I’ve ferried two hundred and twenty-one souls across the river of death, and I can already tell my two-hundred-and-twenty-second is going to be a real shitkicker. I know by the lightness of the manila folder in my hand, the preemptive pity in the courier’s face as she gives it to me. I read the typewritten card paper-clipped to the front with my stomach tensed, braced for the sucker punch.
Name: Lawrence Harper
Address: 186 Grist Mill Road, Lisle NY, 13797
Time: Sunday, July 14th 2020, 2:08AM, EST
Cause: Cardiac arrest resulting from undiagnosed long QT syndrome
Age: 30 months
Jesus Christ on his sacred red bicycle. He’s two.
Two is, by break room consensus, the worst age for reaping. Their souls are still baby-soft and cottony, wholly innocent, but full of the subtleties and quirks that define their selfhood. They’re balanced right at the teetering edge of themselves, so full of potential it makes your eyes water just to be near them.
Also, two-year-olds are contrarian bastards and it takes several hours and a family-size pack of M&Ms to coax them across the river.
These days, with the child mortality rate comfortably below 7 per 1,000 births, we don’t process too many of the under-fives—some of the older reapers like to bitch about how we’ve got it soft, reminiscing about the good old days before seatbelt laws and vaccinations and the EPA–but six-point-six out of a thousand is still six-point-six too many. Every reaper hits one eventually.
This was my first, in my three years of reaping. I was starting to think somebody upstairs was looking out for me, shielding me in case one of the under-fives turned out to be a little boy with corn silk hair and dark eyes. In case I cracked like an egg and had to retire early.
Every new reaper is shielded, at least a little. The first dozen or so deaths we’re assigned are generally people with one spiritual foot firmly in the grave: your stage-IV seventy-year-olds, your left behind spouses, your great-grandmothers who just overheard the term assisted living floating up the stairs.
There’s something satisfying about those reapings. A routine heroism, like covering a shift for your hungover friend or shooing a trapped bird out the window. Those are the times it’s easiest to believe my supervisor’s speeches about the pristine order of the universe and the cyclical shape of time and the necessity of death.
(Some reapers dance around the word death, preferring verbs like passing or ascending. My supervisor—Raz, Reaper Recruitment Coordinator and Archangel of Secrets—believes euphemisms are a form of cowardice, and Raz doesn’t recruit cowards).
But eventually you run out of easy deaths.
Eventually the courier slinks into the locker room and hands you a manila folder without quite meeting your eyes and you know you’re in for it: newlyweds in car crashes; leukemia that was supposed to be in remission; restraining orders that didn’t work. Or sometimes it seems fine—88 years old, ischemic stroke, 4:12PM—but when you arrive you find a soul so wasted and dim, so shriveled by bitterness and regret that you want to stop the clock and say: Look, you’ve got a week. Try a new ice cream flavor. Listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Call your son. Live, you damn fool.
Except you don’t because you can’t, and because of the pristine order of the universe and the cyclical shape of time, et cetera. Instead you sit beside him and watch the plaque crumble from his carotid and drift sluggishly up to his cerebral artery. The fizz of electricity in his brain goes dark and the sour muck of his soul rises from his body, glaring. It’s a long ride across the river that night.
So I don’t come apart when I see little Lawrence Harper’s name on that neatly-typed card, the curve of that 3 staring up at me like half a heart. I lay the folder in my scuffed briefcase—I was never a briefcase-carrier before, but fashion in the hereafter runs twenty to fifty years behind—and head out for 186 Grist Mill Road.
I already know how it will go: I will wait beside him in the night (does he have a bed shaped like a plastic race car like Ian did? Does he kick the blankets off his legs every night?) until 2:08AM, when the bird-wing flutter of his heart will go still. I will tuck his ghostly hand in mine as I lead him through the dark to the riverbank, and when we reach the other side I’ll watch his soul disperse into the depthless firmament of the universe. It will be achingly sad but also kind of beautiful, and afterward I’ll sit in the break room and drink burned coffee and cry. Leon might come by and give me the Circle of Life speech from The Lion King and we’ll both laugh and he’ll thump me on the shoulder and say it’s just the way it goes.
And then tomorrow I’ll open my next manila folder and do it again.
Not because I’m a heartless bastard; they don’t recruit heartless bastards to comfort the dead and ferry their souls across the last river. They look for people whose hearts are vast and scarred, like old battlefields overgrown with poppies and saplings. People who know how to weep and keep working, who have lost everything except their compassion.
(The official recruitment policy is race and gender-neutral, but forty-something white males like me are a rarity. We are statistically less likely to experience shattering loss, and culturally permitted to become complete assholes when we do. We turn into addicts and drunks, bitter old men who shed a single, manly, redemptive tear at the end of the movie, while everybody else has to gather up the jagged edges of themselves and keep going).
Raz told me she also looks for people with kind eyes and a high tolerance for bureaucracy, who have never cheated at anything in their entire lives (poker, Settlers of Catan, marriage). “You can cheat a lot of shit,” she says, “But not death.”
Lawrence Harper doesn’t have a race car bed, thank God. Instead he has a twin mattress on the floor of his parents’ single-wide. He also has: a Spiderman blanket that smells like a thrift store, dusty and flowery; a plastic Buzz Lightyear clutched in one sweaty fist; reddish hair, skim milk skin; a heart that will fail in approximately eleven hours and twelve minutes; and a soul that shines like a comet streaking across the last midnight of summer.
Even for a two-year-old, it’s a stunner of a soul, vibrant and hungry, bonfire bright. It’s the kind of soul that might lead revolutions or write symphonies in an adult, but in a kid it mostly translates to trouble. I bet his parents spend a lot of time smiling fixedly at strangers as they haul him out of restaurants or pry him out of trees. I bet his grandma refers to him as “a handful” and refuses to babysit except in emergencies.
I bet they’ll miss him like hell once he’s gone.
That’s what makes this job tough, of course. It’s not the dead rejoining the limitless love of the universe; it’s the ones they leave behind, who have to keep on trudging through the world beneath the burden of their terrible, limited love.
I settle cross-legged on the carpet, trying not to nudge the piled laundry or set off some battery-powered toy. Reapers have what the training manuals call “limited corporeal capacity,” which means we can move stuff but not much, like when you’re in a dream and your limbs are filled with wet sand and everything is impossibly, illogically heavy.
I figure most ghost stories are the result of clumsy reapers, although there are late night break room rumors of reapers who went rogue. Who abandoned the Department and haunted the living world until they faded into tattered wraiths. I don’t know if I believe those stories, because A) what kind of asshole wants to spend eternity creeping around a Victorian mansion or an old psych ward, scaring teenagers, and B) Raz or one of the other archangels would atomize them so instantly and thoroughly there wouldn’t be enough drifting motes of soulstuff left to tell a story about. Raz is the kind of sweet, middle-aged Black woman with whom you do not fuck.
I’ve never been tempted to do anything more than bum a cigarette or flick a light switch, myself. (Except the one time, right after my own funeral. I slunk back into my shitty, tobacco-stained apartment and took the only thing in it that I cared a damn about. But it wasn’t a big deal and nobody saw.)
Lawrence stirs beneath his Spiderman blanket and sits up, his hair smeared sideways, his eyes blue, unfocused. His dad must hear the rustling on the baby monitor because he turns up two seconds later, a lanky, tired man in sweatpants. He drapes Lawrence casually over one shoulder and pads back down the hall, and for a moment I’m too choked with envy and pity to follow them. Envy because he’s holding his son in his arms, sleep-soft and sweaty; pity because this is the last time.
By the time I make it out to the kitchen Lawrence is snapped into a plastic booster seat crunching off-brand Cheerios. He looks up as I enter and I figure it’s nothing, just a coincidence, but then his eyes focus on me. Lawrence waves.
I’ve been seen before, but not often. For most people I’m a prickle at their hairline, a smudged not-quite-reflection in the mirror behind them, a strange and unwelcome awareness of their heartbeats in their ears. Reapers are the reason fewer people board doomed flights and good dogs sometimes bark at nothing.
But the way Lawrence is looking at me—head tilted, eyes flicking from briefcase to old-timey suit to beard stubble—I know he sees every single undead inch of me.
I wave back, awkwardly. He smiles. I press one finger to my lips. He copies me, then whispers “SHHH” so loudly that his dad laughs and shushes him back, and then they’re drawn into a competitive shushing game that lasts through snack time and outside into the sweet fresh-clover smell of the July afternoon.
Their yard is several inches past overgrown and littered with sun-faded scraps of plastic. I don’t feel the heat so much these days but I can tell from the wavy lines coming off the trailer that it’s hotter than the hell that doesn’t exist. Lawrence’s dad settles into a busted lawn chair in the shade while his son wanders. I trail after him.
Lawrence picks up a stick and slashes invisible enemies, narrating a story that sounds like a combination of Toy Story and Star Wars. He tosses a tennis ball at the trailer for a while, apparently intrigued by the showers of rust that pour out from under the siding, then throws it, for no reason at all, to me.
And I catch it, like a dumbass. It strains against the insubstantial edges of my existence. Lawrence holds his arms out, waiting.
I can’t quote the Book of Death line and verse the way Raz can, but I’m pretty sure there’s a policy somewhere against playing catch in broad daylight with a doomed two-and-a-half-year-old, surrounded by the green hum of summer.
But like—fuck it. I toss the ball back. Lawrence misses it, because two-and-a-half-year-olds have the coordination of drunk bear cubs, but it doesn’t matter. I am immediately promoted from boring stranger to Imaginary Friend and conscripted into a series of opaque games involving tennis balls and shrieking and running in circles around the trailer until even my death-cold skin is flushed and sweaty and my chest is aching, as if my heart is either mending or breaking.
By the time the game ends the sun is slanting pink and sideways and the world has softened like butter on the counter. Lawrence collapses backward onto the densest patch of clover and lies still for the first time since he woke up. I can see white streaks of cloud in his eyes and, if I squint, the red muscle of his heart contracting and releasing in that secret, imperfect rhythm. His soul blazes back at the sky, wide-open, a private infinity of possibility.
I wonder if Ian’s reaper watched him like this, with something aching and tender lodged like a splinter behind their breastbone. I wonder if Ian’s soul shone this brightly (I know it did). I wonder how it will feel to watch a soul like this disperse into the endless everything, scattered into a billion lonely atoms.
Raz was my reaper. She showed me my folder afterward and the card paper-clipped to it: Sam Grayson, 44 years old, 11:19AM EST, respiratory failure resulting from small cell lung cancer. The cancer came courtesy of a pack of Lucky Strikes a day for fifteen years or so; my personal fuck you to mortality after Ian.
I couldn’t see her, but I could sort of sense her: a soft, amber gaze hovering at the edges of the hospital room, watching the labored rise and fall of my chest.
It’s department policy to spend at least four hours prior to death with the soon-to-be-deceased. It’s supposed to “forge emotional bonds between souls and reapers” and “encourage compassionate care”—the department has been working tirelessly and fruitlessly to combat the whole sweeping robes, menacing scythe stereotype—but Raz believes in a full twelve, even during busy weeks (flu epidemics, civil wars, the holidays).
So she sat at my bedside through the night and half a day until my clogged lungs bubbled into silence and my pulse stuttered and I drowned in carbon dioxide and cancer. I died thinking fucking finally.
I could see her, then: a brown-skinned woman somewhere between thirty and seventy wearing a white cable-knit sweater and comfortable Levi’s.
She smiled—a professional smile, smoothed by centuries of use, but still somehow genuine—and launched into what I now recognize as a version of the same “welcome to the afterlife, kid” speech I’ve given two hundred and twenty-one times. It begins with some variation of “it’s all right,” which is an absolute lie and both of you know it, but which manages to imply that there’s some sort of plan, a system in place, and usually buys you a few minutes to explain the rest.
It worked on me. I drifted, perfectly placid, as Raz explained that I was dead, and that we would shortly be stepping together into a vast and endless darkness, broken only by an even darker river, which she would guide me across. Then there was a lot of other stuff about how my soul would unravel and rejoin the spangled cosmos, and how the universe itself was love, which is all true but is still unforgivably hokey.
And then she paused and I had the feeling—even as machines beeped in ineffective alarm and my soul hovered above my body like steam above pasta water, milky and vaporous—that we were going off script.
She tilted her head, the gentle amber of her eyes sharpening. “Or,” she began, and let me tell you the human brain is capable of a lot of wordless scenario-spinning in the infinite space following the word or. Or this isn’t the end. Or this is a bad reaction to my meds and I’ll wake up hungover but alive. Or I get a pair of feathered wings and I’ll go soaring through the pearly gates and Ian will be waiting for me on a puff of cumulus, laughing his wild laugh, and these fifteen years of heartache will be wiped clean, set right, the moment my palm brushes the soft corn silk of his hair.
But she didn’t say any of that. She handed me a cream-colored business card with my name embossed cleanly on the front—Sam Grayson, Junior Reaper, Department of Death—and offered me a job.
Just before dark, Lawrence’s mom shows up in a puttering Corolla. She wears a red apron with Tractor Supply embroidered across the top and smells like rubber and chicken feed and the gray film of receipt paper, but Lawrence doesn’t care: he practically teleports into her arms, face mashed against the stringy bone of her shoulder.
The Harpers clatter together into the trailer and start the dinnertime circus of bib and highchair, mac n’ cheese and canned peas he won’t eat, adult conversation slipped expertly between threats and pleas (“if you spit your milk out one more time I’m taking it away—did you pay the gas bill?—two bites, baby, eat two bites of peas”). His dad pulls on a polyester uniform and pours himself a thermos of burnt coffee. Before he leaves he kisses the back of his wife’s neck and she tilts her head back, eyes closed.
I can see how tired they are, worn thin with work and worry. I can see how there’s never quite enough money, how they rinse out Ziploc bags and resent the loss of milk-splattered macaroni. But I can see, too, that it’s worth it. That they’ll keep working and worrying and the impossible alchemy of love will turn never enough into plenty.
Except that, at 2:08 AM the following morning, their son’s heart will stop and I will ferry his soul across the river and their lives will be permanently, irreparably fucked.
I want to leave. I want to step sideways out of the world and reappear back in the break room, smoke a stolen cigarette with Leon and forget all about the Harpers.
Except Lawrence would still die. Except there would be no friendly stranger waiting to take his hand and show him the way. He would wander alone into the darkness on the wrong side of the river and wisp away into nothing instead of everything.
So I stay. Raz doesn’t recruit cowards or bastards, after all.
Lawrence’s mom does bath and bedtime on her own while Lawrence chatters about Maui’s magical fish hook and his big kid underwear and his new friend who’s very tall and sad. She makes the right noises—really? that’s great sweetie!—but she’s not really listening, and I have a sudden, wild urge to shake her until her teeth rattle.
This is it! I want to say. This is the conversation you will replay again and again for the rest of your life! You will wish you took his soft cheeks in your hands and looked into his eyes and said: I love you, Ian, and wherever you go a part of me will always follow, across that dark river and into black beyond, through every eternity.
But I keep my fists balled in my pockets as she zips him into pajamas and plugs in his nightlight. Her last kiss is a routine brush of her lips across his forehead. “Night, love.”
The door clicks. He thrashes for a few minutes before falling abruptly and profoundly to sleep.
I watch the treacherous thump of his heart, counting out beats. I’ve watched enough heart failures and cardiac arrests to hear the fatal hitch in its rhythm, the tiny irregularity that will fail him when he needs it most. He’s a brave kid—the kind who laughs at barking dogs and watches the garbage truck with an expression of aspirational awe—or he wouldn’t have made it two and a half years without startling his heart into seizing.
But tonight something’s going to scare him or thrill him. A nightmare, maybe, formless and childish, that will send his heart into an ungainly gallop. Then it will stumble. Then it will stop. His parents won’t even know until they open his door in the morning, wondering why he’s sleeping so late.
I see the nightmare arrive, drawing a line between the pale red of his brows. The line looks fresh somehow, like tracks in new snow, as if he’d never really frowned before. I watch his heart beat faster, tut-tut-tut. The delicate chambers pulse raggedly now, losing the rhythm they’ve practiced for thirty months. Thirty-nine months, I guess.
His heart seizes. The frown line deepens. His mouth opens as his pale skin goes from red to white to pearl-blue, and I see the first wisps of his soul rise like steam from his body.
I don’t think. I don’t debate or decide. I just—do.
I reach between his ribs and wrap my hand around his heart. It feels impossibly small against my hand, a hard apple plucked too early from the tree. I squeeze it as hard as I can with my fingers that don’t exist and my fist that isn’t there.
His heart shudders back to life like an engine on a cold morning. It flutters against my hand as the blue leaches out of his lips and his soul spools back into his body.
I sit beside him until dawn, watching the miraculous thud of his heart and thinking: he’s alive, he’s alive and also oh, fuck.
It’s the failure to submit my Certification of Soul’s Passage that gets me, of course. You can’t forge them or fake them or forget them; when a soul disintegrates into the void it automatically generates a sheaf of papers in triplicate, signed with the last fading imprint of a soul as it leaves the world, and Lawrence Harper’s soul is still very much in the world, tethered to his illegal heartbeat.
Raz finds me sitting on the pier, splashing my feet in the river of death. I’m half-expecting her to skip the small talk and go straight to the smiting but instead she sits beside me on the dry decking, the soft white of her sweater brushing against my shoulder.
She’s quiet for a while. And then: “You know it doesn’t work like this, Sam.”
“Yeah,” I say, because I do know, and what else am I going to say? That there was a beautiful boy and I didn’t want him to die like my beautiful boy died? That I didn’t want to ferry his soul to the far side of the river and watch it merge, however beautifully, with the infinite love of the universe? And P.S. fuck infinite love, give me the desperate, finite love of the living?
I don’t say any of that, because I don’t (quite) have a death wish.
Raz says, softly, “Would you like me to reassign him?”
Even burrowed deep in my doomed funk, I feel a flick of surprise. Deaths aren’t reassigned, traded, escaped, called-out-sick-on, avoided, or skipped; your deaths are your deaths, no matter how grisly, and if you can’t handle them you have a brief but blunt conversation with your supervisor after which no one ever sees you again. None of us know where you go, but it’s unlikely that it’s anywhere pleasant.
I look directly at Raz for the first time and find her face glowing with that terrible, bottomless compassion. She draws a Lucky Strike from her breast pocket and passes it over. She touches her fingertip to the end and it glows hot orange. “Do you still have the picture?”
I don’t move. I don’t breathe.
Raz knows. She knows that I flagrantly ignored the chapter in the Book of Death on Releasing Your Worldly Connections and Severing Familial Ties. She knows what I stole from my shitty apartment. She probably even knows that it’s resting right now in my breast pocket, directly above my heart.
I swallow once, inhale smoke. “He was—he was a good kid.”
“I know, Sam.” Her voice is still so gentle. “And so is Lawrence, and it’s bullshit that they have to die, but that’s how it is. It’s the ugly half-bargain of living, and it’s our job to make it a little less ugly when we can.” She pauses and adds practically, “And we can’t save every cute kid. We can’t cheat death.”
But I think: I did. How long did I buy Lawrence? How much would I pay for another day, another hour with Ian?
I don’t say anything. Her voice turns considerably less gentle. “That car was going eighty-five miles an hour when it hit the ice. There was nothing Leon could have done to stop it, no matter how many rules he broke.”
Leon. I never knew who reaped Ian’s soul and hadn’t asked. Leon is a good dude—soft-spoken and big-hearted—but for a split second I want to drag him into the river with me and hold us both under until our second and final death closes above our heads.
“I’m going to ask you again: do you want me to reassign him?”
It’s a kindness. A favor, and Raz doesn’t really do favors. I am obscurely warmed and almost tempted to accept—but I don’t want Lawrence reassigned. His death belongs to me. However many beats his heart had left, they are mine to witness.
“No. I’ve got it. Thanks.”
Raz leans across me, plucks the still-lit cigarette from my fingertips and flicks it into the river. Her breath against my ear is sulfurous, too hot. “Then don’t fuck it up this time.”
She hands me a freshly printed card with Lawrence’s name on it—July 28th, 5:22AM, cardiac arrest again—and vanishes.
I run my fingertip around the crisp edge of the card and realize I was wrong. It wasn’t a kindness or a favor: it was a test.
It’s July 28th and I’m in the back bedroom of the Harpers’ damn trailer again, watching Lawrence’s heart pump like a tiny red bellows in his chest.
Except this time I’ve had two weeks to anticipate it. Two weeks to sit in the break room refilling my coffee from the pot that never empties, feeling the time-softened folds of the Polaroid in my breast pocket, thinking about the order of the universe and the Circle of Motherfucking Life and things you can’t cheat.
This time I know exactly what I’m going to do.
At 4:00 in the morning, one hour and twenty-two minutes before he’s scheduled to die, I take Lawrence’s hand. I stroke his forehead with barely-real knuckles and he half-wakes. He smiles a muzzy, sleepy smile and sinks back into sleep.
I keep holding his hand. I make sure that nightmare never comes.
At 5:23AM Lawrence’s heart is still beating, red and wet and alive, and I’m smiling so hard I can feel my face splitting along the seams. I want to sing. I want to weep. I want to recite the poem I memorized in seventh grade because it was the shortest one on the list: how do you like your blue-eyed boy/Mr. Death?
I know I didn’t cheat him, not really. Mr. Death always wins in the end. But maybe sometimes—if you’re stubborn and sad and tired as fuck of the way things go—you can win a hand or two.
I stay with Lawrence til dawn, wondering idly if I should cut and run while I still can. It seems more important to stay, to watch the stubborn thu-thumping of Lawrence’s heart, the miraculous pooling of drool on his pillow. I should have spent more time watching Ian.
I feel it when she arrives: an abrupt rise in temperature, a whiff of brimstone. I look out the narrow window to see Raz standing in the yard like the end times, like vengeance in a cable-knit sweater. I look back at Lawrence one last time and am pleased to find I don’t regret a single damn thing.
I slip through particle board and fiberglass and corrugated tin of the trailer wall and stroll to Raz with my hands in my pockets. I smile at her. It’s not really the time for genial smiles—I’m about to be atomized or incinerated or disappeared, whatever the hell they do with reapers who fuck up—but I can’t seem to stop.
Raz smiles back. “You idiot.” Her eyes are still kind. Behind her I see the faint, fiery outline of wings.
Raz steps forward and reaches two fingers into my breast pocket. She withdraws the Polaroid, flesh-warm, and studies it for a long second. “I knew the second you went back for this that you wouldn’t last,” she sighs. “A reaper has to forsake his worldly attachments, relinquish his earthly loves.”
“Yeah, but…” My eyes fall on the picture, upside-down: my son at four, caught at the apex of a swing that will never fall, his corn silk hair haloed by a summer dusk that will never end. Ephemeral. Everlasting.
I shrug again. “But fuck that, you know?”
Raz laughs. She tilts her head. “Tell me, Sam: What would you do if I left you here?”
“Burned your records. Pretended you’d never worked for the Department of Death.”
“I would stay.” The answer comes easy and honest. “I’d watch over Lawrence, keep his heart beating another day, another hour, for as long as I can.”
“Even if it meant you could never cross the river. Even if you would fade into nothing instead of rejoining the great everything.”
Would I trade my eternity for one little boy and his tired parents? The infinite love of the universe for the fleeting, finite love of the living?
“Yes.” It occurs to me what absolute horseshit it is that I spent the last thirteen years of my life on earth wanting to leave it and yet now, in death, I’ve found something worth staying for.
Raz nods, unsurprised. “That’s what I thought.” There’s a wistful something in her eyes as she smiles at me. “You were a good reaper, Sam. Tough enough to do the work, soft enough to do it right—two hundred and twenty-one times. I’m sorry to lose you.”
She sounds genuinely sorry for whatever it is she’s about to do to me. I wonder idly if it will hurt.
“Could—could you assign Leon to this case, after I’m gone? He’s a good guy. I want Lawrence to be with someone who—”
Raz is distracted, rooting in her jean pocket for something. “No.”
“Because Lawrence Harper is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Department of Death.” She hands me the thing from her pocket and adds, “And neither are you.”
There’s a silent rushing of wings, a flick of heat, and Raz is gone. I blink around the yard, empty except for the dew-pearled lawn chair, the scattered plastic toys, the precious trash of the living.
Then I look down at the cream-colored card in my hand: Sam Grayson, Junior Guardian, Department of Life.