Of all the ways to die, being burned alive was Mel’s favorite. It was particularly entertaining when he would suddenly stop screaming and stare at the crowd. It really creeped out the onlookers. Mel should have felt guilty about that, but they were the ones attending a public execution, so what should they expect?
Mel had been killed all sorts of ways, but he preferred burning because of the sensation of warm envelopment. Beheadings were awkward if the first slice didn’t go through. Poisoning wasn’t the worst, but it often made him feel nauseous, although not actually nauseous since detached spirits don’t have stomachs. A voice nearby interrupted Mel’s thoughts.
“Hey, buddy, what’s your name?” said the man to Mel’s right, also burning alive.
“It’s Mel, what’s yours?” They had to shout at each other over the roar of the crowd and the crackle of flames.
“I’m Bart. This your first burning?”
“Nah, sixth. Always my preference though, you?”
“Only my second, I’ve always been partial to beheadings personally.”
One of those guys.
Mel looked down and saw his legs blackening and the skin separating from his torso.
“Looks like I’m almost out. See you ‘round.”
“Yeah, see ya,” replied Bart.
Right before he went out, Mel faced the crowd and loudly said, “Here I go again!”
Bart shot a confused look over at Mel as they both left the respective bodies to be burned to ash.
Mel’s vision faded to white as he felt himself transported over time and space to a new body. This sensation was a relief the first time he experienced it, but recently his time in this in-between place made him increasingly anxious to get to the next body. Every time Mel passed through this place, he was reminded (deliberately, he was sure) of his first contact with his patron and her commission for him. “Go to the dying. Take the place of their spirits so they may come to me in peace,” she would say.
The woman used Mel and others like him to change the state in which souls were delivered. Mel assumed she didn’t like the dead coming to her in distress. Screaming, suffering, distraught souls likely made her job unpleasant. So, she sought out those who did not fear their own death and tasked them with inhabiting the bodies of those about to meet horrible ends. More specifically, those who would see their death coming and fully experience the terror. It wouldn’t work to just remove them early—a soul can’t be taken before the body is dead. It can, however, be replaced. That’s where Mel came in.
The first time he died, he was heroically defending his family from a group of predators. Defending isn’t exactly accurate, it was more like distracting the predators with his meaty corpse. That was a brutal experience, and since then his patron had taken away his ability to feel the pain of death in another body. But the physical pain was never even the hard part. The worst part of death is the psychological torment of being thrust into the unknown. The crucial importance of his task wasn’t the dying, it was the task of calmly ushering the poor suffering souls away from their body with minimal trauma. Mel believed himself to be good at this part.
Mel snapped out of his musings upon seeing a smoky and blood-soaked battlefield. He drifted towards a man in a red coat lying on the ground in stunned silence.
“Come on, soldier. Time to go,” Mel said to the wounded man.
“But...but...I’m supposed to advance the line...” the man said in a quavering voice.
“Oh you’re advancing alright, just not where you thought.”
Mel grabbed the man’s hand, pulled him from his body, and quickly took his place. The man slowly rose into the air and turned to look at his bleeding and disfigured body.
“Tell my wife I love her!” he cried before fading into bright light.
Of course there’s a wife, Mel thought. There’s always a wife....
“Tell my wife I love her!” Mel screamed a moment later to a medic crawling towards him. Mel then looked into the distressed face of the medic and said, “Here I go again!”
Mel floated through the bright space once again, proceeding from body to body and leaping ahead in time to places all over the world. As Mel hopped from death to death into the future, he became increasingly affected by the terrified last words of people leaving loved ones behind. It made him remember the days long ago when he had something to protect and die for. He guessed that wherever people went afterwards had to be better than the vague nothingness he floated through between bodies.
Mel noticed that people were dying older and in less severe ways and that he began to enter bodies sooner in the process. It was now severe suffering, not death, that presented the worst experience a person could have. His patron presumably needed him earlier to avoid souls coming to her in a frantic state. Throughout his (less frequent) stops in mortality, he noticed a series of catastrophes which clustered the population into increasingly dense areas. His female patron eventually appeared to him again. She scowled in anger and bellowed, “BRING ME MY SOULS!” then disappeared.
Well that was weird, thought Mel. He then drifted towards a wide, empty plain. In the distance he could see a massive, shimmering city surrounded by a high gray wall, something he had been seeing more frequently. Mel floated into the dirt and after a few blurry seconds, emerged into a tunnel. On the stone ground lay a muscular, shirtless man in the fetal position facing the wall.
Mel moved into the man’s body. The poor soul was muttering, “they won’t let us in,” and “rat tastes nothing like chicken.”
“Time to move on, boss,” said Mel.
“Wh..what? I have to leave?”
“GET to leave. You GET to leave, friend. I’m sure the rat tastes more like chicken where you’re going.” Mel nudged him further out of the body and towards the ceiling of the tunnel.
“Will I get to live forever there??” the man’s spirit said, a pleading look on his face. He disappeared before Mel could answer.
Mel settled into this new body and could not detect any major injuries or illnesses. He felt awfully hungry, but noted this as a detached piece of information rather than a cause for alarm. This guy’s body was definitely on its way out in the general sense, but probably had maybe another week. That rat must have done him more good than he realized, nutritionally speaking.
Mel stood up to assess his surroundings. The brick-lined tunnel stretched in both directions with light in the distance at one end and nothing but darkness in the other. Dead leaves and debris littered the floor. Mel looked toward the opening of the tunnel and listened to the breeze moving across the opening. He wondered when and how this death would happen. Then he heard the soft beating of footsteps coming from the dark end of the tunnel. Mel prepared for an attack as he could tell the steps were approaching rapidly. The first figure he saw was covered head to toe in worn black leather clothes. The hood on the duster partially concealed the gas mask underneath. Mel’s attacker wore plastic knee guards and carried a rectangular piece of sharpened metal in one hand which the stranger raised menacingly in the air towards Mel. This dude meant business.
Mel understood the situation now and fell to his knees with his arms outstretched and eyes closed. As the attacker ran forward, Mel said, “Here I go again!”
The attacker planted both feet and slid forward a few inches on the leaf-strewn ground. The masked figure stopped and lowered the weapon. A muffled sound came from the gas mask. “Mml?”
Mel opened one eye cautiously, then looked at the masked figure. After removing the mask, pushing the hood back, a cascade of dirty blonde hair tumbled out in waves. “Mel?” she said.
Mel opened his other eye and stood up. He towered over the girl by a foot and a half. “Do I know you?”
“It’s Bart! From the burning? Back in Rome?”
“Oh yeah! Hey...man? Girl? How you been?”
“Good, good. I think we crossed paths in Normandy too. I heard your little tagline further up the beach, but it was a little crazy that day.”
Mel puffed his cheeks as he blew his breath out quickly. “Whew! Yeah that was a doozy. I probably bounced to a dozen different guys that day. So what’s going on here?”
“Not sure, man. I had this weird message from Karen on the way in, and since then I’ve been wandering around. I came into this tunnel to find shelter.”
“Karen?” Mel inquired.
“Sure, Karen. The lady that’s always talked to me when I transition. I don’t know if that’s her name, but that’s what I call her. Did she seem normal to you?” Bart said.
“No, she seemed...angry, which I’ve never experienced before. Have you been staying in bodies longer?”
“Yeah,” Bart replied, “and mostly around this area. Always outside that big white metropolis. Do you know what’s going on there?”
“No, but it has to mean something. We’re being dropped earlier into people’s lives, which means the standards have changed from ‘about to die’ to ‘suffering a lot.’ What did she...er...Karen say to you?” Mel asked.
“She said, ‘Bring me my souls’, but angrily.”
They both considered this for a moment, then Mel gradually became aware of a sound from the dark end of the tunnel. “Do you hear that?”
“Yeah,” Bart said. “It sounds like people are coming.”
Mel thought about turning to run, but he was going to die soon, so why bother? He watched as a crowd of people came up the tunnel at a steady pace. Some held torches. Most had bludgeoning weapons. A middle-aged Asian man led the group and approached Mel and Bart. He spoke in a rapid and high-pitched tone with a distinctive southern Californian accent.
“Are you guys, like, stuck in these bodies, too or something?”
Well, that answers my first question.
Mel said, “Yeah, I just got here and we’re trying to figure this all out.”
Bart looked intently at the balding Asian man and said, “Hey, didn’t we meet in that one uprising in Africa? I recognize that accent. Jessica, right?”
“Yes! This is totally crazy!” The asian man said, then stared wistfully at Bart’s long blonde hair.
Mel interrupted, “So...how long have you all been here? Does anybody know what’s going on?”
A short, portly, red-haired man stepped forward. He made the motion of pushing his glasses up his nose, but he was not wearing glasses. “Hi, I’m Stewart. I think the world's population is condensed and entirely contained within that city.”
“But...why?” Bart asked.
“I’m not sure, but I have this theory that what remains of humanity is artificially prolonging their lives and building a society without suffering. This would explain the change in standards for our placements. Does anyone remember dying as someone in that city? Or even near it?” Stewart looked expectantly at those standing around, but most just shrugged.
One guy in the back of the crowd spoke up, “Once recently I died at the base of the wall by bleeding out from a bullet wound. The guy said something about a turret as he floated away.”
Jessica scratched his bald head. “Hmm. Such a high concentration of us must mean something...”
Mel said, “Where did you guys come from anyway? What’s back down in these tunnels?”
Stewart explained that these were old salt mine tunnels, long abandoned. Their group had gradually grown in number as they had encountered more people on the edge of survival. They had taken refuge in an equipment room and were debating on what to do next. “We’ve all been feeling that sense of hunger, but nobody knows what to do about it. Everyone’s so used to dying quickly that we don’t really know how to be alive.”
Mel thought for a moment then asked to see the room. Stewart guided the group back down the tunnel and into a side tunnel which eventually led to a large storage space filled with mining tools and supplies on shelves and in crates. At the back of the room was a large metal door with a wheel latch.
“Where does that lead?” Mel said, pointing to the door.
“No one knows. We can’t open it, but the city is, like, definitely, in that general direction,” said Jessica.
“I bet my life those pampered cowards didn’t think to seal off this tunnel,” Mel said. “Otherwise, this whole tunnel system would have been destroyed long ago.”
Mel looked down at his barrel chest and very large biceps. He approached the spoked wheel and firmly gripped two opposing handles. His muscles strained as he turned the wheel. The wheel gradually began to turn more rapidly as large flakes of rust fell from the inner axle of the wheel. He spun the wheel until it made a loud clang. Mel pulled it open and more rust cracked and fell from the hinges.
Behind the door lay a long, dark tunnel. A faint light could be seen in the distance. Mel turned to examine the room. He saw power tools, pickaxes, shovels, crates of explosives, and a scraggly group of bodies controlled by people unafraid of death.
Mel thought of all the people whose death he had proxied. He thought of their dying pleas and their desperation to hold on to what they were losing. If they hadn’t known someone like Mel was coming eventually, would they have truly valued their lives? It had taken centuries of experiencing other people’s deaths for Mel to realize that he never fully appreciated his own life when he still had it. He addressed the crowd who now stood expectantly, wondering what he was thinking.
“People shouldn’t live forever. The absence of death makes living meaningless. There is value in struggle and the struggle requires risk. If there is no risk, there is no value. These people are hiding in safety at the expense of actually living. It’s time the dead showed them the value of life.”
Mel picked up a large ax and felt the weight of it in his hands. He looked down at the weapon, feeling regretful but determined. Some in the crowd could tell what he was thinking and started picking up tools also.
“Karen wants her souls,” he said to himself, then raised his face to the crowd. “We’re gonna send her more than she can handle.”