In a bar, a man sat staring at a bottle.
The location of the bar didn’t matter. This small, seedy, dusty low room hidden down the wrong street in the wrong part of town existed just to be nowhere; an inn between the worlds of reality’s painful bright lights, and a home for the peaceful dreams of those who drank to forget. Judging by the current state of the bottle in question, much had already been forgotten this night.
The barman found himself somewhat unnerved by the bottle’s studious observer, a man who had so far purchased and slugged his way through almost four bottles of whiskey. The barman was used to heavy drinkers, as people who were sober enough to see where they were walking weren’t the sort of people who came to his bar, but this far beyond even that. There was a vaguely terrifying intensity to the way this man had been drinking, seemingly so wrapped up in whatever thoughts were occupying his mind that the world around him might as well have not existed. The man didn’t appear drunk; there was never hint of sway nor slur when the man moved to order more, even at this point, when he should surely have been catatonic. That unnerving, far-off gaze never shifted.
Generally, the barman was content to give the man whatever he asked for, leave him to it and hope that he either went home or died soon. There were only two other people in the bar, and though natural light seldom pierced through to the dim basement room, the barman was sure that it must have been getting light outside. The barman was looking forward to shutting up shop and going to bed, but his patrons didn’t seem inclined to contribute to the execution of this idea anytime soon.
A few minutes passed. The man with the whiskeys poured out the final glass’s worth from his latest bottle. In the corner, an old jukebox was trying in vain to enthusiastically play old 30’s music. The years had not, however, been kind to it; it coughed and whirred frequently, creating a schizophrenic musical effect. With volume turned to full, the noise was still pitiful. Nonetheless, it struggled its way valiantly to the end of the song, and summoning new energy from somewhere, embarked upon a new one. A few beginning acoustic notes fought their way out into a brave new world. Someone began to laugh quietly.
At this point, there began the ritualistic series of loudening clonks that meant that someone was coming down the ancient wooden stairway, into the bar. Scowling, the barman reached down to take a hold of the cricket bat he kept stashed behind the bar for such situations; he had little enough inclination to serve new customers at this time, and few enough morals to be okay with the idea of giving whomever was descending a quick rap about the skull and dropping them in the street outside.
As the descending figure came into view, however, the barman hesitated. Tall, tall enough that by all rights it should need to stoop to dodge the low ceiling, and yet somehow did not, it was wreathed in the folds of a black cloak and robe, the raised hood casting its face into blackness, and held a nobbled staff that matched its height in length, and looked more a weapon than walking aid. The barman fought the urge to shrink bank and hide as the figure strode towards him purposefully.
“Double vodka, please,” the apparition said, in a voice like a distant avalanche. “I’ll be over there.” It pointed towards the man with the whiskey. The barman almost asked the figure if he was sure that was a good idea, but then swallowed his tongue, unsure that he wanted to know what such a menacing figure might consider a good idea to be. Instead, he practically ran off towards his optics as the black figure slid alongside the bar to stand beside the whiskey drinker.
“Hello Marcus,” it said.
The man with the whiskey didn’t look up from his apparently highly interesting perusal of the label on his most recent bottle.
“Oi,” the figure said, poking him on the shoulder. This time the man looked up.
“Hello,” he said after a moment. “Fancy meeting you at the bottom of this glass.”
The dark figure appeared to hesitate. “Do you know me, Marcus?” it asked after a moment.
The man addressed as Marcus regarded his new conversational partner. “Let me see. Dramatic dress sense. Very tall. Very pale. Skull for a face. Rings a faint bell. Maybe I don’t know you, maybe I do. Can’t be sure at this point. What brings you here, friend? Me, I came for the drink, but stayed for the sterling conversation.” He punctuated his words with a hiccough that prompted the momentary focus to fade from his eyes, and resumed his distant observation of his bottle.
The dark figure frowned, or rather a set of shadows passed over its pearly white face in such a manner that might be taken for a frown in a face capable of expression. “Few can truly say they have known me, Marcus,” it said after a moment, “but I certainly know you. Look, you’re in my book.” A bony hand retrieved from somewhere within the depths of the figure’s cloak a small address book, and delicately flicked through it to a certain page, holding it up in the bar’s dim light. “Marcus Lathir Chiallion,” the figure intoned. “Twenty-seven years, three days, twelve hours and fourteen minutes living out of twenty-seven years, three days, twelve hours and eighteen minutes total. Six feet tall, raggedy brown hair, sense of perpetual loss. Oh yes, that’s definitely you. You see me well, as I see you. That is interesting, but only for a little while. Thank you,” it added grievously, to the barman, who had finally worked up the courage to approach with the figure’s drink, “put it on his tab.”
There was silence as the dark figure idly chased the ice cubes around his glass, while the man named Marcus, piqued by the figure’s words, studied him intensely. “You know, I’m not actually drunk,” he confided after a few moments. “I’m just practising how to pretend to be.”
“Pretending by drinking heavily isn’t really pretending”, the dark figure replied absently.
“No, listen,” Marcus said, waving his hands about. “The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep is asleep. Wait, was that right?”
“That is a remarkable impression,” the dark figure intoned soberly. “I could almost believe you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Listen,” Marcus said again, then decided to give up. “You’re the Grim Reaper, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Death.
“So you’ve come to kill me?”
“What? Of course not,” Death said, a particular cast of shadow adding an offended tint to his skull shading. “People always get that wrong. Death doesn’t kill people. Life kills people. My job is to pick people up after they’ve died, and point them in the right direction. It’s important work.”
There was another quiet moment whilst Marcus digested this. In the corner, the jukebox stuttered and made a noise very much like a female voice saying “hello?”.
“So I’m dead?” Marcus asked.
“Not yet. In about two minutes you are going to fall off that bar stool, and you won’t be standing up again. It’s really going to be quite undignified, though I’ve seen worse.”
“Well,” Marcus said blankly, “I’m not sure I believe that. For starters, I’m not even drunk! Also, if that were the case, shouldn’t you be here in two minutes and not right now?”
“I’m ahead of schedule,” Death said. “And I like to take an interest. But believe me, while I can’t comment on your internal state of mind, you are definitely going to die. I’m kind of the expert when it comes to that. Even if you can’t feel it, you’ve drank four whole bottles of sketchily sourced whiskey, and that never goes down well.”
“Actually,” Marcus said cheerfully, “they went down very well.”
In the corner, the jukebox made a sound very much like a female voice saying “I can’t make contact, just bring him in.” Amidst the bongo bongo noises it was already making, the effect was jarring enough to make the barman look around from where he had been eavesdropping on the conversation at the end of the bar.
In the meantime, Death was drumming his fingers on the bar, in itself a rather jarring sound. “You’re taking this very well,” he said.
“That’s because I don’t believe you,” Marcus said flatly. “Any hobo can dress up in black and paint his face and tell people that they’re going to die. You don’t even have a scythe. You’re the worst death I’ve ever seen, and believe me matey, you’re not the only one who has seen him before. Now leave me alone.” He moved to turn away from the dark figure, but found himself incapable as their eyes met.
“Your belief is not necessary,” Death thundered, rising from his seat to tower over Marcus ominously. “I am Death, and you have seen me before, reflected in the eyes of your nearest and dearest. Do not doubt me, Marcus, for I am your salvation as your life ends. You see it, do you not? Deep within my eyes..”
Marcus did see it. Transfixed by the gaze of the Grim Reaper, he stared into the infinite chasms of those eye sockets, and saw the tiny blue supernovas that lay within, destroying and recreating themselves endlessly, a single instant of annihilation repeated for as long as there was life in the world. And after all existence was finished, those eyes would flare one final time, and all would come to a close. In one horrible moment all of this flashed through the mind of the man named Marcus, and then it was gone as he sat before Death and the final seconds leaked out of his life. He twisted on his bar stool, futilely considering an attempt to run for it. Death, for his part, reached for his staff and assumed a ready position. Both paused in a frozen moment, waiting for the inevitable, and it was right then that the jukebox made a sound very much like a female voice saying “no! Don’t do that!”, and exploded.
The ridiculously disproportionate explosion took out most of the bar and the building it was based in. Debris was flung outwards from the centre of the blast, one swinging piece of detritus cleanly decapitating the barman, whose body was buried beneath a shower of rubble before it could even fall limply to the floor. Another hit the Grim Reaper, who exploded in a shower of bones. Marcus reached out for the nearest solid object as the world lurched around him, and found Death’s staff. Hugging it tightly, he felt himself toppling from his seat as everything exploded into pretty lights, and was aware of a strange sensation of being lifted through a tunnel of searing heat. He heard more explosions, and screaming, and then everything began to go dark, but not before he had thrown up approximately four bottles worth of barely-digested whiskey.