Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Short Story - Final Exam

Inside the envelope was a name and an address – Larry Burrows, 407 Selwynn Avenue.  Dave carefully reviewed the information one more time before heading up the steps.  This Larry was 55 and balding, but unfortunately not fat enough to make things easy.  He shook his head at that; the company couldn’t give him a simple case for his final exam.
            The steps groaned a little as he went up.  The front door was solid oak and looked like it had a sturdy lock on it.  That mattered little today.
            Dave ran through the mental exercises he needed in order to get in, remembering the techniques the HR Director shared with them, and walked through the door.  The oak looked incredible as he passed through, and Dave phased himself back into reality once he got to the other side.
            Looking around, he took stock of the house.  Hard wood floors and some antique furniture attested to Larry being well off.  Someone’s laughter came from the back of the house and Dave followed the sound.
            He rounded the corner to see a tranquil scene straight out of a Rockwell painting – large turkey on the table, family gathered around, and kids playing on the floor with the dog.  Larry himself sat at the head of the table, a large carving knife in his right hand.  He looked right at Dave and paused.
            “Who the hell are you?” Larry asked.
            Nuts, Dave thought.  He forgotten to cloak himself and knew that the boys upstairs would dock him points for that one.  He quickly blended into the background and went silent as the rest of the family now followed Larry’s gaze to the empty space.
            “Who are you looking at, dear?” asked a plump woman who appeared to be Larry’s wife.
            Larry’s brow furrowed and he cocked his head.  “I could’ve sworn I just saw someone standing in the doorway.  Brown hair and a beard.  Looked like he had a black trench coat on.”
            “There’s no one there, dad,” said a stocky young man peering over the turkey.  “I think you’re a little tired from all of this.  Let’s just eat.”
            Larry shook his head and sawed into the bird.  Dave could see the juices run down the side of the turkey and onto the platter.  His mouth watered and he wondered what it would feel like to never eat again.  Sadly, that was one of the things that came with the job.
            Too bad there’s work to be done, he thought.  Closing his eyes to slits, he focused on the moment., on each tick of the clock.  Time gradually slowed and soon everyone was stopped.  Everyone but Larry.
            Larry looked around.  “What’s going on?  Guys, what are you doing?”
            “They can’t hear you.”
            Dave uncloaked himself as Larry spun to face him.  The scene was still; not even the steady hum of breath disturbed it.
            “Who are you?” Larry asked.
            Dave sighed.  He both loved this part and dreaded it.  He loved the power he had, but the initial breaking of the news was always hard.
            “You’ve died,” Dave said.
            “I’m sorry,” Dave replied.  “It’s your time.”
            “But I feel fine,” Larry stammered.
            “You won’t for long.  I was hoping you’d be a little heavier – a heart attack is easy.  Probably going to have to give you a brain aneurism.  Those are trickier, but it has to be done.”
            “I can’t be dead,” Larry protested.  “It’s Thanksgiving.  My family is here.  I need to spend time with my grandchildren and help my wife out with the mess.”
            “I wish I could help you.  I really do.  But I don’t get to decide these things.  Your name came up on our list, and it’s my job to retrieve you.  At least I hope it’s my job to retrieve you.”
            In response to Larry’s quizzical look, Dave replied, “I’m not technically an Angel of Death yet.  I’ve gone through the application process, but they haven’t hired me yet.  This is supposed to be my final exam.”
            Now Larry looked angry.  “You’re going to take me away from my wife and family, and I don’t even rate a full fledged specter of death, just some wannabe?”
            “There’s no need to be rude,” said Dave.  “I’ll be in the club soon enough, but I’ve got to conduct a retrieval first so the boys in Human Resources know that I’ve got the stomach for it.”
            “Isn’t there something I can do?” Larry asked.  “I can give you anything.  Just let me have a few more years.”
            Dave snorted.  “Do you think you’re the first person to try and bargain with Death?  Billions have done so throughout the ages and it never works.  Plus, do you really think I’m going to let you go and blow my shot at this job?”
            Larry’s shoulders slumped.  He calmly put down the knife he’d been holding and got up from the table.  As he did, his spirit shimmered briefly while it left his body.  Dave put his arm around Larry and they walked towards the door.
            Dave snapped his fingers and time started up again.  He didn’t look back, but he could hear a thump as Larry hit the table, then he heard Larry’s wife scream.  He shook his head and thought again about the parts of the job that would be hard.
            Dave relaxed on the couch in his apartment.  Larry had been easy enough to deposit.  Yes, he’d felt sorry for the man, but compassion wasn’t something he could allow himself the luxury of or there’d be no room for new souls on this planet.  Death helped keep things fresh and new.
            The day’s usual events played out on the TV.  The usual murders were interspersed with the usual crimes, with a smattering of the usual sports’ events tossed in.  Dave started to drift off when he noticed the air had gone silent.  The TV picture was still and he couldn’t even hear the hum of the air conditioner.
            He looked over at the table in his kitchen to see a pasty faced man in a long black trench coat.  Dave’s heart jumped and began beating furiously, willing him to extend his final moments.
            “Dave,” said the figure.  “It’s time to go.”
            “Th-there’s got to be some kind of mistake,” Dave stammered.  “I can’t be on the list.”
            “You are.  You know the deal – we don’t pick who gets on the list, we just bring them home.”
            “But I’ve applied for a position with the company.  How could they do this to me now?”
            The figure spread his arms.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know what to tell you.”
            Dave’s eyes darted back and forth.  Finally, he said, “I’ll bet it was that shrew in accounting who’s behind this.  She didn’t like me from the moment I got there – I could see it in her eyes.”
            “No one is ‘behind this,’” said the figure as he shook his head.  “The people at the company are professionals, and you know that.  We don’t let petty differences dictate when souls are chosen.”
            “But this isn’t fair!” Dave yelled.  “I’ve taken crap my whole life, and now that I’ve finally found a job that I can get do well, you want to pull me out?”
            “What was it you told Larry about bargaining?” asked the figure.  “Everyone has to die.”
            “You can’t do this.  I won’t let you!”  With energy that belied his age, Dave sprung from the couch and tore for the door, throwing it open and running into the hall.  He sprinted for the exit and ran out into the open air.
            However, the figure blocked his path.  “Now, Dave,” the figure chided.  “You of all people should know that you can’t outrun Death.  The rudimentary powers we’ve given you should have clued you into that.”
            Dave suddenly remembered – his powers!  He summoned all of his strength and shoved the figure across the parking lot.  He then closed his eyes and thought of a far off place, one where he could hide.  Maybe he could go to the bottom of the ocean, or trap himself inside a mountain.  He figured that surely they’d eventually tire of chasing him.
            He felt his body fade from the parking lot and then begin to re-phase back into reality.  He didn’t know exactly where he was, but he knew it had to be better than facing the specter of death at his own home.
            The area was dark.  Dave hadn’t figured on that and squinted into the blackness.  Finally, a light appeared and he heard a deep voice.
            “Hello Dave.  Welcome home.”
            “Mr. Broughton!” Dave exclaimed.  Mr. Gabriel Broughton was the head of the department.  “What are you doing here?  Did you put my name on the list?”
            “Yes, Dave, I did.”
            “But why?  I’d just passed my final exam and was ready to join the firm.”
            Dave could hear the resignation in Mr. Broughton’s voice.  “No, Dave, you didn’t pass – you failed.”
            “I don’t understand,” Dave replied.  “I brought in Larry Burrows.  He came willingly and I didn’t listen to his pathetic bargaining.  I showed I could be counted on.”
            “You showed you could be counted on in only one aspect, Dave.  However, a true Angel of Death knows that to understand death, you have to surrender to it.  Instead, you showed the same fear that most have, believing you had too much to lose.  You failed to set the example in giving yourself to Death, and so how could you ever expect others to truly follow you?
            “Even worse, you misused your powers in trying to hide.  That makes me wonder what else you’d be willing to do if circumstances weren’t in your favor.  No, you don’t have the character to be a member of the firm, so you must return to your life of nothing.”
            Dave’s head began to swirl and he suddenly found himself back on the couch in his apartment.  The TV blared the day’s events again, and when he tried to recall how to use the abilities he’d had, he couldn’t remember how.  The only thing echoing through his head was a warning.
            You’re free today, it said.  Remember, though, Death eventually comes to us all.  We’ll meet again.

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