"Time Off" (An Ashteraiverse Story)
 
♫:  Slip Away by the Prototypes

I wrote a story last week, coloured by my own depression and the suicidal state I found myself in. It's a meditation on death, on the battle and the choices. Plus, as a character, Azrael just doesn't get enough screen time. The theme for this one is death and life.

#

As a psychopomp, I don’t really get a lot of time off.

Death is, after all, a constant in this reality. Everyone lives and everyone dies. I, and my bride, we’re the ones who are there for everyone at the end. Everyone should have someone when they take their last breath and no one should truly be alone. Tonight, though, I felt the need to be social, to walk in a created mortal form.

Yes, I had my reasons but mostly I wanted to just have some time out, even if my choice of locale was fitting. The concept of a death café had become a thing, popular in various cities, as death became something which should be discussed, planned for, demystified. I was curious, keen to see if people were taking this opportunity to be more positive, my curiosity piqued.

The coffee shop was bustling as I entered, the smell of roasted beans hanging on the air, tea behind it and freshly baked and iced cake as well. I stood in a line of patient people and scanned the menu, trying to decide what caught my fancy. For a moment it was almost overwhelming and I had to actually ask myself what I wanted to eat. I couldn’t even remember the last time I done this, stood and contemplated food and drink.

I ordered a coffee and a piece of cake, eating isn’t something I need to do but I enjoy it, especially sweet and rich things. I paid with manufactured money, creating a note of the right currency and a higher amount than I needed, handing it over and depositing what change there was into the tip jar. Then I moved on, collected my cup and plate and went to find a seat.

As I passed I looked at the other patrons, knowing their names without even needing to think about it. Not everyone here was dying, that was a misnomer, as was the café’s ‘name’. People didn’t come here to die but they did want to talk about mortality’s last great taboo.

I saw a woman with a headscarf named Katie, her bald scalp covered but death on her face, the hollow of her cheekbones, the candle flames on the table catching in the reflection of her eyes. I knew how many days and hours she had left and deciding to leave her be for my first visit to this place. It’s never a good thing to stalk the dying, it just makes their inevitable transition all the more bitter. I would talk to her, though, because that’s what people did here and she was far ahead of most on the path.

I took a seat at one of the few empty tables. This one tiny and designed for two people. It was an intimate spot by the window, a candle flame moving atop a tea light. It was almost romantic and I regretted coming alone, even as I relished the time to myself. I followed my beloved into this occupation but, now and again, we wander apart for a little while: a night, a lifetime. Though she has always been more attracted to walking the world than I have; I prefer to sit on the sidelines providing moral support because that’s what I do.

“Hi, sorry, could I join you?” A woman asked, holding a tray in both hands. She looked no older than her mid-thirties, eyes green and hair in a make-shift bun, clothes wrinkled but clean. She’d come here in a hurry, hadn’t dressed specifically or smartly as if she’d planned to come. This was a whim, as it had been for me. “The other tables are taken.”

“Sure.” I replied. “Go right ahead.”

“I’ve not seen you before. First time?”

“You’ve caught me.” I said, cupping my mug between my palms as if I was cold. I wasn’t but sometimes it’s the little affectations which allow me to convince others I’m good at playing mortal when I’m not. “I was curious.”

“A lot of people are. I’m Susan.”

For a second, less maybe, I didn’t know which name to give her. I wasn’t my original self anymore but the name I currently like, the one I’d normally give, it would freak her out so I went with the contraction, it’s much less threatening. “Az.”

She raised one eyebrow, curious. “Short for something?”

“Yes but I like it. It’s better than Bob, for example.”

“You don’t look like a Bob.” She replied. “Your hair, is that real?”

I laughed, most people don’t have long silver-white hair plaited between their shoulders. It didn’t look real, even if it is, most people seemed to think I was playing dress up or something. “Yes, it’s my own.”

“Are you albino?”

“No, no. I went through a stressful experience a few years ago, my hair lost its colour as a result.”

“I like it.”

“Thank you.” I replied. “So what brings you here? You’re obviously a regular.”

“I’m a grad student, I’m studying the cultural perceptions of death.”

“Psychology?”

“Sociology.”

“Interesting.”

“You?”

I shrugged. “I met death once, long ago. I guess I’m trying to find her again.”

“Death is a her?” Susan asked, sounding sceptical. “I though Death walked the world with a scythe, a pale horse and spoke in small capitals.”

“Or as a rat.” That made me chuckle and she smiled as well at the reference. I continued on: “Death is whomever you want them to be. Persephone, for example, was a maiden before she ate the pomegranate seeds. Before she became wife to Hades and the lady in grey.”

A frown and even more curiosity. “You’re a pagan?”

“No, just aware of the classics. I always like that story, of the connection between life, death and the seasons. They’re a kind of reincarnation, winter into spring.”

“The world carries on, even with a minor player exits the stage.” She murmured, wistful.

“Who did you lose?”

“My daughter,” she said. “My husband.”

“A while ago?” I asked, no compulsion behind my words just genuine curiosity. I didn’t even bother to summon the faces, though I was sure we’d met.

“Three years, give or take. Coming here, it helps me deal with the loss. When I’m not interviewing people for my doctoral thesis.”

“I lost my wife and son.” I said gently.

“I figured you must have lost someone.” Her voice was just a murmur. “Either you lost someone or you’re dying.”

“We’re all dying, some simply slower than others. Some walk the path, others run, but we all pass down the same road.”

“A philosopher, huh?” Her eyes focused on me, I saw pain in them, true loss and the scars of grief which hadn’t ever quite healed. “How old was your son?”

“Not very old, a couple of months. Your daughter?”

“Five.”

“Do you want to tell me what happened?”

“He—Aidan—died in a boating accident, hit his head and drowned. Elissa caught meningitis a year after he died, it was so quick, so vicious.”

“I’m sorry.” I said and meant it.

“Your son?” She asked, tit for tat.

I gave what answer I could: “He died in his crib.”

“Sudden Infant Death Syndrome?”

“Yeah. I think that’s what it’s called.”

“And your wife?”

“There were many reasons.” I said. “I can only guess at most of them. I know she’s at peace and that’s what matters.”

“You think the afterlife is peaceful?”

“I like to think people find more peace in-between than they do living. I like to think she’s back in the world, somewhere, being someone else. A new chance and a new life. Did your husband’s death, your daughter’s, were they what prompted your studies?”

“I suppose. I looked for answers wherever I could find them. I didn’t find many.”

“And coming here helped?”

“Yeah, I made friends, with people, with Katie. I started to understand life is a blessing but has its trials.”

“I subscribe to the ‘anything that doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger’ theory.” I said. “And even if it does, you still learn something.”

“Very positive.” Susan murmured. “Are you going to come back?”

“I think so, yes.” I replied.

#

The next week, I returned to the café and spent a few happy hours talking to Katie. We ended up playing cards and she laughed as I ceded as a not inconsiderable pile of matchsticks borrowed from the kitchen. There was light in her eyes, true happiness, and I was glad to have been able to help her forget herself for a few minutes.

“Let me get you a drink.” She said, pulling out her purse. “I think you’ve earned it by letting me win.”

“I didn’t let you, you’re just better at cards than me.” I said, returning the cards to their box. “But thank you, mine’s a coffee.”

“Sure thing.” She stood and then began to waver like a paper mountain blown in the wind. “Whoa, head rush.”

“Sit,” I said, guiding her back into her seat. “I’ll go, what do you want to drink?”

“Tea, camomile.” She said, pressing a ten dollar bill into my hand. “Thank you, Azrael, you’re a dear.”

I was standing in the line when the door opened, the bell chiming, and Susan walked in, an open and soaked umbrella in one hand. She shook it, the water dripping as she stood on the threshold, and then pulled it closed. She waved to Katie and then smiled as she saw me, eyes lighting up in that way which said I had, in fact, been missed.

“Evening. I was wondering if you were coming tonight.” I said.

“Yeah, sorry, late classes and the weather is vile.” She frowned, seeing my jacket hanging over the chair I’d been occupying. Neither it nor me was wet. “You walked in this without an umbrella?”

“I like the rain and it wasn’t as bad two hours ago.” I replied. “Want a drink? I’m buying.”

“That would be awesome. Thank you.”

I indicated my table. “Go grab me a chair. I’ll be over in a minute. Oh and return this to Katie, would you? My treat tonight.”

I came over a few minutes later, remembering Susan’s order as well as that both she and Katie loved carrot cake. I’ve never understood vegetables in cake but had bought myself a piece as well, curious to see if it tasted good. Vegetables seem oddly misplaced in cake.

“Azrael?” Susan asked, recognising the etymology. “That’s your name?”

“My parents were weird.” I said. “I still say it’s better than Bob. Cake, ladies?”

“You’re spoiling me.” Katie said, grinning. “Are you sure I can’t reimburse you.”

“Yes and no you can’t. I’m treating both of you tonight, I seldom get to buy anyone cake.”

Katie sighed. “If I was younger …”

“You’re only two years older than me.” Susan pointed out.

“And I’m sorry, ladies, but my heart belongs to another. I’d hate to lead you up the garden path.”

“Your wife?” Katie asked, guessing.

I nodded. “Even if she’s no longer here, Kali has my heart and a little more besides.”

“Carly?” Susan asked, hearing the name with the wrong spelling and I didn’t correct her. “That’s a pretty name.”

“She liked it.” I said, picking up my coffee.

“I’m crushed.” Katie said and patted my hand, I sensed the loneliness in her, under the surface. “But I’m glad as well. Everyone should have someone special. At least here, there are people, friends to walk with me as I go on ahead.”

Susan frowned. “Your oncologist got back to you?”

“I had a scan yesterday.” Katie said, voice perfectly calm as she explained. “It’s metastasised. She gave me three months, at best.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t start that. Apologising. You have nothing to apologise for, Susan.” Katie said. “And Azrael here has managed to help me forget myself which is a miracle in itself. I’m thankful for both of you tonight, I didn’t want to be alone.”

“You just have to call, you know that.” Susan said. “I live less than twenty minutes from you.”

“And you have a life of your own. You have classes and your Ph.D.” Katie said. “I hate to get in the way. Here, at least, I can be useful, I can help.”

“And when it gets bad?” Susan asked, voice breaking in a way I recognised; I knew in that moment, without looking, that she’d lost her husband in a similar way. Her daughter too.

“I have plans.” Katie said, calm as you like. Many people do, it’s not unheard of, especially not when your death is looming large, a shadow over the tiny ray of life left. She cut into her cake with a fork and hushed Susan as if I wasn’t there. “We don’t need to think about that tonight. Let me enjoy my cake and your company. Please.

Susan sighed and gave a defeated nod, losing herself in her own plate.

The tension floated around us like static. “Katie, what would you prefer we talk about? What would help?”

“Tell me a story?”

“I’m not really a storyteller.” I said. “I have friends who are though.”

“Try. You won’t know until you do.” Katie pressed.

I drummed my fingers on the table thinking. Whatever I told them needed sanitising for mortal ears; I couldn’t tell them about the boat, the River or any of the other imagined concepts that made passing from here to there a little easier. Nor could I tell them about the time my beloved wandered as a mortal and forgot herself piece by piece.

But I could tell them about our son.

“My wife got pregnant on our wedding night. It’s cliched, I know, but it does happen.” I began. “She knew she was carrying a boy from the start, she called him our little prince. She had plans for him, she was going to teach him to read by firelight, tell him stories that her sister—a natural storyteller—had come up with. As he got older, she planned on teaching him the names of all the known cities and countries of the world. I was going to teach him anything she couldn’t, which wasn’t actually that much. Then she went into labour, hours of it. The screaming was horrific and I thought both of them were going to die. He came out of her with a cord around his neck and, for a few minutes, we thought he was stillborn. He was so quiet, so small and pale. Then he took a big breath and began to cry, it was like listening to music. I still remember that sound.”

“What was his name?” Susan asked.

“Cassiel.” I said, giving the name he was now known by. “But we always called him Cas. It was my gift to him.”

“What happened to them?” Katie asked.

“Oh, now that isn’t a pretty story. It’s also happened.” The white lie slipped my lips, it would harm no one. “I’d rather not think on it, if you don’t mind.”

“Sorry.”

I smiled at her. Kindly. I’ve never been one to take offence. “No, Katie, it’s fine. Don’t worry yourself. Curiosity, it’s normal.”

“What do you believe happens when we die?” Susan asked suddenly.

“Is this a question for your thesis?” I asked.

“One of them.”

“I think that depends on what you believe. I don’t think it’s anything bad though, I just think your own perceptions colour it. If you want to see a light, you see one, for example.”

Susan set her drink and and asked: “Did you know death was once a woman? Before death became a grim reaper, a skeleton with a scythe.”

“Yes.” I said. “The Lady of Sorrows. Nephthys, Persephone, Kalika.”

“Why a scythe?” Katie asked. “That quite violent imagery.”

“Because,” I said. “Scythes were originally harvesting tools, used to cut corn or grass in the autumn. Though they cut heads just as well.”

“Autumn heralds the end. The coming of winter.” Susan murmured. “Everything has to end sometime.”

“I suppose.” Katie agreed. “Though I’ve never been a fan of winter.”

“Me neither.” I said. “I hate the cold. I always preferred the Greek myth of Persephone which goes from summer to winter, extreme to extreme. Autumn is a last gasp before the snow.”

“Persephone?” Katie asked. “That’s the one with the pomegranate seeds?”

“That’s the one.” I said. “But as the dead can’t eat, it’s more a tale than anything else. Symbolic of Persephone’s binding to the underworld.”

“You studied mythology?”

“I like old stories. Katie, did you start coming here because of your diagnosis?”

“Before it was terminal, yeah. I had family members die of different cancers, I knew it would end me one way or the other.” She shrugged. “It was almost a relief to know which kind would kill me.”

“I am sorry.” I said.

She smiled, as kindly as I’d done. “Don’t be.”

Susan shivered. “I’m scared of death, I don’t know how you can be so calm about it.”

“So that’s why you’re here then. Really. Your thesis is an excuse.” Katie murmured. “You want to understand your fear.”

She suddenly couldn’t look Katie in the face. Ah yes, bullseye. Katie was perceptive and I’ve always liked that.

“Azrael, thank you for the cake. It’s delicious.” Katie said smiling. “Could I trouble you for one more thing?”

“Certainly.”

“Could you walk me home? I don’t live far but I’m not a fan of the dark. Or the rain.”

“Of course.” I said, sensing she didn’t want a cab but companionship as well. “Susan, will you be all right?”

She nodded. “I can get a cab. Katie, will you promise me you’ll come back next week?”

Katie smiled and shook her head, reaching out to hug her friend. “I can’t promise anything, not now. I’m sorry, Susan.”

#

Katie lived in an apartment block ten minutes walk in the rain. I held her umbrella, making sure most of the rain hit me and not her. Moving water droplets was a useful knack but some rain still ran down my back, chilling my created form more than made me comfortable. A little sacrifice, though, it wouldn’t hurt me. I couldn’t catch cold or chills, I would never die from hypothermia but Katie, she was delicate. The cold could do things to her, the rain as well.

She led me inside, tapping keys on an alarm as she passed it. “I’m sorry about the mess.”

“Don’t worry.” I said.

“Your wife, how did she die? Really?”

“She chose to save me.” I said.

“A transplant?”

“No, not exactly.” I replied. “More a bargain.”

“I thought as much. You struck me as the compassionate type. You carry the guilt of her sacrifice.”

“She made a choice. So did I.”

“Azrael is the name of the angel of death.”

I smiled. “I never said I was an angel.”

“Can you help me?”

“You want to go now? Tonight?”

“While I’m still me. Before the pain, before I waste away completely. Most would even consider this.”

“I’m not most people. No one can arrest me, no one can judge me for the thing I said I would do. My bride and I, we promised to be here for people like you.”

“What are you if not an angel?”

“Some call us guides, others psychopomps. We’re guardians of a billion souls placed in our care. That includes you.”

“Why did you come to the café?”

“Not to find you. I was curious, death is still a taboo here. We’re still regarded as creatures to be feared. I mean you no harm but I can release you.”

“How? A kiss?”

“A tad romantic. That’s not the normal way. I might have a bride but, regardless of our employment, I still love her very much.”

“That must be nice.” She murmured and near collapsed in my arms.

“What did you take? When?” I asked and I knew the answer. Sleeping tablets, a lot of them. As ways went, it was a gentle death. “Katie?”

“In the bathroom at the café. Before we left. I knew long they’d would take to kick in.” She smiled. “I just didn’t want to die alone.”

I picked her up like she was made of nothing, carrying her over to the sofa. “It’s all right, I’m not going to leave you.”

“How do you kill people?” she whispered, voice slurring.

“We don’t kill, we simply release.” I murmured, looking into her eyes and seeing her pupils already dilating. “It’s all right, rest. Go to sleep.”

The felt the snap, body and soul separating even before her breathing had slowed. My abilities only work on people who are about to die. It wasn’t even a conscious thing. It took less than a minute for her heart to stop, for her body to still and the room to fall silent.

“Is that what I look like?” she whispered.

“Yes.” I turned and nodded, wanting to cover her for when her body grew cold, not that she would feel it. I went and found a blanket, covered her as if she was a child trying to stay warm.

She watched me and then whispered: “I’m so thin.”

“Illness does that to people.” I said. “Did you have anything? Any paperwork? Any people I can ensure find out?”

“Tell the people at the café. Everything else is over there, in the drawer. Where are we going?”

“Where you’ve been before. Do you remember yet?”

“Bits and pieces.” She murmured. “You wear white, normally, with a pendant. You play at being a priest, a caretaker, in an alien religion that deifies your lady.”

“Tonight, for you, I’m human.”

“What did your wife do really?”

“She saved my life by inviting death into the world. I repaid her by insisting on sharing the burden.”

“And your son?”

“He’s still trying to find his place.” I said, slipping from the corporeal dimension. “Come on, Katie.”

She looked at my hand, reached out and took it. “Thank you.”

Outside it was still raining and my wife stood by a streetlight, a large black umbrella in her hand, waiting for us. The rain though, it wasn’t real and large drops didn’t touch Katie or either of us as we walked outside. Though the heavy clouds in the sky seemed to bother her, they were oppressive and heavy, the air humid even as rain thumped the ground and buildings around us.

I had my hand around her shoulder, to guide her. “You’re not going anywhere bad. I promise.”

“Then why the rain? The darkness?”

“Because that’s what you remember, the noise on the windows.” I said and indicated the largest cloud bank. The moon was up there, somewhere and it took a few second to shift the clouds, to let silvered light shine down upon us, then I addressed my wife: “Waiting for us?”

“Yes. I was passing this way. But I see I wasn’t needed.” Kali smiled. “Hello, Katie.”

“Hello.”

“Don’t be afraid. No harm will come to you.” She indicated the street now paved with moonlight, puddles glinting with stars. “Take the first step and we’ll follow.”

Katie nodded, gripped my hand and the three of us walked in to the moonlight.

#

I went to Katie’s funeral.

Word had reached the group from the coffee shop and they had mourned for her. Katie had insisted colourful clothes been worn and her favourite uplifting music played as her coffin moved gently towards the cremation oven. They respected her wishes and celebrated a life well lived and a good death.

In this state, helping someone was not a crime, the medications she’d taken had been legally prescribed. Oh and the police had a record of speaking to me, content with my explanation that she had taken the pills without my knowledge. Sometimes being able to manipulate reality—to make things happen even when they didn’t—can be useful.

I sat in the back in the pew closest to the door. Quietly content to watch the ceremony play itself out. I’ve seen so many kinds of funerals, the sad, the ritualised, the formal that coming across one so joyful stuck with me. People laughed at memories, happier moments which made the grief seem a thing of another time and place.

Susan came and sat next to me as the coffin moved. “Was Katie peaceful?”

“Yes.” I said. “How’re you doing?”

Her eyes were red-rimmed, mascara trailing just a little. She’d cried recently, in the women’s toilets, and had dabbed at her eyes too much. “I’ll be okay. It was just so sudden.”

“She’s at peace and died the way she wanted. That’s a blessing if you ask me.”

“Katie took a shine to you.” Susan said.

“I had noticed. You did as well.”

“Who wouldn’t? A handsome widower. You’re heart given to someone no longer here.”

“Ah, a romantic.” I murmured.

“Are you sure you didn’t know she was going to kill herself?”

“I’m sure. Sometimes even I can be surprised.”

“She thought you were an angel.”

“I’m not.” I said. “But, sometimes, I know people. You’re mired by grief, you’ve just forgotten how to live for a little while. It’ll pass, if you wait long enough and don’t act on it.”

“She was my best friend.”

“And you can live in her memory. All the days she will never see.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“Trust me when I say you can.”

“When my husband was dying, he said he saw a man with eyes the colour of sea-foam and hair just like yours. Kind eyes and patience, waiting for him to decide he was ready. My daughter, in her fever, saw a woman, with black hair and a sorrow about her. She said she reminded her of me. There was a child with her, a little boy with wings as black as night.”

“Ah, so you thought when I walked in, I’d finally come for you?”

“You’re not human, are you?”

“Sometimes I pretend to be. Does that count?”

“I don’t know.”

“Honestly, I was simply curious. Not about you, don’t worry. The idea of a place where people openly talk about death, it’s a great idea. What you’re doing too, asking questions that people are starting to think about the answers to. Everyone talks about life, too few talk about death.”

“Does that make it harder, for you?”

“No. We come, we guide, we go. Sometimes people remember us, most don’t, but the ones who do, they’re usually the most grateful.”

“You won’t take me?”

“I’d rather not but if you ask me too, I’m not supposed to say no. I can tell when people mean it. You’re healthy, you’ve got a life to live yet, Susan.”

“You sound like someone who doesn’t get to do this, be human, often.”

“I don’t.” I said. “Which is why you should treat a life, even one where you’re sad, as a blessing. A gift. Not everyone gets to do it. But, if you do decide to move on, it’s not for me to judge you. Everyone is allowed to choose and, for some, it’s the only one they get to make.”

“I’ll try then.” She said, voice quiet but resolute. “Will you come and drink coffee with us?”

“Visit?” I glanced at her. “Of course I will.”

“I look forward to it.” Susan leant over and hugged me. “Thank you, Azrael.”

“You’re welcome.” I said and waited for the service to finish before I left the mortal world behind.

End