literature

Mr. Mortality and the Heart Collector (Part 4)

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    A cry split the air and the Jack of Hearts grinned.
    “Ahh...pain!”
    The spirit swooped down from the roof like a vulture, leaving Michael alone.
    There was a sound of a short scuffle and then silence.

    Suddenly it felt as though a great weight had been lifted from the young man's soul, and he could breathe again. And with that, his mind went from trapped in a bog of despair to dashing off at a mile a minute.
    What had become of Mr. Mortality? Was he dead?
    Why had they come here? What had the Reaper thought they could accomplish?
    How was killer able to see his victims without eyes?
    And most importantly: how was Michael going to get out of this mess alive, with no angel to protect him?
    For a few moments, Michael couldn't bring himself to move. If Mortality were dead, surely Dr. Grimm would return, and he dared not make himself more noticeable.
    Then, he realized, if Dr. Grimm came back, he had better have made himself scarce!

    With no other choice in the matter, Michael took a slow, shaking step forward. Well, he had not died instantly yet. This comfort in mind he took another few tentative steps until he stood on the edge of the roof.
    Peering cautiously over the side, he took in the front of the house: three stories below him there stood a wrought iron fence, guarding a dip in the ground another story deep, and a small patch of grass and a young tree just on the edge of being a sapling. There was blood on the fence and a few of the tree's small branches had been torn off. Not a soul, living, dead, or Death, could be seen.

    Though unsure what to make of this information, Michael knew one thing: he needed to get off this roof.
    But how was he to do this? With no ropes or ladders at his disposal, he was in a bit of a tight situation.
    Casting about desperately for some escape, Michael chose to investigate one of the twin chimneys that crowned the building. Each, in turn, proved a disappointment, as the openings were too small and blocked with grates. He might have tried a neighboring house's chimney, as the buildings all stood close together as almost one, but he saw from a short distance that these all looked identical, and were likely also small and grated.
    However, fortune had not entirely abandoned him, as one of the twins offered him a loose brick, which, with some effort, came off easily enough into his hand.
    With this, he supposed he could break one of the windows below and drop down into the brownstone itself. But should he do so, he knew there was a chance of the spirit hearing him and returning to investigate. He could try the same on a neighboring house but he still risked the same thing and, honestly, trespassing on a stranger's home like that just seemed rude.

    His options thus limited, and with an unknown amount of time in which to make a decision, Michael chose to do what he could with what had come to his hand.
    The top story window was, to his relief, not a  far drop; the uppermost floor seemed a tad smaller than the others and even had a convenient (if perilously narrow could be considered convenient) ledge along the outside.
    Not entirely sure what he was doing, Michael set the brick down near the edge of the roof, and then sat himself down beside it; allowing his legs to dangle a few feet above the ledge (or three stories above the pavement, depending on how one looked at it).

    Swallowing hard, and saying one last prayer for his immortal soul, Michael gripped the ridge of the roof firmly with one hand—and slid, twisting, off the roof.

    Of course, he promptly grasped the brickwork with his other hand, and one shoe landed safely on target, but for one terrifying moment his other leg found no purchase as he scrambled to gain footing on the narrow shelf. Nothingness and gravity grasped him, and a brief vision of his equally brief life (one mostly dominated by sheep, and ending with a fleeting encounter with a ghost) flashed before his eyes.
    That moment ended quickly, however, and, though his heart still hammered, Michael found himself standing safely(ish) outside Dr. Grimm's window.

    He threw the brick through it, ending that adventure.

~~~

    After picking carefully over the glass he had sent scattering, Michael found himself in a dark room, cramped and drafty; not unlike the MacBranain's current place of residence. Unlike their basement apartment filled with the clamor of young girls however, this place was still and silent, inhabited only by symbols of a life once lived. A rocking horse, a set of porcelain dolls decked in lace, a portrait half-covered with an aging sheet...
    All this was appropriately haunting; this was an attic after all.

    Michael took one cautious step forward and found to his chagrin that the wooden floor groaned under his feet. He paused teeth on edge, and strained his eyes and ears to look and listen.
    No signs of Dr. Grimm...at least, not yet. No telling how soon that might change...
    It was finally beginning to occur to the boy that he had just broken into a haunted house.

    This horrifying train of thought was mercifully disrupted by an abrupt SPLAT against one of the intact windowpanes.
    Michael turned back to discover a raven splayed out against the glass, legs bent at odd angles and surrounded by an ugly crimson splotch.
    Oh dear. Was he dead now then?
    “Ah, good,” said the raven, dispelling any suspicions  he was no longer breathing, “There you are.”
    “Er...are ye alright then?”
    “Rarely,” he stated, and then added, “Listen, I'm doing my best to keep this mad man distracted. I need you to explore the house and...”
    Before he could finish his instruction, a spectral chain had swung 'round his feathered neck, snapping it backward.
    “Ah, yes, naturally,” the Reaper managed to choke before dropping from sight, leaving his thought unfinished and a clump of his feathers behind.

    Besides being disturbed by what he'd just witnessed, Michael wasn't sure what to make of such incomplete directions. Explore the house and what?
    Still, he again determined to do his best with what little he had been given.
    The attic had a trap door, and, having crept as stealthily as he could across the still creaking floor, Michael was able to use it to enter the lower level.

~~~

    Dr. Nathaniel Grimm's former dwelling was one of the nicest homes Michael had ever been in, yet it was also far eerier than the attic.
    Successful as the physician had been, it stood to reason he'd enjoyed a comfortable upper-middle-class life; one filled with tastefully chosen wallpaper and décor to appeal to his equally wealthy patients, and the kind of expensive furniture Michael's family could only dream of owning.
    Now, however, the brownstone stood like one of its past owner's victims: a body without a pulse.
    Picture frames and other trappings appeared to have been removed from the walls, leaving behind only nails and slight discoloration of the wallpaper to show they had even been there. A layer of dust and shadows coated everything, and the furniture had been covered with sheets, making it look like they had become ghosts themselves.
    The spacious three stories (not counting the attic) that Michael imagined had once been a luxury, now felt of cold emptiness.

    With these unpleasant thoughts in mind, and as generally on-edge as it is only natural to be in a haunted house, the young man did as he was bid: going from one room to another, peering into cupboards and peeking under furniture (and sometimes rugs) where he was able. As he knew not what he was looking for, he was unsure how lucky he was in his quest, however, he did note something of interest.
    The upper story, he was surprised to observe, had two bedrooms. Reminded Michael of the toys stored in the attic above. Had he heard of the Jack of Hearts having a child? He couldn't put his finger on such a thing, but he had never paid a particular interest to the lurid tale when it had reached Ireland, except to be horrified such evil was possible.

    Further exploration led Michael to find a closet and a bathroom, then on the floor below a study and living room (perhaps where the doctor held his office hours), and finally, on the floor below ground-level, a kitchen and a dining area.
    After taking one last, futile look in the icebox, Michael wasn't sure what to do. He began backtracking, doing his best to poke around in the dark corners he might have missed before. A sense of dread and panic was building inside of him as the full implications of his search overtook him.
   Here he was, in the home of a serial killer, with no clear objective, and the lives of who knows how many victims at stake. Out there, somewhere, his employer was putting himself in harm's way to buy him time, but he knew not how long he could keep that up.
    If only he had done something earlier, when they were on the roof together, maybe they wouldn't be in this situation! But what could he have done? What could he do now? Once again a human being was suffering for his sake...
    Michael was in one of the bedrooms when his steps slowed as his chest went cold and he began to lose the will to go on.

    The silence taunted him with facts: you are useless, as much a burden as the Grim Reaper's Assistant as you were as a son. Why did you even dream you could be anything else?

    He was shaking with the cold now; it had spread from his breast to his arms and his legs, and his knees began to buckle as he felt as though a thousand tiny icicles were stabbing him.

    Perhaps everything would go away if you went to sleep...perhaps all the pain would go away if you simply went numb...

...

   “I'm sorry,” a female voice seemed to breathe in his ear.
    Michael didn't know when his eyes had closed, but they snapped open now.
    A chill ran up his spine—a chill quite unlike the one that stabbed his chest; a healthy chill, the kind that told him...
    He was no longer alone in the house.
    He was no longer alone in the room.

    A primal instinct told him not to move; to hold even his breath until he knew.
    In front of him, just barely within reach, was a shrouded piece of furniture that he remembered from earlier in his search as a mirror.
    Stretching out a trembling hand, Michael tugged the white sheet away, uncovering the silvery glass in a cloud of dust.
   Sure enough, the looking glass revealed, an eyeless face grinned down at him from across the room.

    Michael's heart raced, frozen terror building in him—and then he sneezed.

    The Jack of Hearts smiled wider.
    Idiot. Idiot. IDIOT.
    His silver-blue essence drew closer, and Michael remained paralyzed on his knees.
    Useless. Cowardly. Pointless. Burdensome.
    The doctor's scalpel emerged, glinting in his spectral light.
    Cowardly. Useless. Cowardly. Useless! COWARDLY! SELFISH!!

    Michael covered his ears, but the voices remained. This torment, this agony...it wasn't from outside him; it came from within!

    “Just give me permission, Michael,” the Heart Collector told him, “and I can take all the pain away.”
    That did sound...nice...
    The boy felt his lips parting, an answer on his tongue.

    Then his eyes focused on the mirror, and he saw his father's rosary (it must have jostled out of his pockets when he collapsed). And he remembered why he was here.
    He was here because, despite everything, his father had sent him. He was here because an angel (or almost) had chosen him. He was here because there were people who needed him. Coward or not, Heaven had brought him here, and Heaven would carry him through.
    Michael grasped the beads, the ones his father had prayed on so faithfully for so long, and twisted around to face the spirit, thrusting his arm out with the crucifix dangling wildly from his fist.

    The instant the cross emblem came in contact with even a wisp of the killer's presence, he released an unearthly wail of pain.
    And then he was gone.

    Once again, the ghost's exit brought immediate relief, as the cold heaviness he'd brought also vanished into the air, and Michael was left in normal silence to process what had just occurred.

    It took several moments for his heart to slow, but by then he had done some thinking.
    Mr. M had mentioned that ghosts feed on negative emotions, and the Jack of Hearts seemed almost able to see him (but not quite) even without eyes in his sockets. Michael wondered, preposterous as it seemed if the ghost had a sort of sixth sense for emotions.
    And he wondered, even more preposterously, if the reason he could sense the other hearts was because that sixth sense had rubbed off on him.

   Well, right or wrong, he was fairly certain of two things: the first, that Dr. Grimm was still about somewhere.
    And the second, that he now knew what he was looking for. Or, one should say, who.

    But this time, he decided as he rose to his feet, he would not be wallowing in misery when he sought them out.
    This time, he would be seeking them out with empathy.
    That was, after all, what she needed most.

~~~

To be continued...
Read More:
Part 1
~
Part 2
~ Part 3
~ Part 4
Part 5
~ Epilogue
Afterword

Eyyyyyy~ I'll bet you didn't think you were gonna be getting another chapter so soon, amiright? And yet, here we are. Hopefully (and Lord willing) I should be able to have Part 5 cranked out pretty quick too! ;3

A HUGE, HUGE thank you to everyone who drew me birthday art, you guys are all amazing and sweet and I don't deserve any of you!!!!! :hug: :heart: :hug: :heart: :hug: :heart:

The year is 1896, and Michael MacBranain is in desperate need of a job.
Fortunately for him (or perhaps not-so-fortunately), the Grim Reaper is also in desperate need of an assistant!
The trouble is, Michael is terribly superstitious and loathes himself for his own cowardice.

But with a dark supernatural force on the loose in New York City, there may be more at stake for Michael and his employer than just job security!

***

A multi-part short story, serving as a prototype for the future web-serial Mortality, the episodic adventures of the Grim Reaper and his assistant. While this story is not as well-researched or polished as I hope for the actual series to be, Sweating a little... it does give something of an idea of what I'm going for character and story-wise. I hope you enjoy this debut~


Elegant Divider 2 - bottom 

Mortality and all related characters (c) me.
© 2019 - 2022 DarlingWrites
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Kazvachi's avatar
wow, this chapter was really good! I really liked the way you showed the selfdoubt and fear that Michael is feeling and how the Heart Collector uses it. in this case selfdoubts really was literally crippling. The huose itself is so creepy and mysterious. and the idea of Jack of Hearts having a chid is so original! Can't wait to find out if the girl is the child!