The First Day
John wasn’t always so cavalier about death. In fact, before he had crossed over, the concept had filled him with dread and terror. Even after undergoing the painful process of his own demise, talking about it still sent shivers up and down his slowly rotting spine. When he joined Death Co., he was given very little information, as is customary for trainees and new arrivals. The higher ups thought of it like a rite of passage. So, when John heard his name called that first day, he had no idea what to expect.
“Alright everyone, we’ve got a car crash, at least 14 dead on the scene. I’m going to need five agents, and make sure you take the new kid with you!” shouted a man in a pressed suit that had been glued over his sagging corpse to make it appear presentable. This was a common tactic for remaining stylish among the freshly deceased. John found it difficult not to stare, but also felt rude, so he focused on the flickering fluorescent lights above instead.
He had been post-mortem for about twenty-three hours, and at his assigned desk for fifteen minutes. The visions of his death were still fresh in his rotting brain, and the side effects of decomposition had not been entirely staved. Most of the time, requisition agents can halt the decomposition process before it goes on too long, but John died on a busy night…
When the man in the oddly pressed suit shouted, “new guy”, John froze, unable to think about the idea of taking another’s soul as his was so freshly departed. Luckily, the man, aptly named Barker shouted at him once more.
“Get up! Every second we stand here is another that those poor souls have to sit down there, caked in their own shit!” Half of Barker’s mustache had been burned off in the accident that killed him, and in moments of fury the half that remained, quivered, threatening to fall off entirely.
Charging through his hesitation, John jumped out of his seat and followed a group of agents that had stood up. They all moved slowly down the hallway to a room lined with rows of shiny metal cylinders on each side stretching on for what looked like miles. At the time, John had no idea what a wreck that required five agents met. He hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of the seventeen-thousand-page employee handbook that had been dropped on his desk.
The woman in front of him pressed one of her hands to a metal cylinder and it slid open with a violent hiss. Inside was upholstery that was either dark red, or heavily stained. John didn’t have enough time to find out, because the cylinder snapped shut and there was a boom like cannon fire from within. For a moment, he just stared, and then the boom of another cylinder firing made him jump. His skin slid up and down across his muscles unsettlingly.
“I’m sorry new guy, did no one tell you what to do next?” It was Barker, speaking in an uncharacteristically saccharine tone. He moved briskly over to one of the pods that had just fired, and motioned for John to follow. “Oh come on now, don’t be shy,” he smiled. The bit of mustache on his upper lip shook slightly.
John stepped forward and before he could do anything, Barker had grabbed his hand and slammed it onto the surprisingly hot metal. The container snapped open once more, and Barker shoved him in. “Best to hold your breath,” he instructed, and then added, “and don’t look down.” He laughed madly and gave John a sarcastic wave as the cover closed, blocking him from view.
Almost immediately there was a hiss as pressurized gas filled the cylinder. It smelled vaguely of formaldehyde and burnt toast. In truth, the dead had no need to breathe, but they did it anyway to maintain a sense of normalcy. In that moment, John wished he had listened to Barker. As he went to disobey Barker’s second command and look down, there was a deafening bang. The floor dropped out beneath him, revealing an endless swath of clouds flanked by bright stars. It was the border to the mortal realm. The boom had been the sound of John’s unearthly essence being catapulted at terminal velocity downward.
John tried to make his body straight to ease the decent, but he couldn’t help it, the situation was terrifying. His limbs flew out at all angles and he screamed bloody murder. He saw a few of the other agents laughing at him, but fortunately, the drop didn’t last long. A sickening thud cut off his decent and the world went momentarily black. For a minute or so, John was sure he had died again. Luckily, thanks to the miracle of divine science, he was uninjured. Later he would find out that the gas he had been sprayed was a mixture of pain meds and rubberizing material.
Upon realizing that he had not sustained any major injuries, other than his pride, John stood and found himself in the middle of a busy highway. At first, he flinched, but then realized that nothing was moving. On all sides, he was surrounded by cars, trucks, and motorbikes filled with people going about their daily lives, but for the moment, all that had stopped. He spun around wildly, looking at the unearthly snapshot of everyday life, and stopped when he saw the bus.
The destruction was unlike anything he had ever seen. During life, John had only had to deal with the ugly parts of the day in a courtroom. That usually meant photographs or an eye witness testimony. Nothing compared to seeing the real thing. Had he not known that scene in front of him was undoubtedly fatal, John would have been in absolute awe. In fact, a part of him still was.
A semi-truck spewed silent flames from a ruptured gas tank into the sky above. Shrapnel and concrete hung mid-air from where a mini-van had jumped the barrier into oncoming traffic, trying to avoid the accident. A woman was driving, her face frozen in terror, long hair flying all about the cabin.
“Don’t worry,” said a voice from behind John. “She makes it.” It was the young woman who had gotten in the cylinder before him.
“How do you know?” asked John, still dumbfounded.
She held up a clipboard and tapped it. “Did you forget your requisition sheet?” John was about to ask what a requisition sheet was, but she just rolled her eyes and walked over to show him hers. “There’s a slot by your desk, one of these pops out every time we get an order. It tells us the souls we’re meant to collect…” she stopped suddenly as her left eyeball fell onto the clipboard and bounced to the ground.
John made an involuntary wince as she bent over to pick it up.
“Oh, don’t be a prick about it,” she snapped, and popped the eyeball back into place. It rolled unsettlingly in its socket and then settled facing forward. “I’m going to have words with one of the stitchers when I get back up there. This damned thing won’t stay in.”
“Hey, not all of us are so lucky,” she motioned to his decomposing body.
He certainly didn’t feel lucky. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“It’s alright, I’m sure you’re a bit overwhelmed. Name’s Naomi, just try not to get emotional about it all. They,” she pointed at the accident, “are already emotional as hell.”
John remained silent, at a complete loss for how to even begin.
Naomi looked at her clipboard and surveyed the crash site. At the center of the wreckage was a school bus filled with missionaries. “Anyways, Tough break for your first day. Lucky they didn’t give you the kids,” she chuckled. Let’s see, you’ve got Father Bryan.”
“Judging by the rosary, yup.” She pointed a crooked finger at a man who was halfway through catapulting out the school bus’s main window. A bible hung inches in front of his face, as if taunting him. “Always thought it was weird that buses didn’t require seatbelts,” Naomi remarked, and then set off towards the bus. “Good luck with yours,” she called.
John turned back to the scene unsure of what he was supposed to do, but before he could ask questions, time started suddenly forward once more. The priest took flight and collided with the side of the semi-truck, exploding in a most spectacular fashion. There was a terrible grinding and crashing as the rest of the accident took place, and then time stopped once more.
The priest’s crumpled and broken body blurred suddenly, and then he stood up, leaving his body behind, and creating an odd double. One broken version stood just above the body, looked around confused, and then turned to John. “Am I dead?” he asked plainly? There was a tremor in his voice, but overall not bad for the accident he had just been in.
“Yeah,” blurted John, unable to think of anything better.
“What a natural,” muttered a muscular requisition agent climbing into the remains of the bus.
“Oh dear,” stammered the priest, tears welling in his eyes. “But my work isn’t finished.” The priest’s voice rose slightly. “Surely the lord must know that?”
“Uh…” In his brief time among the departed, he hadn’t seen, or even heard any mention of God. Being an atheist in life, John hadn’t found it all that intriguing. He supposed that if there was an entire corporation surrounding death, then an almighty wasn’t that far-fetched.
“The Lord must be able to send me back,” pleaded the priest.
Come on John, think of something. “Look at your body,” he said, pointing to the crumpled heap still halfway through colliding with the semi-truck.
The priest winced. “Oh my, is that me?”
“Sure is,” replied John with a little too much cheer. Tone it down a bit. “So, I could put you back in there.” John wasn’t sure this was true, but the priest didn’t know either. “It would be excruciating, and you’d come out worse for it. Simply put, no medical miracle is going to pull you out of there.” The words started to flow more naturally as he continued.
The priest began to sweat profusely, even though his body no longer had need for the function. His eyes widened with understanding and terror. In that moment, John understood the magnitude of the power given in his new position. Tears flowed in rivers from the priest’s eyes. John had known plenty of decent lawyers who might have buckled at the site, but he had not been decent, and the priest’s tears were all too familiar.
John had seen similar grief before, in a church of all places. He doesn’t fear death. He fears judgment. There was a time when John’s family had been religious, but he only remembered one thing from it. It was the pastor’s wide eyes as he was dragged from the church for running an illegal gambling ring out of its basement. At the time, he was told to feel no sympathy, as the man’s actions had been against God, but from his newly eternal perch, the moral ambiguity was apparent. The blubbering priest kneeling before him now had the same wide-eyed expression.
Taking John’s pensive silence as quiet judgment, the priest began to shed his secrets like water. “I’ve confessed my sins!” he screamed, past bargaining and into desperation. “All the years of drinking, and the other…” he trailed off, “indiscretions. They were all foul temptations sent by The Devil himself. It was only a momentary step off his eternal path!”
John stopped listening and turned his attention to the others while the priest finished up his final sermon. A small group of youths walked out of the broken bus, led by the requisition agent who entered. The agent talked in hushed tones, keeping them calm, and trying to block the babbling priest from view.
John was about to turn and shut him up, when Naomi yelled: “Angels on the way! Everyone form up!”