Smudging the line

There is a fine line between the living and the dead. It has been so for millennia. You are either dead, or you are alive. It’s the way it is. Them’s the rules. The trouble is, rules are made to be broken…

Max is your average teen, but when a freak accident sends him to the land of the dead and he meets a mysterious old man things get weird and what he thought he knew about death is thrown right out the window.

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1. Smudging the line

   There is a fine line between the living and the dead. It has been so for millennia. You are either dead, or you are alive. It’s the way it is. Them’s the rules. The trouble is, rules are made to be broken…

   Max trotted over to his friends, George and Amber as the three of them strolled casually home on the way from school. He had stopped momentarily to tie his shoe and now came back into line with them. Amber was checking her phone and tapping away nonchalantly at the keys whilst George turned to his friend as they joined up again.

   ‘That was quick.’ he stated almost matter-of-factly.

   ‘Yeah. Hey, I can’t believe those kids at school. I was sat next to Katie in English and she was getting on really well with Jade, talking and being really nice, then when we get in maths she was proper talking behind her back, spreading rumours and all. Just make some proper friends for crying out loud.’

   ‘I know.’ George said knowingly, ‘That’s why I’m glad I’ve got you two.’ He looped his arms over both of their shoulders and Amber started as the sudden unexpected weight dropped onto her back.

   ‘Hey.’ she began then saw George’s silly grin and realised he was messing around, ‘What’s the big idea?’ she asked in mock severity.

   ‘Oh, me and Max were just saying how people at school never really make any proper friends.’ George replied.

   ‘Tell me about it.’ she sighed.

   ‘We just did.’ Max joked. She hit him playfully and they walked on.

   It took them another fifteen minutes and they were half way home, walking past the building site that was to be the new supermarket when fate raised its ugly head. They were chatting together as normal when there came a startled cry from up above them and they looked up to see a long steel beam swinging precariously from a crane’s extended arm.

   ‘Watch out down there!’ a builder bellowed.

   Unfortunately his cry came too late as, with an almighty metallic twang and the scream of metal on metal the beam dropped at an alarming speed. There was a squelching thud. Then a girl’s scream. George, covered in blood, hugged Amber to his chest as he looked down at Max, the life gone from his eyes and the metal beam having punched right through his ribcage and out the back. Max was dead.

 

~

 

      Amber was still crying as her mother closed the door to the police and, a kindly arm wrapped around her shoulders, lead her upstairs. The tears rolled freely down her cheeks; every time she thought them to have stopped they started afresh, as if the tragedy had only just happened.

   It had only been a few hours and already she felt like she was losing her mind. Max had been one of her closest friends and now he lay dead, a gaping wound in his chest and every time she closed her eyes she could see the occurrence in painfully slow motion. She could see the beam touching Max’s chest, as if only stroking it and then the explosion of blood as it shattered his ribcage like an arrangement of matchsticks and pierced his heart, lungs and several major arteries. She could see the look of shock stitched onto his face as she stared down at his lifeless body, yet her mind warped it into leering grins, smiling in the most horrific manner at her as if the devil himself was within his body. She’d already been told the trauma would go away eventually, but right now she didn’t believe that was physically possible.

   ‘Shhh, hush now,’ her mother said, stroking Amber’s sweaty forehead with a dainty hand and smiled sadly down at her daughter as she lay in her bed. She wouldn’t want to be in Amber’s position, but she’d much rather be in her daughter’s shoes than watch her only child in this state. ‘There was nothing you could have done.’

   Amber nodded shakily and lay her head down on her pillow, the cover already damp with tears. ‘Okay.’ she whispered.

   ‘Now, try to get some sleep.’ her mother said quietly.

   Amber nodded again and calmed herself so her breathing was slightly less laboured and her tears slowed. Her mother stood up from the bed and walked out of the room, switching off the light as she went. As she closed the door on her way out, the darkness was complete.

   In an odd way, Amber found the blanket of dark slightly comforting, although she couldn’t put her finger on why.

   She sighed and lay still.

   That’s when it came. The word. The voice.

   ‘Amber.’’ it whispered. She sat bolt upright and screamed at the top of her lungs as a faint light appeared at the foot of her bed.

 

~

 

   Max had felt the pain instantly; every muscle in his body had tightened to such an extent they screamed at themselves to stop. His mind had been flooded with pain. Scratch that, it had been bombarded with it, coated in it, dropped in a great big steaming vat of it and then shot multiple times with bullets of it which embedded themselves so deep even now they throbbed painfully.

   But that was what he couldn’t quite understand. How could there be a now?

   He remembered the incident with terrible accuracy and detail, yet he stood, not knowing quite where, in a long corridor of some form, draped on either side by long tapestries. Some showed tremendous battles and others showed rituals taking place.

   Cautiously he took one step at a time along the peculiar, richly-decorated place, testing the ground as if it would open and swallow him up in an instant. Looking forward, the place seemed to go on forever, the corridor seemingly stretching off into an unending darkness.

   All of a sudden he stopped in his tracks. Something had caught his eye up ahead. He squinted and there it was again, a flicker of light far in the distance. Then again, and again. Slowly realisation dawned and he looked above him to see a bright chandelier blazing light above him. Then twenty feet further down was another, then in another twenty feet, then again all the way down the unending channel. But as he looked, his blood ran cold, for he watched the furthest one away from him, splutter, then die. Without knowing why, he turned and ran.

   He hared along the carpet, his heart beating like a drumroll in his chest, pounding at his ribs to escape. He threw a glance over his shoulder and his heart renewed its efforts, for it seemed upon his realisation, the lights had begun to die quicker, and now the darkness was chasing him, pursuing him along this corridor of doom, his blood pulsing like a death knoll in his ears.

   The shadows snapped at his feet as he ran; fear flowing with his blood then all of a sudden a side corridor appeared. With an almighty cry he threw himself horizontally sideways and landed awkwardly on the solid paved floor of the thin space. Behind him the darkness was absolute; the light snuffed out so completely it seemed nothing could slice through the shadow. Yet as he looked around him he found no source of light. But it was there, as if it was in the very air.

   Max caught his breath, his emotions rising as that dark doorway imposed itself upon him. He had so many questions. Where was he? What was he doing here? Was he alive or dead? Was there anyone else here? He felt like he could have broken down and cried, but he knew he must find a way out of this mess. With a great effort he buried his emotions under his questions and sought for an answer to them one at a time.

   So then. He had to find out where he was. How could he do that? Ideally he had to get out of there, but if he could find a window, that would help.

   He tiptoed down the claustrophobic space, barely wide enough for him to walk straight on. Like the last place he had been it seemed to be never-ending, then in a moment of silence where not his breathing or heartbeat could be heard, something ripped through the quiet.

   The hairs on Max’s nape stood like soldiers to attention. There it was again, a scuffling sound. He turned slowly and there, in the shadows was a shape. He stood stock still. It was a thin yet muscular being with glowing yellow eyes that pierced to Max’s very soul and it shifted its weight from side to side slowly. As he watched it, fear rose in his throat and he shook in terror. He could only stand and stare as, slowly and deliberately, it raised a hand and placed it forward, just into the light. It was grey and shiny and had long sharp nails that could have scratched Max’s eyes out.

   Again he was off. Like a bat out of hell he sped down the corridor as if the devil himself was chasing him, though for all he knew he may have been. Terror gripped him with its icy hand as the thing made awful snarls and grunts and monstrous growls of glee as it pursued him as if it could already envision ripping Max limb from limb.

   Then with an almighty blast of light Max was thrown off his feet and launched some thirty feet down the corridor, bouncing on his back as he landed and groaning with pain. He looked up, expecting to see those awful claws scratching at his face any moment, but to his utter surprise there stood a man before him, old and tall and bearded and leaning heavily on a walking stick, his mere presence seeming to bring great light into the corridor.

   ‘Who the hell are you?’ Max asked, ‘I mean don’t get me wrong, thanks, but it was all puff,’ he waved his hands wide and wiggled his fingers, ‘and you’re there.’

   The old man smiled and leant forward, offering a hand, ‘There is much to learn my young friend. Take my hand and you shall be answered.’

   Max reached up and gripped the man’s hand firmly.

   To anyone who would have arrived in the corridor a second later, it would have been as if they were never there, for the corridor was empty.

 

~

 

   ‘Whoa!’ Max said in surprise as he seemed to be squeezed from the corridor and went whirling into the air. As he and the old man flew hand in hand, spinning in the sky, below them the landscape broke apart then reformed itself as a bustling city, skyscrapers and all. With a cry Max was yanked downwards as the two of them dropped and landed with a thud in a seated position on a simple wooden bench. Getting his bearings he looked around, puzzled. ‘Hang on,’ he almost shouted, ‘we’re in London!’

   ‘Well spotted,’ the old man said with a grin yet never turning towards him but observing the bustling place, ‘was it Big Ben to your right that gave it away, or the London Eye to your left?’

   ‘Actually,’ Max said a little smugly, ‘it was the dude over there with the ‘I heart London’ t-shirt.’ Max turned to the man. ‘Right then grandpa, start talking.’

   ‘Didn’t you ever get told to respect your elders?’ the bearded man said with a sharp edge to his voice.’

   ‘Yeah, but I don’t think any of them had ever died and yet were still walking around. So like I said, cough up.’

   The oldster sighed and turned to him, ‘Okay then, what is it you want to know?’

   For a moment Max had so many questions he couldn’t begin to order them but soon he got his tongue round them, ‘Oh I don’t know, how about where the hell am I?’

   ‘You already answered that one yourself.’ the old man pointed out.

   ‘And since when did people die and end up in London?’ Max retorted.

   ‘Well I just thought it’d be a nice alteration from that ghastly maze of haunted corridors you found yourself in immediately after you died.’

   ‘And that was my second question – where was I back there?’

   ‘Well, if I tell you you are dead, see if you can figure it out?’

   Max thought for a moment, then thought a bit more before it came to him. He tested his theory slowly, ‘Well if I’m dead, but I’m in London, I’m not in heaven, because this definitely isn’t what I’d call heaven. So that means I’m not properly dead yet.’ The old man nodded encouragingly. ‘So I am some form of the undead at the minute.’ Another nod.

   Max stood up and walked to the nearest person, drew his fist back and took a swing at the blonde woman he faced. An almighty tingling rippled around his hand as it passed straight through the woman, his target doing nothing besides shivering as if someone had stepped over her grave.

   Max returned to the bench nursing his oddly tingling hand, ‘So that means I’m not a zombie, so I must be a ghost. And if I’m a ghost, at a guess I was someplace haunted. That corridor with all the tapestries looked like some old mansion of some form…’ he trailed off for the old man to finish the sentence.

   ‘Indeed, Woodchester mansion to be precise.’

   ‘That’s one of the most haunted places in Britain,’ Max said, rather proud of his own knowledge, ‘so at a guess, I’d say that second corridor looked like a part of a castle. Edinburgh castle?’ he tried.

   ‘Correct.’ the man said. ‘Next question.’

   ‘Well, you didn’t answer my first question, how come I am in London after I died? Then there’s who are you that you can get me from Edinburgh castle to London in two seconds flat? Why am I not properly dead? And please tell me this isn’t heaven because I don’t think I can stand an eternity of politicians and tourists.’

   The bearded gentleman chuckled, ‘No, I can tell you this isn’t heaven, but as to your other questions they will take a bit more answering.’ He looked over to the teenager who had his face set and his arms crossed, and sighed. ‘Okay then, you are in London because it is for one, not haunted, and for two, the safest place you can be right now. As to how I got you here and who I am, that is a simple answer. I am Father Time.’

   ‘Sure, ‘Mr Time’, now tell me your real name.’ Max stared at the sincere face of the oldster for a moment. ‘You’re not kidding are you?’

   ‘Nope.’ said he, ‘And I prefer Father Time if it is all the same to you.’

   ‘So, let me guess you got me here so quick because you can control time.’

   ‘In a manner of speaking, yes. I cannot control time to the point of time travel but myself and angels can use certain linkages between cities to get there fast to perform our own tasks.’

   ‘Wait, wait, wait.’ Max stopped him. ‘Angels?’

   ‘Yeah, sure, you didn’t think there was a heaven but no angels did you?’

   ‘So does that mean?’

   ‘Yep.’

   ‘The big man?’

   ‘Yep.’

   Max blew out his cheeks, trying to wrap his mind around the whole Christian thing in as quick a time as possible. Then a thought dawned on him and he turned to Father Time, ‘But wait a minute, don’t all non-believers get sent down to the pit?’

   ‘Indeed they do, you are right, but they have to come face to face with like you said ‘the big man’ first.’

   ‘So what are we waiting here for? Max asked interestedly.

   ‘Well, that kind of links in with another of your questions. You are only truly dead when your soul is taken up to see the ‘eye in the sky’ as it were, until then you are like yourself, a detached consciousness able to stroll around the place at will. Now, myself, I am what you could call the tax man of heaven. I take each and every person that has died in turn up to meet the man. It’s quite a job I can tell you.’

   ‘But won’t the people die faster than you can take them upstairs?’

   ‘They do, but I didn’t say I couldn’t control time, only that I am unable to time travel. Whenever someone dies they are frozen in a suspended state until I am ready to see them. It seems like only a moment to them from their death when actually it could have been decades. Centuries even.’

   ‘Still, you must have one hell of a backlog.’

   ‘Put it this way, Lincoln’s still on the waiting list.’ Max’s eyes grew wide. ‘So yeah, quite a backlog.

   ‘You on the other hand, it was actually only moments after your death that you arrived in that mansion. I suppose you were there because certain… forces didn’t want you to be found by me, but if someone is on my to-do list and aren’t in a frozen state, I know about it. Naturally I went after you, though I hadn’t expected you to freeze in the first place.’

   ‘Why?’

   ‘Because you are one of the few people who are said to die before there time. You’re on a list of a select few which, as it turns out, includes Lincoln himself. Still, you Max are also of the utmost importance to the man upstairs.’

   Max almost choked, ‘Me?’

   ‘Indeed, and I shall tell you why. It is because you are the one. The smudge.’

   ‘The smudge?’ Max sniggered, ‘bit of a crap name for an all-important dead guy don’t you think?’

   Father Time’s face was grave. ‘Believe me, this is no laughing matter. You are the smudge. And that is not good. You see there is a fine line between the living and the dead, even ghosts, who like you are technically in the afterlife, are classed as dead. But you are the one that smudges that line – you may be in the afterlife, but you shall never make it to heaven.’

   Max began to panic, ‘What?! Why? What have I done wrong?’

   ‘Nothing, my son, nothing. But the demons who engineered that freak accident used a great deal of hellish charms to bring it about, and through doing so when that beam hit you, you were destined to be unable to reach the heavens, for now at least.

   ‘Anyhow, the demons were those forces I mentioned and they want something with you. What it is neither I, any angel or even the big man know for sure, but what we can theorise is that they want you to smudge the line. One who cannot reach the heavens and is stuck in the land of the mortals yet is not mortal themselves is a ghost. Yet someone like you can become a mortal within the mortal world. You can walk again between your friends and eat food once more.

   ‘From the knowledge we have gathered, you are of a great deal of importance to the demons. If you were to go darkside and ally with the demons then they would have an unbeatable weapon, unable to be destroyed by even the man upstairs. An essentially immortal man who could take on the world alone and survive, although we believe they would have a much darker purpose for you than that. What they didn’t barter on was me intervening. I can send you back to your friends and family, but if you ever want to reach the heavens and have the curse of immortality lifted then you shall have to go on a journey of the utmost importance for me.’

   ‘Hang on a minute.’ Max said, ‘You want me to actually stop myself being immortal?’ he leant back and crossed his arms behind his head. ‘But I quite like the sound of it.’

   ‘Really? An eternity of torment by the demons, unable to taste the food in your mouth, to continue to grow old and feel the burden of age on your shoulders and yet never be able to be free of it. Not even when the Earth is destroyed and you are floating in the vast sucking expanses of space, unable to breath, unable to move from the cold shall you be able to die.’ Max had shrivelled into his seat. ‘I thought not.’

    ‘So then,’ Max said with his now dry throat, ‘what is this you need me to do?’

   Father time leant forwards and laid out before the teen what he must do and when he had done the teen looked as if he had seen a ghost, though the old man seemed not to notice. ‘To get back to the mortal world you need a strong link. A person you have always loved perhaps?’

   ‘Amber.’ Max whispered. A moment later pain racked his body and through a blinding light he could barely see the very same girl screaming in her bed.

 

~

 

   The pain was unbearable, every part of his soul screaming out for it to stop, yet it was so much that it took his breath away and he could not cry out. His face contorted in agony as another wave of pain racked his body, the light seeming to grow brighter as the pain escalated and short grunts escaped his mouth.

   He was vaguely aware that Amber was in fact in her bed, and was in fact screaming and there was another presence in the room he guessed to be her mother’s, but couldn’t be sure. Seeing her, even though she was staring at him in outright terror, filled him with relief and a renewed energy so that this time when he tried he was able almost to contain his pain. He focused it into the centre of his chest and then with a scream louder than any he had ever heard and one he certainly didn’t think himself capable of the pain exploded from his body along with blinding light and he found himself in Amber’s dark room, staring in as much shock at himself as the other two were.

   He looked up at Amber. ‘Here’s a tip. Never have your soul stitched back into your body, it hurts like hell.’

 

~

 

   Almost half an hour later he was sat on Amber’s downstairs sofa gripping a mug of hot chocolate and with Amber and her mother having listened in shock to his story from beyond the grave. To say Amber was flattered she was his secret love would have been an understatement, yet she still begged the question.

   ‘But why not your parents? Or your family?’

   ‘Hey, I’ve got a dad off God only knows, and now I know he probably does, and a mother who is such a nervous wreck it’s sad. School is an escape and I have to say, seeing you every day makes it even better, you may as well know after you heard all that.’

   Amber smiled shyly.

   Her mother however pressed Max for a final answer to his story. ‘But you never said, what did Father Time tell you to do?’

   ‘You know I’m surprised you two even believe any of this!’

   ‘Hey, you’re a dead man walking.’ Amber said, ‘I’ll believe anything you say.’

   ‘What was it?’ her mother pressed.

   Max’s jaw tensed but he said through gritted teeth, ‘Well you know how he was really confidential it was because he didn’t want him to hear… and he said I have to kill him.’

   ‘Who?’

   ‘I have to kill Satan.’

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