Death Comes for Simon
by Max Clark
The strip mall closed down for the evening; large, backlit signs flickered out and weary employees sparked matches to light cigarettes on the way to their cars. Beneath fluorescent lights set in concrete pedestals stood the curious ten o'clock small town gangs, hoods over their faces in an effort to look suspicious, but content to break the town loitering ordinances. Cars pulled in from time to time, cursed the operating hours of their pharmacies and retail outlets and completed the arc to drive out again.
So it was on the twelfth night of October at the small economic hub of Plainsville, Indiana—the near-empty strip mall where Simon worked late again.
Simon had the closing shift at Peterson's—a chain knick-knack outlet, designed by a team of corporate marketing analysts to have the folksy charm of a mom and pop store. Tonight was stock night for Simon and he had stayed after hours to unload packages of expertly unprofessional signs, which he hung at strategically impractical locations throughout the store. When he had set those, he went into the break room, typed his ID number into the time-clock and lifted his jacket from the hook. He traced his name across each of the closing shifts marked on the schedule for that week. Then he took a small, leather-bound journal from one of his jacket pockets and wrote:
October 12th—Survived another day of work. Another day tomorrow. . .
He turned off the remaining lights, locked the door and exited into the parking lot.
The peculiar result of living a life of such routine is that after a while, any variation, however unpleasant, is welcome. Such was the motivation behind the vague sense of relief that greeted Simon when he discovered a stranger sitting in his car, a man in his thirties, perhaps, with a clean, well-defined beard, pitch-black eyes and a nose that hooked nearly to his mouth. He wore a dark trench coat over a white suit, and looked so at ease with his offense that Simon wondered if he, himself, had not made the mistake.
Simon looked around the lot for a similar looking car with a blue fuzzy air freshener hanging from the mirror. But when he pressed the unlock button on his keyless entry remote, the car that contained the stranger gave a responsive chirp. Rather less assured than more, Simon tapped on the window.
The stranger nodded to the driver’s seat. Simon felt somehow soothed by the stranger's demeanor and almost consented. However, years of avid prime-time news consumption had made him wary enough of his fellow man that he fingered the opposite corners of his cell phone number-pad inside his coat pocket and remained where he stood.
He rapped again.
“Excuse me.” Simon struggled for a tactful approach. “I think you’re in the wrong car. By mistake.”
The man smiled and shook his head, and gestured again towards the driver's seat.
Must be some nut from the institute, Simon thought, and moved to take his phone from his pocket, except that his arms felt dead from exhaustion and refused to obey him. A spark of panic flared and dulled in a tangle of woolly thoughts. The muscles in one leg became tight and he lifted it, to walk out the stiffness. As it happened, in his dim state, he walked around the car to the driver's side and felt such a sudden nip of Autumn chill that he could no longer justify standing outside.
In the warmth of his car, Simon's head cleared and his thoughts, now free to do as they pleased, again focused on the mysterious passenger. Simon peered to his right, where the stranger smiled with somber compassion.
“Simon,” the man said, “drive us somewhere comfortable, I have bad news.”
Simon felt a discordant variety of questions boil to the surface in one incomprehensible garble.
“All in due time, my friend. But please, this isn't news you want to hear in a car.” The stranger buckled his seatbelt.
Simon reached for the door handle. His hand cramped. “Ow.” He curved his fingers in and out to work out the kinks. When his hand felt better, he discovered that in the previous process he had started the engine. He stretched back in surprise and pressed the accelerator.
“Stop it,” he mumbled, his mind once more wrapped in a soft, warm blanket.
When the vehicle—and his limbs—came to rest again, he reached for the handle and grasped it easily this time. He watched the stranger for sudden movement as he stepped out of the car. It took a moment before he realized that he had parked outside the cozy, alternative coffee shop-chain not far from his home.
His passenger had a satisfied look, though he eyed the teenagers who smoked outside with strong disapproval. Simon's curiosity smothered his ability to articulate his thoughts, and so he condensed his doubt into a single glance. The stranger shrugged and waved his hand toward the entrance of the coffee shop.
Simon felt a deep thirst, and before he knew it, he was placing a blue ceramic mug on a low table in front of the sofa upon which he sat, a plush, green replica of another era, factory-designed to appear second-hand. He stared at his companion, who sat across from him and watched Simon as if he were a sentenced man. His apprehension grew thick as the incense in the air.
“Well.” Simon braced himself. “What's the bad news?”
“You're ready to hear this?” The man gauged the distance between them and the professionally apathetic girl at the counter in ripped jeans, and then he leaned in with conspiratorial purpose.
Simon shrugged and mirrored him.
The stranger sighed. His face drooped and he spoke in a low regretful tone. “You’re going to die.”
Simon met his gaze, unblinking, and then leaned back and nodded. He felt empty. Since the appearance of the stranger, he had expected news like this. He wasn’t afraid. The sincerity and serenity of the stranger sealed his words with certainty, and made the news a bearable inevitability rather than a threat. He closed his eyes.
In the moment that followed, Simon looked back on his life and counted every missed opportunity, every wasted evening, his dismal volume of achievements, his failure to volunteer. Simon’s mouth ran dry as he considered the wealth of chances he could have taken in the time he had had.
He imagined a future he would never see, a life outside the bounds of the world he had penned himself into. He saw himself climbing mountains, swimming with sharks, learning to bake, having kids and raising them to climb mountains and swim with sharks and bake. His stomach growled. Would his next meal be his last? He thought of the chances, the ventures, the risks he wouldn't have the opportunity to avoid taking. That hit him hardest of all.
He steadied himself, unprepared to open his eyes and see his fate staring back at him from the other side of the table. Then a sound reached through the din of his thoughts.
The stranger cleared his throat and added, in the same cheerless voice, “Eventually.”
Simon opened his eyes. “What was that?”
“You will die, eventually.” The stranger’s eyes met his and again hopeless compassion radiated from the black depths of his pupils.
“Sometime down the road.” The stranger patted his leg. “I thought you should know.”
“I did know that.”
“Did you?” The stranger sat up and appraised him. He examined Simon's work clothes and lifted the nametag so that it could be better read. His indubitable repose washed away.
“Everybody dies sometime.”
“So you knew already.” The stranger faltered. “I’m sorry. For everything.” He stood, took a step away, and considered. He pointed his thumb toward the smokers outside.
“Do they realize . . .”
The stranger looked around, lost for a moment, and then slowly nodded back. “My mistake.”