Short story of a man's dialogue with Death
Denton awoke on the bus, standing, swaying with the crowd who had been too late to find seats. His hand gripped a strap that hung from the roof but there was no real need for such support; he could not have fallen in this crush, even if he'd wanted to. He let go and looked around.
The light was dim and muted, a ghostly glow that seemed to emanate from above yet without a definite source. Shadowed faces stared into nothingness or, with closed eyes, seemed to be sleeping. The people packed around him swayed with the motion of the bus, all as one, forcing him to comply with the slow back and forth that held them. Silence inhabited the air, filling those spaces not occupied with bodies. The windows were black with night, not even an occasional light speeding past.
Denton became aware that he was slipping back into sleep and forced his eyes to remain open. This was no good; there were too many questions unanswered, too many things he wanted to know. He had no memory of boarding this bus, no knowledge of its destination. Why were they packed in here like sardines, how did he come to be in this place?
He took one more look at the faces nearest him and realized that there was no hope of answers from them. They seemed oblivious to their surroundings as though the constant soft movement had lulled them into a trance. Denton began to push his way through them, working his way forward to where the driver must be.
The people did not move aside for him but swayed when pushed, creating a space for him, so that he was able to make good progress. The bus was larger than he had imagined but, eventually, he found himself at the front of the crowd, staring down at the hooded figure crouched over the steering wheel. The driver seemed completely intent upon his task and unaware of the movement behind him. Denton reached out and tapped the figure on the shoulder.
The driver's head snapped round and Denton found himself looking into empty eye sockets framed in a skull-like face. Denton's body convulsed with shock but the press of humanity behind him prevented any retreat now. "Oh shit," he thought, "it's a dream."
The skull's jawbone was moving now and one word issued in a sepulchral voice from the black emptiness of its mouth. "Yes?"
Denton had been trying to wake himself up, without success, and now decided that he'd best play along with whatever happened. He smiled apologetically and introduced himself. "I'm Denton, one of your passengers. And you would be...?" He allowed the question to hang in the air, dreading yet somehow unafraid of the inevitable answer.
"My name is Death," the other replied. "What do you want?"
"Well, I was hoping you could give me some information," said Denton. "Like where we're going and how long this dream is going to last."
Death shook his skull. "Always the same," he muttered, "the ones that wake up are full of questions, questions, questions..." Then he looked sharply at Denton. "Look, this is not a dream, okay? You're dead and I'm taking you to the holding station. Don't ask me whether you're going up or down; I don't know. They'll sort that out when you get there. Now, are you going to let me get on with driving this thing or would you prefer to stand there gawping all night?"
Denton smiled. "I'm dead? Hah, now I know this is a dream. I'm in the prime of my life and the doc gave me a perfect score at my last medical. Why would I be dead? And look at you - you're like a cartoon version of the Death we imagine. Death driving a bus, for Pete's sake. Where's the pallid horse and the scythe, then?"
Death looked away as if in embarrassment. For a moment he watched the blackness sweeping by outside, then shrugged and turned back to Denton. "Okay, you want to talk, we'll talk. But I'm getting pretty fed up with you wakers and I swear this is the last time."
He stood up then and Denton gasped involuntarily. "The wheel, the wheel. Get back to your driving."
Without concern, Death waved a skeletal hand at the controls. "Actually, this thing drives itself. I only sit here to avoid having to mix with you lot. You're all so damn boring with your eternal questions."
He expelled a foul gust of air in an apparent sigh, grabbed a strap and pointed a bony finger at Denton. "And you asked a fair few, didn't you? So let's get to it and then you can go back to sleep and I can be alone again.
"First, the bus. There's a war on, you know. And, when there's a war, especially a world war, my clientele tends to expand like you wouldn't believe. We put on buses to cope with the extra demand.
"Next, your death. As I said, there's a war on. And it's not my fault that you happened to be exactly on the spot targeted by a missile. I dare say you wouldn't have felt a thing. But I doubt your last medical had any effect on the outcome whatsoever."
He paused then and waited while Denton digested this information. When it seemed that Denton understood, Death continued: "Let's see now; was there anything else? Oh yes, something to do with cartoons, I believe. Perhaps this will be more to your liking..."
As he finished, Death seemed to expand until he stood several feet taller than Denton. His fleshless arms stretched out and, in one, there appeared the famous scythe, its notched blade reflecting the eerie light. The cloak billowed around Death's skeleton as though caught in some gale from the underworld and a red light glowed from his eye sockets. Bending forward so that his face filled Denton's view, Death grinned as only a skull can grin and said, "D'you believe me now?"
The question was unnecessary. Denton had been seized by a terror so all-encompassing from the moment of Death's transformation that he was frozen in abject fear. His mouth opened and closed silently in complete failure to answer the question and his body swayed, near collapse.
For a moment that stretched on into eternity for Denton, the two faced each other; then Death pulled away and shrank back to his former size. "Okay," he said, "that settles that, I think. And let's have no more silly nonsense about dreams. You're dead, my friend, and that's all there is to it. Got any more questions?"
The dread that had overpowered Denton now relinquished its hold and he found that he could speak again. Shakily, he responded, "No, no, I don't think so." But then, as his awareness came flooding back to him, a thought occurred, flashing through his mind for an instant and renewing his hope.
"Uh, there is one thing," he said quickly as Death began to turn back to the driver's seat. "Did you ever see one of those old movies where the dead guy gets to return to life?"
Death's eye sockets seemed to glance at the ceiling and Denton thought he caught the muttered, "Jeez, this guy doesn't miss a trick." But Death turned back to him. "And what if I have?" he asked.
Denton was encouraged by this; at least he was still being heard. "Well, how about doing something similar for me?" he asked.
Several long seconds passed while Death stared at the impudent human. When he spoke, his voice was laced with contempt. "And why would I do that?"
But Denton was into his stride now; immediately he replied, "Because you like me."
Death put his head back and emitted a series of guttural gasps that could only be construed as laughter. It was some time before he could fix his gaze upon Denton again. "You, Denton, have the cheek of the Devil. I ought to put you into a sleep so deep that you don't wake up until you've been judged. Lord knows why I don't." He paused, as if considering something, before continuing. "But I guess you've entertained me more than most. What the heck, I'll do it."
Denton was overjoyed. He was getting a second crack at life and already his mind was racing on to the things he would do, now that he knew Death. Well, in more ways than one. But Death was speaking again, as he eased himself back into the driver's seat.
"Don't think it'll be easy. I'll have to erase some of your memory of this, of course. Can't have you going around, spreading rumors about me. And there's the problem of finding a suitable body for you as well. Your old one was completely vaporized by that missile. Got any preferences for how you'll look?"
So the matter was decided and Denton stayed on the bus while its cargo was unloaded. On the way back, he kept out of Death's way, not wanting to annoy him with chatter and so persuade him to think better of his decision. It was Death who broke the silence as they arrived in a dim and grey morning in the midst of some shadowy, bombed-out buildings.
"Okay, Denton, I'm going to have a look around for some clients. When I find a suitable one, I'll come straight back here and we can make the swap. Don't get off the bus or you'll become a tourist attraction in some haunted house or other. Got that?"
Denton nodded and watched as Death stepped down from the bus and disappeared into the mists. The minutes ticked by as Denton stared out of the window, looking for any signs of life in the gloomy surroundings. Once, the mist parted and he caught a glimpse of Death's striding figure as he moved about the rubble. But there were no living souls to be seen.
Half an hour passed before he saw Death coalesce out of the greyness and board the bus. A bony finger beckoned to Denton and the hollow voice intoned, "Come on. I've got one."
In seconds, Denton was outside and trotting to keep up with Death's long strides. The bus disappeared behind them as the mists closed in. They clambered over the rubble and entered the shell of a house with only three walls left standing. In the corner of the first room, almost buried under a pile of dusty bricks, they found the candidate Death had selected.
His legs were buried under the bricks but Denton could see that he was in his thirties and apparently quite fit apart from the gaping wound in the side of his head. He was the perfect substitute except for one thing. "But he's dead," protested Denton.
"Of course he's dead," said Death. "I don't swap the living; that's not allowed. This feller's on his way to the bus and all we have to do is get you inside his body. Quite simple really."
"But won't I be dead?"
"That's where I come in," replied Death. "Have to do some emergency first aid on that brain hemorrhage but it shouldn't be too much of a problem. Now stop wasting time and let's get this over and done with."
A few minutes later, Death strode back to the bus, well pleased with his work. For some strange reason, he gained enormous satisfaction from these occasional departures from his usual daily round. Perhaps it was the change in routine that provided the thrill but Death suspected that it really stemmed from a forgotten core of sentimentality deep in his being. He had enjoyed those ridiculous old movies, after all.
Back at the bus, the dozing lines of newly-dead humanity were filing into place in an orderly fashion and there was little for Death to do but watch as the job neared completion. As soon as all the seats and standing room were taken, he entered and sat in the driver's seat, going through the motions of starting the engine and moving off. In moments they were heading into black night again.
Death was beginning to doze off when he felt a tap at his shoulder. "Not another one," he thought, and turned tiredly to confront his latest tormentor. But it was Denton's familiar features that peered back into his empty sockets.
"Denton? What the hell are you doing here? I thought you wanted to go back?"
Denton smiled sheepishly. "Ummm, that's what I was hoping to speak to you about. There's a war on, you know."
Death stared back as understanding slowly dawned. "Oh shit, Denton, not another missile...?"
As Denton nodded apologetically, Death put his bony face into his skeletal hands and sighed.
Word Count: 2,143