“Can I help you?”
She tilted her head, her long blonde locks cascading down to her pert backside. It only served to make her skin look smoother, her cheeks more flushed, and the light in her blue eyes sparkle. How hair could do all that, he had no idea. His eyes roamed over her, familiar yet not. A distant memory niggled at the far recesses of his mind.
She wore a concoction of a dress. An explosion of color. Something baggy that not-quite hid slender shoulders. She had perky breasts, and a flat stomach that flared into lean hips and long legs. On her feet were ankle boot that sported four-inch heels. Even with her elevated height, she only came to his chin.
Then again, he towered over everyone in this shop—and all over the Earth, come to think of it.
Although she was friendly, he noticed shoppers inch away from him while others slipped out the door. The jingling bell gave them away. He did have that effect on people. Trying to escape Death. They didn’t get far. They never did.
But she wasn’t. She looked at him with an open, friendly expression on her face and warmth in her clear eyes.
“I…” He went to speak, amazed he’d forgotten for a second what he’d come here to do.
An elderly woman came toward them. Actually, she went to the shopkeeper and gave him a long, sideways glance as she side-stepped around him. She clutched an old teapot in one hand while the other trembled on the top of her cane.
“Sophia, can you please tell me how much this is? I can’t read the label. My old eyes aren’t what they used to be.”
Black clouds only he could see circled the old lady, and the irresistible urge rose with him. He was here to harvest her soul.
The shopkeeper—Sophia—shared her brilliant smile with the old lady. “Hi, Mrs. Elderman. Let’s see.” She glanced at the tag which had twenty-five dollars written on it. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a bargain. It’s five dollars.”
Death frowned. Maybe Sophia needed a pair of glasses to go with her bright smile.
Mrs. Elderman beamed. “That sounds wonderful. I’d like to buy this. I’m getting it for my granddaughter. She likes to play at tea parties. It’s wonderful I can come in here and find a present for her on my pension. The dollar doesn’t stretch like it used to, you know.”
Death’s gaze went to Sophia, but she’d taken the teapot and headed to the register. “It’s perfect then. Would you like me to wrap it for you as well?”
Death noticed Mrs. Elderman’s bloated knuckles. Arthritis was often a problem for the elderly. Yet another reason he found it astounding when people begged him to stay in their bodies. Bodies decayed from the moment they were born, some of them picking up terrible diseases during their lifespan that were never cured. He was always vaguely confused when people clung to their diseased bodies when he came to harvest their souls. He could only guess it was because they knew no better.
“That would be lovely, dear.” Mrs. Elderman chatted about the delights of her granddaughter and how she loved to eat chocolate chip cookies, and that the little girl thought she was drinking tea when her mommy gave her cream soda, and all the while Sophie smiled and laughed and chatted and wrapped the teapot as the black clouds wound thicker and thicker around the old lady. His hands itched with the need to touch her and harvest her soul, but he couldn’t do that in front of Sophia because he wanted to see her smile. Harvesting souls made people sad and he didn’t see a reason to cause Sophia any sadness at all. Bright sparks needed to be nurtured, not snuffed out.
“Bye, Mrs. Elderman. See you soon.”
The old lady clutched the neatly wrapped teapot in paper as colorful as Sophia’s dress and hobbled to the door. “Thank you, dear.”
Mrs. Elderman’s smile faltered as she shuffled toward him.
“Here, let me get that for you.”
He opened the door and as she passed, he gently placed a hand on her shoulder. The black cloud descended, obscuring her body as it dropped to the ground. The wrapped teapot tumbled from her hands and her soul stood freed from its mortal coil.
The old lady’s soul looked right at him as someone screamed nearby. He stepped back as people swarmed around the body.
“I had a feeling you’d come for me,” Mrs. Elderman said.
“People usually have a feeling when I come,” he replied.
She sighed and looked at her old, crumpled body at her feet. Sophia pushed through the crowd and checked her pulse. Her smile was gone, as he knew it would be. That was a pity.
“I had a good life. I liked it. I was surrounded by love. My husband. My children and my grandchildren. I was lucky,” she said.
He murmured something he hoped would soothe her. Who knew? It wouldn’t change her circumstances. Sophia had returned to the desk and was calling for an ambulance to come, while calming the other people in the shop. Someone sobbed. A man hugged a woman to his chest and rubbed her back, his eyes round and blank as he stared at the lifeless body.
“Just because I was old, doesn’t mean I was ready to go, you know,” Mrs. Elderman said.
Death turned his attention to her. She’d obviously been old, her body in pain. It couldn’t have been comfortable to exist in. It didn’t make sense, and for the first time since he could remember, he asked, “Why?”
Truly, it was a mystery.
“Because of the love of my family. My husband. My children. I’m not ready to give that up. Surely you understand,” she said.
“They will die. You will see them again,” he said. Then again, maybe she would or maybe she wouldn’t. Their souls would be filtered into the afterlife. Heaven or Hell, depending on the weight of their souls. He wasn’t concerned with that. He wasn’t the judge.
“I see you’ve never experienced love, young man,” Mrs. Elderman said.
Death smirked. “I assure you, I am not a young man. I am millennia old.” Too old. Weary. There wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen. Murder. Violation. Death in all the ways a body could cease. He’d harvested souls from every situation. War. Peace. Suicide. While making love, or crossing the road while they had their attention on the screen of their cell phone. There was nothing that could surprise him.
Yet he wanted to hear what the old woman had to say.
Her old eyes were shrewd as they locked on to him. The white mists gathered around her feet, getting ready to carry her away. White was good. She was going to the good place. “So old and yet so naïve. You really don’t know what life’s about, do you?”
The ambulance drew up outside. The uniformed paramedics came up the stairs with the gurney. There was no rush. They knew there would be no reviving this body. A police car parked behind the ambulance. Blue and red flicked over the shop fronts and the crowd that had gathered outside.
Sophia let the shoppers out and efficiently emptied the shop. After a quick check, the paramedics loaded the corpse onto the gurney.
“What’s there to know?”
The police spoke to Sophia. The usual questions they asked when coming to determine a death. They would go soon. There was nothing untoward about Mrs. Elderman’s death. A swift stroke was one of the better ways to go.
The mists traveled up the old lady’s body and over her face. “You may have lived for millennia, but you’ve never truly been alive. You’ve never experienced it.”
Now his attention was locked on the old lady. Her body was encased with the mist and starting the transition between this world and her forever.
“The only thing worth living for. Love, of course.” She disappeared as her soul began its journey. The mists cleared.
Sophia handed the wrapped teapot to one of the officers. “Can you please take this to her family? She bought it for her granddaughter.”
Death was the only person left in the shop. He was surprised to find he was still here. He never spent time talking to souls once he’d harvested them. They were just a job. Something he was compelled to do. Nothing more.
The police officer took the teapot, but remained standing in front of Sophia. “Of course. Now, will you come with us to the police station, Miss? We have a few more questions we’d like you to answer.”
Death frowned. That was unusual. The death was by natural causes, confirmed by the paramedics. There should be no further questions for Sophia.
Her shoulders slumped and she sighed, a despondent sound, but she wasn’t confused about their request. Only resigned as though she’d expected to be asked. “Let me get my bag.”
Her eyes fell on him, as though only just noticing he was still there. A little frown appeared between her brows. “If you would like something, you’ll need to come back at a later time. I have to lock up now.”
He did need something. He had a question he needed answered. A big question. A question he didn’t know he had until just now.
The niggling feeling grew as the police officers guided him out of the shop and he watched Sophia get into the back of the police car. There was something about her face in the back of the car that bothered him, and as they drove off, he was left on the sidewalk with nothing but unanswered questions circling round in his normally apathetic mind.