Shapstik’s Short Stories: Half Life

Just thought I would post a quick short story to read on your tea break. It is my own take on classic science-fiction horror episodes such as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Hope you enjoy it and let me know what you think…if it pleases you.

Half-Life

Here are some interesting questions: If the knowledge of exactly when you would die was extended to you, would you take it? Would you want to know? If you did and found out it was going to be much sooner than you had hoped, how would you react?

If you found out it was an early exit from this world, but you don’t know how it happens, would you take fewer risks with your life to avoid the inevitable, or live each day like it’s your last because you know it is not yet your time? This of course may be indirectly why you die so soon in the first place, which would create a paradox. Maybe it would change you as a person, maybe it wouldn’t. For many of us go through life secretly harbouring the belief that we will cross the finish line of life old and surrounded by family, happy in the knowledge you had lived a good life. There are many of us, without knowing the truth, that assume longevity. This is probably why life insurance is so difficulty to sell.

But there are some people bouncing around on this floating rock that truly cherish life and treat it with the respect it deserves. These people do not need to know the ‘when’ or the ‘how’ about life. They simply savour the sights and the sounds. They look upon each new day as a world of opportunity, basking in the knowledge that their time on the earth is to be relished and grasped with both hands. They treat their friends and family well and look after their body and take the greatest care over their health.

The man you are about to meet was not one of the above people. Not even close…

————————–

“I am telling you, I get a pay cheque at the end of the week!” the customer pleaded, unconvincingly.

“And I’m telling you, I don’t care,” the shopkeeper replied, “I always hear the same story from you man, it’s always the end of the week. You think that when you were born the world started revolving around you? Well it don’t. I have had enough of your lies. It’s always one more pack of cigarettes, one more bottle of Jack…”

The customer in the grubby, coal-black coat held up his hand and closed his eyes, “fine” he sighed, rubbing his hand across his rough, unshaven jaw. He was already holding up the queue and he could feel the old lady behind him burning a hole in his back.

“I’ll take my business elsewhere my friend,” the man said, and turned to leave.

“Sure, business!” the shopkeeper spat. “I have lent you more money then you have spent in here.” He raised his voice as the unwanted man neared the door, “and don’t bother coming back unless you’re here to pay up!”

The man ignored him, opened the shop door and put one foot on the pavement outside.

“Asshole”, the shopkeeper muttered under his breath before turning and smiling at the grey haired lady as she stepped forward.

Outside, the man in the long coat slammed the door and turned to scowl through the shop window. He saw the shopkeeper chatting gaily to the old lady like nothing had happened. He turned back to the street and whipped his scarf around his face before setting off back to his tiny flat around the corner. As he walked, his long legs cast scissor-shadows across the front of the shop windows. It was way past ten and the cold was setting in. He hunched his shoulders and kept his head lowered against the biting cold wind.

As rude and unconstructive as the shopkeeper’s farewell insult was, it wasn’t far from the truth. Peter treated his body like a rubbish tip. He could have grown-up to become a very handsome man. He was tall, tanned and had deceivingly kind features across his face. But he was now way past overweight and his drinking and smoking were competing for the ‘worse habit award’ in his life. He had had many friends and even more lovers at university but the wrong crowd and a lazy attitude meant he failed his course and his parents allowed him to pay for his mistakes. He had been working in a local factory ever since, it was all he could manage in his constantly hung-over state. But even that job was in the air pending the investigation of the recent theft of machinery parts. Peter denied everything of course.

People rarely saw Peter without a cigarette bobbing between his lips as he spoke, and after that argument with the shopkeeper he craved one now more than ever. As he turned down the alleyway leading to his flat, the wind died down and he paused against the wall to light a cigarette, cupping his hand in front of the lighter to keep the flame burning.

“You know, you could probably afford to pay him back,”a low voice said from the other side of the alley.

Peter stopped before the flame touched the end of the cigarette and peered over the edge of his index finger. He saw a figure sitting on top of a rusty blue recycling bin, looking at him with his legs crossed and smiling.

After a moment Peter smiled back and touched the flame to his cigarette. He drew a deep breath, exhaled and regarded the man through a cloud of velvet smoke.

“And you really shouldn’t smoke those things,” the man sitting on the bin continued. “It’ll cut your life short. That, above all, I can guarantee.”

The stranger continued looking at him with an air of unnatural arrogance. Peter had met all sorts of dark characters on his nightly journeys down this alleyway and knew how to deal with them. He saw that this new arrival wore a grey suit and had thick black hair. He could almost be mistaken for a businessman, if he wasn’t sitting on top of a bin. But, despite his precarious and unsanitary position, his clothes seemed untouched by the dirt around him. In fact, Peter thought he looked perfectly comfortable. He also noted the man to be of small build and wiry, so he felt confident if the stranger tried anything untoward.

“I’m sure you’re right,” Peter agreed, “and I’m sure sitting on top of that bin full of broken glass will do the same,” he said whilst nodding towards the man’s seating arrangement.

The stranger said nothing and just smiled back. Peter decided it was time to leave. “You just sit tight my friend”, he shouted, even though he was but feet away, “I’ll go fetch you a chair.” He smugly grinned and turned to leave, taking another drag of his cigarette, rolling his eyes in the process.

“I’ll make you a deal Peter,” the man called after him, “give me a cigarette and I’ll make you rich.”

Two things made Peter stop with his foot hovering just above a drain cover. The first was the mention of money. The second, was the fact the stranger knew his name. He let his foot come down gently, but did not turn around.

“I thought you said smoking would kill you,” Peter said over his shoulder.

“No,” the strange man replied quietly. “I said they would kill you.” He raised his voice, “besides! I’ve smoked over a million of them and I’ve never felt better!” At this he threw his head back and laughed. It was a sick sound and it bounced off the walls before dancing cruelly down the alleyway in both directions.

Peter turned to face him. He saw that the man already had his hand outstretched in anticipation. Peter narrowed his eyes.

“So…if I give you a cigarette,” he said, stepping through his words carefully, “you’ll give me money.”

“Oh, the cigarette doesn’t matter,” the man in the grey suit said with a wave of his free hand. “I would give you the money anyway, as much as you want in fact.”

“Why?” Peter asked.

“Because money means nothing to me,” the man said quickly, shrugging his shoulders, as if he was asked that question all the time. “I’ll offer you something else as well,” he continued, getting excited. “Something just as valuable to you, but in a completely different way.”

Peter narrowed his eyes again and returned to his cigarette. A large part of him felt, no knew, this guy was wrong. But a larger part wanted money, and this guy was crazy. Crazy people did crazy things with money, especially rich ones.

“So what else can you offer me?” Peter asked.

The stranger inhaled sharply before answering, “I’ll tell you when you will die,” he replied.

Peter raised his eyebrows. This is way out of my league, he thought, dragging on his cigarette again before flicking it onto the wall next to a stack of crates. He watched as the shower of glowing embers died away into blackness. Gathering himself he lifted his head up.

“Let’s stick with the money,” he said.

“Most people normally do,” the dark man replied, almost to himself.

Just as Peter was going to say something else, a wooden box was thrown to the side, as a dirty grey cat suddenly leapt up next to the stranger. Peter jumped back and felt his heart skip a beat.

The man on the bin did not even flinch. He just sat there smiling that strange smile, his hand still outstretched. He allowed the cat to rub up against his knee, hardly noticing it, never taking his eyes from Peter’s face.

Peter stood there rubbing his chest from the shock. He was starting to really dislike the situation. He watched the cat using the stranger as a rubbing post, could hear it purring like a small engine from where he was. Now and again it would pause and glance over at him, its ashen face content, yet knowing.

“So?” The stranger asked.

“Huh?” Peter looked from the cat to the stranger, and noticed how the man’s contentment was so similar to that of his feline companion.

“So,” the man repeated, “how much do you want?”

“How much what?” Peter practically whispered.

From somewhere in the stranger’s mouth there came a low clicking noise and he rolled his own eyes. “How much money?” he asked slowly.

Peter glanced down at his own hand still rubbing his chest and suddenly felt foolish. He came back to reality and realised the ridiculousness of the situation. He quickly regained his composure and his natural arrogance came flooding back in a tidal wave.

“Hmmm, let me see,” he mused loudly, “let’s say…a hundred million pounds?” He squashed his mouth together to stop from smiling and nodded to himself in self-approval of the amount.

The stranger’s constant smile suddenly dropped for a cold moment and he stared at Peter, who suddenly glimpsed the face of a man that was not crazy. He was just not the same as the rest of us.

After what felt like an eternity, the stranger simply said: “Are you sure?”

Peter stopped smiling. “Yes,” he replied with certainty.

The stranger then closed his eyes for a moment. If Peter had not been completely glued to the man’s face, he may not have noticed it. “Done,” the man said, the grin returning to his face.

There was a moment of silence as Peter continued to stare dumbfounded at the dark face sitting below the hair that was as black as night.

He suddenly snapped out of his trance and realised where he was, who he was talking to, and what he just asked for. He also remembered how ridiculous it was. Peter’s face suddenly broke out into the biggest grin imaginable. “Well!” he exclaimed, his voice echoing all around. He began to spread his arms out wide and started turning in a slow circle in the alleyway. The stranger watched him doing this, completely happy with the reaction. “Look at all this money!” Peter shouted again, “What shall I buy first!?” he stopped and let his finger rest on his chin as he tilted his head.

“Peter,” the man said.

“Maybe a boat!” Peter said, raising his eyebrows and his finger at the same time.

“Peter,” the stranger repeated.

“No,” Peter corrected, lowering his finger and shaking his head, “forgot I get sea sick”.

“Peter Archibald Garland,” the stranger said again, louder this time and slightly impatiently.

Peter turned his head quickly. Most people who knew his middle name did not dare mention it as it would normally end in the rearrangement of their nose. Instead, he just looked at the elvish man and gave him his hardest stare.

“The money is in your bank,” the man said calmly, “you didn’t want me to leave it in the alleyway here did you?” The stranger paused and tilted his head slightly to the side, “unless that’s what you want?”

A breath of cold wind flew down the alleyway, biting at Peter’s face. His stomach suddenly rumbled and he realised how long he had been talking to this man, and started to come to the conclusion that it was becoming a waste of time. He also realised that his favourite programme on television was starting soon and the combination of a microwaved lasagne and a glass of Jack Daniels beckoned loudly in his head.

That is enough.

“Look,” Peter said, raising a hand. “You clearly have issues my friend.”

The stranger’s head returned back to level, facing him.

“And,” Peter continued cautiously, “If you can’t show me some money right now, I’m outta here.”

The stranger suddenly clapped his hands together so loudly that the cat hissed and leapt back into the boxes below. He sat bolt upright and his hair lifted briefly from his face, his grin widening more than ever.

“A challenge!” the stranger exclaimed, “you never let me down Peter, you really don’t!”

Peter still had his hand raised. He hadn’t expected that.

The stranger re-opened his hands and closed his eyes once again. When he opened them he smiled and nodded towards an old wooden crate, near where the cat had sprung from.

“Open it Peter,” he said, “if it pleases you”.

If it pleases you? Peter thought. He lowered his hand and stood up straight. What the hell is going on here? He looked over at the crate and noticed that it was very close to the stranger’s throne and Peter wanted to make sure the man was not able to take advantage of the elevated position on top of the recycling bin. He hesitated for a moment and looked back up at the grey suit and black hair. The stranger resembled the Cheshire Cat in the darkness, his teeth outshining everything around him.

Peter swallowed and stepped over to the crate. It was old and broken and had a hinge lid. It looked like it used to hold kids toys or clothes. Curiosity and desperation drove Peter forward, and he looked up again at the man above him just before reaching over to open the lid. The stranger was looking down at him, his eyes almost popping out of his head in excitement. It looked as if this was his favourite part. The man continued to simply stare as Peter reached over and lifted the lid and looked inside.

Peter’s eyes widened and his heart started racing as he scanned the neat piles of fifty pound notes lining the bottom of the crate.

“Jesus Christ,” he whispered.

“Nowhere near as inventive, I assure you,” a voice said from above him.

Peter ignored the stranger and threw the lid open the rest of the way, allowing his favourite sin to dictate his actions: greed. He suddenly didn’t care how the man knew the money was in there and whether it was his to give away. He just knew he had deep pockets in his coat.

The stranger watched on with childish glee as Peter began stuffing his pockets with shaking hands, occasionally glancing up at the stranger with an almost fearful expression that seemed to please the stranger even more.

There must be a couple of thousand in here, Peter thought.

Once he was sure all the money was gone he stood up straight and started backing slowly away from the open lid and the man on the bin, who kept watching him intently.

“So have you changed your mind about wanting to know when you will die?” the stranger suddenly asked.

Peter stopped walking backwards for a moment. He had forgotten all about that.

“When I will die?” he asked.

“Yes” the stranger replied, “the age at which you will die”.

Peter looked up and down the alley, with two thousand pounds in his pockets and being a good distance from the stranger still on top of his bin, he suddenly didn’t mind so much about missing his programme or his lasagne. Fuck it, He thought, I’m eating out.

“Sure,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “I would love to know”.

The stranger raised his eyebrows and his head moved back slightly. For the first time since their meeting, he actually looked surprised.

“Really?” he said.

Peter impatiently adjusted his stance. “Sure, why not?”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” the man said, his smile fading away, “and that’s my only warning”.

The money in Peter’s pockets suddenly felt like illegal gold bars and he looked again at both ends of the alleyway. He thought he saw a figure turn into the far end. Then it moved on past across the street. He relaxed.

“Just tell me,” he said loudly, turning back and looking the man in the face.

The stranger sat up straight and lifted his chin, “You will be ninety”.

There was a moment of silence as the reply sunk in. Then, for some awful reason Peter thought this was very funny and started laughing. But then immediately stopped as he realised the stranger looked slightly hurt, and annoyed.

“I’m sorry,” Peter said, “I guess I was expecting a car accident, or maybe horse flu”. He started laughing again and clamped his hand on his mouth, his eyes watering.

“No” the stranger replied, “just old age”.

Peter felt as if it was time to conclude this charade. Although he still felt confident about the man’s size, he didn’t like the way he had known his name. He did not just look out of place on top of the bin either, he looked out of place in this world. Peter also just didn’t plain like him. Besides, he wanted to get this money home as soon as possible. He looked down the alleyway. It was only a minute to his flat and he was already thinking about where he was going to stash the money. It was a cliché, but the floorboards were quite loose in the corner by the television. He inflated his chest and turned his attention back to the stranger one last time:

“Well, this has been great,” he said quickly smiling, trying to keep the stranger happy, “thanks again for the money and I hope we see each other again, unfortunately though, I’m going to be busy for a while”.

He turned to leave and took two steps without looking back. He hoped for a brief moment that he would never see the man again.

“Peter?” the stranger called politely after him.

Shit. Peter stopped walking. “Yes?” He said through clenched teeth without turning around.

“Can, I have my cigarette?” the man said.

Peter turned around and saw that the man had leaned forward slightly and had his hand outstretched once more.

His instincts told him to say no and turn and leave. But there was something about this guy, something wrong. He wanted to leave him on as good a note as possible.

Peter smiled. “Of course,” he slowly said.

He started walking slowly back towards the stranger, whilst moving a cigarette out of the packet from inside his pocket. Once his fingers wrapped themselves around a filter, his impulse was to throw the cigarette at the stranger. But he also knew the wind blowing down the alley might catch it. This would mean either the man getting down to fetch it, or worse, Peter himself bending over in front of him, which he didn’t like at all. Instead, he pulled the cigarette out of his pocket, extended his arm and reached the edge of the bin, his senses tingling. The stranger leaned forward painfully slowly and took the cigarette from the filter end. Peter saw the stranger’s face close up and noticed that it was both plain and weathered. He had a wide, large nose and a deep tan, even though it was well into winter.

But it was the eyes. The cold, dark eyes. When the stranger stared at Peter, he seemed to look at parts of him that didn’t even exist.

The stranger continued to lean forwards and stare until their faces were only inches apart. Peter became suddenly repulsed and pulled in at the same time and had to restrain himself from turning away.

“So are you going to pay him back now?” the stranger said quietly.

“Who?” Peter whispered, just as softly.

“The shopkeeper,” the stranger said, lifting his eyebrows.

Peter suddenly let go of the cigarette and took a step back, his foot collapsing a small orange carton as he did so.

“What?” he retorted, “why should I?”

Peter was glad he had taken a step back, for the stranger threw his head back again and laughed like a wolf into the night sky, putting the cigarette into his breast pocket as he did so.

“That’s what I love about you Peter!” he turned his head back down to the man below him and dropped his smile for the last time, “You really do never let me down”. Peter watched as the man’s eyes began to darken and he seemed to actually fill out around the shoulders. His suit became darker in colour and Peter was sure the shadows on the walls were becoming larger. Peter started trembling uncontrollably and he backed away again until he was a good distance from the darkening figure in the shadows.

This time Peter turned to leave and ran. He never looked back.

He had changed his mind about eating out, he didn’t feel hungry. He would stash the money and drink a whole bottle of whiskey, then fall asleep in front of the television.

Tomorrow he would go down to the bank on his lunch break and deposit some of the money. He was sure he would be asked questions if he gave them the whole amount. It wasn’t as if there was ever any money in there anyway.

————————–

Except there was.

In fact, there was just under a hundred million pounds in his account. Two thousand pounds under to be exact. Peter thought he was in trouble when the bank manager called him into his office the next day and told him about it. He nearly fainted.

Of course there were questions. In fact the bank’s investigation seemed to last for an eternity. But in the end there was no taking the money away from him, he made sure of that.

To cut a long story short, during the next number of years he spent the money in typical Peter fashion. He abandoned his family and friends and increased the drinking and smoking beyond belief. He even picked up a couple of drug habits along the way for good measure.

He had said before that people with a lot of money go crazy and everybody around him thought he had. No matter how much his health deteriorated he assured everybody that he would live till he was very old. How did he know this? People would ask. Ah! He would say and touch his nose in conspiratorial fashion as he swayed back and forth with his Jack Daniels splashing over the side of his glass. After all, he knew when he would die. He truly believed he must have a super immune system and he would out live them all.

The truth is, he wasn’t far wrong. Considering all the cigarettes he smoked, whiskey he drank and cocaine he shoved up his nose it is a miracle he went on for ten years since his meeting with the stranger. Alas, eventually he was forced into the doctor’s office and told he had lung cancer. The news didn’t go down well and Peter threw his financial weight around the medical world demanding second opinions.

The opinions never changed. His condition did.

Whenever the doctors insisted he start the chemotherapy, Peter immediately stormed out of the office, insisting they were wrong and he would live for many more years. Unfortunately, this just confirmed everybody’s suspicions about his mental state. He had heard how much the therapy made you sick and he wasn’t going to lose his hair (pardon the expression) over somebody’s incorrect opinion about whether he has cancer. He truly believed his body would just reject the disease and he could go back to his life.

He spent his final months in his home, alone, surrounded by his possessions. Without any medical assistance whatsoever, it is surprising he lasted so long. But then again he did have a special immune system. He died in his bedroom from severe cancer of the lungs at the age of forty one.

Five people attended Peter Garland’s funeral, himself included.

————————–

Peter opened his (eyes) mind to an empty silence and an invisible darkness.

He opened his (mouth) mind to speak and realised he didn’t have one. He tried to trigger his senses but his (body) mind would not allow it to happen.

Is this death?

Panic wrapped its cold hands around his thoughts and didn’t let go.

Please no. (Forever….Death has been…an eternal loneliness)

His consciousness raced around until it was back full circle. His mind wept at the idea of the next existence being an empty passage alone with just memories and thoughts for company.

His heart would have been beating like crazy by now if he had one. Time passed without his ability to sense it. He began thinking about his life before. Then crazy thoughts started making their way in to his (head) mind and crawling into the foreground. He began to wonder what he would do without a way of making things happen. Without a way of moving. Could he be alone? He would have given anything to talk to someone. He would have given all the money he ever had back just to be with his body again.

He would do anything to be whole.

Or just my head.

Just my head would do.

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted:

Hello stranger, said the stranger.

Peter felt suddenly relieved and horrified at the same instant. Relived to hear another voice but horrified that it came directly into his mind. When the stranger spoke it felt like a burning liquid pouring over his thoughts that he had no way of stopping.

You! He replied.

I didn’t appreciate the way you ran off without saying goodbye last time we met Peter, the stranger said, not at all.

Peter felt trapped and wanted to cry out every time the voice spoke. Each word pushed against his mind.

Where am I? Is this death?

There was no reply and he started to panic again.

Are…you death?

The stranger suddenly laughed again. Peter’s whole world suddenly filled up with the sound. He hated that laugh. In this place it sounded even more dreadful and it bounced around in his mind, getting louder each time it echoed.

‘No’ to all your questions I’m afraid, the voice said, you’re not dead yet. This is my own personal creation. A limbo if you will.

Peter’s memory clawed back the image of man on the bin with the grey suit and tried to attach it to the voice that was speaking. It would not fit.

What do you mean a limbo?, He thought aloud.

This, said the stranger, is where people wait between the time they die and the time they were supposed to die. For instance, if somebody gives up instead of fighting a bit harder when they were dying and lost a few hours extra life then they will wait here until the time that they should have lived to.

He could almost picture the man in the grey suit smiling as he spoke, his grin never moving.

Of course, continued the dreadful voice, it would only ever be a little difference, for without intervention it is only ever a matter of hours. Fate is a very fragile thing in these circumstances. You should know.

Peter thought nothing. He was being destroyed by every word the stranger spoke and he could already feel his mind slipping. He started to slur his (words) thoughts.

Intervention, he thought. I was supposed to live till I…was (can’t remember)…very old.

Of course you were, the stranger said. However, you were never meant to receive lots of money. Without that you would have never been able to destroy yourself so easily and you actually would have turned your life around quite nicely.

The stranger’s voice became deeper and much louder. Each syllable was like a sledgehammer in Peter’s already fragile mind.

You were also not supposed to know when you would die. That worked a treat. Because of that you didn’t even fight when you were dying. Like I said before Peter, you really do never let me down. You have been the best yet by far. No one ever wants to know when they will die. Most people don’t even ask for that much money. But you’re ambitious Peter, that’s why I chose you. But even then, you really have surprised me.

Peter started to realise what the voice was saying and how long he would be in this empty place.

His mind cried silent tears that only the stranger could hear.

It’s okay Peter, I think you’ll do well. After all you’re a stubborn chap I’m sure you’ll hang in there as long as possible.

Pl..ease…no, Peter’s mind beckoned. 

The stranger’s voice started to fade into the background and a suffocating and strange claustrophobia began to sink in around his mind.

I might pop in again though, called the stranger, to see how you’re getting on. But I can’t promise anything. Things to do, people to see and all that.

Goodbye Peter.

Silence filled the void left by the stranger and Peter’s mind wept invisible tears again.

The stranger was wrong about one thing; Peter was not that strong, he did not last long at all.

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