After death, some souls go to reward and some to punishment. Then there are the ones who just need to do some “community service” to atone for minor wrongs. The length and manner of service depends on the offense. The service is some task, usually tedious, that must be performed in the maintenance of the cosmos. Some service has nothing to do with the world of the living. Some service has everything to do with the world of the living.
Joe was one among a legion of souls who were tasked with a vital but painstaking duty. Joe thought of his service as his afterlife profession. He was so experienced and proficient that he was also tasked with mentoring the newly deceased.
One crisp autumn morning, he received his assignment for the day and went to meet his newest apprentice.
“The human spirit is carried on the breath,” Joe explained. “There are some legends that say the number of breaths a person has is already set when he or she is born. That’s not exactly right. The number changes throughout life. And they have to be counted, accounted for. That’s where we come in. That’s our part in maintaining the cosmic balance. We count and report. Others act upon the information we gather.”
Joe’s apprentice was a newly dead soul named Ray, a jolly man in his mid-eighties, who was just happy to be free of the physical ailments that came along with having an aged body. Joe sensed that Ray was paying attention as they headed to their first destination, but every now and then the older soul would beam, laugh, or just revel in the freeness of his spirit.
Ray manifested the shape of a body, a much younger one that appeared to be in his mid-to-late thirties. He karate-chopped the air, and said, “You like that, hypertension?”
Then he dashed forward, turn around, and dashed back toward Joe. “Take that, arthritis!” he said bending his arms and legs.
It was a common reaction among those who had lived long enough to be encumbered or even failed by their own bodies. Ray would not have had much chance to whoop it up during orientation. Joe let him get it out of his system.
“So today is like a ride-along, only we’re walking, so it’s more of a walk-along training day, am I right?” Ray asked.
“That’s right, Ray.”
Being incorporeal beings, they weren’t exactly walking either, or gliding. But their spirits were moving in a particular direction along a sidewalk. They were both living men once and it was easy to fall back into the pattern of obeying traffic laws.
“I’m not sure whoever is running the afterlife knows what they’re doing,” Ray said. “Orientation was a bit dry. And I guess we were in the human sector of the afterlife, because I didn’t see any animals or any non-human spirits. But there must be, right? Aliens?”
Joe smiled. Human minds were so alike in many ways. He’d heard the same questions and speculations from other apprentices. “I know no more than you do, Mister Lambert.”
“They said we can pass through walls and go anywhere. What’s to stop us from invading people’s privacy?”
“Do you ever want to see your wife again, as you claimed?”
“Point taken. So, who are you hoping to see again once your service is over?”
“I was a private person in life, Mister Lambert, and I remain so after life.”
“I didn’t mean to pry. Just making small talk. Getting to know the boss.”
“I’m not your boss.”
“Then who do I answer to?”
Ray shook his immaterial head. “Been a long time since that’s been so.”
“Normally,” Joe said, “I would visit more people, but we’ll take it slow today so you can see how it works. We’ll have maybe half a dozen stops to make before we call it a day.”
“Sounds good. And where do you like to go after you clock out for the day, Joe? Is there a spirit bar around here?”
Joe laughed. “I usually just go home and relax.”
“Home? Where’s that?”
“Maybe I’ll tell you. First I need to spend the day with you. Find out if you’re trustworthy.”
“Fair enough, son. Fair enough. Continue the lesson.”
“So I know you’ve heard this before, but for the sake of thoroughness, let me tell you what we do. I liken us to accountants. The people we visit aren’t clients, really, but I prefer calling them clients to calling them subjects.”
“I’m with you there. ‘Subjects’ makes it sound like we’re going to experiment on them.”
“The job of an accountant is to visit each client on the daily list, and assess the count of breaths that person has. We are usually sent out when some change is happening in the person’s life.”
“I was paying attention, Joe. I really was, when they brought out that doohickey that does the measuring, but I couldn’t for the life of me—“ Here Ray stopped and started laughing. “—or should I say the death of me? Anyway, I couldn’t quite see how the thing worked.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll show you.”
“Ten of the names on our list are right here,” Joe said as they stopped before the entrance to the Everhope Hospital.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this one.” Even most of the dead loathed hospitals.
“You can back out now if you’d like. Do something else to finish your service.”
“No way, Joe. Everything else would take way, way too long. I chose this for a reason. I’ll follow all the rules. Get my service done in a jiffy. And go be reunited with my Beth, and we’ll have some laughs and travel a bit while we’re waiting for the kids and grandkids to join us—a long, long time from now.”
“In that case, follow me.”
Ray wasn’t quite used to being incorporeal, so they rode the elevator up to the maternity ward. They stopped outside the nursery and assessed the breaths of the newborns.
Joe showed Ray the list and explained how he received it each morning. He satisfied some of Ray’s curiosity about himself by admitting that he had a real apartment in a building with an owner who knew about Joe and didn’t charge him rent. His assignment list was slipped under his door each morning.
“Ever see who delivers it?” Ray asked.
“I’ve tried on occasion, but whoever or whatever it is must be quicker than a ghost. Or maybe I’m slow.”
Then Joe explained how to record the information from the device he used to measure his clients’ breaths. He wasn’t given any information beyond the name and the last measurement. He was to note the number of breaths, confirming or adjusting the value of the last measurement. He would then seal up the results in an envelope with his own name and service number on it and he drop it in any mailbox.
“Your method of reporting might be different if you choose not to stay here in the corporeal world while you’re serving.”
“If the alternative is to go back to those cramped, stuffy old dorm rooms they kept us in during orientation, I may just stay here. Besides, I know it’s against the rules, but maybe I can find some witch doctor or someone who can help me to get beyond the boundaries of my approved region, so I can see how my family is doing. There’s a few of them I’m sure could handle a haunting.”
“That’s inadvisable, Ray. Remember how you want to follow the rules so you can get back with your wife?”
Ray waved his hand as if to gesture that he was only joking.
Lastly, Joe explained the most complicated, if not exactly difficult, part of the job. The breath-measuring machine was not a precise device. Joe had thought it would be when he first started. He didn’t understand how changeable human life, even a staid and steady life, could be. Anything could happen at any moment and change the number of breaths that one was allotted. The allotment wasn’t made to be a limit like “these are all the breaths you get,” or “I know you’re ready to die, but you’ve got ten thousand more breaths to use.” It was meant to be an estimate. Breaths were redistributed or even created as needed after Joe and all the rest of his fellow accountants submitted their counts.
Joe and Ray measured the breaths of the babies. This was something that Joe was assigned to do every once in a while. A baseline measure at the beginning of a person’s life.
Joe tried to hide it, the one number that was different. But he’d given the device to his apprentice to practice with. Ray noticed, of course. There was one baby of the ten in the nursery, who had vastly fewer breaths listed than his cohorts. They recorded the numbers and Joe tried to shuffle them out, but Ray lingered.
“What can we do for that little guy? He’s going to die young,” Ray said, gazing through the window at the babies in their bassinets.
“Not necessarily. Something might change in the time he has. If he’s sick, a cure might emerge. If he’s fated for some accident, then something might change to prevent the accident.”
Ray corporealized and Joe glanced around to gauge the reactions of the people passing to and fro in the busy ward. It took a lot of focus and many condensing spirit energies for a ghost to become visible, moreso to become tangible. But so far no one seemed to see Ray except for Joe.
“Our job is to watch and report. We must not interfere. We can’t do much anyway.” Joe was doubly thwarted. He could not interfere with the fate of the baby. But he was also not to interfere if his apprentice bent or broke a rule. “There are consequences.”
“He’s just a baby, Joe. And those numbers…what does he have? One week’s worth of breaths?” Ray kept staring. He was focused. Joe was certain he knew what would happen next.
Suddenly, Ray’s figure stiffened and he turned to Joe, who had corporealized beside him. “I know what’s wrong with him!” Ray said. “Joe, how could I know? I’m not doctor. And it’s…it’s complex.” He turned back toward the baby. “They can fix it if they catch it. If they run the right tests, but they won’t run them unless they see a reason to. I need to get in there.”
“Ray, no. There will be consequences.”
“I can’t…I’m not allowed to tell you. Trust me and don’t do it. We are not tasked with changing the number of breaths a person gets. We are just tasked with measuring them.” Joe sighed, though not with actual breath. “You’ll get time added to your service.”
He couldn’t tell if Ray heard him or not, for just at that moment, a nurse opened the door to the nursery and Ray slipped in behind her. He could have passed right through the wall, but Joe wasn’t going to remind him of that.
Joe watched. He could have gone in after his apprentice, dragged Ray away. He had done that a few times. Sometimes it was right to save people from their own bad mistakes. Sometimes it was right to let them learn for themselves. And there were some kind of people who would save a baby no matter what the cost.
Ray peered at the chart associated with the baby of interest. There was a computer station in the nursery. He glanced at the nurse, who was checking on the babies, and he started working at the station.
The mind was capable of comprehending far more knowledge in spirit form than it could when confined in a flesh and blood brain. It was why people who’d had out-of-body experiences seemed to remember having tapped into knowledge they could not recall upon waking. The newly dead would have been told about this during orientation, but it didn’t come naturally, tapping into cosmic knowledge, not for a mind that was still letting go of its corporeal form.
Ray had just reflexively tapped the well of all knowledge. So it was that he knew what was wrong with the infant. So it was that he knew what the password for the hospital computer was and how to order the right tests for the baby whose breaths were running out. Even before Ray was finished, Joe took another measure and watched the numbers on the device rocket up and up.
Ray came back out. He held up both his hands. “I had to do it, Joe. I’m sorry. I’ll take full responsibility. I won’t let you get blamed.”
“I won’t be. Ray…”
“Did it work?”
“Yes.” Joe handed the device over. The number of breaths was still rising.
“Ray, I’m sorry, but you broke the rules and your service has been extended.”
The smile on Ray’s manifested face faded. “Hit me with the numbers, boss.”
“You only had a year, is that right?”
“Now you have one more year—“
“—that’s not too bad.”
“—for every year that child lives.”
“For every year he lives,” Joe said, “you have an additional year of service.”
With a look of shock on his face, Ray glanced down at the reading on the device. “How many years would this many breaths be?” he asked, handing the device back to Joe. In the shock of the revelation, his cosmic knowledge—and ability to do math—had left him.
“This would be about your age, Ray. Mid-eighties. Maybe ninety.”
There was a bank of chairs in the hallway. Ray had no body, but he looked like he needed to sit. His manifested form dissipated as he lost focus. His spirit hovered over the chair.
He would have no sense of the passing of time now. Joe and Ray might end up hovering in that hospital all day.
It’s okay, Joe thought. I’ll stay with him. Someone else can take my other clients.
But after several minutes, Ray focused and corporealized again. He looked up at Joe.
“It’s okay,” he said. “She’ll understand, especially if I can get word to her.” He rose. “I wouldn’t have been able to face her if I didn’t help that baby.”
“You’ll encounter such situations again, Ray. Maybe again while we’re training and certainly during your service.”
“I imagine I will, but I’ll cross those bridges when I get to them. Where to next?”
“We perceive time differently, don’t we?” Ray asked, taking a sip of his beer. “Maybe ninety years won’t seem so long.”
Joe and Ray had spent the rest of the day visiting several different people and gauging their breaths. There had been some minor adjustments, some opportunities to show Ray the subtleties of the breath measuring device. They had two stops left. Two clients were to appear at the bar where Joe and Ray had decided to take a load off. Ray practiced materializing and condensing his form enough for the living to see him and even interact with him. He was surprised at how easy it was, mentioning he’d seen a few movies that made it seem like a difficult and even painful thing for a ghost to affect solid objects.
Joe explained that ghost’s did indeed have difficulty manifesting visually and moreso tangibly in the world of the living. Joe and Ray were only able to do so easily because they were still on duty. They had permission.
“Is any one of that gaggle of people who just walked in one of the folks we’re looking for?”
“That couple there. Their breaths quicken as they draw closer. The breath of lovers is difficult to gauge. They must have been put on my list today as a challenge to you.”
“I don’t know about this, Joe. Feels a bit creepy.”
“So, measure quickly.”
Ray took the measures of the couple’s breaths, and did so quite adeptly. His training would not last long. But despite his initial worry about staring inappropriately, he gazed at the couple for a moment longer. They were huddled together, their heartbeats likely as short as their breaths.
“You’re not going to interfere again, are you?” Joe asked.
Ray chuckled. “No, no. There’s no interfering with love. It’ll happen. It won’t happen. It’s up to them. Just like it was up to me and my Beth. I hope they find what we have. I can’t wait to see her. We got lucky, Joe. Love at first sight and all that. We were both sixteen. We were both shy. We didn’t kiss each other until two years later. Can you imagine?
We went to a dance together and were too nervous to hold each other close for the slow dance. She was the one who made the first move. I remember that spark in her eye just before she wrapped her arms around my waist, pulled herself toward me so we slammed together. She looked up at me, smiling like the devil smiling through an angel’s face. I was terrified at the thought she might just dip me.” Ray threw back his head and laughed.
“Poor fellow,” he said looking at Joe. “I’m probably boring you to tears.
But Joe was smiling. It felt good to have a face and a mouth to smile with. He rarely corporealized when he was on duty alone. He had told Ray that they had one more client before the end of their shift, but Joe didn’t think it would do any harm to linger at the bar long enough to finish their drinks. In such good company, he even imagined he could really taste his drink.
They sat a few moments just sipping and watching the living. Then Ray broke the silence.
“How long have you been at this?”
Joe sighed. “It’s difficult to gauge time as it passes and I adapt to it, but I’d say almost two centuries.”
Ray’s eyes widened. “You broke the rules, too, didn’t you?”
“I won’t say, old man. I’ve had enough of your prying,” Joe teased.
“Let’s think. You’re a stand-up guy, but too stuffy to break the rules. I can tell.” Ray peered at Joe for a moment. “I know. You took someone else’s place, didn’t you?”
“No. We must each complete our own service.” Joe grew serious. “And when your service is done, you can choose to stay, to continue.”
Ray peered at Joe. “Who would choose not to end their service? Would you? Why?”
“Unlike you, I have no one. No one waiting for me beyond here.”
Ray frowned. “You got me. When my service ends, let’s leave together.”
“All my apprentices have made such an offer. All have been kind and generous as you are. It makes me wonder why they even deserved service to begin with.”
“Well, we all do some boneheaded stuff in our lives. Sometimes it’s by accident. But sometimes, who knows why, we know better and should be better, but sometimes we do boneheaded stuff on purpose. A little service to humanity is a small price to pay for balancing those books and making sure that we deserve whatever good comes next.”
“I do truly regret that I can’t help shave some of those years off your service.” Joe raised his glass. “To you, Ray, and all my good apprentices.”
Ray raised his glass. “I’ll drink to that. And to you, Joe, our good teacher.”
“We have one more stop. And I’m afraid it won’t be as pleasant as this one. But I have a feeling that upper management will give us an easier day tomorrow to make up for it.”
“Sounds ominous. Where to?”
“Back where we started.”
When they returned to the hospital, Ray was afraid they were there to undo what he had done for the baby whose breaths they’d counted that morning.
“Did you bring me here to tempt me?” Ray asked. “See if I’d turn my back on that child just so I can see my wife sooner? Because I’ll tell you what, it is tempting. And it makes me sick to think I could even consider reversing what I’d done.”
“We’re not here for the baby,” Joe said. They made their way to the elevator and went up a few floors above the maternity ward, to the intensive care unit.
“What happens to those who stop breathing?” Joe asked as they exited the elevator. “They die, right?
“I would think so.”
They walked into the intensive care unit. Ray was not daunted by the sight of the people hooked up to breathing tubes, intravenous drugs and fluids, catheters, and pulse monitors. But the breathing tubes did trigger his curiosity, as Joe had hoped.
“Wait, if someone’s on a ventilator…”
“Borrowed breaths,” Joe said. “These people have stopped breathing, on their own anyway, but they are still alive. Their breaths must be counted, but they must be counted differently. Here, let me show you how to recognize them.”
Joe demonstrated the measure. This time, Ray was not so quick to pick up on the subtleties. Or he may have been distracted by deeper thoughts.
“In a little over a week, that little baby you saved will be breathing borrowed breaths too,” Joe said.
“Borrowed? From where? From whom? I didn’t doom someone else to die when I saved him?”
Joe shook his head. “The balance between life and death must be maintained. But that doesn’t mean a life for a life, not always. It’s more complex than that. But if the balance shifts, then much must change in the world of the living and the world of the dead.
One of the reasons for a person to do service is that he or she has lived on borrowed breaths. Sometimes that does mean someone else sacrificed health or life. Sometimes it means that the cosmos made more breaths and they must be repaid. If the person lived a life that deserves reward, they must still serve to balance the books.”
“Well that seems like a crock. Why not let the good folks go on and enjoy themselves? Let the bad guys pay the price.”
Joe’s gaze flicked toward a man who was lying just beside them. Joe and Ray were at the foot of the man’s bed. The man’s eyes were open, his eyelids drooping. He appeared to be looking a nothing.
“I’m all for that,” Joe said. “The sooner this one leaves the world of the living, the better.”
“I take it this is a bad guy.”
“Bad is an understatement. You don’t want to know, Ray. And I don’t want to tell you.”
Ray placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe felt the hand, not as he would have felt it in life, heavy, warm, and reassuring. He felt the vibrations of energy that were Ray tilting the vibrations that were him. It was reassuring in a different way.
“His breaths were borrowed even before he came here,” Joe said. “He ended up not deserving them. It’s not for me to judge, and yet, I judge.”
Joe handed the list of clients to Ray. Ray examined the list.
“This man’s name is not on the list,” Ray said. “I don’t understand.”
“Sorry Ray, this isn’t a client. Our last stop was that cute couple. This man is a lesson.”
Ray frowned in thought. “You said his breaths were borrowed even before he went on the ventilator?” His frown faded. “He was supposed to have his last breath, and something happened to change that. Or someone did something to change that.”
“Is this a lesson then or a warning?”
“Both. We cannot tell what kind of people they are whose breaths we measure. We measure heir breaths not their character or their hearts or minds. The likelihood of the boy you saved this morning becoming a vile and wicked man is low. But you never know. Sometimes the balance is a life for a life. This man used his borrowed breaths to live an unworthy life. He snuffed out the breaths of many other people and someone finally almost snuffed out his, and yet here he is, still taking breath.”
“Did you do this, Joe? Did you save him as a baby, and watch him grow up to be criminal?”
Joe shook his head. “Someone did something to increase his allotment of breaths when he was nothing but a helpless baby. I don’t know who. I’ve just gotten to know what borrowed breaths look like.”
Ray looked thunderstruck and Joe walked him out of the unit.
“I got lucky,” Joe said. “There have been a few people whose fates I’ve nudged in a different direction as you did for that boy. The changes I encouraged turned out to be for the good, at least I think so. But I’ve been given more service for it, and more on top of that. I’ve gone too far and there is no end to service for me. I’ll probably be doing this for eternity.”
Ray shook his head. “But then, what’s to stop you from saving everyone? Or the opposite, from dooming people to zero breaths just because you don’t like the cut of their jib?”
“Because if I step too far over the line, I will go to punishment. To wherever men like him go when they die. I’d rather spend eternity counting the breaths of the living than suffering torment.”
Ray gestured for them to keep walking out. It seemed he was ready to leave the hospital.
“And how will you know where that line is?” he asked. “What if upper management changes and decides to re-evaluate your service record?”
Joe shrugged. “Maybe it’ll help to have friends in paradisiac places.”
Ray glanced at him and some of the jollity returned to his eyes. “Friends, huh? Should I be honored, or worried?”
“Both,” they said together. And the tension between them was broken, much to Joe’s relief. He had hard lessons to teach all his apprentices. It was not always clear how he should teach those lessons. And how to keep his apprentices from taking the lessons too hard. It was good that Ray took Joe’s jest to mean that he would finish his service and join his wife in paradise. It was also a good sign that he was putting the lesson away for the night. Ghosts didn’t need sleep, but they did need rest and respite.
Joe and Ray walked out into the chill night, though neither of them felt the chill. The dark purple sky was devoid of clouds and full of stars.
“Can I stay at your place tonight?” Ray said suddenly.
“Sure, but we’re not going to be roommates.”
“’Course not. I can tell you’re insufferable.”
“What about you? Your poor Beth was probably the only one who could suffer you.”
Ray laughed aloud. “Ain’t that the truth. Hey, I’m telling you all about her and you’ll have to listen.”
“I’m all ears, Ray.”
“Say, Joe. Have you ever seen anyone’s last breath?”
“Many times, and so will you.”
“I already have.”
“But in life, it can be a sad and painful thing, even if that last breath means a release from pain.,” Joe said. “When you see if from this side…Ray when a good person takes that last breath, it’s always a beautiful sight. It’s always a privilege to be present.”
“That sounds nice. Tell me more about that.”
With that, the two strolled down the street, heading toward Joe’s apartment, telling tales and laughing, going to take their rest until their next day of service.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel