The most annoying thing about death is all the paperwork involved. Every morning, Lyle and I make the trip to the warehouse to sift through today’s files and see whose soul we get to summon and send into the light.
“Harold Lassiter, aged eighty-six,” I read from the list of names. “Heart attack. Leaves behind a loving wife, Katherine, and a German shepherd, Goober.”
“Maya Hernandez, twenty-one,” Lyle adds. “Car wreck. Leaves behind a little sister, Leslie, and an absent father. I think I remember her mother somewhere…” He glances around the massive warehouse, at the rows and rows of filing cabinets detailing the fates of billions. Other interns scramble around us, trying to make sure they get to all of our clients on time. Hanging above, a clock the size of a semi truck ticks away the seconds.
I remember first walking into the warehouse at Deathworkers Agency. The place is so big that, in my three years here, I have yet to find the opposite wall of the room. We once had an intern try to seek out the end, but we haven’t heard from her in a couple months.
“There are thousands of people named Hernandez throughout history,” I tell Lyle, gesturing to the almost infinite number of filing cabinets.
“I know, Jasmine, but I read about a woman who died of cancer five weeks ago and she left her daughters Maya and Leslie behind.”
“That was five weeks ago, Lyle.”
Lyle shrugs. “Doesn’t it seem a bit sad to you?” he asks. “A mother dies, and almost immediately, her daughter follows afterward.”
“We don’t control the souls, Lyle, just the paperwork.” I hold up the file. “Now let’s go send Mr. Lassiter and Miss Hernandez to their final destination.”
Lyle nods and we head out of the warehouse and into the lobby. I ring the bell on the desk and Dalia appears, hot pink fingernails tapping against her keyboard. She smacks her gum in rhythm to the ticking clock. Everything in Deathworkers runs on time.
“Harold Lassiter’s already made it to the Main Lobby,” she reads off her monitor. “They’re having trouble bringing Maya Hernandez in. She doesn’t want to go.”
Lyle shifts his weight from foot to foot. Dalia gives him an odd look, pulls out a stamp, and smacks DECEASED across both Mr. Lassiter and Maya’s papers before sending them down a chute. Behind us, two other interns burst through the swinging doors, carrying an entire stack of files. Lyle cringes and I lead him away.
We stop at the water fountain. “You okay, Lyle?” I ask.
He sucks in a breath. “Does the job ever affect you, Jasmine? Think about it: what if we just… forgot to file someone’s paperwork. Let them have a little extra time. Maya Hernandez could have more of a life.”
“You’ll have to take that up with the Boss,” I reply. “We can’t get personally attached to clientele.”
“They’re not clientele, they’re people. It says in Maya Hernandez’s file that she wanted to travel to Paris and she liked outdoor cafes and she had this habit of pursing her lips when she thought deeply about things. She was a person, Jasmine. Why do we have to be so obsessed with time and order around here?”
“Without us, there’d be chaos, Lyle. We just do what we have to do.”
“Right,” Lyle mutters. “Well, I think I need to take an early lunch, Jasmine. Think some things through.”
“You got it. Find me if you need anything.”
Lyle shuffles away and I go back to the warehouse. Up next in my files is Ming Kelly, sixty-eight, no surviving relatives and no close friends. Lyle’s words churn in my mind. When I hand over Mr. Kelly’s file to Dalia, I ask, “Is there a waiting party for this client? Deceased parents, maybe? Dead pets?”
Dalia searches Ming Kelly’s name in the database. “Doesn’t look like it. Mom’s still alive but had nothing to do with him. We’ve already taken care of the father, but… you don’t want to know. He won’t be part of any waiting party. Oh, and no pets either.”
“So there’s no one for Mr. Kelly?”
“Not even ancestors?”
“Jasmine, hun, no ancestor has time to attend every descendent’s waiting party.”
“Alright then. Thanks, Dalia.” I walk out of the lobby just in time to hear the sirens go off. The Boss is not the kind of guy who lets things slip through his fingers, so true security breaches give the staff a collective heart attack. I take off running down the corridor.
The supervisor, Mr. Cleary, stands outside the double doors leading to the warehouse. “Someone entered the bridge, turned around, and left the way they came,” he tells me, fingers tapping his clipboard. “I just called in the Boss to hunt the wayward client.”
I raise my eyebrows. Once Dalia stamps a client’s file, we send someone to track them down, tell them their time has come, and escort them to the bridge. Through the bridge, the client enters the Reception Hall, where there’s usually a waiting party of deceased friends, relatives, pets, and the occasional ancestor ready to meet them. From there, they all go somewhere that only the Boss knows. Never in my three years has a client turned back the way they came instead of crossing over the bridge.
The double doors open and out steps Tanisha, another intern, carrying a new file. When I ask her who it is, she replies, “Kara Volkov, nineteen, housefire. The Boss sent a memo that if one client escapes, we still have to keep our quota for the day, just to make sure there’s still balance. Kara wasn’t due for another fifty-six years, but the Boss says she’s the one we’re going to have to escort over the bridge if we don’t find the wayward client by the time the closing bell rings.”
“Who’s the wayward client?” I ask.
Mr. Cleary checks his clipboard. “Maya Hernandez, twenty-one, car accident.”
Really, Lyle? “Let me have that file,” I say. I take the file out of Tanisha’s hands and head back through the lobby, turning down another corridor and into the Reception Hall. I pass by the waiting parties and the long lines for check-in.
“Where do you think you’re going, Jasmine?” a security guard asks.“There’s a lockdown until the Boss tracks down the wayward client.”
“I’m headed to Paris. The Boss is omnipotent but not omniscient, and we’re not dealing with just a wayward client.” I show him Kara Volkov’s file and my security pass. The guard nods and I head out the Reception Hall’s doors onto the bridge.
We call it a bridge, but it’s more of a massive causeway where escorts lead our clients. The clients make their way across, some of the clients fearful, some sobbing, and some looking around in wonder. Beneath the bridge lies a lake of black water, and hanging around the Deathworkers Complex is a dense fog shrouding the building. If you squint, sometimes you can make out shapes in the fog–once, I thought I spotted Big Ben, and last week I saw the outline of the Golden Gate Bridge. But today, as I head through the mist, I focus my thoughts and avoid making eye contact with anyone.
“Where are we?” a client asks her escort.
“Everywhere and nowhere, ma’am,” the escort replies.
A clock in the distance strikes two and the outline of the Eiffel Tower materializes through the fog. I hurry towards it and emerge in a narrow cobblestone lane. Outdoor cafés and dusty bookshops line the road while a thin tendril of mist meanders down the sidewalk. I follow the fog, but it isn’t until evening when I find Maya. Sitting across from her is Lyle, nervously drumming his fingers on the table. The color drains from his face when he sees me.
“If I can find you, the Boss will,” I warn them. Lyle’s gone through three cups of cocoa but Maya’s coffee sits untouched. I set Kara Volkov’s file on the table. “Maya, we have to go. There’s a reason Lyle took you to a place that would make you happy rather than to your sister. He and I are the only people who can see you, and once we leave, you’ll be invisible to everyone, even the ones you love. Trust me, you don’t want to get left behind–and if you don’t go, a girl named Kara Volkov has to take your place.”
Maya shakes her head; tears well up and spill over. “I’m not ready,” she pleads. “I just lost control of my car. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Leslie. I never got to write my book, or start my charity, or do all the things I made plans for when I was little. And I’m finally in Paris.” Her voice shakes. “I can’t go now. Not when there’s so much left to see.”
For a moment, I actually picture myself doing it–walking away and letting Maya stay. But then I glance at Kara Volkov’s file. We don’t control the souls, just the paperwork.
I open my mouth to say something but the fog meandering down the street thickens and curls around our ankles. The other people eating in the outdoor cafe and smoking on balconies slow down until time comes to a standstill, Paris frozen like a photograph.
Two sharply-dressed men make their way down the lane. My nerves falter when I recognize the taller one; the Boss changes his look every couple centuries, and recently he’s traded in the black robes for a black Armani suit and the scythe for a walking stick. At his side is an escort from the Agency. As they pass, flowers in balconies wilt and the air grows colder.
“You’ve come to take me away,” Maya whimpers, eyes wide.
The Boss’s smile is warm. “No, love, I’ve come to bring you back.”
“What about my sister? Can I tell her goodbye?”
“She has your outlines and unfinished novels lying around. You gave her strength to face the world. She’s even taken up the caffeine addiction that plagued you for years.” The Boss eyes the untouched coffee cup speculatively. “You don’t have to say goodbye, because you’ll never truly leave her.”
Maya flinches and reaches for Kara Volkov’s file. “How old is this girl?” she murmurs.
“Nineteen,” says the escort. Maya’s expression shatters. She takes a deep breath and purses her lips, and a minute of silence passes before Maya pushes the coffee cup away from her, stands, and gives Lyle a peck on the cheek.
“I’m going to be okay, right?” she asks the escort. “It doesn’t hurt, does it?”
“No, my dear,” the escort promises. “It is only a walk over a bridge.” He extends his arm and Maya takes it, and together they walk down the lane and disappear into the mist creeping up the cobblestones. The Boss turns to us, his expression curious.
“I only wanted her to have one happy moment,” Lyle blurts. “The car crash–it was so sudden, so violent. I was going to bring her back to the Agency, I promise. I didn’t want to put Kara Volkov in danger.” He looks at Kara Volkov’s file. “Why her of all people anyway?”
It only takes me half a second to guess. “Leslie Hernandez is nineteen too, isn’t she?”
The Boss drums his gloved fingers on the top of his walking stick and answers, “I may not be omniscient, but I’ve been around a while.” He lifts his sleeve and checks his watch. “We should be returning. And Lyle, I’m reassigning you. I have another position more suited to your talents, and it has needed someone like you for a while now.”
Lyle doesn’t answer. The three of us walk down the cobblestone street as the fog reaches out to swallow us and time restarts in Paris. Soon, we’re on the bridge, and then back in the Reception Hall. I spot Maya in the corner embracing her mother and grandmother while their dog barks in circles. Maya beams, but tears stream down her face.
“Over there,” the Boss says to Lyle, pointing at a frail man on his own in the corner. “That man’s name is Ming Kelly. I want you to talk to him. Let him tell you his story. People like him need someone like you at times like these, so from now on, your place is with them. And Lyle–don’t ever take a client off the bridge again.”
Lyle swallows. “Yes, sir.” He shuffles over to Ming Kelly and shyly introduces himself. Ming hesitates to speak at first, but after a while they are trading jokes.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” the Boss says in a quiet voice, gloved hands curling over the walking stick. “They say we should pity the living, but people get left behind on both sides. You’re all so lucky you hardly have to wait that long.”
“What do you mean, sir?” I ask. “Are you waiting for something?”
Something flashes in his dark eyes that I can’t quite identify. “Lyle is more right about this job than I will ever be,” he mutters, sighing and checking his watch again. “We should both return to work, Jasmine. Few things are permanent in this world, and we cannot make up for lost time.” He nods to me and leaves the Hall, but his words spin in my mind. For a brief moment, I consider searching the vast, infinite warehouse for my own file. And I wonder if perhaps the Boss has a file too.
The clock in the Hall strikes six and a bell sounds, announcing the end of the day. A set of curtains materializes at the end of the Reception Hall. The clients–the people, I should say–and their waiting parties make their way towards it, chatting excitedly or sobbing as they hold onto each other. Maya doesn’t notice me when she passes and Ming waves goodbye to Lyle.
The recently deceased vanish through the curtain to a place that I will not know for, hopefully, quite a while. An announcement comes over the PA system, asking staff to begin cleanup and preparation for tomorrow. Lyle meets my gaze across the Reception Hall and nods. The staff files back towards the warehouse as the clock ticks away the seconds and the Agency returns to normal. Deathworkers is on time once again.