As I bit into my cake, I found myself marveling at the flavor. I had this one before, on my birthday, but I couldn’t truly appreciate the exquisite taste as I could now. My senses were so heightened from before. Even as I enjoyed how the frosting mixed with the cake’s flavor, I could tell the individual flavors apart. Life really was going to be an entirely different experience now.
Walking around Cosette and Mila as they stood there, frozen in time, I wondered how many more times my opinion of my tiny secretary would change. I remembered first meeting her and being taken in by how cute she was from the first moment, only to have her vomit in her father’s car not long later. Her skill at dancing amazed me, and her mistakes on the violin reminded me that she was still a little girl. She wasn’t though, not really.
“I am a little girl. Look at me, boss-man, sir.” claimed Aaliyah.
“Fine, but you’re not just a little girl. How can time be selectively frozen without magic, which you supposedly don’t have?” I asked her.
“Oh. That was Carl this time, not me. He likes to do that for me, so I can get cake before I die of starvation.” she told me.
“But you can’t really die…” I stated, gleaning the truth from what she said. “I feel at such a loss. How is it that knowing I am able to sense the truth leaves me more confused about what you say than when I didn’t realize I could? You honestly think of yourself as a little girl and as Death. You’re not lying to me about Chad being your father, but you’re supposedly vastly older than him. I…”
I stared around, feeling confused. I was in a store, but something was off here, more than the store suddenly appearing around me. Wait. The clothes were wrong. People didn’t dress quite like this anymore. My mouth dropped when I saw myself as I had looked years before. I was talking to a tiny, tiny girl.
“Yay! You remember!” exclaimed Aaliyah.
Suddenly, I was back in the present with Cosette and Mila still frozen nearby. “What was that?” I asked.
“You know what you saw.” she stated.
“Yes, but what caused me to suddenly recall that moment… to recall… meeting you?” I asked, though my mind was racing on about the fact I had met Aaliyah years before I had previously realized. I remembered her crying and helping her to find her mother. “I met your mother.”
Aaliyah nodded and said, “I thought you should know. The first time we met I was still relatively human. I was lost and scared, and this marvelous boy showed me the way without a second’s thought. Wasn’t my mommy beautiful?”
“Yes. Yes, she was. Where is she?” I asked.
“She died in a car crash when I was seven. My grandfather had hired a hitman to kill her, the same hitman who killed my grandmother years before. He couldn’t stand the idea of either of them running away, so he had them killed. The hitman then broke most of my bones before bringing me to my grandfather, so my grandfather would have the excuse to perform his surgery, changing me into a cyborg.” she calmly explained.
A tear was running down my cheek. I didn’t know if I was angry, sad, horrified, or some mix of these things. My mind proved incredibly adept at picturing what she described. Her grandfather must have been an exceptionally evil man. Robbing a seven-year-old of her mother and putting her through such a process was unbelievably cruel.
“My auntie came for me as soon as she could, as soon as she knew I was still alive, but I had already been captive in my grandfather’s lab for nearly a year. Quite on accident and with the aid of my latent magic, she changed me into something far stronger than most would believe possible. My auntie’s magic is quite powerful, but her understanding of it is extremely limited. Of course, most beings have a very limited view of magic. Besides, existence needed me as I am now.” she confessed, nonchalantly.
“Existence needed Death?” I asked, still not over the cruelty of her grandfather.
She smiled and said, “Yes. I traveled through time quite a bit with Carl’s help. He first introduced me to The Lilly Slayer, and I learned what being completely in awe felt like. She gave me my scythe and told me that I had a great deal of work to do. Then I did a large number of jobs as an assassin, first throughout time and then throughout space as well. Eventually, I went so far back in time that I stumbled upon my purpose. Before me, spirits had nowhere to go when their bodies died. They lingered and caused problems without even understanding what they were doing, not that most of them really had a clue what they affected when they were still alive.”
“And what do you do with them? Kill them?” I asked.
“Some, yes. For most, I give them someplace to go. Some are given to new bodies when the time is right. Others exist in perpetual bliss. Still others receive the punishment they feel they deserve. Let me show you an example of the happy ones.” she told me, holding up her hand toward me.
I hesitated only a moment before setting my cake aside and taking her hand, and was more than a little bewildered when I found myself by my pond. Then I found myself being embraced. Well, embraced in a sense. I quickly realized that there was warmth around me but nothing solid touching me. The arms wrapping around me from behind were, quite frankly, ghostly. I gasped as I realized I knew those hands.
“Regina..?” I asked.
“She can’t hear you, boss-man, sir.” stated Aaliyah.
“Tell me this isn’t real. Why would you trap her here? Why didn’t you save her?” I asked.
Tears were coming again tonight. I wasn’t ready for this.
“Imagine a world where no one dies. I could dictate every life to be absolutely perfect. There would be no hunger, no pain, no sorrow, and not one person would truly understand what they were missing.” argued Aaliyah.
“Why not just her? She didn’t deserve to die, Aaliyah!” I told her.
Aaliyah calmly explained “No, she didn’t deserve the hardships she faced, but she remained a better person by continuing to struggle onward despite them. She knew how to love unconditionally with such passion that her spirit still remembers your name when she’s forgotten so much else.”
“But why not save her?” I asked again.
“She died exactly how she wanted: saving you. Her spirit goes on exactly how she wants: helping you. Why do you think Portentia, who brings misfortune everywhere she goes, can live here so peacefully? Regina is still helping you, countering all misfortune as best as she is able. She’s not angry about dying. She doesn’t want her memory to hold you back either. I’m not going to negate her sacrifice or keep her from what she wants just because you feel I should.” stated Aaliyah, crossing her arms and looking me sternly in the eye.
Even now, Aaliyah looked adorable to me. Being unable to deny that Aaliyah was speaking the truth, I was left admitting to myself that I was being selfish. When Aaliyah suddenly jumped at me and hugged me, I hugged her back. She still felt like a child to me.
“Would you rather I felt like this?” asked Aaliyah.
The chest pressing against me was not that of a little girl, and I realized that Aaliyah had taken on the form she used when going by “Trix”.
“Umm… no. That’s quite alright.” I told her, though Aaliyah was back to her normal appearance before I finished speaking. I looked around, realizing Regina was gone. “Where did Regina go?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. She doesn’t get jealous anymore.” stated Aaliyah as she nuzzled her head against my shoulder.
“Not really what I was thinking.” I told her.
“Oooh. Sorry, boss-man, sir, but you can’t see spirits unless I let you. Don’t worry. She’s fine, and now you know why you always get that warm, fuzzy feeling when you’re here!” exclaimed the little girl.
She was right about me always feeling a bit happier here. Realizing something, I asked “Hold on a second. She was moving. Did we just vanish in front of Cosette and Mila?”
Aaliyah replied “Nah. Just made a little adjustment, so you could see that Regina’s happy for a bit. I need more cake.”
I was inside again in the blink of an eye, save that I didn’t even blink. Sure enough, Cosette and Mila were right where we left them. “How much does Cosette know about you?” I inquired.
“She knows that I’m faster and stronger than she is, that I’ve killed people, and that I don’t mind helping out my friends when they need it.” explained Aaliyah.
“Except if they’re going to die. I still am having trouble understanding why you let Cosette’s parents die. You could have stopped it, couldn’t you? You seem to know most things. Don’t you have a sense of when people are about to die, so you can collect their spirits?” I asked.
“I told you that was their time. You believe that saving a life, especially a relatively good life, is the right thing to do.” started Aaliyah.
“She has the final say on who lives and who dies. You’re quite right there.” added Carl as he popped up out of nowhere. Then he patted my shoulder and said, “But come now, my boy, do you really want one being to dictate all life everywhere? She chose to allow her own mother to die, you know. She lets Chad die when his time comes as well. She allows the rest of us to make choices, because she decided that free will is important. Yes, she intervenes from time-to-time, because she understands what will happen far better than even I do. Are you trying to fault her for allowing freedom in the world, for believing that each of us should be allowed to make our own choices?”
I stared at Carl and wondered. Father Time obviously agreed with Aaliyah.
“Do you really want me to save every last life that you would deem relatively good, James, no matter the consequences?” asked Aaliyah.
In one night, a great many things had changed for me. I was far stronger, faster, and more capable of defending myself than I was when my day began, but I wasn’t anywhere close to prepared for that question. I had the horrible feeling that Death herself might follow through if I simply said, “Yes.” I might be superior to my earlier self, but I was certain that I couldn’t fully consider the ramifications that one word would have.
“No. Sorry.” I told her, feeling somewhat guilty over the accusational tone I had taken with her.
“Lilly will be proud of you, dear boy. Mark my word.” stated Carl before disappearing again.
“He took the cake!” exclaimed Aaliyah, tears forming in her eyes.
“Who is Lilly?” I asked, feeling confused.
“You’ll see eventually, James. Everything changes when The Lilly Slayer comes.” she claimed, a wistful smile coming to her face.
“I guess I’ll see then. Is Carl as fast as you, by the way?” I inquired, feeling somewhat disturbed by how I couldn’t see him move even with my enhanced senses and time around us being frozen.
Aaliyah laughed and said, “Really!? Carl? He walks practically everywhere, boss-man, sir. Speaking of which, we better get in place. This is about to end, since he’s home again.”
I still had unanswered questions, perhaps even more than before, but Aaliyah was too busy adjusting my position to respond when I asked. She even changed how the wrinkles on my shirt were positioned before she was finished. Then she was suddenly back by Cosette.
“I really never knew which of his stories to believe. Some of them seemed quite outlandish.” stated Cosette.
My mind scrambled to recall what we had been talking about, but I managed to recall her exact words, stating how her father had once been a king, with amazing ease. Yes, my life was really going to be different now.