Afterlife by Night: Prologue
The boy gasped for air at every step. His T-shirt had a big wet spot, his feet were cold, yet he didn't dare look down as he made his way through the deserted maze of back alleys among apartment buildings. Countless times he wanted to stop, to just sit down, but his pursuer was always there, implacably keeping up no matter how fast the boy tried to run. So he pressed on in the dead silence, while light poured from above.
The sun was disappearing behind rooftops when he emerged into the square. It was... vast, and not the way he remembered it, but somehow that didn't seem strange. People were gray shapes in the distance, walking listlessly past each other. Even the few cars were quiet.
It seemed he had outpaced his pursuer as he left the shadow of a grand corner building to cross the square towards the vast park on the opposite side. Electrical lights started to come on, filtered through the foliage of trees, while the sky grew dark. Among the impromptu camouflage patterns, he was late to notice the silhouette blocking his path.
The boy wanted nothing more than to run away, but he stood his ground and examined his stalker.
He was lean but not very tall, dressed in black sneakers, torn black jeans and a black hoodie that covered half his face. The other half sported a stubbly neckbeard, and what little showed of his skin was the color of plaster. A duster, also black, completed the portrait.
"Welcome to the Great Beyond," he said in a voice like the rustling of dry leaves.
"What do you mean?" gasped the boy. "What's going on?"
"You died," said the one in black matter-of-factly.
It took a moment for the significance of those words to sink in.
"No." The boy shook his head. "No. I must be dreaming. It's a lucid dream," he almost screamed, "I've had them before."
"Oh, you're dreaming all right. It's just that you'll never wake up again."
He seemed serious as he stood there calmly, thumbs in his belt.
"So... what does that make you, the Grim Reaper? You don't look the part."
"Well, it's not my day job. Or my night job, for that matter."
The boy shivered as he looked around at the faceless shadows passing back and forth in the orange light of street lamps.
"I don't even remember what happened..."
"It will all come back to you. Give it time," the Reaper added after a break.
The boy winced. "How does time even work here?"
"Oh, it meanders and pools, and sometimes even loops back on itself, but time still flows. Don't worry, you have plenty of it now."
"Great. Death is telling me not to worry."
He shivered again. The feeling of being followed by a faceless, nameless enemy returned... and it wasn't coming from the black-clad form in front of him. He turned. Nobody.
"We'd better go now," said the Reaper grabbing his arm. His voice was strained all of a sudden.
It was too dark to see, and his feet could barely move, but the boy's companion dragged him by the elbow at dizzying speed among indistinct bits of architecture.
"What's going on?" he whined.
"No time to explain. Here."
There was a chainlink fence barring their way, lit from the other side by a dull lightbulb. The Reaper pressed his body against it, felt around with his hands... just like that, he was on the other side.
"Come on, quickly!"
"But!..." The boy pushed at the fence desperately. "What did you do?"
"Crap, never mind. Give me your hands."
They joined fingers through the cold links, squeezing numbly while footsteps came closer and closer... then they were in each other's place and the boy could see who was after him.
Bullies. His high-school nemesis. They towered over the slender Reaper, snickering and flaunting their muscles. "Whatcha gonna do, boy?" they chanted. "We're gonna getcha..."
"Go!" snarled his supernatural protector, eyes glowing red under the hood. "I'll hold them."
The boy watched helplessly as big hands pulled at the one victim they could reach. He turned and ran among row houses, while lightning crackled behind him in the street.
He couldn't tell how long it had been. It was still dark outside as he lay on that old bed, a grandma of a lamp on the nightstand barely giving off enough light to see by. A musty smell pervaded the still air; somehow, it was comforting.
"I should be tired, and hungry, and in pain, but I can't feel anything and sleep isn't coming. Still, that's not how I know you're telling the truth."
"Then how?" asked the part-time Death. He was standing at the foot of the bed, looking no worse for the wear after the earlier scuffle.
"I never had a room of my own. Except in dreams."
The Reaper said nothing.
"Can I go see the orphanage one last time?"
There was a hint of surprise in the answer. "It doesn't work that way. But I can show you."
He pointed at the carpet. As the boy looked, it seemed to take on the appearance of a city block seen from above, with the desk lamp standing in for a street light. The perspective deepened; he was looking down over the edge of the bed at a small neo-Renaissance building, worn-out and lived-in. Nothing stirred in the uncertain pre-dawn light; only a dog barked in the distance. The boy reached out towards a second-floor window covered in clothes lines, but there was only the rough wool of the carpet.
"I hated that place so much..." He started crying.
The one in black was silent for a while. Then, "Who did you leave behind?"
"My best friend Val. He... he made me the nicest compliment ever. 'Anton,' he said, 'you taught me how to think.' I was the cultured one, you see."
"What's your name, anyway? I can't go on calling you Death."
"Oh. Hm. I must have had one. But that was long ago."