Death and a ghost walked into an empty coffee bar…
Sounds like the start of a grim joke, does it not? But tonight, it’s the truth. Louis is long-since dead. Darkstar might as well be for the lack of customers. And Death is sitting with us at the table, basically trying to displace the coffee in his cup with sugar.
I’ve missed Thanatos. He’s still easy on the eyes — same dark hair and goatee, eyes sharp as an obsidian blade in the moonlight. The trenchcoat is new, though. It really sets off his shoulders. I was partial to the cloak, but I could get used to the upgrade.
Louis hasn’t taken a single drink from his cup since Thanatos poured it for him. The coffee is probably as cold as his buried bones by now. He keeps looking at Thanatos, sussing him out, trying to place where he’s seen him before.
Thanatos reaches in his pocket and pulls out a handful of black peppermints. He slides them across the table toward Louis with an encouraging smile.
Louis looks at me — I can’t tell if he’s asking permission or gauging what might happen if he refuses my guest’s hospitality.
“You should try one,” I tell him as I snag one for myself, tucking it away to enjoy later. “Special recipe.”
I’m not sure if it was what I said or how I said it, but Louis reaches for a peppermint like I’ve pointed a gun to his head. Unwrapping it, he dutifully puts it in his mouth. I watch him shift it from one cheek to another, back and forth across his pointless tongue.
Then, his eyes go wide. Because he can taste it.
I take a sip of my espresso. “Told you they were special.”
Louis leans back in his chair and tries to relax. He puts on a good show except for the constant tumble of that mint in his mouth. Every time Louis’ nerves waver, the bottles of liquor behind the bar begin to tinkle like chimes in a breeze. You think mortal anxiety is bad? Ghost anxiety is like a poltergeist amateur hour.
Can’t say I blame him. For the first time in Darkstar’s existence, Andrea’s late. And everyone at the table knows it’s no coincidence.
Apart from his clumsy start, Louis handled it well — telling her. Her reaction isn’t his fault. No woman wants to be on the other end of any conversation that begins with, “I haven’t been entirely honest with you.” But to Andrea’s credit, she didn’t run.
Or maybe she did, I think, as I look at the clock.
Louis jumps up, nearly knocking over his chair at the sight of Andrea in the doorway. Lack of sleep has smudged dark crescents beneath her red-rimmed eyes. Just by looking at her face, I can tell her emotions are as tangled as her hair.
Thanatos swivels in his seat and gives her a smile, then stands up to pull a chair out for her. Andrea looks over her shoulder, staring at the mist-shrouded street behind her. I can hear her arguing with her fear. Her fear seems to be winning.
The desperation in Louis’ voice settles like a leaden feather on the scales in her heart, tipping them. She sits down beside me, releasing the breath I know she’s been holding since she walked in.
I give Thanatos an apologetic look. Tonight isn’t even going to be the hard part. Thanatos sips the sweet sludge in his cup and winks at me. He knows how mortals are — both the ones still attached to their bodies and the ones that aren’t.
“I’m glad you came,” I say as Vega drops off Andrea’s usual order. “I was beginning to worry.”
Andrea runs her fingers around the edge of her cup. “I almost didn’t. I mean, what’s the point?”
Louis gives her a look that touches even my jaded heart, but to his credit, he says nothing.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“He’s dead,” Andrea says with a bitter laugh. “I mean, I knew I was good at falling for unattainable men, but this is a whole new level of stupid. Even for me.”
I put my cup down and wait until the weight of my silence forces her to look at me. “You can’t help who you love, Andrea. True love — like yours and Louis’ — exists on a soul level. It transcends everything that seeks to contain it: time, distance, flesh.”
Andrea pushes her chair away from the table. “I don’t even know why I’m here. I certainly didn’t come for some New Age bullshit consolation prize! So, if that’s all you have to offer—”
“What if I told you there was a way you and Louis could be together?”
Andrea looks at Louis and back at me. I can see the wheels turning in her mind.
“Can you bring him back to life?”
The hope in her voice makes me regret the words on my tongue. Thanatos beats me to it, though, and I’m glad. It sounds better coming from him.
“I’m sorry, my dear. Death is a one-way street, I’m afraid. Most certainly for the long-departed.”
“Then, if you can’t bring him back, that only leaves—”
The color drains from Andrea’s face as she fills in the blanks. She presses a hand to her chest, weighing out the choice before her in forfeited breaths — thirty-two years of them, to be exact. Not that she knows that’s how much time she has left.
“So I would be…a gh-ghost?” Her eyes are fear-filled and curious — a good sign.
“For a time, yes,” I say, nodding at Thanatos. “He is due to collect you, but not for a while. There is no law saying that you have to finish your incarnation attached to your body. If you choose, Thanatos can separate your soul from your flesh, releasing you from the prison that keeps you parted from Louis. And from that moment until your appointed time, you can be together.”
Aware now that Death sits beside her, Andrea stares at Thanatos. His kind smile seems to unnerve her even more, but she doesn’t flinch when he covers her hand with his.
Andrea looks at longingly at Louis and asks the obvious question. “How much time will I have?”
Though Thanatos and I know the answer, we agreed that her choice has to be made blind. No mortal knows the hour Thanatos will come calling. All human decisions are made in the shadow of Death. That’s why they have power.
“We can’t tell you,” I say. “You must still make your choice within the limits of your existence, weighing its worth and its costs. But given the unusual nature of your choice, there is one thing we can do to help you decide.”
I nod to Thanatos, letting him take over.
“With your permission, I can draw forth your soul and set it free to wander for a single night. Come dawn, you will have to return to your body. But for a short while, you can experience what waits on the other side.”
Andrea smiles at me. “He can really do that? But what about my body?”
“I will keep your body here. You will not come to harm,” I assure her.
Louis leans forward and looks her in the eyes. “You don’t have to do this, Andrea. I will meet you here every night for the rest of your life if that’s all we can have.”
“No, I want to see. If this is the only way, I have to know.” Andrea turns to Thanatos. “Go ahead. Do it. I’m ready.”
Thanatos may be the only person that can laugh at someone and not make them feel a fool. He grins at me shaking my head across the table.
“Not tonight,” he explains. “You would only have two hours before sunrise.”
“Tomorrow then! I mean, tonight! I’ll come back tonight.”
“Very well,” I say, drawing her attention back to me. “Be here when the sun goes down. Eat nothing this day, drink nothing but water. It will make the reaping…easier.”
“I’ll be here!” Andrea dashes a tear from her cheek and gives Louis a dazzling smile before darting out the door.
Louis notices she’s headed in the opposite direction of the patisserie. “Where is she going? I’ll be right back.”
He chases her into the street, calling her name. She turns around, mist swirling about her like a dissolving cloak. Thanatos and I don’t listen to their conversation — it’s tempting, but we’re going to be interfering enough as it is by nightfall. I watch Louis brush Andrea’s cheek with a hand she can hardly feel before she rushes off into the night.
Louis wanders back in and sits down. He looks bewildered and hopeful, and perched on the edge of potential devastation.
“Everything ok?” I ask.
Louis nods. He picks up another peppermint and pops it in his mouth. “She’s gone home. Said she has no intention of spending her last day on earth covered in flour.”
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