Stave Four

“Oh, good. You’ve finally made it.” His left wing twitched as he indicated the two brown chairs in front of his mahogany desk.

Luci jumped into one. Sitting so that his black, curly tail snaked between the seat and the back. He let it wag a few times. Nothing overt, but enough to show respect to the boss.

Lil took the other seat, reclining on one hip and dragging a leg under her. It was the closest to slouching she could get away with given the situation.

The sepia tones of Azrail’s office always set Lil on edge. The Diverged was meant to be splashy. Brown, grey, black, white – these were colours for the Mundane.

Azrail seemed oblivious to her attempt at a slight. He stretched his beige wings before nestling them behind himself. He slid a manila folder from the pile of like folders on his desk, placing it square between them.

“I know that it’s Christmas time and that your team has requested the holiday off,” he addressed the black Schipperke, not the girl.

“Well, Luci has worked the last nine holidays that I am aware of; and I have never had any holiday off in the three years that I have been here. So…” She let the rest of her thoughts die before they met her tongue – that of the teams, Luci’s never seemed to get vacation time during the actual holidays. Okay, sure, all the others had young families, but Lil, technically, didn’t work for Azrail. He still set her schedule because he set Luci’s and Lil hadn’t had a good, old fashioned Christmas, well, ever. There was hope that this year could be different.

“And I do understand the hardship of working during the holidays,” Azrail continued undeterred by her outburst. “However, there has been a situation and I need a team to undertake some Outside Standing Orders work.”

Lil grimaced.

Luci looked over at her, his sharp, fox-like face shifting from black to blues and greens in the strange brown light of the room. “Lil, come on. It’s my job. It’s our job.” His high tones emphasizing that she was required to pitch in too.

Lil rolled her eyes and sat back in the chair.

“Lilith, I am sure this job will be right up your alley and it is only for one night. How’s about you try to think of others before yourself in this yuletide time?” The angel’s voice grated on her, but she waved a dismissive hand in his direction.

“Good, good. You know Bob from Premonitions?” both dog and girl nodded. “Well, his wife, Selma, is in hospital about to give birth to their first child. Bob has requested that his gig tonight go to someone else. My issue is that all of the other Bringers are either engaged tonight or have worked this particular case already. This guy is a real Scrooge.” He tapped the folder.

“What do I look like? Some sort of Christmas elf?” Lil leaned forward, placing her feet squarely to give her better balance should she need to fight the angel. Azrail had the good sense to sit back in his chair. Lil was menacing for such a young human.

“And what about him? Does he strike you as Santa Clause?” she pointed to the diminutive dog beside her as she turned to look at him.

Luci now sported a red and white striped sleeping cap and a garland of holly around his neck. He grinned, opened mouth, while his tongue lolled.

“Really?”

Luci smiled wider.

“No, you look like Marley. But I think that Luci does a passing job of Christmas joy.” Azrail tried to stanch his smile. Aggerating a Warden only caused issues; aggerating Lil caused wars.

Lil closed her eyes and rubbed them with her slender, pale fingers. “Fine, but if I miss Christmas morning, you had better have an apartment waiting for me in Purgatory because my uncle is going to be asking questions – either before or after he kills me. And that baby, yah, it had better have one of our names.”

“It’s settled then,” and he shifted the folder over to them. Its cover sliced with black: Lucas Forest.

***

“Tough break, kids.” Joy was slipping from her gauzy, white dress. Her white curls still wafted in the magical airs of her Bringer persona. “He’s got to be the worst I have ever dealt with. I showed him his past. Well, okay, it wasn’t great. I didn’t have a lot to choose from. But I did show him the time that his dad wasn’t so drunk on Christmas and took him out to shoot cats with the new pellet rifle the kid had gotten for Christmas. I also reminded him of the time, when he was a teen, that his foster family had a nice feast. Happy times were slim pickings.”

“He lacks empathy. I attempted to show him how several families are doing it harder than he is this Christmas. Real hard heart, that one.” Joel was shrugging on his Green Man robes. Thick, decadent folds of riotous green velvet and white fur. He was ever the jovial spirit of Christmas love. “I’m not sure that we will be saving this one.” He placed his finger aside his nose and nodded. “Real difficult case.” And he tsked as he combed out his red beard.

Lil looked over at her costume of the evening. “I’m not sure why Azrail thinks that we can fix him if you couldn’t. We haven’t been trained for this sort of work. And why?” she held out the black robe. “It’s like we have been type cast or something.”

This elicited a chuckle from the man. “Well, I would say that Azrail is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He doesn’t have a huge pool to pull from right now with half of us out on strike. But really, I think that he’s hopeful that Luci and you will pull this guy back in line. The normal way’s not working, so maybe something novel will.”

“And black suits you, dear,” Joy chimed in as she turned to leave. “It’s also traditional.”

Lil sighed, looked at Luci, and slipped the robe over her street clothes. “I think you should wear this.”

***

The knell of the grandfather clock struck twelve and the high, silver sound washed out into the quiet house. Lil and Luci glided forward through the open door to the bedroom.

The attractive thirty-something was sitting on the side of his bed. He was dressed in the most expensive, god-offending fashion of the day. Lil repressed the desire to kill him there and then.

Looking at the spectres before him, his bravado coloured his voice, “Oh, original. Like the whole grim reaper stance you got going there. Really embracing your Dickens, aren’t you? So, let’s see. I think my line goes something like: Am I in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” He laughed and walked towards the team. “Of course, I don’t recall the Ghost of Christmas Future being some blind git. Why did you bring Fido with you? Feared you couldn’t handle me alone?”

Luci’s growl was low and long. Tendrils of sulfuric smoke escaped his curled lips.

“Oh, your big bad puppy is getting out of control there, Death. Maybe I should drop kick him. He’s about the same size as a football.”

Lil’s jaw tightened under the cowl of the black, traditional reaper robes. She was instantly glad that she hadn’t brought the prop scythe, concerned that she might use it on the mark before her.

“Oh, will thou not speak to me, Spirit?” Lucas mocked.

“Look, you shit,” Lil’s blue eyes glinted in the rays of the street light outside the bedroom’s window.

“Lil!” Luci corrected her.

“Holy shit!” Lucas fled back to the bed. “What the fucking hell? Dude, I must have gotten some bad X.”

“What would ever give you that idea?” Lil stepped forward. She’d already messed up the tried and true method for causing repentance. She might as well continue down the road she knew best.

“You both talk. I mean, I know this is just a fucked up dream, but dude!”

“Look,” Lil pushed the cowl back over her head.

Lucas cowered deeper into the pillows of his bed. Lil looked at Luci for assurance; Luci only raised an eyebrow.

“Perhaps we are a bit much. Maybe a bit over aggressive?” He offered.

Lil cleared her throat and cautiously took a seat on the foot box of the bed. She tried for less aggression in her voice. “Lucas? Do you think that you can give me a minute or two here?”

He gulped and slowly turned to look at her. His eyes grew round and wild. “This is just a dream. I really shouldn’t read things like Twelve Deaths of Christmas before bed. I’m too suggestive.”

“Lucas, stop talking to yourself when I am trying to get through to you.” Lil tried for patience. It wasn’t her best quality.

“How are you even making sounds? You have no flesh.” The man had started to shake.

“What?”

He raised a trembling hand to her. Lil turned her head to look into the mirror. A skeletal version of Death looked back.

“Bloody hell.” Lil looked at the robes on her body. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” She divested herself of the heavy cloth. “Halloween is over.”

Once the robes piled on the bed beside her, the vision in the mirror showed the nineteen-year-old, dark haired girl she had expected to see.

“Sorry, this isn’t my normal gig.”

The man looked at the girl wide-eyed and still shaking, but he was able to sit up more.

“Look, Lucas. I know that you don’t want to do this anymore than we do. But we are obligated to help you. Well, we aren’t but Bob is, and we are helping him out.”

Confusion washed over Lucas.

“You’ve been a bad man. We have to show you just what you are looking forward to. I really want to get this done before dawn. You see, I have a prior commitment then and I do hope you understand that some of us don’t get overtime for this sort of shit. Actually, Luci,” the girl shifted her vision back to the dog. “Do we even get paid for this, or are we off the clock?”

The dog, now sitting, shifted his shoulders up and down.

“Great.” Lil rubbed her face trying to wash away the stress. “Lucas, get your ass up off this bed.”

The man relented and stood beside the girl. She picked up the robe and loaded it onto her arm.

“Grab this,” she handed him a fold of the cloth. “It’s a portal charge. Much faster than walking.”

***

Lucas dropped the fabric as soon as the shabby street came into focus and just before he revisited his expensive dinner from hours earlier.

Lil jumped backwards to avoid the spill. “Nice.”

“You could have warned me.” Lucas was wane and slightly green.

“If you are ready, we should continue,” Luci’s eyes glinted purple. “Have you been on this street before? Do you know where we are?”

Lucas pulled himself up and shook his head, “Nah, this isn’t my part of town. Only losers live here. Why would you think that I had ever set foot here before?”

The dog shook his head with a frown on his face.

Lil checked her pocket notebook, looked up the street, and then down. “Right, really should have guessed, Luci. Come on, Winner, this way.”

She led the group towards a building. Two-story and dingy, it presented as a crowded and ill-kept series of apartments. Lil walked around the greasy, opened hopper for the residents’ trash trying to keep her own dinner down. On the other side was a dirty window into apartment 7456-F. Lil used the robe’s sleeve to clear a circle in the grime.

Inside a Charlie Brown Christmas tree decomposed in the corner of a room filled with older furniture from the cheap, do it yourself shop in the city. The family seemed happy as the parents watched the several children open the few gifts. All were practical: new clothing, socks, underwear, and a book. Lil’s heart hurt. The kids seemed so happy with these necessities, suggesting that they didn’t often get them. This family was not well-off.

Once she gained control of her emotions, she looked sidelong at Lucas. “Do you know these people?”

His face was drawn. His eyes hard and his eyebrows were knitted together. “Sure,” he placed a hand on the filthy window in front of him. “That’s Eric. God, I haven’t seen him in years. Not since the first one was born.” He pointed at the preteen girl sitting on the floor, laughing at her father. “He’s…he’s my brother.”

Lil turned her head to take in the man. “You haven’t seen your brother in a decade?” She couldn’t keep the shock from her voice. “What did he ever do to you, that you would cut him off?”

“He found love.” Lucas pulled away from the window. “Come on then, Spectre. Take me to see the next.”

Lil took one last look back at the family. Poor but happy described them perfectly. Not dissimilar to her life with her dad.

***

Lucas still seemed queasy when they arrived at the high-end part of town. Here Lil walked through the wall and into the apartment of a tidy, young man. He was busily wrapping gifts while Blue Christmas played on the in-room sound system.

Lucas laughed. “I guess that I should go see what I’m getting from Gerald this year.” He walked around the table and looked at the card that Gerald was writing.

The phone rang. Gerald stopped his scribing, “Hey AutoHouse, turn it down,” and then he answered the phone. “Hey, honey. I was just thinking about you.”

The phone’s speaker amplified Lucas’s disjointed voice. “Gerald, I told you that you needed to be ready to go and over here at 9. It’s 9:15. I have to go. You can make it to the airport on your own.” There was a distinctive click before the phone went dead.

Gerald visibly crumbled. He slid the packages off the table and cried. “Why does he do this?”

“What a pansy. He knows the rules. Hey, at least I know not to take him with me on any Christmas holidays. Gerald really has a time management issue.” Lucas laughed and turned away from the man’s display.

“You really are a mean one.” Lil walked past Lucas, grabbed his arm and pulled him behind her.

***

Time was moving forward. She could feel the presence of dawn. She thought back on her conversation with Azrail. Her eagerness to try to salvage her day off on Christmas was for her uncle and her aunt. Not her. Wasn’t it?

Now the group of three stood in the vary bedroom they had originally met, but it was poorly lit and lacked care. Walking out into the main room, there was a distinct lack of Christmas cheer.

“What’s this, Ghost? Why hasn’t Gerald decorated this year?” He looked around the room. It was spartan, utilitarian, and devoid of those things that make a house a home. “All of Gerald’s stuff is gone. Why have you, Spirit of Christmas Future, brought me to the past?” His voice was soft and lacked its characteristic bluster.

Luci jumped up on one of the partially pulled out seats at the table and looked at a pale note left there. He shook his head and called to Lil.

She picked up the sheet. Reading it out loud for Lucas:

Well, Lucas,

I guess you will be shocked to find the house so much like it was when I came into your life. I wouldn’t want your pure hate to be tainted by my love. I promise that you will never hear from me again.

Oh, and Sarah called. Eric has advanced prostate cancer. She’s asked you to give him a call and patch things up before he dies. Evidently, she thinks that you actually have the ability to care for things other than yourself.

Merry Christmas, honey. I hope you get everything you deserve, in abundance.

Gerald’s elaborate signature finished the letter.

Lil put the page down.

Lucas looked at it and then over at the guides to his future. “Well, better gone than as a weight around my leg.”

Lil’s eyes rounded. “What? Are you serious? Don’t you care even a little bit?”

Lucas shook his head but turned from her quickly so that she could not read his face.

“Lucas, you are going to end up alone in this world. You may not think that is a bad thing right now, but once you have made that bed, you will sleep in it. Don’t continue down this road. I can’t take you to the Diverge but trust me when I tell you that people who leave this world without even a little love in their hearts,” She shook her head. “Well, let’s just say, eternity alone is not a blessing.”

Lucas rounded on her. “Oh, come on kid! What the hell do you know? You’re what? Maybe 20? You know nothing.”

“I’m nineteen. But I do know what I am talking about. It’s his job.” She pointed at Luci. “He’s a Reaper. I’m his Warden. I see what he does, every single day. You will be in a hell unlike any in the texts of man.” And a silver tear worked its way down her cheek.

Lil stopped abruptly. “That’s it! Come on. I know what you need to see.” And she spiralled the robe around them.

***

“Lil, this isn’t a good idea.” Luci sat back on his haunches as the graveyard came into focus.

“Lo, the angels looked down on him.” Lucas walked into the graveyard. “Where’s the grave? Come on, Spectre, show me my doom.” He elongated the last word playing up its ghostly part.

“Lil,” Luci warned as she began to lead the way.

“What? We have been told to use anything to get the point across. And the sooner that point is taken, the sooner I can clock off for the day.”

They stood in an otherworldly mist in the mid part of the graveyard. Here a hole lay open, gaping hungerly for its feast of human. Suspended above it was a mingy coffin. No flowers nor drapings concealed its deficit. No friendly man, woman, or child wept. In attendance, only the minister and the grave digger.

“Don’t suppose we should wait longer. He didn’t have family. I feel for the man. Must have fallen on hardship.” The grave digger leaned again the scoop of his tractor.

“Sadly true.” The minister offered, “I commend this man, one of God’s children, into the bosom of the Earth. For we were once ash and we return to ash…”

As the service continued, a man sat up in the coffin. His eyes wide as he looked around him. “Help! I am not dead. Don’t bury me.” He panicked.

Then there was a peeling of the air around the solemn gravesite service, as if time had ripped the very fabric of the scene. The three observers – Luci, Lil, and Lucas – watched as the small, lithe figure of the black Reaper dog emerged from the crude door. Following him was a man.

“Lil,” Luci tried to get her to look at him but her eyes were glued to the man. It was Lucas, bound to the Reaper as Warden. Where was she?

“What’s this?” Lucas looked between the man in the coffin and his other self.

The observers froze as they watched the Reaper and Warden help the man in the coffin. It was as he exited that Lucas recognised him. The man was only a handful years older than he had been the last time that Lucas had seen him, but now he had lost the glow of health. His emaciated body, premature aged skin, and hunched stance show a broken man. A man who he had once loved. “Gerald?” Lucas’ call was soft and longing.

“He will die in four years if he does not receive the help he needs. He had put you above all others for so long that no one returned his calls when he left you.” Luci looked up at Lucas. “Of course, you were not there to help him.”

The pantomime before them continued. Gerald saw Warden Lucas and rushed to hug him.

“What the hell?” Lucas doubled over beside Lil. “I’m burning.”

“You aren’t. You are being punished. You did not show compassion in life, you can receive none in death.” Luci shook his ruff. His tags rattled on his collar.

Movement caught Lil’s eye. She left the others and walked towards the thicker mist of the graveyard. She could see her path. A clear way to a gravestone. Sitting upon it was an apparition of her form swathed in chains. The ghostly she pointed to the engraving on the stone below.

“Lucas Forest” no dates had been afforded him. Lil could only assume that the person to inherit his riches didn’t want to spend one more cent than required. She moved closer to the headstone and wiped the fog away. Below his name in ethereal marks it continued: forever failed by Lilith Corson.

Lucas screamed. Lil realised that she no long had sight on Luci. She had failed in her job. She ran back toward the man and dog. They were farther from the funeral. Standing beside the robe. Lucas cried. Luci tried to calm him. Lil ran until she was beside them. She leaned down to draw the robe aloft and heard a snap behind her; the sound shattered the world.

She fell into blackness.

***

Lucas sat up in bed as the sun broke the hills that backdropped his window’s view. The day was clear and crisp. He picked up his phone from its induction charger as he walked to the fenestra and sat on the seal. Few people were up. Christmas lights bedecking the neighbourhood glowed.

Looking down as his phone screen lit, he read the messages. Not many but a few. Most wished him a Merry Christmas. So he hadn’t missed the festive day. Good. There was still time to repair his life.

He wrote a quick text: Hey, babe. Merry Christmas. I know that you are probably running behind because you are trying to make it all perfect. I thought that I would get up and get ready. I just need to make a stop quickly before I came over to get you. How’s about you give me a call when you are ready. If we are late to Richard’s, I am sure that he will understand.

Gerald’s reply was fast: You okay, honey?

He replied: Honestly, I have never been better. Hey, I love you. Okay?

Then he pressed his contacts, selected one, and rang it.

“Hello?” a jovial male voice answered. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Eric. It’s Lucas.”

“Lucas?” the voice drained of all but concern.

“Hey, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas to you and the family. I was wondering, if its not too much of an imposition, can I stop by tomorrow? I think, no, I know, it’s time that we catch up and I know that I have been the one to prevent that.”

“We would love to see you, Lucas. Tomorrow will be fine. I can text you the address.”

***

Lil walked into the hospital. The room was easy to find. Selma was in bed, dozing. Bob’s face was turned to the small clear bassinet between the bed and his chair. He looked tired but happy.

She softly knocked to get Bob’s attention. His face erupted into a smile before coming out into the hall.

“Thank you so much to you and Luci. How’d it go? I understand that he was a tough case.”

Lil smiled and slapped his lightly on the back. “It was a challenge. Look, I won’t be putting in for a transfer any time soon, but I think that we finally got through to him. And it looks like you and Selma managed nicely without Luci or me around.” She winked at the Bringer and then stuck out her hand.

Bob raised an eyebrow and then took her offered hand. “Hey, did you want to meet her?”

“Sure!” Lil brightened up as she snuck quietly in beside the new father. In the cradle a small hairless monkey smiled in her dreams. “She’s a doll, Bob. Well done. Oh,” Lil took the gift bag off her arm. “This is from Luci and me.”

Bob opened the bag and laughed. Pulling out the small black schipperke toy, he placed it at the foot of his baby’s bed. “Thank you, Lil. Will you tell Luci thank you too?”

Lil nodded, “Of course, you can tell him when you see him next, you know. I am sure that he wants to see your spry as well.”

Bob nodded. “Hey, you know we named her already.”

Lil raised her eyebrows.

“Lucy Lilith Smyth. So, you and Luci are part of our family now. We are hoping that you two will be godparents.”

“Consider it done, Bob. After all, the more family the better. Oh snap! I have to get to my uncle’s.” Lil ran from the hospital wing, through the dimensional door, and out into the Santa’s Workshop bedecked house.

Luci was at her side.

“Merry Christmas,” her voice rang as she entered the lounge room.

“Merry Christmas,” the others returned.

“You’re late.” Her uncle walked up behind her. “And you were not in your room.”

“I was out walking MorningStar. I figure it would spoil the mood if he peed on the gifts.”

The others laughed as Lil took a seat on the floor and Luci rolled up beside her.

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