writing - short story

LJ Idol - Season 9 - Week 12 - Barrel of Monkeys

It had happened so fast he'd nearly missed it: just a blink, that was all it took, to go from the top of the steps to here.

Where was here, anyway?

Nathan couldn't recognize anything, and he reached up to rub the back of his head, frowning. He'd been going down the icy front steps, the dog's leash clutched in his left hand and a fistful of bills to mail in the right. His mother always gave him grief about not getting with the times and just doing them all online, but he liked the feel of sending something in the mail, it made him feel important, somehow. The wind was blustering and whipping his scarf around his face, and he set his jaw stubbornly and tried to grapple for it ... and that was the last he remembered. He opened and closed the hand that had been holding his water bill, but there was nothing there.

The sky was a dingy grey, like someone had slung a bucket of mop water across the sky. Fog rolled across the area as far as the eye could see. As he focused on his surroundings, Nathan found himself feeling strange, almost ethereal. He blinked up at the sky and slowly moved each limb, but he felt foolishly weightless. It was, by far, the strangest sensation he'd ever experienced. He thought he could make out the shape of a figure far off in the fog, but when he blinked to bring it into focus, it seemed to fade into the sidelines.

"Hello?" he called out, his normally clear voice ragged and tattered on the cold, harsh air. He pulled his arms in closer and wished he'd worn another layer of clothing when the figure in the darkness moved, shuffling closer. It made no sound on the ground and he felt fear creep across his skull, the hairs on the nape of his neck rising.

"Hello?" he said again, his voice wobbling. The figure became more pronounced and suddenly, Nathan could make out its shape: a robe, rolling fog at its feet. If he didn't know any better, he'd have said it was the grim reaper itself. But that was just a childrens' story anyway, there was no grim reaper. Right? He swallowed a gulp of cold air and watched the figure come ever closer before coming to a stop a yard away. Nathan could not see a face, just a hood with shadows underneath, deep-set and stark.

"Am I in Hell?" he mumbled, more to himself than to anyone else: it wasn't like he expected the hooded figure to answer. He was surprised when a hand came sweeping out of the folds of the robe, solemnly gripping his wrist and then pulling it back toward him. The figure's head swam back and forth in front of Nathan's eyes: no.

"Then where am I? This isn't Heaven!" He had almost said "sure as Hell isn't Heaven," but this was no time for jokes. A small smile played on his lips, though: he was pretty funny, he had to admit. His brother would have laughed at that joke. The figure shook its head again, and even though no words were exchanged, Nathan felt the answer solemn as a vow in his mind: no.

"I give up, then," Nathan murmured, hugging himself even closer. "just do whatever you're going to do with me and let's get on with it." The figure's hand opened, revealing in its palm a set of pristine, marble dice. He glanced up at the figure, but of course nothing glanced back. Unnerved, he reached out and took the dice and closed his eyes, wishing with everything in him as he let the dice roll out of his palm and onto the ground. They came to a rest somewhere a yard or two away - Nathan couldn't see where - and the figure turned to look at them - nodded approvingly. Nathan gulped.

The figure crept closer still to Nathan and reached back into the folds of its robe, extracting a small plastic object. Nathan squinted into the fog but could not quite make out what was cupped in the figure's hands as he brought it closer to Nathan's face and held it up toward him, a student passing back a sheaf of papers.

"Is that ... a barrel?" Nathan asked, incredulity creeping into his voice. The figure said nothing, but placed the barrel into Nathan's palm and unscrewed the lid, tossing it to the side and revealing a hollow toy, full of what looked like ... "Where did you get a barrel of monkeys?" As ridiculous as the situation was, Nathan couldn't help feeling like he was being pranked, but it wasn't like he could see the camera in all of this fog even if there was one. And then he heard the voice, so faint it was like it hadn't happened at all: around.

"You have a mouth?"

No response.

The figure reached into the barrel and extracted a monkey, hooking it onto another monkey and held the chain out to Nathan. He was sure that if the figure had a face, it would be quirking an eyebrow at him right now. Slowly, he reached out and took the monkey chain from the figure, dipping it into the barrel and pulling it out with three attached. The figure wordlessly took it from Nathan and added a fourth monkey, immediately passing the chain back to Nathan, who struggled to hold the barrel and the chain at the same time. This is unfair, he wanted to protest. You should have to hold it when I go. Then he realized it was absurd to try to complain to hooded figures that the games they were playing with you were unfair, and the whole thing was just utterly ridiculous, so he kept his mouth shut and kept playing.

It was at the end of the barrel that Nathan made a critical error. The hand that held the barrel wavered and wobbled, and in that one moment, the chain broke against the side of the barrel. Monkeys cascaded to the ground on either side of him, and Nathan looked up frantically. He could have sworn he saw the figure shrug, but that was impossible. In an instant, the game vanished from his hand and the figure reached out a hand to him. Unsure of what to do, but feeling the pull, Nathan let the figure clasp his hand in his and found it to be warm and gentle, not cold and harsh.

"That wasn't fair," Nathan stuttered as the figure began to lead him away, somewhere dark and cold. "I could never have won."

That is how life worked. he swore he heard the figure say. What makes you think death is any different?
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Looking back, I realized Nathan must have slipped on the ice and hit his head. Poor guy! :(

That line about, "You have a mouth?" cracked me up. You can understand why he would ask, at that point, but it seems kind of... confrontational... given that he has no idea what was happening to him.

Ah, death-- why NOT toy with your victims?
Wow! this just sucked me in and I'm glad I read till the end..poor Nathan...what a wonderful spin...I loved this take on the prompt..on of my favorites this week! Good work..Kudos!!