Main School of Rebirth and Reincarnation: Full Occult Trilogy Box Set
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School of Rebirth and Reincarnation Full Occult Trilogy Tobias Wade This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, businesses, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental. First Edition: February 2020 School of Rebirth and Reincarnation Full Occult Trilogy Copyright © 2020 Tobias Wade All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. What are you afraid of? Join the Haunted House Book Club For free books and stories. TobiasWade.Com Contents The Road From Death 1. Mrs. Robinson’s Adventure 2. Waking Up Again 3. Daymare 7 4. The Weighing Ceremony 5. The Mortuary 6. The Whispering Room 7. Transhumanism 8. Necromancy 9. Demonology 10. Halloween 11. Zombies 12. The Netherworld 13. Visoloth 14. The Matriarch’s Wrath 15. Christmas 16. Spring Semester 17. The Contract Ends The Soul net 1. Soul Food 2. Back to School Shopping 3. Netherworld 4. Mirror of Ancestry 5. The Burning Altar 6. The Living Road 7. Demons of the Past 8. Halloween 9. Dweller Studies 10. Meep Warlington 11. Trans Dimensional Department 12. Christmas Break 13. Hell on Earth 14. Legacy 15. The Soul Net Netherworld 1. The Shallow End 2. The Sylo 3. Death of the Unliving 4. Twisting Dimensions 5. Bah-Rabba Kaba 6. The Soul Net 7. Demon Food 8. The Summoning 9. An Imp for Everyone 10. The Living and the Damned 11. Doors of Almorda 12. Union of the Primes About the Author The Road From Death Mrs. Robinson’s Adventure Mrs. Robinson wasn’t in her room where she usually sat by the window. She wasn’t on the ; sofa lording over the TV, nor in the kitchen supervising the cooking, nor anywhere else in her two-bedroom house. In fact, Mrs. Robinson has been missing for three days, and speculation has already begun on whether she would ever return. “She could be dead,” Samantha considered. The young girl spoke casually as if she was wondering whether it would rain tomorrow. “Dead in a ditch, I figure. Went and got smacked by a car on her way home, with little pieces of her raining down all over the neighborhood.” “Surely we would have seen the pieces?” Claire replied with undisguised horror. Claire was considerably smaller of the two girls, though they were both twelve years old, and she seemed even tinier now with thin arms tightly clutching her loose t-shirt against her body. “Not necessarily,” Samantha replied solemnly. “It could have happened at night. If I were the driver who hit her, I would have jumped out and gathered up all the pieces to hide the evidence of my crime.” “No!” Claire whined, shrinking farther into herself to form a sad little huddle which practically melted into her bed. “Or maybe he didn’t have to gather her up at all, see,” Samantha continued, leaning forward to drive the words home. “Maybe birds picked up the little pieces, so that by morning there wasn’t a single piece of Mrs. Robinson at all.” “I don’t believe it!” Claire squealed. Samantha shrugged, settling back into her seat, her long black skirt swishing over the rough carpet beneath her chair. She began to pick at her lavender fingernails, peeking at Claire from the corner of her eye as she continued. “Well I’m not pretending to know for certain. I’m just trying to cheer you up by giving you the good scenario. It could be much, much worse after-all.” Claire bolted upright from where she lay on her bed. Her wide blue eyes quivered with apprehension, her skin so flushed that all her freckles seemed to dissolve. “What could possibly be worse than being smashed into smithereens and eaten by birds?” Samantha spent several exquisitely long seconds continuing to pick at her nail before looking up at Claire. “Are we going to stay indoors all day? Aren’t we going to play any games?” “What else could have happened to Mrs. Robinson?” Claire shouted. “Tell me, or I’m going to tell your mother that you’ve been horrible to me!” A sly grin flirted with the corner of Samantha’s mouth. She narrowed her green eyes and leaned close to Claire so that the girls’ faces were only inches apart. “Well at least if she was hit by a car on her way home, then she would have still been trying to come home. There’s always the chance that she doesn’t much care for you and would rather not come home at all.” Claire jerked away from Samantha as though struck by an invisible slap, flinging herself face first against her pillow. Samantha had never heard a sound as pitiful as the sobbing howl which blasted from Claire’s direction, the pillow only muffling it enough to provide a haunting echo to the cries. Samantha plugged her fingers into her ears and waited for Claire’s outpouring to stop—she must draw breath eventually—but even when Claire paused to inhale, the ragged breath only transformed into two cement trucks making love. The door flew open and in fluttered Claire’s mother, Mrs. Thistle. She was a short, stout woman who appeared to possess a very soft hug, and she immediately demonstrated this upon her daughter. Unfortunately, the gesture only seemed to squeeze the remaining air from Claire, whose howl of anguish reached a truly piercing crescendo. “Easy easy, there you go, I’ve got you,” Mrs. Thistle said, rocking Claire gently back and forth. “Mrs. Robinson doesn’t love me anymore!” Claire cried, heaving for breath. “Oh, darling, don’t say such a thing. Of course she does!” Samantha silently shrugged behind Mrs. Thistle’s back, making a gesture with her hands that looked convincingly like an explosion, complete with the wiggly fingers which surely represented the pieces flying every which way. “She’s been smashed to bits then!” Claire continued to howl. Mrs. Thistle glared over her shoulder at Samantha, who was now avoiding her gaze by engrossing herself once more in her lavender nails. “Anyway, I think my mom is going to pick me up soon…” Samantha started to say. But she never got any further, because she made the mistake of looking up and catching a full dose of Mrs. Thistle’s thundering glower. “Well you can’t blame me for being honest—” Samantha began again, having forgotten that she was still a twelve-year old girl, and that children could in fact be blamed for practically anything. Ten minutes later, Samantha and Claire were both standing outside in the warm August sun. Samantha was holding a stack of “Missing” posters with Mrs. Robinson’s picture on it, although from the foul expression on Samantha’s face, one might guess she was actually holding a heaping pile of someone else’s soggy underwear. “Can’t you just buy a new cat?” Samantha whined. “Or adopt one from the shelter. It would think you’re a hero for saving it.” Claire’s glare was cold enough to make Samantha shiver despite the sun. “Dogs are nice,” Samantha mumbled, not meeting Claire’s eyes. There wasn’t any fight left in her though. Samantha meekly followed her companion as they began their journey along Bentley Street where they both lived. Every time they reached a light or telephone pole, slap goes the picture of a very fat black cat stuffed into a very small glass bowl. Squeee goes the electric tape. Crinkle crinkle as it’s fastened on. Then they’re off again, no words exchanged as there was no need. Samantha was beginning to feel repressed and stodgy from holding so many sarcastic comments in for so long, and she was about to quip on how excellent dogs are at finding their way home when Claire spoke first. “I found Mrs. Robinson three years ago before mom and I moved here. She was in a plastic grocery bag along with four other kittens who were all black like her, brothers and sisters probably. Someone had left them in the trash by the grocery store, right on top of a greasy old pizza box. The bag was tied at the top, and there wasn’t even a way for them to breathe. I don’t know how long they were in there, but none of them were moving when I found them, not even Mrs. Robinson.” Samantha didn’t know what she was supposed to say about that, so she respected the wisdom of silence. “We named her Mrs. Robinson after the song. There’s a line that goes ‘God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson’, so I just thought that if there was anyone who needed to be blessed, it had to be her. And I guess God really did, because pretty soon she started moving again even though none of the others did. We gave her some milk, then Mom rushed off to the store to get some real cat food and medical supplies because it looked like Mrs. Robinson hadn’t eaten in a really long while. And the whole-time mom was gone, I kept thinking that if Mrs. Robinson stops moving again that it would be my fault, because I was the only one in the world she had left to depend on. And every time she swallowed a mouthful of milk, or turned her head a little to look at me, well that was just a miracle that might be taken back any second. And now it has. Three years later, and I still wasn’t ready.” Samantha silently thanked her mother for giving her sunglasses to wear outside, because at that moment she was very glad Claire couldn’t see the moisture in her eyes. “Nobody looks at posters,” Samantha replied. “We should knock on doors instead. We can do the whole block in less than an hour, and then we’ll know for sure if anyone saw her.” The girls left their posters and their tape at the end of Claire’s driveway and began to knock on every door instead. There was no answer from the tall gray house with the carved lion head railings. There was an old woman named Warlinksi who lived in the next house with its forest of potted plants, but she hadn’t seen Mrs. Robinson, and said she wouldn’t tell them even if she did. Warlinski didn’t understand why people don’t just “mince cats up like any other critter”. Claire thanked her anyway, for she was raised to thank people for giving you their time, even if they didn’t spend it the way you hoped. Samantha was making a real effort to be supportive now, but she still wanted to skip the next house. All the kids in town knew that a murderer lived there, even if the adults didn’t want to admit it. The house even looked like the type of place a murderer would stay: perpetually dead trees rising like tombstones in the arid and withered garden, a deck that was rotten and fallen through in places, and a large collection of strange ornaments, wind chimes, and bead necklaces with funny stones which dangled from nails haphazardly hammered into the peeling plank walls. “Mrs. Robinson wouldn’t have come here,” Samantha declared. “She had—has—better sense than that.” “Then we won’t have to stay long,” Claire replied as she picked her way between the brown and stringy bushes. She hopped over the first rotten step to alight on the next solid one above. “It’s just that my mom’s going to be picking me up soon, and —” “Not until dinner time. My mom called and said you were going to help me because you’re a kind and gentle person. That is true, isn’t it, Sam?” “That’s not fair.” Samantha grimaced. “Your mother knows full well that I’d rather be a witch and put curses on people. I said as much in my Christmas card last year, and I know she saw it because she kept asking my mom whether I would like to join you all at church after that.” Claire wasn’t paying attention. She was facing the house, calling, “Hello, anyone home?” She rapped on the door with her fist which caused it to rattle loosely in its frame. Samantha found sudden interest in peering through a hole in one of the dead trees, which was hollow and turned out to be filled with colorful stones and broken glass. The muffled sound of a chair sliding against a padded floor came from inside the house. Claire looked over her shoulder and gestured emphatically for Samantha to join her on the old porch. Samantha pretended not to notice. Standing alone in front of the dilapidated house, the idea that a murderer might really live inside didn’t sound hard to believe after-all. And what would a murderer do if they opened the door to find two young girls, defenseless and alone? Claire’s mother thought they were still putting up posters on the public street. No one knew where they were, and if they were to not come home again… The door began to open, and all the worst parts of Claire’s imagination came out at once. She forgot about the decaying step in her haste until her foot landed hard on the splintering wood. A shrill little scream preceded a thumping crash as she tumbled to sprawl on the dirt beyond. Claire scrambled to her feet and was about to launch herself away once more, but the moment she balanced her weight onto the offended ankle she felt it buckle in protest. A sharp, stinging pain devoured her senses. Claire was on the ground again, staring at her scraped hands which had broken her fall. There were footsteps behind her now, and Claire was absolutely certain that the murderer stood only a foot away. Could she outrun him? Not likely. Fight? As if more capable victims hadn't tried before. His shadow was already looming over her, and Claire’s lightning succession of thoughts only led to the inescapable conclusion of her impending demise. The sole reasonable course of action was to begin screaming again. “Cut that out, won’t you?” came the kindly old voice behind her. Claire snapped her mouth shut for a moment before breathlessly demanding, “What did you say?” “He means that if you don’t stop screaming, he’s going to cut your tongue out,” Samantha volunteered cheerfully, still standing nonchalantly beside her dead tree. Claire’s eyes widened. She began to draw a great lungful of air to— “That’s not what I meant at all!” the voice behind Claire implored. “I just want you to stop screaming, if you please. You’ll wake the little one, and Mandy just got him to sleep.” Claire didn’t suppose a murderer would have cared about waking a baby, and he definitely wouldn’t say please. If anything, he sounded like he was the one who was afraid. Claire wiped her eyes with the back of her hand before shuffling around on her knees. “Of course a murderer would ask that,” Samantha added, sagely stroking her chin. “He wouldn’t want anyone to hear you screaming and come save you.” Claire could now see that the murderer in question was a pale-skinned elderly man with a long droopy nose like a sock half-filled with sand. He was tall and thin, very much like a spider which had learned to stand on its hind legs and dress itself in rather baggy and faded clothing. His wide deep-set eyes were as grey and calm as the sea before a storm. Claire felt immensely relieved, realizing that a strong tempered toddler would likely be sufficient to push this frail old thing around. “I’m not a murderer!” the old man retorted, a faint flush rising on his cheeks. “That’s Barnes’ fault, my daughter’s no-good boyfriend.” “Your daughter married a murderer?” Samantha asked, suddenly eager. “How many people has he killed? If it’s at least three, then it counts as being a serial killer, but only if they weren’t all done at the same time, otherwise he’s a mass murderer instead.” The old man shook his head, “He hasn’t killed anybody either. But he started telling stories about me and now everybody thinks...” his voice trailed off into indistinct muttering which might have been an attempt to disguise the type of language twelve-year old girls aren’t supposed to hear, even if they secretly say those very same words in their head at every opportunity. “You must be Noah then,” Samantha declared. “I heard that people keep catching you with dead animals. They say that you kill them for fun. That’s even worse than killing people you know, because animals never cheat on their taxes or lie to their mothers.” “I don’t ‘kill’ them, I put them to sleep,” Noah replied indignantly, “and only if they’re very sick and in pain. I do work at a veterinary clinic, after-all.” “I heard you like to watch them die,” Samantha pressed. “What’s the crime in that?” Claire and Samantha exchanged an unsettled glance. “You do like to watch things die?” Samantha asked incredulously, her usual playful tone drenched in accusation. Noah looked down at the peeling rubber sole of his sneakers. “It’s not cruel or anything. I just… like watching what happens next.” His eyes darted back to the girls suspiciously. “What are you doing here? Do your parents know where you are?” “Did you kill Claire’s cat?” Samantha demanded. Then, on a lighter note, she added, “Oh, this is Claire, and I’m Samantha, or Sam, but never Sammy.” “Hi,” Claire mumbled, flourishing a half-hearted wave. “Hello, Claire. Hello, never-Sammy,” Noah replied, lighting up with good humor as Sam rolled her eyes. “Is the cat black with a white tuft on its chest like a general wearing a medal?” “You’ve seen Mrs. Robinson?! Is she in the animal hospital?” Claire exploded, bouncing onto her feet. She had forgotten about her injured ankle in the excitement, so this action caused her to stagger dangerously. Samantha was there to catch her though, supporting her as they both turned on Noah ferociously. “She’s right there, isn’t she?” Noah said, pointing behind Claire. The girls spun on the spot while still holding hands, almost knocking both of them to the ground in the process. They stared at the empty patch of dirt for a moment before rounding once more on the old man. “Right where?” Claire asked. “He’s teasing you; there’s nothing,” Samantha said. “Don’t you know it’s not nice to play tricks on innocent little girls? Especially when they know how to trick you back.” “I’m not talking about her body,” Noah said, sighing as though the words were weighing him down. He sat heavily on the creaking wooden steps and his remaining air all flooded out in a puff. “I’m talking about her spirit. She’s chasing that butterfly, although she’s never going to catch it because the butterfly is alive and well...” The girls looked again, and sure enough they saw a butterfly dancing on the wind. Claire cast an uneasy glance at her friend, and she wasn’t thrilled to see Samantha smiling. She always smiled when she wasn’t supposed to, and that made Claire cross. “This isn’t a game, you know,” Claire said. “Mrs. Robinson really is lost, and I’m worried about her. So if you aren’t going to help us, then you might as well be a murderer because Mrs. Robinson needs us and—” “I’m sorry,” Noah cut her off, his voice gentle but sure. “If you don’t see her now, then no amount of looking is going to help. But you should know that she is having a wonderful time, which means she didn’t suffer much. When animals have a painful death, they tend to mope around and complain for a good deal afterward.” “Can you really see spirits?” Samantha inquired. “It runs in the family,” Noah replied, a bit defensively. He cast a wary glance around as though worried he would be overheard. “Cats can too, you know. Whenever they’re fascinated by something you can’t see, you can be pretty sure there’s a spirit there. Dogs can’t of course—too many distractions in this world, I suppose. Most people can’t either, but people can’t see their own nose and that’s right in front of their face. Would either of you like a cup of hot cocoa?” Claire seriously considered her nose, judging the merit of this explanation. She didn’t seem satisfied. “Yes, please,” Samantha instantly replied. Standing, Noah offered a hand to help her over the rotten step. She chose to hop it on her own instead of accepting his assistance. “What does a spirit look like?” she pestered. “It looks like how Christmas feels,” Noah remarked instantly. “Would you take a cup as well, Claire? It’s the least I can do.” Claire had absolutely no desire to enter the crumbling house of the strange old man whose denial of being a murderer was dubious at best. Her ankle was starting to feel much better, and she could turn around right now and be back on the street to resume her search. To continue a seemingly endless search, ignoring her best clue which was the first person to have accurately described Mrs. Robinson. “It’s only polite,” Samantha said, her face refusing to match the gravity of the situation. “Oh, very well, but only if Mrs. Robinson can come too,” Claire relented. Noah crossed the porch and opened the door, and the two girls followed him, completely oblivious to Mrs. Robinson’s spirit which hopped up the stairs behind them. So too were they unaware of the gaunt stony creature sitting on the mailbox at the end of the driveway. They weren’t aware of the long, hooked claws on the end of its wings or its yellow lidless eyes which watched them enter. Noah’s gaze lingered on the creature for a moment, but he quickly averted his gaze as he smiled down at the girls who were walking past him into the house. “I just want you to know,” Samantha was saying to the old man, “that I will find out if you’re trying to play a trick on Claire. Then you really will be seeing spirits, because you’ll be one of them.” Noah chuckled and bowed low as he held the door open for the children. “I shall take your warning to heart and tread the line of truth with the utmost care.” That was good enough for Samantha, and so it was good enough for Claire as well. The interior of the house was in no better repair than the run-down front. The carpet was patchy and threadbare, and only occasional tufts of color hinted that it might have been red in a previous life. Splotches on the ceiling marked where water had once dripped through, and the sofa and chairs had stains on them in enough colors that it was difficult to determine which were part of the actual design. “We have visitors, Mandy,” Noah called softly upon entering. He held the door open for considerably longer than necessary, his eyes presumably following an invisible cat which was taking time deciding whether to follow. The children sat carefully on the couch as though expecting it to collapse as soon as they rested. “Hello, darlings.” The girls jumped, not having realized that Mandy had been sitting in the dark chair beside them this whole time. She looked to be in her thirties, wearing black all the way from her long brass-buttoned coat and her lacy blouse to her high leather boots. Her skin was as pale as a corpse, and the only color about her was the short golden hair which sprayed wildly from her head like a hose blocked by a thumb. “Claire, Samantha, this is my daughter Mandy,” Noah introduced the newcomers, a touch of pride in his voice. “She’s such a devoted mother that it was like she was born to raise little Lewis. I swear she can be all the way across town and still hear him cry when he falls down.” “Oh please, you’ll make me blush,” Mandy said, her white skin showing no sign that this biologically was possible. “I suppose you’re here about the kitten?” she added, looking at the same empty spot in the doorway. “Mrs. Robinson is fully grown,” Claire replied. “Perhaps you’ve got the wrong cat after all…” “Not on that side she isn’t,” Mandy responded amiably. “They’re always young again after they die. Didn’t you know?” “The cat doesn’t want to come in,” Noah grumbled, still holding the door. “Make up your mind, won’t you?” “Not so loud, he’s still asleep,” Mandy said. Then to the girls, “I’m so sorry about the mess in here. As soon as Lewis’ father gets home we’re going to move into a nicer place, so we haven’t been worrying so much about keeping up with things.” “When his father gets home,” Noah mimicked. “Never mind that we haven’t seen him since the baby was born, surely tomorrow is the day!” “What’s Mrs. Robinson doing?” Claire interrupted, trying to refocus the topic. “She’s walking away now,” Noah sighed. “Just as well really. There’s the spirit of a raccoon living upstairs, and they might not get along. He’s been there ever since before the place was built, and he’s never quite forgiven us for it.” “We have to follow her then!” Claire leapt to her feet, grateful for an excuse to leave. “There’s really no point,” Noah replied. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have some cocoa? We already have milk on the stove for Lewis.” “There’s every point!” Claire insisted, hurrying back onto the front porch. “Where is she? Over here? Am I close? How about now?” Claire stretched her hands, feeling blindly through the air. “Lower,” Noah said. “Over there, rubbing against the railing.” Dusk was already gathering outside, and Claire had trouble following Noah’s finger. She moved to where she thought he was pointing and reached out again. “How about now?” “She’s heading through the yard, toward the sidewalk.” “At least she doesn’t have to worry about cars anymore,” Samantha interjected. She’d just emerged from the house with a steaming cup in her hands. Mandy’s pale face loomed behind her in the shadows. “What are you waiting for then?” Claire asked, bounding down the steps, careful to skip the rotten one this time. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Noah cautioned. “Spirits can go places that people can’t follow. What will you even do if you catch her?” “She followed me here though, so she still sees me,” Claire announced stubbornly. “I bet she’s trying to send me a message or lead me somewhere.” “You have to come,” Samantha said firmly to Noah. “We can’t follow her without you.” “I’ve tried following spirits before,” Noah despondently replied. “They always walk through a building or a highway or something. You can’t keep up.” “The dead aren’t nearly as stubborn as Claire,” Samantha said, dragging the old man down the steps by one of his bony, wrinkled hands with their veins that could be felt through the skin. “Just point the way and we’ll figure out how to get there.” “Oh go ahead, dad,” Mandy bade them off from the door. “Lewis will have a chance to sleep, and then he’ll be able to stay up late and watch your old movies with you by the time you get back.” “Dr. Strangelove is not an old movie!” Noah retorted. “I may be getting older, but movies aren’t. Unlike me, they look exactly the same as the day they were made. Oh bother, this must be how dust-bunnies feel being swept from home against their will.” Despite his protests, the old man allowed Samantha to lead him to the sidewalk. Claire and Samantha didn’t have any definite target to follow as they couldn’t see Mrs. Robinson, so they kept their attention fixed on Noah as he loped in front of them. Noah often paused to wait for Mrs. Robinson to finish smelling a plant or rolling in the dirt, and he commented on this for the girls’ benefit. Other times he declared that the cat had walked directly into a house, forcing all of them to race around to the other side. Noah was worried that the cat would then retrace its path, or exit the house from a side, or even stay in there, but so far Mrs. Robinson showed no inclination to deceive them. Off they went between the houses, over the low brick wall, along the sidewalk and up to the intersection. The sun had now completely set, and the street was aglow with the racing blur of light. They were approaching midtown where the buildings soared imposingly and the lights glittered like a million unblinking eyes. “Why doesn’t Mrs. Robinson just come home?” Claire dreamily inquired, her unfocused gaze tracing the steel and concrete heights. Samantha grabbed her friend by the hand to prevent her from stepping off the sidewalk while their traffic light was still red. “Keep walking during the red light and you’ll find out,” Samantha said. “Hey, Noah, did she cross here?” Noah nodded and pointed toward the left side of a large apartment building ahead. The light turned green, but Noah hesitated to cross as the other people streamed past. “Hurry up then!” Samantha insisted. She grabbed Noah’s limp hand in the one not holding Claire and pulled them both forward. “She’s getting away, isn’t she? Come on!” “It’s not just her,” Noah said, his sunken eyes blinking slowly. He followed Samantha’s lead while panning his head to the left and right. “I’ve never seen so many in one place before.” “Why would so many animals want to hang around where it’s so busy?” Claire puzzled. “Not animals. People. Or… what’s left of them anyway,” Noah said. “There are three teenagers over there, sitting on the steps of the bank. Then a little girl sitting on the bus stop, and a bunch of old men gathered around the apartment. It’s mostly children though—dozens of the recently dead all moving in the same direction as us. I think they know we’re following Mrs. Robinson; they keep looking our way and whispering to each other.” Noah and the children stepped off the sidewalk on the far side of the street. Samantha dropped Noah’s hand right away, but her grip tightened on Claire. Claire was looking at the places Noah referred to, though in each case she couldn’t see anyone there. She could tell out of the corner of her eye that Samantha was trying to get her attention, but she stubbornly avoided looking at her friend. Samantha would know that Claire was only pretending to be brave, and Claire refused to give her the satisfaction. “Mrs. Robinson is inside that apartment complex now,” Noah said. “I don’t think we can go any farther.” “We’ve come this far,” Claire said, trying to keep her voice casual. “Let’s just see if it’s locked.” Still clutching each other’s hands, the girls walked briskly to the glass door leading into the apartment lobby. For a moment Claire thought she could smell an ancient leathery musk, but it was gone a second later. Had she just walked through the old men? “They’re still watching you, in case you were wondering,” Noah said from where he’d remained on the sidewalk. “One of them has followed you to the door.” “So what do you want me to do about it?” Claire turned in exasperation. “Nothing. Just thought you’d want to know.” “Well I don’t!” Claire shot back. “They can’t do anything to me, can they?” “The people? No, I’ve never seen one of them interact with the living world. If I were you, I’d be more concerned about that stony creature with the claws on the end of its wings. It’s been following us since we left the house, and it’s got the nastiest upside-down smile I’ve ever seen.” “You must think you’re pretty funny,” Claire replied with dignity. She tried the door in vain. She peered through the glass, but she couldn’t see anyone but potted plants in the lobby on the other side. She then began to study her reflection, searching for any sign of the stony thing or the dozens of invisible children or the stinking old men. She would have laughed at herself for being foolish enough to believe if she hadn’t just taken another big lungful of that old musty smell. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Noah asked after a long silence. “I didn’t say anything!” Claire responded, still studying the glass. Samantha at her side was only looking at her own reflection. She settled the age-long debate whether sarcasm was limited to words by striking several sarcastic poses. “I wasn’t talking to you?” Noah huffed. “There’s a fellow next to you who looks straight out an old-timey movie. He’s got one of those striped hats, and a waistcoat with big gold buttons, and —” Samantha fully turned around to face Noah, wriggling free of Claire’s hand. “We don’t care what he looks like. What did he say?” “He said today is an excellent day to be dead, and asked if we wouldn’t care to join him?” Noah coughed. “Now he’s sniffing your hair. Seems to be rather enjoying himself at that.” “And that’s how the party ended,” Samantha declared emphatically. She swatted around her head as though pursuing a relentless fly. “Claire? Are you ready to go home?” “Not without Mrs. Robinson!” Claire whined. “We’ve just got to wait until someone who lives here opens the door.” “Then what?” Samantha asked. “Search every floor for her? Maybe knock on all the doors too, asking if anyone’s seen your dead cat?” “She’s not dead!” Claire grew increasingly red in the face. “If she was dead, then she wouldn’t be walking around. She’s just somewhere else, and I need to find her.” Samantha was still swatting around her head, dodging in anxious zigzagging lines as though that would lose her invisible pursuer. “Even if you do, you can’t pet her. You can’t pick her up or hold her or feel her next to you when you sleep. She’s gone, Claire. And nothing this weirdo says is going to bring her back. Let’s just go home.” Claire kept staring into the glass, watching her reflection as the tears started to swell in her eyes. Samantha made an exaggerated motion to block her ears, but Claire didn’t scream this time. She only glared at her friend’s reflection in silence with dark angry eyes, and that was a hundred times worse than the screaming. “Let’s go home, Claire,” Samantha repeated more softly. “Our parents will be wondering where we are. You can still have your hot chocolate at your house, then you’ll feel a lot better than if you were—” “I don’t want to feel better. I want Mrs. Robinson back.” The kids remained silent for a moment. Noah stared at his feet with his hands in his pockets. Claire and Samantha glared back and forth as though the other was personally responsible for everything that was wrong with the world. “The old timer says he’d like to keep the cat then, if it’s all the same to you,” Noah’s voice cracked slightly, like a Captain telling everyone the boat is sinking while trying not to cause too much fuss about it. “I think we should all be getting home.” Claire’s lip began to shake, but she said nothing. “You absolutely cannot,” Samantha stepped up to argue into thin air where she assumed the spirit to be. “Mrs. Robinson isn’t a possession to be traded about. Either she's coming with us or she’s going where she decides.” Samantha searched for the invisible man around her with mounting frustration before turning on Noah to demand, “Well, what did he say?” “He said ‘Cats are the only thing more stubborn than the dead. You’d have better luck ordering the sun to set at noontime than telling a dead cat what to do.’” “Obviously you’ve never met Claire then,” Samantha replied, trying to focus on the same patch of empty air that Noah was. “She’s twice as stubborn as the dead, and she doesn’t rot and stink like old leather either!” “He says ‘I’m not the one you smell’. Samantha, stop looking there. It thinks you’re staring at it.” “Tell him to look away first,” Samantha retorted. “I’m not backing down.” “Samantha, look out!” This would have been better advice if she could actually see the thing she was supposed to be looking out for. Samantha only managed to turn her face halfway toward Noah before her vision was replaced a line of searing agony. She felt like a bucketful of water that had been suddenly filled with hot steel. Her insides all wanted to be on the outside to cool off, and her outsides wanted to be safe inside for a change. It was the worst feeling she’d ever experienced in her life. “Sam? What happened? Noah, did something hit her?” Samantha was on her knees, although she couldn’t remember how she got there. Her vision was starting to return in her left eye, but her right might as well be staring into the sun. The musty smell came back in an overpowering wave, and it was all she could do to keep breathing and not vomit from the shock. “Get away from her!” she heard Noah shout. His voice sounded like it was coming through a hundred miles of tin cans. The musk lifted for a moment only to be replaced by a towering shadow. “We’ve got to get her out of here,” Noah urged. “What happened to her? Why’d she fall?” Claire asked. Samantha felt a hand under one arm, then two more hands on her other side. She lurched to her feet, staggering to keep up with Noah and Claire who dragged her along. They were almost at the sidewalk of the intersection, and again the light was red. “We have to go back for Mrs. Robinson!” Claire cried. “Not safe,” Noah grunted, invisible on Samantha’s blinded right side. “That’s why we can’t leave her!” Claire insisted. “If that old man attacked Samantha, then we can’t let him have Mrs. Robinson!” “He’s not the one who attacked her. It was the clawed thing. And I don’t think you have to worry about Mrs. Robinson, because the thing is still following us.” The red streetlight glared malevolently overhead, as comforting as an umbrella full of holes in a storm. “Where is it?” Samantha hissed. “Behind us. No—don’t turn around. They don’t usually bother people unless they think they’ve been noticed. It must have thought Samantha could see it because she kept looking and speaking at it without noticing. Keep staring ahead. It will lose interest if we don’t acknowledge it.” “So we’re supposed to just stand here and pretend the thing that attacked me isn’t right behind me?” Samantha questioned in disbelief. “Uh huh,” Noah mumbled, meeting her eyes. “How are you feeling? Your right eye is all…” “Cloudy,” Claire said from the other side. “It’s going to be fine, really.” She did not sound very confident. The musty scent engulfed them once more like a heavy blanket, weighing them down. The streetlight seemed to burn redder out of pure spite. “Seriously,” Noah warned. “Don’t look back.” “Well, screw waiting here then,” Samantha said defiantly. She looked both ways down the intersection before darting across the street toward the patch of grass and trees which separated the traffic lanes. “Wait for us!” Claire called, breaking after her. Noah was close behind, muttering curses to himself as he hurried beneath the halo of red light. They caught up with Samantha where she crouched beside a bush, ready to sprint again. In the near-distance another traffic light turned green and headlights began to rush past. The party was tense and ready to run as soon when a space opened between the cars. “Is it still there?” Samantha asked. She already knew the answer because the smell was as strong as ever, but any words were more reassuring than the oppressive silence. “Don’t look,” Noah repeated softly. He seemed to be listening to something only he could hear. “Is my eye going to be okay?” she continued. “The old man is talking about it, but—” “Tell me!” Noah sighed sharply, looking hopelessly from side to side at the impenetrable wall of rush-hour traffic. “He says your eye ‘might shrivel up to a prune and drop out, or spring a leak that drains all the liquid out and leaves only a sad empty pouch.’ I said don’t look!” Samantha’s head was beginning to turn, but she quickly snapped it back. “Will I go blind?” Samantha murmured. “No. Samantha this really isn’t the time—” “Tell me exactly what he’s saying!” “He says ‘If the eye stays in, it’ll start to see again. But it won’t be seeing what’s in your world.’ He says ‘The things you’ll see will take your breath away.’” Just as Noah said ‘breath away’, the words were accompanied by a hot, dry breath on the back of Samantha’s neck. Something inside her became unhinged after feeling such a thing. It wasn’t a physical pain: it was more of an intrusive thought which wormed its way into her head. It told her that she was a scared, helpless little girl in a great, big world that had no possible need for her. That no one would notice much less care whether she lived or died. It didn’t feel like a passing opinion either, but rather a law of the universe that she had just stumbled upon, such as the law of gravity, that once noticed could not be overturned. Since she couldn’t escape such a thought, she did the best she could using her legs instead. Samantha was halfway into the oncoming traffic before anyone could stop her. A yellow jeep appeared suddenly, roaring across the asphalt directly toward her. The events of the next few moments couldn’t agree on which would happen first, so they all crammed through the proverbial doorway and happened at exactly the same time. Noah followed Samantha into the street. He didn’t think of it as risking his life to save her. He only felt an instinctual responsibility for her, and he had to do something to quiet that voice in his head that said it was his fault for leading the children here at all. Claire jumped up and waved her arms to get the driver’s attention. It must have worked too, because the jeep slammed its breaks. If he hadn’t hit his breaks, then Noah wouldn’t have had enough time to catch Samantha by the flying end of her long skirt and swing her back toward the island of grass. The vehicle slammed to a stop exactly 1.2 seconds after the front bumper connected with Noah’s right shoulder. The jarring impact buckled his neck and body, allowing the vehicle to make a second point of contact on his temple. His thin frame was lifted by the force and thrown carelessly into the air like a rag-doll. Noah was aware of his flight, though he wasn’t in any pain. He felt the massive wall of pressure from the collision, but this caused more numbness than discomfort. His whole body felt like static, all pins and needles, like a foot that had just taken its first step after being asleep. It didn’t seem so bad, except for the inner voice which told him in no uncertain terms that he shouldn’t be in the air this long. Either he would continue to float away indefinitely, which seemed unlikely, or he was about to make a close acquaintance with the hard, unsympathetic ground. Waking Up Again Noah must have landed on the asphalt eventually, but he was quite oblivious to the impact. He only knew he was on the ground because he found himself staring into the pool of blood spreading from his temple along the road. It seemed interesting that people in the reflection were running toward him with open mouths that weren’t making any sounds. It was ridiculous that they would make such a fuss when he wasn’t hurt at all. He looked forward to their excited relief when he stood up at any moment. There was something about the puddle of blood that concerned Noah, although his thoughts weren’t clear enough to understand what was wrong with this situation. He could see Claire and Samantha leaning over him: Claire with tears flowing down her face, while Samantha looked as though she’d been turned to stone except for her wide quivering eyes, one of which was now pure marble-white. A bearded man had exited the jeep, yet he hadn’t approached. His breathing was ragged as he held a cell phone to his ear, yet still there was no sound coming from him either. A thought floated through Noah’s head that perhaps it shouldn’t be so quiet if everything really was fine. He kept staring at the puddle of blood, trying to focus his fuzzy thoughts on exactly what was wrong with everyone. “You noticed, didn’t you?” uttered an aged voice, the first sound Noah heard since he’d been hit. “We’re on the wrong side of the reflection,” Noah replied, not turning away from the puddle. Had his voice always sounded so thin and high? “There isn’t a wrong-side. No before-side, no after-side, no upside or downside. There’s just the other side, the side you’ve entered.” Noah sat up at last. His body stubbornly refused to rise with him. He looked down to see himself still lying face down in the blood, which by now looked more like a lake than a puddle, complete with little streams that gushed through the cracks in the road to cascade down toward the gutter. “That’s disgusting,” Noah remarked, scowling. The old timer removed his striped hat and held it to his chest, closing his eyes in an apparent gesture of reverence. His head was bald underneath, and his thick wrinkled skin made him appear more turtle than man. “Beats going in your sleep. Dying is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that’s not to be missed." Noah began to stand to completely remove himself from his old body. He ceased abruptly when he realized his new body that was emerging was completely naked. Besides that, his skin was smooth and hairless. The scar on his chest from a heart surgery a few years ago was completely gone. He pulled himself entirely free from the carnage to stand over the pool of blood and saw himself as the child he could barely remember ever being, no older than the two girls who were still in shock about the mangled corpse he’d left behind. Suddenly self-conscious, Noah sank back into the ground, blushing as the old man began to laugh. “Shut up, will you? This is your fault,” Noah huffed. “If it’s anyone’s fault, blame the gargoyle. Anyway the girls can’t see you, if that’s what you’re worried about. Here, try this on.” The man began to sketch in the air, and wherever one of his fingers went there remained a bit of soft fire which continued to smolder. The fire seemed to be spilling from a thick white ring that Noah hadn’t noticed before. The old man was tracing the outline of a pair of trousers, fire spreading through the air as he went to knit sparks between the lines. The pants proceeded to burn in mid-air as a shirt was conjured beside them. The fires burned out into a bleak gray color before the clothing dropped to a heap on the ground. Noah hastily scooped them up and self-consciously donned them while facing away from the old man. The clothes had fallen directly into the puddle of blood, but even so were soft and dry against Noah’s new skin. “Don’t I get any shoes?” Noah inquired. “Most spirit bodies don’t bother with them. It’s hard to find your balance walking up things like stairs when you can’t feel them, but going barefoot helps grip the air better, if you know what I mean.” “No,” Noah was now feeling flustered and obstinate. “I don’t at all.” An ambulance had arrived on the scene. One of the paramedics was dragging Claire away from the body, and she kicked and swung her elbows at them as she was forcibly removed. Samantha walked willingly when she was asked, her face stiff and frozen. The silence of the scene made it even more unsettling. “Isn’t there some way for me to let them know I’m okay?” Noah asked. “Sure there is. We’ll need another jeep though.” Noah, now fully dressed, turned to scowl at him. The old timer grinned and placed his hat back on his head. “Where’s the thing that attacked Samantha?” “The gargoyle didn’t stick around. Took off when you got hit. Cowardly creatures, I’ll never understand why the department puts so much faith in them. I’ve never seen one go after a human like that though, most curious indeed.” Noah watched as his body was covered in a white sheet and carried into the back of the ambulance. Part of him still hoped that it would stand up and shake it off, but that seemed to be growing less likely by the moment. He really was dead. Why did those words sound so strange to him? “Mandy will still be able to see me though,” Noah said. “I should go and tell her what’s happened.” The old man shook his head. “Wouldn’t recommend it. The T.D.D. is very particular about spirits communicating with unregistered mediums.” “The T.D.D.?” Noah asked, distracted by the progress of his body. “The Trans Dimensional Department. You’ll get that on your permanent record, then fat chance getting into a good school then.” “What would I want to go to school for?” Noah turned to face him. “It’s not like I need to earn a living.” “You don’t want to spend your next life sweeping graveyards, do you?” “No, of course not. Why would I—” “That’s what will happen, you know. Or maybe haunting a teddy bear because that’s all you’ll manage, not having taken your possession work seriously. See all those children passing you by? They’re headed for The Mortuary. Brilliant demonology course they’ve got, real cutting-edge summoning program. Not to mention one of the best necromancy curriculums you’ll find this side of the ocean. They’ve got second year students already raising their own ghouls. Can you believe it?” “Um, not entirely,” Noah replied quite honestly. “Why did you say today was an excellent day to die? Are you the grim reaper or something?” “George Hampton, a pleasure to meet you,” the old man said, shaking Noah by the hand. Noah was surprised to feel how real and solid the other’s hand felt. “And no, I’m not going to harvest you, whatever that means. You do have good timing though, because the bus leaves in…” he checked his watch, then the stars, then his watch once more, “about an hour. Little less.” “I don’t want to go anywhere. I have to take care of my daughter and her son. Her husband isn’t around anymore, and I know she tries her best, but she hasn’t had a real job since the baby—what are you doing now?” George Hampton’s tongue was out of his mouth and he seemed to be tasting the air like a serpent. He turned suddenly upon being addressed as though he forgot Noah was even there. “Your daughter and her son are already dead,” George said. The words felt like a punch in the stomach. “What?! How—” “Well, not exactly, but they are to you,” the old man corrected. “There isn’t such a thing as dead really. There’s either this side or the other side. When you aren’t in one, you’re in the other. Now if you do as you’re supposed to, you study very hard in all of your classes, then in a few years you’ll have graduated and will be ready to go back to the other side. In your words, pass the final test, and you’ll be back alive again.” That didn’t sound quite so bad anymore. Noah reflexively breathed a sigh of relief, surprised to find his lungs still making the motion out of habit despite not feeling any air enter his body. A siren illuminated the scene in flashes of harsh red and blue, and the sound was beginning to trickle back as though someone had turned the TV volume up from mute to low. Noah watched as a policeman wrote down the statement of the bearded man in the jeep. Claire’s mother was there, and Claire buried her face against her mother’s side. Samantha was sitting on the sidewalk beside them, her arms clutched around her drawn knees. “They don’t seem dead. But I don’t feel dead either, so I suppose it doesn’t matter either way. How far is the bus?” “That’s the spirit!” the old man chuckled to himself. “Not far at all, we just need to follow all the other children.” George Hampton placed a gentle arm behind Noah’s shoulders and steered him away from the bloody street. Away from his body that was already passing him in the ambulance. Away from every mistake he’d ever made, every place he’d ever been, and every person he’d ever loved. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, or perhaps both at the same time. The volume in the living world never turned all the way back on; all the rush and commotion of the street kept buzzing away barely above a whisper. Likewise, it all had a certain translucence to it in the same way that spirits had once appeared to him when he was alive. And while he had only ever seen the occasional spirit before, now they were everywhere, as real and solid and true as his brand-new body. Owls—herds of deer—prowling wolves—all right in the middle of the city, in the middle of the street, heedless to the ceaseless traffic. Flights of birds swooped straight through the pellucid towers, and other strange creatures unseen in the living world strut their impossibility brazenly before all to see. One by one they came sparkling into existence before his eyes like the blossoming of a starry night. It immediately became very clear to Noah that all his life he had only seen the faintest edge of the other world which lay hidden over the one he knew. George Hampton and Noah walked by buildings that couldn’t possibly belong to this city. Tucked between a grocery store and a gas station rose a high tower which looked to be entirely built from jagged black glass, more real now than the familiar commercial buildings on either side. There on the other end of the street sat a fat round building whose brown walls rippled like a chocolate waterfall. A few hundred yards ahead, Noah could clearly see where part of the street was abruptly blocked by a marble mountain with a Grecian shrine like a miniature Pantheon carved directly into its mass. “Some people of faith prefer to pursue resurrection at a temple rather than a school, but they aren’t as popular on this side,” George Hampton rambled, noticing Noah’s fascination in the structure. “It’s hard to convince people that you follow the one true God when he never shows his face, and right next door is another faith offering a different variety of resurrections at half the price. Of course none of them can guarantee it—all souls find their way back in their own ways—but The Mortuary will teach you all the essentials and give you your very best shot.” Noah suddenly became aware that humans have been dying for almost exactly as long as they’d been living. That he could run into Napoleon, or Caesar, or a Neanderthal which died before two sticks were rubbed to make fire. As long as their spirit didn’t return to the other side, they must have stayed here. “Why are you old?” Noah inquired. The old man tapped the side of his nose and his eye twinkled. “Excellent question! Everyone who comes here begins their journey young. There is only one currency on this side: the years of your life. It’s the only thing of value on the other side too, though you all hardly seem to notice it being spent. The more someone decides to spend here, the older they get, until one day they spend themselves completely and disappear, never to be seen again.” “You must have bought a lot of things,” Noah said. “They sneak up on you,” the old man replied. “One day here, a week there—you don’t even notice until they’re gone, nor how precious they were until it’s too late.” “That’s rubbish. After you realized that you were getting older, you should have stopped spending right away.” “So you never wasted time again after realizing that it wouldn’t come back?” George asked, rather smugly. “But it does come back though, doesn’t it? You can pass the test and come back to life as many times as you want?” Noah stopped to watch a pair of horses pulling a carriage directly through oncoming traffic. Maybe it was just getting dark, but he kept counting the wrong number of legs on the beasts. His brain refused to believe half the things that his eyes were extremely confident about. “As many times as you can,” George Hampton corrected. “It’s not easy to get back. Some never manage it, though they try for a thousand years. Others do it by accident, or maybe it won’t happen until a conflict in their previous life was resolved or their soul mate has died and joined them. The way back is so different for everyone that it’s quite impossible to have a reliable method.” “What good is trying to teach it then?” Noah asked. “Schools aren’t meant to teach you all the answers. How could they fit the whole world into such a small container? A good school should instead teach you to love the truth so you will search for it on your own.” “How come we could see stuff that was on the other side?” Noah asked. “My daughter Mandy too, and sometimes I thought even the baby was keen on them.” “You’re Chainers, that’s why.” The old man grinned, evidently delighted by this. “Chainers keep repeating the cycle. You’ve been back and forth, dying and getting reborn again, over and over, until you’ve done it so much that you started holding onto something about the journey. Some people will come back still holding secrets from the other side. They might even remember spells or powers after learning them so many times. Of course the magic over there isn’t nearly as strong as it is here, but every once in a while there goes a psychic with a neat trick or a man with a bit of old predators still in him. Or in your case, a family who can still see glimpses of the other side. Ah, but here we are with time to spare.” The bus stop ahead wasn’t like any bus stop Noah had ever seen. It was closer to the size of an airport hanger with a single massive cavity. The building was entirely black, and inside loomed a towering bus, two lanes wide and at least five stories tall. Heavy clouds of purple-tinged steam flooded from somewhere underneath in regular pulses that looked almost like the bus was breathing. “That’s not a bus!” Noah exclaimed, feeling both deceived and delighted by the revelation. A fresh gout of purple mist billowed from beneath the monstrosity. Noah covered his nose and mouth with his arm. In contrast, the old man spread his arms and inhaled deeply, wafting the mist up toward his face with both hands. “It’s grape flavored this time,” George uttered with content. “Hurry up now, you’ve still got to buy your ticket.” The old man led Noah through the waiting area outside. Dozens of children filled the space, several sitting at each of the stone tables which were scattered beneath bright orange umbrellas. It wasn’t just human children though—on one table a golden retriever puppy twirled in happy circles in the center of attention. There were all manner of domestic cats and other animals that were likely to be found in a city, including a very young hippo that must have come from the zoo. Noah paused in surprise to see Mrs. Robinson stalking along the top of the stone wall which surrounded the area. “You weren’t planning to leave me, were you?” Mrs. Robinson snapped, her voice sharp and accusing. Noah opened his mouth to reply, but in his shock he couldn’t find the words. Mrs. Robinson turned up her nose and strutted past, not showing the least concern that Noah had actually died in her pursuit. She cut the line in front of a pair of excitedly chatting girls and hopped directly onto the counter. “One way ticket to Barbaros please.” George Hampton was speaking to an adjacent attendant through the glass. “Are you sure you’ve got enough time left?” the woman behind the counter answered. She was dressed in a smart business suit with an orange tie and white gloves. “Maybe so, maybe not,” he replied. “It’s for the boy, not me. Noah picked his way through the tables to reach the counter, and the saleswoman reached out a hand holding a neatly printed ticket. Noah reached out to take it, and white gloves seized his wrist. “You’ll be paying, correct? Can you confirm that your name and date of death is printed correctly on the ticket?” Noah hadn’t told her this information, but he could see that Noah Tellaver, August 22nd, 2018 was correct on all accounts. He nodded and tried to pull his hand away but was unable to break the woman’s grip. “If you’d died one day later then you’d have to wait a whole year,” the attendant said, whistling low. “Someone out there is really watching out for you, eh? That will be two weeks.” “Two weeks? How far is this bus going?” Noah demanded. The ticket woman smiled patiently as she rolled her eyes. “That’s not the distance; it’s the cost, silly. Two weeks for the fare with your luggage included.” “But I haven’t got any luggage,” Noah argued, quite confused. “Your body. You will want to take it with you, I assume?” “Yeah... Of course… I mean—am I supposed to?” “Yes, dear,” the woman replied kindly. “Deep breath now; this won’t hurt a bit.” Still grasping his wrist tightly, the woman pressed a brilliant aquamarine stone into the back of Noah’s hand. The stone turned on like a Christmas light, the aquatic glow bathing them through its numerous facets. Noah felt intensely groggy for a moment as though he’d just woken from an abrupt nap and was trying to decipher whether the clock read AM or PM. The white gloves released his wrist and allowed him to pull away with the ticket in his hand. “I don’t feel any different,” Noah said. “You won’t until around forty,” George Hampton responded. “Then it starts to sting a bit. No matter though, you’re set to go. Remember not to talk to strangers, unless they have something worth saying, and all that sort of thing.” A loud whistle blew from the direction of the bus. There was a stout man with a mustache wearing an identical orange tie and white gloves standing in front. He was checking the tickets of the first children who were beginning to board. At his side was a similarly uniformed opossum standing on its hind legs, checking the tickets from the animals. “Can you let them know I’m alright? My daughter, I mean. That it didn’t hurt, and that they don’t have to worry about me.” “I’ll tell them you’re going to the best place in the world,” George Hampton assured him. “Besides, you can always check in on them from the Whispering Room when you arrive.” The whistle blew again, this time a tad more shrill and impatient. “What about Samantha and Claire?” Noah pressed, not having time to ask all the questions he wanted. “We’ve only just met me, but I think they’d want to know since it must have been horrible for them to actually see me go. And oh, I can give you more names if we have the time—” George tapped the side of his nose and smiled. “Find your way back and tell them yourself. That’s how it’s supposed to be done.” The third blast of the whistle sounded from directly behind Noah. He flinched and spun to find himself face-to-face with the bus attendant who promptly snatched the ticket from his hand. “All aboard!” the Mustached Man bellowed. “Daymare 7 is departing, one way to The Mortuary on Barbaros Island. Last call!” “Shut up, will you? If you tried to leave me, I can promise you’ll be looking for a new job before sunrise,” shouted a portly, red faced boy whose beady eyes were almost invisible in his pudgy face. “What ever happened to resting in peace?” “Don’t mind him, darling,” cooed a tall, thin girl racing to catch up. “No-one would ever dream of leaving you behind.” “They’d better not. I’m not staying one more minute in this vile town. You told me Heaven was going to have everything I wanted in it, but nothing here is made of gold and I can’t find a thing to eat.” The thin girl caught up and handed two tickets to the Mustached Man who nodded sharply. “Brandon and Teresa Hides, you’re just in time. Get inside, three floors up, middle row.” “I don’t think so,” Teresa remarked curtly. “We’ll be sitting on the top with the best view. We’d prefer a row to ourselves, but if we must share, we’ll be taking those closest to the window.” The Mustached Man folded his hands behind his body and swayed back and forth on the balls of his feet. Noah keenly hoped that they wouldn’t be allowed on at all, and he looked around for George to tell him so. The old man was gone without a trace though, and in his place sat only Mrs. Robinson who must have followed Noah from the station. She looked a little bigger than Noah had seen her last, and in her mouth she carried her own ticket. “Very well, the top it is,” the attendant conceded. “You’ll have the whole place to yourself, if that’s to your liking.” “If that’s the best you can do, then we’ll take it,” Teresa said. “You’ll like that, won’t you Brandon? Not having to share with any of those dirty animals?” Brandon screwed up his pudgy face as though trying to work out a particularly unpleasant math problem. “The top is always the best,” Teresa reasoned. “Come on, sugar, let’s go check to be sure. If it isn’t everything you could have ever dreamed of then I’ll make sure they find you an even better spot.” “You’d better,” Brandon snarled as he climbed aboard. “It’s your fault I’m dead in the first place.” A few more stragglers came rushing from the station while they’d been talking. The attendant turned to take their tickets. Most of the human children were wearing plain white gowns made from a slightly shimmering material. Noah felt slightly out of place in his gray shirt and trousers, but no one seemed to be paying him much attention. Mrs. Robinson spat out her ticket distastefully and trotted at Noah’s side as he stepped into the vehicle. The inside of the Daymare 7 wasn’t in the least recognizable as a bus. He used to ride the 247 city line when he’d had to let his car go. How was Mandy ever going to get by without him? Noah had been given his old job back at the veterinary clinic, despite being eight years into his retirement, and the daily commute had been the low part of his day. All the seats on the 247 were always mysteriously damp, and the windows were so filthy he could barely see out. The city line would have been much more fun if it had a spiral staircase in the center with each step reminiscent of a coffin’s lid, as was the case with the Daymare 7. The steps floated unassisted in the air, although they did have a shining brass railing and a fine brass mesh between the steps to prevent anyone from falling through. On each floor was a wooden walkway that extended to a floating platform which was filled with dozens of nervously chattering children and animals. More sets of stairs peeled away from these platforms, with steps going sideways or even upside-down to seat people in such ways as to make a physicist extremely uncomfortable. The people sitting upside-down on the underside of platforms didn’t seem to mind, and their hair and clothing didn’t hang downward but fell naturally upward as if the people were right-side up. Noah had never felt further from home than he did staring at the mad scene before him. He’d never felt further from his daughter, who must have noticed he was gone by now and was going to pieces trying to find him. He’d never get to watch another movie with Lewis, or hear Mandy singing the songs his wife had once sang to her as a child. But how could he allow himself to stay morose with such a brilliant mystery unraveling itself before his eyes? “I’m really dead,” he told himself aloud, the fact fully sinking in at last, “and that’s fine with me.” Daymare 7 “May I hold your kitty?” a ginger haired girl asked Noah. He blinked in surprise, realizing that he had been blocking the traffic by standing and staring. He quickly stepped aside to allow the other children to pass. “Go ahead, ask him for permission. Why would you ask me?” Mrs. Robinson lamented. “Why should I have a say when some stranger decides to grab me for her enjoyment?” “Oh, I’m so sorry,” the girl mumbled in embarrassment. She knelt down to speak to the cat directly. “I’m so used to—may I pet you?” Mrs. Robinson turned to allow the girl scratch her back, which she did with a practiced motion that seemed to hit all the right spots. “I used to have one just like you named Sebastian,” she told Mrs. Robinson. “Or is that rude? I don’t mean ‘have’ like a possession; I mean ‘have’ like someone has a brother, or a sister.” “I shall choose not to be offended if you don’t stop until you’re told,” Mrs. Robinson replied, flipping onto her back to expose her tuft of white fur. “My son got Sebastian for me after my husband passed so I wouldn’t be all alone. I hope someone is looking after the poor thing now.” Noah studied the girl’s fair, smooth skin and tried to imagine her as a little old lady sitting alone with her cat. There was something wise and patient about her eyes that made the imagining easier, but the contrast still seemed too incredible to picture. The formerly-old-lady made the bold move of picking Mrs. Robinson up, and after the initial suspicion the kitten settled quite comfortably in her arms. Noah was beginning to feel a little jealous that the cat preferred the newcomer to him after everything he’d gone through for her. “Maybe Sebastian will find you again when it’s his turn,” Noah said. “Do you really think so?” the girl asked hopefully. “My name is Jamie Poffin, by the way. I’d shake your hand, but I don’t want to let go of…” “Mrs. Robinson,” Noah said. Then quickly added: “That’s the cat’s name, not mine. I’m Noah.” “You didn’t strike me as a Mrs. Robinson,” Jamie smirked. “Could I sit with you, Noah? I don’t know anyone else here.” “Let me check my seat number…” Noah replied, but Jamie didn’t wait. She was already leaping up the stairs, still cradling Mrs. Robinson. “It doesn’t matter, there are lots of empty seats,” Jamie called back. “Oh, hello there. What are you supposed to be?” Noah had to climb the stairs to see the thing Jamie was addressing. Only about a foot tall, it looked rather like a stuffed animal covered with soft red fur. Along its back was a line of hard ridges that looked like a series of shark fins, and its face was coarse and broad like an ugly little monkey. Mrs. Robinson was beginning to squirm, so Jamie set her down on the ground where she made a low growling sound at the furry red creature. “Do you think it’s a spirit?” Jamie asked. “Maybe an old one, something from an animal that doesn’t exist anymore?” “I don’t think it wants you to pet it,” Noah warned. Jamie was already reaching for it though, her palms facing upward in a harmless display. The monkey-faced creature snarled and seized one of Jamie’s hands with its stubby black fingers, biting viciously. Jamie howled as she jumped back. Mrs. Robinson hissed and all her fur stood on end, apparently scaring the creature which scampered down the wooden walkway. Mrs. Robinson sprang into action, chasing in hot pursuit. “Don’t touch the imps, please,” shouted Mustached Man from below. He’d just closed the door behind the last children. “Sorry!” Jamie shouted back. Her index finger had two prominent holes in it, but they weren’t bleeding. “Don’t shout either!” roared the attendant. “Sor—” Jamie began to yell, cutting herself off when she thought better of it. She gave the man a thumbs up with her free hand instead. “No blood,” she whispered enthusiastically. “We don’t bleed anymore! That’s fantastic, I always hated blood!” The attendant moved toward the front of the bus where he seized a long brass tube, the other end of which connected with the brass railing around the stairs. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he announced into the tube. The sound was amplified into a magnificent booming echo which radiated throughout the railing all the way to the top of the bus. “My name is Mr. Ludyard of the T.D.D., and welcome to Daymare 7, destination the island of Barbaros. We will be departing in a few minutes as soon as the last luggage has been stored.” “Were we supposed to pack luggage?” Jamie whispered, distraught. “He means our bodies, I think,” Noah whispered back. “But I was cremated!” Jamie hissed. Noah shrugged. “The Daymare 7 will depart at 10 PM and take approximately seven hours and twenty five minutes to arrive at its destination. To those of you who recently died in your previous life, congratulations for making it here in one piece. Please save any and all questions relating to the nature of death and the eternal secrets of the cosmos for your professors at school. Make yourself comfortable, and feel free to ask one of the imps for help if you need anything.” Mr. Ludyard dropped the brass tube and saluted to no-one in particular. He turned and made his way farther toward the front of the bus where a dark wooden door concealed the driver’s compartment. Shortly after, the whole place began to rumble, and thick clouds of grape-flavored smoke began to flood past the windows outside. They were beginning to move. Noah and Jamie climbed to the fourth level where there were more open seats. An imp dashed across the aisle in front of them, making odd panicked chittering noises with Mrs. Robinson in hot pursuit. There were more imps up here, grinning, and leering, and sticking out their tongues at the children as though daring them to do something they would regret. “Do you want to sit in one of the upside-down ones?” Noah asked. “No thanks,” Jamie said. “I already get travel sick without hanging like a bat.” “Do we still get sick? Now that we’re dead, I mean,” he pondered. “We’re not really dead at all. We’re just alive somewhere else. Didn’t you read the pamphlets they have at the station?” “No, I didn’t have time,” Noah said. “There was a man who helped me find the place though, and he explained some of it to me.” Noah paused; he watched a new boy sit down on his other side. The boy had dark skin and a cleanly shaven head, and he was nervously fidgeting and looking about all over the place. “Hey, excuse me,” the boy said. “Did you see where the imps went?” Noah shrugged. They’d disappeared from the stairways, though he could still hear the scampering of their claws against the wooden flooring somewhere. “Hey, imps!” the boy shouted. “Get your furry asses over here. I need something.” “No shouting!” boomed the echo which reverberated from the railing. Claws immediately appeared to latch onto the platform, and two imps crawled over the edge to glare suspiciously at the boy. He glanced uncertainly at Jamie’s wounded hand before clearing his throat. “Yeah, hi, thanks,” he said. “My name’s Walter, my girlfriend’s name is Natasha. We lived together at 423 E Ventmore Street, and I was hoping you could send her a message.” The imps looked at one another slyly. They started speaking an awful guttural, chirping sound rapidly back and forth. After a moment they faced Walter again with rather wicked grins spreading across their faces. “So, um, you can do it?” Walter asked. Both imps nodded enthusiastically, their grin spreading even wider to reveal at least two layers of razor sharp teeth. “You’re wasting your time,” yipped a voice from behind. The golden retriever puppy was sitting there with a human girl on either side, both unable to keep their hands off him. “They don’t understand a word you’re saying.” “Didn’t anyone read the pamphlet?” Jamie asked. “Demons are very intelligent and can understand every human language, even if they don’t speak it themselves.” “What are you defending them for?” The dog asked. “You were the first one to be bitten.” “It doesn’t hurt much, and it was my own fault for not asking first,” Jamie huffed. Walter cleared his throat again, embarrassed. “I just want you to tell her that I love her, and that she should wait for me. A few years at the most, tell her I’ll be back as soon as I can.” The dog behind them snickered, and Walter looked even more embarrassed. “Even if you do make it back, you’re going to be a baby again. You won’t remember a thing.” “You don’t know anything, Bowser,” Walter replied stubbornly. “I can possess someone else’s body who is fully grown, now can’t I? Or I can make myself remember a spell to grow up again real quick.” “Not unless you’re a Chainer, and those are super rare.” Bowser said. “Did you remember your other times?” Walter’s face soured. He shook his head. “So what makes you think you’ll remember next time?” Bowser asked. Walter turned back around in his chair to face the imps. “Just tell her I love her then. That I didn’t—that I won’t ever forget her.” “You will,” Bowser gloated. The two girls sitting beside him giggled, although Noah couldn’t quite find the joke. The imps didn’t budge and only continued to stand there grinning. “Go on then, you ugly little twerps,” Walter said angrily, waving them away. “And don’t let her see you. Just put it in a letter, or burn it in a piece of toast, I don’t care. As long as she knows.” The imps darted along the wooden bridge and begun chasing one another in circles, chittering and laughing. “They aren’t going to do it, I can tell,” Walter sighed. “You didn’t have to be so rude to them,” Jamie said. “Not even a please or thank you…if I were them I’d never do it.” “You don’t have to be nice to imps,” Walter sounded doubtful. “They’ve got contracts to obey, they don’t have a choice. I know the contract isn’t with me, but I figured whoever did own it would have ordered them to serve the students.” The prospective students alternated between nervous chatter and reflective silence for some time before a sudden commotion on the stairs brought the next disruption. Noah and Jamie rushed to lean over the railing to see what was going on above. Brandon was bounding down the stairs after a pair of imps with Teresa chasing after him. The imps were cackling gleefully and seemed to be the only ones having a good time. “Why are you so slow?” Brandon scolded Teresa. “Catch that little monster!” “I’m trying!” Teresa whined. She lunged awkwardly at one of the creatures who dodged off the side of the stairs, scampering along the bottom with careless agility. Brandon knelt to peer beneath the stairs. “I’ll have your skin hanging in my room. Or are you too stupid to even understand? Get back here!” One of the imps popped its head back above the stair to stick its tongue out at Brandon who was peeping over the opposite side. Brandon didn’t appear to notice and continued to shout underneath the stairs on the other side. “I used to have a whole room just for the animals I’ve killed. I’m going to start a new one on this side just for you and your family. Assuming you even have one and didn’t crawl out of a cesspool somewhere.” The imp grew emboldened and crawled right behind Brandon who remained oblivious to it. The little demon was silently dancing now, obscenely thrusting its hips in Brandon’s direction much to the delight of the other imps. The distracted creature didn’t notice Teresa charging from the side until she launched into a flying tackle which pinned it to the floor. There was a chittering uproar as the onlooking imps gnashed their teeth in fury, but none of them came to the aid of the pinned creature. It buckled and thrashed on the floor and looked about to wriggle free until Brandon joined Teresa to help secure her hold. “What’s the meaning of this racket?” The voice came from a tall thin man mounting the stairs who Noah hadn’t noticed board the bus. The skin on his face seemed to be pulled much too tight and was discolored in places as though he’d found it and tried it on rather than having grown it himself. This had the side-effect of pulling his eyes into narrow slits, barely wide enough to see the red iris within. He was dressed in a perfectly fitted black suit with a black silk vest and tie which commanded a sense of power despite his sickly appearance. A long, thin dog trotted submissively at his heels, although instead of fur it only had black leathery skin which wrinkled up when it moved. “They trapped us on the roof!” Brandon raged, his face twisting into the ugliest livid shade Noah had ever seen. “There isn’t any top floor at all. As soon as we stepped up there, the beastly things locked the door and wouldn’t let us down until…” He grimaced and turned away, too angry to even finish the thought. “They ought to be killed for this, or banished at the least.” “Until what?” the emaciated figure asked, apparently bemused. Nearly a dozen other imps had leapt and bound from the other floors to gather on the stairs behind him. They peered around him or through his legs, leering and giggling to each other in their strange tongue. Brandon scowled and turned away. Teresa had to answer for him. “We had to do the apology dance,” she sniffed indignantly. “Right on top of the bus for everyone below to see. I’ve never been so humiliated in my life.” The imps began to howl with laughter, even the one that was still pinned to the ground. Brandon’s face contorted into a darker shade of purple. Without warning he rose and stomped on the imp that Teresa still held to the ground. There was a loud crack like snapping twigs when his foot impacted against it. The rest of the imps immediately stopped laughing in unnatural unison. The boisterous atmosphere was replaced with a sudden eerie silence. Most of the children were on their feet now, peering over balconies several floors above and below to watch the drama. The imp on the ground gave a pitiful little moan. “How could he!” Jamie hissed, outraged. “They’re so small! And so what if they played a harmless trick? It served him right after how he’s behaved.” “Apsolvo,” the thin man said at once. The imp on the ground began to dissolve into a thick black smoke. Its moan grew louder, turning into something like a shriek before it stopped abruptly. Brandon and Teresa gagged on the smoke and hurried up the stairs to get away from it. By the time the smoke had cleared, the imp was gone. “Where did he go?” Brandon demanded of the thin man. “The first lesson students in my class learn is that the demons we summon are our partners, not our servants,” the man replied severely. “When one has been wounded in our service, it is our obligation to release them. To do anything other would be less than human. What is your name, boy?” “Brandon Hides,” he replied mistrustfully. “And I—” “And you, girl?” the skeleton man interrupted. “Teresa Hides,” she replied, standing protectively in front of Brandon. “His mother.” “They look the same age though,” Walter muttered. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.” “You may call me Professor Salice,” the man continued smoothly. “If I have the misfortune of meeting either you in my class, then a humiliating dance will be the least of your concerns. From what I’ve seen so far, I would not be surprised if you fail the weighing ceremony and are sent home at once though. You will behave yourself on the remainder of this trip.” The dog at his side opened its mouth, and instead of teeth a blossoming of cornflower blue tentacles emerged to spread impressively around its face. Brandon’s mouth dropped open in dumb terror. “How much longer is it, professor?” a brown haired, frightened looking girl on the opposite platform asked. “We have two stops to make at Genesis General Hospital and the Rainbow Valley Vet,” Professor Salice replied. “Make yourselves comfortable, and let us hope the freshly dead are more grateful for their second chance than you lot.” Professor Salice turned indignantly and swept down the stairs, his demonic dog and a small army of imps swirling around him and chattering amongst each other, some casting mistrustful glares back in Brandon’s direction. The mood in the bus was more subdued after that, and Brandon and his mother Teresa found isolated seats in the back of a platform and showed no interest in talking to the others. Jamie, Walter, and Noah passed the time reviewing the pamphlet which Jamie had brought with her. Big purple letters at the top read: “The Road From Death.” The pamphlet folded out considerably like a road map with each square devoted to a different topic. “Cassandra’s Corpse Comforting” offered counseling for traumatic deaths, and there was a special on “Wallace’s Whimsical Windows” which promised such a “realistic view of home that you’d forget you were dead.” There were magical stones that possessed various powers, including the “Eternal Spring Aquamarine Line” which allowed the transference of life force such as what the woman selling bus tickets used. “These are all advertisements!” Walter complained. “I don’t want to waste my death on these things.” “That’s because you’re looking at the wrong part. All the stuff about the school is over here,” Jamie pointed out patiently. “Look here’s a bit about the professors. It says that Salice is the new demonology teacher this year. He’s credited as the inventor of the modern contract which has revolutionized the whole demon industry. They used to be forced to trust the demons at their words, which it says here was about as ‘smart as making an omelette with harpy eggs’. I’m not sure what that means, though.” “But look on the other page!” Noah said, flipping back. “They’re actually selling Harpy eggs on the first page.” “Yeah, but they say ‘for external use only’,” Walter said. “Do we still need to eat over here? I haven’t felt hungry since I… well, you know.” Noah suddenly regretted not taking a hot chocolate of his own. As it were, the last meal he’d eaten was just a boring ham sandwich at noon. Was that the last thing he’d ever eat? Perhaps the others were reflecting on similar things, because most fell into silent introspection after that. Walter kept bringing up his girlfriend without being prompted, but he didn’t seem to be expecting an answer from anyone and seemed more intent on preserving every detail about her to make sure he wouldn’t forget. The Daymare 7 made two more stops as promised, several children or animals boarding each time. Some were laughing, others crying, others wide-eyed with speechless amazement. Ludyard bellowed his short welcome speech verbatim each time, and the empty seats filled up with the freshly dead. The newcomers gave Noah a sense of confidence as he realized that as little as he knew about this new world, at least there were others who knew even less. The general chatter faded again as the road wound on. The city thinned into suburbs, then to isolated houses dotting the countryside. The bus barreled directly down the streets regardless of whatever traffic might be going in the opposite direction, sliding straight through the other cars more gently than a passing mist. The rest of the world was still going about its business, completely oblivious to the spirits going about their own. The first shafts of morning light were amplifying into a bright, warm day when Ludyard blared his next announcement through the brass railing. “Look ahead, and to your right. Behold the only known island entirely within the spirit world, completely imperceptible to the living. Welcome to Barbaros!” All the children on the left side of the bus hustled toward the right or stood on their chairs to see out the porthole windows. The bus was driving along the beach, rumbling through families and their umbrellas and sunbathers stretched out on blankets. Noah was almost trampled to a second death as several people strained to look past him, and he only got the smallest glimpse out of the bottom of the window. The bus hissed, releasing great gouts of purple steam which spread across the water before it. Collective gasps resounded as the bus turned from the beach to drive directly onto the water, apparently buoyed by the purple clouds which it continued to dispense. “It looks like a tombstone,” Walter remarked in a somber tone. “Only because you’re thinking about being dead,” Jamie replied. One side of the island was dominated by a sheer stone cliff which produced the effect. Lush grass and thickly wooded areas covered the top however, rolling down in gentle slopes along the other side of the island until it met with a black sand beach which glistened in the sun. Thatch roofed cottages and long wooden houses littered the grassy hills which grew more densely populated as they neared the cliff. There, at the edge, a single prominent stone building which resembled a cathedral loomed over the precipitous drop. Noah would have liked to watch for longer, but there was too much bustling for the window and he soon grew tired of being pushed and stepped on. He pulled himself through the forest of legs until he emerged near the stairs, face-to-face with Mrs. Robinson again. Noah thought she looked rather forlorn and moved to pet her, but she dashed away again before he had the chance. “Well don’t just sit there counting your toes,” Jamie said, pursuing Mrs. Robinson. “We have to make sure she gets off the bus.” “Why?” Noah asked, following her down the stairs. “She can follow the instructions as well as anyone else.” Jamie’s expression over her shoulder clearly stated that Noah was speaking nonsense, but she answered anyway. “She’s so frightened! She needs someone to look after her. This world must be even more confusing for an animal which hasn’t learned to think like humans have.” Noah could have rightly pointed out that none of the other animals seemed to be having trouble adjusting, or that Mrs. Robinson clearly wanted nothing to do with them and would refuse their help even if she needed it. The bus would be arriving at the island soon and they’d need to be downstairs anyway though, so he kept those thoughts to himself and followed Jamie downward. Mrs. Robinson paused at each landing as though to verify that her pursuers were keeping up before bounding off again whenever Jamie was almost within reach. Others noticed their movement and were quick to follow, so that by the time they reached the bottom of the stairs there was already a crowd of other children pressing for the doors. Mrs. Robinson was the first out as soon as the doors were opened. She vanished into the final blast of purple steam which flooded around the bus as it reached a complete stop. Before Noah could even think of pursuing her, he collided with a wall of noise blasting from all directions through the open door. A pounding sound—roaring and shouting, then a scream. All his budding fantasies about the other side seemed to evaporate, replaced by the nameless dread of the macabre unknown. The Weighing Ceremony Screaming, stomping, pounding, and… cheering? The scented smoke cleared to reveal a large crowd of howling and clapping people who formed a semi-circle around the bus. It hadn’t looked like there were that many houses on the entire island from a distance, so the whole town must have turned out to welcome the new arrivals. “Happy death day and welcome to The Mortuary!” An elderly lady with the rigid posture of a drill sergeant stood at the front of the assembly to greet them. She was dressed all in red from her exaggerated high-heels to her black buttoned coat and wide-brimmed red hat which was tied with a black silk ribbon. “Oh, I know that some of you aren’t so fresh,” she continued in a warm, velvet voice, “but even if you had to wait a whole year for the bus I promise you’ll be glad you came. Don’t be shy—and don’t block the exit, please and thank you—come on out everyone. Feel the sun on your new skin and the grass between your toes. There’s never been a better place to be dead.” The children were hesitant at first, but the lady’s gracious smile and the cheering of the people behind her created an infectious, electric atmosphere. The bus quickly emptied onto the grass still heavy with the swirling vapors of grape flavored steam. “Still in one piece, eh?” shouted a sturdy woman from the crowd. “Death wasn’t so bad, now was it?” “Good for you for making it,” called a tall man with a silver buttoned vest. “Jolly worth the wait.” “Any nasty deaths? Remember Cassandra’s Kill Counseling!” shouted a woman covered in jangling bracelets and ornaments. “It won’t cost an arm and a leg this time!” “Don’t forget to call home with your spiritual operator!” a tall man in a yellow striped suit added, bobbing and nodding as he thoroughly agreed with his own proclamation. The stately lady in red beamed as she raised her hands, slowly lowering them to still the crowd. It seemed to Noah that she was looking straight at him all the while, and his insides squirmed under her scrutiny. He ducked behind Bowser the golden retriever and his cluster of fawning girls who were now pushing towards the front, only to catch the Lady’s eyes still tracking him when he emerged on the other side. “And special welcome to our returning guests,” the lady continued, turning away from Noah at last. “I am called The Matriarch, Headmistress of The Mortuary. Thank you Ludyard, your Daymare must be exhausted. Please relax, the both of you, and don’t tarry on my account.” A last purple gust swept the ground, seeming to Noah like the bus was heaving a sigh of relief. Ludyard waved a smart salute with his gloved hand in the door of the bus before vanishing inside once more. The bus purred as it glided across its own steam to completely capsize onto its side on the grass. Noah couldn’t help but stare at the thousands of legs like those of a centipede which wriggled and stretched luxuriously along the bottom. The lean figure of Professor Salice cut through the assembly of children, which wasn’t difficult considering how eager everyone was to get out of his way, to join the headmistress. She smiled and inclined her head toward him, allowing him to whisper something in her ear. Again she seemed to look in Noah’s direction. “If you have not already met Professor Salice, allow me to introduce this semester’s new demonlogist,” The Matriarch announced. Professor Salice smiled as though the gesture physically hurt him—and considering how tight his skin stretched, maybe it really did. His leathery dog released its spread of tentacles in an arc that almost appeared to be a grin of its own. “On my right, returning for his two hundred and twelfth year of distinguished service is Gregory Wilst. He will be overseeing your necromancy studies,” The Matriarch said, gesturing to a figure that Noah hadn’t even noticed a moment before. Perhaps that was because his bleached bones reflected the sunlight so strongly. Apart from a complete absence of skin, his most distinguishing features were the twisted metal staff he leaned upon, and the gold-trimmed, white linen wrapped around his bony waist. The skeleton nodded his head respectfully. “A privilege, as always,” the skeleton said dutifully in a voice like dry sand in the wind. “On my left is Borris Humstrum. He will be instructing your transhumanism courses. This naturally includes reincarnation studies, morphology, and animal linguistics.” “An honor Matriarch. And I’m so glad to see so many new furry faces this year.” Borris’ clear, high voice was audible before he was visible, which took a moment as he had to climb on top of tree-stump in order to be seen. It’s not that he was small—he might have been as tall as The Matriarch if he stood upright and he surely weighed many times as much—but his characteristic slouch was understandable considering that he was an orangutan. His wild orange hair sprouted out of his forest-green robes, and he leaned upon a thick wooden staff with an antelope head on the top. The antelope head seemed quite happy for the attention and brayed loudly in response to the applause. “But what are we waiting for?” The Matriarch asked, her voice taking on the hush of sharing a conspiratorial secret. The children were in thrall to her captivating presence and drew closer to hear what she was saying. “Wouldn’t you rather skip right ahead to the main event?” Each word was softer than the last, so that the children were drawn inward with the nearest being almost within arm’s reach before she stood rigidly upright and shouted, “To the Weighing Ceremony!” The leading few children scrambled backward and fell into one another when she shouted. The Matriarch laughed and turned with a red swirl, marching toward the looming cathedral on the cliff side. Some of the town’s inhabitants peeled off to return to their homes, but a good number continued to follow the children in an enclosed semi-circle as they approached the ledge. Professors Salice, Wilst, and Humstrum took up positions around the perimeter of the children as if herding sheep. “Did they say anything about the weighing in the pamphlet?” Walter asked Noah. “I didn’t see it.” Noah shrugged. “It sounds so arbitrary. All the different animals must weigh completely different” Jamie began folding through the pamphlet to check as they walked. “Hold on, I’m sure I saw it,” she said. “The Daymare 7… The Mortuary… Welcome to Barbaros… It says here that ‘Everything you need will be provided for you on the island of Barbaros. There are shops in the town which will provide all of your school supplies, although no student is allowed to spend more than six months per semester to maintain uniform aging.’ Here we go, the Weighing Ceremony. ‘The Weighing Ceremony will precede your first classes at The Mortuary. Those who do not pass will be sent back on the Daymare, and will not attend during the current school year.’” Jamie’s last words shook uncertainly as she read. “Okay, how do you pass?” Walter asked. “It doesn’t say,” Jamie groaned. “It just goes on to talk about the Bestiary, and the Coven, and the Graveyards, and all the other attractions on the island.” “I don’t want to go home yet,” Walter said in a small voice. “Natasha wouldn’t be able to see or hear me, and I wouldn’t know how to come back. I’d just be… lost.” Jamie’s brow furrowed as she flipped the paper back and forth. “That’s not right of them to keep it a secret. Do you think we should ask someone to explain?” “Shhh,” Noah hissed. “It looks like she’s about to tell us something.” The Matriarch had turned to face the children and was walking backward up the grassy slope now. Despite her apparent age, she moved with a sort of careless agility that turned the simplest gesture into the next component of a never-ending dance. Her rhythmic motions were soon joined by a sing-song honeyed voice. My father was a soldier man Who served his nation proud. The battle lost, he turned and ran And was shot down to the ground. He’s good and dead, the doctor said, Still and dead as he can be. He’s got no head, his pillow red, He sleeps eternal as the sea. I’ll never watch him growing old, Or catch him walking down the street. But I know if my heart is gold, Then he’ll be watching me. Whether I go now or if I wait, Until I’ve passed ninety-three, I worry not, because it’s our fate, To dream each other in sleep. The destination for the Weighing Ceremony was readily apparent from a fair distance away. A massive tree ruptured from the edge of the cliff with two ponderous limbs outstretched in either direction along the edge. From each limb hung a cage made of twisted black wires. As Noah drew nearer he noticed that one of the cages was already occupied by a solitary heart which must have belonged to a giant as the organ was several feet high and wide. The size wasn’t nearly as troubling as the fact that it was beating on its own, pushing and pulling in wet gasps of air in place of blood. “Don’t be frightened, now,” The Matriarch announced as she approached the base, still walking backwards to keep her eyes on the flock. “There’s no beating around the bush with this one. The fact is that not all of you will find a path back to the other side. That not all of you deserve another life based on how you behaved in the last one. A simple calculation reveals there have been approximately 110 billion humans in the history of the world, whereas only about 7 and a half billion have currently found their way back. As a necessity, some of you will have to be turned away.” An uneasy hush fell over the assembly. The Matriarch’s smile was inviting though, and her warm words continued to draw the students inward. “One at a time—just like that, thank you. You there—with the ponytail, yes—step right up. You’ll be the first.” The girl being referred to tried to melt back into the crowd, but the lady caught her by the wrist and dragged her forward. The girl looked at her feet and trembled from head to foot while the lady spoke. “What’s your name, dear?” “Do-Dolly Miller,” she stuttered. “Well Do-Dolly Miller,” The Matriarch mimicked with a reassuring smile, “why don’t you tell the class a little about who you used to be?” Dolly glanced at the cliff edge behind her as though seriously considering whether that might be the preferable route. Instead she swallowed hard and answered, “I was thirty two when I…” “When you what?” The Matriarch prompted, leaning in with eager anticipation. “How did you die?” Dolly looked down at her bare feet again and gripped the grass with her toes. “I did it myself,” she said, barely above a whisper. Almost as if by magic the words seemed to catch in the wind and blow across the assembly, clearly heard by Noah despite how far back he was. “Shh… shh… that’s all over now,” The Matriarch cooed. “Please step into the open cage, Dolly.” She did as she was instructed, glancing at the heart opposite her with unease. “Don’t Dally Dolly,” gurgled the air from the beating heart in short, rhythmic bursts. “You are safe.” Needless to say this did little to comfort Dolly who was now shaking from head to foot. She clasped the bars of the cage with her hands and watched The Matriarch close the door behind her. Over the next several seconds the girl’s weight slowly lifted the heart off the ground as it began to level out. The heart huffed and puffed faster now, seeming to grow excited by the process. “How heavy is your soul, Dolly?” The Matriarch asked eagerly, like a starving woman asking about the daily special. “I d-don’t know,” Dolly stammered. “There are many things that can add weight to a soul,” The Matriarch said. “Great emotions are important. Happiness, grief, fear—it doesn’t matter, so long as you’ve really felt something. Making hard decisions adds weight. Imagining interesting thoughts, telling funny jokes, perhaps a burning passion—anything that will make us look back at the end and say ‘I lived because…’ That because is what the scale is measuring. That because is the weight of your soul.” While she’d been talking, the scale had continued to shift in Dolly’s favor until it reached a perfect level. Gradually Dolly continued to sink below that of the heart in the opposite cage. “Dolly Miller!” the heart wheezed enthusiastically. “She lived to be loved. She is worthy to. Live again.” The townsfolk who had accompanied the children began to clap. “Congratulations, my dear!” The Matriarch cheered with them and opened Dolly’s cage, giving her a hand to help her back onto the grass. “You are most welcome among our company.” “I’m not going to move the scale an inch,” Walter grumbled. “I never did a thing worth remembering.” “Don’t say that,” Jamie said. “Having a girlfriend will give you some points. You must have really loved her.” “I’m the one who hasn’t done anything,” Noah sighed, shuffling into his place in line. “I did get married, but it didn’t last long. Always the same job, ever since I got out of school—seventy-five years of comfortable routines and daily habits and nothing to show for it.” “That’s funny, I thought you were much younger,” Jamie said. “You must get some credit for keeping a youthful spirit all the way t