Death sat at his desk wearing a scowl on his androgynous face that could level a whole mountain range. Not many thought of him as breathtaking. Well, not many lived long enough to see his true face. One surrounded by golden locks that reached his chin. If they did, maybe they'd die smiling. But, with the human population swelling to six billion and counting, Death barely had time to think about the triviality of beauty. Keeping his Reapers in line already consumed a majority of his attention.
His voluminous, midnight robes spread out around him as his slate-colored gaze skimmed the latest status reports. Numbers in neat columns jumped off the page at him. He tossed the yellowing parchment onto the table and leaned into his high-backed chair of human bones. The numbers added up. People died on a daily basis.
He closed his eyes and longed for the days when he escorted the dead to the afterlife himself. He gripped and released the skulls at the ends of his chair’s armrests, searching in vain for a release from the ball-and-chain tension building behind his eyelids. His features crumpled like an origami crane in a babe’s fist. Death—one of the most powerful entities the universe had ever given birth to—experienced migraines. Who would have thought? He had to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, but he didn’t.
He gave in to massaging his temples. The wars in the
Middle East had reached a fevered pitch as of late. Nothing in terms of genocide, but close enough. He should have been happy. Business boomed.
Death sighed as if the weight of eons rested on his shoulders and let his hands fall away. He opened his eyes. His baubles spread out before him. Scattered over his desk. Arranged on shelves along the walls. Imprisoned by glass cases. A collection of odds and ends from over a millennia of millenniums. An angel’s tear. The hoof of a unicorn. The skull of Genghis Khan, which he used as a paperweight. An index finger from Confucius. The tip of a dragon’s tail. Things that tickled his fancy. Even his albino crow; taken from the Ark of Noah himself.
A new stack of Death Certificates, which indicated the name, date, time, and manner of death, appeared on his lava stone table. He plucked a feather from his pet, eliciting an annoyed squawk from the bird on his shoulder, and sharpened its tip with an ornate dagger he often used as a letter opener. After impaling the dagger on his paperweight skull, he dipped the newly sharpened nib into an inkwell, tapped off the excess, and scrawled his signature on the dotted line. Every time his pen left paper, the sheet vanished—to be delivered to its assigned Reaper.
Balance has to be maintained, Death reminded himself. If he neglected his responsibilities, it would mean chaos.
Arianne gave Ben a sidelong glance as they walked on the grass embankment running parallel to the road. Weeds tugged at his baggy jeans. The setting sun dyed his FOUL BALL T-shirt orange. The bill of his Braves baseball cap smiled upside down over his boy-next-door face. He’d picked up a stick and some pebbles and played Pitch and Hit. Every properly-timed whack plucked at Arianne’s nerves. She twitched more than an insecure dog during a thunder storm. The whole day—from the time she’d put on her baby T and pedal pushers—she’d imagined how her conversation with Ben would go. One scenario ended with her running away in tears. Another involved Ben never speaking to her again. And the last one, her personal favorite, an asteroid would end the world before she could confess everything.
“Did you change your hair?” he asked after his third imaginary homerun.
Arianne jumped at the sound of his voice.
“Boy, you’re more nervous than a flee circus.”
“Mom decided to trim some off the tips.” Arianne twirled a length of the red strands, attempting to act natural and failing when she didn’t notice a protruding root and stumbled over it. She righted herself and said, “Split ends and all that.”
“It looks nice.” Doubt invaded the gates of Ben’s grin stronghold. He loved to smile. Even when he didn’t feel like it, he smiled. Sometimes, as exampled by that moment, other emotions would creep in and the result looked less than natural. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah.” Arianne laughed away her uncertainty, and failed in that too, managing to come off as more awkward than before. She returned to the topic of her hair. “No, it doesn't. In this heat, I want to chop it all off.”
“Don't!” Ben paused and checked himself. “I mean, you'll regret it. Remember the time you decided you wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe and your hair turned orange instead of blonde?”
She shuddered. “Don't remind me.”
“What are best friends for if not to warn you away from potentially devastating actions? Remember, you'd have to live with whatever you do to yourself, no one else.”
She considered what Ben said for a moment. Maybe telling him isn't such a good idea, she thought.
“So,” he continued, tearing her away from her hesitation, “what are you going to tell me?”
Arianne scratched an itch on her arm that wasn’t really there. “Who said I wanted to talk about anything?”
This time, Ben let go of his grin entirely and regarded her with full on skepticism. “I'm insulted. We've known each other since kindergarten and you still think I don't know when you want to tell me something?” He grimaced. “Normally, we’d take the bus, but when you want to talk, you always suggest we walk the three miles home.” And just as Ben emphasized the distance, the school bus carrying their rambunctious classmates passed them, adding to his point. “Not that I mind the exercise.”
“Am I really that transparent?” Arianne shuffled her sneakers and adjusted the strap of her bag on her shoulder.
“I just know you better than anyone else.”
She smiled a small, shy smile. “You're right. I have to tell you something.” She collected her thoughts like scattered clothes on her bedroom floor and said, “There's no easy way to tell you this...”
All signs of life drained from Ben’s face. Eyes wild, he grabbed her shoulders. “Is it Carrie? Did something happen to her?”
She held on to his wrists like she was about to fall off a cliff. “What? No! I can't believe I'm saying this, but you have to chill. No more coffee for you, mister.” She extricated herself from Ben’s death grip. “This has nothing to do with her.”
He took off his cap and scratched his head before jamming it back on. “Don't scare me like that.” He huffed and strode away. “And I don’t drink coffee!”
Arianne pulled on her earlobe before scrambling to catch up. “You're the one who jumped to conclusions. And if anything happened to Carrie, you’d be the first to know.” She came up to him until her steps matched his. “I'm trying to tell you that I see dead people. Well...technically, I see their souls.”
Ben kept marching on.
“Hey, did you hear me?”
“Happy April Fool's to you, too,” said Ben.
“It's September, you ninny.”
“Well, it sure sounds like April to me.”
Arianne grabbed his sleeve. Ben searched her face and her gaze fell. An afternoon breeze ruffled the leaves of the trees lining both sides of the road. The sunset stabbed shadow knives all around them.
“As in M. Night Shyamalan ‘I see dead people’?”
Reluctantly, Arianne nodded. “It sounds crazy—”
“You bet your ass it sounds crazy.” Ben paused. He heaved a long and weighty sigh. “Look at me when you’re revealing freaky things about yourself.”
She lifted her gaze. “I’m sorry I haven’t—”
“Since when?” he interrupted.
Melted ice dotted her brow. “What?”
“Since when can you ‘see dead people’?”
“A couple of years back.”
“A couple of years.” He took off his cap, ran his hand through his chestnut locks, and replaced it on his head—his helmet against all things freaky. “Jesus, Ari. I thought we promised to tell each other everything.”
“Okay, not the reaction I was looking for.” Disbelief exploded in her head. “You mean to tell me you’re pissed because I took so long to tell you?”
“We’re best friends. That has to count for something. Isn’t listening to each other’s secrets what best friends are supposed to do?”
“So, you’re saying you believe me?”
“Why would you lie about something like that?” He engulfed her with his body, strong arms securely around her waist, his Dial scent coating her lungs. “Ari, you should have told me sooner. I’m sure you were scared the moment you saw that first ghost.”
She giggled. “On the contrary, it wasn’t scary at all. I was visiting Pops at the nursing home when I saw the woman. I pointed her out and Pops told me there was no one there. I did some research—”
“Of course, you did.” Ben broke the hug. “So, what are you? Psychic or something?”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Arianne dug her nails into the strap of her bag. “I don’t see the future or anything. My research says I’m more like a Medium, although I can’t speak to the dead. Or I haven’t tried. I don’t think I will, FYI. And I see them only for a second or two. They disappear pretty fast.”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”
“Wouldn’t you?” She rubbed her forehead. “I mean, it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s like having extra people walking around, you know? Well…they’re naked—”
“Whoa!” Ben surrendered. “Too much information.”
“But it’s true!” she insisted.
“I’ll take your word for it,” he said. Then he crossed his arms, closing the fort once again. “Why tell me now? Why wait so many years?”
Arianne challenged the tangerine sun to a staring contest until the fading light made her close her eyes. A yellow orb still floated at the center of the darkness. She breathed in the post-summer air and said, “Seeing dead people, you know? I guess I’m just tired of keeping it all to myself.”
Ben wrapped his hand around hers. “Come on, I want to get home sometime before dinner starts.”
Arianne thought she must have had an aneurism between the time she’d told Ben her secret and when he’d accepted it as nothing special because it seemed so surreal that all the scenarios she’d played out hadn’t happened. Especially her favorite one.
“Thanks,” she said as Ben tugged her toward home.
The Reaper brooded like a rebel, sitting on his reading chair with a leg hiked up on an armrest and resting his chin on a fist. He wore tattered jeans and nothing else. His sable hair fell past his knotted eyebrows, messy and still damp from a recent shower. He stared at the fire contained by a beefy jail warden he called a fireplace located at one side of his cavernous bedroom. The undulation of red, orange, and white tongues helped clear his mind of the noise and chatter of his thoughts.
His collection of history, mythology, and biographies on the shelves along a wall sang to him, urging him to curl his long, elegant fingers onto their thick spines and pull them out of their confines like concubines in a harem. Yet, he ignored their call—no longer interested in leafing through their pages. Tales of the underworld; accounts of countless deaths; memories of lives gone by couldn't hold his attention anymore.
Only the snap, pop, and crackle of the burning wood broke the quiet. The dark furnishings hugged him, bringing him a measure of comfort and peace. He glanced away from the flames and settled his gaze on the crystal vase filled with white roses on the mantel. It sat just below a painting by Kratzenstein of Orpheus trying to grab Eurydice just as she was pulled back into the underworld. The look of disappointment on Eurydice's face played out as a perfect counterpoint to Orpheus's dismay at not having the fortitude to maintain facing forward until they reached the outside world. The Reaper snapped his fingers and the roses wilted. Now their dried leaves and desiccated petals matched the emotion the painting portrayed.
He reached out toward the flaming maw of the warden, watching shadows dance along his fingers. He lowered his eyelids and waited.
In his periphery, an amorphous figure manifested itself. First as smoke. Then as a watermark image.
The Reaper’s solitude vanished with every second it took for his Caretaker to take shape.
“Master?” a gravelly voice said. It filled the room with a chill akin to fog crawling over a grave.
He studied the fire a little longer before he dropped his hand to his side and faced the lanky, pale apparition that floated legless before him. “What is it, Sickleton?”
“Forgive the presumption, but I worry for you, sir.”
“And why is that?”
Sickleton gestured to indicate the room and its dark furnishings, which turned his hand to smoke for a second. “This state of ennui has got to end.”
“Ennui?” As if by a system of pulleys, his eyebrow rose. “Good God, stop being so melodramatic.”
“You have been spending more and more time in your room, sir. You have been ignoring your minions and the help they provide. You insist on conducting your duties on your own.”
Planting both feet on the carpeted floor, the Reaper leaned his elbows on his knees and tented his fingers. He narrowed his eyes at his Caretaker. “I appreciate the concern, Sickleton,” he said. “But, I would appreciate it more if you kept out of my business.”
The Reaper made a fist and Sickleton’s mouth disappeared. The Caretaker’s eyes bulged. Master and servant stared at one another. Both unmoving. Both silent. A dance that often ended with the servant bowing to his master.
“I'm glad you understand.” The Reaper unclenched his fist and Sickleton's lips returned.
“A new batch of certificates has arrived, sir.”
“This early in the day?”
“I believe so.”
The Reaper of Georgia stood up and cracked his knuckles. “Very well. Fetch my shirt.”