Nichole felt the cool breeze on her skin, so she pulled the light bed sheet over her exposed flesh. Normally, sleeping with one leg out was most comfortable, but tonight she felt a coldness creeping over her. Lifting her head and glancing with one, half open sleepy eye, she looked at the window. Satisfied it was closed and the wind was not blowing into the room Nichol laid back.
Perhaps, she thought, it was an already forgotten dream which woke her.
Nichole buried her head deep into the soft down of her pillow, tucked the loose sheet tightly about her and closed her eyes.
That was when the sound came.
A rasping, or maybe heavy fabric being dragged over the floorboards, or slothernly footsteps, lazy feet sliding along, scuffing the ground.
Nichole sat bolt upright. Her own breathing heavy with anxiety smothering any other noise. Holding her breath, trying to be a still and as silent as possible, she strained to listen, seeking the sound again.
All was quiet. The house was still.
Nichole’s lungs were to the point of bursting before she exhaled with an almighty sigh. Falling back onto her bed in relief, she noticed how her breath hung in the air, a wispy cloud slowly evaporating.
How could it be so cold in the house.
It was never that cold, not inside, not indoors. Unless the heating was off, broken. Maybe the boiler was out? Maybe that was what woke her, the coldness, not a breeze, not the wind blowing over her naked skin.
But the noise.
She heard it after she woke, didn’t she? Did she? Nichole was uncertain.
Laying her head back onto the downy comfort of the feather pillow once again, she pulled the sheet up to her neck and, as she closed her eyes, decided she would check the boiler in the morning. Right now, all she wanted to do was get back to sleep. Morning was still a few hours away, at least the civilized morning.
But sleep did not come. Each time Nichole began to drift off she would jump awake, almost startling herself with the suddenness, until she woke one too many times. Annoyed with her own restlessness she got out of bed and padded across the bedroom, grabbing her nightgown on the way to the door.
She was half way down the stairs, still dragging her gown behind her, when she heard another sound, this one coming from the kitchen. Nichole froze and listened. There was a muffled sound; someone was in her kitchen creeping about, trying to be quiet.
She wrapped her robe around her and tied the belt tightly, before cautiously creeping towards the kitchen. Poking her head around the doorway Nichole looked into the room. She could see no one, just the digital clock on the microwave. It read Three-thirty four precisely.
Three steps and she was at the dining table.
This was weird. She was certain she heard someone moving about. The kettle began to gurgle as it came to the boil. Nichole stared at it in disbelief.
The voice came from behind her “Sit down Nichole, join me in a cup of tea?”
Spinning around, she saw a tall dark figure looming over her and felt the same icy chill which woke her earlier. In shock, Nichole stepped backwards, coming to an abrupt halt as she met the table’s edge.
“Sit, sit” said the dark figure gesturing for Nichole to take a chair. “We can have a cosy chat together.”
Nichole walked backwards around the table, feeling her way to the chair, not daring to take her eyes from the figure. She felt her mouth drying and her heart pumping against her ribs as realisation dawned on her of who he was.
“One sugar or two?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder towards her.
“Um… I… um.” Nicole could not form a single coherent word.
The dark figure placed the cups on the table and the sugar bowl in the centre. “Maybe you just help yourself, ehh?”
Nichole sensed the figure was smiling at her, but because of the cowl covering his head his face was in deep shadow.
“Are you… are you… him?” Nichole asked.
“Him? Him who?”
“Um… Death. Have you come for me?”
To Nichole’s surprise the dark figure laughed. It was a deep throaty chuckle, not the evil echoing howl she would have expected.
“Drink” he said, lifting his own cup from the table.
Nichole could not help but notice the way he crooked his pale, bony, almost skeletal little finger as he raised his cup from the saucer.
She took a sip from her cup. It really was a good brew. “I asked if you were… were Death?”
The figure looked over the rim of his cup. “Some call me that, others ‘Old Father time’ or ‘The Reaper’ even the ‘The Grim Reaper’, although I object to that. I am not grim at all”. He let another chuckle tumble from the shadows of his hood.
“So, am I to die today, are you hear to take me?” Nichole asked.
“You see, this is what people don’t understand” he said, gesturing by waving both arms in the air, “I don’t take a person’s life. I don’t kill people.”
“Then why are people frightened of you?”
“Books, the movies, ignorance, conjecture, propaganda, who knows?” He shrugged his words away dismissively.
Nichol sipped her tea. “If you don’t take people’s lives, what do you do?”
“I take their souls. More tea?”
Nichole nodded. She was stunned by the ambiguity of it all. Here she was, sitting at her kitchen table chatting with the Reaper while drinking tea, not knowing if this was the last thing she would do before she died. Although she had certain apprehensions, as anyone would, she felt no fear, she did not feel threatened as one would imagine.
Perhaps that was how things worked? He lulled his victims into a sense of false security and then…. whack. Maybe, maybe not.
“But surely people must die? I mean, people must be dead before you take their souls?” Nichole asked.
“Yes, well sort of… at least for the most part. I gather their souls as soon as they die. You see, we cannot have thousands of lost souls wandering about aimlessly. Goodness me, what chaos and confusion that would beget.
So, I collect them and take them to the boatman for the crossing. That is the plan, at least that would be the way it worked, in an ideal world.”
“And this is not an ideal world?” As macabre as it was, Nichole found herself enjoying the conversation.
“Far from it. Have you any biscuits, digestive or a custard creams perhaps?”
Nichole brought the biscuit tin to the table. Sliding it towards the Reaper she said, “Help yourself.”
“Thank you my dear. Now where were we? Oh yes… This is far from an ideal world. There are far too many people now. It is making my job extremely difficult.”
“How is that?”
“I have to be everywhere at once, I even have to stop time to get a little rest, some respite, like now.” The reaper pointed to the clock.
It still read three thirty-four, precisely the time Nichole entered the kitchen, when the reaper was boiling the kettle.
“Surely if you can stop time, then you have enough time to do whatever you need to do?” Nichole suggested.
“Ha, ha. Oh, I wish it was so simple. Time stops for them, for you, the people like you, not for me. That’s why I am exhausted, shattered. I have not had a good night’s sleep for years.”
“But now, I am talking with you, time hasn’t stopped for me.”
“No, but only because I want it that way” the reaper said.
“Why?” Nichole was curious.
“Oh, I was bored. I felt like some company. I don’t get much of that these days you know” again the Reaper laughed.
Despite the situation Nichole could not help but laugh with him. “I’ll make us a fresh pot of tea” she said, “unless you have to get back to work already?”
“No, another cup will be fine, thank you.” The Reaper lifted his head. Once again Nichole felt a smile, although she still could not see his face.
As she filled the kettle, she asked, “why are you here, in my house tonight?” Nichole was uncertain she wanted to know the answer, but then again, it was probably better to know the truth than not.
“I have come to collect a soul.” The reapers voice was factual. All joviality gone.
“I thought so. Tell me, how am I to die. Will it be painful?”
“I have no idea, no idea at all” the Reaper answered.
“But if you have to take my soul, surely I must die and, as you are here, you must know.”
“Not necessarily. Things have changed over the years. It’s all about efficiency now. It is not like the old days, then things were far more relaxed.” The reaper took the tea pot from Nichole and set it in the centre of the table. “Give it a minute or two to brew, I find it is best if it sits a while” he said.
Nichol sat back down, facing the Reaper. In a strange way she felt herself warming to this strange and somewhat unnerving character.
“So what’s changed?” she asked.
“What hasn’t” he snorted, continuing, “I have been told to be pro-active. To collect souls ‘in advance.’ Have you ever heard anything so bloody ridiculous? It will save time in the long run, blah, blah, blah.” The Reaper grunted in distain.
“I mean, if I do that, say if I collected your soul tonight, what would be left for you? You would have to live a soulless life. That’s not my job. It is not my job to make people’s lives a misery.”
“I wouldn’t like that” Nichol said. “I want to live a long and happy life.”
“Exactly, that is why I refuse. I am not like that devil Lucifer. I would never lower myself to his level. Did you know he is just an uppity, fallen angel? Now pour the tea. Do you want a digestive or a custard cream?”
Nichole chose a digestive, which she dunked into her tea. “If you are not after my soul, I have to ask why you are here. I live alone, there is no one else in this house.”
The reaper placed his cup down carefully on the saucer. “That’s where you are wrong Nichole. I have a choice of souls here.”
Nichole could not help but look around the room. There was no one else here. There was no one else in the house. Unless the Reaper had brought someone with him.
The reaper stood and walked around the table. A slender bony hand gripped Nichole’s elbow, encouraging her to stand. ‘Well, if this is it’ she thought to herself, there was no use fighting inevitability.
She stood, but did not expect the Reaper to slide his hand under her robe. She shivered as the coldness of his palm pressed against her stomach.
“There is the first soul. Five days old. I bet you didn’t know, did you?” the Reaper asked.
Nichole gasped. Pregnant. Five days. Oh my god, that must have been Tommy. She and Tommy had… well, they had… “Please, no. Not if I am pregnant. Please don’t take my baby” Nichole was crying with the thought.
“Did you know everybody’s soul is the same size, right from the first moment of life, from the point of conception?”
“No. I have never thought about it before. Please, not my child’s. Take mine if you must, but not my baby’s.”
“What chance would your child have if I took your soul Nichole? Imagine a child growing up with a soulless, self-centred, heartless mother. A bitch, a drug taking abusive whore of a mother. That’s no life for any child is it?”
“No, no, I suppose not.” Nichole was crying, confused and angry. She tore the Reapers hand from her stomach and pushed him away. Re-fastening her gown she shouted, “get out, get the fuck away from me.”
The Reaper laughed again. “I have not come for you or your infant’s soul. Now sit, finish your tea before it gets cold.”
Nichole was still shaking. Part fear, part anger, but mostly frustration. “What do you want here” her voice was harsher now, demanding.
“I am sorry if I upset you” the Reaper spoke softly. “I guess I have lost my social skills over the years, it is so very rare for me to talk to anybody nowadays.”
Despite herself, Nichole could not help but snigger. “I guess you have.”
“Well, it is time I got back to work” the Reaper announced.
“Wait” said Nichole loudly, “you haven’t told me why you are here, in my home. Whose soul you are to collect?”
“Oh yes, maybe I should have made it clear earlier. Only you surprised me when you walked in the kitchen. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“You were not expecting me. I was not expecting you. You frightened the life from me… although that is probably not the best phrase to use under this circumstance.” Nichole giggled at her own joke.
“I should have said I am here to collect the soul of the previous tenant. They called him Mr Abrahams. The poor man died over a year ago and has been wandering about ever since, in limbo… that’s the technical term. You might say spirit or ghost, or something like that.”
“The truth is, I am catching up on a backlog. Do you know, if they stay uncollected for too long people’s souls can become a little pesky, a bit troublesome? That is when they start banging about and chucking things around, when they get called poltergeist, manifestations and apparitions.”
“So those noises I have been hearing, that wasn’t you?”
“No, it was Mr. Abrahams getting bored. So, if you will excuse me, I have work to do, or I’ll get even further behind. Charon gets a bit cranky if he doesn’t have a full boatload each trip.” The Reaper held out his bony hand with those elongated cold fingers. ”Thank you for the tea and the chat, I have quite enjoyed myself. Goodbye Nichole.”
Nichole grasped the Reapers gnarled hand “In a strange way, I am glad to have met you. If you ever want to drop in for tea again and have another chat…..”
“I might just do that. Having Death as a friend isn’t all that bad, you know.”
© Paul White 2015
If you enjoyed that story you might like to read some more of my short works? Check out ‘Tales of Crime & Violence’. This is a three volume collection of shorts and flash fiction.