"A Weird Tale"
By John Pirillo
Mark glanced at the oddly shaped man, wearing a long overcoat and scarf that came up to his chin and a huge hat like something out of a cartoon that cratered over his forehead, hiding the eyes staring out from the shadowed, darkness beneath it. Something about the sight of the man sent him into a repetitive siege of violent coughing.
When he finally stopped coughing, he looked at his hand he had put over his mouth. There was blood on it. “Damn!” He thought to himself. He pulled out a hanky and cleaned his hand quickly before some pedestrian could see it.
Then he realized the odd man was still there, still staring at him.
There was something unusual about him. He wanted to put a finger on it, but it kept eluding his grasp. Finally, he shook his head and looked away. Nonsense he thought to himself. He had better things to do with his time. Which at this moment was he had way too much of.
He muttered angrily to himself. He had lost his job, his girlfriend and he had just gotten out of the doctor’s office after the paperwork came back from his last exam. He had lung cancer. Life sure sucked!
He lost his job, because he had failed to read the fine print on a contract he signed for his boss. Had he done so, he would still have his job. He lost his girlfriend because he didn’t think she’d find out about his one night fling. She had. He lost his health, because he had smoked since he was ten years old. He had lung cancer. In advanced stages.
He coughed real hard a moment into his right hand, wiped the blood on his hanky, and then looked up.
A fat old man sat down next to him. He stank from too much sweating. He glanced at Mark. “Whatever happens next, don’t believe a word of it.”
Mark gave the fat man an odd look.
“Okay, so I don’t have wings. But take my advice anyway.” The fat man insisted and got up to leave.
“Wait. Who are you?”
The fat man looked back and smiled. “Gabe. Everyone calls me Gabe.”
He took a turn at the end of the walking path and vanished from view.
“I will trade you.” The oddly shaped man said in a deeply melodious voice.
Mark almost jumped off his bus seat at the sound, and then his heart beating wildly, he turned to see the man staring at him. The eyes were more visible, but there was something odd about them, almost as if they were more like telescopic lenses than true physical human eyes.
“Speaking to me?”
The man nodded.
“Trade what?” He finally asked, being obviously expected to ask that question. But not before he glanced at his wristwatch for the time. The bus was late. No escape there.
“It will be late by ten minutes.” The oddly shaped man spoke to him.
He looked up. “What?”
He looked up, startled now so much that his heart was beating loudly in his chest. So loud he could hear it.
“You’ve been eating the wrong foods for years now. Your arteries are like the 405 freeway in Los Angeles in the morning. Your heart valves look like melted chocolate; they're so coated with fat and cholesterol. They are half way shut down by the corruption constantly coming through the arteries. You will be dead in twenty minutes. Which is ten minutes later, the time the bus arrives.”
“I didn’t actually need that much information.” Mark responded, so aghast at the remarks that he couldn’t think of any other reply at that moment. “Besides which I have lung cancer. I’m going to die anyway. So what do I care?”
“The one is curable. The other is not.”
The oddly shaped man came and sat down on his bench. He scooted to the far edge, almost falling off.
“I will not harm you.”
“Look, mister, I don’t go that way.”
The oddly shaped man laughed. “You think I’m interested in your body? To play with?”
“Whatever you call it, I’m not going there.” Mark answered, starting to sweat with fear now.
“Do not mock death!” The oddly shaped man warned.
“I’m not…” Mark froze. “Death! You’re Death?”
The oddly shaped man nodded. As he did his hat slipped too far forward a moment, revealing a skull head. Death knocked his hat back on again and hid the mistake.
Mark stood up. “I’ve got an appointment with you in Samarkand.”
Death laughed. “I think because you made me laugh, I’ll give you two more minutes.”
Mark was looking around, but no one was noticing. People were walking up and down the sidewalks, busy, their attention on their shopping, their partners, their personal thoughts, not a strange man and a stranger on a bus bench. It was almost as if he had become suddenly invisible. Strange.
“Why then, I’ll give you four.” Death laughed.
Mark dropped back to the bench. “I don’t believe you.”
Death pointed at a pedestrian making an unsafe jaywalk across the busy Las Vegas Boulevard. “He has five seconds to live. Four after he is struck which will be…”
A taxi swings around another car, and doesn’t see the pedestrian. He strikes the pedestrian who flies up into the air and lands in front of an oncoming bus, which rolls over him, then brakes.
People freak at the accident and begin screaming.
“How’d you know that?”
“Death. Yeah. Yeah. I know. But I thought God was the one who chose our moment of death.”
“In a matter of speaking, yes. But you forge your own deaths by every thought, word and deed you do. This pedestrian ignored the laws of physics when he stepped into the flow of moving traffic. God does not strip man of free will. Only man can give up that up.”
Death laughs again. “You’re funny. But kind of shallow.”
“Touché. Another couple minutes then?”
“Only if you trade with me.”
“Your body with mine.”
“You mean I can be death and do all the things that you do?”
“That is correct.”
“I don’t know, sounds kind of fishy to me. A Daniel Webster and the Devil kind of thing.”
“You mean Doctor Faustus, don't you?"
Death scrunched closer, his bones making knocking sounds, which Mark noticed for the first time. "Look at it this way then, Mark. When you are me, and I am you, you can grant yourself an eternal life if you want?”
“I thought you said God did that.”
“Oh, I have some leeway. Even Death has free will with some limitations, of course.”
“Of course and yet. Yet I have to grant you…me…eternal life?”
“Why don’t you just point your finger at yourself and give it?”
“Because I have to be in another body. I can not do it to myself.”
“Then if I switch with you and grant you immortality, I’ll be immortal then?”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. Simple trade. You let me have twenty-four hours in your body. I let you have mine to use all its powers as you choose. With limitations, of course.”
Death pulled out a long document. “It’s in the fine print. Nothing big. Stuff like can’t use my powers to score with the opposite sex; can use it to create bullion…”
“Oh. Uh...pirate’s gold.” Death looks at the contract, touches the fine print and it arranges. “Need to update that to read as gold.”
“Well?” He looks over at Mark.
“There’s gotta be a catch. How do I know you’re not going to keep my body and I die anyway?”
Death stands up and plants his feet firmly on the pavement. He raises a hand over his heart. “I swear in the name of the Almighty that you will not die on my body when we switch.”
"I don't believe you."
A sudden burst of lightning strikes the pavement within inches of Mark. He scampers away.
"Okay, I believe you. But what about in my body?”
“I swear that as well.”
Thunder smashes across the skies accompanied by lightning. Pedestrians all look up at the sudden gloom and light.
Mark’s jaw drops open. “God did that?”
“Yes. He always does when I tell the truth.”
Another bolt of lightning hammers the skies and thunder explodes.
Death looks at his watch. “You have thirty seconds to decide.”
Mark glanced around. Everyone that was walking past acted as if he wasn’t even there. No one looked at Death, even though he sat right beside him.
“Okay. I’ll do it.”
“Just one word of advice.” Death told him.
“Death only gets to take a holiday once every thousand years.”
“Oh. I see. So if I don't switch bodies with you now, you lose your opportunity to get a holiday?”
“Okay. What’s next?”
“Just sign here and here.”
“Sounds fair enough.”
“Sign here and here then.”
Death held out a pen. Mark took it. For a second he saw the fat old man across the street shaking his head urgently, making slices across his neck.
Mark shuddered. “Vegas. So many freaks here.”
“Hold my right hand. And close your eyes.”
Mark did. Death poked a bony finger into Mark’s hand. It swelled up with a big red mark, which quickly faded.
“Can I open my eyes now?”
“Count to three, then open them.”
Mark began counting. “One. Two. Three.”
He opened his eyes. Death was no longer seated next to him.
“Oh well. I guess the guy got tired of telling all those lies.”
Mark got up, but as he did he made these strange clanking and clinking sounds. It was then that he looked at his arms and hands. He was wearing all black. His hands were skeletal.
“Wow! It really worked.”
He looked around. Death was nowhere to be seen. Then he saw someone who looked familiar hitting on a cute lady across the street. He walked across the street. A car almost hit him, but at the last moment veered away from him into another lane.
He stopped beside Death, who was now wearing his body. “Hey! Now what happens?
Death looked his direction a moment, gave him a really, sly smirk, and then returned his attention to the young lady.
Mark reached a skeletal hand to grab Death, but it passed straight through him.
“It won’t work.” The fat man said as he walked up.
Mark turned around and his right hand held a scythe. He thought of using it to defend himself.
The fat man backed off, fending Mark off with his hands. “Whoa! I may be an angel, but I can still bleed.”
Mark lowered the scythe. “All right, so you’re a fat angel. Where were you when I needed you?” Then he remembered. “Oh. Well look, I signed a contract. I’ve only got twenty-four hours in this body.”
Mark suddenly vanished.
He found himself kneeling on a hill, his scythe out and pointed towards a battalion of soldiers fighting below against terrorists. A jet roared in from above and fire leaped across the fighters, engulfing all of them.
Mark stood up and what remained below were charred bodies and smoking ground. “Holy Crap!” He shrieked.
He stood there taking in the carnage. Men were screaming in pain. He saw one soldier trying to stand up, but he had no legs; another was crawling along the ground with one missing arm; two men lay on top of each other, their bodies twisted and crisped by flames. One of the soldiers looked up and then screamed. Mark could be seen by him.
Mark, for an unknown reason, lowered his right arm. The soldier’s eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed. He saw some medics rushing to the man. When they reached him, one felt for a pulse then shook his head. They ran on to the next fallen soldier as the sound of flames and screams merged together across the battlefield.
Mark heard a sound beside him and turned to see Gabe seated there, a sandwich in his lap. He was just unwrapping it. “What? A man’s gotta eat and so do angels.”
Mark frowned. “I thought angels were supposed to be compassionate.”
“We are. Didn’t you put that young soldier out of his pain?”
“That was you?”
“Of course. You’re too new to this death thing to sort it all out yet. I’m here to help you.”
“Well, I’ve only got about twenty three more hours and I’m free of this.”
Gabe took a bite of his sandwich and shook his head. “Nope. Not the facts at all.”
“But I signed a contract!” Mark complained.
“Did you read the fine print?”
Mark started to answer yes, and then he remembered he had only skimmed through the details. He hadn’t read it at all.
Mark groaned and sat down beside Gabe.
“Only for a thousand years.”
Mark growled angrily, and then smacked his knee, causing it to shoot off into the distance about ten feet, before it boomeranged back into its socket again.
Gabe offered half his sandwich to Mark. “Look on the bright side of it, Mark, you’ve got me to keep you company for the next millennium.”
Mark stood up then and shrieked to heaven all the anguish and despair that flooded out of him. As he did lightning and thunder smashed across the skies.
"Oh yeah. That lightning thing. Wasn't." Looks upwards. "Him at all. You got conned just like all those girls you Don-Juaned."
Gabe shook his head and looked down into his lap. “Now where did I put that mustard pack? I always forget something.”
Looks up at Mark. "Just like you."
Gabe laughs so hard, he sprouts wings on his back, and then launches into the air, soaring towards the distant sun, his laughter trailing behind him.
Mark sighs, and then eyes the food that Gabe left behind. He reaches for it, and then puts it into his mouth. It falls through this lower jar back to the ground again.
On the battlefield the medics look up for a moment when they hear the distant sound of a man screaming, and then they get back to work.