An ending and a beginning in this short, originally written for and published over at Ricochet.com:
The air shimmered and a young woman stumbled forward out of what a moment before had been thin air. As she got back up, dusting red dirt off her jeans, the setting sun glinted off the scythe-shaped silver pin on her lapel. She looked around, running a hand through her hair. Floating by the crossroads, looking up at a warped old signpost, was the figure of a man, glowing semi-translucent and slightly blue. She looked around again. No body. That was odd for a start.
He turned at the sound of her walking towards him. She saw the confusion and the pain – felt them flash through her, as if they were her own – saw the glistening of tears. She kept going, taking in details as she went. Young. About her age. Features? Hard to tell when people were like this. And pain. Worlds and worlds of pain. ‘Hey there, honey,’ she said, as gently as possible, extending a hand to him. ‘My name’s Clancy. You … look a little lost …’ She paused a moment. ‘I know this place down the road a ways – they do these great chocolate malts. You look like you could use one … My treat?’
When you’re a Grim Reaper (hey, everybody’s gotta earn a living), time and space are a little more … flexible than they are for most people. Even if you are most people when you’re off duty. As he took her hand she stepped forward seamlessly, the air rippled, and suddenly they were in front of a large roadside diner at the end of a side road, a big illuminated sign over it glinting out into the moonlit night. Back there it had been early evening. Here it was approaching the witching hour, when they’d have the place to themselves.
That said, she never had quite gotten over the slight feeling of vertigo that overcame her whenever she travelled like that.
She turned, slightly dizzily, and saw him gazing up at the sign, where a graceful illuminated waitress with angel’s wings smiled down at them. He glanced back at her, thoughtfully. ‘So,’ she said quickly, ‘what do I call you?’
This seemed to throw him. ‘Huh?’
She grinned, glancing back at him from the doorway. ‘You always this articulate? I can’t just call you “Hey, you,” can I, now.’ She saw the struggle in his eyes as he tried to remember. For a moment, she caught a flash of something else, too. A hospital room, a feeling in the air, or something. ‘Tell you what, you look like an Ace to me. So, how about it, Ace?’
For a moment, he almost seemed to come alive again. She was guessing not much kindness had come his way the last few years.
‘C’mon,’ she said. ‘For me? I hate to drink alone. You wouldn’t want that, now, would you?’
The spirit of chivalry is a wonderful thing … And so is a pretty girl with an infectious smile. By the time he reached the door, his feet were practically touching the floor again.
Managing the door so he didn’t notice was tricky, but they made it through. ‘Hey, Delores,’ she said to the grey-haired older lady behind the counter, ‘two chocolate malts?’
Delores nodded and didn’t seem to blink at “Ace” as he stepped through behind her. Clancy found them an out-of-the-way corner booth. Ace was staring off into the distance again, probably to some far-off place in his head somewhere. His face seemed to relax a little. Seen like that, he wasn’t bad-looking, she thought, and then wondered where the thought had come from.
There was something about him … Something nagging her at the back of her head someplace. ‘Hey, Ace,’ she said, gently. ‘I’ll be right back. Just need to make a call, okay?’
‘Okay, Clancy.’ It was the first time she’d heard his voice properly. First time he’d said her name. It was a nice voice, she thought distractedly as she headed for the phone.
‘… What do you mean there’s no record? Listen, Clarence, I got sent here. Floating spirit, middle of nowhere …’ she cupped her hand more over the receiver ‘… Well, yes, there was no body … Look, what are you saying?’
‘… do what you think is best …’ a voice said, seeming to come from a great distance.
‘What does that mean? Look, I’m mortal the rest of the time, remember. I— … Clarence? Hello? Hello …’ Damnit. She slid the receiver back into its cradle. Fortunately, there was no fear that Delores would carry their order over. If you were thirsty or hungry enough, you’d come and get ’em, that was her motto. Still, she hurried back …
Two chocolate malts, delicious cold radiating off them, stood frostily on the counter, the vapour still fogging the glass, a couple of candy-cane-striped straws in each, and even a cherry on top. Sometimes she really wondered about Delores.
She scooped them up and hurried back to the table.
When she got there, he was still gazing off into the distance, but the glow around him was turning a lot bluer, a lot less life-like. She slid onto the bench on her side of the table and slid his glass across. Except, as she did so, it shimmered, turning semi-ethereal like the guy in front of her. Nobody had ever taught her how to do that, she’d just worked it out for herself. Ice cream to ethereal.
A really keen watcher, or even Delores, who was suddenly intently polishing ice-cream glasses, would have noticed the way Clancy glanced side-to-side a bit first – and the lingering sparkle that seemed to emanate from Ace’s glass for a moment after she passed it to him.
‘Cheers,’ she said, raising her own glass. As they both sipped delicious frosty chocolate malt (with or without added sparkle) through their straws, there was a change in the air. So subtle and yet so vital it was hard to miss. It was as if the world was suddenly their own. As if the world had slid back into focus.
Ace certainly seemed to have. The colour was coming back to him, and he almost looked alive. She noticed, too, something she’d seen a glimmer of before, a sparkle about his eyes, somewhere deep within. ‘Feel better?’ she said.
‘Yeah … I …’
‘It hits people like that sometimes,’ she nodded. ‘Sometimes I think chocolate malts are like the closest thing to magic we’ll ever find.’
He just looked at her.
She grinned at him. ‘What? Come on, spill it. I’ll get you to talk eventually.’ She liked the way he blushed, a little thought at the back of her head told her. She shushed it, with dignity.
She reached a decision, and placed the little silver badge of office from her lapel on the table. Business could wait. A soul in need was a soul in need.
Besides, she wasn’t even sure what was going on here … ‘All right, I’ll go first,’ she said. ‘My name’s Clancy (but then you already knew that). I … work nights … It’s not the best, but it’s a job …’
… Outside, swirling clouds drifted by, moon- and starlight gleamed, and the night — and the world — were at peace for a while. Inside, two souls did what two souls have been doing since the dawn of time – being human. There was always time for that, at least …