This is a short story I wrote last year. I haven't really made any plans for it, so I thought it might be fun to share it here with my readers. Enjoy!
Stranger in White
By Michael Spring
I was sitting on the deck of a long-abandoned aircraft carrier when I first saw the man in white.
He initially appeared as just a shimmering speck off in the distance. If the sand had still been brown, I probably wouldn’t have seen him until he got much closer. But after decades of being scorched by an increasingly hotter sun, the sand that covered the earth had long since turned black. Against the opaque landscape, this stark white figure stood out like an angel.
Or maybe a ghost.
Now, I’m not one to worry about strangers much. After all, I’ve got a pretty good handle on how to take care of myself. Haven’t once yet met a man, woman or child that I couldn’t take in a clean fight. But my curiosity was piqued, especially seeing as how it had been a solid decade since I’d seen another living soul. A few years back, I decided I was the only creature left on this earth, so when I came across this rusting hulk in the middle of what used to be an ocean, I decided to kick my feet up for a while and relax. That was six years ago, and I haven’t found a reason to leave yet.
As for the rest of the planet, well, I figured it was officially done. Ka-put. Gone off to wherever planets go when they die. We had taken the earth to its natural conclusion: the end. Years and years of civil upheaval and environmental disaster had turned our once-thriving world into a wasteland. By the time people finally accepted that we were running out of water, it was too late. The upper class stockpiled the remaining water reserves and holed up in their fancy homes to let the lower class fight it out amongst themselves. And fight they did. After a few decades, something like 95% of the population was gone. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you don’t have water, you’re up the creek. Or more accurately, not up the creek, because the creek ain’t there anymore.
Eventually the Richie Riches started to run out of water, too, and that’s when the curtain started to fall on our lovely planet. People who were once stockbrokers or CEOs had become warlords and criminals. The fight for water got dirty, and what little was left of the population was quickly wiped out. Before long, it was just strays left over, scrapping it out for whatever last drops of precious water they could find. I remember one time about ten years ago, it actually rained. That was a sight to behold. It’s been a long time now since I’ve seen anything fall from the sky.
I turned my thoughts outward and looked out at the man in white again. He had gotten closer, but I figured he was still a good half-day’s journey away. I wondered where he had come from and--more importantly--where he was going. After all, it had been a long time since I’d had somebody come looking for me. Usually, it was the other way around. But hey, it wasn’t like I was averse to the thought of some company. After all, a man gets lonely after years of solitude. I’ve never exactly led a life filled with close personal relationships, but at least the nature of my job always kept me in constant contact with people. Now that all the people were gone, though, things were a little lonelier then they had ever been.
I looked around the deck of my makeshift home and wondered if I should straighten up a bit, but I decided against it. First of all, I’ve never been one for tidying up much, and second of all, how do you clean up the rotting hulks of fighter jets and helicopters? It was a little out of my depth. I’ve got a lot of tricks up my sleeve, but superhero strength ain’t one of them.
I kicked back in my chair and closed my eyes. There wasn’t much to keep a guy busy these days. I had a pile of books I’d read and re-read, some scrap paper for the occasional doodle, and even a ping pong table I’d found down in what used to be a rec room. I’d dragged it up here to the deck, set it up against the wall of the command post, and occasionally got a pretty good game going against myself. I let my thoughts drift until the heat from the sun finally took its toll and I drifted off.
I awoke groggily a few hours later to see that the man in white was nearing the base of the ship. I leaned forward in my chair and gazed at him curiously. He was tall and thin; gaunt would be the word I’d use to describe him. He was dressed in white from head to toe: white leather boots, white jeans, a white long-sleeved shirt underneath a white vest, and--to top it all off--a white ten-gallon hat. Well, well, well… we had a regular cowboy here. How he kept all them white clothes so clean while walking across the black sands was a mystery to me, but I figured that was the least of my concerns right now.
The man in white seemed to sense that I was staring at him and he looked up at me, fixing my gaze with his. To say it was intense would be an understatement. It was like he was looking right through me, yet looking at every single piece of me at the same time; like he could see right down into my soul. If I even have one, that is. That’s a question I’ve pondered for a long time, and I’ve never really come up with an answer. Come to think of it, I’ve had a lot of questions about my place in this world over the many years I’ve been alive (is ‘alive’ even the right word?), but I’ve never gotten answers to any of them.
I’ll tell you what, though: I don’t think I’ve ever met a man who could stare me down, or even put a chill into the hairs on the back of my neck, but this man’s gaze sent a lightning bolt of fear right down my spine. Then he blinked, and the intensity passed. It was gone just like that; so much so that I almost couldn’t remember what had made it so fearful in the first place. He broke out into a toothy grin, raised his arm, and waved. I didn’t know how else to respond, so I waved back. He looked at me expectantly, and eventually I realized that he wanted to come on board.
“Ahoy, cowboy!” I finally yelled.
“Permission to come aboard, sir?” he yelled back.
Now, in the post-water world, trusting strangers wasn’t a terribly bright idea. Inviting them into your home was an even worse one. And seeing as how this man was the first one I’d ever met who put the fear of god into me, it seemed like letting him on board would be the worst possible idea I could muster. But there was a tingle at the base of my neck, something that told me there was more to this story. Something that had to find out why this man had traveled across a forlorn land and how he’d ended up here.
“Permission granted,” I yelled. “There’s an entryway about 300 yards down the keel.” I pointed in the direction of the makeshift door I’d fashioned out of a jagged hole in the side of the ship’s hull.
The man tipped his hat and started walking in the direction I’d pointed. A few minutes later, he popped out of a doorway on the deck and walked over to me. He had the gait of man who was afraid of nothing. I recognized it because it’s exactly the same way I walk.
“Howdy,” I said.
“Hello,” he replied, offering his hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
We shook hands, and that thrill of electricity went through my body once again, the same as it had when he was staring into my soul.
“Seat?” I asked, offering him one of the tattered deck chairs I’d been using for my personal lounge area.
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said. “Not gonna lie, my legs are awfully tired. I’ve been walking a long way.”
“Where you coming from, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Oh, you know, here and there. I’ve been all over the place, just seeing what I could see, you know?”
“I do indeed,” I replied. “I was on that same journey myself for quite some time. Eventually, I figured out that whatever I’d been put on this earth for I’d accomplished, and, well, here I am.”
“And a mighty fine place you’ve got here, too,” he said, surveying the deck of the carrier. “I like the ping pong table.” The man grinned that big, infectious grin again.
“Thanks. I’m undefeated.”
We shared a chuckle, and then sat in silence for a few minutes. I looked at the man while he stared out at the horizon. He was average in every way, yet completely distinguished in every way. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was exactly about him that was so different; he was almost impossible to define. It was like every time I looked at him he appeared the same, but also slightly different. I’d never seen anything like it. Eventually, the quiet started to wear on me. The stranger seemed perfectly content to sit in silence, but it was too much for me.
Finally, I said, “So… what do you think it all meant?”
“Hmmm…?” the man replied absently. He was staring out at the sand with a wistful look in his eye.
“What do you think it all meant? The world, I mean. Mankind lived for, what? A couple thousand years? And then… poof. In a couple of decades, they’re just… gone. What the hell was the point of it all? Why did god even create people in the first place if he was just gonna wipe them out after a few centuries?”
The man pondered the question for a while, then fixed his gaze on me and said, “Well, I guess that really depends on how you perceive god, now doesn’t it? I mean, some people think he was in control of everything; every little aspect of people’s lives. Some think he just set people on the earth and hoped for the best. Hell, some people question whether he even exists.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure he does,” I said. “You don’t get a job like mine without there being some kind of higher power.”
“Are you a priest or something?” he asked.
“Ha ha, no. More like… a debt collector.”
The man chewed this over for a while. Finally, he said, “Do you want to know what I think?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“I think god had hopes and dreams for mankind. I think he put people on this earth to see them live up to their greatest potential, and somewhere along the way mankind dropped the ball. Between the wars and the drugs and the crime and the people dreaming up ways to kill each other, there just came a point where it became clear that mankind wasn’t going to make it. And I think god, despite all his best intentions, decided he just had to cut his losses and try to figure out where it all went wrong.”
“But he’s god,” I said. “How can god’s plans go wrong? Isn’t he supposed to be omnipotent, all-powerful, all that stuff?”
“Well, I figure god to be the type who likes to stay out of the way and let people figure things out for themselves. Even if sometimes they don’t.”
“I see,” I said. After a moment, I added, “Say, stranger, I never caught your name.”
“Well, I don’t remember throwing it,” he replied. “I haven’t really found much use for names out here these days, have you?”
“I guess not,” I replied.
We sat in silence once again, letting the heat bake the backs of our necks as the sun started its journey towards the horizon in the west. After a while, the man stood up and stretched. He turned towards me and offered his hand. “It’s been a pleasure talking to you, my friend,” he said. I stood up and took his hand in mind.
As soon as I did, a blinding white light enveloped my entire world. I couldn’t see anything, but there was no pain. There was just an all-encompassing whiteness everywhere. Though I couldn’t see, I could hear the man speaking to me. His voice seemed to radiate through my entire body.
“Thank you for your many years of service, Dark One. You’re the last of my angels left on earth, as by necessity you had to be. You always performed your job with the utmost of dedication, and you ushered the souls of this world to the next with dignity and peace. I’m happy to say that you can finally move on. Your purpose on this earth has come to an end. There’s no one left.”
I felt a rising sensation and then I could see again. The ruined world was now below me. I drifted upwards, and I could see the aircraft carrier, the desert surrounding it, and then more of the planet’s surface. All of what used to be the Pacific Ocean was below me, and soon, the entire rim of the planet was in my view. I turned and looked up, and what I saw was more beautiful than words can describe.
“Thank you,” I said quietly. “I knew you wouldn’t forget about me.”
Taking souls for a living wasn’t exactly what I would call rewarding work, but somebody had to do it. Why that someone was me, I have no idea. And I never did get the chance to ask the man in white why I won that cosmic lottery. Hell, when you get right down to it, there are so many more things I could have asked him that day had I just known who he really was. And on some level, I think I did know who he really was. But maybe the conversation we had was the only one we were going to have, you know what I mean?
All I know is that man’s time on earth had come to an end, which meant that mine had too. The sun had set on planet Earth.
And for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had something to look forward to.