By Khoa Ngo
Published by Khoa Ngo at Shakespir
Copyright © 2017 by Khoa Ngo
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Body and Soul
HE WAS WALKING AND CURSING under his breath, repeatedly and passionately.
Half an hour or so had passed–he wasn’t certain for the first time in a long time (usually, he was proud of his ability to keep up with time itself), and yet, he was still walking among the silent stones and the cold winter air, sending curses to his luck in different tongues, both current and long dead. Even the customary grin on his face was no more, now turned upside down into a nasty frown.
It would have been a rather unremarkable thing indeed to see at a graveyard filled with lonesome tombs and ash-grey headstones arranged into neat little lines behind a funeral house: a man dressed entirely in black as though he had just come back from a funeral pacing about with his head between his hands and red eyes filled with distraught. The unusual thing, however, was that not a single soul around saw him this man–this creature–even though he was walking about right in front of them. People came and went, and never once did any eyes wander towards him. His presence and agitation alone caused a newly placed banquet of pure white lilies and golden petals of marigold to shrivel and crumble into dust, their leaves turning into a color not unlike sandpaper. His voice mixed with the rising winds, deep and whispery and at times sounding like the breezes blowing in one’s ears.
“Calm down, Grin,” said his colleague Veil, a petite little girl dressed in a style similar to his own–black suit, black shoes, black tie and black gloves–with the only difference being a veil connected to a fedora covering her entire face, both as dark as the lightless abyss under the blackest night.
“Calm down?” he turned to her, red eyes flashing and dark hair rising in the air like hackles. His skin stood in contrast with his clothes, pale as a drowned corpse. “Calm down!” he cried, with a voice enough to make the restless souls around shiver in terror and disappeared back into their assigned shelters beneath the soil. “Do not tell me to calm down, Veil. I can’t calm down. Nobody can calm down when the guillotine is smiling down on their neck.” He cursed again, switching repeatedly from Latin to Japanese.
Veil titled her head, and in his imagination, Grin could almost picture her rolling her eyes.
“It’s not like you to be so…melodramatic,” she said.
“Dramatic?” he said, pacing again, “I messed up. Of course I’m going be dramatic. I have all the right in what’s left of my existence to be dramatic seeing as I’m about to expire anyway! Pop like a balloon! Snuffed out like a candle in vacuum. The Boss is going show up and feed me to the Hellhounds and I hate dogs!” The last one was spoken with unusual vigor.
Veil sighed, her silk namesake fluttering a little with her breath. “How did this happen?”
Grin did not answer. He cursed again in Spanish, then in Italian.
“Grin,” she spoke with a warning in her tone.
“How exactly did you botch the job? You never told me in details, all I’ve been getting for the last hour was, and I quote, ‘died,’ ‘died, ‘died,’ ‘fault,’ ‘died,’ and ‘stupid.’ Doesn’t make lots of sense, though if the last one was about yourself, then yes, I agree wholeheartedly,” she pressed, her legs swinging over the headstone on which she was sitting. Grin sighed and sent his gaze heavenward.
It was some time after seven already, but the sky was a shade of grey, melancholic and brooding, a mirror of his mood. The clouds were lazy black sheep lying around and were, Grin could tell, filled with stored up water ready to be released. A great rain was due that day, and Grin knew he had at least twenty souls to reap when the rain had run its course (he didn’t remember the exact number, for he was sick and tired of even looking at his Record). He let out another deep sigh, uncharacteristically long and loud. When had his work become so cumbersome? Grin didn’t remember. He had learnt to tolerate this job, and he had, admittedly enjoyed the freedom of being able to move through the two realms back and forth and explore every nook and cranny of each one when the Boss didn’t pay attention. There were still secrets to be explored, he knew, and he would love to know more about the world beyond. His main duties, unfortunately, were never one of those which brought him any satisfaction. Grin was not a masochist. He could not take delight in punishment.
But, he mused, when exactly did this job grow to be so dreadful, and him so world-weary of it all? He didn’t know the exact date, but then again, he supposed, one would grow bored of the same old routine after a few centuries. And the loss of his pristine record was the cherry on the top. His job was hard, and nothing short of perfection was expected, even when he had first started out, for a single blemish on record would mean, he shuddered, instant erasure, no exception. He didn’t want that, no matter how bored he was of his position, he still wanted to be in this world, to exist. Deities above, he craved it more than sharks crave blood or trees love rain during a draught. He wanted to be. And now, his time was measured in hours.
Grin sullenly kicked up a pebbled under his foot, sending it flying toward a couple walking about with a banquet in their hands.
There was a gasp, followed by hurried whispers as they quickened their pace and walked past Grin and Veil (rather literally).
“They’re going to die,” said Veil as she watched the couple make their way further into the graveyard. “Death by traffic accident inside their lovely ride because they’re too busy talking about ghosts and apparitions in the graveyard and whatnot.” Grin could feel her glare through her cloth and on his back (she always did that when she had work to do), but he didn’t turn around. His lips were set in a grim line. Veil said, “Well, at the very least, their ride’s red. Shame, though. A child will soon be orphaned. Oh, I can just feel another reboot of Cinderella unfolding. Tik tok tik tok.”
“Like you care,” said Grin, grumbling.
“I don’t,” Veil shrugged and hopped down from her seat. “And you never answered my question.”
“I was drunk,” Grin hissed.
“We can get drunk? Wow! That’s new,” Veil whistled. “And you drink?”
“I don’t!” he said, his tone as dry as the Sahara and his words as biting as the cold of Antarctica. “Some idiot decided to be funny and spiked my juice. Besides, why do you think I managed to keep my record unblemished for so long? I keep my mind sharpened and my head clear. That’s how I stay in existence for so long. Heck, I’m the only one left from the 1700s in my department. And now, I’m soon to be a used-to-be!”
“Okay, so, you were drunk,” Veil hummed, “and it wouldn’t be too far off the bullseye for me to guess that you crossed out the wrong name. Smile did that once. Well, he’s not smiling anymore.”
“I remembered someone offering to help me search for the right name. I must have spelled it wrong, and now this. Stupid. Stupid!”
Veil hummed an old lullaby to herself–Arrorro mi niño, Grin remembered. She always hummed that when she was highly amused.
His mood deteriorated even further.
Grin folded on himself and groaned, head on his drawn up knees and hands wrapped around his legs. “It was supposed to be a Caithlin Krisnel. I crossed out Caithlin Krisnol instead. One letter. Whoosh, and someone’s years go boof! Stupid humans and their stupidly similar names,” he mumbled. Veil laughed obnoxiously. Grin didn’t even care enough to be mad at her for that. He sulked and cursed more, uncaring if any of the names he had just cursed would appear and smite him. Being smote was a much better fate than being fed to the Hellhounds in his opinion. Less pain and all that, and the light brought him comfort. He liked the light. Darkness unnerved him, always had, always would.
“Did you at least make the other one dead yet, Caithlin what-her-name?” Veil asked.
“I most certainly did not,” he harshly whispered, “If I do that, the Bureau is going to question why I reaped one too many. Normally, they don’t give two cents about the names of the reaped, just the quotas. Numbers, numbers, numbers. That’s all they care about. All else is secondary. Heck, I know some of the Senior Collectors are probably being sloppy, crossing out names either too late or too early, and nobody bats an eye.”
Veil shrugged, “To be fair, though, they got the correct ones. Just saying.”
Grin ignored her, “But words from the Bureau say that the Boss is scheduled to inspect everything soon, from the top down, and I am among those who will be royally screwed when that happens!” Grin said, resuming his pacing once more. His fingers moved around like snakes with cut off heads, twitching with agitation, itching to either cling onto something or break something. His eyes were those of a mad man, looking around with paranoia of being watched.
“Normally, you’d be erased by now if the Boss were here. What’s keeping you?” Veil said idly, waving her hand over a banquet of marigold and lilies. They withered at her presence. She stood up and did the same with the next one, and the next, not looking at her colleague.
“The Boss is out in another realm right now, as one of the four Deaths–”
“–Flora, Fauna, Shadowdwellers and Humans,” Veil jumped in and counted off her fingers. “We have the best one, so courteous and soft-spoken.”
Grin huffed. “It’s always the quiet ones. Remember that. Anyway, there’s a thing called Night of the Blood Moon in another realm, big festival for lovelies like vampires and gargoyles and zombies and hybrids and all manners of grotesque spirits and things I don’t think have been named by humans yet. Lovely lot. It’s a nice event, if you are into mingling with every abomination ever known and unknown to nature. Lasts all night if I remember correctly.”
“Ha!” Grin grimaced as Veil stared up at him. He didn’t need x-ray vision to know she was smirking at him, like a spider stalking its prey in its trap.
“No!” said Grin as he looked away from her.
“I never said anything.” Even her voice was a whine filled with mischief. She never bothered to hide her intentions anymore, not after twelve years of working for him.
“Knowing you, which I now deeply regret, it’s nothing decent.”
“You can’t know that,” Veil retorted. Her silk mask fluttered again.
“2003,” Grin said.
Veil hummed and crossed her hands before her chest, nodding like a drunk or a mad scientist cooking up an idea. “Incredible what a single match I forgot about could do,” she mumbled. “Ironic, isn’t it. One tree makes a thousand matches, and one match brings ruin to a thousand trees.” Veil cackled.
“You and your ‘carelessly placed matches’ burned down another house two days ago. You’re lucky I stepped in, or that death would have landed you in trouble with the higher-ups.”
“And for that I am eternally grateful,” she gave him two thumbs up.
Grin shook his head. He didn’t need this. His own problem was enough. The Festival of the Red Moon lasted all night, which would give him until midnight until the Boss came back, and two more days until he expired. Another sigh escaped his pale lips. Never before had he felt his real age more clearly than ever.
“I may as well put the time I still have left and see some sights before it runs out,” he looked up and put on his customary grin, a bit too wide and too big. He didn’t remember much about his past life after all these years, but he guessed he must have been either someone working in the hospitality industry or a con artist. Only such people could wear a grin that big. He opted for the former choice. He’d prefer his past to be the better of the choices presented.
“A reaper whose time is trickling down and out,” Veil said, tapping her chin, “I have read this somewhere before. Quite an intriguing tale, if memory serves me right.”
“So, I supposed this is goodbye. Thanks for the last decade, Veil. Obnoxious as you are, you certainly made my time a bit livelier than my last assistant,” said Grin as he held out his gloved hand for Veil, his grin plastered on his face like a fixture there. Veil didn’t take the offered hand. Instead, she raised her head up to look at Grin, both hands clasped behind her back and feet rocking back and forth.
“Whatever you’re scheming, drop it.”
The girl hopped back onto one of the tombs and perched there. In the empty graveyard and under the ashy sky filled with ominous clouds, the girl appeared much like an overgrown panther ready to strike. Grin could sense her amusement from there, and he didn’t like it. Unfortunately, it was too late to be picky about his choice for company.
“Do you want you die?” she asked.
“I’m dead already. We all are,” said Grin. “Drowned myself in the Thames, hence here I am. I can’t be any deader than a gutted pig. Speaking of which, I think I will pay that restaurant in France a last visit. I quite enjoyed their porcini pork tenderloin.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you do that” Veil waved her hand dismissively. “Or…you can fix this mess and keep your job, your ego and your head, whichever’s the biggest.”
“Come on now, handsome. At least hear me out.”
“You seem oddly invested in getting yourself into my trouble,” Grin eyed her with no small amount of suspicion. “That does raise the question of why.”
“If you’re erased, who’ll I harass?” Veil replied without missing a single beat. “Brood? Please, that guy’s worse than a dead piece of log. Fang? Yeah, like I’ll put my neck out for him to chomp on. Top Hat? I’d love to shove his face into one of his ridiculous headwear and dump him into a tank of piranha. That would be fun, but no thanks, I’m not ever working with that maniac ever.”
“You’d be good together,” Grin retorted, “Two pyromaniacs as partners.”
“The first thing I would set on fire will probably that guy, which would push me to another Senior, whom I would undoubtedly turn into a bona-fire walking candle stick next. No thanks. You’re more hilarious than those old coots. Easy to tease. I love how easily you blush.”
“Good to know the nature of our relationship, shorty, and I am glad to have been of great service to you as your personal entertainer. I’ll be sure to remember that when I’m tossed off the Twilight Cliff and into the Hellpound in Greek Underworld. Or, I don’t know, maybe my execution will be in Asian Underworld. Lovely tropical climate and monstrosities tearing me apart!” Grin walked away, his dark, tattered wings extending from his back, flapping vigorously against the air and bringing him off the ground.
A hand grabbed his coat and prevented him from flying away.
“Let me be, Veil,” he growled, grin forgotten. He didn’t have enough strength left to pull the corners of his mouth up anymore. Why bother?
“I’m trying to help you here because I am fond of you, dumb-glum, and repay that favor you did for me when you covered my behind,” she said and pulled hard, planting her feet on the ground and grunting with efforts. “At least listen first, then you can go and get popped later if you don’t like the idea.”
“I already don’t like the idea.”
Veil rolled her neck (and her eyes as well, Grin guessed), “Last I checked, your name is still Grin, not Grumpy. Gosh, I hate that woman. In any case, just listen. Five minutes.”
Grin sighed as he landed, wings folded. “Three minutes,” he said and took out his pocket watch from his coat. It was a beautiful thing made of silver. Its vintage design held with a big eye made of ruby on the front while eight more gemstones of smaller size circling the big one, mimicking the solar system. It had been a gift from another colleague back in 1940. Just the sight of it brought Grin a bit of comfort, and for a moment there, he allowed himself to smile, running his fingers over the smooth surface, radiant from constant cleaning and maintenance. He opened the lid, and looked at the roman numerals on it, each one shining beautifully in a shine of gold that stood out against the black face of the clock. He looked at the pocket watch as his grin fell apart. A sting stabbed his chest, as he would no longer be able to hold this watch anymore, to see its numbers shine up under the night skies to compete with the stars above.
“Grin!” shouted Veil, snapping him out of his stupor.
“What?” he asked, frowning.
“As I was saying,” the girl spoke, “I may have a solution to your little problem, and this is perfectly possible ‘cause the Boss is currently away. Dang, and is the Boss away. I can’t even sense the slightest hint of her presence anywhere on Earth anymore.” Veil leaned in and looked around cautiously, watching out for any wayward ears from the tombs. Heavens know people are nosy creatures, and more so in death when their time to face judgment was yet to come.
He gave the graveyard a look, and the chills left.
“How?” Grin asked.
“Bring the dead girl back, problem solved,” said Veil like she was simply stating the weather on the Reapers’ Channel 613, rainy with the certainty of deaths in the air, perfect for Collectors whose stations are around picnics or beach parties. Have fun filling up those quotas before the Boss comes by. Good luck.
Grin looked at her, and he continued to look at her, his face hard and his lips tightly sealed. His red eyes shone brilliantly underneath his seaweed-like hair streaming down his forehead and parting at his shoulders.
“Goodbye, Veil,” Grin said. “Have a nice existence, or what’s left of it at the pace you’re going about things,” His wings opened again, but before he could take off toward the ashy heaven, Veil was already sitting on his shoulders, both legs crossed and pressing hard against his neck. “Get off!” he cried aloud. She wouldn’t budge. “Your insanity is off the charts now, Veil. Get. Off!”
“Listen!” Veil growled, and her voice dropped a few octaves–like thunder striking inside the eardrums. It was a voice that compelled beings to do as told. Grin complied, reasoning that it would be most unwise to tick off an angry cat, size none withstanding. Cats are notoriously good at holding grudges.
“Two minutes,” said Grin begrudgingly.
“One and a half, actually,” said Veil with another nonchalant shrug when Grin gave her a stare, “It’s important to be accurate.”
“One twenty,” said Grin. “And counting.”
“Good. So you were paying attention. As I was saying, I will help out. I will go and take this wrong Caithlin girl out of the graveyard she’s being placed in and put her back in her body while you reap the Caithlin who’s meant to be reaped, all done before the Boss gets back. It will be a coordinated effort on both of our parts, with maybe a few seconds of anomaly in between when the two souls get swapped in and out. But worry not. I’ll work out some deals with someone that still owes me favors to ignore the tiny anomaly in between.”
“Monocle,” she said.
“Monocle?” Grin repeated, his voice so soft it could barely lift a feather, “Monocle! The guy’s an obsessive, patronizing, conniving creep. He thinks I’m after his seat and is out to get me.”
“You are after his seat,” Veil said flatly.
“That’s beside the point!” Grin interjected, “It’s supposed to be mine anyway, not that no-good sycophant. But it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“It matters because Monocle is a creep who happens to be the Chief Scribe that holds the Master Record of this continent that reports directly to the Boss, and the creep who owes me a favor personally when I helped him with a certain cleanup op. If anyone can cover our tracks, it’s him. No record of this will even be kept. I’ll make sure of that,” Veil said.
“Do I want to know what kind of favor you did for him?” Grin asked, skeptical.
“That timer’s still counting?” Veil asked. Grin huffed. The girl ruffled his hair playfully, much to his chagrin, before she jumped off of his shoulders. “Just checking. Nothing you need to know, by the way, just a minor cleanup, off the book, big enough to warrant a favor and small enough to stay between us, savvy?” Grin knew which question was a question, and which wasn’t, so he nodded numbly, robotically.
“Good boy,” said Veil.
“I can hack you, you know,” Grin said. Veil didn’t care.
“Now then, I can ask the C.S. to leave the little incident out of the Master Record, and do believe me, I am persuasive, best negotiator you have on hand, and you know it to be true, Grin. Just go there quietly and take her out of whatever graveyard that’s currently sheltering her, then shove her back in her body. Of course, there’ll be some amnesia inducing to do, a few brains to break into and a few memories to alter, but it shouldn’t take as long eight hours to finish this little arrangement. Five, six maybe if we move now.”
“Why are you helping me?” Grin asked. “And don’t say it’s to repay me, Veil. What’s in it for you? What’s the angle here?”
“Must there be a string attached to every simple thing that I do? Can you not think of it as a favor to a friend?” she asked, checking the nails of her ungloved hand as though they were the prettiest things in the world at the moment. She stretched each finger and curled them up and repeated the process. Grin didn’t say anything. He was of two minds, weighing his options. He would say nothing for the next minute, simply placing his pocket watch back inside his coat and pacing around once more. His eyes studied his feet.
“There’s one problem,” he said at last, his voice hushed. Veil turned her attention back on him immediately. Grin sighed and said, “She was involved in a traffic accident. Her body was…well, you can guess what happens when you drop an egg from the kitchen counter.”
Veil made a face. “That…” she began, humming and scheming again, “would complicate the whole escape plot a bit. It can’t be salvaged at all? The body, I mean.”
“I doubt any bonesetters can set that,” said Grin grimly. “Besides, we deal with souls. Bodies, on the other hand, are not ours to tamper with. The humans already have strange ideas about the dead rising as mindless flesh gnawers, so I’d rather not indulge their imagination by making it a reality any time soon.”
“I see,” Veil mumbled as she flipped through her own Record–a shiny black tablet with the symbol of the Bureau on the back (Two silver scythes arranged into a perfect circle). They had started using this new Record for the last five years, and Grin had been itching to grab his old one, still tucked away inside the drawer of his chamber. The feeling of cold metal and flat, smooth screen felt off, unlike the rough texture of thick paper and leather he had grown used to.
“How old is this Caithlin what-her-face?” Veil asked.
“Twenty,” Grin answered.
“Hair and eye colors?”
“Blond and blue.”
“What are you–“
“Skin?” Veil demanded.
Veil hummed and went back to the blaring screen. Her index finger expertly flipped through the list of names on the blue screen with practiced precision. Her mouth moved as she called out the names, but no words came out. Seconds later, she tapped on a name, pulling out the selected person’s record, and spoke in a voice which might be mistaken as that of a child being given her favorite candies.
“Stella Suárez,” she said suddenly, in a manner not unlike how Archimedes must have said the timeless eureka.
“Excuse me?” said Grin, head tilting to the right.
“Aged nineteen, a little off, but not a problem. A bit paler in the complexion department. Well, some few weeks in the sun and all the vitamin D deficiency will be fixed, no prob. Died of, let’s see here, ah who cares, buried just–lovely–yesterday. Her soul is already summoned for judgment and moved on–wow, must have been an awfully short line we had yesterday. In any case, lovely, take a wild guess where she’s enjoying her eternal beauty sleep now.”
“And?” Grin asked. “What does that have to do with my case?”
“Everything. There’s a body right here, barely five steps north, physically fine and labeled I’m free, so come and take me. You’re welcome.”
“You can’t be serious!” Grin whispered harshly, affronted by the suggestion. His eyes scanned the area, looking around for any colleagues of theirs that might wander about. The Harkers Funeral Home in Portland, Oregon was, after all, a rather interesting haunt for everything supernatural, and most of them answered to the Boss. He glared at Veil, who simply shrugged again, unperturbed as she put her Record away into her dark violet messenger bag.
“This isn’t shopping for clothes, Veil!” Grin said, still mindful of his volume.
“It’s not. There’s no hit on all of the characteristics you just gave me, so that’s the closest one I can find that may fit the bill,” she said dismissively. “And that’s pretty much the only suit that hasn’t been reduced to worms’ food right now. And from the looks of things, the only ticket left for your train out of Trouble Town and back to your office safely, Senior Collector.”
“I can’t rob a grave!” Grin cried. “What would the ghosts say? They will tell.”
“They would be quiet of they knew what’s best for them,” Veil said deeply, and behind the dark mask streaming down from her fedora, Grin could see two orbs of crimson hues shining with their fiery might, twin flames shrouded in the dark-colored haze. The winds picked up and the air grew danker and darker. Grin could also hear the rumble in the distant as the sky grew ashier than ever. Dust and dirt and leaves were swept into the air, completely at the mercy of the whims of the winds.
The whole world seemed to have darkened, and Grin, for the first time in three hundred years of service, felt something similar to being cold, a sense of chills that seeped out from within his core and made his limbs grow a bit shaky. It was like seeing an old friend again, a particularly unpleasant one after so long. He didn’t like the cold inside him. It spread nonetheless.
“We can put your girl back into this one’s body, tinker a bit with her memory and those of anyone she deals with to make sure nobody remembers anything about the mishap, and then, she’ll be able to live happily ever after until she, well, dies again, preferably not under the influence of an intoxicated Collector,” said Veil, her eyes once again covered by the shadows of her mask.
“What about this girl, Stella’s family?” Grin asked. Veil was quiet for a moment as she looked at the flashing screen.
“None. Her mother and sibling passed away in a fire. The father just died recently. The only known family is an aunt, fifty four, who is…well, we don’t have to worry about altering her mind. Stella lived alone in her apartment. A bit of a recluse with few friends. Used to be a stay-at-home web designer or something, so no closed relationships, either. Altering her associates’ memories would not take long, which means we will have more time to work on your dead girl’s mind and those she knew. What luck right?”
“You are oddly sure of yourself,” Grin hissed.
“I am nothing if not confident,” she retorted coolly, “but hey, this isn’t about me. This is about you, Grin. It’s your existence on the line, so it’s your call. This is a battle for your survival, and this fight is coming to you whether you like it or not. I simply offered you a gun with free ammunition, and your job is simple, either pick it up and try to shoot the target, or leave it there, fully loaded and utterly useless. But do answer me this then, is this one single blooper worth getting erased for? A single stumble on a thousand-mile long road, and that’s it, boop, done, out like flickering candle in the storm.”
Grin said nothing. He looked at Veil and then at the graveyard again. The world continued to be drenched in a hue of melancholic grey, and the winds continued to wail in the background, tossing more dust and dirt into the cold, dank air.
Caithlin Krisnol had a massive hangover even though she hadn’t gone out drinking last night. At least she was quite certain she hadn’t. She couldn’t remember what she had done last night at all. She didn’t even remember how she was on a bed. The only thing that she knew was that her throat was burning, and her head felt as though a hundred hammers were banging on it repeatedly. The world spun around as she saw double of everything and she fell right back down on her bed, breathless and miserable.
“What happened?” she groaned and massages her temples. Or at least, she tried. Her limbs felt weak and numb, like she hadn’t moved them at all for days, and all of her muscles were dead. There was hardly any feeling left in any of them. Each one weighed a ton and each movement made her entire body protest.
She spent the next fifteen minutes lying around in her bed, miserable through and through. Faintly, she could hear her phone ringing by her ear, but she was too tired to answer it.
“Shut up,” she said with a voice rasp from disuse. That wasn’t right, she thought. She was a chatty person. Grumpily, Caithlin pulled the cover over her head in a feeble attempt to tune out the buzzing of her phone. It rang on and on, sending out the lyrics of some pop song she didn’t even know. Someone must have changed her ringtone again, she thought with annoyance.
“Darn it, Kelly,” said the girl. A sigh of relief let her lips when the music stopped. The silence that followed was heavenly to her ears, a note so sweet and so utterly brief.
Caithlin mustered all of her strength and pushed herself up from the ground. Her back hurt. Her head lolled and her vision swam in a sea of white and green and red spots.
She swiped a finger across the blaring screen and pressed the offending device against her ear. “Hello?”
“Are you still in bed at midday? You just missed your final, Caith! I called you this morning, but nobody picked up!” Kelly shouted from the other line, making her drop the phone and ducked her head. She had no idea why she did that, but when consciousness came back to her, Caithlin realized that Kelly was still shouting, her words less than amiable.
“Kelly, please” she said hesitantly after retrieving the phone. She could feel something twisting and stirring inside her. Her friend did not stop. “Kelly!” she shouted and regretted the action as soon as it was done. A violent coughing fit overtook her senses, sending her entire body crashing onto the bed as waves of spasm washed over her. An unbearable pain stabbed her chest, making it ache and burn and deprived it of air. She struggled for breaths, a struggle she soon found herself on the losing side. Caithlin felt like she was going to die. Darkness began to overtake her vision, blurring all the colors before it. She could hear some noises in the background, a voice calling her name in frenzy, but she paid it no mind. Breathing was her priority. When she was on the verge of losing consciousness, the coughing stopped, as suddenly as it had come, leaving her utterly exhausted.
“Caith? Caith! You there?” came the urgent voice. “Alright, that’s it. I’m coming over now! Stay there.” Caithlin lifted her head at the string of monotonous toot-toot-toots and slumped back onto her pillows. The room was too bright, even with hardly any light on. She felt hot, searing even. Her body grew uncomfortable with sweats, making her hair stick onto her skin. Her eyelids fluttered, each getting heavier and heavier as the seconds ticked away, but for some reason, Caithlin didn’t want to close them. Something in her head, a voice perhaps, warned her to keep them open, and she complied. She was afraid that if she closed them, they would stay closed for good. Where that idea came from, she had no idea, but it was already there and had already made itself at home in her mind. Another shudder wrecked her skinny frame, followed by a sigh of relief when it had subsided.
Caithlin’s eyes darted around at her tiny apartment, staring at the fan over her head, at the windows still covered by the white blinds which partially blocked the sunlight’s entry, at her desk with a stack of books upon its worn surface, some of which were open and some of which had fallen to the floor into a messy heap. Caithlin ran her hands against the fabric of her bed. Everything was the same as the day before, and the day before it, and yet somehow, something was different, like the first time she had put on her mother’s makeup and looked at herself in the mirror, staring at the girl who was clearly not her staring back from the other side. It was that kind of different.
Her chest was aching again, and breathing itself once more became something of a labor. Sleep was sweet, but she fought against its calling, desperately as though her life depended on it.
Caithlin didn’t know how long she was lying and rolling around on her bed, locked in an endless combat with an enemy within which she could not banish. A gasp left her lips when the door to her bedroom broke open. Kelly Lark came in, looking as though death was on her heels. Her eyes flashed as they looked at her. She was not smiling. Her brows knitted together.
“Are you okay?” Kelly said as she sat by Caithlin’s bed and held onto the latter’s hand tightly. The warmth of another’s hand in her hold felt exceptionally good. Relief bloomed inside her, and came out as another sigh. It made her feel alive and less cold. Caithlin entertained that thought for a second. Why had she been cold in the first place?
“Caith?” Kelly asked, and with much effort, Caithlin moved her eyes to gaze back into her friend’s.
“How,” she coughed before she continued, “did you get in?”
Kelly put on a smile void of humor. “You gave me the spare key, remember?”
“I did?” Caithlin asked, a bit bewildered. Kelly looked at her with worry in her eyes.
“You did. But enough of that. How are you feeling?”
“Like I have a desert in my mouth, a hammer in my head and shackle in my chest” Caithlin replied, miserably moaning.
“You do sound horrible,” Kelly agreed. “Which is saying a lot.”
“Don’t mention it. Stay there. I’ll be back with some water.” Kelly was already out of the door before her sentence was finished. She tried to sit up, only to fall back down. Breaths came out as pants, heavy and hot. The lightheadedness returned, and her heart was beating weakly in her chest, impossibly weak for a heart. Everything became laborious to her, including thinking.
The door softly creaked open, and Kelly went inside again with a bottle on one hand and a glass of water on the other.
“Can you sit up?” Kelly asked. Caithlin managed to mouth a response. It took some effort and a few minutes, but with Kelly’s help, Caithlin soon found herself leaning against the headboard with a glass filled to the brim with water hovering before her lips. Some drops sloshed over and fell on her shirt and sheet, but she didn’t mind. Her brain commanded her to reach out. Her hands, however, stayed where they were.
“Small sips,” Kelly said as she began to tip the glass forward. The water went slowly into Caithlin’s parted lips, slow and steady. The coolness each drop brought felt like a blessing in her throat. She drank greedily and still wanted more by the time she was done.
“Another?” Kelly asked, already refilling the glass.
“Sure,” Caithlin rasped.
After the content was emptied for the third time, Caithlin lied back down while Kelly moved to open the window and tied back the blinds with the red tassels. The sky was grey and sad, and droplets of rain still fell down, as though the heaven above was softly crying.
“It’s been raining since early in the morning,” Kelly said conversationally as she sat down. “So, any ideas why this,” Kelly gestured all over Caithlin and continued, “happened in a fortnight?”
“Beats me,” Caithlin replied. “Seriously. Must have been something I did yesterday, and I can’t even remember what I did yesterday. Do you?”
“You were home. Said you were studying or something, but looking at you, I would say you studied something else. Something…exhausting,” Kelly said. Her lips curled up into a foxy smirk. “What, pray tell, did you study to leave you like this?” Kelly’s eyebrows did their little dance. Her eyes narrowed and her grin grew wider.
Caithlin groaned and weakly gripped her pillow. She couldn’t even lift I up, which only added to her annoyance with herself. Kelly noticed and laughed to herself. “Don’t worry, fluid dynamics is hard. I feel you, girl,” she said with a straight face and a serious tone.
“Kelly!” Caithlin shouted and fell victim to another brutal coughing spell, one which was strong enough to fold her in half and caused her thin frame to tremble. The bed shook and creaked with every movement, and it was only thanks to Kelly that Caithlin was still on the bed instead of the cold, hard floor.
“Wow, you’re really sick,” Kelly said, earning herself a half-lidded glare from the other girl.
“Thanks,” Caithlin said weakly when she was sure she could speak again. “I’ll give you your…IQ test results back…in a few days.” A stream of pants came out of her mouth, and her forehead was glistening. Her skin felt cold and the warmth from Kelly’s hands around her felt nice. Exceptionally nice. She wanted that warmth. She wanted to be warm again. It was cold and dark and lonely…
Caithlin’s eyes flung open all of the sudden as she looked around, eyes wide and haunted as though she had seen something she wasn’t meant to. The room was as it had always been, and the lighting was on. The wind was knocking against her glass panes like a call to go outside, and Kelly’s warmth was around her. She wasn’t cold, Caithlin reminded herself as she pulled the blanket around her being.
“Are you cold?” Kelly asked.
“No.” Kelly stared at her. Caithlin sighed. “A bit.”
“Must be a bad case of the flu, then,” the other girl nodded sympathetically. “You should take more water and some medicine. Do you have anything in your cabinet or do I have to buy some?”
“Buy some,” Caithlin said.
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When two reapers decide to play necromancers to bury a mistake, everything spirals out of control, both for them and for the one they call back from beyond the grave - a soul of a wrongly reaped young woman trapped inside the body of a freshly dead girl. As the struggle for dominance between the vessel and the soul intensifies, the reapers have their own battle to fight, one waged by a clash between ethics and sentiments.