Most of the newly dead don’t know what they want anymore, and that’s a good thing. But some sure as hell do.
I’m still sore from the soul that yesterday wrapped itself around one last need like a fist. Most souls appear to me like milkweed wisps and bits of packing twine. My friend at the river claims they look like worn socks to him, even the fighty ones. But this one? A stubborn bramble. I nearly broke it in half, getting that want out. The soul bit and hissed, then yanked hard enough to pull me from the land of the dead through to where its body lay in a study, wanting to keep something from some harm. I saw a safe. I saw a girl. And a bird in a cage. Which was it? The soul wouldn’t say. In the end, I won my way back, pried the dark twist of metal from its grip roughly, then dragged the soul to the river with no further fight.
When I was finished, I tied the want to my cloak—they take the form of keys, and this one was a large key, the kind that fit a safe. Now I knew. I shivered with the weight of that fortune, and the want for wealth over life. The choice tasted as bitter as metal.
My friend, silently waiting by the river, lifted a hand in thanks, and I waved back. That motion created sound—a rippling of keys—that broke the quiet. The wave and that sound eased my heart—what was left of it. I was doing a good job, cleaning things up for the dead.
It’s damn dangerous to have too much want sitting around. When one vital thing clings, it can turn the dead back on the living. It can rip holes in our equipment, or staff.
Take, for instance, my friend, who can’t handle the struggles at the shoreline alone anymore. His oar is splintering from the strain. He stoops from stress headaches.
Thus, my job. Draped in the keys of old lives, I greet the newly dead. Sometimes, I help them. My cloak rattles, the first sound they hear in the whispering sand. They may have expected chains, given the stories, but it’s only Apartment 1A, 17 Water Street, 85 Rue de Montparnasse, Global Industrial Model 2832b. Many more.
When I next feel the first familiar tug of an arrival, I start walking. The walking is tedious. The job’s not something that makes a good myth. I am a small god of small problems. But, to help my friend, I check each soul and remove the last of the world from their desperate grasp.
Today, three crepuscular rays pierce the thick clouds that hang unmoving above the river. The dark water mirrors the sepia and gold trails of passage, and I feel the first familiar tug of the newly dead. I begin to walk toward the horizon. The pull—the electrified distance between needing and having, between possibility and reality—is almost like the moment before kissing a person for the first or last time.
Walking from river to horizon as my job here requires, I weave a trail across the sand. I make no sound except the rattling of my cloak. How many steps? I refuse to count. How many souls? The weight of my cloak tells me: many. But I have no sense of distance, time, or physical discomfort. Once, I might have wished for a desert’s gritty texture, a riverbank’s damp, but my job requires me not to. I will someday grow to love to the lack.
The pull is the opposite of lack, and I must always remove it. Secure it.
I arrive where the crepuscular light lands, simmering the sand. Each beam has carved a hole, three in all this time, one still smoldering.
At the bottom of each hole, a soul curls with want, small or large.
They are beautiful, light-tipped wisps, these first two new arrivals, but I have to pause to catch my breath. Their keys feel heavy. I struggled hard yesterday.
“Why can’t you land closer?” My rasp is drowned in the clank and shift of my metal cloak, the sand shifting beneath my feet. I don’t like being this far from the river. But at least this far out, no one can hear me grumble.
The first hole and the second are close together. “Welcome,” I whisper. “There is nothing more to want.” I hug my elbows to resist the pull.
That’s what they wait for. That release. After a long breath, a hiss of sand, the first two believe me. The pull fades as the pair, sparkling in the light of their arrival, press shadowed palms to the ground and pull themselves up, reborn, limitless.
Their shades cross the sand without leaving a mark.
I try not to judge how easily they can do it. To leave that world with everything wrapped up neatly. This is a trick available to those who practice being dead long before they are.
Once the first two are far enough away, I reach a hand into each hole and draw out the keys they’ve left behind. A silver diary key, hints of handwriting light as a feather. A brass post office box nub, smelling of junk mail. The dead have already forgotten these containers.
I don’t judge those as I tie them to my cloak, and they rest lightly there.
The third hole, though.
The dead howls at my greeting. It bites. It doesn’t believe me, this knot of barnacle-crusted mooring line. My kind of soul.
The want it exudes is so strong, I extend my hand. It snarls.
“You can’t go back,” I whisper again, gently removing its needle-teeth from my index finger. There’s no blood. But now I know everything. Where it lived, what it loved. Oh yes.
“I was called Nell.” My name hangs in the air. Sometimes they’re stubborn, this way: They want to keep their secrets, their shames, to themselves. So I give them one of mine in exchange. It eases them.
This is the part of my job I like the best. But I still my excitement, keep myself from getting too close. Cannot spook the soul any further. I sense that need to save something from harm and grow stronger. “Where?”
The shadow hisses, high and sharp. The sound shapes a teakettle, overheating, and I see a kitchen, bright-lit, and I hear, almost, the noise of a city beyond. I must move fast.
It’s my job to get them to let go. But this shadow’s wrapped tight, sharp bits dug in desperately, its voice keening now, and there, in the corner, beneath the small wooden table, I think I see why. An elderly dog, cataracts gleaming in the light, sniffing the air.
“I’ll take care of her,” I promise. “She’ll be all right.”
The shadow shifts. Sighs. It releases a key, brass in sunlight, into my hand. Cold, solid. A round top, printed numbers nearly rubbed smooth. 509A.
The rules here are simple. There’s no going back, unless you can find a door. If want piles up in the afterlife, it can make a door. That’s how the dead get out.
And if you know where the doors are, and have the right key, well. The newly dead rarely know what to do with this power.
But I do.
I start running for the slowly withdrawing crepuscular rays. All the keys I’ve gathered clank and shiver, erupting in the silence like bells in winter air. The car with the kid in it. The barn where the mare was about to birth. The cat that would not come down from above the fridge, despite the oncoming flood. Damn, that cat was difficult. But I helped them all.
And this one? I can help it too. I run faster.
The horizon’s darkened now, the clouds closing up. The beam has shrunk to a pinpoint, until everything around me is fading back to shadow. But I find the place where just a few ripples still brush the ground. And when I let myself feel that soul’s want, a crack opens. Widens. And beyond that, a door. I grasp the cold key hard.
The cloak, substantial around me, helps me feel solid, almost human. But that’s an illusion. I can slip through the smallest crack in a dead person’s eye.
The kitchen’s hot when I emerge, the kettle soldered to the heating coil. My hand reaches for the stove’s controls.
I have enough want built up for what I need to do. The soul’s bite marks in my finger press against the knob, and the kettle stops hissing. I put a little more water in the dog’s bowl, step over the old body, and prop the front door open, just enough.
My cloak clatters as I take a loose thread and tie the latest key on. 509A. Just below the Diebold, next to the black metal antique. A pretty shine to it. A good day’s work.
The dog barks and trots past me, into the hall. Barks again. Another door opens.
It’s time to go. Back, first, to the body in the kitchen. I wait to be pulled home, through the gap between its upper and lower eyelid. How I entered is how I leave.
I’m ready. But there’s something wrong. From one moment to the next, someone has put two pennies over the body’s eyes. They burn at my touch. I cannot cross back.
“Who is here?” My voice is sand in the wind, a fluttering of curtain.
Hands grasp my cloak, pressing the rough metal of keys into my shoulders. They pull me to the window, the fire exit. The window had been shut a moment ago. Now the wind blows right through me.
Someone had watched. Someone could have helped with the dog, but didn’t.
“Got it!” a very alive voice yells. Young. A woman. The fire escape rattles as another person climbs closer.
My cloak is slipping. I struggle and grasp. I try to bite. My fingers slip through the keys as the cloak is lifted from my shoulders by this thief. And I begin to drift, unsubstantial, until my own want builds, enormous.
They will not take from me my cloak, my job, what I am able to save.
I become more than they expect. I fill every corner of the kitchen with want. The young woman, her hands on the cloak, and a young man just outside—the two of them—shriek at my size. At my anger. I try to get the cloak free. My jaw snaps at them, shadow and teeth.
“You desire something of me? Be prepared to lose.” I shout it, knowing they’ll only hear a whisper. But it’s enough.
“We saw you. We know…” The first one, her voice bright like she’s smarter than this world, and the next. “That you steal keys from the dead. We saw you. We need one back.”
She’s holding the edge of my cloak, and I’m grasping the rest tight. Mine. Not hers. I try to pull, feeling the metal slip from my fingers. “I do not steal. They give them to me. I help them. This is my job.”
She reaches for the key tied near my throat. The safe key. From yesterday. “That is my father’s. It belongs to me. Not to you.” Her proximity to the metal makes me feel the want there, sharp and unambiguous. She’s close to the edge herself, but not dead yet. “I must have it.”
I look around the kitchen. At the body. I hold out 509A instead. A trade. They can stay here all they like.
“Nah.” A young man steps through the window and brushes past the girl. “Don’t try to fool us. Give us her dad’s key and we’ll let go.” He taps my cloak with a fingernail. Tries to pull. His skin is dry, his eyes bloodshot.
But keys, once bound, don’t come loose easy. His fingers stick.
“What do you need it for?” I could release his hand, minus several strips of skin; instead, I wait for his answer. I want to know what the living want, not just the dead.
He whimpers. Keeps tugging.
I close my fingers, cold as death, around his hand. “Careful,” I say as he freezes. His eyes bulge, and his teeth begin to chatter. “You must not take anything from the dead.”
“He promised her. The safe. She needs to get in the safe.”
I squint. Taste that want again. They are barely adults. They could walk away, build lives separate from this. But they laid the coins on a body’s eyelids. Set a trap for me. And I cannot lift those coins. I cannot get home without their help. “Where?”
Their hands on my cloak, they lead me from the apartment, a shadow in a city of light. The sidewalk grazes my bare feet, rubs them almost raw. The feeling binds me, I crave more of it. I lose myself in the walking, the smells, the damp air.
When we arrive, it’s evening. The house before us, dark. The front door and an open window are crisscrossed with yellow tape. The boy’s hand holds my cloak even tighter, and I remember more of yesterday: the safe; feathers.
How that bramble-soul’s want for what was in this place grew ragged and bloody. How it stank of money. I knew, the moment I was pulled through the crack in the dead man’s eye, that something very bad had happened. Was still happening. And there was a bird, and the bird—the soul fought so hard to make me ignore that bird. Even as I struggled with it for the key, I opened the study window, unlocked the cage.
And the damn bird had cowered there, chattering. A parrot. Blue. A fairly young one.
That was the bird’s own choice. I just made the possibility. My friend at the river once said that being able to help save another life sometimes got the dead to let go. I’d felt the soul’s grip slip on the key.
And in opening the window, I’d seen the young man, just beyond the safe, clutching a weapon; I had sensed the girl washing up in the bathroom. But they were not dead, and thus not my job. The parrot hadn’t been dead either, but no one needed to know I’d helped it. If the soul hadn’t been blinded by greed, I know they would have wanted the bird freed. It’s what I would have done. So I did.
That’s how the girl and the boy noticed me. When I went to free the bird.
And now we are all back at the house. What the living want traps me here until they get it. They duck under the tape and drag my cloak and me inside. Threshold, hallway, study. The safe, as tall as a man, and twice as wide, still locked; the cage open and empty, a feather resting on the windowsill. A thank-you. A job well done.
I raise my arm to lift the feather, to perhaps tie it to my cloak, but the girl steps in front of me, breathing fast. The boy’s want creaks, it is so heavy.
“You are making a mistake.” I want to go home. To sit with my friend by the river; to watch the sands change colors in the dusk. To wait for the next crepuscular beam to call me to duty. I want to help who the dead care for so much they cannot let them go. I rattle my keys at the pair.
Their want for what’s in that safe fills the whole house. I breathe it in. “You do not need this to live.”
They ignore my whispers, drag me, cloak and keys, to the dark safe.
“For every door, there must be a way through,” the young man whispers. He claws at me, his fingers so strong, his want so deep. My cloak begins to unravel. The falling keys ring the floor like a bell.
I feel myself disappearing. Here and not here, but not there either. And I know my fate: a small lost god in the land of the living.
No, not a god. A soul.
I see my own struggle, long before, with my friend at the river. I, a shatter of branches and glass, the one who splintered the oar. I, the cause of his headaches. My own want so strong that I nearly pulled death through. And so I was allowed to help free the child in the car; to kiss their forehead one last time. And so I bargained with death, to become his helper.
If I cannot return there, I can no longer do this thing I wanted once more than anything else. Worse, my staying here will make a door so wide in the world that the dead can pass through all they want. And they will want. My friend by the river will hurt. “No.” I fight again, shadow to skin, needle teeth against bone, and the boy yells. I’ve sunk teeth deep.
But they keep trying, key after key in the safe’s lock. And as they do, I grow less substantial. “Stop! Whatever you want, I will help you,” I finally say.
And they believe me.
I can’t want things. I am not allowed. That is why I took the job.
But I want the safe open. I use the key. When the door creaks wide, the pair race inside, and I join them.
Here are the stacks of money they’d been after. Here are the jewels. The paper and the boxes. Her inheritance. The girl laughs and dances and hugs the boy.
Until I pull the door shut with all my want. And I wait.
They scream and fight for a day and much of a night. They press on the door until they don’t anymore. They claw at me.
And then I have a clear way back, a new door to home. I follow the boy through his wide unseeing gaze, landing in the sand beside the hole where he—a clump of wet paper—growls and clings to a key. The girl—a broken piece of netting—arrives shortly after.
The want of those two. It ripples from the sand, it nearly sings in the air.
Such need is not good to have around these parts.
“Welcome,” I whisper, as I pull away the dark metal of that selfsame key clutched within the sandy hole. “There is nothing more to want.”
Two-time Nebula Award-winner Fran Wilde has published seven novels, a poetry collection, and over 50 short stories for adults, teens, and kids. Her stories have been finalists for six Nebula Awards, a World Fantasy Award, three Hugo Awards, three Locus Awards, and a Lodestar. They include her Nebula- and Compton Crook-winning debut novel Updraft, and her Nebula-winning, Best of NPR 2019, debut Middle Grade novel Riverland. Her short stories appear in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, Uncanny Magazine, and multiple years’ best anthologies. Fran directs the Genre Fiction MFA concentration at Western Colorado University and also writes nonfiction for publications including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Tor.com. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and at franwilde.net.