I couldn’t believe I wasn’t dizzy. I got sick if the car I was riding in went too fast around a curve, but somehow being tossed in loops through nothing but a whirlwind of muffled sound and light didn’t seem to affect me. Dee held my hand tightly, and that was the only uncomfortable part of it. I worried briefly what people would think if they saw two grown men holding hands…as they flew through the air at rocket speed, and one was wearing a trench coat that flapped open to display scythe that was pocketsized. Once I factored all that in, I realized there were larger problems to account for if anyone could see Dee and I as we traveled to our first pickup.
About five minutes later, we fluttered down lightly upon a flat surface, Dee’s trench coat fanning out behind us like a deployed parachute. Looking around, I found that we were not in any kind of recognizable landscape I had ever imagined.
The trees were different, the terrain was more curved that I was accustomed to, and there was a large expanse of water nearby that was a still blue hue I’d never seen before. A slight wind wrapped around us, flapping my Bauhaus t-shirt against my chest and sending a chill down my arms. The sun was starting to set wherever we were, and looking beyond the horizon, I could see a small house to its left. That had to be the place. Dee and I began our tromp through the grass towards it.
After our walk, we reached the house, and Dee hardly hesitated in opening the door and stepping inside. The little cottage was dark and colder inside than it was outside, the walls made of stone. There was a fireplace in the front entrance but the fire had gone out hours ago, and the smoulder was hardly enough to heat even the grate that the coals rested in. Dee crossed in front of me and headed down an even darker hallway to a back bedroom.
The room smelled heavy of the stench of sickness. I could see the benefit of not taking ill in this line of work now, but still I wondered if possibly I could catch whatever illness was killing the inhabitant of this cottage. Dee went over to the bed and sat gently on the end.
I had thought the bed was empty when I first entered, but now I could make out in the tiny light of a candle by the bedside, that an old woman was resting beneath a heap of blankets there. As her chest moved slowly up and down in her sleep, I could see that she was indeed one of the faces I’d seen last night in my dreams.
Her snow white hair stuck out of the covers like a Q-tip, and one of her lined and veiny hands poked out from the covers, bent in a clawlike curve from years of arthritic influence. I didn’t realize I was at her side until I had bent down and taken the hand in my own, feeling the papery thin skin, and feeling the steady thrum of pain that was always just beneath the surface for this soul.
Dee pulled out his scythe, pulled back the covers from her neck, and revealed a dimly lit necklace like the one the Pastor had sported. Dee pressed the blade into my hand that was not holding the old woman’s.
“You should take this one,” he said. “She’s very peaceful, and has been waiting for us for far too long. Hers won’t give you any kind of upset stomach. It will be a good one to get you back into the game with.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t feel ready to cut someone’s life from them, much less to devour it afterwards. I didn’t feel qualified to make judgement on where they’d go based on my evaluation of their jeweled band either. But I felt that I knew that Dee was right about this being one of the easiest cases we’d come across today, and besides, the woman was telling me with her every pained breath and shudder beneath the flesh that she was ready to be anywhere but here.
I gently released her hand, and returned it to her side, and then took the blade in the other hand and fitted it underneath her neck, against the glowing chord. Dee had stepped back to the corner of the room to give me space, but still I could feel him there. He was actually a soothing presence, firm in a way that needed to be there for this type of work. It gave me resolve. I would have to do this like pulling off a band-aid; quick and unflinching.
And so I gritted my teeth and jerked the curved steel towards me, the chord falling away from her neck easily and instantly losing that light as it crumbled in the hollow of her neck. Her breath went from shallow to sparse, at least a minute passed before she drew another weary breath. My fingers fumbled to gather the necklace, and her finger lightly twitched on the bedside. I brought the necklace to my lips, and the cold metal burned at my flesh as I placed it on my tongue like a pill to swallow. Similarly, I felt that I couldn’t bear to grind this woman’s essence with my teeth even as it would make the ingestion easier for me. And so I threw my head back and dry swallowed until I felt the length of chain slide down my gullet, writhing its way down in a heavy spiral.
I had enough time to look to Dee, seeing that he was already moving from his corner and placing an arm around me to steady me. I was going to protest that I was fine, but then I realized that I had gone limp, my knees had buckled, and Dee was the only thing holding me up from hitting the ground. But it wasn’t sickness or weakness I felt, quite the opposite. There was a strength like the recoil of a shotgun that was hitting me, pulsing through my every nerve. My bones felt as hard as steel, my mind felt clear, and my vision was so much improved, I could see everything in the room as through a spotlight was in its dark center.
Dee had let go of me, and I stood, several inches taller I felt, on my own. If this was Dee’s diet, then no wonder he was so attractive that looked like everyone’s favorite dessert. We were dining on the lifeblood of mortals, and so I shouldn’t have wondered at all that it made me feel like a god.
I looked to Dee, and he was smiling.
“It’s something isn’t it? The feeling doesn’t last long, but it will get you through the day better than a pot of coffee ever has. The only thing is the crash that comes when you finally digest her life, and have to make the decision on where she is going and what it all meant to her and to you. That’s a real low. Another couple of hours before that yet though. Let’s move to the next,” he said.
He held out his hand again, but I shook my head.
“Actually, I feel like I’d like to try to get us to the next one,” I said, feeling a sense of direction and confidence that was one instance in a short list of those I could count on one hand where I had felt like the one in charge.
Dee nodded with a thin and knowing smile.
“Lead the way,” he agreed, and with a push against the ground to propel me from it and into the air, that’s exactly what I did.
The next couple of stops were messy. The car crash I’d seen that night up until the moment of impact was played out before us, and we picked through the fiery wreckage to reach the passengers inside. The driver of the car, a young man in his late 20’s, and his infant daughter in the backseat were obvious takes, and Dee snapped their necklaces with no resistance. But there was no relish in doing away with the chords after that either.
Then there was a suicide, a middle aged woman, who chose to fray her own necklace with the help of several powerful pain pills. I took this one. Her chord tasted like saline, and was so brittle once I cut it, it broke into several pieces on its trip from her neck to my mouth. Once there in my mouth it practically dissolved. I wouldn’t have to digest much on this one to know there was no will to live there.
By the third stop, I was feeling weary and almost bloated, like I’d eaten a volume of rich food at a rapid pace. Once we touched down in the maternity wing of a large and ultra modern hospital, I was feeling that creeping sensation again that I couldn’t do what was required of me.
We entered a patient room, finding ourselves at the bedside of a woman mid-labor. I froze at the door, not wanting to take one step further in.
“Jorge…” Dee began. “You know this is going to be a daily occurrence. Not everything that is born gets a chance to live. Sometimes its easier to start a new cycle with less baggage as well.”
I still felt all ice and concrete inside, even as I shuffled in the room where the mother was sweating, straining and crying in her pain. I shifted uncomfortably at the foot of the bed, and Dee took a seat in the corner of the room. I still had the scythe and he was making no movement to take it from me.
The baby emerged, covered in viscera and blood. It’s eyes, like the picture I’d seen in my dream, were a lime green and delicately pinched in a feline sort of way. Her dark head of hair glistened. She was so beautiful. But also so silent. There was a chord around her neck that had nothing to do with shining light, and it was wrapped very tight. I looked over at Dee, wordlessly shaking my head as I backed up a step. This was my limit.
“Do you want me to do this one? I don’t mind this time. Although, you’ll have to do the next birth. There’s no way I’ll do them all,” he said.
“No. I don’t want you to do it. I don’t want to do it. Let’s just…not?” I half-asked, half-begged.
Dee let out a very long, impatient sigh, and made a slight noise of resignation.
“We can let this one go if you really are going to fall to pieces about it,” he said, and then quickly rushed on as my eyes alighted. “But…you only get five skips per year. Your cycle span is 500 years, and so that translates to five lucky lucky humans that get near-death experiences.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this from the beginning?” I asked hotly.
“I knew you’d want to save them all,” he said, with a touch of melancholy sympathy. “It’s your nature…Plus, you only really feel the need to refuse the work when the human in question has the possibility of making a radical influence upon the world with its lifespan. Looks like this little girl is a special case.”
He gestured down at her, the small thing still being very still and turning an alarming shade of blue as it was denied air longer and longer.
“She’s suffocating! What do I do?” I said, working the scythe in my hand and wondering if I should try and cut her umbilical chord with it.
“Relax,” Dee said.
And even as he said it, the doctor reached in and manhandled the chord until I released from the newborn’s windpipe, allowing her to draw breathe and throw it back out at us with a strong cry of protest. I breathed a sigh of relief, and hoped that this skip would feel as good to make now as when other opportunities arose later. I looked again into the grassy green eyes of the baby, and I felt that this was as close as I would get to job satisfaction.
Things got weird, or rather weirder in the way of things, on our next stop.