Early in the morning of an unseasonably chilly March–a day before his fiftieth birthday–, Jack Onager stood naked, admiring himself in a full length mirror that was affixed to the inside of the door of his private bathroom. Unfazed by the cold, he spun several times and studied his six foot two inch frame from a distance. He then stepped up close and scrutinized every inch of his two hundred and twenty five pound gym sculpted physique.
As he made his way through his examination, Jack didn’t mind the slight touch of gray in his otherwise jet-black dyed hair. It would be eliminated in an upcoming barber appointment. The only thing that displeased him was a barely perceptible amount of fat around his waist. Upon noticing it, his cobalt blue eyes narrowed and deep furrows appeared on his tanning salon bronzed face.
Enraged by his discovery, Jack opened the inward hinged door and slammed it into the wall with such ferocity, it should have shattered the mirror into a galaxy of pieces and made a forest of toothpicks out of the wood. Both, however, remained unscathed. An act of defiance which infuriated him further.
For a brief moment, Jack stared at the door. He then noticed his wife Dina–who was staring at him in disbelief. “What are you doing standing there with a stupid look on your face?” Jack snapped.
Throughout his preoccupation, Dina–Jack’s wife of thirty two years– had stood in silence a few feet away. As she waited, she’d reflected on their long history. They had been high school sweethearts and had gotten married shortly after graduation. For the first five years, their marriage had been great. Jack was loving and attentive. Everything changed when Jack took over her father’s business and, a bit later on, when she contracted Lupus.
The first year, Dina’s Lupus was a minor issue. As time passed, her joints ached and her figure morphed, a steroid regimen she’d been prescribed bloated her body into a fuller version of her former svelte self. And, much to her bitterness, she’d been forced to transform her long, lustrous blonde locks into a boyish cut.
As she waited, Dina’s musings flashed in her mind as if they were in an old slide projector set on automatic timer. Only one stood out and remained frozen in place. The image of her first crew cut.
You bastard…I told you it was painful…
“I want to know your birthday plans,” Dina replied–in a placating tone.
“The only thing you need to know is that they don’t include you,” Jack retorted.
“I don’t care about that,” Dina said. “It’s your fiftieth and–as you perfectly well know– it ends the terms of my father’s trust. We can break up the business and…,”
“That’s not going to happen.” Jack scoffed then added–before shoving Dina out of his way. “I took your father’s small chain of gyms and turned it into a multinational corporation. I have no intention of splitting it with you or your idiot brother.”
As he’d done every day for nearly three years, Jack hopped in his car and raced to his girlfriend Rita’s house for a morning romp. Under typical circumstances, their lovemaking–much to Rita’s chagrin and Jack’s delight– was a rushed affair Jack timed to end shortly before Rita’s husband returned home from his late shift. On this day, he walked in early and caught them lounging in bed.
“Oh my God,” Rita’s husband gasped.
Upon hearing her husband’s voice, Rita bolted upright with her arms outstretched–which dropped the bedcovers to her lap–then froze statue-like in place. And in doing so, she took on the appearance of a seated, waist up Venus de Milo. Jack, on the other hand, jumped up and rushed towards Rita’s husband. He stopped, a foot from the man’s face, and barked, “You have three seconds to get the hell out of here…If you don’t, I’m going to kick your ass.”
Visibly shaken and unsure of how to proceed, Rita’s husband–a much smaller man than Jack– stood silent a moment and glanced back and forth between his wife and the naked behemoth in front of him.
“I’ll never forgive either of you for this,” Rita’s husband said.
“Come back soon,” Jack replied–as Rita’s husband backed up, turned and left.
The finality of her husband’s parting words took a few beats to register. Rita then let out an anguished wail and ran to the bathroom and locked the door.
For the next few minutes, Jack ignored Rita and what had transpired behind him. Instead, he stood naked and triumphant in the bedroom doorway–with a flat palm on both sides of the frame– and happily replayed, on a loop, his sexual conquest and his encounter with Rita’s husband.
Jack voluntarily ended his reverie by walking to the bathroom and saying through the still closed door, “Relax, that twerp isn’t going anywhere. He’ll hole up somewhere and nurse a few beers. He’ll be back in a few hours.”
“I didn’t want it to end like this,” Rita’s pained and muffled voice came in reply. She then added, in a faux upbeat tone, “But it makes the news I have even better.”
“And just what is that?”
“How could you let this happen?” Jack bellowed. He then added–in a threatening tone before getting dressed in a hurry, “You have until the end of the week to have an abortion scheduled.”
Jack then stormed out of the house and jumped in his car. He revved up his engine several times and popped the clutch–before laying a patch of rubber that would make a hot rodding teenager envious.
Jack’s tires squealed in protest and belched a puff of smoke as he whipped a high speed turn into the parking lot of the Creed’s Gym complex–the site of his father in law’s original gym and his worldwide corporate offices. His tires emitted another set of both after an immediate and equally reckless right turn. Jack then drove, at breakneck speed, the length of the six hundred foot lot towards his personal parking space near the gym’s front door.
From a short distance away, Jack noticed a large van–which was parked in the spot to the immediate left of his own. Years earlier, in an effort to keep members from using his spot, he’d had the lot reconfigured. All of the required disabled spots were to the right of his personal space and he’d placed, a never used, loading and unloading only space to his spot’s immediate left.
Upon seeing the van Jack screamed, “Clyde, you idiot. You’re going to regret this.”
Jack jammed his brakes hard and fishtailed to a near stop before slowly turning in. It was a good thing he did. If he hadn’t, he would have run over a white haired, bushy bearded old man–who from the looks of his outdated, unkempt clothes had to be homeless– who was fast asleep with his feet up on the entrance sidewalk and his head resting on the concrete block at the top of Jack’s space.
“You jackass,” Jack shouted–as he exited his car. “I could have killed you.”
“There’s no need to curse,” the man replied in a calm tone–after craning his neck backwards and peering up at Jack. “First, my name isn’t jackass…It’s G.R.”
“I couldn’t care less old man,” Jack fired back.
“And second,” the man continued–fully unperturbed by Jack’s outburst and as he took his time getting to get to his feet. “I’m just following instructions. I was told to wait here and deliver a message.”
“Message?…What in the hell are you talking about?”
“Expect a surprise for your birthday,” G.R. replied–in a cheerful tone.
“How do you…? Ah, never mind…Old man, you have three seconds…,”
“Old? Who are you calling old?” G.R. interjected–in an indignant tone. “I’m only twenty three.”
“Last chance, old man,” Jack snarled. “Start moving or…,”
“There’s no need for threats,” G.R. replied. “I’m leaving.”
“What’s going on out here?” Clyde, Jack’s brother in law and gym manager, asked a few minutes later. “I heard tires squealing.”
“It’s about time you got out here, you lazy idiot,” Jack snapped. “What were…,?”
“I’m sorry,” Clyde interjected–in a sheepish, subservient tone. “I was…,”
“Don’t you dare interrupt me, you jackass.”
After a brief pause–to let Clyde stew a bit, Jack asked, “Now, what was so damn important that you couldn’t be bothered to investigate sooner?”
“I was on the phone with Dina. She wanted me to…,?”
“Is this about my birthday?” Clyde nodded. “God dammit! I should have told her this earlier and been done with it.”
Unsure of what to do and not wanting to enrage Jack further, Clyde stood silent and waited. Jack then ordered, “Pass this on to your useless sister. Is that clear?”
“Yes sir,” Clyde responded–in a quiet, placating tone.
“For years, I resented your old man.”
“I earned my share, jackass. I made him rich,” Jack retorted then threatened. “If you know what’s good for you, that was your last interruption.”
Jack then continued–after a brief pause to stare Clyde down and make him squirm. “It could have been great…But no, your old man had to tie up most of the money.”
“But that was…,” Clyde started to say–before being forced to duck under an open palmed slap.
“His idea of a retirement fund,” Jack snapped. “It made sense to leave the trust terms until we were older–thirty would have been perfect…But no.. The bastard had to leave them in place until we were fifty.”
“I could have lived with the terms had they been more liberal,” Jack continued–as Clyde slowly inched his way from arms length, “What I hated him for, with a seething passion, was his instruction that profits had to be split–a third to charity, a third to us and the remainder put back into the trust…That proviso has tied up and squandered millions.”
After wisely waiting and letting him cool off a bit, Clyde asked, “You said hated…What changed?”
“I had a lawyer take a close look at the trust. My birthday triggers an interesting clause.”
“And what’s that?”
“As you already know, we’ll be free to split up the business. However, if I refuse to sell my interest, neither you or your sister can do anything. The terms of the trust stay intact.”
“And why would you do that?” Clyde dared to ask. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“When each of us dies, there’s no probate or individual wills to deal with.” Jack responded–with a huge grin forming on his face. “The survivor or survivors gets the decedent’s corporation related assets automatically.”
“So, just to be greedy,” Clyde said–after taking a huge step backwards. “You’re going to wait.”
“Some deaths come sooner than expected,” Jack fired back–before he jumped back into his car and raced back down the lot.
Jack awoke with a start. In an instant, he wished he could return to the vast space he’d been in. Although it had been dark and somewhat cold, it had come with a comforting feeling of weightlessness–as if he were floating on water without actually touching the surface or feeling its wetness on his skin. Jack’s reality was the opposite. His entire body ached and felt like it weighed a ton. And his chest was so tightly compressed–it was like a herd of elephants had decided to encamp upon it.
For the next few minutes, Jack remained motionless–with his eyes firmly held shut– and did his best to will himself back to his former nirvana. When he realized his efforts were in vain, Jack turned his head to his left and opened his eyes. The moment he did, he was startled and confused by the sight of row after row of empty military style beds–in a long white walled room–and G.R. seated on the bunk next to him.
“Hello, sleepyhead,” G.R. said–in a cheerful yet mocking tone. “I was beginning to think you were Rip Van Winkle.”
“Shut up,” Jack fired back then asked. “Where are we?… What happened?”
“None of that matters,” G.R. responded–in another cheerful tone.
“Answer me, jackass,” Jack demanded. “And if you know what’s good for you, lose the grin and attitude old man.”
“Like I said, none of it matters,” G.R. replied–fully unperturbed by Jack’s outburst. “Welcome to G.R. barracks #1750. It’s your new home.”
“G.R. barracks?… You said your name is G.R.”
“It is…And now it’s yours as well.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“Surprise!…You no longer exist. You’ve been harvested.”
“As in dead.”
“I’m all beat up but I’m clearly not dead, you jackass.”
“Trust me, you’re as dead as one can be.”
“That isn’t possible. The last thing I remember I was headed home. And I was fine then.”
“You were too focused on running the red light as you left the lot. You slammed into an Angel’s Bakery truck that was turning in.”
“A bakery truck? Why on…?”
“It was dropping off a birthday cake from Dina and Clyde.”
“What? Both of those idiots know I don’t celebrate my birthday or eat crap like that.”
“Well, it’s a moot point now…But they can still use the cake to celebrate.”
“Their deliverance from you.”
G.R.’s comment enraged Jack to blind fury and he vainly tried to get up to attack.
“There’s no point in that,” G.R. said then warned. “And, you need to know I have the power to treat you as I see fit.”
“As soon as I can get up, I’m going to kill you!”
“You’re definitely a hard case,” G.R. said with disgust. “Apparently, you need more convincing.”
G.R. then extended his arms–placing his palms outward–and Jack was struck with excruciating pain.
Jack’s pleas for help went unanswered and his screams of torment reverberated off the nondescript walls. Both only ebbed when his voice was hoarse. In those moments, he instinctively lapped up the river of tears that had run down his cheeks unabated.
Salvation arrived when G.R. returned and retook his seat. “Have you had enough?”
“Yes…Yes,” Jack muttered. “Make it stop.”
“So bet it,” G.R. said–as he snapped his fingers. “It is done. But I warn you…,”
“No…No…You’ve made your point.”
“Excellent…I have questions and you will answer them as simply as possible. Is that understood?”
“Do you accept your death?”
“Yes, I have to…Everything’s been too painful.”
“Excellent…Do you want to unburden yourself?”
“Past misdeeds…Dina or Clyde would be a good place to start.”
Upon hearing their names, Jack softly chuckled and retorted, “I died a day too early.”
“No,” Jack struggled to scream–as he watched G.R. slowly raise his arms.
“You are indeed,” G.R. scolded. He then added–after a short pause to determine Jack’s level of contrition, “I’m going to let that one pass.”
G.R. then continued, “You’re wrong about Dina and Clyde. It’s already been arranged. The coroner is going to attribute your death to March 15.”
“Stop! That’s the last outburst I’m going to tolerate. Do you…?”
“No…No…,” Jack begged. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting that.”
For the next minute, G.R. and Jack stared at one another in silence. Jack then queried–in a somewhat subservient tone. “Earlier you called this place my new home. What was…,?”
“As of now, you’re a grim reaper. You’ll…,”
“A grim reaper?” Jack interjected–in confusion. “Do I have any…?”
“No…You accept your fate or it’s more…,”
“No!…I’ll do whatever you say.”
“Excellent,” G.R. said–as he stood up. “I’ll leave you now. The others will explain your duties.”
“Wait, before you go,” Jack implored. “Can I ask a question?”
“If you must.”
“How long do I have to serve as a reaper?”
“You–like all of us who’ve come before you– will spend the rest of eternity guiding your assigned charges to their final destinations. And as you do, you’ll experience their lifetime pain a hundredfold.”
Mark Kuglin has a number of published short stories, pieces of flash fiction and poetry (online and in book form) to his credit. He also writes occasional articles and essays and has a novella and a novel in the works.