CW: There is brief non-graphic discussion of suicide that is plot relevant.
Three hours. Three hours in a car with Louis and his chain-smoking, because he refused to take up vaping just for car rides.
I was going to scream.
And it was a three-hour car ride through the outskirts of Rome, where every other cafe advertised Il miglior espresso in Italia, which apparently translated to "drinkable cocaine for Louis".
Scratch that. I was going to commit murder.
"Where are we going again?" I asked, firm grip on the handle above the passenger side window. (Which, damn was it weird to be sitting on this side of the car and not driving.)
"Some dinky little shack that Reaper thinks might have the soul of Giuseppe Cesari." Louis took the next corner at an alarming speed, considering he was too busy reading a corner sign advertising yet another café. "Some fancy painter. Trained Caravaggio supposedly." He flashed me a yellowed grin full of pointy, crooked teeth.
For all of his flaws, Louis knows a surprising amount about art history.
"Did he give you directions? Or are you just feeling it out?"
Louis shrugged, jerking the wheel a bit as he did so. "Little bit of column A, little bit of column B. Oh hey, we're here!"
The car came to a screeching halt and a moped sped past us, the driver cursing loudly in Italian that I was fortunate enough not to understand. Though I assumed it was something similar to the internal monologue I ran through every time Louis drove. And for some reason Italy was the one country I couldn't even get a fake driver's license, which meant trips to Italy = Louis drove and I was thankful it's not possible for me to die twice. Mostly.
The place was, as advertised, essentially a shack. At some point it had probably been a run-down garden shed in the 1800s, but by now the paint had mostly completely worn away, and the wood was splintering. The whole thing sagged in an alarming way that did nothing to dissuade Louis from kicking at the door. Instead of bursting into a million splinters the rotted wood opened as if it were hung on brand-new hinges.
Inside was nearly as bad. It smelled moldy and musty. Bits of plastic and wood were scattered around like faded confetti. Louis went to the far corner that was surprisingly clean, and crouched down, tapping the ash off the end of his cigarette as he went.
"Go get the shovel out of the car," he said. "It's here."
I almost asked "what shovel" out of reflex. The car was tiny; a glorified sardine can with wheels and V2 motor. The trunk was barely big enough for a case of wine, let alone a shovel. But I went and checked anyway. Louis was a creature of the underworld, walking around in a skin that only looked vaguely human. He could bend space and reality.
There, poking out from under the driver's seat, was a dirty rounded shovel. I slid it out with ease and carried it back in the shack to Louis. He took the shovel, looked from me to the ground to the shovel and back at me.
"You can dig," he said. "Got a bad back ya know." He waved his cigarette around, as he spoke and thrust the shovel back in my arms.
Louis sat back and chain smoked while I dug. At least he was kind enough to do something with the airflow of the place that sucked his cigarette smoke out of the tiny shack so I wasn't completely choking. I was about two and half feet down when Louis appeared next to me, putting one grimy hand on my chest to keep me from taking another swing.
"Get out of the hole," he said softly.
Louis studied the hole for another moment before flicking his cigarette away, making it disappear into thin air. He dropped to his knees and started scooping dirt away with his hands chucking handfuls of it over the edge of the hole. I wasn't sure how; I didn't think his arms were long enough. But five minutes later I was hovering behind him while Louis finished adding to a truly impressive pile of backfill.
"Come 'ere. Look at it. Tell me what you see."
I already knew before I looked over his shoulder that Louis didn't want me to describe the dirty wooden box, we were both staring at. He wanted to know what I saw beyond it, what I sensed.
"It's…not warm exactly," I began. "But it's not as cold as everything around it; like its pushing it away. And it's moving a little, shaking."
"Very good Anthony," said Louis He gave me another pointy, yellow smile. "Such a good learner." He leaned over and picked up the box before pocketing it in his trench coat. He wasn't bending space like a piece of warm taffy; his trench coat legitimately had pockets large enough to fit a personal pan pizza, or even a small child. "Let's get this back to Reaper."
"You're late," Reaper said flatly.
Shaul sighed and reached up to pull off his wig. "It's only like, an hour."
"Two. Two hours Shaul. And a half.
It took every ounce of self-restraint Shaul had not to roll his eyes. "Class ran late and I had to talk to my professor after."
"Really? Because your sister had no problem coming back on time."
"Fine," Shaul groaned. "I didn't come back right away. Sorry."
Reaper didn't reply right away, just fixed Shaul with a look that was equal parts disappointment and annoyance. "One more time Shaul. If you come back late one more time, you won't be allowed to go to earth by yourself. Someone will have to escort you."
"Seriously?" this time Shaul couldn't keep himself from rolling his eyes so hard they almost got stuck.
"We've talked about this. You know why."
"Fine." Shaul shoved his wig in his bag. "Can I go now?"
Reaper jerked his head back over his shoulder. "Yes. Your mother has something for you."
Shaul sighed again and started down the hall. "Thanks dad."
The drive home took nearly three hours again. Not because we were doing the same half-assed spiral that we took to get to the soul of Giuseppe Cesari (which for the record was 20% Reaper giving us directions and 80% Louis feeling out the soul's location because he hates MapQuest with a burning passion). It took three hours because Louis was stopping at every fourth café to buy two cups of coffee. One to drink now and one to pour into his ginormous, beat to hell thermos to drink later. Sometimes the one to drink right away had ice cream or liquor added, but Louis thankfully had the good sense to not mix dairy and a pressurized container.
Ten Italian cafes and three pee stops later we were parking the sardine can in the garage and heading to Reaper's office.
The Underworld is always weird to me in that it mostly seems like you're indoors all the time. There are a handful of places I would call "outdoorsy"—there's a weird lake/pond thing that swings back and forth between freezing cold and boiling hot, and a few trees that are perpetually losing and gaining their leaves in a sped-up seasonal cycle— but nothing that would be like nature on earth. It's almost like one huge corporate office had a baby with a mansion that exists entirely underground.
After the adjustment period, it rarely bothers me. Louis is completely unconcerned and when we first started working together; he was even weirded out by too much "alive" stuff, as he called it. Apparently, trees covered in green leaves and flowers in late spring can send some people into massive freak-outs. Who knew?
The part of the Underworld I'm familiar with can be divided into two categories: living (haha) and work. One part is where I sleep and hang out in the common room and go swimming in a pool that Reaper originally installed for his wife when they first married. The other part is where I do what Reaper tells me; organize souls that have been recovered, and stand around like a surgical assistant while Reaper contemplates the best way to non-permanently destroy major items of cultural significance. And occasionally Reaper teaches me how to do cool shit with the powers I'm developing from being part of Hell.
Reaper was at his desk reading over something on a tablet when we arrived.
"Did you find it?" he asked absently, not looking up. He continued to tap at the screen. Around him the office as richly decorated with warm woods and fancy velvet curtains. It was like a Victorian interior decorator went balls to the wall, making the sleek modern desk Reaper sat at clash terribly. He was even sitting in an ornate winged-back chair that had been modified to roll around like a normal computer chair.
"Wasn't too hard," Louis said, shrugging. At some point between our parking the car and arriving at Reaper's office he had traded his inoffensive street shoes for one of three pairs of ratty house slippers he cycled through whenever he wasn't topside. These were the pink pair with bunny ears.
"Glad to hear it. How's the coffee in Italy Louis?" Reaper sounded mildly annoyed, which Louis brushed off.
"Tasty as always."
Reaper sat aside his tablet when we stepped up to his desk and looked up to see what we had brought him.
Reaper is what I always picture when people say "deathly pale". He's got white-blonde hair that he keeps brushed to one side in a way that manages to look more "stylish GQ model" than "billionaire with a bad combover". His skin is ridiculously pale and he's got eyes the color of terrible, weak coffee. I've never seen him with anything more than the slightest hint of nearly white stubble, even when I know he hasn't touched a razor in weeks. Standing, Reaper is just tall enough that I have to look up a tad. In the six years I've been in hell, I've seen him waffle between "might as well be dying of consumption" all the way to "baby lumberjack", and I've got no clue what triggers the switch.
There was still plenty of dirt stuck on the box, to the point that when Louis handed it over, it sprinkled across the top of Reapers desk. Either unbothered by the dirty box itself or just used to filth generally accumulating in Louis' presence, Reaper pulled it closer to him.
It was about the same size as a jumbo roll of toilet paper (you know, the one with the dancing bears and shit), plain, and in surprisingly good shape. Reaper ran his hands over the entirety of the box, inch by inch. He was feeling for anything weird, physically or magically. In the past I've seen him touch the vessel for a soul for all of five seconds, declare it empty, and then toss it in the garbage can next to the desk. This took him a little longer than it usually did. Reaper did a second pass, then a third, frowning at the box as he did so.
"Did anyone else touch this?" Reaper asked at last. He leaned back in his chair and let his hands rest palm open on either side of the box.
"Anthony didn't even touch it," Louis said, shaking his head. "Just me. When we gots it outta the ground, I put it in my pocket. Then we got here and I put it on your desk. That's it."
"Okay. Well, let's see how this goes."
Reaper spun his chair to the cabinet behind him and opened it. On the top two shelves are fancy alcohol's and jars filled with weird things suspended in cloudy alcohol. The rest of it is the tools Reaper uses to collect souls.
There's this idea that the Grim Reaper wanders around earth killing people and taking their souls.
That's complete and utter bullshit.
When someone dies, about 50% of the time their soul moves on to the underworld. There you get sorted by some other department that I've only seen so briefly that I don't remember ( I also suspect that I've might have been made to forget, since by all accounts the Fates are absolutely terrifying and have some weird hold on mortals that remember their faces). The other fifty percent get stuck, accidentally or otherwise. Sometimes people are so afraid, or die such a horrible death, they get stuck on earth. Others make a place of safe-keeping for the soul after death; especially those who have tumultuous lives.
Those are the ones we have to go find; either ones that are stuck or hiding. Reaper tracks down rumors of souls that need to be recovered and sends us to find them. Then we bring them back and ushers them into the underworld.
The "we" in this situation isn't just me and Louis (thank god). There are at least a dozen others who go out in ones or twos or threes and comb through the mortal realm for lost souls that need to be brought to their final resting place.
Reaper pulled the tools from the cabinet one by one and laid them on the desk side by side, like a surgeon. A lock pick made of iron, a thin blade made of steel, a needle of bone, and pot made of stone, inlaid with ivory and silver. Carefully Reaper picked the locking mechanism on the box, slid the paper-thin blade around the edges of the box to dislodge anything holding it closed, and opened the wooden box, needle in hand.
Some souls whisper, or talk, or even scream. Giuseppe Cesari was one of the latter.
The box opened, releasing a singing yell. Once again, I couldn't fully understand it, but I was heavily reminded of the moped driver earlier in the day.
Reaper reached for the soul with both hands and I instinctively stepped back. There was a small window of opportunity for the soul to get loose while Reaper removed it from the vessel, and out of everyone in the room I was the only one in danger. I'm the only one that's still somewhat human.
When I was thirteen, I committed suicide.
It was a horrible build up of things that pushed me to it; the only way out of an inescapable situation. I lost consciousness on the floor of the staff bathroom at school, my math teacher begging me to hang on, and woke up on the overwhelmingly neutral grey doorstep of the underworld.
Somehow Reaper noticed me.
In a long line of souls, he had to look after, he noticed my arrival and pulled me from the line into the afterlife. He took me home with him, to his wife and children, and took care of me. Reaper and Elanor nursed me back to health (mentally at least), took care of me, and gave me the family I always wanted. They cared about me, took an interest in how I felt, and even made sure I kept up with school the same way their own children did (fun fact: hell has internet, and where there's internet, there's a way to homeschool your kids). Then, when I was sixteen Reaper offered me a job.
I could fetch souls for him, or they'd figure out a way to send me to college when I was eighteen and I could continue on with an afterlife that was exactly what my before-life should have been.
I chose fetching souls.
While school was great and all, finding souls gave me a purpose. I was helping people who were lost, like I was. Plus, it's just a fucking awesome job.
The downside to all of this is that it takes a while to stop being totally human. There's a little bit of mortality left in me; it takes 5 years from when you start working for Reaper for it to totally go away. And that little piece of mortality is what puts me in danger every time Reaper transfers a soul.
If it pops loose, it'll go for that last shred of mortality that I have, try to use me as a new vessel. I already have a soul, and they'll fight until either it takes me over or I'm destroyed. Thankfully Reaper is really, really good at his job. There's only been one time I've actually been in danger of that happening, and I think even Louis was a little scared of the soul itself.
Reaper gripped the soul of Giuseppe Cesari in his hands and pulled gently; it makes me think of an egg yolk being separated, the way it looks so fluid and then, bloop! It comes apart.
The souls themselves are a murky, greyish thing that hovers somewhere between liquid and gas. According to Louis it's like holding a handful of room temperature whipped cream, except it doesn't melt and run down your hand.
Reaper deposited Giuseppe Cesari's soul carefully into the jar, and quickly capped the lid on. Each tool went back in the cabinet, followed lastly by the jar containing the soul. Later Reaper would take it to the entrance to the underworld where the Fates were and Giuseppe Cesari would be becoming just like everyone else who died.
Reaper returned to his chair and settled back in. "That will be all."