[[Author’s warning: This story contain a pretty dark sense of humour that may not appeal to everyone.]]
Blinding light… Excruciating pain… Silent darkness… Illuminating hope… A buff man… …?
“Ah! Man… I’ll never get used to how you guys just pop up out of nowhere!” the man said obviously startled. Instead of how I just materialised in this new place, it was how my presence had frightened this large, dangerous-looking man that felt the most bizarre. “Don’t worry about it, it’s not your fault…” he quickly added. I didn’t know what I looked like, but the change in the tone of his voice convinced me it must have been quite a pathetic sight. The man continued by explaining without being asked “…sometimes someone… somewhere – downstairs – makes a mistake.” He added air quotations to downstairs as though I should know what that meant. I didn’t know what it meant and my confusion must have been registered. “Look, you weren’t supposed to die just now… I guess the car must be the last thing you remember?” The man rubbed his forehead. “Someone downstairs made a mistake, and now you’re here.”
“Well, technically not. Practically…” he gesticulated as though trying to capture the right word. “…yes. But don’t worry, you don’t have to get it. None of us really do. Anyway, it’s not so bad, at least you get a job. Let me show you around.” He heaved me up using one of his massive hands.
As I got to my feet the car lights faded from my eyes, the pain subsided and without knowing what else to do, I let the man guide me around in what looked like an old office building. Despite the vast space being so large that the furthest wall could not be seen, desks overflowing with files and folders filled the area. On blackboards randomly positioned in the area, graphs and mindmaps were drawn. Here and there people pressed buttons and pulled levers. Picked up telephones only to put them down again immediately. The walls were lined with doors ordained with titles such as Arson, Electrification-by-Toaster and Gun-Cleaning-Gone-Wrong.
“Where am I?” I asked as I was guided through this alien space. “Is this Heaven? Or am I in Hell?”
“Haha, Heavens no! But one could think it’s Hell based on all the paperwork!” The big man wiggled his massive moustache and pointed a tattooed arm towards the desks around them overloaded with paperwork. “No, no, this is someplace entirely different. None of us really know where here is. But it’s clear from the paperwork that none of us is supposed to be here. We were not supposed to die when we did.”
“The paperwork tells the time when we die?”
“Technically that’s what they’re responsible for downstairs. Most of us on this floor try to stay out of that business. After all, at some point, our actual time of death comes and well, few of us want to know when it’s really over. Here, we’re just executing the commands. You know, pressing the buttons.” He pointed at a complicated board of buttons and switches.
“You kill people?” I asked horrified.
“Uhum,” he said and smiled reassuringly. “Let me show you… Hey, Larry!” the man called out to a young man in a striped suit. “Got one coming up?”
“‘course! What do you think this is?! Sat-on-by-Elephant?” The man said sarcastically but with affection and looked at a timer on his desk. “28 seconds to go!”
“Mind showing the rookie?”
“Sure thing! Come here, kiddo.”
I walked over to the man named Larry.
“Stroke. Very consistent job. It takes someone every few minutes, but it gets reeeal busy ’round Christmas! I guess it’s the food… Or maybe the stress…? Five, four, three, two…” He kept looking at the timer on his desk, “adios.” He pressed the red button next to it. I looked around the room searching for some sort of change. Nothing appeared to have happened. I too looked at the timer which had reset to 43 seconds with a new name on the old-school digital display next to it. “Next up, John S. Collins, Washington.”
“Alright, more to see.” Duke said to me and as I obediently followed him, he shouted over his shoulder “Let’s grab a beer after your shift, Larry!”
“Sure as death!” Larry shouted back and, smiling, Duke turned to me.
“You’re actually quite lucky. They just came for Annette over at Choking-by-Croissants the other day. It’s a pretty easy job, unless you love the French, hehe! Or the Belgians!” When I didn’t laugh Duke continued. “Or yeah… I mean, choking can happen to anyone… It’s not a racist death, not like any KKK-business, or an uninclusive death like peanut-allergy, you know, it’s just… croissants are common in France… Anyway, ahem, it doesn’t happen very often and timing is not so important. You know, a few seconds here or there… not a big problem for choking. It’s not like at Gunshots-to-the-Head. That kind of time-precision is for experts. Choking is a good beginner job.”
My mind was filled with croissants, men in white cloaks, and blown-out brains, but all I really wanted to know was: “Where did they take her?”
“No, no, she died.”
“Wait, what? I thought we’re already dead?”
“Oh no, no. We weren’t supposed to have died. We just did. We’re not actually dead yet.”
“So they kill us? again?”
“No, they kill us once. At our designated time. You can only die once.”
“But… why are we here and not alive, if we haven’t died yet?”
“Because of a mistake.”
“Yeah, some information was sent, that shouldn’t have been.”
“About the death. Someone sent the wrong information.”
“Downstairs? What’s downstairs?!”
“Deaths! Ok, I understand that this is all a lot to take in. We’ve all been there. And I don’t know, maybe getting run over by a car somehow messes up the brain more than some other deaths, you know the whole collision and everything… My non-death was by combat. Territorial biker gang war,” Duke said proudly and showed off a big tattoo of an angry-looking duck with a wheel instead of legs on his arm. “Raging roadster for life! Anyway, all I know is that downstairs they have ‘the what, who and where.’ They send it to us, and we keep do our thing until we are ‘the who’, and they come for us from upstairs.”
“So Annette is upstairs?”
“No, Annette is dead. Honestly, I wish you would try to understand this. Either you’re alive or you’re dead.”
“Exactly!” Duke looked overjoyed. “Now you’re getting it. Now come on, people are surely choking on croissants as we speak.”
As we kept walking in the hallway and through offices, we passed numerous doors with all possible deaths. Passing a door with the inscription Broken-Heart, I stopped.
“I didn’t know people really could die from a broken heart,” I told him solemnly and was filled with increased respect for romance.
“Open it,” Duke encouraged me. I did and was greeted by a cleaning closet. “It’s a bit of an insider joke around here,” he said and chuckled. “No matter what the poets said, love doesn’t kill people. If anything it keeps them alive.”
The life, or rather death, lesson, continued as Duke told me about the different rooms around us. Shared tidbits of information on what deaths were more common, which jobs were less fun, that the coffee machine needed a rough push to start and that a smart person did their utmost to stay clear of Janine in charge of the rather large division at Suicide. “You don’t want to go there, trust me. Right now, they’re beta-testing the new digital system and no one is taking any responsibility for the chaos.” Duke whispered as though it was a secret. Only, if there was one thing I would have assumed to be known by everyone at the office, it would be that Suicide was generally a bad idea.
“We’re almost there. Hi Burt! How’s it going?”
The man named Burt grunted back. He was a shaggy-looking, old fellow in an orange overall. He was hunched on a folding chair in the narrow hallway resting his arm on an old-fashioned fuse box with a massive lever poking out. It looked old and worn and positively lethal.
As we passed him, Duke continued. “That’s Burt. He’s one of the oldest ones around. He’s been on Electric-Chair duty since he got here. We moved him out into the hallway decades ago. Too little work to do nowadays to justify an office by itself. Funny thing really, Burt was as innocent as they come, but back then there was so many going in the chair that there was bound to be some mistakes. Mistakes back there… mistakes downstairs… Ah, like, what are the odds to get a double mistake like that?” Duke told me shaking his head. “Poor Burt, he’s been waiting for the guys upstairs to come for him, but they never do… I guess he was bound to die of old age or something. Hmm, funny how these things go.”
“Duke, who are the people upstairs?” I asked while looking over my shoulder to cast pity at Burt from afar.
“You know how back there, when you’re alive alive, how some things are not to be known? Like, the meaning of life, or what happens after you die, is there a God, that sort of stuff?”
“The upstairs is like that. You don’t wanna know, you’re not supposed to,” he said matter of factly, if not aggressively.
We continued in silence.
“Heeey Sarah, how’s my sexy lady?” Duke broke a silence that was not only getting awkward but painful, as a woman in an alarmingly short, red dress with a glowing cigarette tucked in the corner of her mouth came out from one of the larger doors to the left.
“I won!” she proclaimed triumphantly after she seductively repositioned the cigarette in between her long fingers.
“That’s my lucky girl! Maybe later, we get lucky together?” Duke said and tried to wiggle himself closer to her.
“Oh no, Duke. I’m not falling for that again. Besides, I’m on my smoking break…” she waved the cigarette in his face. “…and I can’t have any of that.” She said while turning around glancing over her shoulder in a way that obviously meant that she could have it exactly like that.
“What did she win?” I asked Duke as he watched Sarah disappear into another door labelled Immediate-Smoking-Hazards.
“Over at Domestic-Violence,” Duke pointed at the door Sarah came from, “they always announce a competition at the beginning of the shifts. They call it Brutality Bingo and use things like the first male victim, double homicide, decapitation, incarceration, coupled suicide, boy kills his mother…, you name it, all related to domestic cases. It’s all good fun to spice up work from the usual rape and deadly violence.”
I felt disgusted at Duke’s words, at Sarah’s victory and stared with nausea at the door with the inscription Domestic-Violence.
“It happens whether they bet on it or not. Here we have no power, we just press the buttons,” Duke said without turning around, surely realising my reaction without seeing it.
“Alright, here we are… Choking. Home sweet office.” Duke shoved me into the little door. “Hey Muhammed, where’s the baked-goods subcategory located? Croissants particularly,” A middle-eastern looking man nodded towards the back.
“Door 35b,” he said, “to the left. Ask for Jean-Paul.”
I hadn’t realised that one could choke on so many different things and it was with an intense sense of relief that I had not known this before my non-death, fearing I might have had a less healthy relationship with food, not to mention a whole range of non-digestibles. When we got to door 35b, Duke handed me over to the care of Jean-Paul. He was French, looked it and acted it, but to my surprise spoke in perfect English to Duke.
“Your English is really good,” I said to start a conversation after Duke left.
“You are mistaken. I speak French. Here, we all speak our native tongue. In death, what language you spoke when alive is no longer important.”
“Right, makes sense,” I said, confused as to whether we were dead or not.
“Here is Annette’s old desk.” He pointed at an old wooden desk with three flashing lightbulbs at the front-centre. ” When all three lamps are lit at the same time, and not before, that is very important! you stuff this cork into the air vent.” He handed me what looked like an old wine cork and pointed at a bent copper pipe positioned to the right of the desk.
“What happens if I don’t do it?” I asked realising that I was not ready to start killing people.
“Then you make a mistake. We work very hard not to make mistakes around here.” Jean-Paul said sternly. “That we are here, is a mistake. We should not have died, but did. It is much worse for those that should die but do not. As we are still alive but not allowed to remain, they are dead and forced to stay. Trust me, you would not be doing them a favour by sparing their life. It is very much the opposite. Besides, they get very angry upstairs, and that is never a good thing for us.”
Against my better judgment I was convinced by the reasoning, and sitting down at Annette’s desk Jean-Paul handed me today’s deaths by choking on croissants. It was three people, all with French clinging names and an approximate time of death.
“Why don’t we get exact times, like they do at Strokes?” I asked as I had been starring as the three lightbulbs flicker regularly.
“People choke all the time,” Jean-Paul said matter of factly, “most of them do not die. They cough, they swallow, someone gives them the Heimlich manoeuvre, and all is fine again. And then sometimes it is not all fine.” With that, he left me and went over to his own desk where he frequently looked over at me with the sinister superiority of someone who is not sure if you are going to do as you are told.
It took a couple of hours, but then came the moment in which it would not be all fine.
The first of the lightbulbs stopped its irresolute blinking and was confidently and steadily lit. Somewhere completely different, Pierre Bordeaux took the first, and his last, bite of a freshly-baked croissant. Before the piece had time to blend with Pierre’s saliva, he inhaled too quickly and the piece of croissant lodged itself not in his throat, but down his windpipe.
The second lightbulb started flickering.
With the still warm, perfectly crisply-layered croissant thrown on the ground, Pierre was fighting for breath. The baker came running out and started beating Pierre on his back. Tears started to flood Pierre’s eyes and fear gripped him, is this it? he thought.
The second lightbulb was steadily lit and as the third lightbulb started flickering, I took a steady grip on the piece of cork as instructed.
Pierre fell to his knees, his face red with effort. His hands grasping at his throat. Pierre’s thoughts remained as his body failed him. The baker screamed on the phone for the ambulance to drive faster and a crowd of people had gathered around to do their best to beat the piece of pastry out of Pierre.
The third lightbulb was steadily lit so with a resolute sigh, I lifted the piece of cork and gently pressed it into the air tube.
Pierre would not die for another few minutes. I would remain acutely aware of this as the three lightbulbs continued to shine steadily on. I had never thought about how long it took to die of suffocation, but as I starred at the lights, praying for a quicker death for Pierre, it was significantly longer than I had expected.
As the lights finally went dark all at the same time, I escaped the same route that Sarah had gone. Desperate for a cigarette-free smoking break.
The next two were easier. Mostly because I knew what to expect and how long it would take. Human adaptability is remarkable. Jean-Paul stopped his obsessive hovering, confident I would not go rogue and cause trouble for his department. Confidence I did not feel I deserved, yet had earned nonetheless.
At the end of my day, Duke came with Larry to pick me up to invite me for beers with them. We exited the building into a shady parking lot with a handful of cars that looked like they been there forever and went to the bar across the street. It looked like any dive, and Duke and Larry were clearly regulars as we were offered the first round of beers without ordering anything. They asked how my first day went, and without embroidery, I told them.
“Three deaths. All French.” I took a deep sip of the beer. It tasted as it should and that was a reassuring sensation in such an uncertain experience.
“Haha, told ya!” Duke said and slammed his fist into the table.
Duke and Larry started to discuss their work at their offices and departments. Larry had the highest count but took neither pride nor shame in it, he liked the regularity of it was all he said. At Duke’s department, things were so uncertain, things went too fast or not at all. It was revealed to me that Duke worked at Traffic-Collisions-on-Cross-Roads. Two beers later, it dawned on me that the reason I ended up in Duke’s office was probably that Duke was the one who had pushed my button. I was not sure how I felt about it, essentially I was having beers with my killer, but I took another sip as I realised I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Half a conversation later, Sarah and some other women from Domestic-Violence joined us and considering how I was run over by a car that morning, the evening turned out better than expected.
“How long do you stay here?” I asked Larry when Duke and Sarah left for the bar’s make-believe dancefloor.
“Until you die,” Larry said and ordered us another round of beers.
“Yeah, but how do you know when that is?”
“Did you know when you were gonna die back there?” He said referring to the life we used to live. “No, you didn’t. So why do you think you should know now?”
“But what about the analysts, you know, the guys downstairs? Couldn’t we ask them?“
“Would you want to know, if you could?”
I thought about it and was torn in my answer. Before I made up my mind, Larry made it up for me.
“Truth is, they don’t know either. That’s why the mistake happens so often. For the predictable deaths, it’s usually easy to make accurate assumptions. For the common deaths, people will always die. Sometimes the who or the where changes, but not the what. That’s why I like working at Stroke. Someone’s bound to die, even if it’s not always the person that was predicted in the morning. It’s a quick adjustment in name and location but the button still needs pressing. For the more sudden deaths or even dying of old age, it’s pretty hard to make accurate lists. Often their workers don’t even get lists. They’re told on the fly. It’s pretty stressful. Chosen deaths are also a real nightmare. People change their minds last minute all the time. Like, literally almost every time, but then it’s often too late. Now they’re supposed to die because they chose to die a moment ago… Complex stuff. Don’t let anyone convince you to work over there, they keep grabbing the rookies because they have such a big workload and no one wants to work there. Janine, the chef over there, stonecold. But I guess she has to be. I’m so happy I didn’t get her job…”
Dying seemed a much more complicated business than I ever imagined. Changing the topic to something more alive I asked: “Anyway, what’s up those two?” tilting my head at Sarah and Duke who were busy being human.
“Long story, that one. Back in his old life, Duke used to be married. But… let’s just say, he was never a very good husband. And yeah, so he doesn’t want people to know this, so it stays between you and me, alright? but his wife fucking right out and stabbed him with a fruit knife. Ha! Duke ended up bleeding out in the kitchen in between a bag of frozen peas and a jug of orange juice – the report is fantastic! Big bad biker boy was beaten by a tiny woman. Haha! Oh, to have been there and see the look on Duke’s face! Anyway, he ended up on Sarah’s desk and unfortunately for both of them, she not-quite-killed him.”
“But he wasn’t supposed to die then?”
“Of course not. None of us was. We’re all here because of mistakes that were made downstairs.”
“How do you think he should have died?”
“You mean, how he will die?” Larry corrected. “Ah, biker gang fight. At least that’s what he keeps telling everyone. So, why not?” Both of us looked at the couple dancing to the music.
“She was a domestic case. Brutal really. In fact, most of the girls in the domestic violence department come from that background themselves. They somehow end up going back there. And no one’s forcing them if you thought that,” he quickly added to my grossed-out expression. “I’m not sure why, but it seems to be something empowering about being on the other side of things… or, maybe it’s out of mercy. Like, to make sure these victims die for real and don’t end up somewhere worse…”
Looking at the woman dancing with Duke, I now felt not only sympathy but respect for her. It stood in shocking contrast to the distaste I had felt at our first encounter when she just won Brutality Bingo. “But she shouldn’t be here.”
“No, she shouldn’t,” Larry agreed. We sat in silence for a while until the next round of beers arrived.
“What about you, Larry? How did you not die?”
“Italian mobster shoot-out,” he winked at me. “But I am only an innocent restaurant owner.” I didn’t believe him and he didn’t expect me to. “And you, my friend, stepped in front of a car moving in 90 miles an hour. Who survives that?!”
“I should have!” I said and raised my glass in a salute while we both laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Duke said as he and Sarah returned to the table.
“Death, what else?” answered Larry and I smiled in agreement.
The evening ended as I let Larry show me the way to the housing complexes. To my surprise, the key to my apartment was still resting in my pocket and it opened a door that had my name on it. Looking through the door frame, I turned to Larry with a look beyond surprise.
“Yeah, niffty, ain’t it?” he said. Patted me on my shoulder and stumbled over to his place somewhere else in the area. I walked into an apartment that looked indistinguishable from the home I left that morning, in another world, in another life.
It is remarkable how adaptable and accepting we are facing new situations. The next day I was back at Choking-by-Croissants. I did my job. I did my job well. I even helped Jean-Paul and Karl next door at the Choking-by-Scandinavian-Pastry, with the formation of a new temporary station for Choking-by-Semla due to the upcoming Swedish holiday Fettisdagen, when over 30 million Selmor would be consumed over the course of a couple of weeks. Something was bound to go wrong and Karl wanted to be prepared.
I alternated my work between Choking-by-Croissants with Choking-by-Semla based on who was next in line, which wasn’t many and left a lot of time for me to think about my new existence. Jean-Paul would not tell me so, but I could see that he was pleased with the work I was doing even when I did nothing but wait. I guess patience is a crucial component of death. On my break, I gave the coffee machine the push it needed and I even went smoking with Sarah. I figured, it wasn’t gonna kill me, so why not enjoy a bit of nicotine. That evening, yesterday’s events repeated themselves and I ended up going drinking with Duke and Larry.
Another morning started, I was back with Jean-Paul. Pushed the coffee machine. Smoked with Sarah. Stuffed the cork in the pipe when requested. Drank beer with Duke and Larry.
I was getting used to life here. It was not so different from life back there. It was as Duke had said not so bad.
The third morning I was getting ready at my station. As with the car, two mornings before, I didn’t see it coming. There was turmoil outside of our office door and before I had the chance to fully turn around, a man I immediately understood to be from upstairs, held a gun in my face. In that moment, I understood why Duke didn’t want to talk about them.
“No one survives a crash like that,” he said and explained. “You just weren’t supposed to die in the crash, but at the hospital two days later. In 5 seconds. The upstairs apologises for any inconvenience.”
The gun fired.