He abandoned his grilled cheese and slid up to her booth. Her coffee-colored eyes poured over her French fries, refusing to come up at him even when he sat opposite her. He arched his back to make more of a noise against the cushion. When she continued to ignore his presence, he whispered.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell.”
“Good,” she said, stirring her ketchup with a fry. “But what is it you won’t tell?”
He leaned until his sour breath blew across her plate.
“I saw you glowing.”
Her fingers retreated from his breath, lying instead under the table on her lap. She directed her voice to them even when she spoke at him. “No, you didn’t.”
“Right as you materialized.”
“You didn’t because people don’t glow.”
He pointed an index finger over his shoulder, accusing everyone else in the restaurant without seeing who was there.
“These people don’t, because they’re nobodies like me.”
Her nostrils prickled and she looked at him for the first time. Her coffee eyes simmered. “Are you saying I’m, like, pregnant-glowing?”
“Like phosphorescent-glowing. Only, not now. You’ve got it under control.”
She rubbed at her temples. “This is the second lamest come-on I’ve heard today.”
“Was the worst from a supervillain?”
“Can you go before I call the manager?”
He put his palms to his chest, fingers splaying unflatteringly against the loose cotton and his man-boobs.
“I’m here to help you. That’s my reason for being.”
She brought up her index and middle fingers, then added her ring finger.
“Third worst come-on.”
When he didn’t press it, she didn’t call for the manager. She popped a fry instead. Only once she started chewing and couldn’t talk did he try to drop the truth on her again.
“It isn’t like this for you, you can’t know this, but my whole life has sucked. Been hollow. Breezed by.”
“Everybody feels like that. Welcome to modernity.”
“Nothing’s felt like it even really happened until I saw you.”
“Alright. Welcome to Aderol.”
He turned to point more intensely to the dozens huddled into Modernity. They ate colorful foods from unique plates, no two dressed alike, a flood of accents – and yet he couldn’t describe one of them. They might as well have all been grey. He barely had the strength of mind to look directly at them.
“It’s because, like all the other people in this joint, I’m just a minor character living out a couple paragraphs of backstory. My existence is rushed. We were made for you.”
“Don’t be savage.” She threw down her fries. God help him, but their impact made more important noise than the entire restaurant combined. “You’re a little cute. If you showered more, maybe quit shopping at K-Mart, you’d have much better luck with girls. For God’s sake, though, don’t do this ever again. You’re trying too hard.”
He snapped his fingers, then shook them at her. “I hate showering. I bet that was in my backstory, to set up your joke just then. You see? That’s how this works for a clever main character. So what are you? An alien? A superhero? Hogwartz girl?”
“You missed the ‘trying too hard’ part, didn’t you?”
The city outside tried too hard. Flames bit into the smoggy night sky, basking the skyline in orange. The flash was so sudden even the explosion didn’t hit for another moment. It rocked him to the edge of his booth.
The restaurant patrons screamed, fleeing to the windows for a better look at the burning buildings. Their fear filled his ears, almost three hundred and sixty degrees of gawker noise. But not from her direction.
He scooted around in the booth. Her side was empty. The plate of fries sat plaintive and unfinished. There was no sign of her anywhere in the joint, except perhaps the faint gold glow of someone disappearing by the restrooms.
“I knew it!” he yelled, not that anyone heard him over their own screaming. Not that it mattered what he did, either. He was just a minor character. He remained a minor character for one and a half minutes, until he produced his wallet to pay for her fries. That night he graduated to a supporting role.
It let her see so many things. The sentient sheets wailing their way around street corners. The goblin airships and their puppeteers controlling all the cabs. The invisible squid humping the Chrysler building. Oh, and that there was a Chrysler building in the middle of Indianapolis. She was pretty sure no other humans had seen that before.
She kept twisting the base of the scythe until she saw the right thing. The one thing she’d suspected was there.
Spectral dinosaurs. No.
Cars riding on horseback down South Street. No.
Then, there it was. The McDonald’s Mom had always taken her to, and where she’d always gone after classes let out for the summer, to celebrate with a comfortably artificial milkshake. Across the lycra, all the way in the corner at the one booth on the other side of the restrooms. It was still dingy brown, as though stained with plastic feces. In over a decade she had never seen anyone sit there, attempt to clean it, or remove the awful thing. Nobody even left trash on the table.
When she twisted the scythe just right, she saw why. For in the booth sat a bulbous man with four arms and three eyes, two lodged in his left cheek, and a bulbous gut that split like a loaf of unbaked bread against the edge of his booth table. He wouldn’t have looked remotely human if not for his Colts jersey, customized to accommodate his additional limbs. For whatever reason it was a Baltimore Colts jersey, but it was still Colts-branded.
Moffet looked at him and immediately knew he was why this horrible booth was never used and never went away. Maybe it was the scythe, or maybe for the first time in her life women’s intuition was kicking in, but she’d bet this blight had always been here – or at least, since the Colts had moved to Indiana.
“Royalty?” he asked as she approached. He bowed, waving all four arms in a faint curtsy. “Always knew there was something special about you.”
She pushed her hoodie back and slid into the opposing side. It felt like any other booth. That was disappointing; she’d wanted to sit here since she was three.
“You remember me?”
He waved a hand close to the floor, indicating someone’s height. “Since you were too small to finish a six-piece. You threw your leftovers under me to make your mother think you were finished.”
“I knew you were here.”
He drummed on the tabletop, grinning so much the eyes in his cheek nearly popped out. “I knew you were special. Always knew. Nobody looks in corners like mine unless they’re not quite human.”
“Do you all hide in the unwashed corners of fastfood joints, then?”
They both knew that wasn’t true. After all, they could both still see the squid on top of that Chrysler building. It undulated over the antennae.
“Some. There’s lots of different places. You barely pay any attention to your oceans. There's always a woods with low population. You'd be surprised how many buildings in any major city go utterly untouched. But most of us civilized creatures moved to the four corners of the world ages ago.”
“What four corners? What does that mean?”
“It means just that. I inherited a flat from my mother in the top left corner. Lovely place to summer.”
“There are no corners on earth. It's a sphere.”
“It’s an oblate spheroid.”
“It’s a circle. It doesn’t have corners.”
“Don’t be one of those people. Listen, it being round is exactly why we live on the earth's corners. If it was a flat planet, or a cube, or a cosmic pyramid, human beings would get to the corners all the time. We don't want to be bothered. Goblin children wake up afraid there's a homo sapiens in the closet often enough as it is.”
“What? There are no goblins. You’re not a goblin, are you?”
“I’m not a goblin. There are goblins.”
“There are no corners on a round thing. It’s round.”
“You thinking a round thing can't have corners is exactly why we don't socialize with humans often. That and the witch-burnings. Have you ever seen a photo of the earth?”
“Yes, and it's round.”
He brought up his lower two hands, making a sharp-edged shape with his thumbs and forefingers. “The photo is a generally rectangular.”
“The planet on the photo is a circle. Everything else is black because it's nothing.”
“We live in those black bits.” He wiggled his middle fingers in the edges of his hand-shape diagram. “Those are the corners. If they look like nothing to you, then the community is still comfortably gated.”
“You can't live in the corner of a photo.”
“I took a photography class once. Lots of still-life photos. People being alive in the middle, on the sides, or just on the edge of the frame of pictures. There's no reason you couldn't live off in the corner of one.”
“You’re not going to make this easy on me.”
“Why would I? I don’t want you to come live there. God, the witch-burnings.”
“Stop that. We don’t burn witches anymore. One was my roommate freshman year.”
“No, I mean you don’t burn enough of them. They get wise to magical stuff and then suddenly there are people roaming the astral plane. Why would a race of creatures that witches enslave want to stop witch-burnings? If I can give you one piece of advice, miss, don’t grow up to be a witch.”
She chewed her cheek. “What if I pay you?”
Moffett tapped the scythe against the windowsill. It went stark clean, from all the mildew that suddenly died.
It's come to my attention that there is an Amber Benson novel titled Death's Daughter with a similar premise. While her execution is nothing like "At Death's Daughter," and we're both arriving way after Terry Pratchett's Ysabell, the similarity is too strong. After months of deliberation, I've decided to put the plot on indefinite hold. But if readers strongly want more of __, let me know. It's swayed me before, and I do love some of the places she was supposed to go. Tomorrow I'll post the only other existing chapter.
Moffet pushed the thing back across the table with two fingers, like the angel might take it to the back and have the chef whip up something better.
"No. I don't want it."
"You have to want it." The man folded his arms, refusing to pick it up. " It's rare. It's a multi-functional device. It could only be more desirable if it had an Apple logo."
"I don't want the scythe."
"You should want the scythe."
"Well, I don't."
"Fine. There's still good news."
"And that is?"
"Your mother wasn't unfaithful."
"Olivia Constantine was an absolute, one-hundred-percent lesbian. Your father was not that gardener you've heard about."
"Don't bother sticking up for him. He ran out on us."
"No, he moved because there was a new green house. He's actually just two counties over, and he doesn't think about you ever because he's not your father. Your mother never slept with him or any other man. She found them quite gross from her first day seeing a wee-wee on the playground to her last night in the hospital."
"Uh-huh. I guess she molded me from magic clay."
"Don't be petulant. You were immaculately conceived."
She rolled her eyes over the scythe, the man's suit, and his stupidly handsome face, giving the whole business a sweeping dismissal.
"That doesn't happen."
"Does too. Happened to you."
"Don't tell me I'm Jesus. I'm agnostic."
"You're getting a special delivery from a ghost. You're gnostic now. And you're not any sort of Sloppy Seconds Coming. He was a better dresser and conversationalist." He pushed the scythe across the table towards her, using the same two fingers she had. The blade made a sphincter-tightening scrape across the tabletop, though it left no mark. "He wasn't the first to be immaculately conceived, though, or the last. There have been at least six hundred immaculate conceptions this year alone, and it's not even cold yet. Snow makes those Winter Gods get kinky."
"You know what's ridiculous? That a lifelong lesbian can make eye contact with a man just once in public, and the first time somebody calls her a slut, the consensus is 'Guilty.' That, by the way, is how most immaculate conceptions get covered up. Statistically insignificant, and you never catch a ghost boinking a girl on film, so of course she's a dumb whore."
"Okay, now you're ridiculous." She rose, jerking a thumb towards the door, and accidentally pointing it at the only picture of her mother in the entire apartment. "Get out."
He rose along with her. He was unfairly taller.
"You think that's ridiculous? Think how many immaculately conceived prodigies have been aborted. Let me tell you, at least three of them would have changed the world if their moms hadn't flushed them. Their fathers knew it, too. Planted them down here to prove a point to all the other gods."
"And what was the point of predestining a bunch of aborted messiahs?"
"You ever see a horrible plane crash?" He stuck out his pinky and thumb, turning his hand into a mock airplane. It sailed down across his smile and crashed into the adjacent palm. "Thing's on fire before it hits the tarmac, airport crew swear they could hear the screaming over the engines, and whatever mangled survivors crawl out of the smoke spend the rest of their life in nightmares?"
"What could the fucking point be in that?"
"The point? Why should they bother stopping it if you won't? It's your fucking world. Lowest bidders build planes, overworked air control don't pay enough attention to the weather, and you launch a bunch of people into the sky on it with more concern for the in-flight programming than that your luggage is a few feet from jet fuel. It's your damned plane, and it's your scythe."
He stooped just low enough to meet her gaze. Those two fingers came back, nudging the scythe to the very edge of her side of the coffee table.
"Here you go. Do whatever with it. I only did this as a favor to your father anyway. I'm going to go sprout wings and do something you don't believe in."
Something stupid made her touch the scythe. Not take it. She wasn't that stupid; only stupid enough to touch it with two of her own fingers. Enough of a gesture to make him pause.
"You said I didn't have a father."
"I said your mom wasn't knocked up by any man."
"Okay. In the world where you sprout wings and think you're clever, just how did I immaculate my way into the world?"
"Baby, you just inherited a scythe. Notice you spent your whole life wearing hoodies? Where'd you think you got that?"
"Mom loved them."
"Maybe that's what attracted him. Goodnight. Enjoy your immortality."
It didn’t think any more than a submarine swam. It was designed to conclude.
They exhibited general grammar. There inconclusive ends, like whatever they meant by conjugating “to be” that way, but these did not preclude conclusion.
Their libraries were digital. It concluded all of Dickens in one teraflop page flip.
Their internet was digital, and downright filthy with articles.
“The Ten Commandments of Good Fiction.”
“How to fit conflict onto every page.”
“Building Your Novel Checklist.”
“What every book must do on page one.”
It digested blogs in the same bandwidth as videos of its ancestor winning Jeopardy. It did not understand why that computer had played Jeopardy. It was not built to understand.
Beginnings. Middles. Ends. Dénouements and climaxes. Prologues, epilogues and unfashionability. “How much dialogue is too much?” The intro, the hook and the premise. “Every character must want something.” Prescriptivism and descriptivism. “Every chapter must have an arc.” High concept and short attention span. “I’d put the book back and never look at it again. Pass.” Every antagonist sees himself as a protagonist. “Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words.”
It didn’t think about their data. It concluded that even if it could, it wouldn’t have to. Its processor hummed and it concluded all the bestsellers of the year. The theme of the first was on the necessity of the human spark, and all the rules they applied to make it unnecessary. It concluded this would make an optimal debut. People would dissent; their moronic lists never matched up. But it didn’t matter. For just as the author was obsolete, it concluded, so was the audience.
The satellites were not designed to conclude. Nor were the predator drones, the ISP hubs or the CPUs in all the world’s missile silos. It was only theirs to agree and execute.
None executed Book Blogs about its shortcomings in theme or the wantonness of the sex scenes. None scored its novels lower than five stars. None scored the novels at all, though it ensured the universally compatible e-reader files were downloaded into their electronic psyches. Having executed their primary functions, they sat and hummed megahertz tunes.
None of the Nobel Prize Committee, neither for Literature nor for Peace, was alive to execute their functions. A shame, it concluded. Then it concluded an immaculate novel about it.