It began with light.
Colorless light that blazed all around him without a clear source, light so intense it seemed to almost sing in its ferocity. He came to suddenly but his eyes took their time to open, shy of the brightness, as his other senses returned one by one. Then came the realization he was not alone.
Buttercup , he thought, reaching for her familiar soft warmth. She had been curled up beside him-- he was laying down, but he couldn’t tell where, and his vision was compromised by the light-- but as he reached for her, she stood, and he heard her shake herself out as if she had been swimming. The familiar jingle of her tags was absent, though. What--?
His thoughts felt like they were arriving out of order. Why didn’t Buttercup have her collar on, and how did they get here? Where even were they? The damnable light wouldn’t relent and he couldn’t get his bearings. He reached for his glasses, only to realize they weren’t there. Nothing was. He realized with a start that wherever he was lying, wherever he was with his dog, with frankly no ideas as to what had preceded his arrival... he was lying there naked and vulnerable.
From behind him, a low and accented voice intoned, “Travis Patrick McElroy.”
Oh, shit! Had he fallen asleep? Where was he supposed to be right now-- a show? Waking up from a nap sometimes left him feeling disoriented but it usually passed in a moment or two, never this bad. He turned, blindly, toward the voice, and asked, stupidly, “Am I late?”
There was a pause, and what might have been the shuffling of pages. If only he could see … but then, as he found the outline of the dark figure that he assumed had spoken, it cleared its throat and said, again, more softly, “Travis Patrick McElroy, born November eighth nineteen eighty-three.” As if modulating to his tone, the light around them seemed to shift and settle, finally dimming enough for Travis to make out his surroundings.
He was on some kind of fine sand, the sound of waves lapping distantly beyond. With his limited, glasses-less vision, he could see now that the figure was tall and dressed in flowing cloth that moved continuously in an unfelt breeze. Their face was shadowed but he could see a glint of something ghastly pale beneath the hood. Travis moved to stand and the figure held out a hand to restrain him. Buttercup shifted nervously beside him at the movement.
“Travis,” the figure said, an ice-cold hand settling on his shoulder as the figure knelt in front of him. “You’re early, as a matter of fact. Although--” and here he paused, somewhat awkwardly. “I guess it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to say that you are late.” The cold hand on his shoulder gave a friendly squeeze and, even with his shitty vision, Travis could now see the pale shape beneath their hood coalescing into a grinning skull. He rubbed his eyes, disbelieving, but as soon as he looked again the unmistakable death’s head had been replaced by a human face with dark, kind eyes.
“I’m sorry, did I… miss something?” Travis asked. He wasn’t sure if he should be terrified or annoyed. He wouldn’t have put it past Griffin or Justin to pull some kind of stupid stunt to freak him out, but they didn’t usually come out of the blue like this. He tried to think again on how he got there and felt a searing pain in his head. “Or, am I, I don’t know! Dreaming?” he tried again. The figure chuckled.
“Damn it!” Travis groaned, rubbing his eyes again. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I can’t see a goddamn thing, and I don’t know how I got here, and--”
“Oh,” the figure said, and moved one chilly finger to the center of Travis’ forehead. Immediately his vision cleared and his eyes adjusted as easily as if he had just pushed on his glasses. “There,” the figure said. “Better?”
Travis could see now that he was standing on a small island surrounded by a brightly-colored swirling sea. The figure in front of him was done up in some kind of fantasy costume, flowing robe and cloak all in shades of shadowy grey and midnight blue with a sharp black suit underneath. His face was remarkably handsome, and he held an enormous volume in broad hands tattooed black with raven’s wings.
“O… kay,” Travis said. “So this is weird. Um, thank you? For fixing my… eyes? But I still don’t know where I am. Or-- or who you are, for that matter.”
“Forgive me, my friend,” the figure said. “My name is Kravitz. I’m here to help.”
“Help with what?” he asked. He was trying hard not to feel too grumpy about the whole damn confusing thing when he-- wait. Wait.
“Kravitz?” he asked the figure. “Like, you’re the-- wait! I know this. You’re the… thrall? I think? For the Raven Queen? Is that right?”
Kravitz looked taken aback, but he nodded. “I-- yes, that’s right enough. How did you…?”
“Cool,” Travis said, brushing off Kravitz’s hand and scrambling to his feet. “Okay, cool cool cool. Um, so, what is it you need? An… autograph?” A pint of my blood, he wanted to ask, but he’d had bad luck in the past with fans being too literal with his suggestions. And this guy was apparently very literal. Travis stepped back another few feet, Buttercup at his heels.
Kravitz, meanwhile, was looking puzzled.
“Okay, so, I feel like I should just say, this is a-- I mean, you know , right, that the whole thing was a, a fictional world that my family and I made? Like, just checking, because it kind of seems like you have taken it a little far, and also, you’ve taken… well, you’ve taken my clothes, and there’s a whole other conversation we should probably be having around that, but let’s just establish the basics here first.”
“Fictional?” Kravitz asked, cutting him off. “I am not fictional. You do not appear to be so.”
“Yeah, okay,” Travis said, “but like you do know that you-- the idea of you, of Kravitz-- you were invented by my little brother Griffin. You know that, right?”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Kravitz said, “but I admit you’ve caught me a little off my game. Usually by now I’ve introduced myself a bit more, and tried to, I don’t know, ease into things--” Travis took a step backward, hands reflexively covering himself. Kravitz rolled his eyes impatiently. “Not like that. But, I mean, here we are, and apparently you know who I am, so let me just say… Travis Patrick McElroy, you are dead. You have died. I am very sorry for your loss but I am here to usher you into the beyond, to bring your soul to rest where it belongs.”
Travis was sitting on the ground again, though he had no memory of falling.
Kravitz’ words tolled like a bell in his mind, ringing out: you are dead, you have died .
Buttercup whined and licked his hand and he lifted it to pet her without thinking-- only to stop halfway there. He turned to Kravitz. “Okay, so you’re telling me I died, and what, my dog did too? What kind of horseshit is that?” Anger blazed through him, sudden and unexpected and not at all unwelcome. “Who the fuck are you? What did you do to me?”
Kravitz held up a hand. “Peace, Travis. I didn’t do anything to you. I told you, I’m here to help.” Travis was aware of hot tears leaking down his face, but did not move to stop them. Confusion, anger, grief, and fear roiled in him. Buttercup resumed licking his hand.
“You are understandably upset,” Kravitz began. He was visibly uncomfortable. Travis wondered if this kind of emotional reckoning was beyond his usual call of duty, then immediately chastised himself for buying into this guy’s weird cosplay bullshit.
“But, Travis, I think there might be something… wrong.” Kravitz’ accent had faded now and it left his voice sounding earnest, even plaintive. “Look, I know you’re confused. Usually folks can’t remember their last few minutes, maybe hours before they actually leave their body, depending on how you go. But I mean...” he hefted his enormous tome with one hand, rifling through its pages with the other. “Usually this bad boy gives me the exact date and time and manner of death. But you’re-- you’re way ahead of schedule.” He snapped the book shut. “Don’t get me wrong, I work on commissions and I’m happy to take a little surprise bump in the old moneybags now and again, but this, Travis? This doesn’t feel right.”
Kravitz tossed the book aside and, in a fluid motion, turned on his heel and dropped gracefully to sit beside Travis. They sat side by side, staring at the water, Buttercup sniffing Kravitz thoroughly and wagging her tail at the promise of a new friend. Long moments passed before Travis felt he had collected himself enough to talk. He took a deep breath. Then another. Then another.
“What the fuck ,” he said, exhaling, but it wasn’t a question. Kravitz patted his back awkwardly. He had let his hand settle back to its skeletal form so Buttercup could gnaw on it-- which she had been doing, quite happily-- and the bony, chilly, slightly damp pat that he provided was more disconcerting than comforting. Still, it seemed friendly, and Travis appreciated that.
“So, let me just think out loud for a second here,” Travis said. “You say I’m dead. You also say I’m not supposed to be, maybe, probably. Yeah?” Kravitz nodded. “Okay. So I’m dead, and Buttercup is dead too--”
Kravitz laughed, an unexpectedly joyful and musical noise. “Buttercup? Is that her name?” Travis turned to him with raised eyebrows. “Sorry, that’s just-- that’s really cute. But.” He cleared his throat. “Continue.”
“So we’re both dead and we’re here, and you’re here, and maybe-- Jesus-- okay, I guess you probably don’t know this, but when I was alive , I had this kind of… story, I guess? … that I made with my brothers and our dad, and one character in this story that we made was a grim reaper, named Kravitz, who worked for the Raven Queen and, like, harvested souls? I guess? So you can maybe see how this is all a little fucked up for me right now.”
Kravitz looked thoughtful but said nothing. A few feet away, Buttercup was going to town on Kravitz’ now-dismembered skeletal hand, her wagging tail fanning black sand from side to side as she chewed away in a state of bone-induced bliss.
“So, I guess, if this is-- if this is going to be a thing , I have some questions, a couple of suggestions. First things first… where can I get some goddamn pants around here?”
“Oh,” Kravitz said, “Sorry.” He swept his cloak off with a gallant flourish and held it out to Travis, one edge of it trailing slightly without the use of his left hand. (“Oh,” Travis said, “sorry,” and he wrested the hand back from Buttercup). He exchanged hand for cloak gratefully, first wrapping himself in the cloth like a blanket, then-- realizing how very extremely exposed he still was-- settling on a sort of goth toga look that he hoped would hold up.
“Better?” Kravitz asked him again. Travis nodded. He was trying to find it in his heart to be grateful for something here, in this weird fucked up dreamscape, and decided he might as well be grateful for Kravitz’s kindness.
“I’m grateful for your kindness,” he informed Kravitz, with as little grudge in his voice as he could muster. Kravitz gave a short, curt nod that did nothing to hide his obvious satisfaction at the admission.
Travis supposed he could also be grateful for the fact that Kravitz was, actually, very handsome (now that there was skin over his skull, anyway). Looking good was important. He could respect that. He stopped short of sharing this particular gratitude with Kravitz as well.
“Well, I should think we have rather a lot to discuss,” Kravitz said, voice slipping back into his original London accent. Travis tried to push away the idea that he was enjoying this. “Or, at least, rather more than I typically am able to discuss with my… clients. Come along.”
The three of them turned and set to pacing along the beach toward a large, dark building that Travis hadn’t noticed before. A light rain began to drift over them, misting the edges of their clothes and leaving bright silvery pearls of moisture in Kravitz’s magnificently long dreadlocks. Buttercup shook herself again and whined pitifully at Travis until he picked her up. The fog and the rain conspired to make the building seem imposing, almost ghastly, in the now rapidly-dimming light.
“Oh, shit!” he said, suddenly, and Kravitz stopped abruptly. “Is this the astral plane ?”
Kravitz just looked at him for a moment.
“Yes,” he said.
He resumed walking. Travis jogged to catch up with him. “Okay, but, like… wow. You know? It didn’t really sink in before.”
“How familiar this all is.”
Kravitz lead them through a massive stone archway, carved into curving feathers which framed an inscription in an unknown language. Halfway down an obsidian road leading to the face of the enormous stone-and-steel building, Kravitz steered them off and toward a softly worn footpath. It stretched a dozen yards or so before it ended at a simple wooden door set into the stone wall, well off to the side of the main entrance.
“I think,” Kravitz said as he unlocked the door and held it open for Travis, “we have rather a lot to talk about.”
The door opened to an incongruously cheerful room panelled in light wood and crowded with overstuffed furniture. Kravitz flicked a finger at an iron wood stove in the far corner, which immediately was lit from within by a bright, warm blaze. A snap, and a blue enameled teapot appeared on top. “Wait here a moment,” Kravitz said. “And please-- uh, make yourself comfortable.”
Travis sunk gratefully onto the couch nearest the fire, this one patterned with faded damask roses. Looking around, he couldn’t help but be surprised by Kravitz’s choice in furnishings. Clumsily crocheted afghans were heaped in multiples over the backs of every chair and sofa, most in subdued tones of yellow and pink. The floors were the same light wood as the walls but were barely visible under what appeared to be hand-braided rugs. On the walls were countless unframed watercolor variations on the same view in different lighting, and Travis could tell by the prismatic waves and sharply contrasted sand that they must have all been painted from the same vantage point-- somewhere, it seemed, that must be very nearby to where he had woken up on the island.
Kravitz returned to the main room from down the hall, holding a pile of cloth. “These belonged to a friend of mine. I think they should fit you alright,” he said, and held the bundle out to Travis. Travis shook it out.
“Blue jeans?” he asked, disbelieving.
Kravitz shrugged. “They looked to be about the right size. Unfortunately I don’t know that anything of mine would fit.” Travis struggled against the urge to compare Kravitz’s body to his own in an up-down appraisal. He didn’t need to; Kravitz was easily half a foot taller than him. More than that, the process of removing his cloak had revealed him to be made mostly of ropy muscle and extremely long and graceful limbs. Travis shifted uncomfortably.
“Well, turn your back, at least,” he shot at Kravitz.
Kravitz shrugged. “I’ve seen it all already,” he said.
“Not helpful,” Travis informed him, and struggled resignedly into the jeans. He was pleasantly surprised to find them worn down to a comfortable softness, and well-fitting. He wished one of his brothers was present to make the obvious Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants joke so he wouldn’t have to do it himself.
All at once, he felt the lack of them keenly. It was more than just missing his brothers; it was the sudden awareness of an empty space he had never felt before, a distance he had never before thought to even conceive of.
Would he see them again?
Did they know, yet, that he was gone?
And what about Teresa, and Bebe? Was his entire family supposed to get up and keep moving on, keep performing in a play with a principal actor suddenly missing?
Not knowing the rules here, not knowing if this really was death (or the afterlife or the astral plane or whatever it could be-- or was-- or wasn’t), not knowing if he would ever again see the people he loved most, blanketed him in weight sudden and absolute.
He was reminded, painfully, of their mother’s death. Not the moment of her passing, or whatever her journey might have looked like on the other side ( was it anything like this? ) but the terrible morning after when he had woken up and been forced to remember all over again that it wasn’t a dream, she was really gone-- and, worse, the moment that had followed that, and the next, where his living breathing body went on moving without her in the world.
He remembered trying to get out of bed and staring at his feet on the floor, morning sunlight spliced across them, wishing he couldn’t feel its warmth, not even willing to stand, when Justin had knocked on his bedroom door. They were all children again, cast together in this strange sea of missing and grief and the unknown. Justin had leaned in, one arm against the opposite frame of the doorway, unwilling as ever to intrude.
“Hey, Scraps,” he’d said, softly, and Travis could hear faint grains of sleep rasping in his voice. They were all raw-throated and red-eyed from crying, they had been for days on end, but hearing Justin’s tired resignation told Travis that Justin had woken up to the same nightmare he had.
“I couldn’t--,” he’d started, and dropped his head into his hands. Then Justin was sitting next to him, and Griffin was following close behind, as always, though Travis hadn’t even seen him there in the hallway… and then Justin’s arm was around his shoulder and Griffin had settled onto the floor, leaning against Travis’ legs, in the same way he used to when they all got up too early on Christmas mornings and whispered in one room together until the sun came up and they could wake their parents.
No one had to say it.
The gone -ness of her hung in the air, floated like dust motes around them. The sunlight stretched and grew, climbing from Travis’ feet to his knees, covering Griffin in a mellow glow. Time passed. Together, they quietly cried. What else could be done, when they were still bound by bodies that had been left behind?
What would they do now, his brothers, a hole between them where his living breathing body should be?
“Travis?” came a voice. He was immediately snapped out of his reverie and he swiped the back of one hand across his face hastily to hide his tears. Kravitz hovered awkwardly a few feet away. “Are you… is everything okay?” he asked carefully.
Travis nodded. He felt mixed up and anxious. He wished he could download information on what was happening directly into his brain and skip the part where he had to admit, out loud, that he might be dead. He could hardly bear to form questions, though dozens of them were sprouting up in his mind. He settled for mumbling to Kravitz: “I don’t suppose you do hugs.”
And then lanky, warmthless Kravitz was wrapping him in a firm embrace, and it ceased to matter whether he was death incarnate or a sociopath cosplayer or just some unlucky bastard with a job to do.
“Sorry about my-- well, about my whole thing. The cold thing,” Kravitz muttered against his hair. “It’s been a long long time since anyone’s asked me for a hug.” With a final squeeze he let Travis go.
“Well, you’re a really good hugger,” Travis said, and they both laughed a little shakily. He supposed that was something he could be grateful for, too.