A man awoke inside a dank, leaky coffin, buried eight feet under the ground. His body was stiff, and he could hardly breathe. This man, however, wasgiddy with excitement at the unexpected turn of events. Never before would he have thought being trapped inside a coffin would be a comfort to him, but things were different now.
Some time earlier
Janus Price’s aching fingers swept over the computer keyboard, only ever pausing so he could glance over his work with tired eyes. On the apartment balcony Janus worked from, one need only look up to marvel at a burning ocean of stars. On a clear night, Janus might spare a moment between paragraphs to enjoy the wondrous view. But not tonight: not when so close to completing his masterwork.
Janus paused a moment, considering the words on screen while he thumbed his scratchy chin. He reached for his coffee mug to take a sip, but with disappointment, set it down, as it had been empty for hours. Returning attention to the screen, Janus finally settled on deleting the last paragraph. The conclusion had to be air-tight in order to appease his own perfectionism. So, Janus finished the paragraph for the tenth time and studied what remained.
The burning ship disappeared into the night, abandoning the weary Alexander. He fell to his knees moaning in torment. As he clenched his fist, the black mist enveloped and swallowed him whole.
Janus regarded the line ‘enveloped and swallowed him whole’ before changing to the simpler ‘devoured him’. He was finished.
Janus sat back as his exhaustion softened into subdued glee. He reached for the mug again, but caught himself. It astonished Janus that his lofty manuscript was finally complete. Long overdue, it was the culmination of three years work. Year by year it felt as though he were crossing an ocean to finish, and that feeling never quite diminished. Even through the final weeks the expanse lay vast, but now the fruit of his determination couldn’t be more plain.
“Well it’s about damn time,” Janus whispered. He glanced at his watch, unsurprised by the time, though impressed nonetheless. Yawning, he saved the document and attached it to an email for his agent, Mark Hoshire.
Janus powered down the computer and slid into his apartment with pride etched into his demeanor. Janus fetched a glass, and filled it with crystalline water before downing half of it. He wiped his lips with his sleeve and leaned back against the counter, chuckling.
Beside the counter an empty dog bowl lapped up moonlight flooding in from the balcony door. Janus cursed at himself for being so negligent. After a few moments of rummaging around in the cupboards for food, he finally came to his senses and stopped. Forlorn, Janus eyed the empty metal dish. It didn’t seem right to keep it around, but he couldn’t help himself. He picked it up and turned the bone cold bowl over in his hands so he could see the white lettering on the other side.
“Tug.” He read.
The phone buzzed in the cupboard above the fridge, causing the door to tremble. Janus always kept his phone out of sight when he typed, or else it tended to distract him. He opened the high cupboard and felt around for it blind.
His hand made contact with the vibrating phone, and he withdrew it to see who was calling. The name ‘Mark Hoshire’ illuminated the screen, so Janus accepted the call. It was his agent.
“Hey Mark, read the ending?”
“Read it? Hell, I did more than just read it,” Mark’s honeyed voice exclaimed, “I adored it. You, sir, have got something special on your hands.”
“Oh come on Mark…” Janus feigned modesty, but he smiled all the same.
“You can’t deny it! Can’t! You, sir, have got a bestseller on your hands. “ Mark replied.
“You really think so?”
“With certainty. I’m good, don’t get me wrong, but this baby makes my job a hell of a lot easier. I’ll have us a deal by the end of the week, guaranteed.”
“By the end of the week. You know I would’ve expected the… well, the process to take longer. You’re going to get me a good deal here right? I don’t want to get ripped off.”
“No worries, no worries… Janus, you’ve got the right guy.”
“That’s wonderful. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have you.”
“Please, any agent would kill for a client like you, believe me. But hey, do you think we could meet sometime tomorrow? I just have a few things to go over with you. Nothing heavy though.”
“Well,” Janus paused and glanced at a little black velvet box in the middle of the kitchen table.
“Something wrong?” Mark asked. Janus smirked.
“No no, sorry, nothing’s wrong. It’s just that I already have plans for tomorrow.”
“Alright, I get it, way too abrupt. How’s next Thursday sound?”
“Hold on a sec.” Janus swept outside again and eased his calendar out from under a mess of papers, careful not to spill them. He ran his finger through the days until he found the upcoming Thursday.
“Thursday should be fine. My day’ll be pretty free.”
“Fantastic… how about 12:30? We can meet over lunch.”
“Great, great, that should be fine.”
“Excellent, I’ll catch you later Janus.”
“Talk to you later.” Janus hung up and slipped his phone into his pocket. His life was finally coming together.
One Day Later
“We’re so high! Oh my god I can’t look!” squeaked Lilith. She and Janus were flying in a small plane about thirty-five hundred feet in the air. Lilith was next to the window squeezing her eyes shut.
“Lilith, you need to relax. It’s one hundred percent safe. We won’t even have to pull our own chutes!” Janus laughed and poked her in the arm.
“But it’s so high! I had no idea when we took the class…”
“C’mon, I’m sure once we’re out there together, you’ll be fine.” Janus put his arm around her, and Lilith buried her face into his chest. She looked kind of funny in her black jump gear, and her goggles were too big for her face.
Red seats lined the walls on either side of the plane, and a sliding door was across from where they were sitting. If one peered out and down through the windows, the sprawling countryside seemed to just crawl by. Splotches of trees outlined the quilt work of land.
Janus and Lilith were the only two passengers on the plane aside from the two pilots. Janus glanced at them sitting in the cockpit, which caused the copilot to turn away from him and Lilith.
He had been stealing occasional glances, no doubt eavesdropping. He was waiting for what Janus had to say to Lilith.
“Janus, you’ve been acting a little funny. What’s up?” Lilith lifted her head to look Janus in the eyes. He hesitated, drawn in by emerald green.
“Uh, well… did I tell you? I finished my novel, The Desolation Hour. Mark says he could get a publisher to accept it by next week.” Lilith’s eyes bulged, a look of surprise painting her face.
“Janus! I can’t believe it!”
“No?” Janus smirked.
“Not what I meant. I knew you would finish it, obviously.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re going to be a bestselling author Janus Price. Will you write a dedication?”
“Yeah, I was thinking of writing it to Mark.” Lilith’s face went comedically dour.
“Janus, you only just met the guy a month ago! You want to write your dedication to him, your agent?” Janus just kept smiling wordlessly. As he did, Lilith slowed down and blushed, realizing he wasn’t serious.
“Janus you idiot…” Lilith smiled.
“Who would you rather me write it to?”
“Well, I thought maybe you could write it to me if you were feeling generous…” Lilith trailed.
“My thoughts exactly,” Janus replied.
She laughed, Janus chuckled.
The pilot called to them from the front over the humming of the plane, “Hey you two, its almost time to jump. Get ready!” The pilots exchanged glances. The co-pilot spared a final glance back at Janus and smiled.
“Oh my god, I’m so so nervous,” Lilith said, clutching Janus’s arm.
“So am I, but not about the jump.” She looked puzzled at that.
“Why’s that?” She asked. Janus stood and got down on one knee before Lilith as the plane door slid open behind him. A curtain which revealed rolling hills and valleys of golden clouds.
“Lilith?” Janus presented the little black velvet box and opened it to her, “Will you marry me?” Lilith’s mouth hung open, shocked. She plucked the small diamond ring from the box before sliding it down her finger.
“Yes… yes!” She leaned in to hug Janus, squeezing his throat so tight he was sure to burst. Fortunately, she let go before it went that far.
“Alright you two,” said the co-pilot as he emerged from the cockpit. He checked each of their harnesses over before giving them further instruction. “Stand in front of the door and jump when you’re ready.” Janus stood and offered Lilith his hand, guiding her to the door. They found themselves standing on the edge, still holding hands.
“We’ll jump together.” Lilith spoke over the roar of engines, her tears dried by the wind lapping at their faces.
“Now and for the rest of our lives.” Janus Replied. He counted them down. “Ready,” Janus tore his eyes from the drop to look at Lilith and locked eyes with her. “Set,” She clutched his hand. “Go!” The two flung themselves from the plane, and Janus felt a momentary jolt of fear rock his very being, coupled with that unpleasant falling sensation… The truth was, despite his calm attitude back in the plane, Janus was actually scared as hell about the jump. But, all that melted away when he glanced at Lilith again, laughing and whooping like he hoped she would. He joined her.
They fell bellies down and parallel to the ground, arms bent out in front of them. Janus and Lilith cut through the wind even as it pressed against them, the ground seeming to be a world away. Weightlessness was all there was, amplified when Janus shut his eyes. The fall, freedom in it’s most pure form. Exhilarating.
Crackling radios came to life on each of their harnesses, interrupting their jubilation. A woman’s nasally voice came through to them.
“Alright babies, I’m gonna guide you through the rest of your descent now. Alright?” Both Janus and Lilith voiced their affirmation.
“Alrighty. Now in just a minute, I’m going to release your chutes, k? So make sure you get a couple feet from each other, alright?” Janus and Lilith pushed away from each other and let the woman know they were ready for the next step. “Good! Now on the count of three, I’m gonna release your chutes, k? One, two, three!” Lilith’s chute unfurled above her, yanking her away from Janus’s sight. His heart skipped a beat and his jaw clenched. His chute didn’t open. His stomach churned and his body shook.
“Ah, ah, miss? My chute didn’t open.” Stunned silence on the other end.
“What? Didn’t open? Uh oh. Uh oh!” The static fringed panicked. Janus could hear Lilith screaming his name from somewhere above him. Her cries grew farther and farther away…
“Ok sugar, you listen carefully now, you hear?” The voice was harried, “You know where to pull the chute manually right? They went over that with you in training. Reach behind you, and see if you can’t find the cord, alright?” Janus groped his left-hand side for the cord, and his breath quickened when he couldn’t find it at first.
“I can’t find it!”
“Don’t panic, It should be right behind your armpit.” Janus felt again, this time grabbing hold of the thick chord.
“I, I have it!”
“Good! Yank it!” Janus gave it hard a tug, but it didn’t give. The chute didn’t open. Janus yanked again and again on the chord, even changing grip so he was pulling backhand; it still wouldn’t budge.
Lilith’s voice was distant, and the ground uncomfortably close…
“The chute! It’s stuck! The cord won’t give!” Janus screamed, squinting as the ground picked up speed towards him. The woman on the other end sobbed and managed only two words between fits.
“I’m sorry!” She wailed over the radio, and Janus would’ve too if he wasn’t so afraid. He was coming up over a tree. Janus waved his arms and legs about madly, hoping it would somehow save him. Janus’s face reddened as he screamed and cried for his life: his ripening life. The ground was too close… too close… TOO CLOSE…nothing…
Janus screamed and thrashed expecting pain, but there was none. He pried open his eyes, and much to his astonishment, it appeared he was already in a hospital. Janus laid in a soft bed dressed in white linens within a simple white room. A kindly looking man sat at his bedside wearing a white coat, and his eyes wrinkled in the corners when he smiled.
“Now don’t be alarmed, you’re quite alright Mr. Price. Please sit back and relax a moment.” The man gestured for him to lie back again. Janus eased himself back as suggested, and straightened the sheets which were in a tangle with his legs.
“I’m sorry doctor, I just don’t remember anything since hitting the ground.” he said.
“That’s quite alright son, most people don’t. You’re very normal that way.” the man patted his shoulder.
“Oh.” Janus was a bit puzzled by that response. That was when he noticed the door across from his bed. Rays of light were piercing through the spaces between the door and frame.
“Ah, um… what hospital is this?” Janus asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man chuckled, “you’re not in a hospital. Janus, you passed when you hit the ground.” the man gave Janus a sympathetic look.
“I, I… you’re saying I’m dead? What?” Confusion stole the breath from Janus’s lungs.
“I’m afraid so. If you were in a hospital you would be in considerable pain though, so there’s plenty to be grateful for in that sense.” The man gave him a smile laced with faint regret. Janus patted himself down, and everything seemed normal. The man was right. If he was still alive, he would be in excruciating pain, his body mutilated. Janus also took note that he was in an all-white suit.
“Don’t like the suit?”, the man asked as Janus checked himself over, “That can change if you like. Most people arrive in that, but you do have choice in attire. If it suits you better, perhaps what you were wearing the night you finished your novel?” Janus’s suit rippled like water, and transformed into a loose t-shirt and pair of jeans, “or maybe…“,
“No no… this is fine…” Janus stammered. This wasn’t his time, he was still so young, had so much to live for…
“Wh-who are you?” Janus shook.
“Me? Well, I suppose it depends. I’m known by many names to many different cultures. Stop me if you hear something familiar: Thanatos, Ankou, Hel, Yama, the Grim Reaper…”
“Yeah,” Janus threw up in his mouth a little, “I know that one.”
“I see,” the Reaper diverted his forlorn eyes, “I really don’t like that one. It sounds so… scary. You know? Am I so bad?” he spread his arms.
“No… not bad at all…” Janus shrank back a bit into his bed.
“I prefer the name Azrael. It’s what I tend to go by if I have the choice.” he relaxed.
“Ok… Azrael… am I stuck here?” Janus saw Azrael’s face grow concerned.
“Stuck here? Well, it would only be best for you to be here. It’s not natural to cling to life. Certainly, it’s not healthy. What would make you say such a thing as that?” Janus’s eyes darted around the room frantically.
“You see, ah, Azrael… I… would like to go back to my life… if that’s possible…” Azrael’s brow darkened.
“Janus, you can’t do that, I can’t let you. Trust me, you’ll better understand when you officially accept your passage into the afterlife.” Azrael brandished a scarlet bottle of wine from no-where in particular.
“What’s that for?” Janus asked. Azrael also produced a wine glass and began to slowly fill it.
“Drink this, and be granted passage to what remains beyond life.” he held the glass out to Janus, who with great hesitance accepted it. Janus’s lip quivered, and he could feel tears welling up in his eyes.
“Azrael… I have so much… so much yet to live for… to experience! My entire life was ahead of me!” Janus shed a tear, choking on his own words.
“Oh, please don’t cry Janus! Through that door you will find the apex of all knowledge, the answer to a question which burns in all mortals: What lies beyond? Many men would envy you. All you need to do is drink, and that will be yours. The transition may be strange at first, but I’ll always be here to help you adjust.” Azrael put his hand on Janus’s head, comforting him like one would a child. A knot had formed in Janus’s throat. He cried for a couple moments more as Azrael did his best to comfort him. Eventually, time reduced Janus to sniffling as he stared into the blood red wine glass. A few tears fell in, sewing ripples through the ruby liquid.
“There there Janus, it’s alright. Take your time.” Azrael sat back in his chair giving Janus the space he needed. As Janus stared into the glass, something began to change in his demeanor. He wiped away his tears, and his face hardened. His lips drew into a hard line, and his nostrils flared. His eyes flicked to the side, resting on a window, before returning to the glass.
“No.” he whispered.
“I’m sorry son, what was that?” Azrael leaned in.
“NO!” Janus threw the wine glass at the luminous door, and it shattered, gushing blood red all over it. Janus threw himself off the bed and ran for the window.
“Janus! No, Janus! Don’t do that! You don’t know what you’re doing!” Azrael closed the gap between them in a miraculous instant and fettered him from the window.
Janus elbowed him in the gut.
“Oof!” Azrael doubled over and Janus followed with an uppercut, knocking the Angel of Death to the ground.
“I have a life to live.” Janus spat at him. He reached the window and rammed his other elbow through it. To both his wonder and gladness, he felt no pain, and the window broke easily. The shattered pieces floated off into an inky black void. Azrael was only now climbing to his feet.
“Janus, come back here, right now! I’d prefer to be on friendlier terms with you.” Azrael’s pupils dilated, blocking out all the whites of his eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Janus flung himself out the window, and he plummeted through the black void, down, down, down… nothing…
SOME TIME LATER
Janus screamed and thrashed, living out the pain he must have experienced when he died. He could feel how his body had broken; the impact of every branch before hitting the ground. But, this time he was alive. Once the initial terror of reliving a fatal fall subsided, it surprised Janus to find himself in a cramped space. It seemed he was lying in a black coffin. He wondered how they could have buried him with such haste. It feels like I fell only twenty minutes ago. Janus frowned to think they did not have a funeral for him.
Something wet blurred Janus’s eyes. He tried wiping them and blinking it away, but nothing helped. He attempted to use his voice but only came to a fit of hacking. His throat was incredibly hoarse and sputtering, but he didn’t much care, as he was sure these few discomforts would pass. What mattered was that he was alive. Though, his imprisonment under the ground was a problem which still required solving. Janus stretched his stiff arms as best he could before trying to search for a solution, his joints popping and crackling.
Janus pressed his hands against the lid of the coffin and pushed as hard as he could, but to no avail. It wouldn’t budge.
When that didn’t work, he tried hitting the lid of the coffin. It was awkward to strike in such a tight space, but the creaking the coffin made when he struck it was promising. He continued that way for hours, never feeling an ounce of pain or fatigue despite hitting a hard oak surface with his bare knuckles. The intense pain he felt from being reborn must have numbed him, he thought.
Finally, Janus laughed when his hand broke the surface of the coffin and plunged into clammy soil, a hacking fit ensuing. This time something blue and phlegmy flew from his mouth and onto his hand inches from his face.
Janus worked at widening the narrow hole, which proved easy now that he had a good start. The wood was far more pliable than any he had encountered before. Janus ripped through the coffin lid, the remains blanketing him. Luckily, the dense dirt kept its shape, so he got to work on digging a hole to the surface, his hands yet unfeeling.
At last Janus’s hands met empty air sometime later. He wriggled out of the small hole, reborn into the world anew. He stood to his full height, spreading his arms and stretching his legs; enjoying the space. His body was strangely dysfunctional; popping and scrapping. Rather than smooth movements, all he could muster was shaking and jittering; something that would ease with time, he thought.
Finished savoring his relative freedom of mobility, Janus scanned his surroundings. He took note that he was amidst a dim graveyard, something he didn’t perceive until then. The mist clung to the ground, and the lines of headstones resembled crooked teeth around him. Janus looked to his own grave, a simple marker. Engraved into its face was a cross, below reading ‘In Loving Memory of Janus Wilbur Price, 13 April 1992 – 20 October 2017 ’.
Janus cackled at that, for the first time able to use his voice. However, it was still haggard and strained, so he wasn’t in the laughing mood for long.
“I’ve cheated death.” Janus struggled to smile. Since his face was yet far too stiff, he took a moment to work his facial muscles before settling into the expression he was searching for.
“Funny, most mortal men would find it difficult to dig themselves out of a grave, wouldn’t you say Janus?” Azrael’s voice came from behind. Janus jerked on unstable legs to see Azrael was sitting atop a lofty cruciform gravestone wearing a dirty black cloak. His face also appeared different now. It seemed older and gaunter, his eyes hollowed some.
“For God’s sake, you followed me back?” Janus asked, having gained some more confidence in living again. Azrael shook off the question.
“You don’t look so well Janus. Please, let me take you back, you can never be happy down here. Not again.”
“What would you know? I have a novel to publish, and the woman I love.” Azrael looked away from Janus a minute, unsure how to proceed.
“Janus, I wish you could understand. You know I’m trying to do what’s best for you right?” It was Janus’s turn to pause now.
“Yes… I know you think you are. But I’m not ready.”
“Janus, you’re unwell. Chasing a happy ending which has long passed. You need help.” Azrael produced the bottle of wine again and tossed it to Janus, who let it fall to his feet. Janus met him with a patronizing grin and shambled away unhindered.
Hours later, Janus strutted down main street Tendersfield–his home town–sucking on the fresh night air. Not a soul but Janus hadn’t already abandoned the quaint little buildings some hours ago in exchange for sleep. Janus always liked how quiet the town was after dark; part of the reason he moved there from Boston in the first place.
As Janus approached the center of town, he found more and more which appeared to have changed see he last saw it. Otherwise familiar buildings were teeming with new renovations, and green spaces left voids in the street-side where the old ones had been. Confused, he stopped outside town hall, which was the same as always. Posted on the wall was a framed map of the town. He could see all the new additions and changes made to Tendersfield, which appeared to have grown in size. It was familiar, but still different. Troubled, Janus sought out a nearby bench. Street benches were new too, he noted.
“What’s happened here?” Janus’s head was bobbing about, trying to spot the subtle changes here and there.
“It’s only been twenty minutes! What…” Janus was promptly interrupted.
“Not twenty minutes Janus, you’re far off the mark.” It was Azrael.
“Azrael, I swear, you’d better…” Janus looked about, but was surprised to not see Azrael standing anywhere nearby.
“Over here Janus, the map.” Janus attempted to stand, but he spilled across the pavement when his knees gave out. Though, it oddly didn’t hurt to hit the concrete. He regained his feet and approached the glass sealed map. Janus couldn’t explain why he lacked feeling in his body, but those concerns were relegated to be addressed later upon locking eyes with Azrael. He appeared as a mock reflection in the glass, mimicking Janus’s movements. But, Azrael’s appearance inspired profound disgust in Janus.
Azrael looked ghastly. His skin had grown tighter and drier to the point that Janus could see the indistinct shape of his skull. His teeth appeared aged to the point of being yellow, and his eyes were a sallow color to match. His hair was falling out as well, leaving spotty patches of gray. He looked three centuries older and absolutely horrid.
“What do you mean? I died, we spoke, I left. All within half an hour at most!” Janus scowled.
“No, Mr. Price. It has been five years since you died. Much has changed.” Azrael scrutinized Janus through the reflection. “The world has moved on without you. You’re out of place here, and whatever life you thought you had is gone. I am deeply sorry, Janus.” As Azrael spoke, Janus’s expression darkened further.
“Five years? Five years! How in hell did five years pass!? It makes no Goddamn sense!” Azrael winced at his words.
“Time passes differently in the afterlife. An hour can be as long as an eternity, and eternity can be as short as an hour. You would understand better if you were to accept your passage.” Janus balled up his fist.
“My passage?! You need to get off the whole fucking passage thing grim, you can call it what it is. You’re asking me to fucking rot in a hole. Five years or not, I still have life, I still have my book deal, and I still have my fiancé.” Janus began to turn away before Azrael stopped him again.
“I’m not sure you understand the gravity of what five years entails, Janus.” Janus turned to look at Azrael in the glass, but he had disappeared. In his place, he saw another reflection in the glass. An inhuman ghoul; a corpse adorned in dark, shriveled skin. White hair clung to its scalp, and putrid green eyes stared at Janus from hollow sockets. Decayed teeth coated in burnt grill gristle were strung over its limp jaw. Its cheeks were sunken, and the entire head rested on a frail, broken body. Something vile oozed from the ears, and everywhere large open craters rotted through. The nose was absent, in its place bare bone. But most terrifying, and to Janus’s torment, this wasn’t some sort of cruel vision, rather his reflection he saw. Previously, unnoticed to a man too absorbed in living again.
“My… my face! I’m…” Janus would cry if he was physically capable. He ran as fast as he could from the reflection, bounding down the street. He lobbed one fragile foot in front of the other but found he couldn’t keep any proper balance in his current state. He fell face first into the sidewalk, causing the right side of his face to collapse on impact. Still, no pain registered on dead nerves. Janus jolted to his feet and felt at his ruined face in terror. Where he had been, there was empty air. Janus cried out, making a sound like a dog yelps. He hastened under dim street lamps before his right leg gave out again. It managed to bend forward with a crunch, causing his knee to fold in a way it wasn’t supposed to. The mangled leg horrified Janus, but he persisted to stand again. He found with some effort he could still walk on it, but his leg was hardly functional. He couldn’t manage more than a feeble gallop.
Janus soon grew tired of running and stopped to lean against a storefront window. He was alone with his thoughts again.
“No no no no!” He screeched as his face contorted into a series of disjointed expressions. Heaving air in and out of his husky lungs, he gagged, and thick brown fluid with faint white streaks spurted out. It pooled on the ground and coated his lower jaw.
He calmed himself a bit as his worn mind scoured to find strained optimism.
“Ok… no, this is good… I’ve still got my book… and Lilith… she’ll still love me. Yes, she’ll still love me. I’m the same person, right? And I can still function as a normal person too! I can wear a mask when I go out in public… my face… I can bandage it! Say I suffered severe burns… yes… that can work… and if my writing is successful I wouldn’t need to leave home much anyways! Yeah, this can still work…” Janus calmed his heaving, but his heart sank when he heard that dreadful voice once more.
“Janus, there’s more bad news.” Azrael was behind the glass Janus leaned against, knocking. His voice muffled. Janus got up and faced the storefront to find he had been resting against a bookstore. He backed up a bit.
“Janus, look here.” Azrael pointed to a book enshrined in the window featuring the silhouette of a black Victorian ship. Janus drew closer to read the cover.
“The Desolation Hour… Mark Hoshire… A New York Times Bestseller?! That son of a bitch!” A hail of thudding ensued when Janus’s fists assaulted the glass. Azrael’s pale eye fell from its socket dangling as he rushed closer to the window, putting his bony hand on the glass opposite Janus.
“Janus! Be careful! Without pain, there’s nothing stopping you from…” And as he said it, the glass shattered under Janus’s blows. Shards rained down all around him to litter the street, the sound apparently waking up nearby residents, as several window lights promptly lit up.
“Run Janus! The police will be soon to come! Don’t let them catch you!” This knocked Janus out of it, and he galloped away, careful not to collapse on his bad right leg. He needed to find Lilith.
A few hours later, Janus had located Lilith’s old home. It was a quaint little house, and light poured from the front window. He could tell someone was up late inside watching tv, judging by how the lights flashed and changed color. Gazing, Janus cracked a weak smile. Lilith, he knew, would understand. They’ll finally have the chance to marry and live happily…
Janus strode toward the house before a cloud of smoke enveloped him. It dissipated, leaving Janus with a raspy cough, and the grim reaper standing before him. Azrael embodied the skeletal look now. His skin was like translucent parchment, and veiled his cavernous skull. It could have flaked off at any moment. Azrael’s eyes were only shriveled gray grapes now, which could have been plucked right from their sockets. His hand was on Janus’s moldy chest.
“Janus, I would clear out if I were you.” A rasping, gravelly voice emanated, which now only approximated Azrael’s.
“Dammit, Azrael! Can’t you leave it be, let me live!?” Janus curled his fingers into a fist, in anger trying to swing at Azrael.
Azrael caught Janus’s fist in his delicate claw and held it there with what seemed to be no effort whatsoever. But as Azrael clamped down around his fist and squeezed, Janus felt vital energy sapped from his body. Reduced to his knees, he was baking in sudden humidity and light-headedness. His head bobbed down, and his breathing slowed.
Azrael knelt down in front of him and held Janus’s head up by the jaw so they could meet eye to eye.
“I am completely within my power to take you by force Janus, but I can’t begin to describe how unfortunately that would end for you. It would do me pain… I want for you a happy afterlife, so I am trying to be patient, hoping that you will make the right choice before I have to make it for you.” As Azrael spoke to him, what felt like cottage cheese began to leak from Janus’s pruned lips. As he tried to speak, he could only manage a few gurgling sounds which crawled from out of his limp mouth.
“Buh…buh…wuh…” A slight trickle of energy returned to Janus, enough so he could form a few sentences.
“Azrael… I… I… let me go… please… I’m scared…” Azrael let go of Janus’s jaw and released his fist so he would flop to the concrete. Standing, Azrael studied Janus’s twitching form for a moment, unsure. Azrael finally opened his mouth to speak only to clamp it shut again, fracturing three of his brittle teeth. Though, he hardly paid it mind. Finally, a biting wind blew in and Azrael flighted away as a cloud of smoke.
Trying to move, Janus could only twitch, and his mind was dulled. He sat there for a while as energy leaked back into him. Soon, Janus could prop himself up and think with clarity yet
again. Why did he just give me up? Janus grasped for a reason and decided that he must have been bluffing. Azrael must not really be able to take him, and Janus refusing even then must have been enough to force Azrael to give up. He hoped, at least.
“Fuck you Grim.” Janus lifted himself to his feet and stumbled a bit before re-establishing his stride. Janus finally made his way to Lilith’s house and peered in through the front window looking for her.
From the front yard, Janus could see Lilith sitting on a sofa and facing away from the window at an angle. She was in the arms of a strange man…… a man Janus had never met before…
Janus froze, shocked. His heart skipped a beat more than usual. It can’t be! IT CAN’T BE!
Janus began to shake to the point that his few remaining teeth chattered. He staggered up to the front door and stabbed the doorbell with such force that his finger snapped, and bent toward the sky. Typical.
Janus could hear movement inside as someone got up to answer the door. As the footsteps bore closer, Janus realized that in his frenzy he hadn’t prepared himself for this. What will I do?
The door opened, and the strange man appeared.
“Hi–what the…” Janus pushed past him into the house, knocking him into a wall.
“Lilith! Lilith!” Janus shouted, shambling toward her as she screamed from the sofa.
“Nathan! Oh my God, Nathan help!” Janus took a hard hit to the back of his shattered head from behind which sent him sprawling forward.
The so-called Nathan, the man who answered the door, had struck Janus from behind using a heavy wooden coat rack, and now interposed himself between Janus and Lilith.
“Lilith, get the gun!” the man yelled. Janus heard her run off and disappear into another room. He tried to get up, but the man swung the rack down into Janus’s skull again. This time, making an audible crunching noise like an egg hitting a brick wall. Ooze gushing from the wound blurred Janus’s vision, coating his cadaverous face.
Janus’s head jerked when Nathan tried to yank the makeshift weapon from his skull, lodged as it was in Janus’s forehead. Janus seized the opportunity to wrestle for the coat rack with Nathan. As they struggled, Janus climbed to his feet and unsheathed the rack from his own skull, his hands maintaining a strong hold on it.
The two wrestled with the rack for a while, trying to yank each other off balance. Yet, despite Janus’s fragile body, his muscles didn’t fatigue like the other man’s. He yanked it away from Nathan and threw the misused rack behind himself toward the door. Nathan’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open. He put his hands up to shield himself, and said,
“Woah woah, what the hell are you…” In anger, Janus leapt and threw himself on top of Nathan before the man could finish his sentence. They hit the ground hard, and Janus pinned him as best as he could.
“WHO ARE YOU?” Janus howled inches from him, letting puss and blood spray the other man’s face. When Nathan gave no answer, Janus released his anger with wretched fists.
“WHO…THE HELL…ARE YOU?” Each punch was a mutilating blow to both Nathan’s face and Janus’s soured knuckles. Janus continued his barrage as Nathan’s face grew more and more drenched in crimson. Right eye, left eye, ear, nose…
“Get off him you bastard!” A ripple of thunder blew Janus off of Nathan, and he hit the wall near the front door. Dazed, he saw Lilith now standing over the prone Nathan brandishing a smoking shotgun.
“I’ve called the police you monster!” She pumped the shotgun again and aimed it at Janus.
“Lilith! Lilith it’s me! It’s Ja–” Janus paused. A baby was wailing down the hall. Lilith was in tears. Janus was weak.
“Lilith…” Another round eviscerated his right arm. The blow slapped Janus to the ground, and his arm fell to the floors still convulsing. It tried to clasp its fingers around something that wasn’t there.
Janus shot Nathan’s bloodied face a glance, and traced it back to Lilith pumping her shotgun, and finally toward the baby’s wails. A small noise escaped him as a knot welled up in his unnatural throat, and he slunk back out the door, into the street.
Down the road a ways, Janus could hear sirens approaching. He searched for an escape half-heartedly, and his eyes settled on a storm drain not too far away. Janus dragged himself to it and plunged down into the dark sewer.
Slicked with human filth, Janus sat against the wall of the sewer. Moonlight from the storm drain fell on his limp, broken form as he sobbed. His body shook, his lip trembled. He murmured to himself incoherently between bouts of tears.
Janus felt the surrounding dark pressing on him, the air was heavy and dense. He was being constricted, suffocated…
A hooded figured emerged from the tunnel to stave back the dark and clear the air, hood drawn to conceal his face. He approached Janus as he cried. The figure stood over him for a short eternity before kneeling down to lay a frail, delicate hand on Janus’s head. He caressed it soothingly. Janus came to a final sorrowful silence, left sniffling and staring into nothing. Nothing at all. He never looked at the reaper, refusing to face him.
Azrael pulled back his hood, revealing a gray skull. He had no eyes, and his sockets betrayed no emotion. He drew again a bottle of wine from his robes, this time brown and caked with mold. He presented a wine glass with jagged edges and stained with filth. He poured an ounce of brown wine in, and Azrael held the dirty glass out in front of Janus. For the first time, Janus moved his head to set his eyes on it.
Gingerly, Janus accepted the glass and peered into the brown, swirling liquid. He couldn’t see his reflection in it. A tear fell from the tip of his boney nose into the glass, sending ripples through the wine. Janus brought the jagged rim of glass to his lips, and the warm liquid ran down his throat as his vision went white. He heard a high shrill tone… then nothing… nothing.
Noah Fellinger is a young, up-and-coming author of short fiction. He originates from small-town rural Wisconsin and developed his passion for literature through constant reading. Noah enjoys such things as running, musical performance, and history in addition to writing. Today, Noah is working to improve his craft.