Everywhere you looked was the colour grey.
The seats in front of you were silver with no undertones, no layering shades. The same blank colour. Likewise the floor was a much rustier grey, like wet rocks. The curtains on your window glinted the pale colour of fog.
You looked down at yourself. Your hands no longer had the same rosy colour to them that burst with life and health. They were dead-white. So were your arms underneath their grey long sleeve. You were dead-white, like a corpse.
You looked out the window, and sure enough, everything was grey. A silver sky hungover ash-coloured fields and strands of dark grass that reached against the train (were you on a train? It made sense, for some reason) windows. The scenery spun by so fast it made you a little dizzy. You took a deep breath and sat back in your seat.
When you reached into your mind, you found it blank. There was something fuzzy in the background, some scrap of information, but reaching for it was difficult: blown away by the mere movement of your hand like a dandelion puff.
The sound of crunching drew your attention.
Across the aisle was a woman in another grey seat. She was blobby and pale like you, and looked at you through heavy-lidded eyes. She had a small grey bag in her hand.
“Carrot?” She offered you a sliver of a grey vegetable.
You stared around the train car at the other passengers. There had to be at least fifty-- all grey and gaunt, most very thin, several carrying bags of food like the girl. There were some like you who were dressed in dark grey clothes and staring at their hands like they’d never seen them before.
She looked at you appraisingly.
“Do ya remember anything? Most don’t at first. I didn’t. I had to have my friend Martha fill me in.” She pointed to one of the larger passengers snoring next to her. “We’re headed to the same place, but she’s been on more trains than me. More chance to remember somethin’.”
“Sorry if I’m talking too much,” she chattered. “I’m kinda nervous, that’s all. It’s my stop next, ya know. I’m takin’ off. Finally. Too many stations and weirdos like you who wander around mumblin’ to yourselves. Exhaustin’.”
You stared. “How long have you been… travelling?”
“About three days,” said the girl, in a breezy manner suggesting it had been a lifetime. “Martha’s been runnin’ around for a week, though. They had an issue with her luggage, ya see.” She shook her head and muttered, “Terrible customer service!”
The girl rolled her eyes. She pointed to the large grey sign at the front of the train compartment-- right above where there would have been an exit, perhaps to another train car, but here there was nothing but a solid grey wall. “Can’t ya read?”
The sign read:
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE DEAD.
YOU ARE NOW SITTING IN THE ECONOMY-CLASS SECTION OF THE TRAIN. TO UPGRADE TO BUSINESS OR FIRST CLASS, PLEASE SPEAK TO A TICKET MANAGER. IF YOU ARE HAVING DIFFICULTY REMEMBERING CERTAIN THINGS, DON’T WORRY!
IF YOU HAVE ANY DIFFICULTY WITH CARRYING AROUND YOUR LUGGAGE, PLEASE INFORM A TICKET MANAGER SO THAT YOU CAN BE THROWN FROM THE TRAIN.
IF YOU WISH TO SCHEDULE AN APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH, PLEASE INFORM A TICKET MANAGER AND THEY WILL GIVE YOU A FORM. MORE INFORMATION WILL BE PROVIDED SHORTLY.
HAVE A LOVELY AFTERLIFE.
“Where’s my luggage?” you asked.
She pointed to the rack above your head, and with relief you saw a grey backpack. You read the name JONATHON WANG on the front.
The girl had a small purse on her lap. Next to her, the sleeping Martha carried a backpack only slightly larger than yours. But the man in front of you held a duffel bag, and another man a few rows ahead carried a suitcase as tall as he was.
You looked out the window again. The train was still moving very fast, without a sign of slowing down or stopping.
The door underneath the sign slid open, despite not having been a door a few minutes ago, and a tall man with a black hat and long black coat walked through, frowning at everyone seated with beady eyes. Behind him stood two others. The ticket managers, you guessed.
The first man went down the row holding out a terse, leather-covered hand for the ticket. Many people looked surprised even to be possessing a ticket, but they all found it with no problem. The ticket manager came to you and held out his hand. You stared into his black eyes. He stared back.
“Ticket, please,” he grumbled.
You rummaged around in your pocket and to your amazement pulled out a ticket, black as the ticket manager’s cloak. You read the curly silver writing:
Name: Jonathan Wang.
Age: forty-seven years old.
Cause of Death: shot during the robbery of local supermarket, ‘Waitrose’ at 1:04 P.M.
The ticket manager snatched it before you had a chance to read more. He licked his thumb and pressed it against the paper until it made a sizzling sound. He handed it back to you. His thumb had gauged a perfectly shaped hole through it.
“Do you know which stop to get off at?” he asked. You shook your head.
He rolled his eyes and handed you a piece of paper before he moved on to the next person. You looked more closely. It was an appointment form.
The form was for a meeting with Death, a thought that made your heart lurch in your stomach. There was only one place to fill something out: your name. You scrawled it carefully onto the paper with the pencil the ticket manager had given you, and the second your hand lifted, you were gone.
The room you found yourself standing in was dark, more black than grey. Above you there was a vast expanse of something that might have been the sky, but not a sky you had ever seen before. Stars piled on top of each other as though competing for space. Shades of orange and green wove through the stars like string tying them together.
“I don’t have all night, you know.” The voice sounded bored.
In the middle of the room was a table, with a black and white patterned top. At the table was a man wearing a purple flannel and a pair of blue jeans. He had sleek white-blond hair, very pale skin, and eyes flickering and warm as fire. They were soothing, even if the rest of him was jarring and cold to look at.
You sat in a chair that hadn’t been there a moment ago.
“Where are we?”
“My office,” said Death. “In a way, that is. You’re still on the train but you’re also here, if that makes sense. Existence gets a little funny when you don’t have a body anymore. It’s remarkably easy to be in two places at once if you concentrate really hard. Or, if you’re like me, you can concentrate hard enough to be in forty million places all at once.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” You reached across the table to shake his hand and he took it, smiling now. “You have lovely manners, Jonathan.”
“I try to be polite in frightening situations.”
“Oh, come now, I’m an old friend. I’m certain you’ve met me more than ten humans ever have. I had to pay a visit to your parents, your twin, your sister, your first wife, your grandparents… I mean, the list goes on. Your family is a rather unlucky one.” Death slid a pawn across the table that had become a chessboard.
“And they all ended up here?” you asked, scrutinising the glum room. “Playing chess as you reminded them of everything they’ve lost?”
Death grinned at you, bearing a sudden, frightening resemblance to a skull. “Fringe benefit of my job. I like to watch all the little emotions that flit across your faces. I don’t feel much myself. Each is like a drag from a cigarette.”
“Cigarettes kill you.”
Death shrugged. “Then I’m in the right place.” He pulled out a file and began flipping through. “It says here that you died during a robbery.”
“I suppose I did, if that’s what it says,” you said gloomily, moving your knight across the board.
“You don’t remem-- ah, it says here. Hmm. It’s strange when you humans choose to have your memories wiped. No other species chooses it as frequently as you do.”
You sighed. “I suppose life hurts too much to remember sometimes.” You watched as another pawn moved without Death touching it and took out your knight.
“Save me the self-pity. You've never been one to give up, no matter how much I took from you. Why start in the afterlife?” Death closed the folder to glare at you. “Graceful said you weren’t sure what station to get off at.”
“My ticket manager.”
“Ah. Well, yes, I was a bit confused on that whole station business, you see. No memories. Empty noggin. Impedes decision-making in a dreadful way.” You tapped your head to emphasise your point. “The girl across from me said she’s the next stop, but I wouldn’t want to get off there too without knowing where I was going.”
“It’s not that difficult to understand,” said Death with a laugh. “Did she sit across from you?”
“Her name’s Felicity. She likes to mess with the newcomers, especially the ones who have lost their memories.”
“How was she messing with me?”
“The stations don’t really work that way. I don’t get involved in the politics of it, but Heaven and Hell have this system to make sure everyone goes where they’re supposed to go. Bloody big fights about it, too.” Death leaned forward. “Basically, you can go to either Heaven or Hell if you want to see your family. If your baggage is too heavy-- that is, if you’ve done too many ‘bad’ things in your life, you go to Hell. They chuck you off the train and the demons fly you away. But if you stay on the train for a while, you make it to Heaven-- there they let you off and you have to go through this whole identification process to become a permanent citizen.”
“Huh,” you said. “So… we were right, then? In terms of religion? Heaven and Hell, Satan and God?”
Death snorted. “Of course not. They’re just sides with lots of little sides inside. Heaven and Hell is easiest for you Christians to understand, but it’s more like Heaven, Heaven inside Heaven, Heaven inside Heaven inside Heaven, Hell inside Heaven, Hell inside Hell, and so forth. Different places run by the bloody great annoying agents that check on us every once in a while, different names for every religion you people come up with.”
You moved your queen across the board. “Why the train, then?” you asked, ignoring the way Death’s rook pounced gleefully on her. “Why not get everything sorted at each station?”
“It’s just the transportation,” explained Death. “And the orientation. I’m talking to most of the others in that car with you right now. And,” he added, “because I have to explain the third choice: stay on the train forever. See what happens.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“Mostly to be a dick to the new people. Mostly because they’re afraid. Ask Felicity. She’s been here for two years, human time. Martha’s been around for eight.”
“They get snacks.”
“So,” you considered his words. “So all I have to do is… wait for the next stop? Then I get to see my family?”
“That depends on what you say next.”
Death knocked over your king and glared at you with his fingers steepled together. “Why’d you rob that supermarket?”
“I’d hoped we weren’t going to talk about that.”
You were remarkably cavalier, that was the thing Death liked about you. Most people he talked to trembled, stole nervous glances around the room, and begged to be sent back. But your eyes were calm on his. Despite how your body had faded to a single shade of grey. Despite everything Death had taken from you. You seemed to have accepted everything about your situation and was prepared to move forward.
Do you know how remarkable you are? Death wondered, studying you. How few people can look me in the eye?
“Shame for you, then,” growled Death. “We’ve got some paperwork to sort through with that little case.”
You sighed, fiddled with the chess pieces. “It was stupid.” You glanced at Death. “How much is it going to affect where I end up?”
“On what, exactly?”
“How you answer my questions. Your baggage isn’t very big right now, but anything can push it over the edge, even in the afterlife. Right now, I want you to tell me why you did it.”
You were silent, staring at the table. “It was for her.”
“I didn’t want you to take her from me.” You gave a little laugh and ran your hand through your colourless hair. “Is this conversation even real? Why aren’t I screaming at you, confronting you for everything you’ve taken from me? Why are your eyes so calming?”
Death raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t heard that for a while.”
“That my eyes are calming. Most say they feel as though they’re drowning in flames. That the humanness of my face draws them in, but my eyes repulse them since they reveal my otherworldliness.” He tilted his head and smiled at you in a very inhumane way. “The ones who aren’t frightened are often my closest friends.”
You snorted, shook your head. “I don’t know you at all. How can we be friends?”
“We are as close to friends as someone like me can be with anyone else. I’ve been a constant your entire life, dogging your footsteps like your shadow.”
“Now I know that I’ve imagined this whole conversation.”
Death smirked at you in a way that made your heart stop. “We both know that you’re not that creative, Jonathan.” He leaned forward. “Tell me more about the supermarket.”
I didn't know it was a real pistol,” Your voice is mumbly in your shame. “Samwise said they were just going to be props, to get people to be scared. I didn’t know he was going to shoot that little girl in the leg, and I didn’t know…” Your voice trailed off. “I guess I thought we were closer than that.”
A silence descended, tense but not unpleasant. You fiddled with chess pieces and Death watched you, amused. Finally he said, “I think I have a special station for you to get off at. Don’t get off at the next station. Get off at the one after that. The one that most of you won’t see.”
“What will I find?”
Death cocked his head to the side and grinned. “Career prospects.” He waved his hand and the image of him began to fade to a colour like mist. “I like you, Jonathan. Good chat.”
The room slid out of focus gradually until it had morphed into the dusky grey of the chair in front of you. You stared at it until you realised that it hadn't been some strange dream.
Felicity smirked at you. “Hiya, Johnny. Odd man, ain’t he?”
“He isn’t a man.”
“Looks close enough.” She threw a handful of popcorn into her mouth. The popcorn was grey. You wondered if it was like crunching on pebbles. “Ya know where to get off now?”
“Yeah, I guess so," you mused. Career prospects. You quite liked the sound of that.
At the ‘special station’ Jonathan Wang got off the train with his baggage slung over his shoulder and looked around. The train had already zoomed away.
It took his eyes a minute to adjust, but when they did, he was stunned. He seemed to have gotten off in front of a small candy store, with a pink-and-red-striped awning and cheerful windows with curly gold writing. When he opened the door, the bell tinkled.
Death looked up from behind the counter and smiled. He was wearing a pink uniform with a hat, and his nametag read DEATH. “Ah! So glad you could make it!” He was sorting a barrel of candies into different bins, green and blue and pink behind the warped glass.
“Where are we?”
“Your new job,” said Death pleasantly. He was still sorting the candies, and looking closer, Jonathan realised with a start that each candy had a name on it: LISA TURPIN, BRAD STEW, and so on. Each bin was labelled, too: TO DIE SOON, ALMOST DEAD, CONCOCTED VIRUS, LIVE A LONG TIME.
“How do you know where each candy goes?” Jonathan asked.
“I’m just the pair of hands,” said Death. “Each candy knows where to be sorted. That’s why they have different colours.”
Graceful, the ticket manager, came out of a door to the back and sighed when he saw him standing there. “Oh, great. Hired another one, have you?” he asked Death in a disapproving tone.
“I happen to rather like this one.”
“Bloody paperwork, though,” Graceful grumbled.
“Which is why I have you around,” sniffed Death. He smiled at Jonathan again and tossed you a black cloak, a hat, and a nametag. Looking closer, he saw that the name on there wasn’t Jonathan. It was a very different name. He hesitated to pull on the clothes.
“Follow Graceful,” said Death, watching him. “He’ll explain everything, including how to visit your family, if you want to do that. I hope you like the name, by the way.”
Persistence gave Death his biggest smile and reached across the counter to embrace him, like an old friend. “I think that it’ll do.”
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I love a little satire about death! This was not only comical but oftentimes quite insightful-- and, of course, a delightful chess game with Death themself! Thanks for sharing.
That's sweet of you to say! I haven't gotten a comment on one of my stories in a while so this was nice to hear! :)