☠ No Wealth and No Ruin ☠
my name is death and the end is here
If there's ever a tomorrow when we're not together, there's something you must always remember. If you keep me in your heart, I'll stay there forever.
-Christopher Robin and the Hundred-Acre Wood
It begins, for Mark, when he finds himself standing in the bullpen of his own company, blinking through the bright office lights and the haloes they cast across his vision.
As does anyone who's worked in one place for a very long time, he knows exactly what time of day it has to be simply by the way the light falls in through the windows, the slant they make across the carpet when he turns to look. It's high noon, the window-shaped squares of light short and stunted, which puzzles him because last he remembers, it was six in the morning and he was fumbling under his desk because he left his phone charger plugged into the extension cord there, grumbling and pissed off: it's obnoxious to have to go all the way back to work just for that.
Frowning, he turns on the spot, because something's wrong, and it's not just because he can't remember how he got here.
It's noon, which means it's lunchtime, which means that there should be employees clustered around the microwaves with their Lean Cuisines, or some lucky bastard gloatingly hoarding his delivery from the fantastic Chinese place on the other side of the Whole Foods. But there's no sound of the microwaves beeping, no pervasive smell of reheated garlic chicken in Tupperware (which shouldn't be microwaved anyway, he keeps on telling Tony that, but Tony keeps bringing Tupperware) or even Schezaun shrimp (which is Keisha's favorite -- Kevin the newest weak-chinned addition to Legal always orders a meal size too large and shares it with her, watching her with this hopeless look in his eyes. Mark sees it, bemused, but Keisha doesn't, and she won't, not until Kevin stops thinking about her like he's already given up on trying.)
So where are they? Dustin and Chris? Tony, Keisha, and Kevin?
Wait, there's Tony. Tupperware Tony is in his chair, at his desk, and Mark only recognizes the defeated curve of his spine, the way he braces his own forehead in his hands and speaks to the ground. There's a policewoman in front of him, expressionless in a tired way, taking notes down on a clipboard.
"What --" Mark starts, but everything else starts filtering in, all at once.
Lights flashing outside. And, more puzzling, yellow caution tape. Inside his building.
Mark's frown deepens.
He takes a step towards it, towards the barrier of police tape and the cluster of cops that keep ducking under it, a finger of panic dripping down cold his spine because what is going on, when someone behind him speaks up.
"Hey, little man," and Mark looks. It comes from a fat, broad guy in an Aloha shirt, standing a pace or two away and looking right at him, which nobody else is doing. He's got a Big Island accent, all large dropping vowels. "Come away from there now. You don't want to see that."
Mark thinks about this, and then says, "I know."
There's a break between the bodies in uniform, and he catches a glimpse of a little number propped up on the carpet, next to the starfish spread of a hand, a pale wrist, an oatmeal-colored sweater (a gift, although technically more of a plea oh-so-cleverly disguised as a gift, you need to wear something respectful, Mark, whether you want to or not. Mark's reply had been something along the lines of, this isn't respectful, this is an atrocious color on me, but he still found himself pulling it on in the evenings, when the fog and evening chill rolled in, like an old man.)
And no, no, not really, Mark doesn't need to see that. He looks at the man instead, who tilts his head in a come on, then gesture and leads him out the back door, the one that goes out onto the fire escape. The lock is always taped down because the programmers come out here to meet their significant others and smoke in the shade. There's a lot Mark lets his employees get away with.
The man doesn't hold the door open for Mark, but he doesn't have to: Mark just walks through it, like mist through a screen.
That's how it begins for Mark, but the interesting thing to note is that two people die in the Facebook offices shortly after dawn on the fifteenth of April.
It's clear outside, crisp in the morning the way it is in spring in the Bay Area, with too much fog that refuses to burn away. The seasonals are blooming again, setting the hummingbirds and butterflies busy and drunk in the gardens. On the last Thursday he's alive, Mark goes the entire lunch break sitting cross-legged in the park by the nursing home completely oblivious to the butterfly in his hair, an almost nonexistent weight, before a jogger passes by too quickly and sends it fluttering off, passing close enough that he swears eyelashes and wings meet.
On the fifteenth, Mark Zuckerberg is sledgehammered from behind with a blunt object while on his knees in his office fumbling for his phone charger, scattering his brains and bits of yellowed skull across the carpet. He dies instantly.
He's not the only one there, which is the unexpected variable; a woman named Pomona Graham has the day off, but comes in early anyway because it's tax day and she needs to fetch an invoice from her desk before she drives all the way out to her ex-husband's in Hayward to pick up her kids for their day off from school. She's not supposed to be there, either, but the hit that brings her down is miscalculated, rushed, glancing off the back of her skull. Her forehead collides with the sharp corner of her desk. She lays on the carpet for awhile before she dies, crumpled and deeply uncomfortable, and she holds her sons' faces in her mind's eye until she stops breathing.
They discover Pomona first, shortly before the Facebook offices open at nine. Tupperware Tony follows the sound of her frantically ringing phone and almost trips right over her.
It's another forty-five minutes before anyone thinks to poke their heads into Mark's office when he doesn't answer his phone (which is in his car, out of battery, because Mark went upstairs to get the charger) after several urgent calls. The second body goes unfound until then.
That's not right, presenting it like that, because the point isn't about how many more people care about whom. The point isn't whose death is more important on a cosmic scale, or who goes to which funeral out of duty and who goes to which funeral because they'll genuinely miss that person, because you can't quantify the end of someone's life like that. They deserve better; they did die for it.
And regardless, you shouldn't ever begin a story with death, that's just rude.
So in actuality, this story begins with the girl at coat check.
At two in the morning on Monday the fifteenth of April, with four hours left to live, Mark finally manages to say good night and thank you to everyone still awake and/or functioning, and heads back towards the main entrance of Trader Vic's, which is all plush carpet, a fake-ish Congo jungle theme, and culturally-insensitive animal totem poles (the food is kind of crap, too, but apparently it's a landmark, so.)
As a general rule, it's kind of shitty to have a charity gala on a Sunday night and promise free alcohol to all who show up, because then everyone has to go to work on Monday pretending they aren't peeling their eyelids back with clothespins, but it is difficult to book these venues sometimes, he's aware of that. Besides, it wasn't all that bad -- the actual speaking part of it was mercifully short and all Mark was expected to do was graciously receive thanks and gratitude in the form of a speech that plagiarized heavily from his Wikipedia page. He could do that.
The rest of the night gets spent sitting around with Dustin (who long-sufferingly told everyone that he pulled the short straw for Mark-sitting duties,) two guys and a woman from Google who he all calls Stan in his head because he doesn't remember their real names, and Patrick, who's head of manufacturing at Hewlett-Packard. Lounging at one of the tables, they shoot shit about who was allowed to watch the crappiest television growing up, which then dissolves into discussions of Star Trek: TOS vs. Babylon 5 vs. Andromeda, and before they know it, it's two in the morning and the Trader Vic's staff are dead on their feet and kind of looking like they're contemplating stabbing the remaining guests with carving knives.
Mark stands, prompting a protest from Dustin. "My Borg Queen! Wherefore art thou leaving me!"
(These are the last words Dustin will ever say to him.)
"That is a reprehensible demonstration of old-fashioned English," Mark informs him dryly, because his vocabulary doesn't suffer with alcohol. And, "see you at work, Dustin."
Buried face-down in his arms on the table, Dustin flaps a hand at him despondently.
There's a girl managing the coat check, sitting on a stool with a paperback book he doesn't recognize cracked over her knee. She's dark; that amazing Sub-Saharan full-on black, and her thick beaded braids are wrapped up under a scarf the color of Halloween pumpkins, a stark contrast to her skin (is there a politically correct way of appreciating that, Mark doesn't know, and he doesn't have any more time to think about it because he's reached the counter and he needs to fib at socializing now.)
"Zuckerberg," he says, fishing his coat-check card out of his pocket and setting it down. "And it's not a coat, it's a backpack, blue, so technically does it even count as a coat check?"
"Bag check, I think, in your case, and yes, that's an actual term," she answers, sounding cheerfully awake, which is more than Mark expected.
She picks up his card, going "Zuckerberg, seriously?" but not in the way people do when they're trying to remember where they heard the name before, but more the way children do when they're trying to find something to rhyme it with in a naughty poem of their own devising. "Are you sure you don't want to start checking things under the name Albertson, because we sort things alphabetically and you are all the way in the back."
"I'm used to it," Mark replies, blithe. "The z-u combination pretty much insures I am alphabetically last for everything."
"I bet," says coat/bag-check girl, smiling at him with a set of very long, straight teeth. She slides off the stool, setting her book face-down on the counter and disappearing into the back room. The spine is split from handling, a library barcode taped to the bottom, and the cover is folded back into white creases, the way books get when they live in the bottoms of backpacks for any length of time. From the big-block title, Mark assumes it's some kind of true crime thriller.
He's made it half-way through the upside-down blurb on the back cover before she returns, gripping his backpack by the handle.
"Here you go," she says, plunking it down on the counter (he flinches, because that's his laptop, thank you) and pushing it across to him. "And it's been quite a while since my last trip to Narnia, so thank you for sending me that deep into the back of the closet, I appreciate it."
"You're ... welcome," says Mark bemusedly, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. He can't tell from her tone alone if she's being sarcastic. He never knows what to do with people when they go and do things like display personality.
He turns to leave, but she calls him back with a soft, "hey, M Zuckerberg."
He lifts his eyebrows at her questioningly. She leans across the counter and presses the very tips of her fingers to his temple, stroking downwards along the line of his jaw. Mark starts to recoil, because, weird, even for two in the morning, when something dizzy tilts in his stomach, making everything seem like it's shifting one inch to the left and startling all the breath out of him. He blinks rapidly, trying to clear it.
"You are beautiful, boy," she whispers, and momentarily, there's something ancient around the corners of her eyes and lurking in the falling syllables of her voice, something that shudders through Mark like the chill in the kind of old houses you find in foggy seaside towns in Maryland or Massachusetts.
And then she offers that long, straight-teeth smile and no matter what anyone says, Mark's not an automated machine and he can appreciate the gorgeous things in the world without needing to make a sock puppet account on Facebook to troll for other people's opinions. There are some things that can stop even him in his tracks.
"Thanks," he says, mumbling through a mouth that feels overlarge and stung. "So are you."
When he reaches the door, Mark looks over his shoulder, backpack strap slipping with the movement, but she's gone -- not even the stool or the book on the counter remains to suggest that she was even there.
He frowns to himself, then shakes it off and heads out into the crisp, clear California night. His own death drifts along beside him, silence and shadow.
There's a sushi place right on the corner of Emerson and University, a chain restaurant that caters mostly to Stanford students, with indistinguishable culturally-incongruent decorations and tall glass windows that overlook the street. The man in the Aloha shirt sits himself down at the conveyor belt, his bulk making the seat creak familiarly, and one of the staff pops up seemingly out of nowhere.
"Kawali!" she says, blurring the w into a v sound, which confirms Mark's theory that the man is the genuine article Hawaiian, and he files the name away for later use. "Good to see you, can I get you something to drink?"
The man smiles back at her, friendly, and while they're exchanging pleasantries about family and school, Mark drifts back and forth through the door. It's a strange sensation, and he can't quite come up with the proper metaphor for it, that moment when he passes through a solid object; he can't see anything, can't hear anything, simply ceases to be until he rematerializes on the other side. He can't move the door, he finds, no matter how hard he focuses on pushing, but he can rattle the bells attached to it, a solid cowbell noise against the glass.
He does that a couple times. It's lunch time on a weekday, so nobody notices, except the guy in a khaki jacket and printscreen shirt sitting in the corner, clearly waiting for someone, his phone sitting on the napkin next to his sweating drink. His head jerks up, Pavlovian, every time the bell goes off, and Mark stops when he catches sight of him, feeling awkward.
"Excuse me," says a nervous-looking woman to Kawali, gesturing to the stool next to him at the conveyor belt. "Is this seat taken?"
Gliding around her purposefully, Mark sits down in the seat she's pointing at and looks at Kawali, flat and lizard-like.
He returns the look, unimpressed, but tilts an apologetic smile up at the woman. "Sorry, I'm waiting for someone."
Mark leans his elbows against the counter, watching as Kawali picks up a little dish of edamame off the conveyor belt. They sit there in silence for a long time, Mark tracking Kawali's motions idly, from bean pod to mouth to dish. He waves his hand through the pods themselves, experimentally, but that doesn't do anything more than dislodge some salt.
"You're handling this rather well," the man remarks into the silence, eyeing him sidelong.
"Am I?" Mark goes, disinterested. In the corner, Pavlov-guy's date seems to have arrived, but she's not sitting down; she stands on the other side of the table, fiddling with the ring of her car keys and nervously brushing her hair behind her ear. Pavlov-guy's gestures are approaching desperate.
"Yeah," says Kawali, and feels the need to point out, "But folk usually demonstrate some kind of reaction upon realizing that they're dead, little man. I hear there are even stages to go through."
Mark props his chin up on his hand. "I thought that applied to people who had just lost a loved one."
"Interestingly enough, it also applies if you the one that just died."
"Hm," he makes a noise in the back of his throat, thinking it over, and finds himself shrugging, a purely dystopian lift of his shoulders. "I did die," he comments. "I was there for that, thank you. And there's not a lot I can do about it now, so I really see no point in dwelling."
"I know. Plus!" He holds up a finger. "Murder. I was murdered, how many people get to say that? There are a lot more ignominious ways to go, and the infamy of a young, murdered CEO will work favorably for my company." His mouth twists a little bit, running up against the mental block that is Facebook. Okay, so sudden death, it's forgivable if he doesn't want to dwell on how he wasn't done doing things for Facebook. Just. Don't think about Facebook. "And dying was surprisingly painless."
"That's because we popped your soul out of your body beforehand," says Kawali, snagging a plate of seaweed salad as it drifts past. Mark wonders if it's socially acceptable to come into a sushi-go-round and just pick up the side dishes.
"It's nice to let someone die with dignity, don't you think, yeah?"
Mark opens his mouth to reply, but there's a scuffle of people sidestepping behind them, someone leaving and someone coming and barely enough room to do both, and then a girl drops herself onto the stool next to Mark, propping her feet up on the rungs.
"Hey, Kawali," she goes, tossing her blonde hair over her shoulder so that it doesn't touch the counter and leaning around Mark to help herself to some of the remaining edamame. "How did you know I was craving sushi?"
"You crave anything if I'm the one picking up the tab, sister," Kawali goes, dry.
"Very true," she shrugs, around a mouthful of peas, and lobs the empty pod into the discard dish. She misaims and it glances through Mark's nose instead. He shifts backwards, discomfited by the sensation, and she grimaces at him. "Sorry," she goes.
"How was P. Graham?" Kawali again. Her eyes flit past Mark, but he goes right on staring at her.
"Oh my god," she says expressively, drooping a little bit onto the counter like some kind of invisible weight is dragging her shoulders down. "P. Graham was a Pomona -- a mother. God bless mothers, I love them to death, but dear god, can they never just shuffle themselves off this mortal coil without seeing their children one last time?" She flings her hands up. "Her kids were in Hayward. I don't have the kind of bus money to get myself to Hayward, much less myself and an overbearing dead woman."
Kawali absentmindedly makes a sympathetic noise in his throat, like these are complaints he sits through often.
"Why do you need to pay bus fare for a dead woman?" Mark wants to know, brow furrowed.
The girl's eyes flit to him again, meeting his gaze dead-on. Just that much makes him feel raw and a little over-sensitized, like he's being exposed to too much at once: it's amazing, how physical a look feels to someone who's invisible.
"Well, I don't, but that's not the point," she flaps her hand a little bit, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that Mark probably hasn't blinked since he realized she could see him. "I have to sit next to her and hope nobody notices that I'm holding a conversation with thin air."
"That's why these things are a blessing, kaikamahine," goes Kawali, tilting his head to show them the bluetooth set he's got in his ear. "Nobody can tell you not talking to no one."
She rolls her eyes, commenting lowly to Mark, "because that's always been one of my life goals, yeah? Coming up with excuses for why I look like I'm talking to myself."
"There's nothing wrong with talking to yourself," Mark answers blankly.
"That's the spirit." She's that indeterminate age where she looks too old to be in high school but not quite old enough to be in college; all nondescript blonde hair, impressive chest and blue eyes that are doubly so, and cotton sweatpants rolled at the waist. "So where'd you pick this one up, then, Kawali?" she goes, gesturing at Mark with a jerk of her chin. "Thought your reap was up San Mateo way."
"It was. Happened around nine this morning -- vending machine at the elementary school fell over onto the maintenance guy. Crushed him like a soda can. Sister, fifty years of them things being around and nobody yet figure out that shaking them is a bad plan."
"It's a bank holiday, though," the girl's voice is mild and borderline cheerful. "If there's ever a good day for death at an elementary school, it'd be while there are no kids there, I guess."
Kawali bobs his head in agreement. This is possibly the strangest conversation that Mark's ever been a part of, and that's including that time sophomore year when Dustin and Chris tried to persuade everyone on their floor that the new secret code name for girl on her period was, it's shark week! "Bruddah was super-nice about it, too, no fuss, just shrugged and moved right on. And then I had to come get this guy --" again, a jerk in Mark's direction, like he's some kind of issue nobody wants to directly address. "He was up at Facebook too."
"Oh, so you're the other Whack-a-Brain!" The girl's eyebrows lift up high enough to meet her hairline, interested, and she twists on her stool to face Mark. "The radio said there were two murders! I was confused 'cause I only had to pick up one soul." She frowns at that, fixing Mark with the same look that Mark usually reserves for DNS errors and text boxes that appear ten pixels to the left of where they're supposed to be. "I wonder why Upper Management goofed."
"They didn't." Kawali's actually picked up a plate of sushi now, and says this around a mouthful of rice and raw tuna. "I wrote him down for Nikita to reap, and she filled her quota."
This is obviously very, very big news, because the girl sits up ramrod-straight, pinwheeling her hands in excitement. "You're kidding! Oh my god, are you kidding me? You better not be kidding me. She filled her quota? Reaped all the souls she was slated down to reap? Do we need to do anything? Like, is there are congratulations on your promotion-slash-funeral thing we have to go to?" Her face twists. "Is there even supposed to be another funeral when you move along to the next plane of existence, or what? I'm still new to this," she adds to Mark. She's talking very, very fast. "I don't quite know what's going to happen."
Kawali gives her that unimpressed, slightly bored look. "She's already gone."
Her hands thunk down on the table top, like birds shot mid-flight. "What?"
"That's how it works -- you fill your quota, poof, you're gone, and the last person you reaped takes your place." He gestures at Mark with his chopsticks. "So that makes him the newest member of our team."
Mark's head snaps around. "Excuse me?"
"Oh," says the girl, and then she shifts her torso towards Mark, studying him more closely. "Well, in that case," she goes, and sticks out her hand. "I'm Jessica Moore. I died in 2005. Housefire."
"Kawali Kawika'aina," comes from Mark's other side. "1951. Faulty aircraft."
"Mark Zuckerberg," Mark offers haltingly, twisting his head around to frown at Kawali, because he doesn't look like he could have been alive in the 50s. And how can they be dead? They're corporeal: they're eating, interacting, people can see them. "Umm, current date. I was murdered."
"Of course you were," says Jessica, flippant. "You wouldn't be part of our department if you weren't."
"I don't --"
"Here," and Kawali extends his cell phone towards him, tilting the screen so Mark could see through the glare. He's getting more and more used to his own face being in news articles (although it never stops that beat of disconnect, of going, woah, that's me, and hundreds of thousands of people are seeing this,) but the headliner on Yahoo! News doesn't usually combine him and MURDERED in big, bold letters.
"Yahoo!, really?" he says to Kawali in distaste, curling his lip.
"Oooo, you were bludgeoned," goes Jessica, who's actually reading the article over Mark's shoulder. "That's a good word, bludgeoned, I'm going to have to remember that. Was it like the homerun kind of bludgeon," she lifts her eyes to Kawali and mimes making a baseball swing, following through with a twist of her shoulders. "Or more of a Flinstones kind of bludgeon?" She makes like she's pounding down on something with a club.
Kawali skews his mouth to one side in thought. "When I saw it, it was a pretty impressive spray, so I'm going to go with the baseball swing."
"Those are my brains you're talking about," Mark mutters mutinously, eyeballing the fish's-egg roll as it goes by on the conveyor belt. He imagines what it'd look like, the smear across his well-tred carpet; the imagery is mostly piecemeal from the few zombie movies he's seen, vague impressions of blood and gore, and he's glad that Kawali drew him away when he did.
Jessica whistles, impressed. "Someone really wanted you dead," she comments to Mark.
He sighs, because that's what's bugging him. The blow came from behind -- you'd think the victim would know better than anyone who killed them, but he never saw it coming. "That isn't as specific a category as you might think."
Jessica says she's parked down the street ("you managed to get street parking with your big ole thing?" Kawali lifts his eyebrows, and Jessica deadpans in reply, "I squashed somebody's moped in the ensuing tussle. Nobody's going to miss it,") and partway down the sidewalk, they both part around a grey-haired jogger who goes right through Mark like he's no more substantial than a gust of cigarette smoke.
He shakes off the gritty sensation of rematerializing and pushes forward to catch up with Kawali and Jessica. "I don't get it," he goes impatiently. "How come they can see you and not me?"
"Do you think we should make a pamphlet?" Jessica musingly asks of Kawali, not answering Mark's question in the slightest. "Like, a 'So You Want to be a Grim Reaper' introductory booklet or something?"
"How often would we use it?" Kawali's tone is dry. "We only get new members when an old one fills a quota, and it takes decades to do that."
"All I'm saying is that a little FAQ could go a long way. Ease the transition a little bit." She turns on her heel and walks backwards, haloed in tree-dappled sunlight coming from directly above, and addresses Mark. "Look, newbie, this is how it goes: when you die, you're dead."
"Fascinating," goes Mark, because really. "Tell me more."
She talks over him. "For 99% of the population, that's as complicated as it gets. But for the other 1% -- people like me, you, and Kawali here -- we become undead. Not quite dead and not quite alive. Here, may I?" she extends a hand to Mark, and he hesitates only a moment before he reaches out to take it. He doesn't pass through her the way he did the doors and the jogger; her fingers meet his, warm and a little damp from the heat. He grasps at her, suddenly desperate for that contact, and digs his fingers in hard enough to feel the pulse in her wrist. She has a pulse.
For a moment, Mark really misses having a pulse.
"Think of us ... almost as factory overseers," she continues, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that he's holding onto her tight enough to make her skin blotch white. "Our job is to make sure that the transition between the state of being alive and the state of being dead goes as smoothly as possible."
"There are more of us than you think," puts in Kawali. "The undead folk need to move around in the world of the alive undetected, so anonymity and camouflage are the best tools at our disposal. There are three things that make the undead different from the living."
"We see dead people," whispers Jessica, in her best Sixth Sense impression.
"For one. Two, we can scythe ke kane's soul from his body -- that's where the grim reaper part comes from."
"Easier than it sounds," says Jessica, catching the look on Mark's face. "Like peeling an orange, and absolutely no blades required. It'll come naturally to you after awhile."
"And three," continues Kawali. "We cannot die a second time."
"It happens," Jessica shrugs, and tugs pointedly on her hand until Mark remembers and lets her go. She digs down into the pocket of her sweatpants and fishes out a set of car keys. "Culling the souls of the freshly doomed puts you in the way of death and danger pretty much on a daily basis. Some asshole shot me during a robbery on the Cal-Train two weeks ago, did I complain to you about that yet?" Kawali returns her look with one of long-suffering, which Jessica ignores. "Hurt like a bitch. And now I have bullet holes in my warmest sweatshirt."
"Okay," allows Mark. "But you keep on telling me I'm undead, so why am I still --" he angles to the side and walks right through a "No Parking - Fire Zone" sign to demonstrate.
"Because you haven't been buried yet," Kawali answers, prompt. "There has to be a funereal rite of some kind, to say good-bye to the person you were, before you become one of us. Waste of time, yeah, if you ask me. First, coroners are like to hold on to your body for a time till the cops get all they can from your scrambled remains, and then your family get to put you on ice till they decide what to do with you."
"My family's Jewish," Mark puts in.
This makes Kawali fling his hands into the air, like he's thinking of grabbing Mark around his fluffy head and planting one on him. "Aue, yeah, that's fantastic news!" he goes, loud enough to startle a couple seagulls who'd been squabbling over a Burger King wrapper in the gutter.
"I don't get it," says Jessica, glancing between them.
"Jews gotta get them in the ground," Kawali answers happily. "Before sunset on the third day."
"It's like the five-second rule," Mark explains to her. "But with, like, corpses. My parents will insist."
"Cops ain't gonna like that," Kawali chuckles.
Mark shrugs. "Good to know that I don't have to have any brain function to still annoy them."
"We're going to do some overtime to cover for Nikita until we get this one trained up, yeah," Kawali tells Jessica, jerking a thumb in Mark's direction. "But it's not going to be as bad as I thought it would be, not if the little man's Jewish."
She grimaces some. "Can't we pull a couple people from Infectious Disease to help us out?"
"I'm thinking of bribing a few of them over to our side. Upper Management can just deal with it, we need the manpower."
Mark tracks the conversation, eyes thinned to thoughtful slits.
Kawali looks at him, and Mark's confusion must be showing despite his trademark blankness, because he huffs a laugh so deep it makes his entire belly heave. It's a humorless noise.
"Mark Zuckerberg," he says, as they come to a stop by a white Ford pick-up truck with a hitch attached and a Good Will logo on the driver's side door. "I think you'll soon find that the West Bay Area Department of Death by External Influence is incredibly overworked and incredibly understaffed."
It turns out that it's easy to lose bits of time when you're a ghost, because one moment, Mark's watching the two undead strangers climb into the truck, and the next, he's standing on the sidewalk across the street from his house, with no clear recollection of the time in between.
He looks around, and spots Jessica sitting on the bench at the bus stop several yards down. Somehow, it doesn't come as a surprise. The sun's in a different part of the sky, and she's in different clothes -- a dress that looks more like it should have been a shirt, synched in at the waist with a corded belt and exposing a long length of thigh. She has a plastic bag of granola in her lap, which she's eating out of like it's popcorn.
"Thought this might summon you," she calls to him cheerfully when he approaches. "Check it out, they're collecting evidence from your house."
Sure enough, there are two squad cars and a van parked on the curb outside Mark's home. He can't see a lot from this vantage point, because his one concession to privacy was to landscape in some tall hedges, but there are county officers coming out through the gate, carrying boxes of things with "evidence" stamped on the sides. He doesn't know what they could be taking -- a lot of papers, it looks like, but also some clothes, the contents of his trash (really? he thinks, scowling, because it's enough to break into his home, it's a whole other thing to go through his trash) and the entirety of his home office system, laptops and desktop both (Mark scowls harder.)
"Why do they need that?" he asks, bristling with violation.
Jessica lifts her shoulder in a shrug. "It's a murder investigation. They probably want to go through your e-mails and your private files, looking for people who might have been threatening you. Checking your mail, your trash, the inside of your home to see if anyone has broken in recently. There are all sorts of reasons, come on, haven't you ever watched CSI?"
"No," grumbles Mark, whose free time for mind-numbing television has been non-existent since he was twenty-one years old.
There's another hour of this, and during that time, a couple of the officers go and knock on their neighbors' doors. Mark wasn't home enough to foster any particularly healthy relationships with his neighbors; they were all older people, because you had to be nothing less than a millionaire to own a run-down two-bedroom, two-bath in Palo Alto, with an extra half-million for a driveway and yard, which means that the only people under the age of 30 that live in the area are people like Mark. Some of his neighbors are too old to have a clear idea of what Mark did, exactly, but he tags behind the cops when they ask their questions, and they all seem to be genuinely upset to hear what had happened to him. Which is gratifying, but as none of them can recall seeing anything out of the ordinary, it doesn't help Mark or the cops figure out who bashed his head in.
One of them comes up to Jessica, even, wanting to know if she's noticed any suspicious activity in the neighborhood recently.
"This is Silicon Valley, sir," she replies dryly. "All suspicious activity is done online these days."
They stay until the cops lock Mark's house back up and pull away, and then Jessica stands, brushing off her skirt.
"Okay!" she says to Mark, clapping her hands together. "Want to come with my on my reap? I can show you the ropes. Think of it like work training for grim reapers!"
"You really think I want to join your creepy little club?" Mark asks her, slightly exasperated.
She lifts her hands in a helpless gesture. "Sorry, dude, but your name got drawn. You have no choice. It's like jury duty, only you can't get out of it by pretending you have a sick relative. You work for us until you fill your quota, and only then do you ..." she flutters her fingers a little bit. "Move on."
"That's enlightening," grumbles Mark, who just saw the privacy of his own home invaded by cops and couldn't even rattle chains to show his displeasure about it.
Jessica is unruffled as ever by his bad temper. She tosses her hair over her shoulder, grinning. "Oh, come on," she goes, with a gesture for him to follow her. "Just tag along with me. It's not like you have any other pressing appointments."
This, sadly, is true. Mark was supposed to do a number of things today -- he had a color-coded calendar for it and everything -- but he doesn't think he's going to be able to keep them, considering his body is currently in the county morgue.
When she turns her head and finds him walking alongside her, her face lights up. "Ooo, this is exciting," she goes, dropping back a bit so that their strides match up. "I was the new kid until you came along. I've never gotten to teach anyone before. Technically, we're not supposed to have died this close together in time. Usually there are a couple decades separating the initiation of each new reaper -- it makes for fewer mistakes that way -- but apparently my predecessor got shunted before his or her time, so here I am."
"Sometimes if you break a reaper rule, Upper Management will declare you unfit and pull you." Mark arches a deliberate eyebrow, and her mouth thins a little bit, like she can tell what he's thinking. "Reapers don't have many rules, but the ones we do have are life-and-death important. Breaking one of them results in pain and suffering for our victims. It's not something we take lightly. Plus," she wrinkles her nose, looking at him very pointedly. "It makes for a lot of paperwork. So don't be a pissy bitch and think you can get out of doing your job by breaking rules."
Mark holds up his hands in surrender. "Got it."
She's parked further down the block, the same white truck with the Good Will logo on the doors.
"Did you steal this?" Mark asks, wry, because he can't really picture a Cali girl like Jessica owning it; the truck still has mud flaps with busty beauties on them.
She shoots him an unimpressed look for implying that a girl can't own a truck, then makes a face. "Okay, yes, fine, I took it from a dead handyman. But honestly? It's my cover," she pats the hood, friendly-like, and then unlocks the doors and pulls herself up into the driver's seat. Mark studies the passenger door handle for a moment, and the next thing he knows, he's sitting inside the cab of the truck, blinking. He didn't know he could do that.
"Death happens at any time of day," Jessica continues, belting herself in and turning the ignition in one smooth, practiced movement. "So you need to be ... on-call, if you will, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. You need to be able to be there no matter what, which makes it difficult to maintain a nine-to-five."
Mark eyes her sidelong. "You work two jobs? Is death's salary that bad?"
"We don't get paid," she shrugs, and smiles a little sardonically at his noise of outrage. "So we need to be able to support ourselves. It's not all bad -- sometimes we can scavenge some really nice things off the people we reap," she gives the dashboard a fond pat. "I know some reapers in other divisions who live solely off what they can carrion. But I got a job working at Good Will. Whenever I have a reap that falls in the middle of my shift, I take my truck out with the excuse that I'm going to go collect clothes from the donation bins scattered around town, and I collect a few dead people along the way."
Mark digests this. He has no idea how normal people get jobs; in high school, he worked the projector reels at the local movie theater two summers running, and then he teleported himself to being the CEO of Facebook without so much as a temp job in between.
Don't think about Facebook.
Swallowing, he tells himself he'll figure it out later, like, when he has a corporeal body again. He can't really go job-hunting while invisible.
"So where are we going?" he asks.
Pulling up to a stoplight, she fishes a small notebook out of the pocket of her dress-shirt combo, the kind Mark sees journalists use sometimes. She flips it open and holds it out for him to read what's written down.
Locker 191, American Self Storage
East Palo Alto
"That's right off the 101," he knows, because you have plenty of time to get familiar with all the business signs when you're stuck in freeway traffic every day.
"Yup," she answers, tucking the notebook away as the light turns. "We get the name of the person who's going to die, the place they're going to die, and their ETD. Estimated time of death," she elaborates before Mark can ask. "We go in there before the ETD, we figure out who S. Goldberg is, I take her soul, and we split after she dies."
"We have to stay and watch her die?" Mark gets a case of the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. It was bad enough being in his own office.
"Most of the time, when it's convenient," she drums her fingers on the steering wheel. "We always try to make sure the reaper's around when the reap dies, because it's polite, but it's not always physically possible. Like, in your case, your soul got taken out hours before you actually died, am I right?"
Mark frowns at her, and she gives him a patient look. "Before you died," she says. "Did you meet anyone who touched you, made you feel funny like they gave you the cooties, maybe called you by your first initial, last name?"
"The girl at the coat-check!" Mark goes, eyes widening. "With the scarf -- and, and the teeth."
"And the teeth," Jessica echoes, grinning broad. "That's ... a fairly apt description of Nikita, actually. It was easiest to get to you at coat check, so that's when she reaped you. A reaper's job is to take the soul, so the person can die pain-free, and then lead the soul to the afterlife once the body dies."
"I'll show you," Jessica goes, and does the same little finger-wave thing she did when she told him he'd "move on" when he filled his quota.
They arrive at the self-storage compound at ten minutes to eleven; it's a set of grungy white buildings clustered together on the banks of a creek that leads out to the bay, which gives the area a permeating stench of raw sewage. It seems unusually busy for a Tuesday; there are a great number of people all standing around a man with a yellow flag and a clipboard.
Jessica pulls into the lot, making up her own parking spot amongst the other cars and clambering out.
Like before, all Mark has to do is think about needing to be outside the car, and next thing he knows, he's materializing beside Jessica in time to hear her say with interest, "Oh, it's an auction!"
She trots across the gravel towards the people gathered around the man with the flag, explaining to Mark as she goes, "When someone dies or fails to make payment for their storage unit, they sell its contents at auction! This is exciting, I've never been to one before, but I've heard about it. There's a TV show on TLC about it!"
"There's a TV show on TLC for everything," Mark replies. He doesn't know a lot about television, but he does know that much.
Jessica garners a couple fleeting, assessing looks when she joins the throng, a couple wrinkled noses, and one asshole who calls her out on borrowing her boyfriend's truck, which she ignores with cheerful aplomb. She stands on her tiptoes to get a look at the locker that they're auctioning off, and elbows Mark, murmuring, "Look."
He does. "Locker 191," he says, feeling a prickling of unease. It's like knowing that there's going to be a flash mob, or waiting for someone to give the cue so you can all jump out and yell surprise! on somebody's birthday. Only instead of a confetti shower, someone's life is going to end. Without quite being able to stop himself, he scans the backs of everybody's head, wondering which one of them only has minutes to live, and whether they ever envisioned spending them in the heat-cracked dust on the wrong side of the highway.
The guy with the flag rattles off auction rules, and then bolt-cuts the lock on the locker, heaving the heavy door up. People push forward to get a look at what's inside; he catches a glimpse of several cardboard boxes and dining room chairs stacked almost to the roof of the unit.
"Okay," says Jessica, snatching his wrist. "Now we play a game called risk assessment. Tell me, Mark, what's the most likely cause of death?"
"Ummm," goes Mark, brilliantly. This wasn't exactly one of the sections they covered on the SATs.
She smiles, like that's exactly the answer she was expecting. "Right. We work for the department of Death by External Influence. That means we're responsible for accidents, suicides, murders, and natural disasters. I like it," she adds, catching the expression on Mark's face. "We live out and about. You should see some of the guys from Infectious Disease -- they spent all of their time in the hospital, it makes them a little crazy. Now ...?" she lifts her eyebrows questioningly.
Mark studies their surroundings. "They're not happy," he goes, finally, jerking his chin at the crowd, who restlessly elbow at each other to get better look at the inside of the locker. "Riot?"
She considers this. "Not out of the realm of possibility," she allows. "You can smash in someone's skull with those bolt-cutters. Also, look, there's loose electrical wire," she points along the trim of the building. "And at least two of the trucks in the parking lot have shotguns in the footwell."
"Ugh," goes Mark, feeling ill. There are too many ways someone could die.
Jessica opens her mouth again, but a commotion from up front cuts her off, a rumble of angry voices. A slender, dark-haired woman in a pencil skirt has planted her feet against the knee of the man with her, using him to hike herself up above the rest of the crowd to see to the back of the storage unit. Not only does this give her an unfair advantage, it also blocks the view of the people standing behind her.
"Goldberg!" snarls one of the trucker-looking types. "Get down, you cheating nancy."
Mark and Jessica exchange looks.
"Come on, Sana," murmurs the man holding her up, squeezing her around the waist. "I think you've seen enough."
"Just a second," goes the woman cuttingly, waving him away.
Jessica double-checks her notebook. S. Goldberg. She has enough time to flash Mark a shark's grin, before she strides forward, worming her way through the crowd with copious use of her elbows. "Excuse me," she murmurs, leaning around Sana Goldberg like she's trying to get a closer look inside the locker. Her hand brushes along Sana's leg, and Mark sees ... a shimmy, almost, something softly blue unsettled and moving underneath the doomed woman's skin. Nobody else seems to notice.
"Was that --?" Mark starts, when she returns to his side.
"That was me removing her soul, yes," she confirms, and checks her phone for the time. "One minute," she announces, and Mark's stomach knots.
The crowd is getting more annoyed, a murmuring droning like summer insects revving up as people try to peer around her. The man with the yellow flag looks desperately like he wants to say something, but he hovers back, intimidated.
"Hey," Jessica goes suddenly, and drops her voice to a low murmur, turning her head to him. "See that? No, don't look right at it," when Mark goes to do exactly that. "Slowly. Out of the corner of your eye." She rolls her eyes to the left to demonstrate, the whites showing.
Mark does the same, and catches it -- a flit of something ashen, gray, and small, clambering up the building's drainpipe.
"Gravelings." Jessica's voice drops even further, her tone going dark. "The agents of fate. They're the ones that align the circumstances. 'What are the odds,' people always say whenever some kind of bizarre accident happens. Well, those things are the odds. The one in a million chance."
The one in a million chance looks a lot like Dobby, if Dobby had slitted eyes like a fox, nasty brown teeth like pine needles, and a mane of porcupine quills going up the back of its neck. Small, elfin, it scans the faces of the crowd, bears its teeth in a snigger, and slides down to land on the broken lock of the unit door.
"Hey!" goes the trucker who'd complained before. "Goldberg, quit being a bitch!"
He puts his hands on the back of the man holding Sana up, giving him a hard shove; she wobbles, losing her balance, and lands sprawl-eagled on the cement with a shriek of outrage, just as the graveling bounces up and down on the door. With a tremendous clatter, it comes loose, slamming shut.
There's a horrible wet crunch as S. Goldberg's head smashes like a watermelon.
The crowd screams, Mark gags and doubles over, and the graveling laughs.
"Hmm," goes Jessica, mildly. "And I was so sure it was going to be the wiring. Oh, well, at least I grabbed this," and she holds up a wallet.
Momentarily distracted from the gore littering the concrete (is that what I looked like?), Mark double-takes. "That's ...?"
"S. Goldberg's wallet, yup. I always feel so grungy pickpocketing them before they die, but in a crowd like this, it'd be almost impossible to get it off her corpse. Plus, this way, no blood." She flips it open and rifles through it. "And storage auctioneers almost always want straight-up cash, sooo ... yup, here we go!" she unravels a slim fold of bills, all $50s, from behind the library card, and slips it into her pocket. Her eyes light up, and she fingers another card. "Ooo, a Cold Stone Creamery gift card! Hey, honey, how much is on this?"
"Umm," comes a tentative reply from behind Mark. He glances over his shoulder to see Sana standing there, looking wayward and a little lost. She's staring at the scene around her dead body, transfixed. "About $20, I think."
"Oh my god, excellent, I'm treating us after this, seriously, whatever you want," she says to Mark, and then realizes what came out of her mouth. She cringes a little bit. "Oh, sorry, well, when you've got a body again, I guess. Is that all right?" That last is asked of Sana.
She waves a hand at Jessica, a do-whatever kind of gesture. She keeps up her unblinking stare, her face creasing with pain when the man who'd been lofting her into the air starts chanting, "no no no" over and over. All Mark can see of him from this angle is the hunch of his back, rocking back and forth.
When he looks back, Jessica jerks her chin at him, widening her eyes in a way that's probably supposed to mean something. Mark waves his hands helplessly back at her, and she sighs, tossing the wallet to the ground and going over to Sana, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She turns them both away. "Come on, sweetie," she says, gentle. "Come away from there, you don't need to see that."
"That's ... that's me, isn't it?" says Sana, in a very small voice. Mark falls in on her other side as they cross the gravel lot. "But ... it didn't hurt."
"I removed your soul before you died," Jessica answers, well-rehearsed. "A common courtesy, you know. You probably didn't want to feel that. And now, we take you to your afterlife."
"My afterlife?" Something stirs in her eyes at that, and she shoots Jessica a distrustful look. "I'm Jewish, though."
"Hey!" Mark goes, startled and a little too loud. "Me too!" And holds up a hand for a high-five.
Two ghosts apparently don't make a solid, because their hands go right through each other when she lifts hers to his, more out of reflex than anything, but whatever.
Jessica looks amused. "I figured that out, actually, what with 'Goldberg' and all. Unfortunately, death doesn't seem too fussed about any particular religion."
"So," says Sana, accepting this in stride. "What is there?"
Unless he's mistaken, something almost wistful flickers across Jessica's face. "It's different for everybody. Think ... think of the happiest place you can imagine. A paradise."
Mark sees it first; a soft shower of lights materialize at the end of the lot, past the last row of buildings. They glow there, pulsing like a heartbeat, the same pale blue that Sana's soul had been while it was still moving about under her skin. And then they spread out, taking on the form of a room, the details crystalizing; it looks like every highway antique shop Mark's mother ever dragged him and his sisters into, rows of old treasures lining every shelf, jewelry glinting inside glass cases. There's a man, too, standing with his arms outstretched; Mark can't quite distinguish his features from here, but he gets the impression that he's laughing, joyful.
Sana doesn't need any prompting. With a soft gasp of delight, she slides from Jessica's hold and goes running for the mirage. For a second, it looks like she and the light swallow each other, becoming so blindingly bright he has to cover his eyes, and then they're both gone, as it they never were.
He looks at Jessica.
She smiles. "That's what we do."
She gives him a time and a place to meet the next morning.
"Palo Alto Main Library," she tells him, her elbow propped out the open truck window. Her hair catches in her mouth when she speaks. "6:30 AM sharp, okay?"
The main library turns out to be a small, red-brick building, tucked onto the corner of an enormous, sprawling community garden like a comma or an afterthought. The garden itself is rows of chicken wire and stakes, rioting with vegetables and flowers alike, and when Mark gets there, there's already one woman out working, straw hat tied under her chin even though the sun has barely breached the top of the trees.
A patio area faces the street, screened in for privacy; walking by, Mark hears a fountain running and catches glimpses of cast-iron patio chairs and ivy trellises through the rosette-patterned breaks in the screen. The main entrance and book drop are on the other side, facing the garden. The door is guarded by the sculpture of a woman caught mid-run, an abstract amalgamation of bended sheet metal, devoid of fine features but obviously feminine. She has one hand shading her eyes, like she's squinting into the sunlight.
The hours on the window say the library isn't supposed to be open for another thirty minutes, but when Mark floats through the door, he finds a couple people already there.
Big Kawali and Jessica he recognizes instantly, standing at the information desk in the center of the room. There's a little old lady sitting behind it, a pair of reading glasses hooked into the neckline of her sweater and her white hair pinned back by a glittering barrette. He thinks she must be the librarian in charge of opening, but when he heads up to the desk, her eyes flit right to him with that physical clap Mark is getting incredibly unused to, and he startles.
Well, then. The old lady librarian is a grim reaper, too.
Mark's starting to feel like the that special %1 that become undead really aren't so special.
"Hey!" goes Kawali, clapping Mark's shoulder in greeting. "If it isn't the Whack-a-Brain! This is Mark Zuckerberg, he's replacing Nikita," he tells the librarian, who must have already known this, because she just nods politely. She's a tiny thing; her feet don't even reach the floor. "Mark, this is Tabitha Tibbs, the fourth and final member of our merry little band."
"Everyone calls me Tilly," she corrects, holding out a hand for Mark to shake. She has thin eyes the color of smoke. "I was mauled by dogs, 1971."
"Um," says Mark, who recognizes this ritual. It's like rank and number for reapers. "I was hit in the head. Two days ago."
"Bludgeoned," Jessica interjects helpfully. "Say bludgeoned, it's a really cool word."
"Tilly works here in the library, which is why we use it as our base of operations," Kawali explains. "We meet here at 6:30 every morning, come rain, shine, or rapture. Even on Sundays and bank holidays. You will not be late. If I have to come fetch your haole ass, I will be highly displeased," something about the pleasant way he says 'displeased' makes Mark envision waking up with Kawali standing over him, holding a chainsaw. "Tilly can make you a key, so you can get in even when the library isn't open."
"If you ever need to talk to one of us, there's usually always somebody here during the daytime," goes Jessica, and Mark cringes a little bit, because he has never in his life been the kind of person who needs to talk. He's always been better at talking at people, not to. "This is just where we hang out, it's a pretty cool place. Short on public funding, of course, which is always a shame."
"I would donate," goes Mark. "But I don't think they let you access your bank accounts once you're officially deceased."
"I couldn't tell you," Jessica responds. "I was a sophomore at Stanford when I died, so ... what bank account."
"And this," Kawali circles around the information desk and crosses an open, airy space that -- judging by the bright, geometric-patterned rug -- is meant as a reading area for children. On the other side, before the long rows of books start, there are several tables strung together, cluttered with a mismatch of various computer consoles, ranging from the newest Macs with names like Tiger and Snow Leopard that Mark's always quietly mocked where Steve Jobs couldn't hear him, to boxy PCs that look like they still run Windows ME, and (this is where Kawali settles himself) the old dinosaur Macs that Mark remembers from elementary school, when they sent the kids up to the attic during recess on rainy days to play Number Crunchers or Oregon Trail. That old.
"This," says Kawali, holding up something slim and black. "Is where I keep the list of all the day's deaths. I get the information from Upper Management, and I doll out the tasks to you."
Mark stares. "Is that ..." he starts, a little incredulously. "Is that a floppy disk?"
Kawali glances at the thing in his hand. "Yes?" he offers after a beat. "It beats the old ledger system. I think it's pretty high-tech."
Mark kind of wants to die on the spot from that statement alone, but having already done that, he just twitches spastically and then looks over at Jessica, who puts a finger to her lips, like it's a kindness to let Kawali live in his own delusion.
He shows them the list; it's similar to what Jessica had written down yesterday; names, places, ETDs. There are six people dying today; by accident, by suicide, by natural disaster, or by murder, he doesn't know, that's not one of the details helpfully included. Two happen at the same time, in the same place -- the Intel headquarters in Santa Clara -- which makes Mark's stomach clench because he's been there. He doesn't recognize the people, but...
Before now, Mark has paid little to no attention to northern California landmarks. He's aware the only things that exist north of Sacramento are the ancient redwood forests and possibly Bigfoot, depending on who you're talking to, but his mental map of the Bay Area consists less of useful markers that anyone local would recognize -- like Dead Man's Pass, CalTech University, or That One Really Freaky Christmas Tree Farm with the Life-Size Wood Carvings of Famous Presidents -- and more "oh yeah, that's the bar where the president of Yahoo! suggested that I was hiding the Lindberg baby in my Jewfro" and "there are too many Googlites here, avoid like the wind." His idea of giving directions is something along the lines of: "it's four major intersections--" they were major if they had their own turning arrows, seriously, that should be obvious --"past the really sketchy adult video store. No, the other one. Yeah, that one."
But the locations of death that appeared on Kawali's list looked more like something straight off of Google Maps. The one at the bottom just says Fourth stall, horse barn, .5 miles north of the oak tree, Mt. Hope Cemetary, Pescadero, and Mark blinks a little bit.
Who the hell knows the difference between an oak tree and any other kind of seriously, seriously, what the hell.
"Pescadero?" he goes questioningly. "But that's like ..." An hour and a half drive away. A little less, if you treat speed limits as mere suggestions. It's a one-stoplight town set back a short distance from the coast, stuck in time the way Mark didn't even think was possible in California until he saw it. "How far does your territory extend?"
"All of West Bay is ours," Jessica disappears into the stacks, and is gone for only a moment before she's back, rolled-up maps tucked in her arms. She spreads them out on the table.
When you look at the entire state of California, the West Bay is miniscule at best, a tiny finger of land jutting out into the water, flanked by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the San Francisco Bay to the east. Dustin Moskovitz once called it the pelvis of California, and Mark has, unfortunately, been unable to shake the mental image.
But what isn't obvious on a bigger map becomes clear on a smaller one: the Bay Area is one enormous, teeming metropolis. City stacked on top of city with little to no space in between.
"San Francisco has its own team," Jessica stretches to lay her hand flat on the city, middle finger stretching to touch the Golden Gate bridge. "And San Jose has its own team," she puts the other one down over the city at the southern-most tip of the bay. "And we're responsible for all the people who die in between." She skates her palm over the city names Mark knows by heart: Sunnyvale, where Yahoo is; Mountain View, home to the Googleplex; Cupertino, right on the fringes of San Jose and base location for Hewlett-Packard; and, of course, Palo Alto, which Mark has called home since the moment Dustin went sprinting into the backyard, yelling, Marky baby, you got us a pool!
"What you would call the 'big cities' each get their own team," adds Kawali. "There are six cities in California large enough to merit -- San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Fresno, Sacramento, and Long Beach. Each of those areas has five reapers per department, while the rest of us only get four."
There's a note in his voice that suggests to Mark this is a subject of some soreness. Kawali continues, his pidgin accent coming out a little thicker in his annoyance, "You would think the labor would get distributed on a representational scale, but nah, bruddah. A'ole. Fixed number of reapers for specific geographical areas. Tell me, how is it fair that we in West Bay have the same number of reapers as they do in central Wyoming, when there are about two hundred people living there and we have over half a million."
"Like we said." That's Jessica. "We're overworked and understaffed."
"If I had my way," Kawali's definitely muttering now. "I'd have a reaper stationed in each city in the Bay Area. Even Atherton."
"But Atherton is, like, five blocks long," Mark goes, perplexed.
"Uh-huh, and 7,000 people live in those five blocks, and they gotta die just like everybody else."
"So," Jess punches his shoulder with more force than she probably intended, making Mark stumble a little bit, winding up waist-deep in the table. "Are you going with Kawali to see who works themselves to death at Intel, or do you want to come with me to see what's in this horse barn in Pescadero?" She waggles her eyebrows.
"Ugh," replies Mark.
The coroners do some kind of Autopsy Express ("what'd'ya say we go and watch it?" Kawali asks him, cheerfully elbowing him in the ribs. "We'll bring popcorn!" He laughs uproariously at the look on Mark's face.
"Are you sure you don't want to go?" pipes up the old lady reaper, Tilly, sounding interested. "Mine was extraordinarily fascinating."
"Yeah, but, sister, they didn't have to reassemble your head out of pieces from a Ziploc bag,") so that Mark's body can be on a plane and in New York with his family in time for the funeral.
Mark can't attend -- he got the impression from the other reapers that he's now physically tied to the land he died in and won't ever be able to leave, but he doesn't actually have any means to test this hypothesis -- but he has a pretty good idea of when they put his body in the ground, if what Kawali says about the undead and funeral rites is true. It's ten in the morning in California, his third day of being dead, and he's tagging along with Jessica as she carries boxes and bags from her truck into the Good Will store off of Charleston Rd.
"All right, one more pick-up stop to go!" she declares cheerfully when she comes back out, swinging her car keys around on her knuckle.
"Fine," says Mark, who honestly has nothing better to do -- it's not like he can sit at a computer when his hands go right through it, so maybe this is an exercise to find what he is when he isn't attached to a console via umbilical cord. (Don't think about Facebook!)
He goes around to the passenger side of the truck, and walks right into the door.
As far as collisions go, it's pretty impressive, right up there with the slapstick they show on America's Funniest Home Videos: a solid thunk and then Mark finds himself on his ass in the parking lot, his head swimming. "Ow," he groans.
Jessica crouches down next to him, looking torn between concern and laughter. "Well, I guess that means your funeral's over," she says, clapping her hands on the tops of her thighs.
"I don't feel any different," Mark protests, because somehow he thought there might be more fanfare, and goes to sit up. He immediately notices a problem. "Jesus Christ, I am naked."
"Yeah, you are," says Jessica, unapologetically lascivious. He didn't remember being naked when he was invisible; in fact, he's pretty sure his ghost was wearing what he'd died in. "Fortunately for you, I happen to work at an incredibly cheap second-hand clothing store. Up you get, come on, we need to sneak you in the back before somebody sees you and calls the cops."
"It's not that big," he allows, humbly, and she rolls her eyes, hauling him to his feet.
"There's something you need to see," she says, once she's fished clothes for him out of the unsorted bins in the back. When he gets them on (it takes him a while, because he keeps on getting distracted by touching his wrists and his neck, where heartbeat and blood runs underneath his fingertips, shockingly real and so amazing that the thrill of it is on par with shaking hands over an angel investment or waking up to find a girl wearing your shirt,) she grabs his sleeve and pulls him into one of the changing rooms, stationing him right in front of the mirror.
Mark draws in a sharp breath.
There's a stranger looking back at him, someone who is Mark's height, Mark's shape, Mark's build, and absolutely nothing like him at all. His hair is straight, which it has never been in Mark's entire life; the only curl to it now is right behind the ears. Where once his face was nothing but cheekbones, sharp enough to cut, his features are now flat, nothing to comment on, nothing memorable. He doesn't smile, but he thinks that if he did, his dimples would be gone. It's like someone had taken the mold of Mark, and sanded down every personal detail down to something blandly default. If he met himself on the street, he wouldn't remember him.
It's not just him, either; over his shoulder, the mirror reflects an entirely different Jessica, too, one with sunken eyes like a lush, a weaker chin, and flatter chest.
"This," she says lowly. "Is what we look like to the living. Never mind the actual bit with the souls, this is a grim reaper's greatest asset: our ability to slip among those we once knew like shadows and have them never know it's us." She touches a fingertip to Mark's chin. "Average, borderline ugly faces. It's the new black hood and scythe for the modern age."
He looks at himself one more time, and realizes that she's right. He gives a quiet little snort at the irony; here's Mark Zuckerberg, who made anonymity on the Internet a virtually moot point, now even more anonymous than he was before he got the idea to rank girls based on their hotness.
"They didn't do you justice," he informs Jessica, and then gestures in the general vicinity of her reflection's bust. "That's serious false advertising."
Her mouth quirks, amused. "Thank you. I would say the same but, um," her eyes flick exaggeratedly down to his crotch, and she gives a delicate little sniff.
He laughs, and catches sight of himself doing so in his peripheral. It's wrong, it's off, it's not him, and it distracts him. It occurs to him that this is what he'll see in every reflection from now on, this is what everybody sees looking at him, what they will all see in photographs or videos. It's a strange thing to think, but Mark already kind of misses his real face.
Like she knows exactly what's going through his mind, Jessica says, "It won't be that hard for you, probably, if you need to remember who you were before you died. I'm sure Google has pictures of you everywhere, unlike me and Kawali and Tilly. There's no record of us. But," she goes quickly, like that thought hurt. "We have each other. The dead can see us. And other reapers see your face for what it truly is, too; it's the only honesty we have. You know what my real face looks like, and that's good enough for me."
It takes a moment, before Mark clues in that there's probably something he can say here.
"Your eyes are blue," he blurts out uncomfortably. "Your real ones. Like, if I didn't know better, I'd swear you were wearing contacts. That kind of blue. They're very nice."
Jessica looks startled, then pleased, then wistful. She looks down at her feet and mumbles, "thank you," very quiet.
It's then, and only then, that Mark finally notices what she forced him to wear.
"Did you do this on purpose?" he demands, grabbing fistfuls of his sweatshirt and holding it away from his body; it's bubblegum pink, with an anchor screenprint and the words, "Proud Navy Girlfriend," stenciled across the chest.
She grins triumphantly, caught out. "I was wondering when you were going to say something," she says. "I'm just screwing with you. I can go and get you something else, don't worry."
Mark slips a hand up the sleeve of the other arm, stroking his fingertips along the inner lining. "Actually," he goes. "It's really soft. And new. I think I'll keep it, if you don't mind."
She looks, if anything, even more amused than before. "More power to you. Come on," she drums her fingers on his shoulder. "You're going to need a couple more things than that to function in polite society. And then I can finally take you out for Cold Stone Creamery, oh my god, I am dying for something with a lot of fudge in it."
"I have a question," he says, trailing her out of the changing room. She tilts her head at him over her shoulder, her expression half inquisitive and half caught in her daydream about ice cream. "If you work here, and Tilly works at the library, what does Kawali do?"
"Oh, he owns a string of moderately successful yogurt shops. Have you ever had frozen yogurt? Yeah, that was his idea."
He supposes some of his friends must have gone to his funeral, but as the majority of the people he knew and worked with were on the opposite coast from where they buried his body, it somehow isn't a surprise when Kawali shows up one morning and tosses a print-out down in front of him, saying, "get up, little man, we've got go stand around and pretend that people are going to miss you" in that voice of his that manages to convey and what part of what I just said implies you have a choice? in the politest way possible.
Mark picks up the print-out and scans it. There's a cordial reception being held in Palo Alto in his honor.
"'Cordial reception'," Mark scoffs. "That's a bizarre word choice. I'm dead, what are they going to do, sit around and eat cookies?"
Actually, that turns out to be a fairly apt description of what goes down.
There are a bunch of chairs set up, and some kind of hideous portrait/flower display at the front of the room that kind of makes Mark want to turtle-duck his head into his shirt and never come back up. Tupperware Tony gets up there and says some words, and if it weren't for the overlarge presence of his face on the overhead projector, Mark would have no idea they were supposed to be about him. Tony seemed to have raided a thesaurus for half his speech: Mark doesn't remember ever actually having a conversation with him involving anything outside of Adobe Flash -- except maybe once saying, "You shouldn't microwave your Tupperware, Tony, you'll probably get brain cancer."
Tuning him out as a matter of self-preservation, Mark takes inventory of everyone else who's shown up.
Not thinking about leaving Facebook behind has been Mark's main coping mechanism, and this is kind of shooting that to pieces.
The employees who are here, he's startled to see, have all come more sharply dressed and presentable-looking than they ever bothered with at work, like Mark suddenly deserves some respect now that he's dead -- although, to be fair, Mark never cared enough to implement a dress code for Facebook (it would be too much like the pot calling the kettle black,) so his employees showed respect by shutting the hell up and getting done what he asked them to get done, which is all anyone can ever really ask for.
It's obvious not many of them are paying attention to what Tupperware Tony is saying, which, okay, fine, as far as services go it's pretty humiliating, but Mark would like it if they at least pretended to be present.
"Don't think I don't see you texting over there," he mutters, narrowing his eyes down the row to where Patrick's sitting, his head down and his phone out between his knees. Mark can't actually see the phone, but he assumes it's there. At least, he hopes that's a phone down there, what with the intense focus Patrick is directing at the vicinity of his crotch.
Kawali looks miserably embarrassed, because Mark isn't exactly keeping his voice down (he kind of fell out of the habit, being incorporeal and all, and now he's in a crowded room of people he vaguely knows, and none of them know it's him. It's as liberating as it is saddening.)
Nevertheless, he leans back into his seat and lowers his voice to an undertone, "He was one of the last people to see me alive. You'd think he'd try to look more like he cared."
Kawali shifts his weight, suddenly looking thoughtful. "He a good friend of yours, then?"
Mark makes a face.
"No," Kawali translates, keen look sharpening. "Enemy?"
"Who, Patrick?" Mark lifts his eyebrows. "Patrick makes PCs for a living. He's head of manufacturing at Hewlett-Packard. HP Pavillion? Ugh," he says, as Kawali's expression goes politely blank. "How do you even survive in this day and age?"
"By adopting this expression every time haole folk start going on about which computer is better than the others," he points at his face. "The 'I don't give a flying fuck' face. It works wonders."
Mark shoots him a sideways look. "No," he answers. "Patrick isn't an enemy. He's not much of anything. Most of these people aren't much of anything," he scans over his shoulder, catching on the same several familiar faces he sought out earlier. There aren't as many Facebook employees here as his ego would like, but he supposes a better way to honor his memory would for them to be at the offices, working. Kevin the moony guy from Legal is up front, and Mark does an automatic head count for Keisha, but she's not here, and Mark doesn't really know who Kevin is without his ever-present crush on her.
The majority of those present are associates, largely from Mark's spiderweb network of Silicon Valley programmers; the people he's basically had in his pocket since he was twenty-one, whether they liked it or not. There's a baker's dozen of Googlites all sitting in a row, including one of the Stans (and there's that mental note of should learn their names, but he doesn't really need to anymore, does he?) who was also one of the last people to see him alive.
"None of my closest friends are here," he realizes, folding the corner of his program and then rolling it. "Which I would understand if only my closest friends weren't also my closest business partners. Am I allowed to be insulted by the turnout at my own memorial service?"
Kawali's not facing him, but Mark can tell that he's rolling his eyes. "Quit bitching at the living, little man, they'll all be dead soon enough."
Which is a really creepy thing to think, to be honest. It shuts Mark up.
He's all for leaving when the reception's over, beelining for the trash can to throw his program away, but when he turns around, Kawali's there, shoving a plate with a biscotti on it into his hands. "Eat," he orders, in a tone that brooks no argument. "Mingle. Say your good-byes. It's your funeral."
"No, it's not, it's a pantomime of one set up for business people," Mark points out. Kawali's using his I'm the boss voice, but Mark hasn't been taking orders from anyone since he was ... well, no, actually, ever. "And what the hell am I supposed to say? Hi, I'm Mark Zuckerberg's zombie, please don't try and screw up my company, otherwise your brains are forfeit?"
"Eat and stand against the wall, then," Kawali replies, unperturbed, straightening the collar of his Aloha shirt (he doesn't actually seem to own any other kind.) "Blend in. You'll be doing a lot of faking it from now on, so at least try to look like you don't look down your nose at everyone here."
"I do not," Mark protests immediately, even though that's exactly what he's been doing. "They're my colleagues. I'm leaving my company in their hands. Excuse me if that makes me a little panicky."
He gets ignored, and so actually does wind up with his back to the wall, nibbling on his cookie and shamelessly eyeing the people who go by. Nobody tries to come talk to him, which is a side effect of his new, entirely-forgettable face, but it's still entirely too reminiscent of early AEPi parties for his comfort. Whoever sculpted his new appearance probably didn't have to change much in the forgettable department.
"You know," says Kawali when he finally lumbers back over, a couple long, awkward minutes later. "You're probably never going to see most of these people again. Not unless their names get handed to me by Upper Management, and maybe not even then, since I could easily have Jess or Tilly take them. One of our rules is not to fraternize with the people we once knew, so this is your last chance."
"I'm fine here," Mark mumbles, crushing some of his crumbs between his thumb and forefinger before brushing them off on his shirt.
Kawali lets the silence hang between them for several moments, plate balanced on the flat of his hand. He seems to be gathering his thoughts.
Then he says, "Everybody wonders at some point in their lives if anyone would miss them if they died." He gestures at the crowd. "Here's your answer."
"They're not going to miss me," Mark replies, kneejerk. "They're going to miss the convenience of having the CEO of Facebook in their phones."
"Boy. If you wanted to be liked, you should have been a damn philanthropist."
"I have no illusions about my own likability, Kawali, thank you."
"And yet," says the big man lightly. "You're huddling over here with hurt feelings because the people you care about most aren't here."
Mark cuts him a sharp look, bristling a bit.
"That's not a failure," Kawali adds, like he can read Mark's mind. "Quality over quantity, I think is how the phrase goes. You do realize that they probably don't have the time to come, don't you? They'll be neck-deep in the shit you left them when you died. Your closest friends all work at Facebook, right?" He tilts his head, his expression thoughtful. "Who's in charge now? And what happens to them?"
Mark lowers his empty plate to his side, and then starts rolling it to give him something to do with his hands while he thinks.
"I own 34% of Facebook," he says finally. "Or I owned 34% of Facebook. We had it set up so that if something unexpected happened to me --" Like, say, someone bashing in Mark's skull some fine Monday morning. "-- ownership would fall to the next highest percentage of ownership, which in this case was a 28% cut, split four ways." He holds up his hand and ticks off his fingers with his balled-up paper plate. "Dustin Moskowitz, Sean Parker, Eduardo Saverin, and Peter Thiel, each of them with an equal 7% share."
"And the other ..." He looks heavenwards as he does the math. "38% of Facebook?"
Mark waves this off. "Made up of shares so small they're practically infinitesimal; my employees, investors, stockbrokers, etc. Like, not even a full percent, so really, it's up to the four of them to decide what happens to my company from here on."
"You're saying it'll take four men to do one man's job?" Kawali asks, amusement playing at the corners of his mouth.
"Yes," says Mark's ego by way of his mouth, because maybe somehow between the four of them, they'll put half the love and effort into Facebook that Mark did. Although -- "Well, no, three. Dustin and Peter I'm sure of, and Sean will come around if he hasn't already, but I don't think Eduardo's going to be interested in taking over responsibility. He won his 7% slice mostly just to make a point." He tilts one shoulder, a half-shrug. "He's never been in the habit of dropping everything for Facebook."
"Oh?" goes Kawali, his tone deliberately pleasant. "Then who's that?"
And just as he says it, the crowd parts long enough for Mark to catch sight of a familiar profile; willowy, dark-haired, moving for the exit.
He takes enough time to shoot Kawali a look that clearly says, you little bitch, you knew exactly what the plans for Facebook were, you just wanted me to say it out loud, before he pushes himself off the wall, sprinting down the aisle to catch up with the figure, skirting around Steve Jobs, who's lingering around the exit and arguing quietly with one of the Hewlett-Packard women -- some Mac vs. PC thing that has to be mostly pantomime by now, come on -- and out into the sun.
And there, on the curb --
"Mrs. Saverin!" he calls out, unbidden.
She turns around, tucking a program into her purse and pulling out a set of rental keys in the same movement. Eduardo's mother has the familiar shape to her face, the thick eyebrows and wide-spreading smile she shares with her son, but the similarities end there. The rest of her bears a strong resemblance to Morticia Addams.
She lifts her eyebrows curiously, taking in Mark head to toe. "Yes?" she says, courteously enough.
It's an unpleasant shock to the system, the reminder that she, of course, who would have no idea who he is; Mark is now a virtual nobody. Which is funny, because he hadn't forgotten it for a second when he was inside, but the sight of Eduardo's mom drove that awareness from his mind. He's only met her the few times, but he remembers an enthusiastic, friendly woman, so the politeness brings him up short.
"Um," he manages, because he's the programming genius who got a 1600 on his SATs and picks the best moments to demonstrate it. "No, nothing. I -- sorry, I just --"
She smiles at him, bemused. "All right," she goes, her accent broadening the first word. "Good-bye then," and she turns, stepping out to cross the street.
"Yeah, you too," Mark mumbles, and then retreats back indoors.
"Well?" goes Kawali, who's exactly where Mark left him, up against the wall and eating away at his plate of biscotti. Mark wonders if fondness for memorial food comes with the grim reaper territory.
"Well nothing," he goes, but he steals a cookie. "Four men to do one man's job," he corrects himself after a beat, because you wouldn't send your mother to a cordial reception that you can't attend unless she's in the same town, and why would Eduardo's mother be in Palo Alto unless she was helping somebody with living arrangements?
"Four," Mark says again, grinning a little bit. "Four can do it."
For all that Kawali complains that the Bay Area is incredibly understaffed, it seems to Mark like there are a lot more grim reapers running around than he originally realized, each of them working for a different department.
There's Death by External Influence, where Mark is apparently going to be enslaved for the rest of his afterlife, and then there's Death by Infectious Disease (which isn't nearly as busy these days, not after the invention of penicillin) and Death by Natural Causes, who mostly hang around nursing homes and live in hope of the day they get an out-and-about brain aneurysm just so they can get some sun. There's the Maritime division, which handles the deaths at sea, although it still leaves beach-related deaths in External Influence's jurisdiction. Then there's Maintenance, which Mark basically calls the miscellaneous category in his head, because it includes all those who aren't directly responsible for the removal of somebody's soul: there's a reaper who doubles as an EMT and is in charge of transporting human organs, just another efficient service offered by your resident undead; there's a reaper in the courthouse who helps everyone stay under the radar by keeping track of documentation, and a reaper who basically mother hens the children.
"There are reapers who are children?" Mark goes at that, horrified.
"Oh. Right, I suppose that counts as another department. They take care of the souls of beloved pets, mostly, so you'll see them sometimes in vet's offices, at the pound, and along the side of the highway." Catching the expression on Mark's face, Kawali gives him a look like he's being obtuse. "Children die too, little man."
"Yes, but --" starts Mark, protestingly, thinking of what it would have been like to die as a little boy, and have to stick around without being able to go home or talk to his parents or see his friends.
He wonders how many of the people he passes on the street are actually dead.
It's a really eerie thought.
Kawali claps him on the shoulder and says, "Come on, let's get you a new identity," and steers him through the doors of the Santa Clara county courthouse.
They beeline straight for a little windowless filing room in the back corridor, and whatever Mark was going to say about the kind of reaper who can't reap and needs to work in this sardine can goes right out of his head when they walk in, and he catches sight of the man sitting at the desk. Whatever he appears like to the living, he has no idea, but to Mark, he's --
"Mackey!" he goes, startled, the name coming to him unbidden, something he didn't even realize he consciously remembered. "What are you ..."
Mackey -- young, with dark, floppy hair and emo-frame glasses -- pushes his chair back and stands. "I was wondering if you'd remember me, Mr. Zuckerberg," he goes, with a trace of his astringent humor.
"Don't call me that," Mark replies on automatic, because one of the most off-putting things about hiring employees who are older than you is that they call you things like sir and mister, and it's just weird. Mackey already had a bachelor's degree from Stanford before Mark was old enough to drink, much less be his boss. He'd sat three stations down from Mark in the bullpen for a year and a half before he quit. He remembers Sean, in a shaky effort to make the rest of the offices forget the spectacle Eduardo made when he walked out, calling to Mackey to set up a counter on the big screen so they'd know exactly when they hit a million members. Mackey, refresh! is an echo in his head; some clingy cobweb of sense memory from that day he's never been able to shake.
Although now ... now they kind of look the same age.
Mark's brain catches up with him. "When --"
"Four months after I quit," supplies Mackey, not even needing the rest of the question. "Decapitated by a rotating fan, 2005."
To which Mark returns, "Whack-a-Brained, Monday," like the reaper equivalent of a handshake. "I ... vaguely remember that. I think I went to your funeral."
"You did," he confirms. "Although I'd be surprised if you remembered it, man, you were three sheets to the wind and probably twice as sleep deprived as the average airport control tower." Kawali, standing off to the side and watching the exchange, snorts at that, the way people do when they aren't at all surprised. Mackey continues, "If I recall correctly, Sean Parker had just taken off with his tail between his legs and Edward had served you papers for a lawsuit, leaving you all alone."
"Eduardo. Not Edward."
"Whatever, I don't hold it against you. At least you came. They had yours in New York, didn't they? Sorry I couldn't go, but," he spreads his hands in a helpless gesture. "Tied to the land and all that."
"Hmmm," says Mark noncommittally.
Mackey drops back down into his office chair, giving it a little spin before he swivels around center again and places his hands flat on the desk. "Now," he says. "I have all your documentation ready, everything you will need to live amongst the living as a law-abiding citizen. Because you were polite enough to die on tax day, I don't have to do those for you for a whole other year, so as a token of my appreciation --" he holds out a pocket folder.
The first thing Mark sees when he flips it open is a birth certificate, proclaiming him to be Christopher Robin, who shares Mark's birth date but not the location; apparently he was born in San Diego, but his fake parents promptly moved to northern California, because he has a certificate for a Los Altos seventh-grade science fair and a diploma for Cubblerly High School, right before it was torn down to make room for a community center. His graduating class apparently voted him "most likely to become a serial killer."
He holds up his new California driver's license to the light, still not used to his new, boring face.
That's his new name?
"Really?" he goes testily. "I thought the point was to blend in and be anonymous, not to invite every Winnie the Pooh joke for a five-mile radius."
Mackey shrugs, and offers him a shark's grin.
"You guys should let him out of that office every now and then," Mark grumbles to Kawali as they leave the courthouse. "I think it's turning him a little sadistic."
"That whole department has always been sadistic," Kawali replies, and fishes out his wallet to show Mark his own ID, which proclaims him to be Fred Rogers, the most unfitting, un-Hawaiian name Mark thinks he's ever heard.
"Not such a lovely day in the neighborhood, is it, Mr. Rogers?" Mark goes, and tucks Christopher Robin's driver's license into his back pocket.
The thing about death is that it doesn't stop life (nothing stops life, really, especially not death, life cannot be contained, etc -- at least, that's what they say in Jurassic Park, which Mark watched at entirely too impressionable an age) and so, finally, a week after Mark Zuckerberg is murdered, he stops headlining in every major newspaper in the Bay Area and instead only gets a page or two in the Living section, which is ironic, if you think about it.
"At least you got a headline," Jess points out. She's trying, more or less successfully, to eat an ice cream sandwich under the table without Tilly or one of the morning-shift reference librarians being the wiser, but she keeps leaving sticky fingerprints every time she turns the newspaper page. "I didn't even get that. I was just 'housefire, 1 casualty.'"
"What I think is funny is that I barely even heard about you," says Tilly, pulling out the chair on the other side of Mark and sitting down (Jessica quickly hides the ice cream sandwich between her knees.) "Until you died. If you believe the news, it's the most exciting thing you ever did."
"Thank you, Tilly," says Mark, sarcastic. "That means a lot."
"I'm curious, though, young man," she continues. When she sits all the way back in her seat, her toes don't touch the ground. "From the sound of it, you had quite the number of followers. Did it ever bother you, having that much power and that many people at your command?"
He looks at her sideways, scoffing, "It was a website, not a religion, and have you ever tried getting a multi-million individual userbase to agree on something as simple and straight-forward as privacy settings? They aren't followers, they're a mob. There's no way I could have Pied Pipered anyone. Or brainwashed, or inspired to viva la revolution or whatever you're imagining."
Jessica flips another page of the newspaper, surreptitiously trying to get another bite of ice cream sandwich into her mouth, which she ruins by blurting out with her mouth full, "Oh! Look, they included a section about Pomona Graham! She was my reap."
Mark flinches a little bit. There's still some part of him that hopes that maybe Pomona was, like, the head of a Bay Area drug cartel or was in the Witness Protection Program and had been found out by the big fish crime family she'd once testified against, or something that would indicate that their murders had actually been intended for her, and the murderer had ... came into Mark's office afterwards and killed him because he was ... there.
Yeah, it doesn't sound likely to him, either, but he really, really hates the idea that she's dead because she was around him at the wrong time.
You can justify killing someone like Mark Zuckerberg, if you really need to and already have a skewed sense of logic: he's an upstart, he's rude and egotistical and arrogant and he pisses people off by existing in their general vicinity, he's high-profile, and sometimes he's too smart for his own good. But you can't justify killing someone like Pomona. She had two sons under the age of ten and the only thing she'd ever done wrong was she forgot it was her turn to feed the office goldfish one weekend and they found him belly-up on Monday.
Mark probably has his own satellite by this point, and what does Pomona get?
"Oh, hey, Mark," Jessica elbows him and slides the paper across the table. "Look -- in lieu of any outstanding evidence suggesting otherwise, the new leading idea is that your death was a burglary gone wrong, since neither you nor Pomona were supposed to be there at six in the morning."
"Bullshit, you don't come up behind someone in their private office and bash their head open in self-defense when you're robbing them," mutters Mark, scanning over the blurb. They haven't given up entirely on the murder idea, he notes; they've made arrests and are questioning "likely" suspects, implying that said suspects are disgruntled Facebook employees. "... yeah, they've got nothing, don't they?"
"They will," says Jessica confidently. "The highest rate of solved murders in the entire state of California is right here, in Santa Clara county. They're not going to drop the ball on this one. Ooo!" she exclaims, jolting forward to put a finger to the paper. "Here's the important bit -- what they're going to do with your money."
"I don't care about the money."
"Funny, how rich people always say that up until they don't have it anymore." She traces her finger along under the words as she reads. "Blah blah blah, taxes, blah. Oh, hey, the police are acquisitioning some of your fortune to help with their investigation. Congrats, you've probably just helped buy the precinct all new coffee dispensers. Ummm ... the majority of it goes to your next of kin, but a noticeably sizable donation has been made to --" she stops and blinks and finishes questioningly, "-- the synagogue?"
Unlike her, Mark isn't trying to sneakily consume food or drink in the library, but he still manages to choke anyway. Jessica looks at him, perplexed, as he coughs, pounds at his chest, and finally gets around to cracking up.
"I didn't think they took me seriously!" he goes, wheezing with laughter. "Oh my god, okay, there's a story -- it involves me, my sisters, and a game of Candyland. I know I'm twenty-seven, don't judge me, anyway, the deal was is that whoever won the game got to decide to which charitable organization I was going to donate millions of dollars to when I died. My youngest sister won, to nobody's surprise -- she cheats and bent the Queen Frostine card so that she knows when it's coming up and she can skip ahead of all of us -- and she told me to give it to the temple, and," he stops to laugh some more, "and I called my lawyers at, like, one in the morning and told them to change my will, but I didn't think they'd actually do it."
His laughter is infectious, because soon he's got Jessica giggling, and even Tilly looks vaguely amused, like she isn't really following but thinks they're funny anyway.
"Are they really speculating about why I did that?" Mark wants to know, once he gets control of himself again.
"Kind of. You're an endless source of fascination to them, I have no idea why," Jess waves an airy hand around.
"Dying isn't supposed to be an ego boost," comments Kawali, looming up out of nowhere, making Mark and Jessica jolt upright like kids who've been caught trading Pokemon cards at the back of class. Then to Mark, he says, "Feeling up to taking a soul today, little man?"
All urge to laugh evaporates from Mark as quickly as that.
"Umm," he goes, because while he's doing better at managing to not throw up whenever he tags along with the others on their reaps, the idea of taking one of his own doesn't sit right. You don't hand Mark anything more precious than last night's leftovers, okay; charging him to take somebody's soul is like handing him a newborn baby when he's sleep-deprived and wired on caffeine and his hands are shaking like a motorboat, and somehow expect him not to drop it.
Coming in on Kawali's heels, Pierre walks around to the other side of their table and sprawls out in a chair, blowing a cheeky kiss to Jessica when she gives him a fish-eye. Pierre is Winklevoss-tall, black and sleekly muscled like an NBA star, and has the personality of a cactus on testosterone treatments. Technically, he works over in Infectious Disease, but on the days when External influence has a high number of deaths and not enough manpower, Kawali will go and borrow him from the hospital. Mark gets the impression that they're breaking several rules by doing so.
"Oh, come on," Pierre drawls out, fixing Mark with a shark-like grin when Mark hesitates further. "You're the Facebook guy. Stealing souls should be old hat to you."
"Give me a good Internet connection, start-up money, and a set of twins with an idea and I can revolutionize your reaping business," Mark deadpans, which makes Pierre's grin widen; he's the oldest reaper Mark's ever had the pleasure of being introduced to. He remembers California before it was a state, which makes Mark seriously wonder what the hell kind of quotas they have in Infectious Disease that Pierre hasn't filled his by now.
"Sorry, little man," goes Kawali, completely unapologetic. "Death hasn't really done a software update since the bubonic plague."
"I can tell," Mark eyeballs the floppy disk that Kawal inserts into the drive, the one with the information for all the day's reaps on it.
"I don't know," and that's Jessica, looking thoughtful. "I remember when you needed a stanford.edu address to register for Facebook -- one of my closest friends, Amy, was seriously addicted. It made her completely useless as far as stealing her notes for French literature went, but. My point is, to us, Facebook just was. You don't think of it as something that's made or created -- just like you don't wonder who came up with the idea for Google, shut up --" she goes preemptively, when Mark opens his mouth to volunteer that exact information. "-- or who the first person was who decided that the Internet was great for porn."
"Probably the first person to ever log on," Pierre volunteers, and jerks his legs back, like maybe Jessica had gone in for a kick.
"Aue!" Kawali waves a hand at them exasperatedly. "Fascinating as that is, I got some jobs for you all." He looks at them pointedly until they all gather around. Mark watches the big man point out whose reap is whose to the others (Jessica groans unhappily when one of hers turns out to be at a Stanford dorm, "I hate finals-related suicides, they're the most depressing things,") and recruits Pierre for what sounds like a beach party gone wrong up at Half-Moon Bay and then goes, "and Mark, this one's yours."
He hands Mark paper and a pen and points at the screen, which is tiny, ancient, and broken up by green, wavy lines. Mark writes it down before he can change his mind.
500 block, Middlebury Drive
Tilly, who hovers over his shoulder like she's expecting him to mess something up -- and please, grandma, Mark's pretty sure he can handle a Mac from the 80s, relax -- says helpfully, "500 block, it means the middle of the street. Car accident," she says confidently.
"A deathly allergic reaction to a bee sting," guesses Jessica.
"Spontaneous combustion," Pierre goes lazily.
"It wouldn't be one of ours if it was spontaneous combustion," Kawali points out, ejecting the floppy. "That's one of Natural Causes's."
Jessica looks up, incredulous. "Spontaneous combustion is natural?"
Mark tunes them out, looking down at his own handwriting spelling out somebody's name. Somebody with only hours left to live. Who were they? What were they doing? Did they have any idea what was coming for them, right now, in the form of Mark Zuckerberg, grim reaper? Would they have a headline, or would they be, 'accident, 1 casualty,' tucked somewhere in the back of the Chronicle?
All right, he thinks, tucking the note into the pocket of his jacket. Let's go get used to this reaping thing.
Some of them, it turns out, are easy.
He sits down on the curb of the 500 block, Middlebury Drive, in Sunnyvale, with five minutes left to spare before the ETD, and it turns out he doesn't even need to do a risk assessment. The street is quiet, no cars, and there's only one person in sight: a girl, high school age, with brown hair up in a ponytail and Eurasian features, walking right down the middle of the pavement. There's a park nearby, so it comes as no surprise that she's in soccer shorts, her cleats tied by their shoestrings and tossed over her shoulder. She has her phone out, fingers flying.
When she draws closer, Mark sees exactly what he was expecting to see: "Takawa" in broad white letters on the back of her shirt.
Here we go. He pushes himself to his feet, wiping his sweaty palms. She's younger than he was when he made CourseMatch.
Deliberately stepping right into her, catching her crossways, he bumps shoulders long enough to touch his fingertips to her shoulder blade, and it doesn't take anything more than that. He sees it, the soft blue shimmy of light as her soul stirs underneath her skin, freed from its corporeal bounds.
"Hey!" goes A. Takawa, oblivious and frowning at him.
"Sorry," Mark mumbles, snatching his reaper's hands back to him, and ducks to the driver's side of a nearby car, like that's what he meant to do all along.
Huffing, she twists back around to face front, thumbing at her cell phone. Mark watches, unabashed, and catches sight of something small, smoky, dirty gray -- a graveling -- scamper across the road. It hooks its fingers into the manhole cover in the middle of the street, wiggling it open. Mark can hear its triumphant snickering.
The girl's so busy texting, she doesn't even notice, and it's all over in a matter of seconds: a startled yelp as she steps out over open space, the clattering as her phone goes flying, a muffled crunching thud.
A. Tanaka materializes besides him a couple moments later, looking a little dazed and blinking a lot.
She looks from Mark to the open manhole cover and back again, and then she sighs, folding her arms.
"Well," she goes, with a good-natured smile in Mark's direction. "My mother always did say Facebook was going to be the death of me."
"I created Facebook," Mark offers, and then cringes, because he'd created Facebook to be cool, not to distract teenage girls to the point where they don't even notice an open manhole cover in the middle of the street.
She studies him, and then her face brightens. "So you did! I recognize your face now. How about that. Hi, I'm Ashley." They shake on it, and then something occurs to her, making her eyes widen a little. "Oh, hey. I'm really sorry about ... like, your murder and all."
He shrugs. "I'm really sorry about --" he waves a hand at the manhole, trying to encompass death by sewer into the most socially acceptable and least offensive gesture possible.
"Yeah." She makes a face. "I don't suppose I can update my status, now that I actually have something worthwhile to say?" He shakes his head. "Yeah, I didn't think so. I don't want to stick around, so!" She tucks her hand around Mark's elbow, smiling again. "Why don't you show me what the next best thing is."
He grins back. "My specialty."
Some of them are rather strange.
"You know, no one has ever explained it to me," says Jessica, hiking herself up onto the rim of the fountain so she could peer above the heads of the crowd. "But what do Star Wars characters have to do with anime conventions? Like, aren't we supposed to be celebrating Japanimation? Last I checked, George Lucas was not Japanese."
"Star Wars is the ultimate troll," Mark answers, watching her turn on the spot, futile. "It appears everywhere, regardless of whether or not it has been invited."
"And these costumes make it impossible to identify anybody," she grouches. "Time?"
He checks. "We have three minutes."
"Shit. All right, I give up." She cups her hands around her mouth and lets loose her loudest soccer mom yell. "MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. WOULD A K. OPPENHEIM AND A --"
"J. JACOBS PLEASE REPORT TO THE --" She looks up. "VAGUELY PHALLIC-LOOKING FOUNTAIN AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, PLEASE."
This, of course, inspires a wave of return in-character abuse -- "I am the Boulder! The Boulder does not come when summoned!" "Wait, are we going to start a Carameldansen line?" -- as well as some smart-ass who takes up a chorus of "John Jacobs Jingleheimer Schmidt," which Mark can't fault him for, because that was his reaction this morning, too, when he wrote down "J. Jacobs" on the inside of his arm. But, just as Jessica is looking a little desperate and Mark runs out of fingers to count all the possible ways someone could die in a crowd like this, two Stormtroopers come clomping up.
"Is this about my badge?" one of them demands, voice muffled by the helmet. "Did you guys find it? I think I might have left it in the Dealer's Room, because, like --"
"K. Oppenheim and J. Jacobs?" Jessica interrupts.
"Yes," go the Stormtroopers, and Mark and Jessica move forward in unison to pat them down without any finesse, their souls shimmering away.
"We didn't, I'm sorry," goes Jessica, plastering on a conciliatory smile and lying through her teeth. "Someone said they saw a Stormtrooper drop a badge yesterday, but the names don't match. I promise we'll keep looking, okay, bye," and she drags Mark off with her into the crowd.
"What do you think's going to kill them?" he asks her.
She thinks about it for a moment, as they find an empty place to stand against the wall. "The Pyramidhead," she goes, like there's absolutely no contest.
"Yeah," Mark drags it out, grinning. "It's going to be the Pyramidhead."
And, approximately two minutes later, when the first horrified, real screams start lilting back to them, they bump fists.
"Uncool!" protests either K. Oppenheim or J. Jacobs -- they're dressed identically, so what does Mark know -- when their ghosts finally make an appearance, mingling on the edge of all the convention-goers, still decked out in full get-up. "No, seriously, what the hell was that!"
"That was you dying," Mark says cheerfully, and then he tilts his head in Jessica's direction, contemplative. "There's probably a joke I can make about the Clone Wars here, isn't there?"
"Probably, but don't strain yourself, genius."
"Come on," calls a voice from down the hall, where a doorway lights up a gentle, glowing blue like a mirage; beyond it, instead of a screening room, there's now an open, rolling field cresting into a bay, and a lone ship in the harbor, sails fluttering. The Stormtroopers take a step towards it, without looking like they realize what they're doing. Coaxingly, the voice continues, "I think we've still got one adventure left in us."
"Oh," goes a Stormtrooper, soft, reaching out. Seemingly instinctive, the other Stormtrooper takes the offered hand, and the two of them drift down the hall together, like children charmed.
"Can two souls go to the same paradise?" Mark asks, frowning after them.
"They can if they just got summoned by Bilbo Baggins," says Jessica. "Holy shit, that's awesome."
And some of them are more difficult than Mark thinks he can bear.
"Mister, Mister," she wants to know, looking up at him, wide-eyed, and tugging on his hand. "Are you an angel?"
K. Bennett cannot be a day over four, a carrot top with curly hair held back in a Disney Princess headband and a face seemingly made of freckles. She carries the plush toy of a unicorn tucked under one arm, the fabric worn down to white on its nose and one of its marble eyes coming loose.
Mark looks away from her little face, peering through the dark and the trees. In the distance, lit by the light of a single porch light, a man creeps out of his house, the forest dark at his back. He's carrying something small and mangled, something with a jelly sandal dangling off one foot. His head turns, furtive, before he slips off into the dark. Mark wonders if they'll ever get the body back.
He gets down on one knee, so that he's eye level with her, the way you're always supposed to do with kids. "Would you like an angel?" he asks her.
She returns his serious look. "Oh, yes, please. That'd be really nice."
"Good," he says. "Because, madam, I'll be your very own angel this evening." And she giggles, briefly hiding her face in the yarn of her unicorn's mane.
A soft noise and a flood of muted blue light signals the arrival of her lights, and Mark stands, offering her his arm. She's not quite tall enough to take it, so she wraps her arm around his upper thigh instead, leaning into him. This invariably just leads to her laughing when he tries to walk with her, dragging her a half-step through the pine needles.
"You're supposed to fly, mister," she tells him, matter-of-fact and so sure.
"Nuh-uh," Mark protests, and oh, god, what horrible claymaker thought that giving human beings a heart was a good idea, because ten more seconds of this and his mask will crack and he will bleed. Children should not be allowed to die. Children should never be allowed to die. He looks down at her. "It's your turn."
"To fly?" She looks, for a beat, impossibly excited, and then she looks past him and catches sight of her paradise, which is walking towards them in the form of a unicorn, a regal, majestic thing that glows in the gloom. She lets out a squeak, letting him go and tripping over herself in her haste to reach it. The unicorn tosses its mane, bending its head so that she can pet its nose, her face delighted.
Then they're both gone, leaving Mark alone in the dark, a long way from home.
Before his death, Mark lived by himself.
He lived alone, yes, but it was never particularly lonely. He had a desktop set-up in his home office which he was very proud of, since it had more screens than Homeland Security and made him feel like an astronaut every time he walked into the room. When the joints in his arms and hands started to ache from typing, he put his wrist braces on and went into the living room to read a book, the patio door open so he could hear the squirrels rioting around in the backyard. Quality entertainment for a billionaire.
So. His life's work, a book, and some peace -- why would Mark be lonely?
He never bothered with hiring a maid, because the thought of someone he didn't know being in his house made his skin crawl and he was rich, not handicapped, and he could do the cleaning himself, whatever anybody else thinks; a decision he's incredibly glad of now, because it means it's safe for him to squat in his own home.
"You know it's not a permanent solution, right?" Pierre mentions to him. He's the tallest out of Mark's now incredibly tiny social circle, so Mark recruited his help into hefting him over his own hedge. "I know it's your rich-ass home, but you're gonna need to piss off sooner rather than later, got it?"
"Just shut up," Mark tells him, and Pierre shrugs, not offended, and offers him a leg up.
Once on the other side, where it's cooler and shadier in the shadow of the hedges, he unlatches the gate for Pierre. He lets them into the house ("where did you learn how to pick locks?" Pierre goes in tones of condescending surprise, and Mark rolls his eyes and answers, "a girl named Christy who could probably take you in a fight,") and stands inside his own entryway for a moment with an overwhelming feeling of relief, the kind people get when they've been on vacation and don't realize how much they missed their own homes until they're back.
He remembers the first time he showed it to his family; his youngest sister -- then just eleven -- had sprinted right in almost as soon as he unlocked the door, blonde curls bouncing down her back and sandals flapping against her heels. They'd found her in the living room, spinning in the middle of the carpet, her arms spread wide out. There are so many windows, Mark! she'd cried, her voice echoing against the walls since he didn't have any furniture yet. It's gorgeous!
"If you want my advice," calls Pierre from the kitchen, helping himself to the contents of Mark's fridge; there's some cheese and a pack of Hebrew National that should still be edible. "Pack yourself a bag tonight. Take only what won't be missed. Keep it close at hand and ready to go at all times, in case the police come back. That way you can make your escape and no one will be the wiser."
"Right," goes Mark, absently running his fingers along his bookshelves with the reverence of the reunited.
In the end, though, it's not the police Mark has to worry about.
Near the end of May, the sound of a key scraping in the lock jolts him out of a dead sleep; the noon-time sun streams in through his bedroom window, and he lays on top of his covers, heart pounding as the front door swings open, the alarm code beeping inquisitively.
"I was expecting more of a mess," comes a voice, and Mark swallows hard, pain constricting his throat.
It's one of his sisters.
"I think your brother outgrew that frat boy stage, dear." His mother.
He closes his eyes, ears straining for something else, anything else, because god, you never know how much you've been dying to hear a familiar voice until you do, but it never comes; footsteps, instead, moving further into the house, which is Mark's cue to move, too.
He rolls out of bed, shoving his feet into a pair of sneakers (he'd died wearing his favorite Adidas slippers, so these were a necessary fashion change) and grabbing his duffel bag from the foot of his bed. He'd taken Pierre's advice, and packed only what he couldn't live without, things nobody would think to search his house for: comfortable clothes; some of the silverware; several books he could probably donate to the library later, containing all the cash he'd scrounged up tucked between their pages; the Sony Vaio he'd kept in the back of his closet, the one he'd started Facebook from at Harvard, which is worn down and would probably give up altogether if he tried to run something more complicated than Adobe Flash 2.0; a Star of David he'd made out of construction paper in school when he was seven, which his sisters had promptly assaulted with glitter until it was crusty and lopsided -- it'd followed him to Harvard and then to California and it was only fair that it follow him into death, too.
He goes out the window, listens for the sound of anyone outside, and then sprints through the yard like the Winklevoss twins are on his heels. He only turns back when he reaches the bus stop across the street.
His family. Somehow he'd forgotten that, as his next of kin, his family would be responsible for all of his personal belongings. That they'd have to clear their schedules and fly out to decide what to do with everything; pack it up, store it, keep it, toss it. Everything that was his is now theirs.
He slumps down on the bench, duffel bag at his feet, having no idea how to sort out what he's feeling or where to begin, when the front gate bangs open.
His youngest sister comes striding out, and even from across the street, Mark can tell immediately that she's colorless, shaking, wobbling as she makes her way to the rental car parked on the curb. She has to tug on the door handle once, twice, before it seems to occur to her that it's locked, and she doesn't have the keys. The same girl that went running through his house with her arms outstretched -- now, her face crumples, breaks, and she goes to her knees like someone had struck her.
Mark's on his feet without conscious direction from his brain. He has napkins folded in his pocket, he knows he does, and even if he didn't, it wouldn't stop him.
He crosses the street and kneels down next to his sister. Her head jerks up at the sound of crunching gravel, her loose curls sticking to the streaks running down her face. The sight of it cleaves Mark's heart in two, and he offers her a napkin with a hand that trembles.
"Here," he murmurs.
She looks embarrassed, distrustful, grateful, and crushed by degrees, but she takes them from him and dries her eyes.
"Thank you," she murmurs. She doesn't offer an explanation, but why would she? Mark wears the face of a stranger, and her big brother is dead.
Mark has three sisters. This was, in fact, the reason why he and Eduardo became friends, all those years ago -- legitimately the reason why Dustin waved him over to the AEPi booth during rush week freshman year and said, Mark, this is Eduardo. He grew up with twice the legal limit of estrogen in his house, too. It had served as the basis for their first, second, and third conversations, because growing up as the only son in a family of girls does make an impression; something Mark didn't even notice until he had someone to relate to.
People ask him, sometimes, when they work up the courage, what it was that made Mark and Eduardo click, given that they didn't seem to have anything else in common. Every time, Mark just shrugs, dismissive, saying something about it being nice to find the only other boy on campus who didn't think it was weird he knew how to use an Easy Bake oven and could quote Princess Bride to girls at parties without having to look it up on IMDB beforehand.
The rest of it just happened, because you need an excuse to be introduced, but you don't need an excuse to be friends.
Eduardo's a middle child (two older sisters, one younger,) with all the middle child neuroses to match, whereas Mark is firstborn; bossy, demanding, and used to always having someone to order around. The two girls that came after him were both born before he was even three years old, something that used to make their father wonder aloud if there was even such a thing as Irish triplets. The third, the youngest, came along unexpectedly seven years later, a divide so wide that it basically made her an only child, and doubly spoiled for it.
Mark's never admitted it to himself before now, but he was probably always her favorite.
I love you, he thinks, hopeless and heartbroken, as she avoids his eyes and sniffles miserably here on the sidewalk outside his house. Can you tell them that, somehow? Mom, Dad, the other girls, because I won't be able to.
He stands up and walks away, because this, this more than anything, more than the "cordial reception," more than the new face, more than the exhaustive news coverage, is what convinces him.
Mark Zuckerberg is dead.
He spends the beginning of summer going quietly insane.
Actually, no. In the time-honored tradition of those who are trying not to deal with their lives, he spends the beginning of summer asleep. When he's not in the library, or out on a reap, he's got his feet twisted up in the covers and his eyes gummed shut from not spending enough time awake.
It's a state of limbo. He can't do the things he wants to do (can't go to Facebook, can't go by his old house to see if his family is still there) and he doesn't want to do the things he has to do (find another job,) so he finds equilibrium by napping.
With the money he managed to take away from the house, he gets an apartment on the low-budget side of Los Altos, into the hills past the Stanford Observatory and so close to the freeway that the angry sounds of rush-hour traffic have permanently wormed their way into his dreams. The building is new, cheaply built and plainly designed for this exact purpose, maximizing on every potential bit of space to fit as many low-rent apartments as possible. It's impossible to stand outside on the sidewalk without having to dodge somebody's dripping air conditioner.
If you'd asked him when he was younger, fresh from dropping out of college, Mark wouldn't have said he was the kind of guy who had high standards for living, but that was before he got used to being a billionaire.
Jessica's right: he didn't really care that he had that kind of money until he didn't anymore.
June heralds the arrival of summer, which in California just means kids get out of school and lounge around doing nothing until they're bundled off to summer camp, and water rationing. The reservoir is fifteen minutes from Mark's apartment -- an enormous, too-blue lake tucked into the hills -- and he sees for himself the way it shrinks. Water shortage notices go out on the major news channels, same as every summer, and the apartment superintendent gives a flyer to all residents, alerting them that all showers will be timed and would they please be economical about flushing (which Mark takes to mean, we are validating your decision to be as much of a slob as possible, within reason.)
He never truly appreciated the privilege he'd been a part of, having enough money to afford all the damn hot water he wanted, until the first time the water cuts off while he still has conditioner in his eyes.
"California's a fucked-up state," he mutters to Jessica when he gets to the library. There's a crick in his neck from trying to wash his hair out in the sink, and he's still a little slimy behind the ears.
"You're just now figuring this out?" she replies, and offers him some of her Fruit Loops.
Mark has white walls and a carpet that can't decide if it's an off-shade of blue or if it just wants to be economically gray, and it doesn't quite meet up with the wall in the corners. He has one window; when it's shut, it gets unbearably stuffy inside his apartment, and sometimes Mark goes down to the underground parking garage because at least it's cool and dark down there, if a little cramped, same as everything else; the parking stalls down there are so tiny they barely fit a four-car sedan, much less the giant-ass Escalades people like to tote around California for no fathomable reason.
Because this is Silicon Valley, wifi is included with the utilities, which for Mark is more a form of torture than anything.
At first, it feels like those first couple days when you go on vacation somewhere without Internet access, and you don't quite realize how much you use the Internet for everything until you don't have it anymore. It's like that, only with Mark, he boots up his laptop and his first instinct is to wire into the Facebook mainframe, check the traffic and the server output and watch the IP addresses ping in from all over the globe, scrolling endlessly down a separate window.
But he can't, and it feels like a blow to the sternum every time, the hiccup before he remembers. So usually Mark lays his fingers across the keys for a beat, thinking of high-difficulty patches for the chat feature, and then he'll close the laptop lid and go to back to bed, feeling aimless and without purpose.
He goes a little stir crazy.
Yeah, that's a good way of putting it.
He lives on the third floor, which isn't far enough to justify using the elevator, but is far enough to make climbing the stairs a bitch, especially if he has laundry or more than one case of beer that need lugging, and it's close enough to the ground floor that he gets woken up from afternoon naps by the lawn mower making its rounds across the golf course a block down.
Mark does laundry a lot. He supposes with time it'll become ingrained not to stand so close to someone if he doesn't know exactly how they're going to die, but until then, he Googles several at-home solutions to get blood splatter out of fabric. Most of his light-colored shirts have suspicious pink stains on them; either he looks like a hapless serial killer, or like someone who's just too enthusiastic with his slushies.
The beer, he gets less often. He likes beer for the bitter taste, likes the way it makes everything in his brain feel greased like an engine, one-two-three-go, and less for the getting drunk aspect, which is a good thing, because part of being undead means that Mark now has an unholy metabolism. On one hand, he can't starve to death (which is nice, because he literally can't afford food,) but on the other, it means he needs to consume enough alcohol to knock out a horse if he wants to get anywhere near drunk (and that's annoyingly expensive.)
Being unable to starve doesn't stop Mark from going hungry, though.
And for awhile he can avoid that by sleeping, too. It's harder to ignore when he's awake, and then, sometimes, he'll pick enough money for a meal out of the pocket of his reaps, which makes him feel grungy and kind of awful. Damn Chris and those PR guys for insisting that he develop a conscience somewhere along the line, it picks the worst times to kick in.
A week passes, and then another, and he scrapes his nails into the bottoms of his pockets and finds nothing but lint. He actually stops in the street for flashes of quarters and dimes in the gutter. And then Mark can't even sleep, he's so hungry. It's not something he's ever experienced before, that kind of cramping pain that feels like it's in his bones.
There's one benefit to this; it wakes him out of his purposeless fog, sharpens his mind. He needs to find a way to earn more money.
At Harvard, Mark would earn extra cash when he needed it by selling himself to the IT department, but you need something like a million references to even touch a computer in Silicon Valley, and while Mackey was meticulous in making sure everyone knew Christopher Robin was a science fair whiz, he couldn't actually be bothered to give him a record of practical work experience, so there goes that idea.
He boots up his laptop, spreading his fingers out over the old, worn keys in a familiar hello. There are things for Facebook he wants to work on, always wants to work on, because let's not kid ourselves -- you don't become the twenty-one year old CEO of a company worth billions if Facebook isn't your life, and it's so hindbrain to think of more to build for his website that he doubts it's ever going to go away. But just because Mark has Facebook doesn't mean he lost all ability to make things. He created the basic version of Pandora before p2p music sharing was even a thing.
If Mark could do that at eighteen with a chip in his shoulder the size of a Cold War superpower, then he can do it now.
So he turns his attention to a new project; the little ideas he's kept in the back of his mind, born of all the times Dustin clinked glasses with him and went "I wonder if there's an app for that yet." He could have made them, he knows that, came up with outlines and blueprints and skeleton code, thinking he'd work on it if he ever got tired of helping the programmers make patches, but it never happened.
Facebook had been everything.
So Mark makes an app that'll inform you when your favorite movies or TV shows pop up on Netflix Instant Watch (Dustin's idea; he'd asked Mark at a party once if it was socially acceptable to leave early because he wanted to check if they had the second season of Gargoyles available on Netflix yet, like it was ever a smart idea to ask Mark the socially acceptable stance on anything.)
And then, to his everlasting shame, he sells it to Apple.
There might have been some weeping.
It's kind of a rock bottom Mark never thought he'd hit.
"You should probably find an actual job," Tilly the librarian reaper suggests to him kindly, when she catches him trying to smuggle a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch into the library because he can now afford the unhealthiest of the sugary cereals, thank you very much, and he doesn't want to be parted from it.
Half-way through June, Mark finally gives in and hacks into Facebook. He's not going to do anything, he tells himself, he just wants to look and make sure nothing's been fucked up since he died.
About three hours later, he sends an e-mail to email@example.com via a guerilla mail account bounced off three anonym.to servers, with a patch for the log-in statistics that have been so poorly maintained they're on the verge of erroring. He refrains as hard as he can from adding a scathing message about work ethic.
"Yeah, whatever," Mark mutters at his reflection when he puts his laptop into sleep mode. "One step forward, two steps back, I get it."
He gets roped into spending the 4th of July with his department team, up on the roof of the nursing home, which is -- sparing perhaps the Stanford bell tower -- the tallest building in all of Palo Alto and a very good place to watch the fireworks from. Mark meets the reapers in Natural Causes, and they're a bit batty from being cooped up with the old folk all day, but they're all right. One of them even gives Mark his inspiration for the next app: something that cross-references real estate listings and the obituaries, so the reapers who scavenge off the dead know where the open places to squat are.
There's hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, and Jessica in a ridiculous star-spangled hat, and the fireworks show is nice, even though there are too many old people up here inexpertly trying the firework setting on their heavy Canon cameras. Mark isn't sure how much of the show they actually watch, too busy trying to capture the memory of it.
"Wasn't that lovely?" enthuses one old woman to Mark afterwards.
He smiles wryly. "My youngest sister had an immense fondness for blowing things up, so I'm happy to watch any show of explosions so long as it happens a long way away."
The smoke lingers over the bay for days, only slightly more acrid than the usual fog.
A week later, Mark hacks back into Facebook and finds the code he ghosted to Dustin's e-mail account has been implemented into the mainframe, and feels the stinging flare of it inside his chest, like the hunger, but better.
So it turns out -- and Mark's not entirely sure how they continue to exist -- that a couple of the places he's searching for employment from don't accept online job applications. He actually has to go in, ask for one, fill it out, and bring it back.
If Mark could afford the luxury of ignoring them on sheer principle, he would, but job opportunities that allow for the kind of flexible hours and mobility Mark needs for his side-job of reaping souls are few and far between. So he tugs on his sneakers, combs the snarls out of his hair, and tucks all his filled-out applications into his backpack and heads out.
His final stop of the day is a place called Pizza My Heart, a landmark Palo Alto pizzeria just across the street from the sushi restaurant where he first met Kawali and Jessica on the day he died.
In terms of work, it's his last resort. It's two blocks up University Ave from the Facebook building, and he would have to walk by his old offices at least twice a day getting to and from the CalTrain station. That would be like making a diabetic walk past a cake shop on a daily basis, and Mark probably won't be able to handle it, slicing and delivering pizzas while his company is right there. It's already bad enough to avoid the temptation at home.
Smack in the heart of downtown, it stands out by having an enormous courtyard spread out in front of the entrance; a place where the homeless loiter, musicians play for cash, young kids practice their skateboarding tricks while hovering parents follow their toddlers around on tricycles. There are several tables with jaunty umbrellas all positioned around a strange statue/fountain combination (which isn't all that notable, as Mark sometimes gets the feeling you aren't allowed a business license in Palo Alto unless you have a fountain -- even Facebook has a fountain, a little one in the break room because Dustin insisted it would be zen, but it's mostly just used as the most convenient water source for people who've forgotten that their desk plants occasionally do need nourishment.)
He ducks around a group of college-age kids who've obviously used the courtyard as a meeting point, since it's rather hard to miss, catching snatches of their conversation ("where do you want to eat, do you know?" "No, do you want anything anything in particular?" "No. Should we wait for Marley to get here and make her decide?" "Okay,") before he heads inside.
The girl behind the cash register looks him head to toe when he hands over his application. She has a dark braid pulled over one shoulder, and spares him a polite smile.
"Well, barring our restaurant suddenly exploding or your untimely demise, we should get back to you in no less than three business days, okay?" she tells him. "I'd wish you luck, but I have absolutely nothing to do with filling positions around here."
He doesn't know about the restaurant exploding, but the untimely demise has already happened, so Mark quirks her a sardonic smile, and, clearly dismissed, leaves.
Pausing outside the door to adjust to the bright sunshine, he takes a moment to look out over the courtyard, at all the brightly-dressed, lit-up people out and about and doing their own things, and he thinks, like a cold drip of water down his spine, you will all die.
The college kids on the corner, the boy in the Hogwarts shirt practicing his flips, the bearded man thumbing through the newspaper on the fountain rim; all of them will die. Maybe I'll be the one to reap you, he thinks, watching a woman at one of the tables bite into her pizza, accidentally dragging away most of the cheese. Maybe you'll land in the hospital and become Infectious Disease's problem. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to make it to a ripe old age, and Natural Causes will come for you in the night. Maybe you'll move away from the Bay Area and become some other reaper's jurisdiction.
His gaze moves on, face-to-face; the giggling girls waiting at the crosswalk, the old lady in a Stanford sweatshirt with a teacup dog tucked into her elbow, the four men sitting in the shade of a table umbrella --
The four men sitting in the shade of a table umbrella.
Everything goes mute; the sunshine overhead, the wind in the trees, the people laughing and the cars idling at the stoplight. He forgets about it all, because he knows them.
The four men. The four new owners of Facebook.
He blinks, and swallows against a suddenly dry throat.
Facing him, Dustin is leaning so far forward onto his arms that he's in danger of slipping and falling face-first into his lunch, sunglasses guarding his eyes as he makes a lethargic swipe for his sweating drink. His skin is so white and sunless that it's as grey as paper. He looks exhausted. He doesn't much look like the man who once threatened to buy Mark a hot red convertible and get a vanity license plate that read "SHAWTY."
Next to him is Peter Thiel, with his sharp dress sense and ferret-like profile, gesticulating decisively as he talks.
Sean has his back to Mark, foot jiggling restlessly under the table as he nods along; he's tan and wearing a t-shirt from Havana, the kind they sell at boardwalk tourist dives.
And lastly, Eduardo, tapping his phone on the tabletop and worrying his lip. His cuffs are unbuttoned and rolled back to his elbows, and the hair that Mark remembers making fun of so often is completely gone; not all the way, he's not a Captain Picard kind of bald, but it's shaved so close to his head that the nicks are showing, in the manner of the sickly or the recently enlisted.
Mark stands there and he stares. He's not close enough to hear what they're saying, but Thiel punctuates the end of his speech by wiping his mouth with a napkin, and Dustin scratches at his forehead. Sean leaps in to say something and Eduardo stops drumming his phone against the surface of the table to watch him, eyebrows ticked up.
The four of them, sitting together, in Mark's line of sight.
He turns on his heel and goes right back inside Pizza My Heart. Marching up to the counter, he hops onto one of the stools, and the girl at the cash register gives him a curious look, so he tells her, very firmly, "I am going to get a job here."
She lifts her eyebrows at him, and asks, "Would you like a drink while you wait, mister ...?"
"M -- Christopher," he tells her. "My name's Christopher."
There's probably a line between haunting, stalking, and wishful thinking, but Mark's never been too good at recognizing which lines he isn't supposed to cross, so when he has the time after work training gets out, he kinds of lingers around downtown Palo Alto on the off-chance he might see someone else he knows.
He doesn't see Dustin, Sean, or Eduardo again, but he sees Peter Thiel once, standing under the awning of one of Kawali's frozen yogurt shops, talking lowly and urgently with his right-hand man, Maurice. Who, in turn, looks unfazed and just nods congenially along with whatever's making Thiel's hands fly like that, scraping at his dish of yogurt with a spoon. Maurice is the kind of calm, sturdy person that, in the course of a conversation, can take Thiel's narrow business focus and push it out of the realm of sleazy and right into confidence. Maurice puts a lot of people at ease just by being around.
He sees Tupperware Tony and his kids sitting around with milkshakes through the window of the diner on Emerson Street, and the next day, he spots Keisha on the Stanford shuttle, bent over her laptop in one of the seats reserved for handicapped people and coding furiously, a pair of orange Skull Candy her lone guard against the outside world.
And then, a week into the trend, while Mark is scrubbing his healing burns from the pizza pans out in the sink and thinking about where he's going to casually haunt(/stalk/think wishfully around/whatever) today, when the big bulk of Kawali darkens the Employees Only door.
Mark almost has a heart attack, because, looming, but Kawali just smirks a little bit; less like the Ad Board when they think they've got you trapped and more like an older sibling who's planning on jumping out of a washing machine in a Scream mask when you walk by in the dead of night.
"You should invest in a cell phone, little man," he goes, and, "just came by to tell you that we've got a mass reap tomorrow, so we're meeting early. Bring your hiking boots."
"... right," goes Mark, who doesn't actually own hiking boots and probably wouldn't be able to tell them from any other kind of shoe.
The next morning finds all of External Influence, plus Pierre, gathered in the library parking lot -- Mark in a sneaker-and-sweatshirt combo he figures is fairly all-purpose, and everybody else in raincoats.
"Did I forget to check the weather forecast before I came out here?" he wonders bemusedly. It's a truly unholy hour of the morning; the birds in the trees have only just started their dawn chorus, and they probably look really shady, gathered together under the light of a single sodium-bulb street lamp in an empty parking lot.
"Ah, newbie," says Jessica fondly, stepping over to link their arms together. "When Kawali says 'mass reap,' you pull out all the precautions, because it's bound to be bad."
"A mass reap is a calamity, catastrophe, disaster, or a really unfortunate accident, depending on the number of deaths," adds Tilly. Her raincoat bears a pattern of brown kittens with their noses in books, cute and cheerful like nurse's scrubs. Mark's stomach churns as what she's implying starts to sink in. "One address and more souls than one reaper can take by themselves. So," she flicks a finger around to indicate everyone standing around. "We make a group effort. How many today, Kawali, dear?"
"Just thirty," says Kawali, who's carrying an honest-to-god clipboard, flipping pages and scribbling fast. "So that's six for each of us."
"Only a small-scale disaster, then, that's not too awful."
He finishes, gives a firm kind of nod, and then hands a sheet of paper to everyone; same ETD, same place, and six different names.
"Oh my god, we're going all the way out to La Honda?" says Jessica, studying hers as Kawali shoos them all towards her truck with a gruff, let's get a move on, then. "Treehuggers, a whole town of treehuggers and park rangers and freegans. I call cult suicide."
"Different last names, though," replies Pierre, dogging her heels to study the list of deaths over her shoulder. "Don't cults try to erase individual identity and give everybody the last name of Moonshine or something? I call rampage. I haven't seen a good rampage since the second world war, wish I could come with you."
"What, you aren't?" goes Mark, and casts him a sarcastic side glance. "Is there supposed to be a plague at noon or something?"
Pierre laughs, his Adam's apple bobbing with it, and he catches the car door as Mark goes to get in, barring his way with his fingers curled around the frame, trapping him up against the side of the truck. "Always with the cutting remarks. You think you're some cutthroat businessman, Mark Zuckerberg?" he says in a low voice, leaning in so close his eyes bleed into each other when Mark tries to keep eye contact. "You think you've got some thick skin, telling fat white men in suits that they can suck their own dicks and thinking it makes you tough? That's got nothing on this. Death is the cruelest business of them all."
"How ominous and frightening, thank you, consider me humbled," scoffs Mark without a change of tone, and Pierre grins, tweaks his nose like he's a boy, and lets him go.
"No, seriously," he says to Kawali when they're all squeezed inside the cab of the truck; it's one of those pick-ups that likes to pretend it has a backseat, a space so cramped and narrow that even Mark, who's relatively short, doesn't really know where to put his knees. Tilly, who's back here with him, is perfectly comfortable, of course. "I thought we each had six souls to collect."
"We do," answers Kawali, who's pulling up Google Maps on his iPhone and telling Jessica they want the 84, past Stanford. "Twenty-four deaths in La Honda, and Pierre's going to take care of the regular deaths in town while we're gone."
"Right." Mark leans back in his seat. "Those regular old deaths, not the disasters," people with only hours left to live before they walk out into traffic at the wrong moment or stick their forks into the toasters or have a piano dropped on their heads. Nothing special.
The sun comes up as they leave the sprawling metropolis behind them.
The uniform, neatly-kept city blocks give way to cracked, sun-baked golden hills, spotted with winding highway roads, green trees, and cows. This is the image of California that Mark always carried with him before he actually moved out here. These picturesque rolling yellow hills, and palm trees (which they do have; there's a picture somewhere of his youngest sister trying to wrap her arms around one of the big ones on Stanford campus, it's just that the tall redwoods are more common this far north,) and the Internet monolith that is the Googleplex.
Jessica turns out to be right; their address is a privately-owned farm just outside of the main town of La Honda, a place that calls themselves a collective and has nature-based cult stamped all over them, which is another one of those California things Mark was surprised to learn actually existed.
There's a sour, sagging sense of defeat hovering over the farm that even Mark picks up as soon as he gets out of the truck. He and Jessica exchange uneasy looks; he tugs at the strings of his hoodie and she looks like she wishes she hadn't suggested mass suicide at all.
"Oh, but it's such a beautiful place," Tilly comments, craning her head back to look at the trees. Mark supposes she's got a point, if you're particularly fond of the color green.
"Come on," says Kawali, his mouth set into a grim line. "Let's get this over with quickly, shall we? Blend in and stick to your cover stories."
"Aye aye, captain," says Jessica, her heart not in it at all.
Leaving the truck parked at the end of the drive, they trek their way across the grounds, crunching leaves and gravel underfoot. The people who live here, he notices almost as soon as they reach the main courtyard, are a miscellany of all types: long-haired hippies with their hemp satchels over their shoulders; pudgy, soft men and women who look like they just left the office; women in full hijab and women in full make-up walking side-by-side like they're at a funeral; and one large, muscled guy who looks like maybe he runs a boot camp when he isn't here singing kumbayah.
The upside of being able to move as anonymously as death is that nobody really seems to look at Mark's face long enough to recognize that he doesn't belong. Their eyes just kind of roll right over the top of his head, letting him move from common area to common area unhindered, lingering at the edges of other people's conversations and looking for the names on his list.
Three of the six people he's slated to reap he finds in the greenhouse behind the barn, plucking tomatoes off the vine and talking mutedly to each other, their eyes hollow and sad. The sound of their souls shimmering loose is somehow stronger than their voices. When he leaves, he runs into Jessica just past the water tanks -- they compare lists like they're on a scavenger hunt. Jessica's seen one of Marks, "see, over there by the totem pole, the girl with the cigarette -- yeah, yellow shirt, her."
She's sitting on the base of the totem pole, staring at the ground between her feet. All Mark can see is the crown of her head, where somebody had painstakingly woven French braids through her dishwater blonde hair. She looks up when Mark's footsteps crunch towards her.
"Are you ready for this?" she goes, tapping ash from the end of her cigarette.
"No," Mark answers, honest, sitting next to her.
She chuckles, hoarse. "Yeah, me neither," she says, nudging his knee with hers. He catches it, giving her kneecap a brief, reassuring squeeze. Her soul flickers underneath his thumb in answer, softly blue.
"Christa, we're ready for you," comes from the beefed-up army guy, standing a ways away. Mark looks over at the sound of his voice, in time to see Tilly tottering up to him in her kitten-patterned raincoat, looking comically tiny by his side. She touches his arm and murmurs something, a question, and it makes the man smile, startled and almost pleased, cracking through his somber mask.
The woman in the yellow shirt stands, sparing Mark one last brave smile before she rubs her cigarette out underfoot and walks off.
He finds the last two of his reaps in the farmhouse kitchen, a pair of twin girls with prim, upturned noses and braids that are unraveling at the base. They're standing elbow-to-elbow at the sink, washing and drying several industrial-sized pans, like they don't want to leave a mess behind. The sunlight coming in through the curtains cast long shadows across their cheeks from their lowered eyelashes.
Why are you doing this? Mark wants to ask them. He's slowly getting used to facing down the people who have no idea they're only minutes from death, but this, this methodical preparedness, this is something different altogether. It makes Mark twitchy, like he wants to leave his skin behind.
When they finish, they hang up the dishtowels and turn to each other, squeezing the other's hands. Mark takes their souls on the way out the door.
He follows them into the sunshine, where Christa has gathered everybody around her in a circle, her yellow shirt a bright splash of color against the dark forest-colors. Mark does a quick head-count ... twenty-two, twenty-three, and there's twenty-four, coming up one of the paths from the woods, Jessica walking beside him. When they reach the circle, Jess reaches out, snagging his hand, brushing his knuckles in a farewell gesture. He smiles his martyr's smile and joins the others. Everybody's standing close enough to physically touch their neighbor.
You will all die, Mark thinks. You have all chosen it.
"We look for acceptance, and they give us poison," Christa is saying, her voice clear and carrying. She doesn't sound like she's rallying anyone to a battle, but rather like she's comforting scared schoolchildren. "We look to sow love, and see only love of self. We retreat from the city, to live in peace, and the city follows."
Movement on either side of Mark; Kawali, and Jessica, and Tilly. The four of them create a silent line, standing in the shadow of the farmhouse.
"We are all stardust," Christa says softly, the shadows of the trees bending to listen. "Let us return to stardust -- there is so much beauty in this universe that we will never see, trapped here in this dying and destructive world."
Unbidden, the cultists reach out to either side of themselves, fingers tangling together, like children playing ring-around-the-rosy, like Jessica offering comfort as she takes a soul.
Mark watches them and wonders, were grim reapers the first people to ever touch? Human touch -- did it evolve from this, this brushing of fingers from a reaper to a living being, this summons to the soul? Mark was never one for casual touching, never saw the point, but it's never been this significant before, never seemed this meaningful, and he's been learning, slowly, through daily exposure, how to talk so a soul can understand.
Did people learn it from the reapers? Touching, he means. Do human beings touch each other because they know their souls will hear it? I am here. I am here, you are not alone.
Up into the woods, past the farmhouse and the greenhouse, past the campgrounds and the lake, the cultists go, still holding on to each other in a bid for bravery. Beyond it all, there's a ridge, where the line of brown rock touches the sky; a ravine snakes down way below, and the sun sets the distant hills bright with color.
"Quicker than falling asleep," Christa murmurs, almost like a promise.
It is over with very quickly; a breath, and a step out into empty space.
"Are you all right?" That's Tilly, tilting her head to look up at Mark, her eyes the color of smoke and her voice gentle.
He shakes his head, a jerky, seasick motion of his chin.
She pats his elbow. "I know. I hate the mass reaps more than anything else in this world."
Out beyond the ridge, the sky shimmers away to light, which fades into a glowing panorama of the galaxy; stars and glossy nebulas and things Mark doesn't have a prayer of identifying. A whole universe to explore; a paradise for the cultists. "Do you know where the lights take them?" he muses out loud. "What's beyond?"
"Life after death, I assume," Jessica answers, with a sloping shrug of her shoulders. "Whatever they told you growing up."
We're already living a life after death, Mark wants to point out, and then wonders if maybe that's what's beyond -- some other kind of errand-running job for Upper Management, pushing papers or filing or making paperclip chains. Maybe there's no life after death; maybe it's just one interminable job after another. He licks his lips to get the distaste of that thought out of his mouth. "It's not that simple. I never believed there was anything after death," and makes a well, shit, look at me now kind of gesture.
"Oh," she says. "You're one of those."
Something in her tone makes him look over, his eyebrows raised. "A Jew?" he goes, bland.
"No, I meant --" and it seems to occur to her that she's about to put her foot into her mouth, because she blinks a little bit, nonplussed, and looks at him questioningly.
Mark is not an atheist. This never fails to surprise other people, which he supposes is a good enough reason by itself to believe. He usually keeps it to himself, because it's really nobody's business but his own, and when has being pushy with one's religious beliefs ever worked out well for anyone?
But ... why? Dustin had asked perplexedly, sophomore year of college, when Mark had made a sukkah out of his bed for the Festival of Booths (a concession, he's aware, since he was already in shit with the Ad Board and he probably wouldn't have been allowed to build one outside anyway, no matter how funny it might have been if he could have put one up in the commons.) There's ... SCIENCE, and, like, common sense. Mark! Dustin said, with all the loyalty of a liberally-educated CS major who spent his formative years watching after-school airings of Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Mark replied, hunching his shoulders and edging into belligerent, when has anything I've ever said indicated to you I don't have those things? Why does having a religious belief suddenly mean I've neither common sense nor scientific knowledge? Dustin, you've survived to nineteen years of age, and I take that as proof that I can believe in anything.
At which point Eduardo had gotten Dustin off his back with a mild-mannered crack about how not leaving his bed for three nights wasn't exactly a hardship for Mark, religion or no.
"Sorry," Jessica recovers, talking quickly to cover up her lapse. "I'm sorry, I didn't know that. I guess I just assumed, since your IQ is, like, astronomical or whatever --"
"What, that intelligence and faith are incompatible?"
"No!" says Jessica, with a twist of her face that says yes.
Mark shrugs it off, uncomfortable. "It's no big deal," he goes. "I mean, I try not to make a big deal out of it. There are so many ways to offend someone, and to take offense from someone," he knows from experience. "Why bother letting religion be one of them?"
"Fair enough," says Jessica, looking like she regrets bringing it up at all, and Mark touches the wing of her shoulder blade in apology.
On the way back to the truck, he asks, "Is it possible for the undead to follow someone into their lights?"
"Of course it is," says Tilly. She keeps on stopping to pick up pine cones and broad, thick leaves off the ground, pocketing them carefully. "It's just against the rules. Someone tried it about seven years back, up Seattle way. Everybody got a very tetchy memo about it right afterwards. It doesn't really fit well into Death's bureaucratic cogs."
Mark thinks of Pierre calling Death the most cutthroat of all businesses. He once stabbed Eduardo Saverin in the back for the sake of business and has been told numerous times since then that it's as low as you can get, shame on you, Mark Zuckerberg, you asshole, but he glances out towards the ridge, and thinks he's got nothing on a force that will drive twenty-four sweet, innocent people to kill themselves. That's an evil he can't touch.
"So what happens when we go into the light?" he asks. "Is it heaven, hell, nirvana, judgment?"
Kawali's the one who replies.
"It's not for us, we won't know," he says, and there's something heavy and sobering in his voice. "But I don't think it's as cut-and-dry as heaven or hell. It doesn't matter if we lived a good life, or if we were terribly evil. Everyone deserves a place to rest."
Of all the important rules that come with being undead and practically an indentured servant (don't contact anyone from your old life, don't follow a soul into their lights, don't look at the gravelings,) the one that is stressed to Mark so many times that he wouldn't be surprised if Moses turned up with a new tablet is: Never Be Late For Your Appointment.
"Never," says Kawali.
"I really wouldn't suggest it," says Tilly.
"Seriously bad shit," says Jessica.
"Shit, shit, shit, shit," Mark agrees, shoving hard between two tourists with heavy shopping bags and ignoring their indignant protests -- which aren't even in English, come on, what's the point of calling him names if he's not going to understand them -- and leaping through the doors of the northbound CalTrain just as they whoosh shut. His sweaty face and loud, panting breaths earn him a couple knowing looks from the other commuters, but Mark doesn't have the patience for any of them, sidling over to the rail-line map and counting stops.
He pushes up the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
Atherton Station, CalTrain - Zone 3
He looks up at the map. Atherton is three stops away.
"Do you have the time?" he brusquely asks of a middle-aged woman in a sari, who's sitting underneath an advertisement for the "best Bay Area law firm."
His tone makes her blink, and above her head, Gretchen and her associate give him the evil eye. Mark's pretty sure their faces got stuck like that a long time ago; that suspicious squint they do like they think you're lying, like they wouldn't even trust you even if you were telling the truth. Mark has time to sneer back at their picture before the woman pushes her briefcase out of the way to check her watch.
"7:35," she tells him, voice fluty and soft.
"Shit," hisses Mark, forgetting to thank her as he scoots down the car, as if somehow him being near the front of the train will get him to Atherton any faster.
He's never been late for a reap before, because you just don't. Kawali's never been late, Jessica goes out of her way to get places early so she has time to size up the situation before anything happens, and even Tilly, who moves with the slow mincing steps of the permanently arthritic, has never missed a reap. They give the impression that it's basically armageddon if you do, but Mark's imagination simply asks him: what happens if the soul is still inside the body when the body dies? And the horror of that thought alone spurs him to be punctual.
He arrives at the right station with one minute to spare, if his mental countdown was correct, and dashes out the doors almost before they finish opening.
He's the only one that gets off the train, because Atherton is a nothing stop -- with a population of 7,000, Atherton itself is kind of a joke in the Bay Area, where the average number of people crowded into city limits is between 10,000 and 30,000. Mark can't even count the number of times he's passed through Atherton on the way up to San Francisco without batting an eyelash at its existence. This station isn't even open on the weekdays; it'd be a waste of too much time to stop.
When the northbound train pulls away, Mark spins around on the spot, doing a quick, perfunctory risk assessment.
There are only two people who could possibly be R. Phuckett, because there are only two people here; a thin, elderly Vietnamese man with his nose in a book, walking along the platform at an angle, and a younger man with thick-framed glasses, hooking his bike into the bike rack.
Mark looks between them, quickly, scanning his peripheral vision for any sign of a graveling that might give him a hint which man is supposed to die today. The book the first man is carrying has a split spine; he's on the last few pages, the climax of the story, and he's not watching where he's putting his feet. Bike guy is undoing the strap on his helmet, his expression a million miles away.
Mark makes a decision.
He sprints for the book guy, and just as he gets his hands on him, fingernails digging into his shoulders and the light blue shimmer of his soul moving underneath his skin, like Mark's ripping it out by the hairs --
The bike guy breathes out, steadies his shoulders, closes his eyes, and steps out in front of the arriving southbound train.
The commuters lurch forward with the impact, screaming, and still standing on the platform, too far away, Mark yells, panicked in a way he hasn't been in years, "Fuck! Shit!"
He scrabbles down onto the rails, leaping over to the southbound lane and looking up and down the tracks, trying to find a piece of the bike guy that's big enough for him to be able to pull his soul out of. There's a gross, sticky knot of fear in his stomach, and he works at breathing deep, because entrails don't smell like much when they've first been spilt and it's more important that he stays calm. It's a gory spread, but finally Mark finds ... something he's not going to try to identify, and he reaches into the mess. His hand gets coated with blood to the wrist, but when he yanks it up, he's holding the soul of R. Phuckett by the wrist.
"Oh, god," goes the guy, shaky and horrified, when Mark pulls him back up onto the platform with him. "Oh, god, oh god, oh oh -- oh."
"You're fine," goes Mark, perfunctory and distracted. "It's all right, you're safe now, it's over."
"Oh god, what did I do?"
"You killed yourself, dude."
R. Phuckett gives a distressed little moan and buries his curly head into his hands. Mark pats at his shoulder in a helpless kind of way, and looks back over at the old man whose soul he pulled out of him on accident. The body's standing there, slack-jawed and its book held limply between its fingers, but the soul of the man is standing right next to him, the two of them looking like a pair of identical twins, indistinguishable in appearance and dress, right down to the American flag tie-pin.
The man looks from his body -- standing passive, expressionless, like a vegetable or an empty puppet -- to Mark and back again, disbelieving. He lifts his hands in front of his face, clenching and unclenching his fingers, like he's never seen them so mobile before. Mark wonders if you can feel creaky joints when you're incorporeal.
Then, as Mark stands up, their eyes catch for a long moment, and then the man turns around and bolts.
The shit! mantra starts up in Mark's head again, and he snaps, "stay here!" to R. Phuckett, who just gives a kind of morose nod.
Spinning on his heel, he runs to the bike rack, yanking the dead man's bike up and out, glad Phuckett didn't think to lock it before he threw himself in front of a train. Pushing off, he throws his leg over and curses for a moment because it's not really adjusted properly for someone of below-average height like Mark, before he gives up on the seat and pedals after the running soul with all the awkwardness of someone who hasn't really ridden on a bike since childhood.
Having been incorporeal, Mark knows what the loose soul is capable of -- the most frightening of which is that he can wink out of existence and appear somewhere else entirely, and he's really hoping the man doesn't figure out that particular trick while Mark is chasing him. He doesn't fancy going to Kawali and explaining that there's a vegetative body standing in the Atherton station and Mark has no clue where his soul went.
It doesn't, however, stop the man from being an abnormally fast runner, pushing his limbs the way no elderly man should be able to do. Out of the station, across the parking lot, through a residential neighborhood.
Mark ducks his head down and pedals faster, and just as he's about to overtake him, the old man feints to the left, doubles back, and disappears down an alleyway.
Skidding in a circle, Mark almost loses control of the bike, and then finds there's a fence in the alley that he can't clear. The old man is already on the other side; he waits until he knows Mark sees him, and offers a taunting sort of grin and takes off again. Wobbling with the loss of momentum, Mark follows suit, keeping parallel and catching glimpses of him through yards and between buildings; running down a street, cutting through a yard, vaulting over a hibiscus bush, darting past a sandbox and two little girls who can't see him.
The man disappears around the side of a liquor store, and when Mark follows, the two of them erupt into the middle of a very busy intersection. Mark recognizes it immediately; El Camino Real, the life's blood of Silicon Valley for those that don't feel like risking their lives on the 101.
"Oh, fuck," is all Mark has time to say.
Car horns blare and brakes screech as he barrels right into lanes of traffic, and if he wasn't so out-of-his-mind terrified, he'd probably think it was kind of cool. It's like he's in a movie or something: Mark's a computer nerd who only goes outside when mandated to, this shit doesn't happen in real life.
Of course, Mark never thought grim reapers were real either before this, so, sure, let's add a bike chase through El Camino traffic to the things that just, you know, happen in Mark's life these days.
He almost makes it, but as he lifts the front wheel to pop up onto the curb on the other side (catching a glimpse of the man dematerializing through a low stone wall,) a right-turning car comes out of nowhere, clipping him. The blow sends him into the side of a beige-colored Cadillac parked right up against the No Parking sign. Mark hits the handlebars hard enough to knock the breath out of his body, and goes skidding across the pavement. It shreds his sweatshirt and arm from wrist to elbow, and slices a deep gouge into his leg.
Using his momentum to push himself upright, he abandons the now-twisted bike and gives chase on foot, dripping blood as he goes. The people gathered at the crosswalk give him a wide berth as he cuts through them, their eyes as wide as saucers.
The man appears again at the foot of a pedestrian bridge, glancing behind him.
"You're not supposed to be dead!" Mark calls to him.
"But how do you go back?" the man replies, spreading his arms. His voice is reedy. "How do you go back when you're so free like this?"
"Because you still have time to live. I didn't!"
He chases him across the bridge; the trial of blood he's leaving behind tapers off as the cuts scab over, leaving him with a soggy sweatshirt and blood squelching between his toes where it's run down into his socks. He catches up to the man in the middle of a strip mall, right outside a Noah's Bagels. He tags him with a palm flat to the space between his shoulder blades, and with the faintest flicker of blue, he vanishes from sight, easy as that. Mark knows that he sent him back to his own body and the book he hasn't finished yet; the knowledge is a certain weight in his chest.
He doubles over there on the sidewalk, panting. The stitch in his side is horrible, clenching at his lungs every time he drags in a breath, and there's nothing in his ears but the pounding of his own heart.
Well, he thinks, eyeing where the yellow paint is coming off the curb. Mom would be proud that I actually got some exercise outdoors for once. Let's not do it again, though.
He straightens up and looks around; the strip mall is nothing but chain stores (Safeway, Barnes & Noble, Noah's Bagels, Long's) and it's only when Mark catches sight of the Whole Foods on the other side of El Camino -- this one is at least three times the size of the one by Mark's work, seriously, there should probably be a limit on how much organic food you can cram into a city block -- that he realizes he chased the old man all the way to Redwood City.
To be fair, though, Atherton is tiny.
Sweat drips down the bridge of his nose, and Mark goes to pull his sweatshirt off -- it's ruined anyway, between the blood and the torn sleeve -- when it catches, stuck. He looks down, bemused by the sensation.
There's a metal rod sticking out of his chest.
"Ah!" Mark yelps.
It's just there, poking out from underneath his sternum, looking kind of bizarrely like a lever, or a handle, or something, like Mark's suddenly got an on-switch. He didn't think he hit that car hard enough to break off a piece of R. Phuckett's bicycle into him, but there you go. It's surreal, you know what's cooler than a million dollars kind of surreal, standing here breathing and looking at a mortal wound which doesn't feel like much of anything at all.
Then, remembering that he's standing in the middle of the sidewalk in a busy strip mall, Mark turns on his heel, sizes up the stores, and goes into Long's, which seems the most likely to have a bathroom and the least likely to report him for going in there looking like an extra on the set of a Michael Bay film.
Stores like Long's put everything they think you need all the way in the back, so that you're forced to walk past a number of things you don't quite need but probably want and might be tempted to spend your money on in order to get to the things you really need, which is exactly what Mark has to do to reach the bathroom. Fortunately, he has a propensity for acting like he belongs (he calls it confidence; Dustin eyeballs him sideways and says there's confidence and then there's a lording kind of superiority, which, whatever, Mark's probably always going to fall on the wrong side of lines like those.)
In the men's room, he checks under the stall doors for signs of feet, then goes to the sink and looks at himself in the mirror. He's a mess of sweat, blood, and road grit, and it's no less weird to look at the reflection of himself with his plain face and see something sticking out of his chest like a push-pin in a corkboard.
The noise it makes when Mark pulls the rod out is absolutely disgusting, a fleshy sucking sound that he cringes his way through. He tosses the rod into the trash with the discarded paper towels and, glancing at himself again, peels off his sweatshirt, too. His shirt underneath has a sizable tear in it from where the rod went through, the edges damp and red, which is regrettable because it's a comfortable shirt.
Underneath it, his skin is healing, knitting back together before his eyes, raw and pink.
He's standing there, probing at it in a grossly fascinated way, the way people can't quite tear their eyes away from roadkill fast enough, when the bathroom door opens.
Behind him, someone says, "Hey, are you okay?"
Never mind the metal rod that just went through him, this is probably what stops Mark's heart.
He knows that voice.
He looks up.
Eduardo looks back, his hand curled around the door frame and his eyebrows drawn down, concerned. The first thing Mark notices is that his hair's coming back in; it's still so short that it's like Eduardo's missing half his identity (and at least three inches of height,) but it no longer shows the outline of his skull. The second thing he notices is that he isn't dressed to the nines (there goes the second half of Eduardo's identity; who is he when he's not in a suit,) but instead is in jeans and a t-shirt with a screenprint design Mark can't make out.
"Are you --" he starts again, a little bit slower, and Mark's brain reboots and catches up to the question.
"Not mine," he goes feebly. "Not my blood, see?"
He grabs the hem of his shirt and lifts it up to show Eduardo the unbroken skin on his chest; just a faint, star-shaped pucker of pink just underneath his sternum to suggest there was ever a wound, which Mark's betting Eduardo can't even see from over there. But he does catch the flick of Eduardo's eyes as they rake his bare skin. And Mark, who hasn't seen the inside of a gym since the last time Mike Schatz propelled a dodgeball at his face senior year of high school and therefore has the abdominals of a lethargic jellyfish, quickly pulls his shirt back down.
"But, you know," he says with a shrug. "Blood on my shirt, people stare."
"Well, they do sell shirts here," Eduardo points out, gesturing over his shoulder. He's still looking caught between friendly concern and outright worry, something Mark hasn't seen in so long he's forgotten Eduardo's face did that. "In case you need a new one. Yours looks a little ... like you were in a zombie movie or something."
"Right," he nods a bit, and adds, inanely, "And it is Redwood City. Shopping is about the only thing you can do here."
It's brief, the way Eduardo's smile thins a little bit, and Mark's trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with that sentence to make Eduardo's face do that, but then he says, "Sure. I just wanted to make sure you were all right."
"Fine," Mark answers, fighting down the urge to laugh, because of course, of course -- make Mark Zuckerberg a new face that people are supposed to forget, and trust Eduardo Saverin to be the only one to see him.
The bathroom door swings shut again as Eduardo slips off, and ... no, what's he doing in a Long's in Redwood City anyway? Out of all the --
He remembers, abruptly, that he left the ghost of R. Phuckett sitting at the CalTrain station, and he needs to go back there and lead him to his lights. That's his job now, and Eduardo's got nothing to do with it.
"Shit," he says, because it's that kind of day, and ducks down to scrub the blood off his skin as fast as he can.
Mark goes home when he's done with all of that.
Standing inside the door, he feels, suddenly, like his apartment is cramped, sticky, too small. He looks at his bare walls and the mismeasured carpet, and he wonders how, just earlier today, he'd been content with this place, even proud that he'd managed to keep something for himself, after losing everything else. It seemed like his entire world.
Or maybe it's Mark who's suddenly feeling too big for it.
He goes to the kitchen counter and lets his lanyard spill out of his hand, pooling in a puddle of fabric and keys -- apartment key, mailbox key, library key, work ID -- before turning to go to his desk and boot up his laptop. He drums his fingers on the desk surface while he waits. It's actually a card table that Jessica helped him haul from Good Will, but Mark never outgrew the design sensibilities of a college drop-out, so it serves as a kind of all-purpose desk-dining table combo.
He runs his fingers along the hole in his shirt, where the blood in the fabric is drying and crusty, right above the now-healed wound in his heart.
The thing about Eduardo is that Mark hasn't really thought of him in a long time.
Why should he? They're over and done with.
They used to be friends. And fine, yes, if you wanted to get all friendship bracelet about it, they used to be best friends, although Mark's never really seen the point in calling it that before. The idea of having one friend that's better than the others is a romanticized notion at best, insulting at worst, and not at all practical to how real relationships work. Everybody has friends they go to for certain things, who are the best possible friends of the moment, so why bother calling it anything other than what it is. Mark went to Eduardo for help and for conscience. When both of those things got thrown back in his face, he found them in other people. He had Dustin to talk programming with, he had Sean for zeal, he had Chris for social niceties, he had Maurice for calm, he had his sisters and his mother for love.
So, no, Mark didn't spend his last few years of life thinking about Eduardo much. Weeks would go by before something about him would cross his mind, an idle, who did I used to know who liked coffee but not coffee-flavored things? Oh, right, Wardo, or I wonder if Eduardo's sister is still big into the fair-trade business every time he'd see the fair-trade stamp on something one of the interns bought from Whole Foods. Little things like that.
And that's not surprising.
You drift away from people. You stop having things in common. And sure, sometimes you stab them in the back and they sue you for half a billion dollars, yeah, but it's no different, really, however much of a big deal it sounds.
Dustin can preach all he wants about the sanctity of the Facebook Four the same way people will always make a fuss about who got there first, but who were they really but a couple of roommates who, instead of having a Leaning Tower of Pizza Boxes as their claim to fame like their neighbors, created a website that got very popular, very fast.
You drift away from roommates, too. Mark doesn't know where the fuck Billy Olsen is these days, and Billy had been nearly as omnipresent as the rest of them in the beginning, sitting on his bed with his bong while Mark and Dustin built away and rolling his eyes good-naturedly every time one of them tried to get him to say "crickey!" in his accent, because they were nineteen years old and classy people and for however high they tested on their SATs, their knowledge of Australian culture only went far enough to make jokes about boomerangs and Steve Irwin.
Mark pushes his chair up onto its two back legs, turning it over in his mind. He's not unhappy that Eduardo's still around the Bay Area -- he'd known from the second Sean had said, tauntingly, you're not a part of Facebook, even as Eduardo stood there with tears in his eyes, that he wanted Eduardo to have a part of it, even if it wasn't the part Eduardo himself thought he deserved.
So he's glad that Eduardo came out of the woodwork after Mark died; Facebook could use him.
He's had time to grow up, after all. Eduardo had always been the kind of person who thought things should happen linearly, A to B to C, question to answer, textbook. He thought you went to high school, got into a good college, got a degree, went to grad school, got some other fancy ... thing or whatever you get at grad schools, got internships and brown-nosed the people who once did the same ugly kind of ladder-climbing, and maybe you could actually get somewhere by thirty-five. And he thought Facebook had to go through the same kind of paces. He couldn't wrap his head around the idea that you could just teleport the way Mark got it to, just like he couldn't wrap his head around the idea of dropping out of Harvard, of not finishing something he started.
It's like that shortcut on the beach track in Mario Kart, the one that you have a one-in-a-hundred chance of getting because the jump is ridiculous, but if you do, you leave everyone else in the dust. Eduardo never bothered to try for it, choosing instead to keep to the track and mocking Mark and Dustin and Billy every time they failed and lost time. Facebook was the one-in-a-hundred chance shortcut and Eduardo wanted to keep to the track.
And yes, as anyone who's ever played Mario Kart can tell you, it gets lonely sometimes when you're up in first place and nobody else has a prayer of catching you, but it's not like you're going to slow down just so they can catch up, not when you're guaranteed to win.
This metaphor kind of sucks.
Anyway. The point is.
When he was five, Mark had a friend in kindergarten named Trevor, and he was Mark's "best" friend because he liked going down to the creek with him when the weather was hot to trod on the toads until they burst. Mark thought it was great fun, the way their eyeballs popped out and went bloodshot, but his mom found out and shrieked and covered her mouth with her hands, and his sisters cried, and Mark stopped being Trevor's best friend.
He doesn't think about Trevor and he doesn't think about Eduardo. They're the past.
Mark's okay with them being the past.
You learn from the people you lose. Trevor taught him not to get caught torturing toads and Eduardo taught him how to defend a business even against its friends.
And now Mark and Eduardo have been psuedo-acquaintances longer than they were ever friends.
His desktop is loaded and has been for a while now, but Mark just sits, drumming his fingers on the tabletop, thinking. Finally, he pushes himself up and goes into the bathroom. He looks at himself in the mirror; the flat hair and rounded face he scarcely recognizes, the torn shirt and belted jeans. There's a complete stranger looking back at him, a stranger who hasn't thought about Eduardo in years, who washed his hands of him with a multi-million dollar settlement, and absolutely none of that stops his heart feels stretched out and aching simply from the sight of Eduardo Saverin's concerned face over his shoulder.
"Hello, Mark," he murmurs, and Christopher Robin's face smiles back.
The University Cafe is well out of Mark's way, tucked between two large faceless banks and easy to overlook. Thick growths of ivy crawl across the storefront, obliterating part of the name, and the patio opens up right onto the street. This, combined with the decorations and architecture, makes it look like it's trying too hard to be a trendy Parisian cafe. It's a safe haven for Stanford students to come and cry at weird hours of the night, and the specials of the day are always named after Internet memes.
Mark honestly just wanders in looking for a Dr. Pepper -- another downfall of having the metabolism of a hyperactive zombie; caffeine is pretty much worthless as a stimulant, and Mark has absolutely no idea what he used to drink for enjoyment before he discovered Red Bull -- because he forgot to pack something to drink with his lunch, and the soda fountain at Pizza My Heart only had Mr. Pibb, which is not the same thing.
Triumphant, he plucks a can out of the case and pays at the counter.
The barista gives him his receipt, and when he turns around, he drops his change, dimes and quarters cartwheeling across the linoleum with a clattering like windchimes.
Toward the front of the shop, Eduardo's claimed one of the bigger tables for four to himself; his briefcase occupies the seat across from him like a lunch date, and a dozen color-tagged stacks of paper are spread across the table. Pen crooked between his fingers, Eduardo keeps moving from one to the other, restless and seemingly unable to focus on one thing.
It requires absolutely no conscious thought on Mark's part. He collects his scattered coins and (even though there are still a couple empty tables) he goes and pulls out the seat next to Eduardo's briefcase.
Eduardo's eyes flit up from his papers long enough to acknowledge Mark's presence, jolted by his manners into saying, "oh, sorry, excuse me!" He stands up long enough to grab his briefcase by the handle and transfer it over to his side of the table with a deferential nod in Mark's direction, before he gets engulfed in his work again.
Mark pulls his tuna sandwich out of his backpack, setting it down next to his Dr. Pepper, and promptly forgets about both of them.
He sits there with his palms flat on the rickety wooden tabletop, failing completely at not staring at Eduardo, drinking in every nuance of his face. After two close encounters, he's finally close enough to get a good look at this man, who's been summoned from the other side of the globe by Mark's death.
Who came willingly.
He's older -- not obviously, because everyone always tells him there's barely any difference between twenty and twenty-seven, but there's enough of a change for Mark to look at him and acknowledge that time has passed since the last time they were this close to each other. With his hair cropped so short and his eyebrows taking up most of his face, a preoccupied frown drawing them together like storm clouds, he looks more like someone Mark would be nervous to run into in a dark alleyway, which is so far removed from his mental image of Eduardo that it kind of leaves him reeling. His shoulders are hunched up around his ears like bird's wings, and he chews on the cap of his pen as his eyes flick aimlessly over the wash of text he has in front of him.
Say something, you idiot, Mark's mind prompts him.
He shifts in his seat, daunted by that task.
How do you start conversations with people?
He's kind of out of practice: every time he gets forced out into public to fib at social interaction, it's always reactionary. People come to him. This is how it's been since sophomore year of college, starting with the u dicks and escalating into, hey, you're Mark Zuckerberg, aren't you?
He remembers how he and Eduardo got to talking to each other the last time they got introduced, but he isn't sure of the wisdom of trying to reenact that, considering how it turned out. Dustin had made sure they met each other because he thought the female-to-male ratio of their households was absolutely hilarious -- the unique situation of growing up with three sisters and no brothers and how it defines a man. It gave them enough in common (and a lot to commiserate about,) but also, curiously, highlighted just how very differently they had turned out. On one hand, you had Eduardo; middle child, sensitive, thoughtful, methodical, and everything his father didn't want to see in his only son. On the other, you had Mark; firstborn, whose defense against three younger sisters pushed him right out of sensitive and into thick-skinned and oblivious without ever passing Go.
Their friendship had kind of just ... fallen together.
In fact, does anybody ever become friends intentionally? Like, Mark has colleagues and associates and partners, but friends are another category altogether, and he didn't exactly go looking for any of them. He thinks maybe that once two people make each other laugh a certain number of times, carefree and earnest, then they're friends, regardless of whether or not they meant to be. You can't share that kind of laugh with someone without remembering them.
His eyes trace over Eduardo's cheeks, the stressed line of his mouth. Say something, the voice in the back of his mind prompts him. You have a second chance right here in front of you and you know what you need to not do wrong.
"What happened to your hair?" is what Mark actually gets around to blurting out.
Slowly, Eduardo lifts his head. Mark watches him blink, once, twice, like he's coming up from underwater. He looks from Mark to the empty tables still left open in the cafe and back again.
"I ..." he goes, intelligently. "What?"
"Your hair," Mark says again, and Eduardo's hand automatically goes to the top of his head, running over the bristles there as if they're playing a game of Simon Says. "It's starting to grow back, but it used to be," and he makes his own gesture over the top of his head, as if there's some kind of universal sign for buzz cut.
And it had been a serious buzz cut, too, not the casual kind your mother gives you at the start of summer with the same clippers you use to shave the dog, but more the kind you get when the doctors shave it off to get at a bleeding head wound, or when you're recovering from chemo, or the kind they give you when you first enlist in the military. (And, okay, Mark's pretty sure he would have heard about it if Eduardo got diagnosed with an incurable disease. He's also the last person Mark would expect to drop out of a business career to joined the armed forces, but. Eduardo's a naturalized American citizen with an honor code to match, so it's not out of the realm of possibility.)
The light bulb goes on.
"Oh!" Eduardo's mouth cracks into a grin, and his hand drops back down to the table. "Oh, that. That was ... aha, that was a petty gesture on my part, actually. My ex ... erm, yeah, ex," he stumbles briefly, and Mark's eyebrows tick up in interest when Eduardo's ears go a dull red. "Always made fun of my hair, because it used to be kind of --" he made a shape over his head that Mark didn't need to interpret; he remembers exactly what Eduardo's hair used to look like. "So when we fought, you know, that last time, I shaved it all off out of spite."
"Ah," says Mark.
Ah, thinks Mark. Well. I supposed that's less extreme than freezing a bank account.
"Yeah," Eduardo bites at his lower lip, a half-smile trying to tug out from underneath his teeth. "It weirded me out too. It needs to grow back."
Mark pushes his lips together to avoid smiling too broadly at that. Instead, he flicks at the corner of the nearest stack of papers with his fingernail. "What is all this?" he goes, even though he has a pretty good guess.
For a beat, it looks as if Eduardo's going to tell him to mind his own business, or say "nothing, just work," but then something weakens around the corners of his mouth and his shoulders slump down. It makes him look defeated. "I seem to have inherited a company," he goes. "I'm out of practice with running one, and my ... my predecessor died without even so much as a by-your-leave or any kind of up-to-date will. Which nobody faults him for," he adds quickly. "He died young and suddenly. Nobody saw it coming. He was ... he was the kind of guy who would make himself live forever if it meant it pissed people off, you know?"
Mark makes a noncommittal noise. That's not an unfair assessment of his character.
"And yes, there's precedent, this is business. There's a set formula when it comes to passing down leadership, but ... well, let's just say that sticking to formula has never been my predecessor's strong point."
Me, Mark thinks at him, vehement. I'm your predecessor. Can't you say my name?
It's almost ridiculous, how much he wants to hear "Mark Zuckerberg" come out of Eduardo's mouth again.
"And yeah," he concludes, eyes flicking across the papers spread out all around him. "I'm kind of out of my depth. Sometimes I think I'm doing more harm than good, I barely know how this company operates."
Mark shakes his head. "You'll be fine," he stresses, without even having to think about it, because the Facebook he died and left behind is not the same Facebook Eduardo stormed out of many years ago, not the same TheFacebook they started up on an old Vaio and a couple dry-erase boards. For one, not only has the "the" been dropped, but so has everything else except for the F, and it's almost impossible to leave the house without seeing that F. Hell, it's almost impossible to be in the house without seeing that F -- it's on the back of chip bags, on the labels of 2-liter Cokes, on coupons that come in the mail and on advertisements on the sides of the city buses.
And no, in case anyone is wondering, it doesn't get any less bizarre, to be standing in the kitchens of Pizza My Heart and have one of the waitresses burst in with a credit card slip in her hand, going, Sancha, Sancha, quick, get your phone, we need to look this man up on Facebook, he is drop-dead gorgeous, I am not even kidding you, while the other waitresses gather in the doorway, eyes bright, and Mark thinks to himself, nonplussed every time, this is because of me. I made this possible and they have no idea.
Out loud, he says, "If it can handle your ... um, predecessor for so long, then I'm pretty sure it can handle you."
Eduardo makes a thin noise in the back of his throat. Despondently, he piles one folder of bright yellow fax paper on top of another.
The memory knifes through him, piercing, a recollection of the way Eduardo used to duck his head down whenever Mark finished telling him something, the same way one would check themselves for wounds. The reaction is visceral, a yank at his gut. Do better, it says, like when the development team exchanges looks and says, what's the practical application of that, Mr. Zuckerberg, we appreciate your creativity but ... or the way Chris would come over, cringing, when Mark finished with an interview.
Do better this time, the voice says again, and he scoots his chair closer to Eduardo.
"Maybe I can help," he goes, spreading his hands. Eduardo's eyes flick up, his brows hovering over them dubiously, and Mark knows he's sizing up his striped Pizza My Heart uniform. He smirks at him, suddenly realizing this is what Erica Albright must have felt like. "I do have a brain up here, whatever you may think. I got a 1600 on the SAT. Maybe someone to work it through with is what you need."
To his credit, Eduardo doesn't look immediately disbelieving. He pinches his temples between his fingers for a long moment before he says, "I run the kind of company that involves you signing a confidentiality agreement before I tell you anything."
"I'm not intimidated by pedigree," Mark says instantly.
And Eduardo laughs; full, genuine, without a trace of condescension, throat bobbing with it, like that had been the last thing he expected Mark to say. When he looks at Mark next, there's curiosity alight in his eyes.
"Well, that's refreshing," he says.
Just like that, they're introduced again.
Mark and Sancha have an arrangement.
Because there's no way any manager with self-preservation skills to speak of would put Mark up front on registers or give him pad and paper and expect him to wait on people in the dining area, most of his shifts get evenly divided between delivery and working back in the kitchens, where he's out of the way. Considering Mark had applied for the delivery position and the delivery position alone -- that way, nobody would bat an eyelash if he had to leave in the middle of his shift because of a reap -- this is a little bit annoying, but life's all about going places, right?
So Mark Zuckerberg, the undead CEO of Facebook, learns how to make a pizza.
It involves a lot of bouncing around the kitchen like he's in a pinball machine, from counter to fridge to ovens to trash compactor, and, as Pizza My Heart prides itself on being the people's favorite pizza, it involves more hydrogenated oil, fat, and corn syrup than Mark would have expected to find in the entire northern half of California. "Give it ten days before your face starts breaking out," Sancha tells him knowingly.
Sancha, the girl who'd been manning the register the day he applied, is a self-identified Afro-Peruvian, fierce with a kind of cultural character that leaves Mark feeling like his white-boy Long Island Jewish upbringing is as boring as white on rice. She sings to the pepperoni and pounds out a drumbeat on the sides on the sauce tins while she's working, she has a long, dark braid that she pins haphazardly under her hairnet, and she stands eye-to-eye with Mark, which he insists is because she's tall for a woman. Sancha just shakes her head and tells him that she's average height, thank you very much, and Mark is just short.
She has a boyfriend with a fetish for body piercings, which means that she has a distressing habit of grabbing people by their nipples when she wants their attention, like she's looking for a ring to hook her finger in.
"Ow, fuck," Mark protests on one such occasion, when she catches him sneaking in through the back, after a forty-five minute break that was only supposed to be half-an-hour. "What the hell!"
"I had to cover your pasty ass by telling the floor manager that you went down to the locker for more anchovies," she hisses out, letting him go. He rubs at his nipple plaintively. "So you better turn right around and go fetch some."
"Do we even actually use anchovies?" he grumbles, snatching his apron off the hook and tying it around his waist, his pride dying a little on the inside like it does every time.
"I don't know. The entire time I've been working here, it's only come up on an order once. A pan-crust pineapple and anchovy; somebody had a really bizarre case of the munchies." She folds her arms and fixes him with a glare. "And don't go distracting me, Christopher. One of these days you're going to tell me where you go on your break that you're always so late coming back, or I'm going to lose my patience and tattle."
Mark gives her a salute. She won't tell on him, he knows; they have an arrangement, the two of them, with the mutual aim of keeping the other employed. Sancha dislikes the ovens and is too scared of getting burned to be as efficient at scraping a pizza out as their cooking time dictates, and Mark heals fast, so that's easy. Conversely, no matter what the practical side of himself says, he cannot shake the skin-crawling feeling of wrong every time he has cheese and meat touching each other on the same pizza, so he explains kosher to Sancha and -- grumbling something about whether or not the whole thing comes with an Excel spreadsheet -- she agrees to do those. And if sometimes Sancha unpins her braid and stands in front of the fan to let it blow on her scalp and then forgets to put it back up, well, noticing little things like that has never been Mark's forte.
Which may or may not be why Sancha is Mark's first friend on Facebook.
Well, Christopher Robin's, technically, but when she comes into to work one day, grabs him by the nipple to show how serious she is, and asks him why she can't find him to send him a Friend Request, how many Christopher Robins could there be, Mark tries his hardest not to die of irony on the spot.
So she makes an account for him, sets Winnie the Pooh as his profile picture, friends herself, and then friends every one of their coworkers. She only relinquishes the password when he promises to actually use his account. He kind of wants to cry, and wonders if giving him a Facebook is anything like teasing a crack addict with a hypodermic needle. At least he gets to change his profile picture, even though his new one is taken from Sancha's phone and features him looking markedly grumpy.
"It's rather true to life!" Jessica comments with her own alias account, and Likes it.
So Mark goes from 500 million friends to about fifteen.
"Why don't you try and find people from high school or something?" Sancha asks him. "Or college? You went to college for a couple years, didn't you?"
That is actually not untrue, Mark thinks, and has a brief flash of the Winklevoss twins coming in with the Harvard alumnae pins and he, Mark, having to serve them in his hideous apron, and goes back to feeling like he wants to cry. Instead, he shoots her a droll look. "And did you actually like anybody from school?"
She lifts a shoulder, like, okay, point.
But it gives him an idea, and when Mark goes home later, he logs into Christopher Robin's account and finds the profile of Ashley Tanaka, the first soul he reaped, the soccer player who fell down a manhole while she was trying to update her status. Her Wall is full of old messages from her friends, saying things like, WE'LL MISS YOU GURL :(:(:( and misha threw up at graduation u should have been there lol.
He thinks about it, fingers resting over the keys, before he simply types out, rest in peace. Maybe she'll see it, wherever she is.
"How trite would it be if I sent you a Friend Request on Facebook?" he asks Eduardo over lunch break, dropping down into the seat across from him with his usual Dr. Pepper and sandwich.
This is what Sancha's so curious about; this is where Mark sneaks off to when he's supposed to either be in the break room or the courtyard like every other employee, and why he's always late coming back. The University Cafe (where Eduardo comes during his own lunch to spread his papers out over one of the tables and rub fruitlessly at his temples, although he gets a whole hour compared to Mark's thirty minutes) is kind of out of Mark's way, and sometimes he finds Eduardo already there and sometimes he has to wait for him. Eduardo apologizes whenever he's the one to arrive last, which is silly, because Mark remembers all too well the kind of hours you keep when you're running a company the size of Facebook.
And Eduardo, being Eduardo, always looks so damnably surprised to see Mark waiting for him, like it's beyond his comprehension that they could have a standing reservation to meet over lunch with absolutely no strings attached, which Mark tries not to find insulting.
Is this all you wanted? he wonders, tilting his head to one side and watching Eduardo chew on the cap of his pen. Someone to wait for you, the way you've spent your whole live waiting for other people?
Eduardo glances up; there's ink smudged along his hairline where he's been worrying it, his eyes distracted, but he offers Mark a smile.
"Not at all," he says. "It'd be my honor to by your friend, I hope you enjoy our website." And then, as if sounded as canned and ridiculous to his own ears as it did to Mark's, he cringes a little bit and offers apologetically, "Sorry -- it's just. This is kind of --" he shuffles the papers in front of him back and forth, kind of looking right through them like they're one of those Magic Eye things from the newspaper, and they'll only make a cohesive picture if he looks right through them. "Infrastructure's a mess," he goes on a heavy sigh. "I don't know who's in what department anymore. It's kind of hard to do without Chris."
Hey, pay attention, that's your name, prompts something inside Mark, before he realizes that it can't be. Different Christopher.
"Chris Hughes?" he says, just to be clear, and Eduardo gives a despondent nod. Badly unsettled, Mark stares. "He's not working at Facebook anymore? What happened?"
"He got arrested."
Mark sits bolt upright. "The fuck. For what?"
Something dark flits across Eduardo's face, a scowl tightening his mouth. "Well. The youngest billionaire in the world gets murdered, they have to arrest somebody. And since their investigation into a 'burglary' --" Mark can hear the air quotes there. "-- didn't give them anything, they decided to send the cops out to pick up a couple 'disgruntled employees' with suspicious histories, just to make it seem like they were making headway."
Eduardo couldn't sound any more scathing if he tried, and Mark is flabbergasted.
"Chris is one of the least suspicious people, like, ever," he manages to get out.
"You don't have to tell me, I went to Harvard with him," Eduardo shrugs. "Apparently he used to threaten Mark with bodily harm on a regular basis, and they found that to be probable cause."
Which ... okay, yes, that's true, Chris is fond of over-the-top threats. Mark, if you tell one more girl in this room that she has daddy issues, I will punch you, and Mark, if you give another interview like that one, I will cut you up and hide you in the dumpster, and Mark, if you don't leave me alone, I will sodomize you with this stapler, don't even tempt me. But that's just who Chris is. Nobody took him seriously.
Mark briefly entertains the idea that maybe he did finally drive Chris to the snapping point (let's face it, if anyone could it, it'd probably be Mark,) but dismisses it almost immediately. Like Eduardo said, they went to Harvard together, and Mark knows Chris's footsteps like he knows command script, and those had not been Chris's footsteps coming up behind him that morning, the split second before he died.
And besides, there's no way Chris could have killed Pomona Graham; he probably sent her birthday cards.
"They had to release them after 48 hours, of course," Eduardo continues. "Since they didn't have a shred of proof that any of them had done it, but Chris turned in his letter of resignation shortly thereafter. Said he didn't want to work here while even one person harbored any suspicion that he killed his friend." He drags a hand over his face, exhaustion tight in the corners of his eyes.
"Shit," says Mark, very quietly.
"Yeah," Eduardo sighs. He looks, for a moment, ages older than the boy who'd rolled his eyes and gone, long-suffering, Mark, how is it you manage to get every girl on campus to hate us? like there weren't words for what he let Mark get away with. "It's hardest on Dustin, I think. He's torn between wanting to chain Chris to his desk so that he'll never be able to leave his sight, and letting him get away from the place where Mark got killed." The unspoken in that is that Chris can leave; Eduardo and Dustin can't.
Eduardo gives his shoulders a shake, straightening up. He picks up his empty mug, saying, "I'm going to get more. Do you want anything?"
Mark shakes his head absently, letting Eduardo push his chair back and head back up to the counter. There's a squirmy, guilty sensation in his stomach, because while Dustin is one of the best programmers he knows -- indeed, there isn't anyone he would have rather passed Facebook down to -- he also had bigger plans, his own thing that he wanted to do. He helped Mark in the beginning because Mark asked, followed Mark to California because it was the cool thing to do, worked for him because Mark couldn't sacrifice him, and always joked that he and Mark would have to pull the plug on each other's life support when they were old and crotchety, but he never really intended to stay, and now he's trapped because Mark is dead.
"You can't blame yourself for that," Mark tells himself in a low voice, incredulous. "There's only one person to blame for this, and that's the guy that smashed your skull in."
"That's a very valid point," allows the man who's been sitting to Mark's left this whole time. He has a thick, brambly beard like a Canadian lumberjack that moves when he talks. "And it sounds like you're probably working through some very deep shit, but ... um, I just got hit by a bus, so can I --"
"No," says Mark forcefully. "Not until I'm done having lunch with my friend, and then I can take you wherever you were meant to go. But you are in absolutely no hurry, so you can just wait."
"Fair enough," mumbles the dead guy peaceably, and looks up when Eduardo returns, fresh cup of coffee in his hands.
"I was wondering," he says to Mark, sliding back into his seat. "Do you have a cell phone number you wouldn't mind me having?"
Mark's heart lurches in his chest. "Um," he says, not bothering to analyze it, and continues with what isn't actually a lie, "I'm kind of between providers right now."
"Ah." Eduardo's eyes do a barely perceptible flick to Mark's uniform, like he thinks it makes any kind of statement about Mark's lifestyle and income (which it does, but it isn't anything Eduardo should be passing judgments on,) and Mark feels annoyance and wounded pride flare up again, obliterating the remaining glee that Eduardo thought them good enough lunchmates to exchange phone numbers.
"Tell me," he goes, planting his elbows on the table and leaning forward. "What is it you do at Facebook, exactly? Out of the four people who took control after the CEO's death, Dustin's the only one with any practical programming experience. So," he spreads his hands. "Where do you fit in? The business aspect?"
"Not really," Eduardo shrugs, looking relatively unbothered by being questioned over his worth to the company. "The smoothing ruffled feathers in the business world is more Sean's thing -- the smarming, I mean. Sean Parker has it down to an art, seriously, you'd punch him in the face if you ever met him."
"I know Sean Parker," says Mark dryly.
Eduardo lifts his eyes heavenward, in an of course you do gesture. "Dustin and I stay close to home," he says, which Mark automatically translates to Dustin and I do most of the hard work. "We let Peter Thiel handle the shareholders, since he's already on first-name basis with most of them. He has more experience than the rest of us, and I respect that, but his biggest priority is how we're going to divide up the shares. Mark owned 34% -- that's a considerable amount of money to redistribute. Thiel wants a much bigger slice, like, is that really the most important thing he could be focusing on right now?"
He swirls his coffee around in his cup almost morosely, and Mark gets the feeling he's been sitting on this observation for a few days.
He thinks about it, and then nods. "You should give it to him."
Eduardo double-takes, and then looks at Mark like he's picked his nose in public. "If we do that, he'll have the controlling share," he says, very slowly. "Most of the money will go to him."
There's no need to speak to him like he only has a third-grade level understanding of economics, so Mark pushes himself forward and snaps at Eduardo's forehead with his fingernail like he's shooting a paper football. "What do you care?" he goes, while Eduardo's still looking startled. "You're all going to be billionaires if you aren't already, so are you really worried about who goes home with more money at the end of the day? Please. You already know that Peter Thiel doesn't know jack about running Facebook -- he saw a brilliant idea and he invested in the money it was going to earn. Hamstring his executive powers, give him the money to make him go away, and run Facebook without him."
This is all delivered rapid-fire, in Mark's machine-gun style of delivery. It leaves Eduardo blinking.
"That's ..." he says, slowly, like he's turning it over in his mind. "Unorthodox."
"Please," says Mark again, sarcastic, because the need to follow the textbook has always been Eduardo's problem. "Facebook invented unorthodox."
Eduardo's eyes narrow, thoughtful. "How do you know all this?" he wants to know, his voice a mixture of fascination and suspicion.
Mark leans back in his chair and offers him a sharp-shouldered shrug. "I'm a delivery boy at Pizza My Heart," he answers. "We're easily overlooked and very forgettable. This uniform is basically a ninja costume."
It earns him a quirked eyebrow.
"Okay, you caught me," he deadpans. "Secretly my brain is Wikipedia. Go ahead, ask me about political holidays in Thailand. Or the current dollar-to-yen exchange rate."
Eduardo tilts his head back to laugh at that, throat exposed, and Mark smiles.
In three minutes, Mark is officially going to be late getting back from his break, but he absolutely does not care, and he stays until Eduardo gets up, gathers up his things, says good-bye, thank you, and see you tomorrow, all in one sentence.
"Might I make an observation?" the dead lumberjack interjects politely after a moment, trailing behind Mark out of the cafe. "There are an awful lot of lies you're piling up. I don't see this ending well."
Mark ignores this, and then stops. "Hey, dead guy," he goes. "You wouldn't happen to have a cell phone, would you?"
"Ladies and the little man," Kawali pushes his chair back from the computer, which is their cue to gather around and get a writing utensil. "Read 'em and reap. Tilly, yours. Jessica. And Mark, the daily double is all for you. Don't say I never did anything for you."
The daily double is two reaps, back-to-back and set thirty minutes apart, and he'll be done with them both before lunch. It makes for a very productive day for a reaper.
And then Mark actually looks at their locations. He groans out loud. "The red car, on-ramp 400b, Highway 101," he verbalizes, writing it down on the inside of his arm as he always does, and then looks at the others. "Please don't tell me this is going to involve me getting hit by another car?"
"400b," Tilly muses. "The 400 mile point of the 101. That's by Google, isn't it?"
She has an amazing mind for numbers, and Mark's kind of upset that she wasn't born fifty years later than she was, she could have been an excellent CS major. He points a finger at her. "As tempting as it is to be vindictively joyful about that thought, I'd still prefer not to get hit by a car."
"I don't get what it is with you and Google," Jessica comments to the table at large. "You are not two Internet households, both alike in dignity. You aren't even Microsoft and Apple, so, like, what's with the rivalry."
Mark does not deign to give this a response, but he does lean over and mumble out of the corner of his mouth, "do you want to trade? I think you have a better chance of stopping traffic for a reap than I do."
The look she gives him is amusedly tolerant. "You don't want mine," she says firmly, and shows him her notebook. He immediately notices something strange. A. Ritter and Unknown.
"What does 'unknown' mean?" he goes, eyebrows scrunching up.
"A pregnant woman." Jessica's mouth shunts sideways in a sad grimace, and with that, she hauls herself heavily out of the chair, and gestures to each of them. "You all. You bitches better meet me here after hours tonight, and bring enough alcohol to sink the Titanic, because I am going to want to get black-out drunk and forget I'm ever going to have to do this reap."
"No food or drink in the library," Tilly says, and the severity in her face lessens slightly when she catches sight of Jess's notebook again.
Jessica spreads her arms. "Then we will lay out on the grass and have a Smirnoff picnic!" she declares, and glances down at Mark. "Do you want a ride out to Mountain View?"
"Why do I get the feeling you're not offering out of the goodness of your heart."
"Because if I have you, we can take the carpool lane." She digs her keys out of the pocket of her sweatpants. "Go get yourself dressed up."
The library Lost and Found has a number of things that come in handy on a reap, like spare watches, soduko books, and raincoats -- which are very good at protecting your clothes from blood splatter, he's learned. He flicks on the overhead light and rummages through the clothing bin, coming up with a worn windbreaker that will come down to his knees and an orange beanie cap, stiff with dried mud, which he jams over his head to cover up the fact he took a shower this morning and is relatively clean.
Outside, Jessica helps him smear dirt along his hairline, his nose, and under his nails. She studies their handiwork when they're done.
"Now if you just slouch like you usually do, you'll look properly homeless," she says, which automatically makes Mark straighten up, indignant.
They listen to talk radio on the drive out, mainly because nothing gets the blood flowing in the morning quite like shouting abuse at the opinionated douchenozzles that like to call in (or, more accurately, host,) and it's more entertaining than the modern hit stations, because neither Mark nor Jessica would know Katy Perry even if she shot them in the face with her nipple-guns.
"It's silicon," Mark all-but pleads with the radio, like it's going to listen to him. The caller they're letting go on and on has a lot to say about the technology age in general, and how his kids are so wired in they're practically made of ... well, he calls it silicone. "Silicon," Mark says again. "As in Silicon Valley. Not silicone! Silicone is what makes dead trophy wives float face-up in the pool."
Which he knows from experience.
"Where's your next reap?" Jessica asks when they're about five minutes away.
Mark checks his arm, and answers, "campgrounds," with all the despondency of someone who's spent the majority of his formative years avoiding the outdoors altogether.
She cuts him a look. "It's not --" she starts.
"No, not the same place as the mass suicide -- didn't they rope that whole area off for the investigation, and now they're talking about building a memorial? Yeah, I don't know either. No, this one's up further north."
She drops him off, straightening his hobo-coat and his beanie like a mother about to send a child off to school. He borrows a paper cup and salutes her in farewell, and trundles away to go panhandle the rush-hour traffic. He's a little early, but that's all right; traffic is crawling along so slowly that it's no trouble at all to weave back and forth between cars on the on-ramp, drumming the side of his cup imploringly. It's an excellent exercise in seeing who is most uncomfortable with meeting his eyes. A lot of people fake-check their phones, but there's one woman who bends backwards to pretend to look in the backseat for something when he walks by her window.
Car-related deaths are some of the most difficult reaps, because it's almost impossible to be in the car with someone when they get into an accident, so you have to be creative and try to meet them before they get into their car, or while they're at a stoplight, or -- like right now -- when they're stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the on-ramp to the freeway.
He sings to himself under his breath (hide yo kids, hide yo wife, and hide yo husband, cuz we're reaping erry-body out here) until, three minutes to ETD, he spots it: the smallest, most putt-putt looking car he's ever seen, held together more by willpower than any demonstration of mechanics. There's no clear indication of the name of the driver, but considering there are no other red cars nearby, Mark's going to take his chances. He shuffles his way along the concrete divider.
The driver is a small, mousey, older woman, and her face is naggingly familiar to him, like he's seen her around before, in some other context.
Demandingly, he taps on her window. She tries to ignore him at first, the way everybody does, but when he taps harder, an idea comes to her. She cranks her window down and --
And hands him a banana.
Mark is so surprised he doesn't know what to do for a moment.
"Sorry," she goes with a good-natured, apologetic shrug of her shoulders. He recognizes her face suddenly; she works on a plot of land in the community garden outside the library. He didn't realize this is what her face looks like when it's not shaded by a wide-brim hat. "I would give you money, but the super-rich are sitting on all of it. So little people like us have gotta get by with what we have, right?"
Oh, honey, Mark thinks pityingly, jolted into action. He takes the banana from her, squeezing her wrist for a moment like he's overwhelmed with gratitude. Her soul comes away with his fingers. If only you knew who you were talking to.
He's walking away, peeling the banana, when he hears her car stall. The ignition grinds together once, twice, trying to get the engine to turn over, and then the car explodes.
Mark checks his watch, and ... he has twenty-seven minutes to get her to her lights and then get across the metro to the woods for his second reap.
By lunchtime, Mark is soaking wet, dirty, and still dressed like a homeless man, although he lost the hat in the river somewhere. Looking like a slob is nothing out of the ordinary for Mark, but this is probably a new low. He would have gone home and at least showered (again) before coming to the University Cafe, but M. Odgen, his second reap, turned out to be disagreeably stubborn about moving on. It'd taken most of the morning to convince him that going back to his ex-wife's and flipping her off was honestly a waste of his time.
"Woah," Eduardo goes when he spots him, wide eyes raking him head-to-toe. He's got his cell phone pressed to his ear, but judging by the way he's currently holding the mouthpiece down, he's on hold with someone. "What happened to you?"
Mark drops into the seat across from him, and doesn't ask before snagging his coffee and dragging it across the table to steal a swallow. It is blissfully warm. Eduardo's eyebrows go up, but he doesn't comment.
He tells him, "I got slapped in the face with a catfish," right before the same catfish slapped M. Odgen so hard it crushed his nose right up into his brain.
"I swear, you live the strangest life of anyone I know," Eduardo boggles, and then apparently his call connects, because he jerks the mouthpiece back up and he exclaims, "Div! My man, how are you? ... oh, I'm hanging in there, best I can. Yeah, yeah," he ducks his head, smiling shyly at the linoleum between his feet. "Yeah, things are ... oh, well, they're not all right, you know that, but they're getting there. I just wanted to call and wish Tanya a happy birthday -- she's four today, right?"
Losing interest in eavesdropping, Mark heads up to the counter to pick up his usual. The barista gives him the stink-eye at first, but then he thinks she might recognize him, because she warms up when she hands over his change.
When he gets back to their table, Eduardo is saying, a little somberly, "No, I -- no, I could maybe come back for a visit. I've been following you guys on Google News, it's the best I can do, but -- but you know I probably won't come back to work for you. I think you and Cam and Ty knew that when you let me go."
He probably isn't supposed to be listening to this, but an awful suspicion begins to dawn on Mark.
When Eduardo ends the call, thumbing at his cell phone distractedly, he asks, "who was that?"
"Hmm?" Eduardo's eyes flick up, and clear. "Oh. That was my boss. Well, my boss before I became my own boss, I guess."
Floored, Mark can only stare at him for a moment. Objectively, he knew that Eduardo didn't just materialize fully-formed out of grey matter when he inherited a part of Facebook and therefore had to have been somewhere, doing something, after the depositions, but hadn't really given a thought towards what that might be.
"You didn't..." he starts, trying to reign in his thoughts. "I ... Weren't you running your own business? Um, helping with start-up companies or something?" He'd expressed an interest in that, right? Shit, it's an incredibly weird feeling, not knowing something about Eduardo.
"What? No," Eduardo quirks a smile at him, a little bemused. He pulls his cup of Lolcats coffee back to his side of the table, cradling it between his palms. He asks, chuckling, "Did your Wikipedia brain finally fail you? No, Christopher, I'm a secretary. Just a secretary."
His first thought is that there's no way in hell Eduardo's father would stand that. You never see men who are secretaries or personal assistants -- even Mark's socially observant enough to have picked up on that and thought it odd. Even the women CEOs he knew had women secretaries. Eduardo in the secretarial staff is just a bizarre mental image. "You are?" he goes incredulously.
"Well, he's more my friend now than my boss," Eduardo shrugs. "It's a shame I'm missing his daughter's birthday, she's a sweetheart. But yeah, basically I used to be in charge of running his life. Turns out I'm excellent at running everybody else's life but my own," he gives Mark a conspiratorial grin, which he doesn't return. His face feels frozen. "And, given his history, he was extremely understanding when I had to pack up and move to the mainland after --" he makes that helpless gesture he does sometimes when he means Mark Zuckerberg's murder but can't quite bring himself to say it.
Mark says exactly what's on his mind. "Huh."
The corners of Eduardo's eyes crinkle up. "He's a good man, if a bit intense at times, name of Divya Narendra -- woah, hey, you all right? That looked like that hurt," he blinks, reaching out instinctively towards Mark, who had banged his knees against the underside of the table. "You sure? Okay. Like I was saying, I knew him at school and we ... eh, had a lot in common, I guess is a good way of putting it, so it wasn't a difficult decision to go into business with him and his partners -- twins, I don't think I'll ever outgrow how cool that is -- when we graduated."
He's smiling kind of absently, like he's still a thousand miles away. Like mentally he's at the fourth birthday party of Divya Narendra's daughter, what the ever-loving --
Mark feels rooted to his seat, like all sensation has drained out of his limbs and he couldn't lift them even if he wanted to; betrayal stirs in his gut, a cold, hard kernel of feeling, and it makes him want to gnash his teeth or leap up and yell or disappear with his headphones on his ears and never come up.
He's perfectly aware that, like Eduardo, Narendra and the Winklevii didn't just disappear into grey matter after they slunk off with a stupid amount of Mark's money and their tails between their legs, but neither has he given any thought at all to where they did end up. And it rankles -- okay, no, Mark, be honest, it hurts -- that they and Eduardo had, like, toasted each other or whatever and became friends and he runs their lives.
Mark remembers the way Eduardo had gingerly perched on the edge of the seat next to him in that great mahogany deposition room and tried, almost comfortingly, to tell him that the Winklevoss's lawsuit didn't have a leg to stand on. He remembers sneering back and saying something hateful, because if Eduardo honestly gave a shit then he wouldn't be suing and Mark would not have to leave this farce of a legal proceeding just to prepare for the next one.
He remembers that, and he remembers the next day that Eduardo had stood up and defended him anyway. Eduardo had defended him from the Winklevii.
So why did he become their secretary?
"We're based out of Singapore, you know," Eduardo continues, completely oblivious to the way Mark's understanding of the world is shifting just a couple inches to the left. "It was strategic to be that close to China while Cam and Ty were training for the Olympics. And then we just stayed. Although, with all of this --" there's the Mark Zuckerberg got murdered gesture again. "-- I've been thinking I should probably sell my apartment. It's kind of unlikely that I'll ever be going home."
Mark makes absolutely no attempt to hide what's on his face, something spiteful and probably defensive, because next time Eduardo drags his eyes back to him like he has to physically remind himself where he is, he startles and straightens up as if he'd been slapped.
"Sorry," he goes, putting his hands flat on the table. "Sorry, I don't usually give in to homesickness. It's not like I can't fly back -- business leaders fly all the time, it's just ... Tanya only turns four once. If I miss one, then it becomes that much easier to miss the others and ... I never wanted to be that person."
There's almost a question in his voice, like he's seeking reassurance, which is stupid because how on earth can Mark validate his feelings? And it's not that Mark doesn't understand -- it's worse, because he does, he's been on opposite coasts from his sisters on their birthdays and felt wrong because of it; it's the one day out of the year every kid is allowed to feel just marginally special and appreciated, it's part of why Mark got so vehement when his development team suggested they program birthday reminders into the News Feed, because that's the kind of family he got raised in and it makes Mark twitchy and short-tempered that he can't be there (it's even worse now that he's dead, and can't even send an apologetic card) -- but it still makes him feel shitty to hear Eduardo say, it's unlikely I'll be going home.
It's not like Mark got his head smashed open intentionally. And he doesn't want Dustin and Eduardo to feel trapped by Facebook, because reluctance is the last trait Mark wants in a successor and he trusts Dustin and Eduardo and doesn't want to see them pass his company on to someone else, someone he doesn't like half as much. And he trusts Sean, too, but he hasn't really seen Sean since the first time he saw the four of them together outside Pizza My Heart. Or heard about him, really, which is equally worrying.
"I still need to get her a present," Eduardo muses out loud, interrupting his thoughts. "There's a toy store that I drive by sometimes on ... on, um," he snaps his fingers, like this will help bring it to the forefront of his mind. "On El Camino Real Street!"
Mark actually full-body flinches, and then he latches onto the mistake like a lifeline.
"Please don't ever say that where a local can hear you," he tells him, keeping his voice droll. "It's just El Camino. Camino means street --" which shouldn't Eduardo already know? Portuguese and Spanish are not the same thing, Mark knows that, but didn't somebody tell him once that they were similar enough that you can usually extrapolate the meaning of one if you know the other? "-- so it's like you're saying The Royal Street Street."
"Right. Thanks," goes Eduardo, and then he just drops his head back, for a moment exposing the line of his throat and the underside of his chin.
Mark shifts uncomfortably in his damp clothes. His Dr. Pepper hisses at him as he pops the tab.
"I hate California," Eduardo goes, with a sudden baldness that makes Mark blink. "Don't -- don't tell anyone, but I hate this state. For somewhere that prides itself on being progressive, organic, and on top of all the trends, there's really nothing real about this place."
His throat moves as he talks; Mark watches it, thinking in equal measures, I've seen someone run through the throat with a knitting needle on accident, you should be more careful, because being a reaper makes you kind of morbid about these things, and this is the second unexpected thing you've told me today.
"Everything is a chain, have you noticed that?" Eduardo continues, and waves at the University Cafe. "Even this place, it turns out, isn't independently owned. And you have all these cities clustered into one area, and each of them are exactly the same as the next. It never changes, and there's no space." His voice rises to a shout at that, and he straightens up in his chair, his eyes overbright and almost angry.
It's exactly what Kawali is always complaining about; the Bay Area being monotonous and overcrowded, but Eduardo's lived in Miami, Boston, New York, and Singapore: Mark never thought that big cities were something that bothered him.
"Eduardo," he says, for lack of anything better.
"Sorry," Eduardo goes again, deflating, and Mark is seriously going to throw his sandwich at his head if he tries to apologize for having opinions one more time. "Don't get me wrong, I love my job. I'm proud of my job, and I'm glad to have you as a friend -- have I not said that before?" he adds, when Mark blinks at him, dumbstruck. "Because I am, seriously, I've never had a friend who just sits there and stares at me --"
"I don't stare!" Mark protests immediately.
"-- and listens to me go on about things he doesn't care about."
"Not true! I care!" You have no idea how invested I am in you.
"I'm serious," Eduardo repeats, but the corner of his mouth is twitching. "And I didn't mean to insult your state. California is lovely, I'm sure, but ... it's just ... not my thing," he makes an apologetic face.
"You don't need to make excuses for my sake," Mark tells him, and leans forward, laying out his hands on the table. "Okay, then, humor me. Where would you like to live, then, if you didn't have --" he gestures vaguely at Eduardo's general person, trying to encompass you, your clothes, your father, your need to pamper Divya Narendra's four-year-old daughter, and your need to run my company in one motion of his hand.
He's expecting that wry quirk of Eduardo's mouth, and maybe more about how homesick he is for Singapore, or maybe wherever his sisters are, or whatever Caribbean location is favored by the young, rich secretarial pool this year.
Instead, there's only silence, and when Mark looks over, there's something impossibly distant in Eduardo's eyes. He swirls his coffee around again, but doesn't take a sip, because he's down to the dregs and no matter how much of it he drinks, he's never going to like coffee. Mark remembers this; Eduardo hates things that are flavored like coffee and he likes his coffee to resolutely taste like anything that's not coffee. You and your girly drinks, Dustin had called it once, scornful, but that was only because he had no idea how to order one and have it come out especially delicious. Mark and Eduardo, on the other hand, have six sisters between them who probably drink a metric ton of the stuff and therefore actually know the difference between tall, venti, and grande.
"Somewhere in the Midwest," Eduardo says finally, in the same voice one would use to introduce a fairy tale. "Somewhere so far off the interstate that the only roads are made of dirt, and there'd be no way anyone could find me unless I wanted to be found. Nobody around for miles."
"The Midwest?" Mark echoes, in the same voice one would use to say, is that tile mold?
"Yes." Eduardo gives him a rueful smile. "I've never been, though."
"Me neither," unless flying over it counted. To be honest, usually Mark forgets the entire interior of the United States even exists. Like, what even happens in Ohio or Tennessee?
"Always wanted to go," Eduardo murmurs. "The storms there last for days. It's one of my favorite things, you know, rolling thunder and the lightning storms that kind of make the sky look like a football stadium. I'd live in Wyoming, maybe, or Oklahoma, where the tornadoes will strike fear into your soul. I don't know, somewhere where I can just watch the weather."
He gets it; watching the weather is to Eduardo as reading books is to Mark -- something that makes other people side-eye them like they can't quite understand why someone with an IQ as high as they have would enjoy the mundane.
On their way out of the cafe, Mark catches sight of the day's newspaper abandoned on one of the patio tables and makes a startled noise, snatching it up.
"Shit," he breathes.
Curious, Eduardo peers over his shoulder. The headline reads REMAINS OF MISSING GIRL FOUND. KILLER CONFESSES, and underneath it is a mugshot of a hangdog-faced bald man, next to a professional shot of a little, curly-haired girl with a very familiar smile.
"Do you know that guy?" Eduardo asks, lifting his eyebrows in a way that suggests he really hopes Mark doesn't.
"Yeah," goes Mark absently, eyes flicking over the front page. "He --" murdered a little girl whose paradise was filled with unicorns. He buried her mangled body in the woods. I never thought that he would get caught.
He lifts his head and, forgetting himself for a moment, beams unselfconsciously at Eduardo, who is startled into smiling back, kneejerk, because the exploding gardener, the stubborn fisherman, Divya Narendra, and Eduardo being unhappy -- all of that makes for a no good, rotten, very bad day, but this, this, this brief justice ... this easily makes some part of it better.
Much like every other business known to man, death picks up around the holidays, too, leaving Kawali to assign them all overtime.
November and December are the busiest months for traveling, which means a lot of stupid people getting together in unfamiliar places, which always invariably winds up with somebody dead. Mark does more in-home murders in the week leading up to Thanksgiving than he did in the two months previous put together. He'd always thought that, "you know what, I'm sick of Grandma wearing the same ugly Christmas sweater, let's off her," was a suburban myth, but on Wednesday, he watches a woman drive her stiletto heel through her stepfather's eyeball over his refusal to politely pass the gravy boat, and subsequently revises his opinion.
"Janaury's going to be worse," Jess tells him with a grimace, clicking her way through Google Maps. She's got a back-to-back double reap in the afternoon, which only leaves her about ten minutes to get from one or the other.
"Worse than this?" Mark goes, sleepily picking crust out of the corners of his eyes. He's got a double reap today, too, but fortunately, they bracket his shift at Pizza My Heart, so he doesn't have to devote a lot of brain power to planning.
"Yeah. January's the month everybody realizes how stupid they acted over the holidays and then they all wonder why they even bother. Also it rains nonstop. It's the worst month for suicides."
Mark pulls a face. "Great," he goes.
He spends his first holiday season as a member of the undead in a permanent state of exhaustion. He mishandles the pizza pans so often that he goes home with shiny new burns on his arms almost every night, which makes Sancha worry -- not in a, "oh my god, Christopher, are you okay?" way, because he always heals, but in a, "oh my god, Christopher, don't let the manager see you, yes, you can get in trouble for getting injured on the job, it's called negligence" way. All the single, lonely people in Silicon Valley make for a booming business for the pizza industry, and booming business for the death industry, and leaves a very tired Mark somewhere in between.
They get Christmas Day off (well, from delivering pizzas; a dwarf gets crushed under a Christmas tree around nine in the morning, but she doesn't make for bad company, really,) so, like somehow she knew that Mark's plans for the day involved sitting in his socks and boxers and hacking into Facebook to see if they've added any new patches lately, Sancha invites him around to her place because, quote, "who doesn't want to sit around eating good food and making fun of our hypocritically Christian-normative country?"
"Without that Christian normality, we wouldn't have a bank holiday," Mark points out, with all the hindbrain diplomacy of a Jew who'd been roped into too many school nativity scenes as a child. How long is one kid supposed to stand around gazing serenely at a fake baby, anyway, and why the hell did "but I don't believe in this" never work when deterring third grade teachers from putting tinsel in his hair?
"He's got a point," interjects Sancha's boyfriend, who's sitting on the counter stirring some kind of batter in a mixing bowl. Mark's met him before -- he reminds him a little bit of Billy Olsen, the Australian roommate he had at Kirkland, who spent 90% of his free time high as a kite for costs so exorbitant it practically counted as a second tuition. Sancha's boyfriend uses fewer illegal substances, but still has the same mellow attitude, and despite his heavily-pierced exterior, he's not the type to pick a fight with anybody unless they had a magnet. "I like sticking it to the majority privilege as much as the next person, Sancha, but I'm not going to protest a tradition that gives me a day to sleep in."
Mark, distracted by something on the mantle out in the living room, pushes himself up from the table and makes a beeline for it.
His eyes aren't playing tricks on him. It's a menorah, all candles lit and flickering, and he knows for a fact that Sancha's serious about her atheism to a fanatic degree and that her boyfriend was raised Muslim, so that leaves him to look back at them and ask, "is this for me?"
Sancha suddenly looks nervous. "We hope you don't mind," she goes, twisting the hem of her shirt around her finger. "We knew you don't have family in the area, and we just ... I don't know, wanted our home to feel like yours while you were here, because it's the holidays, so we kind of went with what we knew."
He looks back at the menorah, and the obsessive-compulsive part of him has a quiet little conniption because it's been done all wrong, it's still too early into Hanukkah for all the candles to be lit and there are prayers --
"We tried Googling it," Sancha adds rapidly, like she can see some of this in Mark's expression, which is ridiculous because Mark has the poker face to master all poker faces. "But there are so many different ways of doing it depending on heritage and nationality, and we didn't know what branch of Judaism you belonged to, so ... umm, maybe we should have left well enough alone --"
And at that, the rest of Mark's irritation just goes right through him, and he turns around to engulf Sancha in a hug, startling her.
"You're a very nice person," he tells her seriously.
"Oh, bah," she replies, sounding pleased.
They eat a lot, letting A Christmas Story marathon on TBS in the background, arguing good-naturedly about whose job was the worst, and swapping horror stories about P.E. classes because none of them had been athletic children, and at sundown Mark pretends to light the right candle and does his prayers, while Sancha and her boyfriend listen quietly from the sofa, their faces soft with candelight, and it's good, it's a really good holiday.
Which is a good thing, because a couple days after New Years, Eduardo drops a bomb on him.
"What would you say if I told you," he begins haltingly, watching Mark bite into his sandwich across the table. There's something in his tone that clubs Mark in the stomach with instant foreboding, and he swallows dryly. "That the C.I.A. approached us and told us they wanted to buy Facebook?"
Mark drops his sandwich.
"What," he goes, flatline.
Eduardo drags in a breath like he's going to launch into the story, but Mark, still reeling, yells, "No," and surges to his feet, like he's ... what, like he's going to march down to Washington DC in his delivery uniform and tell the government where they can stick it, they can't have his company?
"Absolutely not," he says, outraged, and Eduardo holds up a palm in his direction, like, calm down.
"That's what we told them," he says, earnestly enough to make Mark sink back into his seat, breathing hard like he really had tried to sprint to DC. Eduardo lowers his voice, leaning forward on his elbows, "They assured us it would be quiet, there'd be no announcement, we wouldn't have to deal with any negative press. They just wanted the admin powers so that they can freely monitor communications for certain 'subjects of interest,' because you know how loose people get on Facebook."
"Which is why we put more effort into building up our privacy settings than most countries do into building an Olympic stadium," Mark says through gritted teeth, too angry to check his pronouns.
Eduardo, fortunately, doesn't seem to notice. "I know. I don't like the idea of it, either. But I can't shake the feeling that the C.I.A. could make things very difficult for us if we refuse, and is it so bad, really, using Facebook as a means of protecting national security? They're good privacy settings, but do we really want that to work in the favor of our homegrown terrorists?"
He worries at his bottom lip, like even he isn't sure what he believes, and Mark looks down at his white-knuckled hands, thinking fast, all his protective instincts firing at once, mayday, mayday, Facebook is under attack, defend it! He supposes it was only a matter of time before the government tried to weigh in, and Mark had always played nice with them before, even if it did mean letting the President make fun of his dress sense on national television. The taxes on a lucrative business with a gross net worth like Facebook's were already phenomenal, but they paid them, because it's the least they could do. Shouldn't that be enough?
"Why didn't they try this before?" he wonders out loud, even though the answer is obvious. You go for the jugular when the prey is at its weakest.
"They were afraid of Mark, I think," goes Eduardo, making Mark's head come up, Pavlovian, and then the corner of his friend's mouth curves wryly. "What I wouldn't give to see the look on his face if any government came and tried to take Facebook out from under him, no matter how they tried to convince him it was a national asset. He'd boot them out the door and then build Facebook an unhackable firewall, just to piss them off."
Mark quirks an eyebrow, taking a moment to be incredibly smug, because yeah, that's right, the US government used to check under their beds for him at night. Awesome.
And the firewall thing actually wasn't a bad idea.
"And now that he's emeritus, well ..."
Emeritus? Mark thinks. Please don't tell me they said that. That implies that I'm retired and happily living it up on my private island somewhere. I really don't call this retirement, he plucks at his polo shirt, striped in the Pizza My Heart colors.
Which is when the light bulb goes on.
He sits up straight. "Sic Sean on them," he tells Eduardo, whose eyebrows go down.
"I beg your pardon."
"No, no, no, I'm serious," goes Mark, rapid-fire and warming to this idea fast. "It's perfect. Sean Parker."
"Yeah, I know who he is," Eduardo cuts in, impatient. "How do you know him?" Mark opens his mouth, but Eduardo's already waving him away. "Right, right, you have Wikipedia hardwired into your brain or something, I don't even want to know anymore."
"Send Sean Parker in to meet with them," Mark continues, glossing right over that comment. "There's no way he's going to let the government have any part of Facebook."
Eduardo rocks back in his seat a little bit, with that expression on his face that Mark recognizes instantly: it's his do you really think ranking girls is a good idea, Mark? face. "Sean is ... Dustin and I don't really trust --"
"No, you don't really trust him," Mark cuts in, speaking very quickly, because he might as well be honest, and Eduardo's spine snaps straight. "But what's more important is that Sean doesn't trust the government. Hell, Sean doesn't really trust anybody, but he can out-conspiracy even the biggest anti-privacy bigwig the C.I.A. throws in your direction to convince you to give up admin powers for the greater good. If the C.I.A. tries to make things difficult for you, Sean can make things difficult for them. It'd be fun for him."
"Because that's exactly what I want to do. Let him loose for another Sean Parker variety hour. I can just see the headlines now."
"Wrong," says Mark promptly.
"Oh, by all means, tell me the secrets of the man's soul," Eduardo snaps, leaning back sharply and folding his arms. His tone is dark, unfriendly, the coldest that Mark's heard since he owned Mark after that dinner.
Mark pauses for a beat, watching him. "First off, you're being childish," and Eduardo's brows snap together, mutinous, but Mark keeps talking. "Second... second, the thing you need to know about Sean is that he hates public attention."
"Do you want my opinion or not?" goes Mark, because the schoolboy grudge thing is getting a little old. He gets a hand flapped at him in response. "Right. Sean's paranoid, obsessed with what people think about him -- he's exactly the kind of guy that who would program his name into Google Alerts just to see what gets written about him, and then he takes everything personally. But Sean is smart. He knows what he's doing, and he has a habit of having exactly who we need, so trust him to do his thing. You'll be amazed at how well it works. And," he adds with a light grimace. "Keep him out of the public eye."
"Yeah, that's my concern." Eduardo's voice is dryer now.
"Don't be," Mark says easily, leaning forward to look him in the eye. "Eduardo, he'll be responsible about this. Trust him, he protects what's his." You have that in common, he doesn't add, but he sees something flick across Eduardo's face, something he doesn't quite have the social aptitude to recognize, but he thinks it might be understanding.
If you really don't like him, he thinks. Why do you call him by his first name? You don't even call Peter Thiel by his first name.
"I'll keep that in mind," Eduardo returns, frowning down at his hands, and unlike most of the people who've said that to Mark over the course of their lives, Eduardo actually sounds like he means it.
"And one more thing," Mark folds his arms. "Make sure all of you have very detailed, up-to-date wills, in case somebody comes by to whack you, too. That way nobody has to go through this mess again."
Mark physically cannot keep himself from slipping past the Facebook firewall every single day after that, like somehow he's going to be able to tell if the US government got what it wanted; the code will look dirtier or something.
And anyway, it's the C.I.A.; the intimidating last hurdle of any young hacker anywhere, the ultimate stronghold of all Internet defenses, the Central Intelligence Agency. If they can't hack somebody's Facebook profile on their own without the admin's power, then they don't deserve the information at all. Simple as that.
But as January fades into February, the number of suicides he gets called out on plateau nicely (and turn into surprisingly fewer Valentine's Day murders than he'd been expecting -- he'd've thought that February would be the prime month for crimes of passion, but Jessica tells him they're already past that, it usually happens in the summer, when everybody's tempers run hot -- nobody cares enough about February to bother killing each other,) and, sparing a new patch on the advertisements, everything inside his website stays the same.
(Although, he muses sardonically, if the government bargained for the controlling share of Facebook, it could probably solve America's debt crisis. Facebook is worth that much.)
At lunch, Eduardo doesn't bring it up, and nor does he start looking like a corpse dragged the wrong way out of bed, which he takes as a good sign.
Mark relaxes some.
And then one day Sancha calls him into the back for a delivery -- a company lunch, he can tell instantly, from the number of pizzas and their size -- and they both have to wait in front of the printer for it to spit out the order form, Sancha with her fingers poised over the tray like it's going to make it print any faster.
"No additional comments in the order form?" Mark wants to know, shouldering the pizzas into their keep-warm pockets. "Because if I have to moonwalk up somebody's driveway again, you should just spare me and deliver them yourself, because I have about as much rhythm as a gnat."
Rolling her eyes, she hands him the paper, and he glances at the delivery address: 3505 University Ave.
When he doesn't move, Sancha frowns and cranes her neck to look over his shoulder.
"Oh, that's easy," she says, with an airy wave of her hand. "That's just right down there, you can probably walk."
"I know what it is," Mark mumbles back, and thinks, shit.
A number of weird, strange, and very offputting things have happened to Mark over the course of his life, including but not limited to: becoming the antisocial CEO of a social networking company that could rival any other Silicon Valley monolith; shaking hands with the president of the United States and getting his tie insulted in the same breath; getting named the world's youngest billionaire, mostly by accident; dying, wandering around incorporeal, and then getting some new magical voodoo'd outer appearance so that he can slip anonymously among the living while protected by magical Wolverine-esque healing powers.
Yeah, all of that makes for a pretty unbelievable story.
But then Mark walks into the building on the corner of University and High, punches the worn-smooth button for the third floor, and has to sign in at the front desk of the Facebook offices with a stack of pizza boxes propped on one hip, and it trumps all those other things as the strangest experience of his life.
Wanda, the security guard who's been with them since before Eduardo smashed his laptop to bits, comes out of her closeted television room to scrutinize Christopher Robin's ID while the receptionist at the front desk enters him into the system so they'll know him when he comes back.
When Wanda looks up at him, squint-eyed, Mark gives her the salute-like sign for hello without even thinking about it, and she blinks back, looking surprised, and then pleased. She does it back, and returns his ID.
All the businesses in the building share the same security company and pay the same fee, but Wanda is Facebook's own. And while the wisdom of hiring a deaf security guard may not be immediately obvious to people who aren't Mark and the people from HR, but what they say about those who have lost one sense is true: to compensate for her loss of hearing, Wanda has the sharp, clear eyes of a hawk, sitting in her room watching the security camera feed, and she can spot a fake ID from ten paces. She also has the top three highest scores on the Space Invaders console in the break room, much to everyone else's continuing humiliation.
If the news is to be believed, Wanda was the first one to witness the murder of Mark and Pomona Graham, frantically rewinding the security tapes and watching the grainy splatter. That's how the police found her; tucked in her chair with her hands over her mouth and tears streaking down her face.
Mark's knowledge of sign language is rudimentary at best, good mostly for asking Wanda how she is or when her birthday is or if she could help them move tables around for a conference, but he wants to thank her, somehow, for caring, or ask her if she maybe recognized the well-concealed figure in the security tapes who murdered them. If anybody could recognize another person by their gait or the movement of their shoulders alone, it would be Wanda.
He's saved from making any conversational gambit by somebody coming out of the elevator behind him, and the lady at the front desk snaps out quickly, "oh! Kevin, would you be so kind as to escort the pizza guy here to the bullpen?"
Kevin is Mark's height, weak-chinned and big-eared and carrying a brown paper bag that could only contain take-out from his favorite Chinese place. Mark's never known Kevin to get lunch from anywhere else, and while he quietly dies on the inside at the receptionist calling him "the pizza guy" like she hadn't just entered his personal details right down to the proposed name of his firstborn child into Facebook's security, or, hell, invented Facebook, Kevin blinks at Mark and goes, "Damn, somebody got pizza? I mean, yeah, sure, no problem."
Mark follows Kevin through to the main offices, the smell of pepperoni and grease mingling with Kevin's thick schezuan-smelling whatever. It's not really that appetizing a combination.
He eyeballs the paper bag and can't help but ask, "Did Keisha forget her lunch again?"
Kevin, whose skin color could be best described as white on rice, flushes to the tips of his ears and stammers, "W-well, not that I, like, watch her when she comes in or anything, but I think she's the kind of person who will intentionally forget her lunch so she'll have to work through her lunch hour to avoid getting junk from the break room. I think she thinks she's being healthy. So ... so I try to give her another option, just in case she wants it."
His crush on Keisha is legendary -- even Mark picked up on it, without somebody else having to tell him first. Keisha seems to the only one who doesn't know.
"Have you ever actually spoken to her?" he asks.
Kevin, if anything, goes a darker shade of red. He peeks over at Mark shyly. "Um. Sometimes I'll say hi instead of hey?"
"... are you ever going to actually speak to her?" Mark corrects himself.
Kevin shrugs, the non-answer of boys with low self-esteem the world over.
They round the corner into the bullpen, then, and it takes all of Mark's coordination not to trip over himself. The last time he was here, there was police tape everywhere and Tupperware Tony with a shock blanket sitting in his own office chair like he needed it to ground him and Mark himself, dead on the carpet in his office, and he didn't look back when Kawali led him away. There are some changes, of course -- somebody's moved the desks around to create a different aisle, and there's a new overhead screen -- but what strikes Mark is how very little has changed.
The possessiveness that swells in his chest hurts with its intensity.
Which is about when someone all but pops up out of the ground in front of him and says, "Excellent. Pizza!" in a tone that suggests to the delivery training in Mark that this is the person who placed the order.
His first impression is she, but a closer inspection of jawline and shoulders, and Mark changes it to a, I don't actually know, and has a brief moment of panic in which he tries to remember what the politically correct answer for this is. He and Chris used to have Well Shit, Mark Needs To Go Out In Public flashcards, detailing for Mark how to have polite conversation with pregnant coworkers, businessmen with peeling sunburns from their stay on their private islands, and fresh-off-the-press new employees, without insulting any of them, and how to talk to interviewers without maligning their intelligence and career options three times in one sentence. Mark mentally flips through them now, searching for someone who physically resembles one gender but dresses for the other. Which do you respect, Mark?
Kevin unwittingly comes to the rescue. "Tori!" he protests, frowning a little. "What are you doing. You don't even work here!"
"And you're just a paper-pusher from Legal, so technically, I think I do more work around here than you do," the woman -- Tori -- retorts without missing a beat. She makes grabby hands for the stack of pizzas, which have started to burn through their heat-covers and are making Mark uncomfortable. He puts them down without further ado and fetches out the bill and card reader. Behind him, he can hear Kevin making his retreat, probably to find Keisha before Keisha starts smelling the pizza.
She hands him a Visa and, when she catches his expression, the corners of her mouth quirk.
"Don't look so deer-in-the-headlights," she tells him. "The pronoun you're looking for is she. Wasn't always, but it is now. I live for the day when I don't have to tell people that, just like I'm sure you live for the day when people don't look at this --" she flicks at his Pizza My Heart logo cap. "-- and assume you're a moron with a dead-end job."
Mark blinks, caught off guard by the baldness of the statement, and then he grins. He rather likes Tori.
Like sharks in the water, several of the other employees catch onto the scent of pizza as it wafts through the open floor plan; Mark catches sight of them peeking over the edges of their cubicles in his peripheral, like lionesses on the prowl peering above the savannah grass.
From behind him, someone announces, "I am a meat-seeking machine! Hear the carnivore in me roar!"
And then there's Dustin, his Dustin, appearing by the food so fast he might as well have been magnetized to it and flipping open the lid of the pizza on top, inhaling the smell of cheese and grease with an ecstatic noise, so Dustin that it makes Mark's heart clench in his chest.
"Perfect," he goes, reverent. "I am starving. Sweetheart, please tell me you got all of these for me."
"Absolutely not," Tori replies.
"Oh, all right. I guess I'll just take these top four, then," Dustin relinquishes in tones of great long-suffering, and Tori laughs, throaty, and lifts her cheek like she's expecting a peck in thanks. Dustin one-ups her, wrapping an arm around her waist and delivering an enthusiastic kiss that bends her backwards and lands smackingly at the corner of her mouth.
Asdfgjkl, goes Mark's brain.
Dustin straightens. He's wearing a t-shirt with a giant, smiling planet Earth on it, and the caption, Respect Your Mother in bold letters underneath. He swings around and lifts his hands to the office, like Moses about to deliver his commandments, "Yes, to all of you who were wondering, there is free pizza! Because your boss is boss and so is his girlfriend," and Tori flushes, pleased. "So you better hurry up and dog-pile it, or it'll be gone! Come on, get up here, I want to see fighting!"
And steps out of the way, just as one of the interns materializes with paper plates and a tolerant expression, like she saw this coming.
Mark, however, is watching Dustin. It's that word he used, casual, like he thought nothing of it -- boss.
For the first time, Mark realizes that it doesn't matter who all shares the 28% of controlling stock, it's Dustin who runs Facebook, the nit and the grit of the work that Mark used to do. Dustin, who's now the youngest billionaire in the world, and, like Mark, always just kind of wanted to be left alone with his Java script and a good idea. Dustin, who's never had to be cruel or cutthroat in his entire life; Mark made sure of it.
Dustin, who's seen a friend diluted out, another friend killed, and a third chased off by accusations of murder, and still stands here, smiling at the employees lining up for pizza, a little goofy and a lot fond.
Mark looks up, and can't help himself; he grins, wide enough to show teeth, because Eduardo used to be the first person he looked to whenever he wanted someone to say to, look, Dustin's being Dustin again, can we commiserate at Harvard.
Eduardo grins back, easy like it costs him nothing, coming around the forest of cubicles to clap a hand to Mark's shoulder. "Hey, man," he draws out, giving him a friendly shake. "What are you doing here?"
Mark nods to the pizza. Or where the pizza would be visible, if there wasn't a swarm of employees between them and the food. "Working. Isn't that what you're supposed to be doing?"
"Mean," Eduardo replies without any heat whatsoever. "I was summoned by the words 'free' and 'food' being used in the same sentence. Like a little radar," he holds up a hand, flicking his fingers in time to a "ping, ping, ping."
"Says one of the youngest rich men in the world," Tori folds her arms, her tone dry as dust.
She does have a point, Mark thinks. It's kind of stupid how, the richer you are, the more people want to give you shit for free.
Eduardo's other hand slips from Mark's shoulder, fingers dragging briefly over his ribs, leaving Mark feeling twitchy and hyper-aware of those lines accidentally caught on his skin, like Eduardo's a reaper setting loose Mark's soul. As tactile as Mark used to be prickly, Eduardo used to touch him all the time -- something he'd managed to forget until right this second. He squirms, tucking the empty heat covers under his arm and shifting his weight to the other foot. Across from them, a paper plate of pizza in his hand as if it had arrived by magic, Dustin narrows his eyes and then says, "hey," dawningly.
"Sorry," goes Eduardo. "Christopher, this is my brother-in-arms, Dustin Moskovitz. Dustin, this my friend --"
"No!" Mark starts, but it's too late.
"-- Christopher Robin."
There's a beat, which Mark takes to cringe in preparation and Eduardo falters, confused, before Dustin and Tori's faces both split into something resembling unholy glee.
"Oh my god," Dustin breathes out. "Are you serious? Please tell me --"
"Stop right there," Mark tells him, holding a hand out. Dustin's grin glints, shark-like, but Mark, who'd actually seen someone dismembered by one at the Santa Clara aquarium last month, meets his eyes dead-on. "If you even think about making a Winnie the Pooh joke, I will --" fire you, his brain finishes immediately, his fall-back threat for whenever Dustin got off-track or annoying. "-- do something drastic," he fumbles, kind of lamely, and Eduardo shoots him an amused look.
"Are you sure?" There's a near-whine in there. "Not even one little crack about honey?"
Mark opens his mouth to retort, but the sound of someone approaching from behind cuts the words right out of him.
The sense memory is sudden, sharp, and completely robs all the breath from his body; down on the carpet, grit under his palms, fumbling for his phone charger and grumbling unhappily about the waste of time, and then he heard footsteps from behind him. Footsteps coming out of the dark were the last thing Mark Zuckerberg ever heard.
He stiffens up, terrified for a second and having no clear idea why -- what does he think is going to happen -- but it's only Maurice, Thiel's shadow of a right-hand man, shifting right past him without even a glance to pat Dustin on the back and say, "I like that change you guys did with the Messages, was that your idea?"
Successfully distracting him from Mark's unfortunate name, this makes Dustin throw a hand up into the air, a sort of helpless gesture. "No, actually," he goes with vehemence in his tone. "It's stupidly frustrating, but I have no idea who it came from. It just shows up in my inbox. And I wouldn't be taking it seriously if only it wasn't good stuff. Like the kind of good I definitely should have thought of on my own."
"Hmm," goes Maurice, sounding interested in this development. He cracks a smile and jokes, "Maybe you have a guardian angel," before he joins the throng around the pizza.
Mark quickly takes to navel-gazing.
It wasn't that there was anything wrong with the Messages, per se, it's just ... they could have been better.
And then Kawali walks around the corner.
It all goes comically slow motion for a moment or two: Kawali's strides carrying him right on by, head turning slowly as he stares at Mark and Mark stares right back, as unblinking as something very small and prey-like caught in a very bright light. Kawali doesn't slow down, or give any signs of recognizing Mark. He's got an envelope in his hands.
"Do we know him?" goes Eduardo curiously, when he's gone.
Dustin shrugs. The humor has vanished from his face, leaving him with something that's even more alarming to Mark -- he looks exhausted, wan, and old, with too many lines around the corners of his mouth and his skin too colorless, even for him. "He's some guy, wanting to know if we still had anything of Pomona Graham's -- says there should have been a spare key to her apartment here. Apparently he's the landlord, so ..." he shrugs. "At least, I think that's what he's after. His accent's pretty thick."
"Oh, hell, that's sad," that's Tori, slipping her hand down to twine fingers with Dustin. "Wasn't Pomona Graham the woman who --"
"-- got killed same time as Mark, yup. Had two little boys."
Mark thins his eyes to slits, staring after Kawali. He's no landlord, there's no key, it's all complete bullshit, and Mark has no idea why or what he's up to. His brain is currently a dozen alarm bells, all of them ringing some variation of, what the fuck?
Just like that, Mark really wants to get out of here, in a this is the bike room and as the pizza delivery boy, I'm not allowed much further in kind of way, because this isn't something he wants, this collision of his identity as a grim reaper and his company. After all, Facebook isn't his anymore, and it's doing just fine without him. He left it in good hands, and there's that ache of pride, caught low in his chest where all the good things are kept.
"Ma'am," he goes to Tori, a bit on the curt side. "I need you to sign."
Her eyes flare open with realization, and she steps over to take the credit card slip from him, mumbling, "I am so sorry, I completely forgot."
As she scrawls her signature along the dotted line, he touches his knuckles to Eduardo's forearm and goes, "I'll see you tomorrow?" in a way that has Dustin grinning wide for no discernible reason whatsoever, in his dorky, well-meaning way. It turns the lines around his eyes into laugh lines, which is far more tolerable.
Eduardo smiles back, reflexive like he can't help it, and nods, before his face does something very similar to a pout and he goes, "damn, did anybody leave any pizza left?"
He collects the sales receipt and walks away, hearing Tori murmur just a shade too loudly, "not bad, but he's a bit of an ugly fucker, isn't he?" and Dustin replying, giddy, "yeah, but who cares, Wardo made a friend! This is so exciting. I'm going to hug you now."
"Oh god," is all Eduardo gets out in protest.
Mark tries to grill Kawali on what he was doing at Facebook, but upon getting no straight answer, decides if Kawali wants to be creepy, he can be creepy all he likes so long as he does it away from Mark's old company.
Sancha's boyfriend is thinking about proposing, but hasn't really asked her what she thinks about the institution of marriage in general and doesn't want to inadvertently insult her by asking her to be his wife, so he waffles back and forth and Mark kind of wants to shake them both. During lunch break at the University Cafe, he can now ask after Dustin and Tori and get earnest answers from Eduardo; mostly what Mark remembers from all these conversations is that they smile a lot, the both of them.
In the midst of this, he develops another app for smart phones, this one pretty much manufactured directly for reapers to manage time, traffic, and locations for reaps, because Mark does not need a repeat of the fiasco with the elderly Vietnamese man at the Atherton CalTrain station.
"This is cool, bro," Pierre tells him, looking it over. "But most of my reaps happen in the hospital."
"Well, now you have this on the off-chance you need to chase an ambulance," Mark grumbles.
Things, in general, are going smoothly. He's almost content.
So, naturally, that's when everything goes to shit.
He gets to the library at six-thirty, nodding absently to the woman-like sculpture out front, same as he does every morning. It's dark inside, same as it is every morning, with Tilly behind the information desk and Jessica smuggling breakfast under the table while she clicks away at one of the fancy Macs ("you are eating, like, every time I see you," Mark says by way of greeting, and Jessica responds, "that's because eating is the most fabulous of all things and I have the metabolism of a greek goddess. Cookie dough?") and Kawali at one of the dinosaur Macs with his floppy disk, same as they are every morning.
Except this time, when Jessica sees him, she startles a little bit and x's out of her browser window so fast it leaves her clicking at the desktop uselessly, and she spins around in her seat to offer Mark a smile and a falsely-high, "good morning!"
Mark stops and blinks at her. "The fuck?" he returns. And then, "What's with the suspicious 'I don't want you to see what I'm getting you for your birthday' routine? My birthday isn't for another couple of months."
"Nothing. Nothing's up," says Jessica quickly. Mark looks to Kawali and then Tilly for explanation, but Kawali doesn't look up and Mark gets the impression Tilly just knocked that stack of returned DVDs over on purpose.
"Whatever," goes Mark, rolling his eyes, because he's never had the patience for games of keep-away. Short as he is, it's never been fun. "I don't want to know your taste in porn anyways."
"Hey," and that's Kawali. "Little man, head's up. This one's for you," and he slides a post-it note across the table.
Mark, who isn't used to Kawali writing a reap down for him unless it's important, blinks a little bit and stretches over to pick the note up. He looks at it for a moment, then looks at Kawali, and then back.
"This is in five minutes," he goes, voice climbing with incredulity.
Kawali fixes him with a look. "Then you better move your ass," he goes, completely bland.
Mark makes a strangled noise of rage, snatches his backpack up, and takes off running. Fortunately, he knows where he's going; it's an apartment complex right off the Oregon Expressway. It's not far, and he can conceivably make it in five minutes, if he carelessly cuts through the community garden and vaults a fence or two. He's had a reap at this address before -- a college student who was videotaping himself doing stunts in the bathroom mirror knocked himself out with a pair of nunchucks and accidentally drowned in the toilet bowl.
He gets there in time to see a man wearing jogging shoes approaching the mailbox out in front of the building, a stack of envelopes in his hand. The name on the return address, Mark sees when he gets closer, is the same as what's on his post-it.
Relieved, he purposefully staggers into the man, apologizing quickly and patting him on the back like a buddy would. The man waves him off with a "don't worry about it!", entirely too cheerful for six-thirty in the morning and oblivious to his soul coming loose.
Mark settles on the apartment steps, and the man gives him a congenial smile as he buzzes himself back into the building.
Just as he's thinking about pulling his phone out and checking Google Sci/Tech News while he waits, there's a loud crash from up above him, and a heartbeat later, the man hits the cement in front of Mark with a terrible crunch.
"Oh, fuck," Mark goes emphatically, jerking his eyes away from the sight. He cranes his neck back, and finds another man leaning out over one of the upper-story balconies, wielding a very large chef's knife and wearing only a pair of hot pink boxer briefs. When he sees Mark looking right at him, he squeaks, his eyes enormously wide and shocked, and he disappears back into the apartment.
"I was only kidding," comes the man's voice from right next to him. He looks at his splattered body, mouth twisted to one side in displeasure. "He didn't have to come after me with a knife."
"Yeah," Mark agrees. He stands up, and then groans. "And now I have to go back to my apartment and change."
The man spares him an absentminded look. "What are you talking about, you look fine."
"Except for where I'm covered in bits of your brain matter."
This earns him a longer look, and a grimace. "Sorry about that."
Later, he guesses that the reap does what it's supposed to do; Mark forgets about his team's suspicious behavior, up until he gets off the CalTrain at the Stanford station on his way to work. He treks up University Ave, the wind chasing him and the sky obliterated by the remnants of morning fog, when he sees a familiar profile, bent double at the bus stop on the corner of High Street.
Blinking in surprise, Mark swings around and crosses the street against the light, getting himself honked at by a garbage truck and not caring.
"Eduardo?" he goes questioningly, crouching down next to the bench, but he's certain. He recognizes these shoulders, even when they've been destroyed like this, crumpled with defeat. He reaches out as he speaks, not quite knowing what to do -- he knows how to touch someone who's about to die, but how do you touch another human being when they are so very much alive, and you don't know what's wrong?
Eduardo's head snaps up, and Mark jerks his hand back, recoiling.
There's something fathomless, lost and dark, in Eduardo's eyes, something that reminds Mark of shipwrecks or the horrible unpleasant jolt of a bluescreen; they're sunken into his head like he hasn't slept yet. It takes him a moment to focus on Mark's face.
Mark's always thought he's seen Eduardo at his worst (breathing out on a choked you set me up or shakily pouring himself water from the pitcher as Gretchen thins her eyes at Mark, predatory) but at least then he was angry, so absolutely furious he could have fed himself on it and never wanted for anything. That was better than this. Mark would have preferred the Eduardo that wanted to gut him across the deposition table. This ... this is the absence of anger. This is the absence of anything. This is what Eduardo would look like if someone reached underneath his ribcage and twisted his heart until it stopped beating.
"You'd think I'd be over it by now," he tells Mark, in a voice as wretched as funerals. He spreads his hands in a helpless gesture. "I mean, he's been dead for long enough, you'd think I'd be able to handle this better. But," he runs his hands through his hair, trembling. "I think I liked it better when it was a mystery."
"Eduardo," says Mark, and says it again, firmly, until Eduardo's cheerless, scattered eyes flick to his and hold. "What happened?"
His mouth twists into a poor excuse for a smile. He reaches to the side and picks up a newspaper.
And then the last words Mark ever expected to hear come out of his mouth.
"They found who killed Mark Zuckerberg."
He holds the newspaper out.
The first thing Mark registers is his own face, his real face, in some professional picture they took of him in his offices for a magazine interview ages ago. He's making some stupid geeky expression, which is of course the one they kept, because (according to Chris) the regular ones of him made him look like a serial killer, and this one made him at least look human.
I look stupid, Mark had retorted, tossing the published article to the side in a fit of ire.
Chris hadn't even looked bothered. Like I said, human.
There's a headline right above it, bold black letters, but it's a meaningless scattering of symbols; Mark cannot focus, cannot make them into words, because the face lined up right next to his ...
"Peter Thiel?" he whispers.
Eduardo makes a stifled noise, like an animal left alone in the dark.
And everything comes to a screeching halt.
Slowly, Mark unbends himself, getting to his feet with the newspaper held out in front of him. The name, the face, the knowledge refuses to change, refuses to be anything but what it is.
Peter Thiel, the paper tells him heartlessly, is wanted on charges of conspiracy and intent to murder. He's gone, fled the state sometime in the early hours of the morning, when an anonymous tip to the Santa Clara county police station led investigators to Maurice, his business partner and right-hand man. They arrested him and held him for questioning, where he then confessed to following Mark Zuckerberg, 27, CEO of Facebook, brother, son, boss, and friend, into his office before dawn. He killed him, and he killed Pomona Graham, 38, programmer, daughter, mother.
But Maurice was just the hitman, the article continues, as if this is a campfire ghost story. The true criminal here is Thiel, who orchestrated and paid for everything.
The wind picks up again, catching at the paper and tugging it right out of his hands. The pages blow apart, going every which way, down the sidewalk and into the gutter and across the street, and Mark doesn't even attempt to follow them. He's frozen, hands held out in front of him.
ASSASSINATED, he realizes belatedly. That's what the headline was. MARK ZUCKERBERG: ASSASSINATED.
He remembers. He remembers the grey sunrise-gloom of his office, the floor, the phone charger under his desk. He remembers the footsteps, remembers them then and remembers them recently, when Maurice came up behind him while he was standing there with Dustin, Tori, and Eduardo. He remembers the flare of panic and knows, knows without uncertainty, that it's true.
Maurice murdered him. Maurice came up behind him and smashed his head open, and then he went and did the same to Pomona Graham.
And he supposes that's one of the things about being undead, is that you get to watch your murderer come to justice, except so much time has gone by that ... he just kind of got impatient. It's not like Mark was expecting that he and Pomona would become the next Black Dahlia or anything, famously tragic and famously unsolved, but he wasn't expecting this, either. Wasn't expecting it to be this close.
Peter Thiel. Peter Thiel and Maurice.
A touch to the back of his hand. Eduardo's still there, Mark registers, as if from a very, very long way away.
"Did you know him?" he wants to know.
It takes Mark a beat or two to recognize it as a question, something that requires thinking and answering.
"Yeah, I knew him," he goes tonelessly. "Thiel. I knew him pretty well." He blinks. "So much for being a fucking angel."
He's pretty sure it's the expletive that does it, the visceral way his mouth spits it out, that sends the rage careening into him with the force of a hammer blow, sends a flood of red-hot fury spilling through his chest. He loses it a little bit then, the corners of his vision flaring to white and the world going mute, because Peter Thiel smiled at him and he shook his hand and he said, we're going to start you off with an investment of 500 million.
He came to the shareholder meetings. He came to company parties. Once, when both of them were flushed and tipsy, he danced with Mark's mother at one of those parties, twirling her around in some exaggeratedly dramatic tango. There are pictures somewhere, to Mark's immortal shame and the whole company's amusement.
He'd known that Thiel's investment in Facebook was purely financial, and his grasp of the mechanical was slim at best, because that's how a guy like Thiel runs. So after he died, he'd told -- he'd told Eduardo to hamstring his executive powers and just give him the money he wanted.
Was that Thiel's plan from the beginning? To wind up with Mark's multi-billion dollar share of the company? Has Thiel been planning this since the moment Mark walked into his office, twenty years old and trying very hard not to be impressed, all those years ago? Facebook has paid Thiel back, a hundred times over. Did he and Maurice plot to kill him just to get control?
It's this thought that he can't stand, the thought that makes him want to grab his head in his hands and scream at the injustice of it all.
It was the fucking money.
Mark wasn't murdered because he'd been an asshole to somebody's wife, or because he was a genius or a caustic dick of a CEO, or because he was too overtly strange or forgot somebody's name too many times in a row or because he ruined the neighborhood curb appeal with those hedges.
No. Mark was murdered for his money.
The one thing he cared about less than anything else. He never set out to be richer than literally everyone in his age group. It just happened, and frankly, it's the least interesting thing about him.
He never cared about the money. In fact, some of the worst moments of his life have revolved around money; the fight with his parents, for example, about his dropping out of Harvard after they already paid for two years, still makes his stomach knot remembering it; the white-hot crushing fear of finding out Eduardo had bankrupted them; the Winklevii snapping at his heels and Eduardo staring at him dark-eyed and the settlement he paid to make them all go away.
He has been so rich that nothing seemed worth earning and it was the only thing people saw when they looked at him, and he has been so poor that everything seemed like it was made of cash -- from the smell of his clothes to the water in the sink to the cool air coming from the air conditioner -- and he was so hungry it kept him up at night. And it boggles his mind, how much importance everybody places on it, whether you're rich or you're poor.
Why, why, why is everything about money?
No, Mark has no love for his money.
Why, then, did he have to die for it?
"Christopher?" Eduardo goes, touching the back of his hand briefly.
Mark casts him a wild-eyed, incandescently mad look, and does the only thing he can.
He turns on his heel and runs.
His first instinct is to find Peter Thiel and bash his head in with a baseball bat.
His second instinct is to get drunk.
With neither of those things easily feasible (and never before has Mark been so upset to have the metabolism of the undead,) Mark goes with instinct number three: to find somebody who would stop him from doing instinct one and instinct two. Someone who would understand, and the only other people who would understand why Mark is pissed at the guy to whom he used to be grateful for giving Facebook its well-deserved break -- who hired a good friend to murder him -- is a reaper.
Which is how he finds himself back at the library, busier now that it's later in the day; there are little kids gathered together on the story mat, students with the laptops and giant research tomes out on the patio, a small group of old ladies with handbags using the microfiche machine. Kawali and Jessica are at their usual table, and Mark's surprised to see them both here before he remembers how secretive they'd been acting this morning, and realizes they knew this was coming.
He comes up behind them and he goes, in this hollow, wound-up excuse for a voice that doesn't sound like him at all, "They found my murderer today."
Jessica's on her feet first, her arms going around his neck. She hugs him fiercely, going, "oh, honey, I know," and "are you okay?"
And it's always easy to pretend that you're okay, up until somebody actually asks you if you are, and Mark feels his face do something horrible and crumpled and his breath catches, words jumbling uselessly in his throat where he can't do anything with them. When Jessica lets him go, it's only for a moment, and then Kawali's hugging him too, a crushing quarterback squeeze that makes him feel less like he's going to shake apart at the seams, like he's getting pushed back into the correct mold.
"What are you going to do?" Kawali asks when he releases him, soft and serious.
The library is too quiet, too peaceful, too full of other soft-spoken people and too many worlds trapped in too many books, and Mark spins on his heel and goes outside, knowing without looking that Kawali and Jessica are following.
It's bright outside, the fog from before all burned away to reveal a brilliantly-colored sky, scattered with the clouds rolling in off the sea. There are two women with a golden retriever working in the community garden, their voices carrying and cordial, and so Mark skirts around the library sculpture -- the woman running, head tilted up to the sky, made of abstract sheets of metal that look a little like the pages of a book -- and heads to the other side of the garden, past rows of thick, heavy tomatoes.
When he reaches an arbitrarily acceptable distance from the women gardening, he whips around to face Kawali and Jessica and he says, "I want to find him and tear his soul out of his body and then run it through a cement mixer."
Because you can rip the souls out of living people, Mark knows; he did it on accident once. And wouldn't it be amazing, he thinks, to have Thiel like that -- to forcibly rip his soul from his body and lock it away somewhere like Peter Pan's shadow? He'd have to endure his flesh rotting away without him like a vegetable. It'd be a fate worse than death. It'd be perfect.
"That would be abusing our powers," Jessica points out, almost timidly. She's never seen this side of Mark, the one that gets so very angry and very drunk and blogs.
"And he abused his!" Mark retorts, almost yelling. "Jessica, he invested five hundred thousand dollars into Facebook and then he killed me for it. And he didn't even have the balls to get his hands dirty himself, he told Maurice to do it and Maurice --" Maurice with his deep belly laugh and friendly jokes and keen eye for economic forecasting. "I liked Maurice. And he bashed my brains in! I was twenty-seven years old!" This, somehow, seems like one of the most important parts.
"I've always thought he took his own death a little too calmly," Kawali comments, his tone mild. "I guess the real breakdown was a long time coming."
Jessica glances at him, before looking back to Mark. They did the math once; they had been born only weeks apart, he and Jessica had, but Jessica died when she was only twenty-one. Mark had six years of life on her, but how was that enough? How was that enough for anything?
He fists his hands into his hair and makes a long, wordless noise of rage.
It goes on and on and on, this keening, this fury, this grief, a sound like screaming ghosts, wailing wintry winds. It's the most inhuman Mark has ever sounded.
He flops back into the grass.
By the time he's calmed down, it's already late afternoon, and Kawali's left for a reap up in San Mateo before the traffic gets really bad. Mark has missed work and doesn't care. Jessica's spread out on the ground next to him, on her stomach, library hardback open in front of her. The protective cellophane bookcover crinkles every time she turns a page, and she answers Mark's increasingly farfetched methods of dealing with Thiel with variations of, "sounds bloody, I love it, but you can't do it, Mark."
"I'm not going to," he answers her finally, and this concession is enough to make her look up, her mouth turned down with sympathy.
"You should stay at my place tonight," she says. "I'll cook a shit-ton of comfort food. Like, latkes or something."
Mark blinks at her.
She cringes a little bit. "Did I get that wrong? Is that even Jewish food?" She spreads her hands defensively. "I don't know! I'm culturally inept. I was raised in a Baptist family -- when we say comfort food, we mean KFC." And then her face does something complicated and horrified. "Oh, god, I'm going to get struck by lightning."
It startles him into laughing at her, coming unbidden and uncomfortable from his throat, and he pushes himself to his feet, suddenly knowing exactly what he has to do.
"I'll take a rain-check on the comfort food, Jessica," he says. "There's someone I should probably go talk to."
Grim reapers keep close tabs on who dies and leaves their property empty, since the state of the housing market means some multi-million dollar homes stay unoccupied for ages, so when Eduardo went and purchased a place on Middlefield Rd shortly after inheriting co-ownership of Facebook, Mark heard about it from one of the guys in Natural Causes. He's never had a reason to use that information before now.
It's a nice enough place, make no mistake, if a little bland; peach-colored siding and white trim on the windows and a simple, unadorned lawn. Eduardo doesn't even look particularly surprised to see him, just steps back and lets Mark in.
"Taking off like that was probably insensitive," he blurts out, in his roundabout way of apologizing.
Eduardo just kind of waves it off, with a gesture that it's either accepting or dismissive, Mark can't quite tell. He looks, if anything, worse inside than he did out in the sunshine earlier, darkness bruised under his eyes. He drags his feet into the leaving room, and Mark toes his shoes off by the door and follows.
Flopping back onto the sofa like he's made of nothing but broken bones, Eduardo watches him hover awkwardly in the room for a moment, and then he says, "You know, I never asked. Did you know him?"
This time, Mark doesn't need to ask who.
He shifts his weight. "I work at Pizza My Heart," he goes, flat. "I know everybody who works at Facebook."
This, for some reason, makes Eduardo laugh; a short, joyless noise. "Yeah, I thought getting a straight answer out of you might be asking for too much," he goes, and does that thing he used to do when Mark first met him (well, re-met him,) where he rubs at his temples like all of this is too much for him to handle.
Mark drifts over, uncertain, sitting down on the other end of the couch; barely, hovering uncomfortably on the edge of the cushion.
"Do you..." he starts, sounding too abrupt and too damn monotonous to his own ears, what else is new, Mark, come on. He turns his head to look at Eduardo and just asks it -- "what's going to happen to Facebook now, Eduardo?" -- because he doesn't have any say over it anymore. It's not his.
Eduardo groans, rocking forward to bury his head in his hands, fingers clenching around tufts of it. His spine curves in a defeated bend. "I can't tell you how much I don't care about that right now, Christopher," he goes. "Later. I'll deal with Facebook -- just, later, okay?"
"Right," says Mark, looking down at his socks.
The silence stretches out around them; across from them, the window's open, and the cross-breeze sends the curtains fluttering in some gossamer pantomime of breathing. Somewhere in the distance, a lawn mower goes droning away. A car with bad brakes squeals to a stop at the stop sign at the end of the lane. Eduardo rocks back and forth minutely, head still buried in his hands.
"Are you okay?"
Eduardo makes a wounded noise, not surfacing.
"Do you think," comes up, muffled. "That it's possible to love someone once they're dead?"
Mark's heart stutters inside his chest, tripping over itself, and then starts hammering, louder than it ever has before.
"I think it's easiest to love someone when they're dead," he hears himself reply, voice steady. "It's not like they're around to annoy you by living."
Laughter chokes out of Eduardo, and he finally lets his hands fall, lifting his head up. It's the same broken, shattered look he had earlier, outside the Facebook offices, the one that made the laptop-smashing Eduardo of his memory seem almost cheerful. He scoots closer automatically, touching his fingertips to the shoulder seam of Eduardo's dress shirt. He feels, suddenly, completely out of his depth, because he's seen the professional secretary-turned-CEO face of Eduardo for so long that he's forgotten he feels things this acutely.
"Did you know," goes Eduardo, keeping his voice down to a whisper so that it doesn't shake. He huffs another laugh, and looks off into some middle distance. "Did you know that ever since I was a child, my mother has made sure to tell me and my sisters that she loved us. Every single day, she'd tell us. Every single day, no matter what had happened, no matter if we were fighting, no matter if we were separated by half the globe or almost out of minutes on our phone card, she would always call and tell us, just in case." He reaches up, wrapping his fingers around Mark's wrist and giving it a brief squeeze. "Just in case we never saw each other again. Just in case it was the last time."
Outside, a car horn blares, and Mark's on his feet before he registers moving, crossing the living room to yank the window shut.
He flicks the catch, and then freezes when he hears Eduardo go, quiet and cracked, "do you think anybody told Mark that they loved him, before he got killed?"
Mark turns slowly, his fingertips gone numb and his brain full of static.
Eduardo meets his gaze, his eyes red-rimmed and his mouth a wobbly shape. He spreads out his hands imploringly. "That's what I can't stop wondering. That's what's so horrible about this whole thing. Christopher, was there anyone who loved him enough to tell him they loved him every day of his life, just in case?"
The words hit him like individual blows to the sternum, too close, and he twists his head away sharply, blinking.
"God, I'm sorry," Eduardo tells him on an exhale; Mark sees him duck his head back down in his peripheral, wiping at his cheeks with the heels of his hand. "I don't mean to dump this on you. It kept me up at night, and I was starting to deal with it, and then this happened," he waves a hand around vaguely. "Thiel. God, how many hours did we spend sitting across from each other in the boardroom, trying to keep Mark's company together, the one thing Mark loved above everything else, everyone else, and he--" He cuts off, like the words just don't exist.
It goes right through Mark, then, as crystalline and clear as a bell jar, as sunlight on ice, and unfurls underneath his ribcage, swelling against his bones like it does when he has a particularly brilliant idea. The best ideas, the ones on par with, how about we take the entire social experience of college and put it online?
He looks at Eduardo, shocked speechless, and he thinks, someone misses Mark Zuckerberg.
He thinks, Someone cared enough about Mark Zuckerberg to lose sleep over whether or not he was alone when he died. Someone is crying for Mark Zuckerberg.
Someone is crying for you.
No one, no one, he realizes, not once since that last time he laid eyes on his littlest sister outside his house, crumpled and sobbing on the sidewalk, has he seen anyone actually grieving for him.
He's across the living room in a few short steps. Ungainly, impatient with it, he plants his knee down on the coffee table, balanced between two precarious piles of mail and almost knocking a mug off its coaster, and he lunges forward, hooking his fingers around Eduardo's face and pulling it up. He has just enough time to look him in the eyes and think, nonsensically, that he knows practically everything about Eduardo but he doesn't know what he tastes like, before he seizes his mouth for a kiss.
Eduardo makes a muffled, startled noise against Mark's lips, hands frozen somewhere in the air between them like they've been shot. Both of them have their eyes open for this; his features are too close for Mark to see clearly, broken and fractal and repeating like mirrors.
He kisses Eduardo again, because he can't not, not now, and this time --
Eduardo surges up for the return kiss, caging Mark's face between his hands to hold him still for it, and kisses him deep, achingly deep, so deep Mark can't taste or feel anything else. Eduardo, who used to be his CFO. Eduardo, whose general existence Mark used to forget for days at a time, how could he have ever forgotten. Eduardo, who misses him.
Eventually, Eduardo stops kissing him, but only because Mark's talking, mumbling, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't know," over, and it's clear from Eduardo's soft, quick, "it's okay, it's okay," that he has no idea what Mark's apologizing for, but it doesn't matter, because he needs to say it, needs to as much as he needs to kiss Eduardo right now, the two needs are intertwined.
They're both on their feet, Mark somehow now on the sofa side of the coffee table and standing squarely in Eduardo's space.
"Are you --" Eduardo starts, tripping over it like there are a dozen and one questions that could finish that.
"Yes," Mark answers, to every single one of them. He grabs Eduardo by the hips and kisses him again.
They don't actually getting around to having sex. Not then.
They get as far as the bedroom -- technically, as far as just inside the door, before Eduardo's foot catches at his laptop power cord and he goes sprawling, dragging Mark with him down onto the carpet -- and then it's just too much effort to get back up again, not worth fighting gravity, not really, not when it's got them tangled on the floor like this.
Just as Mark is thinking of throwing a leg around the back of Eduardo's thighs to hike them up together, it strikes him just how bizarre this is, being here; Mark, hiding behind an identity stolen from an A.A. Milne novel because he's dead and he's not supposed to be fraternizing with people he knew before death and now he's pinned underneath Eduardo Saverin, the co-founder and co-inheritor of Facebook. He's his former best friend and Eduardo doesn't even know that; he thinks he's playing tonsil hockey with the pizza boy, whose greatest achievement to date is graduating from high school and successfully selling a pan-crust pizza the size of a wading pool.
He starts laughing, uncontrolled and shaking, which kills the mood shortly thereafter, because Eduardo joins in and then they just lie there like that; stomachs cramping up and laughing so hard they're without audio by this point, breathlessly giddy on a carpet that hasn't seen a vacuum in awhile, judging by the grit that collects on Mark's palms.
"Bad timing," Eduardo's mumbling, nonsensical between giggles. "Oh, such bad timing, shit, what are we doing."
And yeah, he briefly wonders if making out like this is somehow an insult to Mark Zuckerberg's memory, when the tears aren't even completely dry on Eduardo's face, before he remembers that he is Mark Zuckerberg, and he's too busy at the moment to be insulted, therefore it doesn't matter.
So he props himself up and goes back to kissing Eduardo like he'd die if they stopped.
And that, he finds, takes up enough of his concentration; the way his mouth and Eduardo's move, in and out and around each other, catching, dragging, pulling. Mark snatches up Eduardo's jaw in one hand, holding him still to be kissed deeper, and then there's that, too -- his thumb, Eduardo's cheekbone, his fingers, Eduardo's temple and the corner of his eye, all the things he's never had under his hands in his life, and why didn't anyone tell him before, just how easy it is to lose so much time and mind and heart in touching?
Not to touch someone because they're about to die, but touch them because they are alive.
Holy shit, this is Eduardo.
When Mark draws away, his mouth feels puffy, oversensitive, like it doesn't quite belong to his face anymore. He breathes out through raw lips, and Eduardo lifts a hand to drag his fingertips across them.
"Christopher," he goes on an exhale, and the way he says the name makes the corners of his eyes crinkle, a near smile.
But it jolts through Mark, shock-wrong like electrocuting himself trying to find the plug adapter in the dark, like he'd been expecting to hear a different name entirely, and he pulls back, leaving Eduardo's fingers to hover in midair, a question.
Do better this time, hisses that insidious voice in the back of his mind.
Mark darts his eyes sideways, taking in the unfamiliar surroundings for the first time and blinking away the light. He clears his throat, meeting Eduardo's gaze and saying, "I should ..." with a gesture over his shoulder that could mean anything.
Eduardo drops his hand and sits up, and just like that, they aren't touching anymore. Mark suddenly feels sober, locked in his own skin -- or, at least, the skin he borrowed and called by a different name. Mark Zuckerberg cannot, should not, kiss his best friend, he realizes, cannot sit here and be this man because one of his most loyal shareholders murdered him, and his body is rotting in a Jewish cemetery in New York. He is dead and buried and Christopher Robin cannot be him.
It seems a lot less amusing now.
He sighs, rolling to his feet to get away from that thought, and retreats. He's got that mussed-up feeling of someone who's been rolling around with somebody else's hands on them, and now he just wants to go home.
The house that Eduardo bought still looks caught in that midway point between two owners, less like a home that somebody owns and more like someplace Eduardo temporarily set up camp in. The chest of drawers in the bedroom will be empty, Mark's willing to bet: he saw the suitcase still open on the bedside chair, the suits hung up on the closet door. The wallpaper in the hallway is something he'd expect from Tilly's house: an enormous floral pattern that makes the furniture seem shrunken and claustrophobic. Somehow, it doesn't seem like Eduardo's style.
In the kitchen, he tugs his sneakers up on over his heels, laces too knotted to come undone.
Eduardo leans against the doorway. He's breathing through his mouth, which only brings Mark's attention to how swollen and red his lips look, parted as they are.
"So!" Eduardo interjects awkwardly into the quiet, like he doesn't even have to ask why Mark is clearing out. "I will ... see you tomorrow?"
Mark pulls at the tongues of his sneakers and stands. "Of course," he goes with a firm jerk of his chin. He draws a deep breath, thinking, what would Christopher say? "And about your friend. I ... I, um, apologize for my timing, what with everything that --"
Strangely, this takes the tension out of Eduardo's shoulders, and he laughs, holding up a hand to cut Mark off. "Stop while you're ahead," he goes, stepping up to him, and there's something about the way he says that, lowly amused and tolerant and suddenly, for one bright moment, looking exactly like the Eduardo Mark knew at Harvard, quick to smile and easy to please, that he forgets himself and closes the distance almost entirely against his will, snatching the front of Eduardo's shirt and pulling him into a sound kiss, because he wants to, everything else be damned, and that's something entirely new.
Huh, he thinks when the kiss breaks.
And then, shit, I'm a dead undead man.
"Get some sleep," he goes, brusque, stroking his thumb against Eduardo's jaw in a deliberate gesture before he turns to the door. "I imagine you're going to have a long day tomorrow."
But he doesn't see Eduardo the next day. Or the day after that. Or the rest of the week, to be perfectly honest.
Mark gives him the benefit of the doubt, because law enforcement catches up to Peter Thiel in a ski resort in Vermont, and the arrest makes national television; Mark stands behind the counter at work and watches CNN play the footage on loop, Thiel's silver head ducking down into the back of a squad car, the scenic mountains spread behind him. He can't hear what the newscaster is saying, and follows only enough of the closed captioning to learn that they're talking about the potential defense Thiel's going to mount.
He can't use his own lawyers, of course, because they're being held for questioning as suspects and accomplices, and Mark finds he doesn't care what defense attorney leaps for a high-profile case like this. He has no respect for anyone who would want to take on someone like Thiel.
Do you know what it's like? he thinks, eyes tracking the newscaster's expressions when they flash back to her. She straightens the papers in front of her and nods in response to a question, eyes narrowed in thought before she launches into a response about the possibility that, with the right defense throwing the right people under the bus, a rich, protected man like Thiel could walk. Do you know what it's like, to wake up dead in your own office and to see your brains and blood splattered across your carpet? Do you know what it's like to know that's it, you're never going to finish that development project for profiles, you're never going to tease your sisters as they grow up, you're never going to get married, you're never going to be so in love that you'll go three blocks out of your way every day just to sit with someone for half an hour?
"Peter Thiel took that from me," he whispers up at the television, the sound of it lost in the din of the lunch crowd. "All of that, for the one thing I couldn't have cared less about -- the money. Don't tell me there's a way to defend that."
Facebook becomes a media madhouse, unsurprisingly, which is good for the pizza business but bad for Mark's temper.
Sancha clues in after the third day, catching the way he keeps glancing at CNN and clenching his jaw hard enough to crack walnuts, and she grabs the remote from behind the cash register and switches to Two and a Half Man.
"I'd rather look at the misogynistic worm of a human being that is Charlie Sheen than hear another word about Mark Zuckerberg," she tells him, as he cracks open a new roll of quarters with more force than is probably necessary. They both glance across the store, where two teams of reporters and their cameramen are gathered around two deep-dish hamburger pizzas, and she adds, quietly, "I wish they would just let the poor man rest."
The look he gives her then is probably ridiculously, humiliatingly grateful, but he doesn't care.
He goes to sit at the University Cafe day after day, bouncing his leg by himself and pushing plausible deniability to its breaking point. At the end of the week, they run a segment on Pomona Graham, which Mark cannot watch without feeling sick. It doesn't matter how many souls he reaps, he doubts he's going to forget that she's dead because she was in the way of someone who meant to kill Mark.
And he doesn't see Eduardo.
And, right, okay, that's not surprising, what with everything that's currently going on; it's probably difficult for Eduardo, or Dustin, or Sean to go anywhere right now. And technically, Mark's not even supposed to see him. One of the rules of being a reaper: you don't contact the people from your old life, and Mark's been ignoring that one since the moment he saw Eduardo's reflection in the bathroom in Redwood City. Technically, Eduardo contacted him, he keeps on telling himself, which, whatever.
Stop it, he thinks on Friday, sitting down on the curb in the middle of suburbia after releasing a reap's soul, waiting for her to die. He's your best friend and he thinks you're dead. It's probably better this way. You should not have this homing device in your brain that says, oh, hey, how can we fuck over Eduardo Saverin today, so stop it.
It's a busy, sunshine-bright day, and there are kids racing around someone's postage-stamp sized yard, kicking a soccer ball around with more enthusiasm than any attempt at organized sport, and a couple men in jewel-tone dress shirts lingering at the bottom of a cracked driveway, chatting amicably, and then there's K. Morgan, digging through her backpack looking for something with her bike propped up against the fence next to her.
A man in a Santa Cruz shirt comes out onto the porch, laughing and waving a small, pocket-sized book. K. Morgan turns around at the sound of his voice, her whole face lighting up at the sight of what he's holding, and then she runs back up, taking the stairs in a single bound so she can wrestle it from him. They tussle at the top of the steps, until she gets a good kick in and wrenches it from his hands.
She's still laughing triumphantly over her shoulder as she flies back to her bike, snatching it up by the handlebars and pushes off into the street, right as a beat-up old Buick comes speeding through the stop sign.
The little book lands cover-up on the pavement in front of Mark, skidding a little bit with momentum. Travel Guide to: Paris, he reads upside down. He picks it up and wipes the blood off on the grass.
Standing up, he tucks the book into the pocket of his jacket, where it stretches out the fabric. He walks away. The Buick's hood is crumpled up like a rug, its horn wailing loud and continuous from the impact. The kids have scattered, ball lying forgotten in the grass.
A pair of footsteps fall in beside him.
"Hello, Keisha," he says quietly.
"Hello, Mark," she replies.
Behind them, the man who'd fought her for the book is screaming, wordless and terrified and hoarse with fear. Mark doesn't know who he is: Keisha's brother or lover or cousin or friend, it doesn't matter, because grief for a loved one is the same no matter who it comes from. "Oh god oh god Keisha," he moans out finally, like he's the one who suffered the mortal wound. "Keisha, hang in there, okay? We're calling an ambulance, you'll be all right."
Mark thumbs at the corner of the pages of the travel guide in his pocket. He doesn't turn around to look.
The man's voice is cracking, wavering, less a scream now and more of a plea. "Hey, hey, come on, stay with me. Stay with me, Keisha."
But Keisha's already gone, walking ghost-silent next to Mark. She looks back, because that's what people do, and her throat works.
"Did you ever talk to Kevin?" Mark asks her, because weirdly enough, it's one of those things he always wondered. Multi-billion dollar company left behind, and one of the things he dwells on at length is whether or not the little weak-chinned intern ever confessed his crush.
"Kevin?" Keisha's brows come down. "Wait, Kevin from Legal? Oh, he's nice. He'll share his Chinese food with me sometimes at lunch, even though I'm supposed to stick to those silly 100-calorie packs. Don't tell him," she grins enough to show teeth. "But I really look forward to the days he orders Chinese. Why'd you ask, though?" Confusion clouds her face. "Boss-man, please don't tell me you're haunting the offices, that is so creepy."
"It doesn't work like that," Mark says dryly. "Though not for lack of trying."
"Color me shocked," she lifts her palms up. "Okay. Seriously, what was I supposed to talk to Kevin about?"
Mark already has his answer, but he shrugs. "He was in love with you," he says, and Keisha stops dead in her tracks. He stops too, looking back at her, and at the expression on her face, adds, "We all knew."
"Did you?" Keisha says, very soft, and then she stamps her foot, face turning blotchy and livid. "Well, how was I supposed to know? He never said anything. You never said anything! How does anyone know if you don't just come out and say it!"
Mark steps up to her, and -- not even knowing what he's doing until he's doing it because this is so not what he does -- wraps her up in a hug. She makes a choked, startled noise, because Mark has not come within five feet of her since he shook her hand when she first started working on Facebook.
And then she hugs him back, quickly, like she thinks he's going to pull away, and she says in a little mournful whisper, "We're dead, Mark. We're dead, and no one was brave enough to tell us they loved us when we were alive."
"I know." And then he does pull back, offering her a smile. "Come on, you've got somewhere you need to go."
"Do you think there will be heartbreak there?" she wants to know.
"For you? No."
She doesn't look back this time.
Mark's known for awhile that what Kawali gives them isn't all the information he receives from Upper Management about the people they have to reap, but it didn't seem all that important, since name, place, and ETD were more than enough to get by.
"Anything else and you might start empathizing," he tells them when he loads the pertinent information. "And that's dangerous. You need to be professional no matter who the reap is. I don't care what kind of jobs you've had before, it was nothing compared to what you got now. You need to be professional here, because people are dying."
So when Mark, letting himself into the empty library late one night -- so late that it's more morning now; even the insects have fallen quiet and the books on the shelves are indistinguishable from the darkness, tucked into their silent, immobile little worlds -- finds in Kawali's card catalogue (which he's very bad about keeping out of reach of reapers who can't sleep) a floppy titled "Dep. External Influence: Last Thoughts," it all comes rushing back to him, the idea that there's more to being a grim reaper than what Kawali gives them.
Unable to curb his curiosity, Mark turns to the old dinosaur Macs, turning the floppy disk over in his hands as he waits for one of them to boot up.
"What's the point," he asks out loud, keeping his voice down to a whisper because that's what you do in a library at night. "Of knowing what a person thinks right before they die? That sounds counterproductive, and depressing."
The floppy disk, unsurprisingly, doesn't reply, and so Mark shoves it into the slot in the Mac.
"Oh, holy shit," he breathes a moment later, because it isn't so much a list as it is an archive.
There are so many names, so, so, so many names that the scroll wheel narrows down to the thinnest sliver, and this has to be a voodoo'd floppy disk, because there's no way it has that kind of memory space for a file this large. The dates on here go back to the sixteenth century.
He scans a few, overwhelmed by the multitude -- first initial, last name, date, and the very last thought they ever had before they died.
Many of them, he notices, are questions. Why? Why me? What's going on? Why are you doing this? What's going to happen now?
A lot of them are regrets. I should have told her. I should have never trusted you. I should have given the chicken to Matilda (Mark blinks at that one.) I shouldn't have been rushing. I should have seen this coming.
"This is depressing," he mutters, and then he does what every person does when confronted with a long list of people: he opens a Command+F prompt and fills in his own name.
There are three Zuckerbergs who have died in the West Bay Area since the sixteenth century, which makes Mark momentarily glad for having an obscure last name, before he realizes that one of them is an R. Zuckerberg, who will die in 2015 and whose last thought will be, well, this is ironic.
Mark's hands clench into fists of their own accord, because one of his little sisters shares that initial, and this better not be her or Mark will rain holy hell down on Death itself, he doesn't even care how extremely fired that will get him, because this isn't how it's supposed to work. His mother, his father, the sisters so close to him in age they got called Irish triplets all through their childhood, and then his littlest sister who loved him best -- none of them are allowed to die, not for years. They're supposed to die at an old age, in their beds, peaceful and without surprise.
That's the cosmic trade-off, Mark thinks, gritting his teeth. Are you listening? I was the one who died young and violently -- that's not allowed to happen to my family! Don't you think I earned that much?
The library is silent.
Listed right above that R. Zuckerberg who better not be related is M. Zuckerberg, who died April 15, 6:29 AM.
His last thought was: I can do better than this.
His fingers move of their own accord, filling more names into the flickering search bar.
Of the two Kawika'ainas that died on November 1, 1951, there's a K and an L. Their last thoughts were the same: I love you.
T. Tibbs, 1971. I'll do anything, just make it stop. She'd been mauled by dogs, Mark remembers.
J. Moore, 2005. If you try to kill me, you yellow-eyed bastard, I will rip your spleen out through your nose.
Mackey's last thought was, are you fucking kidding me? which sounds so like him that Mark's startled into laughter, sharp and loud in the graveside silence of the library.
Keisha. I'll miss this when you leave.
The list goes into the future by at least a couple years, he knows, and hesitates a little bit, fingertips just barely flirting along the edges of the keys. He's only gotten the first three letters of Saverin typed in before a voice speaks up from behind him, "He's not going to walk, little man."
Mark jumps clear out of his skin, because how can a man as heavy-set as Kawali manage to walk up so silently in the dead of night? He spins around in his seat, heart thundering in his ears and fingers knuckle-white on the chair back.
"What?" he goes, brilliantly.
Kawali gives him a patient look, standing at the end of the table. "The corporate haole man. He's getting charged with your murder and he's going to serve the time for it, I've made sure."
He's talking about Thiel, Mark realizes, and he blinks.
"How --" he starts.
The light bulb goes on.
Mark feels his eyes double in size. "It was you!" he exclaims, pointing a finger at Kawali and flying up out of his chair. "You were the anonymous tip! I saw you that day I took pizzas to the Facebook offices -- you weren't there because you wanted Pomona Graham's key, you wanted to follow up on your investigation into the day I was killed. You figured out that it was Maurice with the baseball bat, and Peter Thiel hired him to take a hit on me, and you gave that evidence to the cops!"
And, as if the motor movement of his mouth sends all the wheels in his brain turning, something else suddenly makes sense. "And the little girl!" he goes, tripping over it in his haste. He knows he's right. "The little girl who was murdered in the woods, the one with the unicorn, you got that guy too, and then the --" more of them click into place, all the anonymous tips sent into the county sheriff's office over the years, the ones that made the paper, that Jessica pointed out to them every morning, going, hey, these were our reaps.
The West Bay has the highest rate of solved murders in the entire state.
Justice for all the victims that their team had to watch die.
"You solve them," he concludes, looking at Kawali with something like wonder.
Kawali ducks his head, lifting his broad, quarterback shoulders in a surprisingly shy gesture, kind of like, ah, shucks.
"Why?" Mark breathes.
Walking over, Kawali pulls out the chair next to Mark and sits down, gesturing that he should do the same. He doesn't say anything for a long moment, looking Mark up and down, and just as Mark is getting impatient, he reaches into the breast pocket of his shirt, taking out a small, folded piece of paper. He holds it out.
Mark unfolds it gingerly, noting that the creases are as fragile as gossamer, well-worn from handling.
It's a sketch of a woman, all dark-haired Pacific Islander like Kawali, thick-browed and full-mouthed. Her eyes are enormous, black, the corners of them smudged, like maybe Kawali ran his fingertips over them too often.
"I don't have any photographs," Kawali goes, heavy like a confession. "Nothing of ours survived, so I asked one of the sketch artists at the precinct if they could draw it up for me as a favor. The one thing I never wanted was to forget her face."
"Is this ..." Mark trails off.
"My wife," Kawali confirms. "Her name's Lehua. We died together," which Mark already knew, and they must have had time to realize what was going to happen to them, time enough to turn to each other and think the same thing. "We were on our way home -- Kona born and bred, you know, kama'aina through and through -- and just taking off from the Moffett airfield. The plane we were on was sabotaged: it went down on the beach. Murder, of course, but not intended for us." He shrugs, a bitter jerk of his shoulders. "We were collateral damage, not important. My wife got her lights. And I ..."
He shrugs again, as if to say, here I am.
"So I tracked down the guy that brought down our plane, and I made sure he went to jail. I had to do it for Lehua, but -- but, little man, it don't stop. It don't stop, and so I don't stop. As long as there are people getting killed on our watch, we're gonna guard their souls, and I'm gonna catch their killers. I don't think I can do anything else. I have to."
And Mark gets it; it's like the way he needs to hack into Facebook, not to meddle, not to haunt, just to see. Just to check. It's the same way he needs to see Eduardo's face and hear his voice, no matter how stupid or against the rules it is; he absolutely physically cannot stop himself.
"It bothers me, though," Kawali murmurs, speaking more to himself now. "It's been years, and the murder that keeps me awake on nights like this is Jessica's."
Mark sits up a little bit. "I always thought her apartment burned down by accident," he says. "But her last thought was directed at somebody with her."
"And they killed her," Kawali nods. "Impaled her on the ceiling and lit her on fire."
"Holy shit," goes Mark, horror going cold inside of him.
"I'm still looking. The evidence points to her boyfriend, but ..." he shakes his head. "I haven't been able to find him. He disappeared. I think she looks for him, too, but," he smiles here. "She's not supposed to, so don't tell her that we know."
Kawali studies him for another long moment, his expression somewhere between sympathetic and fond. He pulls himself out of his chair and claps Mark on the shoulder.
"Why don't you go home and go to sleep, little man?" he says gently. "We got your back. We'll watch over you."
"I know," says Mark, and he turns around to shut down the Mac.
Sancha doesn't give him any warning before she grabs him by the nipple as he walks past her towards the freezers, yanking him around in front of her. There's a fierce, pay attention gleam to her eyes.
"Ow," he complains, hands flying up to cup his nipple protectively when she lets him go. "You need to learn how to properly initiate human contact," he informs her plaintively, fully aware of the irony of Mark Zuckerberg lecturing anybody on socially acceptable behavior. "Haven't you ever heard of just, like, tapping somebody on the shoulder? I hear it works wonders."
She ignores this. "You," she jabs a finger into his sternum. "Are moping. Why are you moping?"
"I do not mope," Mark retorts, indignant.
She arches her eyebrows, politely dubious. She leans in to study Mark's face -- his eyes flick longingly behind her towards the freezers -- and she must see something there, because next, she drums her fingers on her hips and demands, "Okay, what's her name?"
Mark's head snaps back. "What?"
"Whatever girl is making your face all sad and hangdog. Wait, no," she frowns thoughtfully. "I don't actually that know for certain. I'm sorry for assuming -- crap, you'd think this is something I'd have learned about you by now. Um, his name? Or, or, shit, wait, are you ace, and am I totally putting my foot in my mouth right now? You kind of strike me as ace, to be perfectly honest. Not -- not that, like, I'm trying to jump to conclusions just because --"
She genuinely seems worried that she's insulted him, and he watches her chase herself in circles of political correctness before he takes pity on her and goes, "It's not what you think." He hasn't really given much thought to gay, straight, or asexual in terms of how they applied to him, because it hasn't seemed like the most important part of his identity. Girls are kind of amazing, he thinks; the way it feels to kiss their lip gloss off of them is probably one of Mark's favorite things, right up there between congratulations! your domain name has been registered, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
But Eduardo ... Mark could spend all of his spare time kissing Eduardo, no matter if the name on his tongue was Mark or Christopher, and be perfectly happy doing it. So ... what does that make him?
Shit. This was probably on one of Chris's flash cards.
He fumbles. "It isn't -- we're -- no, he's --"
Sancha's eyebrows flare up.
"Not what you think," Mark insists, and then something occurs to him. "Sancha," he drags out questioningly, giving her the fish-eye. "Are you trying to give me relationship advice?"
She tilts her chin up, like, and what's wrong with that? "Or sex advice," she admits blithely. "Depending on what, exactly, is disappointing you so hardcore."
"No," Mark heads her off, warningly. "First off, no. Secondly ... no. And thirdly, I am not taking sex advice from someone who uses Texts From Last Night as a source of inspiration."
She looks like she's going to snap back with something sarcastic, and then she tilts her head, conceding the point.
"Okay," she goes agreeably. "Just so we're clear. This 'he.' Is this problem with him a 'we have differing ideological world view points and I need to casually dispose of his body somewhere it won't be found' kind of problem, or is this problem with him more of the 'oh hey look where did my pants go' whenever you're around him variety."
"Can I just go and get some more cheese?" Mark says weakly, gesturing towards the freezers.
His reap that day falls later in the evening, past the time the train stops running and most businesses and restaurants have closed. Unintentionally, Mark gets there a full thirty minutes before the ETD, and finds himself standing across the street from the old, abandoned theater in Menlo Park, trying not to be too amused by the whole thing, because he's a grim reaper and he's haunting the haunted Menlo Park movie theater and it's almost as precious as the forced cannibalism story.
There's a ghost tale about the place, something Mark's only picked up bits and pieces of from listening in to some of his elderly neighbors and the folks in Natural Causes -- a lonely one-armed war veteran named Stanley bought the property in the late 50s and built a movie theater that played most Cannes Film Festival stuff and old black-and-whites, and he refused to let it go bankrupt, even when customers lost interest and a whole hoard of car dealerships tried to buy out the street. Even after he died, nobody bought it, as if they could still see him sitting in the box office, with his pinstripe vest and popcorn-seller's hat.
So here the theater stays, the facade coming apart and construction tape cordoned across the sidewalk, the windows broken and boarded up. It looks woebegone, forgotten, tucked ashamedly in between a Subway and a new-age Tibetan imports store, both freshly painted and bright.
He's still standing there when a flashy silver BMW pulls up to the curb and somebody gets out of the back seat, lanky and tripping over himself. The driver's voice floats out to Mark from the open door, covering up his concern with disbelief: "You sure this is what you want, Neems? Looks super-sketch to me."
Mark checks the inside of his arm.
1st tier, 7745 El Camino Real
It's close enough. The boy, Neems, is hanging onto the car frame, talking lowly and persuasively through the open door to the driver, so Mark pulls his sleeve back down and crosses the street. He taps him on the shoulder, pointing out that they're in a fire zone and the cops around this stretch of El Camino like to give tickets first, ask questions later, smiling his most bland, forgettable smile.
"I'll be fine," Neems says again to the driver, slamming the door shut on any further discussion. He stuffs his hands in his pockets, cantering slowly down the sidewalk, but it isn't until the car pulls away that he doubles back, hopping over the construction tape and pulling back one of the loose boards on the theater doors. He slithers his way inside, disappearing without a trace.
Mark pauses, leaning against the wall next to a "Coming Soon" poster for Jurassic Park: the Lost World.
He's thinking he's got it pegged as a drug deal gone wrong, or some kind of stupid gang initiation. So when a long-haired girl in flare jeans, high school age and carrying a thick heavy tome of The Art of Marvel's Mighty Thor tucked under her arm, comes to stand on the curb, he doesn't make the connection right away, not until he spots tiny, elderly Tilly come out of the alleyway.
She hobbles her way up to the girl, saying in her soft-spoken voice, "Excuse me, you dropped this," and hands her something that looks like a bus pass. It's too dark to see if she flushes, but the girl ducks her head, stammering something. Under her skin, her soul glows freely, and she pockets the card, slipping into the haunted theater after Neems.
Oh, thinks Mark.
Tilly walks over to him and slips her arm through his. "Well, dear," she goes. "Shall we?"
Inside the theater lobby, the paint's peeled off the walls in long strips, and huge chunks of the carpet are missing, thick and choked with dust. The candy cases are burst, the glass shards crunching underfoot, and unintelligible graffiti streaks the walls behind them. Just inside the heavy, swinging theater doors, they can hear Neems and the girl talking, halting and breathlessly brave, like conversation with the other is the most daring thing they can dream, so Tilly nudges him and points silently towards the stairs.
The haunted theater has two levels of seats like an old amphitheater, and there are balcony booths, too, all along the sides, like where Mark imagines royalty might sit, or like the kind Abraham Lincoln got shot in. It's to one of these that Tilly leads him, and they settle themselves into seats with padding that has mostly rotted away. They have a clear view of the girl and Neems down below, bent over her book.
He tucks a lock of her hair behind her ear, and her voice stutters.
Sitting next to Tilly and watching her toes dangle above the gritty floor, Mark realizes he hasn't ever spent any time with her alone before. He doesn't know much about her; she was mauled by dogs in 1971, she's a librarian with stiff joints, so the library is the easiest place to meet and get assignments. Although she's older than Kawali, she died later, so he still has more experience than she does, and she seems, at most, amusedly perplexed by Mark's general fame ("your infamy, Mark, don't flatter yourself, I've read your Wikipedia," Jessica says,) and she always has something nice to say to her reaps.
When he glances at her, he finds her looking right back, her eyes twinkling.
"I suppose," she goes in a quiet undertone. "This is the part where I wisely advise you about matters of the undeath, and warn you off that boy you're seeing."
He fixes her with a scowl. "You and Sancha both," he mutters rebelliously. "There is no boy." In his head, Eduardo doesn't register as just that boy or this particular 'he', or anything that needs mentioning of any kind, thank you very much. People need to stop meddling.
Tilly "hmm"s in the back of her throat, but she doesn't immediately try to contradict him. Instead, she looks down at her lap, turning her hands over and running her thumb over her age spots, as if they're dirt she could scrub away with enough force.
"That's the thing about getting older, I suppose," she says offhandedly. "Is I've had so much longer to live than all you did, so believe me when I tell you that from here on out, it's just one long inevitable slide of loss. The people you know will get older, and they will die. Some earlier than others. And that's one more person you will never see again, never talk to, never hear about. Until suddenly, you're the only one left. So no, Mark Zuckerberg, I will never fault you for wanting to be this man's friend. Not while you still can."
She looks over at him. Her hair is thinning on top, he notes, but it's still long, white, and pinned away from her eyes with a heavy silver barrette.
"I think you know what I'm talking about," she says. "Those who gain will also lose, and those who lose will also gain. I think it's fair that you, who have lost your fortune, your company, and your life, should at least get to gain a love."
Mark automatically opens his mouth to protest, but she cuts him off by holding up her hand.
"Please don't insult the both of us by trying to deny it," and Mark's mouth snaps shut again. "No matter what we tell each other, there's always something from our old lives that we can't let go," she informs him with a quiet certainty. "There's always some rule we're driven to break. It's why they're rules, I think -- to warn us how much it'll cost us."
Down below, the boy and the girl keep stealing glances at each other, like all they want to do is kiss, but neither of them are quite courageous enough to know how to take that risk. Neems curls her hair around his finger, wanting, and her grip on her book is white-knuckled.
You should kiss her, Mark thinks out to him, hoping somehow he'll be able to hear it. You should get to kiss her at least once before you die. Just to know.
He meets Tilly's eyes, light-colored as smoke even in the unlit theater.
"How long do you think we'll have to keep doing this?" he asks her, writing his name in the dust on the arm chair -- his real one and his reaper one. "Watching people lose and lose?"
"I have for forty years, and Pierre has been taking souls since the light bulb was the newfangled thing," she shrugs. "Young man, I'm in no rush to fill my quota. I don't think that's the way to look at it, as just some dead-end -- please excuse the pun -- job where we count the days until it's over. I have no interest in how long I'll be in this state, or what comes after." A sharp, sparkling laugh echoes up to them from below, and something softens around the corners of Tilly's mouth. "We already have the most important job anyone on this earth could possibly be charged with. We care for souls."
"We save them from feeling the pain of their death?" Mark guesses.
"Yes. We are not bodies that have a soul, Mark, we are souls that have a body. We are more than their expiration date, because we do not stop when our bodies stop -- we go on."
"Doesn't stop the hurt of loss, now, though, does it?" he breaks in. With a nod down to the lovers in the rusting old seats, "We love each other, and death can take that from us." He thinks of the way his sister sobbed in front of his house, crumpled on herself like if she went clawing at her own chest she'd find it empty, and the way Eduardo's voice cracked when he wondered if Mark had died knowing that somebody loved him.
Her fingers immediately curl around the fleshy part of his hand. "You know that's not true," she tells him, soft. "You are dead, and death has not stopped the way you love that young man. Death cannot even touch love."
"I -- I don't --" he tries.
She squeezes his hand until she has his eyes again.
"All love is true love, I think," she comments, her voice purposefully mild. "I mean, you feel it, don't you, so what possible reasoning could you attach to it to make it mean any less? What's important is that you feel it, not the reason why you feel it," she goes, the same way Mark always tried to explain to people how he and Eduardo became friends: you don't need an excuse to be friends. Maybe you don't need an excuse to love, either.
Is it really that easy?
She lets go of his hand, nodding, like she can see some of this play out.
"I like to think that love is the one thing we as souls bring to this world of flesh and material."
He casts her a wry glance. "I think you spend too much time in the library with your books."
"So do you," she returns knowingly. "We all have someone we love to the point of ruin, Mark. Someone we would destroy ourselves for without hesitation. Kawali loves his wife. Jessica loves that man she searches endlessly for. And you have yours."
He shifts, the rusty seat creaking with him, because isn't the point of loving someone to the point of ruin to have something to ruin? Mark refused to ruin Facebook for Eduardo. But then again, he didn't love the younger Eduardo the way he loves this one.
It's that thought that stops him, because even inside the privacy of his own head, it feels all-consuming.
Like an epiphany.
"Tilly --" he starts abruptly.
Her reply is instant. "I'll look out for the lovers, and see they get to where they're going. You should probably go."
It's like a jolt to the system, that permission, and Mark launches himself out of his chair. "Thank you," he goes, fervent and burning with it, and heads for the door. He's got his hand on the doorknob when something occurs to him, and he turns around, his shoes crunching loudly in the dirt.
"Tilly?" he asks.
In the gloom, he can see her profile, turned towards him. "Hmmm?"
"What about you? What does Tabitha Tibbs love to the point of ruin?"
Even in the dark and even from his distance, he catches the way her eyes fold up at the corners, an almost smile.
"My children," she answers, in a far-off, wistful voice, and suddenly, everything she said about the inevitable slope of loss makes sense. Mark's flesh crawls at the thought of his littlest sister growing up and not being to be there for a moment of it. It has to be a hundred times worse with your children. "Which is not something any of you have known; not you -- although why would you -- and not Jessica -- who was just a child, the poor dear -- and not even Kawali and his lovely wife. I ... oh," she murmurs. "I would have stopped Death itself for my children."
"Did you?" he blurts out before he can check himself.
This time, she cranes all the way around, so she can look right at him when she says, "To my everlasting regret, I did not."
She gazes at him, and he gazes at her, and they hold steady for a long, long moment, and Mark knows that they understand each other perfectly.
He feels kind of like a superhero, in the minutes and hours after he goes flying out of the abandoned theater, Tilly's words echoing in his ears. Like that moment you get a really good jump on a trampoline and it amazes you that you can do this, can propel yourself this high and stay suspended for so long, and Mark feels like Peter Parker just as he figures out that he has radioactive spider powers, can do things nobody else knows how to do. He's not helpless, he doesn't have to let this happen. This is something he can do.
The next day, he borrows Jessica's truck.
She won't let him take it until she's done with her reap for the day, so it's afternoon before she hands over her keys, looking wary and intrigued by turns.
And okay, so maybe he hasn't really driven in a long time, but it's fine. Once he accidentally reverses into a mailbox and gets that out of the way, it all comes back to him. His family had a four-car sedan that he learned to drive with, and then he got plenty of practice adjusting other people's cars for his needs, driving home drunk colleagues and his delirious assistants, and Jess's Ford pick-up sits higher up in traffic than he's used to, but as long as he doesn't unexpectedly come across any little old ladies he can't see, he'll be fine.
It's a Sunday, and when Mark pulls up to Eduardo's house, the neighborhood is weekend-quiet, the traffic on Middlefield slow and unhurried.
Eduardo himself is at the end of his driveway, bending over to pick up the Sunday paper. He's dressed in jeans and a shirt that don't quite go well together, but he still looks more presentable fetching the newspaper than Mark did even at high-profile business meetings. He lifts his head curiously when Mark swings the truck into the empty spot by the curb, without finesse or much consideration for the rules of parallel parking.
He rolls down the passenger side window and leans across the console to shout, "Get in, loser, we're going on a day trip."
For a beat, Eduardo just stands there, newspaper in hand, looking gobsmacked -- literally, like someone had come and smacked him right across the face.
It clears, and Eduardo glances behind him at the house, like he's doing a mental check to see if there's anything he needs in there or anything he'd rather be doing, before he obediently cuts across the lawn and yanks open the passenger side door.
"Paraphrasing Mean Girls at me, Christopher?" he goes, as if they're merely continuing some kind of conversation they started earlier. He tosses the newspaper down into the footwell. "Really?"
Mark shrugs, nonchalant. "You had sisters at an impressionable age when that movie came out, I had sisters at an impressionable age when that movie came out. These things happen. We acknowledge it and move on."
Swinging back out onto Middlefield, Mark hears Eduardo say from right next to him, "I didn't know you had a truck."
Eduardo looks amused, like Mark is something inexplicable and strange that just dropped out of the sky -- to be fair, he usually looks like that around Mark. "You stole a truck from Good Will?"
"No! I borrowed it from a friend. Now shut up and stop antagonizing your kidnapper."
He holds up his hands in acquiescence, chuckling, "just when I think I might have you figured out. Are all you pizza guys this unpredictable," and leaning his head against the passenger side window, like he's settling in for a nap.
Mark takes them west out of the valley, out of the sprawling megalopolis and into the classic California hills; spring-green and not quite golden yet, the cows grazing away right up against the fence. Eduardo sits up as they go past the reservoir, dark-deep and ethereal blue, saying, "I didn't know this was up here. I always meant to go exploring, but ..." Through the hills they go, and into the forests, where the redwood trees soar up to meet the sky like the ground has gotten too boring for them, and past That One Really Freaky Christmas Tree Farm with the Life-Size Wood Carvings of Famous Presidents that makes Eduardo's head crane around, laughing in disbelief.
Where Mark and Eduardo live is about an hour away from the coast, which is why he always rolls his eyes extra hard when relatives and Harvard psuedo-friends asks him how he likes the California beaches, because Mark's only been out there about twice in the entire time he's been living in Silicon Valley, and even then, forcibly against his will.
Eduardo reads him the Sunday comics, and then flips down a corner of his newspaper when they pass through Half-Moon Bay, a sleepy seaside town that's pretty much obliterated by fog nine months out of the year.
"Are you taking me to the beach? Really?" he goes interestedly, when Mark swings them onto a coastal access road, bumping over the dirt and sand. They can see the ocean; a slim, flat line of blue that smudges out the horizon. "I didn't take you to be much of a beach person."
"It's not one of my recreational hobbies, no," Mark replies, since that isn't exactly a lie -- the last time he came out this way, it was the dead of night and a bunch of kids buried their gullible class scapegoat and casually forgot to dig him back up again.
Mark pulls them into a vacant lot. The cold hits like a slap to the face as soon as he hops out of the truck, and this is another reason he always laughs when people asks him how he likes the beach -- you don't go swimming, or sun-bathing, or anything like that in northern California. Sometimes, you can surf, if you have a full-body wetsuit. If not, you wade up to your waist and then you try not to cry like a little bitch. Swimming off the northern California coast is a lot like running through the snowy Harvard commons in the middle of January, barefoot.
Eduardo follows him, crossing his arms over his chest as the wind howls through him, setting his hair to immediate disarray.
"Christopher?" he goes, and Mark doubles back to grab him by the hand, like a child.
Instead of leading him down the steep, rocky path down the beach, Mark tugs him along the cliff face, the rocks sharp and sloping under their feet. Over their shoulders, the sky and the sea come out in several different shades of grey -- it's hard to hear the surf over the sound of the wind.
He pulls them along, their hands warm against each other's, until he sees it; a dead lightning-struck tree, bent double and stripped bare to white by the sea winds. And just beyond it, there's an overlook, a deep crevasse cut into the cliff.
"This!" he announces proudly, tugging Eduardo to his side. In the narrow confines of the crevasse, the wind catches the sea spray and sends it twirling like a dust dervish, a pantomime of its own little weather system. The porous holes in the sides of the cliff make a sound almost like whistling, or singing, eerie and ghost-like. It's like looking at a world caught in a snow-globe.
"I know very little about California impresses you," Mark says out of the side of his mouth. "But there is this."
There's no response, and Mark looks over to find Eduardo looking right back, not even watching the wind tunnel show, his mouth quirked all to one side and his eyes soft.
"You are seriously one of the nicest people I know," he says, the words caught and snatched away from his mouth, but not before Mark jolts, startled, because that's not something Eduardo has ever said to him, ever. "Nobody else would have gone to all this trouble, just because I like the weather."
He opens his mouth to say, nastily, that's because I lost Facebook and, besides my family, you're the next best thing I have, so I might as well spend time on you, just to make Eduardo stop looking at him like that, but the wind picks up again, whistling a harmony over the holes in the rock.
They stay until their fingers go numb and a storm starts to roll in from the sea, heavy grey clouds tumbling over each other to reach the coastline. They pick their way back along the cliff until they reach the parking lot, and then Eduardo pauses, looking out towards the waves. He turns and offers Mark an enormous, shit-eating grin, before he snatches his hand from his and takes off, slip-sliding his way down the path to the beach. Mark goes to the edge and watches him shed his shirt and shuck out of his jeans, barely breaking stride as he runs head-long into the surf, the wings of his shoulders flexing as he disappears under the water.
He comes up again almost immediately, yelping about the cold.
The beach is mostly deserted except for a small party on horseback a ways away, plodding their way through the sand. Mark sits down on the rocks, folding his legs and watching as Eduardo dives back under; he's laughing when he surfaces again, loud and bright.
Mark sees the moment when the laughter goes a little hysterical and then turns to a rage, sees Eduardo lash out at the water in anger and fury, screaming; that laptop-smashing rage he never thought Eduardo was capable of until he saw it. He thinks at one point he hears, "he was my best friend, you asshole!", choked with grief and helplessness.
Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbles in response.
When Eduardo returns to him, pulling his shirt back on over his wet shoulders, the damp spots showing, he looks exhausted, but calmer, and Mark thinks that maybe the point of this trip wasn't to look at the weather after all.
"Holy shit, that water's cold," Eduardo tells him, breathless, smiling at the sight of Mark windswept and huddled up on the cliff like a tern.
"Yeah, welcome to northern California," Mark goes dryly.
They pick their way through the horse poop back to the truck, Eduardo quiet and Mark still turning over his words in his head, on an endless loop, you are the nicest person I know.
Nice isn't really an adjective that gets used in conjunction with Mark very often. To be fair, he makes a more concentrated effort to say nice things these days; first with the help of Chris's flash cards and then on his own power, but nice isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you're describing Mark Zuckerberg. Especially not if you're Eduardo; in fact, the nicest thing Mark could ever recall saying to him was all the way back in Harvard, one night when Mark was desperate to get his CS set done and Eduardo wanted a sympathetic ear about his latest break-up, and in a last-ditch attempt to get him to focus on something else, Mark swung around in his chair and said, look, if it's that important to you -- if you haven't found someone and are happily settled down by the time you're thirty-five, I will come and marry you. There, now you have incentive to go find somebody.
So no, nice and Mark didn't really get along.
Christopher Robin, though... He could probably afford to be nice. Christopher Robin might, in fact, be the nicest person in Eduardo's world now, he doesn't know.
"I kind of wish I could talk to him," Eduardo says suddenly. "Mark, I mean," and Mark's head snaps around like it always does when Eduardo says his real name. "Just to ... I don't know, I'd like to tell him about this," he gestures at the cliff and the beach and the sky. "I could never predict what he was going to say. That was half the fun of it, sometimes." Mark knows what the 'but' is in that statement, because half of Mark's unpredictability were remarks like, it probably was a diversity thing, knowing even as he said it that it was a dick thing to say and unable to stop himself.
However, Eduardo doesn't bring it up, like it's not the important part.
Instead, he tilts his head to one side and he says, "You remind me of him sometimes, you know," and Mark tries not to die of irony on the spot. "You possess a lot of the same good qualities and I swear you think like him, too ..." He trails off, and then blanches, like he's realizing what's coming out of his mouth. "Oh god, I'm sorry, that's all kind of psychologically screwed-up, isn't it, telling you I think you're attractive because you're a lot like my dead friend --"
And Mark shuts him up with a kiss.
Eduardo catches him by the back of the head and holds him there, fingers feathered through Mark's hair and his mouth tasting cold as seawater.
Mark pulls back, staying pressed up close against Eduardo, who, if anything, looks amused. Mark will take that over distant and grieving.
"Am I going to get a kiss every time I mention Mark around you?" he wants to know, and he could sound a little more smug about this, but he'd have to try pretty hard.
"That depends," Mark replies, voice low. "How about, every time you think you miss him, you kiss me."
Eduardo shrugs, "I'll always miss him," which Mark has known since he first went over to Eduardo's house the day Maurice confessed to murder; that Eduardo missed Mark more than Mark missed him, saw it again just now with Eduardo screaming abuse at the sea, but the enormity of it still takes him by surprise. You barely spoke five words to me after you signed a nondisclosure agreement saying you'd never say a bad word about me, he thinks, but as a kneejerk attempt to make it mean any less, it's feeble.
"Then you'll always be kissing me," he replies, with the same shrug, like it didn't matter either way. "And then every time you think of him, you'll think of kissing me, and it won't be so bad. Psychological conditioning, or something something something to that regard," he waves it off.
"I don't think grief works like that," but Eduardo's smiling, and leaning in so that their foreheads touch. Mark tilts into it, minutely.
"I'm so lucky I met you," Eduardo murmurs.
Mark retorts, "I deliver pizzas. Everyone's lucky to meet me."
Eduardo's fingers tighten in his hair. "Promise me something," he goes, serious now. "Christopher. Can you promise me that, in case something happens to you, that you'll always tell your friends what's important? So you'll never have anything that was left unsaid. Promise me --"
"I love you," Mark tells him, because he doesn't need any further prompting than that.
He can still hear Keisha saying, how is anyone supposed to know if you never tell them?
"In case you die," he says strongly. "You should know that."
And Eduardo looks at him, lightning-struck, his eyes wide and startled and dark as shipwrecks. And then his hands drop to Mark's hips and he pushes him back, one step, two step, around the front of Jessica's truck. One hand slips to the small of Mark's back, pulling him close, the other fumbling along the side of the truck for the door handle. Mark takes the hint and stretches the rest of the way to kiss him, so they're joined at the mouth when Eduardo gets the door open and pushes him into the backseat -- that tiny, little narrow space that they try to call a backseat, seriously, what's the point of having those if you can barely fit yourself into them?
The storm that had been threatening over their shoulders finally reaches land, and the rain starts, a light drumming on the roof of the cab, a tinny echo in the truck bed.
Mark is glad, all of a sudden, that they didn't rush this part before, no matter how awkward it had been to just get up and leave, because while it's slow and uncertain now, self-conscious and embarrassing the way it always is the first time you try to get someone naked, it's better this way; to get caught up somewhere between the urgency of getting their mouths on each other and caution.
They keep close, laughing into each other's mouths and tugging on each other's hair, and Mark watches the rain strike up against the windows, casting shadows across Eduardo's ribs and back, flickering and grey as ghosts.
They don't say anything this time around -- Eduardo doesn't say Christopher and Mark doesn't say Wardo, but it's not deliberate, the way they avoid saying the wrong names. They've always communicated better like this, the two of them not using words. They miscommunicate too much when they use words: there's a whole series of deposition documents that prove exactly that.
They communicate best at this level, Mark and Eduardo do, nonverbal and proximal; that understanding between two people who are so unalike in every way, except for the one that matters the most.
So the first time Mark Zuckerberg has sex with Eduardo Saverin, it's in the cab of somebody else's pick-up truck.
And because Mark is the epitome of classiness here, he slides into the front seat to fetch his phone out of the cup holder and texts Sancha, while Eduardo beats the sand out of his shoes, hanging out the passenger side, his cheeks still as warm and color-flushed as the rain-damp world around them. Mark texts one-handed, without looking, watching Eduardo instead. It's a visceral delight to look at him.
This is a smug guess who just got laid notification.
AHAHAHAHA, he gets back a short while later, his phone buzzing amongst his loose change. congratsonthesex.gif.
There's no actual .gif file attached to the text, though, so Mark assumes this is one of those pop culture references he's never going to understand unless he swallows his pride and goes to Google.
On the drive back, the roads hiss slick under the truck's wheels. The sun's out again, setting California-huge and low on the hills, which turns the water on the streets bright as mirrors and reduces visibility to almost nothing. Mark keeps his hands on ten and two, stays to the right because he can't see the lane dividers through the glare, and lets the more suicidal drivers take their chances: all the stupid people will live today, Mark knows, because none of their names were written down for him.
Eduardo sits next to him, hand shading his eyes, squinting out at the scenery. His feet are bare and still sandy, his shoes sitting in his lap. Mark steals glances at him at stoplights, because he's easier to look at than anything else.
They wind up at Eduardo's house without even discussing it, and Mark dogs Eduardo's steps all the way up the driveway and through the side door, stretching out a hand to stroke down his flank, ribs to hip. The look Eduardo throws him over his shoulder is dark-colored and sharp, catching at him as if he'd wound his fingers in Mark's collar.
So they fail to make it to the bed for the second time running, and wind up stretched out on the bedroom floor just inside the doorway, which is familiar enough to make Mark laugh.
"Hello, we meet again," he tells the carpet.
"Shut up," goes Eduardo, mutinous, and bites at his neck.
He drags the comforter down to join them and it becomes instantly more warm and comfortable, like children tucking themselves up in a fort. It's no effort at all, to wrap their arms around each other's necks so they can kiss without breathing, dizzy, turning, airless, and they don't get up for a very long time.
"Ugh, no," he mutters eventually, using his forearms to lever some distance between them. "Get off me for a second, I can't feel my mouth anymore."
And Eduardo laughs, dipping his head to brush against Mark's cheek with his nose, like, a nuzzle or something, god, Mark doesn't know, he just wants it.
"That's fine," Eduardo returns, looking red and beestung with kisses. "I need to go wash the sand off my feet anyway."
And he shifts sideways, rolling to his feet, and so maybe when Mark presses his lips together, they feel a little rubbery, like he's back in kindergarten and coated them in glue just to make everything he said feel weird and muted, but he doesn't actually want Eduardo to leave, not even to wash the sand off his feet.
He reaches out, snagging him by the ankle and thumbing the bone and the grit there. "I changed my mind," he goes rapidly. "Lie back down and kiss me some more."
And he's perfectly aware that he has all the sex appeal of one of those toothless lampreys they have in the Michigan lakes (that, at least, didn't change when he died,) so he's a little surprised when Eduardo one-eighties so fast he almost trips himself, and then it's fine because kissing Eduardo is better than anything that's not kissing Eduardo, really.
"Mmmphmm," he says approvingly.
Mark used to be a billionaire, but nothing he ever bought with that kind of money felt nearly as luxurious as this. His idea of the finer things in life includes eating tuna in a sandwich instead of out of a can, having reliable wifi and a good domain name and the resources to code exactly what he wants to, and a book with a plot he can't call from a mile away.
Which is why this feels so hedonistic, the most hedonistic thing he's ever done, to lie here on the floor with Eduardo, kissing with lips and tongue and teeth in turn, skating hands up and down each other because they were there to be touched, and it's nice, it's good, it's fantastic, and no other reason. To lie here and not think about getting up, not think about work, or food, or even clothing, once they actually got around to taking it off. Nothing in the world is more important right now then to stretch out on this fluffy comforter and wrap himself in Eduardo's skin and muscle and bones.
And okay, it's half sex and half, like, cuddling, and cuddling has never sounded appealing before -- he's always pictured, like, snuggling, and cooing, or something, and it creeped him out the way those motion-activated children's carousels in Super Target do when they light up and start playing carnival music when you walk past at some early hour of the morning -- but that's because nobody ever presented it to him like this: to have someone you love within arm's reach, content, and nothing being more important or more urgent than that.
He must doze off at some point, because when he wakes up it's to moonlight; a full moon, heavy and close to the earth, casting cages of light on the carpet and the mess of blanket. Eduardo's sitting on the windowsill, legs tossed lazily against the pane the same way he used to in Mark's Kirkland dorm, playing with the remote for the thermostat.
"Why don't you just open the window?" he wants to know, not even commenting on the fact that he has a remote for the thermostat, because he's pretty sure his old house had one too, somewhere.
"I like to control the climate in my own house," Eduardo replies, not even startled. "Now, shush, Christopher, I'm creating a temperature symphony."
Mark yawns his way through a laugh. He leaves him to it, because these are Eduardo's finer things in life, and rolls over to ball the comforter up under his chin, the wings of his shoulders still exposed to moonlight.
He drifts for awhile, listening to the thermostat beep and the air conditioner hum accordingly, until Eduardo suddenly blurts out, in the manner of someone who's been talking to themselves internally long enough that context doesn't matter, "Is it wrong to joke about a chicken at a funeral?"
Mark sits up.
"Because I did," Eduardo tells him seriously. "And it only just now occurred to me that maybe I should have said something more appropriate."
You went to my funeral, Mark realizes, because where else would it be inappropriate to joke about chickens, and the pressure of that thought makes his ribs feel tight, his mouth twitchy with the need to grin and never stop, and Mark beckons for Eduardo to get down here already.
This earns him a look, dark-eyed, and then he unfolds his legs, retreating from the window to come and press Mark onto his back some more.
He goes willingly, forgetting all about still being sweaty and gross and tangle-haired the instant Eduardo's fingers close around his wrists, stretching them up so that he's pinioned back into the blanket, spread mid-flight like a bird. Mark doesn't even have to crane up to get to his mouth; Eduardo comes to him, tongue curling in, demanding.
Is it possible, Mark thinks. For someone to be the love of your life if you're already dead?
"Will you stay?" Eduardo asks at one point, the softest murmur spoken into the dark, his mouth near Mark's cheek or neck or heart, it didn't matter, it was all the same; none of it feels like it belongs to Mark anymore, anyway, Eduardo could have it. "Will you stay? At least for a while?"
Mark thinks of that long-ago little girl, saying, are you an angel?
He thinks of Keisha, saying, no one was brave enough to tell us they loved us.
He thinks of Tilly, saying, we all have someone we love to the point of ruin.
And then he thinks of the decades he has left before he fills his quota of souls, fifty years or a hundred if Nikita and Pierre are anything to go by, and maybe Eduardo's life is only going to make up a small percentage of that, but goddamn, Mark does not want to miss a single year, a single month, a single moment, from this very second to the day his name appears in some reaper's ledger.
Yes, he thinks or mumbles or says, he has no idea. Yes, yes, this, I can do nothing better than this, this, the best of all things.
Eventually, they do make it to the bed, and this time, Mark learns that getting out of Eduardo's bed is so, so much harder than getting up from the floor.
"Hey, genius," Jessica calls when he comes into the library the next morning, running on maybe forty minutes of sleep and enough happy-making endorphins to kill a horse. She's stretched out across three chairs at their table like she's going for a tan, her sandals dangling from the tips of her toes, her legs extended over empty space. "Can I ask you something?"
Tilly interrupts before Mark can say anything, deliberately knocking Jessica's legs with the library cart so that she yanks them back with a stifled noise, "Only if you stop yelling in my library."
"Right," mumbles Jessica, prompted into sitting up and straddling the middle chair, arms wrapped around its back. "Sorry, Tilly."
Mark and Tilly exchange a smile as they pass each other; her eyes rake him head-to-toe, knowingly.
He takes the seat next to Jessica. "Your face tells me you're about to bitch at me," he informs her. "Let me preface it by defending myself -- I returned your truck to you. I didn't do anything untowards to it."
This earns him a mutinously arched brow. "Oh yeah?" she goes. "Then how come it reeks like sex?"
"Oh, god!" protests Kawali from one of the other computers. "Keike children, there are things I would rather not be discussing this early in the morning. Or, indeed, ever. Can you lot collect your reaps and take that conversation elsewhere?" He looks at them again and gives an exaggerated shudder, like the thought is making his skin crawl.
Mark hasn't even had time to take his backpack off, so he just steals Kawali's pen and writes his reap details on the back of his hand -- oh, hey, great, it's a 4am reap, set for the next morning. "Really?" he complains to Kawali. "San Andreas Lake -- that's, like, five minutes from SFO, can't the Frisco reapers take care of it?" No decent kind of public transportation operates at that hour, and it just doesn't seem right to have to set an alarm to wake him up at two in the morning.
"You're whining and I'm ignoring you," Kawali deadpans in response.
Mark scowls. Jessica's glaring at the side of his head, narrow-eyed and evil-looking, like she's wondering if it's possible to get rid of a grim reaper by dismembering them.
"Stop that," Mark tells her, hiking his backpack further up on his shoulder and heading for the door. "I'm not going to tell you anything. It's going with me to the grave. Oh!" he turns around, walking backwards. "Wait."
"Har har har," Jess drawls out sarcastically.
If Mark entertains even the smallest possibility of feeling guilty about defiling the cab of Jessica's truck, it vanishes at lunchtime, when he reaches the University Cafe the same time Eduardo does for once; Eduardo doesn't even stop walking, dropping his laptop case on one of the patio chairs without looking, and he catches Mark around the waist, almost pulling him right off his feet with the force of it. Like they haven't seen each other for months instead of all morning, he drags one hard kiss from Mark's mouth, and then another when it becomes apparent he's not letting Mark go. Someone wolf-whistles, and Mark hears another person's camera phone go off, and there are no words for just how much he does not care.
When they break apart and sit down at their table, the barista brings their favorite drinks out without them even needing to go up there and order them.
"On the house, boys," she goes, beaming at them with a smile so wide it's like her face is all teeth. "That was amazing."
Eduardo ducks his head, becoming shy and self-conscious one heady kiss too late, his cheeks so bright red they could probably stop traffic.
"Hi," he says to Mark, a little belatedly, and Mark laughs at him, head thrown back.
And if that wasn't enough, he gets another surprise at work later that week.
"Hey, Sancha?" he queries, standing at the kitchen door looking out across the main floor through the pane. "Can you cover for me for a minute?"
She looks up from saucing, her braid falling heavy against her hairnet. Something about the expression on his face makes her put the bowl down, and she comes over. "What is it?"
"See all the suits at table eight?" he goes, scooting to the side so they could share the narrow square of glass.
Up on tiptoes, she scans the room, curious, and then her eyes go comically wide. "That's Eduardo Saverin!" she says in a fierce whisper, like there's anyone around to overhear them. The only other person back here is the dishwasher, but his headphones are in and he's never given them the time of day anyway. "Didn't he become the CEO of Facebook after Mark Zuckerberg got his head whacked off?"
"Co-CEO," Mark corrects her, for once not even bothered by the whacking comment. "If there is such a thing. It's just ... he's never actually eaten in before. I know he knows where I work, but it's not like I was ever expecting him to come here and eat. He never showed interest in greasetastic pizza."
Sancha looks at him questioningly, and he watches as the gears turn behind those big brown eyes of hers, because no matter how good his poker face is, she usually can see right through it. It's why they're friends.
Moments later, it clicks.
Her jaw drops.
"Oh my god," she reels, her hands flying to clutch her head, the way people do when something overwhelms them. "Oh my god! Him? You're -- Eduardo Saverin is your boyfriend? Oh my god," she gasps, covering her mouth. "You're basically boning Facebook."
"... there are so many things wrong with that, I don't even --" He doesn't even get that sentence out before she flings her arms around him with a strangled, high-pitched noise, crushing him to her.
"Okay, okay!" he goes, as she squeezes him, still making that slightly terrifying noise like a tea kettle going off. "I get it, you're happy for me, now can you cover the kitchen for a second so I can go out and say hi?"
"No!" she says vehemently, releasing him and giving him a scandalized look. "At least pretend to make it look legitimate and not like you're canoodling with your boyfriend during work hours. Here," and she flies back to the window, fingering fast at the order sheets. "Yeah, I thought so, their order's almost up, so when it's done, how about you take it out to them? I can manage the kitchen, it's not going to kill me."
I hope you're right, Mark thinks, because she looks like she's about to have a conniption, she's so excited.
It's exactly what he does, though, pushing through the doors with the hot plates balanced on his arm, much to the bemusement of the wait staff. Eduardo looks up when he drops the food off at their table -- two deep-dish pizzas, one that apparently has every single artery-clogging meat known to man and one all cheese, the latter of which Mark puts in front of Eduardo on a hunch, since Eduardo's always been better than him at keeping kosher.
He slides onto the vinyl next to him, taking care to bump his hip in greeting.
Eduardo beams back, eyes crinkled up in the corners, and while he apparently has no compunction about kissing Mark right in the middle of the sidewalk on University Ave (which, what the hell, where did that come from and how did Mark not know about it before?), he at least has the good sense not to do it in front of business associates who have clearly offered him a large sum of money or will offer him a large sum of money shortly in a "drop the 'the'" kind of way, although his eyes flick briefly to Mark's mouth like he's thinking about it. It makes something go molten in the pit of Mark's stomach.
He's used to being underdressed in the company of professional business-types, but at least then he could dismiss his sartorial failings with his customary, "I'm CEO, bitch," and didn't have to wear a grease-splattered striped uniform, complete with the apron and hairnet. The two suits on the other side of the table stopped their headlong dive for the pizza as soon as he sat down, and now they're both looking at him questioningly.
Like he can hear them wondering, Eduardo puts a hand on Mark's shoulder and goes, "Meet Christopher. He's my secret weapon. Christopher, this is --"
"Caroline and Syed," Mark nods to one and then the other with a slight smile. "You're the representatives from StumbleUpon, am I right?"
"That's right," says Caroline, her smile warming up considerably.
The both of them glance back at Eduardo, who looks pleased, and for that expression alone, Mark is grateful he's met the two StumbleUpon reps before, so that he could have the opportunity to show off for Eduardo's benefit now.
"He has Wikipedia for a brain," Eduardo says by way of explanation.
"StumbleUpon already has a collaborative sharing option with Facebook, though, beyond the usual button," Mark points out. If only someone would get them to join forces with the Cheezburger network, they could have the ultimate brotherhood of Internet time-wasters. "I saw it go up earlier this year. What's this meeting about, if you don't mind my asking?"
Syed makes a face and washes down a bite of pizza with soda before he replies, "There's this guy we keep on running into at, like, events and things," he goes. "Patrick. Very determined, very ambitious, who keeps on talking about integrating both Stumble and Facebook into basic PC system software."
"Wait," goes Mark, frowning. "Are we talking about Hewlett-Packard Patrick, the head of manufacturing?" They nod, and Mark shakes his head quickly. "No. Don't sign anything with him, he's not to be trusted. He texts during cordial receptions and he thinks Janeway is a more badass captain than Picard."
"But she is," says Eduardo, soft, smiling at the side of his face. Mark thinks that smile might be stuck there; he hasn't seen it waver since he sat down.
"Blasphemer," he retorts, flat. "Get out of my pizzeria."
But it turns out the Stumble reps aren't going to take that one lying down, and they immediately launch themselves into the argument, which gets exhaustively thorough. Mark's expecting someone to put together a PowerPoint right there at the table. He leans into the conversation, setting a hand in the small of Eduardo's back; not possessively, not knowingly, but just the way he's always seen people do when they're sure of each other. That simple, easy touch that shows how glad you are that out of everyone on the dizzy, tilting earth, you met each other. The touch humans learned from the reapers.
Eduardo doesn't even so much as blink, too busy drawing Caroline into a discussion of how to politely tell the Picard-hating Patrick that they aren't interested, but Mark sees Syed take notice, his eyes tracking Mark's arm down to his hand, awareness dawning. He meets Mark's gaze, and does nothing but smile, completely distracted for a moment from the conversation, and Mark feels his own lips twitch in response.
And they sit there, the four of them, talking about Facebook and Star Trek in equal measure, until the pizza is gone.
Somehow, time passes like that; his life revolves around reaps, and work, and Eduardo's hands on his hips, the same way gravity pulls all things towards the earth.
Dustin's girlfriend, Tori, finds him on Facebook and sends him a Friend Request, which Mark accepts in a moment of oh-why-not and immediately regrets; the first thing she does is capslocks "POOH BEAR!!" all over his Wall, because while she identifies as female, she still has all the maturity of a twelve-year-old boy (or the overbearing sensibilities of a sixty-year-old spinster, he isn't sure.) And where Tori goes, Dustin follows, and before he knows it, Christopher Robin's News Feed is full of all the people Mark Zuckerberg liked best.
He's still kind of expecting retribution from Kawali, or maybe even Upper Management itself, because he doesn't think he's being particularly subtle, if the way Jessica keeps waggling her eyebrows every time she sees him and Tilly pats his shoulder in an absentminded atta-boy kind of way is anything to go by.
But apparently Death has bigger things to worry about than where and with whom Mark spends his free time, so one lazy Sunday afternoon finds Mark assembling a home office in one of Eduardo's empty rooms.
The style of the room hasn't really changed since the seventies. Nor, apparently, has it been dusted in that long either, and Mark spends nearly as much time sneezing as he does actually installing the desk, the chair, and the computer setup (Eduardo had expressed an interest in buying one of those bizarre named-after-a-feline Macs, which Mark's PC pride couldn't tolerate. Eduardo had given in under pressure.) He admits it's kind of a picturesque scene, with the thick, muffling carpet and the dust motes catching in the afternoon sun, but it doesn't stop his common sense from worrying about it clogging the filters.
Eduardo has a laptop that he usually works from when he's not in the offices -- it's in the bedroom, and the treacherous power cord is now a running joke. His explanation for wanting the home office was that if he was going to be working in Palo Alto full-time, he wanted to be able to do some of that work from home, and also he should probably make it look like somebody lived in his house.
At least, this is what he told Mark, but Mark had been there, watching Eduardo try to Skype with Divya Narendra and the apple-cheeked little Tanya, uncomfortably hunkered down in front of the laptop screen to see their faces better.
To anyone else, it's probably a frivolous reason to want a bigger desktop, but that's just kind of how Eduardo operates.
Mark spends a shameless amount of time in Eduardo's house these days. Eduardo has seen Mark's apartment in Los Altos approximately once -- long enough for them both to look at the economically compact space and lack of decoration, which by itself probably isn't that offensive, but not being allowed to flush the toilet or shower after 11 o'clock because the cheap piping would wake up everybody on the lower floors ... Eduardo had made some incredibly amusing faces trying to hide his disgust at the thought.
That's how we preserve water in California, Mark had laughed, tugging Eduardo back down with him and ignoring his wrinkled-nosed this is gross, Christopher.
And from then on, it's not even a contest of pride or privilege: they go to Eduardo's. For one, it's more colorful, and for another, they can pull each other into the shower in the middle of the night and stay as long as the hot water lasts.
Eventually, some of his stuff migrates in; the proud Navy girlfriend sweatshirt, which has managed to survive thusfar relatively blood-splatter-free, is currently thrown over the back of Mark's chair in the kitchen. His construction paper Star of David is pinned to the fridge underneath a magnet for Pizza My Heart -- there'd been one horrible, heart-stopping moment when Mark thought Eduardo might recognize it (he had spent more time in Mark's dorm room than Mark had sometimes,) but when he saw it, he'd just laughed and said, "oh, you had to make one of these, too?"
The full-volume Windows start-up jingle rouses Eduardo out of the bedroom, where he'd been taking full advantage of the sunshine by napping. He stands in the doorway, scrubbing at his eyes blearily and watching Mark clear away the styrofoam and the boxes.
"Ah, the classic Windows background," he goes around a yawn, when the dual screens load the default Microsoft desktop -- the dichotomously-bright green hills and blue sky -- that come standard on all new PCs. "So we meet again."
"It's from here, actually," Mark informs him. "That's a real place. It's in Sonoma, about an hour's drive up the 101."
Eduardo blinks a bit. "I ... did not know that," he goes musingly. "I thought it was digitally-made. Like they did for Teletubbies."
"No. It's a natural California wonder," says Mark, feeling unusually proud of his state -- it is an interesting bit of trivia, either way. "Patrick and his wife held their wedding ceremony out there, I think."
"Yeah." They exchange a look, and roll their eyes in unison, because that's such a Patrick thing to do.
Mark checks the time at the corner of the start bar, and sucks in a breath through his teeth. He has less than an hour to get to San Mateo for today's reap. "I need to go," he says, standing up out of the office chair, which has that lovely brand-new IKEA smell and only required the minor cursing on Mark's part to assemble. "I have an appointment."
"You and your mysterious appointments," Eduardo mumbles, catching Mark when he tries to slip past him through the door, sleepily palming at his hip. "I'll figure it out one day, you know. I'm surprisingly smart." He side-eyes Mark curiously. "Please tell me it's a flash dance."
"Yes," Mark deadpans. "Now you know my secret. We're doing the electric slide in the Stanford commons, please come."
Chuckling lowly, Eduardo twists them around and backs him up into the doorframe, less by intent and more because he's leaning all his weight onto Mark, not yet awake enough to attempt to be smooth about it. He puts his hands on Mark's face, caging it and tilting it up.
"You know," he says, as if he's answering a question he'd asked himself, "Even if I didn't have Facebook to run, you're worth staying in California for."
Only a short time ago, this would have irritated him, the implication that something in this world is worth more of Eduardo's attention than Facebook. But now Mark just brushes the backs of his knuckles against Eduardo's stomach and replies, tart, "Well, thank you for your noble sacrifice."
"Mmmm, your noble," Eduardo goes quietly, which doesn't even make sense, and Mark's about to inform him of that fact, except Eduardo catches him up into a kiss, hands on his face and pushing his head back into the wood of the doorframe.
And Mark isn't afraid of this. He might have been, once; afraid to the point where he couldn't even have acknowledged it as a possibility. But since then, he's become a grim reaper, a hooded black cape and a silver scythe for the modern age; he's seen people die horribly, pointlessly, in every strange, gruesome way imaginable, and he has walked with them to paradise, each one more different than the last, and it puts a lot of things into perspective. He has nothing to fear from Eduardo. He's spend his whole life going from one extreme to the other with very little in-between; calm to righteous fury, college sophomore to CEO, youngest billionaire in the world to cherishing every bit of loose change he found, casual lunch date to head-over-heels in love.
If there is going to be a this with Eduardo, then no way in hell is Mark going into it half-assed.
He slackens his jaw to suck Eduardo's tongue deeper into his mouth, feeling rather than hearing the responding moan. The kiss goes on, slow and deep and aching, neither of them wanting to be the one that pulled away first.
They kiss until all of his nerves feel as if they've been lit like fireflies, a slow, dizzying pulse, and he can't quite remember what all he was capable of doing with his body before Eduardo started touching it.
The flicker of the desktop flickering to screensaver in his peripheral vision snaps him out of it, and he pushes at Eduardo's chest, levering enough distance between them to say, "No, come on, I really can't be late."
Eduardo obediently relinquishes his hold, but then he murmurs, like he didn't even mean to say it out loud, "Moments like this, I think I'll want you to the day I die."
And Mark knows exactly how flimsy that partition is, and stretches up to touch their noses together, saying without thinking, "And after?"
Up this close, Eduardo's eyes look as if they're filled with light, and he laughs, shocked and wondering; Mark feels it with his whole body.
"Yes," Eduardo says, like a promise. "Yes, even then."
They get cited for public indecency near the end of March, which Mark is kind of smug about because that's never happened before, and it's Christopher Robin's first infraction with the police. That's something of a small miracle in and of itself, given how Mark's entire job revolves around lurking at crime scenes. He could have done a lot worse.
Eduardo isn't quite as proud, considering their fine gets doubled for being within 500 yards of a school.
"You have the money to pay it, though," Mark feels the need to point out, absently fingering the spines of the books at the end of the shelf. "In fact, you probably have the money to pay off the outstanding fines of everybody in Santa Clara county."
"The money's not the point, Christopher, you know that," Eduardo cuts him a sidelong look, mouth quirked dryly. They're in Kepler's, the enormous bookstore in Menlo Park that has a surprisingly decent collection and also the distinction of being one of the very few remaining privately-owned bookstores in the Bay Area, which is something Eduardo's oldest sister will appreciate. Mark has more experience than most with buying birthday gifts for sisters, but he doesn't really know her tastes and isn't much help here.
"I know," he answers, because he believes him, and then rounds the corner of the aisle before his face can give him away. It's easy for Eduardo to say, but a pizza delivery salary doesn't exactly leave Mark with a lot of spare change to spend on paying fines, and he's not going to ask to borrow money -- that's how all the bad shit between him and Eduardo got started in the first place.
So he takes it down to Mackey, the maintenance reaper at the courthouse, remembering belatedly that Mackey knows exactly who Eduardo Saverin is, since he'd been sitting right there when Eduardo came stamping out of the board room to smash Mark's laptop to bits.
Shit, he thinks, as an absolute, wicked kind of delight spreads over Mackey's face.
But he makes it go away, much to the relief of Mark's bank statement and Eduardo's reputation.
It doesn't stop him from being a little smug. Okay, a lot.
"That's because you're a horrible excuse for a human being, why do I let you talk me into these things," Eduardo tells him without any bite whatsoever, and Mark laughs.
Tuesday the fifteenth of April is the one-year anniversary of Mark's death. They put a blurb up on the Facebook sign-in page, the content of which is a humorous, sprawling dedication that has Dustin and Eduardo written all over it, and that's nice, but who actually uses the sign-in page anymore?
Torn between laughing at the dedication's bald honesty about his Harvard years and that squirming, humiliated feeling he gets whenever pictures of him show up online without his say-so, he tugs his sneakers on over his heels, slings his backpack over one shoulder, and heads out to fight commuter traffic, same as he does every morning.
His whole team is waiting for him when he walks into the library, and upon catching sight of him, they throw their arms up in a cheer that would probably be vocal if silence in the library wasn't hard-wired into them all by this point.
Jess pushes herself out of her seat, coming over to give him a big bear hug and to loop a couple festive strings of Mardi Gras beads around his neck. For the first time in the whole year he's known her, Tilly breaks library rules and presents him with a tin of brownies, which includes a coupon to one of Kawali's frozen yogurt shops, one that's within easy walking distance of Mark's work.
"Do we do death-day celebrations now?" he goes, completely caught off-guard by all the attention. It's different, somehow, than the surprise birthday parties people tried to throw him when he was alive.
He really dreaded those.
"Only for the first couple of years, in the name of helping you acclimate to your situation in undeath," replies Pierre. Him sitting there in Mark's usual seat, lanky legs thrown out every which way, could mean anything; today could be a high-volume day for death and he's here to help out, or it could just be Pierre coming to fuck with them for shits and giggles, just to get out of the hospital for a little bit. "After the fifth anniversary, we do it in increasing multiples: ten, twenty-five, fifty, so on and so forth."
"How macabre --" Mark starts, but Jessica suddenly steps away, holding him at arm's length, her blue eyes sharp and shrewd as they rake him head-to-toe.
"Hang on," she says, slowly. "Are these yesterday's clothes?"
"Oho!" lows Pierre in delight, putting his fist to his mouth, his eyes twinkling. "Walk of shame!"
Jessica all but snatches her hands away from him, like an eleven-year-old boy scared of cooties. "Again?" she protests, shooting Mark a betrayed look, her nose scrunched up.
Pierre gives his head a slow shake, feigning disappointment. "Man," he says, not quite suppressing his mirth. "We gotta stop seeing you like this, it's getting old."
Mark rolls his eyes. It's not like he doesn't need to go home after this and change for work, anyway. Loftily, because Kawali is drumming his fingers on the tabletop in an unimpressed kind of way, he says, "I don't know what you're talking about, you guys. Fraternization with the living is highly discouraged."
"Mmhmmm," Jessica drags out, lifting her eyebrows. "I would believe you, except the bruises on your knees have already gone green."
Mark opens his mouth to make some smart retort about her just seeing green in envy, before he remembers Kawali's suspicion that her boyfriend might have been the one who lit her on fire, and swallows the words so awkwardly his throat makes a gulping noise like a fish stuck in mud.
"Are you guys done?" Kawali wants to know. "Take the little man out for drinks later or something, because right now, I got people that need to die."
They gather around his computer console as he writes out their reaps on the back of a library flyer about pre-registration for the summer reading club. "Double-reaps today for the ladies," he goes, peeling off strips of paper for both Jess and Tilly. "And congratulations, Pierre, your smart mouth has earned you this one. Bring a poncho, it's going to be bloody. And Mark, here," he rips off another coil of paper, holding it up for Mark to take.
He holds it taut between his fingers, glancing first at the ETD: 3:42 PM, excellent, his shift at Pizza My Heart ends at three and 3:42 falls nice in the middle of the afternoon, so traffic won't be too horrible, except around the area schools. He can work around that, no problem, he helped create an app for that.
He looks next at the address: 551 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto.
An in-home death, then, which could mean anything: a sleeping-pill suicide, a construction accident, domestic murder. Mark had one guy once who accidentally sliced his own head open with an egg-beater.
There's something familiar about it, though, something that pings in the back of his head. Where does he know that address from? Middlefield Rd is one of the busiest streets in Palo Alto, so it could be any number of businesses -- unlikely, though, it's the wrong number block for that, and a business name is usually included if it happens at one -- or has he had a reap at this house before? He feels like he remembers a reaper writing the address down for him ...
Mark's heart stops. It can't ...
No. It can't be.
He moves his thumb to read the name.
551 Middlefield Rd
He flings the strip of paper away from him so fast his wrist pops. "No," he goes, too loud, all but tripping over the wooden chairs in his haste to put distance between himself and that paper, that E. Saverin written so innocuously in Kawali's handwriting, first initial and last name because it helps create distance, we can't afford to empathize with our reaps, little man.
"No!" he says again; it's a primal noise, torn unbidden from his throat. "No, no, no."
He looks at the reapers, all of them staring at him, startled and stunned by the outburst, but nothing registers beyond the oval-shaped blurs of their faces. "I'm not doing this. I'm not. I can't. Not this one. Not --"
Pierre leans down, snatching the strip of paper up off the carpet and scanning it. "Who's E. Saverin?" he asks at large.
Recognition kindles in the others' expressions, a dawning horror he's both gratified and sickened to see. This can't be real. One year after his own murder ... this can't. Could there be another E. Saverin at 551 Middlefield Rd today? Mark thinks Eduardo would have said something if one of his family was coming up for a visit. Do any of them have the first initial E? Any of them besides Eduardo?
"Mark's lover, I think," Tilly says, quiet, at the same time Jessica whispers, "doesn't he partially own Mark's company?"
Mark doubles over like he's been hit in the gut. He presses the heels of his hands to his head and begs, "Someone else do it, I can't."
And then there's that thought, and it's even more horrible; the idea of someone else seeing Eduardo minutes before he dies, someone else touching him, someone else leading his soul into the light. Mark's reaction is vehement, instantaneous; he lurches forward, snatching the paper back from Pierre so violently he leaves long scratches on his wrists.
Pierre, for once, is shocked into speechlessness. There's pity making the corners of his mouth turn down, something Mark's never seen on him before.
Tilly's still holding her brownie tin and Jessica looks stricken, face ghost-white, like she wants to take back every untoward crack she made about the state of Mark's knees.
Mark turns on his heel and breaks for the door.
Kawali heads him off at the circulation desk, snatching up by the elbow and all but dragging him outside.
The sun has fully risen by now, momentarily blinding him, and he lets Kawali lead him to the statue; the piecemeal woman made of flat sheets of metal, her abstract features turned towards the sky. Some smartass has tucked a rose into her crotch. Mark stares at that bright splash of pink, until Kawali squeezes his elbow and makes him look up.
"You have to do it," he says, inexorable, a softer version of his and what part of this makes you think you have a choice? voice.
"No." Mark holds up his palms in a clear show of rejection, like denial is going to change anything. "No, I can't. I haven't failed a single reap since I started, but you cannot ask this of me. You can't."
"You have to," Kawali insists.
"I'm not killing him!" Mark screams, wrenching his hands up into fists like ... like what, like he's going to punch him? The last time Mark's ever hit anyone was in the fourth grade, and a girl, at that, and she'd looked more startled than hurt by it. Mark can be cruel, but he's never been violent.
Kawali seizes him by the biceps, grip so tight it almost lifts Mark onto his tiptoes, and he shakes him. He's huge, muscular, and as he's so fond of reminding him, Mark's just a little man. The force of it makes his head snap back onto his neck, brains rattling. Black spots dance in front of his eyes.
"Don't you see?" Kawali hisses out through clenched teeth. "When are you going to learn, Mark, it's the exact opposite! You're not killing him, you're saving him."
"How --" Mark chokes.
"Do you want him to die painfully?" His voice is fierce, tight, and Mark buries his face in his palms so he doesn't have to look him in the eye. "Do you want him to feel every second of it? Mark, that is why we are here. This is what grim reapers are made for. He's going to die, you can't stop it, but you can make sure he doesn't feel pain. He doesn't have to die alone."
"We all die alone!" Mark retorts, vicious and wounded, knuckles going white with strain, because he remembers the quiet, the six in the morning hush of being on his hands and knees fumbling for his phone charger and nobody had told him they loved him just in case Peter Thiel's right-hand man came up behind him with a baseball bat.
"No," and Kawali grabs his wrists, wrenching his hands away from his face, the way you do to small children when you need them to listen. "No. Mark Zuckerberg, if you have a shred of human decency in you, you will not leave him to suffer. Do not make him die alone."
Mark makes a noise. "I don't want him to die at all."
Kawali softens, releasing him slowly. His fingerprints make red marks rise on Mark's skin, but he heals fast and they fade as he watches, swaying on the spot. He doesn't try to bolt again, and the paper with the time of Eduardo's death is still in his hand.
Finally, Kawali says, "You love him," and, apparently without realizing it, he touches the pads of his fingers to the pocket of his Aloha shirt, where he keeps the sketch of his wife. "It's the best thing you can do for him, don't you think, is to save his soul?"
"I don't have a choice," says Mark, flat, expressionless.
"No," says Kawali with so much sympathy it hurts.
He cannot concentrate.
He cannot think.
He cannot --
He can't do anything.
He is a useless, twitchy mess, with his brain going one way and his body going another. His fingers jitter loose on his time-in card, his feet walk him into walls. There is nothing inside his head but a mess of screaming, chaotic and over-loud, like tea kettles or dial-up or the long, continuous wailing horn of the car that struck and killed Keisha Morgan.
Mark isn't used to a brain that cannot think, cannot form lines, black and white and A and B and what is this, what is this, what is he going to do?
Before he left the library, he gave Jessica back the Mardi Gras beads, pooling them into her palm because the thought of celebration makes his stomach curdle. Jess had looked down at them and then flung her arms around his neck, fierce and tight. She murmured, "we'll come to your apartment later, all right? You don't have to go through this by yourself," she told him, like Eduardo was already dead.
There are days when you want someone to notice that the world has twisted in every wrong direction, and days that you want no one to notice at all, and for Mark, today's one of those latter days, which means that Sancha corners him by the ovens as soon as he gets into work and peers owlishly into his eyes, her mouth twisted into a frown.
"Whatever you're on," she goes severely. "Don't let it impair you when you're out on delivery, okay?"
Mark wants to laugh at her for the assumption, and then he wants to say something nasty and cruel about her hair or her boyfriend or her stupid Afro-Peruvian heritage, and then he wants to turn his back on her and never have to think about her again, because it's simply too much effort to think about her, to care that she even exists, not with everything howling exhaustively inside of him.
He goes through the day like that, angry and hurting and on the verge of shaking apart, and time's going too fast, too fast, ten to noon to two, and he can't do anything to stop it.
This must be what the dilution felt like, he thinks, that fucking dilution that he became so infamous for. It's some kind of fucking cosmic payback. Mark thought he had a 30% share of Eduardo's life, a solid slice of time to do all the things he wanted to do, and now it's hit him in the face, smack in the print on this innocuous strip of paper with name, place, and ETD -- all he has left of Eduardo's life is a fucking .03%.
At three, he hangs his apron on the hook and punches out, robotic and cold with dread. Forty-two minutes left.
He swings on Sancha. "You should let your boyfriend propose to you," he goes, flat as a slap to the face.
She blinks at him, startled into saying, "um, okay," reactionary, before it occurs to her what he said.
Mark spins around and leaves, stepping out into the blindingly-bright California sun; the world burns away to white for a second and he squints through it. There are people shapes moving on the sidewalk, in the courtyard, going in and out of shops across the street and someone's laughing, her head tilted back and her teeth visibly bright, and Mark feels a flare of anger roll through his stomach, because Eduardo Saverin is supposed to die today and doesn't that deserve the world to stop? It doesn't matter if nobody knows who he is; he is so devastatingly important to Mark and the world needs to stop for a moment and that woman should not be laughing.
It's quiet inside the Facebook building on the corner of University and High, and just as Mark punches the button for the elevator, the doors pop open and Eduardo comes out, all suit and hair and eyebrows and briefcase and no no no no, he can't do this.
His face splits into a smile at the sight of Mark, their coming-and-going momentum catching them up into a half-hug.
"Hi!" he goes brightly, steering them around. "I forgot to tell you earlier. Today's a half-day for everybody because of the date -- and I got caught up in a bunch of meetings, so I'm not really getting out as early as I want, sorry about that," he goes with a long-suffering huff. "We're thinking of moving, did I mention that to you before?"
"You or Facebook?" Mark goes blankly.
"Facebook. After what happened to Mark and then losing Keisha ..." he shrugs, a minute twitch of his shoulders. "It feels too much like bad luck for our employees to stay here. And -- well, it's small as far as offices go, and we're only the biggest thing to happen to the Internet since Google." He cuts a glance to Mark at that, looking for a reaction.
With none forthcoming, a frown creases between his eyebrows.
"Christopher," he goes. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," Mark goes without thinking, because that absolute howling nothingness is back, threatening to engulf him. If Eduardo is gone and Facebook follows, what will Mark have left?
Eduardo steps into his space, like he's going to go in for a hug, but Mark twitches away. He doesn't want to touch Eduardo, doesn't dare, because who knows what the touch of a reaper will do to the doomed? Mark doesn't want to take his soul, even accidentally; he wants nothing more than to grab Eduardo and forcibly drag them back to this morning, Eduardo spread out with a pillow under his head and his laptop balanced on his belly, laughingly searching through eBay and wanting to know if Mark was sure he didn't want a quilt with Tigger and Piglett and Winnie the Pooh on it. Just for laughs.
No, he thinks, desperate. No.
We all have someone we love to the point of ruin; Kawali could not stop death for Lehua and Tilly could not stop death for her children, death stole Jessica from her Sam and death stole Keisha from Kevin, and Mark will not let that happen to him.
He will not, he will not.
He is Mark Zuckerberg and he is Christopher Robin and for Eduardo, he will stop Death itself.
He has to.
They cross the street to the parking garage, and never before has Mark appreciated just how many ways a human being can die. People are so fucking invincible, managing to go about their business and avoid death every single day. He's never experienced this kind of absolute, crippling terror before; the fear of cracks in the sidewalk or banana peels, of sudden solar flares or every bicyclist that goes by, because time is ticking down and any one of these things could be what takes Eduardo from him.
They get into Eduardo's car, Mark flinching full-body at everything he does, like when he turns the ignition key, remembering vividly the little red car exploding on the on-ramp to the 101. He doesn't dare blink, scanning everything in his peripheral for signs of a graveling -- anything that might tip him off as to what's coming for them.
Eduardo keeps shooting him little worried looks when he thinks Mark isn't watching, but he doesn't ask again.
Drumming the flats of his hands on the steering wheel, he goes, "What would you say if I was thinking about getting a dog?" He's cheerful, face turned up to the sun, the way people are when they've gotten off work early. "I like living things, I have a backyard that's going unused, and it'd be nice to have one compassionate being around the house," he looks pointedly at Mark. "And on the occasions I do have to fly somewhere like the lonely-hearts businessman I am, I can get you to house-sit.
"And yes," he adds quickly. "Before you get all clever on me, that was a thinly-veiled attempt to share my home with you."
Mark frowns. "The dog is a ..."
"Socially acceptable excuse to give you a key, yes. Which is why I'm warning you now."
Mark knows how Eduardo is going to die. He is going to die because Mark is going to kill him. Mark is going to wring his stupidly long, gorgeous neck and that will be that. You can't just say things like that and expect to survive, it's not physically possible.
"I love you," he blurts out, just because he should know. It's the only defense Mark has.
Eduardo flashes him a full-toothed grin. "I know," he goes cheekily. "I love me too sometimes. You have to admit my ideas are kind of brilliant."
He's pulling into his driveway at 551 Middlefield Rd before Mark realizes this is the last place he wants Eduardo to be right now. He freezes and opens his mouth to suggest that they go anywhere else, anywhere, but Eduardo's already out of the car and he can't do that, he can't do that, because Mark hasn't figured out what will kill him yet.
Puzzled, Eduardo drums his knuckles against Mark's window, gesturing for him to come on, before he heads off down the driveway to check the mailbox.
There are too many cars winking by on Middlefield; Mark can see their reflections flickering in the windows of the house, and he yanks the car door open, because anything could happen to Eduardo at the end of the driveway. A hit-and-run, a drive-by shooting, a defragmenting bit of the space station could plummet to earth and crush him --
And then Eduardo's back, empty-handed. "Nothing, not even junk mail! How sad. I still get Quilter's Monthly sometimes, you know, addressed to the lady who owned the house before me."
He smiles with just one side of his mouth, like it's trying to pull the other side up with it but he's waiting for Mark to give him one in return, and there are five minutes left to go before 3:42pm and it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter if Mark can stop his death. What matters is that Mark and Mark alone can stop it from hurting.
This one time, Mark can be the one that stops Eduardo's pain.
It will be the most important thing he's ever done.
He grabs fistfuls of Eduardo's clothes and half-hauls him in, half-hauls himself up. It sends them bumping up against the side of the car, but then Mark's got his mouth on Eduardo's and it doesn't matter where their bodies are in space, so long as they're still attached to each other.
It's the longest, most intense kiss he's ever given, and judging by the way Eduardo's hands hover over his waist like they've forgotten what they're doing, the way he leans into it, searching, that he's never been kissed like this before. And that's fitting, because who is ever going to kiss him like this; this is a reaper's kiss, a good-bye, a promise, a you are going to die and these are my hands, they will hold your soul and I will guard it and protect it, and I love you, and I'll take it all away.
And with that thought, he lifts his fingers and touches them to Eduardo's temple, and slowly, so slowly, as slowly as he can get away with, drags his bare fingertips down every familiar line of his face. Underneath his skin, Eduardo's soul shimmers and stretches, yawning and awakened and summoned to Mark's touch.
With one long pull of his mouth against Mark's, Eduardo leans back and looks at him.
Just a look.
And then he kisses him on the mouth one last time and backs away, heading towards the side door into the kitchen. He walks backwards, doing some little shimmy that's probably supposed to be seductive, but he's grinning too hard to pull it off and Mark's smiling back and he's helpless, he's helpless, and nobody ever told him just how little choice you have about love.
A noise, and Mark looks up.
There's a graveling crouched on the roof of the car.
Their eyes crack together; he's never looked directly at an agent of fate because you're not supposed to, and the graveling's eyes are hollow and black and lit in the center like Mordor, like hellfire, like cat's eye stones. It bears its teeth at him slowly, smugly, because it's too late to stop it -- Mark has already reaped Eduardo's soul.
From the very first time he saw his mother's reaction to the toads Mark squashed in kindergarten, he has never wanted to physically harm another living thing -- not his sisters, not his girlfriends, not the press, not even Eduardo or the Winklevoss twins. But there's nothing but white rage in his mind when he lunges forward to snap that graveling's miserable little neck.
It fades to smoke and his hands pass right through it, slamming down hard on the roof of the car. Its snickers linger in the air even after it's gone.
"Hey, Christopher!" Eduardo calls over his shoulder, standing at the door. "What are you doing?"
Heart pounding, Mark turns around, his eyes finding Eduardo first and then flitting up, squinting briefly against the flickering of the windows.
And Mark realizes the windows aren't reflecting the traffic flashing by on the street. It's coming from inside.
Eduardo's house is on fire.
Eduardo's house is on fire and it's locked up, sealed tight, because Eduardo always loved playing with the climate control and was very adamant about everything being insulated from the outside. The windows are glowing because the inside is burning.
Fire inside and Eduardo's at the door, fitting his key into the lock, his head turned in Mark's direction.
"Well, aren't you coming?" he goes, laughing.
He looks happy.
He looks loved.
Backdraft, he hears his littlest sister's voice in his head; she'd helped him and the other girls study for the SATs in high school, the big vocabulary book propped open awkwardly on her lap, sneakers swinging above the carpet and shoelaces dangling. I like this one! It's a noun.
Just read it to me already, R--
Fine! Geez. 'Backdraft. A phenomenon in which a fire that has consumed all available oxygen suddenly explodes when more oxygen is made available, typically because a door or window has been opened.' Doesn't that sound cool!
"No, War--!" Mark starts, stepping forward.
The door opens and all there is the hollow and the dark, the pinprick of light like the graveling's eyes, a beat of the absolute silence.
A rush, a roar.
He sees, for one incredible, ethereal moment, Eduardo lit up and wreathed in fire --
-- and then he burns away, engulfed, gone, and the fire descends on Mark, hungry and cavernous and all-consuming.
All the world is fire and
his flesh peels away and
everything vanishes away white.
At first, there is only sound.
The world, when it burns, is very loud; a jumble, a cacophony Mark cannot distinguish anything from. It thunders in his ears. The whole universe, just filled up with noise.
His sense of smell is next to return, sudden and sharp enough to make him choke. Burning flesh is not something you forget the smell of, not after you've smelled it once, and taste comes right on its heels, pasted along Mark's tongue, cloying, disgusting, ashy.
Mark wakes up just as his lungs shudder back into working, sucking down air in a thick gasp, lying flat on his back on the gritty driveway pavement. Sitting upright with difficulty, he blinks, trying to get rid of the weird sensation as his eyelids finish repairing themselves, skin thickening across his eyeballs and the lashes popping in, one-by-one. When he looks down at himself, he immediately wishes he hadn't; his skin is trying to grow back as fast as it can, covering up his ribs as they snap back into place, caging in the new, raw patches on his lungs and heart; the charred, burned bits slough off in reels like a sunburn. He even catches a brief glimpse of his stomach lining.
"Oh, that's gross," he mutters, fighting down the urge to throw up, between the sight and the smell and the heat.
And then there are hands on him, and someone's saying his name.
"Mark. Mark, come on, you gotta get up."
He blinks some more -- anything that's not directly in front of his face blurs pathetically, great big blotches of color circling around him like vultures.
"Come on, Mark, we gotta go. There are going to be people here any moment -- pedestrians and cops and EMTs and they're going to find you sitting here photosynthesizing or whatever you're doing, so we better move."
It sounds sensible, so he nods, wobbly, and lets the hands pull him to his feet. It's halting progress, as fingers and palms gingerly search for somewhere to touch him that isn't over his rapidly-repairing sternum. They get him upright, and it turns out there's arms attached to those hands and a torso to them, which he discovers when he staggers sideways into them, and they steady him. "That's it," murmurs the voice, right in his ear. Mark feebly tries to pick bits of blackened bone and barbecued flesh off of himself, brushing them to the pavement.
"Sorry," he mumbles. "It's a mess. I don't usually get that close. Can we add getting blown up to the list of things I'd rather not do again?"
There's a slightly hysterical giggle that follows that, and Mark's not too sure if it's coming from him or the voice next to him.
They move forward, up the curb and onto the sidewalk with careful steps. The smudges of color are solidifying into shapes; he can see the house now, a blazing, towering inferno of flame and bright light, the whole thing completely devoured from the inside. Black smoke pours up into the sky, billowing in clouds, and like fog, like firework smog, Mark knows he'll be seeing the smokescreen from it hovering over the bay for days.
The lawn is littered with scattered debris, bright little baubles of color amidst the grass; bits of the car, he presumes, and the door, and --
And there's a watch lying on the sidewalk. Mark stares at it until they go past and leave it behind them, craning his neck until he can't see it anymore, tossed across the cement; the thick silver band and the blackened face, turned up to the sky. It's a familiar watch; he remembers a twenty-first birthday party somewhere, somewhen, and Chris at his elbow, jeering as Eduardo pulled off the wrapping paper. It's a fancy-ass businessman's watch.
He blinks away from the memory, glancing down at the hand splayed across his chest, the same gleaming, expensive watch perched upon its wrist.
He reaches up, curling his fingers around the fleshy part of Eduardo's hand. He gives it a squeeze, and doesn't let go as they make their way away from his burning house. Mark had been standing so much further away from the door when the backdraft happened, and had still been injured so bad he blacked out, which is saying something, for one of the undead. He could look for the remains, but he doesn't try too hard. Don't let him die alone, he thinks, and leans his weight up against Eduardo.
Anyone looking at the scene right now, out of their home windows or car windows or coming out to stand at the curb and gawk at the destruction, any one of those people is only going to see one person limping down the street.
Mark opens his eyes again.
He knows, in the way people do when they've spent a long time living in one place, exactly where he is: in the park by the nursing home where they watched the fireworks on 4th of July, an easy midway point between 551 Middlefield Rd and the Facebook offices. He can hear the swings on the playground creaking and parents calling to their children to be careful and the drone of the bees among the flowers. He can see the sky and the garden in his peripheral, well-maintained riots of star jasmine and bougainvillea, and the hummingbirds flitting back and forth among them.
Eduardo is beside him in the grass, watching him.
"Mark," he says.
"Wardo," Mark answers, relieved to be able to say it, like it's been trapped under his tongue all this time. When you're undead, the only ones who can see your face for what it truly is are the others like you, and the dead.
He stretches out his hands to either side of him, fingers digging into fistfuls of grass. He drags air into his lungs, and it smells the way green things do, like earth and plants. Eduardo's hand is close to his own, as if maybe their fingers had been touching before Mark woke up, and his eyes track the movements of Eduardo's hand as he makes a sweep through the grass, passing right through it like mist and leaving the blades barely rustling in his wake.
Mark lifts his eyes to meet his gaze, and Eduardo blurts out, "I'm sorry."
"For?" he goes blankly.
"For Facebook -- I ... this is going to be news, any moment, and Dustin and Sean ... I mean, I trust them, but I don't know if Facebook is going to survive so many blows, all at once, not with you dead, and the fiasco with Maurice, and Thiel in jail awaiting trail, and now me --" he makes a broad gesture at himself, all, hi, I'm Casper the friendly ghost.
Mark just blinks at him. He isn't worried. Facebook survived him, and it survived Dustin and Eduardo and Sean and Thiel, and it will survive whatever comes next, even if it's Hewlett-Packard Patrick or the US government.
(Okay, well, maybe not them. Anyone but them.)
Eduardo moves restlessly. "Shit, though, do you think it was murder? Someone picking off Facbook founders, one-by-one?" He gives his head a quick shake, like this is too ridiculous to contemplate. "No, Maurice and Thiel are behind bars. Maybe I just left the stove on."
"Do you really think it's a coincidence that you died on the one-year anniversary of my death?" Mark interrupts, his voice calm from experience with the frantic and the newly-deceased. Funny, how hanging around dead people day after day has actually improved Mark's social skills.
Eduardo flinches. "Well ..."
"You're Facebook's most public face at the moment -- after me and Thiel, obviously, and I'm already dead and Thiel is behind guard in a California petitionary somewhere. So even if someone wanted to go after him, they'd have a hard time of it. You're the next big target."
"That's just it, though," Eduardo goes quickly, in a voice that approaches desperate from a couple different angles. "Why would someone want to kill me? If anyone, I would have thought I'd hear about an attempt on Thiel; someone looking for revenge for killing you and the woman --"
"Pomona, her name's Pomona. I would kill Thiel for Pomona's sake, if I could," Mark says darkly. "She never did anything to deserve what happened to her."
"Neither did you," Eduardo grits out, hard and through clenched teeth.
Mark tilts his head back into the grass, smiling up at him. "That actually means a lot, coming from you."
He thinks that might have been the wrong thing to say, judging by the way Eduardo's expression blanks out with something like hurt, so he reaches out to tap his fingers solidly against the back of Eduardo's hand, glad for a moment that the undead can touch the dead.
"Listen," he says. "If you were murdered, Kawali will find out who did it. He's got a thing for solving murders -- he's the one who found out who murdered me. He's kind of my boss, Kawali is," he goes in reply to Eduardo's questioning look. "Or, well, he looks out for us and makes sure we do the shit we're actually supposed to do."
Eduardo's eyebrows shoot up. "You, taking orders from somebody?" he goes, the joking in his voice only a little shaky. "This I gotta see."
Mark chuckles in acknowledgement, like he's supposed to, and goes to retract his hand when Eduardo's shoots out, catching his wrist and holding it. His thumb pushes into the soft spot between the bone, hard enough to make Mark squirm a little with discomfort.
"How are you real?" Eduardo asks in the smallest voice, and Mark goes still. "Mark, you died. I had to hear it from your lawyers. I went to your funeral and I thought I was going to throw up every time the news came on and then my house blows up and here you are. You have a pulse," the last bit is said on the tail end of a whisper, and comes with an accompanying squeeze to Mark's wrist. "Mark, how can you have a pulse?"
"Because I'm not dead like you," he replies, keeping his voice level. "And you're not dead like me. 1% of us get to stick around after we die and become grim reapers. I was the one that took your soul before you died. It's why you didn't feel the --" he mimes an explosion with his hands.
Eduardo's fingers loosen and release him slowly. He stares.
"I think I need a moment," he says faintly.
Mark shrugs, settling back into the grass. "Take all the time you need," he answers. It's almost funny, remembering the horrible, gut-wrenching panic of earlier, aware only that Eduardo had just hours, minutes, seconds left to live: it's like it's already so far away, another chapter of his life closed, the papers signed and the dilution complete. "We're in no hurry to go anywhere."
Somewhere in the distance, there's a fire engine wailing away. It doesn't bother them.
He thinks, momentarily, of the Star of David that had been on Eduardo's fridge; the mess of glitter and construction paper that had survived Mark's sisters, and Harvard, and the first Facebook interns, and Sean's girls -- it's burned away to ash now, and the grief of that thought makes his breath catch for a moment. That small little nothing piece of home that had come this far, despite everything, is now gone.
He turns his head, seeking Eduardo's profile, turned away towards the playground, but there's only an echo of grief for him. All Eduardo lost was a body -- where he's going, he'll be without pain or worry, without the weight of people's expectations: his father's, Divya Narendra's, Mark's or even his own.
Eventually, Mark will have to return to a world without Eduardo in it, and find some way to carry on without him.
Just ... not right now.
"Dude," he goes suddenly, propping himself up on his elbows. "Oh my god. Do you know what just occurred to me? You had sex with me after I was dead," he announces, gleeful. "I am totally going to make a joke about necrophilia at your funeral. Oh, come on," he goes, when Eduardo twists to face him, gaping fishily in protest. "You got to joke about chickens at mine. I am so going to make a necrophilia reference, you just watch."
Eduardo recovers enough to tell him flatly, "You are not going to my funeral, Mark."
"Of course I am." Mark gives a twitchy shrug of his shoulders, expressionless. "I'm your boyfriend."
Somehow, that's what does it -- the light bulb goes on, finally, and Mark sees Eduardo's mind drawing the connection between Christopher Robin, who was with him when his house exploded, and Mark Zuckerberg, who is lying out with him in the grass now.
All those memories, from the very beginning, now seen for what they really were: Mark eating lunch with him every day; Mark coming to his house after the news about Thiel and Maurice hit the papers; Mark with him at the beach; Mark setting up his home office; Mark kissing him in front of the cafe and kissing him on his bedroom floor and kissing him good-bye; Mark with him for every difficult thing that went down at Facebook.
His eyes go wider, and wider, and wider, huge and enormous, and then the expression breaks.
"Who am I talking to right now?" he snaps out, his voice sharp and his mouth drawing flat in anger. "Mark? Or Christopher?"
"I've always been both. Wardo," Mark reaches out placatingly, finds Eduardo's hand and wraps their fingers together, Mark's pulse and Eduardo's not. He tugs him up so they're both sitting, knees drawn up together like children seeking reassurance in the dark. "Always. I wondered, you know, if you were going to figure me out." He grins. "Outside of, like, maybe my mother, or my sisters if they felt like it, if there was anybody who could have seen right through me, it would have been you."
Eduardo looks stricken by this, like he thinks Mark is admonishing him for not seeing the truth.
"I never --" he starts, fingers clutching convulsively. "Mark, I never. How was I supposed to -- a grim reaper? Those things don't happen in real life. I thought you were dead and dead was dead. I didn't once -- I mean, I thought you were like Mark, but I didn't ... you weren't an asshole!"
And there it is. There's the truth: as himself, with his own face, Mark never would have gotten Eduardo to trust him. He would have always been looking for the double-cross, would never have been able to hear Mark say a word without listening for the underhanded comment, would never believe him capable of human kindness. Only incognito as Christopher Robin, the pizza boy with no money in his pockets and an uncanny knowledge of Facebook's inner workings, could he get Eduardo back.
"Do you think maybe you caricatured me a little bit?" he says mildly. "You know, just because you needed to fashion yourself a devil?"
"Shut up," goes Eduardo, fierce, and he snatches Mark up into a rough hug, gripping hard at his back and burying his face against Mark's neck, desperate with it.
It's an awkward tangle of arms and knees and Mark doesn't care, just wraps him up just as tight, presses them as close as possible. "I'm sorry," he goes lowly. "I'm sorry. I honestly didn't mean to trick you or lie to you, or anything. I wanted to stop you from dying. So badly. I didn't want you to die. I'm sorry you had to die."
"That's okay." Eduardo's voice is right up against his ear. "I didn't want you to die, either."
"I got bludgeoned, though," Mark murmurs. "How cool is that word?"
"Yeah, well, I got blown up. So there."
There's a pause, and then they both start giggling, a little hysterically.
We all have someone we love to the point of ruin. Mark leans into Eduardo's touch, shivering with laughter, and thinks that out of all the people he could have loved this hard, there honestly wasn't anyone better.
"Okay," goes Mark. "I want you to think of the happiest place you can imagine. A complete and total paradise."
They're standing side-by-side in the wide open park, grass and trees and rioting garden, children playing on the swings and smoke from a burning house barely visible above the treetops. Eduardo closes his eyes, swallowing; Mark watches him, eyes flicking hungrily across every familiar feature, the same way he did the very first time he found Eduardo sitting by himself in the University Cafe.
He hears Eduardo's lights arrive before he sees them; a soft rush of noise, a sound somewhere between the way the wind whistled musically over the porous rocks at Half-Moon Bay and the tinkling song of windchimes.
Here it comes, he thinks, turning to look and unable to help his thrill of curiosity at the thought of seeing someone else's paradise.
The light washes over them, pale blue as a sunrise sky, and then solidifies into --
-- into the exact mirror of where they're standing now.
"Oh, come on," Mark protests, folding his arms across his chest and staring down his reflection, which just looks back at him, flat and reptilian-looking. "The first time I'm trying to impress a friend, and you give me faulty lights. What the hell!" He looks over at Eduardo, almost accusingly. "You don't even like California!"
"Mark," Eduardo says gently. His mouth makes a fond shape. "I don't think California's the point. It might be suggesting that the happiest place I can imagine is whatever place has you in it."
"Oh holy shit," breathes Mark, staggered.
Eduardo laughs, delighted, the same way he had when he handed Mark $19,000 in a manila envelope to take them to California and watched Mark's throat bob with shock. It's the laugh of someone who's caught Mark Zuckerberg off-guard.
Still dimpled, happy, Eduardo walks towards his lights, and Mark feels a twinge of pain, because this is a forever kind of good-bye, and then Eduardo stops and looks over his shoulder curiously.
"Aren't you coming?" he goes.
Swallowing, Mark shakes his head. "It's not for me," he explains evenly, spreading his hands. "The undead can't go where you go. You go on and I stay here, that's how it works."
Eduardo frowns, and then looks pointedly at his lights, where the mirror Mark and Eduardo look back at them expectantly. "I'm pretty sure wherever that goes, you'll have a place with me," he says patiently, but Mark just keeps shaking his head, until Eduardo steps into his space and murmurs, "Mark, your current existence -- it's not some kind of purgatory. You have a choice. You aren't stuck here until you fill some grand cosmic debt, surely you know that?"
"I can't, Wardo, there are rules --" every single one of which he has broken except for this, a voice in the back of his head points out helpfully. Do not contact anyone from your old life. Do not look at the gravelings. Never be late for your appointment. Do not follow a ghost into their lights.
Mark needs to stay here, though, is the thing: for Kawali and Jessica and Tilly, for Sancha, for Dustin and Tori and Sean. Somebody needs to be Facebook's guardian angel.
"I want you to come with me, Mark," Eduardo goes, earnest, hopeful, wanting. "I don't want to go alone. I don't want to go without you, not this time." And Mark hears the far-off echo of I want, I want, I need you out here.
He closes his eyes, breathes deep, California sun warm on his eyelids and the green smell of earth in his nose and someone somewhere updating their Facebook status and most importantly of all, Eduardo beside him.
We all have someone we love to the point of ruin.
And everyone deserves a place to rest.
His eyes open again, and he looks at Eduardo.
And that's how this story begins.
Not with death. It's very rude, you know, to start a story with death. Death shouldn't be the beginning or the end of anything. Why should it be? It's not painful, not if your reaper's doing the job properly, so there's really nothing to fear from it.
(You'd be surprised, though, at how often people forget that.)
So we'll say this story begins, for us, with Mark Zuckerberg extending a hand to Eduardo Saverin, his palm turned up and his lifeline cut deep into his skin. Eduardo's fingers coil around his, familiar and tight, and everything is haloed in blue.
Yes, I think that's a good place to start.
paradise | PEAR-a-dice |
1. an ideal or idyllic state
2. any place or condition that fulfills all of one's desires and aspirations; a place of pure happiness
3. a town in N California, population 22,571
If you live to be a hundred, I hope I live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.
Christopher Robin and the Hundred-Acre Wood