The first time I soloed, I screwed up. The target was a fifteen-year-old black standard poodle named Remington, Rémy, for short. He was such a sweet old gentleman with greyed muzzle and cataract-clouded eyes, lying on his side, panting on the veterinarian’s table, but good-natured, I could tell, with a doggy smile on his lips — one of those “just glad to be here, hope I can help the ball club” kind of dogs. His owner had pushed him out the door to do his business in the 96 degree sun, returned to her computer, gotten enmeshed for three hours and forgotten him. His temperature was 105; he didn’t have long to live.

His owner was soothing him, trying not to show how distressed she was, and holding back her tears, touching him, cooing over him. I thought with a slight tug, I could end it and relieve them both of some pain. He came easily; I did my job, and his spirit traveled happily into the ether. He’d been happy in life and was happy to go. Some spirits are just like that.

When I got back to the barracks, a note lay on my bunk saying I was to report to the Adjutant Commander.

I donned a fresh uniform and checked myself out — five foot two inches of muscle packed into the black hoodie, black cargo pants, wearing black leather boots to the calf. I’d shaved my head to lessen the comparisons to the actress Selma Blair, but the effort backfired, making my eyes look even larger and more like hers.

Satisfied that this was as good as it was going to get, I hastened to his office. His secretary was one of those bitchy, “I’m gonna make your life hell because I can” kind of administrative assistants. She told me to be seated. She would let me know when he was free.

When I entered the office, he had his usual poker face on. Booker was his name. He was solid at 6’2” with a sandy buzz cut and boxy chin line. He didn’t invite me to sit, so I stood at parade rest in front of his desk. I could see the muscle clenching and unclenching in his jaw.

“State your name, squad, and temporary signifier.”

“Macaria. Grim Reaper — Catto Division, Top Shelf.”

“Top Shelf? I find that hard to believe after the gross breach of policy demonstrated in your performance today. You must remember, you are a conduit, nothing more. It is not up to you to decide who stays and who goes.”

I said nothing. I know how these things go.

“You made a serious error. You took the target out early. The dog would have died in 6 minutes 46 seconds. I have to account for the mistake. Please, let’s not have this conversation again.”

I left his office unsatisfied. Why, if we knew someone was to die, couldn’t we take them out sooner and relieve their suffering?

The crew wanted to meet in the Saver Lounge, but I was depressed. Seriously, I screwed up trying to reap a dog; what challenge was I going screw up next? It wasn’t like apprentice reapers had anywhere else to go. What would happen to me if I didn’t make it?

Jon John awoke me the next morning explaining he had been tasked with reigning me in. He was built like a white wrestler but with Bob Newhart’s face and attitude.

I rolled reluctantly out of my bunk. “What’s the big deal? 6 minutes 46 seconds? Come on.”

“It’s OK. You’re the daughter of Hades and Persephone and goddess of the blessed death. We understand your instinctual need. You must not give in to it. No early removals. Life must take its course.”

“I know, I know, I know. I fucked up. It won’t happen again.”

But it did.

She was a love with cancer running rampant in her innards. She lay on the sterile hospital bed whispering to her daughter, “I love you and Billy so much; I love you and Billy so much,” as she clung on, for what? The outcome was inevitable. She radiated love with the glow that surrounds people who have lived their entire lives in the service of others. She must have been beautiful once. Her high cheekbones, strong jaw line, and almond eyes testified to this. Now hollow-eyed, yellow from the jaundice caused by the chemo, her chin quivered as she chanted, “I love you and Billy so much.” She was too weak to hold her daughter’s hand. I could see the daughter, who had a cot put in her mother’s room, so she could sleep next to her, was about to collapse, was only staying strong enough to see her mother through her last chapter. She bit her lip and drew blood.

That was it. Whoosh. I took the mother out and the Commander be damned.

Back at base, I didn’t even have time to drop my pack on the bunk before I was summoned.

“State your name, squad, and temporary signifier.”

“Macaria. Grim Reaper — Catto Division, Top Shelf.”

“I had hoped we would not be having this conversation. Please explain yourself.”

“If you could have felt her presence, her total focus on her children.”

“We are not here to judge. We are here to reap.”

“Yes sir. I am sorry sir.”

“Top Shelf, another breach of this kind will result in serious consequences — painfully serious consequences. Report to your trainer.”

Jon John was not happy. “You’re making me look bad, but even worse you’re making you look bad. People have their lives. That’s all they really have — life. If you take that from them, you are short-changing them. Even in pain, people choose life. If you can’t understand that, the authorities will give you the experience so you do understand. Have you heard of the Simulacrumatron?”

Head down, I bit the cuticle on my right thumb.

“Macaria — look at me when I am talking to you.”

“I’ve heard whispers.”

“In the Simulacrumatron, you will take on the pain of each person you have reaped. If you live through it, and that is a big if, you will have learned what only experience can teach you.”

After that, things went well. I was on course to receive my permanent signifier, when I saw the target in the infirmary at Downton.

He was what they call Black Irish. Six foot four inches tall with green eyes and a healthy mustache. I loved him on sight, and he was dying.

Alcohol had depleted his brain and his liver. A gentle, elegant, kindly, wise spirit was suffering inside that shell. Why hadn’t I been given the power to heal, only the power to kill? I could feel the desire in him to end it all.

He murmured to his brother, “When you go to the hospital for the last time, take a gun.”

I couldn’t bear it. I took him out. With barely a tug he came free and sailed into the ether.

Before I got to my bunk, I was surrounded by two military police. They escorted me directly to the Commander Adjutant’s office.

“State your name, squad, and temporary signifier.”

“Macaria. Grim Reaper — Catto Division, Top Shelf.”

“You have failed for the last time.”

“But sir, he was going to die anyway. What’s the point of letting him suffer?”

“He is on his path, and he must fulfill it.”

“There has to be a point.”

“It is not for you to ask.”

“But sir. . .”

“Given your lineage, it pains me to condemn you to the Simulacrumatron. I had hoped for better from you. Dismissed.”

Jon John with his broad shoulders led the way as the two men escorted me to a locker room and gave me black scrubs to put on. I didn’t even know scrubs came in black. That’s pretty depressing. So many pretty colors they could have chosen; now I was to die in black.

I walked into the room without help. What was the point in resisting when surrounded by reapers with orders to take me out, should I balk? The room was a fifteen foot square gray box. A white- sheeted cot sat in the center.

Jon John placed a hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes. “You’d better consider what you’re getting out of it.” He pressed his lips together in a thin line, shook his head, and walked away. As the door closed. I heard the snick of double locks.

I remained standing and a low whirring began. Ghostly images washed the walls, ceiling, and floor. Heat suffused my body, incredible heat, molten lava beneath my skin, and I felt his heart, his fierce desire to live to be with his owner, his life. I looked out from his eyes and despaired at crevices in the face hovering over me, the creases between the brows, the tears spilling, felt them drop onto my coat. I burned. I burned. Then nothing.

I couldn’t believe I could feel that much pain and survive.

Before I could think, the strength dissolved from my limbs and I collapsed on the cot. I was in a hospital room looking out of the eyes of a 53-year-old woman. I was tired, so tired I could barely breathe pain encompassed my entire body with no sharp edges, an endless sea of ache. It throbbed to the beat of my heart, audible to my own ears. Fear centered in my chest, fear for the children. I hung on in spite of the pain, I remained for them.

Then I was 6’4” and had prickles like knives in the bottom of my feet and cramps up my calves. The world swam in a haze of gold dust and particles spun through the air. I tried to form a thought but it just drifted away. I wanted to leave. The world was one big funnel pointing downward, and I wanted to slide down it into oblivion as fast as I could go. The last tang of release was pure relief.

When I awoke, it felt good to be back in my own body. I lay on the cot. Jon John reclined on a chair to the side. He stared at my face.

“You OK?”

I stretched and nodded. The pain was gone, though I felt a little tender, as if I had worked out too hard the day before.

So there I was — one for three. Effectively I had murdered two beings who weren’t ready to die. Examining my inner self, I felt no remorse. So what did that make me?

I am the killer nurse you most don’t want to see on your grandma’s floor at the hospital. I am the police officer you don’t want on your block after sundown. I am the Lone Ranger of Grim Reapers.

My job now is to lie like hell. I’ll tell them I have learned my lesson. That life is precious — sacred. That the will to live is stronger than any other desire, outweighing fear of pain, no matter how excruciating. I’ll hold my breath until I am ready to pass out and show them how desperately I can feel the urge to live, to breathe in life. I’ll tell them I have learned my lesson. And I’ll go rogue, and survive to kill again.

Donna Wolfe, a reference librarian at the Lawrence Library, attends Sharpening the Quill workshops with Lauren B. Davis, participates in Room At the Table, and leads the Lawrence Library Fiction Writers’ Workshop. She has not killed anyone to date.

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