My Job as Death

     It was my first day on the job as Death, and I had no idea what to expect.
     I stopped by the receptionist’s desk to hand in my completed paperwork, which took me three years to fill out. Not that the job of Death is so coveted that they have extra hoops or anything. That’s just how it is in Hell. There’s stacks of paperwork for any job.
     “Here’s your watch, a scythe, and a pager,” Betty said. “There’s a manual in the backpack.”
     “A pager?” I said. “You mean what they used in the ‘90s?”
     Betty stared at me for a few seconds.
     “Only use your Blackberry for emergencies. The boss doesn’t like to go to the surface unless she absolutely has to.”
     I turned the small black rectangle over in my hand and flipped it open.
     “Why don’t we just use cell phones?”
     Betty sighed as she stamped the papers in front of her. All the papers were blank except for the inked stamp she left behind on the pages.
     “The last thing the boss needs is a butt dial. Now go clock in. You’ll be on the job for the next,” she paused to check her paper Garfield desk calendar. “Um, let’s see … four hundred years.”
     I nodded, collected my equipment, and turned to leave. The scythe was heavy.
     “Hey,” I said.
     Betty looked up from her stamping work but said nothing.
     “Do I have to carry the scythe? It’s kind of unwieldy.”
     “That’s not my call. You’re Death. You can use whatever works to separate a soul from a body. I’m just here to give out the standard issue stuff. Good luck.”
     I looked at the weapon that was taller than me and had a mean looking blade. I set it down on the IKEA couch in the waiting room and left for Earth.

                                                               *****

     If I’m being honest, I didn’t expect to get the gig as Death. It’s usually a job reserved for someone who’s been in Hell longer than me. My first ten years in Hell were a bit unexpected.
     I was raised in a somewhat Christian household where we kind of believed the whole Heaven and Hell thing, but we were Chreasters — we only went to church on Easter and Christmas. That’s not why I went to Hell, though.
     Anyway, I remember something about fire and brimstone, and I think gnashing. There’s a lot lost in translation, I guess. Have you ever had to have dinner with someone who eats loudly? There’s the smacking of lips and moans and slurps. And gnashing. You can hear their teeth chomp down, and then their jaw clicks as they chew. That’s practically the soundtrack to your afterlife in Hell.
     Torture is all about perspective, right? I didn’t even know I was dead and spending an eternity in Hell for the first year or so I was down there. Everything in my life had been replicated.
     I was working the same boring job for minimum wage. I was in the same shithole of an apartment with the worst roommate. You know when you try to watch something on TV, but someone decides it’s the best time to start vacuuming? It was that, but every single time. I’d pause my show, get Tyler to stop vacuuming, and as soon as I hit play, he was doing dishes or tuning his guitar or suddenly drilling something.
     Whenever I’d eat, a piece of food would get stuck between two teeth, and no amount of flossing would get it out. I was always late to work because some asshole would pull out in front of me and drive ten miles under the speed limit—no matter which route I took.
     Every time I poured myself a glass of iced tea, it ended up being soda. So, I’d pour a glass of soda, and it would be iced tea. I’d try to remember that it was always opposite, but just before I took a sip, I forgot.
     It was the soda-into-tea thing that finally made it click for me. No one could be that unlucky. Finally, in a fit of frustration, I yelled to no one in particular, “Am I in Hell, or what?” And poof! Satan showed up to confirm it.
     That’s when I found out that I could choose my own Hell. I could carry on with my average life with constant annoyances, or I could pick from a list of open positions. There were a lot of receptionist jobs that would require me to answer phones, but the other person always hung up right as I’d answer. I could stand in line at the DMV. There were also customer service jobs that were mundane, but a couple times each day, I’d have to deal with a Karen.
     I chose customer service because I’m an idiot. But I always kept my eye on the Help Wanted ads. When the job for Death came up, I applied immediately.
     In my interview, even Satan was a bit surprised that the job was available. And she was even more surprised that no one else had applied. I got the job by default.
     “You can’t do any worse than the last guy,” she said.
     Maybe I should’ve asked what happened to him. How do you lose the job of Death, anyway? But I figured I should just keep my hole shut and hope for the best. After all, this was my only way back to the surface.
     Now I’m back among the living, and I have to try to blend in. I still want to look the part, but a giant black cape would be a bit obvious. I went with a black hoodie instead.
     Betty wants me to keep track of the souls I collect, but she forgot to give me a little clicker counter thing. So, I picked up a notepad and some pens from the dollar store. Then I rented a small apartment on the edge of town.
     The first few days, I didn’t collect any souls. I guess I was nervous. The pocket watch kept pinging, and it finally got annoying enough that I gave in.
     I traced a finger over the etched skull on the top of the brass watch, and then flipped it open. All it showed was the face of a man. He was older, probably in his eighties. His eyes drooped at the outer corners, and the wisps of white hair still left on his head floated as if trying to escape him.
     One tap on the man’s image whisked me to his bedside. He was awake. I looked down at his frail body and back up to his face.
     “I’m not afraid anymore,” he said.
     “That’s good.”
     His soul glowed just on the edge of his body. It was kind of like an aura that a lot of New Age people talk about. I didn’t have a scythe, but I figured I could just give his soul a tug. I got a good grip on it and pulled.
     Hours later, I finally peeled his soul away, and I felt awful. Not that the man was in pain from the soul separation or anything, but it was such a long process. And we’d run out of things to talk about.
     No one told me what I was supposed to do with a soul once I had it. I just stuck it in my backpack, wound the pocket watch, and I appeared back at my apartment. Okay, now what? I didn’t get a lot of training.
     I opened my backpack and pushed the lone soul aside to check the manual Betty gave me. The manual looked like it was made in the ‘50s with its cartoon-like illustrations smiling at each other and the old type fonts. I flipped to the page with instructions on what to do with collected souls.
     “Congratulations on collecting your first soul! Now it’s time to send it to either Heaven or Hell. If you checked your equipment, you should’ve found a cylinder with a red cover on one end and blue cover on the other end. Simply place the soul inside, give it a shake, and then let go. The soul will expel itself out of the proper end and head to its eternal resting place.”
     I looked in the pack and found the container that fit the description in the manual. I opened one end and carefully plucked the soul from my bag. The soul was a bit velvety, almost slippery, and it slid easily into the cylinder. I did as instructed, and as soon as I let go, there was a flash and the soul was gone.
     It all happened so fast, so I didn’t see which way it went.
     “Well, I guess my work here is done.”
     I scanned the rest of the manual to see what else I needed to know. Turned out I got some other cool features as Death, such as the teleporting thing, sharper eyesight, and it seemed like I could hear even the quietest sounds a mile away.
     The watch pinged again to remind me that Death’s work is never done.

                                                                     *****

     It took years for me to figure out a routine. I could manage the pings from the watch, and I learned how to efficiently separate souls from bodies without having to return to Hell for that scythe. I’d bought a small pocket knife from the pawn shop down the road. It made the job much easier.
     There were only two snags I ran into: keeping count of the souls I harvested and souls that didn’t want to go into the cylinder.
     I had stacks of notepads with marks for each soul I’d collected, along with a final count for each notepad on the front of each one. A clicker would’ve been better, but Hell loves requiring paperwork.
     As far as the stubborn souls go, I found some just resisted going into the Judgement Tank, as I called it. They’d snake around the outside edge, or slide from one side of my pack to the other. So, my backpack was never really empty when I went on soul runs—it was a mobile purgatory for the souls not ready to rest. Every night, when I finished my work, I’d try again with the souls stuck in limbo, and eventually they all accepted their fate. Sometimes souls just need a little more time.
     I suppose one of the challenges I didn’t expect as Death was the crushing loneliness I’d feel. In life, I was very much a loner; having people in my life was a burden. I could barely take care of myself, so the last thing I wanted was responsibility for another person’s life or feelings. In Hell, I didn’t have friends, so much as acquaintances, but at least it was someone else to talk to. As Death, no one wanted to talk to me. The living could see and hear me, but it was as though they avoided me and didn’t know why. I knew why—I was Death; of course they wanted to steer clear.
     Remember the aura of souls I mentioned? Turns out, there are some people who really can see them. They can see the edges of souls. And one day, I discovered that I’m basically a soul walking around on Earth with a fake meat suit. I don’t know why I didn’t think my soul would be elsewhere. I guess I just didn’t think about it. The tattoo artist I met, though, she knew. She saw. And after years working as Death and having no one to connect with, this nearly forty-year-old woman looked directly at my soul and said hello.
     “I haven’t seen you here before,” she said.
     I looked left and right for someone else she might be talking to.
     “Me?” I said, pointing at my chest.
     “Yeah, you. No one else is here. Well, except my boss in the back,” she said, throwing a thumb toward the black swinging doors that looked straight out of an old saloon.
     I’d gotten a ping from my watch that sent me to this shop for a man who looked like he’d tattooed his whole body. He looked older, but not exceptionally so. Probably heart issues.
     “We don’t usually take walk-ins, but I don’t have any appointments until later. Do you know what you want?”
     The woman spoke kindly and quietly. Her hair was long and straight; the color of muted copper.
     I looked at the photos on the wall, turning my back to her.
     “No, I guess I’m just looking.”
     “Sorry, did you say something?”
     She was standing and walking toward me.
     “I need you to face me when you talk—I have to read your lips,” she said.
     As she got closer, I saw the hearing aids on each ear.
     “Oh, you’re deaf,” I said.
     I immediately regretted saying something so stupid. And then I realized I felt regret. I didn’t even know that was possible for the Angel of Death.
     “Mostly deaf,” she said. “I don’t like turning these things up because I’d rather not hear all the bullshit. Just some of the bullshit.”
     “I’m just looking right now,” I said. “Actually, do you mind if I use your restroom?”
     I still had a job to do.
     “Sure, it’s in the back. Through those doors,” she said, pointing behind her again.
     “Thanks,” I said.
     I opened the office door and as soon as the man sensed me, it happened. I’d gotten used to this part. He clutched at his chest and then fell to one side. He looked up at me with fear in his eyes. Usually I’d ignore the tears, the cries, the bargaining people would try with me, but this time I felt a pang of sorrow and maybe even a bit of empathy for this man. He looked younger in person than he did in the watch.
     I worked quickly to detach his soul and then I tried to shake this new feeling I had.
     When I returned to the tattoo shop’s main room, I told the woman I’d met that I’d heard a man groaning in the back. I didn’t want to stick around for her to find her boss dead at his desk, but it felt necessary.
     As the woman hurried away, I picked up her business card from the front desk. Sun Pixie Francis. That’s a hell of a name. I put the card in my pocket.
     A few moments later, Sun returned. She was crying.
     “I’m sorry, but I think I need to close the shop.”
     “Is everything okay?”
     I felt bad for pretending to not know; pretending I wasn’t carrying her boss’ soul on my shoulder.
     “I think … I think my boss is dead,” she said. “I don’t know. An ambulance is on the way. You should probably go.”
     “Yeah, okay, no problem. I hope he pulls through,” I said.
     When I got home that night, I put the souls through the Judgement Tank, and I caught a glimpse of blue when the tattoo shop guy shot out of the cylinder. So, he was a good dude.
     Work continued as usual, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Sun. She was the first person to acknowledge me.
     Any time I had an assignment near the tattoo shop, I’d walk by to just check up on her. She was still working there, and I assumed she’d taken over the ownership of the store. Business seemed good. Every time I walked up to the window, I’d hide my face, just in case she recognized me. She always looked up, and it felt like she knew it was me.
     One day, I walked by the shop and went through my usual routine. I’d hide my face with my hood and glance in. Sun looked up from whatever she was doing and paused for a moment. This happened every time, except this time, she didn’t go back to her work. She got up and walked outside.
     Shit.
     “Hey,” she said. “I know it’s you.”
     If I poofed out of there now, I could never come back or she’d be even more suspicious.
     “Hey,” I said, drawing out the word.
     “Why do you keep coming to my shop, but you never come inside?”
     “I guess I’m just working up the courage,” I said.
     “To get a tattoo?”
     “Yes,” I said. “To get a tattoo. Yeah.”
     “Right,” she said.
     Sun turns to go back inside, but this time I follow her inside.
     “Do you have time for a tattoo now?” I said.
     “What?”
     She turns to watch my lips.
     “Can you do a tattoo now?”
     “It depends. Do you know what you want yet?”
     “How did you know it was me?” I said.
     Sun pulls back a little and sits back at the front desk. She sketches on a notepad when she answers without looking at me.
     “I recognize your aura.”
     She glanced at me and I felt something I hadn’t in a while. It was so foreign that I didn’t even know what to call the feeling.
     “My what?”
     “Your aura. It’s … distinct.”
     “You can see my aura?”
     “Yeah, I guess it’s a sixth sense or something?”
     “I’ve heard if you lose a sense that other senses are heightened,” I said.
     “That happens to some people, but I still wear glasses,” she said. “And I guess I developed a new sense. I don’t know.”
     “So, how’s my aura different?”
     “Are you getting a tattoo?”
     “Yeah,” I said. I set my backpack down on the floor.
     “Okay, what do you want?”
I had put a lot of thought into this already because I knew the only way to justify coming to talk to Sun again would be to get a tattoo.
     “A number.”
     “A number?”
     I reached into my backpack and pulled out a sheet of paper with a number on it and handed it to her.
     “That’s a big number,” she said. “Any particular font?”
     “Whatever you think is best,” I said.
     “Do you know where you want it?”
     I looked down at my body thinking where I could fit a lot of long numbers. It seemed like a good way to keep track of souls I’d severed.
     “My chest, I guess.”
     “All right. Take off your shirt and go lay down on that table over there,” Sun said, and pointed to a black padded table in the back corner.
     I did as she asked while she gathered her tools and printed out the number I gave her. She placed the template on my chest and pressed it down. It created a temporary tattoo of the number: 55,380,129.
     “Ready?” she said.
     “Let’s do it,” I said.
     Although music played over the speakers, it was quiet and the sound of the tattoo gun buzzing drowned out the melody.
     “Can I ask the significance of the number?” Sun said.
     Obviously, I couldn’t tell her that it represented the number of souls I took my first year at the job.
     “It’s just a number,” I said.
     “Okay.”
     She continued to work and we made small talk about the weather, news, and music. I realized I was being a bit insensitive by talking about music to a deaf woman and tried to find another topic.
     “How long have you been an artist?”
     “Ever since I lost my hearing,” she said. “I used to play violin, but it kinda doesn’t make sense now, you know?”
     “Sorry,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
     “It’s okay. We adapt. What do you do?”
     “Uh, I work with … sick people.”
     “So you’re a doctor?”
     “Not exactly. I mostly work with people after they’re sick.”
     “You mean dead people?”
     I shifted on the table and she paused the line work.
     “Yeah, I work in funeral services,” I said.
     “Cool.”
     She got back to work and we said nothing more until the tattoo was done.
     “So, will I see you again for more tattoos?” she said.
     “Probably,” I said, and paid my bill.
     “Cool. See you next time.”
     I grabbed my backpack and headed toward the door.
     “Hey,” she said. “Next time you want to check up on me, just come inside to say hi.”
     “Right, yeah. I’ll do that.”

                                                                 *****

     I went back to see Sun once a month to either see how she was doing or to get another line of numbers tattooed on my chest. They were always around fifty million—some less, some more, depending on wars and pandemics.
     Finally, I felt like I had a friend. And I felt fiercely protective of her.
     Even though I promised to go into the shop when I was nearby, I still watched from afar to make sure she was doing well. I was determined to make sure this woman who showed me a bit of kindness when everyone else in the world either feared me or seemed revolted by me was okay.
     Honestly, it didn’t make any sense to me. I was Death. Sure, I was sentenced—if that’s the right word—to Hell, but as Death, I was kind of the Switzerland of the afterlife. I didn’t decide who got a cushy eternal life or a maddening eternal damnation. I was just the courier. I sort of stopped caring about anything after I died. All emotions faded.
     Yet here I was checking up on a woman. Feeling … something for her. And watching out for her.
     Once, there were a couple guys talking shit at her counter when her back was turned. One of them pointed out she was deaf and worked alone. The other said it would be an easy hit.
     Although I was Death, I couldn’t kill anyone. I was only there to take the souls. But I could easily creep people out. So, when I heard their plan, I made sure to show up to keep a lookout. I brought Sun some noodles and hung out with her while she balanced her till. The guys showed up, but didn’t come in. It just took one look from me and they ran off.
     Every time they tried to plan to rob Sun, I showed up. They finally gave up.
And every time I came to protect Sun, I felt something new. It wasn’t always when I was with her either. When I had to harvest souls from children or those who got unlucky in car accidents or a cancer diagnosis, I hesitated to take their souls. I felt compassion and sympathy. For the first time in decades, I thought maybe I couldn’t do my job as Death.
     Sun and I continued our friendship. She’d talk about the crazy people she’d meet at the shop, and I’d tell her about my “clients,” and we commiserated. I got more tattoos from her until my chest was covered in numbers that only made sense to me—or so I thought.
     “This one’s a bigger number than the rest,” Sun said, after she’d placed the template on my chest.
     “Yeah, last year was nuts.”
     I wasn’t sure what tattoo I’d get after this. The year wasn’t over yet, but I was out of numbers for another three months.
     “I have a confession,” Sun said.
     I waited for her to continue.
     “I looked up your numbers.”
     “You did?”
     My question sounded more like a statement—a realization that maybe she’d figured it out.
     “Yeah. I guess it’s quite the commitment to your job that you’d get the number of people who died each year tattooed on you. Does it help you cope or something?”
     “Something like that,” I said.
     I was relieved she’d come up with her own explanation. It was better than having to tell her the truth.
     “Death is so misunderstood, you know?” she said over the sound of the buzzing tattoo gun. “It’s undiscriminating and inevitable. It’s just part of life, right?”
     “Yeah,” I said, and I felt more seen than ever.
     Sun was so practiced at tattooing my numbers that we finished faster each time. She was nearly done.
     “It isn’t like Death makes the decision to kill people, right?”
     “I wouldn’t think so,” I said.
     Sun turned off the tattoo gun and wiped the blood off my chest.
     “If anyone’s going to have the answer, I figured it would be you,” she said.
     I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at her and nodded.
     “After all, you deal with death every day.”
     “Right,” I said.
     I sat up on the table and watched Sun as she looked down at my backpack. I’d left the top open just a smidge. I could see the glow from the thousands of souls I’d collected that day.
     “Not to call you out or anything, but I’ve wondered since the first day you came into the shop: What’s it like being Death?”
     She’d known all along. Of course she knew—she could see my aura, so it kind of made sense that she could see the auras of the souls in my pack.
     I tossed more money than I owed her on the padded black table and booked it out of there, carrying my shirt and hoodie with me. I ran down the street toward an alley where I could safely teleport back to my small apartment, so she couldn’t see me. Not that it mattered. She knew.
     Back in my place, I sat on the old sofa and went over in my head how things had changed since I met Sun. I felt emotions I’d forgotten existed. I was slacking every day in my soul collection. In fact, numbers were down this year by hundreds of thousands—someone in Hell’s bureaucracy was sure to notice.
     As I released the souls from the limbo of my pack and ushered them to their final resting place, I decided I needed to stop seeing Sun. She was a distraction. I needed to focus on my work. If I failed as Death, who knows what level of Hell waited for me?
     My focus was back. I was severing souls faster than ever, and I was back home earlier each night. Years went by, and the emotions I’d felt after meeting Sun started to go back to their hiding places. Not a day went by that I didn’t think of Sun, though.

                                                                 *****

     Decades later, the day I dreaded most came. Sun’s face showed up on my watch. All the emotions I’d felt before came to the surface. I didn’t want to go, but I had to do my job.
     I hadn’t been to Sun’s house before. So, when I appeared in her bedroom, it confirmed her suspicions: I was Death.
     “I knew you’d come,” Sun said.
     Her voice was weak, but it had the same kindness it had years ago when I’d first met her.
     “We all have a job to do,” I said.
     Sun didn’t look sick enough to die. It wasn’t fair that this woman, who was more special than she knew, would die now. It was before her time.
     I tried to remind myself that I took souls from tens of millions of children, men, and women throughout the years that didn’t deserve to die when they did. But this was different.
     I pulled out my pocket knife, dull from years of use.
     “I’m glad I knew you,” Sun said.
     I think that’s when I started crying. I didn’t even know it was possible. Yet there I was grieving for her.
     “Will it hurt?” she said.
     “No,” I said, and wiped a stream of tears from my cheek.
     I placed my blade at the edge of her aura, her soul, but I couldn’t cut it. I folded the knife back up and took a step back from her bed.
     “Just give it some time, and you’ll feel better,” I said.
     Sun looked at me, puzzled.
     “But I thought …”
     “I can’t. I can’t do it.”
     A flash of light blinded me and I found myself back in the blandly decorated halls of Hell. Betty was leaving one of the rooms from the left, sipping a cup of coffee.
     “You didn’t last long,” she said as she walked past me.
     “What’s going on?” I said.
     “You’re done.”
     “Done?”
     “The moment Death refuses to take a soul is the moment the job ends. You’ll get your next assignment from George. He’s down the hall that way and to the right,” she said.
     I walked slowly toward the door she pointed at, unsure of what awaited me. The door opened just as I approached it.
     “Peter! Great to see you. Come on in,” George said.
     His cheeriness caught me off guard, but I did as he said. After all, I was just a minion—a pawn in all this.
     “So,” he said, clapping his hands together. “I hear you failed as Death.”
     “You don’t have to sound so happy about it.”
     “Oh, I’m sorry. ‘Failed’ has such a negative connotation. The thing is, it takes a special person to succeed as Death for so long. The fact that you failed is a good thing!”
     “I don’t understand.”
     “Your new assignment is right here,” George said.
     He passed me a sheet of blue paper. It only had two words typed on it: Guardian Angel.
     “There must be some mistake,” I said. “I was in Hell.”
     “Ah yes, and the key word there is ‘was,’” he said. “You showed compassion as Death. You refused to take someone who didn’t deserve to die yet. You passed!”
     “Passed?”
     “Do you not remember why you went to Hell in the first place?”
     At the very moment I comprehended George’s question, the memory of my death and my judgement day came back to me.

     My selfishness in life knew no bounds. I only looked out for myself and took advantage of all those around me. I formed no meaningful relationships. The moment that defined my sentence was when I was working as a pizza delivery person.
     I knocked on the door and a blind man and his seeing eye dog answered.
     “That’ll be fourteen dollars and twenty-five cents,” I said.
     The man smiled and made some kind of small talk—I wasn’t listening. He pulled out a handful of bills and flipped through them.
     “Here, I can help you,” I said.
     I took the stack of cash from the man and fanned out what was there: ones, fives, tens, twenties, and hundred-dollar bills. I plucked a hundred from the bottom of the pile.
     “Let me get you change,” I said.
     “No, don’t worry about it,” he said. “That’s your tip.”
     I thanked him and walked away with my ill-gotten gains.

     “Did he know?” I said.
     “Does it matter?” George said.
     “Fair.”
     “Now it’s time to get you started with your next assignment.”
     The next thing I knew, I was back on Earth. This time, though, I didn’t get a meat suit. No one could see me or hear me, but they seemed to sense me. As I walked by or through people, they smiled. They seemed at peace.
     In the distance, I saw a light. I was drawn to it, so it must mean it was whoever I was supposed to look over. The closer I got to the light, the brighter it appeared. When I turned the corner, I saw my assignment. She was bright as the sun. I watched as she unlocked the door to the tattoo shop and turned the “open” sign on.