In the middle of a circle road, alone, stood Valdís, also known as Death. She was a short woman with puffed lips and skin like plastic. She stepped past the starved trees of the college campus and balanced herself as she approached blocky buildings. A long rope trailed from a pocket of her skin. She held this rope. There was no wind, no smell, no taste in the air.
A black dog snuck past a stationary door, trotting towards her. She gave it a quick, small smile, then gazed at the orange clouds shaped like daggers above. On the bench to her right floated a pink polo shirt, broken sunglasses, blue cap, brown khakis, and an open backpack, all worn in place without a body to keep them there. The thatchy rope from her hip pocket coiled up as the dog returned and looked at her with small eyes.
“Thank you, Keres,” Valdís declared. The grass prickled her bare feet as she walked along the dog’s path, towards the dog’s findings. In passing the building, she let her hands glide across the glass window, gazing at the pageant of hung shirts and pants inside. There was only one human on this plane, nowhere in sight now.
They walked into the forest. Even without Keres scampering ahead, Valdís could hear heavy, disjointed breathing below the black soil. After receiving a pat, the dog sat by a wrinkled tree, its head still high. Valdís rubbed her temples. She opened her eyes, slouched her back, then knelt to remove the clump of roots by her feet.
Inside the ditch under the tree, curled up fetal, was a lumpy teen with tear-stained cheeks and eyes of perfect circles. He loosened the clench on his arms and looked up at Valdís’ lack of chin.
She balanced her hand on the dark pit’s edge. “Edgar, I should apologize.”
Her dog did not bark and grimace when they appeared in the fake kitchen. Aside from the checkered table, cornered bookshelves, and floating papers, the cramped white room was bare. An invisible body with a skirt held out her glistening shirtsleeves towards the table. On top of it was a wailing baby, purple and writhing. It shifted away from the glistening arms, arms held above a glass platform below the table’s edge. There were many recently deceased persons Valdís now dealt with on different planes- a soldier with no eyes, a woman suffocating under a landslide of brown earth. Only at this noise did she wince and sigh. She nodded at the child, and moved towards the bookshelf before stopping and tugging at the leash. Her dog’s drooping tongue and brightened eyes jolted her.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting tired of killing too,” she demanded, flicking the rope tied around his neck. “Go at him. I know it’s what you want.”
He sat down, his nose turned as if the child was as appetizing as concrete. In her millenniums of life, her companion had never lost his hunger until now. She looked at the baby, then the dog, before walking over to the leaflets held by a floating labcoat.
question still remains: is an infant’s ability to perceive lethal falls learned, or natural?
To begin, your child will be placed on a table with a ‘visual cliff.’ The eastern edge will have a heavy glass board that will protect the child while not betraying the experiment’s nature. You, the mother, will attempt to encourage him to crawl to you, even thought the prospect may seem deadly from the infant’s perspective. Our supervisors will give you more detailed instructions during the trial.
Thank you for your selfless cooperation and generosity. Your time here will add to the world’s understanding of human development. Please sign a time slot below with the name of your child.
January 5th, 1960
1:00 – Jonny Jack Nil
1:15 – Edgar Beckenbaur
She looked up at the clock: 1:19. Her dog had his paws up on the table and began licking Edgar’s softening face. She turned to the human, eyebrows pushed. Once the child let out a loose laugh, everything vanished.
At their second meeting, the baby had stained moss goo on his bib. He swat without rhythm at a hard spoon floating by the high chair, screeching at the kitchen’s steel counters and armada of cupboards. Valdís only glanced at the cabinet’s crusted cookbooks before frowning at her black follower’s wagging tail.
She tiptoed over the checkered floor, but stood straight and tall when Edgar’s shrieks fell silent. His circular, watery eyes flared up as she leaned in. “Only the dead can enter this realm. I do not know how you could die twice, much less return. Perhaps the Higher Powers have something for you. For now, you will hear this phrase at each encounter, if we continue to meet: wherever you go, bring a scientific magazine with you.”
It took years until the implanting worked, and the child began to appear with a ratty and torn Scientific Weekly. The new challenge involved getting Edgar to pick up the most current issue. Valdís eventually moved on to memorizing the same one he clutched onto, reading around the dog-shaped doodles. But this had to wait if she covered her ears to the piercing child’s cries, for she could only stare at the golden chandeliers while her constant guest rubbed his own tears out.
She visited him each preschool morning, at the bottom of winding and endless steps in a flat, polished hallway. Outside the door, she could see a massive lawn and three cars. Whether he came buried in jackets or with a backpack tightly fastened, he wore the same brown polo and dark pants, and usually arrived crying, choking, or cold, sometimes retching. She would sit on a leather recliner, fingers relaxed, as Edgar’s wide eyes ran about. When the toddler finally went to scratch and pet the black dog, her fingers could pull the magazine from his.
“You are my Bobo and I like you,” Edgar said once the dog put on a dumb grin.
“His name’s Keres,” she snarled. “Are you ready to hear about the layered world yet?”
“Bobo, Bobo, Bobo, Bobo,” he sang.
Edgar’s shrieks seemed sharp enough to tear down the row of letters encircling his spacious classroom. Valdís barely had time to jump away as a runny-nosed, little-legged Edgar ran up to her, leading the charge with a pencil and a sheet of paper. The wailing child pushed Keres back.
“What is it now?” she snapped.
The boy smacked the paper and pencil on the desk of a hovering backwards cap and astronaut shirt, spun away, then shrieked, “You do this!” As he fell to the fake wood floor sobbing, Valdís leaned in and peered over the simple numbers scattered about the sheet.
“You really can’t do this,” she asked him.
The boy snatched his Scientific Weekly from under a desk, crumpled its center with one hand, and then threw it in front of her. He screamed so high that Keres whined. “Go away! You’re stupid! Everyone’s stupid!”
He jolted out of the room, tears and snot pooling on his chin. The plastic skin woman picked up the magazine, folded open the cover, then wedged herself in a backroom plastic chair.
She read each article three times before Keres bumped his nose against her glimmering pocket of endless rope. The child still hadn’t returned. The sun’s beams were painted through the buggy windows. She was no longer watching the silent reporter observe for a last time, or escalating her voice above the priest’s on Earth. Now, she was only here, and her skin retreated inward.
There was a knock on the door before it opened a little. “I’m very sorry. You’re not stupid,” muttered a quick and wobbling voice before it slammed the door shut.
She bolted up, nearly tripping over Keres to reach the wide door and open it. “Edgar, I can help you on the test.”
The boy stopped his rhythmic swatting at the glossy lockers. His breathing hummed down the carpeted, low hallway as he moved towards the small lady.
“But you have to answer some questions first.” She moved to one knee. “Edgar, look up at me when we’re talking.”
Edgar shook his head, fidgeted his hands on the pins of an overstuffed bulletin board. On the sticky walls of the school were rows of tattered motivational posters, each with a saying Valdís had heard several times before.
“What were you doing when you came here?”
“I was taking a test.”
“Were you getting upset?”
The child scrunched his shoulders away from her. She cleared her throat; one of the last claims for the layered world before she arrived here was a tiny psychologist with smooth cream hair and a sculpted face, with a voice like a marble fountain even after his death.
“That’s quite all right.” Her voice was the marble stream compared to the psychologist’s voice. “You can answer when you want. But next time, don’t carry a magazine with you. Look for these words: p-s-y-c-h-o-l-o-g-y, e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-d-i-a.
To be continued in Part 2!