A thunderstorm rumbled in the distance with the promise of rain. Woods loomed nearby and the dead grass crunched underfoot. Like glass, Stein thought.
“I thought there wasn't weather in hell,” Stein said, glancing upwards.
Roger followed his gaze. “Everything is always changing in this Purgatory of yours.”
“Purgatory? All this is made by other people?”
“Memories, yes. Lives. Essences.” Roger said and walked on, with Stein following. There was no other alternative.
Smoke rolled over the tree line. Roger melded into the forest and Stein stumbled after, smacking away the sharp branches that snapped back in his face in Roger's wake.
“Where are we going?”
“Seems there's a new bunch coming in,” Roger said, without stopping, just pulling the branches hard to let them pop in Stein's eyes. He chuckled.
“Maybe you should go first,” he said and looked back at Stein. His eyes were filled with fire.
A building blazed—a cabin of sorts, set back in a clearing. Stein could hear the quiet roar of the flames as they licked the thick pine beams. A rocking chair swayed back and forth with tongues of fire taking residence in the seat. Above, the sky rolled red and virulent, with cracks of lightning and thunder, and every so often, a body or three would drop right in.
“War,” Roger said, stopping to admire the event, “always has a healthy bounty.”
Stein stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the strange spirit, because that's what he was. Demon, or something like that. Maybe.
“The dead in battle,” Stein said. It wasn't a question, but Roger nodded, his hair slicked back and that sharp grin emerging on his stone-white features. “So they just kinda fall in? Just like hamburger?”
“Just. Like. That.” Roger said, and approached the blazing cabin.
“Why is this thing on fire?”
“Because they aren't supposed to stay here. They aren't even supposed to be here.”
Stein frowned and looked at Roger. “What do you mean, not supposed to be here?”
“They go to the way-station.”
“Weigh-station? Like a trucker's?”
Roger gritted his teeth. “This was a place before for incoming shipments. But the place has...no, I won't tell you that. Now they go to the waiting room. Hell's Kitchen. Where you started all of this.”
“It's a weigh station?”
“No,” Roger growled and watched the drifting, shimmering shapes of the souls materialize into solid shapes.
Their souls are weighed?”
Roger shook his hair and rubbed a blister appearing over his right eye.
“Why do you do that?” Stein asked, cocking his head to the side to inspect Roger's wound.
“Why do I do what?”
“Blister like you can't stand it.”
“Because,” Roger hissed and started walking again. “This is human thought. Human dream, and I am not a part of it.”
“But you're Death.”
“Am I?” Roger asked and turned to face Stein while walking backwards, “what made you think such a thing?'
“Because,” Stein said and threw his hands up. “Fine. Fuck it. Whatever.”
“If you think I am simply Death, you are very, very wrong Cristein.”
“I am a stand-in.” Roger's black eyes locked with Stein's. “We await the coming of the Reaper.”
“There's a fucking Reaper?”
Roger smirked and waggled a finger. “You worry about what Stein has done. All of this will come to you in time.”
“Why am I here?” Stein asked.
“Because I must know everything I can about you before offering a job.”
“I'm dead. As if it matters if I fuck up.”
“It's an important position,” Roger said and turned to face the incoming wave of piled-up souls. That's what they were, shimmering and vacant, without eyes or ears, just holes where the functional organs had once been.
“Why do they look like that?” Stein asked and walked up to a deflating soul, fizzling on the hot sand.
“It's a hard ride over,” Roger said. “They always look like that.”
“Why don't I look like that?”
“Because.” Roger bent to reach out for the soul who recoiled and squeaked in terror. It got up and scurried across the sand like a wild thing, all shadows and plasma. Roger grumbled and waved a hand at the retreating figure.
“It'll learn not to run away.”
“Because why?” Stein asked, ignoring the diversion.
“Why don't you look like that?” Roger smiled, and it was not pleasant at all. “In due time.”
“How about now?”
Roger nodded at another soul laying on the sand like discarded pantyhose. “Try to pick it up.”
“You mean touch that thing?”
“Yes. Try it.”
Stein frowned but reached out for the shaded form. It came towards his fingers like a lonely stray dog.
“Well, this is interesting,” Roger said, obviously amused, “Go on. Touch it. Grab onto it.”
Stein crept towards the thing, meeting it halfway in the space between them. It was cold, but not bitterly. A cool breeze. An autumn breeze. Soft, like leaves. The form began to solidify, features becoming prominent in the gray shadow. Lips, nose and finally, a sensuous full mouth.
“I believe she likes you,” Roger said and leaned down towards her. Her attributes dissolved like a sand castle in the waves.
“They sure don't like you at all,” Stein said, and closed his fingers around hers. She materialized into a recognizable female again.
The longer he held onto her, the more solid she became, until her flesh gleamed in the dying sun on the horizon. Always on the horizon in the In-Between, as he was beginning to think it was.
Roger smiled weakly and bowed his head to the frightened soul. “Time's up.”
A scream resounded from inside Stein's head, so much that he held a hand to his eyes as if that would stop anything. The pain was internal, and she was pulling to get away from him.
“Welcome to your destiny,” Roger said, grinning his piranha grin as Stein felt the soul turn to ash in his hand, and a cold stroke pass through his center.
“Ramona,” Stein said with a sharp intake of breath. “Her name was Ramona.”