This Excerpt is from the book Short Stories by L.R. Drake and reprinted with permission from the author. Copyright (c) 2010 by L.R. Drake Here is the link for the book http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/20587
“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our Hell.”
– Oscar Wilde
It was a rainy, ghastly day for a funeral. The damp ground made his shoes sink into it like cake. He did not know the deceased woman well, James was only there because he was asked to come as a friend and he had difficulty saying “no”. That was just the kind of person he was—not kind, just unable to say “no.”
The crowd included many people he had seen before and many people he didn’t know. The rain was coming down harder as if it were trying to drown out the words of the priest. He was now on his third Hail Mary and the cries were still coming from the mourning crowd. James kept looking at his watch—not much sorrow in his heart since he hardly knew her. He didn’t mind going to the funeral as it gave him a chance to study the human condition and behavior during the time of loss. This always intrigued him about people. Why were they so sad when they thought she had gone to a better place? He thought to himself.
The crowd was now moving closer to watch the casket be lowered into its final destination. As it was being lowered, howls came from the women in the crowd.
“Oh, please,” James muttered to himself. Death comes for everyone.
The casket finally reached the bottom and the crowd was taking turns exchanging hugs and condolences for their loss. It was not James’ loss. The fog had become thicker since the start of the ceremony and James could feel it on his skin. It felt like a soft, wet blanket. He made his way through the crowd exchanging the same dull apologies as everyone else; they were as heartfelt as they could be.
As the crowd began to disperse in their own directions, James made his way through a thicket, making it a shorter walk for him. He was glad he would get to avoid all of the awkward talk about how much she meant to everyone and the fake memories he might have to create to help the grieved. He would to do it to be polite, but inside he would be disgusted with himself. He made his way through the crying guests sharing a polite smile with them before finally disappearing into the thicket.
It felt much colder in the damp and dark patch of woods. Very little sunlight shone through and James had to strain his eyes to step over large holes in the muddy ground. Just before he reached the clearing at the end of the thicket, he heard a man’s voice call his name.
“James!” called the gruff voice.
James turned around quickly expecting to have been caught by a mourning gentleman who wanted to share some fond old memories about the deceased. He looked around and could not see anyone. He was certain he had heard his name. Bewildered, James stood there in silence without moving to see if it would come again. He remained motionless for a few minutes then continued walking, dismissing the call as a call for another man of the same name.
“James!” came the voice again, this time from right behind the tree where he had paused.
James turned his head and saw a dark man standing by the tree. He looked very peculiar and had not been a guest at the funeral. James would have quickly recognized his flamboyance of style and wealth if he had seen him before. The man wore a black silk jacket with a red silk shirt underneath. James could tell the clothes were very expensive and must have been bought, perhaps even custom-made, somewhere else since he had never seen those kinds of clothes in that town. His fingers were covered in jewelry and he had a dark grin, though the little light penetrating the fog made it difficult to see his face.
“Yes?” James responded in a frustrated tone.
“I’m sorry about your friend,
You must be so torn,
Her unexpected and abrupt end,
Would make any man mourn,” spoke the man.
“I didn’t know her very well.” It happens to everyone at some point, he thought.
The man leaned against the willow tree behind him. He rubbed his hands together and James heard the clinking of his gold rings against one another. He had one on every finger except the first, closest to the thumb.
“Can I help you with something? If not, I…”
“Actually, my work is already done,
I’ve come to collect the dead’s soul,
I feel that you are the person,
Who’s got a full bowl.”
James was a little frightened at this point. The man’s mouth twisted and his eyes squinted as he talked. He feared that the man was mad and feared he may do something insane if he upset him. He kept a sharp eye on the man and chose his next words carefully.
“I need to be going, Sir,” James began in a polite tone, “I’m quite busy.” He smiled politely and began to back away from his acquaintance without lifting an eye off of him.
“It seems to me that you have more time than you think,
All that weight you carry would cause any boat to sink,” the man replied.
James continued to back away from where the man stood. “What do you mean?”
“James, you and I are not so different,
You seek truth, but quietly repent.
You seek answers in the night,
I am here to provide you light.
No one around you can answer your wonders and curiosity,
But I can and will do so honestly.
Your father and mother simply don’t know what to say,
And because of that, to them it suffices to pray.
Ask me about God and the Devil and truth I shall speak,
I warn you fairly, the truth will be bleak.”
James figured that the man was definitely insane by this point in the sudden conversation. He quickly looked around and noticed that the noise from the funeral had disappeared. Fearing he might anger the man, he asked a question he had held deep in his heart but was rooted in his mind. He figured he could humor the man until he saw an opportunity to escape.
“Why does God not provide a better life for his ‘children’? All the pain and suffering that happens all over the world? If he is so powerful, why can life be so terrible?” James had held this anger and frustration since he was a young boy and saw the poor with no food or home in his town. He would criticize the people that would simply pray for God to help the poor instead of helping the poor themselves. If Godwas so great why couldn’t he help these people?
“Now we get to the truth of the matter,
Where the glass bubble of illusion will shatter.
To answer your questions there’s quid pro quo,
I provide answers and you provide souls.
I warn you to gather your courage for this trip in black,
Once we’re down that road, there’s no coming back.”
James thought for a while then nodded. He figured that the man was not insane if he was coherent enough to have a conversation with him. My parents would never even try to answer my questions, what do I have to lose? They seemed weak and scared of the truth. James often thought they did not care about the truth, especially if it was unsettling.
“Is there a God? And how can you provide me with answers?” he asked the dark man.
“He reigns in the sky with all his might,
He created the sun, yet provided no light,
His power is great and valuable to him you not be,
Otherwise why would I be here and not he?”
God abandoned us—me?James thought. What’s the use of having a god if he can’t help you?
“I know the truth of the land,
Why there’s joy, despair, and
Death all from His hand,
I have nothing to gain from a lie,
James, do you understand?”
James’ mind and heart were racing. He was beginning to think that he was letting his curiosity get the better of him. He was in a secluded area talking about life’s questions with a stranger. He knew better, yet he was intrigued by the man’s answers. He kept a close eye on the man’s movements, as slow and steady as they were.
“I can see that you may have doubts,
And may need some time to think,
If you agree with the contract,
Meet me here tomorrow for a drink.” He handed James a card with a sly grin on his face. His black beard curled around his lips as the last words sprang from his mouth.
As James read the card, discovering the man’s name to be Nick, he saw there was no contact information for him.
“Where do I …” James started to ask—realizing Nick was gone.
James could smell the corn bread, meat, and potatoes being cooked from down the street as he walked home. His mother always had dinner ready, and really spoiled the men of the house.
James’ father, not at all a professional mechanic in the broadest sense, knew his way around an engine. The repetitive clink! told James that his father was hard at work on his truck. He was greeted with a kind wave as he walked up to the garage.
“How did it go?”
“It was as nice as a funeral could have been,” James replied trying to show a heightened sensitivity for the loss of human life.
“How’s the truck?” James quickly asked to change the subject.
“Well, the carburetor is shot, and I can’t get another ‘til Monday. We’ll be walking to church on Sunday,” his father ended with a grin. There was no way car problems would keep their family from church.
After excusing himself, James went inside, kissed his mother then made his way to take a shower. He had a strange smell on him and credited it to Nick.
He quickly showered while thinking about the dark proposition made to him at the funeral. He was not sure what to think. He had so many questions that he wanted answered but that nobody in that town could provide answers for. His parents, his teachers, and the priest could certainly not provide any insight. What did Nick mean about the souls?
He rinsed off his body and quickly dressed himself for dinner. His favorite comb was on his dresser where he always left it. A few strokes straight back was all he needed. He liked his room; it was a quiet place for him and his thoughts.
“Bless, O Lord, this food for thy use, and make us ever mindful of the wants and needs of others. Amen,” his mother’s kind voice made it sound so sweet. It even made the meal taste better.
“Who was there? At the funeral,” his father asked dipping his cornbread into the meat gravy and taking a bite, signaling James’ turn to speak.
“Her friends, I met her brother, and some people I didn’t know. It was a really nice service.” He smiled.
“It’s so sad, she will be missed,” his mother chimed in. She was looking solemnly down at her food on her plate. She had known the deceased for some time, and although they were not very close, they were acquaintances.
James figured that it was as a good a time as any to ask questions. He thought about Nick and his proposition. Should I go through with it?
“Well, everyone’s got to die right?” James said in a facetious tone, testing his parents.
“Be respectful, James! Show some respect for the dead,” his father yelled pausing his cutting of his meat.
“She wasn’t exactly the most caring person…”
“It doesn’t matter! She is a person who is now deceased and deserves our respect,” his father countered, this time putting his fork and knife down.
James was silent and still for a short time.
“Why does God not show himself to us and show us that he exists? That he cares for us?”
Completely dumbfounded, James’ father answered, “H-he works in mysterious ways. There is no way our human mind can understand how he works and why he does the things he does.”
Precisely the answer he expected. Maybe there’s nothing to understand and that’s why we ‘can’t’ understand it. He looked at his mother as if she would provide more clarification. He kept his eyes fixed on her.
Feeling like she had to respond, his mother finally spoke, “Don’t question it, Honey, just have faith that he will take care of you here on earth and after you die.”
“Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy thinking about all these questions. Settle your mind and have faith,” his father added.
Exactlywhat James expected. Feigning satisfaction, James smiled and said “I understand now.” He was not lying—he did understand. He understood that his parents were simple-minded people never wanting to question things about faith and God. He understood that they had no interest in thinking for oneself or knowing the truth. He understood that the only person that might be able to help him “settle his mind” would be Nick.
He finished his dinner while making polite, superficial conversation about neighbors, school, and the town’s events with his parents. After the plates were cleared he went up to his room. He sat on his bed studying the card Nick had given him. He thought and thought about the meeting and the proposition.
The sun set and James knew his decision but did not want to admit it to himself. He lay there in bed as his parents both quietly slept. The house was peaceful, but James was restless. All the small, unimportant things that others worry about seemed trivial to James. He was more concerned about knowing the truth—no matter how sad it was. He had a feeling that Nick would still be at the cemetery. He seemed like a hard-working man, able to take care of business at any hour. He stood up from his bed, still wearing his clothes, put his shoes on and crept down the stairs. He caught a quick glimpse of his parents sleeping through the crack of the doorway they always left open. He smiled and left the house, locking the door behind him.
The cemetery was quiet and the midnight mist had settled in a thick blanket that embraced each in every tombstone. The sins and pains of all the dead were now quieted by the sweet release of death. The moon was out and provided some light for James as he carefully made his way in the dark to the thicket.
James treaded lightly on the moist ground, making sure not to step on any of the final resting places. He approached the thicket where he met Nick earlier that day and hoped he would see that dark familiar figure. He rounded some rocks on the outside of the thicket and broke through the dense brush on the outside, scratching himself on the arms in the process. He walked through the trees and a foul stench stung his nostrils. What is that? Sulfur!
From behind the willow tree came the deep, familiar voice,
“James! Glad to see you came,
I knew you would come to stake your claim!”
James thought one last time, Do I really want to do this?
“So I help you gather dead souls and you provide answers to my questions?” James’ voice cracked, showing his uncertainty.
“My dear James, the souls you will ensnare
Have already been claimed by me,
You only help in bringing their
Souls where they need to be,” Nick said in a happy, melodic tone.
After accepting Nick’s logic, almost half-heartedly, but due mostly to the insatiable curiosity he had for his questions, he nodded in agreement. He felt almost honored by being provided the opportunity to get answers to what humans have been asking for thousands of years. Nick’s dark eyes became aglow and he smiled a wily, honest smile. He handed James a glass of wine to toast to their agreement. The wine had already been poured and waiting for James, as if Nick knew his answer before he did.
“So there is a God?” James asked almost shaking from the anxiety of knowing. He always had a problem with faith. If you have no reason to believe something, why believe it? That was James’ attitude about faith.
“He reigns in the sky with all his might,
He created the sun, yet provided no light,
His power is great and valuable to him you not be,
Otherwise why would I be here and not he?” replied Nick.
He doesn’t really care about us? “It would explain so much…”
“I stand nothing to gain from lying,
It’s only the truth that I’m providing,
Before we discuss to end the matter,
There are souls that are to be gathered,
Let us make haste and collect,
In time, the answers shall reflect,” said Nick.
As James watched, Nick threw a dusty substance into the fire he had roaring in the center of the thicket that made it explode up towards the sky. It was a sight to see!
They walked toward the outside of town where another burial had recently taken place in another, smaller cemetery. James smelled the sulfur again.
On their way to the cemetery, Nick directed them to a nearby house that had the back porch light on.
“This is what I want to show you,
A sight that may show you pain and truth,” Nick said in a low voice as they approached the house.
As they neared the house, James was able to look closer at the people inside through a window. He saw a small boy sitting on his bed with a deadly serious look on his face. It was not a common face for someone at his age, which James guessed to be around 8 years old.
“This young child has been naughty,
A way out of pain sought he,
This boy, full of warranted anger,
Has just committed the sin of poisoning his father,’ explained Nick with a half-grin.
James stood in disbelief at the seemingly innocent child that sat only a few feet away from him, guilty with the stains of death written all over his cherubic face.
Just then, the mother came in and held the boy to her breast. They both cried but her wails far overpowered his. The boy seemed to only be saddened when he saw his mother saddened. They stood there motionless; except for the rise and fail of the shoulders as they took long, heavy breaths.
“How?! Why?!” James began to ask, unable to even fathom the idea of doing that to his father. “Surely it was an accident—”
“No! No, it was no accident,
The action done was the action meant,
His father had much hate for them two,
See their bodies, black and blue,
Why death? If you must ask,
His father was very fond of the flask,
The boy saw no other way out,
He acted on his decision, without a doubt,
But one question I do have to pose,
Why would God allow all this, given all he knows?” Nick riddled James, removing any hope James had for the boy and leaving him with more doubt about God.
Why would God give that poor woman and child a terrible man like that? James mood sunk even lower.
“So, what now?”
“We come back later, a few years later,
To collect payment from the payer.”
With that, Nick and James left the small house and continued on towards the cemetery. James’ head hung low for the awful event they had just been a part of. How could someone do that to their own father? James kept quiet in solemn contemplation. They walked further down the road together. The pavement was like a sad river carrying them to a fearful place they wanted to go.
At the fork in the road Nick strays from the path to the cemetery and explains to James that there is something else that he needs to see. They descend upon a smaller, humbler house with the sole window being open. The night’s breeze flows freely into the one-room house. In the small brick fireplace, a fire quietly flickered; probably for light, since the night was not cold. Peeping through the window again, Nick instructed James to look inside and to the corner farthest left from the fire. James stepped up on a nearby stone and peered into the fire-lit home. His heart ached as he observed the sight.
Lying there in bed was a small girl quietly crying and sweating. Her sweating was so profuse that her hair was draped tightly along her little round face as if she had been in rain. Her mother was knelt next to her at her bedside, her hands clutched in prayer and whispering, pleading to God to spare her daughter’s life and take hers instead. She prayed, “Please, Father, she is so young, spare her all this pain and take me, if it is a life you want. Take me! Not her! Me!”
Nick and James stood in silence for some time. Neither spoke.
Nick finally broke the silence, saying,
“She prays for her child’s life to be spared,
To a God that she hopes is there and cares,
Curious thing to pray for God’s helping hand,
When His will will still go on as planned,
It’s a Human behavior I’ll never understand.”
James was fascinated yet shaken by Nick’s truthful words. Why bother praying when God’s will shall still be carried out? Everything he remembered being taught in church was about praying for God’s mercy and being good for blessings. Now it didn’t seem to matter what people did. What happens is what was planned to happen. James took a few deep breaths to collect himself, it was a bit too much to take in all at once.
Nick was the first to step away from the window. As James followed Nick’s lead, he could not peel his eyes away from the desperate, praying mother. She still had her hands clenched in prayer, clenched to her daughter’s life.
“There’s another one for me!” Nick shouted gleefully as they both stepped down from the rock.
Nick and James walked in silence until they reached the cemetery. The cool damp air clung to James’ skin and made him feel a little sick. He had already been feeling faint when he saw the small boy and the praying woman; her wailing simply made it worse. He had a sunken feeling in the pit of his stomach, his eyes were heavy and the walking was making him more and more tired. Up around the winding road he saw the cemetery.
Upon entering the cemetery, James caught a quick glimpse of Nick’s face as it was lit by the moonlight. It was a ghastly face in comparison with even the most hideous faces James had ever seen. He had scars across his nose and skin seemed terribly rough, almost leather. Nick made his way to a freshly buried grave, and stood waiting for any direction from Nick.
“Here we have a young woman who has taken her life,
She couldn’t bear the pain, and so ended it with a knife,
Your people will say that it’s a sin, an abomination,
But is life worth living if there is no self-determination?
God gave but one life to live on this earth,
He cannot, however, guarantee its worth,” Nick stated as he looked down on the soft, freshly-laid dirt.
James stood in silence, thinking. He grew uneasy thinking about the harsh reality that Nick was stating. I value my life! “How do I know you are telling me the truth? There is really no way God can defend his actions, right? You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.” He expected an angry reply from Nick but was shocked at the calmness and almost playfulness in Nick’s answer.
“Yes, you are right, the most powerful being cannot answer,
Cannot show Himself and face the asker,
It’s not a matter of “power” but a matter of “why,”
He will not leave his majestic throne in the sky,
A dog would sooner provide an answer than he,
He will not come forth, no matter how great the need be.”
“But why do you and Him keep the battle going? You’ve admitted that he is more powerful than you, what’s stopping him from destroying you?”
“Power to destroy me he does not lack,
He gave me freedom, yet does not take it back,
Fooling humans is my sole purpose for life,
If allowed, why not attack?”
James stood there in awe at how articulate Nick was in answering his questions.
“You do not reason with a dog that is rabid,
Much like me, it cannot change its habits,
I do know how I am and what I do,
But to change that would leave me in rue,
God allowed me with part of the deal,
I would cause pain, and he would help heal,
He would provide life and joy,
And with humans’ help, I would seek and destroy,
But I cannot take all the credit for evil,
When humans can be much more hurtful,
Where I would happily take my blame,
Humans commit evil, and then credit my name,
For it is far worse to commit an anonymous evil act,
Then one where you confess to the fact,
Yet they fear me and jeer me,
But when I arrive they will not get near me,
When I should really fear them, for they hold
Much more power than we twofold,
To pray to either of us is a mistake,
When all either of us do is but forsake,
Make me the scapegoat, and I’ll play along,
For man cannot escape his fate for long,” Nick chanted.
The moon was dimming as the night wore on. The cemetery was still deep asleep and its snore was the rustling of tree limbs against each other in the night’s wind. The two men stood there, eyeing each other. James had a mix of emotions in him; he was angry that the God his parents preached to him was really just an observer of what people did; he was also sad that this was so; he felt betrayed by God and befriended by Nick (whoever he was). At least I know, was a thought that James hated to admit to himself. He knew there was no way that God could ever answer him. He was slipping deeper and deeper into a sea of despair, being weighed down by the anchor of knowledge.
“So this is it. This is the truth I have always been after. There is a God but we have a very mistaken idea of him. And you, Sir, have been gracious enough to show me. I thank you, I suppose,” James was still not comfortable with the events of that night, but was content with knowing. At least I know.
“James, you are a brave and wise!
I’m sure you thought, it comes as no surprise,
My plan is simply to show God that his creations
Are not as good as were his aspirations,
He will not have as many faithful servants as he hoped,
Being all-powerful, He’ll find a way to cope,” Nick grinned his sinister, playful grin and held close to James’ stare.
That was the last conversation James could remember having. He woke up the next morning in his bed fully-dressed with mud smeared on the foot of the bed. He reeked of sulfur and sweat.
James made a futile attempt to convince himself that it was all a dream, but he knew the truth. He passed through the hours that day like a ghost – no expression, no joy, and no words. He knew what had occurred during the night. James had another appointment that night, in the thicket by the cemetery.