Even now, her favorite jobs are right before Christmas. It was Christmas, you see, when she first decided to do it.
She decided on it while her parents were hanging lights on the low bushes outside the tall windows in the front. Theyíd just had a fight, she and her parents, about a poster on her wall, but naturally it had grown into one of those "I hate you" fights, where the rage builds up and you explode. And now, just an hour later, they were hanging Christmas lights. She saw a box of Christmas balls, and let her rage out. The silvery things cried a tinkling protest when they hit the wall. The shards looked very nice in the floor, very artistic. So she took a Polaroid. A picture on a Polaroid of a million pictures of a Polaroid taking a million pictures of aÖ.
Now that she knew it was time, all that she needed was a way to do it. She had once read a book where the protagonist had used a razor and a hot bath. But that was too messy. Too painful. Toaster could be nice for comical effect. But it wasnít very artistic at all. So, in a fit of passion, she decided on the pills. She went to her motherís closet and got out the pills and she went to her room and she read some song lyrics and she took the pills and then death came and picked her up.
Death came, and with that magnificent scythe he picked her up, and he laughed. Laughed and Laughed and Laughed.
"What the hell?" She said. "Quit laughing. Quit! Put me down, and tell meÖ" And suddenly he was gone, behind her sitting in her big, easy chair. He was quietly laughing, but he had gotten those side pains and so it was a bit painful.
"Welcome." He said. "And thanks for doing this." He added.
"Committing Suicide. I never get a suicide in my district, so Iíve been on shift forever."
Death took out a white bag, with grease spots all over it. His frame was small, but the shapeless robes made him seem bigger. He shoved a corn chip in his mouth. "Want one? Iím not really this big, but the uniform adds bulk. What can I say? Itís tradition."
She frowned. "Are you death? Are you the devil? Am I going to hell?"
Death frowned. "Negative Houston. Youíre not going to hell, and Iím not Satan. Satan is far sexier. Like Johnny Depp. Heís sexy."
"No, Iím death. And youíre my new apprentice."
"You committed a sin- and you didnít have a chance to redeem yourself. Thatís not quite fair is it?"
She frowned. "No."
"Godís a fair guy. So you get to be myÖsidekick, if you will."
"Letís just go. I have work to do."
They walked out the door. Outside it was cold like a bullet going through you. Typical Georgian weather, it hadnít snowed. But it often rained hard, fat, wet drops. The trees were bare, and the grass was brown. Everything was gray, but there was a cinnamon sweetness in the air that reminded you of Christmas. She remembered how much she had liked Christmas, and she felt a pang of sadness. Her parents were still hanging lights. She looked back. Death laughed.
"Havenít you ever seen a movie? They canít see you. No one can." Death shrieked with maniacal laughter. "Iíve always wanted to say that."
She turned around, and followed him down the street, to where a hearse was parked. The hearse was white, with a black bat painted on the side. "I just love Batman." He said. "Youíd think we could do that whoosh trick, the old "beam me up Scotty". But we canít. Itís like Mary Kay, we get a nice car after so many hours of service."
They drove out of the neighborhood, which was decorated for Christmas, and past the grocery store with the tacky painted windows. And the print shop where Julia worked. Julia was her best friend. Why hadnít she thought about Julia?
"It all feels a bit like being in a glass cage, doesnít it?" He asked. "Or maybe a glass onion." He chuckled. "In other districts, they take this really seriously. I just canít."
They drove into the city and past the college where She had once hoped to go. They drove past the revolving restaurant, and past the exits, offramps, and tourist traps. They drove in the city, down the grids of streets, until they reached an office building, and then he stopped.
He opened the door for her. "Get out." He said. "There was a shooting here, and weíve got to clean up the souls."
It was too early for the cops to have known, and they probably wouldnít know for the next two days. The body lay on the marble floor, and the soul of him was across the room, sobbing.
"Hey there." Death said. "Long night."
The soul looked up with puffy eyes and whispered "Yeah."
"If it makes you feel any better, it was time for you to go anyway. You wouldnít have done much more if you had lived. Youíve served your purpose. And you get to go up. But Iím going to need your wallet."
The soul pointed to the coat pocket, and Death pulled out a cloth wallet. "Cloth?"
"Iím- I was a vegetarian."
Death grinned. "Iím pretty sure they give you perks for that." He opened the wallet. "Cute family. Theyíll be ok."
The soul disappeared.
In the car, Death tossed the wallet over. "Put the ID in the back, will you? In the box. Iíve got to turn them in later.
She opened the wallet, and was confronted by a long stream of credit cards, and crumpled family portraits done by Olan Mills. They all looked very nervous.
"You said it was his time?" she asked, apprehensively.
"Yeah, but he would have done more. Wouldíve seen his kid graduate and all that. Would have gone to Europe for a vacation. Those kinds of things arenít part of the plan. But they mean something to humans, donít they?" He pointed to the cards. "He had really good credit."
That night Death led her into a hotel room, where a girl had died of a heart attack. The corpse lay on the bed in cream satin, and the soul was stubborn. Something about a photo shoot and a mother had made it want to stay around. But She wasnít listening to all of that, She was far too interested in the corpse. Sweat of the corpse had stained the sheets, and they had dried stiff as a board. The corpse was as white as the satin she wore. The look on its face made the girlís mouth go dry.
When the soul had cried and gone, Death yawned and turned to the girl. He stretched and said, "Weíll stay here tonight."
Later, the Girl was awakened from a drowsy sleep by a knock on the door. When it went unanswered, the lock was jiggled frantically. A woman opened the door, and crept up to the bed. Death squeezed the girlís hand hard when the woman screamed and began to cry.
The two floated among the cops, doctors, and hotel management until the night had turned to dawn. When morning began to stain the dark sky, the doctors closed their briefcases, and they locked the room up.
Death closed the curtains and fell asleep on the left of the double beds. The girl took the right, but she didnít sleep. Instead, she held the thin comforter to her shoulders, horror movie style. The air conditioner burst, and itís roar put her to sleep.
She was awakened by her mother, with a coffee cup in her hand. Her mother smiled, and offered her a pancake. The girl looked at her mother bizarrely, then sat up and put her arms around her. She cried and rocked.
Then her mother split in half and in her shell was Death laughing madly. "I just love that!" He said. "Now get up, another day is born."
She attempted to spit in his face, but it simply dribbled. "How can you have a good day in this profession?" She asked.
"Every day is a good day." Death retorted.
This time they drove out towards the country past the city. They turned onto a dirt road, and when they found the end of the field, they stopped. Deathís magnificent costume fit in well with the dry field. They cut through and into a white house, where a large group of cars were parked, and a family was gathered. Inside, up the spiraling staircase was the body of a well-loved and notorious grandmother, surrounded by a generation of family.
The people were smiling, because it had been a peaceful death, and they were crying too, as if it were all in a movie. The soul, however, was ecstatic. Death and she got on quite well, the girl noticed. Neither of them took death very seriously. Perhaps it was because they had both dealt with it for so long. The girl remembered a time when her father had said, "All I have to look forward to is a long string of deaths." This woman had done that, and with her own failing health she had probably gotten pretty comfortable with the thought of her own.
The woman "showed" herself to her young granddaughter, and then laughed. "That will provide a lifetime of ghost stories." She said in a husky voice that reminded the girl of cocoa butter.
Death was pleased when they left. They spent the night in the field. Occasionally he would chuckle and slap his knee. "What a lovely woman." He said. "She had 5 children, and wrote in the town newspaper."
"Did she fulfill her plan?" She asked.
"Of course." He said. "All people who die of diseases or natural deaths fulfill their plan."
She felt shame wash over her body and leave Goosebumps. "I have a plan?"
"What is it?"
"You mean, what was it. You really want to know?"
"It hurts." Death warned. He was very quiet. "A rock star."
"Really?" she asked eagerly?
"No, not really. But you were going to be a mother, and you were going to save a few lives, in one way or another."
The girlís heart sank twice. Once for her life, and twice for the others. "Donít you see now how everyoneís life intertwines?" Death asked. "If this hasnít taught you how damn stupid you are," he said, and pointed out to the starry night and field. "Then that should!" He sat up and sighed. "You know now that this is all a punishment. A punishment for being damn stupid, and messing up things for heaven, and for people, and for yourself."
The girl peered into the darkness at Death. "It was hard." She said. "You donít know."
Death laughed. "People survive, child. People survive adolescence. Not unscathed, I tell you that, but stronger. Thatís the whole point."
She glowered, and her face seemed to light up the field. Red swam in front of her eyes. "And who are you to talk, when you have the same punishment as me!"
Death was quiet. "Donít insult me. I went through my teenage years." He said, then pointed to the dark sky, which was dotted with stars. "I fell from there."
In the months that followed, they cleaned up hundreds of souls. Each time, the girlís outward detachment began to grow. When a small plane crashed, she was quick and efficient in the assessment of souls. The live, motherless babies no longer affected her.
With Death she traveled all over. They traveled to Greece, where an old man had died in his library by the sea in agony, due to disease. She laughed at the death of a magician, whoís life ended on the stage. It was his greatest trick. She even struck a friendship with a Medium. When she died she believed she had finally acquired the gift of the sixth sense.
Death had a route to follow, and when it returned to Georgia she was careful to avoid the house and print shop. But in the night, while Death was sleeping, the girl snuck out and returned to her home. There was no Christmas tree, and it was the twenty-third. Inside, the house was cold and dark. The kitchen light was on. The girl knew that when the kitchen light was on, it had been an uneasy night. She looked in apprehensively, and saw Mother and Step. They were not clutching each other, or crying, but Motherís face was gray. On the tables were the girlís belongings, the poetry and the books. Mother and Step were looking for a reason. The Girlís stomach dropped.
The girl returned to the car, where they were sleeping. It was raining, but the rain was not affecting her. That was an up, yes. There were no more human feelings. No feel of warmth, or of cold. There was no reason even to sleep.
Death was there, smiling. He knew where she had been.
"Iím ready." The girl said.
"Yes, you are."
She smiled. "I will be so glad to go home. I am so glad the torture is over!"
Death laughed. "Home? Youíre not going back, kid."
Her face turned gray. "But I feel bad, Iíve always felt bad. Now Iíve gone and seen Mother and Step, and I truly feel horrible. Iím ready for another chance."
Death smiled warmly. "This is not baseball."
"Then what?" she asked.
Death tossed his magnificent scythe over to her. "The torture has only begun."
She stared at the scythe in her hands.
"Your costume will get here, eventually. The post gets a bit over-worked now and again." He pointed to her gothic gear. "But that will do nicely for the time being." He patted her on the back. "Donít worry- itís only for another hundred years or so. With such exciting going-ons, theyíll slide by quickly."