I received an email yesterday from a Henry Augustine via Linked In, inviting me to participate in his first “Prose Anthology Challenge” , which asked writers to write 500 words on Death and from there, the top submissions would be published in its first Kindle Anthology.
I’m not entirely sure how Henry got my name but I clicked on the link, just like I arbitrarily click on all links because I firmly believe that if God didn’t want us to receive spam and have our bank accounts hacked, he wouldn’t have created the Internet in the first place.
Anyway, I read some of the submissions and they were all pretty heavy. Writing about heavy topics is not my thing so I thought I would submit 500 words on the lighter side of Death, something that focused on the more whimsical or positive aspects of ceasing to exist like not having to fill out a FASFA application ever again or being removed from the Lands End catalog database once and for all.
Long story short, it was short story long and I blew past the 500 word mark thus throwing myself out of the running in Mr. Augustine’s Kindle death anthology. But Henry’s loss is also your loss because I am posting my short story entitled, “Death Comes to Hohokus, NJ” right here and if you leave, I’ll find out where you live and provide your address to the good people over at Land’s End.
One last thing. After you read it and even if you absolutely hated it, please press “like” and leave lots of positive, wildly exuberant comments about how great it was because I had to explain to my wife why I was writing this when I should have been working and she wasn’t buying it.
Here’s the story.
Death Comes to Hohokus, New Jersey
The doorbell rang and I heard my daughter Claire holler, “I’ll get it!” in that sweet, high pitched voice that made my dog Lester’s ears shoot straight up into the air as if he’d been poked with a fork. Claire’s very responsible for a three-year old. Loves to chip in, always asking my wife and me if she could make our bed while we were still in it.
I was in the den splayed out on the couch with a blanket pulled up to my chin.
There was more than eight inches of wet snow on the ground outside and still falling but inside a golf match was on and while I don’t play golf or like golf, I watch it religiously during the winter because winter in New Jersey is so miserably cold, grey and depressing, I take great comfort in knowing that somebody somewhere is enjoying 80 degrees of pure sunshine and lush greenery even if it’s not me.
I felt his presence before he entered the room, and when it’s your turn, trust me, you will too. Lester’s hackles were up but instead of growling he whimpered and disappeared behind one of the curtains.
Claire entered the den holding his hand. “Dad, your friend Denny is here. Came to say hi.”
“It’s Death, sweetie, not Denny,” Death said.
The whole nine yards: skeleton, black hooded cloak that went all the way to the floor, scythe clutched in one bony hand, floated, didn’t walk.
Claire furrowed her brow for an instant, and I knew she was making sure the name revision stuck. Claire has a habit of furrowing her brow when she’s trying to remember something. I watched her silently mouth the word “death”.
“Ok, bye, Death, bye Dad!” she said, sprinting out of the room.
I suddenly realized I was standing now but with no recollection of how I got there. The blanket was still wrapped around my legs which were shaking so hard I started to vibrate across the room until the coffee table stopped me.
“What is this? Is this some sort of a joke?” I asked, knowing full well this wasn’t a joke.
“Depends on your sense of humor. I hear some people think Gilbert Gottfried is a genius. Let’s keep it simple. I’m Death, your time is up and you are coming with me. Also, contrary to what you heard, I don’t play cards. Or board games.” He raised his hands to make air quotes. “The ‘engaging Death in games of chance and winning your soul back’ business? Sorry. Strictly Hollywood. Got it? Good. Let’s go.”
I fell back on the couch landing on the remote. The channel changed from golf to TCM. Citizen Kane was on. Death and I looked at the screen. Ironically enough, Orson Welles was on his deathbed. “Rosebud,” Orson Welles gasped.
“Citizen Kane!” Death said. He sat down next to me, suddenly engrossed. “Rosebud was his sled. Have you seen it?”
“No. Always meant to,” I said.
“Sorry for ruining the ending but where you’re going there’s no TV or movies so it’s really more of a favor than a spoiler alert,” Death said.
“I can’t believe this is happening. I don’t even know what I’m dying from. Am I dying from something?
“That’s impossible! I got a clean bill of health from my cardiologist just last week. Do you have any idea how much I spend a year on fish oil? Are you sure you got the right guy?”
Death suddenly stood up, raising his scythe menacingly over his head and in an instant his eyes flashed from black to fiery red coals. Remember when you were a kid and you said or did that one thing that pushed your parents over the edge and you could actually see how someone who loved you unconditionally could also be capable of murdering you in cold blood? That’s how this felt when I crossed the line with Death. I pressed my back as deep as I could into the couch in a futile attempt to evade the heat emanating from his eye sockets as his stare bored into me.
“Do you dare mock me? I have the power to make you suffer great pain if that’s your preference.”
“No, that is definitely not my preference,” I said. “I’m sorry and I wasn’t mocking you. Could you just do me one small favor and show me the work order or whatever it is you people, or if it’s just you, you use to keep track of everything? Just do that and I’ll go with you peacefully, I swear.”
“A work order? You’d like to see some documentation, is that it?”
“Yes, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Death’s eyes returned to their original, and now surprisingly reassuring, black eternal void state. He laid his scythe across my coffee table, gently sliding the last glass of Glenfiddich I’d ever have out of its way. “You’re what we in the death collection business call ‘high maintenance’. Have you ever been called that before? High maintenance?”
I watched as Death reached deep inside his cloak and produced an iPhone 6. He opened an app with a tap of his bony finger.
“You have an iPhone?” I asked.
“Who do you think invents technology, Einstein? I’ll give you a hint. Same person that invented Einstein.”
Death clicked and swiped for several seconds while unconsciously singing the chorus to “Who Are You?” by The Who.
“Alright, Mr. Skeptic, here we go. You are Edward Gaines. Age 61. 27 Canterbury Court, Hohokus, New Jersey. Ring a bell? Satisfied? Let’s go.”
Death snatched the scythe off the table and stood up, motioning me toward the door. “After you, Eddie,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it. “That’s not me,” I said. “You got the wrong guy! My name is Michael Carmody. I’m 42 years old, not 61 and this is 27 Canterbury Place! Not Court!”
“Impossible,” Death said.
“Claire!” I shouted. “Can you come here?”
I watched Death pull out his phone and begin retracing whatever iPhone steps he took to end up in my den in Hohokus, New Jersey. Claire trotted into the room and suddenly stopped short.
“Dad, the curtain’s shaking.”
“It’s Lester. Claire, tell Death what your full name is and our address.”
“Claire Augusta Carmody, I’m three and I live on 27 Canterbury Place, Hohokus, New Jersey. Wait. Did you ask me to say how old?”
“It’s fine. And what’s my name?”
“Michael Carmody,” she said. “Need me to vacuum anything?”
“No. We’re good,” I said, watching as she ran her finger across one of the windowsills checking for dust and being somewhat disappointed in not finding any before leaving the room.
Death held his phone in front of his face. The fiery red coal eyes were back. Suddenly, I could sense there was another presence in the room. Disembodied but palpable just the same.
“What can I help you with,” the voice asked. I recognized it. It was Siri! Even people in the afterlife use her, I thought to myself. No wonder Apple stock is up to $127 already after the split.
“Directions to 27 Canterbury Court, Hohokus, New Jersey,” Death said.
“Sorry Death, I didn’t quite get that,” Siri said.
“I’m shocked,” Death muttered sarcastically. “Directions to 27 Canterbury Court, Hohokus New Jersey.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t find 27 Canterbury Court, Hocus, New Jersey,” Siri said.
“Not Hocus, Hohokus! Hohokus,” Death screamed into his phone. He glared at me. “Why don’t you people have normal town names in this state like Sacramento or Buffalo?”
“Maybe you should direct your anger at Siri,” I said. “She’s the one that screwed up your directions and now my afternoon.”
Death removed the hood of his cloak and scratched the back of his head using the tip of his scythe. I had the feeling he was in uncharted territory.
I went back to the couch, got under the blanket and flipped the channel back to the golf match. Scottsdale, Arizona. Not a cloud in the sky. All the spectators in short pants. I was already feeling warmer. Death approached.
“Look, I’m really sorry. This was a whole lot easier when we just used index cards. But nowadays everything is iCloud this and iCloud that. Would you believe I got an app on here that tells me what time low tide is on the Styx? I know I put you through a terrible ordeal. Is there any way I can make it up to you?’
I reached for my Glenfiddich, drained the glass and calmly set it back on the table. I looked Death right in the eye. “I don’t know,” I said. “You seem pretty good with that scythe. How are you with a snow shovel?”
© 2015 The Monkey Bellhop and John Hartnett