Greetings all! We all love a good Friday the 13th, but when is it better than when it happens to fall in the hallowed month of October?!? To celebrate, I’m giving you all a peek at the title story of my soon-to-be-released anthology, “Reaper” from Stitched Smile Publications. Enjoy!
“Dammit, Thana! Fuck you.”
I grin at my twin as she tosses her hand onto the table and folds her arms across her chest. Reaching over, I drag the pile of assorted bills and coins toward me and dig through it.
“Is this a Roman Denarius?” I hold the coin up to the light and squint, trying unsuccessfully to make out the illegible script.
“I don’t know. Probably.”
That’s the best part of beating Karen at cards: I never know what gems I’m going to find in the pool. She’s always tossing in random and rare bits of money—a bronze obol here, a Willow Tree Threepence there—whatever happens to be in her pockets, or if we’re playing for higher stakes, the multitude of glass jars hanging around the place. She’s got quite the collection; then again, I guess that’s what happens when your twin’s been ferrying the dead around since nearly the beginning of time.
The thought puts a damper on my enthusiasm, and I lay the ancient Roman coin back on the table. I’m always gone by the time they give Karen their coin, so I have no idea who gave her this Denarius. But whoever it was, I was there; at some point in this interminable existence of mine, I met them, took their soul by the hand, and led them away from life.
“Hey. You okay?”
I look up to see Karen studying me and give myself a mental shake. “Yeah. Fine.”
She cocks her head, her lips pursed; it’s a look I’m familiar with and it says quite succinctly: Bullshit.
“You know I’m here for you, right?”
“Of course I do. Why would you say that?”
“Because I wonder sometimes. You can be so …”
Depressing. Bereft. Cut off.
She doesn’t say any of that, but I hear it nonetheless.
“I just … I hate this, Karen. Sometimes I hate it so much I can barely breathe. And the fact that you’re stuck in this with me, that I did this to you—”
“Thana. Thana, stop. Do you hear me? Stop. You didn’t do this to me. We got dealt a lousy hand, that’s all. But we’re sisters, and I will always have your back. You got that? No matter what happens. No matter how bad shit gets. We’re in this together; we always have been, and we always will be. So please, stop. This isn’t your fault.”
Except it is, Karen. It is.
Above our heads, an alarm goes off, cutting off the discussion. We both glance up, then at each other. Mirror images, our shoulders hunch, and we release twin huffs of breath.
It’s been a whopping seven and a half minutes.
Rising to my feet, I follow her into her bedroom. She disappears into the closet; seconds later, a billowing black cloak is hurled at my face. Catching it, I give it a hard shake, then whip it over my shoulders. By the time I’ve adjusted the clasp and raised the hood, Karen has emerged, also enshrouded in black. She holds out a six-foot scythe, the curved blade easily measuring a yard. Without hesitation, I grab it and settle it against my shoulder. It’s a back-up—my Jimmy Garappolo, so to speak—but it’ll work. It has to, as Brady’s safely ensconced in the closet at my place. I could go get him—it wouldn’t take that long—but there’s a reason Karen and I keep spares: It saves time.
In sync, we turn and head for the front door. Stepping outside, the sunlight glints off the freshly washed windows of Karen’s rustic cabin. Corey must have been here recently; I don’t know what sort of cleaner he uses, but somehow the glass glistens longer than any glass should. I should ask him about it someday. But then again, when would I have the time?
The sun beats down as I embrace my twin. Anyone else would be sweltering beneath the heavy, ebony robe, but I’m not. There’s a reason people shiver when they think about death; I’m enveloped by an innate chill, and there’s no escaping it whenever I venture near.
“I’ll be back soon.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Before she can turn away, I call out. “I love you, Karen.”
She shoots me a wink, and I can’t help but grin. The exchange has been a favorite of ours ever since we sat in the Skyview Drive-In in 1980 and watched The Empire Strikes Back. She heads around the side of the cabin and down the embankment to the river’s edge. With deft movements, she flips the sturdy, green canoe and slides it gently into the water. It drifts as far as the tied-off rope allows, then bounces back toward the dock.
Taking a deep breath, I focus and let myself dissipate into a swirling black mist. Moments later, I settle back into form just inside the sliding glass door of an ICU room.
Mitchell Hugh Donovan lies unconscious in the single hospital bed. His wife, Kismet, sits beside him, gently clasping his limp fingers, while a nurse moves slowly but surely around them, pulling out tubes and unhooking machines.
Kismet’s eyes are bloodshot, and her cheeks are puffy. The skin beneath her nostrils is raw. Active grief has passed, leaving behind a passive numbness.
The scene is all too familiar.
The nurse exits the room, giving her arms an absent rub as she walks past me. She’ll chalk it up to a draft, I’m sure. The doctor, who up until this point has remained silent and unobtrusive in a corner, steps forward, and my heart twists as I listen to him give Kismet the company line.
“Mrs. Donovan, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
The words sound as lifeless as Mitchell Donovan’s about to be. Can she hear it? Or is it only me, because I have heard them so many times—I wouldn’t even try to guess at how many.
People think they can empathize with the loss of a loved one, because everyone has lost someone. What no one ever seems to understand is that everyone loves differently. Everyone feels differently. And don’t get me started on the countless ways someone can grieve.
The fact is, no one can truly understand someone else’s loss.
No one … Except me.
The force of Kismet’s despair is a brutal wind that pummels me and nearly knocks me off my feet. My lungs burn as I drag a deep breath in and fight to keep my balance.
“Please, Doctor. I’d like to be alone.”
The calm in her voice is a lie. She is reeling inside.
“I understand. The nurses will notify me when … when he …”
She nods in understanding and doesn’t bother to look up as he too exits the room. Once he’s gone, I move closer, unseen.
Her arms are bandaged, hiding a severe case of road-rash. Her left lower leg is encased in a stark, white cast. A fairly deep, yet superficial cut runs the length of her forehead and disappears into her hairline.
The scene before me shifts, and I’m speeding alongside a motorcycle. Mitch’s hands rest loosely on the handlebars. Kismet rides behind him, her arms wrapped around his waist. The Mississippi River stretches out on our left, and to our right is the sheer face of a cliff. Mitch yells something over his shoulder—I can’t make it out over the roar of the wind—and the two of them laugh.
We swing around a curve. A horn blares, followed by the screeching of tires and rending screams of tearing metal. Kismet is tossed off the side of the bike. She hits the pavement, skids and rolls. Mitch propels forward into the grill of a pickup.
The memory dissolves. I’m back in the ICU room, watching Kismet watch Mitch as the last vestiges of life drain away from him.
“This isn’t how things were supposed to happen. This isn’t how our life is supposed to go. We’ve got so much left to do, together.”
Her eyes well up with tears, and I feel my own prick. It seems silly, I know. For the gods’ sake, I’ve been escorting the dead for eons. I should be used to this by now.
“You’re here for me, aren’t you?”
The ghostly essence of Mitchell Donovan floats a few feet away. I stare at him from beneath my hood and nod, my heart heavy with regret.
“I am. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be. My mother’s been warning me about that damn bike since I was sixteen. I just … I didn’t think …” He looks back toward Kismet, who’s still holding his hand and whispering to him, unaware his body’s nothing more than an empty husk. He takes a shaky breath, and his voice quivers. “I don’t want her to be alone.”
“She won’t be.” The words are out before I can stop them.
The wispy smoke that is Mitch’s face flashes back to me. “She’ll find someone else, then?” The devastating mixture of hope and despair in his voice makes my stomach roil. He loves her so much; the idea that she’ll love another after him is both his salvation and his damnation, and he can’t decide which is worse.
I know exactly how he feels.
“No. She’ll never take another lover.”
“But … You said she wouldn’t be alone. How …?”
Knowing I shouldn’t, but unable to stop myself, I give a quick wave of my hand, and the scene dissolves. The hospital walls fade away, the bed disappears. We’re standing in Mitch’s living room. A fire crackles cheerfully in the grate, Christmas lights twinkle and glint in the windows and on a six-foot tree, and Kismet sits cross-legged on the floor. A few feet away, a boy of about five giggles excitedly as he rips Frosty paper off a box nearly as big as he is. Inside is a Fisher-Price tool bench with a full set of tools.
With a whoop, he races into his mother’s arms. “Santa brought it, Mommy! He brought it! He’s the best, isn’t he, Mommy? I can’t believe it!”
Kismet laughs and hugs him tight. “He is the best. Merry Christmas, Mitch. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Can we open it tonight, Mommy? Can we? Pretty please?”
With another wave, the colors of the scene wash away and seep back into the lifeless ICU room.
“We … We have a son?” Mitch stares at Kismet, who sits with an instinctual and unknowing hand on her belly.
“About six weeks. She won’t realize she’s missed her period for about another month.”
“Wow …” Mitch raises a hand to wipe at his eyes. The tears aren’t corporeal, but the action is inherent. “Dammit.”
My heart wrenches at the regret and agony seeping from him. It’s difficult, but somehow I hold my tongue and remain silent, giving him a final moment to grieve.
“It’s not fair! It’s too soon.”
It always is.
“The driver of that damn truck should be in that fucking bed! I don’t know what that asshole was doing—drinking, sleeping, on a fucking phone—but he came around that curve in the wrong damn lane. I’ve always been careful on my bike, and I never would have taken Kismet out if I thought …”
He drifts off, shaking with repressed fury and palpable sorrow. “And now my son will grow up without a father. Because of a fucking dumbass driver. Dammit!”
The shout should echo, but sound doesn’t exist in the vacuum of our presence. My heart is breaking for him, for his wife and his unborn child. A thought crosses my mind, and I fight to stamp it out.
I can’t. It’s against the rules.
Perhaps it’s the undying love shining in Kismet’s tears. Or maybe it’s an innate need to see justice served. Hell, most likely it’s because I’ve been doing this for too damn long, and I just can’t deal with it anymore. Whatever the reason, I let go of the invisible grip I hold on Mitchell Donovan.
His essence glows, and he is drawn slowly back toward the prostrate figure in the hospital bed. He looks up at me, his eyes wide.
“Wha … What’s happening?”
“Go back to your family, Mitchell.”
“But I thought … How?”
I just shake my head. “Take your life back. Love your wife. Witness the birth of your son. Live.”
His eye shimmer. “Thank you.” The words are little more than a soundless whisper.
“Until we meet again, Mitchell Donovan.”
The silvery mist congeals into a form resembling a man and is sucked into the body that once again holds Mitch’s being. Suddenly, he bows off the bed, and with a wheeze, begins to cough uncontrollably.
Kismet shoots out of her chair and leans over him, her hand on his chest.
“Mitch? Mitch!” She looks up and screams. “Nurse! Doctor!”
As members of the hospital staff rush in, I take my leave, drifting into naught but ether, and head for Karen’s cabin.
She’s standing in the doorway when I arrive. With long strides, she meets me halfway across the lawn, her eyes flashing.
“What the hell happened, Thana? What did you do?!?”
Will consequences follow Thana’s actions? I mean, the Reaper’s supposed to reap, right? And who will suffer the most from the potential fallout? To find out, keep your eyes peeled for “Reaper,” COMING SOON! from Stitched Smile Publications!
A gun, a razor, and some pills. Life-threatening panic attacks. A harmless bedroom accident. Predator turned prey.
The Reaper has arrived.
In this new anthology, Briana Robertson presents a selection of chilling tales where Death doesn’t discriminate, leaving readers in fear for their own mortality. Fatality lurks between every turn of the page, threatening all—from an innocent child left unobserved to the grim reaper herself.
Told exclusively from a female’s perspective, “Reaper” highlights the underlying, everyday terror of facing life’s end and bestows a grim reminder: Death comes for us all.
Briana Robertson excels at taking the natural darkness of reality and bringing it to life on the page. Heavily influenced by her personal experience with depression, anxiety, and the chronic pain of fibromyalgia, Robertson’s dark fiction delves into the emotional and psychological experiences of characters in whom readers will recognize themselves. Her stories horrify while also tugging at heartstrings, muddying the lines of black and white, and staining the genre in multiple shades of grey.
In 2016, Robertson joined the ranks of Stitched Smile Publications. Her solo anthology, “Reaper,” which explores the concept of death being both inevitable and non-discriminatory, debuted in 2017. She also has stories included in “Unleashing the Voices Within,” by Stitched Smile Publications, “Man Behind the Mask,” by David Owain Hughes, Jonathan Ondrashek, and Veronica Smith, and “Collected Easter Horror Shorts” and “Collected Halloween Horror Shorts” by Kevin Kennedy.
She is currently serving as Head of Dark Persuasions, the dark erotic branch of Stitched Smile Publications.
Robertson is the wife of one, mother of four, and unashamed lover of all things feline. She currently resides on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, with a backyard view of the Saint Louis skyline, and is a member of the Saint Louis Writers Guild.
To find out more about Briana Robertson, please visit her website at http://www.brianarobertsonwri.wix.com/brianarobertson.