by China DeSpain
The turn from summer to fall was quicker than a sunset; with one flip of the calendar, the October air snuck in, cool and smoky and crisp with falling leaves. Nature’s confetti crunched beneath boots, pumpkins appeared on doorsteps, and the smell of mischief rode the air.
It all meant one thing.
Something was coming.
The veil was thinnest on Samhain, and the pentacle tattoo on Claire O’Malley’s inner left wrist nearly throbbed with anticipation, though her other three tattoos—a wand inside her right wrist, a sword on the top of her left foot, and a cup atop her right one—remained strangely quiet. All month long, the Otherworld had been preparing, sending emissaries and arrangements before the door swung wide on All Hallow’s Eve. Halloween was only two days away, and Claire still had work to do.
As an ambassador for the dead, it was Claire’s duty and responsibility to prepare everything that would slip from her world to the other. And so each night, she lit a fat white candle and placed it on the windowsill. It was half protection and half invitation; Claire was both intoxicated by and frightened of what was coming. It was only her third October as an ambassador, and she hadn’t yet hardened herself to the discomfort of seeing the dead walk. She didn’t particularly like the emissaries of the dead popping in for a visit, either, but it was in her best interest to welcome them all the same.
In the weeks before Samhain, Claire had fulfilled her duty to honor the dead by placing flowers on the graves at her local cemetery. She didn’t mind this so much; the cemetery was a peaceful place, and the graves looked pretty—happier somehow—with bouquets of cheery mums decorating them like jewelry. No, Claire’s hesitation had nothing to do with visiting the dead, and everything to do with the dead visiting her.
As her area’s ambassador, it was her job to prepare the souls who had departed in the past year. That meant communing with the dead. Welcoming them to visit. Inviting them in.
Claire suppressed a shudder. It was her job and she would do it well, but it didn’t make things any less creepy. But not preparing the souls would be even worse; if she didn’t help them, Samhain would be a disaster. After all, El Granjero was coming. The souls would be reaped. And it would go far more smoothly if they knew what to expect.
As a result, she’d been ushering spirits through her house for the better part of a month. Fortunately, she was almost done.
Claire—wrapped in plaid flannel pants and an old Trinity College hoodie, and clutching a to-go cup from Vine and Bean—sat and watched the candle flicker. Her town was a small one, and they didn’t see all that many deaths in a year. Certainly nothing like the bigger cities, which employed multiple ambassadors to tackle the workload. All the same, she kept busy enough during the Month of the Dead. Every night, almost as soon as she lit the candle, they came to her.
Sure enough, it didn’t take long. Within the first hour, there was a trembling knock at the door. Claire didn’t move from her couch. There was no need to.
“Come in,” she called.
The spirits—the souls—drifted right through the door and into her living room. There were three of them, an elderly couple and a young girl, not more than thirteen. The old man and woman seemed at peace, if a tad bemused, but there was fear on the girl’s spectral face.
Claire sighed. It was almost always this way with the young souls. They rarely saw death coming, and consequently resisted the notion of their demise altogether. Claire could tell already that this girl would take some convincing.
“I’m Claire,” she told them. “Please tell me your names.”
“Alfred and Bernice Wilson,” said the old man, speaking for both himself and his wife.
“Okay. Welcome,” Claire said. She turned to the girl. “What about you?”
“Where am I?” the girl asked.
“You’re in my home. I’ll explain everything. But first tell me your name.”
“Rose.” The girl’s voice trembled. “Rose Mason.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Rose.”
“How did I get here?”
Claire cracked her knuckles. This was always the worst part. “Well,” she began. “You’re dead. All three of you. It’s my job to prepare you for what comes next.”
Alfred and Bernice nodded, as if it were the most logical thing in this world or the next, but a look of horror passed over Rose’s face. “I’m not dead!” she shouted.
Bernice drifted over to Rose and patted the air near her cheek. “There, there, dear. Not to worry. We’ll stick together.”
“I don’t want to stick together,” Rose said. “I want to go home.”
Claire shook her head. “You can’t. The sooner you accept that, the easier everything will be. Tea?” She gestured at the tea set on the coffee table, and as she’d hoped, Rose reached for a cup. To no one’s surprise—except for Rose, of course—her phantom hand passed right through the delicate china handle.
“You see, dear?” Bernice said. “Dead as dead can be.”
“Now, then,” Alfred said to Claire. “Just what happens next?”
“The reaping,” Claire said.
“The what?” Rose’s tremulous voice shot up two octaves.
“El Granjero is coming to reap you. It’s best if you know what to expect.”
Alfred and Bernice nodded, while Rose trembled. “Who is that?”
“You have nothing to fear from El Granjero,” Claire explained. “It is horrifying to look at, but it isn’t coming to harm you. It is your escort into the Otherworld.”
“What—where is the Otherworld?”
Claire smiled. “I’ve never seen it, of course. But my understanding is that there are as many Otherworlds as there are souls. It’s the place where your soul will rest for eternity. It will bring you peace. However…” she trailed off, and all three spirits’ eyes widened.
“However?” Bernice asked.
“If you resist the reaping, it will be…unpleasant. You cannot stay here. El Granjero will take you one way or the other. But the souls that fight are torn painfully from this world. And wherever they go, there’s no eternal rest. No peace.”
“What are we supposed to do?” Alfred asked.
Claire pointed to the other items on the coffee table. They were her tools: cards; a sliver of an ash tree; several glass bottles of herbs, salt, and mysterious compounds. And in the center sat a fat glass orb, swirling with gray mists. “I place you in the ball,” she said. “And on Samhain, when the reaper arrives, it will release you all at once and take you on your final journey.”
Alfred and Bernice both smiled. “Do what you need to do, dear.”
But Rose bolted back out the door.
With a sigh, Claire prepared her implements and sent the two spirits into the orb to wait. That was the easy part. Retrieving Rose would be trickier.
When the sun set on Halloween night, Claire still hadn’t managed to recover her errant spirit. The moon rose, swift and sure, and on a great gust of wind, El Granjero blew into the room. It was a skeletal figure, its mouth a perpetual rictus. It was clad only in a large hat and carried a wicked soul-scythe.
Claire bowed low to the reaper and gestured to her ball of souls. “The spirits await you. But I must inform you that one is missing. She ran away before I could collect her.” She clamped her teeth to keep the fear at bay; annoying the reaper was not something she was happy to do.
El Granjero never spoke, and yet, she could read its thoughts. Or, more accurately, it somehow placed its thoughts in her mind.
Why did she run?
“She was young and afraid.”
Come. We will find her.
Claire’s door blew open with a bang and the reaper extended a skeletal arm. With a shiver, she marched out the door, El Granjero close at her heels.
She led the reaper to the cemetery, where Rose was mostly likely hiding. As a spirit, she was tethered to a small area of the living world; that was one of the reasons Claire was forced to live so close to the graveyard. She had to be within reach of departing souls.
El Granjero stood in the center of the cemetery and extended both hands. Although Claire couldn’t see any change, she felt the power coming off the reaper in big, violent bursts. It was magnetic, like called to like, and the reaper would pull the dead to it whether they wanted to go or not.
Sure enough, Rose’s spectral form drifted into view. “I won’t go. You can’t make me.”
“Yes,” Claire said. “It can.”
What do you fear?
Rose cocked her head at the skeleton standing before her. “I fear the Otherworld. I fear being alone.”
You are not alone. I will escort you.
“Not going alone,” Rose said. “Staying alone. Being there without my family and friends for eternity.”
“Stop!” Claire said. “Be careful what you wish for. You don’t want it to reap your family, do you? Just because you’re afraid to be alone?”
You wish to have a friend in the Otherworld?
This is not uncommon. Many who die young are frightened to be alone. But I promise you will be safe. You will not feel loneliness in the Otherworld.
Rose folded her translucent arms across her chest. “I’m not going.”
What if I could promise you wouldn’t be alone? What if I brought someone with you?
Rose pondered, looking for all the world as if she were chewing her lip in thought, though she no longer had lips to chew. “I guess that might be okay.”
The reaper nodded solemnly. So shall it be.
With a slow quarter turn, the reaper shifted to Claire. Once again it lifted its arms, and once again Claire felt the power. It was different this time, though. An intense, icy burn radiated from her chest outward, and she gasped and dropped to her knees. The pressure increased, an agony of fire and ice, until her soul was sucked free from her body. She watched in horror as her physical form fell prone, still as death. The reaper’s magnetic pull drew her soul close.
You will accompany her.
“No, please,” Claire begged. “It’s not my time. Don’t take me.”
It is already done.
Using its power, El Granjero dragged the two dead girls in its wake, and drifted back to Claire’s home. It collected the souls from the orb, and began its journey through the veil to the Otherworld.
As she was pulled from the human realm, Claire glanced over her shoulder at her now-deserted cottage. It was no longer home. She would never see it again.
She had been reaped.
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