Azazal kept coming towards us through the gloom of the shadows that were cast by the trees that provided welcome shade from the sun during the day.
“Dee…how long have we known each other?” he asked, and didn’t wait for an answer. “Let’s just call it forever. It’s basically longer than the human mind can comprehend anyway. It’s been long enough that to actually give thought to it and pin it with a number would give it no more worth than you seem to regard it with anyway.
“Because, you can’t deny that I’ve always been committed to the cause. I’ve never turned from taking one of the mortals. I’ve never used a pass. I’ve never tried to shirk duty like He has,” Azazal said with a hard shove against me that he sent purely with eye contact.
“Right, you’re so rightous…yeah. You don’t digest the souls and sort them where they need to go though like I do,” I countered.
“Of course I do,” he said, stopping a few feet from us and rocking back on his heels. “I send some of them back into the cycle, and I sort some of them to another existence that’s far away from this place.”
“And some you take out of the game entirely. Who gave you that authority?” I ask.
“Technically he did, when he said he’d have me as an assistant. How can you not understand that some people don’t deserve second chances? I can look at their lives and see when they’ll just throw it away with suicide in the next life. I can taste their fear at the moment they expire and see that they’re just going to toss their precious time aside with addiction and self-loathing if they are allowed to return. There’s no place for the souls like this. They’ve got no purpose. They’re wasting my time simply by dying. Why shoudl I let them waste everyone else’s with a half-hearted attempt at living again? Why can’t you guys see that I’m choosing what is best for everyone? We will never get to our answer of why we’ve been sent here if we allow the weak and corrupt to waste our time and divert energy from the process of our seeking.”
“Certainly you can make these choices for others, and say they get nothing out of the life they live in unrealized angst or pain, but you cannot know that this ‘wasted’ life is not preparing them for realization further down the line. Maybe not the next life, maybe not one for hundreds of years, but if they finally get it…what it all means, isn’t that what we are waiting for? Wouldn’t that be worth letting them fall for this? Taking them to a nothingness where you simply harvest their energy to power your own needs is unjustfiable no matter what intentions you may claim, Azazal,” Dee said. “You don’t have to join us, but you could help us by not harming our process. Leave the souls to us.”
“No,” Azazal said.
“So we must continue this undignified scrap and race to reach the next soul you deem worthy of non-existence?”
“Afraid so,” he replied. “I know that I’m aiding wisdom with my removal of the weak links, and one day, hopefully before we’ve all wasted too much of ourselves, you two will see how right I am. If you gave me an honest shot at the job, promote me when the time is right, you would see the results. I could find the answer if you allowed me my means.”
When Azazal said the line about “promotion,” it stirred a little nudge of memory. Promotion from the role of demon? Surely not…he had to mean promotion from the role as Dee’s assistant. But Dee wasn’t stepping down ever was he? He was immortal. Ah, but he cycles too, Jorge, my inner voice reminded me. Every 1,000 years he gets a break, and guess who is left in charge while he recharges his body with a time away from the job?
Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. I couldn’t be Death. I was just wrapping my head around being good enough to help Dee with the work. How was I supposed to direct the traffic of souls to their destinations? What if I sent them to the wrong placce? What if I got greedy like Azazal and said, forget the whole thing, flinging the entities into fire and brimstone whenever I had a tough day…or year…or decade?
“You’ll be fine, Jorge. You’ve assumed the role of Death before, and besides your own internal angst sometimes tripping you up, no one noticed any difference in the fabric of their reality,” Dee’s voice said in my head.
“But didn’t they? As I remember correctly, the last time He had a go at the role, there was a sinking ship, an iceberg, and quite a lot off confused souls waiting in limbo while he fumbled with them to decide where they should go next. Do we really want a repeat of that incident?” Azazal’s voice said, also in my head.
“Get out!” I growled loudly into his own headspace.
“Just because you choose which events to remember, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. When that cruise liner when down and Dee wasn’t around to hold your hand, you floundered in the water just like those dying people. You care too much about what’s fair and right to be able to make the tough decisions when they need to be made,” Azazal said, outloud this time.
“He did fine. Everyone got to where they needed to be evetually,” Dee said.
“Except for the ones I took care of,” Azazal said. “Couldn’t save them all, could you? The world should thank you for being so inept so that I could do some good despite your best efforts to give the whole lot of them participation trophies and goody bags.”
There was a noise behind us, and we all stopped to look as a skinny girl of perhaps 13 shuffled onto the blacktop surrounding the playground. What was this kid doing out here by herself when it was getting so dark?
Azazal turned back to us, and grinned sharply. As he did, a group of girls, all about the same age as the skinny girl, came into view, walking onto the playground from the opposite direction. They were all dressed in leggings and matching pink fleece hats. Their nails were painted a pastel purple, and they were shrieking with laughter when they saw the skinny girl awkwardly huddled against the poles that supported the slide.
The girls circled around the small girl, their pastels swallowing her tiny form in leggings of grey and a puffy white sweater that was poor immitation of the group’s uniform image. One of the girl pulled out a toboggan of the same pink color as the rest of them were wearing.
“Here it is,” she said, holding it just out of the girl’s reach. “All you got to do is pass initiation, and then you’re one of us. You can join us, but you gotta pass first.”
The skinny girl was eyeing the soft, fluffy toboggan as though she wanted nothing more than that stupid thing in front of her. She was going to do whatever it took to stop feeling so small and quiet, and if it required murder itself to be able to wear the pink hat, then so be it.
Azazal had his arms crossed and was watching the scene with amusement, rather than the thread of trepidation Dee and I were sharing. Azazal spared me a glance, a tad withering, and said, “It’s already in motion. Might as well enjoy the show.”
The group of girls, now swung off each of their neon green and yellow and Easter egg dye purple backpacks and unzipped them in robotic synchronicity. They each pulled from the bags different forms of alcohol: a can of budweiser, a bottle of corona, a wine cooler, a can of Pabst’s, and one even had a tall boy golden can of beer. Obviously, all of these were contraband, stolen from the refrigerators of each girl’s home and brought together here to wreak a joint havoc that the singular cans and bottles would not do on their own.
The girls set the beers in front of the skinny girl in the shape of that of the ten-pin design of bowling. Between the five of them, they’d managed to smuggle ten drinks here for the “initiation purposes.” The girl eyed the drinks with a terror in her eyes, but the rock of resolution was behind this, pushing her ever forward. Where the hell were all these kids parents, I wondered?
One of the gang of girls, one with a pink hoodie that had a rubber duck decal attached to her zipper pull, leaned in close to the victim and said: “You can chicken out now if you want, but you’ll never be able to hang out with us if you do. That means you can’t come to my birthday party next weekend either.”
Well, that seemed to do the trick in pushing the peer pressure gear into overdrive. The skinny girl reached forward with shaking hands and popped the tab on the PBR. She brought it slowly to her lips, sipped lightly, and winced at the medicinal taste.
“Oh c’mon,” said the girl with the duckie zipper pull, the ringleader of the tormenters. “You’re going to have to drink faster than that or we’ll be here all night. You’ve got…12 minutes to drink all of this!”
The other girls laughed at this imaginary imposition, but the prey responded to the threat in earnest, screwing her face up at the taste, but knocked back the beer in large gulps. With a few gags in between, she managed to finish the can, tossing it down to the dirt on the playground.
Duckie made a face. She had obviously not excepted for the girl to even be able to finish one beer without wretching. The fervor was on them all now though, and the point of turning back had long passed. She pointed to the bottle of Corona, and one of the girls popped off the cap with a bottle opener. The foam inside the bottle swelled, and threatened to splash over the rim. One of the girls thrust the bottle into the hands of Skinny Girl.
She brought it to her lips, and it seemed easier for her this time to take a gulp, although the beer was undoubtably warm and still terrible tasting. She had taken a few more swallows to where the bottle was nearly half gone before she gagged hard. The girls around her reeled backwards, and giggled as the girl swayed on her feet, losing grip on the bottle so that she dropped it in the dust. The golden liquid flowed out of the opening and puddled in fat globules in the soil before it was absorbed, leaving only a wet stain.
“You idiot!” Duckie yelled, as one of the other girls tried to stand the bottle, now empty, back up. “That one hardly counted. Now you’ve only got 10 minutes to finish!”
Another can of beer was thrust into her hand.
“Can’t we stop this?” I asked, turning to Dee.
“We are about as influential to this as the trees are. We are invisible scenery as the action on stage plays out,” he said, looking away from the chaos briefly.
“She’s got momentum. She’s rushing into the arms of Death, or rather non-being,” Azazal said. “No stopping it now.”
The girl was tearing into the can of beer she’d been handed, trying to best the imaginary clock that was ticking against her. She swayed, stumbled, managed to keep hold of the beer though as she sat down hard on the beer sodden earth. The air was full of laughter from the other girls at this. She managed to finish the second can, the alcohol from the two and the half of the bottle, pushing through her veins and her skinny bird body of adolescence. The girls were opening another bottle, and one put it in the girl’s hand.
Drunkenly, the girl was trying to push the bottle away now, but one of them wrapped her fingers along the glass neck of the bottle. The girl attempted to bring it to her lips, but before she could, she only just managed to turn to the side and vomit hard.
There was a chorus of “Ew’s!” and snorts of laughter. The girl vomited again, and curled beside the pile of puke as the girls around her looked on.
“You didn’t even get to number four!” Duckie said. “Let’s help her.”
She grabbed one of the girl’s arms and two other girl’s grabbed the other. They pulled her up by her arms, and the last girl held the bottle of beer over the girl’s face, waterfalling the amber liquid into her open mouth as she gasped for air. The girl below them sputtered and choked, but they continued to pour the reeking alcohol over her. And it was then that I noticed that a glowing chord had appeared around the skinny girl’s neck. It winked at me, saying plainly, “Come and get me. I’m ready now.”
Azazal saw it too, and he was already moving forward to take her. Azazal pushed hard against my chest, sending me into a sprawl against the blacktop, and he moved forward. Dee was behind him though, and as I lifted my head in a daze, Dee had grabbed Azazal and was holding him back from the girls, who were openly pouring alcohol into the unconscious girl’s mouth and over her clothes. The girl in their grasp made move as though to vomit again, but flat on her back, nothing came up from her open mouth. The girls holding her didn’t seem to notice anything. The necklace glowed brighter, and began to actually pulse like a beating heart.
I pushed myself up from the asphalt, and ran towards the girl. I didn’t want to certainly, but I had to end it now, before Azazal managed to get free from Dee. Sparing them a quick glance, I could see that Dee was just barely holding on to Azazal. They seemed to be both alternately burning under the grasp of the other.
I positioned myself behind the ragdoll of a girl that the girls had dropped in the mud they had created with the pouring of spirits upon her. I worked my finger under the chord, and pulled my scythe out of my pocket with the other hand. And then I hesitated, looking at the smiling faces of the girls that splashed around the fallen one. One of their pink hats had fallen off and was getting sopped in the mud. How could they do this to a fellow human? I wondered. They were moving away now, acutally moving to leave the girl on the playground.
I had only paused a moment, but it was all Azazal needed. He broke Dee’s grip and was moving towards me. I brought the scythe down hard against the girl’s necklace as he barreled towards me, his eyes aflame with the zeal for the prize, that now twined in my fingers like a charcoal snake. I had managed to stuff half of the chain into my mouth, when Azazal reached me. But he did not hesitate.
He jammed a finger between my lips and fished within my mouth, catching hold of end of the chord before it could meet the back of my throat. He pulled hard on the chord, and I just managed to catch the other end of it in my teeth to halt him from pulling the unit entire out of my mouth. I yanked my head back but he held fast, with a grip so tight that the chain actually broke in half.
The half that was in my mouth easily went down with the recoil from its sister half being liberated, and as I swallowed I also attempted to propel myself forward to grab the half that Azazal had taken. But I knew it was in vain. He stepped back easily from me, throwing the chain to the back of his mouth and swallowing with the slimiest smile imaginable.
The girl, faintly twitching at our feet, was now still. Dee had moved behind Azazal and was attempting to throw a punch at him as a last gesture of futileness in the wake of our lost. Yet, Azazal had what he wanted and was already fading into a fine mist. His laughter and that of the group of girls that were being absorbed into the dark outside the play grounds, mingled and died in the breeze that caught the smell of alcohol and vomit and a loss that reeks all of its own.