People say karma’s a bitch.
Personally, I really don’t think I’m that bad, as long as you haven’t done anything wrong that is. Seriously, it’s not like I asked for this job. I wasn’t even in my right mind when I agreed to the position. I thought it would mean I could stay on Earth. I did, just not how I’d hoped.
Like all contracts, it’s the fine print that screws you, not the big fat text that offers you all the good stuff. As a lawyer, I’d spent years warning people about the fine print and now look at me. Stuck.
If I could just go back to that day, the moment when I made my first mistake and agreed. Unfortunately, of all the things I can do, time travel isn’t one of them.
After I’m done here and my trial period has run its course, I’ll go back into the system and get reborn. They say I won’t have any memory of this, but I can’t imagine forgetting the day I died.
I couldn’t look away from my body, lying lifeless and dirty, blonde hair fanned out around the face. My face. I wasn’t moving, not even a smidgen.
In contrast, the chest of the body I was in felt like a broken accordion with a leak, flailing to get enough air in.
I fought through the fog, which clung to my thoughts, trying to piece the scene together from fragmented memories. I’d wanted a couple of days alone after my fight with Charlie, my fiancé, so I decided to visit a friend from law school who lived in Virginia. The last thing I remembered was looking out the window at the expanse of forest rolling by as the train sped along. We’d crossed into South Carolina a while ago and I knew I’d be home within the hour.
No, there was something else I remembered. A screeching sound, right before I flew from my seat, and then the sounds of screams around me. And not just raised voices, but the kind that are formed only from pure terror. They don’t sound human, and there isn’t an actor or actress alive who could fake them. These are the type, if you’re unlucky enough, you only hear in real life and in situations that are usually deadly. It’s the kind of sound that leaves a permanent bookmark in your mind.
I looked down at my hands, the ones that belonged to the body I occupied, not the mangled ones on the ground, covered in a mixture of dirt and blood. They looked solid enough but somehow different, and there was my body on the grass, my blue dress torn and shredded, my pink polished fingernails, chipped and ragged. I knelt down and pushed the few strands of hair away from my…its eyes. My black shoe lay about ten feet away. I must have lost it during the fall.
I looked down at my feet. Where did these tan sandals come from? And these pants? These weren’t my things. Nothing was right. Maybe that wasn’t my body?
I moved my fingers to its chin and turned it toward me, revealing my full face, then yanked back quickly. I stumbled in my effort to put some distance between us, even though I couldn’t seem to look away.
I heard sirens in the distance, a lot of them, all combining to form the sound of dread. One siren could be anything. This many always meant something bad.
But I’d already known that.
I forced myself to look up and take in the scene. I’d been thrown thirty or so feet from the wreck. The streamlined train now resembled a shape closer to a discarded straw wrapper. There were more bodies laid out around its perimeter and a few people, dazed and limping around, not far from the wreck.
“Hello?” I screamed but no one turned toward me. Maybe they were in shock?
“They can’t hear you.”
I was startled by the nasally male voice coming from right beside me. I heard him clear his throat before he spoke again.
“Your human body is dead, Camilla. We don’t have much time and there are decisions to be made.” His pen tapped, tapped, tapped on the clip board he was holding and I clenched my hands to stop myself from ripping the makeshift drum from his fidgeting hands so I could think clearly. I felt agitated and raw.
“Am I having a psychotic break from reality?” I asked as I turned to look at him. He was small of stature and wore Coke-bottle black framed glasses. He looked down at his digital watch and then back at me, with barely restrained impatience. I knew the expression well; I was usually the one wearing it.
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to give you the short version. You seem to be routed for express, so there simply isn’t enough time to get into all the nitty gritty contract details—”
“That body is, yes. You can choose to move on or—”
“Move on?” What was this strange little man speaking of? He was as odd as the situation, with bright red hair jutting this way and that from untamed cowlicks.
Maybe I was already in the hospital and under heavy medication.
“Yes, heaven, hell, perhaps somewhere in between. It isn’t my department so I’m not privy to those details, or what happens after this point, just that there is something. So, you can stay on here or move on.”
I reached out a hand and grabbed his arm. Solid. He looked down at where I touched him with unconcealed distaste at the contact but didn’t comment. I didn’t let go, just squeezed tighter. He felt like he was really here.
“Who are you? Are you an angel or something?” Maybe I was really dead. This isn’t what I’d expected though. Where were the bright lights and people to welcome me? And his delivery needed some work.
“I told you, I have nothing to do with that. I’m not an angel. I’m Harold.”
“If you aren’t an angel, what are you?”
“I run the agency Unknown Forces of the Universe.”
“And why would I want to remain here, as a ghost, working for you, whatever it is you are?” This was too bizarre to be real. No pearly gates or Grandma and Grandpa welcoming me, just a strange little red haired man? I had to be lying in a coma somewhere, drugged to the gills. I was hoping I was, because if this was death, a lot of people, including me, were going to be seriously disappointed.
He clucked his tongue as if having to explain all this was a bother. “No, not as a ghost. With a normal body. Why? Because I’m going to offer you a chance to make this world a better place. To fix the wrongs of the universe. This is quite a huge opportunity. I only recruit once or twice a decade and I can’t remember the last time a human got the opportunity.”
“I don’t like this dream. This is why I didn’t take the pain pills when I got hurt last summer. They gave me the worst nightmares ever.”
“This is not a dream.”
“How do I know that?” I probably shouldn’t argue with him, but it was my nature. This was a dream. I should just change it. Couldn’t I do that? If I was making this up, I was in control.
“Look at that.” He motioned to my body like I hadn’t noticed it or been staring already. “That is your dead human form.”
“No, that’s just a double of me made up by my mind.” It had to be.
“Do you remember the pain?”
I shuddered as I thought of it. When the train screeched to a halt and I went flying through the air, right before everything went black, there had been a moment of pure agony, the kind that made you forget your name, your life, just made you wish for death, nothingness.
“If it was a dream, you would have woken. The human mind can’t handle the idea of its own death, even in a dream. Do you understand me? You would’ve woken. Technically, you are dead. At least your mortal frame is.”
He was right. If I were dreaming, I should’ve woken. I couldn’t escape the logic.
I was dead.
I dropped to the ground, losing the strength in my new legs.
“Now, will you work for me?”
“I don’t want to be dead. I don’t want to fix anything.”
I just wanted to crawl back into my body and go on with my life. I wanted to get married next week, instead of being put in the ground. I wanted Charlie to wrap his arms around me as I told him how sorry I was. He needed to know I hadn’t meant any of it. He’d been acting strange lately and I’d lost patience with him. I wanted to go to court on Monday and dazzle the jury with the defense I’d been working on for the last month.
I didn’t want to move on. I wasn’t finished!
“Before you choose, it also means possibly finding your murderer.”
“The train was tampered with.”
I’d loved my life, my family, Charles, everything. I was twenty-seven years old with a brilliant career ahead of me and someone had just stolen what would’ve been the best times of my life. I’d never be a judge or have kids. I didn’t have any siblings. Who would take care of my parents as they aged?
Anger churned and welled up inside of me, growing into something I’d never experienced before. Pure rage.
Then rage answered the question. For the first time in my life, I let anger control me. And if I were to be honest, desperation as well. It wasn’t my time, not yet, not now, and if I had to claw my way back in, I would.
“Yes, I will.”
“Would you like some more details?” Harold asked, pushing up the glasses that had started to slide down his long thin nose.
“You said I’d have a body? I won’t be a ghost, right?”
“Just tell me where I sign.”
He held out his clipboard with an x marking the spot. “We need to leave now. Your current form is already in the process of becoming corporeal and this isn’t a good place for the transition.”
I watched as the lights of the police cars and fire engines started to glow in the distance, and I was sure that seeing my body bagged was something that would haunt me.
“I’ve got some details to handle first.” I didn’t know what I was going to do. How was I going to explain this to Charlie? I felt at my pockets for my car keys and then I remembered they were on my other body.
“No.” Harold’s thin hand manacled my wrist, as I made a move toward it. “We need to leave now.”
“I need to get my things.” I tried to yank my wrist free and realized he was deceptively strong.
“They aren’t your things. They belong to the mortal crust lying there.” His eyes shifted to where the crumpled lifeless form lay and then back to me.
I nodded. It didn’t matter as I remembered my car was miles from here. I had a spare set at home anyway and I didn’t want to touch that body again if I didn’t have to.
I walked along behind him as the numbness set in. I felt as if I were mentally drowning and nothing made sense. I followed, not from any real desire to but because it was the easiest path while I tried to get a handle on everything. I was fairly certain if I were still alive, this would have been diagnosed as clinical shock.
We walked through the wooded area until we reached a road where a stretch Mercedes waited. A man got out of the driver’s seat to hold the door open for me and, like a zombie, I moved my leaden legs forward and crawled inside.
I leaned back against the leather and thought, what am I doing?
“You’re going to feel strangely for a few days while your soul gets acclimated to losing its mortal wrapping.”
My hands, that didn’t look like mine, started to shake. “I’m really dead.”
“You aren’t dead.”
“The body lying in the field would prove you wrong.”
“Your former body is dead, not you. Well, not exactly. It’s sort of a gray area.” He let out an audible sigh as he shook his head. “This is going to take some work.”
“Where are we going?” I needed to get to Charlie. I needed my parents. I had to tell them I was okay before the police scared them. The idea of them having to ID my body…No, I’d get to them first.
“You can’t speak to them.”
“How do you know what I want to do?” I swung back to the little man I was disliking more every moment.
Harold looked at me, stone faced. “The reports on you said you had a fairly high intellect. Must I really explain this to you?” He looked at me for more than a few seconds and then rolled his eyes. “What else could you possibly need to do? I always forget how troublesome the transition is. Even if you could talk to them, they wouldn’t understand.”
“I’ll make them understand.” My voice didn’t leave room for debate. There was nothing he could say that was going to stop me. Annoying little man.
“Can’t say I didn’t try.” He went back to looking through his folder. I ignored his curious response to look at the landscape. I needed to get my bearings.
“Where are we going?”
“I thought it best to take you to your new residence first.”
“I don’t need a new home. I have one with Charlie.”
“The body that died had one. You can’t use it anymore.” He spoke slowly, with great emphasis on each word.
“Where is this new place?”
“No. I’m not leaving South Carolina.” Or not for long. Even if he forced the issue, I’d walk back if I had to.
Again I heard him sigh and then he mumble something about transfers before he finally said, “Fine.” He leaned forward slightly and yelled to the driver who he called Hank. “Looks like it’s to be Murrell’s Inlet.”
The driver nodded his head.
“You’re fortunate I believe in having options. Going to have to file more paperwork now.” He shuffled through the small stack on his lap.
I didn’t care. I’d be right where I needed to be. Beyond that, nothing mattered. I’d figure out the rest after I got to Charlie and my parents.
Harold settled back and then reached into a briefcase I hadn’t noticed before.
“Here.” He shoved a cell phone with a charger into my hand along with a key. “This is to your new apartment and a work phone. I’m already programmed in, as well as some of the other contacts you’ll need.”
I took the key, not bothering to tell him I didn’t need a place to stay again. It didn’t matter what he said. I was going home.
Before I even started strategizing about how I was going to get away from Harold, we were pulling into a driveway and I was getting kicked out of the car.
“Go in and lock the door. I’ll send somebody by in an hour, if you’re still there.” The door slammed in my face and the tires squealed, leaving dark tracks.
I had been officially dead for almost an hour and, in all the times I’d contemplated what happened in the afterlife, there’d never been a bossy little redhead who abandoned me in the middle of a beachfront condo parking lot.
The second the car was out of sight, I dialed Charlie’s number. It hadn’t even been a choice. He was the most likely to believe the story. If I could convince him, then he could help me explain it to my parents before they had to go and identify my body. The very idea of my mother and father standing over my body, as it lay there on a steel table…
I wouldn’t think about it because I wasn’t going to let it happen.
I used the work phone Harold had conveniently provided to call Charlie. He didn’t pick up until the third ring.
“Charlie, it’s me. You aren’t going to believe what just happened.”
No greeting, no frantic “what’s wrong,” just dead air.
I looked down at the phone to see “Call Failed” on the screen. No service? Shit! I walked around the parking lot with my arm outstretched until I saw some bars show up again and redialed.
It rang once and stopped.
“Hello?” I looked down at the screen. The call had failed. Again.
“No, no, no!” I hit the send button again. This time I didn’t get a single solitary ring.
I kept redialing anyway, tripping on a dip in the pavement and losing a layer of skin in the process. I looked down at my knee briefly, just long enough to register that this new body could bleed, before I held the phone out and moved around the parking lot trying to pick up a signal again.
The possibility that I was having a psychotic break seemed more and more likely. Maybe there hadn’t even been a train accident.
My head felt funny. Frantic, almost.
I turned around, taking in the small building in front of me. It looked to have about twenty units, all with their own entrances. I could see the sand dunes on the other side. I looked at the key in my hand. A three was hand written on the tag attached.
I knew this area well. It was just a town over from where I’d grown up and still lived. More importantly, Charlie’s practice wasn’t far from here. It was early afternoon. He’d be seeing patients right now.
A car pulling in startled me as they leaned on their horn, signaling I was in their way.
I moved onto the sidewalk, knowing for a certainty whatever I was, humans could see me. Harold had said I wouldn’t be a ghost but if my human body was dead, how could they? Another check for the “psychotic break” column.
I could walk to Charlie’s office. If I couldn’t get the phone to work, I’d get there in person. If these people could see me, so would Charlie.
If I hurried, I could maybe get there before he heard from anyone else. This whole situation was crazy but he’d understand. Charlie always understood. Always listened to everyone. That’s who he was. He’d help me figure this out and then he could call my parents.
If I was having a delusional break from reality, he was a doctor. He would know what to do. I just needed to get to Charlie. He’d make this better.
I broke into a run and realized I could move faster than I used to. That might qualify as a check in the “I’m really dead” column, but I decided to chalk that one up to adrenaline, since I didn’t like that side of the list.
My sandals kept sliding off until I abandoned them on the sidewalk and proceeded barefoot.
His office was only a few miles away from here. I pushed my legs until I felt them burn and I then I pushed even harder. If I was dead, I didn’t know how long I’d have before they identified the body and started informing the next of kin. And if I was crazy, at least I was getting some air before they locked me up in a padded room.
I was dripping sweat by time I saw his building in the distance. My eyes frantically scanned the lot for his Audi. I was on the verge of crying when I noticed it tucked behind a huge SUV. Almost there, only five hundred feet left and Charlie would help me.
I was running across the street when I saw him walk out the door and head towards his car, phone gripped in one hand, keys clenched in the other. His face was a worried scowl. He’d gotten the call.
I tried to scream to him but nothing came out.
He was going to get into his car before I could get to him. I was going to miss him.
With a last push and everything I had left, I ran into the middle of the driveway exit with my hands up in the air, waving. He’d have to run me over if he wanted to get out.
His breaks skidded to a stop in front of me. But at least he saw me.
He rolled down the window. “Miss, please move. I’ve got an emergency.”
He didn’t recognize me. I’d already feared that might be the case. I didn’t know what my face looked like but if my hands were any indication, it would be different as well. How could I explain that one away? A definite check for the “I’m really dead” column.
I ran around to his door. Before I could touch the handle, I tripped and skidded to the ground.
I looked up to see Charlie’s face torn by indecision. I knew he wanted to leave but that’s not who he was. He’d get out and make sure I was okay, a stranger fallen on the street.
I’d hoped he’d recognize me. That some part of him would feel the connection there, even if I was different. How could he not sense me on some level? Just a hint of recognition, like when you pass a stranger on the street who you think you know but can’t put a name to. But when I looked into his warm eyes, there was nothing, not the tiniest shred of recognition.
Would I have known him if the situation had been reversed? I thought I would – hoped I would – but maybe not.
Just as I expected, he got out and knelt next to me, scanning me in a clinical way for injuries.
“You’re okay. Just a couple of scrapes. I’ve really got to go.”
The second he put a hand to me to help me up thunder clapped loud in the sky. And then a dark shadowing fell over him.
And I knew right then and there, without a doubt, that if I did manage to communicate to him who I was, he would cease to exist as well. It wasn’t a knowledge I could explain or put in to words, but the moment he touched me, I felt the impending threat to his life. The moment we touched, it was as if death had laid its cloak upon my shoulders. I would be Charlie’s demise. It didn’t matter what my past was or my future might be, in this moment, I would act as his reaper.
I nodded and got to my feet, scrambling to put distance between the only person I thought might have been able to help me. With each inch, the feeling of death receded. Charlie would be safe as long as I stayed away from him.
Without another glance at me, he got back into his car and pulled out of the driveway. I couldn’t move.
He was gone. My family, friends, career – all of them – just gone. In a single moment, my entire existence had ceased, except for one thing. Me. I was still here.
I’d never touch him again. Never speak to him. He was my best friend and I’d never be able to call him up and tell him about my bad day or share good news.
Correction, he had been my best friend.
“Get in,” Harold said from behind me. “I’ll have Hank drive you back.”
I turned to see the Mercedes that had pulled up while I’d been otherwise distracted.
“Are you the reason I couldn’t speak? Behind the feeling of overwhelming death?”
He shook his head and I saw a hint of weariness in his eyes I didn’t think he meant to reveal. “You give me too much credit. Get in the car. I’ll explain.”
But I couldn’t move. It was too much. Everything was too much. I felt like the world was spinning around me and I couldn’t seem to breathe. My brain wanted to explode but couldn’t burst through the bony confine of my skull.
I was losing my mind. My anchors to life were being torn from me and there didn’t seem to be a thing I could do about it.
“No, you tricked me.” I stepped away from the Mercedes but I didn’t know where to turn. I wanted to run but had nowhere to go.
The door on the other side of the car opened and a man emerged. Dark clothing, dark hair, even his skin was tanned. It fit him. There was a severity to his presence that wouldn’t have looked natural in white.
He didn’t shut the door after he got out. I might have to add paranoia to the mental break column. All I could think of was he was leaving it open so he could drag me into the car with him more easily.
He had sunglasses on so I couldn’t see his eyes, but I still felt the lethal intensity of his stare. I’d met men like this as a lawyer. I knew his type well and could spot it quickly. He wasn’t the kind who needed a public defender like me; he was the type pulling the strings behind the scenes. I was used to defending the lackeys of men like this.
If I was no longer human, what did that make him? Was he the source of the feeling of death before?
“Was it you?” I didn’t expand on my question. Didn’t think I needed to and he quickly confirmed my assumption.
“No. Death isn’t my department.” He rested his forearms on the roof of the car between us as he took my measure, just leaning there all too still. “I know you aren’t thinking clearly right now but you need to come with me.”
No movement. Did he think I’d be lulled closer by his false stillness?
“No. I don’t.”
I watched as he moved around the car, step by step he inched closer in my direction and I moved backward at the same pace, suppressing my urge to take off in a run. Afraid it might spur an instinct in him to chase.
“You need to come with me,” he said, his hands reaching toward me slowly.
“I’m not going anywhere with you.” Especially not you.
“You are going into what we call soul shock. It happens with human recruits.”
He stopped approaching, stood still, and even put his hands in his pants pockets. I wanted to scream at him that I’d studied body language my entire life. His artificially relaxed stance wasn’t doing him a bit of good. In fact, it made me positive he was about to pounce.
“Soul shock?” I’d sate my curiosity while I played his game and figure out my next move.
“Yes. It’s what happens as your mind adjusts to the transition.” He was a study in calmness. Every line of his body, every muscle he possessed, was relaxed. He was good at this game of pretend. I was better.
He walked away a couple of steps, only to circle back and edge in a step closer.
“Not going to happen.”
“You have to come.”
“Harold dropped me off. Why do I have to come now?” This just can’t be happening. I’ve been drugged and this is an illusion.
“Because this is what the new ones always do. We’ve given up trying to fight it. It’s just easier to get it out of the way. But now you’ve got to come with us. You’re starting to slip. I can’t leave you here.”
“You’re hands are trembling. Soon, your entire body will be. That’s the beginning. You aren’t thinking clearly. That too will get worse. There is no alternative.”
I scanned the area, deciding where I’d run when he finally made his move, which I was positive was imminent. He was much larger than me. If he got his hands on me, I’d lose.
I took another step back and he mirrored me with a step forward. I needed to expand the distance. I needed a better lead.
Then I spotted a couple walking down the sidewalk.
He dropped his hands and shook his head. “They won’t hear you. You’re just making this more difficult.”
“Yes, they will. Charlie did.”
“Charlie saw you. He didn’t hear you. And the only reason that happened was you were getting a little help from us. You haven’t transitioned completely yet. You won’t be fully here until you do.”
“You people are crazy. That’s the most insane thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Then go ahead and scream.”
I didn’t need a second invitation. I let out a holler that should have been heard all the way to Florida but, even though there were people walking down the sidewalk across the street and cars passing continuously, it was as if I hadn’t opened my mouth.
I gripped my head frantically, wishing I could force the situation into something comprehensible.
I turned my attention back to him to find he’d gotten closer. Harold was still in the car, observing everything from the rear window.
“Don’t come near me.”
He still approached.
“I don’t know who you people are, or what, but you need to leave me alone.”
“I can’t leave you here.”
His words had the opposite effect on me than he intended.
“I told you, don’t come near me!”
He sighed and shook his head. “Not the answer I wanted to hear. Always the hard way, no matter what we do, it always goes down like this with transfers. Look at your hands. It’s getting worse already.”
I didn’t need to look; I could feel the tremors running through my body. Nothing felt right anymore. They must have done something to me.
I eyed up the expanse. I knew this area like the back of my hand. I could lose him if I got a lead on him.
I took off in a sprint but only made it a few feet. An arm around my stomach hauled me off the ground and swung me back around toward the car and the open door. I knew it!
I kicked and clawed at his arm but nothing budged him. I screamed out of principle, even though I feared it was futile.
I jerked my head back to head butt him and heard a grunt.
“Don’t do that again. The only thing it’s going to do is piss me off.”
Now that I knew I’d found something effective, I tilted my head forward to try it again. He saw it coming though and I was on the ground and being pushed toward the car before I could take my shot.
I’m not a quitter. Never have been, never will be. If he wanted me in that car, he was going to pay dearly for it. I clung to the frame of the door as he physically pushed me through. I felt stronger than I’d ever been but I was still no match for the man trying to force me inside and I was losing ground at a rapid rate. I flipped and kicked out with my legs, I came within an inch of my target.
He followed me inside the car and I immediately tried to make it to the other door but he caught me by my legs and yanked me back in.
“Don’t break her,” Harold said as I lay on my stomach on the one seat with a knee in my back.
I’d forgotten he was even there until he’d spoken.
“Don’t bother getting up, Harold.”
At least he was winded.
“Seriously, Fate. If you injure her, it’s going to be a lot of paperwork for me.” My cheek pressed against the seat cushion, I had a clear view of Harold as he waved the papers.
“Unless you want to dodge a kick to the groin, shut up. She’s my problem now, remember? I’m trying to help her and she almost took me out,” Fate said from above me, mostly out of sight but uncomfortably present in the pressure on my back.
Harold merely “huffed” in response but said nothing while the bully on top of me continued.
“You knew this was going to happen. This is why we shouldn’t have transfers. If I let her up, she’ll jump out the door. Is that better?”
“I didn’t get any other candidates. She wasn’t my choice.”
I was being pinned down by a psychopath. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs and I renewed my struggle in earnest.
“Stop.” His knee pressed further into my back.
“Look at her,” he said from above me. “She’s a mess. You should just pass and send her on her way.”
“It’s too late now, anyway. She signed.”
“You know as well as I do they never think logically right after they die. Just rip the contract up and send her back.”
“I can’t rip up the contract. She’ll just have to adjust and deal until the trial period is over.” Harold was getting more and more flushed as the argument over me continued.
“Give it to me and I’ll do it.” Fate’s hand reached out toward Harold, palm up and waiting.
“Because it’s gone already.”
“You’re lying. It’s not possible.” His weight lifted off me as he reached further toward Harold. It was just enough freedom to push the car door open and try and launch myself out of the moving car.
I saw the road speeding by inches from my nose before a hand on my shirt yanked me back in before I face planted it on the asphalt.
“Are you insane?” he said as he pushed me back onto the seat.
I opened my mouth to scream again but shut it. I’d almost tossed myself face first out of a car going fifty miles per hour. I would’ve broken my neck.
Maybe he was right, because that was a bit insane.
“And it had to be her?” Fate said.
“I showed you the memo. It had to be her and it had to be you.”
“Why? She’s just a girl. Murphy or Crow could’ve handled this.”
“I don’t know. She’s a transfer. I’m not sure they could.”
“Get off of me,” I said.
He leaned over, his face close to mine.
“Are you going to be stupid? If you try and leap out of the car again, you are going to kill this body and effectively die twice today.”
I didn’t respond and he didn’t let up.
“I can’t breathe.”
“Are. You. Going. To. Be. Stupid? Answer me.”
“I don’t know if I believe you.”
“I’m not going to jump out of the car. Now get off!”
“And no more kicking.”
I felt the pressure on my back retreat and I pushed up quickly. He was still sitting next to me, his side against mine, a looming threat. Or begrudging savior, considering I almost broke my neck, but I’d be quite happy to lose him and quick.
The adrenaline of the fight leaving me, I started to shake even more violently. Tears were flowing down my face and I didn’t care. I was starting to believe I had died. I was pretty sure I was also having a mental break of some sort. Well whoop de do for me, checks all around.
I looked at Harold, trying to pretend Fate wasn’t in the car.
“What was that back there? That feeling of impending doom when I saw Charlie?” Even with my sanity teetering on the edge, I knew it wasn’t just in my head. It had been palpable.
“That was the universe at work. There are certain things that it will not allow. Know this, and know it well…it will never let you disclose any of its true secrets.”
“What would have happened?”
“Exactly what you thought. That’s why you stepped away, isn’t it?” Fate spoke this time.
“Why did you just drop me off if you knew this was going to happen?” Even in my altered state, and I was positive I wasn’t thinking right anymore, I could see it as the set up it was. They’d dropped me off knowing exactly what I’d go do.
“Transfers are predictable.” I could almost feel the baritone of Fate’s voice. “They all do the exact same thing. Sooner or later it happens so we try and get it out of the way early. It’s normally messy but not usually this bad.”
I sat back against the tan leather, tears still streaming down my face and I realized I’d made the largest mistake of my life. Or death.
I was loosing my mind and Harold was still sitting there, his lap full of papers, just another day at the office.
Fate didn’t budge from my side. I could feel the tension in his body where it pressed against my side. He was waiting for me to do something stupid.
“I don’t want to do this.” I kept shaking my head from side to side. “I wasn’t ready. I don’t want to die. I’m too young.”
Harold shook his head. “Few do.”
Fate shifted next to me. “Death isn’t reserved for the old. It doesn’t sit idly by and wait for you to do everything you wanted. It comes on its own timetable, whether you’re ready or not.”
“Then put me back or send me wherever? Send me where I was supposed to go.”
Harold barely glanced my way before he responded. “I can’t. Not now anyway. Even if I use the trial clause to terminate you, there is a mandatory thirty day period before you are eligible.”
He shuffled through the papers until he found the one he was looking for.
A sheet of paper was slipped in front of my face, his pen pointing to the spot that was in boldface that I knew stated a time period.
I pushed his hand and paper away and looked to the side.
“Thirty days. I’m stuck here, on Earth – alive but dead to everyone who matters to me.”
A month wasn’t that long. I could kill a month. I dragged a hand across my cheek. “If you could just drop me off at that condo and pick me up in a month when it’s time—”
“No, that won’t work. Non-involvement voids the termination clause.”
I turned to Harold, ready to beg, flat out grovel if need be. “I made a mistake. I thought I was going to be able to talk to them. I can’t watch them grieve for me. I just can’t. I can do anything but that.”
“I knew Texas would’ve been a better fit.”
“The location doesn’t matter. I know they’re there.” I was having a hard time speaking. My teeth were rattling in my head like I was stuck in a snowstorm.
“Look at her,” Fate said. “She might not make it anyway. Not all of them do.”
There was an edge to his voice that made me want to back further into the corner of the car.
“You should’ve passed when you saw it was a transfer.” He leaned forward, toward Harold, and I got the impression he wanted to throttle him. The way Harold leaned back, he seemed afraid of that exact thing.
“How many times do I have to tell you I couldn’t? I had to fill the spot.”
“And I have to deal with this.”
“This will run its course in a matter of days.”
And then I stopped caring what they were saying. Something very bad was happening to me. I couldn’t stop shaking or catch my breath enough to get a word out. I pulled my legs up and tried to shrink into myself. I closed my eyes and pretended I was alone. I needed to get a grip.
“Camilla, this will pass,” I heard Harold say.
“And if it doesn’t?” Fate asked. “She’s a wreck and it hasn’t even been an hour. Can’t imagine what she’ll be like tonight. And if she doesn’t make it, it’s doing irreparable damage. She’ll be a nut case in her next life.”
“We needed a Karma. She’s it, for better or worse. At least for the next thirty days.”
I wanted to know what he was talking about but I didn’t trust myself to speak. And this was all before the real pain started.
“You’ve got to eat.”
It was him. Fate. He was holding a sandwich next to my mouth and I tried to shove his hand away. Everything hurt. It felt like every nerve I possessed was on fire at the same time. My skin hurt where it touched the bed. I’d turn but that just made something else hurt.
“You’re adjusting to not having your human covering anymore.”
Even the sound of his voice seemed to be louder.
“All of your senses are overly heightened right now, but this will only last another day or so.”
I moaned at the thought. Another day? I couldn’t take another minute.
“I feel like I’m dying again.”
“But you’re not. I won’t let you.” He pushed the sandwich to my lips. “Eat.”
I tried to shove the food away but he grabbed my wrist. The firm contact on my skin made me gasp but no matter how I pulled back, he wouldn’t let go.
“Eat.” I took a bite of the sandwich just to get him to let me go.
“Please, just leave me alone,” I said after I swallowed.
“I wish I could.”
He wouldn’t leave until I ate and drank some water. Then I passed out again.
I awoke in a strange bedroom that I guessed was in the condo I’d initially been given the keys to.
Sitting up, I felt surprisingly good, considering what I’d felt like a day ago.
I clearly remembered Harold driving us back to the condo. Beyond that point, all my memories were filtered through the lens of agony. I’m not sure how I made it to the bed I was now lying upon. I was in the same clothes I’d worn when this all began, however long ago that was.
I pushed greasy locks of hair from my face as I looked to the bedside table. A sandwich, sitting barely eaten by my bedside, jogged a memory. I’d begrudgingly taken a few bites and only because of the threat of Fate, the animal that had stayed here with me.
Nursemaid he was not. All I remembered was while I’d writhed in pain, he’d screamed for me to toughen up. That I was being weak. When I wouldn’t eat, he forced it on me.
I felt his presence in the room and I pushed myself up into a sitting position.
“So you’re up?” he said, looking at my disheveled state. His features were hard and angular, nothing you would describe as pretty, but still if he wasn’t such a scary bastard I would have described him as handsome.
“You think I’m going to thank you?”
“Somebody will come by tomorrow to bring you into the office.” He strolled out of the room and I heard the condo door shut.
So this was to be home for the next month. I looked around the bedroom. Everything was new, from the comforter to the dresser with the large mirror above it. There was an ocean painting hanging on the white walls, as if to clue you in that you were at a beach, just in case you somehow forgot. The place looked like a summer rental before it acquired that well-worn look after a few seasons of use and profit.
The ceramic tiles were cold under my feet as I crossed to the door, avoiding looking in the mirror, afraid to see the foreign reflection.
The rest of the place was quaint, with a small galley type kitchen and a breakfast bar that opened to the main living area. All low-end beach motif decor that screamed don’t forget where you are. Definitely a summer rental. It made sense. There would be fewer long-term residents asking nosy neighbor questions.
Glass sliders overlooked a view of the ocean and the people tanning on the sand. They were as blissfully unaware of what might await them; as I had been, not long ago. I was jealous of them, lying there in the sun, just another day of living. I’d kill for one more day. A chance to say goodbye.
People often say a quick death is better. I guess in some ways it is, but it sure didn’t feel like it right now. Long deaths have one big benefit. You get to say goodbye. Nobody understands how important that is until there’s no time for words.
But after everything, life still went on, even if mine technically didn’t.
I walked back inside, turning away from the sunny beach, full of people. I felt too bitter to bear exposure to their happiness.
I looked down at the table, the phone Harold gave me lying there, dead. How ironic? When I was alive, I couldn’t stand to be without my charged cell phone.
I walked past without touching it. I couldn’t find a reason to plug it in. It would only serve as a reminder of who I couldn’t call and what those people might be doing right now, like burying their child. They might be staring at the ground and grieving for a fiancée who was still here, but might as well be just as dead as the body in the casket for all it meant to their lives.
I pulled out a chair and sat at the white-washed wood dinette by myself, wondering what in the hell I had agreed to.
My new body didn’t let me stay in my catatonic state very long. A hungry growl erupted from my midsection that made me realize, I might not be exactly human, but I seemed to have a lot of mortal needs. And I had to pee. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but it was. I didn’t know if I could go into the bathroom and not look at myself, but this body wasn’t giving me any other option.
The need overcame my hesitancy and made it easy to make it into the bathroom without looking. Making it out was the problem. Who knew good hygiene would prove to be my downfall? If I could’ve just not looked up when I was washing my hands.
I let out a small sound when I saw the image. It was me. I knew this face, this body, that there would be a mole on my left knee if I looked, but this wasn’t the body that I’d just left dead and mangled. It wasn’t the face of my parents’ daughter or the image of Charlie’s fiancée.
Staring with gray eyes that were eerily similar to the ones I’d had before my death, I raised a hand to my almost black hair, so different than the blond I’d been. I touched my cheek, watching my actions mirrored. I was prettier than I had been in life. My eyes were a little bigger. I ran a finger across a fuller lower lip.
A knock on the door jolted me from my intense fascination with my new image.
Harold walked in before I could get there.
“I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow?”
“I wouldn’t have, if you’d answered your phone.”
We both stared at the dead phone sitting on the table.
“It’s…dead. I know.” Dead, dead, dead, just like me. I couldn’t seem to get past that word.
“Please keep it charged from now on.”
If it were only so easy to fix my own dead state.
“Why do I recognize myself when I don’t look like I used to?”
He was already looking down at papers he was holding in his hand.
He looked up, as if not understanding the question and then the details seemed to click into place for him.
“Oh, that. I always forget transfers don’t remember.” He scribbled on his paper a moment before he finally continued. He swirled a finger, encompassing me. “This is how you really look and will look in your true form for all of eternity. If you go to heaven, hell, purgatory or whatever is beyond, this is your form. That body in the ravine was just a shell, a loosely formed portrait. When your essence is squeezed into a mortal mold, it never matches up the same.”
I toyed with a lock of my hair, still adjusting to the different texture. “So I’ve always looked like this on some level? I guess I figured you would give me a new body or something.”
“Well, that’s silly. You think we have stray bodies just lying around?”
“Uh, I guess…”
He actually rolled his eyes at me before he tucked his papers into the case he was holding.
“Do you have everything you need?”
I shrugged, having no idea exactly what I should need. “Not sure.”
“There’s food in the fridge and my number is on the phone if you ever get around to charging it. I’ll be back tomorrow morning for you.”
It took me about two hours to convince myself that going out wouldn’t be a bad decision.
I’d showered and changed into some clothes I found in the closet. They were all my size and, considering I was the only dead chick living here, I assumed they were for my use. I’d briefly wondered if this apartment had been used by another female employee, but they all still had tags. I was still the same size as I used to be, if a bit more endowed.
There wasn’t a computer in the condo and Harold had given me a dumb phone, perhaps the last in existence. The thing looked like it should be dropped off at the Museum of History with its flip screen.
I didn’t have money to buy a newspaper but I could still walk to the library.
But what was out there? The beach looked normal but what about other places? Would I see ghosts now? I wasn’t a chicken, but I’d always been freaked out by that sort of thing.
Oh no. I was that sort of thing. Ugh!
Taking a deep breath, I opened the door, afraid of the monstrosities like myself I might find as I left the condo.
I stepped out and the sun was shining and the birds were chirping. It was the nicest day we’d had in ages. A couple of bunnies scampering about and it could have been the start to a Disney flick. I’d officially crossed the threshold into “out there” and it didn’t look spooky.
I pocketed the keys to the only home I had. Normally, I would’ve hopped on my bike for a trip like this but, if not for that small reminder, walking along like this, I could pretend everything was fine. I could almost lull myself into believing I was simply taking a walk, like any other day in my life, not death.
The library was pretty empty but the kids were still in school, and if you were off, you were reading on the beach right now, not cooped up in a building.
I went over to where the newspapers were and flipped to the section I needed. There I was. There was nothing that could replace the feeling you got from seeing your name in the obituary section.
Camilla Fontaine, 27, of Surfside Beach, died in a fatal train crash. Camilla, a highly esteemed public defender, had dedicated her life to the defense of the under privileged. She is survived by parents, Lawrence and Debra Fontaine, and her fiancé, Dr. Charles Knight.
They’d buried me this morning. It was for the best it was already done. I wouldn’t have been able to stay away from my own funeral. Some deep masochistic need would want to see the casket lowered and covered in dirt just to confirm it had happened.
I put the paper back and drifted out of the library, half incoherent and half devastated.
I wondered what my casket had looked like and how many people had shown up? What was written on my tombstone?
I saw a car I recognized pass and started to lift a hand to wave at Jimmy, the guy who delivered for the local pizza shop, but dropped it quickly. He didn’t know me anymore.
I should just turn around and go back to the condo but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to sit there, thinking. I needed to see my grave. This wasn’t going to be real until I saw my grave.
I didn’t need to read where I’d been buried. There was only one cemetery our family had been using for all the long generations we’d lived in South Carolina.
I walked through the gates and toward the section where my grandparents had been buried a few years back. They’d passed within a month of each other. I’d always imagined Charlie and I would be the same. We’d have kids, grow old and wrinkly, with faces that showed a life well lived, and then move on together. If I controlled the world, no one would die before their laugh lines had time to set in.
I was almost on top of her before I saw her. It felt like someone shoved a hand into my chest and twisted with all their strength. My mother was kneeling in front of a tombstone that I knew would have my name carved upon its shiny new surface. I’d never thought about how such a simple act of carving a name can impart such finality.
I took a couple of steps and felt the grip of death settle upon my shoulders. I halted instantly and then backed away. The weight lifted with my retreat.
“I get it,” I said to no one or possibly everyone. Who knew what exactly constituted the universe, “I won’t go any further.”
I found a spot to settle in underneath the shade of an old oak, leaning against the rough bark and grateful for the support. I watched my father approach her, his normally perfect Marine posture now slightly hunched, a physical ramification of the emotional weight he carried.
He stopped by her side and, with a hand on her arm, he used his own waning strength to help support her. I saw the expression of grief on their faces. She turned into him, and although I couldn’t hear her, I saw the sobs wrack her body. His arms circled her as they shared their emotional grief with the only other person who could understand.
I slid down the tree, not caring how the bark scratched my skin, and sat at the base of the trunk as I watched them leave the cemetery. At that moment, I didn’t feel rage or a burning desire for revenge, only defeat and a hollow sadness I couldn’t imagine living with, but couldn’t fathom how to fill.
After a night of wallowing in a depression that threatened to destroy me, I’d awoken with a determination to not think at all. I wouldn’t think of my parents, the career I’d lost, the friends I had, nothing. As stupid as it might seem, it was the only way I was going to hold it together and get through this next month. Too painful? Don’t think about it.
I only had to get through a month. I’d spent at least part of my teens not thinking. I had the skill set; it was just a bit rusty.
I shuffled through the clothes hanging in the closet for something to wear as I determinedly didn’t think about the bad stuff. Problem was, I had no idea what type of attire a job like this called for. I wasn’t even sure yet what that job was, exactly.
I ruled out formal business attire, mostly because I couldn’t find anything appropriate. So, will it be corporate casual as I mete out the universe’s justice or jeans and boots so that I’m comfortable as I even the score?
It was ten A.M. when I heard the knock at the door and I still hadn’t figured out what to wear. Even in death, I still struggled with wardrobe decisions. Some problems just never go away.
I didn’t budge from the closet, knowing Harold would let himself in and no one else would be here. It wasn’t as if I were getting calls from friends. I was dead. The dead didn’t get visitors. Even if I mailed an invite, no one would show up. They’d think it was a sick prank.
Harold’s footsteps echoed through the condo.
“Harold, what should I wear?” I yelled out the open bedroom door.
His bushy red head popped into the room, then looked me up and down.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Jeans, flip flops and a t-shirt?” I looked at his white button down and bow tie.
“Yes, let’s go.”
Ah, he didn’t like it; he just didn’t want to wait. I’d file that information away for when I might need it. Harold’s weak spot was patience.
“I’m not making my first impression in this.” I shooed him out of the room and threw on a little black dress that would be appropriate for many different occasions.
“Ready,” I said as I left my room. I went to grab my purse out of reflex, before I remembered I didn’t have one. I settled for grabbing the cell phone and headed out to…who the hell knows?
I saw Hank waiting out front, with the stretch Mercedes, as I shut and locked the condo.
“So, boss, where we heading?” I asked once I’d gotten in the car.
“Work.” Harold settled into the other seat and was nose deep in papers before I could get my next question out. Harold wasn’t much of a talker.
I took the opportunity to get my own head together. Today was the first day I actually felt like myself and if I wanted to get through the rest of this month, there were certain things I couldn’t do. Seeing my parents was one of them. That had been a huge mistake. I was stuck for now and I had to remain calm about the situation, and work within its confines, until I got out of here. I’m a logical, sane woman. I could handle this.
One internal pep talk and fifteen minutes later, the Mercedes pulled into the lot of an unassuming three-story office building. I got out of the car and took in the average structure on Highway Seventeen. I’d driven past this exact location hundreds, maybe thousands, of times in my life and never given it a second glance.
“This is work?” I slapped my hand against the brick. “This is where the powers of the almighty universe reside?”
When we approached the door, it had one of those black boards that listed all the residents hanging on the wall next to it. I read through the list quickly. It included everything from an accountant’s office, counselor, and a dentist on the third, exactly what I’d expect from a structure like this.
“Here?” I turned from the board to Harold, who was already waiting for me just inside the door. “This is where work is? The universe and all that? Just sitting in an innocuous office building, on regular road, in the middle of South Carolina?”
“Yes, our offices reside within this building.”
“Then how was I going to live in Texas?”
He pointed to the lettering on the large glass windows framing the door above him. “This building is owned by UFU, LLC. If you looked that name up on Google, UFU stands for Units for Use, LLC, but the real name is Unknown Forces of the Universe.”
He stopped talking abruptly and moved inside. Harold wasn’t much of a teacher. If he were human, I’d think he might be diagnosed as having some sort of social disability.
I circled through the doors after him into the average looking, if slightly dingy, lobby. The dark brown tile gave me the impression it hadn’t been decorated since the seventies, and not well even then.
We made a left when we hit the carpeted hallway. We passed an ancient looking elevator that made me glad it looked like we were on the first floor and proceeded past several doors.
“You might be tempted to visit other offices, but I would discourage that.”
“Why?” I had no intention of visiting, but you couldn’t have a statement like that thrown out there and not ask why. Well, some people could, but my life was about knowing every detail of a situation. Being dead hadn’t changed me much.
“Until you know what you’re dealing with, it’s inadvisable.”
He stopped at the final door at the end of the corridor. The plaque by the entrance read “Life Management Associates.”
We walked into a typical looking waiting room. It had chairs that looked like they’d actually been used and tables littered with fliers that read “Be the best you, you can be!” and “Find your passion, unlock your future!”
“This is Trudy.” Harold pointed to the young redheaded female sitting behind the Formica desk—another fabulous piece leftover from the rocking 70s décor—in the front room who looked to be barely eighteen.
We smiled at each other in greeting as I followed him to an interior door across the room. He held it open and I walked into a space that could’ve belonged to any small company. If I had to make a movie set for an office scene, this was exactly what I’d make it look like. There were desks scattered throughout and people milled about here and there, until they noticed our presence. Then one by one, all heads turned toward us. And stayed there.
Luckily, I was used to a courtroom full of people staring me down. These people didn’t have a thing on Judge Arnold when he was missing a golf tournament because I had requested an emergency hearing.
“Don’t mind their curiosity. We haven’t had a new recruit for quite some time.”
I nodded, wondering what some time meant to these people, with a frightening suspicion it was a lot longer than my personal frame of reference.
I followed him as he walked to the back of the long open office to a smaller managerial six-by-six and the only separated area.
“Please,” he said and waved a hand toward the chair, as he sat behind the only desk in the room.
As far as offices went, it wasn’t exactly ostentatious with its gray metal desk, filing cabinets, and brown commercial rug. The plain white walls didn’t do much to help add any character to the setting.
The room itself held almost no interest for me, except for the door behind his desk. It was plain, like everything else in the office, but there was a one-inch crack between the bottom of it and the floor, and the most brilliant light I’d ever seen was shooting rays out of the gap.
“What’s behind that door?”
“Retirement. When you finish your trial period, that is where you will reenter,” he said, not bothering to look up from where he’d seated himself behind the desk. “I’d like to talk to you about your position.”
I forced my attention to Harold. He was as odd as my hazy memory had hinted at. He looked like he should be strolling around an economics convention, not dealing in death and retribution. And I couldn’t help but feel like there had to be more than what met the eye. If this was the guy calling the shots, there just had to be.
“Which is what, exactly?”
“Could you elaborate on that?” I repeated, squinting my eyes and staring at him in confusion. He still wasn’t explaining exactly what I was supposed to do.
“I don’t understand. I thought karma was when you did something good, it would come back to you and the same thing if you did something bad.”
“But you said it was my job? I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do.” How many other ways could I ask him? This guy was really in charge?
He leaned his head in his hand for a minute and I had the distinct impression that this was out of character for him. He mumbled something I couldn’t hear except for the mumbled word “transfer.” Then he shook his head, as if pulling himself back together.
“The universe has a certain balance it maintains, but it will occasionally fall out of balance. This is usually caused by people slipping through the cracks, who have a sort of natural immunity to the universal forces and need an associate to go in and manually adjust them. If they go too long, they can sometimes throw the system and balance off violently.”
I nodded and smiled, still unsure of exactly how I was going to come into play. How would I fix anyone?
“Let me give you a very simple example. You are familiar with WWII?”
“Of course I am. I’m dead, not stupid.”
“Everyone in this office tries to make sure that everything runs pretty much the way it should and nobody cheats the system. When we don’t do a good job, you end up with people like Hitler. That’s what happens when no one is paying attention. The better we do our job, the calmer the world.”
“So everyone here is in charge of karma?”
“No. Just you. Everyone has their own department. You are Karma.” He pointed toward me dramatically, the way someone would try and accent a meaning to a person who didn’t know the language.
“I’m not sure I’m adequately suited for this position. Even for a month. I’m more of a “bygones be bygones” kind of person. Don’t you need someone a bit more vengeful?”
He looked down at the file spread on his desk. “I would disagree. Your file said you would be an excellent candidate.”
“May I see that?” I asked, eying up said file on his desk. How much did Harold know about me? Everything? That was an uneasy feeling. Even the best of us had our secrets and even though I considered myself a decent human being, I didn’t think I fell into the saintly category.
The file didn’t look big enough for my entire life to be in it. It didn’t even look thick enough for a short story. Maybe just a highly edited Wiki version?
“No, absolutely not.” He shut the Manila folder quickly, as if I were going to jump up and try to peek. The guy took neurotic to a whole other level.
Okay, the file wasn’t that important. I needed to keep the peace and simply explain in better detail how I’d made an error in judgment. Be nice. My southern mother had always said you caught more bees with honey than vinegar. She had tried to drill it into my head since I was a small child. It wasn’t something I’d come naturally to, that was for sure, but it was a valid tactic, even if that wasn’t the lesson my mother had meant to instill.
“Harold, when I agreed to work for you, I was under the duress of seeing my dead body. You can understand how jarring that can be, right? I wasn’t thinking clearly at all.” It sounded logical enough to me, but I wasn’t sure if he’d ever had the pleasure of dying and his manner didn’t scream naturally empathetic.
He cleared his throat and I could tell by the set of his mouth that I wouldn’t like the next words. “I’m sorry, but that’s not how things work here. Like I told you, there’s a mandatory one-month trial period. An active one-month.”
He leaned back in his chair and pushed his glasses up closer to his face. His almost black eyes, artificially enlarged from the lens, stared at me in a bit of an awkward way. I wasn’t sure if there was a bite to follow up his bark but his magnified beady gaze sure made the situation less than desirable.
Still, beady gaze and all, I had to try one last time. Perhaps a different angle. Regardless of my record, he clearly thought I was an idiot; maybe that was the way to go. I had no problem playing a stooge if it got me out of here quickly.
“As you stated, I’m a transfer. You really don’t want me. I’m a horribly slow learner. The mistakes I’ve made in my life, geesh, you’d squirm if you knew.” I twirled a finger in my hair for effect and wished I had some chewing gum to smack.
“Yes, I’m well aware.”
He was? Hey, wait a minute; I didn’t think I’d done too badly for myself. What were these jerks writing about me in that file?
“Fate will help you with that.”
And just like that, I had bigger problems. I wasn’t just stuck here; I was stuck with him. “The guy who helped me so far?”
“It has to be him.” Harold threw his hands in the air, as if why am I bothering him? Not his orders.
“Then I’ll work alone.”
I’d be clueless but peaceful. There was something wrong about that guy. There was something too bossy or too intense. I couldn’t even describe exactly what it was about him that was too much, but it was.
Even the brief moment I’d actually been in my right mind around him, it was as if his presence exerted some sort of gravitational pull, stronger than a normal person’s. As if his intensity could throw me out of orbit. And I didn’t want to go out of orbit. I had enough things to handle besides ping ponging around.
“Non-negotiable. I’ve got orders.” Harold folded his hands and rested them atop his desk, littered with paper.
“From who exactly?”
“The universe.” His chin notched up a hair.
“Would it be possible to speak to this universe person? I’m sure they’ll understand that there is a personality conflict.” It was time to bump my complaint to upper management.
“No one speaks to the universe.”
“Then how do you know what to do?” I leaned in a little.
“Simple. Through my orders.” His eyes started to twitch.
“Which you get how?”
“Then you can send a memo to the universe. I won’t work with him.”
“I’ll file your complaint but it won’t matter. And don’t forget, as I’ve already explained, it has to be an active month.”
Twenty-five days. I’ve dealt with worse for longer. One case in particular came to mind. The guy actually tried to bite me when we lost. Harold didn’t seem inclined to bite and he didn’t get into my personal space. I could deal with him.
On the other hand, Fate looked like he might be the biting sort.
“Do the last five days count toward the thirty? Time served and all?”
“These first days were highly unpleasant. Do you think I could get extra credit for those? Maybe, I don’t know, you could knock off a day or two? Like they do in jail for good behavior?”
He squinted his eyes and tilted his head. I was going to take that for a no.
“Follow me.” He stood and headed out of his office and back into the main room.
We’d barely taken a step out the door when I saw him; Fate, supervisor from hell. His eyes met mine and it was as if all the cells in my body had decided to wake up. Which was quite ironic, considering I was technically dead.
The room could have been packed wall to wall with people and it wouldn’t have mattered. It couldn’t be attraction, because I hated him. In my human life, if someone had treated me the way he had, I would have set them straight and then never spoken to them again. But I couldn’t seem to stop the awareness I had for him and it made me dislike him even more.
I broke eye contact first as he walked over toward Harold and me.
Fate stared straight at me but didn’t actually acknowledge me, not even the slightest tilt of the head. But he dismissed me pretty clearly when he turned and spoke only to Harold.
“Anything with her?”
“Doesn’t appear to be, but it’s early.”
“Any what? You can direct your questions about me directly to me.”
He shifted his attention fully back to me and I wished I’d kept my temper in check. His presence was more intense up close. I should’ve just shut up and let him go along his not-so-merry way.
The first time I’d interacted with him, I hadn’t been in my right mind. Like so many things in retrospect, it was crystal clear just how out of whack I’d been. I never would’ve agreed to this if I had been thinking clearly.
Then, when I’d been writhing in pain, I couldn’t see past the intensity of what I was feeling.
This was technically my second coherent contact with Fate and the full impact of his presence seemed to get worse with subsequent exposures. Twenty-five days was suddenly a lifetime.
“Have you noticed anything different, yet?”
“You said to address you, so I am. Have you noticed anything different?”
He knew he was making me uncomfortable. The corner of his mouth quirked up. Worse than him doing it on purpose was that little twitch of the lips meant he didn’t care if I knew he was doing it on purpose. Maybe he even wanted me to know? What was this guy’s problem? Decent folk didn’t openly mock you and admit to it. They would feign ignorance. Rude man!
“Nope, nothing out of the ordinary here.” And there was no way I was going to let him know how much he was indeed getting under my skin. I raise your smirk with a full on, double row of pearly whites smile. Take that, you ogre in man’s clothing!
He didn’t respond, just turned back to Harold. “Your office,” he said and then strode off in that direction, making me wonder who was really in charge here.
Harold claimed to be calling the shots, but it certainly didn’t look like that right now. And if Fate was the secret power holder, man, things just weren’t looking good. He seemed to dislike me even more than Harold
“Luck?” Harold said and waved over a raven-haired beauty with the reddest lips I’d ever seen outside a Vogue Magazine, and not an interior spread but a glossy bright cover.
She walked over toward us, hips sashaying in a way that would captivate any human male alive. I say alive since she didn’t seem to have any affect on Harold. Every time I thought I peeled another layer of the onion back on this guy, he revealed another skin of strange.
“Would you show Karma around?”
Karma, the truth of the name settled into my skin like a lotion I was allergic to.
“I’ve got a few matters that need my immediate attention.” He nodded to us and made to leave.
“Wait, what about my killer? When are we going to go get him?”
“Yes. You said I could get my killer.”
“Sure. Try and get him.”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged and threw his hands up, in a “why are you asking me” kind of way.
“But you said—”
“That you could right the wrongs, not me. I don’t do that sort of thing.”
“But I don’t know how to do anything.”
He looked toward his office, where Fate waited. “That certainly isn’t my shortcoming.”
I watched Harold walk away from me and directly toward the office where Fate had basically ordered his presence. Dead or not, shouldn’t there be some sort of professional standards?
And another weird thing was Fate and Harold’s relationship. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong but there was tension there and I couldn’t tell if they liked each other or not. Normally, when I look at two people, and see them interact, it’s obvious. Not with those two.
Luck drew my attention back as she clucked her tongue. I found her looking me up and down in an appraising way, which I ignored, trying to make the best of the next month. After all, it would be nice if I didn’t have to hate everyone I worked with. Even a dead girl needs a friend.
I plastered on another fake smile. “I’m Camilla. It’s very nice to meet you.”
Her lips formed a moue as she didn’t reply but kept appraising me. “Yes, you are definitely a transfer, all right.”
I wasn’t sure what she was seeing that I didn’t. What was I doing that screamed different? Broadcasted me as the transfer they kept labeling me?
“I just don’t know why he did it, not that he listens to anyone,” she continued.
“What exactly is a transfer and what’s so bad about it?”
“Murphy!” she called out to a man wearing a long tan coat and a hat that would have looked normal on Humphrey Bogart.
We both took each other in as he walked over. He looked like he was in his early forties, with patches of gray that were winning the war for real estate at his temples. Did that mean these bodies aged? No, I didn’t think so. Harold said this is what I’d look like throughout time. Murphy just got a bum deal I guess.
“Karma?” he asked as if he already knew the answer.
“Actually, it’s Camilla.”
“We all go by our call signs, here,” he explained.
Luck hopped up on the desk, crossing her legs and showing off a really nice set of five inch red heels.
She punched Murphy in the arm to get his attention. “Tell Karma what a transfer is. She’s got questions.”
“A transfer is someone that was mortal first. After they were created into existence, they took a human shape for a while before signing on here.”
“Neither of you were?”
“Nobody in this office was. We haven’t had a transfer in a while. Doesn’t tend to work out.”
“Why?” This didn’t bode well.
“When your being is first created, you understand the universe and the surroundings. When you’re placed into a mortal body, the human shell insulates you a bit and your connection is dulled. It’s like listening to someone talk under water. Even when you are broken from the shell, you’re still at a disadvantage.” He sat down on the desk next to Luck. I could tell they were tight knit, in a buddy kind of way.
“What happened to the other transfers?” I asked, watching the two of them for reactions.
“Almost all of them quit at the end of the trial period.”
“You said almost all. What about the ones that didn’t? Why aren’t they here?”
Murphy started fiddling with a pencil he’d picked up off the desk and Luck nudged him. “You tell her.”
“Why do I always get stuck doing this?” Murphy asked in an annoyed voice.
“You talk to the new people and I help you supplement your income. That’s the way it works. Are you trying to break our deal? It’s only been seventy-five years. I should’ve known you’d renege.”
“I’m not breaking anything.”
“Then keep talking!”
Murphy turned his attention back to me now that their squabble seemed to be resolved.
“Sometimes the things we do can be dangerous when you aren’t as in tune. Accidents have happened.” He was back to fiddling with his pencil and the two of them were looking everywhere but at me.
“So we can die again?”
“There’s death and then there’s nothing. No retirement to a cushy mortal life, maybe a famous actor or just incredibly rich. Your energy is reabsorbed but you aren’t actually anything, anymore.”
Wow, this really sucked. I was recruited to do a job I didn’t know how to do and when I failed at it, which had a high probability, I ended up even worse off than dead?
“By the way, I never introduced myself. I’m Murphy. Of Murphy’s Law?”
“And I’m Lady Luck. Luck for short.”
“So, how does this…” I waved a hand to encompass the office, them, everything. The entire situation was beyond surreal and made me doubt the reality I was in. But if I was going to be doing things that were dangerous, I needed to start gathering information yesterday. Twenty-five days now seemed like an eternity.
“Well, in my case, I help spread the luck around. Murphy is sort of my counterpart, spreading the opposite.” She patted him on the shoulder. “You’re just all sunshine and happiness, aren’t you, Murphy?”
“And what exactly is Harold?”
“He’s middle management.” Murphy picked up another pencil and started to play mock drums as he spoke.
“Then who exactly do we work for?”
“The universe.” He hit an invisible cymbal.
“That’s what Harold said, but is it a person? Have either of you seen this universe person or entity?”
“Nope. Everything is through Harold. It’s a lot to take in, especially as a transfer. Why don’t we get you settled in. Just try and lay low until your month is up,” Luck said. She motioned to the group of four desks clustered together that they were sitting on. “This one is mine.” She patted next to where she sat. “That’s Murphy’s, next to me and that’s the one the Jinxes share. They don’t use it, though.”
She nodded and rolled her eyes. “They’re out in the field right, but it’s not an introduction you want to rush.”
She got up and walked to the last remaining desk and pulled the chair out. “And you can have this one.”
“So, we work here, in this office?” I sat down in the offered chair in front of my desk and opened a couple of the empty drawers. The place didn’t seem like somewhere I’d be in danger, but no one had told me exactly what it was I would be doing yet.
“No, we just like having desks,” Murphy explained, completely straight-faced.
I looked around at all the others in the office, no one hiding their curiosity at my presence and I was quite sure I’d fallen down the rabbit hole. This is why you always read contracts before you sign them. First contract I didn’t read thoroughly and this is what I got.
“That’s the Cat Lady, over there,” Luck pointed in the direction of a woman reading a gossip magazine in the corner, a black cat weaving itself through her legs. “We call her Kitty for short.”
“Why is a cat lady here?”
“Not a cat lady, the cat lady. Black cats? She sends them out right before someone is about to get really screwed.” She pointed to short little stubby guy walking across the room. “That’s our leprechaun, Bert. He used to be in a different office, but got pulled over here for clover detail. I’d introduce you, but he’s in a real bad mood.”
“What’s clover detail?” I looked about for some paper feeling like I should be taking notes.
“Too many people were finding four leaf clovers. Some leprechaun jerk thought it would be funny to get a little free and loose with the clovers. Now Bert is in charge of monitoring the numbers. The leprechaun responsible got early retirement.” Luck’s eyes widened at the end of that statement.
Murphy held up a hand next to his mouth and whispered, “Poor as dirt and stuck in a boarding house, now.” Murphy pointed to a Goth looking guy by the water cooler. “He’s Crow. He sends out a crow before death.”
“What about the guy in the jockey outfit?” I watched as he crossed the room and exited.
Luck perched next to me, a hip on my desk. “He’s actually in one of the offices down the hall. He’s in charge of the Night Mares.” She looked at the door to Harold’s office and tilted her head in that direction. “And you already met Fate. The hand of Fate, to be exact.”
“Fate, as in destiny?”
Murphy nodded from where he sat across from me. “When a person is fated for a certain destiny, but things aren’t lining up the way they should, he steps in.” Murphy put on a pair of reading glasses and pulled out a newspaper.
“I’m surprised he’s talking to you or helping out.” Luck handed Murphy a pencil, which he eschewed for a pen.
“If being a transfer is such a problem, why did I get recruited?”
This interested Murphy enough to look up from his paper. “Now, that is the million dollar question.”
I took a seat at my new desk, not sure what else to do. I opened up the rest of the drawers to see if there were any office supplies. When I looked back up, Luck and Murphy were already walking away from me. I guess that was the end of my introduction.
So I sat there, alone. Eventually, I stole an extra newspaper from the corner and did the crossword. When noon rolled around, a strange woman showed up and laid out a buffet along the wall. She stopped at my desk and said “Eat,” which ended up being the last word said to me for the entire day, until five.
I picked through the food and selected a small turkey sandwich, which I nibbled at but had a hard time finishing. Nerves had always dampened my appetite and this situation was bringing them out.
Throughout the day, people came and went, doing who knew what. I’d read the entire newspaper and five different gossip mags I’d snagged from the front waiting room.
Occasionally, someone would come near me, but no one actually spoke. I pretended to ignore them. They could stare all they wanted. I’d be out of here, soon enough. I liked crosswords and gossip mags. I could do this for a month standing on my head, no problem.
At five o’clock, the driver, Hank, strode through the door and headed toward my desk. “I drive you home,” he said and turned on his heel, expecting me to follow. Hank was a man of very few words.
I went to grab my stuff before I remembered I had none. I was going to have to buy a purse, just to get rid of the feeling I was leaving something behind.
“Do you know when we get paid?” It felt like an awkward question, since I wasn’t doing anything, but some cash would be good if I wanted to eat something I actually liked.
I took that to mean ask Harold, I have no clue, and I let it drop. At least there was food in the condo. It had cable T.V. and it was beachfront. As long as I didn’t think of Charlie, my parents, my friends…basically, as long as I didn’t think at all, I could get through this.
I’d decided this was a very short-term purgatory for making a bad knee jerk reaction when I’d known better. I could handle beachfront purgatory that came with gossip mags and cable.
How wrong I was. Day eleven of beachfront purgatory and I was ready to kill my already dead body just to escape the boredom. I leaned my head on my palms, as I watched the people in the office walk around. I knew I must have looked frazzled but I was past putting up a good appearance.
Other than a few nods of acknowledgment that another body was a few feet away from them when I walked in the door, that was the extent of communication.
Hank picked me up every day and dropped me off at five. I hadn’t seen Harold for days. He’d said I had to be here for an active month, but if this was what he considered active, I might as well be laid out in a coffin. There was nothing to do. People just strolled in to the office and strolled back out. I wasn’t even sure what the purpose of this place was, exactly. No one seemed to do much of anything.
It wasn’t even a good office. My newspaper was already second hand by time I got to it. I knew this for sure because Murphy’s sweaty hands left smudges all over the words.
The catered lunch was stale and I caught Kitty, the cat lady, double dipping her celery in the ranch dressing. Not to mention when she brought her cats in they tried to use my leg as a scratching post.
I guess I couldn’t blame them, I felt like a piece of furniture myself. I must have been putting out that vibe.
Luck was there the least, if you didn’t count Fate. Most of the time, it looked like she’d been the one getting lucky, unless she meant for her hair to look like that and put on her shirts backwards as some sort of fashion statement.
As for me, it’s amazing the damage boredom can do to a personality. There wasn’t a person in the office I hadn’t nit picked to death in my head. Even Bert, the leprechaun, who I’d never shared two words with; I’d daydream of calling in false four leaf clover reports just to see his green loving butt run out of the office in a tither.
No wonder this place was full of jerks. It should be a secret training ground for those inclined to go postal.
So, when I saw Harold step into the office that day, I was ready to tackle him to the ground harder than the biggest NFL linebacker just to get some answers. I chased him down as he walked into his office, giving him barely a foot of distance as we crossed the threshold. There was no way he was shutting his door and kicking me out.
“Harold, I’m cracking up over here. What exactly am I supposed to be doing? All this sitting around stuff better be counting towards the thirty days since I’m here every day, willing.”
“You’re waiting.” He dropped his armful of papers onto his desk.
“For what?” I stood with my hands on my hips, blocking the door.
“You’ll know when it’s time.”
“What am I waiting for?”
“Can you tell me when this thing I’m waiting for might be coming?”
“I can’t say. It’s always different.”
No wonder the world was a mess. These people needed a course in being proactive.
Be nice, I kept telling myself. Catch more bees with honey, not vinegar. Honey, honey, honey. I just didn’t know how much longer I could be full honey when I was choking on acid. I wasn’t naturally a sugary sweet person to begin with.
“I’ve acquired an automobile for you and the necessary documents to drive it.” Harold reached into a drawer and handed me a Manila envelope. “The keys belong to the white Honda Civic sitting at the curb outside.”
I peaked out the long rectangular office window.
“That?” The thing had to have been fifteen years old. One of the doors was primer gray, in comparison to the scratched white exterior of the rest of it.
Someone had just handed me a car. I should’ve been happy. No one had ever given me a car, before. Even though I came from an upper middle class family, my parents always believed a car was something I should earn. I should be grateful. But gosh darn it, I did die to get this job. Wasn’t that worth at least a used Cadillac, or at the very least something that looked like it was going to start on a regular basis?
I swallowed back the complaint and opened the envelope that contained the keys and documents. I had no idea where he’d gotten a photo of me for my fake license, but it didn’t matter enough to bother asking.
The license read Carma Walters. It sounded like a fortuneteller at a carnival, but it was better than nothing. I took my envelope and headed out. At least I’d procured wheels. It meant another level of freedom as the next twenty days slugged by.
“Call me when it happens,” he said as I left.
“You got it. Whenever this mysterious thing that no one can explain to me happens, you’ll be the first person I notify.”
The clock ticked five just as I made it back to my desk. I nodded politely at the people who didn’t speak to me as I passed them on my way to the door.
I fell asleep around nine after a busy night of watching Battlestar Gallactica by myself and a pizza and cookie dough ice cream binge. I was already onto the third season. It’s amazing how much TV you can watch when there is absolutely nothing else to do. I was tired of spending my nights alone waiting for something, that no one could explain, to come.
That something finally came at six in the morning. I woke up in a sweat, not knowing why, and then bam, a vision of a man making alterations to financial retirement accounts. Draining them completely. It didn’t stop there, either. I saw him arguing with an older woman before killing her.
The same man entering a coffee bar. The clock struck twelve as he was ordering a drink. I knew that coffee bar.
And then it was gone. It had been like having a dream while I was wide awake. Was that what I’d been waiting for? A weird daydream certainly wasn’t the earth-shattering event I’d expected it to be. And seriously, were the people in the office that communication impaired that they couldn’t say, hey, you’re going to get a weird daydream?
I got up, made some coffee and called Harold, filling him on the latest development.
“Now you go there,” he said.
“And do what?”
“How should I know? You’ll find out when it’s time.”
Honey, honey, honey. I only had nineteen days left. Deep breaths and big beehives full of honey.
“Are you sure I’m going to find out?”
“I’ll meet you at eleven. You did know the place, correct?”
And then he hung up.
I drank another four cups of coffee while I waited to leave, just to make sure I didn’t lack for energy.
I pulled up in front of the office at ten fifty-nine A.M., and Harold was already waiting, staring down at his watch.
“You’re almost late.”
“Technically, Harold, I’m a minute early.”
“Which is almost late.”
The car door made a horrible sound as he got in. One might describe it as the automobile equivalent of a death rattle. I hoped the old Honda had a life expectancy of another eighteen days.
“What exactly was that I saw?” I asked as I pulled out of the lot with Harold in tow and horrible exploding sounds coming from the vicinity of the Honda’s rear.
“We need to make a stop first and then you have to go the coffee bar you saw.”
I turned out onto the highway and just when I thought I’d have to pry the rest of the details from his bony pale hands, he started to talk.
“You are now essentially syncing into the universe. The person you saw is someone that has been escaping balance, probably for generations.”
“How can he have escaped for generations?”
“He was doing it in a past life.”
“These people get away with it for that long?”
“Yes. For whatever reasons, the universe hasn’t settled his score and now you need to.”
He tapped the clock on the radio. “In about forty minutes and I don’t know how. Only you and the universe know.”
“But that’s a problem because I don’t know. The universe hasn’t bothered to tell me that.”
“You’ll find out when you get there.”
After almost two weeks of no answers, watching TV in solitude while I knew my parents and Charlie mourned me, having to deal with bad attitudes, and that was only if I wasn’t being completely ignored, my honey well had officially run dry. All I had to offer now was vinaigrette. Bon appetite.
“Harold, we’re treading in dangerous waters. I’ve got no honey left.” I gripped the steering wheel, trying to hang on to the temper set off from too few explanations and far too many expectations.
“I don’t have honey. If it’s such a problem, go to the supermarket.”
I turned and glared at him. “I’m not surprised you have no honey.”
His face made it clear he thought I was crazy. I didn’t care. If I was starting to lose my mind, they were to blame.
I pulled up to the address of a sprawling beach mansion. Before I could ask what we were there for, I knew.
Fate was heading toward the car. Two things came to mind. That better not be where he lives and he better not be coming with me.
“Did you need to talk to him for a minute?” I asked Harold, clinging to hope.
“No. He’s going with you.”
Harold ignored my scream of “Absolutely not!” and got out of the car anyway.
Then he was there.
I saw Hank pull up in the Mercedes behind me as Fate took Harold’s spot and sat in my front seat. I didn’t want him in my Honda.
Neither Fate nor I said a word to each other in greeting.
He finally spoke first. “Do you plan on driving? I’ve got things to do besides babysit you.”
“I was hoping if I ignored you, you’d get out.”
“Wish I could. But the bottom line is you need to learn the ropes and I’m the best equipped to teach you.”
No wonder I had no honey left.
I put the car in gear and my Honda’s engine whined slightly, as if she resented his presence as much as I did.
“This is my job, so don’t think you’re going to get all bossy on me either.”
“Whatever, transfer. We both know you have no clue what’s going on.” He hand cranked up his window and turned on the air conditioning full blast, which made my old Honda wheeze like it had a pack a day habit.
I white knuckled the steering wheel and headed out. Eighteen days left, that was it.
I pulled into a spot near the coffee bar, after stewing over his last comment the whole ride over. If Harold didn’t know, I bet he didn’t either.
“Fine. You’re right. I have no idea what we’re here to do. Why don’t you tell me?”
“It’s your job. I won’t know until you do.”
“If you, the so called experienced one in charge, are clueless,” yes, I’m petty and that dig was extremely necessary to my emotional well being, “how am I supposed to know?”
“Because, this is how it works.”
“Well, thanks for the big heads up.” I shouted at his back, since he was already getting out of the car and heading toward the coffee shop alone.
It didn’t look like he was planning to wait for me but I knew I had to do this, active participation and all. I got out and took my time making it inside.
Even if I wasn’t particularly fond of him, I wasn’t sure I was ready to go it alone, not after I found out I could literally vaporize myself. Even if Fate was a bit of an ass, I didn’t doubt his competence.
I found a free table toward the front windows when I entered, while he was in line. I heard the girl at the cashier giggling flirtatiously and caught Fate smiling back, equally friendly. So, it was just me he instantly disliked.
When he returned with two cups I was actually surprised. Did he buy me a coffee?
He sat across the table, and I forced the words “Thank you,” out, even if it felt like chewing on sand to do it.
“And now?” Between my dislike of him for how he treated me and the unsettling feelings I had being near him, I was watching the second hand on the clock tick away all too slowly.
“Now we wait.”
Ten to twelve, six more revolutions it had to swing around. Neither of us bothered to make small talk. Of all the things I wanted to know, I didn’t bother asking him or we wouldn’t even make it ten minutes. Silence was the best option when it came to him.
The second hand did its final turn and I looked out the window, not expecting to really see him, the man from my visions. My breath caught as I saw the guy approach the building.
I didn’t reply. “Go to hell, you arrogant jerk,” didn’t seem like the correct response and I knew, for some reason, I overreacted to Fate. But I couldn’t think about that right now, I had a job to do.
As the man from my visions got closer, more flashes popped into my head; horrible images that made my stomach turn. A picture of a hive appeared in my mind and then a tree. Now, this might sound odd to some people, but I’ve always loved trees and when I notice a particularly nice specimen, I always take note, so I knew this was the old oak in front of the building we were sitting in now.
And just like that, I realized what I was supposed to do. But was that really it?
The man entered the shop and I watched as he got into line to order a drink. I looked at Fate, having no one else to turn to, and then a strange thing happened. Fate and I had an honest moment.
He touched my hand and looked at me with what seemed sincerity, the rancor that had existed between us since almost the very first meeting disappeared. “Go with your gut feeling. Whatever you are seeing is the right way.”
“If you do what it showed, you’ll be okay. Just follow the visions.”
He broke contact then and our small moment of truce seemed to fade the minute he pulled back.
My mark, as I decided to call him, took a coffee and sat down a few tables away.
I got up and went outside. His convertible was parked under the old oak, directly under the beehive.
Good thing I had jeans on. I walked to the base of the huge ancient tree. It had a lower branch that made it perfect for climbing and, having scaled many in my youth, I was a bit of a pro. I looked around, making sure no one would see me climb into the tree, when I realized Fate had followed me.
He stood directly under the hive, arms folded and waiting. “No one will see.”
“How do you know?”
“They just won’t.”
“How is that possible?”
“Does it matter? Just do what you have to do.”
Would it kill him to be pleasant for more than one minute? I kicked off my shoes then gripped the branch in my hands and hoisted myself up, all while muttering curses at him under my breath.
The branch wasn’t as strong as I hoped and it swayed with my weight. My fingers dug into the bark until my nails hurt. My memories of climbing were a lot more fun than the current reality.
I crept close to the hive, waiting for either the bees to start going crazy or the branch to break with me landing on my ass at Fate’s feet. What a wonderful time that would be. Well, there was always the bright side; maybe if I fell while the bees were chasing me, he’d get stung in the process.
I paused two feet from the hive. My fear taking over, I couldn’t seem to force another step forward but I had enough control to halt a movement backward.
“They’re going to attack me,” I mumbled to myself.
I looked down at where he stood safely on the ground, safe and useless. I wanted to drop the hive on his head.
“Nothing,” I shouted down at him.
“Just do it.”
“You just do it.” Good thing he wasn’t human. He’d have no friends at all if it weren’t for the freaks at the office. If they were his friends. Maybe they didn’t like him either? I was technically a freak now too, and I certainly wasn’t looking to spend time with him.
“I can’t. You got the order. I wish I could.”
Order? That’s what we were calling a few flashes? This business, for lack of a better name, had some serious gaps. Lots could be left to interpretation with this but I went with the hunch.
The fact that I’d be stuck with him until I got this done urged me forward.
“Okay, bees, just you and me, boys.” I edged out further on the limb. Probably about twenty or so bees were buzzing in and out of the hive as I closed the final distance and, at some point soon, they were going to be mightily pissed off.
“I just want you to know, I didn’t want to do this to you. Personally, I think it’s very wrong to involve you in all this ugliness.”
“Why are you talking to them?” Fate’s hands had shifted to the equally unhelpful position of resting on his hips.
“I’m making friends. You wouldn’t know anything about that.”
I crawled closer and closer, waiting for them to decide to attack me. They buzzed by my head, a few landed briefly on my hands and arms, but no one stung…yet.
I made my way to the hive and perched next to it. This was it, I knew what I thought I should do, but this could go bad quickly. So far, the bees had left me alone but once I yanked the hive loose, I imagined I’d get their wings in a bunch.
I looked around, knowing I’d taken a while. No one was in the parking lot or seemed to notice me at all from the huge windows that had clear sight.
“We don’t have all day.”
Wow, I really didn’t like him, but he did have a point. Both shaking hands out, I grabbed the hive, turned my head away, with eyes squinted shut, and yanked it loose.
Hmmm, no stinging? I opened an eye the tiniest slit. It was idiotic really. Seeing the bees or not wouldn’t change their mind about attacking me. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to fully look at the mad swarm that was surely about to vent their anger.
When I did look, I saw the bees were still calm. Huh?
“Come on!” Fate screamed from underneath.
I looked at his handsome face and I swung a leg, eying the distance between my foot and his head. Nope, not close enough. I guess he gets to keep his straight nose today.
I tucked the hive under one arm, expecting a full on attack at any moment and shimmied down awkwardly with only one free arm.
“Can you take it?” I asked, trying to hand him the hive so I could make the final jump down.
He stood back arms crossed. “Can’t touch it.”
“Not even for a minute?”
“Not my choice. Right now, even if someone were to walk out here, right by this spot, they might notice me, but they wouldn’t see you. If I touch that, which is part of your job, all bets are off. You stay to assignment and you’re shielded. It’s when you step out of the boundaries that it can go badly.”
I huffed a bit and then looked at the hive. “I apologize for the jolt ahead of time.”
I jumped the five feet or so down and managed to hang onto it. I froze there in a squat as I waited for the mad swarm that would finally decide it was time to let me know they weren’t happy about their relocation.
“You getting up?”
I looked under my arm where I had tucked it. The bees that were flying around followed me but none of them seemed overly upset, even after that jump. I stood slowly, not wanting to rock the hive.
The mark’s convertible was sitting right under where the bees’ previous home had been. I could see an image, as clear as a photograph in my mind, of the hive sitting in his back seat.
My hands froze as I lifted the hive to put it exactly how I envisioned it and I froze. What exactly would this lead to? Not many people actually died from bee stings. It just sucked.
“Shut. Up.” I didn’t bother looking at Fate. I just stood there. Could I really do this? It was rare, but there was still the chance I could be murdering this man.
And then, like a jolt to the system, more images of the people he’d abused flashed through my head. An older couple with bare cabinets.
I looked upward. “I don’t know who’s running this show, but you made your point. He’s got it coming.”
I placed the hive onto the floor of the back seat of the open convertible and stepped back.
I looked over to Fate. “Now what?”
“We take a seat and watch the show. Make sure it goes smoothly.” He walked over and looked at the hive, still calm.
“I don’t know if I want to see it.”
“You do the deed, you see it out.”
I blew out a long breath. I’d never intentionally hurt someone and, no matter who this person was and what he’d done, I’d still prefer not to see it happen.
“No one likes this part.”
And just like that, a little glimmer of the person he could be showed through a bit. Was it just me? I knew he made me more agitated. Maybe something about me triggered him as well.
He walked away without another word.
I headed over to a bench in front of the strip mall about fifty feet away. Fate found a spot about thirty feet down from me. I was glad for the distance.
A minute later, when the sound of thunder rumbled, I was glad I was under the overhang. My mark dashed out of the coffee shop just as the rain started. First thing he did was put the roof back up on his car.
I looked upward. “Nice touch.”
And then the mark got in the car. It didn’t take long for the screams to start. Even from where I sat, I could see the cloud of bees swarm up in the car. That’s when I really started wondering what I’d done.
I had a gut reaction to the pain I knew I’d inflicted. I leapt to my feet to go and help him, but Fate got to me first and wrapped a hand around my forearm.
“What I can’t do is this. Let go of me.” I tried to pull free but instead of making headway toward the car, I was being towed further away by Fate.
All I could do was watch. There was a big difference between wishing bad on someone who’s done harm and inflicting it yourself. The magnitude of the difference was hitting me hard, right now. In theory, I could’ve hurt someone evil like this all day, everyday. The reality was a lot harder.
People heard the screams he was making even through the closed car and ran to help, but couldn’t get the doors open.
They banged on the windows and screamed for him to unlock the doors. Someone screamed for a knife to cut the canvas top but by time one arrived, who knew how many times he’d been stung.
I couldn’t break free of Fate but he’d stopped tugging me further away, so we stood there, arms outstretched in between us, as we both watched the horror of what unfolded.
“Will he die?” I asked.
“It takes ten bee stings per pound to kill a human. I’d guess he was about a hundred and eighty pounds. That hive probably had about 45,000 bees. Yeah, I’d say he’s dead.”
“I just killed a man.”
“It’ll get easier.”
“I hope not.”
He dropped his grip but it didn’t matter now. I could hear the sirens of the ambulance as we walked toward my Honda. The good Samaritans had helped the man out of the car and laid him on the cement. His body didn’t move. The stingers were so dense, patches of his arms appeared gray from a distance.
I could hear the people talking as we passed.
“What a fluke!”
“The hive must have dropped from that branch with the wind.”
“Can you believe what just happened?”
I imagined the coverage on the news later today, talking about the crazy coincidence of a hive dropping and lying dormant in the back of a man’s car until he got in it. A freak accident, they’d call it.
It’s what I would’ve thought, a week ago.
Now, I knew better.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DONNA AUGUSTINE 2014