Mark O’Shaughnessy sits alone at the bar, finishing his fifth whiskey rocks in as many minutes. He grimaces as the drink goes down his throat; one thick-knuckled hand lifts to brush greasy strands of black hair back from his granite face. He snaps his fingers at the bartender for another drink, in the 4 AM twilight of serious alcoholism.
The bartender ambles over, a strangely genteel person to be catering to Boston’s late night drinkers. He has a strong southern drawl and a punchable face. “Sure ya want that last one? We close up in a few, and you’ve had your share already for sure.”
Mark glances up at the man who stands between him and the counter of dimly lit bottles at the back of the bar. He notices for the first time the tacky blue-and-yellow sign that says, “If you ain’t drinking, you ain’t having a good time!” hanging right above the bar, casting a halo of neon light down on the bartender.
“Give me another,” he says. His voice grates.
“You got it.” The bartender pulls a bottle from the top shelf this time, delivering the last drink with a flourish. “No additional cost,” he says, winking. “My pops always said a man’s final drink of the night should be smoothest.”
Mark cracks a smile on the corner of his lip. “Thanks,” he says, lifting the glass to his lips. The whiskey tastes like fire and forgetfulness.
“So, what are you up to on this fine morning?” the bartender asks, taking the empty lowball and washing it under the bar.
“Just got out of prison.” There are more signs, now that Mark is lifting his head – more blaring neon lights reading “Corona Time!” and “Designated Driver? That’s What Cabs Are For” and other such things. Their presence makes Mark shudder.
The bartender doesn’t notice as he tucks the lowball back under the bar with the others. As he stands back up, he raises an eyebrow. “Prison, huh? How long were ya in for?”
“Twenty-five to life.”
“Well, I guess you beat them on the life account, huh?” The bartender leans over the counter. “Aren’t you, uh, not supposed to be drinking when you’re on parole?”
“Yup.” Mark stands, his hand immediately going to the bar for balance. He gets his wallet on his third attempt and slaps a one hundred dollar bill on the counter. “Keep the change for the conversation,” he says.
The bartender nods to him. “You want me to call you a cab?”
Mark shakes his head, feeling delightfully numb. “No,” he says. “I want to be outside. I’ll walk.”
“Are ya sure?” the bartender calls, but Mark is already weaving his way to the door. He pushes it open, out into the cool night air, and he breathes in the dirty, piss-and-smog scent of downtown Boston. It’s been over two decades, and the city has already changed so much from what he’d remembered. New skyscrapers, new foreigners shouting to one another in their own languages, preparing to open up their family delis and their barber shops and their restaurants in the very early morning. But underneath all that, it’s still the same old Boston.
Mark closes his eyes, and when he opens them he’s slumped against the brick wall of the bar. The sun still isn’t up, so he hasn’t been here very long. He feels a little bit more sober, so he stands up and starts looking for a cab to hail. The street is still relatively empty, with only a few late-night drivers weaving around the early-morning working men. Mark holds up his hand, wobbling slightly, and waits for a cab.
He blinks again, and this time he faceplants into the street, right into the middle of an oncoming car. If it had been one of the early-morning workers, puttering along in their dusty pickups or their rundown Silverados, he might have survived the hit. But it’s a late-night driver, out with her friends after a few different bars, doing about sixty-five in the forty, whose tire comes in contact with the back of his head when he hits the pavement. Mark dies.
And that’s about the time when I get up, folding my newspaper over three times and leaving it on the table of the not-quite-yet-open restaurant just across the street. I gulp the last of my macchiato – it’s a shameful waste of a good coffee experience, but duty calls – and pack the ceramic cup away in my briefcase. A last straightening of the robe, checking for any bits of lint or debris caught in it during the wait, and I’m heading through the street to where Mark’s very confused spirit stands over his body.
I hail him from the middle of the street, raising one hand in greeting. “Hey, there, Mark!” I say.
He glances up, eyes full of fear and wonder, but then he points and yells, “Look out!”
I grin as a semi-truck bears down on me, swishes through me. I get a glimpse for a brief moment of the interior contents – twelve hundred boxes of Cheese Balls – before the truck continues on its path, and I continue on mine through the middle of the road. By the time I’ve reached Mark, he’s positively trembling.
“Oh, come on,” I say, grabbing him by the elbow. He jerks away from me.
“Are you the grim reaper?” he whispers.
Every time, they ask. And every time, I have the same answer. “You wish,” I say, starting to walk down the sidewalk. “Come on, we have to get going. Got a schedule to keep, and all that.”
“Am I dead?” he says.
I groan and turn back towards him. He’s staring down at his own body, at the jellied mess that used to be the top of his head. The party girl has stopped her car just a little bit down the road and is currently screaming at the emergency operator on 911; her friends are all in various stages of freaking out and/or sobbing hysterically.
“Yes,” I say. “You’re dead. Now can we please get out of here? I have to take you through the Veil.”
He says nothing. He’s just staring at his own body like an idiot. I tap him on the shoulder. “Hey, we have a long wait ahead of us, and you can figure all this crap out there. But for right now, can we get a move on? Huh? Remember walking? You used to do it when you were alive, with your legs and feet and stuff?”
He looks up at me. “I can’t be dead,” he says.
I slap my face, scratching my hair under the hood. “That mess of flesh says otherwise,” I say, pointing at his body.
He focuses on my hand. “Hey,” he says. “You’re not a skeleton.”
“Congratulations,” I say. “You may be the first person ever to realize that.”
“So you’re really not the grim reaper? Then… what are you?”
I sigh, looking at my watch. But he wasn’t really supposed to kick the bucket until a few minutes from now, so I guess I have a bit of time. I extend my hand, which he shakes in disbelief. “I’m Lee,” I say. “I’m a Callous Reaper. Kind of the same as a Grim, except not at all where you’re concerned.”
“I don’t… get it,” he says. Could he still be drunk? I mean, I’ve made more than my fair share of attempts to achieve intoxication as a spirit, but perhaps he’s cracked it.
I glance at my watch again. “All right, fine,” I say. “How about this. I take you to show you what’s confusing you, and I answer whatever little questions you have, and then you follow me through the Veil. Fair?”
“Oh, for Goodness’ sake,” I snap. I pick up my radio. “Hey, Carol?”
A long burst of static issues from the thing before I hear a voice. “Lee, what are you using this line for? It’s emergency-only.”
“Yeah, well it’s an emergency. Drop won’t move unless I show him a Grim Reaper.”
“Not my issue. Overpower him.”
“Come on, Carol. Do me a favor; just tell me where the nearest Grim is. It’ll be a few minutes at most, and I’m ahead of schedule.”
“You? Ahead of schedule? Is it the Apocalypse already?”
“Ha-freaking-ha. You owe me, Carol. Remember that thing at the Christmas party…?”
A long moment of silence. “You’re a rat, Lee.”
“Please, dear, don’t insult the rats like that. Now, the nearest Grim?”
Carol sighs. “Just a sec.” The sounds of typing come through the radio.
Meanwhile, Mark is muttering something to himself. It sounds suspiciously like, “This isn’t right, this can’t be real, this can’t be happening.”
I look to him. “Let me guess. You thought death was gonna be different than life?”
He turns towards me, and his eyes are hollow. “What? I mean… it can’t be like this.”
“Look around, Mark,” I say, gesturing at the worn shop fronts, the cars rolling by. “We’re not actually at death yet. You won’t follow me there. So no, what you’re looking at is life, just from the opposite end of things. And if you would just follow me into the Veil, then we would be able to get this all sorted. But no, you have to force me to call in a favor that I was really hoping to save, and all I get is this bug-eyed stare?”
He’s quiet for a moment, exemplifying perfectly the aforementioned bug-eyed stare. Then he says, “You know, you’re pretty mean for a – whatever you are.”
“Think again, Marky boy,” I say. “Remember the name? I’m a Callous Reaper.”
Carol is back on the radio. “All right, we’ve got one nearby. I’m assuming you’re at the drop location?”
“Then head to South Boston. 1150 Bowen Street. You’ve got Meredith there. Better hurry up, though, she’ll only be there a few more minutes.” Carol coughs. “Some people have a sense of professionalism.”
“Coulda fooled me, with that Christmas party debacle,” I grunt into the radio before turning it off. I turn to Mark, who’s staring out into the street as distant sirens announce the approach of the ambulance. “Hey, spacy. You ready to go?”
He turns to look at me, and there’s some amount of lucidity to him. I find myself hoping that he’s finally going to cooperate.
Then he sprints off into the road.