Little Lily Hoagen was pretty much your standard five year old. In her young mind, clothes did not count as a birthday present, ice cream must always be eaten in a cone, and if an adult told you not to touch something, you absolutely had to find a way to touch the thing anyway.
Her day started like any other. She picked out all the marshmallows from her Lucky Charms and let the cereal pieces soak until they were un-eatable. Then, she had the standard argument with her mother about whether or not she could take her stuffed frog with her to school.
Lily was used to her schedule. She had simply been expecting to learn about bean plants and how they grew when she went to school, but things seemed to change right before they were about to pull the plants out of their plastic bags and plant them into little cups of soil.
The little girl had no idea why her teachers were suddenly rounding them up into a corner of the classroom and telling them to be quiet. Their usual smiling faces looked terrified of something. She could hear screams from other places of the elementary school, and she could feel her own little heart beating rapidly in her chest.
“Ms. Rose? What’s going on?” she whispered, tugging on her teacher’s sleeve. “Why did you turn all the lights off?” Her teacher’s terrified eyes glanced at the door before turning to the five year old.
“Shhh... Lily sweetie, there’s a bad man in the school and we don’t want him to find us.”
The noise from the hallway was getting louder.
“Everyone close your eyes and think of a happy place.” Ms. Gardner whispered as some of the kids started to cry. Lily felt fear creep up through her arms and down her back, even though she was still confused as to what was happening.
Lily closed her eyes and covered her ears. Happy place… She imagined she was in her bed with her teddy bear, Alby. The covers were over her head and she could smell the snickerdoodles her mother was baking. However, the happy place did not work, for she could still hear the screams. She jumped when the classroom door burst open and a teenage boy stalked in. Lily quickly closed her eyes again as the whole room erupted in gunfire.
Everything suddenly went silent.
Lily felt like she was floating. She was in darkness for only a moment, and then there was a blinding, comforting light. The fear that had enveloped the young girl before fled, and the sense of safety settled in. She felt her feet softly touch down on something solid, and the world around her slowly started to come into focus, a blur of color and movement dancing before her eyes. She could also hear murmurs and voices that started to become clearer.
It was hard to understand what was going on with all the noise and people she could suddenly see were running around, but after a moment, she was able to hear some of the things happening in the new place she was standing in.
“Where am I?” a muffled voice asked in a panic.
“What’s going on??”
“Marissa!! I need help!!”
She was no longer in her kindergarten classroom. She was in a type of waiting room with wood paneled walls and benches. It was slightly in chaos at the moment. Kids were running every which way in the small room, screaming and crying as two adults dressed in white tried to settle them down. Lily regarded them with curiosity, wondering what all the fuss was about. They were all obviously safe now. She could tell because the lights were on, unlike her classroom.
“So many of them! What’s happening down there??” A middle aged black woman in a white dress asked.
“Appears to be a school shooting…” an older man in a cap and white polo commented, looking at some papers behind a desk. Then, to Lily’s surprise, her teacher seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
“What’s going on? Where am I?” young Miss Rose asked, her brown pixie cut bouncing as she turned around every which way.
“Oh dear…” the lady in white sighed. “Garry, calm down the kids while I explain to the older ones what just happened…”
“Sure…Take the easy job for yourself… How am I supposed to explain this to five year olds?”
“You’ll figure it out…”
At that, the old man turned to the group of kids.
“Hey! Calm down! Woo Hoo! Look over here! I’ve got candy!”
The kids slowly stopped, quieted down and looked at him.
“Ok… So I don’t have candy... But it’s ok! You’re all safe now-”
“What happened?” a kid with snot running out of his nose shouted out.
“Well, you see…”
“Where are we?” another child with curly black pigtails blurted.
“You are all-.”
Garry did not have a chance to explain, for all of the children started to yell things at once. Lily stood there quietly, looking around with interest at her classmates.
“Are there snacks?”
“Welcome to the Waiting Room!” Garry said with the best smile he could give. “Listen up and I’ll explain everything! If-if you all be quiet I’ll tell you a story or something.”
Finally, the children quieted down, which caused the man to tilt his cap and give a sigh of relief.
“Now first of all, when we die, our bodies and spirits separate...” he began slowly.
“WE ALL DIED???” a red headed boy screamed.
All the kids took up screaming again, which earned Garry an aggravated look from the lady in white.
“Garry! What did you do?” she yelled over the ruckus.
“It’s not my fault Marissa! I’m still kind of new at this!” he told her helplessly as a couple of kids latched onto his pant leg and another one tried to climb up his arm.
Marissa pursed her lips and then put her fingers to her mouth, giving a loud ear splitting whistle. All the kids stopped and stared at her. She gave a sweet smile to them.
“There’s no reason to be scared boys and girls…” she lulled with a voice like honey. “There’s plenty of grown ups here to look after you, and there will be lots of fun things to see while you’re here.”
One little girl raised her hand.
“Is this heaven?” she blurted. Marissa laughed.
“No sweetie. This is the Inbetween. There’s lots of things to do and people to help before we all move on.”
“So are we really dead?” the same red headed boy yelled out as another little girl shot her hand up. Marissa sighed and turned to the little girl with her hand up.
“I had a goldfish who died once.” the girl said proudly.
“That’s… nice. So anyway-.”
“I don’t understand. I thought the dying thing only happened to other people and it meant they go away forever. Did I go away?” another child asked, a confused look on his face.
“Death is the blood thing doo doo head!” a bigger boy sneered. “My big brother let me play a video game where there was lots and lots and lots of blood and-.”
“Ok!!! One, two, three, eyes on me!” Marissa called out, putting her hands up. She gave another sigh and massaged her eyebrows, ignoring the smirk that Garry was now giving her.
“This might just be easier to let their new trainers explain things to them one on one.” the woman muttered.
“I think that’s a grand idea.” Garry told her, lifting his white cap to scratch his head. Marissa clapped her hands together, putting on a smile.
“Alright kids! Now, here’s what’s going to happen: See that black board over there? We are going to form a line, and then each one of you is going to tell us what you see ok? Then everyone is going to get a very special job to do! In the land of the Inbetween, we have seven different places you can go. Once we figure out where you’re going, you will go over to one of the adults who will train you for your very special jobs! Now doesn’t that sound fun?”
Lily wasn’t sure if it sounded like fun. It sounded like they were about to get a bunch of chores. It seemed like she wasn’t the only one who thought this either, as a few children started to act up at the sound of this. Lily peeked a glance at some of the adults standing off to the side. There were seven of them, and to her, it looked like they were getting ready for Halloween.
Their clothes were… interesting. All except for one man, who was simply in a black suit.
“Wait! I’ve got an idea-.” Garry exclaimed, snapping his fingers. “Akiko, come over here for a second.”
At the sound of her name, a young woman with shoulder length black hair stepped up a bit hesitantly. Lily looked closely at her long shirt, which, for a moment, looked like it had changed color slightly from brown to red.
“What do you expect me to do?” she asked softly, glancing at the group of rambunctious kindergarteners.
“Just something to grab their attention!” the old man smiled. “I’m sure you’ll think of something!”
The woman frowned at this, but then turned to the group of children. She hesitated for a moment, and then put a hand in her sleeve.
“Hey-w-watch this!” she stuttered.
Then, she pulled out hundreds of fall leaves that swirled around them in a torrent of brisk wind. The kindergarteners looked around in awe and jumped up, trying to catch the falling leaves. Lily looked over at the woman with the odd color changing shirt. It must have been magic!!
“See? Fun stuff!” Garry smiled. “Now if you all get into a line, then you’ll get to see more stuff like that!”
The children jumped up in excitement, pushing at each other to be first in line. The first boy looked down at the little blackboard before him and blinked.
“There-there’s a drawing on it!!” he exclaimed, pointing. “It drew itself like magic!!”
“Yes. Let’s just say it’s magic for now.” Garry muttered. “What do you see?”
“Alright! Looks like we’ve got a timekeeper here! Now go over there and stand next to Celeste. She’s the one with holding the staff-oh wait you might not know what a staff is…”
“I know what a staff is loser head.” the boy sneered. “Does this mean I’m going to be a wizard?”
“Ok ok-let’s keep this line moving…” Garry told him, glancing up at the black woman standing over him. Marissa smiled and shook her head.
“Ok Garry. You got this?”
She nodded and then hurried off back to the adults that had appeared. Lily watched the Marissa woman walk away towards some of the grown ups who had joined them in the waiting room while her classmates had been causing so much noise. She wondered what they were saying. Some of the teachers looked shocked and pale. It also looked like there was a black board for them too, and she wondered what the grown ups must me seeing.
Her attention was diverted however, to the other children in front of her, as one by one, they each saw something different on the blackboard in front of them and skipped off to one of the odd people standing over to the side.
“I see a tree!”
“Earth Workings! You’ll love it!” Garry said to a little girl with curly red hair.
“I see a bed…” a little boy commented.
“Oooh… You get to help in the land of dreams…”
Lily started to notice that the dark haired boy in front of her was fidgeting nervously.
“Are you scared?” she asked him. The little boy jumped. He looked to be about her age.
“What? Uh... Maybe?” he said, his face completely white.
The boy hopped from one foot to the other.
“What if I fail the test?”
Lily rolled her eyes and flattened her pink and blue lacy dress decorated with little yellow flowers.
“You can’t fail silly. You just tell him what you see.”
The boy swallowed despite her reassurances.
“I’m right here behind you.” she told him. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Lily. You’ll be fine.”
Edgar nodded a little hesitantly and then looked ahead with complete utter nervousness as the line got shorter and shorter. Soon it was his turn to step up. Garry, the man with the white cap and polo, looked down with a smile.
“What do you see son?”
Edgar squinted at the blackboard, a little confused.
“I don’t know what that is…” he said a little sheepishly.
“Well, what does it look like?”
“Um… It’s like a stick or something... I see people carrying them on Halloween.”
At the sound of this, Lily noticed that one of the grown ups of to the side started to pay a bit more attention. It was the man in the black suit, and even though several of her classmates had already looked at the blackboard, no one was standing next to him. Lily noticed that there were quite a few kids with the leaf lady.
Edgar looked at the old man hopefully, but he simply took off his hat and scratched his head.
“What now?” the lady exasperated, coming over.
“I don’t know what he’s seeing. He says it’s some type of stick thing that people carry around on Halloween.”
“That’s weird…” Marissa took out a notepad and pen. “Do you think you can draw it for us honey?”
Edgar nodded and started to draw what he was seeing. When he was done, the two adults looked down to see what it was.
“Is it just me? Or does that look like a scythe?” Garry asked. As soon as he said this, the man with the black suit bounded over.
“Did that boy really see a scythe?!” he exclaimed in excitement. Lily regarded all the grown ups skeptically. She had no idea why a scythe was.
“I don’t believe it...” Marissa said in amazement. “I’ve never seen one called so young before…”
“Well I’ve never seen one called before!” Garry exclaimed, joining in with the black suit man’s excitement. Marissa rolled her eyes.
“That’s cause you haven’t been here that long.”
With that, the woman got down to the boy’s level.
“What’s your name honey pie?”
“Well Edgar, you are going to become something called a reaper. Do you know what that is?”
“Don’t worry. Your new trainer will explain everything to you. But for now, we’re going to need you to stand over here next to Byron ok?”
At that, they had Edgar step to the side with the black suit man, and Lily stepped up with her little curly blond pigtails wrapped in ribbons and a little skip in her step. Garry smiled.
“What do you want to do little girl? Make dreams? Deal with Time? Maybe you can help with Spring and grow all the flowers!”
“What do you see?”
Lily squinted long and hard at the blackboard slightly excited to find out what she might see on it. She waited for something to appear for about five seconds, which is very long for a five year old, but the board remained blank. She stared long and hard at it, thinking that maybe she was doing something wrong. She blinked, then she scanned the whole thing.
“Where is it?” she asked. “There’s no drawing on it.”
Garry regarded her with confusion.
“Well, there should be…”
Lily put her little hands on the blackboard and leaned forward, narrowing her eyes. “I don’t see anything.” she whined, getting frustrated.
“What?” Garry looked at the blackboard himself. “It’s still working…” he muttered to himself. “I still see my symbol... Marissa!”
With a huff and a groan, the woman put her explanation to the adults on hold yet again and walked back over to where they were standing. The children behind Lily started to get rather impatient, and Marissa expertly steered them back into line as they started to wander off.
“Garry, how many times are you going to call me over?” she asked, exasperated. “I thought you had this under control? You were doing so well!”
“Marissa, she doesn’t see anything.”
“What? That’s impossible! Everyone sees something. Is it still working?”
“I still see the bell. The sign that called me as a Greeter.”
Marissa put a hand on her hip and gave a long look at the cute, bouncy little girl in front of her. Then she pointed at a spot in the middle of the blackboard.
“Right there. What do you see?”
Lily suddenly wondered if she should try to make something up so she wouldn’t get in trouble.
“Oh. I see it now- it’s… a… teddy bear.” She pretended slowly. Garry looked even more confused and muttered something about how there was no such thing for the blackboard, and Marissa sighed. The old man however, peered around her with interest.
“What’s your name honey?” Marissa asked.
“Alright Lily. Now please tell us what you really see.”
The little girl hung her head, feeling a little ashamed. She never understood how adults could always tell you were lying. It was almost like they had some unforeseen power. Her mother was especially good at this power.
“I don’t see anything…” she told her truthfully.
The two adults regarded her with concern, and then started to talk about her in hushed voices even though she could plainly hear them. Lily never really could understand why adults did this. She was standing right there!
“Has this ever happened before?” Garry whispered.
“I don’t know. At least, not while I’ve been here. I’ve never even heard of anything like this.”
“Then what are we supposed to do?”
“I’m not sure.”
The two of them stopped talking when they realized that Byron, the black suit man, was leaning in, trying to listen in on their conversation.
“Is there… a problem?” he asked with a mischievous smile. Marissa scowled.
“Stand back over with the others Byron. You’re supposed to be watching your new recruit.”
“I am. He’s right here.” he told them as Edgar stood there awkwardly. “Now don’t tell me that we’ve got another reaper. That would be crazy!”
The two grownups in white exchanged glances.
“Well, Lily here… doesn’t see anything…” Marissa admitted. Byron regarded the young girl with interest. Lily kind of liked all the attention, but she didn’t like people giving her these weird looks, she when Byron bent down to look at her, she stuck her tongue out at him.
“I bet the Boss would know what’s up!” he laughed, scratching his beard. As the adults started to argue about what to do, Lily began to lose interest in what they were saying, and instead turned to the little boy her own age, who was standing there awkwardly.
“What do you think is going to happen?” Lily whispered as Garry started to sort the other kids while Marissa argued with Byron some more. Edgar shrugged.
“I still don’t know what a reap reap is…”
“I think it’s reap-er.”
Edgar shrugged again.
“What do you think they are going to have us do?” he asked, swallowing and acting a little scared. “Do you think they’ll ask us to do something scary? I-I- want my Mommy!”
As Edgar started to sniffle, Lily rolled her eyes.
What a cry baby.
“Come on. Let’s go explore. No one’s really watching us right now.” she said with a smile.
Lily held out her hand to him, and hesitantly, he took it. However, as soon as he touched her hand, she felt like her body was jolted into another place. Instead of standing in the wood paneled room, she was suddenly running down a hallway that she recognized as part of her elementary school. Everyone around her looked scared, and she could hear gunfire. Then, she tripped and with a bang, she was brought back to the wood paneled room as if nothing had happened.
Lily jerked her hand back with a scream, bringing all the attention back to her.
“What’s wrong little girl?” Byron asked.
“He did something!!!” she yelled angrily, pointing at Edgar. “He touched my hand and made me-he took me back to my school! What did you do Edgar?!”
The little boy shrank into his shoulders, looking very confused.
“Uh… I didn’t do anything…”
“Byron, why don’t you take these two up to the reapers and see if you can figure out what’s going on. I have to stay here and make sure our new greeter gets situated.”
“Sure thing.” Byron winked at her. He then turned to the two five year olds who were now glaring at each other. Well, Lily was glaring. Edgar looked like he more or less wanted to sink into the floor.
“Come on kids! You want to meet my boss?” he asked.
“No.” Lily pouted, even though she kind of wanted to. Edgar quickly shook his head no as well.
Byron frowned and then turned on his heel.
“Ok. I guess you guys can stay here then.”
At the sound of that, the two five year olds looked at each other, and then scampered off after him. The two of them followed him down a hallway and onto an elevator, where he pressed a button and bobbed his head like he was listening to music. Once inside, Lily looked down at her hand, wondering what had happened when Edgar had touched her. All of this was so new, and confusing, and exciting, and scary. She didn’t know how to feel.
When the elevator opened, they walked into a large white room with black pillars and a large domed ceiling. The room was bustling with all sorts of people dressed in black. Lily looked around in amazement as a teenager with ripped black jeans stepped into a large glass ball and then disappeared in a swirl of smoke. A man in a long black trench coat bustled passed them, and Lily jumped to be out of the way.
“Stay close kids. It’s pretty busy here.” Byron told them. The two children did as they were told as the man meandered through the hustle and bustle and up a large flight of stairs. A couple of people gave the two children odd looks, and a few of them seemed to bump into Byron on purpose. Lily started to think that maybe some of the other people here didn’t like Byron that much, and she began to wonder why…
At the top of the stairs, they came to a black door lined with gold, and Byron gave it a good cheerful knock.
“Come in.” a muffled voice said from the other side. Byron opened the door, and Lily stepped inside a small office, where an old man in a black cloak and suit was sitting at a desk, writing some things down. His slicked back gray hair still seemed to have streaks of blonde in it, and he had eyes that reminded Lily of the milk that was left over from her Lucky Charms. The marshmallows always seemed to turn it a light blue...
“Oh hello Byron.” he said in a soothing whispery voice. “I was just writing some lists of things I have to do in the realms today.”
“Why do you still say things like “today”?” Byron laughed. “There are no days and nights here.” The older man shrugged.
“Force of habit I suppose. Now who do you have here with you?”
Byron stepped to the side to reveal the two five year olds.
“Edgar here has been called to be a reaper!” he said proudly. The old man seemed surprised at this.
“Really? How old is he?”
Lily rocked back and forth on her heels, waiting to be introduced to this odd old man with Lucky Charm eyes.
“I’m Lily.” she suddenly blurted impatiently. “And Edgar did something with my hand.”
“I did not!”
In response, Lily blew a raspberry at her fellow five year old.
The old man chuckled.
“Nice to meet you Lily. Don’t tell me that you’re going to be a reaper too?”
Lily shook her head.
“The board thingie broke when I looked at it.” she told him matter of factly.
“What she means is that… she didn’t see anything.” Byron explained.
The old man looked at her curiously.
“Byron, why don’t you take Edgar down to Helen. I’ve been wanting her to train a new person for a while. I would like to talk to Lily alone for a moment.”
Byron looked a little bit crestfallen.
“So… when am I going to finally train someone?” he asked.
“In time. Just be patient.”
Byron sighed and then he and Edgar left the room, leaving Lily alone with the old man.
The man was silent for a moment, studying the little girl in front of him. Slowly, he leaned forward.
“Hey Lily,” he whispered as if telling a secret. “You know what I see on the blackboard?”
“I don’t see anything either.”
The little girl tilted her head at him in interest.
With that, he leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands together.
“Let me introduce myself. I’m Death.”
“Nice to meet you Death. I’m Lily Hoagen and I’m five and a half years old.” Lily told him resolutely. Death laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“Usually people don’t introduce themselves to me. They usually ask me first why they died.”
“Oh. Well, my Mommy always tells me to stop asking the why questions. She says it makes her head hurt.”
At this new information, the man in front of her choked on a laugh.
“I have to say-I don’t usually get interviews like this. Quite a treat.”
Death gave Lily a good long look, and then gingerly held out his old wrinkled hand.
“May I shake your hand?” He asked, a curious look on his face. Lily blinked, and then hesitantly stretched forth her little fingers.
She was suddenly pulled out of the present and was now watching a young couple in a car, holding hands. The girl tucked her dark hair behind her ear demurely, giving the boy sitting next to her a smile. He squeezed her hand. Lily could feel how much they were in love. Suddenly, the two of them were blinded by the bright headlights of another car as it came out of nowhere and swerved towards them.
“Jeremy!!” the girl screamed. Blackness swirled around the scene, and Lily was back in the armchair, shaking hands with Death. He was looking at her intently.
“Did you see anything?” he asked slowly.
“You did the thing that Edgar did!!” she yelled. A smile came onto Death’s face.
“Edgar didn’t do that. You did.”
“What do you mean?”
Death leaned forward again, clasping his hands in front of him.
“Lily, I have a special… power. The first time I touch someone, I can see how they died. I’m guessing you have that same power.”
“Then, your name was Jeremy!” she exclaimed, thinking about what she had just seen.
“Technically it still is...”
“You died in a car crash.”
“Yes. Drunk driver.”
“Dunk? What’s that?”
“Oh. Well, I guess you’ll find out when you’re a little older.”
Lily tried to imagine what a dunk diver might look like. But like most five year old’s minds, it soon wandered onto a new subject.
“Who was the lady?”
Death sighed and leaned back in his chair again. “Sarah... We had been married six hours. She died a few hours after I did in the hospital.”
“Well, aren’t you still married?” Lily asked. Death smiled and nodded.
“Of course. That’s why I need someone to take my place. Our time in the Inbetween is just about over with.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s just a feeling.”
“And where’s Sarah right now?”
“She helps with the Seasons.”
Lily stood there thinking for a moment.
“So... who’s going to take your place?” she asked suspiciously.
“Well that’s my dilemma. I was originally going to choose from amongst the other Reapers, but….”
Death was silent for a moment. “That no longer matters, I think I’ve found my replacement….” he said, standing up. As he came around the desk, his hands clasped behind his back, he leaned over to her. “By the way, no one else knows about my past, so could we please keep it between us?”
“This is actually very important Lily. Please don’t tell anyone that my name is Jeremy or how I died.”
Lily absolutely hated it when grown ups said that. It basically just meant that they didn’t feel like explaining something.
“Fine.” she grumbled.
He nodded graciously and held out his hand.
“It’s ok. Nothing will happen this time. I promise. You’ll only have a death vision of someone the first time you touch them.” he said as she looked up at him warily. “You’ll get used to it. It was a bit of shock for me when I first started.” She put her small hand in his, and then walked with him as they left the office. Death seemed to glide across the floor, his black robe trailing behind him.
“Why are you wearing a blanket?” she asked suddenly. He laughed again.
“This is the “Death Cloak”. It is a symbol of the position I hold as Death.”
Lily had no idea what he was talking about, so she just shrugged and followed him out the door. As soon as they stepped outside, a very large man with a black cloak and long black hair walked up to them.
“Hello sir. I was sent to ask if you had made your decision on who your new apprentice was going to be.” he said in a gravelly voice that sounded like Lily’s snow cone maker at home. Lily looked up at the old man standing next to her.
“What’s a… a… pentice?”
“It… It’s a person who helps someone so they can eventually do that job.” Death explained to her. The man in front of them folded his arms with a frown, still waiting for an answer. Death paused.
“Zachary, I’ll… get to that in a bit. Go ahead and tell them I’ve made my decision, but I need to run some errands first… I’ll call and make the announcement when I’m ready for everyone.”
Zachary nodded, gave the little girl an eyebrow raise, and then walked away. Lily watched him disappear down the staircase, and then turned to look up at Death.
“Who’s you going to choose?”
Death looked around, and then led Lily down a hallway.
“You Lily. You’re going to be my apprentice and eventually take my place.”
This caught the five year old by surprise.
“Yes. Cool. But the other reapers might not exactly be happy with this, so we’re going to get you a Guardian.”
“Yes. Only the best for Death’s Apprentice.”