by Amber Sparks
When Death came and started it all, the people on Earth had already drawn close together to wait for spring. The trees were bare, but expectant, and the pale yellow light would filter though the shades slantwise, a little later every day. The people were feeling luxurious. They were elbows on knees, chins tilted upward like cats in the sun. The new warmth danced on their faces, and they were quiet with the happiness of it all.
Everything was perfect, thought the people. Everything was good.
Then Death walked in and totally ruined the mood. He stood tall and elegant and kind of formal in a crisp white button down shirt and blazer, but also in jeans to telegraph his relative chill. He cleared his throat, and the people waited. Finally, he pointed at one of the people and said, Come with me.
There was an awkward silence. The people sat still, unmoving. No, really, said Death, after a minute or so. I haven’t got all day. Let's go.
The people made a sudden and impulsive decision. No, they said, holding tighter to one another’s elbows. We belong together. You can’t take one of us.
Death was annoyed. This had never happened before. He looked pointedly at his watch, hoping to telegraph his annoyance. He was freezing. It was spring in the Afterwards already, and Death was wearing loafers without socks.
The people just sat there and stared at him. There sure were a lot of them today. If he goes, they said, then we all go. We’re totally serious about this.
I can’t take you all, said Death. Maybe a few dozen of you. But hurry up and decide on who. We've got to get going.
No, said the people. None of us want to be left here alone.
The people were really starting to piss Death off. He looked at his watch again and wondered what would happen if he brought them all back. Was there enough room in the Afterwards? Would he get in trouble with the Ones in Charge? The door was still open, and he wondered if he should just walk out, pretend this never happened, and come back later when the people were in a better mood. The people could be such children.
This is the way things are, said Death. You can't change the way things are. But the people were defiant and stared back stone-eyed, and he knew it would be useless to argue with them. The people always wanted to change the way things were. That was the people’s whole deal.
So Death gave in. Fine, he said. Fine. You can all come with me. But you can’t come back, understand? You can’t ever come back. Remember I told you that.
Sure, said the people, not really listening. They smiled and followed Death out the door, miles and miles of them flying behind in a widening trail, like migratory birds. If there had been any people left on Earth, they would have marveled at the vast human inkblot spreading across the sky.
Free of people, the Earth shook itself off like a wet dog. The people had been a heavy weight. It got to work quickly, destroying all the people’s stuff; sinking it, smothering it with mold, cracking it in half and blowing it up. The people watched from their crowded dwellings in the Afterwards, suddenly sorry about their chairs and cars and video games and records and books. We were one, said the people, and none of us would leave without the other—but I mean, come on! That was an autographed, first-edition copy! There were no books in the Afterwards, which the people thought was some serious bullshit.
In fact, there wasn't much of anything in the Afterwards. The people were supposed to try to ease out of being human now, but that seemed like kind of a drag. The people had liked being human. They took to watching the Earth from the basement window of the Afterwards, the progress playing out like a faraway filmstrip. It was a long, bitter movie without them, but they couldn't stop watching. They wanted to see how it would end. It was like scrolling on your phone but only videos of nature and shit.
The people could see that Earth wasn’t able get rid of everything at first. Some of the weapons the people left behind were dangerous, and Earth couldn’t figure out what to do with them. It tried to bury them, but they leaked and leaked, contaminating the water and the soil. Animals ate the bad fruits that grew in the soil and got all messed up; lots of them died, intestines turned inside out and soaked in battery acid and radium.
After a while, though, it seemed like everything started to grow and adapt, including the animals and plants. Highways cracked, naked without their blanket of traffic, but soon they were modestly draped in green as moss and weeds and flowers pushed up through the gaps in the concrete. The skyscrapers buckled and bent, while the trees shoved branches through the glass panes. After a few centuries, everything the people had made was buried or gone. Everything except the structures of stone that were put up long before the memories of the people had even begun.
The people were not happy about all of this. They went to Death and demanded to know why Earth had destroyed all of the awesome stuff they made while they were there. That stuff took a long time to build, said the people. We worked really hard on it, you know?
Death said, why would the Earth need people-things without people around? You should quit bothering me, anyway—I have a date tonight and I have to get ready.
The people got all pouty and refused to go. They stood in Death’s doorway and watched him roll up his shirtsleeves just so and put a sharp part in his hair. Even though they were mad at Death, the people had to admit he was awfully stylish.
Well, said Death, are you going to get out of my way?
No, said the people. We’re bored. There’s nothing to do here. We miss Earth.
And whose fault is that, said Death. You were the ones who insisted on coming. You were the ones who said you couldn’t be left there. Death tied his black leather sneakers and tried to push past the people, but they blocked his path, their elbows locked together. They were crying a little.
We didn't know, they said. You never told us what it was like to be dead. We didn't know how boring it would be!
Keep each other company, said Death, slipping out the back door.
The people walked sadly, dejected, down the streets of the Afterwards. They tired of each other's company and tried to find quiet places to be alone, but it was too crowded. When the people came all at once, they'd filled up all of the nooks and crannies of the whole Afterwards. If the people wanted privacy, they had to close their eyes and pretend - and even then they could still hear all the other people, just sitting there and breathing, it was the worst.
They started to resent Death a whole lot. He just kept coming around and ruining stuff, breaking up couples and shutting the basement windows so they couldn't see the Earth anymore. Come on, guys, said Death. Forget about being alive.
So the people started calling Death ‘The Hall Monitor'. Behind his back, of course. And they only became more stubborn, more determined to remember. They thought about winter, and sports, and their cats and dogs, their guinea pigs. They dreamed of central heating, and binging shows on Netflix, and jump ropes and credit cards and studying. They remembered being drunk, and swimming in the ocean, and sending dumb texts, and falling asleep to music at night, and having babies, and playing basketball, and being in bands, and being in love, and picking up pennies on the sidewalk, and sometimes believing in anything and sometimes in nothing at all. They missed the long drum roll of history and were sorry to have cut it off so abruptly. The people became more and more restless.
Death watched the people and worried they were going to cause problems. They had no intention of adapting to the Afterwards; that much was clear. He worried that maybe they would start rioting or something. The people are bored, thought Death. They need something to occupy their time.
So Death built the people a giant movie megaplex, the largest in the universe, where they could watch any movie ever made. And the people were thrilled. They forgot their basement windows and spent all their time at the movies, dropping popcorn on the floor through buttery fingers and drinking fountain sodas with endless refills. They formed film discussion groups, arguing the merits of German Expressionism and Afrofuturism, the Marvel cinematic universe and stoner comedies. They watched fast car chases and slow love scenes with equal ardor, and their pupils went wide from so many days spent in the dark. Death sighed in relief and stopped worrying.
But then one morning, when Death was brushing his teeth, he looked in the mirror and saw the people standing there all disgruntled-looking. Death spat into the sink and said, now what?
We long for Earth, said the people. It's time we went back.
Jesus, said Death. What is the deal with you people? You’re tired of your movie theater already?
No, said the people. We love the movie theater. In fact, we have a long list of movies we still want to see.
So what's the problem? Death asked. He was glad he had a bathrobe on. The people had to stop dropping in like this. It was like the people didn't understand that Death needed some goddamn privacy.
The people fidgeted and shuffled their feet, and Death was gratified they had the grace to be embarrassed. We love the movies, they said, but they all remind us of Earth. And now we’re more homesick than ever.
Death felt sorry for the people, in spite of their popping up uninvited all the time. They couldn't help that they always had bad timing, that they always did the wrong thing. That was what the people were like. You can't go back, he said gently. I did tell you, you know. Is there something else that you would like? Something that would make you happier here?
Sandwiches, said the people. And lipstick. And cell phones. And swimming pools, and guitars, and relaxing on beach towels, and barbecues, and telling white lies, and growing things. We want snow and slippers and museums and political rallies and sex and affairs and vaping and tree trunks and playgrounds and ripe apples and fights and pizza and online shopping and caramel popcorn and D&D and dancing and curry and nightmares and bonfires and drama and beer and sushi and concerts and ghost stories. The people stood with their arms crossed, waiting.
Death had no idea what to do. He figured he'd better ask the Ones in Charge, so he rinsed off his toothbrush, placed it neatly in the toothbrush holder, and walked to the bedroom to change out of his bathrobe. The people followed, arms still crossed mulishly. Look, said Death, lifting an extremely nice black cashmere sweater out of his top drawer. Can you please get out of here? I need to get dressed.
How come we don't get to wear cashmere? Or brush our teeth, or wear loafers without socks? the people asked.
Because you're dead, said Death.
But he was starting to understand why he felt sympathy for the people, why he was even beginning to grow fond of them. They were so brave and stubborn in the face of things that couldn't be changed. Even dead, they clung to their sense of what it meant to be living, and they seemed utterly unable to give it up. Over the eons, Death had watched countless beings shed life like a skin, wriggling free and wrapping themselves in the elemental instead. Most beings seemed to delight in losing the weight of the world. But the people held hard to weight, to the heaviest things like land and loss and other people. They seemed determined to be solid, to be planted—to be unavoidable roadblocks in the flow of the Afterwards. They were strange beings, the people. There was nobody else like them.
Death flew up to the attic of the Afterwards where the Ones in Charge hung out. They were playing Halo Infinite, and it took Death what seemed like a year and a half to get their attention. Well, said the Ones. You wanted to see us about something?
Is that the new Halo game, asked Death?
Yeah, said the Ones in Charge. It rules.
I didn’t even know that was out yet, said Death.
It isn’t, said the Ones in Charge. What do you want, Death?
Uh, he said, well. The people have started to revolt. They want to go back to Earth. I told them they can't, but it doesn't seem to matter.
Hmm, said the Ones. Death was pretty sure they weren't even listening. The Ones in Charge were so annoying when they were playing video games. Plus Death had to keep bringing them Flamin’ Hot Nacho Doritos and Mountain Dew.
Guys, he said. Guys, come on—the people are driving me crazy. They just keep showing up at my house. You have to do something.
The Ones didn't even look away from the TV when they spoke to Death. You think we hadn't noticed? That we were just totally ignorant up here? I mean, seriously. We are the Ones in Charge. We know everything.
Well, then, asked Death, what should I do? With the people, I mean?
Take them back to Earth, said the Ones in Charge. We're bored, too. We used to get our kicks watching the people. Now we have nothing to do.
For real? Death asked. Send them back to Earth? I can do that?
Yeah, and do it quickly, said the Ones in Charge. Aren't you bored, too, Death?
Well, yes, but—I mean, if I let them go back, I'm just going to look totally weak, said Death.
Nah, I wouldn't worry about that. You're already totally weak, said the Ones in Charge, and high-fived each other.
Hey, said Death.
Go to the people, said the Ones in Charge. Take them back now, but don't let them remember. Give them a fresh start. Earth will help you.
And so Death assembled all the people in the public square and delivered the good news. It was something he was unused to doing, so he made it awkward, but when he told the people they would get to go back they put him on their shoulders and cheered. They promised never to call him 'The Hall Monitor' ever again, and to be super respectful of Death in the future. They even poured fountain soda all over him, since they didn't have any Gatorade in the Afterwards. Death had to admit he was a little touched by the gesture, even if he was all sticky now.
At last it was time for the people to return to Earth. So Death showered and put on his best black suit, and flew to Earth with the people in tow. The people were soft and slow by now, so it took a long time to get everybody back. Then Death erased the people's memories, and took away their language, and set them on the plains and hills, and in the forests and jungles and deserts, naked and full of ideas and newness.
Earth was secretly pleased to see the people again. It had been caring for the animals, and that was kind of interesting, for a while. All the new plants, too. Thing was, though, the animals and plants never really surprised you like the people could. Some of the people's surprises had been horrible, to be sure. And Earth had seriously resented the people for it. But Earth thought maybe this time it could improve the people, push them in the right direction every now and then. Maybe the people just needed a firm hand.
Fruits and vegetables grew like crazy to make the people strong. The water ran clear and cold, skimmed over silver rocks, and poured itself into the people's hands to refresh them. The animals rubbed against the people's legs, and the sky made sunshine and plump white clouds to sit under. And the people marveled at their existence and invented language, and the first thing they spoke of was how they came to be.
Amber Sparks is the author of several short story collections, including The Unfinished World and Other Stories, and And I Do Not Forgive You (Liveright). Her essays and fiction can be found widely in print and online, in places like The Paris Review, NYMag, Granta, and Tin House.