Authors: Benjamin Kane Ethridge
He pinched between his eyes. “Who are you? Do you have a name?”
“No. None of us do. Our own lives don’t matter. We aren’t people.”
“You look like a person to me.”
“We are mechanisms. We perform a required job. I’m like a spiritual air traffic controller. When I give the go-ahead, someone takes flight into the great unknown, and never before.”
“I thought we weren’t talking about that right now.” Jared closed his eyes and took a quivering breath through his nose.
“Oops. Yeah. Sorry about that.”
His eyes flew open, vitally renewed. “I need to understand what’s happening. I mean, what was that back there? What the hell—what
in the hell
was all of
? And that thing you did, that sound that came out of your throat—”
“That was a Cosmos Scream,” the banshee explained. “It severs all realities at once to form a short-cut of sorts through time and space. It usually works more smoothly than that, and we could have covered a lot more miles, reached our ultimate destination, but unfortunately one reality rejected our presence and the conflict formed a
She offered her hand and Jared carefully took it. She pulled him to his feet and grasped his shoulders for a moment to make sure he had balance. For a few seconds she massaged his muscles and stared deep into his eyes. This made him squirmy and she drew her hands away.
“As I said before, it’s like a reality pretzel, but that paradigm back there was teeny-tiny. I’ve seen far greater DPs than that, so count us lucky. Anyway, let’s get moving, huh? We can talk as we walk.”
Jared flinched. “You’re not going to do that cosmic thingy again, are you?”
“Cosmos Scream? Not likely.”
“What does that mean? ‘Not likely?’ That you
going to do it again? I—I can’t go through that another time.”
“Oh, poor baby. Want me to hold you?” She put her arm around his waist as she guided him down the street. “I could sing you a soothing song. I know many.”
“You’re making fun of me?”
“Hell yes I am. Look, breathe in and breathe out. I won’t be doing another Cosmos Scream. No more bending reality. From here on in, reality stays rooted. I’ll use every other scream I have to help you. Everything within my limits, anyway.”
“What are you actually helping me with, though?”
“You ready to talk about that? Maybe sit down first,” she said, regarding him with a maternal concern.
“I’m not there yet.”
“Didn’t think so.”
He sighed and blinked rapidly, trying to form another thought. “You have other screams then?”
“Of course I do, dummy.” The banshee spotted a small eating establishment near a Korean bank. Her heart leapt. “Hey is that a pretzel place? Oh man, what a coincidence! I was just talking about those. Oh buy me one, Jared. I’ve never had food here before. And a soda. I want one of those, too. There’s no line. It won’t take us long, will it?”
“I guess— not.” Jared stumbled forward at her insistence.
Mr. Softy’s Pretzels
had only one patron, a tattooed woman with a pompadour, who had finished her food and was busy thumbing the screen of her phone. As they made their way over to the counter, the banshee studied the woman. This human wasn’t her assignment either but the mark of death was clear: three years from now, head-on collision while texting and driving, coming home from a Tool concert. She will leave behind a six year old daughter and a boyfriend who is “the one.”
The banshee shook the thoughts from her head and drew closer to the counter. A middle-aged man with a salt and pepper mustache smiled warmly at them. “I like your hair,” he said to the banshee. “Interesting colors.”
“Thank you,” said the banshee. “I like your mustache. Very manly. Jared, you need to grow one.”
“Yeah, Jared,” the man chuckled. “Grow one. It would suit you.”
Jared blushed. After a moment of silence he said to the banshee, “Aren’t you going to order?”
“I want a pretzel with that cheese sauce, and one of those soda things.”
“Which kind?” asked the man.
“The best kind.”
“Give her your favorite,” Jared clarified.
The mustached man half-smiled. “Don’t drink soda really.”
“Give her a 7-Up then.”
“Got it. Anything for you?”
Jared shook his head. They waited there while the man got everything. She took a drink of the soda first. This world had such focus on the senses—not like in her reality, where the senses were fabricated; no, in this world they were on display, like delicacies to be sampled but not feasted upon, delightfully pronounced and adorable compared to what they really could be. She brushed the waxy cup’s surface with her thumb. The perspiration up and down its sides. The carbonation fizzling within like microscopic fireworks. The plastic straw inside her mouth. The soda
as it traveled up. Ice rattling below. The beverage burning her nose, sweetly. It was a very interesting experience when considered simultaneously. Life was good in this moment. Yes, this made her content.
The man rang them up, and with all the grace of a robot, Jared took out his wallet and paid.
“Thanks you two,” the man said.
The banshee shared another smile with him. In twenty-two years pancreatic cancer would claim his life. The heartening thing, however, was he’d be more than ready to go by that time. That’s a luxury not many human beings enjoyed.
She turned her thoughts back to the matter at hand. If she was going to do anything else interesting on this trip, she’d have to get him close to the beach before anyone in the Deeper Unseen found out what she’d done. Especially if
Which way was south?
She didn’t have a firm grasp on direction yet; things moved differently now that she had a foothold in this place. She could faintly smell the stench of sea salt on the air. The ocean wasn’t far, luckily for them both. It was both reassuring and devastating. If they succeeded, for Jared it would mean his soul escaping eternal pain, and for the banshee, it would mean... being rid of her accursed job for good.
Jared didn’t need to know how that would ultimately happen, and she had no plans on letting him know. He already looked thoroughly disturbed as he watched her munch on the pretzel, another refined sensory experience to be sure.
“Hey, remember what I said earlier?” she asked, and playfully gnawed the end of the pretzel. “Watch, Jared, I’m eating reality. Mmmm! It’s salty!”
He smoothed his hands over his face and shook his head. She shrugged and dunked the remaining part of the pretzel into the tangy cheese sauce. Good while it lasted.
“Where are we going, banshee?” he asked. “I should—I should go back to the doctor’s. Really. He had to tell me something important.”
“It wouldn’t help. The doctor’s still confused by what I did to him anyway.”
Jared stopped. “What you
The banshee pushed him along. “Keep walking. I used a Bewildering Scream—made all his memories of your results like smeared Aramaic writing inside his mind. It’ll be days before he can recall what he needed to tell you.”
“I had to get him out of the exam room. I figured he’d go for help and that’d give me my chance.”
“Did you see the results?”
She hesitated, and then said, “Yep. Sure did.”
“Ready to talk about this, are we?”
Jared steeled himself and nodded. “Yeah, please. What’s on the report?”
“Can’t tell you that. It’s forbidden to disclose how you actually die.”
“So I am?”
“Going to die?”
“Oh, what a completely unforeseen shock, all you humans die.”
I’m worried about,” he said and swallowed.
“It’s not for me to divulge precise details. Technically, I can’t say exactly
either. I can only be vague. If I allowed everything to slip, I could no longer be your banshee and then I’d be of no assistance to you.”
“So what are you actually assisting me in? Cheating death?”
The banshee laughed. “Oh no. That’s above my pay grade.”
“How about cheating eternal agony? Sound better?”
“Honestly? They both sound shitty.”
“You creatures think all death is bad, even when you despise living. Funny, that. But there are good deaths and bad deaths, believe me.”
Jared’s face went green and he broke away from her hold of his waist. “So the doctor’s concern was real?”
“All I can say is that you’re scheduled to die this summer. Nothing is fixed though. It could happen a lot sooner if you don’t follow my every direction.”
This did nothing to improve Jared’s color.
“Nobody ever wants to hear about their mortality… but there are worse things than dying. After that Cosmos Scream going wrong, there is a good chance that
approaches. Every hundred years, a new gift is made of a person about to die. You are that gift, Jared. After patiently waiting, the Assembly intends to collect you.”
“They take me before or after… it, I mean, death… happens?”
“Under normal circumstances, the Assembly kidnaps you at the moment of death, before your spirit can release. S
That’s funny, right?”
“As a gift, nothing will be the same again. You’ll be taken to my reality, the Deeper Unseen, and you’ll be made immortal and become their toy, their property.”
“What do they do with gifts?”
“I really shouldn’t scare you…”
“What does it mean?” he asked.
“Remember the scout?”
“That thing was one of their gifts. At one time, it too used to be human, and it wasn’t even as gruesome as some gifts I’ve seen. At least that one could still walk and had flesh… well, kind of. Being the Assembly’s eternal plaything is worse than death.
worse. Anyhow, since that scout showed up it’s obvious the Assembly has been given permission to claim you early. They have discovered my plan to protect you. They know I broke my pact with them and that’s why we cannot slow down until we reach our destination.”
Jared checked himself, touched his chest and face. His breathing quickened. “I’m dreaming. This is a really, really crazy dream. Am I already dying? Lying on the floor of the doctor’s office?”
“Get a grip.”
“Put this in your pocket.” She handed him the wax paper the pretzel came with.
He took it without question. They walked quietly for a few moments before Jared spotted a trash can with a green grate around it. He tossed it in.
The banshee couldn’t believe her eyes. “You didn’t just throw that away?”
“It was trash.”
“Damn it all. I wish you’d listen!” She stepped up to the trash can and peered in the small hole at the top that was encircled by cigarette sand and butts. Sticking her arm down inside, she searched for a few moments, shaking her head. Her fingers touched nothing. The trashcan must have been recently emptied and the inner can was surrounded by heavy concrete. It would seem that someone who worked for the city could open the padlock on its side, but there was no chance in overturning it to get the piece of wax paper back out.
“Shit,” she muttered.
“What did I do?”
She pulled her arm out of the trash can. “Forget it. Just… Jared, you really have to stop screwing up so much. Really. This isn’t going to be an easy trip. You have to listen to
I tell you to do. I know you’re scared, but trust me, there are worse things in store for you.”
“Don’t be sorry, just be better.”
He bowed his head as they started off again. She watched as Jared’s eyes darted up the street to the horizon. “Are you going to run on me? You look pretty flighty right now.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that without me, the Assembly will find you. No question, they’ll find you. And they’ll be so jolly they might celebrate by force-feeding you buckets of glass on your first day in their fortress.”
Jared swallowed. “Why would I run?”
“Because, despite my twisting reality right before your eyes, you still don’t frigging believe me, you’re trying to explain this away!”
“No I’m not—”
The banshee got hold of her frustration and let a breath escape through her teeth. “Here, the story might go like this: you give me the slip, nearly get killed, and then have an epiphany which convinces you I’m telling the truth. I swoop in, just in time, and save you. No more setbacks after that. We’re then on the same page.
“Problem is, that cliché doesn’t ever get to happen. If you leave my side—even for a moment—your slim chance becomes no chance at all. Once you leave and I can’t find you, there won’t be an opportunity to say ‘oh wow, she’s sexy
telling the truth,’ because the Assembly will be dragging you under. So don’t run off, okay?”
“You obviously don’t know me that well.”
The banshee laughed. “You totally find me sexy. Don’t even start with that.”
“That’s not what I meant—”
“You’ll also find that I’m goddamn brilliant most of the time, but don’t let that threaten you. Just accept it. And I’m well aware of who you are. I know you
well.” Jared scowled. She pinched his cheek and gave it a light smack. “I was assigned to be the one who hails your death. I’ve watched you for a very long time, dearest. Believe me,
I know you
“Watched me… where?”
“From the time you get up in the morning until you go to sleep, on some days.”
“You’ve watched me?
She tittered at his vexed expression. “Bathrooms are sacred, of course. But only because I’m classy.”
“You’ve seen me undress?” He lifted a skeptical eyebrow and folded his arms.
She reached around and pinched his ass. Jared jumped as though electrified. “I sure have, sweet cheeks. You have three very cute moles on the left side, reminds me of a constellation. What else… let’s see. Oh, you’re circumcised. Average length. All in all, a very handsome joystick. That’s more of an opinion though.”