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Contemporary Fiction

Callie looked across the slanted living room floor with one eye squinted shut. The 90’s-style office carpet that spanned the floors of her cramped apartment bit into her chin as she eyed the marble beneath the radiator.

It looked black.

It wasn’t.

She closed her right eye and opened her left. The marble moved two inches to the side.

Back-and-forth, she used her counterfeit telepathy to transport the marble. Back-and-forth.

Why is she laying on the floor? Simple: She can’t get up.

Why can’t she get up? 

Because she died two weeks ago.

“Did you know that Atila the Hun was so horny he started a war? Yea, he invaded Gaul for a lady. Great set of legs on that one...”

Callie rolled her eyes. Or, she would have. She’d heard this story before. He needed to come up with new material.

“I don’t see you contributing anything new.” Her eyes flicked over to the man on her bed. Her new best friend: Death.

“I’m honored.” He could be a sarcastic little jerk when he wanted.

Callie had been lying in this spot, the spot where she died, for a little over two weeks now. 

She wondered if she smelled. 

“Like roses and sunshine.” 

When she first woke up, after dying, Death had been waiting for her. At the time he looked like a dog. It had made her smile briefly, he thumped his tail in response. 

Then she was confused. 

Then she panicked. Why was there a dog in her apartment? Why couldn’t she move? Why wasn’t she breathing? Why was everything so misty? Where were her glasses? 

She wanted to cry, she was crying. Where were the tears? 

The dog sat, tongue lolling out of the side of it’s mouth.

After the non-tears stopped her heart wept in earnest. She wouldn’t be found. She would die here. Alone. She imagined her neighbors would find her because of the smell. Then she remembered that Mr. and Mrs. Jonesburry were so old they couldn’t smell anything anymore. Their Wednesday night dinners were evidence of that.

The dog cocked his head in the way that dogs do.

Later, when Callie asked Death why he had appeared as a dog he had a startling answer: “Because I invented dogs.” 

What?

“Everyone sites evolution, which it was, but who do you think nudged those wily little pups towards those discarded mammoth bones?” Here he made a sweeping gesture. 

“Look at humans! Left alone they’re fine enough, crafty little buggers. They invented religion, steam engines, the Beatles, brunch. Don’t even get me started on avocado toast. Mmm Mm.” Death cracked his knuckles and stretched out on the sunshine quilt Callie had bought to coax happiness out of hiding.

“Anyway, they also do some terrible things - as we both know. War, pestilence, and the like. Good for business, bad for souls. So, poof. Dogs. Dogs just want to be loved. They are one of the few true cases that can be classified as ‘unconditional’. Empathy and all that. Which is why we don’t usually find ourselves in this type of predicament. Generally speaking, most people think of other people.”

Four days after Callie had shuffled off the mortal coil, in the depths of post-mortem depression, and after she had been startled to see a dog transform into a man, Callie finally drummed up the nerve to ask the question: Why am I still here?

“Simple, my dear. Nobody knows you’re dead. It’s a simple trick really, and we’ve fine-tuned it over a few years of course. But we can’t move a soul forward without someone recognizing that the person died. As humans proliferated we had to add caveats. If someone so much as thinks ‘I wonder if so-and-so is dead,’ it’s a stretch, but it counts.” He tugged a train conductor’s watch out of his pocket. Unlike the rest of his ensemble, it was black.

If Callie’s heart still beat it would have felt painful in her chest. If she was able to be upright, tears would have pooled in her eyes and swam down her cheeks. Instead, she was dead so her pain tugged at all sides of her. Stretching her in-and-out, heavy and dense, wide and deep.

--

Death had taken a fondness to Callie. That’s why he waited. She was someone who deserved to be thought of. While alive, Callie had a face that people easily recognized, could never place and quickly forgot. Maybe it was because she was so eager to connect with someone but she never made people feel awkward for mistaking her identity. 

Callie, as herself, wasn’t otherwise remarkable. 

And yet - she was.

Callie was faulting empathetic. She felt bad for politicians while sending donations to support their protestors. She picked up other people’s trash, stopped using straws and plastic bags,  hadn’t eaten red meat or pigs in 15 years while also supporting a small local chicken farm. She bought second-hand books and clothes and always tipped 20%, even when the service was shitty.

Why? Because even if she didn’t know them, she loved them. People, places, and animals. 

So Death waited. The longer he waited the more he felt annoyed that she was still here.

Callie deserved to be thought of. Yet, she wasn’t. She was still here. Her phone did not ring. Nobody came knocking. Her mailbox downstairs only had bills and junk. Her email pinged with promotions.  

So in the cavern of spare time, Death told Callie stories. About the time he nudged dogs to humans. The reporter towards the case on police brutality. The old german man towards the mother and child. 

He watched as Callie listened. Her soul was rosy and gold. Her eyes were green. She sparkled and swirled in the shell that kept her waiting. She reminded him of sunset. Of love. Of kindness. She was the feeling that people sent out into the world during meditation. 

As he talked, and she listened, he began to form an idea. 

--

Callie watched Death watch her. She probably looked ridiculous. She couldn’t feel her body anymore but she could tell that at least one arm was thrown awkwardly. Hopefully her socks matched. If she was honest, she was content in his company. He was ostentatious but comforting - sort of like an old friend who you were both embarrassed of but never wanted to leave. Not that she could.

In the few days where her world had narrowed to what her eyes could see, Callie waited. What else could she do? Sleep didn’t come, the pain in her heart didn’t fade yet the sun cruelly rose. Casting leaking orange shadows across the wall that sloppily tumbled out into purple, blue, and navy. Even now, Callies eye fingered the shade that lived in the space where the door met the floor listening to the baritone of Death’s voice trail on.

Then, quite suddenly, there was silence. 

The silence was so loud, and so sudden, that it caused Callie to startle in only the way a dead person could. Which is to say - not at all. 

Most of us don’t notice silence. Largely because it is so rare that we’ve never actually heard it. We think, at night, after the kids go to bed and the dog has settled that we know silence. We’re wrong. There are still ambient sounds lolling around just beyond our attention. 

True silence feels like being blinded when you come out of a movie theater. Sudden, painful, and all at once.

Callie’s eyes traced around the room with a rapidity associated with waking up from a bad dream. 

Death was gone. 

The doorknob rattled.

October 12, 2021 15:30

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