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Last in Line, One Last Time

Thanks to Erika for asking me along for another round of prompts! This time everything was based on music, with the following to select from:

1.) Heavy Metal/Hard Rock- The Last in Line by Ronnie James Dio
2.) Pop/Hip-Hop- Angel in Blue Jeans by Train
3.) Country/Singer Song Writer- I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack
4.) Instrumental/Soundtrack- The Lonely Shepherd from Kill Bill Vol. 1
5.) Wild Card- The Original Theme from Sesame Street TV Series

I was very tempted by the wild card, but in the end it was ‘The Last in Line’ by Dio that really got to me. Probably because I have an unhealthy obsession with what happens to us after we die, but this story popped into my head and wouldn’t let go until it was written.

Just a warning, things to get a bit dark in the middle (and if you don’t like bombings, please be careful reading) but as always I try and get to the light at that end of the tunnel.


LAST IN LINE, ONE LAST TIME

They say time has no meaning to the dead. This is a lie. Time doesn’t vanish when you cross that line between living and not. It simply becomes less meaningful. There are no clocks to glance at. No ticking beating at your ears. Most of the dead simply ignore the passage of time.

I, however, did not.

I sat on a bench overlooking a sunken plaza. It was either sunset or sunrise, the light dim enough to be either, the air neither hot nor cold. A long line snaked through the plaza. It’s beginning disappeared through a set of double doors at the far end leaving the back end exposed.

The line moved constantly, people arriving singly, in pairs, sometimes even in larger groups, but never seeming to actually make the line longer by their presence. An old man appeared, followed by a woman wearing a pantsuit and one shoe. Over the man’s head bright letters flared declaring his name as John Schmidt and the cause of death ‘heart attack’. The woman’s name was Coleen Chen. She’d been hit by a train.

Both flinched when a smiling man with a clipboard appeared besides them. I couldn’t hear what Aiden told them from my seat, but I saw the man tense while the woman burst into a brief bout of tears that dried before I could do more than blow one bubble of my Very Cherry Bubble Yum.

The gum smacked against my teeth as I sucked it in. Aiden handed Coleen a slip of blue paper and John a slip of red. I fingered my own slip. It was as black as the bench I sat on, nothing to mark it except for the creases my fingers had worried in it over time.

It had said something once. I’d refused to read it. I wasn’t going through that line. Not yet.

From the way John’s face went as red as his slip I knew Aiden had gotten to the part about what the colors meant.

Red for the bad. The ones who’d died with something ugly on their conscious.

Blue for the good. The ones who’d died without doing anything too sinful if not having done anything particularly good.

No one’s slip was meant to be black. I blew another bubble and watched Coleen’s shoulders relax. Guess that made me special. I watched a few more appear. A boy who’d died of cancer. A girl who’d slit her wrists. Four victims of the same car accident. All got blue slips.

Bored, I stood and made my way down the stairs along the outside of the stone wall surrounding the sunken plaza. The stairs lost shape, lost their mindless sameness the further I went, until I had to go down backwards, hands gripping the steps above while my feet groped for the steps below.

No one besides me came this way. Not even Aiden. The sun didn’t brighten, the grey and blue of the sky never changed even though I was well past a count of 5,000 Mississippi by the time I reached the bottom.

Dusting my hands off I looked at the craggy wasteland stretched out in front of me. Aiden said I was insane to come down here. That I would never find who I was looking for.

The bugger could piss off.

I couldn’t exactly die trying. Not now. So why not continue the search?

The way I saw it, he had to be out here somewhere. There had to be a door back to him. I couldn’t find him that day, but I sure as hell would find him now. Hunching my shoulders, I put the earbuds back into my ears, the sounds of Easy Rider making my head bob as I started my trek.

This was my 75th journey down here. Each had ended with me back on that bench, watching Aiden, an unopened pack of Very Cherry Bubble Yum in my pocket and “I’m Gonna Walk 5,000 Miles” blasting from the iPod.

No matter how I tried, the memories of how I’d ended back up there stayed locked up tight, the only sign I’d been anywhere the extra creases in my black slip and the dust on my boots.

I kept plugging at it though. I had no desire to learn whether I’d died good or bad. All I wanted was OUT.

“One Mississippi,” I breathed as I walked. “Two Mississippi.”

Faulty memory of the end of each journey aside, I could say with absolute certainty that I’d been down here ten years, six months, five days, seven hours, and fifteen minutes. Counting kept me sane. Kept the fire burning in my gut.

By 4,000 Mississippi I had reached a giant lake. Various journeys said there was nothing in the lake but water, nothing to the east but forest, and nothing to the west but an endless plain of grass. No birds soared, no fish swam, no crickets creaked. The one sound was the music in my ears and swish of my jeans against the waving stems of grass I trampled.

Pulling my boots off I dove in. The water parted before me, feet and hands sliding as smoothly as tail and fins, propelling me forward. Barely a count of 500 Mississippi passed before I was at the northern most edge of the lake. Here countless pairs of boots (all my black, knee high Maddens) sat in messy lines.

To anyone else they’d have been a sign of futility. To me they were a sign that something in this godforsaken place changed. Even if it did it’s best to convince me otherwise. The sand around the lake faded into shale, then concrete. My breath began to quicken. This was new. I couldn’t remember encountering anything manmade before.

Pulling the last piece of gum clear I used a rock to anchor the packet right on the edge of the concrete lip. There was no other sign I’d been here yet. No human element but me and the concrete lane leading down a gradually steepening hill.

“One Mississippi.”

Count again established I walked. The concrete was warm under my bare feet, a strange contradiction to the temperature-less water and air. I stuck to the center where in the alive world a white or yellow line would break the expanse.

I had no expectation of anything, so the rumble took a long time to process. A nervous feeling, like the quiver against violin strings drawn by new violinists during their first warm up with the Metropolitan Orchestra, started in my belly and traveled upward.

I slowed and pulled an earbud free. Music muted, the rumble became more intense, a counter vibration up my legs to the nervous fluttering in my abdomen. Slowly, emerging around a curve I hadn’t noticed before, came a flame red Mustang. Headlights powered through the gloom and I stopped.

“No fucking way,” I whispered, then yelled it. “No fucking way!”

Nerves turned to joy, a swift BOOM BOOM POW in my heart. I ran, pelting towards the driver side door as the car’s throaty roar cut off and the door began creaking open.

“Jack!” I tripped, nothing catching at my toes. Palms slapped the hood as I tilted forward. I reveled in the pure HEAT pouring through dead skin and rebounded, using the hood to slide around the side.

The door slammed and there he was. Jack Parson. His smile lit up the sky. His figure huge and imposing in a world of gray.

“Hello, darling,” he said and caught me in his crushing embrace. Smells—whiskey and horses and Jack—slid themselves up my nose and I gasped drawing them deeper into my lungs.

Tears rose and I flung them away from me, fingers buried in the softness of his sweatshirt. “I found you. I found you. I found you.” Counts of Mississippi forgotten I repeated those words over and over until with a laugh, Jack tipped me back.

“How do you know I didn’t find you?” he asked.

That made me smile. “Because you’ve always been terrible at finding things. Don’t see why being dead would change that.”

I knew the words were the wrong thing to say when his always relaxed posture stiffened, the hands around my arms tightening. “What?” he asked.

Doesn’t he know? I knew. Even before Aiden told me.

“We’re dead.” I kept breathing in the scent of him; each hit a piece of home.

“Bullshit.”

The word fell between us and I pulled away. Foreboding turned the oxygen to carbon dioxide before it could even reach my lungs. This felt familiar. Terribly familiar.

I stared into those dark eyes that I had always known better than my own and suddenly we weren’t standing on an empty highway, the Mustang besides us, but in the center of a busy city street.

A boom split the air and a building disintegrated, glass like terrible snowflakes caught in a blizzard howling down upon us. People screamed and ran, the smell of burning flesh and scorching metal realer than anything. A piece of glass bigger than my arm speared a girl through the back and she fell. I didn’t move. Couldn’t have. I watched the red seep from her, watched it stain the asphalt.

I’d seen this before. Been here before.

When I’d died.

That was me, lying there. My blood staining the ground. I’d landed on my stomach, earbuds knocked free, hands feebly attempting to roll myself over, eyes wide and frightened even as they dimmed.

“What is this?” I whispered. “Jack, what is this?”

I turned, but he was no longer besides me; the street empty of anything but panic and destruction.

“Jack!” I whirled in a circle doing my best to ignore the panic rising in the back of my own throat like sludge. Ignoring the movements of my old body ceasing. What had I even been doing down here that day? I didn’t work downtown. I never even left the suburbs if I could help it.

But I’d come. I’d been walking across this street for a reason.

Bundling the panic into a ball, I started to walk, then run. Jack. I’d come here because of Jack.

The ‘why’ of his being here remained stubbornly out of my reach as I hurried. Another building exploded. People veered every which way. Their mouths opened, but my ears were deadened to their screams, the only sound I could hear a giant roar. A piece of falling building crushed a car and I stopped. Just stopped.

I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t. Why were they making me see this? “I died good,” I whispered. “I died good!” I tore the slip out of my pocket, scrubbing at the black. It was blue. I knew it had been.

The black came off like soot now, coating my fingers. I stilled. Stared. Because the slip wasn’t blue. It wasn’t red. It was some strange mix of both. The colors seeped into one another without ever becoming purple; red lines and blue lines intermingling and tangling until it was hard to make out any color at all.

It didn’t make any sense. Pushing down a scream I shoved it back into my pocket. Somewhere a child sobbed, a man wailed, an alarm railed against the destruction.

Jack will fix this, I thought. He’ll know what’s happening.

The sound disappeared, everything stilling as those words rattled there way through my head. “Jack,” I spoke slow, testing the words, “will know what’s happening.”

A pause, the rest coming to me like the dawning of a blood-red sun.

“Because he caused this.”

The street disappeared. I stood in a grungy apartment. Our grungy apartment. He stood at the sink, speaking to someone on the phone. “It’s all set, man,” he said softly. “We just have to pull the trigger and those bastards pay. Pay big.”

Numbness spread through me as the words did. Turning, knowing what I would see, I saw myself sprawled on the couch, body stiff even though my eyes were closed in a mockery of sleep.

I’d heard him that day. Heard every word even though he’d been convinced I’d been sleeping. But instead of going to the police I’d followed him. Using the bus because we only had one car. Arriving at the address I’d seen scrawled in his messy handwriting along with a sheave of other notes, plans, pictures, shoved in the bottom of his desk drawer, seconds before it had blown sky-high. He hadn’t even attempted to hide them from me. They’d been there all that time if I’d only looked.

But I hadn’t. Not until it was too late.

“Oh, Jack,” I whispered. “Why did you do this?”

He didn’t answer; just kept talking, voice growing angrier and darker. “They destroyed us,” he said to the person on the other end. “They fucking deserve to die a bloody, bloody mess.”

A laugh left him and I watched my body twitch on the sofa, remembered the chills that laugh sent through me. I didn’t feel them now. Now rage grew, pulsing through my veins. I fingered the edges of the card in my pocket. There had to be a reason I was back here. Was seeing this.

I needed to make a decision. A better one. I walked over to my body, sinking onto the coffee table, making sure my knees didn’t brush my body’s arm.

“Don’t follow him,” I told my body. “Just call the fucking police.”

The sound of the phone slamming down made us both jerk. Footsteps thumped the floorboards and Jack appeared. He crouched down, brushed the hair from my body’s forehead with a gentleness that was at total odds to the explosive anger of the telephone Jack.

“Darling?” he whispered. “I’ve gotta go out.”

My body blinked her eyes, playing down the confused horror as sleepiness. “Go?” My body’s voice cracked. “Go where?”

Jack’s lips pulled into a smile. The bastard, I thought.

“I’ve got something to do. I should be home early though. I was thinking we could go to the lake that you like. Pack a picnic?” He nibbled at my body’s neck, not noticing the revulsion in my eyes.

“Sure,” my body squeaked, eyes darkening. “Sounds wonderful.”

It sounded horrible.

I watched Jack kiss my body, sure I’d have thrown up if I’d been physically capable. But I hadn’t so much as swallowed a piece of gum in over ten years. We both watched Jack leave and I watched, silent, as my body lurched upright and went straight to the second bedroom/closet we used as our office.

I’d known exactly where to find his notes. Known exactly where they’d be.

The knowledge sickened me.

“Call the police,” I instructed from the doorway as my body sank in a heap besides the desk. Tears ran down her face, but there was no pity left in me. “Call them right now, you stupid, stupid, bitch!”

Instead, I watched her pull on the black Madden boots, the denim jacket, iPod in one pocket, Very Cherry Bubble Yum in the other, folded bills and I.D. in the back pocket of my jeans.

“People are going to die,” I told her. “And it will be all your fault.”

Despair closed over me, cold and heavy. It couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t. I couldn’t die with this on me. I knew that as well as I knew that the card in my pocket wouldn’t allow me down either path. I couldn’t follow the reds or the blues.

Aiden’s voice came to me then, his sharp little face so clear it felt like he was in the room with me. “You can wait to be last in line,” he said. “Or you can find a way to make peace with where you are. It’s up to you.” He’d said that to me every time I’d gotten frustrated and bored and approached him. He’d never looked at me, always intent on the red and blue slips he passed out, eyes on every new person to enter the line.

Now his words took on extra meaning. I could wait. Or I could act. I’d been trying to act this entire time, but in the wrong direction. I stared at my back, watching my hands flip my hair out of the way.

And for the first time, I reached for my body. My arms slid around my back, my face burrowing into my hair. I drug the scent of me into my lungs (rose from my shampoo, Cheeto dust from lunch) and sank into my body. For a moment everything doubled: two views of the door from slightly different angles, the sensation of arms both on mine and wrapped within mine. And then I dragged in the first real breath I’d taken since I died. I smelled the mold, the slightly rotten smell of old food and dirty laundry and never cleaned carpets.

I staggered back from the door, heart stuttering in my chest, lungs and limbs shaking. The phone. I wobbled, unsteady, into the kitchen and grabbed the landline. It had been installed decades again, the plastic worn and sweaty. I mashed three buttons. Listened as a voice answered. Took another breath…

…and changed everything.

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Never Play Candyland with Oompa Loompas

Hi All, I haven’t guest blogged here in a while, but what a fun bunch of prompts I was given to welcome me back! I had the following to choose from:

Amy-  Mozart, Mice and Men
Cameron-  I didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted
Erika-  Like a Rainbow in the Dark
Jen- Christmas in July
Wendy- When Oompa Loompas play Candyland

The short story that follows is just a bit of backstory to my new adult fantasy trilogy ‘The Blackness’ inspired by Wendy’s prompt: When Oompa Loompas play Candyland. It shows what my main characters life was like before the events in the first book, ‘Dying was the Easy Part’ and before she became known as Jocelyn Hardy. I hope you enjoy!

Never Play Candyland with Ooompa Loompas

The paint was the first thing the old jewelry maker and royal guard noticed, smeared across the edges of the glass display cases in his shop. Tiny fingerprints, smudged from their mistress’s quick movements. A smile tugged at his face under the long white beard and he followed the trail, the orange growing lighter with each print, until he cleared the edge of the case and found a little girl sitting on the floor. Three strange little creatures all with orange skin and green hair fanned out in a circle around her with a board game on the floor in the center.

“No, Oompa One,” said the little girl sternly, the fabric of her white dress crinkling as she leaned forward pointing at the board and the little green gingerbread man serving as a gaming piece. The little gingerbread man waved at her, but she ignored him. “You have to move it to the purple space because that’s the color on your card.”

The orange creature named Oompa One simply blinked at the jeweler’s charge, the young princess Penelope—or as she insisted she be called for the duration of this game: Princess Lolly.

“Oompa One want chocolate. Chocolate now please,” it said pointing to Gloppy, one of the many creatures printed on the faded Candyland board.

The Princess sighed, a sound the jeweler knew well. “Oh, Oompa One, no. Gloppy is made of molasses. There isn’t any chocolate in Candyland.”

At that the three Oompa-Loompas started to mutter, what sounded suspiciously like the beginnings of a song starting to form between the trio—a song about lying princesses and cacao beans.

The jeweler cleared his throat and Penelope’s head shot up, aqua colored eyes wide. The Oompa-Loompas dissolved into swirling particles of orange and green, the tiny gingerbread men board game markers returning to their plastic staticness.

“Smithy! You’re back!” Penelope scrambled to her feet, black patent leather shoes squeaking as she threw herself at him, tiny arms, fingers still dusted with orange paint fisting his pant legs.

“Och, my ghile,” Smithy said, scooping her up. “What would your mother be saying if she could see ye now? You know real Oompa’s are not that ghastly color.”

“Oh, but they are. They’re orange and green. Like in the movie.”

“Hmmph. I think someone’s been seeing too much of that Hollywood tripe. I’ve told ye before that that rot will rot yer brains.” He coughed awkwardly at the unintended pun.

Tiny eyebrows, rose at that. “But why were the Oompa’s I called orange then?” She held out her hand, fingers splayed. “See? They got their color on me!”

Chuckling, Smithy used his handkerchief to clean the fingers waving at him. “You didn’a so much call them as create them, my ghile. I’ve told ye that your magic is a powerful thing.”

“Can I make anything then?”

The question was innocent, the eyes wide and guileless, and Smithy was struck again by the singular power of his little charge. If she wanted she could upend the Earth, create creatures of all shapes and descriptions that would be fully and totally loyal to her.

And she wouldn’t even need the usual magic paraphernalia. The pendants and the chants that ordinary witches relied on. That sort of power was staggering. Dangerous.

“Anything you wish, my ghile,” he said. “As long as it fits inside Cook’s breadbox that is.”

That got a giggle and a sloppy kiss on the cheek before she was demanding to be let down. Since Smithy was well aware of the girl’s ability to simply order his arms to release her, he was gratified to hear the words—even if they weren’t the most polite.

“Should ye be here, my ghile?” he asked, moving around the display case towards the back room that held his tools, the loose product that he would shape and twist into the jewelry lining the inside of his displays.

“No.” The little girl skipped after him, settling down on the end of his workbench where her own tiny pliers and length of coiled gold wire waited. “But Mummy said that Daddy wasn’t to be disturbed. She says that all the time now and I didn’t want to be quiet and play in my room like a good girl.”

The last part of her sentence was said in a near perfect imitation of the girl’s mother and Smithy ducked his head to hide a smile. “Aye,” he said, smile fading as he thought of the girls father. “Yer papa has a difficult job, dear one. Ye must give him time. He’ll be right as duck sauce by the Winter Solstice, just ye wait.”

The little girl didn’t ask the obvious question; one an older child would have asked immediately. Instead the worry lines wrinkling her forehead smoothed away and she began to tell Smithy about her day. About wanting to play Candyland which she’d found when visiting the city of Chicago months ago with her father—before her father had gotten too unstable to leave his lands.

These are dangerous time, the princess’s mother, told Smithy the last time he’d seen her. Soon it will be too dangerous for her to be near him. If it breaks free. If it sees…

She’d broken off then, but both knew the danger. Knew that if the thing inside her husband woke up when Penelope was in the room the consequences to them all would be horrific.

But for now, the man still held up to his sanity, his consciousness. The evil within did not yet realize the potential power source next to it. But it was just a matter of time. A waiting game that Smithy was growing tired of playing.

And unlike made up Oompa-Loompas playing Candyland, once this game ended (or started?) there’d be no going back.

It’d be war.

He gazed at the innocent child and knew in that moment that his days with her, like this were numbered. Soon she’d have to be sent away, hidden. But for now he listened to her babble on about Gramma Nut and the Ice Cream Sea, and thought of silver blades and golden arrows.

If war came, he’d be ready.

Just let it not be now.

He cleared his throat.

“How about another round of Candyland?”

THE END

***

Business Card pic Megan Wahl lives in San Jose, CA where she is currently busy editing her first novel ‘Dying is the Easy Part’ and starting on her second, ‘Caught Between’ both part of the planned trilogy, ‘The Blackness’. When she’s not buried nose deep in her own fantasy world she can be found at the local bookstore, nose first inside someone else’s fantasy. Or as she likes to justify it, ‘doing research’.

Never Enter a Graveyard After Dusk

Megan had these prompts to choose from:
Prompt #1 Jen- A pinwheel. A graveyard. How do they connect?
Prompt #2 Wendy- If Atlantis existed today?
Prompt #3 Amy- What do you do when you are stressed?
Prompt #4 Erika- Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s ideal vacation
Prompt #5 Cameron- When Hello Kitty Meets Good-bye Doggy

And after much deliberation, here is the result of using prompt number one…

Alleridge hated dealing with dead kids. Especially little snot nose brats like Clifford Huntington the Fourth.

“You’re not doing that right,” the brat said from somewhere over Alleridge’s left shoulder.

Casting a beleaguered glance skyward, Alleridge jabbed the metal stick holding the pinwheel into the earth besides the grave with more force than strictly necessary. “I do this every bleeding year,” said Alleridge reaching into his bag for the second one. “And every year it’s the same blasted complaint.” The stick bent as it hit a patch of frozen ground. Alleridge swore. Clifford Huntington the Fourth laughed.

“Told you.”

Turning Alleridge gave the brat a two finger salute which Clifford returned with a rude jeer. Clifford Huntington the Fourth had died forty years ago at the age of six.

You wouldn’t have guessed it from the way he acted.

Currently, Clifford was sitting cross-legged on top of the crumbling grave of the Honorable Mr. Richard Jenkins.  Clifford had had the unfortunate fate to have died while wearing a blue herringbone suit that his mother had picked out after seeing a similar suit on Prince Philip. Clifford hated the suit when he was alive. He hated it even more now that he was dead and couldn’t take it off.

Alleridge could have cared less about Clifford’s clothes. All he wanted was to stick the last blasted pinwheel in the ground and head off to the pub for a pint. But this was Alleridge and when had he ever gotten what he wanted?

Straightening the bent stick was difficult with hands half-frozen from the below freezing temptatures that invade English cemeteries at 11:55 at night in the middle of January, and forcing it into ground that was as tough as old boots made the weakened metal snap. Alleridge let off a string of profanity that would have had Clifford’s mother washing his mouth out with soap if the dear lady had been there.

Luckily for Alleridge, Mrs. Clifford Huntington the Third was in a rest home in Brightlingsea and at that moment fast asleep having no idea that the soul of her one and only son was entertaining himself by singing the Man-U anthem at the top of his tiny lungs.

Clifford was well into the first chorus of “Glory, glory Man united” when it happened. The breeze that had been blowing hard for the last hour came to a dead stop. All sound died, including Clifford’s. He went still on top of the Honorable Richard Jenkins’ grave. “Their coming,” he hissed at Alleridge who had also gone still, the last pinwheel still clenched in his hand.

Alleridge shot the kid a dirty look. It wasn’t like he needed to be told. With a quick appeal to the Keeper, he shoved the pinwheel’s stick into the earth directly over the body of Clifford Huntington the Fourth and stood up. With studied casualness he brushed the damp earth from his knees, careful to keep his head down as his eyes darted about the quiet cemetery.

Nothing moved. Then, off to the right, he saw them. They came drifting down the gravel walkway, feet making no sound. There were three of them, all cloaked, hoods pulled up tight over their faces. Their skin, where it showed, was milky blue in the dim light and Alleridge felt his heart rate kick up a notch.

Which was silly. He’d dealt with creatures much worse than these three. But their silent approach always reminded him of the first time he’d come face to face with the dead. That encounter had ended with him in hospital with a concussion and three broken ribs.

The dead could be downright nasty when they wanted to be.

Casting a quick glance down showed that the three pinwheels were where they needed to be—arranged in a triangle with one point directly over the head of the body of Clifford Huntington the Fourth and the other two just off to the sides.  From here, the pinwheels looked like the ones you’d buy from the shop on the Fourth of July. But instead of plastic, the three pinwheels decorating Clifford’s grave were made from blessed iron that Alleridge had pounded down into sheets as thin as aluminum foil. They’d been the devil to fold into their present shapes and Alleridge could only hope that he’d gotten the intricate spell work that laced each fan of the pinwheel correctly lined up.

Things would go ugly, fast, if they weren’t.

Silently, Clifford moved to stand just behind Alleridge. He would never have admitted it, but he felt safer with the big man between him and the three figures gliding to a stop at the foot of his grave.

“We have come for the boy.” The voice issuing from the middle figure was deep as if it came from down a dark well. Clifford flinched in surprise.

“I don’t have to go with you,” said Clifford, voice lacking a fair bit of the petulant force he’d spoken with to Alleridge. Clifford glanced quickly upwards. “Right?”

Alleridge nodded, hands slipping nonchalantly into his pockets. “You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to,” said Alleridge calmly. This was a blatant lie. Alleridge knew it. Clifford knew it. The three figures knew it. But Clifford was comforted none the less.

Rather rude snorts erupted from the three figures. “The soul of Clifford Huntington the Fourth is forfeit to us,” they said the words falling like icicles into the air. “Forfeited by his own actions.”

Clifford’s little body drew up straight, indignation pouring from every surface. “Bullocks!” He cried. “All I did was steal Mrs. Glebe’s horse! I didn’t know he didn’t like to be ridden!”

A slightly stunned silence fell. Alleridge turned to regard the small boy, one eyebrow arched. “You stole a horse?” Funny that in the five years he’d been doing this, this particular detail had never come up.

“Yes,” came the mulish answer from the dead horse thief. Clifford glared at the three figures. “But I didn’t mean for any of the other stuff to happen; it wasn’t my fault the stupid horse trampled Mr. Boyden’s begonias or ran out into traffic!”

Alleridge thought that it probably was the little blighters fault but didn’t say so; the three silent figures at the end of the grave were radiating enough disbelieve for all of them.

From beyond the walls of the cemetery the clocks of Manchester began to chime. Midnight had come. Behind Alleridge and Clifford the first of the three pinwheels began to spin. There was no wind to move them but magic didn’t need wind to work. Alleridge had gotten the spell right.

Thank bloody Christ.

A jeering smile slid over Clifford’s small face as the second and third pinwheels began to spin, faint green sparks running along the edges of the spokes as they twirled faster and faster. In front of the grave the three figures let out a sound half-way between a moan and a snarl.

“You have no right Runner! The boy is ours!”

“Maybe so,” said Alleridge. “But on this anniversary the pinwheels protect him. And whether he goes with you is up to him.” Alleridge turned and peered down at Clifford Huntington the Fourth who peered back with smugness laced with trepidation. And a certain amount of fatigue.

Clifford had been dodging the Ifreann collectors for forty years; ever since he’d ridden Mrs. Glebe’s horse into the path of an oncoming lorry, killing himself, the horse, and the lorry driver. Every year the collectors came—and every year there was a Runner there to protect him.

Alleridge knew none of this. All he knew was what he had been told by the Runner who’d been his predecessor: “Jus’ stick the pinwheels in the ground before midnight and make sure to stand between the brat and the Collectors. And in five years you can pass the job on to the next unlucky sod.”

So Alleridge had made the pinwheels to specification and made his way to this tiny cemetery at the edge of Manchester every January 15th for the past five years. And every year Clifford mocked him and the three figures came.

This was the first year the three figures had spoken. Alleridge didn’t think that was a good sign.

It wasn’t.

The Ifreann collectors were as tired of being thwarted as Clifford was of wearing his blue herringbone suit. The boy had died as a result of a wicked act; he was theirs. And Ifreann always collected what was theirs.

As one they moved closer until they were all in a row at the foot of Clifford’s grave. The pinwheels spun faster, the sparks shooting higher as the three clasped hands and began to chant.

“What are they doing?” asked Clifford nervously.

“No idea,” said Alleridge. He shuffled backwards hand out as if to push Clifford back as well. The two moved until they were level with the imaginary line created by the two pinwheels. The pinwheels were screaming now as they moved, the sound like the whistle of a firecracker right before it takes off. The wheel at the center of the each pinwheel was white-hot with the friction.

The chanting grew louder as Alleridge motioned Clifford to stand in the center of the triangle. Clifford did so gingerly afraid of the sparks even though they couldn’t touch him.

Alleridge licked his lips, mind whirling through possible solutions and discarding each one. All his necromancer tools, which might have been helpful in binding Clifford to this plane, had been confiscated by the boss when he’d gotten this gig. After all, Runner’s were meant to send the dead on to their final reward not call them back.

The scream of the pinwheels became earsplitting. “Alleridge,” said Clifford, voice high with strain. “Do something!” Turning, Alleridge saw that the three Ifreann collectors were now behind him, one at each pinwheel, surrounding Clifford. Long, pale arms reached for the boy.

An idea came to Alleridge. “Wait!”

Miraculously the three halted, turning their cowled heads slowly towards Alleridge who was frantically digging through his pockets. He had to have it here somewhere; he knew he’d grabbed it…there!

From the inside pocket of his suit jacket Alleridge drew out a final pinwheel. Why he’d made four this time instead of the usual three he couldn’t have said. Instinct maybe. Now he held it out towards the three collectors. “I call upon the One who bound the soul of Clifford Huntington the Fourth!” he yelled. If he sounded slightly desperate it could be forgiven. Mitigating circumstances and all that. “Come forth!” Alleridge practically screamed the words.

In his hand, the pinwheel back to spin. Entranced they watched as the pinwheel spun counterclockwise, the edges taking on a pink glow that grew brighter and brighter until the light encompassed them all. Warmth flooded the graveyard and the glow coalesced into the figure of a young woman. She stood, tall and slim behind Clifford wearing a pink dress that flowed about her like the breeze itself. A beatific smile crossed her face.

“Finally!” she said. “Someone with a bit of sense.”

They all stared at her in varying degrees of shock. “Who are you?” demanded the Ifreann collectors.

If they meant to intimidate her, they were in for a disappointment. The smile grew. “I am the Keeper of lost souls,” she said. “It is my duty to see that the souls of those who die get a fair shot.” Her smile grew sad as she knelt down besides Clifford. “He wasn’t a bad little boy,” she said addressing her words to the collectors. “He just did a bad thing; there is a difference you know.”

Clifford watched with growing awe and adoration as she held out a slim hand. “You are sorry, aren’t you?” she asked, eyes warm with sympathy. Clifford hesitated. It had been forty years. All his bluster faded and he gave a nod, tears rising.

“I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt,” he whispered, his voice the only sound in the now quiet graveyard. “I only wanted to ride.”

The Keeper of Lost Souls beamed. She stood, hand still out to Clifford. Tentatively Clifford took it. The three Ifreann collectors stirred, bodies tense with outrage. The Keeper of Lost Souls shot them a look. They stilled. They knew when they’d been beat.

Clifford’s hand firmly in hers, the Keeper of Lost Souls walked over to Alleridge. Smiling at him, she plucked the faintly glowing pinwheel from his hand. “Thank you Benedict,” she said. “I see I was right about you.” And with that, she kissed his cheek and walked down the gravel path, her and Clifford slowly fading away until the only figures in the graveyard were Alleridge and the collectors.

There was a bunch of disgruntled crumbling among the three and then they too disappeared and Alleridge was alone. He stood there for a long time, a bemused expression on his face, hand pressed to the spot the Keeper of Lost Souls had kissed. Finally he shook his head, plucked the three pinwheels from the ground and strode off into the night, another nights work done.

Thank bloody Christ.

***

Business Card pic Megan Wahl lives in San Jose, CA where she is currently busy working on her first novel ‘Dying is the Easy Part’.