Sunshine on Crumbling Stone
by Rachel Racette
Above the cracked sidewalk and beyond the telephone pole coated with layers upon layers of flyers, there stood a slab of brick. The lone section of wall was caked in dozens of fresh and fading coats of paint and at the foot of the wall, between patches of dead grass, sat a dilapidated shrine. The small space was filled with burnt out candles, various dead flowers and a few soggy stuffed animals. There were no names, no pictures to indicate who the shrine was dedicated to. Only two words remained visible on the wall; Bless Life. Painted in recently applied red letters stood stark against a backdrop of fading gold.
‘Bless Life?’ She wondered; fingers curled into the fabric of her coat. But what among these forgotten and rotting offerings could be cause for celebration? What life was here left to bless? Tch. How like mortals, she thought, pale lips pressed tight. To be so dedicated to one thing, only to discard it when it became too much trouble to care for. The young woman sighed, her breath a puff of grey smoke carried swiftly into the night. She shook her head and pulled her coat closer, turning away from the discarded shrine and continuing on her way.
The lone woman’s steps echoed down the silent street as she passed windows long gone dark. But the darkness bothered her not. She’d long grown used to her odd, ever-changing work shifts. Most times, she would return home with the moon high above her head. The routine had become… comforting. Still, despite expecting it, she frowned at the light flickering in the windows of her shared house. She sighed once more, quickly climbed the stone steps, and with the key already in hand, she let herself in.
“Kept late again, Hannah?” Greeted a feminine voice, ringing as soft as a silver bell. Hannah smiled, unable to keep hold of her previous annoyance. Warmth curled across her skin as she hung up her heavy coat. Her friends voice was a balm on her weary bones, even if a part of her wished Lily hadn’t waited up for her. Discarding her hat and scarf, Hannah hung them in their proper places, and then slipped off her shoes, pushing them into their proper place next to Lily’s.
“Only as late as necessary.” Hannah replied, marching into the next room, steps silent against the worn wood. It was in the living room that she found her roommate, Lily, curled in the overly large and bright yellow chair she’d insisted on buying, even though it clashed so violently with the rest of the dark décor. Which, Hannah realised with a smile, was probably the point. An ironic physical representation of the two of them. “You know how demanding people can be.” Hannah sighed. Lily barked a laugh, deep and loud despite her slight petite build, her sharp thin shoulders trembling with the exertion.
“Do I ever.” Lily snorted, marking her page and setting her book on the small table next to her. She stood, brushing off imaginary dust as Hannah paused, propping her shoulder against the doorframe, and unceremoniously opened her arms. Ready to receive the usual embrace that immediately proceeded her return. As expected, Lily rushed her darkly dressed friend without hesitation, wrapping the taller in a tight warm embrace.
“Still, don’t you know its rude to keep me waiting?” Lily mumbled into Hannah’s shoulder. Hannah chuckled, wondering if Lily realised her scolding words had little impact when Lily was pressed so firmly against her friend and holding her as tightly as a child would a teddy bear.
“You didn’t have to wait up for me.” Hannah chided; the effect lessoned by the soft tone her voice had taken. Turning, she took her friends thin arm and lead her up the stairs. Beside her, unbothered by the fact her roommate was basically dragging her to bed like a child, Lily shrugged. Lily moved to match Hannah’s pace, falling against her taller friends shoulder, eyelids drooping despite her previous giddiness. They settled into a comfortable silence the rest of the short trek up the stairs. If Lily noticed how Hannah slowed to match a pace more comfortable to Lily, she didn’t acknowledge it.
Hannah didn’t bother turning on the light, having long since memorized the layout of the bedroom, and even then, it wasn’t like she’d ever had trouble seeing in the dark before. Never mind the fact she had no interest in depriving Lily of even more sleep by waking her with a bright light. Lily needed all the rest she could get.
Gently, Hannah lay the younger woman down, draping the heavy pink comforter over her and tucking her in with a practiced swiftness. In the dark, Lily smiled and snuggled deeper into her swath of blankets, and within moments, she had drifted off into a deep dreamland. Yet still, Hannah remained, one slender pale hand smoothing back Lily’s errant blonde locks.
Then, all at once, Hannah’s demeanor dropped. Her smile fell, her shoulders drooped, and the ever present chill that chipped at Hannah’s bones returned with a vengeance now that her friend’s gaze no longer shone on her. For a moment, Hannah considered waking Lily, then immediately cast down the idea, shaking her head as she silently rose and left. Shutting the door gently, she turned and shut her eyes, pausing in the hallway lit only by the moonlight streaming through the window. She breathed, deep and slow. Her shoulders trembled.
Hannah took another, deeper, harder, breath, chastising herself for nearly breaking her composure, but then, didn’t her walls always crumble around Lily? Lily; who brightened the world with her smile, whose eyes made emeralds quiver with jealousy, who wore golden silk for hair. Whose bright supernova soul was too much for her mortal flesh to bear.
Suddenly, unbidden, her mind returned to the image of that abandoned shrine. Was that to be Lily’s fate one day? She wondered brokenly. Her memory caked in mud; the ashes of her words washed down the drain? Never to be relished again? Were Lily’s bones bound to be cast out, forgotten and buried in order to make way for the newest fleeting thing? Was her warmth meant to be lost on the winds of humanities ever pressing onward storm?
No. Hannah thought savagely, fingers curling at her sides. The familiar chill abating in the heat of her sudden outrage. No. Hannah swore in the safety of her mind. Even if the mortal world forgot her dear friend, she would not. She would refuse to forget such a lively soul. It was the least she could do for someone who had given her reason to appreciate life and humanity again—
Pain. Sudden and sharp yanked Hannah out of her spiraling thoughts and back to reality. Raising her hands, she found small crescent shaped wounds pocketing her palms. Hannah sighed, shoulders slumping as she watched the minor injuries mend before her eyes. Leaving unmarked pale skin, not even a hint of crimson left. To live a life forever unmarked by the living. Now wasn’t that a funny thing?
Hannah took another deep breath and straightened her skirt; she waits for the chill to return. For her errant emotions to fade back into the background of her immortal mind. Pivoting on her heel and striding down the short distance to her own room, she entered, shutting the door with a quiet click. With a twitch of a finger, the small candles littered around the room burst to life, their flickering light dancing across the fading wallpaper.
When Hannah had moved in, she hadn’t bothered to change much, so the pockets of painted flowers remained on her walls. Obnoxiously bright and cheery and fake. Hannah had long learned to live with the pictures. It was not a difficult task, given how little time she spent in her room.
Without hesitation she strode past the neatly made bed she rarely slept in to her large mahogany wardrobe. From within its shadow-ridden depths she pulled forth her cloak, immediately setting it about her shoulders and locking it in place with a single silver clasp in the shape of a skull. Then, pushing her arm deeper than the wardrobe possibly could be, she clasped the staff of her tool, and as she brought her arm back out, she drew forth a gleaming seven-foot long scythe.
Throwing the impossibly sharp blade over her shoulder, Hannah shut the doors and moved to retrieve the sealed envelope that sat innocently on her desk. She tore open the bone-white seal and drew out the contents. As she read the list of souls she had been tasked to collect, she slipped on her worn heavy boots and leather gloves. Standing and marching towards the window, Hannah snapped her fingers, causing all the candles to go out.
Slipping her scythe into the darkness of her cloak she climbed out and onto her windowsill. She slides the window shut behind her, leaving just the barest sliver of space to place a small, thin stone. Old and worn down by decades of her rubbing it between her fingers to soothe her nerves, and more years still, using it to prop open countless windows.
As Hannah dashed across the rooftops she wondered, not for the first time, what Lily would think of her, if she really knew why Hannah had such long and odd hours. She wondered how long it would take before Lily saw fit to go to the workplace she thought Hannah worked at. She wondered it Lily would live long enough to check.
A gust of frigid ice swept through her, catching and tugging at her feet, nearly causing Hannah to slip. Stuttering to a halt, Hannah shook her head hard, short dark locks whipping against her cheeks. She couldn’t afford to be distracted, not when there was so much work to be done, and so little time to accomplish it in. But as she made to move, her eye was drawn to a familiar sight. She froze, eyes narrowing as she dropped to the street below. Hannah strode silently and swiftly across the concrete and stopped, staring down the same discarded shrine she had seen barely half an hour ago.
Those brightly painted words stared back at her, looking far more sinister than they had any right to. Hannah blinked, and suddenly found her own hand pressed firmly against the cold bumpy stone. She couldn’t help but wonder how many coats of paint had been brushed across this wall. How many messages and images had been covered up, lost to the test of time and the fleeting whims of humans? Hannah blinked again, and her gaze was drawn back to her own hand. Her fingers were trembling.
Hannah threw herself back, ruffling the faded flyers, some ripped off by her sudden, violent action. She watched the flyers flutter to the ground like ashes.
As if prompted, the unwanted memory of her brethren’s jeering words echoed in her ears. For months they’d been telling Hannah to stop — abandon the mortal! Hannah shut her eyes, gritting her teeth against the onslaught as the shadows she thought of as a second home grew longer and darker and suddenly very unwelcoming.
Suddenly, Lily’s bright smiling face filled the space behind her eyelids. An image of warmth and comfort, when suddenly the vision turned dark, because of course it would. A whimper fell from Hannah’s lips as she imagined Lily turning to dust, taking all the light and joy Hannah had hoarded these past six years with her. Horrified, a dry sob fell from Hannah’s lips. She fled, the sidewalk cracking even further in her wake.
Rushing away, as she would the rest of the night, Hannah went through her list as quickly as she could, frantic to return to her friend as quickly as possible. Terrified by the shadows and phantom memories that she feared would scatter from her hands like ashes if she lingered away too long.
When she finally returned home, the sun had already risen, and the house was silent as a grave. Hannah paused, heart beginning to pound as she listened for a sound, any sound, of life. Of Lily. But nothing greeted her. Not the sound of Lily cooking breakfast, even though Hannah had told her a hundred times not to, or the crisp sound of Lily turning the page of one of her beloved romance novels. There was no music, no laughter, not even the scritch of Lily’s pencil against paper as she wrote and drew.
Pulse roaring in her ears, Hannah dropped her scythe, the metal echoing like a gunshot against the hardwood as she rushed towards Lily’s room. Bursting inside, Hannah’s breath was violently torn from her throat before she could utter a word. On the floor, legs tangled in pink blankets and white sheets, lay Lily. Pale and still and looking too much like a corpse. Hannah dropped to her knees next to her friend, immediately searching for a pulse. A sob bubbled from Hannah’s throat as the vein fluttered under her fingers.
Without hesitation, she hefted her friend, cradling her as she raced outside, crying for help. Thankfully, their neighbour was more than willing to drive them to the hospital. Upon arrival, Lily was wrenched from Hannah’s hands, swept out of sight and drawn deep, deep, deeper within the unflinching sterile white walls.
Hannah waited for over four agonising hours, only to be told that the doctors were unsure if her friend would survive and that since she was ‘not family’, she would not be able to see her. Would not be notified till after family—family that were either dead or distant. Family that Lily no longer spoke too. Blood relatives that had abandoned sweet, wonderful Lily –
Dazed, her pulse roaring in her ears along with the fury Hannah knew she couldn’t unleash. Anger was not what these tired mortals deserved. They only had minds to help Lily. Hannah would only be in the way – worse, Hannah’s presence would likely makes things worse. Given her immortal reaper status. She wondered bitterly if her presence would make those who laid weak, helpless, and waiting to be healed would make things worse? She almost laughed as she let the Doctor’s go. What else could a being made for death do for the sick and injured aside from dragging them closer to their deaths?
Hannah walked away from the hospital all the way to that crumbling wall. She sat at its feet, nestled between the drenched teddy bears and decaying flowers, drowning in the black fabric of her cloak, and cried. Truly cried for the first time in her existence. Loudly, and without abandon Hannah wept, hidden from passersby with her supernatural glamour. She did not move from her spot, even when the insistence call of duty roared, the sound shaking her to her core. For the first time in centuries, Hannah ignored her purpose. There were plenty of reapers, they could make do without her. They had for centuries before.
Time passed uncaringly, light falling into dark and then light again without consideration for the mourning woman. Hannah paid little attention to the passing times, what did it matter? Lily was most likely dead, or far from Hannah’s reach. Hannah couldn’t tell which choice would be worse. Couldn’t the world just stop for a moment? Didn’t it know something precious had been lost? Or was it going through the motions? Pressing on, as Lily would have wanted. Or perhaps, Hannah was the only one broken. After all, Lily was only one mortal soul among millions.
Was this what her kin had tried to warn her of? This pain, this – void? Hannah wished so desperately she could go back to normal, she wished she had listened to her brothers and sisters. But of course, that was a lie too. And the thought of never having met Lily brought on a new onslaught of tears that Hannah let herself be drowned by.
An automobile pulled up and parked beside the concrete wall. Hannah raised her head, numbly watching as the driver opened the door, but the person within did not get out of the car. Although her face was in shadow, it was easy to tell the driver was sad. There was something about how she turned away from the sun and rested the weight of her hands on the steering wheel, something about her silent composure, that caused Hannah to sigh. The young girl watched the driver lean out of the car and stretch her hand out towards one of the burned out candles. Towards Hannah if her glamour hadn’t been hiding her.
“Did you know them?” The unknown woman asked, voice oddly familiar. Hannah shook her head, then inclined it towards the woman, eyes narrowing as she attempted to identify the newcomer’s aura. “A pity.” The woman breathed, retracting her hand. “But such is the fate of mortals; fading to dust, their memories buried with the bones of their loved ones.” Hannah pursed her lips, rising to her feet. The woman raised her eyes, catching Hannah’s with a grin. “Wouldn’t you agree, little Reaper?”
Hannah gasped, but before the first syllable could pass her lips, the woman had reached forward and pressed a single finger to Hannah’s trembling lips. She hushed her, retracting her gloved finger and flashing Hannah a sickeningly sweet and sharp smile. Hannah swallowed, the temperature around her dropping with the realisation of who, or rather what, this woman was.
“Why do you linger with that mortal?” The woman asked, smile still painted across perfect crimson lips. “That one especially is not long for this world. So why do you stay? Why haven’t you gone to collect her yet? What could be so special about such an average and unimportant person like Lily Miles, that would give a Reaper reason to play human for so long?”
Hannah frowned, nails ripping the flesh of her palms as she clenched her fists, yet this time. She expected the painful prick of her own nails to draw her out of her emotional state, but Hannah felt nothing. Or rather, she felt nothing satisfying, nothing that would free her. She wanted to scream. To slap that look off her superiors face. To whip out her own scythe and seal her own fate. How dare she insinuate Lily was— but instead of reacting violently like she wanted, Hannah simply rolled her stiff shoulders and replied with;
“Why would one of the Original Reapers pay attention to a being of low rank, such as myself?” Hannah spat tersely. She would not rise to the bait, even if it were tempting. If the elder wanted a reaction, Hannah would not supply one. Yet the older woman’s smile deepened, as if she were happy with Hannah’s words, even if there was a hint of grief and pity in those ancient eyes. Hannah felt… praise? instead of the expected degradation. The older reaper cackled, throwing her head back.
“My, what a mouth you have, little one.” She sang, grinning wickedly, dark inhuman eyes narrowing. “Do all of you have such disrespect for your elders?” Hannah said nothing, sure her answer would mean little if anything at all, to the elder. She saw that whatever question or test the elder had wanted to conduct, Hannah had already given her answer. The Reaper hummed, turning her piercing gaze back to the wall.
“This is your first time, yes?” She murmured, hand stretching back to the candles past Hannah, caressing the air like one might the flesh of a lover. Many emotions swam in those bottomless eyes, sorrow chief among them, and suddenly Hannah felt she were intruding. Hannah dropped her eyes, turning from the sight. First time?, she thought. There had been others who felt like her? Hannah wondered if this was how her brothers and sisters in arms saw her, and Hannah’s own eyes burned. Their mocking gazes and stern soft-spoken words — they no longer seemed cruel.
Perhaps she should have listened to their warnings, perhaps it was not too late too…no. Hannah was self-aware enough to know her feelings ran too deep. But what was she to do now? Suddenly, her world felt wrong. The ground no longer steady and sturdy beneath her feet. She felt ill. Maybe another long cry would help?
“Do not linger in your grief,” whispered the elder, drawing Hannah out of her downward spiral. “They are not meant to live as we do. It would not do for you to handle them like glass, little one.” She paused, turning her gaze back to Hannah’s, but this time, it was not so fierce. Not quite so sad. “If you care for this fading flower, be there. Stay and love them with all of your heart and hold those memories close long after they are gone.” She paused, lips twitching, but said no more.
Breath violently stolen from her lungs; Hannah recalled her friend’s condition. What remained of her stubbornly clinging warmth drained from her, settling like a heavy cooling stone in her stomach. How was Lily? How much time had she spent here? Was Lily dead? Had she passed while Hannah had selfishly wallowed in her own pitiful sorrow?
Before Hannah could dig herself deeper, something was thrown into her chest. Scrabbling, Hannah nearly dropped the item as she swayed. Once she regained her balance, Hannah dropped her gaze to the item clasped between her hands. Dark eyes widened as she stared down at the small leather-bound book in her hands.
Her journal. Small and worn from so many years, the spine barely holding together. The one Hannah knew she had left on her desk, locked in a drawer. Gaping, Hannah raised her head, heart pounding as she met the elder’s soft expression. She blinked, fighting back tears as she pressed the beloved possession to her chest.
“You have time left yet before her collection; I suggest you not waste it.” With that, the elder Reaper turned away and shut the door, the automobiles engine humming to life. “Remember what I said little one.” The Reaper called over her shoulder as she began driving away, voice echoing unnaturally down the quiet street.
Hannah watched the black vehicle till it turned out of sight, feet frozen in place. Her thumb swept lovingly across the blank cover as she sniffed. Taking a deep breath, Hannah scrubbed at her face, swallowing her remaining tears. Then, she tucked the book against her side, and leapt into the air, starting nearby birds as she flew towards home.
Inside, Hannah shed her filthy and frozen clothes, scrubbing and drying quickly, changing into the blue dress Lily had bought her early in their friendship, so long ago. Then, ignoring the small pile of letters cast across her desk, and the glint of her discarded scythe, Hannah re-clasped her cloak, unsullied by her time in the dirt. She rushed across the rooftops, unseen under the midday light, book pressed against her chest, her cloak flaring behind like a pair of dark wings.
It took little time to arrive at the hospital, and though it would take only a sliver of her power to slip past the staff, she walked to the front desk and asked a nurse to guide her. Despite her cleaning, she must have looked like a wreck, for the moment the nurse met her eyes, the fight drained. Soon, Hannah stood before Lily’s room, and for a moment, found herself unable to move. Hannah swallowed, shakily opening the door and stepping inside before she could convince herself to flee.
Her heart nearly stopped as she took in Lily’s pale (paler than before, pale as a corpse) features. Lily’s hair had lost its shine, dark bruises hung under her eyes, and she looked to have lost more weight than seemed possible in such a short time. Hannah’s eyes prickled once more as she approached the bed. Silently, she settled in the chair, reaching out to clasp one skeletal hand.
“Lily?” Hannah whispered, her pulse roaring in her ears. Icy clawed hands curled around Hannah’s shoulders, points hovering over her pounding immortal heart. Had she been too late? Please, any deity that was listening. Please don’t let her be dead. Please, please don’t take my golden lily away. Not yet please —
“…Hannah?” Lily croaked, blinking away the haze. The soft voice sharply claimed Hannah’s attention. Hannah dropped next to Lily, fingers trembling around hers. Then, Lily smiled, and warmth bloomed in Hannah’s chest once more, sending the cold running. A laugh fell from Hannah’s lips; Lily’s eyes were still so bright and beautiful. Still full of the life that had drawn Hannah in the first time they met. “You’re here.” She wheezed, weakly squeezing Hannah’s hand.
“I’m here.” Hannah confirmed, squeezing back. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around. I had… some things I needed to work through. But I’m here now, and I’m not going anywhere.” Lily smiled, nodding, as understanding as always. Hannah knew that even if she had the breath, Lily wouldn’t push her for answers.
“What’s that?” Lily asked instead, eyes dropping to the book in Hannah’s lap. Her brows pursed, then she flashed white teeth. “You’re wearing the dress.” She gasped, shuffling back and sitting up with Hannah’s aid. Dropping back against the small mountain of pillows, Lily’s smile turned bittersweet as her chest heaved for breath. “Did the… did the nurse tell you then?”
“No but… I know. I know.” Hannah answered, dropping her gaze. Lily had been dying for years, and nothing short of divine intervention could save her now. Hannah swallowed and handed the book to Lily, watching as she ran her trembling fingers ever so gently over the worn cover. Lily shot her a curious look, still caressing the precious possession.
“This,” Hannah began, taking the book and opening it. “This is my book. My story.” She said, answering Lily’s silent question. Emerald eyes sparkled, and Hannah smiled, settling the possession back in Lily’s lap. Hannah paused, took a deep breath, then linked her fingers with Lily’s, holding her like a person, for the first time. “Lily—Lily this is my life. Written here and unseen by anyone else, and I can’t think of anyone better to share it with.”
“Read it to me.” Lily asked, handing back the book and lying back. Hannah complied; her hand clasped in Lily’s. She read long into the night, long after the hospital had fallen asleep, the moon shimmering through the curtains, caressing the young women’s forms as they lay, side by side. Not once did Lily shy away, instead pressing closer as Hannah recited her long, lonely years. Whether Lily believed her words remained to be seen, regardless, she did not silence or degrade her friend.
Later, from the shadows came the woman, the Reaper, a shinning scythe in hand. Hannah raised her head, but even as tears spilled like glistening gems down her cheeks, she stood, smoothing the blankets over her friend. Then, brushing back pale brittle locks she pressed a kiss to Lily’s cracked lips, stealing the last of her sunshine’s warmth as the elder reaper swung.
Time has little to no meaning to beings untouchable by death. This being said, Hannah took time, the same day each year, for she kept count now, to visit that crumbling wall. She came, always with a gift of flowers or candles in hand. Until one day, so many years later, she came with a companion; an older woman, just as pale and dark as herself, and when they left, painted around the crimson words Hannah had judged so long ago, were perfect white lilies.