One Night in the Trench

by Jon Arthur Kitson

Gerald saw the shadowy figure twice before; drifting between corpses in no-man’s-land, wavering in the dark.  Nerves, he convinced himself. But this time, as it stood in the trench only feet away, there was no easy explanation.

His rifle leveled on the intruder.

“Identify yourself!”

Behind the folds of hood topping the black-robed figure, an even voice answered:

“So, you can see me.”

“Who are you?” The rifle trembled.

“Oh, I think you know.”

“… Death?”

“Well, not directly,” it nodded at the gun. “A reaper of souls.”

Gerald’s weapon dipped. “Hmm …”

“You don’t seem surprised.”

Gerald considered that.

“Guess I’m not,” he said. “Thought I might see something … supernatural out here. Not The Reaper, mind you, but something.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes,” Gerald said. “Saw my Gran once … two years after she died.”

“That’ll happen sometimes.”

“Just floated around the pantry, all wispy and such. Didn’t say anything.”

“Yes,” The Reaper said. “They usually don’t.”

“So … Why are you here?”

“I’m certainly not on holiday.” The cloaked head scanned the trench. “I’m working.”

“Working, of course,” Gerald said, blushing a bit. Then he spun and peered over the trench. “Is a battle starting? Jerry raid on the way?”

“Relax,” The Reaper said. “Nothing so dramatic; I just have one soul to collect tonight.”

Gerald’s pulse slowed. He reclined against the earthen wall. “No battle?”

“Not tonight. I’m just here for one.”

Gerald’s head tilted.

“One of the boys in the infirmary?” he asked. “Probably a mercy, really.”

“It would be, …” The Reaper paused, “… excuse me a moment.”

His cloaked hands moved to the hood. Slowly, they rolled away the fabric. Gerald cringed … then stared.

“Right stuffy under there,” The Reaper said taking a deep pull of frigid air, then noticing Gerald’s wide eyes, “Disappointed?”

The Reaper’s perfectly normal face—twentyish, with sandy hair falling just shy of hazel eyes—displayed a cockeyed smile. Gerald realized he was leering and flushed.

“Sorry. Caught me by surprise. Relieved, really.”

“Yes, I’d imagine.”

“… um, you were saying,” Gerald said, “you’re here for one of the infirmary chaps?”

“I was agreeing it’d be a mercy,” he said, “but that’s not who I’m here for, not tonight anyways.”

“Oh,” Gerald said, then “Oh! Sniper then?” He crouched, slightly. “Bastards are always picking us off.”

“Something like that.”

“Gives me the chills,” Gerald looked down the trench, “some poor fellow, just walking around, completely unaware he’s about to get a bullet to the head. Tragic.”

The Reaper nodded. “Or maybe he’s just having a friendly conversation.”

“Tragic,” Gerald repeated.

They fell silent. The Reaper leaned against the trench wall, settling in. Breath curled from his—Gerald admitted—friendly face.

The soldier chuckled.

The Reaper’s brow rose.

“What?”

“It’s just,” Gerald said, “I always figured the Grim Reaper would be more, well, grim.”

“Yes, well,” he said, “I’m not the Grim Reaper, I’m a grim reaper. Conscripted, at that. You lot have kept us busy lately.”

“Um, yes, sorry about that,” Gerald said. “I was drafted as well. Really, I’m a tailor.”

The Reaper mulled that. After a moment, “I’m a haberdasher.”

“Another clothing man,” Gerald declared and reached across the trench. “Great to meet you,” and gave The Reaper’s shoulder a firm pat.

“Um … yes.” The Reaper’s eyes studied the spot Gerald’s hand fell.

“War,” Gerald said. “It’s something, huh? Turns a tailor into a soldier and a haberdasher into a grim reaper.” He glanced down the trench, leaned forward. “The bloke you’re here for, know much about him?”

The Reaper’s eyes stayed locked on his shoulder. “A little.”

“Does that make it hard? It would me.”

After five minutes without an answer, Gerald fumbled at his pocket.

“I want to show you something.” He offered The Reaper a dog-eared rectangle of stiff paper.

The Reaper eyed it, hands folded in his lap.

“You want to show me a photograph? Me?”

“Sure. You’re an alright bloke,” and pushed the photo into The Reaper’s hands. “It’s my girl.” A grin engulfed his face. “She’s way too pretty for my sorry mug.”

The Reaper studied the photo. He smiled.

“She’s lovely,” then through a catch in his throat, “reminds me of my wife.”

He handed back the photo. Gerald tucked it away with a tender pat, then stood, grunting and stretching. He produced a tobacco pouch and bronze lighter.

The Reaper tensed.

“That’s the rub, isn’t it,” Gerald said, surveying no-man’s-land and sprinkling tobacco on paper. “The ones you leave behind. Me, you … the poor bastard you’re here for.” He looked over his shoulder. “Bet a pretty thing’s waiting for him, too.”

“Yes,” The Reaper agreed soberly. Slowly, he pulled the hood over his head and stood.

Gerald looked over no-man’s-land.

“I hope she does okay without him.”

A cigarette went between his lips, thumb to the lighter’s rough flint wheel—

—The Reaper placed a hand on the soldier’s back.

“Wait.”

Gerald’s thumb skipped over the wheel, too light to spark. His brow cocked at The Reaper.

A cloaked hand folded over the lighter.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said through the hood. “I happen to know there’s a jumpy German across the way. He’ll shoot at any light he spots.”

Gerald glared at the enemy trench, cigarette dangling.

“Damn,” he said. “Don’t know what I was thinking. Thanks.” He turned to The Reaper and grinned. “Almost had to collect my soul tonight, didn’t you?”

Quietly, hardly penetrating the hood, “Yes.”

The Reaper reached a hand into no-man’s-land. He swung into the frozen waste.

“Hey,” Gerald called. “What about your, um, appointment?”

The Reaper turned.

He shrugged.

“Turns out it’s been … pushed back.”

“Lucky bloke,” Gerald said as the black robe faded into the mist. On the breeze, he heard, …

“Yes, he is.”

Notes…

Jon’s stories have appeared in Mad Scientist Journal, Geek Force Five, Fiction Vortex and Lakeside Circus. He lives in Michigan and spends his days—nights, actually—working for the state. You can find links to Jon’s other work at http://jonarthurkitson.wordpress.com

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