He held the eight-week-old infant's glowing blue soul in one hand, the other poised to shelter it from the pelting rain. It was about the size and shape of a jelly bean, yet it looked up at him with human eyes and flexed its fingers on a tiny chest. His mouth turned up in a half-hearted smile as he pointed in direction of the baby's afterlife, and the soul disappeared in a flash of light.
The teenaged reaper picked up his scythe and pulled a leather binder from a fold in his black cloak, checking the single piece of paper attached inside. He had no more souls to collect today. He closed his eyes slowly and snapped the ledger shut. Good.
"Quince, I'm leaving. You coming too?" Mal, another reaper, called from the roof of a semi truck nearby. Quincy waved to her as he tucked the ledger back into his cloak and prepared to teleport.
"Wait--" a faint voice called from inside the van. His brow furrowed as he pivoted back around, bending at his waist to look through the mini-van's shattered windshield. A woman, the mother of the baby, strained against the dashboard that pinned her to her seat. Her face was swollen and covered in bruises, but her eyes still held enough malice to make the Reaper cringe.
"Bring them back!" she begged. She swung her head to indicate a man behind the steering wheel, whom Mal had reaped only minutes earlier. His chest had been crushed by the steering column when the semi had slid across the flooded lanes to hit them head-on.
The Reaper shook his head. If she could see him, she was too far gone. "Don't worry, ma'am, you'll be joining them soon." He sat down on the hood again, careful to avoid the shattered glass.
"So you'll kill me, too?" she said through clenched teeth, her rain and blood-streaked blonde hair falling like a curtain over her face as she strained against her bonds.
"No, I won't kill you," he said. "But no one should die alone."
She tilted her head back and began to weep. "Please, bring them back--" she sobbed,"--my Steven-- my baby-- wait, where did you go?"
He frowned. He hadn't gone anywhere, and yet her bloodshot gaze jerked around like a pinball. When her eyes met his and she still stared through him, his stomach dropped.
The only thing worse than dying alone was living alone, and this woman, who had just lost her husband and watched him reap her infant child, wasn't going to die.
Quincy yelped as he tripped over the curb in front of Chicago Magnate High School, dropping an armful of textbooks as he flailed his arms to keep himself upright. He stared at the scattered schoolwork for a moment, then dropped reluctantly to his knees to rescue his papers before the stampeding teenagers mangled it beyond recognition.
"Nice going, Ginger Root!" Quincy's frequent tormenter and sometimes friend, Jim, called from his throng of followers. He kicked the redhead his chemistry book.
"Thanks," he grumbled, stuffing the tome in his already full backpack.
"Yeah, no prob!" He broke away from his group to stand over him, his hands in his letter jacket's pockets. "Hey, did you know they found a replacement for Grumpy Ms. Gratchett?"
"That's what I'd heard," he replied, not looking up from his task.
"I hope she's hot-- hey, Tina! We still on for Friday?"
The redhead heaved a sigh of relief as Jim abandoned him for his on-again-off-again girlfriend. As he picked up the last of his errant papers, a pair of black-nailed hands picked up his copy of Macbeth and handed it to him.
"Rough night?" Mal asked, her jet black hair parting to reveal purple eyes with slitted pupils.
"Colored contact lenses again?" He accepted the book and they both stood and walked toward the two-story building, their feet matching the bedraggled pace of the rest of the stragglers.
"You're avoiding my question, I know you had a job last night; how did it go?" She lowered her voice and tilted her head toward him to shield their conversation. "Was it a fighter?"
"No, she was an elderly woman dying of liver cancer, she was ready to go," he stared at his converse sneakers, half-consciously avoiding the cracks in the concrete.
"Then what has you so distracted? You're usually Mr. Alert in the mornings. Which is super annoying, by the way."
"I was--" he looked into Mal's purple eyes, then sighed and wiped sleep from his eyes with a hand. "Nothing."
Every soul he reaped was a brand on his memory. Sometimes he'd show up at a scene before a woman committed suicide, or in the process of a man beating his ten-year-old son to death. He had the power to stop them, but the Reaper's code prohibited interference. Each time he refrained, though, another weight fell across his shoulders like a bag of cement, making his steps a little heavier. The mother in the van accident eleven months ago had been the last straw; he had watched the semi collide with the van, known what was coming, and still let it happen. He'd had nightmares about her for months, in which she asked him why he'd let her family die, and he was no better than the murderers he cleaned up after. The worst part was, he agreed with her.
Mal, on the other hand, reaped the souls of murderers and ailing children as if they were candy.
"The dead are dead," she frequently told him. "We can't do anything about it, so we might as well enjoy the perks of the job." If she knew he was still heartbroken over a widowed mother, she'd never let him live it down. So he shrugged off the pain and pushed the woman's bloody face to the back of his mind.
Malerie had strong-armed Quincy into the Order of the Reapers two years ago on his fifteenth birthday. She'd shown up in his bedroom at 12:01 am, waking him like all Reapers do: with the sheer power of their presence. Looking back, he thought he'd reacted pretty well; he'd only yelped and felt a need to call for his mother, he didn't wet himself or vomit like some souls he'd since encountered.
She was a twenty-first century Reaper, wearing a torn, hooded robe with the sleeves cut off, fishnet arm cuffs, striped stockings, and black costume wings that barely extended past her shoulders. She held a serrated red scythe in one hand.
When she didn't try to approach him, he asked in a wavering voice, "Am I dead?"
"Even better," her toxic green eyes bore into him from across the room. "You're a Reaper."
He squinted at her, her cloak curling as if it were alive and the shadows in the room pulling toward her in a vortex of darkness, then down at his Iron Man pajamas.
"No I'm not. I can't be. I don't have the powers or the scary scythe or the, um--" he accidently made eye contact and quickly looked away "--eyes."
Mal blew her black bangs out of her face to show her impatience. "It doesn't matter, it's obvious you're one of us." She tapped her head with a black-tipped finger. "It's the hair."
When he only stared, she bit her bottom lip. "You know that urban legend about gingers not having souls so they eat the souls of others?" she asked, perching on the foot of his bed gargoyle-style. He nodded. "It's true. Well, partly. Redheads are born without souls in their bodies. They are stored in a depository in another dimension, and can only be returned after a person has fulfilled his or her term as a Reaper." The sentences rolled off her tongue fast and concise, as if she had recited them many times before. Then she fell silent, watching him out of the corner of her eye to gage his response.
She blinked in mild surprise when he simply pointed out, "but-- your hair isn't red."
She shrugged, turning to look out the bedroom window at the veiled full moon. "I dye it. It fits the image better, and it helps in the field, believe me."
Quincy pulled his comforter up to his chin and was quiet for a few moments, trying to make sense of the impossible situation. "What if I-- say no?"
She vaulted off the bed's footboard toward him with a hiss. He braced for impact, but when he opened his eyes again she was floating over him. She giggled when he gasped. "If you refuse your commission or don't fulfill your quota, your soul is sent to purgatory," she answered, resting her chin in her hands. "If you kill someone, your soul gets sent to purgatory. If you refuse to Reaper souls in order to extend your life, your soul gets sent to purgatory. If you save someone from your ledger--"
"Yeah, I get it, my soul is sent to purgatory." Quincy's Adam's apple bobbed like a yoyo. He pulled himself into a sitting position against the headboard. " So this is a hostage situation. If I don't become one of you 'Reapers,' you damn my soul."
Mal cocked her head, and for a moment Quincy thought she resembled a demonic poodle. "Why wouldn't you want to become a Reaper?" she asked, punctuating her point by flying around the ceiling fan. "You get cool superpowers, and it barely takes time out of your schedule once you get the teleportation down."
"T-teleportation?" He glanced over at the array of superhero comics on his bedside table. "I've never-- had powers before. Of any kind, let alone a Reaper's."
"Oh, they lay dormant until you get your ledger," Mal shrugged, her combat boots hitting the hardwood floor with twin thuds.
"And how do I get a ledger?"
Mal grinned her catlike grin, knowing she had him hooked. "You have to reap another Reaper."
A week later Quincy and Mal stood across the road from Tranquil Waters, a retirement home in the suburbs of Chicago. A few inhabitants sat in wicker chairs on the wrap-around porch like they'd missed a train, watching dispassionately as life rushed by.
"I can't do this," Quincy whimpered, looking at the switchblade in his open palm. "How do we know this will work? How do we know I'm not going to just stab the guy?"
Mal rolled her eyes, leaves popping under the end of her scythe as she slammed it to the frozen earth. "I told you, the scythe is just for aesthetics. Any blade will do. Besides, you really think they'd let you into a nursing home holding a 2-foot knife on a stick?" She smacked the back of his head with a gloved hand. "Now let's get going. We only have--" she checked a faded gold wristwatch "--5 minutes." Before he could ask more questions, she disappeared in a puff of smoke.
A rotund, blonde receptionist wearing Wizard of Oz scrubs let Quincy through the front door with no reserve. He approached the front desk with great trepidation, sweating despite the November chill which still clung to his coat.
"I'm, um, here to see Mr. Williams, please?"
"Oh really?" the receptionist cooed, handing him a sign-in clipboard and a ballpoint pen with a silk peony Scotch-taped to the end. " Mr. Williams has never had visitors before. It's a shame, such a nice man... done?"
He nodded once, afraid more talking would give away his nervousness.
She glanced over the clipboard he handed back to her. "Thank you-- Quincy Williams. You know, you look related. Must be the hair."
After getting directions to the room, he practically ran down the carpeted hallway, dodging veterans in wheelchairs and orderlies with trays of medicine. But when he arrived at room 254, Grim Reaper Halloween decorations still tacked to its door, he found Mal already there, talking with Mr. Williams as if they were old chums.
"So this is the greenhorn you're telling me about?" the old man asked her. He was swathed in flannel blankets up to his armpits, had four different IVs in his forearms, and an oxygen tube under his nose. He was tall, but the grey towers of machinery encroaching on his bed dwarfed him. All that remained of his youth was a shock of red hair that fell over his scraggly eyebrows. Quincy stopped in the doorway, and the elderly Reaper chuckled at the boy's hesitation. "About time you got here. I look pretty good for 120, don't I?"
"60 seconds," Mal said, a touch of sadness in her voice as she looked at her watch.
"My shoebox," Mr. Williams directed this at Quincy, raising an arthritic hand to point at an Adidas box on a folding table by the door. The teenager obediently retrieved it and offered it to him, but the old Reaper waved it away. "Those are yours now, Quincy. Welcome-- to the life. It is difficult, but it's still what you-- make of it--" Suddenly, the invalid's mouth stretched in an "O" as he panted for breath. Quincy reached for the panic button, but Mal stopped him, digging her black claws into his shoulder.
"But he's going into cardiac arrest--"
"It's his time," Mal said gravely. "Let it play out. The second he dies, use the knife." With those words, she dematerialized once again, leaving him alone with the dying man. Mr. Williams' death was the first Quincy had ever witnessed, and tears sprung to his eyes when the the heart monitor waled his demise.
Quickly, before the orderlies came and before he could think, he whipped out the switchblade and cut the body from shoulder to shoulder, through the heart. The blade made no mark on the body, but provided a spiritual opening for the soul to slither through.
"Not bad, for a first time," Mr. Williams clapped a cold hand on the frightened redhead's shoulder. His soul was a full foot taller than him. "Now, where do I go?" Quincy was unsure, but went with his gut and pointed.
"Good luck, kid," the dead Reaper intoned before vanishing in a flash of blinding light.
Quincy stood frozen in shock for a few moments, dark spots dancing in front of his eyes, before remembering the box in the crook of his arm. Wringing his hand from a moment, he held his breath and flipped the lid. Inside was a worn, leather binder, a back-up ledger, and a gold wrist watch swathed in bubble wrap. Suddenly, he heard the pitter-patter of nurses' shoes running toward the open room.
Where do I go? he wondered, clutching the shoebox to his chest as he looked around for a place to hide. They know I'm here, and no way they're going to let me leave with Mr. William's stuff. If only I knew how to do that teleport thing-- Then, he disappeared in a puff of smoke.
"Hello class, I'm your new teacher, Ms. Harris. I'll be taking over for Ms. Gratchett."
Quincy winced as Jim jabbed his shoulder from behind, waking the redhead from his pre-class dozing to non-verbally declare that he was right: Ms. Harris was extremely attractive. She was tan and slim, with long, brown hair curling around her heart-shaped face. Her clothes reminded him of his elementary school librarian: dark slacks and cardigan, both brown, with modest glass jewelry and rimless glasses. The English teacher also wore a simple iron pentagram, almost hidden underneath her other necklaces. He squinted at the bauble, making sure he'd identified it correctly. Interesting hobby for a high school teacher. The young teacher's eyes met his, and he smiled at her good-naturedly. But instead of smiling or nodding back, her eyes pulled a bit at the edges. His eyes widened in surprise. She looked at him as if she recognized him, yet he couldn't recall seeing her before. As she paced around the room during her lecture she gave him more of these curious glances, like a caged tiger watching her captor for signs of weakness. After the third glare, he ducked his head over his textbook and didn't raise his head for the rest of the class period. This was going to be an interesting year.
"She's an angel!" Jim pronounced after class, pulling the Reaper into a headlock.
The slight redhead tried in vain to escape from the wrestler's constricting muscles. "She's pretty, at least," he wheezed, "but I don't think she likes me."
"A girl not liking you? Surprise surprise," Mal said, checking her black lipstick in a pink compact mirror. "Seriously, Quince. It's her first day. Those looks she was giving you were probably just nerves."
"So you saw them?" he said, finally squeezing his head through Jim's hold, making his hair resemble a mad scientist's.
She shrugged, slipping the compact back in her black, studded purse. "Yeah, because I was getting them, too." He spun the combination lock on his locker, though he wasn't paying attention to the numbers. A teacher singling out the two Reapers in class for abuse? That was a disturbing coincidence.
"She liked me," Jim interjected and Mal sneered at him, flipping her hair dismissively as she turned back to Quincy. "I'm heading to Physics. See you after school."
"Not after school," he replied, tapping his gold wristwatch. "I have a job."
Mal's eyes lit up. "Then call me after." With that final demand, she sauntered down the hall to her next class, her stiletto heels clicking on the tile. Several boys' eyes wandered from their phones or girlfriend's faces to watch her pass in her too-short miniskirt. Quincy rolled his eyes, shifting his backpack on his shoulders. She always had to be the center of attention. That's why she wore the crazy Reaper get up: she wanted the souls to remember her in the afterlife. For his part, he hoped he was forgotten.
"Dude, tell me you're banging that." Jim said, still watching her walk away.
Quincy put up his English text and slammed his locker shut. "You're a neanderthal, Jim."
The athlete shrugged. "Suit yourself, Day Walker. Hey, we still on for the Walking Dead marathon this weekend?"
"You've talked your jock buddies into letting me come?" the smaller youth returned, raising a pale eyebrow.
Jim pursed his lips. "You're coming. They'll be cool with it, I'm sure."
Quincy chuckled, checking his watch and clapping the athlete on the back as he headed off to his next class. "Good luck with that."
Quincy appeared in the bare-bones basement in a rolling cloud of black smoke, emerging from the shadows like a nightmare. He always liked teleporting. It was like diving into a pool of warm water that was just deep enough to immerse in before emerging on the other side. The good feeling shattered, though, as he surveyed the African-American man sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, his neck broken.
"So senseless," Quincy muttered, swinging his black scythe in an experimental arch. "You survived being a cop in the gang districts, two tours in Iraq, and the economic crisis-- only to be killed by your own feet." He placed the scythe's tip at the small of his back. "Hopefully the afterlife will be kinder to you." He sliced from the lumbar vertebrae up to his neck, creating a gaping hole for the soul to climb through, but he didn't emerge. The Reaper's white forehead furrowed. "Charles, it's time to go now."
He dropped the scythe with a clang and knelt beside the man, rolling up his sleeves before delving elbow-deep into the ethereal hole. "Come on, Charles. My mom will notice if I'm gone for too long--"
"No!" The force of the soul's will sent Quincy flying across the room and pinned him against a wooden support beam. He gasped as his back cracked with the impact and the wind was knocked out of him. However strong he was in life, Charles was twice as strong in death.
"I can't leave!" the soul insisted, standing guard over his lifeless form. "You gotta understand, man, I've got a kid going to college next fall, and another baby on the way. My wife-- she has pregnancy complications. I can't just abandon her."
"You're a noble man, Charles," Quincy grunted, using his scythe to hoist himself to his feet. "But unfortunately, noble people die everyday. This isn't a choice, it's your time. There's nowhere to go back to--"
"I'll stay here, like this," he gestured down to his transparent Navy blues, "protect them."
I'm sorry, the Reaper thought, raising a hand to point the soul toward his afterlife.
"What are you doing?" Charles panicked as his soul began to glow brighter. "Wait, NO!"
He lunged at Quincy, twisting the Reaper's arm behind his back and pulling his hood back to grab a handful of flame-colored hair. The youth yelled in pain as he was forced to the floor.
I didn't want to do this, he whimpered to himself. Turning his face so his nose wasn't pressed into the concrete, Quincy pursed his lips and whistled three distinct notes.
"What did you do--" was all the soul could manage before the room grew cold as a tomb and a circle of black energy materialized in mid air, giving off a stench of ozone and rotting flesh. The dullahan's damned steed shrieked in the dim light streaming through the basement's windows, shattering the glass, and the dullahan, its headless rider, snapped a whip made from human spines to silence it. As the black horse pranced in front of the terrified soul, the headless horseman produced its head from underneath its arm. The rotted orb was smooth and phosphorescent like radioactive cheese, with a yellow-toothed grin that split the head from ear to ear. The head fixed its black eyes on the soul and raised its whip, and all the soul could do was scream.
The dullahan were the reason Reapers feared purgatory. To human souls, purgatory was just an eternal boring reception area, where they sat in uncomfortable folding chairs, silent and waiting to be prayed into heaven. To Reaper souls, though, purgatory was permanent. As the centuries passed, their spirits rotted until they became one of the immortal dullahan, a creature that fed off of anger and hate, and knew no joy except dragging its next soul into the Pit.
Quincy backed into a corner and pulled his hood back over his head, refusing to watch as the monster wrapped its hideous weapon around its prey, squeezing until the soul shrieked in pain. Only human remains could trap a spirit, but the dullahan made doubly sure Charles couldn't escape by wrapping the spine around him until his soul crackled like he still had bones in his body. The Reaper stood dutifully and nodded once, releasing the dullahan back to the netherworld. With Charles' soul draped across its steeds' quivering withers, the dullahan turned back to the inky blackness. Before it left, though, it held its moldy head aloft and spoke, its voice like a poker being pressed through hot coals.
"Beware, young Reaper, for even the soulless can encounter Death before their time." And with a leap of its mighty steed, it was gone. Quincy stood, stunned and alone in the empty basement, his grip tightening around his scythe to keep a shiver from crawling down his spine. Dullahan rarely talked; it was a struggle for them. But when they did, it was always bad news, and it was always the truth.
"Did you know that in the late 16th century, the fat of a redheaded man was an essential ingredient for poison?" Quincy mused, leaning back in his swivel chair.
Mal looked up from her history homework and gave him her best "are you an idiot?" face. She had dressed down from her usual day attire, and now sprawled across his bed in a Batman hoodie and purple sweatpants. She wasn't even wearing her contacts, revealing her stormy grey eyes. "Yes, because everyone knows that. Weirdo. Now chip me."
He took a barbeque potato chip from the bag on his sticker-covered desk and tossed it to her. She caught it in her mouth.
He scrolled down the web page on his prehistoric laptop. "'The Egyptians regarded the color red so unlucky that they had a ceremony in which they burned red-headed maidens alive.' Pleasant."
She closed her textbook with a thud, successfully distracted. "OK, what's with the ginger trivia?"
"I'm trying to figure out why only redheads are Reapers-- ah, here's something: 'In Greek Mythology, redheads turn into vampires when they die.' That's at least in the same ballpark."
"I do enjoy a good virgin blood smoothie," Mal said, looking reminiscently up at a American Vampire poster on his wall. "But seriously, what brought this on?" She sat up when he looked away, his eyes hooded by overhanging brows, and her eyes darkened. "You had to call a dullahan, didn't you."
He slammed the computer shut, pivoting his chair toward the desk to avoid his friend's gaze. "I just want to know why. Did the first redhead make a deal with the devil or something?"
"Maybe the first redhead was a woman and she and Death had a fling Greek gods style," Mal suggested, packing her history textbook and notes in her Invader Zim shoulder bag. "Nine months later, she's pumping out babies with crazy awesome Death powers--" He raised an eyebrow as she suddenly dumped her bag on end, spilling its contents all over the bed.
"I can't find my ledger," she said before he could ask, sifting through teen beat magazines and candy wrappers. "I haven't taken it out since this morning since my next gig isn't till nine, so it should be here."
"You have your back-up, right?"
She ran a hand through her hair, exposing her strawberry blonde roots. "Yeah, I guess. I just hate that I lost it, is all."
The redhead tapped his fingertips against the chair's arm, the dullahan's warning coming unbidden to his mind. The threat had been meant for a Reaper, obviously, but which one?
"Let me come with you tonight," he said suddenly.
"Why, you planning on stealing my score?" she smirked, swinging the reassembled bag over her shoulder.
"It's-- just a hunch. You might be in danger."
"And you could save me?" she snorted. "I've taken care of myself and my mom for the past eight years. I think I'll be fine." He slumped visibly, his arms slacked and eyes downcast. She shifted her weight to her other hip and huffed. "But if you need a lesson in proper reaping, I guess you can tag along."
He straightened immediately and nodded, opening his bedroom door for her. "See you at eight."
Quincy jumped when Mal materialized behind him in all her gothic glory.
"You're wearing that?" she asked, poking his Incredible Hulk t-shirt with her scythe.
He pushed the blade away. "I'm not the one on duty, remember? Now, where's the mark?"
"Druggie about a block down. He's currently overdosing on cocaine."
He grimaced. She could say it so matter-of-fact. "How long does he have?"
Mal checked her watch. "Four minutes." So he is too far gone, anyway. Her unspoken words hung in the air. Since Quincy wasn't on the job, and thus visible to the average human, the two Reapers waited at the street corner till the drug addict died, then teleported down the street.
"I love it when they're fresh," she said, inhaling sharply as if Newly Dead Souls was a perfume. She spared no time in slicing the corpse through his "Save the Pandas" tee, and Quincy walked across the street to lean against a graffitied wall while she dealt with the soul.
The young dead man, who'd been pretty high before dying, was convinced he was having an out of body experience. Quincy watched as Mal put a hand on the soul's transparent shoulder and calmly explained to him what was happening. He seemed a bit resistant at first, pushing her off and pacing in circles around his blank-eyed carcass. Quincy wondered if she'd have to call a dullahan; he could practically smell the rotting flesh of its approach. But five minutes and a lot of eyelash batting later, she pointed and the man's soul disappeared in a flash of light.
"And that, my friend," she said, reappearing behind Quincy in a puff of mist to taunt him over his shoulder, "is how it's done." He sneered at her the way he normally did when she showed him up, but wondered if he didn't learn something that night. Generally he thought of himself as the moral, conflicted Reaper and Mal as the reckless one, who'd get the job done no matter the collateral damage. But now that he thought about it, she had never called a dullahan in all the time he'd known her, while he'd summoned one six times. Or thought he had to summon one. He rarely tried to talk to the souls; why was that?
Quincy struggled with this question for the rest of the night. He didn't argue when Mal wanted to take the long way home, and dropped her off at her mom's dilapidated duplex in a daze. He didn't even check to see that no one was watching when he teleported himself back home. That night he dreamt of bloodshot brown eyes fresh with the pain of loss. A new sense of familiarity in those accusing orbs caused him to sweat through his sheets.
The internal dilemma followed him into class the next day, the debates and accusations whirling in his brain turning him into a veritable teenage zombie.
He jumped, his pencil clattering on his desk. The bell had rung for second period during his meditation, and the last student left the room. Ms. Harris was looking at him as if he'd said Chaucer was a practicing warlock, her arms crossed and eyes shadowed by an overhanging brow.
"Oh, sorry. Sorry." The student extricated himself from the seat and hastily stuffed his blank pages of notes in his book bag.
"Daydreaming, were we?" she asked, turning to erase the lecture notes from the white board.
He watched her warily as he picked his words. "More like an existentialist debate with myself."
"Oh?" she replied, her back still to him. "How so?"
He shrugged on his backpack and side-stepped through the narrow aisle. "I was wondering-- if someone could be selfish and still be good."
She looked at him now, regarding him as if he were a strange dog, unsure of whether he was feral. "I suppose it depends how selfish you are," she said. "All sin can be traced back to selfishness." She reached up to erase the notes at the top of the board when her leg suddenly buckled. Her metal desk boomed as she fell across it.
"Ms. Harris!" He hurried to help her up, but she waved him away. That was when he noticed the bulge around her knees under her khaki slacks.
"You have leg braces."
"Yes. I've been wearing them for a while now," she tried to be dismissive, but the pain was evident on her face.
Quincy wrung his hands, unsure of what to do. "Here, let me get you a chair--"
"NO!" The teacher swallowed hard, when the student jumped visibly. She exhaled a slow, calming breath. "No, thank you. My husband was in the military, so even though he had bad ankles, sometimes he had to march for hours. I promised myself that in order to understand his pain, I would stand whenever I had the choice. So no, no chair Mr. Johnson."
"Then at least let me erase the rest of the board for you," he decided, letting his backpack drop to the floor. "I'm taller, anyway."
Ms. Harris frowned, still leaning heavily against the desk. "You'll be late for your next class," she said, narrowing her eyes behind her thin glasses.
He inhaled sharply; he was usually on time for class. "Then-- I guess I'll be late."
Five minutes later, Quincy was running down an empty hall to pre-calculus when the thumping Doctor Who theme song emanated from his pocket.
He smirked as he answered. "Joke's on you, Mal. I'm not in class, so no embarrassing me this time--"
"Quince." Her voice came in staggered gasps through the small speaker. "You've got to get over here. I'm on a job, and-- I've been hurt."
"This isn't funny, Mal," he tried to chuckle.
"No, it's not," she said gravely. "It's a dullahan."
He found her huddling behind a dumpster next to Gino's East Pizzeria. She squeaked when he materialized in front of her, and any hope that this was some elaborate prank vaporized with the morning mist. He'd never seen her so frightened.
"Where'd he get you?" he ordered, crouching next to her and pulling a first aid kit from his backpack. She stretched out her left arm. Curling from her elbow to her wrist was a spiral of vertebrae marks scorched into her flesh.
"This would be so freaking cool if it didn't burn like hell," she hissed.
"What happened?" he asked.
"It was so weird. Showed up out of nowhere-- ah!" she bit her lower lip as he pressed an ice bag onto her arm "-- Without anyone calling it, at least I didn't hear anyone. Anyway, it came at me after I reaped this mugged lawyer, wrapped its whip around my arm. But when I started slashing at the horse, it ran off like a wuss."
"Sounds like a warning to me. Keep pressure on that," he ordered, rustling through the kit for gauze. She exhaled through her teeth when she pressed on the ice pack.
"Whoever's controlling it, they knew where I'd be," she moaned as he wound the bandage around the burn. "The only way they could know where I'd be is if-- is if they have my ledger." He glanced up at her jutted jaw, his eyes widening with fear and realization.
"Someone knows not only how to find us, but how to control the only being that can kill us," he murmured. "If this person has a vendetta against other Reapers, too, none of us are safe."
Due to the enchanted injury on her arm, Mal could barely hold a scythe, let along swing one, so she was reduced to a pocketknife for reaping and defense. For the few days Quincy pulled double duty, filling the jobs in his ledger and accompanying Mal on hers.
"What I don't understand is who would be able to want revenge on us," she said, talking as she pointed a young boy's soul to his eternity. "The few souls who do escape the afterlife haunt those who did them wrong, not us. Besides, souls can't summon a dullahan, it would only take them away." The two Reapers teleported from a balloon-filled hospital room to a parking garage.
"So the only possibility is a living person or a rogue dullahan," he grimaced.
"Idiot," Mal kicked him in the back of the knee with a combat boot. "Have you forgotten the part where the living can't see us?"
He halted on the second step of a staircase, sweat beading on his forehead.
"What?" She nudged him, still invisible in her Reaper garb.
"There is one person alive who could be after you--" he leaned against the railing "-- after us. Teleport to my house, and I'll tell you the whole story."
In the privacy of his bedroom, Quincy relayed the tale of the woman in the van who didn't die.
"She's the only human who could have seen you in a human form," he said, "and she has reason for revenge, too. She saw you reap her husband, and she accused me of killing them."
Mal paced in front of his bed, dark eyebrows knit with fear and concern. "So you're saying a woman who had never seen me before that night and didn't know my name, hates me so much that she searched all of Chicago to find me and kill me?"
"It's the only explanation."
"Then why isn't she after you?" she asked, her voice trembling. "You reaped her baby, why aren't you being targeted too?"
"She probably is targeting me," he said gravely, clenching his hands so he didn't wring them. "But I'm guessing she only has one dullahan, so--"
"How did she get a dullahan, anyway?" She ran her fingers through her hair so roughly he thought she'd pull it out. He swung off the bed and laid a long hand on her shoulder.
"We'll figure this out," he said, though he couldn't keep a tremor from his own voice. "But we need to stay calm. The next time the dullahan comes, we'll ask it. Maybe it will tell us something. In the meantime, look out for any blonde women acting suspicious."
Mal brushed him off and scowled, disappearing abruptly in a swirl of smoke.
Quincy didn't hear from Mal the whole weekend, and he wasn't surprised. She was upset with him for keeping the woman in the van from her and blamed him for the mess they were in, even though both knew nothing could have prepared them for being hunted by a monster from purgatory.
They had an exam in Ms. Harris's class the next Monday, but the teacher persisted in her habit of stalking down the isles. After he finished his test, Jacob glanced up at Ms. Harris out of the corner of his eye as she passed by his desk. Her brown hair was in a bun today, exposing blatantly blonde roots. He jumped slightly, and the elbow he leaned on lost its equilibrium, causing the bumbling teenager to fall halfway out of his chair. She whipped around, and for a split-second her eyes were filled with irritation and what he thought was anger.
"Are you alright, Mr. Johnson?" she asked, the lapse in control rectified.
"Um, yeah," he mumbled, his gaze darting to Mal, who narrowed green eyes at him. "Fine."
He watched Ms. Harris as she continued her rounds, the goosebumps on his arms refusing to recede. Ms. Harris's hair was blonde. This shouldn't be such a revelation to him, but the more he tried to write it off as a coincidence, the more it made sense. The woman in the van was pinned under the dashboard, so her legs would have been severely damaged. Ms. Harris wore leg braces. Strong magic would be necessary to control a dullahan, and the pentagram the teacher always wore suggested she was some kind of magic practitioner. Though Mal and Quincy thought they'd never met Ms. Harris before that school year, she treated them as if she'd had an opinion of them prior to teaching the class. Quicny pulled his hood over his head to shield himself from the teacher's penetrating gaze. By the time the bell rang, he was thoroughly convinced Ms. Harris was the woman in the van, and the prospect terrified him.
"Think about it, Mal, it has to be Ms. Harris," Quincy whispered as they stood by the goth girl's locker. "She even had enough time to swipe your ledger with the way she walks around the classroom."
"Sure," Mal allowed, "but if she's gone through so much trouble to disguise herself," she took her ledger from the locker and slammed it shut, "then why would she flaunt her blonde? I doubt that after a year of planning she would make such a stupid-- mistake--" The female Reaper's eyes grew wide as she looked in the ancient binder.
"What? What is it?" Quincy asked, tipping it toward him.
"Well, if our mystery woman is her, we won't have to worry for long," she whispered, biting her lower lip in confusion. "According to this, Deborah Harris dies at midnight tonight."
When the Reapers materialized on the top of Sears Tower at ten till twelve, Ms. Harris was waiting for them. She stood on the ledge of the roof, hands behind her back as she looked down the one-hundred eight stories to the busy street below.
"Deborah Harris!" Mal hailed, and the woman's shoulders tensed, but she did not turn.
"So my name showed up in your little folder, did it?" she had to yell to be heard over the howling gale. "I figured if I put myself in danger and didn't care if I lived or died, I could trick your ledger and trap you, in a sense. You can't leave till I die, after all. Don't want your little souls sent to purgatory, now do we?"
Quincy's stomach dropped. She was right. They had assumed this would be like any other job, but it wasn't. Ms. Harris had evaded death once before, and she controlled a dullahan. Who knew what else she was capable of?
"How?" he asked, and Ms. Harris looked over her shoulder at him.
"It's such a pity, Quincy. You're not like the rest of the Reapers; you care for the living. I wish there was some other way, but you see, I have to have two."
"No, I don't see," he yelled, pulling his hood away from his face. "Way to do what? Two of what?"
"A way to get my family back." She laughed at the confusion plastered across their faces. "Oh, did you think I just wanted to kill you? Narrow-minded children, that's only part of the plan." She rubbed a thumb over her now-inverted pentagram. "During the accident, when you took my husband and child from me, I too was dying enough to meet Death himself. I learned-- such amazing things--" she traced the outside of the pentagram with increasing speed, her eyes half-lidded in a daze. Then her eyes snapped open again and she turned on the teenagers, her face stony and determined "-- I learned about the Reapers, and how their captured souls can be traded for the souls of the dead."
Mal and Quincy looked at each other in shock. "That's deep magic," Mal whispered.
"Your family has been laid to rest, Deborah," Quincy said slowly. "If you take them out of the afterlife, they'll be agitated to madness. They won't be the same family you knew."
"You know nothing about my family," Ms. Harris growled, tears streaming down her red, chapped cheeks. "And now you will pay for taking them away from me."
Quincy and Mal jumped back when a shriek cut through the cold Chicago night, and a black portal opened up over the roof of the Sears Tower. Mal grabbed her injured arm and screamed as it blazed anew in the return of their enemy.
"Please stop!" Quincy begged Ms. Harris, standing between Mal, who whimpered on the metal floor, and the oncoming horror. He could feel the fear accumulating in the form of bile in his throat and in the sweat streaming down his forehead. "Killing us won't take the pain away, Deborah, but we can help you."
Ms. Harris tilted her head as if she were confused, but the small smile on her red lips made him realize that her grief had not only driven her to revenge, but driven her mad. "Oh, I know you can help. And I'm not going to kill you-- I'm going to reap you."
With those words, the dullahan emerged from the oval gate, its smoldering eyes glaring at them from underneath its right arm. Its cursed steed whinnied as the dullahan raised a long, curved bone scythe over headless shoulders. Quincy yelped, terrified, as the blade swung toward him with inhuman speed, and he barely parried it with his own. The creature responded with another blow and a blood chilling laugh. With each fall of the dullahan's weapon, a chunk of Quincy's strength was chiseled away.
This isn't working, he wheezed, a particularly vicious blow driving him to his knees. I'm at my limit, and these things are almost indestructible. He rolled away from the next strike, knowing he wouldn't be able to withstand another direct hit. Gasping for breath, he struggled to his feet, his eyes searching for another way out. The only hope for defeating a dullahan was to spook the horse, but this one snapped at him with pink-frothed lips like a rabid dog, every bit as bloodthirsty as its master.
But what's holding the dullahan here? he wondered. Why is it even interested if there is no vengeful spirit to feed off of? He stole at glance at Ms. Harris still standing on the ledge, her arms folded across her chest, fingers beating impatient rhythms into her arms. Ms. Harris was supposed to die, the young Reaper recalled. Perhaps her misplaced soul has enough magic and malice to anchor the dullahan on this plane.
Pain ripped through his side as the monster's scythe clipped him on the rib cage. Quincy dropped his scythe to grab the wounded area, the magical weapon causing three times as much pain as a normal blade. He thought he heard Mal scream his name, but she wasn't in his direct line of vision.
"Through the heart!" Ms. Harris reprimanded her beast. "In order to reap a living Reaper, you have to stab him through the heart!"
Quincy fell back on the roof of the tower, his arms outstretched as the dullahan raised his weapon one last time.
Then, a sudden movement caught his eye. Mal, who had overcome the initial shock from her arm wound, had risen to her feet and charged at the English teacher, who was preoccupied with the dullahan.
"Mal, no!" Quincy yelled, but it was too late. With a firm shove, Ms. Harris lost her balance, hurtling down the 108 stories to the two-story tourist shops below.
As soon as Ms. Harris began to fall, the dullahan, who no longer had a vengeful spirit anchoring it to the living realm, was sucked back into the portal before it could fell another blow. Quincy almost didn't notice the monster's disappearance, though, his eyes fixed on where Ms. Harris had just been standing.
Even though she tried to kill them, he felt the same guilt churn in his stomach as with all the other people he watched die without raising a finger. This time, the guilt was all the more pungent because Mal-- brave, compassionate Mal, who knew better than any Reaper he'd met being alive is only half of living, and the souls of the dead deserve as much respect as a body of flesh and bone-- was going to rot in purgatory for killing someone to save his life. Once again he was a spectator, watching with blank eyes as peoples' lives were destroyed, pretending there was nothing he could do. But he could do something. He always could have done something, and this time, he decided, he wasn't going to wake up tomorrow and hate himself for not making the sacrifices he knew he should have made.
"Well, this sucks," Mal said, turning away from the ledge. "You owe me big time for--" her words trailed off as her wounded companion gave her a weary smile and teleported off the roof.
The Reaper reappeared in a free fall next to the emotionally scarred teacher, who didn't scream as she fell to her death, but did yelp at his sudden presence.
He nodded in understanding. "We do have that effect."
"What are you doing?" she asked as they passed the fiftieth floor.
"Reaping your child gave me nightmares for a year," he said,wrapping her in the dark folds of his cloak as the thirtieth floor whizzing by. "By saving you now, a person who should have died, my soul will go to purgatory. Congratulations, you have your revenge. I'm sorry I can't bring back your family, too. I should have saved them a year ago when I had the chance." With this final confession, he dematerialized them to dust before they hit the roof of the tourist center.
Mid-teleport Quincy knew something was wrong. Usually when he teleported he could see the blur of the world swirl around him, but now there was only white, and when he tried to step out of the funneling teleport, an invisible force thrust him back in. Suddenly, the swirling stopped, and they were dumped on a grey stone cliff in the middle of an infinite whiteness.
"No," Ms. Harris gasped, still clutching at her enemy's cloak. "It can't be. No, I'm not going back," she pulled at his arm, her eyes darting back and forth with fear. "You deceptive child, take me home, now!"
"I doubt I could even if I tried," he protested, shaking her off. "I'm not the one who brought us here."
As he finished speaking, Mal appeared a few feet away, a bit unsteady from the harsh transport.
"I didn't even try to teleport, why am I here?" she asked, ignoring Quincy's extended hand. "Where the heck are we?"
"You are at Death's Door." The voice seemed to come from everywhere, but its source rose from the abyss in front of them, a towering figure wearing a black robe with a hood that radiated bright, white light where a face should be. "I am Death."
The Reapers took a step back, and Ms. Harris began to sob.
"So you're-- the Grim Reaper. The original." Mal said, the awe apparent in her voice. The figure's giant head nodded once.
"Why did you bring us here Death, uh, sir?" Quincy asked.
"It seems a mistake I've made has been giving you some trouble," the ageless voice rumbled. "All souls meet me before being reaped, but when Deborah escaped, I did not prevent her. It was a busy day. Rainy days always are."
The Reapers nodded. They could sympathize.
"She gained knowledge from me, as all who see my face do, though few who live to tell of it remember or understand what they have been taught. Deborah, however, has a sharp mind, and was motivated by loss and revenge."
"I just wanted my family back," the woman sniffed, her back to Death's shining face, the light at the end of the tunnel. "My husband had just gotten back from his second tour. He had been given leave long enough to see our child born." She looked up then, speaking through her teeth in a weak attempt to control her rage. "Then everything was taken from me. All I had after that awful day was hope, and now even that has been stripped away."
Death raised a large, snow white hand to hover over Deborah's shaking spine. "You do have hope, Deborah. Hope of a peaceful afterlife, with your family. Your spirit is restless, jealous for the rest it was deprived of. I give it to you now."
"No, no--" Deborah's moans grew fainter as the life left her body. Her freed soul zipped around Death's hand like a released firefly. He pointed, his hand invisible against the blank landscape, and the soul sighed and vanished in a flash of blue light. Both Reapers exhaled in unison at her departure, and Mal leaned against Quincy's side. When Death's cavernous hood turned back to them, however, the young Reapers stood at attention.
"Now, as for you two," Death intoned.
Quincy woke up the next morning to sunlight streaking in through his window to warm his freckled face. With a long, lazy yawn, he rolled his head back to look at his bedside clock's neon display.
"Ten fifty-seven?!" His eyes snapped open and he tried to jump out of bed, but was restrained by a hundred-and-nine-pound weight on his back.
"Five more minutes," Mal moaned, rolling off of him into a more comfortable position. He frowned at her for a moment, sleep obscuring the reason why Mal was sleeping in his bed in her Reaper garb. Then the events from the night before hit him over the head like a kick from a dullahan's horse, making him jerk forward.
"Mal," he said, looming over her and shaking her shoulder. "Mal!"
"Seriously, Quince, you get your hands off me, or I'll-- what am I doing in your house?" She sat up so fast they almost bumped heads. "What-- happened last night?"
"I think we met Death."
"And then what?"
"I-- don't remember."
The friends sat in silent contemplation for a few moments, looking the scythe placed at the foot of the bed, the poster covered walls, anywhere but at each other.
"So do you-- still have your soul?" Mal asked pensively.
"If by 'have,' you mean my soul is still being held ransom in an alternate dimension and hasn't been thrown into purgatory, then yeah." He looked listlessly out the window to Chicago's jagged, grey landscape. "That's the only thing I can remember, really. He pardoned us, but I can't remember why. Something about the whole thing being his fault in the first place." He squinted. "Hey, you think he told us why only redheads are Reapers?"
Mal shrugged, vaulting off of the bed and stretching her thin, white arms behind her head. "Probably. Cheeky gremlin knew we were going to forget everything. He could have told us the origin of the universe, and we'll never know."
Quincy growled, disappointed, and pushed off the bed too, hanging his robe on a hook on the back of the door. As he shook the sleep from his limbs, he noticed that the cut in his side had been healed as well. Good thing, too. He'd have had a heck of a time explaining a knife wound to his mom. Mal watched him curiously as he pulled on his favorite sweater.
"Do you-- hate being a Reaper?" she asked suddenly.
He paused, looking up at the ceiling as he thought. "I think I hated the way I was doing it," he said finally. "Life isn't fair, as the age-old maxim goes. I can sit around and mope about it, or I make a difference, even if the lives I impact are dead." He looked at himself in a mirror and stood a little straighter. "Besides, the afterlife is just that-- life. All life deserves respect." He grinned cheekily at her, and she raised an eyebrow. "Though I'm not used to this whole 'enthusiasm' thing. I could use some lessons."
"Oh, so one date with Death and you think you're qualified to hit on me?" She rolled her eyes. "You may have saved my life, Quince, but you're still a nerd." She threw back her head and laughed when his brows furrowed and his shoulders hunched. "Weirdo. I'm going to go home and get ready for school. Wait for me, OK?"
He pulled a comb through his bed-hair, but the wiry locks sprang back to their original positions.
"You want to go to school? We're already three hours late."
"A gorgeous girl like myself arriving late with a ginger geek like you, think of the scandal," she declared, clapping black-tipped hands. "Of course I'm going to take advantage of this. It should be hilarious. See you in fifteen." He sighed and rolled his head back in mock exasperation as she melted into a pool of mist.
"Well," he said, checking his wristwatch with a bemused smile. "Life goes on."