Don’t Fear the Reaper
One of the most discussed questions I saw on the old “Campfire” forums, the website we had for the Creepy America community, was “can you use the supernatural for your own goals?”, with the implied addition of “without being evil?”
Most people had the knee-jerk reaction of “no,” and it wasn’t hard to see why. All they had to do was point to men like Tally Bones and Reverend Jones, and the frothing, raving Little Bookers to understand why messing with things like that was a bad idea. Not only were such things dangerous, the powers they gave warped morals and reason, turning the people who used them into monsters. Whether that was because the powers themselves were corrupting or humans will simply become corrupt once they achieve that kind of power was trivial; the point was that it would turn you into an animal of the worst kind.
And yet there was us. Both Zoey and I would resort to using the arcane several times by the show’s end. I became known for using some of the… darker methods available. Even Archangel showed some capacity to wield it wisely; as much as I hate to admit it, once in a while they actually cared about the ‘greater good’ they kept going on about, and when they did, they did so with every available weapon at their disposal. Surely if we could use the occult with restraint, others could too.
It’s an interesting argument. My opinion on it is “yes, you can.” I would have to believe that in order to not be a hypocrite, though, so I guess that doesn’t count for much. But that’s not what was really being argued. What was really being argued was the question Zoey herself would ask me soon:
Is the supernatural world inherently evil, or are there good things in there?
I said yes a while ago, but it’s not an answer I’m confident in anymore. I believe that absolute evil exists. I’d like to believe that good is somewhere out there too. But I’ve seen so many things abuse that assumption, things like Jones and Devil’s County, to simply trust that good exists somewhere, and it isn’t the phantom light of an angler fish lure, ready to entrap more victims.
But then again, things like Death exists. And while he may have resided firmly in the camp of evil things, there is always the chance that, once in a while, good can corrupt evil.
Once we had settled into Birmingham, we couldn’t get over the magic of truck stops.
This is going to be hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t lived life on the road. See, there’s a lot of things you take for granted when you live in a house. A bathroom that doesn’t need maintenance, for one. Storage space. Easy access to stores, as well as a place to ship things to. All that is gone once you pick up and leave.
But by rolling off and starting Creepy America, we had joined the collection of the transitory United States. They were a whole swath of the population that didn’t live in one place, rolling from town to town just like we were. Some were older couples living in RVs similar to ours, enjoying a late adventure in their retirement years. Some were professionals working in surveying or construction, driving and living in their own RVs as they got traveled to whatever location they needed to wait at. Some were families with young children on an extended vacation, and they could either be adorable or annoying, mostly depending on how many hours you had driven that day.
The largest part, though, were truckers: people who made a living driving semis. They drove from coast to coast, sleeping in their trucks, and they needed places to eat, to take showers, to do maintenance on their vehicles, to do basic housekeeping, and to buy necessary and sometimes not-so-necessary supplies for the road.
To meet these needs, truck stops were created, and it only took one short tour of one to convince us that we needed to meet our needs here as well.
“I don’t know why we didn’t use these before,” Zoey said, voice muffled through a mouthful of electric blue slurpee. “This is everything I knew I needed and didn’t know I needed rolled into one.”
“You mean, what you need and what you want to blow money on.” I couldn’t have made a very convincing argument; I had a spoon dug into a small, overpriced carton of ice cream.
Zoey noticed. “Oh yeah?” she asked, pointing to the desert in front of me.
I gave a guilty smile. “Yeah, you got me there, but…” I continued, drumming a small, plastic card on the table, “...we should be able to save some money in the long run with the loyalty program. I mean, I can’t think of anything we need that they don’t sell here: gas, food, parking, vehicle repair, laundry services…”
“And that means no more awkward double parking at Walmart! As well as hot showers.”
I frowned. “Those cost twelve dollars each.”
Zoey sighed, knowing she had just opened up a can of worms. “C’mon Liam, aren’t you getting sick of emptying out that stupid gray water tank? And the water heater only pretends to work on the RV.”
“Zoey, we still have to adhere to the budget. We have one large lump of cash we need to stretch for two years, and no more is going to come in.”
As I talked, Zoey nodded, began to fidget, then stood up and walked off. “Sorry, too much slurpee. We’ll pick up on this incredibly important conversation another time!”
I stared at her grumpily as she walked off to the restrooms, then turned back to the card in my hands and began to tap it on the table. Well, maybe she had a point, I thought. Non-lukewarm showers did sound good, and the uninterrupted alone time you could take without the tapping of your annoyed partner on the door sounded better. The rewards card gave one point per gallon, with a point being worth one cent. The RV held about 100 gallons, and at the Winnebagos ten miles per gallon average…
I sat in silence for a while, trying to mentally math twelve dollars a day into existence, when a sudden scream pierced through the air.
Before I had even realized what I was doing, I was out of my seat and running towards the bathrooms, where the scream had come from. Once I reached the hallway that led back to the bathrooms, I stomped my foot down to stop myself and changed direction, but instead slid on a pile of gray sand strewn across the floor and started to fall, threatening to land on top of a small girl suddenly rounding a corner.
I grabbed the side of the wall and held on, managing to cancel my momentum and regain my balance.
The girl looked up at me and smiled. She was about nine years old, had long auburn hair and pale skin, and was wearing a white dress with flowers on it. “‘Scuse me,” she spoke, and skipped past.
I blinked, then looked back up into the hallway. Zoey was standing there, the color drained from her face and large eyes wide with shock.
“Zoey?” I asked, cautious.
She didn’t speak. Instead, she just stared at the gray sand under my feet.
I slowly approached her and waved a hand in front of her face. When she didn’t react, I gently took her shoulders and guided her back over to the table we were sitting at and sat her down. I didn’t see any outward injuries, so I figured she must be in shock from… something. I took off the jacket I had on and draped it over her shoulders, like I heard you were supposed to do, then sat back and waited in agony.
A few minutes later, Zoey began to blink, then slowly raised her head to look at me. “Liam…”
“I’m here.” I squeezed her hand. It was cold. “What happened?”
“I…” she blinked some more, shook her head, withdrew her hand from my grip, then shuddered and hugged the coat tighter around her shoulders. I noticed with relief that the color was returning to her face. “You didn’t see it?”
“No. All I saw was you and that sand.”
“Sand…? Oh fuck, I think I’m going to be sick.” She put a hand over her mouth, then swallowed. “False alarm. Slurpee’s staying down.”
I let her take a few seconds to breathe, then asked “Zoey, what the hell happened?”
She closed her eyes. “I went to the bathroom, and there was a little girl there, washing her hands. Thought nothing of it. I went into a stall, sat down, and a few minutes later, I heard someone else walk in, and saw his shoes underneath. Guy’s shoes.”
Zoey visibly tensed, eyes still closed. “I heard his voice. Definitely a guy. Sounded normal enough, but definitely a guy. He asked someone where their parents were, and I realized it had to be the girl, because I could still hear the water running. She said ‘not here.’ He asked if she wanted to come with him, get some ice cream. She paused for a minute, then said that her friend told her she couldn’t go.
“The guy gave some kind of grunt and I could hear him grab her. She told him to stop, but… but her tone of voice, she sounded more annoyed than scared or angry.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I shouted ‘Hey!’ from the stall, hoping I could scare him off. I heard him swear, then there was some kind of struggle, and he was walking away with the girl, still protesting, and…” she stopped and opened her eyes, staring at me, “I swear she said, ‘knock it off before I tell Death about this!’”
“What happened then?”
“Well I got myself out of the stall, ready to… I don’t know, kung-fu pounce the guy, but when I got there he was… hanging.” Her hand subconsciously moved to her throat. “By his neck. In mid air. Like a Star-Wars force choke. And he was… aging. By the second. Just withering up, and turning into this old man, then rotting, then skeleton, and even his clothes were rotting, Liam. It was like one of those sped-up videos of a decomposing body, but it was happening right in front of me in the freaking air.
“And the whole time it was happening, the girl was just standing there, looking bored. Once he had fallen apart into dust and floated to the ground, she just sang ‘told you’ and skipped off.”
I looked at my gray-coated shoes in horror. “So the sand…”
Zoey gagged, then gave another forced swallow. “Yeah. That was him.”
“The girl… was she wearing a white dress with pink flowers?”
“Yeah. You saw her?”
I nodded. “Looked like she didn’t have a care in the world.”
We sat in silence for a bit.
“We have to follow up on this,” I declared.
“I know,” Zoey replied, “just… give me a second to grab clothes that don’t have dead guy in them.” She suddenly turned green and grabbed her paper cup, puking blue liquid into it. “And maybe make sure the slurpee is out of my system.”
I slipped her a twenty dollar bill. “Go ahead and buy a shower.”
An hour and a half later, we met back up inside, both of us showered and in different clothes. I had headed back into the RV and tried to wash the gray dust off of my shoes, then noticed that there were some on my pants leg and tried to wash that out, which eventually transformed into a full-on attack of OCD, showering the most thorough shower I ever had in my life in the RV’s bathroom and dressing in clean clothes with the care and precision of a hazmat worker.
Zoey looked me up and down and nodded in understanding, then glanced at a bored looking teenager sweeping up the pile of grey dust and grimaced. “Looks like our attempted kidnapper is about to be swept out to that great dumpster in the sky.”
“And now there’s no way to take a look at it without appearing insane.” I sighed. “We might be at a dead end here. The only other lead we had was the girl, and she has to be long gone…”
Zoey nudged me and pointed.
There, seated inside a Wendys attached to the truck stop, was the little nine-year-old girl, seated on one of the tall chairs and swinging boot-clad feet back and forth. She was wearing the same white dress with pink flowers she had on before, and as she sat, she hummed and fidget-danced a tiny bit.
I gestured for Zoey to take the lead.
She did, striding forward, then stopped and rubbed her arms. “That’s an enthusiastic AC.”
I stopped and raised an eyebrow. “You’re cold?”
She mimicked my movement. “You’re not?”
“Cold like right before we found the bunny man.”
She studied me. “Liam… what’s going on in your head?”
“Don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll let you know if it matures into something beyond just guesses.”
Zoey gave me a wary look, then started again and sat down next to the girl. “Hello.”
The girl looked at her, then looked away. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“Well, my name’s Zoey. There, now we’re not strangers.” She had turned on her Zoey-charm, which was alway effective with kids, but I could see that there was a nervous flicker to her eyes that wasn’t normally there.
The girl looked at her, then looked away, to an empty seat, and frowned. “Death says that I really shouldn’t talk to you.”
Zoey went a little pale and looked at the empty seat. “And why does he say that?”
“He says that you could be a bad person that wants to hurt me, like the guy in the bathroom was.”
Zoey nodded, then turned to the empty seat once more and, with a completely serious expression and tone, said “Mr. Death, I can assure you that the last thing I want to do is hurt this little girl, and even if I did, I saw what you did to that man. There’s no way I could get to her before you could take care of me.”
The room stayed silent, but a tension that I hadn’t noticed before, like the subtle stirring of wind before a storm, suddenly dissipated.
The girl smiled at Zoey. “Alright, he says it’s okay.”
Zoey gave an exhale of relief. She motioned for me to turn on the camcorder and put it on the table. “So, what’s your name?”
“Emily,” the girl said brightly.
“And where are your parents, Emily?”
I felt a split-second of that invisible tension again, before it relaxed.
“Gone,” Emily replied matter-of-factly.
Zoey frowned. “Did they leave you here, or…?”
“Death took them,” Emily replied. “Daddy was driving and this big red truck started to move next to us.” Emily made a motion with her hand, simulating the movement of a vehicle drifting into the wrong lane. “Daddy shouted and tried to move away from it, but we went too far and the car fell with this big crash!” She accentuated her story by leaping up and falling back down, then returning to idly swinging her feet. “When I woke up, Death was there.”
“Your friend?” Zoey clarified.
She nodded. “It was the first time I met him, though. He told me that he had taken Mommy and Daddy away, to sleep until the Aboca… Alpaca…”
“Apocalypse?” I ventured.
She clapped her hands. “That was it! He said that they had to go to sleep until the Apocalypse, when them and everyone else would wake up.” For the first time, she frowned. “But he told me it wasn’t my time, and I had to stay awake.”
“What does he look like?” Zoey asked.
Emily turned to the chair next to her and studied the empty space. “He’s tall. Like, his head almost hits the ceiling sitting in that chair!” She giggled. “And he’s got these long, flowing robes, all black, but he’s got a hood on, so you can’t see his face, and he’s got these long spindly fingers that look like licorice!” She wiggled her hands in front of her and giggled again.
I began to feel uncomfortable at how casually Emily was treating all of this. “Does he have a scythe? Or an hourglass?”
Emily stopped and turned back to the chair. “He says that he wishes your kind would stop adding things. His other three brothers got all the fancy…” she scrunched her face up and carefully sounded out the word “...im-ple-ments.”
I frowned. “How come only you can see him, and we can’t?”
“That’s easy! It’s because I’ve almost died. Anyone who’s met Death can see him,” Emily explained.
I gave a polite cough. “I don’t think that’s it. Both of us have almost died, and we can’t see him.”
She listened to the chair again. “He says that you didn’t meet him because you got your injuries in Leng, and that’s outside of his…” she scrunched up her face again, “jur-is-dic-tion. And death by witchcraft never counts, because it’s un… unnatural.”
A shiver went down my spine, and as it did so, the word ‘Leng’ rotated through my mind, slowly connecting to other pieces of information with a soft cli…
“Stop it Sam,” I hissed under my breath.
A sudden flash of anger flared in the back of my mind, then dissipated, taking whatever revelationary train of thought with it.
Zoey gave me a knowing and concerned look, then turned back at Emily. “What happened after you met death?”
“He told me he was sorry this happened to me, and he wanted to help. So he told me to get out of the car and walk to the truck stop. I couldn’t see it, but he could, and everytime I wanted to stop walking, he told me to keep going, and that it was just a little further away. By the time I got there, I was so tired that I fell asleep on the ground on this little piece of cardboard, and Death told me that he’d protect me as I slept.”
“How long ago was that?”
She thought for a second. “Two days ago.”
Zoey’s expression immediately changed from nervous to concerned. “What have you been eating?”
“I steal things from the store.” She looked to the ground. “I don’t want to, but Death says it’s okay because I really, really, really need it.”
Zoey put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, he’s right.” She looked over to the counter. “How about I buy you something from here? My treat.”
Emily looked up with sparkling eyes. “Can I get lots of chicken nuggets?”
Zoey laughed. “Of course you can.”
A few minutes later, Zoey was in the corner, talking on a cell phone, I was in a corner booth, browsing on my laptop, and Emily was still seated at the high table, busily chowing down on a mountain of chicken nuggets and the largest frostee on Earth.
I smiled at the scene, then returned back to the words on my laptop:
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.
“Glad it finally warmed up,” Zoey said, interrupting my thoughts and sitting down next to me.
“You’re no longer cold?” I asked.
“I am no longer cold,” she declared with an exasperated tone, clearly getting irritated at me.
“When you were questioning Emily, did you… feel anything?” I continued. Zoey’s face began to show annoyance, so I hurriedly added “Just indulge me.”
“Yeah, there was that crap-ton of static electricity surrounding that table until I said ‘hello Mr. Death, I swear to be nice.’”
Zoey rubbed her eyes. “Alright Liam, spit it out. Tell me what kind of freak of nature you think I am.”
“No not a freak, it’s…” I stopped, then started again. “I’ve been thinking of some of the ghost stories we’ve heard about. You know people feeling cold spots, or hostile feelings in rooms with no explanation. And then we’d read testimonials from other people who claimed that nothing happened at all.”
“Your point?” She tried to look irritated, but her tone had shifted to interested.
“I’m beginning to think that some people are sensitive to the supernatural, and some aren’t, and that you’re one of the ones who are, and I’m just… not.”
Zoey furrowed her brow. “So when I keep complaining that I’m cold…”
“I don’t feel anything,” I clarified. “I feel fine. And that static electricity you were talking about, I felt it, but only slightly. Truth is, I didn’t even notice it until it was gone.”
There was an awkward pause.
“You didn’t get this from Sam, did you?” Zoey asked me, softly.
I shook my head. “He was trying to tell me something about Leng. And he can keep it to himself.” My hands curled into fists. “I’m not letting him anywhere near my mind. He can rot.”
Zoey gave a satisfied nod, then stared at Emily as she dipped a chicken nugget into the frostee, bit into it, and wrinkled her nose at the result.
“Did you talk to the police?” I asked quietly.
“Yeah. They found the car and the bodies, and they’ll be here for Emily soon.” She shook her head and looked disgusted for a moment. “Nobody reported the crash, so whoever did it was a hit-and-run. The car was also pretty far off the road, so people couldn’t see it. This is the first they’re hearing about it.”
“Scumbag.” I scowled, then turned back to my laptop. “Well, faintest of silver linings, I think we know what we’re dealing with this time.”
“Yeah, Death,” Zoey scoffed.
“But which one? Lots of cultures have a death figure, and each one acts differently. I mean, there’s the Grim Reaper, Mot, the Ankou, Santa Muerte, King Yan...”
Zoey gave the smallest of annoyed sighs. “Alright Liam, which Death is it?”
I turned the laptop to face her, displaying the text of Revelation, Chapter 6. “I think it’s the Christian one. Specifically, the one described in the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
Zoey sat up and read over the text. “It seems to fit,” I continued. “He said his three brothers got all the items, and Death is the only rider who doesn’t have his own symbol. Plus…”
“...people are supposed to come back to life on Judgement Day. And Jesus did always describe the dead as ‘sleeping.’” Zoey finished.
I blinked. Because she talked about it so little, I tended to forget that Zoey was a professed Christian.
“Actually, this makes sense,” Zoey continued. “This would explain why our friend here is so interested in protecting a little girl.”
I frowned. “How so?”
“Well, he’s batting for the good guys.” Zoey pointed at the screen. “Says it right here. He answers Heaven’s call, not downstairs. This is good news”
The frown remained on my face. “That’s not what I was hoping you’d say.”
She looked at me from over the laptop screen. “What were you hoping I’d say?”
“Something along the lines of ‘alright, now that we know who he is, let’s get him away from a vulnerable child.’”
The awkward silence resumed itself.
“Liam, maybe this is the one time we don’t have to swing in and rescue someone,” Zoey murmured. “I think Emily’s in pretty good hands right now.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said. “Zoey, it’s freaking Death.”
“So?” She jabbed at the laptop screen again. “He’s not some all-consuming monster. He’s a constrained force of nature, and he seems to have proven that he’s got genuinely good intentions.”
“I think the man in the bathroom would have to disagree with that.”
“And I think you’ve forgotten about Sodom and Gomorrah.” Zoey turned a little grey, but she pressed on. “If anyone was in line for a little righteous smiting, it was him.”
“But he’s part of the supernatural world, and everything we’ve seen in there has evil intentions,” I insisted. “Where the hell is the Zoey that ripped up Jenny Walsh’s spell, telling me we couldn’t rely on this stuff?”
“Right here, trying to drill some sense into your head!” Zoey snapped. Then she closed her eyes, breathed, and resumed in a calmer voice. “Look, if there’s bad guys out there, then there has to be good guys too. With all we’ve seen, I don’t think humanity could have survived if there weren’t. And I’m not saying we should try to tap into him for arcane power, or add him on Facebook, but…” she gave a soft smile, “I think things here are fine. I think he’s one of the good ones, and we’ll do a lot more harm interfering than just leaving it alone.”
I looked back to Emily. She was currently talking to one of the ladies I had seen behind the truck stop cash register; Sheryl, according to her nametag. Sheryl was grinning and handing her a large ice cream sandwich, which Emily was accepting in wide-eyed appreciation.
Zoey yawned. “C’mon. I’m beat. Let’s go back to the RV and get some sleep, alright?”
I fidgeted. “What about Emily?”
“Oh don’t worry about her,” Zoey smirked. “I get the feeling that anything that tries to mess with her is going to sincerely regret it.”
I couldn’t sleep.
I could hear Zoey in the bedroom next to me, snoring like a log, but I was wide awake. I kept tossing and turning, thinking about Zoey’s story about the man in the bathroom, picturing Emily’s description of Death in my head, then picturing Emily alone, in the truck stop. I knew that I shouldn’t, that everything Zoey had told me was probably true, but a paranoia kept nagging at the back of my brain, forcing me to picture all of the various ways the invisible specter could hurt the little girl.
Finally, my bladder decided that, if we were going to be up, we might as well take care of some business, so I headed inside to the truck stop restrooms (no sense in filling up our water tank if you could do it for free inside). I stumbled in, blinked a bit at the fluorescent lights, washed my hands, then stumbled back out…
...and almost straight into Emily.
“Um, I’m sorry,” she mumbled. Her eyes were red, and shiny tear marks trailed down her cheeks.
My haze instantly vanished. “Emily? What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“Mr. Death asked me to talk to you,” she continued. She refused to look me in the eyes, instead staring at the ground. “He said that you shouldn’t have called the cops. He said that he didn’t appreciate it.”
She held out a small, shiny silver object, and I took it.
It was a police badge, coated in gray dust.
Emily voiced quivered, on the verge of crying. “He says that he’s protecting me now, so everybody can stay away.”
“ZOEY!” I shouted, pounding on her bedroom door. It had taken me all of thirty seconds to race across the parking lot, fling open the RV door, and start banging away. “WAKE UP NOW!”
“Fucking damnit,” she muttered, opening the door and squinting at me in her pajamas, hate beaming out of her eyes. “What the hell is it, Liam?”
I handed her the police badge. “Death’s gotten possessive. He won’t let anyone near Emily.”
Zoey instantly turned pale and wide-awake at the same time. “Shit…”
“C’mon,” I insisted. “We’ve got to stop him.”
Zoey looked at me, wide-eyed. “Stop Death? How the fuck are we supposed to do that?!”
“I don’t know, but there’s a lot of innocent people in that truck stop who have no idea what’s coming, so hurry up!”
That was all it took to get Zoey moving. She jammed on a pair of shoes and ran out of the RV with me, slamming into the glass doors and barging into the truck stop.
The scene inside was horrifying. The interior was in chaos, shelves of food and snacks thrown about with their contents scattered all over the floor. The far corner of the room was covered in multi-colored liquid sloshing into brown, spilled forth by the bullet holes in a large soda machine Two mounds of dust sat in the corners, corroded pistols and radios buried inside like bones in the dirt, and display of candy had been knocked over into it. In a display of truly twisted cosmic irony, he colorful contents were scattered in the former police officer’s remains, mixed in with shards of glass, bullet casings, and a heavy layer of vomit mixed throughout it all, like the contents of a twisted and macabre pinata.
But the worst part was what was happening in the air in front of us. There, the woman I had seen giving Emily an ice cream sandwich earlier was suspended six to eight feet in mid-air, body limp at the throat. I could only tell it was her by the small plastic name tag that read “Sheryl” on her chest; the rest of her had rotted away to the skeleton, displaying disgusting, slimy green and brown bones clad in frayed and dirty clothes that were falling apart at the seams. Watching closer, I could see that some of her soft tissue was still there, but it was rapidly shrinking away, forced in a sped-up march of time that made the flesh writhe and dance, each movement causing more and more to disappear.
The face fell towards me and the jaw lolled, revealing a shriveled tongue that curled into itself before falling apart into loose soil.
I bent over and added my own contribution to the vomit on the floor.
“STOP IT!” I looked up to see Emily, openly sobbing and screaming into the air next to Sheryl. “JUST STOP! LET HER GO!”
The skeleton, now just bleach-white bones, crumbled and disintegrated into gray dust, dropping to the floor like hourglass sand. Emily gave a loud wail, then looked up in horror.
“No, please…” she begged.
“Emily!” Zoey yelled. “What’s happening? Are you okay?”
There was the sound of something snapping, and a massive footprint appeared in the dust, pointed towards us.
“GO AWAY! I HATE YOU!” Emily yelled at us, but her eyes and voice were run through with fear, not anger. Fear for us, I realized, as she tried to convince Death that we weren’t a threat.
He didn’t seem to understand the message; another loud CRUNCH sounded, and another footprint appeared.
“Death!” Zoey shouted. “If you care about Emily, you’ll stop this instant!”
The advance paused.
“Look around you,” she continued. “You think this is good for her? Watching people who helped her die? Scared out of her mind, surrounded in dead things and vomit?”
The advance stayed paused.
“Let us take her to people who can…”
Zoey’s statement was interrupted as something grabbed her and shoved her upwards, hanging her in the air. Her hands reflexively shot to her throat, clawing at something that wasn’t there, and as she did, her skin began to wrinkle, her frame began to shrink, and her eyes began to cloud over.
I looked to Zoey, then to Emily, and gritted my teeth.
I ran away from the scene and to the back of the store, where the refrigerators with all the drinks were kept. I saw what I wanted, grabbed it, then sprinted over to Emily.
“Drink this,” I commanded her.
Her tear-filled eyes went wide. “What?”
“If you want to help Zoey, and stop Death from killing more people, drink this.”
She brought it up to her lips and took a gulp, then pulled away from it. “It tastes bad.”
“All of it,” I insisted.
She blinked away more tears, then screwed her face up in determination and chugged the rest of the can down. Once she did, she looked at me.
“Now wh…” she began, then stopped and grimaced.
Then she vomited and fell to the floor, body gripped in a seizure.
Instantly the mood changed, and even I could feel it this time; the sharp, staticky sensation so intense that it made my hairs stand on end as the presence of Death glared at me.
“Stop what you’re doing right now, or Emily dies” I said.
There was a snarl from somewhere, and the static raced up my skin, prickling me with tiny impacts of pain.
“Threaten me if you want, but your touch is death, and Emily needs help.” I gestured at her with my foot. The seizure had become less intense, but she was still twitching and writhing. “If you try to do that, you’ll definitely kill her. I’m the only one who can save her.”
There was a loud wail, like nothing I had ever heard before. It sounded like a train horn combined with the feedback whine of a megaphone, and it was so loud it shattered all the glass in the store, exploding them into tiny slivers that went everywhere.
“STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING,” I screamed over it, “BECAUSE IF ZOEY DIES, I SWEAR EMILY WILL TOO!”
The noise stopped.
Zoey was laid gently to the ground, not far enough to no longer be grabbed, but just low enough that she could get her feet out from under her and support her weight. She had aged to the point of eighty years old: her frame was thin and wrinkled, her hair was silver and frail, and even her clothes were grimy and dirt-covered. The only recognizably Zoey thing about her was the rainbow swath of hair, still present.
“Alright.” I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. “First, I need you to de-age Zoey. Can you do that?”
The invisible specter let go and Zoey fell to the floor, gasping for air. As she did, the process almost instantly reversed, hair receding back to healthy blonde, fat returning, wrinkles disappearing, and eyes clearing.
“Alright, good. Now, you’re going to leave.”
The snarl returned, and with it, the prickling static.
“You’re going to leave, and when you do, that will be your promise to never interfere with Emily’s natural life again,” I insisted. “Once you do, I’ll give Emily the antidote to the poison.”
There was silence, but the prickling sensation was still there.
“You’ll know if she dies” I added. “And if she does, you’ll get to kill me yourself, I swear it.”
The static died down, but it also didn’t go away completely.
It was Emily. She was on her side, staring weakly ahead, bile trailing out of her mouth.
“Go away,” she pleaded. “Please, just go away and don’t come back.”
There was a pause, and then a release of the tension. I looked to Zoey, then to Emily.
“He’s gone,” she said, silently crying. “He’s finally gone.”
The emergency response was a real circus. It seemed like everyone in the entire country came to respond to the scene: firefighters, paramedics, police, CDC, and, I kid you not, hazmat response workers, all piled into the truck stop’s parking lot, scrambling over each other trying to help.
Zoey and I were given blankets for shock, then immediately ignored in favor of flocking to Emily’s side and treating her. I didn’t mind. I simply focused on the warmth of the blanket and let my thoughts slowly return to me.
The first one was a small, clinically detached voice noting that I was getting much better recovering from shock.
“Mr. Foster,” a clear, slightly Southern voice declared. I looked up to see the tall form of Anderson standing over me, fiery red hair and black Archangel suit. “How are you feeling?”
I narrowed my eyes. “If you’re going to threaten to kill me, just do it. Stop beating around the bush.”
Anderson sighed. “That is not my intention here. And I do apologize about Agent Thorn’s behavior. He was acting far outside of orders, and he’s being disciplined as we speak.”
“Oh, so this is one of those subtle ‘stay out of our way next time or I’ll break your legs’ type of deals?”
He laughed. “My goodness, Mr. Foster, I’ve never had such a hard time trying to compliment someone before.”
I leaned back. “What?”
“You and Ms. Hammersham did a good job here today. You saw a threat, found a way to notify the proper authorities without revealing the nature of the threat, then kept a calm and level head when things went South and controlled the situation.” He smiled. “Honestly, I’m not sure I could have done a better job myself.”
I frowned. “But people died.”
His expression turned sad. “Yes, well… that’s one of the hardest lessons to learn when you cross over to this side of the Veneer. This world is dangerous, and sometimes, despite your best efforts… people die. Sometimes a lot.”
“Yeah, people like Greg, and Sims, and Tim, and who knows how many police officers.” I turned away. “You can’t save everyone, right? At least, save everyone and keep yourselves nice and hidden away, out of responsibilities’ reach.”
Anderson gave another heavy sigh. “We are on the same side here, Mr. Foster. I only hope that one day, you realize it.” He waited for me to respond, and when I didn’t, began to turn and walk away.
“You need to do something for me,” I said.
He stopped and turned back. “I’m sorry?”
“You said it yourself, you couldn’t have done a better job here. We fixed this, so you owe us. You need to do something for me.”
“And what exactly would that be?” he asked, tone lying somewhere between offended and amused.
“Emily needs to go to St. Magdalen's in Memphis. The woman who runs that home has dealt with weird stuff before. She knows what to look for in case Emily’s friend comes back, and she knows how to contact us.”
“Yes, she was the one who had to deal with entity O-17, wasn’t she?” Anderson pulled out a phone, tapped some things into it, then put it away. “Consider it done. Like I said: same sides.”
“We’ll see about that once the world knows who you are.”
Anderson shook his head. “Maybe Thorn was right about you,” he said, with the barest trace of venom in his voice, before he walked into the madness of the crowd and disappeared.
A few minutes later, Zoey found me and sat down next to me. “You know,” she said, “when most people say they ‘faced Death and lived to tell about it,’ they usually mean that they got hit by a bus or something. I guess this means we’re cosmic over-achievers.”
I scoffed. “More like ‘luckiest idiots on Earth.’”
“Fair enough,” Zoey said, then looked over to where Emily was seated, bouncing up and down on a gurney as an exasperated paramedic tried to listen to her heartbeat through a stethoscope.
“How’s she doing?” I asked.
“Fine,” Zoey said. “I think she’s more liable to give the paramedics a heart attack than get one herself at this point.” She pulled out an empty can of BANG! energy drink, the one I had given Emily to drink, and raised an eyebrow. “Alright Liam, how’d you figure this one out? I’m sure you’re just dying to show off your incredible cleverness.”
I smirked. “Once, when Jonas and I were in the dorm common room late talking, one of the guys came stumbling in and threw up all over the floor. We thought he was just blitzed, and we were about to make him clean it up when he fell over and started spasming.”
I took the can and spun it in the red-and-blue lights of the police cars. “Turns out he had chugged four of these things in an attempt to write a ten page paper in one night. Caffeine poisoning. Never heard of it before that night. We thought he was going to die, but the ambulance driver told us all he needed to do was wait it out in his bed.”
“And you thought that this was the best thing to bluff Death with?” Zoey asked.
“Why not? It was the only thing he cared about, and it was also the only thing he couldn’t fix.” I handed the can back to Zoey. “Besides, she was in no danger at any point.”
“You know, sometimes I think the scariest thing in the world is your brain, Liam,” Zoey said.
“Too bad it would make for a pretty boring episode,” I replied.
We sat in silence and watched Emily and the paramedic struggle some more, she grabbing various important medical things and him trying to grab them back out of her hands. He was horrible outmatched; she was a nine-year old filled with caffeine to the eyeballs, after all.
“You were right,” Zoey said quietly.
I turned to her. “About?”
“About Death. He was evil.”
“Maybe, but that wail...” I shuddered. “It reminded me of a bear.”
Zoey looked at me, utterly confused. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, a bear is wild. They’re killers, and they enjoy the hunt. You can’t take them home and make them pets, because they’ll bite someone’s arm off, and heck, for most definitions, that makes them evil.”
“But,” I continued, watching Emily “they will protect their young.”
Zoey drew the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “Well, I’m sick of evil. I want to know where all the good guys are.”
“Maybe there are none,” I said, “and maybe that’s the point. Maybe the good that keeps humanity sheltered from all the evil out there are the little goods, added up together, like the pang of empathy when hearing bad news from a friend, or the joy of a shared celebration, or the immediate desire to help a child. Maybe these little goods, when we do enough of them, become one big good that drives the darkness away, and this is the force that keeps them at bay.”
“Or maybe we’re so exhausted that anything is going to sound like profound wisdom to us,” Zoey suggested.
I laughed. “Yeah, that’s probably it.”
“C’mon Confucius,” Zoey spoke, heading back to the RV. “You interrupted my sleep, so I’m going back to collect with interest. So no more waking me! If the world ends, let me sleep through it!”
“Sounds good,” I chuckled. I stopped at the door, watching the chaotic mess of lights, cars, and officials rushing this way and that, then slowly closed the door and sealed the scene outside.