Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Halloween 2021 story contest.
I leaned back, appreciating the handiwork of the birdhouse I had quite literally placed the last nail into. My eyes, squinting into the late October glow of an orange-yellow sunset, followed the horizon to the apple tree planted directly out front of my farmhouse. I spit one leftover nail onto the wooden porch deck, as I meandered down the front steps and over to the broad tree, draping the birdhouse on one of its branches.
You’d never know it was an apple tree unless I pointed it out. The poor thing had been barren for months, and I feared one more harsh winter would be the end of it. It was, sometimes, a painful memory to look at that tree. My late wife Marge and I planted it decades ago. We’d always pick the freshest fruit from it, picnic in the shadow of its branches, and enjoy some of her sweet apple pies. She always made the best pies.
But now, the tree was dying. I had neglected it. And the rest of my land followed suit. Everything was dying. If truth be told, the only critters that wouldn’t die out here were the damn rats. As hard as I tried, no matter how much rat poison and sugar I sprinkled on the porch, they wouldn’t go away. Eventually, I just gave up on ‘em.
I had lost most of my motivation after Marge passed, and this lack of care extended beyond the crops and trees. I hadn’t shaved in weeks, and half the time I didn’t bother to shower. It was just me out here, after all. The silence in place of her laughter and the rattling of her pots and pans was deafening.
Despite my, somewhat, gruff appearance, it was the people of Francis, the town I had lived in basically my entire life, that kept me going. It wasn’t a large town by any means, but the people here have always been some of the kindest folk around. Without their support, I probably wouldn’t have made it through Marge’s death.
The only other company I kept was with the scarecrow out front. Marge used to call him ‘Roy’, probably because we used to listen to Roy Rogers on the radio every night. Roy’s been standing in the same spot for the past seven years, and I think most of the crows have already caught on to my straw-man trick. That’s why, last week, I decided to build the birdhouse, hoping to lure in some robin, or finches, to drive the crows away.
It was sad. It seemed that even Roy was dying too.
After I had fed the cattle and watered my garden, I decided to call it a night. Despite the festivities elsewhere, you’d be hard-pressed to find even one trick-or-treater in these parts. I skipped dinner, as I sometimes do, and began to head to the bedroom, stopping into the kitchen for a cup of tea and to click the light off. And that’s when I saw it. Or, rather, didn’t.
Roy wasn’t in his usual perching spot. The cross was still standing, but the scarecrow was nowhere to be seen. I shuffled over to the window for a closer look, assuming the blasted thing had just fallen due to the wind but didn’t see it anywhere.
Then there was a knock at the door.
I was hesitant at first. Who in their right mind would've come here at nine-thirty at night? Surely no kids from the town. I doubt there even are any kids in this town.
“Who is it?” I said, pressing my ear against the wooden door.
"Look, I don't want any trouble. If there're some kids out there you best be heading home. I don't have any candies. Sorry."
Nothing. Then the knocking came again. It was louder this time.
Finally, and frustratedly, I pulled open the door with a squeak and, standing in the doorway, was Roy. He was standing all by his lonesome, a dead look still in the buttons he dawned as eyes. Beneath his sack-covered face, a faint mumbling pushed through the fabric. I fumbled back in shock and watched as the scarecrow dragged itself into my house. I would’ve said something to it, but no words choked from my lips, which were now dry and quivering.
As the scarecrow flopped into the kitchen, I could hear the rattling of drawers and bowls, some crashing on the floor, before a voice echoed from behind the wall.
“Ah, much better- “ it said in a relieved, raspy, tone, as the muffled hobbling sound of straw-filled legs pattering across the wooden flooring approached the doorway.
In-stepped the scarecrow, the stitching on its mouth now cut open by one of Marge’s kitchen knives. Its mouth was formed into some sort of smile. As it stepped closer, I stepped away.
“I thought this would be a familiar and more comfortable form to approach you with, Peter.”
The thing read me like a book with those black, button eyes. It could tell I was panicked.
“There’s no need to be afraid…but I guess this form was a bit anomalous. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty so, please, forgive me if I startled you.”
The scarecrow hobbled back into the kitchen. And after but a moment, a familiar face emerged holding a cup of tea. I must’ve cried, before becoming hostilely angry.
It was Marge. I recognized her the instant we locked eyes. Something within me brought me to tears, but I hastily snapped from my loving gaze, wiping a tear from my face. That wasn’t my wife.
“You aren’t my wife” I sternly said.
Whatever was wearing my wife’s face couldn’t hide its regret, now plastered across it.
“Oh- that’s just great. I always try to keep from scaring people, but it seems in my efforts I always become more frightening” it said in my wife’s voice, “you humans are a complex breed.”
My wife's face began to rot, her flesh slipping off the bone. Her eyes started sinking back into her skull before her clothes were drained of all color, eventually turning black as the night sky. Her now black garment flowed longer, and eventually, it touched the ground. Her hands dried up around the cup of tea, leaving nothing but bone behind. And that's when the true nature of the presence made itself known.
It was the Reaper.
My back hit the wall as I shook in my boots. I didn’t believe that this thing even existed, but here it was…standing in my living room. It was difficult to get a good look at it, but it was the Reaper: a skeleton shrouded in a dark robe, now holding a scythe that touched the ground. I tried to make eye contact with it; at least, where eyes should be, but even looking at the face of death played painful tricks in my head, which was already throbbing in its presence.
“Forgive me, mine child. Thou may find it most difficult to looketh upon this form. I mean not frighten thou, but now, as thou can seeth, I am he thou call Death.”
The figure's voice was deep, rattling my bones and echoing in my mind. It must've noticed my discomfort, as my back was still firmly pressed against the wall.
“I hast taken many forms over the millennia, but thou humans seem to recognize me as the Reaper. And, as he, I appear before thou now.”
The empty-socketed skull disappeared into the dark shroud. And, within an instant, a new face emerged: a somewhat pudgy, pale middle-aged man, lowering the black hood with meaty, hairy arms.
“Sorry- “he said, “I can only appear as that which is dead, as is my nature. The dead grass in your scarecrow worked quite well, as did your late wife, but those seemed most burdensome to you.”
“You don’t say?” I sarcastically grunted, letting out a nervous breath with a wipe across my damp forehead.
“Hopefully this form is more…palatable to you," he said, handing me the cup of tea as I shuddered, "This face is…was…that of a thirty-seven-year-old by the name of Jim Johnson. Jim is…was…a risk analyst, y’know those guys that do background checks before you get insurance? Funny enough, poor Jimmy died because he failed to background check his own girlfriend: a somewhat sociopathic little lady with a background including battery and grand larceny, both of those charges from a previous relationship where she mutilated her ex-boyfriend after overhearing him talking to his sister- “
He stopped, noting I wasn’t listening due to my trembling. My eyes were constantly shifting to the front door.
“Forgive my rambling. I do love a good irony. Now, onto why I’m here- “
"Why did you take Marge?" I grunted, puffing my chest, even though I knew this Reaper was in no way intimidated by me.
It was silent for a moment, probably grasping at straws within its head.
"There are things that are beyond that which man should know: why the sun rises and sets, why the birds fly in the Heavens, why the Reaper must harvest the living. Your wife was but one of many taken that day: 155,142 to be precise. Her death was not personal, I assure you, but rather a part of a bigger plan. That which neither you nor I can see. My only purpose is to collect those who have been selected, harvest the ripened crops. How the wheat is separated from the chaff is not my duty, nor is it my duty to select or ripen the crops."
“But you took her. You could’ve let her live- “
“No” it spoke, “I cannot tamper with the harvest. Many have tried to interfere, but their efforts were in vain.”
“How?” I said.
The pudgy man’s face, or whatever was underneath it, dryly chuckled to itself.
“You humans are so strange with your fascinations and celebrations. Tonight, for example, has always been somewhat of an honorary birthday for me, I suppose.”
“It’s your birthday?” I asked, confusion now spread across my face as I took a sip from the cup.
“Heavens, no. But surely, if they can celebrate the birth of the Nazarene in December, they can observe my presence in October.”
“Halloween, as you call it, has always been about me. Humans love to test that which they do not understand. Before your generation, the Samhain was offered up as a night for me. Some even thought they could bribe the Reaper, offering their livestock, their children, to stop the harvest.”
The Reaper shook its lowered head.
“So, what do you want?” I said, “Are you gon’ kill me?”
The Reaper laughed again, deeper this time.
“You would think that, wouldn’t you? After all, why else would the Grim Reaper come knocking at your door?”
I stared, like a deer in the headlights of death. It continued to laugh, this time at me.
"Forgive me, Peter. As I've said, I love a good irony."
The Reaper glided past me, forcing my back into the wall, as it stopped before the window. It peered outside.
“How ironic would it be that a man, surrounded by so much death, could offer up a tremendous amount of life?”
“Who, me?” I said, surprised. It nodded as it turned back toward me.
"Marge's poor apple tree," it said, shaking its head, "it's withered and dying, just like you. I suppose I could’ve harvested you tonight, but that wasn’t my intention. I’m here to spare a lot of people through you, Peter.”
“I don’t understand” I muttered, gripping the wooden table in the corner of the room.
The Reaper glided closer to me until it noticed my trembling.
“If I wouldn’t have come here tonight, what would’ve happened?”
I shook my head in confusion, lifting the cup of sour tea to my dry lips, taking a sip.
“You would’ve gone to bed, probably for but a few small hours, before waking in a hot sweat. You’d pour yourself your nightly tea and step out onto the porch, but you would’ve forgotten the nail you spat onto it. Remember?“
The Reaper raised a now skeletal hand, pinching the nail I had clenched in my mouth an hour-or-so earlier.
“You would’ve stepped on this. It would’ve hurt like hell, but you wouldn’t have gone to the doctor, would you have?”
I began to contemplate the scenario in my mind.
“Of course you wouldn’t have, Peter- “
The Reaper pointed to my scruffy, unkempt face.
“You stopped caring about yourself the day Marge couldn’t anymore, so why start?”
My brows furrowed at the Reaper in confusion, it could tell I wasn’t grasping its hypothetical story.
“Forgive my ramblings, I assure you this all has a point.”
"Get to it," I said, sternly.
“If you would’ve stayed home, which you would’ve, the infection from the nail would’ve killed you, Peter.”
“What?” I said, brows furrowed.
“Well- not initially. But after three weeks you would’ve suffered from enough severe Tetanus that you would’ve died, mostly extreme muscle spasming in the neck and mouth. They call it Lockjaw- “
“Wait- are you saying this would’ve happened?” I sputtered.
“Well, it’s rare but in your case…yes.”
“You can see that?”
The figure laughed at me in a condescending tone.
“I am Death. I can see all possible outcomes of mortality so I can plan accordingly for the harvest.”
“So, I would’ve died had you not come here tonight?”
It laughed again, this time more of an ironic chuckle.
“As a matter of fact, my being here tonight has saved more than just you.”
I swallowed down a cough before sitting down in an old, squeaky, wooden chair, resting the cup of tea on a nearby table.
“See- if you would’ve died, Peter, you wouldn’t have been able to send that little letter of yours.”
“What letter?” I barked, leaning forward with a creak.
“Oh, don’t be coy. Second drawer down in the kitchen? Tell me you didn’t forget- “
I stood up, still trembling, and speedily tread into the kitchen, yanking the second drawer open.
He was right. My letter to Dr. Farrow was resting atop some old cookbooks. I forgot I had written the damn thing in the first place.
“He needs it," Death said, his voice echoing from the living room, "sometimes it's remarkable what a mere scribble of good tidings can do for the soul."
I paced back into the kitchen, still clutching the letter in my hand.
“After what happened to Marge, Keith, Dr. Farrow, felt he wasn’t an adequate medical doctor. Five years in medical school and twelve years of practice and for what? This wouldn’t have been the first time I had harvested one of his patients, either. No, he’s knocked on my door many times. But this time it finally dawned on him. It was, as if, what his father used to say was finally spoken into existence- “
“Which was…what?” I said, now grasping at straws myself.
“Which was that Keith would never amount to anything. Sure, a degree gets you the title but what good is that without natural-born talent? At least, that’s what his father would say.”
I glanced down at the letter, reading the sorrowful etching of his name on the envelope.
“He would’ve knocked on my door one final time. Personally, that is. Such a shame, suicide. Out of anyone in the world, including myself, to harvest you…to be your own reaper is another form of sorrow beyond that which most understand.”
“You’re saying- he would’ve killed himself if I didn't send my letter?" I said; the letter clasped between my sweaty fingers.
“More or less. The universe works in a very cause-and-effect way. For example, if you would’ve died, you wouldn’t have sent the letter. If Dr. Farrow wouldn’t have received the letter, he would’ve killed himself. If he would’ve committed suicide, his brother would’ve missed his second tour in the Navy for the funeral. And if that would’ve happened, Admiral Keaton would’ve died, because Lieutenant Farrow wouldn’t have been there to see that torpedo bomber- “
“Wait- “I said, “-what’re you going on about?”
“Cause-and-effect, Peter. Like dominoes, or It’s a Wonderful Life. You’ve seen that film, haven’t you?”
“I know you have-” Death said, “-you and Marge used to watch that every Christmas Eve.”
Death paused, looking at me, forcing my eyes to the wooden floor.
“Did you know that that movie almost didn’t happen? I mean- everybody loves Jimmy Stewart, but if it wasn’t for him quitting the Air Force, he wouldn’t have made all those films.”
Death nodded in response.
“You’d be amazed at what a small harvest can do. Even just the death of one person. Like Marge’s step-uncle, Harry. If he hadn’t been harvested two days before she was supposed to leave for the University of Utah, she would’ve never been in the post office the day you two met. Love at first sight, I take it?”
"That was a coincidence," I said, "I caught her on the way out I was- “
“No- “the voice of Death interrupted, “-there are no coincidences. You were running late because your truck stalled out on State Road 32. You couldn’t get it repaired that day because Louie, your mechanic, had a family emergency, remember? His niece suffered a stroke that morning, which meant you took the trek to the post office on foot. Those extra fourteen minutes gave Margaret the time to catch you on the way out.”
Death drummed his fingers along the dusty windowsill, wiping the dust from the tips of his flesh-covered fingers.
“If death results in any action, or reaction, I can see it. Something as simple as missing the bus could result in another world war. And, trust me, you don’t want to know how close your species has been to that.”
I rubbed my hair-speckled chin with my free hand, trying to sift through everything Death had told me.
“Dear Dr. Farrow- “Death began, “These last few months have been nothing but desperation without my Margaret. Somehow, I keep on living knowing she’s in a better place. She would’ve wanted me to thank you, not for anything else but trying. You gave us hope- “
“That’s enough!” I snapped, wiping another tear from my red face, letting out a dry cough and dampening it with tea.
Death slowly glided toward me. I hadn’t the energy to recoil in fear any longer. He bent down and kneeled before me.
“Without you, your letter, your world would’ve been thrust into the biggest, most bountiful, harvest ever. Ever.”
“What do you mean?” I whispered under my breath.
“Let’s just say Admiral Keaton needs to live. Without Lieutenant Farrow to protect him, he would’ve died. And Farrow wouldn’t have been on tour with a funeral to attend, a funeral only you could’ve stopped, Peter. You and that letter of yours.”
I looked down to the somewhat crinkled letter, then back up at Death. As much as it throbbed, somehow what he said finally made sense in my mind.
“That is, of course, if you’d be alive to deliver it.”
I froze, confused by a tingling sensation in my neck on account of the Reaper’s changing tone.
“What’re you getting at?”
The Reaper chuckled to itself. This time, it was a laugh of malice.
I stood, my knees buckling as I let out an exasperated cough.
“You said you came here to save me. Save more than me- “
“About that- “Death grinned, “I lied.”
I stopped myself from stepping any further. My knees jittering, I braced myself for another cough, peering at the Reaper through watery eyes.
“But the nail- you said if I stepped on it- “
“I was just pulling stuff outta my ass, Pete. C’mon, do you really think the Grim Reaper would want to help people? Please. And to think I was nervous about my impression…”
“Impression?” I coughed. The Reaper, rolling up its cloak sleeves, revealed a darkly tinted suit beneath as it grinned at me through now-polished teeth.
“Yeah- did you like it?” he gleamed, “I’m going for that old-English feeling. Y’know, like the King James? Gotta stay in character while sporting your Halloween costume, ‘eh?”
“What’re you talking about?” I choked.
“Do I have to spell it out for you?” he groaned, rolling his eyes, “-you get the honor of spending Halloween with the Prince of the Power of the Air, the Father of Lies, and you can’t even bother to keep up? Shame on you, man!”
I fell to the ground, gasping for breath. I could sense he was approaching, the clicking of polished shoes making their way across the wooden flooring.
I could hear him laughing, the bellowing voice of the Reaper now replaced with a smooth, confident tone. I lifted my head, but with one cough I dropped to the floor, spattering blood from between my teeth.
“Y’know, Peter, you really shouldn’t be leaving your rat poison out in the kitchen. Marge always warned you of these things. You never know when some clever, handsome ‘Lil Devil might, I don’t know, pour some in your nightly tea?”
I spit more blood, mixed with the bubbling of foam, from my mouth onto the floor. The letter, wedged between my convulsing fingers, was yanked from my hand. I could hear it being torn open.
“Where was I? Oh, yeah- “ his voice said, “-you gave us hope. And I know, one day, I’ll see my blessed bride again. Sincerely, Peter.”
The voice cackled.
“I’ve got good news for you, Pete…you’re about to get your wish. After all, it’s Halloween…why not have a 'Lil treat with your trick?”
I lifted my head with the remainder of my strength. In the shadow of the glowing moonlight, cast from the window, I could see a figure standing over me, adorned with horns and a proud posture. My head fell against the cold, wooden floor as I tried to cry out for someone, anyone.
I knew no one could hear me.
With a final breath, just as the moonlight turned to blackness, I could hear one final message from the visitor, a sly wink within his voice:
“Happy Halloween, Peter.”
Written by MakRalston