I think about death a lot. It’s hard not to when all you see around you is pain and sorrow day after day. I find myself thinking about whether I should help others seek a release from all the grayness around them. But when I start thinking about that, I have to wonder if I should worry more about saving myself.
Being around the others makes me feel just as lifeless and gray as they are. It makes me want to seek the release death could give me, but when I get down to thinking about it, the others keep me from killing myself. For some of them, I feel I’m the only reason they’re living.
I don’t have any proof to that last statement, other than some strange looks I get from time to time. There isn’t a good way to describe the looks, other than maybe expectant. I have no idea what anyone would expect from me, but they sure seem to want or need something.
I’ve heard rumors that it wasn’t always this way. Life wasn’t always this way. People didn’t go around making deals with Death or killing others for God. At least not in the way they do now.
No one knows whether either being is a physical person. It’s said that they are entities who hop around to different bodies that serve as the faces of their causes. I always thought that was crap. I mean, it’s a good idea if you don’t want to be killed by your enemy, but the whole idea of hijacking someone’s body never sat well with me.
Of course, no one really cares what I think. The only people who matter are those aforementioned beings. They rule the city of Eden, and if you want to live as long as possible, you generally side with one of them. Not having a side leaves you living in the Gray Zone, where I call home.
I’m one of the few who voluntarily thought it’d be a good idea to live without the protection of Death or God. Maybe the only person. Most people who live in the gutters don’t have a choice. They lost their ways gambling on their chosen higher power and ended up muttering to themselves about their mistakes, keeping me awake most nights.
In fact, they keep me awake every night, or something does. I don’t remember a time when I actually slept. I only know about sleep because the others have told me about it.
It’s easy to see why I spend so much time thinking about helping others seek some kind of solace in death. Not the person, just the state of being. Things tend to be a little morose in the gutters. I’m not exactly sure why the Gray Zone even has that nickname, but I’m not in a position to question things.
I’ve never been like other people. On the outside, I suppose I look like them. My skin is a little paler than most, which contrasts a bit with my inky, long hair and bright crimson lips. People have told me I look like a ghost, like they’ve actually seen one to know what they’re talking about.
I honestly don’t know what I look like, other than what they tell me and the features I can see. I’ve never seen the eyes that are just as dark as my hair or the thin cheekbones that don’t seem to fill in no matter how much nourishment I can find. People don’t have a reason to lie about what I look like, so I believe them when they describe these features.
Belief in other people is hard for me. I’ve always been alone, mainly sitting in the small box I call home. Like I’m doing now. Just sitting here waiting for something to happen. I have a feeling today is the day it finally happens. I don’t know what it is, but something is different in the air. It feels more alive than usual, which is causing an odd feeling to bubble up inside of me. I have no clue what to do with the energy trying to wrap around me, so I sit and wait.
There was a time I wasted energy by doing more. I’d walk around the streets, or rather dirt paths at this point, searching for something I could never put my fingers on. I thought I had some sort of purpose above the dirt and grime of the gutters. Everyone likes to think their life is meant for something. I think we all get a little disappointed the day we find out we’re wrong.
For me, that day came around the time I turned sixteen. Thinking about it for a second, I realize it has been a little over three years since the realization finally hit. If I had parents, which I’m told isn’t really a question because everyone has parents, they were never around. My earliest memories are of just me on my own with the people of the Gray Zone substituting for whatever family I once had.
When I was little, the others thought there was something special about me. They never spoke about whether they knew my parents. They were obsessed with the red star mark on my wrist, though. They even tried to convince me it meant I was marked for greatness.
I believed them up until I became an adult in the general sense of the term. I don’t think about what happened. I just know that since it did, there is no way I’m meant for something more than being what I am. I’ve come to terms with the reality of the world and I find a small consolation in that.
I have walls around me, even if they are no more than an eighth of an inch thick. They keep the elements from bothering me. The front of my home is open, so I can see if anyone is coming for me. Knowing someone is coming is the only way I’ve found to defend myself. I’ve learned the consequences of letting them sneak up on you, so I’m always looking forward and making sure they cannot capture me from behind.
A knock above my head disrupts my thought process. I sensed Lani before the noise, so it doesn’t startle me that she stands outside of my vision to knock. I’ve told her that I hate when she does it, but she likes to see if she can make me jump. She’s one of the few who still insists there’s something special about me.
“It’s time to go look for something to eat. I heard the briar patch is full of berries today.”
Her voice is soft, and strained. Lani had one time been in the Death camp of folks, selling herself to the monster for the ability to sing beautiful songs. I’d never heard of her before she showed up in the Gray Zone, but others who had come from the world outside the gutters confirmed she was once well-known for her ability to sing.
The way her words are hard to hear now shows just how far she’s fallen from the life Death had promised her. She doesn’t talk about what happened, but as usual, one of Death’s deals didn’t seem to work out for the buyer.
I peek out of my box to see the older woman. I hadn’t seen her before her fall, but I assume along with the voice, she’d been what others consider beautiful. She has long hair that is stringy and gray in color. One time she told me it used to be an attractive color akin to the sun. I’ve never seen anything like she described, so it’s hard to picture.
Lani is wearing her usual dirty dress made of thick, scratchy material. I know the material well, even though I’ve stopped wearing it myself. Ever since the event I don’t want to remember, but yet can’t, covering up seems like a waste of time. Hiding what’s underneath a dress had only aggravated those involved, so I stopped doing it.
There are others like me, maybe not for the same reason, but handfuls of the Gray Zone inhabitants don’t bother with clothing. I’d love to say I feel liberated or something doing so, but I don’t truly feel anything on an emotional level.
“The briar patch hasn’t produced berries in years.”
My words aren’t needed, which is why my response is dull and monotone. At one time the patch had been one of the best food sources for those who had to scrounge around for their meals. Then it just stopped producing. No one knows why, and it isn’t like any of us are scientists who can figure it out, so we’ve moved on.
“I’m aware of the stories, Mors. They don’t change the fact that I saw Rhys with a whole handful of berries.”
I crinkle my forehead when I hear my name. It isn’t something I hear every day and I always get a little disturbed when someone uses it. I don’t know where the name came from, whether a parent had given it to me or someone else decided it suited me.
Continuing to look at Lani, I try to let her enthusiasm spread. It’s rare, but there are people who find joy in our existence. The smile revealing her yellowed teeth leads me to believe that going to get her own handful of berries will make her happy.
For me, the berries would be nothing more than something to dull an ache my stomach occasionally gets. I eat so infrequently that the pains I once felt don’t bother me. Sometimes it’d be nice for the pain to come back to give me a chance to I feel something more than just mild irritation.
“So, you want to go get some berries?”
I stop to concentrate on whether my stomach will burble at the idea of food coming. That takes me down the road of trying to remember the last time I’d eaten. I can’t remember.
Lani taps on the roof of my box, impatient with my lack of movement and response. I let my eyes refocus to acknowledge I haven’t forgotten she’s standing there.
“How big is the crowd?”
I already know I’m not going to like the answer to the question. Murmurs about food had to be running around the gutters, so everyone would be out looking for it. It made the silence around us make more sense. I had briefly thought about how quiet it seemed, but didn’t bother to look.
“I know how you are about being around large groups, but if we don’t go now, they may eat it all.”
I think about shrugging, but the effort it takes to do so seems extraneous. Even with the idea of food being close by, I know it’s best to conserve energy.
“Don’t worry about me. You go ahead and get your fill. If I feel up to it, I’ll go once everyone gets back.”
She’s right to think there probably wouldn’t be anything left. I should care about that. Without food, at some point I will die. Although, with how infrequently I eat, it seems logical that would’ve already happened.
“I’ll bring some back if I can.”
Lani is smart enough not to push. Others have tried that tactic before and I don’t respond well to pressure. It usually ends up with me sitting in a catatonic state.
Nothing more is said as I feel Lani leave and quickly grow into a distant memory. She shouldn’t have bothered stopping by to see if I’d go with her. If she was really worried about the briar patch being picked clean, she should’ve gone straight there.
“Someone’s going to be upset.”
A new voice brings me out of my thoughts. It’s unknown to me and I have to believe it’s only in my mind. That happens sometimes. I think I hear someone talking, usually it’s a woman, but when I look around, no one is there. In my current mood, I don’t bother looking around to see if there’s a person it belongs to. It tends to be when I’m confused and alone that I start hearing voices.
“I know you can both speak and hear, Mors.”
The man’s voice sounds again as I try to clear my mind. I know without seeing him that he isn’t someone I’ve met. He isn’t someone from the Gray Zone. That much is clear from his deep voice that doesn’t sound like it’s felt the pain everyone I’ve heard has laced in every sound that escapes their lips. I sense that there might be a little pain, but not to the extent I’m used to.
I consider ignoring the man. In my gut, I know I should. A person from outside the Gray Zone cannot be good news for anyone. Especially not one who knows my name.
I think again about the change in the air I’ve felt. It has to have something to do with the man, and I get the sense that he’s not just going to disappear. I don’t know how or why; I just feel like he’s there for me and won’t leave without getting whatever he wants. My mind races to try to figure out what that might be.
He’s not like the others who attacked me. There’s something about him that feels strong, stronger than anything I’ve ever felt before. It makes me want to feel that strength, to be surrounded by it, but for now I stay hidden slightly by the walls around me.
“Who’s going to be upset?”
I try to make my voice as loud as I can. I usually keep my voice low, but I want to make sure the intruder can hear me from his position out of my view to the left of my box.
“The person who provided the berries. They were meant for you.”
The claim makes me scoff. There was a time when I was gullible, but it’s been a long time.
“Is that some kind of joke?”
His statement is so comical that I shouldn’t have to say anything. I’m using way too much physical and mental power trying to keep up with conversations. I fear the man, and yet I want to know more about him. I think it has to do with the power I feel coming from him and my want to know more about it. I didn’t feel hungry thinking about the berries, but there’s something in my stomach now that feels like a rock.
“No, Mors, it’s not a joke. I can see every one of the bones in your torso.”
It’s the third time my name has been spoken in a short amount of time. I figure he only knows it because Lani used it, but I decide not to verify that fact. It doesn’t matter how he knows my name.
“I’ve seen worse. Why don’t you go bother one of them?”
“Because their presence hasn’t been requested. I was hoping you’d have at least a few handfuls of berries so I don’t have to carry you out of here, but I don’t mind the task.”
The man is clearly delusional. The way he says his words coherently makes him one of the sanest sounding people I’ve ever heard, but that doesn’t change the fact that what the words add up to don’t make sense.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
I raise my voice as much as I can to put emphasis on the words. Asking who had requested my presence would’ve been a good idea, but I don’t bother. I figure there’s two people it could be, and I don’t want anything to do with either one of them.
“You think you have a choice? I know you haven’t seen me yet, but trust me, if I want you to move, you will.”
I know that much from his voice alone. That doesn’t mean I won’t challenge the control he thinks he has over me. Until he exerts it, it’s all conjecture.
“All that means is I have to convince you that you don’t want me for whatever you think you want me for.”
I figure the more I babble, the less likely he’ll be able to follow along. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to use the technique to dissuade someone from talking to me.
“That may work for some people in certain circumstances, but this isn’t one of them. Are you able to walk? Or do we need to go the carrying route? I brought some food with me if you think it would help.”
Obviously, he’s a very helpful guy, I think to myself. It’s another thing that makes me want to laugh.
“I already mentioned I don’t want to go. Why would I do anything that would help you accomplish whatever mission you’re on?”
There’s no reason I should’ve been noticed enough to receive a summons. I haven’t moved from my spot in almost a week. Neither of the warlords of the city are lurking in the gutters, so it doesn’t make sense that one of them would all of a sudden be looking for me. I briefly wonder if someone else had the power to summon people, but my knowledge of how Eden works is too limited to even consider it.
“I was told to find the girl with a star on her wrist and bring her in. Do you disagree that you have a star on your wrist?”
Said star burned slightly when he mentioned it. I don’t show any outward signs that this bothers me, but in my mind I scratch at my wrist to try to stop the itching that follows. It does nothing to help the feeling manifesting, but it makes me feel better about not taking action to at least touch the wrist.
“I disagree that I’m a girl. I may not look like much, but I am a woman.”
It feels like an important distinction to make. I don’t know of anyone else who has a star on their wrist, but if he’s looking for a girl in the age sense of things, he has the wrong person.
“You were a girl when I started looking. I’ve been looking for ten years now, so you would’ve been nine. You weren’t a woman then. Were you?”
I tilt my head to the side, trying to picture what the man looks like based on a general sense that he’s older than me. Everyone I meet is older than me, and not one of them looks too similar, so age isn’t going to get me far when it comes to visualizing my visitor.
“Why would anyone search for me?”
Questioning his task seems like the natural turn in the conversation. Bringing up the crazy amount of time the task has been going on is next in my attempts to delay whatever departure he has planned with me in tow. Eventually, someone has to come back from the briar patch, and hopefully, they’ll belay my kidnapping. I have more questions in mind to ask, like how he knows how old I am, and at some point, I need to know who he’s planning on taking me to.
“That’s not for me to say. If you think someone is going to come along to interrupt our exit, you’re wasting time. The berries meant for you will keep reproducing. As long as they do, I think your friends are going to be a little gluttonous.”
The fact that he knows my line of thinking is worrisome. I haven’t felt any inklings that I’ve been watched, but it’s clear that he’s been observing me and those around me.
“You have the power to grow food? Why bother?”
I leave my questions somewhat open ended. I know nothing about the man, but it seems odd that anyone from the outside would be generous enough to fill the stomachs of the Gray Zone inhabitants. It doesn’t matter that he claims the food is meant to give me strength. If he’d been watching, he’d know it would take more than some fruit to get me moving.
“I don’t personally have the power, but I requested it for you. You’d need to eat through the berries ten times over to put any meat on your bones, but I don’t see you running towards them. It’d be better if you looked healthy for your meeting.”
“Why? I’m not trying to impress anyone.”
“No, I don’t suppose you are. I know you have some friends here, though, and I don’t think you want them to suffer for your condition.”
The words make no sense, so I choose to ignore them and try to return to my silent sitting. The man has outlived my curiosity. If I’m quiet, I hope he moves along and finds someone else to bug.
“I’d point out the fact you’re a little odd, but I think that goes without saying. Personally, I find the trait kind of endearing.”
The voice comes closer as I stare out in front of me. I haven’t seen anyone from the outside world, but I have seen what people look like when they have a little bit of whatever grace is available in the outside world still in them.
The man who appears in my vision looks nothing like those people. His hair is a dark brown and looks soft to the touch as it flows down to his shoulders. It’s hard to get a sense of emotion from his matching brown eyes, but they don’t look like they’ve spent hours thinking about how long before death becomes a reality.
Much like his hair, the clothes he’s wearing look soft, which is weird to think from just a mere look. They aren’t like anything I’ve seen before, so I really don’t have anything to base the thought on. They are dark in color and seem to be in separate pieces.
“If you drink this, you’ll feel better and be able to walk on your own.”
I look at the glass that appears in his hand. It’s clear and filled with a dark red liquid. I don’t smell anything I can label as a beverage I’ve had before. The choices are really only water as far as my previous drinks, and it doesn’t look or smell like the clear liquid.
There’s enough room between us that I scoot forward and get to my feet. My bones don’t audibly creak, but I feel them rubbing against each other in my knees particularly.
The man shakes his head as I move. I keep my eyes locked on his and see a sadness filling them. It makes no sense to me, so I ignore what I see. I’m good at ignoring things.
“I’m perfectly capable of walking without drinking your poison.”
I know it’s not poison, unless it’s meant to knock me out so it’s easier for him to carry me off. No matter what the case, I don’t want to accept anything from the man who’s disrupting my life.
The man shakes his head. “You need to drink it. It will do more good for your system than any number of berries I could have gotten you to eat.”
He pushes the glass towards me. I know very little about how things work outside the Gray Zone, but I never expected people with the ability to make things appear out of thin air. The glass wasn’t there when he first let me see him. I’m sure of that.
“I’m currently testing how long I can go without food. Since I’m not on death’s doorstep yet, I have to refuse your request.”
The man laughs and tilts his head to the side. The smile from his laughter remains on his face as he stares at me.
“It’s not a request, Mors. I know you were joking about being on death’s doorstep, but that’s exactly where we’ll be going. Death won’t be happy to see you in this condition, and I’ve learned it’s best not to disappoint him.”
“What does my condition mean to him?”
I gloss over the fact that he’s given me our destination. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Death or God he’s taking me to. I don’t want anything from either one, so I assume whatever meeting we have will be short.
“It’s not for me to say. It’s best for everyone involved if you don’t show up looking like this, though.”
His hands move up and down in front to me. I understand that he’s reflecting on my condition, but the hand movement seems unnecessary to me. Unless he thinks whatever magic he has can add meat to my bones. I don’t feel any different, so I assume that isn’t what he’s trying to do.
“If I drink whatever’s in your glass and follow along to whatever meeting is set up like a good little girl, what are the chances I’ll be back in my home before night? I sort of have a thing about sleeping under my own roof.”
The reasoning sounds good enough to me. He doesn’t need to be clued in on the fact that I don’t sleep. The smile that hasn’t left his face spreads further. I amuse him, which isn’t my goal. Most people get irritated by my personality. It’s quickly becoming apparent that he isn’t like normal people. Maybe it’s only the Gray Zone people who don’t waste time dealing with my crap.
“I don’t get to decide that, but if I was a betting man, I wouldn’t plan on coming back here.”
I don’t like the sound of that, so I make plans to figure out a way to change the prophesized outcome. Unless that outcome ends with me dying. I could live with that.
Reaching forward, I grab the glass from his hand. It’s surprisingly warm. I try to get a sense for what it is by smelling it, but even up close there isn’t a scent. Swirling it around, I see the liquid is much thicker than the water I am used to.
Throwing caution to the wind, I tip my head back and drink down the liquid. The worst it can do is kill me, and I’ve already established that wouldn’t be a horrible thing. I wait for the pain from poison to cripple me in some way, but all I feel is the sensation of the warmth I felt from the cup sinking down my throat into my stomach.
“That’s a good girl. Now all we need is to get some clothes on you. Give me the glass and put this on.”
My eyes narrow at the patronizing I feel in his words. His insistence that I’m a girl grates me for some reason. Others still call me that, but I don’t want him to see me as nothing more than a child. He’s here to take me to his master, so a show of some kind of strength seems in order.
I throw the glass at his feet. Unlike mine, they are covered, so when it breaks into pieces, it’s only my feet that feel the sharp pain of glass digging into them. It’s nothing that will do any damage, so I push to move past my tantrum.
Snatching the cloth from his hands, I stop to look at it. I had expected it to feel like the dresses I used to wear, even after making note that what he wore looked softer. The dress in my hands isn’t just soft. It’s slightly cold and silky. I don’t know where the word came from, but I feel it matches what I’m feeling. It seems words appear in my vocabulary when I need them.
“Mors, put the dress on and we can go.”
I must have spaced off, because I didn’t realize the direction is necessary. I decide to go ahead and follow it so we can get on with whatever mission he’s on. The purple fabric moves over my skin easily. The coldness I felt with it just in my hands spreads through my body, combatting with the warm liquid that has settled in my stomach.
“Perfect. Now, if you get tired or need something more to drink, let me know. We have a long walk ahead of us and I’m committed to getting you there in the best condition I can. Given what I’m working with, that may be asking a lot.”
He moves out of the way and takes my hand. The touch surprises me and I look down to our hands. My fingers instinctively wrap around his and I feel the full heat of his hand. It’s not burning me, yet it feels like it could.
I see his eyes are looking at our hands as well when I look back up to his face. There’s confusion buried in the lines around his eyes, but I can tell he’s trying to hide it.
“Let’s hurry up and get this over with,” I say. “As I’m sure you surmised, I had a full day planned and you’ve already put me behind schedule.”
I’m not sure why, but he laughs. I decide talking isn’t in my best interest, so I follow behind as he drags me off to Death.
I’ve traveled to the edges of the gutters before, but I’ve never been close enough to see what’s beyond the edges of the Gray Zone. Even if I had noticed, it was when I was younger and my memories of the time are a little hazy.
The path the man leads me down is just as filthy as the place I call home. I’m waiting for him to comment about the conditions of the rundown buildings no one dares venture in. Most of them have crumbled to the point that they are nothing more than piles of rocks. The ones that aren’t tilt to one side or are a sneeze away from collapse.
“You’re not much of a talker.”
We haven’t been walking long, but it’s farther than I’ve been in months. I’m busy running through reasons why the man’s master has been looking for me. He said he’d personally been looking for me for ten years, which means I am either really good at hiding or he sucks at searching. I lean towards the latter option being true.
He must not have spent much time watching me if he’s just now deciding I’m not a talker. The assumption is kind of funny given that I’ve talked more to him than I have anyone else in probably months. I don’t know if it’s the strength I feel from him or what, but I have the crazy desire to keep talking to him.
“I wasn’t aware we were supposed to have a conversation.”
Our hands are still locked together. I’ve thought about trying to pull mine back to my side, but it isn’t hurting me to continue the touch. I feel slight tingly sensations running between us that I’m trying to decipher. I imagine once we get out of the terrain that’s somewhat familiar to me, it will be useful to have the contact, whether I figure out the reason he’s making me feel different or not.
“I don’t usually bring people in like this, but I figured you’d have more questions.”
I’m able to smile at the claim. There’s a part of me that wants to laugh, but I keep it to myself.
“I don’t think you can answer the questions I want answered. Would you like to discuss how long it’s going to be before the old computer factory over there falls down?” I ask, pointing to the building I reference.
There is no electricity. I only know it was at one time a place where computers were made because I’ve seen inside and know enough words to read the books littered through it that explain what the odd bits and pieces of machines are.
I could just keep my mouth shut, but I’m feeling a little intrigued. There’s got to be something I can learn about what’s going on from him. At the very least, maybe he can tell me why he’s different than everyone else I’ve met.
“I’d give it four months, but that’s not what I’m talking about. You’re not curious at all about who I am?”
Oh I am, but I’m not about to make it obvious. Something tells me to proceed with caution when it comes to him. I have no idea why I’m feeling so much more alert and aware of stuff like that. It feels like it’s always been in the back of my mind, but meeting him is bringing it out. Maybe it was something in the drink he gave me. Thinking about it makes my stomach want more, but it isn’t persistent.
“You’re not worried wasting my breath will lead me to passing out?”
“I hope my blood is a little more potent than that. It’s got to be good for at least thirty minutes of power. That should get us pretty close to our destination, but at this rate you’ll need a refill.”
My feet somehow keep moving even as the words fully register in my head. There have been times I’ve let rancid meat pass my lips, but as far as I know, I’ve never drank someone else’s blood. The thought doesn’t disturb me as much as it should.
“Are you sure it’s wise to tell me that I’m running on your blood? It seems with that source of nourishment so close that could be hazardous to your health.”
The hand holding mine squeezes tight as he laughs. The words coming out of my lips are funny, so I allow a smile to cross my face. Even if I didn’t feel his blood within my system and know that it’s making me feel better than I can remember, I can feel the power coming from him. Whether he can make berries grow or just make things appear out of thin air, he’s a strong specimen. Someone my size wouldn’t be much of a challenge for him.
“It’s there for the taking, but I don’t want you to strain yourself trying to get to it. Just let me know when you need more and I’ll give you a glass.”
“How exactly does that work?”
I had told myself I wasn’t going to ask too many questions, but that one seems necessary. I want to ask for a full list of all the things he can do. Instead, I settle with getting the basics on what I’ve seen. I hope once I get him talking, words will just start flowing out of his mouth.
“It’s a borrowed power, so other than things happening when I think about them, I can’t give you many details. You can ask Death when you see him how it works. I’m sure he’ll be happy to show you.”
“For a price. I hear everything comes with a price when you’re dealing with him. Well, I have absolutely nothing to give and I don’t care enough to try to make a deal for it.”
I hadn’t known Death was a male. In my mind, I always saw him as one, but I didn’t have any proof. I assume the man with me knows what he’s talking about, so I don’t question his use of the pronoun.
“I have a feeling you have plenty to make deals with, but you’ll understand more when we get where we’re going. Aren’t you interested at all in my name? I’ve used yours multiple times.”
He sounds a little hurt that I haven’t asked. It’s not something I do. He’s lucky I’ve strung as many words together as I have. I’m more than comfortable watching the ground for any obstructions that can hurt my feet. The soles of my feet are thick enough that it takes something sharp to penetrate them, but I don’t particularly look forward to it happening, so I watch my step.
“How long have you been observing me?”
“Long enough to see if anyone needed to come back with us.”
He sighs after he finishes speaking. I think it has to do with the fact that I still don’t ask for his name. If he wants me to know so badly, he can just tell me. That’s what everyone else who wants me to know something does.