Being in the studio was nothing like rehearsals, and Keira loved it for the fact that she could come in alone and do her vocals. A rider on her contract specified that there was to be a heavy black curtain over the control booth window, and only absolutely essential contact was allowed. This being the case, she felt a sudden panic when she removed her headphones between takes, clicked off her microphone and heard a deep, strangely doleful voice behind her say, “Keira Persephone Hart. Love the name, but I'd lay odds you don't have a clue what it means.”
She almost dropped her headphones as she wheeled around to see a tall, slender figure leaning against the wall in the far corner of the room. His thin lips were rolled up in a sort of half-smile, which was all she could really make out in the shadow cast by the capacious hood of the oversized black sweatshirt he was wearing. Several long, thick chains hung around his right hip, and they rattled quietly as he straightened himself and started toward Keira, who could only stare at him, wide-eyed with curiosity and growing fear. It looked as though he were gliding just above the floor as he approached, moving several feet with each step. Apparently, she thought to herself, her anxiety was painfully obvious, because he stopped a few feet from her and held his hands up in front of him.
“It's alright, kiddo. I'm what you might call an old friend of your mother's. I met her about four months or so before you were born. Just thought I'd drop by, see how you're doing, see if you were ready.”
“Ready...for what, exactly?” asked Keira, her face still a little bit twisted up by fear, “and how the fuck did you get in here? Nobody's allowed in here when I'm...I'm recording.”
The stranger's face became suddenly grave. His sunken gray eyes, now more visible upon his approach, were locked into hers with a very pained disappointment. He sighed heavily and began to pace as he spoke, biting at his painted black thumbnail.
“Caroline was supposed to prepare you for this. You should have been aware of your purpose by age ten, at the least. This is thoroughly disappointing. Gotta start at square one. To answer your other question, I pretty much go where I please.”
“What purpose? Who are you? I...feel like I know you, but I can't...it's like I almost remember, but it just won't come.”
Death stopped pacing and turned his pale gaze fully in her direction.
“Your mom and I, we made this deal, see. She was about to lose you, and she cried out for help from anyone who might be listening. Lucifer didn't see any way to benefit from it, selfish bastard. What most humans call God...I'll explain later...wasn't interested in you at all, being as you would've been recycled and reborn as someone else, so I stepped in after consulting with...um...Him.”
“Keith? Danny? Please come here! There's someone in here!” Keira blurted out in a loud, panicked burst of terror. Death made a flicking motion with his right hand, and the black curtain fluttered then slid aside.
“They can't see or hear shit right now. They think you're out getting some food, thanks to my superior acting skills and impeccable shapeshifting talents. So, in the famous words of Eddie Wilson, let's get on with the music.”
Death gestured to the one chair in the room, and Keira sat slowly down, never taking her eyes from his. She could hear a storm brewing in the cold January sky, thunder grumbling in the distance. Rolling, darkening clouds were forming outside the control room windows as the two engineers sat working on the tracks they had just recorded, seemingly oblivious to both the conversation going on inside the booth and the growing storm outside.
“Death and dying aren't as cut and dried as they seem, Keira. God, Satan, Heaven and Hell, it's all pretty deep and I don't have the patience to stand and explain all the stuff you're gonna find out for yourself eventually anyway. You may or may not have figured out who I am by now, so allow me to clarify. To simplify things, just call me Death, everyone does, even the ones who know better. Contrary to popular belief, though, I don't just swoop in and take souls and shit. There are hundreds of Harvesters, different kinds, actually, all under my command. We especially don't take anyone before their time, so let's get that bullshit outta the way. If you die, it was time, that's that.”
He looked a bit disdainful for a moment, then continued, lighting a cigarette that burned green instead of red-orange and resuming the pacing he was doing earlier, the huge rings on his emaciated fingers clacking as he rubbed his palms together.
“Like I was saying, death is a complicated business, takes up most of my fuckin' day a lot of the time, so I need help, mainly in the 'other than natural causes' arena. See, sometimes nature doesn't work fast enough. There's a plan, a destiny that mankind is playing out, and at times, there's a bottleneck where things stop and stagnate because there just aren't enough deaths in a certain timeframe. That's where another type of Harvester comes in, The Red Cloaks, in your language. They give things a little push in the right direction, so to speak, by accelerating the suicide rates among humans.”
Keira couldn't hide her shock. Death was almost amused, but figured he had best expand on his statement before she became too freaked out to listen or understand.
“Red Cloaks only take certain people, either ones who were gonna off themselves anyway, or real assholes, people who did something shitty in the past or will in the future. Take the last guy we had to nudge on over to the afterlife. He'd been stealing from his sick grandma for years, so he became a prime candidate as soon as the need arose. A Red Cloak stayed on his shoulder, reminding him how fucked up his childhood was until he finally decided to take a refreshing swim in a vat of molten steel at his job. Then there was this woman, held in high regard by everyone she knew. She was very happily married, pregnant, and had her dream career as a kindergarten teacher. What she didn't know was that right after she had her baby, she was gonna have such wicked post-partum depression that she was gonna start drinking heavily, then turn to meth. After all that, she was gonna start mercilessly abusing her new baby. It was written in stone, no changing it, so she had to go. Once she started the drinking, a Red Cloak pointed her husband toward a woman who would be a good mother for his kid as well as a decent wife, then proceeded to persuade the mother to party on until she ended up cutting her own throat in the bathroom of a dirty little nightclub while she was blown out on a mixture of who-knows-how-many pills. You getting the picture here? Your mother agreed that you would take up this line of work and help me out if I saved you. So now it's time to hold up your end of the deal, Keira. What d'ya say?”
Keira could only stare at him, her expression no longer wide-eyed and curious, but disbelieving and disgusted. There was no way in seven different kinds of hell she was going to kill anyone, or make anyone kill themselves. The storm outside began to rage, throwing lightning from cloud to cloud with great bellows of thunder.
“I can't do that! This is insane! There's no way mom would ever promise someone I could, either!”
“You've been meant for this all along, Keira. Ever since your mother took my hand and sealed your fate, you've been silently prepped. Why do you think you crave solitude? Death is a solitary business, and those of us who practice it prefer to shun the company of others. You've never had so much as a cold or the sniffles because death is more powerful than illness, and you, over the years, have become death. You will be my apprentice, you will be one of us, like it or not.”
“You're fucking crazy!” Keira screamed, tears welling in her eyes as she finally gave in to the fear she had felt since she first heard his voice in the room, “This can't be real! It just can't be! You aren't Death, you're just some fucking nut tormenting me for..for...God, I don't even know!”
The stranger stepped over to Keira's chair and stood right in front of her, glaring into her eyes. His face was not angry, but a deep kind of stern that defies description, raising his arms. The lightning outside tore across the sky again, and in the fraction of a second that it lit the entire studio, his face flashed back and forth from gaunt and pale to a weathered skull, his hoodie and black jeans a long, tattered black robe. Keira screamed and ran for the door, finding it locked. Death walked slowly toward her as she tried desperately to open the locked door by force, the storm right outside the studio window blustering on as he came closer and closer, and with a gesture, waved the storm away, revealing a calm albeit still-gray sky. He hovered over Keira, who had sunk to the floor and curled up in the fetal position, sobbing uncontrollably, and took her face in his hands, bringing her face to his. She felt an icy misery sink into the skin of her face and permeate her entire body, like ice water washing over her insides.
“You're gonna help me, one way or another. You were promised to me, and there's no getting out of it. Everything that's happened to you and your band has been of my design. You've been groomed from birth by fate to take this yoke upon your shoulders. Look at it this way, kiddo. Immortality, cleaning up the gene pool by eliminating scum, all in all, not a bad gig. Think it over. I'll be seeing you, make no mistake.”
With a smile and a streak of stray lightning, he was gone. Keira sat upright against the door and looked all around the booth, into the control room, even out the window. The door that had just been locked was now open, and she bolted out of it and headed straight to the rest room and began splashing her face with cold water, hoping it would wash it all away. When she looked into the mirror, however, she saw that the water running down her cheeks and chin hadn't removed the reality of what just happened to her. It was real, every minute of it, and she had no idea what she was going to do. It was only seconds before Keith was banging at the door, asking if she was alright.
no.....not even in the same zip code as alright.....
It took three weeks of encouragement, threats and begging to coax Keira back into the studio. They managed to finish recording right on the deadline, within two hours, to be exact, and then it was time to shoot their first video. Trying to accommodate Keira's condition, all of her shots were done with a remote controlled camera and a completely closed set, with Keira operating the camera and the sound, and the crew coming in only to review the shots and make any needed adjustments to the lighting. The CD and the video were set to release on the same day, and pre-sales were through the roof. The CD, titled As Dusk Descends, was sure to ship platinum, and the impending tour was already sold out in every venue advertised. This ridiculous amount of success didn't seem at all odd to any of the band members, mainly because they were too wrapped up in the fame they had already earned, but Keira now understood what was happening and why. She was determined not to think about it, not to conjure up the man in the black hoodie again, and focus on the business at hand, that being slicing open both of her wrists and ending this whole damned thing.
Starting at her wrist, she traced out the visible veins with the razor blade, going deep and gashing them open halfway up her forearm. It burned and stung like hell, but she kept at it until both wrist were laid open and pumping blood all over the carpet. She sat and watched it spill out, smiling to herself as she thought about the look on Death's face when he had to come for her and his whole plan was fucked up. When the dizziness kicked in, she rode it out, welcoming the blackout. The next thing she became consciously aware of was the clock on the far side of the room. It had been about fifteen hours since she passed out, and now she was awake again. Confusion set in, and she tried to lift her arms to look at them, only to have them stick to the chair arms where the blood had coagulated. They gave way with a sort of tiny ripping sound, and that was when she noticed there were no wounds, no scars, no nothing. She wasn't even tired or light-headed. All she could do was sigh and sob at the new misery she had now taken on. She had no control over her life, and now no control over her death.
Release day came. Music stores all over the nation sold out in less than two days, online supplies depleted in less time, and the tour was underway. Keira's drug habit doubled, tripled, and beyond as the after-show parties rolled on and she cared less and less if she lived. There had to be something that would take her down, something that would take the torment away, and she was determined to find it. In the meantime, there were interviews to be done, reporters to talk to, video channel spots to do, all kinds of rock star shit that puts one in the spotlight, a place Keira hated to be. The only placed she felt she belonged was onstage, hemorrhaging misery through her words and voice. The magazines and TV shows were more than interested in how a band of teenagers and young adults managed to achieve so much in so little time, and what was it about their sound and songs that made them so popular? There was a haunting quality to Shadow Sonnet's sound that had created a great mystery. Each musician in the band had been interviewed, brought their rigs into various studios and halls for study for various guitar magazines, but it only seemed to exist when they all played together. Strange stuff, but it only served to fuel the fire they had started in the basement of The Tower less than a year ago.
It was a week after the day As Dusk Descends was released that a text message popped up on Nicole Hurst's phone as she was leaving her office:
Hey, girl! Turn on the news, channel 8, you need to see this!
Wow..it was after 6:00. She hadn't even noticed. She had been working on the new merchandising deal of the and had completely lost track of time. Might as well drop the handbag, sit back down and see what was going on. Nicole turned on the 42” flat screen and switched it to channel 8, where Jenna Jackson was reporting about -
“...sudden and inexplicable rash of suicides all over the country, with more reports coming in from around the globe even as I report this to you. This massive wave began hours after the release of Shadow Sonnet's 'As Dusk Descends' CD, which was found to be playing in car stereos and mp3 players of nearly all of the suicide victims. At some scenes, suicide notes were found, and we have a copy of one such note, which reads as follows: 'I love Keira and Shadow Sonnet so, so very much. Her words are my words, my thoughts, my life. She knows me, and her songs are my one treasure. I know now what I have to do to be happy. The next life will be so much better, I just know it will. I love you all, and I'll see you in the hereafter.' So far, we've heard nothing from their manager, Nicole Hurst, or anyone at Cherry City Records. Even though none of the songs on the CD depict acts of suicide nor do they encourage it, the coincidence is undeniable and is the subject of an investigation being launched by the Responsibility in Music Coalition and the record industry as a whole. Our next story is an example of the courage shown by our local.....”
Nicole tapped the POWER button on the remote. She discovered and signed these kids, and this flaming, ten-ton bag of shit was going to drop right on her doorstep, and she would have to be the one to stomp it out.
Modern society is strange, especially in these times, when it's all been done and done again. At first there was sorrow and outrage, finger-pointing, and everything else that one would expect from a case of a band being accused of practically murdering people with their music. It seemed like no time, however, until it just blew over and people no longer cared. Their YouTube views stayed lofty, their website stayed bogged down with traffic, their merchandise sold like crazy, and the band played on.
Life for Keira remained about the same, trying her best to stay just fucked up enough to tolerate all the company fame brought her without being too blitzed to function. She had heard about the news report her manager saw, and it weighed heavily on her at first, but then there was this very strange feeling of...well, freedom, of purpose and peace, as though some great wrong had been righted by her hand. She tried to feel remorseful about it, but it just didn't happen. She sat in the back of the tour bus, snorting a mixture of crushed pain pills and downers, mulling it all over, when the dim light of the candles she had lit slowly began to fade out, leaving only one small candle burning. Out of the darkness came light footsteps, and a familiar face slipped into the tiny, flickering light of the solitary candle.
“You again,” Keira muttered, almost smiling, “Guess you were right, huh? No getting outta this.”
Death grinned widely, looking kind of smug, really.
“I told you, Keira, this is your destiny. It's who you are, and who you'll always be. The same thing's gonna happen, over and over. Of course, we had a bit of a backlog, that's why it happened like it did this time, so it'll happen on a much smaller scale from now on, but it will happen. Whether it's your music, the poetry books you'll publish next year...yeah, I know about that...or whatever, you'll bring souls to the other side. Seems you're more useful in the physical realm than as an actual Red Cloak, so it's been decided that you'll be granted a rare kind of immortality. You'll be able to change your appearance, fake your death, move on, and live among the humans as one of them. All the while, though, you'll deliver souls through suicide by using the power in your words and misery, and only through this process will you ever feel at peace. You might wanna ease up on the dope, too. You'll need it less and less the more you harvest, anyway.”
Keira leaned forward, her face in her hands. It was true; she felt more at peace after all those deaths than she ever felt onstage or in the studio, and whether it was genuine acceptance or the drugs, she allowed the feeling to wash over her, to purge, cleanse and purify her, then sat back and smiled at Death, who smiled back as he faded from her view. She re-lit the other candles and opened the drawer built into the table in front of her, taking out a pen and a small notebook. One line at a time, she poured her soul onto the pages until there was one new song, the first step toward the next studio effort and the first voluntary step toward her destiny. She took up the pen, turned the page, and began the second...