I may have been the right hand man to Death incarnate, but that didn’t seem to make me immune to the laws of the universe any more than any other poor schmuck. My old reliable car was not so reliable this morning, stubbornly refusing my pleas for it to turn over as my hands numbed in the November chill, and a wave of miserable washed over me once again.
Whatever. Growing up as a kid of a single mother, I was no stranger to taking the bus to where I needed to go. Perhaps taking a taxi was a more businessman/adult thing to do, but I didn’t care about what image I was projecting this morning. I was wearing jeans and my well worn Bauhaus shirt because I wasn’t going to be in the office today and Dee didn’t seem to care about a dresscode in our line of work. Plus, the bus stop was only a block from my apartment complex and I felt like revisiting nostalgia with a bus ride. My pockets jangling with spare change I’d scooped from my dresser, I set off on my walk to the bus stop.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. It helps you to forget some of the more visceral effects to your memories. Like smell. Public transportation always came with its own brand of stink, and it was never a repeat experience. Sometimes it was unwashed body smell, other times it was cooked ethnic food smell, and yet still other times it was a kind of trash and pet odor combination. Sometime they alternated in waves. The bus ride reminded me of why having just to smell yourself in the confines of your own metal box of transportation was a blessing. It also reminded me of the awkwardness I carried like a millstone around my neck whereever I went that guaranteed that anyone who wished to small talk with me would realize quickly how painful that decision would be.
There was a school-aged boy on the bus, holding a coffee cup and a bag from the chain bakery, Ariel’s. I was feeling lonely after killing off everyone in my dreams so I leaned over and gestured to get the boy’s attention.
When he looked over, I pointed to his bag and said: “Ariel’s, eh? I think they should rename it to ‘All the Bread.'”
The boy gave me a puzzled frown, as though working to see if I was making fun of him. I shrugged, we stared at each other for another minute, and then both looked away; my gaze resting miserably outside the window as I waited for the next stop to come up. Luckily, it was the one I wanted, but either way I would have gotten off and walked the rest of the way to the coffee shop to spare the boy the awkward silence of ignoring this goofy stranger sitting near him any more than necessary.
I left the bus and walked the next block over to the coffee shop that had somehow become “Death Inc.’s” office space. I waved to the barista as I entered, and almost stumbling with shock, she waved back, and pointed to the back table by the fireplace where Dee was seating, reading the newspaper. “Thank-you,” I mouthed, although Dee was going to be hard to miss in any room smaller than a colosseum.
I flopped down into the chair opposite Dee and let out a sigh I didn’t know I’d been holding in.
“Rough night?” he asked, fluffing the newspaper, and then set it aside as he picked up his coffee and took a sip. He had already gotten me a cup as well and a scone, this one blueberry. In regards to this kindness, I tried to keep my tone as lightly frosty as possible.
“It was the longest and most distressing night of my life,” I said.
“Don’t exaggerate, Jorge. You’ve lived several lifetimes and had much worse visions than those. You’re just a little rusty in processing is all.”
“My car didn’t start this morning either,” I said, determined to whine.
“That’s always unfortunate. When you feel a little more comfortable with the proceedural aspects of the job, then I can help you in working on more reliable transportation. At least, that way you won’t have the excuse of keeping me waiting any longer as you seem to be fond of.”
“As I seem fond of…” I started, but then just let it go. “Transportation like the ‘here’ and then ‘not here’ thing that you do? Like teleporation.”
“Of a sort. We have means to traveling wherever there is a death in the whole world. Using the same means to travel to and from work and work related meetings is within the scope of allowance.”
I rolled my eyes so hard it actually hurt. Why could this guy never give a straight answer? Whatever. I was going to save on gas money.
“How’s the dead thing that’s working my paying job doing?”
“You’ll be pleased to find that no one has noticed the switch at all. He’s been invited to a baby shower for your co-worker Susan this Saturday, and I told him he’s quite welcome to attend in your stead. He’s of the mind to do anything rather than go back to non-existence until Monday morning,” Dee said.
I fiddled with picking apart my scone, and wasn’t sure whether I should be offended that a dead body could do my job as smoothly as I ever had in my five years at Corporation Corporation.
“Are you ready to go over the report I’ve made?” he asked, looking expectantly at me.
“The life strand that I…ate, for lack of a better term, yesterday. Doing this gives me insights into the person’s life, and it helps to not only place them into a recycle circuit or a next level transendence, but it also works towards our larger goal that we discussed,” he said.
“Oh yeah,” I said, vaguely, my mind wandering over how many scone varieties this cafe made, and when I’d exhaust their selection. When would I exhaust all the food selection? With 500 years ahead of me, I could probably try all the food varieties there were and have time to spare. If I couldn’t die of hunger, what was the point in eating at all, I thought.
Dee was staring at me, drumming his fingers on the table when I looked up from my reverie.
“Are you done pining over your foodie sensibilities?” he asked.
“Yeah…” I mumbled, thinking that I should have known that Dee would have some sort of internal window into my thoughts. The hits just keep on coming.
“Quite…Well, as I was saying, I have made a report concerning Robert McClendon’s life and times. McClendon, aged 78 at the time of passing, was a father of two; never married. The two children were illegitimate, and born before McClendon entered the ministry. McClendon devoted 60 years to the service of organized religion. He was provided for by the church. He liked to paint pictures of squirrels and flowers on birdhouses as his hobby. He wrote a few books on Catholic living in modern times. He was a chronic masturbator up until his dying day,” Dee said without emotion and as though reading from a teleprompter in front of him.
I kept my mind as blank and judgement free as possible. I guess it was pretty normal for even clergy to self-flagellate, but into your 80’s? Nope. No judgement.
“Nothing too insightful came up with him or the rest of the deaths of the day, but I kept all the memories stored in our bank anyway, just in case something from this expiration connects to a previous or upcoming one. McClendon’s mother had a hand in the invention of the can opener. I thought that was neat,” he said.
I couldn’t help but cock my eyebrow up at him. Dee wasn’t the kind of guy that got to use the word “neat” and not have an eyebrow raised. And apparently McClendon was the kind of guy who lived for almost 80 years, did a bunch of normal human things most likely, and on the cutting room floor he got remembered for the tendency to touch himself when he got bored. And just how was I supposed to get less cynical about this business with the portraits that Dee was laying out before me?
“I’m thinking McClendon will need to cycle again and see if he can tidy up a little bit of the life he’s lived. He’s only been a human about three times, and I think he could really pull off some spectacular things the next time he goes around. He seemed to have some nice insights on things towards the end years. Once you start looking into the different options open to the deceased, you can give me your opinion. McClendon won’t be fully processed into the next place of existence until we both agree on his next place. Death Inc. dual decision,if you will,” he said, smiling as he undoubtedly dipped into my thoughts to bring that term to the surface. “Well that’s the old business of the day,” Dee said. “Let’s talk about what you got to see last night and we’ll determine our first stop.”
I blanked. I could see the eyes of all the dead from my dreams swimming before me, but how was I supposedly to casually recount their ends to Dee in this cafe. If I didn’t tell him about what I saw, would we just call the whole going out to collect souls thing off for the day?
“Not a chance,” Dee said.
“You’ve got to stop intruding like that, Dee,” I said, my temper starting to rise.
“If you stop trying to avoid your duties, I won’t have to,” he countered. “You’re going to have to trust me, Jorge. We are a team, and we’ve got to work together to get the dead to where they are best suited. We’re not solving existence any time soon I don’t think, and so this is the next best thing we can do to serve our purpose.”
“And besides, if we don’t get to these souls first, the other guy will,” said a voice that was like Dee’s, but an octive lower and didn’t come from Dee’s moving lips.
“Say what?” I asked, peering closer at Dee.
“Our purpose, Jorge. What we are here to do…”
“No…that other thing you said…about the ‘other guy,’” I said.
Dee adjusted his collar a little and looked elsewhere.
“I see your own powers are starting to finally show through,” he said. “You weren’t supposed to hear about the ‘other guy’ yet, but it’s just as well. I’m sure he will turn up on one of our visits to the deceased today. He’s been at our heels lately. And that’s exactly why we need to leave now, and get ahead of him. It’s better you meet him face to face to know who he is rather than waste time trying to put him in a bottle description. C’mon, friend,” Dee said, pushing up from the table and holding his hand out to me as though to shake it.
I looked around the room as I hesitated on taking Dee’s palm in my own. No one, not even the barista who favored Dee, was watching us. I placed my hand in Dee’s cold grip, and his fingers closed over my hand completely, and then, as though my legs had been kicked out from beneath me, I was stumbling alongside him as we moved with a rapid shoves against the laws of all scientific explanation. We were not flying, we were not falling; somehow we were doing both, and it was moving us to parts unknown to collect a soul or something, I guess.