Photo courtesy of New West Knifeworks

by Marisa Morby

The knives next to the sink had the most colorful handles that Steven had ever seen. They were bright greens, pinks and blues all mottled together. He sat quietly reflecting, wondering how a person could get all those colors mixed into one little knife handle. His face resembled a wax figure, carefully carved, constructed by skillful hands, but just off somehow. Missing a soul maybe. Lazy hazel eyes stared ahead of him, and if he held his breath for just one second, he might stop being human and become something else entirely. But none of that really mattered now. If there would be a way for him to get out, to break away, he would be more than happy to take that chance. Now. With the blood slowly slipping onto the linoleum, pooling into a mass of garnet, and the final realization that there was simply no way out.

Chuckling under his breath, as if he’d just told himself a joke, he lifted himself from the floor, knees cracking gently and sounding skeptical of being able to handle his weight. He had to grab onto the sink like an unsteady child in order to catch himself. Sometimes the body has a way of misleading you, making you believe that you are much older, popping and cracking in joint spaces you didn’t even know existed. And sometimes, it simply stops working, even without the force of blunt trauma to the head. Steven found a dark humor in this.

Laughing at the thought now, he really did seem less than human. Or perhaps, more than human. A creature with too much power. But back to business. He had to move the body, because they were too much hassle during the clean up. The bag he brought just barely fit, and it required all of his effort to maneuver the dead man through the house. Getting this thing from the kitchen all the way through the living room and out the front door was shaping up to be quite an adventure. It was during times like these, when the body was slowly entering rigor mortis and not shifting properly around the ostentatious granite countertops in the kitchen that Steven questioned his abilities. Anyone doing this job right would have at least made sure to conduct the kill in a more convenient spot. Such as the clay tiling in the entryway. But no. He hadn’t thought of that until now. When this dead weight was beginning to scratch at his mind. Perhaps he should have just cut the body up like he’d first planned. It’s easier to take things out in pieces. But that would have meant more clean up, he thought, as he accidentally slammed the head into the coffee table, making a loud thump.

Shit, watch what you’re doing!

Steven hated when this happened, but it wasn’t much of a surprise, to be honest. The only way to stop it was to break all contact with the body, but he had to drag this thing to the trunk. After all these years, one would have thought he’d learned.

Steven muttered to himself under his breath, hissing mock curse words and glaring angrily at the body bag, trying to sear into it with his stare. But the man just refused to be quiet.

Who are you anyway? And what do you think you’re doing? Why can’t I move? Where are you taking me? What’s happened?

The endless entourage of questions was enough to make Steven want to kill the man for a second time. Not that it would have helped, but it was an entertaining thought.

He finally got the body out through the front door and slowly thump, thump, thumped the body down the steps onto the pavement. Dragging the bag across the pavement was always the part he liked the most because that meant he was almost finished dealing with the victim. He struggled to lift the body up into the trunk of the hybrid Toyota Highlander, banging the head several times against the car, and each time that dead man just kept complaining.

Steven got him in at last and sulked his way back to the front door, looking at the driver’s side of the hybrid as he passed. Madge sat there watching him from behind the steering wheel, slightly shaking her head at him, her short permed hair a dull white in the last light of the evening.

Her glasses were pushed too far down on her nose, like a caricature librarian, and the chain glistened with every shake of her head. And although he couldn’t see her very well through the glass, Steven knew that her faded blue eyes were staring straight at him yelling, “Hurry the hell up!! NOW!!”

He sighed. He would never get this right.

As Steven entered the house again to clean the kitchen he noticed how pristine it was. He was worried about replicating it when he cleaned. He scrubbed and bleached the floor several times, getting up all of the blood after about four tries. He was lucky it hadn’t dried or soaked into a crack he couldn’t reach. His cleaning skills were improving moderately. He seemed to be done quite quickly this time. Perusing his workmanship, he breathed in deeply, smelling the sharp bleach that clung in the air. Now it was time to deal with Madge. Talking to her, or rather being talked at by her was far worse than the thought of endless cleaning. Steven often liked to think that she may have been nice once, maybe even sweet, and he wondered what had happened.

Steven climbed into the passenger seat and sat down so heavily the car tilted for a moment before leveling itself. The rustle of the body bag in the back reminded him that his work was not yet done. And it never would be. It was odd that an inhuman being could feel as tired as he suddenly felt. Perhaps it was just mental fatigue, or maybe depression. What an irony, to be plagued by such torment even when mortality ceases to clutch you. Madge caught Steven mid thought, wheezing and coughing. She sniffed a little from her allergies. She drew in a long breath, and Steven was sure she was going to let him have it. He had taken too long, he probably did something wrong on the clean up, she shouldn’t be forced to supervise this anymore, he was the one at fault, not her, so why was she being punished? The normal barrage of questions.

“13 minutes and 22 seconds. That about 2 minutes better than last time. You have GOT to get better at moving the bodies Steven. It’s absolutely pathetic to watch.” Her voice rattled on like gravel, rocky and hard from the cigarettes, an odd human addiction to take up. “Do you realize it took you 7 minutes to get the body from the house into the trunk? Seven minutes! Do you really think we have that kind of time to waste? Pathetic. That’s over half the time it took you to do everything. Where did you do it? In the living room? No. I bet you killed him in the kitchen, didn’t you? That’s why it took you so long. Steven, you knew the layout of the house before we got here. We talked about this on the way over.” She mumbled something to herself that sounded like “A chorbn,” a Yiddish swear word. Steven wondered if she had been Jewish at some point. Maybe she just picked it up somewhere and like to use it as a turn of phrase. It did sound very worldly, and fit her cantankerous old body perfectly. Maybe it helped her believe what she was supposed to be.

“You’re not listening! –cough How do you expec –cough expect to get anywhere with an attitude like this? Where are my cigs? You took them again didn’t you?” She glared at him over her glasses as she searched the side console for her Marlboros.

After a few moments she gave up, both on him and the cigarettes it seemed, and slowly pulled out of the driveway. They had to conduct the burial before this whole ordeal was over and he could get a new assignment. He also had an evaluation coming up and this kill would determine where that new assignment would be. As he looked out the window and watched the streetlights glow by in the darkness, he remembered her.

The operating room was noisy, noisier than one would expect when working on a body. She had just flat lined, and he had been waiting next to her the entire time, knowing this would happen. As she died, he greeted her, and offered to walk with her towards the light, as was customary. She kept yelling at him for taking her, sobbing that she wasn’t ready. As if it was his fault. He couldn’t feel sadness, or pain, or fear, but surmised that whatever she was feeling must be awful. He grabbed one of her hands in his and put the other on her back to slowly nudge her. After a moment she calmed down a bit, and looked up at him through her tears. She saw the light and she ran. In the opposite direction.

The heart monitor started beating again and her brain activity was functioning. Low and behold, back from the dead. All Steven could do was cover his face with his hands. This was the third time. No more chances. No more warnings. In that split second, he knew it was all over. This was the third flat line fiasco he’d had in a month. He was going to be demoted, no question about it. Demotion meant taking human form. It meant walking among the living. Being trained in what it was to be human, what it was to live, what it was to die, and how to take a life. It meant getting your hands dirty. His superiors told him to talk soothingly to the spirit, tell the spirit that you care, show them that everything will be beautiful. Clearly, Steven couldn’t do this. No one ever wanted to go with him. It wasn’t his fault. They didn’t understand the beauty that awaited them. Humans could be so stupid.

“Stop wallowing,” Madge said between puffs. Apparently she had found the Marlboros. “It’s not like you can do anything about it now. Stop being such a sad little man. This kill decides where you’ll go from here. And let’s hope it’s not with me.” Steven agreed, but didn’t say anything. He was mesmerized by the trail of street lights.

They prepared for burial by digging a shallow hole in the earth. Madge had decided on the site, which was an empty lot behind an alley that was visited only rarely by some stray cats in the area. These kills rarely received a wonderful burial ground. For the most part, the people selected were morally bereft. Mean souls that were being dealt a death that closely matched how they had treated others in life. The kills were always swift and painless, no need to make someone suffer even more, since that surely awaited them in death. But every profession requires practice to perfect the skill. Even angels of death must understand what it is to die, and what it is to kill.

The hybrid rolled along the dirt, barely making it through the tight alley, but at the end it opened up into a field of nothing. Madge’s supervisor, Mr. Richardson, was at the burial also, and was preparing to determine Steven’s future. The evaluation was citing a lot more problems in Steven’s work than positives. Time seemed to be a big factor. Steven couldn’t help that he was slow and methodical. Apparently there was something good about swiftness and the ability to do everything very quickly and without mistakes. But these were two talents that Steven could never master together. He could do something quickly with mistakes, or slowly without mistakes. There really was no middle ground.

As Madge’s supervisor droned on, Steven did catch little snippets of approval: great with cleaning the death scene, kills that were skillful and relatively swift. But these were things any novice could do. And honestly, he didn’t do them that well. He had thought once that he could be the best. He was nothing if not potential. When he had gotten the chance to choose his calling, and he had chosen to be an angel of death, he thought that, even though he couldn’t feel, he could imagine feeling, and that would be enough. He had been created to be kind, and what better kindness could one creature show another but to help them during the most terrifying moment of their existence, turn it into something peaceful, and introduce them to the calm and beauty that awaited them? He’d had such wonderful imaginings. If that woman would have just come with him, if he had been more caring, if…

The supervisor addressed Steven asking, “How well do you think you have conducted your work?”

Steven stared at Mr. Richardson for a moment, trying to decide if this was a trick question. Surely he must know whether or not there would be a promotion. Steven panicked. There must be a way to say something without saying anything at all. He wasn’t good at thinking on his feet, “I think I’ve shown consistent progress,” he said, making sure to hold his head a little higher and his shoulders a bit more square as he made this observation. Madge just flicked some ash off her cigarette and squinted into the distance as she took another drag. Steven’s eyes began to shift nervously from the supervisor, to the body bag, to Madge. Why wasn’t anyone saying anything? Just to make Steven wait even longer, Mr. Richardson now suggested they do the burial first and then discuss his future.

It was Steven’s job to take the body out of the bag and roll it into the ground. Dirty work. He got out the knife with a multi colored handle and slit the bag open, slowly ripping it and pulling the body out by pushing him face down into the ground. The supervisor inspected where the blow to the head was, and mumbled “Mhmmm,” as he grunted to turn the body over.

The supervisor didn’t say anything, but just looked at the body for a minute, face up. He turned to Steven, “Who’s this?” Steven just stared. Hazel eyes as big as dinner plates. He had the paperwork in the car with the picture and profile and everything. He ran to get it. He came back out of breath, mostly due to nervousness. The supervisor looked through everything, and when he was done just handed it back to Steven. He looked at the front page. The man in the profile shot had a much longer nose, and thinner lips. He was also about ten years younger than the man lying in front of him. How could this happen? Again. How could this happen AGAIN??

Steven looked at the supervisor, first wanting reprieve but then realizing it was all just worthless. He screamed and pushed the body into the hole. Madge looked on in silence. Annoyed but not surprised. As Steven walked away from the site, he heard Madge talking in hushed tones to Mr. Richardson. He tried to decipher the words, but her voice was too muffled, accentuated only briefly by her intermittent coughing.

He walked past the hybrid, punching it with his fist, shuffled through the dark alley, and out into the morbid glow of the streetlights. He’d been walking this earth now for over fifty years in the same body. He was tired of dirty work. Tired, and sad, and hopeless. As his shoes scraped along the pavement, he remembered all the spirits he had helped and all the kills he had conducted. Each one a unique experience. Each one a reminder that no matter his good intentions, he would never be able to do this correctly. It was time for a change. Maybe time to experience some peace and beauty for himself. He glanced up at the moon for the last time. It was as cold and empty and hopeless as he felt, and there was nothing left to do now but will himself through the darkness.

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