What a First Day.
The roar of the Thunderchiefs could be heard fading in the distance. My brother and I were left to clean up. I wandered through the mess of bodies, bicycles, and bombshells. The village had been obliterated. I stepped carefully, nervous, as one would expect a novice to be, following my brother’s lead.
I reached into their bodies, civilian and soldier alike. They all felt the same inside, cold and sad. I grasped their souls with my pale fingers and pulled them free. Most souls came willingly, others required a bit of force.
I retrieved a little boy’s soul that was trying to ascend. I cradled it between my hands; it was small and soft like a cotton ball. “It’s ok,” I whispered to it, hearing his cries in my mind. Carefully, I dropped it in the basket in the crook of my arm and continued to work.
I felt my brother’s gaze on me. “Mary,” He said.
I looked up at him. He was not what mortals imagined when they thought of death, but of course, neither was I. His white complexion was complimented by his gray hair. He was dressed in black. He drifted as he walked, as light as air and unseen by the survivors.
I tried not to look into the eyes of the living. I knew they could not see me, but they felt Death’s presence and they shivered when we passed.
I stepped over a corpse and replied. “Yes, brother?”
“I know you’re new at this, but you need to move quicker.” My brother had a cold indifference when he spoke. Years of working in a war zone would do that to a person, Immortal or not.
“Yes,” I repeated, catching a soul that was fluttering at my feet, begging to be taken away. I dropped it into my basket and continued.
The rain pounded down. The weather was unseasonable but fitted the mood perfectly. The air was hot, muggy and smelled of smoke. Survivors wandered around the wreckage, and I kept my eyes on the ground.
This was not an ideal First Day on the job.
My brother is a Reaper. Yes, like the Grim Reaper. Except there’s more than just one of us. The Humans make sure that we are kept busy.
We are Immortals, residents of the Afterworld. Heaven is what most Humans call it. Our job is to retrieve the souls that have trouble finding their way there. War zones, prisons and hospitals are the usual places that you can find Reapers. Old couples that die in their beds usually have no problem ascending. It’s those who die in agony who get lost.
My name is Mary, but Humans call me Death.
I am not fond of Humans.
The sun struggled to peek through the clouds as I searched through the rubble. My basket was overflowing from the souls lost to this recent air strike. The wind blew dust and smoke. People were screaming somewhere in the distance. I sighed as a shot silenced them.
“Don’t worry, Mary.” My brother said, looking up from where he was searching. “You get this one, I’ll go over there.”
I watched him walk away, floating over the sand. My grip tightened on my basket and I resumed digging with one hand.
The research facility had been totaled. There was nothing left of the buildings and the souls were having a hard time working their way through the smothered bodies. I noticed one drifting aimlessly through the rubble and plucked it up carefully. These souls burned hot with hate and they weighed my basket down like bricks.
I could still hear the jets in the distance. They were heading back home to rejoice in their victory, no doubt. I clenched my teeth. They celebrated while I was left to clean up. Selfish Humans.
I caught sight of my brother returning. His basket was full as well. But our work was not done. He motioned for me to follow him. “Let’s go, Mary, there’s more over here.”
I picked my way down through the alleys, ripping and tearing the souls free as I passed. They fell into my basket like chunks of lead. I had no time to be gentle anymore. There would be more strikes tomorrow.
I looked down at my hands noticing how the pale white stood out against the black of my clothing. I hung my head, but when I glanced up, I could still see my brother’s outline through my translucent hair. I tugged at my Reapers uniform nervously.
My brother sighed before speaking. “Mary.” His voice was soft but stern. He turned to me and I forced myself to meet his pale gaze. He took a step towards me. I heard his boots brush the smooth concrete floor.
I fumbled with a silver ring on my finger. The guilt was so heavy I felt like I had eaten a bowl of stones. I didn’t want to hear the lecture so I spoke up first. “I’m sorry brother,” I said, staring at him with as much confidence as I could muster. I struggled to keep my voice calm. “I don’t know what came over me, but it won’t happen again.”
We had been working in Gaza yesterday. I had been trailing while the souls built up. It had just been my brother and me in that part of the block where the bomb had hit. The destruction in the Middle East combined with the unrest in Ukraine had left our numbers thin. Spirit had promised new Reapers were on their way.
My brother sat down on my bed. His name was David. We looked nearly identical – white skin, grey hair, and grey eyes. He was tall and thin like me. Reapers were as colourless and dreary as our occupations.
I fiddled with the silver ring on my finger again. My brother had given it to me on Christmas of 1989 when we were Reaping in Panama. It was made by an Afterworld craftsman, so it was as special to me as it was rare.
Of course, David wasn’t truly my brother. Reapers did not have families the way Humans did. The Spirit made Reapers when there was a need for collecting souls. Our numbers grew steadily as the Humans’ population grew and spiked during the wars. My brother was really my mentor, the Reaper that had taken me under his wing when I was created.
David put his arm around my shoulder. “Mary, I know that sometimes it’s hard to face these things.”
I pressed my mouth into a tight line, trying to come up with the best response. “It’s not hard.” I spat. “I hate Humans, that’s all there is to it.”
“Mary, what we do is a very necessary part of Humans’ existence.”
I snorted, feeling cynical shadows creeping up. “If they didn’t blow each other up every time someone looked at someone the wrong way we’d –”
“That is not your place to criticize.” David snapped and the lowered his voice. “It just the way things are. You are young, but soon you will see, nothing changes.” He paused, forcing back memories. “Humans have always fought; they just seem to find more efficient ways of killing each other.”
I lowered my eyes again, letting the silence hang beneath us for a while. “How do you do it?” I whispered. I caught a glance towards him, noticing that he had clenched his fists. A cold energy filled the room. I immediately regretted asking, because I knew that this wasn’t easy for him either.
“I manage,” He said.
My brother and I didn’t talk much about his past. He was decades older than I was. His first mission had been Auschwitz.
I wanted to apologize, but I didn’t get a chance.
The door swung open. Standing in the doorway was Remus, an older Reaper who was in charge of dispatching Reapers to the war zones. “David, Mary,” He spoke quickly. All Reapers were referred to by their first names, no names were repeated until after the owner of the name had Faded and it could be reused.
We stood to attention impulsively. “Yes, sir?” David barked.
“A flight’s just gone down over Ukraine, we need back up.”
David and I returned several days later, tired and exhausted.
Our baskets were weighed down with souls. Together we brought them to the holding place before Spirit would inspect them.
In the past when I was collecting souls and bothered to care about the Humans, I could listen to the words that the living would use to comfort each other. They said that Heaven was a beautiful place of clouds or rolling hills or whatever that particular culture believed. Maybe the final destination was beautiful – not that I knew, Reapers were kept in their own quarters – but I knew that the process getting there was long and cold.
We dumped the baskets in a holding container. An older Reaper took our baskets and our logbooks.
David and I were stripped of our field uniforms and boots. we changed into our more casual black uniforms. I shook my long hair out of its braid and stretched my arms over my head.
We washed our hands and faces before joining the long communal tables in the mess hall. We sat beside each other wordlessly eating our bland dinner and staring at the table.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and snapped out of my trance, looking up to see Amrita looking down at me. She was a Reaper about my brother’s age.
“Good work out there today,” She said with an approving smile. She was a Reaper who specialized in student suicides in South Asia.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, sitting up as my brother elbowed me. “I mean, it’s my job after all.” I mirrored her smile, hoping it looked sincere.
“Exactly.” Amrita was a Reaper who was entirely dedicated to the task. “Never a dull moment on war duty, right David?” She turned her attention to him.
“Right,” David replied shortly.
Amrita continued. “Actually, there was something I wanted to talk to you about, David.” She paused and glanced at me out of the corner over her eye.
I took that as my cue to leave. “I’ll leave you both to it,” I said while standing and leaving half of my dinner untouched.
I didn’t wait for either of them to stop me and I didn’t make eye contact with anyone while I went to my room. All I wanted to be was alone right now.
I lay down in my bed, staring at the grey ceiling. Everything in the Reaper’s quarters was a shade of grey. My room was small and rectangular, enough room for a single bed, two chairs, and a table. We ate in communal cafeterias and washed in communal washrooms. My brother’s room was a few paces down the hall.
There were footsteps in the hall and quiet chatter. Reapers worked in shifts and it seemed that there were a few not scheduled today.
Reapers were some of the most basic citizens of the Afterworld, a place unknown to the Human realm. We made few friendships and kept to ourselves, not mingling with other beings. What could we possibly have in common with them anyways?
I closed my eyes and tried to keep the memories of the crash site at bay. Remembering smell of burning rubber and flesh made me gag.
At the end of every shift, once I was alone in the quietness, I wondered why I had been made a Reaper. Reapers aren’t born in the traditional sense. They are simply popped into the Afterworld and given a job. I have no memories before my First Day. I have nothing to remember but years upon years of grueling work. I have nothing to distract me in the cold of the night when the dark thoughts creep up and threaten to drown my mind.
Sometimes when I retrieve a child’s soul I can feel the warmth of nostalgia and hear the sounds of play. That is the only time I am envious of Humans. I try to lock onto the feeling of warmth, the way it fills my stomach with butterflies. The butterflies are suffocated by the cold emptiness.
I hissed with frustration, rubbing my eyes hard. Those pathetic Humans, if it were not for them I could have had another purpose. Instead, my entire existence was to be the collector of the trash they left behind. The Spirit had so many other beings under Its control, but I had become the lowest of the low.
David would have hated to hear my thoughts. He told me that being a Reaper was one of the most honorable designations, those few chosen to guide the souls to the Afterworld. It was a weight he was proud to carry on his narrow shoulders.
I exhaled loudly and resumed trying to clear my mind.
David had warned me once before about negative thoughts. He said they would creep up in the dark and eat me alive. Reapers were Immortals, but even we could cease to be – we called it the Fade. When the memories of horror and despair, the burdens of living finally took over and we could not bear them anymore. Reapers would Fade into nothingness and the Spirit would replace us in a never ending circle.
I had heard stories from others about the Fade, some who had close encounters with it during times of great darkness. They said it was cold and constricting, that it consumed you entirely, like being clenched in a steel fist.
I tried to find the butterflies again to keep the ice away.
I fell asleep about half way through my meditation and I was awoken shortly after by a distinct knock at my door.
It was David, as I knew it was by the soft rhythm of the knock. He stood stiffly and his eyes were dark from exhaustion. He had not yet rested. “Mary.”
I bolted to my feet. “What’s wrong?” My mouth went dry. Whenever David took that tone with me it meant something was very wrong.
David shut the door behind him. There was a long pause. He didn’t approach me. “I was talking to Amrita,” He said.
“Yes, I know. And?” I prompted, feeling myself tremble. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Well, it seems, the Spirit has decided that you should become a mentor.” He spoke quickly and then took a step back as if he had just lit a bomb.
I was silent for a while and then forced a laugh. “You’re kidding right?”
“No,” David replied. He sighed and clasped his hands behind his back, squaring his narrow shoulders. “You’ve been at this for close to fifty years now, you’re well past your learning curve. You have enough experience; it’s time for you to help a new Reaper.”
My shaking legs finally gave out from underneath me. “No. No!” I screamed and pulled at my hair in frustration. “No, David! You know I’m not ready, I can barely face it out there on my own.” I sobbed. “If I become a mentor, it won’t just be us anymore. I need you, David.”
My brother finally closed the distance between us, pulling me into a hug. “Don’t worry Mary I’ll still be with you,” He spoke softly against the top of my head while running a hand through my hair.
I clung to him. I could feel the coldness pulling inside me. How could I possibly become a teacher when I was so terrified?
There was a pause in the air strikes and the dust had cleared enough for us to start out work. We were back in Gaza – “We” was now defined as David, me, and the new Reaper, Elias.
David was off digging for souls in the rubble. I walked quickly, giving Elias short one-word commands. My basket was filling quickly. I had filled half of it in the makeshift hospital a few blocks over.
Elias was whiney. I had known the Reaper who used the name Elias before him. He would be ashamed to see who had received his name after he had worn it with pride for centuries. The previous Elias had fallen victim to the Fade during the clean-up of the twin towers. I was thankful that I had not been on that assignment after hearing the horror stories.
The new Reaper trailed behind me like a shadow, his basket near empty.
I would have sworn that I was not that slow on my First Day.
I looked over my shoulder at him. “What?” I snapped.
Elias was hovering over the sand, seeming lost. “I thought I felt some more, over there,” He pointed down an alley.
I sighed. I had been hoping to catch up with David quickly. He managed to make the silence less awkward.
“Ok Elias,” I trudged over and followed him down an alley.
Bile rose in my throat. I choked and I had to look away. There were two dead men, probably young teenagers, they had been crushed under a falling beam. No one had cleared them away yet. No one probably even knew they were there yet.
Elias stopped behind me. “So sad,” He said with sympathy.
I gritted my teeth. “No!” I shouted. “No Elias, this is not sad. It’s pathetic. All Humans ever do is kill each other. And for what? For another speck of sand under their control? It’s disgusting! Soon you’ll learn. You’ll know what we’re nothing but garbage collectors. Gatherers of Spirit’s little pet project,” I spat the words escaping me in a flurry of anger. “Humans aren’t deserving of souls.”
I threw my basket to the ground. Dozens of tiny souls scattered around us, blowing around in the breeze like cotton balls before settling in the bloodstained sand.
When I finished my rant, panting, I felt David’s eyes on me. I looked up to see him. His expression of utter disappointment ripped through me like razors.
I stared up at the ceiling with my hands behind my head. After several failed attempts at mediation, I was left with my thoughts.
I had been put on therapeutic leave for the next week. The elder Reapers had decided that after my outburst I was not fit to go on another mission yet. However, there was no rest for my brother and he had been sent back to Gaza. Elias had been moved to another mentor. I had made it perfectly clear that I was not ready.
David said that Spirit had been furious with my language. To imagine Spirit furious scared me more than any bomb. But when Remus confronted me, I refused to take back my words. Everything I had said was true.
The elder Reapers, the ones who had resisted the Fade since the Beginning, were in Counsel with Spirit to decide my punishment. When David told me this, I laughed.
“There is no worse punishment than being a Reaper,” I told him.
We hadn’t spoken since.
A week alone with no company made my thoughts dangerous.
I closed my eyes and let the darkness come over me. It washed over and mingled with the anger. The darkness rose. The tendrils extended from my core and wrapped around me. They were burning cold. The constricting feeling would always snap me awake and when I awoke I felt like a fraction of me was missing.
Scenes of the past fifty years flew by in a hellish slide show. Once I chased one memory away, another would take its place. My hatred for the Humans would simmer deep inside and the darkness would grip tighter.
My brother interrupted a particularly gruesome set of memories on the last day of my leave. He knocked on my door.
I fumbled to switch on the light. I was hoarse. “Come in.”
When I saw his face, I knew something was wrong. I hadn’t expected a warm greeting, considering all that had happened, but he looked awful. He was thinner and more pale than usual. His eyes were dull. He closed the door behind him with a soft click.
“What’s wrong?” I sat up in my bed, moving over for him to sit beside me like he usually did.
David sat on a chair instead. He hesitated. “Mary,” His voice faltered and he took a second to compose himself and find the words he needed to tell me. “Mary, Spirit has decided that you need to have a longer break.”
The selfish side of me was thrilled. A vacation from picking souls out of dead bodies while others fell seconds later? Not having to force an angry soul from a bullet hole or scrape through entrails to find one tangled in gore? A fantasy come true. The other side of me, the one faithful to my brother and mentor, knew this only meant more work for him. He already had over twenty years more experience than me. I knew he needed my help.
“Why?” I asked, trying to keep the conflicting voices in check.
My brother paused again. I knew he was trying to word what he had to say in the kindest was possible.
“Spirit has seen your breakdown and It and the others see you unfit to Reap until you have come to terms with your position,” He said finally. “Reapers must have compassion for the dead.”
I gritted my teeth, remembering when I sent the basket of souls flying in my fit of rage. I considered my words carefully before speaking. “How can I value their dead when even they do not?”
My brother suppressed a sigh. “See, that was what the Council was referring to,” He said. “Humans, for the most part, do value life and do mourn for death.”
My memories swirled around images of mothers clutching their dead children and lovers calling for each other through the blinding smoke. I forced them down. “Sure, some do. But the majority of Humans would sooner shoot a man than help him.”
“Watch yourself.” The tension rose in David’s voice.
I sobered and slunk back into my bed. “So what is going to happen to me?” I asked. “What punishment has Spirit decided?” I tried my best not to sound sarcastic.
Waiting for David’s reply was agonizing. “Well,” He said. “It seems that Spirit has decided you need to learn that the majority of Humans are not how you see them. Humans are capable of much good and are deserving of souls.”
I snorted. “How am I supposed to see that?”
I could not have predicted his answer.
“Mary, Spirit has decided to make you Human.”
I stood in front of a full-length mirror. Though I was not the “me” that I was used to.
“So, what do you think?” David asked. “Spirit did a great job.”
The body in front of me was of the teenage female Human variety. It was soft and pink and shorter than I was used to. My fingers were pudgy; they would have been useless for Reaping. I had breasts, which I also thought to be useless. My hair was coarse and brown and my eyes were a greenish shade that David called hazel.
I preferred my androgynous body: cold shades of grey and white, fluid hair, long limbs and no annoying lumps and bumps.
I shivered, wrapping my arms around me. “It’s awful,” I choked.
David laughed. “Come now, by Human standards you’re quite good looking.”
“I’m not Human,” My words came out harsher than I had intended.
David threw me a fluffy robe to cover myself with. “Well, maybe not but in order to study the Humans you have to blend in.”
“Right, because most Humans who meet Death don’t get to chat for very long.”
David frowned. My brother was getting tired of my attitude. I had been snapping at him ever since he had told me the bad news. Spirit had made good on the threat.
It was Labour Day, tomorrow all of the children would be starting school. I would be among them. Spirit had decided to send me to live among the Humans, to learn that they were so much more than how I saw them. I would be attending high school, disguised as a sixteen-year-old just entering the eleventh grade. David said he would be checking in on me and would manage any issues that might arise.
My backstory was provided: My name was Mary Grey. I was sixteen; I would turn seventeen in March. My parents were high-profile investors and had homes all over the world. They were working on a project in Hong Kong for an extended period of time and they had sent me back to Canada as an attempt to giving me a more normal upbringing. My older brother David lived a few towns over. My papers and identification had materialized with my Human body. As far as MacDonald High School and my landlord were concerned, everything was legitimate. Of course, Spirit was capable of anything, so I was hardly surprised.
I pulled the robe around myself tightly and turned from the mirror. I couldn’t bear to look at my new body.
David sat on a chair, still looking the same as before. He looked bizarre in Human surroundings – a seven-foot tall monochrome body sitting on a pink bed, with his coldness crisping the sheets and his translucent hair drifting in the breeze from the window.
I fidgeted with my pudgy new fingers and found the reaction less satisfying than before. “How long do I have to stay like this?” I asked.
“Until you learn your lesson,” David replied with a shrug.
I clenched my teeth. There would be no faking it with Spirit. I realized then that I dreaded the thought of having compassion for the Humans. It was terrifying to imagine interacting with them, having to look them in the eye when I knew what was on the other side.
“You’re not to reveal anything,” David added.
I rolled my eyes. “No duh, maybe I’ll just march into school and tell them all their religions are wrong and I have come to pluck their souls out of their hearts,” I said sarcastically.
Surprisingly, David let out a hearty laugh. “There you go! You sound just like a teenage girl.”
MacDonald High. A garish black and orange banner hung over the front door. GO MAGPIES! The bell rang.
I stood on the sidewalk with my hands in the pockets of my black jacket. I pulled my wiry hair into a tight braid. Out of all the changes I had endured, I hated how the ground felt under my feet most of all. I kept tripping over cracks in the pavement. I missed the gliding, the weightlessness of being a Reaper. This body was terribly heavy and clumsy.
The silver ring wouldn’t fit over my finger, so I had strung it around my neck on a piece of cord. It was the only part of myself I was permitted to keep with me. David still had duties, I would only see him in emergencies, which I was told there should be very few of.
People flowed around me, a few of them bumping my shoulder as they passed. Rude comments were shot my way, but I wasn’t listening.
I took a deep breath and took slow steps towards the metal doors. I merged into the flow of students, careful not to touch any of them. I kept my eyes on the ground and my hands in my pockets. I remembered by timetable easily. First class was in room 140, drama. Apparently Spirit had a sense of humor and wanted to give me something lighter in the morning.
The high school was two stories, but room 140 was close to the entrance. I arrived with no trouble and found a seat near the back. The desks were arranged in a semi-circle facing the blackboard, there was a small stage at the front and a podium where the teacher had already piled her books. She was a younger woman with a blue streak through her hair. Her black glasses had rhinestones on the edges.
She gave me a friendly smile, but I ignored her. I stripped off my black jacket; I hadn’t bothered stopping at my locker, not wanting to risk any conversation with another student. Underneath I wore a plain black t-shirt and black leggings.
A student whispered from the other side of the room. “Oh look, a Goth in drama class, how rebellious.”
Her friend giggled at the comment.
Tight-lipped, I ignored them both and sat down. The coldness of my ring against my chest comforted me.
The class filled up. I stared down at my desk, trying to seem interested in the timetable that was taped onto the inside of my binder. Before being given my body, Amrita had given me a crash course on school culture. I had the basics down, but when I asked her questions, she would always respond the same. “Every kid’s first day is a tough, just roll with the punches.”
The teacher wrote her name on the board: Ms. Marsh.
She seemed to know most of the students from last year, there were twenty of us in total. “Good morning everyone, it’s so nice to see you all again,” Her eyes stopped at me, I could feel her staring at me during the extended pause. “Also, we have a new face this year,” She hesitated. I heard her checking her attendance list for my name. “Mary Grey.”
I finally made eye contact with her. She smiled at me again and I made no attempt to return it. That poor clueless woman.
“Miss Grey, why don’t you introduce yourself to the class?”
“I’d rather not,” I said shortly.
“Now dear, you can’t have stage fright already?” She laughed. A few students echoed her airy giggle.
“I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually,” I said, forcing a tight smile.
I noticed her shiver. It was a reaction I was used to as a Reaper. I wondered how much influence I would have with this new body.
“Well,” Ms. Marsh cleared her throat. “Let’s get on with it then,” She handed out our textbooks. She dropped mine with more force than the others. “We’re going to start with a review of Greek tragedies.”
As she made her way back to the board, I felt the other student staring at me. I opened my book to the chapter about Sophocles and shut out their whispers.
Second class was the same. The English teacher tried again to get me to stand up and introduce myself. I was lucky because there was another new transfer as well. He went before me and told his story about moving from another province or something of that nature. I traced circles on my notebook instead of listening. I refused to stand up and announce myself as he had, but this time, at least, the teacher didn’t take it personally.
Lunchtime was the first bit of comfort in the day. The long rows of white tables filled with bodies, groups of three or more people, stuffing their faces and talking amongst themselves. It reminded me of the cafeteria back home.
I found a vacant seat at the edge of the table and sat down. I was careful not to knock elbows with the group sitting beside me. I ate the lukewarm meatloaf slowly but efficiently, not listening to anyone around me and my eyes staring at the table.
“Hey,” A voice intruded on my meditative silence. “Hey?”
I was forced to look up at the person standing across the table from me. If I remembered correctly, she had been in my Drama and English class. She was petite. Her hair was pulled into black pigtails and her t-shirt had a skull and roses across the front. She held a tray of food in front of her. Her nails were painted purple to match her silk scarf gathered around her neck.
“Is anyone sitting here?” She was referring to the seat across from me.
I shook my head, looking away from her. She was of Vietnamese descent. In seconds memories of my past crept up and grew over my thoughts like weeds. I shut my eyes and exhaled. I couldn’t look her in the eye. “No, you can have it.” I choked out and then fled from my seat.
“Wait,” I heard her call after me. “I wanted to tell you that I like your boots!”
I didn’t turn around to acknowledge her.