Tenuous, tenuous holds on self-control. That’s all we ever really get. And we can all slip from time to time without making front page news. Overindulge on a meal, or imbibe a little too much to drink, or even perhaps spend cash not in the bank on a shopping spree: we all do these things and pay only incrementally for our excess with a stomach ache, a hangover, or an overdraft fee or two. But what kind of damage can we expect when the self runs free? When left to impulse, the great desire of want that cannot be suppressed, what collateral mess is left in the wake? And who must suffer and pay for the bill of cleanup?
Sure. There can be interventions. There will be tears shed for how the excess forms a recoil to knock into those loved ones that crowd the circle around our self. More often than not, there will also be blood let to pay for the cost of our hungry self doubling over to bite its own tail in a manic, crazed, frenzied greed. But none of these…not even the pool of lifeblood and the bodies of victims laid out to cool will stop the self’s hunger to destroy itself with the atmosphere that once made it feel so safe, important, and blissful. The self can only reign the self. Control is only bought with the epiphanies that reveal themselves in the light from the shaky swinging bulb from the ceiling that pans slowly over the chaos below as it swings a trajectory across the floor it hangs above.
The girl was dead, and that’s about as far as the success of our endeavor had gone. Her soul was torn so violently into separate halves that it was in perhaps a worse state than if Azazal had gotten the full thing. As I sorted her out within me, I had only half of who she was. There was a great chunk that was her other half that was simply not there. Figuring out if she would do well in a reincarnation was impossible. Sending her to another plane of existence seemed useless. In either scenario, she’d be without a huge portion of herself. She’d always feel lost in any existence she occupied. She’d know, deep in her bones, that something was missing in an irreparable way. She’d seek the missing part futilely, and the likelihood was high that she’d be driven to do things she’d have had no inkling were even possible if her soul was whole in one realm or another. Maybe she’d try illicit drugs to fill the space, maybe she’d sleep with people who had not a single damn to give about her, or maybe she’d be driven to actions far worse by the seeking for something that would simply not come.
I brought up the possibility of allowing Azazal to have her other half for the sake of wholeness in at least one place, even if it was that of a non-existence, but Dee shot the idea down immediately.
“Existing, and the possibility of finding meaning, even for just half of yourself, is worth the toll of loss. Even the slimmest of chances is worth it as opposed to not having that opportunity at all,” Dee said. “Her only hope is that she may learn to cope with what has been taken from her, and to work around it like an amputee might learn a semblance of normal existence in their world. She will be handicapped, that is for certain, but she has the option of overcoming it. We cannot allow Azazal to take that as well. As long as some part of self is allowed to exist in the waking world, there is still hope for her.”
Dee’s bleak optimism did a little in gladdening my somberness, but it didn’t ease the digestion of the girl’s soul to send to the next incarnation. She went down like a bucking mare, and I felt a nausea and head throbbing pain that couldn’t wholly be blamed on my hamburger dinner. Part of this may have been that I felt sick with myself.
I had hesitated at the crucial moment. I should have snipped her chord and bolted it down the hatch in one smooth movement. Instead, I was still clinging to some idea that maybe if I waited that half second longer, death wouldn’t have to happen in every case I came to. Maybe there’d be something to intercede. Yet, it seemed I was only fooling myself with these notions. If we were on the scene and had come for a certain someone, all bets were on them giving up the ghost in some way before we could move on to the next number in our queue.
We didn’t see Azazal the rest of the day as we went about our gathering of the souls. Perhaps there weren’t any souls he deemed in need of a penance in his hell-void, but maybe he wanted to quit for the day while he was ahead. The half of the young girl that he had gotten was more than enough to sustain him today or longer perhaps.
Dee did the extension of time trick again, and so it was a long time later, many more hours than the day normally held, that we went about our work until Dee gave the OK for us to hang up our hat for the day. We were somewhere in the Mediterranean, but a blink later and I was back out in front of the hospital entrance doors. I’d picked some flowers from a garden on our last stop and held these in hand as I took the elevator to my mother’s hospital room. It was morning again, the next day somehow, and I hadn’t slept, didn’t think it was necessary. I’d rather check on Mamma.
I skipped up the stairs, and rounded the door, flowers in hand. What I saw as I looked into Mamma’s room froze me in my skipping stride. Mamma was no where to be seen in the room. Her bag was by the bedside, her scent of lavender and rosemary oil that she used in a hair rinse everyday was there, and even the spray of lilies were gently wilting on the windowsill, but Mamma was missing. In her place, sprawled on the bed, was Azazal.
The flowers I held hung limply in my grasp at my side. I felt like I’d been gut punched.
“What’d you do with her?” I said, making a move to come at him and rip him, burn him, claw him, or whatever was necessary to get my answer.
“Relax. She’s fine. The nurses took her to radiology for a scan. She’ll be back shortly,” he drawled.
I did not relax, still as tightly drawn as a tethered line for high rise walkers.
“Why are you here?” I quietly breathed. “Haven’t you done enough today?”
“What happened earlier was a competition, and I just happened to best you. Let’s not drag it out again. I’m here because I have a piece of information I think you might find of interest,” he said, pushing the nurse call button on the remote on the hospital bed.
“I’m listening,” I said.
“I have a date, and a time, and a guarantee that you will not see me at this date and time if you decide to play my ballgame.”
A nurse with a mass of kinky hair pulled back with a bandanna that had colorful swinging monkeys on it came into the room, looked directly at Azazal on the bed, continued to scan the room and then shrugged before leaving the room again.
“Never gets old,” Azazal said.
“I’d rather not see you ever again, but let’s say I care what you have to say about this…why would it be to my benefit to not see you on some random day and time?” I asked.
“Random for everyone else perhaps, but slightly more significant for someone who’s day it is to die. Someone already ailing? A mutual acquaintance you might say…catch my drift?” he said, significantly eyeing the hospital room before leaving his eyes to rest upon me.
I caught his drift alright.
“How can you know when it’s her time? That’s not something we get to know,” I said, but even as I did, I wondered if it was true.
“Oh, I know. I’ve known for as long as she’s been alive when the day was going to be. The exact hour, and the exact minute are known to me as well. When you are chosen to be Death’s muscle, certain knowledge becomes available to you. I’m a different kind of partner for Death than you are. I don’t cycle, and so I get to retain every bit of the knowledge of the business and don’t have to relearn it and gradually re-expose myself to what it’s all about. Give yourself another couple of hundred years and you’ll be able to narrow in on death dates like a weatherman on small town blizzard event..”
“So…what…I let you have a few souls and you don’t show up when it’s her time? You let me take my own mother’s soul without some kind of demonic defilement?”
“No need to sling barbs,” Azazal said. “But yes, more or less that’s what I’m saying. You keep Dee occupied while I make my stops for those who are already bound to the fate they deserve. I take them out of the cycle, you guys keep the cream of the crop in rotation, and you get to spend your mother’s last moments with her without hindrance. More importantly, you can prepare. You can know when the day is. You can be there to help her move along. Is there anything more comforting than knowing, truly knowing, you won’t die alone and forgotten?”
“You’re rotten, Azazal,” I said as a toothless response to all this. “You’ve got no qualms about feeding the flames with countless bodies as long as you don’t have to experience hunger pangs.”
“Emotion is weakness, Jorge. I feel like I have to repeat this lesson with you every single cycle. Just because you have it still and I’ve long since come to realize its worthlessness, doesn’t mean I’m a monster. I’ve evolved to suit my existence, and the existence of all who come after me. Can you blame me as using your emotion as ammunition when its effectiveness is clear? You love your mother…or rather, the woman who raised you and you call ‘Mamma.’ You can’t separate your perceived relationship with her from her utilitarian existence as someone simply designed to bring you to this point. I use your weakness to accomplish my goals. It’s nothing personal,” Azazal said, pushing up from the bed and to his feet as there is a sound of the clatter of a wheelchair in the hallway out side the door.
Mamma appeared in the doorway, pushed from behind by a nurse with a headband that had giraffes on it. I guess there was some kind of safari theme going on in this wing of the hospital.
Mamma’s face lit up as she was wheeled into the room and caught sight of me. She didn’t even look in the direction of Azazal; his invisibility to humans still intact.
“Angel. Here again so soon? Did you get any sleep last night?”
I side stepped the question by handing the flowers that I was carrying to her.
“Real flowers this time, but not from the Garden Club,” I said as I presented them.
“Lovely,” she said. “So you didn’t sleep at all? Didn’t I tell you I’m just fine here? The doctor just said I could go home this afternoon too.”
Azazal smiled in a bemused sort of way.
“She’s charming. So full of life,” he said.
“What are you glaring at, dear?” Mamma asked, looking in Azazal’s direction as the nurse helped her back into the bed.
“Nothing,” I mumbled.
“I’ll let you sit on it. Consider, would Dee ever give you an offer so promising as the one I”m suggesting? How much is she worth to you?” He said.
Before I could sneer out a reply, he did that stupid disappearing into mist thing again and was gone. I gritted my teeth and turned away from the spot where he’d once stood, and back to Mamma, who was looking amused.
“He’s a charmer,” she said, digging in the sheets for the television remote, and flicking the TV above us on.
I stared at her as she flipped channels with nonchalance.
“Who’s a charmer?” I asked, not daring myself to believe she could see the demon.
“My doctor, of course,” she said, settling on a game show on the television. “He’s about your age, and already has a wife and two children. Another one on the way, he says. He calls me a ‘bright ray of sunshine’ in his day. A charmer, for sure.”
I settled heavily into the chair beside her bed as she continued to prattle on about Dr. Clem.