I died for the sixth time on the night of my thirtieth birthday. It was highly annoying—after making it through my whole twenties alive, it had been too easy to think that I’d finally become normal. Damn, I can just hear my mother now. “What is normal and who says so anyway?” Okay, fine. But normalish, maybe.
The worst part about dying is knowing that I have to come back. Well, that and the pain. Seems like it’s almost impossible to die without pain, except maybe for some lucky souls that pass away quietly in old age. That doesn’t seem to be my lot, though. This time I was shot right in the face. That stung a little bit. Add in the fact it was my boyfriend that did the shooting and yeah, not my best birthday. Fucking idiot that I am, I knew that guy was trouble. All the warning signs and red flags were waving in my face, but I loved him and he was trying, wasn’t he?
So: thirty, dead, annoyed, embarrassed.
But at least I had Pierre to look forward to. I met Pierre during my second death, when I was nine. He was nine then, too, but he explained to me that he had died much older but could choose to revert to whatever age he wanted. So he matched my age whenever I showed up, and now I was excited to meet Pierre-at-30.
Death is a nice place. The nicest. I don’t know if it’s Heaven or Swarga Loka or Valhalla or whatever, but it’s so damn cozy. Like being wrapped up in the middle of a buttery, flaky biscuit, like the kind your grandma used to make (not my grandma, she couldn’t boil water). I don’t even know if it’s the only place people go when they die. Just because I die more than the average person doesn’t mean I understand it.
Mostly people just float along in Death, warm and secure, but sometimes they get together and talk or build things or whatever. Pierre and I made an epic castle when I was thirteen, with all sorts of nooks and crannies that we conjured up from sheer imagination. Then, when we got bored with it, we let is just scatter apart into wisps of nothing.
“Pierre,” I thought. “I’m back!”
I was prepared for the whoosh in my stomach as I traveled to wherever Pierre was hanging about, so the nothing was jarring when I just kind of hung in the formless void instead. Strange. I resorted to thinking myself into my body and setting out to walk, but there was nowhere to walk to. Things are found in Death by thought and wish, not the sort of physical trudging crap that being alive is full of. Plus my feet were starting to get cold, which was all sorts of wrong.
My voice sounded muffled and useless.
Now I was definitely starting to worry. Something felt off, like a buzzing noise just below the threshold of hearing. Death felt less cozy and more forbidding, and even on my first visit, alone and a bit scared and only six, I hadn’t felt that. I shivered and imagined myself a snug wool peacoat and a purple hat with a pom.
Standing with my hands in my pocket in the middle of Death, I wondered how my body was getting along back in Life. My parents had always guarded my body before, keeping me out of the morgue and insisting I was asleep long after all my vital signs had tanked. Even the time I’d been dead five days, my mother hadn’t doubted my return at all, and I’d woken up tucked into my own bed with a bit of a sore neck where it had broken. But my face must be half gone now, and I was probably bleeding out in the street. The police were bound to get me. Hopefully they got Kris, too, that asshole.
In any case, that was a problem for later. I had no way of knowing how long I would be dead, and time didn’t always seem to pass normally in Death. I resolved just to enjoy it, to push aside my misgivings and let myself float in the warm embrace.
Except I was too scared to let my imagined body dissolve. It was ridiculous, but I had a maddening fear that I would never be able to get it back again. Instead, I thought myself up a chair, a good cup of strong coffee with just a dash of cream, and a sketchpad. I passed several hours with a piece of charcoal in my hands, putting down lines of black and gray onto the thick paper.
When my last drawing started to turn into Kris’s face, I knew it was time to switch tactics. My panic was gone, but not the feeling that something was wrong. I vanished the sketchpad with a thought and set myself to remembering what Pierre and I had done when I was nineteen. Mostly conjured ourselves kegs of exotic beers and drank ourselves silly. Literally silly—drinking in Death is a very different experience, and you never get more drunk than you want to be, or deal with headaches or vomiting in a back alley after drinking Long Island Ice Teas like actual ice tea.
I pictured in my head the place we’d created, a dim sort of Irish pub with an improbable level of cleanliness. The bar had been a wood that gleamed like honey and we had taken gleeful turns acting as barkeeps. I chuckled at the memory of my godawful attempt at an Irish accent.
When I opened my eyes, the pub was there—even the sign declaring “Andi and Pierre Strike Back.” At first I thought I had created it anew this time, but when I pushed open the door there was a distinct lack of gleam on the bar and a thick air of neglect coated everything. Even the cheerful tinkle of the bell was dampened by dust.
The only response was a peculiar sort of echo, and I knew at once that the place was empty. Pierre was not here.
I slumped onto a bar stool upholstered with cracked leather, blew the dust off the closest tap, and pulled myself a pint. It tasted like a sour ale, and although it brought an involuntary grimace to my face, I drank it all down with barely a pause. Then I spotted a faded label of Bushmills whiskey and started throwing down shots like there was no tomorrow.
It didn’t help, of course. I was too worried to allow myself to get drunk at all, but the taste of alcohol and the motions of diving to the bottom of the bottle were at least a somewhat comforting ritual for my stressed mind.
I was halfway through the Bushmills when I saw the letter. I don’t know how I missed it to begin with, but I suppose getting my face shot off by my boyfriend and then finding Death broken grants me some minor lapses in attention. It was sitting right in the middle of the bar, a creamy rectangle with Andrea written on the front in unnecessarily embellished penmanship. Pierre insisted on calling me that. It was a ridiculous affectation, considering it wasn’t actually my name; Andi isn’t short for anything. I swallowed and reached for the envelope. It had the same dusty coating as the rest of the bar, and my fingers were covered in grime as I handled it.
For a long moment, I could only look at it, until the writing blurred into a black dot. Stupid emotions. I wiped away my tears and tore open the flap before I could talk myself out of it. Inside was a single sheet of paper, crisply folded into thirds, edges straight and sharp. I held it open and my eyes scanned down the page of Pierre’s fluid handwriting. Damn him, he hadn’t even made a smudge and I was certain he had done it all by hand with some ridiculous fountain pen.
I went back to the top and began to read properly.
Our most recent visit has been a joy. Thank you again for showing me the proper amount of head on a pint! I never fancied myself a beer enthusiast, but you have convinced me that it is, perhaps, drinkable.
I am leaving you this letter in hopes that you never get it, but I have no way of warning you in the Living Realm. You must not come back here. This is very important. We are moving on—I cannot explain more, but it would not be safe for you alone. If you do get this letter, please make every effort to leave at once. This is more important than you could ever understand.
It has been a pleasure, Andrea.
I re-read Pierre’s letter about a hundred times. Guess I hoped that I was missing something, but there wasn’t a lot to miss. Pierre was gone, I wasn’t supposed to be here, and I didn’t have the slightest clue how to leave. Every time previously, without warning, I had felt a prickling sensation and then I had been yanked as if by my belly button and woken up alive. It was like having to get out of a warm bed in an icy room except way worse.
I dreaded those returns to life, but now I was sitting at the dirty bar and wishing for it. I tried that for what might have been an hour or maybe a couple days, but in any case it didn’t work. I drank more of the Bushmills and was trying to think of something to do when I heard the muffled ring of the bell.
Hope rushed in my chest despite my best efforts to keep it at bay. I couldn’t help but expect to see Pierre, all lopsided smiles and gelled black hair. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Death himself had come through the door. About seven feet tall, hooded black robe, skeletal hands gripping a scythe—the whole shebang. It should have been ridiculous, but there was no laughter in me.
“Is this a joke?” Damn, the waver in my voice was undeniable.
“No.” His voice was rattle and creak. I threw back another shot of whiskey. “I am here to correct that which has been done wrong.”
“I didn’t do it!”
He glided over the floor towards me, not even disturbing the dust. The shadow of his hood was too deep to make out what was within. Not that I tried too hard to see. If I had been corporeal, I probably would have pissed myself, but luckily that sort of thing didn’t happen here.
“It has been done all the same.”
Finally, some sense came into me. I imagined myself away from that damn pub, sitting on the bank of a creek that bubbled happily as silver minnows flashed in the depths. I sat there for a few moments and practiced some of the breathing exercises I’d learned in therapy. When I felt calm enough, I moved on—just in case. I didn’t know how powerful Death was in Death. I visited a library, shelves stacked so high that I couldn’t see the top, and then a stony beach with the cold salty spray of waves in my face. Finally I built myself a cozy room, lit by candles and with a sturdy door that was barred on the inside. Find me here, asshole.
I climbed into the plush, four-poster bed and burrowed down inside the blankets. I could still feel the chill edge of wrongness underlying everything, but if I tried really hard it was almost like the regular comforting embrace of Death. I did my breathing exercises. Everything was going to be fine.
Goddammit, he was sitting on a chair next to my bed. An old-fashioned rocking chair with a handmade quilt hanging on the back that looked just like the one my great-aunt had on her couch, except this one lacked the copious amounts of cat fur. I definitely hadn’t added that to my room.
“How did you get in here?”
He rocked back and forth, the scythe laid across his knees, and didn’t answer.
“Leave me alone,” I said. I found that I couldn’t move anything except my eyes, couldn’t transport myself away. “Where do you get off swooping around Death like you own the place?”
“I do. I did not mean to scare you.”
I gave a soft snort. “Right. Big scythe and all.”
“I appear as you expect me to appear. You see a scythe? Interesting.”
“I would have said creepy and terrifying before interesting, but sure.”
“It is time for you to go, Andrea.”
My limbs were still pinned by the blankets, as if they were made of lead and not cotton, but I found I could turn my head now. I turned it away and closed my eyes. For once I wasn’t dreading coming back to life.
“Fine. I’m ready. Send me back.”
“You misunderstand me. There has been a mistake. Pierre shouldn’t have brought you back here again.”
My eyes cracked open for a second before I squeezed them shut.
“Pierre? No, it was Kris. I shouldn’t have provoked him, but dammit I was so mad about that girl—I’m so sure he was fucking her, he definitely was—and, well, here we are.”
“No.” I could hear the rustle of fabric, as if he was shaking his head. “You are a construct of Pierre’s. He calls you up when he needs you, but once he came of age, it should have stopped. For him to call you up again after he has moved on is quite troubling. If you stay, his psyche could be permanently damaged.”
It was beyond strange to hear such a matter-of-fact lecture being delivered in a death rattle. I turned my head back and looked at him as if that would help me process what he was saying. None of this made any sense, and that was coming from a woman who had died six times.
“A construct? I don’t think so, mister.”
“I am sorry if that disturbs you, but how you feel does not change what is.”
Movement was spreading through me, and I struggled free of the too-heavy blankets. I had a vague notion of attacking him, but I reconsidered that pretty quickly given our clearly mismatched powers here. Instead I crossed my arms and gave him what my mother had called my evil stare. She said it was more hurtful than any of the things I had ever said to her, even at the height of teenage angst.
Death kept rocking, unaffected by my stare. I couldn’t even tell if he was looking at me under that stupid hood.
“If I’m a construct for Pierre—what, like an imaginary friend? That makes no sense. What about the rest of my life? I’ve been dead for maybe a total of 2 weeks of my life. There are fifteen hundred and fifty-eight other weeks that I was alive.”
“That was quick math,” he said. Annoyingly enough, I was pleased by his praise. “And I cannot speak for what happens beyond the borders of my realm. Perhaps Pierre has imbued you with a backstory.”
“A backstory?” I was so furious I could barely get the word out of my mouth.
“It would make you more interesting for him.”
“My mother? My friends? My job? Even my stupid assclown of a boyfriend?”
He continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “In any case, it does not matter now. You are a danger to Pierre. It is time to go.”
My chest felt like it was being squeezed. I didn’t even have a chest here, not really, so that was a true feat of my own fearful mind. I found I was clutching my old ratty teddy bear, his white fur turned mostly gray and one ear half torn off.
“Back to life, you mean?”
“If that calms you.”
“It only calms me if it’s true!”
He shrugged and lifted the scythe off his knees. The edge sparkled in the candlelight. I was frozen, again, my mouth gaping and a probably-stupid expression on my face. This was madness. I was only going back to life, just like the other times. This had been a weird sojourn in Death, but I was not going to believe that I was Pierre’s imaginary friend.
The scythe moved towards me, flashing as it arced down. Death leaned forward, close enough to a candle to illuminate the inside of the hood. I screamed through my frozen lips. Pierre’s face looked back at me, the trace of a lopsided smile on his lips as the scythe pierced into my belly button.