. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Swirling and pulsing around the man was an aura of purist black.
“Son of a bitch,” I mumbled. “Not now.”
It never failed. I go out to release some steam and forget about the day’s reaping and wind up having to mix business with pleasure. Mortals really had a knack for dying at the most inconvenient times.
Such is life and love for the Reaper.
If only more people had listened to Blue Oyster Cult, this sort of happenstance wouldn’t, well, happen.
Regardless, a soul was about to be released back into the universe and it was my job to usher it from life to death.
“Back the fuck off, jacktard,” the behemoth barked.
With two syllables, the frat pack member not only lost my respect, but my sympathy. Maybe it was the deep connection to Jonesy that had me hypersensitive to the “t” word; honestly, I didn’t care. This would be a reaping I’d actually enjoy. Had it not been for Fate’s control over me, I’d let the bastard’s soul blacken to dust. Unfortunately, that’s not how this dance worked. Dunk Tankbody had a soul and the universe needed to have it returned to the pool.
Buff Manbody grabbed a shot from a platter held aloft by a well-balanced server and slammed it back in one masculine gulp. He and his gang of hormoners barked in unison and pumped their fists. Rituals such as these always made me wonder how the human race managed to survive the rigors of living.
My new bestie stepped in close to me and blew a stream of rage through his nostrils. “I’m going to crush that face of yours into an average looking pulp.”
His threats needed work. But then, he was about to get the long kiss goodbye, so I was willing to give the guy a pass.
I exhaled every molecule of O2 from my lungs, feeling my body fade to incorporeal, and dove, head first, into Chunky McBeefslab.
Within seconds I was inundated with the smell of too much cologne and over compensation. Memories of football games lost, a nine-to-five life lived within the three carpeted walls of a cubicle…and something dark. This is the part of my gig that I couldn’t stand. When those tucked away truths bubbled to the surface of my awareness, I most often wanted to pull out, screaming and kicking.
A memory assaulted my consciousness. Fists cracking bone. Clothes being torn. Sex forced upon. His girlfriend, a prostitute, a stranger…it didn’t matter. The truth was, the man had done very bad things and I had the bitter pleasure of experiencing them all.
I drew the soul into my lungs. The rotten taste of the douche bag’s essence made me want to toss a rainbow yawn as I pulled out. That was not possible. I had to hold every last vile molecule of this man’s soul in my lungs until the moment of his expiration.
It burned. Rusty Manwater’s soul thrashed against the walls of my lungs. The bastard spirit wanted nothing to do with the claustrophobic confines of my chest. I sealed my lips tight and locked my diaphragm in place. This physical assault wasn’t usually the case; but this guy was a shit stain on the fabric of life…so it made sense that his soul would eat away at the flesh of my bronchioles.
For a brief second my mind spun around the thought of this soul being one of the malicious variety…a Scythe. They were responsible for all the evil pricks in society. Hitler, Pol Pot, Mussolini…that bad-boy list went on and on and on, every last one of them made possible by a writhing, gaseous evil.
After a wolf-like howl to the moon, the soon-to-be-dead man shook his head in tragic confusion. His eyebrows knitted together and his mouth drew into a tight-wound circle. Without sound or warning, Match Flamethrower dropped. One second the dude was on, the next he was off. Life in binary…as it were.
I weaved my way through the crowd, stepped through the exit, found a darkened alley, and exhaled the soul into the air above me. The writhing mass of black smoke wafted upward. As it rose, the color shifted from black to white, until it completely disappeared.
“Soul reaped,” I said with as much pride as I could muster. Turns out, the prick’s spirit wasn’t a Scythe. Good thing; I was in no mood to chase down a Scythe tonight.
Before my absence was noticed, I made my way back into the bar and returned to our little table. The music had gone silent and the crowd was reacting to discovering a dead man on the dance floor. I so badly wanted to shoot my hand in the air and beg the DJ to play Dead Man’s Party, by Oingo Boingo.
Out of respect for the dead, I refrained. Besides, such snark would certainly ruin my chances with…
“Serves that bastard right,” Kara whispered across the table.
Jonesy spoke over Kara. “The G-Grim Reaper has sh-sh-shitty timing,”
I shot a glance at Jonesy. I knew there was no way he knew my secret existence. Even so, the coincidence was jarring.
Jonesy twisted his body toward Kara. “W-wait, you knew him?”
Kara’s face flushed and her pupils dilated with a demonic rage. For the briefest of moments, I wanted to do a quick dive inside her to make sure she wasn’t some dark force sent to take Grim the Reaper down. I refrained. The last time this cat got too curious about a woman, I instantly regretted the act. Finding out someone is profoundly not into you during a date really puts a damper on the evening.
Sometimes a little secrecy is a good thing.
“As much as I’m ashamed to admit it, yeah…I knew him. He and I dated for a brief period. When I didn’t…” Kara paused. I knew exactly where she was going with her story and wished like Hell I didn’t. “Let’s just say things took a bad turn and I stopped taking his calls.”
It didn’t take Stephen Hawking to add this two and two together. Kara had been the woman at the end of the Tank Chunderbust beating I witnessed mid-reap. The revelation made me want to rush back out into the heart of the city, suck the bastard’s soul back in, and swallow it down hard…on the off-chance it manifested itself into another abusing son of a bitch.
But that’s not the way of the Reaper. Instead, I laid a gentle hand over top of Kara’s and said, “You okay?”
She smiled. The shape of her lips and brilliance of her teeth lit up the room like the sun had ventured in to order a round for everyone.
A pair of EMTs wheeled a body-bag out into the night. I was surprised that every patron wasn’t asked to remain in the establishment for questioning, until I heard someone whisper heart attack.
The DJ went full-on DeadMou5 and spun up a raucous mix of trance and dubstep. The crowd instantly forgot about Grim Reaper’s visit—pun intended—and danced as if everyone was watching.
“I love this s-song,” Jonesy shouted.
“Wanna dance?” Kara asked.
Jonesy’s cheeks went full plaid blush as he howled an ebullient laugh.
“Seriously,” Kara prodded, “you and me.”
Jonesy nodded excitedly and stood on slightly awkward legs. Kara took his hand, looked my way, and mouthed, I’ll take care of him.
I nodded. What could I do? Refuse my best friend a dance with a beautiful woman? What special fresh ass would stoop to that level of cock blockage? Not I, that’s for certain.
Kara led Jonesy to the edge of the crowd so I could keep a watchful eye on the two. She pulled Jonesy’s hands to her shoulders and held him securely. The man looked as if he’d stepped through Heaven’s gates and was waltzing with Ginger Rogers herself.
Ah, Ginger. Reaping that woman’s soul was such a glorious tragedy. Her spirit smelled of truth and the stage; memories of dancing with Kelly and Astaire were enough to keep me going for years.
Again, my mind raced back to now and the single question my heart dared ask…how in the hell did the dance gene so handily escape my DNA?
As I watched Kara and Jonesy doing an awkward side-to-side to shuffle, a woman walked passed; as she did, her foot tangled in a passerby’s leg and sent her flailing toward the floor. I jumped at the chance to actually save someone for a change. As my hands reached for her, I spotted her aura shifting from an innocent mauve to black. Under normal conditions, I’d have pulled out of the downward spiral and allowed fate to take care of the situation. This time, however, I was committed. I scooped the woman up and had her back on her feet…crisis averted.
The woman’s eyes rolled up, she shook her head, and sent a fountain of pea soup splashing down on my pants and shoes. Without so much as a “thank you for saving my life” or “sorry I souped your trousers”, the woman stumbled off, back into the crowd.
Beyond the fact that I smelled of bile, I could now feel Fate’s tug at the base of my brain. I was so fucked for saving that woman. You’d think Fate would, I don’t know, cut me some slack every so often; but the rules are the rules. Hopefully the conductor of the Universe understood that save, like the vomit shower, was purely accidental.
“Here ya go,” a rather masculine voice yanked me from my inner monologue and offered up a towel. “I cut her off an hour ago, but someone continued sending drinks her way. I have a feeling he didn’t have the best intentions.”
I accepted the offered towel. “Thank you. I don’t suppose you have a shower in the back do you?” I laughed. “Tell me, was the guy buying her drinks…”
“The dude that was just wheeled out by the EMTs?”
I nodded.
“Yeah. One and the same. I’ll be honest with you, I’m surprised that bastard hadn’t been shanked or shot already. He was bad business. This is going to sound really shitty, but I’m glad the Grim Reaper finally put that fucker out of our misery.”
I so badly wanted to correct the barkeep. I, Grim the Reaper, do not end lives. I’d love to know when and how that rumor was started. Who am I kidding? It’s not like I could go back in time and do something about it. Besides, mortals have an overwhelming need to compartmentalize. If they found out—after decades of believing the Grim Reaper was a cloak wearing, scythe yielding specter—that the Reaper was actually a fine looking specimen of the male persuasion who didn’t carry a deadly farm implement, they’d come undone.
Or so I told myself.
I offered the man his towel back. The second he winced, I withdrew my hand. “Sorry. I’m sure you’d rather not grab a handful of towel soaked in cooling puke.”
“I’ve held worse. My name’s Jake.”
Jake offered up a Abercrombie-esque smile. I was certain he had matching abs beneath his too-tight tee that was tissue thin in just the right places.
This moment had taken a turn I wasn’t expecting. I’d been told, time and again, that I gave off a vibe. The amount of time I spent in denial on that issue would embarrass even me.
“I’m Grim.”
Jake nodded. “As in reaper?”
“One might say that, yeah.”
Jake laughed. “Good looking and funny.”
Time to broach the subject. “I hope you don’t think…”
Another laugh from gorgeous Jake, this time accompanied by blush that would shame an entire MAC counter. “Oh damn. I’m sorry. I just assumed…”
“It’s okay. I get that a lot. Maybe the Universe is trying to tell me something.”
I made a joke of it, hoping Jake wouldn’t assume I was some homophobic jackass.
He offered me his card. “If you ever decide to listen, give me a call.”
With a wink, Jake accepted the towel, turned, and made his way through the crowd.
“W-w-what’s that smell?” Jonesy gagged a bit as he reached the table.
Kara spotted the wet spots on my pants. “You didn’t…”
“Oh no. I didn’t even have the pleasure of drinking myself into such an oblivion as to cause a self inflicted shame of this level. It was a drive by puking. Don’t worry, my man Jake had my back.”
Kara laughed. “You mean the bartender?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“That man is shameless. He’ll hit on anyone.”
“Are you dashing my man crush to bits?”
Kara leaned in and kissed me gently on the lips. “Only if it got in your way of crushing on me.”
I was certain everyone in the bar could hear me swallow down the nervous lump in my throat. When the world didn’t stop, I realized I was being paranoid. I offered up my warmest smile and replied, “Nothing could get in the way of my crush on you.”
As the last syllable left my lips, Fate decided it’d had enough of my joy. The aura surrounding Kara swirled with threads of darkness until she stood behind a veil of translucent black.
“Son of a bitch,” I whispered as my heart shattered.
“You okay?” Kara asked.
What could I say? No, I’m miserable because you’re about to die? I’d just fallen victim to Fate’s shitty sense of humor and timing.
“Grim?” Kara said as she placed a palm to my cheek. “You don’t look so good.”
“I don’t feel so good.” I replied.
Kara did her best to comfort me. The irony of the moment promised to nail me square in the heart for years to come. I closed my eyes tight and counted to ten. Certainly the darkening aura was nothing more than my vision playing tricks on me. Maybe it was the flickering lights or the stink of bile still wafting into my nostrils.
When I opened my eyes, Kara’s aura was unchanged.
She was going to go soon; I had no idea how, but it was going to happen. The cherry on top of this shit sandwich was very soon I’d have this woman’s soul within me.
A phone rang. Kara’s eyes widened as she scrambled for her purse. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I have to take this call.”
Jonesy came at me, a mile-wide smile planted across his face. “D-did you see me d-d-dance?”
“I did, my man. It was a glorious sight.” It took every ounce of resolve I could muster to have any sort of meaningful exchange with Jonesy. All I could think about was losing something wonderful before it had a chance to start.
I should know better, I thought. This had happened to me before, only not so suddenly. A hazard of the gig, I always told myself. Being the Reaper meant being immortal; being immortal meant eventually losing everyone around you.
Love had been off my table for centuries. Why I thought now would be any different was beyond me.
Kara returned her phone and looked at me with a face that melted my heart. “I’m so sorry. That was my sister. She was babysitting our mom while I was out and it seems her youngest daughter had an accident. I have to get home asap. I don’t suppose I could…” She closed her eyes. “…have your phone number.”
In that instance, Fate yanked my heart out and pulverized it. I wanted to race off, find a dark alley, and weep. Instead, I grabbed a napkin and asked, “Got a pen?”
Kara retrieved a lipstick from her purse. I wanted to pocket the tube so I’d have something that had touched her lips for the rest of my life. Instead, I humored her and wrote out my number.
“Here ya go. I promise if you call me, I will answer it before the second ring.”
Kara pulled me into a hug and whispered, “I think we could have something really special here.”
I planted a kiss on her cheek and returned the hug. Trapped in Kara’s embraced, I exhaled every ounce of air from my lungs and dropped into her. Once inside I began the process of inhaling her soul; it smelled of lavender and honesty, hope and wonder. Memories of caring for her mother washed over me, every second of Kara’s film filled me with sorrow. She was a rarity within this collection of humanity…good in every possible way.
When I pulled out, Kara raced off, away from me…for good. I stood inside the club, knowing what would come next. Seconds later, the squealing sound of tires punched me in the heart. I wanted so badly to not know how she died. I wanted to venture back in time a few hours and replay the evening again and again…feel the lead up to love over and over. But that’s not the way it is for the Reaper.
A small crowd raced outside. Screams and cries quickly followed.
I realized I was still holding Kara’s soul in my lungs and had to release it immediately. She was gone and if the Universe deserved to have a soul returned to the pool, it was certainly this one. There was one complication. If I head out, Jonesy would follow suit. The last thing I needed was to have him see the woman he’d only just danced with lying dead on the streets of New York.
If this was going to happen, it would have to be before the EMTs arrived. Jonesy had a thing for emergency vehicles. If an ambulance arrived, he’d want to watch the entire scene unfold.
I gave Jonesy a pat on the back and nodded toward the outside world. He understood and we made our way to the exit.
“Th-there sure is a big crowd. What’s going on?”
The second we were outside of the bar, I tilted my head back and release Kara’s soul back into the wild. As the aura rose, it shifted from black to gray, to white…until it finally vanished.
Kara was gone. Someday that glorious soul would find its way into another host, but the woman I’d fallen for was no more.
My heart splashed into my gut. I wrapped an arm around Jonesy’s shoulders and said, “Let’s avoid this crowd and get a taxi down the block.”
“F-fine by me. You know how much I hate c-c-crowds.”
The sound of a siren called out from a distance…a sound that served as a reminder that someday soon I’d have a talk with Fate and beg for a chance to experience real love. Just once.
“You gonna t-take Kara out on another date, playah?” Jonesy said, his voice filled with a curious joy.
My heart continued drowning in a miasma of breakage. I couldn’t, however, let Jonesy know of my struggle. I wasn’t going to be the one to re-aquaint the man with death and all its sorrow-inducing truth. “I can’t think of anything more I’d like to do, Jonesy.”
“Hey,” Jonesy slugged me in the shoulder. “I r-r-resemble that remark.”
We walked in silence for a bit, the siren drawing nearer.
“I’ll w-w-arn you, Grim. If you d-d-don’t go out with K-kara…I will. Any m-man would be a f-f-fool to miss out on h-her.”
“You got that right, my friend.”
I hailed a cab. When the familiar yellow car pulled up, I instructed the driver where to drop Jonesy off, slipped him a twenty, and said my goodbyes. “Next week, my friend.”
“Can’t wait,” Jonesy said as I helped him into the cab.
The vehicle zipped off, leaving me alone to further spiral into a rather dark and dismal chasm with my thoughts and grief. It was going to be a very long night.
Before I had a chance to wallow too deep, I spied a group of young males…all of which were sporting pitch black auras. I wanted so badly to turn a blind eye to the kids, but knew I was probably already on Fate’s shit list at the moment. I had no choice.
As if I ever did.
The Reaper’s work is never done.

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