Death and the Sandman sat on the beach in the minutes before dawn waiting for the sun to rise. The morning breeze whipped at their robes, Death’s a long, heavy black one, and Sandman’s a light brown with ancient writing on the sleeve cuffs and hem.
Sandman fought back a yawn with the back of his hand. “Tired?” Death asked.
“Yeah. I’ve been pulling extra hours so I can take the wife and kids to Disney World.”
“That’s nice of you,” Death said. He took out his thermos, poured himself a cup of coffee, then one for Sandman. “What’s that on your sleeve?” he asked as he handed him the cup.
“Puke. Some baby spit up on me when I was giving him his dreams”
“That sucks,” Death replied.
“Tell me about it. Do you know how difficult it is to get the smell of puke out of this robe?”
“No,” Death replied matter of factly.
Well, it’s tough, let me tell you,” Sandman said.
Death pulled off his hood and exposed his bleached skull. “So, other than the power puking, how was the rest of your night?”
“Terrible,” Sandman said and picked up his cup of coffee.
“The usual stuff mostly. Running around the globe giving dreamers their dreams. I was so overbooked I had to work through my lunch just to make a dent in my work load.”
“Well, look at it this way, in another twenty-five years or so you can retire and live off your social security and pension,” Death said. He put down his coffee and twisted his waist, placing his left hand behind the right side of his body, and with a loud crack popped his back into place.
Sandman winced at the sound then laughed at Death’s comment. “By the time we retire there won’t be any social security left, and my pension isn’t much to talk about.” He watched Death place his hands on his hips then lean back, popping his back once more. “What’s the matter with your back?”
“I pulled it the other night carrying a four hundred pound guy to his judgment.”
“You should go see a chiropractor. Are they covered under your benefits?”
“No, they’re not, and I wouldn’t waste my time with one even if they were,” Death answered.
“Why not? They’re great. My wife goes to one a few times a week and feels great after.”
“I’m not going to pay some medical school drop-out low-life seventy-five bucks to do five minutes of work. They’re a bunch of placebo-selling con artists,” Death said and drank from his cup. “I wish I could get paid seventy-five bucks to do five minutes of work. This job is killing me.”
Sandman sipped his cup and laughed. “I know what you mean. Mine has been getting to me too lately.”
“Well, it could be worse,” Death replied to him.
“Well, for starters you could have my job.”
Sandman had just sipped some coffee when Death spoke then spit it out at the absurdity of his comment. “You’re joking, right?” he asked and wiped his mouth on his stained sleeve.
“What’s there to joke about? You’re job is a piece of cake compared to what I have to put up with. All you do is blow dome dirt into people’s eyes so they can have a few hallucinations while they sleep. Big deal, it’s not exactly rocket science,” Death remarked.
“First of all, it’s not dirt, it’s dream dust, and second, there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s not as simple as you think,” Sandman assured him.
Death took a pack of cigarettes and smacked the bottom of the box into his palm. He flipped the box around and shook one out, then bit it and pulled it from the box. He gestured the pack towards Sandman who waved his hand to turn it down. “How could your job be any easier?” Death asked as he lit his cigarette.
“Well, for starters, there’s the unsatisfied customer. Everyone loves me when I bring them their hearts desire in dreams, but when I bring a sleeper a nightmare they suddenly hate me,” Sandman ranted. “It’s not even my fault. It’s the company policy that a sleeper has to get at least three to four nightmares a month, whether they remember them or not. Even worse are the people who have those dream catchers hanging over their beds thinking that some string is going to protect them from a nightmare.”
“Do those things really work?” Death asked.
“Heck no. If anything they bring even more nightmares. I know Sandmen who will give you nightmares so terrible that’ll make grown men wet their beds if they see those things hanging around. They’re insulting. Basically a sleeper is telling us we can only give them a dream if it’s a good one and if not, they’re going to use some silly superstition to try to ward us off.”
Death listened closely and inhaled deeply on his cigarette. He exhaled the smoke, which poured through the tiny slits of his nose, the cracks between his teeth, and through his eye sockets. “That doesn’t sound so tough.”
“Well, there’s also the snoring. I swear they sound like a cross between a grizzly bear and a buzz saw. They’re so loud I can’t even concentrate sometimes,” Sandman said. He drank his coffee then looked out at the sea. “Then I have to deal with people who sleepwalk. You’d think they’d inform you on your work order that you’re giving dreams to a sleepwalker so you get ready for it, but no, they don’t, and you wind up spending half your night waiting for them to come back to bed. They throw my whole night off and I can’t skip them because company policy states that everyone has to get their dreams.”
“So what do you do while you wait?” Death asked, suddenly interested.
“Well, we’re supposed to stand by the bed and wait for them to return, but I usually walk around the house, you know, raid the fridge, see what’s on TV, stuff like that.”
“Ever get caught?”
“Do people ever notice the next day?”
Sandman chuckled. “Let’s just say that when people complain they can’t find something even though they’re sure where they left it last, one of us had something to do with where they eventually find it.”
“Damn the man!” Death shouted and slapped Sandman five. “I didn’t know you where the rebellious type. What else do you deal with?”
“People who talk in their sleep. They’re not as noisy as the ones who snore, but they babble on and on about the dumbest things imaginable.”
“Ever hear anything good?”
“No, most of the time it’s just sleep gibberish,” Sandman said.
“Your job doesn’t sound that terrible. At least you don’t have every smart-ass in the world singing DON’T FEAR THE REAPER when you appear. I used to love that song, especially when I started this gig, but now I fucking hate it.” Death shook his head. He gulped his coffee and continued, his anger at his customer’s audible in his voice. “Then there are the suicides. These people take their own lives when it isn’t even their time to go and then I’m forced to change my schedule to fit them in.”
“What do you do, skip your break?” Sandman asked.
“I used to, but not anymore.”
“What do the poor souls do while you’re on your break?”
“Usually roam the Earth or hang out in limbo. They’re so freaked out they never wander off too far.”
“What do your bosses say?”
“Fuck them. I’m entitled by law to at least two fifteen minute breaks and I’ll be damned if I don’t take them. You know sure as shit that our bosses are in their offices on the phone with their wives or playing on their computers. They do an average of ten minutes of work a day. Why should they get their breaks and not us poor working class fools?”
“Well, you’re right about that. The more you make the less you do,” Sandman said.
“Damn straight,” Death replied, coming down from his tantrum. He let out a deep sigh, pulled back his robe to expose his bony legs, leaned back, and looked at the sky.
“Does that really work on you?” Sandman asked.
“No. I can’t tan for shit, but it feels good.”
“What does it feel like?”
“Like I’m nice and toasty.”
“Really?” Sandman asked amazed.
“No, jackass,” Death laughed. “The sun is burning and bleaching my bones. It’s the equivalent of people roasting their skin. It feels like your being cooked alive at a low temperature.”
“Then why do it?” Sandman asked, not able to understand the concept of tanning since his skin was already a golden tan.
“Force of habit whenever I’m at the beach.”
“Isn’t’ too many ultraviolet rays deadly?”
“Yes, but so am I,” Death replied. He lit another cigarette then looked at Sandman. “Seems like everything is deadly yet people still do it. Drinking, smoking. Dangerous? Yes. Do they seem to care? Not at all.”
“So why do they do it if it’s so unhealthy? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Who cares why they do it. So long as it keeps me employed they can eat bleach and gargle with razor blades.”
“What’s that notch on your shin?” Sandman asked.
“A scar from a dog I get a few months back. I was about to reap some guy when his dog suddenly bit my leg and ran off with it. I had to use my sickle as a crutch to chase him and then spent the rest of the night crawling around and digging up the yard looking for it,” Death said in disgust.
“Oh well,” Sandman said. He sighed and figured that was the end of the topic. “The grass is always greener on the other side.”
Death sat in silence for a moment thinking over what Sandman had just said then exploded. “I hate that stupid expression. Whoever thought of it probably never even saw what was on the other side.”
“Maybe he did and that’s why he said it,” Sandman replied.
“What the hell does it mean anyway?” Death continued.
“Well, I think it means that things always seen a lot easier for other people, but if you take a closer look you’ll realize that their lives are just as much, if no more, problematic than your own.”
Death snorted and took a long drag on his cigarette. He blew smoke out of his nostrils then flicked the butt towards the ocean.
“OK, for instance, if you were standing in your yard looking out across the street at your neighbors, their grass would look nice and well kept. However, if you walked across the street and looked closer you’d find some dead patches of grass, maybe some gopher holes, some weeds or crab grass or even some strands that are longer than the rest because the lawn mower missed them. Get it?” Sandman asked.
Death continued to stare at Sandman. He lit up another cigarette, the flame from his lighter illuminating the inside of his skull for a moment. “No, but do you know what I’d like to do?”
“What?” Sandman asked, almost afraid to know.
“I’d like to take a look at that other side and see for myself just how green it really is.”
“What do you mean,” Sandman asked.
Death smiled as an idea formed in his skull. He flicked his thumb against the butt of his cigarette and knocked some ashes off. “I mean, why don’t we switch jobs for a while. You do mine and I’ll do yours then we can see just how difficult the other really has it.”
“You want to switch jobs?” the Sandman asked, not able to believe what he just heard.
“Yeah, for two weeks, then we’ll switch back.”
Sandman squinted his green eyes down to slits and stared at Death. He thought the offer over, weighed the pros and cons of it all, then answered, “Sure, why not. Maybe we’ll learn something.”
“I doubt it, but who knows,” Death said. He stood up, took off his robe, then handed it to Sandman along with his sickle.
Sandman took off his robe and handed it to Death as well as a tan leather pouch. “Here’s the dream dust,” he said. “All you have to do is take a handful for each person and blow it into their face.”
Death took the pouch and weighed it in his hands. “Sounds simple. Does it ever run out?”
“Not really. It’s enchanted so you’ll usually have enough, just don’t go crazy with it.”
“So there’s an infinite amount?”
“We’re not genies. It’ll run out in a couple of months or s, but I just had it refilled yesterday so you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Got it,” Death said. He put the pouch down and slid on Sandman’s cloak which was made of a light, soft fabric.
Sandman slid on Death’s robe and immediately felt its great weight and intense heat. He leaned on the sickle for support. “This thing weighs a ton,” he said and adjusted the robe on his shoulders. “It feels like an over in here.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Death assured him. He picked up the pouch and looked into it, the golden contents reflecting on his skull.
“Two weeks?” Sandman asked.
“Two weeks,” Death said. He pulled the pouch string closed and held out his hand for Sandman to shake.