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Rated: E · Fiction · Contest Entry · #2125759
Grim Reaper Robert Hanson appears on a talk show
The applause died and talk show host Marty Shelton paused for dramatic effect. “Our next guest is a person none of us wants to meet, but everyone has heard about. For several years I have tried to get him here, but to no avail. Until now.
         “Ladies and gentlemen, please give a big welcome to the Grim Reaper himself, Death!”
         Marty stepped out from his desk and paused. The tall man on the stage was not what he expected. Young, about thirtyish, he wore an Armani suit, manicured nails, Italian leather shoes, and a fashionable walking stick. His dark hair just brushed the collar of his tailored shirt.
         He shook his host’s hand. “Thank you for inviting me, Marty. I’m happy to be here.”
         “I’m glad you could come. I admit I expected a skeleton in a flowing tattered robe holding a scythe. So what do I call you, Mr Reaper, Death, Grim?”
         The man laughed. “Actually, my name is Robert Hanson.”
         “Robert? I’d never heard that.”
         “Well, that was how I was known before I was recruited, so I suppose technically it’s still my name.”
         “Wait. You were recruited? Do you mean you weren’t always the embodiment of death?”
         Robert laughed. “I’m not even the only one.”
         “There are more than one reaper?”
         “Of course. There’s close to seven and a half billion people on the planet. That’s a big workload.”
         “I can see that. So how many of you are there?”
         The man thought for a minute or two. “Um...I don’t really know. Math was never my strong suit. We have five corporate offices, one for each main continent; the Arctic and Antarctic are on an as-needed basis.
         “Their agents have different names, but that’s mostly a translation thing. In America we employ Reapers, in Norway they are called Valkyr. The other offices have their own names as well.”
         “Why do you exist at all? I would think that when we die our souls, or spirits, or ghosts would know where to go. Like a magnet or something.”
         “In ninety-nine percent of the time you are correct, but that leaves seventy-four million per year who need help.”
         “What determines who needs your help?”
         “First are the babies and young children. They always have priority because they haven’t had a chance to learn right from wrong. Choices people make in life have a big impact on their status.
         “Next come good people who die for others in combat. This would be Good Samaritan-types who get killed helping total strangers; soldiers, firefighters, any kind of law enforcement. In fact, thousands of years ago, the Valkyr was organised for just these innocents. It was they who proposed to the the All Father that global departmentalization was the best way.
         “Why do these people in particular need help on the journey? Are they afraid of the next step?”
         “Well, usually it comes down to personal nature. The desire -- no, the compulsion to help is so ingrained in most of these people that they feel they simply are not finished; that there are too many people that still need them. A large part of our job is just convincing them their time is up. On a rare occasion the verdict is overturned and they are allowed to come back.”
         “No, that’s just a reassignment. No, I’m talking about the woman who came into my office last week. She was the perfect example of living the best she was able, though that living was under a bridge in a tattered tent. Very humble, but well-loved among the homeless.
         “Last Monday morning, while she was doing what she could to earn enough for a breakfast, she saw a small child wander into the intersection. With no thought of herself she ran to the toddler, scooped him up, and tossed him onto the sidewalk. The woman was struck by two different vehicles, and died on the operating table.
         “She pleaded with me to send her back, saying there were too many people who depended on her. I pulled up her record and discovered that her whole life had been spent helping others, and was an advocate for the homeless population. She never begged, but would take any job given her, and encouraged others to do the same.”
         “What did you decide?”
         “There is a young woman currently in the hospital for a drug overdose. She is not homeless, but her family has given up on her. She has been in and out of rehab a few times, but each time she relapses, Veronica is there. I’m convinced that this woman would have died long ago if not for Veronica’s support. I consulted a Fate, who said that this woman, with Veronica’s help, will recover and go on to help others, so I gave in.”
         Marty Shelton waited for the applause to lessen. “Robert, you said you were recruited. How does that happen? Do you have to die first and then somehow apply for the job? Tell the audience how it happened for you.”
         “Well, it’s a little different now, compared to when I arrived. Then, we were recruited directly by another Reaper, but there was little organization. Paperwork was horrendous.
         “Now the Reapers are basically department heads; advancement is primarily internal. It’s very rare that a new Reaper will be newly deceased. This was done partly to mollify the angels, as well.
         “Don’t get me wrong, Angels do an important job, and are very good at it, but they were in a rut; they could only be Angels. Now they have an opportunity for training and advancement.”
         The man stared at the floor. “As for me, it was World War I, France. My unit was behind enemy lines, holed up in a hospital. The town was already in enemy hands, and they had no reason to suspect Americans were there, but they started to lob mortar after mortar at the buildings, even though the town had not been evacuated.
         “I found out later that they were training new troops to use artillery and the town was just target practice, with no thoughts of the inhabitants. Such is war.
         “Anyway, a series of three or four mortar shots hit the hospital. My men and the sisters had been in the process of evacuating the patients, but not quick enough. I was on the ground floor when the building came down. I knocked a nurse and a young girl to the ground and jumped on top of them. The force of the collapse shoved them through the floor into the basement; they were fine, but my spine was crushed.
         “I don’t know how many died in that hospital, but I saw Reapers, Valkyr, Zhatka, and dozens of others of similar rank; I saw the multitudes of angels accompanying each one. I wasn’t dead yet, not quite, but I saw it all; reapers and their cousins sorting the dead according to ancestry, and delegating their angels to helping the wounded, or making their deaths as painless as possible.
         “I saw this and I wept. I wept for all those we couldn’t save.
         “One Reaper approached me from the shadows and I remember shouting at him to go away; I wasn’t finished. He came into my blurred vision, smiled at me, and said, ‘I’m so proud of you, son.’
         “My father had been one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American war, and had earned a posthumous award for gallantry and bravery in the face of the enemy.
         “Now my father held his bayonet toward me, and I touched it. At that moment my heart exploded.
         “My father had been recruited at the moment of his death just as he recruited me.”
         “I see. So is your father still around? You are immortal, aren’t you?”
         “When a Reaper retires he is no longer immortal; he or she will just begin aging naturally from that time. For instance, I was recruited at the age of thirty-two. When I retire, whether it is tomorrow or four hundred years from now, I will begin aging from the point I stopped, and live a normal mortal life. My father retired after WWII so he’s now in his nineties.”
         “Why would he retire? Why would you?”
         “It gets to you after a while. You’re dealing with the deaths of good people on a daily basis, sometimes for hundreds of years. It takes a special kind of soul; a strong soul, but it still gets to you. My father couldn’t do it anymore.”
         “It sounds like something I’d be interested in.”
Robert smiled. It often happened this way, and in some cases the lack of memory was merciful. “I was hoping you’d say that. Mr Shelton, I have a job offer for you.”
         “Excuse me? I thought you had to be dying, not doing a daytime talk show.”
         “Many people, when they are on the cusp, retreat to their comfort zone; someplace they’ve always felt safe. Marty, this show was canceled thirteen years ago.”
         “Wait. I’m dying? Why? How?”
         “The news reports are already calling you a hero. You don’t remember the collision at all?”
         Marty concentrated. “I remember. . .a school bus. A school bus hit me. It was an accident. How am I a hero?”
         “It wasn’t an accident, Martin. You intentionally put yourself in front of that bus full of kids.”
         The monitor behind the desk turned on, a melancholy news anchor was speaking, “The driver of the car has been positively identified as philanthropist to the underprivileged, and former media star and talk show host Martin Shelton, whom many are calling a true hero.”
         Marty’s white car passed a tanker stalled across the road. A small fire flickered. The road turned into a blind curve on a hill, and rushing toward it -- too fast -- was the school bus.
         The traffic cams showed Shelton flashing his lights; waving his arms in desperation, but to no avail. With only one option left, Marty turned his car into the path of the bus, forcing the driver to veer. The bus jerked to the left, its left corner hitting the car dead center, stopping in the middle of the road, just short of the curve.
         A switch to a news helicopter showed the tanker was now engulfed in flames.
         Martin was horrified. “What about the kids?”
         “Nothing more than a few bruises and wet pants, because of you.”
         Shelton wiped his eyes. “What do I need to do?”
         The tall man stood. “Just grab my cane.”
         “What about my body? Is there a chance I’ll pull through?”
         “There’s a reason you came to your studio, Martin. The memories will return when you’re ready, but your body is of no use now. The best the surgeons can do is make you strong enough for eternal life support.
         “You have dedicated your life to helping people find their their second chance, Mr Shelton. I’d like that to continue; to head the new Prevention department. There are so many good people who have given up. Your kind of people.”
         Martin Shelton, philanthropist to the underprivileged, looked at his guest’s walking stick, and reached out.

         Robert Hansen let himself into his house, and heard the television on in the master bedroom, but none of the familiar teasing and banter. Alarmed, he rushed to the other room. “Are you alright? Where’s Angelica?”
         The old man in the bed waved a shaking hand. “How was your night?”
         “I broke my own rule and recruited a new Reaper.”
         “The talk show host? I saw him on the news. He’ll do fine.”
         “Dad, where is Angelica?”
         “I let her go, Bobby. She won’t be needed here anymore.”
         Robert sighed and his voice quivered. “I understand, Pop. Take my hand.”
         “No cane or staff? Not even a bayonet?”
         “Not for you, Dad. I’m holding your hand the whole way.”
         The old man closed his eyes and held Bobby’s hand. “I’m so proud of you, son.”
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