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THE CALLING CARD
by Eric J. Guignard
The calling card was black as midnight, and the message written across its face shimmered fire-gold. Letters and runes bowed together presenting a line of script which, when read, caused Old Man Popp to tremble.
Sorry I missed you. Will try back later.
The card measured only a few inches long and half that in height. Popp might have overlooked it entirely as he came home that afternoon, but the faint smell of brimstone caused him to search for its source. At first he thought he’d left the coffee maker on again and the java was burning, but then he found the card on the kitchen table, leaning against a half-empty bottle of gin.
This was the third card Popp had found on his table in the past month. He thought the first card was a joke. The second one caused him concern. And now number three...
“What do you want me to do, make an appointment?” Popp called out to the room. “I’m not going to sit here and wait for you, that’s for sure.”
He crinkled the card up and flicked it in the trash. Some guys just have poor timing, he thought and lit a cigar.
Two days later, Popp came home late at night. He had spent the afternoon playing golf and drinking beer. This time, however, he was not alone when the card was discovered.
Sharon saw it first and shrieked. She worked at the local tavern as a cocktail waitress; a bit weathered and a bit used up, but Popp’s favorite date to keep him company. The card smoldered faintly in the dim light and, for a moment, she thought it was meant for her.
Popp just shook his head at the now-familiar sight of fire-gold script. “That bum. How many times is he going to let himself into my house? He may as well move in and help with the rent.”
“Honey, you got a date with Death,” Sharon said.
“Yeah, but first I got a date with you!” He swatted her on the tush, and Sharon shrieked again, though this time in giggling laughter.
Over the next month Popp collected four more of G. Reaper’s calling cards. If it was time to pass from this mortal world, he decided he was ready. Popp had lived a good life and, truth be told, still did, even at his advanced age. He made the most of every opportunity and partook in all of life’s sweet delights. Unlike most folks he knew, he never suffered the lingering effects of regret. He wondered at the marvels of the afterlife and wished the ghostly visitor would get it over with; this routine with Death was like a bad debt collector who calls repeatedly to leave the same message on voicemail: Time to pay up, time to pay up.
Finally, one night the head of G. Reaper popped from the air in a cloud of sulfur and smoke, as if leaning casually through a window. Its skeletal face emanated chill—ivory white—and was cloaked under a cowl of darkness. It motioned to Popp with one bony finger.
“Psst. Hey, you got a moment?”
“I’m on your schedule,” Popp replied, perplexed.
“I’ve been trying to get ahold of you. I’m beginning to think you’re evading me.”
“I thought you were omnipresent. Can’t you find me whenever you want?”
“I’m not God, I’m just an employee. I’ve got rules to follow. You’re supposed to die at home so this is the only place I can meet you. Every time I come by, though, you’re out somewhere else.”
“You got me now. Guess this is it, huh?”
“No, no, I’m too busy at present. I’ve got appointments booked all night. I just wanted to see if I could schedule something with you. It’s getting a little ridiculous, this back-and-forth business.”
“You’re telling me,” Popp said. He cocked a white eyebrow at the harbinger of doom. He certainly was not enthused to follow this bonehead into the yawning gates of eternity.
“How does tomorrow night sound, say ten-thirty?” the Reaper asked.
“How about next decade?”
“A real wise guy, aren’t ya? I’ll be back tomorrow night at ten-thirty. You’ve been warned.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve been warned. Doctors have been warning me for twenty years. Keep drinkin’, they said, and the Reaper will come for you. Keep smokin’, they said, Death is watching. Well, we all gotta go sometime. May as well enjoy it while we can.”
“You’ve got one more day to enjoy, and then those doctors can say they’re right. Your choices have caught up with you.”
“So, what will do me in?”
“You’ll know soon enough,” the Reaper said, and withdrew into its cloud of sulfur and smoke. A bitter, burnt scent remained, like charred coal soaking in hog fat.
Popp shook his head. “My last day on Earth, and he stinks up the house.”
He lit a cigar and called Sharon, then swung open the doors on his liquor cabinet, telephoned his buddies, and lived those remaining hours as a carnal savage.
Ten-thirty arrived quicker than hoped and brought with it a billowing cloud of sulfur and smoke. The Grim Reaper stepped into Popp’s living room, wrapped in a gossamer black frock and holding a hickory scythe mounted by a blade of fire. It reminded Popp of his childhood, hunting through the Ozarks in the middle of night, holding a flaming torch in search of quarry.
Popp tried to remain composed and slowly stood to meet his fate. On the kitchen table lay his will and final wishes. He finished a glass of bourbon and set it next to his effects, wondering if he had time for a chaser.
The Reaper spoke, booming, as if announcing candidates for an election. “It is time for your departure. You, Old Man Pott, are hereby—”
“Eh? You mean Popp.”
“It’s just a courtesy to refer to you in familiarity. Makes the passing more comfortable. I know that’s not your full name.”
“I haven’t been called anything else in the past few decades.”
“Popp, Pott, whatever. John Ezekiel Pott. The time has come—”
“Who’s John Ezekiel Pott?”
The Reaper’s skull twitched, as if its bones were pliable, and one brow rose in agitation. “You! You’re John Ezekiel Pott. Don’t get cagey with me.”
Popp’s eyes squinted, and he looked deep into the Reaper’s orbital sockets. “Is there anything inside that death head of yours? A brain, maybe?”
“C’mon, you’re Old Man Pott… aren’t you?”
“No. Like I said, it’s Popp.”
“You’re telling me you’re not John Ezekiel Pott, also known as Old Man Pott?’
“My birth name is John William Popp.”
“Uh… Does Pott live around here?”
“How should I know!”
The Reaper fidgeted and opened its nebulous jaws to speak, then shut them with a snap. It looked around Popp’s room and ran its fingers along the razor edge of the burning scythe.
Popp watched it and clenched his fists in exasperation. “You bumbler!” he shouted. “All this time you’ve been harassing me? I oughta whack you upside the head.”
“Don’t even think about it. You don’t know what I can do.”
“Like kill me?”
Death’s pale skull turned crimson. “I’ll be back. Just you wait.”
“Yeah, yeah, tell it to Pott.”
The Reaper pulled its black cowl further over its face and, head bowed, departed through the portal of sulfur and smoke.
Popp signed. He got to have his chaser after all. He poured another glass of bourbon and dialed numbers on the phone.
“Hey, doll, I’ve got a new lease on life. Want to come over and celebrate?”
Two months later Popp walked into his house, snapping fingers and whistling a tune played from the local dance social. There had been dice, drinks, good music, and plenty of widows who were still easy on the eyes. He’d gotten the numbers for two of them, one of whom even still retained natural color in her hair.
Inside though, he stopped and smelled the air. The now-familiar scent of roasting coal and hog fat floated by, a hazel miasma that caused him to gag. The Grim Reaper, who had its back to him, suddenly turned as if caught doing something unexpectedly. It’s scythe burst into flame.
“Oh, wasn’t expecting you,” it said.
“I do live here,” Popp replied.
“I meant, I didn’t think I’d catch you on the first try. I was just leaving a card. Figured you’d be out again, boozing and womanizing at all hours.”
“It was a slow night.”
“Well, apparently, there’s been some sort of mix-up.”
“You don’t say.”
“You were supposed to die twenty years ago.”
“Hm. Don’t feel like I’ve been dead for twenty years.” Popp crossed his arms.
“Yes, well, eh… apparently I took the wrong man back then.”
“So you bumbled again.”
“It’s not easy, what I do. The population is skyrocketing. Every day, there’re more and more people to deal with. You try escorting the souls of over six thousand dead every hour and see if you don’t mix someone up once in awhile.”
“So what do we do now?”
“It’s time to come with me.”
“I don’t get an advance appointment this time?”
The Reaper shook its head. “Sorry, you’re a special case now.”
“What does that mean?”
“Consider it a customer service issue. You were headed downstairs.”
Popp’s eyes widened in dismay. He never believed there was actually eternal judgment of souls. He glanced down and imagined he could see through the linoleum floor far below to a flickering world of red-and-black. He realized the bitter sulfur smell that trailed the Grim Reaper must be a residual scent carried along from the charred souls of the damned, like barbecuing in front of an open grill. After doing that, you can’t help but smell like charcoal for the rest of the day.
“You said that last part in the past tense,” Popp whispered.
“You’ve been leading a pretty hedonistic life: gluttony, blasphemy, promiscuity.”
Popp imagined the burning sulfur smell growing stronger.
The Reaper continued. “But in light of the mix-up, management is willing to go easy on you. You’re going to wander in purgatory for a few millennia until your fate is decided.”
“Millennia?” Popp repeated. He felt the bourbon climbing back up his throat.
“You’re lucky at that. You’re not being judged on the last twenty years, since you were accidentally forced to live in this world of sin longer than scheduled. You have some good deeds in your earlier years that weigh in your favor, like the love you gave your children and the sacrifice you made for your late wife, Mabel.”
Popp’s jaw fell open like the trapdoor beneath a man set to hang. “A wife? Children? I’ve never been married or had any kids.”
The Reaper’s jaw dropped, as if following Popp’s lead. “Mother of Hannah… but you’re John William Popp!”
“Sure, that’s my name, but I’m telling you, that ain’t my life.”
“Born in New York? Moved to the northwest after Mabel died?”
“No! I was born in Oklahoma, and like I said, I’ve never been married. What’s the problem now?”
The Reaper’s scythe extinguished and he stammered as he spoke, more to himself than to Popp. “I—I don’t understand. The files said we took the wrong John Wallace Popp twenty years ago. Husband of Mabel, father of two.”
“You bumbler! You just said John Wallace Popp. Are you looking for John William or John Wallace? You’ve got the names and lives all mixed up!”
“No, no, I assure you this will all get sorted out.” The Reaper reached inside the ethereal shroud that surrounded it and rustled around until it pulled out a large papyrus scroll.
“How many other folks have you taken before their time or sent packing off to the wrong afterlife?” Popp asked.
“Our margin of error is infinitesimal, really never happens. Believe me, um, you’re a rare exception.”
The Reaper fumbled with the scroll. “I, eh, just need to double-check something.”
The scroll slipped from its skeletal fingers and unraveled over the floor as Popp looked on.
“Ahem, my mistake.” It bent over to gather up the parchment, and a stack of brimstone-infused calling cards slipped out from the ethereal shroud, scattering across the linoleum in all directions.
“Whoops,” the Reaper mumbled.
Popp saw the now-familiar message shimmering on the black cards in fire-gold:
Sorry I missed you. Will try back later.
Exasperation overcame him, and he shouted again. “You bumbler!”
“Show some respect,” the Reaper said. “I’m Death!” It stood to face Popp, and its scythe slipped from slippery skeletal fingers, as if they were coated in perspiration.
The fiery blade dropped and impaled Popp in the chest. His eyes bulged out like a fish flopping on dry banks, and he sank to his knees. The Reaper gasped. “I’m so sorry! Don’t die yet, I’ll fix this!”
The Reaper pulled its scythe back and the hickory bottom banged against a bottle of bourbon, sending it crashing to the floor.
“Aw, geez,” it muttered.
Popp’s life faded fast. He rolled over onto the floor and choked out one final word before his spirit was set free.
Eric Guignard writes dark and speculative fiction from his office in Los Angeles. His stories and articles may be found in magazines, journals, anthologies, and any other media that will print him. He’s a member of the Horror Writer’s Association, the International Thriller Writers, and is also the Horror Genre Correspondent for Men’s Confidence Magazine. In addition, he’s an anthology editor, including: Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations (2012, Dark Moon Books), which was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award®, and this year’s critically acclaimed release, After Death… (2013, Dark Moon Books). Read his novella, Baggage of Eternal Night (2013, JournalStone Publishing), and watch for many more forthcoming books. Visit Eric at: www.ericjguignard.com or at his blog: www.ericjguignard.blogspot.com.