“Alive or dead, the truth won’t rest. Rise up while you can.”
— Mira Grant,
The trouble with Death was that he was never around when you actually needed him.
I kicked a couple syringes on the ground. They must have fallen out when the staff had taken out the trash. Not very sanitary, if you ask me. But then, it wasn’t the nicest hospital around.
Hence why I was hovering around its back entrance in an alley. And feeling a little crummy about it.
Forty years ago, I had been a staple at any given hospital, sometimes in disguise, but mostly just as myself. The staff hadn’t known what to make of me, but they left me alone once they realized I wasn’t causing trouble. They didn’t know that I was trying to prevent trouble. Souls escaped Reapers far more often than anyone in the death profession cared to admit, and as insensitive as it sounded, it was much easier finding these newfound ghosts right at the start.
Back then, any guilt was alleviated by the fact that I was helping out the poor souls, guiding them directly to the afterlife. You get a little funny roaming the earth with no one being able to see or hear you. Except a “lucky” few, like me.
Now, though, I just felt like a creeper waiting for someone to snuff it, as if I got off on it or something. I kicked away the syringes again and paced the alley a few times, hands jammed into my jacket pockets, occasionally peeking out at the main street.
I felt oddly exposed. I had a million ready excuses for why I was loitering near a hospital’s dumpster, and that wasn’t the reason for my unease. I hadn’t forgotten Michelle’s warning about “fearful happenings” in the Underworld. She wouldn’t explain further than that, only adding that some of the older ghosts had gone into hiding — which couldn’t mean anything good.
Suddenly, like an itch between the shoulder blades, I felt it. A bit duller than I remembered, but still there. Part of me instantly went on high alert, wary but ready. The other part of me was relieved that I could sense it at all. I guess the sensation of death isn’t something you easily forget.
I sat down on the steps leading to the back entrance and pulled out a cigarette. It wasn’t a real one, but a cleverly made facsimile, like they use in the movies. I was old but not tired of living yet. I unzipped my jacket, letting my stolen hospital scrubs show. I had been out of the game so long, I wasn’t sure if any of the local Reapers knew me, and I didn’t feel like making any new friends. The disguise, hasty as it was, would be the safer play.
The Reaper sure was taking their time. I remembered Michelle saying that they were distracted by whatever was happening down there. I grimaced.
A cloaked figure appeared out of nowhere, and if decades of experience hadn’t steeled my nerves, I would have fallen off the steps. Normal people couldn’t see Reapers when they had their cloaks on, and my reaction would’ve given the game away. Death didn’t like mortals hitching rides on the souls of the dead. But it was the fastest way to the Underworld.
I pretended to ignore the Reaper as they approached the door. They were obviously experienced, going in through the back, and probably knew the hallways of the hospital better than their own house. I lit my fake cigarette, a little shakily, but I figured that would come across as old-person tremors.
In my peripheral vision, I saw the Reaper turn to look at me. She was young, almost absurdly so. Not a teenager, but not far from it. She also looked a little ill, a bit pale and peaky. Death must have been getting desperate. She obviously didn’t recognize me, nor did my presence raise any suspicion, for she turned away and quietly opened the door and disappeared inside.
I caught the closing door with my hand just before it shut. I waited a few seconds, then went in, leaving my jacket outside.
The Reaper wasn’t hard to follow. I had her pegged wrong; she must have been new, for she didn’t seem to quite know where she was going and kept backtracking. I could really sense the presence of death now and thought about just trailing it myself, when the Reaper finally seemed to find the soul’s lifeline — she grabbed at something in midair — and made a beeline for a nearby hallway.
I followed close behind, snatching a clipboard along the way to make it seem like I was simply another hospital worker and far too busy to answer any medical queries or identifying questions. The Reaper stopped at a set of rooms and hesitated. I frowned. If she was this green, Death should still be training her. My luck that she was apparently just incompetent.
She decided on the room nearest her and went in, unnoticed by a departing doctor and who must have been a loved one of the deceased. They were crying. Even my dusty heart gave a little twinge. The two passed me by, and I was able to sneak in after the Reaper. The curtain across the bed was partially drawn, and I slipped behind it and peered out.
Now, despite all my years of ghost retrieval, I admitted to being a tad unfamiliar with the lifeline-cutting process and the whole scythe thing. I’d only seen it done a couple times and neither in exactly a study-friendly environment.
But I didn’t remember stabbing the deceased’s chest being a part of it.
The Reaper’s hood had fallen off, and I could see her face more fully. She wasn’t just pale, she was grey-skinned, with hollow cheeks and ashy hair. She looked practically dead herself, but her eyes were overly bright, like with fever. The large knife she was using slid neatly into the dead man’s sternum — or at least, that’s what it looked like. I squinted. The skin itself had no mark. She wasn’t slicing into his mortal body . . . but his immortal one. A sickly glow began emanating from the cut. It grew brighter and the light started to twist freakishly above the body. It slowly became more substantial, and I realized that I was seeing the forced extraction of a soul.
The soul finally settled into a solid (but translucent) form, looking more like the ghosts I knew so well. But something was wrong. It looked like the man laying on the bed, but its face was contorted with pain. It looked around wildly, obviously confused. It didn’t seem able to speak, so it yanked at something invisible in the air: its lifeline. It hadn’t been cut. Normally, that was how Reapers took the departed souls; cut the lifeline and the body and soul smoothly separated, one ready for the Underworld and the other for burial.
The Reaper girl shook her head, waggling her knife like an admonishing finger. “We have other plans for you.” Her voice was husky and deep.
If I hadn’t been hiding, I probably would’ve slid to the floor in shock. What was happening? “We?” Did she mean the Reapers?
The soul looked just as baffled. In a quick, sudden motion, the girl slashed her knife through the air. The soul jerked back, running its hands over its chest. She must have cut the lifeline after all.
But why the vicious grin on her face?
The soul stared at her too. Then, its whole form seemed to sag, its face going slack. It drooped over the body, not quite touching it. I had never seen this before. When a lifeline is cut, the soul is free — a ghost, if it escapes from a Reaper’s guidance. But this girl wasn’t taking it anywhere.
In fact, she stepped forward and shoved it right back into the body through the glowing cut, handling the soul like a pile of laundry being stuffed into a washing machine.
Not a lot of things shocked me anymore, but this . . . It was perverse. I felt sick.
Once the soul was fully crammed into the body, the Reaper passed the knife over the cut, sealing it up. The glow faded, and the corpse twitched and trembled all over, like death spams but infinitely worse. Then it was still. I realized I was holding my breath.
Then the once-dead man’s eyes opened. They were just as bright as the girl’s. Feverish. He turned to look at her. The look of triumph on her thin face made my stomach twist.
“Don’t get up just yet. Build up your strength,” she said in a low voice. She sounded almost gleeful.
Only then did it occur to me that I was in a very bad situation and should probably hightail it out of there. Whatever was going on, it was none of my business. I carefully moved away from the curtain and began to tiptoe toward the door.
“Oh, don’t leave yet, Liberator,” came the girl’s voice from behind me. I should’ve run, but her use of my title — former title — made me freeze. “We have plans for you too.”
I slowly turned around. The bedside curtain was pulled back, and the Reaper started coming toward me, twirling the knife in her fingers. The formerly dead man was now sitting up, staring at me.
For once, my ready and awesome wit failed me. My throat was dry and I couldn’t move. This was it.
Normally, or so I’ve heard, your life flashes before your eyes at this moment, but all I could think of was Michelle. And how if this sick Reaper stuck that knife into me, I would never see her again. I wouldn’t join her as a ghost nor see her in the afterlife. I would be . . . whatever that thing on the bed was.
I was too old and slow. The Reaper grabbed the front of my shirt and raised the knife high.
I closed my eyes. I could only wish for death.
Or Death, as the case may be.
A presence was suddenly in the room. I opened my eyes.
Black eyesockets with tiny orbs of light gazed back at me.
At my sudden intake of breath, the Reaper’s eyes widened. She lowered her knife and let go of my shirt. She turned around.
“I — ”
That was all she managed to say before a huge scythe whipped down across her body. The Reaper didn’t even grunt. She just crumpled to the floor. Or rather, her body did. Her soul hovered in place, but it was the ugliest soul I’d ever seen, looking not so much like a person than a writhing, wriggling mass of ooze. Before it could do anything, down came the scythe again, and the soul vanished.
It was all over in seconds, but it had felt like hours. I released the breath I had been holding, and looked at Death.
“Thanks for the save,” was all I could say.
His skull underneath his hood tilted to one side as he regarded me with glowing eyes.
“Jay Thompson,” he said. Then his gaze slid past me and down to the Reaper’s body on the floor.
I felt like I had been searched and found wanting.
Death picked up the knife, which then disappeared somewhere, and pulled off the Reaper’s cloak, and though I watched carefully, I couldn’t see the exact moment that it melted seamlessly into his own.
The body looked small and frail on the linoleum floor. And it already seemed half-decayed.
I pointed. “A rogue Reaper?”
Death didn’t exactly scowl — it’s hard for a skeleton to show more emotion than baring teeth — but I still got that impression. He poked the body none too gently with the end of his scythe, and the corpse dissolved instantly into dust.
“Very sanitary,” I said, edging away. “You’re not just gonna leave it there, are — ”
I looked up to see Death holding a broom and a dustpan. I took them silently. He had just saved my life, after all.
I cleaned up the dust — trying not to breathe any in — while Death glided over to the bed. The alive-dead man hadn’t moved the entire time, though he stared at Death. A strange look came over his pallid face. Like desire. Yearning. Pleading.
I dumped the dust into a bin marked “Biohazard” and tossed the dustpan in for good measure. Death and the man were still gazing at each other, so I washed my hands in the sink, using plenty of soap. Then I joined Death by the bed, trying to maintain a decent distance from both.
“What is he?” I asked. “That Reaper, or whomever she was, she didn’t take his soul. I mean, she did, but she cut into him and — ”
“I know,” Death said. “She was not a Reaper, she was undead. Like this poor man.”
Undead. Well, that was a lot better than “alive-dead,” I guess.
Something fluttered in the back of my mind. A memory.
“This has happened before,” I said slowly. “Hasn’t it? They’re . . . zombies.”
Death didn’t seem thrilled by that word. “They are a threat to both mortal and immortal realms. A perversion of life and death.”
The undead man looked away, and I felt almost sorry for him. He hadn’t asked for this.
“Why isn’t he being all . . . bitey?”
“You have watched too many films in your retirement, Jay Thompson.”
I mean, it was true, but it still hurt.
“The undead essentially are ghosts occupying a physical form. Untethered from their lifeline, they are just as confused in the beginning. The leaders of this . . . revolt have to train them, get them to recall memories to be able to function in the mortal realm. And then, to be part of their army.”
“What on earth do they want?”
“Precisely that. World domination. No more death. No more life.”
I gaped at Death. “But millions of people die every day! It would be impossible to stop them!”
Death’s eyes glowed fiercely. “Fortunately, the process is slow, as you saw. And their numbers are small — for now. As Michelle Thompson told you” — my heart skipped a beat at hearing her name — “the Underworld is currently in crisis. We do not know the undead’s ultimate plan, but we know they are after Reapers, trying to turn them. If that should happen . . . ”
Death wasn’t usually one to mince words, so I knew this was deadly serious business.
“But the girl,” I gestured toward the Biohazard bin, “she had a Reaper cloak.”
“Stolen. The owner . . . now in the afterlife.”
For some reason, that frightened me almost more than anything else that had happened in this horrific day. Reapers weren’t easy to kill, having already technically died. The only one who could pass that final verdict was Death himself. It meant that the Reaper could not be healed or helped in any way. Salvation for them was death.
As was the case for the undead man on the bed. He still hadn’t tried to move.
Death raised his scythe again. I took a wide step out of the way.
The soul appeared again, still looking to be in pain, but it eyed the scythe’s blade with desperate longing.
The body slumped back onto the bed, and with a glance from Death, I rearranged it to how it had looked before the fake Reaper had violated it, as if the man was merely sleeping.
I washed my hands again as Death glided out of the room. Once clean, I followed him, bumping into a passing doctor.
“Excuse — ” I began, before realizing that she was as still as stone. Everything was.
Death stood in the silent hallway dotted with frozen people. He had stopped time. Which, come to think of it, explained why no one had come in the room this entire time. It was for my benefit, of course. No one would be able to see him.
“Giving me a way out?” I asked, a little too brightly.
“I am giving you an opportunity, Jay Thompson. You came to see me about the ghost problem. Now you understand that the world is in far deeper trouble.”
I sighed. “I’m old. And weak. I can’t help.”
“The undead do not seem to think so. They see you and others like you as an asset to their plans.”
“Are you saying you’ll be able to protect me if I help you?”
Death’s eyes dimmed slightly. “I cannot make such a promise.”
“Of course not.” I shook my head. “You’re not making a convincing argument.”
Death didn’t say anything. Or cast words into my brain or however his way of speaking worked. He just continued to look rather menacing under his hood.
“But,” I began resignedly, “anything is better than winding up as . . . one of them. All right, you’ve won me over with your winning personality. I’ll come out of retirement. Just this once!” I pointed at Death for emphasis. “And only until this whole mess is sorted. Then I’m out and back to watching the kind of zombie movies where they just bite you and don’t try to take over the planet.”
It wasn’t a smile — at least, not a different smile — but the way Death looked at me made me feel at peace. Almost happy.
I was going to have to treasure that feeling, because I knew it was only going to be downhill from here.
Did you know that I initially titled this as a flash fiction?