"So, Mrs. Varga is really gone?" asked Anton.
The big square was much the way he remembered it from his first encounter with the Caretaker, all those months ago. If anything, it looked larger in the summer sunlight, the park on the far side surrounding them with color as they mingled with the crowd. Somehow, Val was with them, but Anton didn't think that was strange.
"Yeah..." Anne sighed. "She was the first to notice the disappearing children, and confronted Papp about it without telling anyone. I don't know what he told her, but by the time I figured out where she'd gone, it was too late."
"What will you do now?" inquired the Caretaker.
"Go on with my work at the school. We have a shortage of teachers now, and the kids need us more than ever. Most are too young to understand death, you know."
A fountain fired up its water jets right next to them. Even Y. giggled as they ran from the spray.
"Say, dear," she addressed W., "did you ever figure out what caused all that breakage throughout the city?"
"Why, the New Order did. They kept dreamers away and forced the dead into a regimented life. That would turn many into shadows, and with their minds gone, the places where they lived would descend into madness."
Anton lifted his eyebrows. "So it had nothing to do with the material world, after all?"
"But it did! All of that was causing a lot of distress to the living."
"I thought the dead couldn't affect the living to such a degree?"
W. frowned. "So did we, for the longest time. But the human mind is a powerful thing."
"So we had it backwards all along," mused the Caretaker. "We'll have to watch things closely from now on."
"That's where I come in," nodded W. proudly. "Ah, to feel useful again."
"Congratulations on your promotion, detective," deadpanned Anne, and they all laughed good-naturedly as the Afterlife unfolded around them.
Downtown sprawled before Anton and the Caretaker, a galaxy of lights adorning the towers and malls, and the palaces with their fountains. They lifted in the air, going higher and faster until the city was far below, and only the night sky looked down on them. The boy noticed with surprise that his mentor had trouble keeping up.
"Are you all right?" he called worriedly.
"Give me your hand," replied the Reaper.
So Anton pulled him along, and they sat at the top of a spire to watch the urban starscape.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said the Caretaker. "In all these decades, I've seldom had the opportunity to see the city like that."
"I can't fly all that well, Anton. That's your power." He chuckled. "Besides, I'm old."
"You look younger than W., maybe even Y.," pointed out the boy. "You dress younger, too."
"I try to keep up with the times. Then again, so did Provost in his own strange way," added the Reaper bitterly.
"Is... is it true? What he said -- that there was something personal between the two of you?"
The Caretaker hung his head. "Yes." He took his time before continuing. "I'm his grand-grandson, or thereabouts. "And the still-living Provost is mine."
"I thought you didn't remember your name," said Anton carefully.
"It was the one memory I tried to get rid of. And it was forced back on me."
Silence descended between them.
"Anton... there's something I wanted to tell you tonight. It is time."
"Time for what?"
"For you to take my place. You're more than ready for that."
"Take your place? What are you going to... Oh no. No!" shouted the boy. He grabbed his mentor by the lapels of his duster, and shook him. "I'm not losing you so soon! It's not fair!"
"The Afterlife isn't fair, Anton. And you've seen what happens to those who linger on for too long."
"Well, you're not him. You have friends. And work. Didn't you tell me that there are never enough Reapers around? Or..." The boy couldn't go on.
The Caretaker looked at his crying student in surprise, then slowly, carefully hugged him.
"All right, all right. Tell you what: I'll think about it some more. For... oh, another lifetime or so."