Dedication: To my former psychology professor, Dr. Cusato, for inspiring me with the concepts behind this story and strengthening my inherent fascination with the human mind. And to all of my fellow fans of Liz, KidLiz, and Troika, because you guys are awesome.
Disclaimer: I do not own Atsushi Ohkubo's manga or Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' research. Or, apparently, my own name. It's a good thing I don't mind sharing it, then.
On Death and Dying
By Eeveebeth Fejvu
"Have we… been killed by this shinigami?"
- Liz Thompson, Chapter 78, Soul Eater
"Denial functions as a buffer after unexpected shocking news, allows the patient to collect himself and, with time, mobilize other, less radical defenses… The patient's first reaction may be a temporary state of shock from which he recuperates gradually. When his initial feeling of numbness begins to disappear and he can collect himself again, man's usual response is 'No, it cannot be me.'" - Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying
Liz Thompson leans back against the rough brick of the wall and stares hard at the homeless man through icy blue eyes.
Sitting in a slouch against the opposite wall, he leans precariously to his left, propped up by the rounded side of an overturned metal trash can. White padding pokes through rips in his oversized polyester coat, and his jeans are ashy gray from grime. The toe of his right sneaker is so worn through that Liz can clearly see the threadbare cotton sock underneath. His shaggy brown hair has not been washed in weeks, his wiry beard trimmed in months. The aviator glasses shielding his eyes from her gaze are crooked; the jaw underneath is slack, revealing stained, ochre teeth. He is silent and still.
Liz raises her cigarette to her lips and estimates that he has been dead for at least three days.
Hypothermia or starvation. It is either one or the other, she thinks, because if it is not a bullet to the head or a knife to the throat here on the lethal streets of New York City – and she sees no obvious sign of violence on his person – then it is the persistent cold or the unappeasable hunger. She cocks her head. He seems thinner than she remembers him, though it is hard to tell beneath the bulky coat. His cheekbones are, perhaps, a little more prominent, the pockmarked skin beneath them sunken in, and each knobbed joint of the hand that rests on his thigh is visible and distinct. He shouldn't have died from starvation, though, Liz reasons; he had money he could have used for food – even if all he had was the money he owed her.
Two nights ago, the temperature had unexpectedly dropped all of the way into the lower teens, and even she had struggled to keep her sister and herself warm; eventually, she had broken down and gotten them a single bed to share in a rundown youth hostel. She remembers that night, the sluggish sensation she felt within her bones as the cold set in, and bobs her head slightly. That would do it.
There is a rhythmic clatter against the pavement, and Liz blows out a steady stream of smoke as Patty rounds the corner into the alley and barrels into her. The younger girl flings her arms around her sister's lean stomach, clenching onto her like a vice and burying her nose into the soft, fragile skin of Liz's neck. She feels a sudden warmth blaze to life in her chest, a tingling within her very soul, as Patty flips her sunshine yellow hair back with a laugh. But Liz remains against the wall, mouth a tight line and eyes trained intently on the dead man. In her peripheral vision, she watches Patty gaze up at her with puppy-like curiosity before noticing their motionless company. The younger girl's sky-blue eyes widen and her rosy lips form a long oval of surprise, and for one moment, she stays that way. Then, she giggles.
"Heya, Sis, what's he doing on the ground with the trash?" Patty asks in a bright, almost mischievous voice. "Sleepin'? Doesn't look like a comfortable place for a nap to me, hee hee!"
Liz jams the cigarette back between her teeth, almost fumbling it as her hand finally begins to shake. If only, she thinks; if only he was sleeping.
This is not the first deceased person Liz has ever seen, not by a long shot. In fact, Liz cannot recall her first experience seeing a dead body, and the only image she can bring to mind that might mark this event is faint and blurry and may just as likely have come from the movies or television as from real life. But she has seen death before, death in the flesh, and she knows what to expect. No matter what the cause of death or sort of person they are – man, woman, or innocent child – the bodies left behind all seem very much the same.
Pale. Still. Silent. Cold.
And yet, every time she encounters death anew, there is still a sense of shock. A sudden intake of breath, an involuntary raising of the eyebrows, a jolt of terrible recognition that twists like a venomous snake in the pit of her stomach. She doesn't know why death still seems to have this ability to astonish her, but it does.
Liz likes to think she can mask the automatic response by now, and thinks she's handled the surprise of this particular man's death with a decent cover of indifference, though she's never quite sure if Patty is convinced or not. But the reaction still comes. It doesn't even seem to matter if she knows the death is imminent or not; her response is the same.
The instinctual recoil. The innate revulsion.
The complete and indisputable rejection.
With a weary grunt, Liz heaves herself away from the wall. She starts to herd her sister out of the shadow of the alleyway, back into the flickering light of the autumn sun, but her sister is no longer beside her. Patty trots fearlessly across the short space, boots clicking musically with each step, to poke the homeless man on the shoulder with a single, outstretched finger. When the body shifts slightly against the garbage can, Liz nearly screams. The cigarette drops out of her mouth, but the vocal expression of utter terror catches in her throat, and she flinches silently instead. The man's head lolls a bit, back and forth, under Patty's provocation, causing the aviator glasses to slip a few centimeters down his nose. And when they do, Liz is staring straight into his red-rimmed eyes and is suddenly by her sister's side, her hand clinging desperately to Patty's wrist. She pulls her away even as the younger girl giggles at the body's ridiculous, pendulous motion.
"Stay back, Patty!" Liz commands. Her tone comes out harsher than she intended it to be. Patty, however, doesn't seem to be fazed by this.
"What's wrong, Sis? S'not like he can hurt me or anything," Patty counters, with cheerful matter-of-factness. "Besides, doncha want the money he owed us? That's why we came. He probably's got it on him somewhere, eh?"
"Fine, fine," Liz mutters quickly, trying to sweep her sister behind herself with an outstretched arm. "I'll get it. Just... stay back."
Patty laughs, but relents. "Okie-dokie, artichokie!"
Though Liz can feel an acrid burn building up in her throat, she forces herself to kneel in front of the body. She places one palm against the pavement to support herself, but the small, soft hand Patty lays unthinkingly on her shoulder is somehow an even greater support. She can feel the vibration - the tingling quiver of their connected souls - in this simple touch, even through her shirt and fur-rimmed jacket. Liz takes a steadying breath, and begins to explore the dead man's pockets with her free hand. To keep her mind off her task, and to keep the rising bile down, she tries to focus most of her attention on the warm, humming reverberations between her and Patty's souls. Hazily, her fingers flit through the front pockets of the man's polyester coat, and slide across the flattened front pockets of his jeans. All empty, save for a broken toothpick and some pieces of lint. Loathed to poke around the jeans' back pockets, she avoids the task by delicately pushing aside the left flap of the coat to check the inner pocket, and, fortunately, hits pay dirt.
From the inner pocket, she retrieves a dog-eared photograph, a small plastic bag, and a wad of cash.
Liz immediately retreats back to the far alley wall, away from the body, prizes in hand. Patty hooks her arm playfully around her sister's as they examine the objects one by one.
The money is folded in half, secured by a thick rubber band, and Liz doesn't even have to skim through all of the bills to know that what he was bringing them wouldn't even cover half the debt he owed them. Liz feels a flicker of annoyance at this, and thinks indignantly to herself, who does he think he is, that he could pull a fast one on the Demons of Brooklyn and get away with it scot-free? But she quickly remembers that he can no longer think at all, much less cheat them out of their money, and the annoyance immediately dissipates.
The plastic bag, no bigger than a golf ball, is petite and harmless-looking as it sits in her palm, but it is packed with a pure white powder that Liz is sure she knows the identity of. She doesn't untie the knot in the plastic to check, however, tucking it away in the pocket of her own coat out of the reach of Patty's curious, grasping fingers. It could have been the drugs, Liz realizes suddenly, and not the cold that led to his demise. Somehow, she had overlooked this cause of death in her analysis, though she has seen, in person, such innocent powders work their lethal magic before. They can be as deadly as anything else. As an afterthought, the cigarette still smoldering by her foot is discretely ground into dust with her heel.
And then Liz holds up the photograph, tilting it to catch the light. It is one of the small kind Liz has seen before, tucked in a plastic flip-book in the wallet of some pick-pocketed victim, a posed photo from a paid photographer with fancy lighting and a monochrome, marbled backdrop. The picture has seen better days, with its bent corner and embedded flecks of grime, but the smile on the face of the girl in the photo shines brilliantly through the cloudy film. Liz swallows as her throat tightens. She can't begin to guess how old the photograph is, so she can't tell if this girl – in her late teens, early twenties at the most – is his sister, an old crush from high school, a long-gone girlfriend, a youthful portrait of a lost wife, or even a recent photo of a daughter whose custody has long been beyond his grasp. There might be some resemblance to him in the face, Liz thinks, but the blonde hair and blue eyes are distracting and only remind her of someone else. Liz shuts her eyes.
Whoever she is, he must have loved her, Liz thinks. Whatever low things he might have done to survive, in his soul, he was a decent man.
So why did he have to die?
Her eyes shoot open, and Liz flings the photograph away from her, into the depths of the alley. Patty whines her disappointment, not yet finished with her examination, but Liz can no longer stand to look at that smiling girl, whose real-life counterpart must still be innocent of the man's death, if she is even alive herself.
Instead, Liz grips Patty hard, pulling her sister into the vice-like embrace she hadn't returned before.
She knows - in an intellectual way - why he had to die. And yet, even though she tries to block it from her mind, it's all she can think about.
Because everyone has to die sometime.
She breathes in sharply, nose buried in Patty's soft hair, and feels the agonized, poisonous twist in her stomach.
No, she thinks, suddenly feeling rebellious. She feels her head begin to shake slowly, back and forth, as she recoils from the pain. Others may die, but...
And not Patty.
Death is pale, still, silent, and cold: a foreign, moonless, never-ending night. Liz cannot imagine Patty dead, even if she allowed herself to imagine such a thing. Death is so much the complete opposite of her sister that such an image would be incomprehensible, perfectly impossible. Not when Patty is all bright rosy cheeks and gleaming yellow hair, all constant animation and boundless laughter, all tingling vibrations and familiar sunshine warmth and oh-so full of life.
Patty's arms come up to wrap around Liz curiously, and Liz can feel that their heartbeats are just as synchronized as their souls. And she knows that, if she ever allowed that other heart to fail, her own could hardly be expected to go on itself.
Patty is her reason to live. If Liz did not live, there would be no one to keep Patty safe and happy, so she knows she must keep on living. This has always been the way it is, and Liz is repulsed by the idea that there might be someone else out there in the world that could make her feel this way. Patty is her reason to live, and she is also the reason why Liz will never allow herself to die, never allow death to touch either one of them. She will protect her sister from the horror of death, pushing it forever away with all of her mind, body, and soul. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.
Liz feels a pounding sense of resolve welling up in her chest. Despite the constant dangers of their unsheltered life and the macabre nightmares that plague her mind almost every night, she is determined to make herself and Patty impervious to death. We are the Demons of Brooklyn, she tells herself, pulling back to gaze into the sky-blue pools of Patty's eyes. Just as we have conquered our borough, we will conquer death as well. I mean, if you can get a place like this under your thumb, who's to say you can't master death as well? ...Huh. That's a good title, isn't it?
The Thompson Sisters, Masters of Death.
Smiling shakily at her sister, Liz wraps an arm around Patty's shoulders. "C'mon, let's get out of here. We aren't gonna get anything else from him." She avoids looking at the dead man again, even though Patty glances once more at him and laughs.
With a one-armed hug, Liz shepherds her sister out into the golden light, her back firmly turned to the alley, rejecting the cold, silent dark.