The Department of Creative Death and Ironic Punishment. This is where writers go when they die.
Oz, an employee of The Department, is mostly content doling out death from his ancient typewriter, until he wins the office lottery. The prize? A new assignment – to return to the world of the living as a Reaper.
At first, Oz sees this new assignment as a blessing. He is given a body and a second chance at life, but then, during a lesson with a surly, seasoned Reaper named Bard, Oz is forced to watch a childhood friend die. Shaken, Oz questions his willingness to do the job he's won.
With each new lesson, Oz begins to wonder if being a Reaper is really a prize or a punishment.
Death is inevitable for everyone. It was time for Amelia to bite it, but she was being stubborn. Oz wasn’t a violent person by nature, but now all bets were off. This was it. The moment of truth. The moment when she would find herself—
Oz bit his lip.
When she would find herself... Fuck.
He knew this character had to die. She had to. There was no other good way for the story to go. It was perfect. Poetic. Just. But how would poor Amelia meet her maker? A gun to the face or knife to the belly wouldn’t do it. Well, it’d certainly kill her, but not the way he wanted. No. Amelia deserved something big and terrifying.
Oz rubbed his temples to nudge his stubborn imagination. Amelia was stuck in a loop, driving an infinite path to her aunt’s cabin that would never end if he couldn’t get his shit together. He could almost feel the poor woman’s full bladder and caffeine headache caused by the endless pots of sludgy black coffee his procrastination had forced her to guzzle down.
The hangover definitely wasn’t helping things. Cotton mouth, gut rot, and a pounding headache, all served as reminders of the stupidity of last night. The drinking hadn’t been the stupid part. Granted, had he choked down some food before hitting the tequila, the stupid probably wouldn’t have happened.
Jen had said she wanted to talk. Mark was being an asshole to her again. Oz figured that as Mark’s best friend he could help. He’d hear her out then bring it back to Mark with a protective coating of male, non-naggingness. Oz wished he could say that he’d accepted the invitation to her apartment with pure intentions. The reality was that he and Mark had spotted Jen at the same bar at the same time and Mark had cock-blocked him. Oz bowed out because he knew he couldn’t compete with Mark’s good ol’ boy charm, but Oz still felt cheated. While playing the role of empathetic listener, Oz intended to cast Mark in a less than flattering light.
Half a bottle of cheap tequila later, he found himself searching for his clothes on her bedroom floor, feeling a twisted combination of triumph and guilt. He knew she wouldn’t tell Mark, he wouldn’t either, but his nerves were on edge all morning. Oz couldn’t take Mark in a fight and didn’t want to try.
The phone rang and he jumped, knocking his coffee cup from the desk. A few centimeters to the left and he’d have had scalded skin to deal with on top of it all.
Oz took a breath. It’ll be fine. Maybe she doesn’t even remember.
He struggled to pull it to his ear, the chord twisted in a coil more intricate than a strand of DNA.
“Hello?” he said, hunched over the phone base.
“Ozzy? That you, dear?”
Praise the Heavens, it wasn’t Jen. But the caller was the only other woman on earth he didn’t want to talk to—his mother. She only called when she needed something. Her one-sided conversations tended to last hours and he really needed to piss.
Make it quick, he thought.
“Are you eating, dear?”
“I’m writing, Mom, can I call you when I’m done?”
His mother exhaled, the sound, he knew, meant to convey disappointment and pain. Her sighs and groans were like their own language, known only to Oz.
“Your father’s a bit laid up—”
I’m fine, woman.
“—and I’m going to take him into town to get him looked at.”
“Mm,” Oz said.
“Anyway, I was hoping you could come by and burn the refuse pile for me. No telling when your father will be well enough to take care of it.”
Hack, cough. I told you, cough, woman, I’m fine, dammit. Boy’ll burn the damn house down.
“What do you say, Ozzy? Will you?”
It’d take three hours to drive to the back-road shithole where Oz’s parents lived and Oz had had no intention of leaving the apartment without doing some killing. Oz struggled to refuse, but his mother was the kind of woman who’d win a gold medal in the Guilt Olympics. She’d brainwashed him early and thoroughly.
Oh well, Oz thought, didn’t the books tell amateurs like him that when you’re stuck, a change of scenery helps jog the brain? The drive might force his hungover brain to forge new connections. Probably a load of crap, but at this point Oz was willing to try anything. His deadline loomed and he wouldn’t get any more extensions.
“Sure,” he said.
After hanging up, Oz threaded a new slip of paper into his typewriter and, still standing, he typed, “There was a finality to the sound the door made as Amelia slammed it closed behind her, a finality she failed to notice.”
He climbed into his rust bucket of a car and slammed the door. Oz tried to hear the finality in it, but only heard the rattling of something important. Once he’d finished with the garbage he would tear up that page and start over.
Oz forgot his sunglasses which made the drive over shittier than it had to be. Didn’t the sun have better things to do than to hurl its rays directly into the epicenter of his brain?
He found his parents’ spare key beneath a ceramic turtle he made in seventh grade that’d seen better days.
Inside the house, Oz found a note on the table next to a plate of Girl Scout cookies—thin mints:
Eat these before your father gets home. Doctor says he’s one tablespoon of sugar away from a heart attack. Been admitted. Love you.
He stuffed one of the chocolate disks into his mouth. He patted his gut. One more advantage Mark had. No wonder Jen had chosen Mark. No point in making a promise to himself to work out more. He’d never do it.
The burn pile sat at the far left corner of his parents’ quarter acre backyard. A moat of sand surrounded the island of refuse. Scorch marks striped the ground.
A rare breeze blew as Oz doused the pile in lighter fluid. The smell of distant food rode the breeze and mingled with the odor wafting from the lighter fluid. It turned sour in his nose and made his eyes water. Why his parents stayed when the rest of the town—the garbage pick-up, the neighbors, the only grocery store—picked up and left, Oz would never know. Probably his dad’s doing. The man saw that house as his own private fiefdom, and the vacating neighbors only strengthened his claim on the land.
Oz struck a match into the densest part of the pile. Flames ate through the upper layer of newspaper. He inched closer to the fire to feel its warmth. Curls of half-charred junk mail drifted over Oz’s shoes and ashes twirled in the wind. Watching the fire sparked an idea. He knew how Amelia would die.
Oz gripped the toothed end of the rake and poked the pile with the handle.
He didn’t notice the collection of aerosol cans until a second before they exploded.