CW: Death, implications of violence
I think humans have always been a little mad.
They must be. At some point they grasp their own mortality, and then they just carry on living, in a bizarre state of constant denial. Even the ones that think about it still manage to get up and go about their days, for the most part. Without being crippled by the idea that at any moment they might drop dead. They drive cars, they smoke cigarettes, and a million other normal activities that have a fatality rate.
Somehow they have to be aware that they could die, without letting that get in the way of living. They wouldn't be able to function otherwise. Not that some of them don’t obsess over it, they do, and they have for ages. They tell stories about it, celebrate it, write heavy books about it, and debate constantly about what happens after.
Then they do the weirdest thing a human can do. They believe. They believe in gods and ghosts, Heaven and Hell, that there is something after. Without ever knowing for sure until the time comes. Even I don’t really know what happens after. It's not my job to know.
I flapped my wings, desperately trying to keep up with her effortless glide. "I can't do this one, please, Crow!"
She folded her wings back and landed on a branch. I couldn't hold still so I kept fluttering around her head. She watched me in silence for a while, then said. “Settle down, Egg."
She had called me that once, a long time ago. The name stuck.
With effort, I gripped the fragile tip of the branch with both feet, bouncing a few times.
"We are what we are," she said. Her voice creaked but her tone was soft. "We’re called to the ones that need us. Do you think, given the choice, that Cat would choose to see all she does? That Dog would not prefer to guide only those at peace with their time?"
I felt the pull inside me, that little tug. It would be someone's time soon. I've known for a while, watching, waiting. Crow had warned me a long time ago not to get too attached. But how could I not? Dog understood, I think, better than she did at any rate and enough not to give me that look.
“But you could--”
"This one," she said, "is yours."
I knew that tone. The way she ruffled her feathers and looked at me, she would say no more. I threw myself from the branch and caught air with my wings. I knew what would happen if a soul didn’t move on. This wasn't their world anymore, and staying in it would only bring them pain.
My charge was in bed, even though it was almost noon. Exactly where I expected to find him. The same place he’d been the day before, and the day before that. All the windows were closed, but I could see through the curtains. Old, faded curtains...he hadn’t hung those. Or touched them in as long as the windows had been closed. The house was falling apart, inside and out, the lawn overgrown, the trash piled in bags around a rotting shed. There was a birdhouse in the backyard tree, a feeder. No birdseed.
It hadn’t always been like this. Neither had he.
Some people didn't die so much as...stop living.
A shadow came lurking around the side of the shed, poking at the trash. Hopping up onto the fence, she sauntered along its length and hopped up onto the second story balcony. Close enough that I couldn't ignore her.
Cat just stared at me and settled onto her side, lounging in a stray sunbeam. "I have business here."
All my feathers puffed up and I huffed. "What kind of business?"
She didn't answer. Just looked past me, at the window. This one was mine, there was no getting around that. Her calling was very different from my own. A beak can't frown, but I did my best to scowl at her with my whole face. "Go away, Cat. I haven’t needed a babysitter in--"
"I'm not here for you," she said, the words curt.
"You're not here for him either!"
Before she could answer - or ignore me some more - the moment arrived. We could go inside now, doors and windows wouldn't stop us. With a parting flick of her tail, Cat slipped through the second story door. I took wing and squeezed my eyes shut as I darted towards the window glass. Hit enough windows and you get a bit paranoid about it, you know? There was no sudden impact, so I snapped my eyes and wings open, landing on the back of a chair.
He was sitting on the edge of the bed. Not looking at his own hollow shell, but staring at the empty space beside it. I warbled at him and like a sleeper roused, he turned his head to the sound. He held out a hand and I flew over, gripping his finger with both feet.
"You again," he said.
"Me again," I agreed.
"Long time, no see. Still angry at me?"
I shook my head. "No."
A wan smile, barely a shadow of what had once been the grin of a wild child. "Why not?"
"You grew up," I replied. "And stopped trying to die doing stupid shit."
He laughed, and the sound almost seemed to startle him. His expression got confused for a second, like he'd forgotten what it felt like to laugh. "Yeah...I guess I did." His eyes wandered to the empty spot on the bed.
This was a dangerous moment. Regret was a terrible thing. It could become shackles, stronger than steel, and chain a lost soul to the mortal world until they forgot how to let go.
Where the hell was Cat?
She jumped up into the empty spot. Should have seen that coming but it startled me anyway. She sniffed at the pillow, then slid closer, bumping her head against the spirit's hip. He reached out and stroked her head, gently scratching her notched ear. A different sort of smile crept up one side of his mouth.
"Can I...have a minute?" he asked, looking at me. "I know this is the last time we'll meet, and I'm ready, I just..."
I flew back to the chair. "We've got time."
He nodded and got up. Moving slow, though he wasn't a very old man. While he moved through the house, having his last moments with the life he'd once had, I gave Cat a sidelong look. Her composure didn't so much as flicker. Scrunching down into an irritated ball, I said, “I still don’t understand why you’re here.”
“Of course you don’t,” she murmured. Before I could do more than grind my beak, her eyes cut to me and she said, “You’ve been with this one a long time.”
All the air went out of me. After a second or two, I answered, “Yes.”
Some children live to turn their parents’ hair white. They hit life at breakneck speed and never slow down. With harried adults always on their heels, who catch them before they could go careening off the cliff of their own enthusiasm. He hadn’t actually gotten himself killed back then, but it was a close thing, and usually when a mortal has a brush with death, one of us is somewhere nearby. I spend a lot of time attending moments like that. Near misses. Close calls.
Sometimes they grow out of it. He didn’t. His teens, his twenties, I lost count after a while because the things he loved most were fast and stupid. There’s a lot of ways to risk your own life, and he tried more of them than most people survive in a single lifetime. Eight minutes is a long time for a heart to be stopped, and no time at all to try and explain to a thrill junkie that to get high on life you kind of need to be alive.
I got two chances to try.
After the second time, I didn’t think we’d meet again. That does happen. People grow, they change. I was hoping he would go with Dog, in the end. At peace.
Something must have happened...
Wait wait wait--
“Cat...have you been here before?”
She sat back on her haunches. “Yes.” Her eyes lingered on me, as though waiting for something, and when I just stared back at her she finally relented. “But it didn’t happen here.”
I looked at the empty place beside the still form under the blanket. “His mate was one of yours.”
She was quiet for another moment or two. We both watched the spirit meander down the hall, his back to us, and disappear into another room. Eventually, she nodded. Just once, a brisk tip of her head. She didn’t explain, but for once, she didn’t have to. I wasn’t as stupid as she often accused me of being. So many of the souls I guide knew what they were getting themselves into when they courted death, but how many of hers didn’t?
Only so many humans sign up knowingly for a sudden, violent end.
I have business here, she had said.
I’ve never felt...bad...for Cat before. She was cold and rude at the best of times, at least when I was around. We’ve never gotten along, barely spoke without me losing my temper and her silently laughing in my face. I knew the kind of death she was drawn to, and our paths crossed more often than you might think - recklessness sometimes comes with a casualty list of more than one.
I didn’t think she cared that much.
I was still sitting there, struck dumb and silent, when my charge finally wandered back to us. He smiled at Cat again, giving her one last scratch on the head as she nuzzled his hand. She didn’t speak to him, just started to purr instead. It took everything I had not to gawk at her.
Shaking myself and smoothing down a few stray feathers, I tilted my head at him. A few wisps of regret clung to him like cobwebs, but he just brushed absently at them without seeming to notice they were there. He turned one shoulder towards me and I flew up to perch there.
"Time to go?" I asked
"Let's hit the road," he agreed. As we started off, he chuckled and said, "Remember that time I crashed my Harley and was dead for eight minutes?"
I gave a loud sigh and pretended to be annoyed, though secretly it was good to hear him laugh again. "How could I forget?"
“Haven’t thought about that in years,” he said. “I miss that bike.”
I already knew the answer, but I asked the question anyway, “Going back for more?”
“...I think so, yeah.”
Absolutely mad. I almost never get souls who are done with living. They’re just done with this life. That’s what makes humans different, I think. Why we have to guide them, why they sometimes get stuck here, and why they go back again and again to start the whole cycle over again from cradle to grave. No matter how much good, or bad, they experience.
There’s always more life to live, and death isn’t always the end.
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So someone pointed out to me recently that in a few years, maybe a few decades, the history of the us during covid is probably going to get twisted. The fact that we all had to make and wear cloth masks is going to be hailed as a symbol of how we ""came together as a nation""" or whatever the fuck propaganda spin they try to put on it.
So I just want to say, for the record, the time of the corona virus pandemic was not a time when america came together.
This was a time when people hoarded toilet paper and sanitizing supplies either for themselves or to sell at absurd prices to the desperate people who didn't get to the store soon enough during the shortages
This was a time when scared parents were sending their kids to finish school in the spring in plastic trash bags because they couldn't think of any other way to possibly keep their families safe
This was a time when grocery store and retail and service workers were forced to keep working whether they wanted to risk their health or not because they couldn't make rent otherwise and the people with enough privilege to have remote jobs tried to repay them with applause instead of fair wages
This was a time when nurses had the hold the hands of multiple dying people every day as their families watched their loved ones die over a video call because the hospital couldn’t risk having visitors
This was a time when city governments had to handle so many eviction hearings that they rented out convention centers and called in the national guard instead of doing a rent freeze to stop predatory landlords
This was a time when racism and police brutality were so unbearably horrible that people protested in the streets for months even though there was a god damn pandemic that our federal government wasn't doing shit to stop and the cops were so mad that they were being asked to stop beating up black people that they were beating up everyone
This was a time when schools being forced to reopen in the fall or lose their federal funding had to draft templates for letters if a teacher or a staff person or a fucking child died from exposure to corona at school
This was a time when the president of the United states demanded that the cdc stop releasing data about all the people who were dying because of the warnings he ignored for months were making him look bad
This was a time when some state governments didn’t mandate masks and forced businesses to reopen because they didn't want to pay unemployment to people trying to stay safe at home anymore
This was a time when Jeff Bezos was on track to be a fucking trillionare because everyone was ordering things on amazon instead of going to the store and the people he worked to death to get it didn’t see a single cent of it
This was a time when instead of providing homeless people with housing, we painted boxes on the ground to show homeless people how far away the had to be on the street to maintain social distancing
We did not come together to make cloth masks. Cloth masks represent nothing less than the absolute and utter failure of a nation's government to inform and protect its citizens
This was not a time when we came together. This was a time when we survived, and not all of us made it.
This was a time when people casually talked about how many human lives the economy was worth without considering the evil that had just come out of their mouths.
This was a time when thousands of us died for profit and the ego of a cheating narcissists con man who scammed his way into the white house
This was a time that we survived. Most of us tried to do the right thing, stay home, limit trips to the store and socializing, wear a mask. And still, so many of us were lost. Thousands every day.
But that wasn't a good enough reason for some people, for those among us who were too selfish to recognize the responsibilities we have toward one another as human beings.
This was not a time that we came together
This was a time that we survived
Not all of us made it
And those of us who did survive will never forget the evil we saw daily in our politicians and those around us
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