Sunday, September 2, 2018

Precious Time by Jesse Lynn Rucilez

Art by Marlon Miramontes
“You won’t get me,” Jonathan Walker Fields said, snapping his pocket watch shut. “That’s all there is to it. I…I refuse to be…erased…”
    In his favorite red silk robe and favorite gray flannel pajamas, Jonathan looked more like a man about to slip into bed than a man about to fight for his very existence. Faded, fur-lined slippers, white with blue polka dots, covered his feet. His left hand rested on his hip. His right fist held the watch. He stood arrow-straight, almost at attention. Proud. Indignant. Stubborn. Even in the face of Death—
    And all around him lay the stuff of nightmares.
    “Disease or no disease, I’m just not ready to leave. Can’t you understand that?”
    Silence. Utter, disdainful, silence. Demeaning in implication.
    “Besides, as long as I have my watch, I’ve still got time…”
    A flimsy argument. Jonathan knew that. Grasping at straws, perhaps, but grasping just the same. The desperate man faced an impossible situation. Standing on a dark riverbank with an even darker river beyond. The water—if indeed it could be called water—didn’t move. Calm as the calmest lake on the calmest day. And black. Primordial black. Thick as used motor oil, shiny as burnished obsidian. Blacker than Satan’s heart. It didn’t even reflect the bright yellow sliver of moon which hung in the dark sky above.
    And Jonathan didn’t like that. Not at all.
    “This watch,” he said, clearing his throat, “is over a century old, you see. It still runs. The cogs and springs and what-all inside are still vital, like me. So as long as I’ve got my watch, time is on my side. And you, sir or ma’am—whichever you may be—certainly do not hold any sway over Father Time!”
    Still no answer.
    Atop the dead river sat a baleful gondola. Dull black, with rivets on each flank. Iron spikes jutted from its prow and stern like a warship. Like a Viking harbinger of death.
    And if I didn’t know better, Jonathan had thought upon first seeing it, I’d swear that the dastardly thing’s made of steel. But that’s…absurd…
    Near the starboard side of this ebony vessel sat an ornate black vase. Tall and curved. Burnished as the leaden water beneath. Within this vase sat a bundle of black, long-stemmed roses. Thirteen instead of a dozen, Jonathan guessed. And next to the vase stood a plump blackbird, its eyes and beak as shiny as polished glass. Erect and dignified as Jonathan, but silent. Reverent. Awaiting the inevitable.
    “Do you hear the ticking of my great-granddaddy’s watch, you cur?”
    The person—or thing—to whom Jonathan spoke stood motionless in the iron gondola. Clad in a long black cloak, holding a grim scythe. The cloak’s hood obscured the figure’s face. Its left arm cradled a large hourglass; black, with fine red sand resting on the bottom. None dripped from the top, indicating that time had run out for some poor soul. Its other dull-white, skeletal hand gripped the scythe’s gnarled handle. The blade looked sharp enough to slice concrete. It gleamed with a silvery light all its own; a light which didn’t reflect off of anything around it.
    A wicked thing to face all alone. Damned wicked, in Jonathan’s opinion.
    “The tick, I said! Do you hear the tick? Well, I can, and it tells me that I have more time! Who gives a damn what your dead hourglass says?”
    The thing on the boat didn’t move. Nor did the bird. Or the water. Stillness pervaded the atmosphere. No wind. No odors, pleasant or otherwise. No heat. No cold. Everything felt…lifeless.
    “Fine, don’t answer. Won’t change a thing.”
    Still nothing.
    Though fifty-six years old and clad in his nightclothes, Jonathan looked as strong and stout as he’d ever been. Neat gray hair and a thick gray moustache gave him a distinguished, almost noble, air. He had intense, watchful eyes; very much attuned to detail. The rugged countenance of a frontiersman, tempered by the speech and mannerisms of a scholar. In his day, he’d been an athlete, a soldier, a carpenter. A husband, a father, a provider. A lover, a fighter, a moderator. A true man of the world. Enamored of experience, hungry for knowledge. A disciple of Marcus Aurelius who lived his life by the edict: Be not a slave nor a tyrant to any man. An old soul with a young heart who resented the tyrannical intrusion of disease; of putrid, rotting, death. Not just upon his body, but upon his very life. A life which, up to now, he’d enjoyed very much…and now refused to give up without a tussle.
    “I know who you are,” the indignant man said, smirking, clenching his timepiece. “I know what you want to do, where you plan on taking me.” He glanced left, right, then across the river. Nothing awaited on the other side of that short, stygian expanse, but looks could be deceiving.
    “Where’s your three-headed dog, anyway? Isn’t he supposed to come yapping and snarling at me until I throw him some cake?”
    The cloaked, skeletal figure remained silent. The boat, however, began to drift toward Jonathan. Slow, noiseless. Slight ripples disturbing the smooth plane.
    “And what about you? I’m afraid I left my wallet at home. Why would you ferry me across if I can’t pay the toll?”
    Still, the boat loomed ever closer.
    “Madness!” Jonathan protested. “This is stark, raving, lunacy!”
    The iron prow touched the riverbank. The blackbird let out a piercing screech—“YAAAAARRRRK!”—and the dark figure shifted toward the man it had come for.
    “I…I can see…that…you don’t require…the toll,” Jonathan muttered, now feeling the full force of the fear which had been building in his heart ever since he found himself standing in this surreal scene. “Or…maybe you want my watch. Is that it?”
    Jonathan sighed, uncurled his fist. The watch gleamed in his palm. Its casing had been fashioned by a silversmith at the turn of the twentieth century for a Virginian haberdasher named Thomas Fields. During the great depression it had passed from father to son with the words: To hell with the stock market, Joe. Time is the most precious commodity of all. At the close of WWII, Joseph Fields had bestowed it upon his boy with the words: May you know peace for as long as this watch runs, Goddie. Moments after Neil Armstrong set foot upon the moon, Goddard Fields handed it over with the words: May you do great things in your time, John. A curlicue pattern of mountains with craggy peaks encircled the cover’s edge. Emblazoned in its center, a bronze horse; muscular, with smoke billowing from its nostrils. A mustang. Symbolic of youth and vigor and wild abandon. As close to a coat of arms that the Fields clan ever had, or ever needed.  
    All that’s left, Jonathan thought, clicking it open. The ornate face within greeted him with a sly glimmer. Black Roman numerals against a pristine silver background. As always, a comforting sight…until he realized that it had stopped—
    Good God, no! It can’t be!
    Eyes wide, Jonathan raised his open palm. But looking closer yielded the same result. The long, thin second-hand had died. Which meant that the short black minute-hand wouldn’t move, either. And the long hour-hand couldn’t move without the other two. In fact, all three hands had frozen in place over the XII. Twelve o’clock, straight up. Midnight or noon, it made no difference anymore.
    Work, damn you!” Jonathan screamed, shaking the watch, hoping to somehow jog the inner parts back to life. “I know there’s more time! There has to be!”  
    But shaking the watch didn’t work just as Jonathan knew it wouldn’t. Grasping at straws again. Grasping at life. Refusing to give up, no matter the odds.
    “Okay…fine…Father Time has abandoned me in this horrid place…I still rage against this iniquity…I still oppose this evil happenstance…I still—”
    Jonathan fell silent as he looked up. The dark figure had laid its scythe next to the vase, and now it held out its skeletal hand. An invitation: Climb aboard, and I’ll ferry you to places you’ve never dreamed! So simple. So easy. Just reach out and take that hand. Let the disease win and be at peace…
    “I‘m sorry,” Jonathan whispered, gazing at that gaunt wrist ending in gaunt fingers; so much like his own beneath the skin. “I…just…can’t…”
    A moment passed. Neither Jonathan nor the dark figure nor the raven moved. The dying man looked into the event horizon of the figure’s hood; that black place which rebuked the light and obscured the skull within. And although he still couldn’t see that skeletal face, Jonathan felt it smiling at him. A chiding, satisfied smile, all the more gruesome with no lips to form it. Just teeth. Exposed bone, jutting from its jaw as the spikes jutted from its gondola. The image gouged at his mind with the veracity of a starving vulture, and Jonathan couldn’t stand it—
    NO! he thought. “NO!” he screamed.  
    And without thinking, the dying man threw his dead watch into that dark figure’s hood, not seeing where it landed, and not caring. Then he turned and ran as fast as his fifty-six-year-old legs would carry him.
    Plunging ever deeper into the heart of this nightmare.
    But Jonathan didn’t get far. He found himself scrambling amongst a desiccated forest of twisted, leafless trees; of gigantic cobwebs waiting to ensnare him upon taking the wrong step. Shadows conspired against him at every turn. Dense fog swirled at his feet.
    Still, he ran. Eyes wide and intent. Fists clenched and bobbing. Robe splayed open, fluttering behind him like a superhero’s cape. His left slipper caught on something and went flying into the eternal night.
    Still, he ran.
    Then the inevitable happened. Determined to find some place of solace in this vast wilderness of fractured thought, Jonathan planted his right slipper in the wrong spot. Something beneath the fog clutched at his ankle, and the desperate man fell face first into a tangle of roots at the foot of some long dead oak—
    The fall hurt Jonathan’s pride worse than his body. He landed on his hands, and whatever had grabbed him now let go, leaving him prostrate on the rotten ground. “Damn it to hell!
    For the first time since the doctor had leveled him with his diagnosis, Jonathan felt tears running down his face. Utter hopelessness stole across him as he grit his teeth and buried his forehead against his forearms. “No,” he whimpered. “Not like this! Not without a chance to fight! It’s just not fair! It’s just not—”
    “Please don’t cry, Mr. Fields.”
    Jonathan jerked, looking up with wary, startled eyes. Before him stood a small boy, perhaps five years old, with a kind face. He wore a red silk robe, gray flannel pajamas, and faded, fur-lined slippers. White, with blue polka dots. Just like him. “Hey, uh…just who’re you, son?”
    The boy smiled. His blue eyes sparkled with a strange, alien light. “My name’s Johnny, sir,” he replied in an all too familiar voice. “Please don’t be afraid.”
    Jonathan felt a lump form in his throat. He didn’t know what to think, but his stubborn mind refused to stray from the battle at hand. “Did you get here the way I did? Are you running from Death, too?”
    Johnny shook his head. “No, Mr. Fields. I’ve been here for a long time, and I’m not running from anything.”
    Jonathan coughed, pushed up to his knees. “Can you help me then? Can you show me the way out of this awful place?”
    “Yes, I can help you.”
    Grunting, Jonathan got his right foot underneath him, and stood. “Well, lead the way, son,” he said, wiping the front of his robe with his hands. “We must find our way back home.”
    Still smiling, Johnny reached into his left front pocket. “Here, Mr. Fields. I have a present for you.”
    Jonathan stiffened. Johnny held out his hand. In his small, five-year-old palm lay the Fields family watch, ticking once again. The desperate, dying man looked at it for a long time before he accepted it. The watch felt very heavy in his hand. The mustang gleamed in the light.
    All that’s left. The most precious commodity of all…
    “It’s a swell watch, ain’t it, sir?”
    “Swell,” Jonathan said, slipping the timepiece into his own pocket. “Yes, that’s it. That’s what my great-granddaddy used to say.”
    Johnny took Jonathan’s right hand. “We should go now.”
    Left hand in his pocket, still clenching the watch, Jonathan looked up. Nothing hopeful loomed in the bleak horizon. More trees, more cobwebs, more shadows, more fog. Still, he refused to give up hope. “To hell and back, son. Whatever it takes.”
    But they didn’t walk far. Past a cluster of ancient trees, they came upon an all too familiar riverbank. The black river still looked as smooth as glass. The moon, now half full, still gleamed in the dreary sky. The gondola still sat with its prow resting against the riverbank’s edge. The dark figure still stood on its gondola, cradling its hourglass. The blackbird still stood next to the vase. The vase still sat near the scythe, but the roses now jutted from the dark figure’s extended hand. Another invitation: Climb aboard, and I’ll ferry you to places you’ve never dreamed!
    So simple. So easy. Just let the disease win.
    And across the river, there now stood a spectral form. An old man. Severe, heavyset. A turn-of-the century haberdasher clad in a gray tweed suit and a gray top hat. Left hand resting on his hip, right hand curling the tip of his gray handlebar moustache.
    Unthinkable!” Jonathan screamed, tearing his hand from Johnny’s grip. “How could you do this? How could you lead me here?
    Johnny stiffened. “Sorry, Mr. Fields. There’s nowhere else to go. Don’t you see that?”
    Disgusted, Jonathan raised his right hand.
    “Don’t you dare hit that boy, John!” a voice called from across the river, and the desperate, dying man jerked toward it.
    What? What did you say?”
    The haberdasher smirked. “I said, you best listen to your elder, John. Now quit on this foolishness. We all got to get on the boat sooner or later. Your time’s up, that’s all. No need to fret and raise a ruckus over it.”
    “Yeah,” Johnny said, slipping his hands into his robe pockets. “You should get on the boat, Mr. Fields.”
    Jonathan blinked, let out a heavy sigh. He’d just been admonished by his great-grandfather; a man he knew from a few faded photographs and from hours of listening to his grandfather’s stories. This didn’t bode well. Part of him wanted to listen to Johnny, wanted to follow his great-grandfather’s advice…but the other part, the part which resented the tyrannical intrusion of disease, refused.
    “I can’t,” Jonathan said, turning back to Johnny. “Not without a fight.”
    Smiling, Johnny shrugged and strolled to the edge of the riverbank, then beyond, disappearing over the lifeless stream as if he never existed at all. “Wait, Johnny! No!” Jonathan screamed, but the boy never even looked back. And now the desperate, dying man stood on the riverbank all alone.     Again.
    He looked down. One slippered foot, one bare foot. Dead earth beneath them. His left hand found his pocket, found the cold steel timepiece, and clicked it open. It didn’t tick. All three hands pointed to the XII. The witching hour.
    Time. The most precious commodity of all.    
    Lips trembling, Jonathan closed the watch. The mustang gleamed in the sinister light. He closed his hand around it, took a deep breath. “This is my life we’re talking about here…can’t anyone understand that?”
    Silence. Nothing stirred. The haberdasher watched from across the river, and the dark figure continued to offer those dead roses. Jonathan continued to stare at the treasure in his palm. His great-granddaddy’s watch, passed down from generation to generation, until, at last, it had found its way to a place where time meant nothing.
    Precious time.
    My God…what deviltry assails me? How can any of this be?
    The desperate, dying man shivered. Another tear fell from his left eye, followed by one from his right. The mustang gleamed in his palm. The tears dripped down his cheek. The mustang gleamed. The tears reached his chin. The mustang gleamed. The tears fell away into dead space.
    The mustang gleamed!
    The most precious commodity…
    With a defiant scream, Jonathan turned and bolted back into the night. The dark figure, ever patient, lowered the roses. The blackbird shrieked its disapproval—“YAAAAARRRRK!”—and the haberdasher let out a wry grunt.
    The bird’s cry startled Jonathan, but didn’t deter him as he plunged into that all too familiar forest. Cobwebs fell across his face. Shadows loomed at every turn. Dry, twisted, branches blurred as he raced past. Dense fog obscured his feet and the ground below. This time, his right slipper caught on something and disappeared behind him.
    Can’t—stop!” he panted, scowling into the darkness. “Must—find—a—wa—
    Something snared Jonathan’s right ankle. A yelp of surprise and fury shattered the surrounding stillness as he crumpled to the ground at the foot of another dead oak. The bruise on his pride deepened. The pain in his heart worsened. More tears fell as the desperate, dying man beat the ground with his fists in futile protest.
    “Please don’t cry, Mr. Fields.”   
    Jonathan stopped beating the ground. Eyes widening, he looked up to see another boy, about fifteen years old, standing before him. He looked very much like Johnny, but taller, huskier, with a shade darker hair. And, like Johnny, he wore a red silk robe, gray flannel pajamas, but no slippers. Barefoot, just like him. The desperate man let out a ragged breath, and shook his head.
    He might’ve been stubborn, but not that stubborn.
    “Let me guess…you’re name is Johnny.”
    The boy smiled. His blue eyes shimmered with cold alien light. “Yes, sir,” he replied, slipping his hands into his pockets. “But everybody calls me Jockey.”
    Jonathan chuckled; a dry sound devoid of humor. “That’s right,” he muttered, gathering himself. “Because in the summer of seventy-three you fell off of Trixie Hanover’s horse, Faust, and broke your left ankle. Wore a cast for two months, and everybody signed it ‘Jockey’…”
    “We should go now, Mr. Fields.”
    “Oh?” Jonathan said, straightening, patting the front of his robe. “And where’s that now? Back to that damned foul river? I think not!”
    Jockey stepped forward, took Jonathan by the arm. “I’m very sorry, sir. There’s just nowhere else to go.”
    Jonathan drew up as Jockey tugged at his sleeve. “Don’t even think you can manhandle me, boy! You’re big enough to take a slug to the jaw, you know!”
    “You may do as you like, Mr. Fields. You’d only be hurting yourself.”
    Jockey sounded sad, but his calm expression never changed. Jonathan opened his mouth to protest, then fell silent. Like the dark woods around them. Only hurting myself, he thought, turning from Jockey to survey the landscape. On and on it stretched, with no horizon in sight. Just endless wasteland, dark and haunting.
    “Alright, son. We’ll play it your way. Let’s go.”
    But they didn’t walk long. Jonathan laughed as they entered the all too familiar clearing. The dark riverbank appeared like an old friend. The lifeless obsidian river, the bright three-quarter moon, the iron gondola, the cloaked figure with the hourglass and roses; all of them greeted Joseph with austere silence. The blackbird stood next to the empty vase, the shimmering scythe leant against the starboard side. Across the river, next to the haberdasher, stood a middle-aged man whom Jonathan recognized at first glance. Barrel-chested, wearing gray wool pantaloons with thick black suspenders, heavy work boots, and a white button-down shirt. Bushy sideburns the sole hint of vanity or fashion. A plowman by trade, a Lutheran at heart. And the plowman didn’t look pleased.
    “Hello there, Grandpa,” Jonathan called, waving. “Damned good to see you, sir.”
    “Can’t say the same under the circumstances, John,” the plowman called back. “Me and your granddad have been waiting patiently, and now it’s time to join us.”
    Jonathan didn’t even spare a glance at the dark figure. “Where’s Pop? Why isn’t he a part of the welcoming committee?”   
    “Goddie won’t come unless he’s needed,” the haberdasher replied in a harsh tone. “Savvy?”
    “Savvy,” Jonathan said, turning to the dark figure. “But I still ain’t getting on that boat.”
    The plowman scoffed. “We’ll see, boy. You think your granddad and me didn’t say the same when our time came?”
    “I wouldn’t know,” Jonathan said, staring into the blackness of the dark figure’s hood. “But the difference is, I’m not dead yet. I’ve still got time.”
    To that, the haberdasher and the plowman shook their spectral heads. The dark figure neither moved nor spoke, but held out the roses with grim resolve. Jockey, still smiling, hands still in his pockets, turned from Jonathan, walked to the river’s edge, and disappeared as Johnny had done not long before.
    “What we’ve got here is an impasse, Mr. Death,” Jonathan said, producing the Fields family watch and clicking it open. “This here just needs to be rewound, then it’ll run like clockwork again. Which means I’ve still got time. So, if you’ll excuse me…”
    This time, he didn’t run, and the blackbird didn’t screech. The dark figure’s contempt followed him, though; as uncomfortable as a stranger’s hot breath on the back of his neck. Jonathan ignored it, taking his time, avoiding the cobwebs, trudging through the fog with all the care of a blind man in an unfamiliar room. Searching for some sign of hope, some as yet undiscovered path back to life. But no matter how many trees he peeked behind, no matter how hard he strained his eyes, it never appeared. And before he knew it, he found himself wanting, needing, to rest. Thus, sitting at the foot of yet another dead oak, his favorite red silk robe long since discarded, winding his watch and fighting back tears, Jonathan came face to face with yet another revenant:
    “It’s time, Mr. Fields.”
    The desperate, dying man looked up. He’d been expecting this, of course. The young man looked about twenty; tall and stout, with a firm jaw and a military haircut. Barefoot, clad in gray flannel pajamas.    
    “I…I, uh, can’t believe this…but…I’m almost glad to see you again, Johnny.”
    “I prefer to be called John, sir.”
    Jonathan nodded. “Oh, yes. Of course. I forgot how much I hated being called Johnny at your age. How stupid of me.”
    “Quite alright, sir. But do get up. Things won’t be any more pleasant from here on out.”
    “I don’t understand how you can repeatedly do this to yourself, but okay. I’ll go back and face that rotten bastard one more time.”
    John smiled. Blue light glimmered around his eyes.
    “Say,” Jonathan said, reaching out. “Would you mind helping me to my feet?”
    “My pleasure.”
    And they didn’t walk far. Again, the clearing. Again, the riverbank. The dark figure had replaced the flowers and now stood in front of its gondola; closer than ever before. The blackbird had perched itself upon the dark figure’s shoulder, its glassy eyes intent and impatient. The three-quarter moon had grown to a full moon, bright as a flame against the gloomy sky. And sure enough, across the river, next to the haberdasher and the plowman, stood Jonathan’s father. A metalworker by trade; large and imposing. He wore faded blue overalls and tan hiking boots. His thick black hair reached his shoulders. And the metalworker didn’t look pleased.
    “Hey, Pop,” Jonathan called, limping into view. “How goes it?”
    Without a word, John strolled to the edge of the riverbank, stepped off, and dissolved into nothingness.
    “Oh, I’ll tell ya how it goes, John!” the metalworker replied, pointing an accusatory finger at his son. “It’s no fun being dredged up out of eternal rest just to convince your hardheaded boy to stop acting like a horse’s behind and cross over with the rest of us!”
    Jonathan smirked, cupped his hands over his knees.
    “See there?” the haberdasher called. “You can hardly stand now!”
    “And that’s because your essence is draining away,” the plowman added. “That’s no good. Get on the boat now, before you’re all used up…”
    Still hunched over, Jonathan coughed, spat, and let out a derisive chuckle. “Easy for you to say,” he replied, shaking his head. “You’re already dead!”
    “And you think you ain’t?” the metalworker asked, his tone bordering on contempt. “If that’s the case, how do you suppose you got here, Son? Answer me that…”
    Jonathan winced, closed his eyes. How did I get here? he wondered, straining his memory. But nothing came. He remembered brushing his teeth the night before; remembered feeling dizzy as he rinsed his mouth; remembered crawling into bed and turning out the light…
    But nothing else! How can that be? How can I be walking and talking and running around if I’m not alive?
    “You’re in what they call Limbo, boy,” The haberdasher called, as if reading his great-grandson’s mind. “And it’s an ugly place to be for any length of time, much less forever.”
    Jonathan opened his eyes, forced himself to stand up straight. “Wha…what are you saying?”
    “I’m saying, you either come across, or you stay there. Simple as that, boy. It must be your choice, and if you don’t choose soon, you’ll be stuck over there in Limbo ’til the end of time.”
    “And you don’t want that, Son,” the metalworker said. “Believe me.”
    Believe us!” the plowman added with finality.
    Several moments passed. Jonathan stared at the gentlemen across the river, and they stared back. He believed them, but even now, even in the face of his waning determination, the desperate, dying man refused to give up. Refused to relinquish what remained of his precious time.
    “Just…one…more…day…” Jonathan wheezed, now feeling as if the air had been sucked from his lungs. “That’s…all…I…ask…”
    And that’s when Death spoke: “NO-O-O!
    Cold fear lanced Jonathan’s heart when he heard that awful sound. No doubt that it emanated from the dark figure’s hood; a bestial, inhuman growl, followed by the echo of a child’s whisper. Unsettling, disturbing; as if two disparate and out of synch voices had spoke into each ear. And it hadn’t finished:
    Grimacing, Jonathan lurched back from the monstrous exhortation. The sudden, spastic movement almost caused his knees to buckle, but he held firm, clinging to his dignity—even as he began to tremble in fear.
    The dark figure still hadn’t moved; just stood there with its wicked offering. Jonathan looked at the flowers in its skeletal hand, and for a moment he felt very much like accepting them. Anything to end the agony of feeling his body give out. But before he made that crucial choice, he again looked down at his timepiece.
    The mustang gleamed.
    Time, he thought, still trembling as he clicked it open.
    The ornate face greeted him with a sly wink. Black Roman numerals against a pristine silver background. Not quite as comforting now; hands still frozen in place, and no amount of winding would change that. The cogs and springs and what-all inside had lost their vitality, because for Jonathan Walker Fields, time—the most precious commodity of all—had run out.
    Like the ruddy sand in the dark figure’s hourglass.
    Death’s fateful voice jolted Jonathan from his reverie. The desperate, grieving man cast his bloodshot eyes upon the dark figure, snapped his timepiece shut, and screamed in protest: “DAMN YOU! I REFU—
    And before he could complete his answer, Jonathan found himself in a world of pain. The blackbird let out a mighty screech—“YAAAAARRRRK!”—which echoed, and continued to echo in his skull the next few moments. He felt as if he’d been turned upside down, the dark sky switching places with the dark ground for the duration of a frantic heartbeat, then the vile forest loomed all about him once more. Giant, twisted branches and writhing shadows at every turn. Dense, stifling fog slithering over his skin. Then the hands came. Putrid, rotting; clutching at Jonathan with icy fingertips. Whereas his forefathers had appeared as shades of their former selves, the wretches assailing him now looked like the awakened dead. Hollow eye sockets, toothless mouths, earless heads. And still they wailed and moaned in ghoulish, earthy tones; as horrifying as anything ever dreamt of by man:
    Come! Stay with us!
    We are the lost!”  
    Come! Stay with us!
    We are the loveless!
    “NO!” Jonathan screamed, struggling as they tore away his pajamas and clawed at his flesh. “DON’T TOUCH ME!”
    Come! Stay with us!
    We are the lost!
    “OH, GOD, NO!”
    We are the loveless!
    “NOT HERE!”
    Again, the world tipped over before Jonathan’s harrowed, bloodshot eyes. Had he still been among the living, he realized, he would’ve vomited on everything in sight. Another frantic heartbeat passed, and the pitiful man found himself once more on that all too familiar riverbank. On his hands and knees. Beneath the bright full moon. His pajama top and bottoms torn to shreds all around him. No foul hands clutching at him. No loathsome voices calling out.
    Thankful, at last, to be there.
    At first, Jonathan couldn’t move. But when he realized what had happened, tears again fell from his eyes. Tears of joy, this time. Joy at the surcease of suffering, forever.
    Thuh…thank you,” he wheezed, crawling forward. “Suh…so…much…”
    When Jonathan dared to look up, he saw Death reaching out to him. Stubborn pride almost made him bat its hand away, but then he thought: Aw, what the hell? I’m dead, anyway. Who gives a damn about pride anymore?
    So Death helped Jonathan to his feet, then guided him onto the boat. Its touch burned cold, like a deep winter chill, but Jonathan didn’t scream. Some pride remained, after all, and he knew that without Death’s help he’d collapse under his own weight.
    And embarrassment on top of dying would’ve been worse than staying behind in that forest of ghouls.
    Stepping over the divider, Jonathan noticed that the unhappy trio across the river had vanished. Gone back to wherever they’d been, he figured. But no matter; he’d see them again soon enough.
    Get the cigars ready, Pop. My ride’s here…
    To his pleasant surprise, Jonathan found the passenger seat very comfortable. Not what he’d expected for what amounted to a nautical death carriage. And once Death had taken its place beside him and retrieved its wicked scythe, the gondola did a slow turn in the black water, sending slight ripples across its stygian surface…then began to glide forward. Headed to the Other Side.
    Wondering where the blackbird had flown, Jonathan leant back, trying to enjoy the ride.
    Little fella didn’t fly east or west, but probably over the cuckoo’s nest. God, I haven’t heard that rhyme in forever. At least since I was in grammar school. It’s funny how time flies.
    And, hey, speaking of time…
    “WAIT!” he cried, sitting up. “MY GREAT-GRANDDADDY’S WATCH! I LEFT IT BACK THERE!”
    The frantic man turned and saw the dark riverbank drifting further away. He must’ve dropped it during his brief struggle with the souls of the damned, and it pained him to think of his sole family heirloom lying amidst those broken shadows for all eternity.
    “Please!” Jonathan begged, beseeching Death for one last favor. “Please let me go back and get it!”
    But Death, beyond resolute, gave no indication that it heard or even cared about its passenger’s woes. The dark figure just kept its watch at the gondola’s prow, scythe by its side, cradling its hourglass.
    Awaiting this grave voyage’s end.
    Jonathan begged one last time, for mercy, for pity, but to no avail. This boat wouldn’t—and perhaps couldn’t—be turned around, no matter what. For better or worse, he had to accept it. Still, the loss of that enduring timepiece, ancient by modern standards, timeless in beauty, filled him with great despair. He couldn’t help but imagine how proud his great-grandfather must’ve been the day he bought it. How he must’ve shown it to all his friends and family. And the sage advice he’d passed along while presenting it to his son:
    Time is the most precious commodity of all.
    “Time,” the dead, grieving man whispered, leaning forward to pluck his lifeless bouquet from the vase. “More precious than anything…”
    Expressionless, Jonathan Walker Fields took each rose in hand and, one by one, began tossing them over the side.
—November 3rd, 2013

Jesse Lynn Rucilez was born in Reno, Nevada. Growing up, Jesse was an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes stories and Marvel Comics. Throughout his life, Jesse has mainly worked in the security industry, both in Seattle, Washington and Reno, Nevada, and taught self-defense for several years before deciding to focus on writing. Inspired by authors such as Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, and Kurt Vonnegut, he prefers to write literary horror and science fiction, exploring what he calls “the dark side of the American Dream.”