By Joe Ducato
The first time it happened, he felt like his bones were breaking one-by-one. He wouldn’t be liberated from the feeling until he was in his 20s. Liberation came the day he abandoned his name. By that time nearly everyone who loved him had given up anyway. On Liberation Day he also pledged allegiance to his one true calling – killing. His name, from that day on, would be Reaper. Soon thousands would know it. It didn’t matter anymore that he couldn’t cry. In fact, that was an asset. The old man said once that it was a sin to cry, to give up your power. The old man knew some things. Reaper’s life became simple. Business is business, death is business, and as long as you maintain your reputation and your weapon, your world is good. It didn’t hurt that he also became very rich.
He sat stoically behind the wheel of his Lincoln; his eyes focused on the dark stretch of Nebraska highway. A bone chilling rain fell hard, and it was well past midnight. Reaper’s tearless eyes were clear, even though memories leaked in. It happened sometimes when he was on the road. He hated it. This time, he remembered when he was 12 and his mother found the dead rabbit in his dresser. He remembered his mother pulling him into the room and making him look at the rabbit, like one might make a dog do after he’d a mess in the wrong place. That day the weight nearly broke him. His mother threw all the shirts in the garbage, even the ones that weren’t bloody. Reaper tried to brush the memory aside. What good is a memory? The only thing he needed were his rules; always be faithful to your gift, fear no one and honor business, which for him was justice; simple justice for those who could shell out the cash. No philosophies or beliefs, no need to learn hammer and nail – only the gift; killing for money.
He had miles to go across the American plain. Driving was always part of the deal. He preferred to stay off planes. The rain seemed to fall harder. He’d had the Lincoln for 6 months and not once had turned on the radio. Music was useless. He thought about the irony of it. Not a drop of rain all summer in L.A and now the sky was letting loose. He thought about the .38 under the seat; the security blanket, the money-maker. If he could do it all over, he’d put that rabbit in the drawer every time. The windshield wipers cried foul and, at times, he couldn’t see the side of the road, the reflective paint long ago worn away.
Screw the taxpayers, he thought.
If he could feel loneliness he would have. The wiper blades suddenly sounded like “The Tracks of My Tears”. He hated when the music crept in.
Shut up! he admonished the wipers.
Suddenly, up ahead, he saw a long line of stopped cars and trucks. Tail lights and flares were endless and snaked around the bend. Reaper had no choice, he had to stop. He slowly brought the Lincoln to a halt in back of a doughnut truck. Cars and trucks came to a stop behind him.
“Dammit!” he groaned.
He felt like gunning it, plowing his way through leaving nothing but wrecks in his wake, but that wouldn’t be practical, and he was a practical man.
He leaned back. The rain was relentless. The wiper blades painted split second pictures of red and white. The driver of the doughnut truck kept testing the brakes.
They work, ok Einstein?! Reaper screamed between his ears, then laughed. A crazy thought had crossed his mind. He had enough bullets in the trunk to kill his way free. He shut the wipers off, leaving the windshield to be devoured by droplets of water the piled on like red ants on their victim.
He cursed his luck. Behind him, the headlights were multiplying. Minutes stumbled on. Some people turned off their engine. An idiot somewhere beeped for an entire minute. Anger. He chuckled. What good is anger? Still, when the bees are trapped, they will devour their own. That triggered another memory; the time when he was a kid and he picked up the hornet’s nest and threw it in the bucket of kerosene to the applause of the drunk uncles. No one noticed he let the bravest ones sting him. It felt good. He jerked quickly back to reality, by 2 hard raps on the window.
He turned quickly. Standing on the other side of the glass was a girl, a drenched girl. Reaper couldn’t see her eyes because the hood on her rain slicker was pulled down far. Reaper lowered the window.
“Washed out back there,” the girl shouted through the downpour “Tree down ahead. Heard it on the scanner. Mud slides most likely. Looks like we’re stuck.”
Reaper nodded and looked off, hoping the girl would go away.
“Listen, I hate to ask,” the girl continued, “…but do you think you could help me? It won’t take long. I promise. I wouldn’t ask, but I don’t know what else to do.”
Didn’t she realize who she was talking to? Reaper thought, then, for reasons he couldn’t explain, he opened the door and stepped out. He stood next to the girl. He noticed she was very short.
What about the .38? he thought.
He shrugged off the paranoia, closed the car door and let the girl lead him back towards her pick-up. Reaper shook his head. He should go back and get the .38.
Rain bounced off the top of the girl’s truck causing a tinny sound like a cheap tambourine. The girl walked past the truck, back to a long wooden trailer she’d been towing, a trailer made of long wooden slats, most weathered thin and some splintered. The girl turned to face the back of the trailer and yanked hard at a rusty latch until it surrendered with a pop and a squeal.
Reaper turned his head, hit immediately by the pungent odor of wet hay. The girl shined the light inside the trailer. A pair of red eyes shined back; the eyes of a horse, laying on its side in a bed of hay.
“He’s an Appaloosa,” the girl said, “He’s very smart and gentle as a lamb. My name is Suzanne.”
She waited for Reaper to introduce himself but he didn’t.
“Thing is…,” the girl continued with charming shyness, “All you have to do is put your hand on his head for a second. I’ll show you where. That’s all you have to do. It’ll only take a minute, I promise.”
Reaper stood still, like a statue. The girl suddenly looked small and out of focus. He had to shake the cobwebs out.
“He’s very sick…” the girl said looking lovingly at the horse.
Reaper still didn’t move or speak.
“Equine fever…,” the girl went on, taking a deep breath.
“Over the left eye,” she continued, “That’s where your hand will go. His name is Caesar.”
She looked with kind eyes at the man who could kill without warning.
“Do you know about horses?”
“No,” was all Reaper said.
“Caesar was a gift from my grand-pa. I got him when I was a kid. He was my first horse.”
“He’s 30 now but still loves to work. He can’t pull anymore. I won’t let him, but he helps me move the herd. He’s been a good one. I don’t why I’m telling you this. You’re not interested. Of course, why would you be?”
She pretended to wipe water from her phone and shined the light on Reaper’s face for a second.
Nice man, she thought then brought the light back to the horse.
“That spot, that’s his calm river spot. I think everyone has a calm river spot. If you put your hand there, I think he’ll stay calm enough for me to get a pill down his throat. I can’t do it alone. I need both hands to work the pill. He’s a stubborn one. I tell him all the time that his mother must have been a mule. Stupid, isn’t it?”
She looked Reaper in the eye. Reaper looked away.
“He’s very sick. Oh, I said that already. I’m sorry. If I can get him to Doc, he’s got the stuff, the strong stuff. Should I get you an umbrella? The trailer leaks. I have an umbrella in the truck.”
“No,” Reaper replied.
“Can you put your hand on him now?…at the spot?”
Reaper hesitated. The girl stepped forward.
“You’re not comfortable, I can see.”
She began to swing the gate closed, but to her surprise, Reaper raised his hand and slowly hoovered it over the horse’s head.
The girl then boldly laid her hand on top of Reaper’s hand and gently guided it down. When his hand landed on the horse, the horse closed his eyes. Reaper couldn’t believe how hot the horse’s skin was.
“Here we go,” the girl said kneeling back, “There’s a trick to this…”
She took a large pill from her slicker pocket and with one finger tucked it inside the horse’s jowl. She held it there and rubbed the jowl. The warmth of the skin, the labored breaths, the hope of the girl, it was all too much. The weight came with a vengeance.
“Are you alright?” the girl asked, sensing something.
“Yeah,” Reaper mumbled. He’d never told a soul about the weight. He never would.
The girl went back to work, slowly rubbing the animal’s jowl as well as the throat. On her knees, she nudged forward a couple of inches, bringing her face close to Reaper’s. She reached forward and touched the horse’s nose then slowly lowered her head and whisper-sang;
“Don’t worry. He’s a nice man.”
Reaper turned his head again. It was crushing. He felt like a fish on a hook. He wanted to scream. He found it hard to breath.
“Just hold it there,” the girl coached, “He trusts you.”
“Caesar,” she said softly as if waking a lover.
She stroked the side of the horse’s head and tried, with both hands, to push the pill further down. Reaper looked at the girl’s weathered face. She was close to tears. She tried to hold back, but couldn’t and gave a desperate gasp, then pulled herself together, sniffled and went back to work. The animal opened his eyes. Reaper and the horse locked eyes. Reaper couldn’t pull away.
“It’s just that he’s so old,” the girl said again.
Reaper finally broke the gaze and looked off to a speed limit sign, then up to the hills at a lone light; a street light maybe or maybe a light in the dark someone had put up to keep the bad guys at bay.
The girl hung her head and quietly sobbed, then looked up.
“Not even for me Caesar?”
She swiped her wet sleeve across her nose and cheek. The horse rustled, kicked its back leg and sent some hay into the humid air. A few strands landed on Reaper’s coat.
“Sorry,” the girl apologized, “That looks expensive… I’ll pay to have it cleaned. I promise.”
An awkward moment of silence ensued before she finally said:
“Why are you out here tonight?”
“Business,” was all Reaper said.
The girl smiled.
“My brother has a business, in Florida. Butchie-boy, he was always the rebel in our family. Me? I couldn’t let go of the farm. I didn’t have the heart to, didn’t have the heart to see it all die, all my parent’s dreams. They’d worked too hard. Guess I don’t have what it takes. My brother said the world is for the taking for those with the courage to go forward. Guess I don’t have what it takes.”
The girl stroked the horse’s head. “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” she proclaimed, then laughed. “That’s from the old Superman series. I started saying that to Caesar when I was a kid and he got into one of his stubborn spells, like he could understand, right?”
The girl smiled and whispered into the horse’s ear. “You’re never going to swallow that pill are you Great Caesar’s Ghost! You mule in a horse suit!”
She bit her lip.
“He’s my oldest friend.”
She sat back on her haunches and looked at Reaper.
“Do you have kids?”
“No” Reaper replied.
“It’s just that you’re patient is all,” the girl said bashfully, “I’m sorry. I’m embarrassing you. I don’t know when to shut up, that’s what everyone says.”
The weight was unbearable.
“In the old days,” the girl went on, “There was this guy, worked on the farm, Ginger. He was our best, oldest worker. He was like family to us. It was Ginger that took the old ones out, to the field, to the place where you could see the whole valley. That’s where he did it, you know, the deed. We’d run up to our rooms, me and Butchie, put our fingers in our ears and close our eyes – but it never worked. We’d hear the gun shot every time, then we’d cry and curse God ‘cause he gave us good hearing. Ginger was a good man. He did what had to be done. We didn’t know it then. He was no killer. He was a healer. I think sometimes we show more compassion to animals then we do to each other. I know, I talk too much. You can take your hand off. He’s not going to swallow it. I wish I had something to give you.”
“That’s ok,” Reaper said as he lifted his hand from the horse’s head.
The girl swiped her sleeve across her forehead.
Reaper wanted to turn and run but the weight was too great. His legs were cement. It would take a mighty effort now. He shouldn’t have let the girl talk him into it. He should have ignored her. Now he had a crack that might never get better. He thought about asking her if she wanted him to do it, what Ginger did. He wanted to, but he didn’t.
Rain fell in heavy drops on the soft wood of the trailer top. Reaper turned and looked at the snake of headlights behind then ahead at silhouettes of a couple of guys standing outside their cars, laughing.
He turned back and stared at the horse, at the once strong animal, at the ribs heaving with labored breaths and for the first time, he thought about his mother’s death. The crack was getting worse.
The girl, still kneeling at the animal’s side, picked up the pill after it tumbled from the side of the horse’s mouth and shoved it back in her pocket.
Reaper thought again about asking her if she wanted him to do it, use his gift, but he couldn’t. Instead, he turned and walked away without saying a word. He stopped at the cab of her pick-up, staring for a second at the rosary beads hanging from the rear-view mirror.
With each step, he felt the crack filling in, the life returning to his veins. He knew he had been close to splitting in half. He climbed back into the Lincoln, felt under the seat for the security blanket. It was there. Business was business. He sat in silence until he noticed a dark figure walking up from behind; walking with purpose and swinging a long flashlight like a pendulum. It was a State Trooper. The trooper stopped at the Lincoln and rapped on the glass. Reaper lowered the window. Water from the roof of the car plopped down on his forearm.
“Are you alright?” the tall trooper asked.
“We cleared the road in back if you want to turn around. Otherwise, they’re still working on a tree a mile or so ahead, but it won’t be long. They brought out the big guns tonight.”
Reaper nodded. The trooper waved and headed for the doughnut truck.
“Have a good day!”
Reaper started to lower the window, but stopped it halfway down. He stared out. The rain had let up and he could hear the girl singing Red River Valley to her dying companion.
Joe Ducato is retired from the Human Services field and lives in Utica, NY with wife, Cathy. Publication credits include; Chicago Quarterly Review, Strata, Floyd County Moonshine and most recently, The Avalon Literary Review and Wild Violet Magazine.