Death and the City (vignette)

Slow nights are rare in my line of work. For some reason, I’m always in demand after dark. Don’t know why – but it’s always been so. I knew what I was signing up for when I agreed to do the job but still, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate an off night when I get it.

Tonight was a slow night so I decided to go into the city. I was drawn to the raucous blur of humanity that jostled and shoved on the heaving pavement, the discordant buzz of so many voices in so many different languages that was like opera to me.

I felt most alive in the midst of such chaos. Which was ironic, considering who I am. Considering what I do for a living. You know me as “Death” but me, I just call myself Jeff.

As I walked down a dark alley, admiring the way the clouds shrouded the moon, I heard the siren call of a new assignment. It came in from the downtown district – another drug overdose. I sighed. This had apparently become de rigueur, at least in the youth. What a waste. There had to be more inventive ways to end a life.

As I walked towards my assignment, I crossed paths with a black cat. Cats are the only living thing that can sense my presence. Most agents don’t like them, as they prefer being anonymous and don’t welcome the attention from these furry felines, but I had no such hang-ups.

“Hey, little fella,” I called softly, and he came up immediately, nuzzling my ankle. I gave him a good scratch behind the ears and kept walking.

The ambulance beat me there. I slid up the banister into apartment 2-B, slipping past a paramedic carrying a defibrillator.

Another paramedic knelt beside a girl who lay unconscious on the kitchen floor. She was lovely, if you liked blondes. He spoke without looking up: “Another f’ing overdose.”

The paramedic with the defibrillator walked over and began working on the girl. “Poor thing,” he sighed. “She’s just a kid.”

I sat on top of a bookshelf waiting for the girl on the floor to untangle herself from this mortal coil. Knowing I had some time to kill, I decided to play a game of solitaire.

I am nothing if not patient. You might even say patience is hard-wired into my makeup. It’s what I do best.

Just as I was about to lose my first game, the girl flat-lined. The paramedic with the defibrillator, who I now knew as Eddie, groaned in frustration.

“Come on, honey, don’t die on me now, come on, come on!” His voice had the frayed edge of hysteria in it. I was charmed despite myself.

The other paramedic (Jose, if anyone’s taking notes) methodically lit a cigarette. “You’re still too green, hombre. Buck up. You’ll get used to it. It gets better after your hundredth KO or so.”

KO was the euphemism Jose used to refer to a patient’s death. “Knock Out.” As if every life on the brink was a video game, every emergency a chance to earn bonus points. He’d personally witnessed over a thousand deaths, having worked as a paramedic for about ten years.

Eddie’s trembling hands went up to cover his eyes. “My God, I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it.”

And the funny thing is, I knew just what he meant.

You see, I was once like Eddie, too. Too green. Wet behind the ears. Insert whatever cliché you like.

I almost botched my first job.

As soon as the soul is severed from the body, you have to grab it immediately or risk losing it. I don’t know what happens if a soul gets lost, but in my boss’s words, “It ain’t pretty, son.” It ain’t pretty, son. Those were the words I carried with me my first time. Looking back I realize they went easy on me, it being my first time and all.

My first assignment was an 88 year-old woman from Italy. She died the best way a human can die, peacefully, in her sleep. So there I was, standing over this old woman in a rocking chair, her arthritic hands clutching her rosary as she nodded off, my hands shaking so hard I could barely stand still, and then her soul came wafting out, so feather-light and quick it almost slipped right through my outstretched fingers.

I caught her in the nick of time. But that feeling of stomach-clenching near-loss has stayed with me to this very day.

I paused in the small apartment, gently cradling Andre’s soul in my arms. He was heavy with days unlived, the smoke of extinguished aspirations forming a gray nimbus around his head.

I’m sure you noticed by now I keep referring to my subject by his name, which is frowned upon in my line of work. For some reason, this particular assignment had struck a nerve. It wasn’t often that my subjects looked me in the eye while still inhabiting their fragile, earthbound shells.

It was the look in his eyes that haunted me. It wasn’t what I was expecting – fear. No. It was acquiescence. His eyes seemed to say, Take me. I’m ready.

As the paramedics picked up their supplies, I noticed that a small crowd had gathered in the doorway, gasping as they saw the paramedics wheel the covered corpse away.

The young woman from before was there, too. Her dark head was bowed with a grief too heavy for her to manage. I still held her lover in my arms.

As I turned to leave, she suddenly pulled her head up and looked right at me.

As I stood in the corridor holding the rapidly disintegrating soul of Andre Samuel Walker, a realization struck me with lightning bolt precision. What if I walked away? I could just decide not to work anymore. Do what I want to do for a change rather than follow this script. Surely I’m not the only one who’s thought of doing this … right?

I walked over to a window at the end of the corridor and opened the casement. Tenderly, oh so tenderly, I blew Andre’s soul out into the humid evening air, watching as it ignited in the glow of a street lamp, rising like a firefly into the clouds.

One thing was sure: I would miss such beauty. I never tired of watching souls go back home.

I met the pure blaze of his lover’s eyes and said to her, “I know you want nothing more than to join Andre, but I don’t think that’s the best path for you.”

“You don’t get to decide when I go, Death,” she sneered.

I smiled at her, tasting the cottony wryness of my smile in the roof of my mouth.

“From now on my only name is Jeff.”

I went to slide down the banister as I always did but then decided to take the stairs. Why not. I could feel the surge of rebellion beginning to rise within me, bubbling with possibilities.

I hadn’t reached the first landing when I heard a small voice cry out.

“Jeff, wait…”

I felt her tremulous presence behind me. I turned around warily. Sure enough, she was there. Only her eyes no longer blazed at me. It was as though someone had turned off a light in her.

“Where are you going?” she asked

I noticed for the first time how pale she was. Her skin was translucent, the raised veins like blue streams meeting at the confluence of her wrist. Her hair was a sharp contrast, raven black, blacker than black. It shone blue like a crow’s feathers.

“Why do you want to know?”

She ducked her head again, in what I was beginning to recognize was a habit of hers, and the sheaf of hair swung forward to hide her face.

Her next words came to me as though from a million miles away: “Take me with you. I want to go, too.”

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