“You want me to what?” Myss, the three-hundred-year old harpy, rarely cursed, but she did now. “I’m a harbinger of death, not a child’s dress-up toy.”
“There’s no reason you can’t be both. Upstairs feels strongly about this one.” The shining light called Act nodded his incorporeal head. “Besides, Layla is four years old. And you’ll likely be seen by other kids, and Upstairs doesn’t want them too scared. Would it kill you to wear the chicken costume?”
“Yes,” Myss said seriously. “It would.”
“Well, let’s just see. I promise to resurrect if necessary.”
“Thanks,” Myss said under her breath. “Thanks a lot.”
“We all do things we don’t want to do, Myss. Your performance reviews are on the fence. If you really want that promotion, you’ll be a team player this time.”
She really did want the promotion to harpy queen. Better pay, better hours, and she’d get to scream over a proper castle now and again rather than these stupid modern small-time jobs. “Fine,” she said, but it hurt.
Myss’s normally sleek feathers and nobbly vulture-skin were covered with a ridiculous fluffy costume. It wasn’t even real feathers, but some fabric thing from a cheap costume store. Worse, they’d had her paint her lovely beak a horrible cheerful orange. She’d just gotten the rot settled properly. And her bone-braids, completely undone. She felt herself molting her head-feathers already, from the shame of it. She looked… she looked like a huge chicken costume. It was horrible.
If it wasn’t for that promotion, she wouldn’t be here. But she had to have it. Her sisters had teased her mercilessly the last seven times she’d applied and been turned down. This time would be different. This time she’d make it, and they’d eat their words.
Myss arrived at the ward through the portal, this one set in an old elevator nearly no one at the children’s cancer center used. It made funny sounds. Areas with portals usually did.
The whirling vortex of light closed behind her, and she reached forward to push the elevator button for the fourth floor with a white-painted claw. They’d made her wash out the proper dirt from her hands and feet; they looked like chicken feet now, far too clean. It would take her a week to recover. Or three. But the promotion…
The elevator arrived at the floor with an odd lurch and a complaining sound. Myss knew how it felt. She took a breath, and stepped forward, waddling in the heavy chicken suit. This had better be worth it.
Healthy adults moved to and fro along the hall while a doctor stopped, talking to a woman in scrubs at the large nurse’s station. Brightly colored dinosaur footprints lined the floor, pointing in this direction and that. None of the healthy adults noticed Myss, of course. A moribund teenager in a hospital bed with deep sunken cheeks was wheeled past, his tired gaze landing on her. He frowned, noticing her costume.
She’d be singing for him soon, but not yet. He was close enough to death to see her, but not so close she was drawn to him.
No, her current assignment was ahead, through the large double doors bearing a cartoon dinosaur. A sign explained the cancer ward to anyone who didn’t already know. The tug was straight ahead, and she followed it, waddling on.
Children stopped to stare at her on both sides of the hallway. They walked with IV carts, they sat in chairs, they laid in beds in rooms on either side of the hallway. Others didn’t see, their lives still firmly held to this world.
Finally she reached the room where her charge was. Layla, four years old, on an upraised bed, a man asleep and exhausted at its foot. Myss sent a burst of compulsion to him, to keep him asleep.
“Who are you?” Layla asked. She was small for her age, so small, and her body was full of tubes.
“I’m Myss, and I’m in a chicken costume,” Myss said, perhaps for the first time thinking the costume wasn’t so bad after all. Layla was smiling, a little, at least for a moment. “I’m here to make sure you get to the next world okay.”
Layla said, “I don’t know what that means.”
Myss was stymied. “Um, well, I’m going to sing, and then a guy in a robe is going to come and we’re going to take a little trip.”
“Okay,” Layla said, after a moment. “Dad has to come though.”
“He can’t come. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
“Dad says he always has to come.”
Myss didn’t really want to argue so she said, “Maybe some other time. Here, I’ll start singing.” She took a deep breath, filling up her lungs with air, and—
Layla asked, “Why do you have to sing?”
She let out the air in a burst. “Why do you have to ask questions?” She didn’t have an answer. It was just the way things were done. Harpies sang, reapers arrived, then la-de-dah, back at headquarters for the next assignment.
“Dad says I can ask as many questions as I want all the time.”
“Well, he’s wrong.”
“Dad isn’t wrong. He’s dad.”
Now Myss was frustrated. “Listen, just let me sing, okay? I’ll sing and the guy we’ll arrive and we’ll go on the trip. I’ll even go with you. It’ll be fun. I even have a chicken costume, see?”
Layla shook her head, stubborn. “Nuh-uh. Dad is sad right now. I need to stay and not make him more sad.”
“Well, girl, you don’t really have a choice.”
Layla shifted on the bed, thinking. “You’re a stranger danger. I’ll scream and they’ll take you away.”
Myss huffed, and sat at the small chair on the far wall. “I’m not a stranger danger, whatever that is. I just have a job to do. A job with a big promotion. And a stupid chicken costume.”
They sat for awhile.
Finally, Layla asked, “Why are you wearing the costume?”
“Because I have to, to get my promotion,” Myss said.
She thought about that. “They brought a clown once.”
Myss waited, but that was all the little girl said. For the first time, she really looked and saw how small Layla was. Most dying people were confused, or angry, or they bargained with her. Some, especially sick people like here, were grateful to move on. This world had already worn them out. But Layla wasn’t any of these things, and it confused Myss.
“Dad is sad,” Layla repeated.
“And you can’t leave him,” Myss said. She shifted her oversized costume sideways, feeling ridiculous. “You can’t leave him and I can’t not bring you in, not and have my promotion.”
“Why do you have to have the promotion?”
“Because… because it’s better pay and they’ll laugh and…” Myss trailed off. None of that seemed as important as Layla’s insistence on staying with her dad all of the sudden. Myss sighed. “You realize I’ve tried for this thing seven times and failed. If I don’t make it this time, they may not let me try again.”
Layla just looked at her.
Myss adjusted the ridiculous costume again. “I’ll give you another two days, okay? I’ll sit here and wait and you can say goodbye or whatever.” It might cost her the promotion, to have that much delay. “But I’m singing. You should know that now. I’m definitely singing.”
“Okay,” Layla said.
Myss sat back, irritated. She waved her hand to let the father wake up. “Just so you know, I’m definitely singing.”
“You’re late.” Act’s voice came from his shining light-body-thing, and he sounded irritated.
“Well, I had to get Layla settled Upstairs, didn’t I?” Myss argued. “And she had to say goodbye. She’s four. A smart little four-year-old, almost five, but still. Some things take a little time. You go ahead and mark that against me if you want to. There’s another dozen kids at that ward I probably need to go back and get in this horrible costume, so let’s group them and be done with it. I want my bone-braids back.”
“Your actions here heavily influence your promotion—”
She interrupted him. “I understand it, I guess.” It still hurt. She wanted that promotion badly. But she couldn’t have taken Layla right then, could she? She was a lot happier with a little chance to adjust. Upstairs had gotten her settled and happy. It was worth the loss, she thought. Even if it hurt. At least this time she’d have a reason to defend herself to her sisters. “Look, you don’t have to say it. I know it’s gone. But I’d like you to at least let me try again in another decade. It’s the right thing to—”
“You’re not listening,” Act said.
“You got the promotion. Upstairs said you finally got the compassion to look beyond yourself and make it in the big leagues. Don’t let it go to waste.”
“You got the promotion, Myss. Don’t get a big head about it.”
A dawning sense of joy hit her. “I got—”
“Yes, yes, you did. That’s what I’ve been saying, okay?”
“I got the promotion!” she laughed, jumping up and down in her stupid chicken costume. She’d gotten the promotion.
“Good. You’ll get the usual training at the next round next week. For now, get back to work. There’s more singing to do.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, and left. Her sisters would hear it now.
And maybe, just maybe, she could check in on Layla now and then to make sure she was okay.
About the Author
Alex Hughes, the author of the award-winning Mindspace Investigations series from Roc, has lived in the Atlanta area since the age of eight. Her short fiction has been published in several markets including EveryDay Fiction, Thunder on the Battlefield and White Cat Magazine. She is an avid cook and foodie, a trivia buff, and a science geek, and loves to talk about neuroscience, the Food Network, and writing craft—but not necessarily all at the same time! For all the latest news and free short stories, join Alex’s email list.