I haven’t seen Penny Arnold since those long, lazy summer days at Brookshire High. She used to wear her hair in a ponytail in the spring, and in pigtails in the fall. She liked ribbons and horses and cheesecake, and I liked hearing her laugh. We had mostly good times, and even on the worst days, I have trouble forgetting them. She had a wide smile, the kind that reached from ear to ear and split her face the way a sunrise splits the horizon, and it hasn’t changed.
“Ben,” she says. Her hair is silver, the skin around her eyes is wrinkled by age and wisdom, and her hands are marred by the work she’s done in her long life, the babies she carried with them, and the things they made. But that brightness is still there. When she smiles, I still see sunrise.
“Penny,” I say warmly. “It’s been a long time.”
“I see you finally left that old job.”
“I did,” I say, and offer my arm to her. “Shall we walk?”
“Will it be a long way?” she asks, though she takes my arm as we start down the path.
“Not terribly long, but long enough for us to talk. How has life treated you, dear Penny?”
“Wonderfully,” she replies, voice full of bliss, and gives my arm a squeeze. “Just wonderfully.”
“Little Susie turned eighteen last year,” she tells me, admiring the lights floating in the air before us. She probably thinks they’re fireflies. Most people on the path do. I decide it’s not worth stating otherwise. She’s telling me lovely stories of her grandchildren. All six of them. Five healthy and strong, one taken before his time. Such is life. “She’s going into college soon. She was always so excited to go out and see the world. Always been an adventurer, that one.” She looks to me. “Did you ever have children, Ben?”
I shake my head. “No.”
“Shame. Do you regret it?”
I smile. “No. I don’t think so. There have been days when I wondered if I’d have liked things differently, but Miranda and I enjoyed our life, what we had of it, and I hear she’s a wonderful stepmother and wife now, and her second husband is a nice fellow.”
“She was a lovely woman?”
“Good. I’m glad.” Penny gazes out to the path ahead. The “fireflies” light up her salt-and-pepper hair and reflect in her sharp, motherly eyes. “I would hate to think you wound up with anyone who didn’t make you happy, the way you deserved to be.”
“She did, and more. Til our last days.”
“That canning factory.”
I laugh. “All those years. I eventually wound up running the place, you know.”
“And you never left. I don’t know how you could stand it.”
“You couldn’t. That’s why you left, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” she admits, and runs a hand through her honey brown hair. “But it wasn’t the only reason. That town was suffocating me. I needed more than the canning factory and the corner mart and the Sunday nights at the ice cream shop.”
“We used to cruise by that ice cream shop all the time.”
“I was sick of it even then.” She winks at me, her eyes bright and clear like amber. “But that is not to say I didn’t have some good times in it. Or in the alley behind it.”
“I loved that alley, Chinese food smell and all.” Her hand slides down my arm and takes my hand. I wrap her smooth, slender fingers in mine. “Where was it you went first?”
“Singapore. Then Ireland. Then Africa.”
“Africa. That’s where you met him, wasn’t it?”
“Met him and loved him. Married him in Paraguay. Raised our children in Frankfurt.”
“Ever think about going back to visit the old town?”
“Often, but it never quite climbed to the top of the list. Too late now, I suppose.”
“If it helps, the town never changed much.”
“Is the ice cream shop still there?”
“Last I checked.”
“And Willie’s Tire Repair?”
“His son took over. There was a day when we though ol’ Willie would outlive us all.”
“You loved it, didn’t you?” she asks. There is a hint of disappointment in her voice, though I don’t take offense. We have long known our differences, and it hardly matters now.
“I did. Everything about it. It was as if time stood still there. I can still hear it sometimes. That school bell and the soda pouring in the ice cream shop, and the grinding machines at that old job.”
“Do you remember Johnny Chun? We used to call him Chunner. Like ‘gunner.’ We thought we were so clever back then.” Her hair is in pigtails, tied with orange ribbons. Her hands are linked behind her back and we’re walking side by side, the way we used to heading home from school. She used to have a blue backpack with white trim and I used to think it was cute the way she decorated it with plastic gems and stickers.
I nod with a small grimace. “Of course I remember him. You don’t get sixteen swirleys from a guy in middle school and forget him.”
Penny chuckles. “He was a piece of work. I wonder whatever happened to him.”
I shake my head. “No idea. I lost track of him as quickly as I could.”
“He did eventually quit sticking your head in the toilet.” The “fireflies” are beginning to stick to her clothes, lighting her up like ornaments on a Christmas tree. She doesn’t seem to mind. I watch them closely. I don’t usually have to worry, but once in a while they do forget themselves.
“Yes, because you took him out and beat him up.”
She arches her brows in surprise. “I didn’t think you knew about that.”
“I overheard some girls whispering about it. Word gets out when a dude on the football team gets his nose broke by a sixty-pound girl.”
“I used a rock. It was a dirty fight.”
“The best kind.”
“He wouldn’t hit me back at first, you know. Until I broke his nose. Then he got mad.”
“So you gave him a black eye?”
“That’s the gist of it.”
“That’s when I fell in love with you.”
“That’s the reason?”
“It was,” I say. The lights are surrounding us. They’re drawn to the interesting ones, always have been. The ones with strong spirits and stories to tell. The lights hunger for stories. Limbo is a damned boring place. “But it wasn’t the only reason.”
“Do they all walk this long?” Penny asks. Her hair is in a short, curly bob. When we first met, she had hair almost like Shirley Temple, a mess of baby curls that sat messily on top of her head. Her face is round and soft, and she was born with that wide smile. “Every person who comes down this road?”
“They walk as long as they need to. Some have longer stories to tell and some just want to hurry to the end.”
“This is your job now, eh? I guess it suits you. A job that never changes.”
The lights are swarming her, but she doesn’t seem to notice. They’re not a problem yet, but they may become one soon.
“Actually, it changes every day. The same story never gets told twice.”
“Is it scary?”
“What is?” I ask, even though I already know what she means. It’s a question I’ve heard a thousand times. The lights are all around her, circling her and dancing between her fingers. They’re feeling her out, and more are coming. Her glistening, watery eyes have taken on a glazed look.
“The end of the road. The light. Is it a scary place?” Her steps have slowed. I take her hand and pull her onward, but she’s growing heavy, her feet dragging.
“No. It is peace. The end is only a new beginning.”
“But I don’t want the end.” Her voice is drifting, as if she’s falling sleep. The lights are clinging to her in greater numbers. “I had such a great life, you know. I’m not ready. I can’t go yet.”
The lights are covering her arms and legs, her chest and hair. She glows, and she stops moving. I fix my gaze on the quivering lights.
“Depart,” I order, easing an edge into my voice. “She is not meant for Limbo.”
A few of them hesitate and scatter, but more are coming. Penny’s eyes are drooping. I hate this part.
“I’m not ready for the end,” she murmurs, and her knees nearly buckle. I keep her upright. If she falls, it is all over. “I’m not ready. I’m not…”
“It can’t be the end. I still haven’t…” She wobbles. “I haven’t…”
I snap my fingers and the scythe is in my hand. In one fell swoop I slice through her shoulder to hip. The blade passes through her like wind but it was enough to scatter the lights. A dozen of them shatter into nothing and many more fly off like startled bees from a bouquet. Penny blinks once. Twice. I peer into her eyes as they clear and she meets my gaze.
“So that’s what the scythe is for.”
I shrug. “I prefer not to use it.”
“What are the lights?”
“I gathered as much.”
I take her hand and we continue walking. The end is near. “They are the ones not ready to move on. They linger in their memories, fed on the stories of those who come after. Limbo, as we call it. Some are happier here, never moving on, never forgetting. But it’s a place of timelessness, a stalemate that never resolves.”
She studies me. “How time changes us all.”
“That it does.”
We reach the end of the path. She squeezes my hand. “It’s not scary then?”
I shake my hand. “No. I’ve escorted thousands. The end is where we are all meant to be, one day. It is the place of peace.”
She reaches out, slides her hand under my hood, and touches my fleshless face. “I was so sad,” she says, “when I heard you were taken before your time, but now I see that you’ve merely moved on to something better, something that suits you.”
I smile. “It’s an age-old job, but someone’s got to do it.”
“And you do it well.” Her hand slides away. “I’ll go now. I’m ready.”
“And I’ll be here,” I say, “working this old job.”