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Collector’s Items

by Charles C. Cole

The rain was coming down faster and heavier than my struggling wipers could keep up. I was meeting my wife and kids for the latest Disney movie, joining them after work for pre-dinner entertainment. It was our family's Monday late-afternoon “trick” after a crowd-filled opening weekend: go for matinee prices and near-empty theaters while others were preparing dinner.

Rather than proceeding with caution, panicky drivers raced around me, I suspect, to get off the roads and out of the elements. Or maybe they were just late.

The traffic light was shorter than I remembered, letting only three cars take a left turn before turning yellow. I slammed on the brakes before slipping into the intersection. Something with intensely bright headlights, much bigger than my little Cavalier, barreled into me, sending me into opposing traffic.

The next thing I knew, I was on a gurney. Some mumbling red-bearded EMT was looking into my eyes with a penlight. I could hear moaning and smell gasoline and ozone, mostly ozone. I yanked my head away from the annoying light and saw this naked seven-foot albino-looking guy with long white hair standing over a scrunched car, head bowed and waving his outstretched hands in the air like an orchestra conductor. The battered body next to him seemed to shrivel from his efforts.

“Hey!” I yelled. “Cut it out!” He stopped and looked at me with shock and outrage; I felt scared for my life.

Two uniformed men put me into an ambulance and rushed me to Maine Medical.

I was one of the lucky ones: bruised ribs and kidney, stitches above my eyebrow, pins in my left ankle, mild concussion, temporary catheter. When I got home to convalesce, my office sent an “edible-fruit arrangement” and a coupon book for lots of free coffee.

I spent most of my recovery sleeping in bed. Every morning, my wife would make a pot of coffee, set it up on a table within reach, one cup poured and sweetened. Every afternoon, she would come home from the school where she worked and find the coffee mostly untouched. And I love coffee!

I recovered and went back to work, but I still tired easily. There was a 24-hour coffee and donuts place within walking distance. I excused myself and popped over. A working ambulance was in the lot and two young dudes were attending to an old man. I tried not to stare; it was none of my business. I smelled ozone. When I grabbed the door to go inside, in the reflection on the glass, I saw the familiar tall naked man, who apparently had no genitalia, hovering over the body, doing his thing.

When I looked back, I could still see him but only faintly. He appeared to be sweeping up a gaseous white life-force from the victim and inhaling it as quickly as he could. No one else noticed. I tried to ignore the supernatural commotion and ducked inside before we made eye contact again and he remembered me as the one who got away.

Inside, the worker bees behind the counter were busy texting on their phones about the major excitement. There was an old, almost shrunken white-haired man sitting at the front window; not a surprise, because there were at least four senior centers nearby and the shop had a sign offering discounts to the demographic. I grabbed the next table and watched events outside more than I wanted to.

“Bastard!” I mumbled, impulsively. “Leave the poor guy alone!”

“It's okay,” said my companion. “He's helping.”

“You see him, the white-faced Viking who doesn't belong here?”

“He and I are well-acquainted.” He pulled back his sleeve and showed me a number tattooed onto his forearm.

“You were in a concentration camp?!” I stammered.

“A long time ago. I also had a school record for the long jump, but nobody remembers that. Maybe we needed tattoos for that as well.”

“I'm sorry for what you had to go through.”

“If you've seen the many movies, I'm sure you feel you were right there beside me. It's all been exhaustingly documented. Except for that big fellow out there.”

“What is he? Death?” I asked.

“Death is death. He is more like a snail or a catfish, cleaning up the last bits of a decaying life. Nothing goes to waste. Recycling, you might say.”

“But that was a person out there.”

“Was. If there is a God — I have my doubts, but I can't help hoping — and if we have a divine spark, what good would it do to be buried in the ground like so much fertilizer?”

“He's a cannibal!”

“No, I don't think he's human. Do you? And he's not consuming flesh, just life.”

“What does he do with it?”

“Survive? Or maybe he takes it back to God when he's full, like an oil tanker. Let's go with that.”

“They must be everywhere,” I said, immediately wishing I hadn't.

“Only where there are people,” he responded dryly.

“I'm sorry, but you must have seen your share of death.”

“Much more behind me than ahead of me, I'm sure.”

“Are you afraid? Should I be afraid?” I asked.

“There's nothing to be done. For now, enjoy your coffee and your donut. My biggest fear is that there are no taste buds in Heaven. Can you imagine?”

“Now that I've seen him, how do I avoid seeing him? How do I unsee him?”

“You can't. But he won't bother you until it's your time. Think of it this way: Nobody likes meeting with a funeral director. But when we have to, we're glad he's there, because nobody else does what he does.”

The ambulance left. No siren, meaning the patient hadn't survived. I had to get back to work. I hadn't touched my “frosted chocolate stick” donut.

“You want it?” I asked. “Just going to waste.”

“It's my favorite, sure,” said my new friend. “And don't worry so much.”

Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole

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