Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn On the Lights?

This story takes place before the events of BLACK WINGS.

By Christina Henry

My name is Madeline Black, and I’m an Agent of death. When you’re an Agent of death, you see a lot of horrifying stuff. It goes with the package. You don’t have a choice about becoming an Agent – it’s an inherited thing – and you don’t have a choice about which souls you get to retrieve, even if they’ve been squished by a city bus and you just ate breakfast. I’ve had lots of pickups like that. I’ve been an Agent for 18 years, since I was fourteen years old and my mother died, passing on the “gift” to me.

Most of the time I try not to let the really icky stuff get to me. It’s not my job to be judge and jury. I’m magically bound against preventing deaths that have been predicted by the Agency’s seers.

These predictions get sent out to the various agents in the form of a list of names and places. The Agent goes to the appointed place at the appointed time, picks up the soul and takes them to the Door. Basically, if it’s on my list I’ve got to take the soul, even if that death is stupid and senseless and horrible.

There was one time, though, that really stuck with me. This was long before Gabriel came into my life, bringing a whole lot of uncomfortable revelations about my heritage with him. I was maybe 21 or 22, and my pickup that night was at Northwestern University, inside one of the dorm rooms.

I live in Chicago, and Northwestern is just a wee bit north of the city in the suburb of Evanston. It’s a good school with a heavy research bent and it attracts a lot of smart kids in a pretty wide variety of fields. They also have a Division I football team, which is important for some reason I don’t understand. My gargoyle controls the remote so I don’t get to watch very many sporting events. He’s partial to reality TV.

The name on the list was Meg Percy, and it listed her time of death as 10:28pm. I decided to show up a little early since I wasn’t sure if I’d have trouble getting into the dorm. I can make myself invisible – all I’ve got to do is push out my wings (also comes with the Agent package) and I wink right out of sight. But I’m still bound by the same laws of the universe that everyone else is, which means that I can’t walk through walls or doors or windows. I’ve got to get in the regular human way.

I hung around the door of Meg’s dorm for a just a few seconds and then a couple of the female residents came out, chatting happily about a party they were attending that night. I rushed up to the door and slipped in behind them before it slammed shut.

The residence was divided into suites, with six bedrooms sharing one bathroom. The halls were pretty crowded with kids darting back and forth across the hall to see their friends or heading out for a night on the town. It was tough not to brush up against anyone as I inched my way toward Meg’s room.

I hovered around the doorway for a just a few moments and then got lucky as her roommate came into the hall. The girl paused in the door for a few minutes to talk to Meg, which gave me the chance that I needed to slip by and into the room. I pressed myself in the corner by the closet, well away from Meg.

“Meg, are you sure you won’t go?” her roommate asked. “Marc says it’s going to be awesome.”

Meg, who was hunched over a pile of books at her desk, shook her head. “I’ve got too much stuff to do, Julie. And you really shouldn’t be going out either. This test that Ackerman has for us is going to be a killer.”

Julie shook out her long dark hair. “Whatever. I can cram tomorrow. See you later.”

Meg waved her hand at her roommate and went back to studying for her test.

There was no sound in the room for the next hour other than the scratch of her pen in the notebook and the flipping of pages as she scanned her textbooks. I tried to breathe quietly as I wondered what would happen to her. Freak accident? Sudden unexplained heart attack? It made me sad to watch her, knowing that this was her last night on earth. Maybe she would be sorry that she didn’t go out to the party and have some fun instead of studying for a test she would never get a chance to take.

Outside in the hall I could hear the thump of music and the boisterous shouts that meant someone in the dorm was having a party. Girls screamed as boys chased them down the halls, laughing all the way.

I glanced at my watch, a slender, silver-linked piece that had been my last birthday present from my mother. It was 10:00.

Somebody knocked at the door, and I felt a chill. I knew that death had come to call.

Meg got up from her desk slowly and stretched, her face still distracted by thoughts of whatever she was studying. It looked scientific and complicated from where I stood. She walked to door and opened it without looking through the peephole first.

There must have been no one in the hall to see him because he rushed in and had her on the floor with duct tape over her mouth before the door had even finished closing. Her eyes were wide with terror as he flipped her over and bound her hands. I couldn’t see much of him because he wore a baseball cap pulled down over his face and a nondescript looking flannel shirt. It was the mid-90’s – Pearl Jam was huge and everyone wore flannel shirts. He must have blended right in with the rest of the college boys.

There was a sense of anticipation in the air, and it was coming from him. I felt a little sick, knowing that he was going to hurt her and I couldn’t stop it, wasn’t allowed to stop it. All I could do was take her soul away.

I turned my face away so I wouldn’t have to see, but I could still hear. I wake up at night sometimes, the sound of his knife in her flesh still echoing in my ears.

When she’d finally breathed her last breath I stepped over to her corpse. He was preparing to defile her some more, and I didn’t want her soul to see that. It was bad enough that her last memory of her life would be filled with terror and pain.

Her soul drifted up from the body, confused and child-like. I rose to meet her, flapping my wings to stay aloft. She started to look down and put my hand under her chin so that she would look at me.

“Don’t look down,” I ordered.

Her blue eyes were wide as she stared at my wings. “Are you the Grim Reaper?”

“Sort of,” I said. “I’m here to take you to the Door. Will you accompany me?”

You’ve got to give the soul a choice. That’s in the rulebook, too. They can either go to the Door and move on to…whatever it is that they move on to (I’m not allowed to know) or they can stay and haunt the earth forever. I find that it’s best to try to get the soul away from the death site as quickly as possible. They’re more likely to choose the Door if they don’t have too much time to think about it.

“But what about…” she said, and started to look down again. “Don’t look,” I said again. “Believe me, you don’t want to know.”

“I do remember,” she said softly, and I hoped that whatever was behind the Door would take that haunted look out of her eyes.

I wanted to give her a hug, to tell her that it was all going to be all right. But it wasn’t going to be. She was dead. I couldn’t change that.

There was a flutter of movement below us, and I glanced down to see the killer frantically covering her body with a blanket. The blanket looked like it was hand-quilted.

“My mother made that for me when I went away to school,” she said.

The killer leapt over to Meg’s desk and snapped off the light, and suddenly I realized why he was in such a hurry. I could hear Julie’s voice in the hallway, and the sound of her key in the lock.

“I’m just going to see if she wants to come out anyway since I need my coat to go to the bar,” Julie was saying to someone down the hall. “We can study together tomorrow.”

Julie opened the door a crack, realized the room was dark and sighed. She closed the door quietly and tiptoed over to her closet.

I could see the killer crouched below the footboard of Meg’s bed. I could also tell that he was thinking about taking two tonight, but he wasn’t going to do it.

“Don’t let him get her,” Meg pleaded.

I shook my head. If he tried for Julie I would be allowed to stop it, because her death had not been foreseen this night. “She’s not on my list.”

Julie silently extracted her coat from the closet and moved back into the hallway, obviously making an effort to stay quiet and not wake her sleeping roommate.

The killer stood, waited for a few moments, and then clicked the light back on. He turned down the covers so that Julie would be able to see Meg’s mutilated body first thing in the morning. He removed the duct tape and the wrist restraints and arranged Meg so that she would look like she was sleeping, except that she was covered in blood.

I wanted to leave now but I couldn’t get Meg out the door without alerting the killer. He would surely notice if an invisible person opened the door. I didn’t want Meg to look but she seemed transfixed by the killer’s actions.

Then he dipped his hand in the blood that was pooling underneath Meg’s slashed throat. I noticed he was wearing thin latex gloves.

He wrote a message on the wall for Julie, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the lights?”

Then he picked up a knapsack that I hadn’t noticed before and changed out of his bloody clothe and into a new set of nondescript frat boy wear. He was young, surprisingly young.

“Do you know him?” I asked Meg.

She stared at him as he dressed. “He’s in my chemistry class.”

“Do you know his name?” I asked. I was about to do something that really wasn’t allowed.

Like I said, I’m not supposed to be judge and jury. I wasn’t permitted to stop Meg’s death, or any death that had been foreseen. And technically, I wasn’t allowed to assist the human police in bringing killers to justice. But it didn’t sit right with me, letting this monster go so that he could kill another girl.

“Ethan,” she said faintly. “Ethan something.”

“Just wait a second, all right?”

I lowered myself to the ground as he was picking up the knapsack, and then I appeared right in front of him, out of thin air.

He leapt back, his face shocked. “Who the hell are you?”

It took a great effort of will to maintain my appearance while my wings were out. Like I said, normally I wink out of sight. I felt the pressure of the magic inside me, wanting to cover my appearance. But I wanted him to see the wings, to know that I was something not of this word, and to know that I’d seen him at his ghastly business.

“I am Death,” I said. “And you have trespassed on my ground, Ethan.”

“Is this some kind of prank?” he asked, his eyes narrow.

I let myself wink out of sight again, and then reappeared behind him.

“Boo,” I said in his ear, and had the satisfaction of seeing him stumble away from me in terror.

“What the hell is going on? What do you want? What do you want?” he asked, falling to his knees.

“You took a life that was not yours to take. Now I want yours,” I said.

He glanced over at Meg. “I never did it before. This was the first time…”

“You think that’s some kind of excuse?” I said. I spread my wings wide so that I would look menacing and Reaper-ish. I’m realllllly short, so I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but he seemed terrified. “Life is not yours to take. It is mine. And I want your life in exchange.”

Ethan whimpered and turned away. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it.”

My face hardened. “Yes, you did. You made that girl suffer and hurt and bleed and then you kept doing it even after she died. Go now and crawl in fear for the rest of your miserable life. You won’t be able to sleep at night because you will know I will come for you. Very soon, I will come for you.”

Ethan turned and ran, the door of the Meg’s room slamming closed behind him.

I looked up at Meg. She drifted down, her face sad as she looked at her corpse. Ethan’s hideous message to Julie was drying on the wall.

“Thank you,” she said. “Can you really take his life because he murdered me?”

“No,” I said. “But if I scare him enough he won’t do it again. And I’ll make sure to torment him until he leaves a confession. He’ll suffer for what he did to you, I promise.”

She held out her hand to me. “I’m ready to go now.”

I smiled, and took her hand in mine.

One week later I got a new list. At the bottom of the page were a name, a time and a place – Ethan Douglas, 10:28 pm, Northwestern University. There was a little star next to his name, which meant that the seers had more information than they usually did about the death.

I checked the footnotes at the bottom of the page. Ethan’s death was a suicide.

I smiled in satisfaction. I’m not supposed to be judge and jury, but sometimes it’s good to be Death.

© 2011 Christina Henry. All rights reserved.