“Death is coming to you, today. Are you ready, Steve?”
Stephen Caldero nearly fell off his aisle seat. His head reflexively snapped up from the newspaper article to stare in the wrinkled face of an elderly woman. She had wisps of blonde mixed into her thick white hair. Her spectacles were pushed high onto the bridge of her nose. She sat in the middle seat of the bus bench, clutching an umbrella and a rolled up copy of Newsweek. A slight smile on her face and the question shining in her pale blue eyes.
“What? What the hell did you say?” He shouted back, his face turning red.
She recoiled, whimpering. “I asked if you had read the weather report for today? I forgot to this morning. I’m sorry.”
“Everything okay back there, Ms. Richards?” The bus driver called out, watching in his rearview mirror and glaring at Steve.
“Um yes,” she replied.
Steve now reddened with embarrassment. He shook his head. “No! No, you didn’t. You said ‘Death was coming for me’ Why? Why would say that?”
Ms. Richards blinked back at him, she straightened without replying and walked behind them to sit three rows away from him.
Must’ve been dreaming. I… was up pretty late, but, man, that seemed so real.
He couldn’t bring himself to turn around and apologize. The bus ride was quiet and without incident to his stop at Bronx Ave.
The gray structure housing Pottermen & Felsby resembled more a modern prison than the prestigious accounting firm. He worked as Accounting Researcher II for nearly a year in his three years tenure with them. He glanced up at the towering building and wished he felt more satisfaction or pleasure from his employment and career.
He entered the quiet lobby and made a beeline for the elevators. When he pushed the button it occurred to him then just how little enjoyment or pride he got from the position. What had he really achieved?
Death is coming to you, today. Are you ready, Steve?
The words paraded in a loop inside his mind.
“Certainly not,” he growled low to himself as he entered the elevator doors.
In the western corner, he had a modest office with glass walls to somewhat isolate him from the noises of the work
floor. The fourth wall behind his decade old desk had a dirty window framing an ugly, crowded parking lot below. He kept the blinds mostly pulled tight to keep the sunlight and glare off the computer monitors. It didn’t help much to drive out the ever-present gloom. The florescent lights were a harsh purple-white.
Steve sat down with a sigh — the day was doomed to be long and tedious.
Accountants did not die of natural causes. They gave up and volunteered. The bad joke crossed his thoughts adding to his inner turmoil.
He glanced at the calendar planner spread across the desk top. It had scribbles and notes all over it like an alley wall of graffiti.
- -Marketing @ 9:00, -Meeting with Grace H, -After lunch conference with Timothy K. -Death.
He jumped at the sight of the word, splashing the office door and walls with the remains of his Starbuck’s coffee.
Shit shit shit shit!
His eyes locked on the word, his skin prickled and the hair on the back of his neck rose in tuffs. His hand came up to stifle the building scream in his throat.
A knock at the door made him jump again out of his chair. “What?”
Through the fake plastic wood door he heard the muffled words, “Mr. Caldero, do you need paper towels?”
Sheryl Lehman leaned over and peaked around the door to look at him through the glass. Concern mixed with curiosity battled for position on her pudgy face.
“Uh, yes, thank you.”
He knew before looking back down at the calendar the word would not be there.
Death? What in the hell is happening?
He studied the date and appointments.
- -Marketing @ 9:00, -Meeting with Grace H, -After lunch conference with Timothy K. of Derath Inc.
Sheryl entered and started mopping up the desktop. He took a few towels and cleaned off the door with shaking hands, thanking her with numb lips.
“It’s okay. It’s gotten to all of us, Mr. Caldero,” she said.
“You heard, of course, about Joe Barness? Weird world we live in, huh?”
Steve watched her a second as he tried to recollect who the name belonged to. “Was that the front lobby clerk, right?”
“You had to notice he wasn’t downstairs this morning,” she replied, throwing away a pile of used paper towels. “He was mugged last night on his way home. Shot and left in a pile of trash bags on Hamperton. He’s alive at Metro Regional, but they don’t know if he’ll recover! Lordy, so sad!”
“It just proves ya gotta live each day like it’s your–“
“Shut up, Sheryl!”
Her jaw dropped at the cutting remark. Her face frozen in shock and hurt.
“I’ve got it from here. Uh..um, sorry. I’m not feeling well.” He shrugged apologetically.
She left, not bothering to shut the door. Steve grabbed his laptop and newspaper. He was going to work from home today.
“Floor 3, room 2AB,” the nurse pointed to the elevator bank on the right of her circular station desk.
He wasn’t close to Joe Barness and spoke occasionally with him
about football drafts and such from time to time. Yet he was compelled to see the man. He even had a card and a small box of chocolates in his hand. It felt lame to bring a gun shot victim chocolate but was there anything typical or even appropriate?
Moments later he found the room and Joe lying under several sheets and a blue blanket, hooked up with multiple tubes and wires like some sort of dimented Christmas tree.
No one was visiting.
“Are you family, sir?” A man asked him from behind another circular desk.
“No. I work with Joe,” he answered. The nurse grimaced but Steve cut him off. “I won’t be long — I don’t think he has anyone here to stop by. I thought it would help maybe leaving a card and a gift for when…when he wakes up, ya know?”
The grimace melted from his face. “Okay. Yeah, go ahead. Just don’t stay long or try to wake him. The man’s got a helluva battle ahead.”
There was a single cold metal chair in one corner of the ICU room. It was drafty and had a permanent, stale chemical smell. Steve sat down without bothering with the lights. He put the box down with the card on a shelf. No one else had sent anything. It was a truly lonely way to die.
What am I doing here? I barely know him.
You’re here because of the death threat. His dark thoughts scolded him. You are here on a purely selfish hope that if you show this dying man one little bit of kindness then you’ll be spared from the Grim Reaper! You selfish asshole!
Go home, go back to…
Joe’s eyes were open. They were boring into his.
Steve gasped and shrank back into his chair. The man’s finger rose slowly and stabbed at the opposite corner of the room. A thick gray curtain hanging from the ceiling blocked most of the light from entering and the shadows were deepest there. Something inside the black alcove moved… or at least he thought something twisted in the pitch black. Something that had been there all along, but hadn’t moved until it was pointed out.
Words crawled out of Joe’s lips, words barely audible but held a power over Steve.
“He’s here for you, not me.”
Steve’s breath caught hard inside his chest, spasms wracked his whole frame and he wheezed from exhaustion and effort. His massive oak bed frame, a family heirloom he’d inherited from his grandfather, now leaned against the mostly empty china cabinet which was also propped up against the door.
YOU are a complete fucking idiot! He whirled to scan the apartment. All four of the apartment windows had been covered with furniture and mattresses. Every lamp and light in the small condo had been turned on, eating away any trace of shadow. Even the kitchen table had been dragged into the living room to block the twin balcony doors. It was an impressive amount of effort, but it was completely fruitless at the same time.
How do you stop Death Incarnate from entering your door? It’s completely implausible that your Serta Pillowtop Mattress will do the deed, dumbass!
He rubbed at his sweaty scalp and pulled at his cheeks with both hands in his anxiety. But what am I to do? I’m not just going to give in. I’m too young! This isn’t fair. I’m only twenty-three goddamn it!
Coming up through the floor vent, Steve heard a loud bang followed by several shouts.
“Oh god! It’s here!” He moaned in pity. His heart leaped into his throat.
More shouts and then slamming doors could be heard.
“FIRE! FIRE! EVERYONE OUT!”
Steve’s shoulders dropped. His hands hung limply at his sides. Seriously. A fire, huh? He could swear he already smelled a whiff of smoke in the air.
He grabbed at one corner of the bedframe and struggled to drag it an inch.
While it seemed an eternity, less than ten minutes had passed as he clawed at the blocking furniture. He managed to squeeze past his door to stand in the smoke-filled hallway.
He was not going out this way! The Calderos had always been a family of survivors and fighters. His older brothers had both been in the military branches and his father had died on the streets as one of the city’s most decorated police officers. Perhaps now Steve could prove all of them wrong. He was going to make it! The mantra beat like a drum in his head.
A brief second in the stairwell at the third floor landing, he had a bad scare. Flames had already brought down the tiles and support beams to block his path. He ran back to the fourth as the building had two stairwells on opposite sides of the structure. Desperation put extra energy in his strides.
Just as he shoved the door to the other stairwell, a sharp and high-pitched cry came out from the gloom.
“Help! Help me!” It was a child’s voice coming from one of the apartments.
Sandee Mitchell, eight years old and left home alone, shivered in a brown blanket wrapped about her shoulders and back. Smudges of smoke and ash had darkened her hair and caked along the base of her chin and neck.
A female EMT tech was wrapping swathes of gauze around her burnt arm as Sandee rested on a stretcher in the back. A male EMT was hooking up a bag of saline.
She stared at the coil of bed sheets at her feet and the length still tied at her waste. They hadn’t gotten around to taking it off her yet.
Fresh tears spilled down her cheeks.
The male EMT leaned down to her ear. “It’s okay, honey. You’re safe now.”
She didn’t look back or even acknowledge him. All she could focus on were the stranger’s words as he rushed out onto the patio. The stranger who had burst into her apartment and found her balled up outside.
“I am ready. You’re not taking her! I’ll go!” The stranger had spoke aloud as if in an argument. It had been his fourth trip to get bedsheets.
“What?” she asked him.
At this point, the fire engulfed the top of the building. Smoke billowed around them as he frantically tied the knotted sheets around her. He then wrapped a blanket around her to protect her from flames and heat.
“Hold on tight to this, don’t let it slip!” He shouted to be heard over the crash and roar of the inferno. “I’m going to lower you down. I’m making you an honorary Caldero!”
But it was his last words which haunted her at nights, stuck to her soul. He kept screaming it out in the air as he lowered her from their apartment patio.
“I AM READY! YOU ARE COMING FOR ME ONLY! YOU HEAR ME?”
I took a little liberty with this one, but it was too good to not try!