“REAPER TAPS” by JOSEPH P. O’BRIEN

Ever since we were old enough to want to be cool, Pete and I wanted to be as cool as Trevor DeZuto. Trevor was the first boy in our grade to pierce his ear, the first to wear Reebok Pumps, the first to hear this awesome new band called Nirvana. He was a baseball, soccer, and basketball all-star. He pulled pranks on teachers and never got caught, like when he’d tie the art teacher’s shoelaces to her chair, or when he’d sprinkle crumbled eraser bits into the math teacher’s toupee. Sometimes we wondered if Trevor had the power to stop time, to get ahead of the curve, slip out of trouble, or simply narrate his super-cool life to an adoring audience beyond a fourth wall only he could see, like Zack Morris on Saved By The Bell. Then one Saturday afternoon, barely a month into middle school, some smegma-brained drunk driver manslaughtered Trevor as the poor kid was riding his bike to the park.

The following Tuesday, Students Against Drunk Driving became the most popular club at school. So many kids joined SADD that day they had to move the meeting from its usual classroom to the lecture hall. During the meeting someone mentioned how drunk driving accidents killed people like Trevor every 48 minutes, which got us brainstorming, until we’d hatched a plan to raise awareness of that tragic statistic so high and so hard that nobody at Deer Hollow Middle School would ever let themselves or their loved ones drive drunk as long as they lived.

We called our plan “Reaper’s Day” and scheduled it for Wednesday, October 21st, eleven days after Trevor died. At 8:30 AM that day, right in the middle of first period, Blake Brody entered Mrs. Agnew’s history classroom costumed as The Grim Reaper: skull-mask, plastic scythe, hooded black robe dancing across the tongues of his red & white Air Jordans. With gentle resolve, like a creeping storm-cloud, Blake the Reaper descended upon Amanda Gibson’s desk and tapped her shoulder, before spinning about-face to leave the room as quickly and quietly as he came in.

As Amanda pulled a blank white ghost-mask from her backpack and strapped it over her face, SADD President Jeremy Ross clicked on the P.A. and lowered his pubescent voice to its most solemn tones: “May I have your attention please… It is my sad duty to announce that Deer Hollow student Amanda Gibson was struck by a drunk driver this morning as she was walking to school, and was declared dead at 8:30 AM. She was 12 years old. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family and friends,” et cetera.

Mrs. Agnew continued her lesson on the Roman Empire and class went on as normal, except the usually chatty Amanda Gibson now kept her mouth shut, and everyone else started acting like she wasn’t there anymore.

This spectacle repeated every 48 minutes, each time with a new Reaper, a new announcer, and a new fatality who’d become a white-faced ghost until school was done for the day. I was the day’s last fatality, my demise announced by Pete at 2:54 PM. Yet when school ended 24 minutes later, I didn’t feel like I had mourned enough. I stayed silent and masked as I walked home, as I sat alone in the kitchen, as I ate my chocolate muffin and watched Carmen Sandiego.

Come 4 o’clock, I still didn’t feel like talking or taking off my mask, but I didn’t want to be alone any longer, so I went to Pete’s house and tapped on his bedroom window. When he saw me he smiled big and asked if I wanted to play Nintendo. I nodded and climbed into his room.

He was playing Paperboy, the game where you control a kid on a bike, trying to navigate your delivery route without crashing into various obstacles, including recklessly-driven cars, and even the Grim Reaper himself, who’s just hanging out on the 8-bit suburban sidewalk among the doghouses and white picket fences like he’s one of the neighbors. Whether Pete picked that game because of its morbid parallels to Trevor’s death, or simply because it was one of his all-time favorite Nintendo games, I don’t know. We took turns playing until dinnertime, neither of us talking, except for an occasional “Oh crap!” from Pete whenever he smashed into a skateboarder, or shattered a customer’s window with an off-target newspaper toss. Before I climbed back out the window to head home, Pete lifted my mask and hugged me as tight as his little arms could, like he couldn’t let me leave, until finally I kissed the top of his head and slithered out of his embrace.

The following spring Pete and I stopped going to SADD meetings because they conflicted with baseball practice. A few years later, somewhere in high school, I stopped thinking about Trevor altogether. Ten whole years must’ve passed between the last time I thought of Trevor and today, when Bobby made me think of him again.

Pete and I met Bobby after college, when we were all living in Brentwood Heights and working at Best Buy. Bobby was a regular dude, just like Pete and me, only a few years older. The three of us spent a lot of Friday nights in my living room smoking joints, chugging beer, shooting vodka, playing Xbox, and laughing at Comedy Central until it came time to pass out– me in my bed, Bobby on the couch, Pete in the recliner.

So today, the day after our last Friday night, I wake up around noon, hungover and half-lucid, and I start brewing coffee in the kitchen. I lean into the living room where Pete’s flipping through channels, still sunk into the recliner, and we grunt our good mornings. Bobby’s already gone, risen early to spend another Saturday fishing alone. As usual, the red flannel blanket he’d slept under has been folded neatly and draped over the couch, where it tends to stay until the next Friday night Bobby crashes.

When coffee’s ready, I bring Pete a steaming mug with milk and two sugars. He passes me a freshly-packed wake-and-bake bowl and a lighter.

I’m puffing my third hit when Pete clicks onto Local News 12, and the brutal wreckage of a navy blue Explorer.

“…according to police, 32 year-old Bobby Martucci of Brentwood Heights was driving well over the speed limit at approximately 4:30 AM when he lost control of his vehicle and collided with a tree on the side of Bagatelle Road. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Toxicology reports are pending…”

Pete starts sputtering frantic questions but I can’t hear him over the soft, boiling buzz in my ears. The spirit of Trevor DeZuto has returned, after all these years in forgotten exile. He’s in the corner of my left eye, hovering behind the couch. I don’t dare look at his face but I can feel his glaring wrath.

I have to tell myself it’s not really Trevor. Just my imagination gone rogue. Purging toxic trauma. The real Trevor’s 20 miles away at Pinelawn Cemetery, entombed in a mausoleum with his grandparents and an uncle. Still, if the real Trevor were here, I reckon he’d be mad all the same.

I latch my gaze to the rug and pace zig-zags around the coffee table until my mind settles and I can hear again.

“We gotta face the music,” I say.

Pete crumples his eyes. “What music?”

“We could’ve prevented this. We should’ve taken Bobby’s keys last night.”

“We couldn’t’ve known-“

“We should’ve taken his keys every single night he crashed here and we never did.  It’s like Reaper’s Day was all for nothing! Now we gotta ask him for forgiveness.”

“Bobby?”

“Trevor!”

Pete looks at me like I’ve snapped. That doesn’t discourage me, though. I map-search Pinelawn Cemetery on my phone.

“OK, Trevor’s about 20 miles from here, that’s five hours on foot. We leave now, we’ll get there just after sundown. Perfect.”

Pete clutches the recliner’s armrests, elbows locked straight like he’d roll off and collapse on the floor otherwise. News keeps murmuring on the TV: The Sachem girls’ field hockey team remains undefeated after a 43 – 18 thrashing of South Melville.

“Let’s just sit for a bit,” Pete says. “We can’t walk all those miles right now.”

I hustle into the kitchen, open the cupboard, grab a glass gallon jug that’s corked and unlabeled, filled with pale purple liquid: Midnight Lullaby. Concocted by this Wiccan chick I knew from college. Called herself Serenity Marigold, but her real name’s Meredith Schwartz. Gave me this jug about six years ago and said if you drank enough of it you could talk to the dead. My first sip tasted like lavender moonshine and I never wanted a second sip til today.

Opening the front door, I tell Pete, “It’s fine if you don’t wanna come, and you’re welcome to stay here as long as you want. But I can’t be here right now. I gotta ask Trevor’s forgiveness. If I get it, I’ll come back and we can grieve for Bobby together. Promise. If I don’t get Trevor’s forgiveness…” I shudder to think what’ll happen if I don’t get Trevor’s forgiveness. Then I hit the road.

As I get to the end of the block I hear the jog-slap of Pete’s sneakers approaching. He catches up, slows to my pace, zips his hoodie, walks silently beside me. I sense he expects me to turn back sooner than later, after a mile or so, once I comprehend how far the cemetery is and how crazy it is to ask Trevor for forgiveness, and until then he’ll stay with me to make sure I don’t get lost or walk obliviously into traffic or something.

It’s the first weekend in November, I’ve still got Post-Daylight-Savings jet-lag, and a lot of houses haven’t yet hauled their scarecrows and skeletons and tombstones from the front yard to the crawlspace, to be replaced with turkeys and pilgrim hats and cornucopia wreaths. Between the later-than-usual sun, the lingering Halloween decorations, the black hole created by Bobby’s sudden departure, and all the substances swimming around my blood, I feel like we’re drifting inside a jacket-pocket of time, hovering jaggedly through the space between a sentence that’s been broken by the end of a page. I uncork the Midnight Lullaby and barely swallow a swig. If the temperature were ten degrees warmer I might’ve puked it right back up. Some guy’s raking leaves on his front lawn, and I’m pretty sure he’s watching us, wondering what’s in my jug, considering calling the cops. I can’t look directly at him or anyone else we pass on our journey because I’m afraid they’ll have Trevor’s face.

Pete finally speaks a couple miles later, when I start turning west onto Caledonia Drive. “Shouldn’t we…?” he starts to ask, but then he stops. He was probably going to ask if maybe we should turn onto Bagatelle Road instead of Caledonia, which would be a more direct route to the cemetery. Then, I can only assume, he remembers that Bobby’s accident was somewhere on Bagatelle Road, and so he says, “Never mind.”

I take two more gulps of Midnight Lullaby. It still stings my throat with its illicit proof and suffocating floral bouquet, but I can see myself getting used to it after a few more rounds. I offer the jug to Pete. He almost declines before he figures what the hell, and pours a shot in his mouth. He manages to swallow most of it. The rest dribbles down his cheeks. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and asks, “Do you absolutely have to drink this stuff to talk to the dead?”

“I dunno. I never really drank this stuff and I never talked to the dead. Figure it can’t hurt to try.”

Pete hands the jug back. “I’ll leave all the talking to you, then. I dunno how much more of this I can stomach.”

By the time the sky starts to rust, Pete realizes I’m not turning back after all. He tamps his disappointment and tries to sound casual as he says, “So I was thinking, maybe we should ask if someone can give us a ride back. After you’re done talking to Trevor, I mean.”

I say mmm-hmm, or at least I think I do, though I’m not sure Pete hears me. “Just ‘cause it’ll be dark, you know,” he says. “And I dunno about you but my legs ain’t walking another 20 miles tonight.”

We’re so close to the cemetery I can see its black wrought-iron fence: about six foot six, spikes on top but no barbed wire. Shouldn’t be too hard to jump.

“I’ll text Carol,” Pete says. “If she can’t come, I’ll try Phil. Or I’ll call a cab, I’ve got cash.”

The DeZuto mausoleum, purchased with the fortune Trevor’s grandfather amassed in the swimming pool business, is easy to find. The thing’s bigger than an Amish toolshed. Its marble shimmers in the purple dusk. Must get polished monthly, at least. A stoic angel stands watch, carved above a metal door with stained glass windows.

Door’s locked of course. I set the Midnight Lullaby down and pull my homemade bump key out of my pocket. Slide the key into the lock til the next-to-last notch, give it a solid hammer-tap on the bottom with my Swiss Army knife, and… no luck.

I pull the key back a sliver and tap again, again to no avail. The marble angel looks down upon me with neither judgment nor sympathy.

Pete whispers, “What’s that thing?” I can hear his nerves. He’s never been comfortable with breaking-and-entering.

“The bump key? You’ve seen this before.”

“No,” he says, pointing over my shoulder. “That thing over there.”

I turn to see a furry cat-sized creature crouched on a nearby tombstone, watching us with flashlight eyes. My shoulders spasm, I drop the knife. In the stillness of nightfall, the gravity-smack of plastic on marble sounds like a finger-bone breaking.

Eyes on the creature, I squat to pick up the knife. The creature’s merely curious, not threatened. Not yet, anyway. “I think it’s a possum,” I whisper.

“Possums don’t have tails that fuzzy. Raccoon, maybe?”

“Raccoons don’t have that much white.”

“What else could it be?”

“I don’t know. Just keep an eye on it til I get the door open.”

A few more jiggles and taps til finally, open sesame. As we creep into the mausoleum, the possum-looking thing leaps off the tombstone and strolls leisurely out of sight.

I wake up my cellphone, bathing the mausoleum’s interior in pale blue light. I swear the air smells like sweet melted wax and crispy dead fire, as if someone just blew out birthday candles.

Four more gulps of Midnight Lullaby. Hardly taste the burn now. I pass the jug to Pete, and he forces down a sip.

“Please forgive my intrusion,” I say to the entombed. “I mean no disrespect. I’ve come to ask for Trevor’s forgiveness. Trevor: I let my friend drive drunk, and now he’s dead. I should’ve stopped him, but I didn’t even think to try. I forgot all about you, and Reaper’s Day, and what I promised to you that day. I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness but I have to ask…”

First, only silence. Then I close my eyes, and I see him.

He stands inside a spotlight on a dark Hollywood soundstage. He’s still in the body and clothing of an early-90’s eleven year-old, but his eyes twinkle with ancient wisdom.

He turns toward the Fourth Wall, talking to the unseen audience that’s watching his afterlife. “Will you get a load of this?” he asks, incredulous but cool. The audience chuckles, twitching the audio needles halfway up the laugh-track meter. “Some dude from elementary school– whose name I can’t even remember– lets his friend drive drunk and kill himself and now he wants me to forgive him? Hey, whatever your name is: Go fuck yourself!” The audience cheers, claps, whistles, roars, slams the needles into the red.

From outside the tomb, a tapping on the wall. Gentle and clinky, like stone on glass, and patient: tap, tap, tap.

Pete flinches, grips my wrist. “Shit, security!”

“Security would be yelling and pounding,” I say. “That’s too calm for Security.”

“The white raccoon?” Pete asks. Seems like the most logical explanation, until it hits me:

“The Reaper’s here,” I say. “It’s our turn now.”

“Very funny,” Pete says, peeping through the stained glass. “I don’t see any shadows. Must be the wind.”

“Of course you don’t see any shadows. The Reaper has no shadow.”

“Enough! All right?” Pete’s never raised his voice like this, not to me. Now he’s squeezing back tears. “Enough drinking that shitty moonshine, and talking-to-the-dead nonsense, can we please just go back home and grieve for Bobby like normal god-damned people?”

Tap, tap, tap.

“We can’t go home,” I say. “We’re good as dead. Well technically we’re still alive, until the Reaper comes in and taps us. Now we’re alive and dead, like the scientist’s cat. The one in the box with the poison.”

“Fine: You stay here and be alive and dead all you want. I’m texting Carol.”

Tap, tap, tap.

Pete reaches for the doorknob, but I snatch him in my arms before he can turn it. I can’t be dead yet. I need to ease into it, like chilly lake water.

I clamp a hand on Pete’s mouth and wrap an arm around his neck, shushing and squeezing him til he stops trying to wriggle and scream. I don’t mean to hurt him, but I just can’t have him open that door and let the Reaper in. Slow and soft I lower Pete to the cold marble floor, and we’re gonna lie here, alive and dead, until I’m ready to go.

 

 

 

Joseph P. O’Brien was a member of SADD for a few weeks in the fall of 1992. He’s currently the managing editor of FLAPPERHOUSE, and lives in Brooklyn with his lovely wife & their very popular dog.