Monsters are not keen on Valentine’s day. Sure, they fall in love, but they’re not big fans of human celebrations. They’d like not to have them pushed on.
This might be the reason why the cafeteria is a mess of paper hearts, flowers and confetti when my shift begins. It might also explain why Charon is there.
“What have you done?”
Charon raises his eyebrows.
“Fine. What have I done now?” I ask on autopilot.
“Other than giving me half-assed excuses and disappointment?”
Well, he’s not wrong here. I’m not a perfect employee, and sure as hell I’m not a perfect daughter. “Maybe you should just let me go, then.”
His left eyelid twitches just like mine does when I’m under pressure. It might be the only thing we have in common, and while I don’t like it, it brings me joy to know I can get under his skin.
“You’ll find my instructions in the kitchen. Don’t mess this one up too.”
Before I can think of a retort he’s already gone, dissolved into thin air or maybe back to his office. So fucking typical.
Ava is waiting for me in the kitchen. As soon as she notices me, she points at the note on a counter that would otherwise be pristine.
“So, themed party?” I ask as I read. “And we’re encouraged to bake now? How nice.”
Ava shrugs. “Come on, I’ve been working for hours and we still have a shit ton of stuff to do.”
“I’m no more than thirty minutes late.”
The thought of offering heart-shaped whatevers —thank you, father— to a bunch of supernaturals makes me shudder. I wish I could say I don’t get mad, but after a year of begging to get away from the cafeteria, I do. I’m livid.
“You know what? Let’s kill them all,” I say, “And see how long it takes for our fearless leader to realize it was us.”
Ava looks at me and I can almost see the cogs inside her brain turning. “Why?”
“I’m done with being caged, that’s why. He can fire me altogether or kill me, I’m done.” I don’t know much, but I know today is gonna be my last day here. “It’s okay if you don’t feel like it. I can do this on my own.”
Soon she smiles, showing too many pointed teeth.
“Deal. Ten bucks say an hour and a half. What say you?”
“Wait, let’s make it even better. I wanna use you for a spell.”
I don’t like what she’s asking for, but I nod anyway. Reapers have no magic of their own, so they need to tap into the closest power source in order to use it, and that’s the reason why I’m always shut up around her. Or reapers in general, since I’m pretty committed to remain alive.
“More than three hours, if we’re subtle enough.”
“What do you want?”
“Freedom.” Winning a bet is just a nice bonus.
It doesn’t take long for a plan to form, and while Ava is busy with the dough I ponder the best and most inconspicuous ways to poison someone. Herbs are hard to get when you’re stuck inside a building, and spells are too traceable for my own liking. Human poisons would be nice, but imagine the supernaturals’ reaction if they suspected normies were involved. I’m not too keen on starting a war between human resources and the rest of the crew, and I wouldn’t suggest the possibility to my friend here.
A potion it is, then. I’m gonna make it all pretty and pink, and turn it into icing. And I’m gonna have them all die roughly at the same time, two and a half hours after the icing is applied to the cookies. It should be enough to win the bet.
Even as rusty as I am, brewing is not hard at all, and soon the dough is setting in the fridge while the potion is on the stove, thickening.
“They’re gonna be so mad,” Ava says as she puts the last tray of cookies inside the oven.
“Isn’t revenge the whole point?” I rinse the pot I used for brewing, trying to scrub away one tiny residual of the potion. “Still better than all the mocking we’d get if we just serve people plain cookies. Now that I think about it, they should thank us for spicing up their morning.”
“I don’t know, Rain. You’re already in trouble. The boss might not be so munificent this time.”
“I’m always in trouble with Charon.” The thought that this might be the last of an endless list of last chances I have had crosses my mind, but I don’t believe he’s ever gonna kill me for it. Which I’m grateful for. But.
“Second guessing much?” I ask Ava. “You can always get out of this and be a good girl.”
She runs her hand through her hair, eyes still fixed on the oven. “No,” she says at last, “I’m in.”
I check the temperature of the icing before putting it next to one of the trays. While Ava waits, I cover in pink icing the ones we’ve already baked. Thanks to the special ingredients I’ve added, the end result is tempting even for me. It’s a clear sign that I’m still the queen of potions and they all should kiss my ass.
The alarm rings and Ava removes our last batch from the oven. “Pretty, huh?” she asks me when she notices I’m almost done with mine.
“Want one?” I say. She rolls her eyes and throws a hot cookie at me and missing. I flip her the bird, then kneel to clean the floor.
It is almost time to open for the day. This is going to be glorious.
Everything is ready when I unlock the door of the cafeteria. The decorations are still looming over our heads, the radio keeps passing love songs no matter how many times I try to change stations, and the cookies are arranged in piles on each table as a casual offering to our patrons.
We can only muster our best fake smiles and get ready for the show, both staring at the corridor leading to the cafeteria through the glass wall as we wait for the morning shift people to show.
“Oh, look, your vampire is here.” Ava notices Ryan —who is not my vampire— walking through the corridor after the end of his night shift. “Too bad we can’t try one on him.”
She glances at her watch. A little less than half an hour has already passed, and she must know she’s going to lose. “Oh, we can’t, can we?”
It’s my turn to shrug now, vampires don’t eat solid food. Instead of arguing, I just start making Ryan’s usual, a cinnamon blooduccino.
“Hey,” I say as he approaches the counter. “Here you are.”
Ryan grabs his drink, giving me a grunt in return. Moody bastard.
“Damn,” I tell Ava once he’s gone, “Remind me to crumble one inside his drink next time?”
“There ain’t gonna be a next time, girl.”
Before we have the time to say murder, the cafeteria is packed with people, and my ruminations are long forgotten. Some of the patrons are seated at the tables, chatting and munching. Others are crammed all around the counter, and we’re trying hard to keep up with all their orders. A smile here and a smirk there are enough to convince most of them to try one of the cookies while Ava makes their food.
By eight a.m. a good portion of the Death Inc employees have had at least one bite. And it’s around that time that Zach comes in, holding hands with one of the public relations succubi. Amanda, maybe?
My heart sinks, just like it does every time I see him with someone new. Our interactions lately are reduced to him showing off whomever he is dating at the moment and me pretending I don’t care. But I do, and, being the coward that I am, I duck under the counter as they come my way. Ava kicks me, forcing me to get up.
A shiver runs through my spine when I meet Zach’s gaze, but I take a big breath and put my fake smile on.
“Hello, Rain,” he says. “I love what you did with the place.”
“Oh, guys. Zachary. Nice to see you.”
Zachary stares at me, and I know he’s trying to read me, goosebumps on my arms and all. Yeah, no luck with that, pal. I take their orders, managing to keep my cool long enough, and then I run toward the kitchen, turning just in time to see Ava hand them a cookie each.
“Wait, ” I shout in Zach and Mandy’s direction. They both look at me, half-eaten cookies in hand and mouths still moving.
“What?” she asks.
I choke on my words more than once before I’m able to speak. “Nothing, your food is coming.”
It takes a while before they go away. A break is all I need, some time alone, but it’s rush hour and I’m not able to leave the cafeteria until 10 a.m.
The walk to the restroom is quiet, too quiet for a Friday. I spot the odd reaper here and there, but not many people are around. It can only mean one thing: phase two has begun. I can taste vomit in the back of my throat, along with the sweet rush of adrenaline.
A closed door awaits when I get to my destination. Stuck, I think as I fail to push it open. I keep trying until I’m able to slide in and close the door behind me. There are two corpses at my feet, both accountants from the first floor. I light up a cigarette in front of the big mirror, noticing for the first time how pale I look as I breathe out clouds of grey smoke.
Once I’m done, I climb over the bodies again and head back to work, stumbling upon more corpses as I walk. Not that it matters, death is something you get used to when your whole existence revolves around it.
A small crowd has formed around a corner not too distant from the cafeteria. Zach is there too, along with Mandy.
“What is going on, Zachary?” she asks over and over, pronouncing his name all wrong. Her fingernails are dug so deep into his hand that I can smell his blood from here.
“There’s more dead people over there,” I chime in, taking care of avoiding both of their gazes. I point at the green door at the end of the corridors. “Two. In the bathroom.”
There’s nothing more to say, not until he drops dead and hits the ground. The carpet softens the fall, but watching him die is enough for Mandy freak out even more, if that’s possible.
At least until she dies too. For which I’m grateful. I can’t mourn with an idiot screaming in my ears.
Not that I can mourn anyway. My stomach twists at the sight of Zach’s lifeless form. Unable to breathe more than thin gasps of hair, I move by. My hands shake, and I can’t stop them.
More and more people are following the succubus’ example, screaming nonsense and running in circles. The panic is tangible, nothing is more terrifying than not understanding what’s going on.
I check my watch. More than three hours have passed.
I end up in front of Charon’s office at the very moment his voice echoes through the building. As if on cue, the door opens before me. Charon doesn’t have a stern face. On the contrary, he smiles as if he’s seen something amusing.
“Come in,” he says, and then he waits for me to sit on my favorite chair before shutting the door.
The fact that I have a favorite chair in his office is telling. I spend too much time there.
“What’s up?” I ask, my shields high and my face an emotionless mask. Or at least I hope so.
Charon looks at his watch, then at the chair next to mine. Ava materializes out of thin hair. She looks around and gasps. I smirk at her, mouthing the obvious, “Loser.”
Ava looks down, my father shakes his head.
“Now we talk.” He stares at us tapping his long fingers on his desk. “Both of you, I’m intrigued. Disappointed, but intrigued.”
Ava keeps her mouth shut, eyes still fixed on the floor. So much for a partner in crime.
“About what?” I ask.
One of our cookies materializes in his hand. He smiles at me and takes a bite. “What do you think is gonna happen now? Am I supposed to drop dead?”
Wouldn’t it be nice?
“Are you insane?” I blurt out. The words leave my mouth before I can turn them into something more respectful.
“I can’t die, Rain. Don’t you ever learn?”
He has a point, of course, but I still stare at him as if he’s about to, and Ava’s reaction is pretty much the same.
“So, care to explain why several of my employees are corpses?” He sits at his desk, the cookie now abandoned in front of him. He leans back and crosses his arms, waiting for us to spill the beans.
“No idea. Indigestion, maybe?”
Shaking his head —again— he rummages inside one drawer, taking out a small vial. He opens it and lifts his hand towards Ava in a movement I’ve seen him do hundreds of times. It only takes a moment: Ava widens her eyes, and then her body goes limp. Charon waits for soul to fill the vial, then puts the cap back on.
Inhale, exhale. My left eyelid twitches.
“This whole Valentine bullshit was uncalled for, and you know it,” I say.
His fingers tap on the vial. “And yet, you should have complied.”
“How do you know it was me and not Ava?”
“This stinks of you,” he says, waving in the general direction of the cookie. Of course. “Your magic always leaves a trace.”
“Why her, then?”
“Accountability, my dear. This is her punishment. Now you. You made a mess, and you’re gonna fix it.”
Maybe this isn’t the best moment to admit I am counting on him to revive his crew. “Meaning?” I ask instead.
“You’re going to revive them all. And apologize to everyone you’ve killed.”
I burst out a nervous laugh. Hell, I’d rather be dead than apologize. Not to Zach anyway.
“It’s an order.”
“Let’s be honest here. I have no idea how to bring the dead back to life.”
He lets the vial containing Ava’s soul drop inside the drawer, then picks the cookie up once again. Flames envelop his hand. Not a trace of pain crosses his features, but the cookie crumbles to dust nevertheless.
“You’ll find everyone in their offices. Oh, and you’ll also find out that actions have consequences.”
“Can she help?” I ask, nodding toward the desk.
And just like that, I’m dismissed.
I shut the door behind me and lean against it, letting out a sigh of relief. Nobody is dead. Zach isn’t dead. And if I have to see an even brighter side, I’m positive Charon won’t ever let me step foot in the cafeteria again.
All I have to do is lie some more.
First comes the first floor. I’m welcomed by frowns, stern looks and the odd growl as I fake my most sincere apologies to the accountants. As I try to listen to their complaints, my mind keeps running to what I’m going to tell Zach.
“-what the hell were you thinking!”
The words, coming from a lesser demon whose name I don’t know, anchor me to reality once again. He’s moved behind me, placing himself in front of the door and blocking my only way out.
“It was uncalled for.” I repeat the script I’ve planned and hope to look humiliated enough. “And I shouldn’t have involved any of you. It won’t happen again.”
“Gotta watch your back, witch,” he says, leering at me.
I nod. “I’ll be sure to let my father know you’ve accepted my apologies.”
Mentioning Charon seems to appease the rest of the accountants, but this one is way too mad to notice. I’m already thinking of a quick way to blow him up without angering the rest again when a loud bang forces him to open the door. Ava enters and glares at the demon, who retreats without a single question.
“Let’s go, we are on a mission.” She waits for me to leave the room, and then follows.
“Hey, weren’t you— You know?” I ask her. “Did the supreme leader change his mind?”
Ava shrugs. “Nobody seems to just stay dead today, right?”
She smiles as she waits for me to climb all the stairs, and then off we go to floor number two, human resources. “Isn’t it convenient that Zachary’s on the fifth floor?” Ava asks as we walk.
As if that isn’t why I’ve started from the bottom.
“What’s the deal with him?”
“You tell me,” I shrug. Apologies come first.
Floor number four is the domain of reapers. My heartbeat pounds in my ears as we climb the last step. This was my office, these were my colleagues. I’m sure I’ll only find benevolence here, but it’s their pity I can’t stand.
As I open the door to the big white room where I used to work, Shane lifts his head from some papers and smiles.
“Long time no see, kiddo.”
He welcomes me with open arms, and I hug him back.
“Don’t get used to it, but I’m here to say I’m sorry for killing some of you.”
“Heard that, you beasts?” he shouts.
The reapers’ gazes fix on me. Some are familiar faces, others have started working here when I was already gone, but they all nod and get back to work. Shane wouldn’t allow it any other way.
“How are you doing? It’s been a while,” Shane says.
“Fine, I guess.”
“You should come visit more often.”
I smile as I sit on his desk and grab one of the papers. Written in Charon’s familiar handwriting is the daily list of souls to collect. My name isn’t on it, which gives me hope that my father isn’t going to kill me for what I’ve done.
“You know me, always busy,” I say as I put the list back.
“You know I wasn’t on board with the decision, right? I mean, everybody here has fucked up at least once,” Shane shakes his head. “Just think of all the shit Coop puts us through. He should be meat for the goblins now.”
“Hey, I can hear you,” Coop shouts from his desk, then winks at me. I wink back, and I can’t help but be warmed by the thought of every crazy thing he’s done.
Sometimes I miss the having around someone who fucks up as much as I do.
Shane’s expression is serious when he talks again. “Now, make amends and find a way to get back to us, kiddo. Right?”
“Yes, sir,” I lie.
One floor separates me from Zach. Ava and I cover the distance way too quickly for my taste, but there’s not much I can do. It’s now Ava who pants as she tries to keep up with me.
“Go talk to your beau,” she shouts from behind, “It’ll be fun.”
I knock on his door, but no answer comes. I open it anyway, and the first thing I see is Zach. He looks like he’s sleeping with his head hidden in his arms.
“Go on, get inside,” Ava says.
The footsteps behind me suggest she’s following me, so I leave the door open for her.
“Zach,” I call. “Zachary?”
There’s no reply. I move closer and lay my hand on his. It’is cold, unresponsive.
He doesn’t wake up even when I shake him.
That’s when the shock hits me. “Zach, wake up. Please,” I say.
“He’s not going to.”
I turn toward Ava just as she’s morphing into something else, her whole body twisting and turning. Her features change into my father’s.
“You,” I whisper. “Take him back. You promised they’d all be fine.”
“Never did such a thing, but I can offer you a bargain for his life, if you wish.”
The mocking undertone I sense in his words is what makes me grab an empty pencil holder and throw it at him. It disappears into nothing before it can hit Charon in the chest.
“I’ll find a way on my own, thank you.”
“Good luck with that,” he replies, shaking his head. “I’ll revive him for you, but I want the whole truth first.”
My eyes dart back to Zach’s unresponsive figure. I could pretend I don’t care, but I can’t have him on my conscience too, and I know nothing about necromancy. Whatever magic Charon uses, it is nothing like mine.
“You already know the whole deal.”
“I know parts of it.” He leans against the wall, his eyes fixed on the big tree right outside of Zach’s window. “What I don’t know is why.”
“The soul had a kid.”
“Not your problem.”
“Yes, it was.” I glare at him, and my hate intensifies more than I thought it possible. “Kids shouldn’t be left on their own.”
He signals me to go on.
“I healed the soul, and then told them to get the fuck away, change continents or something. I had to spare him.”
“You put your magic on him.”
I’m about to ask him how he knows, but he’s already told me earlier. My magic stinks. “And then the kid was the one who died.”
Charon’s eyelid twitches again. “Sparing the soul is what caused the imbalance that killed him.”
Of course it is, I know it now. And I’d have known it back then as well, if only he’d bothered to explain it to me instead of throwing me in the business as soon as he’d found me. “I was never meant to be a reaper, Charon. I am too human.”
“That’s why you ran to the vampire, and he drained you.” He frowns as he tries and fails to read me. “Just imagine my surprise when I read your name on the list. I had to fix you, you idiotic child, and it caused an even bigger imbalance.”
“You should have let me go. Here’s your second chance to set me free.”
“My own blood? Never.”
Ryan has more of my blood inside his veins than he does, but I’m not gonna tell him that.
“You need to learn, and I don’t trust you not to keep making a mess after another. Now, you’ll sell me your soul, and I’ll bring your boyfriend back.”
“What do you mean?”
“No more cafeteria, no more fights. Zachary back. In exchange, I ask for access to your thoughts. Sell me your soul, and you’ll have it all.”
Besides my power, the natural shields I’ve built around them are what separates me from the rest of Charon’s minions. If losing Zach is scary, losing myself is scarier. I need to find a way to keep both of us. The idea is already forming, but I lock it away for the moment.
“Will I be free to leave?”
“Of course not,” he says. Smiling. “You’ll get your old job back.”
“What’s the other option?”
“Ending up in one of my vials until you become more reasonable.”
This sets my internal debate. There’s no way I can gain my freedom back if I’m trapped indefinitely. “Deal, on one condition. You can’t tell anyone.”
He comes closer, his hand extended. I shake it and we’re done, just like that. Selling your soul should be more complicated than a simple handshake.
I wipe my hand on my t-shirt. It’ll be forever tainted now. My father shakes his head, but he doesn’t comment.
“What about Ava?”
“She was a goner the moment you decided to save him. Someone had to die, and you made your choice.”
Great, one more death on me.
“There’s always consequences,” he says, but this time he’s not the one who leaves. I flip him the bird and shut the door behind me.
Leaving shouldn’t hurt. You’re supposed to fit your stuff inside a box and move on to a new, more exciting adventure. Instead, being in the cafeteria and not seeing Ava’s stuff anymore pains me, and packing my stuff and knowing I’m back to square one hurts even more. It’s the last straw of a day I’ve made a complete mess of.
I set the only box I plan on using on the floor in the middle of the cafeteria, and I stand, surrounded by decorations I wish I could just make disappear. The blinds are up, dusk is filling the place with a golden light that will soon turn into darkness.
Some pictures, my favorite knife and an apron are the items I’ve filled my box with when someone knocks on the door.
“We’re closed,” I shout without turning. The door opens anyway.
I’d recognize Zach’s voice everywhere, but this is not the place nor the moment for a conversation. Instead of turning to face him, I pretend I’m too busy.
“Do you need something?”
He comes closer and crouches in front of me.
“You’re back with the gang.”
I nod. “So it seems. How do you know?”
“Not everyone is as hard to read as you are, Rain.”
Meet Zachary, the empath. Sensing what people are feeling is his gift. This could very well be our last conversation, but as much as keeping my cool pains me, I shrug anyway.
“Thank you,” he says.
“I got from the fearless leader you’re the one to thank for bringing me back.”
“Did Charon tell you?”
He shakes his head. “ We talked when he revived me, but no, he didn’t say a thing. I just got a general impression. It was enough, though. He was quite smug about it.”
“Right.” I curse myself for not adding no more mind games as another condition, but it doesn’t matter. All I need is a way out, and I will find one, even if it’s the last thing I do.
Zach tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. I freeze, the skin on my neck tingling after his touch. Tears threaten to run down my cheeks. Again.
“I need to pack my stuff, Zach. See you around.”
Instead of leaving, he presses his forehead against mine. His fingers lift my chin enough for our lips to meet. I kiss him back, not daring to even breathe, afraid as I am that even the smallest movement could make this —him— disappear.
The decorations seem pretty fitting now.