“I haven't been dead for very long,” she told them.
“So that’s why your aura isn’t familiar!” the boy exclaimed. “I’m sure I would’ve noticed a new one in these parts. So, how did you die? I mean, are you liking it round here?”
“Please excuse Robin,” cut in his twin sister with a withering glare. “You’d think after acres of time here he’d mind his manners.”
“No harm done,” Fob replied hastily. The last thing she wanted was to create conflict where there had been none before her arrival. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and nearly poked her eye trying to push her glasses up her nose. No more glasses, she remembered. There were some perks to being dead.
“So, hum, how does this place work?”
“This–” the boy gestured grandly, showing off his billowing sleeves “–is Death Inc. HQ.”
“That’s just the name we give it,” whispered the girl.
“Every time you hear the bell toll, you have about 12 acres’ worth of time to get yourself in front of an aura reader, straight ahead after the doors. That’s how the bosses make sure we don’t wander around and find our dead selves on earth, scaring the Alives to… well, to death.”
“Sorry, but… 12 acres? How do you count those?”
“That’s the amount of time you need to go 12 acres away. It depends on every person, so you may have less time than us to run that distance, but it’s the way they’ve found to keep our dead feet here and not there. Oh, and I’m Leyn, by the way. You?”
“Well, welcome to death, Fob. Hope you like it here!”
And on that note, they were gone.
Fob watched them skip away, forgetting all the questions she wanted to ask them. Her gaze travelled up the massive, narrow façade of Death Inc. HQ – for lack of a better way to call it. The steely panes reflected the purple skies and rust-coloured earth. There were only a few people in the area. Were there several places like these, to host all the dead? Fob started walking in the opposite direction Robin and Leyn had gone. She didn’t want them to think she was following them. She kept close to the building at first, but it took her a remarkably short amount of time to walk around and find herself back in front of the doors. Either it was really narrow, or she had walked inhumanly fast. After all, was she still human?
An eardrum-splitting bell stopped her thoughts. A trickle of people made their way towards Fob, or rather, towards the huge doors she was standing in front of. The gates slid apart noiselessly. Fob watched for Robin and Leyn, in vain. She fell into step with the growing crowd and entered Death Inc. HQ.
The whole thing was over in a matter of seconds. She was back outside, watching more and more dead people walking towards the building. Maybe there was the whole of the dead. For lack of a better thing to do, she strolled toward one of the hills behind which the horizon disappeared. On the other side, a simple wooden window framed a void. Fob squinted, moved to one side and to the other to dissipate a possible mirage, but there was no other way to describe it. And next to the rectangle of nothingness, Leyn was nonchalantly pacing, snapping her fingers to a tune entirely her own.
“Fob! Fancy seeing you here. I hope you’ve reported to HQ.”
“Yes, yes. I found it rather anticlimactic.”
“Well, we’ve got no one to impress here. Better get things done quickly and with a minimum of fuss.”
Leyn’s pacing had picked up speed. Fob couldn’t help but feel there was something amiss. Then she put her finger on it.
“Out on his own business, I suppose.”
“Would that business include this weird-feeling window, door, passage, by any chance?”
“Look, Fob. You don’t want any trouble, and neither do we. Why don’t you find yourself another hill to explore? I’m a bit busy right now.” She kept snapping her fingers in rhythm.
Fob took a big breath in and gestured at the window frame with a jerk of her chin.
“This leads to earth, doesn’t it?”
Reyn pursed her lips.
“You don’t have to answer,” Fob said. “That way you’re not in trouble. But, if this does lead to earth, I’d be grateful if you could let me through.”
Reyn only stepped aside, fingers snapping rhythmically. Fob took a step forward, and a second one. The opening swallowed her.
Everything has rules. Fob simply hadn’t expected them to make things easier for her. She closed her eyes while she stepped through the opening, felt a brief loss of balance, and when things settled around her she was in her neighbourhood. The sky was the dark blue of dusk. She took a deep breath of normality after the purple skies of wherever she’d come from. The streets were empty by now. There was life behind the windows throwing trapezes of light on the pavement. Fob looked around, making sure the decor was complete. Movement at her feet made her lower her gaze.
“Scraps!” She reached down but her hand stopped inches from the cat’s inviting fur. She was a ghost. Ghosts can’t touch anything. Fob felt a pang of frustration. Then she noticed the cat’s gaze. It was directed straight at her.
“Holy chai, Scraps, can you hear me? Can you see me?”
A bubble of joy burst somewhere inside Fob. Rather than hugging her cat-friend close, she did a little happy dance, confident in the knowledge that no one could see her. There was a way to both mourn and celebrate her disembodiment, after all.
Scraps took a step towards her, but she shrank back.
“No Scraps, you can’t rub against me. There’s not much of me here, do you understand?”
The cat took another step.
“Ok, let’s get you home, so that you have a human to cuddle with.”
Home was just a couple of gates away. Fob considered following Scraps inside, or simply walking through the door, but the idea of spying on her family put her off. She turned back after Scraps had climbed through the cat door and wandered aimlessly in the streets of her childhood. Funny to think about them as such, since she wouldn’t get to have streets of adulthood.
A hand appeared out of nowhere, followed by an arm, a shoulder and Leyn’s frown.
“Hey, new girl! This way. Haven’t you heard the bell?”
Fob blinked at her. Now she thought about it, there was a distant tolling that wasn’t the local church’s.
“Hadn’t paid attention.”
“Well, get your dead body on the right side and hurry to the scan!”
“Wait, Leyn! How do I do that?” On this side of things, there was no opening. Leyn had just materialised out of thin air. She grabbed Fob’s wrist and pulled steadily towards her. When the tip of Fob’s fingers reached the limit between’s Leyn presence and her absence, she asked, “Can you feel that?”
“There’s a… tickle.”
“That’s the window. Just step through.”
Fob focused. She reached towards the space Leyn had occupied, and felt the slightest tingle. If she moved to the left, it disappeared quickly. To the right, she could feel whatever she was feeling for a couple of feet.
“The size of the window on the other side,” she whispered.
She lifted her foot high, as if preparing to climb three steps at once, hesitated, lost her balance, and toppled head first on the other side. The bell was much louder there. Leyn and Robin were nowhere to be seen. Fob dashed in the direction of HQ and reached the aura reader just as the ringing stopped.
“I didn’t think you’d make it in time, new girl.”
Leyn was leaning against the wall a short distance from the door. There was something new in her voice, like a measure of… admiration?
“I like running,” was all Fob could think of for an answer.
“Come, there’s something you need to know.”
Fob followed her away from HQ. When they were out of earshot, Robin met them.
“It’s dangerous to wander around the Alives without an anchor,” he said.
“Someone to pull you back when the bell rings. Like I did,” Leyn explained.
“Yes, well, I don’t exactly know a lot of people here. As I told you, I haven’t been dead for very long.”
“You know us,” they replied in unison before making a complicated gesture with their hands.
“What would you say about a partnership?”
This story was written thanks to Susan Dennard’s “Story a Month challenge”. On the first day of each month, Susan sends her subscribers an email with three prompts: a textual one, a visual one, and a sound. Have a look at her website to find out more (click here) . “Perks of Being Dead” was written thanks to the February prompt.
Photo credit: jwee via Unsplash.