"I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world
that truly makes living worthwhile?"
Death thought about it.
"Cats," he said eventually. "Cats are nice."
Terry Pratchett Sourcery
"I do not believe there is a name for it," Airis said the black-and-gray striped tom cat sitting beside her on a stoop in the vacant alleyway, "but it is necessary among humans. Their flames die more rapidly without it."
The cat regarded her thoughtfully with his yellow eyes while the red-orange light of sunset slunk from the alley and onto the quiet street. When she did not offer further conversation, he turned his attention to more pressing matters, like the cleanliness of his paw. After several silent strokes with his rough tongue, the tom halted mid-lick, his eyes lifting to a man staggering into the mouth of the alley.
Pete Hindman paused awkwardly when he noticed the cat. In his left hand, he wrung the neck of a half-empty Budweiser, which thumped against the side of his dirty khakis, sloshing the foul-smelling liquid. He tilted his head as if trying to readjust a skewed picture without actually touching it and rubbed his free hand through his greasy brown hair. His eyes narrowed, eyebrows bunching to make two connected arches. Tilting his head in the opposite direction, the man relaxed his eyes and tottered toward the rubbery outline of the tom, his weathered shoes scattering the gravel beneath them.
Stopping before the stoop, Pete leaned back to refocus his eyes and patted the air beside the feline. He spun unsteadily around in a complicated circle to sit on the stoop, but he failed to get more than halfway down before he bolted upright again. Spreading his arms out for balance, Pete blinked and squinted at the stoop. The bottle reunited with his khakis, sloshing the beer once again. A series of wobbles, thumps, and sloshes ensued as he raised one leg to bat at the empty space beside the tom.
After several attempts, Pete contorted his face, forcing his cheek into his eye, as he jerked his suspended leg toward the grounded one. He inched cautiously down the alley, groping the air behind him with his free hand, and then turned as if to run. If it were not for the trashcan, he might have succeeded.
The crash echoed through the alleyway, and the stench of rubbish drifted, thick as fog, in a slow pursuit. The striped tom glanced up again from his paw to stare at the man flailing amidst the garbage. Relieved of its load, the trashcan rocked gently, clanking with a metallic tenor. The cat redirected his gaze to Airis.
A lack of color shrouded his companion. Her black knee-length boots faded into a long black trench coat with an upturned collar. Two pale knees, and the surrounding skin, peeked from behind the coat, a black mid-thigh skirt covering the rest. Her slate gray blouse was the exception to the veiling void. An untamable mass of raven-black locks fell to her shoulders, and an ashen complexion surrounded crystal blue eyes. She gestured toward Pete slowly rising from the trash.
"I am invisible to all whose souls still burn with the flame of life—those with souls, of course." The corners of her mouth twitched momentarily into a smile before fading. "It is not his time, although alcohol alone now feeds his flame. Without it, he would have rejected life many years ago. His condition allows him to forget, to cope. I have encountered enough alcoholics to know."
Airis opened the black pocket planner in her lap to Thursday, 18. A column of names, addresses, and times in copperplate print lined the page. Lines bisected the length of every entry save one: Al Tantern, 623 Haisly Street, Alley, 8:56 pm. She twisted her upper torso to examine first the white numbers stenciled onto the door and then the retreating sun. She nodded, slid the planner into an interior coat pocket, and turned to observe the mechanical motions of the tom's tongue.
"Your incessant licking works similarly for you. What you have need to neglect, however, is beyond me to discern."
The sound of wheels rolling against the pavement halted further conversation. Both watched from the stoop the sidewalk that ran outside the alley, waiting for an image to accompany the sound. Moments later, two teenage boys on skateboards rolled into view, their appearances little more than shadows cast by the setting sun.
The wide mouth of the alley provided an opportunity for a glance down its darkening passageway, a glance which one of the boys took. His skateboard suddenly swerved, redirecting him into the corner of the brick wall that helped to divide the alley from the sidewalk. He crumpled onto the ground, clutching his face and kicking over his board. A front wheel continued to revolve on its axle. The other teenager, who had skated past, circled back to help his friend.
"Dude, are you all right?"
An indecipherable moan replied from the shadow on the ground.
"Jake? What'd you hurt, man?"
Slowly, the shadow rose to a sitting position. "My face."
"Eh, I think you broke your nose. Does this hurt?"
"Oww, man, Tony, don't do that!"
"Your wrist looks pretty bad, too. Can you-"
"Fine, man, chill out. What happened?"
"There was this hot chick sitting in the alley. I locked eyes with her, and next thing I knew I was face-first in the wall."
"Dude, that's a cat. Are you tripping?"
"No, look Tony, I swear to God she was sitting right beside that cat."
"Well, your mystery woman's gone now." Tony helped Jake to his feet and picked up his injured friend's board. "You need to go clean yourself up; your nose looks like a…what are those things called?"
"Go to hell."
"Oh, a plum."
The boys' conversation faded as they left the mouth of the alley and continued down the sidewalk. Silence once again descended over the view from the stoop. The tom eyed Airis suspiciously before spreading his tongue over the fluff of his chest.
"A few more inches to the right and he would not have been walking home."
The cat continued to wash.
"Occasionally, the living can sense my presence. Their souls scream to their subconscious minds that something is amiss, and for a moment, their minds lift the veil. In that moment, something about them changes—even if it is only a bloody nose.
"Skateboarding may be a sport, but it also gives those two an edge to life, an edge they believe they can balance on, flirt with. The danger fulfills something within them. Most mortals, however, are not known for their balancing skills. One day, they will fall over the edge into the abyss below it, and I, or one like me, will be waiting."
A porch light flickered above the dilapidated door at the top of the stoop. The tom, satisfied with his state of cleanliness, stared expectantly at the door.
"Yes, Al will feed you momentarily, but for the final time."
Latches rattled on the other side of the door. A crack appeared between the door and the frame, gradually expanding into the surrounding air. A man appeared in the gap, his skin a bleached prune. White hair dangled in tousled strands over his shoulders, intertwining with a long matted beard as he set a plate of food onto the stoop in front of the tom.
"Well, Eli, I see you've made a friend." He spoke with a chalky voice, as if his lungs had swallowed a Tums tablet.
Airis stood. "Al Tantern."
"Yes? Can I help you, ma'am?"
Uneasiness hovered over the stoop, and the silence allowed Eli's purring and the powdery thumps of moths ramming the porch light to fill the night air. Al inspected Airis' face, which shone as pale as the moon above his home. Her crystal blue eyes captured his until, shuddering, he turned away, focusing his eyes instead on Eli finishing his dinner.
"Then, why are you here?"
"Do you not know?" Her face was stationary, strained by neither smile nor frown.
Airis pulled the opened planner from her pocket and handed it to Al. His cheeks released the lingering color as his eyes drifted to the bottom of the page. He swallowed, holding the planner for her to retrieve.
"What is this?"
"It is my-" She took the planner from Al, checking the front cover, "pocket planner."
"I can see that." He waited for her to elaborate. After several moments, he lost patience. "What's it for?"
"I thought all humans knew the purpose of pocket planners. Is it not something you use?"
"'Humans?' Aren't you—"
The moths took advantage of another solo. Al tugged at his beard. "Are you some kind of—no. What are...no. What'd you do with all those people in your...planner?"
"I did nothing with them. They had reached the end."
Al stopped breathing. "The end?"
"Of life." Airis sunk her hands in to the front pockets of her trench coat. A brief breeze danced with her locks.
"There must be some mistake."
"Impossible. Names do not appear in my planner haphazardly."
"Yes, but this can't be how it ends. I mean, a...shows up at my door and...?" He remembered to breathe again, placing a trembling hand over his temple. "I thought we just died, that the Grim Reaper was just a movie character. Where's your long robe? Your scythe? Why do you have a face?"
"I have worn many images. It is part of what my superiors call a 'reformation.'" She frowned.
"Superiors?" He whispered, lowering his hand.
"They believe a more modern image helps to ease the transition."
"They will also reclaim the pocket planner next week and replace it with something called a 'palm pilot.' I was only now adjusting to the planner."
"There—" Al paused before shaking his head and continuing. "There really is an afterlife?"
Eli, finished with his dinner, commenced an after-meal wash. He purred softly.
Airis nodded, the frown gone.
"Is it just like the Bible says?"
"I do not know."
"What do you mean you don't know?" He thrust out his arms, angling his hands toward the darkening sky.
"I have never read the Bible."
Al blinked and lowered his hands. "You...of course. Why would you need to? Let me ask it this way: Is there a heaven and hell...Which religion is the right one?" He leaned forward, his tangled beard making a 20° angle with his chest. "What's God like?"
"I know nothing of outer realms, religions, or gods. What use, dear human, would I have for any of it? My existence is tied to your mortal one, here, on this planet. I do not know what awaits you."
Al shuffled to the top step and lowered his aged body into a sitting position, his joints creaking like the hinges of a neglected door. His gaze rested on a lonely rock on the asphalt while his fingers glided down Eli's slick fur like children on a slide, mechanically, one after the other. The tom flicked his ears, retracting his tongue and replacing his paw on the ground.
"Don't," Al said.
She lifted her dark brows. "Excuse me?"
He looked up from his rock. "Can't you say 'don't' for once? Why do you talk so archaic when everything else about you has been—?"
"Reformed. Appearances may be modified, but the core of every being remains the same. I process, think the same as I did 15,000 years ago, and speech cannot change without an alteration of the mind." She paused. "I also find that contractions make for less articulate speech."
"Doesn't all that get in the way when you're carrying on conversations? It bugs the hell out of me."
"I seldom 'carry on' conversations."
He laughed in his throat. "Like to get your job over with quickly, huh?"
Airis glanced at the moon, a heavy crescent disappearing behind the building. "I have no influence over the end. It comes as it pleases. My 'job' does not begin until afterward."
"But that doesn't explain why you don't talk to people."
"I only speak when spoken to. I suppose it derives from the awkwardness of our positions."
"And nobody wants to talk to you?"
"There are those who beg for their lives, albeit futilely, and some recite their life stories. Neither case requires comments from me. Children, however, are always eager to converse."
Al choked, his lungs grating against one another. Tears lined his lower eyelids. "Children?"
Tears spilled over the lids. "Do you remember my Ginny?"
Airis shook her head. "I am not the only one who severs the bond between body and soul."
"You mean you're not the only one who kills."
Her eyes narrowed, her voice pointed. "We do not kill."
Eli's ears perked at the sudden harshness. Al covered his face.
"I'm sorry," he said through his hands. "It's just the injustice of Ginny's death. She was only 11. My only child."
Airis stared at the tom, who purred, oblivious to the emotion slouched beside him. "Age does not matter. Once the flame fades, the body dies."
The muscles in Al's arms tensed as he formed fists. "But she was so full of life. How could her…'flame' have faded? You talk of 'flames' and 'living,' but how can you judge either of them?"
Airis blinked at the man's sudden intensity. After a moment's pause, she shook her head, raven locks rebounding slightly from her face. She looked again to Eli. "I cannot. I am not meant to."
Eli twitched his ears and curled into an oval, purring softly, front paws folded beneath his chin.
Al's fist loosened. His rested his elbow on his leg, hand dangled over the inside of his thigh. He closed his eyes, pressing them shut for several moments before opening them again. Two wet trails etched the length of his face. His voice crumbled into powder.
"Sheryl never really recovered after Ginny died. The doctors said she suffered from depression. She tried to…so many times. I brought her home a stray cat, hoping it would give her something to take her mind off of everything. She named him Snow because he was pure white with long hair that shed all over the carpet."
He wiggled his fingers to demonstrate snow falling. Airis smiled, still staring at Eli.
"Sometimes Snow's company seemed to work, and Sheryl would be fine for a while, but then I'd find her sitting on our bed with that blank look on her face…I've been without her for eight years now…She took the cat with her."
He paused. "You weren't with her, were you."
"No," she agreed softly.
Al nodded. The tear trails on his face dried, and he scratched Eli's chin. The purring tom rolled onto his other side, curling his front paws into his stomach.
"I've cared for many cats over the years. They're what kept me going most of the time knowing they would be scratching at the door, meowing for their food. Closest things to friends I've had in a long time. They kept my mind off things. And now it's just me and old Eli."
Airis titled her head, the locks dangling unevenly beside her cheeks. Her eyes remained on the tom. "Why do you extend yourself to cats? They do not have souls. Are you not simply wasting your grief?"
Al smiled, setting his hands on his knees. "Soul or no, cats have enough of a spirit to make up their own mind about something. They make good company. Besides, you said you didn't know what the afterlife was like. How do you know there won't be cats there?"
"But I free the soul once the flame has died. Only then may it pass into the afterlife."
"Maybe cats—all animals really—maybe they don't need a soul to do that. Most of how they act is based on instinct. Maybe they don't need to make some big choice about the end. And you can't say one word against it because you don't know."
Airis smiled. "Touché."
Al gestured toward Eli. "Will you see that he's taken care of?"
She did not respond, studying instead the moon, which had left behind the tip of its cold, reflective light to overlook the alley from Al's roof.
"Do not worry about Eli," she said at last. "He will be well cared for."
He returned her smile, his eyes drowning in hers. Following a long moment, Al exhaled and slumped lifelessly toward the asphalt. Airis caught him, laying him gently onto his back. Eli stood quickly and backed away.
From the interior of her trench coat, she pulled a small scythe, which shimmered against the porch light. She rested the blade against her thigh as she regarded Al's body. An orb encased by a translucent shell emerged from Al's right eye.
"It never ends, and so long as mankind is mortal, it will never end."
Eli sat, flicking the tip of his tail.
"I am not meant to feel, only to do, to reap the fading flames. Imagine the dilemmas a sensitive agent of death would cause." She laughed weakly. "Human souls decomposing with their bodies. It certainly would not please my superiors." The laugh drooped, pulling the corners of her lips down with it. "But I do feel." She gripped the neck of the scythe handle, her voice a cold whisper. "I feel empty."
Airis raised the tool and approached the body. "There must be more to life than death, even for one whose life is death. If Al could continue to care for others despite his pain, then surely I can do something despite the emptiness. Perhaps I too am like the humans. I need that cause, that drive to...exist."
She delicately sliced the orb's casing with the blade. Light radiated from the slit like the sun rising in the horizon over a glassy ocean. Eli angled his ears toward his back as it burned to an intense glare that reflected in his yellow eyes. Having exhausted its energy, the light evaporated, abandoning the empty shell.
Airis smiled. "I know what I can do."
She swept her scythe between the eye and the soul casing and produced a quart jar from an interior coat pocket. Eli relaxed his ears.
"I often work...jigsaw puzzles—I visit many nursing homes. I like the puzzles with a lot of movement...so to speak. Unfortunately, finishing a puzzle only offers a completed picture, and being at the end of all lives, I see completion everyday." She placed the soul casing inside the jar, tightened the lid, and laid the collectible in her pocket. "With this, however, I can remember those who have no relatives or friends, those who otherwise would be no more than snuffed out candles, leaving behind no trace of their waxes ever being lit amidst the sea of flames surrounding them."
Smiling, Airis closed Al's eyes and stepped back from his body. She pulled the planner from her pocket. A line appeared through Al's information, and another entry appeared below it. She rolled her eyes, hanging her head as she stuffed the planner back into her pocket.
She looked up at Eli. "Now, what am I supposed to do with you?"
She pushed her hand through her hair, leaving her fingers tangled in the locks atop her head as she stared at the black-and-gray stripes mingling in the tom's fur. After a few moments, she removed her hand and laughed. "Al claims you are good company. I shall test that theory."
She scooped Eli into her arms and walked down the alleyway, away from the street, leaving behind the ajar door and the body on the stoop for the humans to find. She scratched the fluff of Eli's cheeks.
"At least you will keep my mind off things."