Short Story Competition 2017 – Third place: Armadillo

Armadillo

by Frumingo Diaterdag

The sky stretched long over the prairie in a cloudless blue. Heat hung shimmering over the asphalt, and the air was filled with the smell of molten rubber. Twenty-yard skid marks led up to the wheels of a tarnished brown Camino, smoke gushing from the hood. The front of the car was rumpled like an accordion against a large roadside boulder; possibly the only thing a car could total itself on in miles. Yet, there it was.

Two figures exited the vehicle, and trailed past the zigzag tire tracks. They slouched by the tangles of tumbleweed which were sunbathing next to the road. The plants would have rolled, as would have been befitting to the scene, but sadly there was not the shyest of a breeze. But this was not the biggest disappointment Jim had endured that day, him crashing into a rock and all.

“So much for my fishing trip,” Jim said. “You sure my body’s okay in there?”

The Grim Reaper walked beside him, and waved a hand at the question. “Naah, it’s fine. Near-death experience. Takes a lot of work off my shoulders, too. You’ll be back in your body once the coma wears off.”

Jim looked over the black-robed figure. The Reaper’s face was veiled by a darkness that Jim could only describe as abyssal; staring into it gave him the fairly accurate feeling that it was also staring back into him. It wasn’t quite as maddening as Nietzsche had made it out to be.

“Thanks,” said Jim. “You know, not letting me die and stuff.”

“Well, yeah, you were right. Maybe I should take a day off. Can’t remember the last time I did.”

In the car, Jim had been perplexed by the Reaper’s willingness to palaver. He had always imagined Death to be somewhat scary, and perhaps less chatty. Jim’s years as a used car salesman had served him well in the negotiations over his life after he had driven it into a boulder.

“You know, I always knew you weren’t no bad guy. All I heard was Oh, no! death this, death that, but then there I was, thinking, well, I don’t like to judge no book by its cover, you know what I’m saying?”

The Reaper nodded. “It’s the media. They like to feed off my reputation, you see. But no matter. Just see what they’d do without me.”

Jim laughed. “Right? We’re helping each other here. I don’t die, you have less work, and them medias can go suck it. We all win!”

“Yes,” the Reaper agreed. “Except for this little fellow.”

They stopped at the end of the tire tracks. They looked over the remains of the armadillo which hadn’t quite made it across the road. The creature’s back end was brazed to the asphalt, and bits and pieces were scattered every which way.

Jim repulsed, his hand raised over his mouth. “Oh my god!” he exclaimed. “I thought I’d swerved off the road ‘cus of a rock, but this… oh my—”

“Now, now,” the Reaper said in a monotone effort of compassion. “Don’t get your nuts twisted. Shit happens, man.” He patted Jim’s back.

“I-I had the sun in my face, and I was trying ta reach for my shades, but I couldn’t find ‘em, and—” He averted his squint back to the road. “…Oh, God,” he muttered. He pointed at the armadillo’s head. “Look, the poor thing’s still breathing!”

The splattered critter’s upper torso rose and fell at an alarming rate.

“Figures,” the Reaper said.

“What—you’re not just gonna leave him like this, right? He must be going through hell.”

The Reaper shifted his dark hood to face Jim. “What do you mean, Jim? We discussed this. I’m taking the day off.”

Jim’s mouth hung open, and he faintly pointed at the armadillo. “Err. It just don’t die, then?”

“Correct. You would’ve been dead too, need I remind you? I can’t go round making exceptions for everyone and their uncles. Either everything dies, or nothing does.”

“B-But! The armadillo just—”

The Reaper turned around and walked back to the car, murmuring a tune. “All our times have come (hum, hum)…”

Jim stood still, overwhelmed by a pervasive feeling of guilt. He looked over the undying armadillo, and gulped. With trembling legs he squatted near the critter’s head and whispered, “I’m so, so sorry, buddy. Please forgive me.”

“Gaaa,” the armadillo gargled.

Jim rose and looked at the Reaper, who was just getting back into the car. “We can’t just leave it here!” Jim yelled, his voice cracking with desperation.

“Watch me,” the Reaper answered drily. He shut the door.

Jim hurried back to the car, still moving uneasily as a ghost. He shuffled up to the door of the passenger seat and carefully tapped the window. “Mr. Reaper?” he tried.

The window rolled down under a squeaking protest, bursting into tiny fragments halfway down. Inside, the Reaper was rummaging through the glovebox. Seemingly unsurprised, his black hood turned to face Jim.

“Hey. Found your shades,” the Reaper said, holding up the glasses.

“I—eh, thank you. But—”

“You strike me as the type who smokes. Got any lying around?”

“…In my jacket, front pocket,” Jim admitted.

The Reaper looked to his left, where Jim’s unconscious body was buried in the airbag. Judging by the gash on his forehead, the airbag had decided to deploy sometime after the crash. He fumbled, and plucked a pack of Marlboros from the body.

“Score.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t go on with this—you need to let the poor animal die already!” Jim blurted out.

The Reaper looked up. “But then you die, as well. I thought I was clear on that.”

Jim clenched his fists. “I know, but this… it’s unnatural. I don’t wanna live if it means thousands of tortured souls, thousands of…of undead armadillo’s, on my behalf!” He slammed his fist on the car roof, and shot a painful glance at the near-roadkill that lay spread over the asphalt. “He’s just got to die.”

The Reaper took a drag from his cigarette. “Then you do it.”

“Me do what?” Jim asked with audible confusion.

The backdoor of the Camino flung open, and a scythe’s blade clattered to the road.

“You be the Grim Reaper today. I get a day off, and you get to keep a clean conscience,” the Reaper said coolly. “We all win.”

“…Me? The Grim Reaper? I don’t know if I could—”

“It’s easy. You swing the scythe, things die. A very rewarding occupation,” the Reaper urged. “Instant gratification.”

Jim stooped to pick up the scythe, but shot a cautious glance at the Reaper first. “Just for today?”

“One day only. Chance of a lifetime.”

Jim nodded, and picked up the scythe as if expecting a static shock, but there was no such thing. He held out the instrument with great reverence.

From the passenger seat a chalk-fingered hand held out a large, black robe. “Here,” the Reaper said. “Complete the look.”

Jim began to feel giddy, and exchanged clothes with the Reaper, feeling more at ease with his decision with every passing moment. “This is really happening, isn’t it?”

“Sure is, buddy. Now, go save that armadillo.”

Jim nodded resolutely, marched off, but quickly turned one last time. “Thank you—”

“Nah-ah. Don’t mention it. Time’s a-ticking,” the Reaper interrupted him, tapping an imaginary watch on his bony wrist.

Jim smiled, and set off toward the armadillo.

Halfway there, a crack of lightning tore through the sky over Jim’s head. A pure white light showered down, stunning him.

GRIM REAPER,” a divine voice rained from the sky. “SLACKING OFF, AGAIN, ARE WE?”

Jim attempted to process what was transpiring around him, and struggled for words. “O-Oh, you mean me? No, no! I’m not—”

AS SPRY AS EVER, I SEE. HOWEVER, YOU HAVE WORK TO DO. THE QUEEN OF BRITAIN JUST PASSED AWAY AND DOES NOT EXPECT TO BE PICKED UP BY AN UBER. IN OTHER RECENT EVENTS, THE RUSSIANS’ ATOM BOMB IS CURRENTLY TRAVERSING THE PACIFIC, WITH RETALIATIONS SURE TO FOLLOW, AND—”

“No! You’ve got it all wrong, it’s just the armadillo, see? And then—”

NONE OF THAT. GOING UNDER THE RADAR WITH WORLD WAR III AT HAND? YOUR OBSTREPEROSITY KNOWS NO BOUNDS, GRIM REAPER. THERE WILL BE HELL TO PAY AFTER SHIFT’S DONE. AND THEN SOME. NOW OFF WITH YOU.”

Jim’s words went unheard as he was lifted off the ground and sucked into the vortex of brilliant light. He clawed at the air as he tumbled ever upward, and disappeared in a flash of white.

Jim’s body was kicked out of the driver seat, landing face-down in the dirt. The Camino’s ignition simmered, and sprung back to life. It drove back in reverse, stopping next to the armadillo’s mangled remains. The door on the passenger side flung open.

“Did it work?” the Reaper asked.

The bits and pieces of the armadillo slithered back together, regenerating the flattened back legs to a pristine condition. His armor shone like a knight’s, and he gleefully wiggled his tail.

“Gaaa.”

“As always—great work on that car crash, bud. Get in.”

The armadillo clambered into the passenger seat, and the door shut itself.

“Gaaa?”

The Reaper shrugged. “Not sure yet,” he answered. He put the shades on his skeletal face, and peered into the horizon. He adjusted his rear-view mirror, and spotted an angling rod lying in the back. “I think I feel like fishing today. How about you?”

They raced off.

Somewhere, the world plunged into turmoil.

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