Eileen Stelter
Holiday Cover

His work-life balance had gone out the window since that damned poker game a week ago. He was so sure about his hand until the Grim Reaper had pulled not only aces but clubs too.
       The stakes: cover for the Grim Reaper while he went off on a holiday to the Western Cape of the galaxy. The perks: he could winnow anywhere he wanted to—temporarily. The downside (besides all the death, the itchy cloak and constantly being called away on a whim): that awfully impractical scythe. He never knew where to put it or what to do with it.
      Halfway through another poker game with a bunch of Drivvoid, his pager went off: Soul in need of collection at the antique store, district 24. He sighed in annoyance and excused himself from the table, earning a few disapproving looks from the Drivvoid. Called away on a whim, indeed. He barely had time to gather himself, before the shadows summoned him and he walked right through the front door of the antique store, a little bell announcing his presence.
      Maybe the dramatic entrances cloaked in shadows could be counted as a perk, he thought, as he saw the human woman hunched over a lifeless, green-skinned Ethelian, startled by his sudden appearance. When her head whipped around to face him, he almost dropped the scythe.
      ‘Aidas?!’ The shadows whirled around him, reminding him to close his fist around the wooden shaft of the scythe.
      ‘You’re the Grim Reaper?!’
      ‘You killed somebody?!’
      Lilith shied away from the body. ‘It was an accident with one of the old crossbows. I knew I should have never bought those.’
      Aidas looked down at the body, green blood oozing out of it in several places.
      ‘Look at her blood, that’s not normal.’ Lilith nervously raked through her hair. “We need to call the guards.”
      ‘Are you nuts? They’ll take one look at this and arrest you on the spot.’ Lilith let out a sob and her hand flew to her mouth. ‘What am I going to do?’
      ‘Don’t you have a “good friend” who’s a detective?’ His words flew at her like glass shards.
      ‘Really, Aidas?’ Lilith looked up at him, anger now shining in her silver lined eyes. ‘Now’s the time? Newsflash: Memory lane’s closed right now.’
      Aidas held up his hands in defence. ‘Look, Lilith. I’m just here to collect the soul, that’s all.’
      ‘You can’t’, she screeched, ‘the soul is the only witness.’
The Ethelian appeared next to him as a milky version of herself, her four black eyes as wide as saucers.
‘You’re’ , she gulped, ‘the Grim Reaper?’
      Aidas awkwardly adjusted the scythe on his hip. ‘I’m the holiday cover. But don’t worry, he gave me a good rundown of things.’ He winked at her. ‘Now please follow me, I have a poker game to finish.’
      ‘You’re unbelievable.’ Lilith muttered and shook her head. ‘Let’s call the guards, give her time to adjust’, she pointed at the Ethelian, ‘and think this through.’
      ‘Alright’, Aidas hissed at her, ‘Call the guards. See if they believe your accident story. Your fingerprints are all over her body, there’s no witnesses, the place of murder is your private property. You’re going to have some convincing to do. But you’re very good at that, aren’t you?’
      Lilith’s nostrils flared. ‘Why are you being such an asshole, Aidas?’
      Aidas came face to face with her. ‘You took the dog.’
      Lilith held his gaze and spat, ‘You never remembered to feed him anyways.’
      The Ethelian jumped. ‘My… body?!’ Her gaze went down to where she lay lifelessly on the floor, an arrow through her chest and she gasped. ‘No, no, no, no.’
      ‘Miss, no need to panic. I will help you cross over.’ Aidas awkwardly grabbed her shoulder. ‘But we need to leave now, before it’s too late.’
      ‘Too late?’, the Ethelian sobbed. ‘How much time do I have?’
      ‘Every soul has a few minutes, but after that, they might not be able to pass at all.’ A white lie to get back to his game of poker. They did have a bit more time than that but to what use anyhow. Why drag out the inevitable?
      The Ethelian grabbed the reaper’s cloak in an iron grasp, as she kept staring at her body, then Lilith, then her body once more. ‘Oh my god’, she sobbed again and her grip on Aidas tightened.
      The Ethelian grabbing him didn’t help in his continuous struggle to wave the scythe. The scythe didn’t really do much except initiate the passing over the Thin Place to the River Styx. Which wasn’t a river technically speaking, as Aidas found out on his first day on the job. It was a city. And the Thin Place was a wormhole between this galaxy and the next. A shortcut to the underworld, if you will.
      He eventually managed to do something that vaguely resembled a cutting motion. The shadows that had brought Aidas here, enveloped himself and the Ethelian. From the corner of his eye, he could see Lilith still staring at them, as he kept cutting or rather clumsily ploughing through the time space continuum.
      ‘No!’ erupted a scream from Lilith at his next movement and she escaped her shock trance. Before Aidas could make his last and defining movement undone, he felt Lilith’s arm loop through his. He only had time for his head to whip around to face her in shock, before the shadows swirled around them and he felt himself being sucked through the wormhole, Lilith and the Ethelian holding onto him for dear life. Or death, he guessed.
‘Lilith!’, he exclaimed as they landed and he shook off both her and the Ethelian’s hands. ‘Are you out of your mind?!’ Lilith bent over, breathing heavily. Aidas blinked.
      ‘That was one hell of a ride.’ Lilith murmured, her hands braced on her knees. She looked up at Aidas.
      ‘You just died, Lilith.’ He pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘And you took your body with you.’ He inhaled shakily. ‘And you weren’t supposed to be collected, so there’s no place for you here. Oh my God.’ Now Aidas bent over, the hood of the reaper cloak falling over his face, as he tried to calm his breathing.
      ‘You left me alone with a dead body!’ Lilith yelled. ‘And took the only witness to my innocence in a potential murder case! I panicked!’ The Ethelian sat down on the bed, staring off into the distance—or rather at the beige apartment wall across from her.
      ‘Surely there’s some way to reverse this, isn’t there?’ Lilith grabbed Aidas’ shoulders. ‘You can send me back once we have sorted this and spoken to the guards, right?’ When he didn’t answer, she shook him. ‘Aidas!’
      ‘Only the Grim Reaper knows. I’m gonna have to call him.’ Aidas sighed and closed his eyes. ‘Lilith, you’re impulsive as shit, do you know that? Do you ever think before you do anything?’
      Lilith huffed. ‘You know I don’t. Otherwise you and I would’ve never gotten married.’ Aidas snarled at her, then walked over to a phone mounted to the wall on the far side of the apartment. Lilith looked around.
      ‘Where are we anyway?’ The studio apartment was rank. The furniture looked like it barely kept its shape and the wallpaper came off in all four corners. Lilith sniffed at the take out boxes on the coffee table, and grimaced. ‘Your place?’
      ‘It’s Grim’s apartment.’
      ‘The Grim Reaper lives in a studio apartment?’
      Aidas rolled his eyes and took the phone from the cradle. ‘He only makes two pence per person. And the cost of living on this side of Styx is insane.’ He started dialling the number he had been given for absolute emergencies only: 111. Emergencies not including regular death, the Grim Reaper had specified.
      ‘Hey Aidas, what’s cooking?’ Aidas nearly dropped the phone, when the Grim Reaper picked up before it had even started ringing.
      ‘Grim Reaper, we have a bit of a problem here.’
      ‘Oh I know, you got two for one, didn’t you.’
      ‘Yes.’ Aidas, looked over his shoulder toward where Lilith sat down on the bed next to the Ethelian.
      ‘I thought I felt a little something extra when y’all crossed over.’
      ‘What do I do?’
      ‘Change your mindset first of all. That’s not a problem, that’s a success. Keep the lady here. Show her a good time.’
      ‘No, she really can’t stay. She was not supposed to be here.’
      ‘Not forever, just until I’m back to fix it. Make yourselves at home, as a thank you for covering for me.’
      ‘You want me to stay with her here?’ Aidas glanced at the bed again. At Lilith, carefully rubbing the Ethelian’s back to soothe her. Lilith and him hadn’t slept in the same bed since way before he had filed for divorce.
It was then that the background noise on the other end of the line brought him back to the conversation with the Reaper. ‘Grim, are you in a bar?’
      ‘They serve something called a “coco loco” inside a pineapple, Aidas. I never knew what I was missing out on.’
      ‘Grim, can you focus please? This is serious!’
      Grim clicked his tongue. ‘You can’t leave a living soul unattended in Styx.’
      ‘Why can I not leave her unattended?’
      ‘They always see this light they want to go towards. But that’s the wormhole. You can’t let her go anywhere near that, you understand? Humans can’t cross over without proper guidance. They will be torn apart by the pressure.’
      ‘Grim, I need to take her back. She’s not dead and I have a life to get back to.’
      ‘Oh, your life? You mean playing poker in dive bars and getting ripped off every time?’ Aidas ignored his pointed words.
      ‘It’s too much of a hassle to describe over the phone. Just stay with her and keep an eye on her, I’ll sort it out when I’m back.’
      Someone on the other end shouted ‘Last orders, folks!’
      ‘I gotta go. You’ll manage. Just wait for me at the house.’
      ‘Sorry, brother. That’s all I can do from here.’
      Aidas growled and went to hang up, but Grim called out his name.
      ‘Wait, one more thing.’
      Aidas snapped, ‘What?’
      ‘There’s only one bed.’
      ‘I am aware.’ The line went dead. And Aidas just stared at the phone.
      ‘So’, Lilith raised an eyebrow at him, ‘what’s the sitch?’
      ‘Oh you’re going to hate this as much as I do, Lilith.’   AQ