The Reaper

Waterfowl and Darko
Jane Mount, (left to right) Waterfowl, 2003; Darko, 2004. Courtesy of the artist.

Sergeant Daniel Burkhart’s letters fly over two oceans and two states in a plane. They fly in cargo and wait in trucks. When they finally make it they sit in the mailbox at the end of Beth’s driveway. Cars drive by.

On days Beth gets home before her mother they are safe. They are still white, still whole and unopened. Sometimes there is only one. On good days: two.

On days when her mother is not home she runs inside and hides the letters in the drawers that are built inside her platform bed. The bed matches the walls and the walls match the curtains. Everything is mauve except for the carpet which has a big white spot on it from nail polish remover she has spilled.

Her mother waits for her to get home. She sits on the couch the way she did when she found the diet pills.

“Beth,” she says. “You got three letters today.”

Her mother holds them out to her. They are not opened.

“I want to know what’s going on,” her mother says. “Is he writing to you dirty?”

Beth does not answer. She walks up the stairs and locks her bedroom door. She lies on her stained carpet and lines up her letters on the floor.

They do not reek of the heat that Daniel Burkhart has written in. All three smell of the cold fall air.

Beth has wine stains shaped like two islands: birthmarks on her face. One circles her eyeball. The other one is a red dot, spotted on her cheek like the make-up of a clown.

The birthmarks have lightened since she was born. They still turn purple in warm water.

When she is home alone she takes blue and gold and purple eye shadow and colors her birthmarks in. She looks for countries on maps that might be shaped like them. She searches spills, clouds, and leaves.

There had been talk of burning. Doctors had mentioned using a laser across her face. But then there was fear of hurting her eye.

She would rather see. Read the letter. Let the kids call her Creeper.

In her mother’s bathroom, she looks at herself on the side of her face that is clear. She puts another mirror on the other side of her face. Her profile goes on and on, clean and pretty. The other way shows a million girls all looking at the girl with the spots on her face next to her.

When the war started, her father put a clear sticker on his back window.

“I Support the Troops!” it said.

Her mother did not support them and drove another car.

When the letters come up on a frozen-dinner night her father supports her mother.

“So what’s this Mom’s been telling me?” he asks.

“I’m doing an assignment for school,” Beth says, looking down at the low-cal sauce drying up into what looks like a red scar on the chicken skin.

It is true. Beth is writing to a soldier so she can get extra credit for a Psych class she is trying to avoid failing in advance.

“What kind of assignment?” her father asks.

Her mother looks at her with hard eyes and pursed lips and a blond moustache that she bleaches every Friday.

“For Psychology. We get extra credit to write letters to a soldier,” she tells him.

“Tell him how many letters,” her mother says, looking at her father, then at her.

Beth tells her father that she has written a few, and that he has sent a few back.

“A few? Elliott, she gets 2-3 letters every day!”

Her father, with his hands on the table, with his close-cropped nails, with his gray hair, looks at his daughter.

“What is he saying to you, Elizabeth?” he asks.

Dear Beth,

Thanks for your letters. Keep ’em coming! I can’t tell you how boring it is over here.

Yes, of course I miss my wife. My kid too. But it is much more interesting to hear about you.

It sounds like you had a nice time bowling with Sandra the other night. Be careful of those boys! They’re animals!


Oh, my goodness!!! I can’t believe what just happened. I am so so so so sorry. Sometimes I am taken over by another entity. His name is The Reaper, and he is a dirty fellow. I apologize—I am not accountable. Please forgive me. I will try not to let him out again.

Beth put the letter down and touched her face. How could he have known? It was as if Daniel Burkhart had flown, sandy and tan, across two oceans and land, past the dump and the beach and the fields, to her school. There, brushing the sand from his army pants and shoes, he had walked into her Psych class where the teacher called her name. It was as if she had looked up, and the teacher called on her.

“Creeper,” the boy next to her whispered.

It is as if Sergeant Daniel heard him.

It is like he flew back across the oceans with his hands out like Superman. He saw the earth small and blue and green, then landed back on the base. He fell onto his army-clothed bottom bunk and lay down with his hand behind his head. Sand in his fingernails as if he had never left, he sat up to write to her. He thought about “Creeper.” It would be too mean.

“Reaper,” he thought. It was close.

Dear Beth—

I liked your last letter. You are funny. Really.

I’ll tell you, mostly there is just a lot of sitting around here doing nothing. I play cards and THIS IS THE REAPER! WHEN I AM BORED I MASTURBATE AND THINK ABOUT YOU. BELOW IS A LIST OF QUESTONS. YOU MUST ANSWER THEM ALL.

I’m so sorry. Oh my god. I can’t believe that just happened again. Please forgive me. I am trying hard to control him.

Here are some questions I’ve been meaning to ask. I hope you can still trust me.

1–What is your favorite food?

2–What is your favorite song?

3–What is your favorite fruit?


5–What is your favorite color?

6–What is your favorite subject in school?

7–What is your favorite rock group?


9–If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

In psychology class the teacher videotapes each student walking across the room so he can talk about what their body language says to the world.

“Who is going to be first?” the teacher says. He has skinny legs and wears cowboy boots.

Beth can feel her palms sweat. Then she sees that the camera is set up so that it will only show her good side.

Sandra goes first. Sandra is older and boys like her. She started school mid-year after leaving Holy Name. She is wearing white pants that have brown and green stains on the butt from sitting on the grass and on the steps.

“Shake that ass,” one boy says, and even the teacher laughs.

Sandra walks in a way that Beth has memorized but cannot imitate. She heard that Sandra had a hole in her nose from doing too much coke.

When it is Beth’s turn everyone gets quiet. She walks and smiles, as if she has two good sides on one face.

When everyone is done walking they sit and watch themselves walk on the screen.

They watch Sandra.

“See how she is?” the teacher says, “She is confident.”

When they play Beth back on the screen she waits for someone to say something.

“Now see how Beth’s head is turned down?” the teacher says, pointing to her head that is as big as his finger on the TV screen.

There are a few good seconds where you cannot see the mark.

“You look good!” Sandra says.

“See how Beth moves? You can tell from her posture she is shy,” the teacher says.

“Creeper,” a boy says.

Sandra leans over and whispers to Beth, “You just need make-up.”

Before the bell the teacher claps his hands.

“Has anyone heard from their soldiers?” he asks.

Sergeant Burkhart asks her for a picture.


She is polite to the Sergeant, putting on her mother’s pancake make-up so that you can hardly see where her birthmark is. She puts her mother’s silky green shirt on, then balances the camera between her knees while she lies on her parents’ bed.

The camera snaps her up and spits her behind the black curtain of the Polaroid. There she appears: clean and blurry and ready to fly.

1–Pizza or chicken, I guess.

2–I don’t have one favorite.




Beth walks home and opens the back door where the house air bites her face.

“Beth?” she hears her mother. It is her angry voice.

Beth runs up to her room. She goes into the drawers beneath her bed and checks under the note that she had written in case her mom tried to snoop: STAY AWAY YOU FUCKING DIRTY BITCH I DON’T GO THROUGH YOUR THINGS!!!!!

But the letters are there.

Dear Beth,

I loved your picture. Thank you so much for sending it.

I’m sorry I can’t send you one. We can’t take pictures here.


Sorry, sorry, sorry. I am so sorry, Beth.

“We need to talk to you,” Beth’s mother yells, knocking on the door.

When Beth does not answer, her mother gets louder.

“Unlock the door!” she yells. She tries to turn the knob.

Beth turns off the lights and lies down on her bed. Above her is the stucco ceiling, the roof and then the sky. Across two oceans, a war is going on. It isn’t an exciting war like the one her parents watched. This war seems as unreal as the photo of her mother wearing a white flower halo when she was supposedly marching for peace.

Dear Sergeant Daniel Burkhart,

I really think you should write more to your wife. Does she know about The Reaper?

When Beth’s mother has yelled her last yell of the night, Beth closes her eyes. She floats through nighttime into daytime, all the way to the sky above the Bermuda Triangle.

“Were you worried?” Daniel Burkhart asks as they fly holding each other’s hands like parachuters do on their way down.

They don’t have to scream in the Bermuda Triangle.

“No,” she lies.

They are falling but not falling. The earth does not get any closer.

He could have been ugly.

“I’m happy you are here,” she says.

When they land, suddenly, in the desert somewhere, he traces the outline of her face and points to the sky. There, it is night. The stars make her shape.


7-Probably the Beastie Boys. Also, Led Zeppelin.


9–Florida or Italy

“What does everyone think about the war?” Beth’s psychology teacher asks. He walks between the desks in his cowboy boots and jeans.

“It sucks!” a boy says.

“Yeah, my soldier says he hates it there,” Sandra says. She reaches in her pocket book that is big and sounds like it is full of coins and keys.

“What else do your soldiers say?” he asks.

Sandra leans over and whispers-laughs to Beth, “That he’s horny.”

“Girls?” the teacher says, looking at Beth and Sandra, “Do you have something to say?”

“Our soldiers are looooonely,” Sandra whines.

After class, Sandra taps Beth’s shoulder, “C’mon,” she says, “I need a cigarette.”

Beth follows her outside, ducking under the school windows and then waiting until the Social Studies teacher looks away to dash into the woods. They run and the things inside Sandra’s bag bang loudly against each other.

When they get to where no one can see, Sandra lights a cigarette and gives it to Beth.

“You like menthols?” she asks, lighting her own cigarette.

Beth nods and takes a drag.

They sit on a log that all the kids sit on in the woods, and Sandra reaches into her big bag and takes out a picture from inside her wallet.

“Check this out,” she says, handing Beth a photograph from between the pages.

The photo is of a man in army fatigues with his penis hanging out of his zipper and his arms above his head, pointing.

“That’s my soldier. His name is Tom.” Sandra points with her fake nail.

“He sent you this?” Beth asks. “They let him take pictures?”

Sandra laughs. “Of course he can take pictures. It’s not top secret.”

She takes the picture from Beth and looks at it.

Beth wonders where her picture is. It was supposed to be taped beneath the bottom of the top bunk of Sergeant Burkhart’s tightly tucked bed. At night he is supposed to look up at it and wonder where it was that she had taken it. He was supposed to shine his flashlight on it to see her in a circle and bright in the dark.

“Isn’t he huge?” Sandra asks, holding the photo out and putting her nail right below his waist.

Beth wonders where his picture is. It was supposed to be licked inside one of his envelopes, between two sheets of paper for protection. It was supposed to be hidden beneath her bed in a drawer and taken out when she was safe inside her locked room. It was supposed to show him smiling at her with his short hair and army gear sitting on a fence like on a ranch with the desert endless behind him.

“I think I may join the army after I graduate,” Sandra says. “Tom says he may be able to pull some strings so that I can be in his squad. You get total benefits, AND free medical.”

In the mailbox are bills and magazines and a letter. As always, it is addressed in black, block letters to Beth.

Her mother’s car is not in the driveway, so she runs into the house up the stairs to her room. After locking her door, she lies on the nail polish stain on her carpet and puts the letter in front of her.

One today. Licked with Daniel’s tongue.

Beth holds the letter to her nose and thinks about Sandra and her soldier. She wonders if every girl has a matching soldier. She wonders if over there, in sand, and tents, there are men just waiting to pick up the letter that will lead to their other half, the girl they have been waiting for, living a life that fits their own on the other side of the world.

The soldier she has found is split inside himself. He has found her.

Dear Beth,

How are you? I’m bored. It is very hot here and we have a bug problem. And no, the food is pretty gross, but we don’t have to eat out of cans. We have a cook that makes a lot of spaghetti.

We don’t get to do too many sports here, although I have been really into ping pong lately.

More questions:

1–What is your astrological sign?

2–Do you have a pet?

On Friday afternoon, she hears her mother read his words: “DO YOU HAVE A VIBRATOR?”

Her mother speaks quietly, in a whine.

In Beth’s room, her box beneath her bed is empty. In the kitchen, her mother reads to her father.

“Oh, and here is a nice one: ‘Do you have a favorite brand of car?’”

Beth watches her parents from a crack in the kitchen door.

She watches her parents hold her letters in their hands.

“What do we do with the letters?” her mother asks.

Her father takes one, then another, and crumples them into balls.

“I don’t want them here,” he says, walking to the sink and turning on the water. He puts them in so they turn wet and pulpy. Capital and lowercase letters smear into blue watercolors. Beth watches as he takes them out, hanging down like thick fabric, and puts them in the trash basket.

Tomorrow the garbage men will take them, still damp, drying, hardening again, out past the mailbox, past the high school, to the dump. The paper will be ground by then, mixed with dirt and diapers and bad meat.

Beth walks upstairs and lies on her carpet. She reaches out to cover the stain from the nail polish remover. Without the stain, the floor is a sea of mauve. She remembers when they first got the carpet, a long time ago. She lay on her bed and leaned off to rub the fibers back and forth, making it dark then light.

A long time ago, when she was born, the doctor held her and slapped her face to start her breathing. When her cheek faded from his red, hard hand, there she was with her marks, crying for her mother.

Just recently, a man in the desert felt the crumple of his heart far away. He felt the sting of disappointment when his mailbox was empty. He felt the sand around him shake with war, and his bunk collapse while he slept.

Sergeant Burkhart found himself above the Bermuda Triangle. He found himself lost in a tornado of women who flew and men who were lost. He found himself spinning until he was alone, and then he heard the sound of his own voice.

Beth hums and listens to herself. Whoever will love her will love listening to her sing, she thinks. He will love twisting her hair into curls. He will be someone who will talk to her about the old stone house they will spend summers in someday, and sometimes they will meet in their dreams just to hold each other’s hands.

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