by Ross Evans
Oscar Finch sat outside the head of departures office. He’d been working behind a desk for close to eight centuries, and he liked it just fine. The work kept him occupied, his colleagues were generally pleasant, and the pay was good. He liked to joke that his only problem was how hard it was to focus under the fluorescent lights and how much they hurt his eyes, before taking a pair of plastic eyeballs out of his desk drawer and holding them up to his empty sockets. Still, it was a decent job, and he hoped this meeting wouldn’t change anything. He knew that any world where he’d have infinite time and nothing to fill it with would be a lonely one. The door opened; his rumination would have to wait.
Paul Chauna was never one to mince words.
“What kind of man were you, Oscar? You strike me as someone who had a sensitive soul.”
Oscar considered his response carefully.
“Wonderful. Do you like your work? Working here? Actually, don’t answer that. But answer this: what is it you do specifically? Is it something that only you can do? Can you be… we won’t say replaced, but essentially, can you be replaced?”
Oscar thought about which questions he was supposed to answer.
“Well, I keep track of souls as they leave the living world and send their details over to arrivals to get them set up on the other side. I guess that’s something that anyone could do if you wanted to replace me, which I’m starting to think you do.”
Chauna gave a joyless chuckle.
“I can see why you’re well-liked. And yes, I am going to replace you, but you’re going to replace him.” He slid a well-folded photograph across the desk.
“This man is…not important. His job—well, it’s not exactly his anymore—on the other hand, is. You start at twelve.”
Oscar ran his fingers across the top of his head.
“Okay, I’ll be there. Wait, actually, I do have one question.”
“What is this job?”
Another harsh laugh from Chauna.
“You’re still going to be working in departures, but I’m going to put you out in the field. Specifically, you’ll talk to the pre-departed but post-deceased souls, and oversee their transition. It’s a big shift, as we both know, and it’s nice to have a reassuring presence to make sure it’s a happy one. So, get your things and I’ll send the location to you. Get out there and soothe some souls! Or else…”
It didn’t take Oscar long to arrive at the station. He knew that the soul entered the liminal world as soon as it left the body, so as long as whoever he was escorting stayed put, he should get there in time. As he stood on the station platform, he couldn’t help but let his mind wander. It had been so long since he’d made the choice to stay in the space in between that he wasn’t even sure he remembered how to talk to anyone who’d just crossed over. Should he tell them they have a choice? That they didn’t need to pass on, and could just stay here? Maybe, but then again, that decision hadn’t been a hard one for him to make. It’s not that his work was the only thing to bring him joy, but he had always found a certain solace in having a task to work on, so he accepted his eternity of admin before he even checked that it wasn’t a joke.
This was something he kept pondering even as the train doors slid open and he boarded. The only other thing he registered was the slight delay in the left door as it closed. He took his seat and resumed his meditation on his eternal working week.
It was an odd system. He’d never thought to question it, at least not since he started working in departures. He tried to look at it from the perspective of someone who had spent their life wondering what followed death but hadn’t found a definite answer. Would they be satisfied? Before they crossed over to receive moral judgement and joined their assigned afterlife, they had the option to stay in the in-between, to keep the system running. If he had to explain it, he’d probably tell that story that the agent that transported him from the world of the living had used all those years ago. She’d told him the story of the Ferryman, some Greek myth about a river of lost souls and the one who carried the recently deceased to Hell. He’d probably have to embellish it somewhat.
Eventually, the train slithered towards its terminal stop, and Finch gathered his things. Running a double check to make sure he had everything. Just before he left the train, he inspected the human visage provided to him by the agency. He’d never used one before but understood the question posed by Chauna’s assistant Charlie Carneau:
“You’ve spent your whole life in fear and confusion of death. Do you really want a skull with a clipboard to be the first thing you see on the other side?”
As tiresome as Carneau could be, Oscar conceded he had a point. If he had known that upon his decision to stay that he’d have existed for eternity as a soulless, empty endoskeleton, then he probably still would have taken the offer. Regardless, he knew it was the norm for fieldwork, so accepted it with little hesitance. Upon leaving the train, he slid on his skin. Or at least tried to. In practice, sliding the whole suit on while also keeping mindful of the river of commuters coming and going was a lot more difficult than the instructions on the back of the packet would have suggested. It wasn’t until he had it on that he saw booths with the words ‘Skin Application’ printed on the top. With a defeated laugh, he slumped against a pillar on the platform and stared into the surprising calm of the empty track.
Was this it now? Sitting in the drab grey of this station, helping other people cope with change? He wasn’t even sure if he had a problem with that; what had his post-death existence been if not servitude? No, this was something else. It wasn’t the work he feared, it was the…fluidity of it all. He could accept a cut and dried eternity behind a desk because he couldn’t find a logical argument against fate. If that was where he was meant to be, so be it. But for everything to seem so set and then just change? What did that mean? In Oscar’s mind, it had shifted everything. He wasn’t sure that his existence had lost meaning, but he couldn’t stop thinking that whatever something did mean, it didn’t have to mean that forever. That scared him
When the train did arrive and Finch’s assignment stepped out onto the platform, he felt an intense wave of calm. As soon as her foot touched the concrete, she lost all of her defining external features. It was a fairly instant process; her body faded to a blur, which gradually became a mist until it soon turned to a vapour, which lifted shortly after to reveal the pale blue skeleton of a freshly dead soul. Oscar wasted no time and approached welcoming as he could.
“Miss… Crane? Hi, and welcome to the in-between space.”
Despite her lack of features, she was visibly shocked.
“What’s going on? I don’t remember being on a train. And who are you? Why are there so many skeletons? Am I dead?”
For the second time that day, Oscar took a moment to consider what questions to answer. “You’re dead.”
Crane looked at him in confusion and terror
“I’m sorry, it’s my first day of fieldwork. If I seem inconsiderate it’s just because this has basically been broken down to statistics for me for so long that it’s kind of become hard to snap out of that. So let’s start again. You have…passed away. You’re crossing over, which is what this is. Think of it as a sort of in-between space, where you get everything in order before you go to the afterlife and are assigned your fate for all eternity. The skeletons are souls who decided not to cross over. Most of them work here, some of them just didn’t want to leave. And I am Oscar Finch. I work in departures, and I’m here to make your transition as smooth as possible.”
“Right. Actually, I do have another question.”
Crane looked Oscar up and down.
“If everyone here is a skeleton, why are you still human?”
It took Oscar a moment to remember that he was still wearing the skin.
“Sorry? Oh yeah, I completely forgot about this. It was given to me so you wouldn’t be freaked out by the skeleton thing but looking at it now, this is probably worse and very confusing so I apologise for that. Anyway, Miss Crane, this is the start of the transition period, and once we have everything in order, you can cross over and start the rest of your existence. Also, I’m going to need you to fill this out as soon as you can.”
Crane took the form from Oscar.
“Thank you, I think? How long is this going to take? Also, please don’t call me Miss Crane. Chloe’s fine.”
Oscar started walking and indicated for Chloe to follow him.
“Honestly? It takes as long as it takes. Some people choose to stay here forever, and others go from one side to the other in the space of an afternoon. Do you know the story of the Ferryman?”
“Because it’s a very useful aid in explaining the whole process. I find it puts the shift into perspective.”
“No, why do people choose to stay here? You said this was just a transitional space, right? Between life and what comes next. So why would someone make the choice to not exist?”
Oscar nearly slowed to a stop, before collecting himself and resuming his pace.
“No, we do exist. That’s kind of all we do, actually. And anyway, it’s a choice. Most people cross over, and you’ll probably end up being one of them.”
Chloe still wasn’t convinced.
“Okay, but why did you stay? I mean you’re the first detached human soul I’ve had a conversation with, so forgive me if I have questions that I think you could have the answers to.”
“Fine. I led a decent life. I didn’t have any complaints, but I realised that the thing I found the most pleasure in was my work. I was offered a job making sure that the process of departures and arrivals runs smoothly, and I took it because I knew I could be sure that it meant something. I like knowing that what I’m doing makes the system run and ensures that people can get what they need. That’s the reason I stayed.”
Chloe nodded. Thinking about what he said, she got the feeling that this wasn’t a button to press, so thought it might be better to just move on as quickly as possible. Something about the train station—about this world in general—just didn’t sit right with her. It looked the same as what she left behind. There was the chatter of crowds, the encroaching chill of the late afternoon and the smell of food from the various eateries in the station, but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t help that everyone was so casual about it. Legions of skeletons, walking around, browsing shops, having arguments, talking too loudly on their phones, having awkward conversations with another skeleton they bumped into in the street. Everything was just…normal. Everyone here was carrying on like nothing had happened. Oscar had called it a space for moving on, but all she could see was denial, the insistence that nothing had changed and that life could go back to the way it was. And the funny thing was, for these people, it had, and she couldn’t take that away from them. It was just uncanny how so many people were able to keep going, even after everything had changed.
As the day progressed, Oscar took her to all the necessary places to ensure that her voyage to the beyond would be as smooth as possible. After she had filled out the form and Oscar had received confirmation from departures that she was now in their database, they moved on to make sure that she had everything she needed to cross the threshold. The first stop was Nightingale and Mallard’s, to procure the proper permits she’d need. According to Oscar, the card she received was fitted with a blank square upon which all of her moral and sinful acts would be projected. Once she showed it at the gate, she’d be shown to her allocated afterlife, specifically constructed to fit her definitions of reward and punishment. Somehow that scared her more than any binary Heaven/Hell situation she was anticipating, but Oscar assured her that where she was going was built for her and her alone and would only provide her with what she deserved. Somehow she didn’t find that comforting.
The walk from Nightingale and Mallard’s to the nearest supermarket was silent but oddly pleasant. Oscar hadn’t explained why they were going there, and Chloe didn’t ask. At this point in the day, they had both begun to get used to the situation and even found some sort of joy in the process of getting these errands done. For Chloe, it felt like getting closer to something slightly more definite. For Oscar, it gave him the familiar thrill of a job’s completion.
The next item they picked up was salt. Oscar seemed to dismiss this as an old wives’ tale, but apparently, it kept demons from entering the sides of the gate and ripping a person’s soul down into the depths of hell. Apparently, the department in charge of maintaining the gate was incredibly superstitious, so it was more of a courtesy than anything else. Oscar recognised Chloe’s confusion, but he feared that it had been so long since he’d been alive that he couldn’t properly respond to it. He had never seen the process first-hand before, so he actually struggled to expunge her doubts. If he was being honest, he was maybe starting to adopt them himself.
Their final destination was a small bronze kiosk across the street from the gate. This would provide Chloe with a token, an item from her life that could accurately communicate her personality to the architect assigned to constructing her afterlife. It took about twenty minutes to finally come through the other end, but eventually, a small ceramic penguin was spat out of one of the kiosk’s many chutes. Oscar inspected it before handing it over, and silently observed Chloe’s quiet sadness as she held it in her hands. He knew why Chauna had picked him: it was a hard job and it required a great deal of experience. He knew he was able to do this, and he had taken this job knowing exactly what was going to happen. He just didn’t know this was how it was going to feel.
Later, the two sat opposite the gate, waiting for Chloe’s number to be called.
“So what happens now? Is there anything else you need to do or do you just have to see me to the other side?”
“Well, technically my job is done. Yeah, I finished back at the kiosk there. But this is my first time, and I just want to see the whole thing out. There’ll be plenty of time for protocol later.”
“Well, I have to say, not bad for a first-timer. Even if you are breaking the rules right now.”
“Oh well, maybe I’m starting as I mean to go on. Anyway, I think I forgot how lonely this whole process was. Even if I’ve never done it myself, I hate how many people have to sit here alone. I don’t know you very well but it’s not something I’d want to happen to anyone.”
Chloe looked around. Night had fallen, and the gate would soon roll over onto a new tally of souls crossing over.
“Well, as you said, it’s not all stats.”
Oscar smiled at this. Just as he was about to make a bad joke, the whistle sounded. It was time to go. Chloe got up and started towards the gate. She handed over her card for inspection and prepared herself for the crossing. Before she did, she looked back at Oscar, still sitting on the bench. He gave a motionless wave and watched her disappear as suddenly as she had arrived. Oscar left shortly after. He knew this was going to be a crucial moment for him, but he was too close to it to fully realise why. He wondered if he’d ever be able to explain why he felt that way. He couldn’t tell if it was a lack of feeling, or too much feeling to fully articulate. Maybe that was okay. Maybe that was just how it was supposed to happen.
Ross loves writing and reading horror and fantasy. He finds the idea of change fascinating, and wanted to set this story in a world that sees change as a business, without ever changing itself.