On a Pale Pony...
By JR Conlin

First came the whimpering, then the sniffling, and before long, the Angel of Death had managed to work herself into a full on bawl.

'Oh great', Thomas thought, 'this is just what I needed.'

"You", the Grim Reaper managed to burble out between sobs, "you don't like me."

Thomas cringed against this latest assault. He hated crying, it was a sign of weakness, and never tolerated it. Sure, he might shed a tear or two in private, but that's all it should be. Times are tough, and to make it you gotta be tough too. He had half a mind to walk out and leave this blubbering dark angel.

The fact that he had more damn tubes and wires coming out of him than his old chevy made that particular choice of action pretty moot.

So, Thomas tried to make the best of it. "Look, it's not that I don't like you. It's just, well, you're not exactly what I expected."

Mors sniffed back her tears a bit and sat sulking.

To say that this was not what Thomas expected, was putting it mildly. The King of Terrors should be a looming skeletal figure, with an ancient scythe, dressed in the threadbare black cloak of an immortal night shade, a terrible vision that would scare the tar out of a statue. Thomas expected that he would fight the miserable sonofabitch tooth and nail and meet his final reward on his terms.

Instead it turns out that Thief in the Night is in fact an five year old girl and that years of smoking and hard drinking left Thomas pretty much useless in a VA hospital bed.

Damn thing was uncomfortable as hell too.

Mortis sat kicking out her legs and making her robe billow back and forth.

"Look, you just bounced in here and asked me if I want to go. How was I to know who you are?"

"You said a bad word!"

Thomas thought for a minute looking for some excuse. "I'm not good with kids."

"You said I should fuck off!" the Pale Rider whined back.

"Well, if I had it my way, you'd be spitting teeth." Thomas mumbled under his breath

"You're not a very nice man", the Gatekeeper to the Hoary Underworld spat back angrily, she crossed her arms and threw herself against the back of the chair.

"You mean to tell me that everyone is happy to see you?"

"Well, no, but most are. I make them feel better. I make the hurt go away."

Thomas thought about that for a moment. Then it hit him. He didn't hurt. Pain had been such a constant companion for the past twenty years that he had grown numb to it. But now, if he thought about it and let down the creaking guards he'd erected, he realized that the pain was truly gone.

It scared him.

"What if I don't want to go?" Thomas said.

"CLEAR!"

Thomas felt like every nerve in his body had been torn raw, he was surrounded by nurses and doctors his chest constricted hard from the shock paddles. It felt like a truck was parked on his crackling ribcage, tubes and needles sliced their way through frail vein walls and tore into muscles sending waves of searing fire through his body. His joints screamed, his ribs were broken from CPR and he could feel the shattered bits tearing through his lungs. His throat collapsed around the brittle tubing that fed oxygen to his lungs.

He wanted to scream.

He couldn't.

Quiet.

He was back with the Great Leveller. She still sat in the chair across from him.

"I make the pain go away." she smiled innocently.

The nightmare vision faded from memory as quickly as it came.

Thomas was still.

"What about Marie." he asked in an unfamiliar soft voice.

"It's not time. She'll be ok."

Minutes slipped away.

Death lifted up her head and looked at Thomas. "You're scared, aren't you?"

"No. I'm not scared." Thomas lied.

"There's nothing to be scared of." Thanatos said calmly and returned her gaze to the floor tiles.

"You never lived my life." Thomas replied coldly, with just a bit of regret.

"Did you do bad things?" the tiny Horsewoman asked him with genuine curiosity.

Thomas sat and thought. He always expected that when he died he would see his life flash before his eyes. Unfortunately, it hadn't. In some respects, he was kind of glad it hadn't. In others, he was looking forward to seeing Marie the day they got married.

Thomas resorted to the safe answer. "Yeah, I did bad things. I did a lot of bad things."

"Are you sorry?"

That was a question that Thomas didn't expect. It seems like he'd broken every single one of the ten commandments at one point or another, even the biggie, murder. Thomas was a well decorated veteran of several wars and other "police actions". He did what he had to do, still it never quite erased the vision of seeing someone much younger than you collapse in your rifle sight, or the years of doubt, anger and fear.

"Yes, I'm sorry for some of it." Then he sucked it in and said with commitment, "Other things I'd do again if I had to."

Mortaoil Incarnate seemed unphased by Thomas' internal debates. "Did you learn anything?"

"What?"

The Great Leveller held out an upturned hand in a bit of annoyance, "It's a simple question, did you learn anything?"

Thomas again found himself speechless.

Did she mean schooling? Sure, he had done pretty well. But maybe she meant living, heck he'd learned more after school than he ever wanted to learn. So many mistakes, so many victories. They seemed so important then. Now...

"Yes. Too much. Maybe, too little."

"Was it fun?"

Thomas felt the heat rise. "What!? Does this look like fun? Is scraping a living from the earth, fun? Is sweating my life away, fun? Is being shot at non-stop for three years fun? It was hard. I didn't have any time for foolishness. I had jobs to do, and responsibilities. 'Was it fun?' Yeah, Loads." The sarcasm dripped off his words like venom.

The diminutive Azrael looked hurt and a bit confused. "It wasn't all bad was it? It's not supposed to be all bad."

Thomas decided not to let the kid have it with both barrels. What fun did he have in his life? He remembered being poor as a kid with nothing. Why he was happy to get that beat up bike for Christmas he was so proud of that damn bike, and kept it for years. In fact he still had it tucked away in the back of his garage and would smile whenever...

Ok, but what else. He had to start working when his father died. He had to lie to get that job at the factory, and it was hot, backbreaking work. He remembered the old floor manager, that miserable sonofabitch Charlie would always push him harder every day. Always wanting him to do more, be better, well, except on his birthday when he'd bring in a cake, and all the guys would sing and bring presents...

Then he got drafted, and had to fight hard. He never knew if he'd live another day, but he made sure that his troops did what they had to, no matter how tired or sore they were. He pushed them but never rode them and they respected that. He only lost one, and dammit he went back for him. The old troop stayed in touch even now. Heck, he was at Anthony's grandkid's birthday last month...

And then there was Marie. Sweet, gentle, angelic Marie.

Thomas wished he could move his arms, the damn dry air was making his eyes well up.

"There were times when it wasn't all bad.", Thomas said quietly, his words drifing off.

"If you had to, would you do it all over?"

Thomas smiled, then chuckled, and then laughed. The tears in his eyes flowed down the side of his face as it jostled against the pillow. He laughed like he hadn't laughed in a long time. It was the true absurdity of the answer hit him like a run-away bus.

"Dammit kid, you bet I would. Every second of it."

Thanatos smiled sweetly at Thomas and held out a small hand.

"Are you ready?"

Thomas was still a bit giddy from the laugh. He looked at the Last Summoner holding out her hand just beyond the bed. Thomas and Marie never had kids, they just never had the time. Thomas never really regretted that decision, and gave himself all the proper excuses. Perhaps it had been for the best.

"I'll miss Marie." he said.

"She'll miss you too. But you won't be that far apart."

Thomas reached out a hand and then slid out of the bed. The Dark Angel smiled up at Thomas and they headed out.

"Can we stop for ice-cream?"

"Don't you ever get tired of asking questions?"

"I like chocolate. Do you like chocolate too?"

"Let me guess, you're gonna be like this the entire trip, aren't you?"

"Can I ride on your shoulders?"

"What!? Heh, ok kid, here you go."

"Yay!"

"Watch the scythe! Kripes, you'll put an eye out with that thing."


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