Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chapter One - Meet Death

Death stood, calm, patient, waiting, off to one side of the room.  She’d arrived a bit earlier than usual, so she just watched as the warehouse staff bustled around her.  No one noticed her. The warehouse was clean, and lit by florescent lights that gave everything a sickly green color.  A forklift zipped past carrying a pallet of chattering glass containers, barely audible above the din of the conveyors and other machinery.  The forklift beeped its horn a few times as it approached a corner. 
She removed an inexpensive plastic stop watch from her pocket and attached it to her clipboard.  On her notepad, she had the timing of the events to come in the next few moments in exacting detail. It was her opinion that every passing was significant, at least as significant as every birth, and deserved its due diligence.
A door opened a few feet away from her, and a middle aged man in a gray work shirt stepped through it.  Industrial Accident, Death thought when she saw him. “Buzz” was the name embroidered above his left breast pocket.  Death uncapped her pen, and started the stop watch.
Buzz hurried along the racks until he came to the right row, turned and continued down that row.  Death made a check mark next to an item on her list, and followed him.  When she caught up, he was arguing with another person.  His name tag read “Tom.”  Heart attack on the toilet, Death thought.
“It looks like we’ve only got a couple cases left, we can’t ship that many today,” Tom said.  He shrugged and started to turn away.
Buzz turned a bit red, and put his hands on his hips.
“Bull shit,” Buzz said, “we’ve got four or five pallets stacked up in storage.  I saw them yesterday.”
Tom turned back.  “I’m pretty sure we don’t.  Hang on, I’ll check.” 
He pulled a walkie talkie from his belt and asked if someone working in storage could see if there was any of the product in question still in stock back there.  Death stood three feet away from Tom and Buzz, still unnoticed.  She checked off another item on the list.
“I’m going to be shocked if we have any of these, Buzz.  They’ve been flying off the shelf,” Tom said.  The radio crackled, and someone confirmed that there were still three pallets back there.  Would he like them brought to the picking line?
“Yeah, I’ve got Buzz here and he needs five hundred of them to go out today,” Tom said into the radio.  To Buzz he said, “I guess it’s your lucky day.  We should have that pallet up here in about five minutes.”
“It’s a miracle,” Buzz said, “I just can’t believe it.  Will wonders never cease?”
Tom didn’t reply.  He pulled his phone out of his pocket and became engrossed in something, tapping the keys furiously, as if whatever he was doing was an urgent matter.  Buzz, meanwhile, stood with his arms crossed, waiting for the forklift to show up.
Death checked off another item on her list, and took a look around where they were standing.   It was dark, with only a few lights far overhead providing illumination.  There was just enough room for a forklift to maneuver in the aisle, and the racks were easily twenty feet tall.  A voice on the intercom asked Jenny to please dial 2729.
Death noticed she was hungry, and tried to remember the last time she’d eaten.  She was pretty sure it had been a half of a ham sandwich, about eight months ago.  There had been a delicious smelling burger she’d almost had the time to eat five months ago, and last week she had just ordered a taco before she had to attend to a death.  She flipped through her calendar to see what was on the agenda after she’d wrapped up this passing.  It looked like she was going to have to hustle to get to the next one in time.  She sighed.  Eventually someone would die in a restaurant or grocery store or deli or some other place with food and she’d be able to grab a bite.
For now, she would try not to think about it.
A forklift approached from the far end of the aisle.  The driver (Pneumonia) beeped the horn twice.  Buzz and Tom stood to one side.  The forklift operator slowed down and maneuvered the pallet into its place in the rack.  When he was done, he looked up at the top of the rack, then over at Buzz and Tom.  He shut down the forklift.
“It looks like there’s another pallet of these up top there,” he said.  “Do you want me to get it down while I’m here?”
Death checked off an item on her list and took a few steps back.
Tom had started to say, “That’s all right,” when Buzz interrupted him.
“Yeah, since you’re here, would you?”  
Tom gave Buzz a dirty look, which Buzz pretended not to notice.
“Sure thing,” the driver said.  He started the forklift, and raised the fork.  The hydraulic pump whirred.  When the fork was at about the right height, the driver leaned out of the cage to see what he was doing, and wiggled the fork up and down a few times to get it in exactly the right spot.  He drove forward, and lifted the pallet.
Tom and Buzz stood watching as the forklift slowly backed up, pulling the pallet out from between two others.  There was a crunching noise, and Tom and Buzz both shouted “STOP!”
The driver stopped the forklift, and the three of them craned their necks to see if they could spot what had gone wrong.  The pallet was half over the rack, half off.
“It looks like you’re just slightly crooked and jammed on one of the other pallets,” Buzz said. “You gotta turn to the right just a touch.  I’ll guide you.”  
He walked up closer to the rack and looked up, “OK, start turning right.”
Death checked her stopwatch and made a tick next to an item on her checklist.
“A bit more,” Buzz said, then “Stop!  OK, back it out.”
The forklift backed slowly away from the rack.  Just as the pallet cleared the edge of the rack, most of the boxes on the pallet shifted and fell.  Each box weighed at least forty pounds.  Buzz tried to get out of the way, but didn’t make it.  He was crushed under nearly a ton of packaged machine parts.
Death checked off the last item on her list, and stopped the stop watch.  She noted the time down.  Everything had gone exactly as planned.  Perfect.
Tom and the forklift driver had rushed to the pile of boxes and started pulling boxes away.
“Buzz!  Are you OK?  We’re gonna get you out!” Tom said as he heaved a box to one side.
Buzz’s soul stood next to the pile of boxes, looking down at the two men.  He could see one of his boots sticking out from under the pile.  He looked up and noticed Death then.
“Hey, who are you?  You weren’t here a minute ago,” Buzz said.
Death gave him a gentle smile and said, “Yes, I was.”
Buzz looked at her for a moment, then back at the pile of boxes.  Tom and the forklift driver were still moving boxes, and reassuring Buzz that they were going to have him out of there in just a minute.
“Is that me under there?”
“Well, no, you’re right here.  But that was your body.”
Buzz scratched the side of his head and kept watching as several other people had joined in and were pulling boxes away.  
“So I’m dead?”
“Yes,” Death said.  Since Buzz wasn’t watching her, she checked her calendar.  Ten minutes to her next appointment.
“What now, then?  I was expecting a light at the end of the tunnel, or pearly gates, or, uh, maybe something not as nice as that,” Buzz said.  He thought for a moment, and as he realized he was still in the warehouse, which meant he was still at work, “Is this Hell?”
Death laughed, kindly, and reassured him.  “No, this isn’t Hell.  I am here to bring you from to the gateway to the next world.”
“Where’s the next world?” 
“I really couldn’t say, but I don’t think you need to be alarmed,” Death said.  She did not add that if he did have reason to be alarmed, she wouldn’t really know, and worrying about it for the next few minutes wouldn’t do him any good anyway.
“What if I don’t want to go?” Buzz asked.  He had folded his arms and was beginning to look stubborn.
“It’s my job to bring you to the gateway to the next world.  If I didn’t, there would be souls all over the place.  Bored, unhappy souls, trapped here on Earth,”
“I could run,” Buzz said.  Death could see the idea taking root in Buzz’s mind.  She really didn’t want to have to chase down a soul and drag it back.  It was tedious.  And it was far worse for the souls to get away.  Absolutely everyone they knew in life would be dead in one hundred years, more or less, and then the only thing to do was wait out eternity, alone.  If the soul was exceptionally lucky, it might find it’s way to an afterlife, but usually they just lost their minds and spent eternity lurking in a dark corners, making the living vaguely uneasy without meaning to. Not much of an existence.
Death sighed.  “Yes, you could run.  And then I would have to chase you.  I’ve chased souls before, many times.  I’m rather quick, and I’m good at finding the ones that run. And it’s my job to bring you to the gateway.  It’s not my job to ensure your trip is painless.  Do you follow what I’m saying?”
Buzz considered this for a minute, and relaxed a bit.
“So no last visit to loved ones before I go?”
“No, sorry,” Death said.
“And no spending a year or two haunting people who bothered me?”
“Definitely not,” Death said.  “Besides, from what I hear, haunting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Most of it is just waiting around for the hauntee, and most of the time they don’t even notice they’re being haunted.  It’s a lot of effort for nothing.” 
“OK,” Buzz said.  “I guess I’m ready to go, then.”
Death held out her arm, and said, “Walk with me.”
The two of them stepped out of this world, and into the next.  It was dark, and silent.  It seemed to Buzz he was standing on something, but he couldn’t tell what.  It just looked like darkness under his feet.  He could see Death walking next to him, and there was a tiny, brilliant light a great distance away.
“Where are we?  I mean, what is this place?” Buzz asked. “Is this where I’m supposed to stay for the rest of eternity?”
“No,” Death said. “This is more like the entryway to eternity.  We’re just passing through here.”
“Is that where we have to go?” Buzz asked, pointing at the light in the distance.
“No, it will come to us,” Death said.
The light already looked much larger, and Buzz could tell it was approaching at great speed.  Seconds later it came to a stop just in front of them.  As Buzz’s eyes adjusted to the brilliance of the light, he could see that it was a doorway.  The doorway was ancient and ornately decorated.  Inside, all he could see was bright white light, shimmering and pulsing.
“That is where you must go,” Death said.
“Any idea where it’s going to take me?”
“None at all,” Death said.  She smiled at Buzz.  “Go on.”
Buzz peered in to the light coming from the doorway, brushed himself off, and stepped through.  The door shut quickly, and Death stood alone in the darkness.  She stepped back into the world.  The warehouse employees had uncovered Buzz’s body.  One of them was on the phone, nearly hysterical, explaining what had happened to a 911 operator.
Death walked back through the warehouse, unseen, and then outside to where she had parked her motorcycle.  It was a bright, sunny day.  She swung a leg over the seat, raised the kickstand, and pressed the starter button.  The engine came to life with a roar, as it always did.  
She took a deep breath and said to herself, “On to the next.”  She shifted into first gear, the transmission making a loud clunk, and rolled out of her parking space, pointed in the general direction of her next appointment.
If someone had seen her, it would have looked as though she’d ridden halfway across the parking lot, and then vanished.
Death reappeared, and came to a stop, in the living room of a large house in the suburbs of Chicago.  The rumble of exhaust shook the floor, walls, and decorations, not that anyone noticed.  She shut down her bike, and silence fell over the house once again.
The room looked as though the decor had last been updated in nineteen eighty three.  The couch was upholstered with an ugly floral patterned fabric that was starting to fray.  The coffee table had rings from beverages drank long ago.  Everything was clean though.  Someone obviously took pride in this stuff.
A television was on in another one of the rooms, somewhere.  It sounded like a football game was playing.  She could hear the excitement of the announcers as the action, apparently, picked up.  
The bike’s motor made ticking noises as it cooled.  Death was alone in the living room.  She got off the bike, and checked her notes to see if there was some info about where the next client would be.
Unfortunately, the only information was the address of the house, and the client’s name, age, and intended demise.  Jacob Stein, 54, alcohol poisoning.
She walked up the stairs towards the sound of the television.  There were family photos on display in frames hanging on the wall next to the stairs.  A man, a woman, two girls and a boy.
Jacob staggered past Death, without seeing her, as she reached the top of the stairs.  Death started her stop watch, and followed along behind Jacob.  He made his way into the kitchen, holding himself up with one hand on the wall as he went.  His other hand was busy holding an empty glass.  He stunk of cigarettes and alcohol.
In the kitchen, he grabbed a bottle of Jim Beam and poured himself another generous glass full of whiskey.  The bottle of Jim Beam was nearly empty, and Death noticed a couple more empty bottles scattered around the kitchen.  Jacob had obviously been at it for a while.
On the kitchen counter was a letter printed on business stationery.  Death looked at it briefly, and saw that United Dynamics no longer required Jacob’s services, effective immediately.
Jacob stood at the counter and drank the glass he’d just poured himself, then refilled his glass.
There was a sudden, loud sound outside.  It sounded like a car had run into an empty dumpster.  Jacob started, and turned quickly to look out the window and see what had happened.
In his drunkenness, however, he tripped over his own feet.  He fell, forehead first, into the counter and slumped to the floor unconscious.  Death watched all this happen, and checked off an item on her list.  For now, Jacob was still breathing.
Death considered rummaging through Jacob’s fridge to see if there was anything good to eat in there, but refrained. She was, after all, there in an official capacity. It would be inappropriate to eat right then.
Jacob began to make retching sounds, still unconscious.  Soon he was making choking sounds, and a few minutes after that, his soul stood in the kitchen over his body.
“Oh shit,” Jacob said. “This is going to be a rough scene for my wife to come home to.”
“It could be worse,” Death said, with as much compassion as she could muster.  “You’ve barely left a mess at all.  Your wife will be OK.”
“At least I won’t have to tell her I lost my job,” Jacob said.  He didn’t actually sound relieved about this fact at all.
“There’s that,” Death said.  She was about to ask him to walk with her when she looked out the window and noticed a man standing across the street, looking directly at her.  Head injury, she thought. She got a strong sense that he really was looking at her, then dismissed the idea.  People didn’t see her when she was working.  He was probably just daydreaming and happened to be looking in her direction.
“Any idea who that guy is?” she asked Jacob.
Jacob looked out the window, “I’ve never seen him before.”
He looked at Death again.  “Is there any chance that this is just going to be a near death experience?  I’ll wake up to a brutal hangover and an angry wife in a day or so?”
“Sorry, no chance,” Death said.  “Would you walk with me?”
She led him to the gateway, preoccupied with the strange possibility that someone had seen her.  On the rare occasions that someone actually saw her, it was usually seconds before their demise, or the person was deeply disturbed in some way. Once, a woman (kidney failure) had run, mostly naked and screaming out of a locker room at a gym after seeing Death waiting for another client who was about to have a heart attack.  Death knew, in a vague sort of way, that the screaming woman had experience some kind of heavy trauma a long time ago.
But normal, well-adjusted folks just didn’t see her.  A coincidence was all it was.  She was so lost in thought, she didn’t notice that Jacob had asked her a question.
“Sorry, what did you say?” Death said. She was slightly embarrassed to be caught daydreaming.
“I asked if you knew where this doorway leads to,” Jacob said.  The gateway stood open before the two of them.
“I really couldn’t say. Don’t be afraid,” Death said.
“Have I got to go in there?” Jacob asked. He looked very nervous.
“Yes,” Death said. “Everyone has to pass through the gateway eventually.”
“Even you?” 
Death laughed gently, “Not me.  Every mortal. Go on, now.”
Jacob looked at the gateway, and stepped through it in an abrupt movement.
Back in the living room of Jacob’s house, Death wondered if she would have time to get to downtown Chicago and grab a slice of pizza before she had to go and take care of her next client. She started her motorcycle, which rattled the house once more.  She rode away, with daydreams of pepperoni and sausage pizza running through her head.  Moments later, Jacob’s wife pulled into the driveway, about to find a nasty surprise.  
Within minutes, Death had mostly forgotten about the stranger she thought had seen her.  The stranger, however, had not forgotten seeing Death.

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