(Author’s note: This is just one of the stories that I’ve been toying with for the past few years. I figure that I’ll post an excerpt and see how I feel about it)
Time: Saturday, May 3, 2003 at 0217
When the phone rang at 0217, I was already up.
“Dad? Sorry, I just realized what time it was there. Did I wake you?”
“Nah. You know me, I was already up. How’s things?”
I knew what he was going to say before he said it. These are the parts of parenthood they really can’t teach.
“Just wanted to check in. Going on my first patrol today. I’ve got an hour to talk before the briefing.”
I just think for a moment and let him drive the pace of this conversation. I could tell that he wanted to say something to me, that he was scared.
“Hey kiddo, if you can give me five minutes, I’ll start some coffee, sound good? Why don’t you take a deep breath, give me two minutes, k?”
“Yeah. I can hang on a second.”
I put the phone down on the counter and paused to look around my kitchen.
Time: Friday, May 2, 2003 at 2045
Julie touched my arm and said, “I’m going to go take a bath and turn in. Try not to stay up too late.”
I smiled slightly, and checked the clock, eight forty-five, “You know me, I’ll be in in a bit. Love ya.”
“Love you too,” said Julie as she departed.
I returned to the fantasy novel I was reading. I felt a slight breeze, and reached for my mug of tea. It seemed light, and when I peeked into it and realized – to my dismay – it was empty. I put the mug and book down and began to stand, when I realized that there was a thin man sitting on the couch in my living room.
He looked like he had been quietly waiting for me to finish reading.
I jumped and began to shout, but he just smiled and motioned with both hands to remain calm. I looked at his face and into his impossibly dark eyes; and somehow felt a peace. So I just sat back down.
“So…who are you? Why are you in my house?” I asked quietly.
I was trying to figure out if he represented some type of danger to Julie or me.
“Who am i? Well, I have had more names than any star in the heavens has ever, or will ever have. I have forgotten and lost more names than there are fish in your oceans. And why am I here? Well, there’s the sticking point. I’m not entirely certain. I came here to talk with you. I wanted to ask a few questions, if I may.”
“About what?” I asked.
“Your son. Corporal Zado”
I tensed. “What is it that you want to know about him?”
“I am not an enemy agent or some other type of fiction. So before you throw that empty mug at me, take a breath. A) It won’t hit me. B) It won’t accomplish anything and C) I am no threat to you or your family”
I worked my jaw from one side to the other.
“Why won’t you tell me your name?”
“What name would you want to know? I am just a guide. I have been named by others, no name was given when I was born.”
“I need you to leave. Now.” I said.
“Not until I have had a chance to speak with you. I can literally outwait you. I am eternal. I have watched mountains grow. I watched as your Sun came to be. For me that was just another Tuesday. Do you really believe that you possess the ability and understanding to compel my departure?”
The mug in my hand cleared the intervening space in less than a second. I played baseball in college and I coach the high school baseball team. I may not know much, but I know how to throw. He tipped his head slightly to the side, and reached up and caught the mug by its handle.
“Blackberry Sage. Good choice. I prefer a good black tea, I do like to stick to a singular motif, but an herbal tea is a lovely treat. So, may we now try and start our conversation?”
I lurched from my chair and threw myself at him. I was leading with my left shoulder ready to tackle this thin man when I stopped. I was still mid movement, but my body just paused. He looked at me with a long-suffering look on his face. He shook his head.
“I’m going to make a new kettle for tea. I’m going to make a cup of this tea for myself, and one for you. Though, I might make you some chamomile, you need to relax. You can wait where you are for a moment.”
He rose and walked to my kitchen to fill the kettle. My right foot was still on the floor, but my body was tipped heavily towards the spot where he had been sitting. I could see him check the front of the stove to find the correct burner. He placed the kettle on the blue flames and turned to the cabinet. He pulled out two mugs. One a large brown one, the other a wide mouthed blue one with hand-painted leaves on it. He considered each for a moment, then selected the brown one, placing the other back in the cabinet.
As he began finding spoons and tea bags, he began talking with me.
“So, you’re 47. Has it been a good almost five decades? It would appear that you’ve been rather successful. Happy wife. Nice house. And a single child. A son. Fred Zado, aged 24.”
In my paused state, I couldn’t respond.
“He joined the United States Marine Corps five years ago. Seems like a good kid. Though, I do know that he was a bit of a handful during those early teenage years. The reason I know this is, that I have nothing else to do but watch and think. And whether or not you like it. I know all about you and your family. I have studied humanity. What else would I do?”
The man turned to our pantry and returned with some graham crackers. He opened the sleeve and gingerly set one on a napkin next to one mug then the other.
“Yes, I know that you like a graham cracker with your tea, a lovely nod to your maternal grandmother. And damn didn’t she just love you? And so you know, you actually were her special favorite. She loved all of her grandchildren, but you were the one to whom she gave her most prized possession: a first copy edition of A Wrinkle in Time.”
How could he even know this stuff? And what did it have to do with Freddy?
The kettle began the first faltering whistles.
“Look, I’m not a bad guy. I don’t really care if you believe me on this, but trust me, I am not against anyone. I’m not magical. I do a job.”
He pulled a pot holder out of the drawer next to the stove, as if he had made a thousand meals in that kitchen, and pulled the kettle from the burner, setting it on one of the others, then turned off the burner. He walked over to the mugs with the kettle and poured the boiling water.
“So, I’m going to let you go, and I would like to just talk with you. A few questions. A polite conversation over tea with a friend. Nothing more. No more throwing mugs. Sound good?”
I suddenly fell to the floor. I pushed myself to my knees and peered over the couch to where he stood in the kitchen.
“Would you prefer the table or the living room? I know you don’t want to stay where you are and you don’t want to stand for a few hours in the kitchen with me. After that bad slide at third when you were twenty, your left knee just won’t let you do such things, will it?”
I grimaced. “Table. Give me a second.”
He nodded and picked up both cups and walked them to the table. Then returned for the two graham crackers and their napkins. I had regained my feet as he was pulling out a chair for himself. I noted as I walked to the table, that he took the spare seat. The one that neither Julie, Freddy or myself had used when dining. He had taken the guest chair.
“So, some ground rules, we both must agree to be honest here. I would like information. You, no doubt, have many questions.” said the thin man.
As I pulled out my own chair, “So you’ll answer my questions?” I asked.
“Yes. I will give you whatever answers I have.”
“Fine. Deal. So, you’re what, some personification of Death?” I asked.
“Straight to the point, I like it. Of course, if you want I could take on another form. I know that you are a fan of Sir Terry Pratchett, if you like, I could SPEAK WITH YOU AS DID THE BEST VERSION OF MYSELF EVER.”
I was a tad shocked that he pulled off the voice I heard in my head when I read those lovely Discworld books.
“No, you’re fine as you were. Thank you for trying to be so accommodating”
Ignoring my sarcasm, he took a test sip from his brown mug and returned his spoon to lazily stir his tea.
“So, I’ll imagine that you have a plethora of questions. I’ll let you go first,” said Death.
“Why are you here?”
“Well, I am a facilitator. I exist because the universe exists. I am entropy and change. I am love in its purest form. I care for each and every passing. Death is something you do alone. No matter how many loved ones are with you when you pass, you greet me solo. It’s an odd, dirty job, but it needs to be done.” he paused and smiled broadly, “Or were you asking the less existential question?”
“I never thought that when I died I’d have tea with Death. It didn’t hurt. I thought dying would hurt? What happens to Julie? Oh…..Julie. No. No.” I started, beginning to look around the room.
“One thing you may want to know. Your wife is fine. She just settled into your bed for the night. She’s reading a book on her kindle and will be asleep in about half an hour. Also, and this is very important: you’re not dead.”
He then tapped me on the back of the hand with his spoon. It was still very warm from his tea.
“If you were dead, you wouldn’t have felt that”
“So, if I’m not dead, then again, why are you here? In my home.”
He broke his graham cracker in half, and then in half again, somehow actually breaking it cleanly on the baked-in implied perforations.
“I want to know about parenthood. About raising a child. You, in your heart of hearts, know that no matter what you do, someday you will be greeted by me. And before you ask, I will not tell you when or how. Ever. Death is my domain. Yours is living. I try not to worry very much about life, but much as you humans worry about death, I, too, have questions.”