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∞ PROLOGUE ∞
I hate Jell-O.
With the fiery passion of a thousand hells, I hate it. It’s not quite dry, not quite wet, and goes down your throat like a cold worm. Actually, I’ve had my fair share of worms in past centuries, and they tasted quite pleasant compared to Jell-O. I can smell the syrupy concentrate from a mile away, its sickening sweetness stuck in my nose. Suffice to say that being around the concoction all the time makes my day pretty stressful.
But not as stressful as Millie Williams.
My shoes echoed and squeaked across the print-ridden tile, the music in my ears drowning out the stimuli of the busy hospital. I held a warm chocolate cookie up to my mouth and practically stuffed the entire thing in. My toes danced in my shoes, tapping fervently, a happy reflex of the unnecessary chocolate and therapeutic music. The small disturbance of calls interrupt my reverie, but they played like pause notes in the music and I took them in stride. The calls surrounded me like a web, the tangles making a home to this momma spider. The pull of a soul’s tether, would snake its way through the silent folds of the universe, looking for me when it’s ready to be taken, to go home. There were silent tugs to my body all the time, a soul’s call for me to come and relieve them. The feeling was a concoction of pleasure and pain—there was no other feeling like taking in a soul and filling an insatiable belly, but every call came with the pain of that soul. The deeper the attachment, the worse it was. However, upon feeling Mrs. Williams’ call, all I tasted was bitter disappointment.
I grumbled all the way into her room, plopping myself on the guest chair that sat untouched across from her hospital bed. I laid back, my black Chucks propped up on the edge of the bed, giving her an annoyed glare. She was giving it back to me, tenfold. Her breathing became labored every few minutes, but she tried to stay as relaxed as possible. I cocked my eyebrow and cracked my knuckles. Her eyelids closed half way in a menacing manner, and I noticed her hand beginning to clutch the trigger for the morphine drip. I sat up. “Don’t you fucking dare,” I told her.
She coughed and I could see a small smile creep to the corner of her lips.
“I swear to Hades, Millie, if you press that damn button…”
She pressed it. Of course she would. I threw my hands up in exasperation.
“I hope you enjoy that morphine, like really enjoy it, down to your ugly, old toes.” I stood up and grabbed my sunglasses off the counter. “I’m tired of this wishy-washy shit, Millie. This is my twenty-sixth time being in here with you and frankly, I’m getting tired of it. You either want to die or you don’t. Next time you call on me, you better be ready.”
I put on my wayfarer sunglasses and grabbed my jacket off of the chair back. I subtly heard a whisper coming from her lips.
“You’re horrid,” she told me with what voice she had left.
“And you’re kind of a bitch. Don’t think I haven’t seen your will. Leaving all your money to your lover, but leaving your dog to your son? That’s low, even for me.”
I walked out of the room into the hospital hallway. I heard the hustle and bustle of nurses passing, the beeping of heart monitors–visitors laughing and crying, nervous feet shuffling in the waiting room. The rain was really coming down outside, the drops pounding on the room and thunder clapping; static hitting the hairs on the back of my neck.
I grabbed a cup of coffee from the waiting room as I walked toward a window. I hadn’t needed food or drink for quite some time, but I enjoyed some good sustenance every now and then. It kept things interesting. However, whoever made the coffee today should have been flogged because it was just piss-poor. I heard a baby cry in the waiting room down the hallway and cursed under my breath.
I cringed at the high-pitched scream and left the cup of coffee on the windowsill. Luckily, a call came for me and interrupted the wailing. It was Mr. Flock in the next ward. I didn’t think he would be today. A girl’s work was never done.
I walked into his room, and he looked at me skeptically. His eyes wandered up and down, still in pretty good shape for someone of his age.
“You?” he asked, surprised like most people.
“Yeah, what’d you expect?”
He took a hard swallow. “Well, someone…in white?”
“Sorry to disappoint, Flock. Darker hues are more my style. You ready?”
“You’re not going to talk me through this?” he asked between coughs.
I gripped the metal railings by his feet. “If you just had to deal with Millie Williams, you wouldn’t want to talk to anyone…ever again. Trust me.”
“What’s with the glasses?”
“It’s this damn hospital lighting. Makes me all sallow-looking.” I waved my hand in a carefree manner but took off the glasses nonetheless. “Satisfied?”
“Better. At least you’re an attractive broad.” He coughed, the smell of his breath a good indicator of his state.
With a slight curtsy, I quipped, “I aim to please.”
He gave me a smile, but furrowed his eyebrows in obvious pain. “So how does this work?” he asked, all humor aside.
“Well, I touch you and you pretty much fall asleep. You a Christian?”
“Makes things easier. Okay, well…It all kind of feels like a dream. Whatever heaven you want, it’ll be planned out for you. It’s pretty damn wonderful.” I paused with concern.
“You didn’t kill anyone did you?”
“All right. Cool. Then yes, it’ll be pretty great. You’re gonna have a blast. Do you have any family coming?”
“I didn’t have any children. All the others have passed.”
“That sucks. Sorry to hear that,” I said, attempting some sort of comfort. “Now, I’m going to touch your hand, okay? It’ll be quick, painless. Just concentrate on something you love…got something?”
“My dog, Bart.”
My lips pouted in confusion. “Whatever floats your boat, man.”
I walked closer to him and smiled genuinely. Despite the prerequisite, it was fulfilling to see someone pass so they no longer had to live in pain. I reached my hand out to him, and with just a light touch, I saw his memories. Some sad, some happy; a life mostly filled with empty smiles and regrets. And lots of women. Whoa. The later the life, the faster the flashes, in one fast-forward motion, until it all faded to a white flash. Then came darkness. The darkness was soothing, an eerie calm down in the pit of my stomach, like hot chocolate on a winter night. His monitor droned down to its long, low-pitched tone, and I disappeared before his nurse came in. I put the glasses back on and stuffed my hands in my pockets. I pulled out my mp3 player and slid the earbuds in my ears. It was a morning for The Beach Boys. It was only 9:00 a.m. and I wasn’t too happy about my first passing. Why did the annoying ones always seem to last forever? This era was kind of shitty.
I’m Death, by the way. Everyone calls me Dee. Well, those who see me anyway. I like desserts, classic pop and rainy nights. I also like serial murders and cataclysmic events. But I hate Jell-O. I really regret not being available to take the bastard who invented it.
I don’t know exactly why I chose this place to stay over the past few decades.
I’d been all over the world, the multitudes of universes, seen millions of people, spoke hundreds of languages and dialects and seen the most spectacular views on this planet and the next. But there was something special about sitting on Cannon Beach on a late summer morning, watching the sun come up against the waves and gargantuan rocks. The blanket of sky contained a plethora of colors ranging from navy to poppy pink, with the light dusting of stars that reminded me of the beginning of time and, consequently, my birth. The rich green of the forests evened out the grayness of the city, despite the magic of the artificial lights. Overall, my nomadic and shifting nature was quickly overrun by my desire to find new characters and watch them shift and grow until their chapters came to an end.
I first transferred to this particular hospital in Oregon about thirty years ago. The rain was not as bad as everyone made it out to be, and while most days were actually quite beautiful, I preferred the rain–the soft pounding of it, the cold harshness of it, the constant opening and closing of its Pacific curtains to worlds only I had seen. It kept people in, kept them safe, leaving less work for me to do other than claiming the routine hospital patient. There were only so many rain-induced car crashes I could deal with on a daily basis.
I chose my body a couple of centuries ago. Since that time, it stayed pretty sustainable. The previous occupant was the rebellious daughter of a European king who had been forced into an arranged marriage and hung herself the night before the wedding.
I could commend a woman for sticking to her guns.
Every new body I chose also came with its owner’s most prominent memories. I saw hers from time to time. I saw her nature and urges, the life that I could have led if I was human. I’d grown into her skin and had come to see it as home–at least for a few more years. It certainly was better than my normal form, which did have a tendency to scratch its way out from time to time, a great show for the mortals. It was truly a shame that I had to permanently endure looking at that version of myself in the Book of Fortune, the book in which all of our fates were written and interlocked, the book that declared its destiny for all….the book that was a complete pain in my ass.
Annoyances aside, I was grateful for the time spent away. The Underworld certainly didn’t have as good sustenance, that was for damn sure. I hastily admitted to myself after years spent among the living that I would never go back. Unless the Book declared it so, I would kick up my heels and enjoy the rain, the flesh, the life.
The storm continued to drown out a lot of the noise inside the hospital. I threw on my headphones and cranked the music up in response. I skipped until I found an 80’s party tune and stretched my arms. My knuckles cracked, spots of ash flaking off them like confetti. A smile crept up in the corner of my mouth as my feet found their footing, dancing to the tune of synth and drums. I touched a few bodies coming in on stretchers amongst this dance of the dead, answering their calls with a caress to their wrist, their cheeks.
In the midst of my play, the music itself paused, cutting off my groove and halting me in the hallway. A scratching noise whispered its way through the left earbud, then the right, a whisper of something I couldn’t quite comprehend. It left my stomach cold, an odd rumbling echoing out through my organs. My hand touched my abdomen, trying to recollect the sensation.
Years. It had been years. It wasn’t time yet, but the Hunger was making its way back. The scratching disappeared, the music blaring once again. I swallowed the stone in my throat and walked along with more concentrated steps.
I still had time.
DEAD MAN’S PARTY
“Don’t run away, it’s only me.”
There was a half-moon shaped lounge I often laid out in. I made myself comfortable, feet up, reading a Better Homes and Garden magazine. The reading was absolutely terrible. How could women tolerate this stuff? All those ugly flower arrangements and gross salads? And since when did making salads become as complicated as making a normal entree? I threw the magazine across the couch, missing the table on purpose.
“Dee, for the love of God…”
My head turned and my eyes peered over the top of my sunglasses. Not a lot of people could visibly see me, let alone call me by name, but the Duke was one of those exceptions. I gave him a smile. “What’s up, Gramps?”
I picked up another magazine. He walked over to my legs and pushed my feet off the table.
“I understand you’re just doing your job, but can you at least behave yourself? Some of the nurses get spooked.”
“Eh…it’s a slow afternoon. The newest gossip magazines don’t come out for another three days. They need something to do.”
“No, that’s what my job is for, and right now, you’re making it harder.”
The Duke, aka Vincent Jacobs, was one of the hospital janitors. He was tall, African-American, in his late sixties and had been diagnosed with a terminal illness several years ago. That didn’t stop him. He continued to work his normal hours and had come to terms with his illness and death, hence the being able to see me. He was not afraid of me, and I admired that. I never called him by his name. He reminded me so much of Marion, John Wayne himself, when I met him in California that I had to bestow the name upon Vincent. He didn’t believe me most days, but he went along with it anyway. I went to pick up the magazine. “How you doing today?”
“Well, I’m not dead yet.”
“Me and you…we’re gonna have fun when you’re ready.”
“You gonna take me on a hot date?”
“You better believe it, buddy. You better save up too; I’m not cheap.”
He laughed under his breath as he emptied a trashcan near me. I watched him closely. He had a couple more wrinkles now than he did a few weeks ago. He was sweating more than usual. I could smell his blood…he had been indulging in desserts lately which had risen his glucose but kept him happy. He sensed me inspecting him. “You keep your vulture eyes off me, Reaper. I’m not your lunch.”
I ignored the insult and rolled my eyes jokingly.
“Fine, just lay off those snack cakes. You’ve packed on a couple.” I hit my stomach for emphasis and he lightly smacked my arm with a rag. “Hang in there, Duke. It’s going to be a good day, at least for you.”
“I can’t promise the same for you, dollface. You may want to stay away from the cancer ward.”
I let out a loud moan. “Don’t even tell me. Jones?”
He looked at me with a mischievous grin.
“Bloody hell.” I straightened the sunglasses on my face and jumped over the corner seat, slipping the Duke a high five on the way out.
By then, it was lunchtime. I could smell the nurses’ lunches heating up in the microwave and another pot of coffee brewing in the nearby waiting room. The mauve walls needed a fresh coat of paint but the stubborn wallpaper trim refused to be taken away. It felt rough but undeterred under my fingertips as I skimmed my hand along it. It was still raining but I could sense the sun wanting to peek out through the cloudy barriers. Somewhere nearby, a visitor had opened a window in a room. I could smell the Pacific air, clouded by the stench of a homeless man pissing in the street.
My earbuds were snug in my ears as I walked toward the surgical ward. Surely someone wouldn’t survive there. I heard the bustle of someone coming down the hall on a gurney. Just from looking at her as she passed by, I could tell what was wrong. I could hear broken bones grinding against one another, a collapsed lung struggling to breathe. I could smell the iron taste of O-negative on my tongue. She was trying to say something, but clots of blood just formed at the back of her throat and bubbled up out of her mouth. The nurses were rushing in while I trailed behind casually.
They finally reached the operating room and pulled away the sheet. The girl’s abdomen was ripped open, glass shards speckling the site like sprinkles on a cake. I felt really nauseated. My host was winning this battle. I covered my mouth, holding in the unfamiliar gasp.
I retched in the hazardous waste disposal bin in the corner. I let it all go, completely barfing beyond belief. I could see traces of yesterday’s red velvet cupcake amongst used needles and bloody surgical gloves. Awesome. I wiped my mouth, pulling away at my long, brown tresses that had stuck to my face and looked over at the table again.
Suck it up, Dee.
I glanced at the clock. The girl began to flat-line, and while the surgeon was trying his best to put Humpty back together again, the others were trying to resuscitate her. It needed to be over with. I walked over, took a deep breath, and grasped the girl’s hand. The memories flashed, then the darkness. The flat-line continued until the surgeon called it. I could have gotten in trouble with the Sisters, but I honestly could not have cared less. That girl didn’t have an Angel hovering over her, telling me to back off, and her exposed entrails were just too vile to deal with for a prolonged period of time. I did all of them a favor. I walked out of the surgery room feeling like I needed an inhaler. My glasses, hanging crooked on my head, slipped off and fell to the floor. I went to grab them, but my fingers were met by another’s.
“Dee, fancy seeing you here.”
Ugh, his voice was nails on a chalkboard. He was a seemingly attractive, male—tall, blond, muscular, the whole bit. Amongst others of our kind, he was androgynous and could choose any form that he wanted and amongst the living, he chose to look like this. Unlike me, he could choose who could see him and who couldn’t. He wore a casual linen suit, like some sort of lost Beatles member, and he glowed with a smile that I wanted to cut off his face. “I’m here every day, dickhead.”
He tsk-tsked me. “Woke up on the wrong side of the ethereal space?” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and casually followed me. Why did he always have to do this? He was like that little dog that nipped at your heels when you were just innocently trying to check the mail…you know, the one you wanted to secretly get crushed by the garbage truck. Twice.
“I’ve only had two passings today. I’m just a little aggravated.”
“Hmm, I guess life has taken its fair share today. I’ve had six savings.”
I mocked his braggart statement. “Then you have plenty of other people to bother.”
“I like to check on friends from time to time.”
I stopped in my tracks, my shoes letting out a loud squeak on the tile. I faced him with aggravation and could feel the smoke of every underworld rise in my chest.
“Listen, Jones. I am not your friend. As much as I appreciate your contribution to this world, I’d much rather appreciate you from far away. Got it?”
He smiled and bowed his head as if he was in a yoga class. His blond hair fell into his eyes but he pushed the strands back with careless ease. “I shall leave you be, innocent Reaper.” My eyes turned into slits at the remark and I grabbed his linen suit. My fingers clutching the material caused it to burn immediately to ash. At that moment, I felt my bones stretch and groan, my body now towering over him with menacing intent. The black oil beneath my shell of skin began to bubble up from underneath, beginning to burn away the color like old film. I could feel flakes of ash chipping off my face.
“That’s an insult, Miracle. If you can’t appreciate another by their true form, then you have no business being on this plane of existence. I am Death. My reapers do my bidding, but I am here on my own behalf. Don’t forget that.”
I let go of his jacket arm and watched the material return back to its smooth, untouched state.
“I meant no degradation, Dee. I sincerely apologize.”
While his face and slight smile reeked of sarcasm, his eyes were genuine. Mine were filled with fire. “Get out of my face, Jones. You know where to find me if you need me.” I shrunk back to my original form and turned my back to him.
“Dee,” he called before I could completely walk off. “I really would like for us to be friends. We’ve had countless centuries to fight…we are committed to the same cause despite the manner in which it happens. Can’t we at least agree on that?”
“Jones,” I paused to think over my words. Yes, we’d known each other since well, the beginning of time, but the fact that he was so perfect made me absolutely sick. And yes, we were committed to the same cause; to relieve those of pain. But little did he know that while he thought he was practically a god, I had the real power. I let people leave this forsaken place for their utopia. Or hell, sometimes. I gave them the ticket to ride. Everything else was Karma, baby. I wiped my sunglasses on my shirt and placed them back on my face. I smiled and gave him a casual military salute. “I’d rather suck a nut.”
July 11, 1804 – Weehawken, NJ
As much as I had hated to admit it, there were times when I found Jones tolerable. He did have the microscopic ability to let loose, but the years had certainly put a damper on his sense of humor.
“Ten bucks,” he whispered, “on the smart one.”
I feigned shock. “Wager on a man’s life? Who are you? Plus, they’re both smart, you dill weed.”
“The one that doesn’t know when to be quiet. Very much like you; such language isn’t suitable for a woman of this age, you know.”
I stuck my tongue out at him, waiting for the opposing parties in front of us to finish their deliberations. “Fine, then,” I conceded. “I’ll happily bet on Traitor McSmarty Pants.”
The early morning fog had rolled in from the Hudson and the two men stood on opposing sides of the hill, one digging the toe of their boot into the dirt and the other cleaning his spectacles nervously. Uncertainty hung over and between them, the tension and years of bitterness apparent in the stiffness of their limbs. Jones and I hung by the tree line, leaning our backs to two red oaks flowering generously in the summer dawn.
The two men’s seconds were speaking now, all hushed voices and shaking heads. They walked away, talking to the men in charge, A doctor kept close, his back to a nearby tree, waiting for the inevitable dust to settle, hoping he didn’t have much to do.
“I wonder when they’re going to stop this foolishness,” I remarked, breaking the silence.
Jones looked over, a little scoff escaping his lips “Dueling? I think it’s rather exciting.”
“You would. Half the time, there’s no real fight. They either give it up or shoot to miss. Hardly worth the attention.”
Jones tapped his temple. “Battle of the minds.”
I relaxed my back against the wood, crossing my arms. “Ah, yes, so much strategy, so many brain cells being put to use in pointing a pistol at another man.”
“It’s much more than that.” He straightened, pointing a finger at the two men. “These two men, I’ve been watching them for some time now, measuring and assessing. Even their fates were uncertain in the Book. But these men, their history goes back many years. Their fight began the moment they shook hands, the moment this one” – he motioned to the one with the spectacles – “communicated his admiration but only in the way he knew how, to formulate plans, to figure out the ways that were better, to be better.”
“Hmmph,” was what I replied with, but I let it marinate.
“Their fight, much like the climax they have reached today, was all written in between the lines, in the words that they never said.”
I thought about the Book, about the validity of his words, the blurriness of fate. “Do you mean…?”
“Shhh,” he said. I scrunched my eyebrows. I hated when he shushed me. Jones pointed back at the men, walking their paces away from each other. My eyes landed on the two men, watching the twitch in their eyebrows, the flickers in their jawlines. I saw the fight in the spectacled man’s eyes, the rage but regret in the other’s. I was going to lose the bet.
Something had changed in the air, then. An eerie and painful tremble in their hands, in the memory of all of the words that they had exchanged over the years, became apparent. They raised their pistols. Time had begun to slow, both of their tethers calling to me.
“Your man’s shaking, he means to miss,” Jones whispered. We were both leaning toward the action now, waiting for our calls to come in.
“Wait for it…” The first pistol fired, smoke filling the air, the sound of a ricochet on a nearby tree. The next bang quickly followed, Jones’ man falling to the floor. My hands shot up in the air. “YES.” My hand quickly shot back down in front of Jones, my fingers beckoning for him to pay up.
“It’s at the house,” he confessed. My arms dropped in an exasperated sigh. “But you have to admit that was a little fun, right?”
“Seriously, who are you and what have you done with Jones?”
A small smile crept in the corner of his lips. He brushed a hand through his hair, and for a moment, I thought I heard a chuckle come from his throat. “Duty calls, Death, I believe this one is on you.” He began to walk away from the red oak, walking peacefully against the traffic of concerned witnesses.
“Jones, wait!” He stopped, turning his head but his body still intent to walk away which was an extremely rare occurrence. The pull of the dying soul kept me from walking away from the scene. “The Book – do you think that there is more we can’t see? Are there things between the lines?”
This time a sad smile. Another pull from the soul. I twinged at the anchor of it. “Time has secrets, Death. I don’t think we’ll ever know the extent of them all.” He disappeared then in a warped glow.
To continue Dee’s story, purchase “A Deathly Compromise” on Amazon. Click HERE to get your copy now! (Paperback and Kindle edition available.)