I have become narcoleptic in order to serve she who haunts my dreams. I know that I should stay awake and stay away from this mysterious woman who is hellbent on stealing my soul, but although her presence strips away my courage, I am enraptured at the sight of her beauty and addicted to the danger that she wears like an aromatic scent.
My nameless dream lover is a paradox, duskily exotic yet of no recognizable ethnic descent and so pale as to make alabaster appear tanned. Her long flowing hair is a tangle of locks, thick, wild and constantly billowing like obsidian curtains in the wind, streaked with grey at her pronounced widows peak and temples. Her eyebrows, dense and dark, contrast colorless retinas that draw my eyes down along an aquiline nose to her pink rosebud lips that drip crimson onto the hi-necked lace top that seems to rise and crash against her shoulders and breasts.
My knees buckle and I kneel at her approach, weak, naked and shivering as she towers over me. Her narrow hands with their thin, scalpel-like fingers, hover inches from my exposed throat, twitching in anticipation. She plans to kill me, and I should be afraid, but all I can think about, all I care about, is if I will feel her touch, taste her lips and fulfill my desire one last time before she takes from me a life that I would give to her freely.
I always awaken the same way, unfulfilled, miserably alone, and alive, much to my dismay.
I don’t have that look. Some people do, but I’m not so lucky. I don’t look like my profession. I’m a busker. Don’t laugh, it’s a living. Problem is, when you shut your eyes and picture a busker in your mind, be they small or tall, slight or portly, I will never fit the bill. I have the unfortunate appearance of someone whose job title is preceded by the word man. Milkman. Mailman. Garbageman. Just not a streetmusicman.
You may be asking why this is important. Fair enough question. When you’re panhandling for money–come on, let’s face facts, street performing is begging with a musical accompaniment–having the look of a starving artist plays as much a part in getting people to part with their hard-earned cash as talent.
“Oh, look at the poor wretch having to sing for his supper, let’s toss him a pittance, shall we, dear?”
Some of the others have nailed the look down from the hair that refuses to be tamed to the ragged clothes just over the borderline from being hip and trendy. Me? I look like a well-fed blue collar worker trying out a new hobby. That’s why I have to work twice as hard to earn half as much as my compadres. My audiences tend to be tight-fisted, self-absorbed philistines that expect blood for the bits of copper they toss my way.
Oh, I should probably mention that I busk for the dead.
Not the kind of job you rush out and apply for. Me? I kinda just fell into it. Turns out a friend of a friend knew a guy who used to work for the cousin of a woman who lived next door to a guy who was complaining that his employee just up and quit on him. Seems he couldn’t handle the stress of performing in Perdition, which I can plainly understand now.
What? No, I’m very much alive, thanks for asking. My work ID acts as a sort of day pass and allows me to mull about in Hell without experiencing any of the torment and damnation. Kinda cool, but it takes some getting used to.
Although it’s a paying gig, it ain’t enough to cover rent and bills–minimum wage in Hell is murder, no pun intended, so I rely heavily on the gratuity chucked into my hat. And yes, the dead have real money. Don’t ask me how that works. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the day pass into Hell thing.
My spot is the corner of Abaddon and Wretchedness, and while a part of the overall design of Hell, it’s technically Limbo, the waiting area where souls are processed and dispatched according to assessment. And as time moves differently in Hell, the wait can be an extensive one, so you figure folks would jump at the chance to experience anything that takes their minds off the situation at hand. That is so not the case. When facing damnation, the furthest thing from their minds is to listening to anyone sing. This is made evident from the contents of my hat. Today’s take so far consists of three dollars and eighteen cents in coins, a stick of chewing gum, a balled up snotty tissue and a punch card from some boutique java spot with one punch away from receiving a free coffee. The coins stay in the hat, the gum in my mouth, the tissue–ick–in the trash and the punch card in my pocket. I’m not one to go in for designer coffee but like The Police sang, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.”
“Not what I expected,” a voice says from behind, nearly startling me out of my skin.
I turn to see a woman in her sixties, seventies, maybe–I’ve never been good at guestimating people’s ages–all done up as if for a night on the town. “You’re not the first person to say that.”
“And is it just me or is it chilly here?”
She was right, you’d figure being so close to Hell there’d be some sort of radiant heat, but there was a constant wind that blew shivers down the spine. “Not just you.”
“You’re not half bad, you know.” the woman said, looking into the hat. “You deserve more than that.”
I look up and down the avenue, We’re the only two people on the street at the moment. “It’s like they say, it all comes down to location, location, location.”
The woman opens her purse, a small clutch bag that’s a throwback to a classier time, and produces a two dollar bill. “I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of carrying cash, so this is all I have.”
“It’s the biggest tip I’ve received in a long while.” I smile as she places the bills into the hat.
“Not that I’ll have much need for it anymore.”
“Not unless you were crossing the river Styx.”
“You mean the ferryman doesn’t accept the card?” the woman pulls out an obsidian credit card. “I was told never to leave home without it.”
It’s an outdated reference, but we both chuckle at it.
“If you’ll pardon the intrusion,” the woman asks. “How did it happen?”
“How did what happen?”
“How did you die? Peacefully, I hope.”
“Oh, no. I’m not dead, I just work here.” I show the woman my day pass.
“How interesting.” and she appears to actually find it interesting but her expression drops.
“What’s the matter?”
“It would be my luck that the first person I strike up a conversation with in the afterlife would be with a living person. I was sort of hoping to find a travel companion for what lies ahead. I’ve always dreaded doing things by myself.”
“I’m not sure that’s how it works here. I think isolation is part of the torment process.” I realize what I’m saying just a smidgen too late to pull it back.
“Torment. I hadn’t considered that.”
“Not your fault. You’re not responsible for my sins.”
“I know I’ve just met you but it’s hard to believe you’d have anything to worry about.”
“Kind of you to say, but we’re all sinners in one fashion or another. I just wish there was a way for me to plead my case. I believe my sins were righteous.”
“You can always try.”
“No, no. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.”
“Maybe if you practiced, rehearsed what you want to say? You can try it out on me and I’ll give you my honest feedback.”
“No, I couldn’t.”
“What have you got to lose? If you botch it up, you’re still being condemned anyway, at least this way you’ll have had your say.”
“Like my final words?”
She contemplates it long and hard. “All right then, if it wouldn’t be a bother.”
I gesture up and down the block. “Not like I’m doing anything else. Ready?”
“No, but go on.”
I straighten my posture and assume an authoritative voice. “You stand here accused of the sin of…”
“Murder.” she adds, sheepishly.
“Murder.” I repeat, stunned. “What say you in your defense?”
“I don’t deserve to be here. I was sent to the wrong place. I did what needed to be done, what no one else had the courage to do and now I’m being punished for my actions.”
I tested the ripeness of Mr. Skelly’s soul more than thirty times this evening, all at the insistence of his wife, Tamara, who never left my side for an instant. I tried to explain to her that this was a delicate process that could not be rushed, but my words never reached her, as if her ears were made of cloth. Mr. Skelly’s ash gray body was laid out on the dining room table like a flesh centerpiece, table decorated with the finest cloth and place settings that she could afford.
This wasn’t uncommon. Most people were ignorant of the proper protocol in matters such as this. They would set out red wine and wafers, or specially baked breads and cakes, and some even brewed their own ales. Those trappings weren’t necessary, born mostly of superstition and old wives’ tales, but had they been presented, I would have tasted the offering. If for no other reason than to be polite.
Her husband had come to see me some six months earlier. He was skeptical, as most people are when seeking my services, but I never believed in hard selling my skills. It was a matter of faith. Either you believed that I could do what I claimed I could do, or you couldn’t. In the end, Mr. Steven Skelly did believe. He told me he had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and wasn’t expected to survive the year. And the diagnosis proved to be accurate.
When I first arrived at her door, Tamara debated whether or not to let me in. Not with me. She debated with herself. A loud conversation, as if both halves of her brain, the logical and the emotional sides, succeeded in separating themselves from one another and exercised shared control over the body. A conversation only the bereaved could have and still seem sane.
This was nothing new to me, in fact, Tamara’s discourse with herself counted amongst the tamer exchanges I had been witness to over the past ten years. I remained silent, taking no side in the argument, and was prepared to comply with her decision, either way. If she declined my services, I would quietly tip my hat and walk away.
When she quieted down, we stood there, me on her porch, unmoving, and she wedged in between the narrow crack of her door, unspeaking. Then, she shifted aside slightly, which I took as an invitation to enter, and squeezed past her as politely as I could manage in the limited space provided.
As I stated earlier, Mr. Skelly was laid out on the table in the dining room, dressed in his Sunday best, a bible laid on his chest with his hands folded upon it.
“Mrs. Skelly, I wish you hadn’t gone through all this trouble—“
“Tamara, please, and it was no trouble at all.” she smiled kindly as she touched her dead husband’s face.
“No, what I mean is, we’ll have to remove your husband’s clothes. I can’t perform my job this way.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I thought—“
“It’s all right, you didn’t know. How could you know?”
Mr. Skelly was a tall man, a sturdy man, and even the cancer couldn’t rob him of that, but it made his dead weight all the more difficult to manage. How Tamara succeeded in dressing him all by herself in the first place was remarkable. Where there’s a will, I suppose. In silence and in tandem, we stripped the corpse, being as respectful to the man who was no longer with us as we could manage.
“How long?” Tamara asked.
“How long will it take for you to do your—thing?”
“There isn’t a set timeframe for this sort of thing, Tamara.” I took one of her hands in mine, and she let me. “Most people believe that life and the soul are one and the same thing. This simply isn’t the case. Life ends when the human body shuts down completely. The soul is eternal. The soul doesn’t power the body. If that were the case, we’d all live forever.”
Tamara looked at her husband, hopeful. “So, you mean Steven’s soul is still here, with us?”
“His soul hasn’t released itself from the flesh yet, so yes, in some way, it is still with us.”
Tamara pulled her hand free of my grasp and rushed over to the table and caressed Steven’s face gently. “Honey? Steven? Are you still in there? Can you hear me? Give me a sign if you can hear me!”
I moved behind Tamara, placed my hands on her shoulders and whispered into her ear, “It doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t.”
She turned on her heels and was in my face suddenly, like an attack dog. Delicate hands balled into fists and pounded into my chest. “Then why are you just standing here? Why aren’t you doing what we paid you to do? Why aren’t you helping my Steven? I can’t bear to think of him trapped in there like that, helpless!”
Her energy spent, she folded herself into my chest and I held her.
“He isn’t trapped, Tamara. He’s in a transitional stage, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. If you can imagine a spiritual chrysalis, enveloping his soul, molding and shaping his essence into what it needs to become in order to move on, that’s what’s happening now.”
Tamara looked up at me, concerned. “Then shouldn’t you be getting to work now? Before it’s too late?”
“His soul isn’t ready.”
“But how do you know?”
I couldn’t stifle a slight chuckle. “I’ve been doing this for over ten years now. I just know.”
“And you’ve never been wrong? Never made a mistake? Not once?” Her concern was understandable, but unjustified.
“Not once. When his soul is ready, when it reaches the stage just before it emerges in it’s new form, I’ll do what I’ve been paid to do.”
“You’ll eat his sin?” That question was the one thing that never varied in deliverance, from person to person, job to job, regardless of who said it. It always came out sounding the same. Part skepticism, part hope.
“Every drop of it.”
“And there’ll be no retribution?” she looked up at the ceiling but I understood her meaning.
“No retribution. He’ll move on to a better place and none of his sins will transfer to you.”
“And what about you? You take this– all of this on yourself. What happens to you?”
“With all do respect, that’s none of your concern.” I was expecting an argument. None came.
“Well then,” Tamara straightened up and composed herself. “Can I interest you in a cup of tea?”
“Tea would be nice.”
She stared at me a long moment, no doubt trying to decipher what made me do what I did. Trying to puzzle out how I came into this profession. But she never asked. I think she knew I wouldn’t be very forthcoming anyway, so she simply shook her head slightly and moved to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
It was all coming to an end, which was a surprise to absolutely none present. All things, both good and ill, ended eventually, only this was occurring far sooner than any of the ancient writings prophesied. But the deities of the various so-called pagan religions refused to go quietly into that final good night, so they dispatched their chosen ones, entities imbued with long-forgotten magicks which were run-off energies that still lingered from the Big Bang, to meet the challenge of halting the all-consuming maelstrom. Alas and alack, it was to no avail, for one by one, these champions were crushed beneath the heel of inevitable death, until there was but one lone defender.
She was born Hannah of Cahokia, but her messianic name was, Gelysa Tinelan, and she fought bravely but was seriously outmatched, and when it appeared as if she would succumb to time’s tempest, Fate’s harbinger actually rose into the air, not unlike a human phoenix, playing chords of entropy that increased in intensity, calling the souls of the fallen chosen champions back from the dead in the form of a ShadowsReich, and together they engulfed and nullified the chronal apocalypse, at least for the present.
Her task accomplished, Fate gently folded Gelysa within a patch of void borrowed from beyond the edge of the expanding universe, and placed its champion in a state of suspended animation until the next apocalypse rose its destructive head.
I am among the few ragtag wandering survivors of Earth and the question I hate being asked the most is, “How did you lose your planet?” because we lost it in the most embarrassing way possible. My homeworld was stolen from the human race via social media. At this point, I would have to explain to extraterrestrials what TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter were, and regardless of whether the alien I was speaking to had a mouth or not, I would get laughed at.
The beings, known as DAC, or the Doublyxian Aelonide Collective, were infants when they first approached Earth. Widely known as a pest control race, they were assigned the task of ridding the world of its inhabitants with significantly less destruction than a planetary war would bring. Studying all the various cultures, they assumed a form as close as they could manage to human, mastered our etiquette, and took to social media platforms, becoming bioluminescent influencers who created a series of challenges, which got progressively harder to perform and resulted in a staggering number of accidental deaths.
Not everyone was so easily influenced but we who remained were so few in number that our every rebellion attempt ended in failure. Eventually, we were captured and to our surprise were treated quite civilly. The DACs were quick to point out that they had committed no act of aggression upon the planet’s inhabitants and were not responsible for any of the human deaths. As they put it, “Earthlings had foolishly acted in a manner contrary to continued existence.”
“But we are not without compassion,” a spokesman for The Collective said. “You are invited to remain here on this world that was previously your home, living a life of what you would consider being luxury as our pampered pets.” An offer which outraged me to no end, but apparently I was in the minority. Most of the survivors accepted the terms of their servitude while I and the rest were given provisions, placed aboard a spaceship, and launched in the direction of the nearest star.
Now, we travel the spaceways in search of a planet where we can become the next wave of influencers and perhaps win a new home for ourselves in the same way ours was stolen from us.
There comes a time in every life where a persona goes as far as it can go, meaning atrophication and death are not far behind. But Kaidance refused to let that be the end of her story. Just as a snake sheds its skin in the process of growth, she cast off all the things that made her who she was, abandoning an existence that was no longer large enough to accommodate her new and transformative life energy. Her new persona was a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which she would write for herself a better destiny and a new life for this new year.
To those loyal few who take the time to read my daily scribblings, I just wanted to say, Thank you! Warm wishes for you to have a promising and fulfilling New Year!
Bernadette, having been warned well in advance about Bryce’s uncanny and innate ability to ensnare members of any gender in his web of seduction, girded her loins just before the interview. She attempted to train her eyes on her list of questions and the point on his face just between his eyes, softening her focus as she addressed him directly. But the truth of the matter was she wanted to look. She hadn’t believed that this diminutive and frankly quite ordinary man had any sort of charisma, let alone the power to beguile even the weakest of minds.
There was only one rule in being granted the interview, Do not look him directly in the eye, and in less than a minute she had broken that rule, gazing into the most exhilarating green eyes in existence. His plain face became an immaculate work of art that ran through every aspect of her mind. She was instantly and utterly consumed by fantasies of kissing his lips that seemed so tender, pink and inviting, of running her fingers through the obsidian silk of his hair, of caressing his pearlescent alabaster skin, of letting him inside her, not physically, that would come later. She knew he wanted access to the core of her being. He wanted to absorb her very soul and she was happy to let him.
Luckily my favorite table was open at the bistro I frequented in Alphabet City, the one by the window where the midday sun filtered through shelves of antique colored milk bottles, mason jars, and assorted glassware.
I scanned through the menu feigning interest in all the food options available for some unknown reason though I knew what I was going to order because my order hadn’t changed in over three years. The food here wasn’t really great but it was one of the few places in the city that had a natural ambiance that suited my temperament.
I felt a presence looming over me that smelled of Christmas—actually, the smell was of apples and cinnamon, which always reminded me of Christmas—so I placed my order by rote without looking up from the menu, keeping up the pretense of struggling with the choices of so many delectable options which was silly but perhaps I wanted the staff to recognize how much I liked the place.
“Um, that sounds delicious,” a voice said in a register higher than I was accustomed to in the bistro, a woman’s voice. “But I don’t actually work here.”
I looked up and was nearly blinded by a rosy-cheeked, platinum blonde woman bundled in the whitest fur coat in existence—hopefully not a real fur coat because that would be cruel—topped with a fur hat.
“Is anyone sitting here?” she pointed at the empty chair across the table from me.
I answered, “No…” as I glanced around at all the vacant tables situated throughout the eatery and I was about to bring this to her attention when she daintily and skillfully seated herself.
“Hi, my name is Mary, Mary Christmas,” she beamed a smile and proffered her white-mittened hand to shake. “You have a kind face so you may call me Mary or Your Royal Majesty Queen-Empress of the Known Universe, absolutely your choice but under no circumstances are you to refer to me as Merry as in Merry Christmas. I grew up being teased by that and I’m not having anymore of it.”
I didn’t answer because I was too busy processing what was happening which she took an entirely different way, most likely because I hadn’t completed the handshake ritual.
“Oh, you’re one of those, are you?” she sighed, slipping the mitten off her hand and rummaging through a white handbag produced from a fold in her coat almost if by magic.
“One of those?”
“A non-believer. A person who has to be shown instead of accepting things at face value,” she said as she pulled something out of her purse and handed it to me. “Here, proof.” It was her driver’s license and I’ll be damned if it didn’t list her name as Mary Christmas.
“Mary, I wasn’t doubting your name, strange as it may be, no offense…”
“It’s just that, you know…”
“Come on, you have to admit it’s a bit unusual for an absolute stranger to sit at your table uninvited.”
“Oh, but you did invite me.”
“Well, not you verbally, but your loneliness called out to me. I’m sensitive to things of that nature, people’s loneliness and all that.”
“I appear lonely to you?”
“Most definitely. No offense.”
“None taken, I guess.”
“And well, it’s Christmas time and no one should feel lonely on Christmas.”
“Oh, I get it,” I blushed against my will and was suddenly unable to keep eye contact with her. “Um, I’m flattered, I guess but this really isn’t my sort of thing. I don’t pay for…”
“Wait a minute, you think I’m a…”
“I-I am so sorry! It’s just beautiful women don’t make it a habit of approaching me and…”
“Let me stop you right there. I will allow the infraction because you called me beautiful and before you misread anything else into me sitting at your table, if you and I become anything it will simply be friends, not friends with benefits or any of this other modern-day nonsense. I’m far too old-fashioned for that. And yes, even as a friend I still expect you to be gentleman enough to open doors for me as well as pull out my chair when we dine, thank you very much.”
“And quit acting like this is weird,” Mary said. “Tis the season and I have no gift to bring other than to say, I see you. This has grown to be an unintentional world where people are acknowledged more on the internet than in real life, so I intend to change that, right here, right now, starting with you by asking you a simple question.”
“And what question would that be?”
“How are you doing?” Mary asked, looking me in the eye and giving me her full attention and I was about to respond with the automatic faux “Fine,” but there was something in her expression that made me feel that she was interested in hearing my honest response, so I told her.
I told her how I thought I was at the end of my rope. As an older gentleman who was closer to the end of the race than the beginning, I felt absolutely lost. My life was empty. I had felt this way before but then I wore a younger man’s clothes and was far more resilient, able to pick myself up by the bootstraps and rebuild my life but the change was always temporary and things crumbled and I had to begin again. The problem was I didn’t think I had the strength or wherewithal to start over again. I had lost all interest in the things I was once passionate about and all motivation to find something new was gone.
“Sometimes,” Mary reached her hand across the table and held mine. “We just need to focus on things beyond our circumstances to maintain our sense of peace and allow our senses to lead us to our true path.”
“Like you did by sitting at my table?”
Mary smiled and nodded. “Something like that.”
Now, I wasn’t one to believe in Christmas miracles but this bizarre woman, bless her heart, offered to be a knot at the end of my rope, transforming her from a random stranger to a catalyst of joy. And as the conversation continued, we discussed making a greater impact on society by acknowledging strangers and becoming a source of compassion for those in need and in turn challenging them to make the world a better place, filled with upturned smiling faces, happy to make contact with a living being instead of blue-lit zombies scouring their phones for acceptance and approval.
I never gave much credence to the idea of living a life of service as I equated it to religion and I was not a spiritual man by any stretch of the imagination but there was no denying how constantly amazed I was that a spontaneous conversation or a meaningful smile were so rare that they could literally be the highlight of someone’s day. Now, my newfound purpose in life had become making these rare moments of love between complete strangers the norm.
Thank you, Mary Christmas, for starting a revolution.
She sits across from me, Saffron does, and never has a name been more appropriate for she is an uncommonly spicy girl who despite popular public opinion is just a good friend—no friends with benefits or any of the other nonsense for I am far too old-fashioned for that. And yes, I still open doors and pull out seats for women despite the occasional feminist grumble.
But I digress.
Saffron often comes to me to vent and I have learned to take on the role of father confessor without giving advice or going the gallant male route of attempting to solve and/or fix her problems. That was not an easy lesson to learn. Currently, she is seriously involved with a woman but recently began seeing a married man at her dayjob. This man, this convenient bit of temptation, is currently in couples counseling and he is not sure what he wants from his wife or his marriage but he suspects he is starting to develop serious feelings for Saffron. She is afraid she might feel the same way.
I endeavor never to judge my friends, but again, I am old-fashioned when it comes to relationships and leading a person on or leaving them in the dark is simply wrong in my book. I realize that honesty is not always an easy path to travel and the words “I don’t love you anymore” and “I’ve found someone else” can be the hardest words to say, but sometimes they simply need to be said. As much as I enjoy spending time with Saffron, my feelings on the matter are starting to affect my ability to simply sit back and enjoy her company…so I spoke to her about it and voiced my opinions.
And it all just rolls off her back. The problem with this is I know the woman Saffron is dating and she is a kind and good-hearted person and while I cannot speak for her feelings toward me, I consider this woman to be a friend and thus I have a vested interest in her emotional well-being.
As a good friend to Saffron, I believe my only two options are to either mind my business and turn a blind eye, or continue to pester Saffron into doing the right thing. But as a good friend to Saffron’s partner, my two options are slightly different. I can either confront the married man and convince him to let Saffron go and work on saving his marriage, or follow him and learn his habits and when he is alone with no witnesses about, make it look like a tragic accident.
I feel a pressure against my body that gives way to a cracking and tinkling sound. Suddenly, I am awake and my eyes take in every detail in an instant. I am on the wrong side of my bedroom window, surrounded by hundreds of tiny glass shards that catch the morning sunlight. There is a masked man standing on the proper side of the window, arms outstretched in a throwing motion. These images are caught in time and for a moment I am weightless until gravity returns and the noises of the city coming crashing down on my ears. I am falling storeys per second into rush hour traffic, pushed by a man I do not recognize for reasons I cannot fathom.
My final thought before my physical being comes to an abrupt halt is surprising clear: If there is an existence beyond this, I will spend the rest of my afterlife tracking down my murderer. I need answers and he needs to pay for what he has done.