Teri M Brown
Aimee considered her life as she flopped into the lumpy armchair, careful not to spill her generous portion of red wine. She silently rattled off her list.
“Two, loud, demanding children.” She made a mental tick on a list.
“A job she hated that barely paid her bills.” Tick.
“No fruity drink with an umbrella.” Tick
“No relationship, no companionship, no man.” Tick. Tick. Tick.
With each pronouncement, her shoulders took on a rounded-at-the-edges attitude of defeat.
Sighing heavily, she put the wine glass to her lips, her mumbles mixing with the aromatic nightcap. “If I could just close my eyes and leave this world, I would.”
Obeying the command, her eyes closed while the wine warmed her belly. This was as close to meditating as a single mother of two small children could muster, but eventually, the urge to binge a few episodes of Bones had her fumbling for the remote. She lifted her free arm to the TV, eyes following a millisecond behind, and a scream just nanoseconds behind that. Standing just to the left of the television stood a tall, eerily silent man.
She jerked her head, first to the left and then to the right, desperate for something to use as a weapon. Her cell phone was on the kitchen table, too far to be of any use. A few dull kitchen knives languished in the sink. Her daughter’s Disney princess nail polish set lay scattered across the table.
It appeared she was on her own … again.
She pressed herself further in the shabby, green upholstery, memorizing his features. If she lived through the ordeal, she wouldn’t be one of those women who couldn’t identify her attacker. No way would her police drawing be a nondescript man who resembled everybody’s mechanic.
She began with his clothes, which were entirely black. Leather shoes with a squared-off toe. Tight-fitting skinny jeans with no visible label. Button-down shirt. Hooded cape.
Hooded cape? Her mouth gaped at the anomaly, causing her to instantaneously see the intruder as a pest rather than as a threat. Capes, she decided, were not intimidating. And, quite frankly, neither were his actions. Other than appearing out of nowhere, he had done nothing at all. So, she changed tactics.
Nonchalantly, she pulled a long cool sip of wine, hoping her laissez-faire attitude would confuse him, maybe even cause him to rethink his reasons for being in her home in the first place. She casually aimed the remote at the TV, but nothing happened. She jiggled the remote, trying again. Nothing. So much for being cool and confident.
She considered screaming, though she hated the idea. Screaming was so basic, such a cliched response. But hey, she was a single mother with a strange man in her home. No one would expect anything less of her. And her choices were limited.
She opened her mouth and let out a … nothing. The noise of the would-be scream bounced around the inside of her skull, but no sound escaped her lips. Her fingers grasped at the air in front of her mouth, searching for the missing clamor. Her eyes sought out the non-working remote before locking in on the man in black. Who was this man, and how was he doing what he was doing?
Without opening his mouth, he answered her. In her head. Where her screams had been just moments before. “I’m Death. I’m here to take you to the next stage known as afterlife. Ah, a fitting name really, except so mundane. I mean, death truly does come after life, so it didn’t take much of a rocket scientist to come up with it, don’t you think?”
She touched her throat, staring at him with dazed eyes and thoughts jumbling in no particular order. “Death? What would Death be doing here? I’m not dead. I don’t want to be dead. Afterlife and rocket scientists?”
Death replied, “Yes, Death. I’m taking you to the next stage of life. Yes, you are. Yes, you said you did. I’m explaining how the afterlife is rather mundane. Quite simple. No rocket scientists needed.”
She continued to stare at him. How was he answering her unspoken questions?
“Once dead, you don’t need a voice. Whatever you need will come to your mind. For now, you are getting your answers through me because you haven’t mastered the new technology yet, but soon….” He made a snapping noise in her head. “Soon you will have answers before you have fully asked the question.”
Aimee had had enough. She didn’t know who he was or how he was managing these tricks, but she wanted him gone. She stood up and moved quickly toward the man in black who called himself Death, reaching for his arm to escort him from her home, but her hand went through him as though he were not there in the room.
A hologram? Which of her friends had done this? If she wasn’t so irritated with them for scaring her, she’d be clapping and yelling “Bravo!!”
“I’m not a hologram. Very primitive technology, actually. I’m a bit insulted. This isn’t Star Wars. Let me explain one more time. I’m Death. I’m here to …”
Aimee interrupted, “Yeah, I know, here to escort me to the next stage with the mundane name.” She began to look for the electronics that must be hiding within the room. She moved books from the shelf. Took cushions off the sofa. Stood in a chair in the kitchen to see if something hung from the light fixture.
“I’m growing a bit weary of this, Aimee. It’s time to go. Most people accept my presence faster than this. We should be well on our way by now. Please, let’s move along.”
Aimee stopped rummaging through the living room and looked at the man in black once again. If this was actually Death, then that meant she was actually dead. She hadn’t been sickly. She didn’t appear to be bleeding and hadn’t choked on anything. “How? Why?”
“The how of the thing is simple. Your heart stops beating. Your lungs stop taking in oxygen. The body quits functioning. The why? My dear, it was the last thing you said before I appeared.”
Aimee slowly sank into her chair again. She had said she wanted to close her eyes and not wake up, hadn’t she? Certainly, whoever was in charge of this whole life – death – afterlife cycle knew that she was just letting off steam?
Death cut into her reverie matter-of-factly. “Sorry, babe. I’ve got a quota. I was in the neighborhood helping an 89-year-old man when your call came in. I typically don’t respond to such mediocre requests, but it has been one hell of a month. I’m behind. My boss is on my case. I need to get two more before midnight, so if we could just hurry this up and be on our way, I’d really appreciate it.”
With that, he held out his arm toward the door, urging her forward. But Aimee did not move.
“No. This is a mistake. I didn’t really want to die, so you are going to have to ‘undead’ me. Go ahead, push some magic button. Wave a wand. Say a few words. Whatever it is that you do and make me alive again. I have two kids in the next room that need me, and I have work tomorrow. This is ridiculous.”
Death sighed and put his arm back down, coming to the realization that this was not going to be a fast trip to the afterlife. Glancing at his watch, he saw he only had four hours to go. He’d need a lot of luck to make his quota, especially at this rate. To Aimee, he said, “Magic words? Really? You think I have the power to just ‘undead’ people?”
His voice dripped with wry contempt. “The vocabulary here on earth is getting worse by the day. Of course, there isn’t much need for a word that describes the death reversal process. It happens so rarely.”
Voluntarily taking on Aimee’s newly minted word, he continued. “I cannot ‘undead’ someone without explicit directions from my boss. Once dead, a person stays that way unless there are extenuating circumstances. So, Aimee, please, let’s not make this drag on for hours. You are now dead. It is time to move on. Let’s head out the door.” Once again, he held out his arm toward the door, waiting for her to take the lead.
Aimee shook her head. No way was she willingly going through that door with some guy named Death. Nope. She wanted to see the boss. She believed her circumstances warranted an exception to the ‘undead’ rule. “Take me to your leader,” she said, with a slight snicker.
“I’m not the least amused by your reference to Mr. Zero in Adventures of Superman,” Death huffed.
Looking confused, Aimee replied, “Superman? I was quoting Luke Skywalker.”
Pressing his lips tightly together, he grated, “Mr. Zero or Luke Skywalker, it doesn’t matter. I don’t have a leader. I have a boss. I’m not an extraterrestrial. I’m Death. I’m just doing my job. Now, please, let’s move on.”
Aimee stubbornly refused, once again. “I need to speak to your boss. Now. Before it is too late to become ‘undead.’”
Oh, why didn’t he ignore her call? That damned quota was going to get him demoted. He’d be forced to handle clear-cut cases of death, like decapitation or major organ system failure. He’d be bored out of his mind if he didn’t get to visit those with an option to remain.
With a heavy sigh, he summoned his boss.
“Yes, Barnabas. What seems to be the problem?”
Aimee chortled. Death had failed to mention his name, which was no wonder. His name was no more intimidating than his black hooded cape.
Barnabas glared at her before turning his full attention to his boss. “Holy Personage, Aimee asked to die. I came to take her to the next stage. She now refuses to go and demanded I call you in hopes of receiving a reprieve. I have informed her of the futility of such a request, but she insisted.”
Aimee wondered if this woman had a name as interesting as Barnabas but forgot that her thoughts were now an open book.
“Young lady, snickering at my name is not a particularly effective way to start this interview. You may call me Saraleigh. So, tell me, what can I do for you today?”
Aimee tried to clear her mind. The last thing she needed was for Holy Personage Saraleigh to understand how, until this very evening, she thought her life sucked. “I had a long day. You know, work, kids, the whole enchilada?” She glanced up, trying to gauge Saraleigh’s understanding of the matter but couldn’t determine if she was making any headway.
“Anyway, I was drinking a glass of wine and thought that I might not mind closing my eyes and never waking up again. And then, BOOM! In waltzes Barnabas to take me to the afterlife.”
Barnabas interrupted vehemently. “I did no such thing. I have never BOOMed in my life. Nor did I dance. I will not have her tearing down my reputation like that.” He sniffed and folded his arms over his chest.
Aimee continued, “Fine. No BOOM and no dancing. But he did show up. In my living room. Told me I was dead. DEAD of all things! I’m a young mother of two children and in perfectly good health. I was not hit by a car, shot by a gun, or hit by lightning. I did not have cancer or a heart problem. And yet, a simple thought that it might be nice to not wake up, and I am dead? This just can’t be right. I need you to reverse this. Now. Quickly. Before my kids wake up and find me here.”
Barnabas mumbled, “She asks you to reverse things. She tells me to say a few magic words and make her ‘undead. Obviously, she is brown-nosing.”
Both Aimee and Saraleigh gave him withering looks. Then Saraleigh addressed Aimee, “So, let me get this straight. Death came into your living room because you said you wanted to close your eyes and not wake up. Is that right?” Aimee nodded.
Saraleigh looked directly at Barnabas. “I don’t want to wake up? Really, Barnabas? When did we start picking up the mommy crowd when they start whining about their dreadful day and their first-world problems? If we picked up every woman who wished she were dead because of a dreadful day with the kids or at work or with their spouse or with that jackass of a boyfriend, our processing center would be so full that people would be waiting in line for eons before getting their housing assignments.”
Barnabas cast his eyes toward the floor. “But she said … I mean … she didn’t want to wake up. I was right here. In the neighborhood. Helping #302587, as assigned. Then her plea came up. I was right here…” He trailed off.
“This is about the quota, isn’t it? Isn’t it????”
Barnabas continued staring at his shoes, though he did murmur, “MmmmHmmmm.”
“And look at the mess this has gotten us into.”
Extenuating circumstances included such things as intense prayers from the requisite number of people within certain age groups and in specific family/friend groupings or someone who has lived an exemplary life and hadn’t had time to finish their work on the earth. Aimee, though a nice girl, didn’t fit into these categories.
Despite not really wanting death, she had asked for it. Despite Death knowing better than to take up tired, cranky mothers during the witching hour, Death had come knocking at a real request. There didn’t seem to be any loopholes.
Aimee, able to hear these thoughts began to defend herself. “Oh, I may not be a Florence Nightingale or Rosa Parks, but I am more than either one of those women to my children. Robert and Emma need me in their life and shouldn’t have to suffer because some buffoon named Barnabas on your death squad came to my house against the generally known rules of your company. I’m still young. INCREDIBLY young. I have a lot of living left to do. I’m still hoping to find true love. Watch my children grow and marry. Have grandchildren. Start my own company. Travel the world. And you’re going to let some quota and a misguided Death take that from me? I don’t think so.”
Saraleigh was impressed, rarely getting to interact with humans at this stage of the process. She was intrigued by her passion for her kids, the same ones she was willing to forsake for a tropical island just moments earlier.
She turned things over in her mind, careful to use a higher form of thought to avoid detection. She did have some latitude, though she rarely used it. It would be so easy for the exceptions to the rule to get out of hand. But in this case, with Aimee not really wanting to die and Barnabas ignoring the guidelines …
Switching to thoughts that Aimee could easily comprehend, Saraleigh said, “Okay, here is what I will do. You have 90 days. During these 90 days, you are in what we are going to call limbo. You are not officially dead, but you are also living with a limited time. We’ll call it a deadline. Get it?” Saraleigh laughed.
Aimee got it but didn’t see the humor.
“During this deadline, you must prove to me that your children need you, that you are serious about finding love, and that you want to start your own company. At the end of 90 days, you will meet before a council consisting of me and 11 Deaths, one of which will be Barnabas.”
At this, Barnabas began listening in earnest. He wasn’t being demoted? He was actually going to be on a death panel?
“If you can show us, through your actions, that you are serious about living life rather than squandering it with wine and whining, you will live. If not, Barnabas will escort you to the afterlife as he tried to do tonight.”
Aimee nodded gratefully.
“Also, during this time, Barnabas will visit you nightly to provide insights and guidance. If you don’t succeed, your trip to the afterlife will be Barnabas’ last. He will be fully demoted to secretary of nightmares, cataloging the anxious dreams of children between the ages of two and 10.”
At this, Barnabas groaned. Not a file clerk for nightmares. That was for flunkies, and he had been at the top of his class.
Saraleigh lifted an eyebrow toward Barnabas but kept her eyes focused on Aimee. “It will be in Barnabas’ best interest to help you succeed, so I suggest that you listen carefully.”
With that, Saraleigh disappeared. The TV clicked on without explanation, and Aimee’s life went on as if she had never died. Her 90 days had begun.