A Cold Wind is Blowing

XIII: Death

Ava Martel awoke with a start. She was in an unfamiliar room, slumped in a folding chair, clothing and hair in disarray. Surrounding her place in the corner were tall, mostly empty shelves, some of them still holding the remnants of what looked like old medical supplies. Stranger still, the ground before her was littered with small, rectangular cards, lying face-down and scattered without any apparent reason.

Curious, despite her predicament, she picked one of the cards off the ground and turned it over. A bold, black roman numeral XIII looked back at her from its surface, inlaid above the figure of a dancing skeleton. The tarot card for Death.

Grimacing, Ava threw the card to the side and picked up another. The same roman numeral, the same mocking skeleton. Again and again, no matter how many she flipped, the result was the same. Every one of the myriad tarot cards on the ground portrayed Death. She fought down a surge of fear at the implications, instead choosing to believe this some sort of joke in bad taste.

“Hello, my dear.”

The voice seemed to come from the opposite side of the room where a solid door with a broken glass window made up the entirety of the room’s exits. Seeing it in detail for the first time, Ava noticed a thin veneer of red stains running down from the shattered glass and along the door’s frame. There was not, however, a speaker standing anywhere near the portal, nor was there any apparent places for him to hide.
Standing finally from the chair, Ava struggled to keep her balance against a sudden wave of dizziness before walking over to the door and looking outside. Darkness stretched before her. Nothing but an empty void unlit by the electric lights within the storeroom.

“We should probably get the difficult part over with, dear,” the voice said, this time from behind her, “You are, you see, dead.”

“Wha- what?” Ava spoke for the first time, finding her throat cracked and parched, proving it difficult to force the syllable out.

“I do not mean to be cruel, but you are dead,” the voice repeated. Indeed, whoever this unseen man was, he did not sound unkind. The last word, however, was punctuated by a curious sound. A long, soft zip, as though someone were pulling a thread taut through fabric.

“I’m dead?” she muttered, mostly to herself. Even as she said it, she could not deny it. Memories resurfaced, bubbling up from the depths of her unconscious. A long gash in her flesh, sustained when she had been walking and caught her leg on a piece of rusty metal someone had thrown by the side of the road. A doctor with a handsome face, prodding and poking at the wound, assuring her that it would heal on its own without issue. The sight of the wound festering, a pit in her stomach, fitful sleep, fever, and… then she was here.

It was, Ava felt, an incredibly stupid way to die.

“It looks as though you’ve come to terms with it,” the kindly man’s voice said, from somewhere in the room. Ava realized she had been making faces while staring out into the darkness. Fear once again rose within her, but she quashed it with an immense force of will, instead dropping instinctively into character as the confident, mysterious fortune teller she had played for many years.

“As you say, I am dead. This will be… inconvenient,” she proclaimed, with as much dark bravado as she could muster.

The voice chuckled. “Most don’t take it as well as you are, my dear.”

A flicker of movement caught her eye in the shattered glass and, upon looking closer, Ava flinched. In her reflection, standing right behind her, was an aging man with a shock of graying hair and a pair of round spectacles on his face. The man, to whom the voice she had been hearing fit perfectly, seemed preoccupied, his hands busy with something below the scope of the glass’ reflection. Once again came the sound of a thread being pulled taut.

Ava knew better than to turn around, sure that there had been no-one in the room with her prior to moving to the window. If she was truly dead, after all, this sort of thing was not totally unexpected.

“My, you are a unique one, my dear,” the man said, still preoccupied with whatever he was working on. A small, steady sound began to echo around the room. A pop, pop, popping, as of the same thread being pulled slowly from its moorings. “Then you’ll be happy to hear, I’m sure, that I can give you a way back.”

“A way… back to life?” Ava asked, trying surreptitiously to angle herself so that she could get a glimpse of what the man was doing with his hands.

“Yes, you’ll wake up in your bed, as though nothing happened, and go on with your life.”

Ava narrowed her eyes. A near lifetime of conning people out of their money with fake fortune telling had given her certain instincts.

“There’s a catch. That’s too good to be true. What aren’t you telling me?”

The man chuckled, the popping sound stopped, and once again the thread was pulled somewhere out of her vision.

“Simple, my dear. You take me with you. I have some unfinished business out there to attend to,” he said, glancing up and looking at her in the reflection for the first time. He smiled kindly upon seeing her expression. “Now, don’t be like that. It’s nothing evil or murderous, I assure you. Just some experiments I’d like to finish. I was… am a doctor, you see.”

“Experiments,” Ava replied flatly.

“Yes, harmless experiments.”

Ava weighed her options. Despite the strange and worrying things about this man, including his unseen sewing and his propensity for only appearing in mirrors, she found herself wanting to trust him. That desire to trust, in turn, worried her even more. There weren’t many people Ava trusted, and an invisible sewing ghost doctor she had just met after dying was not about to make that list.

“Fine,” she said, surprising herself, “I agree.”

Was her desire to live again really so strong? She had meant to refuse, to act in defiance of this mysterious man, but something unconscious, something primal in her had answered again. Her survival instinct, perhaps, overriding her common sense.

“You’ve made the right decision, my dear,” the man said, and placed a hand on her shoulder. Ava gagged involuntarily, as, in the reflection, the mutilated mess that was once a human hand slapped against her shawl. Blood oozed from the man’s arm constantly, an array of haphazard stitches running through the flesh barely holding the bones and skin into something collected and recognizable.

With his other hand, the doctor drew a long length of thread taut, shifting the gouged skin into a new, equally horrifying position. He smiled.

“Too late now.”

Everything went white.

The Day Phillip Huneycutt Died.

He had been to 37 different countries. years with the peacecorp, countless charity events, He had once chased a lion away from a small child too small to stand, let alone defend himself. Kunjawa was his name, every now and again Phil still got a letter from him, whenever he was in one place long enough to even get mail.

Phil had graduated top of his class from harvard medical, completely on scholarship. He had saved countless lives in countless countries. Many of them from precisely the parasites he knew were currently blocking his intestinal tract. funny that something as inane as a roundworm could literally kill you if you didn’t realize you had them in time. He’d been too focused on others, of that he was sure, but what man doesn’t do his best for his fellow humans? He had no regrets. obviously other than ignoring his own health up to this point, laying on Zhang Mingming’s grandmother’s old, hard bed. he’d come out here to the countryside of Xi’an with medical supplies and had treated nearly everyone in the village. He’d set broken bones, treated a variety of parasites, given vaccines, even delivered a young couple’s first child.

And now he was dying in a shack. Judging the speed of the worms he probably had picked them up from one of the pigs he had probably helped raise over the last few months. he could almost feel them squirming in his guts, blocking his intestinal tract. his intestines had probably burst within the last hour, hence the immediate shift from “I might be a bit constipated” to “I’m going to die here.” he heard grandma mixing up some chinese medicine that he new would not only taste awful, but would be ultimately ineffective. not that she would listen, she was busy mumbling something about him having too much fire.

Phil tried to resist, but soon felt the bitter soupy concoction dribble past his lips and down his throat. he tried to tell her if he didn’t see a doctor soon that he would die, to which she simply responded that she was doctor, she was doctor.

Death was a bit like a slow fade to black in a movie. He had expected more of a tunnel vision type experience, like when you pass out, but this was easier, no nausea, really not even the fear he’d figured would follow him into the black. this felt like letting go of the side of the pool and floating on your back, just a soft drift.

He wasn’t aware of anything for a long time. then he heard a skitter nearby. a cockroach in a silent kitchen. he tried to open his eyes before realizing they were already open. there were rocks beneath his feet that he couldn’t feel. he was standing. might have been a cave, but beyond his field of vision looked like a bad resolution photograph, the darkness nearly pixellated.
A voice like the flies on a carcass rose to his right
“Pretty poetic ending for you, kid. definitely wouldn’t have seen that coming, I mean, parasites, jeez, what an end. I guess that’ll teach you somethin’ about taking care of yourself, huh?”
Phil was shaking at the sound of the voice “I don’t know about that, I was in really good shape, I ate pretty well when i could, it was just a little mistake, it was-are you a grim reaper or something? are you death? where am I?”
“Great thing about dying is the questions don’t matter anymore.” the sickening hum of the voice droned on, bemused. “but I’ll humor you with a few pointers and then an offer. first, nah I ain’t death, but the nature of what I am is gonna be something I teach you over a long period of time, should my offer be accepted. Second, you’re dead. you’re Elsewhere, you’re Down Below. This is one of the low places in the world and you’re on the other side of the mirror. Now, that all said, comes the offer. I can make you live again. I can bring you back, kid. and the only catch to it is I come back with you. you let me experience the world again, you let me write with physical hands again, and you can go back to saving the poor and downtrodden again, or whatever it is you do. one time only offer, and it expires pretty quick.”
Phil could hear the skittering again, and saw a shadow pass near his feet, startling him even more. There wasn’t any form of hesitation in his decision. if this was death, he was definitely going to be putting it off as long as possible. “Done. how do we go back?”
“You turn around and walk that-a-way, my newly discovered friend. Let’s do some living.” Phil heard something sinister there, but he turned around anyway and began walking, and soon became aware of a physical presence next to him. The skittering soon became more apparent and he looked to his left to see a face looking at him, smiling. it was hairless and its eyebrows and mouth seemed to squirm beneath the skin. there were no teeth in the smile and the eyes were filled with wriggling worms. “see you on the other side, Phil” Phil screamed as the face pressed into his, wriggled into his metaphysical form like the parasites which had just pressed him from his physical body.

Phil woke up on grandma’s bed,his legs were soaked and he could feel things wiggling on his bare skin. he leaned up, feeling like he’d spent a week at a spa, up until he realizes his legs were wet with his own fecal matter, and the wriggling was the worms that had been expelled from his body. Grandma smiled at him “good medicine. very good medicine.”

The Tale of The Ravenous Child

- The Tale of the Ravenous Child

Hunger; endless hunger. The boy slumped against his chains, unable to move. Beyond the hunger, all he felt was regret. All he had wanted was to escape the abuse and shame of his previous life; the existence of an orphan in a poor fishing village was anything but enviable. After the last beating by the harbormaster, he was determined to escape; then, a seemingly ideal opportunity arrived. A freighter came into port, and started unloading; he had overheard the captain planning to leave later that night, and with uncharacteristic resolve, he acted to stowaway on the freighter.
Now he truly regretted his haste, as he leaned weakly against the rail on the deck of the rocking ship, he thought about the cruel look on the captain’s face when he found the boy hidden away below decks. The man had taken alarming pleasure in shackling the boy to the rails of the ship. “If you don’t pay passage, boy, then you don’t eat.” That casual pronouncement had come twelve days ago; twelve long, hungry, thirsty days.
As he distractedly considered his situation, the Captain came up the ladder well from below, and walked directly over to him. “Well boy, we’re coming into port tomorrow; the men are excited that the trip will be over soon.”
The boy looked blankly at his tormentor, gazing silently up at him. The Captain seemed not too bothered by his silence.
“Unfortunately, lad, we can’t have you on board when customs comes to check on us, so your trip will have to end a bit sooner. So, it looks like this is your stop.”
The boy took a deep breath and rasped out: “Water…”
His voice sounded like gritty sand paper. With a chuckle the Captain took a step back.
“Not to worry, boy, " he said cheerfully." There’s plenty of water in your future."
With a mighty kick, he launched his foot at the boy. A metallic screech echoed in the dead night, and the boy tumbled over the edge of the ship, railing, chains, and all…

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