Dying of the Light

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A man comes face to face with Death.

Submitted: November 13, 2012

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Submitted: November 13, 2012

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The Dying of the Light

By D.D.R. Hall

Old Mr. McShanigan slowly opened his thick, wrinkled eyelids, feeling his heart sputter. It was like the faint wing-beats of a moth inside his chest. His body shot upright and he put a hand over his chest, breathing fast, eyes bulging. The morning sun was beaming through the sepia curtains, illuminating half the room in a faded brown light. The old man’s panting drowned out the chirping of the birds outside.

On his bedside table was a collection of wooden ducks, but also a little orange bottle of pills which McShanigan strained to reach. Damp, sweaty sheets clung to his withered frame, hampering his movement. He could feel his strength flickering out, but his hands were so close to the bottle. The prune-like nubs of his fingertips writhed, inching closer while his hold on life began to slip.

He suddenly recoiled; his chest sparked with pain. For several minutes he lay twitching and shivering.

In an instant, the fluttering stopped. McShanigan patted his chest and breathed a deep sigh. His attacks were becoming more frequent, and violent awakenings were becoming a bit of a macabre routine. The pills on his night stand were supposed to help, but after a while McShanigan began to suspect they were placebos. The attacks came and went as they pleased regardless. The doctors didn’t have the heart to tell him he was just an old fart running on borrowed time. But still, it was better than nothing, even if they only gave him a skeptical hope.

Ever since he retired McShanigan had been conscious of his age, knowing there were just some things he couldn’t do anymore and never would do again. His joints ached often, and he had little energy to leave the house anymore—the distance between the bed and the door might as well have been the length of a football field. A simple cough would rattle him to his core. All of them were grim milestones.

I shouldn’t be scared…” he grumbled, his voice a hoarse whisper. That was a phrase he found himself saying a lot. But the fact that he said it so much only reminded him of the truth.

McShanigan was no stranger to death, however, even when he was younger. Relatives and friends had died in almost every way possible; violent, peaceful, by accident, and even by suicide. His mom, his brother, and his sister were all resting silently in the cold earth. He felt fortunate he had seen so many sunrises, but now his sunrises were more and more of a surprise. He also knew that there were times when his own will to live made all the difference in his life. His surgeries, his time in Korea, all those instances Death had tried to claim him, but he fought him off.

I’ve seen you more than most,” he said, “haven’t I?” He coughed a bit, rubbing the blood away under the sheets. “You know, there’s part of a poem I live by. Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Rage, rage against the dying of the light, indeed,” said a voice from the dark side of the room.

The old man turned to see a familiar figure dressed in wisps of black. His hooded face was a shadow made of mankind’s darkest fears. In his withered hands he held a scythe and on his chest was a little, cartoonish skull pin.

McShanigan snorted. “So you think you’re actually going to get me this time, huh?”

Would it be so unreasonable if I said yes? You’re eighty five years, seven months, and five days old. That’s a very fortunate lifespan, don’t you think? Tell me, how much longer were you planning on living?”

I’ve bested you before and I’ll do it again!” The old man reached for the pill bottle and chucked it at the specter. It went straight through the dark figure, crashing against the wall behind him. Little white pills rained onto the floor while Death sighed, slowly shaking his head.

What did you think that would accomplish, seriously?”

However, McShanigan wasn’t finished yet. He reached for his pillows, a water bottle on his bedside table, anything he could get his hands on.

Death tried to protest. “Wait just a moment—!” A pillow flew through his void-like face and gently smacked against the wall. Before he could speak again, a wooden duck shot through his chest, clattering on the floor. To humor himself, Death tried to catch a shoe that was arcing through the air only to have it pass through his hands. The pelting of assorted bedroom objects continued until the old man had strewn all of his nearby belongings onto the floor.

Are you done yet?” Death asked after a green-headed mallard skimmed over his shoulder.

The old man looked around desperately for another thing to throw, something, anything. He grimaced as pain shot through his arms, his joints stung from his startled fit. He pulled down a small wooden crucifix that was hanging above his bed and waved it in front of his face. To accompany the display of sudden piety, McShanigan began reciting the Hail Mary, tripping over words as he spoke faster than his tongue could manage. Death held a hand over his void-like face, rubbing a nonexistent forehead, and began to chuckle.

You’ve got to be kidding me…” Death tried to catch his breath before continuing. “Remember when you tried that on me in Korea?” He laughed a bit more before taking a deep inhale to end his giggles. That laugh echoed in the caverns of McShanigan’s head, reminding him of their first meeting when Death was standing over his crashed fighter—a heap of twisted metal painted in blood and smoke. Death had been very busy that day.

And it worked!” McShanigan replied.

It wasn’t the darned crucifix, and you know it. You were a stronger man back in those days. A fit soldier. I was actually doubtful myself in that situation.” Death snapped his fingers as if he suddenly recalled something. “I remember that locket you were holding, the one with your wife’s picture inside.”

What about it?”

You kept looking at that locket while you waited to be rescued. It helped keep you alive. You must miss her now...” Death tilted his head at the old man’s frown. “Don’t you…?”

McShanigan waved a hand in dismissal. “Bah! Things got a lot quieter after she went. I’ve had peace—time to myself.”

Death shook his hooded head. “You don’t mean that.”

And what if I do?”

The specter was silent.

You’re not taking me anywhere!” McShanigan yelled before he could feel the regret sink in.

Death let out a sigh. “Please, you’re making this difficult? It’s not exactly fun to drag you guys kicking and screaming after the ten billionth time.”

There was a sudden knock on the bedroom door and a tiny voice called out from the other side. “Granddad? Are you alright in there? Who are you talking to?”

I’m fine, Wally,” McShanigan said. “I just had one of my flashbacks…that’s all.”

Oh…ok. Can I come in? Mom told me to keep an eye on you while she’s at work.”

You can let him in if you want,” Death said, gesturing for the door. “He won’t be able to see or hear me. It would be nice to see him one more time, don’t you think?”

McShanigan nodded, sniffing. “You can come in, Wally.”

The door slowly creaked open and Wally poked his round face through the gap. His curly dark hair reminded McShanigan of the hair he used to have. Unconsciously, the old man rubbed the smooth dome of his head while his grandson stepped inside. The young boy was only six, or maybe seven, McShanigan wasn’t exactly sure.

What happened?” Wally asked, looking at the mess on the floor. He gently kicked a brightly painted Mandarin duck statue lying next to him.

It was just my flashback…” McShanigan looked down at his grandson, but could still see Death in the corner of his eye. “Come up on my bed, I haven’t seen you all day.”

Wally ran over with a burst of energy and belly flopped onto his grandfather’s bed. He breathed in deep, McShanigan knew he enjoyed the musty orange scent of the room. Without coercion he sat up and tackled his grandfather with a tight hug. McShanigan coughed, feeling the wind getting squeezed out of his lungs. He hugged Wally in return, patting his thick head of hair.

So what did you do today?” McShanigan asked.

I watched TV…um…I made my bed…I ate breakfast...played with the puppy…watch TV—oh! I helped mom make her lunch for work!” A broad grin appeared on the boy’s face.

McShanigan smiled back. “Did you? I bet she appreciated that, didn’t she?”

Wally nodded wildly, threatening to snap his tiny neck. “I burned her toast. But she said she enjoyed burnt toast. Did you know that? I didn’t. Did you? I didn’t know she liked burnt toast.”

No, I didn’t know that.” The old man laughed and Wally was quick to join in. His laughing stopped, though, the moment his eyes met Death’s observant gaze.

If it comforts you,” Death began, still standing in the dark, “I won’t be visiting your grandchild for a very long time.”

What are you looking at, granddad?” Wally asked, gazing across the room. “There’s nothing over there.”

McShanigan could feel his eyes start to moisten and he wanted to cry out. “I love you dearly, you know that, right? Now pull out a piece of candy from the bedside table and go back downstairs.”

Wally let out a cheer; he hopped off the bed, raided the bedside table for a couple of Kit-Kat bars, and stampeded out of the room. “See you at dinner, grandpa!”

McShanigan and Death were alone again. For a moment there was silence as they listened to Wally’s tramping footsteps grow fainter.

You see that there?” McShanigan said, his eyes watering. “You want to take a boy’s grandfather away when he’s so young? It’ll ruin the poor child. How cruel can you be?”

Sooner or later I take everyone. It’s only fair, not cruel.” Death pointed at the old man. “But tell me this! Would you want your grandson to see you continue to fade until you are nothing more but a soul trapped in a crippled body, too feeble to move or talk?”

McShanigan grumbled under his breath.

I’ve come to those bedridden, trapped in a coma, with families grieving their loved one’s continued existence. It pains them more than you know, and to want your own family to suffer that…” Death leaned on his scythe as if his memories were weighing on him. “Trapped inside, hearing your family’s anguish and being able to do nothing to help…you would wish for me to come then.”

The old man didn’t say anything, but he trembled a bit more. Snot and tears dripped from his face. He wanted to cry out, but he didn’t dare have his grandson see him like this. Cold reality had impacted him hard.

It would be nice if I could see a smile more often,” Death muttered to himself. “But it always has to be gloom and tears, doesn’t it?”

Death walked over to the old man’s bed, making McShanigan recoil under the covers as the apparition sat down beside him. Gently, he patted the huddled, shaking man under the covers. “I know you’re terribly scared. Most people are…making wholesale fools of themselves. They’ll thrash and cry and whine just like you. People love to be a pain in the end. But just like you, some were expecting it. Even when they seemed calm, deep down they were still scared. They were afraid of what awaited them because they never really know what comes next.”

McShanigan could feel the cold fingers, akin to icicles, caress over his back. It was strangely soothing, inviting. But that only made him shake more.

Death pulled back the covers and stared at the frightened man. “You don’t have the strength to fight me off this time.”

I know…and that terrifies me most of all.”

This is it.” Death said it simply. “But, you have no idea how lucky you are to be here, at home, in your warm, orange-smelling bed. You have a family that will mourn for you—remember you. There are infinite numbers of people who would have loved to switch places with you. If you don’t take my word for it then who’s will you take?” Death chuckled again. “I mean, I’ve seen it all! Literally! Drowning, being burnt alive…” He began holding up his fingers to keep count. “There was this one guy recently who was eaten by a polar bear. That was a little R-rated.”

Death is death. Once it happens there’s no difference.”

After it has happened, yes, that is true. But dying is not all the same. And you can’t ask for a more comfortable way to die.”

I could ask not to die at all!”

And I could ask to be the Prince of Denmark,” Death said. “But I doubt that will happen, no matter how many times I try. So are you ready to go?” He asked it so casually, like he was asking if the old man was ready to get some coffee.

McShanigan didn’t say anything for a few moments. “This is a more comfortable place than Korea.” His face twisted in a tight grimace, not wanting to spit out his next few words. “You’re right…dammit.”

Death nodded. “So relax, and don’t be scared. You’ve have raged quite well.”

McShanigan began to lay his head against his pillow before abruptly sitting up again. “What did my wife think about when she died? Tell me.”

If Death had a comprehensible face, he would have smiled. “She thought about you and her family. Rather obvious, no?”

McShanigan, still wearing an incredulous frown, softened his expression. Breathing deep, smelling the musty orange sent, he slowly looked around the room, savoring the sparse details. He looked at his belongings scattered about the floor—he had a lot of wooden ducks, he realized. He then leaned back and rested on the soft pillow, feeling the warmth of the sun on his creased cheeks. He closed his thick eyelids, letting the images of his bushy-haired grandson flicker in his mind as Death took hold.


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