The man and Drake walked through the front doors of the high rise and into the lobby. It was large, like the lobby of a big expensive hotel. The man wasn’t entirely sure what the purpose of the building was, but there was a jittering in his chest like radar, telling him he was definitely in the right place.
“Where now?” Drake asked.
“Elevators,” the man answered. “We want to be on the second highest floor.”
Drake nodded, and the two proceeded to the elevators on the other end of the room. As they waited for one, Drake made a request. “Whatever’s up there, please, don’t kill anyone.”
“What kind of movie do you think we’re in?” the man asked. “That weirdo on the highway was part of your story, not mine. For all we know there’s a very boring office up there, and I’m just going to get scolded for being late to work.”
“You didn’t make the promise,” Drake said.
“Look who’s learning,” the man said. He smiled, partially because he was proud of Drake for showing any sign of intelligence, and partially because of the laughable amount of painkillers he was on. He poked himself hard in the ribs, really digging into himself, and felt nothing whatsoever. He smiled a little more. “How about this: I won’t kill anyone unless they try to kill me first.”
“You’ll bait them,” Drake said. “Come on. I don’t think I’m asking a lot.”
The elevator doors opened.
“Okay,” the man said. “Fair enough. Maybe who’s up there is on my side and I’ll regret having killed them later. So I won’t. Happy?”
Drake and the man stepped into the elevator.
As they rode up, the man wondered what he was supposed to be feeling. It probably wasn’t tension (not the abstract notion of tension, but a real tension, like he was being pulled in opposite directions by his head and his feet). He probably wasn’t supposed to be keeping an ear out for footsteps on the elevator’s roof. He probably wasn’t supposed to train his breathing to match with the floors they ascended, so he’d be ready for it if someone got in the cabin and he had to neutralize them. Neutralize probably wasn’t in everyone’s default vocabulary.
The elevator doors opened. Drake and the man were hit by a bright light and a rank blast of air. The man stepped out of the elevator and onto sand. They were outside. Clear blue sky in a bustling marketplace. The man turned and saw Drake walking out of the elevator doors, which on the outside, had become tent flaps. They flapped shut as soon as Drake exited, and when they flapped back open again, the elevator was gone and the man and Drake were stranded.
Stranded where? The man looked around.
Foods for sale. Dried things. Barrels of grains. Electronics sitting on shelves and ceramics hanging from thin ropes under merchants’ tents. People moving through all of it so densely that the man was being jostled left and right, and had nowhere to go to get out of their way.
What the hell had the man found in this high rise?
The man was then touched on the shoulder, and the people in the marketplace faded. The tents remained. The air was still thick with the smell of human body odor, dried meats, and all types of spice. The sky was still blue and there were still many footprints left in the sand, but suddenly, the world felt empty. The man turned to see who had touched him, and was faced with Death.
Death’s face was jagged and pale. It stared into the man, deeper than the skin, and the man wondered if maybe there was such thing as the soul, because Death seemed to be so intently looking at his.
“Liam Jacques,” Death said, and the man swallowed, and nodded. “Come with me.”
Liam and Death walked side by side through the still marketplace. Drake flanked them, following behind, keeping up, but weary of those who walked so calmly through this place of ending.
“Where are we?” Liam asked. He hadn’t been able to narrow it down further than the Middle East.
“Baghdad,” Death answered. “Ask the question you really want to.”
“No offense,” Liam said. “I don’t know if I can count you as a trustworthy source of information.”
“You were born in Canute, Oklahoma to Frank and Linda,” Death continued anyways. “Your hometown was boring, but your dad ran a small movie theater in the next town over, and you went to work with him whenever you could to watch the exciting films. You saw some a dozen times. You wanted to be like the characters in them. So you got analytical. You studied. And you learned. You left home after high school to become an FBI agent. You didn’t have a degree but you tested well and they accepted you into a shorter, more direct program. Your name was Liam Jacques.”
Liam kicked at the sand. “Cool. Thank you, really. I won’t take your word for it, but that sounds about right.”
Death continued. “You were undercover, pretending to be a member of a gang in San Samarra. You got too into your role. Against mission guidelines, you tried to rescue another gangster from a lunatic with a knife. You got stabbed. The other gangster got killed. Your gangster boss found out about all of it, and didn’t like that you let the other one die. He had you taken out to the desert, and left there as an example. This man saved your life. The next day you discussed coming here while eating vegetarian tacos. Satisfied?”
“They were really burritos, come to think of it,” Liam said. He walked a little bit further away from Death. Enough space that a third person would be able to walk between them very comfortably. Liam’s skin was getting cold on the side that was closer to the Reaper.
Death took off his mask. Liam, master of masters in observation, hadn’t noticed that Death was wearing one. But there it was in Death’s hand, the face of a skull, jagged and pale.
Liam looked at Death’s real face. It was young. Handsome. So handsome that he looked like he should have been a movie star, but then, maybe this wasn’t Death’s real face either.
Death held out the skull mask. He stopped walking through the marketplace, and turned back to Drake, who froze. “I wanted to give this to you,” Death said, holding the mask forward to Drake. “I’ve wanted to for a long time.”
Liam could see the hair on Drake’s arms stand on end, not just metaphorically. “Nothing you say,” Drake said. “Nothing you could ever say. Nothing, will get me to take that from you.”
Death nodded. “Okay. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Liam was listening to Death as he spoke, but he was paying attention to something in Drake. Something in his eyes. A look just below the surface. A faint recognition. The same one Drake had when he saw the punk on the highway. “You recognize him,” Liam said.
Death gave a curious glance to Liam, and then faced Drake full on.
Drake swallowed, and nodded. “You’re Johnny Hick. From Brackney, in La Meseta, California.”
Johnny Hick nodded. “Nice to finally meet you.”
Drake was lost for words at that.
Johnny then continued to walk through the empty marketplace, and Liam followed by his side.
“So if he won’t take it,” Johnny said, holding out the skull mask to his side
which made Liam jump away, get in a fighting stance, as though Johnny had just tried to stick Liam with a knife.
Johnny nodded, slowly. He held the mask out in front of himself, and looked at it. Goodbye, old friend, he seemed to say. He brought the mask forward and gave it a kiss on the mouth, and then faced Liam. “Let me convince you.”
Johnny froze time. The man had no choice. That endless day in Baghdad, Johnny showed Death to a blank man named Liam. He showed blood spilling in The Battle of Bunker Hill, Johnny gutting British Loyalist after Loyalist until his blade broke off inside one of them. He showed the black smell of The Plague, and every dying, feeble, exhausted cough that fell from the lungs of the people. He showed Liam the single cell of the first organism on Earth to pass away. He showed Liam every death to happen on the planet since then, in detail. He showed Liam every act of slaughter. Every sickness. He showed Liam what it was like when he got stabbed in the jaw by a madman, all the pain that it caused, don’t you ever forget the pain that it caused. He showed Liam himself dying in the desert sand at night, and he showed the savior that was sent by Death to rescue him. He showed Liam all of the tyrants slain by Johnny’s sword, rifle, or plague. He showed Liam a world where he hadn’t killed these tyrants, and it was more repulsive than all of the bloodshed Liam had seen prior to that. He showed Liam a world where nobody died at all, how full it was, a throbbing, festering biomass of trillions collapsing the earth in on itself, crushing one another under their collective impossible weight. He showed Liam how the quality of life had been improved through the sciences seeking to fight against their mortal shackles, fight to understand it, fight to get the most from their time. He showed Liam all of the art o beautiful masterpiece that had been inspired by the coming and passing of life. He showed the churches, the sanctuaries, the parties, the support groups, all made to help mankind band together against their one true enemy, disparate without him. Liam saw that Johnny, o miracle of miracles, was a hero.
Liam reflected on his life. For most of it, he was singular. For a day, since waking up in the hotel room until just moments ago, he had been an empty vessel. And now Liam was an uncountable plurality, too much to contain within a human mind.
He took the skull mask in his hands. He accepted his new role as Hero; as Angel; as Death. He fit the mask over his face. Around him, he saw the city on fire.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 16, 2016