“Alright, Amelia, come on.”
“That’s it, you can do it! Come on, one more step…”
“You think you can catch me?”
“Just watch me! You’d better run!”
Amelia thought about her dad regularly even in her normal, everyday life, but the recent events automatically drew her thoughts to him much more often. And those thoughts always triggered the memories.
Memories of dad, and mum… all of them as a family. They were moments Amelia always cherished, but now they were even clearer in her mind, framed in a dreamlike glow that was probably made of sugar and hallucinogenic happiness. Amelia had always been a daddy’s girl, and even though she loved her mum, mum hadn’t exactly been dealing with her own grief in a very compassionate way lately. Postcards and occasional phone calls in a dubious mix of French and Simlish weren’t really doing much to strengthen what was left of their family. Nor were they giving Amelia any answers to the questions she would have wanted to ask mum back when dad had…
She hadn’t really thought about the questions lately. She’d been much more focused on remembering the good times. But now the questions were pushed to the surface again. And she could guess why. When a human being was faced with something shocking, strange, or otherwise complicated, there was usually a time when they started thinking about the possibilities it held. After the initial shock, the human mind just wanted to push on forward, maybe turn the loop their lives or surroundings had taken into an educational or empowering experience. Amelia Sprigg was no different from many in this regard. During what she called their break – which was more like a chance for her to catch her breath – she started to think about the possibilities that arose from being Death’s landlady.
Now, Amelia wasn’t very greedy. Far from it. So the possibilities of gaining money or power from the arrangement – aside from the rent Tad paid her every month – never even crossed her mind. Which was all well and good. As interesting as a Grim Reaper exhibition would have been, thinking about life was much more constructive. So the possibilities Amelia started to think about were simply… answers.
What happened after death? What had happened to Alex Sprigg after he’d keeled over from his favourite rocking chair? Was he out there somewhere, watching over them? Why had he died? Why him, and why then?
Amelia wasn’t the most philosophical person, but she had done enough thinking to be able to express opinions that had quite a solid foundation. She had always been more on the practical side, though, focusing more on moral dilemmas and future plans and the next grocery store visit than ontological questions. But now she had someone who probably had all the answers to everything life and death –related living in the same building with her.
The chance was simply too good to pass up, and too frightening to grasp right away.
So Amelia dedicated the next few days to simply getting back to her normal routines. She realised she hadn’t been her usual active self at work lately, so the first thing to do was to make up for that. She smiled extra cheerfully at the customers and got an unusual amount of them suckered into getting a pension insurance. She chatted with her co-workers and used parts of her lunch breaks to get some jumbled up paperwork in order. She was doing excellent work, really.
The only downside was that Amelia couldn’t really muster the same kind of enthusiasm towards her work as she usually did.
The questions kept repeating in her mind, and more joined them.
Had Tad talked to her dad? What had they talked about? Had Tad made sure that dad got to… wherever he was going safe and sound? How much more magic was hidden under the surface of Riverview, not to mention other, bigger places she hadn’t even been to yet?
All she had to do was ask.
But the answers were so big that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.
She had to get something else to think about. And she hadn’t really hung out with her friends in a while either. So right after work she decided to feed two birds with one bird feeder – because she was too much of an animal lover for stones and killing – and called Sandra and Katie and asked them if they wanted to spend a nice, peaceful evening together. A marathon of old cartoons would probably be just what she needed. Something to take her mind off the questions that needed to simmer in her mind for a while longer.
Even though she didn’t know it at the moment, she wasn’t the only one with a lot on her mind.
She asked me how it is like.
Tad didn’t remember anyone ever asking how he felt about anything. And he hadn’t even expected it, really. But now he had been faced with genuine curiosity. It was… odd. And rather nice.
Despite what some might think, Tad had indeed had feelings even before stepping into a human disguise. He had taught himself to feel a long time ago. However, the emotions had become more spontaneous after he had given himself a proper nervous system and neurochemistry and everything else that humans used for that sort of thing. He wasn’t sure why that had changed so many things. His human body was only as real as he could make it, mostly made of thoughts and residue atoms. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, or whatever humans called it.
In any case, it was interesting.
Despite all the changes, he was still him, though. An abstract creature taking a concrete form, malleable yet always the same.
How was it like?
Anthills and observers didn’t feel like enough. He wondered if anything really was.
But did it matter? Weren’t living beings usually more complicated than words too? Or perhaps words could be all-encompassing if one just used them well enough.
He still had so much to learn about this humanity. And life.
Thousands of kilometres northwest, and thousands to the southwest, an entire village was buried under a mudslide. The people’s last screams briefly echoed in his ears.
One could learn a lot about life through death, Tad knew. But a lot of things were also left in the dark. Outside observation just wasn’t enough, really.
A flock of birds fell for reasons unknown to the public.
He should probably get back to finding the gemstone. That way he didn’t need to disturb Miss Sprigg while she was having her break. Perhaps the people near the Ley Line Nexus would know something about the mysterious spell package someone had intercepted before the people at the commune had had time to wonder where it came from.
Or perhaps he should go to work, even in this form. It had been a while since Tad had done any reaping.
A deer was being chased by a bear nearby. It had got away many times, but this time it was most likely the bear’s turn to win.
That would do.
It was about time Amelia could spend at least one afternoon relaxing with her friends. Katie and Sandra were something familiar and reliable, and Amelia was infinitely glad that they both had had time to meet the very next day from her phone call. Now they sat at Sandra’s small apartment and chatted and laughed at things that had happened and things that would hopefully happen later. The pink Freezer Bunny had adventured in the TV for an hour, but now they had turned to more dark and brooding by choosing the Neo-Knight Noir to be the background action for their talking.
“…so that’s how Mark and I can finally go to that trip to France,” Katie was just saying, a carefree smile on her face and all paranoid thoughts forgotten for a while.
“That’s awesome!” said Sandra, “I wish I could just go somewhere too. But I’m way too busy with work and evening gigs at the moment. Just don’t get too scared if a street vendor looks at you funny or something.”
“Of course I won’t!”
“Hey, Amelia,” Sandra said suddenly, “You okay? You’ve been oddly quiet.”
“Huh?” Amelia managed to say. Had she been less like herself lately? Probably. It would make sense, all things considered. But Amelia hadn’t realised it actually showed.
She smiled to ease Sandra’s worry.
“Oh, sorry. I was just… thinking. And watching the show. This is one of my favourite parts. Anyway, I think that trip sounds wonderful, Katie. And if you somehow happen to run into my mum, say hello to her for me.”
“France is a pretty big country, but you’ll never know.”
She sighed dreamily.
“It’s going to be an adventure. I haven’t had one in such a long time.”
Amelia smiled at Katie, but her mind was elsewhere.
“Yeah,” she said absently, “Adventures are fun every once in a while.”
On TV, the Neo-Knight punched out another psychologically torn villain.
When Amelia got home, she phoned her mother. It took a while of waiting and listening to a garbled dial tone before the familiar, soft, and slightly nasally voice answered:
“Ameliaaaah, bonsoir ma chérie!”
She had taken to even pronouncing Amelia’s name in what she believed was the more French way. At least she had been working on her pronouncing. Amelia wasn’t an expert in French, but even she knew that the correct greeting was not “Bong sure”.
“Hi, mum,” Amelia said, “How are things?”
“Trés bon,” said her mum, “How about you? How’s the house?”
“The new tenant hasn’t torn it down?”
“No. Tad is really nice. Everything’s going… mostly fine. I just…”
Amelia took a deep breath. This was still not something she liked to talk about. Especially with her mum, who usually like to block it out with much more ferocity than what Amelia could muster.
“I just got to thinking,” she finally said, “I kind of miss dad again. And you. Were you thinking of paying home a visit sometime?”
There was a brief silence at the other end.
“Oh, chérie… I know things can be tough sometimes, even after all this time, but I believe in you. And I miss him too… Oh, Philippe, I’m talking to my daughter. Wait just a minute.”
There was distortion on the line when Julia Sprigg cleared her throat.
“You’ll do fine. As for me… well, this place… I’m happy here. But maybe I should… Philippe, attends!”
She dissolved into a fit of giggles. Amelia instinctively put the phone a bit farther away from her ear.
“And maybe you should visit this place too. Champs Les Sims is magnifique! You’ve seen the postcards, right? The pictures alone are just fantastiques, right?”
Amelia managed a smile.
“I’ll think about it. But mum… do you ever think things should have gone… differently? Dad… he was just a little over sixty.”
“Of course I do,” Julia said after another short silence, “But… who knows why these things happen.”
Who did indeed?
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Amelia said, “Thanks, mum. I’m glad you’re doing better with this. I mean, we’re talking about dad and everything.”
“And I’m glad you’re okay too,” said Julia absently, “But chérie, I’m sorry, but I’m so busy right now. Philippe and I are going on the most romantique boat trip.”
Amelia tried her best to keep the disappointment out of her voice. It didn’t quite work:
“Oh… well, don’t let me keep you then.”
“I love you, and I know you can do whatever… Philippe, stop! Mon chéri, attends un moment, je…”
Amelia cringed at the giggles and smooches that turned into horrible gurgling noises somewhere between France and SimNation.
“Uh… mum?” she asked nervously.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Amelia. I really have to go. FollowyourdreamsseizethedayIbelieveinyouaurevoir!”
Amelia slowly pressed the red button on her phone.
“Yeah. Au revoir.”
Tad spent his day walking around Riverview again. He collected the occasional soul, but for the most part he was content to just discover the places from a more mortal point of view. Riverview was peaceful, and a little bit sleepy. It had this old time charm to it. Well, old time for those whose life-spans were usually less than a hundred Earth years. It was colourful, and had many different sounds and feelings in it.
They whispered to Tad as he walked out of the woods with an armful of small animal-spirits, and with souls of flowers curling around his arms before their life energy flowed back into the earth. The whispers of life momentarily almost drowned out the echoes of extinction that were mostly coming from the rainforests a few thousands kilometres south.
His steps slowly took him from the fields that most of the city-dwelling people wanted to see in postcards but not really smell in real life and towards the small town centre. It was livelier, but not by much. Riverview was not a town with big ambitions or sky-reaching buildings. Many of its citizens were much more ambitious than the town itself, really. The quiet streets and vibrant flower bushes hid hundreds of little moments and tragedies that people were occasionally comfortable with digging up and talking about with their neighbours because almost everyone knew everyone at least by proxy. Tad quite liked it. It had an air of innocent acceptance, at least on the surface.
The thought about acceptance stopped him for a while. He knew that he needed to be accepted if he wanted to continue blending in. Humans were social creatures, and they tended to flock together to learn. And language was their greatest tool. Tad was not very good at it. Sure, he could speak any language that living beings had come up with throughout the times and spaces, but actually communicating was more difficult. It was a bit odd. At work he never had problems with knowing what needed to be said. Dying things were so much easier than those who were still alive.
Perhaps it was because he hadn’t fully accepted himself as Tad Dustpine yet. He could speak the name and wear the shape all he wanted, but he knew what he was and what he wasn’t. Perhaps that was the problem he needed to somehow get over before he could become good with words.
A couple of stars were due to die in a few seconds. Tad blinked, and for a while those stars were in his eyes. After a long time – or perhaps not that long after all – those stars would be in the eyes of someone living.
He left the town again and followed the river and the view that Riverview had got its name from. The farther away he got, the more peaceful it became. There was life everywhere, but it was quiet and subtle. Tad had heard and seen that some people from the big cities came to towns like this to get away from the hustle and bustle, and he could easily understand why. He breathed in the countryside air and felt his lungs expand – a feeling he still wasn’t perfectly used to. The smells were quite lovely too. Even the methane was… perhaps a bit less poisonous than usual.
The river flowed endlessly, or at least its energy did. Tad let its meditative rhythm seep into his soul and help him relax. It was a new feeling to him. One that required a bit more muscles and brain chemistry than what he usually had. But he liked the feeling; it was lovely. As was the world, and-
“HEY, PUNK BY THE RIVER! GET THE HELL OFF MY PROPERTY!”
That night it got cold again. Riverview’s weather report had been warning the farmers about the nightly frost for weeks now. Maybe soon they’d actually have a proper spring before it turned to summer. Amelia put on her jacket and went outside to sit on their terrace. Mum’s greenhouse hadn’t been properly maintained. Amelia should probably look into that. But she’d never been very good with plants.
Amelia sighed some fog into the air. The crisp night was refreshing, and after some time there a hot shower would feel amazing. That was something nice to look forward to again. Amelia always lived through even the more depressing days with something to look forward to.
The bench Amelia sat on shifted, and Amelia turned her head to look at Tad’s awkward smile.
“Hi,” she said.
Tad shifted restlessly.
“I uh… I was just wondering if you were alright. You have had this sombre air about you.”
“You noticed, huh?” Amelia smiled.
“Yes, even I can notice some things about people, though not much. This communication thing is still very confusing.”
He leaned to his knees.
“So, how are you?”
“Thinking, mostly. I actually have a lot of questions for you.”
“Oh. Feel free to ask, then.”
“I don’t think I can. I’m afraid to.”
“Ah, those kinds of questions.”
Amelia raised a brow.
“You know what I’m thinking about?”
Tad let out a dark chuckle.
“I can guess you mean the more… age-old questions. What happens after death? What is the meaning of life? Why do we die? The chicken or the egg? That sort of things. I get those a lot. Well, most of the time it’s more of just: ‘Why me’ or ‘Can’t I have a second chance?’ to be honest.”
“Oh,” was all Amelia could say, “Well, yeah, they are from that first category, mostly.”
“Right. So the more difficult ones,” Tad smiled, “Would it make you feel better if I told you that even I do not know the answer to all of those questions? Or does hearing that make it even worse?”
“I… I don’t know,” Amelia said slowly, “Both, I guess.”
“Well, perhaps you can start with something easier, if you want,” he said.
Amelia didn’t start. Not for a while, at least. Then she finally chose the easiest yet also one of the heaviest questions:
“When my dad… passed away, you were there, weren’t you?”
Amelia cleared her throat.
“Back at the fire station I saw how you spoke to Mr. Anderson when he was already… dead… So, how about my dad? Did he… say anything?”
Tad nodded slowly again.
“Yeees, I remember that he did.”
There was something, a mix of warmth and sadness in Amelia’s chest.
“What did… what did he say?”
“I believe that it was something like: ‘Oh, shit. Well, that happened.’”
Tad looked at her expectantly.
“And…?” Amelia asked.
“And what? That was it. Like I said, he was very mature about it all.”
Amelia’s shoulders slumped.
“Oh. Well, thanks.”
“That was not what you were hoping to hear, was it?”
“I… no,” Amelia sighed, “I don’t know what I was expecting, really. I just kind of thought that it would have been something more… well, more.”
Tad smiled softly.
“Very few dying people are in the state of mind to give fancy speeches.”
“I suppose that makes sense.”
“His last thoughts were beautiful, though,” Tad said, “He was sorry he had to leave you and your mother. He passed on safely, even with that sadness.”
The warm sorrow was back again.
“That does sound a lot like him,” Amelia said fondly, “Well, so did the words, actually.”
“You were a happy family.”
They sat in silence for a while. It was a surprisingly comfortable one, considering Amelia was sharing it with the Grim Reaper. Amelia watched the sunflowers her mum had planted in their backyard fight the frost that had already started to spread on their leaves. The flowers still reached for the sun in a stubborn denial that was quite a fitting metaphor for the woman who had planted them.
“So, how was your day?” Amelia asked.
Tad blinked at the question, and then his smile became quite pleased.
“I went for a very nice walk. A man shouted at me for being at his property.”
“Oh? Well, that’s not nice.”
“He seemed to be the kind to not want people around.”
“Are you talking about Mr. Cottoneye? If so, don’t worry about it. He’s pretty mean to everyone. But I guess he has his reasons to be… Not sure what, though.”
“Oh, I am not upset at all,” Tad said, “When I was leaving, he even labelled me as someone who would paint graffiti and deface gravestones! I do not think I have ever been verbally described as anything human-like before by random strangers! Not when I have been hearing it, anyway.”
Tad seemed to be quite proud of this all, so Amelia decided not to point out that those qualities weren’t exactly positive human-like qualities. She just smiled back and then shivered when the chill of the night finally got through her jacket.
“I’m glad you had fun,” she said, “Hey, want to have some tea again?”
Tad’s smile became even wider. Amelia stored the rest of her questions for later.
Author’s Note: Wow this chapter has a confused mood. But hey, that’s what I wanted so… uh, intentionally confused decisions are okay? I promise the next chapter won’t end with Amelia and Tad just talking. Maybe. I mean, I love writing those scenes and they’re an important part of the story and their characters but still… some variety is always nice.
Also, any mistakes in Julia’s occasional French are either intentional or something I didn’t bother checking because she’s not supposed to be very fluent yet.
For those interested in The Fey of Life, I’ve already written most of the next chapter and got all of the screenshots. I just need to make it not suck. 🙂