Don’t Fear The Reaper
“I need you to kill him for me.”
The words were spoken in the right order, the request not unreasonable. After all, Brian Turner’s father had been a son of a bitch long before the Vietnam War but an even bigger one since.
But Brian also knew that rules were rules.
“You know I can’t,” Luke replied.
Before he could continue, Brian snatched the words out of his mouth.
“Rules are rules.”
Luke nodded, feeling that familiar chill at his back. He’d broken them once and had been waiting for the repercussions ever since.
“I’m sorry I brought it up.” Brian continued.
“It’s OK.” His friend said, before jumping down from his swing. The recess bell was ringing.
“Bry, you’re not the only one with trouble at home.”
They smiled, as the two friends straightened their bandanas. Ms. Snodberry the English teacher, the subject of any and all teenage boy affections in town, said it made them look like miniature little DeNiros from Deer Hunter, so it had become a daily fashion choice during recess.
“Maybe later we could sneak into Dawn of the Dead? My cousin is working part-time as an usher and said he’d leave the alley door open.” Brian said.
“Sure,” Luke replied. “I’d like that.” They hustled back to class, never noticing the car idling on the other side of the chain link fence.
Brian’s father Bill sat quietly with the windows down in the mid-June heat, the AC in his Grand Am had stopped working long ago. Blue Oyster Cult came on the radio and he immediately reached for the dial and yanked it hard to the left. He couldn’t stand that song. He finished the last of his sixer of Old Milwaukee and crushed the can in his hand before letting it fall out the driver-side window. There was something about charming little Luke Foster he just couldn’t place. He was too mature for his age; too smart for his friends; too quiet and confident for Junior High. No known roots in town other than an invalid of an uncle.
Most of all, the boy give him a feeling he’d only felt in his life once before, on the worst day of his life.
It made his blood run cold.
Luke and Bryan had left school that day at a near-sprint. With just one week left ‘til another endless summer both students and teachers alike had mentally checked out. Some, even physically, as the PE teacher, Randall Ford, he of the perpetual five o’clock shadow and the affinity for slapping rear ends, had been missing for three days.
“Probably on another one of his benders,” his colleagues had said. “He always comes back.”
He wasn’t coming back, but it wasn’t a boy’s responsibility to tell them so. Nature would take its course. A woman walking her dog would find the body and police from across two counties would be searching for a killer that left no marks, and eventually, they’d settle on suicide, despite a lack of motive, or even any alcohol in the man’s system. It was a version of that nature the boys found themselves running through as they cut through the woods towards to the cabin on the lake Luke called home.
“I just need to grab a change of clothes,” he told his friend, as they reached a front porch that had seen better days.
Brian fidgeted in the gravel driveway, kicking up clouds of dirt and rocks. Within minutes he’d created a cloud of dust and dirt so powerful he would have to stagger out for air.
Inside, Luke found the home empty, but out through the back windows he noticed his uncle – he called him uncle, but in actuality, he was just his legal guardian — sitting at the edge of the dock, working his way through what was undoubtedly his second pack of Lucky Strikes that day.
In his room, he rummaged through piles of clothes before finding a t-shirt that smelled clean enough, before noticing an unmarked letter on his desk. He hadn’t been expecting one today.
Through his open bedroom window, he could see Brian lying winded in the grass.
“I’ll be right out! Two seconds!” And all he got in return was the kind of thumbs up a football player gave while being carried off on a stretcher.
The instructions were always the same. He powered on the stereo on his desk and tuned to a defunct AM frequency: in this instance, 518.0. All he got was a name. Never repeated. The signal always faint. Then it was gone. He committed it to memory, before racing for the door, but not before running the letter through the industrial strength paper shredder in the laundry room, a peculiarity for any home, let alone a cabin in the woods.
Back in the driveway, Brian had regained all bodily function. And was standing at the door as his friend shot out.
“Took you long enough,” he spoke, over his faint lisp, the taste of dust still on his tongue.
“Sorry, duty calls.”
Brian knew better than to pry. Luke was his best friend after all, and the only best friend he had ever had.
“Gross,” he replied, feigning ignorance as a courtesy. They both knew better. Brian only hoped the next person wasn’t someone he liked.
The back corner of the theater smelled of stale popcorn, spilled soda, and teenagers that had snuck a dollop of their fathers’ after-shave. The twins Becky and Betty, in their matching baby blue hair bands, arrived five minutes late, as they always seemed to do. Their boyfriends, the other set of twins in town, John and Fitz, named after you-know-who, arrived in tow. The boys had caught a bit of grief growing up, what with being named for a dead President and all, so they had taken to dishing out names better than they could handle receiving them.
“Hey Skywalker,” Fitz said, bopping Luke on the arm as they sat down behind them.
“Hi guys,” he replied, wishing for just a moment that they would disappear, luckily catching the thought before it had the chance to grow into anything more.
The remaining survivors of the zombie hoard had landed their helicopter at a shopping mall and were fortifying the entrances when Luke slipped quietly out of his aisle seat, leaving Brian, Becky, Betty, John, and Fitz glued in terror to their seats. He slid through back door of the theater, being careful to let as little light in as possible, before working his way up the stained red carpet stairs to the projection room above.
The room was filled with smoke, as it always was when Stan Parker was on duty. Parker, all of five-foot-three of him, sat hunched by the projector looking out at the screen, the ash from the last cigarette he would ever smoke falling to his feet.
Anyone that knew a lick about how flammable celluloid was would have turned and ran but Luke, now melted into the shadows, paid no mind.
Onscreen, a motorcycle gang had breached the relative security of a now fortified mall, allowing hundreds of zombies through the doors, signaling that it was time for Stan Parker to change to the final reel.
With the final reel in place, he went to light another cigarette, only to find that each match, one by one, would die in the air. It was at that moment he felt the cold. And then he felt nothing at all.
The kids came out to rain on Main Street, ticket stubs lying soggy under their sneakers. The Kennedy boys were too scared to speak, their matching dates as well. Brian Turner could only smile a big silly smile.
“Pretty awesome, right?” He said.
“Yeah,” Luke replied. Pretty awesome.
The rain still falling, the boys cut across two blocks over to the arcade, leaving their stunned and silent dates to neck in fear. There was always a line-up for Space Invaders, it had only arrived in town a few months back, but the boys waited patiently and soon enough the crowds died down and it was all theirs.
8:30 turned into 9:30, and soon 9:30 had turned into 10. Brian was growing tired even before he ran out of quarters, but he sensed his friend wasn’t ready to head home.
“It’s getting late, Luke. I’m turning in. You sure you’re OK staying out here by yourself?”
“Of course,” he replied, eyes glued to the screen. “Not sure I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”
Once again, Brian knew better than to ask. Whoever it had been tonight it had at least happened quickly and quietly. It didn’t always go perfectly. So for that, he was thankful.
“Well, get home safe, yeah?”
“And one more thing,” Brian said, stopping at the door.
“Lay off my high score, will ya?”
And the boys smiled.
In no longer than an hour, a freshly abbreviated three-letters sat above the leaderboard when Luke decided he had enough and worked his way out into the rain.
There was a light chill in the air and that unmistakeably sweet scent of a spring rain on dry soil. Whenever his friend would leave Luke would find his mind drifting towards a deep, unknowable darkness he may have once called home. Tonight was no different.
Stan Parker had been easy enough, but it wasn’t always so simple. Randall Ford had been so aroused by the site of a young boy in the woods that a light heart attack did most of the work for him. It was still a struggle, though. The last thing the boy remembered was seeing the whites of his upper thighs grow a sickly pale against the backdrop of the fluorescent red of his short-shorts.
Luke changed gears, always trying to avoid any lingering questions about the nature of his reality. “Something from nothing,” was all his uncle would share. And if he didn’t do as he was told, to that he would return.
In that regard, he was running out of time. There was still one name he had yet to cross off the list.
The rain picked up, leaving his mop of curly brown hair in his eyes. He scanned the empty road for a potential lift home when he saw two headlights turn onto Main Street from down the block.
He went to wave but before he could the car pulled over to the curb and rolled slowly towards him. Through the headlights and pounding rain, he could make out only the silhouette of a man.
The driver rolled down the passenger side window and hollered for him to come over, and with waterlogged shoes, and against his better judgment, the boy complied.
Inside the car, Bill Turner was gripping the life out of the steering wheel. His head was pounding from another day of drinking from dawn ‘til dusk. The hair on his forearms was standing at attention, a chill running up his spine, as he grabbed the boy through the passenger side window in one clean motion.
Luke could only yelp, as his loosely tied red converses were left behind in the street. He had a second to wonder if this was how they felt — the fear. He felt a crack on his temple, then nothing at all.
His eyes opened in the dark, or at least he thought they were, there was no light to be found. He was able to stand and found himself shuffling with arms outstretched, hoping to find a wall, a door, and end to whatever room he was in. Ten minutes into his trek, he started to panic, twenty minutes later he was screaming.
There was no response, not even an echo. And perhaps worst of all, it was starting to feel familiar.
Wherever he was, he was alone.
And then he wasn’t.
Bill Turner was squinting through his windshield wipers when the headlights on his Grand Am caught the exit sign he was looking for. It was quieter an hour north of town, he thought, too quiet. After he had come back and been called all kinds of names he found he could no longer handle the silence of his own thoughts. He had even grown accustomed to sleeping with the radio on. That had driven the Mrs. crazy. It wasn’t the only reason she had left, not by a long shot. But it didn’t help.
She had left him their son, though. Brian wasn’t the kind of son he had wanted, too bookish and timid for his liking, but he cared for the boy more than his father had ever cared for him. Never laid a hand on him neither, something Bill Turner couldn’t say the same for his old man.
His headache had dissipated for nearly twenty miles but was crashing back into the inside of his skull like a tidal wave. His ears were ringing, but that hadn’t stopped since it had started four years ago.
He reached his turnoff, and the front of his car splashed onto a flooded country road. The Grand Am struggled through the water and the mud before it came across a chain-linked fence. The State Bureau had locked the main gate a decade ago but enough teenagers had snuck in over time that you could find holes in the twenty-foot high fence if you looked closely enough. Bill Turner killed the engine and dragged the lifeless boy out of the passenger seat, before tossing him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Holding the boy brought out every flight instinct in his body, his muscles and nerve endings crying out for relief. He was freezing cold, as he found a break in the fence, and slipped through towards the abandoned Black River mine.
Back in the darkness, Luke had company.
It had started softly at first; just a patter in the distance; faint. But now it was all around him. There was pounding, scurrying. He tried to back away but there was nowhere to back away to. He had never been scared in his brief, confounding life, but he was now.
Whatever it was, it had finally circled him. It was a dog, maybe. Or was it dogs? Wolves? It sounded like there were three of them, but in the full, impossible darkness, he couldn’t be sure of anything. But either way, he’d been found, and with that, they started to howl.
And then, another first, he found himself fighting back tears.
“Stop, please stop,” he started to plead, “I want to go home.”
And with that, the howling stopped, and his tormenters scattered.
“But you are home,” a man spoke softly, from all around him, before a hand wrapped around him in the darkness.
He shot to life, screaming. Only this time he wasn’t in the middle of a small lake, flailing, drowning, only to have a man in a rowboat holding a lantern seemingly waiting for him, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.
This time, he was on land, rock it felt like. He got his breathing under control and was able to get a glimpse of his surroundings. There was some kind of hoist above him.
“Back from the dead!” A voice called out, startling him.
Bill Turner crept out of the shadows, his eyes sunken, and his skin pale. The rain had cleared and the stars that broke the clouds cast a faint, hollow light.
“Probably not the first time,” he muttered to no one in particular, before making a move towards the boy.
Luke shuffled back in the dirt, his temple throbbing.
“Hold on kid,” he said, raising his hands with open fists. “I need you to hear me out first.”
“Then?” The boy replied.
“Then we get on with it.”
“Get on with what?”
The man pointed over his shoulder. Behind the boy was a shaft, leading down into nothingness.
“This was an old uranium mine, ‘til it wasn’t,” Bill Turner spoke. “Biggest in the state. Radon gas ended up making everyone sick; wasn’t vented properly. Probably getting fried right now.” He pulled a can of Old Milwaukee from seemingly nowhere and cracked it before gulping half of it down.
“Something tells me you’ll be fine, though.”
Luke found himself angling away from the hole, trying to get out of the direct firing line.
“That there was the production shaft. If I recall correctly that goes about two miles down.” He finished his beer in just his second gulp before heading towards the boy. Luke shot to his feet and scurried back towards the relative safety of the hoist.
“Don’t worry now,” he spoke again, “just testing that theory.” He hung over the edge and let the can slip from his fingers.
And finally a crash below.
“Hmm, probably closer to a mile and a half.”
It was at that point Luke finally worked up the nerve to ask the obvious question.
“What do you want from me?”
Bill Turner replied, still gazing down the shaft. “The truth.”
“Who you are.”
“I’m your son’s-”
“Stop right there. I don’t have any patience for that.” His head was swelling. “I know what you are.”
“You’re right, I am. And that’s why I know.”
“Why you’re always hanging around my son. Why you befriended him in the first place. Kid doesn’t have a friend in town his whole life then one day you come along. Why is that?”
“I don’t know; he was nice to me.”
“That’s not bullshit!” Luke was starting to panic when Bill Turner took it to the next level.
“His name was on one of your little lists, wasn’t it?”
Luke was spinning, how could he know?
“That’s not, he wasn’t… I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He got nothing in return, so he filled the silence, resigned.
“How do you know about them?”
Bill Turner didn’t feel like basking in his victory. “My boy ever tell you about what happened to me over there?”
He had only heard bits and pieces, but what he had heard wasn’t good, and what his best friend had received in return was a father no longer fit for duty.
“Let’s just say you remind me of someone.”
When Bill Turner finally stopped speaking the air had grown colder and quieter, and there was nothing for the boy to say or do.
There had been a young man in the communications tent, and names on a list — a lot of names. Bill Turner had stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time, and by the end of the day, he was being fast-tracked for a Section 8 discharge. He was found huddled under the bodies of the rest of his Infantry Division mumbling incoherently. He would never know that in a heavily redacted report sitting in the basement of the Pentagon the name of the man in the radio tent was hiding under a thick layer of special black ink.
“So you’ll forgive me if I’m light on sympathies,” he said.
Luke, all of fourteen, but having had countless, endless years of nothingness before that could only try to make the kind of eye contact that tells the person you understand. Instead, Bill Turner felt as if he was looking into a black mirror.
“My boy’s name came over that radio one day, didn’t it?” Turner continued.
“And that’s why you became close.”
Turner was wrong on that account. Committing the act was hard enough, the peculiarities of the ritual itself defied explanation, but he knew to keep his distance. He was only human, however, or at least a part of him once. At night in his room he would find himself feeling around his chest, trying to find a heartbeat. Sometimes it was nowhere to be found. On the day he saw Brian being stuffed into a locker, it had been there.
Two bullies with broken noses and one shared detention later, they were friends. They’d sealed it with a shared ice pack over black eyes.
“No,” Luke said, back in the open air. “He’s my best friend. Only one I’ve ever had.”
Bill Turner stood across from him in the dark, head still ringing. Deep down beneath the gray matter in his brain, the scar tissue under his temples from two rounds of shock therapy, and the years of self-medicating with various poisons—his favorite being whichever was available—there was a small part of him that believed the boy, and he hated himself for it.
Even still, it was time for him to die.
Bill Turner grabbed the boy, frozen in fear and frozen all over, and dragged him towards the mouth of the production shaft.
The boy was pleading, showing fear and humanity that the man wasn’t sure he had in him.
“Stop whining. Let’s get it over with.” He tossed the boy to the lip of the edge and took a deep breath.
He walked up to the lip next to the boy. And peered over the edge. The pure black reminded him of cloudy summer nights as a boy, of that pleasant Mid-Western heat, and of his life before it all went to hell.
“You weren’t going to kill my boy, were you?”
“No,” the boy replied, caught off guard. “Never.”
“Will they send someone that will?”
“I don’t know. There are rules.”
Bill Turner chuckled. “Everybody works for somebody.”
Luke couldn’t understand the sudden change in the man’s mood. He’d appeared to almost grow at peace with himself. All he could do was prepare for the push. He knew enough about what he was and what he had done that he deserved what was coming to him. He was trying to come to his own kind of peace.
“Just make it quick, please.”
“Just do it.”
Then Bill Turner started to laugh.
“Jesus, kid. You have things all backwards. This here is a trade. One B. Turner for the other.”
“Now get on with it, and send me back home.”
“No buts. Just look after him, OK? Lord knows how much time this buys him. Hopefully enough.”
The boy nodded, stunned.
The man sighed, before crossing his chest.
“Hope that works,” he smiled.
“I hope so, too,” the boy whispered.
“And one last thing. You ever meet your maker, be it mom, dad, the big guy upstairs, Teddy fuckin’ Kennedy or even Satan himself, give him a message for me.”
“Tell them Bill Turner says go fuck yourself.”
Two years passed; enough time for two new high scores in Space Invaders, and that great journey into a brave new world known as High School.
From a distance, you would think the boys were now men, but from up close their smiles and their pimpled cheeks betrayed them. Brian even had a girlfriend, although he was yet to round first base six months in. As far as he was concerned, there was no rush. He was terrified of what came next.
It was two days after Bill Turner was declared missing that Luke took his friend on a stroll in the woods and came clean – all the way clean.
“I know it’s a lot of take in and if you hate me now I understand. I’m still going to look after you though I pro-” And that was when he was surprised with a hug. It was the first hug he had ever received. He’d never felt anything like it before. His heart was beating.
Brian wiped a tear from his eye.
“Christ,” he said.
“Christ, what?” Luke replied.
“I can’t believe I miss my dad.” And the two boys smiled.
Back in the present, they were still smiling as Brian dropped his newly minted, almost-human friend off in his father’s Grand Am, a car that still smelled like stale cigarettes and cheap beer even after three trips to the car wash. When police finally found the body and his car three weeks later they found a note in the glove compartment scribbled on a cocktail napkin.
“For Bry – Whatever you do, don’t let your mom have her. Dad.”
“What time does Raiders of the Lost Ark start again?” Brian called as he was pulling away.
“Eight-fifteen,” Luke yelled back at him through a cloud of dust. “See you then!” His friend giving two playful taps of the horn to signal he caught it.
But he wouldn’t be seeing his friend then.
Back in the house, his uncle was waiting up for him in the living room. They’d rarely ever spoke, so he knew something was off. He’d followed orders ever since, but in his mind, he knew it could only be one thing.
It was quiet for a moment before the man spoke.
“Your father wants to see you.”
Luke’s eyes started to drift, and he caught a dark figure at the end of a dock overlooking the lake. Even with his back turned, the man – if you could even call him that – looked nothing like anything he had ever seen before. His form appeared to shimmer, a brief passing cloud revealing the enormity of his figure, his body draped in black.
“He’s come an awful long way. I wouldn’t make him wait any longer.”
Lucas took a deep breath. His breath growing colder.
“Ok,” he spoke plainly. With more confidence than he ever imagined.
“Besides, I have a message for him.”