Short story featuring: LGBT Romance, Homosexuality, Married Couple, Arguments, Death, Afterlife, Fantasy. Rated 13+ for mentions of death and mild profanity.
“Have you seen my husband? Edward Landry. He died in a car accident ’bout twenty years ago.”
Clients will ask about deceased loved ones. Redirect. Redirect. Redirect. That was the fourth rule in How to Defuse the Dead: A Reaper’s Guide for Dealing with Difficult Deceased Clients.
“One thing at once, please sir.” The reaper tightened the drawstrings on his hood, “How did you die?”
“In my sleep, I think. Just got new bed sheets as well. Ain’t that typical. By the way, why has your suit got a hood? You look stupid. And where’s Satan? I’ve got a thing or two to say.”
The reaper hesitated. Across the office, a colleague gestured for him to hurry. Unnecessary. He knew full well he was teetering on the edge of a policy violation: For the love of God, don’t mention religion. (Not even when reciting this rule). At this rate, he’d be stripped of his reaper status and back to drifting through eternity. Utterly bored.
“The hood is mandatory in the Western Department.” The reaper said, “Let’s finish this form, sir -“
“‘Sir’!” the client snorted, “It’s Conroy.”
“Will you keeping that name?”
“Jesus Christ. Seriously? If I’d known I was going to do paperwork when I popped off, I would have tried harder not to.”
“This ‘paperwork’ helps make the transition easier. You get to see something familiar, have time to adjust to a new reality, and we’re able to predict what’s happening in the first life, disease or war, what symbols are associated with death and so on. It helps us prepare for future clients.”
“You sound like Ed. Professional type. Proper uptight. Barely had any room in his heart for anything ‘cept his work. He could be a right ass sometimes too.”
“…I’m sure he cared about you. You seemed so eager to find him.”
“Only so I can kick him up the backside.”
Don’t get involved with a client’s personal affairs. Rule nine.
“What did he do?”
Conroy shifted in his seat. “He didn’t do anything. That was the problem. I needed ’bout twenty arguments ready before he’d agree to anything. I felt like I pushed him to marry me, you know?”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t have said yes if he didn’t…”
“You’d think that.”
“You really think he didn’t care?”
Conroy’s scrunched up his face. “I don’t know. All I know is living with him was like living alone without the peace. He said I was unreasonable, but at least I gave a damn. I was the only one who did. Even suggested a marriage counsellor. You know what he said? ‘I’ll think about it’ and then he got in his car to go to work. The next time I saw him, I was identifying his body.”
His ever-watchful colleague gestured to her wrist. Right. People didn’t stop dying. He was letting the team down.
But if he let Conroy go now…
“I’m sorry. ” he tugged off his hood, “I didn’t mean for it to happen that way.”
He expected anger or the kick he deserved, but Conroy only paused as if he was acknowledging a temporary, untroubling interruption.
“You didn’t mean to get into a car accident? Or you didn’t mean the fighting?”
“And if I hadn’t said anything would you have just let me walk out of here, you insensitive prick?”
Ah. There was the anger. “Not happily.” Edward couldn’t meet Conroy’s eyes. “You never told me how you felt before.”
“You weren’t around.”
“When? You were either at work, or at a work party I never got an invite to. You always said your work buddies were great, not that I ever met any of them until you were six feet under. You embarrassed by me or what?”
That got them a few glances from both reapers and clients. “Maybe…we could talk after this?”
“Are you making a scene so you can prove how ’embarrassed’ I am of you?”
“Knew you were.”
“I am not! I didn’t invite you because I thought you weren’t interested.” Every part of Edward was burning, “All those arguments we had, you never told me any of this. I used to come home from work and you’d avoid me. I’d ask how you was and you wouldn’t say.”
“I don’t remember doing that.”
“You did and it made me feel more at home at work than I did in our house. Work was a place were I could earn and achieve and better myself, while every night I came home and was told that I don’t care by the one person I thought would support me no matter what.”
Neither of them looked at each other. Edward tried to ignore the burning stares and raised brows of his colleagues as they passed by his booth. Some of them passed more than once. Bored reapers desperate for rumours to spread. With eternity ahead, there was little else to do.
At last Conroy huffed, “Hoods look dumb on suits.”
“They really do.”
“Should finish that form. Get me outta here.”
Edward froze. That was that then. Twenty years gone by and he’d messed it all up again. He managed to nod and fill in the last few details on the death form with a trembling hand. “Are you not going to kick my ass?”
“Nah. Ruin my shoes.”
“They’re nice shoes.”
“You didn’t even look.”
“I know which ones. The only shoes you ever took care of, no wonder they followed you here.”
“You got them signed for me. Signature looks brighter now. It faded a bit over the years, but it’s back now.”
“It’s your memory of them that’s important, that brings them here and let’s you see them.” he leaned to the side so he could see them, “When I look at them, they’re dripping wet. I waited for hours in the rain to them signed.”
“When you came home, I thought you’d jumped in the river.” Conroy’s voice cracked with laughter. “I didn’t notice Gerrard’s signature ’til the week after.”
“I thought you hated them until I saw you with the shoe polish. That was a month later, at least. Even then, it took me a while to believe you liked them.”
“There was a lot of things we did’t say to each other.” Conroy’s smile dropped, “You were right about your colleagues, y’know. They were great. Had a lot of great things to say about you.”
“I meant to ask… Did you find someone else?”
“Nah. I was a wrinkly old geezer by the time I got over you. No one would have me. Did’t want anyone else anyway.”
“You got over me?”
“Yeah. Sure.” his eyes were wet and shinny, “Would’t want to waste the best years of my afterlife on you.”
“Can I walk you out?”
“Give me a minute.” Edward took his stack of forms for all the clients he’d had that day and squeezed out of his cubicle. His hawk-eyed colleague scowled disapprovingly as he passed.
His supervisor had a private at the opposite end of the maze-like office floor. He wove his way toward it, knocked, and opened the door, “Excuse me. A personal matter has come up.”
“Three people have stopped to tell me already.” she rested her chin on her hands. “You know our policy on reunions.”
“Yes, rule six. ‘If you had a personal relationship with your client while living, send them to another reaper. Reunions waste time.'”
“So why didn’t you send him away?”
“With respect, he’s my husband and I haven’t seen him in twenty years. We may be cold corpses, but we’re not unfeeling.”
“I like you Ed, but this is a competitive position and a lot of people are waiting for their chance. If you walk out I can’t promise someone else won’t be sitting at your deck tomorrow.”
“I understand. My forms for today.” he passed her the forms.
Walking back to his cubicle, he glanced at the faces of his colleagues, at the string of lights on the roof, and the white world outside the window. He was used to the stability of this place, but he wasn’t sure he’d miss it.
Stood at Edward’s cubicle, Conroy shuffled his signed shoes. “You did’t answer my question, you know. Is this Heaven or Hell?”
Instead of answering, Edward offered his arm.
Conroy took it.