So, I’m dead. And that’s not the surprising part.
No, it’s more surprising that Death has shown up to claim my soul. Literally. I’m apparently not off to Heaven or Hell, but following him.
If I don’t seem too upset about this, well, it’s because I’m not. I had reasons for doing what I did in life, but they seem kind of flimsy, now. If I had to go up and face judgment in front of God and all his angels, I’m pretty sure I can guess the inevitable outcome.
So tailing around after a seven-foot skeleton in a black robe and carrying a scythe doesn’t seem quite as bad as facing eternal torture in the fires of Hell.
“You haven’t really told me where we’re going,” I said, picking my way though… well, I wasn’t quite sure. We’d started off walking towards the town, but somehow took a turn into a shadow, and now walked in some sort of strange-world where everything seemed to shift whenever I blinked or moved my eyes away from it.
Death turned his head just enough to fix me with one of those burning blue flames that he called eyes. HOME, he stated.
“Right, right. And home for you is…”
HERE. He stopped, and I pulled up short to avoid colliding with him. I looked around.
We’d come to… well, a house, I guessed. It was a decent sized house, sitting on a neatly maintained lawn of grass, with an orchard of trees growing behind it. That all seemed normal enough.
But everything appeared to be black. The trees, the grass, the house, the sky – even the sun above us burned with a black flame. The effect twisted my eyes, but even though it all ought to be impossible to see, I somehow managed.
“This is your house?” I asked.
Death nodded. He walked forward, the blades of black grass crunching beneath the bones of his feet. I followed after him as he headed over to one of the trees in the nearby orchard. He reached up and plucked a fruit from amid the black leaves.
No, not a fruit, I amended that thought. It was an hourglass that had been hidden in among the branches. Black sand flowed through the black glass in its black wood enclosure, little grains ticking away seconds.
The top bulb was nearly empty.
HERE YOU GO. Death turned and handed the glass to me. I took it unconsciously, although I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it.
“What do I do with this?” I asked.
Those eye sockets flared. START WALKING. THE HOURGLASS WILL GUIDE YOU. FIND ITS OWNER, AND HELP THEM TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP.
“Next step? I don’t understand-”
But Death was already walking away from me, up towards the house. YOU’LL GET THE HANG OF IT, I HOPE, he said offhandedly. GO ON, THEN.
And then he was gone, leaving me standing there with the hourglass in my hands.
I looked down at it. It was supposed to guide me? I didn’t feel anything-
No, wait. It tugged, ever so slightly, in my fingers. It felt a bit like a faint lodestone, drawing off towards metal. I held it loosely, feeling that tug, and started walking in the direction that it pulled.
I left the house of Death behind, moving instead through that blackness that seemed to writhe and twist at the edges of my vision. I walked, and walked, until it finally wasn’t black and dark around me any longer.
Instead, I stood in a city. I didn’t know it, but the signs were in English. I looked around, seeing the cobbled streets, the tall buildings on either side. Some were wood, but many were stone. An old city, not newly constructed. People bustled around me, somehow managing to avoid colliding with me. I floated there amid them, an island in a rushing river of people.
The hourglass tugged at my fingers. I kept on following its pull, moving through the city.
It led me back and forth, but finally tugged me into an alley. I made my way cautiously down in the shadows, between the buildings. This was the sort of place where footpads could ambush an unaware fellow, and I didn’t want to be caught.
Could they hurt me? I was dead, technically. What could they do to me? Still, I decided that I’d be better off not finding out.
The alley came to a dead end. I stopped, confused. Why had the hourglass brought me here, to nothing? I looked around, feeling it tugging now in all directions, as if it couldn’t sense where to go from here.
I heard a slight noise behind me. I turned, and realized that the alley wasn’t completely empty after all.
A pile of rags next to a garbage pail shifted, and I realized that there was a person inside of there. I stepped forward, wincing a little at the smell, but feeling the hourglass twitch in my hands. I reached out, brushed some of the scraps aside.
A girl looked back up at me, scared and shivering. She couldn’t be more than a dozen years old, so thin that she looked more like Death than a real person. She didn’t seem to be able to focus on me, her eyes gazing straight ahead as if looking right through me to the far wall of the alley.
I looked down at her, saw her struggling even to just breathe. My eyes drifted over to the hourglass in my hands. The last few grains of sand were only now falling through it.
I realized, then, what I was here to do.
The girl took one last, shuddering breath as the hourglass’s last few grains of sand dropped. Her chest sank, didn’t inflate again. I stood there, watching her, waiting.
Nothing happened. My sadness transformed to concern. Why was nothing happening?
I reached out to touch her – and my hand passed right through the rags, through the skin that barely covered bone, down to something beneath. I pulled, and the girl drifted up from herself, shining and shimmering and insubstantial.
It was her soul, I realized. “I’m sorry,” I got out, my voice choked. What could I say to a girl who’d died like this, alone and with no one else, in an alley?
She smiled at me. “You’re a nice man,” she said, her voice carrying a strong British accent.
And then, before I could say anything else, she faded away into nothing.
I looked down. The hourglass had vanished from my hands. I was there alone, in this alley, next to the dead body of a girl who’d died alone.
NOT QUITE ALONE.
I jumped, spun around to see Death step out from a shadow. Those blue flames glittered as he stared at me. YOU WERE HERE. THAT IS ALL YOU CAN DO. IT IS A HARD TASK.
I sensed, in the silence between his words, what he was asking of me. He’d taken my soul, but he didn’t need to retain it. I could pass, could move on and face what might come beyond.
“I’m here,” I echoed. “I guess that’s better than nothing, right?”
Death said nothing – but those eye sockets flared a little brighter, again, and I got the sensation that he was pleased. COME. THERE ARE MANY MORE TO ATTEND TO. YOU WILL BE BUSY.
I spared one last glance down at the girl, but turned and followed Death into the shadows. But first, I took a brief second to make a silent prayer, hoping that she was in a better place than this one.
And then I walked into the blackness, back to the mansion of Death.
Could be worse, I suppose.