Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot




April 17, 1994


Their gazes touched across a crowded sidewalk.


Rain fell like a curtain and the pink magnolia petals tumbled from the tree near the entrance of Xavier’s Coffeehouse. She, the giggling teenager with the Hello Kitty attached to her backpack and the mascara applied heavily, her black hair done up in a side ponytail. Laughing, flashing him the bird, telling him to “Quit staring, old man.” She, the one who always forgot, moved on, died. She’d made that mistake another lifetime ago, looking him in the eye.


That’s how he found her, always.


This could be the second time he escorted her to the bar and offered a shot glass of Tabula Rasa before she stumbled into the netherworld. This time, he’d use her new name, Esa Rossner. Her new name. Her old name, too. Esa – her first life name, before Sera and Juanita, when she walked beside him for a time in those faraway lands. When he called himself human.


Here she approached him, a teenager again, appearing wherever he existed, like destiny.


Only Wuji Grim was no one’s preferred destiny.


Their eyes met for a millisecond, that’s it, that spark that told him everything he needed to know about her. Her past – the sins and crimes she’d committed to live this current life. Her future – the pull and tumble she’d take to get to the finish line, her final drink.


Then she strode past, and life resumed.


#


The Handbook of Dead Things, pg. Iii


A modicum of advice for future reincarnations, to spare the pain of an awkward passing:


  1. Never look Death in the eye. Do that, and he knows. He sees the mistakes of your past lives. He can read your deaths – all four of them – out of chronological order.

  2. Avoid physical contact. One touch could seep years from your life. He may look human, may act human, but he has a job to do that requires a poisonous persona.

  3. He is essential personnel. He gets no sick days, no time off. Snow days are no deterrent. In fact, he works thrice as hard during inclement weather. Naturally, this means he is loverless. He is friendless. This is how it was meant to be.

  4. Do not kiss Death. Pandora’s Box will open wide, and you will see the things he sees, your sins reflected in his eyes, your deaths seared on his surly face.


#


Esa Rossner, fifteen, met the eye of a Reaper named Wuji Grim at the sidewalk outside Xavier’s Coffeehouse on April 17, 1994. Dressed in a black trench coat, holding his black fedora hat, he caught her attention because he was tall, and had a long, sad, white face with a permanent grimace on it, and also because he was Chinese and this was rural, Amish Ohio, with one small coffee shop that made up the downtown. Esa didn’t see many non-white people in this area. She herself stuck out in that way. “Ambiguously non-white,” people called her, which drove her nuts. A lady at work said she looked Columbian or Italian, and when she explained that she was part- Indian, part Jewish, the woman misunderstood “Indian” to mean Native American.


Then the man, who looked to be early-thirties, stared back, and creeps tingled up her spine. He stood and watched, and these days the only people who stood and watched were perverts, so her mom said, so Esa flicked him off, muttered a chastisement, and entered the shop.


Inside she found her friend, Zig, who worked for her dad’s PR firm and called himself an influencer. Her friends called him her boyfriend, and she didn’t correct them, but truth be told she didn’t like older men much, and Zig was twenty-something and had a huge, hairy mole on his face. But he took her out sometimes, for coffee and to talk. He’d heard her sing.


“So, there’s this talent agency,” he started, sliding a black business card across a table.


She took the card, peered at it, her hopes surging in her chest. She didn’t know she had a target on her, that her years were numbered, that the dreams of her youth would never be fully realized. All because she’d looked a trench coat-wearing Death in the eye for a fraction of a second.


#


But – lucky her! – Wuji wasn’t here for her today. Standing underneath an umbrella, he lifted his wrist and waited for the name and time to flash across his pager.


The name appeared as the rain slowed, then stopped. Anders Svenson. 3:04 p.m.


Wuji half-turned toward the road and watched for cars. The crosswalk light seemed to be malfunctioning. It never gave the go-ahead to walk. On the sidewalk, an impatient man paced and tapped his tennis shoes, and punched the button several times, to no avail. Wuji peered at his watch: 3:03 p.m. He took in a breath and glanced at the man near the road.


Uttering a curse, the waiting man made the fated decision and left the crosswalk while the sign still flashed “Wait.” He made it halfway across the street before the drunk driver slammed his foot on the pedal and accelerated instead of slowing by the crosswalk like he meant to.


Wuji donned his hat and pushed a button on his pager. Human eyes couldn’t see him when he wore his felt fedora, but spirits could. The days of the black cloaked, skeletal Reapers holding scythes had long gone. These days, Death dressed with more flare and liked shiny black shoes and a brand-name watch and a few personalized features to make his job easier.


The pedestrian tried to double back, but the driver was swerving all over the road. He zoomed into the man, who rolled over the car and landed with a sickening thud on the road. The driver smashed into a parked car and slumped against the wheel. Not dead, but he’d wish it after he came to a few hours later. People rushed onto the road, responding to the screech of brakes, surrounding the pedestrian’s bloody form. Calling the cops with a clunky Motorola Lingo someone happened to have with them. Searching for the man’s wallet so they could alert his emergency contact about the accident.


“What’s happened to me?” Anders drew away from the corpse, half-stumbling over the sprawling legs as he moved toward the sidewalk. “Why can I see myself lying there like that?”

The tennis-shoed clad man had a rotund stomach between slender legs and arms, and bright blue eyes with pupils dilated in confusion and fear. He hugged himself.


“You are Anders Svenson, correct?” Wuji peered at his pager again, to make sure he said the name properly. “Age thirty-four, two children, a job at a supermarket?”


“Yes, that’s me.”


“Come with me.” Wuji led him down the road with the flick of a finger. They waited at the crosswalk. When the icon appeared, it wasn’t the neon man, but a green door instead.

They crossed the street. On the other side: Dead Zone Bar.


#


“What’ll you have?” Wuji asked, after removing his trench coat and fedora and hanging them on the peg beside the bar. He slipped on an apron and fell into position behind the counter.


“I…I don’t drink, anymore,” said Anders, still in a numb, disbelieving voice. “I was an alcoholic. Been dry for four years.” He shook his head. “I’m in a dream, right?”


“This is your lucky day.” Wuji offered a wry smile, removing the shot glass and replacing it with a teacup. He held the glass bottle with the clear liquid inside. “Name a drink.”


“Ginseng tea,” said the man, sitting back into his barstool and giving the place a good look. “So this is how it all ends? Not a tunnel or an explosion of nothingness, but a bar?”  


Wuji poured liquid from the bottle into the teacup and it came out hot and honey-colored. “Think of it as more a transition, than an end. If you need to weep, this is the place to do it. If you want to talk…” Wuji spread his free arm wide. “I’m a very good listener.” He slid the saucer across the bar in front of his guest and politely waited for the inevitable reaction.


Anders lifted the teacup and smelled it. “It’s ginseng.”


Wuji poured the liquid from the bottle into a shot glass. It came out an ice-blue color.


Ander’s eyes unscrolled. “How?”


“It’s personal,” Wuji said, tapping the glass with his fingernails. He read the back of the bottle out loud. “Tabula Rasa is highly unique, with notes of nostalgia and sentimentality, flavored to perfection, catered to individual tastes. An unforgettable experience.”


“So I’ll remember all this?” the man said, hope creeping into his voice.


“That marketing is deceptive,” Wuji conceded. Then he leaned forward, elbows on the counter. “As you start to drink it, the old memories will come up. I’m here if you want to talk about any particular memory, or moment, or person. You don’t have to do this alone.”


Anders talked. He sobbed, shouted, and broke a few bottles of wine. He tried to leave the bar, but of course the door remained locked until he finished the drink. Security protocol. He asked for advice, begged to stay, and called Wuji a “cold monster” but also “the best damn friend who’d ever cared to listen.” Then he reached the end of his teacup and promptly fell asleep.


“To take a cup of kindness yet.” Wuji lifted his shot glass in Anders’ honor. “And to your eternal health.”


#


Currently, Wuji lived with a family who thought he was their eldest brother. They were a small gift from his superiors for his hard work in the field. Along with the mental revision that convinced these kind people that a Reaper belonged with them, Wuji had added some failsafe rules – they never looked him in the eye, nor touched him, nor asked him questions about his job or love life. To live with a human family was a great honor not every Reaper achieved. Wuji’s stats broke records. He had high satisfaction rates and his meetings at the bar went smoothly.


His existence now seemed well-suited to his skills. He had two previous lives. The first, the good one, the one with first-life Esa. A simple farmer’s life, where they loved and matured together. In the second, the life of a monarch, he made others suffer. She had been in that life, too, only he had done bad things to her, things he wasn’t proud of. She’d been set up, he learned only after his death. So a false accusation led to him suspecting her of treachery. He put her through living hell. Ultimately, she died a rebel’s death. At least his current existence involved no misapprehensions or misunderstandings. And it was more interesting than farm work.


That second life got him into this business. Wuji didn’t like to think of the details, as it left him feeling sick. After his drink with the bartender, he walked out of the bar and two buildings drew his eye. One had Hell Hotel strewn across the front, in fancy, bright lettering, stylized to catch his attention. The other, Reaper, Inc. He entered the high-rise with the Reaper Inc. sign out front and, in the lobby, the clerk presented him with paperwork for his new job.


“You’re lucky,” Chloe, the secretary, mumbled, popping bubble gum between her teeth. “Not everybody with your past gets this job. You must have been exceptionally good your first life.” She flicked her yellow eyebrow up. “Wonder where you went wrong the second time.”


He knew, but none of Chloe’s business. “And if I kept walking past the buildings?”


She shrugged. “Just a bunch of locked up places down that way. You can’t get in unless you’ve got the right keycode. Across the street, there’s the Next Life Investment Firm. Most people can get into that building until they hit Fourth Life. I’m not surprised you didn’t see it. Its doors would be locked for you. You’re taking a pause to store some goodwill so you don’t live a miserable last life. In the end, it’s either Nirvana Suites or Hell Hotel for those who never get it.” She chuckled and handed him a pen. “Good luck.”


#


The Handbook of Dead Things, pg. 18


Some words, in the event that Death takes an interest:

  1. Beta blockers suppress the Seeing Eye, and emollients, well applied, will keep the life-suck at bay. This is how a Reaper can revise the memory of a unit and live with them without harm, so they think of him as a beloved member of the family.

  2. Death must eat on a regular schedule. He must sleep, though, to conserve his shadow body, his pulse stops in the process and he looks like, well, Death.

  3. So as not to raise suspicions, Death must periodically maintain a human job, in order to raise funds to support the mundane habits of humanity.

  4. Death is generally asexual and, of course, never fertile. **


** Rare, documented cases indicate that a Reaper could encounter someone from a past life who stirs the soul and ignites the body. If upper management should discover any sort of impropriety, Death will meet with Death.


#


August 1, 2004


Esa Rossner, twenty-five, knew him on sight the day she stood in front of a line of potential bodyguards awaiting the routine grilling from her angsty manager and overprotective boyfriend. Already, she had chosen him, the sour, sad-faced man who still wore a trench coat and fedora, and still, somehow, looked the same age, mid-thirties, though that was impossible.


She remembered the rainfall, and the scent of coffee in the air, the colorful petals drifting to the slick wet sidewalk. She remembered his eyes, the brief flash of expression in them, of recognition. But, most importantly, Esa remembered the moment she left the coffee shop, as the drunk driver collided with a pedestrian. She’d seen him then.


The man stood at the crosswalk watching the scene unfold with blank, unimpressed eyes. Then he put on his hat and flicked out of existence. Pouf. There in a second, gone in another.


Not a moment any sane person could easily forget.


But Esa was a sane person, and that chance encounter had happened ten years ago. Life moved on. She had her dad’s PR firm, and her boyfriend Zig’s skills with the internet – he had a blog and a high profile on sites like Six Degrees and MySpace – and she had a music degree at a prominent art college and looked good in front of a camera.


Too good, her manager said, and in the internet age her face and music were everywhere, plastered on every screen. She’d already had a handful of stalkers, some scary moments, desperate scenes by crazed fans or letters in blood swept away quickly by her agency’s security team or the officers assigned to whatever venue she performed at. But now, she’d hit number one on the billboards and the fan mail had increased and so had the frights. Bill Dugal, her manager, called her up this morning, telling her to get her ass down to the studio so she could pick out a personal bodyguard from the agency’s security team, to hang around her home and run perimeter checks. Esa guessed it had something to do with a recent threatening letter that came in the mail. She didn’t read the letters anymore, didn’t want to know what could have prompted this.


“You.” She pointed to the familiar face in the lineup. “What’s your name?”


The man stepped forward and straightened his shoulders. “Wuji Han.”


“Where do you come from, Wuji?”


He broadened his stance, his hands firmly tucked behind his back. “New York.”


She touched her chin. “When did you start working for the agency?”


The security officer stared at the wall. “About three years ago.”


“Before that?”


He took his time answering. “I worked night security at a software company in Ohio.”


“I grew up in Ohio.” She waited for him to express surprise, or admit he’d known already. He did neither but shrugged as if it didn’t matter one way or the other. “You know, we’ve bumped into each other before. About ten years ago. At a coffee shop.”


This time, his eyes did widen. “You must be mistaken, ma’am. I don’t drink coffee.”


#


People didn’t remember Wuji. He liked it this way. He liked to pass in and out of reality, donning his black fedora to make himself invisible before a death, so the newly dead soul could see him, so the live ones couldn’t. Wuji enjoyed the false warmth of his human home, the hot meals made by his “mothers,” the antics of his much younger “siblings” – though the relationships were fake, the love from them was genuine, and that was enough for him. In another year or two it would be time to leave them, to modify their memories and move on. In return for their fifteen years of kindness, Wuji would apply for karma from the Good Deeds Bank: it would come in the form of a jackpot at a casino, a lottery win, or a promotion that would turn their world around. He felt it important to reward the family for their service to him.


But beyond his family – which had an expiration date – people didn’t remember Wuji. He had many reasons to desire anonymity. His profession, for one. His inability to age. Perhaps the most critical personal reason why he disliked the idea of memories floating around about him stemmed from his fear of intimacy. He had hurt people. He was paying the price for his crimes.


He didn’t deserve to be remembered.


#


The Handbook of Dead Things, pg. 32


Some little-known tidbits about Reapers and Tabula Rasa:


  1. A Reaper becomes when choices made in a past life are so abominable, he must pay by giving up one of his four human lives, and by watching anyone who could care about him wither away and die.

  2. The Reaper is in his purgatory life for nine hundred years. Enough time to watch his human families and connections grow old and die, again and again.

  3. Because he never changes, a Reaper must only remain with one family for fifteen years at a time, at which point a cocktail of Tabula Rasa is administered, taken orally, so the memories of Death’s presence in the home are wiped clear.

  4. One serving of full-strength Tabula Rasa erases all memories for ninety years. Everyone, even Reapers, must consume it before passing through their door. A Reaper will not recall the events of their past life for the span of a human life.


**A note: A Reaper can drink TR without effect throughout the duration of his purgatory. It is only before he begins his service and after his service has ended that the drink will take affect and erase his memories.


#


Actually, Wuji had gone out of his way to avoid Esa all these years. After making eye contact with her in front of the coffee shop, he’d promptly used his connections to move with his family to Columbus instead of remaining in the same town. Times changed, and his household installed a modem, but Wuji avoided it because as a Reaper he already knew too much about people everywhere, complete strangers, even, so why bother looking up information about the people he once knew from his previous lives. He’d run into individuals now and again, whose eyes told him that he’d dealt with them in the past, either as a Reaper ushering them into a new life, or in his first or second lives. The ones he knew from just his first life brought him some fond memories, some nostalgia. But the ones he knew from his second life filled him with grief. He preferred not to dwell on the pains of the past, so avoidance became his coping mechanism.


True, he had taken a job as night security in Ohio. A logical job for someone of his profession. He’d been an academic with four PhDs under his belt, a truck driver, and a pizza delivery guy. He’d learned all the main languages, cleaned bathrooms for one long stint, and studied MMA. Night security was less taxing than cleaning bathrooms or grading papers, and he had an excuse to work out, and he could slip away on slow nights to do his Grim job.


Then he saw Esa again, one morning, across the street in a bookstore near the college campus. A college student now, still vibrant and young in an obnoxious, flippant kind of way. The way she rolled her eyes at nearly everything anyone said to her. The way she talked into her book instead of politely making eye contact. And when she left the bookstore, she was singing out loud as musicians are wont to do, completely devoid of social awareness, that others might be carrying on a conversation and did not want to be interrupted even by an angelic yet slightly pitchy voice. Wuji never loved young Esa. In his farmer-life, he’d fallen for her after her first husband died – she was mid-twenties then. In his kingly life, when she went by Sera, she’d been nearing forty when he first laid eyes on her. After he became a Reaper, he chanced upon her in her third life as Juanita, and he moved across the world to get away from her until she died. He came for her then. He owed it to her.


He wasn’t going to screw her life up again.


Seeing her at the bookstore sent the same scare through him as before. So he moved to New York and got a new job with a talent agency – as private security. He’d kept busy. He met lots of interesting people, sent even more interesting people off to their afterlives.


He had not expected to see Esa Rossner here today. Her stage name was not Esa Rossner, of course. Her public persona was Booker Nightingale, and that’s where the breakdown had occurred. Wuji knew the agency represented popular singer Booker Nightingale, the sultry young star whose father owned a PR firm and who wore eccentric makeup, colorful wigs, and bejeweled outfits at all her performances. If he’d known…


A Reaper takes poorly to surprises.


#


Her new bodyguard had the ability to disappear into walls and furniture and then reappear when she called his name – Esa liked that about him. He always paid attention, often taking notice of little dangers no one else saw. A wineglass teetering at the edge of a counter. Zig’s razor tossed carelessly on the floor next to the whirlpool. A bouquet of chrysanthemums that almost gave her an asthma attack. She felt safer with Wuji around, though, knock-on-wood, he hadn’t yet encountered an intruder or a teddy-bear with knives inside it, not yet.


He tried to quit the first week, and she made a fuss about him breaking his contract and how the possible lawsuit would drag his face and name into the media spotlight. He hadn’t said anything again about quitting, and this quite relieved her, because she didn’t want to bring up what she saw that day, ten years ago, when he vanished into thin air like some kind of ghost.


He didn’t talk much, and he barely looked at her. Esa was fine with it all because he intrigued her, and he didn’t seem interested in her, and that combination worked for her at this stage in her life. How satisfying to be protected by someone who had no ulterior motive.


“Let’s get married,” Zig told her one day, handing her a champagne bottle with a glittering white-gold princess-cut diamond ring hanging around its neck.


Esa put the ring on and blew him a kiss. She looked at her new bodyguard and blew him a kiss, too. “What a life,” she said, and popped the cork off the champagne bottle.


#


Not everyone wished Esa well when she announced the news publicly and the tabloids ran articles about her impending wedding. Her manager, Bill Dugal, had given Wuji a cellular phone to use to keep tabs on her, and through him Wuji learned about the obsessive fans who wrote disturbing emails threatening to kill her if she went through with the wedding.


“She doesn’t need to know all this,” said Bill, shouting over the phone in what sounded like some kind of stadium, judging by the background noise. “She asked us not to brief her on these threats, they’re coming regularly now and the first few times it happened she had a breakdown. Just stay with her at all times. Don’t take your eyes off of her.”


Wuji had not planned to stay for longer than his contract. When he tried to quit, she insinuated a breach-of-contract lawsuit because he couldn’t come up with a logical reason for breaking it off early. He called his Reaper superiors and asked if he could give her some Tabula Rasa to sneak away, but they deemed it unnecessary. He still had to pay his bills, and she didn’t know or suspect that he was a Reaper, so the problem was his issue alone.


He still didn’t like her much – she had the demanding personality of an heiress, and her fiancé, Zig, was insufferable and orange, and smelled like the kind of cologne that made a person ill because of its sheer, pungent strength. But Esa seemed to like Wuji and appreciate his vigilance. The pay was good. She slept half the day and drank a quarter of the day, most days, so the job didn’t cause a lot of stress overall. Wuji could maintain his monthly Reaper quota.


The day before the wedding, Wuji saved her life. A stalker broke into her home when Zig was out at his bachelor party. Esa lounged in the whirlpool, softly singing with her eyes closed, when the person emerged from the shadows, carrying a blade. Wuji moved quickly, disarming the stalker and capturing him in a headlock. Esa called 911 on the landline.


After the police led the stalker away in handcuffs, Esa grabbed Wuji’s arm and sobbed against his chest. She told him she thought she might love him.


He pulled away – every minute of touch could take years from her life and this was her fourth life, her most precious life yet. He went behind her home bar and made her a cocktail.


“Thank you.” Esa accepted the drink and pulled the edges of her towel more closely around her. “I feel like an idiot for saying all that just now.” She shook her head. “It must have been the adrenaline rush or fear talking. I didn’t mean any of it.”


“Of course not.” Then he called her manager, Bill, and her fiancé, Zig, and filled them in. When they arrived at the house, they gave him the night off. He put on his trench coat and fedora, left the house, and clocked into his real job via a text message on his flip phone.


He drank with a stabbed drug dealer, an elderly lady suffering from pneumonia, and a bickering couple who’d made the unfortunate vow “till Death do us part.”


#


The Handbook of Dead Things, pg. 57


Considerations for times when Death overstays his welcome:


  1. A Reaper might seem cavalier but is actually a fount of deep emotion. The family he keeps around him is more precious than he lets on.

  2. A Reaper, enmeshed with characters from a former life, can do immeasurable harm. This is why, generally, he is advised to stay away.


** At times, even administration can overlook a connection and, on rare occasions, have been known to test Reapers by placing them near friends from former lives.


#


February 4, 2009


Esa Rossner, now thirty, a child on the way and a husband headed out the door, called her manager to learn that her tour had been postponed indefinitely.


“They didn’t sell enough tickets.” Bill sighed over the phone. “The venues are going with another singer. I’m sorry, hun.” He’d moved on, too, now that Booker Nightingale no longer brought in the same figures as before, now that her physical figure was under public scrutiny, nasty, fat-shaming words scoring the message boards when she gained pregnancy weight.


He was sorry, genuinely, she believed, but he still made money.


“There’s good news,” he said. “I can take the bodyguard back on my security team now. There hasn’t been a threat in a year, and I don’t know that it’s necessary for you to spend the money. I’ll give him a raise, or whatever you need me to do so he’s happy.”


Esa breathed loudly into the phone and chewed on a carrot. “I’ll talk to him, then.”


That night, she sat down with Wuji and presented the plan. “I don’t think I need a bodyguard anymore. I’ll be taking a break from work after Judith is born…” She swallowed. “Bill will take you back at the agency, now.”


Wuji remained stiff and upright on the couch across from her. He always wore his suit, always spoke with thought. He’d been intriguing to her, once, long ago, but like that time she imagined him disappearing into thin air, her interest in him had vanished, too.


Maybe it was the shame that work had slowed, that having a bodyguard implied something about her career she didn’t fully know if she desired any longer. With some years added to her life, she also suspected that maybe she’d seen wrong that day, fifteen years ago. Maybe the man she saw on the street had not been Wuji after all. He certainly could not have just disappeared. Life didn’t work that way. Life was no damn fantasy novel.


#


Wuji had an out, finally, but in actuality he’d had an out years ago, after his first contract had ended, and yet he continued to sign on the line year after year. It wasn’t about the pay anymore; she’d barely raised his wages in the five years he’d worked for her. When he thought back to why he’d decided to stay, to add four more years to his forced labor, he boiled it down to three specific factors. First, he’d said goodbye to his human family in the second year of working for Esa. The fifteen years with them had come, and he received a letter from his superiors with a vial of Tabula Rasa included in the package to wipe their minds clean.


He’d requested time off and took a long weekend home. He hiked with his adult brothers and helped his mothers with their gardening projects and rewiring the house. He saw a movie with his sister. Each evening with his family, he ate dim sum, so many pork hum bao, and drank baijiu. On the last evening, he poured the drinks for each family member.


That night, while they slept, Wuji removed any whisper of himself from the home. Pictures. Gifts. Every single memory. People in the neighborhood might recall a fifth son, but the only line his family had, their default response – “He died.” People generally mumbled things like “Oh, I’m so sorry” when they heard that response and asked no further questions, and his family wouldn’t have any answers to give, anyway. He took away their curiosity and interest in his personhood. He stole their love for him away from them. In the morning, they’d get a check in the mail from a “dead relative” who’d left them a fortune.


That had happened, and Wuji returned to Esa’s mansion, and for the first time he had some relief about at least still coming home to someone.


The second factor influencing his decision to stay on as long as he had was in knowing the details about Esa’s death. When looking a human in the eye, Wuji saw their demise. What he couldn’t see was the time or day or even year. He knew someone would push Esa off a balcony of a building, but he didn’t know how or when or why. He couldn’t stop it from happening. That would get him in trouble with his bosses. But he could prevent other life miseries for her. That stalker, for one. Whoever continued to leave painted doll heads in the bushes around her property. Her cheating husband. Wuji found lots of reasons to stay around and do what she paid him to do, keep her safe. And he owed it to her, too. Her second life, he’d ended it at his own command. This last life of hers, he wanted to maximize her happiness.


The third factor humiliated him to even consider, but it explained why he stayed on even after the first contract ended. It had to do with that night, the night of the stalker. When she said carelessly that she loved him. He hadn’t heard those words for hundreds of years, and actually now that he thought about it, she might have been the last person to say them to him. His heart, a cold, dead thing inside him, hadn’t moved or fluttered in the least; she was too young to be at all appealing to him. But he remembered her at an older and wiser age, and that memory churned in him and triggered a strong desire to protect her now, to see her become that person again. This time, without him to hold her back. This time, on her own two feet.


Now, she wanted to cut him loose, a practical decision, and he resolved to do what she wanted him to do. He planned to tell her later that evening, but a call came in from another Reaper who tipped him off about a big assignment in the morning. He’d need to brace himself.


Zig came home drunk. Wuji heard them shouting from their bedroom. Glass shattered. The walls thundered. He donned his fedora and slipped invisibly down the hall, into their suite.


The husband had a bag packed, and Esa sat in a corner, on the floor, crying. Zig rolled his eyes at her and picked up an ashtray from the nightstand. “It’s not my fault you’re such a mess.” Then his eyes bulged, and he clutched his head. “Quit crying. You’re giving me such a –”


The ashtray flew out of his hand. Though it wasn’t intentionally aimed at her, the object would have struck her in the head and caused pain. Wuji slid between them and his fedora tumbled off as the glass ashtray made contact with the back of his head.


Zig moaned and said, “You’re lucky we have him” and then stumbled out of the room with his bag half-open and barely packed.


Wuji felt Esa’s eyes on him as he rose and called a taxi for Zig so the bastard wouldn’t drive around in the state he was in. “Do you want me to call your parents to come over?” he asked, standing over Esa who hadn’t gotten up from her crouched position on the floor.


She swallowed and tried to pull herself up, but her belly got in the way. “First, are you okay?” she asked him, touching the back of her head to direct his attention to his own wound.


He shrugged and helped her up. “I don’t really feel pain.”


“Because you’re not a human?” She blinked. “I saw you appear out of thin air just now. And fifteen years ago, in Ohio, I saw you disappear into nothing. It was also the day of a car accident and I saw a dead body for the first time.”


Wuji grappled with a sudden fear that he’d need to report this to his bosses, that they’d tell him to give her the Tabula Rasa drink and move across the world once again. A practical decision, like the one Esa wanted to make for him as well, but all at once Wuji had a rare and instinctual want and it wasn’t to wipe her mind, or to leave her.


“If I confirm your suspicions about those events, and what you saw, and I tell you honestly that I can’t say any more on pain of Death, will you accept that?” He liked her a little, now that she had at least one gray hair on her head and a few deeper lines around her eyes and mouth, now that she had a little extra weight around her midsection. He liked her enough to stay.


“Yes,” she said, with barely a hesitation. “It’s none of my business, anyway.” She peered at the door behind Wuji. “But would you stick around, forget what I suggested earlier?”


“Of course.” He lowered his head. “But I need to take the day off tomorrow. I have another job. I can call your parents or anyone else you need.”


She waved him away. “I can do all that. Take the day off.”


The next morning, he left for what could easily be mistaken as a convention of Reapers, all staring at their digital watches, across the street from a high school.


#


November 14, 2016


Esa Rossner, thirty-six, had taken some time off from her singing career to travel and get a PhD in Music Theory, and to raise her daughter who had just started kindergarten in the Fall, returned home to her manor and found her security guard, Wuji, fixing a broken bulb in the six-car garage. “You’re still here,” she said from the kitchen entrance, holding up a bottle of wine.


“Still here.” He climbed down the ladder. “Still existing.”


“I have reasons to celebrate,” she said, beckoning him into the house. “I wrote a new album, and Bill says it might be the best thing he’s ever listened to.”


Wuji followed her into the house and accepted the glass of wine she poured him. “That is good news,” he said, and his expression moved a bit, his eyes lightened and the corner of one side of his mouth turned up. For Wuji, that was the emotional equivalent of a sunny day.


“I would like for you to take me on a date tonight,” Esa informed him, with authority.


He hesitated. “There are complications…”


“I know there are complications. I’m not asking for more. I’m happy to enjoy one date.”


#


For Wuji, falling in love again, with the same person, was like watching a long-forgotten movie from childhood and realizing it had aged well, and he knew all the musical numbers by heart, and the messages and themes had so much more depth than he ever understood before.


For Wuji, falling in love again was a death knell, because he kept missing assignments and his numbers dropped at work. He worried every day would be his last with her.


He did not touch her, not even with emollients on, because he worried about shortening her life. She never had asked him about his other job, and so he never had to resort to Tabula Rasa, but always it popped up in his mind as the ultimate end to this irresponsible affair.


Zig came around every once in a while. They weren’t married anymore, but they shared custody of Judith. They were on better terms, Zig and Esa, but Wuji kept an eye out for flying ashtrays. Zig would die of a preventable disease one day. Judith, Esa’s child, would suffer a heart attack, probably in old age but again, Wuji couldn’t tell specifics like that. As her bodyguard, he made sure she ate heart healthy foods and had plenty of child-appropriate exercise.


They became a family. A different sort of family. But still a family.


#


Jan 1, 2020


On the day she died, Esa Rossner, aka Booker Nightingale, wrapped up a New Year’s tour in DC with a flourish and fireworks, drinks on a balcony of a skyrise suite, and a smooth-as-silk private encore performance with another singer, new to the scene, with a fresh face and wide eyes and fangirl enthusiasm. They had photographs taken, and the new singer asked for an autograph.


People doted. People told Esa they never thought she’d make a comeback, not at thirty-nine, not with two kids and a professorship at Columbia University. She had book tours, too, and TV appearances. “Why sing?” they all asked her. “You’ve got so much else going on.”


“I’m living my best life,” she said. “I’m enjoying myself.”


Another music group momentarily took eyes away from Esa, and she used that time to sneak into her bedroom to FaceTime her family and tell them goodnight. She talked to Judith first, listened to all the school drama from before the break and the egregious amounts of homework her daughter thought she might die under after the holidays ended. Then the phone was passed along to Divonn, her adopted son, three years old last Thursday. She listened to him talk about his favorite indoor exhibit at the local zoo that Wuji took him to every week, and then when he fell into a loop telling her it was not bedtime again and again, she smiled and blew him a kiss and asked to speak to Wuji.


#


“I saw it on TV,” Wuji told her. “You were fantastic.”


“I miss you all.” She smiled at the screen. Then, softer. “I miss you, Wuji. I’m sorry we couldn’t spend New Year’s together.”


“Come home, soon,” he said. “Home isn’t home without you.”


“My phone’s about to die, so we can’t talk for long. Phone charger is buried somewhere in my bag.” She sighed and moved the screen, so the camera revealed the room around her. “I guess this is my room for the night. Look. It has a balcony, and a private hot tub, and – ”


Wuji hung up on her. Not because he didn’t want to talk, but because the scene she showed him triggered the vision of her death. He took in a deep breath, forced a smile the kids’ direction, and called the emergency sitter. He tried calling her back. No answer.


An hour later, he was on a flight to DC. He had no hopes of saving her. Had never heard of a case where a Reaper stopped a death. But at least he could be there. He could be her bartender. He could take her to the other side.


#


In the end, it was a fan who killed her. Not Esa’s fan, but a follower of the new singer Esa had signed an autograph for earlier, an obsessive person stewing because the attention of the evening had been on Booker Nightingale’s comeback album instead of on the singer he adored. He’d entered her room, dragged her to the balcony, and tossed her over the railing as if that was the end of her, as if her legacy would abruptly diffuse, her name forgotten forever.


He got it all wrong. That didn’t happen. She lived on like a goddess.


#


Death comes like a thief in the night. Or a lover, after three shots of whisky and a bad hangover. In Esa’s case, Death stood over her and offered a hand to help her stand.


“How did you get here so quickly?” she asked Wuji.


He wore his fedora. She’d never actually seen it on him, before.


“We have some business to attend to,” he said, as the police sirens shrieked in the distance. “I know this might be difficult to grasp, but –”


“I’m dead, aren’t I?” Esa asked.


Wuji opened his mouth, then closed it. He tried again. “How did you know?”


“Just little things you said. Sometimes you’d mumble under your breath when you made eye contact with a person for the first time. You’d get downright ominous sometimes. And all those getaways – at first, I thought you were cheating until I saw you out with a group wearing trench coats and holding fedoras. So, a secret order, I thought. But what secret order could make you vanish whenever you put on a hat? Then I remembered the first time I met you, the car accident and that poor pedestrian. You were waiting for him.” Esa glanced up at the high-rise, at the balcony she’d fallen from. “You came for me, too.”


“This isn’t technically my jurisdiction,” Wuji admitted, rubbing the back of his neck.


She squeezed his hand – their first touch. “You came for me.” Then her shoulders slouched. “The kids. My children. This is a tragedy.”


“I’ll raise them,” Wuji promised. “I can’t spare them the pain – that isn’t natural. But I can be with them for a while, to help them through this. I prefer a human family, anyway.”


He led her to the crosswalk, and they waited until the signal blinked the door icon. Together they crossed the street and went around the corner to the bar. It was a little different, this bar, compared to the one in their borough in New York City, but functionally the same.


Wuji removed his trench coat and fedora and hung them on the peg. Before he could slip around the counter, Esa grabbed his arm in hers. “Look, if this is our last moment…

“We have a history together,” Wuji said, tears in his eyes. He poured her a glass of rosé, her favorite drink, from the bottle of Tabula Rasa. He poured himself the same. “We’ve had happy times together. Sorrowful times, too. If I kiss you, you’ll know it all like I do. You might regret it. You might come to resent me for finding my way back into your life.”


“Okay, look.” Esa tossed her head back. “I’m going to kiss you and know everything you know. And we’ll be fine. I’m not asking for more. I’m happy to enjoy this moment. With you.”


Their gazes touched. Their bodies, too.





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