I think of Joshua every time I watch someone die. I think he may have been the only real friend I ever had. I killed him, of course. I kill everyone.
“Why?” asks the man in front of me—my most recent. I vacated his light from a body wrapped beneath cold, white bedsheets as his family stood watching.
“Hi, Gus,” I say. “I’m Thane. You’ll have to be more specific.”
Gustavo Santana de Maria Gonzales stares back at me, hazel eyes under a knotted brow and a thick tangle of dark, wavy hair. He blinks. Turns to look at his family, who are gathered around a bed in a hospital in San Juan. Light patterns and glowing instruments dance across an array of screens lit up above their heads like the glowing mantle of the patron saint of semaphores. The brilliantly illuminated numbers and lines flashing across the screens are meaningless to me. They, like every other instrument the humans use to interpret the world, are lies. Half-truths. Shadows dancing on a cave wall.
Gustavo’s body lies on the bed, motionless beneath a white sheet and a brown felt blanket. His body’s hair is silver, thinning. A life full of days spent under the sun have left its skin rough and carved thick with wrinkles.
Gus—the real Gus, standing next to me in the corner opposite the door—rolls his bottom lip beneath his teeth. It quivers as he looks back at me.
“Why is it you? Where is Maggie? Where is my wife?”
I remember her. Rosy cheeks, a full smile that somehow made you feel bigger than you were. A sharp wit and keen intellect that she and most of her ancestors took with them into the After. The handmade quilt she’d worked on every day for the better part of the last year of her life was only half-finished when the cancer took her. I’d comforted her with the knowledge that her favorite niece would finish what she’d started. That the quilt would carve an existence rife with warmed shoulders and swaddled babies. I remember Magdalena Rosa Anjelica de Gonzales.
I remember all of them. All who pass through Gustavo’s world pass through mine.
An eternity of faces.
“Your wife is doing fine,” I say. “So long as none have made the error of critiquing her tostones, I imagine those she’s with are benefiting from her good company.”
Gus’s smile is radiant. Genuine. His eyes glisten. He is not afraid—quite the opposite. He has been looking forward to this for some time.
“There are tostones.”
“Many thousands of them, if your Maggie has anything to say about it.”
A laugh, genuine and bright, escapes him. A giddy, youthful energy fills him. He hasn’t felt this way in years. And he has missed her.
“You are not at all like I expected,” he says.
I’ve heard this before, but I humor him.
“The way people speak of you. A scythe, a skull. Black hair beneath a black cowl. That’s not who you are at all.”
I twist my mouth, amused. “Who doesn’t want to go to work in a t-shirt and jeans?” Nevermind that the clothes are as useless to me as language. People tend to react more agreeably to this plainclothes, plain-talking façade than the alternative. “I do appreciate that there are still those doing the hallowed work of maintaining my reputation.”
A twinkle passes through his eyes. He nods, first with good humor and then thoughtfully. “A hard job, I imagine.”
“Life has a way of helping you grow into yourself. No one stays the same.”
He pats me on the shoulder. “Young man, I would like to see her now. If you please.”
I return Gus’s smile. I like the way he says young man, and not only because I appreciate the irony. “Of course, sir. Right away.”
I turn to the wall behind us, producing a plain ring of cast iron keys that dangles from a chain at my belt. I find the right one. The cool touch of its metal tingles between my fingertips. I slide the key into the wall up to the grip, then twist. The outline of a door appears. I push it open. An arc of light spills onto the cracked linoleum.
Gus’s eyes widen. I watch the familiar sequence of emotions play out over his features. Astonishment, awe, a flicker of trepidation. And then, when the warmth spilling through the threshold reaches his heart, peace.
He bathes in the light’s warmth, letting it wash over him. I slip to one side, careful to avoid the long golden arc as it splays out onto the sterile white floor.
He steps into the doorway. “You won’t be joining me?”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“Will I see you again?”
“That would be unlikely. I’m sorry.”
Gus looks at me, his forehead creased. He looks almost worried. “Don’t be sorry for me, young man. I’m going home. I’ll pray for you.”
I blink. It isn’t often than I’m caught off-guard. “What for?”
“So that someday you can do the same.”
“Ah.” He doesn’t know that he asks the impossible. It’s not my place. Not what I was made for. “Thank you, sir. Perhaps, someday, I’ll find a place.”
He gives me another smile, claps me on the shoulder. I can tell he’s thinking about her. “Home’s not a place, son.”
Something happens, then, that hasn’t happened in almost two thousand years. Like a heart opening its valves, or the silence at the end of a gasp. For a quantum of time, a span that stretches me for an eternity in either direction along the thread of existence, I dream that I can see everything in celestial clarity. I see the ages of the Earth, the rise and fall of nations ancient and modern like swings of a pendulum. I see their souls, hundreds of billions of grains of sand born and snatched and swept away by the cosmic tides. And at the center of it all, a hole. An idea, a thought, an emptiness consuming light and life. An Absence. For all my knowledge, for all my Sight, in the presence of that singularity I become like the sand. Small. Insignificant.
The valve at the other end of the chamber within the heart of time closes. The dream passes. I suppress a shiver.
This is why we don’t make it personal.
“Good luck, Gus,” I say, stepping aside. “Tell your wife hello for me.”
He takes one last, lingering look at his family. Touches his fingers to his lips. Says his goodbyes.
The door closes behind him. Its outline disappears along with the light and warmth, replaced by the sterile smell of recycled air, the tap-tap of soft-soled shoes moving purposefully out in the hallway, the sounds of Gus’s family mourning softly and in private.
I stay longer than usual. This was a good death. I want to soak it up, make it last. If only. If only I could hang on to that fleeting dream, capture its essence, keep it with me forever. If only the afterglow of a peaceful transition could be sopped up in a death sponge and carried along with me, like a salve for the pain that I know comes next.
I walk out into the hallway. It’s late, and the sparse staff working the night shift slide past me without a second look. One nurse, a slender blonde with a slight sway in her step from an old lacrosse injury, folds her arms and shivers as I pass. Janet Shapiro. She checks the thermostat. Shakes her head. She’s a semester away from graduation. She’ll be a physician’s assistant. She’ll marry a sharp-looking young black man named Edward Thomas. Eddie loves three things: the simple math of accounting, the beautiful strategy of baseball, and her. They’ll have children—two… or three. That part is beyond the reach of my sight, from where I stand on the thread. I won’t see either of them for a long time, and I’m pleased to know it.
I’m finished at the hospital, for tonight. I look for a closed door. There—a supply closet just down the hall. I swing out my circle of iron keys, slide one in the lock, and swing it open. Through the threshold I see them in the space where the supply closet would be, brilliant, fatal flashes at the edges of my awareness—the deaths I must administer. I home in on the brightest flash and sense a subtle shift in the air as I pass through. In a heartbeat, the atmosphere goes from crisp to hot, stale to humid. The scent of recycled air and cleaning solution gives way to the must of asphalt, rainwater, and motor oil gathered in potholes.
Some, like Gustavo, are ready to accept me. I am a joy to them. I am peace. I am rest.
But some are not. Some are Alton Gray.
As I step through the supply closet door and out onto Glenmary Avenue, it’s seven minutes to midnight and Alton Gray is three weeks from his fifteenth birthday.
He wears headphones as he walks, but not to listen to music. It’s to drown out the world, to keep him centered. Loretta Gray skipped her lunches at the diner for a month to save up and buy him this pair last Christmas. He has the noise cancelling turned on, so when the intersection ahead explodes in a flurry of angry gunfire, he keeps walking. The noise filters through the heavy silence around his ears as a dull crackle. He presses a hand to one ear, worried that the speakers have gone bad.
A dark figure bursts around the street corner ahead at a full sprint. Now Alton realizes—something is wrong. He slips the headphones off. The harsh concussion of small arms fire freezes him. The figure turns back to fire blindly over its shoulder and three more dark forms explode around the corner in pursuit. Alton turns to run.
I step forward to catch him.
A stray bullet passes through Alton’s heart. His body crumples through my arms and I’m left holding him—the real Alton.
He’s a foot taller. In his prime. Doesn’t need the glasses to see, or his headphones to think. His eyes take a while to gain focus. I see the moment his expression changes—when he realizes that the world isn’t a chaotic ball of anxiety and white noise anymore. He can stand it. He is, for that short span of precious moments, at peace within the storm.
Then he looks past me. Sees himself sprawled on the pavement.
He’s old enough to understand—but not enough to cope. The skin around his eyes tightens, and then come those flashes of microexpression I’ve watched play out so many times that only I would bother counting.
One hundred seven billion, nine hundred forty-two million, eighty-five thousand four hundred one.
He shakes in my arms, so violently I wonder if he might tear himself to pieces. I hold him. He screams. I let him pour all the impotent rage and indignance and loss he can out into this place, this cold, grey expanse between the world he’s been torn from and the one that comes After. He sobs rage and grief and longing into my shoulder.
Times like this, my own words fall short. So I use Joshua’s.
“I’ve got you,” I say, my voice soft. “I’m here. I’ve got you.”
Alton clutches at the fabric of my coat, balling his fists and squeezing so hard that if he still had blood his palms would have left it smeared down my arms. Then the muscles in his arms relax. Tension slides from his knuckles. His breathing steadies, and I think: There we go. He’s through.
Then his thoughts turn to his mother, waiting at home, and the gift-wrapped box inside the blood-stained folds of his jacket, its hurriedly-wrapped cardboard box crushed between his body and the concrete. He thinks of her, arranging his funeral, spending the weekend packing up his things, boarding up his room. Spending Christmas alone. Spending every Christmas alone.
His pain is a brilliant fire, a lit and hissing fuse I can only hope to clip before it reaches his core and implodes. If I don’t, he will burn until his soul incinerates itself. And right now, Alton’s soul is all that remains of him. I take a deep breath, steeling myself, a diver before the plunge.
I am not fond of this part.
“I’m here,” I repeat. “I’ve got you.”
I reach into the furnace of Alton’s anguish. In this place, this between, the line between bodies and spirits, mind and matter—where one ends and the other begins—is blurred. So I reach, push myself across the threshold where he and I meet and immerse myself in the flames. Humans like Alton are too pure. A little pain, a dagger of grief slid between the ribs when they’re not expecting it, and they’re up in smoke, burning themselves into husks. But me, I’m old air and black sand. I’m an ancient redwood, chopped down and heat-treated with cynicism and suffering. Charcoal and ash. I can burn for days before I burn out.
I wrap Alton’s pain around myself like a death shawl. I hold him close and bear it with him. He sees his mother, crying at an empty dining room table. I see turquoise eyes under a shock of blonde hair, a whispered joke and a laugh. I see a boat alight on glimmering waves, sails full of wind and teasing the edges of the horizon. Then the color melts from the sea foam eyes, the light behind them dies, skin cracks and bleeds and drains, and I see an endless gray desert of fissures and broken glass. I see a mouth, yawning and hungry, jagged splinters of teeth bared to devour me.
I don’t close my eyes. It won’t change what I see.
Turquoise eyes and a shock of blonde hair.
Alton realizes at some point that some of the weight is lifted. He raises his head, and his eyes meet mine. And I can tell, in that small moment we share, that it isn’t going to be enough. The pain is too great, and Alton is not ready to let go.
“I’m here,” I plead with him. “I’ve got you.”
He looks away. I’m going to lose him.
Damn it all. I’m going to lose another one.
“Look,” he whispers. It’s the first time I’ve heard Alton speak.
I look up. I follow his gaze behind me. Alton’s body is sprawled on the ground face-first, the back of his coat rising and falling, billowing in a cold midnight breeze.
A knot forms in my throat. No, not billowing.