"I'm going to need your help with this one, Anton."
They were sitting on the steps leading up to the door of the house, watching some kids playing with a ball in the street. The kids didn't make any sound at all, even when they laughed out loud.
"B-but..." stammered the boy, "I don't know... I'd just get in the way."
"You did very well back there."
"I did? ..." Anton grinned. "Cool!" Then his face grew worried. "What is going on anyway? What happened to those people?"
The slight smile on the Caretaker's face melted. "They lost too many memories. They are shadows now, empty shells with not even enough of a mind to move on."
The boy swallowed. "What would have happened if they caught us?"
"They would have drained our memories too."
They were both silent for a long time. The sun was shining, casting deep dark shadows everywhere, but it failed to warm up the air. By daylight, the street could be seen for the dusty wasteland it was. Right behind the ruined houses on the opposite side loomed apartment buildings covered in grime. A single broken street lamp creaked in the wind.
"Earlier you said someone was causing this on purpose. Isn't that dangerous? What do they gain from it?"
The Reaper sighed. "I don't know. It doesn't make sense."
"Okay... how are they doing it?"
Another sigh. "I don't know that either."
"So, let's find out."
The dark one stared at Anton intently, then grinned suddenly and stood up. "Let's."
"Why is there a school in the afterlife?"
They were walking across an expanse of asphalt, punctured by rusting poles approximating goal posts and basketball hoops. It was bordered by chainlink fence on three sides; Anton recognized it as the one that had caused them trouble the night before. The remaining side was taken up by a shoebox-shaped building, with walls that were little more than exposed concrete and the windows covered in chainlink grates. A second, larger one was visible in the distance.
"See, Anton, the afterlife is a reflection of the living world. People remember a school, so here it is."
Inside, dim neon light seeped along narrow corridors. Muffled sounds could be heard through the classroom doors as Anton followed his dark guide up the two flights of stairs to the top floor.
"Okay, so what are we doing here?"
"Do you have a better idea of where to start?"
"Me neither. But I know someone who can give us a hint."
He pointed at a door that was just opening, letting out children in black-and-blue uniforms. Their voices echoed between the grey walls, making the words incomprehensible even before the bell rang.
"You're kind of old for final year."
Anton turned around in surprise. A little girl was looking up at him through a blindfold which didn't seem to bother her.
"I'm not in final year. I'm in high school."
"Then what are you doing here?"
"Meeting someone... I guess..." he turned to point at his companion, who was talking to a gaunt figure in the hallway. "Say, what's your..."
The little girl was no longer there. He shrugged and looked around. Something was off... the stairs continued towards the ceiling for some reason. He tiptoed up the steps to see where they lead, but somehow found himself descending instead. He ended up where he had started.
"Anton!" The Caretaker gestured in his direction as he approached. "Meet Mrs. Varga, a friend of mine."
He nodded timidly to the stern-looking woman. She was petite, long white hair framing a featureless face with sunken eyes, and wore brown pants under a thin beige sweater. Her bony hand came up as if pulled by a string, and pinched Anton's cheek.
"Aren't you a good-looking boy," she said in a hollow voice. "Tsch! I guess the big scythe really spares no-one. But shouldn't you be in high school? I can put a good word in with my colleagues at..."
The Reaper coughed.
"Sorry, dear. Where was I? Oh yes. Remember that you can't observe without influencing the subject... and being influenced by it. Everything works both ways."
"So you're saying we should..."
"Yes, look at things from the opposite... what now?"
The classrooms were pulling students back from break time like miniature whirlpools. Among the laughter and chatter, a small boy was crying loudly. As Anton looked, a gangly old man in a black robe and cap plowed through the mass of children and raised his hand as if to strike. The kid gasped and clamped his mouth shut, then dragged his feet inside along with everyone else.
"That would be Mr. Papp," Mrs. Varga explained drily. "He's an adept of the New System."
"He keeps within the letter of the law. Scrupulously so, I might add."
The door slammed shut behind the man just as the bell rang again.
"Oh my, it would appear I'm late. If you'll be so kind as to excuse me."
She waved to the two males as she hurried stiffly down the hall. "Do visit again soon, dears."
They found their way to the exit in deafening silence.
"New System, she says. What do you make of that, Anton?"
Bright neon lamps bathed the nighttime crowd in a multicolored glare. The avenue seemed to go on forever; Anton couldn't even tell for how long they had been walking. He tried to peek at store windows along the way, but couldn't seem to focus his eyes.
"Must be the people you warned me about. How does that help us?"
"I'm still thinking about it."
Anton nodded, looking around at the terraces and grass beds and alleys and benches. "What are we doing here anyway?"
The Caretaker smirked. "Walking is good for the mind. Besides, I want to show you something."
"Is it far yet?"
"Hah! Look around." He paused. "Anton, I want you to see that the Afterlife is not all doom and gloom."
The boy wouldn't look him in the eye. "Is this part of my training?"
"In a way, yes. You could spend a very long time here."
Anton didn't say anything.
"Come along now. There is, in fact, a specific place I wanted to show you."
Signs in a language that almost made sense hung overhead as they found their way among displays. Above, a maze of galleries formed a second level, connected to the main floor by escalators. The aisles seemed to shift around as Anton followed the Reaper, cranking his neck at this and that. The merchandise was fairly mundane, walls of TV sets raising among shelves of cosmetics and textiles, but for the boy is was a wonderland. People were still faceless, but they seemed more animated than outside, the murmur of voices a constant presence throughout.
"How do people pay for things around here?" asked Anton as they rode an escalator upwards.
"Will I have to work? All this stuff has to come from somewhere."
Lights were dimmer up in the galleries. It was quiet too, and color was in short supply. The boy recoiled from a stretch of floor where the railing was missing, and that was when he noticed the device.
It was sitting on a shelf among office supplies, a large handheld game or calculator, with countless buttons arranged all around a screen divided in segments. Its purpose was less than obvious, but that only fueled Anton's fascination. He reached for it instinctively.
The clerk nodded, smiling. He was a middle-aged man who couldn't seem to look straight at you, but the boy was hardly paying attention as he pressed various keys. It was unclear how the whole thing was supposed to work. The screen was a jumble, and changed randomly as he switched modes of operation back and forth. There was a logic to it all, but it danced just out of reach.
"I think it's broken," he said at length.
"In a way." The Caretaker was leaning over his shoulder. "Remember why things exist at all in the Afterlife?"
"Because people expect them to?"
"Exactly! Now, what's one thing that never changes about electronics?"
Anton thought for a moment. "People can't figure them out?" He grinned.
The clerk snorted.
"How much is it?" Anton asked abruptly.
"For you? A pittance. Only a word from your vocabulary, or the smiles you would smile this summer."
He dropped the device like a hot potato.
"That's a rip-off," Death stated calmly, "and you know it."
The adults stared at each other for a moment. Then something brushed against the Reaper's duster.
"Anton? Where are you...?"
The boy was already turning a corner. His guardian couldn't help but be impressed as he followed. The gallery had shrunken to a narrow ledge where the guard rail was missing; he had to balance his way across. The downward-going escalator had simply vanished. Floating down, he was just in time to see his ward dashing blindy through the changing landscape. Countertops that weren't there before blocked his way. By the time he reached open floor again, he was lost.
Not for long, though. There was a side door right in front of him, and he yanked it open to step into the corridor separating the department store proper from the adjacent bar and fast food. Anton was there all right, sitting on the stairs underneath an emergency exit sign.
"How do you stay sane?" he cried, his voice ringing in the cold air.
"It's not as bad as you think. Give it time." The Caretaker walked up and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Let's go home."
"We can't. The exit leads into a storeroom for some reason."
"Yeah, the place is going bad. I'll take care of that."
Anton started crying again. "Is it my fault?"
"Yes and no. It's a vicious circle." He paused. "Tell you what, help me fix this mess and I'll show you a few tricks along the way."
"I know what Mrs. Varga meant," stated the teenager.
"Oh?" asked the veiled woman coldly. She was sitting across from them at the now-familiar cafe, keeping both hands on the purse in her lap.
He looked at the Caretaker. "Last night, on the way back, you told me that the Afterlife is made of dreams -- those of the living."
"That is correct."
"And dreams in turn spring from our -- their -- experiences."
"So what happens if some bad event makes a lot of people have nightmares about a certain place?"
The woman turned towards her bearded companion. "He's learning fast."
He chuckled. "That was our first thought too... Anton, right? But it would have to be something big, and nothing like that happened lately. We can look, you know."
"I know..." Anton looked at the Caretaker again.
"Besides, what would the living have to gain from this? They're just ruining the Afterlife for themselves, not that they know it."
None of them said much for a while.
"Maybe they're not doing it on purpose?" offered the boy.
The woman shook her head. "The results would be chaotic. Somebody must be telling them what to do."
"Somebody... from here? You can do that?"
She stared at the Reaper instead of answering, and the others immitated her.
"It's possible," he answered at length. "Sometimes, just sometimes, a dream is more than that -- it's a vision of this world. Find the dreamer then, and you can talk to them."
"That's it!" grinned Anton excitedly. "If others can do it, we can do it."
"You're assuming they'll remember the message... or understand it... or take it seriously. And then what?"
"It's worth a shot," said the bearded man. "At worst, we'd have a pair of eyes on the other side. It's far more reliable that way."
Anton nodded. "And I know just who can help us."
Val absently wiped the phone's camera lens and stuffed it in a pocket. The whole thing was crazy, but then again, urban exploration never needed much of an excuse. He read the letter again while walking down the street, heading for his old neighborhood. This promised to be interesting indeed.
It took longer than he expected to find the first location. Distances and landmarks were off -- or rather the directions were. The little old apartment building was branded with the earthquake hazard mark, and surely enough, it was largely vacated. Still, he noticed more than a few exceptions as he skulked around. Not everyone had somewhere else to go.
The spray-painted symbol jumped at him, easily spotted among the grafitti-surrounded trashcans. Val took a few photos and left, feeling self-conscious all of a sudden. The quieter it was, the more eyes he felt on him from behind the windows.
A different sigil, if obviously related, was painted inside the next spot on the route, an ancient factory building that was literally falling apart. Among the garbage piles on the floor, the dead rats and birds would have passed unnoticed, but for the way they were arranged under the grafitti. He noted the address, too, before moving on.
By the time he encountered the third sign, on a wall splattered with dried blood, the idea that he had seen it before was firm in his mind. On a whim, he took a detour through the alley where Anton had been killed. The mark was right there, blatant now that he knew what to look for.
That afternoon, Val sat on a bench in the park, wondering what to do with all the data. Then he bought a large pizza and two liters of soda. Thus armed, he went to visit his friend at the Internet cafe.
"Found them!" the man yelled over the mix of music, chatter and sound effects. "Check this out." He highlighted a few lines of text on the screen. "Says here it's an obscure cult of the dead created by some crazy guy in the 19th century. Claimed he could visit the next world in dreams."
Val leaned forward to see better. The academic language was gibberish to him, but the illustrations were eloquent. "In dreams, you say...?"
Later that night, he turned on his portable TV and set to making a sandwich. Something he heard made him drop the knife in his hurry to turn up the sound. The orphanage was closing down. He sat down and watched, wanting to be happy about it. But somehow that seemed wrong.
Outside, under the window, a handful of drunks were talking loudly. Val was too tired to wonder what they were doing in an industrial area, with no residences nearby.