Still Life, Blood on Asphalt
May 1, 2112
Atherton was dying and he knew it. With every weak beat of his heart, he felt his life ebbing out onto the road. He wasn’t sure where he was wounded or how. Didn’t really matter.
He was lying a few hundred yards from the overturned town car, which rested against a smoldering military Humvee. The road was supposed to be secure, but they’d requested an escort anyway. It was the escort that had flipped and crashed up ahead of them, and Atherton had swerved the town car but not quickly enough to avoid a collision.
He angled his head toward the wreck and looked for signs of life. None. Was he the only one ejected from the vehicles? It figured. Thirty-four, in his prime, handsome swatches of gray just beginning to show in his hair. It figured he would die now, alone. At least he would be prepared for death, could breathe his last words as he felt it coming over him.
A pale horse walked around the wreck and came toward him. Upon it was a rider and Atherton knew his name was Death.
He wondered if Death looked the same to every soul he claimed. For Atherton, at least, it was the traditional black robes, with a hood casting a shadow over the specter’s face. As he drew closer and dismounted, Atherton saw his white face and black eyes, like marbles set in clay. “Have I already died?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Death answered dispassionately. He stood over Atherton, blocking out the noonday sun, and surveyed the landscape. The silence was unbearable. Would Death just wait there until Atherton bled out? “I work for the senator,” he coughed.
“The senator?” Death frowned.
“Moorecourt. He was in the town car,” Atherton explained. “I am—was—his aide.”
“The senator isn’t dead,” the specter murmured.
“I don’t understand.” Atherton could taste blood on his lips and gums. His head was swimming from the heat, and he forced himself to concentrate on speaking. “You just got here. But they’re already dead?”
“I don’t normally collect souls myself,” Death replied. “I merely mark their passing. Only in extraordinary circumstances…” His monotone voice trailed off. He was eyeing the wreck. All the while his ghostly steed stood silently.
“Why did we crash?” Atherton croaked. Fate? Was there such a thing? Did Death have a contemporary who wrote the endings of human lives in a great book? Or was it just an accident, a fucking accident? He wasn’t sure which possibility offended him more: for some emotionless sentinel to decide that he should be torn open and dumped onto burning asphalt in the middle of nowhere, or for shitty driving to be his undoing.
“There was a body in the road,” Death said. “The soldiers drove over it, believing it was dead. It wasn’t.” Death’s gaze was fixed on the wreck, and he reached a chalk-white hand into the folds of his robes.
“It was an undead?”
Ignoring the question, Death pulled his hand out, and with it a massive scythe, far too long to have been concealed on his person, the curved blade catching the sunlight and throwing it into Atherton’s eyes. He groaned and rolled his head to the side. That’s when he saw it.
The lone undead shambled around the town car and stopped. It could see them both, Atherton realized. Its hands and face were caked with blood, not its own. Must have been in the Hummer, feeding. It had caused the crash, lying prone and then driving some crude spear into the undercarriage of the Humvee, so that it could eat. Atherton felt blood and bile rise in his throat. Wait…was that how he’d die? Was Death here to watch as this undead dug out his guts?
Then, the specter took two steps forward and swung the scythe out in a horizontal arc, passing cleanly through the belly of the zombie. He rested the scythe at his side and stood still with the patience of eternity.
The undead didn’t move. There was no wound visible across its midsection, as if it had been struck by a phantom blade. Then, like a paper cut, the line bled into view, and the zombie’s torso fell to the ground, sputtering brown viscera.
Atherton tried to process what he’d just seen, lying on a deserted road in his own blood with the Grim Reaper leaning against his dreaded scythe. The zombie…it wasn’t just cut in half, it was dead. Really dead.
“You came to kill it.”
Death nodded without looking down at him. “It, and others.”
Atherton tried to speak again, but couldn’t. His vision was failing. Death turned now, and Atherton trembled at the sight of his blade. Without a word, it was slipped back into the dark robes and out of sight.
Death knelt beside him. “Your life is like a flame.” He again reached into his robes, this time pulling out a burning candle. Despite the blinding sunlight, the flame seemed to cast its own luminescence. It didn’t hurt Atherton’s eyes at all. It was calming, in fact. Familiar.
Death poised his thumb and forefinger around it. “When you die, the flame merely ceases.” The tiny, pulsing light grew smaller then faded altogether.
Atherton was dead. Death crushed the candle’s wick out and returned it to its place.
The specter gathered his robes and climbed back onto the pale horse. They continued for a while down the road at a lazy gait, down to the gates of Jefferson Harbor.
© 2010 David Dunwoody and Permuted Press