The day with the splash hadn’t started well for Amelia. Yes, even she had those days sometimes. Her car had broken down unexpectedly, and she’d had to take it to a mechanic straight from work and walk home. While she didn’t usually mind walking, it was a bit inconvenient when the spring had spontaneously turned cold as if winter was trying to give its final goodbyes to Riverview. In May. Perhaps it was trying to protest against global warming too. Whatever the case, Amelia hadn’t been prepared for it by bringing her jacket, and she was cold. The fact that she’d almost ended up in a shouting match with a very tricky client didn’t help her mood either. Anything that was close to making Amelia Sprigg shout was especially unpleasant at best. That was why her steps were a little bit sharper than usually, an edgy slap against the pavement. She shivered and was so eager to get home that she almost missed the splash.
It happened when she was crossing the bridge. The sound of something considerably larger than a fish hitting the surface of the river reached her. As already mentioned, Amelia didn’t pay attention to it first, but then there was another splash, that of something trying to swim without too much grace. The sound turned her head, using curiosity and worry for momentum. She gasped.
The young man bleached a small spot in the river. His face managed to stay above the water, even though his strokes were unsure. They got better as he went on, however, and after a while he dove under the surface.
“TAD?!” Amelia shouted, louder this time, “What are you doing?! That river must be freezing!”
Tad surfaced again, and by then Amelia was running. She sped along the shore, grass tumbling away from her sandals as if in haste to not get trampled.
She stumbled, but managed to keep going. When she was properly back on her feet, Tad was standing in front of her, dripping wet, and a wide-eyed look on his face.
“Miss Sprigg?” he said, his voice like a watery grave for the first two words before he cleared his throat, “What are you shouting for?”
Amelia stopped only when she got to the young man, taking a moment to catch her breath.
“What am I shouting for?” she said, “You were in the river! Wearing your clothes and everything! I thought you fell!”
Tad’s eyes widened even more, if that was even physically possible.
“Oh,” he said, startled as if only now realising that what he had done was not very normal, “I apologise for worrying you. I did not fall. There was… I was… I saw a fish in there.”
“Yes,” she said uncertainly, “Rivers usually have fish in them.”
Tad shifted his feet, embarrassed. The evening sun caught his eyes and reflected stars in them. Two red dwarfs in two moons.
“It was in trouble. Caught in a… what do you call them? The ring-like packaging that animals usually get trapped in?”
“Uh… we call it trash? That some people throw away too carelessly.”
“Yes, that,” Tad nodded serenely, his awkwardness giving way to some larval form of confidence, “It was trapped, and I helped it.”
Amelia glanced at the river’s surface that was lazily wandering by. She imagined a trapped fish this gentle young man had helped now swimming freely away, and her mouth quirked into a smile.
“Oh, that’s a lovely thing to do!” she said, “But now you must be freezing! We should get you home so you can change your clothes.”
Tad looked down at his black clothes that were soaked through.
“There is no need,” he said, “I have managed just fine with just these.”
“You mean you have no other clothes?” she asked. Sure, she had never seen the young man wear anything besides the oversized shirt and torn black jeans, but she had assumed that Tad was one of those people who just bought fifteen of the same article of clothing so that they didn’t have to trouble themselves with choosing what to wear. But now Tad’s eyes widened again in the way that Amelia had already learned to interpret as a sign that the young man believed he had made a social mistake.
“I… I suppose I should have more clothes” he said, “But like I said, these have done so far.”
“Well…” Amelia didn’t know what to say. To be fair, how did one respond to such blatant ignorance of basic human customs? “Now that your current clothes are soaked, you can catch a cold if you keep wearing them.”
“Oh,” said Tad, “I could make another set of these… but…”
His eyes suddenly brightened.
“I could also get something with colour! Do you know where I can get clothes with colour?”
Amelia thought about it for a moment, because she was tired of being taken aback by everything her tenant said.
“Well, any clothing store sells something with colour. But the most colourful ones are usually at second hand shops.”
“Ah, of course. Can you show me the way to the nearest one?” Tad asked eagerly, “And if it is not too much trouble, help me find something there? I am terrible with colours.”
Amelia shivered again, and could only imagine how cold Tad was in his wet clothes. She smiled.
“Alright, let’s go shopping!”
The largest second hand shop in Riverview was on the other side of the bridges, so it was a fair way away from the spot where Tad had splashed into the river, but Amelia endured it bravely with the knowledge that she would be helping someone. And the interior of the shop was very warm, so Amelia could also draw strength from the fact that she too would be warmer for the walk home. Tad seemed to freeze at the sight of the second hand clothes – and possibly because of the other people who were also shopping there – but soon his eyes sparkled with excitement, and he and Amelia dug out a set of clothing he could try out in one of the dressing rooms.
His reaction was that of a kid on Snowflake Day. Not that Tad would have known. He had only encountered tragic Snowflake Days. Amelia didn’t exactly know that at the moment, but there was something about Tad that told her something along those lines.
The new clothes were a bit too big for him, but he didn’t seem to mind at all. He looked at the purple, diamond-patterned shirt and the bright lime green jeans with absolute delight and spun around in front of the mirrors in the clothing corner. There was something very contagious about his joy. Perhaps a part of it was that Amelia had never seen him so openly elated.
“This is wonderful!” he said, “And now I can combine these with my old ones!”
Amelia could only laugh good-naturedly.
“A little bit of variety is nice, isn’t it? And at least now you aren’t walking the rest of the day in wet clothes.”
Tad turned to her.
“Thank you so much! I will pay for these and we can be home quickly.”
He hesitated for a moment.
“Are you not going to buy a jacket? Because you are cold.”
“I’ll manage,” Amelia said, “In fact, I’ll light a fire into the fireplace when we get home. We can warm up and then have tea before you go back to your place. How’s that sound?”
Tad’s smile let in some black light from another world.
“It sounds great!”
Amelia lit the fireplace as soon as they got home and let the warmth wash over her chilled limbs. She commandeered the rocking chair in the corner. It had been her father’s favourite place so sit, and she remembered often fighting her dad for it when she’d been little. She’d wanted to get it rocking as fast as possible, and had ended up bashing it into the wall once or twice. Dad had just smiled and warned her not to break her head. He usually did just that: a warning with a gentle smile. A reminder that whenever he was being the boring adult he was doing it because he cared.
Amelia smiled at the memory. Then she returned to the present before the memory could turn into pining after the good old days, and smiled at the now. Because Tad was standing in front of the fireplace and looking at the flames with an overly amazed look on his face.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Amelia said.
“Yes,” Tad said, “Usually fire just reminds me of work. But this is… soothing. I think I could meditate here.”
Amelia smiled, but something didn’t click about Tad’s statement.
“Work? Weren’t you just looking for work at the moment?” she asked when she found the unclicking part.
“Yes,” Tad said absently, “But I have worked before. Uh… odd jobs.”
He thought about it for a moment and then broke his gaze from the meditative flames. He seemed to be looking for another topic to talk about, and his eyes fell on the photograph on a small table. It was a family portrait, the last one ever taken of the Sprigg family before Amelia’s father had died. Amelia’s mother Julia had set the table up as a sort of memorial shrine for Amelia’s dad.
“This table looks like it is from a funeral,” said Tad, “It is beautiful. This is your family, is it not?”
Amelia nodded, standing up from the rocking chair and coming to stand next to Tad. The picture and the table always filled her with warmth and nostalgia. It created a cotton candy barrier of nice memories around her and the crueller parts of the world. She sighed very quietly.
“Yeah,” she said gently, “This was shortly before dad… well, it was maybe a happier time. But I’d say it’s nice now too. Life goes on.”
“Life goes on,” Tad repeated, “And sometimes it passes you by.”
“I guess. But one can easily stop it and say hello.”
“I… suppose,” Tad smiled, “You are a very nice person, Miss Sprigg.”
“Why, thank you! You’re very nice as well.”
Tad’s sad smile became brighter again.
“Would you believe that no one has ever said that to me? Except in some rather… unfortunate circumstances.”
Amelia’s own smile shrunk. She had already guessed that Tad was a person with a possibly sad life, but it was becoming clearer and clearer that very few people in Tad’s life had ever done or said anything nice to him. That had to change.
“Well, that’s too bad. You’re such a polite, kind guy. Saving fish and everything.”
“Thank you,” Tad hesitated for a while, “Does this mean that we are friends already?”
Amelia definitely liked the sound of that.
“I’d say yes.”
The fire crackled merrily in the fireplace.
During the next few days Tad rang Amelia’s doorbell much more often than before. Most of the time they shared tea, but sometimes they also watched TV. Tad didn’t seem too excited about the moving pictures on the screen, but sometimes he got curious about nature documentaries and even chuckled uncertainly at a sitcom episode or two. There was a connection between him and Amelia during those moments of laughter, just as there was a friendly moment brewed into teacups and idle conversations that usually ended with Tad falling into uncomfortable silence before he gave Amelia his universe-cracking smile and changed the subject.
Amelia noted with delight that her Plan was working just as she had hoped.
Amelia was so excited about her and Tad’s friendly connection that she invited Sandra Matthews – her guitar-playing friend who worked as a silversmith in a small jewellery store – to help Tad get the hang of his guitar a couple of weeks later. She also invited Katelijn Dreese – Katie to her friends and to the ones who had difficulties with pronouncing Dutch names, which was almost everyone in Riverview – her other best friend who worked as an independent stylist. She was also the paranoid one, who had insisted on doing a background check on Tad before letting Amelia call him.
“Well, he’s… interesting I guess,” Katie said after they had greeted – with Tad actually bowing as a greeting – and while Tad and Sandra were absorbed in a music lesson in the other room, “Kind of cute.”
“He’s at least ten years younger than you,” Amelia said with a frown.
“Relax, I’m not saying it like that. He’s more like puppy dog -cute. A sickly puppy dog. Besides, there’s something weird about him.”
Katie tapped her chin thoughtfully.
“I don’t know. He’s too polite. That’s never a good sign.”
“Too polite people are usually hiding something.”
“I don’t know!” Katie exclaimed, “But it’s probably something. What does he do for a living?”
“Uh… he’s looking for work,” Amelia replied, “He’s a student, too.”
“Well, if you trust him, then I guess it’s fine. I’m just worrying a bit. I mean, you just took a stranger to your home. It’s a pretty big change.”
Amelia listened to the mangled notes drifting from the other room and heard Sandra’s infinitely patient voice mixing with the something that would perhaps soon start vaguely resembling music.
“Yeah, it is,” Amelia admitted, “But at least the house isn’t so empty anymore.”
Katie hummed, an amused smile on her face.
“I suppose it isn’t.”
She changed the subject after that, which Amelia was glad about. For a while, they could actually talk without worrying about what Katie probably thought was a criminal in the other room. It continued until Sandra’s voice cut in unexpectedly.
“What are you guys gossiping about?” she asked, surprising them because she usually announced her presence with a loud stomp of her boots, but had at that moment decided to go easy on Amelia’s floors, “You talking about Tad? Katie’s been fearing he’ll stab you in your sleep.”
“I haven’t!” Katie said indignantly, “And you shouldn’t say that out loud to her!”
“I told you, he’s nice,” Amelia said, but couldn’t hide the slight nervousness in her voice at the thought of nightly murder, “Did he get the hang of the guitar?”
“In an hour? Pssh, like anyone can do that! He’s enthusiastic about it, though. I won’t mind teaching him again some other time.”
She flopped down on the unoccupied couch.
“Just as long as you make sure you won’t start inviting me here just for him. I mean, when was the last time the three of us had a girls’ night out?”
Amelia thought about it. She really had been a bit too busy with all the arrangements for her Plan to have enough time for her friends. She smiled.
“You’re right. We really should arrange something again.”
Sandra smiled, as did Katie.
“Now we’re talking,” said Sandra and then glanced at Katie, “Now, seriously Kat, did you scare Amelia with your paranoia again? Because it sounds like you were doing that at some point.”
“It’s just healthy suspicion!”
“Right. Well, at least you’re not paranoid about doughnuts anymore or something.”
“It was hot dogs! And that’s a perfectly reasonable worry as well! Who knows what goes into those things!”
Sandra laughed, as did Amelia. She couldn’t be perfectly carefree behind her laughter, though.
Even though Katie only meant well with her worries, they ultimately annoyed Amelia this time. Mostly because she couldn’t get those worries out of her head. Tad Dustpine consumed her thoughts again in the next few days. Especially since Tad began going out at strange times, usually at night. It was, of course, normal for university students to do, but Tad definitely didn’t seem like the partying or clubbing type. The night time mystery visits combined with Katie’s words made Amelia’s thoughts automatically turn to more sinister things that could be going on.
She could also partly blame her job for it. As already mentioned, Amelia worked in an insurance company, and she loved it. It was mostly peaceful – some tricky customers not taken to account – and made her feel like she was really helping people who needed financial security or sometimes just a friendly ear when their house broke down because of a falling tree or just because they needed better health care than they could afford. Her job had strengthened her belief in the fact that people could pick themselves up after pretty much everything. It had also made her aware of how much was stolen from people on a regular basis. Sometimes possibly by very innocent, trusted people.
Now, Tad Dustpine didn’t look like a thief. Well, he might to some. He had the dark, ragged style of someone that many especially older people would immediately label as a punk and a troublemaker. But as already said, Amelia wasn’t old by any means, and she was far from prejudiced. Besides, she and Tad were friends. That, however, didn’t change the fact that they had only known each other for about a month. Amelia didn’t like these doubts. They made her feel like a bad person, but they just wouldn’t leave her alone either. She wanted to go back to the happy, believe-the-best-of-everyone Amelia she knew and was comfortable with.
So that was why Amelia made another plan. This one was not a big plan, nor was it made after a very long thought-process or preparation period, and it didn’t get a capital letter in her mind. It was more like a spur-of-the-moment decision, one that she made when she saw Tad leaving again one night. She threw on her jacket and – the aforementioned decision made – sneaked after him into the cool spring night.
Had she thought about her decision a bit more, she might have realised that if Tad had indeed been doing something criminal, like meeting drug dealers or breaking into houses or going on a house-egging spree, it was probably not a good idea to secretly follow him. But whenever anything resembling these kinds of thoughts crossed her mind, her optimistic, dominant side swore to her that she could be careful enough to stay safe. So she followed, and might have got into serious trouble had Tad indeed been meeting up with Riverview’s least unthreatening drug lord.
Tad was not, however, going to meet drug dealers, or other criminals for that matter. He was going to meet one Lawrence Anderson, Larry to his friends and to pretty much everyone else as well. Larry Anderson was not a shady person in any way, even though he worked late at nights and early in the mornings. He was maybe very grouchy and a bit impolite, but that was no crime. His job was to clean things, to be one of the people who kept Riverview presentable and worthy of the praise it got as one of the neatest towns in SimNation. Despite its importance, it was a thankless job that could make anyone a little bit grouchy sometimes. Larry was grouchier than most, though, and that night he was feeling especially irritated because some of the pesky kids had sprayed graffiti on the wall all the way up in the tower of the old fire station. He was furiously scrubbing the tag off while Tad was walking towards said building, with Amelia still following a safe distance away.
Amelia was not an experienced stalker of people, and it was something she was rather proud of. She liked not being good at morally dubious things. But now she hoped that she had been a bit better at sneaking, at least. A couple of times on the way Tad had stopped and looked behind him, and Amelia had had to quickly scurry behind a tree or a building. It was getting tiring and nerve-wracking, so when Tad seemed to be stopping near the old fire station, Amelia quickly sprinted to hug one of the building’s corners, her hands pressing against the comforting old bricks. At least there she would be rather well-hidden for a while, and she could breathe easier.
When Tad reached the building, he stopped under the tower and put his hands behind his back as if waiting for something. Above him, Larry Anderson was muttering something rather angrily, still blissfully unaware that the words would be his last.
“Damn kids… like I have nothin’ better to do… who even comes to this crappy place… Shit. Shit! Have they used one of those new paints…?”
Larry Anderson had had a rather long, eventful life. At the age of fifty four, he had already seen quite a few things. He had travelled a lot in his youth. He had loved passionately twice and had his heart broken three times. He had no children, but he didn’t like children anyway. There were many even quite interesting things one could tell about Larry Anderson’s life. Really, when one looks at an appropriately small big picture, Larry Anderson had achieved many things. However, only one of the things he ever did was significant for the purposes of this particular story.
Quite sadly in fact, because it meant that in this story, his only purpose was to die.
So, when Larry Anderson was scrubbing the graffiti away, a particularly brusque sweep of his arm made him step back on the slippery floor that was wet from the day’s rain. Normally he would have stayed upright with no problem, but normally doesn’t mean all the time. In his annoyance he slipped and fell, grabbing at the railing but stumbling so badly that the he fell right past it, his raspy shout not alerting many people in the lazy Riverview night. The only ones who heard it were Tad Dustpine and Amelia Sprigg.
Tad waited and watched the body of the man hit the ground.
There was a crack, a sickening one if one wasn’t used to it. Tad Dustpine was.
Amelia wasn’t, and she let out a shocked gasp, mentally cursing the fact that she had been too far away to help the man.
He would be alright, wouldn’t he? A small voice told Amelia that she should call an ambulance. But that voice was completely forgotten when she saw what happened next.
Larry Anderson got up. Slowly.
V e r y s l o w l y.
He was also still lying on the ground.
He looked up with clear confusion in his eyes.
“What the hell jus’ happened,” he said breathlessly.
Tad smiled at him.
“Lawrence Anderson,” he said, “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Larry Anderson stared blankly at him. Tad extended his hand. Larry didn’t take it. A lot of people didn’t. At this point they usually already knew what was about to happen.
“An’ who the hell are you supposed to be?” Larry grunted, “Damn kids… always botherin’ me at my job.”
“I am here to escort you onwards,” said Tad, “You have done a very good job, and it is time for you to rest.”
“What? No, it ain’t! I jus’ started my shift!”
“You can think of this as an early retirement, then,” Tad said, “There are people waiting for you, I believe.”
Larry’s forehead creased and his frown deepened. He was not the kind of man to believe in fantasies, but even he realised that something was not normal about Tad Dustpine. It lasted for a second, but then his grouchiness and general opinion of pesky kids won again.
“Get lost, kid!” he snapped, “I got work to do!”
Tad frowned a bit as well now.
“Why do you… oh…” he sighed, “I thought that this form would be better received than my usual one. But I suppose I should never try to change the classics.”
“Is this better?”
Larry Anderson stared at the cloaked man with a scythe, and saw his life rush in front of his eyes. It was more of a reflex, really, one that he had learned by being told that it was what happened when one died. He gasped and cringed back in fear.
“What’s…? Are you…? Am I…?”
It was the last word Larry Anderson’s now much lighter form said. It wasn’t a very good last word if one asked most people. It was barely a word at all. But at least his last living word had been a stretched out swearword mixed with his surprised yell. One could decide which one was better. Or then one could choose the ones he didn’t say out loud, but which Death could read from his eyes clearly enough.
“She is the first one to greet you, I would guess,” said Death, “You do not want to keep her waiting, do you?”
The Grim Reaper stood alone in the night air for a moment, long enough for the secretly watching Amelia Sprigg to realise that she was in fact not dreaming. Her legs suddenly felt a lot more like jelly than flesh and bone, and her mind went through at least a hundred frantic and disbelieving thoughts before they stopped even trying to process it all at once.
Then the dark form turned back into the slightly less dark form of Tad Dustpine. He turned and looked at Amelia, his shyness slowly returning when his job was done for the moment.
“Ah… Miss Sprigg,” he said, sounding slightly startled by her presence, “You… you saw all that? Then… well, this is awkward. I suppose that we have some things to talk about? I am sorry that you had to find out this-“
Amelia’s legs failed her. They had never failed before. To her credit, she managed to keep herself from fainting from sheer shock, and even managed to stay standing slumped against the wall. A lot of people who had come face to face with Death hadn’t been so resilient.
“-way,” Tad looked at her uncertainly, “Um… Right. I can see that this is… a bit much right now. Here, let me help.“
The man who had just a moment ago been Death extended his hand out at Amelia and took a step towards her. That got her moving again. She screeched loud enough to wake the dead. Well, not exactly, seeing how Larry Anderson stayed perfectly still, but close enough. She ran away, as fast as her shaky legs could carry her.
Tad was left staring after her, the helpful look on his face giving way to disappointment.
“Well… I suppose I should have seen that coming.”
Amelia didn’t stop until she was at her front door, dragging in huge gulps of the cool night air and completely ignoring the fish odour in it. She collapsed through her door and held her head, trying to calm down.
It wasn’t easy, but it was somewhat facilitated by the fact that the moment of shock had made her temporarily forget that running to her home from the man who shared it with her was not the best idea. She also didn’t hear when Tad returned home. Well, not until he knocked on the front door.
“Stay away from me!” she yelled back.
There was silence on the other side of the door. Then, a quiet sigh.
“As you wish. For what it is worth, I apologise for not mentioning anything about my job. And for lying. I was going to tell you eventually, and… I honestly thought that you would not mind it.”
After a hesitant moment he even added a weak:
“You have been so nice to me.”
Amelia stared into space with disbelief, which was rather understandable. Tad made this all sound very casual. Like he was working at a grocery store instead of going around reaping souls. There were some things the human brain was just not meant to receive in a casual tone of voice.
“I uh… I will go back to my room,” Tad said, “If you wish to talk about this, I will be there.”
No. Still nothing to say that could make this situation better. To Tad’s credit, even he realised that what Amelia needed right now was space. And time. And silence. And for Tad Dustpine to be appropriately far away from her.
“I do not wish to hurt you,” he said softly, “I… will be going now.”
“Well, good night, then.”
He left. Amelia barely noticed it. She was too busy trying to rebuild her preconceptions about the world. Some of the building blocks of her mind had been knocked out of their places so harshly that they had flown out of the window. That tended to happen when faced with something very, very unexpected.
It was Amelia Sprigg’s first look at the supernatural, and it wasn’t exactly a very gentle start.
Author’s Note: Aaaaand Tad’s true identity is… a total author appeal -character! *fanfare* Not sure what it tells about me that I have a serious fascination with stories that deal with death, especially as a character. I have a feeling that some of you already guessed what he was from the first chapter. I did drop some hints to his true nature. Some even pretty obvious ones. Tad is not very good at lying. Or coming up with subtle aliases. 🙂
I think my greatest achievement with this chapter was NOT making Tad speak in small caps even in his Reaper form like my favourite Death, which is of course the Discworld version.
I had a lot of fun shooting the pics for this. Even though I got sick for the weekend, and I still am pretty flu-ish and tired, and decided that it was a great idea to have a massive photoshoot during a fever. To be fair, I didn’t realise I was feverish until I was done. Anyway, I ended up taking the screenshots for not only this chapter, but for a good chunk of the next chapter of The Fey of Life, so that one should be coming out next once I’m more rested and actually get around to finishing it.
At first I wasn’t sure how to cause poor Larry to die so that he’d have a somewhat appropriate ghost and a death scene that would give me good pics. So I settled with custom poses and ranting, so his Sim didn’t even have to die for this story (though his character did)! I suppose his death is in some way rant-induced in-story as well, seeing how that’s what made him fall. And the sweary ghost also reflected his personality quite nicely.
Have a nice day, everyone!