This is a tandem story. My writing buddy emailed me the beginning. It was meant to be a two-sentence super short story, but I liked it so much I was inspired to add to it and send it back. Then he added more and sent it back to me and so on. The thing is, Anchorite writes deeply nuanced literary fiction while I'm into cheesy drama! The back-and-forth is kinda... funny.
He opened the envelope to read the enclosed funeral invitation written in an elegant, dignified script appropriate for the solemn occasion. By his uncertan count, she was the last of his former lovers that he had outlived. He sighed and wondered if his suit still fit.
He managed to arrange his face into a suitable expression, hiding his inward smile from the courrier. So the last of his former lovers had died. How sad. "I wonder if my black suit will still fit," he mumbled, hoping for an excuse for a quick flight to London's Saville Row to have a new one made. And if he didn't make it back in time for the funeral, oh well. ..
He looked at the card again. Something not right about it. It wasn't addressed to him after all, but it featured his name prominently.
The courier took out a pistol and pushed him back into the foyer. "I'm sure we can arrange special fitting for the guest of honor."
He had lived for several lifetimes and would not allow a two-bit thug to end his long life. Better men had tried and none had succeeded. He aimed the silver letter opener at the gunman’s hand and although he cursed silently at the resonant clang of his missile hitting the gun itself, the impact still threw off his aim enough to send the shot wide. He nimbly jumped for cover behind the antique sofa, thankful that he never failed to take his daily walk despite his advanced age. He heard the bullets whiz by like angry insects and felt the impact of the shots that hit the sofa. His erstwhile assassin had a semi-automatic weapon according to the rate of fire, which explained why it was too heavy for the letter opener to knock out of his grip. He had, however, bought valuable time to devise a plan to escape this trap alive. He had triumphed in worse situations and this nondescript goon was neither the first nor the last to make an attempt on his life. He had full confidence in his ability to survive, although he could not say the same for his beloved and unique antique sofa.
(and somehow the story switches into the first person)
She lunged at me, black veils streaming behind her. "Widow's weeds," we used to call them, way back when. I dodged casually and she tripped on her medium-height shoes with rounded toes and fussy Louis heels. They were all the rage during the Roaring 20's, but now they just looked clumsy. The strap on one of them broke.
"Bastard!" she screamed, throwing the quaint thing at me and drawing a knife from her beaded bag. I guessed not all of my old lovers were dead after all. Only love can transform itself into such ridiculous hate.
I'm not one to hit a woman. I pushed her away, but ineffectually. She was a demon. Her knife found its mark, so I was heading to Saville Row for a new suit after all, since the one I was wearing was now full of holes. Her white gloves stained red. When the knife end caught in the heavy bone of my sternum she shrieked and stamped her stockinged foot. "You used me! You left me! I'll kill you! I'll kill everyone you know!"
I yanked the knife out of my chest and raised it by its bloody handle. Then I...although I am immortal, it was still, legally, self defense. And she had promised to kill others.
I felt righteous for a moment, looking down at her still form.
Then I saw the pendant on her breast.
And I knew her.
And I wished that she had killed me.
I sank to my knees beside her. "Sheila, Sheila, I didn't leave you."
Beautiful, fiery, vain Sheila. She left when she saw she was aging and I wasn't. I searched for her for decades. I only stopped when I thought she must be dead of old age. Did she really believe I had left her? I could hardly breathe to think that she had nursed this pain and hatred for so long. Didn't she know? I'd have stayed with her forever. What did I care if she grew old? Her spirit, her soul, her self, that's all that mattered. Without her, immortality was a sentence of eternal lonliness. The great gift was meaningless, and so was I. I was a dandified, empty fool, and I had just killed the one thing in the world I cared about.
"Oh, Sheila, Sheila." I whispered. I almost smiled, remembering how I used to say, "'Silly Sheila, heart like a volcano, memory like a sieve."
I took her hand.
"I never left you. You left me."
And then she spoke. "Oh, that's right."
I drew the veil from her face and she opened clear blue eyes in a face of eternal youth.
Whatever twist of fate had doomed me to eternal life had laid that doom on her as well. Only if we were together, it would be no doom. It would be youth and life with my insane, irascible, impossible, forgetful and twice-beloved Sheila.
I raised her to her feet and she smiled.
(and we're back to third person)
(and we're back to third person)
He shielded his eyes from the light that burned as brightly blue as Sheila’s eyes. He looked in astonishment through half-shut eyes as Sheila’s prone, smiling form shimmered and faded out of existence. He turned to face the light source and saw a cowled figure holding a lantern opened to reveal a glowing, crackling blue flame at its center. The cowled man closed the hood of the lantern after Sheila vanished and then gently clipped the device to his robe’s belt. With the bright light extinguished, he noted with concern that the cowled man held a scythe in his other hand. Could it be?
“At last you have learned the final lesson and are now ready to proceed to the next stage.”
The cowled man spoke in a harsh rasp that nonetheless projected solemn gravity. He no longer had any doubt that his companion was Death himself, who had just claimed Sheila and now came for him. Despite his long and seemingly eternal life, he always secretly feared that this day would come to prove that he could not cheat Death forever. The grim reaper raised his scythe in preparation to harvest another soul, but surprised him by immediately reversing the weapon and extending its shaft towards him as gently as he stored his lantern.
“You are now ready to assume my role with its attendant duties. Take this scythe to harvest souls at the ends of their lifespans, just as you will take this lantern to guide them to their just rewards in the afterlife.”
“I don’t understand. You want me to become … you?”
“Yes, as you are now worthy. Long have I watched over you and guided you with a silent hand. You have been my pupil even if you did not realize it, because it is the way of this sacred role. As the harbinger and embodiment of death, you shall place your own imprint on your office just as I and all my predecessors have done. I subtly guided you, but I never wanted to impose on you so that you could grow into this role on your own terms.
“In your childhood, you dreamt of growing out of your humble hometown so I influenced your admission to the most prestigious of universities and provided for financing your education. I ensured that you experienced career success and protected the growth of your fortune. I granted your wish to receive a long life and then provided the opportunity for you to live it. I saw great intelligence, ambition, and ability in you so I deemed you a worthy successor. You lacked, however, the experience, wisdom, and maturity for this role that could only come from eternal life.
“I left you free to live as you saw fit, and you learned many lessons along the way. After the way you handled your reunion with your former lover Sheila with grace and compassion, I became confident that you were now ready so I now appear before you. My son, for that is how I see you, you have lived for several lifetimes and have experienced historic events firsthand as you have seen the world changed beyond anyone’s imagination. Who better than you to take on this crucial role to collect departed souls and guide them to their eternal rest?”
“What if I refuse?”
The grim reaper shrugged his shoulders and sighed. The motion lowered his cowl to reveal a pale, gaunt visage and tired eyes framed by dark circles.
“Then I must begin this process anew and approach my next candidate in perhaps another eon. Consider this, my son. I was once a mortal man like you before I became more, as have all my predecessors. I have outlived my wife, my children, countless generations of descendants, and for all intents and purposes anyone I have ever cared about. Despite my long life, I too have a mortal soul and long to join my loved ones in the hereafter to once again be united with them. I am tired, so very tired, and I feel the compelling need to pass the scythe and the lantern on to a worthy successor and then leave this world for good. Would you deny me that?”
“No … of course not.”
He at last claimed the offered scythe and planted its shaft on the ground beside him. He felt the aged but smooth and polished wood and tested its balance. By his reckoning, he would soon acquire an eternity of experience with this device and the lantern. These two items would become the essential tools of his new trade. He saw Death’s eyes lighten with gratitude and a smile appear at the corner of his thin, dried lips as if his taking the scythe removed a tangible burden.
“Thank you. I knew that my faith in you was not misplaced. Before I pass the lantern over to you, would you like me to grant one last favor to lessen the burden of your new office?”
He knew exactly what the reaper referenced and nodded in agreement.
He removed the lantern from his belt and opened its hood to reveal a warm, green light. Sheila emerged from the light as hale and radiantly beautiful as she had been in her idealized prime. She silently walked towards him with the seductive gait that he knew all too well as she clung to his arm not holding the scythe and gently hugged him. Sheila was quiet for now, but he figured that they would have plenty of time to talk and catch up. Death closed the lantern and handed it to his protégé. Sheila’s eyes began to glaze with welling joyful tears and he noted that the grim reaper’s eyes took on a similar fragile shimmer.
“Let the heavens witness that I have officially chosen my successor under the open sky and may all planes of the afterlife welcome the new reaper. Welcome, Death. I have nothing left to say or teach as this position is what you make of it and the scythe and lantern will both correspondingly respond to your commands as extensions of yourself. Use them with wisdom and compassion, my son. Now for your first official duty, you must harvest my soul and send me to my just reward in the afterlife just as I have done for my predecessor and your own successor will eventually do for you.”
The former grim reaper closed his eyes and faced him with the serene expression of a man finally at peace. The new Death felt uncertain about striking down this kind old man, even at his request. Sheila gently brushed his cheek and mouthed the words “It’s okay” as he took comfort in her reassuring presence after having spent far too much time alone. The newly appointed grim reaper raised his scythe and swung it with all his strength to send off his predecessor to his fate with a single, decisive, painless, and ultimately merciful stroke.
Sheila put the finishing touches on her latest painting and signed it with a flourish. "I'm calling it Angora of Angst," she announced. "It emphasizes the ephemeral quality of the Existential Effervenensce color transposed with the Byzantium Bezel."
"It's evocative and transcendent," her immortal husband replied of the hideous creation, for his many centuries had given him wisdom, and thus he knew what was good for him.
"And what have you accomplished today? Did you find some fool to take over as Grim Reaper yet?"
He slumped into his armchair. "No, all the other immortals already know about that scam. No one is stupid enough to take it."
"No one but you," she pointed out for the 800,543rd time. "And you had to bring me along for the ride," she added for the 453,556th time.
He sighed, then jerked upright. His scythe was out of place. "Have you been borrowing--"
"Yes," she interrupted. "That gallery owner who laughed at my work was called to a better place. And the security guard who kicked me out has cast off this mortal coil. The receptionist who called 911 has gone to her final reward as well."
"What else have you been up to?" He switched on the news, then snapped it off. "Not again," he muttered. He grabbed the scythe off the floor. "I'm going to work."
"Already? Why do you have to go?" Her voice became a high-pitch whine. "I'm lonely. I was bored all day."
"Maybe I wouldn't have so much work to do if you didn't start so many wars!"
He slammed the door.
She threw herself onto the bed and sobbed into the pillow. "I can't help it. I have an artistic temperament."
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