Disclaimer: Not my characters, not my situations. I'm just playing with them.
If Mason were mine he'd never leave the bedroom.
Fun fact: The Post-It was not invented until 1968.
Other notes: It's been pointed out to me that Mason probably would've been reaped by someone on the London team, then transferred later to Seattle, like Daisy was. Which is true, as far as that goes, but then negates the whole point of this story. In other words: screw that. If you would be so kind.
by Maya Tawi
The first thing Rube ever said to Mason was, "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Mason pushed his goggles up on his head and stared down at the body on the floor. "Bloody hell, that's me."
"That it is," Rube agreed. "You wanna explain why you felt the need to introduce a power drill to your skull?"
"What is this, like, what, some out-of-body experience?" Mason didn't seem to be listening. He reached for the bathroom doorknob without waiting for an answer. "Oh man, Carrie's gotta try this--"
His hand passed through the doorknob, dissolved, and re-formed.
"Lesson one, Mason," Rube said, as Mason frowned at his hand and tried to open the door again. "That red stuff on the floor there, that's blood."
"Of course it's blood," Mason scoffed. "That's the whole point, blood." He made one last fruitless pass at the doorknob. Then his eyes took on a calculating gleam, and he held his breath, unnecessarily, and stepped through the door itself.
"Lesson two," Rube said, opening the door and following him into the cloud of pot smoke in the hallway. He wrinkled his nose and waved a hand in front of his face. Down the hall, some ridiculous caterwauling sound emerged from the speakers of the battered record player. "You can no longer affect the physical world in any way, shape, or form. Learn it, live it, love it."
"Yeah, yeah," Mason said absently, waving a hand over his shoulder as he made his way down the hall, "but Carrie--"
"Is no longer here," Rube said. "She left."
Mason stopped in his tracks, looking dismayed. "She did?"
"Good kid," Rube said, fishing a cigar out of his pocket. "She's on to bigger and better things, or at least that's the popular theory. And Carrie wasn't her real name, by the way."
"Aw bollocks," Mason said mournfully. "I liked her. I mean, I really liked her."
"Yeah, well, won't matter where you're going," Rube said. He lit the cigar and gave a few experimental puffs. "Hah. Much better."
"Yes, okay, but," and Mason squinted at him, looking suspicious for the first time. "Who're you?"
"I'm Rube," said Rube. "And I'm the best friend you got right now, so I suggest you stay on my good side."
Mason looked around the room in confusion. The party was winding down, with some people trickling out the door, and others draped over the couch and the rug in various stages of unconsciousness. The record finally came to an end, to Rube's relief, and started emitting sounds of protest.
"D'you know," Mason said, "I really don't feel much of anything."
"Thank Carrie for that," Rube advised him, with another puff. "She popped your soul beforehand. Though why she chose to do so through your hindquarters, I prefer not to dwell on."
"Well then, what?" Mason demanded, exasperated.
Rube gave him a blank look.
"Is this all there is?" Mason continued. "Not much of a high, is it? I mean, how long does this out-of-body thing last? Because, and I'm no doctor now, but that did look like a lot of blood, and I should maybe get that looked at."
"Well," Rube said after a moment. "This is embarrassing."
Mason blinked at him. "Huh?"
"Lesson three," Rube said, and clapped him on the shoulder. "You're dead, Mason."
"You're shittin' me," Mason said, staring.
Rube cocked his head to the side and blew a perfect smoke ring.
"Look, kid," he said, "you took a sharp pointy object to your right temple. What the hell did you expect?"
"Not death!" Mason exclaimed. "It was-- it's just supposed to be a high, you know? The ultimate, man, the permanent high-- though if I'd known it would be boring as shit...." He trailed off.
"Got the permanent part, all right," Rube said. "Also the ultimate." He squinted at Mason. "You're not the brightest bulb on the tree, are you?"
"I'm not at my best right now," Mason admitted, scratching his head. "I may have taken a few... substances." He paused. "Bloody hell, I'm dead? Well, doesn't that just take the fucking cake."
Rube covered his face with a hand. "You're gonna give me trouble, aren't you?"
"So are you, like, God?" Mason asked, some time later.
"Nah," Rube said. "Couldn't hack the paperwork." He scowled down at the menu. "Fish and chips. Goddamn fish and goddamn chips. Don't you people know how to cook anything else?"
"I don't cook," Mason informed him, leaning back in the booth and propping his boots up on the seat. He paused. "Well, no, that's not true, I do make a fabulous berry tart--"
"I'm sorry, does this look like my listening face?" Rube waved at the woman behind the bar, to no avail. "What's she waiting for, an engraved fucking invitation?"
"She doesn't wait tables," Mason said smugly. He rested his chin on his hand and smiled. "You gotta order at the bar."
"Goddamn third world shithole," Rube muttered, and stood.
Mason gave him a hopeful look. "Get us a pint?"
"You're dead, remember? No drinky for you."
"Well, that's quite simply bullshit," Mason said after a moment. "If this is death, I've had better." A sudden thought occurred to him, and he leaned forward and lowered his voice. "This isn't... hell, is it?"
Rube just looked at him, shook his head, and walked away.
"Oi!" Mason called after him. "Am I in hell? Am I!"
"I'm in hell, you dumb fuck," Rube said loudly, without turning around.
The woman behind the bar looked up with a scowl.
"Not you, honey," he hastened to assure her.
"Whatever," she said, and snapped her gum.
Mason looked around. "What, they really can't see me?"
"Get me a beer, and make sure it's actually cold for once," Rube told the woman. He glanced back at Mason and raised an eyebrow. "Look who's finally catching on."
"Well that's useful, innit?" Mason jumped to his feet. "I could have some fun with this. 'Scuse me, I'll just--"
"Sit your ass down and shut up." Rube grabbed his arm and dragged him back to the booth. "You're in my custody, you will stay in my custody, and I will smack you down if need be, so sit."
Mason sat. Then he grinned.
"Hey, look," he said, pointing vaguely at the other patrons of the pub. "How come no one's seeing you talk to an invisible man, huh? I mean, it does stand out a bit, with the yelling and all."
"It's an everyday miracle," Rube said. "Are you gonna stay put so I can give that nice young lady some pounds, or what?"
Mason folded his arms on the table and rested his chin on them. "I want a drink," he said with a pout.
"My lord," Rube said, staring at him. "What did I ever do to deserve you?"
"That's not very nice," Mason said glumly. "I'm dead, you know."
"Yeah, I got the memo." Rube sat down slowly, watching Mason with a kind of horrified, unwilling fascination. "Seriously, kid-- why?"
"They said it'd be fun," Mason mumbled, and buried his face in his arms.
"They're usually wrong," Rube said.
Mason sat up again with a sigh. "So this is the afterlife, is it. Sitting around with a cranky old bastard in a shitty pub."
"Watch whose pub you're callin' shitty," Rube said, and stood again. "And think of it like a way station. You'll get where you're going in time."
"Heaven?" Mason asked, then frowned. "Only I always thought heaven would be rather boring, really. You don't exactly get a good class of company, do you?"
"Depends on your standards," Rube said. "Don't worry about that now. Worry about putting your soul to rest."
"I thought I, um, did that already," Mason said. "You know, at the party." He held his index finger to his temple and made a high-pitched whirring sound.
Rube winced. "Don't remind me." He leaned over the bar and slapped some money on the counter. "There you go, sweetie."
"Whatever," she said again, and plunked the beer in front of him. Foam sloshed over the sides.
"Bless," Rube said, grabbing a napkin and wrapping it carefully around the glass. He sipped and made a face. "Cold, I said."
The girl just shrugged and ducked through a doorway, out of sight.
Rube sighed and returned to the booth, sliding into his seat. "You gotta say a proper good-bye to your old life," he explained. "Hang around, take care of business, see the funeral."
"Funeral," Mason said slowly.
"Not everyone gets to see their funeral," Rube said, and tried another sip. It wasn't any better the second time around. "Pretend you appreciate the favor."
Mason squirmed lower in his seat. "I, um. I don't think I'll be having a funeral, actually."
Rube eyed him narrowly. "It ain't a coming-out party, darlin'. You don't get to decide not to have one."
Mason sank down even further. "Actually, I meant I don't think they will be giving me a funeral. I don't feature that crowd calling the proper authorities to dispose of my body."
"Huh," Rube said, after a moment.
"Probably just dump it in the river," Mason said gloomily. "My, my toes'll be eaten by little fish. Those bastards. I hate fish and they know it."
Rube shrugged and stood. "In that case, we have a plane to catch."
Mason squinted up at him. "I'm going to heaven in an airplane?"
Very slowly, Rube leaned forward and planted his hands on the table. Mason shrank back under his stare.
"Mason," Rube said, "do yourself a favor. Things'll go a lot easier once you learn to shut the hell up and do what the fuck I say."
Mason gave him a cocky smirk. "Why, what'll you do, kill me?"
"Worse," Rube said. "I'll make you wish I could."
He dragged Mason to his feet and shoved him, protesting, to the door.
"I never," Mason said, "ever, ever, ever want to do that again."
He huddled in the passenger seat of the truck, pale and shaking. Rube shot him a cynical look as he lit his cigar. "What are you worried about? You're already dead."
"The thing," Mason said, ignoring him, "in the air, with the, the engines, good God--"
"It's called an airplane, Mason," Rube said. "Quite the newfangled device. You should try it again sometime."
"Once was bloody well enough, wasn't it?"
"I love flying," Rube mused, gazing out the window. "Love it. It's transcendental."
"It's transcending the laws of fucking gravity, is what it is."
"You've got quite a mouth on you, haven't you?" Rube remarked. He turned the key in the ignition, and the engine sputtered to life.
"Why can't you just, like, appear places? You're fucking Death, aren't you?"
"Once more," Rube said patiently, "with feeling. I'm not Death, I'm your reaper. And mass transportation is the way we go."
"It's still life."
"God," Mason said, "I'm fucking starving."
"Hope you like waffles," Rube said.
"What is this, a flashcard?" Mason turned the index over in his hand, frowning at it. "Will there be a quiz later?"
"Call it a practical test of knowledge," Rube said. "You're a reaper now, boy."
"One of us," agreed the short, perky woman who had introduced herself as Penny.
Mason stared at them. "Oh, you are shitting me."
"You have an uncanny fondness for that word," Rube told him.
"I can't--" he sputtered. "This isn't funny, man, this just isn't fucking funny."
"I wasn't telling a joke," Rube said to Penny. "Did that come off like a joke?"
"Deadpan as ever, boss," Penny said.
"No, but, I just, I can't," and then two more shadows fell over their table, and Mason looked up to see a heavyset black man and a vision of pure loveliness staring down at him.
"Ooh, is this Donna's replacement?" the vision asked. "He's cute."
Mason sat up straighter. "Hello," he said. "I love you."
"He's funny, too," the vision said. She slid into the booth next to him, bumping his hip with hers. He moved over obediently, beaming at her.
"Scoot, child," the other newcomer said, sitting down as well, and suddenly Mason was very familiar with both the wall and the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
"Can I buy you breakfast?" he asked her.
She brightened. "Oh, that's sweet! Would you?"
"Um," Mason said, belatedly realizing he had no money. Or rather, he had a couple pence in his pocket, but he didn't think Der fucking Waffle Haus would take it.
"This is Mason," Rube said. "He drilled a hole in his skull on a quest for a permanent high. Mason, meet Betty and Henry."
"The pleasure," Mason said, gazing deeply into Betty's wide blue-green eyes, "is all mine."
"You'll fit right in," Betty said, patting him on the hand. His skin tingled. "So," she added brusquely, suddenly all business. "What's the agenda today?"
Rube slid another index card across the table to Henry, and he took it with a slight inclination of his head. "You do spoil me, sir."
"Bite my ass, Hank."
"Where's mine?" Betty asked with a pretty frown.
"Mason's got it," Rube said. "Do me a favor, take him with you today, show him the ropes. Mr. High On Life here's working my last nerve."
"Oh, I do love you, Ruby," Mason said, still gazing at Betty.
"Rule number one," Rube said. "Don't ever fucking call me that again."
"So, this reaper thing," Mason said, leaning against the wall and watching Betty with utter adoration. "'Sall a bit weird, innit?"
"Oh, I love it," Betty said brightly. Her eyes were avid and sparkling as they scanned the street. "It's just like being alive, only you don't have to worry about dying again. It's fabulous."
Mason cocked his head to the side. "So it doesn't bother you, then? Knowing people are gonna die, and not trying to stop it?"
"Not our job," Betty said, with a pretty frown. "Get used to it, sweetie. We all have to earn our keep."
"Oh, so we're paid then?" Betty started off down the street without a backward glance, and Mason hopped off the wall and hurried after her. "Never had a paycheck before," he mused. "Never had a job before. Well, there was the one, but that lasted all of two minutes. There was this pizza shop in North London--"
"Oh, we're not paid," Betty said absently. She was looking around again, fanning herself with her index card.
Mason stared at her, noting incidentally the lovely sweep of curls against her shoulders. "Well then, where do we stay?"
"Wherever we find a place," Betty said. "Mostly dead people's houses. You wouldn't believe the prime real estate I've lucked into."
"So," Mason said slowly. "We don't get money, we don't get council housing-- I suppose food is out of the question?"
"Only when Rube's in a good mood," Betty said.
"Sometimes," Betty allowed. "Be a doll, would you? See if you can't help me find S. Alphand?"
Mason peered at the index card. "That's all you get? That seems rather fucking inefficient."
"Name, place, E.T.D.," Betty said with a shrug. "It gets the job done."
"Can't you just ask someone?"
"You don't want to draw attention, Power Drill," Betty said. "Low-profile's the key."
Mason blinked at her.
As nicknames went, he supposed he could have had worse.
"It doesn't seem fair, really," Mason said later, as Betty crouched over the body of a little old lady who had been beaten to death with her own cane. "I'd have thought that dying would at least put an end to my cash flow problems."
"You could get a job," she pointed out, patting the old lady's pockets. "Henry and Penny have jobs."
Mason scoffed. "Right, me, a job. If I never did before, I'm not bloody well going to start now."
"Well, then," Betty said, sitting back on her heels and clutching S. Alphand's wallet triumphantly, "you take what you can from the dead."
He squatted down next to her, watching her with interest. "That doesn't bother you either?"
Betty looked amused. "Why, does it offend your sense of ethics?"
"Hardly," Mason said with his most charming smile, the one that had in fact charmed the knickers off many an attractive, if admittedly drug-addled, young lady. "I just don't think such a lovely young woman such as yourself should be doing something so distasteful."
Betty smiled back, looking pleased. "You sweet-talker!"
They stayed like that for a few moments, Mason staring deeply into Betty's eyes and Betty beaming back at him, and then she reached up and patted his cheek.
"You're sweet, Power Drill," she said. "But you're not really my type."
She stood and started to walk away.
Mason blinked at the spot she had previously occupied, still dazed.
Then he leapt to his feet and ran after her. "What-- hey! What type? I could be a type!"
"You need somewhere to stay," Betty called back at him over her shoulder. "And I know just the place."
S. Alphand's house was dark when they got there, the front door locked. Betty slipped a pair of lockpicks from her sleeve. Mason watched, utterly infatuated, as she slid them into the lock and struggled with them for a bit.
"Oh, phooey," she exclaimed, when one slipped out and stabbed her in the hand.
Mason closed his hands over her fingers. "Please, let me."
Her hands were soft and warm against his. She arched an eyebrow at him, then pulled her hands back and stepped away. "Impress me, big boy."
Mason flashed her what he hoped was a rakish grin, jiggled the picks, and felt the lock click. "Behold," he announced, and swung the door open.
Betty applauded. "Nicely done!"
He held the door and gestured, and she swept grandly inside, brushing against him as she passed. Mason followed her and tried again. "No, but really, this 'type' thing--"
"She might not live alone," Betty said, flicking the foyer light on. "So keep an eye out for visitors the first few weeks. After that, you should be fine until someone comes to try and evict you, and heaven knows when that could be."
"No, but I'm just saying--"
"I'll let you get settled in," she said, patting him on the shoulder. "You've had a long flight. Tomorrow morning, same time, same place?"
She swept out. Mason watched her go with an open mouth and an upraised index finger.
"Right, later then," he said finally, long after the door had slammed shut behind her.
"Well, well, well. Look who dragged his ass out of bed," Rube said the next morning, as Mason slouched down in the empty booth across from him, shoving his hands in his pockets. "You're lucky you have an evening appointment. Otherwise I'd have had to take matters into my own hands."
Mason stared at him, still trying to deal with the whole waking-up process. There was an ominous threat behind Rube's words that he suspected wouldn't be healthy to test.
Not that he could get any less healthy than dead.
"Jet lag," he said finally, still staring. "Comes from bein' on a jet. D'you know Betty said I'm not her type?"
"And you such a charmer," Rube said. He held out an index card between two fingers. "Take it and enjoy."
Mason continued to stare, making no move to take the card.
Rube sighed, exasperated, and shook it a little. "Here, boy. Papa's got a biscuit for you."
"You want me," Mason said slowly, "to take a soul."
"I used to want world peace," Rube said. "This is easier."
Mason looked around. "Where's everyone else?"
"Been and gone," Rube said. He shook the card again. "Do you want me to beat you with a three-by-five piece of stiff paper?"
Mason's head whipped back around, and he stared once more.
"Actually," he said, "I would pay to see you try that."
Rube slapped the card down on the table. "You got a place to stay?" he asked abruptly.
Mason blinked at him, attempting to shift mental gears. It was a long, laborious process.
"Yeah," he said finally. "Yeah, Betty set me up. Old lady still had some food in the cupboards, too." He wrinkled his nose. "Mostly canned beans though."
Rube cocked an eyebrow. "So those pancakes I ordered for you, I should send them back?"
"I, um," Mason said, taken momentarily aback. "I have no money."
"My treat," Rube said, nodding at the index card. "Big day."
Slowly Mason reached for the card. He couldn't get his thumbnail under the edge, and finally he had to slide it off the table into his hand.
"Y'know what'd be great for me," Rube said, watching him, "if those things maybe stuck down on one end and curled up on the other. Someone oughta invent little notepads like that, with the sticky bit."
Mason scoffed. "Please. Who wants sticky notepads?"
"Eat your goddamn pancakes and get outta here," Rube said. "And if you show up late again, your next free breakfast'll be your own balls on a plate."
It had all been a bit of a whirlwind, really. Bang, you're dead, bang, get on an airplane, bang, start collecting souls. Mason had gone with the flow. He was good at going with the flow. It required much less complex decision-making.
But here, seated on the low wall that surrounded the park and swinging his heels against the stones, he suddenly had plenty of time to think about it.
A. J. Parnell, his card said, with Lakeridge Playfield and 9:52 p.m. That was it, nothing else, and armed with this information, he was supposed to find A. J. Parnell and take his or her soul.
Mason frowned down at his hands. That not-dying thing, that was intriguing. He could work with that. Shit, he could be rich. He could do anything he wanted if he didn't have to worry about getting dead.
Because it had already happened. He'd been processed and paroled, turned right back out onto the street. Round two, fight.
A. J. Parnell wouldn't be getting paroled tonight. Mason highly doubted he had been assigned a quota of one.
He still couldn't quite get over it, that he had fulfilled someone's quota, that he was supposed to replace the lovely Donna, a.k.a. Carrie, whom Mason suspected had been exceedingly good at her job. She'd certainly convinced him. If Rube was expecting as much from Mason, he was in for a rude awakening. Mason didn't do well with responsibility, never had.
He had no illusions regarding his likely tenure in this job; it was way too good to be true. But he knew a good thing when he saw it, and he intended to milk the gig for all he could before they inevitably threw him out on his ass.
Tomorrow, he thought, kicking his feet absently, he'd rob a bank. Or maybe steal a really expensive car and try to sell it. Then he'd find out where one got some amphetamines in this town....
The sound of approaching footsteps jerked him out of his reverie. Mason squinted at the sky, though he wasn't sure why; supposedly you could tell the time by looking at the stars, but all he saw was fuck-all. Fuck-all and some clouds.
Definitely after nine, anyway.
"Hey," Mason called as the owner of the footsteps approached-- a tall, middle-aged guy, hurrying down the path. "Hey, is your name Parnell?"
The man came to an abrupt stop. He stared at Mason, looking like he'd just seen a ghost.
Which really wasn't so far from the truth.
"Yeah?" Mason pressed, when no answer was forthcoming. "A. J. Parnell, yeah?"
The man's mouth worked silently for a few moments. "No," he said finally. "Uh, no. No I'm not."
"Oh," Mason said, disappointed. "Well, d'you have the time?"
The man glanced at his watch. "Just after 9:45. Look, I really have to--" He gestured vaguely, then took off down the path at a near-run.
Mason watched his retreat with bemusement. "Now there," he said under his breath, "is a man engaged in illicit activities." Too bad he didn't have any cash on him. The guy might have had something to sell.
Five minutes left, give or take. He settled back on the wall with a sigh and resumed waiting.
He was just starting to mentally slip the strap of Betty's imaginary dress over her imaginary shoulder, and press his lips to the skin below, when the crackling of leaves caught his attention. Mason looked up to see a young girl, maybe twelve or thirteen, coming slowly up the path.
"Fuck me," he said under his breath. "Oh, fuck me."
She was small and slender, with wide, wary eyes and long dark blond hair. She pulled her coat tight around her as she walked, glancing back and forth. When she saw Mason, her step faltered for an instant, before resuming.
"Please," Mason said as she neared, "please, please, please tell me you're not A. J. Parnell."
The girl stopped and cocked her head, looking up at him. Mason could read the thought processes as they streamed behind her eyes: He knows my name; I must know him; it's safe. If only she fucking knew.
"You go to Ridgeley High?" she asked finally.
Mason very nearly snorted; it had been a long time since anyone had mistaken him for high-school age. Even at twenty-seven, years of drugs and booze had left their mark.
He managed to turn it into a pleasant smile instead. "Ah, yeah. Ridgeley High, that's me. I'm Mason."
"Andy," she said, huddling further into her coat. "Look, if Brian sent you, tell him he can fuck off. He's a dickweed and I'm dumping his ass, and if he's crying into his pillow at night, maybe little miss Cindy can come over and comfort him."
Mason was impressed; the girl had a mouth on her. Up close, he realized she was older than he'd thought at first, closer to fourteen.
After years of hustling, with varying levels of success, he knew a straight line when he heard one. "Come on, Andy," he wheedled. "You know how he feels about you."
"And I know how he felt Cindy's ass under the bleachers. Try again."
"Here, you're a tough customer, aren't you?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Where are you from anyway, England or something?"
"Got it in one," Mason agreed. "Just flew in yesterday, actually."
Andy J. Parnell frowned. "Then how do you know Brian?"
Well, shit. Hadn't taken him long to cock that one up. Mason hated lying; he never remembered the things that came out of his mouth.
"I knew him from, um. Before," he said finally, lamely.
Andy seemed to accept that, fuck knew why. "Right. Well, Mason, tell him you tried, tell him I thought really, really hard for like two seconds, and then I said he could go fuck himself. You got all that?"
"I don't know," Mason said, after a pause. "You might wanna write that down for me."
"Fine," Andy said, raising her chin. "I'll tell him myself." She started to stomp away.
"Wait," Mason said, hopping off the wall. "Andy-- wait, listen--"
She stopped and spun around, rolling her eyes. "Oh, what now?"
"Andy," Mason began, and suddenly he was inspired. "Look, Brian's my friend, and he's a great guy, but honestly, me to you-- you can do better. He doesn't fuckin' deserve you. None of 'em do, and I want you to remember that."
Andy narrowed her eyes again. She glanced away.
"Whatever, freak," she said after a moment. "Is that it? Can I go?"
"Just one thing," Mason said. He rested a hand on her shoulder as if to stop her, and didn't miss her minute flinch. Then he slid his hand down her arm, like he'd seen Betty do, and he concentrated, and suddenly his arm tingled like he'd dunked it in a vat of champagne. A shimmering light slid from her body into his fingers, and it felt-- it felt intrusive, it felt obscene.
It's like reap, he thought, a tad hysterically, and told himself it would be a very bad idea to start laughing right now. God, he needed some drugs.
"What?" Andy asked after a moment, and Mason cleared his throat.
"Ah, d'you have the time?"
She gave his arm a dubious look, and he hastily dropped it to his side. Then she twisted her wrist around and peered at her watch.
"Nine fifty-five," she said.
A cold knot of panic froze in his stomach, and he forced himself to relax, to keep breathing. "But your watch is a bit fast, yeah?"
"I don't think so," Andy said with a little frown. "Look, I gotta go, okay? You tell Brian."
"I will," Mason promised, and as he watched her run off, he felt dread settle into his stomach like lead.
It didn't have to mean anything. It was, after all, an estimated time of death. A few minutes here, a few there--
He saw a dark blur out of the corner of his eye, zipping across the playground to the swing set. A moment later, another two blurs followed.
As hard as Mason tried to look at them, they always seemed to cluster in his periphery. But they seemed to be jumping up and down, shoving at the swing set; as he watched, it started to creak and slowly rock back and forth.
Fear was a cold, metallic tingle at the back of his throat. What were those things?
Then the swing set gave a sickening, groaning lurch, and all of a sudden Mason realized: they were going to push it over on Andy.
"Look out!" he called instinctively, and only once he heard the words did it occur to him that that was, in fact, perhaps not the best thing to do.
Andy stopped and glanced back at him; she was almost too far away for him to see her face. "What?" she yelled.
Mason opened his mouth, then shut it again, at a loss.
He knew what Rube wanted him to do. He just didn't think he could do it. Keep his mouth shut, just let that girl die a horrible, gory death--
"You already took her soul," came Rube's voice, from somewhere not far behind him. "She won't feel a thing."
Mason jumped and spun around, a hand to his hammering heart. "Sweet fucking Christ, you scared the shit out of me."
"Sorry," Rube said, looking unrepentant. He stood a few feet down the path, leaning against the trunk of a tree. "Didn't think I wouldn't be watching your first night, did you?"
Behind him, there was a long, horrible screech of metal. Mason squeezed his eyes shut and covered his ears. He still heard the crash.
It seemed like an eternity passed before Rube patted his shoulder. "Come on," he said, his voice surprisingly gentle. "Let's go check out the kid."
Mason followed him numbly down the path, to the wreckage of twisted metal. Andy's legs stuck out of the debris at awkward angles. It should have looked ridiculous. It didn't.
He knelt beside Andy's crumpled body, and felt his breath catch, ragged, against his throat.
She was still alive.
"Sweet Jesus," he whispered, "sweet motherfucking Christ."
Andy blinked up at him, looking dazed. Spots of blood flecked her lips.
"You're," she said hoarsely, and coughed. "You don't... know Brian, do you?"
"Never met him in my life," Mason said fervently. "I wish to fuck I did, I'd rip him a new arsehole for you."
"That's... sweet," Andy said, and closed her eyes. Her whole body shuddered once, twice, and was still.
Mason gazed down at her. His every sense felt dulled, removed. Deadened.
How bloody fucking appropriate.
"It's always messy, when gravelings get involved," Rube said softly, above him.
"What?" Mason asked, with some difficulty.
"Later," Rube said, and rested a warm hand on his shoulder. "She needs you now."
Even as he spoke, Andy sat up and looked around, seeming puzzled. Except it wasn't really Andy, because Andy was still lying on the ground, crushed by several hundred pounds of recreational equipment. This was another Andy.
Maybe the real Andy after all.
"Shit," she said, when she saw Mason. "I'm fucking dead, aren't I?"
He stared at her, and felt his lips twist in an unwilling smile.
"Come on, Andy-girl," he said, grasping her hand in his and standing, pulling her with him to her feet. "Let's go see some fireworks."
"You got involved," Rube said later, over waffles and bacon. "Easy enough mistake. We won't hold it against you. And it's not like the deed didn't get done."
"Ruby," Mason said, "I have no sodding idea what the fuck you're talking about."
"I told you not to fucking call me that," Rube said, and popped a strip of bacon in his mouth. Mason watched, feeling ill. "Fact is, and I don't share this with just anyone, but I get a little more information than I pass on to you guys. I know how Miss Parnell was supposed to die."
"Yeah?" Mason asked, curious despite himself. "How?"
Rube licked grease off his fingers. "That man you stopped," he explained, "before she walked by. He was gonna wait for her further down the path and kill her."
"Fuck do I know? Why's not our concern. But when you asked him about her, he got spooked and ran, so then the gravelings had to step in."
"You mentioned that before," Mason said. "What the fuck's a graveling, an itty bitty grave?"
"Not so much." Rube looked unamused. "They're those blurry little shits who pushed over the swing set. They set accidents in motion. You'll be seeing a lot of them."
"Shit," Mason muttered, and slumped further down in the booth.
Rube eyed him for a moment, not unkindly, then pushed the plate of waffles at him across the table. "Here, eat these. And get a job, for God's sake."
Mason rolled his head back and gazed at Rube from behind slitted lids. "I," he pronounced, "do not do jobs."
"Well, just don't get used to the free food," Rube said, and stood. "Rule number two, kid, don't get involved with the reaps. You stay on the periphery, you watch the action, you do not interfere. Everyone's gotta learn it sooner or later. You just got it out of the way your first time."
Mason didn't move. Neither did Rube.
"Same time tomorrow?" Mason asked finally, still staring up at him.
"Try to be on time," Rube said. "I'd take it as a kindness."
On his way back to the Alphand woman's house, Mason pickpocketed two drunk businessmen and a loud, obnoxious frat boy, and bought seven bottles of the cheapest hard liquor he could find.
He didn't feel much till the third bottle. Undead metabolism, he supposed.
And he'd thought this would be a fucking lark. He'd thought it wouldn't make a difference, what he did.
Mason sprawled backwards on the old lady's sofa and closed his eyes, letting the bottle dangle from his fingers. Just two days ago, he'd been on his way to Dex's party, and Paul and Chaz were bending his ear about some kind of permanent fucking high they'd heard about. Blood, they'd said, and stimulation, and it all made sense at the time, though Mason suspected that might have been the LSD talking.
Now he was an undead bloody reaper on the other side of the Atlantic, and he'd just taken his first soul.
He could still see Andy's face.
Four bottles later, it was the last thing he saw before he passed out.
"Well, braid my hair and call me Pollyanna," Rube said, when Mason strolled into Der Waffle Haus the next morning at 8:55 exactly. "Someone's all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning."
"I fucking love being undead," Mason declared, slapping the tabletop and sliding into the booth next to Betty. "Scoot over, darling. D'you know, last night I drank seven bottles of extremely cheap Canadian scotch, and I didn't even get a hangover? It's bloody genius, is what it is."
"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself," Betty said, patting his hand.
"Speaking of which," Mason said, leaning in and lowering his voice. "Either of you know where I can get, you know, some pills in this town?"
Rube scowled. "I don't do that shit, and neither should you."
"What's the fucking harm, I'm dead already," Mason said. "Betty?"
She shook her head, wrinkling her nose. "I prefer Manhattans."
"You people," Mason pronounced, "are useless."
Rube sighed and slapped an index card on the table. "Here you go. Try not to fuck it up."
Mason slid it off the table and shoved it in his pocket with only the briefest glance. "Where's the waitress? I'm starving."
"You have money?" Rube sounded doubtful.
"Ye of so little faith," Mason said, tossing his three liberated wallets on the table. He grinned. "I got a job."
"Wallet inspector," Betty said, nodding. "Very lucrative."
"So listen," Mason said, "about this type of yours--"
She frowned at the menu. "What's a Banana Bonanza, do you think?"
"A party on a plate," Mason said. "But seriously--"
"I think I'll try it," Betty told Rube. "I'm always open to new experiences."
"That you are," Rube agreed.
"Speaking of new experiences--"
"Mason," Rube said, "give it up."
"I am just craving lemonade," Betty said. "Is that weird?"
Mason gave up.
He took his second soul that day. He didn't get involved, and he did not, in fact, fuck it up.
And as he watched a beautiful young woman fall from a sixth-story window, he started to appreciate the brilliance of the index card system.