"You know when people die with a smile on their face? It means one of us was able to be there for them. I had no such luck."
"Then Reapers don't actually... you know..."
"Ha ha, no. Living beings die just fine on their own." The Reaper sighed. "They're all so fragile, yet the closest thing the Universe has to a purpose."
Anton nodded absently, jogging to keep up with his guardian, who was hovering at knee height above the cobblestones. "Where are we going?"
"I'm bringing you to work today."
"Why, we're bound to each other or something?"
Death chuckled. "No, but you need to learn the ropes before you set out on your own. There are dangers in the Afterlife. Bigger than me, I might add."
The boy shuddered. "Those guys you saved me from."
"Indeed. There are those who would turn the Afterlife into a concentration camp. Supposedly because we're all sinners and have to pay for it. But to me it's pretty obvious they just want power."
Anton gaped at a stone skyway arching over the narrow street between centuries-old buildings. The mist had subsided, only to be replaced by a light drizzle.
"So... what's the purpose of the Afterlife?"
"Well, some of the recently deceased have unfinished business. A few actually like it here. But most simply aren't ready to move on."
Anton's jaw dropped. "Move on? You mean there's something beyond this?"
"Only eternal rest, for all we know. Nobody ever came back to tell."
The rain had turned sunshower by the time they reached the park.
Greenish water was pooling in dead fountains, covered in leaves and twigs. In the background, among chestnut and linden trees, loomed slowly crumbling statues, while a once stately manor looked down on them from a terrace, with broken windows revealing the emptiness inside.
"What is it you do for a li... uh... job?" Anton blushed, and the Reaper chuckled again.
"I fix the city whenever it starts breaking down. It has a life of its own, you know. Shifting and changing, and sometimes going bad."
"Like this park?"
"Now, now. How do you feel here?"
Anton was quiet for a moment. Somewhere in the distance a bird sang. It sounded like no earthly creature ever did.
"It's so peaceful," the boy said at length.
"There's your answer, then. Decay is not always a bad thing."
Anton nodded. "Then you're some kind of caretaker? Say, can I call you that?"
"Caretaker," the Reaper answered slowly, as if weighing the word. "Hm, I suppose so. Not a bad name at all."
Up a long, broken staircase they went, around a tiny plaza sporting a statue, and through a gangway. Their destination turned out to be an apartment building no taller than four stories, its brickwork apparent through numerous holes in the successive layers of stucco. Anton shivered as the gloom of the hallway pressed in on himself and the Caretaker.
"I don't like this place," he whispered.
"So you feel it too."
The elevator continued climbing long after it should have reached the top floor.
"That's not normal," muttered the one in black. The control panel had grown extra buttons in the mean time. He was just reaching towards it, little sparks dancing at his fingertips, when the creaky cage lurched to a stop.
They squeezed out through doors that only opened partway.
Small windows above eye level cast a dirty light on walls that came together at odd angles. Silence poured out of dark recesses where doors could be guessed more than seen, and a cold draft came from downstairs.
The Caretaker's voice was a hoarse whisper. "Can you see the numbers on the doors? We're looking for apartment 19."
Anton cast him a funny look. When he turned to the doors again, they were all open. From the shadows, skeletal shapes shuffled crookedly towards the two, elderly voices moaning, "Come in, do come in."
They ran down the stairs, the Reaper sliding smoothly over the steps while the boy stumbled. Somehow he didn't fall, and after a while figured out the motions. It was like being on rollerblades, pushing himself forward through sheer willpower. That felt good. He was't helpless after all! Then a couple of floors later the treads shrunk away from their feet. Anton froze on the intermediate landing as his protector fell in slow motion, like a leaf in an air current. "It's pulling me down!..."
It seemed like an impassable gap. But right across from it was a door, on which a number glinted in the gloom: 19. The door started to open, admitting a beam of light, and somehow it was close enough to step through after all. Anton blundered forward into a hallway which twisted around madly. Curtains brushed at his face as he ran; doorways revealed rooms cluttered with curious old furniture, but he didn't stop to look, even though his heart was pounding... no. No it wasn't. Nor was he out of breath; only fear and habit made him think so.
There was a kitchen at the end of the hallway, rickety cabinets covered in dust and cobwebs. Indistinct noises came from a smaller door in a corner. The boy approached it with clay feet and yanked.
No-one. Only a cramped staircase spiraling down into darkness. It made him dizzy, and he recoiled, nearly stumbling on the uneven floorboards.
"Come in, do come in," moaned an elderly voice behind him.
He stumbled down the spiral steps as fast as he could.
It was dark at the bottom, save for the yellowish light seeping through a window barely large enough for him to pass through; there was no door. He intended to wait for a while and go back upstairs, but then a moving shape blocked what little light came from above. He took the only way out.
The window turned out to be right under the ceiling of a room with walls of bare concrete, lit by a dying lightbulb hanging from a wire. Three coffins took up most of the floor; the one right next to Anton was open... and empty. He backed away from it, but there was nowhere to run. He was trapped. Alone. If even Death could fall, what chance did he stand?
"Anton!" hissed a familiar voice. "Over here!"
In the corner, behind a column, there was a narrow space where two walls didn't quite meet. From the other side, the Reaper was reaching out to the boy.
"Give me your hand. Come on."
"I can't reach!" Anton struggled, but even his thin body wouldn't fit in the opening. And now something was coming through the not-window.
"Yes you can! Push yourself with your mind."
He tried once more, while the wretched shadow of a human being that had dogged him so far dragged its feet across the floor and touched him. Then it came back to him, how he had flown down the stairs, and the walls were like layers of cotton as he slid through them to where the Caretaker was waiting. They raced together through a corridor lined with pipes, towards a light that was an open door, and out into the bright sunshine.
It was a quaint sidewalk cafe built on a terrace, well removed from the hustle of the street. The spotty shadow of a poplar danced over a corner table where Anton sat, looking doubtfully at his late breakfast: an omelette and a glass of orange juice. "But I'm not hungry."
"I know," said the Reaper mildly. "Eat anyway, while you still remember the taste of food."
Anton shuddered and reached for the fork.
He ate in silence for a few minutes, the Caretaker standing at his side, before he noticed they weren't alone anymore. A tall woman in an expensive black dress, with a brimless hat and a veil covering her face, was accompanied by a fat man in a dark pinstripe suit and matching fedora, his features hidden by a long beard and horn-rimmed sunglasses.
"Well?" she asked in an unpleasant voice.
"It's bad all right," said Death. "We barely escaped."
The woman tilted her head at Anton. "You took your ward with you?"
"I'm genre-savvy," replied the Caretaker.
The other man snerked.
"Things are just like on our side of the district, then." she said.
"And a whole strip from here to there." pointed out her companion.
The Reaper nodded. "Somebody's doing this on purpose. Any idea who it might be?"
"We're working on it." she said with dignity.
"Excellent. Keep in touch."
"But of course. Nice to meet you, young man."
She gestured with her purse, and a sudden gust of wind pushed the poplar's branches aside. The sun blinded Anton just for a moment. By the time he finished rubbing his eyes, the couple had vanished.
The night Anton disappeared, Val dreamt of seeing his friend in the moonlit clouds, lookind down on the orphanage. The next day they found his body laying in a back alley. He had bled to death from a wound between the ribs. A few days later, Val ran away from the institution. They would have thrown him out in a few months anyway, right after his eighteenth birthday. Not enough time for him to finish high-school, one way or the other.
For a while he worked as a bouncer in a friend's Internet Cafe. It was downtown, in one of those 19th century buildings that seemed about to come down. Some of them really were, but this one was only gloomy, cold and maze-like. But the worst thing were the customers. Never mind the drinking and smoking -- and Val hated the smell of both. They were rowdy, the threat of being forcefully thrown out being the only thing that kept them in line somewhat. And while Val was strong enough, half the bouncer's job is to look scary. His baby face just didn't cut it.
He ended up at a construction material wholesaler on the edge of town. By day, he would load and unload truckfulls of cement bags; by night, he would sit in his small room at the back of the warehouse, sorting his growing music collection and counting the pay days until he could afford that sweet electronic keyboard; Val wasn't much into books.
One morning he woke up to find a letter on the table, scribbled with a cheap pen in the back of a notebook. It was his own near-illegible writing, but the words were Anton's, exactly as he remembered his dead friend speaking. What it said was another story.