When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Under the Whispering Door, a delightful queer love story from TJ Klune—publishing September 21st with Tor Books.
When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead.
And when Hugo, the owner of a peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace decides he’s definitely dead.
But even in death he’s not ready to abandon the life he barely lived, so when Wallace is given one week to cross over, he sets about living a lifetime in seven days.
Hilarious, haunting, and kind, Under the Whispering Door is an uplifting story about a life spent at the office and a death spent building a home.
Patricia was crying.
Wallace Price hated it when people cried.
Little tears, big tears, full on body-wracking sobs, it didn’t matter. Tears were pointless, and she was only delaying the inevitable.
“How did you know?” she said, her cheeks wet as she reached for the Kleenex box on his desk. She didn’t see him grimacing. It was probably for the best.
“How could I not?” he said. He folded his hands on his oak desk, his Arper Aston chair squeaking as he settled in for what he was sure was going to be a case of unfortunate histrionics, all while trying to keep his nostrils from flaring and grimacing at the stench of bleach and Windex. One of the night staff must have spilled something in his office, the scent thick and cloying. He made a mental note to send out a memo to remind everyone that he had a sensitive nose, and that he shouldn’t be expected to work in such conditions. It was positively barbaric.
The shades on the windows to his office were pulled shut against the afternoon sun, the air-conditioning blasting harshly, keeping him alert. Three years ago, someone had asked if they could move the dial up to seventy degrees. He’d laughed. Warmth led to laziness. When one was cold, one kept moving.
Outside his office, the firm moved like a well-oiled machine, busy and self-sufficient without the need for significant input, exactly as Wallace liked. He wouldn’t have made it as far as he had if he’d had to micromanage every employee. Of course, he still kept a watchful eye, those in his employ knowing they needed to be working as if their lives depended on it. Their clients were the most important people on earth. When he said jump, he expected those within earshot to do just that without asking inconsequential questions like how high?
Which brought him back to Patricia. The machine had broken down, and though no one was infallible, Wallace needed to switch out the part for a new one. He’d worked too hard to let it fail now. Last year had been their most profitable in the firm’s history. This year was shaping up to be even better. No matter what condition the world was in, someone always needed to be sued.
Patricia blew her nose. “I didn’t think you cared.”
He stared at her. “Why on earth would you think that?”
Patricia gave a watery smile. “You’re not exactly the type.”
He bristled. How dare she say such a thing, especially to her boss. He should’ve realized ten years ago when he’d interviewed her for the paralegal position that it’d come back to bite him in the ass. She’d been chipper, something Wallace had believed would lessen with time, seeing as how a law firm was no place for cheerfulness. How wrong he’d been. “Of course I—”
“It’s just that things have been so hard lately,” she said, as if he hadn’t spoken at all. “I’ve tried to keep it bottled in, but I should have known you’d see right through it.”
“Exactly,” he said, trying to steer the conversation back on course. The quicker he got through this, the better off they’d both be. Patricia would realize that, eventually. “I saw right through it. Now, if you could—”
“And you do care,” she said. “I know you do. I knew the moment you gave me a floral arrangement for my birthday last month. It was kind of you. Even though it didn’t have a card or anything, I knew what you were trying to say. You appreciate me. And I so appreciate you, Mr. Price.”
He didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. He hadn’t given her a single thing. It must have been his legal administrative assistant. He was going to have to have a word with her. There was no need for flowers. What was the point? They were pretty at first but then they died, leaves and petals curling and rotting, making a mess that could have been avoided had they not been sent in the first place. With this in mind, he picked up his ridiculously expensive Montblac pen, jotting down a note (IDEA FOR MEMO: PLANTS ARE TERRIBLE AND NO ONE SHOULD HAVE THEM). Without looking up, he said, “I wasn’t trying to—”
“Kyle was laid off two months ago,” she said, and it took him longer than he cared to admit to place who she was talking about. Kyle was her husband. They’d met at a firm function. Kyle had been intoxicated, obviously enjoying the champagne Moore, Price, Hernandez & Worthington had provided after yet another successful year. Face flushed, Kyle regaled the party with a detailed story Wallace couldn’t bring himself to care about, especially since Kyle apparently believed volume and embellishment were a necessity in storytelling.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said stiffly, setting his phone on the desk. “But I think we should focus on the matter at—”
“He’s having trouble finding work,” Patricia said, crumpling up her tissue before reaching for another. She wiped her eyes, her makeup smearing. “And it couldn’t come at a worse time. Our son is getting married this summer, and we’re supposed to pay for half the wedding. I don’t know how we’ll manage, but we’ll find a way. We always do. It’s a bump in the road.”
“Mazel tov,” Wallace said. He didn’t even know she had children. He wasn’t one to delve into the personal lives of his employees. Children were a distraction, one he’d never warmed to. They caused their parents—his employees—to request time off for things like recitals and illness, leaving others to pick up the slack. And since Human Resources had advised him he couldn’t ask his employees to avoid starting families (“You can’t tell them to just get a dog, Mr. Price!”) he’d had to deal with mothers and fathers needing the afternoon off to listen to their children vomit or screech songs about shapes and clouds or other nonsense.
Patricia honked again into her tissue, a long and terribly wet noise that made his skin crawl. “And then there’s our daughter. I thought she was directionless and going to end up hoarding ferrets, but then the firm graciously provided her with a scholarship, and she finally found her way. Business school, of all things. Isn’t that wonderful?”
He squinted at her. He would have to speak to the partners. He wasn’t aware they offered scholarships. They donated to charities, yes, but the tax breaks more than made up for it. He didn’t know what sort of return they’d see on giving money away for something as ridiculous as business school, even if it too could be written off. The daughter would probably want to do something as asinine as open a restaurant or start a nonprofit. “I think you and I have a different definition of wonderful.”
She nodded, but he didn’t think she was hearing him. “This job is so important to me, now more than ever. The people here are like family. We all support one another, and I don’t know how I’d have made it this far without them. And to have you sense something was wrong and ask me to come in here so that I could vent means more to me than you will ever know. I don’t care what anyone else says, Mr. Price. You’re a good man.”
What was that supposed to mean? “What is everyone saying about me?”
She blanched. “Oh, nothing bad. You know how it is. You started this firm. Your name is on the letterhead. It’s… intimidating.”
Wallace relaxed. He felt better. “Yes, well, I suppose that’s—”
“I mean, yes, people talk about how you can be cold and calculating and if something doesn’t get done the moment you want it to, you raise your voice to frightening levels, but they don’t see you like I do. I know it’s a front for the caring man underneath the expensive suits.”
“A front,” he repeated, though he was pleased she admired his sense of style. His suits were luxurious. Only the best, after all. It was why part of the package welcoming those new to the firm listed in detailed bullet points what was acceptable attire. While he didn’t demand designer labels for all (especially since he could appreciate student debt), if anyone wore something obviously bought off a discount rack, they’d be given a stern talking to about having pride in their appearance.
“You’re hard on the outside, but inside you’re a marshmallow,” she said.
He’d never been more offended in his life. “Mrs. Ryan—”
“Patricia, please. I’ve told you that before many times.”
She had. “Mrs. Ryan,” he said firmly. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, I believe we have other matters to discuss.”
“Right,” she said hastily. “Of course. I know you don’t like when people compliment you. I promise it won’t happen again. We’re not here to talk about you, after all.”
He was relieved. “Exactly.”
Her lip trembled. “We’re here to talk about me and how difficult things have become lately. That’s why you called me in after finding me crying in the supply closet.”
He thought she’d been taking inventory and the dust had affected her allergies. “I think we need to refocus—”
“Kyle won’t touch me,” she whispered. “It’s been years since I’ve felt his hands on me. I told myself that it’s what happens when a couple has been together for so long, and the fact that he lies on the couch most days staring off into nothing, but I can’t help but think there’s more to it.”
He flinched. “I don’t know if this is appropriate, especially when you—”
“I know!” she cried. “How inappropriate can he be? I know I’ve been working seventy hours a week, but is it too much to ask for my husband to perform his matrimonial duties? It was in our vows.”
What an awful wedding that must have been. They’d probably held the reception at a Holiday Inn. No. Worse. A Holiday Inn Express. He shuddered at the thought. He had no doubt karaoke had been involved. From what he remembered of Kyle (which was very little at all), he’d probably sung a medley of Journey and White Snake while chugging what he lovingly referred to as a brewski.
“But I don’t mind the long hours,” she continued. “It’s part of the job. I knew that when you hired me.”
Ah! An opening! “Speaking of hiring—”
“My daughter pierced her septum,” Patricia said forlornly. “She looks like a bull. My little girl, wanting a matador to chase her down and stick things in her.”
“Jesus Christ,” Wallace muttered, scrubbing a hand over his face. He didn’t have time for this. He had a meeting in half an hour that he needed to prepare for.
“I know!” Patricia exclaimed. “Kyle said it’s part of growing up. That we need to let her spread her wings and make her own mistakes. I didn’t know that meant having her put a gosh darn ring through her nose! And don’t even get me started on my son.”
“Okay,” Wallace said. “I won’t.”
“He wants Applebee’s to cater the wedding! Applebee’s.”
Wallace gaped in horror. He hadn’t known awful wedding planning was genetic.
Patricia nodded furiously. “Like we could afford that. Money doesn’t grow on trees! We’ve done our best to instill in our children a sense of financial understanding, but when you’re young, you don’t always have a firm grasp of it. And now that his bride-to-be is pregnant, he’s looking to us for help.” She sighed dramatically. “The only reason I can even get up in the morning is knowing I can come here and… escape from it all.”
He felt a strange twist in his chest. He rubbed at his sternum. Most likely heartburn. He should have skipped the chili. “I’m glad we can be a refuge from your existence, but that’s not why I asked you for this meeting.”
She sniffled. “Oh?” She smiled again. It was stronger this time. “Then what is it, Mr. Price?”
He said, “You’re fired.”
He waited. Surely now she’d understand, and he could get back to work.
She looked around, a confused smile on her face. “Is this one of those reality shows?” She laughed, a ghost of her former exuberance he’d thought had long since been banished. “Are you filming me? Is someone going to jump out and shout surprise? What’s that show called? You’re Fired, But Not Really?”
“I highly doubt it,” Wallace said. “I haven’t given authorization to be filmed.” He looked down at her purse in her lap. “Or recorded.”
Her smile faded slightly. “Then I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how to make it any clearer, Mrs. Ryan. As of today, you are no longer employed by Moore, Price, Hernandez & Worthington. When you leave here, security will allow you to gather up your belongings and then you’ll be escorted from the building. Human Resources will be in touch shortly regarding any final paperwork in case you need to sign up for… oh, what was it called?” He flipped through the papers on the desk. “Ah, yes. Unemployment benefits. Because apparently, even if you’re unemployed, you can still suckle from the teat of the government in the form of my tax dollars.” He shook his head. “So, in a way, it’s like I’m still paying you. Just not as much. Or while working here. Because you don’t.”
She wasn’t smiling any longer. “I… what?”
“You’re fired,” he said slowly. He didn’t know what was so difficult for her to understand.
“Why?” she demanded.
Now they were talking. The why of things was Wallace’s specialty. Nothing but the facts. “Because of the amicus brief in the Cortaro matter. You filed it two hours past the deadline. The only reason it was pushed through was because Judge Smith owed me a favor, and even that almost didn’t work. I had to remind him that I’d seen him and his babysitter-turned-mistress at the—it doesn’t matter. You could’ve cost the firm thousands of dollars, and that doesn’t even begin to cover the harm it would have caused our client. That sort of mistake won’t be tolerated. I thank you for your years of dedication to Moore, Price, Hernandez & Worthington, but I’m afraid your services will no longer be required.”
She stood abruptly, the chair scraping along the hardwood floors. “I didn’t file it late.”
“You did,” Wallace said evenly. “I have the timestamp from the clerk’s office here if you’d like to see it.” He tapped his fingers against the folder sitting on his desk.
Her eyes narrowed. At least she wasn’t crying any longer. Wallace could handle anger. On his first day in law school, he was told that lawyers, while a necessity in a functioning society, were always going to be the focal point of ire. “Even if I did file it late, I’ve never done anything like that before. It was one time.”
“And you can rest easy knowing you won’t do anything like it again,” Wallace said. “Because you no longer work here.”
“But… but my husband. And my son. And my daughter!”
“Right,” Wallace said. “I’m glad you brought that up. Obviously, if your daughter was receiving any sort of scholarship from us, it’s now rescinded.” He pressed a button on his desk phone. “Shirley? Can you please make a note for HR that Mrs. Ryan’s daughter no longer has a scholarship through us? I don’t know what it entails, but I’m sure they have some form they have to fill out that I need to sign. See to it immediately.”
His assistant’s voice crackled through the speaker. “Yes, Mr. Price.”
He looked up at his former paralegal. “There. See? All taken care of. Now, before you go, I’d ask that you remember we’re professionals. There’s no need for screaming or throwing things or making threats that will undoubtedly be considered a felony. And, if you could, please make sure when you clear out your desk that you don’t take anything that belongs to the firm. Your replacement will be starting on Monday, and I’d hate to think what it will be like for her if she was missing a stapler or tape dispenser. Whatever knickknacks you have accumulated are yours, of course.” He picked the stress ball on his desk with the firm’s logo on it. “These are wonderful, aren’t they? I seem to remember you getting one to celebrate seven years at the firm. Take it, with my blessing. I have a feeling it will come in handy.”
“You’re serious,” she whispered.
“As a heart attack,” he said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to—”
“You… you… you monster!” she shouted. “I demand an apology!”
Of course she would. “An apology would imply I’ve done something wrong. I haven’t. If anything, you should be apologizing to me.”
Her answering screech did not contain an apology.
Wallace kept his cool as he pressed the button on his phone again. “Shirley? Has security arrived?”
“Yes, Mr. Price.”
“Good. Send them in before something gets thrown at my head.”
The last Wallace Price saw of Patricia Ryan was when a large man named Geraldo dragged her away, kicking and screaming, apparently ignoring the Wallace’s warning about felonious threats. He was begrudgingly impressed with Mrs. Ryan’s dedication to wanting to stick what she referred to as a hot fire poker down his throat until it—in her words—pierced his nether regions and caused extreme agony. “You’ll land on your feet!” he called from the doorway to his office, knowing the entire floor was listening. He wanted to make sure they knew he cared. “A door closes, a window opens and all that.”
The elevator doors slid shut, cutting off her outrage.
“Ah,” Wallace said. “That’s more like it. Back to work, everyone. Just because it’s Friday doesn’t mean you get to slack off.”
Everyone began moving immediately.
Perfect. The machine ran smoothly once again.
He went back into his office, closing the door behind him.
He thought of Patricia only once more that afternoon when he received an email from the head of Human Resources telling him that she would take care of the scholarship. That twinge in his chest returned, but it was all right. He’d stop for a bottle of Tums on his way home. He didn’t give it—or Patricia Ryan—another thought. Ever forward, he told himself as he moved the email to a folder marked employee grievences.
He felt better. At least it was quiet now.
Next week, his new paralegal would start, and he’d make sure she knew he wouldn’t tolerate mistakes. It was better to strike fear early rather than deal with incompetency down the road.
He never got the chance.
Instead, two days later, Wallace Price died.
His funeral was sparsely attended. Wallace wasn’t pleased. He couldn’t even be quite sure how he’d gotten here. One moment, he’d been staring down at his body, and then he’d blinked, and somehow, found himself in front of a church, the doors open, bells ringing. It certainly hadn’t helped when he saw the prominent sign sitting out front. A Celebration of the Life of Wallace Price, it read. He didn’t like that sign, if he was being honest with himself. No, he didn’t like it one bit. Perhaps someone inside could tell him what the hell was going on.
He’d taken a seat on a pew toward the rear. The church itself was everything he hated: ostentatious, with grand stained-glass windows and several versions of Jesus in various poses of pain and suffering, hands nailed to a cross that appeared to be made of stone. Wallace was dismayed at how no one seemed to mind that the prominent figure displayed throughout the church was depicted in the throes of death. He would never understand religion.
He waited for more people to filter in. The sign out front said his funeral was supposed start promptly at nine. It was now five till according to the decorative clock on the wall (another Jesus, his arms the hands of the clock, apparently a reminder that God’s only son was a contortionist) and there were only six people in the church.
He knew five of them.
The first was his ex-wife. Their divorce had been a bitter thing, filled with baseless accusations on both sides, their lawyers barely able to keep them from screaming at each other across the table. She would’ve had to fly in, given that she’d moved to the opposite end of the country to get away from him. He didn’t blame her.
She wasn’t crying. He was annoyed for reasons he couldn’t quite explain. Shouldn’t she be sobbing?
The second, third, and fourth people he knew were the partners at the law firm Moore, Price, Hernandez & Worthington. He waited for others from the firm to join them, given MPH&W had been started in a garage twenty years before and had grown to be one of the most powerful in the state. At the very least, he expected his assistant, Shirley, to be there, her makeup streaked, a kerchief clutched in her hands as she wailed that she didn’t know how she’d go on without him.
She wasn’t in attendance. He focused as hard as he could, willing her to pop into existence, wailing that it wasn’t fair, that she needed a boss like Wallace to keep her on the straight and narrow. He frowned when nothing happened, a curl of unease fluttering in the back of his mind.
The partners gathered at the back of the church, near Wallace’s pew, speaking in low tones. Wallace had given up trying to let them know he was still here, sitting right in front of them. They couldn’t see him. They couldn’t hear him.
“Sad day,” Moore said.
“So sad,” Hernandez agreed.
“Just the worst,” Worthington said. “Poor Shirley, finding his body like that.”
The partners paused, looking out toward the front of the church, bowing their heads respectfully when Naomi glanced back at them. She sneered at them before turning around toward the front.
“Makes you think,” Moore said.
“It really does,” Hernandez agreed.
“Absolutely,” Worthington said. “Makes you think about a lot of things.”
“You’ve never had an original thought in your life,” Wallace told him.
They were quiet for a moment, and Wallace was sure they were lost in their favorite memories of him. In a moment, they’d start to fondly reminisce, each of them in turn giving a little story about the man they’d known for half their lives and the effect he’d had upon them.
Maybe they’d even shed a tear or two. He hoped so.
“He was an asshole,” Moore said finally.
“Such an asshole,” Hernandez agreed.
“The biggest,” Worthington said.
They all laughed, though they tried to smother it to keep it from echoing. Wallace was shocked by two specific things. First, he wasn’t aware one was allowed to laugh in church, especially when one was attending a funeral. He thought it had to be illegal, somehow. It was true that he hadn’t been inside a church in decades, so it was possible the rules had changed. Second, where did they get off calling him an asshole? He was disappointed when they weren’t immediately struck down by lightning. “Smite them!” he yelled, glaring up at the ceiling. “Smite them right… now…” He stopped. Why wasn’t his voice echoing?
Moore, apparently having decided his grief had passed, said, “Did you guys catch the game last night? Man, Rodriguez was in rare form. Can’t believe they called that play.”
And then they were off, talking about sports as if their former partner wasn’t lying in a seven-thousand-dollar solid red cherrywood casket at the front of the church, arms folded across his chest, skin pale, eyes closed.
Wallace turned resolutely forward, jaw clenched. They’d gone to college together, had decided to start their own firm right after graduation, much to the horror of their parents. He and the partners had started out as friends, each young and idealistic. But as the years had gone by, they’d become something more than friends: they’d become colleagues, which, to Wallace, was far more important. He didn’t have time for friends. He didn’t need them. He’d had his job on the thirtieth floor of the biggest skyscraper in the city, his imported office furniture, and a too-big apartment that he rarely spent any time in. He’d had it all, and now…
At least his casket was expensive, though he’d been avoiding look at it since he arrived.
The fifth person in the church was one he didn’t recognize. She was a young woman with messy black hair cut short. Her eyes were dark above a thin, upturned nose and the pale slash of her lips. She had her ears pierced, little studs that glittered in the sunlight filtering in through the windows. She was dressed in a smart pinstriped black suit, her tie bright red. A power tie if ever there was one. Wallace approved. All of his own ties were power ties. No, he wasn’t exactly wearing a power tie at this moment. Apparently when you died, you continued to wear the last thing you had on before you croaked. It was unfortunate, really, given that he’d apparently died in his office on a Sunday. He’d come in to prepare for the upcoming week, and had thrown on sweats, an old Rolling Stones shirt, and flip-flops, knowing the office would be empty.
Which is what he found himself wearing now, much to his dismay.
The woman glanced in his direction, as if she’d heard him. He didn’t know her, but he assumed he’d touched her life at some point if she were here. Perhaps she’d been a grateful client of his at one point. They all began to run together after a time, so that could be it too. He’d probably sued a large company on her behalf for hot coffee or harassment or something, and she’d gotten a massive settlement out of it. Of course she’d be grateful. Who wouldn’t be?
Moore, Hernandez, and Worthington seemed to graciously decide their wild sporting-event conversation could be put on hold, walking past Wallace without so much as a glance in his direction and moving toward the front of the church, each of them with a solemn look on their face. They ignored the young woman in the suit, instead stopping near Naomi, leaning over one by one to offer their condolences. She nodded. Wallace waited for the tears, sure it was a dam ready to burst.
The partners each took a moment to stand in front of the casket, their heads bowed low. That sense of unease that had filled Wallace since he’d blinked in front of the church grew stronger, discordant and awful. Here he was, sitting in the back of the church, staring at himself in the front of the church, lying in a casket. Wallace was under no impression he was a handsome man. He was too tall, too gangly, his cheekbones wicked sharp, leaving his pale face in a state of perpetual gauntness. Once, at a company Halloween party, a group of children had been delighted by his costume, one bold tween saying that he made an excellent Grim Reaper.
He hadn’t been wearing a costume.
He studied himself from his seat, catching glimpses of his body as the partners shuffled around him, the terrible feeling that something was off threatening to overtake him. The body had been dressed in one of his nicer suits, a Tom Ford sharkskin wool two-piece. It fit his thin frame well and made his green eyes pop. To be fair, it wasn’t exactly flattering now, given that his eyes were closed and his cheeks were covered with enough rouge to make him look as if he’d been a courtesan instead of a high-profile attorney. His forehead was strangely pale, his short dark hair slicked back and glistening wetly in the overhead lights.
Eventually, the partners sat in the pew opposite Naomi, their faces dry.
A door opened, and Wallace turned to see a priest (someone else he didn’t recognize, and he felt that discordance again like a weight on his chest, something off, something wrong) walk through the narthex, wearing robes as ridiculous as the church around them. The priest blinked a couple of times, as if he couldn’t believe how empty the church was. He pulled back the sleeve of his robe to look at his watch and shook his head before fixing a quiet smile on his face. He walked right by Wallace without acknowledging him. “That’s fine,” Wallace called after him. “I’m sure you think you’re important. It’s no wonder organized religion is in the shape it’s in.”
The priest stopped next to Naomi, taking her hand in his, speaking in soft platitudes, telling her how sorry he was for her loss, that the Lord worked in mysterious ways, and while we may not always understand his plan, rest assured there was one, and this was part of it.
Naomi said, “Oh, I don’t doubt that, Father. But let’s skip all the mumbo-jumbo and get this show on the road. He’s supposed to be buried in two hours, and I have a flight to catch this afternoon.”
Wallace rolled his eyes. “Christ, Naomi. How about showing a little respect? You’re in a church.” And I’m dead, he wanted to add, but didn’t, because that made it real, and none of this could be real. It couldn’t.
The priest nodded. “Of course.” He patted the back of her hand before moving to the opposite pews where the partners sat. “I’m sorry for your loss. The Lord works in mysterious—”
“Of course he does,” Moore said.
“So mysterious,” Hernandez agreed.
“Big man upstairs with his plans,” Worthington said.
The woman—the stranger he didn’t recognize—snorted, shaking her head.
Wallace glared at her.
The priest moved on, stopping in front of the casket, head bowed. Before, there’d been pain in his arm, a burning sensation in his chest, a savage little twist of nausea in his stomach. For a moment, he’d almost convinced himself that it’d been the leftover chili he’d eaten the night before. But then he was on the floor of his office, lying on the imported Persian rug he’d spent an exorbitant amount on, listening to the fountain in the lobby gurgle as he tried to catch his breath. “Goddamn chili,” he’d managed to gasp, his last words before he’d found himself standing above his own body, feeling like he was in two places at once, staring up at the ceiling while also staring down at himself. It took a moment before that division had subsided, leaving him with mouth agape, the only sound crawling from his throat a thin squeak like a deflating balloon.
Which was fine, because he’d only passed out! That’s all it was. Nothing more than heartburn and the need to take a nap on the floor. It happened to everyone at one point or another. He’d been working too hard as of late. Of course it’d finally catch up to him.
With that decided, he felt a bit better about wearing sweats and flip-flops and an old T-shirt in church at his funeral. He didn’t even like the Rolling Stones. He had no idea where the shirt had come from.
The priest cleared his throat as he looked out at the few people gathered. He said, “It’s written in the Good Book that—”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Wallace muttered.
The stranger choked.
Wallace jerked his head up as the priest droned on.
The woman had her hand over her mouth like she was trying to stifle her laughter. Wallace was incensed. If she found his death so funny, why the hell was she even here?
No, it couldn’t be, right?
He stared at her, trying to place her.
What if she had been a client of his?
What if he’d gotten a less than desirable result for her?
A class-action lawsuit, maybe. One that hadn’t netted as much as she’d hoped. He made promises whenever he got a new client, big promises of justice and extraordinary financial compensation. Where once he might have tempered expectations, he’d only grown more confident with every judgment in his favor. His name was whispered with great reverence in the hallowed halls of the courts. He was a ruthless shark, and anyone who stood in his way usually ended up flat on their back, wondering what the hell had happened.
But maybe it was more than that.
Had what started out as a professional attorney-client relationship turned to something darker? Perhaps she’d become fixated upon him, enamored by his expensive suits and command of the courtroom. She told herself that she would have Wallace Price, or no one would. She’d stalked him, standing outside his window at night, watching him while he slept (his apartment being on the fifteenth floor didn’t dissuade this notion; for all he knew, she’d climbed up the side of the building to his balcony). And when he was at work, she’d broken in and lay upon his pillow, breathing in his scent, dreaming of the day when she could become Mrs. Wallace Price. Then, perhaps he’d spurned her unknowingly, and the love she’d felt for him had turned into a black rage.
That was it.
That explained everything. After all, it wasn’t without precedence, was it? Because it was likely Patricia Ryan had also been obsessed with him, given her unfortunate reaction when he’d fired her. For all he knew, they were in cahoots with each other, and when Wallace had done what he did, they’d… what? Joined forces to… wait. Okay. The timeline was a little fuzzy for that to work, but still.
“—and now, I’d like to invite anyone who would like to say a few words about our dear Wallace to come forward and do so at this time.” The priest smiled serenely. The smile faded slightly when no one moved. “Anyone at all.”
The partners bowed their heads.
Obviously, they were so overcome, unable to find the right words to say in order to sum up a life well-lived. Wallace didn’t blame them for that. How did one even begin to encapsulate all that he was? Successful, intelligent, hard-working to the point of obsession, and so much more. Of course they’d be reticent.
“Get up,” he muttered, staring hard at those in the front of the church. “Get up and say nice things about me. Now. I command you.”
He gasped when Naomi rose. “It worked!” he whispered fervently. “Yes. Yes.”
The priest nodded at her as he stepped off to the side. Naomi stared down at Wallace’s body for a long moment, and Wallace was surprised to see her face screw up like she was about to cry. Finally. Finally someone was going to show some kind of emotion. He wondered if she would throw herself at the casket, demanding to know why, why, why life had to be so unfair, and Wallace, I’ve always loved you, even when I was sleeping with the gardener. You know, the one who seemed averse to wearing shirts while he worked, the sun shining down on his broad shoulders, the sweat trickling down his carved abdominal muscles like he was a goddamn Greek statue that you pretended not to stare at too, but we both know that’s crap, given that we had the same taste in men.
She didn’t cry.
She sneezed instead.
“Excuse me,” she said, wiping her nose. “That’s been building for a while.”
Wallace sunk lower in the pew. He didn’t have a good feeling about this.
She moved in front of the church on the dais next to the priest. She said, “Wallace Price was… certainly alive. And now he’s not. For the life of me, I can’t quite say that’s a terrible thing. He wasn’t a good person.”
“Oh my,” the priest said.
Naomi ignored him. “He was obstinate, foolhardy, and cared only for himself. I could have married Bill Nicholson, but instead, I hooked up to the Wallace Price Express, bound for a destination of missed meals, forgotten birthdays and anniversaries, and the disgusting habit of leaving toenail clippings on the bathroom floor. I mean, come on. The trash bin was right there. How on earth do you miss it?”
“Terrible,” Moore said.
“Exactly,” Hernandez agreed.
“Put the clippings in the trash,” Worthington said. “It’s not that hard.”
“Wait,” Wallace said loudly. “That’s not what you’re supposed to be doing. You need to be sad, and as you wipe away tears, you talk about everything you’ll miss about me. What kind of funeral is this?”
But Naomi wouldn’t listen, which, really. When had she ever? “I’ve spent the last few days since I got the news trying to find a single memory of our time together that didn’t fill me with regret or apathy or a burning fury that felt like I was standing on the sun. It took time, but I did find one. Once, Wallace brought me a cup of soup while I was sick. I thanked him. Then he went to work, and I didn’t see him for six days.”
“That’s it?” Wallace exclaimed. “Are you kidding me?”
Naomi’s expression hardened. “I know we’re supposed to act and feel a certain way when someone dies, but I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit. Sorry, Father.”
The priest nodded. “It’s okay, my child. Get it all out. The Lord doesn’t—”
“And don’t even get me started on the fact that he cared more about his work than making a family. I marked my ovulation cycle on his work calendar. Do you know what he did? He sent me a card that said congratulations, graduate.”
“Still holding onto that, are we?” Wallace asked loudly. “How’s that therapy going for you, Naomi? Sounds like you should get a refund.”
“Yikes,” the woman in the pew said.
Wallace glared at her. “Something you’d like to add? I know I’m a catch, but just because I won’t love you didn’t give you the right to murder me!”
The sound he made when the woman looked directly at him is better left to the imagination, especially when she said quite loudly, “Nah. You’re not exactly my type, and murder is bad, you know?”
Wallace practically fell out of the pew as Naomi continued to slander him in a house of God as if the strange woman hadn’t spoken at all. He managed to grab the back of the pew, fingernails digging into the wood. He peered over the top, eyes bulging as he stared at the woman.
She smiled and arched an eyebrow.
Wallace struggled to find his voice. “You… you can see me?”
She nodded as she turned in her own pew, resting her elbow on the back. “I can.”
He began to tremble, his hands gripping the pew so hard, he thought his fingers would snap. “How. What. I don’t—what.”
“I know you’re confused, Wallace, and things can be—”
“I never told you my name!” he said shrilly, unable to stop his voice from cracking.
She snorted. “There’s literally a sign with your picture on it below your name in the front of the church.”
“That’s not…” What? What wasn’t it exactly? He pulled himself upright. His legs weren’t quite working as he wanted them to. “Forget the damn sign. How is this happening? What the hell is going on?”
The woman smiled. “You’re dead.”
He burst out laughing. Yes, he could see his body in a casket, but that didn’t mean anything. There had to be some mistake. He stopped laughing when he realized the woman didn’t join in. “What,” he said flatly.
“Dead, Wallace.” Her face scrunched up. “Hold on. Trying to remember what the cause was. This is my first time, and I’m a little nervous.” She brightened. “Oh, that’s right! Heart attack.”
And that was how he knew this wasn’t real. A heart attack? Bullshit. He never smoked, he ate as best he could, and he exercised when he remembered. His last physical had ended with the doctor telling him that while his blood pressure was a little high, everything else seemed to be in working order. He couldn’t be dead from a heart attack. It wasn’t possible. He told her as much, sure that’d be the end of it.
“Riiiight,” she repeated slowly, as if he were the idiot. “Hate to be a bummer, man, but that’s what happened.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I would know if I… I would have felt…” Felt what? Pain in his arm? The stuttering in his chest? The way he couldn’t quite catch his breath no matter how hard he tried?
She shrugged. “I suppose it’s one of those things.” He flinched when she stood from the pew, making her way over to him. She was shorter than he expected, the top of her head probably coming up to his chin. He backed away from her as best he could, but he didn’t get far.
Naomi was ranting about a trip to the Poconos they’d apparently taken (“He stayed in the hotel room the entire time on conference calls! It was our honeymoon!”) as the woman sat on his pew, keeping a bit of distance between them. She appeared even younger than he first thought—perhaps early to mid-twenties—which somehow made things worse. Her complexion was slightly darker than his own, lips pulled back over small teeth in the hint of a smile. She tapped her fingers on the back of the pew before looking at him. “Wallace Price,” she said. “My name is Meiying, but you can call me Mei, like the month, only spelled a little different. I’m here to bring you home.”
He stared at her, unable to speak.
“Huh. Didn’t know that’d shut you up. Should’ve tried that to begin with.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” he said through gritted teeth. “I don’t know you.”
“I should hope not,” she said. “If you did, it’d be very weird.” She paused, considering. “Weirder, at least.” She nodded toward the front of the church. “Nice casket, by the way. Doesn’t look cheap.”
He bristled. “It isn’t. Only the very best for—”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Mei said. “Still. Pretty gnarly, right? Looking at your own body like that. Not a bad body, though. Little skinny for my tastes, but to each their own.”
He bristled. “I’ll have you know that I did just fine with my skinny—no. I won’t be distracted! I demand you tell me what’s going on right this second.”
“Okay,” she said quietly. “I can do that. I know this may be hard to understand, but your heart gave out, and you died. There was an autopsy, and it turned out you had blockages in two of your aortic valves. I can show you the Y incision, if you want, though I’d advise against it. It’s pretty gross. Did you know that once they perform the autopsy, they sometimes put the organs back inside in a bag along with sawdust before they close you up?” She brightened. “Oh, and I’m your Reaper, here to take you where you belong.” And then, as if the moment wasn’t strange enough, she made jazz hands. “Ta da.”
“Reaper,” he said in a daze. “What is… that?”
“Me,” she said, scooting closer. “I’m a Reaper. Once someone dies, there’s confusion. You don’t really know what’s going on, and you’re scared.”
“I’m not scared!” This was a lie. He’d never been more frightened in his life.
“Okay,” she said. “So you’re not scared. That’s good. Regardless, it’s a trying time for anyone. You need help to make the transition. That’s where I come in. I’m here to make sure said transition goes as smoothly as possible.” She paused. Then, “That’s it. I think I remembered to say everything. I had to memorize a lot to get this job, and I might have forgotten a detail here and there, but that’s the gist of it.”
He gaped at her. He barely heard Naomi yelling in the background, calling him a selfish bastard with absolutely no self-awareness. “Transition.”
He didn’t like the sound of that. “To what?”
She grinned. “Oh, man. Just you wait.” She raised her hand toward him, turning her palm up. She pressed her thumb and middle fingers together and snapped.
The cool, spring sun was shining down on his face.
He took a stumbling step back, looking around wildly.
Cemetery. They were in a cemetery.
“Sorry about that,” Mei said, appearing beside him. “Still getting the hang of it.” She frowned. “I’m sort of new at this.”
“What’s happening!” he shrieked at her.
“You’re getting buried,” she said cheerily. “Come on. You’ll want to see this. It’ll help dispel any doubts you might have left.” She grabbed him by the arm and pulled. He tripped over his own feet but managed to stay upright. His flip-flops slapped against his heels as he struggled to keep up. They weaved in and out of headstones, the sounds of busy traffic surrounding them as impatient cabbies honked their horns and shouted expletives out open windows. He tried to pull away from Mei, but her grip was tight. She was stronger than she looked.
“Here we are,” she said, coming to a stop. “Right on time.”
He peered over her shoulder. Naomi was there, as were the partners, all standing around a freshly dug rectangular hole. The expensive coffin was being lowered into the earth. No one was crying. Worthington kept looking at his watch and sighing dramatically. Naomi was tapping away on her phone.
Of all the things for Wallace to focus on, he was dumbstruck by the fact that there was no headstone. “Where’s the marker? My name. Date of birth. An inspirational message saying I lived life to the fullest.”
“Is that what you did?” Mei asked. She didn’t sound like she was mocking him, merely curious.
He jerked his hand away and crossed his arms defensively. “Yes.”
“Awesome. And the headstones usually come after the service. They still have to carve it and everything. It’s this whole process. Don’t worry about it. Look. There you go. Wave goodbye!”
He didn’t wave.
Mei did, though, fingers wiggling.
“How did we get here?” he asked. “We were just in the church.”
“So observant. That’s really good, Wallace. We were just in the church. I’m proud of you. Let’s say I skipped a couple of things. Gotta get a move on.” She winced. “And that’s my bad, man. Like, seriously, don’t take this the wrong way because I totally didn’t mean it, but I was a little late in getting to you. This is sort of my first time reaping on my own, and I screwed up. Went to the wrong place on accident.” She smiled beatifically. “We cool?”
“No,” he snarled at her. “We’re not cool.”
“Oh. That sucks. Sorry. I promise it won’t happen again. Learning experience and all that. I hope you’ll still rate my service a ten when you get the survey. It’d mean a lot to me.”
He had no idea what she was talking about. He could almost convince himself that she was the crazy one, and nothing but a figment of his imagination. “It’s been three days!”
She beamed at him. “Exactly! This makes my job so much easier. Hugo’s gonna be so pleased with me. I can’t wait to tell him.”
“Who the hell is—”
“Hold on. This is one of my favorite parts.”
He looked to where she was pointing. The partners stood in a line, with Naomi behind them. He watched as they all leaned down, one by one, scooping up a handful of dirt and dropping it into the grave. The sound of the dirt hitting the lid of the casket caused Wallace’s hands to shake. Naomi stood with her handful of dirt over the open grave, and before she dropped it, a strange expression flickered across her face, there and gone. She shook her head, dropped the dirt, and then whirled around. The last he saw of his ex-wife was the sunlight on her hair as she hurried toward a waiting cab.
“Kinda brings it all home,” Mei said. “Full circle. From the earth we came, and to the earth we return. Pretty, if you think about it.”
“What’s going on?” he whispered.
Mei touched the back of his hand. Her skin was cool, but not unpleasantly so. “Do you need a hug? I can give you a hug if you want.”
He jerked his arm back. “I don’t want a hug.”
She nodded. “Boundaries. Cool. I respect that. I promise I won’t hug you without your permission.”
Once, when Wallace was seven, his parents had taken him to the beach. He’d stood in the surf, watching the sand rush between his toes. There was a strange sensation that rose through his legs to the pit of his stomach. He was sinking, though the combination of the whirling sand and white-capped water made it feel like so much more. It’d terrified him, and he’d refused to go back in the ocean, no matter how much his parents had pleaded with him.
It was this sensation Wallace Price felt now. Maybe it was the sound of the dirt on the casket. Maybe it was the fact that his picture was propped up next to the open grave, a floral wreath attached below it. In this picture, he was smiling tightly. His hair was styled perfectly, parted to the right. His eyes were bright. Naomi once said that he reminded her of the scarecrow from Oz. “If you only had a brain,” she said. This had been during one of their divorce proceedings, so he’d discounted it as nothing but her trying to hurt him.
He sat down hard on the ground, his toes flexing into the grass over the tip of his flip-flops. Mei settled next to him, folding her legs underneath her, picking at a little dandelion. She plucked it from the ground, holding it close to his mouth. “Make a wish,” she said.
He did not make a wish.
She sighed and blew on the dandelion herself. It exploded into a white cloud, the bits catching on a breeze and swirling around the open grave. “It’s a lot to take in, I know.”
“Do you?” he muttered, face in his hands.
“Not literally,” she admitted. “But I have a good idea.”
He looked over at her, eyes narrowed. “You said this was your first time.”
“It is. Solo, that is. But I went through the training, and did pretty good. Do you need empathy? I can give you that. Do you want to punch something because you’re angry? I can help you with that too. Not me, though. Maybe a wall.” She shrugged. “Or we can sit here and watch as they eventually come with a small bulldozer and shovel all the dirt on top of your former body thus cementing the fact that it’s all over. Dealer’s choice.”
He stared at her.
She nodded. “Right. I could have phrased that better. Sorry. Still getting the hang of things.”
“What is… ?” He tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. “What’s happening?”
She said, “What’s happening is that you lived your life. You did what you did, and now it’s over. At least that part of it is. And when you’re ready to leave here, I’ll take you to Hugo. He’ll explain the rest.”
“Leave,” he muttered. “With Hugo.”
She shook her head before stopping herself. “Well, in a way. He’s a ferryman.”
“Ferryman,” she repeated. “The one who will help you cross.”
His mind was racing. He couldn’t focus on any one single thing. It all felt too grand to comprehend. “But I thought you were supposed to—”
“Aw. You do like me. That’s sweet.” She laughed. “But I’m just a Reaper, Wallace. My job is to make sure you get to the ferryman. He’ll handle the rest. You’ll see. Once we get to him, it’ll be right as rain. Hugo tends to have that effect on people. He’ll explain everything before you cross, any of those pesky, lingering questions.”
“Cross,” Wallace said dully. “To… where?”
Mei cocked her head. “Why, to what’s next of course.”
“Heaven?” He blanched, a terrible thought piercing through the storm. “Hell?”
She shrugged. “Sure.”
“That doesn’t explain anything at all.”
She laughed. “I know, right? This is fun. I’m having fun. Aren’t you?”
No, he really wasn’t.
She didn’t hurry him. They stayed even as the sky began to streak in pinks and oranges, the March sun setting low toward the horizon. They stayed even as the promised bulldozer came, the woman operating it deftly with a cigarette jammed between her teeth, smoke pouring from her nose. The grave filled quicker than Wallace expected. The first stars were starting to appear by the time she finished, though they were faint given the light pollution from the city.
And that was it.
All that was left of Wallace Price was a mound of dirt and a body that was going to be nothing but worm food. It was a profoundly devastating experience. He hadn’t realized it would be. Strange, he thought to himself. How very strange.
He looked at Mei.
She smiled at him.
He said, “I…” He didn’t know how to finish.
She touched the back of his hand. “Yes, Wallace. It’s real.”
And wonder of all wonders, he believed her.
She said, “Would you like to meet Hugo?”
No. He didn’t. He wanted to run. He wanted to scream. He wanted to raise his fists toward the stars and rant and rave about the unfairness of it all. He had plans. He had goals. So much left to do, and now he’d never… he couldn’t…
He startled when a tear slipped down his cheek. “Do I have a choice?”
“In life? Always.”
“And in death?”
She shrugged. “It’s a little more… regimented. But it’s for your own good. I swear,” she added quickly. “There are reasons these things happen the way they do. Hugo will explain it all. He’s a great guy. You’ll see.”
That did not make him feel better.
But still, when she stood above him, holding her hand out, he only stared at it for a moment or two before taking it, allowing her to pull him up.
He turned his face toward the sky. He breathed in and out.
Mei said, “This is probably going to feel a little odd. But it’s a longer distance, so it’s to be expected. It’ll be over before you know it.”
But before he could react, she snapped again and everything exploded.
Excerpted from Under the Whispering Door, copyright © 2021 by T.J. Klune.