Beyond the unassuming entrance, a vast network of cubicles sprawls for what seems like an impossible length almost comparable to Madonna’s career. That is the benefit of thought-based architecture: small outside, enormous inside, very efficient. The designers should be awarded, thought upper management at the time. When viewed from above though, the cubicles’ placement spells out an infinite number of obscenities, a feature picked up via security cameras a little too late. That’s the problem with thought-based architecture; everyone thinks they’re a comedian. The designers should be flogged, thought upper management.
About 666 kilometers from the door, which is roughly 414 miles for those of us who aren’t communists, is a block of cubicles called “Satan’s Taint,” since that is what they spell when seen from above. In one particular cubicle a being in a large black hooded robe works furiously bent over an elaborate blue print that depicts a stick figure being eviscerated by an out of control merry-go-round. Another being approaches the cubicle’s entrance holding a scythe in one hand and a mug in the other that reads, “Mondays are killer.” This mug contains the darkest of all brews, beans grown on the infernal hellscape of the lower pits, harvested by the damned wretched souls of rapists, pundits, child molesters, and people who talk in the theatre, and worst of all, it isn’t fair trade.
This being is similarly dressed except that his robes are a posh onyx with ebony pinstripes as opposed to a mere worker’s black. “Hey Steve, we need to have a little chat.”
Steve looks up from his most recent murderous machination. “Hey Mr. Reaper! What’s the haps?” he remarks casually.
“Steve…” Mr. Reaper begins grimly, “We need to talk about your recent work.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty wicked huh? I’ve been getting a lot of compliments from the guys over in Accidental Overdoses,” Steve states smugly, leaning back in what he believes is a devil-may-care manner. He notices the faint buzzing of a fly near the dozen pencils he’s already chucked into the ceiling. Steve takes the pencil he’s been twirling in his bony phalanges and deftly nails the fly, making the number of wooden stalactites above him a foreboding baker’s dozen. Steve looks at Mr. Reaper and points at his accomplishment with enthusiasm. “Pretty good, right?”
Mr. Reaper sighs, “Yes, you’re a regular Bullseye.”
“Jesus Fuckin’ Christ Steve! You think I don’t have enough fuckin’ paper work with all the other fuckin’ bug deaths I gotta handle?!” A hooded head pops over the cubicle wall like a goth gopher.
Steve shrugs, “Sorry Harold, just can’t help myself.”
“Hello Harold,” Mr. Reaper raises his mug in greeting.
“Oh, h-hi sir Mr. Reaper s-sir!” Harold’s head disappears as if he had triggered a trap door.
“Back to the matter at hand Steve, the Higher Ups have noticed a rather inefficient pattern in your work” Mr. Reaper pauses to take a sip. A soul-ripping shriek tears through his mind, accompanied by visions of a fanged man eating his own feet. He looks down at the mug, and briefly thinks that a 3 to 1 ratio might be a bit much for this particular blend. Shaking it off he carries on, “Do you by any chance recall a boy by the name ‘Alex Browning’?”
Steve makes a faux effort to search his warzone of a desk. “Alex Browning, Alex Browning…”
“Allow me to refresh your memory: March 2000, Flight 180, was supposed to die in the crash of said flight...” Mr. Reaper trails off. Steve picks up a new pencil and begins to chew on it thoughtfully, the yellow shaft poking through the void at the edge of his hood. “He eventually died of massive cranial trauma because of a falling brick,” Mr. Reaper finishes bluntly.
“Ooohhh yeeeaaahhh! Of course, I remember him. Brown hair, looked like Devon Sawa. He’s the psychic kid who caused me all that trouble back in the day. I was backed up for months trying to catch up,” Steve recalls innocently.
“Mmmhmmm, and do you by chance remember a Ms. Kimberly Corman?”
“Uhh, geez, you’re gonna have to refresh my memory,” Steve sheepishly replies, rubbing the back of his hood.
“A year after Flight 180, scheduled to die in a car accident on Route 23,” Mr. Reaper looks to Steve for a sign of recognition, but Steve just gives an exaggerated, palms-up shrug. “She perished with a Mr. Thomas Burke when they were both sliced to bits in a wood chipper” Mr. Reaper answers with a sharp edge to his voice.
“Hey, two birds with one, um, wood chipper. That’s pretty efficient right?” Steve offers hopefully.
Undeterred, Mr. Reaper continues, “And what about a Ms. Wendy Christensen? Ring any bells?”
“Six years after Flight 180, she was killed in a train crash,” Mr. Reaper cuts Steve off, building a head of steam, “but she was supposed to die in a roller coaster accident!” The coffee capitulates over the rim of his mug briefly into a terror stricken face and releases a tiny, terrifying wail at the sound of Mr. Reaper’s ire.
Steve and Mr. Reaper share a moment looking at the mug.
“Probably shouldn’t be using a 3 to 1 ratio with that blend,” Steve offers.
“Oh I know, but the flavor!” Mr. Reaper takes another sip. Scenes of the civil war in Sierra Leone crash through his mind, and even Mr. Reaper gives a little shiver at the horror.
Remembering himself, Steve puts his hands up in mock defense, “Anyway boss, you can’t really blame me for having the rotten luck of getting assigned so many psychics?”
“Indeed,” the response as hollow as the sockets that Mr. Reaper dearly wished at that moment might contain eyes so that he could roll them. “Finally, Steve, have you seen this?” Mr. Reaper removes his hand from his scythe and it rapidly molders to ash and smoke. He reaches into his robe, and retrieves a file thicker than a Zizek analysis. “Given your recent answers, assume the question is rhetorical,” he sneers.
“That’s the file concerning my work on maintaining list adherence,” Steve announces glowing with pride.
Taken aback, Mr. Reaper places the hand holding the file on his chest. The bulging file floats in mid-air like a bloated corpse in a river. “I’m shocked. You actually know the contents of this folder then?”
Steve cock-surely points at the file, “Within that folder is every gory detail of my greatest work here. Despite each set back, despite each snot-nosed psychic, I engineered bold new ways to catch anyone displaced from their proper order on the list,” he beams resuming his hubristic recline this time putting his feet on his desk and his hands behind his hood for additional effect.
Steve knows the truth though, and behind his proud façade he recalls that day he got Flight 180 thrown in his lap. That he partied like a Bret Easton Ellis nightmare the evening before. That he had vicious-hang-overedly groused in an email to Harold about how boring plane crashes are but detailed how he was gonna try to zazz it up anyway. That he had accidently taken a keyboard nap before hitting send. But most of all he vividly remembers his abject horror when he noticed he had put one of the kids names, Alex Browning in the BCC line.
At that moment he had slowly gazed up at the big warning poster placed in every cubicle that reads,
Accidents create Prophets!
Prophets cut Profits!
-Joan of Arc
-Jesus H. Christ
Make sure your missives don’t
make it to the mortals otherwise
you might miss your mark!
Looking back at his monitor Steve noticed he had already received an email notification that people on his list were still alive. “Maybe they all have super powers no one knew about?” he bargained with himself, “Or maybe they all made deals with the devil to spare them? We’ve had bureaucratic snafus with him before.” He quickly opened the email and who else should be at the top of the list but “Alex ‘Chance’ Browning.” Seriously? This fucker’s middle name is Chance?! How fucking contrived is that?! In that moment Steve hatched a desperate plan to keep his job. He was saving money to fulfill his life long dream and get into a graduate engineering program… that and for his truly prodigious cocaine addiction. Anyway, he was going to bury the whole Flight 180 incident like his head in a fresh snow pile. How was he going to do it? Well, a bump of the ol’ talent powder gave him an idea: he would kill all his marked mortals in such complicated, fantastic ways that the paper work necessary to report the details of his work would in turn cover his tracks. It was an effective plan, and as time passed it seemed that no punishment was forthcoming. In fact, coworkers began remarking on how much they enjoyed reading the file on his work. Problem was that before too long Steve realized the dream so many offfice drones have, he began to really enjoy his job. The sense of control, the challenge, and the power over these, oddly enough, almost always good-looking fools’ lives became another addiction for Steve. So much so that he decided to do it again and again and again.
This and all the killer work of the past 9 years flash through Steve’s mind. Many of his co-workers lavished him with praise for his work, granted many more denounced it as murder porn but what did they know? They were the kind of beings that had to justify liking Grindhouse to themselves through irony, and yet even they got in on the betting over how and in what order Steve’s most recent assignments were gonna die this time. He smiles like the Cheshire Cat who catches the Cheshire Rat. Life, well, existing is good.
“Did you hear me?” Mr. Reaper’s insistence snaps Steve back from his reverie.
“Huh, I’m sorry. I was thinking about Ewoks.”
“I said, “Then you understand why I’m going to have to let you go?” Steve,” Mr. Reaper drops the words like an atomic bomb. The resulting shockwave blows Steve over the back of his chair and both clatter to the floor.
Hopping to his feet faster than you can say, ”Our bad Hiroshima,” Steve responds with the best thing he can think of, “W-what?”
“Surely you realize the magnitude of your transgressions?” Mr. Reaper now wishing his eyeless sockets at least had one eyebrow to lift.
“What transgressions? I was merely doing my job and adhering to the list!”
“No, what you were doing is getting months behind schedule concocting cockamamie schemes to kill attractive mortals for your amusement.”
“Whoa, hey, that’s unfair,” Steve bristling at the implication.
“You deny your ludicrous inefficiency these past 9 years?” Mr. Reaper scoffs again really wishing for that eyebrow.
“No, I deny that my schemes were cockamamie,” Steve rebukes, “but yeah I haven’t been all that inefficient either!”
Mr. Reaper flicks his hand over the sickly bobbing folder and it flops open. “Let’s let the evidence you’re so puffed up over speak for itself,” Mr. Reaper runs a scraggy finger down a page. “Ahh, it says here you dispatched of a Ms. Valerie Lewton by causing a cracked mug containing vodka to both create a trail to her stove and drip into her monitor causing it to violently blow up simultaneously lodging screen shrapnel in her neck and lighting the trail of vodka on fire which caused the stove to ignite in a huge fireball. Then when Ms. Lewton reached up for a dishtowel while lying on her back, she caused a knife holder to topple resulting in her being impaled by a 6-inch butcher’s knife. Finally, her house exploded. If you don’t mind me asking Steve, were you afraid this woman might be Superman in disguise?”
“Look, it doesn’t hurt to be thorough,” Steve defends himself.
A few papers in the folder shift and undulate revealing another page. “Here a Mr. Rory Peters is mentioned. You lead him in the mortal coil shuffle by way of yet another flaming trail. This time a cigarette lit a furrow in the ground full of gasoline, which led back to a van causing it to explode. The explosion somehow launches a crude wire fence an inordinate distance in a perfectly straight line, there by trisecting Mr. Peters. Tell me Steve, is the reason you were rejected from engineering school because you have no idea how physics work?”
Taken aback Steve’s rage builds impotently, “Know hold on just a…”
The pages sluggishly wriggle and rearrange once more and Mr. Reaper cuts in, “Oh, here’s a good one. You culled misses Ashley Freund and Ashlyn Halperin by making their tanning beds increasingly warm, there by causing the room’s temperature to similarly increase, which turned on the AC automatically. The force of the air coming from the vent pushed over a coat stand meaning either this coat stand was terribly built or this AC system has more blow in it than you do. Yes, of course I know. There’s only so many times the “powdered donuts” story can work. Anyway, the stand knocks over a palm tree, which in turn topples a single shelf. The shelf slides from the top of Ms. Freund’s tanning bed, wedging itself in such a way as to span the distance between the two beds and nonsensically lock the ladies into their respective beds. The beds continued to heat, cooking misses Freund and Halperin for an excruciatingly long time before finally bursting into flames. Seriously Steve, if you really wanted to drag their demises out you could have just waited till they got cancer.”
“They could have just as easily electrocuted to death,” Steve pouts arms crossed.
“Steve, I’ll level with you. I’ve been following your work for the last 9 years like the rest of the office. Sometimes your Rube Goldberg-esque solutions for getting the job done have been entertaining, if albeit sophomoric, labored, and laughably devoid of any understanding of physical law. I’ve protected you from the Higher Ups wrath for the last 3 times you’ve had to deal with a ‘psychic.’ Every time I defend you to them they say,” Mr. Reaper puts on a mock husky voice that sounds like a deep, sarcastic death rattle, “Why doesn’t he just give them all heart attacks or brain aneurisms when he screws up?" And every time I tell them it’s to teach those meddling, ‘psychics’ a lesson, when you and I both know that you were contacting these mortals directly.”
“How did you figure it out?” Steve hangs the question like a white rag on a waving stick.
“Please Steve, I’m not a cretin,” pause for effect, “Also, Harold told me.”
“Harold you sonuvabutch!” Steve rushes to his cubicle’s wall.
“Goin’ to get office supplies!” Harold ducks out of his cubicle like a gunshot.
“Regardless, I could help keep up the charade for you as long as your output was at least over mediocre quality and kept office moral up. But your most recent work,” the pages in the file slide sluggishly over to reveal a document with a black skull stamp on it, “is just simply unacceptable. Any hint of creativity, originality, or ingenuity that might have been hidden, deeply hidden, in your previous work is absolutely devoid from this one. You don’t even go to the effort to build any tension over whether your victims will live or die! It’s like you’ve given up the ghost Steve,” Mr. Reaper shakes his head disappointedly, “like you don’t even care enough to really play with the mortals' hopes any more.”
“That’s the last straw!” Steve bellows. “I can take a lot: being called a slacker, not being taken seriously, I can even handle having my work called stupid and pornographic, but I will not stand by and be insulted like this. I don’t care about playing with mortals’ hopes? It’s not like you can do any better! You think I didn’t hear about you and Antonius Block?” Steve begins derisively mincing about in a circle, “Oooh look at me, I’m big scary Death and I’m going to let this Swede challenge me to a chess match!” Steve mocks, “Fucking riveting idea, guy! And let’s not forget that you only reason you probably beat Block was because he told you his strategy when you were disguised as a priest in confessional.”
Mr. Reaper stabs his finger into Steve’s chest, “That game of chess was a stark yet brilliant metaphor for man’s hubris in the face of death's ubiquity while simultaneously coming to grips with the specter of an unfulfilled life and you know it!”
Steve snorts derisively “Whatever, did it have explosions? Did anyone get hit by a bus?”
“Look Steve, I don’t have time for this right now. I’ve been swamped as of late what with the Ted Kennedy, Les Paul, and Michael Jackson accounts. You think it’s easy moving mortals this influential to the Great Beyond? No, but I did my work and still had time to close the Reading Rainbow account,” Mr. Reaper states matter-of-factly.
“See, that’s the problem around here. Everyone’s forgotten how to make death fun, and when you all watch me do it you get jealous. Mortals are always smiling at you, and all Death can do is smile back. In other words, you can’t fire me because I quit!” Steve grabs his few things and his scythe and storms out past Mr. Reaper and marches out of the office.
Harold peaks out from behind a cubicle, “Um, sir, about what you said before. Does that mean Lavar Burton is dead?”
“Shut up, Harrold”
Exiting the office, Steve doesn’t feel angry or sad or betrayed. Actually, he feels better than ever! For the first time in a long time Steve knows that he is truly the master of his own destiny. Maybe he’ll go into business for himself, make death fun again, steal some business from this corrupt monopoly, and maybe even hire some of those hot succubi as interns. As the door of the office closes behind him, Steve is so deeply absorbed in his musings that he doesn't notice the oddity of a crew of trimmers at work on the tree in front of the office. He does vaguely register that the radio in the trimmer's truck is playing Alanis Morrissette's "Ironic" though. As Steve curiously turns in the dirrection of the music he is totally oblivious when a pencil falls out of his pocket. This pencil then rolls into the path of one of the trimmers who happens to be holding a ladder on his shoulder. The trimmer's foot slips on the pencil and while trying to regain balance he accidentally smacks Steve hard in the face with the ladder. The unforeseen blow floors Steve and, somehow, launches his scythe skyward turning end over end in a high arc. Steve watches the culling blade hit its lethal zenith and scrambles to dash out of its kill zone just as one of the other trimmers (who is unaware of Steve’s predicament) finishes cutting through a branch, which comes crashing down pinning Steve to the spot.
Morrissette's dulcet voice wafts tauntingly, "Isn't it ironic?"
Steve's last thought is, "No, not really."
The blade comes down with a vengeance, driving its point home in Steve’s skull.
Back inside the office, Mr. Reaper finishes watching the grisly business and remarks, “You know, that is actually kind of fun.”
His coffee capitulates into a brown ghoulish face over the edge of his mug once more and comments, “I’d still rather watch Ponyo.”
“Quiet you!” and with that Mr. Reaper drinks the last of his dark brew.