Duncan stepped outside

Something rustled — a trash bag rustled but what made it rustle was unknown. A cat maybe, or a fox, a rat — it could’ve been any one of a number of things, some more plausible than others. Like aliens. It could’ve been a pre-invasion scout gathering intel on our race by rifling through our trash, his trash. What fun! It was a mixed honour because Duncan knew what they’d find out.

It rustled again — short burst like searching covertly, pausing, delving again — and Duncan could’ve gone check but the bins were around the corner and it was dark out, cold out, and he was only out here for a cigarette, so he didn’t. He lit flame and the rustling stopped, and he wondered what the alien looked like. It was short and stout, he figured, grey with vacuum eyes, and with long probing fingers good for picking through his processed scraps. What would it make of him? Noxious foods — what did aliens eat? Might they be akin? Duncan really hoped it was an alien because his life was boring.

Silence as he inhaled, exhaled smoke. A chill ran down him that made him feel self-conscious as it curled his toes. It was pitch out, that didn’t ease his unease. The moon- and starlit sky barely lit out here enough to see passed his eyelids; the glow of the fire and TV from within fell weak and feeble. Duncan glanced at the home weather display hanging the other side of the sliding doors and it was 1.8 ℃ out here, and he should’ve worn more than a hoodie but he’d appreciate the warmth in a minute. He’d really enjoy it, looked forward to it, couldn’t wait to get back in.

The rustle returned and it was comforting. He started to think about how all the beautiful tiny stars looked so alluring and enchanting — thousands of them. Millions of them — all of those worlds, amazing. He had an alien looking though his trash, he had all these stars — he was sorted. He started to feel like he got it, you know? Understood it — the purpose of life; our lives are a lot of nothing in the face of it all and he was starting to love it, starting to really feel the freedom when something screamed. It was a sound like squeaking, shrieking — most definitely alien. It was loud — deafening on the breeze like piercing with crack, like crunch, like mashing gravel. Duncan didn’t know what it was. His first thought was ‘alien’ but then maybe he was just hoping for an alien so was hearing alien sounds. He’d heard the brain could do such things but to be certain he’d have to look it up. His second thought was ‘I’m looking’, it was more a movement, more a realisation that he was going than a proper thought. With half a cigarette at lip curiosity led him toward the bins. He should’ve taken a torch with him but he didn’t, and he should’ve watched his footing but then he would’ve required a torch; he should’ve at least remembered the loose flagstones. After he tumbled, though, it didn’t really matter any more.


He picked himself up, brushed himself down, and noticed himself still lying on the ground. ‘Very odd,’ he thought as he wiped his face with his hoodie but stopped; his hoodie was glowing a slight teal. Come to notice it, his hands were also glowing and were slightly see-through — very, very faintly but yes, yes Duncan could see himself through himself, which was even odder. He didn’t quite know what to make of it all. He felt damp, like he was wet, but only his front and not his back, and he was lying on the ground but he was stood here glowing, radiating this teal that very faintly lit the air around him. He lay face down with seepage staining the flagstones black. Very strange, very —

“It was a rat,” a man said.

Duncan might’ve whirled in surprise but Duncan was lying on the ground but stood; couldn’t make head nor tail of it. It was a really strange sensation. If he looked down his ankles were lost in his thighs, and he could feel his thighs around them and his ankles in them, and if he stepped up a bit he’d be shin-deep in arsehole. He didn’t fancy that but still, very odd. Very —

“It was going through your rubbish and got killed by a cat,” the man was saying. “If you look carefully you can see them both midair there in the shadows. The cat’s running off with the rat, it’s jumping that wall after it heard you coming. I know because you get an intuition for these things after seeing the world paused for 116 years.”

Duncan glanced at the cloaked figure and failed to fall a’tizz. It was like he knew him, like they were old friends. Of course they were strangers, this man was just another strange thing to add to the strangeness, but he was comfortable; a comforting presence.

“Hi, I’m Idris Du,” the figure introduced himself. “Soul Collector — you might know me better as the Grim Reaper or Death, although I don’t make corpse I gather soul,” he mildly chuckled, somewhat tickled by his unknown joke. “By my reckoning you’ve got about a half second in your old time to gather yourself before we’re off. Fortunately, though, you’re now dead so this half second equates to about a minute or more, or at least until we hear a little tinkle.”

Duncan was confused. He didn’t feel dead. He must’ve bumped his head and was now having an out of body experience. Yeah, that’s it. He’s knocked unconscious. He might need medical attention but he wasn’t dead.

“I’m sorry but you are, I wouldn’t be here if you wasn’t.” Idris said. “If it helps, your death was relatively swift. You lost your footing when this flagstone here gave out and you caught yourself on that corner of this raised flowerbed there. You hit your head such that a bit of your skull pierced your brain — you were up on your feet in no time.”

But I’m lying on the ground —

“Your body is, but that’s just the dressing — you are standing here with me.”

Duncan wouldn’t have it — couldn’t have it. He only stepped out for a cigarette, heard an alien rummaging through his trash. He looked to the bins —

“A rat.”

“Not an alien?”

Idris shook his head.

Duncan looked up to the stars, to the millions of little orbs, and started to feel that understanding again, that knowledge and freedom. “Shame,” he said.

A little tinkle.

“Already?” Idris sighed. “I’m sorry, we’ve got to go. I’m needed.”


Tomos James