Day 17: I can see the ending

When we were let in, I picked yet another one of the scones (peach), and we both decided that black coffee was the way to go today. We made for the table by our fireplace, in our cafe, to start our morning. I wondered if the baristas were discussing whether Dee and I were business associates or lovers. Our repeated presence, and secretive nature more likely than not had the rumor mill going.

I was still trying to figure out how the extension and all out rape of the system of time, by which I had governed my whole life, could be justified by Dee in the name of productivity. And when I sat down, the weight of that and all the rest of it hit me all at once. Dee sat across the table, pleasantly fluffing his newspaper out, and sipping lightly at his hot brew; just like he had done yesterday…and the day before, and probably every other day before he had called me to join the corps. There was a rising panic in my stomach that spread to my chest and vibrated at my fingertips in only the span of time it took Dee to finish reading the front page of the news.

This commitment I was making to join Dee in his daily work was more than just a job. This work would not end when I hit 65. There was no retirement. There was going to be no weekends. The job didn’t really ever have a quitting time. I was forever on call. I was forever bound to my duty, and I was forever expected to exist in a realm of duty rather than a realm of self-seeking as every other mortal was free to do. I was bound inextricably to this work and this routine of the morning scone, the distasteful chord cutting, and the forced digestion of all the fabric of other people’s lives. While other humans just got to be concerned with their own purpose in life, I had to try and evaluate the purpose for all human existence, and with less material of my own to find meaning in. The life that Dee assured me I could have outside of my dedication to the job, was seeming less and less possible. Had I lost the right to life by accepting the bond with Death?

I pushed back from the table, and my untouched breakfast, and shook my head at the whole of the thing. Dee pulled the paper away from his face, and set it on the table front as he looked to me to see what was the matter.

“Jorge?”

“I can’t do this, Dee,” I said again, but now there was a real feeling behind it that I would be giving up too much in taking this job, and I would not see what reward there was in it for me. It seemed like a selfish thought, but all the same I couldn’t banish it. I wanted to live, and I wanted to matter. I wanted to be seen always, and to not just disappear to the rest of the world when things that they couldn’t process happened. I didn’t want to see these things that mortals couldn’t see. I wanted the normalcy of the human lifespan and the mundane that went with it.

“It gets easier,” Dee said. “You’ve got to give it a try. Turning your back on your duties will send you right back to that boring little rut you had carved for yourself, and you’ll be subject to death at any time that fate dictates. Even worse, it’s going to allow the demons to show up at any time and place, with only me to fend them off, and take all the souls they can grab up from us. That means that you walking out now is damning countless people to a hell of emptiness. This is larger than you, and larger than me. It’s not something to pick up and drop at a whim. You are fate, and your fate is to be that force that drives the motion of the world.”

I paused and tried to take in his words, but the fear bubbled up in me again, and I saw Azazal’s sharp eyes in my memory, and heard his words about the worthlessness of working against the grain of existence.

I said: “I know you have good intentions in saying all this, and trying to take me on as an assistant. I’m honored. Truly. But I think that if I ever was an assistant to you, and able to do that job in the past…well, I’ve lost something that made me qualified or rather insane enough to go through with it. I can’t give up my own life for everyone else’s. I’m just not that guy,” I said, and I stood, turning away from Dee and heading for the door.

“You’re content with just letting Azazal have them all?” Dee shouted after me. “Your going to let him take them with no fight at all?”

I didn’t turn around, not even to check if anyone else in the cafe could hear this man yelling what probably seemed like crazy nonsense at me. I mumbled to myself: “Not my problem.” Because it wasn’t my problem. I didn’t have any kind of responsibility to figure out people’s purpose for them, and I didn’t have an obligation to take their life away from them; whether they were saints or scoundrels. I wasn’t any better judge of character than anyone else.

I wasn’t that much of a forward thinker either, and so I hadn’t considered that I wouldn’t have a ride home once I’d dropped the title of Death’s assistant and the benefits that went with it. When I exited the cafe, my first impulse was to head back home and try and recoup my thoughts. Yet, as I walked toward the bus stop to head in that direction, I realized the building where I had worked as an insurance agent was only a block away now. Since I had turned in my resignation to Dee, it actually made more sense to me to return to business as usual in my old life, I thought. No time like the present. I turned at the corner and crossed the street to get to the building.

I hadn’t been in the building in about a day and a half, but it felt like I’d been gone on a long vacation. Everything was so normal, and quiet in the morning hours, that it took on a strange quality that made me nervous, as though a swarm of locusts or something was going to fly around the corner at me if all stayed too still for much longer. I ignored my newfound paranoia to the typical jibe of reality, and took the elevator up to my floor and sought out my cubicle. My cellphone now read a time of 8 a.m., and so I was still early for my work shift by all accounts. I didn’t care one way or another. I sat down at the cubicle, strapped my headset on, and punched a line to take the next waiting caller. I greeted them with the most chipper, “Hello, my name is George!” that I think I’d ever mustered. The woman on the other line actually paused for a few beats to make sure I was a real voice and not an over-enthusiastic robot.

I took several other calls, laughing and bantering with the customers, and refusing any possibility of getting upset with their most banal requests or any level of condescension in their voice. An hour later, when all my co-workers began to arrive, a man who looked eerily similar to me hovered in the hallway, watching me at the cubicle, before hanging his head in resignation and disappearing down the hall and from existence all together it would appear if anyone was paying attention to him.

They weren’t.

Commitment, when done with a firm and true dedication, can provide fulfillment greater than any other when the object of your efforts reaches new levels; a payoff. Certainly, commitment to one area may result in a hindrance of freedom to other matters, and it’s going to require some legwork no matter how sweet the rewards of the initial dedication appear. This is why it scares many of us to give of one’s self so fully to a cause, especially if the future of the time vested in the efforts is unpredictable. The future is always unpredictable though, and commitment is always a risk laden and terrifying process on some kind of sliding scale. Because when you commit, you give of yourself pieces that aren’t so easily taken back. You become one with the entity that’s taking your time, love, skills, etc. Becoming one with two bodies is impossible says the rational mind, and then it flees. The fearful mind can doubt just about anything. The things that rely on a leap of faith stand no chance in this atmosphere. 

By the time I was on the bus home that day, I was exhausted from going at a non-stop pace all day, solving issues for irate customers and selling policies left and right. But I’d given it an effort I’d never given to the job, and it was a tired satisfaction I felt. I was settled back into the hard plastic of my bus seat, and was flipping through some paperwork that had been handed out this week that my doppelganger had supposedly read through and signed my name off on, when I felt a small tap on my shoulder.

I looked up, and in front of me stood a short, pale-skinned woman with floppy bleached blonde hair. It was my ex-girlfriend Ashley, standing there in the purple faux-fur lined parka I’d bought her last year. She didn’t look murderous or tearful, both things I’d seen in her eyes the last time we’d encountered one another, and so I took this for a good sign.

“Oh hello,” I said awkwardly. “You ride the bus?”

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Day 14: Two weeks!

After lunch, we set back to it. The work was interesting, and required enough attention to detail and knowing the moment when to cut, that the rest of the day went by quickly. About an hour after I would have normally left my desk at the insurance company, Dee told me we’d resume work tomorrow, and I could go home now. I knew that people were prone to die at any time, and not just within the confines of my semi-nine to five shift, and so I knew Dee was picking up a lot of the slack of the night time hours while I took my time in adjusting to what was going to be my new work schedule for a very long time. Dee would just have to let me make it up to him when I was as seasoned in the art of expiration as he was.

I stood at the corner bus stop and waited for the bus, but it was only once I’d paid my fare and was moving away from the stop, that I realized I could have used my new form of flying transportation to get home. Oh well. I’d already paid the fare, and I’m sure I’d have plenty of time to utilize this newfound power if my car failed to turn over again tomorrow morning.

I was seated in the very back of the bus, and it was stuffed with office workers, students, and women and men on their way to second shift or from the day jobs they’d been momentarily liberated from. I was watching them look out the windows, lose themselves in their smart phone screens and laptops, or silently flick through paperback books designed to travel well on public transport. It was the most relaxing part of the day actually. I had no hurry to be home, and riding the bus made me feel more connected to the humanity I was sure I was a part of (but was no longer) just earlier this week.

As the reaper in training, would I really be coming for all of them eventually? If I had thought it was hard meeting people and making friends before, I suppose the efforts were going to be even more strained with the thought of how and when I was going to cut each of their chords lingering in the back of my mind as we exchanged pleasantries. Watching them now, I could feel all of their life force energies steadily dripping from them, and it was so blatantly visible now to me that I was surprised I didn’t see a puddle under each of them from the steady loss of life that they were spending just by existing. Furthermore, it was now obvious to me in a way that wasn’t before that some of them had small tears in their pipes and the life force they held was coming out in more than a slow drip.

A man came down the aisle, bumping me slightly as he sat down beside me and startling me out of my reverie of thoughts. I moved slightly down the seat to give him more room, and briefly made eye contact with him. As I did, I felt that strong internal shove again, and found that I was face to face with Azazal again.

“We haven’t been properly introduced,” he said, pushing me again with his too dark eyes, and extending his hand toward me, although it was gloved this time.

I tentatively touched his fingers as I met the hand as far from my body as I could for the handshake. And why was I shaking his hand? Well, even if he was a demon, I could still be polite.

“I’m sure Dee has filled your head with some kind of story concerning today’s events and our coincidental meet-up we had at the basketball game,” Azazal said, and his voice came out in thick drops of syllables, like thick honey that was turning to lumps of sugar from being left stationary for too long. It was impossible to detect what tone he was attempting; sarcastic or menacing, who knew?

“He told me that you’re a demon and you were there to eat that boy’s life so that he was left with no alternative than to forever be resigned to nothingness and an in-between of life and death,” I said, astonished at my eloquence and irritated that I was beginning to take on Dee’s superfluous way of speech.

“Well, that’s simplifying the issue a bit much, I think,” Azazel said. “Did you ever consider what kind of life these humans were living before we came upon them? There’s 14 billion people on the planet currently. Does every single one of them deserve to hit the circuit another couple of times? What about those who have cycled hundreds of times? What is yet another cycle going to give them except for another chance to become a rapist, a murderer, a thief, and the like? By taking these ‘bad seeds’ out of the picture, aren’t I doing everyone a big favor?”

As most bad guys do, Azazal had a really good point there.

Day 13: Brain Exhaustion

Let’s talk demons…and not just the personal kind. Although, that kind of demon is much worse in the excision sometimes.No. Let’s talk real-life, 100 percent factual, malicious and malevolent presences that slide into the cracks of all things deemed “normal” and routine. The goal of a demon, it’s one true calling, is to snatch what’s good and thriving and bring it down to the cancerous level; to consume it’s quality until its a husk to discard at the base level. 

And so there must be opposition to this of course. Humanity is a frail thing. True, it is full of resilience, but ultimately if often falls prey to the whims of forces mightier than it. And those forces are so very many. Therefore, opposition to the demonic forces, an ally to humanity, most come in the form of…angelic means (as far as using terms of little meaning go anyway). Angels, known also as those simply working towards the sign of right and for the unselfish motives to further existence and propagate the good, are the ones left to fight against the dark forces. Or rather darkerER forces. No one said Angels had to be of a cloth of pure white, after all.

Because, what does it mean to be angelic? Demons are easy to recognize. We see in their eyes that look that freezes us inside, and if not that, we can tell from their ill humors and behaviors that bear no hope of concealment. Yet, how to recognize an angel? Why is it that good never seems to advertise? We have to find our saviors through a wade through a seemingly homogeneous mixture of lessons and blessings. It’s tedious. Yet, oh, to find such a soul that works tirelessly to find meaning in the ash, and bring out the gems that lay hidden there. To have such a being on your side makes you wonder how you ever did acknowledge, and give precious effort, to the shades of grey between the light and the dark. 

I didn’t think I could feel more morose after my first day on the job with Dee, but now it was day two and I felt such a languid melancholy in my bones that dragging myself alongside him to find some distraction in the way of lunchtime offerings seemed the most oppressive task of all. Dee probably thought himself gracious in allowing me to choose our eatery, but it felt to me just another deferred decision. I didn’t even feel that my judgement was worthy of this small matter in the state my brain wallowed in currently. It was actually even more pathetic than if I had been just a normal guy who had no appetite. I was a demi-god who could travel anywhere in the known world to find any kind of food known to man to quench my grief, and I didn’t even know which direction to turn first.

With such great power, I decided that since fast food was going to give me a solid weight of guilt in addition to digestion woes, we could go one step up with the relative comfort food of the family friendly chain restaurant.

We were seated in the back of the restaurant, under a street sign that said “If you parked here, you’re toad!” with a picture of a cartoonish witch directly below the text. There was also a bicycle tire on the wall, and a movie poster from the Wizard of Oz. I could tell they were trying for a loose theme here in the corner near the restrooms.

Our hostess left us with menus, and then disappeared. We had missed the middday crowd, and so the restaurant was in the state of calm before the storm that was the dinner crowd. Dee and I looked across the table in our separate booth seating, and I shook my head with disbelief that I was dining with Death in such ironic scenery.

Dee smiled, in the usual light mood he carried, and rolled his eyes at the broomstick they’d suspended overhead our corner seat.

“Well, at least it should be easier for you to believe me when I reiterate that we aren’t the bad guys in this,” he said.

“Yeah. I would have never imagined that the grim reaper was the knight in shining armor to the dying, but that long-legged guy is definitely got a much creepier thing going on that you do…no offense,” I added as our server approached, and we ordered both drinks and our meals in one go of things.

“Undoubtedly more creepy,” Dee said when the server had left. “It’s because he’s a fallen angel, and has had the whole of time to perfect his sinister look.”

A fallen angel, eh? That was a new one, I thought.

“No need to get skeptical now, Jorge,” Dee said. “If there are demons like Azazal to contend with, it’s only logical to have angels there for him to go up against in his efforts to offer sweeping damnation to the world at large.”

“And so we are angels?”

“Sure,” Dee said, thanking the middle aged waiter who brought our drinks along. “That’s a good term for what we do. We take the souls of the dying into ourselves, offering them a safe location to be stored until they move to another cycle or place where salvation might be possible on the next ending, and then we release them to where they would best thrive or at least learn something this go around.”

Put this way, it did seem that we were providing a valuable service to the ones we were cutting chords on. I’m sure they didn’t see it as all too charitable an endeavor since they had to lose their life to move on to the next realm, but I was beginning to see things in a relative way of thinking.

“So, I’m guessing this Azazal dude is not so sincere in his purposes for trying to wrestle the necklaces from us?”

“You guess correctly,” Dee said. “If we are offering a sort of absolution to find meaning, satisfaction, and enlightenment with the human life after however many tries it takes to find these things, then Azazal and his kind are working to take these opportunities away. Thus, leaving the dead no other alternative than damnation; another word for soulless non-existence.”

Our server had returned, and so we paused, not even very dramatically, as he placed a burger and heap of fries in front of me and a grilled piece of salmon and brown rice in front of Dee. Once the server had left, Dee stabbed a fork into his salmon with a twinge of an emotion I’d never seen on Dee’s face; annoyance.

“Couldn’t have picked somewhere near the coast, could you?” he asked, disdainfully bringing a portion of the filet to his lips.

I was going to snap back something at him about picking the restaurant himself if he was going to be picky, but I heard a glimpse of something just behind his lips. It was a weary sort of dissatisfaction thing that he couldn’t put into words, but it was there all the same. I thought about how Death had been doing the Death job for eternity, and how much of a bummer that was, especially with someone like tall, dark and freaky Azazal on your heels the whole time.

“So how often does a demon steal a soul out from under us? And what do they do with them anyway when they get them…besides throw their true owners into a lake of fire or whatever?” I asked, determined to make the most of my fried potato fare, as I brought one to my mouth.

“Well, no matter how organized this all may seem to a newcomer, as you currently are, there are some flaws.”

I didn’t even smile as he said this, although the urge to shout “a-ha!” at him was overwhelming.

“I don’t exactly have a way of knowing who is going to bite the dust during the day besides the vague dreams at night that I also experience and the inklings I get in the process of collection that sometimes direct me to the next destination. And so, when a demon gets a soul before I do, I can tell I’ve lost something, but I don’t get to know what it was or its potential was. It sets back the process of actualizing existence as well, as you may well guess.

“And as far as what the demons do with the souls they get…well, they do what we do. They ingest them into themselves. But whereas we digest the life and seek to find it a home beyond us, the demons sit upon the soul inside them, tear at it, take every bit of nutrient from it, and leave what’s left to a bardo of limbo that even I have no idea where it manifests.”

Why did we keep trying to have these awful soul-sucking conversations over food times, I wondered? Not even fried potatoes could taste good with news that demons were a more real and more dangerous form than any vampire or monster ever cooked up could be. I didn’t want to ask any more questions, and Dee looked so tired that I felt bad in asking him anything more than how his food tasted. We finished our late lunch in silence.

Day 12: Let’s introduce the real antagonist

Dee and I flew high above the day in progress for the world far below. We touched down just outside a high school gymnasium during what looked like the middle of a basketball game between two different school teams. As we stepped inside, there were clusters of parents and supporters lining the rows of the bleachers on each side of the court, and it was to this that Dee gestured we take a seat.

“Remember that ‘other guy’ I was telling you about,” Dee said, leaning forward as though intent on the player that was now dribbling the basketball down the length of the court, having wrestled its control from the opposition.

I nodded, following the player with my own eyes.

“Well, he’s here,” Dee said.

“Where?”

“I don’t see him yet, but I know what it feels like when he’s nearby,” he said.

I couldn’t see that the atmosphere felt that much different from what would normally be in the air at a high school sports rivalry. There was an excitement of being so near to so many warm and thrumming bodies, even if there was no actual interest in the game itself that was being played out before us. There was tension too to have so many bodies crowded into a confining space. There was unpredictability in situations like this, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for anyone who’d ever been in a situation where there was a large group of people. But Dee wasn’t one to exaggerate (well…much) and so I didn’t think all these normal mores of the scene were what he was referencing.

There was a flicker of movement on the opposite side of the court, towards the top of the bleachers, that drew my attention. I looked up there, and felt something like recognition as I looked upon the woman who sat high above the gymnasium scene, the game, and everything she seemed deigned to look down upon. She looked directly across and into my eyes, smiling in a small way that felt like a hard shove against my chest.

Dee followed my gaze, and his look soured.

“Yes. That’s him,” Dee said, nodding towards the woman.

“Him?” I asked perplexed as the woman crossed her legs, gently folding her navy dress around the tops of her thighs in an easy flirtatious way.

He peered closer, and then nodded. “Oh right, I forgot,” he said. “Until you know better, he tends to appear in such a way that it’s hard to ignore him, and easy to be attracted. I’m guessing you’re seeing a rather fetching lady or some sort of strychnine sweet cherub-like child’s face, right?”

“I see a woman. And she’s looking right at us.”

“If she’s looking at us, and acting like she truly sees us right now, then it’s most likely our man. Try to look past her, just over the shoulder perhaps, and then tell me what you see.”

I did as Dee instructed, looking just over her shoulder, past her now gleaming smile as she adjusted her legs again and the dress crept higher. She lightly turned her head to follow my gaze beyond her, and then when her head swiveled back my way, the appearance had changed. She was indeed a he, a man with thin and pointed features, a body like pulled taffy with limbs stretched out from him in seemingly painful proportions. There was a lean hungry look to all of him like he could eat and eat, but never get satisfied.

“Azazal,” Dee said. “That’s our demon counterpart in the work we do. He’s here to get to our charge before we can. Let’s move…now”

He said this as he was already moving, lightly pushing me from the bleachers and down to the court, pointing for us to make our way to the bench on the gymnasium’s opposite side where there was a lone player sitting. The thin rail of a man was also moving now, taking the bleachers a row at a time to reach the bottom. His eyes never left me, their tunnel hollowness pushing on me with a slight but uncomfortable pressure that I knew now was the feeling Dee had been talking about.

As we crossed the court, I managed to just slip ahead of Dee and was therefore allowed to make my way across the court before the two teams came running back in front of us. Dee was not so lucky, and was caught on the opposite side as the teams formed a running line to block his way. No one was paying us any mind in being on the court with the other players. Only the thin man could see us, and he had managed to slip through the teams as well, close behind me. Dee waved me onward, pointing to the young, player by the bench whom was now standing, readying himself to take to the court.

I jogged to his side, and fumbled around his collar to find the chord. I pulled it from beneath his basketball jersey, and then patted my pockets for the blade to cut it. But they were empty.The player, ignoring me pawing at his neckline, was now moving away from me and out of my grasp to take his place on the court as a substitution was made. Dee had managed to get through the line of players at this point and quickly rushed to my side, pressing the blade into my palm and shoving me onto the court after the player. The young man, sweating slightly in the stifle of the gym, was already shadowed closely by the man whom Dee had called Azazal.

He had in his hands a blade similar to ours, but it was a thicker slice of crescent, and it had serrated teeth. This didn’t make any sense to me. The chords around the dying’s necklines always broke away easily when the blade touched them, there wasn’t any sawing motion required to loose them.

The player dodged and bobbed, and Azazal as well as I were both struggling to catch up with him as he received possession of the ball and proceeded to take it back the length of the court to his team’s basket. As the boy paused, lifted his arm to take the shot, and flicked the ball in the direction of the basket, Azazal leapt forward and hooked a lank arm around his neck, wrenching up the necklace and beginning to saw. The chord was providing resistance, and Azazal was forced to bear down even harder. I could hear the necklace fighting his saw-teeth, and I rushed to throw my own arm around the youth, inadvertantly locking arms with the demon behind the boy’s back.

Azazal flinched hard as I touched him as though a current of electricity was in my skin. I knocked his hand out of the way from the chord with the hand that held my scythe, and then I grasped harder at his arm behind the boy’s back. Azazal spat a curse and shied away from my touch, losing grip with the boy, and falling against the court as our player moved to make the rebound shot. I pushed the scythe under the necklace again, and barely had to pull before the bright chord snapped and the silver snaked downward, under the jersey and hit the court; touching down just one moment before the boy himself hit the ground, a player’s elbow connecting with magnificent force with the boy’s temple.

For a moment, all seemed still. The players on the court stopped their running and attempts to score points. The player that had connected with the boy who now lay on the ground, reeled away towards the sidelines. The crowd was hushed into a semi-silence of murmurs. The only thing that moved was the demon Azazel, crab-crawling from where my touch had knocked him back against the ground, towards the necklace that was puddled in a broken loop on the polished hardwood floor.

I bent to get to the necklace before he could, but another hand beat me there, gently pushing mine aside. Dee scratched against the floor with his nails to get at the necklace, and closed it within his palm. Azazel was undeterred that Dee had gotten the necklace first and still crawled towards us, finding his footing and standing to walk forward.

“Cut it in half,” Dee said to me, pushing the chord into my palm.

I didn’t ask questions. We were being crowded in by the coach, a parent, and several players that had gathered around the boy on the floor, gently tapping his face and calling his name as he lay still. I put the chord between my fingers and used the blade to snap it in half. Dee removed half from my palm and rushed it to his mouth, using his other hand to push my palm up to my mouth so that I could ingest the other half.

And as we ingested this chord, Azazal made one last desperate leap at us, and was able to lay a claw-like hand on my wrist before I swallowed my mouthful. Once it had hit my throat, burning and twisting in a new and unpleasant way, Azazal pulled back his hand from me again, and I saw that his fingers had shiny red burns upon them this time. Dee, at my side, nodded in a satisfied way. The boy on the floor had stopped all movement now. Azazal gave a piercing shove of a look at us both, and then took several long loping strides away until he rounded a corner and was gone.

I tried to appreciate what had just happened. Looking down at the boy on the floor and the now hysterical parent that was rubbing at his arms and legs, I tried to feel some sadness for them. My confusion was too great. I couldn’t imagine anyone or thing wanting to do what we did if they didn’t have to, and especially if their tools didn’t cooperate towards the end. And so what was this Azazel thing, and why did it want the souls we were out to collect?

Dee was tuned in to my frequency of confusion.

“Let’s take a lunch break, and I’ll explain Azazel. As you may have guessed, it’s another complication in our line of work.”

We weaved and dodged out of the crowd around the boy, and I wondered if we were the good guys who took the soul for the benefit of its owner, then how much worse could the theft of the soul for other purposes be?

Much worse.

Day 11: National Singles Day…thought you should know

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.