Pasha died on a warm spring day.
She spent some time staring at her body, the slope of her neck, hair pink like a strawberry milkshake. Several clumps looked downright garish inside the crater where her head met the staircase.
Of all the ways to die, it just figured that the ordinary would kill her.
Pasha sighed and spent hours scrubbing blood. Sunlight trickled through her windows, syrupy sweet, but muted by bleach fumes. She wrinkled her nose—did she still have a nose?—and lit candles that made the cabin smell like apple-bleach-pie.
At dusk, a knock echoed through the quiet.
Pasha closed the hall closet and slipped off her gloves, chucking them into an empty vase. Even though it had a two-story layout, the cabin was fairly small, making the hallway a straight shot to her front door.
A short man stood on the porch. He wore a three-piece suit, which looked odd against the tree line.
Pine needles carpeted, well, everything.
“Hi there.” Pasha tried to subtly inhale the piney freshness. “How can I help you?”
“I should be asking you that.” He smiled. It only lifted half of his mouth. “I have a business proposition. May I come inside?”
Pasha shrugged. She was already dead; what could happen?
In her living room, they sat on large sofa chairs that faced one another. A cold mug of coffee had already left a ring on the table. Pasha picked it up, rubbing at a speck of red.
The man cleared his throat.
“Oh, sorry. Do you want something to drink?”
He smiled again. “No. Listen, Ms. Anosova—”
“Right, Pasha. My name is Burim. I know this will be hard to understand, but I’m here to help you make a difficult transition, one that all people must take.”
She tapped her mug. “I’m dead.”
“Well, yes.” His smile fell. He sat back on the sofa and crossed his legs, revealing an inch of sock. It matched the mossy green of his eyes. “This must have come as quite a surprise.”
“That’s unusual. Where did it happen?” This time, Burim’s smile bordered on encouraging, but it never touched his eyes.
“On the stairs.” Pasha gestured behind them. “I cleaned up, though. My body’s in the closet.”
His smile froze. “Excuse me?”
“It was getting morbid to look at.”
A beat of silence passed. “You put your body in the closet.”
“Yep. You mentioned a proposition?”
Burim rubbed his forehead. “Normally, I’d cover clauses one through five with the recently departed, but I can see you’re… comfortable.”
He pulled a pamphlet from the inner pocket of his jacket. A man and woman laughed near a lakefront. Their teeth were toothpaste-white. On their clothes, nary a grass stain was in sight.
Behind them, mountains crested the horizon with dollops of snow.
“This particular package is a bestseller. Housing may be competitive, but I still have a few places with a water view.”
When he unfolded the pamphlet, it grew ten times in size, revealing more faces with big smiles and perfect haircuts. One woman clutched her chest while staring at a Victorian house in pure wonderment.
Burim pointed at the woman’s head. “We’ll design your dream home, all the way down to the shower curtains. We also take your neighbor preferences into account.”
“Huh.” Pasha lifted her eyes. “Just out of curiosity, how do people pay for this?”
With a flick of his wrist, Burim procured something else from his pocket. It looked as tall as a stack of pancakes (the eating challenge kind).
“Not in money or soul. You’d only need to sign a contract that states you chose to live in my district.”
Pasha laughed. It shook the mug in her hands. “What, do you work on commission or something?”
“Or something.” He smiled, extending the pamphlet toward her. “Do I have your consent?”
Upstairs, her grandmother’s clock sang. It was long past dinner time.
For many years, the scent of rising bread had called her to another kitchen, far away in another place, surrounded by red sand and sun-split rock.
“It’s a nice dream,” she murmured. Her fingers skated over the pamphlet. “But you can keep it.”
For the most part, death didn’t affect her life all that much.
Pasha tried to leave her cabin several times. At the tree line, she always felt like her stomach had bottomed out. Everything would grow fuzzy until she retreated inside.
It wasn’t a huge deal. Aside from monthly trips to town, Pasha didn’t venture into the world. There was no one to miss her.
So, Pasha cleaned. She aired out the rooms and scrubbed the counters and dusted the corners. She swept the porch no matter the season. Nothing changed except for her company—they arrived every day. First, it was the head honcho, then the underlings.
“…If you would just consider this package, you could have as many bathrooms as you wanted! Or what about a nice kitchen? I can get you diamond countertops. Diamond.”
Pasha smiled at Burim’s 67th trainee. The woman—reaper, thing—gestured with every movement, blowing yellow hair from her eyes.
It only got worse.
“…What about a unicorn? Say the word and I’ll get you a giant unicorn. What’s your favorite color?”
In the summer, Pasha pinned her hair back, brushing sweaty pink clumps from her neck. Apparently, the dead didn’t have to bother with hair dye.
She vaguely remembered buying boxes in bulk: Cotton-Candy Pink.
“So. Are we going to do this, or what?” A reaper by the name of Vera asked one day.
This time, they sat with mugs of coffee in the kitchen. Morning light set the white table aglow. It also highlighted every nook and cranny on Vera’s face. She looked like an extra from a zombie show. Or the History Channel.
Pasha fidgeted with her mug. The speck of red looked impossibly bigger.
“Well, what’s your offer?”
Vera canted her head. Otherwise, she didn’t move a muscle. Not even her navy pantsuit would budge.
“Sign the contract. I get you out of here. Done.”
Sighing, Pasha abandoned her mug. “Look, I just… I can’t yet. I’m still waiting on the right deal.”
Vera stood. She towered over Pasha. “This won’t stop.”
“I had a feeling.”
For months, dozens of Vera’s underlings knocked on Pasha’s door, one for each day of every week. They all wore suits and spoke with a bored or plain tone. Usually, their eyes were brown like the earth, or some shade of rust.
The red ones made Pasha think of a desert long gone.
Whenever her mouth filled with the steam of bread, the rush of salt, she would clutch her mug a little harder, stare at the hall closet a little longer.
Qiu—or “Call me Q, darling”—appeared on her doorstep at the start of autumn. Tall and slender, he stood with a grin on his face, casually brushing dead leaves from his shoulders. Unlike the others, he didn’t wear a tie, and his shirt was unbuttoned at the neck.
“What’s this I hear about a difficult customer?” His grin settled into a smirk. “You look like the sweetest of souls.”
Pasha smiled too brightly and led him inside.
“My colleagues make the mistake of going too big. Oh, do you mind, darling?” He paused mid light, a cigarette dangling between his fingers.
At her nod, Q lit it with a snap of his fingers.
He smiled around the flames as she gaped. Even in the smoke, his eyes gleamed orange.
“Here’s my offer: We create your afterlife together. Tell me what you want, I build it, we tweak it. Sound good?”
Pasha tore her eyes from his general vicinity. She coughed. “I haven’t offered you anything. How about some coffee? I don’t have cream anymore, but there’s still sugar. I think.”
“I went through a pie-baking phase.” She shrugged. “It was comforting.”
Flicking his cigarette, Q sprinkled the carpet with ash. It disappeared before Pasha could open her mouth.
“Oh, dear. You’re one of those.”
By the end of autumn, Pasha was ready to bar her door shut, half mad from Q’s underlings singing 80’s pop songs at the top of their lungs.
They got stuck in her head every time.
A part of Pasha didn’t want to admit it, but she avoided the hall closet.
It wasn’t the perfectly preserved body that freaked her out. It wasn’t the lingering smell of apple-bleach-pie, either.
Ice frosted the windows when Pasha opened the closet again. She stared at her body. It was something familiar that had become alien, like running into a broken friendship years later.
Half of her wanted to walk away, but the other half burned to say hello.
A beaded bracelet encircled her body’s left wrist. It was pink and yellow and very, very chipped.
Pasha slammed the door shut.
Some kind of tapping sound echoed through the cabin. It sounded as if this reaper knocked with their fingers.
Dragging her feet, Pasha shuffled toward the front door, opening it with confidence her living self would have envied.
The reaper of winter looked like a forty-something man. He was broad. Brownish hair. Two-colored eyes: one blue, one white. On his shoulders, he wore a heavy coat over the customary suit.
Snow crystallized the trees behind him.
Pasha never thought she’d miss cold weather searing her bones.
Stepping aside, she followed him to the kitchen, where he started a pot of coffee. He seemed to find everything easily enough.
As he handed her a mug, the coffee froze solid. Grimacing, he grasped the bottom, warming it enough to hiss.
They drank for a few moments.
“I’m Vetle.” After a beat, he added: “It’s Norwegian for ‘winter traveler’ or ‘bear cub.’ Thought it was fitting.”
He nodded, lifting mismatched eyes. “Why pink?”
Pasha swallowed a too-large mouthful of coffee. She cleared her throat.
“Lots of colors you could dye your hair.” Vetle looked thoughtful as he sipped his coffee. “Why that one?”
“You don’t think so,” he said slowly. “But someone else does. Maybe your mother, or a friend.”
Without meeting his eyes, Pasha rose to refill their cups, forcing a smile on to her face. “No offense, but what does this have to do with your offer? Aren’t you going to give me the whole spiel?”
Vetle gazed back at Pasha. “Was it your sister?”
Her smile fell.
“You don’t want to move on. The people you love are still here, but they want nothing to do with you. You’re stuck.”
“Nothing new,” she whispered.
It felt as if the air had been sucked from her lungs. Somewhere, past Pasha remembered that feeling; it started the first time a soccer ball hit her in the stomach, but it hurt more when she left, after her sister had said words too true to take back.
It felt like that every time she wore the bracelet.
Soft footfalls reached Pasha’s ears as Vetle joined her by the counter. The sound reminded her of falling snow.
“I remember what this was like.”
He put his mug in the sink. “Here’s my proposition. I’ll help you get to your sister. After you speak with her, we go beyond. Agreed?”
Pasha studied his outstretched hand. Around them, the bones of her cabin still stood. A home that was never really hers.
She took his hand.
Previously published in Lumiere (March, 2021)
Alyssa Jordan is a writer living in the United States. She pens literary horoscopes for F(r)iction Series. Her stories can be found or are forthcoming in X–R-A-Y Literary Magazine, LEON Literary Review, and more. In 2020, she won The Molotov Cocktail’s Flash Monster contest. You can find her on Twitter @ajordan901 or Instagram @ajordanwriter.
photo by Peter Hermann (via unsplash)