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.