Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Monday Night Chinese: Part 1

Part 01: String Words Together So They Mean Nothing

Scream. Scream. SCREAM. That’s all Levi wanted to do right at that moment, but he could not. It was his job, after all, to sit and pay attention to the complaints of all the demons that came to his department of the Afterlife, the Chinese Restaurant.

He was a Listener.

“…. They’re all so pretty. I can’t stand it! I just have to cut them up! Slash their faces!” A woman lowly emitted a toxic voice.

The woman sitting in front of Levi and spewing total nonsense referred to herself as the ‘Slit-Mouth Woman’. As sickly as she was in appearance, with her lips ripped open from ear to ear, Levi couldn’t help but notice the natural beauty of her silky black hair and slanted eyes. Even her voice, when she wasn’t sounding so crazed, had a slight melodic twinge. But most of this had been torn away from her in death, when her husband had found her cheating on him and as punishment carved up her face in the manner of a jack-o-lantern. Maybe Levi was a little vain for noticing all of this, but after years of listening, he picked up the habit of noting, among other things, the appearance of everyone or thing that came to his residence.

She was like an over-ripened clementine, Levi imagined- No, that wasn’t right. An onion…? That wasn’t right either. She didn’t resemble either of those things, but sheer irritation and boredom had gotten to him and taken over his mind like an ooze slowly covering his brain. Levi was bored with her and her worldly ramblings of things as shallow and trite as outer beauty and trying to compete with the younger women around her. Apparently that was the only reason she tried cheating on her husband in the first place, to see if she could snag a younger man. The way she spoke, criticizing the younger women, helped evaporate any romantic notions anyone might still have had about her. Levi found it pathetic. She was one of the least fascinating demons he had ever encountered.

Suddenly it seemed her silky black hair was a deep tar color, matted together like it hadn’t been combed in ages. Her voice was hoarse and sounded like an old woman’s. Her slanted eyes had creases from glaring, and that was only when they were visible. Most of the time her head hung low and her face was covered by the tar seeping from her scalp.

He tried coming back to his sense of reality. The Slit-Mouth Woman had calmed down from her ramblings. This was Levi’s chance to finish his job.

Carefully, and in his own right elegantly, the man of twenty and six years in appearance brought his elbow to the table and rested his chin neatly in the palm of his hand. His smile crawled across his face and his eyes softly narrowed. Leaning forward, he fixed the gaze of his vibrant emerald eyes on the woman, who looked a little stunned.

“The way I see it, my dear,” he started, “there was no need for you to compete with the younger women at all. Your husband loved you enough to kill you so that nobody else could have you. Doesn’t that make you happy?”

Black tar whisked away from her face to reveal shocked eyes stretched as far open as they could, straining. In all her ridiculous vanity she believed him. Within seconds her grotesque appearance had been reverted to the one she held when her delicate frame had still been breathing in the mortal world. Levi’s job was done.

A Ferryman named Blue entered the restaurant to take away the slit-mouth woman.

“Hey, Levi. I’m here for the soul thing.” Blue had a twinge of a whistle in his voice; his tone always sounded so musical and cheerful, like a cockatiel. His sheer happiness even once or twice got on Levi’s nerves- but for the most part, he didn’t mind. Levi nodded his head in reply to the Ferryman.

Brushing some of his shaggy blond hair out of his eyes, the young man came forward and gently placed his hand on the spirit’s shoulder, whispering in her ear for her to stand. The spirit stood and Blue escorted her out. Levi finished his General Tso Chicken.

Levi walked briskly outside the doors of the restaurant and into the Afterlife, which largely resembled the inside of a government agency building. The main difference was the lack of black suits; everyone who passed by Levi wore clothing from whatever era they pleased with a nametag attached somewhere on their person. In his own humble opinion, Levi was probably the best dressed person in sight at the moment. And, again, in his own humble opinion he knew he had to be.

The Listener straightened his corduroy blazer and ran his hand through his slicked brown hair. Everything about him was brown in color; his chestnut hair, his blazer, his dark khaki pants and dark brown shirt. Everything except his piercing emerald eyes were intentionally this color, to give him a suave and understanding aura. It was also why he met the demonically transformed souls in a Chinese restaurant- it was comfortable, and just personal and casual enough to get them talking about their troubles. That was what a Listener did after all. They listened to troubles and at the right moment when all of the crippled soul’s worries had been poured out, the Listener reassured them and made them feel better about situations they had been given in life. At the end of the process, the demon would hopefully revert back to a normal human soul. That was, if everything had gone well. This was just one of the many other-worldly jobs available in the Afterlife.

“Hey. Hey, Levi! Stop spacing out already, you’re blocking the hallway.”

The brown clad man was dredged into reality. In front of him stood Alice, a Reaper dressed in 60’s fashion; a yellow flower print summer dress hung over her figure and black spandex could be seen peeking out from underneath the dress. The color greatly contrasted her pig-tailed raven hair, but altogether the look fit nicely for her.

“Oh. Hey.” Levi wasn’t in the mood to talk to his co-worker. This was mainly because he knew the conversation would lead to her teasing him and as an adult more often than not he was above teasing. She was not.

“That’s it?” Alice placed her hands on her hips and puffed out her cheeks. It made her look like a monkey. “So only the ghosts that we bring in to you get a real conversation with you? I’m the third wheel to a spirit. That’s sad.”

Levi shrugged his shoulders. “That’s all we are. Spirits.”

It was the job of the Reapers to catch and bring in the demons so that the Listeners could transform them back. After that the Ferrymen, like Blue, escorted the purified souls to the other side across the river Acheron.

The Listener started to wave Alice away when across the room he spotted Laura, another Reaper who worked with Alice. Had he still had a beating heart it would have pounded like mad, birds would have flown around her figure, Levi would have melted into a puddle of the kind of goo children tend to play and cause sticky messes with. But he was not alive, nor were those parts of reality able to be broken where they were, or really anywhere else at all that Levi knew of.

Laura was Alice’s opposite personality wise (according to Levi). She was cute as a button (according to, once again, Levi), responsible (actual fact), and from what Levi could tell from around the Afterlife, she was nice to everyone and managed to get a lot of work done (which was mostly true). That attitude and work ethic had actually recently gotten her a promotion and she now over saw the activities of a great majority of the Reapers.

Laura’s clothing, as Levi constantly pointed out to Alice, was a lot more practical for a Reaper. Unlike Alice’s sundress, Laura wore capris and a pink shirt- at no point while trying to bring in a demon would she have to keep her dress from blowing everywhere. Of course Levi had also been infatuated with Laura for fourteen years. Unfortunately for him the two had never had a chance to speak. There was always some other Reaper bringing Levi demons. As busy as both of them were, they hardly ever even saw each other, and Levi was sure Laura only knew as much about him as he did her- he also hoped she daydreamed about him the way he would never admit he did about her. He was really, truly in love with the idea of her.

Alice noticed where Levi’s gaze had gone and nudged him in the ribs. She snickered. “Go up and ask her out already, you’re starting to go into creeper territory.”

“I hate you.” With a hopeful smile, Levi nervously brought up his hand and waved at Laura. She didn’t see him.

“You win some you lose some.” Alice paused. “And sometimes you lose a lot. Actually, with you, you just never win.”

“And sometimes your dreams are crushed down into fine sand that’s used in the hourglass that counts down the time until your next dream is shattered.” He rather calmly shot back. Levi fixed his blazer and continued on his way.

Alice shouted after him. “Well I was going to offer you some pudding so you felt better, but if you’re going to be like that I’ll give it to Blue!” Levi chose to ignore her.

When Levi opened the door of the Chinese restaurant a few days later he was greeted by Laura and a two-headed man. It was quite the pleasant surprise for Levi that Laura was there, but he had hoped that if she were to ever come and see him it would have been on a day that he wasn’t late. During his free moments he strolled around other parts of the Afterlife, more specifically the areas that belonged to other Listeners. He was intrigued with how his peers handled their jobs and utilized their own unique areas, but lately the number of demons and foul spirits being brought in had tripled.

Laura turned to go, having fulfilled her part of the job by delivering the demon, but Levi decided this was his chance to speak to her- destiny, fate, whatever had brought her to him, now was his chance. He would finally say something to her, small talk, random fact, joke, he had to think of something quick. He said the first thing that came to mind.

“Did you know that bananas are going extinct?” He regretted it. Was that really the first thing that came to mind? How did he even know that? But Laura turned around and gave Levi a curious expression and a sly smile. Levi went with it. “That’s what I’ve been told, anyway. I was never too fond of them while I was alive, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, years of breeding them to be seedless have taken its toll and now there’s fewer and fewer trees. Imagine if bananas finally do go extinct, what will they have monkeys holding in their hands in photographs, then? A monkey without a banana is like-”

Heartbeat. There was a heartbeat. A very startling, abrupt, unnatural heartbeat. Levi’s face contorted and would have stayed like that had he not noticed the very attractive Reaper standing in front of him, so he continued.

“What was I saying? I guess it doesn’t matter, soon bananas will be outdated and monkeys will have to fight rabbits for carrots since there isn’t any other tropical fruit as convenient-”

THUMP. THUMP. THUMP. That was all Levi could hear, because he was a Listener. He turned his head to look at the two-headed man, the most unnatural thing in the restaurant. One head was female, one male. The female wore a top hat and heavy mascara; the male had dark circles under his eyes. The main body was covered by a red cape and long fingernails were protruding from the cloth like thick porcupine needles. There was another thump. Levi saw something on the demon’s chest. He squinted his eyes to sharpen his focus and leaned forward. THUMP. He saw a black flash, and by the next thump he saw the object: a black heart.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t bore you with things like that we both have work we need to do.” Levi’s voice had started to leave him, thoughts began to creep into his mind, and the sense he once had of knowing everything of importance dealing with his job had faded away. He had never encountered something with a black heart before, and he didn’t understand how that could happen. Levi had been around the block. He had seen demon after demon, and listened to them complain, but now he listened to something completely different. The Listener could hear more than just the spoken voice, and that fact had never occurred to him.

Laura shrugged and turned to leave when needles shot past, narrowly missing her slender arm. She turned to face the standing demon looming over her and she decided it was fully appropriate for her leg to meet the female head’s face.

“Wait a min-” Once demons entered a Listener’s area the serene nature of the place would sedate the demons and keep them from attacking. What was currently happening was not possible, and not only was Levi worried about Laura getting hurt; he was also flustered and extremely embarrassed that this was happening in his restaurant the one time Laura had come. He stood but Laura shoved him back in his booth seat. She turned, grabbed a large needle shot at her, and charged the demon. Levi looked on in disbelief, needles sticking to the booths in his restaurant, Laura kicking the demon, and the demon moving so fast it was making Levi dizzy. He almost didn’t notice a stray needle that lodged itself deeply into his chest; he winced and tore the needle out, feeling the tear in his shirt slowly fix itself. He was lucky that he didn’t bleed.

Laura boxed the demon’s two heads together and it collapsed. Levi stood up, looked at Laura to make sure she wouldn’t push him down again, and cautiously made his way to the demon. He knelt down and looked at its chest, directly at the black heart. “Go get some chains.” Laura gave him her rather specific ‘do you want to handle this thing when it wakes up?’ look and Levi felt like an idiot. “Right, I’ll be back in a minute.”

Sometime later, weeks in fact, Blue stopped by Levi’s restaurant. Levi sat frustrated in his booth seat, pinching the bridge of his nose and breathing deeply. Blue imagined that in his head, Levi was thinking of something soothing like running his hand over cool stones on a beach, or the smell of a camp fire. Both of these were things Blue himself liked to imagine at any given moment, and he secretly wanted to be a Listener so he could have his special area be a bonfire on a beach.

Blue noticed the demon on the other side of the table. It was a tall and gangly thing covered in patchwork clothes and random feathers and for a head it had a sack cloth with a torn spot for the mouth, but no eyes. It rustled constantly, sounding like a clichéd ghost each time the chains tying it down rattled. Levi broke from his concentration and saw the shaggy-haired boy. He allowed his hand to temporarily leave his nose and motioned for Blue to enter, but Blue was already ahead of him and was halfway to him by the time Levi had even gotten his hand in the air.

“What’s up?” Blue leaned over the back of Levi’s side of the booth, bringing his head to Levi’s level. Levi started mumbling about something or other but Blue couldn’t understand a thing that he was saying. “Dude, you’ve got to speak up. Don’t forget you’re the one who speaks good and stuff.”

“You mean the one who speaks well- and that doesn’t have anything to do with being a Listener.” Levi raised himself a little from his semi-slouch.

“Didn’t say it was. But this is why you get the big bucks.” Blue pointed to the pumpkin-headed demon chained to his seat. “Is this guy a, you know, like the other ones?”

“A black heart. Through and through.” Levi pointed to a black heart shape on the creature’s chest.

“Cool.” Blue nodded his head continually the way a person normally did when a conversation was going slowly. “So, any luck?”

“What is luck but a fickle temptress rarely smiling on any man. If she worked in the Afterlife I’d be having one stern conversation with her right now. I’d convince her to do this herself.” Levi adjusted himself in his seat and ran his hands through his hair. “I’m not making any progress, Blue. It would help if this thing actually spoke to me like a normal demon would. You know, normally when you give a person a chance to vent they take it. Especially when they’re furious! People love ranting when they’re furious, and Demons are very furious people. But the black hearts are… it’s like they don’t even know what’s wrong with them. How can I tell someone what they need to hear if they don’t even want to talk about it? In the past week and a half I’ve dealt with three black hearts and none of the other Listeners have been able to synch up to their problems. I’m not even sure how I’ve managed to do it.”

“You’re good, Levi. Face it.” Blue’s charm glided through the air, uplifting the atmosphere of the room just a little. It plummeted when something Levi had said didn’t quite make sense to him. “What do you mean synch up to their problems?”

“It’s something Listeners do. A gift, really. We harmonize with the vibrations of a spirit. That’s how we get an idea of how they’re feeling and what to say.”

“That doesn’t… yeah. That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s like we’re tuning into a radio station then trying to sing along to the songs we recognize. If we do well the passenger doesn’t kill us, and if we sound bad the passenger wants us to shut up.”

“Oh. That makes a lot more sense, I guess. I think.” Blue stared, rather un-politely, at the pumpkin headed spirit. After some silence, and being unsure if Levi was paying attention to him or not, Blue began speaking innocently enough about some of the spirits he had recently taken across Acheron, the dank caverns the river ran through, and the gate he left the spirits at with the guardians. Levi would nod his head occasionally, but Blue was unconvinced he was listening. He poked the side of Levi’s head. “There’s this guy in gray I’ve seen around a few times. Is he a new Listener?”

Levi groaned a little, taking his time to respond even though he put little thought into the question. “It’s possible; there have been a lot of demons lately. I haven’t heard anything though. Maybe he’s a Reaper? Gray doesn’t seem like a color a Listener would wear. It sends off the wrong signal. Brown’s a much better color.”

“I think I saw him around Laura the other day. I’ll have to ask Alice.”

“Ask me what?” Alice had been eavesdropping on him outside the restaurant doors- Levi hated it when she did that.

“Guy in a gray suit. You know him?”

“How long have you been there?” As a Listener Levi’s ability to sense when someone was near him while he was trying to work was exceptionally horrid. Alice could stare at him all day while he worked (which she had done) and he wouldn’t notice (which he didn’t).

“I have finely tuned senses. Everytime my name is mentioned I just kind of show up- poof! Like bubbles- so I can hear the praise. You were going to praise me, right?” Alice batted her lashes and tried to look as cute as she could in her sundress. Her hair in the two braids almost made it work, but the dangerous glint in her dark eyes gave her away.

“Pay attention, Blue asked you about a guy in a gray suit.” The Listener turned his attention back to the black heart in front of him.

“ Oh, right right. Guy in a suit.” Alice dropped her act and pondered, going through her memory bank swiftly, examining each filed memory over the past few days. Strange occurrences, funny things people had said, asking people if they knew who exactly cooked the food for Levi’s restaurant. She vaguely remembered a man in a gray suit. “I might have seen him a few times talking to people.”

“I thought you guys would pay better attention.” Blue stared at the black heart on the demon’s chest, his eyes going over it like a paint brush, each look another stroke completing the image in his brain. Things were getting curioser and curioser to him, but it appeared as if nobody else was noticing or quite as interested in his piece of the puzzle. “You guys are a bit of a letdown.”

“Uh-huh. That’s nice.” Levi waved Blue away with his hand, too focused to notice what he had said.

“Thanks for that, Blue. We try hard to let you down, glad to see it’s working.” Alice smiled proudly and patted Blue on the shoulder a few times. “I feel like there was something I needed to tell you, now that the compliments are done. Maybe it was… oh! Uriel’s done already with the creepy gremlin I brought him. He needs you to Ferry the resulting munchkin child to the gate.”

“Oh sweet, that means I get to play on the merry-go-round! I love Uriel’s area. Later.” Without hesitation Blue raced to the front door, ran into it, opened it and then rushed out. Alice would deny the fact that she closed the door hoping that would happen. After the scrawny youth had vanished, Alice turned her focus to Levi and slid into the booth next to him.

“What’s up?” Levi leaned forward on the table, putting his weight on his elbow which was placed near his untouched food. “Something you didn’t want to mention to Blue?”

“I forget how good you are.”

“Remind me, I could use the confidence boost.”

Alice smiled softly. “You probably haven’t heard yet, but rumor has it we’re missing people, mainly Reapers. Some of them go out on jobs and never come back. The same thing has happened to a Ferryman, and Stacey, the Listener with the park bench, hasn’t been seen all day. Most everyone has been too busy with the influx of souls turning demonic to notice.”

Levi stared at the black heart, breathing deeply. In. Out. In. Out. He slowly blinked. His long lashes that many females in the Afterlife had been jealous of flowing briskly with the movements of his lids. Alice, growing a little impatient opened her mouth to say something but Levi, after taking that time, spoke first.

“How many are missing?” He spoke slowly, pronouncing each word with great diction, and with a hint of worry.

“With Victoria, five. Three Reapers, a Ferryman, and a Listener.”

“Keep your ear to the ground and come back tomorrow. I’ll be done with this by then.”

Alice pursed her lips. “You think you’ll be done with this thing that soon?”

“I’ll be done with him and the two others waiting for me. I’ll work through my breaks.” His conviction was so evident that it finely glossed his confident words.

“I’ll take you up on that bet, then.” Alice the Reaper got up to leave when she felt an anchor prevent her from moving. It was Levi’s hand grasped tightly around her wrist.

“Keep an eye on Blue.” Levi turned his head. His intense emerald eyes focused heavily on Alice. “I don’t want him to be next.”

“I will. I’ll make sure to go with him across Acheron if I have to.”

Levi stared into Alice’s eyes a moment longer and let her go.

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