A/N: Yay, a Hallowe'en Story! It's only a short one, three chapters tops I'd say, and contains some rather dark humour. - Sky.
Chapter 1 - First Date
Hillwood Cemetery had a very unique design indeed. It appeared, to an outsider at least, that it had only been put in when the designers went home to congratulate themselves on a city well built, only to choke into their evening supper when they remebered they'd left out a place to bury the dead. It wasn't as though it were a rush job, by any means, it just seemed to have been slotted in wherever they could find the space. Production was of course hampered by the fact that Hillwood, as the name suggested, was very steep in places and had once been full of trees. However, Hillwood Cemetery very clearly existed and with it it brought a gentle stream trickling through it, a misty bridge that crossed the aforementioned stream, and a large iron fence that was forced to curve dangerously inward where it met City Hall. Nevertheless, it served it's purpose well and was home to legions of Hillwood's former residents, all of whom were taking a well deserved dirt nap.
Helga G. Pataki was also very much like the cemetery, or so she thought. She too had not been thrown hurriedly together, choosing instead to be a maze of very complex workings, even at the tender age of eleven, but she, like the cemetery, felt like people had two main issues with her. Firstly, they put her wherever they could find the room and secondly, they felt a lot better on the whole if they could avoid her altogether. Therefore she was not surprised that she was morbidly drawn to the place, and on this particular day in question it was even less surprising as her grandmother had been buried there not two weeks before. What was odd, however, was the fact that she had chosen to spend this night sitting as far away from her grandmother's grave as was humanly possible without leaving the cemetery.
Helga did not believe in talking to the dead. She didn't think that they could hear her innermost thoughts and feelings on the astral plane some referred to as Heaven, or perhaps maybe she just hoped they couldn't. Either way, she chose not to whisper fond and forced goodbyes to a grandmother she barely knew, but instead thought simply of her, and the life she had had, which spawned Miriam, a quilt on Olga's bed and third place in a poetry competition when she had been Helga's age. When she had found the ribbon underneath her grandmother's bed, Helga had been taken aback but at the same time a lot of things clicked into place. At last she could dispel her childish fears of adoption, as clearly her creative blood had come from somewhere.
She shifted uncomfortably and shivered a little. The stone tomb she had chosen to sit upon in it's moselueum was having a profound effect on her rear. That was to say that like it's occupant, the tomb was slowly deadening her butt as well. Helga pretended not to notice and rested her chin in her hands as she swun her legs back and forth over the edge. She hoped that Miriam was feeling a little better, or had at least she had returned to the smoothies. It was surprising what a sobering effect death can have on the drunk, and as far as Helga knew it worked the other way as well. She wondered what she would do if someone she truly loved died, but stopped before it depressed her.
Depression was something Helga didn't know much about. She knew about sadness and loss and grief, but depression was a foreign emotion to her. She supposed that all of the other negative emotions could turn to depression, but she was certain that depression was feeling sorry for yourself, whereas loss was feeling sorry for what you had, well, lost. Depression was the point where you stopped thinking about things you wanted and started concentrating on the things you didn't have, and Helga had never gotten that far. It had occured to her, (that is to say it never stopped plaguing her), that she wanted Arnold, but she had never contemplated the fact that she didn't actually have him. As far as she could tell she was still on the road to getting her man, and depression would be the point where she would give up, go home and plug in her Mom's blender.
A spider made it's merry way across the wall of the moselum, towards the web it called home. Helga sighed, checked her watch and supposed she should follow suit. She jumped down from the tomb, thanking the owner for his kind hospitality, scooped up a bouqet of daffodils and left through the heavy wooden door. Daffodils were her grandmother's favourite, according to Miriam, and Helga was not about to leave without paying a quick visit to her. Just to show she still cared. In her weaker moments she wanted to speak to her grandmother, as it was easier to talk to someone who was guaranteed never to interrupt or tell another soul, but then she'd feel embarassed as soon as the words left her mouth and she would leave, promising to come back when the weather permitted.
For a quiet moment she regarded her grandmother's grave. It was only a simple stone, with her name, the year she was born, the year she died, and a generic quote at the bottom. 'Mother, sister, friend.' Helga wondered if it was so understated because her grandmother had wished it that way or because her father had paid for it. Helga thought it was just the one she wanted. She could see no sense in forking out a truckload of money for a gigantic stone angel, just so people will walk past and pay it no mind. Admittedly, you could always stand beside it, ringing a bell and wearing a sandwich board that said 'You'll never guess who's buried here!', but to most people a body is a body unless it's the one they buried. Helga knealt down and placed the daffodils by the headstone as respectfully as her pink dress would allow, and got to her feet. "See ya later Grandma," she whispered.
"I thought you didn't talk to the dead?"
Helga's insides froze, unfroze, tried to escape out of her mouth which was already full of her heart and froze again. The voice was so deep it reverberated around Helga in a most inhuman way, but at the same time it carried with it an icy, sharp edge that could have separated body from soul. Helga, who's eyes were as wide with fear as they could be, did not turn around to view the speaker and instead made little gurgly noises in the back of her throat.
"Don't worry," said the voice. "I won't hurt you."
Helga did not feel at all inclined to believe whoever it was, but at the same time she sensed a sort of stupidity at standing stock still while a person of indeterminate origin got a good view of the space between your shoulder blades. Slowly, and with all of the fluid movement of a sack of spanners, Helga turned around to face her unrequested company. She would have gasped, but all of her senses and reactions seemed to have taken an unscheduled trip to Aruba.
Before her stood the most terrifying sight she had ever seen. Swarthed in a black cloak that billowed around his skeletal body despite the still air, stood a figure just shy of seven feet. In his hand he held a long, crooked scythe even taller than he was, which looked sharp enough to slice silk scarves as they fluttered to the ground. Helga couldn't help but notice that where there should have been skin and sinew and flesh there was only bone, and where there should have been eyes there were only sockets. Skulls, as a rule, don't have facial expressions, but Helga was certain that this figure was giving her a jaunty smile. Much to her chargrin, as anything else, Helga felt that although she was filled with a morbid sense of dread, she was also serenly calm.
"You're Death," she said simply.
"Well spotted," Death replied.
Helga wasn't stupid, but she was the queen of denial. Like most eleven year olds, she knew that Death came to everyone sooner or later, but in her childish wisdom she had been hoping more for the 'later'. What little life she had had flashed before her eyes, and she felt a sort of anger towards Death at his ill-timing. Her grandmother had only just died, for crying out loud. But then, she supposed, Death wasn't really one for tact or he wouldn't take some people at all. She scowled at the cloaked figure, and folded her arms tightly across her chest.
"Hollywood really got you down to a cliche, didn't they?" she said spitefully. Death let out a small moan and plucked at his robe with his free hand.
"No," he said in a sullen voice. "I used to be a sweet looking little girl, but people seem to respond so much better to this now." He propped his scythe against a gravestone and sat down on the grass. Helga had an overwhelming impulse to run like the clappers, but felt that she couldn't move. She bit her lip, sent Fate a strongly worded mental letter, and looked down at Death, who was now picking daisies.
"Look, can we get this over with," she said tiredly. "I know you don't have all day..." Death looked up at her, puzzled, then looked down at himself.
"Oh!" he exclaimed suddenly, getting to his feet. "I'm not here for you," he said, rummaging around inside his pocket. He withdrew a very long scroll and began running his finger down the list, muttering the small girl's name over and over under his breath. "Aha! Here we are! Helga Geraldine-"
"No!" Helga siad quickly, clamping her hands over her ears. "Don't tell me, I don't want to know!"
"Ah," said Death, rolling the scroll back up and replacing it back in his pocket. "Sorry."
"No problem," said Helga unsteadily, sitting down before she fell down. At least, said a cheerful voice in the back of her mind, we're not going to die!
No, said another voice, a much more bullying one that would have curled it's hands into fists if it had them. But it appears we are crazy.
Well, yes, there is that, the first voice agreed. Helga told them both to shut up and looked at Death.
"So what are you here for?" she finally asked. Death ran a bony index finger across his bony chin and frowned. Helga wondered how he did it, but he was most definitely frowning.
"I just thought you and I should have a little chat," he said finally, in a way which made Helga's spine curl up in fright and go and have a whimper in the corner.
"Oh you did, did you?" she asked in a high-pitched, jittery voice. She could feel her left eye twitching.
"Look, I'm sorry if I startled you," Death said gently.
"Oh well, that makes it all better then, doesn't it?" Helga said sarcastically. Death, it seemed, was unaware of the concept of sarcasm and carried on regardless.
"Yes," he said slowly, sitting down next to her. Helga tried to inch away from him but was rooted to the spot. He seemed to eminate a sort of coldness that was, at the same time, rather warm. When Helga finally got to the other side and was in full charge of her faculties, she was going to kick his head in for messing with her senses like this. "You see, I like you. You're so different to all the other mortals."
"No I'm not," Helga insisted. If she possessed one quality that Death could single her out for and actually like, she wanted it disposed of as soon as possible.
"You are, my girl, you are," Death said firmly, patting her on the knee. Helga's whole leg momentarily died.
"Ok, I am, I am, I'm sorry!" Helga said, staring down at her leg in shock, as it was turning a rather post-mortem blue.
"Whoops," said Death, taking away his skeletal digits. "I forgot you weren't dead."
"Oh, thank a bunch, bucko," Helga said in an offended voice.
"I didn't mean anything by it," Death replied quickly, and Helga found herself having to remember that she was sitting, in the middle of a graveyard, conversing with the Grim Reaper. She must have slipped in the moseleum and hit her head on the tomb. "You are different though, you're much more in tune with the borders of realities."
"I am?" Helga asked, secretly thinking that if she ran across anyone who said they'd been speaking to Death she would accuse them of witchcraft and burn them.
"Of course you are," Death said simply. "Why else would you even be able to see me?"
"Can't everyone then?" Helga asked.
"Oh Lord no. My job would be very difficult indeed if people kept stopping me every few feet, half of them trying to kill me and the other half trying to get my autograph. No, only the ones who understand that there's more to life than what we see, without getting all conspiracy theorist about it."
"And I do that, do I?" Helga asked, looking at her hands.
"In a manner of speaking," Death said offhandedly. Helga decided suddenly that she didn't want to know.
"You know what, I'll take your word for it," she said.
"Probably for the best," Death replied with a nod.
"So what did you want to talk about?" Helga asked, thinking she should be getting home even though her watch had stopped and a bird appeared to have come to a screeching halt mid-flight.
"Life," Death said. Helga let out a short laugh. Not only was that a rather strange topic for Death to be discussing, or so she thought, but Helga was so young that there was a lot about life she didn't know yet, and what insight Death hoped to glean from her would be very unhelpful indeed.
"I see," she said quietly.
"I suppose, however, that you'd much rather talk about death," the hooded figure said solemnly. It was only then that Helga noticed the hundred or so questions that were buzzing about her brain, which up until now had been kept in check by the feeling of complete and utter panic that seemed to be running the show.
"Hmmm," she said by way of agreement.
"Go on then," he said idly.
"Really?" Helga asked.
"Really," Death replied.
"Is there a Heaven?" Helga asked without hesitation. Death offered her a very pointed shrug.
"I don't know," he admitted. "It's all bright lights and purple mists, but once the souls disappear into it it's anyone's guess because I can't go any further." Helga suddenly felt a very foreign emotion engulf her; sympathy.
"So you... where do you exist? In Hell?" Death rolled his eyeless sockets at her.
"Just because I take the souls of the living it doesn't mean I'm a bad person. I live on Earth, like you and Olga and the Queen of England." Death rubbed his bony elbow and looked up to the night sky.
"What about when you're not... working?" Helga asked.
"Yeah, 'cause every now and then people just give up popping their clogs to give me a day off," Death said dryly. Helga was not about to be out-charmed.
"Yeah, so to what do I owe the pleasure of filling your skiving off time?" she asked cuttingly.
"I can stop time, you know," Death said pointedly, and Helga remebered her watch.
"Neat trick," she conceded. "So who were you... before?"
"Before what?" Death asked.
"Before you took up the scythe and went around killing people," Helga said as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"I've never been anything else," Death said simply, and once again the sympathy marched about in front of her eyes.
"So, do you have to do this forever? Who's making you?"
"To be honest, I'm not sure. I'm just a very scary looking messenger here to tell you that your time on this Earth has passed. That's it. Nothing more, and no less."
"Sounds like a kind of boring existence if you ask me," Helga said dully.
"It's not too bad," Death said, stretching his arms out in front of him. "Good dental plan." He grinned extra wide, to show off an impeccable set of pearly whites. "Plus, you know, chats with frightened eleven year old girls in the middle of cemeteries are always good for a laugh."
"I'm not frightened," Helga said firmly.
"Not anymore," Death agreed.
"So that list of yours," Helga said, indicating at Death's pocket. "Does that say when absolutely everyone is going to die?"
"Yep. The second you're born your name goes on the list," Death said with a sigh. "Kind of sad really, when you think about it. All you're building to is this." He gestured around the graveyard, at the hundreds of dead bodies that lie quite still six feet under the earth. Helga shrugged lightly.
"We all gotta go sometime," she said.
"Aren't you even slightly miffed?" Death asked. "When I tell most people that, they top themselves the next day."
"That's pretty mean," Helga said coldly.
"I hate it when the living miss deadlines, excuse the pun," Death said in a business-like tone. "But it really doesn't bother you?"
"In the grand scheme of things life can last for a pretty long while. I'll worry about being dead when I am thanks," Helga said lightly. Death sighed, and Helga felt the both hot-and-cold breath on her skin again.
"Will you knock that off?" she demanded.
"Sorry, I know it's a little cold," Death said.
"And warm, It's weird and confusing." Death threw her a sideways glance.
"Did you just say, and warm?"
"Yeah, I did, and if you don't mind it's messing with my head so go breathe somewhere else. Wait, why are you even breathing at all?" Death dismissed this question at once, and looked at her strangely.
"Only the dead say it's warm," he said slowly. Helga's insides ran around her body looking for an emergency escape. "And only the living say it's cold..."
"So I'm what? Half dead?" Helga said, the twitch returning to her eye with a look of triumph.
"Or half alive," Death said with a chuckle.
"Can we not joke about my mortality please?" Helga said sharply. Death sighed and shook his head.
"We can worry about it later," Death said half-heartedly, but Helga was forced to interject. When it came to the matter of whether or not she was still breathing, Helga would prefer it dealt with right away.
"Excuse me?" she said in a scandalised voice.
"It's not a big deal."
"Not a big deal?" she repeated with a shriek. "Maybe not for you bones, but I would rather be all dead or all alive and not somewhere in the middle!" Death glared at her and reached out with his fingertip, which Helga couldn't help but feel looked like the barrel of a gun, and pressed it to her forehead. It felt as though someone had packed her head with ice. Death left it there for a few moments before taking it away.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"Pissed off!" she replied quickly.
"But not... dead?"
"No, but you're gonna be feeling something rather like it if you don't explain yourself in two seconds flat."
"I tried to kill you," Death said simply.
"You did what?" Helga cried, feeling that this was not the way beautiful friendships got started.
"It didn't work, did it?" Death said defensively. "It's not your time, therefore I can only conclude you're as alive as you're ever going to be. You must just have a closer connection to the afterlife than most people."
"Just what I always wanted," Helga said glumly.
"You should try talking to the dead sometimes," Death said shortly. "They might actually be able to hear you." Helga hugged her knees to her chest and did a little assesment of her mental state. All of her senses were pretty adament about the fact that she was awake, so this wasn't a dream, but her Common Sense refused to back down from the point that talking to Death just wasn't something one normally did. Her Fear had relaxed a little but refused to come out from behind the sofa, and her sense of Self-Importance had just plugged itself with a bike pump and was getting very inflated. Meanwhile, Logic and Desire were having a fist fight over what Helga wanted to believe more, that she was crazy or that she was special, while Belief itself was sitting on the couch with it's feet up.
"I don't want to talk to the dead," she said quickly. "I bet it's all war stories and how things weren't like this in their day."
"I never said they'd answer you," Death said, but added, "They might," as an afterthought. Helga closed her eyes and tried to think of all the people she had known who had passed away. There was her grandmother of course, and Helga felt that after her goodbyes there really was nothing left to say. She could always call on her old parrot and apologise for getting it eaten by a monitor lizard, but it would only repeat her apology back to her anyway.
"What if I have nothing to say?" she asked Death.
"There's always something left unsaid," Death said. Helga supposed that she could talk to random dead people in the cemetery, delivering final messages and all that, but Helga didn't really want a life that revolved around death. But she could answer a lot of unanswered questions, one of which had just leapt up from the back of her head and was now dancing in front of her, begging to be asked.
"Did you..." she began, choosing her words carefully. "Did you take Arnold's parents?" Death looked at her thoughtfully, and for once Helga could read no other expression. He sighed, flexed his skeletal fingers and then, with all the airs and grace of a three year old turned to her and stuck out an invivible tongue.
"Not telling you," he said childishly. Helga growled at him.
"Why not?" she demanded.
"Because," said Death in a maddening way.
"That's it," said Helga, getting to her feet. "I'm getting out of this paranoid delusion and going home."
"Alright, fine," Death said hurriedly. "I can't tell you because there are certain rules and regulations that I must follow. Also, I'm sure that it's none of your business." Helga sighed and looked at Death despairingly.
"Fine," Helga muttered.
"Do you ever think about what you want out of life Helga?"
"Constantly," Helga replied.
"Well don't," Death said shortly. "It only leads to disappointment. Think about what you already have, and what you wouldn't mind having but if you don't get it it's not a big deal."
"Wow, that's a wise and poetic little speech."
"I'm serious, life can be good or bad, I've ended all types of lives and those who were happiest were the ones who died without everything they never wanted. Or those who were on the job, of course..."
"On the what?"
"So you're saying you came here to tell me to carry on the way I am?"
"What about Arnold?"
"What about him?"
"I want him. Are you saying I shouldn't?"
Death didn't answer. Helga wondered if it was possibly to wedgie Death.
"Can I just go home now?"
"Not yet," Death said.
"You didn't come here just to chat, did you?" Helga said, feeling cheated.
"No," Death said. "I came to help you."
"Help me?" Helga repeated.
"I'm going to help you with problems of your heart. Do you remember earlier, when you were wondering how you'd feel if someone you truly loved died? I'm going to help you find out." Helga's eyes widened in terror. "I'm going to kill Arnold." In the rush to her eyes, the tears blocked up the ducts so well that none of them could actually escape. Her voice too decided it wasn't worth putting in an appearance, and all sense of reality went out of the window. She wanted to say 'why?', but all that emerged was a soundless gaping.
"I'm kidding!" Death said quickly. Helga aimed a very hard kick at his skull and caught him on the chin. He rubbed it, looking sore and sour. "You said you wanted to know!"
"No I didn't!" Helga protested. "I wondered, but then I stopped wondering because I didn't want to know! That was so low, so very very low!"
"Sorry," said Death gruffly. "I suppose my sense of humour is a little warped."
"A little?" said Helga, who was still breathing heavily. A mighty wind struck itself up and blew through Hillwood Cemetery, lashing the trees and rippling the grass. "So why did you come here?" Helga asked, bowing her head against the weather. Death shrugged at her, got to his feet and picked up his scythe.
"I was lonely," he said. "And seeing as you seem to come here most nights now instead of playing baseball, I thought you might be lonely too."
"You know what?" Helga said in a vicious tone. "Some people have imaginary friends, and some have guardian angels. Why do I get Death?" Death thought about this for a second.
"Don't you like me?" he asked finally. Helga rolled her eyes.
"It's not that," Helga said quickly. "It's just, you know, you're the Grim Reaper. People only usually see you once in a life time, and even then it's right at the very end." Death swung his scythe at the ground and lopped the head off of a few flowers.
"I could use an assisstant," he said, eyeing Helga, who took a step back.
"No way," she said. "I have other things I'd rather be doing. Like having a root canal, for instance." Death nodded and looked to the ground. Once again the sympathy made Helga speak up. "Sorry, but you know, you can... er... come visit sometimes. If you want, and if it turns out that I'm not actaully stark raving mad." Death looked up and smiled.
"Thanks Helga," he said. Helga heard a twig snap behind her, and when she looked up again Death was gone. She frowned.
"Great," she said to herself. "I just made friends with Death."
Helga walked slowly through the graveyard towards the gates of the Cemetery, feeling as though she had been beaten up. Her head seemed to be very angry with her, and the rest of her body wasn't too pleased with her either. As she neared the gates she spotted a small a rather decepit looking gravestone, all by itself on a tiny hillock. She walked over to it and read the inscription.
Henry Jonathan Priestly
Father, brother, friend.
"My grandmother's maiden name was Priestly," Helga said softly.
"Small world," said an old man's voice in the back of her head.
The next morning Helga felt like a good long walk was just the thing to clear her head. However, the more she walked the more she reaslied that she would be in Alaska before her head even started to return to normal. Helga had come to the conclusion that last night had been a slight lapse out of sanity and into Crazyville, in which a comical, moive-styled Death had come to her and talked junk for half an hour. Clearly it was nothing more than the product of a derranged mind, and all she needed was a little stability.
She walked the familiar path down Vine Street and stopped outside of the Sunset Arms, thinking. The door opened, and though Helga saw it it didn't really register until the frame was filled with the shape of Arnold.
"Helga?" he said, returning to her her senses. She suddenly realised how glad she was to see him, alive and all. She dashed up the stairs and pulled him into a tight embrace.
"You're alive!" she cried happily.
"Daily," Arnold replied uncertainly. Helga let him out of her arms and looked embarrassed. "It's sort of strange you're here," Arnold said after a moment's pause. "This came for you this morning. Here. At my house." He handed her a small envelope with her name printed on it in over-the-top showy script. She slit it open and pulled out a small, white card. It had three words on it, printed in blood red ink.
"See you soon."
Helga swallowed, a feeling of cold dread filling her insides. She took a deep breath and allowed her eyes to flick skyward. "Very funny," she muttered dryly.
"I thought you'd like it," said a voice that could have frozen time itself.