Afterlife by Night, Chapter 3: Observant, aren't you
It was a different city at night. Streets became wider and longer; some buildings grew taller, while others shortened; the tangle of back alleys straightened up. Anton wandered the neighborhood at length now that the Caretaker was often away, taking delight in the study of differences between the Afterlife and the material world it reflected.
Mostly, everything was larger on this side of reality.
More often than not, Anton would end up impossibly far from his new home, having lost track of time. Clocks were another thing that didn't really work for the dead. He would jump on a bus for the return trip, which only made the sheer scale of things even more obvious as an endless parade of urban building blocks flowed him by in reverse. At other times he would venture into a gangway, only to emerge in some nook of the city that shouldn't have fit within the available space and wasn't accessible from any other direction. Buildings, too, tended to be bigger on the inside as a general rule.
That was because people's aspirations were usually so much larger than their real lives, the Reaper explained to him during one of their increasingly scarce moments together. It was a good thing, too, as all those dead needed to fit somehow. But there were ways to navigate it. He tried to teach Anton how to use the Metro system, a veritable city beneath the city, and the boy promptly managed to get himself lost in a place where, down an unpaved street covered in mud and puddles, past colossal skeletons of steel and concrete, there was only a misshapen hole with dirty water covering strange ruins. Beyond that, things ceased to make much sense, and every direction was into the unknown.
So Death taught Anton how to fly instead.
At first he was only able to float at knee height, which was enough to let him zip around like a fish in a pond. Prodded by his mentor, the boy ventured ever higher, fighting fear and dizziness, until one day he was soaring above rooftops, a feeling of exhilaration rushing through him. For the first time, he was able to go behind the palaces and fountains in the old city center; but all he found was a vast stretch of pavement littered with the remains of monumental statues.
There were limits to this power. Anton could only stay in the air for so long, and in some places he couldn't do it at all. It was enough, however, to get him away when he inevitably ran across the bullies, which happened more often as time passed.
Summer was definitely on the way by now. Gorgeous old manors surrounded Anton as he confidently found his way through a maze of narrow streets banded with the shadows of birch trees. He would meet a dreamer today, he could feel it. That was always a good thing.
The boy didn't notice how empty the streets were until that changed. Out of the woodwork came a sneering pack of muscles, then another... and another. All of a sudden they were barring his way, and he ran onto a side street where ancient oak trees joined their branches into a roof, leaning over massive brick walls. Fear grabbed at his feet. He tried to fly, but couldn't reach high enough, and now others were ahead: older, dirty. Their hands were rough to the touch as they threw Anton to the ground. His fall was stopped by more hands. The pursuers had caught up, and laughed while they shoved him some more.
He tried to hit them, with fists which seemed inadequate. They only laughed harder. "What do you want?" he yelled, but they just stared through him with glassy eyes. The boy despaired, remembering how even the Reaper had been afraid.
Then he saw the gate, a simple wrought iron gate set into the nearby wall, and something swelled within him. He *shoved* one of the bullies, his mind and body working in unison, and the monster hit the ground while Anton flew over him like a thrown stone. The gate felt like a curtain of water as he went through the bars. Behind it, there was a garden, then a wall with ornamental holes in it which was no more an obstacle in Anton's state. He stopped late, deep inside a tree barrier, tired and worried.
Why had there been a faceless woman in a uniform watching the whole scene?
At the end of a tortuous cul-de-sac stood a distorted mirror of the boy's memories. He walked slowly around the orphanage, knowing he would have to go in, afraid of what he would find.
There was movement in the corner of his eye. A little girl idly rocked herself on a swing behind the building. A little girl with a blindfold.
"She's waiting for her parents," said a voice behind Anton, "but they survived."
He turned. Nobody. Only the entrance door was opening by itself, very close to him, and darkness seeped out of the hallway.
The ground floor was deserted, dust particles dancing in the gridlike sunbeams falling on the floor of the quiet refectory, but high-pitched voices echoed from upstairs. The boy climbed the cracked steps quietly, trying to remember another of the Caretaker's lessons.
Not a soul noticed him. It was working.
He tiptoed through emptying bedrooms, unsure of what he was looking for, while nurses herded kids towards the top floor. He followed them on a whim; that was usually the domain of older children.
Everyone was huddling in front of a big door at the end of a corridor. Anton understood. It must have been shower day, and the antique boiler needed time to yield anything resembling hot water. He kept going.
In a small bedroom on the side of the building, where clothes hanged to dry blocked most sunlight, someone was sitting at a table, pen in hand, an empty notebook open in front of him. He had short blond hair and a tartan shirt, and his tanned skin had more color than any dead could.
Anton tried to call his friend's name and couldn't. So instead he came closer and guided his hand on the paper.
"Where have you been?"
"I could ask you the same question," the Caretaker pointed out calmly.
They were in the square area between four long buildings which touched at the corners, sporting storefronts on the inside. In the middle, trees and lamp posts alternated with benches and tables. They sat at one of them.
"I found Val," Anton blurted.
"But...?" asked a cold voice over his shoulder.
The veiled woman stepped into view, her heels clacking on the pavement, and sat at the end of the table opposite from them.
"I ran into the bullies," admitted the boy.
"Bullies?" Her voice carried a hint of amusement.
"That's how they appear to him," interjected the Reaper.
She nodded. "It's just that my recent charges have been seeing people in uniform."
"There was a uniformed woman too."
"Plain olive, no insignia?"
"I think so..."
"The New System," stated the Caretaker.
A shiver flowed down Anton's spine and he looked around apprehensively, but no danger was apparent. Just old people passing back and forth in front of peeling firms that advertised obsolete services. He turned to the veiled woman again.
"Excuse me... where is your friend?"
"Observant, aren't you." she deadpanned. "He's off following a lead."
The boy waited for her to ellaborate, but she didn't.
Anton returned to the orphanage the very next day. "Wait for me," the Reaper had said, but he was ever busy guiding the newly dead. It was beginning to dawn on the boy that the attention he had enjoyed so far was unusual. Anton didn't want to be a burden... or a tool.
And what about that house they were living in? The Afterlife could be a crowded place, yet Anton had three stories' worth of room -- full of dust and rust and mold, but still. Technically, he supposed it all belonged to his protector, but that only made it stranger. How did one acquire a residence around here, anyway?
He hurried along the same path as the day before, doing his best to stay invisible, while clouds raced each other across the sky. The mind told him to take it easy. It had been only a short while, what if Val hand't even gone out yet? Would he even be in the same place again? Dreams seldom repeated like that.
Then the orphanage was into view, faceless people in uniform milling about the yard. The boy watched from a distance as a couple of confused nurses were led away, while others were being held. That was his cue to run.
He didn't. Familiar courtyards were all around, and he knew how to pass through quietly. There! Up this doghouse, over that shed, down in the tight interval between two fences, where a few boards were loosely attached. The back of the building was almost unguarded, with only two of the intruders posted at the rear entrance. They stared right at Anton as he slipped past, but didn't react.
Inside, pale children huddled in the refectory. Upstairs, the bedroom doors were all closed. One more floor, and still nothing stirred. Only the bathroom door was creaking in a draft. There was no-one in the small bedroom either, but the table was covered in photos and newspaper clippings. He went in, and that allowed him to see out the window. Val was there, a couple of guards refusing to let him in; most of the others couldn't be seen anymore. Anton abruptly realized what that meant, and he started towards the door; heavy feet were already trotting up the stairs.
"I told you to wait for me," said the Reaper. He was right behind the boy, a black cutout in the sunlit window.
"Too late for that." The Caretaker gestured towards the table. "Let's grab these and go."
They caught up with Val on his way back from the corner store, in the tight passage between worker dorms that were three times his age. Two in front, two blocking his retreat -- and all of them big. Val pressed his back against the wall, doing his best to stay calm. If he could quickly knock down the attacker closest to him...
Then the fight started and all plans flew out. It was all he could do to stay relatively unhurt. Fists came from all sides, disorienting him, and he counted himself lucky that they weren't armed. But that was little consolation. A blow to the side of the head; something wet started trickling down. He lashed back instinctively and had the satisfaction to see the other guy stagger away. A moment later, the remaining three were tripping on each other trying to run. It took Val another moment to realize that his coworkers were coming.
"That was no robbery," his boss said over a cup of tea and a pack of ice. "Who did you piss off?"
The boss looked into his eyes. "All right," he said, "it doesn't matter. Got to get you outta here. How do you fancy a trip into the mountains?"
"Cousin of mine got a construction company up there. He could use your help."
Val nodded. "Thanks."
He hadn't been into the mountains since that class trip in first grade, and it was a blast to rediscover all the little wonders of high altitude living. Even hard work was easier in the cool, crisp air, and there was no shortage of work with all the rich getting vacation homes in the new developments up the mountain slopes. He spent some of his spare time wandering about town, admiring bits of architecture. Val wasn't a fan of the forest.
On one of these incursions, he spotted a large and rather kitchy house, brand new (he would have done the finishings better...) and not yet inhabited. Most intriguing, however, was the big and familiar sigil molded in plaster above the main entrance.