Inspired in part by Terry Pratchett, and his wee free men–though just a small part of their legend.
“Isn’t the afterlife wonderful?” Sam asked, craning her head around to peer up at the sky, the scraggly trees wilting in the parking lot, and the pollen-dusted buildings hemming them in.
Tyson blinked. “Huh?”
Sam had seemed normal enough a minute ago. They had a ceramics class together, and had bonded over how finicky the clay extruder was, and sat side-by-side at pottery wheels for weeks. Normal enough that when class had gotten out tonight, and Tyson was hungry, he’d invited her to his favorite taco truck, which was parked down the street.
“I said, isn’t the afterlife wonderful?” Sam repeated, proving that he hadn’t, as he’d hoped, misheard her. “I’ve been dead almost a year now, so it’s been on my mind as the anniversary approaches, you know?”
“You’re dead?” Tyson floundered, still thrown by the conversation’s sudden jerk of the wheel off the road and fast approaching a cliff.
“Of course. Aren’t you? You seemed like an–” she said a word that twisted through his brain, refusing to process. A painful dagger of static in his eardrums.
Sam noticed his pained expression. ” Oh, sorry. I see that I was mistaken. You’re from here.” She shrugged, and took another bite of her taco.
Tyson watched her devour two more bites, then returned to his own food. The barbacoa, avocado, and queso fresco confection deserved to be consumed before the taco grew cold.
As soon as he’d tucked the last piece into his happy stomach, he picked up the conversation again, unable to help himself.
“How can you be dead, and living here? With me? And everyone else?”
“Afterlives are complicated,” Sam said with the air of someone who’d explained this many times before. “For space conservation, some people’s lives are someone else’s afterlife. Like your world is mine.”
“But… you’re alive?” Tyson protested. “You’re eating food, and everything.”
“Well, of course. What kind of heaven would it be if you couldn’t eat? Smell all these wonderful scents, and never be able to taste? I wasn’t a bad person, I’m not in hell.” Sam laughed.
“Uh. Right.” Tyson crumpled up the cardboard boat, and threw it at a nearby trash can.
It skittered down the metal side of the can, and bounced on the asphalt, coming to rest a good foot and a half from its target.
Ears burning with embarrassment, he strode over to the can, scooped up his trash, and deposited it directly in. He glowered down at the black bag-lined cylinder, which was mostly of crumpled napkins and paper containers and, sacreligiously, half-eaten tacos.
He glanced up to see Sam dropping her boat, uncrumpled but properly empty, into the can next to him.
She smiled. “Don’t worry, I think whoever’s in charge isn’t all that strict, really. I’m sure your afterlife will be a nice one, too.”
“Nicer than here?”
“Maybe,” she shrugged. “This world isn’t too different from mine, really. Except it doesn’t have the–” another painful static word, cut off midsyllable as she remembered.
Tyson winced anyway. That whatever-it-was hurt.
“Doesn’t have… these dangerous aerial predators,” she corrected. “It’s nice to be outside during the day.”
She drew in a deep breath, and beamed.
Curious, Tyson took a breath, too. The humid air teemed with the scent of delicious tacos and spices, fumes from the truck’s generator, and the traffic from the road bordering the parking lot.
He coughed. “What do they look like? These flying things?”
“Mmm,” Sam considered, and for a moment, he thought she’d run out of ideas for her strange story. “You don’t have anything like them here. My life… our planet’s atmosphere is thicker, and the air currents are really strong. So lots of animals are fliers–you can travel a good distance, over land or sea. Have to be small and fast, or big and tough, if you want to survive. People used to be small and fast, but we developed a lot like you did–bigger brains means better tools and higher survival rates.”
“Uh huh.” Tyson was impressed at how far Sam was taking this tall tale.
“Just like your bigger brains have some downsides, ours made us too slow. And gradually our wings were more vestigial, like your tails. We could glide, but not really fly distances. And we were slower. Too slow for the–” she caught herself before she said the word again.
“For the… deadly wings. We live underground, mostly. Build into the sides of hills. Travel in subways and tunnels. And luckily, the deadly wings have terrible night vision, so we can go out at night. But carefully, of course.”
“Of course,” Tyson prompted.
“Do you know how many predatory animals you have in your world that eat humans?” Sam asked.
“Um… one?” Tyson suggested.
“Tyson!” Sam’s eyes widened in genuine shock. “You should spend your time on your phone on sites that are more educational than Grindr. There’s several–big cats, bears, sharks, and alligators, to name a few.”
“Oh, yeah, right.” Tyson scratched his head.
“Don’t worry,” Sam brushed her hands off against her pants. “Like I said, the afterlife is wonderful. I’m stuffed. Do you want to go for a walk?”
Tyson nodded weakly, planning his escape. He’d sit somewhere else in ceramics class next week. Or maybe skip it entirely.
Sam glanced to her left, then strode directly into the road, and bounced off a car speeding down it. Thrown clear by the impact, she landed in a tangle on the sidewalk.
The car kept driving without pause.
“Ohmigod!” Tyson bolted toward her, just in time to see her stand up, unhurt.
“Whoops! I keep forgetting you drive on the right. So weird.” She shook her head.
“Yeah, weird.” Tyson goggled. “You have a little–” he pointed, hand shaking, at the smudge of oil on her jeans.
“Oh, dear. I hope that comes out.” Sam scrubbed at the smear, spreading it further.
“I’m–I’m sure it will.”
“There’s the spirit,” Sam winked.