The Gatherer (A Story. Or Is It?)

I sat at my computer, composing an amusing anecdote about my day.

A gentle knock at my door startled me. I checked my outside cameras and saw no one.

A few moments later, another knock, this time a little more pronounced.

I got up to see who might be there, assuming it was a friend ducking away from my camera’s view.

I opened the door to see a man of about forty standing there. He was dressed in a suit and tie.

“May I come in?” he asked, laughing.

“Uh, no. I don’t let strangers inside, at least until they show me a gun or amuse me.”

“Hmmm. No one ever declines my request. Do you know who I am?” He smiled, awaiting an answer.

“No. Insurance salesman? Bail bond agent?”

The man laughed.

“Close. I’m The Gatherer. It’s your time, X.”

He pulled a white business card out of his back pocket. He handed it to me. The only words written on it were “The Gatherer.”

“Well, that is mysterious!” I replied.

“Look closely at my eyes, X” He stepped one step closer. Instead of backing away, I stepped one step closer to him, a trick my dad taught me. The man flinched slightly. I saw a brief surprise ripple through his shoulders.

I stared intensely. His blue eyes shifted, and I saw a blue sky with a burning field in both. It was as vivid as anything I’d ever witnessed. To my surprise, it didn’t alarm me.

“Care to guess now? I think you know. Your time is up.” He grinned.

“Well, I was promised that I would live until at least 2034, so could you come back at a more convenient time?” I laughed.

The man took a step back, a look of confusion on his face.

“That’s just twelve more years, a mere drop in the bucket.”

“I’ve had a good life. I’ve loved and been loved. But I must see how the next few years play out, Mr. Gatherer.”

“In that case, we can work something out, X. But you must invite me in where we can talk like civilized men.”

I laughed. “I don’t know how to talk like a man. And I won’t invite you in. I’ll leave the door open and if you choose to enter, you do so of your own free will. We can have a cup of coffee if you’d like.”

I turned and went to the kitchen and began preparing two cups of Keurig coffee. When I turned, Mr. Gatherer was seated in my computer chair, his hands on his lap. I handed him a cup of coffee and sat on my soft couch. My cat Güino rubbed up against the stranger’s legs. I noted that the cat’s fur stood on end each time he made contact.

“Get to it,” I said as if such conversations were a part of my daily routine.

“Perhaps I can delay my duties until 2034, but there is a catch. But you knew that.”

I nodded. He continued.

“To concede you these extra years, you must both save a life and let a life willingly go. Not cause it. Just let it happen.” I could see a hint of fire in his eyes.

“I accept.”

“What? You don’t want to know the terms?” He was definitely confused.

“No. You and I both know there is a hidden catch and a deeper context. I’m not smart enough to know what that might be. I’ll take my chances and let it ride.”

He laughed. “Would you believe me if I told you that it is much harder to save a life than to allow one to pass? You’re the first person in eighteen years who managed to get me to avoid my gathering as soon as we met.” He shook his head. I’m sure he was remembering the last person who had done so.

“I didn’t know for sure. But I like creativity, and I love good stories. I was waiting on aliens, but the reaper has a nice touch to it, too. I’m not dumb. I know my hourglass is tipping over. What happens next?”

He took a sip of coffee. “I’m going to finish this cup of coffee and tell you some secrets. In full disclosure, the truths are something you think you want to know, but they will plague you until your time to meet me again comes.”

“I survived the last president and Covid. And a Love Boat remake, so I think I’ll be okay.” I snorted a little.

“First, you will be blessed with good fortune. Not necessarily monetarily. Death pings worst when you have a good life. Second, the person you’ll have to allow to pass will surprise you. Every ounce of your body will fight it.” He smiled and his mouth curved into a cruel crescent moon.

“They will have died anyway,” I said, certain I was right.

He hesitated. “Yes, that’s true. But everyone feels like they could have done something. And in your case, you could have.”

I stood up and walked toward him. “Look into my eyes and you’ll see what’s there.”

The Gatherer peered directly at my face. I let him delve into my memories. His eyes widened in shock. I knew he found that hardness left from my childhood, the same hardness that allowed me to survive it. Few people knew that it was a tangible thing sitting in my heart. He saw that I had been convinced more than once that I was already seeing my own death. And that I had witnessed death that convinced me I might not make it out alive afterward.

“Hmmm. Interesting. They didn’t tell me you were one of those people. But everyone breaks under the deal I’m making.” He patted Güino’s head. I could hear my cat purr. He finished his cup of coffee in one gulp.

“Before I go, I must share another truth with you, X. In another version of your life, you should have been wildly successful, traveling the world and helping people. That life was glorious.” He smiled with his teeth this time.

I reached out my hand to shake his. “I assume when we shake hands, I’m agreeing to the terms and conditions, whatever they might be.”

He nodded and took my hand. His hand was cold but shockingly hard and firm.

“Before you go,” I told him, “look into my eyes one more time. I already see the loophole.”

He shook his head. “No, you don’t. No one does.”

“Look, then.”

And he did, drawing in a powerful breath and holding it.

I let him peer into the future, the future I was choosing.

He saw it, the loophole closing in my head.

“That IS interesting! No one ever sees it.”

“It’s simple. As long as I am ready to go, the deal dies with me. I still have free will to make my choice. It will have given me the choice of a few more years. I will save a life and give my own. That’s the way it’s always been, hasn’t it?”

He laughed. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

“You as well.”

As he walked out, he turned and said, “I will meet you again, X”

“Yes, but when I’m ready. That’s the deal. And lose the suit and tie. Wear something casual and enjoy yourself.”

He closed the door behind him.

I sat back down at the computer. Güino jumped into my lap as I began to write again.

Love, X

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