“It is time for you to go.” The shrouded figure leant heavily on their scythe and peered out from the depths of their hood. An outsider might’ve suggested that the hump in its back was old age, and the pressure of the millennia of work that it had endured.
In truth, it was boredom.
“But I wasn’t ready!” the obese woman cried. “I was going to the Bahamas next month!”
The figure looked at what was left of the woman in the corporeal world. The bag from her takeaway chips was still perched on the arm of the sofa next to her, with half a dozen cigarette butts in. The floor was scattered with empty beer cans.
For a creature of neither life nor death, made from the essence of the universe, who had existed since the dawn of time, there is no need to breathe. Long ago, however, they had discovered the need to sigh. They let one out now.
“Then why didn’t you act like it?”
“If you were excited for your future, why did you not look after yourself?”
“Are you judgin’ me? Who the hell do you think you are? Everyone needs a treat every now and then, some ‘me’ time, some relaxation. It’s all right for you, you ain’t got nuttin’ to worry ‘bout.”
The one thing that always surprised the figure most was how persistent humans were. If they were a pain in life, they were a pain in death.
“No, of course.” That was an argument the figure had tried before, and they’d had enough of it. The worst one had lasted most of a year, as the person in question refused to leave until they’d won. And, being dead, it wasn’t as though they had much else to do instead. “I am sorry that your life has ended. Now it is time for you to pass through the Door, and go to your next life.”
“Next life? Like heaven?”
“After a fashion. I believe–” The figure paused and studied the woman. Mouth open, hair flat and tangled, eyes blood-shot. Even if she had been a genius, the amount of alcohol and smoke she’d forced into her body before her heart-attack would had rendered the well-constructed metaphysical argument pointless. “It is a version of heaven. I believe you have to work your way through the true heaven, at the heart of all things.”
“But I get to live again?”
“Yes.” Strictly speaking, otherwise she wouldn’t be living again. But not in the form that she currently knew as ‘her’. Race, gender, species – all were up for grabs between the worlds. But ‘yes’ was far simpler, and the figure had other appointments to get to.
“Oh. That don’t sound so bad then. Nice one, lead the way, mate.”
Sinking a little lower on their scythe, the figure turned and led the way back, through the murky void until they came to another door. They did their best to hurry the woman through, and blanked out all her droning on about what she’d do in her next life. The Bahamas was still on the list, as was most of the rest of the world, or at least, all the tourist hot-spots that get regularly covered on TV.
When she finally made it through the door the figure shut it with a heavy clang. They paused, leaning against the not-quite-wood, trying to wash away the sound of her voice and the clawing weight of her entitlement. Not all of them were this bad, but these were the ones that stuck with the figure.
For a being with no life, there was no bigger tragedy than to waste the one you had.
There was a soundless bell, a faint ringing that the figure felt in their bones rather than heard in the ears they didn’t have. The next job. With another well-practised sigh they pushed away from the door and headed off to see what they had to face next.
Another heart attack.
“Great,” the figure muttered under their hood as they got closer. Bit by bit the colour in the world around was fading out, leaving the ghost of the recently deceased glowing.
“What’s happened?” the ghost said, panic in their voice as they tried to comprehend what they were seeing.
“I am afraid you have died,” the figure said. They braced themselves for another tantrum.
“Damn? Is that it?”
“Well… yeah. I mean, it’s awful, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Right?” It was clear from the pitch of the man’s voice that he was struggling, and the desperate ring of hope in his question cut deep.
“No, there is not. I am sorry.” And for once, the figure actually meant it. Meeting someone who didn’t blame them for what was happening was such a rare occurrence.
“Damn. I mean, thanks for your sympathy.” The man looked about at the echo of his room. “I’ll miss all this. I was just about settled, you know? Ah, well. Ah well.” He looked down at his body, crumpled in the middle of the floor, a stack of papers haloing his head. Not too old, trim, fit, glass of water in the desk, pot plants in the corner.
“I am sorry. This… this was not fair,” the figure said.
“Life isn’t always fair. You hear about these cases though. Healthy, young-ish folk, marathon runners and all that, still having heart attacks. And the people stuffing themselves with takeaways and never doing a day’s exercise living until they’re ninety.”
“Not always. If it makes you feel any better.”
The man laughed. “Life’s all just about chance, isn’t it? And someone’s got to be the unlucky one. But, enough about me.” With a clap of his hands the man looked up, properly seeing the figure for the first time. The skin around his eyes was damp, but he had a smile on nonetheless. The figure shifted from foot to foot, and stood up a little straighter. When was the last time anyone had looked at them? “Who are you?”
“I am a death.”
“A death? So there’s more than one of you?”
“There are a lot of people who die.”
“Makes sense. So, what do you do now? What do we do now?”
“I guide you off to your next life.”
“Nothing before that?”
“I am afraid not.”
“Okay. Okay, lead the way.”
Still shifting uncomfortably in their robes, the figure turned and walked off, their spine straightening with each step. The man followed along just behind, but it only took a few moments before the weight of unsaid words became palatable.
“Can… can I ask you a question?” the man asked.
The figure gave what passed for a smile, hidden deep beneath their hood. They had seen this coming. “Of course.”
“What else do you do?”
The figure had not seen this coming. “P-pardon?”
“Other than lead souls to the afterlife, or… whatever it is you call the next bit. Which mythology are we going by, anyway?”
“I do not know. I am taking you to the Door, where your next life will begin.”
“The Door? Huh, not sure which one mentioned that… But what will you do afterwards?”
“I will go to my next assignment. You must go through the Door yourself.”
“Is that all you do though? Go around and lead people to the Door?”
The figure thought about it. They also sulked, a fair bit, but they didn’t want to admit that to someone who had just died. “Yes,” they had to admit eventually. “It is all I do.”
“And is that enough?”
“What else could there be?”
“Well… you’re sentient. You can think, you speak, you can understand. Surely there has to be more to life than just paying the bills. So to speak.”
The figure looked at the man beside them, and turned to look back at the room they had left, although it had long since faded away. Then back at the man, but they still hadn’t reached any conclusion. “Who are you?”
“Matthew Avery,” the man said, holding out a hand to shake, “life coach.”
The figure stopped walking and stared at the hand. At last they looked back up at the face. “Life coach? Do humans not know how to live? It is… what they do.”
“I teach – taught, rather – people how to live a better life. How to do more than just work and pay bills. How to live, not just survive.”
“People actually paid you for that?”
“Yes. It’s a lucrative business, as well as being very fulfilling.” Realising that the hand wasn’t going to get shaken, Matthew Avery awkwardly dropped it and rubbed it against his leg.
“There are that many humans who do not know how to do anything other than work?”
“It’s all about priorities. There’s been too much emphasis on financial success, and that’s eroded other aspects of life. I work with people to get their priorities in order, so they can enjoy life and be happier. Worked with people, I should say. Sorry, that’s going to take some getting used to.”
“So… what did you mean for me? When you asked if this was all I did?”
“Well, I imagine this is a pretty intense job. Seeing people in their final moments. I wondered what you do to relax.”
The figure thought back to the woman from earlier. ‘Intense’ was certainly one way to describe her. “There is nothing else. I have to go from one assignment to the next.”
“There’s no downtime? No days off?”
“No. There is no time for that sort of thing.” Besides, it had never occurred to the figure to ask for it. Work was all they knew.
“That’s sad. I think you should try and find time for yourself, so you can really appreciate life.”
“I do not, technically speaking, have a life.”
“It’s as good as. You should treat it like one.”
The figure mulled over that idea. Matthew Avery was right. Just because the figure didn’t breathe, didn’t sleep, didn’t change, that didn’t make it any less of a life. Spiritually speaking, of course. The figure waved Matthew Avery on, but after a dozen steps they stopped again. “So… what exactly should I do?”
“Well, what do you like doing?”
“I do not know. All I have ever done is worked.”
“In that case, I’d say start simple. Go for walks, take in the sights, study the world.”
“Walk?” That was about the only thing the figure did do, as part of their work.
“Yeah. See what you find, what attracts you, what grabs your attention.”
“And then from there, you go on to other things. Drawing, writing, reading, they’re all pretty good ‘entry’ level hobbies, for people who are getting used to having free time. A sport is always good as well, help keep your body in shape.” To his credit, Matthew Avery’s eyes only dropped to the shapeless robes for a second.
“And then you… you know, build it up. Establish a habit, find something you enjoy. You know.”
“I am not sure that I do.” The figure turned and headed off again, mind still churning.
At length they reached the Door, and it was time for them to part.
“It was nice to meet you, despite the circumstances,” Matthew Avery said, scratching his head as he looked around at the half-world one last time.
“And you. It was… refreshing. And thank you.”
“Me? What for?”
“For thinking of what I have as a life. No one has ever paid me that much attention before. They have always been too-preoccupied.”
“That must be rough. Don’t think too badly of them though. It is really disorientating, especially when you were halfway through trying to sort out your calender.”
“Indeed. Farewell, Matthew Avery. And good luck.”
With a wave over his shoulder, Matthew Avery walked through the Door and off into his next life.
Once again the figure stayed with the Door for a while. This time though the silence was oppressive, rather than peaceful. There was a lot to think about, but soon enough the silent ringing was off again, summoning the figure for their task. The figure turned and left, still thinking about what Matthew Avery had said.
On the way to the next task, they took the long route, and stopped to watch the sunrise.
“I see,” the figure said when the ringing got too insistent and they had to leave. They carried on the rest of the way, swinging their scythe by their side, and started to teach themselves how to hum.
It was hard without any of the moving parts, but if humans were worth learning to sigh for, they were worth learning to hum for as well.