"There are vows and promises, articles of faith in oneself and others, that help to define us as we travel through life. Often these vows and promises are broken, forgotten or dismissed over time. There are some vows and promises that are more than that, they are essential components of who we are, and to break or dismiss them can damage or destroy us because doing so changes the essential being of who we are. Even if they become forgotten, they remain within the soul core, and with the passage of time they find reasons to be remembered."
"It is best they do not know what death is, for it should make them desire it too much. The counter starts again."
He opened his eyes to the sound of a voice. The street that surrounded him looked very familiar, but he was only beginning to focus and his memory wasn't as sharp as he remembered it being.
"Time passes, but the work remains."
Someone was sitting beside him, watching him intently. Looking over he saw a man dressed in filthy and tattered clothes, his hands wrapped in bandages stained with blood and age. The man was smiling.
"Where am I? How did I get here?" he asked the man.
"Things happen from time to time."
He nodded, unsure of how to respond.
"Nothing is as beautiful as that which we've left behind. It becomes more beautiful in the frames of our memory once we are far enough removed from it to forget the pain and disappointment that were once there. That fades with time."
"What's your story?"
The stranger shrugged. "Just another soul doing penance."
Looking beyond the stranger at the building behind him, the man who had become a stranger to himself recognized the place where he was, although it was clear much time had passed as things had most definitely changed. "Hopefully not for killing some confused soul trying to figure out how he ended up on a bench outside his old school."
"If it helps with perspective I used to be in collections."
"For the angels?"
The stranger laughed deeply and for a while it seemed like he might not stop. "No, hardly. I was one of those people who badgered folks on the phone to pay debts they, well, they had no way of paying. Pushed some poor guy over the edge before I realized what I was really doing."
The man looked absently over the horizon. The sun was setting uncomfortably. There was a long pause before the man finished his thought.
"Eh, the guy hung himself in his bathroom. Then I tried doing the same, more or less."
"You were just doing your job."
"Calling it your job doesn't make it right." The stranger smiled deeply and considered laughing again but chose not to. "This is something you know a bit about, methinks."
The man and the stranger sat in silence for a while, staring at the uncomfortably setting sun before the stranger turned to the man, opened a pack of cigarettes and made an offer.
"Last cigarette in the pack?" questioned the man.
"We're still here, my friend. You've just forgotten how to find us."
"Yeah, but seems like we're doing a little role reversal." The man accepted the cigarette and lit it.
"Remember, you can't fight the system. The strong feed off the weak here and that isn't something you can change. One soul at a time, and you know how to follow the signs. Frustrating work, I know, but the angels didn't start recruiting Jacks just to go to cocktail parties for them."
Sometimes a cocktail party is just a cocktail party.
"Pretty fucking blatant sign," the man told himself as he walked into the cocktail party. It was only two days after he parted ways with the homeless man that the invitation came. He barely had time to reorder his disjointed memories before the night of the party.
"Jack! I hardly expected you to be here."
Having a beautiful woman run up to him and call him a name he knew was not the one he was given shook up those disjointed memories. She looked familiar, but the man who knew his name was not Jack couldn't remember why.
"Nice to see you as well," the man said, squinting his eyes as she leaned in to kiss him on the cheek.
"We were starting to think you were dead. No one has seen or talked to you since you... well, since you left."
"Sorry about that. Wish it could have been different, but--"
"No need to worry about explaining." She brushed his hair away from his face and smiled. "You look tired, but you definitely have that glow back."
"Doesn't matter. Come on inside. There are some people waiting to see you."
Not hardly what they would have you believe.
"Attention given to the death of the physical body is incredibly overstated. Not enough to ongoing pain and suffering in the waking world. Pisses me off."
"Live forever in pain and suffering rather than die in a state of grace. Fashions and trends of the day. You're not teaching me anything new here."
"Then this will be my last drink before I walk out."
"I always assumed it would be."
Two half-full glasses of beer remained on the bar. One was poured into the other. The man who stayed took the empty glass and sent the full one back. The man who left already knew the choice that would be made. There was satisfaction in that alone.
"Interesting choice," said the bartender with a smile.
"Empty glass has more potential."
"What would you like it to be potentially filled with?"
"You make the call." The man who stayed looked up at the television over the bar. "I know her," he said absently.
The bartender looked up at the television and smiled. "I wouldn't mind knowing her myself. Where do you know her from?"
"A place called a long time ago. These days most things are a long time ago."
"In the end it is all pretty absurd. That's all I really have for a philosophy."
"Not a bad philosophy, really." The man who stayed picked up the empty glass. "Mind if I keep this?"
The bartender shrugged. "My day waitress breaks a dozen of those every shift. Knock yourself out."
"Absurd," muttered the man as he walked out with the glass in his hand. He walked for seventeen blocks before he forgot he was carrying it.