I. Hide and Seek in Waterfalls
"'The question,' she replied, 'is not whether you will love, hurt, dream, and die. It is what you will love, why you will hurt, when you will dream, and how you will die. This is your choice. You cannot pick the destination, only the path.'" –Oathbringer, Brandon Sanderson
It poured on the day of the funeral; water cascading down in little streams and waterfalls. Neil Watts gripped the handle of his umbrella, and wondered why it didn't hurt at all. Ferda'd cried, when his dog died, but all Neil could feel was nothing.
Numb, he decided. That was the word for it. He was numb. It was as if his heart had been clawed out of his chest, and they'd left a leaden stone in exchange, and then stitched him up again.
He hadn't cried. Couldn't bring himself to. The sky was doing its fair share of weeping, though. All Neil could think about was how much he hated the rain.
Just a few days ago, he'd held his grandfather's hand, smoothing over the dry, wrinkled skin with his thumb. He hadn't known what to say, then. "You don't have to say anything, Neil," Grandpa had chuckled, though the sound rasped in his throat like a wood saw. "You don't need to be clever." Neil thought he understood, then. Sometimes, being there was enough.
He'd raced through most of his homework, in order to spend the time at the hospital. He'd watched as his grandfather grew more gaunt, as if the disease was hollowing him out, and he clung to life by only a few, fraying threads. He'd sat there and held his grandfather's hand, because talking increasingly tired Grandpa out, and part of Neil had known even then that there was only one direction his grandfather was headed, and it wasn't towards recovery.
"Do you remember, Neil?" his grandfather croaked, all of a sudden.
"Shh, Grandpa," Neil whispered, drawing up the quilted blankets so they settled more comfortably about his grandfather's bony frame. "Just rest."
"The hill…the stars," his grandfather continued, ignoring Neil's words. "I wish we could see them…one last time."
"We will," Neil said, clasping his grandfather's wrist with both hands, wondering if you could will strength into someone, somehow. If you could pour it into them, by sheer stubbornness, by sheer force of will, and help them to hang in there, to recover.
Wondered if he was being selfish and cruel, for all he'd seen his grandfather slowly fading over the past weeks. Maybe it was better, kinder, to wish he'd just get worse; to wish for an end to his grandfather's pain and suffering.
And then Neil hated himself, for that final thought, the one that crept into his head, even as he sat there on most days; that whispered to him, insidiously, that his grandfather was better off dead.
He found himself sitting there, at his grandfather's bedside, for what seemed like an eternity, before he realised that his grandfather was dead; that the patient monitor was indicating nothing but a flat green line, that the door to the ward was open, and the doctor had burst in, and his grandfather was dead.
He accepted, mechanically, the condolences of the doctor, and of Albert, the other greybeard patient in the ward, who'd made it a point to play chess with his grandfather, with Neil moving the pieces since his grandfather became too weak to do more than murmur instructions in his ear.
Gone, now. There would be no more chess matches, no more trips to the stargazing rock on the hill, no more cooking sessions in the kitchen, with his grandfather urging him to be creative with the ingredients and combinations; no more reading together, or even just lying against the sun-warmed hood of that battered old Accord and just talking.
No more, no more, no more; all that raw, untrammelled possibility, everything that might have been but would never now be, gone.
He smothered the urge to smash the vase with the brightly-coloured sunflowers to the floor; he knew he was hurting, and some part of him wanted only to unleash his pain on the world, in the language of breaking and force.
The other part of him told him to bury it, to bury it deep, until it coalesced to rime and stone.
He went home. They carefully covered each of the mirrors at home with cloth, and Neil went to school, and laughed, and generally acted as if he hadn't wanted to claw his own heart from his chest; as if he hadn't sat there and held his grandfather's hand as he passed.
"I heard about your grandfather," said Ferda, during their lunch break. "I'm sorry."
"Nah," Neil replied, offhandedly. "It's for the best." And he somehow managed to not choke on the words, even as he said them; managed not to hate the part of him that truly, truly believed this.
And then there was the funeral, several days later, and his ma and his pa were there, holding each other's hands, awkwardly. Neil supposed that it didn't matter: when you were hurting, you held on to someone else for comfort.
He didn't have someone else, though, except maybe Ferda, but he wasn't hurting, wasn't hurting at all, was just numb and his heart was a glacier.
Ma and Pa got back together, soon after. Neil hadn't been sure what to make of that, either.
After all was said and done; after Johnny Wyles drew his last breath, Eva handled all the talking and the liasing with Johnny's doctor and his caretaker, and the various forms that need to be signed and filled in.
Neil packed up, shutting off the machine; making the screen fold in on itself, disconnecting the power, and then putting the machine itself away into the battered silver carrying box, along with the deactivated helmets they'd all been using. Most of the machine cases were a bright, shiny silver: the sort you could vaguely see your blurred reflection in.
Too much like mirrors; part of Neil remembered that they made mirrors from silver-backed glass, and shivered. He hated mirrors. After his first day at Sigmund, he'd gone to a DIY store and picked up a pot of matte-silver paint and brought it to work the next day and spent several hours painting the carrying case over.
Eva'd joked he couldn't stand mirrors because they made him realise how shallow he was, to which Neil retorted that it was because gazing at manly perfection too much hurt his eyes.
It was a gesture of hard-won trust—as much as anything else—that they could both joke about something like this.
He snapped the carrying box shut, and then that was it; no more make-work to do, nothing left except to come to terms with the knowledge swimming around in his head.
He'd felt it.
He'd felt his dying day, even as he sat by Johnny's bedside, even as he held the old man's papery hands and took time from him, five hours at once, listening to Johnny's breathing deepen, each breath becoming slow and even and steady as a little youth rushed back into him; as his death receded five hours away, into the future.
Five stolen hours that surged into Neil; just a trickle, really, aging him incrementally, tipping him just a bit closer towards the end of experience.
A brief stay of execution for Johnny, nothing more. Perhaps enough time for Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts to work their magic.
But Neil felt it for the first time—it was never the same for each of them—as a glimmer of starlight in the night sky, radiant with possibility; as if a sickroom window had been opened, letting in a gentle breeze; as if a door had opened to the days of his childhood, and he was laughing and running in a sunlit field again, or sitting cross-legged on the window-seat of his room, reading a book.
His dying day.
He buried his head in his hands. The threshold was different, for everyone. Sometimes, you could be nearly a week to your dying day before you knew. Sometimes, you knew within months. Years, even.
He had five years, six months, and twenty-two days, to go.
All things considered, Neil supposed it was a good thing—relatively-speaking—that he was already dead.
Neil Watts died when he was seventeen, just a year shy of graduation.
He never bothered showing up for the funeral. Eva later told him that a number of their classmates turned up briefly, and they'd called his name, all the same, at graduation.
"What's dying like?" she asked.
He glanced at her, sharply, but saw nothing, except curiosity, in her lively dark eyes. In any case, as far as he could tell, it was just the two of them, taking a long evening walk by the river.
"The grey rain-curtain of the world rolls back," he said, heavily. "And all turns to silver glass. And then you see it: white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."
"Shut up, Gandalf," Eva quipped, rolling her eyes. "You were dead to me the moment you quoted the movies instead."
"In case it's escaped your attention, my dear hobbit, I am dead."
"Uh-huh," Eva said. "You make another height crack, and I'm breaking your arm."
It was an old joke, but it fell flat. Too many of these little things did, and while it felt natural to pick up the suspended threads of their friendship, it seemed as if bits of it had frayed beyond repair. Still, Neil supposed the fact she hadn't bound him—whether in mirror-glass or to his bones—or even simply told on him, was probably a promising sign.
He adjusted his glasses, more out of deeply-ingrained habit, than out of necessity. He could see just fine without them, but he'd worn them for so many years, it just didn't feel right to not be wearing them.
"So, what is it like?"
He considered her question for a few long moments. "Like nothing," Neil said, at last, haltingly. "I don't know how you describe it, but it's nothing. No experience, no sensation…just absence. And then…" He swallowed, hard. "We come back," he said.
She didn't need to know that he'd found himself in his bedroom, light falling like gentle amber rain through the window, spreading like warm honey. She didn't need to know that he'd wandered through his house—forgetting, remembering—seeing the light drapes they'd thrown over all the mirrors.
They'd grown up with the superstitions, of course: the dead can't harm you, if you cover the mirrors in your home, if you visit them every week. But the superstitions were what you did because your grandparents did them, and told you to do them, and most people believed only half-heartedly, if at all.
He left, running away from the place he'd grown up, because he couldn't stand the look on his parents's faces when he walked into the kitchen, dead, earthbound, lost, and saw only fear and horror.
Neil realised, then, that sometimes, you could never go home again.
Maybe Eva read something in his silence. He didn't know. She reached out, tentatively, as if she was going to put a hand on his shoulder.
There was a hurt, there, that could not be taken back. That ran deeper than words.
"Sorry," Eva muttered, a faint flush colouring her cheeks. "I shouldn't have."
"Yeah, yeah," Neil growled. "Keep hogging the blame, why don't you? You need to get better at sharing, girl. Woman."
And there it was, again, staring at him—walking right next to him, Neil corrected himself—all the time and with it, the attendant possibilities he'd lost, and not for the first time, he wondered where he'd be if he hadn't died that night, hadn't found himself wandering back into his own life, an earthbound ghost.
He could've graduated. Gone to college. Bought himself a Nintendo Switch.
"So," he said, because it was better than the awkward silence, better than the regrets and mistakes and what-ifs haunting him, "What happened to telling your best friend important things like, 'Hey Neil, you know Sabrina the Teenage Witch? Yeah, that's me.'"
"You think you're so funny," Eva said, darkly, flashing him a sour stare.
"Naw, I know I'm funny. Whose Line lost a star when they rejected my application."
"Did you really?" Eva began, before shaking her head. "Actually, no, I do not want to know this." She sighed. "Look, it's just something I don't like to talk about. I knew it was a possibility, since we have witches on both sides of the family tree, but…" she trailed off.
They walked on in another long, painful silence for a while, until Eva finally said, bleakly, "I didn't think it would matter. And it wasn't until…until after you died that the cucumber trees started to speak to me. And then I knew."
"Wait," said Neil, drawing to an abrupt halt. "Lemme get this straight. You are not just a witch." He jabbed his finger at Eva's chest, but jerking quite short of any form of contact. "You do cucumber trees?"
Eva sighed. "Witches can draw power from anything," she said, her voice taking on the quality of a lecture. "It just has to speak to them—to who they are—loud and clear. My dad drew power from rosebushes. My mom was a water witch."
"So, you're telling me you're basically BFFs with cucumber trees?" The very idea was so ridiculous that Neil couldn't help it: he wandered up to the nearby railing and collapsed against it, wheezing with laughter.
There was no heat, in her glare. "It's why I came here," Eva admitted. "It's why I left." She looked down at her hands. "It wasn't the same. And I wanted to do something—anything else. And there aren't so many trees here."
"Cucumber trees," Neil said, again. For emphasis.
He read what she hadn't said, though. Felt that strange, sharp knife-twist in his gut again, the one he'd felt when he'd walked into the kitchen that night. The one he'd felt when he showed up for new employee orientation at SigCorp, and Lisa was introducing him to his new partner, Dr. Eva Rosalene, and they'd locked eyes, and even before Lisa'd said anything, he'd seen the flash of recognition there, had known who and what she was; had known, at the same time, that Eva knew who and what he was.
Dead boy meets witch girl. Only it turned out they were best friends, long ago. Sounded like the premise for some kind of comedy, really. He'd shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his lab coat, and fought the urge to just cut loose—to drift free of the restraints of form and solidity and just run.
Eva sighed. "Are you going to keep being a pain in the ass about this?" she wanted to know. "Seriously, Neil. Cucumber trees. Can we move on, now?"
Dead boy meets witch girl. They used to be best friends. Maybe they still were. Maybe they'd make it, somehow.
Oh, and they help dying people die peacefully.
"I will, when you stop giving me comedy fodder," Neil shot back. "I mean, cucumber trees? That's so you." Eva elbowed him—half-heartedly—but stopped short of actual physical contact.
"I never pictured you working for SigCorp," she said. "Even when…" Another hesitation. "Even when I wondered what you'd have done after graduation."
Neil breathed out, in a long sigh. "Yeah," he admitted. "I don't think I ever figured I'd be working for SigCorp, either." He wasn't sure he wanted to say this next part. Wasn't sure where he stood with this new Eva, if they were still friends at all. But he felt as though he owed her; if not for her silence, then because he felt as though he'd just kicked a puppy when he'd flinched away from her.
Memory screamed that this was his friend—his best friend—and demanded he take her hand, that he practically grab her, hug her, and ask what the heck just happened, and worm her story out of her. That they spend this walk laughing, and exchanging jokes and each other's stories, rather than taking each other's measure, across long silences.
You couldn't always trust memory. Neil knew that.
"You know what we do, right?"
Eva raised an eyebrow. "I've been at this job for longer than you have, remember?"
"No, I mean ghosts." He shoved his hands back down into his coat pocket again and turned away from both railing and the wine-dark river below. "We're kinda not on the best of terms with time, since we were rude enough to die whenever—days or weeks or months or years—before our expiration date. Our dying day. So time just…kind of ignores us. Like water flowing around a stone." Like a river.
But ghosts did age. Neil had been seventeen when he died, and he was twenty-two when he met Eva again, in that room. Different enough, but not that all different. Enough for Eva to recognise the seeming impossibility, and to know what it meant.
She hadn't changed all that much, either. Eight years had passed, and time had mostly ignored Neil, flowing around him like water. With Eva, it had given her a certain poise, a certain graceful assurance.
"You take time," Eva said. "I remember that part. You touch the living and take time from them, and make it yours. That's how you age."
You had to cheat, to make time take notice of you, Brandon had explained, back when Neil was still a relative newcomer to the city; still raw and aching from rejection, still trying to make sense of being earthbound and dead and all that meant. You had to take time from the living; to drain it off them, to add it to your tab. Until one day, you were staring right at your dying day, and you knew just how much more you needed before you could step into the light, join the choir invisible, part the curtain, become an ex-Neil.
He gave her a measured nod. "Yeah. That's the size of it. Witches, though. You can make us take your time. You can bleed your unwanted years into us, whether we want to take 'em or not."
He did not say: witches can do worse things. They can bind the dead in mirrors, so we can't escape, so anyone living can use us to soak up their unwanted years. They can bind us to our bones, so we can't reach our dying day, can't move on and figure out what comes next.
Eva said, her voice gentle, as if trying to coax a spooked puppy out from under the bed, "Neil. You know I wouldn't ever do that to you, right?"
"'Course I do," It took him a few tries, before Neil found his voice. He smiled, but it was shaky. "But you know, I'm not the touchy-feely kind. Also, girl-cooties, ew."
"Girl-cooties?" Eva scoffed. "How old are you, five?"
"Technically," Neil said, "I'm twenty-two years old. Add seven months and fifteen days."
Eva said, flatly, "What the hell."
This second smile came easier. "I know, right? Being dead sucks, but at least you get awesome time-travel powers."
"And SigCorp?" Eva prompted. "How does that fit into this?"
Neil said, "I want to earn my time." At her puzzled expression, he elaborated, "Sure, I could take it, pretty easily. Like candy from a baby, really. Just walk through a crowd, bump someone here, touch someone there, and take time from them, rinse and repeat until I'm done, and at the threshold of my dying day. But…that's easy. I'm not really done with the world yet, and…" Honesty, he told himself. He owed Eva this much, at least. "…And I want to make a difference. SigCorp seemed like the way to do it. I'll earn the hours I take from people."
It struck him as strange; almost kind of sad, when he thought of the urgency of his younger days. You always thought there wasn't enough time for all the many little things while you were alive, and then you died, and you realised that you were wrong, you weren't paying enough attention, and that there was, in fact, far too much time, and you could drown in it, if you weren't careful.
There was always time. He just wished he'd known that, earlier.
"Okay," Eva admitted. "I understand that. It's why I signed up for SigCorp, myself. They were talking about it in college…the chance to make a difference, to put a smile on the faces of the dying…" She drew in a deep breath and started walking again. "And I thought a lot about the dying, I guess." She gave him a sidelong look. "Fair warning, though: if you want to earn your hours, you'll be done pretty soon unless your dying day was supposed to be something like ninety. We work killer overtime at SigCorp."
"Thanks for the warning. I'll work something out."
The ensuing silence was still heavy, still tense, still as uncomfortable as old socks several sizes too small, but at least it had crept—incrementally—towards something more familiar. Something resembling what they'd once had, years and years ago.
They reached the end of the boardwalk, and turned about, retracing their steps. "So," said Eva, at last. "Still friends?"
The question hadn't taken him by surprise, mostly because it had been constantly lurking about in his mind. He wanted to say yes, but he didn't know, and maybe too much time and distance had passed for him to say yes as unthinkingly as he might once have. Neil shrugged, then realised it was too dark for Eva to see the gesture. "Sure, I guess," he said.
"Good," said Eva, without hesitation. Just like that.
He missed that; her easy acceptance, the reassuring solidity of Eva Rosalene, knowing that their friendship ran deeper than the challenges life threw at it. God, he didn't know how much he missed it, until Eva'd just said that one word, matter-of-factly, as if it had never even been in doubt at all.
To tell the truth, he kind of liked it.
"Okay," Eva said, briskly, coming back into the room, tucking papers back into her briefcase. "Forms signed, we ready to—whoa, you okay there?"
Neil looked over at her, and forced himself to smile. Should've been easy enough: just an upward twitch of the corners of his mouth. It felt more like a grimace. "Yeah," he said. "I'm good."
Eva's frown just deepened. "How many hours did you pull off Johnny?"
He could've lied, could've refused to tell her. But she was a witch, and even this far from the cucumber trees, she could figure it out for herself if she took Johnny's hand and checked.
He could've pulled more than that, of course. He could've pulled entire months off from Johnny, but that was pointless. Life-generation technology worked badly on the living, which was why it was only ever used on those patients dying with regrets. It was why Neil only limited himself to taking hours off their patients, and even then, he tried not to, unless he and Eva were running short of time while attempting the traversal.
He wasn't going to claim time from this job, though. Not after he'd already taken time from Johnny.
Eva's eyes narrowed further. That was the problem with friends, Neil thought. They always knew. "You got your deadline, didn't you?"
Neil shrugged carelessly. "It's not a science, you know. Everyone's range is different. Guess I'll figure it out when I get close enough." It wasn't quite a lie, after all. "Anyway, so how're we getting back?" As far as attempts to change the subject went, this one was fairly in-your-face. Either Eva never noticed, or she allowed it.
"I called the tow company. Right now, we've got two options: we wait for Logan to come by and bail us out, or we catch a cab."
"Can't you, I don't know, do your thing?" Neil twirled his fingers, indicating what he meant.
Eva's mouth was a tight, exasperated line. "First, I've told you before: magic doesn't work that way. It's complicated, and I don't like using it in the first place. Second…maybe, but I don't work with steel, and that's what I'd need, to be able to do pretty much anything about it. There's maybe one cucumber tree in the vicinity, which I've only figured out because I've had to get rid of a ghost squirrel."
"You, wait, what?" Neil blinked, taken aback. "A squirrel?"
"Uh-huh. You're the dead person here, don't tell me you haven't figured out that anything alive can drop ghosts if you kill them before their dying day."
Neil said, again. "A squirrel."
"Yeah," Eva said, wryly. "You'll never guess where it came from."
Neil winced. "Oh. Uh. Yeah. It was a necessary sacrifice, what with us needing the roadkill smell to get past the beta blockers. And I already went through a heroic amount of effort to avoid killing it."
"Nearly killing us in the process, and wrecking the car."
"Hey, that's just you—I'm already dead."
"…Thanks, Neil, all of a sudden, I feel so much safer when you're driving."
"You should," he informed her. "After all, how many accidents have I gotten into? Just the one, and that squirrel was evil, streaking out onto the road the way it did, like a lightning bolt of doom. And what did you do to it, anyway, exorcise it?"
Eva shook her head. "No, I just gave it some time. Nudged it over the boundary into its dying day. Most of them don't live very long, anyway."
"Oh," Neil said. He didn't know what else to say to that.
Five years, six months, and twenty-two days. The mathematics was easy enough; he'd always been good with numbers, with calculations. People were a different trick. He'd worked it out, already. He was always going to die relatively young, in his late thirties. How did you wrap your head around something like that?
Even if he hadn't gotten himself killed before his expiration date, even if he'd somehow end up sleepwalking into this job with SigCorp for other reasons, it seemed like Neil Watts was always going to die young, and it wasn't fair, but life wasn't fair, he knew that intimately by now. If life was fair, Neil Watts would never have been killed when he was seventeen, would never have been left a shadow haunting the abandoned stage set of his own life.
He didn't know how to come to terms with that knowledge, and he wasn't sure he could or wanted to tell Eva about it.
"So, Logan or cab?" Eva asked, at last. And there it was again, the crease of worry between her eyebrows, and Neil reminded himself that it wasn't the time to be acting out of sorts.
"Cab money's coming out of our pockets, isn't it?"
"We could maybe get reimbursed, but you want to try filing a claim when we're already reporting a wrecked car?"
Neil sighed. "Thought so. Think there's anything to eat in the area? We're probably gonna be a while, waiting on Logan."
"Already one step ahead of you," Eva smiled, and brandished a scrap of paper. "Lily's written down a list of places we could hit while waiting. She offered to make us something, but I figured they're busy enough, all things considered."
"Yeah," Neil said. "Having two kids is pretty exhausting."
"And I thought you were all getting along so well, too."
"This was before they tried blackmailing me into giving them candy, and then said they'd report me to the police for animal abuse."
"Suddenly, I like them so much better already."
"That's pretty much what I imagined you'd say."
"Yes, Neil, every once in a while, I do like to conform to your expectations, since it keeps you guessing," said Eva, sardonically. "Pick a place. Now."
"You know my vote," he said, without even bothering to check the options Lily'd scribbled on the note. It just seemed like far too much effort right now.
"Uh-huh, that tofu and salad place it is, then," Eva agreed, and she stuck out her tongue at him. "Thanks for agreeing with me, Neil, I was getting sick of pizza."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm a regular team player," Neil retorted, without missing a beat. "You better appreciate the sacrifice." Still, tofu and salad had to be much better than pickled olives, he thought. Aloud, he said, "Think we can leave the equipment here? Last thing I want is to be lugging this all the way down to wherever."
Eva nodded. "Logan's picking us up here, so as long as we make it back on time, we're good."
"Cool," Neil said. "My back thanks you."
"Seriously, I have no idea how you carry this around all the time, but still complain about it being heavy every single time."
"I dunno," Neil informed her. "I mean, sheesh, we hang around all the time, but you still complain about my sense of humour every single time…"
"I'll stop complaining when you get a better sense of humour," Eva informed him, though he saw the glint of good humour in her dark eyes. "Git gud, scrub."
"I'll stop complaining when the equipment gets lighter. I already am good, thank you very much."
They bickered and laughed and argued as they walked out of the house, and into the early afternoon light. It was, Neil thought, shaping up to be a beautiful day: the skies were a clear, pristine blue, and the golden sunlight seemed to illuminate both the tips of the trees and the distant lighthouse in radiant haloes. A cool breeze whispered a soft susurrus through the gathering leaves, and he breathed in lungfuls of clean air, redolent with the mingled scents of pine and salt-spray.
He looked over at Eva, who was talking and gesturing animatedly; who had brightened, noticeably and wondered if any of the other trees here spoke to her. Maybe they did; he'd never asked, and she'd never said.
He wasn't truly alive, any longer. In a way, he was just stuck here, earthbound, fallen between the cosmic cracks and biding his time until he'd earned each unforgiving breath from now to his dying day. But right here, right now, talking and laughing with his best friend, Neil could only think that it was a good day on which to be alive.