Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dead World [Short Story]

I don't exist.

Easy words to say, not so easy to explain. So, I won't.

I'm not dead or dying. The living are dying and so are the dead. This isn't making any sense, is it?

Maybe I should start at the beginning. Not the beginning of my story, but the beginning of this one.

A call center run by the dead. Sounds crazy, right? Yet there I was standing in the lobby. It'd been a week since I'd met the late John Doe. A representative for some branch of government run by the deceased. Turns out not everyone disappears when they pass away, some stick around and do menial labor until they die a second death.

I walked up to the receptionist who was doing her nails. We did the usual back and forth and I was directed to sit down. As I walked away I started to light up a cigarette. A voice voice from behind me put a halt to that.

"We have a strict 'No Smoking' policy," the receptionist squeaked, while tapping a sign.

I replaced the cigarette in my pocket.

"Sorry," I said. "I'm not trying to be a dick, just didn't see the sign.

She smiled curtly and nodded.

"You're fine. Have a seat, please."

I walked to the waiting area she'd motioned to. Most of the chairs were empty so I put one between me and a man who looked to be in his mid 20's. He was black, with short hair and a face that seemed sort of familiar. Very stylish in a leather jacket, dark purple button down shirt, and slacks.

"She totally thinks you're a dick," the young man said leaning in.

"Damn it, I know," I responded. "I'm not good with first impressions. Usually takes two or three impressions to balance it out."

"Don't sweat it. Cara thinks everyone's an asshole anyway. Isn't that right, Cara?" he said, raising his voice to make sure Cara could hear."

Cara flipped him off and sneered.

"I'm James Smith, by the way," stated James.

He held out a hand which I shook enthusiastically.

"I'm...James. James Bailey," I responded.

"James and James? Sounds like a detective agency."

"Or a cheap, fruity wine."

We both laughed.

"So, James," I said, motioning to the business name emblazoned on the wall before us, "what is Cumulus Care Solutions?"

"Didn't your rep fill you in?"

I shook my head no.

"It's a call center. We handle overflow from various companies. It's exactly as thrilling as it sounds."

"Purgatory in a call center seems a little on the nose," I stated.

"I'd be careful slinging around the P word. Most people don't like to think of this as purgatory. More like a second chance to make things right. But between you and me, yeah, it sucks. I've worked here for a couple decades and I hate it. But beggars can't be choosers."

"Can't you leave?"

"Are you kidding? This place is a sanctuary for the dead. It's almost impossible to get hired by the living. We make them uncomfortable because deep down they know we aren't one of them. Man, your contact really dropped the ball with you. Wish I could get a job as an outside representative. At least they get to travel. Sure as hell would have done a better job of explaining your death to you."

"Oh, I'm not dead."

If a face ever conveyed the words "say what" it was James's face at that moment.

"Say what?" James exclaimed.

"I'm not dead. I'm here for other reasons."

"Bailey, I'm thinking you've got a story to tell."

"Another time. Looks like I'm up."

I stood to greet John Doe. "A funny name" I'd said when we first met. The man on the other hand, was quite the opposite. He always looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Short, balding, and stocky with a seemingly endless closet full of sweater vests. In many ways he reminded me of a guidance councilor. I shook the man's hand and followed him through a maze of cubicles.

We came to a small board room where three people sat. He opened the door and beckoned me enter, which I did. You know that scene in the spy movies where the secret agency brings in a guy and details everything about his mission and everything is so serious and business suits? I was briefed while we ate McDonald's. 

This particular branch of council for the dead was three people: Song-Ho, who was in charge of operations -whatever the hell that meant- sat at the boardroom table opposite Jane Doe, who ran the military side of things. Jane and John were married, but always the utmost professional when on the job. At the end of the table, between them from my view, was Jo. Jo ran this particular branch. She was beautiful and fierce, with an elegance one seldom sees this day and age.

"At this point I think I'd like to skip ahead," said Bailey.

"What? You're just getting to the meat of the story," snarled the largest of three skulls peering out from a crack in a tree. The same tree James Bailey and James Smith happened to be strapped to.

Vines already tight around their bodies tightened even further. Around them, the jungle sang songs of various birds and other wildlife. The trees and plant life were dense making for a claustrophobic environment.

"I just feel, narratively speaking, the story works better if I skip ahead," Bailey responded.

"Make it work," enthused a skull with a crack in its temple. Tiny flames danced in the sockets of the skulls, making them even more unnerving. "Give us the meat."

"Yeah, Bailey, give them the meat," Smith stated.

Bailey turned his head to glare at his traveling companion.

"Absolutely. The meat of the story..."

Song slid a folder across the table as I shoved a handful of fries into my mouth. It was a file on me tracing my last fifty years. I rifled through my life for a few minutes. Ending on my current occupation as a gravedigger. I slid it back when I was finished.

"Am I supposed to be impressed?" I asked.

Song shook his head. "We just wanted you to know that we've been keeping tabs on you for sometime."

"Okay. Well, thanks for that." I answered back.

"What Song means is that we don't take asking you here lightly," Jo added. "Fact is none of us know exactly how long you've been around --or haven't, as you might say. Did you ever exist? You look fairly young. Mid twenties? Never mind, there are more important issues at hand. Have you ever heard of Tom Jones?"

"The singer? I'm not really a fan."

"Business tycoon. Sits atop a financial services empire and does his best Steve Jobs impression."

"The douche on all the money channels who wears those stupid turtlenecks?" I asked.

"That's him," Jo nodded. "That's the man the world sees. In truth he's been dead for decades. Although his past is as clouded as yours and no one can say exactly how long he's been around."

"But James -er, Smith, told me while I was waiting that the living feel uncomfortable around the dead. How could he accomplish such a thing?"

"He couldn't. Unless there was some powerful force at play. This might sound a little crazy, but Tom Jones is heavy into the occult. We believe he's used his knowledge of the occult to gain his power. Furthermore we have reason to think his ultimate goal is not Wall Street but the end of the world."

I took a sip of my Coke. It spluttered telling me there was no more sweet life to give. I popped the lid off and shook a cube into my mouth which I happily crunched.

"Mr. Bailey, did you hear what she said?" asked Jane, who had been mostly quiet till then.

"Yeah, yeah, end of the world. You guys know you're already dead, right? Shouldn't you be embracing the end so you can move on to your respective Valhallas?"

"You're a dick," the third and smallest head interjected.

"No, I'm jaded, there's a difference," Bailey replied.

"How come?" Large Skull asked,

"The living have the living. The dead have the dead. I have no one."

"You have me," said Smith.

"That's not what I meant. You're a good friend, Smith. But as someone who doesn't exist, I mostly stand alone."

"Like the cheese," Cracked Skull joined in.

Everyone stared at Cracked in awkward silence for a moment.

"Yes, like the cheese," Bailey said. "Point is, at that moment I'd been years without any real interactions with anyone. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to the story."

"You're a dick," Jane interjected.

"No, I'm jaded. There's a difference," I replied.

Jo raised her hand to silence us.

"Mr. Bailey, we're not that different from the living. We don't pretend to know why some people stay behind for a time. We have no definitive idea what lies beyond. In the meantime we enjoy life. Surely you must take some joy out of this life as well, even in your current state."

"I apologize," I apologized. "I can be a bit sardonic. But I did come here with good intention, so please continue."

"A few decades ago, Tom Jones began purchasing large amounts of real estate around the world. One of the properties is an island. One that doesn't actually appear on any maps."

"Then how was it for sale?"

"He purchased the coordinates in the middle of an ocean."

"I'm confused, is there an island or not?"

"There's an island, alright," Song picked up. "It just doesn't exist in the world of the living. To get there one must travel twenty-six miles on foot through a stretch of reality between the living and the dead."

"We've had a few spies successfully make the trip over the years," Jo continued. "The path is hard to travel as it folds space. It's hard to explain, but it's sort of like a double exposure of two different roads."

"Also, there aren't any roads," Song finished.

"This is all very fascinating but what does it have to do with me?"

"Eitr," Jane replied. "You're here because of Eitr."

"Is that the name of this island?" I asked.

"It is the name of a fountain found on the island," Jane answered.

Jo continued. 

"Our intelligence indicates that the secret to Tom Jones's power, and thus the way of stopping him is located in the Fountain of Eitr. It's an ancient spring that is death to anyone living or dead. Over the years, many secrets have been tossed into the fountain, knowing that they shall be safe there from anyone who would recover them. But you..."

"I don't exist, so I can't be killed," I finished.

"That's our theory, anyway. To be honest, we have no idea what effect it'll have upon such a unique individual as yourself."

"I'm in," I stated.

"Just like that?" Jo asked skeptically.

"Why not? I always wanted to be a hero."

"Excellent. There'll be some training before we send you off. Jane will take care of that. Song, of course, will show you everything you'll need to to know to get where you're going. Additionally, to help you along the way, John and Jane Doe will accompany you."



"Pass," I reiterated. "I appreciate the offer but I'd prefer to go it alone."

"Absolutely not. You'll be travelling through the dead world, you'll need companions who are experienced."

"In that case I'll take James. Smith."

"Thanks for that, by the way," Smith smirked.

"Hey, you said you wanted out of the call center," Bailey responded.

"What happened next?" Small Skull asked.

"Boring. If I tried to describe it, it would be a montage of me learning basic combat skills and showcasing how bad I am with a gun."

"He's the worst," Smith chimed in.

"The worst," Bailey agreed. "I did become pretty good friends with the Does. Jane had a lot more time to form a better opinion of me while training. When John wasn't on duty, he stripped off his serious mask and was an affable guy. I even stayed with them a couple weeks while preparing. So that's it. We're about caught up."

"What do you mean 'caught up?' You haven't told us about your travels to here," Large Skull spat, the flames in his eyes dancing angrily.

"I mean, there's not much to tell. There's some goon who works for Tom Jones, makes the trip every few months. Just a matter of following him when he took off. I think his name is Jeremiah."

"And..." Large persisted.

"And it's been weeks of walking through a damn jungle. Twenty-six miles may not be so bad driving down a highway with the top down, but walking through dead world it feels forever. You really want me to describe all that walking and sweating?"

"Ain't no one got time for that Tolkien-Lord of the Rings-bullshit," Smith added.

"I guess," Cracked said. "Still feels like half a story though."

"I'm the hero, I never claimed to be a storyteller. Besides, what do we know about you three?"

"What?" the three skulls chorused.

"We told you everything about us," Small Skull exclaimed. "About how we're three travelers whose souls were joined to this tree. How we once had individual names, but now simply refer to ourselves collectively as The Clutch. And how it gets boring telling each other our same stories so we seek out entertainment from passing travelers."

"So either you present us a good story, or you'll both join us for eternity," jumped in Large.

"That's all well and good, but I'm in the beginning of my story. What more can I offer?"

"More story or you'll join us," Large reiterated.

"Look, you seem like fun guys," Smith spoke. "How about we make a game of it? You can ask Bailey one question to fill in the blanks, then you let us go. That has to be worth something, er, anecdotally speaking."

The three heads conferred among themselves, eventually coming to a decision.

"We are agreeable to this, but you must answer truthfully," Cracked said.

"Fair enough," Bailey agreed. "What would you like to know?"

Another tête-à-tête between the skulls ensued. At last the large skull, who seemed to be their leader, spoke up.


"Why what?" Bailey echoed back.

"We don't buy your motivation that you're doing this just because you're a good guy. Every hero has his motivation. Something he wants or needs that pushes him. If you don't exist, why concern yourself with the affairs of either the living or the dead?"

"Fair enough," Bailey responded. "You guy were right, I was holding back. There is one more piece to the story."

It was the day before me and Smith were to start our travels, a journey that would start in the backroom of a used bookstore ala Narnia. Everyone was either checking our packs or checking our weapons or checking our mental status. Jo who had been watching me carefully that day to see if I was going to go through with it or if I might back out, pulled me aside.

"There's something else you should know about the island," Jo spoke.

"Does it have spiders? Don't tell me if it has spiders. I hate spiders," I joked.

"There's someone there like you. A girl. I'm not sure how old exactly."

"What do you mean, 'like me?'" I asked, my heart catching in my throat.

"She doesn't exist. Or at least, she didn't used to. We've gotten reports that she not only exists, but that she's alive."

"What's her name?" I breathed.

"I don't know. What I've told you is all I know."

"With those words, and a pat on the arm, she left me to think things over. So there you go. My motivation."

A silence followed as the skulls thought it over. 

"It is acceptable," Large Skull declared finally.

The smallest skull and the cracked skull began to sink backwards into the tree. The vines around the two men began to loosen and they fell forward to the ground with a thud.

"Jeremiah is a good kid," Large stated. "If you say he's mixed up with this villain of yours, I won't argue, but he's a good kid."

"What makes you say that?" asked Smith.

"He always stops by our tree when he comes through here. Reads us some Stephen King. Much better than your story. No one else has ever come back. And it's not just because of the questing beast."

"Questing beast?" the Jameses sang in unison.

"Burden of the Pellinores?" the final head spoke, sinking back into the closing tree. "You really should learn more stories. Might save your life some day. That is, if you had one between you to save."

Quickly the two men gathered their packs and left the tree behind. In short time they were in the thick of the jungle again. Periodically, the view around them would flicker, merging the jungle world with a cityscape or ocean view. Just a quick flash to remind them of the overlap of worlds they were in.

Overhead the sun blazed fiercely. Since the moment they stepped into dead world the sun had not gone down. It made things even more difficult since when they rested they had no idea how long they were sleeping.

"I didn't know that about the girl," Smith said after awhile.

"I wasn't sure if it was just Jo making sure I'd stay on target or if it was real information," said Bailey.

"Makes sense."

After an awkward silence or two, Bailey tried changing the subject.

"Questing beast, eh?"

"Yeah! What nonsense was that?" Smith responded, happy to clear the air.

"Right? Pitiful attempt to scare us."

"I'm more scared at the potential of R.O.U.S.'s."

"What are those?" Bailey asked.

"R.O.U.S.'s? Have you never watched Princess Bride?"

"I'm more of a reader."

"It's a movie about a book."

"Then I'll read the book."


This last came from ahead of them but out of sight. The Jameses stopped in their tracks and looked at each other nervously.

"After you," Smith said politely, waving Bailey onward. "Us dead can still die. I'll hang back."

"Thanks," Bailey scowled. "Don't come whining to me if the beast decides to circle round from behind."

"I'll take my chances," Smith smiled back.

The two began pushing forward again, albeit much slower. Bailey, machete in hand, hacked away at the overgrowth of the forest. Bushes and small trees gave way beneath the knife. At last the blade swung and found only air.

Bailey stepped out into the clearing ahead. The dense jungle had ended and given way to a meadow that, from the look of things, lasted about a half mile till it ran to the foot of a line of snow covered mountains.

"Well, crap," Smith uttered, stepping out from behind.

"My thoughts exac-"

Bailey found himself cut off by the swipe of a giant paw. He flew threw the air, landing twenty feet away. Before he had time to react, the beast had already made up the distance and was upon him. Smith stood transfixed in terror as he watched his friend being mauled.

The beast was the largest bear Smith had ever seen. Its arms were each the size of a full grown man. When it opened its mouth to roar, the sound was like a hundred wolves inside its stomach howling. The brown coat was thick and shaggy but matted in places by mud or gore.

Bailey lay limp as the beast slashed him repeatedly with its claws. As Smith looked on, Bailey's chest was laid open, again and again, but immediately closed after the claws as if they'd never run through him. In one instance he saw Bailey's heart before the wound closed up like a zipper. Then came the teeth. The bear opened wide, grabbed Bailey from the side and crushed his back before flinging him into the air again.

Bailey's broken body began straightening before he hit the earth. This time he was up before the beast was upon him. Covered in his own blood but otherwise uninjured, he rolled, dodging the bear's paws. By luck he found himself by where he'd dropped the machete. The next time the claws came at him, Bailey countered, striking the paw with his blade. He readied himself for the next attack but it never came.

The beast had barely been cut, but pain was clearly something it was unaccustomed to. The Jameses watched as the beast ran off into the jungle, whining as it went. Smith, who had been keeping his distance, grabbed their gear and rejoined his friend.

Bailey rifled through his shredded backpack and found his change of clothes were just as tattered.

"Thanks for the help back there," he said.

"What was I supposed to do?" Smith responded.

"You have a pair of guns in your pack."

"Hand guns? Against that thing? Not likely. Did it hurt?"

Bailey frowned at him.

"I mean," Smith clarified, "do you feel it when it happens?"

"Every bit of it. I heal instantly, but I feel the pain same as anyone would. What's more, I feel the pain of it healing."

"Dude, I'm sorry. I just...I've never seen anything like that."

"Hopefully, you won't again."

"I'd be good with that. You want to wear my clothes, they're dirty but whole?"

"Yes, please."

Bailey tried Smith's clothes, but even though they were both in good shape, Bailey's frame was just too much for Smith's skinny jeans. With no alternative, the two pressed forward with their journey towards the nearest mountain.

"Bet the tree skulls would love this story," Smith said as they walked.


"Gotta make light of it. Otherwise we're just two guys taking a leisure stroll with your swinging penis."

"My clothes are in shreds, I'm covered head to toe in my own blood, and you're worried about how uncomfortable my dick is making you?"

Smith smiled and shrugged.

"Yeah, no, that's fair," Bailey conceded.

At last they arrived at the foot of the mountain. Bailey was grateful he still had his boots, as they were now making their way through a half foot of snow. Just a little up the mountain they could make out a door. Plain, wooden, with a red knob.

The two Jameses headed up till they were in front of it. Around them the wind swirled and howled, whipping ice against their bodies. Bailey was red and raw, yet he still looked around hesitantly. Carefully he opened the door and looked in. A dark, narrow tunnel ran into the fading distance.

"I guess we don't have a choice but to hope this cuts all the way through to the other side," said Bailey.

"That or we trudge your naked ass around a frozen mountain."

"Maybe we'll get lucky," Bailey said, walking into the darkness. "Maybe there'll be a clothing store inside."

"Maybe," Smith agreed, following his friend and closing the door behind him before muttering under his breath. "Twenty-six miles, my ass."

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