Day 29: This Is It…Thank you everyone so much for reading. <3

It had come to this. Azazal was here to take her. Dee was here to stop him by attempting to take her first. And I was here in the middle of it all, as only a witness to what would be. As if in response to my thoughts, there appeared a golden chord around my mother’s neck now, winking merrily in the suspension of all motion.

Everything was still for the moment. I kept one eye on Azazal, prepared to throw myself at him if he took a single step. I allowed my other eye to find Dee and piece him with a gaze, similarly rooting him with this I hoped as I attempted to buy time.

Dee was looking at Azazal as he directed his words to me: “She dies instantly on impact. No pain at all,” he said.

“The other car is going to pass almost completely through your mother’s car. You are thrown free of the vehicle. It will be the one in a million chance where not wearing a seatbelt actually saves your life…if you could die this way that is. The woman in the car will lose her leg. Her child in the back seat will be safe…this time,” he finished, still standing still on that side of the road.

Another voice spoke, this one from the opposite side of the road: “Your mother had an abortion two cycles prior to this one. I was not able to get her that time and take her out of the rotation, but I can this time.”

Azazal continued: “Unless that is you would like to consider my offer I made before. Still on the table…” he finished in sing song tone.

I looked through the broken glass of the window I had just crawled through at my mother sitting there. She’d never looked so frail as she did now. She could protest that she still felt vital and willing to undergo the fight that was ahead, but I wondered if a quick end of certainty was better than a long struggle that might very well end in the same place after much pain between now and then. But it was not my life, and therefore not my choice to keep her here. Just as Azazal had no right to choose to keep someone from life because of past mistakes or future probabilities.

“As long as I am able to hold you off, and keep you from taking even the most vile of criminals, hardened with not a shred of remorse in their current shell, I will. They deserve the freedom to their journey and the choice to make decisions that validate the entire process of existence. Is there is no choice to any of it, and it’s decided by some smiling god or demon, then what would be the point of existence at all?”

As I said it, it felt like something internally had slid into place. I’m not sure where exactly or what the thing was, but it felt like the outline on the puzzle Dee and I had been trying to solve since the beginning of time and being itself.

Azazal made a raspberry sounding noise.

“Fine answer to a question that no one ever asked,” he said. “Good luck solving existence in this cycle. Although I guess I can’t blame you for sounding like a first year philosophy student when you’ve got a crumbling old professor that’s been giving you lessons.”

He jerked a thumb at Dee, and I slid my eyes from Azazal to fully rest on Dee. Dee was carrying the weight of all the emotions. His look was tragic for my mother’s loss. His look was jubilant because he knew as well as I did that we’d found a clue to solving our puzzle of why the living lived. And he was terrified because he realized, at the same time that I did, that the moment I had allowed my eyes to slide from Azazal, had given him a moment of opportunity to uproot himself from the prison of my gaze and transport himself to my mother’s side of the car.

Before I could fling myself at him, he had already reached through the closed window glass as if it were merely surface tension on a puddle. He hooked a finger in claw-like fashion beneath her necklace and pulled it up so that the knock-off scythe he carried in his other hand could accept its bounty. The blade was through the window and against the chord at her throat.

I knew, more than I’d known anything, feeling it to the very deep center that was what I called “me,” that it was too late for me to save her from Azazal’s blade. But, by George, I could still try and make Azazal regret cutting this chord. I rolled across the hood of the car, and threw myself upon Azazal’s back as he yanked his blade hard against her chord, a move that should have snapped it cleanly by all accounts.

But it didn’t.

Azazal screamed in frustration, and in pain as my hands burned every inch of skin of his that I was clinging and tearing into with my own numb and throbbing palms and fingertips. I would have continued to rip at him until he was burned alive or whatever it was I could do with the fiery pain I inflicted upon him in this way, but Dee said very clearly, in a strange sort of tone I’d never heard before: “No.”

The tone of the single word stopped me in my fury. Azazal was stopped too in his effort to cut and devour the chord around my mother’s neck, but his halt came more from the fact that there was no longer a chord around her neck which to cut.

Nothing else had changed. The cars were still in the process of dismantling one another. My mother’s form was still steeled as she braced herself against the impact. The woman in the other car was still gripping the wheel with knuckles displaying hard white caps upon them. Yet, there was no longer any golden chord here to cut on any of these necks. There was no death here at this scene.

Dee hadn’t moved from the other side of the road. He still stood there, the wind slightly fanning out his trenchcoat from the back of his thighs. Above his head, he held in his clenched fist a gleaming chord of a color so gold, bright and clean of impurities that it made the scene of the car crash dim in its horrible too real colors that had been the competition for all eyes.

It was not the chord I had seen about my Mamma’s neck. The chord he held was not one so easily snapped. It was not merely a single strand, but a layering of chords that created a necklace as thick as the width of my thumb. This was Dee’s life strand. Maybe I’d never noticed it because it never had glowed before like this.

“She wants to stay and fight. She’s not done yet, and I think her fight will help give our work perspective for you. It could even help the conundrum of existence you are starting to tap into,” Dee said, still holding the chord up. “I’m using my final pass for her. She’s earned it. And you have too, Jorge.”

I still had hold of Azazal’s collar, but released it at Dee’s words, and took the weak-kneed steps it took to get to him.

“You’re giving up your final pass to save her life? I’m grateful, Dee. But are you sure? What if we meet someone who needs it more?”

I couldn’t believe I was saying this, but I didn’t want Dee feeling like he had to use his one precious last pass for someone already knocking on his door.

“Not in this lifetime, I won’t,” he said, and pulled his scythe out.

The one he had given me was nice, and served its purpose, but it was nothing compared with the sharp, gleaming specimen that Death’s scythe was. He put the blade against the knot of chords that was his multiple lives; all thousand years of them, but he did not cut them. The scythe and the chord disappeared in his grip and reappeared in mine.

“You’re cycling, already?” I said. “But where is your new form going?”

“Already?” he said with a laugh. “It’s been a thousand years, buddy. I’m due for a break, and I finally feel that you are capable enough to hold down the position until I return. I’ve already taken care of my new form. Sheena’s not going to be exceptionally thrilled that I have disappeared when the takes the pregnancy test later this month, but I’m hoping my tragic death in this car accident that happened while I was picking up your aged mother for you will be enough of a hero’s death to ease her ire. Besides, I’m not leaving her really.”

“This is too much,” I said. “I’m not ready to be you. There’s more I’ve got to learn right? Powers and stuff?”

“I agree,” Azazal broke in. “He’ll never be ready to take over. And also, this scene is too much. Give me the chord, Lord Death. I’ll cut it, and hold your place until you return with a level of dignity that he certainly won’t provide.”

Dee ignored him.

“You’re ready, Jorge. As soon as you cut my chain, all the memories return to you. All the powers will be transferred. You will be, for all intents and purposes, the picture of Death that you imagine me to be. Take care of your mother, Jorge, and I’ll see you in about 30 years.”

Azazal was not one for being ignored. He began to move towards Dee and I, and I knew hesitation was no longer an option. I didn’t break eye contact with Dee’s smiling face as I sliced his chord with the scythe, the blade cutting through it as though it were warmed butter.

Azazal howled with fury in a rage so ferocious that he disappeared on the spot; no longer willing to be party to his own defeat. Dee was as still as marble, with a smile so content that I had no trouble in my second motion to push his hunk of chord into my mouth.

I could feel the individual chains between my tongue as I chewed. They lightly dissolved into a mixture of sweet, sour, bitter, savory, and chalky tastes that were only there briefly before the chord was gone. Dee took the vaporous route, vanishing into a cloud of smoke that blew away his features until only his smile lingered. Then, it too was gone.

There a tiny beat of silence as I looked into the space where he had once stood and saw only dead winter grass on a roadside, and then there was a wall of sound that scraped the very soul as the cars behind me resumed their crash.

There was twisting metal, and screams from both cars. I knew that my mother would survive it. I knew the woman in the other car would only lose a leg and not a child. I knew the driver of my mother’s car would be pronounced DOA once the paramedics and the rest of the emergency workers showed up. But in the midst of life, there was a death, and I felt it inside of me, making me stronger and into the things that had made Dee so strong and worthy of not only respect, but fear.

I turned away, and turned inside myself, and as the world moved on at its own resumed pace, I helped Dee move along to his next place.

I remember…I think I remember as everything swirls around me in colors I have no words for. I remember when there was a different kind of death for me. We laid out on rooftops as the last embers of a dying sun faded below the red-glowing horizon. He was with me to the end. He always is. Angst ridden thoughts dissipate as the amorism of the dark night takes hold in the pits of our hearts. We are neither slaves nor employed servants; we are only free in love, light and laughter. It is love, light and laughter, however that we employ as weapons in the wards of the daytime. By these weapons and creeds, shall we live to fight, resting not before every heart is free and every shackle broken.

Today was beautiful. I had had many beautiful days with my mother since Dee had given her a pass on the car crash, and sent us with a fighting chance into the battle with her invisible cancerous foe. We had been given the chance to fight over lunch options almost everyday. We had been able to tell each other goodnight as we retired to our separate rooms in the house every single night. (Although I didn’t sleep anymore with my full schedule) We had been able to spoil Orpheus together with canned food, a revolving door of toy options, treats and cat nip dustings that we gave him together. We’d been able to cry together when there had been those bad days I’d fantasized about before it all truly began.  Today included none of these yet, but was especially beautiful.

Mamma was tired, thinner, and the thick black onyx hair she had prized her entire life was almost gone (what was left of it hidden beneath a red hat she’d recently taken to wearing). This was true. But she was alive, and on the other side of her last chemotherapy treatment for a long while; perhaps forever if the cancer did not return.

She had a lunch date with her group of friends she had met at the hospital in a class for those fighting cancer. I had taken her to a deli where the back patio overlooked the beach, and she’d waved lightly as she went to join the older ladies already assembled at a table and awaiting her arrival. The laughter from the group started before I could even leave the patio deck.

While she dined, I returned to the hospital to attend to my other joy that today had brought.

Landing, I walked, slowly up to the hospital, enjoying the heat and the light breeze that New Jersey offered today. I was wearing all black, and had adopted a black trenchcoat into my attire that no amount of maternal nagging or summer heat could make me discard. When people saw me, they might have thought my attire odd, but people didn’t see me very often. I was thinner, and had grown somewhat more attractive with my self imposed air of mystery, and I was happy. If anyone from my former life saw me, they wouldn’t recognize me with these changes that had flourished since Dee’s absence.

Dee was right when he said I could have a life, any life I wanted, and still fulfill the role that was required of me as Death’s assistant, and as Death himself when he was away I had come to find out. I was living, and loving every moment of it. I was free of the bonds of what everyone thought was required to survive, and with the ferrying of souls to their new existence I was finally begining to consider what it meant to be alive.

Sometimes I visited Jersey on my rounds, and I saw how the world kept moving without me there in that small sphere of existence those people knew. Sometimes I even had moments of nostalgia for the person I had been in my small apartment, with a normal job, and that life I’d accepted then. But a return to that time was not an option I allowed myself to entertain, and I was not sad about it. I still had coffee every morning in the cafe Dee and I had shared, but my relationship with the barista Sheena was different now that our shared connection was somewhat severed.

But we had a new connection now, and I’d been dubbed godfather to the new addition to both our lives that lay swaddled, pink faced and fragilely sleeping in the bassinet in Sheena’s room in the maternity ward.

I looked at the baby lying there, and took in the small features that my new friend had adopted. Because the baby would take Sheena’s last name, Sheena said she wanted to pay tribute to “the father” as well when naming the baby. She had known Dee as Dennis, and so the small index card on the bassinet read “Dennis Sharron.”

It seemed to fit him already. I could dig it.

“Go on,” Sheena said, adjusting herself in the bed, and gratefully accepting the box of chocolates I’d brought her, and the stuffed giraffe I’d brought Dennis. “I know you want to hold him.”

It was true. I did. I leaned down and scooped my employer and best friend for all eternity into my arms. As I did, I remembered how he had done the same for me multiple times and I for him as we had cycled the many times before.

Dennis woke up with a fussy grunt, but didn’t cry as I held him against my chest and gently rubbed his back that was only the size of a small shoebox. He was warm, and healthy, and so new it was hard not to get excited just that he was real. Sheena smiled at us, as she chewed slowly on a chocolate.

I brought my lips to Dennis’s ear, and said so low that only he could hear, “Enjoy the holiday, buddy. It’ll be no time before you’re back on the clock…and then we’ll really tear up the town.”

Dennis cooed at my voice in his ear. Sheena had caught the lilting musical quality of my words if not the words themselves and laughed as she said: “He already loves your lullabies.”

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Day 27 and 28

Reaching the end now. Everything comes in a rush. The careful planning is now falling away and we are left with what there is and always would have been. Maybe it took all the time in the world, and maybe it was just a few moments from a then to now. Either way, it all seems too soon and happens too quickly for the experience to have the appreciation of all the parts meshing together. Live through it and you could look back and analyse all the eccentricities that came together to pull that final chord that makes the complex looking knot fall away to reveal its true nature; a essence of nothingness. But you won’t…live through this, that is. You’re caught up in the dance already, and your feet are carrying you away. You may not know the steps to this one number, but you’re managing just fine and no one would have guessed you hadn’t planned for this your whole life.

Dee and I finished up our coffee and lunch just as Orpheus was getting feisty in his carrier. I told Dee we’d start the day’s work after I dropped Orpheus and Mamma off at the house and got them settled. We’d do a time thing and make up for the lost hours, and we’d still manage to get him to his date tonight as well. The time line progression of our day didn’t make much sense, even in the broad strokes we painted, but it always seemed to work out so there was no reason to question the system.

I gathered myself together and took the whirlwind express back to Florida. As we touched down, Orpheus had decided enough was enough, and the windy trip I’d just given him was the last straw. He positively yowled within his carrier, and nicked my finger with his claws as I attempted to unzip his prison. Once the flap was open, he barrelled out of the carrier onto my mother’s living room carpet, and then froze, sniffed hard, and realized instantly that he wasn’t in Jersey anymore.

I pulled his toys out of my gym bag and scattered them randomly around the room. I borrowed a flower patterned bowl from my mother’s kitchen cabinet and filled it with his kibble, setting down a bowl of water beside this. I poured an amount of kitty litter I’d brought into a washtub I found in the laundry room.

“Voila!” I said, standing back from the tub. “You’re home, Orphie!”

He was hiding under the dining room table, and threw me a look of disgust.

“Well, yeah, I took things this way too when I started the journey,” I said, sympathetically to him.

As I returned to the kitchen to fix myself a glass of water, the phone rang. I caught it on the third ring.

“Hello.”

“Hello, dear. I’m all ready to go. Doctor says you can take me home,” Mamma said on the other end of the line.

“Great. Should I come to your room?”

“No. They will wheel me to the lobby. Just pick me up outside. I’ll see you soon, dear.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too, Angel.”

I hadn’t slept in about 48 hours, but I didn’t feel exhausted or as tired as I ever had in days when I thought sleep was a valuable need to my human functioning. I felt like if Iaid down and closed my eyes, told my consiousness to shut down for a little bit, then I would sleep in the sense of the word I was familiar with from days “pre-Dee.” But it didn’t feel neccessary or brain cleansing in the way that sleep had felt when I thought it was a cure-all to most everything in days that were, again, pre-Dee. Out of habit though, I made myself a cup of coffee in Mamma’s single cup brewer, and poured it into a to-go cup from her cabinet so that I could take it with me for the drive over to the hospital.

I tried reaching for Orpheus under the table to give him a pet before I left, but he hissed and took a swipe at me. That’s all the rejection I needed. I dusted my knees off as I stood again, and picked up my coffee from the table above him. I grabbed my Mamma’s keys off the wooden key holder by the door that I’d made in some summer camp endeavor in my grade school years. The front of it was smeared with a thick layer of dried glue that held a leaf under the coat, trapping this small thing forever in a state of preserved death where it was not allowed to decay and, once cut from the mother tree, could not continue living. Hell of a perspective I’ve gained, I thought. Only a month before, I’d saw the memento of my youth and thought it a cute attempt at art, although perhaps a little kitchy.

My Mamma’s car was a small burgundy Taurus that was suited to her small stature. It was a newer model that she’d purchased only about four years ago when she’d moved down here. I squeezed into the front seat that she’d adjusted as far as it would go forward. It felt as though my heels were pressed into the back of my thighs for a long minute until I found the side lever that allowed the seat to clunk metallically back a few notches. Another quick fiddling with a button that whirred an internal motor within the seat and the seat was lowered so that my head was not scraping along the top of the car’s interior. I adjusted the mirrors, and only then did I crank the car.

I hadn’t driven a car in almost a week, and I realized now that I actually felt a little nervous about it. By any stretch of the imagination, I was not the world’s best driver. And driving a car that was less than ten years old made me anxious that I’d suddenly forget the basics of roadway procedure in the face of updated technology. Driving much like the old lady that actually owned this car, I gave a blinker signal to the empty neighbourhood street, looked both ways, and pulled out onto the roadway.

I had eased up a little on the drive over, and so when I pulled into the hospital parking lot, it was with a smooth turn of the wheel. I manoeuvred through the lots, and past the emergency room entrance to the main doors of the hospital where I had appeared earlier today. Just the short drive over made me appreciate how much I was not going to miss having to drive and dodge to get practically anywhere I wanted to go. Being Death had its perks, I guess.

I had only just put the car into park in the covered drive-thru of the hospital’s pickup and drop off area when the automatic doors opened and Mamma was pushed out through them by a young girl. The girl had a white collared t-shirt on that had the Red Cross logo stitched into its upper left breast pocket area, the words “Junior Volunteer” sewed neatly below it. Both their mouths were moving as Mamma and the girl were talking up a storm as the girl pushed her along. As I opened my car door to help Mamma make the transition from wheelchair to car, Mamma stopped mid sentence and said to the girl:

“This is my son, Jorge. He lives in New Jersey. He’s come all the way here to pick me up and take care of me. Not all sons would do that for a mother, but I’m sure you’d be there for your mother and father in their time of need. You seem like a good girl.”

And then to me: “Jorge, this is Ana. She’s from Springhill, and she’s going to go to school to be a pediatrician.”

I grabbed on to one of Mamma’s arm and looped my other arm around her back to guide her into the passenger’s seat while saying to the girl who steadied the wheelchair, “Ah, well, isn’t that nice?”

Mamma was settled into the seat and putting her seatbelt on, Ana was unlocking the brakes on the wheelchair, and I was getting ready to shut the passenger door when Mamma put her hand out to stop me.

“Jorge…Ana brought me out all this way, and has talked to me the whole time we were waiting. Wasn’t that nice of her?” she said, meaningfully cocking her head at me.

“Um…yeah. Thanks Ana,” I said to the girl, as we both stood awkwardly apart from one another.

“Ana’s got a scholarship to go to the University of Florida, but she’s paying for her books and dorm room all on her own,” Mamma said, and there was another meaningful look to me.

Ah, I thought. I had thought my mother was just making the overexagerated slow small talk of the elderly, but she was trying to give me a hint in her Hispanic way that left no room for subtly. I dug out my wallet, and found that there were no singles, but I did have a $5. Oh well. Money was near useless to me now anyway. I handed over the bill to the young woman.

“Hope this helps,” I said.

“Thank-you,” she said with a smile, folding the bill into a few quick halves and palming it while she clattered back towards the hospital with the wheelchair. At the door, she waved and smiled to Mamma, and it was only then that Mamma would allow me to shut the door on her.

I walked around to the driver’s side, and ducked in.

Mamma laughed and shook her head.

“I did not think you were going to catch on,” she said, smiling at me and pinched my shoulder playfully.

“I didn’t either. I had no idea what you were wanting me to say,” I said with my own chuckle.

I pulled the gear shift into drive, and we pulled slowly out of the carport area.

“Are you hungry?” I asked, as she fiddled with her purse at her feet.

“No, they fed me lunch at noon. I’m just ready to get home, and get into some real clothes,” she said, plucking at the gown she was wearing underneath the coat she had on. “Have you eaten?”

“Yeah, I…”

But I wasn’t allowed to finish that thought. All at once there was a tremendous push, my whole body felt shoved for all it was worth, and all the metal around us in the car became simultaneously very thin and flimsy and alternately very sharp and dangerous.

There must have been sound as the car that had been barreling around the corner struck ours in textbook definition t-bone style and proceeded to keep on going all the way through what I thought was very obvious solid car material. I heard no sound though, not even my own shocked inhalation and noise of distress that I knew I was making. My head was buzzing too loud.

My thoughts stacked upon one another, but all their small sum integers added up to the same conclusion. This could simply not be happening. I had finally worked everything out in my head and reconciled myself to being in Death’s line of work. I had gotten everything lined up in such a way that I felt secure again with the turmolt necessary to turn my life from that of ordinary insurance agent nobody to caretaker of mother and cat nobody status. I had even guiltily indulged in daydreams of bringing Mamma meals in bed when she was losing clumps hair to chemotherapy treatments. I had planned, actually worked it all out in my head, how I would respond on one of Mamma’s “bad days” that I anticipated when pain management was not all too manageable. And now there was this to shatter every single anticipation.

I was still trying to control my life. As futile a process as I had learned that was, I had unconsciously fallen into it again, and so that was the first pain I felt as the vehicle collided with my mother’s car.

Even as an immortal badass that cut people’s life off with a fancy pair of cutters, I was still subject to fate and its whims. We all were.

With everything in a state of suspended motion as my brain looped on a circuit of panic and fascination, I watched as the car door to my left began to cave in. As soon as my brain could process all this, it would be too late, and the car and us inside it would be crumpled up like an empty Coke can. I was waiting for the car that hit us to tear into me, and end the fragile hold I’d attempted to theoretically get on everything before this.

But everything remained frozen, and I found that I could move as I pushed through my paralysis of fear. Had I stopped time like Dee had done for us before? Nothing seemed to be progressing, and so I assumed this was the case whether I was aware of using this power or not.

I reached out and touched my mother’s outstretched hand, held up across my chest as though she was going to keep me in my seat during this crash with just this frail limb of hers. Her eyes were shut against the noise and pain that the wreck was trying to impose. I gently touched her face, but she was still and did not acknowledge my touch.

I tried to unlock her door, intending to shove us both out while the time was stopped, but the lock was stuck fast, and the door handle, and my mother. Nothing was allowed to move in this state except me it seems. I had been touching the steering wheel when the time quit working, and so I could still move this, but it did little good. The car had already been hit and there was no steering away from this whichever way I turned.

The glass had broken in my window, and its fragments were halfway towards the ground, allowing me to push myself up from my seat and squeeze out of this opening of the car. I grabbed the frame of the window as I pulled myself out, and expected myself to be cut by the shards remaining around the window’s rim. They exerted a pressure not unlike Orpheus’s nails on my palm, but they did not pierce me and there was no pain. That was my first clue that I was going to be able to survive things that humans simply didn’t until my cycle time came again.

Falling onto the road beside my mother’s car, and the car that was currently destroying it, I wondered if my inability to feel death would give me any powers of strength as well. I tested this theory with a hearty shove of the vehicle that was intersecting the Taurus, but either I was still as weak as ever or the freezing of time was stronger than anything I could muster. At any rate, all this pushing allowed was for me to break a sweat, staring with a rage building into the face of the woman who was driving the other car.

She was a middle-aged woman, common enough looking, who was going too fast to stop in what I assume was an attempt to get her passenger, a small boy of about three-years of age, to the hospital. He looked a little feverish, but not in the kind of way that I felt justified her speed in careening into us. The mother in the driver’s seat had a panicked face that was frozen in its turn to terror as she realized her error in making too much haste to get her child to supposed safety. I was trying to get angry at all this for happening, but her face showed her as one to be pitied and perhaps forgiven. Who knows what was going to happen to all of us when time started up again?

Oh. He does. I thought, giving up on pushing the car and looking to the grassy side of the road where a figure stood in silent contemplation of me. There stood Dee, and if he was here, then surely one of these occupants of the two cars before me had reached the end of the road. Perhaps they all had. And then I noticed another figure on the opposite side of the road from Dee. There was Azazal.

And then I didn’t have to wonder, because I knew that at least one of the deaths in today’s crash would be my Mamma. The whole of Death Inc. had turned out to see the show.

Day 26: Gonna Write All The Words Today!

We all want to know what’s going to happen next. We flip to the back of the book to see how many pages are left before we reach an ending. Some go so far to read the ending paragraph in hopes that there’s a clarity there for them that comes without the work of paging through the plot progression. Yet, anyone who’s waited out anything knows that there is no rushing the future. An ending can not be put down in a datebook and anticipated. If it could be so, there’d be no dodging it, and it would still be a hurdle you could only imagine how to leap over. The actual event would still be future tense, and still as uninterested in your anxiety over how it will glide into reality.

Even when you know something will end, the molding of the way an end becomes itself is slick as wet clay on a potter’s wheel. Its shape will be undefined; the lines will not form until the piece is dry and finished. This will not happen until the air around it deems that it has taken adequate measure of moisture in forming the piece. Try to accelerate the process with hot air; you’re only wasting breath.

I hate to give away the answer when so much comes from the process of seeking, but perhaps this is a hint that won’t mar the big reveal. Your worry and woe over the things unknown and looming comes down to one small burr that is not easily released, but in doing so will lighten all loads. You want control. But you might do better to learn to let it go. A desire to control your world, your future, the actions of others, and a combination of the glue that holds all things together is valiant in attempts to influence your end, but ultimately futile. I’m here to remind you that you will leave this life as naked as you came into it. There will be no wife and children to accompany you, no new business suit, or mansion estate. Yet, also there will be no loan payments, no feeling of malaise from a long illness that is as strong as it is microscopic, and no worry about an ending: it will have arrived.

After another hour and a half of hearing about Dr. Clem and his similarities and shortcomings as compared with my father, I kissed Mamma and told her I needed to make some calls, but I’d come back to take her home when she got the official release papers. She had the crossword out and a quarter of the way towards completion, and so she happily nodded and tapped the phone on her bedside in acknowledgement of calling when said event would occur.

I left the hospital and almost immediately swept myself to my apartment in Jersey. The process of traveling in this way was getting much easier, and almost as unconscious as the lull a long drive would produce on the seasoned driver. Listening to Mamma talk about her doctor this morning, I had decided that I would return to the apartment and and grab what things I “couldn’t live without,” and leave the rest to whomever wanted the things and the apartment itself. In this way, I would make my disappearance from the mortal world and my full immersion in the role of Death’s assistant and caretaker to my mother. It was something I actually felt positively about. It felt like a new life, but one I felt strangely familiar with.

Orpheus leapt from the ottoman at my sudden return into the middle of the living room, and rubbed my ankles with short mews of chastisement for my absence. I scratched behind his ears and along his cheek in a fond manner, as I went to my closet and pulled down both his carrier and my oversized dufflebag that hadn’t been put to use since high school when I had used it for overnight trips to away games when I played baseball.

I carried these bags to the living room again, and sat them on either side of Orpheus as he returned to a lounge position on the floor of the room. And then I looked around, and considered…what from this former life was worth taking with me into the next?

I looked along the mantel. There was a picture of my father and mother, dressed for halloween as dracula and his bride. Alongside this, there was a plaster cast of two hands put together in prayer that my grandmother had given my mother at her first communion, and she’d given me when I’d been baptized in middle school. There were dried flowers and figurines and a jar of bottle caps there as well that I had been keeping for some unknown reason. The picture and the hands went into my duffel bag.

On my bookshelf, there were many volumes that I’d planned on rereading someday. I kept them around in hopes that when I’d pick them up again, they’d still have that feeling of meaning that I’d first encountered by touching their pages. But also on the shelf was one of the journals I had kept in college. I flicked through its pages, paused briefly on a page and read its contents, and then threw it into the duffel bag with no more hesitation. I didn’t want anyone else to be subjected to the angst of those college years that got pressed in ink, and so this was an item that needed to be carried along with me simply to fulfill that duty. My high school yearbook was also on the shelf and it went into the bag out of the obligation that everyone feels to hold some small connection with that otherworldly time.

Looking around again, nothing else in the room or in my bedroom even seemed practical or sentimental enough to be worth carrying with me. I felt the tug of materialism press me to fill the bag with all it would hold, and take things that would comfort me as I fumbled with caring for an aged parent, but the much older part of me that was behind the wheel laughed at how silly that would be.

I did fill the rest of the bag, but it was with Orpheus’s cat treats; his felt mouse, wooly worm on a stick, and jingly ball; what was left of his bag of kibble; and a small pillow from my bed that he liked to sleep on. I opened a can of tuna and set it inside the carrier so that he jauntily entered and began to make himself one with the smelly delight I’d just set before him. I zipped him up inside, picked him and the duffel bag up, and only looked around one last time to see what time it was in the real world.

10:45 my clock said. Time for lunch. And I knew a cafe where I might find further piece of mind in weighing the knowledge of knowing the seemingly unknowable from someone who’d done that very thing perhaps several times before.

I was swept away again, and to the doorway of the cafe where Dee and I frequented. No one paid any mind to my touchdown from the sky with a duffle bag and a cat carrier in tow. If they were able to see anything out of the ordinary, perhaps they knew that it would be best to keep to themselves about what they were seeing. A man with these items in tow, and hair as unkempt as I assumed mine was, was not a man you wanted to ask about his intentions.

I entered with my carry-on luggage, and was not surprised to find that Dee was already here. I was surprised to see what action he was engaged in. Dee was leaning over the end counter where drinks were delivered, and was chatting up his barista crush, Sheena. It was evident that Sheena was not adverse to his attentions either.

I watched in amusement as Dee spoke low, and gestured to various items behind the counter. Sheena was smiling and holding the items Dee indicated up so that he could further inspect them, and was speaking a low tone that I assumed was breathily describing how each item combined to further the drink making process.

Dee was more than suave and handsome enough to be able to charm Sheena on his own, but I figured being his wingman would be a nice gesture of goodwill if nothing else. I walked over with my cat and bag in hand, and as they both turned to acknowledge my presence I realized immediately that I’d made an error in thinking I would contribute anything to this exchange.

With all the awkwardness in tow, I gestured to my carrier and said: “I moved out.”

Sheena nodded in polite appreciation.

“I’m…going to go sit,” I said, motioning vaguely to our usual corner table.

As I set about in that direction, Orpheus, within his carrier, mewed sadly. Dee turned back to Sheena and said a few more low spoken words, grasped her hand briefly over the counter, and placed a chivalric kiss upon the skin of her wrist, and then walked to join me at the table with Sheena’s light smile following him.

Dee threw the tail of his trenchcoat out behind him as he sat, and bent low to look into the carrier where Orpheus was.

“You’re looking well,” he said to me.

“I would say the same to you. How’re things going with Sheena?”

“Swimmingly,” Dee said, looking her direction with a smile as he confirmed this. “We went out two nights ago, and then again last night. She’s a kind soul, and funny as well. We’ve made plans to see each other tonight when she gets off work.”

“That’s great!” I said, only a touch too loud as Sheena’s co-worker brought me my sandwich and drink.

“It’s been fun so far. Not the traditional courtship I’m used to, but…ah well,” he said, trailing off.

“What does that mean? Did you take her to a bar or something?” I asked, but then I saw Dee’s wry smile, and it dawned on me.

“You guys…you and Sheena…did ya’ll ‘do it’?” I asked.

Dee actually snorted.

“What a childish way of putting it, Jorge.”

“So that’s a ‘yes?’”

He sighed and said: “Yes. We slept together. I was adverse to such rush, but my worries were in vain. She was still fond of me in the morning. Thank goodness.”

I chuckled and ate a bite of my lunch. “You’re something else, Dee.” I said.

He shrugged as though to say, “oh well.”

“Did you go and see your mother today?” He asked.

“Yes, but she already had a visitor when I showed up; an unwelcome one too, I might add.”

Dee lost his floppy look that had persisted after his interaction with Sheena, and sat up straighter as he leaned in to hear me.

“Azazal is stepping up his efforts to get me out of the way, and you as well if he gets the chance. He’s offered me some kind of a deal to stay out of the way.”

“…and it involves your mother,” Dee finished. “I’m not surprised. He always plays the same hand. He always has considered attachment and emotion to be weaknesses, and he’ll grasp at these because he knows that he has nothing else otherwise. It’s a good thing that he has no real power to harm the living. His threats are idle.”

“He said he knows when she’s going to die, and says he’ll be there to try and take her if I don’t back down. Can he do that? Does he really know?”

Dee was silent a moment, looking at my lunch and considering his next words.

“I’m sure that if he says he knows, then he does. And he will try to take her when it is that time.”

Orpheus began to paw at the carrier, and let out a low whine. I took the rest of the turkey from my sandwich and pushed it into the flap of the carrier for him as I said: “I can’t let him. I’ve got to know when it is so I can fight him off and protect her. I mean…you understand, Dee. You’ll tell me when it is and give me that chance, right?”

I didn’t realize I was begging until I had finished and there was only silence between us as I waited for Dee’s answer. I was either at the mercy of Azazal or at the mercy of Dee. I had no control, and no way of yet knowing when my mother would be in danger of having her soul taken. And so yes, I was pleading with Death, my friend, for assistance to help the powerlessness I now felt. And Dee was giving me a pitying look too. It made my heart thump hard in my chest, as I anticipated his refusal.

“If you do not know, and that knowledge has not touched you, I cannot in good conscience tell you that day and time. The knowledge of knowing that piece of information about someone you loved so dearly would destroy who you are. You’d become bitter, anxious, and as ruthless as Azazal wants you to be. I will not tell you because you have asked before, in another time, for another loved one, and when I felt compassion to tell you the information…it changed everything,” he said, pausing to shake his head free of the memory ath was working on him. “It was after I told you the once, and you lost the loved one, that you decided you did not want to cycle again and did not want to even Be.”

“So, I’m just supposed to wait it out? Knowing she could die any day, I’m just supposed to kick back and wait for Azazal to swoop down on her?” I said, not bothering with a quiet voice now.

“It’s what the rest of the world does. It’s what you would do if you were human. There is really no other alternative, and I would like to think you are not waiting on your mother’s death per se, but rather spending time with her when an end just happens to find her.

“I’m an unexpected visitor, and almost always unwelcome,” he said, oh so tragically that I couldn’t be angry with him for sticking by his guns when he was obviously universally despised.

He started talking again: “I will not tell you what you want to know, but I can promise that when it is time to take your mother, I will be there and will do all I can to keep Azazal from seeking your pain by taking her. You’ll be there too. She will not be alone. She will not have anything to fear because I am nothing to fear to anyone but Azazal. And if he attempts to take your mother into his viper’s den, then he truly will know fear.”

I believed him. I believed in the power of Death, and I didn’t want to be on the other side of that. I had a friend in Dee, and I could trust that he and I would work together so that my fears for my mother’s end would not come to any realization. The best case scenario in all this was the morbid reality that my mother would die, and therefore not exist as I knew her. But the silver lining that was worth fighting for is that she would live again, she would exist again as young girl or boy, and she’d get to experience the wild ride of being all over again. I was actually excited for her, and anticipated being able to see that happen. It was a grim optimism I was developing.

Day 24 and Day 25

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.

Day 23

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.

Day 21: Talking Shit About Florida Because I Miss It

I found a hamburger place that looked like it was part of a franchise chain, but was not one I was familiar with back home, or rather back where my apartment was and my cat. The place I’d left to come to my mother’s side hadn’t ever felt very homelike, I realized. Even when Ashley and I were looking for housing, I couldn’t see myself staying permanently in the town. Although it was not like the senior citizen capital of the world was calling my name to set up homestead either.

This hamburger joint had some garish color combinations at work, which indicated that the likelihood of a fatty, buttery burger was likely. I ordered a number 1, and when the man at the register asked me if I’d like to make my meal a capital L “Large,” I literally said, “Fuck it. Sure,” much to his amusement. If I continued to eat the greasiest fast food I could find on this every other day basis, I may as well plan on dying of a coronary at 40. Or not. Or whatever. I was so tired of worrying about death that it had lost all its sting in making me behave to try and appease its whims. I was going to die someday, and I’d be fine afterwards apparently. The only way there’d be anything really unfair about this “system of death and afterlife” was if when I died, I didn’t get a chance to exist anymore to try and make sense of what the point for walking around for years and breathing air on everyone was all about.

I was really clutching at the thought of the “fairness” of the death system as I watched the workers behind the counter eyeball the screen above their heads, wait for burgers to slide down the metal slides for bagging, and others scoop at the salty repository that held a sea of saline in which fried potatoes did a sweaty backstroke. And then it fit me light a bolt of shitty cliche lightning. The balance, the only way that “fair” would have meaning at all, was if everyone’s life got a chance to be judged to see where they’d go next. If their life was simply consumed by the nature of death, and they were forced off the plane of existence to wallow in the being of being inbetween…only then would they truly be dead.

The rule that everyone must be given a chance to have a go at life, whether they screw it up or play it straight, was a solid one. No one should have the right to sever a life forever. That kind of decision to take a potential murderer out of the game with a lasting and permanent murder of their true essence was not something that one being got to decide for another, no matter who they were.

I’ve always been wishy-washy, and never felt so strongly about a thing to consider it worth fighting for no matter what would come at me in response. But finally, there was this. As my construction cone orange-colored tray slapped down on the counter in front of me and a massive burger and spray of streaming fries was pushed towards me, I found that my heart had committed itself finally. I was going to fight so that everyone could have a chance at filling their bodies with “natural flavors” and their arteries with a slick coating of fat. I was going to rally all my resources against demons like Azazal that felt they could take everyone’s choice to kill themselves or preserve themselves in whatever way they felt best. Because this was a worthy cause, and so much larger than me and my supposed life I’d built around selling insurance, feeding a spoiled cat, and creating elaborate scenes of self-destruction to avoid committing myself to anything that may have lasting worth.

I turned from the counter, sticking a fry into my mouth in celebration, but stopped my self-congratulation in mid-chew. Death was settled into a booth in the back of the seating area, a similar day-glo orange tray in front of him with a half-eaten burger and fry on it. He gestured to the other side of the booth in front of him, and I plodded over in resignation.

“Hello, Jorge. How’s your mother doing?” He asked.

“She’s chipper as hell about breaking her hip, and just about as pumped to wage war on cancer.”

Dee chucked. “She’s a beautiful woman. I can see what drew you to her, and I’m very glad she’s been there to guide you along as a mother.”

I picked up my burger and took three quick bites to try and cut the gnaw my stomach was giving me.

“She liked your lilies, but knows that the “Garden Club” tag was a ruse,” I said.

“I’m impressed, Jorge. You’re beginning to use your mind to pick things up rather than have them handed to you. Yes, the lilies were for me. While I do sympathize with her injury and diagnosis, they were more in thanks to her years of service to our cause.”

I had taken another couple of bites, but stopped in mid-chew and said through the wad of meat, “Why are you talking in past tense about my mother?”

“I’m getting you ready,” Dee said.

I swallowed hard on my food, the mass sticking a little in my throat, but allowing me a clear passage to use all my air to yell at him.

“Christ, Dee! She’s just been diagnosed. Are you going to take her so soon?”

“You know as well as I do that ‘soon’ is a relative term. But if you are asking if I have to cut her chord today or tomorrow, you shouldn’t worry. Eliana told you she is going to fight, and she will. You are going to have to choose whether you stand beside her and help her to wring as much out of the life before it leaves or if you’re going to waste energy on trying to spit into the wind. It may not be cancer, and it may not be tomorrow, but eventually I’m going to have to cut her ties from the world.”

“I’ve already made my choice on that,” I said, vaguely. “You said there was a way to use ‘passes’ to give someone a near death experience and them keep living.”

“Sure. You could use another pass. You’ve got four left after all, and only four hundred years and 362 days left to use them. The passes only buy time for the soul to continue their journey of seeking what their purpose is. And so you could use a pass when I come for her, but then what if the cancer comes back and spreads in a month? Are you going to deny someone else a chance to seek themselves to give her a few more months? And you rushed into using your last pass so quickly that you forgot the caveat necessary for using a pass. The person you give it to has to want to live, and has to want to finish the business they have left undone. I can tell you with no fear of being wrong, that if you were to offer a pass to your Mamma and let her know the full scope of what that entails, she would turn your offer down faster than it could leave your lips,” Dee finished, slightly out of breath.

He was actually in a huff! I’d never seen Dee flustered, but I’d managed to get a reaction out of him. The corners of my mouth twitched, although I was perturbed with Dee as well for his tone as he told me who and who would not be worth my time in offering my precious passes to. But the sight of Dee finally irritated enough to show a touch of anger was satisfaction enough that I couldn’t help but let out a short laugh as I tackled my fries again.

“Dee, I said I’d already made my choice. Do you want to hear what I’ve decided?”

“Are you referring to a decision other than the ‘woe is me’ one you made at the cafe?”

For Dee’s sass, I took my time in finishing the last few bites of hamburger and slowly chewing. He waited, sulkily pushing his fries around the tray as they grated over one another.

“Here’s the deal. I’m starting to remember things about my previous existence…when I was Jorge Senior, I guess. That means I’m going to start remembering lifetimes before that, and what I’m supposed to do. I’m already getting a better picture of who Azazal is and who he could be if I was out of the picture,” I said.

The last bit of that statement wiped all irritation from Dee’s face, as he nodded seriously.

“Azazal is me. He’s death’s assistant that got selfish and didn’t care if everyone got a chance to figure things out. He’s what I could become if I went back to my world of trying to find purpose in being what I’m not. Azazal knows he can never die, and so why should he care that others never get to live again? He’s the one you called up last time I forgot who I was, right?”

Dee’s face was the definition of regret. He wouldn’t meet my eye as he responded.

“Yes. I picked Azazal to be my assistant around 1760. You’d had enough. You didn’t even want to be reborn. Thank goodness, I managed to convince you to try life again in another vessel, and with the promise that I wouldn’t contact you for that whole span to do anything work related. It was an extended vacation period, a trial retirement, perhaps. At any rate, Azazal seemed like a good choice…dedicated, ambitious, and with a real interest in finding answers. Almost immediately though it was a disaster. You were in your early 30’s in your own lifespan that was free of my influence, and luckily for us all, the average life span was a lot shorter in those days. Once you’d died in your mortal life, I found you in the next and pleaded for you to return and help me keep Azazal from taking the lives for his own purposes. It took some convincing to get you to realize I wasn’t a demon or a witch or something like that, but you came around. You always do,” Death said, smiling, and I kid you not, actually starting to tear up.

I couldn’t handle that.

“Yeah, I do. I’m in, Dee. I’m your man. I’m not going back to Georgia. I’m going to stay here and spend the rest of Mamma’s time with her. We’re going to do this business, and we’re going to find out what it means for us all to be here. And we’re going to teach Azazal that selfish fucks never win.”

Dee was smiling. I was smiling. We looked like a couple of loons grinning at each other over the remains of our food, but it didn’t matter. I remembered again a time when Dee and I had smiled like this at one another, over a dinner a tad more formal, and almost a century before. Getting caught up in my own ego, I had forgotten a very important point to Dee and myself. I had forgotten that we were actually really good friends.

 

Day 20: Again (lost the first one)

In my mother’s guest room, the smell of the apple cinnamon carpet deodorizer she used religiously permeable throughout the whole of the house and keenly in this space too, I took to the bed. Samsonite, my mother’s dog that has once been my own before student housing found out about the terrier, accepted my unexpected presence with the bowl of kibble I gave him and the place beside me in bed that he assumed. I settled into the bed, and tried to put all the stressful things to the back of my head in an effort to accept sleep. Yet, although I had quit the responsibilities associated with an employment under Death, the duties hadn’t gotten the memo yet to quit me. As I felt myself losing consciousness, and the images start up once more, I found that I hadn’t even the energy to fight them. I let them come.

Death clusters and sticks to itself. Death is its own best friend and it keeps to itself. No one invites Death to dinner or out for drinks or to your child’s soccer game…but there he is just the same, the uninvited guest that everyone forgot about until just now. 

Behind the veil of closed eyes, there was a multitude of falling shadows and as they fell,  they piled upon one another. Everything is wet and loud, and there’s a panic that pushes so hard against your chest that you are absolutely certain it will cave. There is a beating beneath your rib cage that cannot possibly be contained much longer. You shush it like a small child, and you move your legs to a series of steps that form the dance of fleeing in the name of protecting that little bird in your chest. You chew the inside of your cheek, and know that you should stop. The world sways back and forth like your ship somehow got pushed to sea. There’s a tear in the skin of a a fruit you just picked from a passing tree. There’s a shot from a gun somewhere, several guns actually, and the field that was once reserved for livestock is now so smokey that you have no idea if the blurry shapes running here and there are ghosts or…You find yourself unable to focus. Everything is going a blurry blue and you find that you don’t care what is happening around you. There is nothing left but the strong hand that pushes you down and demands you submit to the absence. 

When I woke up, my body was pressed against the wall that the bed rested alongside as though I was trying to escape from something. My dreams had been a nonsensical mess that I had no idea how to unknot . They were filled with color and roars of sound, and hundreds of deaths, but I had no idea who’s ends I had seen.

I rubbed Sams head and opened the back door so that he could go out to do his business, and made all the necessary dress preparations so that I could go see my mother. I checked in at the lobby floor info desk, and they let me know Mamma had been moved to a regular room on the third floor.

In her room, there was already a vase of great white lilies, although she couldn’t have been settled in the room for more than an hour when I got there. She was fussing over them, grooming them for wilted leaves like a primate might comb the skin of its fellows. She looked up from this as I entered the door, and smiled wide.

“My Angel, I am so happy to see you here. But you could have slept in!” she said, almost scolding. “The doctor has already been by, and he says I will be here at least another day to recuperate and make sure the medicine I take are good for my pain. He says I can start the chemo next week though, so this is good, right?”

“Well, Mamma, that’s what I came to talk with you about,” I said, sitting beside her bed.

“You’re going to need someone to take you to the doctor as you heal, and then chemo is nothing to take lightly. You will need someone to help cook for you, and clean when you get weak. Have you thought about what it’s going to take to hire someone to do this?”

She pursed her lips.

“You always worry Jorge. You were such a serious child, thinking everything is your responsibility to fix. This is bad, yes. I’m not naive. I know this could kill me,” she said.

“Don’t say that.” I interjected.

“You don’t have to be afraid for me,” she said, plucking at the flower leaves again. “I will not ask you to stay here with me and watch me wind down. You have your own life to get to, and I have mine. You cannot live for me, and this is the same for a helper I would hire. I will make it on my own.”

I didn’t know what to say to all that. Because, although she said I had a life of my own, I was wondering if I truly did. Before Dee had showed up, I wasn’t making great strides in the happiness and self-realization department. Sure, I was into the work in insurance right now, but a week solid of the stuff would turn me back to the cynical grouch I had been. After work, and on the weekends, I stayed at home and cooked myself a frozen dinner, I watched Netflix with Orpheus, and I read thick fantasy novels. I called myself not having the time to figure anything out about my life or what I wanted out of it, but really the thing was I had never seen a point in doing anything other than the minimum to survive. I was thinking now, how nice it would be to actually KNOW that there was a reason to exist. It would be worth seeking the answer to that question right?

It’d be worth spending my mother’s remaining years with her, and seeking the why, and helping others get to the path that would reveal their own shrouded answers…wouldn’t it? A little voice niggled this question at me, and I tried to wave it off.

To Mamma I said, “What if I wanted to live closer? Or stay with you and help?”

She smiled. “I would not complain, but I will not give you this answer you are scratching for. You must make your own choice on this. It would be too easy for me to tell you to come help me, and then you could say to yourself ‘I do this because it is my duty. I have no choice.’ It would also be too easy for you to go home, and say, ‘She is old, and she told me to go and have my own life.’ Your decision is your own. You must make your commitment to whatever will make you happy, and that is the hard part.”

This was not the answer I wanted, but she knew this. I stayed with her another couple of hour and we watched some loud and annoying television program that had a sassy judge as the lead role. It seemed to amuse Mamma though, because she laughed and laughed as she said that the judge knew how to put those people in their place.

As I stood to go, Mamma leaned over the side of her bed, gently minding her hip and knee and said: “I will fight, Jorge. I will fight this. This is what is best for me: to fight. You must fight too, my Angel. But you know your battle more than anyone else. Hand me that lily,” she added, pointing to the flower I’d put on the windowsill for her.

“The man who brought it in said it was from the garden club, but I know better. They would not send me such a thirsty plant. I must have an admirer.”

And she gave me a sly smile, that reminded me of the young woman she was, on a beach towel on a hot Florida day in a bathing suit that I was uncomfortable seeing my mother in and in memories I shouldn’t have had in my head anyway.

I left the hospital and suddenly felt a hunger like I’d never known. I hadn’t eaten all day, and had forgone the TV dinner last night in the harried travel I had made. My hunger was also made deeper and more clutching by the sadness that was weighing on me. I was sad because in my heart, I knew what my decision needed to be, and (like a lot of things) it exhausted me with a terrifying melancholy.

With the sad hunger on me, the only real choice for comfort was the warm overabundance that only a fast food hamburger could provide. And taking a full bag of burger and fries to the house to feast upon in the lonely company of a fiercely happy dog was not an option. Dining in among the hard plastic seats, greased tile floors, and top pop station was the only way to revel in sadness in a way that would produce the strange catharsis I was seeking.