First Draft: Taking up the Mantle
Just an idea I had floating around. I read it more as an introduction to a larger world, and so I may revsist it to develop it more fully. But this mostly tells the story I was interested in. You may recognize Death from Day 24, mainly because I like the friendly, personable Death. As usual, it is a first draft. Let me know what you think and any suggestions you may have. Happy reading!
The first time it happened, I was seven years old. My mother left me to play at the park, and I had noticed a grey lump laying on the very edge of the road. Upon closer inspection, I saw the tiny frame of a squirrel, obviously struck by a car recently. A think trickle of red stained its chin, and I felt the heavy hand of sadness as I studied its little body. I looked around cautiously, creeping closer, and reaching out a tiny trembling hand. Somehow, I thought I might just be able to wake it up.
When I did touch it, there was a strange electric feel to the contact, as if a flurry of energy swam between us. My entire hand felt a shock of numbness, then nothing. More surprising, however, was the rush of thoughts and feelings inside of me. In one moment, I felt as if I could feel the world spinning swiftly beneath me, as if I were a million miles up looking down on its progress. My perspective telescoped out, and then rushed back in, settling in my tiny body. It would take me years and many more experiences to find the words to describe this phenomenon; even now, the words are hollow.
A man walking his dog suddenly sneezed, snapping m back to reality as I pulled my hand back. He sniffled, his face pale and drawn, and I tried not to look like I was playing with a dead animal. When I glanced back to the squirrel, I saw it standing in the street, glancing around swiftly. Its tiny eyes met mine, and then it scampered past me and into a tree.
I gasped, smiled, and ran to follow it, watching it swing and sprint across tree branches. Even on the ground, I felt the same exquisite joy as it moved nimbly from branch to branch with newfound life. When I tried to explain to my mother, however, she merely scolded me for touching a dead animal. None of my miraculous testimony made it through to her as she dragged me to the bathroom and scrubbed my hands three times over.
Even as a child, I realized that this was not something I was going to be able to tell her about; it was taboo. And so I carried my secret.
When the boys at school threw rocks at a mother bird, I waited until they left and then cradled the limp body. The world spun around me, and I took off into the universe. When I came back, her eyes were open, and she took off to tend to her nest.
Then there was the evening our neighbor’s dog had her puppies. My mom let me sit in their kitchen to learn about the “miracle of birth,” but then tried to swiftly shuffle me away when the last puppy emerged, still and silent. I was too young to learn about death, apparently. She had me sit out on the front porch while she talked with Mrs. Calvin, but I snuck back in when I heard their voices drift back to the living room, Mrs. Calvin’s soft sobs fading. She stopped crying when I carried in the squirming little puppy, alive and well.
“I heard him,” I lied to them. Later, my mother woke me up with that same puppy, a smile on her face.
“A gift from Mrs. Calvin,” she told me. He was my miracle puppy named Patches because of the splotch over his left eye, and he never left my side. Except when I went to school, of course. I was no Mary; he was no lamb.
I brought back a snake, a couple more squirrels who had a predisposition for jumping in front of cars, one turtle someone had hit with a lawnmower, two fish from the tank in my room, and more moths and butterflies than I have fingers to count. I had been to human funerals—one for my great grandmother and one for Mr. Calvin after his untimely heart attack—but there were too many people around, too much attention on me. My mother never let go of my hand long enough to see if I could work the same magic. Besides, I always felt exhausted after using my gift, even on small animals and bugs. Even at eleven or twelve years old, I understood how complicated humans could be.
I was fourteen when I found out what it all meant. Normally, a fourteen year old waking would scream upon waking to find a grown man sitting on her bed. That would be a different story, however. No, when I saw him, I somehow understood that there was no need to scream or run or hide. He was distracted, looking at the pages of a black, leather-bound book, his finger skating down the page as he clicked his tongue against his teeth. There was no sense of a dream about the meeting, but there was also no sense or reality and time. In some ways, it felt much the same as when I reached out and touched some recently deceased creature. It was all super real, but also impossible.
After a moment, he turned to face me with a smile. His eyes were warm behind wire-rimmed frames, and he carefully crossed his neatly polished shoe across his knee as he spun. “Ah, nice to meet you, Corine.” He offered his hand, and I shook it slowly, still sitting in the tangle of my bedding.
“Who are you?” I asked. In hindsight, I feel like there should have been fear. But there was not.
He straightened the black lapels of his suit jacket, snapping the book closed. “I am Death,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “No need to beat around the bush, I always say. Most the people I meet don’t have time for it anyways.”
I just nodded. “Does this mean I’m dead?”
“That’s a good thought, but no. Not yet, at least.”
“So then, why are you here?”
He laughed, his face folding along well-practiced wrinkles. Despite the wrinkles, he still looked surprisingly young. Approachable. Friendly. “You aren’t one to dance around things either. That’s good. We’ll get along just fine then.” Behind his glasses, I could see his eyes searching for the right place to begin. After a moment, they brightened, and he turned back to the book.
“So, Corine—can I call you Corine?”
I nodded, my breath frozen in my lungs, waiting for his response.
“Thanks. So, I have had some unusual reports coming from this area. Unexplained, unexpected deaths. Now, unexpected deaths are a part of life. However, they are not a part of death. I know when everyone is going to die. If I don’t something is wrong. You follow?”
My head swung up and down stiffly as I tried to figure out the implication of his words. “But I haven’t killed anyone!” I offered frantically, certain of my innocence.
He laughed again. “No, not intentionally. Of course you haven’t. Only, unfortunately, you have been giving life to some whose time was up. Things must balance out, of course.”
“But, I didn’t—“
“I know you did not mean to. You had no idea what kind of power you have. That’s why I’m here. Now, normally, we know precisely who is going to be a Reaper. You, however, slipped through my fingers.”
“A Reaper? What do you mean? Am I dead?”
“No, you are still not dead. But you do have gifts. Being a Reaper means the power over life and death, a power I usually have taught you by now to use only as directed. Unfortunately, you came from unusual circumstances.”
He adjusted his glasses on his face, then cracked open the leather book again. His finger ran down the page, the tapped a line. “From the best I can tell, my Reaper Jeremiah was dispatched to your birth. Unfortunately, you were supposed to be dead.” He caught himself and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry to bring the bad news, but at least that’s not what happened. No, instead, Jeremiah never returned. From the best I can tell, he passed his gift along, sparing you and sacrificing himself.”
“I killed him?”
Death’s smile was sad, and he shook his head slowly. “No, I think Jeremiah was just tired of the work. It happens. Turnover is not a huge problem, but it plagues everything.”
“So, what does this mean?”
“It means you are a Reaper. You are tasked with helping the newly dead shuffle off the mortal coil and into the Great Beyond.”
“But I’ve never killed anyone!” I objected once again.
“Of course you have. You did not mean to, but every time you gave life, it had to come from somewhere.”
I thought about the butterflies, the squirrel, Patches. I also thought of the kid in first grade who died in his swimming pool, of Mr. Calvin’s heart attack, of the inoperable cancer discovered too late in my Reading teacher. “But I didn’t want to kill anyone!”
“I know. It’s an unfortunate part of the job. It’s why we don’t use our powers to give life to those who are past due.”
“But I thought it killed Jeremiah when he did that?”
Death smiled, nodded. “Yes, it does seem that way. Only Jeremiah was not returning life, but he refused to take it. A very distinct difference.”
There was silence in the room as I mulled over these words, the implication of my life thus far. “Who have I killed?” I finally asked.
Death smiled a tight, grim smile. “Trust me, Corine, you do not want to know that. It is not good for you to know that.”
“So, what now?”
With a sigh, Death began to speak again, “Now that we know you are a Reaper, it is time to work on your training. I’ll have a veteran assigned to help you learn the ropes. You’ll become aware, at some point, of a list of individuals assigned to you. Each night as you sleep, you’ll be taken to them to help them move along. I think I’ll send Gracie to help you out, and she can explain more.”
“But what if I don’t want to kill anyone?”
He sighed. “Corine, you are not killing anyone, per se. They are dying, and you are just opening the door for nature to take its course. If you do not help them, they will spend a bit longer in pain or suffering, and one of the other Reapers will come along. You, also, may cease to exist. Things must stay balanced, after all.”
“What if I just never sleep? Then I can’t be called away, and—“
“You are welcome to try, but I would expect you will find the need irresistible. My Reapers have the best sleep patterns of any humans in the world. More than a few hours past due, and you’ll begin to find yourself transported to your locations, even as you continue doing your best to stay in your present reality. From what I hear, it is quite disorienting. Not something most people repeat twice.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
He placed his hand on my knee, still beneath the covers, and looked at me solemnly. “That is your choice, of course. But this gift was given to you because you cheated death. If you refuse it, then you have to come with me.”
“I have to die?”
“So, do Reapers never die?”
He chuckled, a low, somewhat bitter sound. “No, even Reapers die. I do my best to make it a pleasant experience. After death, you can continue the work, if you so choose. Many Reapers find they enjoy t. You can offer a bit of comfort and companionship to someone in their last moments, and then help them move on from the pain.”
“But it’s not always like that.”
All hint of a smile left his face, and his eyes grew distant, sad. “No, not always. Sometimes it is quite terrible. It is not an easy job.”
“But it’s mine, now?” I felt the room spinning with the revelation. It settled like a pack of stones on my shoulders.
“Unless you would like to take the other option.”
I was fourteen and not ready to die. Either way, I assumed the offer would stand if I could not handle the reality of this curse—even if he wanted to call it a gift. It would take years for me to see it through his calm, wise eyes and claim it as a gift again.
“I’m scared to die.”
“Most people are. You shouldn’t be, but most are. However, if you choose to accept this role, then you can help them not be so scared.”
“Okay. I don’t have much of a choice.”
“No, you don’t. You were far too young when the choice was made for you. But I don’t think you’ll regret it.”
The next morning, I woke up refreshed and energized. Patches was snoring on the foot of my bed, the sun was pouring through my thin curtains, and I could smell pancakes drifting up from the kitchen. On my bedside table, however, were a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, the lenses dusty and worn. As I reached out to touch them, I noticed a shadowy mark on the back of my hand, a feather intertwined around a heart.
In the light of day, the mark faded, disappearing from my skin, though I could still feel it prickle against the surface. As I looked up, the glasses disintegrated, vanishing before my eyes. The weight settled back on my shoulders as I felt the awareness of strange names settled softly into my consciousness.
I had my first assignments, and the world suddenly felt very cold, very large, and very hostile.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.