“He spake well who said that graves are the footprints of angels.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I knew who he was without turning around. We hadn't met and we'd never talked. But the second I heard the squeal of hinges, I knew who he was. My father. My real father. Pineme. I finished my drink and set the glass carefully on the bar.
“How'd you find me?” I said without turning to look at him. He sat down beside me. “The Deep Blue Sea is supposed to be hidden.”
“This place?” he said. His voice was low and soft. Almost gentle. “Wasn't hard. You're my blood. And I can see through magic. Especially angel magic. Even if I couldn't, I'd be able to find you anywhere. You're loud. Even in this chaotic world I can hear you.”
I finally turned my head slowly to look at him. He was disheveled, but in an endearing way. His dark hair was gray at the temples and had been pulled back into a messy ponytail. He wore rumpled khakis and a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt. He looked like a middle-aged tourist on vacation in the wrong hemisphere. And he had dark eyes. Angel eyes. Like mine. And like Sam's.
I swallowed thickly and reached for the bottle, pouring myself another and sloshing whiskey on the bar. “What do you mean I'm loud?” I said, trying to distract myself.
He was watching me. “It's hard to explain,” he said.
He frowned. “It's a bit like your soul is screaming.”
I snorted and took a drink. “I'm sure it is.”
“This isn't going to bring him back,” said Pineme.
“I know you're my father by blood, but stop pretending that you know me,” I said. I glared at him. “You don't know anything about me. You left us. Right after you shoved some unnatural god-power into me while I was in the womb. My mother died because of you.”
“You both would have died much sooner if I hadn't left.” There was an odd emptiness to his voice. “I have been trapped in the void since I left her. Since I left both of you. I had no idea they would find her. You're right. It is my fault. And it will haunt me for the rest of my life. As will Samael's unmaking haunt you.”
“Don't say his name,” I said, my voice falling to a dangerous whisper. “Don't even speak of him.”
“He'll never leave you. He's part of you now. I can feel him.”
“That's creepy,” I said. I finished the drink. I reached to pour another, but Pineme held the bottle. I looked at him, irritated.
“Why are you here?” he said. “This place. Does it give you comfort? Because it was his?”
“Nothing gives me comfort,” I said. “Everyone I know is dead or dying. Everyone but Bobby Gage, and he won't return my damn phone calls.”
“You are Death now,” he said. “You will live for a very long time. Everyone you know will die. I know this burden, and it is a painful one.”
“Peachy. You're just a burst of sunshine.”
“I know it's little comfort, but you have me now,” he said. “I can help you. If you'll let me.”
“I'll keep that in mind,” I said.
Pineme stood up, his movements fast. Damn angels. He looked at me sadly for a moment, and I thought he would reach in for an awkward hug, but instead he just turned around and walked across the bar and out the door.
There was a bitter taste in my mouth as I sat there in the silence. I pushed my empty glass away from me and it slid off the bar and shattered on the floor. The alcohol really didn't do much for me anymore, not since Sam had brought me back from the dead. But it dulled the sensation that I had felt day and night for over a month now. It was pulling in my chest, but it was also an ache. It was anxiety and frustration and confusion all rolled up into an undead package. It was my job now. Ushering the lost souls over where they were supposed to be. When they didn't go, or they fought it, or they didn't cross over out of sheer spite or hatred or anger, I could feel it. It was like a damn dagger in my chest, and the only way to pull it out was to go to them. To tell them to cross over. Sometimes I had to make them. Even if I just wanted to leave them be, let them figure things out on their own, I couldn't. It hurt me when they didn't go. I could feel the un-rightness of them.
I remembered how exhausted Sam was at the end, when souls weren't crossing over. I couldn't imagine the constant pain and discomfort he must have felt. There had been thousands of spirits walking around in the end. Michael had closed the way to Sheol, the resting place of the dead. Sam had never complained. Not even once. Granted, he'd been doing this job for a few thousand years more than me, but I couldn't imagine it had been pleasant. And even though he hadn't been able to do his job, he still had to look like something from a nightmare when he was in the world. Luckily, that had been Michael's caveat. I was at least allowed to look like myself, though I usually chose to remain invisible to the living. I had learned some tricks over the past few weeks.
The numb bliss that the alcohol brought was fading fast. I could feel the pull again. This time I let it take me. If only to stop feeling sorry for myself. Pineme was right. It served no purpose.
I looked around when my feet were on solid ground. I was on a narrow street wet with rain. There were strange words on a street sign nearby. Definitely not English. I wasn't sure what language it was. The symbols looked almost Russian. Whatever they were, I couldn't read them. The pull was irresistible now that I was so close. I walked toward the source: a quaint little house on the corner. I could see by the streetlights that it had tidy white shutters. The house was dark, but the door was open. That wasn't a good sign.
I walked in and the smell hit me right away. I'd grown used to it, but it always made me feel a little sick. The smell of blood. I'd seen far too much of it lately. I didn't know if it was the riots spreading across the globe to protest New Government, or maybe just the tension of a regime on its last legs, but it seemed to make people crazy. I'd seen at least three families slaughtered in the last week alone. Families that lived thousands of miles apart. I looked around the room and closed my eyes for a second at the carnage. Make that four.
The small room was covered in blood and gore. There was a smell of burning skin and hair that hung thick and greasy in the air. I looked to my right and saw why. A small fireplace was still glowing with embers, what was left of a person's head lying half in the grate, burning and bubbling into blackness. It looked as though it had been a man once. I saw his body lying against the wall. Even half-burnt, I could see his face had been smashed in brutally.
I made my way to the narrow staircase, the steps creaking ruefully as I went. I could hear the sound of crying. A woman. Noting the framed photographs as I went up the stairs I groaned. Happy family pictures. Three children, rosy-cheeked and dark-haired. The beach, lying in the grass, playing in the snow. There were so many pictures, all crowding for space in the scant amount of wall. I knew the spirit would be the mother. It was always the mother.
I reached the top of the stairs and followed the sound of sobbing. I could feel her in my chest. Even if she'd been completely silent, I would be able to find her. There was blood on the doorknob. It had dried, turning reddish brown and flaking off when I touched it. There was a matching bootprint on the light-colored carpet of the hallway. I braced myself before I entered. I understood why some of the angels hated humans. After a month of working as Death, I almost hated them too.
But when I opened the door and saw a wisp of a woman crumpled on the floor next to her dead children, I knew I didn't hate all humans. Just the shitty ones. Just the ones that were capable of things like this.
Four bodies filled the tiny room. Three very small ones, and a woman's body that looked like she had been killed trying to protect the others. All of their faces had been smashed into pulp. There was so much blood that it pooled above the carpet. The woman's ghost was rocking back and forth. She was whispering to herself, sounding half-mad in a language I didn't understand. I crouched next to her, my boots sloshing in the thick wetness. I tried not to look at the kids, but I could see a pink hair ribbon out of the corner of my eye. I looked down to see it attached to a dark braid. It had been ripped out. I swallowed a gag.
Taking a breath and trying to ignore the warm copper smell that filled my mouth and nose, I looked to the woman.
“I'm so sorry,” I said. “It shouldn't have to end this way. Not for anyone.”
She looked at me, startled. Realization filled her eyes. They always knew me. I didn't need a death-mask for them to know who I was. She shook her head and words tumbled rapidly from her mouth, so fast I couldn't even make out the syllables. Then she closed her eyes and started whispering again. I realized she was praying. It would be a relief for her. She would never forget any of this, but at least I could bring her some peace.
I reached out my hand and touched her lightly on the shoulder. She was still praying as she went, becoming a series of whirlwinds that would be invisible to any human but me. I closed my eyes at the thought. I wasn't human anymore. I was as far from human as it was possible to be. I was Death.
I had some catching up to do after my respite of whiskey at the Deep Blue Sea. A teenage pair of kids who looked like brother and sister crashed their SUV into a tree. Their dead bodies reeked of alcohol. The girl's ghost just shook her head at me, uncomprehending.
“Is that it?” said the boy in a panicky voice. “Is that all we get?”
“I'm sorry,” I said. “No one gets a do-over.” Except for me, I thought.
“Shit,” he said.
An old man in a stone cottage stared vacantly at an old woman asleep in a rocking chair. His body sat, forgotten, next to a coal-burning stove. He reached out to touch the woman's wispy white hair that fell down her shoulders. He looked up at me when I came in.
“Who will take care of her?” he said. “She'll die without me.” His accent was Irish.
“Then soon you'll be together,” I said gently. That seemed to give him comfort and he almost smiled as he crossed over.
The feeling was starting to dissipate. The pain was receding with each soul that I helped. I was nearly done for the night, I could feel it. It would be nice to tumble into bed and get at least a few minutes' sleep before the feeling started again. The pain.
A man with ebony skin in a ramshackle church pleaded with me in his language. His body lay behind the pulpit with bullet holes peppering his suit. All I could ever say was, “I'm sorry.” It seemed so insubstantial, yet it was the only thing I could say. And sometimes it was enough. Some spirits just needed to hear someone else comment on the unfairness of what happened to them. And if it wasn't enough, at least I could let them sleep with a touch.
At last, I found myself at the last place I would have to go. One more and then sleep. It was a hospital. I'd been to so many hospitals over the past weeks that they all started to look the same to me. But there was something about this one. Something familiar.
I walked along, feeling the pull of the last lost soul I would see tonight, urging me along. I recognized a heavy nurse in scrubs, but I couldn't remember where I knew her from. She had ducked into an darkened hallway and was leaning against the wall. She had her her fingers pressed against her sinuses, like she was trying not to cry. She looked towards me suddenly, startled. She looked right through me. She couldn't see me, but she probably sensed me. And then I knew where I knew her from. I knew which hospital I was in. It was near my neighborhood. The same hospital Sofi was at. The nurse was Sofi's nurse.
I felt my heart beating a rhythm in the back of my skull. I looked in the direction I was being pulled. Further down the hall I saw a man silhouetted. His belly stuck out and he slouched. He ran a hand through his hair. I knew he was balding even though he was so far away. I knew he had a goatee and hair that was red-going-gray. Lou Craig. I walked slowly, so slowly that the pressure was almost too much. Like my heart was being ripped out.
A larger man came from the other direction and joined Lou. He put a comforting hand on the shorter, heavier man's shoulder.
“Bobby?” I said under my breath. I saw Lou shake his head. I could hear the rumbles of their voices, and if I could have stopped I would have. Anything not to hear, anything to not know what I suspected to be true. But whatever was pulling me didn't give me a choice. I was too close to step away.
Sofi had never woken. The doctors said it was the cancer, but the doctors didn't know about how Michael put the world to sleep to fight his stupid war. Michael was dead now, and if he wasn't I would have killed him long ago. Bobby Gage had moved Sofi out of the city with magic, moved her whole apartment. But whether it was Bobby's magic, Michael's magic, or just plain horrible disease that caused her to keep sleeping, no one in my world seemed to know. And it didn't matter. I didn't care why she was sick, I just wanted her back. She was my baba, the woman that had raised me. She was the reason I kept returning to humanity, the reason I kept living. Sofi was the person that kept me human. I couldn't think of life without her.
I could hear the men talking now, I could make out their words.
“...couldn't get a hold of her. She's not answering her phone. I've tried about a dozen times. I didn't know who else to call.” Lou's face was pale with patches of bright pink on his cheeks and nose. He shook his head. “The docs worked on her for over an hour. There was nothing they could do. They said her body just gave out.”
“You did good, Lou,” said Bobby, his voice a deep rumble. He had a full beard now and his hair, usually messy and flopping around his ears, had grown past his collar. He pushed it off his forehead. He had a big bruise on his forehead. His army surplus jacket, which could have doubled as a tent for a normal-sized person, was ripped at one shoulder. His eyes were bruised and puffy like he hadn't slept in days. “I'll take you home, okay? Your daughter probably misses you.”
Lou nodded emptily. He looked back toward the room behind him and shook his head sadly. “This is going to kill her, you know. That lady meant the world to her. She was the only family Niki had left.”
Bobby nodded solemnly. “Guess we'll have to be her family now.” He looked quickly toward me, searching the air around me. After a moment he turned back to Lou. “Let's go. Nothing else to be done here.”
I watched them go, Bobby patting Craig on the back gently as they went. When they turned a corner and I couldn't see them anymore, I turned shakily toward the room. The door was open and I could see her in the bed, the pale green blanket tucked neatly around her. I took a step toward the doorway and saw the blanket covered her head too. Maybe it wasn't Sofi under there. Maybe they made a mistake.
But as I took the last slow step through the door, I had to admit, it was Sofi. Her spirit sat in an ugly pink padded chair, as though waiting for me. “No,” I said, the word catching in my throat. “No, Sofi. Not you.”
“I thought it would be you, Nikita. I dreamed of you being the one to come for me. So long ago I had that dream. I had wondered if it was a vision. Now I know that it was.”
I couldn't go to her. I couldn't touch her or she would disappear in front of my eyes. And I wasn't ready for that eventuality. So I simply sat on the floor in front of her and hugged my knees as I had done when I was a child.
“I have so much to tell you,” I said. “There's so much for us to talk about. I'm not ready for you to go.” My voice was barely above a whisper.
“You?” she said. “Not ready? I hardly believe my ears. Just look at you. Angel eyes. Brought back from the dead. Taking over for Death. Don't look surprised, I have seen it all. Did you think the visions would stop just because I was asleep?” She clucked her tongue. “You can handle anything, Nikita. You always could.” She smiled sadly. “Such a strong girl. But sometimes you make yourself fragile, I think. Please promise you won't let this break you.”
“I can't,” I said. “I don't think I can take any more. All this death. I've had my limit.” I felt my lip tremble. “Please. Just stay with me a little longer.”
“You know that's not possible, Niki.” She leaned forward. “I'm so tired. Tired of fighting this disease, tired of living in this old body. I just want to rest. Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” I said. “That's what I want, too.”
She shook her head sadly. “No. You won't be resting for a very long time. I'm sorry.”
I felt a sharp tingle behind my eyes. “Sofi, don't leave me. Please. It's too much.”
She smiled gently. “You will get by. You always do.” The smile faded and she shook her head. “I'm so sorry you were born into this. You really never had a chance for a normal life. But I tried to give one to you anyway. It just never did take.”
“It's not your fault,” I said.
“No,” she sighed. “It's no one's fault. Everyone has done what they thought was right. Your father, your real father, thought it was right to give you the Creator's power. Your mother thought it was right to die to save you. Poor Sasha thought it was right to bring you to me. And I thought it was right to love you. And I will always love you, dear girl. Always.”
“How do you know all this?” I said.
“I have seen much in the last weeks,” she said. “Now stand up. Be the woman I raised you to be. You are strong enough, I know you are. You have to let me go. You are the only thing holding me back. You won't break, Nikita. But you have to allow yourself to bend.”
The pull in my chest was unbearable as I slowly stood, my legs wobbly and my throat tight. “I love you, Sofi,” I said.
“I know,” she said. She stood from the chair and held out her arms. I went to her and put my arms around her one last time. And then she was gone. No sign that her spirit had ever been there. The only thing left of Sofi was the empty shell lying covered on the bed. I let out a breath in a shuddering gasp. She was really gone. Never coming back.
I was alone.