Five year old Lily Hoagen was simply expecting to learn about bean plants and how they grew when she went to school. However, plans seemed to change right in the middle of story time. The little girl had no idea why her teachers were suddenly rounding them up into a corner of the classroom and telling them to be quiet. Their usual smiling faces looked terrified of something. She could hear screams from other places of the elementary school, and she could feel her own little heart beating rapidly in her chest.
“Ms. Rose? What’s going on?” she whispered, tugging on her teacher’s sleeve. “Why did you turn all the lights off?”
“Shhh... Lily sweetie, there’s a bad man in the school and we don’t want him to find us.”
The noise from the hallway was getting louder.
“Everyone close your eyes and think of a happy place.” Ms. Gardner whispered as some of the kids started to cry. Lily felt fear creep up through her arms and down her back, even though she was still confused as to what was happening. “No matter what happens, do not leave your happy place.”
Lily closed her eyes and covered her ears. Happy place… She imagined she was in her bed with her teddy bear, Alby, and the covers over her head. But she could still hear the screams. She jumped when the classroom door burst open and a teenage boy stalked in. Lily quickly closed her eyes again as the whole room erupted in gunfire.
Everything suddenly went silent.
Lily felt like she was floating. She was in darkness for only a moment, and then there was a blinding, comforting light. The fear that had enveloped the young girl before fled, and the sense of safety settled in. She felt her feet softly touch down on something solid, and the world around her slowly started to come into focus, a blur of color and movement dancing before her eyes. She could also hear murmurs and voices that also started to become clearer.
It was hard to understand what was going on with all the noise and people she could suddenly see were running around, but some things she was beginning to hear.
“Where am I?” a muffled voice asked in a panic.
“What’s going on??”
“Marissa!! I need help!!”
She was no longer in her kindergarten classroom. She was in a type of waiting room with wood paneled walls and benches. It was slightly in chaos at the moment. Kids were running every which way in the small room, screaming and crying as two adults dressed in white tried to settle them down. Lily regarded them with curiosity, wondering what all the fuss was about. They were all obviously safe now. She could tell because the lights were on, unlike her classroom.
“So many of them! What’s happening down there??” A middle aged black woman in a white dress asked.
“Appears to be a school shooting…” an older man in a cap and white polo commented, looking at some papers behind a desk. Then, to Lily’s surprise, her teacher seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
“What’s going on? Where am I?” young Miss Rose asked, her brown pixie cut bouncing as she turned around every which way.
“Oh dear…” the lady in white sighed. “Garry, calm down the kids while I explain to the older ones what just happened…” the lady ordered.
“Sure…Take the easy job for yourself… How am I supposed to explain this to five year olds?”
“You’ll figure it out…”
At that, the old man turned to the group of kids.
“Hey! Calm down! Woo Hoo! Look over here! I’ve got candy!”
The kids slowly stopped, quieted down and looked at him.
“Ok… So I don’t have candy... But it’s ok! You’re all safe now-”
“What happened?” one kid shouted out.
“Where are we?”
“Are there snacks?”
“Welcome to the Waiting Room!” Garry said with the best smile he could give. “Now first of all, when we die, our bodies and spirits separate...”
“WE ALL DIED???” a red headed boy screamed.
All the kids took up screaming again, getting a look from the lady in white.
“Garry! What did you do?” she yelled over the ruckus.
“Then you do it Marissa! It’s not my fault! I’m still kind of new at this!”
Marissa pursed her lips and then put her fingers to her mouth, giving a loud ear splitting whistle. All the kids stopped and stared at her. She gave a sweet smile to them.
“There’s no reason to be scared boys and girls…” she lulled with a voice like honey. “The fun part is about to start.” One little girl raised her hand.
“Is this heaven?” she blurted. Marissa laughed.
“No sweetie. This is the Inbetween. There’s lots of things to do and people to help before we all move on. Now, here’s what’s going to happen: See that black board over there? We are going to form a line, and then each one of you is going to tell us what you see ok? Then everyone is going to get a very special job to do! We need Time helpers, Season helpers, Dream makers, you name it! I know you’ve been through something very scary just now, but trust us, we’ll explain more once you get settled in. Now let’s all get in that line!!” She said with a sense of enthusiasm in her voice, her black bun bobbing up and down as she jumped slightly.
At the sound of season helpers and more, the kids started shifting and calming down. They were soon in a line, and one by one, they took a look at the black board.
“I see a clock!” one boy exclaimed.
“Woah! Looks like we’ve got a timekeeper here!”
“Ok Garry. You got this?”
She nodded and then hurried off back to the adults that had appeared. Lily watched the Marissa woman walk away towards some of the adults who had joined them in the waiting room. She wondered what they were saying. Some of the teachers looked shocked and pale. Her attention was diverted however, to the other children in front of her, as one by one, kids would walk into a curtain and vanish.
“I see a dog!”
“Animal Assistance! You’ll love it!” Garry said to a little girl with curly red hair.
“I see a bed…” a little boy commented.
“Oooh… You get to help in the land of dreams…”
Lily started to notice that the dark haired boy in front of her was fidgeting nervously.
“Are you scared?” she asked him. The little boy jumped. He looked to be about her age.
“What? Uh... Maybe?” he said, his face completely white.
The boy hopped from one foot to the other.
“What if I fail the test?” Lily rolled her eyes and flattened her pink and yellow lacy dress.
“You can’t fail silly. You just tell him what you see.” The boy swallowed.
“I’m right here behind you.” she said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Lily. You’ll be fine.”
Edgar nodded a little hesitantly and then looked ahead nervously as the line got shorter and shorter. Soon it was his turn to step up.
“What do you see son?”
Edgar squinted at the blackboard, a little confused.
“I don’t know what that is…” he said a little sheepishly.
“Well what does it look like?”
“Um… It’s like a stick or something... I see people carrying them on Halloween.”
He looked at the old man hopefully, but he simply took off his hat and scratched his head.
“What now?” the lady exasperated, coming over.
“I don’t know what he’s seeing. He says it’s some type of stick thing that people carry around on Halloween.”
“That’s weird…” Marissa took out a notepad and pen. “Do you think you can draw it for us honey?” Edgar nodded and started to draw what he was seeing. When he was done, the two adults looked down to see what it was.
“Is it just me? Or does that look like a scythe?” Garry asked.
“I don’t believe it...” Marissa said in amazement. “I’ve never seen one called so young before…”
“Well I’ve never seen one called before!” Garry exclaimed. “They are rare at best!” Marissa got down to the boy’s level.
“What’s your name honey pie?”
“Well Edgar, you are going to become something called a reaper. Do you know what that is?”
“Don’t worry. We’ll explain everything soon. We’re going to wait for everyone else to be done and then you’re going to come with us ok?”
At that, they had Edgar step to the side, and Lily stepped up with her little curly blond pigtails wrapped in ribbons and a little skip in her step. Garry smiled.
“What do you want to do little girl? Make dreams? Deal with Time? Maybe you can help with Spring and grow all the flowers!”
“What do you see?”
Lily squinted long and hard at the blackboard slightly excited to find out what she might see on the blackboard. She stared long and hard at it. Then blinked. She scanned the whole thing.
“How big is the picture thingie supposed to be?” she asked.
“Oh don’t worry-you can’t miss it-.”
“Then where is it?”
“On… the blackboard...”
Lily put her little hands on the blackboard and leaned forward, narrowing her eyes. “I don’t see anything.” she whined, getting frustrated.
“What?” Garry looked at the blackboard himself. “Well it’s still working…” he muttered to himself. “I still see my symbol... Marissa!”
“Garry, how many times are you going to call me over?”
“Marissa, she doesn’t see anything.”
“What? That’s impossible! Everyone sees something. Is it still working?”
“I still see the bell. The sign that called me as a Greeter.”
Marissa put a hand on her hip and gave a long look at the cute, bouncy little girl in front of her. Then she pointed at a spot in the middle of the blackboard.
“Right there. What do you see?”
Lily suddenly wondered if she should try to make something up so she wouldn’t get in trouble.
“Oh. I see it now- it’s… a… teddy bear.” She pretended slowly. Garry looked even more confused and muttered something about how there was no such thing for the black board, and Marissa sighed. The old man however, peered around her with interest.
“What’s your name honey?”
“All right Lily. Now please tell us what you really see.”
The little girl hung her head, feeling a little ashamed. She never understood how adults could always tell you were lying. It was almost like they had some unforeseen power. Her mother was especially good at this power.
“I don’t see anything…” she told her truthfully.
“Well we’re going to have you stand over here with Edgar for now ok?”
“All right. Garry, finish up with the kids and then we’ll take the new recruits. We also got a new Greeter.”
“What??” Garry asked, surprised. “A Greeter, a Reaper, and a who knows what all in one day? Well burst my buttons!”
“What do you think is going to happen?” Lily whispered. Edgar shrugged.
“I still don’t know what a reap reap is…”
“I think it’s reap-er.”
Edgar shrugged again.
“Ok. That’s everyone for now!” Marissa said. “Let’s take these three to the big guy.” Lily looked over to see that Miss Rose was standing there as well, looking a little nervous.
Marissa turned on her heel and walked over to an elevator.
“What did you see Ms. Rose?” Lily asked as they all climbed into the elevator.
“Um… A bell...” she said a little quietly, rubbing her arm and glancing around.
“I didn’t see anything,” the little girl told her matter of factly, not sure whether or not she should be proud of that. The elevator door opened, and the four of them walked into a large white room. Many people were bustling about in either white or black clothing.
“Who ya got there Marissa?” a man in a black suit and a dark well-trimmed beard asked.
“A couple of new recruits. And then… a question mark.”
“A question mark?”
“She didn’t see anything on the blackboard.”
“Hmmm… Quite interesting.”
“Maybe she’ll get sent back!” the man joked, laughing.
“That’s not funny Byron. You know that doesn’t go over well.” Marissa said sternly, pushing past him.
Lily narrowed her eyes at the man and decided that she didn’t like him. She looked back at him as they walked away, and felt a tinge of annoyance as he winked at her. In response, the little girl obstinately turned her back on him. Marissa knocked on a door and slowly opened it.
“We have some new recruits sir. And then… one that... well… you’ll see...” she said through a crack. “We aren’t entirely sure where she is supposed to go…”
Lily thought she heard some whispers and then Marissa turned to Miss Rose.
“You’re first. Don’t worry. It’s just a simple little interview.” Miss Rose swallowed and walked in.
“You two are going to sit right in these chairs until he calls for you. Ok?”
With that, Marissa bustled off to do something else, leaving the two young five year olds on their own just outside the door.
Lily sat by herself, her legs swinging underneath her. In her young perspective, it had been an eternity ago when Edgar had been called in. She did her best to be patient as she simply watched the hustle and bustle of the large room she was in. She recognized that people like Garry and Marissa were the people she saw dressed in white. The others all wore black. Some wore suits, some wore leather jackets, others in skirts, and others were even in cloaks. She watched as the people in black would get a piece of paper out of a little gold box as it spit it out to them, and then they would walk into one of several large glass balls. After a moment, darkness would surround them and they would disappear.
Suddenly, the door opened and Edgar came out.
“He wants to see you now.”
Lily hopped off her chair and skipped into the room. Slowly, the door behind her closed, and she looked ahead of her to see an older man in a black cloak and suit behind a desk.
“Please... Sit down...” he said in a soothing whispery voice. His slicked back gray hair still seemed to have streaks of blonde in it, and he had eyes that reminded Lily of the milk that was left over from her Lucky Charms. The marshmallows always seemed to turn it a light blue... Silently, he pulled out a blackboard similar to the one she had seen before. Lily quietly sat down in the armchair.
“So Lily… Tell me. What do you see on the blackboard?”
“How do you know my name?” she asked.
“I know everyone who dies. Now what do you see?” Lily tried very hard to see something this time. She concentrated, and squinted, and tried to will an image to come onto the board, but to no avail. She sighed.
“I don’t see anything…”
The man was silent. He looked at the board himself, and then back at her. He put the board back and then slowly leaned forward.
“Hey Lily,” he whispered as if telling a secret. “You know what I see on the blackboard?”
“I don’t see anything either.” With that, he leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands together. “Let me introduce myself. I’m Death.”
“Nice to meet you Death. I’m Lily Hoagen and I’m five and a half years old.” Death laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“Usually people don’t introduce themselves to me. They usually ask me first why they died.”
“Oh. Well, my Mommy always tells me to stop asking the why questions. She says it makes her head hurt.” At this new information, the man in front of her choked on a laugh.
“I have to say-I don’t usually get interviews like this. Quite a treat.”
Death gave Lily a good long look, and then gingerly held out his old wrinkled hand.
“May I shake your hand?” He asked, a curious look on his face. Lily blinked, and then hesitantly stretched forth her little fingers.
She was suddenly pulled out of the present and watching a young couple in a car, holding hands. The girl tucked her dark hair behind her ear demurely, giving the boy sitting next to her a smile. He squeezed her hand. Lily could feel how much they were in love. Suddenly, the two of them were blinded by the bright headlights of another car as it came out of nowhere and swerved towards them.
“Jeremy!!” the girl screamed. Blackness swirled around the scene, and Lily was back in the armchair, shaking hands with Death. He was looking at her intently.
“Did you see anything?” he asked slowly.
“Your name was Jeremy!” she exclaimed.
“Technically it still is...”
“You died in a car crash.”
“Yes. Drunk driver.”
“Dunk? What’s that?”
“Oh. Well, I guess you’ll find out when you’ll find out when you’re a little older.”
Lily tried to imagine what a dunk diver might look like. But like most five year old’s minds, it soon wondered onto a new subject.
“Who was the lady?”
Death sighed and leaned back in his chair again. “Sarah... We had been married six hours. She died a few hours after I did in the hospital.”
“Well aren’t you still married?” Lily asked. Death smiled and nodded.
“Of course. That’s why I need someone to take my place. Our time in the Inbetween is just about over with.”
“Where is she?”
“She helps with the Seasons.”
Lily sat there thinking for a moment.
“So... who’s going to take your place?” she asked suspiciously.
“Well that’s my dilemma. I was originally going to choose from amongst the other Reapers, but….”
Death was silent for a moment. “That no longer matters, I think I’ve found my replacement….” he said, standing up. As he came around the desk, his hands clasped behind his back, he leaned over to her. “By the way, no one else knows about my past, so could we please keep it between us?”
He nodded graciously and held out his hand.
“It’s ok. Nothing will happen this time. I promise. You’ll only have a death vision of someone the first time you touch them.” he said as she looked up at him warily. “You’ll get used to it. It was a bit of shock for me when I first started.” She put her small hand in his, and then walked with him as they left the office. Death seemed to glide across the floor, his black robe trailing behind him.
“Why are you wearing a blanket?” she asked suddenly. He laughed again.
“This is a cloak little Lily. No matter how ragged it becomes, it sets someone apart. The one who is Death must wear it.” As soon as they stepped outside, they about ran into a familiar face.
“Byron-what are you doing here?” Death asked as the man straightened up and shrugged.
“Just curious. She a reaper? Can I train for once?” he asked.
“Not yet Byron. And no. She’s… not exactly a reaper.”
“Oh.” The man looked slightly disappointed. “Well, next time I guess. And by the way, Zach and the others are wondering if you’ve decided yet.”
The old man standing next to her paused.
“That’s… right… Well, tell them I’ve made my decision, but I need to run some errands first… I’ll call and make the announcement when I’m ready for everyone. Byron gave him a thumbs up and winked.
“Will do boss!”
Lily watched him walk away.
“Who’s you going to choose?”
Death looked around, and then led Lily down a hallway.
“You Lily. You’re going to take my place.”
This caught the five year old by surprise.
“Yes. Cool. But the other reapers might not exactly be happy with this, so we’re going to get you a Guardian.”
“Yes. Only the best for Death’s Apprentice…”