I was still reaching out, arms raised in an effort to hold on to my mother’s hug, when I appeared in the decrepit wooden house. It was the kind of place you might expect to find people dying, and I could see from the window that the sun was just starting to rise. I dropped my hand to my side, wondering just how far away from home I was.
A whimper drew my attention, and I turned to find Penny sitting in a corner with her knees drawn up and her face buried in her arms. She was sniffling, the kind of quiet crying that meant a child was actually hurting rather than trying to get attention. From what I could tell she was trying to avoid any attention, really.
As I watched the eight-year-old crying in the corner a fury rose up within me. This girl didn’t deserve to die any more than Tamara, or Jenny, or Robert. Every death I’d come across in my short time as a reaper was senseless. The good were dying young, while their killers were getting away with it.
A door creaked. I didn’t turn to see who had entered the room, but Penny’s wide eyes and the hurriedly wiped away tears were enough to tell me that this was who she was trying to avoid the attention of. This was the scum of the earth that would become the reason for Penny’s death.
“What have I told you?” The woman’s voice was chiding as it scratched against my ears. Penny was scrambling to her feet. She didn’t look away from the woman who paced towards her, hair ratted and old dress hanging off boney shoulders. She stepped between Penny and I, blocking my view of the girl.
I took a few steps to the side, watching both of them with a sense of dread.
“Don’t cry,” Penny answered, her voice breaking even as she spoke.
“You don’t have any reason to be sad,” The woman rasped out, shuffling closer. Penny flinched away and I stepped forward as though there were anything I could do to stop what was about to happen. I couldn’t leave, either. I’d be pulled right back here, forced to witness the unfair crimes of a child abuser. Refusing to watch this poor girl’s death was out of the question. She deserved to have someone who could say what had happened here.
“Tommy’s dead,” Penny whispered, her arms wrapped around herself.
“Tommy’s in a better place.” The woman reached forward a comforting hand, though by the way Penny shuddered at the woman’s touch it was clear there was no comfort received. “I saved him, sweetheart. He was going to become a sinner, he was going to go to hell. I saved him from that.”
“You dare backtalk me?” The woman snarled, lunging forward. Penny shrieked and jerked away, but as boney as the old woman was there was still some muscle on her. She hoisted the young girl up and dragged her over to a washtub filled to the brim with soapy water.
Without any further warning or another word of explanation, she dropped the girl in the tub and pushed her head under the water.
I covered my mouth, my gasp going unheard.
Penny didn’t die. The old woman yanked her up again, fury turning her face red and her eyes wild. She jerked the girl’s face towards her with a bruising grip in her hair and on her jaw. They held eye contact, Penny trembling and eyes rimmed red as she dripped soapy water back into the tub. Unsatisfied with what she saw, the old woman shoved Penny down again and held her under the water again.
Twice more she did this, and twice more she decided that the punishment hadn’t been enough. I stood there with my stomach turning and my eyes glued to the scene, unable to do anything to save the poor girl. She would drown, her lungs already filling with water, and all I could do was watch.
“You chose this.” The woman said, still holding Penny under the water. I couldn’t bear to watch any longer. Already I could see Penny’s soul coming away from her body, and the poor girl didn’t deserve to endure that kind of death.
I stepped forward, reaching out to pull her soul from the water. My hand brushed the old woman’s skin and I could feel the cold clamminess of it. Beneath the flesh I could also feel the electric current of another soul. Another option. The choice was clear to me, and as I ripped the old woman’s soul from her body there was a ripple of triumph in my own.
She gasped, dropping to the ground. Her body was empty, a wet handed corpse with nothing left to give. Her soul was a waif of a thing, still wild-eyed and glaring at me. I glanced towards the tub. Penny was pulling herself from the water with shaking muscles. She coughed wetly and watched the old woman’s corpse with distrust, as though she expected the woman to jump back up and blame her for all the evils in the world.
“You don’t decide who lives and who dies,” I growled at the old woman’s soul. She was holding onto my biceps as though they were all that held her up, and nodded vigorously. I pulled away from her, ignoring how she stumbled and struggled to stay standing. I watched Penny shivering as she carefully made her way around the old woman and I prayed that somehow she would manage to make the most of the second chance she’d been given.
“My lord.” The old woman gasped, and I turned in time to see her leaping towards me again, her claw-like hands reaching out. I held my hand up, stopping her from touching me.
“What would have happened if I wasn’t here?” I asked, my voice cold. I doubted she could understand the consequences of her actions, especially if she’d already killed Tommy, but I was furious and running on the energy of having managed to save someone who deserved to be saved. “You would have murdered that innocent girl.”
“I was saving her from a life of sin.” The woman insisted, and I clenched my fists to keep my rage from boiling over. “She was going to choose evil. I could see it in her eyes.”
“She was a child with her whole life ahead of her and you were going to take away any opportunity she had to live a better life!”
The old woman stared at me, unblinking. I was fairly certain she thought I was God. I didn’t dissuade her of the idea for the simple reason that it just didn’t matter. I’d be free of her as soon as I created a portal to send her off with. She nodded, her jaw working as though she couldn’t figure out an appropriate response. I didn’t care what she might have come up with if I gave her time to speak.
I spread my hands and a portal formed. I pointed at it, glaring at the old woman. Her shoulders dropped and she shuffled off towards the afterlife and whatever that meant for her.
As she stepped through the billowing mists two things happened at once.
The first was something almost intangible, a shift that rippled through the whole world. I shuddered at the feeling and frowned. I didn’t have time to meditate on the repercussions of sending the wrong person through the void, however, because Linda was at my side and screaming as though I’d just killed someone.
Which, in a roundabout way, I supposed I had.
“Do you realize what you’ve just done?” She hissed at me, her clipboard clenched in her grip and her hair coming loose from its tight bun. I shook my head, helpless. From the corner of my eye, I could see Penny’s wide eyes as she watched us. I didn’t mention it to Linda though. I didn’t think just then was a very good time to interrupt. “You’ve changed everything. You allowed a mad woman to linger in the afterlife, to use her beliefs to alter thousands of deaths. Do you see this list? This is every soul you were meant to reap. Now, all their death dates are question marks and there’s a whole other column that’s just gibberish. This is your mess, Alexi Maruska, you clean it up!”
With that, she threw the clipboard at me and stormed off. She’d vanished before she reached the door. I stood there, with the body of an old woman and the fearful gaze of an eight-year-old girl upon me, wondering what Linda thought would happen when she picked me to be a reaper.
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