Sometimes I forget that I’m not so much like everyone else. This is one of those times. I notice that the girl sitting across from me on the el has been staring for quite some time, and as much as I try to ignore her, she is too beautiful to put behind me. She has a shiny brown complexion with long, sandy brown hair, and a wide, beautiful smile. She reminds me of those girls that are on toothpaste commercials: fun and spunky.
I keep my head turned to the train’s dingy window and stare straight at my reflection. My short straight hair sits neatly on top of my head as usual. The dirt-smudged window and the dark, narrow train tunnel makes my bronze complexion look darker than it really is. I give the girl a quick and friendly smile when I turn to see her smiling at me again. But that’s as far as the rules will let me go.
I can perfectly envision how a date would go for me: I’d throw on one of my nicest 1956-ish suits (that was around the last time that I thought to buy a suit), drive to her in some new-age looking car that I barely knew how to operate, spit some line to her that didn’t even work on women in the ’60s, and then proceed to explain to her that I am old enough to be her grandfather and I was probably responsible for his death. That would go over real well, I’m sure.
Once the train crawls to a stop, I hurriedly get off, pretending not to see the pretty girl eye me the whole way. I pull out the small sheet of paper with Tracy’s address written sloppily on it and look at my watch. This is my first contact with her and I don’t want to be late.
There’s a science to being a good Death Leader and time is a huge part of it. In order to know what type of death to give someone, you have to really get to know them. Otherwise, you have cases of perfectly healthy twenty-year-olds dying from chicken pox or heart disease. It’s got to make logical sense. So, you secretly check on them at only two very telling times of the day: noon and midnight. You check to see what they’re doing at those times. Are they home at midnight sleeping or are they out somewhere? Are they sleeping until noon on weekdays or are they gone and productive? You’d be surprised at what you can learn this way. Right now it’s 11:50pm. I have to hurry.
I run down the platform stairs, barely missing the arm of a heavyset woman who refuses to make even a narrow path for me on the stairwell. I hadn’t remembered to slip my sleeves back on from playing basketball in the gym earlier, and I hadn’t brought my gloves. I wonder how many people would be quicker to move if they knew that death was literally coming their way.
The midnight air feels like it might be hot and humid, something to be expected for a mid-August night in Chicago. A barrage of candy wrappers and red cups smack against my black boots. The conservationist in me would normally pick all of it up, but with only ten minutes left to get to Tracy, I step over it. A stumbling black man standing by the station’s doors tries to reach out and touch me. What is people’s obsession with touching me? They must subconsciously have a death wish, I conclude. I quickly step back. He doesn’t seem to mind or notice.
“Hey, brotha. You got a light?” he asks.
“No…sorry.” I start walking toward my block. My haven of boarded up buildings, sewer smoke, and gangs. My block for the last two years.
I walk past several deteriorating walkups until I finally find the one with the right number: 1314. This is it. Tracy Wilbourne lives in apartment 502. People are scattered about in front of the building, huddled in different groups. Some speak loudly and others scoot in closer to each other as they give each other several long handshakes. Like I said, you can tell a lot about a person by where they are at midnight. Nobody bothers me as I walk past their group and into the piss-smelling abyss labeled 1314. They’ve seen me around this neighborhood for years and I’m not a small guy. They either trust me or have made a mental note to get me on the way out. Either way, I’m ready.
Through the whir of the elevator, I can hear the echoes of shouts. The hallway is stuffy with the pungent aroma of burned popcorn. Between the cop at the el station and the smells that I’ve walked through today, I feel like I need a shower.
I’m grateful when I hear the rusted, graffiti-marked elevator doors slide open and even more grateful that the piss smell has faded just a little on the fifth floor. Probably because this portion of the hallway is practically empty. Far from quiet, but empty.
As I walk up to apartment 502 and put my ear to the door, I remember the story of Mortimus and the missing Death Leaders from The Book of Agonis. Mortimus, the god of the Divine Order of Death, looked at the Order one day and decided that all but a few members here on Earth were failing at completing their assignments. The population had nearly doubled and a good portion of the Overseers had gone corrupt. Mortimus concluded that Death Leaders weren’t taking their jobs seriously and decided to cast them all away to Agonis permanently.
I don’t know anybody that’s ever been to Agonis, but if the stories in The Book of Agonis about Death Leaders being tortured and enslaved are even halfway true, I know that it’s someplace that I need to avoid being. At the end of the story, Mortimus appoints new Death Leaders and vows to come back one day to again wipe the Earth clean of those Death Leaders who have failed their assignments.
Nobody knows when Mortimus will return; nor do we know how many assignments you have to fail in order to be sent off to eternal damnation—but none of us wants to be lucky enough to find out. I think often of Mortimus when I start an assignment, but I think more of those missing Death Leaders. I’m not exactly itching to have a stained reputation as a failure and I’m sure not enthusiastic about the prospect of going missing one day. I can’t afford to fail even one more assignment—not this one or any other.
My ear tells me that there is no one inside of Tracy’s apartment and the visual in my mind confirms this. I take out a shiny, silver key and plunge it into 502’s keyhole.
When I walk in, a musty, days-old smell hits me immediately. Sort of like that smell that your clothes start to get when you’ve worn them for too long without washing them. A pair of light, faded blue jeans is draped over the couch, a few red and yellow shirts are sprawled out randomly on the floor. The apartment is fairly small, so I can see every part of the kitchen that sits to my left, even though I haven’t entered the apartment all the way. An open tub of butter sits on the counter next to a butter knife covered in yellow globs. Who is this girl? What deadly disease or illness could I possibly assign to a normal, wholesome-looking girl who just happens to be a slob? People don’t die from being slobs. I begin to wonder if this should be Alan’s assignment. Someone like her seems more likely to die of an accident rather than something deadly.
Stepping over a few shirts on the way, I take a short walk to her bedroom. I’m not at all surprised that the bedroom is just as sloppy as the living room and kitchen are, with clothes everywhere and the same funky smell. There’s an open pack of candy sitting on the nightstand by Tracy’s bed. I consider trying one, but decide against it. Something with words and letters and numbers lies partially on top of the candy package. I pick it up and glance at it closely. Grades for a graduate school program. She is either older than I thought she was or incredibly smart—or both. I start to search for what she’s studying, but something else catches my eye first. Next to Tracy’s grades is a picture of Tracy and a toddler, but something looks wildly different about Tracy in this picture. Here she looks genuinely happy. In the picture from the file that Franco gave me, she looked falsely happy— like someone had implanted two brown marbles where her irises were and then asked her to smile.
As I look closer at the little boy, I see the resemblance: her son. My mind instantly goes back to the gym conversation that I had had with Shad hours earlier. He has a brown mop cut and an ear-to-ear smile. The boy has squared his shoulders up so that he looks proud. He’s glowing like someone just told him he’s won an MVP trophy; so is Tracy. I turn my head away from the picture and try to focus on something else in the room.
I always hate seeing things like that: pictures of happy-go-lucky kids and rooms decorated with soft pink and baby blue wallpaper. It’s the worst part of my job: seeing the kids of my assignments.
I hear a thud. A clear indication that someone is on their way to an apartment nearby. I listen again. I see Tracy in my mind, drunken and stumbling down the hall. I run for the window. Five stories is way too high up, and although I cannot die until my 1,000 year term is finished, that doesn’t mean that I can’t be temporarily mangled in any way. As I hear the key turn in the lock, I slide under the bed and remain still. I think I hear her fall, but I don’t try to imagine the visual for fear that I won’t be able to resist helping her. Catching her when she falls—touching her, period—would cause the wrong kind of death, and that would draw unwanted attention. So I camp out underneath the bed until I no longer hear her bumbling around in the living room. Lying on my stomach, I hold my body steady with the palms of my hands.
When she comes into the bedroom, I can see her legs move around by the nightstand. I feel her plop down on the bed; about ten seconds later, I hear snoring. I listen carefully to the rhythmic pattern of each loud growl until I see just the picture I am waiting for in my mind. Her eyes are shut loosely and she doesn’t move, not even to adjust herself out of the awkward position she collapsed in. This is the perfect time to get out of here. I’ve had to spend the night at some places before and it’s never turned out all that well—though, to my credit, I’ve never actually been caught.
I slide myself from underneath her bed and stare at her sleeping. She has somehow managed to slip herself halfway under the covers just enough so that she appears naked with bare arms, legs, and feet. She is surprisingly beautiful in person. Something about her seems soft and pure. I imagine that she’ll feel like warm cotton beneath my fingertips. She is lying there in a heavy sleep, her eyes gently crusted shut and her body surrounded by yesterday’s clothes, unaware that I’m standing over her. I want to touch her, even lightly, to see if I’m right about how she feels. But I know that’s against the rules. On the way in, I accidentally brushed up against a fern on the scratched wooden sofa table that sits by the front door; its leaves are already shapeless, wilted, and brown. I don’t even want to think about what she’d become if my hands should so happen to graze the s-curve of her hips like they want to. I decide to stick to looking, dreaming, and making sure that the only thing that touches her is the affliction that is meant to take her life.
This, I decided, would be a long three days.