“So you really are Death, huh?” asked Edgar with a smirk, his shining shoes tapping down the purple-tiled school floor.
Both of them looked ahead at the battered doorway. Gum stuck to folded papers littering the path. “Most likely. I was called that many times, but it wasn’t until I discovered some text naming me Thanatos that I understood. I prefer Valdís, however.”
“Valdís. Ok. So, how many times have I ‘died’, then?” Edgar chuckled as he wiped away some drying sweat from his acne and stared into the fluorescent line on the ceiling.
“You haven’t. You have had 387 panic attacks, however.”
Valdís opened The Complete Greek Mythology Encyclopedia she held in front of her, and squinted at the large profile of Elvis drawn over the edifices of text. “How am I supposed to read this now?” she snarled.
Edgar held out his hand, head still forward. “I’m sorry. I should’ve been more considerate.”
“It’s all right.” She slid it into his hand while facing him. Ahead, the dog had been wrestling the drinking fountain’s handle. “It’s nice to have it around. It’s a good habit of yours.”
They turned right to the dust-colored stairs of crowded backpacks, Edgar talking their way down. “So this guy I’ve looked up, Duchamp,” he began, pronouncing the name ‘Da-champ,’ “Really like what I’ve discovered about him, like his paintings. It’s cool that he upset some people, cause it really is that fun. Did you know, without you I could’ve become one of those religious snobs I now tease. I should draw more to mess with them. Although maybe I shouldn’t, I’ve been talking about you a lot, and – well, I’m making a name for myself in that way. I’m worth noting now. So thank you.”
Valdís smiled at Edgar’s shrug, and opened the next door to a shining green cafeteria.
“So when did it begin?”
“Hmm?” No one had walked out of the square stairwell yet.
“Everyone’s asking me where I came up with this ‘idea’ and I don’t know what to say.” The teen threw his head back up, rebalanced himself on the frozen bathroom door. “I mean, I can draw from here better than explain.”
“It’s all right.” Valdís tugged on the rope, which began to curl back into her skin as Keres bounded down the landing. The dog snuggled against her feet. “It is difficult to describe, yet whom but I can? I believe in Roman Gaul… no, before that. In my foolishness, I spent centuries attempting to breach your world, to not send any more souls to death. Anything to relieve the millenniums of tedium. Keres is no company, and with his appetite, he eventually breaks free from me to devour the deceased. I cannot wish that on anyone. The forests of Gaul – if they were even those – once gave me the chance to experiment, for Keres’ prey was faster than he. I let him go so I could ponder.
“I had run out of ways to try and escape my duty. Those who did not fear and hate me gave me no useful advice. When the last medicine man’s ritual proved useless, I became aware that life may be without purpose. That thought suffocated all of its kind.
“I’ve forgotten why this attempted escape to your world brought me to dig a rock deep into my skin. But the stone shattered on me, and opened up all its colors inside. I broke other rocks to compare: only this one had thin rings after another, each of different material, each one breathing.
“The prey returned, and he was no man. Red and giant, with quills mounting on his back, howling in a tongue that even I do not know. One titan hand grasped my head, perhaps signaling the death of the being. That was the first time when I was not attending deaths that I could be conscious. There I saw it: all of the new history, the slipping ooze whirlpool of all existences.
“The Higher Powers had realized their mistake in letting me work aimlessly: now, they bestowed their secrets, so that those free from life could believe and become.” As she ended her tale, she held a hand to where a human would have a left breast. Edgar still pressed his back against the wall after setting his encyclopedia down, the bright sunlight from windows away now crawling into the wide-green foyer ahead. “One day, in a future even you may not see, I will thank them.”
Shooting out a huff, Edgar planted his face on his folded arms, instigating his little desk to lean. “Goddammit, this is the twelfth time you’ve asked ‘how does that make you feel’. And that makes me feel just peachy.” He looked up as Keres brushed up against his leg, “I’m only joking.”
“Then I shall try something new later.” Valdís held up the psychology encyclopedia in front of the teacher with a ruffled shirt and dead hair.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s fine.”
She sat down and parted the book down the middle, and almost made it down the page before Edgar interrupted.
“Hey, how many people are you killing right now?” At her glare, he shirked away, still on his stiff seat. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
Valdís closed her eyes, her fish lips puffing out in small rhythms. The sunlight slipped off of the arched shirts of the schoolboys.
“There’s a man in a study with no feet and parchment skin, who’s waiting for my touch while I comb through his book collection. I may have landed on a soldier in a dry battlefield. There, a young woman with no hair I see. Each time I try to explain the layers, she snaps back with ‘I don’t need your preaching, weirdo, I’ve been living a great life, and I’d be just fine chillin’ with worms!’” Valdís’ voice echoed with the imitation. “And before I can get to explaining the 23rd layer to her, she is shouting about The Man and is rambling nonsense about ‘the good spirit in everyone living forever!’ and she and Keres won’t be quiet and I’ve touched her.” With her eyes opened, her voice deepened. “There is now only the good man.”
The teen returned to his Western Civilization book once she finished, his big right ear still leaning towards her.
“The fifth layer requires a new ritual for you, one that matters: once a year, beginning at adulthood, you must slap a preacher.”
“So the 23rd layer’s Knowledge,” Edgar asked, his long fingers tapping at the spirals of cabinet wood in his new dormitory.
Keres had climbed on top of the second bunk bed in the drab, crammed room. His master sat on a plastic grey chair, feet carefully above the brown carpet’s sparkling crumbs.
“The 23rd layer is Animalis. All humans have an innate connection to the other worlds. 23 can be seen in connection with animals everywhere. Where do you think Keres comes from?”
The learning teen held in a giggle, then spoke soft. “’Valdís, I think I left my keys at home.’” He then put on a deeper voice with controlled enunciation, “’Well, it must be in the 22nd layer, the Layer of Forgettable Dunces.’”
“The 22nd layer is the Layer of Questions.”
Edgar threw his hands up and grinned at the embassy of worlds. “No layers for jokes, I take it.”
“None.” She closed her eyes as Keres hopped down to Edgar’s side. Once the lash-less eyes opened, she stated, “When we started, I was also attending to seven other deceased. Now I am down to four. Time to talk about what brings you here.”
“So Keres is a natural-born killer, huh?”
She glanced at the furry creature, whose head was in the teen’s sweatpants lap. The endless rope had coiled around the desk, under the bunk bed, and all the way to her pocket. “Yes, he can be aggressive towards the dead. There are many aspects different between my usual work and here. But you need to talk now.”
The number of dead she was attending to elsewhere halved again by the time Edgar opened his lips. “I can’t think of any triggers. Well… I guess it was in a conversation with him.” He gestured to the tank top and jeans floating next to Valdís, “He’s my roommate, he’s pretty cool. I mentioned something about I was being stressed by all my problems and he said, ‘You’re a rich white kid, what problems do you have?” So we laughed and I know he was joking because he’s nice, but I’m still on it. Thinking of clever comebacks.” He took some deep breaths. “But it’s the same problem with drawing, where I don’t think I have anything interesting to draw because I haven’t- I can’t tell them too much about this world. Not anymore. I couldn’t take it.”
Valdís nodded slowly at this. “I understand it’s difficult. If you must, you can use your art to explain it to them.”
He patted Keres a couple of times. “My best stuff comes from here, and even that can’t compare anymore.”
To be continued in Part 4.