By Thomas McGlynn
Time stopped. It was only him and I, the whole universe frozen. It was soundless. Everything in the background; the road, the car, what remained of the other car, was all tinted yellowish-gold, as if somebody had put a coloured filter over everything except for him. I moved toward him, through the windshield of the car. He noticed me then. With a puzzled expression he mumbled something. The blood covering his face was redder than a rose. His nose was almost level with his mouth. The accident had not been kind to this poor man in his early twenties.
With a swish of my hand, I picked him up and slung him over my shoulder. Instantly, I was transported to Purgatory. I set him down on the cold marble floor inside a huge cavern, supported by huge pillars. There were steps leading up to who knows what. I’d never been up those steps, and something tells me that I never will. The man sat upright. He did not seem afraid. Just slightly confused. I had to leave him. Next time I returned, he would be gone. Maybe he’ll go up the steps. Or maybe whatever deity he believes in will deal with him in the cavern. I don’t know. It’s none of my business, really.
Purgatory is the closest place I have to a home. It is the only location that is timeless, never changing. You visit a town sometime, return a few decades years later and it’s barely recognisable. You visit some creation of nature, for example, a beach. You return a few hundred years later and it’s completely different. Even the universe on a huge scale does not remain the same. It expands, and stars explode and are reborn. Purgatory, however, does not alter. It was, is and will always be a place that I do not understand.
I was transported away from Purgatory, to a new location, to pick up a new lost life. This time it was a hospital. I moved through the ward. Elderly patients, all with modern contraptions just about keeping them alive. I knew that I would have to return here soon. Again, everything was tinted yellow, apart from my target. She was surrounded by relatives, loved ones. A tear from a man young man was suspended in mid-air, glistening. I observed the woman who I was supposed to collect. She had very white hair and a lot of wrinkles, but she had a welcoming and friendly face. Lying down on her hospital bed, she looked at me and smiled.
She knew her time was up. I hoisted her onto my shoulder. We were teleported to Purgatory. The man who I had collected earlier was nowhere to be seen. I put the woman down. She sat upright and said, “Thank you.” I looked around the cavern. I remember at that moment wondering how many people I had brought to this cavern over the thousands of years I’ve worked. Billions. Then I remember wondering how many had thanked me. None. This aged woman was the first person out of tens of billions of people who had shown appreciation for my eternal and perpetual destiny of escorting the dead to this godforsaken hole. That moved me.
I remember the last two collections as well as I do because they were the last couple before the collection of “The Resistor”, as I came to dub him. He was, as his nickname suggests, intent on defying me. He fought back against my grasp, and he nearly won out. I remember our first encounter.
He was lying on the floor of the main corridor in his home, soaked in blood. Somebody, for whatever reason, had shot him. The door was still open from when his assailant had fled. I looked around. It looked like a relatively normal house; a red carpet, photographs with scenic landscapes and family gatherings, bags of groceries on the floor, a coat hanger. Nothing unusual at all. He looked about twenty five to thirty years old, with black hair, and he was wearing glasses. For some reason he seemed quite familiar, as if I had seen him before.
I supposed that he most likely had a family. Maybe that should have made me feel guilty, remorseful, but it didn’t. I got passed feeling bad for what I am condemned to do a long, long time ago. I am a product of nature that is inevitable, and so I do not blame myself for my job. I am necessary for the continuous cycle of the generations of world, whether I am wanted or not.
As I moved towards him, I saw his eyes flicker in my direction. He immediately sat upright, and he quivered when he halted, like an arrow that has just hit its target. He watched me curiously, and I stared right back at him. I had never seen anybody make a movement so sudden throughout my whole career. There was a certain tension between us, and a silence so absolute that I could hear what was left of his blood rushing through and out of his body.
He stood up, and I could see that he was quite tall. He opened his mouth, and in a clear, confident, rebellious fashion, he declared:
“I will not be taken.”
I stood still, quite stunned. I did not really know how to react or respond. I was not sure if I was capable of replying verbally, as I myself had never talked before. And so I decided to ignore him, and moved closer to him. At this he spoke again, this time louder than before.
“No. You won’t get me. Never.”
I approached him quickly, and tried to pick him up. I got quite a shock when he proved to be incredibly hard to lift. He was not particularly large, and even my “bigger” victims, shall we say, are not harder to hoist. But this man was very, very different. It felt as though he was either glued to the floor by his feet, or that he had quite an unbelievable density.
All the while he watched me try to lift him, using various techniques and angles of approach, with a sly smirk on his face. At some point I decided to give up. As I let go and let myself be transported away, I could still make out the victorious look on his face. It was the first time I had ever returned to Purgatory without a victim.
We met again some time later. He was in the same house as he was during our first encounter, but this time he was in the kitchen. I could see a woman in the same room, her horrified emotion fixated on the man. She had chestnut coloured hair, down to her shoulders, and she was wearing a red dress. The Resistor was doubled over on his knees in the middle of the floor, clutching where his heart would be. He was wearing a tuxedo.
He was under obvious physical stress, and I suspected that he was suffering from a heart attack, or poison. I was not going to let this opportunity slip. As I moved near him, he looked up at me, still on his hands and knees. He smiled, and chuckled.
“We meet again, I suppose.”
This time, I decided to try to speak to him. I found it impossible. I have no mouth, no opening in my body to allow my thoughts to exit. I am not even sure if I even have a “body” at all. There was an anxious quietude. He was the only person who could break it, and it took him a good few minutes to do so.
“Don’t bother with me. You won’t be able to.”
I took this as a challenge. I was, quite frankly, insulted. How could this person dare to defy Death? How could this man resist the course of nature, and oppose the very limit of life itself? I vowed to myself that I would not be trumped by this anarchistic character. His insurrection would be crushed.
I tried to lift him, and this time I succeeded. He tried to squirm from my grasp, but I held him tight. He did not have enough energy to fend me off. I took him to Purgatory. As I set him down, he let out a sigh.
“What is this place?”
I could not answer. As I was beginning to be transported to the next victim, I think that I may have winked at his bewildered face, lying on the cold stone floor. If that’s at all possible for me to do, that is.
That, however was not our final encounter.
After I had returned the victim after the Resistor, he was gone. I had assumed that he had gone to where everybody else goes, wherever that is. But I was wrong. I saw him countless other times after that when I was picking up other people, lurking in the background, and looking me straight in the eye. I saw him all over the world. Brazil. Central Africa. Indonesia. The Caribbean. Spain. Japan. Switzerland. He wasn’t always there, mind you. But I saw him a lot more frequently than is normal. If he ever did appear, it was only ever in a large crowd, so that maybe he would blend in. For me, he always stood out.
I crossed paths with him again when he was close to passing away two or three times again. Once, he was tied up in what seemed to be a dank, cold cellar or basement. He was bruised and beaten, and he did indeed look ready to be taken to the afterlife. I thought that this time, maybe he would be simply too exhausted to struggle against me.
When he looked up at me, I saw a spark in his eyes, a flame, and that was confirmation enough that he was not going to let me take him easily. He did not say anything, he simply lifted his chin in defiance. I tried to lift him. This time, I couldn’t. I attempted again, but I knew that it was futile to try. He was too strong, and so I let him away.
I met him again, this time on the slope of a mountain. There was a great avalanche that appeared to be hurtling down the valley. The Resistor was caught right in the middle of it. This time, he made eye contact with me. I knew at that moment that it was pointless to pursue him. I did not waste any time in leaving.
Our final meeting was the most memorable. It was decades after the avalanche. I had still seen him in the backgrounds of some collections, but he had not come close to death ever since.
I found the Resistor in a desert, lying face down in the sand. I stood over him. He had grey hair, and looked as though he had been in a very violent fight. He did not make any movement, lying perfectly still under the sweltering heat of the sun.
I picked him up with ease. It made me almost sad, in a way, that he would go so peacefully, after all of our history. As I was taking him to Purgatory I was amazed at his silence. Why was he so quiet and willing, after all of his riots? After I set him down on the floor of the cave he finally sat up and spoke. Looking up at me with wide eyes and a wrinkly face, with torn clothes and cuts on his arms, he said clearly and assuredly:
“Do you remember our first encounter, Mr. Death?”
I thought back to the very first time I saw him, in the hall of his home, all those years ago. And yet, I still felt as though that was not the first time I had seen him. I could not answer him, of course, and so I presume he took my silence as a “yes”.
“No, Mr. Death, I think that we had indeed met before. Do you remember the victim you took just before you tried to take me for the first time?”
I remembered the elderly lady, who upon being taken to Purgatory, had thanked me. How could I forget?
“Well, Mr. Death, I was in that same hospital ward that she was in at the time of her passing. I was, in fact, by her bedside. That woman was my grandmother.”
It was at that moment that I realised why his face seemed familiar. The Resistor was one of the relatives beside her hospital bed, mourning the loss of a grandmother.
“Before my grandmother had passed away, she had told me that she would welcome death. At the time, I thought that she was ridiculous. I promised myself that I’d fight death with everything that I had. Besides, my job as an important spy required that I stay alive. However, in time I have realised the importance of death. Now that I am an old man, I know that it is necessary for a good and meaningful life. I think of life as a story: there’s a beginning, middle, climax and then just after the climax, there’s the end. If there is a story that goes on forever and has no end, then surely that story would have no climax, or high point, either. And so it is with this philosophy that I embrace your obligation. Goodbye, and thank you.”
He said the last part with a beaming smile. I stood, stunned, as I watched him hobble slowly across the cavern. After what seemed like an age, he reached the steps at the far end of the grotto. When he reached the top of the steps, he turned back and gave me a wave. Then, with no further hesitation, he disappeared into the darkness.