Chapter 1. The curious case of Darla Matthews.
WE NEVER SLEEP.
I’ve been told that we are above it. That sleep is only for the living, much like death is for the dead. I’ve been told that there is too much work to do anyway, to make time for sleep. Besides, the concept of sleep would be pointless to us, since we do not need it. So why bother with something that’s useless to its core when there’s work to do?
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by sleep. I can’t comprehend how it works. How a person’s awareness is simply limited to allow the mind and the body to rest. But it’s not like the sleep of the dead, because the living can still wake. Biology normally determines when they do, but sometimes an outside force stirs their minds and they bolt awake.Sometimes it’s sound. Sometimes it’s a sensation, a touch. Sometimes it’s the own mind – dreams.
I wonder what it’s like to dream.
Sometimes I wish we could sleep. Being awake forever gets tiring at some point. To be alert and attentive for every moment of every day – it’s a drag. We do not share the concept of time like humans; we only know the rising and the setting of the sun. We know light and we know dark. The world goes around and nothing of particular interest ever happens, for things only have their meaning when they have an impact on time. Since we don’t know time, we don’t know importance. We only know our designated route, our course, ourwork. And our work goes on, day and night. Sleep, so it seems, would break infinity into tiny fragments, making it easier for the world to keep spinning and lift some of the burden of eternity.
We never sleep, for we were given eternity – we, the ghosts that were shaped by the gods. The quiet workers of fate.
For years, people believed ‘fate’ to be three women – one spinning, one organising the threads and the last making the cut at the appropriate time, on the edge of the predetermined length of life. But that’s when the world was still small, you see. When three workers could oversee the human population. As that population grew and expanded rapidly, the workers of fate needed extra hands. They created a triad system within the triad: one group that spins the wheel like the earth is spun too and creates the thread, a second group to lay out the threads and keep them from getting tangled up –though that happens on occasion – and a third group that cuts the cord. Workers from the first are often called ‘the Gentle’. They have acquired knowledge on how to ignite life and how to bundle tiny pieces of thread into one until it represents a soul. A life. Workers from the second, the dividers, are met with mixed reviews. Some of us think they are alright, but they don’t have the hardest of tasks to execute. After all, they organise life simply by keeping the threads from mixing, breaking or getting lost. I’ve been told that it has happened before – threads disappearing, suddenly free from the hands of fate. Needless to say the story never tells us what happened to those souls that were limitless. At the end of their line, they still died for their life-thread is only so long, but to be free from any sort of master – the thought is almost as tempting as the thought of sleeping. Accidents like these have happened, and sometimes the threads got messed up and people’s souls got tangled up. These are the reasons why there are some of us that don’t think nor speak very highly of the Seconds.
Workers from the third, workers like me, are considered the cruellest and the coldest, because we’ve been given the task to end people’s life and deliver their souls to the transfer point, from which they’ll be taken to the Court. We are the executioners. We do not discriminate or distinguish and we are not bound to the human rules of health, age, class or status. I mean, in the end, everybody’s got to die sometime, right? We do not dictate people’s lives nor do we decide their fate – the Gentle do that, but that’s something everybody keeps forgetting. We are just the drivers, the ferrymen, the deliverers. The Gentle create life and the time-span, the Second organise it and the Executioners end it. The Court decided what happens next.
I tell him this, but he doesn’t hear me. I shrug as I feel a cold wind at the back of my neck – no doubt a Second passing by and throwing some mental insults at me. I look up at the man sitting in front of me. Or maybe it’s another Executioner and this was his way to teasing me.
He was young, only thirty-eight and should have a lifetime ahead of him. People often portray children in their futures once they get married, and then health and old age, followed by grandchildren and then a peaceful death. Sometimes, when I watch the stars when night falls and I have a few moments to spare, I think of my desire to tell all those souls. I wish to enter their dreams and tell them – life’s not infinite. Life ends. Tomorrow is not a certainty but an insecurity. Make every day count, because it might –could – just as well be your last.
I shrug again, and sigh.
We sit across from each other in the hotel bar. There’s soft music playing, something jazz-like. He stares right through me, into the mirror behind me and observes the wrinkles in his face and the touch of grey in his hair. He sighs too. The bar is simply, standard, classic; deep-brown furniture, forest-green colours and yellow light. Everything you’d expect from a bar. There are tables around the open floor, the traditional dim light and green table cloths and there’s an open podium in the corner. If I close my eyes and focus, I could hear the echoes of laughter, music and joy. But it’s only vague and the stillness, the background music and mechanical humming of the ice maker quickly overtake the memory.
There are only a handful of people present and most of the mare alone with their cups of coffee or tea. The clock on the wall – the only one in the room – indicates the time.
Only a quarter to 8.
The man – his name is Peter McCawley – sighs once more and stares at his drink. His fingers fidget with the paper napkin in his hands. The drink in front of him was poured into a crystal clear glass, the liquid deep yellow, nearing brown. As his hand reaches for the drink, I notice the similarity between the colour of his drink and the wedding ring on his ring finger. Us fates never leave things up to coincidence. Everything makes perfect sense, even if it doesn’t do so at first. His turns it around his finger acouple of times, avoiding his reflection in the mirror. Then, with another deep breath, he takes it off and puts it aside.
I hear his thoughts. ‘I shouldn’t be drinking’.
“No,” I tell him “No, Peter, you shouldn’t be drinking. But you will, nonetheless.”
Peter sighs, his eyes finding themselves in the reflection of the mirror – looking straight through me – and he folds his hands in front of his mouth. He’d been sitting here for hours now. Caffrey, the bartender, glances at him. I know what he’s thinking. He too, is thinking that Peter shouldn’t be drinking. But Caffrey doesn’t get up to talk to him. Instead, ayoung woman enters the bar and demands his attention. She’s got red hair, the colour of her lips matching it and she’s wearing her favourite white blouse and green skirt. The one that hugged her curves. Darla Matthews flashes Caffrey asmile and he takes her order.
She’s not supposed to be here.
I frown and reach into my pocket. I’m sure I would have gotten the memo if Peter’s fate had changed. Pod would have mentioned something to me – he loved hanging out in bars, so he would have gladly come down to inform me of any changes. My long and pale fingers flick through the little book of Peter McCawley and I reach the last page. In a flash, I can see the third to last stanza disappear like the ink was suddenly sucked into the paper. New letters appear to form words and I wait till the words form sentences.
I glance up at Peter and make a face. His movements have slowed down significantly, the music sounds long and dreading as I speed through time, going against the current time-rate of earth. “Sorry there, buddy, I just need to figure this out and then we’ll move on, ‘kay?” I say to him as if I know him.
I look down at the pocket book and my eyes take in the words. I reach for a second book – the little book of Darla Matthews – and check chapter 26. Nodding, I put both books away in my bottomless pocket and the moment surpasses. With a spinning whoosh, I catch up to earth-time again and the sounds of the room reach my ears normally again. I fake enthusiasm as I pat my hands on my legs. Then I raise both my thumbs at Peter. “Everything’s alright buddy, nothing to worry about.”
Peter ignores me and instead, stares at the indication of the ring in his flesh. Where it used to be, anyway. The image of his wife with someone else flashes before his eyes.
“I know, Peter. I know.” I say to him. I try to make myvoice sound soothing, even though I know he will never hear me. “Life isn’t fair. It sucks. It’s brutal and evil and just… Torture. I know. Drink up, it will make you feel better.”
I nudge the glass, ticking my fingernail against it. Thereis no sound, none that anyone in the room can hear, that is. Peter sighs again. I want to give him some more time – he’s only got a limited number of breaths to draw, but the clock ticks loud and the echo reverberates throughout the room. It rattles my bones.
I know, I know. I’m not allowed to make changes.
“C’mon Peter, time’s up.” I tell him.
With a sigh, Peter grabs the glass and downs the liquid. He checks his watch. Caffrey is ordered to pour him another drink while Peter stands up to grab his trolley and brief case. Darla looks at Caffrey, the smile still on her lips, whereas Caffrey looks at Peter. He wants to say something, I can feel it. I get up from the bar stool and lean back against the liquid cabinet. I take a breath and glance at Darla.
I know your fate. I whisper to her mind. Then I enforce her new fate upon her so that I can succeed in completing Peter’s.
She says something flirty to Caffrey and attention is averted.
Caffrey puts the drink in front of Peter, barely paying attention and looks at Darla with a twinkle in his eyes. I know what he’s thinking now, but I decide not to think of it much further. I was taught there was a thin line between someone’s actual thoughts and one’s fantasies. We were to listen in to the thoughts, but it wasn’t proper to witness the fantasies. Just like we’re not supposed to watch their dreams. It’s futile, really, because we possess the little books and the little books tell us pretty much everything, if we wished to read every letter of their lives.
Without any further effort of my side, Peter gulps the second drink down and leaves after placing some money on the counter. I follow him with my eyes until he disappears from the bar. My eyes now scan Darla, who wasn’t supposed to be here, but she was needed to interfere and she served her purpose. I am not at liberty to grant her more time, so I tell her my goodbyes. I know we’ll meet again soon.
Travelling through the wall and into the hotel lobby, I find Peter again. He’s outside and in front of a cab. The sun is rising in the distance.
I can hear him tell the driver where he needs to go. “San Diego International Airport, please.” Peter says. The cab driver nods and smiles.
“My son wants to be a pilot.” He says.
Peter smiles back. “Sounds like a smart boy to me.”
The cab driver laughs and continues the conversation as he drives off.
Yes, Bob the cab driver has a smart son. Peter was once a smart son, too. Before finding out his wife had been having an affair and was now packing her bags, divorce papers on the kitchen counter, a plane ticket to Hawaii in her hand, and he decided to drink twice the legal limit in a dark and dusky hotel bar and then fly an airplane bound to Europe.
As I said. Sometimes, life just sucks. But it’s not our fault.
It’s not my fault.
I’m just the executioner.