According to so-called afterlife specialists, there is a belief that when the metaphysical embodiment of Death first approaches its next assignment, the chosen feels it in their bones, but such was not the case for Millie Poole. She felt it in her chest as if her heart was a charcoal briquette pre-coated with lighter fluid anxiously awaiting the Grim Reaper’s fiery embrace.
“I kicked a cat that crossed my path, strangled a bum panhandling for chump change, pushed a hipster into traffic for whistling that Young Folks song, and shivved a businessman on the subway for reading his newspaper in my face, and it’s only 9am. What the hell’s the matter with me?” the sweat-soaked, twitchy man asked.
The barista sighed and with the wisdom of Solomon, asked, “How many have you had today?”
“How many what?”
“Cups of coffee.”
“This’ll be my fifth.”
“Dude, maybe cut down a little.”
The sign above the awning proclaimed the store to be a super discount shopping destination and there were discounts to be had but customers were required to do their homework to avoid selecting items which could be purchased cheaper elsewhere. As Doris Sherban exited the store, she immediately ran into the two people on the planet she hoped to avoid at the moment, Jennifer Morton and Jessica Cooper, whom she not-so-lovingly referred to as The Blue Jays behind their backs, for their penchant of layering their clothing in shades of blue and their incessant squawking.
“Oh my God, did you just come from the super discount?” Jennifer asked in mock surprise, inspecting the two canvas tote bags in Doris’ hands which were stuffed with—
“Surgical masks, latex gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray,” Jessica said as she rummaged through the totes. “What on earth do you need all this stuff for?”
Doris yanked the bag away. “You’re kidding, right? Aren’t either of you following what’s going on in the world? There’s a new virus—”
“Yeah, halfway across the world,” Jennifer said. “We’ve got nothing to worry about. We’re safe here.”
“And even if some dirty bastard brought it stateside, this is America! We’ve got the best doctors, the best healthcare, the best everything. We’d totally kick that bug’s ass!” Jessica added.
“Like we kicked cancer’s ass? Or Crimea-Congo fever? Or Avian influenza?”
“I literally forgot I was talking to Disaster Doris for a moment,” Jessica said.
“Remember the time she got us all worked up over Y2K—”
“And we hoarded all that canned food, bottled water and toilet paper for nothing? How could I forget?”
Remembering Mark Twain’s sage advice, Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience, Doris pushed her way past the Jays, leaving blue layered squawking laughter and mockery in her wake.
Although she had broken off contact with the Jays after the incident, ignoring their half-hearted apology texts and blocking them on social media, she was fairly certain they weren’t still laughing three months later when the World Health Organization upgraded the virus from a cluster of cases to a pandemic.
Following state recommendations, Doris hunkered down in her Astoria one-bedroom apartment and as she had recently broken up with her boyfriend, lived alone, and her family resided in Arizona, self-isolation wasn’t the inconvenience it was for most people. She dabbled with art and blogging and both her book shelf and Netflix queue were stocked with enough entertainment to keep her mind occupied for a good long while. And had everyone been as alert as she and observed lockdown regulations and if the government had been on the ball from the very beginning and done their jobs properly, perhaps the situation would have been sufficiently handled by now. She had no evidence to back up any of her claims but she felt confident that she was absolutely on point.
But people were unpredictable and stubborn and mistakes were made and things spiraled from bad to worse and her self-imposed exile lasted way longer than she, or anyone else for that matter, had anticipated and she was well aware of the health risks involved with coming into contact with people outside her household bubble but she didn’t have a bubble, being all on her own, and she was growing extremely tired of quarantine. Zoom calls with friends and family just wasn’t cutting it, so when she learned her church was holding an outdoor prayer meeting for those parishioners whose families had been affected by the virus, she convinced herself, against her better judgment to attend. It was outdoors for goodness sake and the church promised to practice social distancing so how big a risk could it actually have been?
And the church certainly did enforce the wearing of masks and keeping attendees at least six feet apart…in the beginning. It turned out that Doris wasn’t alone in her reasoning and more parishioners began showing up than she or the church anticipated. A lot more. So much so that she was packed in the vacant car lot that had been converted to a prayer space and couldn’t move in any direction. To counteract the overcrowding, a blessing was issued to protect everyone in attendance and keep them in good health and Doris had double-masked for safety’s sake and convinced herself that everything would be just fine.
It wasn’t until sometime later when Doris had learned from a friend of a friend that one of the parishioners she engaged in casual conversation at the prayer meeting tested positive for the virus that she considered how huge the mistake was in her attending the church function.
Doris wasn’t sure if her subconscious kicked into overdrive and whipped up psychosomatic symptoms but after receiving the bad news phone call, she began feeling under the weather. It started with a sluggishness she couldn’t shake, then her temperature spiked out of nowhere, but she was able to bring her temperature down by keeping hydrated, taking ibuprofen and tepid baths, and getting plenty of rest. Her new resting temperature ran a couple of degrees higher than normal but remained below one hundred, so she took it as a good sign. The scratchy throat that followed soon after, the one that would not go away, combined with the fatigue and her higher than normal temperature made her suspect her health was in jeopardy.
But was attending the church gathering the real culprit? Doris wasn’t sure because there were other places where she could have been exposed to contagious people. Her savings had been low prior to the pandemic and her job at the bakery making sandwich loaves was deemed essential so she had to keep working if she wanted to keep her apartment but even with a reduced staff, there were still too many people too close together especially when changing in the locker room before and after her shift. Also, she rode public transportation to and from work and people observing the official mask policy during rush hour congestion was a mixed bag of cooperation.
If her suspicions were accurate, she didn’t want to put her coworkers at risk so although the bakery didn’t offer paid sick leave for employees who might have become contaminated with the virus, Doris convinced Human Resources to allow her a few weeks unpaid leave, pending confirmation of the results. To make matters worse, none of the physicians or facilities associated with the health insurance offered by the bakery had virus tests available so she was forced to go out of network which meant she would have to pay for the test out of pocket.
If there was a light at the end of the tunnel, Doris couldn’t see it. She was stuck at home, waiting on her test results, and if the results came back positive, she might die or if she survived, might suffer lingering and debilitating effects that would affect her returning to work and she needed that job in order to pay rent and utilities and buy groceries.
Yes, anticipating the worst was being defeatist but she couldn’t help herself. She kept thinking back on how confident she felt when she made the decision to attend the prayer meeting, how sure she was that God wouldn’t inflict such a nasty disease on one of His chosen. Come to think of it, she wasn’t to blame at all. It was all God’s fault! He was supposed to be omnipotent, after all, so why didn’t he do His job and prevent Doris from going to the stupid event by sending her some sort of sign?
The instant the thought entered her mind, Doris knew it was a mistake, a moment of weakness and misdirected anger. She fell to her knees and prayed, apologizing for her sin and promised to become a better person, one who lived a life in service of others, she would even forgive the Blue Jays if only He let the results come back negative.
Dark thoughts plagued her so badly she was unwilling and unable to get out of bed because everything seemed so pointless. Eventually, Doris owned up to the responsibility of going to the church function, even though that might not have been the place she was exposed to the virus, if she was exposed at all. Her possible exposure could have been out of her control, but regardless of where she got it, she was prepared to pay the price, so she picked up her phone to look up her results online.
None of the women had met prior to their imprisonment yet they were sisters of a fashion, bound to one another by persecution rather than blood and in their bizarre union they discovered a wondrous ability. Each woman stumbled upon her unique key and together they harmonized and sang into creation their new lives free of objectification and the tyranny of evil men.
On the very first day of May which was unusually hot for the season, the air was filled with the loamy smell of rain-damp earth. Birdsong twittered throughout the forest surrounding the secluded monastery and on its doorstep sat a wicker basket with a wee bairn inside. Within the folds of the baby’s blanket was note that read:
“This child, untimely torn from his mother’s womb, bears the mark of the beast. I have fallen short in my duty for I lack the courage to purge the world of this evil. Hopefully you possess the faith and strength to do what I cannot.”
Although the sun sat high in the midday sky, the figure who approached me was draped in complete shadow. Its frame was crisp but the features blurred and I knew in that instant that none who lived was allowed to view its countenance.
“You have come for me?” I asked, my voice betraying the courage I strove to display.
“Come?” the figure said in a voice neither male or female but not wholly unpleasant. “No. I am always present.”
“But you surely do not deny that you are the Grim Reaper?”
“The Reaper I am, yet not so grim. And I pose no danger to you for Death is not to blame for death. If it offers you some measure of comfort, think of me as the ultimate destination of your lifelong journey.”
The Reaper spoke without guile for I suddenly felt satisfied for the first time in my life. I had overcome insurmountable obstacles and completed a near impossible task, and as I accepted its hand, warm and soft, I was prepared to transition into the final stage of existence.
The moment his father shut the light off and closed the bedroom door, the shadows caused by Evan’s nightlight started parting like so many curtains, allowing the denizens of the Nightmare Realm to cross over. The tiny room began filling with feral cockroaches, skull-deprived rats, soul-sucking bedsheet-wraiths, carnivorous plastic dinosaurs and a set of windup teeth that wanted to eat his face off!
Somewhere within the lowest depths of her delirium, Soledad heard a voice, raspy but not totally unpleasant, whispering her name and she fumbled in the darkness for what seemed an eternity until she finally felt the touch of a pair of lips to her own. She was greeted with a kiss to obliterate all others, full of passion and desire, one she would cherish and remember to her dying day, which unfortunately was that very moment. Death had come at last, and although life had abandoned her forever, the kiss still lingered.
The tickets had been sold and patrons rushed to seek their pleasures, some to behold wonders that defied the laws of science and the boundaries of imagination, others drawn by things supernatural and metaphysical, but one lone bedraggled man was unaffected by the Barker’s siren call.
He stood at the precipice of the Madd Carnival’s entrance, careful not to cross the threshold, staring at a sign that read:
His suit was threadbare, hanging off his unhealthily thin frame, and its pale gray color made his long features look sallow. He pointed at the sign and said, “I am here for this.”
“We’ve just opened, sir,” the Barker said, staring into the man’s faded blue eyes that seemed to be filled with more death than life. “You couldn’t have left a child…”
“No, I was left, years ago, and I’d like to see Madame Destiny, please.”
If the barker was caught off-guard by the man’s statement, he showed no sign, he simply said, “I happen to be excellent with faces and yours doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Neither does yours, so you can’t have been here long, but I’m widdit, you can bank on that. Or you can ask Madame Destiny, she’ll establish my bona fides.”
Widdit was carny slang used to let midway agents and talkers know that the person was with it, or that they worked at the carnival, so the Barker dropped the politeness act and asked, “What’s yer business, mack?”
“Recompense. I come to collect what I am owed.”
The booming, melodious trill of the Madd Carnival Barker’s voice traveled impossibly to all the neighboring towns and villages, rousing patrons young and old, which was basically anyone with even the tiniest smoldering ember of the youthful belief in magic in their hearts, from their houses and his witty banter delivered in poetic cadence, aided by the hypnotic designs sewn into his ostentatious suit, lured them all wide-eyed down the colorfully lit midway, like the rubes they were and most likely always would be.