“Jess!” Van screamed.
“Death is on your doorstep, Jess!” Van laughed.
Shadow let out another sigh.
“Who the hell is this?” Jess asked as she opened to door.
“Mr. Van calls me Shadow.”
“You named him like a dog. Great Halloween costume. Too bad it’s May, but I love it. I want a costume exactly like that, Van! Come, have a drink, you guys!” Jess said.
Van grabbed Shadow by his cloak and dragged him to the kitchen.
“Is—he–does he know?” Jess asked.
“Yes—yes, he’s fine with it. He’s kind of surrounded by death every day,” Van said.
“With death? Of course,” Shadow said.
“I’m guessing you got rid of the body?” Jess asked.
“That’s kind of where Shadow comes in,” Van said. “This may be the last night you ever see me.”
“She knows about the body?” Shadow asked.
“Of course, I know. I’m the one who killed her,” Jess laughed.
“So, you are not the killer, Mr. Van?”
“I’m just an accomplice. I get rid of the bodies. But I must have been pretty wasted last night because I don’t know what I did with the body. She’s the one who kills them,” Van said as he pointed at Jess.
“Yeah, we work together. Him and me. People make me so angry sometimes. Except for Van,” she said as she hugged Van and gave him a drunken kiss on the forehead.
“So how many has Van killed?” Shadow asked.
“None,” Jess said. “Thought you of all people—or things without faces—would know that.”
She took another swig of beer and stared at the faceless man.
“How did I get this so wrong?” Shadow asked.
“Not sure. I pay Van well to get rid of them. Oh, he makes a few mistakes, but he has learned how not to get caught. He’s one of the best now.”
“One of the best? There were others, you know?”
“Knew, they are no longer around, they couldn’t keep their mouths shut.”
“Let me step outside for a minute. I don’t breathe air, but I think I need some right now. I will be right back.”
“There is a lock on the door, Shadow. From the inside.”
Shadow gave Jess a wave and walked through the front door. A few minutes passed and Shadow walked back in, through the window this time.
“Mr. Van, I would like to speak with you in private,” he signaled for Van to walk into the Kitchen with him.
“Ok, let me grab another beer first,” Van said as he grabbed a cold one from the fridge and opened it with his key chain bottle opener.
“I have a proposition for you. I thought you might be interested.”
“Yes, you could stay—alive. We could work something out.”
“I’m listening,” Van said.
“We need to take Jess, but they informed me she will only go with you. She does not trust anyone else.”
“Ok. And if I do this, I get to live?”
“Oh yes. You would get to live a long, long life. Live to a nice old age.”
“Do I have to sign anything, a contract?”
“It’s not like it is in the movies, Mr. Van. They informed me I was wrong. You are no killer. But the unwritten contract states that if the wrong name is chosen, they must be reaped just the same as the genuinely guilty.”
“That doesn’t sound good to me Shadow. I…”
“But—if you lead her to the gates, you will get to live.”
“And how do I do that?”
“It is simple. You take her into the forest by the river. That’s where the bad people live. —Used to anyway, easier to dispose of bodies in those parts. But you know that already. There will be a door. You will go through that door, with her,” Shadow said as he pointed at Jess.
“Are you talking about me?” Jess asked.
Van shook his head from right to left rapidly.
“Then you will find the Ferryman. I already worked it out. You give him Jess’s coin and he will let you paddle the boat to the gates. Together the Ferryman and I will wait for you on the riverbank for you to hand deliver Jess to the doorway. All you have to do is paddle back and return the Ferryman’s boat.”
“I just get her to the gates?”
“And the coin for Jess?”
“You will know it when you see it. Usually, people spit it out. Sometimes it comes out of an ear, or in rare cases—eyes or nose. I call it the first taste of the afterlife,” he laughed.
“What does it taste like, Mr. Shadow?”
“Metal—I guess. It doesn’t matter what it tastes like. The Ferryman and I will wait for you on the riverbank by the door to the living.”
“How will I find the entrance to where I am supposed to go from the forest?” Van asked.
Shadow placed his hand over Van’s head. Van felt a jolt of energy hit him like the time he had accidentally been tased by his sister. He opened his eyes after he had collapsed on the ground. Looking around the room, he was hoping to get some clue of how much time had passed. He focused on Jess’s face.
“You have been out for at least an hour!” Jess said.
“We have to go now, Jess! Where’s Shadow?”
“He said he left to go back to the forest and that he had the wrong guy.”
“Oh—that’s good—right? Anyway, we need to make sure I disposed of the body, got rid of the evidence.”
It took little convincing to get Jess into the car. It was still dark outside, but it was already approaching the early morning hours. It would be light outside soon. They retraced the steps Van said he made the night before, even though he really didn’t remember. Van led Jess deep into the forest until they heard rapids nearby. With his flashlight, Van pointed at the tree that once had bloody handprints on it. Behind the tree was a cave. Inside the cave was a door blocking the entrance. It looked like one of the fancy doors from fairytales. The ones that were on castles that belonged to the richest of kings. It was taller than some trees that surrounded it.
As they got closer, they could hear whispers coming from the other side of the door.
“What’s behind the door?” Jess asked impatiently.
“Maybe we should check it out. That could be where I put the body,” Van said. “I really don’t remember.”
She gave the door a little shove, and it creaked open. The voices got louder and there was a blackness on the other side. Without thinking, and without warning, she ran through the door. Van knew the plan, so he pursued her into the cave, deep into the darkness. He walked slowly and carefully until he hear her voice.
“Come here,” she said.
In the darkness, Van continued to follow her voice. The sound of rapids grew louder. There was fog everywhere. They moved forward until they couldn’t move any further. The tips of their shoes were getting wet by the blackest of rivers. Both quiet, they watched as a boat that looked like a canoe with a man standing on the back of it pulled up to the bank. The man was wearing a black bodysuit. His face was white like powder, making him visible in the darkness. His eyes were shadows, sunken deep into his head.
“Who has the coin?” the man asked softly.
Van watched as a bulge showed up in Jess’s throat. She made a slight gagging sound and then coughed a gold coin into her hands.
“She has it,” Van said.
“Don’t speak. Hand it to me,” the man said.
Jess handed him the coin. He scanned the river and stared at them with empty black eyes and then dove headfirst into the river. He didn’t even make the slightest of splashes.
“Where did he go?” Jess asked. “Who are these strange people? Shadow and then this guy.”
“It’s an adventure Jess. We have to find the body,” Van said as he boarded the boat.
Jess hesitantly followed. Van picked up the Ferryman’s ore and paddled upstream. It was effortless, especially for someone who had never paddled a boat before.
“Be careful,” Jess said.
“This is unreal,” Van said.
After rowing for a few moments, they saw a dock come into view. What were whispers moments earlier were now becoming screams and laughs. Van tied the boat to the dock with a rope that was already on the boat. There were two large men standing on each side of another door. The door was open, and there were shadows and whispers, yells, and screams, mixed into a cacophony of inaudible dialogue. The darkness on the other side of the door was just the same as the one they walked through from the cave in the forest. Jess got off the boat first, and Van followed. They both walked toward the men.
“Did you check the list,” one faceless man asked the other.
They looked a lot like Shadow, no face, no features, just suits with black ties.
“We have a Van, on the list. Are either of you Van?”
“That’s a mistake, sir. Check the list again,” Van said.
“What the hell?” Jess said. “You are trying to get rid of me?”
“Why would I do that?” Van asked.
Jess shoved Van into the arms of one of the faceless men. They both grabbed him with such a strength that he felt stuck and destined to be pulled into the door. All he could do was stretch out with his upper body.
“Let me go!” he screamed.
Van stretched as hard as he could, grabbed a rock with his right-hand and smashed one of them in the shoulder. Just like Shadow, there was no reaction, but it was enough of a disturbance for them to let go for a moment. He jolted at Jess and grabbed her. He pushed her toward the two men. They grabbed her and Van got to the boat and quickly untied it from the dock.
“No! Van! He’s not letting me go,” Jess screamed.
Van looked at her for a moment. Then he jumped into the boat and rowed his way back downstream.
His right arm was turning black where one man grabbed him. But he was alive, and that was all that mattered. Soon, he would make it back at the banks of the living. Just as Shadow told him. The Ferryman and Shadow were waiting for him by the banks in front of the door to the living. The Ferryman had a slight smile on his face, after all he was the only being other than Van with a face. Powder white and gloomy, the Ferryman had a smirk on his face when Van arrived. As he pulled up to the bank, he watched as Shadow transformed into a man. Eyes, a nose and even a mouth appeared, but his voice was the same old Shadow.
“You are the best,” Shadow said as he clapped his hands slowly.
“You are a man now?” Van asked.
“Was—is? I am still not sure. But I am living.”
“You can disguise yourself as a human? Why didn’t you show your face earlier?”
“About that—I have waited for so long to have someone like you to come around. You were the best at getting rid of bodies. You were the best at getting rid of clues… You were the best at getting rid of all the evidence.”
“Ok – what does that mean?”
Shadow and the Ferryman looked at each other and laughed. The Ferryman then looked at Van.
“It means, Mr. Van, that you delivered a soul to the door of whispers and you survived.”
“Ok, that’s what you asked me to do – for my life. So, I could live a long time.”
“That is right Mr. Van. You will get to live a long life. You have earned your new position as the best who ever lived. You are a perfect match for such a position, just as I was many, many years ago.”
Van looked down into the dark river and stared down at the water. The river was not so dark anymore. He could see everything, like it was daytime. Everything except the reflection of his face. His face vanished, but his voice remained.
“No, no, no,” Van said.
“Oh, panicking doesn’t get your old life back. Don’t be so sad, you earned the job. A real participation trophy with the reward of a long life,” Shadow said as he tossed a coin to Van.
Van caught it and dropped to his hands and knees. The boat rocked under his weight.
“The coin is your eternal ticket. Don’t lose it!” Shadow said.
“Look at it this way. You have all the time in the world to work on coin magic, sleight-of-hand, Mr. Van,” the Ferryman laughed.
“I was speechless when it happened to me too, Mr. Van. You will know what to do when the time comes. The orders come in daily—not that time matters anymore. And with this new life, I think I am going to enjoy me a beer now. Good luck,” Shadow said as he walked through the door to the living and slammed it behind him.
Copyright © 2021 by Ryan Barnard-Stoker