There would be no sleep, his mind would simply not allow it. The after effects of the evening’s excitement still flowed through his veins. Not to mention, he had something to attend to. The three metal objects in his pocket jabbed his hip no matter how he positioned himself. He let out a sigh which morphed into a yawn then reached into his pockets and yanked out three keys, one silver and two gold.
After wiggling out of the gold keys’ back-to-back attempts to momentarily steal away his vision, Joe staggered to his feet and hobbled over the prone body of Zalfron. He held the silver key in his right hand, thrust it in the air, then stopped. Wait no…wrong key. He put the silver key back in his pocket then retrieved one of the golden keys. He shook off the key’s initial preview then he thrust it into the air then twisted his wrist. As he pulled back, sunlight exploded into the room – bright and warm. He had opened a door to an Alabama summer day. Joe glanced down at Zalfron, the Earthen sun lit up his Solarin cheeks, but the elf didn’t budge. Joe took a deep breath, swallowed his spit, and strode forward.
He was standing on a sidewalk, looking over the crumpled body of the humpback hag he’d almost hit at the intersection prior to his wreck. A passerby was busy performing CPR on the body and, when Joe appeared, the Good Samaritan himself almost had a heart attack. Without ceasing the rhythmic thrusting of chest compressions, the stranger proclaimed to Joe, “Holy hell, you scared the-”
His statement was cut short as the sound of bending metal, squealing tires, and shattering glass exploded upon the summer day.
Joe couldn’t look. As the semi-truck consumed the Honda, Joe withdrew the silver key from his pocket. It twinkled in the sunlight as if laughing at him, but the shimmering was short lived. A shadow fell between Joe and the sun. The gentle breeze ceased and, as if carried in the wind, so did the commotion around him. A single sound hung in the air like the voice of a god.
The voice was so dull and monotonous that Joe almost didn’t feel the need to spin and face the speaker. He knew in his heart who it was. Still, he turned and found himself staring into the sockets of a humanoid skull. Black cloth wrapped the cranium and fell loosely down to hide the rest of the being’s body. The figure looked just as Joe would have expected.
“You’re the Grim Reaper, aren’t you?” Joe asked.
“No,” Death responded, “I am Death.”
Joe looked away, contemplating making a run for it before realizing any attempt would be futile. Time had stopped. Beside them, the man leaning over the old crone was frozen with his palms still clasped one on top of the other in-between the old lady’s breasts. His jaw was still slack and his eyes were still stuck on the destruction across the street. Torn metal hung in the air, smoke sat stagnant around the tractor trailer, shards of glass stuck in the summer sky, caught in mid glimmer, glowing like distant stars.
Game over, Joe thought, “Does this mean I have to die now?”
“No.” Death said.
“Really?” Joe instantly regretted second guessing the Reaper.
When Death spoke he seemed to put a pause between each syllable and Joe clung to each, “You were not meant to die today.”
He sighed then asked, “Then why are you here?”
Death slowly tilted his pale, hooded melon to nod at the body mounted by the first aid giver beside them.
“Then why am I here,” Joe scratched his head with his key, “with you?”
Looking up from the hag, Death said, “You’ve got her key-”
“Ah…” Joe frowned, “don’t you want my key?”
Death shook his head, no.
“Wait, how is it that there is a key for me, right then and there,” Joe beckoned across the intersection, “if I am not supposed to die today?”
“This is not the only universe in which you exist.” Death explained, “The Key Library reaches into all universes due to the timelessness of its patrons who return their rented keys irrespective of the relative past, present, or future of their visit. Time travel inevitably creates different intersecting timelines. The library contains many an anomaly.”
As the undead spoke, Joe looked back across the street. Half of the tractor trailer was hidden behind the façade of the overpass. The Honda had almost made it by but the truck driver had swerved the wrong way, striking the back right corner and gobbling the rest of the Civic up. The tattered remains of his vehicle lay scattered across the intersection like a mutilated corpse – like he would’ve been if not for Ekaf. He looked at the two keys in his hands, his own and the old womans, silver and gold.
“In your reality, this key is soulless,” Death concluded with his dreary tone and creeping tempo, “an artifact of an alternate dimension.” Death rattled his phalanges, “Now, the lady’s key?”
Joe backed up, holding the key to his breast, “Does Ekaf always pick me? In these parallel universes, have there been other supposed Sun Childs?”
The undead ground his teeth, “After this question, there will be serious consequences if you do not give me the key.”
“Understood.” Joe said.
“Time after time, throughout every universe I have yet seen, no matter how quickly you falter or flee, Ekaf has always picked you.”
“Why me?” Joe murmured.
Death shrugged and stepped towards Joe but the human still clutched the old woman’s key reluctantly.
“Can I keep this key,” He dropped the key into his pocket and retrieved the other golden key he’d taken from the Library, “if I give you this one instead?”
Death reached for the key but Joe jerked back once more.
“But you’ve got to let me use it first.”
“I’m starting to think Ekaf picked you because he saw a little of himself in you, Joe.” Death grumbled.
Joe took the retort as approval and turned his back on Death. Thrusting the second golden key out into the stagnant air before him, he twisted his wrist then jerked his hand back and rendered a tunnel through time and space. He strode forward, with Death right behind him, bringing the vision the key had cast over his eyes into reality.
A gentle drizzle of sun speckled dust hung in the air around them, neither falling nor rising, as this realm, too, ceased to progress past the present. For a moment, Joe couldn’t drag his eyes away from the static figure – who would have been similarily statuesque with time as without – held in a plush emerald chair in the corner of the room. The man’s jaw hung loose, not as if in awe or shock but as if in a deep sleep. A book sat in his lap, abandoned by his hands which rested, with upturned palms, on either side. Tears budded in Joe’s eyes and he wanted nothing more than to embrace the shell of the grandfather he loved but he had come to do something else.
Blinking the tears from his eyes, Joe spun to face the room. He glanced over the portraits of his family, lingering just a bit incase this was to be his last look, and over the images of lunar landings and outer space vessels, then plopped down in a chair at one of two desks. The other desk was dedicated to a computer, printer, scanner, and the like while the one he’d picked was for the more medieval forms of documentation: paper and pen. Sliding open a drawer, he withdrew an envelope and a pencil then scooted the rolling chair towards the other bureau to snatch a blank sheet from the printer. As he took to writing, he could feel Death watching over his shoulder. Joe finished writing the letter, signing it, “Don’t give up, ever, I’ll be back in a blink of the eye. Joe.” He folded the sheet, slid it in the envelope, licked the lid, then sealed it shut. On the outside he wrote, “To, my brother, Stephen.” Then, Joe opened the drawer once again to deposite his note and stopped.
He hadn’t noticed before but there was another sealed envelope waiting in the drawer. Like his own, this one was addressed to a “my brother” only instead of “Stephen” it was to “Joe”. Joe looked up at Death who continued to watch with what Joe could only assume was intrigue, then he opened the letter and read it. When he got to the end, he read it again, then again a third time.
“Dear Joe, thanks for writing home. You don’t know how hard it was for me not to spill the beans about everything after I found your letter. Soon enough I’ll be right alongside you (figured this was the only way I could write you back until then). We’ll be Papa’s spacemen in no time at all. Together. Exploring the galaxy and befriending the aliens, right? Still not quite sure how we’ll manage to ride a shooting star but, anyways, thanks for going first and don’t worry, I left right behind you. Stephen. P.S. You are the Sun Child!”
Then a little farther down the page.
“P.S.P.S. Hope that little spoiler won’t change you fate, but I figured you could use the reassurance!”
Joe rocked back in his seat and closed his eyes.
Death let him rest for a moment before interrupting, “Take this back to Solaris.”
Death extended a golden key out over Joe’s head, into his line of sight. Joe reached up and handed him Papa’s in exchange for the new one. It was rusted and chipped. Weighing it in his palms, he allowed the vision to come upon him like a crashing wave. He was looking at the charred subterranean library where he had met Zalfron only hours before. Shaking himself out of it, Joe folded up his brother’s letter and dropped it into his pocket.
“Do you not need the old lady’s key?”
Death shook his head, “I’m taking this key from you to keep you safe. The more you have, the clearer the signal.”
“The Knights of the Light.” Joe muttered.
“Indeed.” Death nodded, “Put them in a warp cube first chance you get.”
“I will.” Joe said, then he asked, “When I die…do I die happy?”
Death looked at Joe, thinking for a moment before responding, “You die ready.”
Death elaborated, “You die good.”
Joe couldn’t help but release a short, awkward chuckle.
“If I tell you much more-”
“I know,” Joe paused to yawn, “I know…I think I’m ready to go back to Bonehead’s now – wait!”
Death sighed. Joe was sure that if Death had eyes, he would have just rolled them.
“Is Ekaf okay?”
“Why does everyone hate him?”
“Have you not met him?”
Now Joe rolled his eyes, “Alright, now its really time for me to go. I’ve got to get some sleep.”
Death nodded, “Good bye, Joe.”
“Good bye, Death.”
Standing, Joe thrust the key of Bale Morain, who he knew as Bonehead, into the still air beside him then stepped through the portal it opened, leaving Earth behind.
“Good luck.” Death murmured.