“So my father wasn’t a fire-fighter hero either. It was just some dead person posing as me, fighting fires, while I was off with you doing God knows what,” I said.
I was a little grumpy over the explanation I was being given, and was now feeling pouty that my dad, whom I guessed now was actually me, wasn’t living up to the heroic good-guy picture I’d been led to believe my whole life.
“No actually, that’s no smoke and mirrors to that one. You were in full swing at that point in your last cycle, and could juggle quite a few endeavours. It’s like the odd jobs and hobbies that I’ve picked up. When you were Jorge Sr. and multiple other names you perused during the last 500 year span, you had several jobs that you were quite dedicated to as well as being a fine assistant in our normal duties. It takes the first hundred years or so to get back into the swing of things to where you can be a fire chief and a husband and and cohort with Death and a bassist in a all right sounding neighbourhood band, but you’ll get there again. And when you do, if you want to return to being an insurance man to pay the bills, then you can dismiss the dead one we have on your duties there now,” Dee said, as we turned the corner and were brought to the face of two tall, wooden doors that were the entrance to the local Catholic Church.
“Wait…I’ve still got to pay bills?”
“Of course,” he said. “What we do here is more like a public service…an obligatory one, you would do well to remember, but still, no one can live in any way that’s worth it on a public servant’s dues. You’ll get a small stipend for the work you do with me, but you’ll have to hold down a day job of some kind to cover whatever other amenities you want that it doesn’t cover.”
I must have been agape, because he added.
“Jorge…you’ve done this all before, remember? It’s not like you are going to go hungry or die from exposure. The dead one that’s taking your place right now if working for your salary, and it’s all going to go to you. He’s got no use for money, and is just happy to be talking to people and banging at a keyboard instead of trying to find a comfortable position in a small box six feet under.”
He shook his head at me.
“You and I are both going to be much more relaxed when you realize that the rules of humanity no longer apply to you. You’re free of the bonds of the 9 to 5. You don’t have to be prey to human vulnerabilities like the need for sustenance or sleep or even making a bowel movement if you chose not to. You’re only obligation is to me, and I am the work we do. Our whole purpose is to do the ‘Death thing’…and to find out what it all means,” he said, adding the last part in an undertone.
“You keep saying that, and not all too confidently either,” I said, finally calling him out on it. “What does ‘finding out what it all means’ mean anyway? Are we supposed to like crack the code of why we’re all here or something?”
He lightly touched the door of the chapel, and then turned back to me.
“You know, Jorge. In this incarnation, you’re getting a bit cynical and morose about being called to a higher purpose as an immortal philosopher. It doesn’t suit you,” he said, and pulled open the door, gesturing me to enter the house of worship before him.
We entered the church, and instantly felt he observed silence that was maintained within the walls. This church was one of the few real deal type institutions that observe the traditional services of a strict Catholic legacy. Candles were lit at the front of the church alter. None of the clergy were about since it was a Monday morning, and most people were still at work. There were a few worshippers spread among the pews, and an alter boy was hanging out at the front, but it was relatively empty otherwise.
“A lot of the humans think they’re impervious behind chapel doors. It’s silly, but that’s what they think; that there’s some voodoo in going into a church is going to keep me out. But I’m not a boogie man, and certainly not an agent of evil or ill will. Quite the opposite actually if there was a higher up to do a Q and A with about it.
“Either way, here I am in the supposed one last safe refuge from all their little fears on impermanence. You can die under the sign of the cross just as well as you can die under the strobe light of the club. Well, not you and I. We don’t die so much as fall into the arms of an unexpected, but so welcome, sleep.”
I couldn’t imagine that were were about to do whatever it was we did in taking someone from living into dying right here in these hallowed and quiet confines, but that was what Dee was implying our visit here was all about.
Dee and I walked down the aisle between the pews. Dee’s glossy black boots with the shiny silver buckles were tapping lightly, almost politely on the stone cobbles of the floor. my own sneakers I’d worn into the office today squeaked obscenely in the absolute hush. Dee was also wearing a thick black trenchcoat over his grey suit now. I hadn’t noticed when he’d put that on. I didn’t care how casual Dee acted about being the incarnation of Death, he definitely looked the part whenever he wore black and there was some magical mystical stuff going on with his role that he was downplaying. Perhaps he thought I’d be jealous that I didn’t have any hocus pocus stuff. Or, rather, I was unaware of having anything remotely witchy going on with my person.
Dee reached the end of the aisle, turned left and walked past the alter, turning down a side hallway that ran along the side of the front of the chapel, and then we were going down stairs. At the bottom of the staircase, Dee turned into an office where an old man was sitting at the desk.
“We’re here,” he said, gesturing to the old man who was still shuffling through papers, some church bills it looked like, and still hadn’t looked up to acknowledge our presence in his doorway.
I settled on the other side of the doorframe, looking at the placard that was on the doorface. Pastor Robert MacClendon, it read.
The old man hummed to himself, obviously no idea we were here. Dee stepped into his office, and put a hand flat on the paper the Pastor was reading. He old man didn’t blink, and didn’t stop humming. He scratched behind his ear a little absentmindedly as he continued to look at the paper Dee had covered with his hand. Dee looked up to me with the grin of a mischivious schoolboy.
He took a small curved knife out of his trenchcoat pocket. It was a silver color so bright, it seemed it would be hot to the touch, and it was curved, just like a scythe. He moved to the where he was behind the chair of the Pastor and pushed the man’s head down so that it bounced once with a slight bob on his chest. Now I could see a glowing halo around the man’s neck, much like a brightly, lit necklace.
Dee held the blade out to me, but I backed away and out of the doorframe, shaking my head.
“I can’t do this, Dee. We’re ruining this guy’s life,” I said.
“No, Jorge. We’re ending it. There’s nothing cruel or sadistic to what we are doing. We are performing a service for someone who’s reached the end of their time. There’s no other way to it.”
“I just…I can’t,” I said, pitifully trying to cower from the man we hovered over.
“What? You want to go back to being a fleshy nobody in a cubicle who doesn’t even garner enough respect to have customers call him by the name he was born with? No. You don’t. Because I know you, Jorge, and your secret.”
“What’s that?” I snapped, my voice taking an edge to it.
“That you love this work. The meaning, the search for purpose, the way you guide them to the next place they’ll be residing. I’ve seen it thousands of times in your eyes. You were made for this.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Watch carefully,” Death said, for now his eyes were alight and he truly was the image that we all feared in the unwaking hours as the Angel of our End. “I’ll do it this time, but next time you’re going to have to fly solo.”
The man was still humming, unaware of anything amiss as Dee placed the sickle under the chord of the bright necklace and held his thumb over the top of the necklace. Dee locked eyes with me, removed his finger, and cut the necklace chord with a clean flick of the sycthe; he never once blinked away from my gaze.
It was only then that the Pastor reacted, his breathing coming out in short puffs as he grabbed at his chest. Dee began to wind up the bright chord, which had turned a dull metallic color as soon as it was cut, and he stuck the small thing into his mouth now. I watched, transfixed and horrorstruck, as Dee chewed it once, twice, and then swallowed it. As Dee had chewed, the human man had become more distressed, his face purpling and his grimace of pain hard. When Dee swallowed the necklace the man had been wearing, the Pastor had slumped over the desk, and was still.
So this is what Death did.
Life is so real sometimes that it has a taste to it. It’s different every time, but when it’s there, it’s everywhere, and it’s no wonder it gets in your mouth and your lungs and your pores. When life is consciously active you can taste it and breath it and bathe in it. And we consume it with little thought on what to do when the meal is gone. When your plate is empty from such a sumptuous meal, no matter how full you may be, you’re always considering what the next meal could be.
Dee walked me back to the office, and bid me farewell for the day.
“We’ll meet here again tomorrow, and do some more training. Except tomorrow won’t be a half-day. We’re going to hit it hard. There’s a backup, and we’ve all got to do our part to help the overpopulation problems,” he said, with a short bark of laughter.
He had taken off his trench-coat and was back to wearing the grey suit, looking as normal as a man, that looked as handsome and otherworldly as he did, could. He turned to go, but I called to him.
“Did you really have to eat it like that?” I asked, and knew that we both knew what I was talking about.
I had been silent after Dee had eaten the man’s necklace life-force and all the way on the walk back to the office.
“What else should I have done with it?” he asked, politely enough. “He wasn’t using it any more. Plus, it gives me insight into what his life was like. That’s crucial for our larger prerogative, you know? Once I digest, I’ll debrief you on what I learned from him. We’ll hash it out over coffee in our office.”
Then he turned and disappeared into the tangle of people walking down the side walk in front of my insurance office building.