This one was being difficult. Well, people were generally difficult with his line of work, but Eugene really didn’t have the patience tonight.
“No!” the girl screeched. “You can’t have her! Move on to someone else!”
She sprawled herself over the comatose woman. Presumably her aunt or older sister. Their resemblance was striking.
Eugene sighed. People had to be desperate- depressed, insane to see Soldiers like himself. Usually, he took the time to explain himself, to see the madness soften in their eyes. Usually, it wasn’t one in the morning after a double shift.
“Mary,” said the aunt. Gracelyn Wescott, according to the file. “Mary, Mary.” Her eyes were distant. “It’s time to go.”
Mary only dropped her glare at Eugene to grip Gracelyn Wescott’s wrists. “No, Auntie Grace. Auntie, look, look at me. I can run and get a nurse. Auntie, it is not time to go.”
Eugene glanced at his watch. He stepped over Mary’s upturned chair. She’d jumped up to block him, silly thing. They stood on the either side of Gracelyn Wescott’s hospital bed. Mary’s hackles raised. Her knuckles went white around Ms. Wescott’s wrists, but Ms. Wescott didn’t stir.
“Run for the nurse, Mary,” Eugene said softly. It felt wrong to speak normally in a hospitable. At least, when he was working. “This won’t hurt.”
He felt for Grace’s tether and snapped it. He closed her eyelids so she wouldn't stare at the ceiling. Like a fish on land, or a bird wishing to be free.
“You again,” were her next words to him.
“Me again,” Eugene agreed.
“What,” Mary seethed. “Are you doing here.”
Eugene paused between Mary’s chair and the birthing ward-room door. He tilted his head, listening; beeping machines, footsteps, heavy breathing, calm instructions. He had time.
He ran a hand through his dark hair, stifling a yawn. The curls was getting long enough to be an annoyance.
“Deduce it,” he suggested.
Mary jumped to her feet, orange plaits swinging. “You’ve got the wrong room,” she told him firmly.
“And you’re not having hallucinations,” he sighed. “You should think about seeing a therapist.”
Mary raised her hand as if to hit him. Eugene spread his arms. He wouldn’t try to reason with her. She had every reason to feel this way.
“Why.” Her voice was mottled in her throat. “Why do you do this?”
Eugene let his arms drop. He checked the time. “It’s my job and I’m on shift. Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
“It can’t pay enough,” she said softly. “Not enough for this. Not enough to kill my-” Her voice stuck in her throat.
He shrugged. “I can’t exactly ask for a raise.” He saluted her as he stepped backwards into the room. She didn’t jump in front of him this time.
The room was all pristine, excepting bed. Hospitals were an oxy moron.
Find the tether. Cut it.
Soft sobbing dogged his footsteps. Mary looked up when he walked out again, but her gaze slid past him, to her crying mother.
She didn’t see him coming the third time. To be fair, he emerged from the mouth of a subway entrance.
The car was smoking, front crumpled like an accordion around the lamppost.
“Charlie? Charles! Charlie, wake up. Say something. Charlie, you have to say something.”
Sirens wailed around them. The other lane didn’t stop, didn’t slow.
“Hello, Mary.” Eugene leaned into the driver’s window. The glass was already gone- missing or shattered, he didn’t know. Mary looked up from the passenger seat where she was wrestling with her seat belt. “It hasn’t been long enough. Sorry about that.”
She stared at him, numb and cold. Perhaps she’d be next.
He found the tether, in the driver’s seat, cut it. Charles Wedeller’s eyes were already closed. Before he could disappear, she yelled out to him.
“Why do you kill them! Just let them be!”
Eugene paused. She let her head fall against the headrest.
“Let me be.” Quieter, like a prayer.
“I’m not killing them,” he said before he could help himself. “I’m cutting them free, Mary.”
She snorted. He turned and slipped away, tennis shoes slapping the wet pavement. He didn’t like the feel of her gaze between his shoulder blades.
She stood to greet him the fourth time he saw her.
“Another death bed,” he observed.
“Isn’t it all the same to you?” she snapped. “No, sorry-” She sighed. “I don’t know how you do this.” Mary looked down at Ashley Corona. There was a young man asleep in the chair next to her. Eugene wouldn't wake him, but Mary's voice might.
“I’m not killing them,” Eugene sighed. She squinted at him. “I know you think I do, but… Soldiers don’t do that.”
“Soldiers,” Mary repeated. “There’s more of you?”
Eugene laughed. “What, you thought I was Death? The Death?”
“Well your timing is awfully convenient,” she muttered. The light on Ashley Corona’s beside flickered, the pulse of the light bulb ticking. Ashley Corona’s chest rose and fell, but Eugene could hear the breath sticking in her throat. Old people went the quickest.
“I’m a Soldier of Death.” Eugene perched on a chair. Mary slowly sank back into her seat, wary. Eugene noted the half-moon circles under her eyes, the slump to her shoulders; like a sail sagging without wind. He wondered how many more times he would see her.
Because surely he would; he’d seen her four times now and she wasn’t the one he’d come to see. She was a fighter, to survive this long. Surrounded by all this Death.
“My name is Eugene,” he told her. He considered the snow folding gently against the window. Headlights smudged against the glass. “I live here, in Queens. I’m saving up for college and I live with my half-sister. She kind of has a drinking problem, but I’m not one to talk…”
Mary shook her head. “I thought-”
“I’m not the Death.” Eugene sighed. “I was conscripted and… I accepted. I need the money- Lord knows I need the money.”
“Everyone needs the money,” she retorted, voice sour. “Doesn’t mean you can go around killing people.”
“I’m not an assassin,” Eugene said as he got to his feet. He didn’t need to be here. He had other people to see and this conversation was a waste of his time.
“You keep saying that. That you're not killing them.” Mary was standing, suddenly, hands fisted and shoulders pulled back. “Then why are you here? Why are they dead by the time you leave? Auntie, Jonathan, Charlie… now Nana. You’re taking them.”
“I told you, I’m not.” At least he could solve this. “They’re in pain, Mary, they all were. Even little Jonathan, before he was born.”
Mary stared at him. Tears built up above her eyelashes, a wave waiting to crash. Eugene spread his palms in surrender, lest she jump for him, teeth and claws bared.
“I’m literally cutting their souls free.” He pushed his hand through his hair. How had Death explained it to him? He barley remembered now. “There’s this tether that keeps them here- everyone. We all have them. And if I don’t snap it, the soul will try to wrench itself free and sometimes- it doesn’t end well.”
Mary shuddered. “It would be worse if you didn’t take them, then.” She sounded like she was trying very hard to believe him.
Eugene raised three fingers and set a fist over his hear. “Scout’s honor.”
Mary knotted her fingers in the sleeves of her sweater. “Can you promise not to come back?”
Eugene felt for Ashley Corona’s tether. It felt silver, wispy. Ready to snap all on its own. “Not until pigs fly. I’m sorry.”
“Why can I see you?” Mary blurted. “No one else can…”
“That- I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s easier to see Soldiers if you’re lonely… or sad. Or desperate.”
Mary snorted, bitter.
They watched the snow, for a moment.
“You’re helping her.” She let her fingers fall out of fists. Eugene noted the crescents from her nails, when she looked down at her hands.
“I’m helping her,” Eugene affirmed. “And the others. If I ever see you again.”
“Probably will,” she said quietly. “At least now I won’t want to punch you.”
“You were going to punch me!” Eugene put a hand to his chest. “I’m hurt.”
Mary smiled faintly. He immediately regretted joking over her grandmother’s dying body.
“I hope I don’t see you again, Mary,” he said in goodbye.
“Me either. Eugene. Goodbye.”
Find the tether, cut it. Slip out the door.