From The Clutches Of Life
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A woman watched her father's chest rise and fall from the chair next to his hospital bed. The heartbeat monitor beeped in time with that one James Blunt song she hummed to herself. She wished she could spend her last visit chatting, but that's difficult to do with the dead. Besides, she had no idea what she would say. There’s been so much that’s happened since the last time they held a coherent conversation. But, if she had to guess, it’d go something like:

“Dad!”

“Hello, umm… have we met?”

“I— yes I’m your daughter.”

"That can't be right, I have two sons!"

Wait a beat.

“That doesn’t matter right now. They’re not here. One is alive and the other can’t be here right now.”

“Where are they?”

"Why do you care?"

"Because I want to see my kids!"

"But… but I’m right here.”

“I don’t even know your name.”

“Joyce. You named me Joyce.”

And then go get the nurse. Although the conversation probably wouldn’t go like that. It couldn’t go like that. Joyce wouldn’t let it.


Emily Young entered the Hen’s Roost Assisted Living Complex, glancing around her cautiously to make sure no one suspicious caught her eye. Of course, this made her look suspicious and nervous, but the people that work here deal with much more suspicious activity from the inhabitants, and most of the inhabitants are in no condition to notice Emily in the first place. Their moans for assistance filled the entire building like a low hum. Emily could only think about how this was the last task she had to perform, before she could ensure that she wouldn't end up like them.

Emily approached the front desk, where an attendant sat back in his chair and listened to music through a pair of headphones. They looked similar to the pair that Emily had in her backpack. She waited a moment before she rang the bell to get the kid’s attention.

“Oh yeah sorry,” he said as he jerked to attention, “What do you need?”

“I’m here to see a Mr. Michaels? I’m a friend of his daughter, Joyce.”

“One sec,” the attendant typed something into a console in front of him, then he held down a button and spoke into the console, “Hello, Mr. Michaels? You have a visitor for you down here in the main lobby.”

“Thank you,” Emily said. She found herself a nice seat near the front desk and pulled Joyce’s headphones out of her backpack. She put them on and plugged in her music. Immediately she understood why Joyce liked them so much.


Ten trained soldiers approached a newly renovated retirement home three miles off of highway I-25. Leaves crinkled under the feet of the members of MTF Iota-10. The team lined up next to the back entrance.
Captain Eric Michaels held up two fingers and a thumb. An instruction. Three.

His thumb retracted, leaving the fingers. Two.

One.

Michaels kicked in the door. The team filed in immediately after. Marquez led a team to sweep the ground floor. Dubois’s squad had dibs on the upper two floors, while Michaels and Turner took the 3rd and 4th stories. Current mission objective: capture Emily Young.


As Joyce finished her song, she looked up to see Tony leaning politely against the door frame. Joyce couldn’t remember how long he had been standing there. It could’ve been minutes, it could’ve been hours.

“You nervous?”

“Not really,” Joyce replied. She glanced down at her dad again. He held one of his pillows close, like a child with a favorite teddy bear.

“You’re a terrible liar.”

“And you’re a bad reaper.”

“Heh, you’re not wrong.”

Tony took a seat next to Joyce and stared at the hospital bed with her. Joyce refused to cry, but that didn't stop her from shaking. She rocked back and forth, just trying to calm herself. She'd done worse in her day job. She'd lost lives before. Hell, she'd lost her own family before. But then again, it’d be inappropriate to compare any of that to passing a soul on yourself. That’s probably what got to her the first time. There were more degrees of separation between her and death. She’d never killed with her own hand before. It made her feel uneasy, even if it was supposed to be an act of mercy.

Tony put an arm around his little sister. It was supposed to be comforting but Joyce could tell he was shaking too. So, she asked the question on both of their minds.

"Why does this one have to feel so…" Real? Concrete? Palpable? Genuine?


After five minutes of waiting, Emily got up and walked back to the front desk. The attendant was paying more attention this time, so she didn’t have to ring the bell.

“How far away is his apartment?” she asked.

“Umm… not that far,” the attendant replied, “although, maybe he just didn’t hear it? You know, I can just take you there if you want. Maybe he’ll hear a good knock on the door.”

“I’d appreciate that, yeah.”

The attendant got up from behind his desk and led Emily to an elevator that must’ve been cleaned not an hour ago. Something about the stainless-steel walls and tile floor shouted “sterile”. The attendant pressed a button to start the elevator.

“So, have you seen Mr. Michaels about?” Emily asked. The attendant started to answer, but then looked down at the floor.

“Umm… not really," he eventually replied, "I mean, there’s a good number of people here so there’s quite a bit to keep track of but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the man. Although, I’m not wholly convinced he really leaves his room. I know he specifically requested we don't come in to check on him. I think he likes to be alone.”


Captain Michaels and Private Turner stormed up the stairway. Their footsteps echoed down the stairwell like thunderclaps. Only two more stories until they were at the start point.

“Turner, you should take the sixth floor.”

“Where you headed sarge?”

“I can take the fifth. It’s not like we need to worry too much about getting killed.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Besides, I’ve known this woman. I used to work with her.”

Turner opened his mouth to speak, but Michaels hushed him first.

“I know, orders are orders, a traitor’s a traitor. Just make sure you keep your eyes peeled too.”

“Aye, aye.”

Michaels flashed a smile before he ducked into the exit for the fifth floor.


“So normal?” Tony finished Joyce’s sentence for her, “Haven’t you done this all before?”

“Kind of. Except last time when I pulled the plug, his heart kept beating,” Joyce replied. She kept rocking back and forth as she answered, and refused to pull her gaze away from her father.

“I guess it’s like doing it all for the first time then.”

“Can you just, leave me alone? Please?”

Tony smiled a little and then stood up. “Alright. I’ve sort of forfeited the right to be here anyways. I’ll be around the corner if you need me.”

After he left the room, Joyce cupped her hands over her ears and pretended she had her headphones on. She just wanted the pressure up against her ears to give her that feeling of isolation, the illusion of being alone in a crowded room. Except this time, she actually was alone. It just didn’t feel like it. She felt all of the eyes of the other patients in the waiting room from that day. She hated being the center of attention. But then again, no one wants to be watched while committing murder.


Emily stood outside of a room with a little “do not disturb” sign hanging from the doorknob. She knocked once and waited.

“I don’t know if he’s coming out,” the attendant said after a little while.

“You have a master key right? Can you let me in?”

“I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to do that.”

“You said no one here has ever seen the man. You think he’s stuck in his apartment. For all we know he might be dead!”

The attendant looked at Emily with his head cocked to the side. She had become quite animated, and in her irritation hadn’t quite realized what she’d said. Emily played in back in her head. When she hit the last line, she couldn’t help but let out a little chuckle. The attendant laughed too. He might be dead. She was acting like she wasn’t more than a century old.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “It’s been a long past few days.”

“I figured.”

“But please, I need to see this man. Can you just let me in? If he wants me gone I’ll leave.”

The attendant looked at Emily, and then glanced up and down the hallway before muttering a final “fine.” He took out a key card from his pocket and swiped it on the door’s lock. The little light turned green.

“Thank you.” Emily turned the doorknob and opened the door. Immediately the two were hit by a smell that could be described as death, if either of them could remember it. It sent the attendant into a coughing fit. Emily’s eyes began to tear up.

“You can stay out here, I’ll be right back.” Emily told the attendant, who had now covered his face with his hands to keep the wretched stench out. He nodded as best he could, and then shuffled off down the hallway.

The room was largely empty, except for a single window in the back, a bed near the front, and a chair in the corner. The lights were off, and the natural lighting barely illuminated the room. Emily could make out a pile of a person sitting in a dark corner of the room without any furniture in it. Instinctively, Emily fastened the physical lock on the door.

“Hello? Henry Michaels?”


Eric had kicked down three doors by the time he arrived at room 509. All of them unoccupied except for the last one which contained a single old woman whose hearing aids must’ve run out of battery.

Eric knocked on the door. “Open up this is the police!”

No response.

“I’m giving you five seconds before I will enter by force. Five!”


Joyce stood up once more and moved to check her father’s heartbeat. She put the stethoscope buds in her ears and placed the other end on his chest.

Beat. Beat.


Emily continued to pull on the headphones with all of her might. The band pressed into Henry Michaels’ throat, stopping the moaning noise he was making earlier. And his breathing.

“Your kids love you,” she whispered into the old man’s ear as she choked him.


“One!”

Eric kicked the door, but it was caught on the physical lock. He shot the lock twice and then kicked again. The door opened.

The stench hit him like a wall, but he regained his composure and stormed inside.

“Put your hands—“ he stopped mid-sentence, and the lowered his gun.

“Dad?”


Beat. Beat.

And then there were no more beats. The old man opened his eyes, and looked at Joyce.

“Hi, dad.”

The old man smiled, “Am I in heaven?”

“I’m— I’m not sure dad. I’m not really sure.”

“Well, either way. I’m glad I get to see you at the end, Joyce.”

Joyce smiled, “You remember me.”

“Of course. How could a father forget his own daughter?”

Joyce tried not to cry. She didn’t like crying. But she couldn’t help herself this time. She leaned over and hugged her father. After a while like that, Joyce pulled back and wiped her eyes with her sleeves.

“Tony!” Joyce shouted, “He’s awake Tony!”

Her brother poked his head around the edge of the door frame. He took a few steps into the room and just looked at his dad awkwardly. He waved.

“Did you uhh… ever go on that hike?” Tony asked

Tony’s dad just laughed. “I’m afraid not. But that’s ok.”

“I’m sorry about well, everything.”

“Don’t be. I don’t know what you had to do with it exactly, but I trust you tried your hardest.”

Tony smiled himself, and then gave his dad a hug. Afterwards the three stood around and looked at each other. They all knew what needed to be done, but it felt wrong to do it. Like there needed to be a few more moments before the reunion passed.

“I guess this is where you finally put me to rest,” the old man said at last.

“I guess it is,” Joyce replied.

“It was nice seeing you kids again. Glad to see how you’ve grown up one last time.”

The three shared another smile. Joyce crossed over to where the heartbeat monitor was plugged into the wall and grabbed onto the power plug.

“Goodbye, dad.”

“Goodbye, Joyce.”

And then she pulled the plug.


"I'm done."

Emily heard the words echo off the porcelain around her. It was nice: that feeling of finishing something long and arduous.

A sense of relief washed over Emily as she let her weight go.


Eric could hear a faint noise come from the bathroom. He put down the limp head of his father so he could investigate. He hadn’t entirely grasped what had happened to his father, so his mind was still focused and his senses still sharp.

He poised himself around the corner of the bathroom and counted down to himself. At “one” he turned the corner, but didn’t fire. He lowered his gun and dropped to his knees.

A rope was knotted around the shower head. Each end of the rope was tied to each side of Eric’s sister’s headphones. Emily Young hung from those headphones, the weight of her head and neck entirely supported by the band that pressed into her throat.

Her pulse had stopped.


Joyce felt something strange. Like her stethoscope was pulling her out of her dad’s room. She moved herself, even though she could’ve sworn she was carried, to a room three doors down. Inside, on the bed, lay the body of Emily Young.

Joyce approached the bed slowly, and then put the end of the stethoscope up against her chest.

Beat. Beat. Both in time with the heartbeat monitor. But that was all the beats she got before Emily’s heart stopped, and her eyes opened.

“I did it,” she said.

“Yes, you did. Thank you.”

"No, thank you. I’m so tired. I’ve wanted this for years,” Emily sat up and embraced Joyce, "And you’re the angel who will deliver me. My very own Archangel Michael."


Michaels' screaming could still be heard throughout the building. Even with all the tears, he screamed. Even with an emptiness where his father used to be, he screamed. He wanted out. And he kept wanting out. It was clear to him. He was alone.

And when Michaels was carried away by his squad, who simply didn't know what else to do with the man, the moans of the barely-alive elderly echoed around the retirement home. All those with atrophied muscles, weakened bones, dysfunctional lungs, decaying brains. They wanted freedom from the clutches of life.


On that day
The reaper retrieved his scythe
Put on his shroud
Split his loved ones' mortal coils
And quietly expired

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