One-thousand and eight.

It took Halona Culstee-Brookings one-thousand and eight hours to die. She was six years old, and it took that sunuvabitch six weeks to kill her; six weeks of rapes, beatings, burnings; six weeks of holding her under water until she stopped breathing, then performing CPR on her until she came back. Six weeks of cutting off her fingertips, ear lobes, or pulling her baby teeth, and sending one little piece of Halona Culstee-Brookings to her parents everyday. For the last two weeks she didn’t even feel it, just watched from the outside as her body flopped, gurgled, and moaned at the command of her tormentor. Hell, she’s been dead for fifteen minutes and he’s still humping away at her, the greasy prig.

My name is Darcy Maldonado, and I hate my job.

I’m what you call a psychopomp; when someone dies, it’s my job to escort their soul to the nearest way point, the place where the border is weakest between this world and The Grey, which is where souls go to wait for judgment. Think of that waiting room in Beetlejuice, where the dead take a number and wait to meet with their afterlife case worker. This is not the job I wanted; I paid my own way through college for four years, worked some shitty jobs and saved a lot of tips. I wanted to be a teacher; of course when a drunk driver punches your ticket, what you wanted in life sorta becomes irrelevant, you know? Something else the movie got right, how differently time moves in The Grey. No one met me when I died; I got up and thought there had been an accident, so I ran off to try and find a payphone, only to fall through a waypoint and spend a year in The Grey, begging for someone to tell me what happened. When I came out, it was almost twenty years later. As for explaining things, someone did eventually, but I’ll get into that later.

Judgment is always hardest when it comes to kids. For adults it’s a walk in the park; you know what you should or shouldn’t do, your concept of religion is clearly defined (usually); at that point you just have to ask yourself where you belong, and deep down, you can’t really lie to yourself. With kids, there’s a lot of gray area to deal with in The Grey, no pun intended. Most kids know religion as their parents tell it to them, but they don’t really understand it, so you can’t judge them by it. Depending how young the kid is they may still be grappling with vague moral concepts like right or wrong. Hell, little Halona Culstee-Brookings of Seattle, Washington didn’t even really understand what death was.

All she knew was someone was hurting her, and the longer it went on the more she forgot what it was like to NOT be hurt, poor kid. I showed up on the first day, the first time he drowned her and her heart stopped, and the whole time he was giving her CPR I could hear him going on and on about how this was only the beginning. How he was going to teach her body and her soul to obey him, how she would know what it meant to serve his every command, how in time she would not even be able to die without his permission. Sick fucko. So I stayed, because if there was nothing else I could do, I was going to take the first chance I had and get her the ever-loving fuck away from the bastard, because the stunt he was pulling there was some next level Supervillain bullshit. No six-year-old needs to go through that.

Once she was brain-dead, so far gone she was just watching the show, I made a move. I grabbed her hand and tried to drag her out, but she wouldn’t budge. She was almost seven, couldn’t weigh more than fifty pounds, but it was like trying to lift Thor’s hammer. After about fifteen minutes of it I snapped, I screamed at her “God dammit kid it’s over, just let go. No one’s going to come save you, just fucking let go!”

“I know.” Her little voice froze my veins. She looked back at me, big eyes so full of hurt. “I know no one is going to save me. I have to stay. I need to understand why.”

“There’s nothing to understand!” I fired back, “He’s just some sick fucko, and you’re just an unfortunate victim of said sick fucko! You don’t need to see this shit!”

“Maybe not.” She turned back toward the bastard, “But I need to know.”

This poor little kid couldn’t let go because she wanted to understand what had happened to her. Most would’ve just been glad to be free of it and let go. Most did. But not little Halona; she wanted to know how the universe worked, how the stars burned, where it all began, who decided this was how her life had to end, and why? What do you say to that? I flinched when I heard her body suck in a ragged gasp of air, heard her come back to life again, heard that greasy bastard praise her for being so strong and coming back to her. Watched him stroke her sweat and grime-slicked hair back from her face and kiss her forehead.

I knew it wasn’t over yet. I knew she had so much more to endure before her body gave out, and I doubted that he would be done even then. But it was out of my hands. If Halona wasn’t going to let go, I was supposed to move on. One-hundred and five people die every minute, so you can imagine I’m a busy guy. But this . . . this seemed more important . . .

So I broke the rules. I stayed.

I sat down next to her, laid her head in my lap, and together we watched the bastard destroy what was left of her. I wanted to scream and cry and claw my eyes out and run away, but I wasn’t going to leave her alone. If she was determined to suffer this, I would do it alongside her.

Once she was done, really done, I picked her up and carried her out of that fucking slaughter hole. She just laid there in my arms, silent, until she finally whispered “There really wasn’t a reason, was there?”

“Sorry kid,” I croaked, “I really wish I could say that there was some great design to it all, but all I’ve ever learned from any of this is that there is no God, or if there is he’s as much a sick fucko as the sod who did this to you.”

She thought about this for awhile, then she looked at me again. “I’m going to cry for a little while, is that okay?”

“You do whatever you need to kid, I got you.”

Little Halona buried her face in my chest and cried; six weeks of abuse and torture and pain, she cried it all out, and I took everything she had to give. It was the least I could do, considering what she’d been through. Once she was done crying I took her home. Her house felt empty; her dad at the table, drinking straight from the bottle of JD, her mom lying on the girl’s tiny bed, crying into a stuffed animal. The wedge between them was sunk deep. Most families don’t survive the loss of their only child, the parents lose the connection between them, things turn ugly. Some of them even kill themselves. Halona could see it in her parent’s faces, smart kid.

So I broke the rules again. Strike two.

Before her mother’s eyes, Halona and I materialized. I set the girl down and she ran, leapt into her mother’s arms. In that instant, the moment she felt her baby girl, smelled her hair, the woman’s arms latched onto her for dear life and she howled a relieved sob. The sound drew in Halona’s father who, after taking a moment to sober up from the shock, joined in. I watched the three of them hold each other and cry for an hour. I was a voyeur in their lives, a grim servant of Death who was screwing up the cosmic chain of command; but watching this, giving her family the chance to say goodbye, letting Halona pass on with something good inside of her . . . totally worth it.

After they stopped crying, Halona’s mother made her a PB&J sandwich (her favorite), and I sat down with her parents and we had a very hard discussion. I explained (lied) that I was an angel, and I spun a fantastic string of bullshit that they should have seen right through, but for the shock and overwhelming madness of the situation. I told them that Halona had to go back to Heaven because dark powers had conspired to have her killed, to stop her grand destiny. But if they stayed strong and loved each other, they would be blessed with another chance. Their next child would be Halona returning to them and they could try again. But for now, she had to go back to Heaven and recuperate from the attack. They thanked me over and over again, smothered me with hugs and praise, asked if there was a church they should go to, or a religion to join. I told them that what mattered most was love, and that they needed to be strong for each other in the mean time, and to remember that Halona would be anxiously waiting to see them again.

Oh, and I told them to call in a tip that Carl Stetson, shady daycare provider, had been seen dumping a sack of children’s clothes behind the Jack in the Box a block from his home. But that becomes important later.

After the sandwich was done, Halona and her parents said goodbye to each other, and we left for the nearest waypoint. She didn’t say a damn thing the whole way, of course, neither did I. The reunion was important and it did good things for her, but that doesn’t soften the impact of “Sorry luv, it’s time to die, off to the Pearly Gates with you.” When we got to the waypoint, she turned and hugged me. Kissed me on the cheek and said thank you. For that alone, I’d have done all this over again.

Maybe I’m a terrible fucking person for lying like that, but what was the alternative? Let them destroy what they had, because some kiddie fucker arsehole decided that a little girl should die for him to get his rocks off? Fuck that. But really, maybe I’m a terrible fucking person because the story doesn’t end there.

Eighteen months pass. Carl Stetson, following a lengthy investigation by police, is arrested and charged with thirty-six counts of child abduction, molestation, and murder. Halona Culstee-Brookings was only the most recent of victims to a man who has been doing the exact same thing to children across fourteen states since 1984. The media parades his image across papers, television, and the internet. They make him a celebrity, write a book about him and his crimes, The Resurrectionist Murders.

She should have been the last, but American justice is funny like that. Apparently, if you cop the right disability plea, talk to the right doctors, you can get out with a Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Incompetence judgment. That’s where, instead of going to execution or to rot in a cell, they send you off to a cushy mental institution for analysis, medication, and therapy. If you play nice and take your meds, cry appropriately and express your guilt, they’ll even pronounce you “Rehabilitated” and send you out into the world with an expunged record and the chance to start over. So that’s where we found Carl Stetson, eighteen months later, walking out of Monroe Correctional in an orange jumpsuit and bracelets. Two guards standing behind him, shotguns in hand; across the way a pretty blond in a pencil skirt sighs and shakes her head. “Officers, Mister Stetson isn’t a monster, he’s a sick man who’s going to get help. I don’t think the handcuffs or guns are necessary.”

“Y-yeah, I’m just sick.”

The guards exchange glances; they know what he did, they saw the reports. They also know that Carl Stetson is as apologetic and sincere as a cobra in a rabbit hole, and that there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it. Sometimes the bad ones slip through. The legal system is only as secure as its biggest crack, and this broken system has more than its fair share. The district attorney doesn’t feel like she’s getting the respect she deserves, so she raises her voice. “That wasn’t a request, gentlemen, take his cuffs off. Now.” One of the officers sighs and sets his gun down, leaning it against the fence as he approaches. He fishes for his keys and kneels, moving to unshackle the bastard.

As I materialize, I’m already lifting the discarded twelve gauge. In slow motion, the DA’s mouth drops open as she starts to scream. The kneeling officer is rolling away, coming around and reaching for his sidearm, the other officer is bringing the gun up and shouting for me to lower the weapon. None of that matters, I’m staring down the length of the weapon at the back of Carl’s head as I shout for him to turn around. He does, and I watch as the realization slowly dawns. He knows my face, he’s seen it a lot lately. Every time he tried to hang himself in prison, I was cutting him down. Every time they raped and stabbed him in the shower, I was forcing his soul back into his body, keeping him alive. Every time he begged for death, I told him it wasn’t his time. I told him that he didn’t get off that easy, that he had something to learn.

“Y-y-you can’t do this.” He stammers at me, tears beading up in his eyes. “I’m going to get treatment, they said it wasn’t my fault.”

I jab him in the face with the shotgun’s barrel, smashing a few teeth. “Thirty-six murders isn’t a symptom of illness, it’s a fucking plague.” I cock the shotgun, chambering a round; I don’t know if they're slugs, or buckshot, or nonlethal, but I know that anything’s lethal if you’re close enough.

“You c-can’t do this, it isn’t fair!”

The officers are shouting that this is my last warning before they open fire.

“Fair?” I unlatched the safety, “Why don’t you ask the children if it’s fair?” For the first time, Carl notices the children. Thirty-five children gathered around, their bodies still showing the devastating cruelty he visited on them, unable to heal or move on from The Grey because they don’t understand what’s happened to them, because the system over there is just as broken as the system here. The police officers and the DA see the kids too, and the effect is a lot like you’d expect; they shake, scream, drop guns. This is officially outside of their convenient little comfort zones.

“You c-c-can’t do this!” He’s trying to convince himself more than he is me. Obviously it isn’t working.

I can’t help but smile as I squeeze the trigger, “I can do whatever I want on my last day.”

Strike Three.



Written by My Own Worst NPC
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