This was the dream best loved and most treasured by one Caroline Hart. She adored the silence delicately fringed with the susurrant titter of distant birds, the huge whisper of the nearby waterfall. It was a dream of peace, of sanity and freedom long lost, of aquamarine skies that now slowly grayed over, dialed down to monochrome as the thickening clouds began to swirl and tumble. Then the burning began. The feeling of joy inside Caroline's chest became less like love and butterflies and more like swallowing acid. With a sound like a burst of storm wind, there came the rush of flight as the birds took wing, scattering in search of safer environs. The waterfall began pounding against the rocks beneath it, the pulsing water darkening crimson. A stench like rotten meat flooded her nostrils and she began to gag and choke, to spit and sputter and finally scream as she sat bolt-upright into the reality of her bed, the bed that was still in her room at Adams Institution where she had been a patient
for...God, how long?
Her tear-dimmed eyes darted around the room, trying to focus, slowly grounding her, bringing her back as familiar things began to take shape. Her breathing slowed, steadied, and calm eventually enfolded her, thanks to the injection being administered by the nurse at her bedside who had rushed in when Caroline began screaming in her sleep. Not to help her, by any means, but only to silence her, as she always did. She hated her job. It wasn't so much the job itself as it was Adams Institution and the patients, especially this one.
“I'm wet,” Caroline murmured softly as she slipped into pharmaceutical bliss, “I'm wet, I...I need to get up. Please? H-help me get...up.”
Nurse Analise Harmon sighed in patent disgust, pulling back the covers to find that Caroline was indeed wet, and also now aware that this was because she was lying in a widening puddle of dark purple blood. She slid her hand between her thighs then brought it to her face, forcing her eyes open, eyes that now widened with shock and swelling fear. Her breathing quickened; her heart began to pound as her body fought the sedative that was still making its way through her veins.
“My baby! I'm just...five...five months!” she quietly gasped, her bloody hand trembling as she held it out to the nurse, who was still looking on with that sneer of unsympathetic repulsion. She took the small bottle from the pocket of her lab coat and drew another large dose into the syringe as Caroline began to go into hysterics, rocking back and forth while holding her belly and screaming unintelligibly. One quick jab into Caroline's left buttock, and she began to settle down again, the psychoneurotic babble turning to a sobbing, desperate-sounding mumble. Had she been at all coherent, she would have been wondering out loud what was to become of her baby, why this was happening to them. Why did Nurse Harmon hate her so much? She didn't asked to get raped by the two men who escaped from the north wing or to end up pregnant. She didn't murder her father, only witnessed it from the dark of the staircase, the killer unaware of her presence. The image flashed anew in her mind, the ax swinging down and landing with a sickening thump into his back over and over again. Her inability to cope with seeing the man she loved more than anyone else in the world split down the middle was the reason she ended up here.
Nurse Harmon backed away just as Caroline reached for her arm, searching behind her for the door handle, finding it, and exiting without another word, only a derisive smile of pleasure when the suffering woman reached for her a second time.
“God...my Lord. Anyone, anyone who can hear me...save her...”
Her voice was barely a whisper.
“N-nurse Har...Nurse H-harm...”
“Please,” she softly sobbed, “anyone, somebody save us.”
“I can do that.”
The voice was as clear as the sky in her favorite dream, deep and resonant. Everything was suddenly quiet in her head; no voices, no unwanted thoughts tumbling madly and loudly through her stream of consciousness. The room was bright, and she stood in the middle of it, looking at her body on her bed, her face frozen in that subdued panic she was feeling just milliseconds ago.
“You're out of your body, Caroline. We're kind of, well...right outside time, I guess would be the best way to put it.”
Caroline's face twisted with confusion, looking the owner of the voice right in his sunken, hollow eyes, then all around the room again, back to her body on the bed, then back to the man standing in the shadows in the far corner. He was tall, better than 6' tall, and obviously slim even though his oversized clothes were meant to hide it. His black hooded sweatshirt had a big gray skull on the front, and the hood, which he was wearing up, was enormous, draping down over his eyes. Three long chains of different sizes hung across his hip, attached at his front belt loop and on the wallet in the back pocket of his loose-fitting black jeans, like the ones Caroline remembered the goth kids up the street from her house having worn, the ones with the really wide legs. On each of his fingers was a skull ring, all different, except for the ring on his right middle finger. That ring was a big, silver scythe that covered his finger from knuckle to knuckle. As he crossed the floor, his black boots made almost no sound at all. He looked at Caroline a moment, almost as if he were about to smile.
“I can help you, Caroline, you and your daughter. Yes, it's a girl. You two have to help me, though.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
Her newfound clarity afforded her the luxury of questioning things.
“The only one who gives a shit about helping you, apparently. Did God show up and freeze time just to talk to you? Nope. Did Satan come to try and take your soul in exchange for the favor of saving you and your baby? Incidentally, don't ever do that. That guy has some real problems, and more often than not it ends up being a sex thing, so yeah, avoid that if it ever comes up.”
“Wait, I...just...so if you aren't God, if you're not the devil, then who are you? Why are you here?”
“Like I said, I'm here to help. That bitch Analise Harmon whacked you up with some pretty heavy shit, and I was ready to take you two, but then I got this idea: I need an apprentice, so to speak. There's so much shit going on these days. Drugs, diseases, road rage, outright stupidity. No telling what people are gonna die from. That's where I come in. Death is my business, and business is way too good.”
“You're...you're Death? As in, the Grim Reaper? The Death Angel?”
Caroline was still having some difficulty getting her head around this. At this point, she was convinced it was just the medication, that she would wake up at any given moment, so she might as well just ride it out.
“Angel might be a bit strong, at least by the human definition. Those guys are really...you know what, never mind. You'll find out in a couple decades.”
“Don't say that! Jesus! I don't wanna know when I'm gonna...God! Now I want some answers. Why me? Why my child? What the hell does Death need with an apprentice? People die all the time, everywhere, some before their time even. There's no shortage of death in the world! Why does God need more Reapers?” asked Caroline, her tone a bit more indignant that she had intended.
Death stepped slowly across the room, taking a seat on the edge of Caroline's bed.
“Y'know what? In your reality, you're feeling a chill right now,” Death mused, grinning as he looked over Caroline's frozen form, her face scrunched up in an agonized scream. He stroked her hair and smiled, “But I digress. Your first mistake is assuming that God is even involved. What you humans think of as God is actually an assembly, a tribunal of all the Old Gods, and they all make decisions about the fate of the universe, but life and death on Earth? That they leave to the Harvesters and the Sowers. Reapers and a specific division of angels that watch over human birth rates, to put it in terms you'll understand. Everything in between falls into place according to how humans live their lives. Only in extreme cases will the Tribunal intervene. Considering your child's...father, for lack of a better word, she'll grow up to be the perfect candidate for Harvester training. You live, she lives, you'll even get outta this nuthouse after she's born. I'll set it all up. What d'ya say?”
He focused his sunken gray eyes on hers, holding out his slender hand. She regarded it, glancing back up at his cadaverous face then back to his outstretched hand.
it's just a bad trip...the drugs...
Caroline turned her gaze to her body, curled up on those bloody sheets, holding her belly.
this isn't even real...wake up...
She reached out and slowly took Death's hand, and his icy, pallid fingers gently wrapped around hers as he smiled. Her entire being went nearly numb with cold until he released it.
“Now what?” she asked, anxious for this drug-induced scene to play out so she could wake up and see what was happening to her unborn child. As if attached to some unseen steel spring, she felt herself being catapulted backward, everything rushing by in a blur, until she slammed against the floor on her back, still screaming and cradling her belly, and all at once everything was quiet and still.
The blood! Where...I don't...the blood is gone! I was in so much pain, but now...Death! Oh God, I made a deal with Death!
“Come baa-aa-ack!” she sobbed, realizing that what she had experienced was quite real, and that Death meant to hold up his end.
The deadbolt on her door clacked with a jingle of keys, and Nurse Harmon stepped into the room, that ever-present, displeased scowl on her face. This was the first time Caroline really noticed that expression, because now it seemed that someone had reached into her brain and turned off the voices, the confusion, the noise and the rampant urges to scream. She went over to her window, peering out at the streetlights and wondering why she had ever needed to be here in the first place.
“That will be quite enough from you,” she grumbled from behind clenched teeth, “I think it's time for a nice, long nap, you white trash cunt.”
Nurse Harmon was so enraged by Caroline's outburst that she forgot to close the door behind her before taking out a vial and prepping a huge shot, which she was now doing in full view of the head administrator. He was giving a tour of the facility to some high-ranking people from the corporate office when Caroline's cries caught his attention. When he saw Nurse Harmon take the vial from her lab coat pocket, he slowed his gait and eased up behind her unnoticed, close enough to see what she was about to inject into her pregnant patient.
“NURSE HARMON!” he barked, “I cannot believe my eyes! Are you about to administer that ridiculously capacious dose of Tranxene...Tranxene, for God's sake...to a patient who's five months pregnant? I won't even bother addressing the language you were just directing at a resident, because I cannot even begin to process it in light of this...this...atrocity! What in the world has possessed you?”
Nurse Harmon tried to smile as she stammered and stumbled through what should have been actual words in an excuse, but she was immediately cut off.
“Clear out your office, Nurse Harmon! Immediately! I want you off these premises within the half-hour. Security will meet you outside your door. You'll be lucky if you find a job dispensing Band-Aids in a third-world country after this!”
The administrator stormed off, returning to his tour group and apologizing profusely as he bade them make their way down the hall, casting a scolding glance at the stunned nurse over his shoulder as the party turned the corner and disappeared. Caroline sat on her bed and watched the whole scene, marveling at her regained faculties, the sharpness of her perception as compared to the last three years. Her next evaluation was going to go much, much better than the last one.