This month I’m going to try something a little different. Each month I’m going to expand my Flash Fic Pics so that you get one story with lots of cool illustrations. Each month you’ll get a different look and theme. Check back everyday for a new picture and the next part of the story! See you on the other side…
When I was young, I met a man. I was out drinking some coffee with a couple of friends when he arrived. He wasn’t a particularly remarkable man but he had the kind of face you’d swear you’ve seen somewhere before once. Maybe even a hundred times. You could have passed him on the street every day but you would never remember where or when. The day I met the unremarkable man with the familiar face, he told me I was going to die.
That day, my friends and I were sitting in a room—a den really—talking about this and that like we always did. I don’t recall the topic but I’m sure it was unimportant. Hell, the rest of the room escapes me. I’m assuming there were other chairs and tables and it was painted a light blue, I think. Or maybe gray. But the angel—that I remember. It hung on the wall near the entrance, life-sized and crucified. It made me sad to look at it (which is probably why I stared). It’s funny what you remember at the end. Anyways, they were sitting with their backs to the angel when he walked in and stood before us.
His head scraped against the low ceiling to our little nook and he held his neck in a craned way that made me uncomfortable. My friends, up to this time a loquacious pair, stopped talking. After an awkward and very pregnant pause, they stood and left me alone with the bent man. To this day, I’m not sure if they could even see him. He sat down in the chair opposite me and rested his face in the purlicue of his hand. His eyes were intense. He said nothing.
I asked him if we had met before and he shook his head. No. I asked him if he was from the area and he shook his head. No. Out of towner? Nope. Admirer? Not even close. Then what? What did he want? I’ll tell you what he wanted. With a voice as calm and as deep as still waters, he said that he had come to take me. My heart barreled in my chest as I searched his face for an intention. Did he mean to murder me? It sure sounded like he meant to murder me. I felt like a caged animal caught in a trap in a tight corner. Where? Where are you taking me? Where are we going?
Fear gripped me to the seat. But then he offered me his hand and the fear melted away. I realized I was going on this ride whether I wanted to or not. The train had already left the station. “Hurry,” he said, “you only have 48 hours.” I rose to my feet like some newly born Bambi and grabbed hold of his outstretched arm. The nervous beads of sweat on my palm crystallized, fusing me to him like a tongue on a frozen pole. His skin was colder than ice. I peeled my hand free and walked out of the den into the morning light.
It was official: Fall had gone for good. The sun shone through the tall buildings in blocks of warmth and winter. The trees lining the roadway were bare. I asked him his name but the answer was lost in a sudden gust of wind. He walked off down the sidewalk before I could ask again so I dubbed him the Ice Man. It took me a few blocks to realize he was wearing a jacket. I’m almost positive he didn’t have one when he arrived. It was one size too small and his hands were stuffed in the pockets as if ice could get cold. It was a nice coat, though, one of those unisex leather trenches. My mother owned one just like it. One year I left it outside for the whole winter and when we found it again in Spring, the leather had cracked. She never forgave me.
Trying to stave off the bitter winds of winter with their empty gazes, the ambling host of transients provided us with a wide berth as we made our way down the boulevard. Their accommodation was too wide for just me but also too wide for just two. Their eyes darted every way but ours, leaving evidence of my companion’s corporeal status in short supply. He was cold, yes, but was he imaginary? I kept my eyes forward for the most part, only stealing glances every chance I could. It was pointless. Every time I’d look away, the image in my head would get lost in the faces of the crowd.
I don’t know why I went with him. In situations like this, the need for self-preservation would advise against it. This time, it didn’t. Looking back, I suppose it’s because I didn’t want to be alone. My friends had all but disappeared and he was there. I didn’t ask him to be there, he just was. He walked by my side, led by some Ouija force, past the relics of my youth (which, in my opinion, was not long enough ago). I waited for my chance to escape. It had to be coming. I just had to wait for it to show itself. We walked in silence, stopping only when a friendly smell or showgirl’s laugh came drifting on the wind. Fountains misted me with cold spray as they step danced with their water jets.
After walking for God knows how long, we took a break at a crosswalk to let cars on their way to somewhere better zoom past us. The tower where I received my first kiss loomed overhead across the street. I waited for the feeling of awe and nostalgia to wash over me but it would never come. I suppose I lost it a long time ago. The look in Ice Man’s eyes, on the other hand, was full of it. I mentioned it was weird being back here as an adult. His eyes asked why and I didn’t know for sure. I just always thought it was taller when I was a kid. Everything was taller back then.
I don’t think I ate at all that day. Just couldn’t find the urge to. Ice Man didn’t seem to mind. He seemed perfectly happy to do what I wanted to do. Maybe this dying thing wasn’t going to be so bad after all. In lieu of a better idea, I decided the best thing to do was sit in the same spot for the next 48 hours and wonder if this was really happening to me. I was convinced that if I just sat there and stayed still, Ice Man would go away and this would be over. It was either that or get drunk. I stared off into space hoping I was right.
Option number two went into effect when I decided to drink my night away in some 24 hour dive bar that night. Seemed like a good enough use of time for someone in my position. Like going in a time machine where you can just skip past all the sucky moments. Stopping on the not-sucky moments is the tricky part. It didn’t matter to me. My life had been a whirlwind of sucky parts on top of sucky parts. What’s one more? The Ice Man sat on the stool next to me, never leaving my side. I got the best look at his face that night. Too bad it was a blur.
On the morning of day two, with a splitting headache and 24 hours to go, he let my feet lead the way. If there was a right way to go, he gave no indication we were going the wrong one. The boulevard gradually whittled down to an avenue and the avenue to a street occupied by solely my car. My keys jingled in my shivering hand as the wind blew snow drifts from mound to mound. The jagged cuts of my name etched into the sidewalk by the stoop made me pause and look at the ashy brownstone with its blue doors. I knew this place.
The site of multiple after-school playdates and hours wasted waiting for my mother should have carved out a deeper pit in my mind but its place in my memories were as shallow as my name in the cement. But I figured if anyone could tell me if I was going crazy, they could. They’ve been there from the beginning. They were the best people I knew and they could save me from the Ice Man. I stomped up the stairs and was halfway up when I noticed that he wasn’t following me. “There’s no one there.” he told me. “They’ve long since gone. You will join them soon.” Frantic, I rang the doorbell, knocked and shouted but he was right. There was no one home. He shrugged and opened my car door. As he sat down in the front seat and buckled up, I decided that maybe he was real after all.
As I drove away, I got angry. Angry that this was happening to me. The leather of the steering wheel squeaked under my furious grip. It was too soon. Too soon for this stranger to come for me. I was still young. Too young. This is bullshit, I tell him. Of all of the fucked up things going on in the world, why he had to come to me? It’s not like I deserved it. I told myself I didn’t deserve it. I had my whole life ahead of me, damn it! He merely patted my hand and stared out the window.
My angry breath fogged the windows of the car until my windows were opaque. I had to lean towards his side at one point just to see. His side was crystal clear. He told me he liked my car and I said thanks, I worked really hard for it. My mother always liked Mercedes so I guess I got it from her. Champagnes tastes, beer money. I told him it was even better on long drives. We could go anywhere. All he had to do was tell me where and zoom, we’re on our way. I would have driven one thousand miles away if I could. Anywhere was better than where I was headed.
The lonely feeling started to creep in about an hour outside of the city. As long as your parents are still alive, you’re somebody’s child but when they’re gone you’re just….you. The ‘you’ that you have to be without them depends what you got from them because, believe me, once they’re gone there’s no more. The tap is tapped out. All you can hope is that you got some good stuff. What did I have left behind? The me I was at that moment was a sad human being. Really sad. The worst thing is I vowed to myself that I would be different. Do the things my parents didn’t do. Looks like I’m just more of the same.
Every time I looked over at the Ice Man, he reminded me of what I was losing. Time. Opportunities. Love. Soon, those things would be buried deep down and there was no digging them back up again. I had my chance and I wasted it. I still wonder how I got here. Months of not speaking turned into years until you’re at the point where no one even checks to see if you’re alive. I didn’t want to go like that. No one should go like that.
I drove on autopilot until we came to a familiar house. I recognized it because I grew up there. My parents and I had moved in right after I turned 3. It was shiny back then. Now, there was a grime on it that I couldn’t unsee. My throat grew hot and nostrils stung. A miasma had polluted my childhood home and its influence was clear. No one lives here now. As I wiped the tears from my burning eyes, the gray face of my mother peeked out from the upstairs window. I looked again and saw only a smudge.
I waited at the end of the driveway with my companion for the UPS guy to finish his business at the front door. He rapped on the wooden door and placed the package underneath the bench to its side. I got out and put a hand to my face for protection. I could no longer see the memories I forged within its walls, only danger. Did you know, a human body, if left untreated, will begin to liquefy after a month? Did you also know that in a warm environment, such as a house, the effects of bacterial decay on a human body can leave a rather distinct odor behind that could likely traumatize a person? I didn’t. Now, I do.
The warning signs that plastered the door what I thought was only moments ago were gone and all that was left was the sound of my ragged breathing. There was no trace of tattered plastic or caution tape to be found. Like so many other things that day, I wondered if I had imagined it all. I was glad to see that the package from the UPS man still sat underneath the bench as real as the nose on my face. The box was heavier than expected and I struggled to lift it from its hiding place. I read the name on the slip. It was addressed to me.
The urn inside of the box was beautiful, a glossy navy blue with a pearl rose inlay. And it was right on time. If I had to choose between this jar or a bag of bones for a resting place, I’d take the jar. The Ice Man asked if I got what I came for. I hoped so. I drove us to a hotel downtown and laid in bed with the windows cracked, thinking about the places I had been. I asked him why he chose those places and he said he didn’t. I did. He was right. I needed to see those places again. I needed to say my last words. He sat in the corner watching over me as I tried to exhale the grief out. The shadows grew long as the sun set on my day. Exhaust from the cars stuck in traffic beside us puffed along like grumbling locomotives. Stop, go, stop. Puff, puff, pass.
The following morning, I dressed in my best death suit and left my hotel room for the home across the street. The Ice Man was standing on the sidewalk waiting, presumably, for me. I smoothed down the front of my clothes and told him I was ready and he asked what for. How could he not know? My 48 hours were up. It was time for me to die, he said so himself. “Is that what you heard? Go. They’re waiting for you.” He picked at his fingernails until a chunk of ice piled up on his thumbnail. He flicked it away casually and watched a squirrel bury an acorn in the snow across the street. The sounds of familiar voices drifted over on the wind. I stepped off of the curb and into the empty street.
I had barely taken two steps when the Ice Man yanked on the back of my arm with his ice cold hands like a bear snatching salmon from a river. “Sorry,” he said, “there was something on you.” He directed my scrambled steps beck across the street and I glared at him one last time before heading on my way. The place where he touched me on my arm felt raw and burnt. A piece of me had been torn off and I let him have it. I had somewhere to be.
It was a quiet procession to the other side. I held the urn one last time before I had to hand it over to the man who cremated what was left of my mother’s body. Last I saw the Ice Man, he was standing on the other side of the street, far from the heavy wooden doors to the mortuary behind me. I would have to enter on my own. He stood there, hand in hand, with a child that resembled someone I used to be. My arm still burned from where he touched me. A bus with an advertisement for an injury firm sped past me, buffeting me with its wind. When the bus passed, they were gone.
Some people believe that the killing frost marks the true start of winter. The ice grey day when all the color seems to have gone from the world and you have to hold yourself to keep warm. That’s the day life stops. You never know when it’s going to come until it does. When I met the unremarkable man with the familiar face all those years ago, I wasn’t prepared for it. I told you this was the story of how I died. And although I’m still here, living and breathing, it was true. The person I was before was a child and children cannot survive on their own. I went inside and said goodbye to my mother that day. I had no other choice. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized he hadn’t come for me as I was then. He had come for the child I used to be. He was making room for growth. He was making room for Spring.
The Killing Frost.