“I Tried, I Failed”

Alex Kiehnau was the recipient of the short story award at our annual Spring Writing Contest this past March. Keep reading to learn more about Kiehnau’s witty use of language and metaphors.

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Arthur sat on the ground, his thighs sinking into the wet soil beneath him. Well, they would have, if he had still been alive. But he was nothing, nothing at all, except for a thin, translucent ghost. He thought he felt a phantom ache in his chest, right where his heart would’ve been, but he was sure that it was just a trick of his mind, or lack thereof. Arthur brought his legs to his chest, like a dejected schoolboy, and stared down at the sad, flat marker before him. His full name, Arthur S. Dyer, had been carved onto the stone, along with his death date of August 14th, 1930. There was no birth date listed, not that Arthur minded. He’d never liked celebrating his birthday anyway. The marker itself was small, barely the size of a serving tray, but Arthur supposed that it worked. After all, there hadn’t been much money left when he’d gone and died, but it looked like his parents had done their best given the circumstances.

It hadn’t been a particularly gruesome death. He’d been working at the auto shop when it happened. First, Arthur had simply felt sore, which hadn’t been any cause for concern. He had constant pain in his back from lifting metal sheets and crouching under automobiles, so a bit of pain in his chest and arms was nothing, if not ordinary, to him. Then the fatigue set in, though he had been working for almost nine hours. He finally sat down when his head buzzed and his ears rang. Tons of guys fainted on the job, Arthur reasoned, it wasn’t anything to be worried about. Yet, the next thing he knew, he was on the ground, unconscious, with no pulse or breath. Arthur, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, had died of a heart attack.

Crumpled yellowing leaves littered his tombstone, almost as though it were a cruel joke from God that he should fall dead with the leaves. He took a deep breath, imagining the crisp autumn air filling his lungs, and wondered what exactly he was supposed to be doing. His mom had told him that everyone (at least the good ones anyway) would see Jesus standing at the end of a beautiful golden light. His grandpa, on the other hand, used to scare him by telling stories about a black-clad skeleton wielding a scythe. Arthur looked around the graveyard. Neither of them were there.

“You wanna hear something funny?”

Arthur nearly jumped. It was hard to fear things once you were dead. He could be startled, sure, but he didn’t feel the rapid pounding from inside his chest, nor did he feel the sickening dread that normally crept along his intestines. Instead, he turned and took in the sight before him. A young man who looked about Arthur’s age stared at him. With black, feathered hair and a set of perfectly straight teeth, Arthur almost thought that the man before him was alive. Almost. His eyes were the giveaway. He had no pupils, no irises. It was as if someone had coated the man’s eyes with a thin layer of silver, yet Arthur knew that he was staring at him.

“Sorry?” His voice came out as barely more than a whisper, like his voice had become one with the wind. The man shoved his pale hands into the pockets of his suit and flashed a crooked smile.

“Your name,” He explained, “It’s Dyer. And you’ve died. So, you really are a die-er.

Arthur wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to say to that. It was ironic, sure, but macabre, and he thought, a little insensitive. After all, he’d only died about two weeks ago.

“Are you Death?” Arthur asked hesitantly as the man sat down on the grassy hill. He held out his hand, catching a crisp, orange leaf in the midst of freefall. It turned into a darker shade of orange, then into a deep crimson red until it finally wilted and crumbled into black fragments. The man tilted his hand, letting the blackened pieces be taken by the wind. Death looked at Arthur and raised a brow.

“Does that answer your question?”

He nodded and fell silent. What does one say to Death? A sense of unease filled him as questions flew through his mind. Should he beg for his life back? What about Heaven and Hell? Suddenly, he felt that he hadn’t been as good of a person as he would’ve liked.

“You’re awfully quiet, Arthur,” Death said, breaking the whirlwind in his mind. He didn’t have to, but Arthur felt the urge to clear his throat.

“I suppose I’m just confused,” He confessed, “I died at least two weeks ago. Why are you here now? And, since I’m dead, do I go to some sort of afterlife? Am I going to have to stand in front of God and have my life judged? What if—”

Death chuckled. It wasn’t a boisterous laugh or an unkind one. It was the type of laugh that a grandfather would make when their grandchild asked why they were so wrinkled. Though Arthur hadn’t distinguished the difference and fell silent once more.

“Forgive me.” Death spoke at last, placing a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. He tensed instinctively, worried that he would end up like the withered leaf, yet nothing happened. He was just as lifeless as ever.

“I’m used to answering questions like that,” Death continued, “but no one’s ever been so…frantic about the whole thing. Were you a very anxious person in life, Arthur?”

Arthur bristled. Death was amused because he was anxious?

“I rather thought that most people would have some anxiety about being dead.”

He shrugged as opened his suit jacket and reached inside, “Most people accept it. They don’t stay at their grave for almost a month.”

Had it been that long? It couldn’t have been. He’d died in August; he was sure of that. His headstone proved it. It had been hot, scorching hot, that’s why Arthur hadn’t worried about feeling dizzy or tired at work. He stared at his headstone, trying to make sense of what Death was saying. There were too many leaves on his grave now. Arthur could barely make out his name on the stone.

“The leaves are falling,” Death explained, placing a small leather pouch in front of Arthur, “Even when Autumn comes early, they never fall in August.”

“It’s September?” Arthur asked, answered only by a nod from Death. He stared at the pouch his companion had given him, but only thought of the time that had passed. It hadn’t felt like a month, not at all. Arthur wondered about his parents. Had his dad found a job yet? Was his mother still grieving? No and yes. He knew that, despite the circumstances. He looked from the pouch to Death,

“What now?”

The silver-eyed man smiled, removing another similarly sized pouch from his jacket. He wiped the scattered leaves off Arthur’s stone and emptied the contents of the pouch onto it. Six bone-white dice clattered against the granite. Death glanced at Arthur and said,

“Now we play a game.”

Arthur took the pouch in his hand, weighing the contents in his hand. Perhaps he was hesitating. Playing a game with Death didn’t seem to be the wisest decision, but what other choice was there? Gripping the bottom of the pouch, Arthur emptied the contents onto his stone. Black playing dice with fell among their white counterparts.

“You’ve grieved for your life,” Death began as he plucked his set of dice from the ground, “so much so that you’ve refused to move on, intentionally or not. The game here is simple. You must get your dice to roll in order from the number one to the number six. We will roll one die one at a time. Once your die rolls on the number you need, you place it in front of you. The first player to get all six numbers in a line is the winner. Do you have any questions?”

“What’re we playing for?” Arthur asked warily. Death smiled and cast one of his dice. It landed on two.

“Your life.”

~

Arthur played for his chance at a new life. Death had explained the terms in further detail as the two threw die after die on his grave. If Death won, Arthur would move on, leaving the mortal realm that he knew for some type of afterlife. He’d tried, but Death refused to budge on the details. However, if Arthur somehow won the game, he’d get a second chance at life. He wouldn’t return to the same life (“Mortals tend to panic when someone crawls out of their grave”), but he would be reborn into the world. It seemed to be as good a deal as any. Death even offered Arthur to check his dice to make sure that they hadn’t been weighted.

“Why don’t you want to move on?” Death asked as Arthur threw his dice. To his delight, it landed on three. He placed it in line with his other two dice that had fallen on one and two respectively. Death had only landed one of his dice. Arthur shrugged,

“It just feels like I had more to do. I wasn’t able to get married or start a family. I didn’t even make it to my thirtieth birthday.”

Death winced as his die rolled to a four,

“Oh, right, sorry about that.”

They fell into a silence as the monotony of the game took hold. The only sound between them was the clattering of the dice as they skidded across Arthur’s name. Death collected three dice. Arthur made it to four. With only one number between them, Arthur waited anxiously for each new cast.

“You wanna know about my epitaph?” He found himself asking. Death raised his brows as his die hit the stone.

“It says, ‘I tried, I failed.’” Death commented, clearing the unlucky die.

“It’s something I used to say when I was younger,” He explained, fondly remembering the days of his unkempt hair and the gaps between his teeth, “My mom really wanted me to be good at baseball, like her dad. I was okay at batting, only occasionally striking out.”

Arthur cast his die, his mother’s thin, oval face coming to mind. A five rolled. He placed it in line, willing himself to stay calm. Only one more to go.

“You weren’t any good at running, were you?” Death asked, pulling Arthur back to the conversation he began. His companion rolled a four.

“No, I really wasn’t,” He laughed, clutching his last die with his life, “Whenever I’d come home from a game that we’d lost, and my team lost a lot, I’d always tell my parents that I tried, but I failed.”

Arthur looked at the stone, taking in the words. He supposed he had tried, hadn’t he? At baseball, at life, at this game with Death. Was there really any more that he could’ve done?

“That’s all anyone can do,” Death said, and added softly, “It’s your turn.”

Arthur cast his last die.