Short Stories Short Stories

Short stories: Death's Grand Design Death's Grand Design

By Cynthia Vespia

Our woman in the Styx takes a lighthearted, satirical look at an overworked Grim Reaper coping with unhappy clients, family woes and life in a corporate afterworld

“I’ll see you tomorrow, baby.” Those were the last words she spoke to him for tomorrow never came for either of them. With one stupid, drunken accident the light of his life went out that night. And with her passing, he wished that the spectre's skeletal hand that reached out to claim her had taken him too.

Thanatos was a bundle of nerves. If he had skin it would be crawling. There had been a time in his existence, a pleasant time, when he need only concern himself with simple, ritual tasks. Now that The Underworld had gone public his every waking hour seemed to be a living nightmare, which really didn’t make much sense considering he was dead. Walking through the office doors of Hellfire & Brimstone Inc, Thanatos was immediately struck by the chaos of the day, which was invariably the chaos of every other day. The staff were plentiful, the work abundant, but no one seemed to be doing any. Telephones were ringing incessantly, putting an even bigger strain on Thanatos’ aching head.

Iris was her usual whimsical self. Most days Thanatos couldn’t decide if that was a bonus or simply another added aggravation. Today he decided it was an enormous aggravation.
“Good morning, Mr. Death.”
Her cheery greeting set his teeth on edge.
Iris was the Messenger to the Immortals. Her deliveries were always wing-footed which made her a damn good secretary. But her jovial disposition was jarringly out of place amongst the tenebrous surroundings of perpetual death.
“Gee, Mr. Death,” she continued breezily, referring to him for the umpteenth time as ‘Mr. Death’ despite his numerous protests against it. “Are you havin’ a bad day?”
“I’m fine, Iris,” Thanatos answered coldly. “I just have a lot on my mind.”
“Lots of stress, huh?”
“I suppose,” Thanatos replied, trying to sidestep quickly into his office.
“You can tell by the new cracks in your skull,” she called after him.
Thanatos paused and turned on his heel. “New cracks?” he asked in dismay.
“Oh yeah, one of them is running down the side of your cranium like the mighty Mississippi. But you still look hot to me.”
Thanatos threw back his cloak and ran a bony finger over the fine, smooth surface of his skull until he found the culprit. It was jagged and very long, extending almost down to his vertebrae.
“It kinda suits you, sir,” Iris added with a plucky grin.
Thanatos stared back at her, his hollow eye sockets intent on burning a hole through her grinning face. Finally he said: “I’ll be in my office. Hold my calls.”

He hurried into his office, his dark robes trailing behind him. When he entered it was to discover that his solitary sanctuary was unpleasantly occupied by an unwelcome visitor. The God of War had taken up residence. His hulking, seven-foot bulk was perched on, rather than in, Thanatos' favourite leather recliner, his heavy, iron-shod boots casually parked on the desk above what was probably some very important paperwork. He was idly twirling a miniature dart in his grimy fingers.

“Ares, what the hell are you doing in my office?” Thanatos barked. He slumped back against the door in exhaustion and glared at the intruder.
“Interesting choice of words considering we aren’t too far removed from Hell,” Ares remarked suavely. His thick, dark moustache curled up around his lips as he smiled. It was an evil little grin and Thanatos wasn’t sure if it conveyed humour or just plain madness.
“So why are you here?” he asked, slipping out of his dark robes and tossing them in the general direction of the coat rack, which, as luck would have it, they missed, to land on the floor in an untidy heap. Still, they’d done their job for the morning, he told himself, keeping his button-down, black suit looking immaculate even through the fog and busy rush hour traffic of The River Styx. Impeccable grooming and sartorial elegance wasn't just for those who possessed skin.

“I’m bored, Death,” Ares said flatly. “And frustrated. I need some excitement. I haven't launched a really good war in ages.”
The miniature dart between his fingers slowly transformed itself into a tiny H-bomb which he guided across the room with a fiendish grin. When it struck the opposite wall it went off with a blinding flash of white light that formed a magnificent miniature mushroom cloud, followed by an ear-splitting detonation that blew out the back wall. As Ares edged out of his chair to survey his handiwork, Thanatos dropped wearily into it, bringing the weight of the world that was resting upon his shoulders down with him.
“I understand your plight, Ares, but I don't have time to deal with it right now.” As if on cue, the ornate, coffin-shaped clock above the door chimed out its toll of bells to announce his next appointment. “There, you see? I’ve got a busy schedule ahead of me. I have two bent senators and an arms dealer to collect and there’s still that big bus crash.”

“I don’t give a damn about your workload, Thanatos!” Ares shouted. His voice boomed off the three remaining office walls and drew startled looks from the office workers who were staring through the smouldering hole. Ares waved a gnarled hand and the wall was instantly restored and shut out the prying eyes. He continued in a much calmer tone. “I’m calling a meeting with The Mother today to straighten all this out.”
Thanatos shot up from his chair; almost tipping over the vase of black roses that perched precariously on the edge. “No, don't do that!”
Ares started towards the door. “I’ve made up my mind.”
Thanatos hurried out from behind his desk to cut off Ares' exit.
“Do you know how bad that’ll make me look?”
“I don't give a damn. Pestilence and Famine agree as well.”
“Of course they do, the sickly sycophants thrive on war!”
“And you don't?”
Thanatos ignored the jibe. “Just don’t speak to The Mother without me. Can't we all sit down together and work this out?” Thanatos could hear the squeaky, begging tone in his words and winced. He briefly wondered what had happened to the fearless, power-crazed entity he once had been. Ares stared at his dark sockets. Thanatos wondered if he was thinking the same thing. “Okay,” he relented at last. “I’ll wait for you.”

The God of War didn’t bother with the door this time. He exited in a dramatic tongue of flame and puff of smoke. Only the faintest odour of brimstone lingered in the air. Thanatos barely had a moment to collect his scattered wits when Erida arrived. The Incarnation of Hate was his usual melancholy self, but the blunt delivery of his words wasn’t nearly as upsetting as the meaning that lay behind them.
“Someone really despises you.”
Thanatos was taken aback for a moment. He tried to dismiss the words even as they burned into his skull and threatened to undermine what remained of his composure.
“What else is new?” he asked with a jollity he was far from feeling.
“No, I mean someone really can’t stand you—loathes you; wants to crush your skull under his steel-capped boot and grind it into fine powder.”
“Ares? Look, It'll take more than that jumped up—”
“—Not Ares!” interrupted Erida. “He hasn't got the imagination to desire anything so poetic.”
“My splitting headache and I thank you for that lovely analogy."
“Not my words…his.”
“It’s a he? I would’ve expected it to be a woman,” said Thanatos. “Whatever moron said 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ has obviously never met one who's just seen her boyfriend snatched from under the wheels of a thirty-ton truck by my skeletal hand.”
“All the same I thought you should know,” said Erida.
“I don’t have time for it. If someone wants to hate me they can get in line.” Thanatos scooped his robes off the floor and flung them over his bony shoulders. They were still warm to the touch. He’d barely had time to sit down and enjoy a decent cup of coffee this morning. The thought of someone’s burning hatred was pushed aside but not forgotten as he brushed past Erida to go to his next appointment.

Being out in the field had its ups and downs. Collecting had become so routine and boring that it was barely tolerable. But this was the only time Thanatos had to collect his thoughts. At the moment he wanted to quiet those as well. An especially nagging one was burrowing its way through his forehead. Why would someone hate him? He’d always tried to be a fine mediator. Who could it be? After handing over the bent senators and the arms dealer to some very nasty demons with appallingly bad teeth and sorting the souls of the bus accident a Baptist minister decided to have an untimely heart attack whilst deflowering a fifteen-year-old cheerleader. "Just my luck," thought Thanatos as he mounted his steed and hurried to the location. The girl was understandably hysterical at losing her cherry to a sixty-four-year-old man of the cloth who had assured her that she would be filled with the Holy Ghost before expiring on her heaving bosom. Thanatos knew she'd been filled by a very unholy pervert whose ghost was now begging him not to hand him over to an unsmiling emissary from the fourth circle of Hell. "Look on the bright side," said Death. "You died a happy man. And in nine months she's going to give birth to a very unholy little bastard who is destined to make a fortune on Wall Street in Oil Futures."

As the wailing soul was dragged off to meet His Satanic Majesty, Thanatos took a minute to focus on the important issues. The Baptist minister was clearly a man who took the pleasures of the flesh seriously whilst fulminating against them in public. His bar was stocked with the finest wines from around the globe. Even though he was immortal and lacked a palate (not to mention a tongue or a stomach), Thanatos still liked to indulge in life's little luxuries, fine wines being among them. A vintage French claret always helped to take the edge off. And lately it had been all stress and woe. Good times were few and far between. As he stood alone in the empty house rolling the Chateau Margaux '76 around the bony aperture that passed for his mouth, Thanatos felt a heavy uneasiness pressing in around him, as if he were being watched by eyes that had the power to burn him down to the marrow of his brittle bones.

When he got back to office it was to discover that all hell had broken loose. He had barely set one foot inside the door when his senses were bombarded with a wall of noise and a sea of disconcertingly grinning faces all clamouring for his attention. At first it appeared as though compliments needed to be handed out to each and every member of staff. Bodies were shuttling purposefully to and fro, apparently on various urgent errands, innumerable telephone calls were being efficiently fielded by obsequious secretaries and a general atmosphere of work being done seemed to prevail. But upon closer inspection Thanatos realised that during his short absence the staff had collectively taken it upon themselves to have a little party. The reason bodies were shuttling to and fro was entirely due to the classic 80’s rock pounding through the building. Except for the bodies reeling drunkenly about clutching bottles of beer and a pair of junior filing clerks apparently hell bent on giving new meaning to the words 'jump your bones.' What's more, the 'phone calls were almost all personal in nature. Thanatos caught Iris just as she was concluding an order for several thousand pizzas.
“Just what the Hell is going on here?” he demanded. "And why are you only wearing your bra and panties?"

She spun round in such surprise that her rainbow coloured hair smacked across his skull like a geisha fan.
“Oh, Mr. Death, you’re back,” she gushed excitedly.
"Have you been drinking, Iris?"
"Well—a little," she giggled.
"What is the meaning of this drunken pandemonium?”
“That’s easy to explain, we were just throwing a little party in your honour. Surprise!”
”I’m flattered but this really shouldn’t be done in office hours. And do put some clothes on!”
“No, its okay,” Iris said, cheerfully contradicting him as she hastily slipped into a decidedly grubby looking skirt and top. “Your mother told us it was your birthday. She said it would be alright.”
“My mother?”
“Oh yeah, didn't I mention that?”
Thanatos shook his head until he heard it rattling.
“It was all her idea. She’s waiting for you in your office, darlin—er, Mr Death.”

If he’d had a heart it would have dropped into his stomach which (if he had one), would be in his feet by now. His jaw gaped and then popped off onto the floor. His acute embarrassment quickly gave way to horror as the dancing feet of several merrymakers came within inches of crushing his teeth into powder. His jaw, being as temperamental as its owner, began bouncing across the floor to avoid the happy feet.
“Oh, let me help you get that,” Iris giggled.
They both lunged for the jaw at the same time and finally cornered it near a large punch bowl.
“Come to momma, little fella,” Iris cooed as she extended her pale hand.
The jaw shuddered in fear before leaping backwards to land with a splash in the punch bowl. Thanatos felt his empty eye sockets burning with disgust. Iris gingerly fished out the jaw, now dripping wet and handed it back to Thanatos with a sheepish grin.
“Hmmm, much more docile now,” she said as he popped the appendage back into place. “Must be the rum.”
“Rum?” he repeated bemusedly.
“Yeah, these crazies spiked the punch with all kinds of liquor.”

It took all of Thanatos' rapidly diminishing patience to stagger to his own office. The day was turning into a living nightmare and birthday or not, seeing his mother was only going to make things worse. Finally, he forced himself to enter and almost lost his jaw again. Nix was there all right; spinning out the 80’s rock that was pumping through the building and whipping her dark hair to and fro like a veteran head banger. But the main attraction was the presence of his delightful sisters—the Furies: Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, who were rampaging through his office like it was a crime scene. Alecto, in particular, had her long, superior nose buried in his private files and all under his mother’s indulgent gaze. Nix whipped her handsome face up and caught his shocked expression. “Son, come here and hug your mother. Look, I have a present for you.”
Never being one to go against his mother’s wishes. Thanatos strode past the watchful Furies and hugged Nix in his skeletal grasp.
“Mother, what’re you doing here?” he asked. “And more importantly, why are you three harpies going through my private things?”
He extended his long, bony finger and his sisters cowered in fear. This was the hand of death, after all. Those who saw it were not usually long for the world.
“C’mon, baby, open your present,” said Nix.
Thanatos relented and tore the loose wrapping off the gift. Inside was a plain black shirt boldly embroidered with the words: 'Smoke Cigarettes' in large, white letters.
“It’s to drum up business when you go on your rounds,” Nix told him delightedly.
“Great, like I don’t have enough trouble fitting in around here.”
“Don’t be such a baby. Go and try it on.”
“Mother, I’ve got a ton of work today,” Thanatos continued. “I don’t have time for this.”
Nix cupped his cheekbones in her cool palms. “Baby, do you think I would be up in the middle of the day just to throw you a birthday party?”

Thanatos shook free of her grasp. “Actually no. You’re not really mother of the year material.” In fact, as the Incarnation of Night it was very rare indeed that anyone saw Nix much before sunset. For that reason alone Thanatos knew she wanted a favour.
“I’m here on official business and to ask you a question.”
“What kind of question?” Thanatos asked as he kept a close eye on the Furies.
“Actually, it’s more like a favour.”
There it was; the moment he'd been dreading. “Forget it, mother. Every time you ask me for a favour I always end up knee deep in shit.”
For some reason known only to themselves, this made the Furies break into fits of giggles. The sound could best be compared to the wailing of cats in heat, or the proverbial nails being dragged across a blackboard. Thanatos could almost feel the crack in his skull grow deeper. He lashed out. “What’s so fucking funny?”

Nix cuffed him around the head, knocking his hood down over his face. “Don’t be such an old bag of bones. The girls are just having some fun. And besides, this time the favour is going to be different. I promise.”
“I’d tell you what to do with your promises but I don’t want another smack around the head,” Thanatos said, straightening out his robes.
“Good, I raised a smart boy. Listen, there’s an important trial coming up—a battle for a human's soul. I need you to preside over it as judge.”
“Absolutely not!” Thanatos shouted. His heart said just the opposite, or would have done if he had a heart. Mother had a way of arousing guilt with just one look of disappointment. There was no way he was going to be able to refuse her and they both knew it.
“Oh, okay,” he told her submissively.
“That’s my baby. I need you to be there by six, okay?”
“Yes mother.”

It was at this time that his sister Alecto piped up. “I have the strongest sense of limitless anger all around you,” she said, her blood-red eyes trained on him.
“Maybe that’s because you’re here,” he said, then turning to Nix: “Are they going to be presiding over the trial as well, mother?”
“But of course, son. You know that only the Furies can pass sentence.”
The evil little grins with which his sisters greeted this declaration were enough to shake off the guilt that held him fast and dispel any remaining sense of filial duty.
“Forget it mother, you failed to mention their part in this.”
Before another debate could begin, Erida appeared.
“Don’t you people ever knock?” Thanatos bellowed.
“My apologies, Death. I didn’t realise you were with your mommy.”
“What is it this time, Erida?” Thanatos demanded, fuming from the humiliating insult.
“I just thought you should know that the hatred I spoke to you about earlier has grown ten-fold.”

“What hatred?” Nix asked with concern. “Somebody hates my boy? How could that be?”
Thanatos tried to calm her. “Never mind, mother, it’s not important.”
“I knew I smelled the stench of hate on you!” Alecto cried out triumphantly.
"Yeah," laughed Tisiphone evilly, flicking back a stray snake which had drooped over her frowning brow. "Probably that hot little cheerleader whose lover you snatched away."
“It increased the moment he saw you,” Erida told him.
"He?" asked the Furies in unison.
“Who is this 'he' that Erida is talking about son?” asked Nix.
“Look, mom, I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” Thanatos said and ushered Nix and the Furies out of his office.
“You will be at the trial at six?” she asked over her shoulder.
"Yes, mother."
He had no choice but to agree. It was imperative he get her out of the way if he was to get to the bottom of this mystery. Something about Erida’s last message rang a warning bell in his head that couldn't be ignored.

Erida had given him a name earlier—Adam, but nothing more to go on than the mortal's blinding hatred for him. Thanatos was desperate to find the answer. The name Adam meant nothing to him. He would have to consult The Fates. Even for Death himself to enter the lair of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos chilled him to the bone. They occupied the whole of the west wing and nobody dared dispute their tenancy unless they were in a hurry to get their cords cut early. They paid him no heed as he crossed the threshold and entered their dread domain. Each carried on with her business: Clotho turned the spinning wheel; Lachesis measured out the strings and with a quick movement of her leaden scissors, weary old Atropos doomed another soul. Slowly she put down the heavy ledger in her gnarled hands and turned her attention to Thanatos.
“He’s here.”
“Bang on time,” said Lachesis.
“Shall we commence?” added Clotho.
Thanatos wasn’t sure what was going on. The Fates were an odd bunch whose portentous premonitions and labyrinthine riddles would make The Times crossword look like child's play.
He strode forward as Clotho threaded a new string from a golden spool onto her spinning wheel.
“I’m here because—”
“—You want information,” interrupted Clotho.
“Answers,” added Lachesis.
“About Adam,” concluded Atropos.
“Yes,” Thanatos told them.
“The answers you seek may disappoint you,” Atropos said.
“I don’t care. Show me.”
The Fates chimed together as one: “As you wish.”

Short stories: Death's Grand DesignA ghostly image materialised just above the fabric of life that Clotho had been spinning. Slowly it took on the form and features of an intense young man with dark hair, reading occult books; his feverish fingers poring over faded scrolls and incantations on the Black Art.
“That is Adam,” Clotho said softly.
“What is he doing?”
“Trying to find a way to destroy you.”
To be hated, disliked, even feared wasn’t really all that new to Thanatos. But this young man with his grim face, burning eyes and the paraphernalia of Black Magic spread around him, was more than upsetting—he unnerved him. Thanatos had visited the lower circles of Hell (purely in the interests of improving customer service) and had seen the practitioners of the Black Art about their evil work. He winced at the memory and shuddered.

“What could I possibly have done to this man to set him on so evil and futile a path?” he asked.
“You did as you do.” replied the Fates in unison.
“That’s no answer. Show me what I did.”
”We cannot,” Clotho told him.
“Why not?”
”We cannot upset the balance. The past is as it was.”
“I’m not trying to change the past, I just want to prevent a possible future. Who knows what that madman will accomplish if he carries on?”
Frustrated with their response, Thanatos decided to take matters into his own hands. He would visit this man Adam and confront him.

The house was silent, sombre and shrouded in darkness blacker than night. The coldness emanating from within scared even Death himself. But Thanatos was unyielding in his quest. He marched up the uneven wooden steps and made his way inside without bothering to knock; without bothering to open the door either. Inside it was just as dreadful as the dreary exterior. It was an ancient pile that might have exuded a pleasing and comfortable antiquity had it been well lit. But the gloomy shadows that spread their ebon tentacles across every square inch, from the creaking stairs to the cobweb-shrouded furniture, were about as inviting as the pit of Hell.

“Get a hold of yourself,” Thanatos muttered. He was The Incarnation of Death and had a professional reputation to uphold. Creeping around a mortal’s house like a terrified teenage babysitter wasn’t going to do him any favours or improve his standing in The Underworld. Then he noticed a faint sliver of light oozing out from beneath a door on the other side of the hall. He crossed toward it and materialised on the far side of the door. He had located Adam. The young man was sitting cross-legged in the centre of the room within a circle inscribed with magical symbols. His half shut eyes stared fixedly at a solitary black candle while he chanted a barbaric curse under his breath that would have frozen Thanatos' blood if he had any.
Death moved silently around the room, swiftly scanning the occult texts pinned to the walls and pausing before a wax effigy of himself upon a low table that bristled with pins. One particular pin caught his attention. It had been driven into the doll in the precise place where the crack in his own skull had opened this morning. He shuddered and stepped back in surprise as Adam's voice broke the silence.
“I knew you would come,” the young man said. Before he could move another step, Adam was up, a jewelled knife glittering in his hand. At the last second Thanatos was able to avoid the blow aimed at the place his heart would have been if he possessed one. Even though he was no longer among the living, the evil forces that Adam had evoked were not to be trifled with. Thanatos could see them, even if the boy could not; tall, dark forms hovering on the edge of the circle, ready to drag both of them down to the lowest pits of Hell should Thanatos waver or Adam leave the circle in which he crouched.

“What’re you doing!” shouted Death. “Are you out of your mind?”
“It’s time to put you out of my misery!” Adam replied.
“If you leave that circle you are worse than dead!” Thanatos cried.
“I don't care.
Adam came at Thanatos again and this time Death responded with a little magic of his own. As the knife flashed toward his breast, Thanatos sidestepped it and pointed his bony forefinger straight at Adam’s forehead, right between the eyes. Instantly the candle went out and the lights came on. Adam staggered back, his eyes starting from his head, choked and slumped onto the floor, but not from pain…at least not physical pain. The magic circle vanished and with it the dread spectres from Hell withdrew.

Thanatos stared at the young man for a moment. A great swell of empathy was forming inside him as he watched his torment. He kicked the knife out of reach under a table and then offered his hand to help Adam to his feet.
Adam scurried backwards; his tears replaced by fear.
“Relax,” Thanatos told him. “I’m not here to claim you. I just want to help you. Even though you were far less hospitable to me.”
“You took away my light, my reason for being and doing!” Adam shouted.
Thanatos withdrew his extended hand. “What do you mean?”
“Exactly one year ago. A woman was driving along a highway alone at night. It was like any other night, any other time she’d taken that highway, except this time a truck driver decided to get drunk before he got behind the wheel.”
Adam didn’t have to go on. Thanatos knew what this was about now. “Your girlfriend?”
“She was going to be my wife.” Adam sobbed as he scrambled to his feet. “But you took her from me.”
“It was her time.”
“Bullshit! It was our time and then it was over just like that.”
“You’re angry because you feel cheated out of your time with her.”
“With Eve, her name was Eve and yes I feel cheated. You cheated me, you bastard!”
“Her death was not arbitrary, Adam.”
“I know that, you’re the one who set it in motion.”
Thanatos shook his head in dismay. The loss of Eve was proving to be a bitter pill for Adam to swallow. Grief was difficult to alleviate but Thanatos’ own guilt made him want to help this man in any way he could.
“What can I do to help ease your suffering?”
“Take me to her.”
“I can’t do that. It’s not your time.”
“Then why are you here?”
“To prevent the evil act you were engaged upon. Had you succeeded you would have put yourself beyond Eve's reach forever.”
Adam dropped to his knees. “You’re a liar.”
Thanatos gritted his teeth. He knew what he had to do but it wasn’t going to be a popular decision.

"Come with me, Adam."
There were still many souls that needed to be set free that day. What better way to demonstrate the importance of his work than to have Adam shadow Death Himself as he collected the souls of the dead? “People must be claimed at the right time and directed to their proper destinations,” Thanatos said as he despatched the soul of an unlucky bike messenger who failed to yield to oncoming traffic. “Otherwise it disrupts the balance.”
“You could’ve given him a second chance,” Adam said as he stared down at the mangled body. “You could’ve given Eve a second chance too, but you get some sort of sick pleasure from this work.”
“It’s just my job, Adam. I’m not the monster everyone makes me out to be. You can’t label me good or evil, I just am.”
Adam still wasn’t ready to listen. Thanatos handed the bike messenger over to an emissary from one of the upper worlds and then took Adam by the arm.
“You’re going to come with me.”
Adam’s face paled. “Where are you taking me?”
“You wanted to be with Eve, I’m going to show her to you.”

Their journey was short. With Adam in tow, Thanatos once again sought out The Fates. The crone Atropos spoke up at once.
“There is a mortal here!”
“It is forbidden,” Clotho added.
“Never mind,” Thanatos told them. “I want you to recreate the past.”
“I cannot,” said Clotho.
“I will not,” said Lachesis.
“I shall not,” said Atropos.
Thanatos was more than persistent. Leaving a stunned Adam staring in disbelief he approached the spinning wheel and sought the portion he wanted himself.
“Here,” he said, locating it. “Illuminate this part.”
The Fates hesitated. Thanatos turned his burning eye sockets on them and pointed an imperious finger. “Now!”

Atropos, the eldest and wisest, was the one to finally succumb to his will. She retrieved the desired portion and made the images visible to all. The scene was mid-evening in October. A light but steady downpour made the roads slicker than usual. A young woman was driving a silver Pontiac down a rural highway.
“That’s Eve’s car!” Adam cried as he stepped closer.
Eve made her way through an intersection, relying on the octagonal 'Stop' sign to keep her safe. But that day the sign did not work its usual magic. A large truck, carrying a large drunken man, crossed the intersection and collided with Eve’s car. The scene was not a pleasant one as shards of glass exploded across the road. A tortured shriek shattered the night as metal ground against metal. Another shriek and a series of dull detonations followed as the Pontiac rolled over and over and Eve was thrown from the car. Thanatos took a moment to look away from the scene to glance at Adam. His eyes welled with tears and his shaking hands reached out for Eve. She lay still on the ground but for the involuntary twitching of her right hand. Blood polluted her beautiful, auburn hair and pooled around her cheek as it caressed the pavement.

“She’s still alive. They told me she died on impact.” Adam said. Then he turned to Thanatos and his pain-filled eyes met Death's watchful stare. “You came for her then, didn’t you?”
His voice was dark and full of hate. Thanatos nodded and stood his ground. There was nothing Adam could do to him here in the underworld.
“Focusing your anger on me will only you blind you to truth, Adam. She is free now.”
“Don’t give me that crap. You took her and I want her back.”
“Are you sure, Adam, are you very sure?” Thanatos asked. “Look again at the image.”
He pointed towards the accident hovering like a 3D-television screen before their eyes. “Eve is still conscious, you’re right. But alive is not the word I'd use to describe her.”
“What’re you talking about, I can see her moving.”
”She’s not moving of her own free will, Adam. Those movements are simply autonomic muscular spasms caused by the damage to her body. Her spine was severed. Had she lived she would never have moved again.”
“You’re lying.”
“And she’s in pain—look.”
Eve was wailing now, a soft keening that tore at Adam's heart and frightened him with its intensity. It was almost inhuman and incomprehensible, but for one word. She muttered 'please...' over and over again.
“She’s pleading to live,” said Adam, although the tone of his voice suggested that he did not entirely believe himself.
“She’s pleading to die, Adam. Eve is suffering so much she can’t stand to go on.”
“I was there,” Thanatos told him. “She is speaking to me, pleading that I take her. So I did.”
“Please,” Adam muttered. “I don’t want to see any more.”

"But you shall!" cried Thanatos.
“It is forbidden,” Clotho said.
“I cannot permit it,” added Lachesis.
“I will not permit it,” said Atropos.
Once again, Death's will overrode them and Thanatos held up his skeletal hand and cried: “Show him!”
Adam's eyes brimmed with tears as he watched Eve; another Eve, slowly rise from her broken body; her deep blue eyes alight with love and joy. Slowly she turned toward him and smiled. Then a great beam of golden light slanted down from the darkened heavens and wrapped her in its radiance. For a moment he saw into another world. A world aflame with colours he had never seen on earth, where the very trees and flowers seemed woven from the golden light that now filled Eve's shining face.
"Is that Eve?" he asked incredulously. "B-but she is so beautiful. And alive!"
"Yes," said Thanatos.
"I didn't know..." sobbed Adam. "I didn't know."
Thanatos nodded to The Fates and they retracted the image. Adam broke down and wept, the tears rolling freely down his cheeks.
"Why is this truth hidden from us?" he asked.
"Well, for one thing, if mortals saw what you've just seen I'd be rushed off my feet," said Thanatos with a wry smile. “I feel for your grief, Adam. I’ve seen it a million times and it never gets any easier. But now you know that this was the best thing for Eve. She is at peace now and more alive than she ever was on earth.”
Adam pulled himself together and rose to his feet. “How stupid I was to fear you.”
“Indeed,” Thanatos agreed. “For some people this life is death and death a merciful release to a better life. For others, I am what forces them to live life to the fullest. But in order to do that you have to get past this one moment, Adam.”
“You’re right. Eve wouldn’t want me to be miserable for the rest of my life.”
“So you forgive me?” asked Thanatos gravely.
“I thank you.”
The two of them grasped hands and Thanatos felt a great weight lifted from his shoulders, but it wouldn’t last long.

Before returning Adam to the world of mortals, Thanatos hurried upstairs to the office to check in. With the Adam and Eve case weighing so heavily on his mind he had forgotten his prior obligations and neglected his duties for that morning. Nix wouldn’t be pleased that he’d missed the trial but his mother was going to have to understand. Mother Earth, however, would not be so forgiving. Iris stopped Thanatos as he entered the lobby. She was not her usual perky self. “Something has happened, sir.”
Once glance into the main building made the questions he was about to ask superfluous. The entire premises of Hellfire & Brimstone Inc had been converted into a military operations centre. Plans for the complete annihilation of several key areas of the Western World were traced on maps and graphically displayed on the charts and memos which covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Pestilence and Famine had their heads together over several unpleasant looking jars of biological organisms and a crack team of commandos were running drills on the imminent destruction of North America.
“What the bloody hell is going on here?” Thanatos demanded. Famine and Pestilence stood at attention at the sound of their master's voice. Barging unceremoniously past them, direct from Thanatos’ own office which had also been converted, was the God of War himself.
“Didn’t you hear, there’s a new sheriff in town.”
“Ares, what do you think you’re doing?”
“While you were off gallivanting around with a mortal, The Mother and I had a meeting…and, well—let’s just say you were replaced as the head of this outfit.”
“I find it hard to believe that The Mother would approve of your plans to destroy her Earth.”
“Let’s just say I persuaded her.”
“What did you do to her?”
“It doesn’t matter. But it’s time for you to go now.”

Thanatos snapped. He’d been pushed around for far too long. Some time during his reign he’d become overworked and lost his smile. In a way, the crises with Adam had given him back his own spirit. He now knew what he had to do. He drew himself up to his considerable height and fixed his empty eye sockets malevolently on the smirking face of the God of War. “You’re going to have to remove me, Ares. I’m not going without a fight.”
“So be it.”
And so it was that The God of War and the Incarnation of Death, two who had been as close as brothers when riding together, were now at odds. Ares was not alone in his battle. He had somehow managed to persuade Pestilence and Famine to turn against Thanatos as well. The three of them attacked simultaneously and Thanatos was hard pressed to fend them off. He motioned for Iris and Adam to hide themselves and then he made the only move that he could make: he would take to the skies of The Underworld. With his pale steed just a wish away, Thanatos mounted up and led the chase out of the office. Ares followed in his wake, whirling a bloody sword atop his crimson steed. Flanking him were Famine on a sable mount, his scales swinging heavily from a long, leaden chain, while a frowning Pestilence brought up the rear on a horse of sickly green, scattering poison as he went.
The pursuit was hard and fast, but didn't last long. Thanatos still had a few tricks up the long, dark sleeves of his ceremonial robes and a few friends left as well. Circling the turbid waters of the River Styx, he pulled ahead just far enough to dismount and race towards his brother’s office. Hypnos, God of Sleep, sat at his desk, head propped in his hands; fast asleep as usual.
“Hypnos, wake up!” shouted Thanatos.
“What is it, brother? Can’t you see I’m taking a nap?”
“As usual. But I need your help...NOW!”
Before Thanatos could say any more, the last three soldiers of the once famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse came into view, riding furiously towards the office door.
“Stop them!” Thanatos shouted.
“What? Who? Why?”
“I don’t have time to answer, just do it!”
Waking up just in the nick of time, Hypnos plunged his hand into a heavy sack filled with glittering powder and cast it at the dark riders. The effect was instantaneous. Ares and his steed ploughed headfirst into the ground, Pestilence and Famine followed him. The three of them did not rise again.

When the mess was finally straightened out and the world went on spinning, it was discovered that The Mother had never granted Ares the right to take over Thanatos’ position. He had been refused an audience with her and had acted aggressively on his own behalf, as any good War God would. Thanatos was relieved but slightly disappointed.
“I need a vacation.” He announced to no one in particular.
In his stead he chose an ample replacement.
“I am entrusting you with this task, Adam. You alone now know the importance of death.”
“I’ll do you proud, sir,” said the young man. "Will I get to see Eve sometimes?"
"But of course, dear boy," chuckled Thanatos. "You're dead now. Only I'd recommend you dress in something a little more appropriate than my robes and leave the scythe behind when you pop upstairs. They're a bit funny about that sort of thing."
Thanatos handed over his sepulchral robes and scythe for some matching luggage and strode out of the office with his teeth gleaming brightly.
“Bye, Mr. Death,” Iris called. “Have a nice trip. Try not to burn.”
Thanatos paused and turned back to Iris, his empty eye sockets resting lingeringly upon her trim waist and jutting breasts. “You know, while I’m resting my old bones it would be nice to have some company. Adam has Eve after all. What do you say?”
Iris leapt over her desk and in a flash was packed and ready to go. “I thought you’d never ask!”
The two of them departed, leaving the pressures of the afterlife behind, if only for a little while.


If you enjoyed this story you may enjoy these too:
The Devil and the Saint
Philosophy for Bartenders
Bloody Sheets
Dead Forever

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© 2006. Cynthia Vespia. All Rights reserved.
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Short Stories
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