When Joe left his office that late afternoon, he had a huge grin on his face and 20,000 dollars in his pocket. He figured that was the approximate amount more he’d be making with his new promotion; therefore, his pants pockets felt extra heavy. On his way home, he clutched the neck of a bottle of champagne as he pictured the blue eyes of his wife shining with joy from the good news.
The sun beamed over the river as he strolled beside it whistling a tune that would make the birds jealous. He passed a gentleman sitting on a park bench tossing birdseed into the water where the ducks had gathered. As Joe passed, the gentleman spoke up.
“What’s the occasion?” he called out.
“I’m sorry?” Joe paused in his tracks, a bit startled. The gentleman stood to face him. He was wearing a long black trench coat which Joe thought was out of place on a warm spring day.
“Looks as though you’re on your way to a celebration?” he said. The mysterious man stared at Joe with sharp eyes. His unusual interest distracted Joe for a moment, but he soon recalled the reason for his giddiness.
“Actually, I’ve just received a promotion, and I’m on my way home to celebrate with the family,” he replied.
“And this promotion, it means good things for you?”
“Of course. Now, my wife can stay at home to raise our little boy, we can travel more, and maybe even have an early retirement.”
“Fool!” The man pointed a long arm at him. Joe jumped, afraid he was going to get mugged.
“Don’t you know your soul is required of you this very day!” The dark figure licked two of his fingers, rubbed them together, and gave a firm snap.
Before Joe knew it, something collapsed at his side followed by the shrill sound of glass breaking. The champagne bottle he’d been carrying had fallen and shattered into a broken array of green glass. The bubbly contents flowed onto the sidewalk and pooled around the body of a man who lay motionless on the ground.
As he gazed upon the fallen man, Joe began to recognize the dark skin, the black curls of hair that crowned the face, and his favorite ball cap laying at his side.
“No, it can’t be. This is impossible,” he said aloud. He looked at his own hands in front of him expecting to see through them, but he appeared and felt as normal as always. He felt like he had just entered a dream state, completely aware of himself, others, and his whereabouts, but not fully grasping the entire image. He looked up to see the man in the trench coat walking away.
“Wait, I don’t understand. What about…him?” He looked back at his body lying on the champagne-soaked pavement. Even though he knew that was his own, he felt distant and separate like walking away from a good friend.
“He’s no concern of yours now,” the mysterious man answered still walking ahead.
Troubled voices came from behind as a couple of men passing by stopped to investigate the body. What would they find? Knowing he couldn’t assist in any way, Joe decided to leave the scene and catch up to the man responsible for this. Joe followed him, his body moving, but no longer feeling the ground underneath his feet.
“Who are you?” Joe asked as he approached him.
“Only fools ask questions they already know the answer to.” The man kept an eye on the flowing river as they walked.
“Why here, why now? Is this some kind of cruel joke?”
“Do I look amused? I’m never a joke.”
“Please,” Joe said, wanting to burst with tears that no longer filled his eyes. “What about my wife?”
The man stopped and faced the river once again.
“She will mourn. But if you’re worried about her happiness, know she will remarry within five years.” He stuck his hand in his coat pocket and removed a handful of birdseed. He flung a sprinkling of seed into the water, summoning the ducks to follow. Joe pictured the tears of his blue-eyed girl, but knowing she’d be walking down the isle once again disturbed him even more.
“What about my little boy?”
“He will be cared for if that is your concern. You will be remembered fondly, but his memory of you will become like a blurry photograph or a word on the tip of his tongue.”
His child’s face, framed in little black curls came to his thoughts. Joe searched through his mind to hear just one more laugh from his son. He wondered what his small body felt like the last time he held him. Joe shook his head.
“Dare I ask about my work?”
“Your position will be available before your obituary hits print,” he scoffed. “And you think I’m cruel.”
Joe cringed, his mind and heart having trouble connecting and processing this new reality. In silence, they both stared at the ducks nibbling at the seeds floating in the water. They swerved around each other, fighting the current of the river to get as much food as possible before surrendering to the pull of the rapids.
The sun still shone, the river still rushed, but the spring in Joe’s step just minutes before had been seized by an anchor that threatened to sink him. Though his life had already been taken, he felt as though he were suffocating, unable to free himself from sorrow’s grasp.
To Joe’s despair, the man began to walk away again without even a second glance at the grieving soul he’d plucked from existence.
“Wait,” Joe said, and the man paused. “What do I do now? Where am I supposed to go?”
The man heaved a sigh and turned his head back to him.
“Why do you ask me? Your whole life planned for this moment. Now you’re where your heart chose to be.”
The man turned and walked away, leaving Joe by the edge of the river. He watched him go noticing how the man’s fingers rubbed together at his side.
Then Joe was alone with only the ducks to keep him company.
Written by Leah Jordan Meahl
Inspired by Luke 12:16-21 and Matthew 6:21