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MORT: CHAPTER ONE

A young man stood on his porch, trying to throw a rope up and over a beam. He was shirtless and in boxers. Mort was presented the sight of his musculature working in the sweaty evening, a gleaming sheen that highlighted the sinewy lines of his body. There was something very innocent about the sight, even as his face contorted with frustration when the end of the rope flopped back down on the wrong side of the rafter. A soft sob made its way to Mort, the only wet thing in an ocean of dry.

The man did not notice he was being watched. They never did. They were always so preoccupied with bringing an end to things. They thought they were alone. But he was always there. It was one of the many sorrows of his business, watching the lie of isolation claim lives.

“Are you really quitting?”

Mort looked over his shoulder. His cousin was standing behind him. Kitten hissed at the dog-headed Anubis and took refuge in Mort’s hood. Mort glanced at Anubis briefly, then turned his attention back to the suicide.

“Yes.”

“So why are you here?” Anubis always spoke in a soft growl.

“Coincidence.”

His cousin smiled, sharp canines flashing in desert sun. “We both know better than to believe in coincidences. You are here because you are meant to be here.”

“You can go,” Mort said. “I have this in hand.”

“But you are no longer conducting souls. You are no longer a psychopomp. What good can you do him?”

“You can go,” Mort repeated, his teeth gritted, the hollow of his eye flashing dark for a moment in a revelation of his true self. “I have this in hand.”

“How? Oh. Ohhhhh….” The last oh was drawn out in a kind of mocking pity. “Oh, you’re not going to try to save him, are you? How perfectly pathetic.”

The man had succeeded in finally getting the end of his rope over the rafter, an achievement that bought him no joy whatsoever. He tugged on the rope, finding it suitably sturdy. He then began to construct the wrong kind of knot.

Mort stood in the driveway and watched while the kitten in his hood purred. He observed the man closely, his gaze taking in the way his dirty blond hair fell just shy of his shoulders. Sweat was beading in the bristle along his jawline. He hadn’t shaved. His physique was powerful, but not bulky. He had the frame of a survivor, in spite of the fact he was very much engaged in attempting the opposite.

He had no sense of his beauty or uniqueness. He did not see himself the way Mort did. His expression was contorted in the kind of self-reproach and loathing that showed he was actively hating himself even while trying to end himself. There was no compassion, no forgiveness, only a fixated, narrow view of what he imagined would be the end.

He was beauty trapped in human form, completely unappreciative of itself, and entirely incapable of such appreciation. Misery hung about him in a cloud so thick that to Mort’s eyes it seemed to fuzz the scene ever so slightly.

Mort ignored Anubis, stepped forward and into the fray of human suffering, putting one heavy booted foot on the lowest step. The wood creaked.

The man looking for his end turned around and stared at him.

“What do you want?”

The question was abrupt and rude, and it did not bother Mort one bit.

“Don’t,” Mort said.

They exchanged looks, and in those looks much was silently said. Mort felt the depth of the man’s despair and could offer little comfort. The man, for his part, suddenly felt the eternity of cold that stood behind Mort, the endless nothing. Many people flee from that sensation. He did not.

“Why not? Because life is worth living?”

“It won’t work.”

The man looked back at the rope again.

It was a little frustrating not knowing the man’s name. If Mort had been working, he would have had the book with all the names. Now he had nothing. He did not know if the man was a sinner or a saint, if he was heaven or hell bound. He did not even know if it was the man’s time.

This must be what it was to be human, to know absolutely nothing whatsoever and yet be forced to go about the place as if it all made sense.

He stepped up onto the porch and took the rope from the man’s hands. “Go inside,” he said. “Drink some lemonade.”

He had a feeling there would be lemonade inside in a pitcher the man’s mother used to own. It would be sweet and flat, and it would anchor him to life once more.

The man stared at him for a long moment, and then nodded mutely. He was content to be told what to do because he had not planned to be doing anything.

“Wait.” Mort said, hardly believing this was the first time he had ever had to ask this particular question. “What is your name?”

The man paused at the weather worn door of his home and looked back at Mort with a pale, sad gaze.

“Tristan.”

Perfect.

Tristan

A stranger stood on Mama’s old porch and told him he couldn’t die today. If he didn’t know better, he would have called it divine intervention.

Mama's lemonade sat in the fridge, as it always had. Tristan hadn’t drunk it because he knew there would never be any more, and he was trying to save it. But the power had been cut off six weeks ago, and now it had a scum of green across the top. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to throw it out.

Tristan stood in the kitchen with the fridge door open until he heard the front door creak open. The stranger was inside his house now, dark eyes boring into the back of his head.

“I’m Mort,” the stranger said. “That’s my name.”

Though Mort was not a large guy, he was imposing. He felt like a big, heavy presence behind Tristan. An intrusion in his space. Tristan didn’t let people come into his house, not since Mama passed. The house was filthy and embarrassing.

“Hi,” Tristan said, as if they hadn’t already met outside on the porch. “I don’t think I should drink this.”

Mort looked over his shoulder at Mama’s lemonade. Tristan felt him as a long, looming creature, even though he didn’t seem to be that inordinately tall. No more than six foot one at the very most, and Tristan himself was over six feet. So.

“Perhaps not,” Mort agreed.

Tristan turned to him, his slow brain finally starting to work on the normal questions of human interaction. “Are you here from the power company? A bailiff? Do you have some kind of summons for me? I have to tell you, bud.  I’m not planning on making any appearances anywhere anytime soon.”

He plucked a warm beer from the six pack on the counter. There was one left in its wake. The rings of several other six packs were stacked on the counter. He made sure to cut them up so they didn’t kill penguins. Weren’t many penguins in the desert, but these things traveled. Shipped out of state, and out of the country half the time, around the globe to a third world nation where it had an even chance of being poured straight into a river.

“I suppose I could be bailiff of sorts,” Mort said. “But I am not on duty. Actually, I quit.”

Tristan felt an immediate kinship. “Yeah? Good for you, buddy. I got fired from my last job.”

“Oh?”

“Yep.”

The awkwardness drew out between them.

“So,” Tristan said, taking a sip of his beer. “Why are you here?”

“I don’t know,” Mort said, bluntly and boldly, as if that lack of knowledge did not bother him one bit. Almost as if he was proud of it. So he was a drifter, then. A hobo who simply happened to have wandered up to Tristan’s house at the same time as… it felt embarrassing to think about what he’d been caught doing. It already felt like a weird faux pas more than a crisis.

“Do you want a beer?” Tristan made the offer to break the awkwardness.

“Yes. Thank you.”

Tristan handed his guest the other beer, and together they drank in silence. The beer wasn’t helping to clear his head, but it was calming him down. He was already somewhat glad he’d been interrupted out on the porch. The urge to no longer exist was starting to retreat. The pain was waning into the alcohol. Maybe things were going to be okay. Ha.

Mort didn’t say anything. Mort drank the beer in one long, continuous swallowing motion, like it was water.

As the urgency of ending himself subsided, Tristan inspected his guest. When he looked at Mort in certain lights, his face seemed gaunt. Maybe gaunt wasn’t the right word. More like skeletal. Tristan felt as though he was seeing flashes through the skin, something like bone. Obviously, that couldn’t be true. His mind was playing tricks on him again. It had been playing tricks for a while. Showing him things that weren’t there.

Drinking usually helped to not see things. It dulled his senses and made him feel warm, fuzzy, and comfortable. Maybe he needed another beer.

He reached for the last beer, forgetting he’d given it to the stranger.

Shit. He was out. He felt an immediate surge of anxiety. He couldn’t be out. Life without beer, well, it wasn’t worth living.

“Need more beer,” Tristan said. “Gotta go to the store. Guess I’ll see you around.”

Mort did not pick up on that cue.

“I will come with you.”

“You got any money?” It was an audacious question, but Tristan had literally nothing to lose. If this hobo was going to hang around, he may as well chip in.

Mort reached into his pocket and pulled out a fat roll of twenties. There had to be thousands of dollars there. Tristan’s eyes widened.

“Alright,” he said. “You’re buying.”

“Very well,” Mort agreed.

This was getting stranger and stranger by the moment, but Tristan wasn’t going to question free beer.

He went back and put some jeans and boots on. He didn’t bother with a shirt. This was all too good to be true. And probably a figment of his imagination. Not once in Tristan’s twenty-seven years had he ever been saved by anyone. Why would that start today? He thoroughly expected to stumble back into the kitchen and discover the screen door banging against the siding of the house, nobody to be seen for miles.

To his surprise, Mort was waiting when he came back. He looked very real and very solid, standing in the kitchen, his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Something furry was twitching by his neck, and another pair of eyes was observing Tristan.

Mort had a kitten in his hood, Tristan noticed for the first time. The little black thing was curled up around the back of his neck very comfortably. That would have given most people a cozy appearance, but with Mort it only served to highlight his gaunt, elegant energy. Mort’s boots were red with dust, his jeans looked marked and ripped. He had all the signs of having been on foot for a long time, but there was none of the desperation or madness that accompanied true strays. He wasn’t displaced from the world. If Tristan had to say, he would have guessed Mort was entirely separate from it.

“Ready to go?” The question slipped comfortably out between Mort’s lips as if it had been asked thousands of times before.

“Uh. Sure.”

Tristan tried to cover for his surprise. He had truly expected to find Mort gone. There was nothing to stay for here, not in this filthy old house rotting from the inside out. Even he didn’t want to be here anymore. But Mort was here. Waiting.

What kind of a person interrupted a guy killing himself and bought him beer?

A good person, that’s who. In Tristan’s experience, there were no such things as good people, so this was turning out to be a very strange day all around.

They passed the noose on the way out. Tristan hooked a finger in it to make it swing. It didn’t occur to him how ghoulish it would look until he spotted the reflection in the house window.

Oh well.

Mort didn’t seem bothered by it. Mort didn’t seem bothered by much. He had a slightly melancholy but otherwise calm air. Most people got very weird around death, but Mort barely seemed to notice it. He hadn’t mentioned it. Maybe he was trying to be polite. That was something good people were rumored to do from time to time.

“Truck’s broken down, we’ll have to walk,” Tristan said as they passed the old, rusted-out piece of junk that hadn’t run in years.

“I like being on foot,” Mort said as they set out together. “I also enjoy riding.”

“Horses?”

“I have a horse at home,” Mort said.

“And where’s that?”

“Hell.”

Tristan laughed, a good belly laugh that drew fresh desert air into his lungs and chased away the stench of misery that had been lurking in there.

Mort smiled ever so slightly, making Tristan think he appreciated his own joke.

“I’m from Hell too,” Tristan said, feeling much better.

He was, of course, curious about his visitor. As they walked down the dusty road, he started to ask questions.

“So you’re not from around here, and you walked here, and you have a cat.”

“I have a cat?” Mort seemed surprised by that revelation.

Tristan pointed to the kitten in his hood.

“Oh,” Mort said. “That cat.”

For the first time in what felt like a very long time, Tristan cracked a real smile. “You’re the weirdest fucking guy I ever met. Normally I’m the weird one.”

“I am much stranger than you,” Mort agreed.

The walk to the store, generally an arduous slog he had to stumble through as best he could with only the promise of a cool beer to drive him, seemed to fly by. They seemed to be there in an instant.

The store wasn’t really a store. It was a gas station where the only fresh, clean thing was the case of scratcher tickets that sold out frequently. The town was a big believer in luck, though nobody had ever won more than fifty bucks. It was commonly believed that they were collectively due a big win, as if the scratchers were a poker machine that hadn’t paid out in a while.

“Two scratchers,” Tristan said. “And two six packs, please.”

Earl was behind the counter as usual. He was a husky guy in his sixties. He had a stained shirt with an alligator on it, an oxygen tank, and a smoking habit. Tobacco smoke curled yellow in front of the old no-smoking sign.

Neither one of them bothered with pleasantries. Mort paid the bill and carried one of the six packs back outside. Tristan usually drank out the back, and today was no different. He led Mort around the rear where upside down crates waited for them between piles of old tires and barrels of whatever.

He sat down, cracked a beer, and took a long draught. Mort sat beside him, saying nothing.

“So. Why are you in town?” Tristan asked the question when he had swallowed.

“I have nowhere else to be.”

“I feel that,” Tristan said. The cold beer was starting to make him feel better. It was weird. He hadn’t planned on being here to see the sunny afternoon, but he was suddenly quite glad he was. Nothing had materially changed. He was still deeply miserable, but the moment of intense crisis had passed, and there was a distraction from the morass of his own internal state.

In the bright light of a desert afternoon, Tristan inspected the face of his new friend. Mort had quite thick dark hair, and the kind of face that was difficult to place in terms of age. He could have been twenty, or perhaps forty. At some angles, he seemed young, but when his dark gaze met Tristan’s, there was an agelessness to it. Actually, there was a complete lessness to it — lessness not being a word until that very moment, when Tristan felt the void he had always felt inside him somehow now regarding him from the outside. It was a more comforting sensation than one might expect. All his life, he had felt a certain distance and difference from the people around him, like he was living in a world not quite the same as them. He did not feel that with this guy. He felt a kinship.

“If you’re looking to crash somewhere for a while, I have a spare room,” he offered. “You’re welcome to use it.”

“Very generous,” Mort intoned. He did have a very resonant, deep voice. He sounded like someone much larger. It was hard to tell what kind of build he really had. The hoodie he wore was oversized. He could be muscular underneath it, or he could be a skinny little guy.

“Alright. What do you want to eat? I’m hungry. The station has chimichangas. They’re not bad. They’re not good, either. But I haven’t cooked or shopped in weeks. So.”

Mort fisted a handful of bills from his roll and handed them over. There had to be at least a couple hundred bucks in Tristan’s hand now.

“What do you want for all this? Are you going to ask me to suck your dick later or something?”

Mort looked back at him with dark eyes, giving nothing away. “That does not seem appropriate, given the circumstances.”

“Then what do you want for this?”

“You said I could stay with you, did you not? I am compensating you for some of your hospitality.”

Mort

Mort watched as Tristan disappeared back around the corner to get them some food. It was so easy to make a human happy. Money for food, money for beer, that’s all Tristan needed for now.

The comment about dick sucking had not slid off him as easily as he had pretended it did. There had been a moment of frisson, a point at which he could have invited such attentions. But he had no intention of buying them.

As soon as Mort was completely alone, he heard a dark whisper on the wind.

“Interfering is against the rules. Quitting is one thing, but you know this is going to bring enforcement down on you. Your job is to conduct souls, not save them. Get up and leave now, before you get the pair of you into deep trouble.”

“Leave me alone, Anubis,” Mort hissed back. “I know what I am doing.”

He heard Anubis chuckle, fainter now.

“You never know what you are doing.”

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