A round man with a pudgy belly and white hair sat across from me, weeping huge crocodile tears. His oversized midsection jiggled with each sniffle and his face, wrinkled with time and distress, begged me for audience. I folded my hands neatly on my cluttered desk as I explained the situation to him. Again. "I'm sorry, Dean. You haven't met your prayer quota yet."
"Are you sure?" He sniffed, wiping his nose with a tissue. "Maybe there was a mistake. You know, like a bookkeeping error? Can't you do something, please?"
Everyone held out hope for that loophole, but the head honchos ran a tight ship. I tried to assure him of the management's precision. "If there was an error, you'd be the first. There's nothing else I can do. Until your quota is met, my hands are tied."
It was hard not to feel sympathy for him. He reminded me of a kindly old grandfather. I always had a strange image running through my head of him dressed as Santa Claus, depositing presents under a tree. How could I tell Santa no? It seemed wrong, like a crime against the universe, yet there I was.
He twisted a tissue between his fingers. When he blew his nose, the noise reminded me of an elephant's trumpet and I had to bite the inside of my cheek to contain the laughter threatening to erupt from my mouth. Given the seriousness of our discussion, I felt it would be horribly inappropriate to laugh in his face.
He crumbled the tissue up in his large hand. "Then there has to be a supervisor or someone else I can talk to."
I reclaimed my composure. "'Fraid not. My supervisor will tell you the same thing I just did. We don't make the rules here — we just follow them."
He didn't like that answer. He must have realized the tears weren't going to help his cause, so he shifted gears to hostility. He wasn't usually quick to anger, but today he seemed to be in a special sort of mood. As he railed against me and the desperation escalated in his voice, I kept repeating the office mantra to myself. Keep calm and fuck off… Wait, that isn't right. Maybe I picked that one up from an online meme.
I knew he thought I didn't understand how devastated and annoyed he was at the very prospect of spending another moment trapped in the series of endless, mindless moments of his new existence. His tone and volume of his voice suggested as much, but I did understand. I'd heard this same complaint day in and day out. It didn't change the fact that I could do nothing about it, though.
"This is bullshit! My quota's been set too damn high! I wasn't that big of a sinner. I want to move on, goddamn it," he fumed.
I fought the urge to point out that he'd just cursed twice and taken the lord's name in vain. Personally, I couldn't give a shit. I swore all the time, but I also wasn't the one looking for an "in" with the big guy upstairs.
"Why can't I just go talk to my wife?"
I fought hard not to sigh out of pure frustration. "We've been over this. You can't interact with anything outside this building."
"How come you can interact with the outside world and I can't?" He flopped his large hands down in his lap with a dramatic huff.
"Because you're a soul in transition and I'm not. There is a difference." I felt like I was talking to a child throwing a temper tantrum over something an older sibling had been allowed to do but he hadn't.
"Then you go talk to her." He snapped out the suggestion.
I considered just continually pounding my head on the desk to see if it might get my point across better. My hopes weren't high; I probably had a better chance of giving myself brain damage before I would get through to him.
"I can't do that. It's against the rules. I'm sorry." If I thought I could've gotten away with it, I would've gone to talk to her. I would've told that woman to drop to her knees and pray for him so he could move on. Or better yet, simply hold a proper funeral. That way his friends and other family's prayers could lift him on high. She needed to do something, anything, to help him move on. Or at least to get him off my back.
When he realized I wasn't going to budge, the anger on his face was almost palpable. "Olivia, I don't want to get stuck here and end up like you."
Like me. I hadn't seen that nasty little insult coming. His words hung in the air as I lifted my coffee mug and took a slow pull of the cold, bitter liquid. I set the mug down and crossed my hands across my lap before meeting his eyes again.
Dean shook his head, breaking away from my gaze. At least he seemed ashamed for his angry outburst. He had been here long enough to know how painful those words could be. He had no chance of ending up like me. He would move on one way or another, but I never would.
Sometimes when a person passes away and no one holds a proper funeral or prays for them, they'll become stuck in Purgatory. Without those prayers, there can be no absolution. Without absolution, here that soul shall remain. Some of us who are unlucky enough to have this situation arise take jobs at Purgatory and Associates, processing souls who will move on. We're called Revenants — those who returned, but for all intents and purposes are dead. We're confined to walk this middle plane of existence until the end of time. It seriously sucks and isn't something to be thrown in a person's face.
The tension was still thick in the room, but to Dean's credit, he did try to remedy it. "My apologies. That was uncalled for."
I nodded by way of accepting his apology. I couldn't even be mad. Sure, his insult had been cruel, but it was no less true. At this point, I just wanted him out of my office. I had a whole list of others waiting to bitch at me for the exact same thing and didn't want to spend any more time going around in circles with him. "I'll send for you as soon as I get word. Okay?"
He accepted my businesslike dismissal with a nod and left without any more fuss. When he was gone, I heaved a sigh. Feeling exhausted and dejected, I thumped my head down on my desk. I hate my job.
I'd seen cases like Dean's before and wished I could talk to his wife for him, because if she didn't start praying her ass off soon, he was destined for a one-way trip into the Silence. If he thought it was bad here, I could assure him there were worse places to be.
Yoda, a wise Jedi master, was once quoted as saying, Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will. That, in a nutshell, should be the Silence mantra. The Silence souls will never move on to whatever eternal destiny may have awaited them. They become lost unto themselves within an expansive void. It's a gray area, a separate state of purgatory. A soul trapped there will spend eternity alone, unable to interact with anything or anyone living or dead. It's a state of consciousness and coma. It's neither here nor there. It's everything yet nothing. It's the space in-between. If the whole situation wasn't so damn sad, one might find some poetry in it.
It's hard to say what tips a soul into this unfortunate circumstance. Leading theories range from anger and frustration to simple impatience, while others swear it's brought on by sadness and guilt. Whatever the case may be, it's almost always emotionally driven and the end result is always the same. Though a soul destined for the Silence is rare, sadly no one is immune. Once someone crosses into that territory, there's no coming back. Ever.
A crumpled wad of paper hit me, forcing my head up and putting a stop to my pouting. My brother Tore stood in the doorway of my office with a smirk on his face. His dark brown hair was spiked up in that I don't care but clearly, I care because I have product in my hair sort of way. His black pinstriped shirt, which he'd paired with a gray t-shirt, was untucked and hung loosely over his dark-wash jeans. "What's up, drama queen?" He squinted mockingly at me with dark eyes that resembled my own.
I scowled at him and his chipper demeanor as he took up the chair Dean had vacated. "Don't ask." I sighed, rolling away from my desk.
Tore pointed with a thumb over his shoulder. "Dean?" I nodded, leaned back, and pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes. Without a hitch, he changed gears on me. "What do you want for lunch?"
I shrugged. "I dunno." I stood and pulled on my coat. As I slipped my arms down into the sleeves, I began to ponder— not lunch, but the big picture. "Do you ever wonder why we still perform all the same functions we did when we were alive? We still eat, sleep, go to the bathroom…but we're dead. Shouldn't all those functions and urges have stopped?"
Tore held up his hand. "Okay, I'm going to stop you right there."
I paused halfway through zipping up my jacket. "Why?"
"You do this every time one of your charges gets hazy. You become all reflective and philosophical, start questioning the meaning of shit. Look, we died. Yet somehow, we're still here. Can't you just take it for what it is?"
The quick and easy answer was no. Why can't I get philosophical and reflective? Isn't that what the human race has always done? Besides, a man's soul precariously hung in the balance. I found it hard to gloss over that to worry about what food to shove into my craw.
Most days Tore's laid-back attitude was nice, yet today it did nothing but grate on my nerves. Nothing ever bothered him. The two of us couldn't be more different in that respect if we tried. I tend to tear a situation apart to analyze every minute detail until I'm running circles around myself. I do nothing but stress. Tore takes everything in stride. It would be nice if he paid an occasional visit to crazy town. I think we could have some really great conversations if he'd just stop by once in a while. Or at least call.
We made our way to the lobby, weaving in and out of the crowd. I narrowly avoided being run down numerous times while Tore glided through effortlessly. It was the story of our lives. I caught a glimpse of my friend Portia and waved to her as we zigzagged through the sea of bodies. As she strutted her way toward us, her long, highlighted brown hair bounced around as if she was in a Pantene commercial.
I expected Tore to slip in the puddle of drool that had slowly accumulated at his feet. Who could blame him, really? Portia was a natural beauty. One of those girls who made it seem effortless, always made up but not overdone. Fuck Maybelline, she was definitely born with it.
"Heading to lunch?" she called out.
"Yup. Wanna join us?" Tore swaggered in her direction, stopping abruptly in his tracks to hitch a hip out. His behavior reminded me of a John Wayne movie and I fought hard not to laugh. I fully suspected that had he been wearing a hat, he would have tipped it down and called her "little lady."
Portia patted his chest, slipping past him. "Don't think so, champ. I'm working through lunch today." I waited to see if Tore would start panting next. He didn't. Bummer. It would have been fun to tease him about later. "Olivia, we're still on for tonight, right?"
I furrowed my brow in a lame attempt to play dumb. "For what?"
She shook her head. "No, nuh uh. Nice try, but you promised this time."
"But I don't wanna go," I whined, slouching my shoulders.
"Tough shit." She grabbed me by the arms. "We haven't been clubbing in ages. Besides, it will be fun."
Ages? Pah! It had been one month, and it was never fun. There were always too many people, the drinks were overpriced, and I hated having to contend with the grease-ball goobers that swarmed us because Portia looked like a supermodel. Problem was that she batted those ridiculously long lashes at me, and rather than refusing to go to one more meat market, I caved. "Fine, I'll go."
"I'll be at your place around nine." She smiled triumphantly and jostled me as if she could stir up some enthusiasm. "We'll pick up some cute men this time. You'll see."
"No need to go to the club to pick up cute men, Portia, when I'm right here." Tore gestured to himself like a Price is Right model.
She let out a howling laugh as she walked away. I stifled a snort, but had to clamp my hand over my mouth to contain my own laughter.
He watched her go before turning a nasty glare in my direction. "Why do you have to do that?"
He brushed passed me in a huff. "Cock block."
"Whoa, whoa! Don't unleash your bruised ego on me, bucko." I jogged to catch up with him. "As if using terms like 'cock block' when referring to one of my friends isn't reason enough. I think there are enough of your ex-girlfriends running around the place as is. I would really prefer she didn't become one of them."
He turned to face me again. "What makes you think we'd break up? What if she's the one and you're standing in the way of our happiness?" His jerky smirk returned as he crossed his arms over his chest. Somewhere in that delusional mind, he believed he was nearing a win with this argument.
"Really? You believe she's the one? Let me put it to you this way then, big brother." I stepped closer to him. "As a Revenant, if you say you want to be with someone forever, you better Damn. Well. Mean. It." Emphasizing every word with a hard poke to his chest, I watched the smirk melt off his face.
"Wow, well played," he conceded.
I raised my arms in a triumphant victory, looking for cheers and acknowledgement from someone, anyone.
"Okay, quit gloating and let's get some food," he said, pushing me toward the front door.
. . .
Lunch was completely uneventful and once I was back in the office, I plopped down on the floor to sort through some clutter and organize my files. It didn't take long to become overwhelmed and start drowning in a sea of manila. There's never an end to the "in" pile. At no point will that little box ever be empty. There's never a pat on the back or a "job well done" when it's finished. Since there's never a sense of accomplishment, I was ready to give up, light a bonfire, and dance around in naked victory. Fortunately for the fire department and my fellow employees, that plan got interrupted.
"Hey, Liv." A man's voice carried from over my shoulder. I already knew who'd snuck up behind me without turning around. I only allowed one person to call me by that nickname without the penalty of ultimate pain.
Devon strolled into my office, but he could have just as easily stepped off the pages of GQ. Unlike my brother, he always dressed appropriately for the office in a black three-piece suit. He'd been in charge of my training during my first day on the job. I'd spent most of the day freaking out, worried about accidently sending a soul to Hell or something, but he'd handled my spastic nature with a smile. We'd been best friends ever since.
"Hey," I said, passing two files over my head. I knew he'd come after them.
He flipped through the pages for a few minutes before sighing loudly. "Damn it, there goes knocking off early." He slapped the folder closed. His eyes scanned over the papers scattered all over my office floor. "What are you doing in here besides making a mess?"
"Can't you see?" I held my arms out in a sweeping motion. "I'm attempting to be a more efficient worker bee."
He rolled his eyes with a slight shake of his head. His long black hair fell across his cheek and he ran his hand through it to brush it aside. "And how's that working out for ya?"
"Okay, I guess." I shrugged and tried to act casual as I thumbed through a file. "So Dev, how come you wanted to get out of here early? You have plans tonight?"
His blue eyes filled with suspicion. As one of the few men in my life, he was often swept up in the wake of Portia's attempts to socialize me. He'd learned to be cautious when answering vague questions. "Why?"
"Well…" I continued to act nonchalant. "Portia's dragging me to the club again. I'll need protection from the goobers." I looked up coyly from under my lashes.
He didn't buy into my doe-eyed routine. "As much as I'd love to be on goober patrol, no can do, dork face. I've got a date."
I gasped in feigned horror. "You have a date? You're going to abandon me in my time of need?" I held my hand on my chest as if his prior plans pained me. "Bros before hoes, Devon. Bros. Before. Hoes." I shook my head, overemphasizing my disappointment.
He laughed. "You're not a bro. Technically, you're a…"
I jabbed a finger his direction. "I would not finish that sentence if I were you."
He added another chuckle and whacked me on the head with the folders. "Have fun tonight. I'll call you tomorrow."
I pounded my chest and tossed up a peace sign as he swaggered out of my office.
Devon was a big reason why, with the exception of Portia, I didn't have any female friends from the office. They either hated me because they assumed I was sleeping with him, or believed I was mentally deficient for not. In the early stages of our friendship, I'd wondered if the latter group wasn't right. He was the one man every woman wanted to get their hooks into. Yet he chose to hang out with me most weekends even though I'd confined him to the friend zone.
Submitted for your disapproval — The Friend Zone — a dark place for the male of the human species. When confined to it, there will be no chance to see the female naked. Instead, males will listen to her complain about other males and her fat thighs. Placement within concludes that the female hath deemed the male "unbangable." Males must do everything in their power to avoid this precarious situation, for there is no return from The Friend Zone.
Although I might be mentally deficient, I'm not blind. I do find him attractive, but after ten years of being BFFs, he's more like a brother. The thought of sleeping with him is honestly a little icky.
I was frustrated beyond belief with my organization project by the time the file clerk pushed her little cart into my office, dropping another stack of folders on my desk. I huffed at her. She glared at me in return. Apparently, I wasn't the only one annoyed by the inbox.
I ignored the new workload. It was time to knock off anyway, so I abandoned my organization hell and responded to a few emails I had neglected all week. With the workweek drawing to an end, I set off to the building's lobby to wait for Tore. We lived together in a large apartment across the city that had been procured on our behalf by the Department of Economic Affairs and Debts, or the D.E.A.D. office, as we lovingly call it. They handled all major finances for both Revenants and Reapers alike. Since we're technically deceased, we can't exactly apply for lines of credit to buy homes or cars. We can't get credit cards or even gym memberships. But D.E.A.D. takes care of all that for us. The department procures aliases, complete with new IDs. In a weird way it's like the witness protection program.
Upon arriving home, I went directly into my room to change. Since I would have to change into binding clubbing clothes later, I pulled on my favorite black hooded sweatshirt and matching cotton yoga pants. When I'm home, I'm all about comfort. Baggy t-shirts, sweatshirts, elastic waistbands, and fluffy socks reign supreme. An ex-boyfriend of mine had once referred to it as my "slob wear." He was an asshole.
I plopped down on the sofa just to veg out for a while before Portia came to collect me. After flipping through the channels, I settled on a Friends marathon.
Tore sank down in the chair beside me. He too had changed into slob wear. He rubbed the sides of his face, letting out a dramatic yawn. "What a week."
"Yeah." I yawned too. "Are you coming to the club tonight?"
"Nah, think I'm going to stay home and catch up on some sleep."
"Noooo! C'mon, you have to go," I begged. "I'll pay you."
Pursing his lips, he closed his eyes and shook his head. With my second line of goober defense bailing, it would be a long night with no one to run interference. It already looked less like the fun experience Portia wanted us to have and more like the nightmare I was expecting.
Tore and I watched another few episodes of our favorite sitcom before I had to get ready. I rummaged through my closet, finally choosing a sleeveless, emerald-green dress with a sheer black overlay and black leggings. I deemed my outfit sexy-yet-comfortable. Since I've never been a heels kind of girl, I pulled on my patent leather Doc Martin boots.
I wasn't in the mood to be fussy about my long, dark brown hair, so I went basic with just a headband and a few cute barrettes decorated with spiders and bats. I brushed a little powder on my naturally pale skin. For eye makeup, I went smokey with heavy black liner. I painted my lips a lovely shade of crimson to complete my look for the evening.
I gave myself one last, quick look in the mirror before shrugging and flicked off the light. I looked a bit like Morticia Adams, but that was all right. I don't intentionally set out to be a cliché Goth chick. It's just my natural coloring, so why not embrace it?
By the time I finished primping and preening, Tore had crashed out on the sofa and was softly snoring away. The doorbell rang promptly at nine o'clock. Portia was decked out in her club attire of a red corset, black pencil skirt, and black stiletto heels. Her hair was swept into an updo with a few loose strands curled into relaxed ringlets. I looked growth-challenged standing next to her on a regular day but, when we went clubbing, I felt like Alice after drinking the shrinking potion. If she weren't my friend, I think I might hate her at times.
"Hey," she greeted.
I pointed to Tore asleep on the sofa and put my finger to my lips.
"Aw. Look how cute he is, all cuddled up taking a nappy-poo." She giggled.
I scribbled a quick note to let my brother know which club we'd be at in case he changed his mind. I also gave an approximate time I might be home so he didn't worry. I tossed the note on the coffee table, then Portia and I scurried quietly out the door.
Let the parade of egotistical, self-indulgent, self-important lame-asses commence!
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