The shitty thing about being a reaper is that we still feel the world, just like everyone else does. We feel pain, we feel food poisoning, we feel paper cuts, and we can feel heartbreak. That last bit tends to happen more and more, the longer you spend in this job. At the moment though, what we were feeling was heat. Sweltering, sultry, ridiculous for the Pacific Northwest heat.
We were creeping up on 98 degrees for the fifth day running, only two under the record, and while that may not sound like much to someone from, say, Saudi Arabia, the thing to know about Seattle is that our humidity is always near 100%. Combine the two, and it makes people crazy. Homicidally, suicidally, carelessly crazy. As such, we were buried in reaps. On a normal, busy day, I might reap two, maybe three people, if there is some kind of mass casualty situation happening. But this week, we had four, five, six reaps a day each. It was exhausting, and it wasn’t doing great things for my pocket book. I was using a lot of sick leave and Delores was really starting to get annoyed with me.
Today being Saturday, at least I was saved from having to call in again. Instead, I was at the damned Der Waffle Haus at O’Dark-Thirty in the morning, where it was already 89 degrees, because apparently, the deaths were going to get a jump on the morning.
Sliding into the booth next to Mason, who was asleep with his head on his arms, I nodded across the table at Roxy. She glanced up from the police paperwork she was doing and quirked an eyebrow. “Daisy?”
“Hell if I know,” I replied. Daisy had been out late the night before, and she wasn’t in her room when I left the house at…crap, three in the morning. “Not her babysitter.”
“Didn’t think you were,” Roxy replied, going back to the paperwork. I glanced over and saw Kiffany look my way. I mouthed the word coffee and settled in to await instructions.
Ten minutes later, Daisy breezed in and plopped down by Roxy, pulling out her compact and powdering her nose. What a woman that fair needs powder for is beyond me, but whatever. “Where’s Rube?” Roxy and I shrugged and focused on our coffee while she turned and ordered some inane starlet breakfast from Kiffany. Never mind that reapers don’t get fat (well, no fatter than in life….no thinner either).
Just then the bell above the door jingled and Rube walked in…laughing…with a woman. Holy fucking hell, who’d have thought. She was pretty, sort of soft lines and curly black hair, her lips a vintage shade of vermillion. Taller than me or Roxy, but still smaller than Rube. My eyebrows went up when I noticed the old fashioned back-seamed hose she wore under her dress. I guess all three of us who were awake must have been staring, because Rube’s expression slid into one of exasperation as they approached the table. Leaning over, he slapped Mason upside the head.
“Bloody shagging hell, I’m awake...” Mason said, his head coming up so fast, he nearly cracked it against the back of the booth. “Bollocks, Rube, was that really….” his voice trailed off as he caught site of Rube’s companion.
“Still drunk as a skunk, Mason?” she asked, smiling. I was confused. Who the hell was she and how did she know Mason. Daisy and Roxy were both still gaping at her.
“Sober as a priest, Angie girl. Sober as a fucking priest and aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” Mason said. I suddenly found myself being shoved sideways out of the booth as Mason climbed out and caught her up, spinning her in a circle. “Christ, what’s it been, twenty years?”
“Thirty,” Angie responded, warmly returning the hug. Then she turned and surveyed the rest of the table. “Good morning.”
“Ladies,” Rube interjected. “This is Angela Sullivan. Angie, this is George Lass, Roxy Harvey, and…”
“Daisy. Daisy Adair,” Daisy interjected. “Love your lipstick.” Rube glared at her and reasserted himself by shoving Mason back into his seat.
“Angie is going to be with us for the duration of the…whatever this uptick is,” Rube said. “I expect you all to make her welcome.”
“Does this mean I have another house guest?” I asked, feeling petulant. The last time there had been a change in the team line-up, I had ended up with a roommate who I really couldn’t stand a lot of the time.
“No,” Angie laughed. “I’m a hometown girl, I actually still own property in the area. Though the couple that wanted to rent it this weekend for a vacation is a little upset at me.” She glanced back over her shoulder as Kiffany came up, loaded down with a heavy tray, and stepped back, allowing the woman to pass. “Hey, hon, can I get hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin to go, when you have a second.” She smiled with such grace and charm that Kiffany beamed at her and headed off to start the order immediately. I didn’t know how anyone could be so damn cheerful this early, but there it is.
Rube pulled out his day-planner and began divvying up the post-its. “Two for Mason, three for Daisy, two for Roxy, three for George, three for me, and four for Angie,” he said, handing them out. “Any questions?”
Angie smiled and pulled out another stack of slips of paper. “Nope, but I have a large pot roast and fixings in the crock-pot at my place, and I would love to have you all join me for dinner. Anyone reaping between 6 and 8?” When everyone shook their heads no, she handed the slips around and said “Lovely! I’ll see you then!” Turning, she took her to go cup and bag from Kiffany, handed her a twenty and told her to keep the change, and waltzed back out the door.
I looked at Rube, and then at Mason, both of whom seemed utterly charmed, and then at Roxy and Daisy, who looked more dazed. “Disney called, they fucking want Snow White back,” I said, looking over my post-its again. My first reap was at 7:00 AM down in the fish markets. Lovely.
Rube glanced at me, and then at everyone else. “George, a word in private, if we could.” Crap.
I followed Rube over to the counter, grabbing my coffee and taking it. Words in private with Rube can either be short, sweet, and tend towards the chewing out, or long philosophical discussions on the nature of things, and it’s not always clear which way we’re going to go. It never hurts a girl to go in prepared.
“What’s up, Reaper-man?” I asked, taking a seat next to Rube. He was looking at his own post-its, which covered territory from North Seattle to Tacoma. Rube was not walking today. Glancing up, he took in my expression.
“Look, George, I have known Angie a long time now,” he started. This almost sounds like the kind of conversation you might have with your parents if they decide to get remarried after a divorce. At least I missed that boat. “A really long time.”
“Okay,” I said. “Look, I am sorry if the Snow White crack pissed you off, she’s just damn cheerful for it being ….”I looked at my watch… “Five-thirty in the morning.”
“That’s not it,” Rube said. “I’ve known Angie since she was barely a reaper, and I wanted to ask you not to play the ‘my death was the worst death ever’ card with her, okay?”
Offended, I got huffy. “I don’t…”
“Yeah, Peanut,” Rube interrupted, “You do. So don’t. I get that getting hit by a toilet seat sucks, I really do, but in this case, you lose, George.”
“Well, how did she die, then?” I asked. I knew how all the others had died. Well, I didn’t know exactly how Rube had, but I had strong suspicions.
Well, fine. I wouldn’t ask. Not directly. If I encouraged confidences later, that was another thing entirely, right?
I had to go home and change after the fish market reap. I had gotten a pretty good spray of blood on my clothes, half fish and half the guy the fish had impaled. It crossed my mind that this was the second time I had watched a guy get himself impaled by a stupid big fish. Once I put on a clean track suit and t-shirt, I headed for Woodland Park, near the horseshoe pit. I was surprised to see Angie sitting on a bench maybe thirty feet away, seemingly reading a paperback. She had exchanged her dress from that morning for tan slacks and a white blouse, and her dark curls were held back in a red scarf. I walked over and plopped down next to her. I could see the edges of her post-it, sticking out from inside the front cover of the book.
“Angie,” I said. She smiled at me. “What are you reading?”
She handed me the book, a copy of Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. “It’s a suspense novel. It’s good for hiding the post-its.”
“Read it a lot?” I asked, peeking at the post-it. Different name, but otherwise, same reaper-time, same reaper-channel.
“I switch out,” she said, taking it back. “Stephen King, Nora Roberts. A woman on a bench with a book seems to put people at ease. So this is a two for one sale?” she asked, nodding towards the horseshoe pit.
“Yup,” I replied. Two minutes to go. “Any thoughts?”
Angie shrugged. “That’s never been something I was good at,” she replied. Glancing around, she watched the two very, very old men at the horseshoe pit. “What’s the name on yours?”
“Goldstein,” I replied. “I never understood horseshoes.”
“You’ve never lived without television,” she grinned. “Green shirt’s yours.” I was about to ask her how she could know when I saw the monogrammed initials on the bag at the man’s feet. S.G. One minute. I got up and sauntered over to him.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, in my nice young lady voice. “I always wondered how to play, can you explain it to me?” That was all it took for Saul Goldstein to start explaining the finer points of horseshoes. I smoothed my hand down his arm, pretending to feel the heft of the shoe.
Right on schedule, I heard someone yell, “Damn it, Ginger, heel…” as a gorgeous Irish setter came tearing across the grass. The dog smacked right into Saul, throwing him off balance just as he let go of five pounds of iron in his hand. Saul went down hard, cracking his head on the concrete bordering the pit.
I turned and saw Angie tracking the flight of the shoe before quickly brushing against the back of an oblivious female jogger too tuned into her iPod to notice the world. With a sickening wet splarch, the shoe took her in the back of the head.
Saul’s ghost was standing beside me, looking from his body to the body of young woman in the road. “Well, sonofabitch. I’m dead.”
“You are, Saul. Sorry.”
“And she’s dead.” Looking up, he saw Angie standing there, speaking to her mark. I wondered what they were talking about. “Should I apologize? My horseshoe seems to have killed her.”
“You can if you want to Saul,” I replied. He thought for a second, and then nodded, walking over and offering his hand to the woman. She shook it, shrugged, and said something to make him laugh. Just then, lights started from both ends of the path, with one side looking a lot like the ocean and the other sounding vaguely of Klezmer music. I walked Saul to his side, Angie walked the girl to her side, and when they lights had done their thing, we met back in the middle.
“Nice job,” Angie said. “Asking for lessons and all.” I shrugged. I was more impressed she had gotten the reap before the shoe hit the woman.
“How many is that for you?” I asked and we turned to leave the park.
“Three. My first two were within minutes of each other. Car accident with a lookey-loo who fell through a manhole. You?”
“That’s my second. Fish market this morning.” I stopped to tie my shoelaces. Standing back up, I glance at the time. “I have about three hours before my last one.”
“I have two, want to get lunch?” Angie asked. I shrugged again, which she seemed to take as acquiescence, and followed her as she walked briskly out of the park. Fifteen minutes, four turns, and one lost me later, she stopped in front of what initially looked like a Victorian mansion, until I saw the sign in the yard that said ‘Lily’s Tea Parlor’. It sounded so much like something Delores would love, my eyes must have rolled just a little. Angie laughed her sparkling laugh, and grinned at me. “Trust me.”
We were seated in what used to be the conservatory and I had to admit, the menu was appealing. Not that I didn’t like Der Waffle Haus, but a girl likes a salad now and again. I ordered one with strawberries and chicken, and Angie asked for a quiche and soup, and then we sat, in companionable silence, for all of fifteen seconds, because I fucking suck at sitting quietly.
“So what’s up with you and Rube?” I asked, taking a sip of my coke. Angie looked up from her water she had been gently squeezing her lemon into.
“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“You and Rube.” She still looked confused, so I elaborated. “He was laughing and joking and then he practically gave me orders about what I could and could not ask about your life.”
Angie cocked an eyebrow at that. “That was considerate of him, I suppose.”
“Exactly. It’s Rube. Rube doesn’t do considerate.” I paused while the waitress put a salad the size of a small African country down in front of me, and then settled Angie’s much smaller quiche and soup down in front of her. “Rube does cranky, snarky, self-righteous, omniscient…”
“You should cut him some slack,” Angie said, taking a bite of her quiche. “Rube’s got a lot of responsibility. And he’s probably a lot more considerate than you realize.”
“How do you figure?” I stabbed petulantly at a piece of lettuce. “If he’s not criticizing me, if he’s not disappointed in me, then he’s strictly business.”
Angie set her fork aside and leaned in across the table. “George, let me tell you something. My first crew chief, the one who was responsible for me as a new reaper, called me Abbie.”
“So? Rube calls me ‘Peanut’”.
“Peanut is a nickname. An affectionate, fond nickname. Charlie honest to Jehovah thought my name was Abbie. All the way until he got his lights.” She paused, taking a sip of her water. “He didn’t really give a damn if any of us screwed up, so long as he didn’t have to clean up after us. He didn’t care if we were adjusting, if we could handle it. He threw assignments at us and cut bait as fast as humanly….well, reaperly possible.”
I sat for a minute, imagining what the past eighteen months would have been like with absolutely no support system whatsoever. No disappointment, no give a damn. “Okay, so I can see your point.”
“Good. How’s your salad?”
“Really good.” I speared another strawberry. Five, four, three, two… “So you aren’t sleeping with Rube?”
For just a second, I thought Angie might need to Heimlich for the bite she had just taken. “Of course I’m not sleeping with Rube! Why on earth would you think that?”
“Overt consideration,” I said, drinking more of my coke. I looked up and realized her face had taken on a far away, sad look. I felt like I had just kicked a Disney princess.
“No,” she said softly. “Not Rube.” A thought crossed my mind.
“Shit! Not Mason!!!???”
This time, she did in fact spit water across the table. “Oh, dear lord, that would be like sleeping with my wastrel younger brother.” She started laughing, and soon was laughing so hard, tears were running down her face. “No, George, I’m a one man kinda girl, all these years. I haven’t been with anyone in…well, a long time.”
“He get his lights?” I watched her face at that moment. Something soft, and lost, and sad seemed to fill them for a moment, until she shook it off.
“Something like that.”
We spent the rest of lunch talking about not a lot special, books and movies mostly. When we split up, she reminded me about dinner, and though I had the impulse to say whatever, I didn’t say it. Because right in this moment, this was the closest thing I had to a friend who could really, really know me since Betty had literally jumped ship. It was weird, but for the first time, in a long time, I felt like being a little bit more girly.
My last reap was quick and clean, no arterial spray. I took my time going home, and changed into nicer slacks and a tank top. I hadn’t seen anyone but Angie all day, but I assumed everyone would probably be coming to dinner. I decided to stop by the local liquor store and get a bottle of wine. I vaguely remember my mother doing that sort of thing when she and my dad used to go to dinners at the Dean’s house or whatever. Ah, the advantages of Millie’s driver’s license, which added five year to my age.
I didn’t realize how close the house was to my old neighborhood. It was an area of clean, well-kept craftsman homes, not showey, but expensive. I started to wonder what Angie did for a living. Pulling up to the drive, I noted Rube’s truck parked on the street. I pulled in behind him, parked the mustang, and got out, heading up the walk.
Rube answered my knock after a minute. “Come on in, Ang is in the kitchen.”
As if on cue, a voice from the back of the house called, “Is that George? Send her on back.” Rube shrugged and gestured down the hall. I could smell pot roast and potatoes and something with onions in it. Stepping into the kitchen, I found Angie in the same outfit she had been wearing earlier that day, with the addition of a navy and white polka dot apron, with, I shit you not, lace and ruffles. I nearly made a June Clever crack, but she was standing at the sink, humming something I thought might maybe be by Glenn Goodman or Benny Miller or something, washing lettuce for a salad. It seemed…nice, very homey.
“I brought you this,” I said, holding out the bottle. It was not something I knew anything about, but the sales girl had taken my price point, smiled at me, and told me this would be lovely. Angie seemed extremely pleased with it.
“George Lass, you are too fantastic,” she said, taking it from me. She immediately turned and reached into a drawer, pulling out a corkscrew. She made quick work of the bottle, then set it aside on the counter. “We’ll let that breathe for a little while I plate things out, then have it with the roast.”
I didn’t know what to do with that, so I asked if she needed any help. She smiled and shook her head. “If you want to go help Rube set the table and man the door, I’ll have this ready to go in two shakes.”
I didn’t think anyone but Rube talked like that anymore, so I smiled and headed back into the living room. There was a large dining room table in one half of the huge great room, and Rube was expertly laying out table-settings. “You might want to add wine-glasses. I brought a hostess gift.”
“I’m your sponsor, I shouldn’t encourage your substance abuse,” Rube quipped.
I stuck my tongue out and noticed the crystal vase of irises in the center. “Yours?”
“I knew she liked them,” he said. Self-consciously, he reached out and gave the flowers a giggle, helping them fall into a more natural arrangement.
I found the wine glasses in the china hutch. “How long have you two known each other anyways?”
“We met about a year after her death,” he replied, taking half the glasses from her. “We had another uptick here, and she was loaned out for a while. She came back in the early 1970s for about two weeks, for another one.”
“She’s a fan of yours,” I said. “We had a nice little girls’ lunch.”
“Christ.” The doorbell rang, and Rube hurried to get it. Roxy walked in, in uniform. “Shift break?”
“Yeah,” Roxy said. She was carrying a bag. I pointed back towards the kitchen. Roxy headed back that way, and I thought I heard Angie say, “Oh, chocolates, how divine.”
“So, what’s her story?” I asked, cocking my head in the direction Roxy just went. “Is she really this nice, and sweet, and together?”
“Most of the time,” Rube said, his voice going soft and gravelly. “We all have our moments. She just has…fewer than most.”
“Rube,” I said. He looked up from laying out dinner forks. “Do you love her?”
Rube cocked an eyebrow at me, one that said I was being a moron. “Like the nicest, sweetest, most together younger sister in the world, I do. Not in any other way.”
I mulled that over as the doorbell rang again. I got it this time, letting in Mason and Daisy, who arrived empty handed. Rube took measure, frowned, and mumbled something about Emily freaking Post. However, before he could lecture them, Roxy and Angie started carrying the food and wine out. As I turned to join them, I noticed a small, framed silver picture on the mantel. Black and white, it showed Angie in a uniform, leaving what looked like a chapel on the arm of a striking man, also in uniform. The look said World War II. Both of them looked really, incredibly happy, which seems odd for war time. Then again, I had never seen a war closer up than my TV screen, so what did I know?
It was one of the strangest dinners of my life. Not that the five of us didn’t generally get along in a group, but this time, with Angie’s smiling, happy presence, we functioned almost like a big family. We all shared wine, everyone laughed, nobody really took potshots at each other. As the evening wound down, and people began to drift away, it came down to Rube, Angie, and I, sitting on the sofa and chairs near the fireplace, nursing coffee and tea and hot cocoa and slices of Angie’s homemade apple pie. After a minute, Angie stretched in the unconscious way a cat does, set her mug down on the end table next to the sofa, and glanced at Rube. “So I hear you’re playing guard dog to my past.”
Rube immediately turned and shot me a look that said, I am pissed, Peanut, but Angie kept going. “Don’t get mad at George. She’s curious, and that’s natural in our situation. Hell, sometimes our deaths define us more than our lives.” She took a quick bite of pie. “That said, it was very sweet.”
Rub made a sound that seemed sort of like a harrumph. “Not everyone’s past is an easy thing.”
Angie smiled her sad, soft smile and glanced towards the mantle. “No, it isn’t. But I’ve had a very long time to get comfortable with mine. It is a little pain now and little pains aren’t so bad.” She turned and glanced at me. “So, what would you like to know?”
I suddenly thought I might not want to know. That whatever Rube had been trying to protect, it might have less to do with Angie’s piece of mind, and more to do with mine. That being said, I would look like a total chicken-shit if I didn’t ask. So I decided to ask about something that at least looked like a good memory. “Who’s the guy in the picture?”
“At the time, Commander Andrew Sullivan, navy surgeon,” Angie replied. “That’s our wedding day, September 21, 1942.”
“So you were?”
“Lieutenant Angela Atkins, United States Navy Nursing Corps,” Angie replied. “I’d been in almost two years at that point. I was twenty-two.”
“Is that Hawaii?” I asked. I saw Rube wince out of the corner of my eye.
“Pearl Harbor,” Angie said. “We were both stationed there at the start of the war. We had been casually introduced a few times at the Officer’s Club, but I wasn’t really looking for anything. I really loved my job, and Hawaii, and I didn’t feel the need for anything more…until it happened.”
She hadn’t been on duty that Sunday morning at the base hospital. She had taken extra paperwork home with her and was sitting in the kitchen of the little two bedroom bungalow she rented in a quiet neighborhood of Honolulu east of the base. Suddenly, her mug of hot chocolate had begun to rattle as the sound of planes roaring overhead filled the air. Running outside, she saw was nearly knocked to the ground by the concussion of the first bombs exploding. She ran back into the house and threw on her uniform, then grabbed her keys and purse and made a run for her car.
As she sped down roads deserted by civilians taking shelter, her mind whirled between trying to remember emergency procedures and wondering if being in her car made her a target. She reached the base gate and left her car, running towards the hospital building as fast as she could. She looked around for Margo, the head supervisory nurse. Asking, one of the other nurses gave a grim shake of the head. Knowing she was next in the chain, she began issuing commands…and three days passed, almost unnoticed, except for the competent doctor she so often found herself besides. Commander Sullivan knew talent when he saw it, and she had, at his direction, washed, abraided, dressed, and packed wounds when he told her, before moving on to the next guy in a bed.
Now, with no more critical wounded to handle, and with another nurse to take over supervision, she found herself standing outside, too tired to think or pick an action. Sunlight was strange after three straight days inside, and she found herself so tired she could hardly think. Her uniform stunk of blood and gore and the faint smell of burnt meat from all the fire victims she had tended. A sudden urge to vomit came and went quickly as her body remembered she had eaten maybe two handfuls of crackers from a ration kit and enough water to keep going and nothing else. Vomiting on an empty stomach was entirely futile. Reaching into her pocket, she found the little vial one of the pharmacists had passed out to all the nurses that first day, loaded with enough cyanide capsules to kill ten people each, in case the Japanese had made landfall. Looking at the amber glass now, her hands shook.
“You oughta put that back in your pocket before you drop it,” a voice behind her on the lawn said. Turning, she saw Commander Sullivan sitting on his heels against the wall, worrying his duty cap in his hands. “They kick you out to get some sleep too?”
“Yes, sir!” she found herself trying to simultaneously shove the vial back in her pocket and salute. The wrong hand went flying up and the vial went into the air. “Shit!”
The commander was on his feet in a second and caught the vial before it hit the wall. She breathed a sigh of relief. “At ease, Lieutenant,” he said, handing it back. “You’ve earned the break.”
“Thank you.” She carefully tucked the vial into her purse. “You headed to quarters, sir?”
“You can call me Andy, if you want,” he replied. “And apparently, thanks to our friends with the shiny planes, I don’t have quarters left to go to.” The laugh was bitter, and tired, and angry. She looked at him then, and saw how very, very exhausted he looked.
“Well, Andy, this happens to be your lucky day,” she said, putting her hand out to him. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?” he asked, letting himself be led. She smiled back at him and started walking back up the main road towards the gate. The sentry recognized her, waving her through, and she was relieved to see her car still by the side of the road, in one piece.
“Assuming it’s still standing, my place has a guest room,” she replied. “Yours for the duration, until they can make arrangements.”
He started to shake his head. “That’s against about forty different regulations.”
Opening her car, she reached over and unlocked the passenger side. “I don’t really care. Get in.”
They drove the twenty minutes back to her little house, still standing. As they got out of the car, Mrs. Kealoha, who lived next door, came running over and hugged Angie hard, completely ignoring the mess on her clothes. Assured of her general well being, Mrs. Kealoha took in a measuring eye of the commander, and went to hit up the neighborhood ladies for clothes to fit him.
She led him inside and pointed towards the bathroom in the back. He’d broached no further argument since they had pulled away from base. She heard the water start to run as she went to clean up her nasty, cold congealed hot chocolate in the kitchen. Drying the cup, she was contemplating pulling together a meal, when there was a knock at the back door. Lelani, Mrs. Kealoha’s eldest handed her a bag of clothes and two covered plates. She smiled and said thank you, setting the food into the oven. She knocked on the bathroom door and left the clothes on the floor of the hall. Moving into her bedroom, she began stripping the clothes from her body and tossing them into a pile on one side of the room. She suspected that there wasn’t a laundry anywhere on the island that could salvage that uniform.
She heard the water stop and the door open. After a moment, she heard the commander call, “Clear.” Wrapping a silk robe around herself, she hurried to the small, steam-filled room he had just vacated. She reached out and started the water, cranking it as hot as she could stand. She let the robe fall to the floor and stepped in, letting the heat run over her, scalding her light olive skin a dark pink. She looked down and for the first time saw the blood that had gotten in her hair when she had shielded a man she was working on with her own body that first day, when the sirens had gone off again. He’d been bad, his gut hit by so much shrapnel; she couldn’t do much in the end for him except hold his hand and write a quick note to his young wife back on the mainland.
The water was loud, and it masked the deep, heaving sobs that filled her chest as she watched the pink water running into the drain. She couldn’t stay like this for long, she had a guest, she needed food, but for three minutes, she sobbed her tears into the now clear water hitting the enamel of the old tub. Then she shampooed her hair, washed herself, and shut the water off, getting out and taking the robe back up.
After she had dressed in a loose house dress, and after they had both eaten dinner, she had showed him to his room. It was barely three o’clock, but time made no matter of exhaustion, and she didn’t think they could make light conversation just now anyways. Sitting at her vanity, she reached for her silver backed hairbrush and tried to bring it up to her hair. Her arm, exhausted from three days of work, was tightening up, and her hand kept shaking. Suddenly, she dropped it and it clattered into the open door. “God-DAMMIT.” She swore. In a second, the Commander stood over it, looking at her. “I’m sorry,” she said, feeling her control slip. “I should just say to hell with it and let it snarl.”
Without a word, he leaned over and picked the brush up, then moved to stand behind her. Taking her dark curls in his hands, he started at the ends, using the brush to gently tease loose the worst of the tangles. Angie’s breath caught in her throat as his fingers brushed the back of her neck. She had noticed on the drive what strong hands he had, and over dinner, she had admired his hazel eyes and wheat-gold hair, as much as you could when you were this tired and had just spent three days in a level of hell Dante never dreamed of. But something about his touch, his doing something so….intimate, it made her feel alive in a way nothing else ever had. Her eyes drifted shut and she made a small noise, a strange, strangled sigh. She was shocked when the feel of his hand against the back of her neck was replaced by two warm, soft lips. One thing, as they say, led to another, and while they both ended up in bed shortly after, what they did wasn’t really restful.
He apologized later, when they woke up, after he realized that she hadn’t ever…but she stopped him, reminding him it took two to dance, and she had needed the comfort of what they had done as much as he had. So much so that later, by the soft blue glow of the waning island moon, she moved to bring them to that place again. And so things continued, as weeks went by, until he got his new quarters. Even then, he was at Angie’s place most nights when they were both off shift. Sometimes, they went out, tried to enjoy what normalcy there was, but usually, they preferred to eat a quiet meal and retire early. Wounded were still coming in as America fully entered the war, and they both knew that either of them could be transferred out at a moment’s notice. When he got his first orders for a tour on one of Pearl’s war ships, they had spent a long night together. When she woke up in the morning, he had gone to report, leaving a small diamond ring and a note that said, “Think about it.”
“He was the only person ever not to call me Angie. He thought it would get confusing,” she said. “He called me Ella.”
“So did you die in the war?” I asked. I felt rather than saw Rube visibly wince. “I mean, if you don’t mind…you don’t have too….”
“No, it’s all right.” Angie took a sip of her drink and found it cold. “Refills?” Rube and I shook our heads and watched her walk briskly into the kitchen. She was gone a few minutes, and Rube took the time to mumble at me.
“I swear, Peanut, you have no fucking sense of decorum,” he whispered. “Did no one ever tell you about fucking polite conversation?”
“My mother always said I shouldn’t say fuck so much,” I shot back. Just then, Angie walked back in and sank back into the overstuff chair, holding a mug of hot chocolate like it was a life line.
“Sorry,” she apologized. She took a sip, and then another, looking intently into the thick liquid. “I died on June 21, 1945. So during the war, but I was stateside. V-E day had happened in May, and everyone knew it was a matter of time. So my commanding officer approached me about being assigned special duty as a nurse supervisor with a new veteran’s medical center in Los Angeles. I would be assigned there for one year, get things running, train civilian nurses to deal with war injuries, and then I would received a full honorable discharge. Andrew had been promoted to Captain in 1943, and I was made a Lieutenant Commander the next year. He had been home briefly at the New Year, and then shipped out again. At the time, he was dealing with wounded from Okinawa. My CO thought he could get Andrew assigned to a base near me for the duration of my service, and then I could go on to life as a Navy doctor’s wife, wherever that took us.”
She paused again, and something dark came into her eyes. “I had been in LA for about three weeks, staying in this little rented house, and I was pretty tired that night. Around 8:30, a woman had knocked on my door, lost, looking for a house party. I remember she took my hand in hers, to thank me, I thought. I went to bed right after that.”
She awoke to the feeling of a knife at her throat. The cold steel and the accompanying hand to her mouth woke her, but prevent her from struggling. Within seconds, one of her favorite silk scarves was shoved into her mouth, and the belt of her silk robe was tying her hands to the bed frame.
She wasn’t stupid, she knew that this guy wasn’t wearing a mask, and that that couldn’t be good. He had shoved a pillow between her head and her arms, effectively blocking his own view of what her hands were doing. And then he began cutting her. Little nicks, like tongues of fire across her skin. He started with her upper arms, staying well away from her wrists. Drawing out whatever twisted enjoyment he got out of this kind of thing. She felt the tears well, felt the screams clawing at her throat, wanting to shove the scarf clear and cry for help.
She may have been a nurse, but she was still a member of the United States Navy. She was also a woman alone at the moment, and she kept a small duty knife tied to a lower part of the brass headboard. Her wrists twisted under the pillows, which seemed to excite him. It hurt like hell, causing the skin to pull on her arms and making her hyper extend to reach the knife. She was terrified that she might drop it, terrified she may not get out of this. He had moved on now, pushing up her pajama top and tracing cuts along her stomach.
She had no clue how much time had passed between getting the knife from the sheath and turning it to work on her bound wrists. He had yanked the pants of her pajamas down now. Her top had fallen back, slowly soaking up the blood from the numerous cuts. Her panties still in place, he went to work on her thighs.
At last, after what felt like a lifetime, she felt the silk give against the edge of the knife. One hand was free, now if she could just….she didn’t feel the knife sink deep into her side. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she knew that was how the body was. Skin-deep wounds burn like mad, so you know to pull back. But things that plunge in, things that rip through vital parts, those are felt almost not at all, at first. The body blocks it for a while, to try to give you time to get help. She knew, because she could feel the spreading warmness…saw him pull down his pants and smear himself with her blood, and in that instant, she knew she was going to die, but she was going to take the bastard with her. As he moved to position himself, her arm shot out with surprising speed, burying the knife deep into his neck. He made an angry, gurgling noise and yanked the knife free.
The scent of copper filled her nose as his arterial blood sprayed her face. He collapsed off the side of the bed, onto the floor, and within seconds, was still. She tried to feel relieved, but mostly, she felt tired and cold, strange for Los Angeles in June. Reaching her freed hand out, she spit out her scarf and managed to grab her phone from the bedside table and dial zero.
“Operator,” said the tinny voice at the end of the line.
“Send…the police….stabbed….,” she said.
“M’am? Stay on the line. M’am?” She heard the voice from far away as things suddenly got dark, and the phone slipped from her hand. She caught one last glimpse of the silver frame on the table, two happy people facing an uncertain future, but really happy, just in that moment. ‘Oh Andy,’ she thought, as the world closed over her.
“And suddenly, I was standing there, looking at my body. And his body. For the longest time. It seemed like hours,” Angie said. “And then the police arrived, and the ambulance, which got used as a hearse. The morgue attendant was named Joey. He explained the reaper thing, told me to come along with…well, with myself.”
I sat there, shocked. I knew, rationally, that people got murdered. And I knew it happened in sick, twisted ways. I had seen Silence of the Lambs, for crying out loud. But I had never, ever reaped something like that, and I had never met someone whose death was that…horrifying. “I’m sorry,” I said, softly. And I was. I was sorry her death had been that…gruesome, and I was sorry I made her relive it.
She smiled at me, that sweet, sad, Disney princess smile, and shrugged. “It’s been almost sixty years, George. I’m not saying it wasn’t awful, but that much time, and you learn to cope.”
I glance back up at the frame, and a realization hit me. “You’ve been true to Andy, all these years?” She nodded at me. “Why? I mean, shit, that’s a long time.”
She laughed. “Believe me, I know. But Andy was true to me the rest of his life. He never remarried. Never even dated, from what I can tell.”
“Andy’s dead?” Somehow, that piece of information, more than anything, killed me. Well, except for my already being dead. It seemed somehow karmic justice that she would get to hang around until Andy died, and then she’d get her lights. But if he had crossed over, and she was still here… “How?!”
“Korea. He transferred to the Army when the war started, so he could serve closer to the front. He was riding in a Jeep to treat a patient and they hit a landmine,” she replied. “It was very quick.”
“That’s enough of memory lane for one night, Peanut,” Rube said, suddenly. He turned to Angie. “Dinner was great, we should do it again, sometime.”
“I’m here all week,” she replied. “We should have Penny join us, next time. I just couldn’t get by there today.”
I took my plate and cup to the sink, and then followed Rube out. As the door was closing, I heard the stereo start up an old melody.
When they begin the beguine,
It brings back the sound of music so tender,
It brings back the night of tropical splendour,
It brings back a memory evergreen!
I had tears in my eyes. It was unfair. More unfair than…well, more unfair than almost anything I ever heard. A thought crossed my mind. “So, have you been faithful to Lucy….”
“Drop it, George,” he growled. I winced, and thought about pulling away and running for the car before I really lost it, right in front of him. Then, something seemed to shift. “Lucy remarried, about a year after I died. I took that pretty hard, but there was nothing I could do.”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit, I was batting a thousand tonight. “Rube, I…”
He blew a sigh. “I know. It’s…well, it’s not okay, but I know.” He looked back at the house. “She got to be there, when he died. They sent her to Korea. She held his hand, and helped him cross over. It was enough to break your heart.”
“You were there too?” I asked.
He looked at me. “It was a war, George. It can be all hands on deck. You’ll probably do one someday.”
“Is she okay?”
“Peanut,” Rube said, giving me a small hug. “She’s the most okay person I know.”
I felt pretty much like the shittiest undead person on the planet the next morning. I had tossed and turned all night, haunted alternatively by the look on Rube’s face and the sorrow in Angie’s voice. Dragging into Der Wafflehaus, I slid into the booth next to Roxy. She glanced sideways at me. “You look like shit.”
“Thank you,” I ground out. Kiffany set a cup of coffee in front of me, and gave me a gentle smile. Taking my food order, she wandered off to get a refill for the next table’s orange juice.
Mason wandered in not long after, still smelling like whatever club he had crawled out of the night before. “You okay, Georgie? You look a little rough.”
I contemplated the fork in my rolled up silverware and whether it would draw undo attention to jam it into the chest of the next person who made a fucking comment. I unrolled the roll and began playing with the napkin, tearing off little tiny pieces. It made time pass, and I was surprised by how fast my banana rama waffle plate came out. As good as it sounded when I had ordered it, I found myself picking at it now. Daisy, Rube, and Angie arrived at almost the same time, and I was surprised to see Penny with them, wearing her nurse’s scrubs. Everyone settled around, pulling up chairs and ordering food. Rube started handing out post-its, even more than the day before.
It appeared to be a full day ending in a group-reap at 7:00 PM that night at… “A church?” I asked. Rube nodded, sipping his juice. “What the hell kind of group reap is two post-its each at a church?”
“Fire, rampage, cult suicide, carbon monoxide incident,” Angie said brightly, while decapitating her muffin. “Same old, same old.” We all looked at her. “What? I work in LA.”
After we all had finished breakfast, I grabbed my bag and got ready to leave. Angie put a hand gently on my arm. “Lunch?” she asked. Was she insane? After I had pried my way into her horrific past, forced her to relive it all over again, then sucker punched Rube the same way? Because knowing Rube, he might have told her. She wanted to have lunch with me?
“Okay.” I said, quietly. She gave me a bright smile and suggested we meet at the park at noon, when we both appeared to have a two hour break between our reaps. I nodded, and then headed out the door.
Three reaps later, all of them less than enjoyable (one suicide, one escalated traffic incident, and one electrocution involving a fan, a block of ice, and a frayed electric cord), I found myself sitting waiting in the park. I noted that most of the blood stains seemed to have been cleaned up, which surprised me. I guess the parks and recreation people wanted to make sure it looked like a friendly place.
I was lost in this thought when Angie sat down beside me. Today’s outfit was a colorful sundress with strappy sandals, a little more modern than the rest of what I had seen her in, though her hair still looked vaguely 1940s with the flower on a bobby pin tucked behind one ear. “Hi,” I mumbled.
“George, you really don’t have to feel bad,” she said, reaching over and giving my hand a squeeze. “I promise, I am just fine.”
“I disappointed Rube,” I said, softly. I hadn’t been planning to say that. Fuck, I hadn’t even realized I had been thinking that. But there it was, out there. “I hate that feeling.”
“For what it’s worth,” Angie said, standing up and brushing off the skirt of her dress, “I don’t think he’s disappointed. I think it hurts him that he couldn’t protect me from what he thought would be something awful, and that he couldn’t protect you from feeling like you did something awful. Rube may seem all gruff, but that's a product of his times and how best he knows to deal with people he cares about. So, sushi? Or Indian food?”
We walked on for a while, me thinking over what she said, her humming something that sounded like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. I glanced over at her. There was still a tiny trace of sadness in her eyes, but I realized that even when she was laughing and happy, it was there. I could almost hear Rube’s voice in the back of my head telling me, “The world does not revolve around you, Peanut.” I hadn’t put the sadness there. I felt a measure better.
“I think sushi,” I said. She smiled and then gave our walk a little more of a direction. “I asked Rube, after we left, after what you said about Andy. I asked Rube about Lucy. That was really dumb.”
She glanced at me sideways. “You died young, George. It makes sense you would be curious about the life experiences you didn’t get in your go around. You’ll have a chance to understand better what you can ask some people and what you can’t, as time goes by.” She nodded her head across the street towards a place called BluFin. “Rube’s been a crew chief long enough, you aren’t the first young death he’s had to deal with.”
After we were seated in the restaurant, I decided to get her take on Rube’s words that had set the whole mess in motion. “Rube said I tend to play the ‘my death is the worst death ever’ card.”
We had a goyza tray appetizer and I waited as she dipped one expertly in the accompanying sauce with a pair of chopsticks and then chewed thoughtfully. “And I assume he said this because he thought I would win that argument?”
I quirked an eyerow at her. “You were tortured by a serial rapist-murderer for hours, then bled to death,” I said. “You totally win.”
“Truth as I see it, nobody wins,” Angie said, looking up at me. “And everyone wins.”
“You realize that makes no freaking sense, right?” And even as I said it, I started to think maybe it did.
“Each death is a small, quiet, personal thing. It only happens to the person who dies.” Angie paused and sipped her water. “Its apples to beef steak. There is no real way to compare. So yes, my death was awful, and your death was awful, and the death of an eighty-nine year old woman, in bed, is still awful. That’s just the nature of things.”
And that made as much sense as anything ever had, and she had made it make sense in the nicest, sweetest, most together way possible. As we enjoyed the rest of our lunch, I wished she was staying in Seattle. I figured that upper management probably wouldn’t work that way though.
The heat wave broke two days later. That last morning, Rube handed out a normal number of reaps, with just one for Angie. “It’s at 9am. I thought you might want to catch an afternoon flight.”
She smiled at him. “Thanks, I should be getting home. Joey doesn’t like to be a man down for long.” She stood and hugged Roxy and Daisy and Mason, squeezed Rube’s hand, and looked at me. “Want to walk me out?”
We headed for the parking lot. “You really can’t stay?” I asked. She shook her head at me.
“You don’t need six in this division every day,” she said. “And LA has plenty of death to go around.”
I looked down, scuffing at some loose asphalt with my shoe. “So…we’ll probably never see each other again, then?”
She laughed, that silver, tinkling noise, and smiled. “You never know, Seattle could have another heat wave.” She pulled a card out of her purse and handed it to me. “This is my number in LA. Anytime you need an ear to bend, or you just want to chat, you call me. Collect, if you have to.” She hugged me, good and hard, and then stepped back. “Stay curious, Georgia. Otherwise, this all gets very, very old.”
I watched her walk to the curb, and hail a taxi. And just like that, she was gone. I turned, and there was Rube, standing at the door and watching her go. He saw me, and smiled a sentimental smile. “Good old Angie,” he said. “She’s like a force of nature.” And with that, he turned and headed back inside. I looked down at my post-it, and headed towards my car. I had a reap in about half an hour, and the dead don’t keep.