That makes sense!
I sit in a creaking office chair, it swivels back and forth as I swing from side to side, the old wheels catching on the carpet- making my surprised shuffle backwards a lot less of a smooth slide and more of an awkward pre-pubescent middle-school cha cha motion. The room around me is warmly decorated, there’s a twisting palm beside a large bookcase pressed up against the warm red-and-even-darker-red-striped wallpaper that surrounds the small cream carpeted office. There’s photos on the walls, all of them have the same man in them. He stands shaking a woman’s hand, she wears a long dark cloak, and they stare into the camera with two beaming grins while she accepts some medal that looks like an axe, beside that is a similar photo with a man- only his medal has what seems to be the shape of a rat, and then third photo with a different woman- a skull-shaped badge, and another one with a final person- and a rotting apple badge. Then there he is again, this time framed in gold, wearing bathing trunks at a beach, helping a little girl with the same hair and eye color as him build a sand castle, and again- this time sitting on what looks to be a throne, the little girl is there again, sitting on his lap flashing a fanged grin into the camera. Wait, what? Fanged?
Where am I? I thought I was going to pick up eggs at the supermarket and then I…
I was in the parking lot and…
“You look confused,” My head snaps up, past the cherry wood desk, where a photo of that same little girl sits next to one of those perpetually bobbing bird-things, dipping in and out of a cup of bright red… water? My eyes flick past the cup, swallowing thickly as an increasingly worrisome bout of fear grips at my spine, and I stare at the man in the high backed rolling chair across from me. He gives a bright, unconcerned smile that stretches across thin lips, revealing sharp teeth, rowed teeth. Like a shark. He leans forward, long, lean fingers intertwined on the top of the desk, “Perhaps I can help explain some things?”
“Who are you?” My fingernails dig into the sides of my seat.
The man chuckles, he has a deep, warm voice- I catch my grip relaxing just as it was about to break the fabric of the chair I was in. I tear my hands away, and scoot further away from him, that fear prickling through the dull, calming sensation like background static. He leans back in his chair, running a hand over a light smattering of stubble on a strong jaw, slitted eyes dancing to the side with a contemplative hum.
“Well, now,” He purrs, one trimmed eyebrow quirking upwards, “I think that depends on what you believe.”
His lips stretch even further- as if that was somehow possible- and yet somehow the smile seems almost… kind. “There’s no real right answer, is there?”
“Where am I?”
“Now that I can answer!” The stranger’s eyes sparkle as he sits upright, straightening the folded cuffs on his dress shirt- the tie has been loosened, I notice, and the jacket slung across the back of the chair casually, “You’re in the place between.”
“Life and death,” He shrugs, weighing each on his hands with a loose gesture.
“I…” I place a hand to my chest, gripping at my shirt as if I were searching for my heart, “Are you saying I’m dead?” I say it, and there’s a truth that settles into my bones. My body. My mind. It’s true. Panic wells within me- I can’t breathe. I hear the roar of blood in my ears- is there even blood in me? Do I need to breathe? What’s the point? I dig my nails into my scalp. I’m dead? I’m dead. I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m-
I look up when I hear the running of water, the man has moved away from the desk- to a cooler in the back. He fills a paper cup and, numbly, I watch as he walks back over to me- offering the cup with a sympathetic smile. “I understand that this is a shock- drink, it might help.”
I eye the cup warily.
I continue to eye the cup warily. But- what have I got to lose? I’m dead, aren’t I? I’m… oh god… I’m dead.
Before my mind can break down again I snatch the paper cup, some of the water splashing over the edge and onto my pants leg, I down it all in one gulp, the cold makes my teeth ache but I don’t care. I’m almost grateful that there’s still some feeling.
Granted, most of that feeling is panic and now discomfort but at least it’s something.
“How do you feel?” The man sits back on the top of the desk, he knocks into the photo of the little girl in doing so, and readjusts it with careful, ginger precision.
“Like I got hit by a car.”
“Funny you should say that…”
I give him a seething glare. But the man continues to grin, unaffected. I take a deep breath, my words come out in a defeated sigh, “So… what now?”
“Now, you get a choice.”
“I get to chose?” I interrupt, “I thought I was just… y’know… assigned.”
The man waves his hand, “Well, it’s a bit different than that- you don’t really get to chose where you go, if you chose to go, but-”
I stand up, fast enough to knock my chair down behind me, “I can stay?!”
“Well…” Before the man can finish, there’s a knock on the door. His smile changes there- that warmth fades into a kind of anticipated knowing. Without speaking, he pushes himself away from the desk and walks to the door, but before he can open it- it opens itself.
Well, no. A woman opens it- with such force that it bangs against the side wall and rattles the desk until the picture knocks over, for the first time disturbing the man that I’ve seen- but she moves so quickly I don’t see her until she’s in front of me, grinning wildly and grasping my hand, shaking it up and down with so much force I feel as if I’m being flung up and down over and over again, and have to grab my own arm with my other hand just to prevent it from being ripped off. “You’re here! Oh, I’ve waited so long to meet you! It’s so, so, so good to see you! I cannot express how happy I am to-”
“Death.” The man barks, still fussing with the photo until it’s back to its perfect position. She snaps to attention, letting go of my hand immediately and staring at the man. He grumbles something incomprehensible, spending a few more moments making sure the photo is just right. Then, with a sigh, his relaxed smile returns and he turns to us both. “You’re scaring our guest.”
The woman’s head flicks towards me, her short, choppy hair bouncing with each movement. She claps her hands over her mouth, “Oh! I’m so, so, so sorry! How terribly inconsiderate of me!” She’s the woman from the photo- isn’t she? The same skull pin is in her long black cloak. “Please, let me reintroduce myself.”
She sticks out a hand, beaming, “Death of the Apocalypse, pleasure to meet you!”
I hesitate, then slowly reach out and grasp her palm- it’s warm… somehow I didn’t expect that. “I’m-”
“Oh,” Death laughs, “I already know who you are!”
“O-oh.” I glance towards the man. He gives me another sympathetic smile.
“Death is here with a special opportunity,” He begins to explain, “You see, we’ve been having a bit of trouble recently-”
“There’s an excess of time!” She blurts.
“An excess of time.” The man picks up, “Rather, there was a recent… mishap, among the fates and now everyone’s time has gotten slightly… mixed up.”
“Children have two months left!” Death groans, “While those who have already lived their lives well now have another seventy years to do nothing!”
“And you,” The man interjects once more, “Well, you’re a victim of this as well.”
“A-ah… so I… wasn’t supposed to die?”
“Nope!” Death pats my back, “I wasn’t supposed to meet you for quite some time yet!”
“We are currently working to fix this problem,” The man runs a hand through his styled hair, a tired frown twisting his face, “However, in the meantime it is difficult to prevent… collateral damage- so many are already running out of time early. Again, like yourself.”
“So… does this mean… I’m… not dead?” You gaze at the two of them in bewilderment, “Or that I… get to be resurrected?”
They share a look. “Not… quite.” The man begins.
“We can’t resurrect anyone,” Death takes over, “Death- that is, the previous Death, tried that once and it, uh, well, it didn’t really work out all that great?” She shrugs loosely, “Resurrection’s been outlawed for centuries, and we can’t really go against that…?” She twists her hands together, passing me an apologetic shrug.
“But that’s not to say you can’t return.” The man begins once more, “Death here has come up with a special program for those like you who have been… negatively effected by this unfortunate mishap.”
“That’s right!” Death clasps my hands together once more, beaming at me brightly, “I call it- The Time Exchange Program,” She pulls me in close, waving her hand in an arc along the air as if highlighting some grand sign that doesn’t exist. She pulls back again, hands slapped onto my shoulders, “Basically- we send you back, and it’s your job to take time back from those who got too much of it in the mixup! You give it back to us so we can redistribute it to those who didn’t get enough! In return, you get to keep a portion of the time you take- so you can continue to live! So long as you keep helping us out!”
“I get to live?”
“Yes.” The man nods from the desk, once more retreating to the other side and settling into his high backed office chair, “However, the task will not be an easy one. Those who have been… revitalized will not give up their time easily. And then there is the matter of our previous program participants…”
“What happened with them?”
Death and the man share another uncomfortable gaze. Eventually, it is Death who speaks, “Uh, they got… greedy, and decided that, well, time is great! And wanted to, um, keep it for themself? And take time from people who didn’t have too much…”
“You are our last option,” The man speaks up again, “All others have fallen to their greed, but Death has been watching you-”
“Well, that’s a charming thought.”
“-And she’s assured me that you can help us fix this problem.” The man leans back in his chair, “But if you can’t, or if you refuse, then we’ll have no other option than to send out Pestilence, Famine, and War to destroy the extra time.”
“What happens to me if I refuse?”
The man shrugs, “You move on. There is no penalty- this is our mistake and we are asking you for a favor.”
I look at Death again, who stares at me with wide, hopeful eyes, then to the man, who gazes calmly, steadily towards me, both of them waiting for an answer. I look down at the cream carpet, my shoes sinking into the plush. I take a deep breath and turn back to the both to them. “Alright…” I say,