Reaper, Chapter One

To be honest, it’s unclear whether any of this actually happened. The stories that go along with our heroes fall into the gray space between history and legend, and rightfully so. It would appear that most legends have at least an ounce of truth to them, but no one is ever quite sure where the truth ends and the myth begins. Regardless, it makes for an interesting saga; a modern myth, as it were. We begin our tale with a young man named Aaron Argent. Aaron was dark-haired, tall, and generally well built (he had joined the swim team in high school after being cut from football tryouts for not being quite husky enough to play the line), but he wasn’t really one to stand out in a crowd. He seemed to have a constant far-off look in his eyes, giving him an air of mystery; this was what his friend Alicia believed to be his best trait. When he graduated high school, he decided to take that far-off look to far-off places as a journalist. He had dreams of travelling the world, collecting and telling stories of distant lands and incredible adventures. His parents, while somewhat disappointed in their son’s choice of major, supported his decision to go to college. He applied all over the United States, and when the acceptance letters came in, he settled on a little school in North Carolina.

Upon arrival at Dellamorte College, Aaron realized very quickly that he was going to need some sort of income in order to survive; he had always known college life was a meager existence, but hadn’t realized just how meager until he arrived. He set out in search of employment that would work with his class schedule. As fate would have it, he saw a “help wanted” ad on a bulletin board for an overnight security job at a local funeral home. Admittedly a strange occupation, but he was in no position to be picky; he dropped off his application in person, and since there were absolutely no other applicants, he was hired on the spot.

When he arrived for work on the first night, the funeral director, Mr. Clive Lugosi, gave him a quick tour of the mortuary and a brief overview of his responsibilities. The funeral home itself was a rather ornate place; it was a single-story building, with the three funeral parlors lined up just past the open lobby. The morticians’ offices were down a side hall that led to the back of the building, behind the parlors. Downstairs, the basement was a labyrinth of hallways, with rooms jutting off to the side at seemingly random junctures. Throughout this maze were scattered the more important rooms of interest; the morgue (where the coolers with the bodies were stored), the break room, the necessary facilities (the “business essentials,” and Mr. Lugosi called them), and so on.

As the two of them walked along, Mr. Lugosi spoke.

“You see, Aaron, we are not really too concerned about people robbing us or breaking in. We are more focused on making sure the coolers stay at the correct temperature. That will be your main focus; your rounds should bring you through the cooler room quite frequently. Now, occasionally we will have vandalism, with the local riff-raff spray painting the dumpsters and the side of the building…I believe they call it ‘tagging’ these days. Simply having you here overnight should, however, help deter the hoodlums from sullying the appearance of this otherwise beautiful establishment.”

Aaron rubbed the back of his neck, and the thought that ran through his mind accidentally slipped out into the open air before he even realized he was speaking. “I’m not sure I would call it beautiful…

Aaron realized his mistake and clapped a hand over his mouth.

Mr. Lugosi smirked and tapped his lips. “How would you describe it, then?”

Aaron, feeling more awkward and uncomfortable than ever before (except for maybe that time he played Tinkerbell in the 3rd grade theater production), stammered and stuttered.  Mr. Lugosi laughed.

“There’s no need to be so nervous, my boy. I hired you to do a job. Your opinion of this establishment won’t affect your paycheck. I would suggest, however, holding off on making any judgments about it until you get to know it a little better. She may surprise you.”

“She?”

“This building; I have always viewed it as a sophisticated woman. Something about it has always exuded stylish elegance and grace.”

Mr. Lugosi glanced at his watch.

“Well, I must be off. Here is your flashlight and the keys; I will be back around sunrise. Please make yourself at home; poke your head into any little nook you find curious. The more familiar you are with these halls, the better.”

With that, Mr. Lugosi turned and left, and Aaron was on his own. As he proceeded to make his way through his rounds, he found himself downstairs in the morgue, where the bodies were stored before they were buried. The lights in the room were on, revealing a long row of coolers, some marked with the names of the deceased who rested within. Aaron checked the thermostats on the face of every cooler door, pausing to read the names of the deceased who rested inside. He imagined what their lives might have been like; he wondered about the places they had travelled to, and what kind of stories they might have told him. Making his way to the end of the line, he found one of the cooler doors was open. Since none of the others were open, Aaron assumed that the door had been left open by accident, he reached down and closed it.

When he turned back around, his heart jumped right into his throat. Standing before him was a man, seemingly in his early twenties, who was very clearly dead. The zombie smiled really wide and waved emphatically.

“Hi! I’m Kyle.”

Aaron, being the badass that he was, fainted dead away. When he awoke, he was in the break room in the basement, lying on a couch. He checked himself first for bite marks, and then for a bump somewhere on his head.

“Man, what a crazy dream,” he thought. “I need to find a way to stay awake while I’m working these overnight shifts. Funny…I don’t remember coming in here at all; how did I get into the break room?”

Aaron sat up and looked around the room, searching for a clock, wondering how long he had been asleep. Not far from where he sat was the zombie from earlier, sitting at the table next to the vending machines, reading the newspaper. Noticing that Aaron was now awake, he gently set the paper down and introduced himself again, slowly enunciating every word.

“Okay, let’s try this one more time: hello, my name is Kyle. It is very nice to meet you; what is your name? Gosh, I feel like I’m in kindergarten, saying it like that…”

Aaron went pale and almost fainted once more, but managed to just barely maintain consciousness this time. He jumped up and rushed out of the break room. Kyle watched him race out of the room and then picked up the newspaper.

“Oookay…that was a little rude.”

As Aaron ran down the hall, he could hear the zombie whistling to himself. It was somewhat confusing how calm the dead guy was, considering in all the movies he had seen on the topic, zombies tended to be angry and rather obsessed with consuming massive amounts of brain matter. Aaron didn’t let his confusion linger for very long, and soon found a janitor’s closet to hide in. He stayed there until the sun started to come up, at which point he cautiously poked his head out into the hallway.

He didn’t see anything unusual, so he decided to finish his rounds. Finding nothing out of place and, more importantly, no dead people walking around, Aaron began to relax. He chalked it up to either sleep deprivation or a prank on the new guy, and finished up his shift with no further incidents. Mr. Lugosi arrived shortly after Aaron finished his final lap around the mortuary. He greeted the young man with a firm handshake.

“Good morning, Mr. Argent; I trust all was quiet on the western front last night?”

Thoughts of the night’s events raced through Aaron’s mind, but he pushed them to the side and smiled. “All good here, sir; no trouble at all.”

Mr. Lugosi nodded. “Good, good; now, I am sure you are tired and need to grab a few winks of sleep before coming back tonight. You are coming back tonight, correct?”

Lugosi looked at him with a strange look in his eye, almost as if he knew Aaron had seen more than he was letting on.

“You’re just being paranoid now,” Aaron thought to himself. “Your mind plays a few tricks on you in the dark, and suddenly you’re a conspiracy theorist.”

“Yes, sir,” Aaron replied, “I’ll be here. This is a pretty sweet gig; I’d have to be pretty dense to walk out on this after just one night on the job.”

Mr. Lugosi grinned. “I told you that this place had a certain charm to it. Once you walk through those doors, you’re hooked; there’s no getting away from her.”

Mr. Lugosi and Aaron shook hands once more, and Aaron returned to his apartment for some much-needed rest.

The next night, Aaron showed up to work, having completely shoved aside the thoughts of what had occurred during his first shift. Some of the staff were still on their way out when he arrived, and he spent a few minutes shooting the breeze with a few of them as they gathered their things and made their way home for the night. When they were all gone, he locked the heavy front door and began his patrols. Even though he had convinced himself that what he had seen the night before was nothing more than his imagination running wild, he couldn’t help but feel a little anxious as he went about his duties. With every empty room he passed, he felt more and more at ease, and the fear that nibbled at the corners of his mind faded away. When he came to the cooler room, all the coolers were closed and everything was the way it should be; nothing was out of place, no cooler doors sat open, and none of the dead appeared to be wandering around. He lingered there for a few minutes, entirely relieved that the events of the night before were not repeating themselves. Looking around one last time, he left the room and continued his rounds.

Halfway through the night, Aaron walked down to the break room to take his lunch. Rounding the corner and stepping through the doorway, the image he saw froze him in place. Kneeling down in front of one of the vending machines was the dead guy from the night before, trying to fish out a candy bar that had gotten stuck as it fell.

Snapping out of his stupor, Aaron pulled out his flashlight and charged forward at Kyle.

“Aaaaarrggghhh!” Aaron yelled as he rushed towards the dead man and began clubbing him with the flashlight. In between hits, Kyle frantically tried to dislodge his hand from the snack machine.

“OW! Stop! Stop that! I’M ALREADY DEAD. YOU DON’T HAVE TO KILL ME. Cut it out!”

Finally pulling his arm free, Kyle snatched the makeshift baton from Aaron’s hand. He squinted at the night guard and wagged his finger at him.

“No. We don’t hit.”

Aaron blinked several times, a realization dawning on his momentarily hazy mind. “You…you can talk?”

Still squinting, Kyle reached over and pulled out a chair, pushing it towards Aaron. “Sit.”

Aaron nervously did as he was told. “So…so are you going to eat me?”

Kyle snorted. “I probably should; I’m gonna be feeling those welts for a couple of days. But no, I’m not going to eat you. I’m gonna eat my candy bar.”

Kyle walked over to the vending machine and grabbed the candy bar from the tray, where it had fallen during the altercation. He took a moment, slowly opening the wrapper and taking a bite as he sat down across the table from Aaron.

“Mmmmm…so good. Anyway,” he paused as he chewed and swallowed, then continued, “look, I’m not trying to kill you, scare you, or cause any kind of trouble. I really just want someone to talk to. Most people, like you, flip their lids when I try to talk to them. Well, those who I CAN talk to. Not everyone can understand us dead folks; the majority of people see us as mindless monsters who can only communicate in grunts and groans.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah; where do you think the idea of slow, stupid zombies came from?”

“So you ARE a zombie, then?”

Kyle shook his head. “No…the term ‘zombie’ carries such a dark, creepy connotation. Let’s call it what it is: I’m dead. Also, before we go any further, let’s have a formal introduction. As I said yesterday, my name is Kyle.”

Kyle reached across the table for a handshake.

“I’m…I’m Aaron,” the night guard replied as he returned the handshake.

“Nice to meet you, Aaron.”

“Yeah, same. Sorry about the beat down, dude.”

Kyle rubbed the top of his head. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s just not make it a habit.”

Aaron smiled, and then furrowed his brow as a flurry of thoughts assaulted his brain. “Okay, so…I’m really confused as to what is going on here exactly.”

Kyle finished his candy bar and shrugged. “Fair enough; I’m sure you’ve got a lot of questions, so I’ll try to answer as many of them as I can. What’s the first one that comes to mind?”

Aaron shook his head slowly. “I’m talking to a dead person…I feel like I’m losing my mind. Well, I guess I’m going to assume that this is really happening, and get down to the details. You said not everyone can understand you…how is it that I can?”

Kyle shrugged again. “I don’t know; I guess some people can still see us for who we were before we died. I really don’t know why. And if you’re wondering, no, I don’t just walk up to every living being that comes along and strike up a conversation. We can sense when someone can understand us; most of the time, at least.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t explain it…it’s just…an instinct. We just KNOW. It’s kind of like when you’re sleeping and you can feel someone staring at you.”

“Huh…that’s cool, I guess…wait…you keep saying ‘we.’ Are ALL the dead people here like you?”

“Not all of them; a few here and there. More than you might expect.”

“Wow, really? That’s kind of creepy.”

Kyle laughed. “If I were in your shoes, I’d probably be a little creeped out too.”

“So, what do you guys do in there?”

“In where?”

“In the coolers. Do you sleep?”

“Eh, some of us. Most of the others play dead; since none of us knows why we’re still here, things are less scary if you just stay in your cooler. Some of us get up and walk around, though, as you can see.”

“Hmm.” Aaron sat and soaked in all the information for a few minutes, while Kyle got himself another candy bar. Aaron eyed Kyle as he ate.

“Do you have to eat? Like, what happens to you if you don’t eat?”

“I don’t have to eat to stay the way I am, but if I don’t eat, I get mighty hungry. I went three months without eating one time, and MAN was I getting a case of the grumblies. I mean, I was seriously craving anything I could put in my mouth at that point.”

“So you’re basically alive and can’t die?”

Kyle placed his hands behind his head and leaned back. “See, I don’t know. I don’t know what could ‘kill’ me, as it were. I don’t have to eat, I don’t need to breathe, and I don’t need to sleep…I don’t really need anything. As for what could kill me, or at least make me ‘more dead’, I have no idea. I sure don’t want to find out.”

“That’s fair,” laughed Aaron. “Hey, I need to finish my rounds; would you care to join me?”

Kyle raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, why not? I mean, you seem cool, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to gnaw my arm off, so we’re good.”

“Awesome. And I would like to point out that fact that in our short period of interaction, you have done all the attacking.”

“Again, I’m really sorry about that…”

“Water under the bridge, dude; just keep that flashlight away from me. I’m worried I might have a flashback and freak out. Maybe go hide in a janitor’s closet.”

Aaron turned beet red, clearly embarrassed.

“You knew where I was last night?”

Kyle rolled his eyes. “Dude, you could not have made more noise. You sounded like a herd of elephants running around this place. I simply followed the noise for a while to make sure you didn’t hurt yourself during your little episode.”

The two of them exited the break room, and the rest of the night went by violence-free, as Kyle followed Aaron around as they weaved their way through the hallways beneath the funeral home. They chatted about trivial things like sports and the weather; Aaron had a lot more questions for Kyle, but he needed some time to digest what he had already learned, so they kept the conversation light until they parted ways. When dawn began to break, Kyle returned to his cooler.

“Ah, the sun’s coming up; I’d better get back to my little ice box,” Kyle remarked, clearly disappointed that the night had gone by so quickly.

Aaron checked his watch. “Why? Can you not be in the sunlight?”

Kyle looked at Aaron with a bewildered expression. “Dude, I’m dead, not a vampire; the sunlight won’t kill me. I damn sure can’t just be up-and-at-em when everyone gets here, though. Can you imagine the pandemonium that would break out if other people saw me walking around this place? Not everybody can understand me. They’d flip out; it would be like that scene in Frankenstein where the people from the neighboring village storm the castle with their torches and pitchforks.”

Aaron nodded slowly. “Oh…I guess I can see how that would be bad.”

“Yeah, people don’t take too kindly to a dead person walking around on his own. So, I’m gonna head back to the cooler. Are you coming back tonight?”

“You bet; my shift starts at 8, so I’ll come find you as soon as the coast is clear.”

“Right on, bro-ham. I’ll see you then.”

With that, the two bumped fists and parted ways, with Kyle going off to his refrigerated hole in the wall, and Aaron to sleep for a while before his first class of the day. That night, when Aaron returned for his third shift, Mr. Lugosi called him into his office. The man quickly finished what he was working on, grabbed his coat and, as he prepared to leave, he had a short conversation with Aaron.

“How are you liking the job so far?” he asked.

“It’s quite nice, sir; it fits with my class schedule, and the work is actually kind of fun,” Aaron replied.

“I told you, this place has a lot to offer; if you treat her right, she will reveal treasures and secrets you never thought possible.”

“I’m sure, sir. This is truly a remarkable place.”

“Yes, well, the reason I called you in here was to give you a bit of a warning; don’t worry, you’re not in any trouble. It’s about the job itself, not your performance. Our business here is death, and I’m sure that fact is never far from the front of your mind. Sometimes there are things that cannot be explained; the eyes can play tricks on the mind in a place like this. So what I suppose I really want to say is that there is nothing to fear, and if there is anything unusual or if you run into any trouble, take note of it and feel free to contact me.”

“What kind of trouble, sir? Are you expecting any trouble?”

“No, not at all. It’s just that my last few night guards have quit due to getting spooked a few too many times, and I wouldn’t want you to feel like you have to walk into any suspicious situations alone.”

“Oh; well, I appreciate that, Mr. Lugosi,” Aaron said, somewhat confused.

“Please, simply calling me Lugosi is fine; I prefer it, actually. I’m not really a fan of the ‘Mr.’ title. But, I must away, as it were; I must get home and tend to things there. And Aaron, I am serious about calling me if things get hairy. I don’t expect them to, but don’t worry about waking or bothering me. I am more than willing to help out when I am needed.”

Aaron nodded sharply. “Thank you, sir. Have a good night.”

Lugosi sang out a “You too!” as he walked out the front door.

Aaron stood there a moment, quite puzzled by his exchange with Lugosi. He wasn’t sure if the mortician was trying to tell him that he knew about Kyle walking around the place at night, or if he was simply being accommodating. Shaking his head and walking away, he decided to ask Kyle about Lugosi when he went downstairs. Aaron quickly worked his way through the various funeral parlors on the main floor, and then went downstairs in search of Kyle.

As expected, he found his dead friend in the breakroom; he was watching a late-night talk show with another dead person.

“Hey, Kyle, what’s up?”

Kyle turned around, and gave Aaron a nod. “’Sup, dude? Aaron, this is Derek. Derek, meet Aaron.”

Derek turned and waved, obviously very shy, so Kyle continued his introduction.

“He’s shipping off to his pine box tomorrow. We were thinking we’d sneak upstairs and take a look at his casket before the big day.”

Aaron waved his hand nonchalantly. “Oh, yeah; that won’t be a problem. There’s a casket set up in Parlor 3. I’m assuming that’s his?”

“Yeah, probably,” Kyle responded.

Derek stood awkwardly and began to shuffle off.

“I, uh…I’m going to go look at it myself. I’ll see you, um, later, Kyle,” Derek mumbled.

“Sure thing, bro. You sure you don’t want company?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Thanks.”

“Okay…” Turning back to Aaron, Kyle continued, “What’s new, bro-ski?”

Aaron shrugged. “Not much. Had a weird conversation with the funeral director before he left.”

“Mr. Lugosi? What did he have to say?”

“Nothing crazy, I just got the feeling that he had more to say, but wasn’t able to talk about it for some reason. Almost like he knows that some of you guys get up and walk around when he’s not here. I don’t know, maybe I’m just reading too much into it. What do you know about the guy?”

Kyle squinted and stretched. “Uh, not much, honestly. I’ve never met him, so what I know about him came from his assistant, who died a few years back. She said he was a mortician somewhere else for a while before he came here. She said he’d been here for about twenty years. Other than that, I don’t really know anything about him; I don’t even know what the guy looks like.”

Aaron was flabbergasted.

“Twenty years? No way…he doesn’t look that old. I mean, I guess he could be in his fifties or something. He looks really young to have that long of a history here, AND to have been a mortician somewhere else.”

Kyle shrugged. “Some people figure out what they want to do early on in life. More power to ‘em. Hey, shifting gears here, do you want to head upstairs and take a look at Derek’s casket?”

“Sure; it’s not like I have any real work to do anyway.”

The two men laughed and as they walked upstairs, Aaron asked Kyle if there were any others.

“What do you mean?” Kyle asked.

Aaron shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. “You know, are there any other dead people like you and the guy you were hanging out with earlier?”

“Oh, no; it’s just me and Derek at the moment,” Kyle replied.

“Gotcha…”

The two of them made their way up to Parlor 3, which was empty except for the casket and an easel with a picture of Derek propped up on it. The two of them walked to the front, admired the portrait, and then took a quick look at the casket. Looking back at the picture, Aaron broke the silence.

“Hey, Kyle?”

“Wassup?”

“What happens after a person is buried? I mean, if you guys are walking around and conscious NOW, what happens when they put him in that casket tomorrow?”

“You know, man, I’m not sure. I’m a big believer in the afterlife; I kind of have to be, considering I got hit by a bus six years ago, and here I am. But when it comes to heaven and hell type stuff, I really have no idea. I certainly hope we don’t just sit in that box until we rot away. If that’s the case, I may have gotten the better end of the deal by getting stuck here.”

“Six years? Wow…speaking of which, what’s your story? What happened?”

Kyle smirked. “It’s okay, you can say it: how did I die? Well, that’s a long-ish story. Maybe tomorrow night, muchacho. I have to hunt down Derek and make sure he’s doing alright, and then get the both of us back to our coolers. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”

“Alright, sounds good to me, dude.”

Kyle hopped up and clapped Aaron on the shoulder as he left. Aaron sat there quietly for a few minutes before leaving the parlor. He finished out his shift quietly, and when Lugosi arrived, he clocked out and went back to his apartment for a few hours of sleep. He didn’t have any classes until the afternoon, but he did have plans to grab lunch with Alicia. Alicia had been his best friend for as long as he could remember. When they had graduated high school, they decided that they wanted to go to the same college, and as luck would have it, they were both accepted at Dellamorte.

Alicia was an interesting character, to say the least. Blonde hair and green eyes with a thin physique and perpetual sly smile, she was a very beautiful person. She was spunky and quirky, and had met Aaron when they were in first grade. She had stood up for him when he was getting bullied on the playground, and they had been friends ever since.

Aaron had been her escape from the stresses of life for as long as they had known each other. She had been in and out of psychiatric care since she was eight. She claimed at the time that she had travelled to a far-away, colorful land full of talking animals, riddles, and a life-or-death poker game. Originally thinking that maybe she was having trouble differentiating between dreams and reality, her parents dismissed her. Over time, they grew concerned for her mental well-being, and had her assessed by a professional. The psychiatrists believed she was delusional schizophrenic, and that live-in treatment would best help someone with her advanced condition. She was subsequently committed and “re-immersed” into society several times over the years, and by the time she was in high school, she learned to keep her memories to herself. She was convinced that they were indeed memories and not dreams or imaginings. Most of her family and friends either avoided her or simply tolerated her, except for Aaron. Aaron always accepted her for who she was and didn’t care whether what she believed was real or fake; he simply cared about Alicia.

Considering his history with Alicia, Aaron decided to tell her about what had been happening at work while they ate. When they met up, they had a quick hug hello, and then they sat down for lunch. As they ate, Aaron told her everything; he told her about freaking out the first night, about sitting down and talking to Kyle the second night, and about their most recent conversation.

“So there it is,” he sighed as he finished the tale. “You don’t think I’m going crazy, do you?”

Alicia shook her head and popped a strawberry in her mouth. “No, I think it’s entirely possible. There are plenty of things we simply don’t know, don’t understand, or flat out refuse to believe to be true. It’s kind of arrogant to say that just because something has not happened to me that it is impossible for it to have happened to someone else.”

Aaron nodded. “Okay, so if I’m not losing my mind, what is going on? How is this happening?”

Alicia shrugged. “I don’t know; if you want, I can do some research on the undead. This can’t be the first time someone has talked to a dead person; maybe I can find something written on the topic.”

“If you wouldn’t mind, that would be great. I don’t know where you would LOOK for first-hand accounts of stuff like this, but your help would definitely be appreciated. It all still feels very surreal; it’s so absurd. I can’t think of any way that this is actually happening.”

Alicia smiled and replied, “I know what you mean. When people tell you something isn’t real for so long, and something happens to you that doesn’t fit inside that clean, little box, it can be jarring and uncomfortable. You know what you saw, but you don’t know who you can trust with that information.”

She winked and ate another strawberry before continuing. “You can always trust me, Ary. I’m always in your corner.”

Aaron smiled. He knew this was true; she had followed him half way across the country just so they could still hang out together. He knew she would always have his back, and he would have hers.

“Thanks; I hope you know that road goes both ways.”

“I know,” she said cheerily. “In fact, there is very little I don’t know about you. But it’s getting to be about that time, so I should head off. I’ll let you know when I dig something up.”

She stood quickly and mussed up his hair as she walked away. Aaron playfully pretended to be upset by this and quickly fixed his hair before heading off to class. Later that evening, Aaron picked up some ice cream and returned to the funeral home for his final night of work that week. When Lugosi and the last of the lingering staff left for the night, Aaron went downstairs and pulled Kyle from his cooler.

“Hey, buddy, I brought us some ice cream tonight; I figured you might be tired of vending machine treats,” Aaron said, handing a pint of vanilla bean ice cream and a spoon to Kyle.

“Sweet! It’s been years since I had anything other than what people leave in the fridge and what I can snake out of the snack machine.”

As they ate, Aaron tried to find the right words to ask what he wanted to know.

“So…I’m kinda curious, since you mentioned it last night. How did you wind up here? And why have you been here for so long?”

Kyle nodded and took another spoonful of his ice cream. “Let’s head upstairs to one of the parlors; I’ve spent a lot of time in this room, and I wanna get out of here for a while.”

They walked upstairs to one of the parlors and sat down, facing a casket that was prepared for the next day. When they were situated, Kyle began his tale.

“Well, about six years ago, I was a junior in college. I was having a really crappy year, as my girl had just dumped me, and my family and I weren’t on speaking terms. I hadn’t really talked to anyone I wasn’t in class with for quite a while. I had dived into my music to cope with everything that was going on, cuz I couldn’t just stop going to classes in order to deal with my mess. I had to make something of myself, or I would be a bum and a dropout for the rest of my life. I had bought these really awesome headphones, and I was trying them out. They were noise-cancelling, so I didn’t have to listen to anything that was going on around me; all I heard was my music. I would throw them on, turn the music up loud, and just tune out the world around me; it was my escape…from everything.

“While I was jamming out one day, I went to cross a street. A bus must have whipped around the corner, because I didn’t see it when I stepped off the curb. I didn’t hear it because of the music, and it barreled right over me. I’m assuming it killed me on impact, because I don’t remember being in any pain. I woke up here, feeling rather cold and hungry, but not uncomfortably so. I looked around, and I found I was in my cooler. I’ll be honest with you, I freaked out a little bit until I figured out I could open the cooler door from the inside. I climbed out, and on the counter I found my medical sheet. I noticed it because my name was on it in big black letters: Kyle Dieselberg, deceased.

“I couldn’t believe it, because I was obviously still walking around and stuff. I thought it must have been a big mistake, and they simply thought I was dead. I flipped through the file, and what I saw was horrible. The bus had hit me crazy hard; I had bled out on the street, broken a whole bunch of bones, and had a lot of intense internal damage. There was no mistaking the fact that I had died right there.

“I was really confused, because it didn’t feel like I had broken any bones, and I felt like I was alive. I briefly wondered if I was a ghost, but then I remembered that I had climbed out of the cooler. I was still here, still somehow alive, but also dead. That said, I spent the next few days very confused. Days passed, then weeks, and with each passing day, I began to slowly figure this whole being dead thing out.

“I finally summoned the courage to explore this place. At first, it was just this room, looking at all the names and looking through files. Then I ventured out further and further, until I found Lugosi’s office. I walked inside and found a stack of death certificates right there in the open. I looked through them, and found mine with a sticky-note attached. ‘Unable to contact family.’

“That was probably the biggest blow of being dead. The funeral home had tried to contact my family, and my folks hadn’t even bothered to call them back. No one came to I.D. my body, no one came to sign my death certificate…they simply didn’t care that I had died. Over time, I think the funeral home forgot I was here, and I’ve been in that cooler ever since.

“Most people only stay here a week at the most, so the dead people like me, who could walk and talk and stuff, they were never here for very long. They always moved on. I tried to talk to another security guard once; I could tell he understood me. My instincts were buzzing like crazy. When I walked up to him, he responded worse than you did; he had a heart attack right in front of me. I accidentally scared the man to death. When they put him in a cooler, he pretended he was full-on dead. I knew he was faking it because when I pulled him out, every once in a while he would peek one of his eyes open to see if I was still around.

“Anyway, after a while, I figured out that I couldn’t leave this place or my body would start to rot. As long as I stayed here, I would be fine, more or less as fresh as a rose. I’ll be here until this place burns to the ground, I guess.”

Aaron felt incredibly bad for Kyle; the man’s own family rejected him, even after he died. He thought it was an unwritten rule that no matter how you felt about someone, you were supposed to care about them after they died.

“Man…that sucks, dude. I’m so sorry.”

“Meh; it is what it is, you know?”

“Still, I’m sorry you had to be alone. This place would drive me nuts if I was here alone. I’ll make sure to come find you whenever I’m working. I think it’s safe to say we’re buddies now; I never leave a friend behind.”

Kyle smiled a sad smile. “Thanks; I really appreciate that. It’s been a lonely six years, to be honest. Kinda rough; it’s nice to have someone here to talk to, even if it’s only when you’re working.”

Sensing that the conversation needed a slight change, Aaron asked the first question that came to his mind.

“Uh, what do you think about life and death? Like, is there a soul? What happens to it if there is?”

Kyle laughed dryly. “Is that your way of taking the conversation to a lighter place? You talk about an equally heavy topic?”

“Sorry…we can talk about something else…”

“No, no; it’s fine. Like I told you yesterday, I don’t really know what happens. I mean, I’m assuming it’s my soul that is keeping my body alive right now. I don’t know what happens to it after this stage though. I don’t know if there is a heaven or a hell or what; I have no clue what comes next. It’s all still just as much a mystery to me as it is to you.”

“Huh. I guess we don’t really know that much about death; I wonder how much we actually know about life,” Aaron mused.

“I don’t know, man. I do know this for sure: this ice cream is the BOMB. I didn’t realize how much I missed it. Side note: are people still calling stuff ‘the bomb?’”

Aaron chuckled. “I’m pretty sure they that phrase was retired long before your untimely demise. Anyway, just make me a list of your favorite foods; I’ll start bringing some when I work. We’ll have lunch together. It’s a win-win; I don’t have to hang out in this creepy place by myself all night, and you get to eat all your favorite foods.”

“Alright! We’ve got a deal!”

For the rest of the night, they compiled a list of foods and local haunts that Kyle wanted to taste again.  This took a surprising amount of time, as Aaron soon found out that Kyle was a fan of just about every restaurant in the surrounding area. As Kyle was climbing into his cooler, Aaron called out to him.

“Oh! I almost forgot! My friend Alicia is doing some research on zombie lore and such; I told her about you, and she was interested in helping us figure out what is going on.”

“Really? Stellar. Hopefully she can find a way to keep me alive outside of this place.”

And with that, Kyle slipped back into the cooler and Aaron said hello to his weekend.

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