The family was gathered around the hospital bedside, the children and grandchildren huddled shoulder to shoulder, all wearing melancholy expressions. But the old woman in the bed didn't wear any expression at all. She was awake, if heavily drugged, and looked at her respectfully quiet family with half-hooded eyes. "I love you, Mom," said the grown son, and the grown daughter nodded earnestly. The old woman made no reply, but her eyelids flickered. One of the granddaughters sniffed. The only thing breaking the heartfelt moment was the doctor, monitoring the machines that kept the old woman's kidneys and liver going, and the ones that monitored her heartbeat and breathing.
Suddenly, one of the machines began beeping wildly. "What, what's going on?" asked the grown son as the doctor steered the family out and more doctors started springing out of the woodwork. He never got a reply, as the doctor quickly shut the door after him and went back to the old woman. After a few minutes of frantic activity and several zaps from the defibrillator, it was over.
"She's gone," said one of the doctors, not that it needed saying.
Just on time, as always, thought Margaret, and gently pushed the doctors away with the handle of her scythe. As usual, they didn't seem to notice.
The old woman, whose name, according to the List, was Annie Haff, was now sitting up in the bed, looking much more alert. "Hello?" she asked the unresponsive doctors, who were drawing the bed sheet over her body. "Hello? I'm right here. Excuse me- OH! Oh my heavens!"
That last part was when she noticed Margaret.
Margaret supposed she must be quite the shocking sight: a walking skeleton in a black robe, carrying a six-foot scythe. Why people insisted on having such a frightening character be their escort to the afterlife was anyone's guess. Personally, Margaret would have chosen a more kindly visage, but regulations were regulations.
"Don't be afraid, Annie," said Margaret, in a low, echoing voice that really wasn't hers at all, but, like the lack of skin, came with the job. "I'm here to take you to eternity."
"I'm dead?" asked the old woman, her brow in a knot. She looked confused, which was typical.
"Yes," said Margaret. "Come with me."
"Oh." Annie was quiet for a second. "I suppose it was my time, wasn't it? May I say goodbye to my family?"
This was always the hardest part. Margaret reached into one of her many deep pockets, and took out a handheld hourglass. She would be late, if she didn't hurry this up. "I'm sorry, but you can't."
"Not even for a moment? Please, can't I just kiss my grandchild one more time?"
Margaret was grateful her 'work face' was so inexpressive, or she might have given away how bad she felt about this. Or worse, how irritated she was at the delay. "I'm sorry, Annie. I promise you, you will see them again." This was a lie. Margaret had no idea where this woman would go, much less her grandkids. But she had to get out of there, ASAP. "Please, take my hand."
Annie hesitated. Well, of course she did. Who would be happy to grab a skeleton? But after a moment, she did reach over, and her bony fingers touched those that were bonier still. Immediately, her form began to dissolve into white mist, until only a tiny speck of light was left, about the size of a marble.
Margaret plucked the light out of the air and carefully placed it into a black velvet bag. First reap of the day, and not a bad job, all things considered.
Margaret slipped away unnoticed from the doctors, and rushed into the hospital waiting room, where the doctor was giving Annie's family the news, and opened the window leading outside. It was three floors up, but her horse was just outside, nibbling on the top of a tree. Margaret whistled, despite her lack of lips, and the horse lifted his head to look at her.
"C'mon, Bucky," said Margaret. "You can snack later."
Bucky made a gruff sound deep in his throat, but trotted over, his agile hooves finding purchase in the thin air. Margaret climbed out the window onto Bucky's back, careful not to fall.
Margaret clicked her nonexistent tongue and nudged Bucky's pale sides with her heels, and the horse took off, galloping in an off-white blur across the sky.
Screaming and panic. Margaret hated it when it was like this. It made for an unpleasant break from the usual tour of hospitals and retirement homes.
The apartment building was on fire, and two people were caught inside. They wouldn't get out in time. Margaret gritted her teeth. Come on, she mentally urged the firemen, who were blasting the building with high-pressure hoses, despite the fact she knew it wouldn't do any good. The people still in the building would die, and that was that. Their names were right there on the List, black on white. Jorge Mancha. Teodoro Mancha. They were doomed.
Margaret walked through the burning wreckage of the apartment building, hiking up her robes so they wouldn't catch fire. The heat and smoke didn't bother her, but she wasn't sure if her clothes were fireproof.
There you are. The father was crouched over the son, still trying to protect him from the flames, despite the fact that they were both already dead. "Jorge Mancha," she said, hoping that she wouldn't look too demonic, surrounded by flames as she was. "Come with me."
It had been a long shift, and when Margaret finally rode Bucky back to Bridgeport at 8 o'clock eastern standard time, she was thoroughly exhausted. Bucky landed in front of a small office building in the commercial district, his hooves clattering on the pavement. The building was the headquarters of Mythology Unlimited, the firm where Margaret worked. She walked up the steps to the building and through the employee's entrance, still leading Bucky. Thankfully, both she and the horse fit in the elevator. The Life Cycle Termination Collector, or LCTC as she was known in the company, reached into her pocket and swiped her key card, revealing a hidden panel to several basement levels. She selected B2 and stepped out into a large, brightly lit warehouse, humming with the drone of air conditioning and smelling of barn and hay. Margaret tied Bucky up to a hitching post, and removed her robe.
As soon as the black cloth came off, Margaret was herself again, her skeleton once more under a healthy layer of skin and flesh. She sighed, and ran her fingers through her short blond hair. It always felt nice to take off her uniform.
After hanging up her scythe and robe, saying hello to Sean the stable hand, and removing Bucky's saddle and bridle, Margaret wanted nothing more than to just go home and crash onto her bed. But she still had to unload her collected material.
Margaret stretched and cracked her neck, walking into the office on level B1 marked Life Cycle Termination Division. The office appeared like any other, with a cooler, a reception desk, and cubicles. The only odd things were the constantly printing fax machine and the Real Time Life Termination Monitor, a map of the United States that recorded deaths as they occurred. But Margaret knew that the 8-to-12 LCTC was already on duty, so she didn't have to worry about any of that.
Set into the back of the office was a white door marked DROP OFF in big block letters. She opened the door, on the other side of which was a small, empty room, tiled with clean linoleum and furnished only with a simple dumbwaiter.
Margaret placed her bag of souls on the dumbwaiter, tugged on the bell, and with a gentle tinkle of bells and squeak of hinges, the dumbwaiter went… up.
Sometimes it went down. But mostly up.
Margaret wasn't entirely sure where the souls went. "I'm afraid that's higher-clearance information," Helen Ogalby, the manager of the Life Cycle Termination Division, had said. "But you can be assured that they are treated with the utmost care."
When the dumbwaiter was done, Margaret marked on a clipboard the number of souls she had collected (995) and exited the room, closing the door tightly behind her.
The cafeteria at Mythology Unlimited was a fairly large room, brightly lit with fluorescent bulbs and serving its patrons a variety of sandwiches, soups, and prepackaged salads. Margaret often ate dinner there, as her shift overlapped with mealtime, and due to the company's generosity, the food was all gratis.
Margaret picked at her chicken caesar, more tired than she was hungry. Across from her, Tess, from the Winter Festivities Division, was chatting with Nathan from the Courtship Enhancement Division.
"So I say to him, I say, 'Well Roger, if you really think that the big draw should be based on a merit rather than, well, a big draw, you should take it up with management, not just complain to me!' "
"Well, I think it isn't a bad idea," said Nathan slowly. "But I know the draw is really popular with the elves."
"Nathan!" gasped Tess. "How could you!"
Margaret sighed. 'Elf' was an improper term for the WFD workers. Winter Benefaction Manufacturer was the correct title, and though some of the toymakers liked being called elves, most saw it as somewhat derogatory. Tess was among the latter.
Tess glared at Nathan, who, in an attempt to direct attention away from himself, addressed his next statement towards Margaret. "So what do you think, Marge? Should we choose our Santas randomly, or what?"
Margaret didn't answer.
"Marge? Hey, Earth to the Death Squad, hello!"
"Hmm?" Margaret blinked blearily up from her salad. "Sorry, what? I'm a little out of it today. Long shift."
Tess nodded sympathetically, and Nathan made a pfff noise with his lips.
"Listen, Marge. At least you have a horse. I gotta fly across the country by my own two wings. You got it easy!"
Margaret frowned. "Please, Nathan. Really? You really want to compare whose job is harder?"
"I'm just saying." Nathan held up his hands. "Courtship Enhancement isn't all roses and hearts. It's hard work too."
"Yeah," joked Tess. "Aiming those arrows right is really hard."
"That was only once."
"Twice," said Margaret. "You hit the wrong guy twice. Caused a nasty love triangle."
"What about you, hm? First time you were out in the field, didn't you get the time zones mixed up and take a guy's soul while he was still alive?"
Margaret grimaced. Now that had been ugly.
"Look, everyone makes mistakes," said Tess. "Let's just move on, okay?"
Reluctantly, the reaper and the cupid agreed.
Margaret walked home from the bus station, yawning as her apartment building came into view. It was 9:30, and Margaret was ready for bed. It used to be she could stay up past midnight without any difficulty, but ever since she had taken her position as an LCTC, or 'reaper' to anyone outside the company, she found herself sleeping longer hours. According to the other LCTC's, this was normal, and was only a problem if you worked a second job. But with the kind of pay they got, who needed a second job?
Margaret opened the door into her apartment, where her roommate, Jackie, was watching Silence of the Lambs. Margaret tried to sneak past to her room, but Jackie called out. "Hey. Welcome home."
"Oh." Margaret froze. "Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt your movie."
"S'okay. I've seen it before." Jackie paused the movie and turned around to face Margaret. "How was work?"
"Fine. Nothing much happened."
"Wow." Jackie rolled her eyes. "Being a receptionist sure is exciting, huh?"
"You have no idea."
"Yeah. I complain about my telemarketing gig, but I mean, come on. Does anything ever happen at your job?"
"Well, sometimes we get a telemarketer call."
"Oh ha ha."
Margaret smiled. Jackie was always good for lifting her spirits, and she always felt a twinge of guilt for lying to her. She didn't like having to deceive her friend, but she wasn't allowed to reveal her actual profession. That had been impressed upon her from early on. Mythology Unlimited earned its profits by selling the rights to use its copyrighted characters as advertisements, and in books and films. In return, they provided vital public services to society. But if it were well known that the company's characters actually existed, they would lose their selling power. So lie Margaret did.
"Oh, hey, earlybird, before you conk out, I got to tell you something." Jackie looked sidelong at Margaret.
"Tomorrow I'll be holding a little get-together with some friends. Nothing too big, but we'll probably be going strong when you get back from work. You okay with that?"
Margaret frowned. She did not like Jackie's friends. She supposed she shouldn't judge her roommate too harshly, but really, with friends like Jackie's, who needed enemies?
"Do what you want, Jackie," she sighed. "Just try to keep it down."
"Sure thing, sleepycat."
Margaret shook her head, and went to bed.
The next day, Margaret took the bus to work, as always, and walked in the employee's entrance, as always, and made her way to the office of the Life Cycle Termination Division, as always. She said hello to the receptionist and signed in: Margaret Kusier, LCTC, 3:35 EST. She walked up to the fax machine and grabbed the List without a thought, rolling it up and stuffing it under her arm.
Margaret grabbed her cloak from her locker, and her scythe from the supply closet, before taking the elevator down to Animal Care and Housing. She walked over to Bucky's stable and saddled him up, whistling to herself. She threw on her robe and checked to make sure she had everything she needed. The List. Her hourglass. Her collection sack. Her GPS. Everything seemed in order.
The LCTC took the elevator up, exited the building, mounted Bucky, and took to the sky.
It was always a good habit, Margaret had found, to know what was coming up a few names down the List, to make sure she was ready for any particularly tight transition times. She looked over the List as she walked out of the San Antonio Hospital's emergency room, scanning the names, places and times. She could bend time to an extant, if she had to, but the Temporal Cohesion Division didn't like her to do that too often. And getting there late was out of the question.
Spizner, Abigail Judith, 19:38:05, Naples, FL, Aston Gardens Assisted Living, Room 205.
Montreu, Terence Winser, 19:38:08, Los Angeles, CA, White Memorial Hospital, operating room 8. That transition would be tough, but doable. Nothing too bad, until…
DeCateline, Jaqueline Vanessa, 19:47:22, Bridgeport, CT, 580 Ellsworth St, Apartment 244.
Oh my god. Margaret read the name, and read again, just to be sure. No, there it was, printed in black on white.
There has to be a mistake. Not Jackie. She's young! She's healthy! She…
It didn't matter. Although it was true that the elderly made up the overwhelming majority of Margaret's clients, accidents happened. Drunk driving happened. Murder happened. Suicide. Margaret's heart was beating in her throat, so hard she was pretty sure she could count her heart rate even without one of those hospital cardiac monitoring machines. Oh god oh god oh god I can't do this. Why wasn't I given the protocol for this kind of situation?
Okay. Calm down. What are your options? Well, she could do it, and let Jackie die, and take her soul with all the rest. Or, she could break every rule in the employee's handbook, and try to prevent her from dying. She'd probably get fired. Margaret gritted her teeth. She'd been working at Mythology Unlimited for over a year now. But she had saved her money up. She could live with getting sacked. Jackie, on the other hand, couldn't live with her not getting sacked.
So that was it, then. She'd lose her job, and save Jackie.
Margaret gripped her scythe tightly. There were several dozen names between now and Jackie. How could she do it? She'd just have to skip them.
Margaret walked over to Bucky, who was standing unnoticed in the hospital waiting room. The pale horse twitched his ears in her direction, and shot her a look. "Stop it, Bucky," said Margaret. "I'm doing the right thing, so don't give me that face."
Bucky did not reply.
Damn it damn it damn it! Margaret leaned low over Bucky's back and urged him to gallop faster. She had only seven minutes before Jackie died, and she didn't dare try a temporal distortion, not for this.
The ground blurred beneath Bucky's hooves, the stars moving overhead as she crossed time zones. "Come on Bucky," she whispered. "I swear I'll give you a million sugar cubes if you just get there on time."
Her hourglass would be no use. It was timing for the next person on the list, whom she was skipping. Thankfully, she'd brought her wristwatch, even though it just slid around on her skeletal arm. She checked her GPS. They were almost there. It was all right; she'd get there on time.
Margaret breathed a sigh of relief as Bucky clattered down in front of her apartment. She recognized the black SUV out front as belonging to one of Jackie's friends, who called himself Ice. Right, the party… Margaret felt a jolt of fear and groped for her watch. What if she was too late?
No, no she wasn't. It was only 7:41:29. Everything would be fine.
Margaret ran up the stairs of her apartment building, sprinting for room 244. She could hear the pulsating music from down the hall. The neighbors would throw a fit, but Margaret seriously didn't care.
Margaret pushed her key in and opened the door. Inside, Jackie's friends were twisting and grinding to the pounding music. The air was thick with the smell of booze, sweat, and some kind of heavy, musty smoke. "Jackie!" called Margaret. "Jackie, where are you?"
No one answered, and Margaret realized belatedly that she was still in uniform. No one could see her.
Margaret ripped off her robe and used the handle of her scythe to push people out of the way. But unlike what usually happened when she did that on the job, people reacted.
"Hey, hey watch it- whoa!"
"Oh my god!"
"Crazy! What the fuck is that?"
Margaret didn't pay the dancers any attention, and pushed to the back of the apartment. There, she finally found Jackie tangled up with Ice, who Margaret realized with a bit of a twist in her stomach was probably more than just a friend. "Jackie!" she said.
Jackie looked up and gasped. "Margie! You're back! You… Where the hell did you get that?"
"That." Jackie pointed at Margaret's scythe.
"Oh, that? No, never mind that! You've got to get out of here!"
"What the fuck?" slurred Ice. He slowly stood up and glared at Margaret with intensely blue eyes. "The fuck are you doing here?" He held a large plastic cup in one hand, and downed its contents right in front of her before dropping it on the floor. "You here to crash Jackie's party?"
"Ice, it's Margaret. My roommate. She's cool." Jackie gave Margaret a look as if to say You are cool, right?
"No, listen, things are going to get pretty ugly soon, and…"
There was a knock at the door. Most of the dancers didn't respond, but Margaret heard it. Her eyes went wide. "Police!" came the call from outside the door.
Ice scowled. "Cops," he said.
Jackie looked frightened. "I'm going to open it," she said.
"No, you're not," snarled Ice.
Margaret didn't know what to do. She had to keep Jackie out of danger. "I don't think you should open it, Jackie."
"It's the police! I have to!" Jackie ran for the door.
Ice made a clumsy grab for Jackie, but missed. "Jackie, stop!" cried Margaret. She checked her watch. 7:46:03.
"Get out of it!" snapped Ice as he pushed Margaret to the side to go after Jackie.
Margaret dropped her scythe and cloak and ran after him, her heart practically thumping out of her chest.
Jackie opened the door, revealing two police officers. "Excuse me, miss, but we've received a noise complaint, and…"
"Get out of here!" roared Ice, leaning over Jackie's shoulder.
The cop blinked. "Sir, there are other people in the building…"
"Wait." The other cop looked suspicious. "Do you smell that?"
They both sniffed at the air.
"Sir," said the first cop, this time with a steely edge. "May we step in?"
"Sir, we have reason to suspect that marijuana is being smoked on the premises. We may return with a search warrant."
"Sir, please cooperate…"
That was when Ice pulled out a gun.
Margaret didn't know where he had been hiding it, and frankly didn't want to know, but she could tell even without looking at her watch that this was it. She launched herself forward at Jackie, watching as if in slow motion as the cop drew a gun, Jackie screamed, Ice shouted something…
And then Margaret's arms were around Jackie's waist, and she pushed herself away, dragging Jackie with her. It was impossible to tell whether it had been the cop or Ice who had fired, but the bullet went and buried itself in the ceiling, passing through the empty space where Jackie's head had been.
There was screaming, and panic, and Margaret checked her watch. 7:47:56. Wow, she thought. I did it.
Margaret sat on the floor of her cell with Jackie, tapping her fingers against the cement floor. "So that's pretty much it," she said. "That's everything."
"That's… really fucked up."
"Yeah. I'm sorry."
"Margie, you saved my life! I mean, it's really really creepy, but you did!"
"No, I mean, I'm sorry I lied to you."
"Well, yeah, you should be. Here all this time I thought you were a receptionist at a publishing company."
They sat silent for a moment.
"I'll probably be fired now."
"I… thank you, Margaret."
"I wonder if they'll make me forget it ever happened, like in Men in Black or something."
"Can they do that?"
"The Suspension of Consciousness Division can. They deal with sleep and dreams."
"Margaret Kusier?" said the two roommates' guard, a portly officer with small, blue eyes. "You have a visitor."
The woman who stepped out was tall and brunette, with wire-rim glasses and a sharp nose. Oh crap, thought Margaret. Helen.
Helen looked at the women in the cell. "Could we have some privacy?" she asked the guard, and he nodded and left.
The manager of the Life Cycle Termination Division stood for a moment in silence, looking from and incredibly guilty-looking Margaret to Jackie.
"Well," she finally said. "I am very disappointed in you, Margaret."
"I know," the LCTC replied.
"After spending as much time with the company as you have, most of our field agents can appreciate the importance of our work."
"I'm sorry," said Margaret.
"No, you are not sorry." Helen pressed her lips together tightly, and shook her head. "If you were sorry, you would have ended this already."
Margaret looked at Jackie, whose eyes widened. "I can't."
"We lost sixty souls due to your actions, Margaret. Sixty! Our cleanup crew will be busy for weeks!"
"Not to mention…" Helen looked at Jackie. "Well, this is a very unusual circumstance."
"Am I going to die?" asked Jackie meekly.
"Everyone dies, Miss DeCateline. Everyone, including yourself." Helen frowned. "But thanks to Margaret's actions, we will not know when that is."
"Am I fired?" asked Margaret.
Margaret stared in surprise.
"You are still an LCTC, Margaret. You are a part of our family, like it or not, and you are responsible for your own mistakes. You will assist the cleanup crews, and you will be responsible for writing up a Temporal Distortion Form to the Temporal Cohesion Division. And you are responsible for Miss DeCateline. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," said Margaret quietly.
"Good. I will pay your bail."
"Thank you, Helen."
"What about me?" asked Jackie.
"You will find that bail is unnecessary. Simply follow us out."
Margaret and Jackie left the jail, following Helen. And indeed, none of the guards seemed to object to one bail being paid for two people. Margaret figured it was just another one of Helen's oddities.
It wasn't until a few days later that Margaret realized how bad things had become. She was working every night now until the wee hours of the morning with the Spiritual Materials Crew, who liked to call themselves the Ghostbusters. The work was not easy. They had to track down the lost souls, which left alone could cause disruptions in reality and other such undesirable things. Thankfully, it was fairly rare for a soul to go far from its site of death, and when they did it was to go to their home or place of occupation.
Though the Ghostbusters were friendly enough, Margaret did not enjoy the work. Souls that were not quickly collected often become traumatized and begin to deteriorate into insanity. Interacting with them was frazzling to the nerves.
By the time Margaret returned home to her apartment, Jackie was often already in bed, and Margaret would sleep late in the morning. When she awoke Jackie would have already left, and it wasn't until the weekend that her roommate finally confronted her.
"I think I'm dead."
Margaret looked up from her roast beef sandwich. "What?"
"I'm dead." Jackie's voice cracked, and Margaret saw that she was serious.
"Jackie… why do you think that?"
"Because… it… it's hard to explain. It's like I'm not really here."
Margaret reached over and gave Jackie a pinch. "You feel like you're there to me." She smiled, but Jackie did not return her expression.
"Look," Margaret said with a sigh. "I've seen ghosts. I've seen more in the past few days than I ever wanted to see of ghosts. You're not a ghost."
"No, but I… well look."
Jackie stood up and opened the refrigerator. She left it open and walked back to Margaret.
"I don't see what that…"
"Just wait. Think about something else."
"Why? Jackie, you're… just stressed out. Everything's fine."
"No, Margie, it isn't," said Jackie forcefully, her fists clenching. "I've been going to work, like everything's normal, but it isn't! When I make calls, and someone answers, they don't react! I try to give my little speech and they say 'Hello?' like there is no one on the other line! I was supposed to be paid yesterday, and I had to practically hit my manager to get him to even notice I was there! Look at the fridge!"
Margaret blinked and stared. The refrigerator door was closed, though no one had touched it. "That… that doesn't…"
"I went to a café, and I tried to order, and this guy comes over and almost sits on me. He thought the table was empty! Everything I do undoes itself! Margie, please, what's happening to me?"
"Oh god," said Margaret, and put her head in her hands. She really didn't need this kind of thing.
"I don't know. It's a temporal distortion of some kind… time is working weird."
Jackie's eyes went wide. "Wh-what? What do I do?"
"I don't know. I'll talk to Helen about it."
That afternoon, Margaret sat in front of Helen's desk, trying to make herself seem confident enough to take care of things yet pathetic enough to feel pity for. Helen looked down at the LCTC, frowning.
"Margaret," she said. "I told you that Miss DeCateline was your responsibility."
"I know that," said Margaret. "But I don't know what to do. Jackie is having a hard time."
Helen pressed her lips together and leaned forward. "Margaret," she said. "Miss DeCateline was supposed to die last week. The world is supposed to run without her being there. It is rejecting her continued existence. These problems will only get worse as time goes on, not better."
Margaret closed her eyes. "What do you want me to do to fix it?"
Helen's expression did not change. "I think you know what to do, Margaret."
Margaret blanched. "I can't."
"If you don't, Jackie will continue to disturb the temporal order."
"But… but you told me… when I signed up you told me that LCTC's don't actually kill people," said Margaret desperately. "We just collect them."
"Your duties extend to wherever the company needs you."
"Helen… Helen I can't. Please don't ask me to do this."
Helen narrowed her eyes. "If you do not, I will send a different LCTC in your place. But this is your responsibility.
Margaret sat still, looking at her hands.
"You may leave now."
Margaret nodded, and left.
Margaret sat at the kitchen table of her apartment, her scythe laying across her lap. The clock read 11:47.
The door opened with a bang and Jackie ran in, tears streaming down her face. Margaret looked up.
Jackie grabbed a tissue and wiped her face, then started at the sight of Margaret.
"Margie, I didn't see…." she said, then saw the scythe. "Oh," she whispered.
"Hey Jackie," said Margaret dully.
"Oh, does… does this mean you don't have to work late anymore?" asked Jackie hopefully. But she looked as though she didn't really believe it.
Margaret looked up, her face etched with sadness. "Do you want to sit down?"
"Not really," said Jackie, her voice shaking.
They said nothing for a long moment, until Jackie broke the silence.
"Margie… Margie what…"
"Why were you crying?" Margaret asked, almost normally.
"It.. it's not…" Jackie trailed off. "It's Ice. He doesn't even acknowledge me. He wouldn't even look at me. Like he didn't even recognize me. Like I wasn't even…"
"It's only going to get worse. That's what Helen said."
Jackie looked at Margaret, then at the floor. Jackie put her finger in her mouth and closed her eyes. "I can't get anyone to interact with me. I pick up a glass of water, and it disappears out of my hand."
"I went to the Temporal Cohesion Division, and they told me that they wouldn't give you any distortions, because the timestream itself was rejecting you."
"What… what should I do?"
"I don't know, Jackie," said Margaret miserably. "I don't know! I've told you everything."
"I can't live like this, Margie! I don't want to live like this!"
Margaret said nothing.
"So I'm just fated to die, is that it?" said Jackie after a moment, crinkling her brow.
"I guess so. They were going to send another reaper after you."
Jackie stared at Margaret's scythe, eyes wide. Finally, she said, her voice quiet: "What happens?"
"Your soul is collected into a bag, and then it is shipped away."
"But… I mean… what about after that? Is there a heaven?"
"I… I don't know. I think so. I hope you go there."
"That doesn't really help, you know."
"But… but there is something…"
"There's definitely something. I'm sure of it."
Jackie let out a shuddering sigh. "When?"
Margaret squeezed her eyes shut. "Whenever you want."
"Please, not now. I, I have things to do, and…"
Jackie fell silent. Then, with a small, quavering voice like a child, she asked: "Will it hurt?"
"I…" Margaret looked around, as if hoping that, even now, someone was going to step out of the shadows and save her. "I don't think so. Not death. Only dying."
"Oh god. Shit. It's not fair! I'm only twenty two!"
"There's nothing I can…"
"Even if I... what if I work for you? I can go work for you, and then…"
"It doesn't work that way."
Jackie bit back a sob, tears leaking from her eyes. "Oh god."
"I'm so sorry, Jackie. It isn't my choice."
Margaret paused for a moment, then walked over and embraced Jackie, holding her close. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she whispered, as Jackie sobbed into her shoulder.
Margaret could feel Jackie's heartbeat, her gasps as she tried to catch her breath. She was still holding her scythe as she stroked Jackie's hair with her other hand. "Shhh," she said. "Shhh."
And she swung.
Margaret Kusier leaned down over Bucky as he galloped across the night sky. The lights below streamed like traffic, and the stars and moon above moved in a slow stately waltz. The pale horse panted, his mouth open, streams of froth flying from the corners. Margaret gripped the reins tightly in one hand and her scythe in the other as her cloak billowed around her, leaning into the wind. High above the world below, the Grim Reaper tilted her head back, and screamed.