"So, you're a killer?"
Death wished he had ears so he could plug them. This was the one question he hated being asked the most. You would think that after two millennia, he would have gotten used to the cold accusations and criticisms of mortals, but the truth was it still stung.
Everyone feared him because of his name, and everyone hated him because of his job. What could he do to change that? Absolutely nothing.
"No." Death said calmly. "I am not a killer."
"But you're Death," the girl refuted.
She was a young, feisty Soul, recently acquired from Rio de Janeiro. She had been killed in a freak paragliding accident. Unlike the other Souls in his lantern, she accepted her death quite frankly. She didn't lament on it, express any regrets or blame Death for taking her away too soon. In fact, she was the first Soul in years to greet him, by name, and take an interest in his work.
It was flattering, at first, and quickly became promising. Death had been searching for an heir to take up his scythe and this girl seemed the perfect fit.
Then, naturally, the accusations came.
Death shrugged. "So?"
"So, you're a killer!"
"I show up when people are already dying," he said. "How does that make me a killer?"
The girl made an overdramatic slashing motion across her throat. "'Cause you finish'em off! That's why you've got a scythe, right? I mean, why else would you have it?"
Death took a moment to admire his weapon. He couldn't quite remember the story behind it - the previous Death had been so eager to retire to the Other World that he hadn't explained things very well, and it had been two thousand years since. But it was a remarkable piece, with an inky black snath and a curved blade that never rusted and never dulled.
Mortals believed that Death reached into their bodies with his scythe and ripped out their Souls. And that very well might have been true, once upon a Dark Age. But this was a modern world. People still feared dying - they always would - but there was an acceptance now, thanks to a resurgence in spirituality and religion and philosophy. It was now easier to coax the Soul out of the body and sever the connection.
Cutting out Souls was nasty business and, in Death's honest opinion, not good for morale.
He replied, "It's used to sever the connection between body and Soul. Plus, it looks cool."
"Really? You don't stick it through people? Slice of their heads?"
"What? No, that's disgusting."
This bit of information seemed to rattle the girl, but only slightly. She cupped her scared chin and pondered for a moment. "So if you don't kill people, then what do you do?"
He had already answered this question, but figured repeating it a second time couldn’t hurt. “I collect the Souls of people who have died and transport them to the Other World.”
“But to collect their Souls,” the girl said, vigor renewed, “you have to kill them first, right?”
Death couldn’t believe the stubbornness of mortals. He could explain virtually anything to them in baby-speak and they would still deny it or feign ignorance. He’d never encountered a species so vast in its intelligence — and yet so blatantly stupid.
“This was a mistake,” Death said, unfastening the lantern attached to his belt.
This was another misconception: Mortals believed Death wore nothing but a black cloak, but this was far from the truth. Wearing the same outfit for two thousand millennia was super unhygienic. Not to mention that cloaks chafed his bones. Death preferred to keep things classy and casual: Simple black slacks, an undershirt and a vest.
"You’re clearly not the right person to fill this position," he continued, "and I have work to do.”
“Killing people?” The girl asked.
Death held up the lantern. Inside, hundreds of orbs of indigo light, no bigger than mothballs, bounced about. “Collecting their Souls.”
“Yeah, by killing them.”
“I am not a killer.” Now Death was getting angry. He usually prided himself on his even temper, but this girl was trying his patience. “I’m simply doing my job.”
“What…what is wrong with you? Are you...all right, you know…” Death gestured to his skull, swirling a finger near his temple.
“I may have hit my head when I died,” the girl said, reaching up to stroke her bloodied hair. Death had seen her corpse; he could attest to this. “But it doesn’t matter. I just want an answer.”
“An answer that I have already given you. Multiple times now.”
“Okay, then if you don’t kill people, what do you do?”
“I collect their Souls and…”
Death stopped himself. There was no use explaining himself a third time. This girl wouldn’t comprehend just by listening: He would have to use a more direct approach. He rolled back his sleeve and checked his watch. He’d already missed several thousand Soul collections by now, and the numbers were increasing rapidly — but there was a death occurring nearby. He could show her how he worked, offer up his job if she wanted it, and if she said yes, then cleanup would be her problem.
He'd been tethered to this job for too long now; his ancient Soul ached for retirement, longed to find rest in the Other World.
This was his chance.
He held out his bony hand to the girl and said, “Follow me.”
A family of twelve huddled around a cot, witnessing their youngest member degrade. Death and the girl kept close to the shadows they had emerged from, watching them. A little boy lay wrapped in blankets, his body drenched in sweat, his small face gaunt and pale. His frail arms were covered in puce-colored patches.
He wasn’t long for this world. A few seconds. A handful of breaths.
“Where are we?” The girl whispered, though there was no point. Mortals couldn’t hear or see them.
“This is my next assignment: Isra Dominguez. Acute myeloid leukemia. Time of Death…now.”
Isra sucked in a low, rattling breath, gazed fearfully into his mama’s eyes, and passed. After a few seconds, his Soul began to seep out of every orifice, flicking wildly across his body like an out-of-control flame. The girl stepped behind Death, her expression twisting into one of terror.
The child was scared, resisting Death, but Death could calm him. Children were far easier to work with than adults.
He stepped through the crowd, passing through them like a soft wind, and knelt beside the mother. He wished he could conjure up some sympathy, but in the end he felt nothing. He knew that the Soul was eternal, and that life existed after death; he knew that the family would be reunited once again; and he knew he would be the one to transport them.
But if this goes well, he thought to himself, maybe I'll get transported there before then.
Death rested his scythe against his shoulder and held out a hand over Isras’ chest. The Soul retreated, dipping underneath his hand and springing away like a repelling magnet. But it had nowhere to go. Souls generally remained attached to their mortal bodies, even years after they’d died. There were a few exceptions, of course, in which vengeful Souls were able to sever themselves and roam free. Death knew better than toil with those sort; they could not be persuaded. They had to choose to let him transport them to the Other World.
Death could feel Isra's emotions. He wanted to stay. Deceased children always wanted to stay. Some thought staying attached would bring them back. Some thought their parents would be able to hear the cries of their Souls. They couldn’t comprehend death, but they knew love. And they wanted to keep as close as possible to that love, for however long they could.
“I can’t say I’m sorry for what has happened to you,” Death murmured, his vacant eye sockets tracking the Soul as it pulsed up and down Isra’s body. It mounded and lunged for his mother, and shrank away from Death’s persistent hand. “You were in quite a lot of pain, weren’t you? Fighting to keep strong for your family — for your mama. But it was all worthless in the end…wasn’t it?”
Isra’s Soul flared at these words, the soft, calm indigo darkening to a malignant purple. It snapped angrily at Death’s hands now, burning the tips of his fingers. He hadn't a clue as to what Souls were made of, but he knew one thing: They were raw energy, always hot and always burning. They were the one and only thing that caused him any physical pain.
“There is a better place for you,” he continued, letting the Soul scorch up his knuckles and along his wrist. He placed two fingers on Isra’s breastbone. “Another World exists beyond this one. There, you will be made healthy and whole. You’ll never be alone there. You’ll have work and play and plenty of rest. And your family will come, in time. But you cannot remain in this world. It is no longer yours.”
The Soul had crawled all the way up to Death’s elbow before it stopped. The sleeve of his undershirt had melted away; part of it had even melted into his bone. Death’s tailor would not be pleased.
The purple fizzled and flared, and then died away. Isra was beginning to listen, but he wasn’t fully convinced he should go. The anger stage, believe it or not, wasn’t the worst part: It was this stage — the grief stage.
Luckily, Death knew how to combat it quickly. Keeping his hand on Isra’s breastbone, he reached across his body and flicked the latch on the lantern. A lot of the orbs shrank away at his hand, but a courageous few tried to escape. But Death had already plucked the Soul he needed — a dim yellow orb, set apart from the rest.
He brought the orb to his face, muttered, “Go on, Roy, introduce yourself,” and set the orb free. The orb expanded — there was a building of light — the lights flickered twice — and a dog appeared, perched at Isra’s shoulder.
Roy was a skinny thing, with jutting ribs and hips, but he had a sweet face and floppy ears. The dog sniffed Isra’s body, sniffed at his Soul, and barked. His tail thumped wildly.
Always have the Soul of a puppy in your lantern for children. It was an old trick, but an effective one.
The result was immediate: Isra’s Soul sprang from the surface of his body toward the dog, tied down by a tether pinched between Death’s fingers. Death cut it quickly with his scythe. Before Isra’s Soul could take form, Death wound the tether around his fingers and jerked it back. Like a deflating balloon, the Soul shrank to the size of a mothball.
It was uncharacteristic of Death to do this, but before he put the Soul in his lantern, he leaned forward and placed a very toothy kiss to the corpses’ forehead. Something had gripped him. He wasn’t sure what. Perhaps he wanted to make an impression on the girl still cowering at the back of the room. Or maybe he felt a tad guilty for using the boy as a means to hand the reigns over to someone else.
Isra’s Soul fizzled in his hands, but Death didn’t investigate it and instead stowed him away in the lantern.
“Good boy,” Death said to Roy, patting him on the head. The dogs’ tongue felt like lava on his palm. He grabbed the tether poking out of his chest like a second tail and jerked. The dog shrank, just like Isra had, and Death returned him to the lantern.
With a sigh, he stood and made his way to the back of the room. The girl was in tears, the collar of her shirt sopping wet.
This, too, seemed promising.
“Now you have seen what I do,” Death said, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice. “Do you still think I’m a killer?”
“Oh, totally!” The girl gasped, pawing at her eyes. She was grinning like a madwoman. “You killed that little boy beautifully, Death, just…woah!”
Disappointment weighed heavy on his shoulders. So much so he thought he might cry himself. But that was impossible without tear ducts. All he could do was grind his teeth and tamper his frustrations.
“This was a mistake,” he repeated once more and reached for the girl. She dissolved immediately once he grabbed her tether.
It astounded him how quiet things seemed without her. And how lonely. She had annoyed him, sure, but she was also the first Soul he’d spoken to in years, aside from Roy.
And then Death started to think about the Other World, and how the chance to move on had alluded him yet again. He hung his head.
Everyone feared him for his name. Everyone hated him for his job.
No one - not even Death himself - wanted to be him.
But this, he knew, was his job. And so long as there was Life, there was Death. There would be a time to rest, but that time was not now.
Death checked his watch once more. The numbers were skyrocketing. It would take a year, maybe two, for Death to cut these Souls and get back on schedule. He picked up his scythe and swung it over his shoulder. He was reaching for the shadows on the wall when a glint in his peripheral startled him. His head snapped toward the lantern. An orb was glowing, crying out to him, desiring an audience. He knew he should just ignore it and get on with his work, but hope wrapped around his neck like a noose, winding him.
He extracted the Soul from the lantern and released it. Part of him had been expecting to see the girl again, but the person that emerged made his jaw drop.
Isra, holding up Roy by his armpits, stared up at Death, his round eyes twinkling.
Death kneeled until they were eye-level with one another. He couldn’t speak, for confusion had stolen his words and his thoughts. The boy glanced from Roy to Death, from Death to his scythe, and then, at last, to his family.
"What happened?" He asked. "Who are you?"
“I…I’m Death, son,” Death replied. "You, uhm...you died."
“Oh." Isra's expression fell. Roy jerked his head back and lapped at his cheek, eliciting a giggle from the boy. "And my family...?"
"They'll be with you again," Death said. "In time."
"Are you a bad guy, Death?”
“People say I am, but...no. I don't think so.”
“Then, you're a good guy?”
Death was absolutely puzzled. He felt abashed when he answered, "I'd like to believe I am. But really, I’m just a messenger.”
Isra furrowed his thin brow and asked, “What kind of messages do you deliver?" His eyes dipped to the lantern on Deaths' hip. "Do you deliver those? That seems like a lot of work. Do you want some help, Mr. Death?"
Death gripped his scythe with all he had.
This, too, seemed promising.