The tiny, single little speck of everything, everything that contrasted against the overwhelming blackness of oblivion, wavered for a moment. I waited for it to go out, or maybe just shift into the Hell where I was pretty certain that I’d end up, despite my last words.
It didn’t do so, however. I clung to it, not quite ready to disappear into nonexistence quite yet. It flickered, twitched – and then, incredibly, started to swell…
It kept on swelling, growing larger, until it challenged the sea of black nonexistence in which it floated. It grew larger until it dominated that emptiness, consumed it and occupied it with itself. I felt like I was trapped against a wall by a force, impossible to resist as it grew larger and larger, pushing me to flatness between the wall of nothing behind me and the bubble of everything in front of me…
And then, quite suddenly, it swallowed me up, and I was inside the huge point of light, sensation, of everything.
I blinked. I blinked again, realizing belatedly that I once again had eyes with which to blink. I couldn’t see anything, but even the existence of eyelids, and presumably eyes inside of them, seemed to be a big step up from wherever I’d been before.
Something pushed against the newly discovered eyelids. I felt the sensation, realized that it felt a lot like I had my face down in rough sand.
My arms moved. I had arms, and, I realized a second later, legs. I moved my arms to either side of my head, which I suspected I also had, and pushed.
My face had been down in rough sand. It now rose up, and I once again looked around at the world.
It didn’t seem quite right. It was the colors, I felt – they were muted, too gray. But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, and I was just happy to be able to see again, to have any sensation at all to perceive.
On my hands and knees, I looked around. I was, I realized, under the hangman’s platform. There was something heavy around my neck – the rope, still in a noose. I grabbed it, hauled it off, dropped the wretched thing on the ground beside me.
What had happened? Did the rope break? Someone cut me down? I didn’t hear any sounds of angry townspeople, of a shouting sheriff. I didn’t feel a bullet in my back, which is honestly about what I’d expect from the fat bastard. Probably couldn’t even tie a rope right.
Maybe the rope broke after the sheriff and townspeople lost interest. They saw me drop, assumed that my neck broke, wandered away to go back to whatever humdrum little lives they led. And then the rope broke, and I managed to hang on to life long enough to stagger up, take the noose off my neck.
I glanced down at my hands. Hadn’t they been bound? Why would they cut the bindings on the hands of what they thought was a corpse?
Still on my knees, I glanced around. Empty area, except for that black robe. Just the hangman’s platform, the dust, a couple of tumbleweeds rolling lazily along, the town a couple hundred feet away-
I turned back. Yup. There was a black robe, a pair of very bony feet poking out from beneath it. My eyes tracked up, although I knew what I’d see.
The skull grinned down at me, those twin points of blue light burning away in its eyeholes. It still held the scythe, the blade sharpened so finely that it seemed to reflect a hint of the blue that burned in those eye sockets.
I opened my mouth, licked suddenly parched lips. “You’re Death,” I said. Not a question. I might not be a reading man, but I’d seen enough woodcuts in books and Bibles to recognize a seven foot tall skeleton with a scythe.
The bony figure nodded.
I bowed my head. So, I really was dead. I hadn’t managed to luckily escape the noose at the last second. I died, and now Death was here to claim my soul. I waited for him to strike with that blade, cut my soul from my body.
The blow didn’t come. I glanced up.
Death hadn’t taken a tighter grip on his weapon. He’d shifted it to his off hand, so that he could extend bony fingers down towards me. It looked like he meant to help me up.
I took the hand. It felt like wrapping my fingers around a bunch of dry twigs. Death pulled me up to my feet.
“So,” I said, once I was on my feet. I quickly let go of that bony hand, not liking the feel of dry little bones in my fingers. “I’m dead, right?”
The skull grinned at me. A finger pointed upward.
I looked up.
Yup. I’d almost expected it, but it still gave me a shock to see. I suppose that, if my heart hadn’t already stopped a few minutes ago, it might have done so again. There I hung, gently turning in the breeze, my face puffy and my tongue filling my mouth, hanging from the rope.
“Oh.” I took a deep breath (although did it really matter? My lungs were up there in the dead body, after all), and walked around myself. Yup. Pretty definitively dead.
I held on for a few more seconds, but figured that I needed to face the music, so to speak. I turned to Death, who still stood there at the side of the platform, watching me with that poker face that could only come from having no skin at all.
“So now what?” I asked. “You send me off to Heaven, or Hell? Or am I doomed to wander the Earth forever?”
He lifted his hand up to his lipless mouth – and coughed, sending out a little cloud of dust. NONE OF THE ABOVE.
The voice hit me like a tolling church bell. It didn’t seem to enter through my ears, but jumped straight to my brain. It somehow sounded like a deep, almost sepulchral bass. I knew it came from him, even though he didn’t do anything silly looking like wiggle his jawbone.
“None of the above?” I tried to remember my Sunday School teachings, before I decided that the whole salvation thing wasn’t meant for me. “So if not Heaven, or Hell, or Purgatory, where am I going?”
Those blue flames in his eye sockets seemed to glitter at me. DO YOU RECALL YOUR LAST WORDS?
“I’d give my soul to any that would take me,” I repeated. “Yeah, so? Who took it?”
And once again, one of those flames flickered out, then back on. A wink. Death was winking at me.
Well, never let it be said that I’m not an adaptable guy. Gotta be, to be a good outlaw. Part of my mind boggled at the implications of this, but I’d sort through it all later. Right now, I needed to keep on my feet.
“Great,” I said, trying to keep dread out of the words. “So what now?”
To be continued!