Buried in the Fine Print, by Kelly Haas Shackelford

Hand Inked Grim Reaper IllustrationI stared at mice scampering in the middle of the Georgia cornfield, praying none of the nasty creatures nested in my stuffing. Waiting on the Reaper, I ached from hanging for thirteen days with a stick up my butt. Unyielding pain shot through my lifeless body as I tried to scream. Not even a sigh escaped the prison of my sewn-together lips. I tried to force my eyes to move, but they remained frozen in place like the rest of
me. As a cursed man, I felt, tasted, and heard, but could not react; dead, yet alive.
      A scarecrow.
     After hanging in the country cornfield, I longed for the beloved wife forever gone; never to savor the scent of peach soap on her neck or hear her snort through my corny jokes. Knowing that became the cruelest punishment of all, making me ready for Reaper to claim me. As part of the witch’s curse, I knew he came every thirteenth day. From sun-down to sun-rise, I’m allowed to fully live, minus my heart. Without my love, it existed in pieces anyway, so I’m glad it’s not here.
     My black Persian, Sammy, climbed my straw-stuffed body and cuddled with me while I hung in the field, curling his legs around my neck. Until the Reaper came, he remained my only friend. Purring vibrated my stuffed head in a steady, dry rhythm, lulling me as time flew.
     “Tick, tick, tick,” Time whispered as it rustled by, as if laughing at my happenstance. It didn’t even stop to say, “Boo!” or “How do you do?” It just rode with the wind, wild and free, unlike me. In vain, I tried to ignore the putrid aroma assaulting my nose, hoping to block the Hell Hound’s overpowering stench. Rotting, wet-dog scent floated up to me in cruel wisps, mocking me. Sammy growled at the intrusion of his nap. Fury filled me, and rattled my stuffing. I would risk being ripped apart before I allowed the beasts to hurt my pet. When Reaper nears, the Hounds liked to linger, hungry for a soul fated for Hell.
     A wisp of smoke materialized from nothingness, and then hovered before me. “How’s it hanging, Crow?” Reaper growled, with a throaty smoker’s voice. His empty eyes examined me.
            His long fingers slid his hood back, letting it drop behind him. The moonlight danced, gleaming in silver cadence across his bald head.
     “Enough with the Scarecrow jokes, Reaper,” I whispered, my voice able to emit because his life-giving force hovered in close proximity. It’s always the same joke, just a different day, a different thirteenth day to be more precise.
     According to my hellish contract, every thirteenth night, Reaper brought me along for the ride. He claimed senseless deaths for the North Georgia area, as his job dictated. I liked to call them Hell’s Funniest Videos as most were caused by drugs, booze, or a total lack of a working brain.
     “Still fun.” Reaper smiled. He loved laughing at his own jokes. Reaching up, he swatted at Sammy, who landed on all fours, back arched and hissing. With no mercy or ease, he snatched me down off my post.
      Placing my limp body on the cold ground, Reaper lifted his scythe, and brought it down fast, stopping just inches away from my chin. My heart felt as if it had leapt into my throat.
     “I love to mess with you,” Reaper grinned as he brushed the air above my heart with the blade.
     A wave of energy built, awakening each part of me as it pumped my blood. Thumping, thumping, thumping, harder and harder, until my lungs filled with air, and I came fully to life.
     My legs ached, and my back throbbed. I’m getting too old for this shit! Hanging lifeless ages the body, not to mention the dastardly things it does to the mind. Oh, my sin-filled mind, which endlessly hung and pondered the possibility of living again, perhaps even reaping some fun of my own, tortured me more than the physical pain.
     My neck snapped as I rolled it from side to side, working out the kinks. “Where’re we going?” I bent over and scooped Sammy into my arms, giving his head a scratch before I shooed him towards the safety of the barn. “Reaping’s too dangerous for you, old boy,” I whispered.
     Reaper’s skeletal mouth widened into a grin, “We’ve got rednecks night-noodling for catfish.” He rubbed his hands together.
     “Oh, joy, a drowning!” I shook in excitement. It had been three months since our last drowning.
     “Nope.”
     “A boat explosion?” I asked in awe. It would be my first.
     “Nada,” Reaper said, enjoying the game of Guess the Death.
     “A gun fight?”
     “Trust me, Crow, you’ll never guess the fun I have up my scythe for tonight,” Reaper said and laughed. He pulled his hood up.
     It’s time to go to work.
     An hour later, sitting on the hard bank of the Etowah River, I watched in disbelief as three grown men stuck their hands deep in a hole in the murky bank. What idiot uses their own hand for bait while fishing for a hundred pound cat?
     I glanced up at the darkening sky, covering the moonlight. The wind whipped my blond hair as a storm brewed. I loved the rain.
     “Crow, I been thinking …it’s time to retire.” Reaper shook his head and sighed.
     I looked over. I didn’t know if he was serious, or yanking my pole. Reaper loved sucking souls as much as I loved to watch. When Reaper sucked, power ignited the air. The joy of others dying was catnip. No matter the fate of the soul, sucking was an acid trip without the shakes.
     “Two years, I’ve been sucking shotgun. Never have I seen you hesitate.” I frowned, having no idea what came over my companion.
     “I follow the rules to the letter,” Reaper proudly pointed out.
     I grunted. Rules are for fools. Before my cursing, I had been a loving husband to my beautiful wife, and a shameless banker; a lying, cheating, money-hungry, prick that stole little old ladies’ houses, until one of them turned out to be a witch and cursed me.
     Unknown to the witch, she could not trap me forever in the Scarecrow’s body. Thanks to the fine print, I was given an out every thirteen days. I longed for the day Reaper sucked her.
     My mind flashed to my wife and how much I needed her. My body ached to touch her one more time, to feel her skin under me, her body enveloping mine. But, such carnal pleasures were against the rules. Reaper would not allow it. “Rule-following soul-sucker,” I mumbled under my breath.
      “I want to suck tonight,” I declared, my eyes darting back to Reaper. I had to feel alive again. I was sick of feeling half a man and I wanted someone to pay for my misery.
     Reaper straightened. His dark silhouette shadowed against the full moon fighting to peek out from the dark clouds. He once told me he was the fifth generation of reapers. Now, that was a job I’d sell my soul for.
     “Can’t …” Reaper shook his head in defiance. “…against the rules.”
     “What the hell, dude?” I blurted and pointed at him. “You’re a Reaper. What rules?”
     His hand slid under his robe. I held my breath. Tonight, maybe I had gone too far. My mind tried to guess what torture device his fingers would whip out to torment me.
     “Oh, my God,” I cursed, as my pulse quickened at the creepy thing in his hands. His fingers wrapped around a mammoth book entitled, ‘Robert’s Rules of Reaping’.
     “It has to be over two thousand pages,” I gasped in disbelief. “What the hell is wrong with you suckers?” Even my banker’s book of rules was not that long. Of course, I had never actually read or even owned a copy, but I had seen one …once.
     “Rules run the world, Crow.” Reaper flipped through the huge book. “On page 989, it clearly states that only Reapers suck.”
     He slammed the book, shoving it back under his dark robe. He looked at me, shaking his head as his eyes danced in assurance. He lived for the fine print of his job, always reading and re-reading the paperwork before he finished the deed. 
     How could a harbinger of Death get a hard-on just by the feel of paperwork? I mused; glad Reaper couldn’t read my thoughts. I’d hate to feel where he’d stick that scythe.
     “You don’t want to miss this,” he whispered. Reaper pointed to the three men, wrestling a large catfish. “Never ceases to amuse me.”
     The water foamed in frothy waves. The biggest of the men hollered in triumph at the fish attached to his arm. The cat plunged down deep into the water. The beast took his arm still trapped in her mouth, and snatched him under the waves. The other two men crawled up the bank to watch.
    The trapped noodler’s body erupted out of the water. The cat still attached to his hand, thrashed back and forth. With her every move, she drug him down as she fought like mad. He had rammed his hand in her home and stolen her eggs, now she wanted blood.
     “What a pity,” Reaper said. He bowed his head in thought, “A wife at home and twins.”
     My heart skipped. Watching his soul get sucked, would be sheer delight. I did mention I was a S.O.B, right? With the only thing that ever made me human, my dear Arianna beyond my grasp, I took pleasure in others’ pain.
     The doomed noodler wheezed, trying to get air as the fish pummeled him, repeatedly smacking her body against his legs. They buckled under the brutal beating. One of his friends wrapped his fingers through the noodler’s hair and yanked hard, trying to pull him out of his watery tomb. Big drops of cold rain smacked the man as the sky finally surrendered and opened.
     I grinned. I loved a good fight to the death. No one ever won against Reaper, and I knew it was almost time for him to give the doomed man a final blow.
     I slid my hand across my face, slinging raindrops away from my eyes to get a better view. My days as a poop pad for the birds were filled with reliving these deaths over and over. If not for these suckings, my mind would burst from boredom.
     “A boy and a girl,” Reaper said. He knelt by the bank and wept.
     “What the devil’s wrong with you?” I demanded. A crybaby Reaper is not my idea of death. Maybe Reaper had lost his passion for sucking and needed to retire. Well, I knew just the man for the job.
     He laid his scythe down and sighed as rain pelted him. “Every 100 years I get to spare a soul.”
     “I can’t wait thirteen more days before I get my fix,” I shouted over the wailing wind.
     “You have no choice.” Reaper shook his head in amusement.
     Disgust ate at me, as I watched Reaper bend over to take a form out of his rule book. He hovered over the precious paper to keep it from getting wet.
     On the ground, the scythe beckoned me. Its silver-tip glistened in the rain, daring me. Easing closer, I watched as Reaper flipped back and forth in his rule book, making certain to correctly fill out the form. He whistled The Andy Griffin tune, ignoring the wind shouting its protest.
     The noodler leapt out of the water as the fish released him. Reaching up, he dug into the muddy bank. He grabbed at a tree root, heaving himself to safety. Loud rebel yells filled the night as the other two men celebrated their friend’s victory.
     My mind screamed out in pain. I couldn’t allow such celebration to continue. Trembling, I reached for the scythe. I curled my fingers around its wooden handle, coated with the blood of countless souls. Jumping up, I barreled towards the men.
     “Oh, shit,” I heard Reaper curse and I looked back at him. He stuffed his paperwork back into his robe before he took off after me.
     Power scorched through me. Now, I was the Reaper. My legs pumped harder and harder as I ran for the spared noodler. Escape was not his fate. Rain pelted, but it didn’t slow me.
     “What the hell?” one of his friends shouted as I broke through the clearing. The scythe swung wildly in midair.
     My eyes locked on the man. His body spread flat across the ground. Gasping, he tried to regain his breath from the death-match with the catfish.
     I grinned as water cascaded around me. To hell with Reaper, I am Death. Standing over the fisherman, I gripped the scythe tighter. The man’s eyes widened. I sniffed in delight at the scent of him fouling himself.
     Ah, I would savor this smell of power for weeks. As a man, I never took a life. I only relished my wife Arianna and making lots of money. Now, I was going to do what Reaper didn’t have the balls to do. Raising the scythe higher, I let out a primal scream,
     Lightning struck, hitting the silver scythe. Its paralyzing jolt flooded its juice through me. Every nerve-ending contracted in agony as I collapsed. Twitching, I lost control, and a warm stream coursed down my legs.
     The spared noodlers grabbed their buddy by the arms and dragged him behind them as they shouted in fear and prayed for mercy.
     Reaper raced up to my withering body. “If you would’ve let me finish the paperwork,” he said, standing over me, shaking his head through the rain, “it was your soul I came to save.”
     I grunted in disbelief.
     “It’s buried in the fine print. I get to release an apprentice every 100 years.” He bent down, his fingers snatching up his abandoned scythe.
     “Please, help me,” I begged as Hell’s Hounds circled around. The stench of their wet fur and sulfur filled the air. My heart throbbed at their blood-curdling bays. Reaper’s presence was the only thing keeping them from ripping me to shreds.
     “When you were cursed, Arianna was two-weeks pregnant with twins.” Reaper’s shoulders slumped down. “Tonight, I came here to watch the noodlers fish and to set you free. But it’s over now, the rules clearly state your punishment. I can’t break them.”
     Brushing back tears, Reaper turned and walked away. The first Hound charged, sinking its fangs into my ankle. The rules clearly stated…Hell was my fate. Damn!

~~

Kelly Haas Shackeflord has been many things in her short life: preacher’s daughter, a domestic violence survivor, single mom to four, first female project manager in the largest steel company in the US, cat rescuer, word wrangler, and romance enhancement specialist (aka the toy lady). She has had over 50 pieces accepted for publication in various venues such as The Speculative Edge, The Old Red Kimono, The Were-Traveler and Every Day Poets. Currently, she is working on various writing projects between taking care of her 10 full time rescue cats and taming a feral colony.

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Posted on May 6, 2015, in Contest, Issue 16: Shinigami Stories—Reaping the Harvest of Souls and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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