“I thought it was your day off?” Joe asked as I hastily stuffed my lanyard into the already bulging pocket of my overcoat. “I wanted to go to the fair.”
“We’re dead Joe,” I said, pulling my unruly hair into a topknot, “we have, quite literally, all the time in the world.” Not wanting to implicate him in what I was about to do, I pecked him quickly on the cheek, tripping over the dog on my way out.
I walked quickly, dodging and weaving those basking in eternal bliss, first passing the Library. It was my favourite place, with endless corridors and hundreds of nooks to get lost in for days. I’d spent the first ten years in the afterlife either curled up with a novel or seeking out my favourite authors.
The Authority Quarter came into view as I rounded a corner, and the pavements were empty except for those on official business. I passed the Archive, a tower that stretched far into the eternally cloudless sky, that held a record of the date every person would travel through the Gate. Next up was my destination, the Companion Centre.
When I first arrived, bright eyed and overwhelmed, I didn’t consider that post-obit employment was for me. After all, I’d spent forty years serving those on palliative care, and I was more than ready to sample the delights of perpetual retirement. But, once the novelty had worn off, and several of my favourite authors were considering restraining orders, I decided to become a Companion. Death was neither new nor scary to me, and it was great. Though I did earn a red mark on my first day after I referred to myself as a ‘deathscort.’ And then there was the business of busting into the Archive, finding the date Joe was due to cross the Gate and breaking the rules to be the one to greet him. That got me on probation.
I stepped between the great marble columns, still in awe after twenty years of how the buildings were so much bigger on the inside. I supposed they had to be, or we'd never get anywhere on time. I followed the golden line on the floor that led to Assignments. I had it all planned out. All Jerry had to do was leave the spare assignment in my cubby hole. But it wasn’t there. Sighing, I trudged towards the administration window to berate him for not holding up his end of the bargain. He could walk his own dogs.
“Hello Layla,” piped a small voice before I could even knock. I pushed my nose up to the panel, spotting a small woman adorned in a haphazard mix of fashions. It was the best bit about the afterlife, those who died a millennium ago pairing tie-dye shirts with cloche hats and velour tracksuit bottoms.
“Hey, Janice! Where’s Jerry?”
“Sick,” she replied, wiping her oversized glasses on her bright red flapper dress.
“Sick? This is the afterlife, Janice, no one gets sick!” Panic tightened my throat. He’d got cold feet. I could do nothing but hope his lips remained sealed, at least until after I was done. I had a promise to keep. Janice just shrugged. “He was supposed to leave me something, can you check who has been assigned this case?” I asked, passing her a scrap of paper as I reminded myself that I couldn’t physically have a panic attack.
Janice sighed but tapped the numbers into her computer, a relic from the 90s, and after a minute of humming said, “It has been assigned to Zephyr.” I puffed my cheeks out in frustration as I combed the hallways for the angel in question, hoping I wasn’t too late. Angels were like supervisors, fun when drunk at the Christmas party but sticklers for the rules.
“I’ll trade you a week of puddings,” I said once I’d found him heading towards the exit, screwing my face to try and accentuate my puppy dog eyes.
“I’m an angel, Layla. I don’t eat puddings.”
“Then I’ll do all of your washing for a month!” The desperation in my voice blared like a klaxon, but I didn’t care. “Those white robes must be hell to launder!” I swallowed a smile as he flinched.
“Surely you have enough assignments to keep you busy?” he frowned, his eyes narrowing as I almost danced on the spot. “You haven’t been in the Archive again?” He’d sussed me. I threw him a look that I hope read innocent. “You know it’s against the code. You would think your past behaviour would have taught you that by now.”
“I haven’t been anywhere near the Archive,” I protested, fingers firmly crossed behind my back. Lying to an angel was a new low, even for me.
He sighed, rubbing his heavenly eyes with one hand before holding out the assignment slip in the other. “If anyone asks, I knew nothing of this,” he called as I ran out through the doors.
I stumbled through the crowd that was already forming in a large semi-circle around the Gate. Reminiscent of an earth-side airport arrivals lounge, some people held handmade signs, and others clutched each other in anticipation. I loved the Gate, and if it were a particularly hard day, I’d pack up a camping chair and a flask of tea (amazing what you can find in the afterlife), and sit there for hours, just watching the newbies shuffle through, blinking into the eternal sun and into the arms of those who passed before them. But patience wasn’t a virtue I possessed in life, and I certainly hadn't developed it in death.
I flashed both my badge and my best smile at the Archangel on duty, terrified he would stop me when I was so close, but he lazily waved me through. I sucked in a breath. Even though I’d stepped through the veil almost every day for the last thirteen years, I never quite got used to it. As if someone had turned off the sun, blackness surrounded me as I fell into the abyss.
The ground met my feet, and the darkness was replaced by the sterile light of a hospital corridor. It was the middle of the night, and I scanned the paper still clutched in my palm for the right room. I hovered outside, looking at the people huddled in the small cubicle. It was almost time.
A small tug directed my attention to the tiny tot pulling on my jean leg, and I kneeled, bringing myself to her eye level. It had thrown me the first few times, but children this young saw more than adults. And whilst I was pretty sure I shouldn’t speak to her, no one had explicitly told me I couldn’t. Not that I’d bothered to read the handbook.
“Hello,” she said, with all the confidence of a four-year-old dressed in fairy wings at four in the morning, “are you an angel?”
“I certainly am not,” I said, sticking out my tongue in mock disgust, “I am something much better!”
She laughed toothily, “my name’s Maisie.” She traced her fingers over my face, “are you here for my great-grandma?”
“Yup,” I nodded, and her eyes twinkled with sadness. “But it’s ok, she’ll be fine. I’ll take her for ice cream.”
“Wait, you have ice cream in heaven?” she guffawed, rocking back and forth on the soles of her glittery shoes.
“We do, and a petting zoo!”
“Wow,” she mouthed as she was scooped into the arms of someone who was desperately seeking caffeine. Chuckling, I waited for the gaggle of people to leave before I entered. Walking through a live person was pleasant for neither them nor me.
I perched next to her, nothing but the unsteady beep on the monitor to break the silence. She looked peaceful and tiny, and I ran my fingers through her powdery hair.
“Hey Gracie,” I whispered, and she woke slowly, looking at me for a minute through clouded eyes, trying to understand.
“Momma?” she said, barely audible.
“Yes, baby,” I said as her hand found mine.
“Wait,” she paused as confusion crept, “how do you look so young?”
“I’m dead Grace, I didn’t want to be eternally eighty!”
“But you have a nose ring!” she squeaked. “What would Daddy think?”
“Your father wears a man bun now baby, we’re cool,” I teased as the twenty years I’d spent without her dissipated in a moment. I was definitely getting sacked, but it was worth it.
“Why are you here Momma?” Grace asked, as I absentmindedly traced her palm with my fingers. “Are you here for me?”
Yup,” I said slowly, trying to gauge her reaction as I helped her sit up. “I promised you I’d always be here for you.”
“Is this the end?” she asked, throwing a glance back at her earthly body, the line on the monitor now flat as a peaceful calm fell over her.
“The end of all this, yeah,” I said, shrugging at the room, “but don’t be scared. It’s like being born again Gracie, but better. No ageing, no arthritis, no bills. Elvis plays most weekends, and they’ve got mammoths at the zoo.” I offered her my arm, “Come on old girl.”
“Less of the old,” she whispered, hand clasped in mine as she shuffled across the floor towards the glaring white light in the doorway. “I think being twenty again sounds nice.”
“Ready?” I asked her, and by the time I turned back, she’d already changed. Her now waist length cotton candy coloured hair swayed, and sparkle had returned to her bottle-green eyes as she looped her arm through mine.