The creaking of the rocking chair he sat on reminded Henry of his old, tired bones. After feeding his livestock, he slumped into his favorite chair; a rocker that he had built himself years ago. He used to be able to continue on to other chores – letting the horses out, scooping up the hay, and fixing broken things. Now, his wife Eula, who was ten years younger, had to be the one to go after him when he couldn’t get it done. Henry sighed and switched the stalk of wheat from one side of his cracked lips to the other. The wooden floorboards of the veranda quaked as he rocked. He glanced across his steps to the dusty road that led out of his property to the main street. Henry huffed at the black, billowing clouds that were threatening to smother him and his land with stinging raindrops.
Henry squinted as the clouds roiled closer to the Earth, a drift of it landed on the road next to his rusty pickup truck. The inky smoke-like cloud glided ominously towards Henry. Gusts lifted the white-washed wooden planks up from the veranda and clapped them back into place, the hanging plants swayed violently and Henry’s overalls rattled against his emaciated body; his straw hat long gone. He clenched the arms of his rocker, unable to move as he watched the shadow solidify.
The hardened specter approached Henry, yet not all the way. It placed a grey cowboy boot on the last step of the veranda. Henry peered at the shoe and glanced up. The cloud had turned into a man. He had jet-black hair, long and shiny as it swayed in the wind. His skin was a dark hue and was smooth. He wore leather pants and a leather vest over a flowing top. It appeared to Henry that the man was from another time. A broad smile crossed the man’s face as he adjusted his vest.
“Hello, Henry.” The man spoke and his voice resonated with age, as if Henry was listening to him inside a tunnel.
“W-Who are you? How did you do that…?” Henry said.
“Do you really want to know?” The man said and Henry noticed that he had also an accent that he could not place.
Henry sat there in disbelief. The man gazed at him and it made him feel like he was in a trance. Henry shook his head.
“You’re an unwanted guest on my property.” Henry said, slowly lifting himself off the rocker.
“You may not want me here, yet I am here for a reason.” The man took another step up.
“I’m warning you. All I have to do is whistle and Trigger will be here to snag your leg.” Henry said.
“Trigger? You mean your dog?” The man said and he gestured to a German Shepard sitting at the other end of the veranda.
Henry’s eyes widened. Trigger normally would be barking menacingly at anyone who showed up too close. Yet, he sat still, seeming to be afraid; his eyes darting back and forth between the two of them.
“Henry, you shouldn’t be surprised to see me. You’ve been waiting for some time.” The man said as he rested his arms on his bent leg.
“Do I know you? Have we met before?” Henry said, his lips trembled.
“No, yet you do know me; everyone does.” The man said, his eyes flashed.
Henry stumbled around the rocker, using it as a shield. Sweat sprung on his forehead and his body tensed causing him to ache. Recognition swept over his mind as he gazed at the man.
“Has the time come?” Henry said.
“Yes, I’m afraid so, Henry.” The man said and he took another step. He was standing on the veranda.
A crash of raindrops pounded on the tin roof, startling Henry. The pitter patter surrounding them became a roar. If Henry had wanted to scream, Eula would not hear him; yet where was she.
“What have you done to Eula?” Henry said, straightening his back.
“I have done nothing. She sits on her favorite sofa in the living room, knitting. She can’t hear us, Henry. Eula will not discover your body until much later.” The man said.
“No, no! I’m not ready to go!” Henry said.
“Why, Henry, you have been thinking about this for a long while. You had settled it in your mind that you had no more in you.” The man said, he picked at his nails, not looking at Henry.
“That was until the other day. There is one more thing I need to do.” Henry said, gripping the back of the rocker.
“When I mean to do something at a certain time and place, I do it. There is no half-way about it or going back. I relish being precise, Henry.” The man said, his voice hardening.
“I know, I know. Last week, there was a tragic car accident on Main Street in town. That was you.” Henry said, shaking his head.
“Yes, Francine was late for work. She was speeding along while putting on her lipstick. She didn’t get to finish applying it.” The man said.
Henry shivered. He glanced at Trigger and noted that he had lain down to sleep. The man turned to lean on the railing of the veranda.
“Henry, I have other people to visit. Either I take you the easy way or the hard way.” The man said.
“We can make a deal! I can give you something in exchange for more time.” Henry said, he ran his hand over his wispy, gray hair.
The man laughed. “Henry, you take me for the devil? Perhaps he would humor you, not I.” The man said and raised his hand to Henry.
Henry staggered back as he clutched his chest. Excruciating pain radiated from the left side of his body; coursing down his arm and leg. It was weighing him down and his knees buckled. Henry could taste bile in the back of his throat as he tried to gasp for air.
“W-wait…pleee. Youu ahh wronnnng.” Henry said,
The man lowered his arm. “Wrong? It is the time, Henry.”
“No…no…that’s not…what I mean.” Henry said, panting. He was on the floor toddling on his hands and knees. “You say…you are…precise, but you do make mistakes.”
“Careful, Henry, you are started to wear away at my patience.” The man said.
“1941. Battle of the Atlantic. I was part of the US Navy protecting convoys. Our vessel was hit. I was one of two men who survived. I had to be resuscitated. The soldiers couldn’t understand how I survived both the explosion and after three minutes of death. You weren’t there.” Henry said in bursts.
The man stood tall and smirked. He finger-combed his glossy dark hair and paced. Stroking his bare chin, he stopped.
“I don’t recall. You can’t expect me to remember everyone I come for. Even people forget the deaths of their loved ones.”
“If you didn’t get me then, you’re not going to take me now.” Henry said, with new-found strength in his voice.
“Henry, you are becoming a challenge. Luckily for you, you have intrigued me. Do explain why I will not be dragging you back with me?” The man said.
“Time. Too much has passed and it’s time for you to go back.” Henry said and waved his arm to the billowing clouds swirling overhead.
The man sighed. “You are right, Henry. There is a great tragedy about to befall, involving many casualties. You have survived. I will be back for you.” The man said. He turned and walked down the steps, his hair flowing in the gust.
Henry used the rocker to ease himself up. He watched the man approach Trigger and pat him on the head. The man turned towards Henry and nodded.
“Henry, when you see me again, I will not hesitate to take you. You will not banter your way out of it.” The man said and he laughed.
The form of the man disintegrated into mist and was consumed by the wind back into the clouds above.
“I will be ready for you.” Henry said as he was held from behind by Eula; who had appeared at that precise moment that the man disappeared.
“Who are you talking to?” Eula said as she helped him to the rocker.
“Death, he was here to take me.” Henry said, clutching his chest.
“Don’t say things like that! You probably were sleeping and had a bad dream.” Eula said, flapping her apron.
Henry recalled what he said he needed to do, stumbling into the house; Henry grabbed the phone receiver off the wall and dialed his son. On the fourth ring, his son answered.
“Jeremy… I have something mighty important to tell you.” Henry said his voice catching.
Henry and Jeremy stood inside the vault room of the downtown bank. Jeremy had picked up his father and had driven the hour long ride in silence into the city. Henry thought it best that Eula stayed behind, to give them their privacy. She had known of Henry’s secret and had forgiven him.
“You want me to open it or you open it?” Henry said.
“No, no, I’ll do it… just give me a moment. I’m still catching up to everything you have told me.” Jeremy said as he pushed his fingers through his sandy, blond hair.
They stood in silence for a few minutes and then Jeremy reached for the box. He hesitated and dropped his hand.
“Why didn’t you tell me before? Were you ever going to tell me?” Jeremy said, his voice raising.
“To be quite honest, I wasn’t. Something made me change my mind.” Henry said, wringing his monogrammed handkerchief in his hands.
“So, in here it is everything their is to say about my real mother?”
“Yes, she left you many things and I had promised her that it would go to you when the time came.”
“And when was that exactly? When you passed away, so that you wouldn’t have to tell me?” Jeremy said, his frown deepening.
“Yes.” Henry said
“That’s perfect. Thanks, pop, for your honesty.”
“I’m sorry, Jerm. I had courage when I fought in World War II and I had courage to bring you back with me and face your mother, but to tell you the truth… that’s where my courage left me.”
“You mean Eula? Apparently, she’s not my mother.”
“She is your mother!” Henry said, his thin frame shaking.
Jeremy peered at his father and his expression softened. He reached for the box again and this time he opened it. Inside were envelopes addressed to Jeremy, a diary and savings bonds worth close to a million dollars. Jeremy’s eyes widened.
“This is almost a million dollars!”
“Yes, your mother Margaret, she came from a wealthy family that owned an apothecary shop in England. She was saving money to move to America. But then she found out that she was dying. I didn’t know until she sent me a letter months after the war ended, saying that she had given birth to you and that she only had a few days to live.” Henry said.
Jeremy was silent while he perused the contents of the box. He grabbed a few of the letters and the diary. They returned back to Henry’s home.
“Jeremy, I’m truly sorry about this. I know it would be no good to ask for forgiveness, but please don’t punish Eula for it.” Henry said as he clung to the passenger side door, peering in at Jeremy.
“Why would I do that? She has done nothing wrong. She is a victim too.” Jeremy said and he kept his stony face forward.
Henry closed the car door and the old Buick peeled off; sending dust and gravel into the air. Henry covered his mouth with his handkerchief and shuffled to the porch.
“Henry.” Death had come back. He rocked in Henry’s favorite chair, his thin lips curled up into a smirk.
“Go ahead! Take me! I did what I needed to do.” Henry said, standing defiantly.
Up the road, Jeremy glanced back in the rear-view mirror. He squinted his eyes, scanning between the clouds of debris. Is there someone talking to pop? Jeremy’s car squealed to a halt as he noticed his father collapse to the floor.