Short Story
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                     To Ward Off Evil
                                    By James Danger Conright


With salt in my pockets, a garland of wild roses, nettles, marjoram and a bell
to ward off evil, I slowly made my way through the ancient Louisiana black
water swamps in an old wooden skiff with a crooked push pole.  Gators glided
neatly under the surface of the algae crusted murk just out of the light from
the rusted oil lamp which dangled precariously off of the bent wooden dowel
protruding from the bow of my mighty vessel.  All the while they were eyeing
me for a quick supper.   

Under my labor, the leaky boat slowly progressed forward at an uneven pace
through the sultry night air, while armies of fireflies flashed their
incandescent, electric blues in irregular intervals as they darted between the
giant roots of cypress trees which dotted the landscape for as far as the eye
could see.  The only sound other than that of my craft breaking the water was
the croaking of thousands of bull frogs in between their meals of mosquitoes,
which formed a cacophony of a dark Southern song.

Saying my hundredth prayer for the day, I lovingly held a medal of St.
Christopher to my lips and gently kissed it for protection while I continued to
push myself along, reminiscent of the river man Charon crossing the River
Styxx.  The deadly swamp held no sway over me and it wasn’t against the
many creatures that called it home whom I had sought protection from.  I ran,
in fact, from Death himself.  

Knocking a curious Water Moccasin from the fo’c’sle of the boat, I took just a
moment to glance at my pocket watch which read 11:37.  I had just over
twenty minutes to reach my last vestige of salvation.

After what had been hours of torturous exertion spent on navigation through
swamp, trees, and hanging Spanish moss, I had finally spotted my
destination.  Drawn like a moth to a candle, I found a new energy and
quickened my pace toward the twinkling yellow-orange lights of the old swamp
house.  

I momentarily forgot my reason, and thought to myself how the old mansion
on the water must have been beautiful long ago.  The foundation of the two
story house was set upon poles, so that it stood out of the water by several
feet, and it was surrounded by a large, wrap-around porch with front steps
that led straight to the water.  Even in the dark of the night, I could see that
the roof was riddled with holes, and that the walls were being eagerly
reclaimed by the very swamp that had provided the wooden planking.  The
house was slowly rotting away in the bowels of the ancient swamp.  I
suspected that the manor’s sole resident was too.

I pushed the skiff straight up to the steps of the porch and tested their
sturdiness with my pole.  Having decided that they were just barely
trustworthy enough for one more visitor, I tossed the rope which was tied to
the stern of the boat up the stairs and onto the porch before disembarking.  I
carefully climbed over the side while the bell on my necklace tinkled softly,
just overpowering the sound of the lapping swamp water against the stairs
and the bullfrogs in the distance.  They creaked in a strained warning under
my weight as I made my way toward the porch railing where I tied the craft
before cautiously proceeding to the front double doors.  The dull French
handles of the manor sat crooked on the rotted doors, which were slightly
ajar.  

“It’s open.” a feeble voice called from inside.

Having gently pushed one door open, as not to break it off of its hinges, a
long creak seemed to resonate throughout the house.  Upon entering, I found
the mistress of the home sitting in an overstuffed chair comfortably in front of
a fireplace, with her back to me.  There was no other furniture in the room,
and I could only assume that the rest of the house was just as barren, and
that its furnishings had been burned in the fireplace long ago.  

Because of the high back of the single chair, I could only make out the top of
Madam d’Levay’s head, which was sparsely covered in white, thinning hair
planted into a grayish scalp.  I hadn’t a chance to say a word when her head
tilted slightly up and to the side as she sniffed the air.

I saw her place a bony, liver spotted hand on the armrest of her only chair to
steady herself as she stood.  As she struggled to turn around, I couldn’t help
but notice that her dress, yellowed and tattered as it were, seemed as ancient
and withered as she.  Madam d’Levay turned her clouded, bluish filmed eyes
on me and sneered.

“You got ‘da stench ‘a Death on ya, boy.” the old woman muttered, cocking
her head.  “You got ‘da stench!” she reiterated loudly, pointing at me.  “Go
‘an get from ‘ere!  I can’na help ya!”

I despondently left the witch muttering to herself.  I had heard this before from
seers, occultists, priests, rabbis, and whomever else I thought might help.  
This Madam d’Levay, who could supposedly conjure demons and cure
diseases, was my last hope.  I was angry that she didn’t even let me speak.

As I stepped onto the old porch again, I pulled out my watch.  11:58.  ‘Damn.’
I thought to myself.

A lifetime of memories began to surface, and with them so did the tears.  But I
refused to be weak.  I wiped the drops from my eyes and the thoughts of the
past from my mind.  I knew that I had to give in if I was to spend the last two
minutes of my life sane.  Pulling off the various charms from the garland, I
tossed them into the swamp one by one, relinquishing any hope of staving off
my fate.  Lastly, I held onto the St. Christopher’s medal for only a moment
and gave it a squeeze before throwing it as far as I could into the black night.

Absent mindedly, I thumbed the sides of my watch with my left hand and
stared at the ticking second hand while reaching for the cigarettes in my shirt
pocket with my right hand.  Forty eight seconds left.  I slid a smoke out and
put it between my lips then tossed the rest of the pack into the drink before
reaching for my zippo, never taking my eyes off of the watch.  Forty Two
seconds.

The familiar metallic chink and strike of the lighter seemed far too loud in this
moment of silent recompense, as I tried not to let my mind wander to the
moment that led me to an old porch in Louisiana, moments before midnight,
inhaling deeply on a cigarette.  Thirty eight seconds.

I closed my eyes briefly and clearly saw myself behind the wheel of my ’97
Ford Explorer.  I had had too much to drink that night a year ago.  The roads
were slick from the ever present rain.  I was seeing everything in flashes.  
Taking a peek at my pocket watch again, I could see that I had only thirty
three seconds left.  I forcibly blew out the putrid smoke before taking another
drag and closing my eyes again.  

Those poor women.  That poor boy.  It seemed as if it had happened in slow
motion; my truck hit all three.  The looks of horror and pain on the women’s
face mirrored one another as they bounced off of the hood, but the boy had
disappeared altogether.  Another drag and twenty one seconds left.

There was no sound that night, save for my lamenting screams of drunken
despair.  I stumbled out of my truck to find all three perfectly still.  It was as
though in an instant I was sober.  However, that instant had come just an
instant too late for them.  

I stumbled from body to body, trying to grasp what I had just done.  I dropped
to my knees, my pants soaking up water and blood, and cried into my hands.  
I exhaled again and took another drag.  Sixteen seconds left.

“It’s a shame.  Really it is.” I heard a smooth, low voice from behind me as I
knelt in disbelief in front of the three.  The lights of my truck were blinding, so
I couldn’t make out who was speaking.

“Wha... what?” I choked out.  I felt a hand on my shoulder.  It was so cold, that
I could feel its icy touch through my jacket.  I took another drag.  Eight
seconds.

“It’s a shame that all three of them go.” the voice said as I struggled to stand
up.  All I could make out was a man’s silhouette.  Pointing to the older lady,
he said “She was a grandmother of eight, you know.  And her...” he said
redirecting his gaze toward the younger woman “she just started back to
school.  Of course, her son there won’t be finishing school either.” he said
with a final gesture toward the boy.  “It’s too bad, really.”

“I’m so sorry.” I sobbed.  “If I could change it, I would.”

“Well, there is a way that you could make things at least a little better.” he
said.

“But how?  What can I do?” I pleaded.  

“Pick one.”

“What?!”  I asked.

“Pick one of them to live and I’ll let them live.  I’ll tell the others that it’s time to
say ‘Goodbye.’” he replied nonchalantly.

“What are you talking about?  They’re dead!” I shouted, waving my arms at
all three.  I squinted and strained to see this stranger that would dare make
such arrogant jokes at the scene of a tragedy like this.

The sound of my truck’s engine was overwhelmed by the low growl that came
from the man.  As he moved into the headlights of my truck, I saw that his
eyes began to glow red, but still he remained a shadow, yet with slightly
discernible features.  “Pick one and I’ll let them live.  But you have to trade
places with someone.  If you agree, I’ll give you one year to live your life, but
then I will come to collect on your debt.”

It was only then that I realized that I could no longer hear the sound of the
truck.  Looking about, I found that rain drops had stopped in place, and there
was only silence, save for my ragged breath.  I looked back to the stranger
dumbfounded, and only nodded my head before pointing to the boy.  Then,
there was a loud gasp as he began to breathe again.  

“Leave.” the stranger said.  So I did.

The next day I saw the story of a hit and run in the news.  Two women were
killed, but a twelve year old boy survived with only minor injuries.  There were
no leads.

I would have thought that I had imagined the entire thing, as there wasn’t
even a scratch on my truck.  However, I saw things that I couldn’t explain for
the following year.  It was enough to make me question my sanity.  Shadows,
specters, or what have you, were riding in cars with people, and following
them down the streets and in the stores.  Everywhere I turned, there was
another one attached to a random person.  I knew what I had seen was real.

I didn’t even look at my watch, but rather took another drag of the smoke with
my eyes closed.  Slowly I came back to reality.  

I opened my eyes to see, to find that I had smoked my cigarette down to the
filter.  Flicking it into the water, I looked at my pocket watch one last time.  12:
01.  The front cover of my pocket watch clicked shut loudly as I slid it back
into my pocket and immediately, the hairs on the back of my neck began to
rise.

I heard the groaning of the dilapidated wooden porch as someone—or
something—took lingering, purposeful steps toward me.  Slowly turning
around, I saw the shadow of a large beast, bent over and on all fours
creeping forward toward me.  As it crossed into the fire light which was
flickering from a mansion window, it took the form of a man.

“Well, I must hand it to you.  You certainly did try your best to run, but in the
end, no one escapes me.  Believe me, people have been trying for millennia.”
the familiar voice said calmly, but with a little hiss at the last sentence.

No longer a mere shadow, Death had taken the form of a thin man.  That in
itself was not surprising, but what was unexpected is that he wore a black suit
with a matching Fedora, spats, and a red silk shirt which was finished off with
diamond cufflinks.  Smiling gently, he walked past me and knocked on the
door of the house.  “Mary?  I’ll be seeing you real soon, Sweetheart.” he said
ever so nicely to the old witch, which had sent her into another mumbling fit.

I stood nearly at attention, awaiting my fate.

“Now don’t look so tense.  This won’t hurt a bit.” Death said with a smile as he
placed a hand on my shoulder.

“How?” I asked with a tremble in my voice.

“How what?” Death asked me with a raised eyebrow and a little shake of his
head.

“How are you going to... I mean, how will I...”

“Die?” he asked with a dismissive wave of his hand and a little chuckle.  “I’m
afraid that I must apologize.  You see, when I told you that you were to
replace someone, I didn’t actually specify whom.”

“What?” I asked, extremely unnerved by this game Death was playing with me.

“Okay,” he said “it’s already done.  There.  No fuss, see?”

“It’s... it’s done?” I asked incredulously as I unconsciously began to pat at my
sides to make sure that I was still standing.

With a little, knowing smirk, Death just held out his hand toward me in
presentation.  I was terrified to look down upon my own corpse, but still I had
to.  There was no escaping my fate.

To my confusion, there was no corpse.  Rather, I realized that I was suddenly
wearing a black suit, Fedora, spats, a red silk shirt, and diamond cufflinks.  
Looking back up, I found myself staring back at me.  “What in the hell is
this?!” I barked.

“You’ve taken my place, per our agreement, and I’ve taken yours.  I’ve been
Death for so long, I want to live and breathe, and feel, and eat, and...”

“What?  I don’t know a single thing about killing people!” I shouted at him, but
he just looked at me and tilted his head.

“I think we both know that to not be entirely accurate.” he said.  Before I could
reply, he raised his hand and informed me that I would come for him too
someday.  But until then, he promised to give me a good name, should that
matter to me, and to stay as far away from death as was humanly possible.  
He explained that shortly he would in fact be me.  He would possess all of my
memories, and wouldn’t be able to remember anything about having been
Death.

Still in shock, I was speechless as I watched him meander to the skiff and
untie it before for giving me one last word.  “Remember this; it’s an important
job, but still try to have a little fun with it and be creative.  It helps the
monotony of it all.”  

I watched him push off and head into the darkness of the early morning,
whistling an eerily familiar tune.  However, I didn’t stay for long, as an
unexplainable pull drew my attention to all over the globe.  First though, I felt
uncontrollably compelled to say goodbye to Mary.
About James Danger
Conright

James Danger Conright
has traveled the world,
always wondering what
may be lurking in the
shadows. Focusing on
character development
rather than gore, James
enjoys exploring the
darker, and often
funnier, side of men,
monsters, and myth.