Brian Jacobs is not a happy man. 42 Years old and balding since his early 20's, he also has a crooked nose, and has such bad eyesight that he has to wear glasses that are as thick as coke bottle bottoms. He has never been married, and even when he was young, has only had a couple of short-term girlfriends. Brian has hated his life for as long as he could remember, and has, for the past few years, debated on committing suicide. The only thing really stopping him is the fear of messing up and being turned into a vegetable.
When Brian was in elementary school, he had horribly bucked teeth. He was made fun of daily. The kids called him 'buck toothed Brian' for a few years, until Brian grew into those huge teeth of his...which was just in time for his classmates to understand his initials, and what they stand for. They made fun of him all throughout middle and high school for that.
As a young man, Brian worked a series of dead end jobs, ranging from making burgers at a fast food restaurant to hauling furniture for a moving company. He has hated every job he has ever had, and has never made any friends in his places of work. Currently, Brian works in an office, entering data for a small company. He makes a dollar an hour more than minimum wage, which is the most he has made in his life.
Since he has never made much for a paycheque, Brian has always lived with his father, in the house he grew up in. His mother passed away suddenly when Brian was 12. Since then, his father has quit his job and taken to spending his welfare cheque on booze. He spends the majority of his days in a drunken stupor on the couch, watching daytime talk shows. Brian figures that his father has been drunk at least 5 days a week for the past 30 years.
Brian doesn't own a vehicle. He has never made enough money to be able to afford one. He has saved up his paycheques the odd time, to buy large items like his computer, or to pay for random repairs to the house, but usually when he saves enough, he'll waste it on one of the cheap prostitutes around his neighbourhood.
He thinks the last one gave him a disease. He's been itchy 'down there' for a couple of weeks now, which is why we catch up to poor Brian late on this dark and cloudy Saturday morning, walking down a street a few blocks from his house, and then turning into the building marked 'walk in clinic'.
When he leaves the clinic a few hours later, the clouds have gotten darker and more menacing. Brian walks quickly, hoping to get home before the rain starts. He tries to keep his mind off of what happened in the doctor's office... 'Really, when did they invent Q-tips that long, and why didn't the doctor ask him for the urine sample BEFORE using it?'
His train of thought once again turns to how much he hates his life, and how much he wants to end it... and the rain starts.
Cursing to himself for not bringing an umbrella, Brian starts to walk faster. The rain gets heavier, quickly turning into a downpour. Utterly frustrated, he takes cover under the awning of a store. He looks out into the pouring rain engulfing the street, where already there is an inch of water on the ground. At this particular moment in time, he realizes that he has never felt so low, never wanted to end his life so much.
Turning around to change his miserable view, Brian looks into the store under which awning he has taken cover. It is very dark inside, so he puts his face right to the storefront window and wraps his hands around his eyes to block out the light. What he sees puzzles him.
The only furniture in the store is a desk in the back of the room. There is a young lady behind it, and she seems to be looking at him and smiling. The walls are covered in shelving, displaying what looks like playing cards. 'There must be hundreds of them', he thinks, 'I wonder what they are?'
He realizes that the reason it is so dark in the store is because there are no electrical lights in it at all. The entire store is lit by candles, hanging off the walls in the breaks between the cards.
Curiosity gets the best of Brian, and he walks in.
It takes just a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the store. When they finally do, he realizes just how close he was to his initial assessment of the store. The displays along the shelves actually do hold some type of cards, displayed in a way to show the purchaser what is on each one of them. The lady behind the desk is still smiling politely at him. The only thing he can see on her desk is a computer monitor. Strangely enough, there doesn't seem to be doors to any back room, storage room, or washroom. The entire store consists of just the room he is standing in.
Slightly confused by the layout of the store, Brian walks toward one of the walls to take a closer look at the cards on display.
The cards seem to be some type of tarot cards, but they are unlike any that Brian has ever seen. The first one he looks at is a drawing of a car... or the wreckage of one. In the picture, the car is in a demolished state. Though the picture is small, Brian can see blood on the windshield and a severed arm on the ground beside the car. The words below it state 'CAR CRASH (H)'.
The one beside it has a drawing of a man sitting at a table, a bottle with XXX on the label. There are two X's drawn over the man's eyes, like a cartoon where somebody gets bonked on the head and sees stars. That card is labeled 'POISON'.
Directly below POISON is a card with a drawing of a set of stairs and a man lying on the ground at the bottom of them, neck twisted at a horribly wrong angle to the rest of his body, and blood dribbling from his head and ears. Once again, two X's are covering the eyes. It is labeled 'FALL (STAIR)'.
Beside FALL (STAIR), a card entitled 'MUGGING (H)' contains a gruesome drawing of a man who had just been shot. Brain matter is flying out of the half of his head that is still attached to his neck, and his hands contain fistfuls of money.
Slightly disgusted yet still somewhat curious, Brian takes a quick look at the rest of the wall. Every card has a picture of a person in death, with a description of the means of their death underneath. For a reason unknown to Brian, a few of them have the letter 'H' after the description.
At the end of the wall, Brian looks up to see the young woman still smiling politely at him. Stricken by the absurdity of this so called store he doesn't return her smile, but instead says to her: "I'm sorry, but I have to ask: what in the world is this? Are these some kind of collectable cards that young people are into now? They're kind of morbid, aren't they?"
"Actually no", the young woman replies. "What I am offering today is death. The cards you see are not what is on sale, they are simply illustrations used to represent the options available to you"
There is a silence that fills the room for what seems like hours. Brian opens his mouth to speak, pauses and collects his thoughts for a moment, and then chuckles under his breath as he looks around. "This is some kind of a joke, right? Is this a T.V. show? Where are the hidden cameras??"
The woman's smile disappears. "No joke, no show, no cameras, my friend. Before you walked into this store, you wanted nothing more than to die, am I correct?"
Brian stopped searching the room for cameras and stared into the woman's eyes, which never wavered. A smile once again reached her face, but it was a sympathetic smile now, full of pity.
"How could you possibly know that?" he asked.
"Because you're here", was her reply. "You see, this 'store' only appears to people who desperately want to end their lives, but are either afraid, or unable to do it themselves. Otherwise, this space simply doesn't exist. The buildings on either side of this building right now are actually beside each other, to the eyes of a normal person. They simply cannot see us".
Still doubtful but wanting more information, Brian inquires: "So what happens? I pick a card and you kill me in the style of it?"
"Well, that's sort of the way it works, but there is a little more to it than that. First of all, I don't kill you. You simply die in that way. Think of it this way: you get to choose your fate. You can choose a natural death like heart attack or an aneurism, or something different altogether like a car crash or an explosion. There are 1,048 different cards on the wall to choose from. There is also a way to specialize your death, if you'd like. Did you see that some of the cards have an 'H' beside the death description? Those are the ones that give you an option to go out as a hero if you'd like. A lot of people will choose this option if they did a particularly bad thing during their life, if they took a life, or if they've had a meaningless life overall. It's usually people's way of 'paying back their dues', so to speak".
Absolutely intrigued, Brian didn't doubt what he was being told. He has wanted to end his life for a long time, but to be able to go out as a hero was too good to be true. In fact, this whole thing sounded too good to be true. He had to find out more.
"Okay, so if I choose a death, do I walk out of the store and just die on the spot? Would I get a chance to say goodbye to anybody? How does it work?"
"Well" the clerk replied, "You don't just die on the spot. It can happen anytime in the next 24 hours. We Grims are busy beings, you see, so you're added to our list for the day. We just can't get to you right away". Her sympathetic smile came back. "And unfortunately, you won't be able to tell anyone that you know you're going to die. You simply won't be able to get the words out of your mouth, even if you tried. If you'd like, we can arrange a minute or two between the 'accident' and your actual death. Most people choose to die instantly, because it is usually the most excruciating minute of their lives, but if you really want to get something off your chest before you go, this is the only option you have".
Brian thought for a few seconds. He didn't have any close friends or family to say good-bye to, so an instantaneous death would be no problem for him. The worst thing he could think of would be the wait itself. What would he do for up to 24 hours?
As if reading his mind, the young lady continued. "Most people use the time up until their deaths to update their will if they need to. Some purge their houses of undesired things that they don't want found after their gone. A lot spend time visiting, getting one last conversation in with the people they love, even if they can't say 'goodbye'. It's a good time to truly share any feelings you may have bottled up."
Brian felt like he was walking on a cloud. This was the perfect way to end his miserable life without chance of failure. He just had one more question to ask.
"Is there any chance of backing out if I change my mind in the next 24 hours? Can I come back here and cancel my appointment if I want to?"
Her smile wavered. "Unfortunately, no. People change their minds all the time, but to no avail. What is written in blood cannot be changed. Your appointment is set in stone, and WILL happen, even if you try to change it yourself. Just 2 days ago, a young man chose to die via a car crash. He tried to get out of it by not going into any cars. In fact, he stayed home watching TV the entire time. He died the next morning when a car came crashing through his living room wall and into him.
"You see, once you sign the contract, you WILL die. If you decide not to sign, you can walk out this door, and within a minute this store and everything in it will be wiped from your memory. You will not remember me or any conversation we've had. You will also pass up the only chance you have had of ending your life easily and in a painless way. You will never get the opportunity to visit this store again, and you will live the rest of your scheduled life out as you were before you came through our doors. The decision is yours to make and yours to live or die with...quite literally, actually".
Brian had heard quite enough. He knew he wanted to do it; it had been on his mind for most of his life. An opportunity like this would never come around again. The question was, which way should he choose to go? He knew that he wanted to go out in a quick and painless manner, but he also wouldn't mind going out as a hero. He had lived his entire life on the backburner, never making a name for himself, never becoming anything. This was his chance to at least do something good, to help somebody before he died. He turned to the young lady at the desk.
"So, if I decide that I want to do this, how do we start?"
"Well", she said "First you have to choose a means of death, and once that decision is made, I'll input your info into the computer and set your appointment. It's as simple as that. Once your appointment is set, it's usually anywhere between 4 and 24 hours until your time comes, depending on how busy Grims are at the time".
"And that's it?"
"Yeah, that's it. We try to keep it fairly simple, as it could very well be one of the last decisions you make in your whole life". She smiled and winked at him.
"If I want to know anything about these cards, can you help me?"
She paused. "There is some information I cannot give you, like the exact circumstances of your death. All deaths are not the same, and there are a lot of variables that can change the details of the 'occurrence'. What I can do is offer to give you examples of previous deaths if you would like, so you have some kind of idea what to expect.
"Please, take your time, browse through the cards, and if you have any questions, I'll be right here".
She took half of a step back, indicating that she was finished and it was now up to him. Brian headed towards the wall of cards.
About 15 minutes later, Brian had browsed through most of the cards. Because he knew he wanted to go out as a hero, he could quickly pass by a lot of the cards. Of the 1,048 cards on the wall, the young lady explained, only 236 of them had hero options.
Brian only had a general idea of what kind of death he wanted. Because there was really no way to go out as a hero in a natural fashion (like a heart attack), he had to choose something else that he knew would be quick and as painless as possible... that left out a lot of things, like fire or drowning. He questioned the clerk about a few of the deaths, and she gave him whatever info she could on them. In the end, he chose "ROBBERY", with the hero option. While browsing, when he asked the store clerk about this one, she said that with the hero option, you most likely won't be the one getting robbed, but will be killed saving a robbery victim. She explained that the most likely means of death was by getting shot, but other means were not ruled out. She also assured him that the death was almost always instantaneous, and there would be very little pain, if any. He continued to browse for a few minutes, but when he was finished, he had made his mind up to be somebody's savior. He approached the desk and told her of his decision.
"Excellent decision", she exclaimed. "Now, I will need to get some info from you and you can get on your way. Can I have your full name, parents names, and your date of birth?"
Brian told her his info and she typed it into the computer. She hit the enter button and scrolled down a bit, then frowned. "Well, that's interesting", she murmured to herself. "I've never had that before". She paused, and then looked up at Brian, who was looking at her quizzically. Flustered, she looked down again and said "I'm sorry, I was talking to myself, I shouldn't have said anything". She continued to type for another minute or two, hit a button, and grabbed a freshly printed piece of paper from a printer hidden under the desk. She laid it on the desktop facing Brian.
"This is your contract; it goes over the terms of your early death. Please read it over, and if you agree with the terms, sign on the dotted line at the bottom of the sheet, then place your thumb over the thumbprint which is imprinted on the bottom right hand corner." She handed him a pen, and when he went to grab it, she grabbed his hand. Her hands were ice cold in his, and he felt like he was touching death itself. She looked Brian in the eye and told him "Remember, once you sign this, there is no going back. Are you positive that you want to go through with this right now?"
An interesting way to state that question, Brian thought. I wonder what she read on that screen when she put my info into it.
He only paused for a second. "I am positive that I want to do this right now. And you can let go of my hand".
She looked down, surprising herself in the fact that her hand was still holding his. She immediately let go, gave him a pitied look, and regained her composure. "Then read and sign, please. Unfortunately, due to 'issues', I cannot give you a copy of the contract to take with you. I will be keeping and filing this one, the only copy".
Brian had to restrain a giggle, picturing somebody going through his personal belongings and finding a contract he had signed going over the details of his own death. He wondered what they would think of that.
He pushed the thought out of his mind and skimmed the document. It was pretty basic, simply stating that he was agreeing to end his life before his normally scheduled time. There was a bit of legal jargon (Brian had to restrain another giggle when he questioned the possibility of "death's lawyers"), and then a dotted line on the bottom left hand side for him to sign. He touched the pen to the paper, paused for just a split second, and then signed his name in the allotted area. Then he put his right thumb over the thumbprint on the contract. As he did, he felt a pain from his thumb, like it had been pricked by a pin. When he removed it, he saw that the print mark was now coated in a thin layer of his blood.
Strangely relieved for everything to be over, he handed the contract back to the clerk. The pitied look had left her face, and her polite smile had returned. "Thank you very much, Mr. Jacobs. Please enjoy the rest of your life". Once again, she stepped half a step back indicating that their business was done.
Brian smiled politely back at her, thanked her for the opportunity granted to him, and walked out the door.
He noticed that while he was in the store, the rain had stopped, and the sky was clearing. There was even some blue showing through the clouds. He started walking, and made it about 10 steps before stopping and turning around to verify that the store was no longer there. Where the store should have been, there was a Donut shop beside a bank. Just like the clerk had said, the store simply didn't exist. Brian turned back around and kept walking.
During the walk home, Brian had thought of a game plan for the next few hours. He figured that since he had nothing else to do, he would take a nap for a few hours and then take a bus downtown and walk around, looking for a robbery so he could intervene. He figured the ideal time for a robbery would be late night/early morning, so he would set his alarm for 11pm and head out then.
Brian finally reached his front step and walked in the door. He took off his shoes and made his way into the living room, where his father was passed out on the couch. There was an overturned bottle of cheap fortified wine lying on the floor next to his outstretched arm, and the TV was blaring the evening news. Brian picked the bottle up and set it on the coffee table, turned the TV off, and sat in the chair across from the couch.
He looked at his sleeping father and wondered what he would do without him. Would he manage to get by? Would he quit drinking? Would his son's death make him a better person or an even worse one? Would he manage to survive without somebody picking his bottles up for him? Turning off the television for him? Taking his burnt dinner out of the oven after it had been forgotten?
Brian grew solemn and wondered if he had made the right decision. After all that they had been through, he still loved his father and hoped he would be alright on his own. All he could do was hope and prey that nothing horrible happened to him to take his life early.
Maybe he was a little to quick to decide to end his own life? He never really tried to convince his father to quit drinking. If he had encouraged him to quit years ago, would he still be as unhappy as he is, or would having a dependable father around to help him change his outlook on life?
Brian didn't want to think about it anymore. His decision was made and the contract signed. He understood that there was no backing out now. The only thing left to do now was wait. Brian got up, said a silent good-bye to his father, and went to bed.
When the alarm went off at 11, Brian shut it off, reached over and turned on the bedside lamp, and gave a startled yelp when he saw the clerk from death's store sitting at the foot of his bed.
"I'm terribly sorry to have surprised you", she said "but, as coincidence would have it, I'm going to be your grim tonight". She followed with the same polite smile that she gave him at the store. "So, are you ready??"
Brian forced the cobwebs out of his head and replied: "Well, about that - I know that you had said that there is no turning back once the contract was signed, but can you make an exception just this once for me? I never thought about my father and what he'd do without me, and I don't know if he'll be alright. I really want to change my mind".
Once again her face filled with pity. "Unfortunately, it would be no good to you even if I could change things for you, which I can't.
"What do you mean?"
"Do you remember my surprised look back at the store, where you caught me talking to myself? I was in utter shock over the information I had read on your profile. It turns out that even though you were there to end your life early, you weren't ending it very early at all. Even as we speak, a clot is forming in your head, which will eventually cut the blood to your brain and cause a stroke. You were due to die from natural causes just over 48 hours from now, painlessly while you slept.
"I'm really sorry to have to break this type of news to you right now Brian, but you were very eager to finish your life earlier today so I didn't bother to tell you, thinking it wouldn't matter to you either way".
Brian had his mouth open to argue with her, when she put her index finger to her lips in a shushing gesture. "Be quiet now Brian, you have a visitor coming".
Brian paused, wondering what she meant. What was she talking about a visitor for? He had to get out of here soon and find a robbery. He had to get dressed and fish out bus fare and...
Dawning came to Brian as he realized what was about to happen. At the start of this conversation, she had asked if he was ready. He was not going anywhere to look for a robbery; the robbery was coming to him!
Just as the horror of what was about to happen struck Brian like a brick in the face, there was a loud bang downstairs as the front door was kicked in. Yelling voices were heard; first a strangers, and then his fathers. Horrified, Brian turned to the grim. "When the time comes, can you give me a few seconds? I need to tell my father something before I go".
"I'll see what I can do to help you Brian, but in the meantime, I believe somebody downstairs needs help", she replied. Then: "Go to him. I will be with you soon".
Brian opened the door and ran to the top of the stairs to see a man standing downstairs by the splintered front door, pointing a gun at his father. The man was dressed all in black and wearing a balaclava, and was yelling, telling his father to get all of the money and valuables in the house and give them to him. His father seemed to be frozen on the couch, arms raised, whimpering softly. The lack of movement seemed to anger the intruder, who was probably hoping for a quick cash score.
Brian took a second to psyche himself up. He knew he was going to have to confront the intruder and scare him out of the house so that he didn't hurt his father. He was going to be a man for once in his life. He was going to have to 'bite the bullet' in style. A strange calm came over him. Quietly, while the intruder's attention was still only on his father, he walked down the stairs.
When he got to the bottom, the intruder noticed him and with a little yelp, turned the gun towards him. Brian noticed that the hand holding the gun was shaking. 'Probably high on some drug', he thought.
"We have nothing for you", Brian told him quietly. "Leave now and get on with your life. I will NOT let you leave here with anything you didn't come with. You would have to kill me first".
The man's eyes widened. His hands continued to shake, and he nervously switched targets, between Brian and his father. He had clearly never been in this kind of situation before and wasn't expecting this kind of trouble. Brian didn't let up.
"Staying here is not an option. I will not tell you again. You now have to the count of 3 to turn around and walk back out the door. If you do not leave by then, I will forcibly remove you myself.
The intruder stared at him in disbelief, gun still pointed at his father.
Still no movement from the man, who seemed to be in shock at the events he had started.
Brian took a few steps toward the intruder and severity of the situation seemed to hit the man. The intruder turned the gun towards Brian and just as Brian lunged toward the man, the gun went off.
The bullet entered Brian's chest and he fell toward the intruder, grasping at him. All the strength seemed to leave him. He tried to grab the man as he fell, but couldn't get a grip. Brian landed on the floor and lay still.
The intruder backed up a few feet, staring at Brian in disbelief. His eyes were as wide as saucers and he was babbling to himself, repeating "No, no no nononono". He only wanted a few bucks for a quick fix, not the terrible mess he was in now. He looked from Brian to the gun, and then to the old man on the couch. Finally his drug-induced thought process kicked in, and he ran out the door.
As soon as the robber left, Brian's father jumped off the couch and ran towards his son as fast as his 63 year old bones could take him. He kneeled down beside him and wrapped his arms around him, crying loudly. A slight movement in his arms told him that Brian was still alive. He placed him gently back on the floor and said to him: "Don't try to move, son. I'm going to get you a pillow". He was about to get up but Brian's hand grabbed his arm.
"Don't..." said Brian weakly. "...Not much time left. You have to be ...strong now. Take care of yourself... no more ....drinking..."
Silent tears strolled down his face. "Son, I don't know if I can get by, especially if you go, too. You can't leave me like your mother did. I don't know what I'll do"
"Believe in yourself... be strong... know that ...I love... you".
A faint smile crossed Brian's lips. His father returned it with a tortured smile of his own. "I will try, my son. I will try"
Brian Jacobs looked his father in the eyes and saw honesty in them. He held his fathers stare for a few seconds and then the world swam before his eyes. As his father cried and rocked his son, Brian went limp in his arms, and felt no more.